Jon has a noble heart and a hero’s mentality. And any true hero will be willing to take great risks to protect an innocent person in danger. When a maiden is in danger, the knight risks his life, defeats the monster, and saves her. That’s how it works in all the stories.
But now Jon has power, and with that comes responsibility. For a ruler, the hero’s instinct to take great risks to help the individual can be disastrous. In real life, if you take enough risks, you’ll eventually stop getting lucky. And rulers have the responsibility for a great many lives. Jon has the responsibility to protect a whole continent, or all of humanity, depending on your preference.
Jon spends much of his ADWD screentime attempting to win over the wildlings, and responsibly preparing the Wall to face the Others. His leadership on both of these fronts is downright visionary. But, interspersed with all this, Martin sneakily and repeatedly presents Jon with moral dilemmas involving individual innocents in danger, who cannot be helped without some risk to the Watch and the larger struggle. Again and again, Jon must choose whether he will use his power to help these innocents, despite that risk. I wrote in Part I that Jon’s earlier temptations to stray from his Watch duties mainly involved his ignoble desires. Now, Jon is being tempted by his heroic instincts — his “noble heart.”
Mormont told Jon at Craster’s Keep that “the wide world is full of people wanting help,” but “the Night’s Watch has other wars to fight.” Now, in ADWD, many people need Jon’s help — first an infant, then his sister, then a teenage girl, and finally a large group of wildling civilians at Hardhome. Much of Jon’s arc revolves around his choices about whether to use his power to help them, and what his choices might mean for the Watch and the larger struggle.
An Infant in Danger
In his very first chapters, Jon fears Stannis will burn Mance’s baby, and decides to act to prevent this. We see in Jon’s thoughts that he is motivated purely by moral outrage:
Aemon had demurred. “There is power in a king’s blood,” the old maester had warned, “and better men than Stannis have done worse things than this.” The king can be harsh and unforgiving, aye, but a babe still on the breast? Only a monster would give a living child to the flames. (JON I)
“Refuse, and the boy will burn. Not on the morrow, nor the day after … but soon, whenever Melisandre needs to wake a dragon or raise a wind or work some other spell requiring king’s blood. Mance will be ash and bone by then, so she will claim his son for the fire, and Stannis will not deny her. If you do not take the boy away, she will burn him.” (JON II)
Jon then uses extremely inventive, pragmatic, and somewhat cruel methods to swap Mance’s baby with Gilly’s — threatening Gilly, deceiving Stannis, separating a mother from her child. But regardless of his methods, Jon’s goal is a purely moral one, with no benefit whatsoever to the Watch or its larger struggle. It is all to prevent one baby from being burned. It actually places the Watch and the larger struggle at some risk — or at least Jon’s own life, he thinks:
“If she knew, she would have taken the boy away from us. Dalla’s boy, not your monster. A word in the king’s ear would have been the end of it.” And of me. Stannis would have taken it for treason. (JON VIII)
Overall, it recalls the moment when Jon refused to kill the old man in ASOS, even though it almost certainly meant the death of the old man, Jon himself, and a surprise wildling attack on Castle Black. Here again, Jon tries to protect one innocent, even though his actions mean a risk to the larger struggle. In this case, things seem to go smoothly, and the worst possibilities Jon risked do not come to pass.
But not all of Jon’s gambles will work out so well.
A Sister in Danger – The Temptation
After Stannis marches south, there is a period of quiet at the Wall, where Jon works on practical matters to prepare the Wall for the Others, tries to win over the wildlings, and waits for news from Stannis. This quiet is broken, several times, when Martin dangles innocents in danger in front of Jon, and asks whether Jon will help them. The next innocent to be dangled in such a way is Arya.
His heart seemed to stop for a moment. No, that is not possible. She died in King’s Landing, with Father.
“Lord Snow?” Clydas peered at him closely with his dim pink eyes. “Are you … unwell? You seem …”
“He’s to marry Arya Stark. My little sister.” Jon could almost see her in that moment, long-faced and gawky, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, with her dirty face and tangled hair. They would wash the one and comb the other, he did not doubt, but he could not imagine Arya in a wedding gown, nor Ramsay Bolton’s bed. No matter how afraid she is, she will not show it. If he tries to lay a hand on her, she’ll fight him.
