Yes, We Need Jon Snow

Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones…


jon-snow-ghost Spencer Ackerman writes:

With the White Walkers and the Wights afoot, the Night’s Watch needs soldiers. Jon gives it soldiers — even young boys and girls. What Jon does, he does for the Watch, not the Realm.

Nor does Jon display any interest in building a nation. The Wildlings don’t get integrated into the North. They get a ghetto in the Gift, in which they’re dependent on the Night’s Watch. Jon strolls his Brothers into the Gift to hand out what provisions he can spare — and while he does so, he makes a pitch for the Wildlings to join their old enemies in the Watch. This is not “act[ing] towards a comprehensive vision of a new world.” Look at it from the Wildlings’ perspective: serve, or you don’t eat. I suppose this is a kind of nation building: the kind that, in practice, fails. Alyssa needs to add a sense of hubris to her sense of tragedy.

Alyssa finds Jon’s redefinitions of the Realm admirable. Others might call Jon a usurper. He’s not a king. He’s a controversial, compromise choice for Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The Night’s Watch is a brotherhood of guardsmen. Its job, as understood by anyone south of the Wall, is to keep the Wildlings out of Westeros. And what did Jon just do? More importantly, by what right did he do it?

We learn from Jon’s time with Mance that the Wildlings are hardly monsters. They’re just as admirable, dishonorable and human as anyone in Westeros. Once that’s clear, it engenders an obvious sense of abitrariness and injustice in anyone considering the role of the Watch. But for better or for worse, that’s the role of the Watch. For a Lord Commander to arbitrarily decide to rewrite that role smacks of dereliction of duty.

I agree with Spencer that Jon is being utilitarian in his desire to bring the Wildlings south of the Wall. There are two reasons for this, however. It is not simply to garrison the Wall, but to avoid all those dead Wildlings turning into undead zombie warriors. This also explains the haste of Jon’s actions. He’s desperate – truly desperate – to get as many Wildlings south of the Wall as possible before they are killed by the White Walkers. He doesn’t handle the diplomacy of it very well, but he has very little choice in the matter.

Which brings me to my second quibble. Spencer writes “The Night’s Watch is a brotherhood of guardsmen. Its job, as understood by anyone south of the Wall, is to keep the Wildlings out of Westeros.” Is this true? In the same sense, is Alyssa correct when she argues that Jon is a nation-builder, “redefining “the realms of men” to include the Wildlings, integrating them into Westeros’s society with intermarriages, land, rebuilt castles, and alliances.”?

I suspect that in fact the Wall was never built to keep out the Wildlings, that the Night’s Watch was not founded to protect the “realms of men” from other men, or even to protect just Westeros. No, Jon’s realization is that the Wall was built to protect all men. This has nothing to do with nation building and everything to do with the reason for the Wall’s existence in the first place, as well as for the true vision of the Night’s Watch. They are there to wait, for thousands of years if need be, for the return of the Others. Politics and nation-building be damned, theirs is a mission to protect mankind from extinction. Jon wakes up to this while his sworn brothers continue to sleep. He does not bring the Wildlings over to serve the Watch, but to save mankind.

Spencer goes on to compare Jon’s inelegant diplomacy with the finessed diplomatic maneuverings of the Obama administration over DADT:

But there’s a lesson in the stabbing of Jon Snow. (No one really thinks he’s dead, right?) The Realm, like the world, is made of institutions. If you wish to change the realm, you have to engage in the painful, arduous task of building legitimacy through these recognized institutions so that your changes don’t inspire the backlash that undoes them all. One of the strengths of George R.R. Martin is that he’s brutally consistent here. The same hubris that runs through Cersei when she cynically reconstitutes a group of religious warriors runs through Jon and Dany when they admirably attempt to focus on the White Walkers or banish slavery from Meereen. As a wise woman once exclaimed in a different story, “It’s Baltimore, Cedric!”

Put it this way. I predict that history will consider one of the Obama administration’s wisest acts to be the way in which it abolished Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. For someone who really wanted to see that bigoted and unjust policy go away, it was occasionally agonizing to watch Obama decline to stretch his executive authority to the maximum and impose a really big change on the military during wartime. He would have been entirely within his legal rights to do so. But Obama, Bob Gates and Adm. Mullen recognized that unless they created a sense of buy-in amongst service personnel, a backlash was a real possibility. Its victims would be gay servicemembers, not outsiders — precisely the people that abolishing DADT is supposed to protect.

Jon Snow, on the other hand, failed to gain institutional support and go through the arduous, painfully slow task of changing the institution before moving ahead with his ambitions.

