“Eagles have sharper eyes than men. We are seen. So now we run.”
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 VII is, to me, proof that Jon’s A Clash of Kings storyline just keeps getting better and better. In one short chapter, we get further payoff on Jon’s big decision from last chapter, further elaboration of Qhorin’s character and philosophy which had ramifications for Jon’s character development, a significant bit of world-building as it pertains to Mance Rayder, the revelation that Jon is a warg, and then Qhorin and Co. have to deal with the sudden and unforeseen failure of their mission that completely turns the tables on them.
But before we get into all that, first a realism check. While I am generally a fan of GRRM’s work and more specifically his attention to detail, there’s a few moments where his Romantic heart outweighs his amateur historian head, and as an honest critic I have to mention them. Way back in Catelyn VII of AGOT, GRRM fell into the old fable about plate armor weighing people down. Here, the fallacy is about the effectiveness of black clothing for camouflage:
Qhorin decreed that they would rest here until the shadows began to grow again. “Shadows are friends to men in black,” he said.
Jon saw the sense of that. It would be pleasant to ride in the light for a time, to let the bright mountain sun soak through their cloaks and chase the chill from their bones, but they dared not. Where there were three watchers there might be others, waiting to sound the alarm.
In reality, true black actually tends to stand out at night, especially in natural environments with lots of snow and ice. Properly speaking, if the Night’s Watch were looking to design their uniforms to work as camouflage, they should opt instead for a uniform that combines disruptive coloring (i.e, patterns that blurs outlines), counter-shading (i.e, the use of dark and light pigmentation on different sides to make an object appear flat and blend more easily with the background), and crypsis (matching colors with the background). But “an uneven pattern of greys, off-whites, blues, and greens” doesn’t read as dramatically as black cloaks.
Qhorin’s Test and Mance Rayder
Almost immediately in this chapter, Jon reveals his big secret from Jon VI without even being asked, proving that even if he’s not Ned’s biological son, he’s definitely his spiritual son:
“My lord,” he said, “you never asked me how it went. With the girl.”
“I am no lord, Jon Snow.” Qhorin slid the stone smoothly along the steel with his two-fingered hand.
“She told me Mance would take me, if I ran with her.”
“She told you true.”
Qhorin’s response is interesting, because rather than deny or feed Jon propaganda, he readily admits that there’s a way out for Night’s Watchmen looking to defect; however much Qhorin might be committed to the Night’s Watch he’s equally committed to a personal sense of integrity. At the same time, given that we know that Qhorin is actively weighing Jon’s loyalty to the Night’s Watch, both because of what happened with Ygritte, and because I think he’s already thinking about his fake defector plan as a backup if the primary mission fails, it’s also a way for him to see whether that offer of defection holds any interest for the young steward.
Seemingly incapable of withholding any information whatsoever, Jon also proffers the “intel” he got from Ygritte:
“She even claimed we were kin. She told me a story . . .”
“. . . of Bael the Bard and the rose of Winterfell. So Stonesnake told me. It happens I know the song. Mance would sing it of old, when he came back from a ranging. He had a passion for wildling music. Aye, and for their women as well.”
“You knew him?”
“We all knew him.” His voice was sad.
They were friends as well as brothers, Jon realized, and now they are sworn foes. “Why did he desert?”
“For a wench, some say. For a crown, others would have it.” Qhorin tested the edge of his sword with the ball of his thumb. “He liked women, Mance did, and he was not a man whose knees bent easily, that’s true. But it was more than that. He loved the wild better than the Wall. It was in his blood. He was wildling born, taken as a child when some raiders were put to the sword. When he left the Shadow Tower he was only going home again.”
“Was he a good ranger?”
“He was the best of us,” said the Halfhand, “and the worst as well. Only fools like Thoren Smallwood despise the wildlings. They are as brave as we are, Jon. As strong, as quick, as clever. But they have no discipline. They name themselves the free folk, and each one thinks himself as good as a king and wiser than a maester. Mance was the same. He never learned how to obey.”
“No more than me,” said Jon quietly.
