Long before the events of Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s fantasy books, Westeros was home to magic and strange, sinister creatures. We’ve only just started to glimpse this backstory on the show, but the books contain lots of hints. Here’s our complete guide to the fantastical past of this grim world.
A Quick Word On Timing
A lot of the events discussed in here take place thousands of years before the events of Game of Thrones. Westeros’ history is divided into Ages, from the Dawn Age and the arrival of humans on the continent, all the way up to the era of Targaryen rule and eventually Robert’s rebellion.
When you hear characters talk about creatures like Giants, the Children of the Forest and the Others (or White Walkers in the TV show), they’re talking about events that occurred over 8,000 years in their past. Westeros’ more fantastical history was slowly worn down as humans entered the picture, leading up to the relative normalcy of the Westeros we see in the books and TV series, with things like magic, wights and dragons only just re-emerging after many, many years of non-existence.
The period of time Game of Thrones is set in is tumultuous, not just because of the myriad political intrigues that play out across the Seven Kingdoms, but because this “normal” world suddenly begins to find its fantastical past catching up to it for the first time in millennia.
Before Men, There Were Children...
The humans who inhabit Westeros in Game of Thrones aren’t descendants of an original native species, but of immigrants that came to the continent 12,000 years prior in what is now known as the Dawn Age. Before humans came along, Westeros was sparsely populated – but one of the few races that did call it home was the diminutive species dubbed “Children of the Forest”.
Small, humanoid creatures with dark skin and oversized eyes, the Children formed their disparate societies across the forests of Westeros (hence their name). Devout followers of what would come to be known as the Old Gods, the Children were responsible for the first Weirwoods, carving faces into the trees of their homes in the belief that the Gods could watch over them through the sculptures. Some Children also had latent magical abilities. Children were commonly born with dark eyes, but any born with Green eyes developed a sort of precognition — prophetic visions and dreams. Children with this talent became leading figures in the Children’s societies.
It wasn’t to last though. When humans travelled to Westeros for the first time, from across the Narrow Sea and Essos, they began settling and clearing areas for settlements by burning the Weirwoods created by the Children, inciting a war between the two species.
The Children were technologically outmatched by the First Men (who had access to Bronze weaponry and armour, and could bring reinforcements by sea) and were almost wiped out in the fighting — before they negotiated an agreement to share Westeros with the First Men, called the Pact. The Pact bought about a time of peace and understanding between the two races, (and even inducted many humans into the Old Gods’ faith). And this ushered in the end of the Dawn Age and a new era dubbed the Age of Heroes.
It wouldn’t last forever, however. When the Andals invaded Westeros, 4,000 years after the signing of the Pact, they swarmed the First Men and the Children’s combined forces, burning the weirwood forests as they swept across the Seven Kingdoms. Only the North resisted, which led to the remaining Children, already naturally few in number and vastly reduced by the Andals, to retreat into the North and beyond the Wall (more on that later), to the frozen upper regions of the continent.
Most of Westeros believes the Children have died off entirely, but as Bran Stark learns during his pilgrimage beyond the Wall, that’s not the case.
... And Giants
But the Children weren’t the sole occupants of Westeros during the Dawn Age. Tribes of massive Giants, bulky humanoids that grew to 12 feet tall also lived there. And like the Children, they were spread out in groups across all of Westeros. The Children and the Giants occasionally fought each other over territory, but largely maintained a peace that lasted even after the arrival of the First Men.
Humans were less able to get along with Giants, however, and between both the Andals and the First Men, the Giants were slowly wiped out over the course of thousands of years. Technologically stagnant — even more than the Children — Giants were forced out of their settlements all over Westeros by humans (the descendants of what would become House Baratheon began the push from the Stormlands in the south), moving further and further north, until they resettled beyond the Wall, distant and untrustworthy of Humankind.
By the time of Mance Rayder’s rule over the Wildlings as King Beyond the Wall, the remaining Giants — believed to only be around a few hundred in number — had allied with the Wildlings and integrated themselves as part of their society, fighting alongside them against both the Night’s Watch and the Others.
