“Let it burn…gods, please, please let it burn.”
Synopsis: the bodies of two of Benjen Stark’s ranging party are found and brought back to Castle Black in clear defiance of the collective subconscious and genre awareness. Jon learns of his father’s imprisonment and the death of the king, and attempts to frag Alliser Thorne. While under house arrest, Ghost warns him of the approach of evil, and Jon ventures forth to do battle with a wight with poor understanding of personal space and hygiene, saving a nude Jeor Mormont in the process.
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.
I somewhat hesitate to describe this section as “political,” since it doesn’t particularly describe this chapter particularly well, but since the Night’s Watch is a public institution and this chapter does bear somewhat on how the Night’s Watch deal with their most ancient enemy, I suppose it fits (besides, it’s too late to change the format now).
The Benjen Mystery:
The first major thread of the chapter picks up right where the last Jon chapter ended, with the discovery of the two dead men from Benjen Stark’s ranging. The discovery of Othor and Jafer Flowers constitutes one of the few pieces of evidence of the extended missing persons case that is this story-line in A Song of Ice and Fire, so we should examine this closely. Here’s what we learn in this chapter:
- Benjen Stark’s group of rangers separated at one point. We don’t know under what circumstances – they could have been attacked and Othor and Jafer were captured/turned into wights but the rest escaped, they could have all been turned but only these two are sent back (see the Book vs. Show for more on this), they might have been sent back as messengers or fled as deserters and were intercepted, etc. But this fact seems important to me: it suggests something more than the whole ranging party being wiped out (which would be a bit repetitious, given what happens to the other rangings). Benjen et al. encountered something that required two parties of rangers important enough to warrant the danger of dividing an already small group.
- Whatever killed these two rangers happened far away. As the Lord Commander notes, one of the two men had a signal horn on them that wasn’t heard to blow. Now it’s possible that “no horn was blown,” but from context it seems more likely that Martin put this in here to give a hint about distance. A human voice from a good elevation can be heard for about a mile, and using a hunting horn will amplify that distance to two miles. Between this and CSI Sam noticing that there’s no blood on the ground, these men were not attacked within a day’s ride from the Wall. Given that Mormont’s Tommy Lee Jones in the Fugitive-style search doesn’t turn up anything, we know it wasn’t within 34 miles of the Wall either. While we can’t trust Craster’s word further than we can throw him, it’s clear they got killed somewhere north of Whitetree – my guess is that they were attacked somewhere between the Fist of the First Men and that abandoned village.
- These men were not directly killed by White Walkers, but were clearly turned. We’ve seen White Walkers in combat way back in the Prologue, and they use ice swords, not recognizable axes. This chapter suggests one of two possibilities – that they were set on by wildlings (or possibly turned wildlings) or that Othor was turned and then killed Jafer Flowers. Both are quite plausible – we know from the Prologue and later from Jon’s time with Mance Rayder that wildling camps have been attacked and turned, but the nightmare scenario of a zombie outbreak-like iterative turning process, where first one ranger and then another succumbs and then turns on his fellows, is quite compelling. What’s interesting is that it makes a break in the pattern of White Walker behavior – in the Prologue, while wights are used to lure in Night’s Watchmen, the White Walkers themselves emerge to “play” with their victims. Here, they seem to be acting in a more standoffish fashion – as happens again with the Fist of the First Men. I don’t know why their behavior changed, but it does make me curious.
- It’s possible there are survivors other than Benjen. Especially in GRRM’s series, one has to abide by the rule that “no body, no murder.” If Martin had wanted to make it clear that the entire group was dead, he could have very easily added more wights – as the TV show does. However, within the book canon, I think it’s quite possible that some of the four rangers who went with Benjen may show up in a forthcoming Bran chapter to let us know what happened here.
It’s not very much to go on – but it’s all we get until Jon gets to the Fist of the First Men, so we’ll have to be content with the evidence as it stands.
The second major thread in this chapter concerns the Others, because aside from Sam’s story-line in A Storm of Swords, this is the one of the few times we get to see the Others in action up close and personal and learn what the Night’s Watch actually know about their primordial enemy….which turns out to be not much.
Certainly there is no conscious recognition that these corpses are something other than natural, despite the ample physical evidence that something is deeply wrong with bodies that don’t bleed or smell and that their eye colors have changed. However, the Night’s Watch does seem to have preserved a collective unconscious memory of the great enemy: “”Burn them,” someone whispered. One of the rangers; Jon could not have said who. “Yes, burn them,” a second voice urged.” Given the way in which Jon is about to step forwards as a heroic figure at the end of this chapter, it’s telling that it’s the unnamed and unknown common soldier, the ranger who’s seen things out beyond the wall, who remembers. Deep down somewhere in their DNA, the Watch still clings to their original mission.
