“The snow’s taken it all from me…the bloody snow….”
Synopsis: Chett has a terrible, no good, very bad day. Which makes me happy.
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.
When George R.R Martin began writing A Storm of Swords in the late nineties, he used the Prologue as a kind of artistic statement about what kind of book this was going to be. While his gardener ways had mooted his original plans for a trilogy, he knew that this book was going to be the big firework show that he’d been building up to for two books. And so GRRM made two major changes from his routine to grab the reader’s attention: first, he made his POV character a thoroughly unlikable person in strong contrast from the relateable Will and the pathos-laden Maester Cressen, so that you wouldn’t feel bad about the horrible things that are going to happen. Second, after promising us that “winter is coming” for two whole books, he finally shows us the arrival of the White Walkers.
Remember the Bear!
But because GRRM is GRRM, the introduction of the White Walkers back into the narrative is done in an incredibly subtle fashion. He starts by introducing our POV character failing to find a bear:
The big black bitch had taken one sniff at the bear tracks, backed off, and skulked back to the pack with her tail between her legs. The dogs huddled together miserably on the riverbank as the wind snapped at them. Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather. It was too bloody cold for man or beast, but here they were.
“…There’s no bear here,” he decided abruptly. “Just an old print, that’s all. Back to the Fist.” The dogs almost yanked him off his feet, as eager to get back as he was.
“…The prints were there like Giant said, but the dogs wouldn’t track,” he told Mormont in front of his big black tent. “Down by the river like that, could be old prints.”
“A pity.” Lord Commander Mormont had a bald head and a great shaggy grey beard, and sounded as tired as he looked. “We might all have been better for a bit of fresh meat.” The raven on his shoulder bobbed its head and echoed, “Meat. Meat. Meat.”
…Dywen was holding forth at the cookfire as Chett got his heel of hardbread and a bowl of bean and bacon soup from Hake the cook. “The wood’s too silent,” the old forester was saying. “No frogs near that river, no owls in the dark. I never heard no deader wood than this.”
“Them teeth of yours sound pretty dead,” said Hake.
Dywen clacked his wooden teeth. “No wolves neither. There was, before, but no more. Where’d they go, you figure?”
“Someplace warm,” said Chett.
For first-time readers, this is is a rather enigmatic bit of mood-setting, reinforcing the already-spooky atmosphere of the Fist of the First Men. But careful re-readers (and readers of PoorQuentyn’s blog) people who know that this bear in question is the undead ice bear that will show up in the flashback of Sam I, which means that the White Walkers have already arrived. That’s why it’s suddenly too cold despite being just on the cusp of autumn, because the White Walkers bring the cold with them. That’s why the dogs won’t track, because animals abhor the undead. That’s why there are no animals in the woods, because they have either fled to avoid the scourge that hates all warm-blooded life or they’ve been turned already.
And this is the first clue that our POV isn’t actually the main character, because if Chett was he would grasp the relevance of all of this information just before the attack happens, because that’s what protagonists are for. What Chett is instead is the comic relief, like the drunken Porter who shows up in Act II, Scene III of Macbeth right after Macbeth has killed Duncan but before the bloody deed is revealed, whose job it is to stumble around in the silence of a held breath, unable to see the impending tragedy about to unfold, to break the tension.
GRRM adds a bit of a twist though, because normally the comic relief doesn’t get caught up in the tragedy (except for Lear’s poor Fool). But Chett is the butt of Chett’s joke. He’s going to spend the whole chapter planning his escape from the wildlings, when the real threat that’s going to take his life and turn him into a shambling zombie is right there in front of him – if only Chett knew how to read the writing on the wall…
Chett’s Plan of Escape
Speaking of this plan, let’s examine Chett’s mutinous scheme, because nestled within the details is a dark commentary on the man himself. Let’s start with the basics:
“Bugger that Old Bear too,” said the Sisterman, a thin man with sharp features and nervous eyes. “Mormont will be dead before daybreak, remember? Who cares what he likes…we need to kill all the officers, I say.”
