This article will discuss the uncivilized but freedom-loving folk who live north of the Wall on HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s probably best if you’ve seen the show, because I’ll be talking plot points from the first four seasons.
Season Four of HBO’s Game of Thrones featured many great and notable things: a certain fancy-pants wedding, a total badass from Dorne, painful and surprising deaths, unexpectedly controversial scenes, and a whole mess of Wildlings.
The Wildling storyline was a major element at the tail end of the season, which was positive for a variety of reasons. Mance Rayder’s massive migration had been a hanging open-ended question, and there have been some problematic things about the Wildlings that needed to be addressed.
Before I continue, I assume that anyone reading this spoilery-post has seen the show or read the books. If not, What the Hell, man?
I was going to present a brief recap of the Wildling storyline, but you, dear reader, probably know it all already. (But if you’re forgetful, or want to read more of my delightful prose, you’ll find the recap HERE. You’re welcome!)
The Wildling Problems Going Into Season Four
HBO’s Game of Thrones (and the source material, A Song of Ice and Fire) is a deeply rich and complicated story. There are dozens of well-developed characters moving through the framework of a complicated society with a heavy history and multiple religions.
The main culture of Westeros just feels real, which makes for a compelling show, but the story doesn’t necessarily do as well with the cultures on the fringe of the story.
Stokes, a blogger over at overthinkingit.com observed this about the Dothraki in Season One. They observed that the presentation of these dangerous horse-lords was very shallow, where any random Dothraki horseman could be representative of the whole. We knew a few characters, but overall the Dothraki were all just the same.
Something similar could be said about the Wildlings at the end of Season Three.
To quote Standup comic Aamer Rahman:
“The Wildlings are interesting. Throughout the show we hear about them being everything from savages to bestiality loving cannibals, but when we finally meet them they turn out to be, well…regular white people in matching furry parkas.” — Aamer Rahman
(There’s a convenient aggregation of Rahman’s Game of Thrones Tumblr posts from which I pulled that quote over at artthreat.net. It’s a great and engaging read.)
The core interpretations I’m pulling from Rahman’s statement are these:
- The Wildlings aren’t as scary as advertised
- They’re kind of uninteresting
Wait, didn’t Rahman specifically say they were interesting? Yeah, but he was talking in a bigger context, particularly how the Dothraki were presented as savages and were actually pretty brutal, whereas the Wildlings were referred to as savages but really weren’t that scary, and he found that interesting.
I’m extrapolating that the presentation of the Wildlings was uninteresting more from Stokes’ point about the Dothraki being a collection of stereotypes without things to differentiate any subgroups in the Dothraki culture.
I think it’s not unfair to detect a similar vibe from the Wildlings as presented. Any random parka-wearing hairy dude was much the same as another.
But some of that changed with Season Four.
There’s a lot of ominous talk about Wildlings during the first three seasons, but as presented were they really that bad? They’re a bit uncouth and violent, but EVERYONE is violent on Game of Thrones.
Probably the scariest of Wildlings was this one:
Little girls are creepy enough (I’m a dad to one, I can say this!) But silent, staring, Fremen-eyed UNDEAD ones? Peepy-Your-Pants Creepy.
From then on though, the Wildlings weren’t *too* bad.
The Wildling Osha became a huge help to Bran Stark, helping him escape from Winterfell to start off his magical quest.
Most of the other first-hand presentations of the Wildlings come from Jon Snow’s point of view, and they treated him tolerably well.
Sure, Jon was taken captive by the Wildlings, and could’ve been killed at any moment. But his introduction into the ranks of the Free Folk was facilitated by the charming and adorable Ygritte.
Mance Rayder, played imposingly by the un-kneeling Ciaran Hinds, seemed a decent fellow despite being the feared leader of an unthinkably large alliance of Wildlings.
Mance forced Jon into accompanying a band of Wall-climbing raiders, who of course might have killed him at any moment (if Orell the Warg had his way) but Tormund Giantsbane, the leader of the marauders, also seemed a pleasant, entertaining chap.
