“The men who formed the Night’s Watch knew that only their courage shielded the realm from the darkness to the north… We all do our duty, when there is no cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose… “It hurts, boy,” he said softly. “Oh, yes. Choosing . . . it has always hurt. And always will. I know.” (AGOT JON VIII)
In the first three books, Martin repeatedly tested Jon’s commitment to his greater duty of protecting the realm from threats outside it. In nearly every instance, Jon chose to commit to the Watch, and to this duty. There was but one instance where he put something above his duty — when he refused the wildlings’ demand that he kill the old man, in ASOS — but Summer saved him from the likely implications of his choice.
Then, in ADWD, Jon begins to achieve great and unprecedented things as Lord Commander. But Martin continues to test his commitment to his duty, and these new tests are different in two important ways. First, many of Jon’s choices involve risking the greater duty, rather than straightforwardly running away from it:
Every choice had its risks, every choice its consequences. He would play the game to its conclusion. (ADWD JON XII)
The proper management of risk is very important in a ruler. For the good of the people he rules, a ruler must be very careful about the risks he takes on. The cost of doing otherwise is potentially quite dire, for a great many. Jon is charged with defending all humanity against the Others, so in a sense his responsibility is greatest and most difficult of any ruler in the series. He must take great care.
Second, many of Martin’s new tests for Jon are his cruelest yet — because they pit Jon’s “noble heart” against these potential risks to the greater duty. And in several of his choices, Jon displayed a “hero’s instinct” that entails:
- a desire to help individuals in danger
- and an anger at evil and injustice
- which lead him to take on great risks
- And often lose perspective on how these risks could endanger his larger purpose of defending humanity against the Others.
This leads directly to Jon’s downfall. A casual reading suggests that the Ramsay Bolton-signed letter, and Bowen Marsh, were the malicious and treacherous malefactors bringing down our hero. But a closer look at the arc suggests that Martin designed it quite carefully to make a very different point. Yes, the letter-writer and Marsh take Jon down — but only after Jon has given them ample cause to do so.
The Peace Lord Snow Built
None knelt, but many gave him their oaths. “What Tormund swore, I swear,” declared black-haired Brogg, a man of few words. Soren Shieldbreaker bowed his head an inch and growled, “Soren’s axe is yours, Jon Snow, if ever you have need of such”… Howd Wanderer swore his oath upon his sword, as nicked and pitted a piece of iron as Jon had ever seen. Devyn Sealskinner presented him with a sealskin hat, Harle the Huntsman with a bear- claw necklace. The warrior witch Morna removed her weirwood mask just long enough to kiss his gloved hand and swear to be his man or his woman, whichever he preferred. And on and on and on.” (JON XII)
Before exploring Jon’s downfall, let’s review his greatest success — the peace he made with Tormund’s band, and the crossing of 3,119 wildlings through the Wall. First of all, this peace is incredibly valuable in and of itself, for moral reasons. Just as importantly, the deal is a strategic masterstroke in fortifying the Wall to defend humanity against the Others, removing a potential human threat and multiplying the Watch’s strength several fold. It is hard to imagine any other Lord Commander being so visionary and far-sighted.
The specifics of Jon’s peace efforts with the wildlings help us characterize Martin’s general view of peace and what it takes to make peace:
1.) Peace means letting feuds of the past be forgotten:
Sigorn’s father, the old Magnar, had been crushed beneath the falling stair during his attack on Castle Black. I would feel the same if someone asked me to make common cause with the Lannisters, Jon told himself. “Your father tried to kill us all,” he reminded Sigorn. “The Magnar was a brave man, yet he failed. And if he had succeeded … who would hold the Wall?” He turned away from the Thenns. “Winterfell’s walls were strong as well, but Winterfell stands in ruins today, burned and broken. A wall is only as good as the men defending it.” (JON V)
2.) Peace is not guaranteed to last:
Marsh was unconvinced. “You’ve added sixty-three more mouths, my lord … but how many are fighters, and whose side will they fight on? If it’s the Others at the gates, most like they’ll stand with us, I grant you … but if it’s Tormund Giantsbane or the Weeping Man come calling with ten thousand howling killers, what then?” “Then we’ll know. So let us hope it never comes to that.” (JON V)
3.) Peace is often made with enemies who have done awful, terrible things, out of necessity:
“Surely the lord commander cannot mean to allow that … that demon through as well?”
“Not gladly.” Jon had not forgotten the heads the Weeping Man had left him, with bloody holes where their eyes had been. Black Jack Bulwer, Hairy Hal, Garth Greyfeather. I cannot avenge them, but I will not forget their names. “But yes, my lord, him as well. We cannot pick and choose amongst the free folk, saying this one may pass, this one may not. Peace means peace for all.”
