“We’re not friends…we’re brothers.”
Synopsis: During training, Jon meets Samwell Tarly. Ser Alliser pits the unfortunate Tarly into combat with Halder, where he’s beaten badly as Thorne orders Halder to beat him until he stands up. Jon puts a stop to the abuse, infuriating the instructor. Sam confesses his cowardice, but after a conversation about his abusive relationship with his father Randyll, Jon decides to befriend Tarly and organizes the novices into protecting him, even if it means disobeying Ser Alliser or threatening Rast.
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 IV is a relatively brief chapter that nonetheless packs in a lot of detail about the Watch as an institution and Jon’s role within it. In this analysis, I’m going to focus on three topics: the development of Jon Snow’s leadership style, the day-to-day functions of the Night’s Watch, and Samwell Tarly’s problems with primogeniture.
The chapter begins with a scene that illustrates how Jon has embraced his new role as a teacher of his peers, turning his privilege from a source of conflict to something that binds his common-born brothers to them through their respect and trust in him as well as the concrete advantage they’re gaining through his instruction. (At the same time, we see later that Jon Snow’s teaching also helps him learn their weaknesses, allowing him to protect Sam even in uneven combats) This trust and familiarity is crucial in allowing Jon Snow to mobilize the men of the Night’s Watch: “he told them how it was going to be. Pyp backed him, as he’d known he would, but when Halder spoke up, it was a pleasant surprise. Grenn was anxious at the first, but Jon knew the words to move him. One by one the rest fell in line. Jon persuaded some, cajoled some, shamed the others, made threats where threats were needed.”
What we see here is that the bastard Snow’s transition from a privileged but isolated highborn bastard to a budding leader is centered around a change in his identity – “Robb and Bran and Rickon were his father’s sons and he loved them still, yet Jon knew that he had never truly been one of them” – making the transition from Stark to Nightswatchman. Jon creates a pseudo-family of young men who have mutual trust in each other, even to the point of quietly defying a direct order from their superior officer – and it’s this family that will protect him when he is accused of betraying the Night’s Watch during his sojourn with the wildlings, that will form an ad-hoc officer corps when Jon Snow commands the defense of the Wall against Mance Rayder, and that will engineer his election as Lord Commander. Sadly, it’s also the family that Jon Snow distances himself from when attempting to reform the Night’s Watch, rendering himself vulnerable to assassination.
Ironically, Jon’s new endeavor, prompted by Donal Noye’s populist class analysis, is seen by Ser Alliser as the re-construction of class privilege, as when “Lord Snow” speaks, “the peasants tremble” and obey his orders despite being putative equals. Ser Alliser might have something of a point if it wasn’t the fact that his position as master-of-arms is dependent entirely on his own social class as a belted knight, given his manifest failures as a teacher. The reason Snow has gained power over his peers by acting as a teacher is precisely because Ser Alliser isn’t actually teaching his men how to fight. The lessons that Jon is teaching his peers – maintain your balance, put your weight behind the blade, and so forth – are absolute beginner’s material, and yet Ser Alliser hasn’t covered any of it.
Ser Alliser’s treatment of Samwell shows quite clearly his shortcomings as a drill instructor. Rather than have a newcomer use equipment that’s fitted to him, he wastes hours putting Sam in unsuitable equipment, and then orders Halder to beat the youth despite Sam being on the ground bleeding from the head. What Thorne’s up to here isn’t training in arms, but a crude Darwinian hazing process that’s supposed to weed out the weak from the body of recruits. This might make some sense in a more functional institution, but in an army that’s down to less than a thousand man, they can’t afford the human wastage, especially when the Night’s Watch is down to less than a thousand men, and new enrollees seem to number a few dozen.
Which brings us to our second theme, the functioning and malfunctioning of the Night’s Watch – and what we see in this chapter is very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Night’s Watch uses work as a form of career development in order to track soldiers into the stewards, builders, and rangers (which arguably points to rangers as being simultaneously the men most valorized but least useful outside of combat). This on-the-job training is good policy, because like the modern U.S military, with its ratio of 7 soldiers in support to every 1 in the field, the Night’s Watch relies on support staff to function. Without the stewards, the Night’s Watch would starve, their winter clothing would rot, their weapons would rust, and there would be no communication between the different castles of the Night’s Watch. Without the builders, the Wall that the Night’s Watch relies on to provide a defensive multiplier against a foe that is hundreds of times its size would slowly break down, the castles that the Night’s Watch needs to survive the harsh climate would collapse into disrepair, and the Night’s Watch would have neither arms nor armor.
