When we last saw Jon, he had just discovered where all the missing Wildlings had gone – Mance Rayder had been slowly gathering them into his almighty army of illegal immigrants. Jon, Qhorin and a few others had left immediate, only to be spotted by the eagle. This chapter is a doozy, catching up with the ragged bunch as they try to get away from ever-watching eyes. There’s a sense of inevitability to the chase; no matter when tricks Qhorin uses to escape Rattleshirt’s band, the eagle sees everything and so it just becomes a matter of time before they are caught. Jon’s capitulation threw me off the first time I read it; it was clear that he hadn’t betrayed the cause, but it wasn’t clear that he wouldn’t change his mind over a period of time. I think that very much remains part of his character’s inner conflict right until his ‘death’ in A Dance With Dragons. This chapter, the penultimate in A Clash of Kings, is great; it’s fraught with tension and ends with many questions left unanswered and leaves Martin in a great place for Jon’s story in the next book. Having said that, a lot of the chapter is made of little details or resolved plot threads about which I won’t have a lot to say.
When Qhorin Halfhand told him to find some brush for a fire, Jon knew their end was near.
The chapter opens on a gloomy enough note; Jon’s pretty much accepted that this particular expedition isn’t going to end well for any of them. Narratively speaking, I think as hard as Martin tries to convince us that Jon is in danger, you don’t really get the feeling that this is how and where he will die. Still, even as I re-read this chapter, I could feel the tension infused in the resigned dialogue and in the descriptions of their hostile surroundings. It felt as though the whole world was their enemy and that in turn contributes to the inevitability I mentioned earlier – how can a few dudes beat this wintery wasteland?
But when they’d heard the call of a faroff horn every man of them knew the squire had fallen.
The other thing that keeps the tension buildings are these updates. Squire Dalbridge is the only one to be confirmed dead until the chapter’s last few pages, but we are nonetheless kept informed on the group’s situation whether is their horses or their provisions. We don’t hear what happens to Stonesnake but with him and Ebben breaking off from the main group, you get both hope and fear. Yes, there’s a chance that they could make it and salvage the situation but at the same time the possibility of their capture represents yet another thing that we need to worry about. I should also include the frequent mentions of the eagle’s position as part of the ‘updates’ that Martin provides. The eagle’s constant presence becomes a reminder that even though we don’t see or hear the Wildlings approach, they are nevertheless nearby and closing in. All these things contribute to giving the chapter a great sense of urgency.
“Say them again with me, Jon Snow.”
This must be a pretty clutch moment for Qhorin. No matter how this goes, Qhorin must know that he’s doomed. I can’t see Rattleshirt or Mance, especially, buying that Qhorin has ditched the Night’s Watch, so the possibility of Qhorin surviving by switching sides is absolutely zero. Qhorin recognized something in Jon’s character that made him want to take him on this expedition but perhaps he hoped that he wouldn’t have to rely on that character quite so soon. It’s essential then that Qhorin test Jon while they still have time and see if Jon truly is reliable. If Jon proves too inflexible to even pretend to turn his cloak, the situation would be bad but not as bad as it would be if Jon actually went over to the other side. Jon is privy to a good amount of information that could really make or break Mance’s assault – not the least of all being the Night’s Watch’s numbers, positions and supplies. Asking Jon to say the words again is probably a way of reminding Jon of his vows and his duties. After that basic test of loyalty, Qhorin feels comfortable asking Jon to temporarily break his vows, knowing that Jon’s inherent inclination towards honour will keep him from straying too far in the ruse and becoming what he is pretending to be.
The falling water slapped at them with frozen fists, and the shock of the cold seemed to stop Jon’s breath.
So, I know next to nothing about the cold but isn’t getting “drenched” in the middle of a cold winter a really, really bad idea? I have some experience with hypothermia and the second that motherfucker sets in, there’s just no getting it out. Not without some rum, anyway, if my own experience is anything to go by. I’m willing to let Jon’s abnormal resistance to the cold go but seriously, it’s easy to forgot just how miserable their little trek is. Sleep-deprived, not fully nourished, freezing cold, wet and tired both physically and mentally; none of this is ideal when fighting for your life against the barbarian horde.
