Defending the Wall: the Scythe

Posted: July 2, 2014 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This post will deal with plot points from the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you are not caught up, I recommend you not read this article. Go watch last season. Oh, and then come back and read this. But watching should be your priority.


North of the Wall. In Happier Times. No One Had Been Beheaded Yet.

The most recent season of Game of Thrones dealt with an event that had been foreshadowed since Season Two: an all-out attack by Mance Rayder’s Wildling forces against the Night’s Watch brothers at Castle Black. An assault on The Wall.

Neil Marshall, the director of the epic battle episode Blackwater from Season Two, helmed this cinematic presentation of the two pronged attack, where the Free Folk finally get around to taking on the Crow stronghold. I’d read the books (I promise to dial down the smug) and I found that the battle played out *largely* as I expected.

There were giants, mammoths, arrow flights, burning oil, and waves of Wildlings threatening the Wall. But also something completely unexpected.

I knew going in that the episode wouldn’t be exactly like Jon’s chapters in the books, particularly since the southern Wildling attack which had already been resolved in the books’ timeline had been delayed on the show to coincide with the arrival of Mance’s horde. But I expected the northern side of the battle to not have any surprises.


Time to Get the Rave Started, Westeros Style…

My expectation was that the Free Folk, with their superior numbers, would unleash a ridiculous amount of arrows. Their accuracy would be extra low, it’s long range and they would be shooting up at barely visible targets that had the benefit of cover. But a very small percentage of success multiplied by thousands becomes significant.

Instead, Mance had waves of Wildlings rush the Wall, to climb.

got s4e9 - oil barrels

Chaos Isn’t a Pit! It’s a Ladder!

Facing arrows, hurled weights, and a long drop, the climbers began an ascent in numbers great enough to ensure that the Night’s Watch would have to keep men up on the Wall, and not totally commit to defending Castle Black’s southern side. Throughout the episode, the brothers atop the Wall had been forced to relocate down the southern side to deal with the vulnerable side of their defense. Aliser Thorne took men, Jon sent Grenn with a giant-slaying squad, and eventually Jon took a team. But the climbers made it urgent to keep the top of the Wall manned. Even if the Night’s Watch builders had sealed the tunnel, the climbers couldn’t be ignored.

As the battle continued, with giants and mammoths trying to break down the gate, the climbers were getting nearer the top. At the summit, they’d be tired, but more would follow, and more. Over time there would be  less and less defenders to stop them. This wasn’t what I was expecting per se, but there was a certain amount of rightness to it. It still had the core of what I remembered from the battle in the books: Mance had overwhelming numbers and could make use of them to pressure the defenders.

But then Dolorous Edd dropped the Scythe. And I wasn’t expecting that.



Sometimes Chaos *is* a Pit.


(Spoiler Alert: It Doesn’t End Well for these Guys.)

Does This Really Make Sense?

The visuals of the Scythe shearing through the climbers and dislodging tons of ice to cascade down the Wall was very impressive. (Don’t believe me? Check this out. Warning: It’s gruesome.)

I think everyone, book readers and show watchers alike, experienced a visceral thrill as the gruesome pendulum made its mark. But does it make sense? I heard some complaints online that criticized the Scythe as a bad idea, or at best something Neil Marshall threw in to sexy up the north-of-the-Wall battle (and possibly to make up for not having Tyrion’s Chain at the Battle of Blackwater.)

The complaints largely boil down into these points:

  • Exactly how did the Night’s Watch bury this gigantic anchor of doom into the Wall?
  • Could the Scythe be any more of a One Shot Deal? Its use would be so limited that it wouldn’t have been economical to build it at all.

I’ll address these points, one I feel is more valid than the other. But I want to state up front that I think the Scythe is awesome, and in my mind the book-version of the Wall has these Archimedes-like contraptions facing north at each of the nineteen Wall fortifications. Stay with me, I’ll justify my love for the Scythe in a moment.

Burying the Hatchet

When Edd gives the order to deploy the Scythe, it’s not something hanging loosely. It was buried inside the Wall (I’d estimate that there were a couple meters of ice dislodged working the head of the Scythe out.)

The question is this: did the builders of the Wall 8000 years ago install the weapon at that time, building up the ice around it? Or did guys on ropes painfully carve out a niche for the deadly weight after the Wall was built, to install the Scythe and then ice-brick it back up?

