“You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
The end of Jon’s final chapter in A Dance with Dragons leaves readers mystified on several fronts. Obviously the mystery behind Jon’s death is foremost among them. However, let’s analyze one of the other conundrums introduced by this chapter:
- Why are the wildlings so eager to go to war for Jon Snow?
Some readers may have concluded that this topic was unimportant, unanswerable or some combination thereof. Others might have concluded that explanation is already known, and provided by the text, explicitly or otherwise.
I obviously wouldn’t be wasting your time with this inquiry if I thought the real answer was any of those things. This short essay is an effort to convince you of the following:
The wildlings rally to Jon’s cause because of readily recognizable wildling folklore found in both the Pink Letter and Jon’s statements at the Shieldhall; folklore that is only understood by wildlings.
Not only does Jon know this, but he himself knows who wrote the Pink Letter.
With that in mind, I want to start by proving as best as possible that the explanation behind why the wildlings rallied to Jon’s cause is of huge consequence.
* * *
A Strange Motive
Let’s start with the important excerpt, essentially encapsulating the entire wildling reaction to Jon’s declaration against Ramsay and his call for supporters:
“No. I ride south.” Then Jon read them the letter Ramsay Snow had written.
The Shieldhall went mad.
Every man began to shout at once. They leapt to their feet, shaking fists. So much for the calming power of comfortable benches. Swords were brandished, axes smashed against shields. Jon Snow looked to Tormund. The Giantsbane sounded his horn once more, twice as long and twice as loud as the first time.
“The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. “It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words … but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.
“The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless …” Jon paused. “… is there any man here who will come stand with me?”
The roar was all he could have hoped for, the tumult so loud that the two old shields tumbled from the walls. Soren Shieldbreaker was on his feet, the Wanderer as well. Toregg the Tall, Brogg, Harle the Huntsman and Harle the Handsome both, Ygon Oldfather, Blind Doss, even the Great Walrus. I have my swords, thought Jon Snow, and we are coming for you, Bastard.
JON XII, A DANCE OF DRAGONS
This is the extent of the motive Jon provides for his decision to break his vows and march south against Ramsay.
I guess the first thing to ask is… is Jon’s stated motive reasonable and/or sufficient?
If you parse Jon’s words carefully, you’ll notice that the Jon’s stated motive has nothing to do with Stannis, Mance, Arya or anyone else. In particular, there are two observations:
Jon specifically cites Ramsay’s taunts and insults as his motive for acting against the Boltons.
He specifically denies all other reasons as being his stated motivation.
This is our first sign that something is out of place regarding Jon’s performance at the Shieldhall. Jon’s entire life has been nothing but taunts and threats about his bastard heritage, being a turncloak, warg, coward or worse. Ever since Jon’s encounter with Tyrion at Winterfell in A Game of Thrones, Jon has more or less been incredibly resistant to being goaded purely on the basis of ad hominem or taunts. The even more strange element is that Jon has several much more valid reasons for acting against the Boltons, but he either fails to mention them or outright denies them as being factors in his decision-making.
Therefore, any reasonable person should be able to draw the following conclusions:
Jon’s stated reason for acting against the Bolton’s is entirely uncharacteristic.
Superficially, it makes no sense that Jon would base his ‘declaration of war against the Boltons’ on Jon’s newly enfeebled ego, instead of any of the other very valid reasons for wanting to act against the Boltons.
The reason I keep italicizing ‘stated reason’ and working towards the hypothesis that Jon’s stated reason is ludicrous is because once you incorporate this perspective into your understanding of Jon’s final chapters, a new and more useful question appears:
- Despite being obviously out-of-character for Jon, is it possible that Jon’s stated motive for attacking the Boltons is entirely deliberate, a calculated effort to generate a particular response from his audience?
* * *
A Wildling Legend that begins with an Insult
The above question fundamentally challenges the assumption that Jon’s Shieldhall performance is derived from some sort of uncontrolled rage or wildness. This question instead suggests the hypothesis that Jon’s superficially primitive motive is a gambit of sorts. At the very least, this is an idea worth exploring. Our first stop in evaluating this new perspective is by returning to the question that began this short essay:
- Why are the wildlings so eager to go to war for Jon Snow?
Revisiting this dilemma with the newfound possibility that Jon’s stated feels-before-reals motive is entirely calculated, we can reframe the question in a much more potent, insightful manner:
- Why would anyone, especially wildlings, really care to get involved in a clash between a guy at Winterfell who’s bride was taken and another who felt insulted?
By phrasing the question this way I may have given the game away early. This question is different because we’re no longer concerned with Jon’s motives or internal thoughts: now we are exploring the wildlings to understand their motives and why they immediately and unquestioningly join Jon’s cause against the Boltons.