The Watch does learn some things about the wights when they encounter them: their blood clots and dries, they don’t smell like corpses (at least during the day*…more on this in a minute), they don’t rot (which is a major advantage compared to your standard “Walking Dead” zombies, which have a limited shelf life before their muscle tissue degrades to the point when they can no longer move), their eye color changes to blue (which, given blue eyes aren’t rare at all, is likely to be an inconsistent indicator in Westeros) and they absolutely freak out even well-trained hunting dogs and horses. This last is quite significant – both in that the wights potentially eliminate the Night Watch’s advantage in disciplined cavalry, and that the Night’s Watch can use animals as an early detection system or weights.
* One genuine uncertainty is the question of whether the wights are or can be active during the day. On the one hand, the wights are clearly inactive when the Night’s Watch first encounters them and then come alive at night, but this raises the question of how much rationality they (or, potentially their White Walker “handlers” if the White Walkers can exercise that neat a degree of control) have. Are they capable of “playing dead” in order to get brought behind the Wall they can’t cross or did the White Walkers control them with that level of cunning? Certainly the fact that the wight went for the Lord Commander’s Tower suggests some remaining level of rationality remaining inside the former ranger, and Coldhands is clearly sentient (although that may be due to the intervention of the Children of the Forest). However, once again we can’t rule out the hypothesis that a White Walker is “directing” Othor to take out the Lord Commander.
As the budding hero about to slay his first monster, Jon Snow is gifted with a special source of knowledge – Old Nan’s folklore, which in GRRM’s universe is a mainline to the true oral history that has preserved the Old Ways in the face of the maester’s tunnel vision. And what Jon remembers from Old Nan is that “in that darkness, the Others came riding…Cold and dead they were and they hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every living creature with blood in its veins. Holdfasts and cities and kingdoms of men fell before them, as they moved south on pale dead horses, leading hosts of the slain. They fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.” Assuming for the moment that Old Nan’s stories can mostly be taken at face value – feeding the dead on the flesh of human children seems like an embellishment, given what we’ve seen of the wights in action – we learn some really interesting details. First, that the Others/White Walkers are sentient and motive-driven, albeit motivated by an omni-cidal desire to extinguish all human life. Second, the Others dislike “iron and fire and the touch of the son,” indicating potential weaknesses. We know that iron will break on their ice armor, but we actually haven’t seen what happens when an iron blade makes contact with a White Walker’s flesh; we know that they avoid fire (hence the nightfires) even if it’s not the instant kill that it is with wights; and there’s a suggestion that the Others might be nocturnal, which as I discussed above, could be a huge advantage for the Night’s Watch if they can make use of their daylight hours.
At the same time though, Jon Snow still believes that “the Others are only a story, a tale to make children shiver.” Truly, he knows nothing.
He learns quickly when night falls and the wight Othor attacks the Lord Commander’s Tower. One question I’ve always had is why Othor killed the guard on Jon’s door, allowing Jon and Ghost to get free and save Mormont. It seems a bit deus ex machina, a way to get Jon Snow to the right place at the right time to start his hero’s journey with a magic sword. The only explanation I’ve ever been able to think of that doesn’t go that route is that the wight started from the bottom of the tower and killed anything standing between it and Mormont.
However, in what is one of the underrated fight sequences in ASOIAF for sheer horror and a genuine feeling of danger, we learn a lot about the wights. To begin with, the “active” wight gives off a “queer and cold” smell strong enough to make people near them wretch – this suggests strongly that the wights aren’t constantly active, which suggests some kind of active/inactive cycle (probably tied to the sun). In part, this helps to explain why the undead horde hasn’t hit the Wall yet despite being present at the Fist of the First Men at the beginning of ASOS – if your undead army can only trudge during the night, it limits how fast you can move.
Next, we learn that wights, for all their clumsiness, have an impressive durability even for zombies. Ignoring severed limbs and torn-open stomachs isn’t anything new, but limbs remaining animated after being severed is a significant advantage over the standard zombie. Likewise, although evidence is a bit sketchy, it doesn’t seem that decapitation particularly works against them, eliminating a standard trump card of the genre. Seemingly, fire is the only thing that works on wights – and as we see later, fire isn’t the most reliable weapon.
Finally, we learn that wights aren’t particularly interested in eating people, given the ample opportunity Othor has with the guard and with Jon himself. So we have zombies that don’t hunger for brains, which is highly unusual for the genre, which is a great way to make them more threatening to jaded fans. No way to distract the wights – if they’re coming for you, they’re going to focus on you specifically. One of the few positive notes: no zombie infection prior to death; if you can survive a wight, you don’t turn, which is one of the few things that might keep the Night’s Watch alive.
