Updated: Nov 20, 2018
What's behind the unofficial motto of the North?
The unofficial sayings of any family or people in a Song of Ice and Fire holds strong significance, perhaps even higher than the family’s motto. Their history is very telling and their reason for being is of paramount importance.
The stories start with a prominent character called Garth Greenhand. He was a mythical High King of the First Men and is a common ancestor of numerous houses, including the Gardeners, the original kings of the Reach and many families of that region; the Starks, as it’s said he is an ancestor of Brandon the Builder; and it was one of Garth's daughters who had a bastard son called Lann who started house Lannister.
It is said that Lann, whose schemes were so intricate history named him “Lann the Clever”, went to the Westerlands where the Casterlys were kings, tricked the Casterlys into leaving their ancestor home – Casterly Rock – and took it for himself. House Lannister from there, built in the kingdom the notion that they were wealthy, as they used and mined the gold from Casterly Rock supposedly for thousands of years. The Lannisters still pass to court the idea that they have gold left, which makes their mine unique in every way. The reputation of “clever” is entirely validated. They are almost slippery as a family, obsessed with power and position. Lord Tytos Lannister, the deceased father of lord Tywin, was a profligate and a man who was laughed at, seen as weak and easy to manipulate, he brought shame to the Lannisters, causing his son Tywin, already a man of influence, to be contemptuous towards his father. Lord Tywin had a real difficulty with dealing with the mockery. House Reyne was an affluent house in the Westerlands and their ambition, in the eyes of Lord Tywin, was a problem, so when they grew too chummy in their position, lord Tywin destroyed the Reynes as well as their castle – Castamere – which was later inspiration for the song “the Rains of Castamere”. Thanks to that event, the Lannisters gained a secondary motto: “A Lannisters always pays his/her debts”. Evidently, as a wealthy family, paying their debts kept them being seen as wealthy, it was probably a logical conclusion they came to, way before the events in Castamere, but the new motto was a warning. One that said: Don’t try us. We will get you for your insolence.
The Starks also have an unofficial motto: "There must always be a Stark in Winterfell". That unofficial motto is likely part of a long-forgotten bit of history that has to do with the Others, their power and their submission to the Starks.
But what actually brings me to this essay, is the common northerner saying: “The North Remembers”.
The fandom often associates “The North Remembers” to the events known as “The Red Wedding”, but in the books, the first character who says “The North Remembers” is actually Robb Stark. The same sentence is repeated by several characters from several houses and in several different positions, sometimes linked to the Red Wedding and sometimes not. As I see the “Winter” as being more than a season, but the word used for the Others, it seems to me that the word “North” means more than the region and the people from that region, but actually a specific element that was at some point called “North” and that was set in place to keep the memories of the Long Night and the people who fought in it.
In a Game of Thrones, young lord Bran Stark is in bed while Old Nan tells him stories. It’s incredible that a lady who is well past her 90th year of age holds the memory of the stories that must be told. She first arrived in Winterfell to care for lord Brandon, not young Bran, not lord Eddard Stark’s brother either, but rather Brandon Stark, son of Lord Willam Stark, whose first wife, lady Lyanne Glover died in childbirth, leaving Brandon in need of a wet nurse. That Brandon died at the age of three, but Old Nan stayed in Winterfell and cared for the next four generations of Starks.
Despite her advanced age and confusion that is oftentimes presented when she can’t discern between one Bran and the next, Old Nan holds the stories of the North. Later, in a Clash of Kings, Jon Snow goes north of the wall and becomes close to the wildlings. His relationship with Ygritte is accentuated by the stories and the lore of those people which she shares with him, highlighting the details of how the wildlings and Starks are of one blood; the story of how a Stark lady was considered to be “stolen” only to be shown later that she wasn’t kidnapped and she left the true heir to Winterfell behind and how that lady was symbolized by a blue rose, giving the reader the clear notion that George doesn’t mess around when it comes to history repeating itself; and to make it clear to the fandom that, in fact, the wildlings seem to remember the stories that the Westerosi forgot.
Indeed, “The North Remembers” isn’t real. Lord Stark noticed the iron swords were rusted or falling apart when he went down to the crypts with Robert Baratheon, but despite his mental note that the swords should be replaced, he didn’t order a replacement. Although the Starks maintained the tradition of building statues in the vaults for the kings and then lords of Winterfell, they forgot the meaning of those statues. And although the northerners were loyal to their liege lord, they couldn’t understand the fury of the winter that was around Winterfell when the Boltons took the castle. And although they had Old Nan telling generation after generation of Starks the importance of certain traditions, they dismissed her as a superstitious old lady whose lessons shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
It is evident that the wall was built to separate men from creatures and it seems evident that some sort of pact was struck which determined who was to be kept where, but even with the help of the Great Others, building the wall could not have been done overnight and back in time eight thousand years ago, the Night’s Watch understood what they had been created for, so should a person find him or herself suddenly stuck "north of the wall", all they would have to do would be to arrive at their gates and explain their predicament. As the Night's Watch was built to "guard the realms of men", they would likely know to open the gates and let them through, which leads to the notion that the people who stayed north of the wall, were there for a reason. It seems that it is north of the wall where memories are kept. Craster knew to offer his sons in sacrifice to the Great Others. How could he know that? Evidently, there is some magic at play. A deal that was broken by men is making the Great Others attack them now and their fury is much too wondrous to behold.
The North Remembers is a common saying with no meaning. It isn’t much more important than saying: “A golden key can open any door”. Indeed, gold dragons can take a man far in that world, but a gold key in itself cannot open any door, no matter how pure that gold is. The North doesn’t seem to remember why the Night’s Watch had to be garrisoned by thousands of people. The North doesn’t seem to remember that their Barrowlands is filled with bodies of the First Men, giants, the First King of the First Men and all sorts of creatures that, if revived by the wrong power, could lay that land flat. The North doesn't seem to remember the importance of keeping a Stark in Winterfell. The North doesn’t seem to remember that it was only united that they could survive the wars to come. They got involved in the Game of Thrones and despite Cersei’s madness, she did seem to be correct when she said that victory or death were the only possibly solutions to the conundrum. So why is the saying so valuable and so strong? All the history and the stories of the North seem to be north of the wall. Is it possible then that the creatures north of the wall had a duty to retain that bit of history in order to remind the southerners of their pact?
Indeed, the memory of the north will have to be revealed through strife. Perhaps it will come with Bran’s loss of innocence or it might come with the Children of the Forest. It might even come from the Others themselves. It is even possible that Coldhands knows that story, either way, the North that remembers seems to only be accessible further north than the 'North' and at the moment, that region cannot be visited without danger. It is time for the northerners to consider that their pride isn’t worth much more than a cart full of dirt, for their memory has vanished with the passing of time and the motto stayed to show that, in fact, the North, forgot.