Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Jon VIII

“The sword, the sword, the sword!”

Synopsis: Jon Snow gets a sword and has a series of conversations with Jeor Mormont and Aemon Targaryen that he doesn’t really understand the point of.

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:

Zombie Talk

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.

Historical Analysis:

I’ve sort of already done the historical analysis above. More next chapter!

What If?

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.


96 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Jon VIII

  1. Winnie says:

    Great analysis as always. While Aemon is one of my favorite characters, I must agree with you that some of the NW’s oaths don’t make sense-at least not anymore. The celibacy vow for one thing, is just dragging them down, by preventing recruitment, and having families at the Wall to defend might well make men fight all the harder. Yes, it’s better that they put their duties on the Wall ahead of politics, but as we see later in ADWD, what if the present day rulers of Westeros start behaving in a manner that genuinely compromises the NW’s mission? Like a bunch of greedy, short-sighted, ursurpers start tearing the realm apart with their warring to the point that Westeros won’t have the strength to withstand an invasion by the Others and furthermore they completely ignore the threat at the Wall?

    That’s when things get *really* tricky.

    Of course learning Aemon’s history to me, was another piece of evidence for R+L=J and also explains why Ned was so eager to send Jon to the Wall despite the hardships. By having Jon renounce all claims to his inheritance, and putting him beyond the reach of Westeros Laws,it gave him a certain degree of protection even if his Targaryen heritage became known. With Jon being young, he wasn’t as safe as Old Maester Aemon, but still it did drastically reduce his risks. At least to Ned’s mind-no way he could know how vindictive and paranoid Cersei was going to be or that she would be in power in AFFC…

  2. scarlett45 says:

    This chapter reminds me of an anthropological theory that “grandparents” were the saving grace in a pre-literate society and may be one of the reasons for human female menopause (human females are the only specifies that naturally significantly outlive their reproductive capacity). I say all this to say that having Maester Aemon on the wall, with all his wisdom and knowledge about how things REALLY happened is incredibly beneficial to the NightsWatch. Exactly how many old men are there in the NightsWatch? I assume their life expectancy is less than the general populace with the life style they endure, but the wisdom of elders (again linked to the family structure), can be a saving grace for a society.

    But I do see the point of the vows. If you’re allowed to have a family life outside of NightWatch duties it takes away the “punishment” aspect of the watch. Also, those who join willingly may not be to happy that they are now working among criminals who will have close access to their wife’s and children. I could see even more of a hierarchy in the Watch, if you allow those social privileges of family, community, romantic relationships to remain. Excellent analysis as always!

  3. Andrew says:

    “Lord Eddard Stark is my father. I will not forget him, no matter how many swords they give me.”

    I think that is an interesting line, given that men giving their swords is a way of pledging their support or fealty. Possible king foreshadowing for Jon?

    As for the lack of writing, the First Men used runes on stones according to Sam, and writing on paper was introduced only after the Andals came thousands of years later. Much of it may have been oral tradition.

    With the Sacred Band reference, it was hinted that there was one such relationship between Alf of Runnymud and Garth, given Alf’s reaction upon hearing of his death.

    • scarlett45 says:

      Andrew I had forgotten about that line from Jon. Whatever Ned’s short comings his children were truly influenced by his love. Even if R+L=J is true (which I think it is), Ned was Jon’s father, and that has shaped him for the rest of his life. Is he really fulfilling his NightsWatch vows to leave behind his past family? According to Benjen it’s possible to do that and still have contact with them (since Benjen visited Winterfell regularly), but Jon, rightly or wrongly, acted as Ned’s son, and Ayra’s brother by sending a rescue party for her- that had nothing to do with his duties as lord commander……

      When Jon ressurrected I want him to have some conflict about this. I am interested in seeing how it all plays out.

      • Winnie says:

        Oh yeah, Ned may have been hopeless at KL, but he was a very good Lord of the North, and an even better dad. He certainly gave all his kids, (including Jon) a very strong sense of family feeling and of personal duty. Of course those two sometimes come into conflict..

      • Andrew says:

        I expect after Jon learns his true heritage from BR that he will have some crisis of identity.

        I think from what Mel said, Jon thought it was just picking up Arya along the kingsroad not going to WF. Mance and the spearwives are responsible for murders, something Jon wouldn’t have them do.

    • Very true…but that still leaves open the question about continuity between different nations. How long did it take the Andal invaders to see the Night’s Watch as an institution worthy of belonging to? How did the two groups assimilate when initially they spoke different languages?