I’m not denying that there wasn’t some air of menace about them, but I don’t know if they were scary.
Not “eat your supper or the Wildlings will come take you away” scary. Or “don’t have dirty thoughts about your sister, Jaime, or the Wildlings will come and take you away” scary.
Most of our exposure to the Wildling ethos came from Ygritte’s lectures to know-nothing Jon, and it was relatively positive (although I don’t necessarily agree with all these points…)
- The Wildlings felt that had a legitimate grievance about the Wall and perceived persecution from the Night’s Watch.
- Unlike the southerners who had to bow and scrape before some pretty terrible kings, the Wildlings were free.
- There was a certain honesty and practicality about them.
Since nearly everyone south of the Wall were pretty much awful, the Free Folk seemed kind of cool in comparison. They had this free spirited egalitarian vibe about them. Vive la Boheme!
When Jon broke away from the Wildlings (and abandoned Ygritte), some viewers expressed anger at the Stark bastard. Not just that he was breaking the heart of his prone-to-mutilation-threatening gal, but he wasn’t giving this freedom-loving people a chance, who had been unfairly exiled (allegedly) north of the Wall by the people of the Seven Kingdoms.
Don’t the Wildlings deserve our sympathy?
Or do they?
And Then, the Thenns
Thenns. I f&%ing hate Thenns. – Tormund Giantsbane (who vastly prefers bears to Thenns, by the way.)
Tormund and I don’t see eye to eye in regards to the Thenns. He’s freakishly tall so I’d need a ladder to see eye to eye with him on anything.
And unlike Tormund, I love the Thenns.
I loved the introduction of the Thenns on the show because it provided some needed elements to the Wildlings. The very scary element I was saying was missing.
To reference Aamer Rahman again, up through Season Three the Wildlings were just a bunch of guys in white and gray faux-fur parkas. They were probably no more scary than Tyrion’s mountain men savages, and at least those guys were interesting with their great clan names. Moon Brothers. Black Ears. Burned Men. We knew some things about them. Shagga loved axes, for example. That Shagga!
Mance made it seem like the Wildlings were made up of different groups, talking about Thenns, Hornfoots, and Ice River Clans, referencing cannibals and moon-worshippers. But other than the handful of giants and a guy who used an eagle like a radio-controlled hobby plane, they were pretty much just a bunch of guys dressed identically.
Then the Thenns showed up as reinforcements for Tormund’s raiders. And they were scary looking. And different looking. And wearing armor instead of furs. With dramatic shaved heads sporting crazy scars.
Best of all, they were cannibals.
Mance mentioned cannibals in passing to Jon. It’s one thing to talk about cannibals…
– It’s another thing to have arms on skewers.
I felt it was important to have the Wildling forces include some pretty bad characters. Because if the Wildlings were going to be presented as frightened hippies wanting to avoid being turned into ice zombies, the conflict up at the Wall is less compelling.
It’s a no brainer: Mister Gorbachev – Tear down this Wall!* (Or, to quote Paul McCartney, do me a favor, and open the door, and let ’em in.**)
Exposing the people of the lands south of the Wall to the Thenns as an all-you-can-eat buffet just isn’t cool. And you can imagine that the Thenns have been dreaming of eating someone other than the average stringy and rangy Free Folkster.
These guys represented the kind of Wildling that mom meant when she’d say “Bran, stop climbing the Old Tower, or the Wildlings will come and take you away.”
Wildlings AND Thenns
This otherness of the Thenns wasn’t explicitly stated, but it seems to have been picked up by viewers.
I read a lot of recaps and reviews this seasons where people would mention “the Wildlings and Thenns” slaughtered a village, or “the Wildlings and Thenns” attacked Molestown, as if the Thenns weren’t Wildlings, but were something different entirely.
