This post will be talking about Game of Thrones and specifically the institution of the Night’s Watch. If you haven’t read the books or watched the show, then spoilers will be throughout.
For thousands of years the Wall has stood as a glacial barrier between the Seven Kingdoms and whatever forces lurk in the far north. For presumably an equal duration the Night’s Watch has manned the Wall, vigilantly alert against the fall of the next Long Night.
But things have not been looking up for the Watch. They numbered roughly a thousand men at the start of the series, but after losses from the battle at the Fist of the First Men and the wildling assault on Castle Black, the current numbers of black brothers are approximately just over half that. (And most of them are support functions: cooks, laborers, administrative.)
The downward trend in manpower doesn’t seem likely to reverse in the near future. Winter has come, possibly the winter of the next Long Night and the White Walkers, the inhuman Others, are presumably planning on getting past the Wall and marching onward into the lands of the living.
But let’s assume that by the end of the series, the White Walkers will be stopped. Maybe Dany’s dragons will do the trick, maybe Jon Snow’s trust in Valyrian steel and dragonglass will save the day. Maybe the Others just need some understanding, a few warm hugs, and some hot cocoa.
Regardless of how, the White Walkers will probably be stopped. But what’s next? What will need to be done to re-establish the safeguards to protect the realm from the next Long Night? An event which might not happen again for thousands of years?
We don’t know who (if anyone) will end up on the Iron Throne, but let’s imagine what they should do in regards to northern border security.
Uh, just … re-establish the Night’s Watch?
Beefing up the Night’s Watch seems like the reasonable next step. Let’s assume that the Wall remains standing (or that if there’s a hole, it can be plugged with some monstrously huge castle which will be the new Night’s Watch headquarters or something.)
There’s already an organizational mission statement and guidelines for the Night’s Watch. They just need to expand their ranks again. The actual and literal threat that the White Walkers posed might convince healthy men of the realm to join the Night’s Watch voluntarily. No doubt there will be lords and men at arms who ill-advisedly found themselves opposing the current occupant of the Iron Throne, and they could find amnesty and redemption in joining the Night’s Watch.
That could all provide an immediate bump to the numbers of the brothers who could even start occupying and renovating the abandoned fortifications along the Wall.
But is that a viable strategy? Is that enough to keep the defense of the realm secure going forward?
Recent history suggests that it is not a viable strategy. Not unless some things change.
Three hundred years before the start of the series, the Night’s Watch was probably at peak numbers. Ten thousand strong, spread out among nineteen fully functional fortifications. (This is the reported number of men that served at the Wall during Aegon’s conquest.) Then in those three centuries, the numbers dropped by 90%.
I’ve talked previously about why that might have happened, but at the moment, I’m curious exactly why the Night’s Watch was so populous at that time. As far as we know there hadn’t been any recent attack from the Others to inspire the realm to man the Wall; the White Walkers had faded into myth. Ned mentioned that no one had seen an Other in a thousand years, so maybe there was the occasional sighting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a full out assault on the Wall.
Maybe the wildling activity had been enough of a threat to have the realms (or the North, most likely) prioritize resources for the Wall. I’d like to have more information of the history of the Night’s Watch, pre-conquest.
This seems relevant because even if the Watch gets re-established and repopulated, if we surmise that the Others take thousands of years off between attacks, it makes manning the Wall in the short term less pressing. It’s hard to get motivated about something that you know in your bones won’t happen in your lifetime. Or in a dozen lifetimes.
Men who serve during this interim period of almost-certain peace are going to have to be very dedicated to their duty. We do have some examples of men who are the definition of responding to duty though.
The Unsullied: Grey Worms and Black Crows
In some ways, Daenerys’ Unsullied warriors seem well suited for service at the Wall. They’re all eunuchs, so the prohibition against taking wives and fathering sons is built right in. They’re stoic to a ridiculous degree, so the harsh conditions of serving at the Wall wouldn’t be considered a hardship.