This reveal about Mance Rayder is absolutely crucial for two reasons. First, it gives us a lot of characterization of Mance Rayder so that his character has some presence before he arrives on-page in ASOS. Up until now, all that we know about Mance is that he’s a former Night’s Watchman turned King-beyond-the-Wall with a shadowy agenda. Here he’s given human motives and dimensions – we learn he’s a singer (an important clue for his first appearance), that he loved wildling women, and that he was ambitious and independent. And his backstory ties perfectly into those dimensions, of course a wildling raised by the Night’s Watch would have divided loyalties, would be drawn to wildling culture, and would see defection as returning to his birthright.
Second, it provides depth to both Qhorin and Mance’s characters by emphasizing their relationship. Now that we know that Qhorin and Mance were both comrades and brothers, we understand why Qhorin is so devoted to this mission, because he’s making up for a past failure of his own and revenging a personal betrayal. Moreover, the fact that a badass like Qhorin Halfhand considers Mance Rayder the better ranger not only raises stakes for his reveal but also thematically positions Mance as the Lucifer of the Night’s Watch. This dialogue also gives Jon further insight into Qhorin’s philosophy – implicitly contrasting his own position to the bigotry of much of the Night’s Watch, Qhorin understands and respects the wildlings neither as ignorant barbarians or noble savages, but as equals with their own strength and weaknesses. Like so many frontier officers who “went native” in service to their empires, Qhorin marshals his cultural knowledge to defeat his enemies without hating them. And all of these lessons are putting Jon Snow’s feet on the path to his ultimate destiny, preparing him both for his successful sojourn among the wildlings and his ultimate failure as a reformist Lord Commander.
Finally, we come to the topic that the conversation has been dancing around – that Jon Snow disobeyed orders by letting Ygritte escape:
Qhorin’s shrewd grey eyes seemed to see right through him. “So you let her go?” He did not sound the least surprised.
“Now. Tell me why you spared her.”
It was hard to put into words. “My father never used a headsman. He said he owed it to men he killed to look into their eyes and hear their last words. And when I looked into Ygritte’s eyes, I…” Jon stared down at his hands helplessly. “I know she was an enemy, but there was no evil in her.”
“No more than in the other two.”
“It was their lives or ours,” Jon said. “If they had seen us, if they had sounded that horn…”
“The wildlings would hunt us down and slay us, true enough.”
“Stonesnake has the horn now, though, and we took Ygritte’s knife and axe. She’s behind us, afoot, unarmed…”
“And not like to be a threat,” Qhorin agreed. “If I had needed her dead, I would have left her with Ebben, or done the thing myself.”
“Then why did you command it of me?”
“I did not command it. I told you to do what needed to be done, and left you to decide what that would be.” Qhorin stood and slid his longsword back into its scabbard. “When I want a mountain scaled, I call on Stonesnake. Should I need to put an arrow through the eye of some foe across a windy battlefield, I summon Squire Dalbridge. Ebben can make any man give up his secrets. To lead men you must know them, Jon Snow. I know more of you now than I did this morning.”
“And if I had slain her?” asked Jon.
“She would be dead, and I would know you better than I had before. But enough talk. You ought be sleeping. We have leagues to go, and dangers to face. You will need your strength.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First, it’s interesting how Qhorin works here to peel back Jon’s story – he bluffs in order to elicit responses, he asks penetrating questions, he challenges Jon’s statements, and then he hits Jon with unexpected insight. In other words, he acts like a teacher, and while Jon has had many surrogate father figures from Donal Noye to Lord Commander Mormont, he hasn’t had a teacher in a long time. Second, we see the ongoing influence of Eddard Stark on all of his children, as Jon has inherited his personal conception of power when it comes to execution. On the other hand, Qhorin throws up an interesting challenge to Jon’s logic, once again reinforcing the idea that the conflict between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings is not a conflict of good vs. evil (an idea, as I’ve said above, that will be important in Jon’s future) but rather a matter of necessity in preserving his own life and those of his comrades. Third, we’re getting further set up for Qhorin’s plan in next chapter as the seasoned ranger tests the character of the young Jon Snow to see whether he’ll follow his own conscience in moments of crisis, an independence of thought that he’ll need if he’s going to live among the wildlings.