      • Andrew says:

        It could have been akin to the origins of Middle English. Old English from the Saxons mixed with Old French from the Normans to create Middle English. The Common Tongue could have resulted from the Old Tongue of the First Men mixing with the language of the Andals.

        I guess the Andals learned it was a convenient way to permanently get rid of enemy combatants captured on the battlefield, and dispose of criminals. There are also stories of the NW’s exploits; fighting savages (in their view), giants and Others makes for good for recruiting given that they won’t find any of those south of the Wall.

        • I don’t know if that quite works, given the way that the First Men stopped the Andals in the North and the fact that Jon Snow (who you would think would have dialect of Westerosi that’s closest to the First Men) can’t understand the Old Tongue at all. It really feels more like what if the Welsh stopped speaking Welsh completely but large parts of the Scots never learned English at all.

      • Captain Splendid says:

        “It really feels more like what if the Welsh stopped speaking Welsh completely but large parts of the Scots never learned English at all.”

        Speaking as a Scotsman, there’s many a regional dialect that would flummox even a Northern Englishman (and vice-versa).

  4. Julian says:

    Maybe I shouldn’t lean this heavily on “A Cartoon History of the Universe,” but my understanding was that the Spartans used the technique of sending soldier-lovers into battle together too. Assuming that’s so, the Sacred Band’s victory over Spartan hoplites wouldn’t really demonstrate the effectiveness of that technique, because both sides were using it.

    • I love the Cartoon History of the Universe. But that’s a bit of over-extension. It’s not that it didn’t happen in Sparta, but the Spartans disapproved of founding an army on those principles and frowned on lusting after physical beauty, according to Xenephon. If I recall correctly, the Spartan ideal was a veteran “instructing” a youth, with adult-adult relationships seen as unmanly; different from the Theban model.

  5. RenelleF says:

    I love your discussion of “love is a powerful force” using the Band of Thebes. That said, I don’t think the Watch would have survived as an institution if they had not required celibacy. I don’t really think the wildlings are enough of a threat to justify the existence of the watch for all those millenia, but they provide an excuse for the Watch’s true social utility. Once the Others had faded to the status of folklore, the hill tribes or the Karstarks or one of the other Northern houses could have taken over the defence of the Wall against the wildlings, much like the Earls of Northumberland against the Scots in our history. With the help of the Wall, the wildlings usually aren’t a major threat and the occasional King Beyond the Wall can be dealt with by calling the banners and launching a united expedition, as happened even with the Watch. I’m not sure the Watch is ultimately needed against the wildlings.

    However, they are needed by Westeros society. What do you do with the kid who poached a pheasant to feed his family? Can’t let him off, it undermines your authority, you have no resources to imprison him for a long spell and yet killing him seems awfully extreme. So, send him to the Wall. What do you do with defeated rebels from a civil war or rebellion? They have fighting skill and they’ve shown they’re willing to fight you. You can execute the leaders but slaughtering every single commander or soldier is going to be appalling for public relations. Some will be willing to live under you, but others won’t, or others you may never be able to trust. So, send them to the Wall. No children to inherit their grudges. Say you’re a nobleman who had several sons, because you need an heir and children do die. But now they’re all grown and trained in arms and you only need one heir and maybe a spare. So, the Wall (and the Faith and the Citadel -I don’t think it’s hang ups with sex that led Westeros to have three separate institutions that require celibacy). All that goes double for bastards. Without the Wall what options would Ned have for Jon that wouldn’t make Catelyn constantly fear him as a threat to her children?

    For this social safety valve to work, celibacy, or at least a ban on legitimate marriage, has to be a part of it. The point that it hinders recruitment is true, but I think the realm quietly stopped caring about the Watch having enough men ages ago. And if the Others hadn’t come back, it wouldn’t matter. Defence against the wildlings was a way of giving some noble purpose to the lives of men who needed to be removed from society in the interests of stability.

    Last point: you’re bang on about the importance of Maestef Aemon to Jon’s political thought and I hope you follow this thread up in the coming analyses. In retrospect, I think it was a huge mistake for Jon to send Aemon away at the start of Feast/Dance.

    • That works well for the South, but it’s meant that the Night’s Watch can’t reproduce itself. Compare that to the limitanei.

      So it’s a bit of a Hob’s choice.

    • Winnie says:

      That is a good point, about the NW being a good safety stable in Westeros, historically. (I think just a ban on marriage instead of celibacy would have been better, and less hypocritical.) And historically it might have worked, as long as the WIldlings weren’t organized, and The Others didn’t come back. Unfortunately, NOW, it’s a whole new ball game, and some things have to change. Hence, Jon using the Wildlings to man fortifications on the Wall.