(I’ll admit that the locale will probably be a problem in many ways, since the Unsullied come from a much warmer climate in southern Essos. Winter survival training will have to be worked in as part of their preparedness regime.)
The big problem with deploying Unsullied to the Wall: it’s short term at best. Unsullied soldiers are created using terrible (but effective) training methodologies by the slavers of Astapor. Young boys are mutilated and essentially brainwashed into an army ant mentality. The idea of continuing this practice is unthinkable. (And yet, I’ve been thinking about it for this essay.) Continuing to create Unsullieds as a long term strategy for Wall support would be unbelievably worse.
Daenerys wouldn’t do that. Cersei might think that it’s a good idea. Although she might have a different option to make use of.
Let’s imagine that Cersei Lannister retains her hold on power, after the more deserving candidates for the Throne sacrifice themselves heroically in turning back the tide of undead. Queen Cersei is not the best at managing things, but I’ll be charitable and assume she’ll decide that keeping the Wall supported to prevent the return of the Others is a sound royal policy.
After all, she can’t seduce dead men, and I suspect that Cersei would not consider the Night’s King as someone she’d like to cozy up to.
Cersei might embrace mass deportation to the Wall for her enemies, although she’s paranoid enough to fear that her defeated foes might ally against her on the far northern border, and forsake the Night’s Watch oaths of non-political involvement.
But Qyburn might be able to help there.
I’ve speculated previously that the process Qyburn used to transform the dying Ser Gregor Clegane into his monstrous kingsguard version might be applicable to other fighting men, to create a sort of queensguard cadre of not-quite-human soldiers.
Maybe I’m thinking too small in scale.
If we assume that Qyburn sets up shop with trained assistants at a laboratory facility at the Wall (let’s call it Castle Black Magic) Cersei’s enemies might be converted into obedient, loyal, uncomplaining servants of the realm. Sort of like the Unsullied, but not requiring years and years of training and conditioning to produce.
For the record, I’m not in favor of this plan. But I’d totally read a book that had this plot element.
Of course, if I’m going to talk about Qyburn and his pseudo-science-bordering-on-necromantic-magic abilities, I might as well jump in with both feet.
It’s possible that to guard against the army of the dead, the Seven Kingdoms needs its own undead army. Led by Bran Stark.
Bran Stark, the Witch-King of the North
Bran Stark is considered a powerful warg, with prophetic abilities, the ability to shift his consciousness into animals and in one tragic case, people, and to access the memories and perspectives of the weirwoods and other Old Gods type of powers.
I’ve considered that Bran’s immersion in magic might lead him down a bad path, or would require an unclean and terrible price to pay. If Bran developed the ability to animate and control the dead as an offshoot of his warging abilities, I would not be surprised.
I don’t think an untrained novice necromancer would be able to directly challenge the Night’s King’s mastery of his wight army, but if we assume the current Night’s King is destroyed (which seems like a requirement for the series to end in a non-cliffhangery way) Bran might find himself in charge of the leaderless wights by default.
It would be in line with the promised bittersweet ending George RR Martin has been talking about that the little boy we were introduced to at the beginning of the series becomes cursed at the end.
I could imagine Bran, as the new King Beyond the Wall (or maybe he’ll be recognized as the 1000th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) making a pact with the realms of men to defend the northern territory from the resurgence of the White Walkers, who might continue to pose a vague threat in some distant future. Then he’d snuggle into the roots of a weirwood tree to wait out the eons, keeping watch for the return of the Others, so he could engage in battle with them using their own dark weapons.
But I think a less supernatural solution will be in order.
The Wildling Wild Cards
The wildlings that Jon Snow granted safe passage into the North (the kingdom of the North, the wildlings went south to get there… yes, that’s all confusing…) already have a stake in resisting the Others. If the White Walkers breach the Wall, the wildlings who have settled at the top of the Seven Kingdoms might be the first to have to deal with them.
That lends itself towards a long term solution.
