Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Jon VI

“I never asked for this,” he said stubbornly.

“None of us are here for asking.”

Synopsis: Jon Snow takes his vows as a member of the Night’s Watch, alongside Samwell Tarly, despite being initially less than enthused about being sorted into Hufflepuff the stewards.

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.

Political Analysis:

Jon VI gives us a nice breather from the heavy intrigue in King’s Landing, but it also gives a further glimpse into the institutional politics of the Night’s Watch, both the good and the bad of it.

Center-stage here is the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, who gives the longest explication of his personal vision of what the Night’s Watch is and what it should stand for that he puts forth in the entire series:

You came to us outlaws…poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.

…A man of the Night’s Watch lives his life for the realm. Not for a king, nor a lord, nor the honor of this house or that house, neither for gold nor glory nor a woman’s love, but for the realm and all the people in it.

In the context of Westerosi society, Mormont’s vision is both sweepingly radical and subtly conservative. The Watch is seen as a formally egalitarian institution that erases pervasive class distinctions – although it’s noticeable that in addition to your genuine criminals (rapers, killers, and thieves) you also have people forced into the Watch by economic necessity (poachers and debtors). Given the powerful attachment to House in a feudal society that distinguishes sharply between smallfolk, knights, and landed Houses Great and Small, to argue that “we are all one house” is a powerful statement of equality that could appeal to many. Likewise, for formal criminals, the promise of a clean slate is quite an incentive.

At the same time, it’s a demanding ascetic worldview that insists on a total separation from the human family – “our wife is duty, our mistress is honor” – in favor of the makeshift brotherhood of the order, which is a lot to ask of anyone. In Medieval Europe, monastic orders had a hegemonic religious worldview at hand to use to backstop the strictness of their Rule; the Night’s Watch does not have that luxury. The Night’s Watch does make use of religion – the Lord Commander is making this speech in front of the altar in a Sept of the Seven, after all. However, his rhetoric is entirely secular to the point of cosmopolitanism (hence both the Old Gods and the New).

Rather, Mormont posits a nationalistic foundation to shore up allegiance to the Watch’s strict rule. The realm is held up as a universal entity, where all the divisions of class and region are erased; especially in the Lord Commander’s idea that “all the people” are due protection as members of the realm, it approaches the early modern idea of the Commonwealth that marked much of Tudor politics. It’s an incredibly high-minded ideal, but a rather abstract one, especially given the historical context. Westeros has only been a polity for three hundred years, and even then a highly federalized one built on top of Seven Kingdoms and three peoples; it has a common language, but not a common religion, culture, or ethnic heritage. Without the experience of an extended military conflict with a different people to provide the impulse to unite and define oneself in opposition to the Other, nationalism is far too weak a reed to rely on in a crisis.

It’s also a rather traditionalist view of the Night’s Watch, as we can see from the Night’s Watch oath:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

So here we have in an eight thousand year old oath the concept of allegiance to the “realm,” although here it’s pluralized, reflecting the lack of continent-wide identity prior to the Targaryens. However, there is a species-based identity that speaks to the fact that the Night’s Watch was formed at a time when humanity’s unity was enforced by a very real threat from a hostile Other. And it’s an identity that must have been quite powerful, given that the Night’s Watch predated the Andal invasion yet seems to have been one of the few institutions that was maintained for thousands of years thereafter.

However, if we look beyond Jeor Mormont’s idealism and commitment to tradition to look at Jon Snow’s lived experience, it all begins to break down. Jon Snow’s reaction to being sorted into the stewards shows that, in spite of the rhetoric of equality, there are stark gradations of status between rangers, builders, and stewards that mirror the class divisions between the nobility and the smallfolk. Even someone with Ned Stark’s benevolent paternalism, who himself made the argument just the previous day that the Night’s Watch has need for all three groups, cannot maintain the polite fiction that all Night’s Watchmen are equal when his own privilege is affected. As his friends point out to him, “the stewards are fine for the likes of you and me…but not for Lord Snow.” At the end of the day, Jon Snow’s concept of fairness is based on a self-identity as a warrior bound up in his highborn upbringing.

Likewise, Jon Snow’s humbling assignment turns out to be an example of class hierarchy and nepotism in action. As Sam describes, “you’ll also take his letters, attend him at meetings, squire for him in battle….you’ll know everything, be a part of everything and the Lord Steward said Mormont asked for you himself…he wants to groom you for command!” Rather than selecting an experienced officer to promote from within, Mormont is looking to groom a 14 year old from one of the Great Houses to succeed him, and the bastard son of his former liege lord at that. Jon Snow simply fits the model of elite leadership – a well-educated warrior from an illustrious family and an accustomed habit of leadership over smallfolk – better than a Cotter Pyke ever could. The problem is that pushing highborn newcomers up the chain of promotions is an unstable model of succession; not only is the quality of the successor in question (especially if the Lord Commander unexpectedly dies before he can give his steward more than a year of training), but it leads to discontent within the officer corps from people like Alliser Thorne, Bowen Marsh, and so forth who feel their experience has been overlooked.

