The King Under the Mountain Archetype in ASOIAF

The King Under the Mountain is a worldwide archetype that stretches as far into history as memory, and is a powerful archetype George R. R. Martin is using in his A Song of Ice and Fire series to deepen the mystery surrounding certain characters he has created. In this essay, I hope to demonstrate that GRRM has loosely based Bran,Sam, and the Kings in the North on this archetype, analyze how Martin is using elements of the archetype to inform his work, and perhaps even make some predictions about what we can expect from these King Under the Mountain characters, and I’d love you to join me as we explore just how he does it.

To begin, we must understand what the King Under the Mountain archetype is. In folklore, the King Under the Mountain is a hero, often of great military renown, who leaves his people behind and adventures to a magical, remote, hidden place such as an island, cave, or underworld location, hence the designation “Under the Mountain.” Oftentimes the King Under the Mountain is accompanied by faithful companions, and they rest together in this secret place. In some tellings, the King Under the Mountain is disturbed when a herdsman stumbles upon the King’s hidden abode while looking for a missing animal, then bears witness to the King asking if the birds (often ravens or eagles) circling his mountain are still there. The herdsman may survive the experience only to die after telling what happened or to come away white-haired and raving mad, magically aged. Hundreds of stories with elements similar to what I’ve laid out are found across the globe, and we’ll look at several of the myths so we might gather the myriad threads GRRM has selected from these myths and woven into his work.

First, let’s look at one of the most obvious examples from British legend: King Arthur.We’ll set aside the question of who King Arthur was in favor of looking at certain specific elements of his story. According to Geoffrey de Monmouth’s version of the myth, King Arthur is taken under the wing of the sorcerer Merlin who engineeredArthur’s birth, and who is eventually trapped inside a tree. At the end of the Battle of Camiann, injured King Arthur is rumored to be carried away by a group of ladies(sometimes including suggestively-named water women Morgan and the Lady of theLakes) along with his faithful knights to the magical island of Avalon, the “misty isle,”never to die, but to recover and wait, sleeping, until his glorious return at the momentBritain needs his leadership and battle prowess the most. The Isle of Avalon orAfallach, which translates roughly from Old Welsh as “island of apples,” is magically shrouded in mist and provides Arthur and his faithful with all they need. If we follow the trail of the Welsh language root, we find that the Welsh concept of the underworld, Annwn, is very similar both in meaning (“very deep” or “underworld”) as well as location (on an island or underground), a concept that will come to bear on later comparisons with ASOIAF locations.

While we’re focusing on Welsh history, we should note that Bran the Blessed is also a King Under the Mountain figure. According to legend, Bran the Blessed is a giant, or cewri, which is an important detail to note.  Like Arthur, Bran is a warrior of renown who is wounded in an penultimate battle, though he’s carried off in a much more curious way- Bran commands his men to cut off his head. They do, and Bran’s head is magically preserved, carried along with his men as they travel back to Britain. The men become sidetracked and visit the enchanted island of Gwales, where they remain magically unaware of the passage of time for eighty years in a great hall. A door in the hall facing Britain is opened and the spell holding Bran and his men is broken, causing the men strike out for home, but not before burying Bran’s head on Gwynfryn, the White Hill. Bran’s head tells them men this will protect Britain from further invasion.What’s essential to take away from Bran’s story is that Bran is a giant who is waiting in an underground location and that Bran inhabits a magical realm as an undead head charged with the protection of his homeland.

The Irish legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s yields yet another historical figure who fits theKing Under the Mountain archetype. Fionn is, like Bran the Blessed, a giant, and the general gist of his name is “the fair/shining/blessed one” which brings to mind Bran’s “theBlessed” moniker. Like King Arthur’s tutelage under Merlin, Fionn is taken under the wing of the druid and poet Finnegas. Like King Arthur and Bran the Blessed, Fionn commands a powerful band of warriors. Fionn’s “death” bears certain similarities to both King Arthur and Bran the Blessed’s- by some accounts, Fionn is merely sleeping in a hidden cave, surrounded by his faithful warriors, and will return when Ireland is in dire need. Some accounts mention that he will awaken when he hears three blasts from Dord Fiann, a hunting horn.

To hear the sound of a Dord war horn, click here

Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor whose reign began in 1155, was yet another King Under the Mountain figure. His battle exploits and his political acumen were revered, and his longevity unusual. His drowning death (which some scholars believe may have been complicated by a heart attack) came late and unexpectedly in the midst of the third Crusade. While it is known what became of his body, stories arose that placed the popular ruler and his faithful knights in a mountain cave near the Barvaria region of Germany. According to the stories collected by the Grimm brothers, inside the cave the emperor waited, his red beard growing right through the table at which he sat, waiting in a drowse with heavy-lidded eyes. Occasionally, the king would wake enough send out a boy in his entourage to check on the ravens circling the mountaintop. The disappearance of the ravens was the signal that would wake Barbarossa from his magical sleep.