Chett was sick of hearing it. “We been over this. The Old Bear dies, and Blane from the Shadow Tower. Grubbs and Aethan as well, their ill luck for drawing the watch, Dywen and Bannen for their tracking, and Ser Piggy for the ravens. That’s all. We kill them quiet, while they sleep. One scream and we’re wormfood, every one of us.” His boils were red with rage. “Just do your bit and see that your cousins do theirs. And Paul, try and remember, it’s third watch, not second.”
Even for a mutiny, this is both cowardly, treacherous, and brutal. Rather than simply running away, Chett plans to kill seven people by slitting their throats in their sleep – not just the Lord Commander of his order (who one could make an argument for might have led an attempt to recapture) but also ordinary rank and file soldiers who’ve done nothing but be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And despite his arguments that the murder of Sam Tarly would be done out of necessity, as we’ll see later, this is very much a matter of passion. Taking it all into account, there’s a common theme of casual brutality and callousness:
…He hadn’t fed [the dogs] for three days now, to turn them mean and hungry. Tonight, before slipping off into the dark, he’d turn them loose among the horse lines, after Sweet Donnel Hill and Clubfoot Karl cut the tethers. They’ll have snarling hounds and panicked horses all over the Fist, running through fires, jumping the ringwall, and trampling down tents. With all the confusion, it might be hours before anyone noticed that fourteen brothers were missing.
It’s like GRRM is metaphorically underlining the text for those kind of people who are more sensitive to the plight of animals than humans (a stance I’ve always had a problem with), so he signposts the kind of man we’re dealing with by having Chett’s plan incorporate the neglect and mistreatment of dogs and the murder of horses, and linking that to chaos and injury inflicted on hundreds of his fellow soldiers on the verge of a major battle, all to save his own hide.
And let’s look at the kind of men who Chett has recruited to join his merry band, and who approve of his actions:
Lark had wanted to bring in twice that number, but what could you expect from some stupid fishbreath Sisterman? Whisper a word in the wrong ear and before you knew it you’d be short a head. No, fourteen was a good number, enough to do what needed doing but not so many that they couldn’t keep the secret. Chett had recruited most of them himself. Small Paul was one of his; the strongest man on the Wall, even if he was slower than a dead snail. He’d once broken a wildling’s back with a hug. They had Dirk as well, named for his favorite weapon, and the little grey man the brothers called Softfoot, who’d raped a hundred women in his youth, and liked to boast how none had ever seen nor heard him until he shoved it up inside them.
Lark’s a sadist, arguably homophobic, and a bully, and given that he and his cousins were all taken for the Watch, I’m guessing either a pirate or a wrecker. Dirk is a murderous psychopath who’ll violate guest-right down the road, and Softfoot is a serial rapist. In other words, the people who join Chett represent the worst of the Night’s Watch, the unrepentant and unreformed who are signs of the institutional weakness slowly eroding the once-great institution.
The only one of them who’s worth a damn is Small Paul, who doesn’t want to kill anyone and just wants a pet bird; he’s such an obvious Of Mice and Men reference that the fact that Chett is using him as an instrument of murder makes him the anti-George, and that’s one of the worst things you can be.
To be fair to Chett, though, it is at least a well thought-out plan, one that shows attention paid to both the logistics of escape and travel and the internal dynamics of the Night’s Watch:
…The moon would be black tonight, and they had jiggered the watches so as to have eight of their own standing sentry, with two more guarding the horses. It wasn’t going to get much riper than that. Besides, the wildlings could be upon them any day now. Chett meant to be well away from here before that happened. He meant to live.