Historical Analysis:

Class influencing military command isn’t anything new, of course, as one might expect given the historical presence of military castes and classes. During the Medieval era, it was axiomatic that the nobility would lead on the battlefield and that commoners were inconsequential – which caused problems at Crécy and other battles where the nobleman’s desire for glory overcame his common sense. This began to change in the early modern period, as a number of factors (the creation of standing armies, a vast increase in army size, the increased importance of infantry, the more elaborate forms of drill needed to move large blocks of infantry around a battlefield in an organized fashion, etc.) made a professional officer corps (less likely to be noblemen taking a temporary leave of absence from their landed estates) more important for success in arms.

This didn’t end class hierarchy within the army so much as make the officer corps a locus of contention between commoner professionals and the old nobility. During the English Civil War, for example, the quality of noble leadership was so uneven on the Parliamentary side that the creation of the New Model Army went hand-in-hand with the Self-Denying Ordinance that banned Members of Parliament (the Commons as well, but crucially the Lords) from serving as officers, thus ensuring that the leadership of the army would be made up of professional soldiers promoted on merit (with the notable exception of Oliver Cromwell who possessed both a seat in Parliament and undeniable military skill). Among the many reforms that were rolled back during the Restoration of Charles II was the New Model Army and the dangerous idea of a professional officer corps (professional officers had shown a nasty tendency to harbor the idea that as men of merit, they and not kings should rule).

And given that standing armies were now seen as dangerous to English liberty, Parliament was unwilling to grant Charles II enough money to have one of those. Charles’ solution was to sell military commissions to the highest bidder, which turned out to be a win-win for him: since officers were now expected to supply the regiments they had purchased, it didn’t cost him as much money to fight wars, and it made sure that the officer ranks would be made up almost exclusively of the rich, who were unlikely to be approve of further revolutions. Although the practice remained controversial for several years, by 1719 there were official price lists established by the government setting out how much a lieutenantship went for, how much a captaincy, and so on all the way up to Colonel.

It’s pretty clear that there’s a basic problem of quality control with this kind of system – once you move past a social order in which the wealthiest members of society spend their entire lives from childhood on training for war, there’s no guarantee that someone who purchased their commission knew what they were doing. Yes, the purchase of commission system gave Britain Wellington, but it also gave them some of the worst military bumblers of history.

For a devastating portrait of the purchase of commissions leading to utter military disaster, the 1968 production of the Charge of the Light Brigade really can’t be beat.

What If?

I don’t really have much in the way of hypotheticals for this chapter, since Jon refusing to take the oath doesn’t really seem to be in the cards.

Book vs. Show

The show plays this chapter pretty close to the text, so I don’t have much for this chapter.

Apologies for the brevity, but next chapter should give me more to work with.


27 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Jon VI

  1. Brett says:

    Good essay, particularly with the commentary on the rise of the “commissions for sale” system in the British military forces. I always thought it was just one of those things that arose just because of corruption, seeing as how nobility titles would occasionally be bought and sold as well. But it makes sense if it was also a way for the rich and nobility to entrench themselves in the British military leadership.

    It’s likely that elements of the Night’s Watch Oath would have changed over time, to reflect new understandings. Earlier versions of the Oath might have had no concept of “realms”, or had something looser (representing the simpler societal arrangements of the North before the Andals showed up). But they’ve had 300 years of either southron nobility or northern folk heavily influenced by the new Targaryen system in charge of the Watch, and that almost certainly had an effect on them as an institution.

    Mormont can promote a successor, but he ultimately can’t make one. It still comes down to what the Brothers themselves vote on.

    • stevenattewell says:

      I don’t think the oath has changed – in fact, it’s the reference to “realms” and “crowns” that suggests otherwise. After all, in a post-Targaryen context, you’d expect the former to be made singular since after Aegon it’s “one realm, one king,” and the latter to be omitted since you no longer have multiple royal households so non-Targaryens are less of a threat.

    • drevney says:

      The oath did not change. We know that the secret gate that Sam enter in Castel black respond to the same oath.

  2. puzzled says:

    Great post, but I have only one quibble. Commissions were never sold in the Royal Navy. Promotions were solely based (in theory at least) on merit. In practice, however, social class and the influence of family and patrons were crucial and discussed openly (known as interest). Still, the navy had a number of great admirals from the (lower) middle class and promotion from the lower rank to officers was common.

  3. I would disagree with Jon being offended because his own status was affected by being made a steward; he’s not angry because he thinks he should become a Ranger just because he’s a Stark/Snow, he’s angry because he knows he’s the best sword amongst the trainees, and that being the case, one would normally become a Ranger. So his sense of fairness is offended because he was made a Steward when he truly deserved to be a Ranger, which had nothing to do with his heritage. Unless you want to say it does because he had the privilege of good training with a sword growing up.