As noted prior, the King Under the Mountain myth stretches worldwide and across time, even to the post-colonization Phillipines where local myths were appropriated and Hispanized. There, a giant, whom the Spanish conquerors dubbed Bernardo Carpio, is an exceptionally strong leader who rebels against conquerers. Through trickery, the conquerors convince Carpio to go to a remote cave. Once inside, Carpio becomes trapped between two mountains and must forever hold them apart to remain alive. When Carpio’s allies follow his faithful horse, Hagibis, back to the cave, they find that an earthquake has caused immovable boulders and rubble to have blocked the mouth of the cave. In some versions of the myth, Bernardo is held in the trap by chains, while in other versions, he is made captive through supernatural means. Sometimes, his story takes an etiological bend and is used to explain earthquakes. Bernardo Carpio’s myth is of note because like the other examples above, he is a giant and a leader, he goes to a remote (and cavernous) location, and, like so many other King Under the Mountain figures, it remains uncertain if Carpio is dead or alive. In addition, Carpio’s association with chains and earthquakes makes for some interesting fodder that Martin may have used to inform his interpretation of the King Under the Mountain myth.

J.R.R. Tolkien, a notable influence on Martin, made his own play on the King Under the Mountain. Several aspects of the King Under the Mountain archetype were made an integral part of the storyline of some of Tolkien’s dwarves.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Thorin Oakenshield is insulted by the Great Goblin who says

“Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, “King under the Mountain.” Oh, but I’m forgetting; you don’t have a mountain, and you’re not a king which makes you… nobody, really.”

The title “King under the Mountain” was the inherited title of the ruler of Tolkien’s dwarves, and if we look back at the lineage of Thorin Oakenshield, we find Thrór, Thorin’s grandfather. Like many of the archetypes we just looked at, Thrór was a leader, and in attempting to take back his ancestral home of Moria in the MistyMountains, Thrór, like Bran the Blessed, was beheaded, though by a foe rather than by his friends. Gimli, who is one of the Party of Nine who accompany Frodo to return theOne Ring to the flames of Mordor, also shares some King Under the Mountain symbolism regarding his eventual exit from the narrative. In general, the dwarves ofTolkien’s creation are characterized by a cyclical habit of being displaced from their underground havens, living among other races for a time, and then returning to their underground homes, a habit which echoes certain aspects of the King Under theMountain archetype. Specifically, the carved pits and caverns of the dwarves mimic the secret island or cave in which the King Under the Mountain rests, the displacement and return of the dwarves to their mountain homes is similar to the types of battles KingArthur and company engage in before their deaths, and in the case of Gimli, who sails to the West with the Elves, his fate is also to leave his homeland and sail to a reputed land of plenty, a place shrouded in mystery like King Arthur.  Many thanks to Blue Tiger of the Amber Compendium (blog here) for help fact checking details regarding Tolkien’s use of the King Under the Mountain archetype. 

Now that we have a solid understanding of the King Under the Mountain archetype, we can move on to look at what components of these combined myths Martin may have used. Martin has created figures which check many of the King Under the Mountain archetype boxes. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the most telling of these figures are Martin’s Kings in the North, waiting motionless in the Winterfell crypts. Let’s have a peek at them in their slumbering state while Eddard and Robert visit Lyanna’s tomb:

“The Lords of Winterfell watched them pass. Their likenesses were carved into the stones that sealed the tombs. In long rows they sat, blind eyes staring out into eternal darkness, while great stone direwolves curled round their feet. The shifting shadows made the stone figures seem to stir as the living passed by.  By ancient custom an iron longsword had been laid across the lap of each who had been Lord of Winterfell, to keep the vengeful spirits in their crypts. The oldest had long ago rusted away to nothing, leaving only a few red stains where the metal had rested on stone. Ned wondered if that meant those ghosts were free to roam the castle now. He hoped not. The first Lords of Winterfell had been men hard as the land they ruled. In the centuries before the Dragonlords came over the sea, they had sworn allegiance to no man, styling themselves the Kings in the North.”

A Game of Thrones, Eddard I

From this quote you can see that the Kings in the North were powerful leaders who found rest in a remote cave, and they are described as “vengeful spirits” who are bound to their graves by the magic of iron swords. They fit the archetype as leaders, as men who have straddled or crossed the boundary between life and death, and as men who have attained an extraordinary sort of second life, thought one could argue that theStark Kings in the North are not enjoying their second life in a land of plenty like King Arthur and his men, but rather spending the centuries getting more and more pissed as they remain trapped in stone sarcophagi.

