It was easy to lose your way beyond the Wall. Jon did not know that he could tell honor from shame anymore, or right from wrong. Father forgive me.
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.
While less momentous for the over-arching plot of ASOIAF than last chapter, Jon II nevertheless does an excellent job at taking the undercover-agent tension from Jon I and turning the knob up to 11, right up to the breaking point before setting up Jon’s mission over the Wall and the new dilemma this presents. At the same time, this chapter also works within the larger series as a leitmotif, reminding us of the vital importance of what happened at the Fist of the First Men after fourteen chapters where the POVs have no idea of the true threat bearing down on the world of the living.
Secret Agent Man
Throughout this chapter, Jon’s spying is a constant drumbeat in his head, the constant refrain in all of his inner monologues, which produces a strange double-consciousness: he’s got to be present in the moment in order to make his performance as a deserter from the Night’s Watch believable, but he’s also constantly thinking instrumentally about everyone around him, about what information he can get out of them, or how much of a threat they pose either to himself and his mission or to the Wall and the society living behind its protection. We see this very clearly at the beginning of the chapter, when Jon sees the march of the giants:
“Jon took the horse in hand and held him still, so he could count the giants emerging from the blowing snow and pale mists that swirled along the Milkwater. He was well beyond fifty when Tormund said something and he lost the count. There must be hundreds. No matter how many went past, they just seemed to keep coming.”
On one level, Jon Snow is experiencing a profound moment of awe, seeing something that no-one south of the Wall has witnessed in thousands of years, and in the process learning an enormous amount about wildling culture (more on this in a bit). But on another level, Jon is also a spy observing the numbers and disposition of the enemy’s forces so that he can give a report to his superiors.
Similarly, when Jon is chatting with Tormund Giantsbane, on the one hand he’s genuinely enjoying this larger-than-life personality (more on that later), but he’s also probing for information about his original mission into the Frostfangs:
“So how did you come by your other names?” Jon asked. “Mance called you the Horn-Blower, didn’t he? Mead-king of Ruddy Hall, Husband to Bears, Father to Hosts?” It was the horn blowing he particularly wanted to hear about, but he dared not ask too plainly. And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth. Is that where they had come from, them and their mammoths? Had Mance Rayder found the Horn of Joramun, and given it to Tormund Thunderfist to blow?
In the face of the very physical reality of the giants, Jon has no choice other than to become a believer in Qhorin Halfhand’s theory that “the wildlings had gone up into the bleak and barren Frostfangs in search of some weapon, some power, some fell sorcery with which to break the Wall,” and is loyally attempting to follow through with their former mission. Unfortunately for Jon, despite being accepted as a turncoat by Mance, the wildlings aren’t stupid enough to go blabbing about secrets to a recent convert: “if they had found any such, no one was boasting of it openly, or showing it to Jon.”
As an undercover agent, Jon faces a simultaneous practical and ideological problem. Practically, despite having turned his cloak in obedience to “Qhorin Halfhand’s command [to] “Ride with them, eat with them, fight with them,” the ranger had told him, the night before he died. And watch,” Jon still isn’t close enough to the center of power to gain access: “all his watching had learned him little…Nor had Mance Rayder confided any of his plans or strategies. Since that first night, he had hardly seen the man save at a distance.” As we’ll see throughout this chapter, Jon has to engage in a carefully-measured dance, where adopting wildling culture or offering the Night Watch’s secrets – trading sacrificial secrets for more vital secrets of the enemy’s being the stock-in-trade of the double agent – is necessary to gain the trust of the wildling host and get closer to the truth of Mance’s intentions.
At the same time, Jon faces an ideological crisis of divided loyalties, another common phenomenon of long-time undercover agents. In a somewhat obvious visual metaphor, GRRM describes how Jon’s “new cloak hang[s] heavy from his shoulders.” This rude garment, “made of unwashed sheepskins, worn fleece side in,” works as a nice illustration of the practical if unrefined culture of people long accustomed to adapting to an unforgiving climate and less than concerned with the niceties of fashion. But while Jon makes use of his new cloak’s material advantages, as “it kept the snow off well enough, and at night it was good and warm,” he maintains his true loyalties by somewhat unwisely keeping “his black cloak as well, folded up beneath his saddle,” as if trying to prove to an unseen audience that he hasn’t truly abandoned he Night’s Watch.
Jon’s greater problem is in moving beyond mere appearances to undertaking actions that, however necessary to maintaining his cover, come closer to a true betrayal of his oath. When it comes to confirming how many Night’s Watchmen were at the Fist, the name of the man who led them, or even a simple lie about him and Ygritte being lovers, Jon finds himself tormented by the contradictions between necessity and honor:
You must not balk, whatever is asked of you, Qhorin had told him…Whatever is asked, the halfhand said. So why do I feel so craven?
…This is too hard, Jon thought in despair. How do I play the turncloak without becoming one? Qhorin had not told him that. But the second step is always easier than the first.
…It was easy to lose your way beyond the Wall. Jon did not know that he could tell honor from shame anymore, or right from wrong. Father forgive me.
These questions – how do you remain loyal to a state or institution while pretending to betray it? How far can you go in proving your bona fides before you drift over into becoming an active enemy of the state, and how much do you have to get in intelligence to justify your actions? How far can one compromise one’s own personal integrity in service to a higher purpose before you lose your ideals and become a mere gun for hire? – are the central dilemmas of a spy, and Jon doesn’t even have the resources of official training (let alone the consolations of official sanction and the promise of extraction) to steady him.
And if those questions are difficult to answer, in this chapter Jon has to wrestle with an even more impossible task: if it was necessary for the ultimate sake of his mission, could he graduate from spy to assassin?
