“What will you do…bastard as you are?”
“Be troubled…and keep my vows.”
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.
Not a lot actually happens in Jon I (as opposed to establishing a mood), which makes it a fairly slow introduction to what is actually one of my favorite Jon plotlines in ASOIAF. However, there’s a lot of thematic groundwork and worldbuilding going on that I feel deserves some consideration.
The Night’s Watch’s Intellectual Capital
To begin with, there is the topic of the Night’s Watch’s vast library, the largest we’ve seen first-hand, which makes sense for an institution of the Watch’s extreme duration. As we learn, this store of information represents one of the largest concentrations of intellectual capital in the world, not just for the amount of books on hand but their unique subject matter:
“the books, have you ever seen their like? There are thousands…the important books used to be copied over when they needed them. Some of the oldest have been copied half a hundred times, probably…I found drawings of the faces in the trees, and a book about the tongue of the children of the forest…works that even the Citadel doesn’t have, scrolls from old Valyria…”
Given GRRM’s well-known bibliophile, I have a suspicion that these books are important for more than just world-building purposes (and how interesting that Tyrion, who’s no mean scholar of the written world himself, never seems to have visited one of the great unexplored intellectual treasures in existence) and the dozen maps Sam finds for the Lord Commander. Take a look at the subject matter of these books: the studies of heart trees and the language of the children of the forest may hold the key to the primordial earth magic that built the Wall and brought down the Arm of Dorne, especially when you consider that the children call their language “the songs of the earth.” Scrolls from old Valyria might well be sorcerous in nature, given the nature of that empire’s knowledge. Ever since AFFC, everyone’s focus on mystic knowledge has been on the Citadel – but what if, to quote Raiders of the Lost Arc, “they’re digging in the wrong place”? Or perhaps there are two caches of knowledge, one for Ice and one for Fire?
Finally, as a historian, I appreciate Sam’s defense of historic documents, no matter how mundane – “you can learn so much from ledgers like that, truly you can. It can tell you how many men were in the Night’s Watch then, how they lived, what they ate.” As social historians have known for decades, there is an enormous amount we can learn from fairly mundane sources – indeed, as I hope I’ve shown in my Jon recaps in AGOT, we’ve been able to tell a lot about the functioning and dysfunctioning of the Night’s Watch from rather fragmentary evidence we’ve gathered from Jon and Tyrion’s limited perspective on the institution.
The Great Ranging
As far as plot goes, the central focus in Jon I is Jeor Mormont’s “Great Ranging,” an endeavor that will shape the lives of Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly, and the rest of our cast up at the Wall for the next two books. It’s quite an undertaking: “The Old Bear is taking two hundred seasoned men, three-quarters of them rangers. Qhorin Halfhand will be bringing another hundred brothers from the Shadow tower…the Old Bear was taking two cages of ravens, so they might send back word as they went.” I’ll discuss later the plausibility of 300 men defeating a body of 100,000 people (even if only 20,000 are fighters), but no one could accuse Mormont of treating the situation lightly – he’s committing a full third of the Night’s Watch, and given the overall size of the Watch likely the large majority of their rangers. Just as importantly, the raven-messaging system shows that the Lord Commander is thinking beyond the immediate military issue to the vital importance of bringing back intelligence, so that the Night’s Watch can continue to act as “the horn that wakes the sleepers.”
However, we can see the risk Mormont’s gamble represents through the reactions of the rank-and-file. To begin with, they respond to the appearance of the comet with hopeful, if somewhat strained superstition: “the black brothers had dubbed the wanderer Mormont’s Torch, saying (only half in jest) that the gods must have sent it to light the old man’s way through the haunted forest.” They also go about a ritual common to soldiers facing battle throughout human history. The more earthly go off in search of sex, the more devout in search of reassurance of the next life to come: “the grounds seemed deserted this morning, with so many rangers off at the brothel in Mole’s Town, digging for buried treasure and drinking themselves blind…As they passed the sept, he heard voices raised in song. Some men whores on the eve of battle, and some want gods. Jon wondered who felt better afterward.”
In hindsight, we can see the dramatic reasons for this ranging – it was necessary as a vehicle to get Jon Snow into contact with the wildlings and thus set up his ASOS plot and his policies as Lord Commander in ADWD; as a vehicle to get Samwell Tarly into contact with Gilly, the cache of dragonglass, and the White Walker; as a dramatic device to raise the stakes on the supernatural plot, which has been absent since Jon VII of AGOT and which we won’t see again until Sam’s POV chapters in ASOS, without going straight for the forthcoming attack on the Wall; and as a dramatic device to raise the stakes for the Siege of Castle Black by further stacking the odds against the good guys similarly to what he did with Robb in advance of the Whispering Woods.
We also see the Night’s Watch acquiring more recruits, which provides us another opportunity to check in with the Night’s Watch in terms of overall numbers.
