“The collar is supposed to remind a maester of the realm he serves…a chain needs all sorts of metals, and a lands needs all sorts of people…the Night’s Watch needs all sorts too. Why else have rangers and stewards and builders?”
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.
While nothing much of note happens in Jon V, we do get a further glimpse into the structure and culture of the Night’s Watch that further adds to our understanding of this institution in decline. (If you haven’t read Stefan’s essay about the decline of the Night’s Watch, you should do so now.)
The State of the Watch
The first thing we learn is that Ser Alliser is graduating eight out of the twenty recruits, because “Gueren is marching five new boys up the kingsroad,” and he needs “to make room for them.” We know that Jon arrived at Castle Black as part of a group of three recruits, and that Yoren’s extensive swing through the Seven Kingdoms was supposed to yield about 30 men for the Night’s Watch, which gives us fifty-five recruits who arrive (or were supposed to arrive) at the Wall in 298 AL. If Ser Alliser maintains a steady “class size” of 20 trainees, and this timeline is correct in that Jon’s been training for about four and a half months, then we can calculate that about 33 men join the Night’s Watch each year out of a pool of 55.
When we consider that our three crows from the prologue, Benjen’s half-dozen, and the five who die from the other wight brought back to Castle Black, are either MIA or KIA within the same time span, we’re looking at a growth rate of 1.8%…until we consider mortality rates from natural causes. From a cursory reading of the historical literature on medieval adult death rates of men, it’s not unexpected that 14-50 men out of 1,000 (call it 32/1,000 to be safe) would die in a given year from disease, accident, or other natural causes.* It’s not surprising then that the Night’s Watch is in a state of gradual decline – they’re losing a net of seventeen men a year, or 1.7% of their total population, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider that it means that only sixty years ago, the Night’s Watch was double its current strength.
*Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, p.124
M.M Postan, Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy, p. 182
Ole Jorgen Benedictow, The Black Death: A Complete History, p. 326
An obvious source of the Night’s Watch’s problems is the training bottleneck – if Castle Black had two competent trainers instead of relying on the unsuited Ser Alliser, they could graduate enough men to train the entire pool of recruits each year, which would arrest the decline put the Night’s Watch on a shallow .5% rate of increase, which would take 2,00 years to get back to the Night’s Watch’s intended strength of 10,000 men. The number of recruiters could also be increased: besides Yoren, we only hear of one other recruiter and no one who really does Yoren’s roundtrip to King’s Landing (which probably couldn’t be repeated too often, given there’s a limit to incarceration rates).
The Night’s Watch’s manpower problems are exacerbated by the way in which the divisions of the Night’s Watch replicate its class divisions. As GRRM writes:
Every man who wore the black walked the Wall, and every man was expected to take up steel in its defense, but the rangers were the true heart of the Night’s Watch. it was they who dared ride beyond the Wall…fighting wildlings and giants and monstrous snow bears…
The order of builders provided the masons and carpenters to repair keeps and towers, the miners to dig tunnels and crush stone for roads and footpaths, the woodsmen to clear away new growth wherever the forest pressed too close to the wall…
“The order of stewards keeps the Watch alive. We hunt and farm, tend the horses, milk the cows, gather firewood, cook the meals. Who do you think makes your clothing? Who brings up supplies from the south? The stewards.”
Despite the Night’s Watch’s egalitarian mythology, it’s clear from the text that there is a hierarchy, with the rangers seen as “the true heart of the Night’s Watch,” romantic figures who symbolize military virtues of a military order. Sam envisions Jon inheriting the position of First Ranger as a family fiefdom, Grenn and “everyone else” hopes to be chosen as a ranger, only Halder speaks up for the virtues of the builders, and no one wants to be a steward. This division – originally intended to combat the Night’s Watch’s smaller numbers by specialization – has become a source of weakness, as no more than a third of the Night’s Watch can be brought to bear on any one task. As we’ll see later, the Night’s Watch can only muster 300 men for Jeor Mormont’s Great Ranging and one defeat at the Fist of the First Men is enough to almost shatter their effectiveness as a fighting force.
Likewise, with only 300 men to tend to 300 miles of Wall, the builders are no longer able to improve their defensive fortifications: “once…they had quarried immense blocks of ice from frozen lakes deep in the haunted forest…so that the Wall might be raised ever higher. Those days were centuries gone…now, it was all they could do to ride the Wall from Eastwatch to the Shadow Tower…making what repairs they could.” Specialization is beginning to work against the interests of the institution: 600 men temporarily shifted to the builders could actually allow this order to reconstruct buildings if not entire castles and actually make improvements rather than trying to sustain the status quo. Likewise, as we’ll see, the stewards of the Night’s Watch can only provide supplies for the Night’s Watch itself in the coming winter, which will prove insufficient when Stannis’ army and the wildlings arrive.
