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.
Tag Archives: ADWD
“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.
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.
Jon has a noble heart and a hero’s mentality. And any true hero will be willing to take great risks to protect an innocent person in danger. When a maiden is in danger, the knight risks his life, defeats the monster, and saves her. That’s how it works in all the stories.
But now Jon has power, and with that comes responsibility. For a ruler, the hero’s instinct to take great risks to help the individual can be disastrous. In real life, if you take enough risks, you’ll eventually stop getting lucky. And rulers have the responsibility for a great many lives. Jon has the responsibility to protect a whole continent, or all of humanity, depending on your preference.
Jon spends much of his ADWD screentime attempting to win over the wildlings, and responsibly preparing the Wall to face the Others. His leadership on both of these fronts is downright visionary. But, interspersed with all this, Martin sneakily and repeatedly presents Jon with moral dilemmas involving individual innocents in danger, who cannot be helped without some risk to the Watch and the larger struggle. Again and again, Jon must choose whether he will use his power to help these innocents, despite that risk. I wrote in Part I that Jon’s earlier temptations to stray from his Watch duties mainly involved his ignoble desires. Now, Jon is being tempted by his heroic instincts — his “noble heart.”
Mormont told Jon at Craster’s Keep that “the wide world is full of people wanting help,” but “the Night’s Watch has other wars to fight.” Now, in ADWD, many people need Jon’s help — first an infant, then his sister, then a teenage girl, and finally a large group of wildling civilians at Hardhome. Much of Jon’s arc revolves around his choices about whether to use his power to help them, and what his choices might mean for the Watch and the larger struggle.
“If Stannis can raise the north …”
Sam hesitated, then said, “The Lannisters have northmen of their own. Lord Bolton and his bastard.” (JON II)
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. (JON XIII)
The first temptations that Martin presents Jon with in ADWD involve Stannis Baratheon. Jon must decide what help, if any, he can give Stannis in his invasion of the North, while maintaining the independence and neutrality of the Night’s Watch. Overall, Jon’s thoughts and behavior toward Stannis undergo a progression — in his early chapters, he is conflicted and reluctant to take sides in the game of thrones. But as things go on, his thoughts gets less conflicted, and he finds himself clearly rooting for Stannis, fails to create any distance between them, and helps him in a variety of covert ways.
Through it all, Jon does nearly nothing to prepare for the always-distinct possibility that Stannis will lose. Whether the Pink Letter is true or false, its effect in the moment is to vividly bring that possibility alive.
In A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow spends the majority of his chapters, his thoughts, and his time focused on two basic tasks. He tries to make peace with the wildlings, and he tries to prepare the Watch to face the Others. And he appears to be succeeding at both. Toward the end of the book, there’s a Jon chapter depicting his triumphant peaceful welcoming of over three thousand wildlings through the Wall. And the chapter closes with a teaser that seemingly promises imminent Others action:
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. (ADWD JON XII)
But… then there’s one more Jon chapter in the book.
Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. “You were right to come at once,” Jon said. You were right to be afraid. (ADWD JON XIII)
The Pink Letter is one of the craziest, most unexpected plot twists GRRM has ever served up. Everything at the Wall instantly changes because of it. There’s been endless speculation about whether what it says is true, or whether it was even written by Ramsay. We won’t know for sure until TWOW is released.
However, the very fact that Martin chose to end Jon’s arc with the Pink Letter and its aftermath is important and revealing. Though it seems so completely unexpected, it actually isn’t just a random curveball. A closer look at Jon’s arc reveals that the Letter is a logical and thematically appropriate consequence of decisions Jon has chosen to make throughout the book.
In parts I-IV of this essay, I’ve laid out my main argument that Martin has designed Dany’s ADWD plotline quite deliberately to focus on her struggle within herself. She tries to be concerned for innocent life, and fears unleashing her violent impulses. Eventually, she sacrifices a great deal for peace, and achieves it. But she turns out to hate it, and in the end rejects it, in favor of “fire and blood.”
