“The mountain is your mother,” Stonesnake had told him…”Cling to her, press your face up against her teats, and she won’t drop you…”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
I’ve been looking forward to this chapter a long time, because Jon VI is one of my favorite Jon chapters out of the entire series. This isn’t because of the introduction of the Jon/Ygritte relationship, which is a fairly decent relationship by the standards of ASOIAF romantic relationships but just isn’t the main draw for me.
Rather, I love Jon VI because of how different it is from the rest of A Clash of Kings. In the midst of a novel that’s been primarily a novel of intrigue, survival, and warfare, we get a chapter that combines Jean Le Carré-style existential angst and Tom Clancy-style Special Forces action into a tense, nerve-wracking package. All of this at the same time that we get a critical moment of character development and thematic development for Jon Snow that is genuinely irreplaceable.
Setting the Scene: Watchers in the Pass
A big part of what makes this chapter work is its stripped-down simplicity – Qhorin’s company is faced with a single problem and must figure out how to deal with it:
Half a mile ahead and two thousand feet up…and perfectly placed to see anything moving in the pass below.
“Watchers in the Skirling Pass,” wondered the oldest among them. In the spring of his youth, he had been squire to a king, so the black brothers still called him Squire Dalbridge. “What is it Mance Rayder fears, I wonder?”
“If he knew they’d lit a fire, he’d flay the poor bastards,” said Ebben, a squat bald man muscled like a bag of rocks.
“Fire is life up here,” said Qhorin Halfhand, “but it can be death as well.”
The simplicity of the situation – that the scouting party has to take out Mance Rayder’s observation post without being seen – nevertheless hides a good deal of complexity. There’s a running theme of discipline that will pervade the rest of Jon’s chapters in ACOK – the bonfires of the watchers may keep them warm but they’ve betrayed their location to the rangers, a seeming breakdown of discipline. However, given that we’ve since learned what “Mance Rayder fears,” on second read, we understand that these watchers are probably looking for the army of the dead and their fire is an absolute necessity for survival and another form of discipline – yet another way in which fire is both life and death beyond the Wall.
At the same time, it is the discipline of the rangers (who have already made their ascent up the pass without fire in order to remain hidden) that will be central to their battleplan and their victory. Qhorin and Company know that the cavalry charge preferred by Lord Commander Mormont will not work here, so instead they must turn to the discipline of the trained individual:
“They’ll have a horn,” said Stonesnake.
The Halfhand said, “a horn they must not blow…two men, I think. There are like to be two up there, sharing the watch.”
“Me.” The ranger they called Stonesnake had already shown he was the best climber among them. It would have to be him.
This is a very different kind of Night’s Watch than we’ve seen before. These are not the ill-disciplined and unprepared rangers from the Prologue, nor members of the complacent institution in decline that Jon observed in AGOT; rather, these are the hardened and experienced rangers of the Shadow Tower, and for the first time we can see why the Night’s Watch remain a threat to the wildlings. Practicality stripped of all pretensions of chivalry, a laser-like focus on terrain and geography, and intensive specialization (Stonesnake as the climber, whose name suggests a wildling raised by the Night’s Watch; Ebben as the interrogator and horseman; Dalbridge the archer; and Qhorin the swordsman) allow the rangers to punch well above their numbers.
In this context, and in this company, Jon’s volunteering (“And me,” said Jon Snow…) comes across very differently than it does in the show. Rather than coming across as an entitled and pretentious nobleman, Jon here steps forward to earn his place in this band of veterans, and Jon remains a junior member of the expedition with Stonesnake leading the climb. Jon doesn’t get the exemption from the rules that often comes with being a Chosen One – ultimately, it is Qhorin who makes the call, but again practicality rules the day, so that “the wolf will remain with us,” Qhorin said. “White fur is seen too easily by moonlight…When it’s done, throw down a burning brand. We’ll come when we see it fall.”