The plan was Chett’s. He was the clever one…he’d open the cages and shoo the birds away, so no messages reached the Wall. Softfoot and Small Paul would kill the Old Bear, Dirk would do Blane, and Lark and his cousins would silence Bannen and old Dywen, to keep them from sniffing after their trail. They’d been caching food for a fortnight, and Sweet Donnel and Clubfoot Karl would have the horses ready. With Mormont dead, command would pass to Ser Ottyn Wythers, an old done man, and failing. He’ll be running for the Wall before sundown, and he won’t waste no men sending them after us neither.
… So long as we get away clean. Ser Ottyn would strike south for the Shadow Tower, the shortest way to the Wall. He won’t bother with us, not Wythers, all he’ll want is to get back whole. Thoren Smallwood now, he’d want to press on with the attack, but Ser Ottyn’s caution ran too deep, and he was senior.
Look at the details he’d paid attention to – the lunar cycle, the composition of the Watch’s watches, the psychology of the Watch’s hierarchy, transportation and food (which is something a lot of genre often overlooks; I’m reminded of the epilogue to The Princess Bride and the foundering horses), etc. If there’s any tragedy in Chett, and I’ll get to that just in a minute, it’s that rather than make some positive use out of his talents, he spent his entire life being an awful person.
What Worth the Life of a Chett?
Speaking of which, what can we say of Chett of Hag’s Mire? To get it out of the way, let me just say that Chett is a deeply, deeply unpleasant person and being in his point-of-view makes me feel unclean (he’s as bad a person as Varamyr is in his ADWD Prologue but Varamyr has warging weirdness to leaven it; Pate from AFFC is about as gross sexually, but lacks Chett’s violent instincts; Victarion is at least funny). And given my feels about Davos Seaworth, you’d think I’d be more upset that Chett makes up one-third of the working class representation in ASOIAF.
Here’s why I’m not: positive stereotypes are not better than negative stereotypes, and assuming that every member of the working class is an enlightened Species-Being who understands inter-sectional inequality and is a good ally is just as dehumanizing as assuming that they’re all Trump voters. I spent eight years as a union organizer and activist, and nothing quite opens your eyes to how diverse political opinions can be than meeting a couple hundred people face-to-face and trying to get them to act collectively. Met a lot of great people, some of whom needed a bit of political education and some of whose minds I was able to change, but I also met my share of crazy people, bigots, and Chetts.
In other words, however unpleasant he might be, Chett functions as an important contrast, Davos’ dark mirror. Whereas Davos worked his way to social mobility without forgetting his roots, and used his life experiences to guide his politics later in life, Chett is consumed with resentment and hatred:
He had no trade to speak of, growing up in Hag’s Mire. His father had spent his life grubbing in other men’s fields and collecting leeches. He’d strip down bare but for a thick leather clout, and go wading in the murky waters. When he climbed out he’d be covered from nipple to ankle. Sometimes he made Chett help pull the leeches off. One had attached itself to his palm once, and he’d smashed it against a wall in revulsion. His father beat him bloody for that. The maesters bought the leeches at twelve-for-a-penny.
The only women Chett had ever known were the whores he’d bought in Mole’s Town. When he’d been younger, the village girls took one look at his face, with its boils and its wen, and turned away sickened. The worst was that slattern Bessa. She’d spread her legs for every boy in Hag’s Mire so he’d figured why not him too? He even spent a morning picking wildflowers when he heard she liked them, but she’d just laughed in his face and told him she’d crawl in a bed with his father’s leeches before she’d crawl in one with him. She stopped laughing when he put his knife in her. That was sweet, the look on her face, so he pulled the knife out and put it in her again. When they caught him down near Sevenstreams, old Lord Walder Frey hadn’t even bothered to come himself to do the judging. He’d sent one of his bastards, that Walder Rivers, and the next thing Chett had known he was walking to the Wall with that foul-smelling black devil Yoren. To pay for his one sweet moment, they took his whole life.