However, there’s another layer to this plotline that I’ve just barely touched on. In this concluding part, I’ll describe how Martin illustrates Dany’s struggle within herself symbolically, through her choice between Daario and Hizdahr. Now, in a straightforward sense, Dany’s peace initiative hinges on her marriage to Hizdahr, so of course he represents peace that way. But Martin has gone further — he has tailored the personal traits of Hizdahr and Daario so that they personify the path of peace through political compromise and the path of war.
In ADWD, the drama of Dany’s arc is in her struggle with herself. In her final chapters, that struggle is resolved.
Earlier in the book, motivated by fear of her own violent side and what it could mean for innocent life, Dany devoted herself to making peace in Meereen. She told herself, again and again, that she had to do this, for her people. She was willing to subsume all other parts of her personality, and all of her other desires, to achieve this peace. She knew that when she unleashed her violent side in the past, the end result was only devastation. The horrors of Astapor and Hazzea weighed heavily on her mind. So, difficultly and amazingly, she achieved that peace for Meereen.
And once she does, she becomes utterly miserable, and concludes it was a failure and a mistake.
So, what was the point of Dany’s sojourn in Meereen?
Many just dismiss it as wholly filler, without any real purpose at all except to pad out the books. Others think that Dany as a character “regressed,” returning to a state of incompetence, naivete, and passivity. Others think the point was about giving Dany “practice” ruling, so she could make mistakes, and eventually become a better ruler when she reaches Westeros.
Here’s why all these interpretations miss the point:
“The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.” –George R. R. Martin
Martin has paraphrased this quote from William Faulkner time and time again in interviews, yet many readers haven’t fully internalized it. It means Martin is not interested in merely showing characters “leveling up,” like a video game, progressing from incompetent naif to awesome badass. His main interest is in exploring his characters’ values. And throughout the series, he creates drama by forcing characters to choose between their core values — love vs. duty, honor vs. pragmatism, vows vs. innocent life.
With that in mind, a closer look reveals that Dany’s plotline in Meereen has been very cleverly designed as a series of tests of her values, and one value in particular. Each test is designed to ask — how far will Dany go to make peace and protect innocent life? With nearly every new chapter, Dany is asked to give up something else she wants or desires, for the good of the Meereenese people. The use of her dragons. A share of power in Meereen. Some of her anti-slavery reforms. Her desire for vengeance. Her desire to right every wrong she sees. Her distaste for cultural practices she finds abhorrent. Her sexual autonomy. Her happiness. Her pride. Her chance at Westeros.
Dany’s arc is revealed in how she responds to these tests, and how she tries to balance her moral ideals against her own darker impulses and desires. Part of Dany genuinely does want peace, and wants to sacrifice a great deal to protect innocent life. But another part of her would rather she take what she wants, through fire and blood.
The main drama of the Meereen plotline lies in Dany’s mind and in her choices. On the surface she is struggling with the Meereenese — but her most crucial struggle is with herself. And the outcome of this struggle will have momentous consequences for Westeros.
Many readers so dislike Meereen because Dany’s efforts there seem clearly frustrating, doomed, and pointless, ending in failure. And this reaction is perfectly understandable, because that’s what practically every Westerosi character in the book ends up thinking, including Dany! They all conclude that the peace effort was pointless, Dany was naive and got taken advantage of, and that things always had to end in war, so why did we waste so many chapters leading up to the inevitable?
But a closer look at the Meereenese events gives me quite a different impression. To actually understand what unfolded there, we need to take a closer look at the specifics of Dany’s enemies, their interests, and their actions — rather than viewing them as an undifferentiated mass of evil men with weird names. We also need to correct for the bias of the unreliable narrator by looking closely at the harder facts in the text.
My take is that Dany’s overall course of action in Meereen was moral, correct, admirable, and effective — that the peace she created was real, albeit fragile, like most peaces are. That, up to the moment Drogon returned to the fighting pits, her rule in Meereen was headed toward success, and that neither of her two main enemies, the Harpy and the Yunkai’i, planned to break the peace.
Many readers who think the peace was doomed point to the poisoned locusts as the main “proof” of this. Hey, her enemies were plotting to kill her all along! But if the locusts are the work of the Shavepate, as I argued in Part I, then this implies just the opposite — the attempt was made because Dany’s peace was so successful, not because it was foolish and doomed.