Why hide the Scythe at all?

From my perspective, there was no extraordinary effort needed from an engineering standpoint. It didn’t have to be created at the Wall’s building, nor was any heroic effort made to install it into the Wall. They probably just lowered the Scythe, arranged it into position, and let nature take its course.

The Wall is far wider at the base than it is on top.


It Took Some Time (an Oath-Saying Amount of Time) for a Running Giant to Cross the Distance to the Mid-Wall Inner Gate.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s at least 50-100 yards at the base wide, and 15-20 yards at the summit wide.


It Took No Time at All to Get to the Southern Elevator from the Northern Overlook.

(There was a mention in the books of the top of the Wall being wide enough for a certain amount traffic back and forth, which made it sound about as wide as the WWI trench aspect we saw in the episode.)

So the Wall’s exterior might be very steep, but the vertical surfaces are not perfectly straight up and down.

So, who cares if there’s an incline? What of it?

My point is, if the Night’s Watch builders hung a huge blade from the top of the wall, suspended by chains but letting the weight of the Scythe apply pressure on the ice, over time it would sink in.


The Wall is a ridiculously stable glacier, but it’s affected by the elements. “The Wall was weeping” was an observation made in the books when Waymar Royce’s ranging party was theorizing if the temperature had been excessively cold recently, cold enough to have frozen the Wildling party they were tracking. The answer was no, it hadn’t been that cold because the Wall’s exterior had been melting. As it does. There’s probably a lot of freezing, melting, refreezing, snowfall, rainfall, sublimation, etc. going on with the surface of the Wall.

Once the Scythe had sunk in deep enough that the Wall was holding it, the builders could ease up on the stabilizing chains, and allow more weight to apply pressure on the Wall. And over time it settle in further. As the Scythe worked in, its inward progress would slow, down to “glacial” speeds. Basically stable in the Wall.

Once it was needed, the chains could be cranked up, cracking the enclosing ice to fall down the Wall, and freeing the blade to swing.

Were they trying to hide it? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it just worked out that way.

Mance is the King of the Wildlings, Not King of the Lemmings

Fine, maybe the deployment of the Scythe was practical, but what idiots are going to climb up into its dramatic and horrific range?

To be honest, I feel the same way about anyone scaling a ladder during any siege. It just seems like a bad idea, and especially bad to be the first guy up.

Ascending the Wall, all 700 feet, is an order of magnitude more crazy. Even without the danger of the Scythe.

It’s hard to swallow that Mance could get guys to climb the Wall, but they do. Maybe they opted to climb the wall to get out of latrine duty in the Thenn camp. Maybe they lost at poker with Mag the Mighty and dying on the Wall is better than being ripped apart by giants for non-payment of debts.

Maybe they’re just really brave. Or really desperate. I can wrap my head around some of that. It’s not the first time on the show that a commander sent a fraction of his forces on a suicide mission, just for the advantage of a distraction.


Robb Never Liked those 2000 Northmen Anyway. And He Ended Up Capturing Jaime Lannister. Which Really Worked Out for Him.

But climbing up into the Scythe zone?

I can think of some rationales:

  • Mance might not have told them about the Scythe.
  • Mance might not have known about the Scythe. (He hailed from the Shadow Tower in the West, where they have the Bridge of Skulls, and maybe no Scythe.)
  • Mance might have thought that the Scythe wouldn’t work. Or that it was a fake. (If I was a builder, I’d set up fake boom arms and chains going into the Wall, to disguise the actual location of the Scythe.)
  • Mance might not have cared, and needed to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. He needed to assess how many men the Crows had, and to get them to expend as much ammo as they could. For round two.

Still, it’s kind of convenient that they climbed right up into the danger zone. Although, since the defenders had the Scythe, knew where it would be effective, and were making an effort to direct the archers, I’d imagine they could be making a priority on targeting arrows against the climbers who were not ascending laterally to the Scythe range.

So that all makes some sense, at least to me. But I don’t know if it’s a compelling argument for the investment in making scythes as Wildling defense weapons. After all, once the Scythe is used in the battle, it’s just a giant prop, since no one is going to be climbing up into its swing.