Rather than plunging into battle, however, GRRM instead opts to increase the tension further by describing the climb in agonizing detail for someone like me who hates heights and didn’t like them any better back when Catelyn was the one on the mountain (an odd pairing there). However, the climb accomplishes its literary task – with each step and each ascent, the tension mounts as we ponder the twin threats of discovery or falling:
The black brothers moved through black shadows amidst black rocks, working their way up a steep, twisting trail as their breath frosted in the black air. Jon felt almost naked without his mail, but he did not miss its weight. This was hard going, and slow. To hurry here was to risk a broken ankle or worse. Stonesnake seemed to know where to put his feet as if by instinct, but Jon needed to be more careful on the broken, uneven ground.
The Skirling Pass was really a series of passes, a long twisting course that went up around a succession of icy wind-carved peaks and down through hidden valleys that seldom saw the sun. Apart from his companions, Jon had glimpsed no living man since they’d left the wood behind and begun to make their way upward. The Frostfangs were as cruel as any place the gods had made, and as inimical to men. The wind cut like a knife up here, and shrilled in the night like a mother mourning her slain children…
For a long way they stayed to the trail, following its twists and turns as it snaked along the side of the mountain, upward, ever upward. Sometimes the mountain folded back on itself and they lost sight of the fire, but soon or late it would always reappear. The path Stonesnake chose would never have served for the horses. In places Jon had to put his back to the cold stone and shuffle along sideways like a crab, inch by inch. Even where the track widened it was treacherous; there were cracks big enough to swallow a man’s leg, rubble to stumble over, hollow places where the water pooled by day and froze hard by night. One step and then another, Jon told himself. One step and then another, and I will not fall…
Stonesnake had passed the rope around the smooth spike of rock he was waiting on, but as soon as Jon reached him he shook it loose and was off again. This time there was no convenient cleft when he reached the end of their tether, so he took out his felt-headed hammer and drove a spike deep into a crack in the stone with a series of gentle taps. Soft as the sounds were, they echoed off the stone so loudly that Jon winced with every blow, certain that the wildlings must hear them too. When the spike was secure, Stonesnake secured the rope to it, and Jon started after him. Suck on the mountain’s teat, he reminded himself. Don’t look down. Keep your weight above your feet. Don’t look down. Look at the rock in front of you. There’s a good handhold, yes. Don’t look down. I can catch a breath on that ledge there, all I need to do is reach it. Never look down.
Once his foot slipped as he put his weight on it and his heart stopped in his chest, but the gods were good and he did not fall. He could feel the cold seeping off the rock into his fingers, but he dared not don his gloves; gloves would slip, no matter how tight they seemed, cloth and fur moving between skin and stone, and up here that could kill him. His burned hand was stiffening up on him, and soon it began to ache. Then he ripped open his thumbnail somehow, and after that he left smears of blood wherever he put his hand. He hoped he still had all his fingers by the end of the climb.
In a crystal clear example of Man vs. Nature, Jon is stripped of all his support – the Night’s Watch, his Valyrian sword, his direwolf companion – and forced to draw on his interior reserves to make the ascent successfully and silently despite the injury to his hand (another interesting echo from the past). And once again, it is the discipline of the Night’s Watch that wins out. Jon triumphs because he puts his trust on Stonesnake’s expert advice and because the two men use the terrain just as well or better than the wildlings themselves did. The perilousness of their climb is not done for the sake of glory, but rather for a calculated advantage; they climb “straight up here,” because “we want to get above them,” seeing the battlefield as three dimensional. But most of all, they win because unlike the individualist wildlings, the elite of the black brothers are willing to take the greater risk and put their lives in danger to ensure that the Night’s Watch as an institution succeeds – here, Jon and Stonesnake leave behind their mail armor and their horses so that they are undefended and incapable of retreat, to maximize the chance that their strike will succeed.
A Quiet Battle
When I said at the beginning that this chapter is tonally different from the rest of A Clash of Kings, the same is true for the battle that ensues. Up until this point, we’ve seen conflict in a number of different venues, but mostly either on medieval battlefields or individual duels. Here, we get a commando raid that is surprisingly modern in execution and quite different from the usual tropes of fantasy combat; Jon even lampshades it when he thinks that “Longclaw was sheathed across his back, but he might not have room to use it. He carried dirk and dagger for closer work.” Here, combat is not a test of courage and moral virtue between individual champions, but a business-like ambush where one grapples for every advantage:
Now it is our turn to pounce. He wished he could move as sure and silent as that shadowcat, and kill as quickly…They will have weapons as well, and I am not armored. He wondered who would prove the shadowcat by night’s end, and who the ram.