On the one hand, we shouldn’t discount the impact that Chett’s poverty (noticeably, unlike most peasants, Chett’s father didn’t have a lease on some land, which puts him at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy) and the child abuse he experienced had on his development. On the other hand, a lot of the people he grew up with experienced the same poverty and child abuse and didn’t rape and murder anyone, so he can’t blame his actions on his hard childhood. It’s actually a pretty good encapsulation of the whole idea of intersectionality – Chett attempts to make up for his lack of class privilege by trying to use sex to make himself feel like a real man, and when Bessa shuts him down, he uses violence to reassert his gender privilege.
Lest someone come away with the idea that Chett is just a Nice Guy driven to violence by Bessa’s cruel rejection, and that he’s being genuine when he thinks “it wasn’t the knife I wanted to put in you, he wanted to tell her,” GRRM makes it absolutely clear when he lays out Chett’s intended retirement plan:
Lark could go home if he liked, and the damn Tyroshi too, but not Chett. If he never saw Hag’s Mire again, it would be too bloody soon. He had liked the look of Craster’s Keep, himself. Craster lived high as a lord there, so why shouldn’t he do the same? That would be a laugh. Chett the leechman’s son, a lord with a keep. His banner could be a dozen leeches on a field of pink. But why stop at lord? Maybe he should be a king. Mance Rayder started out a crow. I could be a king same as him, and have me some wives. Craster had nineteen, not even counting the young ones, the daughters he hadn’t gotten around to bedding yet. Half them wives were as old and ugly as Craster, but that didn’t matter. The old ones Chett could put to work cooking and cleaning for him, pulling carrots and slopping pigs, while the young ones warmed his bed and bore his children…
But now he meant to take it back, and Craster’s women too. That twisted old wildling has the right of it. If you want a woman to wife you take her, and none of this giving her flowers so that maybe she don’t notice your bloody boils. Chett didn’t mean to make that mistake again.
Chett’s vision of the good life is setting up a rape factory and using the slave labor of abused women as his ticket to social mobility. He took a long look at Craster’s Keep and liked what he saw – and the reason why he can accomplish this act of amorality is that gender resentment, class resentment, and brutality are all tangled together inside him, poisoning his own life.
And this is where I think there’s an interesting political edge to GRRM’s writing. To speak frankly for a minute, Chett is an Men’s Rights Activist, he’s a Gamergater, he’s a Sad Puppy. He’s got the exact same psychological hangups and compulsions, predicted a decade or more before the internet gave his ilk anonymity and the ability to group up without having to socially interact in real life. So for all those people who read ASOIAF, this is what GRRM thinks of you.
Sam and Jon
Speaking of resentment, let’s talk about Chett’s burning hatred for Sam Tarly, and by extension Jon Snow. On one level, Chett hates Tarly for taking his job (because there’s absolutely no political allusion here!):
I should be safe back at the Wall, tending the bloody ravens and making fires for old Maester Aemon. It was the bastard Jon Snow who had taken that from him, him and his fat friend Sam Tarly. It was their fault he was here, freezing his bloody balls off with a pack of hounds deep in the haunted forest.
… he’d been steward to old Maester Aemon for four good years before that bastard Jon Snow had done him out so his job could be handed to his fat pig of a friend. When he killed Sam Tarly tonight, he planned to whisper, “Give my love to Lord Snow,” right in his ear before he sliced Ser Piggy’s throat open to let the blood come bubbling out through all those layers of suet. Chett knew the ravens, so he wouldn’t have no trouble there, no more than he would with Tarly. One touch of the knife and that craven would piss his pants and start blubbering for his life. Let him beg, it won’t do him no good.
…Ser Piggy himself, the fat boy who had stolen his place with Maester Aemon. Just the sight of Samwell Tarly filled him with anger. Stewarding for Maester Aemon had been as good a life as he’d ever known. The old blind man was undemanding, and Clydas had taken care of most of his wants anyway. Chett’s duties were easy: cleaning the rookery, a few fires to build, a few meals to fetch . . . and Aemon never once hit him. Thinks he can just walk in and shove me out, on account of being highborn and knowing how to read. Might be I’ll ask him to read my knife before I open his throat with it.
