Other Wars, Part IV: People Wanting Help

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.

Next: The peace Jon built, and the Pink Letter


Filed under Uncategorized

35 responses to “Other Wars, Part IV: People Wanting Help

  1. Bluespade

    For the first time, reading your articles has led me to think Jon might actually stay dead once the next book is out.
    You’re doing great with these, they’re really well thought out.

  2. CDM

    Yeah new post! \o/ Now I’m waiting for them with impatience ^^
    And very clever one, once again. Thanks!

  3. This blog is amazing…who are you?

  4. Ultima

    Jon should remain dead, I think. The defense of the Wall needs a better commander who can think rationally.

    • MadRatatosk

      I think you might get to have your cake and eat it, too–Jon will likely never be Lord Commander again, because he’ll survive his death through warging and witchcraft, making him tainted in the eyes of the Watch (if they ever even find out he’s alive). There was a prophecy somewhere that implied he would die/survive through Ghost, but I can’t recall exactly where…

      • Andrew

        You mean Melisandre seeing Jon “Now he was a man, now a wolf, now a man again. But the skulls were here as well, the skulls were all around him.”

        The CotF cave is filled with skulls, and the skulls could mean that BR will help Jon while he’s out.

        . Varamyr also said in his POV that Ghost was a second life fit for a king.

      • MadRatatosk

        That’s the one! Thanks for digging it up. And yes, I have a feeling that BR/Bran are going to cross paths with warg-life Jon at some point soon… it seems like they (or Melisandre) are pretty much the only ones that would understand his condition, or be able to help him recover from it. Bran in particular, since he’s become such a capable warg.

    • brennankm46

      I couldn’t disagree with this more. In fact, the entire point of this series was to show how innovative and effect Jon’s Commandership on the wall has been, even with the occasional heroic distractions. Jon’s gained provisions to last the Winter, he’s doubled the man-power on the wall, he’s brought the wildlings under his leadership, has the men working around the clock to improve and re-man all of the strongholds and while training for the worst, and he’s studying the wights. Oh, and he’s a hardened battle commander who has survived two assaults on the wall.

      Aside from his urges to do what is right get him unnecessarily entangled in realm politics, his reign as Lord Commander has been even better than Jeor’s and the most effective of any Lord Commander we’ve heard of in the books.

  5. Bill

    Well done, as usual. Can’t wait for the next one.

  6. Anonede

    I want to congratulate you for these fine essays, good ser, because so far they’ve kept me properly entertained, and gods know it’s not an easy task. 🙂 It’s great to finally see someone who makes Jon’s and Dany’s arcs justice.

    While I’m sure that Jon survives and this is just a step in his learning process [- after all, it doesn’t make sense to kill him off now when we still don’t know who his mother was, when he still didn’t meet Dany (yes, I’m positive his mother was Lyanna and that blue flower stands for him), plus, because of his dreams I think he might have to make a trip to the Winterfell crypts …. but I digress], now I’m sort of questioning what he will learn… I would like to believe that he will see his faults and flaws and try to improve, but given his stubborness, the state in which risen people usually return, as well as Varamyr’s warning about the dangers which staying inside an animal’s mind for a longer period of time entails, I’m a bit wary of what effect it will have on him. Some time ago I read on westeros.org in So Spake Martin (2008, I believe) a report from a long-time poster of the board, who said that he had talked to GRRM and he made a comment that Jon will soon become a much greyer character. (Well, he was wrong that it will be “soon”, but we likely have GRRM’s slow writing to blame for that, haha.) I wonder what this all means for the future.

  7. DougL

    I don’t think the Bolton’s would get too upset by the Alys situation. While they did have the support of Karhold it was a sword with no hilt for them because Karhold was yet another House hated by the rest of the North and could reveal Roose’s own involvement in the Red Wedding. While everyone “knows” he is involved, it’s not as though there are witnesses out there that have yet been freed, though Jaime seemed to be on his way to doing that.

    If Alys does not line up with Stannis, I think Roose would let this one pass because to a degree it served his interest.

    A marriage to Magnar saves Karhold from falling to the side of the family that supported Bolton, and thus created an enmity with the rest of the North. Now, the fact she married, willingly, a Wildling could create some animosity but they do have to measure it against Karhold allying with Bolton being the only other result here.

    Power is based on perception and if the Northern Lords start using the Watch as an independent arbiter of their disputes then it becomes so. Maybe Alys is just the first in a trend that may continue.

    So, I disagree that this dooms him with Bolton. If the Pink letter is accurate though, it’s Mance that is will create the enemy. Nothing in the Alys marriage is pointed at the Boltons directly and removes, at best, a troubling ally.

    I agree about Hardhome though.

  8. Džerards

    Enjoying these analyses, though surprised you haven’t mentioned the impact of sending Sam, Pip and Grenn away. Without these friendly ears on the ground Jon is left blind to the mutiny brewing in the Watch.