The wildlings had built their watchfire in a shallow depression above the narrowest part of the pass, with a sheer drop below and rock behind to shelter them from the worst of the wind. That same windbreak allowed the black brothers to crawl within a few feet of them, creeping along on their bellies until they were looking down on the men they must kill.
One was asleep, curled up tight and buried beneath a great mound of skins. Jon could see nothing of him but his hair, bright red in the firelight. The second sat close to the flames, feeding them twigs and branches and complaining of the wind in a querulous tone. The third watched the pass, though there was little to see, only a vast bowl of darkness ringed by the snowy shoulders of the mountains. It was the watcher who wore the horn.
Three. For a moment Jon was uncertain. There was only supposed to be two. One was asleep, though. And whether there was two or three or twenty, he still must do what he had come to do. Stonesnake touched his arm, pointed at the wildling with the horn. Jon nodded toward the one by the fire. It felt queer, picking a man to kill. Half the days of his life had been spent with sword and shield, training for this moment. Did Robb feel this way before his first battle? he wondered, but there was no time to ponder the question. Stonesnake moved as fast as his namesake, leaping down on the wildlings in a rain of pebbles. Jon slid Longclaw from its sheath and followed.
It all seemed to happen in a heartbeat. Afterward Jon could admire the courage of the wildling who reached first for his horn instead of his blade. He got it to his lips, but before he could sound it Stonesnake knocked the horn aside with a swipe of his shortsword. Jon’s man leapt to his feet, thrusting at his face with a burning brand. He could feel the heat of the flames as he flinched back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the sleeper stirring, and knew he must finish his man quick. When the brand swung again, he bulled into it, swinging the bastard sword with both hands. The Valyrian steel sheared through leather, fur, wool, and flesh, but when the wildling fell he twisted, ripping the sword from Jon’s grasp.
It’s also a kind of combat we don’t see that often in ASOIAF – intimate, small-group combat, but yet still tactical. As we’ve discussed, the Night’s Watch have used geography to circumvent a strong defensive position and achieve surprise. At the same time, Jon and Stonesnake experience a surprise of their own when it turns out they’re outnumbered, so that the two men not only have to kill the watcher before he can signal back to the main camp but also dispatch their targets before the third can enter the fray and put them at a disadvantage. The unexpected complication is a classic of spy fiction – it’s the Conveniently Timed Guard who happens to come back for his keys when you’re 90% through copying the files, it’s the accidentally-tipped-over-chair that sets off an avalanche of noise right as the security patrol passes by your sector. And once again, it works to further increase the level of tension so that you’re practically shouting at them to kill someone already. At the same time, the combat between ambusher and ambushee, between shadowcat and ram, tells us a lot about the Night’s Watch and the free folk. For all that the Night’s Watch might be more consistently disciplined – hence the sleeping third watcher who might have made the difference for the wildlings – one really does have to respect the bushido-like decision of the unnamed watcher who “reached first for his horn instead of his blade,” the very thing that Theon thought couldn’t happen.
At the same time, this ambush is both a physical and ethical contest as Jon recognizes that “It felt queer, picking a man to kill,” acting more like a back-alley assassin than the honorable warrior that he’s been trained to be. There is an unequal and yet intimate connection in an ambush that doesn’t exist in the trials by combat or pitched battles that we’ve seen so far.Jon gets a chance to observe the man he’s about to kill as a human being first, and indeed this is the very first time that Jon Snow has ever killed a living human. And when you’ve made this connection, it’s difficult to get people to kill someone – there’s a reason why modern militaries study how to motivate and train soldiers to do it instinctively. And yet, in the moment, Jon’s training comes through for him despite the emotion and adrenaline that makes it such a clumsy, desperate affair. Interestingly, we also get two notable callbacks – first, Jon Snow is threatened with a “burning brand,” reminiscent of his combat with the wight; second, Jon Snow loses his sword in Orell’s* body, paralleling the difficulties he’ll have with his Valyrian sword in ADWD and another sign that Cool Swords aren’t an instant solution.
