I always thought that if I wrote essays about A Song of Ice and Fire, they’d be small ideas that were heavily supported by evidence. They’d be right, but not that important. This essay is exactly the opposite! It’s wildly ambitious, and perhaps completely wrong.
Anyone who’s reading or listening to this probably knows that the main plot of the story mimics a series of ancient events surrounding the original Long Night. We can use the main plot to figure things out about the ancient events, and then we can in turn use the ancient events to understand the main plot. This point is made best by the great book analyzer Lucifer Means Lightbringer, or “LmL”: I bet you knew that already, and if not, then Google him and have your mind blown by his work.
No one knows exactly what those ancient events were. But after pondering them for a long time, an idea hit me recently that I want to share with you. The idea is very incomplete, and it could very easily be wrong in many respects (or even all respects!). Still, I think it might be useful to get it out there, because just having one version of the ancient story laid out from start to finish could potentially help smarter people than me to build on it and improve upon it. We’re all working together to figure this out, so I’m eager to be corrected about the things I’ll get wrong here. And who knows, maybe what follows could even turn out to be right in some respects.
This essay is a theory of what happened in the ancient story. I’ll explain the sequence of events and explain why I’m making the guesses I am.
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Part I: In the Beginning
Before human beings came to Westeros, there were three important geographical locations. One was Westeros itself, which was populated only by giants and Children of the Forest. The second was far western Essos, which was populated by primitive people often called the First Men. The third was far eastern Essos, populated by a highly advanced ancient civilization with dragons, known as the Great Empire of the Dawn, whose capital was Asshai. (For more on this, watch the famous video on the Great Empire of the Dawn by LmL and History of Westeros.)
The story of the Long Night begins with the migration of both groups of human beings to Westeros: the primitives from across the Narrow Sea, and the dragonriders from across the Sunset Sea. The primitives didn’t have ships, so they walked to Westeros across a land bridge called the Arm of Dorne, which existed back then. The dragonriders from the Far East took ships and/or dragons to Westeros.
We’re told repeatedly that the dragonriders got there first. (This is in The World of Ice and Fire.) We’re also told that Garth Greenhand was “not only the first man in Westeros, but the only man, wandering the length and breadth of the land alone and treating with the giants and Children of the Forest.” I’ve always had a hunch that that sentence wouldn’t be included unless it were true. But how can we square it with other things that seem to contradict it? Garth is said to be the King of the First Men from western Essos. And it’s said that Garth taught those First Men how to farm. How could he teach them and lead them if he was the only man in Westeros?
Part II: Young Azor Ahai and Nissa Nissa
Here’s a possible answer. It starts with the Great Empire of the Dawn in the Far East. We’re told that the heir to the empire was the Amethyst Empress, whom many of us believe was a Lengii, Child-of-the-Forest-type of woman who was also known as Nissa Nissa — the wife of Azor Ahai. When our story begins, this woman was probably not yet married and had not yet inherited the Empire. Like Daenerys (another empress with amethyst eyes), she was thought of as the most beautiful woman in the world, a Helen-of-Troy figure. And like Helen, she was supposed to marry one man but was also craved by another man.
Think of Lyanna Stark, who was betrothed to Robert but craved by Rhaegar. Or think of Cersei, who was betrothed to Robert but craved by Jaime. Or think of Rhaenyra Targaryen, who was betrothed to Laenor Velaryon but craved by both Criston Cole and Daemon Targaryen. There are many other examples as well.
Everything I’m going to say is speculative, and as I noted at the beginning, I’d love to be corrected and to have this story refined and improved. But I want to tell a particular version of it that might be helpful in thinking this through.
So let’s hypothesize that the Amethyst Empress was supposed to marry the so-called “right match” — a royal type of guy. But she was craved by someone who was the wrong guy. I believe that this “wrong guy” was Azor Ahai, who would ultimately become Night’s King. Who did he start out as?
