George RR Martin is a master of immersing readers in thought-provoking internal conflict. Because GRRM believes that “the human heart in conflict with itself is only thing worth writing about,” his point of view characters undergo their most important development when they are at their most conflicted and confused. The beauty of GRRM’s writing is not that he writes charismatic heroes and loath-able villains—the beauty is that he blurs the line between who to love and who to hate and leaves us with more questions than answers about what is heroic and what is right.
The brooding Jon Snow’s tragic arc as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in A Dance with Dragons is a testament to how artfully George uses the human heart in conflict to not only make us empathize with his characters, but also to inspire cognitive dissonance in the reader. George portrays Jon Snow as a charismatic, attractive hero—he’s the son of the honorable Ned Stark and he saves the wildlings…and yet, he is also a liar and an oath-breaker, motivated by love and vengeance as much as by duty. In Dance, George illustrates this complex, contradictory and morally gray set of traits by putting Jon through series of increasingly difficult, borderline impossible challenges to his morality and leadership. Brilliantly, Jon’s melodramatic doubts about his own command invite us to wrestle with his challenges along side him, as this ending passage to Jon’s seventh chapter illustrates:
When Jon had been a boy at Winterfell, his hero had been the Young Dragon, the boy king who had conquered Dorne at the age of fourteen. Despite his bastard birth, or perhaps because of it, Jon Snow had dreamed of leading men to glory just as King Daeron had, of growing up to be a conqueror. Now he was a man grown and the Wall was his, yet all he had were doubts. He could not even seem to conquer those.
During his tenure as Lord Commander, Jon wades deeper and deeper in a series of questionable decisions that become more and more difficult for both Jon and the reader to rationalize. Jon’s crucible begins with compromising the traditional neutrality of the watch to aid Stannis, continues with dismissing his brothers’ concerns about allowing wildlings to cross the wall and the join the Watch, escalates with allying with Melisandre and Mance to save fArya, and ultimately culminates with ordering his brothers to rescue the wildlings at Hardhome while himself asking a Wildling host to march south with him to meet Ramsey Snow.
Unfortunately, nearly all of these events (and the internal turmoil that leads to them) are absent from the show’s adaptation of Jon. As a result, Jon becomes an unambiguous, naive good guy, instead of a flawed leader who wrestled with difficult decisions, proved willing to commit morally questionable deeds, and still ended up failing as lord commander. As BrydenBFish has persuasively argued, HBO whitewashed Jon by removing his support for Stannis and bumping Ramsey’s pink letter plot to after Jon’s resurrection. Thus, the show depicted Jon’s assassination as motivated primarily by his brothers’ objection to letting to the wildlings cross the wall, rather than leadership mistakes or oath breaking on Jon’s part.
Yet, understanding Jon as a leader and how he may ultimately murder Daenerys to save his sisters and the realm requires understanding how George R.R. Martin developed Jon’s character in Dance. Jon’s decision to kill Daenerys will likely be the pathetic result of his own mistakes rather than some sort of clear moral necessity. Not only does Jon’s questionable alliance with Stannis likely foreshadow his political relationship with Daenerys, but also, Dance cements that when duty and honor conflict with Jon’s love for his Stark family, Jon will eventually choose the Starks. Dance is a beautiful synthesis of Jon’s internal conflict between his allegiance to his family, his duty to the Night’s Watch, and his struggle to wield power wisely. These conflicts are explored in depth through the events that motivate the plotlines in Dance that the show erased: swapping Dalla’s boy with Gilly’s, providing military aid to Stannis, and using Melisandre’s power and Mance Rayder to search for Arya.
Each major leadership decision Jon makes in Dance is not only a test of the effectiveness of Jon’s command, but also an illustration of his moral priorities. Jon’s internal decision-making develops how he resolves conflicts between his allegiance and love for his family, his sense of duty to protect the realms of men as well as individual innocents, and his sense of honor as keeping faith with oaths, promises, and customs. Jon may not have Tully blood, but his ranking of family, duty, and honor certainly align with the values expressed by the Tully house words.
Ultimately, Jon fails as Lord Commander because he expects the watch to do what he cannot—put aside vengeance and personal bias to serve the realm. As Jon thinks to himself in Jon VII, “if he could not hold to his own vows, how could he expect more of his brothers?” Lord Commander Snow, like Lord Commander Mormont before him, has a fatal blind spot for the loyalty and honor of the Watch. What’s more, despite his introspection and brooding, Jon represses his own emotions and underestimates how much loneliness, love for family, and his need to protect innocence influence his decision making. Tragically, these flaws not only compound each other by making Jon appear hypocritical to his brothers, but also turn Jon’s best qualities—his selflessness, empathy, and visionary defiance of tradition in favor of duty—into the very weapons that will be sharpened against him.
Winterfell: An illustration of Jon’s moral priorities
To clarify, my goal is not to (1) add to the cacophony of voices proclaiming that the Thrones show is bad or (2) to argue that book! Jon Snow is a bad or immoral person. To the contrary, I think the Thrones show is often challenging and brilliant and Jon Snow’s story in Dance is my absolute favorite in ASOAIF so far. Instead, I want to use the show’s overemphasis on Jon’s good qualities to demonstrate why his flaws in Dance not only make him more human and compelling, but also highlight the brilliance of how GRRM has written his point of view to immerse us in his thoughts. So, hold on to your hats, you’re in for a lot of direct quotations.
