The previous parts of this essay sought to analyze Martin’s construction of Jon’s arc in ADWD. This concluding installment of “Other Wars” will shift gears a bit to explore the future of Jon’s “war within his own heart.” With several massively traumatic and important events now taking place, it seems quite possible that Jon’s biggest transformations are yet to come, and that his war within his heart is not yet over. But rather than inventing possible scenarios, or getting into the nitty-gritty mechanics of potential resurrections, I will pose what I see as three very important ways Jon could change, that have all been set up by ADWD. First, how will the fallout at the Wall change Jon? Second, how will Jon’s approach to magic and prophecy change? And third, will Ghost change Jon? The answers to these will have a great deal of bearing on Jon’s values, his future leadership, his noble heart, his greater duty, his identity, and the future of his arc.
Introduction: Wun Wun and Ser Patrek
But before getting into these questions about Jon’s future, let’s pause and take another look at how Martin left him, by analyzing this one remaining element of his final ADWD chapter. I think we should pay close attention to the images Martin uses here, because Dany’s final chapter and scene are heavily laden with symbolism and thematic import. (Her very last actions in the book are eating a horse Drogon roasted — “fire and blood” — and standing beside her dragon. There, she resolves her preference for Daario over Hizdahr, which symbolizes her preference for war over the peace she built through political compromise.)
Now I’ve been arguing that, in Jon’s arc, he is distracted by his “heroic instinct” to help certain individuals, forgets the bigger picture, and places himself and the larger struggle at risk. And in fact… that is precisely what he does, writ small, in his very last action in the book. For after Jon gives his Shieldhall speech and spends a brief moment thinking about his next move, he suddenly hears the following:
I should talk with Melisandre after I see the queen, he thought. If she could see a raven in a storm, she can find Ramsay Snow for me. Then he heard the shouting … and a roar so loud it seemed to shake the Wall. “That come from Hardin’s Tower, m’lord,” Horse reported. He might have said more, but the scream cut him off.
Val, was Jon’s first thought. But that was no woman’s scream. That is a man in mortal agony. He broke into a run. Horse and Rory raced after him. (JON XIII)
Forgetting to continue to plan the mission, forgetting that Marsh and other Watch men left angrily, forgetting that he now may be an oathbreaker, forgetting that he’s not guarded by Ghost — Jon immediately rushes to go help someone in danger. The hero’s instinct.
When Jon arrives at the scene, he finds that Wun Wun the giant has killed Selyse’s man, Ser Patrek. Interestingly, Martin has also designed this incident so that Jon himself has unwittingly triggered it:
“I have decided that she shall wed my good and leal knight, Ser Patrek of King’s Mountain.”
“Has Val been told, Your Grace?” asked Jon. “Amongst the free folk, when a man desires a woman, he steals her, and thus proves his strength, his cunning, and his courage. The suitor risks a savage beating if he is caught by the woman’s kin, and worse than that if she herself finds him unworthy.”
“A savage custom,” Axell Florent said.
Ser Patrek only chuckled. “No man has ever had cause to question my courage. No woman ever will.” (JON XIII)
Jon apparently didn’t realize that Patrek would take his words as a challenge (Val is currently in Hardin’s Tower, being guarded by Wun Wun — “A giant as protector”). Wun Wun’s wounds make it clear that Ser Patrek is the instigator here.
The giant was bleeding himself, with sword cuts on his belly and his arm. (JON XIII)
On the other hand, Jon repeatedly likens Wun Wun to a blameless child:
The giant was dangling a bloody corpse by one leg, the same way Arya used to dangle her doll when she was small, swinging it like a morningstar when menaced by vegetables. Arya never tore her dolls to pieces, though. The dead man’s sword arm was yards away, the snow beneath it turning red.
“Let him go,” Jon shouted. “Wun Wun, let him go.”
Wun Wun did not hear or did not understand… Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun howled again and gave Ser Patrek’s other arm a twist and pull. It tore loose from his shoulder with a spray of bright red blood. Like a child pulling petals off a daisy, thought Jon. (JON XIII)
Jon evaluates the situation and quickly realizes Wun Wun was attacked. But everyone else seems to take the tableau at face value — a savage giant has brutally murdered a noble queen’s man, and therefore must be dealt with. Jon won’t accept this — note his indignant (and accurate) defense of Wun Wun in his thoughts:
“Leathers, talk to him, calm him. The Old Tongue, he understands the Old Tongue. Keep back, the rest of you. Put away your steel, we’re scaring him.” Couldn’t they see the giant had been cut? (JON XIII)
And so Jon spends his very final moments before his stabbing nobly, desperately trying to do the right thing, defend the innocent, and prevent more death.
