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This article is about the people. For the special feature, see: The Free Folk

"We don't kneel for anyone beyond the Wall."
Mance Rayder[src]

The Free Folk is the self-given name for 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.[1] The name they employ makes reference to their society, which recognizes no inherent or hereditary political authority, except for leaders whom they choose to follow. The people of the Seven Kingdoms refer to the Free Folk derogatorily as "wildlings," while the Free Folk refer to those south of the Wall as "kneelers."

Normally the wildlings are divided into many different rival clans, but occasionally, they unite behind a single over-chieftain known as a King-Beyond-the-Wall, as they were under Mance Rayder. The Free Folk are now allies of House Stark after many of their people were saved by Jon Snow.

The term "wildlings" is sometimes also employed to refer to other "savages," such as 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.[2]


"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!"

Periodically throughout history, the Free Folk have been united under a King-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 (though they lack the level of political organization that the First Men possessed), 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.[3]

The Free Folk have made many attempts to invade the Seven Kingdoms since the construction of the Wall (Jon Snow mentions that there have been six such invasions in the last thousand years, before Mance Rayder). Usually such attacks are led by a King-Beyond-the-Wall, who is elected to lead a force of united tribes and clans. Despite the bravery and perseverance of the Free Folk, all attempted invasions of the Seven Kingdoms have failed, as those who live north of the Wall lack the weapons, training and organization to defeat their southern counterparts. However, wildlings still launch frequent raids against the northernmost regions.[4]

Over the ages, the people of the Seven Kingdoms to the south had 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 penal colony for exiled criminals, disgraced noblemen, and bastards with no where else to go.


The camp of the Free Folk in the Skirling Pass.

The Free Folk consist of a wide variety of many fractious tribes and village-dwellers, some reasonably refined, others savage and hostile. Different 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 were 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.[5]

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 is that the Free Folk 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 they 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.[6]

The other side of the coin is that without a central authority, the Free Folk 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. This is somewhat more brutal and chaotic than the feudal society of the Seven Kingdoms, but in some respects their society is more politically egalitarian.

Lacking any major political structure, as well as arable land, most of the Free Folk are hunter-gatherers and lag behind the "kneelers" in terms of technology and education. As the concept of smithing is foreign to most Free Folk, steel gained through trade or raiding is coveted north of the Wall. Horses are also rare, and so the wildlings have no cavalry to speak of. Most settlements are relatively small and their structures are simple when compared to those south of the wall.

The wildlings do not bury their dead, but burn them. This has nothing to do with religion - it is simply done to prevent the White Walkers from resurrecting the deceased as wights. If no fire is available, they will at least try to decapitate or dismember the corpse so it won't make a very useful wight.


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.[7] Normally they are politically divided, but were united under 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. After his death, Tormund and Jon Snow traveled to Hardhome, along with other members of the Night's Watch and the Free Folk, to attempt to convince the rest of the Free Folk to join them in the upcoming war against the White Walkers and their armies of Wights.

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 (including the Common Tongue; otherwise they speak the Old Tongue of the First Men, and its several variants).

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 Thenns, who dwell in a valley north of the Frostfangs, who know how to forge bronze and engage in ritual cannibalism and self-scarification.
  • The communities of the Frozen Shore, known for riding sleds and chariots made of walrus bone pulled by dogs.
  • Hornfoots, who dwell on the Frostfangs, known for the blackened and hardened soles of their feet due to not wearing anything on them
  • Ice-river clans
  • Cave people

The non-human race of giants who live beyond the Wall had also allied itself with Mance Rayder and marched in his wildling army. Loosely speaking they may thus be 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.

Attitudes towards the Free Folk

Attitudes towards the Free Folk vary but are mostly negative. The Northmen have a bitter feud with the Free Folk due to being at the forefront of the latter's incursions into the Seven Kingdoms. Other kingdoms south of the Wall share similar derisive sentiments, but to a lesser extent, seeing the Free Folk as a light threat and the Night's Watch as an unnecessary organization where criminals and undesirables are sent to join. The Night's Watch itself holds the most bitter views towards Wildlings. For as centuries passed, the White Walkers, the Night's Watch's true enemies, largely came to be considered myths, and Watch's resources have been directed towards fighting the Free Folk for subsequent generations, forgetting the order's real purpose.

While at Castle Black, Tyrion Lannister converses with Benjen Stark and Yoren regarding the Free Folk. While not outright sympathizing with them, Tyrion makes clear his view that the only real difference between the Free Folk and the rest of Westeros is that the former group just happened to live on the northern side of the Wall when it was first constructed 8,000 years ago.[8]

With Jon Snow as an advocate for the free folk and the ongoing threat of the White Walkers, the Free Folk have been granted asylum within the Seven Kingdoms and now live within them, aiding House Stark in the fight against the Night King.

Prominent Free Folk

Ygritte, a member of the Free Folk.

Behind the scenes

By Season 4 to Season 5, costume designer Michele Clapton explained that she developed six different wildling sub-groups by costuming, based on their geographic region (see "Costumes/Beyond the Wall - Wildlings" for more).

