Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Jon III, ACOK

“The wide world is full of people wanting help, Jon.”

Synopsis: Jon and Co. make it to Craster’s Keep, where they meet Craster, Gilly, and moral ambiguity.

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:

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…”

“What gods?”

…”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?

The Turnaround

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.

Historical Analysis:

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.”

What If?

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.

134 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Jon III, ACOK

  1. Arthur Brown says:

    Another outstanding analysis, Steve. Once again you reveal a level of complexity I have missed on several re-reads. The Craster’s Keep setting is creepy (the weather, the Keep, the wives automotonic expressions & responses) plus Craster’s overall vileness, compels me to plow thru these chapters without a lot of analysis. Thanks for the insight.

    Looking forward to the next one(s)!

    • Arthur Brown says:

      By the way, I loved the Sam as Jiminy Cricket reference……Perfect.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it!

      Well, I have Theon II and Tyrion VI outlined. After those two, I need to do some more outlines, and I’ll probably write Laboratory of Politics Part VI first before I do that.

  2. Grant says:

    I’d thought that Mormont’s comment about Craster’s gods was suggesting that he knew, because I couldn’t find any other possible reason for Jon to not mention the Others unless Martin just really missed it. Even setting aside morality, Jon has no reason to not warn his commander that their host is actively serving their enemy.

    As for Melisandre, she clearly doesn’t burn people needlessly, but she may have just decided that she needed Mance alive. Of course Mance would try to kill her without hesitation if she ever did try to burn his child, but it isn’t clear if that would actually work.

    There are two other unfortunate points in this. The first, and fully understandable for the mystery of the Others to continue, is that very little is revealed about the Night’s King and exactly how he was defeated. Why exactly did Brandon Stark need to ally with Joramun and how did Joramun contribute to the effort? The second is that it’s clear that there’s some kind of interaction between the Night’s Watch and at least some of the wildling groups, but there doesn’t seem to be too much information on exactly what. Craster can hardly be all they’ve had over their history.

    And lastly, there’s another nail in the Wildling freedom coffin. It’s made clear that accusations of at least some groups stealing women from below the Wall for wives is true, something that will be mentioned later and brushed aside as they can always stab the man if they don’t like him. There’s no consideration for exactly how long a woman would last, alone, in an alien culture, a very long way from any friends or family and who has probably just infuriated an entire group by killing one of them. At the very least, their system is only egalitarian and free if you’ve already got the group’s support and are actually strong enough to kill someone with a knife.

    • Winnie says:

      Yeah, I really like the domestic violence angle you play up there. In the real world of course, when domestic violence victims *do* fight back they do not always get unconditional support-look at Marissa Alexander or all those cases where someone immediately self-righteously proclaims that she could have just left or gone to a shelter or whatever.

      And the whole analysis of how libertarianism is just about the strong oppressing the weak was right on Steve! FLDS contains some of the most *rampant* libertarians around and Clive Bundy besides being a racist was also a free loader who threatened law enforcement officials with guns and they backed down…if he’d been *Black*…well its best not to think about that.

      • Grant says:

        I’m staunchly anti-anarchist/anti-libertarian, but I think the furthest we should go with analyzing Wildling politics is that they largely endorse a system that gives great freedom* and expects violent actions without providing much in the way of safeguards**. It’s a pity that we don’t know more about the Wildlings history and the Thenn to see where these developments came from and why the Thenn differ.

        *To be sure it is made clear that there are some rules and rituals that people are expected to follow, but those don’t do much that we can see to protect the weak.
        **Of course this site and the books make clear that knights aren’t held much by the romantic idea of chivalry.

      • Crystal says:

        Yes, Mormont’s response about how Gilly or one of the other wives ought to just kill Craster in his sleep is exactly like the “Why didn’t she defend herself/leave/etc.” that is said about abused spouses in modern days. With Mormont, I honestly think that he was thinking about what his sister Maege or her daughters would do in that situation. He grew up in a subculture (Bear Island) where women WERE powerful and respected, and where Maege would (most likely) have had the backing of her family and people if she were to off an abusive husband (“he rolled over and smashed his head on the axe in his sleep! Oopsie!”).

        With the Wildling women, there are powerful and free ones like Ygritte and Val, or powerless abused ones like Gilly and her sister-wives. I don’t see Wildling culture as having the ingrained ideology of female inferiority that most of Westeros has, but it’s not Dorne, either. A woman who has a strong personality and the backing of her family has a lot of freedom; someone isolated in a terrible situation like Gilly is powerless. There is, as is noted in other posts/comments, no system of law or authority outside the family and force to back up individuals. I would think that life would suck for a powerless Wildling male as well.

    • Milk Steak (@_MilkSteak) says:

      I thought Mormont’s “I know” in the show was that he had already put two and two together on that trip not that he’s always known.

      Also while Mel saved Mance from burning she did so by burning someone else in his place.

    • I’m more in the camp that Jon assumes that Mormont’s I know means White Walkers rather than “forest gods.”

      I can’t wait for ASOS and that Bran chapter.

