“Might be you fooled these others, crow, but don’t think you’ll be fooling Mance. He’ll take one look a’ you and know you’re false…”
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 I has to do several difficult things at once: it has to establish Jon Snow’s character arc for A Storm of Swords (will he maintain his cover identity and mission or will he either be found out or “go native”?); it has to sell us on Mance Rayder, who will be Jon’s foil (note that I say foil rather than antagonist) arguably through the end of A Dance With Dragons; and it has to introduce both Jon Snow and the reader to the culture of the Free Folk, for the first time seen as a nation rather than as individuals or isolated holdfasts.
In this last task, Jon I is especially reminiscent of Dany III of AGOT, where we are introduced to the khalasar and through it the true culture of the Dothraki as Dany undergoes an internal transformation – although Jon will deal with the problem of assimilation in very different ways from his aunt.
An Anthropological Tour of the Wildling Camp
The character we are introduced to in this chapter is the wildling camp itself, a great Leviathan of rude, brawling, free-thinking humanity. And before we get under its skin to interrogate its entrails, it’s crucial that we start with an image of lyrical natural beauty:
“…the riders threaded their way through the scatter of stones and scraggly trees toward the welcoming fires strewn like jewels across the floor of the river valley below. There were more fires than Jon Snow could count, hundreds of fires, thousands, a second river of flickery lights along the banks of the icy white Milkwater.”
The use of nature metaphors – the scatter of stones and the strewn like jewels, the river of light besides the river of ice – is a suggestion that the wildlings belong in this forbidding wilderness, and thus also is an implication that Jon is something of an interloper (although how much of an interloper is up for debate).
This beautiful language is necessary, moreover, to counter-act Jon Snow’s initial self-absorption. Still in shock over having to kill his mentor, Snow is in a mood of Gothic melodrama: “Wildlings, and I am with them…Dead, all dead but me, and I am dead to the world.” In this mental image, the wildlings are so many crude and grasping ferrymen, conducting our Byronic protagonist into the land of the dead. But the Skirling Pass is not the coldest of the Nine Hells, and the wildlings are too insistently personable to be reduced to ciphers.
So despite his adolescent self-absorption, Jon can’t help himself from taking an anthropological interest in a people he’s never had the opportunity to be among before. It starts with the group of fighters he comes in with: on the one hand, their habit of robbing corpses and mutilating their bodies (“Ygritte wore the cloak of Qhorin Halfhand. Lenyl had his hauberk, the big spearwife Ragwyle his gloves, one of the bowmen his boots. Qhorin’s helm had been won by the short homely man called Longspear Ryk…and Rattleshirt had Qhorin’s bones in his bag, along with the bloody head of Ebben”) is distasteful, just the kind of crude unsentimentality that leads cultured people to start using othering language. On the other hand, Jon can’t ignore the fact that Ygritte’s defiance of Rattleshirt speaks to them being “a free folk indeed, Jon saw. Rattleshirt might lead them, but none of them were shy in talking back to him.”
This anthropological mindset kicks into high gear when Rattleshirt’s little party enters the wildling camp, and Jon finally gets to see the mighty host of his enemy:
“There were cookfires all along the river, amongst wayns and carts and sleds. Many of the wildlings had thrown up tents, of hide and skin and felted wool. Others sheltered behind rocks in crude lean-tos, or slept beneath their wagons. At one fire Jon saw a man hardening the points of long wooden spears and tossing them in a pile. Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow. A dozen women sat nearby in a circle, fletching arrows…But not all he saw was warlike. He saw women dancing as well, and heard a baby crying, and a little boy ran in front of his garron, all bundled up in fur and breathless from play. Sheep and goats wandered freely, while oxen plodded along the riverbank in search of grass. The smell of roast mutton drifted from one cookfire, and at another he saw a boar turning on a wooden spit.”
To me, this portrait cannot help but evoke the Dothraki khalasar on the great grass sea, an entire world, a people and their society and culture laid out before us. And once again, the impulse to either turn the wildlings into Orcs or Noble Savages (or in the case of the Warcraft series, noble savage orcs…) is avoided: the wildlings are genuinely technologically outmatched by the people who live south of the Wall, fighting with fire-hardened wood against steel-shod pikes, guarding themselves with boiled leather as opposed to the steel chain and plate of southron knights. On the other hand, none of that diminishes the signs of culture and art, the rituals of childhood, or the skill and craft by which these people manage their survival.
