One day until GOT returns! Get ready with the next in our Game of Thrones Series: The Night's Watch. Find out what this complicated group really represents on the show, and how it's shaped Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly for the battles ahead.
Game of Thrones Symbolism: The Night's Watch
The Night’s Watch represents both the value and the pitfalls of duty in the Game of Thrones world. On this show where so many characters are constantly guzzling wine, sleeping around, indulging themselves, the Night’s Watch is a stark contrast -- these men live an almost monastic lifestyle. And while everyone else is out seeking glory, they have sworn an oath to do the exact opposite. They have an important but totally thankless job -- protecting the Wall that separates the realm from the dangerous, unknown area beyond.
The Night’s Watch may have been respected once, but by the time the show begins it’s looked down upon, as a dumping ground for the scum and rejects of society. Being sent to the Wall is more often than not a punishment. Before Joffrey decides to kill Ned Stark, this is where Ned is going to be exiled. And on top of the Night Watch’s bad reputation, their numbers are dwindling.
The decline of this military order mirrors the deterioration we’re seeing in the rest of the realm, where honor can be fatal. People have become complacent and oblivious to the dangers they face -- and that’s why it’s so easy for them to take the Night’s Watch for granted. But as the White Walkers advance, these summer-minded southerners are about to be faced with a stern wake-up call.
At the end of season seven the White Walkers breach the Wall, in a devastating blow to the Night’s Watch, whose entire identity is based on guarding that wall. In season 8, the Watch’s role has to be radically redefined, as they transition from ‘watchers’ to soldiers in a great war. Meanwhile, looking back over the seasons, we can see how this organization has deeply shaped Jon Snow. His sense of duty and purpose were formed in the Night’s Watch, and this group gives us insight into the choices he will make as the story comes to an end.
Motto: "And Now My Watch Begins..."
The Night’s Watch philosophy is summed up by the vow all the men must take when they join.
“Now my watch begins, it will not end until my death.” - Pypar in S1E7 (“You Win or You Die”)
This oath pledges service above all. It renounces all earthly connections that tempt a man to abandon or compromise his service.
“I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.” -Jon Snow in S1E7 (“You Win or You Die”)
This gets at how joining the Night’s Watch is a form of death to the rest of the world.
But it’s also, for many men, a new life -- a second chance. Joining the watch is a way for criminals or other outcasts to wipe the slate clean. So while it does entail giving up a lot, the brotherhood can offer a rare shot at redemption or atonement in an unforgiving world.
The members we meet vary greatly in what they make of this second chance. Broadly speaking, we see two categories within the Watch: there are the people like Jon or his best friend Samwell Tarly who are misfits with unlocked potential. These misfits believe in the mission of the Watch, and take this opportunity to prove themselves in a way they couldn’t have in the outside world. And then there are the bad apples, who don’t really have any intention of improving themselves.
To some degree the two types loosely align with those who choose the Watch versus those for whom it’s a punishment. But even those who ostensibly chose to be there often didn’t really have another option. Sam’s father threatened him with death if he didn’t join.
“If you do not, he said, then we’ll have a hunt. Somewhere in these woods your horse will stumble and you’ll be thrown from your saddle to die, or so I’ll tell your mother.” -Samwell Tarly in S1E4 (“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”)
And Sam wouldn’t have chosen this life because -- despite his mental alacrity -- he’s physically weak, lacking the bodily endurance required. Sam becomes stronger thanks to his trials. He finds the bravery to rescue Gilly and her baby, and like Jon, he’s seized with an invigorating sense of purpose. The Night’s Watch gives this self-professed coward the chance to prove that he is worthy. So even those for whom the Watch is a last resort have the potential to create a new life through their service.
Moreover, there are some truly illustrious men in the Watch, reminding us of the order’s prestigious history and the noble mission at its core. Some even come from great houses, like Jeor Mormont and Aemon Targaryen, who is, before Daenerys returns, the last Targaryen in Westeros. Jon’s uncle Benjen Stark, the ranger who partly inspires Jon to join, also embodies that honor of belonging to the watch. While the Lannisters are dismissive of this group, it’s significant that Ned Stark admires the Watch and considers it a respectable destiny for Jon. And Jon has a romantic view of what the Watch represents.
