“They are cold and afraid, we all are…the unseen enemy is always the most fearsome.”
Synopsis: Qhorin Halfhand arrives at the Fist of the First Men with news of Mance Rayder’s preparations for war. Not knowing of the rising discontent within the rank and file of the Night’s Watch, Lord Commander Mormont orders three scouting parties sent out – with Qhorin’s group being chosen to ascend the Skirling Pass. Qhorin chooses Jon Snow for his team.
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 V is where the plot finally begins to kick into gear for Jon Snow and where the genre of his chapters shifts dramatically – up until now, GRRM’s been writing this particular character arc as a rather slow-paced horror story, with the gradual revelations of the empty villages, the human and inhuman evil at Craster’s Keep, the mystery of the cache on the Fist of the First Men. But from Jon V to Jon VIII (i.e until the end of the book), we’re plunged instead into a fantasy espionage thriller instead – Tom Clancy with swords and bows rather than silenced pistols and sniper rifles, John le Carré with wargs as well as existential angst.
One Blast on the Horn
This change in gears is heralded – quite literally – by the “horn that wakes the sleepers.” It’s a deliberately jarring way to signal both to the reader and the Night’s Watch that things are about to change:
The long low note lingered at the edge of hearing. The sentries at the ringwall stood still in their footsteps, breath frosting and heads turned toward the west. As the sound of the horn faded, even the wind ceased to blow. Men rolled from their blankets and reached for spears and swordbelts, moving quietly, listening. A horse whickered and was hushed. For a heartbeat it seemed as if the whole forest were holding its breath. The brothers of the Night’s Watch waited for a second blast, praying they should not hear it, fearing that they would.
As we’ve talked about before, the Night Watch’s signalling system is somewhat inefficient as a means of delivering information – there’s a reason why trumpets make use of short vs. long notes, cadence, and melody to make commands instantly recognizable. However, it also points to the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that the Night’s Watch are living with on the Great Ranging. While the second-time reader knows that the signal is actually announcing “brothers returning,” and specifically “the Halfhand,” the rank-and-file have to wait it out, because out beyond the Wall, the second blast of the horn is quite likely.
No wonder then, that ““Jon had heard gloomy mutterings around the cookfire, and not just from Dolorous Edd.” A military unit used to defending a fixed fortification sent out deep into enemy territory with no supply lines or possibility of reinforcement from their HQ is kind of the worst force to take to the Great Ranging – no wonder morale is low. However, and this is very important in terms of avoiding presentism and determinism, the situation is more complicated than mutinous desertion. Rather, opinions are very much divided:
Ser Ottyn Wythers was for retreating to Castle Black as soon as possible. Ser Mallador Locke would strike for the Shadow Tower, hoping to pick up Qhorin’s trail and learn what had befallen him. And Thoren Smallwood wanted to push on into the mountains. “Mance Rayder knows he must battle the Watch,” Thoren had declared, “but he will never look for us so far north. If we ride up the Milkwater, we can take him unawares and cut his host to ribbons before he knows we are on him.”
Mallador Locke’s proposal will be mooted by Qhorin’s arrival, and arguably all that Ottyn Wythers’ plan would have accomplished is to have the massacre at the Fist simply happen somewhere else. Thorin Smallwood’s plan, which isn’t that different from Mormont’s (save for the location), has both advantages and disadvantages:
“The numbers would be greatly against us,” Ser Ottyn had objected. “Craster said he was gathering a great host. Many thousands. Without Qhorin, we are only two hundred.”
“Send two hundred wolves against ten thousand sheep, ser, and see what happens,” said Smallwood confidently.
“There are goats among these sheep, Thoren,” warned Jarman Buckwell.
“Aye, and maybe a few lions. Rattleshirt, Harma the Dogshead, Alfyn Crowkiller…”
“I know them as well as you do, Buckwell,” Thoren Smallwood snapped back. “And I mean to have their heads, every one. These are wildlings. No soldiers. A few hundred heroes, drunk most like, amidst a great horde of women, children, and thralls. We will sweep over them and send them howling back to their hovels.”
They had argued for many hours, and reached no agreement. The Old Bear was too stubborn to retreat, but neither would he rush headlong up the Milkwater, seeking battle. In the end, nothing had been decided but to wait a few more days for the men from the Shadow Tower, and talk again if they did not appear.