      • Chris says:

        Is it possible that the vow of celibacy was a later development? Maybe post-Night’s Watch founding, but pre-written records? It could have even been the condition on which the Andals (or any other power south of the Wall) allowed the Night’s Watch to continue. And 8,000 years is plenty of time for this to have faded from collective memory.

  6. hertolo says:

    Interesting read as always but I fear you might get too far from the base text sometimes. The discussions in this chapter may lead you to the sacred band of Thebes, but is this really essential? On that topic I think you may lack a bit of critique as especially that story is very strongly mystified. Also it’s purely anecdotal evidence (in that it is just one case)

    I’m also dissapointed with the paragraph on the “institutional memory” and the 8000 years. You bring this up as evidence that institutions can forget things over this long a time span. My conclusion from the real world examples you bring up however would first be that an age of 8000 years is simply impossible and thus a fabrication of the human mind. I’d estimate the true age of the Night’s Watch at 1000 years or maybe up to 2000 (it’s hard to tell really, but “much less” reads so much worse for bragging ;)). This doesn’t alter your basic argument that institutions forget and I don’t want to argue with your point at all. I agree with it even. I’m just saying that your evidence is a “false positive due to outside reasons.

    One could of course argue that this is a fantasy world where everything takes longer thus 8000 years is possible. But I’d be wary in using that argument as you can apply it later on to pretty much anything (“It’s magic”). I do understand if you don’t want to argue those basic points every time they come up (and – false – historiography comes up regularly), but I’d appreciate a quick mention of those basic points (where “necessary” ;-)).

    • Well, just about every entry in this blog series has included a section entitled “Historical Analysis” where Steve has commented on everything from Machiavelli to the Silk Road to the Iroquois. So, not certain why this installment rubbed you the wrong way.

      To your second topic about the accuracy of “8000 years”. I think I follow part of it. True, we don’t know exactly how old is the NW (or any other Westerosi institution). Some of the Sam chapters later on help to point out that no one can really verify anything past a certain historical point due to shoddy record keeping and lack of long term maintinence of primary sources.

      However, (all together now…) absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Even by the informal medieval standards of Westeros, a mid range maester could make a few logical deductions about physical evidence to judge the age of certain institutions and even structures.

      Example. It’s highly doubtful that at some point the Starks just started making up fake grave statues to embellish the age of the lineage (expensive and logistically tough even when someone only dies every couple decades). So one could do a count of the statues in the Stark crypts, make some conservative estimations on the life spans of each of the Kings of Winter, add em up and bam you’ve got yourself a timeline that stretches back *at least* to when there were Winterfell crypts for the Starks. Assuming that a new King/Lord Stark takes over from his departed father and average of every 40 years, you’d only need to count ~150 statues down there to get to past 6000 years. And that’s just the length of this particular Stark custom, to say nothing of the Starks before that tradition.

      I’m sure that one could concoct a similar experiment up on the Wall to judge a bare minimum age of the structure and thus, the organization stationed there. So, until GRRM puts something on paper that seriously suggests that these ancient events are far more recent, I think we can safely assume that the events connected to The Long Night happened somewhere in the 6000-10,000 BL timeframe.

    • Well, you’re certainly free to ask for a refund….

      Look, I write about topics I find interesting. In this case, I thought the Sacred Band of Thebes was a good counter-example to Aemon’s argument that love would make people desert their posts in times of trial.

      As for the eight thousand years, it’s Martin who came up with the figure. While he throws a little doubt on those figures later, he wouldn’t have come up with the figure without some reason to.

      • hertolo says:

        I wasn’t trying to be malicious, I appreciate all the work you put into this blog, it was just meant as a cautionary remark to not take too much unto your plate.

        I just don’t think the sacred band is really a good example as this starts up a whole discussion on what we modern readers, the Westerosi and especially the “ancient greeks” regard as love. For this to be more than a little anecdote it’d need more space. But it was just a minor sidepoint for me really!

        @the 8000 years. First, statues prove nothing: a) Just Ned who erected a statue for his sister and brother would add 80 years by your count. b) it’s highly unlikely that ‘statue making’ is an unchanging facet of ‘Northern Culture’ for 8k years c) not sure why Maesters would do such a test?

        But anyways, the examples in the blog post show that this ‘stagnancy’ is unlikely, so to me the necessity for proof lies in the other direction. Why should Westeros be different from the norm? (not me having to prove why Westeros has a normal span of development).

