“The Night’s Watch is a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm. I’ve seen you looking at Yoren and his boys. These are your new brothers, Jon Snow, how do you like them? Sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves, and bastards like you all wind up on the Wall, watching for grumkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about.”
Synopsis: Jon Snow, Tyrion and Benjen Stark travel towards the Wall, where they encounter Yoren and two imprisoned “recruits” for the Nights Watch. Snow and Tyrion have a heart-to-heart about literacy, disability, the true nature of the Night’s Watch, although Tyrion gets knocked down by Ghost when he angers the nascent warg.
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.
EDIT: Finally finished. Sorry about the mix-up folks; won’t happen again.
Tyrion II is another short chapter where we learn a lot about the politics of Westeros, here through one conversation between the outcasts of two Great Houses. Interestingly, despite the parallels made between bastards and dwarfs in Jon I, here it’s made clear that Jon has a clear advantage over Tyrion in his physical ableness (in part because Tyrion’s unlikely tumbling skills abruptly vanish), and what makes them equals is that they share a common envy of their older siblings (although we don’t get confirmation on Jon’s side until Storm of Swords). Another interesting aspect of their conversation is that we get a much richer view of how the Lannisters view themselves – more so than virtually any Westerosi Great House, the Lannisters see themselves as a common enterprise where Tywin the Hand, Jaime the Kingslayer, Cersei the Queen, Joffrey the Prince, and Tyrion all do their “part for the honor of [their] house.”
Tyrion both understands and embodies the endless grasping ambition of his House – as he puts it, “the Lannisters never declined, graciously or otherwise. The Lannisters took what is offered” even as he takes Benjen’s cloak to spite the Stark’s anti-Lannister prejudice. This ambition springs, I think, from the fact that the Lorens remember not only that they were Kings before the Targaryens, but also that King Loren Lannister of the Rock came inches away from carrying the day at the Field of Fire, whereas the Starks knelt and were largely left alone.
However, the real topic of Jon and Tyrion’s conversation is the virtue of realism – whether Jon Snow will become a man who “sees the hard truth” – through their conversation on the Night’s Watch. In previous chapters, we’ve seen the typical Northern view through the eyes of the Starks that the Night’s Watch is an honorable vocation, a necessary defense of their realm from the wildlings (if not from the White Walkers), and now we get a rather harsher view from Tyrion. The Prologue shows us something in between: the Watch may be “a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm,” but in the face of supernatural evil, Ser Waymar Royce fights to the death and even the former poacher Will risks his life to bring proof of the Others back to the Wall.
While it takes Jon Snow a good deal of time to get there (and personally, I find Jon Snow a much more interesting character when he jettisons the hero’s journey and settles down to work), I think a good bit of Jon Snow’s successes as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch stem from his taking this advice to see the Night’s Watch as it really is. His decision to focus the Night’s Watch on archery rather than swordplay is a good innovation, given the reality of a relatively small force defending a 700-foot-tall wall; likewise, his decision to settle the wildlings on the Wall and the Gift comes from his experience that the men of the Watch and the wildlings are basically the same despite their cultural differences. And yet, at the same time, I think Jon Snow ends up seeing even further than Tyrion – he is perhaps one of the only men in the world to understand that the Night’s Watch was never meant to fight wildlings.
And what is Tyrion’s scabrous view of the black brothers of the Wall? Chiefly, and not without reason, he sees the Night’s Watch as basically a gigantic penal colony, with two rapers standing as evidence. Not only that, but the first three categories of criminals Tyrion names – sullen (i.e, uppity) peasants, debtors, and poachers – paint the Night’s Watch as complicit in an unequal and unjust legal system meant to oppress the vast majority of the population into submission. As I discussed way back in the Prologue, poaching was a heavily politicized crime as peasants sought to defend customary privileges to game, firewood, and grazing land in the face of the encroachments of their overlords. Likewise, the practice of debtor’s prison was a constant catalyst for class conflict between the rich and the poor going back to classical Athens and the Roman Republic. Finally, the label “sullen” was historically applied to a particular form of resistance among the peasantry, a kind of silent work-to-rule where peasants simply ignored their feudal obligations without making any affirmative steps towards rebellion. The Night’s Watch therefore protects the landowner against the landless rural laborer, the moneylender against the debtor, and the lord against the unruly vassal.
However, we can learn two important things from this list – first, it’s unlikely that the peasants of Westeros are fully serfs (which is also indicated by the prohibition against slavery and the fact that peasants tend to move about quite often throughout Martin’s oeuvre). We also learn that the Night’s Watch is a place for bastards (and later, for second and third sons of the nobility). While incompletely egalitarian at best, the Night’s Watch does at least offer a hope for social mobility in that virtually everyone there is an outcast and most of them are low birth.
