“My place is here…where is yours, boy?”
Synopsis: Jon Snow tries to run away from the Night’s Watch and his friends bring him back. He talks with Commander Mormont about priorities and makes a choice about whether he’s going to ride south or north.
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.
Jon IX is a bit of an odd chapter to end on – and it throws up a lot of questions about to what extent George R.R Martin is engaged in a process of critical deconstruction. On one level, Jon Snow is one of the most obviously traditional protagonist figures in the series – he’s a Hidden Backup Prince with a Legendary Weapon and a Magic Pet – and in this chapter, he Refuses the Call so blatantly and emoishly that somewhere long, long ago and far, far away Luke Skywalker is wincing.
On the other hand, I wonder if that’s part of the point – hewing close to the path well traveled in order to both critique the immaturity and problematic nature of the Refusal of the Call, but also to set up expectations for the quest that the Lord Commander presents him with – that Jon Snow will promptly abandon in ACOK in favor of a morally-ambiguous special forces mission with Qorin Halfhand.
Part of the reason that I don’t particularly l ike this chapter, and prefer Jon’s plot-line in ACOK or ASOS to AGOT (which is not the case on the show – more on that in future podcasts), is that Jon Snow is acting particularly childish. He knows full well that “a stranger wearing black was viewed with cold suspicion in every village and holdfast north of the Neck” (note not killed on sight, but definitely noticed and pointed out to pursuers) “once Maester Aemon’s ravens took flight, Jon knew he would find no safe haven. Not even at Wintefell. Bran might want to let him in, but Maester Luwin had better sense. He would bar the gates and send Jon away.” Practically, escape is improbable – a return to home is impossible.
Even when he imagines (in fine teenage romantic outcast fashion) that “he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing int he shadows…where ever he might go through the Seven Kingdoms, he would need to live a lie…He tried to imagine the look on Robb’s face when he revealed himself. His brother would shake his head and smile…he could not see the smile. Hard as he tried, he could not see it.” There’s an entire social structure of symbolism, taboo, and obligation that has been built up in the North over 8,000 years to keep the Night Watch a functional institution. The only way Jon Snow’s escape would end is with him forcing his family to execute him for being an oathbreaker – thus, coming full circle back to Bran I.
If there is a redemption for all of this mawkish self-pity, it comes from the fact that Jon’s comrades coming to bring him back by appealing to his sense of family (“we’re your brothers now”) and the positive motivating force of camaraderie by pointing out that “here are your choices. Kill me, or come back with me.” Although there’s cracks in the walls and the roofs are crumbling down, the foundations of the Night’s Watch as a social institution that can motivate people through a sense of common belonging, purpose, and meaning are still functional.
Likewise, the fact that “I ordered a watch kept over you. You were seen leaving…if we beheaded every boy who rode to Mole’s Town in the night, only ghosts would guard the Wall” shows that both at the top and bottom of the Night’s Watch, there is both an understanding of the psychology of individual members and people as a group and an understanding that the Night’s Watch needs organizational flexibility to hew to the spirit rather than the letter of their vows (a lesson Bowen Marsh clearly failed to learn).
Speaking of institutional flexibility – let’s talk Mole’s Town, and how the economics of this works. On a basic level, it’s not surprising that the Night’s Watch has a sexual outlet for its men: there’s a long and often ignoble tradition of homosocial institutions of men “bowing to the inevitable,” whether we’re talking the classical to Napoleonic “camp follower” or “army wife,” or the dark history of WWII “comfort women,” or the more humane practice of conjugal visits in prison. I also wouldn’t find it surprising that there’s a blind eye turned to same-sex relationships within the Night’s Watch as well, just to keep the organization functioning.