      • Grant says:

        Sorry, but do you mean the books or the show on Mormont’s knowledge? In the show it’s pretty clear that Jon tells Mormont and Mormont argues it’s an unpleasant thing they have to tolerate. In the books the scene has always puzzled me because Jon knows, but does not openly tell Mormont. So the only ways to interpret the scene are either that Jon assumes Mormont knows from his talk of ‘crueler gods’* or that Jon deliberately didn’t reveal the truth about Craster to Mormont, which doesn’t seem to make sense.

        Like I said above, it is possible that this was a scene that Martin forgot a line or two or originally had it written one way, changed it and forgot to remove the confusing line**.

        *Which would also explain why he calls them crueler than the ones Jon serves since Jon follows the old gods.
        ** It happens. I remember a tie-in book to the Magic trading card game where one character addresses a princess, even though the princess has been long since kidnapped by that scene.

        • Books. And I think Jon simply leaps to a conclusion.

          • Grant says:

            That creates another What If: What if Jon had insisted on making it clear what was going on when he was speaking with Mormont? I honestly can’t think of many ways that it would greatly change, if only because Mormont genuinely believes in sacred hospitality, but he might decide that they should kill Craster before the mutiny occurred.

          • This is something of a stretch, but I’ve always wondered whether, if Mormont had kept his eye on the ball re: the White Walkers, he might have tried to work out something with Mance a la Jon Snow.

          • Grant says:

            Personally, I don’t think so. I’ll admit that I don’t devote the same energies to going over the chapters that you do, but there seem to be too many obstacles (many of which are present for Jon and the Night’s Watch later as well).

            The first is that Mance’s demand of getting past the Wall would probably be non-negotiable. Besides it being the entire reason for why all those people are willing to work with each other, it is literally the only way they could ever be safe. Even as they attacked the Wall the Others or at least the wights were pressing on them. And the question of Wildlings past the Wall in force leads us to the next two problems.

            The second is that Mance’s control over the Wildlings isn’t that great. They’re bound by his feats, vision and intelligence yes, but I think that just binds them to a general direction. Specifically, getting past the Wall to where it’s safe(r). Once that’s done, Mance really has no way to say that they won’t ravage the lands and kill a vast portion of the population*. Mance is in charge by appealing to what they like. It reminds me of a quote attributed one way or another to several people:

            “There go my people. And I must hurry to follow them. For I am their leader!”

            I usually see it to mean that a leader has to get in touch with their base, but it can also be interpreted to mean that the leader gets dragged into positions they don’t want to.

            The third is that with Mance unable to control them the alternative, the Night’s Watch and northern lords, is also right out. The Night’s Watch is simply too small and even if the lords weren’t busy at war in the south, they probably would have to maintain a very large force to do it for decades (which they really couldn’t). It isn’t until Mance’s forces are militarily defeated, Mance is apparently killed and they’re given the new image of a fire god to protect them in the face of the Others that you get anything like stable control of the population.

            Lastly Mormont would have known what kind of response he’d get to the idea of letting the Wildlings past the Wall (and that’s really the only terms that Mance would accept). A dozen daggers in the back from his brothers. If the desperation of their situation** in A Dance of Dragons didn’t save Jon Snow, this wouldn’t save Mormont.

            Also I think Qhorin would have been a more likely messenger than Jon due to his experience and relations with both Mormont and Mance, though that’s not certain.

            *I believe in reading them as humans with human actions of course, but that also means applying what we know of humans to them. And that, sadly, means that we can safely assume the various groups would have done a lot of looting, raping and killing.
            **And I’ll admit that the assassins might not be as completely stupid as they first appear when you consider events from their perspective. Just rather stupid.

          • Mitch says:

            Replying to Grant’s longer post above, not you, Steven.

            I don’t think the brothers of the Night’s Watch murdered Jon Snow primarily because he let the Wildlings through, but rather because right before he died he was mobilizing to fight the Bolton/Frey army at Winterfell.

            While Jon snow letting the wildlings through definitely ruffled the traditionalists’ I think murdering Snow was more about protecting the Night Watch’s neutrality (an attack on the Boltons obviously being in violation of their oaths, and more importantly threatening the institution’s survival by making enemies of the ruling family).

            The storyline set in the North cuts off abruptly in ADWD, without any resolution and aftermath, but it’ll be interesting to see where TWOW picks up this thread.

          • I disagree – there was too much planning that went into it for it to be a spontaneous reaction to Jon’s declaration that night that he’s going to fight the Boltons.

          • Grant says:

            There may be multiple factors such as the de facto support for Stannis and Jon’s undiplomatic nature, but there were so many points at which it was the Wildlings that were a cause of friction between Jon and his subordinates* that I can’t believe that wasn’t a major factor in it. And it’s not as though the Night’s Watch doesn’t have a history of murdering lord commanders.

            *Just off the top of my head there’s the offer of Wun Wun to do some work that gets turned down, sending the ships to save Wildlings along the coast and sending a group of Wildlings to reinforce one of the towers.