I will kill him if I must. The prospect gave Jon no joy; there would be no honor in such a killing, and it would mean his own death as well. Yet he could not let the wildlings breach the Wall, to threaten Winterfell and the north, the barrowlands and the Rills, White Harbor and the Stony Shore, even the Neck. For eight thousand years the men of House Stark had lived and died to protect their people against such ravagers and reavers…and bastard-born or no, the same blood ran in his veins. Bran and Rickon are still at Winterfell besides. Maester Luwin, Ser Rodrik, Old Nan, Farlen the kennelmaster, Mikken at his forge and Gage by his…everyone I ever knew, everyone I ever loved. If Jon must slay a man he half admired and almost liked to save them from the mercies of Rattleshirt and Harma Dogshead and the earless Magnar of Thenn, that was what he meant to do. Still, he prayed his father’s gods might spare him that bleak task.
Just as when Jon grits his teeth and divulges as little intelligence as he can in order to save his own skin, and then buys into the lie that he has, in fact, broken his vows by sleeping with Ygritte (much more on this later), Jon ultimately manages to get past his youthful idealism. While Qhorin Halfhand would applaud his willingness to embrace self-sacrifice in the name of the Watch, what’s interesting is that what gets Jon over his inhibits is his Stark blood, his family and home (even though after the fall of Winterfell they exist more in the abstract than as reality). In other words, everything that Maester Aemon and Jeor Mormont said he had to leave behind in order to become a true Night’s Watchman are what inspire Jon to the ne plus ultra of devotion. Perhaps the leadership of the Watch are wrong about what inspires devotion to the realms of men?
Observations on Wildling Culture
At the same time that Jon is acting as a spy, he’s also engaged in a process of cultural observation and assimilation that is quite similar to Dany’s AGOT arc, although in this case his mission adds a further complication. While his new status as a turncloak allows him to move more freely among the wildlings than he could before, as he gets deeper into wildling culture, his sympathies begin to shift in their favor as they cease to become the faceless Other and are revealed as complicated, cultured people.
This process of revelation begins, appropriately enough for this POV character, with a realization that the stories that the people of the North tell of their enemies to the North, while preserving the memory of ancient enemies that the maesters say don’t exist, do so in a distorted form:
In Old Nan’s stories, giants were outsized men who lived in colossal castles, fought with huge swords, and walked about in boots a boy could hide in. These were something else, more bearlike than human, and as wooly as the mammoths they rode. Seated, it was hard to say how big they truly were. Ten feet tall maybe, or twelve, Jon thought. Maybe fourteen, but no taller. Their sloping chests might have passed for those of men, but their arms hung down too far, and their lower torsos looked half again as wide as their upper..
They’re not wearing skins, Jon realized. That’s hair. Shaggy pelts covered their bodies, thick below the waist, sparser above. The stink that came off them was choking, but perhaps that was the mammoths. And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter, and woke giants from the earth. He looked for great swords ten feet long, but saw only clubs. Most were just the limbs of dead trees, some still trailing shattered branches. A few had stone balls lashed to the ends to make colossal mauls. The song never says if the horn can put them back to sleep.
As we saw above with Jon’s spying on Tormund, his focus is on the Horn of Joramun as a supernatural threat – one that supposedly can bring down the Wall itself according to some legends, although here he focuses on the legends that the Horn can rouse the giants “from the earth.” And as we see here, the giants are a chthonic force, as impossibly huge and undeniably primeval in character as the prehistoric animals they ride. At the same time Jon’s worry is that the supernatural forces that Mance has called forth in his effort to win his war cannot be sent back so easily is a prescient one, given what we will learn later of the real costs of Mance’s digging up in the Frostfangs.
Just as Jon is learning to look past the legend to see the truth, so too does the reader begin to see how the giants function as a synecdoche for the wildlings as a whole. We start, somewhat unexpectedly, with how the giants represent wildling political philosophy:
“Was that their king?” asked Jon.
“Giants have no kings, no more’n mammoths do, nor snow bears, nor the great whales o’ the grey sea. That was Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg. Mag the Mighty. You can kneel to him if you like, he won’t mind. I know your kneeler’s knees must be itching, for want of some king to bend to.”
As we’ve come to expect, the wildlings view the issue of freedom as a binary between kneeling and its opposite. What’s new here is Tormund’s linking the idea of freedom to nature – in contrast to the monarchical analogies often associated with wild animals (the term the “animal kingdom,” the idea that lions are kings without which the Lannisters would be without iconography, etc.), Tormund argues that nature is a democracy. This in turn means that the wildling way of life is natural whereas that of the “kneelers” is artificial.
But the deeper connection between the giants and the wildlings as a who is a common sense of loss, that they are an indigenous people who have been victimized and driven to the ends of the earth by the remorseless onslaught of the Seven Kingdoms. This is exemplified best in the song, “The Last of the Giants,” which we get sung in full in this chapter and is worth a close-read:
“Ooooooh, I am the last of the giants,
my people are gone from the earth.
The last of the great mountain giants,
who ruled all the world at my birth.
Oh the smallfolk have stolen my forests,
they’ve stolen my rivers and hills.
And they’ve built a great wall through my valleys,
and fished all the fish from my rills.
In stone halls they burn their great fires,
in stone halls they forge their sharp spears.
Whilst I walk alone in the mountains,
with no true companion but tears.
They hunt me with dogs in the daylight,
they hunt me with torches by night.
For these men who are small can never stand tall,
whilst giants still walk in the light.
Oooooooh, I am the LAST of the giants,
so learn well the words of my song.
For when I am gone the singing will fade,
and the silence shall last long and long.”
