The wildlings, or as they call themselves, Free Folk, are a race of humans residing beyond the Wall separating the Seven Kingdoms from the northmost parts of Westeros. They are the descendants of the First Men who moved beyond the Wall and created different clans for themselves after the arrival of the Andals. The wildlings have many tribes, villages, raiding parties, and cultures. As they stayed North of the Wall in the ever-frozen wilderness where there were few resources, they had to raid and pillage for crucial resources; this made their enemies the black brothers who guarded the Wall and prevented them from entering the rest of Westeros.
Culture and Society
The Free Folk have a rich history and culture related to the Wall. Because of their separation, they have many customs wildly different from that of the Andals. They call themselves the Free Folk because of their core value which entails not bowing to any lord or King.
According to them, the Westerosi sold their freedom to men with no right to claim ownership of the free land given by the gods. Freedom is the most crucial commodity to a Free Folk man or woman, as they can follow whoever they want without any issues. However, the people of the Seven Kingdoms view the Free Folk as primitive savages, raiders, cannibals, and criminals.
As they have no law, the wildlings can be nomadic and follow anyone they choose. They honor the Old Gods like their ancestors, the First Men, and have no landed properties. They also do not believe in marriage and are freely promiscuous. There are no predetermined gender roles, as women can become warriors called Spearwives.
Each clan of the Free Folk has its distinct customs and traditions. Some recognize leaders, while others do not. Because they got scattered beyond the Wall, various wildling tribes live in the Haunted Forest, Whitetree, Craster’s Keep, and Rudy Hall. Some wildlings, like the Thenns, live in a hidden valley in the Frostfangs.
There are also strange clans that indulge in taboo practices like cannibalism. They include the Cave People, Ice-River Clans, Hornfoots, Nightrunners, and Men of the Frozen Shore. Though split into many tribes, the wildlings speak the Common Tongue and Old Tongue of the First Men.
Because of their reputation throughout Westeros, the wildlings have many enemies. They hate the Northmen, especially the Starks of Winterfell. However, their arc enemies are the rangers of the Night’s Watch, who journey beyond the Wall in patrols. The Free Folk call them crows and kill them anytime they are caught, except if they desert the Watch and prove it. However, the wildlings and Night’s Watch trade with each other. They do this at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. If Free Folk children get found by the Black Brothers, they make them recruits of the Watch.
Marriage and Children
The marriage culture of the Free Folk centers around hostility. Men forcefully take a woman from her parent’s house and force her into marriage. However, women are also to resist every step of the way. Though stealing a woman is permitted, it is against customs to steal an already married woman.
When a child gets born, they do not get a name until after the first two years; this gets done because of the low infant survival rate due to harsh climatic conditions. Children can have a temporary milk name until they come of age.
Due to the few resources beyond the Wall, the wildlings actively raid many towns beyond the Wall. Male children often become raiders from as little as age twelve. The wildlings have to scale the Wall and cross into the Seven Kingdoms to raid; this act is so dangerous that rangers of the Watch find the broken bodies of those who fell while climbing the Wall. The commodities stolen by wildling raiders include spices, axes, swords, furs, silks, and even women.
The Free Folk are technologically behind the Westerosi, as their weapons are primitive. They mostly get steel from dead rangers, as there are no blacksmiths, forgers, or mines. Most wildling warriors wear boiled leather or sheepskin and use round skin shields for protection.
The Free Folk are descendants of the First Men. When the andals arrived and brought the Faith of the Seven, some First Men retreated beyond the Wall. According to Archmaester Fomas in Lies of the Ancients, the Others that terrorized Westeros during the Long Night were an early tribe of wildlings.
Though they were disorganized, Mance Rayder forced Styr, Tormund Giantsbane, and Magnar of Thenn into submission as he gathered many Free Folk tribes into one.
Relevance in A Song of Ice and Fire
A Game of Thrones
After Lord Ned Stark kills Gared for deserting the Night’s Watch, he learns of the danger lurking beyond the Walls. In Castle Black, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont laments about the death of his best rangers and talks about his suspicion of Mance Rayder amassing a force of wildlings. Jon Snow joins the Watch, and his uncle, Benjen Stark, goes missing.
A Storm of Swords
Mance Rayder gathers the Free Folk at the Frostfangs and marches to the Wall. He sends a force to attack and subdue Castle Black. However, Jon Snow, who joined Mance’s army and left, warns and prepares the Watch. During the Battle of Castle Black, Mance uses Giants to try and destroy the Wall. However, the monsters and fighters die, and Stannis Baratheon comes to the Watch’s aid. Mance and other wildlings, including Rattleshirt, the Lord of Bones, get arrested.
A Dance with Dragons
After submitting to Stannis, some wildlings pass through the Wall. Jon, the new Lord Commander, arranges the wedding of Alys Karstark of Karhold to Sigorn. He also employs the wildlings as builders and warriors in preparation for the Others. Meanwhile, Bran Stark reaches the cave of the three eyes crow and learns to fly.
Relevance in Adaptation
In HBO’s Game of Thrones, the wildlings were crucial in the fight against the Night King. After the Night Walker’s invasion and Arya’s defeating the Night King, Jon Snow learns he is the child of Lyanna Stark and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and is Aegon Targaryen, the true King.
After the battle, Daenerys Targaryen marches on King’s Landing and burns down the city. In fear of her becoming a mad queen, Jon kills her and gets banished from the Seven Kingdoms. He follows the Free Folk as they journey beyond the Wall.
Wildlings: A Free Terrible Society
Though the wildlings are savages, they created a society centered around freedom. However, their culture shows that anarchy and true freedom destroys a community. Because of their never-ending desire for freedom, the Free Folk could never advance and build themselves; this left them in a perpetual state of savagery. Freedom is a double-edged blade, and the wildlings are a society George R. R. Martin used to show how terrible true freedom can be.
Did the wildlings ever meet the Children of the Forest after their disappearance?
Though they lived beyond the Wall, the wildlings never encountered the Children of the Forest. However, it is unknown if any Free Folk met the Children as they lived in different clans.
Why did Mance Rayder unite the Free Folk?
Mance knew he had to unite the Free Folk because of the looming threat from the Others. He knew the wildlings would not survive the Others and wights without unifying forces.
Did the wildling have strange traditions?
Yes. The wildlings had many weird traditions. They supported rape, and some clans even partook in cannibalism. They had no sense of laws, and most crimes were nothing to them.
Did Ygritte want Jon Snow to take her by force?
When Jon captured Ygritte, she felt some sense of him owning her as, according to Fre Folk customs, a man could steal a woman from her people. However, she put up a fight with Jon because it was also customary for the captured woman to fight and resist her captor.