“The wide world is full of people wanting help, Jon.”
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 have a tendency to forget how influential the HBO show can be on my memory of ASOIAF, but I was reminded when I came to Jon III. I had been kind of dreading Craster’s Keep, but after reading this chapter, I realized that was entirely due to how this section was mishandled in Season 2 – more of which later. On the page, Jon III is an engaging mystery story, an agonizing moral struggle about how to balance the needs of a terrified young woman fighting for her son’s life and the needs of an entire army, and a critical stage in Jon’s growth.
The Keep and Its Master
The main event of this chapter, as opposed to the previous chapter which didn’t really have an event, is that the Great Ranging arrives in Craster’s Keep. And one of the things I noted this time around that I hadn’t in previous read-throughs is the way in which GRRM uses the geography to foreshadow the man:
“He had never thought to find a stone castle on the far side of the Wall, but he had pictured some sort of motte-and-bailey with a wooden palisade and a timber tower keep. What they found instead was a midden heap, a pigsty, an empty sheepfold, and a windowless daub-and-wattle hall scarce worthy of the name. It was long and low, chinked together from logs and roofed with sod. The compound stood atop a rise too modest to name a hill, surrounded by an earthen dike…on the southwest, he found an open gate flanked by a pair of animal skulls on high poles: a bear to one side, a ram to the other. Bits of flesh still clung to the bear skull…Well, thirty of us will be warm and dry, Jon thought once he’d gotten a good look at the hall. Perhaps as many as fifty. The place was much too small to sleep two hundred men, so most would need to remain outside.”
From the outset, Craster’s Keep is a place of dubious safety: a holdfast with no defenses, and a longhall which cannot shelter its guests. This plays into the ongoing theme of uncertainty and ambiguity around safety – both the place and its owner is literally offering partial guest right. Some of the Night’s Watch will be given bread and salt and a place under the roof, others will have to stay outside without any obligation to or from the host. Likewise, there is much in the banal details of the place that ought to make one nervous – the rotting bear skull is a rather obvious bit of foreshadowing about the eventual fate of Lord Commander Mormont, but as we’ll learn later the empty sheepfold is just as ominous. But looming over the whole thing is the question of how “he’s able to hold the place. His defenses were nothing to speak of, only a muddy dike.” North-Beyond-the-Wall is a dangerous land, and yet Craster is able to live here without any visible protection – so what kind of invisible protections does he have, and what did he do do earn them?
The sense of ambiguity that hangs over the place applies just as much to the man himself, “a powerful man, though well into the winter of his days.” To the Night’s Watch, Craster is an uncertain ally at best, at one and the same time indispensable and unreliable:
Thoren Smallwood swore that Craster was a friend to the Watch, despite his unsavory reputation. “The man’s half-mad, I won’t deny it,” he’d told the Old Bear, “but you’d be the same if you’d spent your life in this cursed wood. Even so, he’s never turned a ranger away from his fire, nor goes he love Mance Rayder. He’ll give us good counsel.”
So long as he gives us a hot meal and a chance to dry our clothes, I’ll be happy. Dywen said that Craster was a kinslayer, liar, raper, and craven, and hinted that he trafficked with slavers and demons. “And worse,” the old forester would add, clacking his wooden teeth. “There’s a cold smell to that one, there is.”
…Sam looked dubious. “Dolorous Edd says Craster’s a terrible savage. He marries his daughters and obeys no laws but those he makes himself. And Dywen told Grenn he’s got black blood in his veins. His mother was a wildling woman who lay with a ranger, so he’s a bas…”
Everything about Craster points to a liminal subaltern role – he’s both ranger and wildling, good counsel and a madman, friend and foe. And throughout, hints of the larger themes running under the surface. That Craster “obeys no laws but those he makes himself” is perhaps the purest expression of the way in which this man represents the dark side of the wildling culture, the way in which unlimited individual freedom can excuse the worst kind of slavery imposed upon the weak by the strong, the young by the old, the ruthless against the traumatized. (more on which in a bit) That there is a cold smell about him is sign and signifier that Craster’s freedom has been purchased through a dark bargain with the very powers that the Night’s Watch is marching forth to meet.
