In A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow spends the majority of his chapters, his thoughts, and his time focused on two basic tasks. He tries to make peace with the wildlings, and he tries to prepare the Watch to face the Others. And he appears to be succeeding at both. Toward the end of the book, there’s a Jon chapter depicting his triumphant peaceful welcoming of over three thousand wildlings through the Wall. And the chapter closes with a teaser that seemingly promises imminent Others action:
Cotter Pyke had made his angry mark below. “Is it grievous, my lord?” asked Clydas.
“Grievous enough.” Dead things in the wood. Dead things in the water. Six ships left, of the eleven that set sail. Jon Snow rolled up the parchment, frowning. Night falls, he thought, and now my war begins. (ADWD JON XII)
But… then there’s one more Jon chapter in the book.
Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. “You were right to come at once,” Jon said. You were right to be afraid. (ADWD JON XIII)
The Pink Letter is one of the craziest, most unexpected plot twists GRRM has ever served up. Everything at the Wall instantly changes because of it. There’s been endless speculation about whether what it says is true, or whether it was even written by Ramsay. We won’t know for sure until TWOW is released.
However, the very fact that Martin chose to end Jon’s arc with the Pink Letter and its aftermath is important and revealing. Though it seems so completely unexpected, it actually isn’t just a random curveball. A closer look at Jon’s arc reveals that the Letter is a logical and thematically appropriate consequence of decisions Jon has chosen to make throughout the book.
Jon’s arc in ADWD, like Dany’s, is very cleverly designed by Martin as a test of his core values. But while Dany’s wrenching moral struggles were front and center, Jon’s take the form of subtle temptations. Most of Jon’s screentime, as mentioned, shows his impressively competent and far-sighted leadership regarding the wildlings and the Others. These actions involve very little moral compromise on his part, and his main antagonists on those fronts are small-minded bigots. So it’s no accident that Jon comes off looking quite good.
Yet, interspersed with all this, every few chapters, Martin presents Jon with a new temptation to get involved in the affairs of the North in some way. These temptations differ, and while some play into Jon’s more selfish desires, the crueler ones take advantage of Jon’s deep-seated moral impulses — justice, compassion, and love. Can Jon “take no part” if it means a monster will win a war against a righteous man? If it means his sister will be raped for the rest of her life by the devil incarnate? If it means some other young girl will be forcibly married and raped by her uncle? And what if “taking part” in any of these means placing the Watch and its larger struggle at great risk?
These questions are the heart of the arc Martin has built for Jon in ADWD. Jon’s answers reveal what he values most, and what kind of a person and ruler he is becoming. For as the book goes on, Jon starts giving in to these temptations to “take part” more and more. And in each case, Jon decides what to do quickly, and then moves on to deal with other issues, with the consequences of his choices not immediately apparent.
But his choices matter, and they will lead inexorably to his downfall.
Jon’s Duty: The Larger Struggle
Let’s begin by reviewing why the Night’s Watch matters at all. Its ultimate purpose is to protect the realm from threats outside it. This is the cause Jon swore to join back in Book 1. And since that book, it has been made clear that joining that cause means abandoning your concern for what actually transpires in that realm:
“The men who formed the Night’s Watch knew that only their courage shielded the realm from the darkness to the north. They knew they must have no divided loyalties to weaken their resolve. So they vowed they would have no wives nor children. Yet brothers they had, and sisters. Mothers who gave them birth, fathers who gave them names. They came from a hundred quarrelsome kingdoms, and they knew times may change, but men do not. So they pledged as well that the Night’s Watch would take no part in the battles of the realms it guarded. They kept their pledge. When Aegon slew Black Harren and claimed his kingdom, Harren’s brother was Lord Commander on the Wall, with ten thousand swords to hand. He did not march. In the days when the Seven Kingdoms were seven kingdoms, not a generation passed that three or four of them were not at war. The Watch took no part. When the Andals crossed the narrow sea and swept away the kingdoms of the First Men, the sons of the fallen kings held true to their vows and remained at their posts. So it has always been, for years beyond counting.” (AGOT JON VIII)
When analyzing the Night’s Watch vows, some fans get a bit stuck on the precise wording of the vows, or whether Jon is in technical breach of them or in technical compliance with them. But the technicalities don’t really matter, and are overshadowed by the purpose of the vows, and the Watch itself. The Night’s Watch is meant to take no part in the affairs of the realm so it can focus on larger threats — the foremost of which, it seems clear by ADWD, are the Others, who Jon has every reason to believe are coming in force to try and wipe out humanity. The implication is clear — involvement in the realm’s issues, even if it’s for seemingly good reasons, can jeopardize the Watch’s position and its mission.
That’s why the tradition of the Watch taking no part exists. Not so the sworn brothers can be pure moral exemplars. Not because tradition is good in and of itself. But because breaking this tradition could have very real costs to the Watch’s unique and irreplaceable role as the realm’s last bastion of defense. If the kings and lords of the realm become angry at the Watch, they could ensure that there will be no more Watch, and thus no more defense. Keep this in mind.