“Ser Endrew Tarth was working with some raw recruits. They’d come last night with…one of the wandering crows…this new crop consisted of a greybeard leaning on a staff, two blond boys with the look of brothers, a foppish youth in soiled satin, and some grinning loon who must have fancied himself a warrior…a lord’s dungeon near Gulltown…a brigand, a barber, a beggar, two orphans, and a boy whore. With such do we defend the realms of men.”
Given that Yoren’s caravan seems to be the main Night’s Watch recruitment and resupply train down to the capital and back – and that caps out at 30 men – we can see that my initial estimates remain on track. These small batches of five men here and five there just aren’t enough to keep the Night’s Watch on a sustainable growth track.
On the other hand, it is interesting to see some future supporting characters popping up here: the “foppish youth” who is the “boy whore” is Satin, Jon’s squire; the “two orphan” brothers are Emrik and Arron who survive the Battle of Castle Black; and Hop-Robin is another survivor. Who the brigand and the grinning loon are I’m not quite sure. (On a side note, I’ve always wondered what Ser Endrew’s relation is to Lord Selwyn, and why the Tarths can’t get their act together on how to name themselves)
Politics Is Everywhere
Another theme that caught my eye was the otherwise out-of-place discussion of kingship – what makes for a good king, how one deals with being the brother of a king, the characters of Renly and Stannis, and the example of Maester Aemon. However, if we think about the larger meta-argument of A Clash of Kings being a debate over the nature of monarchy in a civil war, and especially if we think about Jon Snow as both a younger brother and a prince who is undergoing his own form of political education, it completely makes sense. In the War of Five Kings, the political infiltrates everywhere.
What Makes a King?
To begin with, Jon Snow and Donal Noye discuss the question of what makes for a good king:
“Robb a king? The brother he’d played with, fought with, shared his first cup of wine with…now Robb will sip summerwine from jeweled goblets while I’m kneeling beside some stream sucking snowmelt…”Robb will make a good king,” he said loyally.
“Will he now?…I hope that’s so, boy, but once I might have said the same of Robert…I tell you this- Robert was never the same after he put on that crown. Some men are like swords, made for fighting. Hang them up and they go to rust.”
“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth much all of the day.”
“And what metal is Robb?”
Note that even here, the question of envy is right under the surface of Jon Snow’s character. It’s one of the things that makes him human – that at the end of the day, however much he loved his brother (and that love comes through always), he wanted to be a trueborn son of Winterfell, and lord besides. In another time and place, Jon might have been a Loki to Robb’s Thor, a Daemon to his Daeron. But as we’ll see, his decision to join the Night’s Watch will put him on a different track.
However, GRRM is very clear to throw Jon’s loyal instincts into question – a good man can be a bad king. Robert may have been the “true steel,” but once in power he went to rust. And while we’ve seen Robb’s skill as a war leader, there’s every chance that he may be “made for fighting” but not for ruling. The parable of the metals is a fascinating little miniature in itself – for one, it foregrounds Stannis and Renly, as so many chapters will, as larger-than-life figures whose personal qualities will decide the lives of thousands of men. The verdict is not a good one – Stannis is too rigid and unyielding to make the necessary changes that politics demands, whereas Renly is all surface and no substance.
And yet, as I have argued, it’s worth debating how well Donal Noye saw these men – Robert was not a good king, Stannis has shown himself capable of bending in surprising ways. If GRRM is leaving us a message here, it’s one he’s chosen to muddle beyond a vague sense that the middle path is the best. (Interestingly, Jon Snow seems not to flash back to this advice much once he becomes Lord Commander, compared to Aemon’s mantra)
The Unspoken Pact
We also get an interesting tidbit about how the Night’s Watch is handling the War of Five Kings – while the Night’s Watch has a long tradition of neutrality, as we learned about in AGOT, it seems that a key part of that tradition’s functioning is to maintain a studious silence: “…Among the brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, there was an unspoken pact never to probe too deeply into such matters. Men came to the Wall from all of the Seven Kingdoms, and old loves and loyalties were not easily forgotten, no matter how many oaths a man swore…”
Indeed, as we will see, the Night’s Watch can no more ignore the realities of politics than the political world will be able to ignore the metaphysical threat from beyond the Wall – Jeor Mormont sent a hand to *the* king, but the Night’s Watch will have to turn to all the kings when Mormont’s ranging goes awry, Janos Slynt will bring the Lannister political perspective to the Wall, and Jon Snow will have to wrestle with both Stannis and the idea of Tommen as well.
The Man Who Could Have Been King
Finally, we have the thread that brings this all together – the story of how Maester Aemon turned down the Iron Throne of Westeros in favor of his brother Aegon the Unlikely. It’s clearly intended as a parable for Jon Snow – he’s already been tested as to whether he’ll be a dutiful natural son, and now he’s going to be tested as well to see whether he’ll break his vows out of a sense of jealousy or duty toward his brother.