The show depicts Jon as intensely honorable in the George Washington, I will not tell a lie sense, but Jon is more than willing break oaths and promises and engage in deception and lies if his lies serve the good of the realm or protect his family. Jon entire Qhorin-inspired arc with Ygritte and wildlings demonstrate that Jon is more than capable of nobly motivated lies, oath-breaking, and deception! Then, in Dance, is deliberately evasive with Stannis about Val, participates in Melisandre’s Mance-Rattleshirt deception to save fArya, and orchestrates the swap of Gilly and Dalla’s babies. Jon’s willingness to break promises and vows when a larger purpose is at stake—whether it be his duty to protect the realm, his love for his family, or his desire to protect an innocent life—is a central part of his character. Thus, the show’s choice to make truth-telling one of Jon’s most important values erases the moral difficulty and greyness of his decision making.
Jon’s reasons for Winterfell are an excellent example of his moral priorities. In the show, Jon rejects Stannis’ offer of Winterfell because “he swore a sacred vow.” But in first in Storm and then throughout Dance, Jon does not resist the temptation of Winterfell because he cares about keeping his vows to the Night’s Watch. Love for his family and his own personal morality—his faith in the old gods—are what holds him to his honor. Stannis tries over and over again to tempt Jon Snow to become Jon Stark, but in his own thoughts, Jon’s love and loyalty to Sansa, Ghost, and his Gods, not his external stated devotion to his vows—are what keeps Jon at the Wall. As Jon thinks in Storm XII, to claim Winterfell, he would have to tear the heart tree up by its ancient roots and “feed it to the red woman’s hungry fire god.”
I have no right…Winterfell belongs to the old gods.
(Storm of Swords, XII)
Throughout Dance, the Old Gods and his family are why Jon continues to draw a line at Winterfell, regardless of what he tells Stannis.
Jon said, “Winterfell belongs to my sister Sansa.”
“It is not too late to amend your folly, Snow. Take a knee and swear that bastard sword to me, and rise as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.”
How many times will he make me say it? “My sword is sworn to the Night’s Watch.”
Stannis looked disgusted. “Your father was a stubborn man as well. Honor, he called it. Well, honor has its costs, as Lord Eddard learned to his sorrow.
Here, the reference to Eddard and Jon’s honor is ironic—because Ned, like Jon, is willing to sacrifice his personal honor for the sake of his family. While Jon tells Stannis that he is rejecting Winterfell because of his vows to the Night’s Watch—the reader, who has been in Jon’s head, knows better. Although it may be a “bastard’s sort of honor” that keeps Jon at the Wall, keeping that honor is not motivated by a stubborn devotion to vow-keeping as Stannis seems to believe.
As we will see throughout this essay, when Jon’s vows (or at least his brothers’ interpretation of those vows) conflict with Jon’s personal sense of duty or family allegiance, Jon will not stubbornly hold to his promises and he does not place a high value on how other people perceive his personal honor.
Kill the Boy: Jon’s view of leadership and power
Maester Aemon’s last piece of advice to Jon before he leaves the wall implores both Jon and the reader to consider the qualities of a good leader. How Jon chooses to interpret this advice will reveals a tremendous amount about Jon.
“Allow me to give my lord one last piece of counsel,” the old man had said, “the same counsel that I once gave my brother when we parted for the last time. He was three-and-thirty when the Great Council chose him to mount the Iron Throne. A man grown with sons of his own, yet in some ways still a boy. Egg had an innocence to him, a sweetness we all loved. Kill the boy within you, I told him the day I took ship for the Wall. It takes a man to rule. An Aegon, not an Egg. Kill the boy and let the man be born.” The old man felt Jon’s face. “You are half the age that Egg was, and your own burden is a crueler one, I fear. You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done. Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born.”
Jon interprets Aemon’s advice as admonishing him to embrace stoicism, to isolate himself from his feelings and friendships. Of course, because Jon is a human—an exceptionally passionate and sensitive human, at that—and he fails miserably in this mission.
Jon reacts to Aemon’s advice by repressing his emotions and embracing fear as a tool of power while he parts Gilly from her child, showing that Jon believes that only boys are motivated by sentiment, while men coldly inspire others to obey with fear. When Jon tells Gilly that she must take Dalla’s boy with her to Old Town and leave her baby at the Wall, Jon tells her that if she fails to obey him, “The boy will still burn … and you with him” while thinking If I comfort her, she may think that tears can move me. She has to realize that I will not yield. To persuade her further, he commands her to stick her hand into a candle flame while thinking to himself Kill the boy. Certainly not Jon’s kindest moment.
Then, Jon’s decision to send Sam away and command him to be brave reveals that Jon also believes that to be a man he must prioritize his vows and duty to the Night’s Watch over his love for his family and affection for his friends.
