The following contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 “The Bells.”
You know what it’s like. You’ve just discovered that your older brother’s girlfriend is every much the insane murderous tyrant that her father is. You’ve just narrowly survived her sacking the biggest city in the continent with her mandate of fire and blood. Then you fight your way out of the rubble only to see…a white horse.
That’s the situation that young Arya Stark finds herself in at the end of Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5 “The Bells.” Clearly the wordless moment between Arya and the white horse bears some significance. In fact, it’s the very final scene of the very busy episode. But what are we to make of that white horse? Is it an important “character” within the story? Or does it symbolize something deeper?
For starters, it’s worth pointing out that the white horse is not the same horse that Arya rode to King’s Landing on. As evidenced by the photo from episode 4 that accompanies this article, and the screengrab from this episode below, both Arya and The Hound rode in on black horses.
This is definitely a new horse…and not one that we’ve seen before. There are two possible purposes for its inclusion at the episode’s end. It could have literal meaning, figurative meaning, or some combination of both.
Figuratively, it’s pretty clear what the horse could represent. And if it’s not clear, don’t think of it so much as a “white horse” but rather a “pale horse.” That should ring some “Bells.” In the Bible’s book of Revelation, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse all ride different mares. The rider known as death rides the “pale horse.” Due to that Biblical reference, the idea of a pale horse has often been synonymous with death. Its Wikipedia disambiguation is a who’s who of spooky literary references from Agatha Christie all the way to Watchmen.
Given the events of Game of Thrones‘ penultimate episode, in which Varys, Euron, Jaime, Cersei, The Hound, The Mountain, and countless other nameless Kings Landing inhabitants die, it’s fair to surmise that the show is borrowing some of the pale horse death imagery in this final moment.
Though if the horse is to be interpretted as “white” and not “pale,” one of the riders of the apocalypse does actually ride a white horse. From Revelations 6:1-2: “Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come.’ I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.”
This “white rider” has been interpretted to mean many things. The most common interpretation is that the white horse means “pestilence,” which doesn’t really fit anything within the show unless Arya has a plague we’re unaware of. Alternatively it’s been known to mean righteousness or war. Arya now certainly does have a righteous task on her hand as it seems she’s en route to take down another Mad Queen, having not gotten the shot to take down one queen.
Another figurative meaning behind the white horse outside of Biblical text, however, could be a commentary on the loss of innocence. All manner of four-legged animals can come to represent innocence in literature. The innocence of deer has gotten a shout out in properties like Stand By Me, The Walking Dead, and more. The horse that Arya sees is white, but positively caked in blood, mud, and all the other detritus of this dying city. What better canvas to display the sins of Daenerys Targaryen than on a huge, white horse?
On a literal level, there is the faint possibility that the horse is actually someone we know. The Stark children (and one in particular) have a proven themselves to be natural wargs i.e. magical individuals who can occupy the headspace of animals. In Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3 “The Long Night,” Bran used his warging ability to jump into a raven and get a closer look at The Night King as he approached. Is it possible that this white horse is actually Bran Stark, appearing to his sister so that he can guide her to safety?
Entirely so. But save for Bran’s one short warg trip earlier on in the season, Game of Thrones has really seemed to try to divest itself from its own magical history as of late. For evidence of that, think of who the horse definitively isn’t…the horse is not Arya’s lost direwolf Nymeria. Arya let Nymeria run away into the Riverlands all the way back in Season 1. Then they meet briefly again in Season 7 when Arya tells her that the budget can no longer aff…that she no longer needs her.
So if the horse was supposed to be a creature of literal importance then it likely would have just been Nymeria…or we would have just been entreated to seeing Bran “operating” the creature already. That makes the likeliest purpose for the horse purely symbolic.
Or perhaps sometimes a horse is just a horse.