Jon goes down into the vaults of Castle Black looking for Sam, whom Lord Commander Mormont had sent down there to find maps for the expedition into the far north. He finds Sam immersed in the collection of the Night’s Watch, which contains thousands of volumes. Sam wishes he had time to organize the collection and study it, but Jon is indifferent to the history. Sam particularly points out an account written by a ranger named Redwyn during the reign of King Dorren Stark in which he traveled to Lorn Point on the Frozen Shore, fought giants, and traded with the children of the forest. Lord Commander Mormont is taking two hundred men on the expedition, three-quarters of them rangers, to be joined by one hundred men from the Shadow Tower led by Qhorin Halfhand. Sam is coming along to manage the ravens since Maester Aemon is far too frail to join the expedition.
They return to the surface with the maps and are joined by Ghost. They watch Ser Endrew drill a group of new recruits brought in by Conwy, a beggar, a brigand, a barber, two orphans, and a boy whore, none of whom are particularly suited to the job. Donal Noye tells Jon that they came from a dungeon near Gulltown. Jon and Sam continue on to Lord Commander Mormont’s chambers, where Thoren Smallwood, the new acting first ranger, is arguing with the Lord Commander that the command should go to him and Mormont should remain at Castle Black. Lord Commander Mormont flatly refuses and dismisses him. On his way out, he shoots Jon and Sam a hard look, as he was a confidant of Ser Alliser. When Mormont turns his attention to Sam, he becomes so frightened he can barely speak. After Sam leaves, the Lord Commander states he was considering sending Sam to treat with Renly, but feels that a quaking fat boy will not make the right impression. He plans to send Ser Arnell instead, whose mother was a green-apple Fossoway.
Lord Commander Mormont tells Jon the history behind Maester Aemon’s decision to come to the Wall and how he could have been a king. Aemon’s grandfather was King Daeron II, the king who brought Dorne into the realm and married a Dornish princess. His father was King Maekar I, fourth son of Daeron. He was Maekar’s third son and was named for Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, whom some said was Daeron’s true father rather than King Aegon IV the Unworthy. Aemon was no good with a sword but had quick wits, so Daeron sent him to the Citadel at nine or ten. Aemon’s uncle, the heir to the throne, was killed in a tourney mishap while he was away. His sons died soon after in the Great Spring Sickness. Daeron II died as well, and his second son, Aerys I took the throne. Aerys wed his sister and ruled for about a decade, in which time Aemon became the maester for a minor lord. Aerys died without issue, and Maekar became king. He summoned Aemon to court and wanted to make him an adviser, but Aemon did not want to usurp the role of the Grand Maester, so he served his eldest brother Daeron instead. Daeron died of a pox contracted from a whore, while Aemon’s other elder brother Aerion, known as “the Monstrous”, died drinking wildfire, which he believed would turn him into a dragon. About a year later, Maekar died in battle against an outlaw lord. A Great Council was called to determine who should now take the throne. Both Daeron’s daughter and Aerion’s infant son were passed over, as the daughter was a feeble-witted female and no one wanted someone with Aerion’s blood on the throne. Aemon was secretly offered the crown, but he declined. Rule therefore fell to his younger brother Aegon V, thereafter known as “the Unlikely” because he became a king despite being the fourth son of a fourth son. Aemon knew that if he remained at court he could become a tool of those who might oppose his brother’s reign, so he voluntarily joined the Night’s Watch. Jon wonders at first why Mormont has told him all this until he realizes it is to test Jon’s resolve to keep his vows now that Robb is a king. Jon promises that he will keep those vows.
This chapter pretty much brings us up to speed on the situation at the Wall where so far things have been positively tranquil compared to the horrors of war down in the South. Of course, that peace will not last for a lot longer but for now it still persists as Sam gives us some new information about the Others, the Long Night and the Night’s Watch. I also spotted some dialogue between Mormont and Jon that felt like an introduction to Jon’s storyline in this book and I’ll bring that up when we get to it.
“You’d be surprised. This vault is a treasure, Jon.”