Kill the boy, Jon thought. The boy in you, and the one in him. Kill the both of them, you bloody bastard. “You have no father. Only brothers. Only us. Your life belongs to the Night’s Watch…I can’t command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears. (Jon II)
“[Y]ou have no father, only brothers” is as much Jon speaking to himself as it is to Sam. And Jon’s frustrated repetition of “kill the boy” and the addition of “you bloody bastard” reveal how hard it is for Jon to separate Aemon’s advice from his own shame and self-loathing. In himself and in Sam, any emotional connection to family is a weakness that must be killed. This view is heartbreaking, textbook toxic masculinity—Jon views his own emotions as weak and unmanly.
By Jon’s next chapter, he embraces killing the boy as a command to not only forget his family, but also end “childish” friendships that could compromise his ability to make difficult decisions.
He knew he had to eat, but it was company he craved, not food. A cup of wine with Maester Aemon, some quiet words with Sam, a few laughs with Pyp and Grenn and Toad. Aemon and Sam were gone, though, and his other friends.
No, he had to tell himself, those days are gone. The realization twisted in his belly like a knife. They had chosen him to rule. The Wall was his, and their lives were his as well. A lord may love the men that he commands, he could hear his lord father saying, but he cannot be a friend to them. One day he may need to sit in judgment on them, or send them forth to die.
In the first half of Dance, and Part I of this essay, we will watch Jon struggle to wrestle with how his emotions, as well as his sense of duty to the realms of men, motivate the decisions he makes as Lord Commander. Paradoxically, the more Jon isolates himself in his attempt to be a man, the less objective and wise his leadership becomes as he loses the advice of trusted advisors and his understanding of the men he leads.
By the second half of Dance, Jon has warped Aemon’s advice in a way that amplifies his flaws rather than correcting them. Far from loving his Night’s Watch brothers, Jon treats them with distain first mentally and eventually verbally. In Part Two of this essay, I will explore how Jon embraces the more flawed elements of the brooding, Byronic hero archetype as he—to varying degree and effect—betrays a promise to his King (Stannis), his duty to his brothers in Watch, and finally his duty to realm.
Significantly for understanding Jon’s struggle to harmonize family, duty, and honor, Maester Aemon has given Jon two other important pieces of advice. The first and most famous is his “love is the death of duty” speech, which I cannot resist quoting here:
“Love is the bane of honor, the death of duty … What is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms … or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”
(A Game of Thrones, Jon VIII)
This passage exemplifies how George perceives the human heart in conflict with itself—love is both glory and tragedy. Jon may need to kill the boy to rule and set aside love to follow his duty, but the siren call of love is not all bad. Indeed, in Dance, Aemon is motivated to leave the wall to seek out his own family—to find Daenerys and aid her! In the end, even wise old maester was not faithful to his own advice. Thus, as Jon struggles to find a place for love and family in his black, Lord Commander’s heart, we should do the same. George wants us to question:
- Is it realistic to expect a human to set aside their love for their family when they join the Watch?
- Is it realistic to expect a leader to remove emotions from their decision making? Even if it is realistic, is it desirable? When?
- Can love motivate us to do our duty? Do you think Maester Aemon joined the watch more out of duty to the realm or out of love for his brother? Did Aemon—who regularly wrote to Rhaegar and left the wall to seek Daenerys—ever truly set aside his love for his family?
George presses us to consider whether or not leaders need to abandon connection and compassion to be good leaders. As Clydas reminds Jon when discussing Stannis:
“His Grace is not an easy man. Few are, who wear a crown. Many good men have been bad kings, Maester Aemon used to say, and some bad men have been good kings.”
Aemon’s point may be that being a good man does not prevent us from doing monstrous things or from acting unwisely.
Aemon had demurred. “There is power in a king’s blood,” the old maester had warned, “and better men than Stannis have done worse things than this.” The king can be harsh and unforgiving, aye, but a babe still on the breast? Only a monster would give a living child to the flames.
Yet, as Jon assumes command of the Watch, the question Aemon’s advice frames is whether Jon is a good person but a bad Lord Commander. Even if we trust Jon to make difficult, important, morally correct decisions—like allowing the wildlings past the wall—can he withstand the temptations and pressures of power? Does Jon act consistently with his own beliefs and principles?
The Night’s Watch Takes No Part: Challenges to Jon’s Neutrality, Objectivity, and Relationship with Power
On the surface, Jon’s internal conflict over the neutrality of the watch illustrates a conflict between the traditional neutrality of the watch and political realism. The way Stannis and Melisandre pressure Jon illustrates both the political tension between maintaining power through fear and maintaining power by love and Jon’s psychological response to these pressures. On one hand, Stannis reminds Jon that he owes him a debt for saving the Watch, and therefore, Jon should love him. On the other hand, Stannis threatens Jon that if he does demonstrate proper appreciation for his rule, he can kill him, so Jon should fear him! Thus, throughout Jon’s power struggle with Stannis, the reader is left questioning:
- Can Jon truly be neutral if only one King has decided to aid the watch? Should he even try to be neutral?
- If Jon refuses any aid to Stannis, will he simply be assassinated and replaced? Does Jon’s fear of Stannis blind him to his enemies within the Watch?
