“Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year…it is hard to take orders from a man you laughed at in your cups.”
“He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. Yet in that moment, Will thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch.”
Synopsis: Three Night’s Watchmen, Gared (a scarred veteran), Will (a former poacher), and Ser Waymar Royce (newly-fledged officer, third son of Lord “Bronze” Yohn Royce of the Vale) conduct a ranging nine days beyond the Wall in search of wildling raiders. Will finds the wildling camp, with eight men and women seemingly dead from the cold. Ser Waymar orders an inspection, but when the watchmen arrive at the campsite, the bodies have vanished. Will climbs a tree, and thus is unseen as Ser Waymar is surrounded by White Walkers; Gared runs away sometime around when they appear. Ser Waymar duels vainly against one of the White Walkers, but his sword breaks, blinding him, and he is butchered. Will climbs down to retrieve Royce’s sword as proof, but is captured or killed by the wight of Ser Waymar before he can make his escape.
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.
More focused on horror, suspense, action, and setting and mood than plot or world-building, the Prologue nevertheless gives several clues as to the social and political customs and institutions of Westeros. George R.R Martin sets up a dramatic through-line of class conflict between the grizzled, experienced commoner and the inexperienced young nobleman that builds and builds before suddenly and terrifyingly being interrupted by a far more explicit form of conflict. Gared and Wymar clash repeatedly, over whether to press on to fulfill a pointless mission (who cares about finding dead wildlings?), over their respective equipment (Gared’s insufficient clothing, Wymar’s inappropriate mount and weaponry), whether to set a fire, and most importantly about fear.
And what we see here is that the supposedly meritocratic Night’s Watch, where “even a bastard may rise high” in Ned’s words, the class system of feudalism and serfdom is perpetuated. Ser Wymar is patently unfit to lead this expedition, and yet he is in command because he is a knight and the son of a lord, and Will and likely Gared are criminals and peasants, doubly chained. It is likely from the text that Ser Waymar knows that he has no idea what he’s doing, but he’s terrified of “going back to Castle Black a failure on [his] first ranging,” terrified of failing to live up to his role as a knight and officer, and thus resentful of Gared’s superior expertise. To restore the correct order, Waymar projects his fears – the dead, the dark, the wind, the cold, strange sounds – onto the veteran and remind him who’s boss by countermanding Gared’s suggestions in ways that get them killed. Throughout the history of war, there have been thousands of Waymars, ignorant young officers who resented and feared the expertise of their subordinates, who acted to preserve their egos and save face rather than from good military sense, and who got their men killed as a result. Waymars ordered men over the top in the trenches of WWI, Waymars ordered men to charge tanks with cavalry in WWII, and Waymars were fragged in Vietnam.
Gared by contrast knows the North-beyond-the-Wall, knows the business of ranging better than his better, but he must obey Ser Waymar. Unlike those citizen-soldiers of a democracy in Vietnam, Gared does not and cannot truly think himself the equal of a knight. Every time he clashes with Ser Waymar with those forty years of experience (forty years in an age in which a man of twenty one would live on average to only sixty-four) behind him, Gared backs down. He can mock Waymar behind his back, but when the final clash comes over whether they should build a potentially life-saving fire (given what we learn later about White Walkers and fire), and Will thinks Gared might go for his sword and butcher the green knight, he acquiesces. His capacity for rebellion is summed up by his decision to quietly go AWOL so that he might die a few weeks’ later at Lord Stark’s own hand.
A few more points: we learn that the nobility claim exclusive rights to particular woods and punish poaching, and inherit by primogeniture. Historically, the claiming of exclusive hunting and foresting rights was a chronic source of conflict and controversy between local peasantry and their feudal lords – there’s a reason why the rebel Robin Hood was an archer. Likewise, the practice of primogeniture in the nobility caused problems as thousands of heavily armed trained men without regular income took to brigandry and warfare. Europe turned to the Crusades as a solution to too many knights for too little land; Westeros seems to have turned to the Wall instead. For both lords and peasants, then, the Wall is a social safety valve. We also learn that the Night’s Watch act more like a sieve than a wall as regards what lies beyond the Wall; they ensure that wildlings can only creep past the wall in small groups, at high potential costs of death.