Ultimately, this debate comes down to two related questions – what is the quality of the wildling army, and will a cavalry charge be successful? And both sides have a point. On the one hand, as we can see from Stannis’ victory at Castle Black, a cavalry charge is indeed capable of routing the wildling host, even one drawn up for battle as opposed to marching in column, despite being hugely outnumbered. On the other hand, if the Night’s Watch spearhead didn’t break through the lines immediately, Mance would have had a chance to rally his cavalry while the Thenns formed a shield wall, at which point the Night’s Watch would probably fail. And at the end of the day, 300 cavalry are not 1,500.
All of this gives context to the brewing mutiny led by Chett, which is set up in this chapter a half-book prior to A Storm of Swords’ Prologue:
Only last night, he was coming back through the dark from a piss when he heard five or six men talking in low voices around the embers of a fire. When he heard Chett muttering that it was past time they turned back, Jon stopped to listen. “It’s an old man’s folly, this ranging,” he heard. “We’ll find nothing but our graves in them mountains.”
“There’s giants in the Frostfangs, and wargs, and worse things,” said Lark the Sisterman.
“I’ll not be going there, I promise you.”
“The Old Bear’s not like to give you a choice.”
“Might be we won’t give him one,” said Chett.
As we can see, Chett’s plan is rooted in a pessimism about the mission that’s fairly well-spread in the ranks of the Great Ranging, but there’s clearly something that separates Chett’s group from the rest – Ottyn Wythers and Jarman Buckwell share the same fears but in the final test, both men remain loyal. Indeed, as much as we think of the mutiny as revealing the complete disarray of the Night’s Watch, it’s pretty clear that Chett’s group is a small minority (5-6 men out of 200-300) and it’s really not until after the Battle of the Fist, that the proportions turn enough to allow the mutiny to succeed.
At the same time, it’s interesting that, despite being a witness to all of this, Jon Snow “could not bring himself to inform on his brothers…it was just empty talk, he told himself.” As we’ll discuss more in the What If? section, this reticence could have potentially changed much.
Now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk about the arrival that the horns signaled at the beginning of the chapter, that of Qhorin Halfhand. Although not one of the most popular characters, in part because he’s only present in a handful of chapters, I’ve always liked him because of the effectiveness of his introduction:
“Jon knew Qhorin Halfhand the instant he saw him, Jon knew Qhorin Halfhand the instant he saw him, though they had never met. The big ranger was half a legend in the Watch; a man of slow words and swift action, tall and straight as a spear, long-limbed and solemn. Unlike his men, he was clean-shaven. His hair fell from beneath his helm in a heavy braid touched with hoarfrost, and the blacks he wore were so faded they might have been greys. Only thumb and forefinger remained on the hand that held the reins; the other fingers had been sheared off catching a wildling’s axe that would otherwise have split his skull. It was told that he had thrust his maimed fist into the face of the axeman so the blood spurted into his eyes, and slew him while he was blind. Since that day, the wildlings beyond the Wall had known no foe more implacable.”
That single image – choosing mutilation over death and then turning his own mutilation into a tactical advantage – elegantly describes Qhorin Halfhand as man and legend both. Thus, even before we see Qhorin in action, we’re primed to expect the ultimate combat pragmatist. And just to back up the backstory, we’re presented with immediate proof of Qhorin’s present skills:
“We met with Alfyn Crowkiller. Mance had sent him to scout along the Wall and we chanced on him returning…Alfyn will trouble the realm no longer, but some of his company escaped us. We hunted down as many as we could, but it may be that a few will win back to the mountains…four brothers dead. A dozen wounded. A third as many as the foe. And we took captives…the other lived long enough to be questioned.”
Even before he’s come on-page, then, Qhorin has eliminated one of the “lions” among the “sheep” – all at the same time that Qhorin pulls of a 3 to 1 casualty rate and takes valuable intelligence, which demonstrates the Halfhand’s flair for small group military operations. The combination of the pursuit and the torture of prisoners further emphasizes Qhorin’s implacable and pragmatic qualities.