Jon had to put an end to this or more men would die. They had no idea of Wun Wun’s strength. (JON XIII)
In being so focused on this particular situation, he has lost sight of the bigger picture, failed to realize the shocking impact of the Shieldhall speech, left himself vulnerable, is completely heedless to an oncoming greater threat, and ends up paying a grave price for it:
A horn, I need a horn. He saw the glint of steel, turned toward it. “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. “Why?”
“For the Watch.” Wick slashed at him again. (JON XIII)
Ending Jon’s arc with this Wun Wun incident further hammers home the importance of Jon’s hero instinct to his arc so far. I argued that Dany’s final chapter shows a major turning point in her values, where she rejects the idea that she should keep bending over backward to protect innocent life, rather than taking what she wants through force. For Jon, there is no similar rejection of the value of helping innocents, or of his hero’s instinct. As shown above, with Wun Wun, he keeps trying to help people and be a hero right up to the end.
But death can change a person…
I’ve mostly tried to keep these essays to analysis of the published text rather than speculation about the future — but Jon’s storyline ends on such a cliffhanger that I can’t resist some here. To me, the interesting question isn’t whether Jon will come back. I agree with the majority view that Jon is dead and that he will be revived after his consciousness spends some time in Ghost. (The main clues here are the Varamyr prologue establishing the concept of skinchanger “second life,” Melisandre’s vision of Jon as “a man, now a wolf, now a man again,” and Jon’s last word actually being “Ghost.”)
The topic I find much more fascinating is… what kind of a person, and leader, will Jon be when he does return? How will the war within his heart unfold? The following questions seek to explore various avenues Martin has set up by which Jon could change.
1.) How will the fallout at the Wall change Jon?
So, Jon has just been betrayed and stabbed by his own men, and possibly killed. That’s quite a terrible trauma by itself, potentially enough to lead one to reevaluate some life choices.
And yet that will be peanuts compared to the horror that is about to unfold at the Wall. The one event I feel confident assuming is open warfare between the Watch and wildlings. The peace deal Tormund made was with Jon, many wildling chiefs swore loyalty to Jon personally, and they will certainly not kneel to Bowen Marsh after such a treacherous act. Once wildlings and Watch men start killing each other, old habits will reassert themselves — even if there is a substantial contingent of Jon loyalists in the Watch, it is hard to imagine many of them siding with the wildlings against their own brothers. The balance of forces is:
- 550+ sworn Night’s Watch men, mostly at Castle Black, Eastwatch, and the Shadow Tower, some at other castles
- 4,000+ wildling men, women, and children (Stannis’ prisoners and Tormund’s band). 1,000 or so warriors. Armed, but many have inferior weaponry, and are “starved and sick.” Most are still apparently at Castle Black, though some have been settled in various other castles.
- 100 wildling child hostages divided between Castle Black, Eastwatch, and the Shadow Tower.
- 200 giants and 80 mammoths. However, they are not with the main wildling force — they were sent over to Eastwatch, because they couldn’t fit through Castle Black’s gate. (Eastwatch is currently commanded by Glendon Hewett, an Alliser Thorne crony.)
- 50 of Selyse’s armed men, who have just heard their king is dead. Also Melisandre, Selyse, Shireen, and Patchface.
- The Weeper’s wildling band – thought to be thousands strong and planning to attack the Shadow Tower
- And, oh yeah, the Others and wights
So the wildlings have the numbers, but the Watch men have better weapons, hostages, are in better fighting shape, have superior knowledge of the battleground, and have better communication (much could hinge on the Watch conspirators sending quick ravens to other castles). Beyond that, there are the queen’s men, giants, Melisandre, Weeper’s band, and Others as x factors. So things could play out in a host of different ways.
But the overall takeaway for me is that a whole ton of people will die horribly and all preparation to face the Others will effectively cease. How Jon interprets and deals with this turn of events will be crucial to his future development. Will it kill his hero’s instinct, and force him to take stock and focus on winnable battles? Or, when revived, might Jon double down, blame Ramsay and Marsh for everything, view his own mistakes as merely practical ones, and redouble his efforts to save every innocent he can? Perhaps he’ll grab more power for himself as a means to that end, viewing himself as too handicapped by the Watch’s constraints. For all we know, he could be so traumatized that he’d decide humanity isn’t even worth saving. But I don’t think it’s clear yet what his reaction will be, so I’m fascinated to find out.