It’s made clear that the Kings in the North are not at rest as Ned wonders if the spirits whose swords are missing have risen up and are walking about Winterfell. The problem with using iron as a means to keep the spirits of these leaders in their not-so-paradisical liminal land is that iron is not eternal- it breaks down faster than the stone of the tombs, leaving suggestive red stains in their place. In a way, the iron swords keeping the Kings in the North in their tombs could be compared to the chains holding the King Under the Mountain Benardo Carpio in his place, and perhaps Martin is exploring the idea of what happens when the chains holding vengeful spirits erode into nothingness.

Regardless of whether the Kings in the North remain trapped behind their iron ward or were unwittingly released to walk free, those remaining in the crypt seem to be aware, alert, and perhaps malevolent. This fits with the idea of the King Under the Mountain retaining a certain fighting spirit that will reemerge when his country needs a hero. As you can see in the quotes below, Eddard feels the weight of the gaze of the Kings in the North.

“He looked at the stone figures all around them, breathed deep in the chill silence of the crypt. He could feel the eyes of the dead. They were all listening, he knew. And winter was coming.”

A Game of Thrones – Eddard I

The King Under the Mountain is generally hidden away in a remote, difficult-to-access place, as the Kings in the North are hidden away, and though one could argue that the North itself is viewed as remote by most of the rest of Westeros, the actual crypts are a well-known and somewhat renowned location within Winterfell and its surrounding fiefdoms. Though many have heard of the Winterfell crypts, only the Starks and their companions are welcomed into the subterranean realm of the Kings in the North. Even then, it is a harrowing and sometimes terrifying journey for the Starks. The Stark children in particular seem able to traverse between the symbolic lands of the living and dead since they are noted to have used the Winterfell crypts as a place to play. Perhaps Martin is playfully comparing the children to the the innocent shepherd who stumbles upon the hidden resting place of the King Under the Mountain. The following quote demonstrates that the children do provoke the dead to make an utterance, and one of them returns from the under-worldly trip with white hair though it’s from flour, not from supernatural means.

“Robb took them all the way down to the end, past Grandfather and Brandon and Lyanna, to show them their own tombs. Sansa kept looking at the stubby little candle, anxious that it might go out. Old Nan had told her there were spiders down here, and rats as big as dogs. Robb smiled when she said that. “There are worse things than spiders and rats,” he whispered. “This is where the dead walk.” That was when they heard the sound, low and deep and shivery. Baby Bran had clutched at Arya’s hand. When the spirit stepped out of the open tomb, pale white and moaning for blood, Sansa ran shrieking for the stairs, and Bran wrapped himself around Robb’s leg, sobbing. Arya stood her ground and gave the spirit a punch. It was only Jon, covered with flour.”

A Game of Thrones – Arya IV

In this case, Jon plays the role of the walking dead, the symbolic King Under theMountain, and he is “moaning for blood,” a phrase that implies a thirst for vengeance, much like the idea of the King Under the Mountain returning to fight for his kin in a time of need. Additionally, Robb, who at this time was next in line to become a King in the North himself, tells his siblings “this is where the dead walk,” outright stating that the dead are somehow alive in their hidden underground cavern, much like the King Under the Mountain archetype that we’ve been examining.

Now that we’ve crept into the Winterfell crypts, found the undead Kings in the North waiting to be called into action, and returned in one piece (hopefully), it’s time to examine some additional ideas that can be tied to them through commonalities with the King Under the Mountain archetype.

First, let’s look back at the idea of the King Under the Mountain figure FrederickBarbarossa. Ravens circle the mountain in whose caves Barbarossa lies waiting for the signal, and the signal is the extinction or disappearance of the ravens. A similar disappearance has occurred at Winterfell. A series of Stark men named Bran, a name which means “crow” or “raven” have been circling the Winterfell crypts for thousands of years. In the most current part of the ASOIAF series, the youngest iteration of Bran Stark hovers high above Winterfell while he is able-bodied, climbing among the tops of the towers. Jaime Lannister’s push effectually end Bran’s days of soaring above his fellows, and Bran becomes paralyzed and later inhabits the crypts when Winterfell is sacked by the Ironborn. Bran, the last raven circling the Winterfell crypts, leaves on his mission to find the Three-Eyed Crow beyond the Wall, effectively deserting his roost above the Winterfell Kings. Just as the absence of Frederick Bararossa’s ravens signal his awakening, this may be the first part of a signal that wakes the Kings in the North.

Next, let’s go back and take a glance at Fionn MacCumhaill’s legend. It’s said that he will wake when he hears three blasts from the Lord Fiann, and if you clicked on the link, you’ve had the chance to hear the haunting sound of a similar horn. Three blasts from a horn… doesn’t that sound familiar? The Night’s Watch sound their horns three times for a very particular reason, but it’s been a long time since the three blasts have been heard. Three blasts from the Dord Fiann awakens Fionn macCumhaill and cause him to fight the enemy in the time of Ireland’s greatest need, so it seems that three blasts from a certain magical horn might cast the spell that wakes the Kings in the North when Westeros’ greatest hour of need is at hand. Conveniently, Martin has ensured that we have several horns dispersed throughout Westeros, and some very suitable people to blow them.