    I’d agree with brennankm46 in that Jon’s leadership has been quite visionary up until Hardhome and the Pink Letter. However, a well defended Wall and the Wildlings and Watch co-operating in harmony does not provide any dramatic tension!

    It is this last point that I believe captures the true purpose of A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows. All the shocks and highlights of the first three books are so powerful mainly for the fact that they all feel earned. There is not the slightest hint of deus ex machina or mcguffins. The first three books also saw a steady divergence of narratives, ADWD and AFFC set the ground work for the coming convergence.

    With this in mind, I feel both Dany and Jon have been parked on the edges of the narrative up to now. Jon’s ‘death’ will free him from his obligation to the Watch (in that he is no longer wanted) forcing him inwards and to the resolution of the mystery of his parentage.

    Likewise when Dany returns to Meereen to find it sacked by ironborn and both Rhaegal and Viserion gone; enslaved by Crow Eye’s horn, that will be the nudge driving her inwards.

    Thus for the good of the story, Dany’s peace and Jon’s command both had to fail. George’s skill was in making it appear organic, setting up some well earned fireworks in the near future!

  9. Tung

    What an incredible source of good analyses! While the case of Cersei is the most obvious, the arguments here are reaffirming that the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” can be subtly applied to any character’s story arc.

  10. First when not last

    Wonderful analysis from this excellent (though willfully anonymous) writer 🙂 I recall where in AFFC Asha blacked out from a blow in combat, and I was certain she was dead, but nooo!

    This is foreshadowing re Jon. But Jon’s wounds are too specific. I do not see how he gets out of (his human body) dying. But the Varamyr prelude shows how he can survive as do the episodes about Beric and Lady Stoneheart.

    The interesting thing here is that in the context of conventional beliefs about the Night’s Watch, Bowen and his confederates are right. From that POV Jon has jumped the shark, and put the NW and hence all of Westeros at deadly risk from both sides of the Wall. Not entirely unlike what happened on the floor of the Senate along about 15 March, 44 B.C. From the POV of their conventional views that crew of assassins was right, too.

  11. Pingback: The Grand /r/asoiaf Analysis Companion | bryndenbfish

  12. This is fantastic. For some reason a lot of people seem to dislike Penny, but I think she’s important because she serves as an interesting ‘check your privilege’ counterpoint to Tyrion. Yes, Tyrion has had some shitty life experiences because of being a dwarf, but he also has the privileges of being male and being noble, two things that Penny doesn’t have. Penny, despite her naivete, is arguably much more realistic about her circumstances than Tyrion, who has such hang ups about being laughed at that he doesn’t recognise that Penny is right to tell him not to be so proud and hold his tongue.

  13. Heythere

    I think you have totally missed the point here. I don’t see Jon’s actions with Alys or his intentions regarding Hardhome as part of his desire to help innocents. I see them as part of his effort to build a kingdom. As you said, the Watch “takes no part” because political entanglements would jeopardize the “larger mission.” Well, that mission was in serious jeopardy before Jon even took office. Marsh can’t see past his hatred of the wildings, the Iron Throne and the great lords of the realm are either unaware of the threat or don’t take it seriously, and the only one who does take it seriously is a man whose cause seems doomed to fail without Jon’s help and probably even with it. The Watch is unsuited to the task, undermanned, undertrained, underprepared. What does the existence of the Watch or any of the vows of the Black Brothers matter if they cannot serve their fundamental purpose? So Jon resolves to do what he can for Stannis, while working towards an even more radical solution to his political problems. He won’t leave the defense of the north to the Boltons any more than he would to Marsh. The Pink Letter was certainly a turning point, and i think when Jon made his speech in the shieldhall he had resolved that the Night’s Watch was over, done, no longer important, another ancient institution that had to be tossed aside along with the traditional political dynamics of the north. The Hardhome ranging would have been important not just for the innocent lives at stake, but also for the trust and gratitude it would engender from the wildings, the effect that shedding blood for and alongside wildings might have had on the Black Brothers, as well as some scouting info Jon had been craving but had been unable to obtain. It could have helped alleviate the threat posed by the Weaper if it was seen that the Night’s Watch would take such pains to protect Free Folk, showing that a new paradigm was in play. Also, crucially, it could have been one big bluff intended to force Marsh’s hand so Jon could eliminate the dissenting faction and move forward without distraction once and for all.
    You put much stock in the thoughts we are shown Jon having, and I think this is a mistake. People don’t walk around actively thinking every thought in their head. He spent two hours plotting after the arrival of the Pink Letter. What was he working out? The logistics of the ranging had already been prepared, regardless of who was leading it. I don’t think Jon, at that point, was concerned with titles, vows, honor, or any of that. He simply decided, this is the best course of action, not necessarily for the Watch but for the purpose the Watch was intended to serve, and if the Watch no longer exists afterward, so be it. He had the support of the wildings (for all intents and purposes he was at that point their king, as had been discussed on the westeros.org forums) he had Karhold lined up, and the mountain clans would sooner follow even a bastard son of Ned Stark than either Stannis or any Bolton, and that is probably true of pretty much every other major House in the north. Jon might have endangered the Watch through his actions, but he did not endanger its mission. Quite the opposite.

