She’s new, she’s the re-re-reader. She’s the newbie, she’s the spoilery vet. Together they’re rereading George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and getting their POV on. Today they react to Chapter 26, a Jon Snow chapter.
So much love for this chapter. In a narrative sense it served two purposes: to show us the change in Jon (and, for the first reader at least, reaffirm that he is likeable) and to shift yet again our perception of the Night’s Watch brotherhood.
From the opening line the change in Jon is obvious. He’s showing someone how to fight, training one of the boys he used to sneer at in the practice ring in the same way that he was trained, aware now that whatever training he has had is more than they ever did.
Ser Alliser’s incompetence is hit home in a couple ways. When the boys follow Jon’s lead during Sam’s introduction, with two of them standing with Jon to make it a fair fight, it immediately shows how much his behavior has undermined Alliser’s authority already. Where once none of them defied him, now they do if not with alacrity—since none of them were willing to start the protest—then at least not really much reluctance. My marginal comment when Ser A says “I’m the arms master here” is “They follow Jon because Jon is WORTH following.” Then I wondered if Jon’s story will end up being “–> Roman general vs degenerate emperor style?” where the army follows the general and make him emperor. Granted, this would be in a microcosm but Jon becoming arms master or Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch on the power of the men’s love for him is almost an equivalent sort of coup.
The second way Alliser’s incompetence is emphasized is Jon still quoting Ser Rodrick. The “know your foe” line. This proves that Jon has not learned anything from Ser A—if he had, he’d be quoting that to himself instead of something learned for another purpose at another man’s hands.
As a side note to this: I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone in a position of power at The Wall could possibly have let Ser Alliser train the way he did, which seemed to me to be just telling kids who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing to hit one another with swords. That’s how you coach a U6 soccer team, but by the time the kids are 10 you’re teaching them about technique, how to pass properly and stop the ball within a yard of their body and not to kick it any farther in front of them when they dribble, else it will get taken from them. I actually cannot fathom how anyone could possibly let someone “train” new recruits who does not take the time to show them anything. Is this meant to show the depth of carelessness/impoverishment of resources at Castle Black, that even he is better than no one? I am not sure on that actually being the case, to be honest…seems to me like no training would be better than disastrously bad training.
Either way, good on Jon for stepping up and actually trying to teach his new friends what to do.
That’s the other change we see not quite as immediately, but still early in the chapter: Jon has made friends. He knows the stories of the other boys. He jokes with them. They listen to him.
And then we meet Sam.
I am fascinated by Samwell Tarly. His character is not someone I can feel certain about. By that I mean that I don’t know if he has spoken truly, that he will never, ever, get better, or if, away from a poisonous house that constantly tore down any confidence or pride he might have given himself, he will slowly come out of his shell. I don’t know that I care if he “improves” himself; simply, I couldn’t look at him and feel sure that he will follow the predictable story arc of changing and perhaps flourishing in the new environment.
What I want to know about his father is this: he says “you have given me no reason to disinherit you” as an explanation for why he was forcing Sam to go to The Wall. Why did he not tell Sam to give him a reason, under the same threat? I am not sure what it would have to be, but there are no doubt many options. Was he afraid that Sam would find some happiness in a situation like that, and hated him so much he couldn’t stand the thought? It seems more likely that it was because, as a nobleman’s son, there’s damn little Sam could have done that would be outré enough to get himself disowned. It just…seemed a bit too convenient (for the sake of the book’s story) that taking the black was REALLY the only way the father could have gotten Sam out of the picture, other than killing him.
Sam’s past, and the backgrounds given of a couple other boys, make us reevaluate Jon’s new brothers a bit away from what Tyrion said of them, and back toward it being a collection of boys with nowhere else to go. Some of them are nasty people, perhaps, but most were victims of circumstances that gave them no other choice, or no better choice. At least one of the rapers was a boy whose lover cried rape when they got caught, which is not rape at all, and it serves to undercut our assumptions about ANY of the boys there, even those with grim backgrounds on the surface. I like that the truth isn’t black or white, that the men of The Wall are neither heroes nor villains, but somewhere in between. All just folk, as they’d say on Firefly. There might be one or two real brutes there, but if the bulk of the population is normal people, who want a leader they can believe in to follow, then those will be marginalized. Which is proven when only one person refuses to treat Samwell with kid gloves, and then Jon and friends go threaten him into compliance.