          • David Hunt says:

            Regarding the reasons for Jon’s “et tu Bowen?” moment, I think Marsh comes right out and tells us what it is that pushes him over the edge. IIRC, he tells Jon that he thinks arming the Wildlings (part of Jon’s defense plans) is treason. That’s about as good as you ever get in ASOIAF for clear indications as to why people make dramatic gestures like murdering the Lord Commander.

          • Yeah. It wasn’t the Bolton thing – too much planning had to have happened first.

        • The Bolton thing was just an excuse. I’m sure they had been planning to assassinate Jon for a long time, and that the wildlings were the main reason why, but I think some of them (possibly Bowen himself, with his traditionalism) may have still felt reluctant to go through with it before Jon could be said to have technically broken the NW vows – much as they disliked the peace with the wildlings and letting them through, Jon made a pretty compelling and hard to refute argument that letting the wildlings through does not actually violate the NW vows.

  3. Sean C. says:

    One of the things that people commonly cite as a strength of the TV show, the ability to show perspectives beyond those of the novel POVs, I’m often more ambivalent about. Regarding Sansa (not to harp on this; she’s my favourite character, so I have more thoughts about her story than most), for instance, the writers regularly use this “strength” as license to ignore her and focus on the shiny objects around her, which was one of the chief things that made Season 3 such as a disaster for her.

    But, with that lead-in, the way the writers looked ‘beyond’ Jon’s POV in Season 2 to show more one-on-one interaction between Sam and Gilly was a very good decision, and doesn’t detract from Jon’s story (Jon’s story’s problems are completely unrelated). It’s an effective way to build up an important connection for Sam, a season before he gets his own POV in the novels.

    In general, I think the show did a much more consistently good job with Sam’s time beyond the Wall than with Jon’s (the exception being the jarring difference between the season 2 finale and the season 3 premiere), which is a bit counterintuitive. But Sam’s story has fewer moving parts (both in terms of plot and theme), which probably helped, and the casting of Hannah Murray as Gilly was a great choice. She and Bradley have very good chemistry.

    • Winnie says:

      ITA with everything you said about Gilly and Sam. Hannah Murray was a perfect choice.

    • I liked the Sam/Gilly interactions for the most part. The Sam stuff doesn’t go problematic until Season 3.

      • Sean C. says:

        If you’re referring to moving the “Sam the Slayer” moment to a point where nobody sees it, while that does alter the plot a bit, I don’t think it’s necessarily a big problem (we won’t know for sure, I suppose, until we see the first few episodes of season 5).

        • That’s part of it; Sam’s backsliding in much of Season 4 is also part of it.

          • Sean C. says:

            Granted, it’s been a while since I read his AFFC chapters, but I recall him spending pretty much the whole book running away from his feelings for Gilly, so it didn’t really strike me at a glance as being that different.

        • Sam didn’t get respect from his NW brothers and most didn’t even seem to believe him that he actually killed an Other (except for Grenn, already one of his close friends, who was there and presumably told the others), so I don’t see why that change would be a problem. It’s not like Sam’s status changed in any important way.

          I think the Sam/Gilly stuff in season 3 was some of the best things in season 3, the scenes in Second Sons were really good. As opposed to how season 2 had Sam constantly talk about Gilly when she wasn’t there. which was annoying.

  4. Winnie says:

    Great analysis as always Steve but with one more thing…now that we know *why* the White Walkers wanted Craster’s sons, I have to say that the Terrible Bargain the NW made in that case was definitely a mistake even from a tactical viewpoint and one that all of Westeros may soon have reason to regret.

    Also I thought the tone of the conversation, between Jon and Mormont implied that the latter at least suspected the babies were being taken by something inhuman whether Jon said so explicitly or not.

    • Yeah, but I think you need to avoid presentism – the NW knows the babies are being sacrificed to forest gods, not that the forest gods are the Others.

      • Brett says:

        Considering that human sacrifice was part of Old Gods worship at some point (courtesy of Bran’s visions later on), I’m not surprised that Mormont doesn’t leap to “sacrificing to the Others” at first either. He might just be thinking that Craster kills them and offers their blood before a weirwood tree.

  5. Abbey Battle says:

    Some wonder why the Nights Watch enforces celibacy in this day and Age – others have already met Craster of Dunghill Hall and therefore understand JUST WHY.

    On a more sober note, please accept my congratulations for another excellent analysis Maester Steven; I must admit that I am particularly intrigued by your allusion to the parallels between The Nastiest Man North of the Wall and the sort of antichrist who shows up in places where it’s unsafe to drink from the bowl at parties and even more dangerous to listen to The Leader.

    So far as I’m concerned had Lord Commander Mormont made it out of the mess he found himself in at the Fist of the First Men with discipline intact he would have been wise to make the … removal of Craster one of his first priorities. Heck, he might have been well-advised to cut his losses and haul back to the Wall PERIOD and he’d be unwise to leave Craster or his wives behind.

    If nothing else his services are now dispensable (The Watch isn’t going to be leaving The Wall any time soon) and for another leaving behind a possible source of information for The Wildlings is bad practice (Craster may not want to talk, but that doesn’t mean the Free Folk can’t make him sing out anyway).