I guess it depends on what you mean by “Wildling.” Mance specifically referenced the Thenns when talking to Jon about his collection of people, and the Night’s Watch refer to anyone north of the Wall as Wildlings, regardless if those people call themselves Free Folk, Thenns, or whatever.
There are other things to differentiate the Thenns from the fur-clad Free Folk (if you’re interested, I go on and on about those differences HERE) and the fact that we can tell a Thenn apart from the others makes them a much more complex society than the Dothraki (to bring things back around to Stokes.)
Scary and Complex
To sum up the above giant rambling wall of text:
The appearance of the Thenns provided the scary element that was needed to match the reputation of the Wildlings, and showed us a completely different type of Wildling.
I need to check out if Rahman and Stokes have things to say about Season Four, since their assessments of the non-Westerosi cultures kicked off the idea in part for this post.
Well, them and everyone who was asking where Mance was. They’re also to blame for all this text.
So Where’s Mance Been?
In the defense of the impatient viewers demanding to see more Mance, Ciaran Hinds is an impressive actor (although I’ve only ever seen him as Julius Caesar, but that’s a slam on me, not on him) and people might have been expecting him to play a bigger role in the seasons. Or at least be more present and featured.
Yet we only see Mance in the first few episodes of Season 3 and then in the finale of 4.
It might have been contrary to viewer expectations, but I don’t think the story was weaker for not dropping in on Mance Rayder now and then. I’m not sure what it would have bought us.
Scene: Wildling Camp
Time: Sometime in Season Three
Mance: Well, here we are, up in the true North.
Wildling: Time to build the biggest fire the north has ever seen?
And then later…
Scene: Wildling Camp
Time: Sometime in Season Four
Mance: Well, here we are, just a wee bit further south than last season, but still up in the true North.
Wildling: Time to build the biggest fire the north has ever seen?
Mance: Nope! You lot are awfully keen on getting a big fire going.
Wildling: It’s just that it’d be nice to be warm, is all!
Mance’s function in the story is to get the Wildling army to the Wall, for the attack. His army is not a well trained, organized force, it’s a massive population on the move. They probably are moving as fast as they can, but they can’t be moving fast.
Checking in on Mance Rayder now and then, just so Ciaran Hinds could get a fatter paycheck, just doesn’t seem practical.
There are so many storylines going on during the season, some are featured prominently and they have significant action and plot elements happening. Some storylines are given a heartbeat treatment, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, so they won’t be forgotten (like Season Three Bran, perhaps, or Season Two Daenerys.)
Viewers complain when they recognize the man-behind-the-curtain aspect of spending time on characters where significant things aren’t happening. I don’t think anyone was happy with all that time spent on Robb and Talisa. Though that did pay off spectacularly. Had Robb hadn’t been killed, people would still be complaining about time spent with the King in the North.
If we had checked in on Mance, it just would have been seen as filler. I’m fine with us not seeing Mance. He had one job. To get his people to the Wall. (Eventually.)
The Attack on Castle Black. Mance, Why?
The penultimate episode of Season Four was entirely spent on the confrontation of Mance’s Wildling forces versus the Night’s Watch, trying to secure the passage of the tunnel at Castle Black. The Night’s Watch men were in danger of being overrun, Mance vastly outnumbered them and as Jon discovered, Mance had tactically ordered 400 men to surmount the Wall some miles away, for a fresh attack on the vulnerable southern face of the tunnel’s fortification.
My dad recently asked me this question:
Why attack Castle Black at all? If all he wanted was to get safe South of the wall? Why not go 20-100 miles to either side and climb the wall where there were no Crows?
Great question, dad (he reads this blog, so I feel it’s appropriate to address him directly.)
It seems counter-intuitive that Mance would even bother with Castle Black at all, when he could select a part of the Wall that was unguarded and stage a large scale operation to move the Wildlings over the Wall en masse.
We know that 700 feet of Wall-ascent is not impossible, Jon and Tormund’s team went over, Styr and the Thenns went over, and Mance felt confident that the 400 men he deployed miles down the Wall to climb would get over with sufficient men to deliver the broken skeleton crew at Castle Black a fatal blow.