First, do you remember what three blasts from the Night’s Watch horn means? If you guessed the return of the Others, then you’re absolutely right and you’d have a head start on your mad dash to get away from them and the cold and death they bring.  Not only do we have Sam set up as a horn blower with a horn at his side and several examples of horns blowing three blasts, we also have this quote about Sam which was pointed out to my by the indomitable Emma Smith of Red Mice at Play (link to Emma’s site here):

“The snow was falling so heavily that he got lost among the tents, but finally he spotted the snug little windbreak the fat boy had made for himself between a rock and the raven cages. Tarly was buried beneath a mound of black wool blankets and shaggy furs. The snow was drifting in to cover him. He looked like some kind of soft round mountain.Steel whispered on leather faint as hope as Chett eased his dagger from its sheath.One of the ravens quorked. “Snow,” another muttered, peering through the bars with black eyes. The first added a “Snow” of its own. He edged past them, placing each foot carefully. He would clap his left hand down over the fat boy’s mouth to muffle his cries, and then…

Uuuuuuuhoooooooooo.”

A Storm of Swords, Prologue

In the quote above, we have Sam creating a cave of sorts, then Sam being described in quite mountain-like terms- a mound of black covered in drifting snow like a “soft, round mountain.” Not only is Sam sleeping under a mountain of blankets, but he has ravens quorking above him just like the King Under the Mountain’s ravens roosting in the heights of the mountain under which he hides. The first blast of the horn interrupts Chett’s murderous plan and awakens Sam then Chett and Sam hear two more horn blasts. This is the first time since the Long Night that the Night’s Watch have winded a horn three times to signal the approach of the Others, and it’s those blasts that cause Sam to rise from under his own personal mountain, though at this point Sam isn’t exactly the fearsome, vengeful king you’d expect to be rising up. Sam looses his ravens during the ensuing battle, an echo of the ravens departing from the King Under the Mountain’s lair.

Let’s look at what Sam thinks of when he hears the Night’s Watch horn:

“Sam could see nothing beyond three yards, not even the torches burning along the low stone wall that ringed the crown of the hill. Could the torches have gone out? That was too scary to think about. The horn blew thrice long, three long blasts means Others. The white walkers of the wood, the cold shadows, the monsters of the tales that made him squeak and tremble as a boy, riding their giant ice-spiders, hungry for blood.”

A Storm of Swords – Samwell I

In this scene, Sam’s mind immediately springs to thoughts of the Others, and rightly so because not long after, Sam, Small Paul, and Grenn fall behind the rest of the survivors of the wight’s assault of the Fist of the First Men. Soon, Sam is left to fend for himself and is confronted by an Other.

You can do it, you can, just do it. And then he was stumbling forward, falling more than running, really, closing his eyes and shoving the dagger blindly out before him with both hands. He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man’s foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.

When he opened his eyes the Other’s armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in its throat. It reached down with two bone-white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked.

A Storm of Swords – Samwell I

It takes him long enough, but at last Sam kills an Other with his dragonglass dagger. Sam’s killing of the Other is the element of vengeance Sam has been lacking so far as a symbolic King Under the Mountain. So, looking at this quote from a King Under the Mountain angle, the awakened and vengeful King Under the Mountain immediately thinks of his mortal enemies and eventually kills them. It’s apparent that Sam is symbolically representing the King Under the Mountain in this portion of the story and that Sam is intricately tied to the King Under the Mountain archetype, but a self-admitted craven like Sam can’t possibly be the fierce, vengeful hero who will save Westeros, right? Perhaps Sam has a different role to play…

Naturally, if the blowing of a horn is to wake the King Under the Mountain, or in this case the Kings in the North, we must wonder which of the magical horns in the series will be used and who will be doing the blowing. I’m in agreement with many in the fandom when I say it seems logical to deduce that of the magical horns, the Horn of Winter, also called the Horn of Joramun, will be the horn to wake the Kings in the North. Jeor Mormont in telling Jon about legendary wildling figures, says:

“’Aye, and long before them came the Horned Lord and the brother kings Gendel and Gorne, and in ancient days Joramun, who blew the Horn of Winter and woke giants from the earth.’”

A Clash of Kings – Jon III

And later, Melisandre says:

“‘The Horn of Joramun?” Melisandre said. “No. Call it the Horn of Darkness. If the Wall falls, night falls as well, the long night that never ends. It must not happen, will not happen!’”