But when they emerged back into the light long hours later, the eagle was waiting for them, perched on a dead tree a hundred feet up the slope.
At some point, this starts to get ridiculous. Either the warg in the eagle (Orell? I forget his name. Or has Varamyr taken it over at this point?), knew about that mountain pass or he just got lucky. Remember, between the fire and running through the small waterfall, there was really nothing to suggest that the two of them had doubled back. Jon’s not wrong; the eagle can’t see through solid stone and I’m not exactly sold on how good it’s night vision is either but god damn, that bird’s hard to shake off. After this chapter, I honestly can’t wait for Melisandre to burn it down.
Jon counted fourteen, with eight dogs.
Ok, so not quite a horde. In fact, I’m surprised it’s just so many but it makes sense now. Between the eagle and the dogs, it’s not out of the question for the hunters to find them. Still, fourteen versus two are not impossible odds – just close to it. With the terrain advantage, you’d figure that Qhorin and Jon would have a shot if it came to that, but Jon’s intervention prevents that from happening.
“No!” The word burst from Jon’s lips before the bowmen could loose. He took two quick steps forward. “We yield!”
This makes it seem like much less of a deliberate move than it really is. We know from Jon and Qhorin’s previous conversation that Qhorin wanted Jon to pretend to flip sides but the wording above makes it seem like Jon really did lose his nerve at the last minute and decided to save his own skin. We don’t get much detail about Jon’s thought process in this crucial moments; it’s almost like he didn’t debate the decision with himself at all and just moved by instinct before the archers could shoot. I wonder if Martin left that out because he thought it would slow the scene down or because that whole internal debate didn’t happen at all.
“He is no craven.”
Ygritte’s not wrong in claiming this but she has absolutely no evidence to prove her point. As far as Rattleshirt and the rest of his group can see, Jon basically balked and ran the second it looked like he would die. That’s not the worst case of cowardice ever but it’s hardly an example of courage. The funny thing is that apart from Rattleshirt, no one really seems to question Jon’s change in fealty. Whatever Jon might be saying now, he still followed Qhorin for days through rough terrain in decidedly suboptimal conditions – if he wasn’t a real brother of the Night’s Watch, why not defect before that? Why not kill Qhorin and bring that as a sign of his changed loyalty?
He knew, he thought numbly. He knew what they would ask of me.
And so passes Qhorin Halfhand, Ranger of the Night’s Watch. It’s easy to wonder if Qhorin was really putting his all into defeating Jon but that question is neither here nor there since Ghost had to help Jon out anyway. It’s also fun to imagine how the defence of the Wall would have gone if Qhorin had been around to co-ordinate the Watch instead of leaving it to a rookie Jon Snow, but I think Jon did a good enough job that we don’t have all that much room for improvement. More than that though, I think Qhorin’s survival would have meant that he would pretty much have been a shoe-in for Lord Commander, assuming everything else shook out the way it did. I think Qhorin’s character isn’t the most memorable in the series but given how a short a time he was in the series for, I think he certainly left something of a mark. He’s a rare example of character who died in his prime, before we really got to see his flaws and inadequacies exposed.
“He is a warg,” said the Lord of Bones, “and a crow. I like him not.”
One final comment for this chapter: at this point, is Jon considered a warg? He has only once warged into Ghost (the previous Jon chapter) and that too on accident, in a dream. Moreover, does Rattleshirt know that Jon is a warg, or does he just suspect because of Ghost? Either way, Rattleshirt is spot on – Jon is a warg and he is a crow. Ygritte sees this as well but unlike Rattleshirt, believes that she can change Jon to become less of a crow and more like her, but that’s a whole other story for another day and for another book.
So, that brings us to the end of Jon’s story in this book. We started with Jon heading out in the big scary unknown of the Forbidden Forest lands beyond the Wall. He got a taste of just what life is like on the missions he wanted so much to be a part of and probably found that as unique an experience as it is, it’s not one that he would want to repeat. It’s crazy to think that the first time that Jon ventured properly into the wild, he was captured, recruited and then forced to escape with his girlfriend trying to shoot him down. If that’s not a reason to never leave the Wall again, I don’t know what is.