Snow Drifting Across the True Meaning of the Wall

A central reason that I don’t often write about pop literature and such — apart from the fact that, as fun as doing so can be, my time is better spent elsewise — is that the online practice of warning about spoilers seems to me to indicate a potential threat to the sanctity of those moments when good books (or movies) can surprise and offer unrepeatable moments of revelation. But I’ve stumbled on a cross-blog conversation about George R.R. Martin’s recently released A Dance with Dragons among some progressives, and their points seem to me to indicate a profound difference in the way people of differing politics view the world.
However, offering my take would be impossible without casual declaration of the single biggest spoiler of the plot, so be warned, ye who’ve yet to read all of the books of the Song of Ice and Fire series so far.
As I recall, Martin was a fundraising fan of Barack Obama during the last election season, so I’ve no illusion that he’s setting out to write books with a conservative moral. That said, authors who accurately capture something in human nature inevitably support a conservative reading of society, because (as I’ve assessed) such a reading more accurately captures reality. Thus, it might be true that Martin would develop to substantial degree an underlying theme without intending or liking the real-life sociopolitical conclusions that naturally extend from it.
For those who haven’t been following the series, the story is centered on the island/continent nation of Westeros, which more or less mirrors North America in climate, if not shape. The South is hot and somewhat exotic in a Central American way; the North is always cold. The seasons, while proceeding in the order of our own, don’t follow a set calendar.
The society resembles a Medieval kingdom in which magic exists around the fringes, although it was stronger in living memory and appears to be resurgent. Events in the first book, A Game of Thrones, set into motion political turmoil just as dragons are heralding the return of magic on another continent to the distant east and dark, cold forces are rumbling in the far north. Those forces manifest in a race of Others, who may be generically described as ice demons with the power to raise up the dead as zombies.
The character with whom we’re most concerned, here, is Jon Snow. “Snow” is the surname that the people of the North give to illegitimate children who cannot be fully integrated into their families (and lines of heredity), and Jon’s father was the premiere lord of the region, the Warden of the North, Eddard Stark. (It’s been clear since the first book, at least to me, that Jon is actually the son of Eddard’s sister and a prince from a line of dragon-riding royalty, both dead, but that’s not important, just now.)
Locked out of his family’s development among the various nobles who’d begun jockeying for position, Jon went farther north to serve in the Night’s Watch — a brotherhood charged with defending the northern border of the kingdom. Truth be told, the northern border pretty well defends itself, inasmuch as an ancient Wall of ice seven hundred feet high spans the entire continent from east to west. Moreover, with the fading of magic in the world, the dark creatures of the deep northern forest have sunk to the status of old wives tales, and the Wall is mainly seen as protecting the kingdom from the occasional raids of Wildlings — tribes of people who live in a more primitive manner but consider themselves more free.
The Night’s Watch has therefore mainly become a maintenance crew that the kingdom uses in large degree as a service option for criminals who would otherwise be killed or left to rot in prison, led by more respectable characters who have for one reason or another found cause to step outside of the kingdom’s society. Various circumstances (primarily the mass death of many of the brotherhood’s most competent figures) conspire to place the teenage Jon Snow in the position of Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and Dances, the fifth book of a projected seven, spends much time describing his effort to prepare for the gathering supernatural storm beyond the Wall.
The core component of his strategy is to bring the Wildlings across the border to civilization — both to help man the Watch’s score of crumbling fortresses and to prevent the tribes’ becoming an army of zombies when the Others make their move. In Jon’s approach, Alyssa Rosenberg, of ThinkProgress, sees a progressive restructuring of society, and the fissure that becomes a gulf between Left and Right emerges in a single adjective:

… Jon responds by becoming a nation-builder, redefining “the realms of men” to include the Wildlings, integrating them into Westeros’s society with intermarriages, land, rebuilt castles, and alliances. In that decision, Jon does more to reconceptualize what Westeros should be than any of the five kings he’s stayed neutral from.
It’s an astonishing act of political and moral vision. And his brothers murder him for it. Even more so than [Eddard’s] execution, Jon’s death feels to me like the most fully-realized tragedy in the novel. Where his father was a decent man of limited vision who was killed by an insane person, Jon learned Ned’s lessons, but he also showed a moral and political flexibility his father lacked, and was murdered by a shattered institution he was trying to force into a future where it would be able to survive.