Wolf Dreams and Time Travel
With that conversation over, Jon Snow’s story takes a sudden turn. While Jon Snow has had a direwolf from the very beginning, and that wolf has been able to warn Jon against supernatural danger, he’s never had wolf-dreams before in the same way that Bran has been doing since the beginning of ACOK. And then suddenly:
When he closed his eyes, he dreamed of direwolves.
There were five of them when there should have been six, and they were scattered, each apart from the others. He felt a deep ache of emptiness, a sense of incompleteness. The forest was vast and cold, and they were so small, so lost. His brothers were out there somewhere, and his sister, but he had lost their scent. He sat on his haunches and lifted his head to the darkening sky, and his cry echoed through the forest…
As with Bran’s wolf-dreams, we see that the direwolves have a psychic connections with each other that stretch thousands and thousands of miles. What’s interesting here is that, while we don’t have any mentions from Summer of sensing Ghost when Ghost is north of the Wall, and while Jon’s wolf can’t sense Summer when Bran goes north of the Wall, here Ghost can sense Summer. From a Doylist perspective, this is probably due to the fact that Sam would find it hard to hide the truth of Bran’s survival from Jon if Jon was dreaming of Summer every night. However, from a Watsonian perspective, this may suggest that the Wall is a one-way barrier, allowing magic to pass from south to north but not the reverse. Perhaps at one time, the Night’s Watch might have used skinchangers of its own to spy on the White Walkers? Regardless, this fact is absolutely necessary for what happens next:
The call came from behind him…he turned his head, searching for his brother…but there was nothing, only…a weirwood. It seemed to sprout from solid rock, its pale roots twisting up from a myriad of fissures and hairline cracks. The tree was slender compared to other weirwoods he had seen, no more than a sapling, yet it was growing as he watched, its limbs thickening as they reached for the sky. Wary, he circled the smooth white trunk until he came to the face. Red eyes looked at him. Fierce eyes they were, yet glad to see him. The weirwood had his brother’s face. Had his brother always had three eyes?
Not always, came the silent shout. Not before the crow…don’t be afraid, I like it in the dark. No one can see you, but you can see them. But first you have to open your eyes. See? Like this. And the tree reached down and touched him.
Here we see Bran in full greenseer-in-weirwood mode, albeit clearly a young one still in development. And this may well be the first significant magical act of his career, as he reaches out to open Jon’s third eye (as he may well be doing in Mercy), just as Bloodraven did for him. This awakening is absolutely crucial for Jon’s future – after all, without it, Jon might not be able to transition into and out of Ghost following his assassination. This passage suggests that GRRM may have been planning for Jon Snow’s death and rebirth way back in A Clash of Kings, which is interesting since it’s not at all clear that was part of the plan in the Ur-Text.
Another interesting question to me is when exactly Bran is doing this. While most evidence points to Bran accomplishing this feat in Bran VII as we’ll see soon, it’s quite possible that, with his powers in ADWD to look and communicate backward in time, Bran did this in the future and his dream in Bran VII is him having a vision of doing it later. (And now you’ve gone cross-eyed…) After all, at this point, Bran’s symbolic image is the winged wolf; the weirwood tree is still an external figure that is reaching out to him, which he has yet to make contact with (it’s not even the most common image used to represent Bloodraven, compared to the three-eyed crow). Indeed, the only other vision with Bran as a tree comes in a preview chapter of TWOW, after Bran has made it to Bloodraven’s holdfast in the far North.
Weaponizing Wolf Dreams
However, Jon’s opening his third eye is something of a head-fake. Rather than plunging into a metaphysical plot as Bran has done, Jon’s wolf-dreams are used for practical military purposes. For Jon sees not visions of the future but aerial shots of the enemy camp:
A vast blue-white wall plugged one end of the vale, squeezing between the mountains as if it had shouldered them aside, and for a moment he thought he had dreamed himself back to Castle Black. Then he realized he was looking at a river of ice several thousand feet high. Under that glittering cold cliff was a great lake, its deep cobalt waters reflecting the snowcapped peaks that ringed it. There were men down in the valley, he saw now; many men, thousands, a huge host. Some were tearing great holes in the half-frozen ground, while others trained for war. He watched as a swarming mass of riders charged a shield wall, astride horses no larger than ants. The sound of their mock battle was a rustling of steel leaves, drifting faintly on the wind. Their encampment had no plan to it; he saw no ditches, no sharpened stakes, no neat rows of horse lines. Everywhere crude earthen shelters and hide tents sprouted haphazardly, like a pox on the face of the earth. He spied untidy mounds of hay, smelled goats and sheep, horses and pigs, dogs in great profusion. Tendrils of dark smoke rose from a thousand cookfires.