And all of this is important, because (and you’d better believe I’m going to get into this more come the Book vs. Show section) it’s Qhorin who chooses Jon Snow to come along on his ranging, as opposed to Jon volunteering. How this moment is handled is very important- if you don’t do it right, then Jon Snow comes off either as an entitled brat or a precious Chosen One. Hence why GRRM has Qhorin make the choice, but for his own reasons – “the old gods are still strong beyond the Wall. The gods of the first Men…and the Starks” – rather than any admiration for Jon personally.
This both continues the ongoing threads about supernatural forces present North of the Wall (by showing us that at least some in the ranks of experienced rangers believe and are willing to make use of those forces) and our growing information about warging (hence “it is said a direwolf runs with you”) and further laying the groundwork for Jon Snow’s awakening as a warg, but it’s also nicely undercut in later Jon chapters in ASOS – as we’ll discuss in future Jon chapters, Jon’s “specialness” doesn’t bring him much in the way of success as you’d expect from classic Hero’s Journey tropes.
The War Beyond the Wall – Strategies and Tactics:
With the “questioning” of his captives – which, by the way, brings up the theme of torture as a policy of the Night’s Watch that we’ll discuss in further detail in Jon VI – Qhorin Halfhand also brings the Night’s Watch a much clearer picture about what Mance Rayder is up to. Beginning with the fact that Alfyn Crowkiller’s presence shows that Mance is moving advance parties to scout the Wall and note any weaknesses in its defenses, we learn further that:
“Rattleshirt, the Weeping Man, and every other chief great and small,” he was saying. “They have wargs as well, and mammoths, and more strength than we would have dreamed. Or so he claimed. I will not swear as to the truth of it. Ebben believes the man was telling us tales to make his life last a little longer.”
As we will see in further detail in ASOS, Mance Rayder’s political and military strategy is founded on bringing the wildlings together into a seemingly unstoppable force and keeping them together to work as a sort of human battering ram against the Wall. At the same time, Mance also makes good use of his unconventional assets by using wargs for surveillance and military intelligence and his mammoths as shock troops, transports, and siege weapons. And the question that Mance and Lord Commander Mormont must puzzle out is “…where the hammer would fall.”
For the Night’s Watch’s depleted ranks, the Wall is both an existentially vital defensive asset and a logistical difficulty:
Jon could see it. The Watch had once manned seventeen castles along the hundred leagues of the Wall, but they had been abandoned one by one as the brotherhood dwindled. Only three were now garrisoned, a fact that Mance Rayder knew as well as they did. “Ser Alliser Thorne will bring back fresh levies from King’s Landing, we can hope. If we man Greyguard from the Shadow Tower and the Long Barrow from Eastwatch . . .”
“Greyguard has largely collapsed. Stonedoor would serve better, if the men could be found. Icemark and Deep Lake as well, mayhaps. With daily patrols along the battlements between.”
“”Patrols, aye. Twice a day, if we can. The Wall itself is a formidable obstacle. Undefended, it cannot stop them, yet it will delay them. The larger the host, the longer they’ll require.”
It’s an interesting case of asymmetric warfare – the Night’s Watch has the Wall, but it doesn’t have the manpower to man the whole of the Wall. Mance has a huge amount of manpower, and can thus attack from multiple points, but the very nature of the wall means that attempted crossings take a good deal of time – which allows the Night’s Watch time to concentrate their limited manpower to repel the crossing. This strategic problem becomes especially difficult as Mance needs to cross with the whole of his people rather than small strike forces: “From the emptiness they’ve left behind, they must mean to bring their women with them. Their young as well, and beasts . . . have you ever seen a goat climb a ladder? A rope? They will need to build a stair, or a great ramp . . . it will take a moon’s turn at the least, perhaps longer. ” In this scenario, patrols would easily discover any such attempt and the Night’s Watch could move siege equipment to fire on the works with plenty of time to spare.