But Jon’s conflict is about more than negotiating competing promises or weighing his personal honor against the duty of the realm. Instead, Jon’s motivations are also bound up with his own personal biases, his psychological inability to think neutrally, and his sense of obligation. Jon is quite politically shrewd (when he wants to be) but his ability to be pragmatic is often compromised by his idealism and allegiance to his family. Jon’s own thoughts reveal that his (somewhat lukewarm) desire to adhere to Watch’s oath of neutrality conflicts with his family identity. Similarly, his repressed desire for vengeance for the Starks becomes bound up in his motives for wielding his power as Lord Commander.
The Paper Shield: Can Jon set aside vengeance in favor of neutrality?
Jon’s major internal conflict in Dance is very similar to primary internal conflict Game—can he truly set aside his love and loyalty for the Starks and embrace the neutrality of the Watch? From the very beginning of Dance, GRRM illustrates that Jon’s desire to aid Stannis is nearly inseparable from his desire to destroy the Lannisters:
“It’s death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn.”
In Jon II, we learn that both Sam and Aemon counseled Jon to send a raven bearing a paper shield to Tywin Lannister. The letter explains that the realm is in dire peril and even though the Watch is housing Stannis, they are not openly supporting his claim “Stannis Baratheon aids us against our foes from beyond the Wall, though we are not his men…”
But, internally, Jon does not want to send the letter to Tywin. And although Jon’s thoughts are not explicit about precisely why he objects to sending the letter, George illustrates that Jon is uncomfortable with neutrality toward the Lannisters. But advice from two people that he trusts—Sam and Aemon—are able to change Jon’s mind. Unfortunately for Jon, later in this chapter, he decides to send these two counselors away. Since Game, Sam and Aemon have helped Jon choose his Night’s Watch brothers over his allegiance to his Stark family.
Jon’s choice to send away the very people who not only helped him keep his oath in the past, but also just advised him on the importance of the watch’s appearance of neutrality, is an excellent example of a plot point that serves as both character development and foreshadowing. The paper shield scene reinforces an important element of Jon’s character: that Jon still needs to be reminded to prioritize the neutrality of the watch over his loyalty to the Starks. Because Jon then chooses to send Sam and Aemon away, after demonstrating that he needed their advice to make the “right” decisions, the scene also foreshadows Jon’s subsequent decisions undermining and ultimately abandoning the neutrality of the watch.
Thus, through Jon’s letter to Tywin, Jon’s arc in Dance opens with George asking the reader:
- What will it take to make Jon abandon the neutrality of the watch?
- What impact will sending away his two most trusted advisors have on Jon’s ability to lead the watch wisely?
- Would Jon have sent the “paper shield” to Tywin if Sam and Aemon had not told him to?
Janos Slynt and Mance Rayder: Does Jon apply justice objectively?
Jon’s internal conflict between family allegiance and his duty of neutrality continues later in Jon II when Jon decides to execute Janos Slynt. Although Jon’s choice to kill Janos is also justified by Jon’s need to cement his authority as Lord Commander, his thinking about Janos is transparently colored by the Former City Watch Commander’s role in betraying Ned.
Jon slid the oilcloth down his bastard sword, watching the play of morning light across the ripples, thinking how easily the blade would slide through skin and fat and sinew to part Slynt’s ugly head from his body. All of a man’s crimes were wiped away when he took the black, and all of his allegiances as well, yet he found it hard to think of Janos Slynt as a brother. There is blood between us. This man helped slay my father and did his best to have me killed as well.
Indeed, when Jon assigns Janos to command Greyguard and Janos initially refuses, Jon thinks I am giving you a chance, my lord. It is more than you ever gave my father.
Then, Jon’s decision behead Janos—rather than hang him—reinforces the thematic connection between Janos’ execution and Ned’s death. Not only was Ned ultimately beheaded, but Jon executes Janos in precisely the fashion that Ned had taught him. Jon’s thought—this is wrong—about executing Janos by hanging is directly inspired by Ned’s advice—he who passes the sentence must swing the sword. This leads Jon to personally behead Janos after hearing his last words. Thus, GRRM intentionally frames Jon’s decision to execute Janos as Stark justice.
So, George lets the reader consider several competing motivations for Jon to kill Janos.
- Because he needed to be seen as a ruler—a man who inspires fear than a green boy?
- Because there was “blood between” him and the man who helped kill his father?
- Because, at the wall, the law means disobedience justifies death?
- Because, in Jon’s opinion, Janos Slynt is dishonorable and deserves to die?
And thus, also invites us to evaluate the morality and wisdom of the decision.
- Is Jon’s decision to kill Janos any more or less moral or just if it was motivated by justice as vengeance (for his family) rather than justice as duty (as the Lord Commander)?
- Which of these potential motives—securing his power, obtaining vengeance, or doing his duty as Lord Commander are most important to Jon? If any of these motives were absent, would Jon have made the same decision?
Similarly, much like Jon’s thoughts about Janos’ execution, Jon’s opinions about Mance Rayder’s execution in the following chapter begin with Jon’s emotional reaction rather than reasoned thoughts about justice. Jon’s first thoughts about Mance in Jon III are cloaked in sympathy and affection. Jon considers how Mance’s limbs are left naked to the cold while Stannis marches him to be hanged and thinks They could have let him keep his cloak…the one the wildling woman patched with strips of crimson silk. Jon’s empathy for Mance is deep, as he observes “small wonder that the Wall was weeping.” And based on Jon’s near constant reflection that he knows nothing, we know that his thoughts about wildlings and wildling women are filled with his love for and grief over Ygritte.
