The House of Black and White is gateway to death and the underworld. The way Arya describes its location is strikingly similar to other magical, underworld passageways and caverns in A Song of Ice and Fire:
The knoll on which the passage stood was honeycombed with passageways hewn from the rock.
Arya II, A Feast for Crows.
In this section, we will explore the similarities between the honeycombed passageways that lie beneath the House of Black and White and hollow hill dwellings of the Children of the Forest. We will discover that the knoll where the temple of black and white rests has all the markings we would expect from a dwelling of the children of the forest, and therefore, I will argue that at some point in the distant past, the children lived in what is now Braavos.
My analysis is deeply indebted to Wizz the Smith’s Essay, “Caves are Timeless: Hollow Hills. Magic Castles and Greenseers.” When I started investigating whether or not Braavos was magic location or had any relationship to greenseers, I realized right away that I could end up doing an endless amount of research on the activity of the Children of the Forest outside of Braavos for comparison. Thankfully, the ASOIAF community is wonderful and I got the chance to chat with Wizz the Smith and read his award-winning essay from Westeros.org. Wizz put in an enormous amount of work into examining the characteristics of the Children’s Hollow Hills in Westeros. My analysis of the Hollow Hill where the House of Black and White rests would not be possible without his work, which I will be referencing and relying on throughout this part.
The Footprints of the Children in Essos
My goal is to create a sort of scavenger hunt-like list of Children of Forest clues and then use our list to explore the House of Black and White. Our clues are based primarily on my own re-reads and research about the characteristics of the Mistwood cave from the Arianne TWOW sample chapter, Bloodraven’s cave beyond the wall, the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands, and Winterfell Crypts. This is a solid sample size, but please trust me when I say there are plenty of other examples that are consistent with the traits I will identify. If you’re skeptical, Wizz the Smith comprehensively analyzes ALL the hollow hills locations in his essay and the grouping of traits is remarkably consistent.
You might ask, why does it matter if the temple where the House of Black and White resides was built on top of a hollow hill of Children of the Forest or some other related race? Because these caves are places of great power and dark magic that are connected to center of the earth. The magic of the Children stills lingers at High Heart, for example, even though it has been mostly abandoned as a place of worship for the Old Gods. Plus, as we will explore in the essay, the Children could have left behind magic artifacts that the Faceless Men discovered.
Also, these hints help build the case that the Children of the Forest were once active in Essos. According to the Worldbook, many maesters believe that a “dimunitive race” that was kin to the children lived in northern forests of Essos—which like Braavos, border the Shivering Sea. Further, while describing the area outside the free city of Norvos, the Worldbook offers this juicy clue:
The streams here are swiftrunning and stony, and caverns honeycomb the endless hills…In some can be found the bones of giants and painted walls that speak of men’s dwelling here in ages past. One cavern system, some hundred leagues northwest of Norvos, is so vast and deep that legend claims it is the entrance to the underworld; Lomas Longstrider visited it once and counted it as one of the world’s seven natural wonders in his book Wonders.
The World of Ice and Fire, The Free Cities: Norvos
The presence of the children in Essos the lends credibility to the argument that their magic lingers under Braavos. Circumstantial evidence, sure, but a potent counter to the claim that the influence of the Children was only in Westeros. In other words, we totally busted their alibi!
Dark and Deep: Breaking Down the Characteristics & Imagery of Hollow Hills
We can identify caves used by the Children of the Forest because they typically have the following characteristics:
- They are described as knolls or hollow hills.
- They contain “still black pools” or “black rivers.”
- They have chambers filled with skulls, bones, and/or carvings of faces.
- They are connected to winding, snaking tunnels or honeycombed hills.
- They are (often) protected by wards.
GRRM uses consistent imagery to evoke the feel created by these elements. Wizz the Smith pointed out to me, for example, that snaking passageways are a consistent motif when describing the Children’s subterranean tunnels. Think of when Bran describes the weirwood roots in Bloodraven’s cave as “white snakes” or how descriptions of darkness and passageways plunging deep into the earth are also common in hollow hill locations. We will be hunting for these sort of similarities in imagery as we explore the characteristics above.
