“I was born in a house much like this,” declared Dolorous Edd. “Those were my enchanted years. Later I fell on hard times.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
I’ll get this out of the way quickly – Jon II is one of those chapters in which nothing really happens. As the synopsis tries to get at, there’s not a lot of drama in arriving in an empty villages, having a few conversations, and sending a letter back home. It’s easy to see why Benioff and Weiss excised this material from the show, and somewhat difficult to understand why George R.R Martin’s editor didn’t tell him to cut it down and merge it with another chapter. At the same time though, for those of us more interested in how the world of Westeros works, there’s some interesting tidbits of world building here that are worthy of exploration.
The Old Gods and the White Tree
Following on my comments from Davos I, we see in Whitetree a sign that the Old Ways are not kindly to all living things. Long before we get any details from Bran about throats being slit in front of heart trees, we get a rather ominous preview here:
“…a monstrous great weirwood…the biggest tree Jon Snow had ever seen…the size did not disturb him so much as the face…the mouth especially, no simple carved slash, but a jagged hollow large enough to swallow a sheep.
Those are not sheep bones, though. Nor is that a sheep’s skull in the ashes.
“An old tree.” Mormont sat his horse, frowning.
“And powerful.” Jon could feel the power…
He knelt and reached a gloved hand down into the maw. The inside of the hollow was red with dried sap and blackened by fire. Beneath the skull he saw another, smaller, the jaw broken off. It was half-buried in ash and bits of bone.”
In the chapter, these bones seem like a clue that the wildlings have known about the wights for a long time (“the wildlings burn their dead. We’ve always known that. Now I wished I’d asked them why, when there was still a few around to ask,” muses Commander Mormont), and that possibly recently the village of Whitetree had a wight infestation and burned the bodies by way of burial service. However, in light of Bran’s flashback chapter from ADWD, I wonder whether the “power” in the tree that a nascent warg like Jon senses indicates a long-running tradition of human sacrifice that lent this particular heart tree more magical power. After all, we know from many many sources that the #1 source of magical energy is human lives, so imagine how much power centuries, if not millennia of human sacrifices could aggregate. It’s also worth noting that this is the one example of the Old Ways intersecting with fire that we’ve come across – something to look out for.
Second, we also get a bit more info on the nature of the powers of the Old Ways. Jon notes that “my lord father believed no man could tell a lie in front of a heart tree. The old gods know when men are lying.” This may be more accurate than he knows; given the power of greenseers to see the future and the past and of wargs to enter into people’s minds, it’s possible that heart trees (if possessed by an active agent) could tell if people are lying by either looking forwards or backwards in time to see if someone’s telling the truth or by entering into their mind surreptitiously. Likewise, Mormont informs us that “the children of the forest could speak to the dead.” Given that Bran can essentially warg through time when he’s connected to a tree, and seemingly can speak to people in the past, it’s possible the Children could speak to the dead – by speaking to them when they’re alive.
The State of Play North of the Wall
On first read, the purpose of this chapter is to throw a bit of tension and mystery into Jon’s story. A big expedition into the unknown goes together with empty villages (or outposts or farmsteads or forts) like chips and salsa:
“Whitetree was the fourth village they had passed, and it had been the same in all of them. The people were gone, vanished with their scant possessions and whatever animals they may have had. None of the villages showed any signs of having been attacked. They were simply…empty.”
“Jon, fetch me paper, it’s past time I wrote Maester Aemon.” Jon found parchment, quill, and ink in his saddlebag and brought them to the Lord Commander. At Whitetree, Mormont scrawled. The fourth village. All empty. The wildlings are gone.“
However, with foresight, we can tell a little bit about what’s going on here. Within the last year, the wildlings of Whitetree upped stakes and joined up with Mance Rayder – which means the migration must have started after 3/18/298, which is interesting because by the timeline that would be right around the time that Waymar Royce’s expedition got massacred roughly in the vicinity of Whitetree (Waymar and his bunch had been only nine days ride away, and never made it to Craster’s). Given the relatively recently burned corpses in the tree, this suggests that Whitetree had a wight “incident” in the wake of this and then left. Given that Mance must have been coming back over the Wall at around this point, and his later comments about the Others, it’s quite possible that he was made aware of the increase in activity and kicked his plan into gear around this time.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that as bad an idea as the Great Ranging seems in retrospect, Mormont did take pains to ensure that as much information as possible was transmitted back to the Night’s Watch through regular raven messages, as we see above. Given the extreme difficulties in long-range communication in the premodern era, it should stand as a major accomplishment of the Lord Commander that, despite the NW taking heavy losses, the Ranging: 1. found evidence of what it was looking for, 2. brought that evidence back to the Wall, 3. sent a warning back to “the realm,” and 4. actually got military assistance out of the south in the midst of a civil war.
What I remain confused about is a question of geography. Consider the following: the Others must have been pretty far south when they came across Waymar Royce; so how come the NW doesn’t encounter them between Whitetree and the Fist of the First Men? Now, it’s certainly possible that in a year they moved north and hit the Fist from the North – Mance’s comments suggest that they were attracted by the large gathering of life force, although it’s possible that was due to the opening of the barrows (something we’ll need to get to in a bit). However, this raises another issue: how did Mance’s army (and Jon) get all the way from the Frostfangs to the Wall without encountering the Others, when the attack on the Frostfang placed the Others’ army due south of their line of march only 10 days before Mance’s army arrived? It’s possible that the White Walkers moved the army out of the way – although that would be a display of both tactical acumen (let the humans who can cross the Wall breach its defenses) and rationality we haven’t exactly had confirmed yet.