So, a few things of note here. For one, it seems that Jon has fallen into the trap of shunning academic pursuits that do not have an immediate use. You could easily see him being that kind of ass that mocks Liberal Arts majors while strolling around in a suit in Business school. To be fair though, I feel like that kind of mind-set is very much a Westerosi thing, what with their emphasis on proving yourself and bringing honour to your house and name. Secondly, I don’t think Sam ever did get the chance to really go through the details of the books at the Wall did he? If I recall, once the Wildlings are repelled, he does try to get through some of the massive load of information (with a deal more urgency since he knew how dire the situation was) but he was shipped off to Oldtown before he could manage to really go through all of it. I know Jon’s logic for sending him off to Oldtown (though I don’t know if I agree with it, but that’s a discussion for another time) but there was an opportunity to find something game-changing in that library and it was lost when Sam left, because the gods know that although a few people in the Night’s Watch that could read, none wanted to.
The black brothers had dubbed the wanderer Mormont’s Torch, saying (only half in jest) that the gods must have sent it to light the old man’s way through the haunted forest.
This is almost a trivial comment, but I’m a little surprised by how casually the Night’s Watch is taking this comet. I mean, you would think that being at the edge of civilization with angry hordes of barbarians just beyond you and the threat of vampiric zombies, they would be a slightly more superstitious lot but no, they’re just like ‘Oh, cool a comet, I’ve seen this a hundred times. No way, it could be an omen.’
“Do what you want,” he told Toad, “I took a vow.”
So while I respect Jon’s commitment to his vows, I feel him saying it like this is almost like that one guy who will lecture people on the evils of alcohol when someone asks him out for a beer. No one likes that guy – hell, I don’t even know why I know that guy but somehow, I do. In any case, I do think at this stage of the plot, Jon still has a good deal of growing up to do and his disdain for books from earlier in the chapter just underlines that. I think his time with the Wildlings will teach him that there are perspectives different from his own that are just as valid but unfortunately the rest of the Watch will not prove to be quite as open-minded and capable of character development.
“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.”
This is a famous quote within ASOIAF circles and for a good reason. I think we have enough reason to trust Donal Noye’s measure of his fellow men and by extension, his measure of those he served under. I think his comment on Robert being the true steel was a little off in the sense that Robert was only ever good at fighting and if that’s all that ‘true steel’ entails then clearly, neither Stannis nor Renly have what it takes. However, I get the feeling that Noye’s comment is little more all-encompassing than that. He seems to be saying that Robert was the best of the three and I can see no objective way of agreeing to that. Martin has done a good enough job characterizing the three Baratheon brothers that it’s impossible to look any single one and go ‘Yeah, he’s the good guy’. Still, I say that, but on a more visceral level, more response to his statement was to agree. Robert, for all his faults (and I think I’ve talked enough about them) feels like more of a King than either of his younger siblings. I’m struggling a little to articulate why exactly I feel that and more over I want to be careful that I don’t think of Robert as a better king because of his legitimacy (such as it was) as King as compared to Stannis’ and Renly’s more questionable legitimacy on their thrones. I guess that the end of the day, Robert’s ability to make friends of enemies endears him to me a little as does he battlefield prowess and I like to think of him as the least of the three evils, an uneasy but preferable balance between Stannis’ cold, hard authoritarian and Renly’s silky, slimy politician. Still, Robert is the character that you’re almost ashamed of liking, since by liking him you’re somehow aligning yourself with a man of very questionable morals and ethics.
“If it happens that we’re all butchered out there, I mean for my successor to know where and how we died.”
Or, how about you not inviting bad luck on you and the rest of your men? No? Ok, then as you were. I also skipped some other bits of foreshadowing but it’s there and it’s heavy. I think even a first time reader would have some major trepidation about this merry little jaunt into the woods.
I’m skipping over the story of Aemon’s missed opportunity at averting disaster for House Targaryen because I don’t think there’s anything in there worth commenting on. It does put Aemon’s extreme age into sharp perspective – if we assume Jon to be Lyanna and Rhaegar’s son, Aemon is a clean five generations removed from Jon and yet they are both at the Wall together. A part of me really, really wishes that Aemon at least knew, or suspected who Jon was before he died, but I don’t think it’s the case.
“Be troubled,” said Jon, “and keep my vows.”
This was the line I was talking about in the first paragraph. Jon uses his status as a bastard to get in with Mance and the Wildlings, but this line of being troubled captures his storyline for his next two arcs – he is troubled at what he finds beyond the Wall and I think more than that, he is troubled by how sympathetic he finds the Wildlings but despite all those troubles, he keeps his vows and that’s the reason I really like this line as a great snapshot of Jon’s story and character.