* A sidenote: a number of the wikis I consulted suggested that Orell was actively warging when he was killed, but that doesn’t make much sense, given that he’s actively moving his own body during the fight, and no warg, not Bran or Varamyr Sixskins, has ever been shown to pilot two bodies at once.
Ygritte and the Living Daylights
At the very end of the fight, the spy pastiche elements kick into high gear as Jon Snow is suddenly faced with the realization that the third wildlings is, in fact, a woman:
On the ground the sleeper sat up beneath his furs. Jon slid his dirk free, grabbing the man by the hair and jamming the point of the knife up under his chin as he reached for his—no, her—
His hand froze. “A girl.”
“A watcher,” said Stonesnake. “A wildling. Finish her…She’s a spearwife.” Stonesnake gestured at the long-hafted axe that lay beside her sleeping furs. “She was reaching for that when you grabbed her. Give her half a chance and she’ll bury it between your eyes.”
“I won’t give her half a chance…do you have a name?”
“Ygritte.”“I’m Jon Snow.”
She flinched. “An evil name.”“A bastard name,” he said. My father was Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell.”
The girl watched him warily, but Stonesnake gave a mordant chuckle. “It’s the captive supposed to tell things, remember?” The ranger thrust a long branch into the fire. “Not that she will. I’ve known wildlings to bite off their own tongues before they’d answer a question.”
“You ought to burn them you killed,” said Ygritte.
“Need a bigger fire for that, and big fires burn bright.” Stonesnake turned, his eyes scanning the black distance for any spark of light. “Are there more wildlings close by, is that it?”
“Burn them,” the girl repeated stubbornly, “or it might be you’ll need them swords again.”
Jon remembered dead Othor and his cold black hands. “Maybe we should do as she says.”
“There are other ways.”
To begin with, this is a clear sign that the non-non-evil White Walkers have been menacing the wildlings for some time, long enough for the wildlings to have developed well-known countermeasures against wights (as we’ll learn in ADWD, these countermeasures were key to warding off a full-blown attack by the army of the dead. Or were they?). On a narrative level, it emphasizes the dilemma that the Night’s Watch finds itself in, trapped between two threats which require entirely different responses each which make one vulnerable to the other.
Another question that’s raised is whether the “other ways” would work – we’ve seen the limbs of wights still operate after being severed from the body and/or having the head severed from the body. However, there haven’t been tests of how far this extends – those two instances the corpus was largely intact and the limbs intact and in close proximity. If a wight was hurled down a mountain such that the bones were shattered into powder, it’s possible the corpus couldn’t move or at least not effectively. To me, this raises an interesting question: is this why the Night’s Watch kept building the Wall up? We know that the Night’s Watch has had a practice of adding to the Wall’s height for some time, so it may well be that the original intent was to build a Wall high enough to make any fall “fatal” to the fighting effectiveness of the undead, even taking into account their supernatural stamina.
Bael the Bard and R+L=J
More importantly, Ygritte also shares the “song o’ the winter rose” as written by Bael the Bard. According to the young spearwife, “all the free folk know his songs, but might be you don’t sing them in the south,” which in a Doylist way is a handy way for GRRM to introduce this story now without Jon plausibly having heard it before, but also means that we can deduce a lot about wildling culture from this story. However, this story also has personal implications for Jon Snow:
“Bael the Bard…was King-beyond-the-Wall.”
“The Stark in Winterfell wanted Bael’s head, but never could take him, and the taste o’ failure galled him. One day in his bitterness he called Bael a craven who preyed only on the weak. When word o’ that got back, Bael vowed to teach the lord a lesson. So he scaled the Wall, skipped down the kingsroad, and walked into Winterfell one winter’s night with harp in hand, naming himself Sygerrik of Skagos. Sygerrik means ‘deceiver’ in the Old Tongue, that the First Men spoke, and the giants still speak.”
