Jon’s arc has an interesting structure. At its midpoint, he makes the decision to send Mance Rayder to save his sister, at enormous risk to the Watch. Only at the arc’s end does Martin reveal the consequence of this decision — the Pink Letter, which causes Jon’s downfall.
But between the Mance Mission and its consequence, we have an extended interim where Jon runs the Wall as he sees fit. Overall, Jon demonstrates extraordinarily competent and downright visionary leadership. He shows himself willing to modernize the Watch by granting favored positions to the wildling Leathers and the former boy whore Satin. He fortifies many of the Watch’s abandoned castles and makes various other important practical preparations to face the Others. He wins a crucial loan from the Iron Banker. Most importantly, he seeks out and achieves a peace with Tormund’s wildlings, both removing a dangerous threat and multiplying the Watch’s strength severalfold. The chapter where the 3,000 wildlings cross, to be integrated in the community on this side of the Wall, is a remarkable achievement that marks the pinnacle of Jon’s leadership. It will surely be a difficult adjustment, with much work remaining to be done, but compared to the Watch’s position in ASOS, Jon has clearly made enormous gains.
The catch is that, as he’s doing all this, he is increasingly choosing to risk all those gains, because of his heroic desire to help individuals in danger.
Interspersed with the above, Jon faces two new thorny moral dilemmas about whether he should use his power to protect innocent life. First, Alys Karstark arrives at the Wall seeking to be saved from her uncle. Second, the situation of the Hardhome refugees becomes increasingly dire. In both of these cases, rather than stand aside and accept that he cannot jeopardize the larger struggle with these interventions, Jon chooses to take on immense risks to help these individuals.
The Pink Letter cuts off Jon’s arc before these new gambles of Jon’s fully play out. But I believe Martin has included them for a reason — to show how Jon is still driven by the hero’s instinct — his “noble heart” — to take great risks, and that this is very much his Achilles’ heel as a leader. When an innocent is in danger, and Jon thinks he might have the power to save that person, he will use it, even if doing so could be very dangerous for the Watch. And, as he piles risk upon risk, he makes his eventual demise and failure more and more certain.
A Northern Girl in Danger
“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.” (ACOK JON III)
Alys knelt before him, clutching the black cloak. “You are my only hope, Lord Snow. In your father’s name, I beg you. Protect me.” (ADWD JON IX)
The next innocent Martin dangles in front of Jon is a girl we’ve never seen before — Alys Karstark, fleeing from a forced marriage devised by her treacherous uncles Arnolf and Cregan:
“Should my brother die, Karhold should pass to me, but my uncles want my birthright for their own. Once Cregan gets a child by me they won’t need me anymore. He’s buried two wives already.” (JON IX)
Alys’ plea for help repeatedly emphasizes both Jon’s heritage and his father. Is Jon’s blood truly black now?
“—Jon Snow.” The girl tossed her braid back. “My house and yours are bound in blood and honor. Hear me, kinsman….”
“… I did not know where else to turn but to the last son of Eddard Stark.”
“…You are my only hope, Lord Snow. In your father’s name, I beg you. Protect me.” (JON IX)
(Recall that Jon’s final thoughts before refusing to kill the old man, in ASOS, were about his father.) Alys is also compared to Arya several times:
She does look a bit like Arya, Jon thought. Starved and skinny, but her hair’s the same color, and her eyes….
…She rubbed away a tear angrily, the way Arya might have done it. (JON IX)
The implication is that Jon has already tried to help Arya, so why shouldn’t he help this other girl in trouble who’s a lot like Arya? That’s what a hero would do, right? When a maiden is in danger from a monster, the hero helps her. Ned would, right?
The Karstark/Thenn marriage – Jon’s Decision
Previously, to save Mance’s baby, Jon intervened with a secret scheme. To help Stannis, Jon gave him advice in private. To save “Arya,” Jon intervened with his own covert operation. All of those interventions were secret. Though their potential exposure remains risky for Jon and the Watch, and though he could’ve done more to distance himself from Stannis, Jon’s public actions so far have preserved plausible deniability and the basic appearance of Watch neutrality.
Suddenly, with Alys, Jon throws all that away.
