The latest episode of Game of Thrones ended with the series's biggest departure from the books to date, and may have gone as far as to turn the tables for the first time, spoiling upcoming surprises for readers instead of the other way around.
In this week’s Game of Thrones, titled “Oathkeeper”, the final act took us north of The Wall to Craster’s Keep, where the treacherous mutineers from the Night’s Watch reside after killing Craster and Lord Commander Mormont. After a short scene that reaffirms just how awful the Night’s Watch traitors are, one of Craster’s wives brings their leader a newborn boy, which Craster had been sacrificing to the White Walkers in a mysterious agreement to keep him and his home from certain death. Although alluded to in dialog, Craster’s deal with the White Walkers is never blatantly confirmed in the books, but its display in the show wasn’t a major issue for book readers because it never caused a great deal of conflict for the existing canon. Until now.
Back to this Sunday’s episode, after Craster’s last son is left out in the snow he’s taken by a White Walker on horseback.Together they traveled to a heretofore unseen place, presumably their home, where the baby is placed on a pedestal in front of thirteen other Walkers. He is then ritualistically converted into either a wight or a Walker (It isn’t clear which) as the episode cut to credits. Here’s where book readers collectively lost their minds.
Everything following the baby’s capture by the White Walker is new to the books, or at best unconfirmed myth and history. The Land of Always Winter, which readers can safely assume was where Craster’s baby was taken, has been set up as an integral part of the upcoming sixth book The Winds of Winter, but we’ve never seen it before. Additionally, while the Walkers (or Others) in the books clearly have some purpose, the interaction upon the shrine in the show this week shows some clear indication of formal society and intelligence, which hasn’t been explicitly explained. The confirmation that Walkers can actually transform living humans into wights or other Walkers is something that has also never been addressed canonically. Most important of all, however, is the potential reveal of the Night’s King, a legendary character of myth from stories told in the North of Westeros.
The identity of the Night’s King was almost immediately questioned at the episode’s end based on evidence shown during the transformation of Craster’s baby. Viewers were quick to note that the Walker who performs the actual ritual on the baby is A) in a clear position of power over the other Walkers and B) bears unique cranial protrusions that look convincingly like a crude crown. The internet was already full of readers speculating that this might be confirmation of The Night’s King, but HBO might have accidentally given away the farm with the official episode synopsis on their Viewer’s Guide. The guide actually put The Night King’s title down in writing, and while the description has since been edited to say “White Walker” instead, screenshots of the text were already taken and have been documented for posterity.
In A Storm of Swords Bran tells Jojen, Meera, and Hodor the legend of The Night’s King. Screen Crush has summarized the story for non-readers:
“The Night’s King was a respected leader and soldier until he fell in love with a woman “with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars” and whose “skin was cold as ice.” He made her his bride and took control of the Nightfort, one of the many castles built along The Wall. He declared himself a king and this mysterious, icy woman his queen. From his new fortress, he ruled with a cruel and iron fist, spreading terror throughout the North for 13 years and sacrificing people to “The Others” (who were renamed “White Walkers” in the show). It took the combined forces of the current King of the North from Winterfell and the current King Beyond the Wall to displace him. His name was wiped from history, with only legends of his atrocities still lingering in the upper half of Westeros.”
Aside from this tale, the Night’s King is never mentioned in the books. His existence in the current timeline is never even hinted at. Which means HBO might have just spoiled information meant to be revealed to readers in the books The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. HBO’s series has been racing hot on George R.R. Martin’s heels, and Martin has mentioned multiple times that he knows how close the show is to surpassing his writing. We also know that Martin has told executive producers how the series will end, in the event that the show does reach the end before the books.
At the end of the day, this new information might not be as revelatory as readers are making it out to be. The Night King’s identity doesn’t necessarily alter the thrust of the story, and may be nothing more than a neat surprise for people interested in Westerosi lore. To another point, the inclusion of the Night King might be nothing more than an Easter egg added by Benioff and Weiss for the fans.
Even if this week’s Game of Thrones marks the first instance of the show beating the books to the punch, we’ve seen first-hand that details are altered and subplots are cut or extended in adapting the story. The Winds of Winter will still be full of surprises when it finally is published. If ever.