Continuing this complex balancing act, the humanity of the wildlings is counterposed to their very real threat to the humanity of people living south of the Wall. As Jon realizes watching this scene, the women of the camp are crafting “arrows for my brothers, Jon thought. Arrows for my father’s folk, for the people of Winterfell and Deepwood Motte and the Last Hearth. Arrows for the north.” GRRM has set up a neat dilemma, that the liberation (and indeed, their very survival) of thousands of people will come at the cost of the deaths of thousands of other people, putting the reader (and eventually Jon Snow) in the impossible positition of choosing between the two.
As with the Dothraki khalasar, however, there is more to learn from the camp than just the material like of the Free Folk. In the structure and organization fo the camp, Jon begins to see an ideology at work:
Jon had never seen so many wildlings. He wondered if anyone ever had. The camp goes on forever, he reflected, but it’s more a hundred camps than one, and each more vulnerable than the last. Stretched out over long leagues, the wildlings had no defenses to speak of, no pits nor sharpened stakes, only small groups of outriders patrolling their perimeters. Each group or clan or village had simply stopped where they wanted, as soon as they saw others stopping or found a likely spot. The free folk. If his brothers were to catch them in such disarray, many of them would pay for that freedom with their life’s blood. They had numbers, but the Night’s Watch had discipline, and in battle discipline beats numbers nine times of every ten, his father had once told him.
One of my pet peeves about the way that Hollywood handles historical narratives is the way in which they try to reduce real events into a simple Freedom vs. Evil narrative, whether we’re talking about the ridiculous equation of Sparta with freedom in 300 or the spurious re-establishment of the Roman Republic at the end of Gladiator or so many adaptations of Robin Hood that try to throw in a pro-democracy message into a profoundly medieval story. As I previously commented on with regards to Tyrion and the mountain clansmen, one of the areas where I feel that GRRM really stands head and above most genre writers is the way that he taps into the premodern mindset’s ambivalence toward the ideal of freedom – remember, it wasn’t until the very end of the 18th century that the term “democracy” would be used in anything but perjorative terms.
So it makes sense that a highborn lordling (albeit one born on the wrong side of the sheets) like Jon Snow would look at the wildlings’ freedom and see not the glorious expression of the human spirit, but disorder and weakness. And when you look at the way that the clannishness and independence of the Free Folk has left them exposed to attack, it’s hard to disagree with him. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the gap between the myth of the Minutemen of the American Revolution as citizen-soldiers who heroicly stood up to the “hireling” British soldiers and the messier reality that, after noted success at the battles of Concord and Bunker Hill, they frequently broke and ran in battle due to their lack of training and discipline in the New York and New Jersey campaigns.
We all would like to believe that a scrappy underdog fighting for their freedom against the efficient war machine of a tyrant would always win out, but history tells us that the reality is always more complicated. As Terry Pratchett once put it “One of the things forgotten about the human spirit is that while it is, in the right conditions, noble and brave and wonderful, it is also, when you get right down to it, only human.”
Freedom vs. Duty
And once this theme of freedom is introduced, it flows outward and begins to infuse into everything else in the chapter. For Jon Snow, freedom is a complicated thing – in addition to the question of what he thinks of the wildlings’ culture, this chapter marks the first time that Jon is on his own away from the rest of the Night’s Watch since the second Jon chapter of AGOT. In a real sense, Jon is free to choose whether he’s going to remain true to his mission or go over to the enemy, whether he’s going to choose freedom or duty. And this gives a particular edge to his first (of many) debates with Ygritte about the nature of freedom:
The girl laughed scornfully…”D’ya think you’re the first crow ever flew down off the Wall? In your hearts you all want to fly free.”
“And when I’m free,” he said slowly, “will I be free to go?”
“Sure you will.” She had a warm smile, despite her crooked teeth. “And we’ll be free to kill you. It’s dangerous being free, but most come to like the taste o’ it.” She put her gloved hand on his leg, just above the knee. “You’ll see.”
I will, thought Jon. I will see, and hear, and learn, and when I have I will carry the word back to the Wall. The wildlings had taken him for an oathbreaker, but in his heart he was still a man of the Night’s Watch, doing the last duty that Qhorin Halfhand had laid on him. Before I killed him.
In this debate, as indeed she will be in all future arguments, Ygritte takes the pro-freedom side. Here, Ygritte’s argument is that Mance’s betrayal is part of a pattern, almost a tradition, of betrayal of the Night’s Watch; that the Night’s Watch’s oath of celibacy is so unnatural that men will naturally revolt to regain their freedom. (She’s also not so subtle about equating freedom with sexual liberty; “like the taste o’ it” would be perfectly clear to anyone who isn’t Jon Snow.)