Then again, winter was coming. Contra Spencer, I don’t think Jon had time. Obama had all the time in the world to forge ahead with repealing DADT. He didn’t have an army of undead at his doorstep, growing larger with every wintry night. No White Walkers either. Jon Snow saw the ugly truth of the matter, and he had to act and act fast. Could he, with a little more political wisdom, have prevented his fate? He could have kept more friends around him. He could have heeded Melisandre’s warning. He could have done all sorts of things differently – but the thing he could not have done was change the Night’s Watch. For thousands of years the Night’s Watch believed it was sworn to protect the seven kingdoms from the Wildlings. You don’t just wake up an institution like that to the reality that no, the seven kingdoms are not the realms of men, and you’re guarding against the wrong enemy entirely. He should have watched his back, kept his friends around him, kept his damn wolf nearby. But he did the right thing by bringing the Wildlings across, even without institutional support.

And of course there must be a Jon Snow. I stand by the notion that he is the story of Ice and Fire, the offspring of Rhaegar and Lyanna. His failures as a leader here will serve to strengthen him later on when winter does indeed finally come to the Wall.

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8 thoughts on “Yes, We Need Jon Snow

  1. “For thousands of years the Night’s Watch believed it was sworn to protect the seven kingdoms from the Wildlings.”

    I don’t think this is completely true. The Watch wasn’t formed, and the Wall wasn’t built, to contain Wildlings (although the Hadrian’s Wall parallel can’t be unintentional on Martin’s part). It was built after the invasion of Others during The Long Night, an exceptionally long and deep winter approximately 8,000 years before the story takes place to contain the non-human inhabitants of the far North.

    Defense against the Wildlings has been a practical function of the Watch for a long time, and many northmen and even many Sworn Brothers probably now believe it’s the Watch’s primary function, so there’s a practical truth there, even if it’s not universal.

    I fall somewhere between you and Spencer on Jon’s actions. I agree with you that he didn’t have the luxury of time, and was almost-inevitably going to trigger some backlash within the Watch no matter what, but I also think Spencer is right that Jon was mostly oblivious to this building backlash and didn’t take obvious steps to protect himself and the Watch against it. Jon’s rationale for bringing the Wildlings south of the Wall never made it outside his internal monologue, and he missed some rather obvious signs that mutiny was brewing.

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    • DarrenG – I say as much re: the original purpose of the Wall. But for literally thousands of years, no Others have come. They are all but myth now. And the Watch has believed for a very long time that their true goal is to protect against Wildlings.

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      • Certainly hundreds of years anyway. I think Samwell’s time in the library shows just how confused things get more than a few generations into Westerosian history. It’s entirely possible that the Others were remembered even as recently as the Conquest but have since been forgotten.

        Either way, the fact is that institutional memory has failed. It almost doesn’t matter when the failure happened.

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      • An question I’d love to have answered: Did the Watch ever experience an attack by the Others during the reign of a Tagaryen in general and more specifically a Tagaryen in posession of a living dragon?

        I’m going to have to say that Snow’s actions here verify one thing for certain: whatever his exact parentage he’s at least 50% Stark. Only a Stark could have handled the politics at the wall as badly as Jon did with all the noblest intentions in the world.

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      • “…And the Watch has believed for a very long time that their true goal is to protect against Wildlings….”

        I am not sure that I agree. During Tyrion’s visit to the wall the call for additional men seemed to me to be about much more than stopping the Wildlings from raiding south of the wall. Tyrion’s attitude, that the skeletal remains of the Watch was adequate to protect the realm from Wildling raids, as well as fairy tale monsters like grumpkins and snarks. The Wall had become a place to send criminals, unwanted heirs and political opponents, with their actions against Wildlings being a benefit to the north but not something that the south particularly cared about. The Lannisters (other than Tyrion, who was indifferent) seemed to accept that the Watch was no longer adequate to prevent Wildling raids, but saw that as a positive given that their raids were a Stark problem.

        Martin seems to like stories that work in parallel, placing people in similar situations but having their choices and circumstances lead to different outcomes; here, Snow is playing his father’s son, with his attempt to balance honor and duty resulting in an all-too-close close encounter with bladed weapons.

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  2. I think that there has been no attack by the others since the Andal invasion.

    The wall and the watch were created by the first men, with the help of the children of the forest.

    The first men arrive using bronze weapons. They beginning killing off the children of the forest. The long winter hits, and the others awake, and begin killing off the first men. The children of the forest, who are able to deal with the others, help the first men. The first men convert to the religion of the children of the forest and agree to let them have the deep woods, mountains, bogs, etc. The wall and watch start. Those first men north of the wall become the wildings. Those first men south of the wall and north of the neck become northerners.

    And what of the first men south of the neck?

    The Andals show up with iron weapons, and start taking over the first men and killing the children of the forest again. They end up with everything in the south. The children of the forest leave the south. I don’t know why the left the north, but apparently they end up north of the wall. The Andals really take this stuff about the long winter and the others much more lightly. Think of it as being legends handed down by the lower classes, those locals that were conquered centuries ago.

    The Andals have their own religion and traditions. The seven and the like.

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    • I think this is about right. There is no known record, at all, of the Others attacking in anything but the most ancient myths. Maybe they attacked since the time of the First Men, maybe not. I’m not sure there are any clues, but maybe a future Bran chapter will clue us in.

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