“The sword, the sword, the sword!”
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.
In Jon VIII, we check in with the aftermath of the wights’ attack on Castle Black. Whereas the previous chapter focused specifically on the assassination attempt on Lord Commander Mormont, here we learn that:
“it would seem that there were only the two of…of those creatures, whatever they were, I will not call them men…the other wight, the one-handed thing that had once been a ranger named Jafer Flowers, had also been destroyed, cut near to pieces by a dozen swords…but not before it had slain Ser Jaremy Rykker and four other men. Ser Jaremy had finished the job of hacking its head off, yet had died all the same when the headless corpse pulled his own dagger from its sheath and buried it in his bowels.”
This is why I said in the previous chapter that the evidence is ambiguous about whether decapitation kills wights – “finished the job” suggests a certain finality, but the corpse can still use tools and kill what’s within reach, but that could easily be a case of “death throws” killing the killer. We do get confirmation that normal steel can in fact kill wights, but they take a hell of a lot of killing, requiring being “cut near to pieces.” This is a good thing for the Night’s Watch, given the difficulty of using fire in combat, but it’s definitely a silver lining on a very dark cloud.
At the same time, this information raises an interesting question: if two wights could kill at least six men, why didn’t the Others send more wights (as the Lord Commander notes)? We know that they have at least two more wights – Waymar Royce and Will – who are black brothers who conceivably would be brought to the other side of the Wall for burial to be re-activated. One possibility is that the Others considered that having two separate parties of dead rangers might make the Night’s Watch too suspicious about the corpses to bring them back (it was a near thing in any case) – which itself tells us that the Others have quite a bit of rationality, more so than we often assume.
Death and Succession
The fact that Rykker specifically dies suggests that the grim fates (aka George R.R Martin) are clearing the way for Jon Snow to rule, well over two books before the election takes place. Rykker is a highborn knight with both military experience (fought for King Aerys at the Sack of King’s Landing) and 15 years of service with the Watch. With that background and as Acting First Ranger, Rykker would have been a leading candidate as Lord Commander – the kind of person with the right class background to appeal to Ser Denys Mallister and the experience required to pass muster with Cotter Pyke. His death, along with Thoren Smallwood at the First of the First Men and Donal Noye during the Siege of Castle Black, eliminates most leaders of any standing from Castle Black, leaving Jon Snow.
It’s also in this chapter that we see the first sign that Jeor Mormont really is grooming Jon Snow to succeed him as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. And I have to say, while it seems more Standard Fantasy Protagonist/Hero’s Journey/Freudian Symbolism on first read, once you’ve read Sworn Sword, this action seems far more consequential because it’s grounded on history. As we saw from the case of Daemon Blackfyre, giving a Valyrian sword to a bastard can be a politically potent symbol of succession, potent enough to cause a civil war. And in this case, Jon Snow is getting not just any Valyrian sword, he’s getting the family sword of House Mormont. This is a statement that everybody in Castle Black understands: Jon Snow is now Jeor Mormont’s adopted son and heir in all but name. And yet even this can’t stop Jon Snow’s daddy issues.
- “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” by Bill Smith
Institutional Memory and the Night’s Watch
Following up on last Jon chapter, we have the central question of why the Night’s Watch has forgotten the enemy they were created to fight: “We ought to have known. We out to have remembered. The Long Night has come before. Oh, eight thousand years is a good while, to be sure…yet if the Night’s Watch does not remember, who will?” Certainly, forgetting the living dead and their masters are real and not legends trotted out to impress guests is a massive failing. At the same time, it’s not surprising that the Night’s Watch’s records are as patchy as Sam will find them later.
Consider, if you will, what eight thousand years means. The Abusir Papyri is perhaps the oldest document not written on stone or clay, and it’s 4,300+ years old; the oldest document period is the Kish tablet (written on clay tablet) that is some 5500+ years old, and that document is considered to have been written at the transition from proto-writing to writing itself. Eight thousand years from our current time predates writing itself, the use of bronze, and the invention of the wheel.
There is no human institution that has lasted eight thousand years. The Katoch dynasty in India dates back 6,300 years, and that was back when Katoch rulers were claiming to have fought the god Rama, but that’s a family that came in and out of power. The Catholic Church claims to be the oldest continually operating institution at some 1900-odd years, but even then there are popes for which we have almost no documentation of.
So it’s already beyond human experience that a single institution could exist for eight thousand years. But even if an institution lasted that long, it’s beyond human experience that they’d have written records dating that far back; even if they did, they’d probably be unreadable. Languages go extinct all the time, but even living languages change enormously. Consider this, the oldest surviving text in Old English:
“nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin or astelidæ
he aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe haleg scepen.
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
firum foldu frea allmectig”
Can you read that? Unless you’ve taken special classes in Old English, you can’t, and that document (“Caedmon’s Hymn”) is only 1,263 years old. Honestly, I’m surprised that folk tales about the White Walkers have survived this long.
Aemon’s Theory of the Night’s Watch
Along with the revelation that Maester Aemon is a Targaryen, Jon VIII also gives us a good helping of Aemon’s political theory. This in turn is critically important for understanding why Jon thinks and does the way he does as Lord Commander in A Dance With Dragons, as Aemon is the most significant influence on his political thinking, if we can judge by number of mentions in internal dialogue.