A Dance with Dragons – Jon III

Occasional summer snows fall in the North, so even when it’s summer it seems like winter, making the Horn’s name a logical match. The horn’s last known whereabouts matches up as well since the Horn of Winter was last seen when it was blown by Joramun, the first wildling king. Not only was the Horn of Winter last seen in the North, it was reputed to have helped Brandon the Breaker and Joramun subdue the Night’s King when Joramun blew it and it “woke giants from the earth.” Additionally, as Melisandre notes, the Horn of Winter purportedly has the power to bring down the wall, which is part of the reason Mance Rayder and his wildling band open graves along the Milkwater in search of the powerful artifact. To summarize, the Horn of Winter has the right kind of name, the right kind of reputation, and is in the right general location to cause some sort of upheaval in the Winterfell crypts but who will blow the horn?

A fandom theory by Silas Toms (linked here) regards Samwell Tarly as the likeliest character to blow the Horn of Winter, and I agree. Sam has the perfect symbolism surrounding his lineage. Sam’s ancestry stems from a pair to twins, Harlon the Hunter and Herndon of the Horn, the duo who founded Horn Hill (hint, hint), Sam’s ancestral home. Herndon’s brother Harlon the Hunter, was, well, apparently a good hunter, while Herndon’s skills lay somewhere outside the realm of hunting. Randyll Tarly’s abusive treatment of Sam stems from Sam’s lack of interest in or skill at arms and it appears the Randyll Tarly was too busy being toxically masculine to realize that Sam’s talents might lie outside warfare and Sam might be a reflection of the Herndon side of the family. A similar comparison to Herndon and Harlon can be made between Sam and his brother Dickon. Sam’s talent is research and study, and he can be viewed as a knight of the mind, while Dickon is a squire building his way up to knighthood’s martial skills. Lining these ancestral personality traits up, Sam parallels Herndon of the Horn… all he needs is a horn.

The horn comes to Sam through Jon, who is drawn by his direwolf Ghost to the ancient horn buried along with a cache of dragonglass weapons. Jon considers the findings and distributes some of the ancient items to his friends:

“The warhorn he had given to Sam. On closer examination the horn had proved cracked, and even after he had cleaned all the dirt out, Jon had been unable to get any sound from it. The rim was chipped as well, but Sam liked old things, even worthless old things.”

A Clash of Kings – Jon V

Sam ends up with this timeworn, supposedly worthless horn, and he keeps it with him through many tribulations. It should be noted that the horn is one of the only personal effects Sam manages to keep after bargaining with Quhuru Mo for passage to Oldtown on the Cinnamon Wind.

“By the time the dealing was done, Sam was down to his boots and blacks, and smallclothes, and the broken horn Jon Snow had found on the Fist of the First Men.”

A Feast for Crows – Samwell IV

Exactly who or what these giants are is up for debate, but we should take a moment to consider ideas surrounding the Horn of Winter alongside the King Under the Mountain archetype. As you likely remember, the King Under the Mountain is, in many cases, reputed to be a giant, so there’s a possibility that the giants awoken by the Horn of Winter could be the restless, undead Kings in the North, figures who loom like giants in the imaginations of the smallfolk. Another possibility is more etiological- the giants woken from the earth could be earthquakes. Alongside these two possibilities is an idea that combines them- what if the waking of the stone kings in the crypts is heralded by a magical earthquake, and what if it’s all precipitated by the very omens and actions said to wake the real-world Kings Under the Mountain?

To figure out if this is a possiblity, we’ll have to look at a few quotes. Let’s start with examples of horns that give three blasts:

When three blasts had echoed off the walls, they heard the groan of iron hinges and the gates swung slowly open.

A Feast for Crows – Jaime III

Hagen blew three short blasts in quick succession, the signal that would send the ironborn back to their ships.

A Dance with Dragons – The Wayward Bride

In the first example, we have three horn blasts signaling the opening of a portal. In this case, it’s groaning iron gates opening, which is reminiscent of the screaming iron hinges of the Winterfell crypts. In the second quote, the blasts are a signal to send the Ironborn back to their ships, a place where they are ready to fight on their terms and a place where their enemy is at a disadvantage just as how the awakened Stark kings would be able to fight from their home base of Winterfell. In the first case, the tripled horn blasts signal an arrival, and in the second, the three blasts signal a battle. Both meanings seem relevant to the reawakening or arrival of the King Under the Mountain, vengeful and ready to fight the ultimate battle.

