This post has spoilers for George RR Martin’s fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, including fan theories and speculation. If you do not wish for certain information regarding future plot points from this series or other related series to be revealed to you, you might want to consider not reading any further.
Check it out, first Jon chapter! This chapter is a great one – it introduces to the Wildlings; who until this point in the story, we’ve only seen as hostile; as well as to the Wilding way of life and, of course, the King-Beyond-The-Wall, Mance Rayder. The chapter is important in the sense that it sets up everything that is going to happen north of the Wall right away. We get the tension between Jon and the Wildlings, Jon’s unease at being even a false traitor, the romantic tension between Jon and Ygritte, and most interestingly, the mutual respect that Mance and Jon share for each other. It is in this chapter that Jon begins the long process of not seeing the Wildlings as wild, hostile savages but as a group of people like any other and of course, this will play a big role in influencing his actions in A Dance With Dragons.
Dead, all dead but me, and I am dead to the world.
The first few paragraphs basically bring us back to the land north of the Wall and give us some unneeded description of the dreary landscape. A few things are obvious right off the bat. First, Jon is probably the least convincing double agent that has even been conceived and I can’t help but wonder if, on some level, that is working in his favour. If Jon was too enthusiastic too fast, it might have raised some eyebrows, for example but perhaps Martin meant for Jon’s reluctance to come across as a believable to the Wildlings. Even Mance, who Jon later convinces in this chapter, might perceive Jon as a man who is caught between his honour and his dissatisfaction. These first handful of paragraphs also serve to establish a sense of normalcy in the otherwise foreign Wildling camps but not so much so that the camps feel dull and overly familiar. There is still a sense of foreboding and danger; for instance, when all the dogs are barking at Ghost; or just from Jon’s increasing unease. We should also note that Jon doesn’t quite get the Wildling’s general banter – when Rattleshirt vaguely threatens him, the Wildlings just laugh it off but Jon takes it a little more seriously. I don’t Jon is wrong in doing this, of course – Rattleshirt wasn’t joking around – but I do find it interesting that Jon never truly lets his guard down around any of them, ever, except Ygritte.
They had numbers, but the Night’s Watch had discipline, and in battle discipline beats numbers nine times of every ten, his father had once told him.
This point has been made again and again but I’m still not sure I buy it. Now, I’m not military tactician but surely it’s plain to see that the Night’s Watch is far from disciplined itself? It would be one thing if this Wildling horde was to fight a seasoned, well-trained group like the Golden Company but the Night’s Watch is little more than a group of ragtag criminals barely capable of swinging a sword without cutting themselves. Besides that, a thousand reasonably armed and armoured soldiers will have an uphill task against twenty thousand warm bodies – and that’s assuming those bodies are just mindless zombies that just bum rush the soldiers. The Wall is a great force multiplier, true, but without it, the Night’s Watch might not fare nearly as well as they would like to think.
“A blind boy, must be. Who ever heard of a king without ears? Why, his crown would fall straight down to his neck! Har!”
Would it surprise you to know that I’m not really that big of a Tormund fan? I mean, he’s alright, but I don’t find everything he says to be instantly hilarious or anything. I was a little disappointed to remember that in the books, he was short and ‘broad’ (which sounds suspiciously like fat) because the image I had in mind was more of the Tormund from the TV series. Likewise, if you can believe it, I didn’t have much of a mental image of Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, either. Honestly speaking, I don’t really put much energy into visualizing the characters in a lot of detail – I keep a vague impression of them in my head but nothing much beyond that.
“You ought to thank me for killing your enemy,” Jon said finally, “and curse me for killing your friend.”