The Norrey hawked and spat. “As well make peace with wolves and carrion crows.” “It’s peaceful in my dungeons,” grumbled Old Flint. “Give the Weeping Man to me.” “How many rangers has the Weeper killed?” asked Othell Yarwyck. “How many women has he raped or killed or stolen?” “Three of mine own ilk,” said Old Flint. “And he blinds the girls he does not take.” “When a man takes the black, his crimes are forgiven,” Jon reminded them. “If we want the free folk to fight beside us, we must pardon their past crimes as we would for our own.” “The Weeper will not say the words,” insisted Yarwyck. “He will not wear the cloak. Even other raiders do not trust him.” “You need not trust a man to use him.” Else how could I make use of all of you? “We need the Weeper, and others like him. Who knows the wild better than a wildling? Who knows our foes better than a man who has fought them?”
“All the Weeper knows is rape and murder,” said Yarwyck. (JON XI)
4.) Peace can be preserved with sticks as well as carrots:
“I insisted upon hostages.” I am not the trusting fool you take me for … nor am I half wildling, no matter what you believe. “One hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. A son from each of their chiefs and captains, the rest chosen by lot. The boys will serve as pages and squires, freeing our own men for other duties. Some may choose to take the black one day. Queerer things have happened. The rest will stand hostage for the loyalty of their sires.”
The northmen glanced at one another. “Hostages,” mused The Norrey. “Tormund has agreed to this?”
It was that, or watch his people die. “My blood price, he called it,” said Jon Snow, “but he will pay.” (JON XI)
5.) If peace is agreed on, suspicion and mistrust often remain, as the two sides try to work together:
“You might have sent the women first,” he said to Tormund. “The mothers and the maids.”
The wildling gave him a shrewd look. “Aye, I might have. And you crows might decide to close that gate. A few fighters on t’other side, well, that way the gate stays open, don’t it?” He grinned. “I bought your bloody horse, Jon Snow. Don’t mean that we can’t count his teeth. Now don’t you go thinking me and mine don’t trust you. We trust you just as much as you trust us.” He snorted. “You wanted warriors, didn’t you? Well, there they are. Every one worth six o’ your black crows.” (JON XII)
6.) Peace is fragile — any number of seemingly small incidents can blow it up, so constant effort is necessary to maintain it:
Just before midday, the movement stopped when an oxcart became jammed at a turn inside the tunnel. Jon Snow went to have a look for himself. The cart was now wedged solid. The men behind were threatening to hack it apart and butcher the ox where he stood, whilst the driver and his kin swore to kill them if they tried. With the help of Tormund and his son Toregg, Jon managed to keep the wildlings from coming to blood, but it took the best part of an hour before the way was opened again. (JON XII)
7.) Peace allows life to flourish:
The castle Jon returned to was far different from the one he’d left that morning. For as long as he had known it, Castle Black had been a place of silence and shadows, where a meagre company of men in black moved like ghosts amongst the ruins of a fortress that had once housed ten times their numbers. All that had changed. Lights now shone through windows where Jon Snow had never seen lights shine before. Strange voices echoed down the yards, and free folk were coming and going along icy paths that had only known the black boots of crows for years. (JON XII)
8.) Peace permits innocence, in contrast to war, which despoils it:
Outside the old Flint Barracks, he came across a dozen men pelting one another with snow. Playing, Jon thought in astonishment, grown men playing like children, throwing snowballs the way Bran and Arya once did, and Robb and me before them. (JON XII)
9.) Most importantly, peace in this case is not just morally demanded, it is practically necessary — to unite humanity against the Others:
“Winter is coming, my lords, and when it does, we living men will need to stand together against the dead.” (JON VIII)
The peace with the wildlings is what Jon built. The final scenes after the wildling crossing, as life returns to Castle Black, are stirring and beautiful.This is what Jon has responsibility for. And it’s what he loses in the end.
The Peace Lord Snow Didn’t Try to Build
When one examines just how far Jon went to make peace with the wildlings, it’s impossible to miss that Jon made no such effort with the Boltons. Instead he took the opposite tack. He sent Mance Rayder on a secret mission to steal Ramsay Bolton’s bride. In the North, rather than being a peacemaker, Jon is a provocateur. By acting in that way, Jon chose to risk everything he else was building.
It would have been easy for Martin to design the arc so that Jon had a clear casus belli to justify war on the Boltons. Instead, he did the opposite, arranging the arc so that it’s the Boltons who have a clear casus belli against Jon. This, I believe, is Martin’s fascinating thematic point — that well-meaning and heroic people, for understandable and sympathetic reasons, can choose to risk and endanger a peace, and go down the path of war instead. And that the consequences of this behavior can be quite dire for the lives of the people they are charged to protect.
