Tower of the Hand

Wild at Heart: A Look at Notable "Free Folk"

Tags: Essay
10/2/2014 9:00:00 AM ET

In a fantasy series where politics is such a major component - the machinations, the wars, the assassinations - perhaps the most unique party in this mythos is that of the free folk, or, as they are more commonly known as, wildlings. What the wildlings represent are the literal and figurative "barbarians" of the series, misunderstood by most but savage and cruel, nonetheless. And yet it's arguably commendable that this loose confederation of misfit tribes north of the Wall has been able to sustain itself without falling into oblivion from the elements, the White Walkers, or even themselves.

But a force such as the wildlings, united or otherwise, represents something of an unknown quantity in the political landscape of Westeros - not just because they seem to represent their own interests rather than the feudal kingdoms to the south, but because their own brand of governance is significantly different than that of their counterparts'.

wildlings.jpgThe free folk of ASOIAF are ubiquitous yet unique. (Artist: Skvor)

The wildlings are ubiquitous in A Song of Ice and Fire, without being as focal of a component of the overarching story as, say, dragons and wargs, Starks and Lannisters, etc. And for the earliest portion of the series, we simply know of their existence from our exposure to the Night's Watch and their impressions of them. And what are the impressions of the Night's Watch with regards to the free folk? Some regard them as the devil, others a mysterious bogeyman lurking in the dark of the forests and ice - a phantom threat. Still others accept that the reason for the Night's Watch (accurate, in part) is to defend the kingdom against encroachment from the hordes to the north. While the impression of the wildlings varies depending on who might be asked, they are generally acknowledged to be a separate entity from the political and geographical landscape of the Seven Kingdoms in their customs, their beliefs (somewhat), and how they view the events of the world around them.

One of our first encounters with a representative of the free folk is Osha. Consider her introduction: she and other willing men are lurking south of the Wall, raiding, and going so far as to take Bran hostage for a short while, before he is rescued by Robb and Theon. After her "allies" fall in battle, she surrenders and is employed in Winterfell as a servant. She imparts wisdom of the old gods and the old ways to Bran, and takes a kind of stewardship of sorts toward him and Rickon. When Theon takes Winterfell, she seems to submit to his brand of rule and demands, though she sneaks off with Bran, Rickon, and Hodor later on under his nose. Osha is opportunistic, because she is keenly aware that her survival depends on it - moral quibbling about dishonesty will not keep her breathing. However, she serves the Starks faithfully enough, because they are honorable. Theon is another story, and she plays him then tricks him... and it's safe to assume she was not ethically torn at that decision.

Another character who embodies many qualities of what it is to be a member of the free folk is the tragic Ygritte. "Kissed by fire," Ygritte is a "spearwife," a warrior-woman of the north. She is open and frank with Jon Snow about her sexual appetites, and even more with her reproachment of Jon's naiveté. (We all know the words...) But Ygritte accepts that Jon comes to love her, and she, him. To her, a believer in Mance Rayder's cause to storm the Wall and invade the southron lands, she is still young and in love, and her upbringing and culture have instilled within her an independence and honesty that is a stark contrast to even other independent female characters of the series. Ygritte (and others like her) convey the sense that north of the Wall, female independence is regarded as a virtue.

Of course, when discussing notable wildlings, we should not overlook the "King-beyond-the-Wall," Mance Rayder. Even to describe Mance as a king seems ill-fitting, as it suggests royalty or nobility, neither of which seems to embody the leader of the free folk. That is not to say that Mance is ill-equipped for his office, but that he approaches the unification of his people from a position of rule by accomplishment and ability over blood and riches. This kind of leadership suggests two things in particular: that Mance is truly special in his abilities to unite a disparate smattering of tribes and holds across the north, and that the free folk are willing to unite and work together to achieve their mutually desired results.

While Mance was born a wildling, he was taken in by the "crows," and served them well for many years. However, when he could no longer bear the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the tenets of his black brothers, he returned to his roots, stronger in his resolve to overcome the injustice perpetually inflicted upon the free folk. And Mance is no "lead from the rear" type, although he respectfully commits the appropriate forces to battle (like giants, for instance); Mance displays clear cunning in his capacity for deception and infiltration not only once, but twice at Winterfell (his second "ranging" being somewhat less successful, perhaps). And as a musician, he comes across as charismatic - amiable, even - but no less formidable in his way, like an avatar of Bael the Bard, a predecessor who, like Mance, not only loved music, but also secretly infiltrated Winterfell.

ASOIAF has no shortage of fascinating characters, but the wildlings/free folk represent something that is different from the varied cultures in Westeros and beyond. They represent admirable qualities: independence, female empowerment, adaptability, and, even, a unique form of democracy - a government unified under an elected leader, one who is capable and has brought the varied tribes together under the message of improving the lives of his supporters... even if it means getting them the safety and security they need in the advent of the White Walkers by invasion.

What role will the free folk play in the final installments of the series? How will the qualities they extoll impact the decisions of others unfamiliar with their methodology? Time will tell - but it seems more true with the free folk than other political or social entities in Westeros that they're not "marching the wrong way."

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