This is no army, no more than it is a town. This is a whole people come together.
This vision of the wildling camp has a lot going on here. Once again, the theme of discipline comes in – the wildlings live as individuals rather than in the collective manner of soldiers, and as many people are about the business of fishing for their dinner as they are preparing for war. However, we can also see signs of Mance Rayder bringing the lessons of his time with the Night’s Watch, teaching the wildlings’ fighters in cavalry charges and shield walls, trying to offset something of the disadvantage in training. However, that final line is yet another moment where we see the groundwork being laid for Jon’s ADWD storyline, as already he is beginning to see the wildlings as less of a military threat than as a people worthy of support and protection. (As with the Red Wedding, Jon’s ADWD plot seems remarkably heavily-foreshadowed given how surprised so many people were about how it ended)
However, when Jon wakes up suddenly in the wake of Ghost being attacked by Orell the eagle, rather than being met with Maester Luwin’s rationalist skepticism, the rangers immediately accept his visions:
“A dream…I was Ghost, I was on the edge of the mountain looking down on a frozen river…the wildlings…there were thousands, more than I ever knew existed. And giants riding mammoths…”
“Tell me all that you remember, from first to last,” said Qhorin Halfhand.
Jon was confused. “It was only a dream.”
“A wolf dream,” the Halfhand said. “Craster told the Lord Commander that the wildlings were gathering at the source of the Milkwater. That may be why you dreamed it. Or it may be that you saw what waits for us, a few hours farther on. Tell me.” It made him feel half a fool to talk of such things to Qhorin and the other rangers, but he did as he was commanded. None of the black brothers laughed at him, however. By the time he was done, even Squire Dalbridge was no longer smiling.
“Skinchanger?” said Ebben grimly, looking at the Halfhand. Does he mean the eagle…or me?
“The cold winds are rising. Mormont feared as much. Benjen Stark felt it as well. Dead men walk and the trees have eyes again. Why should we balk at wargs and giants?”
This moment shows the extent to which the rangers are something of an order apart within the Night’s Watch. Compare this reaction to the way that, in ASOS, Janos Slynt is able to stir up trouble among the builders and stewards of Castle Black by preying on their fears of wargs, and the way in which most of those same brothers don’t believe in the White Walkers or giants and mammoths until they are faced with indisputable evidence. But these rangers, along with Benjen and Mormont, are part of a hard core who believe that the second Long Night is coming. Indeed, the mention that “the trees have eyes again,” which surely must refer to greenseers and the Children of the Forest, suggest that these veterans know more about the magical plot of ASOIAF than most. Whether or not this is a legacy of Bloodraven’s tenure as Lord Commander – did he spread some of his occult learning around, to be handed down from veteran to veteran? – is besides the point. What matters is that these Shadow Tower rangers, like their former comrade Mance Rayder with his military drills, are willing to make use of the enemy’s tools to gain whatever advantage they can.
In retrospect, and as I’ll discuss more in the What If? section, this revelation suggests another consequence of the Battle at the Fist of the First Men was that much of Jon Snow’s natural constituency was lost. Of the 300 men in the Great Ranging, approximately 3/4 of their numbers were rangers, 250 of them died at the Fist (or so we assume), and only 12 made it back to Castle Black. In an organization with less than a thousand members, that’s an enormous loss of experienced soldiers, of people who would have a very different reaction to Jon Snow’s policies as Lord Commander, and of people who might know more about what’s going on north of the Wall than anyone else.
