Valar Morghulis? The Undead on ‘Game of Thrones’

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On HBO’s Game of Thrones, there is one thing you can be sure will happen — people will die. Good people, bad people, death comes to everyone. Valar morghulis, after all. While the fourth season finale has death in spades, it also has plenty of un-death. There are skeleton soldiers popping out of the snow beyond the Wall. In King’s Landing, Qyburn whips out a terrifyingly large needle for a mysterious procedure to “cure” the mortally wounded and poisoned Gregor Clegane. The Night’s Watch takes great pains to ensure every corpse from the Battle of Castle Black is burned.

The undead pose a major threat for some on Game of Thrones. For others, the possibility of prolonging life after certain death is a tantalizing opportunity. What are the various forms of undeath in Westeros and abroad, and how does this shed light into a nefarious plot occurring under the noses of everyone (dead and alive)?

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Wights 

Not to be confused with the White Walkers, which are a separate race (I like to think of them as ice vampires), wights are reanimated corpses controlled by the White Walkers. More akin to Harry Potter‘s Inferi than The Walking Dead‘s Walkers, wights do not mindlessly seek out the brainz of the living. Instead, they kill the living on behalf of the White Walkers. More dead equals more wights equals more soldiers on the side of the Others. How they do this is unclear, as is much about the creatures from the Land of Always Winter. It is most likely stemmed from their magical power — a power that seems to be growing exponentially. Before the events of the series began, dead people didn’t regularly rise and try to kill the living. Now, it is common practice to burn the dead, not as a religious rite but as a necessary precaution.

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But what is the White Walkers’ end game? How far does their control of the dead go? Is the Wall all that protects Westeros from the White Walkers’ wight-making magic?

GoT-Beric and Thoros

Rh’llor’s Resurrected

While season four did not return to the Brotherhood Without Banners arc, don’t count out Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr just yet. Book readers know that the restorative power supposedly granted by the Lord of Light comes into play in a major way at the end of A Storm of Swords. In a very broad sense, season four covers the back half of Storm of Swords, yet it did not include this surprising development from the book’s epilogue. Despite some online hubbub from book readers about the implications of this omission, that is, the undead re-introduction of a major character thought definitively dead, the TV series has plenty of time to flesh out that storyline.

Without giving too much away about the future representation of the “stony hearted,” I will say that those “returned” in this method retain most (but not all) of their former selves. Beric Dondarrion describes his resurrection to Arya and Thoros in “Kissed by Fire” — “Every time I come back, I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.” Resurrection isn’t immortality — Beric has died six times so far. It is only with continued resurrection through Thoros that he returns.

GoT-Qyburn

Whatever The Hell Dr. Qyburn Frankenstein Is Doing

Qyburn is a failed Maester kicked out of the Citadel for his “dangerous” and “unnatural” curiosity. And yet, Qyburn seems to be confident in his abilities from cleaning Jaime’s stump to helping Cersei out with some feminine issues. Equipped with a giant needle, animal intenstine tubes, and glass jars, Qyburn may employ some brutal medieval-style medicine, Victorian occult revival alchemy, necromancy, or a combination of them all to keep Gregor from death. Whatever his method is, it will “change” the Mountain all the while maintaining his almost superhuman strength.

GoT-Mirri Maz Duur and Khal Drogo

This change may be similar to the “change” Mirri Maz Duur made in prolonging Khal Drogo’s life in season one. While Qyburn promises that Gregor will retain his strength, Mirri Maz Duur’s efforts are inferior (either intentionally or unintentionally) but connected. In A Game of Thrones, Mirri Maz Duur mentions she learned anatomy from Archmaester Marwyn. In A Storm of Swords, Qyburn tells Jaime that of the archmaesters at the Citadel, only Archmaester Marwyn like Qyburn gives any thought to the possibility of ghosts. The mysterious Marwyn, introduced officially in A Feast for Crows, is Qyburn and Duur’s connection in the books and in the future perhaps also the show. If Marwyn is cast in the TV series, it will be when the series shows Oldtown, the location of the Citadel.

If this magic/otherworldly practices are so prevalent throughout the Game of Thrones world, including Westeros, then why do so many characters (at least, at first) scoff at the very idea of White Walkers, wargs, and other supernatural elements?

Why are things once thought gone long ago plainly still around? What really happened to the dragons? Why is Maester Luwin so sure that wargs and greenseers are fiction when they clearly aren’t? Why is Grand Maester Pycelle so disgusted by Qyburn?

The answers lie in what the maesters are up to at the Citadel in Oldtown. Maesters are found in every House with no apparent loyalty to a specific House or cause. But could they have a cause for themselves? This is why I bring up random Archmaester Marwyn and his uncharacteristic fascination with the supernatural. Marwyn is unique amongst the maesters, who are actively anti-magic. The show has yet to fully address the maesters’ skepticism and by extension the whole of Westerosi nobility’s skepticism towards magic. But the questions are apparent — the implications even more so.

With most of Westeros skeptical of all forms of magic, the Westerosi are at an even greater disadvantage when faced with a supernatural threat. Winter is coming.

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