        “Martin wrote it like this” is to me equally unconvincing since a) he uses the unreliable narrator all the time and its his characters who say 8000 years, b) the numbers do make sense if you regard them as myth, just like your example of Katoch. Human Minds do create these enormous numbers (see also bible and f.e. the age of Noah). So there are quite a few good reasons to come up with numbers like that: It’s standard for Fantasy while at the same time being more “realistic”, it doesn’t have any bearing on the story, but people like (to) inflate(d) numbers, so…

        Again, for me the problem would be to prove why these claims of age are correct, not why those numbers must be wrong.

        • And I think it is a good example.

          However, regarding the 8000 years and stagnation – I’m going to put this here so I can refer to it later. Westeros isn’t stagnant by any means, but the amount of technological change from the Children of the Forest who are a Neolithic people to the First Men with bronze and horses to the High Middle Ages of AC 299 is too long to be 1,000-2,000 years.

      • ajay says:

        “Westeros isn’t stagnant by any means, but the amount of technological change from the Children of the Forest who are a Neolithic people to the First Men with bronze and horses to the High Middle Ages of AC 299 is too long to be 1,000-2,000 years.”

        That’s a good point. But that change wasn’t endogenous, was it? The First Men and the Andals were incomers to Westeros and they brought their high technology with them. To take an extreme example from our world, Australia went from neolithic tools to supersonic aircraft in about 200 years.

        • That is true, but again, it depends on when you start your timeline.

          Luckily, Essos gives us something to correlate with. The Valyrian Freehold, which had extensive records and an empire that survived the metropolis’ fall, began 5,000 years ago and only fell 100 years ago.

          So the balance of evidence suggests that 1-2,000 years is too short.

      • Captain Splendid says:

        Seeing as GRRM is not very good at math, I try not to take his dating too seriously, although the “Heretics” believe the extra-long (and conflicting) Westeros timeline is actually itself some sort of clue to the big mystery.

    • Scott Trotter says:

      Regarding the 8000 years, I believe that GRRM himself realized that he made a mistake, that 8000 is *way* too long a period of time for an institution to have survived largely intact. I think he’s using characters in later books to cast doubt on that timeline as a way to gradually work back to a more reasonable period.

      As an aside, I think that Tolkien made the same mistake in constructing the “bridge” period between the end of the First Age in The Silmarillion and the end of the Third Age in Lord of the Rings. The gap there is something like 6000 years, a period of time in which very little happens in Middle Earth. It may be a common trip hazard of fantasy writing to pick too large a time period for your backstory.

  7. mask says:

    The one advantage of celibacy though is that it limits the influence of blood. If the Nights Watch became essentially the seat of a cadet branch of the House Stark (though elected like the Hapsburg HRE), its neutrality and ability to recruit are threatened and the wall looses its meaning. For all the advantages of eros, dynastic concerns are not one of them

    • mask says:

      to clarify some things: if that happened why would a Bolten rebel in the North or the current Lannister/Barathan line not depose the nights watch?

      • Well…Ramsay all-but threatened war against the Night’s Watch and the Lannisters have attempted to corrupt, coerce, or overthrow them because they elected someone on the wrong family.

      • Winnie says:

        As Steve points out, that’s what they’re doing right NOW, simply because they don’t like the election results. In a way, the NW can no longer be neutral because current regime isn’t letting it be neutral. I mean, you never saw the player’s in RR bothering Aemon, but the Boltons and Lannister’s are something else..

    • Right, but the counter-argument goes like this:

      Given the numerical advantages offered by the natural rate of reproductive increase, it’s likely that partially losing one’s ability to recruit in the South (Houses still have third sons and criminals to get rid of) is worth it compared to the gains.

      And neutrality was a concern only for the Starks for a period of 2,000 years before the arrival of the Andals. So I don’t know how strong a quality that was.

      • mask says:

        Ramsey’s example does provide a counter example: he wants to remove the last stark outpost. That would lead to war if the the Snowstarks held their seat at castle black (also they would inevitably be involved in wars, so would they support the rebels or the mad king and then what?).
        As Cerci notes thieves and debtors could always work on the boats.

        That being said given the relative peace of pregot it could be a cost worth bearing

      • It kind of led to war anyway.

  8. Sean C. says:

    You mention the centralization under House Targaryen, and that has always caused real confusion for me in terms of the state of the Watch, because Aemon says here that it had 10,000 men at the time of Aegon’s Landing, which seems to have become the standard for “full complement”. So it endured in goodish order for 7,700 years, and then plunged sharply during the 300 years of the unified monarchy.