    Unfortunately things don’t work out so neatly.

    Another interesting angle to note is that by doing business with Craster the Watch are smearing themselves by association – The Free Folk hate the Black Brothers, but the likes of Craster seem to DISGUST them and it seems hard to imagine that the association makes it easier for The Watch to Talk on a basis of mutual respect with the Wildings.

    Don’t mistake ‘Respect’ for ‘Affection’ or ‘Trust’ by any means; Still, even the Crows have to talk with the Crow-Killers from time-to-time and I can only imagine that freedom from Craster would make diplomacy flow at least a little more easily.

    • Winnie says:

      Good points all.

      I think one of the shows better inventions actually was Jon realizing they needed to kill the mutineers at Craster’s precisely to prevent them giving M ance info.

      • The wildlings in the show have wargs; if anything they’re more prevalent amongst the wildlings in the show than in the book. Which means the wildlings don’t need Karl or his men, they can spy on Castle Black at will. None of the mutineers is established to be a high value prisoner. So Jon’s mission is pointless and wasteful, and Jon should know this from his time with the wildlings.

        • Grant says:

          They have wargs in the books as well, or at least a warg. In an interesting and under-mentioned moment, Quorin and Mormont both readily note that when Mance marches he’ll have wargs with him, a ready admission that magic is very real and in the hands of their enemies. And they might kill the mutineers on sight or they might not, they didn’t kill Jon at the first chance.

          And on the general issue of Craster, Wildlings might not like him but if they wanted him dead they could easily kill him. I’m not sure if it was ever stated in the books why they didn’t do that unless he was also selling them information on the Night’s Watch (or they knew more about him and the Others and were too scared of retaliation).

          • Let’s not forget that they’ve only been The Free Folk Confederation for the last year (give or take), before that, they’ve been simply wildlings. A mass group term for clans, tribal nations, and a smattering of would-be Conans.

            So before that, Craster would have a decent chance against any lone wolf or small group that crossed his path. And now that the Free Folk are somewhat united, Mance has larger concerns than an Other collaborator whose level of info will soon dwindle with all the other Free Folk now gathered at the Frostfangs.

          • This. But then again, given the difficulties with warging, it’s possible they wouldn’t have been able to count accurately. Also, wargs can’t see in doors.

          • Grant says:

            A group of ten to twenty could easily kill him, even with just an arrow. He has to move around outside his hall at some point and a guy like Craster is eventually going to infuriate someone enough to kill him (like he does later on) if he doesn’t have something to offer or threaten them with.

        • WPA says:

          Wargs can give them the equivalent of imagery Intel but not the human Intel that interrogating live prisoners could give them.

          • What human intel could they have gotten that could possibly worth the potential risk of a rescue mission? The wildlings already have defectors among their ranks, including Mance himself, and the capture and interrogation of rangers is something we can infer happens regularly if infrequently. So what does Jon think Karl knows that is so valuable?

            Remember that Karl and company know nothing about specific defensive measures made to combat Mance’s host, because at the time they left on the ranging none had been made; the purpose of the ranging was in part to find out what Mance was up doing.

          • 1. An accurate count of numbers and dispositions at the Wall.
            2. The current command structure of the Watch.

            There aren’t regular captures of rangers – rangers going missing is an extremely rare event and noted by the NW instantly. The only rangers who’ve gone missing in over a year are Ser Waymar’s party and Benjen’s party, and neither of them were captured by wildlings.

          • To take the last point first, if the wildlings ever fight rangers and win, eventually they’ll have captives. And they must sometimes fight rangers and win; how else are some of them so infamous? Alfyn Crowkiller earned his name somehow, and it probably wasn’t by hunting birds. And captives asides, there are still deserters.

            As to troop strength and disposition, even if wargs can’t count or even hold on to vague impressions of numeracy while warging (a dubious assumption, IMO) captives/deserters would give them a fair idea of troop strength. Wargs would alert them to any large troop movements. In the books, Jon is challenged every times he tries to lie on this subject. In the show, Orell calls him a liar on this very topic. The wildlings at the very least have a sense of these numbers.

            Command structure, yes, that’s recent intel they wouldn’t have otherwise. But it’s not worth risking nearly 10% of your fighting force to protect. Jon’s mission had a very real risk of literally decimating Castle Black’s defenders, IMO at least.

          • They do sometimes…but not recently. Not in over a year. Which means they don’t have recent information – especially information that post-dates the Great Ranging, which is the critical point.

      • I didn’t mind it as much as I minded the gratuitous rape by Karl Tanner’s crew.

    • Yeah, especially after the Fist, I think the NW needs to change policy preety damn quickly.

  6. Also, if you enjoy seeing the GOT HBO actors together in new roles: Ripper Street is a great choice. Two seasons, both on Netflix (US). Bron is in the main cast, but Barristen, Jorah, Roose, Benjen, and Hodor have all shown up!

    • Doctor Who is also an excellent choice for that.