“Your sister,” Iron Emmett said, “how old is …”
By now she’d be eleven, Jon thought. Still a child. “I have no sister. Only brothers. Only you.” Lady Catelyn would have rejoiced to hear those words, he knew. That did not make them easier to say. His fingers closed around the parchment. Would that they could crush Ramsay Bolton’s throat as easily. (JON VI)
Jon’s instinctual desire to help his sister is, of course, a reprisal of the “vows vs. family” dilemma he faced in Book 1, when he toyed with leaving the Watch to help Ned, and then actually tried to leave the Watch to avenge Ned and help Robb. The dilemma was framed by Aemon here:
“Three times the gods saw fit to test my vows. Once when I was a boy, once in the fullness of my manhood, and once when I had grown old. By then my strength was fled, my eyes grown dim, yet that last choice was as cruel as the first. My ravens would bring the news from the south, words darker than their wings, the ruin of my House, the death of my kin, disgrace and desolation. What could I have done, old, blind, frail? I was helpless as a suckling babe, yet still it grieved me to sit forgotten as they cut down my brother’s poor grandson, and his son, and even the little children . . . ” (AGOT JON VIII)
At the end of ASOS, Jon turned down Stannis’ offer of Winterfell, and most fans thought he was done with “vows vs. family” dilemmas. But the Winterfell Jon rejected was a burnt-out shell, offered by a rebel claimant with no foothold in the North (or much of anywhere), and there were no more family members left for Jon to try and save. Now, with the revelation that Arya is not only alive but seemingly in dire circumstances, the issue has been reopened. He desperately wants to help her, but tries to convince himself that he cannot:
Jon felt as stiff as a man of sixty years. Dark dreams, he thought, and guilt. His thoughts kept returning to Arya. There is no way I can help her. I put all kin aside when I said my words. If one of my men told me his sister was in peril, I would tell him that was no concern of his. Once a man had said the words his blood was black. Black as a bastard’s heart. He’d had Mikken make a sword for Arya once, a bravo’s blade, made small to fit her hand. Needle. He wondered if she still had it. Stick them with the pointy end, he’d told her, but if she tried to stick the Bastard, it could mean her life.
“Snow,” muttered Lord Mormont’s raven. “Snow, snow.”
Suddenly he could not suffer it a moment longer. (JON VI)
I usually don’t like to read too much into the raven’s words… but in this case, I have to wonder whether Jon is being reminded that he’s a Snow and not a Stark. Jon instead leaves the raven, and walks outside with Ghost, where he finds someone who will give the opposite advice. What unfolds is an amazingly spooky scene, filled with symbolic and thematic meaning:
He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon Snow reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin.
In the shadow of the Wall, the direwolf brushed up against his fingers. For half a heartbeat the night came alive with a thousand smells, and Jon Snow heard the crackle of the crust breaking on a patch of old snow. Someone was behind him, he realized suddenly. Someone who smelled warm as a summer day.
When he turned he saw Ygritte. (JON VI)
Ygritte is a symbol of what Jon has lost by sticking to his Night’s Watch vows in the past. She also tempted Jon to oathbreak. And once the glamor vanishes, standing there in place of Ygritte is Jon’s new chief temptress, Melisandre. (Given her earlier quotation of “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she seems to have seen something of Jon and Ygritte’s relationship in the flames.) Melisandre wastes little time, and suggests the temptation almost immediately:
“Do not despair, Lord Snow. Despair is a weapon of the enemy, whose name may not be spoken. Your sister is not lost to you.” (JON VI)
Jon tries to reject it, but can barely even speak the words:
“I have no sister.” The words were knives. What do you know of my heart, priestess? What do you know of my sister?
Melisandre seemed amused. “What is her name, this little sister that you do not have?”