This reads like one of those old-timey riddles that the hero would need to answer before being allowed to proceed on his quest. Either that, or I’m thinking of Harry Potter. Regardless, this is a good place to pause for a while and consider the character of Mance Rayder before we really dive into the meat of this chapter. Mance is, first and foremost, one of the most romantic characters in the series – not in the sense that he’s dreamy or anything though I’m sure some fans found Ciaran Hinds comely enough. I mean that, in a world of ruthless, cold blooded pragmatists like Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton, Mance is competent but not amoral and it’s really refreshing to see. It makes it that much easier for us to really sympathise with Jon when he has to later consider betraying Mance. As we will soon see, Mance is pretty much the only person who could ever have united the Free Folk. No one else possessed that perfect blend of charisma, cunning and vision that Mance did and as Dance showed us, without him, this great Wildling alliance shattered.
“You swore not to tell.”
“And kept my vow. That one, at least.”
I’ve given a deal of thought to why Martin decided that he needed Jon and Mance to have met twice before. Clearly, this scene works fine if Mance had been at Winterfell at the banquet for King Robert, so why did Martin want this extra meeting? Well, for one thing, I think that it gives Mance and Jon a closer relationship than a single chance meeting could have. Admittedly, this new meeting makes its two chance meetings but the addition creates this sense that their meeting was fated. In addition, it takes some attention away from the fact that this is clearly a retcon. Despite that, it was a nice addition, a connection to civilisation and the known world that both Jon and the readers needed.
There is more commerce between the black brothers and the free folk than you know, and soon enough word came to my ears as well.
Again, I can’t shake the feeling that Martin just sort of adlibbed this bit. I’m not saying that it is impossible that there was some meager trade between the brothers on the Wall and the Wildlings but we haven’t seen any major evidence of that in five books. Sure, there is some exchange between the two factions with Craster as the middle man but it just seems incongruous that there could be this much trade between the two sides and the readers never see any sign of it. Then again, by the time we get acquainted with the Wildlings and the Watch, the tension between them is higher than it has been in a while. Now, this raises the question of why the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch haven’t settled into an uneasy peace but I guess it’s a very Israel-Palestine kind of situation.
I will not deny that Bael’s exploit inspired mine own… but I did not steal either of your sisters that I recall.
This is a great line for no other reason than the foreshadowing of Mance’s heroic but ultimately almost hilariously futile attempt at rescuing ‘Arya’. Don’t think I’ve missed all the foreshadowing of guest right either; it’s just getting tiring to point just how far in advance Martin established the sanctity of guest right.
The king was plainly a man who liked the sound of his own voice.
Yes, this is definitely one of Mance’s flaws but really, what King, doesn’t like the sound of his own voice?
“I left the next morning… for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.”
This reason makes Mance very sympathetic, especially to modern readers who value peeps all freedom and liberties very highly. Had Mance not been a character directly in conflict with Jon Snow, this one story would have been more than enough to get us to root for him – and that’s as much a testament to the story as it is an indictment of the number of sympathetic characters in this series. In hindsight, it should have been obvious that Mance was a sympathetic character but I remember thinking that Mance’s sympathetic nature was precisely what made his ‘death’ at the beginning of Dance so tragic. Turns out, I wasn’t wrong about the sentiment, just the timing, but that’s a whole new discussion
“And did you see where I was seated, Mance?” He leaned forward. “Did you see where they put the bastard?”
I’ve always struggled with this line because I can’t decide if it’s problematic or if it’s genius. When I read it, even today, my first thought is that Jon is trying to portray himself as this jealous bastard son who is resentful of his half siblings for their status but that reaction is followed by confusion as to just why Mance would want such a person in his ranks. After I think about it a little though, I realise that the Jon’s line is more a deep criticism of the Westerosi class system – it isn’t about resentment at not being on the table, or at least, it’s not only about that. Instead, it’s hitting out against the established social order that dictated that as a bastard, he was of no importance. Mance, being of the Free Folk, recognises that Jon sees the inherent inequality of the Westerosi system and thus accepts him (Jon) as one of them.
And with that we have wrapped up our first Jon chapter of A Storm of Swords; a fairly eventful chapter and a good introduction to the major characters in his story. Up next, Daenerys.