“When the direwolf raised his head, his eyes glowed red and baleful, and water streamed from his jaws like slaver. There was something fierce and terrible about him in that instant.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Jon IV is a bit of an odd duck, in that it’s really more about setting a mood and describing an environment rather than exploring character, and there’s really only one plot point that happens. Arguably, you could say that the main character of the chapter is actually the Fist of the First Men and the mysteries it contains, as opposed to the putative point-of-view Jon Snow.
Surveying The Fist
So let’s talk about the Fist of the First Men, which the Great Ranging arrives at and decides to use as a base of operations:
“The hill jutted above the dense tangle of forest, rising solitary and sudden, its windswept heights visible from miles off. The wildlings called it the Fist of the First Men, rangers said. It did look like a fist…punching up through earth and wood, its bare brown slopes knuckled with stone…the way up was steep and stony, the summit crowned by a chest-high wall of tumbled rocks. They had to circle some distance west before they found a gap large enough to admit the horses.”
“..it was the ringwall that drew Jon’s eye, the weathered grey stones with their white patches of lichen, their beards of green moss. It was said that the Fist had been a ringfort of the First Men in the Dawn Age. “An old place, and strong…these heights will be easy to defend, if need be.”
To begin with, the Fist of the First Men isn’t just a natural feature – it’s been built as a defensive structure. If it does indeed date back to the Dawn Age, that means it predates the Pact of the Isle of Faces (which ended the Dawn Age) and indeed, the Long Night and the construction of Winterfell and the Wall. Given its location this far north, this close to a “haunted forest” and the Land of Always Winter, I think it’s fair to hypothesize that this is a forward observation post, a way for humanity to give an early warning signal against the Other and the Outside. However, this also means that the Fist is a failure – the Battle for the Dawn got much, much further south than this, although I’m a bit skeptical that the front lines got all the way down to the Trident despite Dany’s dream, because that seems to contradict the more northerly placement of Winterfell and the Wall.
Indeed, I think of the Fist as a kind of example of how not to do defense-vs-White-Walkers for Winterfell. Think of both the strengths and weaknesses of the Fist – it’s a high vantage point which would be difficult for normal humans to attack, but the Others have pale spiders that can climb sheer surfaces which negates that, so Winterfell’s location has nothing to do with high ground and everything to do with other geographical features (like the hot springs and the weirwood tree). The Fist has got a strong ring-fort at the summit, but (as the Night’s Watch will find out) it doesn’t have any place to fall back to once the ring falls – compare that to Winterfell’s double walls, which are specifically designed so that the second line of defense is the more secure. And the Fist has a lot of other limitations:
“…the brothers of the Night’s Watch raised their camp behind the stone ring the First Men had made. Black tents sprouted like mushroom after a rain, and blankets and bedrolls covered the bare ground. Stewards tethered the garrons in long lines, and saw them fed and watered. Forresters took their axes to the trees in the waning afternoon light to harvest enough wood to see them through the night. A score of builders set to clearing brush, digging latrines, and untying their bundles of fire-hardened stakes.”
First, it’s kind of small given that the 300 men of the Great Ranging take up the entire summit. Second, while the lack of shelter is probably due to the ruined state of the fort, it’s not built with a way to store food for the winter, it’s got no secure source of water (as Jon Snow notes), and unlike Winterfell it has no protection from the cold. Third and most importantly, the Fist doesn’t have any magical protection as both the Wall and Winterfell do. Thus, long before the battle that makes up the Prologue and Sam I of A Storm of Swords, we should have the sense that Jeor Mormont has led the Night’s Watch to the Westerosi Alamo – and people always forget that the Alamo was a defeat, not a victory.
The Great Ranging’s Military Planning
All this brings us to Jeor Mormont’s plan for the Great Ranging – why he decided to camp here and fortify. Basically, Mormont plans to place his 300 men between Mance Rayder’s army and the Wall, and either force Mance to attack him head-on against a huge defensive multiplier, or (as we’ll see later) to bypass the Fist and bare his throat to a sudden cavalry charge as he passes:
“The Old Bear means to wait here for Qhorin Halfhand and the men from the Shadow Tower.”