2.) How will Jon’s approach to magic and prophecy change?
There is one change in Jon in his final chapter that is quite clear, and seems to be setup for a later payoff. In the beginning of the chapter, he derides Melisandre and her prophecies:
“A grey girl on a dying horse. Daggers in the dark. A promised prince, born in smoke and salt. It seems to me that you make nothing but mistakes, my lady. Where is Stannis? What of Rattleshirt and his spearwives? Where is my sister?”
“All your questions shall be answered. Look to the skies, Lord Snow. And when you have your answers, send to me. Winter is almost upon us now. I am your only hope.”
“A fool’s hope.” Jon turned and left her. (JON XIII)
Yet after receiving the Pink Letter, Jon completely changes his mind, and is newly persuaded of her skills:
“Melisandre … look to the skies, she said.” He set the letter down. “A raven in a storm. She saw this coming.” When you have your answers, send to me…
…I should talk with Melisandre after I see the queen, he thought. If she could see a raven in a storm, she can find Ramsay Snow for me. (JON XIII)
But, wait a minute. First of all, Melisandre never said she saw a raven in a storm! She gave an incredibly vague and functionally useless prophecy of “look to the skies.” Second… wasn’t Melisandre, and her incorrect prediction of Arya coming to the Wall, the main reason Jon got in this Pink Letter mess by sending Mance south in the first place? Which means that blindly trusting in her advice has now backfired horribly? And yet somehow Jon’s takeaway here is that Melisandre was right and that she “saw this coming”?
Now, if Jon already has a newfound trust in Melisandre’s ability on such dubious grounds, then the apparent fulfillment of the “daggers in the dark” vision, which Jon had dismissed, will surely only further convince Jon of her power:
“It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back. You would do well to keep your wolf close beside you. Ice, I see, and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. It was very cold.” (JON I)
“I am seeing skulls. And you. I see your face every time I look into the flames. The danger that I warned you of grows very close now.”
“Daggers in the dark. I know. You will forgive my doubts, my lady.” (JON X)
Not to mention, of course, that Melisandre might also endear herself to Jon by resurrecting him, which would be an undeniable display of her power.
But does this mean her claims to prophetic knowledge can be trusted? It’s clear Melisandre genuinely sees images of the future in the flames. The problem with Melisandre is that her modus operandi is to convince powerful men that she knows more than she actually does, and that they should therefore trust her interpretation and advice of those visions. But in reality, she usually seems to know nothing more beyond the vision, which is usually something very vague and open to misinterpretation:
The girl. I must find the girl again, the grey girl on the dying horse. Jon Snow would expect that of her, and soon. It would not be enough to say the girl was fleeing. He would want more, he would want the when and where, and she did not have that for him. She had seen the girl only once. A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away. (MELISANDRE I)
Even worse, Melisandre often feels compelled to pretend confidence when she has actually has no idea what she’s talking about:
“Wildlings massing, Ser Denys believes. He thinks they are going to try to force the Bridge of Skulls again.”
“Some may.” Could the skulls in her vision have signified this bridge? Somehow Melisandre did not think so. “If it comes, that attack will be no more than a diversion. I saw towers by the sea, submerged beneath a black and bloody tide. That is where the heaviest blow will fall.”
Was it? Melisandre had seen Eastwatch-by-the-Sea with King Stannis. That was where His Grace left Queen Selyse and their daughter Shireen when he assembled his knights for the march to Castle Black. The towers in her fire had been different, but that was oft the way with visions. “Yes. Eastwatch, my lord.”
She spread her hands. “On the morrow. In a moon’s turn. In a year. And it may be that if you act, you may avert what I have seen entirely.” Else what would be the point of visions? (MELISANDRE I)
This of course can lead to some very wrong and bad advice. So, Jon’s apparent newfound trust that Melisandre “saw this coming,” likely to be amplified after his stabbing and potential resurrection, is quite unsettling to me. And not only because she wants him to have sex with her and make a shadowbaby:
She knelt and scratched Ghost behind his ear. “Your Wall is a queer place, but there is power here, if you will use it. Power in you, and in this beast. You resist it, and that is your mistake. Embrace it. Use it.”
I am not a wolf, he thought. “And how would I do that?”
“I can show you.” Melisandre draped one slender arm over Ghost, and the direwolf licked her face. “The Lord of Light in his wisdom made us male and female, two parts of a greater whole. In our joining there is power. Power to make life. Power to make light. Power to cast shadows.”