Despite the fact that Jon wants to “play the part of turncloak, and find whatever it was that the wildlings had been seeking in the bleak cold wilderness of the Frostfangs,” he can’t help himself from pushing back on Ygritte’s claims, because “in his heart he was still a man of the Night’s Watch.” Here, Jon’s counter-argument, and Ygritte’s response, points to the double-edged nature of the wildling’s freedom: Jon’s is “free” to leave, but the wildlings are “free to kill you.” While Ygritte admits that “it’s dangerous being free,” the bigger question is whether Wildling Jon is truly free, or whether the wildlings represent only a different kind of captivity from the Night’s Watch, a code no less brutal or rigidly demanding than the Watch’s oath.
At the same time, Jon’s commitment to duty reminds us of the genre that GRRM is working within in this chapter: we’re nowhere near the standard Hero’s Journey of the fantasy genre, this is instead an undercover agent narrative that’s far more in the wheelhouse of spy stories or cop stories.
Who Is Mance Rayder?
The undercover agent narrative fully takes over from the anthropological narrative when Jon Snow is brought to meet with Mance Rayder, since it’s ultimately Mance who Jon has to convince if his mission is going to succeed or he’s to survive at all. To do that, Jon has to come to an understanding of the man in question, and that turns out to be more difficult than he first anticipated, because everything about Mance Rayder is an elaborate double-misdirection…
There was no doubting which tent was the king’s. It was thrice the size of the next largest he’d seen, and he could hear music drifting from within. Like many of the lesser tents it was made of sewn hides with the fur still on, but Mance Rayder’s hides were the shaggy white pelts of snow bears. The peaked roof was crowned with a huge set of antlers from one of the giant elks that had once roamed freely throughout the Seven Kingdoms, in the times of the First Men…
…right down to the tent. The size, the ostentation of the polar bear skin walls and the giant elk antlers on top, all of these details suggest a far more conventional kind of King-Beyond-the-Wall. Yet underneath this surface image, we see the real man in the “music drifting from within.” In the gap between the two we can see a political strategy that Mance Rayder has carefully constructed: despite being a relative latecomer to his own society, he understands it enough to play into the history and mythology of the Kings-Beyond-the-Wall so that he can cast his reputation ahead of him like a menacing shadow. At the same time, he’s also hiding in that shadow, playing his lute in secrecy.
We can see the success of this strategy when our protagonist comes into the tent. Feeling “utterly alone” in this foreign environment where “none of whom paid him any mind,”Jon Snow unconsciously reverts to prejudice and starts looking for Mance Rayder based on what his expectations of what Mance should look like:
Jon felt utterly alone as he stood there in his blacks, awaiting the pleasure of the turncloak who called himself King-beyond-the-Wall. When his eyes had adjusted to the smoky red gloom, he saw six people, none of whom paid him any mind. A dark young man and a pretty blonde woman were sharing a horn of mead. A pregnant woman stood over a brazier cooking a brace of hens, while a grey-haired man in a tattered cloak of black and red sat crosslegged on a pillow, playing a lute and singing…
Beside the brazier, a short but immensely broad man sat on a stool, eating a hen off a skewer. Hot grease was running down his chin and into his snow-white beard, but he smiled happily all the same. Thick gold bands graven with runes bound his massive arms, and he wore a heavy shirt of black ringmail that could only have come from a dead ranger. A few feet away, a taller, leaner man in a leather shirt sewn with bronze scales stood frowning over a map, a two-handed greatsword slung across his back in a leather sheath. He was straight as a spear, all long wiry muscle, clean-shaved, bald, with a strong straight nose and deepset grey eyes. He might even have been comely if he’d had ears, but he had lost both along the way…Both the white-bearded man and the bald one were warriors, that was plain to Jon at a glance. These two are more dangerous than Rattleshirt by far. He wondered which was Mance Rayder.
There’s a sly bit of meta-commentary in GRRM’s descriptions of Styr and Tormund, both whom absolutely fall into the stereotype of the Fantasy Barbarian: Tormund is practically a Blizzard dwarf, complete with “thick gold bands graven with runes bound his massive arms” and (as we’ll see more shortly) a hearty appetite for life’s pleasures. Styr, on the other hand is all business, streamlined of excess flesh, hair, and ears; his martial focus emphasized by his focus on the map and the way he rocks the “two-handed greatsword slung across his back,” which is as impressive in genre fiction as it is impractical in real life. Swayed by this cliché (just like the first-time reader), Jon gets off to an embarassing start by kneeling to the wrong man:
“Your Grace?” The earless man looked at the big white-bearded one. “You see. He takes me for a king.”