Let’s take a look at the descriptions of the cave Arianne visits in the Mistwood, to verify our list of criteria and get a feel for the imagery of these locations. It’s telling that in this Winds Spoiler chapter, one of the more recent pieces of writing we’ve gotten from George, we have these intricately detailed passages explicitly describing the Children’s dwellings:
The cave proved much deeper than any of them had suspected. Beyond the stony mouth…a series of twisty passageways led down and down, with black holes snaking off to either side (4). Further in, the walls opened up again, and the searchers found themselves in a vast limestone cavern, larger than the great hall of a castle…A slow circuit of the hall revealed three further passages, one so small that it would have required them to proceed on hands and knees…And all at once she found herself in another cavern, five times as big as the last one, surrounded by a forest of stone columns (3). Daemon Sand moved to her side and raised his torch. “Look how the stone’s been shaped,” he said. “Those columns, and the wall there. See them?”
“Faces,” said Arianne. So many sad eyes, staring.
“This place belonged to the children of the forest.” (3)
Their passageway led down to a still black pool, (2) where they discovered the girl up to her waist in water, catching blind white fish with her bare hands, her torch burning red and smoky in the sand where she had planted it.
Arianne II, Winds of Winter Sample Chapter
As it happens, this passage hits all the most imagery driven elements but omits the (1) hollow hill and (5) magic ward elements. No big deal, we will look at examples of hollow hills and wards side by side with our analysis of the House of Black and White. This is also a good time to recall that sometimes not all of these clues are present in the description of a potential hollow hill locations and that’s okay, this is literature, not a math problem.
(I) Hollow Hills or Knolls
The phrase “Hollow hills” is concretely tied to the Children of the Forest. For example, Old Nan mentions the Children of the Forest living in Hollow Hills when telling Bran scary stories at the beginning of Game of Thrones.
Hollow hills are also frequently described as “old” and “secret” locations, further tying them to the ancient Children and the secrets of the greenseers. We get this lovely description from Lem Lemoncloak about the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands:
“An old place, deep and secret. A refuge where neither wolves nor lions come prowling.”
We will come back to the refuge idea a little later when we discuss warded doors, but I want to emphasize that refuge, deep, and secret are all important motifs not only for Hollow Hills, but also for the history of Braavos and the House of Black and White.
And yes, the House of Black and White is described multiple times as being on a knoll or hollow hill.
The knoll on which the passage stood was honeycombed with passageways hewn from the rock.
Cat would always find the kindly man waiting for her when she went creeping back to the temple on the knoll on the night the moon went black.
Cat of the Canals, A Feast for Crows.
Equally significant, I think, is that the imagery George uses to describe the hollow hill that houses Bloodraven’s cave calls to mind the Black and White motif. Let’s take a look:
Shadows stretched against the hillside, black and hungry. All the trees were bowed and twisted by the weight of the ice they carried. Some hardly looked like trees at all. Buried from root to crown in frozen snow, they huddled on the hill like giants, monstrous and misshapen creatures hunched against the icy wind.
Bran II, A Dance with Dragons
The hungry black shadows of giant weirwoods cast against a frozen white hill. I found this very evocative of the not only of the doors of the House of Black and White, but also of the Titan of Bravos who is black and hungry (for the flesh of high born girls).
George uses the key word “knoll” to describe the Faceless Men’s temple and then reinforces that language by using imagery linked to Braavos and the black and white motif to describe Bloodraven’s Hollow Hill. I’d call this a check plus for the temple qualifying as a hollow hill location.
(II) Still Black Pools
The most prominent “still black pool” in ASOIAF lies next to the heart tree in Winterfell. Although this pool is not inside a cave, so to speak, it is likely directly above the snaking, cavernous Winterfell crypts. The Winterfell still black pool features prominently in Bran’s first set of visions in Bloodraven’s cave and of course, is where Ned and his family pray to the old gods. As we saw above, the exact still black pool descriptor is also given Arianne’s cave in the Mistwood. Here’s how Bran thinks of the Winterfell pool:
At the heart of the godswood, the great white weirwood brooded over its reflection in the black pool, its leaves rustling in a chill wind. When it felt Bran watching, it lifted its eyes from the still waters and stared back at him knowingly.
