The Children of the Forest existed in Westeros for thousands of years until everything changed. Over 12,000 years before the events of the books and show Westeros saw the arrival of its first human inhabitants: The First Men.
They arrived from the neighboring continent of Essos and they brought two important innovations from their homeland: bronze and agriculture. It also should be noted that while the First Men had a basic runic language they preferred to spread their traditions orally. This resulted in the First Men cutting down large portions of forest to grow food, including the weirwood trees (the trees with faces in them) that the Children found sacred. This, coupled with mounting pressure for living space, resulted in a war between the First Men and the Children. While the Children had their greenseers and powerful magic the First Men eventually ground them down due to higher numbers, bigger stature, and better weapons. The war was long and brutal and the effects are still seen in Westeros thousands of years later.
If you look at the very bottom left of the map you’ll see that Westeros and Essos are separated by a narrow stretch of water. That was originally a land bridge between the two continents and was created by the Children of the Forest in an attempt to cut off the First Men from Essos. Despite this the war dragged on and eventually the First Men and Children made peace. The First Men settled into Westeros creating a thousand small kingdoms, built their farms, and most importantly adopted the religion of the Children by worshiping the weirwood trees with faces carved into them.
At the start of the book the First Men are still around. Although they suffered from the invasion of another group of people called the Andals (we’ll talk about them next) they still survive in places like the North, where the natural defenses of the Neck (a series of bogs and swamps created by the Children in another attempt to fend off the First Men) made sure that Northern First Men culture remained isolated. The Starks of Winterfell still claim to be members of the First Men.
As do many common folk throughout Westeros and the Wildlings north of the Wall.
In short, the First Men hold an important part in the history of Westeros and while they had no written records they are still remembered through stories, lineage, and their surviving descendants living in the North.
The clearest historical similarity for the First Men would be the Celtic tribes of ancient and modern day Britain.
The Celts arrived in Britain around 500 B.C from Europe and like the First Men the Celts introduced bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, to the region. They divided Britain into a large number of petty kingdoms that were constantly warring with each other and had a basic written language, but preferred to pass down their traditions and history orally. Even though these are two important similarities they share with the First Men there are two more similarities that are much more important: their religion and their eventual fate as a people.
When we start talking about Celtic religion and traditions some really spooky similarities start cropping up. When the First Men started carving faces into trees they were literally living with their gods among them. The Celts worshiped nature and animal spirits, that their gods surrounded them and played a part of their everyday life. One of most important aspects of Celtic religion was the worship of trees like the oak, apple, and yew tree. Fun fact: the expression “knock on wood” comes from Celtic religion where it was believed that knocking on a tree would invite a spirit to come out and assist you with whatever you needed.
The second similarity between the Celts and the First Men is their eventual fate. At the beginning of the Bronze Age there is archaeological evidence that the Celts were spread out all over Europe.
Unfortunately, mounting pressure from the Romans in the South and Germanic people in the West ensured that the Celts would eventually loose most of their cultural dominance until they were pushed back into the northern parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales which remain holdouts of Celtic culture to this day.
Next time we’ll talk about the Andal invasion of Westeros and several key locations that play a major part of in the story.
If you’d like to learn more about the Celts themselves there is a whole host of academic work about them. Some of the more prominent names are Barry Cunliffe, Simon James, and Lloyd Laing.