And as will so often be the case, it is Dolorous Edd, George R.R Martin’s wonderful contribution to the great lineage of prophetic fools that reaches all the way back to Shakespeare’s Lear and beyond, who sums up the situation the best:
Dolorous Edd was feeding the horses. “Give the wildling an axe, why not?…he’ll give it back, I vow. Buried in the Old Bear’s skull, like as not. Why not give him all our axes, and our swords as well?”
…”Smallwood says Craster is a friend to the Watch.”
“Do you know the difference between a wildling who’s a friend to the Watch and one who’s not?” asked the dour squire. “Our enemies leave our bodies for the crows and the wolves. Our friends bury us in secret graves.”
As with any double agent, there is no element of trust here. Craster may be bought for an axe, but he might just as easily spin that gift around and murder his benefactor; just as easily as Craster sells out Mance Rayder to the Night’s Watch, he might well have sold out the Night’s Watch to Mance Rayder…or to the White Walkers. Awfully convenient that the White Walkers knew exactly where to find the Great Ranging and attacked before anyone from Quorin Halfhand’s party could return, and before the Watch could attack Mance’s column short of the Wall. Perhaps the White Walkers wanted the wildlings to cross over the Wall…
But back to Craster and his information. To the extent that we learn anything in ACOK about what’s going on North of the Wall, we find out here, but what we learn seems a mix of truth and lies. To begin with, it’s not particularly credible that Benjen Stark didn’t visit Craster’s Keep:
“I’ve not seen Benjen Stark for three years,” he was telling Mormont. “And if truth be told, I never once missed him.”
…”He ought to have passed here last year,” said Thoren Smallwood…
“Ben was searching for Ser Waymar Royce, who’d vanished with Gared and young Will.”
Now, I suppose one could argue that Benjen was simply waylaid (link) before he got to Craster’s Keep, but I find that unlikely. Given what we find out in the next Jon chapter, it’s highly likely that Benjen Stark made it to the Fist of the First Men and left the cache of dragonglass wrapped up in the Night’s Watch cloak. And given that we don’t get any other sign of Benjen, it’s quite possible that Craster sold him out. On the other hand, Craster is probably telling the truth about Ser Waymar’s ranging, that “those three I recall. The lordling no older than one of these pups. Too proud to sleep under my roof, him in his sable cloak and black steel. My wives give him big cow eyes all the same.” Indeed, this is part of the reason why I don’t believe him about Benjen – the man was too experienced a ranger not to have followed up on Ser Waymar’s likely last known resting place.
Also a clear lie is his comments about the wights when Lord Commander Mormont mentions that “when we took them back to Castle Black they rose in the night and killed…the other came for me, which tells me that they remember some of what they knew when they lived, but there was no human mercy left in them.” Now, it remains unclear to what extent they actually do remember and to what extent they were being puppeteered from across the Wall, but it’s quite possible that the constant returning of the white cold to Craster’s Keep signifies that Craster’s sons remember dear old dad, or at the very least that whatever intelligence is at work is happy to keep taking sacrifices until there’s nothing left. What certain is that when Craster says “we’ve had no such troubles here…I’m a godly man, and the gods keep me safe,” he’s probably lying to himself as well as to Mormont.
More accurate is his information about Mance Rayder, “King-beyond-the-Wall.” In exchange for a steel axe and some wine, wildling solidarity completely breaks down, as “there’s much I could tell you o’ Rayder and his doings, if I had a mind. This o’ the empty villages, that’s his work. You would have found this hall abandoned as well, if I were a man to scrape to such. He sends a rider, tell me I must leave my own keep to come grovel at his feet. I sent the man back, but kept his tongue…might be that I could tell you where to seek Mance Rayder. If I had a mind.” This strategy of divide-and-rule helps to explain how the Night’s Watch has managed to keep the wildlings at bay for eight thousand years – with only Gendel and Gorne, Bael, and Raymun actually making it past the Wall.