Next, let’s turn our eyes up to take a closer look at the lofty signal said to herald the return of the KingUnder the Mountain- the departure of the eagles or ravens living at the top of the mountain. It’s said that the King Under the Mountain asks the shepherd if birds are still living in the peaks of the mountain, and if the birds have gone, it is time for the King to awaken and fight the ultimate battle for his country. A critical bird has indeed flown away from the upper reaches of the Winterfell “mountain,” and that bird is Bran, the boy whose name literally translates as “raven.” Let’s take a gander at the moment Bran leaves the crypts after Theon’s sack of Winterfell:

“The stone is strong, Bran told himself, the roots of the trees go deep,
and under the ground the Kings of Winter sit their thrones. So long as those remained, Winterfell remained. It was not dead, just broken. Like me, he thought. I’m
not dead either.”

A Clash of Kings, Bran VII

Bran thinks about Winterfell much in the same way a raven might think of the tree in which it nests; in fact, Bran compares Winterfell to a tree directly. I’m sure you’ll remember Bran’s pre-fall climbing habit that had him “soaring” overhead and interacting with his little cousins, the crows, another link that ties Bran to the telltale ravens of the King Under the Mountain myths. Bran’s vivid dreams in which the Three-Eyed Crow admonishes Bran to fly like a bird complete the image of Bran as a bird, specifically a raven. Looking at all these elements of Bran’s story together means we have a raven boy who is learning to “fly” leaving a tree castle. The combination of these events seems quite in line with the watchful birds leaving the eyrie under which the King Under the Mountain lies waiting.

Bran’s name and role as a raven is not the only nod to the King Under the Mountain archetype that George employs in Bran’s arc. Bran leaves Winterfell to search for the Three-Eyed Crow, a figure that he finds waiting for him of all places, under a hill crowned by a giant of a weirwood. Bran, like King Arthur and Fionn macCumhaill, is taken under the wing of a powerful magician of sorts in the form of greenseer Bloodraven, Martin’s call-out to Merlin. Just like Merlin, Bloodraven is trapped in a tree, though he’s in the roots that snake through the cave under the hill below the weirwood. There, Bran gains Bloodraven’s tutelage as his personal magical mentor, and if the HBO show is an indication of what’s to come in Martin’s story, then we know that at some point, like the Kings Under the Mountain and like the ravens circling the King’s Mountain, Bran must awaken from his prophetic green visions, leave his mentor behind, and fly from this underground cave as the Others’ invasion poses the last great threat to Westeros.

What about the lowly shepherd who stumbles upon the King Under the Mountain only to return with an addled brain full of ravings and madness? Could Theon Greyjoy be a stand-in for the shepherd? If we look at the scene in which Theon descends into the crypts with Lady Barbary Dustin, we find that the horrifically humbled Theon is unnerved by the crypts and the Kings in the North in particular even though, as a ward of the Starks, he has been in the crypts many times. As his maimed feet carry him down the stairs, Theon notices that:

“He could feel the stone kings staring down at him with their stone eyes, stone fingers curled around the hilts of rusted longswords. None had any love for ironborn. A familiar sense of dread filled him.”

A Dance with Dragons –  The Turncloak

Theon, while not innocent as a simple shepherd might be, enters the crypts against his will much in the way an innocent shepherd might enter a creepy cavern against his better judgement in pursuit of an animal. It’s clear from the beginning that this non- Stark is unwelcome and unwanted as the Kings in the North and their direwolves stare at Theon menacingly with unseeing gaze. Nevertheless, Theon proceeds upon his tour with Lady Barbary.

“There are lower levels. Older. The lowest level is partly collapsed, I hear. I have never been down there.” He pushed the door open and led them out into a long vaulted tunnel, where mighty granite pillars marched two by two into blackness.

Lady Dustin’s serjeant raised the lantern. Shadows slid and shifted. A small light in a great darkness. Theon had never felt comfortable in the crypts. […]
Their footsteps echoed through the vault as they made their way between the rows of pillars. The stone eyes of the dead men seemed to follow them, and the eyes of their stone direwolves as well.

[…]
He had always heard that the iron in the sword kept the spirits of the dead locked within their tombs. If a sword was missing … There are ghosts in Winterfell. And I am one of them.”

A Dance with Dragons – The Turncloak

Theon notes that some of the Kings in the North are missing their swords and his next thought is that there are “ghosts in Winterfell and I am one of them.” Chillingly, Theon relates to the restless spirits of the Kings in the North because he recognizes he is a mere ghost of his former self, but putting aside Theon’s mindset for a moment, the important thing to note is that Theon recognizes that the dead in the Winterfell crypts are not truly dead. As a side note, though not caused by the interaction with the Kings in the North, Theon in his wretched post-Reek state has bone-white hair, which is one of the supernatural markers of the ill-fated shepherd who finds the King Under the Mountain. Will Theon be the shepherd-turned-prophet who foretells the return of the vengeful Kings? Will the North be prepared for the waking of the Kings in the North because of Theon?