The Others And The Long Night
The Children and the Giants represent a more peaceful side of Westeros’ fantastical past.
But thousands of years after the First Men and the Children of the Forest signed the Pact, a long, harsh winter brought about an event that would be called The Long Night, a Winter season that lasted for an entire generation, and brought with it an invasion of the undead from the far northern reaches of Westeros. They descended upon the North, and even further south into Westeros.
No one knows how the Others came about — whether they were native to Westeros, or a group of humans that settled in the North that became corrupted by powerful magic. With pale blue skin impervious to fire and most materials, the Others could raise slain foes as new Wights to join their armies. The Others also brought bizarre creatures not seen in any other part of Westeros with them, from decaying mammoths to horrifying giant ice spiders that they used as mounts and as battle animals.
The creatures swept across Westeros during the Long Night, killing untold numbers of Children and First Men, and nearly driving both species to extinction. However, the Children discovered that the Others could be defeated by their obsidian weaponry, known as “dragonglass,” and began to fight back, eventually driving the Others back to the far North and defeating them at the Battle for the Dawn.
What few Others remained were then trapped in the North by the hero Brandon the Builder (who went on to found House Stark), who led the efforts of the First Men, Children and Giants to build the magically-enhanced Wall, trapping the Others in the upper reaches of the continent. Once the wall was built, the Night’s Watch was established to guard it, and to fight back any attempts by the Others.
The order was almost destroyed shortly after its founding however — the 13th commander of the Night’s Watch allegedly fell in love with a Female Other, eventually marrying her and using her abilities to enthrall the Night’s Watch. The Commander, now known as the Night King, used the Watch and the Others to try and take over the North, committing countless atrocities until he was eventually overwhelmed and defeated. The Watch, so ashamed of their failure to safeguard the realm, chose to strike the Commander’s name and record from their history books, forbidding anyone to speak of his name ever again.
Thousands of years passed after the Night King’s reign with no sighting of the Others, leading most of Westeros to believe that they had vanished — or, in most cases, that they had never existed beyond the legends found in the archives of the Citadel. But in contemporary Westeros, the Others are once again resurgent, preparing to strike at an entirely unsuspecting Seven Kingdoms — and if the Game of Thrones TV series is to believed (or more specifically, a hastily-deleted reference found in an accompanying guide to the season 4 episode “Oathkeeper”), the Night King may have risen to join them once more.
The Age Of Valyria
Not all of Westeros’ mystical history is confined to the distant past, however — and not all magical events involve Westeros itself.
Three thousand years after the Long Night ended in Westeros, across the sea in Essos, settlers in the Valyria peninsula discovered that dragons had settled there. Using powerful magic the Valyrians tamed the dragons, and learned to breed and control them, using the creatures to establish an empire that spanned across Essos after consuming the former Ghiscari Empire, creating a society that was fueled by magic. The Valyrians even spread as far as a set of islands off the coast of Westeros’ Stormlands, where the Targaryen family emigrated with their own dragons.
After 5,000 years of prosperity, however, the Valyrian empire collapsed in disaster. A cataclysmic event spurred by the Valyrian’s heavy use of magic (and the volcanic mountains they had settled in) tore apart the Valyrian peninsula, with many dragons and Valyrians perishing in the aftermath.
As former citizens rebelled and established the Free Cities of Essos, the Targaryens and their three dragons thought themselves to be the last surviving Valyrians. In an attempt to ensure that the Valyrian legacy would survive the cataclysm, they looked to Westeros.
After nearly 300 years of Targaryen rule, for most of which dragons were present, this led to the Westeros that we see at the beginning of Game of Thrones: A world with no magic, no dragons, and no mystical creatures... or so they believed.
Images from Game of Thrones and HBO’s Complete Guide To Westeros, via A Wiki Of Ice And Fire. Information sourced from A World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones.