Bran: He’ll come for me. He’s tried before. Many times, with many Three-Eyed Ravens.
Sam: Why? What does he want?
Bran: An endless night. He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory.
Sam: That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting … being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done we’re not men anymore. Just animals. Your memories don’t come from books; your stories aren’t just stories. If I wanted to erase the world of men, I’d start with you.
In “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, the second episode of the final Game of Thrones season, Bran Stark shone some light on the murky motivations of the Night King. The show-viewing audience had already had an idea of what he is all about: he is leading an army of murderous wights who murder ruthlessly at his command, and then he reanimates the murdered slain as murderous recruits, so when Lord Beric Dondarrion told Jon Snow in “Beyond the Wall” that the enemy was Death, that math checked out.
But the nuance that Bran brought to the battle planning table provided a new insight into the Night King and his goals. It isn’t so much that the Night King is simply a life-hating murder avatar (although he certainly might hate life as a bonus.) He might be more of a representation of something else…
He wants to erase the world, and I am its memory.
AN ENDLESS NIGHT
Night and darkness are often associated with ignorance, whereas light often represents clarity and wisdom. It’s the difference between phrases like “the dark ages” and “benighted” as opposed to “the enlightenment” and “an idea going off like a light bulb.”
The Night King is an agent of Ignorance. Of Entropy. Of the Heat Death of the Universe. He’s the reason we can’t have nice things. (And one of those “nice things” is being alive.)
If ignorance in general and a new unending dark age is the goal of the Night King, and not necessarily him orchestrating the death of every human in Westeros…
Night King: Uh, don’t rule that out too fast. I don’t want to be limited as an artist.
… then Bran being a high priority target of the White Walkers is reasonable. Bran represents the memories, knowledge, and experience of the previous Three-Eyed Ravens. It’s probably inaccurate to say hyperbolically that Bran knows everything or is the sum of all human knowledge. But he possesses ancient knowledge that isn’t recorded elsewhere. Certainly not in the Citadel, headquarters of the bookish maesters.
Your memories don’t come from books; your stories aren’t just stories.
On a practical level, this ancient knowledge could include how the Wall was first created with its foundations of supernatural wards. Now that the Wall has an Eastwatch-sized hole in it, if the White Walkers are repelled but not utterly destroyed, the knowledge to repair the Wall is critical for the future. This makes Bran a one-man institution of memory, something Sam encountered before when he was interning at the Citadel hoping to become the Night’s Watch’s resident maester. While Sam was at the Citadel, he had a very similar conversation to the one featured with Bran.
Archmaester Ebrose: We are this world’s memories, Samwell Tarly. Without us, men would be little better than dogs.
The Citadel is a more traditional repository of knowledge, and the maesters in Oldtown were not receptive in considering the existence of the White Walkers, let alone allowing White Walker Slayer Sam Tarly to have access to their accounts of the Long Night and what secrets those volumes might have. If the Night King is not stopped and wants an endless night, he and his horde at some point will shamble and scuttle to Oldtown to extinguish the beacon light of the Hightower and destroy the Citadel. But Oldtown is far away and the threat from the maesters is dubious as they doubt and argue.
And Bran Stark is nearby.
THAT’S WHAT DEATH IS, ISN’T IT? FORGETTING … BEING FORGOTTEN.
The association of death and forgetting has been encountered before, when Arya Stark spent time as a hostage with the undead Lord Beric Dondarrion in the Riverlands.
Lord Beric: Every time I come back, I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.
It’s a bit more detailed in the books, that when Lord Beric is resurrected over and over, he is aware that he has forgotten things. Important things.
Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair. Who knighted me, old friend? What were my favorite foods? It all fades. Sometimes I think I was born on the bloody grass in that grove of ash, with the taste of fire in my mouth and a hole in my chest. Are you my mother, Thoros? — A Storm of Swords, Arya VII
People build monuments as a means to preserve memories and to confer a kind of immortality on those they’ve lost. The North follows the Old Gods, and that religion has no mentions of an afterlife. A person lives on in songs or they do not live on at all. It was a pleasant counterpoint in the episode where Winterfell was preparing to face Death, that Podrick Payne sang about Jenny of Oldstones, whose story is largely unknown to the readers but always seems to have an emotional impact on characters in the story of A Song of Ice and Fire. Jenny is long dead, and yet still alive in song and memories.
