You can second-guess much of the good guys’ battle strategy in Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night,” but you can’t argue with the results: With some slight-of-hand borrowed from Braavos’s finest stage magicians, Arya Stark plunged her Valyrian-steel dagger into the Night King’s gut, instantly exterminating the entire army of the dead. It was proof that Game of Thrones still knows how to surprise us: Not only did the magical threat get wrapped up sooner than most viewers probably anticipated, but Arya wasn’t the character most fans assumed would be the one to take down the Night King; even Maisie Williams’s boyfriend thought Jon Snow should have gotten the job instead.
It was a gigantic moment, and one with large implications for the future of George R.R. Martin’s novels. (And yes, smart alecks, we’re taking Martin at his word and assuming he’s going to finish the book series.) Readers have spent years debating which characters might be turn out to be Azor Ahai/The Prince That Was Promised, the ancient hero whom various prophecies have predicted will return and finish off the army of the dead. With Arya striking the decisive blow in the show, it’s tempting to wonder: Is Arya actually Azor Ahai in the books?
It’s a complicated question, not least because the Night King as we know him, the supreme leader of the White Walker legions, is probably an invention of the show. Martin’s novels do include a character called the Night’s King, but he’s a character from ancient lore, a commander of the Night’s Watch who fell in love with a female White Walker (or maybe she was a wight — either way, she was bad news) and ruled the Wall alongside her for 13 unspeakable years. Book readers have long wondered whether these two figures are the same person, or if the show merely borrowed the name because it sounded cool. I’ve been of the opinion that it’s the latter — because of the nature of the medium, the writers needed to personify the threat of the White Walkers in a way the novels don’t — and something the showrunners said Sunday night seemingly confirmed this.
In their after-the-episode video, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss reveal that they’d known for three years that Arya would be the one to kill the Night King. But where other such clips have seen the pair revealing that certain plot developments were given to them by Martin himself — see Stannis burning Shireen, and how Hodor got his name — this time the showrunners seem to indicate the choice of who would strike the fateful blow was their own decision. Arya “seemed like the best candidate,” Weiss says. “Jon Snow has always been the hero, the savior, but it didn’t seem right to us for this moment,” adds Benioff. It makes sense: The Night King is a show-only character, so the choice of who’s going to kill him is a show-only decision.
So what does that mean for Arya’s chances of being Azor Ahai in the books? I’d say the odds are pretty low. While I could see many of the general elements of last night’s episode staying the same in the books — the good guys probably will make a last stand at Winterfell, Jon and Dany will probably be riding dragons, the crypts will probably be important — the actual specifics seem to be the screenwriters playing their own kind of music, a perk they’ve certainly earned. (I suspect that Martin might have fewer qualms about killing off beloved characters.)
And if you want to be very geeky about it, the book series includes a handful of things that need to happen for this mythical warrior to rise again, as is often the case with prophecies that are both specific and vague at the same time. Azor Ahai appears at the same time “the red star bleeds,” needs to be born again “amid smoke and salt,” and will “wake dragons out of stone”; the Prince That Was Promised, meanwhile, is said to have Targaryen lineage. Many of these apply to Daenerys or Jon at some point in the books, but it’s much harder to fit Arya into these descriptions. For one, there aren’t too many red stars in her story line. (Though she did have a pivotal moment seeing Ned Stark bleed, so maybe someone misheard.) Ditto with dragons out of stone, and the smoke-and-salt stuff. And while there are plenty of characters with ambiguous parentage, Arya is pretty clearly the daughter of Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully.
Following “The Long Night,” there’s been a little bit of harrumphing around the internet that the show got everyone obsessed with the Azor Ahai prophecy and debating who might fit, only to throw everything away and have Arya be the hand who swings the sword. But I think that misses the mark. So much of the prophecy analysis has been predicated on hand-waving away the differences between the books and the show that it’s often overlooked how little the HBO series actually mentioned these fateful heroes or the conditions they would need to be reborn. At this point, the books and the series are two different beasts, with two wildly different things going on.
So yes, Arya Stark was the one who brought down the Night King on the show Game of Thrones. But don’t be surprised if, come Winds of Winter, she’s doing something completely different. What that is, only George R.R. Martin knows; we’ll find out when he’s ready to share it.