    • MightyIsobel says:

      The Fall also features Barristan and Roose. I laughed out loud when there was a whole scene about how trustworthy McElhatton’s character was.

      The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane in a terrific role that is so different from Stannis. And Joseph Mawle — I may be taking ASOIAF a bit too seriously when I actually felt relief to see the actor who plays Benjen hasn’t actually disappeared IRL.

  7. Winnie says:

    FYI, I’ve seen Centurion myself, and liked it. Thought it was underrated and it has early Michael Fassbender AND Dominic West as well AGOT crew.

  8. The behavior of Craster’s sons tells us nothing about the wights and their level of consciousness and memory, because Craster’s sons are definitely not wights. If they’re still walking around, as one of the women implied in ASOS, then they have been turned into the Others, just as season 4 showed, and have grown up since.

    Wight!babies would be pretty useless to the Others or anyone else, and would hardly present a credible danger if they were to crawl back to Craster’s for their new little brother.

    • I’m less sure about that.

      1. It tells us more about the consciousness of the White Walkers.
      2. The books have more fluid boundaries between human and Other – matings, half-human children, sentient wights like Coldhands, etc.
      3. It depends on when the babies are turned to wights. Maybe the White Walkers farm them. In both senses.

      • But the wights do not seem to be sentient, while White Walkers clearly are.

        I’m having a very hard time imagining the Others nursing, feeding and clothing (as well as healing from illnesses etc.) a human baby/child/teenager until he grows up enough for them to kill him and turn him into a wight. Not to mention, it seems like a colossal waste of time, effort and resources and something that would only slow them down. Why take babies when you can simply turn adults into wights?

        The only explanation that makes sense, if Craster’s wife is to be believed that the “sons” are still around, is that there is actually a way to turn babies into White Walkers, as season 4 suggested.

        • Grant says:

          We have no idea if any of those measures to care for a child are even necessary for anyone given to the Others. We’ve seen magic or divine power remove the need to eat and sleep in the books. Besides that, taking human children for their own is an established part of the general fairy/elf/tuatha de danaan/sidhe stories that the Others are drawn from.

          • But why would they bother, if all they need is wights? It’s much easier and more useful to turn adults into wights than to care for babies and wait for them to grow up.

        • Winnie says:

          Exactly. In fact, I suspect that the magic used to ‘turn’ the infants might only *work* on infants which is why they made the deal with Craster. All these years they’ve been using Craster’s Keep as a Farm to grow their army. Or maybe the children have to be surrendered *willingly* by a parent. Hard to find people who’d do that but not impossible and I suspect Craster might not be the only instance, (though he’s probably been the most prolific.)

          And yeah, that is with the benefit of hindsight I’ll admit but again it does raise questions about NW policy that they made that deal. Martin might be making a point here about how sometimes the full costs of these “arrangements” with bad people might not be felt until much later on. We armed Al Qaeda at one point because they served our interests and look how THAT turned out.

          I’m not arguing for moral purism-I understand pragmatism and hard choices have to be made sometimes-but I do think too often we make such deals without fully understanding the price.

          • “Exactly. In fact, I suspect that the magic used to ‘turn’ the infants might only *work* on infants which is why they made the deal with Craster. All these years they’ve been using Craster’s Keep as a Farm to grow their army. ”

            Well, that’s my point. They need infants because infants are the only humans that can be turned into White Walkers. If they need wights, they can simply kill adults and have ready instant big wights, as they often do.

        • It’s hard imagining the Others mating and breeding with humans, but there’s enough stories going around that there’s got to be something about it.

          Also, who says that they’re turning them into wights necessarily? They could just be eating them as per the stories.

  9. Steven, maybe you’re saving this topic for some of the later Jon chapters in ACOK or ASOS, but I’m curious about your thoughts on the political & technological levels of North Beyond The Wall (NBTW).

    It seems amazing to me that the entirety of NBTW is technologically stuck in the early Iron Age (with references to certain groups still being in the Bronze Age).

    Every few hundred years a King Beyond The Wall emerges, but their reigns are purely strong-man despotism that crumbles with the death of the leader, rather than establishing some sort of hereditary monarchy.

    And why aren’t there even any emerging city-states or trading posts? Sure something terrible happened at Hardhome once upon a time, but there’s clearly money to be made NBTW if there are mentions of Davos traveling there as a younger man.

    Certainly the presence of mini-ice ages would hamper the development of some sort of modern state, but it amazes me that no settlement larger than a lone longhouse exists.

    • Yes, I’m saving this for later.

    • Brett says:

      Maybe it’s the weather. Most of the area north of the Wall seems rather sub-arctic, to the point where agriculture is spot-and-go and supporting a large population in a fixed area is difficult aside from the coast (such as Hardhome) or in some rare valleys with geologic warmth (Thenn).

    • Adam says:

      “Certainly the presence of mini-ice ages would hamper the development of some sort of modern state”

      For a real-world example, Nunavut is 800,000 square miles and has a total population of 31,000 with all of one settlement of 6700 people for anything resembling modern civilization. Only very minimal even trading posts exist in nearly the entirety of the territory.