I’m of two minds about some of the implications of this song: on the one hand, there is a problematic history of American and European people labelling indigenous people as essentially an endangered species on an inevitable path to extinction – while attributing said extinction either to the Will of God or the unstoppable march of historical forces, as opposed to their own actions. So portraying the giants as a people who once “ruled all the world at my birth” only to have their lands stolen by the “smallfolk” (an interesting subversion of the term there) has uncomfortable undertones there. On the other hand, there’s also something of an ecological argument here as well, portraying humanity’s transformation of the natural environment through technology as a hostile disruption of a harmonious natural order – hence they “fished all the fish from my rills.”
But even more strongly than Tormund’s interpretation above, the song also acts as a condemnation of human civilization. Humans are portrayed as thieves and remorseless killers, but even worse is that they do so out of fear, insecurity, and envy, as “these men who are small can never stand tall, whilst giants still walk in the light.” The worst aspect of humanity, therefore, is that we exterminate what we don’t understand because the majesty of the uncanny and the unknown make us feel inadequate. And this is where we find the edge of cultural understanding by the outsider doing the observation and the assimilation, because as much as Jon might appreciate the beauty of the melody and the Romantic message of the lyrics, he cannot yet understand the song’s meaning:
“Why are you weeping?” Jon asked. “It was only a song. There are hundreds of giants, I’ve just seen them.”
“Oh, hundreds,” she said furiously. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
The song is a tragedy worthy of tears, because once there were thousands if not millions of giants who populated Westeros and were its rightful owners. Moreover, I would argue that the song’s resonance for the wildlings stems both from their common enemy in the “smallfolk” who raise Walls and stone buildlings to claim the land and hunt their enemies with steel, dogs, and fire (all three which the Night’s Watch bring on their Great Ranging), but also from their recent realization that with the coming of the second Long Night, the wildlings too have lost their home and are facing a very real threat of extinction.
Perfectly designed to break the tension, in this chapter we are introduced to Tormund Giantsbane. Yes, technically speaking we met the man in Jon I, but if we’re talking about the legend, the deep well of fondness in the collective heart of the fandom, it’s this chapter that counts. Tormund is this wonderful sympathetic figure who instantly deflates all of these Romantic High Fantasy tropes:
“Is it true you killed a giant once…”
“It was winter and I was half a boy, and stupid the way boys are. I went too far and my horse died and then a storm caught me. A true storm, not no little dusting such as this. Har! I knew I’d freeze to death before it broke. So I found me a sleeping giant, cut open her belly, and crawled up right inside her. Kept me warm enough, she did, but the stink near did for me. The worst thing was, she woke up when the spring come and took me for her babe. Suckled me for three whole moons before I could get away. Har! There’s times I miss the taste o’ giant’s milk, though…see you don’t go spreading that about. Tormund Giantsbane has a better ring to it than Tormund Giantsbabe, and that’s the honest truth o’ it.”
Slaying a monster is the original heroic backstory – starting with Theseus, Jason, Odysseus, Heracles, and continuing down through St. George, Beowulf, etc. – and Tormund could not possibly undercut it more by starting with a silly Star Wars riff and finishing with the ultimate self-deprecating story about enjoying his own infantilization and an admission that he’s actually more of a bullshit artist than a legendary warrior. It’s almost a fourth-wall break, as if he was turning to the reader and saying “don’t take this stuff too seriously, folks.”
And part of the reason why you shouldn’t take it too seriously is the Rabelaisian truth that underneath all human culture and aspirations to greatness is the rude reality of the human body. Tormund’s first story is all about the stink of the human body and the taste of its excretions, but also how those ignoble things will save your life in an unforgiving wilderness – a theme that is immediately relevant to Jon Snow’s angst about the ethics of espionage. Likewise, his second story also has a pointed moral for our protagonist:
“Well, here’s a tale for you. It were another winter, colder even than the one I spent inside that giant, and snowing day and night, snowflakes as big as your head, not these little things. It snowed so hard the whole village was half buried. I was in me Ruddy Hall, with only a cask o’ mead to keep me company and nothing to do but drink it. The more I drank the more I got to thinking about this woman lived close by, a fine strong woman with the biggest pair of teats you ever saw. She had a temper on her, that one, but oh, she could be warm too, and in the deep of winter a man needs his warmth…The woman had a terrible temper, and she put up quite the fight when I laid hands on her. It was all I could do to carry her home and get her out o’ them furs, but when I did, oh, she was hotter even than I remembered, and we had a fine old time, and then I went to sleep. Next morning when I woke the snow had stopped and the sun was shining, but I was in no fit state to enjoy it. All ripped and torn I was, and half me member bit right off, and there on me floor was a she-bear’s pelt. And soon enough the free folk were telling tales o’ this bald bear seen in the woods, with the queerest pair o’ cubs behind her. Har!”
That moral is that the human body in addition to being kind of gross really likes sex and booze and should indulge in them whenever possible, no matter how ridiculous one makes oneself in the process. Since Tormund knows all too clearly about the Ygritte situation, he’s also saying to Jon that he should sleep with the girl already, because seriously, what’s the worst that could happen (to your penis)? At the same time, however, he’s also poking fun at the pretensions of wildling culture when it comes to “stealing women” – far from the romance-novel image of a shirtless barbarian carrying off the reluctant heroine, here we have a drunk who mates with a bear and loses half of his manhood in the process. (And yes, there’s also the fact that this story has been held as evidence that Tormund Giantsbane fathered Maege Mormont’s children, as Maege would definitely qualify as a she-bear from a heraldic standpoint.)