(Bran III, A Game of Thrones)
A still black pool is one of the dominant features of the House of Black and White. Because GRRM is not always subtle, just like at the Godswood at Winterfell, people kneel and pray around the still black pool. Arya first describes it as “a pool ten feet across black as ink and lit by dim red candles” (Arya I, Feast) and then later as “a still black pool” (Arya II, Feast). The dim red candles evoke both blood and the eyes of the weirwoods. Again, check plus.
(a) Dark Water and Death
Now, not every still pool is necessarily a sign of the Children of the Forest. Instead, I think it is “the still black pool” in particular that is important as a symbol of their presence. The still black pool does, however, tie into a broad and often repeated motif tying death to dark water or black pools.
First, dark or still pools surround the imagery of death more broadly throughout the novels. Not only do we have lots of descriptions of pools of blood, we have many more vivid examples.
- A pool at Maidenpool is full of floating corpses in Feast for Crows.
- The children who kill Kevan at Varys’ command in the epilogue of Feast emerge from a pool of darkness.
- And there is some fun stranger/the stranger wordplay hanging out in still pools:
“Of late, whenever he knelt to drink from a still pool, he saw a stranger’s face gazing up from the water’s depths.”
Barristan, A Dance with Dragons.
A stranger or the stranger, eh Barry?
Also, recall the still black pool by the heart tree at Winterfell is cold. There are other pools in Godswood and Glass Gardens that are heated by the hot springs, but not the pool by the heart tree. Theon notes in Dance that the pool is icing over as winter approaches. But both the hot and cold pools have death symbolism. Theon notes that “Steam rose off the hot pools, fragrant with the smell of moss and mud and decay.”
These are all examples of George connecting pools more generally with death and underworld symbolism. Of course, the pool at the House of Black and White is different by an order of magnitude because people drink from the pool and die when they come to receive the gift. That people drink from a still black pool to die reinforces the connection between still black pools and the underworld.
(ii) Black Rivers and Sunless Seas
Bloodraven’s cave is connected to a black underground river, instead of a still black pool. The river is described “as swift and black, flowing down to a sunless sea.” The sunless sea is tied into the green see magic idea directly by Leaf who tells Bran, “Men lives their lives trapped in an eternal present, between the mists of memory and the sea of shadow that is all we know of the days to come.”
So, why a black river instead of a still a black pool? I have two possible explanations, one literal and another more abstract.
- We have not gone deep enough into the other caves to find the black river. Bran’s journey toward the center of the earth with Bloodraven goes much deeper than any of the other characters. Recall that caves are created by underground water, so both the pools and the river would have the same source.
- Symbolically, we see a powerful, flowing river in Bloodraven’s cave because the Children still live there and Bloodraven is tapped into the river where the flow of memories would be the most swift. The other black pools are relics or echoes of this power.
(III) Chambers filled with skulls, bones, and/or carvings of faces.
The most effective way to see how the chambers under the House of Black and White are similar to Children’s chambers is to directly compare passages from Bran and Arya chapters. So, that’s how we’ll start, comparing the siblings’ passages exploring underground passageways from a Dance with Dragons.
|The Ugly Little Girl||
|One tunnel was walled with human bones, its roof supported by columns of skulls.
The empty eyeholes of the skins upon the walls seemed to follow her. For a moment, she could almost see their lips moving, whispering dark sweet secrets to one another in words to faint to hear.
|The floor of the passage was littered with the bones of birds and beasts. But there were other bones as well, big ones that must have come from giants and small ones that could have been from children. On either side of them, in niches carved from the stone, skulls looked down on them. Bran saw a bear skull and a wolf skull, half a dozen human skulls and near as many giants. All the rest were small, queerly formed. Children of the forest. The roots had grown in and around and through them, every one.|
The comparison between Bran and Arya is direct on a few important levels.
