The Free Folk are the collection of tribes, villagers and forest-dwellers who live north of the Wall. They are commonly called wildlings in the Seven Kingdoms. They claim descent from the First Men and worship the Old Gods of the Forest, the same as northmen.
The Free Folk include (but are not limited to) the following groups:
- The inhabitants of Thenn, a remote mountainous valley ruled by a Magnar.
- The fisherfolk and raiders who live along the Frozen Shore.
- Mountain-dwellers from the Frostfangs.
- The inhabitants of villages such as Whitetree.
- Deserters from the Night's Watch who have turned their cloaks to join the wildlings.
After the War for the Dawn, when the Wall was built by Bran the Builder in alliance with the Children of the Forest, the ancestors of the Free Folk chose to remain north of it. They remained independent as the Kingdom of the North was forged and later, after the Targaryen Conquest as well. The Free Folk call those south of the Wall 'kneelers' for choosing to be ruled by hereditary monarchs rather than picking their own chieftains and rulers based on merit.
Some years after the establishing of the Wall, the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night's Watch was seduced by an undead woman from beyond the Wall. He became the Night's King and tried to raise an army from the Night's Watch. The King in the North and the King-Beyond-the-Wall, Joramun, joined forces to destroy him.
In 184 AL, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, Raymun Redbeard, invaded the Seven Kingdoms by scaling the Wall and taking the Night's Watch unawares. Lord Willam Stark and Lord Umber united to destroy his army at the Battle of Long Lake. Though Redbeard was slain, so was Lord Willam. The late-arriving Night's Watch forces under Lord Commander Jack Musgood were ordered by his younger brother and heir, Artos Stark, to help bury the dead as punishment for their laxity.
There was no further major threat from the Free Folk until Mance Rayder of the Night's Watch turned his cloak and joined them. He rose in stature and rank to become King-Beyond-the-Wall. With the resurgent Others driving the Free Folk south, Rayder unified them into a single army more than forty thousand strong, and led them in an assault on the Wall at Castle Black. Rayder was defeated by the late-arriving forces under King Stannis Baratheon and taken prisoner. Thanks to the diplomacy of Jon Snow, it was agreed that those wildlings who were willing to swear an oath to Stannis would be allowed to pass south through the Wall, as long as they then aided in its defence against the Others.
Rayder was publicly executed, but it was later revealed that it was really a wildling chieftain named Rattleshirt who had been killed, thanks to a cloaking spell created by the red priestess Melisandre. Melisandre and Stannis spared Mance so he might redeem himself by aiding in their plan to capture Winterfell from balls of the Boltons.
The Free Folk culture is similar to that of the northmen. They also worship the old gods and they are similarly descended from the First Men. However, they are also fractious, independently-minded and are quick to anger and violence. Many of them have their own, rough codes of honor and find the ways of the southerners to be soft and baffling.
Most of the time, the Free Folk bicker and fight amongst themselves. During very rare occasions, however, they are united behind a common ruler, the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Such kings are only proclaimed, never inherited, and rule by earning the respect of all or most of the Free Folk factions through valour, bravery and intelligence.