Surprisingly, zombies not being real means there’s a dearth of historical parallels to analyze. Next chapter, however, we’re going to get deep into feudal politics.
As with earlier combats, anytime one draws steel with intent to kill, the timeline can go haywire:
- Mormont had died? Let’s say Jon never leaves his cell, or the guard escapes being killed and won’t let Jon out and Mormont is killed by the wight Othor. In addition to destabilizing the Night Watch leadership, this would dramatically reshape the course of future events. To begin with, Mormont’s ranging never happens – which means 250+ Night’s Watchmen never die, including the core of experienced rangers like Quorin Halfhand, Jon never meets Ygritte and never goes on rumspringa with Mance Rayder. On the downside, the cache of dragonglass is never found and Sam never finds out what kills White Walkers, leaving the Night’s Watch with much less information. The Night’s Watch warnings now come with added force; it’s not just tales of walking dead, but the Lord Commander himself murdered by a wight; I also think the Night’s Watch would view the wights as more of a threat whereas in OTL there’s something of a split between the veterans of the ranging and those who stayed behind. Things just spiral from there – assuming the Night’s Watch survive Mance’s siege, Jon’s not going to be the Lord Commander, Bran and the Reeds aren’t going to get through the Black Gate of the Nightfort; with a thousand men, the Night’s Watch aren’t going to give Stannis anything near as much, and so on and so on.
- Jon had died? This one gets really nuts. Quorin Halfhand’s expedition vanishes without a trace, Ygritte dies, the sneak attack on Castle Black may or may not succeed, the Night’s Watch potentially falls apart during the siege, it’s possible no one can get a majority as Lord Commander, the wildlings are left to die behind the Wall, Stannis likely seizes most of the Gift and the waycastles outright and then quite possibly is defeated at the Dreadfort thanks to lack of information about the North and Bolton treachery, Mance Rayder is never sent to Winterfell which means poor Theon never escapes, there’s no Pink Letter and no coup, Asha Grayjoy probably isn’t captured at Deepwood Motte, and quite possibly the world is doomed.
- Zombie outbreak at Castle Black? This is my favorite. Assuming recursive wights, let’s say either/or of the above happen, but also Jon/Mormont rise as wights and begin killing. With most of Castle Black asleep behind closed doors, the night-time assault is unrelenting. Let’s say a few survivors manage to get the story out – sure the other waycastles are going to mobilize, but how quickly can they get there? The emptiness of much of the Gift will slow the wights down in terms of snowballing, but it doesn’t look good. The really interesting thing is what happens to Robb and Bran here – if the dead have risen, the North doesn’t march the wrong way, and the mobilized army will in all likelihood rush to the Wall’s defense; Mance probably thinks twice about assaulting the Wall, but who knows how the politics will shake out. I doubt the South will initially stop its civil war just because the dead are rising – the Riverlands fall to Tywin, and without Robb Stark costing him manpower and time, Tywin can (and needs to) move quickly against Renly and Highgarden, although he’s still out-numbered by more than 2:1. This may mean that Tywin attacks Renly before Stannis does, which would make things very interesting if then Renly dies and Stannis steps in as in OTL. With Tywin as an open foe (remember, he doesn’t offer to help people up before he’s beaten them down), Highgarden may have no choice but to turn to Stannis for a claimant to the Iron Throne. This sets up the full-on Stannis vs. Tywin war we never really got to see in OTL. If the Northern army stays in the North, Balon’s invasion is likely redirected, likely to Lannisport (and maybe the Reach as well, but Lannisport has the weaker navy), and now there are no Lannister forces left in the Westerlands – does Casterly Rock fall to the wily Ironborn?
- In short, CHAOS REIGNS.
Book vs. Show:
This is one scene that I felt wasn’t done very well in the show – the lack of the dead guard outside his door meant that the horror element didn’t really sink in until the fight. Likewise, I felt the blocking of the fight itself (especially the bit where Jon breaks out of the first chokehold), the loss of the animated hand and the fingers in the mouth, and the overall abruptness of the end made Othor’s undead presence less otherworldly and frightening and Jon seemed in less danger than in the book.
Certainly, I think the wight special effects got much better by the end of Season 2/beginning of Season 3 (although I’m still smarting at the loss of the Battle at the Fist of the First Men), and they have plenty of time to get better at it given how long it’s going to be until we see the wights again. Still, improvement needed.
Also, the show tacks on an attack at Eastwatch that didn’t happen in the book, which may suggest the potential survivors are not important and/or zombies.