In particular, we’re looking for an explanation for why Jon’s seemingly absurd motive (anger at being dishonored and/or slandered by Ramsay) would resonate so well with the wildlings.
* * *
Now I can reveal the true significance of Jon’s performance at the Shieldhall—why the wildlings are thrilled at the idea of joining Jon, aiding him in his quest to avenge being insulted by the “Trueborn Lord of Winterfell” who says his bride has been stolen:
It’s because this whole sordid drama apes the tale of Bael the Bard almost perfectly.
Observe what, according to legend, was the original reason Bael the Bard left for Winterfell:
“That’s all in where you’re standing too,” Ygritte said. “The Stark in Winterfell wanted Bael’s head, but never could take him, and the taste o’ failure galled him. One day in his bitterness he called Bael a craven who preyed only on the weak. When word o’ that got back, Bael vowed to teach the lord a lesson. So he scaled the Wall, skipped down the kingsroad, and walked into Winterfell one winter’s night with harp in hand, naming himself Sygerrik of Skagos. Sygerrik means ‘deceiver’ in the Old Tongue, that the First Men spoke, and the giants still speak.”
JON V, A CLASH OF KINGS
As you can see, Bael decided to exact revenge on the Lord of Winterfell purely on the basis of being insulted. While the exact details are different between Jon’s circumstances and Bael’s story, the notion that both want to take revenge on the Lord of Winterfell merely for being insulted is a pretty strong parallel. At the very least, the legend normalizes—elevates even—the idea of a heroic figure who takes action just on the basis of being insulted alone.
But that’s obviously not the only parallel:
“Now as it happened the winter roses had only then come into bloom, and no flower is so rare nor precious. So the Stark sent to his glass gardens and commanded that the most beautiful o’ the winter roses be plucked for the singer’s payment. And so it was done. But when morning come, the singer had vanished . . . and so had Lord Brandon’s maiden daughter. Her bed they found empty, but for the pale blue rose that Bael had left on the pillow where her head had lain.”
JON V, A CLASH OF KINGS
The whole matter of “I want my bride back” almost unmistakably reverberates with parallels to Bael the Bard’s story: any wildling would see how stealing a Stark bride (read:maid) from Winterfell is a direct copy from the Bael legend. But going further, Mance was known to play the harp or lute, and openly admitted to being inspired by Bael’s story. According to Ygritte every wildling knows the tales of Bael the Bard.
“Bael the Bard made it,” said Ygritte. “He was King-beyond-the-Wall a long time back. All the free folk know his songs, but might be you don’t sing them in the south.”
JON V, A CLASH OF KINGS
Thus, you have to suspect the wildlings would have noticed the parallels to Bael’s exploits from the Pink Letter because they are pretty overt to the ‘trained eye’.
It also helps that there are further elements of the letter which are congruent or possibly allusions to the Bael legend:
- The cloak of skin from the spearwives is reminiscent of the cloak of skin made from the bastard son of Bael by a Stark bannerman in the tale.
- The cold cage for Mance Rayder where all the north can see him, is similar to the crypts of Winterfell that Bael’s stories say he hid.
This is far from the first time I’ve ever talked about Mance’s utilization of the Bael legend (beyond as an anagram and general template for his Winterfell infiltration):
- In Showdown in the Crypts, I articulated how Bael’s story is the template Mance uses for his plan, outlining specific ways in which he invokes it.
- In a recent post, I also explained how the Bael legend helps Mance coordinate with the spearwives, because everyone knows the legend so well already.
But it wasn’t until very recently that it finally occurred to me:
Even the wildlings at the wall know the story of Bael the Bard—and might have decidedly unique reactions to noticing its presence in the Pink Letter and Jon’s stated reaction.
* * *
Once you consider the likelihood that the wildlings in the Shieldhall are viewing the Pink Letter through the lens of the song of the winter rose, there are two more parallels that readily emerge in the context of reading the letter as opposed to actually being in Winterfell like Mance and the spearwives—parallels that I don’t think have been previously accounted for:
“Lord Brandon had no other children. At his behest, the black crows flew forth from their castles in the hundreds, but nowhere could they find any sign o’ Bael or this maid. For most a year they searched, till the lord lost heart and took to his bed, and it seemed as though the line o’ Starks was at its end. But one night as he lay waiting to die, Lord Brandon heard a child’s cry. He followed the sound and found his daughter back in her bedchamber, asleep with a babe at her breast.”