Mance Rayder and Jon Snow repeatedly said that in the present day there are about 90 different wildlings clans, but each large region has multiple clans in it (i.e. there may be over a dozen clans of "Hornfoots"). While Clapton did say that there are six different large wildling sub-groups in the TV series, she did not list all of them, except to say that the Thenns were one. She also didn't specify if she included the Giants in this count. Based on her descriptions, however, the six groups appear to be:

  • 1 - The main, generic "wildlings" from the Haunted Forest, the vast taiga-forest which covers most of the lands beyond the Wall. By far the most numerous, they wear heavy animal furs from game they hunt in the forest. Mance, Tormund, and Ygritte appear to be from this group.
  • 2 - Wildlings who live near the coasts, and thus decorate their clothing with seashells. This may be the TV series version of the Frozen Shore tribes, who have been mentioned in the Histories & Lore featurettes. The lands they live on are desolate but the surrounding waters are plentiful, so they gain most of their sustenance from the sea. They cross the snow on sleds of walrus bones, pulled by dogs. Karsi and her daughters appear to be from this coastal group, given the seashell decorations on their clothing.
  • 3 - Wildlings who live up in the Frostfang Mountains. Little grows there, and what few animals live there don't make for good furs, so the inhabitants just decorate themselves with bits of bone from whatever small game they can hunt. The Lord of Bones and his followers are from this group. They may be the TV version of the Hornfoot people, which the Histories & Lore videos describe as living in the mountains. However, the Hornfoot are also described as having the soles of their feet turned hard and black for not wearing anything on their feet.
  • 4 - The Cave people, clearly seen during the meeting with the elders, are notable for wearing facepaint (which is how the novels describe them). They don't just live around the mountains like the other group, but inside the cave systems of the Frostfangs.
  • 5 - The Thenns, fierce warriors who wield their own bronze axes and armor. Previously led by Styr, then by Loboda. They are the most advanced tribe, though they are also well-known for their barbaric practices of cannibalism and ritual scarification.
  • 6 - The non-human race of Giants, previously led by Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg ("Mag the Mighty"), now represented by Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun ("Wun Wun"). Clapton's concept for the giants is that they just continually wrap their bodies with whatever scraps of cloth, fur, or animal bone they can find, haphazardly wrapped in materials almost like a mummy. They are immensely strong, capable of single-handedly breaching fortified gates with their bare hands, though they lack intelligence and communicate with a highly simplified version of the Old Tongue known as Mag Nuk, or Great Tongue.

This actually matches up with Mance's comment that the clans in his army speak seven different languages (counting those who can speak the Common Tongue as the seventh). Linguist David J. Peterson offered the explanation that when Mance said seven different "languages", this included several variant dialects of Old Tongue. By chance or design, the numbers match up: the six major different wildling geographical sub-groups defined by the costuming department would also probably have six different sub-dialects of the Old Tongue.

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, as the first book begins, 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 wildlings are mostly armed with rather primitive weapons, made of bone, stone, wood and dragonglass (it is unclear whether they know that dragonglass is lethal to the Others). The Thenns work bronze, and raiders like the Weeper carry stolen steel and iron swords looted off corpses.

When a wildling man wants a wife (wildling or non-wildling), it is custom that he must kidnap her, while risking severe injury or even death by the woman and her relatives, and the woman must fight back. As a rule, the wildlings do not kidnap married women. Ygritte explains to Jon - who is unaware of this custom - that if the man succeeds, it shows that he is strong, brave and cunning, and this is what wildling women seek in men. If the man turns out to be an abusive husband, the wife can always slit his throat. Because Jon captured Ygritte (albeit, he was unaware of this custom and didn't know Ygritte was a woman when he and Qhorin Halfhand captured the group of wildlings in which she happened to be) and because Jon saved her life, Ygritte and Tormund point out to Jon that he and Ygritte could be considered technically married (according to loose wildling customs, which are not strictly defined "laws"). This stuns Jon, who reveals this was not his intent and his capture of her/saving her life was not for sex.

The wildlings prefer to kidnap women far from their villages, rather than from their own clan, and it is considered a great sin to marry relatives. The Old Gods of the Forest, worshiped by both the Free Folk and the Northmen, don't have as many formal rules as the Faith of the Seven, but their religion still maintains a few fundamental social prohibitions, one of which forbids Incest. While the wildlings have no knowledge about genetics, they understand that inbreeding may result in weak and sickly children. Thus, what Craster is doing with his daughter-wives is considered an abomination, even by the other wildlings and not remotely acceptable behavior by their own standards.

Since the wildlings do not receive any formal education, illiteracy is common among them. When Jon shows Tormund the Bastard Letter, Tormund admits that he cannot read.

Due to the harsh conditions Beyond the Wall, the wildlings have a high infant mortality rate and believe that naming a baby after birth is an ill-omen. Therefore, they do not give their babies names at all until they have survived to two years of age; they do sometimes give their babies "milk names" in the meantime.

See also