    But that makes no sense, frankly. Once people forgot about the Others, which happened a long, long time ago, the only kingdom that derives any practical benefit from the Watch is the North, who rely on it for defence against Wildlings. Beyond using it as a storage space for unneeded sons or criminals (and even there the criminals apparently are largely unwilling to go), there’s no longer much reason for the kingdoms south of the Neck to care about what happens to it.

    So if anything, the creation of a centralized monarchy that made the defence of the North at least partially the responsibility of the rest of the realm should have been a good thing for the Watch. Even if the Targaryen interest in that part of the world was minimal, I can’t imagine that they gave less of a crap than the old kings who were actively competing with the North as a separate kingdom. And we know that the Watch was already in noticeable decline by the time of Jaehaerys I and Alysanne (hence, the replacement of the Nightfort), who actually did care about it as an institution, from the history. So what gives?

    • Baelish the Bard says:

      I think there’s two things. The North seems to be in a state of decline in population, maybe due to freer migration to the other Kingdoms with unification.

      AND your partner in crime Stefan Sasse has suggested that despite the Dance of the Dragons and the Blackfyres, the Targeryans brought an unprecedented level of peace to Westeros. In the past exiled lords and houses Stefan argues, were all sent to the Nights Watch. And several of the kingdoms were always at war with one another. So there were many more opportunities for treason and exile.

      I know Nymeria was said to have sent a lot of men the Nights Watch, which is pretty weird when you think about it she’s a foreigner in the hottest place in Westeros and she sending people 7 kingdoms away, all the way to the North?

      • Wairs between and within the kingdoms would produce more highborn and knighted members of the nightswatch. That also gives the disparate kingdoms more of a stake in the health of the watch and conveys a certain sense of prestige. The modern Lannisters don’t care a fig about the watch and do nothing to support it. If Jaime had been sent to the wall after stabbing Aerys do you think it would be more likely for Tywin to send men and material to the wall? Would Tywin take warnings from the wall more seriously if Jaime wrote them? Jon thinks of the wall as more glamorous than it is in part because his family has a recent history of prominent members You have to wonder if Waymar Royce joined in part because of his family being so closely connected with Northerners who respect the watch during Robert’s Rebellion. Once you dip below a critical mass of noble/knighted/glorious members the watch become just a haven for beggars and thieves.

      • Abbey Battle says:

        Given that these were her enemies it makes a good deal more sense that she would exile them to the Wall (as far as you can get from Dorne and remain in Westeros), getting potential trouble-makers out of the way without any kind of mass martyrdom AND leaving them to freeze their backsides off in celibate misery to boot.

        Given how CONVENIENT the arrangement must have been, I’d be astonished if the original Lady Nym didn’t do a little dance of glee upon learning about the Night’s Watch and quite possibly donate an entire CASTLE in gratitude.

      • I really don’t think the North is in a state of decline in population – the evidence of the Gift points as easily to internal migration, rather than out-migration.

        Are you sure you mean Nymeria and not Good Queen Alysanne?

      • Chad says:

        I am not sure if the North is in population decline or just relocation. I figure that a bunch of people have been moving to the south east portion east of the White Knife River due to new trade opening up with both Bravos and Kings Landing and the no Iron Born raiders.

        The Manderlys essentially tuned a castle the Wolf’s Den into the city of White Harbor. Those people had to come from somewhere.

      • Baelish the Bard says:


        Yes and no. people are capable of reproduction. given greater security and prosperity it could just be that the population of white harbor grew organically. I’m not saying it did. Its just that those people didn’t have to migrate there.

    • Baelish the Bard says:

      @ Steven:

      “I was five-and-thirty and had been a maester of the chain for sixteen years. Egg wanted me to help him rule, but I knew my place was here. He sent me north aboard the Golden Dragon, and insisted that his friend Ser Duncan see me safe to Eastwatch. No recruit had arrived at the Wall with so much pomp since Nymeria sent the Watch six kings in golden fetters. “

  9. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, if I might drop in my pennyworth of thought regarding the issue of institutional celibacy being imposed on the Men of the Night’s Watch; it’s a tradition that has political advantages and logistical disadvantages not entirely dissimilar to the the similar tradition of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church and very probably came about for a very similar reason (although admittedly not under identical circumstances):-

    My guess is that the vow of celibacy was imposed in the wake of the fiasco that was The Night’s King affair; an officer of The Watch who had not only secured power over the only standing army in the Sunset Kingdoms but who had preceded to abuse that power in a bid to found a dynasty and who had at the very least forged a power base that required both the power of The King in the North and that of the King-Beyond-the-Wall to break must have induced such fear in the power-players of The North (he managed to persuade castle born AND wild men to work together for pity’s sake!) that the fate of the Night’s Watch must have hung in the balance even after the shrapnel and the snow had settled.