But that’s okay. I’m fine with the Scythe not being an optimal weapon against the Wildlings. Because I don’t believe the true purpose of the Scythe has anything to do with the Wildlings at all.

The purpose of the Wall wasn’t specifically to keep out Wildlings anyway.

The Other Reason for the Scythe.

To reiterate the above points: the Scythe isn’t an effective Wildling deterrent, because the Free Folk wouldn’t mindlessly climb up into its swing zone. Rather than investing manpower into creating the Scythe, the builders would be smarter to just fletch an ass-ton more arrows.

For the Scythe to justify itself, the enemy would have to be a mindless horde that arrows wouldn’t bother at all.

And just where is a mindless horde going to come from?


Relax, We’re On Our Way!

It’s a known fact that the Others, the “White Walkers”, have been assembling an army of the dead, and have been on the move. Mance Rayder has not explicitly come out and said it, but it seems clear that he and his alliance of Wildlings are also on the move to get away from the Others.

He most recently mentioned that he wanted to get his people south of the Wall because winter is coming. It had been winter a just little over a decade before, so it’s not the cold that the Wildlings were fleeing from. The Free Folk have survived the winters, over and over, for generations. But this winter is different. They’re fleeing from something else.

The skeptical comment would be: okay, let’s assume that a bunch of zombies are on the march, led by ancient icy-demon wendigos. Big deal. They’re going to come up to the Wall, and then what? Groan at it?

My assumption is that they’d do this:


It’s the Wight Way to Get Things Done.

Immune to arrow fire, they’d keep climbing.


Chaos Isn’t a Ladder! We Are!

Dropping burning oil on them could kill a bunch, but those burning corpses would just be crushed under by the mass of wights streaming up the pile. Even without burning them, the first wights to hit the Wall would be crushed under the mass flowing up. The job isn’t to survive. The job is to make a ramp for the next wave.

Now, this is a pretty terrifying scenario, and there would be very little that could be done to prevent the eventual build up of dead and still-undead “rampires” providing access for their determined comrades to continue moving up the top.

A huge, heavy, bladed weight would go a long way in keeping the lurching, shambling, scrambling mob from getting to the top and spilling over. It might not solve the problem, depending on the huge number of walking corpses to deal with, but the longer it’s in play, the more wights are crushed under the weight of those ascending.

Sure, Like the Wights are Going to Conveniently Climb Right Up Under the Scythe.

I admit that I’m making some assumptions, and I don’t know how much fine-grain control the Others have over the wights. There’s a world of difference between this:

Night’s King: Swarm the walls, my servants! It is now our time! The long night has come at last!

Wights: Yes master! To victory!

And this:

Night’s King: That way! Stay in line! Stop wandering off, you! Why have you stopped, smelly? Keep marching! Don’t look at me, Stumpy! Keep marching south. SOUTH! Look! You can see people up there, right? Go get them! I don’t care how!

Wights: gaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh …..

Could the wights even climb the Wall like that, or would that require fast zombies like in World War Z?

Most of the horde-wights we’ve seen were moving kind of slow, but the really old skeletal wights that attacked Team Bran were pretty spry. But I don’t think we need very athletic wights, just a lot to crush against the Wall and start inhuman-pyramid building.

If the wights were driven by instinct, noticing the men of the Night’s Watch on the Wall might motivate them to try and climb. It might be hard to get their attention though.

If only the guys on top of the Wall had a way to make a lot of noise, to herd the wight horde under the Scythe zone.

got s4e9 - wall horn

Look, I just really love the idea of a Night’s Watch brother constantly sounding the horn (three blasts, always a series of three blasts) to focus the horde to try and ascend just where the Crows want them.

And then drop the Scythe. And pull it up. And swing it again.

Night’s King: I hate that thing. It’s totally stupid.

Best case: after a huge hill of undead had formed and then the Scythe was deployed, shaving the top off over and over, the Others end up coercing the remaining wights to start a pile at a different location out of range of the Scythe’s swing, making the first pile of rampires just a waste of wightpower.

Even if the Scythe isn’t canon from the books, it just feels so right to me.

But I could be wrong. Here’s where you can tell me I’m wrong!

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously. Oh, and also World War Z.

I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there. 

© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved

  1. Bob Tarr says:

    Wow, you now have started defending even the inanimate objects on the show…
    Please consider a post defending Hot Pie’s wolf bread. Some people keep saying it looks nothing like a wolf!

    That said, I loved the scythe as well. Visually awesome. But once used, the attackers would note its range of destruction and then avoid that area for future climbs. Unless there are even more scythes hidden in the wall!!

    Two other comments:
    1) Visually to me both the outer (northern facing) and inner (southern facing) sides of the wall look extremely vertical. The shots of the tunnel at the base of the wall clearly show the wall being hundreds of feet wide, while the shots of the top of the wall show the width as much narrower, as you said. But, the fact that the wall is wider at the base and narrower at the top does not necessarily mean the outer wall has any significant slope to it. The slope could all be on the inner wall.
    2) Can you really shoot an arrow 700 feet into the air?? Well, I checked, and… you can! The modern crossbow record is 6141 feet and the modern handheld pulled bow record is 4008 feet. Those ranges were done with a launch angle of 45 degrees. More typical is a range of 1200 – 1500 feet. Given a range at 45 degrees your maximum height would be 300 – 375 feet. But if you increased your angle and got closer to the wall, you could hit the top. Your accuracy at that distance would most likely suck, but, as you say, with such ridiculous numbers it could be effective.

    (Love the blog!)



    • I really appreciate you providing real world examples on the archery stuff. You’re right of course that I’m making assumptions on the slope on either side of the Wall.

      (You people don’t realize this, but Phellorian is the King of making Game of Thrones seasonal predictions… I’m honored he came by,)


    • TC says:

      “defending Hot Pie’s wolf bread. Some people keep saying it looks nothing like a wolf!”

      I admit the first one was a bit blobby… but the one he gives to Podrick, that is easily recognizable as a wolf, much better!

      Just sayin…


  2. You’ve made me a Scythe fan.

    However, I like this post especially for all of the callbacks to Littlefinger’s speech from season 3… the climb he’s describing doesn’t matter in the slightest versus the White Walkers.

    Also: I still miss the Chain at the Blackwater.


  3. S. John Ross says:

    I liked the Scythe just fine … as a non-book-reader, I just assumed there must be more than one of them; it never occurred to me that this might be the only one.


    • The non book reader perspective is super important, John, so I am gratified you liked the scything defense.

      (People, I had the good fortune to occasionally game with the brilliant and exemplary S. John Ross, back in ye olde 20th century. Felt it was important to recognize that.)


  4. Nuchtchas says:

    I love the Scythe, it felt like it should be part of the books to me. I imagine that it was put there a long time ago, to deal with others and things that the modern night’s watch thought was fictitious. I imagine there are scythes all along the wall and can be deployed at any time. I imagine that the builders had to dig it out a bit when preparing, that these are not maintained because until recently no one believed they were fighting anything but wildlings (The comment “why would the first men build a wall to keep a bunch of nomads from coming south?” comes to mind) and with all of the towers working, unlike now where many are abandoned, you could see far enough down the wall to handle a breech at any distance of the wall.

    Great post as always


    • I could certainly imagine the builders having a bunch of booms and levers organized at the top of the fortifications to shift the position of a scythe. I just think it’s fun. I also like your suggestion that there are a bunch.


  5. joanna says:

    Ok, finally read the post. Watchers on the Wall was one of the best episodes – all time. And the Scythe was spectacular – I loved it. Mance sending Free Folk to climb the Wall was a calculated risk. Desperate measures for desperate times. He said as much “I sent 300 men further down the Wall, many will die trying but some will get over by morning” or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.

    Did Mance know about the Scythe? I don’t know. But if he did, it was another a calculated risk. In war some live, some die – the chances of surviving a battle or climbing the Wall, with or without the Scythe was a risk they all knew about.

    From what we were shown, the Scythe is retractable and therefore re-usable. If wave after wave of mindless wights swarm up the wall, it won’t get them all, But if I were a Night’s Watchman, I’d rather have a scythe than no scythe at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. joanna says:

    p.s. God I hate nit-pickers – net trolls looking to find fault in anything, and so-called authors filling in their quota of idiotic, badly written, unimaginative articles whose only function in life is trash other people’s work.

    Liked by 1 person

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