    • Heythere

      Ooh and I’d like to add that I think this ties into what Dany is doing in Essos. Dany isnt facing down an existential threat to humanity, but she is radically overturning an ancient order of things and trying to build a new future. Jon is jettisoning the trappings of tradition to ensure that his people will have a future. Major change coming to a static world is an important theme in this series, i think.

    • Of course Martin doesn’t portray every single thought that goes through Jon’s head. But the thoughts he does portray are deliberately selected to indicate what’s on Jon’s mind and what drives his decision-making.

      The decisions Jon made absolutely put the greater mission at risk, since they seem to have led to the Pink Letter and likely open warfare between the Watch and the wildlings. Jon cannot “build a kingdom” in a vacuum, as if the Boltons and the Night’s Watch simply don’t exist. Both of them will respond to Jon’s kingdom-building and innocent-saving desires.

      Though you argue that Jon must have had some secret plans to deal with both the Boltons and Marsh’s “faction” of the Night’s Watch that are for some reason absent from his thoughts, I see no evidence for either, and I have no real idea on what could comprise such a plan. Jon can’t use the wildlings against the Boltons for exactly the reason we saw — because he’d have to fight the Watch first.

      • judahjsn

        Not to mention, coming up with any plan at all against the Boltons is against the tenents of his sworn purpose. And Marsh’s faction are acting out of loyalty to the principles of the Night’s Watch, not out of some simple thirst for power – how do you strike a blow against idealists beneath you who just want you to do your job?

      • Maester_Tower

        It must be said that Jon’s downfall did not come about because he endangered the “Watch” (though he might have endangered it). Most of the Watch supported his decision to march on Winterfell.

        It was a *few* purists and conspirers who did him in.

  14. Dragon

    Jon was simply a horrible Lord Commander. It’s one thing to covertly act against the Boltons, known psychopaths who would turn on their own mothers for fun. Killing them and destroying their hold on the North is vital to its defense.

    His nonsense with the wildlings just beggars belief. Those who followed Mother Mole sealed their own fate. There was never anything to be done for them. Getting hundreds, if not thousands, of Watch killed for nothing is negligence. At least Mormont couldn’t really be sure what was out there. John knows. The Realms of Men need their shield against the Endless Night. The chance to save a few wildlings? Pointless.

    • Matt

      I don’t honestly think you do him justice. He’s a flawed character, like all characters in Game of Thrones, but he has his positive points as well as his bad.

      He is guarding the realms of men by bringing the Free Folk into the fold, increasing the size of the Night’s Watch by adding 3000 wildlings to defend the Wall, whereas it was 1000 men before the Old bear’s ranging, massively boosting their ability to defend it. He’s given wildlings like Leathers positions of prestige within the Night’s Watch, ensuring some loyalty in the short term. Similarly, the loan from the Iron Bank is enough to keep them fed and armed with obsidian until Summer (hopefully), but it’s the only option available that improved the Night’s Watch’s position.
      Protecting Alys Karstark against her uncle was his obligation as she was under guest right (it means something to Jon, but I can’t think why). Arresting Cregan was necessary to protect his guest. By marrying Alys to the Magnar of Thenn he was removing a risk to his command and furthering Free Folk/ Kneeler relations by marrying her to the Wildling group already familiar with ‘Kneeling’, which should decrease some of the animosity between both groups, and wildling loyalty to him in the short-term.

      It was necessary in my eyes to have a positive relationship with Stannis, he was the only King to help the Night’s Watch and in order to hold back the Wildlings when they were hostile and the Others in future an alliance was necessary. Most importantly, the Night’s Watch cannot go on as it was under the Old Bear (one of my favourite characters). After Stannis helped them and Jon reciprocated, they were no longer neutral. After the Others are defeated, after this winter there is no point to the Wall even existing after the Wildlings have joined the North. As such Jon only needs to keep it running until then to keep his oath to protect the realms of men.
      Him acting to aid Stannis by telling him to recruit the mountain clans and take Deepwood Motte is treason if Stannis loses but covert, sending Mance to Winterfell is overt treason by actively trying to destroy any support the North have for the Boltons.