“Who brings this woman to be wed?” asked Melisandre. “I do,” said Jon. “Now comes Alys of House Karstark, a woman grown and flowered, of noble blood and birth.” He gave her hand one last squeeze and stepped back to join the others.
“Who comes forth to claim this woman?” asked Melisandre. “Me.” Sigorn slapped his chest. “Magnar of Thenn.” (JON X)
The marriage celebration is quite beautiful. Watch men, wildlings, queen’s men and ladies, and the mountain clan leaders all celebrate the new world Jon is building at the Wall. The idea for the Thenn alliance is quite clever, as Jon had been wondering how to deal with the Thenns for a while. The uncles’ plan was evil and illegal, and Jon seems to have righted the wrong with his intervention, with some potential new benefits for the Watch if the friendly regime at Karhold takes hold.
It seems like a crackerjack plan… unless one stops to consider the risk.
Jon has (1) imprisoned a key Bolton supporter, (2) arranged a marriage between a Northern noble girl and a wildling warrior, (3) sent Alys and her new wildling army off to take over a Northern castle. These actions are almost absurdly provocative, extremely political, and apparently unprecedented for a Night’s Watch Lord Commander. They guarantee retaliation against Jon and the Watch if the Boltons win. Even beyond the Boltons, other potentially sympathetic Northern lords would likely be shocked and appalled by this. Indeed, Jon advised Stannis against this very course of action earlier in the book, for that reason:
“If Your Grace wishes to lose all of my lord father’s bannermen, there is no more certain way than by giving northern halls to southron lords”… Jon knew better than to press the point. “Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn…” (JON I)
“…Drinking from Mance Rayder’s skull may give Mors Umber pleasure, but seeing wildlings cross his lands will not. The free folk have been raiding the Umbers since the Dawn of Days, crossing the Bay of Seals for gold and sheep and women. One of those carried off was Crowfood’s daughter. Your Grace, leave the wildlings here. Taking them will only serve to turn my lord father’s bannermen against you.” (JON IV)
Is a marriage alliance enough to break this prejudice? Or would many Northern nobles agree with cousin Cregan?
“You would deliver a highborn maid to the bed of some stinking savage.” (JON X)
Jon’s integration of the wildlings has gone rather well so far — at the Wall. But he’s getting into very dangerous territory when he starts arranging marriages and handing out castles in land he has no authority over. Whether you think this is technically oathbreaking or not, the Watch tradition of non-interference exists for a reason — to prevent reprisals against it from angry lords of the realm. Jon’s actions here have invited such reprisals.
As mentioned above, the marriage arrangement is a tremendous break from Jon’s previous dabbling in the affairs of the realm, because is so blatantly public. If Jon felt truly compelled merely to save Alys’ life, he could have just hidden her away at Long Barrow, and told Cregan she had never turned up. Instead, he goes much further — he is so angered by the injustice done to her that he decides to fix it, and give her back the castle that is rightfully hers. This shows Jon’s growing desire to use his power to reshape the North as he sees fit, as he muses about going so far as executing Cregan, and thinks of his desire to preserve “all I’ve done”:
I should make his head a wedding gift for Lady Alys and her Magnar, Jon thought, but dare not take the risk. The Night’s Watch took no part in the quarrels of the realm; some would say he had already given Stannis too much help. Behead this fool, and they will claim I am killing northmen to give their lands to wildlings. Release him, and he will do his best to rip apart all I’ve done with Lady Alys and the Magnar. Jon wondered what his father would do, how his uncle might deal with this. But Eddard Stark was dead, Benjen Stark lost in the frozen wilds beyond the Wall. You know nothing, Jon Snow. (JON X)
Jon is now acting more like a King in the North rather than Lord Commander. Here, he lectures Cregan on his breaking of Northern inheritance law:
“Alys was promised to me.” Though past fifty, he had been a strong man when he went into the cell. The cold had robbed him of that strength and left him stiff and weak. “My lord father—”
“Your father is a castellan, not a lord. And a castellan has no right to make marriage pacts.”
“My father, Arnolf, is Lord of Karhold.”