Before we leave the Kings in the North behind again, we should examine one last figure who makes notable visits to the crypts in his dreams: Jon Snow. Jon has repeated nightmares of the crypts as we can see here:

Jon shook his head. “No one. The castle is always empty.” […]  Even the ravens are gone from the rookery, and the stables are full of bones. That always scares me. I start to run then, throwing open doors, climbing the tower three steps at a time, screaming for someone, for anyone. And then I find myself in front of the door to the crypts. It’s black inside, and I can see the steps spiraling down. Somehow I know I have to go down there, but I don’t want to. I’m afraid of what might be waiting for me. The old Kings of Winter are down there, sitting on their thrones with stone wolves at their feet and iron swords across their laps, but it’s not them I’m afraid of. I scream that I’m not a Stark, that this isn’t my place, but it’s no good, I have to go anyway, so I start down, feeling the walls as I descend, with no torch to light the way. It gets darker and darker, until I want to scream.” He stopped, frowning, embarrassed. “That’s when I always wake.”

A Game of Thrones – Jon IV

From this dream we see that Jon is one of the few who do not feel threatened by the Kings in the North standing guard with their bare swords showcasing their lack of hospitality. Much to the contrary, Jon is able to pass the northern kings without much thought. Could that be because he himself is destined to become one of the Kings in the North? Let’s look at some of Jon’s observations about his life at Castle Black to see if we can find some clues.

From very early on, Jon observes the mountain-sized enormity of the Wall:

“Sometimes he could almost forget that it was there, the way you forgot about the sky or the earth underfoot, but there were other times when it seemed as if there was nothing else in the world. It was older than the Seven Kingdoms, and when he stood beneath it and looked up, it made Jon dizzy. He could feel the great weight of all that ice pressing down on him, as if it were about to topple, and somehow Jon knew that if it fell, the world fell with it.”

A Game of Thrones – Jon III

Later on, Jon notes the vastness of the wall as he rides underneath it through a tunnel:

“They led their horses down a narrow tunnel cut through the ice, cold dark
walls pressing in around them as the passage twisted and turned. […] The air was colder than a tomb, and more still. He felt a strange relief when they reemerged into the afternoon light on the north side of the Wall.”

A Game of Thrones – Jon V

Jon travels along a tunnel not much different from the network of tunnels that connect the caves that run under the Wall (pour one out for Grindel and Gorne here) and Jon thinks about the incredible weight of ice that surrounds him, comparing the accompanying chill to a tomb. A cold, cave-like tunnel underneath a mountainous, 700- foot-tall wall of ice sounds a lot like a place a King of Winter might hang out while he was waiting to be resurrected. In fact, it even sounds like a cold, icy hell reserved for Starks… and while Jon may only be half Stark, his dread is justified.

Jon becomes the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch with a little assistance from his horn-blowing buddy Sam, a rank that befits a King Under the Mountain figure. It’s not long after this that Jon is stabbed and killed by the NIght’s Watch traitors, and then, if we are to follow the lead of the HBO series, when Jon’s body is thrown into one of the cold cells, we find him waiting to be resurrected under that very weight of ice he once thought of with a shiver. Will it be Jon instead of the northern kings in the crypts to be awakened by three blasts from the Horn of Winter when Sam blows it? A look at the Night’s Watch might point us in the right direction.

Those of you familiar with Lucifer Means Lightbringer’s Green Zombie essay series (link to the first essay found here) will understand that the Night’s Watch brothers represent undead, resurrected green men, just the right kind of warriors to answer the call of aKing Under the Mountain if he’s engaging in the penultimate battle against the Others for control of Westeros. The Night’s Watch carries lore of a grandiose past, and you can find a reference to the Night’s Watch’s role in battling the Others alongside a mighty blast from a warhorn in the song “The Night That Ended” here:

“The music grew wilder, the drummers joined in, and Hother Umber brought forth a huge curved warhorn banded in silver. When the singer reached the part in “The NightThat Ended” where the Night’s Watch rode forth to meet the Others in the Battle for theDawn, he blew a blast that set all the dogs to barking.”

A Game of Thrones – Bran III

In its heyday, the Night’s Watch lived in a series of strongholds nestled dwarf-like in the shadow of the mountainous Wall, and you might remember that one of the strongholds that lies to the east of Castle Black is named Oakenshield. If that name is jogging your memory, how about pairing it with Thoren Smallwood, a Night’s Watch ranger? Are you connecting them with Thorin Oakenshield from our exploration of the King of the Mountain theme in Tolkien’s work? It seems that Martin connected this emphasis on the Night’s Watch horn blowing and added Thoren Smallwood and Oakenshield as small but meaningful nods to the King Under the Mountain myths to get us to think about the Night’s Watch as an undead army to be commanded by the King Under the Mountain… a figure who appears to be represented by Jon Snow, the man who lies hidden and waiting for resurrection in a cavern under the mountain-sized Wall. Will Jon be awakened when Sam blows his horn, will it be the Kings in the North who rise, or will it be both? We’ll just have to wait for Martin to fill us in, but it does appear the possibility is there.