The bearded man laughed so hard he sprayed bits of chicken everywhere…
The singer rose to his feet. “I’m Mance Rayder,” he said as he put aside the lute. “And you are Ned Stark’s bastard, the Snow of Winterfell…Qhorin was my enemy. But also my brother, once. So…shall I thank you for killing him, Jon Snow, or curse you?”
…The King-beyond-the-Wall looked nothing like a king, nor even much a wildling. He was of middling height, slender, sharp-faced, with shrewd brown eyes and long brown hair that had gone mostly to grey. There was no crown on his head, no gold rings on his arms, no jewels at his throat, not even a gleam of silver. He wore wool and leather, and his only garment of note was his ragged black wool cloak, its long tears patched with faded red silk.
This is where I think much of the ASOIAF fandom has got it wrong when it comes to Mance Rayder: Jon’s looking for a Mighty Barbarian Warrior, much of the fandom has this mental image of him as some debonair rogue (at least according to all the fan-casting of Dominic West, James Purefoy, Mads Mikkleson, or the like), but Mance is actually completely ordinary in his appearance. His physical description as a man of “middling height, slender, sharp-faced, with shrewd brown eyes and long brown hair that had gone mostly to grey,” could easily be a description of Davos Seaworth; and his clothing is deliberately ordinary, with “no crown on his head, no gold rings on his arms, no jewels at his throat, not even a gleam of silver.” In other words, this is not what Mance looks like:
In fact, I would argue that Mance’s ordinary appearance, in contrast to his larger-than-life reputation, is key to his success. While everyone is looking for the mythical warlord, no one’s taking any notice of the ordinary-looking bard; that’s how he’s able to sneak over the Wall and into Winterfell without being caught; that’s how he beat the hell out of the toughest warriors of the Free Folk to get them to join his army, because people don’t look at a man of “middling height, slender” and think he might be a master swordsman.
Side-Note: Introducing Tormund
Before we move further into the plot, I want to spare a few words for Tormund Giantsbane, one of the greatest teriary characters in all of ASOIAF. Often, GRRM’s comedic relief characters just hang around in the background until it’s time to quip; Tormund is the rare one who’s also plot relevant:
The bearded man laughed so hard he sprayed bits of chicken everywhere. He rubbed the grease from his mouth with the back of a huge hand. “A blind boy, must be. Who ever heard of a king without ears? Why, his crown would fall straight down to his neck! Har!” He grinned at Jon, wiping his fingers clean on his breeches. “Close your beak, crow. Spin yourself around, might be you’d find who you’re looking for.”
…Mance Rayder laughed. “As you wish. Jon Snow, before you stands Tormund Giantsbane, Tall-talker, Horn-blower, and Breaker of Ice. And here also Tormund Thunderfist, Husband to Bears, the Mead-King of Ruddy Hall, Speaker to Gods and Father of Hosts.”
I’ll get into this more in future Jon chapters where we get more of his back-story, but even in this brief introduction, Tormund is already a larger-than-life persona. From his list of titles, we start to get a sense of what he’s about: “Giantsbane” and “Husband to Bears” are part of his personal legend; “Mead-King of Ruddy Hall,” “Tall-Talker,” and “Father of Hosts” speak both to his robust enjoyment of life’s pleasures and the many children that came along as a result, and his social position as one of the petty kings of the wildlings, with his own named holdfast (incidentally another sign that the custom of equality among the wildlings isn’t as universal as Ygritte thinks); “Thunderfist” is a testament to the physical strength without which he couldn’t possibly have gained that rank in society.
The trickier ones for me are “Horn-blower,” “Breaker of Ice,” and “Speaker to Gods” – the first, to me, suggests that Tormund was part of Mance’s scheme to use the Horn of Joramun, but I have no idea what the second one refers to, and the third one to me doesn’t seem to scan with the rest of the customs and traditions of the Old Gods, and Tormund has never shown any signs of being a greenseer or the like. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Now we come to the meat of Jon’s undercover agent story, his interrogation at Mance’s hands. This moment is absolutely critical – if Mance “take[s] one look a’ you and know[s] you’re false,” as Rattleshirt predicts, Jon’s mission fails at the first hurdle and Jon himself is going to die horribly, as both a “crow” and a spy. On the other hand, if Jon succeeds, not only will his bonafides as a deserter be confirmed, but he has a chance of being included in Mance’s inner circle. Which means that the conversation that follows has many layers: at the same time as Jon is trying to ingratiate himself with Mance Rayder, he’s also trying to get as much information as he can from Mance without giving up any (while Mance is trying to do the same):
“Where did you come from?”
