Game of Thrones' Battle of Winterfell - in season 8, episode 3 - ended the Long Night barely after it had begun when Arya Stark killed the Night King and his army in a huge twist. But as satisfying as that moment was on TV, it’s highly unlikely the A Song of Ice & Fire books will wrap up the White Walker storyline in the same way - near impossible, in fact.
In both versions of the story, the White Walker threat looms from the very beginning. Both the prologue to A Game of Thrones as well as the Game of Thrones pilot, “Winter is Coming”, open with three Night’s Watch members suffering a White Walker attack. But it’s far too long before anyone south of the Wall believes in the White Walkers themselves, much less an army of malevolent ice warriors bent on the destruction of humankind. So the impending arrival of an endless night, that goes ignored by nearly everyone with the power to stop it, remains one of the driving narratives in both the A Song of Ice and Fire series and HBO’s Game of Thrones. But despite the fact that HBO decisively ended the conflict in “The Long Night,” that ending almost certainly diverged from what will happen in George R.R. Martin’s novels (The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring are still to be finished).
The Night King’s demise is the climax of Game of Thrones’ resolution of the White Walker conflict, but despite Martin’s reveal that he’d given key elements of the ending he had planned to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss several years ago, there’s no reason to think Arya stabbing the Night King with the catspaw dagger or anything like it will happen in the books. Mostly because there is no Night King in the books. Well, as we know him.
The White Walkers, or “Others” as they’re more commonly referred to in the books, aren’t led by a millennia-old, formerly human king. The show implies the first Long Night occurred after the Children of the Forest created the Night King and the White Walkers to aid in their war against the First Men. The books have offered no such explanation, yet, and while Martin has demurred when asked about whether or not the Children of the Forest will eventually reveal a relationship with the original White Walkers, with only two books left, it seems unlikely that we’d get an entirely new character leading the White Walker charge. Especially since there’s already a character who went by that name in the books.
One of the frightening stories Old Nan tells an eager Bran is about the Night’s King (not the Night King), the thirteenth commander of the Night’s Watch who married a female Other and brought her to live with him at Castle Black. They were eventually defeated, but not before they made sacrifices to the Others, not unlike Craster and his sons. But the Night’s King didn’t lead White Walkers, and there’s no other analog to the Night King in the novels. The implications that follow include the fact that the Others’ existence most likely will not be ended because one of them is killed by a Valyrian steel blade. Aside from the Night King and his power remaining essentially non-existent in the books, there’s also no indication that the Others are former humans magicked into White Walker form by the Night King and/or the Children of the Forest.
The premise of Game of Thrones’ ending of the war between the White Walkers and men is that the Night King created every white walker and, thus, is the source of their life force, as it were. Conveniently, if he dies, they all die. And given there’s no Night King in the books, odds are the death of one single character won’t determine the end of a conflict that’s been millennia in the making. But more broadly, the idea of the White Walkers as a nameless horde bent on destruction while humans ignore the fight to squabble amongst themselves is more in line with the thematic elements at work in Martin’s story and structure.
By keeping the White Walkers a somewhat faceless horde that humans can neither negotiate with nor share a country, Martin underscores the hopeless futility of humans fighting amongst themselves for the Iron Throne as a world-ending event looms on the horizon. If we had to guess, we’d say the real defeat of the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones books will involve the sacrifice of many for the sake of unity, not the ninja training and quick thinking of one Stark girl.
Game of Thrones season 8 continues on Sunday, May 5, on HBO.