To be sure, there’s a strong element of class resentment here – Chett lost his job (and there is a small tragedy in that the best life he’s ever known is not being beaten) to Sam because Sam can read and Chett can’t, and that’s entirely because one of them was born the son of a leechman and the other the son of the Lord of Horn Hill. However, it’s not the only thing going on. In addition to being a lordling, Sam is also someone who doesn’t perform masculinity that well: he’s soft and fat, he’s an intellectual who’s into “girly” things like music and dancing, and he’s almost completely non-violent. And to Chett, that adds up to gay as well; hence the “give my love to Lord Snow,” hence his previous references to Sam as “Lady Piggy.“
So keep all of this in mind for later.
Now that we know the mutineers’ plan and the character of the man who came up with it, what about the alternative? Well, unfortunately, the leadership of the Night’s Watch is divided on what to do (which is never a good thing when you’re in charge of a military unit):
…Thoren Smallwood wanted to attack. Sweet Donnel Hill was squire to Ser Mallador Locke, and the night before last Smallwood had come to Locke’s tent. Ser Mallador had been of the same mind as old Ser Ottyn Wythers, urging a retreat on the Wall, but Smallwood wanted to convince him otherwise. “This King-beyond-the-Wall will never look for us so far north,” Sweet Donnel reported him saying. “And this great host of his is a shambling horde, full of useless mouths who won’t know what end of a sword to hold. One blow will take all the fight out of them and send them howling back to their hovels for another fifty years.”
Three hundred against thirty thousand. Chett called that rank madness, and what was madder still was that Ser Mallador had been persuaded, and the two of them together were on the point of persuading the Old Bear. “If we wait too long, this chance may be lost, never to come again,” Smallwood was saying to anyone who would listen. Against that, Ser Ottyn Wythers said, “We are the shield that guards the realms of men. You do not throw away your shield for no good purpose,” but to that Thoren Smallwood said, “In a swordfight, a man’s surest defense is the swift stroke that slays his foe, not cringing behind a shield.”
This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen Smallwood and Wythers butt heads, but unfortunately it’s going to be the last, because both of these men are going to die on the Fist of the First Men. However, you can see in Denys Mallister and Cotter Pyke (representing privilege and reverse-snobbery rather than offense vs. defense) a sign that GRRM wants this dialectical relationship to continue, so he recreated it. And to be fair, I think there are strong arguments to either side – as we saw with Stannis’ attack at the Wall, a small number of mounted soldiers attacking at the right moment could absolutely break the wildlings, especially if they were strung out on the march; on the other hand, as I discussed here, if the wildlings can use their numbers effectively, the Watch is screwed.
So what is Mormont’s position when it comes to this dilemma?
Neither Smallwood nor Wythers had the command, though. Lord Mormont did, and Mormont was waiting for his other scouts, for Jarman Buckwell and the men who’d climbed the Giant’s Stair, and for Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow, who’d gone to probe the Skirling Pass. Buckwell and the Halfhand were late in returning, though…
The Old Bear stood before the fire with Smallwood, Locke, Wythers, and Blane ranged behind him in a row. Mormont wore a cloak of thick black fur, and his raven perched upon his shoulder, preening its black feathers. This can’t be good. Chett squeezed between Brown Bernarr and some Shadow Tower men. When everyone was gathered, save for the watchers in the woods and the guards on the ringwall, Mormont cleared his throat and spat. The spittle was frozen before it hit the ground. “Brothers,” he said, “men of the Night’s Watch.”
“…The wildlings are on the march, following the course of the Milkwater down out of the mountains. Thoren believes their van will be upon us ten days hence. Their most seasoned raiders will be with Harma Dogshead in that van. The rest will likely form a rearguard, or ride in close company with Mance Rayder himself. Elsewhere their fighters will be spread thin along the line of march. They have oxen, mules, horses…but few enough. Most will be afoot, and ill-armed and untrained. Such weapons as they carry are more like to be stone and bone than steel. They are burdened with women, children, herds of sheep and goats, and all their worldly goods besides. In short, though they are numerous, they are vulnerable…and they do not know that we are here. Or so we must pray.”