- The passageways are both filled with bones.
- They are niches carved in the stone, filled either with skulls or skins looking down on whoever enters.
- The Ugly Little Girl uses “whispering dark secrets” imagery; imagery we associate with greenseers and hear throughout Bran’s chapters.
Similarly, remember that in the Mistwood Arianne sees “a forest of stone columns” carved with faces and “so many sad eyes.”
So what is going on here? Was Arya’s tunnel of bones and skulls built by the Children of the Forest? Are those really old fossilized trees in Arianne’s cave? And aside from being horrific, what does it mean?
We are entering more theoretical territory, but my best guess is the following. We know not just the greenseers, but all of the singers have “gone down into the earth. Into the stones, into the trees.” How? The mostly likely answer, based on what we know about weirwoods, is that they were bled or ritually sacrificed to the trees or stones when they died. Time for a shoutout to Joe Magician’s awesome video discussing weirwoods and ritual, blood sacrifice. Check it out now if you haven’t already.
Given the large collection of bones and the mention of bones as a totem for magic, some kind of ritual magic involving the bones of the dead is also possible. If the founders of Braavos found an underground cave full of bones and other magical things, its possible they would have imitated the practices they found there, particularly if they were powerful.
Or, these skulls and bones and faces could just be death and underworld symbols without any connection to a shared ritual sacrifice across locations. Regardless, I think the allusion to ritual sacrifice is deliberate.
In addition to the parallel to Lovecraft’s creepy stone sacrifice—the Shining Trapezohedron—I think Martin is deliberating drawing on some of the artifacts of Mayan and Aztec ritual sacrifice. To simplify, in Mayan mythology cenotes or underground caves were places of religious significance. Not only were these caves often connected in vast underground networks, the Mayans ritually sacrificed people to the gods of underworld by throwing them into the caves. Even today, when archeologists or scuba divers explore the caves they still find human remains. This same idea is echoed when the Maester Yandel tells us in TWOIAF that legend has it that vast underground caverns, littered with bones, are gateways to the underworld.
Given the importance of ritual sacrifice throughout the story—Melisandre seeking King’s blood for her flames, the First Men making blood sacrifice to their heart trees, the greenseers planting themselves in trees, blood magic liked that used by Mirri Maz Dur, and House of Black and White’s framing of death as a gift from the Many-Faced God—I am confident that groups of bones stacked in columns or places in alcoves are part a religious rite of sacrifice.
Because its highly suggested that both the Faceless Men and Children engage in ritual sacrifice—whether via Jojen Paste, feeding weirwoods, or the worship of a death god—I’d call this a check plus for piles of bones and skulls tying the House of Black and White to other hollow hill locations.
(IV) They are connected to winding tunnels that seem to go on forever
Underground tunnels with long and winding ways recur throughout the books—Jaime dreams of them under Casterly Rock when he sleeps on a weirwood stump, Arya explores a system of tunnels under King’s Landing, when Jon and Ygritte famously get naked together in a cave they recount tale of Gendel and Gorne using underground tunnels to navigate under the wall. If you are interested in a more comprehensive examination of potential tunnel systems connected to hollow hills in Westeros, I again suggest turning to Wizz-the-Smith’s essay. Recall this quotation from Bran III,
The caves were timeless, vast, silent. They were home to more than three score living singers and the bones of thousands dead, and extended far below the hollow hill. “Men should not go wandering in this place,” Leaf warned them. “The river you hear is swift and black, and flows down and down to a sunless sea. And there are passages that go even deeper, bottomless pits and sudden shafts, forgotten ways that lead to the very center of the earth. Even my people have not explored them all, and we have lived here for a thousand thousand of your man-years.”
This description definitely calls to mind the almost infinite cave system discovered by Lomas Longstrider in Essos as well as the forgotten ways of Gendel and Gorne under the Wall.