Freedom, Slavery, Guest Right and Other Moral Dilemmas
In addition to information about Mance Rayder’s movements, Craster also brings with him a number of interesting thematic elements and moral dilemmas. Running throughout is George R.R. Martin’s commentary on freedom as it applies to the wildlings, a running theme of Jon Snow’s storyline throughout the rest of the series (which in turn parallels Dany’s story exploring the meaning of freedom for the slaves of Essos). As I’ve already discussed, GRRM likes to play with our modern expectations of freedom – here, GRRM turns a skeptical eye on the New Hampshire-style individual autonomy at the heart of the wildling ethos:
“What do free folk want with kings?…”
“And what would we do, serve you at supper? We’re free folk here. Craster serves no man.”…Craster grabbed a passing woman by the wrist. “Tell him, wife. Tell the Lord Crow how well content we are.”
The woman licked at thin lips. “This is our place. Craster keeps us safe. Better to die free than live a slave.”
“Slave,” muttered the raven.”
When libertarian mottos are put into the mouths of an abusive, incestuous child-murderer and his victims in a cult-like mantra, clearly an element of satire is at work. For Craster, freedom for the individual means that Craster serves nothing but his own desires, obeys no laws of man, god, or nature other than the ones he cooks up in his head to justify his own urges and actions. For his daughters, freedom is another word for slavery, an insidious combination of isolation, misinformation, Stockholm Syndrome-like mental adaptation, and terror that Craster uses to bind his women to him. When later Ygritte defends the freedom of the wildling culture and its practice of wife-stealing, keep Craster and his wives in mind. No system that places freedom for the strong above all else functions without the oppression of the weak.
Thus, when Mormont responds to Jon’s later plea for Gilly with a comment that “would that some would find the courage to help themselves. Craster sprawls in his loft even now, stinking of wine and lost to sense. On his board below lies a sharp new axe. Were it me, I’d name it “Answered Prayer” and make an end,” I think we’re meant to look askance. This response, so familiar to anyone who’s looked at modern dialogue around domestic abuse, ignores the invisible chains that Craster has fastened to his wives. After so many generations of repeated trauma, in the absence of any community outside the family, the women of Craster’s Keep have only the merest scraps of information about the outside world, let alone any basis for understanding what’s being done to them. Add to their intellectual isolation the very real social isolation they face – the Night’s Watch is not about to help them, as we’ll see all too well in ASOS. Likewise, the wildling community around Mance Rayder views them as taboo-breaking half-crow quislings. So there is nowhere for these women to go – and if they kill Craster and stay, what do they do when the white cold comes calling only to find the intermediary dead?
Thus, the immediate dilemma facing Jon Snow when Gilly begs him to:
“Just take me with you, when you go, that’s all I ask.”
All she asks, he thought. As if that were nothing.
“I’ll…I’ll be your wife, if you like. My father, he’s got nineteen now, one less won’t hurt him none.”
“Black brothers are sworn to never take wives, don’t you know that? And we’re guests in your father’s hall besides.”
“Not you,” she said. “I watched. You never ate at his board, nor slept by his fire. He never gave you guest-right, so you’re not bound to him. It’s for the baby I have to go…If it’s a girl, that’s not so bad, she’ll grow a few years and he’ll marry her. But Nella says it’s to be a boy…he gives the boys to the gods. Come the white cold, he does, and of late it comes more often. That’s why he starting giving them sheep, even though he has a taste for mutton. Only now the sheep’s gone too. Next it will be dogs, till…”
…”The cold gods,” she said. “The ones in the night. The white shadows…”
“What color are their eyes?” he asked her.
“Blue. As bright as blue stars, and as cold.”
She has seen them, he thought. Craster lied.