I’ll put aside the fact that many readers would dispute the insinuation that stodgy ol’ Eddard wouldn’t have acted just as young, daring Jon does and get right to the word that marks deep ideological differences between conservatives and Rosenberg: “shattered,” as in the “shattered institution” of the Night’s Watch. A better adjective would be atrophied — atrophied as a result of the apathy of a society that no longer trusts its own traditions sufficiently to exert even minimally adequate effort in the preservation of an ancient institution.
The mission of the Night’s Watch, far from being heroic, is no longer considered to be serious, for most of the kingdom. Collectively, Westeros feels as if the Watch ought to continue to exist — almost as a park ranger service — but it is a subject of mockery to suggest that the rangers face anything more terrifying than unwashed savages and a lifetime of winter weather.
So, to some degree, I side with Spencer Ackerman in his argument against Rosenberg, but he errs (or accedes to error) in a way that a conservative worldview would help avoid. Ackerman suggests that Jon’s decisions are guided by a pragmatic intention of increasing the manpower of the Night’s Watch, not a unitary vision of humanity:

Nor does Jon display any interest in building a nation. The Wildlings don’t get integrated into the North. They get a ghetto in the Gift [a largely uninhabited region south of the Wall], in which they’re dependent on the Night’s Watch. Jon strolls his Brothers into the Gift to hand out what provisions he can spare — and while he does so, he makes a pitch for the Wildlings to join their old enemies in the Watch. …
Others might call Jon a usurper. He’s not a king. He’s a controversial, compromise choice for Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The Night’s Watch is a brotherhood of guardsmen. Its job, as understood by anyone south of the Wall, is to keep the Wildlings out of Westeros. And what did Jon just do?

Inasmuch as Ackerman is describing a matter of perspective and the attitudes of the characters in the books, the error is not clearly his, but it is an error to see the Watch’s mission as he describes it. Seeing it otherwise makes of the Wall a fabulous metaphor on which to drape social and political commentary.
Plainly put, the Wall is a defensible line across the narrowest region of the continent that incorporates all of the most desirable geography for habitation and trade. It defends civilization from an ancient darkness that would destroy it. With that darkness long receded, some people choose to exist beyond the Wall, where they can claim greater individual liberty (albeit with the more superficial freedom that comes with rejection of civilized norms). But with the tide of evil again rising, that choice is no longer tolerable to the larger society of mankind, and Jon is in the most likely position in the realm to spot that reality. The Wildlings have to be brought within the defensible border and encouraged to bolster the Night’s Watch, the traditional institution that has heretofore symbolized for them the militant arm of a society that would force them to be “kneelers.”
Thus, while Ackerman’s main point in his post — that “if you wish to change the realm, you have to engage in the painful, arduous task of building legitimacy through… recognized institutions” — is insightful and in accord with conservative principles, it skips the larger, more important point. Just as Jon Snow wasn’t interested in nation building, he wasn’t interested in changing the realm. He spends almost zero time lamenting that Wildlings and Westerosi can’t just get along.
He does, however, frequently make note of the practices and assumptions that prevent the two sides from communicating and interacting effectively. Animosity between them is a practical hurdle to acknowledge and overcome, but it isn’t a moral imperative that must be assuaged. The mating and marriage practices of Wildlings aren’t to be respected in the sense of multicultural appreciation, but in the sense that they must be tolerated to the extent that one wishes to work alongside those who hold different views. Some of the ways in which Wildlings differ from Westerosi might be admirable in a certain context, and (more often) they might be inconsequential to Jon’s proximate mission, but some of their differences, particularly their lack of discipline, must be changed.
Moreover, Jon’s egalitarianism exists entirely within his sense of honor and duty, as components of a traditional moral code, as well as his respect for the rules by which men and women agree to live. While the Wildlings are inside the Wall, they must respect the laws of the kingdom, just as while he’s a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, he must resist the call of family and political intrigue.
That’s why, contrary to yet another progressive commenting on the book, I’m concerned that Jon’s apparent killing at the end of the book is not a shining literary moment, but possibly a failure of the author to develop a principal character in a consistent, believable way. But commentary on that will have to await another post.

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12 years ago

Thanks for the great post, Justin. And on the “perfect” day for it.

12 years ago

I’ve read the first book, and it was one of the best I’ve ever read. I really want to read this post, but I’m very wary of spoilers because the shocking plot twists are are big part of the thrill.
Is there some kind of spoilers-free version you could make available? I’d even read a redacted version, CIA-style. I’d be okay with some of the content being lost.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz
12 years ago

Dan, I’d love to accommodate you, but you’ll have to get through at least the first three books before my point would be intelligible without spoilers.

12 years ago

Alright, thanks anyway. I’ll just ferret it away for a while until I finish a few more books. I’ll send it to my friends who have finished the 5.

12 years ago

I’m looking forward to reading the series, probably buy book 1 when I pick up Terry Goodkind’s latest in the “Sword of Truth” series. You may find that interesting, Goodkind is an objectivist and Ayn Rand’s themes are integrated into the stories, with magic and technology nearly synonomous. I have a hard time using one of the new phones withou thinking how magical it would appera to somebody who just popped into our time.

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