Then, we learn that Jon continued to plead with Stannis for mercy for Mance by arguing that he will be useful to forge a political alliance with the wildlings and as a tool against the Others. But the reasons Jon gives Stannis for sparing Mance do not match the personal motivations we see in his own head. So again, George leaves us several competing motivations for Jon to advocate for Mance’s life:
- Because Mance would be politically useful Stannis in securing the allegiance and love of the wildlings?
- Because Mance would be useful in the fight against the others and help both Jon and Stannis do their duty to protect the realms of Men?
- Because Mance is an honorable, good person who does not deserve to die?
- Because Mance showed mercy and spared Jon’s life in the past and Jon feels personally indebted to him? Because Jon likes Mance views him as a friend?
- Because watching Mance die would remind Jon of Ygritte’s death?
- Which of these motives is most important to Jon? Does that change your view on whether or not Jon showing Mercy to Mance is the right thing?
- Is Jon “lying” to Stannis by insisting his primary motives for wanting to save Mance are based in politics and duty?
By placing Mance’s execution immediately after Janos’, George also invites the reader to compare Jon’s reactions to the two events.
- In Jon’s view, why does Mance deserve mercy and Janos death? Aren’t they both turncloaks?
- Why might Stannis and the Men of the Night’s watch disagree with Jon?
- Is there “blood between” Mance and the brothers of the Night’s Watch in the same way that there is blood between Janos and Jon?
- Is Jon succeeding at “killing the boy” when he makes these decisions?
Swords are swords: How does power tempt and influence Jon away from neutrality?
Jon’s struggles with the neutrality of the watch and his obligation, loyalty, and indebtedness to Stannis are vital to understanding how Jon responds to other leaders. Thus, Jon’s interactions with Stannis help to both develop and foreshadow what Jon’s motives may be for supporting, loving, and ultimately betraying Daenerys.
In Jon’s first chapter in Dance, Stannis demands that Jon sign a grant ceding him more castles on the wall—remember at this point in the books Jon has already given Stannis the Nightfort—to grant to lords loyal to Stannis who will apparently ensure the castles are manned with men willing to defend the realm. Jon refuses, replying that Stannis asks too much and that, politically, it’s a terrible plan. Stannis responds by throwing Jon’s rejection of Winterfell back in his face:
“It is being said that you also mean to grant these castles to your knights and lords, to hold as their own seats as vassals to Your Grace.”
“Kings are expected to be open-handed to their followers. Did Lord Eddard teach his bastard nothing? Many of my knights and lords abandoned rich lands and stout castles in the south. Should their loyalty go unrewarded?”
“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.”
“How can I lose men I do not have? I had hoped to bestow Winterfell on a northman, you may recall. A son of Eddard Stark. He threw my offer in my face.” Stannis Baratheon with a grievance was like a mastiff with a bone; he gnawed it down to splinters.
“By right Winterfell should go to my sister Sansa…Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn.”
As Stannis continues to pressure, Jon reveals his own conflict,
“In times as confused as these, even men of honor must wonder where their duty lies.”
Then Melisandre stresses that Jon owes something to Stannis:
Lady Melisandre stirred. “Tell me, Lord Snow … where were these other kings when the wild people stormed your Wall?”
“A thousand leagues away and deaf to our need,” Jon replied. “I have not forgotten that, my lady. Nor will I.”
And Stannis reminds Jon that:
“You are only lord commander by my sufferance. You would do well to remember that.”
Finally, as Stannis and Melisandre continue to pressure him, Jon resorts to his oath:
“The Night’s Watch built those castles …”
“And the Night’s Watch abandoned them.”
“… to defend the Wall,” Jon finished stubbornly, “not as seats for southron lords. The stones of those forts are mortared with the blood and bones of my brothers, long dead. I cannot give them to you.”
“Cannot or will not?” The cords in the king’s neck stood out sharp as swords. “I offered you a name.”
“I have a name, Your Grace.”
“Snow. Was ever a name more ill-omened?” Stannis touched his sword hilt. “Just who do you imagine that you are?”
“The watcher on the walls. The sword in the darkness.”
This interplay establishes several things about the relationship between Jon and Stannis. First, Jon’s first impulse is to reject Stannis’ request for more castles for political reasons—the North would never accept granting lands to Southern lords to manning castles on the wall. Jon’s political instincts here, as they will be later, are likely correct and establish that Jon is shrewd about Northern politics—at least when he wants to be. But they also reveal that Jon’s first instinct is not emphasize the honor and oaths of the Watch, but to act as Stannis’ ally and advisor. This is in line with Jon’s motivations for rejecting Winterfell—his loyalty to the old gods rather than his loyalty to the Watch—as well as the difficulty that Jon has sending Tywin the paper shield avowing the Watch’s neutrality in Jon II.