“Winterfell,” he said, “by way of Castle Black.”
“And what brings you up the Milkwater, so far from the fires of home…was it only the five of you? Or are more of your brother skulking about?”
“We were four and the Halfhand. Qhorin was worth twenty common men.”
The King-beyond-the-Wall smiled at that. “Some thought so. Still…a boy from Castle Black with rangers from the Shadow Tower? How did that come to be?”
Jon had his lie all ready. “The Lord Commander sent me to the Halfhand for seasoning, so he took me on his ranging.”
Styr the Magnar frowned at that. “Ranging, you call it . . . why would crows come ranging up the Skirling Pass?”
What I love about this scene is that it’s a rare scene where both Jon Snow and his antagonists are using their wits (which is often something that fantasy protagonists aren’t often allowed to do) in opposing but parallel directions: Jon’s put some thought into his cover story, blending the truth with the lies in order to produce a plausible explanation for both his presence and Qhorin’s without giving away either the Great Ranging. At the same time, Mance and Styr have clearly spent years of their lives observing their enemies, and they know the significance of different towers on the same ranging, and they’re savvy enough to know that they ought to be suspicious that even a small ranging party got close to their position.
Once again, Jon has to come up with an answer to explain why his ranging party ended up where it did without spilling what the Watch knows about Mance’s occult investigations, and once again he’s put some thought into it (a side of Jon Snow we don’t often get in the TV show, especially in the last couple seasons) and provides an explanation that accords with the evidence to provide a plausible reason why the Night’s Watch might be out looking:
“The villages were deserted,” Jon said, truthfully. “It was as if all the free folk had vanished.”
“Vanished, aye,” said Mance Rayder. “And not just the free folk. Who told you where we were, Jon Snow?”
Tormund snorted. “It were Craster, or I’m a blushing maid. I told you, Mance, that creature needs to be shorter by a head.”
The king gave the older man an irritated look. “Tormund, some day try thinking before you speak. I know it was Craster. I asked Jon to see if he would tell it true.”
“Har.” Tormund spat. “Well, I stepped in that!” He grinned at Jon. “See, lad, that’s why he’s king and I’m not. I can outdrink, outfight, and outsing him, and my member’s thrice the size o’ his, but Mance has cunning. He was raised a crow, you know, and the crow’s a tricksy bird.”
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, so let’s break it down. First, we can see Mance is an effective interrogator, not just asking questions for the sake of the answer, but laying verbal traps to figure out what the other side knows and to try to uncover what their tells are, so that you can accurately evaluate their answers going forward. Second, as I’ve talked about above, we also see “why he’s king and I’m not” – Tormund might better fulfill the standard tropes of a fantasy king, but Mance is the reality because he’s got the mind of a politician.
Third, and this deserves its own paragraph for the implications alone, there’s a subtle hint that Mance knows a lot more about the metaphysical meta-plot than he lets on. When Mance says “vanished, aye…and not just the free folk,” to me this suggests that he knows about Waymar Royce’s ranging party and thus has been keeping pretty close tabs on the White Walkers.
At this point, the interrogation has to be considered a draw – neither Jon nor Mance have given much away – and the conversation shifts from an interrogation to an attempted recruitment where each tries to sell the other on their bonafides. Mance starts first, using an interesting technique:
“I knew your face. I’ve seen it before. Twice.”
It made no sense at first, but as Jon turned it over in his mind, dawn broke. “When you were a brother of the Watch …”
“Very good! Yes, that was the first time. You were just a boy, and I was all in black, one of a dozen riding escort to old Lord Commander Qorgyle when he came down to see your father at Winterfell. I was walking the wall around the yard when I came on you and your brother Robb. It had snowed the night before, and the two of you had built a great mountain above the gate and were waiting for someone likely to pass underneath.”
“I remember,” said Jon with a startled laugh. A young black brother on the wallwalk, yes…”You swore not to tell.”
This appeal to a past relationship – one founded on a shared secret of youthful naughtiness, no less – I take as an attempt by Mance to shift Jon’s mindset to before he joined the Night’s Watch and to think of Mance as a friend rather than an enemy, and to counter-balance Jon’s negative impression of Mance as an oath-breaker. At the same time, this quote also gives us a useful bit of information about Mance’s backstory – while we know that he was raised by the Night’s Watch and then defected to the wildlings, this story lets us know that Mance was still a loyal brother as late as 288 AC because the WOIAF app tells us that’s when Lord Commander Qorgyle died and Jeor Mormont was elected as his replacement. Which means that at most, Mance has been with the wildlings for ten years, which makes his rise to power all the more impressive. (It also creates something of a continuity error with Mance’s backstory – if Mance was a “young black brother” only 10-12 years ago, how is it that he now has “brown hair that had gone mostly to grey”?)
