Jon is instructing Dareon and Pyp when a new recruit, Samwell Tarly, enters the practice yard. He is immensely fat and very nervous. Ser Alliser immediately mocks him as Ser Piggy. After he is outfitted, Ser Alliser orders Halder to test him. He is felled quickly, but Ser Alliser orders Halder to press the attack again. Jon tells Halder to stop, which infuriates Ser Alliser. He tells two other recruits, Rast and Albett, nicknamed Rat and Pimple respectively, to join Halder in attacking Jon and Sam. Pyp and Grenn immediately come to Jon’s aid. After the battle, Sam thanks them. When they ask why he did not fight back, he tells them he is a coward, which shocks the boys. Sam walks away forlorn, and Jon goes to put up his armor.
Life for the trainees at Castle Black revolves around training in the morning and work in the afternoon. The trainees are set to a variety of tasks to discover their strengths. These activities include hunting for game, working at the forge with Donal Noye, running messages, standing guard, mucking out stables, fletching arrows, assisting Maester Aemon with the ravens, and aiding Bowen Marsh with his accounting. That day, Jon is tasked with spreading crushed gravel over the top of the Wall to make it less slippery, and he thinks of Sam as he works and how it takes a certain kind of courage to admit cowardice. At dinner, Jon and the others listen to Pyp, who had been an actor, tell a story, but Jon takes his leave to join Sam, who is sitting alone. They go outside and talk. Ghost joins them, and Sam is frightened initially, but the wolf seems to like him. Jon tells Sam the story of how he found the direwolves in the snow and soon begins talking about Winterfell, revealing he is having a recurring dream in which he wanders the halls of the castle looking for Eddard or Robb or Arya or Benjen. Ben is still missing. Lord Commander Mormont is still searching for him, with Ser Jaremy leading two sweeps and Qhorin Halfhand searching from the Shadow Tower, but they have found no trace of Ben, only the blazes in the trees he left to mark his way, which suddenly vanish in the highlands of the northwest.
Jon wonders why a self-proclaimed coward would join the Watch, and Sam explains how his father, Lord Randyll, was always disappointed in him as an heir, because he is fond of dancing and reading and not fond of martial pursuits, and that after another son, Dickon, was finally born after Sam was followed by three girls, Randyll gave Sam the choice of joining the Night’s Watch or dying in an accident. Jon tells Sam they should return to the hall and listen to Dareon sing. He was an apprentice singer until he was discovered in bed with the daughter of Lord Mathis Rowan of Goldengrove, who Dareon claims consented but named it rape when her father found out. Sam declines and goes to get some sleep, so Jon returns alone and joins Pyp, Toad, Halder, Grenn, Jeren, Dareon, Rast, and Albett and tells them not to hurt Sam during practice. All agree except Rast, so Jon goes to his room that night with Grenn, Pyp, and Ghost and frightens him into agreeing. After several days, Sam works up the courage to join them and interact with them. When he comes to thank Jon and call him friend, Jon says they are not friends, but brothers.
So, enter Samwell Tarly, Sam the soon-to-be slayer, Sam of the Pink Mast or as I prefer, Sam the Man. He gets a particularly ignoble entrance here but we see his character’s depths fairly quickly. Having a childhood like Sam’s can’t be easy and Jon is not wrong in thinking that it takes a certain courage to admit that one is a coward. What has also bothered and, to some extent annoyed, me about Sam is that while it is somewhat admirable that he is willing to admit to having his faults, he never really makes an effort at addressing them. He is crap at fighting, for example, but he never tries to improve. He is altogether not a brave person but he doesn’t seem able to find a way to address this aspect of him and even as far down the line as AFFC, the Sam I remember is very much the same character that we see here.
Sam’s background story always gets to me just because of how far removed from his own experiences he seems. There is trauma there, understandably, but there is also a surprising acceptance of his fate. I do feel that Sam’s backstory is just a touch too traumatic though, in that I just don’t feel that his particular history fits the character too well. I feel like a character like Sam who has been regularly harassed throughout his childhood would be colder and harder rather than the soft ball of fluff that Sam currently is. Of course, you could argue that the trauma he suffered broke him rather than strengthened his resolve but Sam has never really struck me as a broken man either. I’m no psychologist nor any kind of shrink though so maybe it’s just my ignorance about these things that is showing.
This is technically a Jon chapter so we’ll talk a little about him as well. Does anyone else get a very highschool drama kind of vibe from the Night’s Watch at this point in the story? There is a very Disney feel to it at the moment – Jon comes in friendless, but learns some life lessons and makes some friends and is now the protector of the weak. There is no real danger looming at the Wall at this point and I think that’s one of the main reasons that the Wall storyline tends to fade away in my head – it was never really given a strong enough opening compared the politicking going on elsewhere. In any event, things at Castle Black High are fairly mundane at this point in the story – Jon is learning his place at the Wall and he forms an easy connection with Sam in this chapter itself. The only real source of any tension in this chapter comes from Benjen’s continued absence.
There is one small interesting bit that I should mention though I doubt it is really that significant in the grand scheme of things – Jon is already have ‘dreams’ of Winterfell and his family. On a superficial level it’s just him missing home but given how dreams work in ASOIAF (and fantasy in general, of course) it’s worth considering that his dreams begin only after he comes to the Wall. These dreams eventually morph into the ones that lead him into the crypts and those are common pieces of evidence that point to the popular R+L=J theory. Are these dreams signs from Bloodraven?