Moreover, I honestly think this figure of a “moon’s turn” low-balls the situation. Even with a workforce of 100,000 people, carving ice stairs that go up 700 feet would take a hugely long time – especially as the wildlings lack a lot of basic technology (for example, they’ve got sleds and the like, but we don’t have any examples of pully systems, block and tackle, and the like that would be absolutely crucial to such a basic project) and the nature of building a stair into a cliff greatly limits the number of workers who can be at the “coal face,” as it were. A ramp would be much simpler technologically and logistically, and allow Mance to make a greater use of his workforce, but the amount of raw materials that you’d need to construct a ramp 700 feet tall would take months and months of cutting down trees, quarrying stone, moving tons of earth and snow – and such construction would be spotted far more quickly.
Thus, as both sides realize, these complications limit Mance’s potential options from an assault anywhere along the Wall to a few places where he could make a swifter crossing:
“Mance will know his best chance is to pass beneath the Wall. Through a gate, or . . .”
“Mormont’s head came up sharply. “What?”
“They do not plan to climb the Wall nor to burrow beneath it, my lord. They plan to break it.”
“The Wall is seven hundred feet high and so thick at the base it would take a hundred men a year to cut through it with picks and axes.”
“How else? Sorcery…why else would Mance choose to gather his strength in the Frostfangs? Bleak and hard they are, and a long, weary march from the wall…there is more, I think. He is seeking something in the high cold places. He is searching for something he needs…some power. What it is, our captive could not say….you must send scouts into the mountains.”
What I like about the way that magic is handled in Jon’s plot in ACOK is how much of it is still tied to recognizable human motivations – even Craster’s human sacrifices ultimately boil down to self-preservation in a dangerous environment, and here Mance Rayder isn’t seeking the Horn of Jaruman to fulfill an ancient prophecy, but rather to solve a difficult strategic problem and to save his people. And once again, magic doesn’t provide an instant solution to his problem. This is especially the case if somehow Benjen Stark managed to get his hands on the real Horn ahead of Mance Rayder, reducing Mance’s plan to gather in the Frostfangs to the level of a rather desperate bluff.
The Night’s Watch and the Social Contract in Times of War
One major thematic element in this chapter, and which I would argue ultimately justifies Jon’s POV’s inclusion in A Clash of Kings specifically, is the way that the Night’s Watch’s mission ties into the larger question of what happens to the social contract during a civil war:
“True or false, the Wall must be warned,” the Old Bear said as Jon placed the platter between them.
“And the king.”
“All of them. The true and the false alike. If they would claim the realm, let them defend it.”
To me, this is as close as we get to GRRM speaking directly about the political conflict he’s set up – that ultimately, what defines kingship is not the strength of one’s army (looking at you, Renly), but your capacity to provide security to your kingdom. In other words, it is the positive side of a hegemony on violence that matters, and the distinction between a true king and a false king is whether they use that hegemony against their people or in defense of their people. And it’s the Night’s Watch, these men who have seemed so divorced from the political plot, who get to the heart of it, because they’re the ones directly facing the exterior threat to the community that the political powers that be are ignoring .
Unfortunately for them, help is not yet on the way. Not only because ““These kings will do what they will…likely it will be little enough,” but also because the “”best hope is Winterfell. The Starks must rally the North” can’t happen. With Theon about to take Winterfell, the North and House Stark are in no condition to perform the function as the realm’s second line of defense that they have with every other King-Beyond-the-Wall (and for that matter, against the Others in the Long Night, if my theories about Winterfell are correct.
So the Night’s Watch is on its own, as usual. And the reaction of at least some of the Night’s Watch is to adopt a bushido-like philosophy of self-sacrifice, taken to the logical extremes expounded in the Hagakure:
“We can only die. Why else do we do these black cloaks, but to die in defense of the realm…belike we shall all die, then. Our dying will buy time for our brothers on the Wall. Time to garrison the empty castles and freeze shut the gates, time to summon lords and kings to their aid, time to hone their axes and repair their catapults. Our lives will be coin well spent.”
While Qhorin’s willingness to die clearly isn’t the attitude of the majority, neither is the diametrical opposite represented by Chett. And indeed, GRRM’s theme of unlikely heroes pops up again and again with the Night’s Watch – whether it’s Waymar Royce going toe-to-toe with the White Walkers, or Yoren fighting to the death to preserve the principle of neutrality and the lives of his charges, or the rangers we’re going to encounter in the remaining Jon chapters, more often than not the men of the Night’s Watch rise to the challenge. Moreover, Qhorin’s stance fits in with GRRM’s theme about existential choices – in the end, it doesn’t matter whether Waymar defeats the White Walker or Yoren actually saves his hostages (or whether Syrio Forel wins his duel). What matters is that they made the choice.