The Temple of the Faceless Men is also built on top of a vast underground cave system. Arya calls the tunnels “cramped and crooked, black wormholes twisting through the heart of the great rock.” To reach the sanctum, Arya notes that they go down 54 steps and that “they were under even the canals.” The Hall of Faces itself has even deeper tunnels connected to it and, like every other character who encounters one these places, Arya wonders if the system of tunnels and cellars goes down forever.
So again, I’m calling check plus for similar imagery as well as including this snaking, winding characteristic.
(V) They are protected by wards
The three best examples of warded cavern locations are the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands, Bloodraven’s cave, and the Nightfort. In a Clash of Kings, Melisandre mentions wards and spells built into the walls and caverns under Storm’s End. Based on these examples, we know that in ASOIAF, like in other fantasy worlds, wards are magical barriers that can hide places or limit who may enter them.
(a) The Warden of the Dead
Leaf tells us that Bloodraven’s cave is warded against the dead—so neither Coldhands nor the Others can enter. Similarly, the Brotherhood without Banners use the Hollow Hill as their base to take advantage of the magic ward left over from the Children of the Forest. Not only is it implied that the ward prevents other people from entering or using the cavern, the Ghost of High Heart tells the Red Priest, Thoros, that he would not be able to read the flames in the weirwood grove. So, the ward at the Hollow Hill can block the use of certain kinds of magic while allowing the use of others.
So, could the knoll where the Faceless Men built their temple have been the site of a warded cave? We know the moonsingers lead the escaped Braavosi to a place where the Dragonlords could not find them. So it is possible, and consistent with the description of the knoll as magical, hollow hill location, that the moonsingers chose Braavos, not only because of persistent fogs, but because the location was either already warded or could easily be warded. This would be a solid explanation for why even with glass candles, the sorcerers of Valyria could not find the Braavosi settlement. Either the original settlors lived underground in the cave system or perhaps the fogs and mists that cloak Braavos are part of the magical ward that surrounded the temple or the city.
In the next part, we will compare other Weirwood doors, like the Nightfort, and compare them to do the doors of at the House of Black and White. I think its worth expanding our analysis to include all weirwood doors, and not only those that are clearly warded, so we’ll start a new section that will also serve as a teaser and transition to the next essay, covering magical artifacts in the House of Black and White.
Hold the Door: Magic Words and Warded Weirwood Doors
Here, we will compare the door to the House of Black and White with three other magical, weirwood doors: the Qohoric Smith Tobho Mott’s Door, the door to the House of the Undying, and the Black Gate at the Nightfort. All of these places are associated with either blood magic or green magic and they’re described in varying degrees of detail. The best way to appreciate how these doors are similar is to walk right through them, so let’s go.
(I) Speak Friend and Enter
First, we will refresh our memory of the Black Gate at the Nightfort, because next to the doors of the House of Black and White, it is described in the most detail:
- It’s as old as the wall itself, and
- It’s hidden at the bottom of creepy deep well, and
- It is a talking door that only a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch can open by reciting magic words, in this case, the Night’s Watch vows.
Here’s how Bran describes the Black Gate:
It was white weirwood, and there was a face on it.
A glow came from the wood, like milk and moonlight, so faint it scarcely seemed to touch anything beyond the door itself, not even Sam standing right before it. The face was old and pale, wrinkled and shrunken. It looks dead. Its mouth was closed, and its eyes; its cheeks were sunken, its brow withered, its chin sagging. If a man could live for a thousand years and never die but just grow older, his face might come to look like that.
The door opened its eyes.
They were white too, and blind.
Bran IV, A Storm of Swords
To summarize, the Black Gate is a white weirwood door that “glows like milk and moonlight” with a face that looks like a thousand year old man. It can talk and it opens when magic words are spoken. Sounds like a magic ward to me.
Now, here is Arya’s description of the door at the House of Black and White:
A set of carved wooden doors twelve feet high. The left-hand door was made of weirwood pale as bone, the right of gleaming ebony. In their center was a carved moon face; ebony on the weirwood side, weirwood on the ebony. The look of it reminded her somehow of the heart tree in the godswood at Winterfell.”