But rather than just taking Tormund’s word for it, or just focus on the giants as the most visually impressive element, Jon actually does spend a good deal of time observing the wildlings and coming to understand their cultures:
And there were folks fiercer even than Varamyr, from the northernmost reaches of the haunted forest, the hidden valleys of the Frostfangs, and even queerer places: the men of the Frozen Shore who rode in chariots made of walrus bones pulled along by packs of savage dogs, the terrible ice-river clans who were said to feast on human flesh, the cave dwellers with their faces dyed blue and purple and green. With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather…
As with the “Last of the Giants,” there are negatives and positives as this portrayal of indigenous peoples goes. It’s important for Jon to learn that the wildlings are a nation of many peoples – without learning this fact, he’ll never understand how Mance brought them together, which in turn will lay the groundwork for his later attempts as Lord Commander to bring the wildlings, the Night’s Watch, and Stannis’ forces together. Moreover, Jon’s realization that “half the wildling host had lived all their lives without so much as a glimpse of the Wall, Jon judged, and most of those spoke no word of the Common Tongue,” is necessary for his understanding of how difficult it will be for the wildlings to live in, let alone assimilate into the North, given their complete lack of any frame of reference for the society of their enemies.
At the same time, however, this portrait of the further tribes has more than a little of the travelogue of the grotesque – pre-historic charioteers, cannibals, cavemen in woad, and so forth – that pre-20th Century anthropologists used to justify colonialism and white supremacy by portraying non-Western peoples as occupying a pre-modern stage in human evolution (thus requiring Western “guidance” to lead them on the path to civilization), although I suppose it’s something of a subversion that this kind of discourse is being used about white people.
Lest we think that Jon Snow is a completely unbiased observer of wildling culture out of the wildest dreams of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, the reality is that Jon is hardly more enlightened than Tyrion Lannister, given his upbringing in the North:.
Small wonder that the Seven Kingdoms thought the free folk scarcely human. They have no laws, no honor, not even simple decency. They steal endlessly from each other, breed like beasts, prefer rape to marriage, and fill the world with baseborn children. Yet he was growing fond of Tormund Giantsbane, great bag of wind and lies though he was. Longspear as well. And Ygritte…no, I will not think about Ygritte.
As we’ve seen before, Westerosi don’t have the same positive associations towards the concept of freedom that have developed over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries – to them, individual liberty (let alone democratic government) appear dangerously chaotic, which was the conventional wisdom prior to the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and the spread of mass democracy. At the same time, Jon’s particular psychological hangups –Jon hates his bastard status, is terrified of ever having a child out of wedlock, and by extension considers marriage a vital sacrament – means that the wildlings’ values run completely contrary to his own (which complicates both his efforts to understand the wildlings and to maintain his cover as a turncloak).
Despite Jon’s knee-jerk bigotry on this issue, he does manage to do one thing that many noble-born junior officers serving in a border fort never managed: he learns to see the enemy as individuals, good and bad, as opposed to a monolithic type whether that type was the Noble Savage or the Evil Barbarian. As we might expect from someone with a functioning heart (and hormones), Jon likes Tormund and Ygritte. But the Free Folk aren’t just made up of charming rogues and fiery spearwives – which would be rather dehumanizing as no group of people are wholly good – they’ve got some real bastards among them:
Along with the Tormunds and the Longspears rode other sorts of wildlings, though; men like Rattleshirt and the Weeper who would as soon slit you as spit on you. There was Harma Dogshead, a squat keg of a woman with cheeks like slabs of white meat, who hated dogs and killed one every fortnight to make a fresh head for her banner; earless Styr, Magnar of Thenn, whose own people thought him more god than lord; Varamyr Sixskins, a small mouse of a man whose steed was a savage white snow bear that stood thirteen feet tall on its hind legs…
And he’s not completely wrong: we’ve already seen that Rattleshirt is a cowardly bully, but the Weeper is a sadistic murderer of envoys and Varamyr is a violator of all taboos erected to allow humans to live together, although Styr is mostly just a soldier and Harma’s main flaw is her irrational hatred of dogs. From a Doylist perspective, moreover, these “evil” lieutenants of Mance play a vital role: without them, Mance’s crusade would be without ambiguity. (One of the details that Jon picks up is that the column moves slowly because it’s “burdened as it was by all the wildlings’ herds and children and mean little treasures” which underlines that this is as much a migration as an invasion.)As it stands, if Mance succeeds with these men and women at his side, the salvation of the Free Folk will come with it death and destruction for all the people of the North, which gives Jon the necessary spur to maintain his allegiance to the Night’s Watch.
A Free Woman Rides Where She Will
So now let’s talk about Ygritte, or rather about Ygritte and Jon. This is a difficult topic, because often much of the fandom views the question of Jon and Ygritte either through the lens of shipping or through the discourse of consent, which leads to a binary conclusion that it’s either True Love or sexual abuse. I would argue that their relationship has to be understood in the context of the genre conventions that Jon’s ASOS chapters are operating within – namely, the tropes of spy fiction. And both in real-world espionage and in spy fiction, sleeping with the enemy is one of the oldest stratagems for gaining their trust and learning their secrets.
At to me, this complicates the situation for both perspectives: as much as Jon comes to feel something for Ygritte, he’s also using her to maintain his cover and allow him to betray her people. Likewise, as much as Jon’s decision to sleep with Ygritte is motivated by his need to prove his sincerity to Mance and avoid being tortured to death, we also have to ask, as with police spies who infiltrate radical social movements often by getting into relationships with women in the movement under false pretenses, we also have to ask, would Ygritte have consented if she knew he would use her to betray her people?