Smallwood stepped forward. “Mance Rayder means to break the Wall and bring red war to the Seven Kingdoms. Well, that’s a game two can play. On the morrow we’ll bring the war to him.”
“We ride at dawn with all our strength,” the Old Bear said as a murmur went through the assembly. “We will ride north, and loop around to the west. Harma’s van will be well past the Fist by the time we turn. The foothills of the Frostfangs are full of narrow winding valleys made for ambush. Their line of march will stretch for many miles. We shall fall on them in several places at once, and make them swear we were three thousand, not three hundred.”
On paper, this isn’t a terrible strategy, as I’ve discussed above. If Mormont’s 300 can get in there, panic the body of the wildling host, and take out Mance himself, the war for the Wall could be over in one stroke. The problem is, it’s not entirely clear that the Night’s Watch is disciplined enough to pull this off – and without perfect discipline, this Battle That Never Happened is just as likely to end up as Isandlwana as it is to end up like Rorke’s Drift. So how are the Night’s Watch feeling?
“There are thousands,” someone called from behind Chett.
“We’ll die.” That was Maslyn’s voice, green with fear.
“…Many of us,” the Old Bear said. “Mayhaps even all of us. But as another Lord Commander said a thousand years ago, that is why they dress us in black. Remember your words, brothers. For we are the swords in the darkness, the watchers on the walls…”
“The fire that burns against the cold.” Ser Mallador Locke drew his longsword.
Then all of them were drawing, and it was near three hundred upraised swords and as many voices crying, “The horn that wakes the sleepers! The shield that guards the realms of men!” Chett had no choice but to join his voice to the others.
The answer is: rather shaky. So Mormont tries to pull off a Qhorin gambit in order to rally the men and boost morale. And it works enough to get 95% of his men back in the fold, but you get the sense that it’s not going to hold longer than the first charge if the first charge doesn’t hit home. Unfortunately, the Night’s Watch isn’t going to get that first charge, at least not against human opponents, and the Fist of the First Men is going to completely shatter the thin veneer of discipline Mormont’s built here. And when there’s a 5% out there that is quietly mutinous, the real danger is that the loyalists are going to die off, shifting the percentages in the mutineer’s favor.
Now that we’ve set up the two plans of mice and men, it’s time to see how they’re going to gang aft agley. And lest we think that the personal shortcomings of either Chett or Jeor Mormont have something to do with all of this, GRRM goes out of his way to show that an uncaring universe is going to swat them without noticing:
Snow was falling.
He could feel tears freezing to his cheeks. It isn’t fair, he wanted to scream. Snow would ruin everything he’d worked for, all his careful plans. It was a heavy fall, thick white flakes coming down all about him. How would they find their food caches in the snow, or the game trail they meant to follow east? They won’t need Dywen nor Bannen to hunt us down neither, not if we’re tracking through fresh snow. And snow hid the shape of the ground, especially by night. A horse could stumble over a root, break a leg on a stone. We’re done, he realized. Done before we began. We’re lost. There’d be no lord’s life for the leechman’s son, no keep to call his own, no wives nor crowns. Only a wildling’s sword in his belly, and then an unmarked grave. The snow’s taken it all from me . . . the bloody snow . . .
Of course Chett reacts to this with his normal attitude of resentment and grievance. The thwarting of his dreams of upward mobility through abusive patriarchy is rewritten as the manifest injustice that a classist society metes out to the ambitious peasant. Because GRRM loves a cheap pun, Chett’s downfall is caused by snow. I can almost imagine, had HBO filmed this sequence, him slowly connecting the dots between snow and Snow, falling to his knees in the proverbial, and bellowing Jon Snow’s name up at the sky like a villain in an 80s slobs vs. snobs movie.