But especially for an order of men who take vows to “take no wife…father no children,” a brothel offers a handy loophole that keeps desertion down and morale at acceptable levels. After all, the veil of uncertainty hanging over any birth in Mole’s Town would prevent any family tie interfering with one’s loyalty of the Night’s Watch. In fact, I’m a bit surprised we don’t hear of same existing at Eastwatch of the Shadow Tower – but that feeds into the overall issue of how many people actually live in the Gift. In order to support about a thousand people at the Wall, there must be between 1,800 to 9,000 smallfolk producing for the Night’s Watch (the Stewards are not nearly large enough in numbers to feed and supply themselves plus 600 men) – which, while still a very small population given the size of the Gift (a fully populated Gift could easily support 1.3 million people), seems a bit more substantial than the one horse farmer Jon meets plus Mole’s Town.
The question is how Mole’s Town’s workers get paid, buy supplies, and so forth. One possibility is that they get paid in-kind. After all, the Stewards have their hands on meat, timber, cloth, metal wares, etc. most of their lives, and given that the Night’s Watch engages with seafaring traders, they must also get their hands on trade goods on a regular basis. On the other hand, this kind of organized, widespread theft would be deleterious to the proper functioning of the Night’s Watch’s resource management system. Another possibility is that they get paid with coin. While the Night’s Watch doesn’t pay wages, the institution has stores of coin for trade, to pay for the travel of their recruiters, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Night’s Watch has a system of cash bonuses for extra work or unpleasant or difficult jobs – it’s not an uncommon system in prisons, for example – and the men of the Night’s Watch pay for sex with that money.
A third possibility is that there’s an institutional arrangement – after all, the Mole’s Town brothel is located on Night’s Watch land, so they’re technically tenants of the order. However, you can’t eat free rent, so it may be the case that the Night’s Watch supplies the brothel in-kind, which makes it a lot more like the organized military brothels of the 20th century. However, the text doesn’t seem to support this reading.
So which is it?
Mormont’s Thesis – a Critique of Fantasy?
If there is a central idea to this chapter, something that makes it a worthy conclusion to Jon Snow’s story in this book, it’s Lord Commander Mormont’s argument – and I would argue, by extension, GRRM’s argument – about what’s important in the world of Westeros. Despite being literal witness to the return of mankind’s ancient enemy, Jon Snow has attempted to desert from that fight, to privilege his family over the broader family of humanity. And yet, Mormont starts his argument with an appeal to practical realities: “your brother is in the field with all of the power of the North behind him. Any one of his lords bannerman commands more swords than you’ll find in all the Night’s Watch. Why do you imagine they need your help? Are you such a mighty warrior, or do you carry a grumkin in your pocket to magic up your sword?”
I don’t think it’s an accident that George R.R Martin frames this speech as a critique of the cult of heroic individualism in the fantasy genre – one lone man (and it’s almost always a man), wielding a magic sword, saving the world by his own actions, is pretty ubiquitous. And yet, for all that GRRM makes Jon Snow the closest thing to a traditional fantasy protagonist, he undercuts that almost immediately: from this point through to A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow will kill exactly two people whose names we learn, but neither will shape the world as much as Jon does by refusing to kill, by speaking to and learning from, and ultimately mobilizing people into new ways of behavior. Whether it’s the brothers of the Night’s Watch or the wildlings or Stannis himself, Jon’s heroism is that of a community organizer, not a one-man-army.