It’s enough to make one a bit suspicious of Jon’s easy argument for diversity in the Night’s Watch in support of his friend Sam. As we’ll see later, that position is harder to maintain when the order of stewards isn’t something that just happens to other people.
One quieter moment in this chapter is Jon’s decision on whether or not to take the black. As he points out, “he had come here freely, and he might leave freely…until he said the words. he need only ride on, and he could leave it all behind.” It’s not accidental that Jon rejects this option when he considers that “there was no place for him in Winterfell, no place in King’s Landing,” in part due to “Lady Stark’s” rejection. If Jon Snow can’t be a Stark of Winterfell, he’ll take the exact opposite route to construct a family of outcasts, ignoring the reality that a bastard could easily become a maester, a septon, or a knight and build a more prosaic life for himself thereby.
Notably, although I think it’s fair to say that Catelyn showed Jon Snow little welcome, it’s not accurate to say that she’s the sole reason Jon joined the Night’s Watch. Rather, Jon’s decision stems from a deeper complex about his mother, one that Ned Stark is at least partly responsible for, as he didn’t explain that she hadn’t been “a whore, or an adlteress…something dark and dishonorable, or else why was Lord Eddard too ashamed to speak of her.”
Interestingly, as Jon Snow chooses the Night’s Watch, he goes about in a very politically savvy way, using backdoor channels to Maester Aemon to protect Sam from Ser Alliser, making an impassioned speech about why it’s stupid to reduce the options open to a novice to either being made a man of or being killed, tailoring that speech precisely to appeal to a Maester’s sensibilities, and rebutting Chett’s arguments with a precise counterattack that showcases Sam’s erudition.
I’ve written quite frequently about the various historical parallels of the Night’s Watch, and part of the reason it’s tricky to stick with just one is that each facet of the Night’s Watch revealed throws any one set of similarities out of whack. In this chapter, for example, we see that the Night’s Watch is marked with a high degree of specialization and, in modern military jargon, has a low “tooth-to-tail” ratio of front-line soldiers to support staff.
Needless to say, this is incredibly unusual for medieval armies, which generally lacked this form of specialization and support staff. Systems of supply and provision were incredibly crude, basically little more than plunder; military engineers and artillerymen were not a part of the regular army but rather rare experts brought in for specific sieges. It’s not really until the Napoleonic Era that we see specialized permanent military outfits devoted to administration, supplies and logistics, engineering, sapping and mining.
More than the permanent specializations, it’s the ratios that make the Night’s Watch so unusual compared to its real-world medieval counterparts – 33% “tooth” to 66% “tail.” For comparison, Jon J. McGrath in “The Other End of the Spear” describes that the U.S Army in WWI was 78% combat troops and 21.6% support staff. By WWII, as modern militaries became more mechanized, this ratio slipped to 68% to 32% (almost the reverse of the Night’s Watch). Not until Vietnam do we see a U.S military where combat troops made up 35% (with administration at 30% and logistics and medical staff at a combined 35%).
In other words, what we have with the Night’s Watch is a 20th century army in the 15th century.
There’s not a lot of scope for hypotheticals, given the rather low-key nature of this chapter, but I do see two possibilities:
- Aemon had said no? I don’t rate this as highly likely, given Aemon’s desperate need for literate people who could possibly replace him as Maester of Castle Black and his extreme senescence. However, if for whatever reason Aemon hadn’t, a lot changes: chances are, without Jon’s help, Sam “dies in a training accident.” And for all that some people find Sam’s character a bit…one-note, it’s impressive as to what the consequences of this would be: no ravens are sent when the Fist of the First Men is attacked, which means Bowen Marsh doesn’t send the letter that Davos finds which motivates Stannis to go North; the Night’s Watch doesn’t find out about the properties of dragonglass; Gilly and her child likely die, which means there’s no child to swap for Mance’s son; Jon Snow isn’t made Lord Commander, which means the wildlings are screwed; Daeron doesn’t forsake his vows in Braavos and doesn’t get killed by Arya; Aemon maaaaybe is still alive; and Marwyn doesn’t head off to Dany.
- Jon had chosen not to take the vows? This is another big one. Jon has a lot more choices than he realizes; there’s nothing that stops him from riding south and becoming a sellsword or a hedge knight, and as I’ve said before, there’s plenty of Northern houses that would be happy to have someone with Eddard Stark’s blood who’s also good with a sword become a sworn sword and maybe marry into the family. This would also change a lot: Ygritte dies in the Frostfangs and Orell possibly survives (which might mean that the ranging party doesn’t get tracked by the eagle), Quorin probably dies in a lonely last stand somewhere in the mountains, Castle Black isn’t warned about the advance party of Thenn raiders (although probably the assault on Castle Black ends the same way), and the Night’s Watch might have broken during Mance’s assault. And so on, and so on…
Book vs. Show:
This scene was completely left out from the show, and it’s not a huge loss save for completists. Check back next week!