Next, Stannis and Melisandre use their power to influence Jon by invoking debt and fear. They both remind Jon that he should feel obligated to back Stannis because he was the only king willing to defend the realm from the wildlings. And then Stannis emphasizes that he could chose to remove or execute Jon at will. While Jon appears unmoved by either of these appeals at the time, in later chapters, Jon will not only reflect on both his sense of obligation to Stannis and Stannis’ threats to execute him, but also consider how fear and obligation are tools Jon can personally wield to obtain his own goals. For example, the final element of Jon’s execution of Janos is Stannis’ nod of approval. Throughout Dance, Jon learns from Stannis that fear is a component of power. This not only reveals that Jon believes fear is a legitimate tool, but also lays the foundation for how Jon is likely to understand Daenerys’ fire and blood style of leadership.
Finally, in Jon I, Lord Snow rebuffs Stannis by relying on his duty to defend to the wall and uphold his oaths to the watch. Significantly, this also interchange reveals what appears to be Jon’s true objection to granting castles on the wall to Stannis—that the purpose of the castles is to defend the wall, rather than serve as seats for Southern Lords. Later in Dance, though, Jon will use wildlings to man and defend the castles on the wall—even though he observes to Stannis here that granting lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn would be a political folly. Thus, this discussion raises significant questions about Jon’s motivations for aiding Stannis by granting him the Nightfort, while simultaneously rejecting the offer of Winterfell and Stannis’ plea to grant him more castles on the Wall:
- Why does Jon think ceding castles on the wall to Stannis violates his duty to the watch but later think it is okay man those same castles wildlings? Is the distinction Jon draws morally meaningful? Politically meaningful?
- Why does Jon later disregard his own wisdom about the optics of using granting castles and lands the Magnar of Thenn? Of manning forts mortared with the blood of his brothers to the former enemies of the watch? Why? Even if Jon was correct to do so, what would the Jon who gave Stannis advice in this chapter have to say about the risks of this strategy?
- How and why does the position Jon takes toward Stannis in this chapter change throughout Dance?
- Are Stannis or Melisandre ultimately successful in using fear and obligation to motivate Jon to do what they want him to? In what ways?
- Does Jon believe the neutrality of the Watch is an important principle standing alone? Or does Jon only find that the Watch’s neutrality is important in situations where it helps the watch defend the realm?
By the time Stannis leaves the Wall to take up his part in the game of thrones at the end of Jon IV, Jon’s view on the neutrality of the Watch has become more…flexible. When Stannis openly requests political advice concerning Mors Umber at the beginning of the chapter, Jon thinks:
The Night’s Watch takes no part, Jon thought, but another voice within him said, Words are not swords.
And eventually, after giving significant military advice to Stannis all the while repeating internally that the Night’s Watch takes no part and that Baratheon and Bolton should be the same to me, Jon gives in:
He means to plunder our armory, Jon realized. Food and clothing, land and castles, now weapons. He draws me in deeper every day. Words might not be swords, but swords were swords. “I could find three hundred spears,” he said, reluctantly. “Helms as well, if you’ll take them old and dinted and red with rust.”
Internally, Jon gives up trying to rationalize his decision to arm Stannis. His thoughts reveal that his sense of obligation and allegiance to Stannis draw him in deeper every day. Indeed, as Jon warned himself in his first chapter in Dance, “The more you give a king, the more he wants.” Thematically, Jon’s indebtness to Stannis is also re-enforced by Iron Bank’s presence at the Wall and its connection with Stannis. Psychologically, Jon’s behavior is a brilliant illustration of irrational escalation of commitment or the sunk-cost fallacy—despite new evidence about the cost of supporting Stannis (blatantly violating the neutrality of the Watch), Jon continues to make decisions that align with his previous commitments, even when he realizes there difference between offering words and offering swords.
Eventually, Jon’s strategic advice to Stannis becomes bound up with his desire to save the wildlings. Again, Jon outwardly frames his comments to Stannis as political counsel—telling Stannis to leave the wildlings at the wall because marching them south would be a political mistake:
“Your Grace, leave the wildlings here. Taking them will only serve to turn my lord father’s bannermen against you.”
But his internally, his thoughts belie a different motive:
If Stannis placed the free folk in the van, most would perish quickly.
The Night’s Watch takes no part, a voice said, but another replied, Stannis fights for the realm, the ironmen for thralls and plunder. “Your Grace, I know where you might find more men. Give me the wildlings, and I will gladly tell you where and how.”
“I gave you Rattleshirt. Be content with him.”
“I want them all.”
“Some of your own Sworn Brothers would have me believe that you are half a wildling yourself. Is it true?”
“To you they are only arrow fodder. I can make better use of them upon the Wall. Give them to me to do with as I will, and I’ll show you where to find your victory … and men as well.”
Jon then advises Stannis to ally with the Mountain Clans and attack Deepwood Motte. Trading a starving wildling host of dubious loyalty for military intelligence is a great deal for Stannis—Jon gives Stannis a route to victory over the Ironborn and path to winning the loyalty of the North.