The Eagle and Existential Spy Fiction
The efficiency of wildling methods linked to Mance’s organization and training becomes all too clear when Jon and company see the eagle that he dreamed was attacking Ghost:
“Qhorin,” Squire Dalbridge called softly. “There. Look.”
The eagle was perched on a spine of rock far above them, outlined against the darkening sky. We’ve seen other eagles, Jon thought. That need not be the one I dreamed of.
Even so, Ebben would have loosed a shaft at it, but the squire stopped him. “The bird’s well out of bowshot.”
“I don’t like it watching us.”
The squire shrugged. “Nor me, but you won’t stop it. Only waste a good arrow.”
Qhorin sat in his saddle, studying the eagle for a long time. “We press on,” he finally said. The rangers resumed their descent.
…”Do we press on?” Stonensake wanted to know.
Qhorin went back to his garron. “Back, not on.”
“Back?” Jon was taken by surprise.
“Eagles have sharper eyes than men. We are seen. So now we run.” The Halfhand wound a long black scarf around his face and swung up into the saddle…
This is Orell in his eagle, somehow recognizing Jon in his direwolf, despite never having seen Jon’s wolf before (remember, Qhorin ordered him to leave it behind when Jon and Stonesnake went on their climb). What happens next, where the eagle begins stalking the group and leading the wildlings to them, shows the extent of Mance’s organization. He’s clearly trained his “rangers” to react to the sight of a skinchanged animal without any further message, so that his early warning system would work even if the animal’s “pilot” was taken out. This in turn, suggests that Mance knows enough about skinchanging that he knows that they can escape into their bonded animals after death, which is a deep cut as lore goes.
The other key point here is that the mission fails due to something completely out of the control of the rangers. This is another trope of spy fiction, especially the existential variety exemplified by John le Carré – missions often succeed or fail by accidents of random chance, suggesting that the universe is essentially random and that all we can control is how we choose to respond to the whims of the Fates. I’m reminded especially of the end of the first episode of the excellent 70s spy series The Sandbaggers (which inspired Greg Rucka’s excellent Queen & Country comic), where a British attempt to exfiltrate some Norwegian spy plane pilots who have crashed in Russian territory only succeeds because another group of pilots is spotted by the Russians first; the British escape only by allowing the other group to be captured. Here, the Fates are represented by the eagle soaring above them, a symbol of supernatural power that mere mortals are simply unable to deal with, remorseless and inexorably hunting them to their deaths.
I’ll discuss this more in the Book vs. Show section.
Squire Dalbridge and Qhorin’s Philosophy
Here, the consequence of the group being spotted by Orell the Eagle is that they are suddenly plunged into a desperate retreat in which one-by-one, the men of the group have to sacrifice themselves in order to save the rest:
“From there, one man could hold a hundred. The right man.” He looked at Squire Dalbridge.
The squire bowed his head. “Leave me as many arrows as you can spare, brothers.” He stroked his longbow. “And see my garron has an apple when you’re home. He’s earned it, poor beastie.”
He’s staying to die, Jon realized.
Qhorin clasped the squire’s forearm with a gloved hand. “If the eagle flies down for a look at you . . .”
“…he’ll sprout some new feathers.”
The last Jon saw of Squire Dalbridge was his back as he clambered up the narrow pass to the heights.
When dawn broke, Jon looked up into a cloudless sky and saw a speck moving through the blue. Ebben saw it too, and cursed, but Qhorin told him to be quiet. “Listen.”
Jon held his breath, and heard it. Far away and behind them, the call of a hunting horn echoed against the mountains.
“And now they come,” said Qhorin.
As we’ll see again in the next Jon chapter, this is the ultimate reflection of Qhorin’s style of leadership and his philosophy. At this bottleneck, a specialist with the kind of archery skills Squire Dalbridge was recruited for can delay a much larger foe for a long enough time to allow the group to open a crucial gap between them and their pursuers. But at the same time, this strategy would not work unless Qhorin knew that Dalbridge shared his bushido-like philosophy, and was willing to sacrifice himself so that his comrades might live. By knowing his men, by shaping their beliefs through instruction, Qhorin turns their very lives into assets that he can deploy at will, giving “to lead men you must know them” a far more dangerous meaning.