    Hence the vow of celibacy; by agreeing to bind themselves to take no wife and father no children The Night’s Watch reassured their most powerful neighbour that never again would The Wall foster a power bloc to rival one of the Great Houses, but would instead remain a quiet neighbour where those ambitious souls who would not be required to further the interests of their Houses could be sent, so that their energies could be directed against some common enemy (I would not be surprised if this was the point at which The Watch began to shift it’s focus from Others to Wildlings) and their legitimate claims could wither along with them and die when they did.

    Admittedly this reform eventually reduced the capacity of the Night’s Watch to populate The Wall with defenders, but it also allowed The Watch to be regarded as a respected institution (and apolitical to boot) rather than a potential rival to The King in the North.

    If only because political ambitions are hard to maintain in a Feudal environment when you have neither lands nor Heirs to bargain with.

  10. Abbey Battle says:

    Master Sean C, I would suggest that the strength of The Night’s Watch at the time of Aegon’s Conquest was not strictly representative: the building of Harrenhal, the ambitions of the last Storm King and the decision of Aegon the Dragon to launch his invasion of Westeros at that time (rather than earlier) suggest that the Sunset Kingdoms were suffering a period of endemic strife of the sort likely to produce recruits to The Watch in significant numbers (if only because when faced with the choice of living in a state of everyday strife on the border between two or more kingdoms or labouring on Black Harren’s man-made mountain of megalomania made manifest and a spot of nice quiet garrison duty at the edge of some howling wilderness more than a few peasants are likely to have chosen The Wall instead).

    Think of the 10 000 swords at the time of The Conquest as a temporary peak, rather than a sign of continuing strength and relevance (albeit a peak higher than usual because compared to dragon fire and ruin, ice and obscurity doesn’t seem so bad).

  11. Brett says:

    Good post, as expected.

    I know you were doing the “8000 years” thing in order to cross-compare it with real history, but I think GRRM makes it pretty clear (especially in later books) that the years given are an in-universe product of whatever historians existed before the Maesters, who are skeptical – Hoster Blackwood mentions that they think the amount of time between the “present” and the arrival of the Andals was ~2000 years, not the 4-5,000 year figure that we hear.

    Roughly halving the dates in general makes sense to me. That would put about 2000 years between the arrival of the Andals and the events in the present, which corresponds to the amount of time between the beginnings of the “Iron Age” and the High Middle Ages in our world – and fits with the transformation of the Andals into what they are from what they were, namely “warriors with iron weapons and seven-pointed stars painted on their shields”. It would also put the Long Night around 4000 years or more ago, like the difference between the High Middle Ages and 3000 BC – long enough for most of it to simply be legend and myth, particularly since the First Men did not have a writing system that the Andals deciphered, and thus anything from before their arrival would have come from oral story-telling.

    RE: The Watch

    I never thought about that, but you’re right that the continued existence of it as a separate organization from the control of the Starks and northern lords is rather unusual. Even the oath of celibacy wouldn’t entirely stop the possibility of it becoming a hereditary set of positions unofficially held by families living in the Gift, especially since we know that it could support 10,000-ish brothers in the period before Aegon I showed up, and that marriage customs among the First Men tend to be rather informal (i.e. you and your spouse just make vows in front of a Heart Tree, and then live together).

    A Dance with Dragons does mention that at least one of the Lord Commanders tried to do that, but either failed or was suppressed by the Starks.

    • ajay says:

      I know you were doing the “8000 years” thing in order to cross-compare it with real history, but I think GRRM makes it pretty clear (especially in later books) that the years given are an in-universe product of whatever historians existed before the Maesters, who are skeptical

      Indeed… and doesn’t Sam point out later on that, for all there are supposed to have been 998 Lords Commander, the historical basis is really pretty weak, bordering on nonexistent, for the first 3-400 or so? I like Brett’s “halve all historical dates” idea. Seems to ring true.

      What’s interested me about the Wall etc is that, unlike with Rome and other empires, there never seem to have been any expansionist Lords Commander. None of them have ever thought of moving further North and establishing outpost chains, or setting up permanent embassies or trading posts among the free folk. (Who have plenty of valuable stuff to trade; see ADWD when they bring in all their portable valuables.) You never seem to get enterprising chaps from the North turning up at the Wall with a mule train and asking to go through one of the gates to trade with the wildlings.

