At its core, Game of Thrones is a story about family. It is about how far one must be willing to go to protect one’s family. It is about choosing which family one belongs to, and in making that decision, whether blood ties reign supreme or whether “adopted” families can be one’s true family. It is about the power that stems from one’s family connections. It is about marriage bonds, which are meant to tie two families together in alliance or two people together in love, and what happens when such bonds are broken. These are among the topics that we will discuss in this series regarding the role of family in Game of Thrones.
Let’s take a look at Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch. Jon is actually accepted by his father, despite being a bastard son. He is raised in the Stark household and earns many of the associated benefits. Even so, he is never truly accepted because he is only partially related by blood to the rest of the Stark children. He is not of Lady Catelyn’s blood, and so, while he is a son of Lord Stark, Jon is still considered to be of “lower” status, compared to his brothers and sisters. When Jon joins the Night’s Watch, he becomes part of a new family, an adopted one that is bound not by blood but by an oath and by the common duty of guarding the realm against the threats approaching from the north.
The following post contains SPOILERS from Game of Thrones. Do not proceed unless you wish to see the discussion of MAJOR PLOT POINTS from Season 3.
The Night’s Watch welcomes any members who wish to join and holds no judgment against them for their previous lives. Outcasts, wanderers, and criminals of all sorts join the Night’s Watch, just like the Brotherhood without Banners. And like the Brotherhood, the Night’s Watch is not sworn to the service of any lord, for it is meant to be above the petty internal politics of the realm. The brothers of the Night’s Watch wear black: any former allegiance they once had—whether they served a king, a lord, or even just themselves—are erased, in favor of their oath to protect the whole of the Seven Kingdoms.
After the death of his father, Jon has to choose whether or not to allow his family connection with Lord Stark to dictate his actions. By heading south and joining Robb in avenging their father, Jon would be choosing a side in the coming civil war and therefore would be breaking his oath to serve the realm. As a member of the Night’s Watch, he cannot be a part of any political struggle within the realm: this is part of the lesson that Jon learns from Maester Aemon, who is part of the deposed Targaryen dynasty. Jon is prevented from leaving by his fellow brothers, and in the end, he recommits himself to his newly adopted family and the oath that he has sworn.
The mission beyond the wall challenges Jon’s commitments, for he is asked to slay a fellow member of the Night’s Watch, Quorin Halfhand, to infiltrate the wildling camp. He does do this, in the end, according to the higher goal of the Night’s Watch, which is to protect the realm. What is more confusing for him to figure out is his relationship with Ygritte. Having a relationship at all with a woman is against the code of the Night’s Watch, but to make matters more difficult for him, she is a wildling, part of a group that would threaten the realm he has sworn to serve. She hopes that their romantic connection—you could say that it is similar to a family connection—would take precedence over Jon’s allegiance to the Night’s Watch.
The wildlings demand that Jon help them kill an old man, as part of a test to prove his loyalty, but before Jon can do anything, Ygritte shoots the old man with an arrow. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why she does this, but I suspect that she knows Jon will not be able to do it and she therefore decides to “save him” from making a decision that he will regret down the road. After all, she knows from the beginning that he is and always will be a Crow, a member of the Night’s Watch. At the same time, she knows that the wildlings do need to kill this man to reach their goals, but she knows Jon cannot do it—and so, she takes matters into her own hands.
Jon and Ygritte meet again in the finale of Season 3, and this encounter is quite a devastating scene. Jon says that it is time for him to go home. It’s time for him to return to his true family, the Night’s Watch, but he appeals to Ygritte’s love for him, hoping that that will be an important enough connection that she will not try to stop him. Instead, Ygritte fills him with arrows, but it’s significant that she takes plenty of time to aim and shoot, and she never hits him in a vital location, nor does she shoot the horse and prevent Jon’s escape. She can’t bring herself to kill him, but her emotions and her anger, which are made worse because they came from her feelings of love for Jon, are so strong that she feels a need for him to feel a similar pain. The use of arrows seems especially poignant in this scene.
Now, let’s talk briefly about another Night’s Watch member, Sam. When he encounters Bran, Sam immediately counts him as a brother because of their common connection with Jon Snow. He brings Gilly to Castle Black, despite the rules against the presence of women, because she is an innocent who should be protected. The Night’s Watch protects the realm and anyone living in the realm, and according to Sam, it does not matter which side of the Wall you are on.
It cannot, though, really be this simple: Jon travels to the other side of the Wall and feels a deep connection with Ygritte, but the Wall still divides them. The Wildlings see it as a symbol of what keeps them out of the south, while the Night’s Watch views it as a symbol of safety, protecting the realm from White Walkers and wildlings alike. Like Sam, we would hope that anyone could be considered family—that you can be part of the same family of humanity, no matter where you are from, but as Jon’s story shows, things rarely work out that way.