Fence Sitting: The Hazardous Neutrality of the Night’s Watch

Posted: November 11, 2014 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, TV
Tags: , , ,

It’s November, and here in the States we just had mid-term elections, so I thought it’d be the right time to talk politics. Relax, I’m not going to blather on about American politics, I’m going to talk about politics in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, as shown on HBO’s excellent television show, Game of Thrones.

Specifically, I’ll be talking about that independent political entity, the Night’s Watch.


This will include some plot spoilers for people who have not seen the final episode of Season Four Game of Thrones, or haven’t read A Storm of Swords (aka Book Three of A Song of Ice and Fire.)

So if you’re reading this, you’re either fully informed or surging on regardless. That’s not necessarily a description of the eligible voting population.

By the end of the fourth season, following the battle at the Wall and the defeat of the Wildlings, Jon Snow had the opportunity to talk to his one-time comrade and captor, the legendary Tormund Giantsbane.


He’s Especially Legendary Among Bears (Allegedly)

Tormund was quite surprised that his wounds had been treated, and he was suspicious of why he hadn’t been left to die.

Tormund: You want me alive so you can torture me?
Jon: No one’s going to torture you.
Tormund: So how do we die? Hanging? Beheading? Drop us from the top of the Wall?
Jon: I don’t know what happens to the prisoners.
Tormund: Who decides?
Jon: I suppose Stannis does.
Tormund: He your king, now?
Jon: We don’t have a king.
Tormund: You spent too much time with us, Jon Snow. You can never be a ‘kneeler’ again.

We Don’t Have a King

When Jon Snow says “we don’t have a king”, what exactly does he mean?

  • Is it as Tormund implies, that Jon no longer considers himself part of the feudal hierarchy, due to his exposure to the egalitarian ways of the Free Folk?
  • Is it a reference to the fact that the Seven Kingdoms aren’t united, with multiple claimants vying over some or all of the lands?

Nope. Jon hasn’t gone Wildling, and the Night’s Watch aren’t waiting for the dynastic succession of the Iron Throne to be decided. The Night’s Watch just don’t have a king (unlike the Wildlings, despite their not-going-to-kneel ethos.)

How’s that work out? Well, we’ve seen things like that before on the show.

Maester Luwin was reminded by Theon Greyjoy upon the taking of Winterfell, that the maesters serve the station, and not a particular person. Luwin was the counselor for the Lord of Winterfell. Theon had taken Winterfell and was therefore its lord. And so Luwin was expected to offer wise counsel.

With the Night’s Watch, it’s similar. They don’t serve a king, they are largely apolitical. They’re serving The Realm.

The Seven Kingdoms could have a peaceful monarchy, or descend into chaos and anarchy, or experiment with communism or representative democracy, but that wouldn’t change the Night’s Watch position.

They don’t pay attention to which king is in charge of the south.


The Night’s Watch Have Other Kings to Worry About.

Who Decides?

When talking to Jon about the Wildling prisoners, Tormund cut right to the heart of the matter. Who is in charge at Castle Black? Who is making the decisions?

In Season Three, the Lord Commander was killed by the mutinous crow Rast, leaving the Watch without an authorized leader. (Okay, Alliser Thorne assumed temporary command. We just don’t know his situation following the battle. Dead? Recovering? He’s probably being crabby, even if he’s dead.)

But now Stannis has arrived with forces vastly outnumbering the depleted ranks of the black brothers. Is Stannis now in charge?

Of course not! The Night’s Watch is an independent organization, and they don’t have a king.


Oh Really?

Hah! I’m kidding myself. Stannis is obviously in charge. He’s got something like 800 guys to each Night’s Watchman. If he wanted to, he could chop off the head of every black brother and turn the Wall into Stannisvania.

Which makes things kind of interesting for the men of the Watch. Here’s pretty much what we know about Stannis Baratheon:

  • He’s a stickler for rules (especially grammar.)
  • You’re either on his side, or he’s obliged to crush you. (Stannis isn’t really a live and let live kind of guy.)