He must have been someone related to a royal family — the empress’s family and/or the family of the royal guy she’s supposed to marry. But he was a member of that fancy family who wasn’t himself treated as fancy: someone like a young Jon Snow or Tyrion Lannister or Theon Greyjoy (or, in a different way, maybe even Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister?), all of whom grew up with famous families but were completely overshadowed by brothers who were considered the important future leaders.
Like Criston Cole or Lann the Clever, the guy I’m thinking of was in service to the great family. Maybe he was a guard like Criston, Jaime, or Aemon the Dragonknight; or maybe he was a squire like Lancel Lannister (or Jaime orginally); or maybe he was both. (Maybe he also served as a sort of court jester — a clever fool.) Notice that every single guy I just listed craved the queen he served, and all were at least rumored to have had affairs with that queen.
Our man Azor Ahai was probably a bastard brother, like Jon, but whatever he was specifically, we can make a good guess that he wasn’t supposed to inherit anything or to marry the Empress. So, like Jon Snow and many second sons or bastard sons, he left home and traveled far away to a place where he could be judged on his merits rather than his birth. And that place was Westeros.
Maybe Azor went by himself — perhaps riding a dragon across the Sunset Sea as Rhaenys Targaryen wanted to do (except that Azor went from Essos to Westeros rather than the other way). Or maybe he was sent by the Great Empire to lead an expedition to get something from Westeros, like giants for slaves, or else the magic of the Children of the Forest, both of which are suggested in The World of Ice and Fire.
Regardless, Azor makes it to Westeros (after possibly landing at the Iron Islands) and is literally the only human being on the continent. He makes friends with the giants and the Children of the Forest. And soon after that, by a huge coincidence, the First Men migrate across the Arm of Dorne and meet Azor in Westeros. Or, if that’s too much of a coincidence for you, another possibility is that Azor flew his dragon all the way across Westeros and across the Narrow Sea to western Essos, and then led the primitive First Men through the land bridge into Westeros — as Garth is said to have done.
Either way, Azor taught the First Men to farm. Who knows, maybe he also flew on his dragon around Westeros and also taught them the architectural knowledge that helped them build structures like Storm’s End, Winterfell, and the High Tower. (The High Tower was said to be commissioned by King Uthor of the High Tower, who I believe was Azor Ahai, as we’ll see.) In other words, maybe Lann the Clever, Brandon the Builder, and Azor Ahai were all the same guy.
Anyway, the First Men made Azor their king. Think of Jon Snow leaving the family he grew up with to journey far away and become the leader of a new group of people, purely on merit. Jon does this with the Night’s Watch, and more-or-less with the wildlings, especially on the TV show. Think also of Daenerys, who travels far from home to become the leader of a new group of people, the Dothraki (and the Unsullied, among others). Tyrion too travels far away, and on the show he rises to become Dany’s Hand. Or think of Daemon Targaryen, who wants to be king and to marry Rhaenyra, but who gets denied and instead travels away to become a seafaring adventurer and a “king” of the place he ventured to (the Stepstones and the Narrow Sea).
Part III: Azor goes back home
Here’s the thing about Jon, Dany, Tyrion, and Daemon: They weren’t content to rise to power in their new place. They wanted to return triumphantly to their earlier home. For Dany, that’s her birthplace — Westeros. For Jon, it’s where he grew up — Winterfell. When Jon receives a Valyrian steel sword at the Night’s Watch, he thinks of how he really wants Ice, the Stark family sword. On the TV show, Tyrion decides to send Dany’s troops to invade Casterly Rock and take back his home. Dany, for her part, devotes her life to conquering Westeros, where she was born. And Daemon also returns to Westeros, helping Rhaenyra conquer it, albeit briefly.
Just like those main characters, our man Azor Ahai wasn’t content to be King of the First Men in Westeros. He wanted to go back to the place he was before: to the Great Empire and to the woman he loved. So he did just that, flying or boating back across the Sunset Sea to Asshai.