As with Jaime, as with Brienne, as with so many others in A Song of Ice and Fire, Jon finds himself caught between his individual moral instincts and the interests of the larger institution to which he has pledged himself – in this case, the Night’s Watch. On the one hand, Gilly’s appeal, to protect her life and that of her child from the Others, is the literal purpose for which the Night’s Watch was founded, and to abandon her to human sacrifice against her will is flagrantly immoral. On the other hand, Jon’s actions would violate the agreement between Craster and the Night’s Watch, upon which the lives of dozens if not hundreds of Night’s Watchmen depend. Yet again, Gilly’s comment that “they said the king keeps people safe” is an appeal to the social contract written into the vows of the Night’s Watch and at the very heart of GRRM’s theory of monarchy.
Regardless, this is clearly an unstable situation, something else I had forgotten before this re-read. Rather than an equilibrium in which life can be maintained at a horrible, but consistent, status quo, the White Walkers are clearly demanding more and more from Craster (possibly related to their sudden resurgence, possibly not) and aren’t going to stop until they’ve taken everything they can. We’ve known already that the White Walkers have intellect; now we know that they also have appetite. In addition, this relationship between the White Walkers and Craster fits into a larger pattern that the White Walkers are a bargain-making people. As we’ve learned, both from Old Nan’s stories and from the legends of the Night’s King, the White Walkers have a use for humans – they are willing to mate with them, willing to feed their flesh to the undead, and willing to trade sorcererous power for human sacrifice. That the White Walkers are more sentient than people think, I will grant. That they are misunderstood, I don’t buy for a second.
While Jon gives Gilly the brush-off, it’s clear that the encounter troubles him. Thus, by the time that Jon encounters Sam, the personal Jimminy Cricket who initiated all of this, he’s arguing as much to convince himself as he is Sam:
“I thought you would help her.”
“And how was I to do that?” Jon said sharply. “Take her with us, wrapped up in your cloak? We were commanded not to-“
“I know,” said Sam guiltily, “but she was afraid. I know what it is to be afraid. I told her…” he swallowed.
“What? That we’d take her with us?”
Sam’s fat face blushed a deep red. “On the way home.” He could not meet Jon’s eyes. “She’s going to have a baby.”
“Sam, have you taken leave of all your sense? We may not even return this way. And if you do, do you think the Old Bear is going to let you pack off one of Craster’s wives?”
Jon makes a good practical point here. The Great Ranging can’t really take Gilly with them on their march north and keep her safe; hell, as we learn in ASOS, they can’t really keep themselves safe. But Sam’s moral point, that it’s immoral to abandon someone to this fate sticks with him, to the point that when Jon Snow finally gets a chance to talk to Lord Commander, he’s arguing for the other side:
“My lord,” Jon said quietly…”Craster has no sheep. Nor any sons.”
Mormont made no answer.
“At Winterfell one of the serving women told us stories,” Jon went on. “She used to say that there were wildlings who would lay with the Others to birth half-human children.”
“Hearth tales. Does Craster seem less than human to you?”
In half a hundred ways. “He gives his sons to the wood.”
…”Smallwood told me. Long ago. All the rangers know, though few will talk of it.”
“Did my uncle know?”
“All the rangers,” Mormont repeated. “You think I ought to stop him. Kill him if need be.” The Old Bear sighed. “Were it only that he wished to rid himself of some mouths, I’d gladly send Yoren or Conwys to collect the boys. We could raise them to the black and the Watch would be that much the stronger. But the wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I. These boys are Craster’s offerings. His prayers if you will…yet it would be an ill day for us if Craster died. Your uncle could tell you of the times Craster’s Keep made the difference between life and death for our rangers.”
“Your heart is noble Jon, but learn a lesson here. We cannot set the world to rights. That is not our purpose. The Night’s Watch has other wars to fight.”