      • With the thoughts you'd be thinkin says:

        Wasn’t there a Lord Commander who tried to make himself King Beyond the Wall?

      • I took this as evidence that the Maesters aren’t completely to be trusted. Rather than evidence that the timeline is wrong it seems the Maesters are claiming in the absence of definitive evidence that the timeline is right it should be assumed to be shorter. This could be part of their effort to separate people from the “mysticism” of the past. After all the return of the Others hardly fits into building a world without magic.

      • See above about technology and time.

        I think there have been expansionist LCs- the Night King, the one who tried to become King Beyond the Wall, and then the various commanders of castles who warred against each other.

      • ajay says:

        “I think there have been expansionist LCs- the Night King, the one who tried to become King Beyond the Wall, and then the various commanders of castles who warred against each other.”

        Fair point, but I meant not personally ambitious Lords Commander, but more “forward policy” ones: LCs who take the view that the best way to defend the realms of men is not to sit behind the Wall, but to dominate the 100 miles of territory north of it. It’s obvious that the Watch gets a lot of value out of being on friendly terms with Craster. Why aren’t there permanent fortified Ranger outposts – or even ruins of them – all the way north along Milkwater to the Fist of the First Men?
        The answer was originally, presumably, “don’t be silly, north of the Wall you’re unprotected from Others” but the Watch has forgotten about the Others.

        • Ah. I see what you mean. There may well have been – the Watch cuts the forest back half a mile, and probably used to go further but don’t have the manpower. Also, I’m guessing Eastwatch had a presence at Hardhome before it got destroyed.

      • ajay says:

        “I’m guessing Eastwatch had a presence at Hardhome before it got destroyed.”

        I’d forgotten about the destruction of Hardhome. What on earth happened there? Trying to fight off Others with fire, and the fires got out of control?

    • See above. Given the level of technological change, 2000 years is too fast.

      Not only is it mentioned that LC’s have attempted to make themselves kings, but that various Castles warred against each other – which might be an alternative explanation for the NW’s decline. Without the ability to naturally reproduce, a couple wars could really put a dent in the population.

  12. Abbey Battle says:

    One further thought that occurs to me as a potentially plausible explanation for any decline seen in The Night’s Watch since the Conquest; the appointment of The Stark in Winterfell as Warden of the North might result in most Southron Houses seeing The Watch as downright redundant – where before The Conquest allied houses might have sent their prisoners of war to The Wall in a bid to make it easier for House Stark to focus on it’s Eastern and Western Coasts (which I would argue have traditionally been it’s greatest points of strategic vulnerability), now they might well regard the only danger to House Stark as coming from the barbarians of the North – a threat that most Southern Houses would regard their Northern Peers as well able to handle (given their demonstrations of prowess in fights like the Fishfeed).

    The enemies of House Stark would, of course, hardly be expected to favour them by strengthening their bulwark against those rather feral neighbours Beyond the Wall (although I would be surprised if recruits more cunning and resourceful than Janos Slynt had never before been sent to subvert The Wall in the interests of stabbing House Stark in the back or more likely allow the odd Wilding raiding party across to do the bloody-work in the most deniable fashion possible … or just keep House Stark NERVOUS).

    More to the point Targaryen Kings might well decide that any degree of support for The Wall from The South would leave the Lords of the North more free to neglect their duties as Warden (something they would be unlikely to regard kindly; I imagine that the position of Warden was originally used as both a reward AND a burden that would quietly redirect the strength of the Seven Kingdoms away from one-anothers throats).

    • That’s an excellent point. Hadn’t thought of that.

      Although the early Targ kings seem to have patronized the Night’s Watch out of a desire to be seen as contributing to the good of the Realm and continuity with the past.

      • Baelish the Bard says:

        @ Steven:

        “I was five-and-thirty and had been a maester of the chain for sixteen years. Egg wanted me to help him rule, but I knew my place was here. He sent me north aboard the Golden Dragon, and insisted that his friend Ser Duncan see me safe to Eastwatch. No recruit had arrived at the Wall with so much pomp since Nymeria sent the Watch six kings in golden fetters. “

      • Abbey Battle says:

        We know for a fact that The Old King and his Queen (especially the latter) took an interest in The Watch, true, but there seems to be an odd silence about any Royal interest in the wall between The Conciliator and The Unlikely; my guess is that Aegon and his sons took more interest in the Kings Landing area, shoring up their power base and sallying out to apply their patent ‘napalm death lizard’ solution to any problems armed and armoured.