On the other hand, chronic manpower shortages have meant that the support staff are reduced to trying to maintain an undesirable status quo (Samwell immediately remarks on how many buildings have fallen down in the largest castle the Night’s Watch has in operation), rather than attempting any net improvement. Likewise, Ser Alliser Thorne’s teaching suggests that the training mechanisms are also beginning to break down – when the Night’s Watch has only twenty literate brothers, someone like Samwell Tarly should have been fast-tracked to the stewards from day one, rather than nearly beat to death. And while one could plausibly argue that hazing has its functions in a military force which has to maintain a certain standard of combat ability, it’s also the case that Ser Alliser’s conception of fitness is limited to the needs of rangers, rather than to the needs of two-thirds of the Night’s Watch. For example, Ser Alliser focuses entirely on sword drill, which only rangers would ever make any use of, when the defense of a 700-foot high wall would make archery and artillery training an absolute necessity and hand-to-hand combat a secondary priority. Moreover, even the most sadistic drill sergeants are usually trying to work to a purpose – they foster group cohesion by getting raw recruits to unite in their hatred of a single antagonist, to work together to meet the drill sergeant’s standards, etc. In Full Metal Jacket, Sergeant Hartmann’s verbal abuse is meant to get the unit to unite in bringing Gomer Pyle up to performance standard.
By contrast, Ser Alliser actively discourages the development of group cohesion and works to create rivalries and hatreds between novices rather than acting as the necessary “heel.” This lack of cohesion becomes startlingly evident during the ranging to the Fist of the First Men, where the antagonistic, suspicious, and hostile attitude fostered by the master-at-arms results in a complete breakdown in military discipline and a mutiny. To the extent that Jon’s class becomes an effective fighting force during the Siege of Castle Black, it’s in spite of Ser Alliser and through the informal networks of friendship and trust that he discouraged.
On to our third topic: Westerosi inheritance law! Before everyone falls asleep or clicks away, let me just say that this is actually more significant than most people realize. Samwell Tarly’s story of familial abuse isn’t just a sob story meant to engender sympathy in the reader for a character who (to be fair) spends a lot of time whinging and doubting himself, it’s also revealing about some of the fundamental flaws in Westerosi society. House Tarly is a leading family, one of the most powerful lesser houses of the Reach; it has “rich lands, a strong keep, and a valyrian greatsword” that symbolizes the connection between martial prowess and position. Samwell Tarly is unlucky enough to be born into a place he is absolutely not suited to, but as the first-born son, he’s going to inherit everything, which potentially puts the house in danger.
TLDR? Primogeniture is problematic.
Historically, inheritance of land was one of the most significant customs that organized societies, especially agricultural societies where access to and distribution of land determined wealth, status, and potentially survival itself. Legal systems that required equal inheritances limited conflict between siblings and were intended to prevent younger siblings from becoming destitute; however, this had the long-term effect of reducing the size of inheritances to below the level of viability for a farm. The Popery Laws enacted in 1707 by the English government required Catholic estates to be equally divided between all sons (even bastard sons), unless the owner in question converted to Protestantism. These laws, intended to encourage conversion and to reduce the political influence of the large Catholic landowners who had led revolts against English rule, resulted in the constant sub-division of Catholic land holdings to the point where in the 1840s, large numbers of holdings had dropped below the point where they could support a family on anything other than potatoes. Hence, the Great Famine of 1845-1852.
By contrast, primogeniture creates a problem of landless sons and sibling conflict (which becomes especially dangerous when we’re talking about disinherited sons whose only skills are martial combat), but it also tends to increase the size of estates over time. Adam Smith argued that primogeniture was absolutely essential for safety in medieval societies:
“[W]hen land was considered as the means, not of subsistence merely, but of power and protection, it was thought better that it should descend undivided to one. In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a sort of petty prince. His tenants were his subjects. He was their judge, and in some respects their legislator in peace and their leader in war. He made war according to his own discretion, frequently against his neighbours, and sometimes against his sovereign. The security of a landed estate, therefore, the protection which its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it, depended upon its greatness. To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its neighbours. The law of primogeniture, therefore, came to take place, not immediately indeed, but in process of time, in the succession of landed estates, for the same reason that it has generally taken place in that of monarchies, though not always at their first institution.” (Wealth of Nations)
While from a humanistic perspective, we have to condemn Randyll Tarly’s abuse of his son, it’s not entirely motivated out of sadism (or Randyll Tarly’s seriously troubled gender issues). House Tarly’s ability to maintain their rich lands and their strong keep depends on their ability to credibly use their Valyrian greatsword against any rival lord who would want to take it from them; and as we see from the case of Lady Hornwood and the Boltons, this is an omnipresent threat. Likewise, their ability to extract taxes from the peasants in exchange for physical safety and justice is similarly dependent on an ability to deal out physical harm to those who break the law, as we see in A Feast For Crows. If nothing else, Lord Tytos Lannister’s disastrous tenure as Lord of Casterly Rock shows that an unworthy heir can mean ruin for even the greatest of Houses.