Where things get really over-the-top is when Mance reveals the second time that he’s run into Jon Snow:
“…but you said you saw me twice. When was the other time?”
“When King Robert came to Winterfell to make your father Hand,” the King-beyond-the-Wall said lightly…”When your father learned the king was coming, he sent word to his brother Benjen on the Wall, so he might come down for the feast. There is more commerce between the black brothers and the free folk than you know, and soon enough word came to my ears as well. It was too choice a chance to resist. Your uncle did not know me by sight, so I had no fear from that quarter, and I did not think your father was like to remember a young crow he’d met briefly years before. I wanted to see this Robert with my own eyes, king to king, and get the measure of your uncle Benjen as well. He was First Ranger by then, and the bane of all my people. So I saddled my fleetest horse, and rode.”
“…The Wall can stop an army, but not a man alone. I took a lute and a bag of silver, scaled the ice near Long Barrow, walked a few leagues south of the New Gift, and bought a horse. All in all I made much better time than Robert, who was traveling with a ponderous great wheelhouse to keep his queen in comfort. A day south of Winterfell I came up on him and fell in with his company. Freeriders and hedge knights are always attaching themselves to royal processions, in hopes of finding service with the king, and my lute gained me easy acceptance.” He laughed. “I know every bawdy song that’s ever been made, north or south of the Wall. So there you are. The night your father feasted Robert, I sat in the back of his hall on a bench with the other freeriders, listening to Orland of Oldtown play the high harp and sing of dead kings beneath the sea. I betook of your lord father’s meat and mead, had a look at Kingslayer and Imp . . . and made passing note of Lord Eddard’s children and the wolf pups that ran at their heels.”
“Bael the Bard…”
“Would that I were.”
Mance Rayder’s solo mission over the Wall and into Winterfell – reminiscent of the legend of Robin Hood – is so ostentatious and borderline-unbelievable that it’s extremely difficult not to be impressed, and I think that’s calculated to make Jon buy into the legend of Mance Rayder. As a reader, I remember the first time I read this chapter that I was very skeptical that Mance was the “singer…playing the high harp and reciting a ballad” at the feast back in Jon I of AGOT; on the other hand, this is a case of a very smooth retcon, since GRRM had written in a singer at the feast and could make that singer be anyone he wanted. As a re-reader, I have to wonder if GRRM came up with the idea of Mance’s infiltration of Winterfell in ADWD here, or whether Ygritte’s story was the catalyst, or whether it was in his head the whole time.
In attempting to charm Jon Snow, Mance has also revealed a potential weakness: he’s a romantic in the literary sense, drawn to wildling culture by its closeness to nature and its veneration of the individual at war with authority south of the Wall. Partly, this gives Jon a window into Mance’s decision-making process and potentially predict his actions; but it’s also useful in this moment because Mance is more likely to accept stories about other people that fit in with his worldview.
And if Jon hasn’t realized it yet, I think he begins to grasp the man’s character when he successfully deflects Mance’s inquiries about himself:
“So tell me truly, Jon Snow. Are you a craven who turned your cloak from fear, or is there another reason that brings you to my tent?”
“…Tell me why you turned your cloak and I’ll tell you why I turned mine.”
Mance Rayder smiled, as Jon had hoped he would. The king was plainly a man who liked the sound of his own voice. “You will have heard stories of my desertion, I have no doubt.”
“Some say it was for a crown. Some say for a woman. Others that you had the wildling blood.”
“The wildling blood is the blood of the First Men, the same blood that flows in the veins of the Starks. As to a crown, do you see one…the Halfhand was carved of oak, but I am made of flesh, and I have a great fondness for the charms of women..which makes me no different from three-quarters of the Watch.”
Again, I really enjoy the return of the perceptive Jon Snow, who makes a critical read of Mance’s character and gets him to give more information without reciprocity. The process of elimination here is quite revealing: Jon learns that Mance is not an ambitious man (and thus not likely to respect ambition as a reason for Jon’s desertion), but that his “great fondness for the charms of women” (which might make him accept Ygritte’s interest in Jon as a reason) isn’t the reason either. Finally, in dismissing his wildling heritage as a reason for his desertion (which I think might be protesting a bit too much), Mance subtly is pushing Jon to think of him as distant kinfolk, to break down the distance between the wildlings and the people of the North.
