Mance Rayder’s death is an essential moment in Game of Thrones, yet the aftermath plays out quite differently in the books.
On the screen and on the page, Mance was an impressive figure, and the buildup to his “demise” is fairly similar. He achieved the seemingly impossible feat of uniting all manner of Free Folk–often referred as wildlings –in order to secure them a future free of the rising Others/White Walkers and their massive wight army. His ability to unite factions of wildlings who’d long hated each another earned Mance the nickname “King Beyond the Wall.” Mance was about to crush the Night’s Watch — who he’d previously been a part of — once and for all when Stannis Baratheon and his army arrived, resulting in a swift end to Mance and his long-fought campaign.
With Mance refusing to bend the knee and serve Stannis, the King Beyond the Wall was to be burned alive as an example of what happens to those who don’t follow Stannis and his closest ally Melisandre. The public burning of Mance became an essential moment for Jon Snow and his relationships with Stannis and the wildlings. Believing Mance to have been honorable in his own way, Jon couldn’t stand seeing Mance’s slow and agonizing demise, so he had Mance mercifully killed quickly with arrows instead.
This action helps the wildlings learn to trust and respect Jon as he put himself at risk to give their leader a more merciful execution. It initially earned the ire of Stannis, feeling as though Jon undermined his authority, but it ultimately proved to Stannis that Jon was truly a son of Ned Stark, doing what he thought was right no matter the cost.
The aftermath of Mance’s death
In the show, Mance truly died in that moment and it was the end of his character’s life. The books told a more complicated story as Jon later discovered that Melisandre glamoured the wildling Rattleshirt to look like Mance, meaning that it was actually Rattleshirt who died in front of everyone at Castle Black and not Mance. Meanwhile, the man everyone thought was Rattleshirt was actually Mance in disguise. When Jon learned that Arya Stark — in actuality Jeyne Poole — was going to wed Ramsay Bolton, Melisandre convinced Jon to send Mance to retrieve “Arya” at Wintefell.
Disguised as a bard named Abel, Mance, along with six wildling women, went to Winterfell and executed a plan to escape with “Arya” and bring her to Castle Black. He enlisted Theon Greyjoy to help with the escape, though Theon knew that the young woman was actually Jeyne Poole and not Arya Stark.
While Theon managed to escape with Jeyne, Jon Snow later received a letter from Ramsay Bolton claiming that Mance had been captured and the wildling women with him were killed. In his typically cruel nature, Ramsay claimed to have Mance imprisoned in an outdoor cage, only able to wear a cloak made from the skin of the six wildling women who traveled with him to Winterfell. That is the last audiences heard of Mance Rayder in George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons.
Who did it better?
Without knowing for sure where George R. R. Martin is taking Mance’s stories in the books, it’s difficult to say whether the books or show made the better move, but for now we’re going to go with the show.
Mance’s death paved the way for Jon to partner with the wildlings in a manner that wouldn’t have been possible while Mance was alive and in power. The King Beyond the Wall was wise enough to form a plan that would save his people from the threat of the Others/White Walkers. However, he wasn’t wise enough to realize that the only way to survive was to cast aside longstanding prejudices between his people and the people of Westeros, and that both sides banding together was the only way forward.
As of now in the books, Mance’s story after his supposed demise feels unnecessarily convoluted and it’s difficult to see how it’s best serving the story. The story of Jon Snow and the wildlings in the books is still moving in the same direction as the show, regardless of the major difference in Mance’s story. At this point it’s challenging to see where Mance fits into all that, even if he survives Ramsay Bolton’s sadistic punishments. Perhaps the long awaited sixth book The Winds of Winter will justify the decision to keep Mance alive in such a complicated way, but for now it seems like the show was smart enough to take out such an impressive character at exactly the right time.
Season 8 of Game of Thrones premieres on April 14 on HBO.