“Arya.” His voice was hoarse. “My half-sister, truly …” (JON VI)
Melisandre then tells Jon by saying she has seen a vision showing Arya fleeing from her marriage, and coming to Jon. She pulls a trick with Ghost to demonstrate her apparent power. After this, she articulates Martin’s theme for the scene:
“Your Wall is a queer place, but there is power here, if you will use it. Power in you, and in this beast. You resist it, and that is your mistake. Embrace it. Use it.” (Melisandre, JON VI)
Jon has been telling himself that he should tie his hands. That he should not do what he truly wants, and help Arya, because of his obligations to the Watch. Melisandre offers a different vision. I can give you what you want. You have the power to get it. Use it!
“Every man who walks the earth casts a shadow on the world. Some are thin and weak, others long and dark. You should look behind you, Lord Snow. The moon has kissed you and etched your shadow upon the ice twenty feet tall.”
Jon glanced over his shoulder. The shadow was there, just as she had said, etched in moonlight against the Wall. A girl in grey on a dying horse, he thought. Coming here, to you. Arya. He turned back to the red priestess. Jon could feel her warmth. She has power. The thought came unbidden, seizing him with iron teeth… (JON VI)
What follows is the theme’s counterpoint, laden with ominous foreshadowing:
…but this was not a woman he cared to be indebted to, not even for his little sister. “Dalla told me something once. Val’s sister, Mance Rayder’s wife. She said that sorcery was a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.” (JON VI)
On the surface, this is about sorcery, but the subtext is about Jon’s use of his power in general. It can be tempting, to use it to get what you want, to transform and reshape the world to fit your desires. But such actions can also be disastrous, particularly for someone in Jon’s position, and they will prove to be in this case. Melisandre closes the scene by predicting that three of Jon’s rangers will soon come back dead and eyeless. She says that if only Jon listened to her, he could have averted this. and we end with this beautifully evocative passage, summing up the temptation once more:
“Remember that when you behold the blind and ravaged faces of your dead. And come that day, take my hand.” The mist rose from her pale flesh, and for a moment it seemed as if pale, sorcerous flames were playing about her fingers. “Take my hand,” she said again, “and let me save your sister.” (JON VI)
The Mance Mission – Jon’s Decision
Martin then makes the curious decision to present the following chapter, in which Melisandre reveals Mance Rayder’s survival and suggests Jon send him south to save his sister, from Melisandre’s point of view rather than Jon’s. This is a bit of narrative sleight of hand. The prior scene was so obviously framed as a temptation, and Jon quite obviously felt it was a temptation… but Melisandre herself doesn’t think it’s a temptation at all:
“He is not you. He made his vows and means to live by them. The Night’s Watch takes no part. But you are not Night’s Watch. You can do what he cannot.” (MELISANDRE I)
This decision was arguably necessary because we readers have been distrusting Melisandre since Book 2 — we’re even more predisposed to distrust her than Jon is, particularly because we’ve seen her almost entirely from Davos’ POV. One can imagine, in the absence of this chapter, readers yelling, “She’s up to something! Don’t trust her, you idiot!” Martin seems to have felt that the best way to counterbalance that, was to expose us to Melisandre’s surprisingly well-intentioned inner thoughts. We find out that she thinks Davos is pretty cool, she truly thinks Stannis is Azor Ahai, she is a true believer in her faith and really wants to stop the Great Other, and that she is really honestly trying to see the future and describe it, despite sometimes misreading it.
This lulls us into a bit of a false sense of security about what her proposal truly means, especially because Melisandre herself thinks her idea is totally consistent with Jon’s vows. But Melisandre is the very embodiment of “the end justifies the means,” and her ally in this, Mance, is the very embodiment of Night’s Watch oathbreaking! The priestess’s definition of staying true to the Night’s Watch vows is quite a bit less strict than Aemon’s was, and the chapter ends with her version, absent any rebuttal:
“I told you that the Lord of Light would hear your prayers. You wanted a way to save your little sister and still hold fast to the honor that means so much to you, to the vows you swore before your wooden god.” She pointed with a pale finger. “There he stands, Lord Snow. Arya’s deliverance. A gift from the Lord of Light … and me.” (MELISANDRE I)
Martin skips past Jon’s response, and his next chapter shows him dealing with practical Watch issues, swearing in new trainees, wooing more wildlings (and the giant Wun Wun) to come to the Wall, and receiving news from Stannis. Only in the chapter’s final paragraphs does Martin reveal Jon’s acceptance of Mel’s offer, and give us a hint of his internal conflict on the matter:
A grey girl on a dying horse, fleeing from her marriage. On the strength of those words he had loosed Mance Rayder and six spearwives on the north. “Young ones, and pretty,” Mance had said. The unburnt king supplied some names, and Dolorous Edd had done the rest, smuggling them from Mole’s Town. It seemed like madness now. He might have done better to strike down Mance the moment he revealed himself. Jon had a certain grudging admiration for the late King-Beyond-the-Wall, but the man was an oathbreaker and a turncloak. He had even less trust in Melisandre. Yet somehow here he was, pinning his hopes on them. All to save my sister. But the men of the Night’s Watch have no sisters.