“The easiest road up into the Frostfangs is to follow the Milkwater back to its source. Yet if we go that path, Rayder will know of our approach, certain as sunrise.”
“The Giant’s Stair might serve…or the Skirling Pass if it’s clear.”
“I would not go into the mountains at all…the Frostfangs have a cruel bite even in summer, and now…if we should be caught by a storm.”
“I do not mean to risk the Frostfangs unless I must…wildlings can no more live on snow and stone than we can. They will emerge from the heights soon, and for a host of any size, the only route is along the Milkwater. If so, we are strongly placed here. They cannot hope to slip past us.”
“They may not wish to. They are thousands, and we will be three hundred when the Halfhand reaches us…”
“If it comes to battle, we could not hope for better grounds than here…we’ll strengthen the defenses. Pits and spikes, caltrops scattered on the slopes, every breach mended. Jarman, I’ll want your sharpest eyes as watchers. A ring of them, all around us and along the river, to warn of any approach…and we had best start bringing up water too, more than we need. We’ll dig cisterns.”
This isn’t a very good plan for a bunch of reasons. If Mormont wanted to fight Mance with a defensive multiplier to his advantage, why not use the Wall, which is a much better fortification, which can be resupplied and reinforced (and which has magical protection), whereas the Fist is a hundred leagues deep into enemy territory, leaving Mormont potentially cut off. Moreover, Mormont’s Plan B (as I’ll discuss more later) has something of an old man looking to go out in a blaze of glory, which is an insane idea when you consider that Jeor Mormont knows that the White Walkers are rising and the Night’s Watch can’t 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 he’s focusing almost entirely on Mance rather than the real threat.
The Cache/Case of Benjen Stark
Speaking of which, let’s get right into the main plot point of the chapter – Jon Snow finding the cache of dragonglass. The way that Ghost leads Jon to the cache, coming out of nowhere and leading him halfway around the Fist would have a comical Lassie-esque quality to it if the Fist wasn’t such a damn spooky place, where the direwolves’ premonitory qualities feel right at home. Now, it’s possible that there’s a logical explanation for this – that Bloodraven is pulling the strings, that he did so when the direwolves first appeared, but that seems altogether too straightforward and frankly uninteresting to be the case. Rather, I would argue that the logic here is more mysterious: Ghost knows where the cache is because the dragonglass and the direwolves are both of the Old Gods…or alternatively, his link to the Starks means that he can sense the presence of Benjen:
“…whatever was here had been put here recently. Two feet down, his fingers touched cloth. He had been expecting a corpse, fearing a corpse, but this was something else. He pushed against the fabric and felt small, hard shapes beneath…Jon brushed the loose soil away to reveal a rounded bundle perhaps two feet across. He jammed his fingers down around the edges and worked it loose. When he pulled it free, whatever was inside shifted and clinked. Treasure, he thought, but the shapes were wrong to be coins, and the sound was wrong for metal….its contents spilled out onto the ground, glittering dark and bright. He saw a dozen knives, leaf-shaped spearheads, numerous arrowheads…dragonglass. What the maesters call obsidian…
“Beneath the dragonhone was an old warhorn, made from an auroch’s horn and banded in bronze…a stream of arrowheads fell out. He left them fall, and pulled up a corner of the cloth the weapons had been wrapped in…he knew what he had: the black cloak of a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch.”
Which brings me another point: I’m absolutely convinced that Benjen Stark left this cache at the Fist of the First Men, to the R+L=J point where I don’t even consider it a theory any more because nothing else makes sense. And there’s a lot we can learn from this:
- Benjen Stark did not die before he got to the Fist of the First Men. Which means that either the attack happened south of the Fist and he was separated from his party and kept heading north, or the attack happened south of the Fist on his way back from the Fist, or the attack happened north of the Fist and his men were sent south after they were killed. While the relative geography of where the White Walkers are vis-a-vis the Great Ranging and Mance’s army is a bit unclear, it makes more sense to me that the main force of the White Walkers is probably not to the south of the Fist – because A. why wait until here to attack? B. why haven’t we seen more of a sign of them? and C. the proximity to the disturbed graves we’ll get into later.