Then when Arya speaks, “Valar Morgulis”
The doors made no reply, except to open.
They opened inward all in silence, with no human hand to move them. Arya took a step forward, and another. The doors closed behind her, and for a moment she was blind.
So on the one hand, we have a “black gate” that is actually white – The white Black Gate – and then we have a set of doors that are literally Black and White. Both doors are described with moon symbolism, one glows like moonlight and the other has a moon carved into the center. While the Black Gate has a face like a heart tree, the look of the door at the House of Black and White reminds Arya of the carved heart tree at Winterfell.
Oh and hey! At least from Arya’s perspective, the doors to the House of Black and White opened on their own when she spoke the magic words! That sure seems like a Tolkien-esque “speak friend and enter” ward from the Mines of Moria, right? Except here, it’s speak death instead of speak friend, because this is ASOIAF and the House of Black and White is that kind of creepy place.
(b) Ebony and Weirwood
The other weirwood and ebony doors mentioned throughout the story also carry interesting associations. The first one we see comes all the way back in Eddard VI, in King’s Landing. There, our dear nearly dead Ned continues his ill-fated investigation of Robert’s bastards by turning up at Tohbo Mott’s double doors, which “showed a hunting scene carved in ebony and weirwood.”
While we don’t get another further description of the doors, we do learn that Tobho had learned the spells to work Valyrian steel at the forges of Qohor as a boy. Side note, Archmaester Emma has an excellent essay on Tohbo Mott’s symbolism, so be sure check it out!
So why do we care about Tohbo’s Door? The spells Tohbo Mott works, the spells needs to reforge Valyrian steel, are likely blood magic spells. Maester Pol, in the World of Ice and Fire, posits that blood sacrifice is required to work the proper spells. Further, the TWOIAF also associates Qohor with the Black Goat, blood magic, and blood sacrifice, so again, its fair to read all these as significant details hinting that Tohbo’s door is an important symbol of something bloody and magical.
We find the final set of Ebony and Weirwood doors in another dark, magical place—the House of the Undying.
To her right, a set of wide wooden doors had been thrown open. They were fashioned of ebony and weirwood, the black and white grains swirling and twisting in strange interwoven patterns. They were very beautiful, yet somehow frightening.
Daenerys IV, A Clash of Kings
The Undying Ones of Qarth are ancient warlocks known for drinking Shade of the Evening. Given that they wanted to drain Dany and her dragons of their life, it is likely that their magic also requires some kind of blood sacrifice.
(c) Black and White with Blood Magic All Over
Interestingly, all three of these Ebony and Weirwood doors are either found in Essos or mark the trade of an Essosi. In contrast, the weirwood doors we find in Westeros are strictly Weirwood, with no ebony, like the Black Gate. For example, the other significant Weirwood door we find in Westeros is the Moon Door in the Eyrie. Like House of Black and White, the Moon Door is also carved with a crescent moon and in its own way, is a door to death because it is used for executions, or a la Littlerfinger, murdering lovers you no longer find useful.
So what should we make of these magical and potentially magical doors? First, observe that the weirwood and ebony combination is closely tied to the practice of blood magic either through the Sorcery of the Undying or through Qohoric spells. Second, note that “ebony” is very likely the bark of the Shade of Evening tree. Here, I want to credit the brilliant Crowfood’s Daughter, whose must-listen video linking Shade of the Evening, Seastone, and Bloodstone can be found on her YouTube Channel, the Disputed Lands. If we take Shade of the Evening as a kind of corrupted or inverted weirwood tree, it makes sense for these doors to include both Weirwood and Shade of the Evening bark to create a black and white, yin and yang expression of balance.
Finally, let’s take the presence of a Black and White warded door as a concrete sign of two things: (1) that the magic practiced inside the temple is similar to the Valyrian spells used in Qohor and the sorcery practiced by the Undying and (2) that magic is connected to weirwood and shade of the evening trees.
And with that to chew on, let’s break and next time we’ll return to examine all the magical artifacts in the temple—from candles and couches, to magical, disembodied skins.