This irony – that a place meant to keep down the lowly becomes a place where the lowly can rise, however difficult the rise – parallels nicely with the historical policy pursued by the British Empire in the 18th and 19th century of using penal colonies, chiefly to deal with a rise in property crimes brought on by the completion of the enclosure of the commons and the first true recessions under a wage-based labor market. For those looking for a good popular account of this period, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore lays out in some really inspired writing how the British turned to Australia both out of fear of the discontented lower classes and a fear of the larger state required to imprison them on British soil. And yet despite their initial enslavement and use as unfree agricultural laborers, the former convicts rose unstoppably – thanks in large part to the availability of virtually free land – to claim equal status to the so-called “Bunyip aristocracy” of soldiers and officials.
The Night’s Watch is quite different in two respects: instead of enslaving the Night’s Watch, the government of Westeros arms and feeds them as a military force (granted, much of the British military of this period was also forcibly recruited from the jails, so there’s a parallel there), and at the same time, it limits their potential rise by forbidding them the right to hold land or start families. Why this doesn’t lead to rebellion or desertion isn’t entirely clear – in part, it may be that the Gift allows the members of the Night’s Watch to enjoy the benefits of land-holding without the work, and it may be that the enmity of the Wildlings and the privations of life beyond the Wall are sufficient to prevent most from escaping into the North (historically, convicts in Australia managed some pretty dramatic escapes despite equally foreboding surroundings).
And yet in Jon Snow’s tenure, this distinction is beginning to blur. The marriage of the Magnar of Thenn to Alys Karstark, the tentative relationships forming between brothers of the Night’s Watch and wildling spearwives, the transplantation of Stannis Baratheon’s Stormlander lords, the building of beacon towers along the Wall, the settling of new peoples along the Gift – change is coming to the Night’s Watch, sooner or later.
Finally, this chapter gives us a good glimpse into the Field of Fire, the climactic battle at which the Targaryen ascendancy over Westeros can truly said to have begun. At this battle, the foot soldiers of Targaryen broke and ran before the charge of a force ten times their size, as two Andal kings sought to drive out this invader. Unfortunately for the Andals, three dragons are worth more than 45,000 soldiers, as the sheer shock of losing 4,000 men and the last Gardener King brought the heart of the Seven Kingdoms under Targaryen rule. I’m not the first to have said this, but there is an eerie similarity between the Field of Fire and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the death of Harold Godwinson brought about the end of Saxon Britain and the beginning of Norman rule, with all of the political, economic, social, and cultural consequences this brought. In both cases, a relatively small force (William the Conqueror’s army numbered only 20,000) won the battle despite an initial rout due to the sudden death of a king on the field of battle.
What’s a little frustrating about Martin’s work is that for all the thought he’s put into the series, we don’t get as clear of a sense about the consequences of the Targaryen invasion beyond the political. We know that seven kingdoms were united, we can see the creation of a royal bureaucracy, and so forth, but there isn’t much of a sense of cultural change. Unlike the Normans, who brought their own language, legal system, and culture to England, and who imposed it by force on the country for hundreds of years until they finally assimilated as English, the Valyrian heritage seems to be much thinner on the ground than that of the Andals. Surely, when Aegon conquered a continent with 1,500 men, more than just Orys Baratheon must have gained from it. And yet, most of the Great Houses – Starks, Tullys, Lannisters, Arryns, and Martells – are either First Men, Andals, or Rhoynish in origin. There seems to be relatively in the way of Valyrian names to distinguish the new arrivals from their Andal subjects, the legal system seems to have remained largely Andal in origin, written records seem to have remained largely in the Andal tongue, and so forth.
It may well have been that the smaller invasion force compared to the conquered population, and the lack of a Valyria to drive immigration to the new lands, blunted this cultural effect, but it would be nice to see some exploration of how the conquest of Westeros shaped more than the Targaryens themselves.
Sadly, because this chapter is more about a conversation that reveals the character’s personality rather than decisions being made or actions being taken, I don’t really see much scope for hypotheticals in Tyrion II.
TV vs. Book:
This scene in the TV show is actually almost identical to that in the books, although we don’t quite get the political side of Tyrion’s perspective on the Night’s Watch, although I understand that that’s an incredibly minor detail. The main loss is unfortunately driven by the change in format – without Tyrion’s interior dialogue, we can’t learn about his fascination with dragons or get any of the info dump on dragonbone and the like.
On the other hand, as much as I like reading about that, I can only imagine how dull it would be to watch on the tv screen.