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Kingmonkey

The meaning of "Winter is Coming" (idle thoughts)

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We seem to be having a lot of "idle thoughts" threads lately, so here's mine.

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The words gave her a chill, as they always did. The Stark words. Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words. Not for the first time, she reflected on what a strange people these northerners were.

This is our first introduction to the Stark words -- and indeed to the notion of house words in general. The implication is that the Stark Words are different. They're not a threat or a boast, they are a warning. Winter is coming, be prepared. The theme comes up again and again:

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When the snow fell and the ice winds howled down out of the north, Old Nan said, farmers left their frozen fields and distant holdfasts, loaded up their wagons, and then the winter town came alive. Bran had never seen it happen, but Maester Luwin said the day was looming closer. The end of the long summer was near at hand. Winter is coming.

Winter is coming. Be prepared, gather together and heed the warning; forewarned is forearmed, and if everyone pulls together, maybe they will get through it.

But is this really what those words mean? If every other house is saying something cool about themselves, why is it that house Stark does not?

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"Winter is coming," Arya whispered.

"The hard cruel times," her father said. "We tasted them on the Trident, child, and when Bran fell. You were born in the long summer, sweet one, you've never known anything else, but now the winter is truly coming. Remember the sigil of our House, Arya."

"Remember our sigil". The lone wolf dies, while the pack survives. Doesn't this sound to you a bit more like the words of sheep rather than wolves, though?

I've often wondered if Catelyn was wrong, and if the words of house Stark are as much if not more of a boast and threat as the others. Winter is not just a season, "Winter" was also once a king. Don't those house words sound a whole lot more threatening and boastful if you read them as "(the King of) Winter is coming"? So, how does that relate to packs of wolves?

Here's what the attitude towards winter is amongst the hill tribes:

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"Winter is almost upon us, boy. And winter is death. I would sooner my men die fighting for the Ned's little girl than alone and hungry in the snow, weeping tears that freeze upon their cheeks. No one sings songs of men who die like that. As for me, I am old. This will be my last winter. Let me bathe in Bolton blood before I die. I want to feel it spatter across my face when my axe bites deep into a Bolton skull. I want to lick it off my lips and die with the taste of it on my tongue."

And more:

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She remembered a tale she had heard from Old Nan, about how sometimes during a long winter men who'd lived beyond their years would announce that they were going hunting. And their daughters would weep and their sons would turn their faces to the fire, she could hear Old Nan saying, but no one would stop them, or ask what game they meant to hunt

So considering that context, think about this for a moment:

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But behind them came a greater army of childless and homeless men, unwed men, old men, and younger sons, under the banner of Lord Cregan Stark. They had come for a war, for adventure and plunder, and for a glorious death to spare their kin beyond the Neck one more mouth to feed.
The poisoning of King Aegon II had denied them that chance. Lord Stark still marched his army into King's Landing, but to a much different outcome. He had planned to punish Storm's End, Oldtown, and Casterly Rock for having supported the king

An army of Northmen, planning to punish Storm's End, Oldtown and Casterly Rock, three of the great powers of Westeros? That sounds like quite a wolf pack, off to find more food by hunting in the south rather than using up the reserves of the North. There's an interesting SSM relating to the muster of Northern forces:

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 the north is much bigger, so it takes longer for an army to gather. And life is harsher there as well, so lords and smallfolk both need to think carefully before beating those plowshares into swords.

Robb mustered the forces of the North during an autumn, the final vital harvest before the long winter. How many more men could he have mustered if he had tried calling the forces of the North to fight south of the Neck a few months later, after winter had come, and the plowshares couldn't be used as anything other than swords for a few more years? When the North was full of older warriors trying to "spare their kin beyond the neck one more mouth to feed"? Enough to threaten Storm's End, Oldtown and Casterly Rock, perhaps?

Perhaps those Stark Words, "Winter is coming", have been misunderstood, even by the recent generations of less warlike Starks. Perhaps "Winter is Coming " is not a warning to their own people to prepare, but is a threat. Autumn may limit the power of the Starks to gather their forces, when the men of the North are desperately needed at home to work the land, but when winter has come, it's a different story. Other regions are limited by the necessity to keep people on the land -- to gather an army of 5% manpower would be quite an achievement. In the North, during the height of winter, it's better to keep people OFF the land. For those men to go hunting -- and perhaps that game they are hunting is a two-legged game. When winter comes, how big is the Stark muster? 10%? 20%? More?

When winter comes, the armies of the North can gather in vast numbers. Enough, perhaps, to punish Storm's End, Oldtown and Casterly Rock, while sparing their kin one more mouth to feed.