At the same time, I think Martin is engaged in a critique, not a denunciation. As important as the political side of A Song of Ice and Fire is, and as someone writing a blog devoted to that side of the story believe me I care about it, there is no way of escaping the fact that GRRM presents the metaphysical threat to Westeros as more important: “The cold winds are rising, Snow. Beyond the Wall, the shadows lengthen. Cotter Pyke writers of vast herds of elk, streaming south and east toward the sea, and mammoths as well…Rangers from the Shadow Tower have found whole villages abandoned, and at night Ser Denys says they see fires in the mountains, huge blazes that burn from dusk till dawn. Qhorin Halfhand took a captive in the depths of the gorge, and the man swears that Mance Rayder is massing all his people in some new, secret stronghold he’s found…when dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”
And yet, and yet…the fact that Martin went to such lengths to give us a political storyline, one that arguably takes up the overwhelming majority of the text, gives this a different feel. In many fantasy works, the only threat is the metaphysical threat, and the source of evil is Evil, and the mundane is portrayed as something to be tossed aside or transcended. I’ve never been that comfortable with this tendency; it devalues ordinary human lives, and it teaches the wrong lessons about where injustice comes from and what it looks like. But by layering the one on top of the other, GRRM makes both seem more intense and vivid – the Mountain is as real a threat to the ordinary Riverlander as the White Walker is to the ordinary wildling. There is a danger in fixating on the mundane to the exclusion of all else – that way lies the War of Five Kings. Then again, there is a danger in fixating on the metaphysical to the exclusion of all else – that way lies Summerhall and Robert’s Rebellion.
In the words of Lester Freamon, all the pieces matter. And what Westeros desperately needs is a hero who pays attention to the big ones and the small ones.
There’s not much to discuss this chapter that I haven’t discussed above. But come back next time for an extensive look at the history of regional independences!
What If? Not a whole lot happens in Jon IX, but I can see a couple of possibilities:
- Jon kept riding? In part, Jon Snow’s potential future has already been outlined by George R.R Martin. But it’s done so only up until the current point in time. Certainly cetibus paribus, Jon Snow’s foolish actions would earn him a death sentence – but Jon Snow’s desertion is about to coincide with an Ironborn invasion of the North. Who better to lead a guerrilla insurgency against the foreign occupiers than Ned Stark’s grown-up warrior son, complete with direwolf? I doubt the hill clans would be checking I.D any time soon, and the Night’s Watch is about to be kept busy by Mormont’s Great Ranging. It’s possible but not exactly guaranteed that Jon Snow could foil Theon’s attack on Winterfell – which has huge ripple effects when it comes to Robb Stark’s strategy, the Red Wedding, Ramsay Bolton’s rise to power, and the political position of the North vis-a-vis Stannis Baratheon. If he doesn’t, he’s still the natural focus point for a loyalist resistance to the Boltons and Stannis’ go-to pick for new Lord of Winterfell.
- Mormont doesn’t march? Another possibility that comes to mind is that Mormont decides against taking one-third of the Night’s Watch’s fighting strength up into beyond-the-Wall. This changes things in a number of ways – to begin with, it means the Night’s Watch isn’t going to come face-to-face with the White Walkers (yet), and that Jon Snow never breaks his vows. It also means that Mance Rayder’s army is going to face a stronger foe, both in terms of raw numbers and leadership quality. (I’ll go into this more in ACOK and ASOS, but I’ve never quite understood how Mance’s army on its way to the Wall missed the White Walker force that had attacked the Fist of the First Men) Quorin Halfhand isn’t going to fall for the Weeper’s tricks, so the Battle of the Bridge of Skulls is nowhere near as bloody for the Night’s Watch. With patrols up by a third, it’s questionable whether the Thenn’s raiding party makes it over the Wall or at least unnoticed. Beyond the battle, Stannis isn’t going to have nearly as strong a hand against a Night’s Watch that’s almost as strong as his army with experienced leaders at its helm. But is the Night Watch flexible enough to bend to meet the true threat?
Book vs. Show:
The show played this straight from the text, so I don’t have anything to say – other than that the rousing montage of the Night’s Watch setting out, which I quite like, seems to have set up a weird trend of dramatic montages that then get undercut by what follows. For example, Jorah’s montage in season 1 is oddly undercut (in retrospect) by the fact that the Night’s Watch’s battle on the Fist of the First Men happens entirely off-camera; likewise, Asha/Yara’s preparation montage from the end of Season 3 is going to feel strange in retrospect when she doesn’t find her brother until she gets captured by Stannis.
It’s an odd tic, as it seems to set up the audience for disappointment.