With that in mind, let’s examine how their relationship is advanced in this chapter. It’s absolutely true that Ygritte pursues Jon Snow throughout the chapter beyond the boundaries of 21st century conceptions of enthusiastic consent:
Every night when they made camp, Ygritte threw her sleeping skins down beside his own, no matter if he was near the fire or well away from it. Once he woke to find her nestled against him, her arm across his chest. He lay listening to her breathe for a long time, trying to ignore the tension in his groin. Rangers often shared skins for warmth, but warmth was not all Ygritte wanted, he suspected. After that he had taken to using Ghost to keep her away. Old Nan used to tell stories about knights and their ladies who would sleep in a single bed with a blade between them for honor’s sake, but he thought this must be the first time where a direwolf took the place of the sword.
Even then, Ygritte persisted.
However, the main problem that this presents for Jon is not that he’s being forced into sex he doesn’t want to have – after all, Ygritte doesn’t do anything more than sleep with “her arm across his chest” – but rather that Jon’s inhibitions are interfering with his mission. Jon’s refusal to sleep with Ygritte is not in keeping with the turncloak persona he’s adopting, and it’s making people like Tormund suspicious: “Is it true they cut your members off when they take you for the Wall…else why refuse Ygritte?” Likewise, Jon’s reluctance is intimately connected with his “former” loyalties, as “he was a man of the Night’s Watch, he had taken a vow…he could not unsay them…no more than he could admit the reason for his reluctance to Tormund Thunderfist, Father to Bears.” At the same time, Jon trying to keep to his vows runs contrary to his obedience to the orders of Qhorin Halfhand, which suggests that he’s using the vows as an excuse to avoid confronting his sexual anxieties.
Moreover, we can see how Jon feels about Ygritte in the cultural observation section of the chapter, where Ygritte becomes an example of the differences in ideals of beauty between the wildlings and the Westerosi:
The wildlings seemed to think Ygritte a great beauty because of her hair; red hair was rare among the free folk, and those who had it were said to be kissed by fire, which was supposed to be lucky. Lucky it might be, and red it certainly was, but Ygritte’s hair was such a tangle that Jon was tempted to ask her if she only brushed it at the changing of the seasons.
At a lord’s court the girl would never have been considered anything but common, he knew. She had a round peasant face, a pug nose, and slightly crooked teeth, and her eyes were too far apart. Jon had noticed all that the first time he’d seen her, when his dirk had been at her throat. Lately, though, he was noticing some other things. When she grinned, the crooked teeth didn’t seem to matter. And maybe her eyes were too far apart, but they were a pretty blue-grey color, and lively as any eyes he knew. Sometimes she sang in a low husky voice that stirred him. And sometimes by the cookfire when she sat hugging her knees with the flames waking echoes in her red hair, and looked at him, just smiling…well, that stirred some things as well.
Jon’s comments on Ygritte’s appearance have more than a little bit of the same highborn snobbery present in his other conclusions about wildling culture – hence his example of a “lord’s court” as opposed to a wildling camp, and his description of Ygritte as having “a round peasant face.” At the same time, there’s more than a little of a schoolboy denial of a crush, since he admits that her flaws are offset by her other qualities. It’s pretty damn obvious, from physical response if nothing else, that he is somewhat grasping at straws here.
Just as the wildlings as a whole pose Jon a huge psychological and ideological problem vis-à-vis his whole issue with bastardy, Ygritte poses a double problem, because it’s glaringly obvious that Ygritte wants to sleep with him, and that Jon’s weak grounds for refusing threaten to expose him as a spy:
“You are a free man now, and Ygritte is a free woman. What dishonor if you lay together?”
“I might get her with child…the boy…the child would be a bastard.”
“Are bastards weaker than other children? More sickly, more like to fail?…You’re bastard-born yourself. And if Ygritte does not want a child, she will go to some woods witch and drink a cup o’ moon tea. You do not come into it, once the seed is planted.”
In what might have been cribbed directly out of Edmund’s speech in King Lear, the wildling use of nature as a lens through which to analyze culture and ideology cuts to the core: Jon is no less of a man because of his supposed illegitimacy, and if he could look at his own culture from the outside he would see the custom for its irrationality. And so, Ygritte really does pose a threat to Jon, not only because she might tempt him into betraying his vows, but because her offer might cause him to re-examine the mores of Westerosi society.
And so at last we come to Ygritte and Jon and the end of the chapter. While most people focus on their final exchange, Ygritte does more than that – it’s at her urging that Jon finally gives up the information about who led the Great Ranging, which could be viewed either as proof that Jon was right that Ygritte would compromise his mission or that Ygritte was necessary to get Jon over his reservations of actually acting as a spy, giving up intel to gain intel. More importantly, it’s Ygritte who stands between Jon and Rattleshirt, defends him “lying to protect them as was his brothers,” and argues back against Styr the Magnar of Thenn that “he never killed me, like they told him. And he slew the Halfhand.” This changes the context of this moment:
“I never asked you to lie for me.”
“I never did,” she said, I left out part, is all…[I said] that we fuck beneath your cloak many a night. I never said when we started though.” The smile she gave him was almost shy. “Find another place for Ghost to sleep tonight, Jon Snow. It’s like Mance said. Deeds is truer than words.”
Yes, there’s an element of coercion involved in this setup, but it’s significant that Ygritte is as far out on a limb when it comes to treason as he is, just as irrevocably committed to proving Jon’s sincerity with her body.