      • Good point. If the whole of the wildlings add up to 100,000 people, then it might make sense why you wouldn’t have any large communities. Especially if you don’t have much in the way of agriculture, you need to spread people out to keep the demands on the food supply stable.

    • ajay says:

      “And why aren’t there even any emerging city-states or trading posts? Sure something terrible happened at Hardhome once upon a time, but there’s clearly money to be made NBTW if there are mentions of Davos traveling there as a younger man.”

      Yeah, I remember bringing this up in an earlier NW thread – going by the precedent of Hadrian’s Wall, the NW should have a much more forward policy. Rather than sitting on the wall and just sending out the occasional scouting party, there should be permanent outposts all over the southern part of wildling country, to act as forward patrol bases. Look how useful Craster’s is and it’s hardly an ideal setup. Any Lord Commander worth his salt should have built keeps like that all across the North to push the observation bubble away from where it currently is, which is “up to one bowshot north of the Wall”.
      Steven then made the point (which I agree with) that maybe this was the case when the NW was a bit better manned.
      There should also be trade happening – even if there aren’t that many people beyond the Wall, there’s still fur trapping and gold and amber and ivory to come south, and steel and manufactured goods (and food!) to go north. Nice little earner for the NW to allow caravans through the Wall to trade with the wildlings.

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if the NW had relations with Hardhome through Eastwatch. And the Fist probably was a forward base at one point.

      • medrawt says:

        I do think a general “the Night’s Watch was better organized and oriented in the past” answers a lot of these questions. I also wonder, though, is the situation you describe true of other borders of the Roman empire? Certainly there was trade and social interaction across the imperial border, but were there forward patrol bases on the other side of the Rhine and Danube? I ask because the situation of Hadrian’s wall might be specific – the Romans had already taken what is now lowland Scotland, built the Antonine Wall, and established some infrastructure before moving the border back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the inter-wall area “softened up” to function as a buffer. (In my understanding; I know more about post-Roman Britain [about which there’s less to know!] than I do about the imperial centuries.)

  10. ad says:

    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.

    I’m beginning to get the impression that only an evil right-winger would ever extol freedom. I’m not sure that is an impression I’m happy with.

    FWIW, I think it worth pointing out that the Wildlings seem to be a lot happier to initiate the use of force than most libertarians would deem proper.

    • That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m getting at is that I think Martin is critiquing a narrow definition as freedom from outside constraints, especially from the state, by noting that such freedom can come at the expense of others.

      While it’s true that the wildlings use force quite frequently, and generally conceive as property as something you don’t really own unless you’re strong enough to keep it, those things aren’t unknown in libertarian theory. Locke’s justifications of slavery or the appropriation of the New World from the Native Americans, for example.

      • ad says:

        Locke would presumably not have called himself a libertarian, since the term would seem to have been unused then. Present-day libertarians would seem to define freedom in the sense of “freedom from threats of violence or theft/ property damage”.

        Either GRRM is obsessed with attacking straw libertarians, or he is critiqing people who claim any restraint on their actions is an infringement of their freedom. Such people are common, as everyone can come up with reasons why some ideal means they should get whatever it is they want.

        • Locke was the foundation of libertarian theory, virtually everyone who comes after works in his shadow. And I think present-day libertarian definitions have a lot to be desired when it comes to where threats can come from and what constitutes property that can be stolen. But that’s a topic for my other blog.

          Probably the latter.

  11. ad says:

    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.

    Of course, if you take that at face value, it merely means that the Ninth got knocked off on the Rhine rather than in Caledonia.

    And I’ve seen arguments that those tiles merely demonstrate the survival of a vexillation or two, transferred to the Rhine after the rest of the legion got wiped out…

    • Sure. My larger point was just to emphasize that often historical mysteries have quite mundane explanations. Amelia Earhart crashed, Stonehenge and the Pyramids were built with log rollers and ramps, Anastasia Romanov was dead the whole time, the Roanoke colony bred into the local Native American tribe, etc.

  12. This is one of your very best analyses – thanks!

  13. Andrew says:

    Another good job,

    1. “Why is she wearing Sam’s cloak?”

    Foreshadowing for Sam and Gilly’s relationship with that being a reference to when the bride dons the cloak of her husband’s house, and she is under his protection.

    2. As for Craster, it shows that one problem with wildling society is that there is no system of justice or authority that others can appeal to when injustice does occur. The wildlings say they hold slavery and incest to be abominations, yet they have no one to enforce these rules.

  14. John W says:

    “…the show went for this direction because they felt that the audience wasn’t going to understand something more complex and ambiguous.”

    That’s been a recurring theme since the beginning of Season 2.

    • Yeah. And a certain amount of this is understandable, given the necessities of transitioning the medium. But tv audiences, especially premiere cable audiences, can appreciate complexity too.