One, Two, Three
And this is where everything gets worse, and the tone is simultaneously evocative of a horror movie (where a fake-out comes right before the real scare) and a slapstick routine (where the poor sap with his head stuck in a bucket gets one foot stuck in a paint can and the other slips on a roller skate and then he goes down the flight of stairs). I love how GRRM puts Chett through an emotional rollercoaster, right as he’s about to murder Samwell:
He stopped midstep, swallowing his curse as the sound of the horn shuddered through the camp, faint and far, yet unmistakable. Not now. Gods be damned, not NOW! The Old Bear had hidden far-eyes in a ring of trees around the Fist, to give warning of any approach. Jarman Buckwell’s back from the Giant’s Stair, Chett figured, or Qhorin Half-hand from the Skirling Pass. A single blast of the horn meant brothers returning. If it was the Halfhand, Jon Snow might be with him, alive.
Sam Tarly sat up puffy-eyed and stared at the snow in confusion. The ravens were cawing noisily, and Chett could hear his dogs baying. Half the bloody camp’s awake. His gloved fingers clenched around the dagger’s hilt as he waited for the sound to die away.
It’s a really funny moment of murder interruptus, made even more so by the way that Chett’s cowardice slips through the dialogue. He could absolutely kill Sam Tarly here as he wants to, but he’s so afraid of Jon Snow even in theory that he’s too much of a chicken to do it. But rather than admit it to himself, he focuses on the noise and the camp being awake to explain why he’s not doing it. And then it gets even worse:
But no sooner had it gone than it came again, louder and longer.
…”I dreamed I heard two blasts . . .”
“No dream,” said Chett. “Two blasts to call the Watch to arms. Two blasts for foes approaching. There’s an axe out there with Piggy writ on it, fat boy. Two blasts means wildlings.” The fear on that big moon face made him want to laugh. “Bugger them all to seven hells. Bloody Harma. Bloody Mance Rayder. Bloody Smallwood, he said they wouldn’t be on us for another—”
And here’s where Chett thinks he’s just seen the other shoe drop. The wildlings he’s been desperately trying to escape are here, and he’s completely terrified. But again, rather than admit it, he projects his own terror onto Samwell Tarly (not that it’s not there too) with a bunch of hard-man talk. And of course, there’s the meta-irony that Sam the coward is about to kill a White Walker, whereas Chett’s about to piss himself, run away, and die. And we find this out right now:
The sound went on and on and on, until it seemed it would never die. The ravens were flapping and screaming, flying about their cages and banging off the bars, and all about the camp the brothers of the Night’s Watch were rising, donning their armor, buckling on swordbelts, reaching for battleaxes and bows. Samwell Tarly stood shaking, his face the same color as the snow that swirled down all around them. “Three,” he squeaked to Chett, “that was three, I heard three. They never blow three. Not for hundreds and thousands of years. Three means—”
“—Others.” Chett made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and suddenly his smallclothes were wet, and he could feel the piss running down his leg, see steam rising off the front of his breeches.
And here was where millions of minds got blown back in 2000. We have not seen the Others in 142 chapters; they’ve barely been in the background, guiding the hands of wights and darkly alluded to at Craster’s Keep. And now they will storm onto the page, break the Night’s Watch like a reed, and upend everyone’s plans.
I can’t wait!
In going through the history books for this chapter, I had a hard time finding an exact comparison for Chett’s mutiny. Rather, I found a whole bunch of mutinies where there were some elements in common, and others that didn’t quite fit. So for the sake of accuracy, here’s what I found:
- Mutiny of the Hermione (1797) – there’s an important detail with this mutiny that doesn’t fit: unlike Lord Commander Mormont, Captain Pigot of the HMS Hermione was a sadist and a bully. During a squall, Pigot decided to punish the slow reefing of the topsails by ordering that the last “topman” who got back to the deck would be flogged – in the race to avoid this punishment, three sailors fell to their deaths. However, the violence of the mutiny that resulted does match both Chett’s plan and the mutiny at Craster’s – after the death of the three sailors, eighteen men stormed the captain’s cabin and hacked Pigot to death with cutlasses, and then massacred eight other offices in their drive to take over the ship. And similarly, the mutineers ended badly when they were captured, with 24 out of 33 men hanged and gibbeted and one transported to Australia.