Jon’s Noble Heart
The first three books have established that Jon has the instincts and morality of a traditional hero — he wants to do good, do justice, and help people. One of his particularly essential traits is a fierce and innate desire to protect the weak and the innocent. In AGOT, he protected the weak and cowardly Samwell during training. In ACOK, he refused to execute Ygritte. And in ASOS, he refused the wildlings’ orders to execute an old man. Let’s pause on that last one for a second:
You must not balk, whatever is asked of you. Ride with them, eat with them, fight with them… but this old man had offered no resistance. He had been unlucky, that was all. Who he was, where he came from, where he meant to go on his sorry sway-backed horse… none of it mattered. He is an old man, Jon told himself. Fifty, maybe even sixty. He lived a longer life than most. The Thenns will kill him anyway, nothing I can say or do will save him. Longclaw seemed heavier than lead in his hand, too heavy to lift. The man kept staring at him, with eyes as big and black as wells. I will fall into those eyes and drown. The Magnar was looking at him too, and he could almost taste the mistrust. The man is dead. What matter if it is my hand that slays him? One cut would do it, quick and clean. Longclaw was forged of Valyrian steel. Like Ice. Jon remembered another killing; the deserter on his knees, his head rolling, the brightness of blood on snow . . . his father’s sword, his father’s words, his father’s face… (ASOS JON V)
Jon’s refusal to kill the old man calls to mind this exchange:
“What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”
“Everything,” said Davos, softly. (ASOS DAVOS V)
However, Jon’s situation isn’t quite the same as burning an innocent because of dubiously-reliable prophecies to hopefully maybe wake a dragon so he can try to conquer a continent. Jon was with a wildling raiding party ready to attack Castle Black from the south. He knew he was the only one who could warn his brothers of the attack. He knew that if he refused to kill this old man, the wildlings would kill the guy anyway, and would kill Jon too for good measure. And he knew Qhorin commanded him to do anything asked of him. Overall, Jon knew that his mercy would have enormous costs here — but, thinking of Ned, he refused to do it. It was a line he wouldn’t cross.
Jon’s choice here seems inspiring and moral… but is it? It’s certainly a horrible thing he’s being asked to do. But when one considers the obvious consequences even for a second, his choice seems tremendously foolish and likely to result in many, many more deaths. Indeed, the old man does die anyway, so Jon’s only actual victory is preserving his moral purity. Martin then needs a case of all-but-divine intervention to get Jon out of this situation — as Summer appears out of nowhere to save his life, thus allowing him to go warn the Watch anyway. Usually, Martin is famous for making his characters’ choices have consequences, but here, he pulls the strings pretty blatantly to protect Jon from the obvious consequences of his choice. He lets him have it both ways here… but he won’t do so forever.
Jon has been committed to the Watch and its larger struggle since Book 1, in the face of temptations designed by Martin. But in the first three books of the series, Jon’s moral dilemmas regarding his duty to the Watch were rather simple and straightforward — they were all variations on, “Should I stay or should I go?” Three times he was tempted to leave the Night’s Watch. First, he is tempted by Ned’s arrest and execution, and Robb’s war — but after a brief attempt to leave, his friends help bring him back. Second, he is tempted by his love for Ygritte — but he abandons the wildlings, to defend his brothers against them. Third, he is tempted by Stannis, with an offer of legitimacy and of Winterfell — but he refuses, recommitting himself to the Watch again.
Now, if you look at all three of those cases, in each one, Martin presents loyalty to the Watch as the unambiguously morally correct decision. Stopping the Others is obviously more important than joining Robb’s army. The wildlings were attacking the Watch, not the other way around. And accepting Stannis’ offer would have gotten Jon a last name and title, but couldn’t have helped his family. A desire for vengeance without any power to achieve it, a love that’s obviously doomed and based on false pretenses from the start, and a selfish desire for recognition — one can’t really justify abandoning a struggle for the fate of humanity for any of those rather ignoble desires. So Jon gets elected Lord Commander, good triumphs over bad, loyalty over selfishness, his friends all cheer, and we readers get the warm and fuzzies. For now.
How Jon’s noble heart can conflict with his duties
But in ADWD, Martin will presents Jon with a new set of temptations. These are very different from the previous ones, for two main reasons: (1) They’re no longer about staying or going — they’re about how Jon should use his power. (2) Rather than being forced to chose between the Watch and his selfish desires, he must chose between his duties and his noble desires.
Before jumping into these new temptations, let’s revisit one more scene from an earlier book. Many readers have analyzed Aemon’s famous speech about how love is the bane of honor and the death of duty. Yet there’s another early Jon scene that, for me, looms over ADWD, and it provides the quote I’ve used to title this essay. In it, Martin establishes who Jon is and how his heroic instincts can conflict with his duties to the Watch and its larger struggle:
“How is it you came to know this?” the Old Bear asked him. “From one of Craster’s wives?”
“Yes, my lord,” Jon confessed. “I would sooner not tell you which. She was frightened and wanted help.”
“The wide world is full of people wanting help, Jon. Would that some could find the courage to help themselves. Craster sprawls in his loft even now, stinking of wine and lost to sense. On his board below lies a sharp new axe. Were it me, I’d name it ‘Answered Prayer’ and make an end.”
Yes. Jon thought of Gilly. She and her sisters. They were nineteen, and Craster was one, but…
“Yet it would be an ill day for us if Craster died. Your uncle could tell you of the times Craster’s Keep made the difference between life and death for our rangers.”
“My father…” He hesitated. “Go on, Jon. Say what you would say.”
“My father once told me that some men are not worth having,” Jon finished. “A bannerman who is brutal or unjust dishonors his liege lord as well as himself.” (ACOK JON III)
So here once again, Jon wants to help someone who’s weak and innocent — and as he does when he’s told to kill the old man, he thinks of Ned. It’s a true heroic instinct. But Mormont’s response is crucial. He argues that the desire to right all the world’s wrongs conflicts not just with pragmatism, but with the very purpose and duties of the Watch:
“Craster is his own man. He has sworn us no vows. Nor is he subject to our laws. Your heart is noble, Jon, but learn a lesson here. We cannot set the world to rights. That is not our purpose. The Night’s Watch has other wars to fight.”
Other wars. Yes. I must remember. (ACOK JON III)
Once Jon is Lord Commander, will he remember? Or will he follow his noble heart?