- "They're not your lands! We've been here the whole time! You lot came along and just put up a big Wall and said it was yours!"
The Free Folk is the name used to refer to themselves by the people who live in the lands beyond the Wall, still on the continent of Westeros but beyond the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms. The name they employ makes reference to their society, which recognizes no political authority and no claim of ownership over the land. The people of the Seven Kingdoms refer to the Free Folk derogatorily as wildlings.
The term "wildlings" is sometimes also employed to refer to the members of the hill tribes of the Vale that defy the rule of House Arryn, but out of context the term is usually understood to refer to the peoples living beyond the Wall.
The Free Folk are descended from the First Men, as are the inhabitants of the North. They were, essentially, the people unlucky enough to be living north of the Wall when it was constructed eight thousand years ago. Besides this shared ethnic heritage, their common descent means that there are also many cultural similarities between the wildlings and the Northerners. The wildlings are much closer in lifestyle and habits to how the First Men lived thousands of years ago, as the North has come under some cultural influence from their Andal neighbors who invaded southern Westeros six thousand years ago, and particularly since the Seven Kingdoms were united into a single realm by the Targaryen Conquest three hundred years ago.
Over the ages, the people of the Seven Kingdoms to the south largely forgotten why the Wall was constructed in the first place and came to believe that it exists to protect the realm from the wildlings, whom they regard as primitive savages and barbarians. However, the Night's Watch knows it was originally constructed to defend against the possible return of the near-mythical White Walkers. Since the White Walkers did not return for the past eight thousand years, the Night's Watch has mostly shifted its focus to preventing the wildlings from crossing south of the Wall, and sending out patrols into the wilderness to keep track of wildling movements. The shift of focus also reduced the Night's Watch from a band of honorable warriors into largely a dumping ground for exiled criminals.
The Free Folk consist of a wide variety of many fractious tribes and village-dwellers, some reasonably cultured, others hostile. Different wildling factions have very different cultures and practices, and may speak different languages. They spend much of their time fighting one another over petty squabbles, aside from the times when they are unified by a King-Beyond-the-Wall - as they are now under Mance Rayder.
The Free Folk worship the Old Gods of the Forest, like their distant cousins in the North. Even in the lands of House Stark, there are some followers of the Faith of the Seven, often southern noblewomen who come to the north to secure marriage alliances. Beyond the Wall, however, the Old Gods are the only gods that are worshiped.
Women also partake in raids south of the Wall along with their male counterparts. These women warriors are known as spearwives.
A major difference between the Free Folk and the feudal society of the Seven Kingdoms south of the Wall is that they do not recognize a class of hereditary nobility in their society. They take great pride in their "free" status, and only follow leaders who they choose to lead them. While in certain times the clans will unite behind a "King-Beyond-the-Wall", the title and position are not hereditary, as the Free Folk will follow no man simply because of who his father was. The Free Folk will follow a King-Beyond-the-Wall into battle, but the do not perform ceremonies of submission such as kneeling in front of him or referring to him as "your Grace". They call the people of the feudal Seven Kingdoms "kneelers", because they physically kneel to men who they didn't choose to rule over them. There is no social stratification between high-born lords and low-born smallfolk among the Free Folk.
The other side of this is that without established lords, the wildlings are so "free" that they don't really have established and enforced laws. A man keeps what he can take, and continues to hold what he can defend. While in many ways this is much more brutal and anarchic than the feudal society of the Seven Kingdoms, it is certainly more egalitarian.
At the time of the War of the Five Kings the Free Folk are divided into about 90 different clans or tribes, some of which have long been bitter enemies with each other. Normally they are politically divided, but have united under the current King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder for the common goal of forcing their way south of the Wall before the next winter comes, which will bring the White Walkers with it.
Some of these groups are socially and culturally very different. While many do understand the Common Tongue of the Andals south of the Wall, according to Mance the clans in his army speak seven different languages.
Some of these clans or groups include:
- Numerous clans from the vast Haunted Forest, immediately north of the Wall but east of the Frostfang Mountains. These tend to be semi-nomadic hunters and homesteaders, though some of them form villages of their own.
- The Thenn
- Ice-river clans
- Cave people
The non-human race of giants who live beyond the Wall has also allied itself with Mance Rayder and now marches in his wildling army. Loosely speaking they may thus by considered part of the "wildlings", though the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms generally use the term to refer to specifically the human clans living beyond the Wall. Of course, this is because until quite recently, those living south of the Wall had thought giants were entirely mythical creatures, and were unaware that they actually existed in the far northern lands beyond the Wall.
Prominent Free Folk
- Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, a former sworn brother of the Night's Watch.
- Tormund, called "Tormund Giantsbane", one of Mance Rayder's lieutenants.
- Orell, another of Mance Rayder's followers, a warg.
- The Lord of Bones, a renowned leader of a raiding warband now aligned with Mance Rayder.
- Ygritte, a young spearwife encountered by Jon Snow and former member of the Lord of Bones' warband.
- Craster, an unsavory collaborator of the Night's Watch with a sordid reputation.
- Gilly, one of his many daughter-wives.
- Osha, a former spearwife and now a loyal servant of House Stark and protector of Bran and Rickon Stark.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the Free Folk consist of various factions, such as the people of Thenn, raiders from the Frozen Shore, and settlers and woodsmen in the Haunted Forest. At the time of the books they are unified under a King-Beyond-the-Wall, Mance Rayder, a former member of the Night's Watch who fled the Wall and betrayed the Sworn Brothers. With the Wall grievously under-strength, there are fears that the wildlings may try to invade and that Lord Eddard Stark might have to lead his banners against them in a punitive strike.
- The Free Folk at A Wiki of Ice and Fire (major spoilers from the books)
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