“Chip the ice off your eyes, my good lords. Ser Alliser Thorne should be mucking out your stables, not drilling your young warriors.”
Synopsis: Tyrion has dinner with Lord Commander Mormont, Maester Aemon, Ser Alliser Thorne, and the other leadership of the Night’s Watch. During a healthy exchange of views, Tyrion engages in a bit of harmless horsing around with Ser Alliser in a way that will have no repercussions whatsoever. Mormont and Tyrion discuss the sorry state of the Night’s Watch. Tyrion bids Jon Snow goodbye, and agrees to help out Bran.
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.
Tyrion Lannister has a keen eye for the inner workings of institutions and seeing how the pieces connect – whether as Hand of the King or master of Casterly Rock’s sewers and cisterns – so it’s appropriate that in Tyrion III, we get a second glimpse into the dysfunctions of the Night’s Watch.
And as we learn from the Old Bear himself, the statistical evidence of dysfunction is quite grim: in guarding a Wall four times as long as Hadrian’s Wall and twenty-seven times taller than the Great Wall of China, the Night’s Watch has less than 1,000 men (or three and a third men per mile). Shortages of manpower affect the Night’s Watch’s ability to conduct reconnaissance and interdiction missions north of the Wall, to repair (let alone build) the Wall, to man more than a few castles, but most critically make the Night’s Watch vulnerable to any loss in the field (as we will see in Storm of Swords). In this, the Night Watch shares the vulnerability of the classical Spartans (who limited citizenship to those who could trace their ancestry back to the first Spartan ancestors and who excluded their helot slaves, the vast majority of the population from military service) who could muster only a few thousand spartiates (Spartan citizens fully educated as soldiers). While the Spartan army was supreme on the battlefield for 150 years, their low numbers and the difficulty of recruiting new spartiates meant that any defeat could be crippling if not fatal.
That defeat came at the hands of the Sacred Band of Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. While the Spartan army only lost between 1,000-4,000 of their 10,000 hoplites, they couldn’t replace the 700 spartiate hoplites who served as the core of that army without waiting for a new generation of spartiates to be born and raised, and this lead to the decline and fall of Spartan hegemony in Greece. Jeor Mormont faces a similar fate – with the 300 men he can bring to bear against Mance Rayder, he potentially could defeat a wildling host of a hundred thousand using his superior arms, cavalry, and discipline, but if he loses those 300 men, the Night’s Watch cannot recover in the same way that the wildlings can.
All of this makes the problems of leadership in the Night’s Watch even worse. As Jeor Mormont notes, “apart from the men at my table, I have perhaps twenty who can read, and even fewer who can think, or plan, or lead.” A smaller military force isn’t always isn’t the underdog – following from my analogy in Jon III, I could point to the Siege of Malta in 1565, when 500 Knights of Malta along with 5,600 allies fought off an Ottoman army of 28,000-48,000. But in order for a smaller military force to succeed, they need a superior officer corps to ensure that what limited force they have can be brought to bear in the most effective manner possible, and so that discipline is maintained. The fact that the Night’s Watch’s roster of competent officers is so low is an existential crisis for this organization.
Given these dismal facts, what can we say about the Old Bear, Jeor Mormont, as a leader? To be fair, Lord Commander Mormont is dealing with the legacy of centuries of royal neglect. And he does, at every opportunity, try to rectify the Night Watch’s shortcomings by lobbying Tyrion, by sending Ser Alliser Thorne to King’s Landing with the wight’s hand, and by sending out letter to all five of the feuding Kings of Westeros requesting assistance.
On the other hand, his comment that “The Watch has no shortage of stableboys…Ser Alliser is an anointed knight, one of the few to take the black” as his reason for employing someone eminently unsuitable to be an instructor suggests that Jeor Mormont is also something of a traditionalist who aspires to little more than maintaining the status quo. A more forward-thinking man might have looked for more than just just one commoner to bulk up the officer corps, let alone something as revolutionary as having Maester Cressen teach some adult literacy courses. Mormont’s blind spot when it comes to knights and nobles versus more qualified commoners (Cotter Pyke aside) trickles down throughout the Night’s Watch, as we saw back in the prologue.
On the other hand, Jeor’s use of Craster as an informant and resource base for Night’s Watch rangers may argue instead that Lord Commander Mormont is really a pragmatist working with poor tools. Ser Alliser is a lousy teacher, but he may not have many men with the formal military training than a knight receives who could teach, so he makes use of the man as long as he is necessary. One might question whether this strategy is good for the long term, but one also has to respect the choices of a man stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Two other actions point to Jeor as more than a traditionalist: his decision to lead a 300-man ranging to confront the twin threats of Mance Rayder and the appearance of the wights; and his decision to begin grooming Jon Snow as his successor rather than to promote from the current officer corps. Capacity for growth is one of the highest virtues we prize in our historical leaders, and when Jeor is forced to change, he does. Unfortunately, Mormont makes his move too late, without sufficiently preparing the groundwork for change.