When Jon had been a boy at Winterfell, his hero had been the Young Dragon, the boy king who had conquered Dorne at the age of fourteen. Despite his bastard birth, or perhaps because of it, Jon Snow had dreamed of leading men to glory just as King Daeron had, of growing up to be a conqueror. Now he was a man grown and the Wall was his, yet all he had were doubts. He could not even seem to conquer those. (JON VII)
Wait a Minute… What Just Happened There?
Jon’s decision here is presented elliptically, barely even dwelled on, and its consequences are postponed, but it’s one of the book’s most crucial turning points.
For Jon himself, it is a choice of family over the Watch and his vows. It’s a rejection of the idea that his “blood is black” and that he “has no sister.” It’s a decision made because of his very noble desire to help an individual he loves escape a terrible fate. And it’s a decision, in Melisandre’s framing, to use his power to try to achieve what he wants, rather than accepting that his responsibilities to the Watch tie his hands.
Most importantly, Jon’s decision places the Watch and the larger struggle at immense risk. The Bolton claim to Winterfell depends on Arya. Jon’s attempt to “rescue” her, if exposed, is absolutely certain to be perceived as an act of war meant to undermine their regime, and guaranteed to result in retaliation against the Watch. The outcome here shows why the Night’s Watch vows are so important — not merely because sticking to one’s vows is “honorable,” but because family entanglements and interference in the affairs of the realm place the Watch in danger.
In effect, Jon has gambled the fate of humanity and the future of the Watch on his desire to help his sister…. gambled, and apparently lost:
You told the world you burned the King-Beyond- the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me. I will have my bride back… I want my bride back. (JON XIII)
The Pink Letter’s appearance effectively ruins Jon’s project at the Wall and ends his preparation for war against the Others. And regardless of the Letter’s accuracy or authorship, it is a consequence of Jon’s decision to agree to the Mance mission.
If Ramsay is the author, the Letter is a particularly obvious consequence of Jon’s actions. In our several chapters where we get a look at the Boltons, there is no evidence of any Bolton anger directed at Jon, or any Bolton plots against Jon — indeed, there’s little indication he’s even on their radar. The Mance mission risked placing a big fat target on the Watch, utterly debunking any Watch claims of neutrality, and giving the Boltons actually quite a good case that Jon had committed an act of war against them. A scenario involving Mance’s exposure, Jon’s implication, and Bolton retaliation against the Watch was always one completely obvious potential way the Mance mission could end.
Even if Ramsay is not the author, the Letter could not have existed in anything like that form without Jon’s decision to send Mance south to steal Ramsay’s bride. The threats are framed as a response to this action, and it is what the author dwells on the most, with the most venom. The Letter also has the effect of exposing Jon’s meddling in the affairs of the realm, purely for personal reasons, in an extremely shady-looking way involving sorcery (Mance’s survival) and plots with the wildling king, all of which clearly undermines Jon’s position with his own men. Overall, the Letter introduces division and chaos at the very time Jon most needs to unite the Wall to prepare to face the Others.
The effect of the Letter is to force Jon to reckon with the risks he has taken with the larger struggle. He can no longer try to have things both ways, preparing for the Others while secretly intervening in the realm, and hoping for the best. The Letter also demands a response from Jon, which I will explore in a later installment.
In ASOS, Jon risked everything rather than kill an old man. At the beginning of ADWD, he risked everything to save a baby. Now, he risked everything to save his sister. The first two gambles worked out. This one didn’t.