It’s interesting to me that the first person who makes Jon feel like he’s in a brotherhood is someone that he has to stand up for and protect. There were other boys he’d made friends with by this point, but it’s Sam who makes him realize this is his family. I would guess that has to do with Jon feeling needed and moved to protect someone weaker than himself, and recognizing that it will always be this way with Sam…and presumably other members of the Watch who need it. He’s already protecting the others from himself in the training yard.
Side note? I LOVED how much of a dude Jon is when Sam starts crying, and he just sits there like “WTF am I supposed to do about this?” and it’s Ghost who fixes it.
I actually thought that last scene, where Jon is thinking about how he loves his brothers but these are his true brothers now was handled very well. It was a believable line of thought—that he had never been one of them thanks to his bitch-ass stepmom—and his family now shared the common bond not of blood but of situation. They were all people no one else wanted. They are all the same up there, and he’s recognizing intuitively what Ned has to spell out for Arya, that they must bond together if they hope to survive the winter.
Some quick things I want to hit briefly but don’t have much to say about.
Jon’s summary of his days at The Wall, where for every foraging expedition with Ghost he has a dozen other days of bullshit he hates—is this the normal rotation, or is he getting more of those than anyone else?
Pyp the mummer’s boy is the Austrian in My Fair Lady! “I can tell where anyone is from by their accent.” lol
Jon’s Dream: is this a reflection only of his loneliness, or is it a foreshadowing that everyone who is part of Winterfell will die, i.e., everyone but his sisters and his crippled brother? And what’s waiting for him down in the crypt? If it’s not the old Lords of Winter he’s afraid of, then what is it? And why is it drawing him down there—is it some strange power or entity, or simply the power of truth, perhaps of his parentage?
“I scream that I’m not a Stark, that this isn’t my place, but it’s no good, I have to go anyway….”
And, then, my favorite line expositing how much the devastation encompasses:
“Even the ravens are gone from the rookery, and the stables are full of bones.”
Chilling. Sounds like another way of saying Winter. Is. Coming to me….
If you haven’t done it yet, check out the podcast Elena and Rachel are anchoring, in which we dissect the episodes of Game of Thrones one by one. Click the logo or go to iTunes and search Boomtron Podcast.
– Readers, if leaving a comment for Elena please direct (@Elena) them at her – and lead your comments with your messages for her. Please do not direct spoilers at her. Thanks!
–Do not read on if you have not read the series through A Feast for Crows and want to avoid spoilers–
Jay may hate Jon Snow, but I certainly don’t. “I love you Jon Snow and your direwolf too!” How can you hate a character who changes so much in the course of the story, and for the better? Jon Snow is the traditional fantasy hero. I can’t help but like him! Plus he takes his lumps AND his lessons and uses them to better himself and those around him. If there’s anything wrong with Jon Snow it’s that he’s TOO good. (Ok.. so setting your wolf on a guy isn’t exactly honorable behavior but hell… I’d set my wolf on way more people than Jon does.) In that way Jon is truly a Stark. He’s honorable and concerned about those weaker than himself. He attempts to deal with the world when it challenges his beliefs and he doesn’t absolutely despair when things go badly. And everything goes badly for Jon. He has to kill his friend, he breaks his vows, his girlfriend gets all murdered after she tries to kill him and probably with his own bastard in her belly, his family is believed dead, no one trusts him and suddenly he’s given a whole bunch of power that I’m sure will cause more problems than it solves.
How can you hate Jon Snow? HE’S GOT A DIREWOLF!
Anyways, Elena is concerned about Ser Thorne’s non-teaching techniques. So he doesn’t teach the recruits anything beyond taking a hit. Why should he? He’s a knight! I doubt he believes the thieves and rapists on the wall deserve to be taught even a fraction of the skills he himself was taught (which is hilarious as he taunts the boys with Jon’s own curriculum). But how else is Jon supposed to win everyone over? I think it’s significant that Jon and Tyrion got along so well. Knowledge is power and Jon offers the type of knowledge that informs technique that saves lives on the Wall. Maybe it is unrealistic to think that Mormont would be satisfied with Thorne’s training techniques for so long. Where do the men of the Night’s Watch learn their skills? Judging from the later attacks the men DO know how to fight (well at least the men recruited before this current crop) so maybe the various platoons (I dunno.. work with me dear reader) drill. I’ll bet Benjen Stark puts his men thru drills and training. Anyways, there’s a reason Thorne doesn’t lead the Night’s Watch. You have to inspire loyalty and devotion in your men and what better way to do that, than to VALUE them?