More’s the pity.
I’ve discussed previously any numbers of historical parallels for the Night’s Watch, from the Hadrian-era Roman Legion to the Knights of Malta. However, there’s an additional wrinkle to the Night’s Watch, the way a long-standing institution in decline shifts its purpose. Once an army of 10,000 men tasked with defending the Wall from the threat of the Others has become a barely viable force for keeping out Wildling invasions; the fact that Jeor Mormont admits that “the mountain people are moving south, slipping past the Shadow Tower in numbers greater than ever before” points to the reality that the Wall isn’t really designed to prevent human beings from coming south.
I discussed the limitanei briefly in Jon III, but they share this quality of mission creep with the Night’s Watch and thus deserve to be discussed in greater detail. While the Roman army changed repeatedly during the Republic (from an organization of self-financing well-off farmers to a professional organization of working class Romans and so on) and early Empire, one of the ongoing principles of the Roman army was to prevent the emergence of a warrior caste that might spark regional rebellions: hence, limited tenures for propraetors and proconsuls as generals, time-limits for tours of duty, assignment of soldiers to places outside their homeland for their tours of duty, retirement packages in the form of land in places in the empire in locations other than their homeland, and so on and so forth. Despite these efforts, this policy gradually broke down – leading to a series of destabilizing rebellions and civil wars.
The Emperor Constantine’s military reforms in 300 AD were the logical extension of this process: Constantine divided the army into comitatenses (mobile cavalry, heavily-armed and well-armored professional soldiers, stationed deep in the interior, who would intercept major invasion forces) and limitanei. The latter were frontier militias given land around burgi (fort-towns and ressuply stations) in exchange for their hereditary service, and served under comites (counts) and dux (dukes). Normally, the limitanei acted as border guards and were only supposed to delay major invasions until the better-equipped mobile army could respond; in times of crisis, they would be drafted into service with the comitatenses. Many historians have argued that we can see the outlines of proto-feudalism in these social structures, especially once the victorious Goths, Franks, etc. took up Roman titles and ideology and sought to adapt Roman models of logistics and military organization for the new order.
As I’ve pointed out earlier, the fall of the Roman Empire was really less of a catastrophic break with the past and more of a gradual transition where institutions adapted and were adapted to changing political and social needs; we see the same process in Westeros. Just as the limitanei started as Roman legionaries and ended as feudal warriors, the Night’s Watch has undergone a major shift in purpose in reaction to changing institutional imperatives. Without Others to fight, new enemies have to be identified so that the Wall and the men who guard it retain some purpose.
This isn’t a chapter that necessarily brims with major hypotheticals, but there are two things that jump out at me:
- What if Tyrion doesn’t stop at Winterfell? If Tyrion doesn’t speak with Jon Snow and agree to help out Bran, then he might well have avoided the castle on his way back. This has some rather subtle but important consequences – Bran doesn’t get his new saddle, therefor he’s not out in the woods when the wildlings attack, which means Osha probably doesn’t get taken captive, which may well mean that Bran and Rickon Stark don’t make it out from Winterfell when the Greyjoys take the castle. On the other hand, if Tyrion’s isn’t made suspicious by Catelyn Stark’s absence, he doesn’t make an issue of it when he gets to the Inn at the Crossroads and avoids being taken captive.
- What if Tyrion refrains from antagonizing Ser Alliser Thorne? Now, I tend to avoid character moments as opposed to plot moments for this section, but I wonder if the two of them hadn’t hit it off so badly at this meal, whether Tyrion wouldn’t have Ser Alliser thrown into a dungeon cell for weeks if not months so that the wight’s hand rots. I don’t know how much this would have changed things in the short-term; Tyrion isn’t about to dispatch thousands or even hundreds of men when the capitol is under immediate threat. However, I think the long-run picture would change dramatically if people in the South other than Davos and Stannis actually considered events up at the Wall to be a legitimate threat to the safety of the realm.
Book vs. Show:
The show kind of leaves out the Tyrion/Ser Alliser plot for the most point, since Ser Alliser doesn’t even show up in the second season (which is going to be an issue when we get to the fourth season). Beyond that, the major difference between the book and the show is that Jon Snow explicitly asks Tyrion for assistance with Bran in the book, whereas in the show he simply asks Tyrion to tell Bran Jon misses him.