Unfortunately, the bargain feels like a terrible deal for the Watch, who are left with very little apparent upside. As Jon thinks, And I will have a thousand wildlings…and no way to feed even half that number. Although we learn later that Jon plans to use able bodied wildlings to augment the strength of the Watch, that rationalization of this choice appears nowhere in Jon’s thoughts in this chapter. Further, we also learn that Jon is already driving the Watch into debt with the Iron Bank to feed itself through Winter. So, once more, Jon’s motives leave the reader with questions:
- Is appropriate for Jon, as Lord Commander of the Watch, to trade political advice to Stannis in return for the wildlings? Is the Watch better off with this group of wildlings—who have already crossed the Wall—under the Watch’s care than under Stannis’?
- When striking this bargain with Stannis, is Jon motivated more by his desire to strengthen the watch or more by his desire to protect the wildlings? If Jon’s choice is motivated primarily by a desire to protect the wildlings, is it treasonous because it conflicts with his duty to feed and protect the watch?
- If marching wildlings south would turn Northerners against Stannis, why would making “better use of them upon the wall” have a better result for Jon? Why doesn’t Jon consider how his brothers will react to keeping wildlings at the Wall?
- Why does Jon ignore Stannis’ questioning, “Some of your own Sworn Brothers would have me believe that you are half a wildling yourself”? Is Stannis’ questioning Jon’s loyalty to the Watch or merely the optics of Jon’s choice? Does Stannis care?
- Is there either a strategic or duty-centered difference between absorbing wildlings who have already crossed the wall—who will not be raised into the army of the dead—and absorbing Tormund’s wildling host or rescuing the wildlings at Hardhome?
A Sword without a Hilt: the Temptations of Power and Love
Mance for Arya: What price will Jon pay for the power to save the people he loves?
Melisandre manipulates Jon’s emotions much more effectively than Stannis by offering him a way to protect his family, rather a chance to claim to the power of Winterfell for himself. Although Jon desires power, he wants to wield it purely and his desire for Winterfell is complicated by his guilt: Winterfell belongs to his Stark family and he is not a Stark. Thus, when Jon eventually accepts the power offered by Melisandre, we learn he believes protecting his family, and in particular his innocent sister, is worth the cost to his morality. Thus, Jon accepts Melisandre’s offer to send Mance for Arya, even though it involves him in Melisandre’s lies and deception.
Significantly, the show never poses forces this dilemma on Jon or even portrays him as willingly accepting help from Melisandre. But, agreeing to send Mance to rescue fArya is one of Jon’s most morally ambiguous acts as Lord Commander and it demonstrates that Jon is willing give in to the temptation to use both Melisandre’s power and his own.
Jon’s desire to rescue fArya is the ultimate crucible for his conflict between duty to the Watch and family allegiance. Jon recognizes that he has put his sisters aside to become a brother of the night’s watch, but the very thought makes him feel guilty. He views his vows as a poison.
“I have no sister. Only brothers. Only you.” Lady Catelyn would have rejoiced to hear those words, he knew. That did not make them easier to say. His fingers closed around the parchment. Would that they could crush Ramsay Bolton’s throat as easily.
Dark dreams, he thought, and guilt. His thoughts kept returning to Arya. There is no way I can help her. I put all kin aside when I said my words. If one of my men told me his sister was in peril, I would tell him that was no concern of his. Once a man had said the words his blood was black. Black as a bastard’s heart.
Melisandre’s success in placing Jon in her debt by sending Mance for fArya, demonstrates that Melisandre understands how to manipulate Jon—by using Jon’s affection for his family to tempt Jon with her power and his own.
“I have no sister.” The words were knives. What do you know of my heart, priestess? What do you know of my sister? (Jon VI)
Melisandre knows Jon’s heart and that it cares for family more than his vows. She suspects that Jon will use her power to find Arya, and therefore drive Jon into her debt. She thinks, that much like with Stannis, He does not love me, will never love me, but he will make use of me. Well and good.
What’s more, by making Jon choosing his human heart over his black-hearted vows, Melisandre encourages Jon to step further and further away from political neutrality by taking action and embracing power.
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?”
When she suggests their, uh sexual joining as a route to power, unlike in the show, Jon does not outright reject her out of honor, a desire to keep his vows, or love for Ygritte. Instead, he is tempted by her offer of power.
He turned back to the red priest-ess. Jon could feel her warmth. She has power. The thought came unbidden, seizing him with iron teeth, but this was not a woman he cared to be indebted to, not even for his little sister.
And while, in the moment, Jon rejects Melisandre’s magical, sexual proposition, he will eventually give in to her power. The exchange where he rejects Melisandre goes down like this, with Jon rejecting Melisandre’s offer out of caution rather than morality:
“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 sword without a hilt is still a sword, though, and a sword is a fine thing to have when foes are all about.”
But, by Jon VIII when Val reminds Jon of Dalla’s advice, after Jon has made the decision to secretly send Mance to save fArya, he has changed his mind and come to agree with Melisandre’s perspective.
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. (Jon VIII)
Symbolically, this shift in mentality is tied to Jon’s death—Jon cannot defend himself from the foes all about him during the Watch’s attempt on his life because he literally cannot grasp with own sword.
Indeed, internally in Jon IX, we see Jon has retroactively justified his decision to put himself and watch in debt to the Iron Bank out of necessity. Whatever moral qualms Jon may have had about accepting aid from Melisandre, Stannis, or the Iron Bank at the beginning of Dance, Jon has set them aside.
