Benjen Stark leaves for the Wall on the same day the King goes south. With him are Jon Snow and Ghost, Tyrion, and Tyrion’s two serving men. On the way to the Wall, they meet up with another black brother, Yoren, who is bringing two rapists from the Fingers back to the Wall. At camp one night, Tyrion drinks an amber wine from the Summer Isles and reads a book about the history and properties of dragons, which have always fascinated him.
The first time Tyrion visited King’s Landing for Cersei’s wedding, he sought out the dragon skulls that had hung in the throne room. Robert had already replaced them with tapestries, but he managed to discover where they were stored and found them beautiful. None could stand before these dragons of legend, but King Loren of the Rock and King Mern IX of the Reach had tried close to three hundred years ago, when the Seven Kingdoms really were seven separate countries.
Jon interrupts Tyrion’s thoughts and asks the dwarf why he reads so much. Tyrion says that his mind is the only weapon he has, and he must keep it sharp, as he is a Lannister and is expected to do great things. Lord Tywin was Hand of the King to Aerys II for twenty years, Cersei married the new king, and Joffrey will be king in turn one day. Tyrion must do his part for the glory of his house as well, and therefore he must rely on his intellect. Jon wonders why he reads of dragons when they are all dead, and Tyrion replies that he used to dream of having a dragon of his own and started fires in the bowels of Casterly Rock that he would stare at for hours. Sometimes he would imagine that Tywin was burning in the fire; other times it was Cersei.
The talk turns to the Night’s Watch, which Jon claims is a noble calling, and Tyrion breaks the truth to him that it is a midden heap filled with all the dregs of society. This upsets Jon and Tyrion moves to comfort him, but as he makes his move, Ghost leaps out of the shadows to tackle him. Jon helps Tyrion back up and realizes what Tyrion said about the Watch is true. Tyrion complements him for facing a hard truth rather than ignoring it and says he hardly ever dreams of dragons anymore. They return to camp, where the company has supper and goes to sleep, all save Jon who drew the first watch. As Tyrion turns in, he sees Jon staring intently into the fire.
Tyrion’s description of the North in the opening part of this chapter captures the size and frigidity of the region very well. Throughout the series, the North has always been an uncomfortable place, with hostile weather, a stoic, often inscrutable people and hints at a sinister past. The Starks as a family reflect the harshness of their land – Ned is a no-nonsense ruler, fair but strict. His sister and his elder brother reflected more the untamed wilderness of the North, a manifestation of the slight maniacal edge that the constant cold and emptiness can tend to generate in people of certain temperaments. The Starks’ minimalism in almost all aspects of their lives, from expressions to lifestyle, is only apt considering how little room there is for luxury in a land that is as vast as it is poor. The Starks are by no means impoverished but they clearly lack the fiscal power of the Lannisters or the Tyrells. Tellingly, one gets the sense that the Starks rule the North out of duty rather than desire – they lack any strong political motivation (being so far removed from King’s Landing) and lack the resources and population to thrive either financially or militarily. We will discuss this in greater depth when we come to the lords of Southron ambition.
The meat of this chapter lies in Jon and Tyrion’s burgeoning friendship and Jon’s small but significant character development. Tyrion’s own misfortune and difficulties growing up put him in an excellent position to advise Jon how to accept and deal with a bad situation. Yet despite their eventual friendship, they are not quite kindred spirits – Tyrion is considerably more seasoned, fittingly, given his age. However, he ascribes to Jon a certain cynicism and discontent that is more likely than not completely missing in Jon. For example, he believes Jon to be acting polite when he replied to Tyrion’s question of “What do you see?” with a suspicious, “I see you. Tyrion Lannister” or when Jon is horrified at the thought of hating his family. Tyrion hits a raw nerve however, and so it is not impossible that several of these thoughts were already running through Jon’s head. Particularly, his mutual dislike for Catelyn is picked up on by Tyrion but Tyrion belies it as a shot in the dark with his follow-up statements. For all his moments of genuine decency, one has to question just what Tyrion intended to achieve from bullying a 14 year old boy. There is no denying that Tyrion got what he deserved for his mockery, yet what Ghost’s reaction emphasizes is how deep the bond between him and Jon is already. You get a sense here that Tyrion and Jon’s friendship is one based on mutual respect – they both respect each other’s ability to accept a hard truth and face it instead of running away and denying it. A great deal of this chapter is exposition regarding the Targaryens, yet buried among all that are two critical clues about our protagonists. Tyrion notes here that Jon has little of his mother in his face. It would mean almost nothing if Eddard Stark was his father, but would be absolutely crucial if he weren’t. Tyrion states his wish to ride a dragon here for the first time and as of ADwD, he is closer than ever, though not close enough.
At first glance, one might wonder why Martin had Tyrion ride all the way up to the Wall since it seems to accomplish no narrative purpose beyond allowing Tyrion’s arrival at the Riverlands to coincide with Catelyn’s. One possibility could be that it makes Tyrion’s expulsion of Janos Slynt (who plays a bigger in events than one might expect) to the Wall more plausible. Of course, it also gives Jon and Tyrion time to bond and form a friendship though really there is no reason they could not have bonded in Winterfell.