Finally, a thought about bravery and cowardice. While Ser Waymar spends most of the chapter trying to stave off failure (although he does catch that it’s been too warm for people to freeze to death), he does something that few men could actually do – surrounded by five beings of nightmarish legend, he fights on to the death in defense of king and country. Something he holds in common with all the other doomed Waymars of history. Will stays silent up in his tree, not even giving Ser Waymar the warning that might have prompted him to flee. Does this make Will a coward? For all his experience, in the moment of crisis, Gared abandons his mission, his oath, and runs away to die an oathbreaker’s death; Will doesn’t run, although his position up the tree didn’t give him the opportunity. Left alone, he makes the choice to pick up the sword, to continue the mission and warn the Night’s Watch about a deadly and unseen threat. There’s bravery there.
GRRM has said in interviews that his inspiration for the Wall and the Night’s Watch came from a visit to Hadrian’s Wall on what was once the Scottish border, imagining himself a legionary sent to guard a wall at the end of the known world, waiting for barbarians to come howling out of the forests to ravage the civilized world and thinking “what if the legionaries were facing something worse than barbarians?” Hadrian’s Wall was constructed roughly between 118-128 AD as part of the Emperor Hadrian’s larger defensive policy of retreating from Trajan’s expansionist policy in Dacia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia, to more defensible lines across the Roman Empire. The historical Wall is about a fourth as long and a seventieth as tall as Martin’s Wall, but then again, it didn’t need to hold out White Walkers.
The ironic thing is that recent historians have substantially overturned that old image of Hadrian’s Wall as a grim holdfast against barbarian invaders. Historians now think that the Wall was more of a political and economic instrument, a way to impress Rome’s power on the Pictish tribes, to cut down on cattle rustling and smuggling, and to serve as a trade entrepôt where customs duties could be imposed more easily on cattle and hides. Hadrian’s Wall was never attacked by the Picts, and was superseded by a further Antonine Wall built about twenty years later as the line of pacification advanced further north. Letters home from the garrison depict a less grim life than that of the Night’s Watch – official requests for more beer and only occasional reports of skirmishes beyond the wall, letters from soldiers asking for more shipments of socks and underwear and starting lucrative sidelines as merchants trading cloth, pottery, jewelry, and the like for livestock, religious festivals, and invitations to birthday parties. The Roman Emperors encouraged their soldiers, recruited from all over the Empire (to discourage separatist rebellions), to marry and have children, and offered them land near their old postings upon their retirement; the idea was to settle the frontier with trained military men who would produce sons to follow them in their profession. Aside from the weather, it sounds like a fairly decent life.
Martin’s Wall has very different purposes and thus a totally different feel. The unnatural nature of the Wall mirrors the unnatural nature of what the Wall is supposed to keep out; the brutish life of Night’s Watchmen calls into question how different they really are from the Wildlings on the other side of the Wall, as Tyrion notes. And unlike Scotland, the North-beyond-the-Wall cannot be pacified. Only until the Wildlings come South can the people, not the land, begin the process of “civilizing.”
For all that people say that the Prologue of Game of Thrones is something of a tease, and as a supernatural bit of horror, unconnected to the larger plot of political manueverings, murder investigations, jousting, and war that makes up the rest of the book, there is one important connection to the rest of the plot that had the potential to really change events: Ser Waymar Royce’s shattered sword. If Will had been less paralyzed by the sight of the wight-Royce, and made his way back to Castle Black, what would have happened?