The Battle That Never Was
And so we move on from love to war, just as Jon moves on from the wildling column to the Fist of the First Men where Mance Rayder is waiting for him. One of the interesting thing about Jon II is that twice in as many chapters, we get the discussion of a hypothetical battle which could have greatly altered the course of events:
And somewhere close ahead, Jon knew, the Fist of the First Men loomed above the trees, home to three hundred black brothers of the Night’s Watch, armed, mounted, and waiting. The Old Bear had sent out other scouts besides the Halfhand, and surely Jarman Buckwell or Thoren Smallwood would have returned by now with word of what was coming down out of the mountains.
Mormont will not run, Jon thought. He is too old and he has come too far. He will strike, and damn the numbers. One day soon he would hear the sound of warhorns, and see a column of riders pounding down on them with black cloaks flapping and cold steel in their hands. Three hundred men could not hope to kill a hundred times their number, of course, but Jon did not think they would need to. He need not slay a thousand, only one. Mance is all that keeps them together.
The King-beyond-the-Wall was doing all he could, yet the wildlings remained hopelessly undisciplined, and that made them vulnerable. Here and there within the leagues-long snake that was their line of march were warriors as fierce as any in the Watch, but a good third of them were grouped at either end of the column, in Harma Dogshead’s van and the savage rearguard with its giants, aurochs, and fire flingers. Another third rode with Mance himself near the center, guarding the wayns and sledges and dog carts that held the great bulk of the host’s provisions and supplies, all that remained of the last summer harvest. The rest, divided into small bands under the likes of Rattleshirt, Jarl, Tormund Giantsbane, and the Weeper, served as outriders, foragers, and whips, galloping up and down the column endlessly to keep it moving in a more or less orderly fashion.
And even more telling, only one in a hundred wildlings was mounted. The Old Bear will go through them like an axe through porridge. And when that happened, Mance must give chase with his center, to try and blunt the threat. If he should fall in the fight that must follow, the Wall would be safe for another hundred years, Jon judged. And if not…
So how viable was this strategy? On the face of it, the odds seem ridiculously stacked against Jeor Mormont: 300 men of the Watch up against 30,000 fighters among the 100,000 wildlings. (No wonder then that the mutineers wanted to run away.) But since BookJon has the military sense that his show counterpart lacks – looking at you, Season 6, Episode 9 – he notes that there are compensating factors that give the Night’s Watch a fighting chance.
First, there is the superior mobility of cavalry: while Mance has 30,000 fighting men, only “one in a hundred wildlings was mounted,” which means he’s only got 300 cavalry, effectively cancelling out his numerical advantage as long as the Night’s Watch can stay mobile and avoid his infantry. Once again, proof that war cannot be reduced to comparing army sizes and whoever’s got the biggest army wins – manpower only matters if you can bring it to bear.
Second, there are the limitations of geography: unfortunately for Mance, his options are further limited by the fact that he’s got to protect a column of a hundred thousand people strung out across at least six miles (a league being about three miles), which gives the Night’s Watch ample opportunity to hit the column where it’s weak, “like an axe through porridge.” And in order to protect the column, Mance has split his forces into thirds, with Mag holding the rearguard, Harma holding the van, and Mance himself at the center guarding the supply train, which means that the Night’s Watch would only be facing about a hundred cavalry at the worst. (Incidentally, these carts with their precious cargo are another major vulnerability: a few torches or fire arrows could basically destroy the wildling threat then and there simply by inducing starvation.)
And finally, there is the issue of discipline: as any military historian will tell you, morale is absolutely crucial to success in battle, and the absolute chaos that would erupt when a wedge of heavy cavalry comes crashing through a mostly-civilian column would be enormous, and this would put enormous strain on the discipline of Mance’s fighters, because how do you keep free men from going to find and defend their families when they can see and hear them under attack?
So I think Mormont’s plan – to hit the column, cause chaos, force Mance to chase him, and then kill Mance, leading to the disintegration of the wildling alliance – had a good chance of success. Even if Mance had been specifically forewarned of their presence, the only way I could see he could fend off Mormont is to concentrate his cavalry into one force and concentrate his infantry around the supply train, and place himself among the infantry, daring Mormont to attack him there. That way, if Mormont attacked, the limited cavalry of the wildlings could swing around an catch the Night’s Watch against the wagon train in a reverse-Battle of Watling Street.
The Fist of the First Men
But as the reader knows (if they remembered what happened in the Prologue), none of that ever happened. So as Jon draws closer to Mance Rayder, the reader gets to see Jon gradually realized that the stakes are far, far higher than any battle between humans:
But even through the blowing snow, the shape of the great white hill that loomed above the trees was unmistakable. The Fist of the First Men. Jon heard the scream of the eagle overhead. A raven looked down from a soldier pine and quorked as he went past. Had the Old Bear made his attack? Instead of the clash of steel and the thrum of arrows taking flight, Jon heard only the soft crunch of frozen crust beneath his garron’s hooves.
In silence they circled round to the south slope, where the approach was easiest. It was there at the bottom that Jon saw the dead horse, sprawled at the base of the hill, half buried in the snow. Entrails spilled from the belly of the animal like frozen snakes, and one of its legs was gone. Wolves, was Jon’s first thought, but that was wrong. Wolves eat their kill. More garrons were strewn across the slope, legs twisted grotesquely, blind eyes staring in death.
Whenever I do a read-read, I find something new to appreciate; in this case, I find myself impressed by how GRRM slow-rolls the Others in the same way that a great horror director keeps their monster or killer in the shadows as long as possible in order to maintain the mystery and suspense as long as possible. We are fifteen chapters into the third book in ASOIAF and no living POV character has ever seen one of the White Walkers. While that will change shortly when Sam gets his first POV chapter (although even here GRRM delays the reveal of what happened at the Fist of the First Men for two more chapters), here the only evidence that something unnatural happened is the telling detail of untouched dead horses.