With the Boltons, Jon chose to ignore his own advice and arguments for the necessity of peacemaking. For the wildling peace effort, Jon was willing to argue constantly that it was necessary to make peace with enemies, to let wrongs of the past be forgotten, to join together for the greater good. Yes, the Boltons are incredibly nasty people. But this is the same argument Bowen made against the wildlings, to which Jon responded that even if the wildlings truly were nothing but savage rapers, a peace with them would be necessary to fight the greater threat of the Others:
Bowen Marsh said, “Some might call this treason. These are wildlings. Savages, raiders, rapers, more beast than man.”
“Tormund is none of those things,” said Jon, “no more than Mance Rayder. But even if every word you said was true, they are still men, Bowen. Living men, human as you and me. Winter is coming, my lords, and when it does, we living men will need to stand together against the dead.” (JON VIII)
Shouldn’t that apply to the Boltons and Lannisters? Elsewhere, Jon directly compares how some wildlings feel about him, to how he feels about the Lannisters:
Sigorn’s father, the old Magnar, had been crushed beneath the falling stair during his attack on Castle Black. I would feel the same if someone asked me to make common cause with the Lannisters, Jon told himself. (JON V)
Intellectually, Jon realizes the similarity of the situations. But his actions don’t reflect this. He even angrily opposed sending the “paper shield” letter reaffirming the basic Night’s Watch neutrality policy, until Sam and Aemon twisted his arm. After that, he showed no further interest in making peace with the Boltons or Lannisters, and instead chose to roll the dice and hope for a Stannis victory, while doing nothing to prepare for the alternative. Even if a peace with the Boltons wouldn’t have worked out in the end, we’ll never know, because Jon didn’t even bother to try.
And Jon went much further than not trying for a Bolton peace — he actively pursued dangerous actions that risked provoking a war with them. Jon’s sending of Mance to steal Ramsay’s bride, on whom the Bolton claim to Winterfell depends, is very simply an act of war. That mission at least had a chance of remaining secret, but Jon later made an even more open provocation by arranging a Northern noble marriage, locking up Bolton men, and handing over a Northern castle to a small wildling army. All this time, the Boltons took no comparable actions against Jon, the Watch, or the Wall. (Cersei does try to, but is too incompetent to even get her assassin out of King’s Landing, and in any case is shortly deposed.)
Jon legitimately wanted the wildling peace — he wanted it desperately, worked incredibly hard to achieve it, and did so. He made no similar effort in the North. There, he wanted other things more — things that conflicted with preserving his fragile wildling peace. He wanted the evil Boltons to lose, he wanted their wrongs to be righted, and his noble heart wanted to help “Arya” and Alys, two girls endangered by them. Yet these actions put everything else at risk.
The Pink Letter – Confronting Ramsay’s Evil
Regardless of the Pink Letter’s authorship or truth, Jon’s decision to send Mance south somehow led to it and its hateful animus, apparently giving the Boltons a casus belli. The Letter then leads directly to Jon’s Shieldhall speech, which leads to Jon’s stabbing:
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore.
Your false king’s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. 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. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king’s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want his wildling princess.
I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.
Ramsay Bolton, Trueborn Lord of Winterfell. (JON XIII)
Jon has no good options in responding to the Pink Letter, which immediately places his rule, his peace, and his preparation for the Others at severe risk. He’s now in a box of his own making. Yet the nature of Jon’s response is still incredibly fascinating and revealing. Like Drogon’s return to the fighting pits, the Pink Letter appears out of the sky and clarifies a great deal for our lead character. Once Jon chooses to believe its words — a reasonable call to make, considering how many specifics are in there — he decides to accept the following:
- His bet on Stannis failed.
- The truth of the Mance Mission is now known.
- Ramsay is pure evil and must be destroyed.
The first two bring home the consequences of Jon’s previous choices, but the third is the key to understanding the nature of Jon’s response. Some fans have made the argument that Jon only decides to march south against Ramsay because it is the only way to protect the Watch, and therefore the larger struggle, from a supposedly-imminent Bolton attack. The problem is that Jon never says or thinks this. What he does repeatedly dwell on, is Ramsay’s evil:
I made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell … I want my bride back … I want my bride back … I want my bride back …
“I think we had best change the plan,” Jon Snow said. (JON XIII)
And Ramsay’s grotesque actions:
“This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words” (JON XIII)
Jon also taunts Ramsay in his words and thoughts, calling him “Bastard” and “Snow.” It’s personal.