So why waste time hitting Castle Black? I can think of some reasons.
Defending Mance’s Offense
Mance had an army of Wildlings, a large army, but the ranks were not necessarily filled with soldiers. This was a vast collection of families on the move. The Wildlings were refugees migrating as an entire population, fleeing south.
Albeit well armed and fierce refugees: fighting men and women, but also children, the old, the sick, babies, nursing mothers. And with all the stuff they could carry.
The Wall was lightly defended, but Mance couldn’t risk that there were still patrols on the Wall. Getting everyone (very difficult for some) over the glacial barricade would run the risk of being caught. If the massing of climbers north of the Wall was noticed in the early stages, word could be sent to the northern peoples to react. Rumors are one thing. A group of Wildling raiders harrassing villages near Castle Black is one thing. But the Wall hemorrhaging Wildlings would be a completely different thing.
Without a tunnel to move the people quickly from the north to the south of the Wall, the invasion would be crawling over the Wall, and vulnerable.
Mance said as much to Jon: I need that tunnel. Even if Castle Black was strongly manned, gaining access to the tunnel would be a better tactic than going over where there was no tunnel to allow a dramatic flow of people to reinforce any southern toehold.
So… why not go over the Wall and attack Castle Black from the south? Well, Mance does do that, but attacking from both sides does split the defense (which caused terrible losses, outrageous losses proportionally on the Night’s Watch side) and gave Mance a chance to gauge the resources they have at Castle Black.
Mance hit the Wall which forced the Night’s Watch to show their cards. This gave Mance the confidence to authorize the 400 men operation miles away.
Mance laid out another reason for the operation to take the tunnel at Castle Black: climbing the Wall is dangerous. When Jon and Tormund’s men made the climb at the end of Season Three, the Wall shed its outer sheathe of ice unexpectedly, killing some percentage of Tormund’s men. (It was really hard to tell how many men were lost.)
Mance told Jon that of his 400 men, many might die, but enough should make it over to hit and take Castle Black from the south in its weakened state. If there were no sentinels to observe and stop the climbers, why would many die?
The Night’s Watch have a saying: the Wall can defend itself. The outer sheathe of ice could be treacherous. That’s another reason not to throw the full force of men at the Wall to climb. The passive losses climbing the Wall might be more than he’d lose taking the tunnel.
Regardless whether Mance wanted to go over the Wall or not, Castle Black would have to be captured one way or another. The Wildlings were planning on staying south, at least for the Winter with the Others and their wights on the march. They had to assume that the north would eventually rise against them, and they couldn’t leave a military post behind them, that could coordinate actions against them on their flanks and rear.
And, there were supplies at Castle Black. The Night’s Watch would have provisions for the winter. It wouldn’t feed an army 100 times the Night’s Watch, but it would secure them during any initial reprisals from the northmen until the weather made sieges and battles impractical. With the north kingdom experiencing weather that the Wildlings had well adapted to, the Free Folk could expand south and raid to survive.
If the Wildlings overtook the Wall without a tunnel, they could be trapped along the southern base by the northmen, without supplies, fighting just to hold their “beachhead” for the trickles of reinforcements. Their families and non-combatants would be trapped and desperate on the northside with dwindling supplies. And with Others and wights marching.
I’m not sure my dad would be convinced.
It’s possible that the risk of climbing the Wall thanks to the various unknowns outweighed the hard problem of bashing against the gate at Castle Black, but how much of this was really unknown? After all, Mance had in his bag of tricks Wildling reconnaissance in the form of wargs.
In the third season, Jon is introduced to Orell, one of the wargs in Mance’s army who can project their consciousness into animals, control their movements and see through their eyes.