JON XII, A CLASH OF KINGS
The two parallels are clear:
- The Stark Lord from the legend had no other Stark children. The missing Stark girl was the last of the line. And per the legends, this “last of the Starks” girl was kidnapped by a wildling raider, only to return later with a wildling bastard in tow. This is a total match with the fact that “Arya Stark” is the last known Stark, meeting that element of the story. While this is obviously relevant to Mance and the spearwives in Winterfell too; what I’m really pointing out is that this similarity would help people far away and not directly involved see another parallel to the tales.
- Finally, there is the simple, obvious fact that Jon’s declaration of his intent to leave Castle Black is consistent with the idea of black crows flying forth in search of Bael and his maid.
All told, the Shieldhall performance, the Pink Letter and its various implications all prominently recall the exploits of Bael the Bard.
But there is another reason that Bael’s legend is incredibly important, one that may be the driving factor wildling involvement in northern affairs:
The tale of Bael the Bard sets the tone for a wildling—Stark unification, one that already resonates with wildlings because they heard about this story since they were children.
It is the idea that there would a be wildling child as heir to Winterfell, also just like the story of Bael.
Exploring these deeper implications is something I am working on in a follow-up essay.
* * *
WHAT JON KNOWS
I think this essay has made a compelling case that the similarities to Bael the Bard’s story are a likely and powerful influence on the wildlings’ seemingly uncritical and enthusiastic choice to march with Jon against the Boltons. But that still doesn’t answer a certain question:
Why in seven hells would the wildlings want to go fight Bolton?
This question has a discrete answer, that you may have already surmised. I plan on answering it in a roundabout fashion because I’m proving something far greater at the same time.
Returning to Jon’s final chapter in A Dance with Dragons, there is an incriminating issue:
- Why does Jon abruptly stop thinking or talking about Arya halfway through the last chapter?
There is no more mention of Arya at all after Jon tells Tormund they need to switch the plan:
“I won’t say you’re wrong. What do you mean to do, crow?”
Jon flexed the fingers of his sword hand. The Night’s Watch takes no part. He closed his fist and opened it again. What you propose is nothing less than treason. He thought of Robb, with snowflakes melting in his hair. Kill the boy and let the man be born. He thought of Bran, clambering up a tower wall, agile as a monkey. Of Rickon’s breathless laughter. Of Sansa, brushing out Lady’s coat and singing to herself. You know nothing, Jon Snow. He thought of Arya, her hair as tangled as a bird’s nest. I made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell … I want my bride back … I want my bride back … I want my bride back …
“I think we had best change the plan,” Jon Snow said.
JON XII, A CLASH OF KINGS
- The Pink Letter obviously indicates Arya escaped, yet Jon spares not a single thought about rescuing her from wherever she might be.
- Nor does Jon even think about her when he ruminates to himself that he has his swords and is coming for Ramsay.
- But far and away the worst of all… after the Shieldhall, Jon thinks to himself: “If she [Melisandre] could see a raven in a storm, she can find Ramsay Snow for me.” Why wouldn’t he instead be more concerned about finding his sister?
You know, its awfully fucking convenient that the last time Jon thinks about Arya is while ruminating on the Pink Letter.
But it doesn’t stop there:
- Who else does Jon not speak or think about again after that excerpt?
MANCE FUCKING RAYDER
It has always bothered me that neither character is thought about again by Jon. It has always bothered me that the wildlings never asked about Mance Rayder.
But now I see it:
The reason that Jon doesn’t think about Arya is the same reason the wildlings don’t ask about Mance.
They all know (or more accurately think) that Arya and Mance are in the crypts under Winterfell.
The reason this idea never occurred to me before is because I never realized that a subtle reference to Bael’s story would be the in the letter; that Mance’s interest in the legend only had applicability for himself and the spearwives. I was wrong. Everyone was wrong.
Thus my final assertion is this:
- After Jon ruminated on Arya and the Pink Letter, he realized that the letter echoes of Bael the Bard, and concluded that Mance and Arya must be underneath the castle.
- This is the whole goddamn reason he chose to read the letter at the Shieldhall (instead of paraphrasing), because he knew the wildlings would get it too.
- This is also the reason Jon gave such a weird reason for his mission: because he was helping convey the parallel to the tale, and more importantly that he knew it.
- Thus his march to Winterfell is essentially a partial reenactment of Bael’s legend, hopefully to rescue Mance and Arya from the crypts.
The genius of all this is that Jon communicates Mance’s survival and location wordlessly to the wildlings.
This means that when the wildlings went crazy after Jon read the letter it was because they believed that Mance was both alive, safe, with a Stark girl and safely hidden in Winterfell. All their wildest dreams are coming true, it would seem.
I’ll admit that this theory just wrecked me and I posted it without the usual tons of polish. It had to get out. I’m sure there will be disagreements on some points, but I’m pretty damn sure that Jon at least thinks the letter came from Mance. Let me know what you think.