      I think that the two hours gap where he was talking to Tormund will prove crucial though, as well as Melisandre still being at the Wall, I think he’ll be in a coma at the start of the new books and will be brought back to his body by Bran and the Three Eyed Crow, but he’ll be more wolfish. Similarly I think that the pink letter was written by Mance under Melisandre’s orders to force Jon’s hand. But I agree that sending the ranging to Hardhome isn’t a good idea in terms of the men who would travel there but he’s still got to do it. Apart from the hero complex, lets say that he can rescue 500 people of the thousands who were there but loses the other thousands of wildlings, and a hundred men of the Night’s Watch and similar numbers from Tormund’s group. He still has an extra 300 people to throw rocks or fire bows or drop oil on to the others from on top of the wall, which looks like all they can do for now. So the defenders swell by an extra 300 whilst the wights lose 300. On top of the Wall that’s a massive difference. This would improve Night’s Watch and Wildling relations massively though, for them to take such big losses for the Wildling women and children, that would stop the animosity in the short term against the Night’s Watch and possibly stop the Weaper from attacking at Shadow Tower.

      He has risked the Watch, but it only needs to keep fighting and make sure Stannis does as well until spring and after that it doesn’t really matter. He has taken big risks but I don’t think the hero complex justifies it. The Night’s Watch’s future and Stannis’ are merged because no one else cares about the Wall, without him the Night’s Watch fails and the Great Other succeeds and all of humanity, or at least Westeros is annihilated. As such the Night’s Watch needs to gain favour with the Wildings after keeping them out for centuries/millennia and Stannis can’t afford to lose. The marriage to Alys confirms that, supporting both aims and the long term peace in the North after this is all done. The ranging to Hardhome may take large casualties but would improve the Wildling Night’s Watch relations and let the Weeper and his men take a position on the Wall in repelling the Others, so that’s the first aim.

  15. Roger

    Good analysis.

    Personaly I think Jon should have send Selysse (and her knights, bufoon, etc) with Alys and the Magnar to take Karhold. There the queen would had had an adequate place to help Stannis and would had get him free of them.

    Personaly I think Jon was going a bit too far. Sealing a peace with Tormund? yes. Helping the free folk? right. But the Hardhome operation is too difficult. Too risky. And Jon has little resources to gamble.

    About the Weeper, same thing. You can’t save anybody. And while Jon did a lot to appease the Wildlings (marrying the Magnar, giving them food, making Leathers one of his officers, etc). He did NOTHING to appease his own men, trusting in their blind obedience. Even after the Weeper (a psicopath, AFAIK) tortured and killed three good brothers. Personaly I don’t think many wildlings would cry for the Weeper (pun intended) if he hanged him. Also the raider didn’t show any will of dealing peace.

    About the helping Stannis: Jon could always say he was forced to help th King in the Narrow Sea. Stannis had five times more men than the Night Watch (including heavy cavalry). Has many wildlings at his side… Not even Cersei could expect the Watch to commit suicide.

  16. A Watch that takes no part is under no moral obligation to assist in forcing Alys Karstark into an unwanted marriage arranged by those without the legal standing to arrange it, especially since they’re only doing it to steal her inheritance.

    If she happens to be in the neighborhood and happens to meet a guy from the other side of The Wall and they decide to get married by some priestess, I don’t see any problem with her getting her geographically closest relative (Jon) to “give her away”.

  17. judahjsn

    Wow. You have really made the case that, when you do the math, Jon is a foolishly sentimental leader. I’m curious if you see anybody in the books that you consider a wise ruler or having the potential to be one. I believe these books are on one level about the dangers of children without good parenting (and the sister to that concept, the danger of socities without traditions) and how a principle that is not nurtured to maturity, such as Jon’s true purpose as a member of the Night’s watch, can be worthless if not more dangerous than no principle at all.

    Or maybe Martin’s making the point that wise leadership over large groups of people is itself a dangerous concept and that the Noble King is a false and sentimental idea.

  18. greatwyrmgold

    …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.
    I was reminded of another character whose struggle with these noble impulses you’ve waxed brilliant on, and who has built up a fragile peace. From what I’m seeing, an essay comparing and contrasting Danaerys and Jon Snow would be brilliant.

  19. moIra

    I appreciate you putting your essays on Dany and Jon consecutively. While I have always felt pairing them in a book together was a conscious grrm decision to foil them, I think the easy read for most of the book is that although Jon and Dany both have strong steaks of righteousness, Dany is basically willing to make concessions and sacrifices to achieve her goals, while Jon is willing to make none – and Jon is the more superior and noble of the two, sticking to his guns. Yet, as you showed in your last essay, Dany was actually very successful ( until she flew away on drogon anyway) – while Jon was biting himself in the ass and functionally rendering useless most of his accomplishments. This may be pretty strong foreshadowing that now that Dany has decided to go full on dragon mode and make no sacrifices, she will end up exactly as Jon has by the end of book 5.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s