“Words won’t make your mother a whore. She was what she was, and nothing Toad says can change that. You know, we have men on the Wall whose mothers were whores.”
Synopsis: Now an novice of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow goes through a series of training bouts with Grenn, Pyp, Dareon, Jeren, and Halden under the watchful gaze of Ser Alliser Thorne. Donal Noye interrupts an attempt at revenge from the other initiates, and lays down some sober truths about class politics, privilege, and leadership. After talking with Tyrion, Jon receives news from Winterfell and improves his mood and his relations with his peers.
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.
In this chapter, we get a much more expansive view of the Night’s Watch as an institution, whereas before we got mostly hints emerging from individuals. The interactions between Jon Snow and Ser Alliser Thorne, between Jon and the other recruits, and between Tyrion and Ser Jeor Mormont, suggest a deep and disturbing degree of institutional dysfunction and a tension between the ideals of the Night’s Watch and its reality.
Not only is Ser Alliser Thorne an instant antagonist in the grand tradition of martinets like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket or Obadiah Hakeswill from the Sharpe series, but he’s also an indicator of something seriously wrong with the Night’s Watch. He’s a sadist and a bully and a coward and a schemer, and what’s worse, he’s bad at his job – as we can see between the contrast of his efforts and Jon’s in teaching the finer points with swordplay. This would be a bad sign in itself (the Night’s Watch doing a bad job when it comes to promoting people to positions of responsibility), but the reason for it, which we learn in Tyrion III, is even worse: Mormont has put Ser Alliser in charge solely because Ser Alliser is an anointed knight.
This runs contrary to the ethos that Jon Snow receives from Benjen Stark and Donal Noye (more on them in a second), but it’s absolutely part and parcel with the reality of a Night’s Watch where an order guarding an impossibly-tall wall emphasizes training with swords (the knight’s weapon) over missile weapons, only occupies 3 out of 19 forts along the wall, and when “a good many rangers have vanished of late” and better men are sent out to the wilds to look for the likes of Ser Waymar Royce.  From the outset, we’re seeing an institution that’s falling to pieces very slowly, and part of what’s killing it is the mistaken belief that knights are better kinds of people than commoners.
What makes this all the more troubling is that the Night’s Watch is supposed to be better than this. Benjen Stark represents the idea of the Night’s Watch as the renunciation of privilege along with family: “on the Wall, a man gets only what he earns…we put aside our old families when we swear our vows.” And although Jon Snow doesn’t really verbalize it that much, I think this is what attracted him to the Watch – a chance to set aside the family he’s so torn over and to prove his worth independently of them. And it’s not an empty ideal – for all that high officers are often officers of high birth, there are also the Cotter Pykes of the Night’s Watch, who has risen from the lowest of births to the command of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. Even in decline, there is still the lingering remnants of what it used to be.
If Benjen Stark represents what might be called the literally vanishing past of a Night’s Watch that once was a place where younger sons of the wealthy freely chose to serve, that was once the first line of defense of the North from the outside threat, Donal Noye represents the hard core of value that keeps the Night’s Watch going. Far more so than Alliser, Donal Noye, the uncommon commoner, the one-armed master smith who had crafted Robert Baratheon’s warhammer, destined for greatness in a way that only a Night’s Watchman could be, is the true teacher. Noye has two lessons to offer: one is for Jon Snow to recognize the ways in which he is privileged (grew up in a castle, is literate, trained in combat) and that he needs to stop wallowing in his personal issues (because otherwise Jon Snow will turn into another Alliser Thorne), but the other is about leadership.
“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.”
First, a word on Donal Noye’s political theory. I don’t have any good figures on this, but my feeling is that the pro-Renly crowd in the ASOIAF fandom is a lot larger than the pro-Stannis fandom, and it’s interesting to see such a critical view expressed by a character who is generally positively regarded. Noye hits on a weak point – Renly is fixated on appearances of power, relies upon the Tyrells even more than Robert was dependent on the Lannisters, and tactically speaking misses an enormous opportunity to seize the throne when he chooses to turn around and relieve the siege on Storm’s End rather than press on to King’s Landing. There’s an extent to which his image as the King who might have been is just an image. On the other hand, Donal Noye’s perception might not be the most accurate: Robert, despite being the “true steel,” turned out to be a less than effective king, whereas Stannis has proven himself to be willing to adapt repeatedly to new situations (converting to a new religion, holding back his desire for revenge when it comes to his turncoat vassals, making the call to go to the Wall’s aid, negotiating with Jon Snow and the Iron Bank of Braavos, adapting his war aims to the politics of the North, etc.). So who knows how accurate the smith is?
Second, I don’t think there’s much of a chance that Jon Snow was going to turn into a Renly – from the beginning, he lacks the absolute self-confidence that comes from having both high birth and all of the qualities that high birth is supposed to come with (good looks, military bearing, charisma and ease of command). But it’s quite possible that Jon Snow could have ended up a Stannis, so brittle and damaged that he couldn’t bend rather than break. And Jon Snow learns to bend almost immediately, taking up the role of the natural leader of his peers, and later bending sufficiently to rise within the Wildling community. How consistently Jon learns is another question, and one we’ll revisit later.