This is where the moral ambiguity kicks in hardcore, and it goes in all directions. Which is better: for a small group of wildling women to suffer or for rangers of the Night’s Watch to die in the wild? Well, that depends whether your interests lie with the women or the Night’s Watch, and unfortunately for him, Jon Snow has sworn an oath to the Night’s Watch. He’s also yet to formulate his argument from ADWD that the Night’s Watch oath includes the wildlings among the “realms of men,” thus Mormont never has to respond to it. I doubt that a traditionalist like Mormont would agree anyway, and it wouldn’t necessarily answer the question of whether the Night’s Watch should prioritize the life of a single civilian, even one they’re bound to protect, over the well-being and possibly the survival of as many as a third of their number.
There’s a really important point of verbal ambiguity here too. Jon never tells Lord Commander Mormont that the recipients of Craster’s sacrifices are not mere forest gods, but the same blue-eyed enemy that tried to kill both of them. At the same time, he misses that Mormont’s dismissal of the “hearth tales” and his statement that “all the rangers” knew about the child sacrifice are linked, perhaps too overwhelmed by the reality that the Night’s Watch tolerated infanticide, albeit unhappily, to notice. This news also presents its own moral ambiguity – is an institution that allows this to go on a moral one, even if it thinks it’s doing it for the greater good? On the other hand, given that they’re guests under Craster’s roof (or at least Mormont is), is it moral to murder an evil man if doing so breaches the sacred custom of guest right?
Jon’s silence is potentially consequential in another direction: because Mormont doesn’t find out that Craster’s gods are physical beings with blue eyes, and thus a clue to the wight/Benjen Stark mystery that was the initial cause of the Great Ranging, he gets completely distracted when Craster gives him the clue to Mance’s whereabouts and activities:
“Mance Rayder is gathering together in the Frostfangs. That’s why the villages are empty. It is the same tale that Ser Denys Mallister had from the wildling his men captured in the Gorge, but Craster has added the where, and that makes all the difference.”
“Is he making a city or an army?”
“Now, that is the question. How many wildlings are there? How many men of fighting age? No one knows with certainty. The Frostfangs are cruel, inhospitable…they will not not sustain any great number of people. I see only one purpose in this gathering. Mance Rayder means to strike south, into the Seven Kingdoms.”
“Wildlings have invaded the realm before…Raymun Redbeard led them south in the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, and before him there was a king named Bael the Bard.”
“Aye, and long before them came the Horned Lord and the brother kings Gendel and Gorne, and in ancient days Joramun, who blew the Horn of Winter and woke giants from the earth. Each man of them broke his strength on the Wall, or was broken by the power of Winterfell on the far side…but the Night’s Watch is only a shadow of what we were, and who remains to oppose the wildlings besides us?”
On one level, it’s entirely understandable that Mormont would react to such strong evidence of a clear and present danger to the realms of men. After all, although the Night’s Watch was originally set up to guard the Seven Kingdoms from the Others, for most of the last eight thousand years, they’ve primarily been engaged in defending the Seven Kingdoms from various Kings-Beyond-the-Wall. Regardless of the Others’ actions, Mance’s army would cause havoc to the Wall, its defenders, and the North beyond, potentially right at the outset of the second Long Night.
However, Mormont is also allowing his traditionalist nature to blind him to his original purpose in a classic case of mission creep. The Great Ranging was intended to find out what was responsible for the disappearance of Ser Waymar and Benjen Stark, and what force was responsible for the wights that attempted to assassinate the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch – it wasn’t set up to fight Mance Rayder’s entire army. Moreover, when dead men hunt in the night and the cold rises in the North, Mance Rayder’s army is of secondary importance. Indeed, the entire difference between Night’s Watch and wildlings falls away – whatever else you can say about the wildlings, they are definitely living human beings who hate and fear the Others. Indeed, there’s even precedent for this kind of thing – when the Night’s King rose up, what mattered was whether one was on the side of humanity or on the side of the Others, not which side of the Wall you started out on.