A long hard winter will leave the Watch so deep in debt that we will never climb out, Jon reminded himself, but when the choice is debt or death, best borrow.
Because Jon’s decision to send Mance to rescue fArya happens in Melisandre’s POV chapter, rather than in one of Jon’s, George leaves Jon’s exact logic and motivations ambiguous. Melisandre, for example, thinks that loosing Mance on the North to save Jon’s sister is consistent with Jon keeping his vows—but its unclear whether Jon is as clear on the matter. Naturally, that provides fertile ground for questioning Jon’s decision making.
- In the moment, how do you think Jon rationalized this decision? How does that affect your view of his moral priorities? How does it foreshadow the decision he makes after he receives the Pink Letter?
- How much is Jon’s decision influenced by the secrecy of this arrangement? If Jon announced this decision openly to the Watch, would there have been instant mutiny? Was he right to do it anyway?
- Which decision is more problematic for Jon’s faithfully executing his duties Lord Commander—giving swords and advice to Stannis or accepting Melisandre’s help to secretly send the supposedly dead King Beyond the Wall to save the sister he supposedly doesn’t have? Which act do you think more directly influences Bowen Marsh’s decision to assassinate him?
- Does the Pink Letter letter demonstrate that Jon was wrong to disregard Dalla’s advice? Was there actually no safe way to use Mance to rescue Arya or to accept aid from Melisandre?
- Jon’s mental image of Arya as innocent and in need of protection is deeply ironic given that she is training to be a faceless man simultaneously with this chapter. How does this irony affect your perception of Jon’s decision making and his feeling about Arya? Does it make seem naïve? Paternalistic?
Alys Karstark: What customs or obligations will Jon set aside to protect an innocent?
Jon’s choice to wed Alys Karstark to the Magnar of Thenn at the wall is another important illustration of Jon’s reasoning based on an event entirely absent from the show. In Dance, Alys is the penultimate temptation for Jon’s outward neutrality as Lord Commander—an innocent girl in need of protection who reminds him of Arya. However noble Jon’s intentions, orchestrating and hosting a wedding between a wildling leader and a noble northern girl seeking a strange form of political asylum at the wall—officiated by the red priestess/mistress of the declarant King you’re accused of being too friendly with—is a deeply questionable choice. Wedding Alys to the Magnar doesn’t feel related to guarding the realms of men and is too easily explained by Jon’s apparent willingness to take part in the wars of men.
With a line reminiscent of Leia’s immortal message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alys arrives at the wall and makes a plea that Jon Snow cannot resist:
“You are my only hope, Lord Snow. In your father’s name, I beg you. Protect me.”
Not only does Alys tugs at Jon’s heart strings by invoking Ned Stark in her request for protection, but she arrives while Jon is pinning for his little sister and does not fail to remind him of Arya. Trust me when I say this are only three of the many times that Jon thinks of Arya while looking at Alys:
The girl smiled in a way that reminded Jon so much of his little sister that it almost broke is heart… (Jon X)
She does look a bit like Arya, Jon thought. Starved and skinny, but her hair’s the same color, and her eyes. (Jon IX)
She rubbed away a tear angrily, the way Arya might have done it. (Jon IX)
Yet, as Jon orchestrates the political marriage between Alys and the Magnar of Thenn, Jon hears other members of the Watch imply that the wedding does not feel consistent with the Watch’s vows.
Hobb had come to him two nights ago complaining that he’d joined the Night’s Watch to kill wildlings, not to cook for them. “Besides, I never done no wedding feast, m’lord. Black brothers don’t never take no wifes. It’s in the bloody vows, I swear ’tis.”
Even armed with this knowledge, Jon continues to internally cling to the political neutrality of the Watch and tell himself that he has not already crossed the line towards taking part:
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.
It is hard to reread these chapters without wanting to throttle Jon for being so willfully blind to how the watch perceives him given that his own thoughts reveal that understands the political problems posed by the wildlings. Alys’ wedding is the culmination of Jon’s emotional motivations—his love for Arya, his longing to be with Ygritte, and his need to protect innocence driving his empathy for Alys—and his choice to embrace his own power in service of both politics and his Stark family. The biggest question posed by Jon’s choice here is why did he think the Watch would go along with this wedding? But George also uses Alys to show how Jon projects his desire to preserve Arya’s innocence on to others, leaving us with the following questions:
- Would Jon have treat Alys the same way if he has not already made the decision to send Mance for Arya? How would Sam and Maester Aemon have Jon counseled if they were present at the Wall?
- How, if at all, is Jon’s decision to orchestrate this marriage justified by the interests of the Watch? Where does the line between Jon Snow, the individual, and Lord Snow the Commander begin and end?
- Does Jon view protecting innocents as his duty? As a necessary component of honor? Does actually protect innocents out of love or out of obligation? Do these distinctions matter?
That’s it for Part I!
Part II will pick up with Jon’s bargain with the Wildings at Mole’s Town and use the Byronic Hero archetype to explore how Jon’s character flaws affect his moral reasoning and leadership choices and ultimately lead him to betray the Stannis, his sworn brothers, and his duty to the realm.