15

In the first episode of the first season, Winter is Coming, three rangers come across a wildling camp killed by a White Walker. The walker then kills 2 of the rangers, but allows Gared to live.

In episode 10 of the second season, Valar Morghulis, Samwell Tarly sees an army of wights led by a White Walker. The walker spares (ignores) Samwell Tarly but attacks the camp at the Fist of First Men. (Also noteworthy is that some wights also pass Sam just before the White Walker on his horse does, and either don't see him or ignore him.)

The walkers clearly spared these two people because they could have overpowered and killed either.

From a tactical point of view, the walkers gain nothing by sparing anyone. They are better off killing the person and thereby recruiting the person into their undead army. And the downside is that the survivor can warn others who would then flee the walkers. The result is that the walkers have fewer people to recruit because many humans fled.

Is there an explanation for why the White Walkers sometimes spare somebody?

I prefer an answer from the books, but I will take one from the TV shows.

10

Three rangers in the Prologue of Game of Thrones were Will, Gared, and Waymar Royce. In the book Will was up a tree, hiding and watching:

“On your feet, Will,” Ser Waymar commanded. “There’s no one here. I won’t have you hiding under a bush.”

Reluctantly, Will obeyed.

Ser Waymar looked him over with open disapproval. “I am not going back to Castle Black a failure on my first ranging. We will find these men.” He glanced around. “Up the tree. Be quick about it. Look for a fire.” .
.
.
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Will, where are you?” Ser Waymar called up. “Can you see anything?” He was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his sword in hand. He must have felt them, as Will felt them. There was nothing to see. “Answer me! Why is it so cold?”

It was cold. Shivering, Will clung more tightly to his perch. His face pressed hard against the trunk of the sentinel. He could feel the sweet, sticky sap on his cheek.

His commander, Waymar Royce fought the white walkers and died:

Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.

The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery.

When he finally came down Royce came back to "life" and killed him.

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him.

His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye.

The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw.

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.

The third ranger, Gared, ran off before the white walkers showed up and was later seen south of the wall. The Starks did not take his talk about white walkers seriously and beheaded him for deserting the Night's Watch.

As for Sam, in Storm of Swords, chapter 18 (first Sam chapter, very close to the end) they are retreating from the Fist of the First Men and encounter a white walker:

And then he was stumbling forward, falling more than running, really, closing his eyes and shoving the dagger blindly out before him with both hands. He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man's foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.

When he opened his eyes the Other's armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in his throat. It reached down with two bone white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked.

  • Thanks for the explanation. I wish the TV show was closer to the book in this scene, since the TV show makes viewers think the walker spared Gared. – RichS Jan 7 '17 at 20:59
  • I never got the impression in the books that anyone was spared. Sam stabbed one with dragon glass and was saved by cold hands from the others. It is strange that the show portrays them as being, what, nicer? or maybe smarter/more strategic? – KAS Jan 7 '17 at 21:04
  • I already upvoted your answer, but if you can edit it to provide actual reference(s) from the book, that would make your answer even better. And could you also expand on your answer by posting from the chapter that describes Sam being spared by the White Walker? (I know another question directly mentions Sam's encounter, but the answer there sounds more like speculation than something posted from the book.) – RichS Jan 8 '17 at 6:57
  • I'm not sure how much I can (am allowed to) quote from the book. In the prologue Gared is described as missing an ear and a couple fingers from frostbite and is only recognizable because the same description is used for the deserter in chapter 1. I'm not sure I can pull all the pieces together with "fair use" size quotes. – KAS Jan 9 '17 at 6:00
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    @RichS Sam wasn't spared by a White Walker. That's also show heresy. He indeed encountered one with gilly and killed him. As to references, I have added the relevant bits. References to proving that the survivor was Gared can be seen in my previous answer here – Aegon Jan 9 '17 at 8:47
1

We Do Not Know

A Song of Ice and Fire

The ranger that lives is indeed Gared but he never actually comes into contact with the Others from what we see. He is commanded to stay with the horses and presumably ran away before the Others found him.

"If I need instruction, I will ask for it," the young lord said. "Gared, stay here. Guard the horses."
A Game of Thrones, Prologue

Game of Thrones

This one is more show hearsay in that the White Walker does appear to let Will live. The last we see in the prologue is a White Walker beheading Gared a few meters away from Will. It then throws Gared's head to him, at this point Will seems to resign himself to his fate and sink to his knees. The next thing we see is Will at the executioners block so clearly he was allowed to live. As for why this is the case, well we don't know but we can speculate the following.

  • To send a message
  • A warning
  • Had no need to kill him
  • Will was no threat

As for the case with Sam and the White Walker looking at him well this appears to be camera trickery. I won't cover it here as it's already got an excellent answer by @Kegg over on Movies. I will include the image here though that appears to show Sam is still hidden behind the rock when the White Walker "looks at him".

White Walker "looks" at Sam

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