“A son comes before an uncle by all the laws I know… A daughter comes before an uncle too. If her brother is dead, Karhold belongs to Lady Alys. And she has given her hand in marriage to Sigorn, Magnar of Thenn.” (JON X)
This interpretation is indisputably correct — Arnolf and Cregan’s scheme is corrupt and evil. Yet I recall Mormont again:
“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)
Jon’s intervention with Alys is the very image of trying to set the world to rights. And once again, Jon is so angered by a potential injustice done to an innocent, that he decides to use his power to intervene. But doing that so blatantly and openly puts the Watch and Jon’s preparation for the larger struggle at unprecedented risk.
Even if the Mance mission had worked out better, or if Jon’s involvement in it had not been exposed — the Boltons could not have turned a blind eye to this open usurpation of their authority. Though we don’t get to see the consequences of this decision, I believe that is its main purpose in the narrative — to show how Jon’s desire to set the world to rights is helping seal his own fate. He is now surely doomed if the Boltons win.
Thousands in Danger – Hardhome
Much of Jon’s final chapter is dominated by his decisions about Hardhome, where there are about six thousand wildling refugees. The Hardhome situation is Jon’s toughest moral dilemma yet. The potential humanitarian gains if the mission is successful are greater than ever — Jon would essentially be saving an entire people. But the costs and risks to the Watch are also greater than ever. The opening of that last chapter frames the debate quite starkly:
“Let them die,” said Queen Selyse.
It was the answer that Jon Snow had expected. This queen never fails to disappoint. Somehow that did not soften the blow. “Your Grace,” he persisted stubbornly, “they are starving at Hardhome by the thousands. Many are women—”
“—and children, yes. Very sad.” The queen pulled her daughter closer to her and kissed her cheek. The cheek unmarred by greyscale, Jon did not fail to note. “We are sorry for the little ones, of course, but we must be sensible. We have no food for them, and they are too young to help the king my husband in his wars. Better that they be reborn into the light.”
That was just a softer way of saying let them die. (JON XIII)
The Hardhome situation is the logical extent of the tough moral choices Jon’s been facing throughout the book. With Hardhome, Jon must ask himself — will he “let them die”? Will he stand by and do nothing to help thousands of innocents? Or will he act, and in doing so, accept an incredibly dangerous risk of crippling the Watch’s ability to face the Others?
Jon first got word of the refugees’ plight several chapters earlier. His thoughts show an intense emotional reaction and desire to protect innocent life — the hero’s instinct:
Jon flexed the fingers of his sword hand. “Cotter Pyke’s galleys sail past Hardhome from time to time. He tells me there is no shelter there but the caves. The screaming caves, his men call them. Mother Mole and those who followed her will perish there, of cold and starvation. Hundreds of them. Thousands.”
“Thousands of enemies. Thousands of wildlings.”
Thousands of people, Jon thought. Men, women, children. JON VIII)
To Bowen Marsh and other skeptics on the Watch, Jon makes an argument of practicality:
Anger rose inside him, but when he spoke his voice was quiet and cold. “Are you so blind, or is it that you do not wish to see? What do you think will happen when all these enemies are dead?”
Above the door the raven muttered, “Dead, dead, dead.”
“Let me tell you what will happen,” Jon said. “The dead will rise again, in their hundreds and their thousands. They will rise as wights, with black hands and pale blue eyes, and they will come for us.” He pushed himself to his feet, the fingers of his sword hand opening and closing. “You have my leave to go.” (JON VIII)
That is the one and only time Jon mentions a strategic benefit for the Hardhome mission — stop lots of wights from existing. Later I’ll argue why this is rather unconvincing. For now, it’s enough to observe that Jon never mentions this justification in his thoughts, and never even mentions it out loud again in the book. But Jon repeatedly thinks of and argues for the importance of protecting innocent life, particularly women and children, which indicates what’s really driving his decisions on this topic.