- Mutiny of the Bounty (1789) – probably the most famous historical mutiny thanks to Hollywood, the Bounty shares with the Great Ranging extreme geographic isolation, with the Bounty sailing more than 4,000 miles from the U.K to Tahiti. While again, there’s not much of a parallel between Blight’s martinet ways and Mormont’s more even-handed leadership, the desire of the mutineers to run away from the navy and settle down with their Tahitian “wives” does resemble Chett’s fix on Craster’s Keep. And just like Chett’s group, the mutineers on the Bounty died violently when the Tahitians got tired of them.
- Mutiny on the Discovery (1611) – here, the comparison to the North Beyond-the-Wall and Mormont himself are more apt. Like Mormont, Henry Hudson pushed too far into the frozen north and got his ship stuck in the ice in a Canadian winter. When he ordered the expedition to continue in its effort to fund the Northwest Passage (really should have waited for global warming to help him out there), his crew revolted against him and put him and seven other men off onto a small boat in Hudson’s Bay while they tried to make their way home.
So the basic lesson here is that, if you’re going to go on a dangerous expedition, it’s important to have good labor relations, unless you want to die.
With a fresh new book, comes fresh new possibilities and new hypotheticals. I see two main ones:
- Chett’s mutiny was successful? Given the proximity of the White Walkers, this mutiny is going to have some major ramifications. With no one manning the defenses when the Battle of the First Men kicks off, everyone dies, and since Sam’s dead, there’s no message sent to the Wall. Mance knocks over the Wall without a problem because no one tells Stannis what’s going on. And then no one’s manning the Wall when the White Walkers are coming. The only bright spot is that Chett’s going to die, either at the White Walkers’ hands or at Coldhands’ hands.
- Mormont’s attack happened as planned? Let’s say everything goes as planned and the Night’s Watch succeeds in their mission. A couple things change rather dramatically. First is that the Night’s Watch is much stronger than in OTL and Lord Commander Mormont survives. Which in turn means Jon Snow’s doesn’t have to become Lord Commander, and that there’s no need for Stannis to come up North. But what then? The tens of thousands of scattered wildlings are going to become food for the White Walkers, and no one is going to know what’s actually going on until it’s too late. Which is probably why GRRM had things happened the way they did.
Book vs. Show:
As I’ve said before, Season 2 of HBO’s Game of Thrones was extremely uneven, especially in the Beyond-the-Wall segment. However, one thing I do want to give the showrunners credit for is that final sequence where Dolorous Edd, Grenn, and Sam are at the base of the Fist of the First Men and we get this scene.
Three little knots of black in a broad white field, rank-and-file soldiers gathering shit to burn and talking about girls and being cold is a great human touch, giving you just the right amount of levity before things go wrong. Unlike Chett, Sam greets the first horn with joy, thinking that his best friend is back. And then the third blast gives rise to a scene straight out of Fellowship of the Rings, where Sam gets left behind and huddles for safety behind a rock.
But given the rather limited budgets of Season 1, which had rendered the White Walkers and the wights rather unimpressive, the visuals here are breathtaking. The diversity of the wights is up there with some of the best that shows like the Walking Dead have done with zombies, but the new White Walker design on top of the undead horse is the most visually-arresting and meme-spawning thing the show has ever done. What wins the day, however, is the sheer scale in that last zoom-out shot, where you see what looks like hundreds of wights advancing on the Fist of the First Men. It took my breath away then and still does today.