I also love Samwell Tarly. Unlikely a friend though he is, he’s more like Tyrion too. Jon just likes smart people. Other than the obvious allusions to Samwise Gamgee (the hero who doesn’t know or understand his own heroism) I love that Samwell never actually STOPS being a coward. It’s interesting that Elena is questioning whether or not Sam will evolve away from his current personality. Sam never pretends to be anything else than what he is. Neither does Jon or Tyrion. Sam’s father must expect Sam to go get himself killed by frostbite or something on the wall. In reality, Sam learns that he IS useful and worthy, even when he’s still the man he was growing up – a bookish, unathletic, coward can STILL be useful and important. There are other ways to be a hero than with a sword and Sam reminds us of that. It’s like Tyrion’s lectures were all in preparation for Samwell Tarly. He values friendship having never had it before. He is like Tyrion, another reader. That’ awesome to me. We need more readers in this story, people who KNOW stuff are few and far between and it can get tiring listening to characters ask why all the time. If Tyrion is GRRM’s avatar in the story than maybe Samwell is the reader’s avatar. I don’t know what I would do if confronted by a wight but I can bet you that I wouldn’t be bellowing a war cry and swinging a battleaxe. I’m sure it would be more along the lines of “ok.. what kills a wight? RUN AWAY RUN AWAY!”
As far as Jon’s dream… I’m back on that R+L=J train. Maybe he is seeing the abandonment of Winterfell as well as the revelation that Lyanna is his mother. (I hope… come on GRRM, just GIVE US THAT ONE). If Lyanna IS his mother than Jon is right- he’s not a Stark. Except let’s face it, there isn’t anyone more Stark than Jon than Arya and Ned himself. The egg is strong?
I love how GRRM includes the daily life of the brothers in this chapter. He introduces a new character, evolves several relationships, establishes fundamental conflicts and still manages to give us a pretty good glimpse of every day chores. Jon isn’t even sworn yet and he’s being given many tasks- hunting, cleaning, and helping around in the kitchens, the forge and the stables. I love that the maintenance of the wall is never ending. I always wonder what the yearly shrink on the wall IS. The builders are few and they don’t really build anymore as much as seek to fortify and repair the used parts of the wall. GRRM constantly talks of the wall weeping (it’s still Summer after all), pieces of it are falling off, it is covered in burning pitch at one point.. is the wall 700 feet anymore? How does it maintain its size? Even the pressure of men walking on the gravel in this early chapter is said to contribute to the melting of the wall. Shouldn’t the damn thing be shrinking? Especially around the manned castles? Does that not concern anyone else but me? Does anyone else obsess over stuff like this?
I always like the beginning of stories the best. That’s when you get quiet moments like chores and conversations. There aren’t any battles or long journeys. The settings are established. Even in film I tend to like the beginning of the stories the best because these are the parts of the stories we can inhabit. When I think of Westeros, Middle Earth, the universe of Doctor Who, Farscape, Star Trek, Star Wars etc I don’t imagine myself in huge battles. I like to think what it would be like to sit in the godswood, or climb the steps at castle black. It’s so important in world building to give us readers chapters in which characters truly INHABIT a space. Everyday life described helps to contrast the particular events that make it all go to Hell in a Handbasket. Yes I realize we’re on chapter 26 and I consider us still within the beginning of the story. That is just how GRRM rolls yo. Tolkien took forever too. I wish that this chapter was longer even. Who wakes everyone up in the morning? How do they wash their clothes? DO they wash their clothes? What does Ghost do while Jon is training and doing direwolf-unfriendly chores? These are things I wish to know!
– originally published 5/11/2011
Elena Nola is the imperial editrix for the BSC empire. She likes genre books, weird movies, and obscure references. She lives in New Orleans, where almost every day is good enough for good times. Contrary to dogma, Rachel Parker is the mind-killer. She is a nerd, writer, and art historian living in Brooklyn, NY. You can read more of her posts at scienceofdiscontent.blogspot.com, or follow @DarthRachel on twitter.