In the following chapter, Jon negotiates for a loan from the Iron Banker and wins three ships from him, bolstering the Eastwatch fleet to eleven. It quickly becomes clear that Jon intends to send every single ship to Eastwatch as soon as possible, and is even considering going himself:
Eleven ships was no wise enough, but if he waited any longer, the free folk at Hardhome would be dead by the time the rescue fleet arrived. Sail now or not at all. Whether Mother Mole and her people would be desperate enough to entrust their lives to the Night’s Watch, though…
…Jon sat back, yawned, stretched. On the morrow he would draft orders for Cotter Pyke. Eleven ships to Hardhome. Bring back as many as you can, women and children first. It was time they set sail. Should I go myself, though, or leave it to Cotter? (JON IX)
He decides to send Pyke. Dangerous storms delay the mission’s departure for a time, but the fleet soon departs:
Calm seas today. Eleven ships set sail for Hardhome on the morning tide. Three Braavosi, four Lyseni, four of ours. Two of the Lyseni barely seaworthy. We may drown more wildlings than we save. Your command. Twenty ravens aboard, and Maester Harmune. Will send reports. I command from Talon, Tattersalt second on Blackbird, Ser Glendon holds Eastwatch. (JON X)
Later, as Jon meets with Tormund, we see again his noble and compassionate concern for the condition of the refugees — combined with a hope for how well the mission could go:
Jon saw signs of sickness too. That disquieted him more than he could say. If Tormund’s band were starved and sick, what of the thousands who had followed Mother Mole to Hardhome? Cotter Pyke should reach them soon. If the winds were kind, his fleet might well be on its way back to Eastwatch even now, with as many of the free folk as he could cram aboard. (JON XI)
By Jon’s next chapter, it is clear this wishful thinking has not panned out, and the mission is in fact going disastrously badly — Pyke’s men are stuck there, in a far more dangerous situation than Jon expected, and they no longer have the ability to sail out.
At Hardhome, with six ships. Wild seas. Blackbird lost with all hands, two Lyseni ships driven aground on Skane, Talon taking water. Very bad here. Wildlings eating their own dead. Dead things in the woods. Braavosi captains will only take women, children on their ships. Witch women call us slavers. Attempt to take Storm Crow defeated, six crew dead, many wildlings. Eight ravens left. Dead things in the water. Send help by land, seas wracked by storms. From Talon, by hand of Maester Harmune.
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. (JON XII)
The Hardhome Ranging – Jon’s Decision
By the beginning of Jon’s final chapter in ADWD, he has already resolved to personally lead a large-scale land rescue mission to Hardhome.
The queen’s nostrils flared. “You still mean to ride to Hardhome. I see it on your face. Let them die, I said, yet you will persist in this mad folly. Do not deny it.”…
…Jon was less amused. “I will not ask my men to do what I would not do myself. I mean to lead the ranging.”
“How bold of you,” said the queen. “We approve. Afterward some bard will make a stirring song about you, no doubt, and we shall have a more prudent lord commander.” (JON XIII)
Tormund promises eighty fighting men, though he will later deliver only fifty. Jon himself is thinking of sending between 100 and 1,000 Watch men, and once again shows himself to be intensely concerned with protecting the innocents there, even though the logistics of the mission are incredibly challenging:
“Tormund’s men and ours will be enough.” Enough to get us there, perhaps. It was the journey back that concerned Jon Snow. Coming home, they would be slowed by thousands of free folk, many sick and starved. A river of humanity moving slower than a river of ice. That would leave them vulnerable. Dead things in the woods. Dead things in the water. “How many men are enough?” he asked Leathers. “A hundred? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand?” Should I take more men, or fewer? A smaller ranging would reach Hardhome sooner … but what good were swords without food? Mother Mole and her people were already at the point of eating their own dead. To feed them, he would need to bring carts and wagons, and draft animals to haul them—horses, oxen, dogs. Instead of flying through the wood, they would be condemned to crawl. (JON XIII)
After a frustrating attempt to get Marsh and Yarwyck to back the mission, Jon meets with Tormund to plan it, but receives the Pink Letter instead, and as a result abandons his plans to lead the Hardhome ranging himself. Later, during his momentous speech at the Shieldhall, Jon decides to send as many Watch men as Tormund wants to Hardhome, under Tormund’s command:
“But now I find I cannot go to Hardhome. The ranging will be led by Tormund Giantsbane, known to you all. I have promised him as many men as he requires… The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome.” (JON XIII)
The mission, of course, will likely never depart. Still, Jon’s choice is highly significant for his development as a leader, and in underlining the themes of his arc so far, because… from a strategic perspective, the Hardhome ranging is utter folly, the most extreme example yet of Jon choosing to take on immense risks to the Watch to protect individual innocents, and nearly certain to seal Jon’s fate even if there was no Pink Letter.