    • stevenattewell says:

      Precisely the latter. Jon says “I’m a better swordsman and a better rider than any of you…it’s not fair.” As Donal Noye points out, the reason he’s a better swordsman and rider is he was raised in a castle.

      And as Dareon immediately points out, Jon chose to come to the Night’s Watch – the smallfolk there didn’t have a choice. If twitter existed in Westeros, Jon’s complaint would be hashtagged under #highbornproblems.

  4. Roger_Raven says:

    Personaly I don’t think Mormont was thinking in Jon as his successor. Training him for command, yes. But future lord commander? Too young, too soon.

    Social class is still important in the Watch. In the third book, Jon asks for the senior knight to takes command (even if he is 80 years old). All of Mormont’s officers are of noble blood. Even Cotter Pyke is a noble bastard.

    • shaunpeacock says:

      Mormont was probably thinking long term, he’d found a kid who’s high born, skilled as a warrior (and so can gain the respect of the Rangers, the most prestigious group) and shows at least rudimentary ability to inspire and lead others. Given who he normally has to deal with, I’d say he was wise to grab that with both hands. But you’re right, he definitely wasn’t thinking that Jon would be elected LC before his 20th name day.

      • David Hunt says:

        I get the impression Mormont was thinking that the kid’s father was Lord of Winterfell and that his half-brother was going to be lord after that. He was giving Jon a chance to distinguish himself and prosper in the Watch…in a capacity that was less likely to see him mysteriously disappear on a ranging. Maybe he’d be Lord Commander someday, or maybe he’d me chief steward or master-at-arms, but Mormont wanted him to rise in the watch to the point where he was high enough ranked that he could someday be sent to treat with his brother and have a pretense for him to be in the group that was sent. A master-at-arms could reasonably be sent to ask for recruits. A high-ranked steward could reasonably be sent because he knew what supplies were needed. etc. Everyone would know that his blood ties to the Starks was part of the reason, but having another excuse to send him makes it seem less like begging, even if it is.

        I expect Mormont hoped that Jon earned a high enough status to be elected Lord Commander someday. Afterall, the LC being a Stark (even a bastard Stark) should mean more support for the Watch…but I expect that was the long game. I’m not sure the Mormont expected to live long enough that he thought Jon would be his immediate successor.

    • stevenattewell says:

      How precisely would you tell?

  5. Roger_Raven says:

    I am not sure that the Rangers have superior status. It’s a more glamorous place, of course (especialy for a 16 years old adventurer Jon Snow), but Cotter Pyke and Dennis Mallister are probably Stewards and are Mormont’s seconds in importance.

  6. Roger_Raven says:

    In the Great Catalan Company, a famous mercenary unit formed principaly by infantry, they elected one captain of no noble origin (Bernat de Rocafort).

  7. Folusho A says:

    Hi Steven,
    My name is Folusho and I’ve been an avid reader of your blog since I discovered ASOIAF last year. I’m a second year law undergrad in the UK, and I’ll be writing a column in our university newspaper concerning comparative legal analysis of Season 1 of Game of Thrones. Would it be alright if I cited you in the paper?
    I’d be grateful for a response, although I know you must be busy.

    PS. Excellent post, as per usual

    • stevenattewell says:

      Sure, it would be fine. As long you note that I’m a historian, not a lawyer.

      Oh, and send me a link to the piece.

      • Folusho A says:

        Wow such a speedy response! Thanks!
        And yes, while I know you’re more about the history, I think much of your political analyses would be relevant to a constitutional/administrative law viewpoint. I’ve not yet decided which areas of law I will focusing on the most.
        I think if I focus on admin law, it’ll get very heavy very quickly, given the nature of the role of the state in Westeros, but we’ll see… I’m currently thinking to focus more on the criminal and tortious liability of the various parties. I think I’ll mostly be focusing on Season 1 and Book 1, as I really don’t want to spoil anything for people! Besides, there’s a LOT of juicy material in the first episode as it is…
        An obvious starting point is Cersei and Jaime’s criminal liability towards Bran. I’m going to have to pretend that the legal system of Westeros is somewhat similar to that of England and Wales for this, which is why I’m still not sure about how I will make the Iron throne’s liability analogous to the Crown’s or a government department’s today…
        This is still very much a work in progress as you can see! Of course I will link you to the piece, when it (eventually) goes on our blog.
        Again, thank you so much for posting these analyses on your blog, which is what inspired me to embark on this project in the first place!


  8. […] Jon VI (institutional politics of the Night’s Watch, Mormont’s vision, the limits of meritocracy) […]

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  13. […] we might expect from an institution which at least professes equality and brotherhood between its members, the Night’s Watch has an impressively broad definition of eligibility both for the franchise and […]

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