When we get the true reason for Mance Rayder’s desertion, the story is as Romantic as one might expect and thus feels genuine. However, Mance is far too intelligent to give up this information without reason, and it makes me think that this admission was designed by Mance (familiar as he would be with the psychology of Night’s Watchmen) to appeal to the grievances common to all Night’s Watchmen and bring them over to his side:
“…it was for this.”
“The black wool cloak of a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch,” said the King-beyond-the-Wall. “One day on a ranging we brought down a fine big elk. We were skinning it when the smell of blood drew a shadow-cat out of its lair. I drove it off, but not before it shredded my cloak to ribbons. Do you see? Here, here, and here?” He chuckled. “It shredded my arm and back as well, and I bled worse than the elk. My brothers feared I might die before they got me back to Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower, so they carried me to a wildling village where we knew an old wisewoman did some healing. She was dead, as it happened, but her daughter saw to me. Cleaned my wounds, sewed me up, and fed me porridge and potions until I was strong enough to ride again. And she sewed up the rents in my cloak as well, with some scarlet silk from Asshai that her grandmother had pulled from the wreck of a cog washed up on the Frozen Shore. It was the greatest treasure she had, and her gift to me.” He swept the cloak back over his shoulders. “But at the Shadow Tower, I was given a new wool cloak from stores, black and black, and trimmed with black, to go with my black breeches and black boots, my black doublet and black mail. The new cloak had no frays nor rips nor tears…and most of all, no red. The men of the Night’s Watch dressed in black, Ser Denys Mallister reminded me sternly, as if I had forgotten. My old cloak was fit for burning now, he said.
“I left the next morning…for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.”
This story is fascinating for several reasons: for one thing, it further complicate the relationship between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch; we knew from Craster that there are some wildlings who work with both sides, but this shows us that it goes beyond one quisling, and suggests a more nuanced situation where wildlings balance their independence against the benefits of collaborating with the Night’s Watch. For another, the wildlings’ level of material development has to be revised if they have a fairly regular practice of salvaging from ships wrecked by fierce storms.
But most importantly, it shows the complicated nature of Mance’s desertion – for all that he says that the “charms of women” wasn’t the reason, his relationship with the wildling woman who saved his life and freely gave her most valuable possession to him, all in exchange for a kiss, clearly profoundly affected him. (Indeed, the woman in question may indeed be his wife Dalla.) But in a larger sense, what drove Mance to leave the Night’s Watch was nothing less than a revolt against military discipline: the insistence on uniformity and denial of autonomy, Denys Mallister’s bigotry and ignorance, but in a larger sense, the Night Watch’s inability to value the individual meaning of the wildling woman’s red silk.
And all of this is running through Jon Snow’s head when he’s finally pressed to make his case for why he violently deserted the Night’s Watch:
“And you, Jon Snow?”
“You say you were at Winterfell, the night my father feasted King Robert…then you sall us all…and did you see where I was eated, Mance?” He leaned forwards. “Did you see where they put the bastard?”
This answer is Jon Snow at his cunning best. As the reader, we know it’s complete bullshit, that his bastardy was the reason he joined rather than left, and that he’s found in the Night’s Watch a sense of belonging he’s never had before. But it’s an answer that Mance Rayder would believe – it fits in with Mance’s surveillance at Winterfell, so it’s a reason that he can verify; and by positioning himself as a victim of the southron caste system, Jon makes his story fit Mance’s romantic inclinations. Just as Mance designed his narrative to what a Night’s Watchman might feel, Jon has designed his narrative to appeal to someone who thinks he knows what being a bastard is like.
And so Jon Snow is accepted by
the mafia Free Folk.
In the past I’ve written about Alaric and Odoacer as examples of how the fall of Rome was perhaps not as dramatic as Renaissance historians decrying the loss of the classical world made it out to be. And I think we can see from this chapter how they work as historical parallels for Mance Rayder – like these men, Mance is a “barbarian” who spent much of his life in the military service of the empire, keeping its borders safe from people like him, and who would bring the learning he received as a part of the imperial military to bear on its overthrow.
