The first time I encountered a lich (at least knowingly) was while watching Adventure Time. In Cartoon Network's animated series The Lich is the ultimate villain, a cosmic evil awakened by a nuclear blast and determined to destroy the magical world that sprung up in the radioactive aftermath of war.
At the time, I assumed that The Lich was yet-another original creation from the infinitely creative Adventure Time team, but then I started to notice the same name and characteristics (skeletal body, intelligent, pure evil) pop up in countless TV shows, video games and other corners of geek culture. Lich are everywhere, from Dota 2 and Final Fantasy to Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
That's right, even Game of Thrones' big bad the Night King is a lich (at least by our relatively loose definition of the word). So what does that say about the icy undead invader from the north? To answer that question we need to take a look at the long history of the lich, beginning over 100 years ago.
The lich isn't a singular evil figure. Instead, it's a type of monster with human origins, similar to a vampire or werewolf. The word has appeared in writing dating back to the late 1800s, and in the century since it's inspired some of the most iconic villains of modern culture while also serving as an umbrella term for the undead in video games, TV shows and movies.
To put it simply, a lich is an undead magic user. Its exact form can vary, but it's typically portrayed as a powerful magician that gives up their humanity in exchange for immortality and power. They usually look like skeletons, but they're still intelligent. They also often rely on external objects imbued with bits of their soul to survive. Remind you of anyone?
One of the earliest references to the word lich appears in the short story "The Death of Halpin Frayser," written by Ambrose Bierce and published in 1891. It features a woman who returns from death to kill, and describes the lich as a walking corpse with purely evil intentions:
"A lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate," Bierce writes. "Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether."
More recently, in 1976, Dungeons & Dragons defined the lich as we largely know it today: "These skeletal monsters are of magical origin, each Lich formerly being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life," the official D&D rulebook reads, "and are now alive only by means of great spells and will because of being in some way disturbed."
Now that we have a definition, let's take a look at some modern examples of liches in action. In video games, the lich is almost unavoidable, but the way in which its represented can vary drastically from the traditional definition to a horde of nameless skeleton enemies.
Countless video games have included lich characters, or even allowed the player to become a lich by choice. Distinct liches show up in Dishonored and Dishonored 2, and in the original Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy XII. There are lich bosses in Gauntlet Dark Legacy and indie hit TowerFall, and you can play as Ethreain the Lich in Dota 2. In one Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim mod, human necromancers can even turn themselves into liches using black magic.
In other video games, liches often serve a diminished role as armies of the undead almost indistinguishable from zombies aside from their skeleton form. You can summon liches to fight for you in BioWare's Neverwinter Nights. Liches also exist as a class of undead enemy in Sierra Game's 2001 RPG Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and in Clan Lord, the first MMORPG for Mac computers released in the 1998.
The exact definition of the lich may be a bit blurred when it comes to video games, but the term is as relevant as ever. Liches also appear regularly in TV and movies, even if the specific word isn't always used.
Harry Potter arch-villain Voldemort is essentially a lich. He's a powerful wizard who exists somewhere between life and death and hides his soul in a series of objects called Horcruxes. He also looks a bit like a skeleton thanks to his missing nose and bald, white head.
Game of Thrones takes a few more liberties with the concept of the lich, but there's no denying that the Night King is inspired by the concept. (Warning: skip to the next paragraph if you don't want some key plot points from the last few GoT seasons spoilers for you.) The Night King is clearly intelligent, drawing Daenerys into a trap to kill one of her dragons and transform it into a member of his undead army in season 7 episode "Beyond the Wall." We also know that he was originally a man, although the Night King he didn't transform by choice. Instead, he was forcefully turned into a monster by the Children of the Woods.
So if the Night King is a lich, what does that say about his intentions leading into the final season of Game of Thrones? Is he pure evil, a more nuanced character with human motivations, a mindless skeleton or some sort of combination of all three?
According to the strictest definition of the term, we can assume that the Night King is an intelligent enemy with evil intentions. Then again, the lich is clearly open to interpretation, and after seven seasons we should know better than to expect the Game of Thrones showrunners to play by the rules.