 Interestingly, the backstory behind Alliser’s pathological hatred of Lord Snow hasn’t been revealed in the show – Ser Alliser was a Targaryen loyalist, and a veteran of the losing side on Robert’s Rebellion. A native of the Crownlands around King’s Landing, he saw Tywin Lannister sack the city from the battlements he was defending when Eddard Stark broke through the defenses – and Stark was probably the man who made him choose between death and the Wall. And here comes a boy with the face of the man who destroyed his life. No wonder Ser Alliser develops a pathological hatred of Jon Snow.
 On a complete sidenote, the price of a sword is something that Donal Noye points to as to the influence of class on the novices at the Wall. While it’s true that the bow was the peasant’s go-to weapon compared to the nobleman’s sword, the exact cost of a sword is a bit more complicated. The price varied – at the time of Charlemagne, a sword is reported to have cost 6 cows which would be an enormous cost for a peasant; however, by the 14th century, war swords are recorded to cost roughly 45% of a thatcher’s monthly wages, which isn’t nearly as costly.
I keep looking for good historical parallels to the Night’s Watch, and it’s not easy. Especially with the Wall, there’s a strong temptation to point to the Roman legions, especially the limitanei, the frontier legions who served as the first line of defense especially in the late Roman army; however, the Roman emperors deliberately encouraged them to marry and settle along the frontier through the granting of farmland in border areas in order to create a pool of future military recruits, so that doesn’t quite work.
Another comparison I’d like to try out here is with the militant orders who grew out of the Crusades, such as the Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Knights of Rhodes and Malta) or even the Teutonic Knights, especially given their stark heraldry. While the religious nature of these orders doesn’t quite parallel, the strictness of the lifelong vows of the Night’s Watch, especially in relation to chastity and inheritance, does have at least the flavor of monasticism that came with the militant Christian orders.
It’s not just the monochromatic costumes that suggest a parallel; there’s also the theme of institutions adapting to changing missions. The Knights Hospitaller actually predated the Crusades as an organization that built an operated a hospital on the site of the monastary of John the Baptist in Jerusalem for sick and injured pilgrims, but then started to act as armed escorts and then as an independent military force in the Holy Land during the Crusades, culminating in holding seven castles and 140 estates in the 12th century. When the Crusaders were forced out of the Levant, the Knights Hospitallers shifted missions again and again to the island of Rhodes, the peninsula of Helicarnarssus, the port of Tripoli, and the island of Malta; as the Knights of Malta, they became famous as a defensive force against the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary Pirates, and masters of siege-craft. The Teutonic Knights started as a German-language breakaway from the Hospitallers, then switched missions to fighting Mongols in Hungary and then launching a Crusade to Christianize pagans in Prussia and the Baltics. Similarly, the Night’s Watch which began as a military force aimed at defending the Others has in its history variously been warring military camps or a would-be kingdom at the edge of the North, but most of all has reoriented itself as a force occupied with reconnaissance, interdiction, and static defense against wildlings.
The similarities don’t stop there. Like the Night’s Watch, the Knights Hospitaller were a multinational organization who managed to incorporate knights from eight different “tongues” in one institution; both the Knights Hospitaller and Teutonic primarily functioned financially through donations of land offered by rulers in exchange for guarding the frontiers from a cultural “other;” and both orders had an elected leadership, which offered some semblance of democracy (although unlike the Night’s Watch which incorporates commoners and nobility into the same organization, both orders had affiliated non-knightly military forces of common soldiers they relied on).
So what does this suggest? One thing that comes to mind is that the eventual fates of both orders might point to the future of the Night’s Watch: both orders eventually fell into decline when they repeatedly wore themselves out defending one chosen frontier after another, as the boundaries of what fell inside the borders of “Christendom” were continually reinvented. Without a self-directed change, as Jon will later offer, the Night’s Watch might go the same way.
There aren’t any really big and obvious hypotheticals here. Jon Snow might have not taken Donal Noye’s advice for a while, but one gets the feeling that eventually the arrival of Samwell Tarly and his more balanced emotional state (compared to the show, more on that in a second) probably would have tipped him in the direction of warming up to his fellow recruits in the Watch.
Book vs. Show:
If Robb Stark gets a better shake from the show than he did in the books, Jon Snow unfortunately comes out a bit worse (although I don’t blame Kit Harrington for that, although he might not have been my choice for Jon Snow), and this chapter kind of shows why. To begin with, we see a different post-training fight in which both Jon Snow and the other boys is less of an attempted shanking as more of an understandable kicking (albiet one in which Snow is giving just as good as he’s getting); likewise, the fight is resolved within the Night’s Watch as opposed to Tyrion’s intervention. Jon Snow overall seems less mopey than he does in the show, as we see from his change of attitude at the end of the chapter where he’s even making jokes.
The change in Tyrion’s role is quite interesting. In the show, he steals Donal Noye’s role, as well as playing the role of Jon’s teacher and intimate. Here, Tyrion is more of the intellectual, focusing less on Jon’s conflict with the Night’s Watch as introducing him to more existential ideas about the Wall as a barrier that Jon Snow should be interested in finding out “what’s on the other side,” raising the question about whether the grumkins and the snarks exist in a more open-minded way than on the show, and continuing his advice on the theory of taking names used against you and turning them into armor.
It’s a slightly more focused if less impressive performance, and I would be perfectly happy to enjoy the larger-than-life presence of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, if it wasn’t for my nagging worry about whether Donal Noye’s triumph in the tunnel (which we’ll probably see in Season 4) is going to have the same impact as it would if we’d gotten to know him earlier.