“North or south, singers always find a ready welcome, so Bael ate at Lord Stark’s own table, and played for the lord in his high seat until half the night was gone. The old songs he played, and new ones he’d made himself, and he played and sang so well that when he was done, the lord offered to let him name his own reward. ‘All I ask is a flower,’ Bael answered, ‘the fairest flower that blooms in the gardens o’ Winterfell.'”
“Now as it happened the winter roses had only then come into bloom, and no flower is so rare nor precious. So the Stark sent to his glass gardens and commanded that the most beautiful o’ the winter roses be plucked for the singer’s payment. And so it was done. But when morning come, the singer had vanished . . . and so had Lord Brandon’s maiden daughter. Her bed they found empty, but for the pale blue rose that Bael had left on the pillow where her head had lain.”
“…For most a year they searched, till the lord lost heart and took to his bed, and it seemed as though the line o’ Starks was at its end. But one night as he lay waiting to die, Lord Brandon heard a child’s cry. He followed the sound and found his daughter back in her bedchamber, asleep with a babe at her breast.”
This is as close as Jon Snow has come to learning the truth of R+L=J, that Jon Snow is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. As we’ve seen before and will see again, blue winter roses are closely associated with Lyanna Stark throughout her life’s story – these roses, which grow in Winterfell, were Lyanna’s favorite growing up; we’ll learn in ASOS that the garland of the Queen of Love and Beauty given by Rhaegar to Lyanna at the Tourney at Harrenhal was made of blue roses; and it’s overwhelmingly likely that the flowers that Ned remembers Lyanna clutching on her deathbed at the Tower of Joy were the same flowers. Similarly, the blue rose figures in Dany’s vision at the House of the Undying and will show up again in Theon’s nightmares. Likewise, the story of a charming singer who abducts a Stark daughter against the will of her father is a close parallel for Rhaegar’s actions shortly before Robert’s Rebellion.
However, in both cases, the lines of consent are, well…not blurred, but obscured by cultural understandings of abduction and romance. (I’ll discuss the historical basis for “romantic abduction” in the Historical Analysis section) As we’ll see in ASOS, Ygritte’s culture and Ygritte herself view abduction as a normal part of romantic relationships, and Ygritte will refuse to countenance that the strength of the abductor and the willingness to murder of the abductee might not be the only boundaries of consent. Similarly, in this story “the maid loved Bael so dearly she bore him a son, the song says…though if truth be told, all the maids love Bael in them songs he wrote.” Both in the case of the Tower of Joy and the crypts of Winterfell, being held in an isolated and confined location for upwards of a year doesn’t exactly speak to a freely-chosen relationship.
Whether this story is literally true is unclear, for reasons that go beyond the unlikeliness of whether two people could survive down in the crypts of Winterfell for more than nine months without being discovered. Dating Bael the Bard’s escapade is complex. On the one hand, Ygritte says clearly that this happened “a long time back,” but she clearly states that “Brandon the Daughterless” was a Lord and not a King in the North, which means this happened within the last three hundred years. However, the World of Ice and Fire has also given us a Stark family tree that goes back probably more than two hundred years (depending on how old Cregan Stark was when he died), and in no case do we have a Brandon Stark who was a Lord of Winterfell (there are three Brandons who weren’t) who “had no other children.” The only Brandon who was a lord of Winterfell between the time of Cregan’s grandfather and the present was Cregan’s youngest son Brandon, and he had three sons (who both survived into adulthood) and a daughter.
Moreover, according to the story, Bael’s son the next Lord of Winterfell is killed in a Bolton rebellion: “one o’ his lords peeled the skin off him and wore him for a cloak.” However, the only Bolton rebellions on record took place against Stark Kings in the North – once with the Greystarks five hundred years after the reign of Jon Stark, a second time during the reign of Edrick Snowbeard, and a third during the reign of Harlon Stark. So something is off about this story.
At the same time, there is a larger thematic truth to the tale of Bael the Bard than R+L=J. To the extent that the story has a morale, Ygritte states it by saying that “you have Bael’s blood in you, same as me,” in other words that the Starks (and through them, the whole of the North) and the wildlings are part of a common family, two halves of the First Men, sharing the same origin, the same religion, and the same struggle against the climate. This is key both to set up Jon Snow’s assimilation narrative in ASOS, and to set up Jon’s decision to aid wildling assimilation into the North through the marriage of Alys Karstark and the Magnar of Thenn in ADWD.