And here we see the shortcoming of primogeniture – order of birth is not a guarantee of fitness to govern. Aenys I was not a fit candidate for the crown at a time when the monarchy’s grasp on the Seven Kingdoms was so weak, when someone like Maegor would have been a better candidate, but he got the throne. Likewise, had Baelor been made King before Daeron I, the highly costly invasion with Dorne might have been averted, saving 60,000 lives on the Targaryen side alone. Potentially, the Blackfyre Rebellion would have been averted had Aemon Dragonknight been older than Aegon the Unworthy (although the latter wouldn’t have fared well with the Kingsguard’s vows of chastity).
- Those craaazy Targaryens – hat tip to kaleadora
However, disinheriting an unworthy heir is a difficult process. In medieval law, disinheritance usually required either the heir to commit a criminal act that merited being disinherited as part of the sentence (for example, being declared an “outlaw” or literally no longer a person under the law), or “civil death” – joining a religious order whose vows of poverty forbade inheritance. For Randyll, the Night’s Watch serves this purpose, but one wonders why he chose this institution, given the options available to him. Randyll’s horror at the thought of Samwell becoming a maester is one of the more inexplicable moments in Sam’s backstory.
Historically, sending a son off to church schools (later to university) was a common and useful practice for wealthy families; it got younger sons off the house’s books and gave them a livelihood, but it also extended family influence into other arenas. An educated son could join the priesthood, where they could rise to control over valuable church properties, have influence in clerical politics, and attend the family’s spiritual needs; they could become a lawyer or doctor and provide legal or medical services, and in the former case, potentially gain a position in local government or in the royal court. Given the rich variety of skills that are the monopoly of the maesters, Randyll’s opposition is deeply counter-productive. Moreover, Randyll had other options open to him – Sam could have become a septon and had his own sept, or joined a septonry of the monastic Contemplative Brothers, or become an itinerant “begging brother,” any of which would have removed him from the line of succession.
Indeed, while we don’t have a lot of evidence as to how common it is, a number of noble households have sent sons to the Citadel as a solution to their inheritance: the Tyrells have “Lazy Leo,” the Martells sent Oberyn and Sarella went on her own (although Oberyn didn’t join the order), and the Freys have their Maester Willamen.
So at least for now, Randyll’s thinking is going to have to remain a mystery.
Given how short this chapter is, and that it really involves only one major change to the status quo, there’s really only one big question here – what happens if something bad had happened to Sam? If Sam had died accidentally at the hands of Halder, or if Jon hadn’t decided to protect him (which would probably have led to same), then a lot changes – while much of what Sam does in Game of Thrones could probably have happened anyway just with only Grenn and Pypp, It’s starting with the second book that things really start to change: with no Sam, Gilly doesn’t get rescued from Craster’s keep, which means that there’s no baby to swap for Mance Rayder’s child; Sam doesn’t slay an Other with an obsidian dagger, so the Night’s Watch don’t learn that dragonglass can kill Others. Critically, there’s no Night’s Watchman there at the Nightfort to let Bran, Hodor, Jojen, and Meera through the Black Gate, which means they don’t get to Bloodraven, which has consequences we just don’t know about yet.
Also critically, Sam doesn’t rig the elections for Jon Snow to become Lord Commander, which means that the wildlings aren’t allowed through the Wall, and that Jon Snow avoids being assassinated for his rapid reforms.
Likewise, with no Sam, Maester Aemon doesn’t go on his fatal journey, and Dareon avoids being murdered by Arya, and Maester Marwyn doesn’t learn Aemon’s last words and depart for Essos in search of Daenerys, which has consequences we just don’t know about yet.
All of which adds up to show that, as much as Sam can be a somewhat annoying character at times, he’s actually incredibly consequential for much of the plot.
Book vs. Show
The show plays this one pretty straight, with some significant changes. Halder is replaced by Rast in the initial beating, which I think dilutes Thorne’s sadism somewhat. John Bradley, who’s a fantastic actor (also quite good in Borgia: Faith and Fear, btw), really inhabits the Samwell Tarly role in a way that really does change how one sees the character. He plays Sam as just a touch more confident (also more self-aware, and willing to laugh at himself and others) than he is in the books, where the character really goes overboard on the self-loathing. It’s a choice that really works well.