Choosing Sides

The problem that the Night’s Watch is facing, they’re classical fence-sitters. They’re not supposed to choose sides in the political affairs of the realm. (The fact that they literally are manning a huge fence of ice entertains me more than it probably should.)

It’s hard to know if Stannis would be more inclined to recognize their apolitical prime directive, or pull a “you’re either with me or you’re dead to me. In a very dead way.”

But, should they remain undecided during this time? What’s the harm in siding with Stannis, the only throne-claimant in Westeros to show up with military support to stop the Wildling invasion?

Probably not much harm.

Unless he loses.

It’s one thing for the Iron Bank of Braavos to fund Stannis’ claim. The Lannisters owe them money, and if Stannis goes down, the Lannisters would still need cash. But for the Night’s Watch to overtly join Stannis’ cause, that would make them traitors (and possibly violating their Oath. That Oath gets interpreted in all kinds of ways.)


Traitorous Sons of Traitory Traitor-Heads!

Typically, after a rebellion or conflict of succession, some of the losers are allowed to live out their lives in service at the Wall (like Alliser Thorne, that Targaryen loyalist stooge.) But if the Night’s Watch are on the losing side of such a conflict, to quote Maester Aemon, the Wall would be manned with headless men.

And it might not be that much better if Stannis would win the throne with the support of the Crows. King Stannis would probably chop off some enemy heads, light a few sacrificial fires (or Melisandre would bat her eyes and strongly suggest it), but he’d probably also sentence a bunch (a whole bunch) of guys to the Wall.

This might not be good for the health of the existing Night’s Watch members.

Brother Bob: Oi, quiet down you vast array of embittered prisoners! Sure, you’re all a bunch of losers, literally. But you’re now part of the Night’s Watch, and I expect you to respect my authority. Don’t make me wake up the only other brother here, another staunch Stannis supporter!

Ser Brutus: Lars, Olaf, Crusher, Vincenzo, Vito, Otto, Bruiser, Cletus, Madface, Toe-Cutter, Smitty, Englebert, Hagar the Evil, Hagar the Even Eviller, and Butch…

Goons: Yes, Ser Brutus?

Ser Brutus: It would make me very happy to see Brother Bob there turned inside out and stuffed into his own stomach.

Brother Bob: Whaaaaat? But my side won!

Ser Brutus: Congratulations.

Happy Post-Midterm-Elections, everyone. Luckily politics aren’t as scary as they are in Westeros. I think. I should probably pay more attention.


Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (mostly.)

I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there. (Except for Jon and Tormund’s dialogue, obviously.)

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved

  1. wscottling says:

    Once again, the hubs and I found this very entertaining. 🙂


  2. THANK YOU SO MUCH! I totally am in this for entertaining people, so I appreciate that feedback. I’m glad you both can enjoy it, since (if I recall correctly) he’s up to date on the story, and you’re not. (If I have that wrong, I apologize.)

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!


  3. JOMIHA says:

    Great stuff! You’ve got a talent for writing.


  4. Sue Archer says:

    Hi Pat, I enjoyed your entertaining analysis…and your lovely line “you’re either fully informed or surging on regardless.” 🙂 Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read all of the books, but not seen the series, so I’m obviously a little ahead of you. I’m going to only reference what you revealed here so as not to accidentally spoil anything.

    The Night’s Watch is in a terrible position, because if they help Stanis they prove they aren’t neutral and no one is going to conciser them such again. If a war breaks out people are either going to try to win them to their cause or get rid of them so they don’t join someone else. There’s a good reason why they’ve stayed neutral.

    Nice debate, I enjoyed reading this. 🙂 (and I love that image, because it’s sadly true)


    • Molly, thank you for your kind feedback, I appreciate it and your own observations on the importance of the Night’s Watch neutrality.

      For the record, I have read all the books and seen the show, but I try to have my blogs skew more towards the television show (I sometimes link to a secret backup spoilery blog, where I talk more book stuff) so I really appreciate you addressing my article and not revealing future events. Right on!

      Thank you again, and I’ve enjoyed looking over your blog. It’s nice to meet someone engaged in the writing process.

      Liked by 1 person

Speak Your Mind (Please) (Oh, first timers will be Moderated...)

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.