One place where I depart from others in the fandom is whether the crypt location is relevant to R+L=J, due to some revelation (usually Rhaegar’s harp) hidden in Lyanna’s tomb. I think this is an over-literal interpretation of the legend. To begin with, Lyanna was not abducted by Rhaegar at Winterfell – as I discuss here, the WOIAF gives us a much clearer timeline of the Tourney of Harrenhal and the events that led to Robert’s Rebellion, and one of the things it’s quite clear about is that Lyanna was abducted in the Riverlands. I find it highly unlikely, moreover, that Eddard Stark would have brought Rhaegar’s harp or any other signifier of Jon’s parentage with him all the way from the Tower of Joy to Winterfell, given how careful he was to obscure the truth.
Moreover, I think there’s a larger problem with this method of reveal – namely, that a physical object is unlikely to work as proof of Rhaegar’s siring Jon Snow. Even when we’re talking about distinctive objects like the silver harp, two things are needed for it to work as proof: first, especially this far after the event and with so many fake heirs popping up throughout Westeros, you’re going to need some proof of provenance to demonstrate that the object itself isn’t a fake. Second, given the lack of any system of professional auction houses and authenticators, you need someone to recognize this instrument – and there aren’t that many people left alive from that generation who are important enough for anyone to care what they think. So I don’t think the reveal is going to hinge on an object; rather I think it will ultimately derive from Dany making the decision to recognize Jon as kin because of her HOTU visions.
Finally, given that Bran and Rickon actually are hiding out in the crypts of Winterfell as this chapter is happening, I would advise against trying to draw too direct a connection from just one source, because GRRM loves to have multiple, competing alternatives to any reference (for example, the way that multiple candidates for the dragon in Daeron’s dreams in Hedge Knight are used to misdirect from the death of Balor).
The arrival of Qhorin and Co. brings Jon and Ygritte’s situation back into the larger conflict between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings for a moment. And yet another reason why I like Jon VI is the way in which Qhorin and Ygritte’s conversation frames the conflict:
Qhorin’s face was impassive. “Do you know who I am?”
“Qhorin Halfhand.” The girl looked half a child beside him, but she faced him boldly.
“Tell me true. If I fell into the hands of your people and yielded myself, what would it win me?”
“A slower death than elsewise.”
Rather than the Night’s Watch being the Galactic Empire against the wildling’s scrappy Rebellion, or the wildlings being Always Chaotic Evil barbarians out to pillage the known world and the Night’s Watch being the plucky underdogs, there is a moral equivalency between the two sides. These ancient opponents, pitted in an eternal stalemate, have both become embittered and thrown away any considerations of civilized warfare.
Hence Qhorin Halfhand is both a stoic hero to the Night’s Watch and a figure of terror to the wildlings, somewhat akin to Lt. Col. Matheiu in the Battle for Algiers. There are hard edges to the man that cannot be argued away – his acceptance of torture as a necessity of unconventional war chief among them – and yet, there is something that separates him from the reavers in the Riverlands. Perhaps it’s that Qhorin isn’t going after civilians, or that he accepts that he himself may pay the price of defeat, or that his actions aren’t coming out of a sense of sadism but sheer desperation:
The big ranger looked to Jon. “We have no food to feed her, nor can we spare a man to watch her.”
…”Then you must do what needs be done,” Qhorin Halfhand said. “You are the blood of Winterfell and a man of the Night’s Watch.” He looked at the others. “Come, brothers. Leave him to it. It will go easier for him if we do not watch.” And he led them up the steep twisting trail toward the pale pink glow of the sun where it broke through a mountain cleft, and before very long only Jon and Ghost remained with the wildling girl.
And this sets up two more classic spy fiction scenarios – first, Jon Snow is “ordered” to kill Ygritte and does not know whether he can bring himself to kill a woman; second, Ygritte takes the opportunity of them being left alone to try to persuade Jon to defect to the wildlings. Once again, we get a sense of moral equivalency as both sides put impossible demands on Jon Snow’s sense of honor.