Now that we have a better understanding of the King Under the Mountain archetype and how it relates to the vengeful and battle-ready Stark Kings in the North, Sam and Bran as symbolic Kings Under the Mountain. Bran’s role as the raven in the myth, Sam’s possible role as the hornblower that wakes the Kings in the North, Theon’s terror of the restless spirits in the crypts, and the possibility of an undead Jon Snow leading the symbolically dead Night’s Watch in a new war for the dawn show us that many aspects of the King Under the Mountain myths sparked something in George R. R. Martin’s imagination. The inspiration seemed great enough that Martin has decided to incorporate characters representing this figure into his story along with clues about how he may decide to use the characters associated with the King Under the Mountain myth as he continues to write the Song of Ice and Fire series.

Martin places Northern kings in a hidden underground “cave” then hints of the restlessness of these supposedly dead Kings in the North, letting us sense their unease through the eyes of several POV characters. Bran, also placed in a cave, may eventually become restless and ready to engage in the knightly quest denied to him by paralysis, emerging somehow to fight in the war for the dawn on the astral plane. Insetting up the precedence of resurrection, Martin sets the scene for Jon to rise and fight again, possibly as someone better equipped to fight the Others. Aspects of King Under the Mountain myths such as the three horn blasts, the chains, and the ravens have been woven skillfully and seamlessly into the story by Martin and wait ready to be uncovered by the clever reader. Regardless of whether the King Under the Mountain represent the Stark kings in the crypts, Bran, Jon, or some combination of them all, perhaps the Westerosi King Under the Mountain will ride to battle with his army once again while the winds of winter blow around them.

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11 thoughts on “The King Under the Mountain Archetype in ASOIAF

  1. Wonderful work. This really makes me all the more eager for the next few books.

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    1. Thank you so much! It makes me so happy that you enjoyed this analysis! 😊

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  2. Reblogged this on The Tolkienic Song of Ice and Fire and commented:
    I wholeheartedly recommend MelanieLotSeven’s amazing new essay, on ‘The King Under the Mountain’ motif in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. This theme plays an important role in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works as well, so it’s doubly relevant here! Great stuff!

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  3. When it comes to King Under the Mountain motif in Tolkien works there are several interesting outside of the Thorin and Thrór, Dain Ironfoot (and several of their ancestors) the ACTUAL Kings Under the Mountain :), there is this fragment that shows the exact legend of sleep beneath the hills/mountains:

    “And all the fleets of the Númenóreans were drawn down into the abyss, and they were drowned and swallowed up for ever. But Ar-Pharazôn the King and the mortal warriors that had set foot upon the land of Aman were buried under falling hills: there it is said that they lie imprisoned in the Caves of the Forgotten, until the Last Battle and the Day of Doom.”

    The King of the Dead of the Men of the Mountains, from Paths of the Dead may also serve similar role, they remain as shadows until the heir of Isildur has need of them. In some ways both Feanor and Finrod also fit the archetype, Feanor’s spirit after his death is said to remain in Halls of Mandos, his soul won’t be released until a right time comes. Finrod is a literal king of underground realm Nargothrond, not exactly beneath the mountains but hills of Narog, he goes on a quest and Beren and 12 companions and dies, but he is resurrected as is usual for Elves back in Aman.

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    1. Hello, Fantasywind! Yes, I agree that Al-Pharazôn is a great King Under the Mountain parallel. I left this story out for brevity, but it’s certainly representative of the archetype. Do you think there are any other King Under the Mountain figures still hiding away in Westeros or Essos? There are a few I can think of- the Barrow Kings are among them. 😊

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  4. More recent than Arthur is King Sebastian of Portugal, who led his country to disaster in Alcacer Quibir, and per “Sebastianism” is waiting to return and lead his country again. Not that any reasonable Portugese person should want that.

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    1. There are literally hundreds of stories that exhibit the main King Under the Mountain qualities, so I’m not surprised that you found this one. Thanks for sharing! 😊

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  5. How about those Essosi pyramids? I don’t see that the text mentions one way or another, but are there crypts incorporated into/built underneath the pyramids? Man-made mountains, possibly containing kings. And of course CS Lewis has his own King-Under-the Mountain who arises and blows a horn during the Last Battle to signify the end of Narnia. You’re right – Kings under Mountains are everywhere!

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    1. Hi Julie! I’m so glad mynessay has your gears turning! I haven’t considered the Essosi pyramids just yet, but they do seem like a symbol Martin could use to flesh out the KUTM symbolism further if he wanted to. 😊

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