“Shadows.” The world seemed darker when he said it.
“Every man who walks the earth casts a shadow on the world. Some are thin and weak, others long and dark. You should look behind you, Lord Snow. The moon has kissed you and etched your shadow upon the ice twenty feet tall.” (ADWD JON VI)
More disturbing is that, in contrast to Melisandre’s pretensions, we have two very memorable and vivid metaphors about why sorcery and prophecy are quite dangerous and untrustworthy. First, from Marwyn:
“Born amidst salt and smoke, beneath a bleeding star. I know the prophecy.” Marwyn turned his head and spat a gob of red phlegm onto the floor. “Not that I would trust it. Gorghan of Old Ghis once wrote that a prophecy is like a treacherous woman. She takes your member in her mouth, and you moan with the pleasure of it and think, how sweet, how fine, how good this is . . . and then her teeth snap shut and your moans turn to screams. That is the nature of prophecy, said Gorghan. Prophecy will bite your prick off every time.” (AFFC SAM V)
Now, there are hardly any examples in the series so far of prophecy being useful for any important character. In contrast, there are many examples of excessive concern with prophecy leading to folly and destruction, including, of course, Jon’s own likely father apparently triggering Robert’s Rebellion because of a prophecy. So I tend to think Martin shares Gorghan’s mindset. After all, it’s not very dramatic if main characters get prophetic knowledge that helps them solve their problems — that rather drains the drama from the series and devalues their own choices, as Martin has said about magic generally:
“Magic should never be the solution to the problem. My credo as a writer has always been Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” That transcends genre. That’s what good fiction, good drama is about: human beings in trouble. You have to make a decision, you have to do something, your life is in danger or your honor is in danger, or you’re facing some crisis of the heart… Magic can ruin things. Magic should never be the solution. Magic can be part of the problem.” (George RR Martin interview, August 2013)
This is backed up further by the second major metaphor, about sorcery more generally, from Dalla:
“Dalla told me something once. Val’s sister, Mance Rayder’s wife. She said that sorcery was a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”
“A wise woman.” Melisandre rose, her red robes stirring in the wind. “A sword without a hilt is still a sword, though, and a sword is a fine thing to have when foes are all about.” (ADWD JON VI)
This is in the context of whether Jon should trust Melisandre’s assurances that there’s a way to save his sister. But Jon concludes that Melisandre has the better argument, and dismisses Val’s later attempts to warn him away from trusting her:
“She knows who he [Gilly’s baby] is. She sees things in her fires”… “Why let it happen if she knew?”
“Because it suited her. Fire is a fickle thing. No one knows which way a flame will go.” Val put a foot into a stirrup, swung her leg over her horse’s back, and looked down from the saddle. “Do you remember what my sister told you?”
“Yes.” A sword without a hilt, with no safe way to hold it. But Melisandre had the right of it. Even a sword without a hilt is better than an empty hand when foes are all around you. (ADWD JON VIII)
Need I mention again that Dalla was proven right in this case, because Jon’s trust in Melisandre’s bad advice led to the Pink Letter? Unfortunately, Jon does not seem to realize this. So overall, I am not feeling good about this turn of Jon toward Melisandre, sorcery, and prophecy that has been set up.
3.) Will Ghost change Jon?
In the prologue of ADWD, a very interesting point is established about skinchanger “second life” that reads like quite important setup to me:
“They say you forget,” Haggon had told him, a few weeks before his own death. “When the man’s flesh dies, his spirit lives on inside the beast, but every day his memory fades, and the beast becomes a little less a warg, a little more a wolf, until nothing of the man is left and only the beast remains.” (ADWD PROLOGUE)
So, the possibility of Jon’s consciousness becoming more “wolf-like” the longer he’s stuck in Ghost is worth exploring. Indeed, it has been set up earlier in the book, with Jon trying to insist he’s not a wolf, despite somewhat enjoying being one:
The smells are stronger in my wolf dreams, he reflected, and food tastes richer too. Ghost is more alive than I am. (ADWD JON II)
…She knelt and scratched Ghost behind his ear. “Your Wall is a queer place, but there is power here, if you will use it. Power in you, and in this beast. You resist it, and that is your mistake. Embrace it. Use it.”