When he reached home, he thought he’d be hailed as the king he now was. But instead, the royal family received him frostily. Think of how Theon was received when he went home to Pyke, contrary to his expectations. Azor’s family didn’t want to let him marry the royal Nissa Nissa. (I think the reason GRRM depicts Asha Greyjoy flirting with Theon when he returns to Pyke is to symbolize Azor’s romantic interest in Nissa.) I suspect that Azor Ahai tried to get what he wanted by fighting for it: There may have been a tournament for Nissa Nissa’s hand.
To find out what happened next, I’d like to call your attention to the tale of King Uthor of the High Tower. Uthor desired a woman named Maris, who was said to be the “most fair” — just like Helen of Troy and Daenerys and, I believe, the Amethyst Empress Nissa Nissa. Uthor wanted Maris, but another man named Argoth won her hand by winning a tournament. Still, King Uthor ended up marrying her whereas Argoth “raged outside the walls of Oldtown.” I beg you to remember this part about Oldtown when we get a little further in the story.
There’s another “Uthor” in the books, and that’s Uthor Underleaf, a tourney knight who liked to finish second so as to avoid fame. Finishing second is probably what Uthor of the High Tower — also known as Azor Ahai — did when he lost to Argoth (the royal guy who was supposed to marry the Amethyst Empress) in a tourney back home in Far Eastern Essos. The name “Underleaf” suggests a connection to the trees — like the greenseer Azor Ahai would become. It also may suggest a sexual bond with a Child of the Forest, since we’ve seen one named Leaf. Uthor was “under” Leaf — get it? Anyway, I think that Azor Ahai was like King Uthor of the High Tower — a king in Westeros who wanted to marry the most beautiful woman in the world but who didn’t win the tournament for her hand and therefore needed to run away with her to Oldtown.
Part IV: Return to Westeros
That’s right: When Azor failed to win Nissa Nissa’s hand, he took her with him back to Westeros. The circumstances of his taking her are very uncertain. One possibility is that she loved him and willingly ran away with him and married him, like Lyanna did with Rhaegar in the TV show. Another possibility is that she rejected him, like Lyanna is reputed to have done with Rhaegar (and like one story of Rhaenyra rejecting Criston Cole when he asked her to flee across the sea with him).
It’s also possible that Azor engaged in trickery to gain her hand, and/or to sleep with her, and/or to take control of the Great Empire. Think of Lann the Clever, who is said to have tricked a royal woman into sleeping with him and to have pried a royal family out of their power so as to replace them. A huge theme in A Song of Ice and Fire is pretending to be someone else: Think of the Faceless Men, or actors/mummers, or the idea of skinchanging a person like Varamyr tries to do in the Prologue of A Dance with Dragons. Lann may have been smooth-skinned (like his daughters were), and the books have countless stories of people putting on hairy cloaks that belonged to someone else. A smooth-skinned guy who disguises himself in a hairy cloak would be like the Biblical story of Jacob, who did exactly that to trick his elderly father into giving him the inheritance instead of the lawful heir, Jacob’s hairy older brother, Esau. Jacob in turn gets tricked into marrying a disguised woman who is different from the woman he thinks he’s marrying.
So perhaps Azor Ahai tricked his way into marrying the Amethyst Empress, with or without her approval. Or perhaps he straight-up kidnapped her. For what it’s worth, my guess is that she loved him and went willingly, like Lyanna on TV. However it happened, he and she traveled back across the Sunset Sea to Westeros — specifically, to Oldtown, which was the only city in Westeros back then (note the name: it’s an “old town” indeed).
And just like Argoth, who pursued Maris to Oldtown after Uthor took her, I believe the Great Empire of the Dawn launched a massive invasion of Westeros to get back the Amethyst Empress. This is the heart of the Helen of Troy story: She’s the face that launched a thousand ships. In the TV show, Euron Greyjoy tells his people to build him a thousand ships so he can cross the sea, marry Dany, and give them the world. Later, Euron tells Cersei that he’s always wanted to marry the most beautiful woman in the world. These are all references to the Helen of Troy story, and there are many Helen references in the books, including Targaryen women with names like Helaena. (Thanks go to Crowfood’s Daughter for finding the Helen parallels.)