Jon himself is the quintessential example of someone who has no real place in society, who uses the Night’s Watch as an escape hatch, and rises in the ranks. After joining, he takes his oath so seriously, he even turns down Stannis Baratheon’s offer to make him a legitimate Stark and Lord of Winterfell.
One reason Jon is eager to join the Night’s Watch is because he thinks he won’t be treated like a bastard there, the way he is in Winterfell. But when he gets to the Wall, we see that there’s also a part of him that holds onto those old ideas of class that defined his life with the Starks -- on some level he thinks he’s better than the rest of these people and deserves to be rewarded for how much he’s given up, as we see when he’s upset about being made a Steward instead of a Ranger. Jon needs to learn that for better or worse, joining the Watch means letting your old life go completely. Everyone has to start from scratch here. The men of the Night’s Watch have no bloodline or class -- they are only their duty.
At the same time over the seasons we see how Jon is not willing to be bound by the Watch's narrower sense of duty alone. His advocacy for the Wildlings shows that he refuses to stop thinking for himself. He can’t help departing from the Watch’s rules when he disagrees -- and this foreshadows that he has a bigger destiny.
There is also an extent to which the Watch's way of life can be unnecessarily restrictive and even breed an unhealthy environment. A key tenet of the Night’s Watch philosophy is that the men are supposed to be cut off from love. But Sam disproves this -- his bravery is driven by love. He shows us that being a kind, warm-hearted person is not antithetical to doing this job. He even discovers the secret to killing whitewalkers -- dragonglass. Why shouldn’t these men be allowed some love and levity when they have one of the hardest jobs in the realm?
So there are a few fatal flaws inherent to the Night Watch’s set-up. The scarcity, isolation, and aura of disgrace can lead to resentment and infighting. The fact that so many men don’t choose to be there lends to it the feeling of a prison -- how can men truly embrace their duty if they don’t embrace it of their own free will?
Men like Janos Slynt and Karl Tanner fail to let go of their former lives and demonstrate the darker side of the Watch. Janos is still fixated on these things from his old life, like social rank and the fact that Jon is supposedly a bastard. He still hasn’t accepted that your former life doesn’t matter here. So Janos fails in the Watch because he never even tried to start over.
In Season 3, Karl rebels against Jeor Mormont’s orders and starts a fight which leads to Rast, another bad apple who was sent to the Wall for rape, stabbing Jeor to death. Then in season four, we learn that Karl has taken up residence at Craster’s Keep and is now just as terrible as Craster ever was. Ultimately the Night’s Watch can bring out the best or worst in a person, but it’s up to each man to decide for himself if he’s going to take advantage of that opportunity to start over.
The Night’s Watch is linked to the color black. Taking their oath is said to be ‘taking the black’. Black represents that these men live a life without color -- without joy, freedom, or sex.
Fittingly, black also makes us think of night. Thousands of years ago, the terrible winter when the White Walkers first appeared was called ‘The Long Night’. After years of conflict, the First Men built the Wall to prevent another White Walker invasion, and the Night’s Watch was formed to guard it. In the present, the men’s service pretty much feels like a never-ending dark night. Living on the Wall is like living in an eternal winter, with no hope of a brighter tomorrow, or summer, to look forward to. So the Night’s Watch is an experience of endurance -- enduring the cold, the isolation, and the endless, unglamorous work.
Black also sets the Night’s Watch up in opposition to the White Walkers -- and it makes us think of seeing a conflict as ‘black and white’, good versus evil, which is the mindset Jon adopts as he tries to unite all the living against the dead. Here, though, the traditional Western symbolic connotations of the colors are inverted: white symbolizes death, and black life. While we tend to think of hope as a light in the darkness, in this world it takes the form of these men dressed in black amidst a stark white landscape. The contrast of their black clothing and the vast snowy backdrop emphasizes their vulnerability, and their impossible task, as these all-too-mortal guys go up against a terrifying force that threatens to engulf all of mankind.