He thought Ygritte might try to run, but she only stood there, waiting, looking at him. “You never killed a woman before, did you?” When he shook his head, she said, “We die the same as men. But you don’t need to do it. Mance would take you, I know he would. There’s secret ways. Them crows would never catch us.”
…”Do it,” she urged him after a moment. “Bastard. Do it. I can’t stay brave forever.” When the blow did not fall she turned her head to look at him.
Jon lowered his sword. “Go,” he muttered…”Now…before my wits return. Go.”
And of course, Jon can’t bring himself to do it; yet another instance where GRRM the Romantic doesn’t subvert the trope. And it’s really important that he doesn’t do so, for a number of reasons: first, it’s bad characterization for Jon Snow who’s the world’s biggest softie when it comes to Arya or Samwell Tarly to kill a helpless prisoner in cold blood; second, from a plot perspective, it’s absolutely necessary for Jon’s ASOS arc to work; third, it’s also the choice that provides the most opportunity for growth as a character. Had Jon killed Ygritte here, he gets a moment of 90s-style grimdark angst, but he continues to be an uncomplicatedly loyal member of the Night’s Watch. Letting her go means that Jon suddenly has conflict about his loyalties and a sense that the wildlings are something more than enemies, hidden guilt about disobeying his orders and potentially compromising the mission, and an opportunity to be shaped by Qhorin with the reveal.
More on this in the Book vs. Show section.
As Stephen Arbury points out in the Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, abduction of women has been a longstanding part of patriarchal conceptions of “romance.” One can go back to the Ancient Greeks and the frequent theme of abduction by the gods as a part of Ovid’s love stories, or to Germanic tribal practices where abduction was a key part of the marriage ceremony (which Arbury associates with the modern practices of carrying brides across thresholds, the groom having a best man, and even having the bride stand to the groom’s left).
However, the absolute pinnacle of this in medieval Europe was the trope of abduction in stories of courtly love and chivalric romance. The two variants of the trope – the PG-13 version in which the fair maid is abducted and imprisoned by some bad knight and is rescued by a good knight who maintains a chaste romance with the lady (proving the knight’s virtue and holiness, which is a necessary component of the quest for the Grail), and the R-rated version where the knight and his lady succumb to their passion and run off together pursued by her husband (central to the stories of Tristan and Iseult and Lancelot and Guinevere) – speak to a medieval obsession with adultery and the need to manage extra-marital desires.
It’s hardly advanced feminist literary theory to point out that abduction tropes basically posit women as property and the theft of that property as a demonstration that the abductor is a worthy male superior to the woman’s husband and/or family, although some scholars point to historical cases in which women voluntarily participated in their abductions as suggesting that these tropes might have also provided (aristocratic) women with a culturally acceptable way to leave an unwanted or abusive marriage while maintaining some status. Thus, the fact that wildling culture centralizes marriage-by-abduction somewhat undercuts arguments that the wildlings are an egalitarian and gender-equal society.
However, as I’ve mentioned before, abduction or taking of captives was also historically a practice key to the functioning of borderlands areas, whether we’re talking about the American Southwest as described in Captives and Cousins, or Colonial New England as described in The Unredeemed Captive. Women (and most of these captives were women) born into one culture but raised in another occupied a liminal status, and worked as translators, negotiators, and advisors who allowed two cultures to understand each other. However, even in this best-case-scenario where these captives attain status within their newly adopted cultures, it’s still a process founded in violence and trauma, both experienced by the abductee and their family, and in which questions of consent and independence remain difficult to disentangle.
This chapter presents us with a few stark choices that Jon could have approached differently:
- Jon killed Ygritte during the battle or executed her? The main difference between these two options is how Jon would have felt about it – in the former, while Jon would certainly feel conflicted about having killed a woman in breach of the ethical code of his culture, he could still justify his actions as necessary to save his own life or Stonesnake’s or to fulfill his mission; in the latter, there’s no disguising the fact that he’s killing an unarmed prisoner because her life has become inconvenient. In both cases, however, there’s a pretty good chance that Jon dies through the failure to follow the fairytale trope, either at the hands of Rattleshirt’s band (although the rest of the wildlings seem to accept his killing Qhorin even though Rattleshirt remains petty and vindictive) or more likely at the hands of a suspicious Mance Rayder.