However, in so far as Jon I is the story of Jon Snow infiltrating the wildlings, the historical parallel here is to the underrated Roman general Quintus Sertorius. One of Gaius Marius’ chief subordinates during the Cimbrian Wars (which was the first time that Rome ever fought the Germans), Sertorius had an unusual gift for languages which stood him in good stead both as a Roman officer and later as a seperatist rebel against the tyrant Sulla. As Plutarch writes:
“Sertorius offered his service to go as a spy, and bring an account of the enemy. For this purpose he took a Gaulish habit, and having learned as much of the language as might suffice for common address, he mingled with the barbarians. When he has seen and heard enough to let him into the measures they were taking, he returned to Marius, who honored him with the established rewards of valour.”
Sertorius’ intelligence gave Gaius Marius the advance warning of where and when the Cimbri and Teutones tribes were going to invade Italy, allowing Marius to complete his famous reforms of the Roman legions and select the perfect defensive position at Aquae Sextiae, on a well-fortified hilltop right on the Teutonic line of march. At Aquae Sextiae in 102 BCE, Marius’ army of 40,000 faced down an army of 120,000 Teutons and routed them completely, killing 90,000 men and capturing 20,000, losing less than a thousand Romans in the process. The next year, Gaius Marius met the Cimbri at Vercellae, winning another incredibly lopsided victory (210,000 Cimbri against 50,000 Romans, with 140,000 Cimbri killed and 60,000 captured at the cost of 1,000 Roman lives) and ending the Cimbrian War in a stroke.
Sertorius’ part in this historic victory made his political career and a devoted follower of Gaius Martius’ populares faction…but that’s a story for another time.
Given the nature of the chapter, hypothetical alternate paths naturally center on the fateful meeting between Jon and Mance. To my mind, there are two main possibilities:
- Jon dies? If Jon was less persuasive and ended up the way Rattleshirt thought he would, the course of the entire series (and indeed, Westerosi history) changes dramatically. Without Jon’s warning of the southern attack, it’s quite likely that Castle Black would have fallen just a few days before Stannis could arrive, and a hundred thousand wildlings would have passed through the Wall as free folk behind a conquering king. This changes the Northern plot entirely: with Roose Bolton still down in the Riverlands and Winterfell sacked, there’s no one to organize any Northern resistance to the wildlings (Wyman Manderly will certainly mount a defense of White Harbor’s lands, but it’s probably going to be every House for itself). If the wildlings can get themselves more horses and better weapons, and get themselves behind some strong walls (like Winterfell), they’re going to be very hard (but not impossible) to dislodge.
- Then again, if the Wall falls and Jon dies without anyone to resurrect him, it’s possible all of this is a meaningless prelude to the omnicide of Westeros at the hands of the White Walkers…
- Jon really defects? This changes things in a profound, but somewhat more subtle way. With Jon’s active assistance, the Wall certainly falls. But the question becomes how will Jon try to mediate between the wildlings and the North, because there’s no way he’s going to let the North be pillaged and sacked without trying to persuade Mance that he should try a gentler and better path. Who knows if he would have succeeded and if the North (or Stannis) would be willing to ally with an independent Free Folk, but if he failed, that might well have set him on a course of violent confrontation with the Mance…
Book vs. Show:
After the botch that was Season 2, Jon’s Season 3 plot was a significant improvement, if for no other reason than Jon got to be a more active and competent protagonist as opposed to the unrelenting bumbler of the previous season.
And there was a lot to like about the wildling camp as well – the practical and CGI work on the giants has always been a high point of the special effects on Game of Thrones, and you really get a sense of the awe that Jon feels when he sees a being of legend before him. Moreover, Kristofer Hivju as Tormund Giantsbane is an absolute delight, managing to capture both Mance’s comedic and warrior sides.
Where I think an opportunity was missed is twofold. Ciaran Hinds is a great actor and lends Mance Rayder an essential dignity, but I feel the showrunners missed the point entirely by ditching Mance’s bardic disguise and having Hinds play Mance as a gruff warlord who’s not that different from Tormund. Because of the excision of Mance’s bardic disguise and his backstory for deserting the Night’s Watch, we also get an important character change for Jon Snow. Rather than deserting because of his bastard status, Jon says “I want to fight for the side that fights for the living.” Needless to say, this is far less grounded in his fundamental character and is far less believable.
And that gets me to the bigger problem with how HBO’s Game of Thrones portrayed the wildlings: there’s not enough variation in their appearance, so the wildlings become an undifferentiated mass of people in camoflage winter gear, contributing to the othering that GRRM was trying to avoid. Mance talks about the different tribes, but we almost never see them, and when we do see the Thenns, they’re so one-dimensionally evil that they might as well be the Uruk-hai. Variation and diversity is the key to portraying the wildlings in the necessary sympathetic light so that Jon feels genuinely torn when he has to betray them later, and that really never happens.