In the Helen of Troy story, Helen gets kidnapped, and then a giant invasion is launched to get her back. Now picture Azor Ahai as he returns to Westeros — Oldtown specifically — with the Amethyst Empress. Not only does he have the woman he loves, but he is also reunited with everyone else he cares about: the First Men who made him their king, the giants, and the Children of the Forest. But there’s a huge problem: The Great Empire is coming with an invincible armada and dragons. (They may land first at the Iron Islands, as a staging ground for the invasion, just as Aegon the Conqueror and his forebears used Dragonstone.) The people of Westeros have absolutely no chance to defeat the invaders who are coming.
So what will they do? They believe they’re all going to be killed or enslaved by the foreigners with dragons, just as the Westerosi would later fear about Aegon I and about Daenerys. Azor Ahai needs to figure out something extraordinary or supernatural to defend Westeros — kind of like Tyrion using wildfire to stop Stannis from taking King’s Landing, but on a much bigger scale. Remember, Azor is in Oldtown, where the Citadel was founded. He may have started the Citadel, which dates back to this early age and was founded by the original Hightowers, so this fits with equating Azor Ahai and Uthor of the High Tower. Maybe Azor founded the Citadel to bring together people with all sorts of knowledge who could help figure out how to stop the dragons. This includes knowledge of sorcery, which has always been connected to learning in A Song of Ice and Fire. Surely, the Children of the Forest helped out by telling Azor about the magic of the weirwood trees.
Armed with this knowledge, Azor has an idea. His love, Nissa Nissa, has gotten pregnant, and somehow Azor figures out that he can sacrifice the baby to the powerful weirwood trees and thereby create a calamity that dooms the incoming invaders and their dragons.
But it requires killing the baby. Until this moment, I suspect that Azor Ahai wasn’t a bad guy. He wanted to do the right thing. And even here, he thought like Stannis: What’s the life of one child against a kingdom? The answer, as Davos gave Stannis, turns out to be, “Everything.”
Yes, now we’ve come to the most important thing that ever happened in this fictional world. Azor Ahai decides to kill Nissa Nissa’s baby as a weirwood sacrifice that’s meant to save all of Westeros from the dragon-riding invaders from the Far East. Maybe Nissa Nissa initially agrees, or maybe she doesn’t. Think of Selyse Baratheon, Stannis’s wife, on the TV show: She starts out approving of the sacrifice of Shireen, but then she changes her mind and has to be restrained.
There is a major repeated theme of someone being restrained and silenced while their close relative is murdered. A great example is Ned’s older brother, Brandon Stark, who dies by strangulation when he tries to stop his father Rickard from being murdered. Selyse also dies by strangulation on the TV show when she hangs herself after her daughter Shireen is murdered. Catelyn has her throat slashed (which, like strangulation, involves the throat and being silenced) right after her son Robb is murdered. Even Arya, when Ned is murdered, gets gripped and silenced by Yoren while Sansa screams.
I have to think that Nissa Nissa screamed like Sansa, and was silenced like Arya, when Azor Ahai murdered her baby. Maybe Azor waited for the sacrifice until the baby was born, or maybe (as I suspect) he cut her womb open to get the baby in time before the invasion landed. Maybe he took a two-headed axe — an important symbol throughout the books that notably appears in the Prologue of A Game of Thrones — and used one end to cut the mother open, remove the baby via a Caesarian-section, and then murder the baby as a sacrifice to the weirwoods. Maybe Nissa Nissa screamed and rushed at him, and he intentionally or accidentally silenced her. Perhaps he held her back, but she struggled, and his hands ended up around her throat, strangling her to death. Strangling is how Waymar kills Will (a Nissa Nissa figure, as LmL has shown) in the Prologue of A Game of Thrones, and strangling is how Cersei (a queen like the empress) is prophesied to die. As noted above, it’s also how Ned’s brother Brandon dies in the books and Selyse Baratheon dies on the show.