  15. Amestria says:

    “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”

    You neglected to list one of the biggest ones, one that Craster didn’t have to invent or engineer, only utilize. Craster’s wives are also his daughters, so they’re all of the same blood. If some of his wives killed him they’d be kinslayers, cursed before gods and men wherever they went (and a nasty curse at that, I doubt the story of the Rat King is the only one out there).

    • David Hunt says:

      Well the Rat King wasn’t cursed for kinslaying, but for so dramatically breaking guest right.

      On a more mundane note, Craster being the women’s father as well as husband means that they effectively have no family that they can flee to. They’re stuck with Craster. In short, it sucks to be them.

      Great read, Steve.

      • Grant says:

        That’s the two characters together. The story is actually about the Rat Cook, a man who served a king the king’s son in a pie after some wrong the king did to him. In it the cook and prince aren’t related.

      • Amestria says:

        Oh yeah, I got my myths mixed up. There are probably equally terrible ones about kinslaying though. In the first chapter of Dance with Dragons Tyrion muses that “No man is as cursed as the kinslayer.” You don’t have such thoughts without a mythology to back them up.

        • Grant says:

          There are many instances in the books and expanded materials that condemn people for kinslaying in the harshest terms, and it seems to be shared between the old gods and the Faith of the Seven. Culturally it’s there for obvious reasons, in a world like this family is all you have to support you and there is great pressure to always support your family. However we so far haven’t gotten any morality tale stories from the characters about it.

          • zonaria says:

            Amongst elites, the condemnation of kinslaying in Westeros makes quite a contrast from, say, ancient Rome or early medieval Europe, where some rulers seemed to see killing any relatives they had not sired personally as almost their most fundamental duty.

    • Roger says:

      True, didn’t thought about that.
      Also probably Craster wife thought they couldn’t survive without their “husband” to protect or hunt for them. And being “cursed” (incestuous) women, they wouldn’t find suitable husbands, despite having been forced into it.

      • Crystal says:

        It’s very possible that Craster’s wives would be killed by the other wildlings, if the wildlings have the belief that those born of incest are abominations. So it deeply and unfathomably sucks to be Craster’s wives if it’s stay with him or die, which I think might be the case.

  16. Jim B says:

    If Benjen did pass through Craster’s Keep and Craster lied about it, it would have been nice of Gilly to mention that to Jon or Sam at some point when they were back at Castle Black together…

    • Grant says:

      Quite possible that she had no idea that they were looking for him. Was she present to hear the conversation, or know who Benjen was?

      • Jim B says:

        It’s unclear from this chapter. The conversation about Benjen happens before we know who Gilly is; Jon meets her later when Ghost has raided the rabbit hutch and scared her into a corner. The next day she claims that she was watching Jon closely and knows he didn’t take Craster’s food or drink, but she probably just means after they met — she would have had no reason to watch him particularly until she heard him called a lord and brother to a king.

        But I was really just assuming that at some point “off-page” Sam would have mentioned something about Jon having had an uncle who was First Ranger and went missing — hey, you probably met him….

        After all, Sam was probably desperate to find things to talk about with Gilly other than his feelings, though I suppose he may have avoided anything that touched on Others or Craster as well.

    • That’s true, but she might not have ever met him during his trip. Or possibly Benjen passed by and Craster refused him shelter.

  17. Amestria says:

    I really liked this essay (and the last one, which was perhaps your best yet).

    Curious about one thing though. You seem to dismiss Craster’s protestations that he’s “a godly man” out of hand. I’m sort of wondering why. My reading was somewhat different, once it became clear exactly *what* his gods were I took his declarations at face value since he’s pretty much a Wildling Satanist. I suppose this is a question of what is the Other morality and commandments (to the extent they give them to useful dupes – I mean worshipers) and just how much of Craster’s keep was originally Craster’s idea and how much might have been divine inspiration. Is he a wholly selfish man who made a dark bargain with ice devils who satisfy personal desires for power or is he a sincere cultist to dark gods that he believes to be real and true?

    • Amestria says:

      With the later binary the difference would be:

      1. Craster had his situation nd dark desires and the Others offered him a way
      2. The Others offered Craster a way of life that fit his situation and dark desires

      And 1 being a knowing Faustian bargain and 2 being a sincere Covenant (or what Craster takes as one). A minor but meaningful difference.

    • I wasn’t dismissing his faith, more his belief that everything was under control. The escalation of the sacrifices suggests that he doesn’t understand his gods as well as he pretends to.

  18. Amestria says:

    Concerning the empty sheep pen – perhaps the Others protection fees went up in response to a King Beyond the Wall? Craster mutilated one of Mance Rayder’s messengers and took his tongue as a trophy, exactly the sort of thing that might prompt retaliation even if Craster didn’t already have a reputation for being a triple agent. As the potential threats to Crasters life have increased, so has the number of sacrifices.

    • Maybe. It’s hard to say.

      • Grant says:

        Sadly (well, sort of) Craster dies before we can learn any more about him and his bargain and his daughters didn’t seem to know anything beyond that he was giving boys to the Others. How Craster knew it would work, whether he had ever directly communicated with them and what the exact terms were are all unknown. I’m hoping that we learn something from Bran’s studies of seeing the past, one of the Children or from an Other directly.