- Jon doesn’t kill Orell? Now, I find this one a bit unlikely. Even if Orell had been taken prisoner with Ygritte, I still think he probably uses his skinchanging powers to alert Rattleshirt’s band and begin the relentless pursuit of Qhorin’s band, for the same reason that the other wildling reached for the horn and not the sword. However, on the slim chance that this doesn’t happen, it leaves open the possibility that Qhorin and Co. manage to re-unite with Lord Commander Mormont, which means they’re ground-zero for the Battle at the Fist of the First Men. Assuming they survive that, this means that Jon Snow and Qhorin come face-to-face with the army of the dead, which they don’t in OTL. Moreover, I also have to think that Qhorin and Co. would have bolstered Lord Commander Mormont’s control over his men, possibly preventing the mutiny. If not, Qhorin Halfhand is absolutely going to take over command of the Wall during the Siege of Castle Black, and is a shoe-in for the Lord Commander’s position, which is probably good for Jon Snow’s long-term health but bad for the wildlings.
- Jon leaves with Ygritte? This one is the most unlikely of them all. But if Jon Snow had genuinely defected to the wildlings’ side, he might very well have been necessary to the long-term success of Mance Rayder’s mission. In addition to the preparatory attack on Castle Black, only someone in Jon Snow’s position could possibly have helped the wildlings survive the new environment they would have found themselves in.
Book vs. Show:
And here’s where I go on my rant about the botch beyond the Wall. I actually like the way the show shot the ambush scene – it’s tense, well-executed action, the reveal of Ygritte works, as does her conversation with Qhorin, as does the moment where Jon Snow is nerving himself up to execute Ygritte and deliberately misses. Where it absolutely breaks down is where Ygritte runs off and Jon chases her.
This is a disastrously bad idea. Character growth is ultimately all about a character making choices and experiencing the consequences of those choices. What Vanessa Taylor, who wrote “The Old Gods and the New” (Season 2, Episode 6), and Benioff and Weiss (who okayed the script) have done is to have Jon Snow make a moral choice and then completely undo that decision in a matter of seconds. This means that once again, in a season that’s absolutely chock-full of Jon Snow regressing from the maturation he did in the first season, Jon Snow not only does not grow but goes backward.
And what follows from that artistic choice is terrible. Not only is the chase sequence visually incoherent, but somehow Jon Snow and Ygritte become hopelessly lost and somehow impossible to locate by trained rangers after running for less than a few minutes, which is laughably bad and makes both Jon Snow and Qhorin look completely incompetent. This only gets worse when Jon Snow and Ygritte wander aimlessly for an entire episode, and Qhorin shows up in chains in the following episode. The plot loses all momentum and ends with a limp thud, where it should go out in swordplay, blood, and a momentous change in Jon Snow’s life.
Moreover, this separation cuts off Jon from key relationships.
First, it separates from Ghost, who he won’t encounter again until Episode 5 of Season 4. This makes it impossible to develop the idea that Jon Snow is a warg or that his warging might be something that the wildlings might care about (or something that brings him closer to wildling culture) – and no, Orell in Season 3 is nowhere good enough – an idea that most show-watchers have no idea about even after Jon Snow’s death.
Second, it severs Jon Snow from Qhorin. I’ve talked already about how this makes both of them look like incompetents, but it goes much further than that. As we’ll see in the next chapter, Qhorin’s speech to Jon Snow about the choices he faced and his speech to Jon Snow ordering him to falsely defect to the wildlings is absolutely crucial to Jon’s development as a character. Qhorin’s presence is especially crucial because his stoic devotion to the Night’s Watch, the premeditated willingness to sacrifice his life for the cause, is crucial to Jon Snow’s willingness to carry through with killing his commanding officer and joining the wildlings without any proof that he’s doing so under orders. Without giving that conversation a chance to breathe, by reducing it to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it whispered sentence between two prisoners, Jon Snow’s killing of Qhorin Halfhand, which should be an agonizing moral choice, comes off as a mixture of self-defense and anger at being called a bastard.