Or maybe Nissa Nissa got impaled (or impaled herself) on the other head of Azor’s double-headed axe. Being impaled by Azor’s blade is how Nissa Nissa is said to have died in the traditional Azor-Nissa story. And recall Helaena Targaryen, whose Helen-like name gives her away as a Nissa Nissa figure. She dies by falling from a tower and getting impaled through the throat, and her fall is said to be either a suicide or a murder by a guy named Luthor — which sounds a lot like “Uthor.” Getting impaled through the throat as a murder or suicide basically brings together all the versions of Nissa Nissa’s death.
And killing two people at once — often a ruler and an heir — happens a lot in the books and is a classic reference to the Blood Betrayal, the ancient event that started the Long Night. I discussed this at length in another essay and video called The Twins. (Also, thanks go to Melanie Lot Seven for her work on silenced women in the books.)
Part V: The Long Night
We can’t forget why Azor Ahai killed the baby. The dragon invaders were coming, and he had to stop them. Killing the baby — for the record, I bet it was a girl — sent the red comet into the fire moon. (There were two moons back then, as stated in the Qarthine legend that Doreah tells Dany in the first book.) The comet blew up the moon and sent a storm of moon meteors crashing to Earth. This insight made LmL the real-life superhero he is today. I don’t know whether Azor knew specifically that the moon would come down, or whether he just trusted a prophecy that the only way to stop the invaders was to sacrifice the baby. We know how it usually turns out when people trust prophecies in these books.
When the moon came down, it destroyed the Arm of Dorne and sent a giant canopy of dust particles into the sky and blocked the sun, causing the Long Night. George RR Martin’s inspiration for this event is no doubt the ancient meteor that’s believed to have done just that in real life, killing the dinosaurs and blocking out the sun for years. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the dinosaurs are dragons. Yes, Azor Ahai succeeded in killing the dragons who were invading Oldtown to take back Nissa Nissa. He succeeded by bringing down the moon meteors, which destroyed the invaders and their dragons.
This is why Battle Isle, within Oldtown, has its name. The invaders attacked there, but they suffered a lost-to-history “reversal or tragedy.” The word “tragedy” evokes Summerhall, where an unnatural explosion killed would-be dragons. And Summerhall in turn evokes the Doom of Valyria, which also killed the dragons. The human event that killed the most dragons was the Dance, which was a war involving Rhaenyra (a huge Nissa Nissa figure). And get this: We’re told that the first Hightower, King Uthor, put an end to the dragons at Battle Isle. So it all fits very well.
Azor Ahai thus succeeded in saving Westeros from the invaders, just like Tyrion saves King’s Landing from Stannis by using an unnatural explosion. And just like Tyrion, Azor doesn’t get credit from the First Men he saved. I don’t blame the First Men for that. Azor helped them a lot by teaching them to farm, but he also brought the invasion upon them and then wrecked the whole world by murdering a baby and destroying the moon. Now there’s no sunlight, it’s freezing cold, the crops have died, and the winter isn’t ending!
So the First Men depose their king, Azor Ahai. But somehow he escapes execution and instead gets sent to the Wall — just as Stannis goes to the Wall after he loses at the Blackwater, and just as Bloodraven gets sent to the Wall after enacting a bloody betrayal. Okay, the Wall doesn’t exist yet in Azor’s time, so Azor gets sent to what does exist: a frozen prison in the far north, known as the Nightfort (which is exactly where Stannis ends up). I suspect that Azor carried Nissa Nissa’s dead body with him up north (hat tip to the brilliant Gretchen Ellis), just as Ned Stark carried Lyanna’s body up north after she died.
Part VI: Night’s King
Now we’re in the Long Night, and Azor Ahai is a prisoner at the Nightfort. I really have no idea what happens from here, so everything that follows is even sketchier and more of a wild guess than what’s come before. Feel free to disregard it or, better yet, correct it!