        • I think that the fact that the terms of the bargain suddenly shifted on Craster suggests that he didn’t particularly understand what was going on that well.

          • Grant says:

            He might have understood very well, it’s just clear that he never had any power in the deal. Was he taught by someone else (and would this fit in with the theory that the Wildlings are descended from humans who served the Others)? Did the Others approach him? Why were livestock used as sacrifices in recent times, what did the Others get from that?

  19. Roger says:

    Great analysis again.

    Later in the third book, Mormont seems to understand the wildlings aren’t the true enemy. But it’s too late form him.

    Also dealing with Mance is really complicated, being himself a deserter of the Watch, a man who deserves hanging, acording to law.

    I didn’t like the TV series at this point, already. Mostly for the reasons you point, but also becouse Sam is seen more horny than shy. Always talking about girls, even saying “Gilly would have loved the views!”. That’s a leak of futur self-spoilers by the series. The book is more subtle.

  20. zonaria says:

    Had missed the detail with the sheepfold. Does this mean that Westeros gets invaded by legions of undead sheep…?

    Although it is scarcely the most important theme of the series, whether ice or fire wins out in the end, it is a bad outlook for our woolly friends. The dragons have not shown themselves too friendly either.

  21. […] afford to lose its three hundred best fighters on an unrelated mission. This is a classic case of mission creep – Mormont came north after Benjen Stark and to find out why the dead are rising, but […]

  22. “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”

    THANK YOU! This is also, ultimately, the point of Jon’s and Dany’s arcs, and to some degree of the whole series. And it’s precisely here that the showrunners fail so catastrophically. I started following this series of analyses well before Season 4 and I have to admit that I thought you were being too hard on the show. After the abominations of Seasons 4 & 5, I’m re-reading this without the burden of my emotional investment in GoT being one of the great TV series. Yara at the Dreadfort and Jon & Bran at Craster’s in S4 killed all hope of that and Season 5 was b-movie comedy at its best.

    So … belatedly … you were right to begin with on the flaws in S1 & S2 … and I’m enjoying my second reading of your analyses a lot more. (also enjoying my 6th reread of the books more than any of the other passes).

    • animalia555 says:

      Two things about democracy and freedoms. First in order for Democracy to work you need a WELL educated public or else they can to easily fall pray to demagogues. Just ask Sacrites about that.

      And two about right there is a phrase about this, “your right to swing your fist stops at the next persons nose” basically your rights and freedoms only go as far as you don’t hurt anyone with them. Of course just where that point is CAN be blury.

      ONE MORE QUOTE: This time from Benjamin Franklin, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep arguing what’s for dinner. Liberty is a well armed lamb.”

  23. […] one break in this pattern is at Craster’s Keep, where we learn […]

  24. […] and using the slave labor of abused women as his ticket to social mobility. He took a long look at Craster’s Keep and liked what he saw – and the reason why he can accomplish this act of amorality is that […]

  25. […] Jon I has to do several difficult things at once: it has to establish Jon Snow’s character arc for A Storm of Swords (will he maintain his cover identity and mission or will he either be found out or “go native”?); it has to sell us on Mance Rayder, who will be Jon’s foil (note that I say foil rather than antagonist) arguably through the end of A Dance With Dragons; and it has to introduce both Jon Snow and the reader to the culture of the Free Folk, for the first time seen as a nation rather than as individuals  or isolated holdfasts. […]

  26. […] a tendency in all these groups to mediate their ideals of individualism and free speech through the rule of the strong. As in our own world though, clan structures tend to be either egalitarian or have a relatively […]

  27. […] we saw above with Jon’s spying on Tormund, his focus is on the Horn of Joramun as a supernatural threat  – one that supposedly can bring down the Wall itself according to some legends, although here […]

  28. […] dagger with him, this would be his first and last POV chapter, and that if he hadn’t brought the horn, the apocalypse might have happened (although with Euron bearing down on Oldtown, this is still up […]

  29. […] as I’ve argued before, one can’t just no-true-scotsman away the counter-example of Craster by pointing in the […]

  30. […] Hadrian’s Wall. However, despite the mythology of Hadrian’s Wall as a barrier against fearsome barbarian raiders, the actual history was more about ensuring that merchants and shepherds had to pay sales taxes. […]

  31. […] ought to be a time of joy, but Craster’s Cronos-like presence means that everything human and natural is inverted and the dominant mood is fear and anxiety. […]

  32. […] While playing a similar role that the Reeds play in Bran III, the fact that Ygritte is one of those wildling raiders whom the “lordling” and “his family and a few sworn men” would hide from, and that her people are the cause for the tower’s abandonment can’t help put a sharper edge on the broader phenomenon of the Gift’s depopulation. Already in Ygritte’s callous dismissal that “they were fools to leave such a castle” – which is an…interesting position for her to take, given her broader feelings about people being forced off their land by force, and sets up her later debate with Jon about land, property, and warfare – we can see the logical extension of the wildling libertarian ethos. […]

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