A further puzzling factor is the lack of game: “the woods were as empty as the villages, Dywen had told him one night around the fire. “We’re a large party,” Jon had said. “The game’s probably been frightened away by all the naoise we make on the march.” “Frightened away by something, no doubt.” For veterans of the series, this suggests the presence of the Others – and given the sacrifices made at Craster’s Keep, at least some have to be in the area. And yet we don’t see them until the Fist or at any point in between. So did the Others get all the way south and then shadow the Night’s Watch all the way to the Fist before attacking of their own accord? Or were multiple groups operating independently?
Only further study will tell.
Azor Ahai, The Prince Who Was Promised, Daario, and Benjen Rolled Into One: Dolorous Edd
It would be malpractice of the highest order for me to analyze this chapter without paying homage to one of George R.R Martin’s greatest literary accomplishments, the power and the glory that is Dolorous Edd Tollett. Dolorous Edd is an interesting character, in part because he doesn’t really seem to fit in a work of the fantasy genre – in spirit and function, he’s much closer to the wise, cynical, existential Fool whose pedigree reaches back from Samuel Beckett’s Godot to Shakespeare’s Lear. Edd is used here to undercut the building mystery by refocusing our attention on the human and the material.
However, it’s also the case that Edd is introduced right as Jon Snow (and to a lesser extent, the Night’s Watch) becomes much more like a standard epic fantasy narrative – a journey across a forbidding wilderness, clashes with big armies of barbarians, giants, and other primordial beasts, the walking dead, and huge existential stakes where previously we’ve been dealing with more human stakes. And the reason why Dolorous Edd is so dolorous is to remind us that, for ordinary people rather than the two-dimensional heroes that so often crop up in epic fantasy, it’s a godawful, traumatizing experience that would make any sane person go into a depressive tailspin.
Not much more to say on that point, just to say that I’ve missed Dolorous Edd in these recaps and I’m glad he’s here now.
Getting back to my earlier discussion about the whole human sacrifice thing; one of my pet peeves as a historian is people who try to bowlderize the rough edges of history, especially in a New Agey way. (Part of this goes back to my primary education in a very hippie school, where it was explained to me that warfare didn’t exist in the Americas pre-Columbus. which would have surprised the Aztecs very much) Needless to say, this crops up a lot with our neopagan friends (and I say this out of love, having been one briefly when I was much, much younger), given that some neopagans like to claim an uninterrupted descent from pre-Christian antiquity to current practice. In this case, this sometimes comes with a denial that Druids ever engaged in human sacrifice, and that reports to the contrary are all either Roman imperialist propaganda or Christian anti-pagan propaganda (both of which absolutely went on, don’t get me wrong).
This started to break down somewhat in the 1980s, with the discovery of Lindow Man, a preserved corpse from the 1st century BC-2nd centuries CE found in a bog in Cheshire. Because of the preservative effects of burial in a bog, much of the body’s tissue survived, enough to show that the body had been strangled, clubbed over the head, and had his throat cut – known as the “triple death” in Irish folklore – that the body’s trimmed mustache and fingernails indicated high status, that inside his stomach was pollen from the sacred mistletoe, and that there were no signs of defensive wounds indicating a struggle. The signs pointing to human sacrifice are pretty clear.
Other discoveries followed – a mass grave of 150 people in a cave in Alveston, a man and a woman impaled on a spike along with a fetal skeleton in East Yorkshire, and a number of so-called “foundation burials” underneath buildings. While the Celtic Druids of Britain were probably not the figures out of Roman propaganda, complete with giant wicker men cages, blood-soaked altars under the oaks, etc., it’s pretty clear that some amount of human sacrifice was going on.
However, it’s almost always a mistake to go looking in history for good guys and bad guys on issues of religion. The Celtic Druids practiced human sacrifice, but then again human sacrifice can be found in virtually every pre-modern culture – the same Romans who spread around the anti-Druid propaganda were perfectly comfortable with people fighting to death in the arena to honor their dead ancestors or just for public entertainment.
Here’s where this ties back to ASOIAF – we shouldn’t assume that the “Old Ways are better” just because the Starks think so, and because we might not like centralized religious bureaucracies from our own history and might prefer decentralized, nature-focused polytheistic religions out of romantic aesthetic preferences. The Seven have a history of oppressing the faith of the Old Gods, but that’s largely because they were the ones who ended up on top; change the order of invasions/migrations of Westeros, and no doubt the Seven would have been the persecuted minority. R’hllorism *seems* evil at first glance, but as we learn, it’s no worse than the “Old Way” that initially seems like the rules-free, non-hierarchical, harmonious religion that all the cool kids are into. And I think Martin is deliberately tricking us by piling all the evil-looking-stuff up front, and then slowly feeding us the info about the connections between R’hllorism and the fight against the apocalypse, in order to teach us a lesson about that.
Unfortunately, there’s no real hypotheticals here as nothing really happens. However, Arya IV should have a lot to work with, so check back then.
Book vs. Show:
In the previous Jon chapter, I mentioned that Jon’s storyline is a botch in Season 2. However, I don’t want to be churlish or a purist – I completely understand why, for dramatic purposes, Benioff and Weiss wanted to start Jon’s story arriving at Craster’s. Craster’s is a rather memorable set-piece for the Night’s Watch for several seasons (including one more season than I thought), and the baby sacrifice is a much more dramatic introduction of the Other plotline than the vague sense of unease we get here.
The problems don’t start until we get to Craster’s.