“I never asked for this,” he said stubbornly.
“None of us are here for asking.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Jon VI gives us a nice breather from the heavy intrigue in King’s Landing, but it also gives a further glimpse into the institutional politics of the Night’s Watch, both the good and the bad of it.
Center-stage here is the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, who gives the longest explication of his personal vision of what the Night’s Watch is and what it should stand for that he puts forth in the entire series:
You came to us outlaws…poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.
…A man of the Night’s Watch lives his life for the realm. Not for a king, nor a lord, nor the honor of this house or that house, neither for gold nor glory nor a woman’s love, but for the realm and all the people in it.
In the context of Westerosi society, Mormont’s vision is both sweepingly radical and subtly conservative. The Watch is seen as a formally egalitarian institution that erases pervasive class distinctions – although it’s noticeable that in addition to your genuine criminals (rapers, killers, and thieves) you also have people forced into the Watch by economic necessity (poachers and debtors). Given the powerful attachment to House in a feudal society that distinguishes sharply between smallfolk, knights, and landed Houses Great and Small, to argue that “we are all one house” is a powerful statement of equality that could appeal to many. Likewise, for formal criminals, the promise of a clean slate is quite an incentive.
At the same time, it’s a demanding ascetic worldview that insists on a total separation from the human family – “our wife is duty, our mistress is honor” – in favor of the makeshift brotherhood of the order, which is a lot to ask of anyone. In Medieval Europe, monastic orders had a hegemonic religious worldview at hand to use to backstop the strictness of their Rule; the Night’s Watch does not have that luxury. The Night’s Watch does make use of religion – the Lord Commander is making this speech in front of the altar in a Sept of the Seven, after all. However, his rhetoric is entirely secular to the point of cosmopolitanism (hence both the Old Gods and the New).
Rather, Mormont posits a nationalistic foundation to shore up allegiance to the Watch’s strict rule. The realm is held up as a universal entity, where all the divisions of class and region are erased; especially in the Lord Commander’s idea that “all the people” are due protection as members of the realm, it approaches the early modern idea of the Commonwealth that marked much of Tudor politics. It’s an incredibly high-minded ideal, but a rather abstract one, especially given the historical context. Westeros has only been a polity for three hundred years, and even then a highly federalized one built on top of Seven Kingdoms and three peoples; it has a common language, but not a common religion, culture, or ethnic heritage. Without the experience of an extended military conflict with a different people to provide the impulse to unite and define oneself in opposition to the Other, nationalism is far too weak a reed to rely on in a crisis.
It’s also a rather traditionalist view of the Night’s Watch, as we can see from the Night’s Watch oath:
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.“
So here we have in an eight thousand year old oath the concept of allegiance to the “realm,” although here it’s pluralized, reflecting the lack of continent-wide identity prior to the Targaryens. However, there is a species-based identity that speaks to the fact that the Night’s Watch was formed at a time when humanity’s unity was enforced by a very real threat from a hostile Other. And it’s an identity that must have been quite powerful, given that the Night’s Watch predated the Andal invasion yet seems to have been one of the few institutions that was maintained for thousands of years thereafter.
However, if we look beyond Jeor Mormont’s idealism and commitment to tradition to look at Jon Snow’s lived experience, it all begins to break down. Jon Snow’s reaction to being sorted into the stewards shows that, in spite of the rhetoric of equality, there are stark gradations of status between rangers, builders, and stewards that mirror the class divisions between the nobility and the smallfolk. Even someone with Ned Star’s benevolent paternalism, who himself made the argument just the previous day that the Night’s Watch has need for all three groups, cannot maintain the polite fiction that all Night’s Watchmen are equal when his own privilege is affected. As his friends point out to him, “the stewards are fine for the likes of you and me…but not for Lord Snow.” At the end of the day, Jon Snow’s concept of fairness is based on a self-identity as a warrior bound up in his highborn upbringing.
Likewise, Jon Snow’s humbling assignment turns out to be an example of class hierarchy and nepotism in action. As Sam describes, “you’ll also take his letters, attend him at meetings, squire for him in battle….you’ll know everything, be a part of everything and the Lord Steward said Mormont asked for you himself…he wants to groom you for command!” Rather than selecting an experienced officer to promote from within, Mormont is looking to groom a 14 year old from one of the Great Houses to succeed him, and the bastard son of his former liege lord at that. Jon Snow simply fits the model of elite leadership – a well-educated warrior from an illustrious family and an accustomed habit of leadership over smallfolk – better than a Cotter Pyke ever could. The problem is that pushing highborn newcomers up the chain of promotions is an unstable model of succession; not only is the quality of the successor in question (especially if the Lord Commander unexpectedly dies before he can give his steward more than a year of training), but it leads to discontent within the officer corps from people like Alliser Thorne, Bowen Marsh, and so forth who feel their experience has been overlooked.
Class influencing military command isn’t anything new, of course, as one might expect given the historical presence of military castes and classes. During the Medieval era, it was axiomatic that the nobility would lead on the battlefield and that commoners were inconsequential – which caused problems at Crécy and other battles where the nobleman’s desire for glory overcame his common sense. This began to change in the early modern period, as a number of factors (the creation of standing armies, a vast increase in army size, the increased importance of infantry, the more elaborate forms of drill needed to move large blocks of infantry around a battlefield in an organized fashion, etc.) made a professional officer corps (less likely to be noblemen taking a temporary leave of absence from their landed estates) more important for success in arms.
This didn’t end class hierarchy within the army so much as make the officer corps a locus of contention between commoner professionals and the old nobility. During the English Civil War, for example, the quality of noble leadership was so uneven on the Parliamentary side that the creation of the New Model Army went hand-in-hand with the Self-Denying Ordinance that banned Members of Parliament (the Commons as well, but crucially the Lords) from serving as officers, thus ensuring that the leadership of the army would be made up of professional soldiers promoted on merit (with the notable exception of Oliver Cromwell who possessed both a seat in Parliament and undeniable military skill). Among the many reforms that were rolled back during the Restoration of Charles II was the New Model Army and the dangerous idea of a professional officer corps (professional officers had shown a nasty tendency to harbor the idea that as men of merit, they and not kings should rule).
And given that standing armies were now seen as dangerous to English liberty, Parliament was unwilling to grant Charles II enough money to have one of those. Charles’ solution was to sell military commissions to the highest bidder, which turned out to be a win-win for him: since officers were now expected to supply the regiments they had purchased, it didn’t cost him as much money to fight wars, and it made sure that the officer ranks would be made up almost exclusively of the rich, who were unlikely to be approve of further revolutions. Although the practice remained controversial for several years, by 1719 there were official price lists established by the government setting out how much a lieutenantship went for, how much a captaincy, and so on all the way up to Colonel.
It’s pretty clear that there’s a basic problem of quality control with this kind of system – once you move past a social order in which the wealthiest members of society spend their entire lives from childhood on training for war, there’s no guarantee that someone who purchased their commission knew what they were doing. Yes, the purchase of commission system gave Britain Wellington, but it also gave them some of the worst military bumblers of history.
For a devastating portrait of the purchase of commissions leading to utter military disaster, the 1968 production of the Charge of the Light Brigade really can’t be beat.
I don’t really have much in the way of hypotheticals for this chapter, since Jon refusing to take the oath doesn’t really seem to be in the cards.
Book vs. Show
The show plays this chapter pretty close to the text, so I don’t have much for this chapter.
Apologies for the brevity, but next chapter should give me more to work with.