As historical parallels to the Great Ranging go, there’s one historical mystery that absolutely leaps to the forefront: the lost Ninth Legion. The Ninth Legion’s origins are a bit obscure – historians think it was either the institutional descendant of the Ninth Legion Julius Caesar raised for the Gallic Wars, or one of Pompey’s Legions raised in Spain, or the merged descendant of both of these forces. Regardless, the Ninth had seen impressive service in its time – Actium against Marc Antony, the Rhine campaigns before the disastrous Battle of Teutoberg forest, the invasion of Britain in 43 AD, the war against Boudicea, and Agricola’s invasion of Scotland in 83 AD.
And then after 108 AD, the Legion disappears from the record. And for hundreds of years, the Legion was presumed to have been destroyed in an uprising in Britain, and became a part of Scottish nationalist folk lore, another example of the doughty Scots (or Picts rather) seeing off imperialist aggression. After the publication of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954, the story changed yet again to a mystery where the Ninth Legion marched north of Hadrian’s Wall and vanished into the Scottish mists never to be seen again. Incidentally, anyone who’s a fan of Game of Thrones should definitely watch the 2010 movie Centurion, which features more than a few GoT regulars.
Unfortunately, history is sometimes more sober than fantasy. In 1959, researchers in Nijmegen found a series of stamped tiles from the 120s-130 that fairly conclusively prove that the Ninth Legion, far from vanishing into the Highlands, simply got transferred from Britain to the Rhine frontier. But as GRRM says, when the legend “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
While it’s technically possible that the Night’s Watch could have taken Gilly with them, it’s exceedingly unlikely. However, given that there really isn’t an alternative hypothetical, let’s run with it. If Gilly makes it all the way up and all the way back, that doesn’t change much from OTL, and besides is highly unlikely given the odds of a pregnant woman about to give birth surviving the attack on the Fist of the First Men. The main departure in this hypothetical is that, if Gilly doesn’t make it back to the Wall, then there’s no baby around to switch for Mance Rayder’s baby.
On the other hand, I think the likelihood of Mance Rayder’s baby actually being sacrificed is a rather small one. As we’ve learned from ADWD’s Melisandre POV, the Red Priestess is not actually a Disney Villain (although I suppose GRRM could be making the point that villains don’t think of themselves as villains) bent on the murder of everyone with any conceivable royal blood – after all, Melisandre is instrumental in Mance being spared the flames at Castle Black, so why be more bloodthirsty about the son than the father?
Book vs. Show:
And this is where the botch kicks in. The problem with the Craster sequence in Season 2 is not that Jon Snow gets a glimpse of a White Walker (I actually liked that) it’s that the themes and character arcs get thrown into chaos almost immediately. In the book, the point of the Craster’s Keep sequence is Jon Snow having to wrestle with moral complexity – the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, the long-term threat vs. the immediate threat – and gaining a more mature understand of his and the Night’s Watch’s role. This then should help us to understand how it is that Jon Snow is able to make that most difficult of decisions to kill Quorin Halfhand and go undercover as a wildling, all in the name of loyalty to the Night’s Watch.
But in the show, there are no arcs. Rather than maturing, Jon blunders into confrontations with Lord Commander Mormont, gets his ass kicked by Craster for the sake of a rather lame cliffhanger, and this sets up a whole cavalcade of blunders with Ygritte that turned Season 2 into an irritating regression in which Jon Snow goes through no growth as a character whatsoever. Likewise, while the theme of Jon Snow accepting his future leadership position is brought up in this scene, it’s immediately undercut by Jon’s actions following Craster, and then again when Jon now volunteers for Quorin’s ranging (more on this in a bit).
And, while I like Jon Snow seeing the White Walker, having Lord Commander Mormont explicitly know what Craster is sacrificing his sons to doesn’t work – it doesn’t make sense, given Mormont’s lack of knowledge about the wights that’s well established in AGOT/Season 1, and it really does damage to the entire purpose of the Great Ranging to the extent that Jon’s motive for “defecting” comes out as more genuine than it really should. The element of ambiguity is necessary to transform an epic blunder into a tragedy.
What makes it worse is that I half-feel that the show went for this direction because they felt that the audience wasn’t going to understand something more complex and ambiguous.