        My guess is that it wasn’t until The Dragon’s grandson took the throne that the Dynasty was able to take a wider view of the lands of Westeros, with Good Queen Alysanne’s interest in The Wall being piqued by a person visit and reinforced by the golden PR opportunity offered there.

        I suspect that Targaryen interest in The Wall wavered somewhat after that, especially as it grew more established, then turned in upon itself, turned it’s attentions upon Dorne and increasingly found first their own relatives turning hungry eyes on the Iron Throne (AGAIN) and then their vassals turning on the Iron Throne in anger.

        At that point I suspect that The Wall would be the very last of the Dragon-Kings concerns.

        • I’ve said as much in my Hollow Crowns series, but the Kings Aegon to Jaehaerys seem to have been centralizers by nature and would have been interested in a unifying organization like the Night’s Watch. Jaehaerys for example ordered the construction of the Kingsroad, so he may have been more interested in the North in general. However, the Dance of the Dragons probably redirected emphasis on the Riverlands, and then Daeron I through Daeron II were focused on Dorne. Aerys through Aegon V had the Blackfyres and Essos to deal with.

  13. Variaga says:

    >which itself tells us that the Others have quite a bit of rationality, more so than we often assume.

    Given that in the very first scene in GoT, the Others are described by Wll as
    – wearing armor
    – carrying (magical?) weapons
    – speaking in an (unknown) language

    I had always assumed they had human-equivalent (or greater) levels of rationality. They are obviously not beasts, despite their depiction in the show, or description by individuals without first-hand knowledge.

    • Sorry, I wasn’t clear.

      So armor and weapons could equally be golems rather than a tool-creating species, but I get your point.

      I think what I was aiming at is that it’s a level of understanding of human minds that we haven’t necessarily seen before.

  14. drevney says:

    Is there some good discussion you know of, either by you or by someone else, about the nature of the Others? It seems like a nice philosophical issue, which I know very little of.

    Other is (roughly – check wiki) a term for those in society which there voice is unheard. Jon travel and learn to hear the wilding which are the ‘Other’ of westeros, to understand their point of view, not monsters but people fighting for survival. and his brother Bran will travel to hear what the real Other have to say (I guess).

    Then we will understand that they are not monster, my guess is that they are benevolent creatures wanting to free humans from the poor existence or something like that.

    Anywayת can you recommend any good discussion on this subject?

    • Captain Splendid says:

      Here is the first of a very long thread, which among other things, contains in-depth discussion of the true meaning of the others, the wall and most northern/mystical related things:

      This recently developed thread seeks to act as a table of contents for the current discussion:

      • JaimeLannister'sLeftHand says:

        Does anyone else feel there is going to be this really awkward moment after the final book comes out when we all know for certain that The Others are just evil ice demons and not somehow good or related to the Starks and that the heretics have just been wasting their time in a massive way?

      • drevney says:

        Surely omnicidal – in the meaning of wanting a full destruction of the ‘realm of men’.

        But why and what is the alternative?

        The people they kill do not die they transform to something else, might be a better type of existence.

      • David Hunt says:


        My interpretation of everything we’ve seen with the wights is that they’re walking dead versions of their former selves that are the utter slaves of the Others. That’s not likely to be considered to be a better existence in my opinion. They seem to have some knowledge form their living days, but whether they have any awareness of their current state is debatable. However, if they do have that awareness, I think that makes it even more horrible. If they’re not really aware, then they’re basically the fantasy equivalent of killer robots: Soulless tools that the Others are using to kill everyone north of the Wall and (presumably) everyone south of it if they get through. This doesn’t speak well for them either.

  15. Roger says:

    The true reason of Night’s Watch celibacy isn’t psycological, I think, but polytical. If they could marry, they would feel the need to leave their casttles to their sons. SO becoming an hereditary power. One tempted to join the savages to become a new power.
    Many oriental cultures had eunuchs as their trusted officers for this reasons. “Free” them of the temptation of power.

  16. Karl says:

    Small item here. Like you, I’m a believer in the R+L=J theory- but this chapter has a small detail that makes me doubt it- Jon’s arm is burned. Fire cannot harm a dragon.

    Yeah, Viserys and all that. Still, if the big reveal is that Jon is a Targaryen, this seems like something GRRM wouldn’t have put in.

  17. Sebastian says:

    I know I came late to this party, but damn this brilliant and unexpected insight into the morale-boosting power of love (and you use actual examples! An example, I say!) just made my day. Keep it up!

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