They appear noiselessly, gliding across snow and ice with ease, their terrible blue gaze transfixing terrified characters and viewers alike. The horror of the White Walkers, the frozen zombies in the HBO television series “Game of Thrones”, lies in their silence, their invulnerability to ordinary weapons, and their savage will, not just to kill men, women and children, but also to recruit them to their swelling ranks, known as the Army of the Dead.
For, as the show’s tagline has long promised, “winter is coming”. Now, with the start of season seven last Sunday, it has finally arrived, and the creatures that slept under the snow for thousands of years are here in force, and armed with the ability to re-animate the dead. If they breach the Wall separating wilderness from civilisation, all humanity will be at hazard. Of all the characters in “Game of Thrones”, the White Walkers are the most frightening because they symbolise forces beyond human control, making them part of a burgeoning genre of Arctic horror which is inspired by the prospect that the planet’s coldest zones may not be frozen for much longer.
Some of the questions surrounding the White Walkers were answered in the show’s last season. In a vision, the seer Bran Stark learnt how Leaf, one of the elf-like Children of the Forest, created the first White Walker thousands of years ago. When Leaf stabbed a man tied to a weirwood tree with a “dragonglass” knife, the man’s eyes instantly turned the characteristic White Walker ice-blue. When the vision ended Leaf, now thousands of years old, explained to Bran that the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers to help them against the depredations of the First Men, those humans whose prehistoric invasion of Westeros all but annihilated the Children and other indigenous creatures. Although the White Walkers were once allies of the aboriginal inhabitants of the North, they have now become hostile to all living races. Did the Children of the Forest blunder in creating them?
The show’s explanation of the White Walkers’ origin sets up a compelling parallel with an archetype of far-northern horror: Mary Shelley’s monster, as created by Victor Frankenstein. The novel opens in the Arctic, where the narrator first perceives the distant figure in the icy wastes: “a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge and guided the dogs.” Implacable and dangerous, the creature is bent on revenge, no matter the cost. Frankenstein, like Leaf, has unleashed a monster over which he has no control.
To me the White Walkers most closely resemble the frost-giants of Old Norse myth, the cosmos’s earliest inhabitants. Sparked into life by fire acting upon ice in the story of creation, they symbolise powerful natural forces which have been subjugated by the gods, but which will return triumphantly to defeat their enemies at ragnarök, the end of the world. But there are also many contemporary monsters with whom the White Walkers share similarities. Among them is the ghastly undead creature in Michelle Paver’s novel, “Dark Matter” (2009), which is set in 1930s Norway. It is glimpsed in the deepening autumn darkness by the working-class narrator, but he dares not mention it to his posh companions, with whom he is on an expedition to the Svalbard archipelago. When he is left alone after an emergency, his imagination spirals out of control, but it’s not all in his mind: the corpse wreaks real violence on men and dogs alike. The malice of the creature is explained by its hideous history, which is rooted in the cut-throat exploitation of Arctic resources.
Then there are the ghosts in two novels by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, an Icelandic crime-writer. In “The Day is Dark” (2011) and “I Remember You” (2012), set in Greenland and the remote Westfjords of Iceland, respectively, uncanny apparitions haunt their victims in retribution for the inhumanity of humans past. In “Cold Earth” (2009), Sarah Moss ties ancient fears of the supernatural to modern fears of biological apocalypse. A team of archaeologists excavating medieval remains in Greenland loses radio contact with the outside world just as a flu pandemic breaks out at home. Fearing they could be the only humans left alive on earth, even the rational archaeologists are spooked. As the narrator, an over-imaginative writer who has tagged along on the expedition, is haunted by the spirits of the dead, roused from their slumbers by the excavation, the environmental catastrophe thought to have wiped out the medieval settlement looks as if it may strike once more.
The White Walkers then are simply the best-known embodiment of a burgeoning popular horror trope, which sprang up as early as 1992 in “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, a novel by Peter Hoeg, a Danish writer. In it, a monstrous life-form emerges as the northern ice begins to melt. Dangerous things lie beneath the ice; once stirred by human curiosity, they slide back into life.
The seeds of this genre can perhaps be found in the expansion of the Arctic tourism industry. As more and more snugly wrapped-up tourists head north for dog-sledding, snow-mobiling and the lights of the aurora borealis, the far north begins to seem more accessible, more familiar. In response, this new strain of Arctic horror tries to restore the primeval mystery of unending night, the darkness in which unseen, but easily imaginable, deadly creatures stalk. Human intrusion and the technological exploitation of the Arctic’s resources have, this genre suggests, awakened natural and supernatural forces that can wreak terrible vengeance on those who lack respect for these lands.
What then do the White Walkers signify? The consequences of rapid climate change, perhaps, when huge shifts in living conditions drive whole populations to flee their homelands. That said, it is the coming of winter not the melting of ice that drives the White Walkers to violence. Martin came of age in the 1960s, and his thinking was shaped precisely by that late Cold War fear of the nuclear winter, a catastrophic climate event caused by atomic warfare. With the heating up of what may amount to a new cold war between North Korea and the West, this fear has reared its head once more. The threats posed by nuclear war and climate change are the great man-made challenges facing us today. At least in Westeros, it is clear how another seemingly unstoppable force might be tamed. Daenerys’s dragons, the handful of surviving Valyrian swords, and resolution and courage will be required to persuade the White Walkers to return to their frozen slumbers and leave humanity to work out its destiny in the long winter ahead.