In Season Two, Ygritte repeatedly points out that the fundamental difference between the Night’s Watch and Wildlings like her is that the men of the Watch aren’t free.
“You think you’re better than me, crow? I’m a free woman.” -Ygritte in S2E7 (“A Man Without Honor”)
And in some ways this is true -- duty may well be the opposite of freedom. But the men of the Night’s Watch don’t give up that freedom for nothing. They get the self-worth that comes with providing valuable work --they experience what it is to be truly necessary. And this is the major gift that the Watch gives Jon: purpose.
Ygritte once tells Jon:
“You didn’t stop being a crow the day you walked into Mance Rayder’s tent.” -Ygritte in S3E6 (“The Climb”)
And even after he’s stabbed by the mutineers and resurrected, though he leaves the Watch behind, Jon still doesn’t stop being a Crow in a fundamental sense. His greater sense of duty, his commitment to protecting mankind from the greatest threat, continues to trump everything. This can mean he has to make some tough choices, as we've seen before, and may see again in Season 8.
The Night’s Watch men are called “crows,” likely due to their black clothing. Crows are not the most charming, pretty or delicate of birds. This absence of glamour is a key aspect of the Night’s Watch, because that’s what duty is -- it’s doing hard work that’s never applauded. We usually consider crows a nuisance, just as the men of the Night’s Watch are looked down on by most of society. But even if crows aren’t exactly beautiful, our world needs them. They eat insects that can harm plants, and they store more seeds than they eat which helps with forest renewal. And Westeros very much needs the Night’s Watch.
Crows are known as highly intelligent animals -- we see that intellect in certain members like Sam and their maester Aemon. And as a group they’ve developed smart defensive techniques for the wall, like the flaming oil and the scythe, which help them fend off far more attackers than their ranks should be able to handle.
Crows are associated with death and darkness. A group of crows is even called ‘a murder of crows’. And the Night’s Watch has to confront death every day because of their proximity to the White Walkers and the Wildlings.
In stories, crows are often known as the bearers of bad news. In one Greek myth, when a white crow delivers bad news to Apollo, he turns the bird black in anger. The men of the Night’s Watch likewise warn the realm about the White Walkers to no avail. Even their name ‘Night’s Watch’ tells us that these men are like the lone people awake on a dark night while everyone else sleeps. And this symbolizes how, besides the Wildlings, the Watch is the only group that sees this threat to humanity from the beginning. The very first scene of the series shows a group of men of the Night’s Watch being attacked by White Walkers. Afterwards the lone survivor tries to spread the word,but no one takes him seriously.
Bran Stark: “Is it true he saw the white walkers?”
Eddard Stark: “The white walkers have been gone for thousands of years.”
-S1E1 (“Winter is Coming”)
And this poor man is executed for trying to make mankind understand what's coming. So there is a downside to being the only one awake.
Crows and ravens are in the same family of birds, and in the books, the three-eyed raven of Bran’s storyline is actually a crow. This association between the Crows and the Three-eyed Raven highlights the supernatural air to watching over the wall -- it’s as if the Crows are the bridge between the real and the surreal. Bran’s and Jon’s links with the raven and the crow underline a bond between them, and might foreshadow a shared purpose in the show's final chapter.
Even if not all men of the Night’s Watch live up to their once-great reputation, the ideal of duty and service that they aspire towards is all too rare ‘these days’ in the Seven Kingdoms. Most characters on Game of Thrones spend their lives not even pretending to care about anyone but themselves. And for a long time they have the luxury of being oblivious to the threats in the north and denying the existence of the creatures beyond the Wall, thanks to the Night’s Watch. So while this brotherhood is meant to protect the realm, really it prepares people like Jon and Sam far more than anyone else, because they understand the danger they’re facing. That’s what will make the Night’s Watch and its former members essential in the epic battle to come. The best tools that key players like Jon and Sam have are the values that the Night’s Watch has instilled in them: service, endurance, and duty above all.