The Lords of Winterfell took a more concrete approach in being immortalized, and are entombed in crypts beneath Winterfell, with stone likenesses to remind their descendants of who they were and what they were. The Kings of Winter.
The Wall that defines the border between the civilized North and the savage beyond is itself a monument to memory. It was so over-engineered and built on such an immense scale, lasting thousands of years, its size must have been intended not only to keep out the White Walkers, but to communicate its basic mission to all who see it. If the caretakers of the Wall were to die or abandon their charge, the notion would remain that someone built this structure to keep something out. Something terrible and unusual. Even if the particulars could not be remembered, the message would be clear.
The North is an intrinsic opponent to the Night King and his agenda. Not just because it is geographically close to the Land of Always Winter, but because of the North’s nature.
The North Remembers.
HE’LL COME FOR ME. HE’S TRIED BEFORE. MANY TIMES
Bran’s account that the Night King has tried before to kill the Three-Eyed Raven on more than one occasion brings out several questions. The fact that there have been multiple Three-Eyed Ravens is not a surprise, since Bran himself appears to have been selected to replace the aged man nestled in weirwood roots north of the Wall. It’s not hard to speculate that there was a Three-Eyed Raven that Bran’s predecessor had replaced, and one before that, with memories and experience passing down through the ages.
But the implication is that the White Walkers had been active in some capacity since the Long Night of Old Nan’s tales and through the present. That the White Walkers did not totally retreat from the world eight thousand years before at the end of the Long Night.
Instead, some kind of low-scale (but high-stakes) conflict had been going on between the Night King and the various Three-Eyed Ravens, pitting attendant Children of the Forest and creatures like Benjen Stark against mindless wights and White Walkers. With gifted replacements summoned from the south to travel across treacherous territory, possibly encountering long-dormant wights who’d been planted under ice and snow like ghoulish landmines, to find a weirwood-rooted Three-Eyed Raven and have the mantle passed on.
Was the Last Hero of Old Nan’s stories the first Three-Eyed Raven, having repelled the White Walkers during the first time they invaded the lands of men, with their hungry dead and their ice spiders as big as hounds? Or was the Last Hero just one in a series of vigilant greenseers? Or completely unrelated?
The history of the lands north of the Wall has become more interesting with these revelations. But will this all just be history? Will there even be a future now that the current Three-Eyed Raven has come south, from the traditional Children of the Forest redoubts to Winterfell, with the Army of the Dead in pursuit?
IF I WANTED TO ERASE THE WORLD OF MEN, I’D START WITH YOU
Bran Stark is not only the victory condition for the Night King; he’s the lure to expose this long-standing nemesis to a counterattack. Just as the Night King yearns to kill Bran Stark, to destroy the knowledge that humanity needs access to, Jon Snow intends to kill the Night King when he comes for Bran.
Bran will be guarded by Theon Greyjoy and his Ironborn, which is not bad from a symbolic perspective. If the Night King is Death, the Ironborn’s dogma states that they have already defeated death. The Drowned God achieved victory over Death ages ago and conferred that status to his faithful and violent followers, who drown themselves and are revived by the resuscitation of their Drowned Man priests.
Theon: What is dead may never die, but rises harder and stronger.
Unfortunately, the Night King literally commands the dead, who have risen harder and stronger as well. When symbols and reality clash, symbols rarely win.
Bran Stark will also be guarded from afar by dragons, once thought dead but brought back into the world by Daenerys Targaryen. The dragons can not only provide a check on the Night King’s undead mount Viserion, but more importantly can be used to whisk Bran away from danger. And that might make all of the difference.
Bran is the prize. If the Starks and Targaryens can’t win the battle of Winterfell by destroying the Night King, the second-best option is to simply not lose. If things go badly, and things likely will, the only avenue left might be to remove Bran from the danger and fight some other day.
This does not bode will for everyone else at Winterfell. They’re all expendable and not everyone can be evacuated on dragonback. But possibly it won’t be that dire.
Bran is the prize, and where he goes the Night King and his army will follow, with the Night King leaving any other low-priority targets behind.
Is that what death is? To be forgotten?
Not always, Sam Tarly. Not always.