The first and most significant element of Aemon’s theory of the Night’s Watch (and politics) is a sort of proto-internationalism. More so than Varys, whose conception of the Realm is a kind of proto-nationalism, Aemon sees the Night’s Watch and the Realm it protects as beyond even the concept of the nation: “they pledged as well that the Night’s Watch would take no part in the battles of the realms…when the Andals crossed the narrow sea and swept away the Kingdoms of the First Men, the sons of the fallen kings held true to their vows…When Aegon slew Black Harren and claimed his kingdom, Harren’s brother was Lord Commander on the Wall…he did not march.” (Incidentally, this detail suggests that, contrary to current Ironborn thought of a strict separation between the Islands and the “greenlands,” the Iron Islands were part of the larger culture and polity of Westeros) If the Realm is greater than the nation both in terms of the state and in the sense of a people with a common language, history, culture, ethnicity, and identity, then it becomes something closer to a kind of cosmopolitan humanism that we see later when Jon Snow justifies his alliance with the wildlings on the grounds that the Night’s Watch swears to protect the “realms of men” (note the significant plural). Indeed, I think it can be argued that without Aemon’s teaching here, Jon Snow might not have managed to make his mission with the wildlings more than just espionage.
At the same time, we learn quite a bit about the history of Westeros through its oldest institutions. For one thing, we learn that the current Seven Kingdoms were once “a hundred quarrelsome kingdoms,” which suggests that even prior to the Targaryen conquest, Westeros was undergoing a process of political centralization as regional powers established large-scale, long-term polities – and that perhaps, the Seven Kingdoms might have been united without Aegon. On the other hand, we also learn that “in the days when the Seven kingdoms were seven kindoms, not a generation passed that three or four of them were not at war.” In this sense, we get an idea of how impressive the Targaryen accomplishment was, and why the dynasty inspired such loyalty; like the Tudors, they demanded supremacy but offered peace. One interesting question is why, during these eight thousand years, the Starks didn’t seek to conquer or assimilate a force of some 10,000 men (even if those 10,000 men had no permanent fortifications against them) – perhaps the answer is that the Starks used the Night’s Watch as a place to put surplus male relations as a consolation prize, preventing civil wars.
The second major element of Aemon’s theory is his idea that “love is the death of duty, the bane of honor,” which ties into his later advice that Jon Snow (and Aegon) should “kill the boy and let the man be born.” With all due respect to Maester Aemon, I think this is a major flaw in his thinking and one that’s caused an enormous amount of damage to the Night’s Watch. As we’ve seen, vows of celibacy damage its capacity to recruit to the point where the Night’s Watch has to look the other way when it comes to Mole’s Town. In a larger sense, without a positive spirit of camaraderie within the Night’s Watch such that individual soldiers build up a loyalty to one another as well as the institution, the strict discipline of the Night’s Watch becomes brittle – as we see at Craster’s Keep and again with Jon’s assassination. Likewise, I think the fact that Eddard is held up as the paragon of honor in this chapter just as he’s preparing to break his honor to protect his family is something of an internal critique from GRRM about the weakness.
Indeed, historically and philosophically, love has often been seen as the exact opposite, a spur to military discipline. As Plato writes in the Symposium:
“…if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?”
This model was actually put into practice with the Sacred Band of Thebes. The Sacred Band was the elite fighting force of the Greek city-state of Thebes, composed of 150 pairs of male lovers precisely on the assumption that love would strengthen their sense of solidarity. The Sacred Band had an astonishing track record: in the Boetian War of 378 B.C, their first engagement, the Sacred Band at the core of a force of 18,700 turned back a Spartan force of nearly 30,000 largely due to the Sacred Band’s dogged defense of their fortifications and discipline in the face of the Spartan hoplites. At the Battle of Tegyra in 375 B.C, the Sacred Band was challenged by a Spartan force of 1,000-1,8000 hoplites and broke the Spartan line, causing the Spartans to rout – the first time in recorded history that the Spartans were defeated by an inferior force. At the Battle of Leuctra, the Sacred Band permanently destroyed Spartan hegemony by cutting down 4,000 hoplites on the field, a loss the Spartan slave society could not replenish. Their end came at Chaeronea in 338 B.C when, up against Phillip II and his son Alexander of Macedon, the rest of the Theban army broke and ran, but the Sacred Band stood their ground and fought virtually to the last man, impressing the Macedonians so much that they permitted the Thebans to build a stone lion memorial to the fallen dead.
Love is a powerful force.
I’ve sort of already done the historical analysis above. More next chapter!
The only major What If? here is Rykker’s death. If he lives, and survives the Fist of the First Men, it’s quite possible Jon never becomes Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and survives A Dance With Dragons. I have no idea how Rykker would have dealt with either Stannis or the Wildlings, given that we know so little of his character.
Book vs. Show:
The show played this one pretty straight. The one criticism I have is that they allowed the severed wight hand to completely fall out of the narrative in Season 2, along with Alliser Thorne himself (although he’s reappearing in Season 4). Not a huge problem, but I feel that the hand offers a more concrete connection between the Wall plot and the King’s Landing plot than just reading a message via raven.