It’s also nice (given how often the show equates heroism with prioritizing emotion over intellect) to see Jon’s more analytic side at work as he does a neat bit of detective work in piecing together the mystery of what happened at the Fist of the First Men:
Outside the ringwall they dismounted to squeeze through a crooked gap in the stones. The carcass of a shaggy brown garron was impaled upon the sharpened stakes the Old Bear had placed inside every entrance. He was trying to get out, not in. There was no sign of a rider.
…Inside was more, and worse. Jon had never seen pink snow before. The wind gusted around him, pulling at his heavy sheepskin cloak. Ravens flapped from one dead horse to the next. Are those wild ravens, or our own? Jon could not tell. He wondered where poor Sam was now. And what he was.
Once again, it comes down to interpreting a few physical signs – a horse accidentally impaled on a stake becomes a vital clue that Mormont was attempting a break-out, ravens released suggests that the Night’s Watch might have sent warning of what happened and raises the question of what happened to Jon’s friend.
One final, telling detail is the way that the wildling people react to the scene of the crime – they’re neither glorying in the demise of their enemy (because the scene is far too grim a reminder of what will happen to them if they are unsuccessful) nor particularly moved (because these are their mortal enemies after all); rather they react with a kind of grim practicality:
The wildlings crawled over them like flies, stripping them of saddles, bridles, packs, and armor, and hacking them apart with stone axes…The wildlings were stripping the dead horses of every scrap of steel and leather, even prying the horseshoes off their hooves. A few were going through packs they’d turned up, looking for weapons and food.
For all the wildlings define themselves by their freedom, this pragmatism might actually be their defining trait as a people. Beyond-the-Wall is simply too harsh an environment to allow for any sentimentality when it comes to death and material possessions: unable to manufacture iron or steel themselves, every scrap of it becomes infinitely precious; and faced with a three month trek to the Wall, robbing the dead for food is far preferable to becoming one of them.
Mance Rayder: King in More Than Name
At the very end of the chapter, at the very top of the First of the First Men, all of the various threads of theme and plot come together when Jon finally finds the man who’s summoned him to talk. Mance’s name – whether in the mouths of messengers or in Jon’s own mind – has preceded him in earlier parts of the chapter on matters both cultural and political, as if preparing the way:
Mance spoke the Old Tongue, even sang in it…Mance had spent years assembling this vast plodding host, talking to this clan mother and that magnar, winning one village with sweet words and another with a song and a third with the edge of his sword, making peace between Harma Dogshead and the Lord o’ Bones, between the Hornfoots and the Nightrunners, between the walrus men of the Frozen Shore and the cannibal clans of the great ice rivers, hammering a hundred different daggers into one great spear, aimed at the heart of the Seven Kingdoms. He had no crown nor scepter, no robes of silk and velvet, but it was plain to Jon that Mance Rayder was a king in more than name.
If in Jon I we see Mance Rayder as the unassuming bard and romantic idealist, Jon II gives us Mance Rayder as political visionary and seasoned military man, the mind that “hammer[ed] a hundred different daggers into one great spear, aimed at the heart of the Seven Kingdoms.” As with many of the early Kings of Westeros, Mance managed to unite the wildlings with a complex strategy that combined cultural outreach (his use of the Old Tongue, his singing), diplomacy and mediation (making peace between leaders of warbands and entire clans), and careful use of force (thus impressing the warlike Thenns).
Thus, it’s appropriate that when Jon finally sees Mance, the uncrowned king of the wildlings is in his full battle regalia of “his slashed cloak of black wool and red silk…black ringmail and shaggy fur breeches, and on his head was a great bronze-and-iron helm with raven wings at either temple.” Mance is here on business, and his business is putting Jon through a much more harrowing interrogation than last time, because the visible presence of the Night’s Watch at the Fist has shaken Jon’s cover story:
“Would you like to keep your eye, Jon?” asked the King-beyond-the-Wall. “If so, tell me how many they were. And try to speak the truth this time, Bastard of Winterfell…”
“I am not your lord,” said Mance. “And the what is plain enough. Your brothers died. The question is, how many?”
Jon’s face was throbbing, the snow kept coming down, and it was hard to think…the word stuck in his throat, but he made himself say, “There were three hundred of us…them. Three hundred of them…two hundred from Castle Black, and one hundred from the Shadow Tower.”
“There’s a truer song than the one you sang in my tent…how many horses have we found?”
“More’n a hundred…less than two.”
…the wildling king studied his face. “Who had the command here? And tell me true. Was it Rykker? Smallwood? Not Wythers, he’s too feeble. Whose tent was this?”
I have said too much. “You did not find his body?”
“…the next time you answer me with a question, I will give you to my Lord of Bones…who led here?”
Far from being overly credulous, Mance is suspicious, even hostile, threatening Jon first with being blinded and second to a slow and agonizing death at the hands of Rattleshirt. Not only does he ask very specific questions about numbers, dispositions, and leadership, but he verifies that information by double-checking it against the physical evidence. In the process, Mance succeeds at pulling out valuable military intelligence from Jon, so much so that Jon begins to doubt whether he’s given too much more information and crossed that line between undercover agent and double-agent:
One more step, thought Jon. Another foot. He moved his hand closer to Longclaw’s hilt…
“Reach up for that bastard sword and I’ll have your bastard head off before it clears the scabbard…”
“The Old Bear.”
“…then who commands at Castle Black?”
“Bowen Marsh,” This time Jon answered at once…
Mance laughed. “If so, our war is won. Bowen knows a good deal more about counting swords than he’s ever known about using them.”
While Jon just barely manages to stop himself short of the point of no return, we see in this passage why Mance Rayder is so uniquely dangerous to the Night’s Watch. It’s not just his political skills or his military skills, but his intimate knowledge of the Watch. He knows not just the names of the leaders of the Watch but also their individual strengths and weaknesses (Wythers is “too feeble,” Bowen is an administrator not a soldier), allowing him to anticipate the moves of his opponent.
At the same time, it’s hard not to sympathize with Mance Rayder, if one looks backwards to what he’s running rather than ahead to where he’s heading to:
“…when the dead walk, walls and stakes and swords mean nothing. You cannot fight the dead, Jon Snow. No man knows that half so well as me.” He gazed up at the darkening sky and said, “The crows may have helped us more than they know. I’d wondered why we’d suffered no attacks. But there’s still a hundred leagues to go, and the cold is rising. Varamyr, send your wolves sniffing after the wights, I won’t have them taking us unawares. My Lord of Bones, double all the patrols, and make certain every man has torch and flint. Styr, Jarl, you ride at first light…keep the column moving at all costs, if we reach the Wall before Mormont, we’ve won.”
One of the remaining mysteries of ASOIAF, and one I hope gets resolved in TWOW no matter what the Pink Letter says, is what Mance knows about the Others, how he came in contact with them, and what prompted him to make his move on the Wall now. He speaks in vague terms about fighting the dead, and his commands to Varamyr and Rattleshirt suggests a man who’s spent time thinking up specific anti-undead tactics, but we don’t really know the details.
Equally importantly, Mance makes a critical decision to shift his strategy vis-à-vis the Night Watch. Up until now, he’s played a very passive-defensive game, pulling the wildlings up to the Frostfangs, denying the enemy intelligence of his actions, and forcing them to respond to him. But instantly, the King-beyond-the-Wall realizes that the disaster at the Fist means that there’s a new strategic possibility open to him, that if he can “reach the Wall before Mormont,” he will find the Wall not only undermanned but lacking in competent leadership and not expecting him at all. Hence Jon’s new mission:
“You’ll go with Jarl and Styrl on the morrow, then…over the Wall. It’s past time you proved your faith with something more than words, Jon Snow…he knows the Watch and he knows the Wall…and he knows Castle Black better than any raider ever could…”
This is a classic moment in espionage – the moment where the undercover agent is asked to go beyond mere verbal affirmations or carefully-selected intelligence, to cross a line which they cannot go back from (usually taking the form of murdering an informant or traitor). Here, the situation is complicated further, because the fact that Jon’s being sent across the Wall (which makes sense given the advantages Mance lists) means that it’s also the perfect opportunity to defect back to the Night’s Watch.
Thus, added to the pre-existing tension of whether Jon will be found out in general is now added the far more pressing tension of whether Jon is going to be found out before he can warn Castle Black.
When we last left off, Quintus Sertorius had won renown as one of Gaius Marius’ chief lieutenants in the Cimbrian Wars. Sertorius remained a career military officer, serving with some distinction in Spain (where he won the coveted corona graminea for saving an entire legion) and in the Social Wars between Rome and its former Italian allies. However, Sertorius could not avoid politics, especially as the conservative Optimates faction began to coalesce around his old comrade Sulla and the radical Populares faction did the same around his former commander Gaius Marius – and Sertorius eventually chose the latter.
When Sulla returned from the East in 83 BCE and conquered Rome, Sertorius chose to keep fighting and returned to the Iberian Peninsula where he had had success as a young officer, this time as a Populares proconsul (governor). There, Sertorius’ experience pretending to be a Gaul stood him in good stead, because he could speak fluently with the local Celtiberian tribes, who became quite impressed by the young Roman and declared him their general. Now leading a mixed force of Romans and Lusitanians in western Spain, Sertorius repeatedly defeated four of Sulla’s generals who attempted to retake the peninsula by using a combination of tradition Celtiberian guerilla warfare and Roman infantry tactics to defeat much larger Roman armies. Not content with simply representing the Populares, many of whom had fled to Spain following Sulla’s purges in Italy, Sertorius decided to establish an independent republic in Hispania, establishing a Senate and attempting to Romanize the Celtiberians through educating the children of their chieftains in the Roman fashion.
So here we can see an interesting parallel with Mance Rayder – both talented officers who had forged their reputations in border warfare, who went over to the so-called barbarians and became their leaders, and who attempted to establish a new political regime through a technology transfer of military training, tactics, and strategy.
Next time, we’ll see how Sertorius fared when he came up against a teenage general placed at the head of an army…
I covered what would have happened in the Battle That Never Was in the Prologue, so there’s only one real hypothetical to this chapter:
- Jon kills Mance? Given their duel in ADWD, this isn’t a hugely likely hypothetical situation. But in the event that Jon managed to win their combat, a bunch of things change. First, the wildlings most likely would divide, and while some would still head for the Wall, most would not – as we see from what happened after the Battle of Castle Black. This saves the Night’s Watch from any further casualties, but it also means that tens of thousands will be added to the ranks of the army of the dead. Second, it means that Jon is going to die long before there’s any chance of him being resurrected, which quite likely means the world is doomed.
Book vs. Show:
I don’t really have much to add from what I said last time in terms of Jon’s season 3 plot being a substantial improvement over the botch that was Season 2. In terms of this chapter as shown in the show, it’s not bad per se – I like Mance’s description of a wildling diversity of culture that we don’t really get to see, and the visual of the spiral of dead horses on the Fist of the First Men is quite chilling.
However, there’s a real simplification of Jon’s role as a spy, the culture of the wildlings, and how these things relate to Jon’s burgeoning relationship with Ygritte. That being said, it’s significantly better than how Sam’s plotline is covered in Season 3. More on that in a bit…