Jon V didn’t really give me a historical theme that I wanted to explore this week, but I’ve got a lot I want to talk about in Tyrion X, so tune back in next time!
There’s only a couple of hypothetical scenarios that I want to explore, so let’s get into them:
- Jon doesn’t go? Let’s say Jon doesn’t go on Qhorin’s ranging, for whatever reason. On the one hand, this means that Jon will have a lot more experience with the White Walkers than he does in OTL – and since he’s got an obsidian dagger on hand, this probably disseminates the information that the White Walkers can be killed a lot more broadly. On the other, it means that Jon Snow won’t have the experience with the wildlings that he does in OTL – which might butterfly away the majority of his ADWD plot. At the same time, without the cloud of suspicion hanging over him that he’d turned cloak, he’d probably have a much easier time of it as Lord Commander.
- On a slightly different topic, this also means that Jon probably makes it back to Craster’s Keep with the rest of the group, which means he’s present for the attempted assassination of Lord Commander Mormont. More on this in a second.
- Jon tells Mormont? Now, this is one is a bit more attenuated – if Jon tells Lord Commander Mormont about the assassination plot against him, this might be enough of a change to prevent his death – either by disarming his potential assassins or by keeping some loyal men close to his side to prevent Otto Lophand from getting close enough. Whether this information is enough to prevent the mutiny at Craster’s altogether isn’t quite clear – morale was pretty badly damaged by the fight at the Fist and the harrowing retreat after that – but either way, having Jeor remain in command (and possibly in command of a few dozen men more than in OTL) would be a huge help for the Night’s Watch during the Siege of Castle Black – and would likely delay Jon’s accession to the position of Lord Commander for some time.
Book vs. Show:
So now that we’ve discussed everything else, let’s discuss the botch beyond the Wall. I’ve already talked about my dissatisfaction with the way that Jon Snow was handled in Season 2 – regression of character growth in terms of maturity and responsibility, making stupid decisions to artificially raise the stakes, and so on. But the Halfhand’s entrance is a whole other mess – with no offense intended to actor Simon Armstrong, I simply feel that the show didn’t do a good enough job establishing the Halfhand as an impressive figure that the audience should care about – and that’s a huge mistake, because Jon Snow killing the Halfhand is the climax of his Season 2 arc and the audience needs to be emotionally invested in that moment.
For one thing, having the Halfhand be known for surviving a winter north of the Wall is much less impressive than the story about him squeezing his own blood into the enemy’s eyes to survive. For another, not having Qhorin arrive having killed an entire party of wildlings diminishes the audience’s expectations about his abilities – compare this to the way that a relatively minor hand-stabbing by Oberyn Martell instantly made him someone to reckon with in the eyes of the audience, despite having spent a very small amount of time on screen.
Now, I’ll get into more of my problems with what happens next in the following Jon chapters, but one thing that does have to be mentioned is the change to Jon’s personality. In the show, Jon abandons his responsibilities as Mormont’s steward and volunteers for the mission in a very presumptuous fashion – despite having spent the entire season up until this point screwing up repeatedly so that Mormont has no reason to send Jon on the mission outside of the writer’s fiat. It comes across as the writer railroading the plot to make sure that the Chosen One is in the right place without having the character earn their opportunities, and that’s never a good idea. Moreover, given that we need to see Jon maturing to the point where he can command the Wall in Season 4 and become elected Lord Commander in Season 5, you don’t want to spend Season 2 with him regressing instead.
Likewise, the show has consistently fallen down on the job when it comes to explaining that Jon Snow is a warg, to the point where I would guess that most show-only fans don’t know this. Having Qhorin pick Jon Snow because Jon Snow has a direwolf would be a big signal to the audience that this plot is important – and while we’re at it, having Ghost be a major presence in Jon Snow as opposed to wandering off randomly and trotting over to Sam and then to Craster’s Keep for virtually no reason, would also be a great way to get the audience clued into the fact that Jon’s relationship with his wolf is important.