Maybe this stage of Azor’s life is a little bit like what we hear about the first Faceless Man. The first Faceless Man killed the slavers and freed the slaves, but he also started an order of superhuman murderers. So maybe the prisoners at the Nightfort were treated like slaves, and Azor Ahai led a slave uprising that threw off their chains and killed their masters. Or maybe not?
One way or another, this is the part of the story where Azor Ahai undergoes a death transformation and becomes Night’s King. Clearly, this involves the weirwood trees and the dead Nissa Nissa, whose spirit seems to have entered the weirwoods when she died during the blood sacrifice of her baby. Maybe Azor tries to join her in the trees and gets thrown out as an ice monster? LmL and others are working hard on these details, and I have no doubt they’ll make great progress toward the answers. Somehow, a dying Azor becomes Night’s King and leads the White Walkers in an assault on the living.
But how does the Long Night End? I have no idea, except for one thing. The tale of Night’s King says that he was defeated by his brother, Brandon the Breaker, and a giant named Joramun who is the ancient analogue of the similarly named Tormund Giantsbane. Jon Snow and Tormund respectively represent Brandon the Breaker and Joramun. But we’ve already seen the conflict between Azor and his brother — the guy who was supposed to marry the Amethyst Empress. What we haven’t seen yet in this ancient story is the other family conflict that’s expressed countless times in the books: father vs. son. And that’s who Brandon the Breaker really was — a son of Azor Ahai who grew up to end the Long Night when his father, Night’s King, was trying to kill everyone.
Who was Azor Ahai’s son? The only child I’ve mentioned so far is the one Azor sacrificed to bring down the moon. That child is dead, so we need another child to grow up and oppose Night’s King. As I said in a previous essay and video, I believe that the sacrificed baby wasn’t the only baby in Nissa Nissa’s womb at the time. Instead, Nissa Nissa was pregnant with twins, unbeknownst to Azor Ahai. He took out the only baby he thought was there and killed that baby. But the other baby survived and was rescued. And the rescued baby grew up to be the Last Hero, who defeated his father (Azor Ahai, who had become Night’s King) and saved the world.
Why do I think this? Well, twins are everywhere in the books, which suggests that an ancient pair of twins was very important. And the closest modern analogue of Azor’s mother-and-child-killing is the Red Wedding (where mother Catelyn and son Robb are killed), which takes place at a castle called The Twins. Also, think of how Jon Snow finds his direwolf, Ghost, for the first time. Ghost’s mother had died in a violent encounter just as her children were born. The other pups were found, but Ghost was concealed within his mother’s body until Jon found him and rescued him. So after Azor killed one twin, the other was probably hidden in Nissa Nissa’s womb and rescued.
Rescuing a baby is a major theme, as LmL has shown. Think of Samwell Tarly rescuing Gilly’s baby, or Ned Stark rescuing the baby Jon Snow, to take two famous examples. So I suspect the twin brother of the sacrificed baby survived and was rescued, then grew up to oppose Night’s King and save the world. How he did it, I have no idea. LmL has a lot to say about that and is still figuring out more, so I refer you to him, as always.
Part VII: Conclusion
Let me be crystal clear: I am not saying I can prove any of this. It could all be wrong, or some or many parts of it could be wrong.
But I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s not exactly tinfoil. Like so many of you, I’ve been working really hard for a long time to try to figure out what’s going on in these books. And I thought it would be helpful to spell out one version of the ancient events that might explain a lot of the things we’re told about the ancient figures, as well as the things we see in the main plot that are obviously meant to symbolize the ancient story.
One reason it’s helpful is that some of it might be right. The parts that are wrong can and should and will be corrected by those of you who improve upon these ideas. I will love it when that happens, because I don’t care at all about being right but do care about working together to figure out what’s right.
Thank you to everyone who takes part in this. It’s been a great joy to join you in the journey.