“A Man Without Honor” introduced us to a somewhat confusing explanation on the history between the wildlings and… well, everyone else. I touched on it briefly in my review, but it seems like a good subject to go into in more depth. The history goes back eight thousand years (as common lore puts it, though it seems likely that there are maesters who’ll dispute that precise dating), and features Others, the Long Night, the founding of the Night’s Watch, the raising of the Wall, and more. But the main thing to remember at all times: the wildlings and the northmen are basically all First Men by descent. Their different cultures and customs are the result of thousands of years of separation, not simply a matter of the northmen being from some different culture entirely as Ygritte implied in the show.
According to the common histories, some 12,000 years ago the First Men first crossed into Westeros. At the time, they used the land bridge that connected Westeros to Essos, a land bridge that legends say that the children of the forest (Westeros’s first inhabitants, along with the giants) destroyed with magic in a futile attempt to stem the tide, leaving Dorne’s Broken Arm and the chain of islands called the Stepstones. It’s interesting to think that the very oldest evidence of the First Men in the Seven Kingdoms might be found in Dorne rather than in the North, as it would almost certainly have taken centuries for the First Men to expand their way through the continent and into the North.
Some claim that the great barrow at Barrowton belongs to the legendary First King, “who had led the First Men to Westeros,” so one supposes accounts differ. It doesn’t seem impossible that Dorne proved too inhospitable for the greater part of the First Men, and they went north to find more pleasant climes, but surely the stormlands and especially the Reach would have been more to the First King’s liking? That’s the problem with some of the legends and tales: they don’t necessarily make sense when you examine them, much like legends and tales in our own history.
In any case, at some point, the First Men reach the North. And they keep going… north. They spread themselves to the deep woods, to the hills and mountains, to the riverbanks and the shores, to the plains… and even beyond that, even to the regions of tundra and permafrost where the forests disappear. The TV show’s choice of using Iceland — with its stunning vistas — does rather drop the notion that the vast majority live in the great forests, instead making them all rather Inuit-like in their garments and apparent lifestyle. The Fist of the First Men was similarly changed, and is instead a great outcrop of rock and ice and snow as opposed to the steep hill rising out of the surrounding forest.
The Fist was one of the ringforts of the First Men, the earliest defensive fortifications they made, precursors to the castles that we now see dominating the Seven Kingdoms. Why was the Fist fortified? The show suggests, perhaps not implausibly, that First Men tried to use it to defend themselves against the Others. And the show’s probably right that it didn’t work, if that was the the case.
On the other hand, before the Others fought against the First Men… the children did, for many centuries, trying to defend themselves and the tall, strange people with their strange gods who chopped down the carved weirwoods wherever they found them. It wasn’t until the legendary Pact that the First Men and children settled their differences, and in time the First Men — at least those on the continent proper (the Iron Islanders are a different story) — took up the old gods of the children.
Go forward to that legendary 8,000 years ago date. It seems likely that the Battle for the Dawn — the legendary stand against the Others that brought about the end of the Long Night which legend says darkened and froze the world for a generation — took place further south than the lands that are now beyond the Wall. How far south? Well, some speculate that Winterfell’s names commemorates the site where “winter fell” and the Long Night ended (there are, of course, other readings of that name; perhaps none of them are meant, or even all of them). Regardless of what really happened, the Long Night ended… and at some point the Night’s Watch was founded (the stories claim that they were already existence at the Battle for the Dawn, but who knows whether that’s true). And then what happens? It seems someone decides that the Others are such a threat that a huge wall is needed. Not just any huge wall made of ice, mind you, but one that has “more” in it than just ice — magic, in other words, presumably provided by the children of the forest. Legends claim that the Wall was built with the help of the giants as well.
But if you’re building a Wall at the narrowest point in the far North that you can — it makes sense to do so there rather than anywhere else — what happens to all those people north of it? We don’t know why it is that the ancestors of the wildlings chose to stay in the regions that would be first victims of a resurgent attack by the Others. Possibly they believed the threat was done for good. Possibly they supposed it wasn’t, but that if it was beaten once, it could be beaten again. But one possibility sticks in my mind: there was already a rift forming in the First Man culture, between those who prefered the “free”, anarchic like to those who had begun to settle into larger, more organized communities… communities that were led by lords, and even kings. If Brandon the Builder and the Starks were already beginning to dominate much of the North, you could see some who’d prefer not to have to bend the knee to them prefering to live out in the wilds beyond the safety of the Wall.
It also raises the likelihood that in the first decades and centuries after the Long Night, the wildlings simply weren’t all that bothered by the Wall being raised, or by the Night’s Watch. Even if they didn’t want to bend the knee, why wouldn’t they cooperate with them to make sure everything was safe and sound from the Others? But over time… Over time the wildlings stayed in their particular habits, while the rest of the North was becoming more settled, more organized, less anarchic. The First Men under the Kings of Winter may have been hard, ruthless men, but they had tempered it to some degree to cooperate with one another and improve their lots in life. The wildlings hadn’t, and you can just imagine their beginning to covet the wealth of the more settled south, while still not wanting to become “kneelers”.
And so a cycle of violence was born, that has seen the wildlings raiders become so hated that they’re seen as savages that can never be trusted under any circumstances, despite the fact that there’s a shared history when they go back far enough. The wildlings have never bent the knee… but from time to time they’ve elected a war-leader among them, calling them the King-beyond-the-Wall. Mance Rayder is just one of a long line of them: The Horned Lord, the brothers Gendel and Gorne, Joramun and the Horn of Winter, Bael the Bard, and most recently Joramun Redbeard who attacked the realm more than a century ago. The enmity the wildlings and the Watch feel towards one another all lies in the very different ways the First Men north and south of the Wall went, and the violence we see now is the legacy of that choice.