"Winter is coming" may be a warning to the people of the North to prepare, but to the enemies of the North, it could after all be a very scary threat indeed. "Winter is coming, and now we have nothing better to do that fight. Winter is coming, and now is the time of our greatest strength. Winter is coming, and so are we..."

 

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Strange. I've never thought of the words as anything other than a threat to the North's enemies, as much as it is a warning to prepare.

I think what Cat meant (when saying it was different to the words of other houses) is that it's not a boast but a statement of fact. The Boltons' blades may in fact not be sharp, but no matter which way you look at it winter is coming sooner or later.

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Kingmonkey, I believe you're on to something. The Stark words are dual-purpose: a practical warning about winter (with their history of bad winters and the Long Night); and also a warning that House Stark will come for you if you don't watch it. 

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2 hours ago, Horse of Kent said:

Strange. I've never thought of the words as anything other than a threat to the North's enemies, as much as it is a warning to prepare.

I think what Cat meant (when saying it was different to the words of other houses) is that it's not a boast but a statement of fact. The Boltons' blades may in fact not be sharp, but no matter which way you look at it winter is coming sooner or later.

:lol:

 

To the OP:

I also always took the words as a threat as well, but never settled on the idea that it was a threat from the Starks/northmen to other regions. I guess it could be, maybe from some custom way back thousands of years ago that is now dead? What I do always tend to land on is the idea that since the Watch and the Starks/Winterfell worked so closely together, it was a part of the constant vigil for the lookout of the Others or a new Long Night. And we are told that, "by night all cloaks are black," and that has to mean something.

But my guilty pleasure idea is that Winter is the name of an ice dragon that comes to help save the day, sorta like GRRM's early story The Ice Dragon, just with the Others. ^_^

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1 minute ago, Lady Blizzardborn said:

@The Fattest Leech I figure "by night all cloaks are black" is a reference to the fact that when the Long Night comes they all have to work together, and it won't matter what House you belong to, etc.

Oh yeah, no doubt on that. I guess I was thinking that the Starks at Winterfell would be the first to hear of the Others form the NW, and being that they are the principle house in the north, they would send out the warning/ravens that, "winter is here and we warned you!"

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4 minutes ago, The Fattest Leech said:

Oh yeah, no doubt on that. I guess I was thinking that the Starks at Winterfell would be the first to hear of the Others form the NW, and being that they are the principle house in the north, they would send out the warning/ravens that, "winter is here and we warned you!"

And didn't Old Nan refer to the Long Night as a winter...a winter that lasted a generation? So really it's just a really extreme and planet-threatening version of winter--and it is coming. 

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I love this thread! And idea!  I think the words harken back to the Kings of Winter, and that's the kind of Winter you didn't want coming for you 

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1 minute ago, Lady Blizzardborn said:

And didn't Old Nan refer to the Long Night as a winter...a winter that lasted a generation? So really it's just a really extreme and planet-threatening version of winter--and it is coming. 

Yup. Babes born and died in the winter without ever feeling warmth, or some ultra depressing story like that. And then she tells Bran something like,"fear is for the winter."

I have been dying to analyze her words and tales. They are chocked with info. Has this been done already? Don't answer, I don't want to derail the thread.

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I took the Stark words as a threat to other kings of the North- I'm assuming the words are almost as old as the House, and thus predate their high kingship although this is never stated. I figure the shift in tone came after the North had been somewhat brought to heel and time had allowed the Starks to forget what it means to be Kings of Winter as they become Wardens of the North instead.

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Now that I think about it, the Others are said to "either be where it's cold, or they bring the cold", meaning that they could represent winter or maybe they were called winter, which would make the words even scarier.

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I think some of the houses' words have a deep meaning regarding their history, for example:

Targaryen (Fire and Blood): I don't think that's just a threat, it has something to do with magic

House Hightower (We Light the Way): not exactly a threat or a warcry, but what way do they light?

House Royce (We Remember): also weird

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@The Hammer of Justice it's possible that the lighthouse or high tower in Oldtown was a beacon of sorts for people hoping to escape the Others during the Long Night. The Others prefer the darkness so maybe they wouldn't go near it? I like to think House Dayne's words are "We Light the Tower." :P

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On 17/02/2017 at 3:22 AM, Lady Blizzardborn said:

Kingmonkey, I believe you're on to something. The Stark words are dual-purpose: a practical warning about winter (with their history of bad winters and the Long Night); and also a warning that House Stark will come for you if you don't watch it. 

Certainly they serve the purpose of a warning about winter now, but  it may be that originally this "dual purpose" meaning just had a much more blurred boundary. Winter. "the hard, cruel time" as Ned puts it, is the season of death, particularly for people living in the North. If "Winter is coming" means "Be prepared for the fact that some of you will die", it's easy to see how that can be as much a call to arms as a call to minding the harvests. 

@The Fattest Leech brings up the interesting question of the Others. The North Remembers. Everyone else may think the Others are myth, but they are better remembered in the North. Is it an ancient warning to watch for the Others, then? I think this is one of the things we were meant to pick up on in AGoT, but I can't help thinking of Sam's question: "...but is it the cold that brings the wights, or the wights that bring the cold?" The quotes I put in the OP dealing with the idea of Stark winter warfare makes for an intriguing comparison. You can easily imagine the foes of the Starks in ancient times knowing that when cold winds blow from the north, great Northern armies soon follow...

@Vaedys Targaryen brings up the same point, asking whether the Others represent winter in this respect. Perhaps, but we can say for sure that the Starks DO represent winter. Given that it's the dark time, the time of death, it's a bit chilling to think that the Starks embrace it and claim to personify it, isn't it? The old Stark kings were the Kings of Winter -- is that simply claiming kingship of the kingdom of winter, i.e the North, or is it really a Northern way of calling themselves the Kings of the season of death? Let's remember they are the bearers of the hereditary sword Ice -- if Dawn brings the light, what does Ice bring? I think there's good reason to suspect that historically, the Starks were not generally as light-hearted and cheery as our boy Ned. 

I think this is edging tantalisingly close to hypothesising, as some like to do, some rather closer connection between Starks and Others than is immediately obvious.

 

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15 hours ago, Kingmonkey said:

<snip

I think this is edging tantalisingly close to hypothesising, as some like to do, some rather closer connection between Starks and Others than is immediately obvious.

 

What do you think about Ned's frozen hell reserved for Starks?

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This is a very interesting thread! I interpreted the House Stark words to have many different meanings. It definitely includes a simple, practical warning about the harsh weather that will always come back to the North at some point, as well as a threat to the enemies of House Stark and the North that the Starks will come for them should someone try to challenge or harm them, as mentioned throughout this thread. I also think it is a reminder that hard times will always exist (in many forms), and that Starks must understand and embrace that and persevere in the face of hardship. I think this is a very important part of the identities of Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Bran, as well. At this point, they all understand that there are many difficult challenges ahead of them but they move forward anyway.

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18 hours ago, Kingmonkey said:

 

I think this is edging tantalisingly close to hypothesising, as some like to do, some rather closer connection between Starks and Others than is immediately obvious.

 

It is as inevitable as winter. Normal folks don't feel the need to use iron to keep their honored dead tethered to their final resting places- although to be fair I don't think we can rule out intermarrying with the Barrow Kings for that legacy.

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10 hours ago, Lady Blizzardborn said:

What do you think about Ned's frozen hell reserved for Starks?

I wonder what the Starks did to deserve a frozen hell.

There seems to have been some kind of early alliance between the Starks and the Children of the Forest -- Brandon the Builder learned the CotF language to work with them. We don't seem to have any hints as to what the CotF got out of the deal. If the Others turn out to be in some way the product of CotF magic, that raises some interesting questions, particularly given the apparent similarity between Others and humans rather than the CotF themselves. Which may in some way hint at an answer to:

8 hours ago, hiemal said:

Normal folks don't feel the need to use iron to keep their honored dead tethered to their final resting places

 

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Well, in my opinion, "Winter is coming" definitely is a threat towards the enemies of House Stark. Given that Starks have some blood of Children of the Forest mixed in them, some of them might have foreseen the second Long Night we are about to witness in this story, the Winter. And they might have witnessed a triumphant Stark king (who I think is Jon Snow) taking over Westeros.

So no matter how bad the situation is for this house, they know that the Winter is coming, and in the Winter, Starks will prevail over everyone.

So yeah, similar to something like "Winter is coming, so you just wait".

And the notion of members of northern families leaving their houses to spare their relatives extra mouth and march with Starks kinda gives me creepy thoughts: what if Starks of old required a blood sacrifice of each family in front of a heart tree in order to spare the "pack" an extra mouth and guarantee protection from their Stark liege lords from the perils of winter and enemies. And these dead sacrificed people become part of wight army controlled by skinchanging Stark king (Brandon Ice Eyes anyone?) that they use to protect the North from the enemies.

And over time, the practice became forgotten and transformed as members of a family voluntarily started leaving their houses to join northern army, as the magic of Children of the Forest (skinchanging) became less and less prevalent in Stark kings, so the practice became more an ideological tool rather than magical?

I don't know, it kinda paints me a picture of desperate starving people who have nothing left to lose and agree to everything in order to protect their families (by leaving the house) and homeland (by marching in the army of a Stark).

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