As mentioned above, there is one potential strategic benefit to this mission — namely, that if the mission manages to be completed successfully, there will be thousands fewer corpses for the Others to raise as wights. (And, over the long term, as the civilians recover, the stronger ones would bolster the Watch’s strength on the Wall.) But Jon never mentions these benefits in his thoughts, and only articulates the first out loud once — because I don’t think he really buys it. He knows that this is purely a humanitarian mission, at heart. And that, in contrast to this one potential strategic benefit, there are at least five reasons his plan is an absolutely terrible strategic idea:
- (1) The Wall’s defensive force multiplier is incredibly high: It’s been demonstrated again and again in the series that a man atop the Wall is worth scores on the ground. So the mere action of moving hundreds of men from an incredibly strong position to a highly vulnerable and uncertain position dramatically depletes the Watch’s strength. This alone is enough to make the ranging a very questionable idea. It also debunks the argument that Jon desperately needs to stop the Hardhome refugees from becoming wights. If we assume that a man on the Wall is worth 50 on the ground — a conservative estimate — then 6,000 new wights are equivalent to a mere 120 men on the Wall. Yet Jon is considering taking as many as 1,000 men off the Wall, and moving them to where they are most vulnerable and ineffective. Eventually he gives Tormund a blank check and says he can take as many as he wants — this is folly.
- 2.) Rangings haven’t worked: Whether the parties are small or large, the recent Night’s Watch history of rangings is less than inspiring. Mormont’s ranging was an utter disaster, destroying a third of the Watch’s strength and more of its talent. Smaller groups such as Waymar Royce’s party, Benjen Stark’s party, and the nine rangers Jon sent out in ADWD have never returned either. Judging by past experience, any ranging whatsoever has an extremely high probability of being completely wiped out.
- 3.) The situation is now known to be extremely dangerous: Though Jon’s sending of his entire fleet to Hardhome was dubiously justifiable, then he could at least hope that the mission would proceed without much trouble. Pyke’s letters make clear that in fact the situation is intensely grim and dangerous, with threats from mutinous and uncooperative wildlings, weather, and “dead things” on land and sea.
- 4.) The logistics of completing the mission are extremely difficult: As mentioned above, Jon needs to move and feed “a river of humanity,” which requires not only men but food, carts, and cart-pulling animals sufficient to feed 6,000 people.
- 5.) Jon is needed to run the Wall: Even if none of the above were true, Jon’s decision to lead the mission himself is completely unjustifiable. He has created an extremely volatile new status quo at the Wall. As Dany discovered in Meereen, building a stable peace is difficult and requires one’s constant involvement. This very chapter shows Selyse’s men scheming to marry wildlings and reiterates that Bowen Marsh and his pals have no trust whatsoever for any wildlings. All this time, Jon has done nothing we know of to groom a successor for himself, and he has no way to ensure the Wall doesn’t self-destruct in his continued absence or death on the mission.
- Bonus- Melisandre: Not that she is to be trusted or believed, necessarily, but if for some reason Jon needed a tie-breaker, the sorceress with prophetic visions advises against it:
“Selyse has the right of this, Lord Snow. Let them die. You cannot save them. Your ships are lost—”
“Six remain. More than half the fleet.”
“Your ships are lost. All of them. Not a man shall return. I have seen that in my fires.”
“Your fires have been known to lie.” (JON XIII)
Jon is heedless to any of these problems. In fact he never even seriously weighs whether the Hardhome mission is worth doing. He just feels intensely that it is, and so he does it. It’s the hero’s instinct once again — someone is in danger, they must be saved, regardless of the cost. When Selyse and Marsh argue the opposite, Jon is absolutely contemptuous toward them. But in his righteous moral outrage against those two, and his inability to stand by as innocents die, Jon forgets that he has a unique responsibility to protect the whole of humanity — and that if he fails, there will be no one else to do it.
Overall, the Karstark wedding makes clear that Jon is doomed if the Boltons win. The Hardhome ranging makes it very likely that Jon is doomed even if Stannis wins. Together, the two show that Jon’s intense desire to use his power and help and rescue innocents, is now threatening to destroy everything he has built at the Wall, and to compromise all his preparations to face the Others.