… I have my swords, thought Jon Snow, and we are coming for you, Bastard. (JON XIII)
Prior to the Pink Letter, Jon had to try to stomach a North ruled by “the Boltons,” with Roose in charge. Now, Ramsay has announced his own centrality and decided to rub his moral repulsiveness in Jon’s face, by bragging about flaying women. This is the monster who holds Winterfell, perverting everything Ned Stark stood for. This is the monster who wants his “bride back.” The solution now seems obvious. Ramsay is a monster — and heroes kill monsters. They don’t stand by and let monsters run rampant. They set the world to rights.
Ramsay also demands that Jon himself commit a morally repulsive action. He demands Jon turn over a bunch of people under his protection to the Boltons, in hopes of avoiding Bolton retaliation against the Watch. Of course Jon doesn’t even have “Reek” or “Arya” to turn over, though they could well be headed to the Wall. But this hardly matters. Based on all of Jon’s previous actions in this book, the answer here is quite obviously “no” — just as he refused to kill the old man, Jon simply will not morally debase himself to please a monster, no matter the risk to the Watch, his peace, or the larger struggle. Though Jon says it’s not for the Watch to “defend [Stannis’] widow and his daughter,” Jon will — he won’t “let them die.” He won’t even lie about or deny Ramsay’s (true) accusations re: Mance — instead, he reads the Pink Letter aloud to all, clarifies things, and lets the chips fall where they may.
The argument that Jon is attacking Ramsay for the good of the Watch or the larger struggle, misses another key aspect of Jon’s decision — Hardhome. Rather than call off the mission because of this new danger in the south, Jon doubles down, handing over command to Tormund and giving him as many men as he wants. And again, he does not justify his decision strategically, but indicates what drives him by repeating Selyse’s words — he doesn’t want to “let them die.”
“The ships I sent to take off Mother Mole and her people have been wracked by storms. We must send what help we can by land or let them die… I had hoped to lead the ranging myself and bring back as many of the free folk as could survive the journey… 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.” (JON XIII)
Rather than Jon keeping the bigger picture in mind, these two decisions seem to indicate a tremendous loss of perspective. Jon has spent the entire book multiplying the Watch’s strength and fortifying castles to prepare to defend to the Wall. Now, he’s sending a huge part of his fighting strength to Hardhome to help innocent people, and another huge part to Winterfell to attack Ramsay. Who, exactly, is meant to hold the Wall? Jon never mentions or thinks about this, or about the Others in this chapter. In a very literal sense, Jon is abandoning the defense against the Others, to go fight his “other wars” — one to save thousands of innocent people, one to depose a monster. The hero’s instinct.
Bowen Marsh – For the Watch
Bowen Marsh is bigoted against wildlings, is rather cowardly, had grave misgivings about Jon’s leadership, and complained and criticized until his throat was dry. Yet despite everything, in Jon’s penultimate chapter Bowen stood aside and let 3,119 wildlings through the Wall. He followed orders. This indicates that Bowen had no intention of killing or deposing Jon before the Pink Letter and the Shieldhall speech. It simply makes no sense for Bowen to wait until just after the Watch becomes vastly outnumbered by wildlings, rather than launching the attempt the day before the wildlings cross.
So, why did he end up doing it? Well, there’s more to Bowen than irrational hatred of wildlings. For one, he feared the consequences to the Watch of a Stannis loss, but Jon promised he’d choose no side:
…“Lord Stannis helped us when we needed help,” Marsh said doggedly, “but he is still a rebel, and his cause is doomed. As doomed as we’ll be if the Iron Throne marks us down as traitors. We must be certain that we do not choose the losing side.”
“It is not my intent to choose any side,” said Jon… (JON III)
For another, Jon had specifically promised him that the wildlings would remain at the Wall:
The Norrey fingered his beard. “You may put your wildlings in these ruined forts, Lord Snow, but how will you make them stay? What is there to stop them moving south to fairer, warmer lands?”
“Our lands,” said Old Flint.