Sadly, not long after Dalbridge departs for his death, the re-appearance of the eagle shows the ultimate futility of that sacrifice. Absent a certain red-haired priestess, there’s no way for rangers (even elite rangers like Qhorin’s band) to deal with this kind of a threat. But as with Syrio Forel or Yoren, the fact that Dalbridge’s sacrifice fails does not diminish its meaning. The fact that he does it, without a second thought, speaks for itself.
I decided to push the topic I was going to discuss in this chapter – the real world history of skinchanging in various cultures’ mythologies – back to ASOS, because I’m not very far from the ending of ACOK and I will need some historical topics for Jon’s long sojourn with the wildlings.
So check back next time!
So there’s really only one hypothetical here – what if the group isn’t spotted by Orell, forcing their retreat? I’ve always been curious about what Qhorin would have done if he’d successfully made contact with the main body of the wildlings. While it’s certain he would have sent someone to warn Lord Commander Mormont, I don’t really know how he would have exercised initiative on the ground:
- would he have tried to assassinate Mance Rayder (as Mormont will plan to do before the Fist changes everything) in order to shatter the wildlings’ unity before they could get to the Wall? If so, it’s nigh-guaranteed that Jon, Qhorin, and the rest of the group would have died in the attempt. However, if they killed Mance, it’s just as likely that the wildlings would have broken up, rather than attacking the Wall as a single force. Paradoxically, while this would have greatly eased the pressure on the Night’s Watch by allowing them to face their enemy in detail, it would have made a long-term resolution to the crisis more difficult as Stannis would have been unable to conclusively defeat the wildlings and force them into surrender, which in turn allows for the possibility of assimilation into the North. And finally, it’s almost certain that without Mance and his spearwives’ actions at Winterfell, Theon and “Arya’s” escape wouldn’t have succeeded, butterflying away the Pink Letter and potentially dramatically changing the Battle of Ice.
- would he have tried to steal the Horn of Winter? Given Qhorin’s interest in Mance’s excavation, it’s possible this is the other mission Qhorin would have attempted. (Although I think Benjen already accomplished it) Assuming they managed to infiltrate the camp and steal the Horn, the main change is in the negotiations between Mance and the Night’s Watch. Could removing Mance’s supposed trump card and/or bluff have led Mance and the Night’s Watch to a peaceful solution, or would it have forced him into an all-out assault?
Book vs. Show:
So here’s the penultimate episode of my long-form rant against the “botch beyond the Wall.” In Season 2, Episode 8, “the Prince of Winterfell,” Jon Snow (now taken captive by Ygritte) is presented to Rattleshirt, who we are told managed to defeat the entire group of rangers while they were searching for Jon Snow, with Qhorin Halfhand taken prisoner.
As I’ve said before, this makes Qhorin and Jon look like complete incompetents. Qhorin Halfhand, whose name itself speaks to his refusal to surrender even when he lost his sword-hand, is taken captive after nothing more than a mere scratch on his forehead. His band of experienced, veteran rangers, not only cannot locate two people blundering in the wild despite having a nearby direwolf with a psychic connection to one of them, but are so bad at their jobs that they get taken out by a wildling who’s known by both sides as a coward.
But even worse is what this all means about Jon Snow – after an entire season in which Jon Snow has acted like an entitled prick who demands special status again and again despite failing to follow orders and blundering repeatedly at Craster’s Keep and again in the Frostfangs, the fact that the rangers got captured because they were looking for Jon means that Jon is directly responsible for all their deaths, all because of a childlike desire to have his cake and eat it too. While protagonists can indeed make horrible mistakes as part of their tragic arc – see Robb Stark and Jeyne Westerling – those mistakes need to be grounded in their inherent character flaws, and tend to work better if the mistake is well-intentioned and thus made in pursuit of their drives and ambitions. None of that applies here. This Jon Snow doesn’t deserve to lead the Night’s Watch in defense of Castle Black; he doesn’t deserve to be Lord Commander.
So congratulations, Benioff and Weiss. You wrote a convincing brief for why Jon Snow should be court-martialed and executed for “misbehavior before the enemy.”