The wildlings lived for centuries north of the Wall, during the periods of Other hibernation. With the White Walkers in retreat the Free Folk can return to the wilds in the north should they wish, and not be bound by the laws and restrictions of the more structured and civilized folk in the south.
But the wildlings who wish to stay in the Gift should be allowed to do so in cooperation with the Night’s Watch. The Watch already possesses a sort of extra-legal position in the Seven Kingdoms, something similar could be granted to the wildling settlers who would be living south of the Wall. This group of Free Folk would be living within the confines of the Seven Kingdoms but not in the feudal hierarchy.
Allowing movement back and forth through the Wall would allow for trade, something I’d assumed had been happening with the Watch and the wildlings anyway. And more trade means less pressure for those north of the Wall to consider the benefits of raiding the south. And who would they be raiding? The Free Folk in the Gift?
It would probably be a messy situation with a wildling population openly living south of the Wall, but probably the biggest culture change would have to take place with the northern households who have centuries of traditions and experience in fighting the Free Folk.
It’ll be important for everyone to remember the Long Night, and to remember when wildling and northman set aside their differences to fight something more implacable than grudges and feuds.
With the wildlings not de facto considered a threat, they can support the Watch as auxiliaries and forge a new tradition of cooperative resistance to the White Walkers.
A wildling population with a tradition of vigilance against the White Walkers also has the advantage of renewability. The Night’s Watch is an artifical construct and depends on the support of people far removed from the potential conflict to remain fully manned and effective. The wildlings, north and south of the Wall, would always be either first or second line defenders along with the Night’s Watch, throughout the generations.
Long Term Planning is Difficult
The threat that’s posed by the White Walkers, and the very existence of the Wall and the Night’s Watch is a fairly concrete example of an approach to long term thinking and planning. It’s unclear when the first Long Night was ended and when the Wall built, or if the builders expected their effort to last for thousands and thousands of years, but it has.
One benefit of the Wall: it’s massive, unnatural, and clearly sustained with Old Gods magic. Even if the reason for its existence was lost to time, the fact that it persists is a clue to its purpose and history.
Strangers coming to the Wall, unaware of its specific designated function would at least understand that it was created for a purpose and that purpose was most likely to keep something out. One could only hope that this future generation of inhabitants of Westeros would be able to respond should the Others emerge.
I recently had a thought that maybe the Wall is even older than the men of Westeros believe. That the Long Night 8000 years before wasn’t the first one, and that someone built the Wall long before the First Men, or even the Children of the Forest. (Look, there’s no reason why I can’t have wild speculation about this.) If so, then the Wall is serving its purpose by standing up across multiple apocalypses. (Now I’m wondering if the Wall wasn’t originally built by frozen creatures to keep the people in the south, you know, south.)
But let’s return to the here and now, and the Wall as is.
Of course much of my thoughts on a new force manning the Wall depends on the giant ice block continuing to exist after the end of the series. There are some that are convinced that the White Walker incursion into the southron lands would require the total destruction of the Wall.
That’s possible, certainly. A structure that huge is unstable and were it not for the magic that sustains it, the razor-thin glacier would flow and warp, destroying any man-made fortifications attached to it (like the nineteen castles of the Watch) and eventually topple.
Should the Wall crash down, this long term static defense and reminder to future generations of the threat posed by the Others would be lost. I doubt there are any architects equal to legendary Brandon the Builder to recreate it. So it’s important that the traditions of defense against the White Walkers be established to live on in the cultural customs of the population.
Okay, that’s enough speculation about the future of the Night’s Watch and the long term defense of the Seven Kingdoms. From me, at least. I’m always eager to hear from my readership, particularly if I’m totally wrong.
(I mean, the real answer is that the maesters need to stop sitting on technological advances. They need to kickstart some steam-powered advances in Westeros, get some biplanes sketched out at least, and manufacture prototype machine guns that can fire Valyrian steel bullets. Obviously.)
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)
I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.
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