“Tormund has given me his oath. He will serve with us until the spring. The Weeper and their other captains will swear the same or we will not let them pass…”
…“Mance Rayder swore an oath as well,” Marsh went on. “He vowed to wear no crowns, take no wife, father no sons. Then he turned his cloak, did all those things, and led a fearsome host against the realm.” (JON XI)
Also, Bowen opposed the Hardhome mission, both because he doesn’t care whatsoever about wildling civilian life, and because of practical objections about the mission’s prospects and the difficulty of feeding so many:
But no sooner had Jon finished than the Lord Steward said, “Her Grace is wise. Let them die.” (JON XIII)
Finally, there has always been some uncertainty among Marsh and other Watch men about Jon’s true loyalties — quite reasonable, since, unlike us, they don’t have access to his inner thoughts:
Marsh hesitated. “Lord Snow, I am not one to bear tales, but there has been talk that you are becoming too … too friendly with Lord Stannis. Some even suggest that you are … a …”
A rebel and a turncloak, aye, and a bastard and a warg as well. Janos Slynt might be gone, but his lies lingered. “I know what they say.” Jon had heard the whispers, had seen men turn away when he crossed the yard… (JON III)
…Mully cleared his throat. “M’lord? The wildling princess, letting her go, the men may say—”
“—that I am half a wildling myself, a turncloak who means to sell the realm to our raiders, cannibals, and giants.” Jon did not need to stare into a fire to know what was being said of him. The worst part was, they were not wrong, not wholly. “Words are wind, and the wind is always blowing at the Wall. (JON VIII)
Despite all this, Bowen decided to trust his Lord Commander, swallowed his pride, followed orders, and let the wildlings through.
“All is in readiness,” Bowen Marsh assured him. “If the wildlings uphold the terms of the bargain, all will go as you’ve commanded.” (JON XII)
But Jon began to find Bowen’s advice tiresome:
A lord needed men about him he could rely upon for honest counsel. Marsh and Yarwyck were no lickspittles, and that was to the good … but they were seldom any help either. More and more, he found he knew what they would say before he asked them… (JON XIII)
This is ironic, because Jon then completely fails to anticipate Bowen’s reaction to the Shieldhall speech. But it explains why, when the Pink Letter arrives, Jon doesn’t bother consulting with Bowen or any other Watch men on what the best course of action would be. From Jon’s own perspective, he is trying to defeat an evil monster, and rescue thousands of civilians. However, from the perspective of Bowen and other Watch men, Jon’s Shieldhall speech has some very different implications. Namely:
- (1) Stannis is apparently dead and the Boltons are angry (confirming the Watch has backed a failed rebel and may pay a price for it)
- (2) but Mance Rayder is alive despite everyone watching him burn (confirming Jon’s suspected involvement in sorcery)
- (3) and Jon had secretly sent the wildling king south (confirming Jon’s suspected conspiring with wildlings against the realm)
- (4) to steal the Lord of Winterfell’s bride (confirming Jon’s interfering in the realm for his family)
- (5) And now he’s sending the Watch on a suicide mission
- (6) Which will be commanded by its long-time enemy Tormund Giantsbane
- (7) While Jon himself rides south to attack the Lord of Winterfell
- (8) With an army of wildlings.
For a Watch man, any one of these eight is a tremendously serious crisis. The combination of all eight together is world-shattering. All of the worst fears about Jon and his course of action have apparently been proven true at the same time. If Jon realizes this, he doesn’t seem to care very much:
…Yarwyck and Marsh were slipping out, he saw, and all their men behind them. It made no matter. He did not need them now. He did not want them. (JON XIII)
But the peace Jon built had two main parties: the Watch and the wildlings. And a leader can’t preserve a peace by disdaining, dismissing, and marginalizing one of the peace’s parties. Essentially, to follow his hero’s instincts, Jon has now decided to discard the Watch’s traditions, and ignore all the Watch’s concerns, and abandon the Watch’s limits on his role, and admit that he’s been acting in his own interest rather than that of the Watch (in sending Mance for Arya), just as the risks of his approach have finally become unmistakably clear.
Bowen’s attack on Jon is tremendously foolish, and seems near-certain to lead to his own death as well as massive slaughter at the Wall. But, with all the above in mind, it is easy to understand why some Watch men concluded that Jon’s decisions meant the end of the Night’s Watch if he wasn’t stopped, and acted accordingly with a final desperate move. Jon’s failure to understand this shows his loss of perspective:
“No blades!” he screamed. “Wick, put that knife …”
… away, he meant to say. When Wick Whittlestick slashed at his throat, the word turned into a grunt. Jon twisted from the knife, just enough so it barely grazed his skin. He cut me. When he put his hand to the side of his neck, blood welled between his fingers.
“For the Watch.” Wick slashed at him again. (JON XIII)
Bowen is crying as he stabs Jon. To me, this suggests he feels he has no other choice, is acting from desperation, and knows full well that his end is likely near:
Then Bowen Marsh stood there before him, tears running down his cheeks. “For the Watch.” He punched Jon in the belly. When he pulled his hand away, the dagger stayed where he had buried it.
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger’s hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air the wound was smoking. “Ghost,” he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold… (JON XIII)
And as Jon falls, so does his peace, and his preparation to defend humanity against the Others.