- Benjen Stark put the cache there for the Great Ranging to find. This point is hugely important – it means that, in his search for what happened to Ser Waymar and co., Benjen managed to uncover the White Walkers, and made the link between the White Walkers and the dragonglass, and knew that this was so important that he’d have to leave this for someone to find rather than take it with him and risk losing it. Moreover, at some point Benjen also found the old horn – which may suggest that he actually got to the Horn of Winter ahead of Mance Rayder, which would explain why Ygritte says that they didn’t find it, and why Mance tries to pass off a giant’s horn as the correct one. This might also explain how Benjen came in contact with the White Walkers and discovered the secret, given that Ygritte ties the horn to the dug-up graves in the Frostfangs and the White Walkers. It also shows that Benjen Stark is a clever bastard, who could foresee that Jeor Mormont would send a ranging after him, and predict that they would stop at the Fist, allowing him to make a dead drop to his black brothers.
- Benjen Stark put his cloak in the cache. To me, this is highly suggestive of what was going on when Benjen dug the cache. Firstly, he expected someone else to find it before he did, thus the need for the cloak to act as a signal to other Night’s Watchmen. Secondly, it suggests an element of desperation; why else would you take off a heavy cloak in the far North? Thirdly, it suggests that he’s in hiding, because without the cloak, Benjen Stark’s just another human, and with his vast experience as a ranger, could probably pass himself off as a wildling sans the incriminating cloak. This is why I don’t think Benjen is dead, undead, or a prisoner of the White Walkers – whatever he’s up to, he needs to be undercover for.
So I think Jeor’s belief that “…If Ben Stark is alive and free, he will come to us, I have no doubt,” and that if “he’s dead…he may come to us anyway,” is mistaken, and why I didn’t particularly believe that Benjen was Coldhands even before we got the revelation from the editor’s manuscript.
I’ve written a little bit about hill-forts over on the tumblr site, but I decided to wait until now to dig into the subject. Hill-forts are rather fascinating and classical subjects of archaeology. They’re incredibly common – while most of the work done on hill-forts was originally done in Europe (and you can find prehistorical hill-forts all the way from Britain to Russia), you can see very similar settlements among the Maori in New Zealand, the 7th century hill-forts of Rajasthan, the plateau fortresses of the Middle East, and so on. Basically, no matter where or when you were, it always made sense to find some high ground, build some walls and buildings, and occupy that spot for a long, long time, because it’s difficult to attack hill-forts and even when invaders succeeded, the same logic that dictated its construction tends to mean that the winners tended to settle down on the prime real-estate.
What’s interesting about the Fist of the First Men is that, unlike most original hill-forts, the earliest occupants seem to have built in stone rather than in wood. It’s a lot easier to haul timber up a steep incline than it is to haul big rocks, so the Fist represents a good deal of labor expended to create a fortification. At the same time, it’s noteworthy that the Fist doesn’t seem to be regularly occupied. If you were one of the Free Folk and wanted to establish a safe place to live, the Fist seems like a natural location.
Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the bulk of the Free Folk are migrant reindeer-herders (probably modeled after the Sami people of the Scandinavian Artic), and thus permanent dwellings aren’t really compatible with their main food supply. Perhaps the Free Folk know better than to live up on the Fist, where the White Walkers can getcha…
There’s not really an opportunity for hypotheticals here, since there’s no reason for this chapter to exist if Jon doesn’t find the cache, so I’m going to give this section a pass until next time.
Book vs. Show:
The major change between the book and the show is that firstly, they separate out the finding of the cache from the Great Ranging’s arrival at the Fist by three episodes, which is slightly odd but far from the worst thing they did with Jon’s storyline in Season 2, and secondly (and more importantly) they have Jon Snow and Ghost not present when the cache is found. Now, from a TV standpoint I can understand that you want to give John Bradley-West and the other Night’s Watch actors something to do in Season 2 after Jon goes off with Qhorin, but it does have the strange effect of having Jon Snow and his direwolf, who were intimately connected to the whole White Walker plot in Season 1, be oddly disconnected from this storyline in Season 2 and much of 3.