I am not a wolf, he thought. (ADWD JON VI)
In the classic Martin style, this self-denial probably means that Jon will soon have to grapple with what it means to “be a wolf.” So what does it mean? Besides the obvious connection to House Stark, I think there are three important traits in Martin’s portrayal of the direwolves. First, they represent power — this is pretty obvious, as they are strong and fierce beasts, they provide the young Starks with the power to kill if they wish, and Melisandre makes the linkage explicit to Jon above. Second, they are fiercely loyal to their pack — the direwolves save the Stark kids many times, and the pack is itself magically linked:
Far off, he could hear his packmates calling to him, like to like. They were hunting too… Once they had been six, five whimpering blind in the snow beside their dead mother, sucking cool milk from her hard dead nipples whilst he crawled off alone. Four remained. (ADWD JON I)
Third, it’s notable that in ADWD Martin starts to emphasize another important direwolf trait… they eat people! Not out of spite or anything, but because they need food, and all meat is the same to a wolf. In ADWD, our three POVs who intentionally warg — Bran, Arya, and Varamyr — all eat human flesh while warging wolves, with differing degrees of moral outrage:
Long leagues away, the boy stirred uneasily. Black. Night’s Watch. They were Night’s Watch. The direwolf did not care. They were meat. He was hungry…The pack was his. The prey as well. He went from man to man, sniffing, before settling on the biggest, a faceless thing who clutched black iron in one hand. His other hand was missing, severed at the wrist, the stump bound up in leather. Blood flowed thick and sluggish from the slash across his throat. The wolf lapped at it with his tongue, licked the ragged eyeless ruin of his nose and cheeks, then buried his muzzle in his neck and tore it open, gulping down a gobbet of sweet meat. No flesh had ever tasted half as good. When he was done with that one, he moved to the next, and devoured the choicest bits of that man too. (ADWD BRAN I)
She opened her eyes and stared up blind at the black that shrouded her, her dream already fading. So beautiful. She licked her lips, remembering. The bleating of the sheep, the terror in the shepherd’s eyes, the sound the dogs had made as she killed them one by one, the snarling of her pack. Game had become scarcer since the snows began to fall, but last night they had feasted. Lamb and dog and mutton and the flesh of man. Some of her little grey cousins were afraid of men, even dead men, but not her. Meat was meat, and men were prey. She was the night wolf. But only when she dreamed. (ADWD ARYA I)
That left the female and her pup for him. She had a tooth too, a little one made of bone, but she dropped it when the warg’s jaws closed around her leg. As she fell, she wrapped both arms around her noisy pup. Underneath her furs the female was just skin and bones, but her dugs were full of milk. The sweetest meat was on the pup. The wolf saved the choicest parts for his brother. All around the carcasses, the frozen snow turned pink and red as the pack filled its bellies.
Leagues away, in a one-room hut of mud and straw with a thatched roof and a smoke hole and a floor of hard-packed earth, Varamyr shivered and coughed and licked his lips. His eyes were red, his lips cracked, his throat dry and parched, but the taste of blood and fat filled his mouth, even as his swollen belly cried for nourishment. A child’s flesh, he thought, remembering Bump. Human meat. Had he sunk so low as to hunger after human meat? He could almost hear Haggon growling at him. “Men may eat the flesh of beasts and beasts the flesh of men, but the man who eats the flesh of man is an abomination.” (ADWD PROLOGUE)
Jon has been defined by his intense moral feelings, particularly his desire to protect the weak and innocent. Yet wolves prey on the weak. They eat them to become stronger. Morality came naturally and instinctually to Jon, but it doesn’t come naturally to a wolf. Wolves do try to protect their pack — but who is Jon’s pack, now? If his consciousness does become influenced by Ghost’s, and he hopes to hold true to himself, he will have to work hard to find a middle ground between his moral and wolfish instincts. He will have to not let his wolf side consume him. He will have to work hard not to go from one extreme of taking great risks to protect human life, to the other extreme of being wholly indifferent to it.
In ADWD, Martin gave continued portraying Jon’s struggle within his heart by giving him his toughest tests yet — tests that pitted his noble heart and heroic instincts against his greater duty. In TWOW, I feel there is setup for the cruel tests to continue, in new forms. Jon has been traumatically stabbed, he will likely see the Wall collapse into chaos, he will likely soon be very influenced by sorcery and prophecy, and his consciousness will be stuck in a wolf for some time. How will all this affect how he values innocent life? How he approaches the threat of the Others? How he assesses risk? How he leads and rules? We can’t know yet, but overall, I think it’s clear Jon’s struggle with himself hasn’t ended. It’s just beginning.
Thank you for reading!