“Aemon knows what he’s about…do you know that he might have been king…the new king summoned all his sons to court and would have made Aemon part of his councils, but he refused, saying that would usurp the place rightly belonging to the Grand Maester…the year of the Great Council…the lords passed over Prince Aerion’s infant son and Prince Daeron’s daughter and gave the crown to Aegon…First they offered it, quietly, to Aemon. And quietly he refused. The gods meant for him to serve, not to rule, he told them. He had sworn a vow and would not break it…so they had no choice but to turn to Aemon’s younger brother.”
“They will garb your brother Robb in silks, satins, and velvets of a hundred different colors, while you live and die in black ringmail. He will wed some beautiful princess and father sons on her. You’ll have no wife, nor will you ever hold a child of your own blood in your arms. Robb will rule, you will serve. Men will call you a crow. Him they’ll call your Grace.”
On the one hand, this parable clearly steadies Jon Snow later on when he comes face to face with temptation in the form of Stannis offering him legitimacy, Winterfell, and Val. Jon holds true to his vows then, without which much of ADWD would not have happened for better or for worse. On the other, I wonder how wise Maester Aemon’s actions were – he didn’t want to be king, and knew his presence would harm his brother – and yet, had he taken the Iron Throne, it’s quite possible that Aerys II would have never come to the Iron Throne, to the downfall of his House.
I want to save the Great Ranging discussion for a bit later, so I thought I’d do a quick bit about Maester Aemon Targaryen. Now, I haven’t exactly found a historical parallel for him – there’s not a lot of examples from the medieval era of a potential king who turned down the crown in favor of an ascetic’s lifestyle. Even devout kings who later became saints used the powers of the office to advance their holy missions, even if they wore hair-shirts underneath.
However, I did find an interesting little trend of people who turned down the crown throughout history – and it is a little trend; most people don’t turn the crown if they can get their hands on it. Some do it because the chalice is poisoned. Wamba, one of the great Visigothic kings of 7th century Spain, repeatedly turned down the crown because the competition for power was so fierce that “so many Visigoth Kings were dispatched to a higher rewards by disgruntled coutiers that the odds of a natural royal death hovered slightly below fifty-fifty.” (A Vanished World, Christopher Lowney)
More frequent is a trend of turning down the title but not the power – following the First Crusade, Godrey of Bouillon turned down the crown of King of Jerusalem but accepted the titel of Baron instead, perhaps of out of some religious scruple that only Jesus could be King in Jerusalem. Charles Martel, the victor of Tours, refused both the title of King of France and Consul of Rome, but still acted as de-facto ruler of France and Germany for decades. Hugh the Great, tehe 10th century ancestor of the Capetian dynasty, refused the crown and gave it to his brother in law, but still ruled over all of France between the Loire and the Seine, and made sure that his son Hugh Capet would be king.
Thus, we can say that Maester Aemon, formerly of the House Targaryen, is truly one man among millions.
There’s not a lot of scope for hypotheticals here, given that not much happens. However, there are some interesting possibilities:
- Thoren Smallwood leads the Ranging? Thoren Smallwood is one of those bit players who nonetheless exercise a subtle influence on events – in this chapter, he proposes to lead the expedition in place of Mormont. Now, if that had happened, it’s still likely that the Ranging would have been crushed on the Fist, that Jon would have had his adventures with the wildlings, and Sam his moment of glory. However, it would have definitively meant that Jon Snow would have reported back to Jeor Mormont when he returned to the Night’s Watch – which means no Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt throwing Jon to the wolves, no Bowen Marsh wasting the Watch’s manpower in a botched defense of the Bridge, and no Jon Snow as Lord Commander for several years. Which is interesting – for all his strengths, Jeor Mormont was a traditionalist. I don’t know whether he would have been able to make the necessary adjustments to a status quo with Stannis at the Wall and tens of thousands of wildlings who have to be brought into the realms of men.
- Sam is sent to Renly? This is an interesting little possibility. If Sam had been sent to Renly – let’s be generous and say he somehow manages to get down to the Stormlands in time – I doubt that Renly would have given him credence…but it would have put him close to Stannis and Melisandre, to say nothing of Catelyn Stark who might have more interest in a threat bearing down on the North. It also means that the Night’s Watch never learns about dragonglass, but it does mean that Sam might have been at ground zero to see a King struck down by dark magics. What would come of that, I don’t know…all I know is that I pity Sam in the presence of his father.
Book vs. Show:
This scene does not appear in the books, which while I understand from a dramatic perspective (nothing much happens here that has to happen), I do think the thematic losses speak to the way in which the show badly mishandled Jon’s storyline in Season 2. More of which when we get to Jon III and Craster’s Keep.