Surely, the warg-controlled eagles and owls could fly over Castle Black, take a head count, and Mance would know exactly how lightly defended the fortress was. There wouldn’t be any need to actually do a northern assault to gauge the strength of Castle Black. 400 men could climb the Wall miles away, some number less than 400 would climb down, and they’d overrun the crows. Tunnel’s opened up, easy-peasy.
Except, we don’t have any evidence that the wargs could get anything like an accurate head count.
Orell does one scouting report for Mance: he sees the Night’s Watch brothers at the Fist of the First Men.
He doesn’t mention how many. He just knows that the Night’s Watch Crows are there. It’s Jon who tells Mance how many men were there after the Fist is found deserted except for mutilated horses.
Later in the season, Tormund interrogates Jon on the Night’s Watch defenses.
Tormund: Oi! How many castles you crows be in?
Tormund: Err… (starts counting fingers)
Orell: Uhhh… (starts picking his nose)
Jon: Castle Black, Eastwatch, and the Shadow Tower.
Tormund: Well, obviously! We knows that!
Tormund: And how many men are at Castle Black? And if you lie to me boy I’ll [REDACTED] your [REDACTED] with my [REDACTED] beard!
Orell: Oh My Gods, Tormund! Even I don’t hate the pretty boy that much!
Tormund: And I like him!
Jon: A thousand men.
Orell: You Liar! J’accuse!
(I admit that this is not a 100% accurate recreation of the scene as televised.)
Tormund: Err… (starts counting fingers)
Jon: A … *thousand* … men.
Jon totally calls Orell’s bluff, and the warg has nothing to respond with.
So, had Orell never flown over Castle Black? Possibly. But Tormund had no info on the troop strength, so they took Jon at his word (or at least had nothing to be actually skeptical about.) But they did know that only three of the nineteen castles were manned. This wouldn’t take a warg to figure this out. The Wall’s battlements would be active with lookouts, the gates would open and close for ranging parties and the occasional trading opportunity between the Night’s Watch and nearby Wildling villages.
But counting is a more significant challenge. Orell is a Wildling and uneducated. Concepts like hundreds and thousands might have very little significance for him. I don’t even know how they came up with the 100,000 estimate for their own people.
It might be even harder for Orell’s eagle to count. Like, impossible.
We have no evidence that while the warg is inside the mind of their animal, how much higher level consciousness is present.
Bran, when he’s inside the mind of his direwolf Summer, experiences the world as a wolf. His tutors Meera and Jojen have warned him that the longer he stays in Summer, the more he would forget the human experience. So it seems reasonable to assume that when Orell is in his eagle, his cognition is severely impaired.
I can’t help but imagine that this might have happened at a Wildling strategy meeting:
Mance: Orell, how many crows did you see at Castle Black?
Orell: Errr… two, three?
Mance: Well, how many? Two hundred? Three hundred?
Mance: *sigh* How many men?
Orell: Oh, well, I was flying over the top. And there was a man. And then another. And then more.
Mance: How many more?
Orell: More. Then I flew down. And there was a man. And then another. And then more.
Mance: If I were to hit you with my fist, how many fingers would be hitting your crooked teeth? Hmmm?
Orell: Counting the thumb?
Mance: If you like.
Orell: More than three.
Mance: Lets say I didn’t use the thumb.
Orell: What, you lost it? *smiling* Still more than three!
So, I’m pretty confident that Mance needed better intelligence than what the birds could provide. Which also makes the trip Jon took to prevent the capture of the mutineers by Mance’s forces more relevant.
Assuming any of the mutineers knew how to count as well.
Mance: Alright, my lad. Tell me how many men are at Castle Black, and I won’t have you boiled like your friend Karl.
Mance: Into the cauldron, smelly. You could use a hot bath.
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.
I make no claim to the artwork, but some claim to the text here, so there. Obviously, I have no claims on the quote from Aamer Rahman.
Or any claims on:
* Ronald Reagan’s speech in regards to the Berlin Wall
** Paul McCartney’s lyrics for the song Someone’s Knocking at the Door
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved