“And then the world went mad.”
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.
After a couple of slower chapters, GRRM suddenly kicks into high gear in this and the next couple chapters – next chapter is Beric’s duel with the Hound, then the death of Hoster Tully, then Davos’ ascension to Stannis’ Hand, then Jaime’s meeting with Roose, then the arrival of Oberyn, it’s dizzying – warming up for the nessun dorma that is his sprint from the Red Wedding to the Purple Wedding to Tyrion’s parricide.
Sam II is an astonishing synecdoche of ASOS as a whole, a slow burn of creeping dread that suddenly culminates in shocking violence as the custom of guest-right comes crashing down in a blaze of human need and resentment. It begins, appropriately, with life and death:
Up in the loft a woman was giving birth noisily, while below a man lay dying by the fire. Samwell Tarly could not say which frightened him more.
They’d covered poor Bannen with a pile of furs and stoked the fire high, yet all he could say was, “I’m cold. Please. I’m so cold.” Sam was trying to feed him onion broth, but he could not swallow. The broth dribbled over his lips and down his chin as fast as Sam could spoon it in.
“That one’s dead.” Craster eyed the man with indifference as he worried at a sausage. “Be kinder to stick a knife in his chest than that spoon down his throat, you ask me.”
Birth ought to be a time of joy, but Craster’s Cronos-like presence means that everything human and natural is inverted and the dominant mood is fear and anxiety. “Poor Bannen,” meanwhile, serves as a symbol of what’s happening to the NIght’s Watch: he’s starving, but he cannot eat; he’s buried beneath furs right by the fire, but he’s freezing to death. And the final inversion in a passage full of inversion, is that his host, who has a gods-given responsibility for his well-being, not only doesn’t care about him (and how perfectly, mundanely terrifying is the use of the word “indifference“?) but actively wants to kill him rather than feed him.
Guest-Right for an Army In Retreat
Speaking of which, we can see from the jump that Craster’s slighting of his duties as host is causing resentment that will grow and grow until it swamps everything:
“Food and fire,” Giant was saying, “that was all we asked of you. And you grudge us the food.”
“Be glad I didn’t grudge you fire too.” Craster was a thick man made thicker by the ragged smelly sheepskins he wore day and night. He had a broad flat nose, a mouth that drooped to one side, and a missing ear. And though his matted hair and tangled beard might be grey going white, his hard knuckly hands still looked strong enough to hurt. “I fed you what I could, but you crows are always hungry. I’m a godly man, else I would have chased you off. You think I need the likes of him, dying on my floor? You think I need all your mouths, little man?” The wildling spat. “Crows. When did a black bird ever bring good to a man’s hall, I ask you? Never. Never.”
Under the “laws of the hearth,” food and fire are the bare minimum that a host is supposed to provide for their guests. What makes it all the more galling is that Craster doesn’t have any sense of shame about what he’s doing and instead is openly hostile towards his guests…which makes all the claims about him being “a friend to the Watch” ring all the more hollow with each confrontation. On a side note, in the wake of the Fist of the First Men, he’s also not helping himself much with this particular audience by emphasizing how much of a “godly man” he is.
What makes Craster’s bad hostmanship more serious than mere rudeness is that his collective guests are in such bad shape that Crater’s neglect may very well kill some of them:
…About the hall, a ragged score of black brothers squatted on the floor or sat on rough-hewn benches, drinking cups of the same thin onion broth and gnawing on chunks of hardbread. A couple were wounded worse than Bannen, to look at them. Fornio had been delirious for days, and Ser Byam’s shoulder was oozing a foul yellow pus. When they’d left Castle Black, Brown Bernarr had been carrying bags of Myrish fire, mustard salve, ground garlic, tansy, poppy, kingscopper, and other healing herbs. Even sweetsleep, which gave the gift of painless death. But Brown Bernarr had died on the Fist and no one had thought to search for Maester Aemon’s medicines. Hake had known some herblore as well, being a cook, but Hake was also lost. So it was left to the surviving stewards to do what they could for the wounded, which was little enough. At least they are dry here, with a fire to warm them. They need more food, though.
They all needed more food. The men had been grumbling for days. Clubfoot Karl kept saying how Craster had to have a hidden larder, and Garth of Oldtown had begun to echo him, when he was out of the Lord Commander’s hearing. Sam had thought of begging for something more nourishing for the wounded men at least, but he did not have the courage.
As we saw from Sam I, an army in retreat is a terrible thing – the men of the Night’s Watch are starving, they’re wounded, and in the chaotic retreat from the Fist the Watch lost their medical staff and all their medical supplies. Even those men who are lucky enough to have gotten away from the Fist uninjured are likely suffering the effects of a forced march in winter – and now that they’ve made it to Craster’s, only “a ragged score” (i.e, twenty) out of forty-four men can actually get shelter at any given time, and none of them are being given enough food.
Even a cursory glance through military history will tell you that lack of food is lethal to morale; when Napoleon said that “an army marches on its stomach,” he was alluding to how quickly an army can collapse into fatigue, disease, desertion, and despair when its supply lines are disrupted (or how often a battle has turned on one side having had a good night’s sleep and a full breakfast while their opponents are tired and hungry)- something he would learn first-hand on the long retreat from Moscow. The situation at Craster’s Keep, therefore, would already be an officer’s nightmare without Craster’s sparkling personality making this so much worse. Because while he’s leaving men out in the cold and “feeding them thin onion broth and…chunks of hardbread,” Craster is openly flaunting that he’s got food he’s not giving them every time he “gnawed on his hard black sausage. He had sausages for himself and his wives, he said, but none for the Watch.”
No wonder that there’s “grumbling” in the ranks when talk of a “secret larder” is validated before their very eyes. Ultimately, what’s surprising about the mutiny isn’t that it happens, but that it didn’t happen sooner.
An Abusive Refuge
In a fascinating way, therfore, the Night’s Watch are beginning to overlap with Craster’s daughter-wives – trapped in a place where they’re being ruthlessly controlled by an unpredictable and unstable man, and yet that man’s roof is the only source of food and shelter around, so they have to put up with it:
Up in the loft, Gilly let out a shuddering sob that echoed down the long low windowless hall. “Push,” he heard one of Craster’s older wives tell her. “Harder. Harder. Scream if it helps.” She did, so loud it made Sam wince.
Craster turned his head to glare. “I’ve had a bellyful o’ that shrieking,” he shouted up. “Give her a rag to bite down on, or I’ll come up there and give her a taste o’ my hand.”
He would too, Sam knew. Craster had nineteen wives, but none who’d dare interfere once he started up that ladder. No more than the black brothers had two nights past, when he was beating one of the younger girls. There had been mutterings, to be sure. “He’s killing her,” Garth of Greenaway had said, and Clubfoot Karl laughed and said, “If he don’t want the little sweetmeat he could give her to me.” Black Bernarr cursed in a low angry voice, and Alan of Rosby got up and went outside so he wouldn’t have to hear. “His roof, his rule,” the ranger Ronnel Harclay had reminded them. “Craster’s a friend to the Watch.”
The overlap on the Venn diagram is less than complete, because whereas Gilly is having to endure the nighmare scenario of having to give birth under the threat of domestic violence, the Night’s Watch are merely being forced to bear witness to Craster’s brutality. How they react to this is telling, because there’s no neat moral lines between mutineer and loyalist: future mutineer Karl is decidely comfortable with the situation and his only complaint is that Craster, not he, is benefitting from the situation; but men like Garth of Greenaway and Alan of Rosby will mutiny and remain at Craster’s Keep (with all that entails for Craster’s widows) despite their tender consciences here. Meanwhile loyalist Black Bernarr hates the situation, while his fellow loyalist Ronnel Harclay advises compliance.
In other words, precisely because the brothers of the Night’s Watch have an understanding of the outside world beyond Craster’s Keep that gives them a core of intellectual agency that many of Craster’s daughter-wives have been denied by their isolation, they are free to make up their minds as individuals as to whether the Night’s Watch should do something about it. And because we’re in Sam’s head, we can see how he thinks through the question of whether the Night’s Watch should help:
A friend, thought Sam, as he listened to Gilly’s muffled shrieks. Craster was a brutal man who ruled his wives and daughters with an iron hand, but his keep was a refuge all the same. “Frozen crows,” Craster sneered when they straggled in, those few who had survived the snow, the wights, and the bitter cold. “And not so big a flock as went north, neither.” Yet he had given them space on his floor, a roof to keep the snow off, a fire to dry them out, and his wives had brought them cups of hot wine to put some warmth in their bellies. “Bloody crows,” he called them, but he’d fed them too, meager though the fare might be.
We are guests, Sam reminded himself. Gilly is his. His daughter, his wife. His roof, his rule.
The first time he’d seen Craster’s Keep, Gilly had come begging for help, and Sam had lent her his black cloak to conceal her belly when she went to find Jon Snow. Knights are supposed to defend women and children. Only a few of the black brothers were knights, but even so…We all say the words, Sam thought. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. A woman was a woman, even a wildling woman. We should help her. We should. It was her child Gilly feared for; she was frightened that it might be a boy. Craster raised up his daughters to be his wives, but there were neither men nor boys to be seen about his compound. Gilly had told Jon that Craster gave his sons to the gods. If the gods are good, they will send her a daughter, Sam prayed.
What we see is Sam working his way through the paradox of an abusive refuge, and finding himself trapped in a decidedly pre-modern dilemma. The morality of guest-right, which places a reciprocal responsibility on the guest to respect their hosts and not offer violence (either to their host or their host’s other guests, the latter of which is often the source of conflict in various myths and sagas), is in conflict with the morality of the oath of the Night’s Watch and the ethics of knighthood. And while bookSam is not quite the voice of modernity that showSam is, he’s still a good person and is clearly making his mind up in Gilly’s favor, even if all that he can do in the moment is pray on her behalf, and stalk out of Craster’s Keep in disgust.
Unfortunately for our protagonist, whatever moral purity the outdoors might bring is undercut by the omnipresent atmosphere of threat from inside and out:
Downwind, other brothers were skinning and butchering the animals deemed too weak to go on. Spearmen and archers walked sentry behind the earthen dikes that were Craster’s only defense against whatever hid in the wood beyond, while a dozen firepits sent up thick fingers of blue-grey smoke. Sam could hear the distant echoes of axes at work in the forest, where a work detail was harvesting enough wood to keep the blazes burning all through the night. Nights were the bad time. When it got dark. And cold.
There had been no attacks while they had been at Craster’s, neither wights nor Others. Nor would there be, Craster said. “A godly man got no cause to fear such. I said as much to that Mance Rayder once, when he come sniffing round. He never listened, no more’n you crows with your swords and your bloody fires. That won’t help you none when the white cold comes. Only the gods will help you then. You best get right with the gods.”
Gilly had spoken of the white cold as well, and she’d told them what sort of offerings Craster made to his gods. Sam had wanted to kill him when he heard. There are no laws beyond the Wall, he reminded himself, and Craster’s a friend to the Watch.
On the face of it, the fact that “there had been no attacks while they had been at Craster’s, neither wights nor Others,” ought to be good news for a weakened force that’s desperately in need of a reprieve from supernatural horror, especially when the best defenses that the Night’s Watch can put together are to put a few men behind “earthen dikes” and, like Tormund’s wildlings between ASOS and ADWD, “keep the blazes burning all through the night.” But there’s something deeply ominous that Craster doesn’t have or need the same night fire defenses that even other wildlings have been using. It doesn’t help either that, just as we see at the beginning, Craster is being really blatant about being in league with the White Walkers. (Still can’t read the room.)
I’m honestly rather surprised that, after the Fist of the First Men, the Night’s Watch didn’t respond to his declarations by hanging him from the rafters of his own hall once their time as guests had ended. Once again, Sam is a good example: he wants to kill Craster for being a filicidal apocalypse cultist, but he can’t quite bring himself to act on his impulses, in no small part because he doesn’t want to move beyond conventional wisdom in the face of eldritch horror – the classic Lovecraftian impulse.
The Self-Esteem of a Slayer
Cosmic horror aside, one of the major reasons why Sam is having problems is that his self-esteem is under strain, thanks to the fact that most of his peers don’t believe his story about killing an Other and have reacted to his claims by relentlessly mocking him:
“Slayer,” he called. “Come, show us how you slew the Other.” He held out the tall yew longbow.
Sam turned red. “It wasn’t an arrow, it was a dagger, dragonglass . . .” He knew what would happen if he took the bow. He would miss the butt and send the arrow sailing over the dike off into the trees. Then he’d hear the laughter.
“No matter,” said Alan of Rosby, another fine bowman. “We’re all keen to see the Slayer shoot. Aren’t we, lads?”
He could not face them; the mocking smiles, the mean little jests, the contempt in their eyes. Sam turned to go back the way he’d come, but his right foot sank deep in the muck, and when he tried to pull it out his boot came off. He had to kneel to wrench it free, laughter ringing in his ears. Despite all his socks, the snowmelt had soaked through to his toes by the time he made his escape. Useless, he thought miserably. My father saw me true. I have no right to be alive when so many brave men are dead.
I know some readers are somewhat frustrated by the fact that Sam is backsliding after seemingly making a breakthrough; in a lot of ways, this frustration is quite similar to how many readers reacted to Sansa’s early ACOK chapters. However, I don’t think GRRM’s choice of a more realistic mode is done for realism’s sake alone. Yes, I think there’s a truth to the fact that depression related to an abusive childhood isn’t cured overnight, that false starts and mistakes are a normal part of the process. However, I also think that GRRM is making a point about his existential philosophy of heroism: moments of triumph, like Syrio Forel’s last stand or Brienne’s decision to fight one-against-seven or Davos speaking truth to power, are by their very nature fleeting moments of ecstacy – eventually homeostasis reasserts itself. Contrary to the alluring promise of the Hero’s Journey that apotheosis is a state we will mature into, GRRM is arguing that it’s not so easy to shed the imperfections and shortcomings of our old lives; the hard graft is never finished.
Indeed, I think when we consider the full context of Sam’s mental health, his “relapse” becomes totally understandable: he just survived the Battle of Fist of the First Men, and he’s wrestling with a number of fresh psychological injuries from that conflict. First, he’s clearly wrestling with a fair bit of survivor’s guilt, as we can see from the passage above and where Sam thinks that “He could not understand why the gods would want to take Jon Snow and Bannen and leave him, craven and clumsy as he was. He should have died on the Fist.” Second, Sam’s also dealing with PTSD – “He needed sleep, but whenever he closed his eyes he dreamed of blowing snow and dead men shambling toward him with black hands and bright blue eyes” – which is adding the added stress and mental fatigue of sleep deprivation on top of everything else he’s dealing with. It’s a lot to unpack without any cognitive tools.
GRRM isn’t completely heartless, though, because he brings in Green to teach Sam (and the reader a lesson):
“…The Others get your boot, Slayer?”
“… Please don’t call me that.”
“Why not?” Grenn sounded honestly puzzled. “It’s a good name, and you came by it fairly.”
Pyp always teased Grenn about being thick as a castle wall, so Sam explained patiently. “It’s just a different way of calling me a coward,” he said, standing on his left leg and wriggling back into his muddy boot. “They’re mocking me, the same way they mock Bedwyck by calling him ‘Giant.'”
“He’s not a giant, though,” said Grenn, “and Paul was never small. Well, maybe when he was a babe at the breast, but not after. You did slay the Other, though, so it’s not the same.”
“I just . . . I never . . . I was scared!”
“No more than me. It’s only Pyp who says I’m too dumb to be frightened. I get as frightened as anyone.” Grenn bent to scoop up a split log, and tossed it into the fire. “I used to be scared of Jon, whenever I had to fight him. He was so quick, and he fought like he meant to kill me.” The green damp wood sat in the flames, smoking before it took fire. “I never said, though. Sometimes I think everyone is just pretending to be brave, and none of us really are. Maybe pretending is how you get brave, I don’t know. Let them call you Slayer, who cares?”
It may be a rather brief moment of encouragement rather than the heart of the chapter, but the echo back to the very first chapter of AGOT is way too deliberate not to be remarked upon. I think this is GRRM speaking to the audience as directly as he can without falling into didacticism – after all, there’s no way that a lapsed Catholic wouldn’t remember “act as ye have faith and faith will be given unto you” – about something he believes in deeply. (It also fits in well with his beliefs about existential heroism: you don’t do the right thing for the social reward, you do it because it’s the right thing to do, even if no one ever knows.)
The Meanings of Dragonglass
Adding to Samwell Tarly’s self-esteem problem is the fact that, just like his peers, he won’t give himself credit for his own victories. Instead, he externalizes that which is internal, looking past his decision to act despite his own fear, and treating the dragonglass as a reverse Dumbo’s feather:
“It was the dragonglass that slew it. Not me, the dragonglass.”
He had told them. He had told them all. Some of them didn’t believe him, he knew. Dirk had shown Sam his dirk and said, “I got iron, what do I want with glass?” Black Bernarr and the three Garths made it plain that they doubted his whole story, and Rolley of Sisterton came right out and said, “More like you stabbed some rustling bushes and it turned out to be Small Paul taking a shit, so you came up with a lie.”
Because Sam Tarly is a good person, however, he keeps trying to tell people about his literally world-saving discovery, even though some of his peers don’t believe him any more about the dragonglass any more than they believe him about the Other. Thankfully, because GRRM isn’t a nihilist about humanity any more than he is about anything else, some do:
But Dywen listened, and Dolorous Edd, and they made Sam and Grenn tell the Lord Commander. Mormont frowned all through the tale and asked pointed questions, but he was too cautious a man to shun any possible advantage. He asked Sam for all the dragonglass in his pack, though that was little enough. Whenever Sam thought of the cache Jon had found buried beneath the Fist, it made him want to cry. There’d been dagger blades and spearheads, and two or three hundred arrowheads at least. Jon had made daggers for himself, Sam, and Lord Commander Mormont, and he’d given Sam a spearhead, an old broken horn, and some arrowheads. Grenn had taken a handful of arrowheads as well, but that was all.
So now all they had was Mormont’s dagger and the one Sam had given Grenn, plus nineteen arrows and a tall hardwood spear with a black dragonglass head. The sentries passed the spear along from watch to watch, while Mormont had divided the arrows among his best bowmen. Muttering Bill, Garth Greyfeather, Ronnel Harclay, Sweet Donnel Hill, and Alan of Rosby had three apiece, and Ulmer had four. But even if they made every shaft tell, they’d soon be down to fire arrows like all the rest. They had loosed hundreds of fire arrows on the Fist, yet still the wights kept coming.
Thankfully, one of the people who do believe is Lord Commander Jeor Mormont. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about “the tragedy of Jeor Mormont is that he couldn’t quite break from his traditionalism,” but now I feel that this is somewhat inaccurate. To be more precise, I think the tragedy of Lord Jeor Mormont is that he was only able to break from his traditionalism when it was too late. Had this “too cautious a man” acted to distribute Jon’s dragonglass cache before the Battle at the Fist, he might have made his force a real danger to the Army of the Dead. Now that he’s finally made those changes to the Night’s Watch’s armaments, they no longer have the same metaphysical or human resources that they used to.
Which gives rise to an important question: where does the NIght’s Watch get more dragonglass, now that they squandered their first chance? In a broader thematic sense, how does the Night’s Watch redeem themselves for falling prey to mission creep?
…Lord Commander Mormont gave him a withering look. “You are a man of the Night’s Watch. Try not to soil your smallclothes every time I look at you. Come, I said.” His boots made squishing sounds in the mud, and Sam had to hurry to keep up. “I’ve been thinking about this dragonglass of yours.”
“It’s not mine,” Sam said.
“Jon Snow’s dragonglass, then. If dragonglass daggers are what we need, why do we have only two of them? Every man on the Wall should be armed with one the day he says his words.”
“We never knew . . .”
“We never knew! But we must have known once. The Night’s Watch has forgotten its true purpose, Tarly. You don’t build a wall seven hundred feet high to keep savages in skins from stealing women. The Wall was made to guard the realms of men . . . and not against other men, which is all the wildlings are when you come right down to it. Too many years, Tarly, too many hundreds and thousands of years. We lost sight of the true enemy. And now he’s here, but we don’t know how to fight him. Is dragonglass made by dragons, as the smallfolk like to say?”
“The m-maesters think not,” Sam stammered. “The maesters say it comes from the fires of the earth. They call it obsidian…Jon found more, on the Fist. Hundreds of arrowheads, spearheads as well . . .”
“So you said. Small good it does us there. To reach the Fist again we’d need to be armed with the weapons we won’t have until we reach the bloody Fist. And there are still the wildlings to deal with. We need to find dragonglass someplace else.”
Sam had almost forgotten about the wildlings, so much had happened since. “The children of the forest used dragonglass blades,” he said. “They’d know where to find obsidian.”
To be fair to Jeor Mormont, he does not bear sole responsibility that “the Night’s Watch has forgotten its true purpose.” That happened thousands of years ago, when the transmission of the memory of the Long Night failed. And it is to his credit that Jeor Mormont isn’t just correctly diagnosing the failures of the Night’s Watch – that “The Wall was made to guard the realms of men . . . and not against other men, which is all the wildlings are when you come right down to it.” – but starting to ask the right questions about the “someplace else” they can “find dragonglass.” (GRRM is foreshadowing pretty heavily here that both Daenerys’ dragons and Bran’s connection to the Children of the Forest will be crucial to the final battle against the Army of the Dead.)
On the other hand, we do have to admit that Jeor Mormont’s handling of the Great Ranging has left the Night’s Watch in a much weaker position to deal with this existential threat:
It will not be enough, Sam thought. Craster’s sloping palisades of mud and melting snow would hardly slow the wights, who’d climbed the much steeper slopes of the Fist to swarm over the ringwall. And instead of three hundred brothers drawn up in disciplined ranks to meet them, the wights would find forty-one ragged survivors, nine too badly hurt to fight. Forty-four had come straggling into Craster’s out of the storm, out of the sixty-odd who’d cut their way free of the Fist, but three of those had died of their wounds, and Bannen would soon make four.
Trying to Do the Right Thing On Your Way Out the Door
Following the writing advice that it’s good practice to, once you’ve pushed your characters out on a limb, to start sawing through the branch, GRRM takes this opportunity to make sure that the status quo can’t last by having Craster cut short their stay at his keep:
“I’ll be glad when you and yours are gone. Past time, I’m thinking.”
“As soon as our wounded are strong enough…”
“They’re strong as they’re like to get, old crow, and both of us know it. Them that’s dying, you know them too, cut their bloody throats and be done with it. Or leave them, if you don’t have the stomach, and I’ll sort them out myself.”
Lord Commander Mormont bristled. “Thoren Smallwood claimed you were a friend to the Watch—”
“Aye,” said Craster. “I gave you all I could spare, but winter’s coming on, and now the girl’s stuck me with another squalling mouth to feed.”
“We could take him,” someone squeaked.
Craster’s head turned. His eyes narrowed. He spat on Sam’s foot. “What did you say, Slayer?”
Sam opened and closed his mouth. “I…I…I only meant…if you didn’t want him…his mouth to feed…with winter coming on, we…we could take him, and…”
“My son. My blood. You think I’d give him to you crows?”
“I only thought…” You have no sons, you expose them, Gilly said as much, you leave them in the woods, that’s why you have only wives here, and daughters who grow up to be wives.
To begin with, while it’s true that guest-right isn’t unlimited and that hosts aren’t obliged to share their resources indefinitely and can cut short the relationship through the offering of guest-gifts, this is Craster breaking the custom in spirit if not in the letter. The whole point of guest-right in Northern culture is to ensure that people have some alternative to starvation and death by exposure during the long winters, and here Craster is not only sending sick and dying men out into the cold, but outright threatening murder to anyone who can’t walk away from his door.
And in the face of this kind of inhumanity, Sam makes his last-minute bid to try to save the life of Gilly’s son, because he knows that a man who can violate one norm will have no compunction breaking other ones. And, because it’s Sam, he immediately gets shit for it:
“Be quiet, Sam,” said Lord Commander Mormont. “You’ve said enough. Too much. Inside…how great a fool are you?” the old man said within, his voice choked and angry. “Even if Craster gave us the child, he’d be dead before we reached the Wall. We need a newborn babe to care for near as much as we need more snow. Do you have milk to feed him in those big teats of yours? Or did you mean to take the mother too?”
“She wants to come,” Sam said. “She begged me . . .”
Mormont raised a hand. “I will hear no more of this, Tarly. You’ve been told and told to stay well away from Craster’s wives.”
This is a good reminder that, however much Mormont is willing to change on the Others, his “too cautious” traditionalism is holding him back on other issues. He’s not deliberately trying to be cruel, he’s clearly not putting two and two together when it comes to what he knows about the Others and what he knows about Craster’s gods, but his conception of both guest-right and the duty of the Night’s Watch are too narrow, and Sam is clearly in the right here. On a philosophical level, Mormont himself said that the wildlings are men who the Night’s Watch is oath-bound to protect, and that includes Gilly and her baby. On a practical level, Mormont can’t or won’t understand that if Gilly’s baby stays at Craster’s Keep, Craster is going to murder that baby, so the fighting chance that the Night’s Watch offers is a clear improvement.
Mutiny: The Inciting Incident
At this point, the chapter’s tempo begins to accelerate, as if GRRM is steadily shifting gears upwards in anticipation of the climax. To my eyes, it resembles nothing so much as the reconstruction of a riot, starting from the inciting incident and not stopping until everything’s on fire:
But when he reached the fire, it was only to find Giant pulling a fur cloak up over Bannen’s head. “He said he was cold,” the small man said. “I hope he’s gone someplace warm, I do.”
“His wound….” said Sam.
“Bugger his wound.” Dirk prodded the corpse with his foot. “His foot was hurt. I knew a man back in my village lost a foot. He lived to nine-and-forty.”
“The cold,” said Sam. “He was never warm.”
“He was never fed,” said Dirk. “Not proper. That bastard Craster starved him dead.”
“…Craster’s got his own to feed,” said Giant. “All these women. He’s given us what he can.”
“Don’t you bloody believe it. The day we leave, he’ll tap a keg o’ mead and sit down to feast on ham and honey. And laugh at us, out starving in the snow. He’s a bloody wildling, is all he is. There’s none o’ them friends of the Watch.” He kicked at Bannen’s corpse. “Ask him if you don’t believe me.”
One of the common features of a riot is the creation of a folk myth, often revolving around an outrage that the community has to avenge. While there’s often a grain of truth that the myth is based on – an arrest, a claim of assault, a fight between rival gangs, and so forth – people begin to pread the story at the speed of rumor, and in the process the folk myth begins to mutate and become more extreme, inflaming public opinion, and so the crowd begins to gather.
Here, Bannen’s death is the inciting event. Even though his death was ultimately caused by the wound he took at the Fist of the First Men, compounded by a mix of shock and infection, the myth that Dirk is constructing is that “that bastard Craster starved him dead.” There’s an element of truth to what Dirk is saying – Craster has been neglecting his guests and giving them as little food and shelter as he can – but it’s based as much on an appeal to prejudice (“He’s a bloody wildling, is all he is. There’s none o’ them friends of the Watch.”) as it is on reason.
Even with this myth percolating in the minds of the Night’s Watch, things haven’t gone beyond the point of inevitability. Hence why Lord Mormont tries one more time to marshall the traditions of the Night’s Watch in the service of order and discipline:
“His name was Bannen,” Lord Commander Mormont said, as the flames took him. “He was a brave man, a good ranger. He came to us from…where did he come from?”
“Down White Harbor way,” someone called out.
Mormont nodded. “He came to us from White Harbor, and never failed in his duty. He kept his vows as best he could, rode far, fought fiercely. We shall never see his like again.”
“And now his watch is ended,” the black brothers said, in solemn chant.
“And now his watch is ended,” Mormont echoed.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work. Partially this is because Mormont’s skills as the kind of father-to-his-men commander that men respects fails him at the worst possible moment: he doesn’t remember who Bannen was or where he came from, because he’s seen too many men die and the names and faces are beginning to blur together, and so it’s painfully clear that Mormont’s phrases have become rote and generic, without any force of spirit behind them. Here again, Mormont isn’t entirely to blame, though, because there’s a “sharper spur” at work:
….the worst thing was the smell, though. If it had been a foul unpleasant smell he might have stood it, but his burning brother smelled so much like roast pork that Sam’s mouth began to water, and that was so horrible that as soon as the bird squawked “Ended” he ran behind the hall to throw up in the ditch.
“…Never knew Bannen could smell so good.” Edd’s tone was as morose as ever. “I had half a mind to carve a slice off him. If we had some applesauce, I might have done it. Pork’s always best with applesauce, I find.” Edd undid his laces and pulled out his cock. “You best not die, Sam, or I fear I might succumb. There’s bound to be more crackling on you than Bannen ever had, and I never could resist a bit of crackling.”
Sam II’s depiction of cannibalism is a mere amuse-bouche compared to the three-course meal we’re going to get in ADWD, but as Dolorous Edd reminds us, one of the reasons why the brothers of the Night’s Watch only get more unruly after Bannen’s funeral is that they’re starving and tormented by the smell of forbidden, human flesh roasting on the fire. In 1944, FDR said that “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorship is made;” here, we see the men of the Night’s Watch hit the breaking point where the demands of the flesh are beginning to speak more loudly than their consciences, let alone an old bear, can hope to.
Mutiny: The World Goes Mad
In a scene that works as a reheasal dinner to the Red Wedding (hat tip to @poorquentyn), things come to a head at a feast – but just as at the beginning of the chapter, all is inversion:
When Craster learned that his unwanted guests would be departing on the morrow, the wildling became almost amiable, or as close to amiable as Craster ever got. “Past time,” he said, “you don’t belong here, I told you that. All the same, I’ll see you off proper, with a feast. Well, a feed. My wives can roast them horses you slaughtered, and I’ll find some beer and bread.” He smiled his brown smile. “Nothing better than beer and horsemeat. If you can’t ride ’em, eat ’em, that’s what I say.”
…Craster owned but one chair. He sat in it, clad in a sleeveless sheepskin jerkin. His thick arms were covered with white hair, and about one wrist was a twisted ring of gold. Lord Commander Mormont took the place at the top of the bench to his right, while the brothers crowded in knee to knee; a dozen remained outside to guard the gate and tend the fires.
For once, Craster is borderline pleasant, but that’s because he’s feeding his guests with their own food and pretending that makes him a good host. But the limits of his hospitality are clear: he’s sitting in the only chair, and his benches aren’t big enough for the whole of the Great Ranging to actually receive the bounty of the hearth. This is a very inauspicious beginning for a group of hungry, touchy men “crowded in knee to knee.” And then, just as so often happens in riots, the crowd (primed by folk myth) is suddenly sparked into violence by a seemingly trivial catalyst:
“…Two loaves?” Clubfoot Karl complained from down the bench. “How stupid are you women? We need more bread than this!”
Lord Commander Mormont gave him a hard look. “Take what you’re given, and be thankful. Would you sooner be out in the storm eating snow?”
“We’ll be there soon enough.” Clubfoot Karl did not flinch from the Old Bear’s wrath. “I’d sooner eat what Craster’s hiding, my lord.”
Craster narrowed his eyes. “I gave you crows enough. I got me women to feed.”
Dirk speared a chunk of horsemeat. “Aye. So you admit you got a secret larder. How else to make it through a winter?”
“I’m a godly man…” Craster started.
“You’re a niggardly man,” said Karl, “and a liar.”
“Hams,” Garth of Oldtown said, in a reverent voice. “There were pigs, last time we come. I bet he’s got hams hid someplace. Smoked and salted hams, and bacon too…”
“Be quiet, all of you. This is folly.”
Karl, Dirk, and Garth of Oldtown are spurred to complaint because Craster is being practically Dickensianly tight-fisted with his food – two loaves of bread for twenty-eight men! And as much as rumor and sustenance-deprived imagination is driving them, they’re not wrong that Craster is hiding food from them. (Although there’s a darker possibility that Craster had to sacrifice his pigs as well as his sheep, which suggests a real drawback to this divine protection racket.) And one sign of that is that Craster doesn’t actually have a response to their arguments. After all, what can he do to them in the way of denying them guest-right that he hasn’t done already?
And then, too late, Lord Commander Mormont tries to avert disaster by asserting his rank and authority. The problem is that his men have almost gone beyond the limits of the chain of command, beyond fear of reprisal (echoing Grenn’s point that fear is actually quite useful, because it stops us from doing reckless things like mutinies):
…Craster looked fit to spit them all by then. Lord Commander Mormont rose. “Silence. I’ll hear no more such talk.”
“Then stuff bread in your ears, old man.” Clubfoot Karl pushed back from the table. “Or did you swallow your bloody crumb already?”
Sam saw the Old Bear’s face go red. “Have you forgotten who I am? Sit, eat, and be silent. That is a command.”
No one spoke. No one moved. All eyes were on the Lord Commander and the big clubfooted ranger, as the two of them stared at each other across the table. It seemed to Sam that Karl broke first, and was about to sit, though sullenly…
At the very tipping point, Craster decides to throw a tantrum because his feelings are hurt. More than almost any other character in ASOIAF, he doesn’t so much ask to be killed as aggressively demand it: bad enough that he’s confirming the worst suspicions of the rank-and-file by throwing out anyone who challenges him to “sleep in the cold with empty bellies,” but he’s doing it with weapon in hand, which as a threat works when facing unarmed women and children but not so much with armed men with nothing left to lose:
…but Craster stood, and his axe was in his hand. The big black steel axe that Mormont had given him as a guest gift. “No,” he growled. “You’ll not sit. No one who calls me niggard will sleep beneath my roof nor eat at my board. Out with you, cripple. And you and you and you.” He jabbed the head of the axe toward Dirk and Garth and Garth in turn. “Go sleep in the cold with empty bellies, the lot o’ you, or…”
“Bloody bastard!” Sam heard one of the Garths curse. He never saw which one.
“Who calls me bastard?” Craster roared, sweeping platter and meat and wine cups from the table with his left hand while lifting the axe with his right.
“It’s no more than all men know,” Karl answered.
Craster moved quicker than Sam would have believed possible, vaulting across the table with axe in hand. A woman screamed, Garth Greenaway and Orphan Oss drew knives, Karl stumbled back and tripped over Ser Byam lying wounded on the floor. One instant Craster was coming after him spitting curses. The next he was spitting blood. Dirk had grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back, and opened his throat ear to ear with one long slash. Then he gave him a rough shove, and the wildling fell forward, crashing face first across Ser Byam. Byam screamed in agony as Craster drowned in his own blood, the axe slipping from his fingers. Two of Craster’s wives were wailing, a third cursed, a fourth flew at Sweet Donnel and tried to scratch his eyes out. He knocked her to the floor. The Lord Commander stood over Craster’s corpse, dark with anger. “The gods will curse us,” he cried. “There is no crime so foul as for a guest to bring murder into a man’s hall. By all the laws of the hearth, we—”
The irony is that if the mutineers had stopped here, I think they might have escaped at least part of the curse: Craster violates guest-right first by drawing steel on guests under his roof and trying to kill them right before the mutineers kill him in arguable self-defense. But hunger, however justified, is not ennobling, and the mutineers don’t stop at Craster, but ginned-up on adrenaline go after his wives, who are also their hosts and who haven’t offered them violence:
“There are no laws beyond the Wall, old man. Remember?” Dirk grabbed one of Craster’s wives by the arm, and shoved the point of his bloody dirk up under her chin. “Show us where he keeps the food, or you’ll get the same as he did, woman.”
“Unhand her.” Mormont took a step. “I’ll have your head for this, you—”
Garth of Greenaway blocked his path, and Ollo Lophand yanked him back. They both had blades in hand. “Hold your tongue,” Ollo warned. Instead the Lord Commander grabbed for his dagger. Ollo had only one hand, but that was quick. He twisted free of the old man’s grasp, shoved the knife into Mormont’s belly, and yanked it out again, all red. And then the world went mad.
And so dies Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, in righteous defense of an innocent woman, in the same spirit as Yoren and all the other secondary characters who decide to risk their lives for an existential victory.
Witnessing all of this, Sam Tarly finds his own mental breaking point, and just as he did on the retreat from the Fist of the First Men, dissassociates. Only to find himself waking to fresh horror:
Later, much later, Sam found himself sitting crosslegged on the floor, with Mormont’s head in his lap. He did not remember how they’d gotten there, or much of anything else that had happened after the Old Bear was stabbed. Garth of Greenaway had killed Garth of Oldtown, he recalled, but not why. Rolley of Sisterton had fallen from the loft and broken his neck after climbing the ladder to have a taste of Craster’s wives. Grenn…
Grenn had shouted and slapped him, and then he’d run away with Giant and Dolorous Edd and some others. Craster still sprawled across Ser Byam, but the wounded knight no longer moaned. Four men in black sat on the bench eating chunks of burned horsemeat while Ollo coupled with a weeping woman on the table.
“Tarly.” When he tried to speak, the blood dribbled from the Old Bear’s mouth down into his beard. “Tarly, go. Go.”
“Where, my lord?” His voice was flat and lifeless. I am not afraid. It was a queer feeling. “There’s no place to go.”
“The Wall. Make for the Wall. Now.”
“Now,” squawked the raven. “Now. Now.” The bird walked up the old man’s arm to his chest, and plucked a hair from his beard.
“You must. Must tell them.”
“Tell them what, my lord?” Sam asked politely.
“All. The Fist. The wildlings. Dragonglass. This. All.” His breathing was very shallow now, his voice a whisper. “Tell my son. Jorah. Tell him, take the black. My wish. Dying wish…tell Jorah. Forgive him. My son. Please. Go.”
“It’s too far,” said Sam. “I’ll never reach the Wall, my lord.” He was so very tired. All he wanted was to sleep, to sleep and sleep and never wake, and he knew that if he just stayed here soon enough Dirk or Ollo Lophand or Clubfoot Karl would get angry with him and grant his wish, just to see him die. “I’d sooner stay with you. See, I’m not frightened anymore. Of you, or… of anything.”
As the discussion of fear earlier in the chapter suggests, far from it being a mark of heroism that Sam is without fear in this moment, it’s a sign that he’s so traumatized that he wants to die, to “sleep and sleep and never wake” (GRRM cribbing from the Bard a bit there). What Sam needs is a reason to live, which Jeor Mormont tries to give him, by ordering him to ensure that the knowledge gained during the disaster of the Great Ranging won’t be lost, that there’s still some hope that the realm can be saved. The fact that Jeor brings up his son in this moment is highly significant; while Mormont talks about forgiveness (for Jorah’s crimes and attempt to evade justice, presumably), I think what he’s actually talking about is redemption: he’s looking to Jorah to pick up Jeor’s burden of duty to the realm and by doing so, find some absolution for father and son both.
However, this Extremely Manly discussion is interrupted by Craster’s wives, who finally are allowed to speak and offer an entirely different reason for Sam to live:
“The blackest crows are down in the cellar, gorging,” said the old woman on the left, “or up in the loft with the young ones. They’ll be back soon, though. Best you be gone when they do. The horses run off, but Dyah’s caught two.”
“You said you’d help me,” Gilly reminded him.
“…Where?” asked Sam, puzzled. “Where should I take her?”
“Someplace warm,” the two old women said as one.
Gilly was crying. “Me and the babe. Please. I’ll be your wife, like I was Craster’s. Please, ser crow. He’s a boy, just like Nella said he’d be. If you don’t take him, they will.”
“They?” said Sam, and the raven cocked its black head and echoed, “They. They. They.”
“The boy’s brothers,” said the old woman on the left. “Craster’s sons. The white cold’s rising out there, crow. I can feel it in my bones. These poor old bones don’t lie. They’ll be here soon, the sons.”
When placed in the scales side-by-side, Sam’s duty to preserve the life of a mother and child from the imminent threat of the “blackest crows” can’t help but outweigh the hoary tropes of patriarchal burdens and blessings. Added on top of that is the Old Nan-like warning that Gilly’s boy faces supernatural threats as well. This brings us to an important question: what are Craster’s sons coming as? Unlike in the show, I don’t think it’s the case that the White Walkers are turning his sons into White Walkers. GRRM’s been pretty clear in various interviews and ancillary materials that the White Walkers are their own species, far more akin to the Unseelie or the Wild Hunt than a biological weapon. Rather, I think Craster’s sons are coming back as wights…and anyone who thinks the thought of reanimated infants isn’t terrifying clearly needs to rewatch Trainspotting.
When it comes to guest-right, I’ve already said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject here, so I’ll just leave the link there and move on to discussing historical mutinies.
When it comes to parallels with the mutiny at Craster’s Keep, we can exclude cases of slave mutinies such as the Amistad or the mutinies of exploited Chinese workers in the late 19th century. Similarly, it doesn’t really resemble the more ideological mutinies like Barrackpore or the the rebellion of Indian soldiers against the British Raj in 1857, which were directed against imperialism, or the Kiel or Potemkin mutinies, which were inspired by revolutionary socialism and anti-war sentiments.
Rather, I would argue that the Craster’s Keep mutiny most closely resembles the classic naval mutinies of the 17th and 18th centuries, where we see rank-and-file sailors rebelling against the discipline of the lash and then looking for some refuge by taking the ship to some friendly harbor. At the same time, we can’t romanticize these revolts: while the Hermione mutiny might have been justified by the cruelty and arbitrary decisions of the captain, alcohol fuelled truly unnecessary killing of ten men who bore little blame; similarly, the Batavia mutineers started off with sexual assault and then graduated to the murder of over a hundred innocent people. And of course, we can’t forget the Discovery Mutiny and the Mutiny on the Bounty, where expeditions far from home sought to make their way home (or find a better home) by overthrowing and marooning their captioans.
As in any case where knives break out in close quarters, there is a wide scope for hypotheticals here. These are just some of the possibilities:
- No massacre/Mormont survives? Let’s say that Craster keeps his temper and Mormont succeeds in keeping order for just long enough to get the remnants of the Great Ranging away from Craster’s Keep. This is where things start to change. Not only do a lot of people, unfortunately including Craster, survive, but this means that the remnants of the ranging are there at Whitetree when Coldhands shows up, and go through the Wall at the Black Gate. This could change things dramatically: does Mormont let Bran go beyond the Wall? While Mormont living means that the leadership during the battle for the Wall is quite different (for one thing, Castle Black now has forty more veteran fighters, or doesn’t if there’s a massacre but Mormont survives), does this change Mormont’s mind about Mance Rayder’s offer, or produce a different counter-offer?
- Sam dies? This is the clear Darkest Timeline scenario, because without Sam Tarly, the metaphysical plot goes badly awry. Bran’s got no way to get over or through the Wall, which means he can’t link up with Coldhands, and at best is delivered into the tender mercies of Selyse Baratheon. While some small shred of information about what happened to the Great Ranging might survive, the vital information about the dragonglass is lost, and doesn’t make it to either Stannis’ or Jon Snow’s ears. For the want of a nail, the world may be lost.
Book v. Show:
While largely faithful to the books, I think we start to see in this Season 3 scene some of the problems that would later envelop the show. The building up of Karl Tanner, the “fookin legend of gin alley” starts here. Moreover, we start to see more of an emphasis on grand guignol over themes, with Mormont’s death turned into a “badass” moment instead of the emphasis being on his dying words. It’s not as bad as what will happen in Season 4, with some truly egregious depictions of sexual assault as mere scene dressing intended to spice up a pretty clear narrative detour meant to give Jon Snow something to do until the season finale, but I think the signs are there.
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