Firstly, the Night’s Watch is instantly alerted to the threat of the White Walkers at a time when the Warden of the North and the King are present in the North, as opposed to when the two “corpses” are discovered at Castle Black, at which point Lord Eddard Stark is imprisoned in the Red Keep, the Lannisters and Starks are at war, and King Robert is dead. While it’s far from certain that King Robert would have listened to Benjen Stark’s warnings, a broken sword, and a poacher, Eddard Stark would have. In that situation, it’s hard to see Eddard Stark leaving the North as the Hand of the King. For the want of a sword…
Secondly, Benjen Stark isn’t sent out to find what happened to Ser Waymar Royce. By itself, this has the potential to change the plot up at the Wall. With Benjen Stark present, Jon Snow doesn’t become Commander of the Night’s Watch after the death of Jeor Mormont since Stark is the obvious candidate – which possibly means that Snow isn’t assigned to serve as Mormont’s squire and becomes a ranger instead. And possibly, if the theory that Benjen Stark took the black shortly after the Rebellion because he was complicit in Lyanna’s elopement with Rhaegar is accurate, Jon Snow finds out the truth of his parentage.
But that’s not what happened. Martin needed Eddard Stark to go south so that the War of the Five Kings could happen and the Night’s Watch warning lost a second time, and Jon Snow’s heritage has to be postponed until after he’s earned the right to be called a hero.
Book vs. Show:
For the most part, the opening scene in Episode 1 of Game of Thrones plays out more or less like the book. We see the three Night’s Watchmen passing under the Wall and out the other side, and there’s less of a sense how far out they are from the Wall, but the conflict between Gared and Ser Waymar is still there. The first big difference is in the appearance of the dead, who look to be dismembered and laid out in an occult circle of some kind.
This is immediately more shocking than George R.R Martin’s more sedate image of the dead, and I think it’s a good example of why fidelity to the spirit, rather than the letter, of the work is better for adaptations. Martin has hundreds of words to build up the tension of what’s happening, bringing in the cold, the wind, the noises, and thus it’s not as crucial that we only hear second-hand what the camp-site looked like initially. In a visual medium, there’s only a few minutes to accomplish the same effect, so first impressions matter – the sudden visual of these mutilated bodies and the unnatural positioning hits the viewer with the same disoriented shock that Will experienced, bringing them almost bodily into the haunted woods of the far North.
What does change rather dramatically is that Ser Waymar Royce is decapitated without a fight, which is a dramatic choice that I respect although I feel it wrongs the doomed noble idiot. Instead of bringing up questions of courage and honor right away (since that’s going to be brought up in the very next scene at Winterfell), the writers and director opt instead for maximum shock – Royce dies, the two remaining Watchmen run, and we get a chase sequence through the woods which ends with the sudden death of Gared. This amps up the White Walkers considerably, which may be necessary, given that we don’t see even wights until episode seven.
All the same, something is lost here of the lives of three ordinary men beset by the extraordinary. It might not matter for the show that Waymar goes down without a chance to fight back, that Will runs immediately, or that Gared dies in the forest from a very different icy blade, or that theres a slight plothole as to how Will gets away from the wights (maybe the White Walkers are sending a message, but that dramatically changes their nature). But it matters to the Waymars, Gareds, and Wills of Westeros; the story is all they have, after all.
Finally – people have argued that there’s a plot hole in that Will is last seen north of the Wall kneeling in shock and horror as Gared’s head is tossed to him amidst the unearthly laughter of the White Walkers; how did Will survive to desert? I actually don’t think this is a plot hole, but rather a rather unusual dramatic choice – the White Walker tosses Will Gared’s head as a warning and lets him live to bear witness to the horror that awaits the realms. This is a bold choice; on the one hand, it makes the White Walkers definitively intelligent whereas GRRM avoided tying himself down on this question, which might have the effect of anthropomorphizing them and making them less inhuman. On the other, and this is where I come down, it really gives us a moment of Fridge Horror when we realize the White Walkers are so powerful that they don’t care if the Night’s Watch knows they’re coming.