Hi, this post is an analysis of how I view Jon Snow's interactions with Stannis - about whether Jon had broken his oaths to the Night's Watch.
TL; DR version: I believe that Jon Snow had initially stayed true to his oath, but progressively indeed broken his oaths to the Night's watch by "taking sides" and "interfering in the affairs of the realm". However, I do not criticize him for this. In fact, I applaud him for doing what he did similar to the way I applaud Jaime for breaking his oaths and killing the King, thereby saving many lives. I'm saying "Yes, he did break oaths. But who cares about them anyway?" I only wish that he had broken his oaths sooner, and been more open about his support for Stannis.
First, let us review his oath to the watch:
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
While the vow does not explicitly state it, I assume that the point of the vows is to "remain neutral" and "not play in the game of thrones." Why not? Because you could lose, and the Watch could be destroyed as a result. That's why not. This is what I take as the "spirit" of the vow, and i'm not worried about the actual wordings.
Now, I argue that the neutrality of the Watch is practically impossible the moment Stannis landed on the Wall. After Stannis helps Jon defeat the wildlings, Jon either has to let Stannis stay on and have his way - harboring the wrath of the Lannisters and the Boltons, or choose to send Stannis away - thereby harboring the wrath of Stannis, who has more men and can overpower the Watch. Basically, it doesn't matter - no matter what you do, you're screwed - somebody is going to be displeased and going to try to bring down the Watch - you've lost neutrality.Bowen Marsh knows this, as he says:
“Lord Stannis helped us when we needed help,” Marsh said doggedly, “but he is still a rebel, and his cause is doomed. As doomed as we’ll be if the Iron Throne marks us down as traitors. We must be certain that we do not choose the losing side.”
“It is not my intent to choose any side,” said Jon, “but I am not as certain of the outcome of this war as you seem to be, my lord. Not with Lord Tywin dead… The lion in King’s Landing is a cub, and the Iron Throne has been known to cut grown men to ribbons.”
Jon's reply is crucial, as he initially wants to stay neutral in his heart. But he knows how impractical it is to truly stay neutral:
“I gave Stannis food, shelter, and the Nightfort, plus leave to settle some free folk in the Gift. That’s all.”
“Lord Tywin will say it was too much.”
“Stannis says it’s not enough. The more you give a king, the more he wants. We are walking on a bridge of ice with an abyss on either side. Pleasing one king is difficult enough. Pleasing two is hardly possible.” (JON II)
He's also hates the Lannisters and Boltons on a personal level, but doesn't want that to interfere in his decision making for the Watch:
“It’s death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn.” (JON II)
The Night’s Watch takes no part. Baratheon or Bolton should be the same to me.
This reflects in his dealings with Stannis. initially, he only gives Stannis as much as is necessary:
“Have you signed the grant?”
“No, Your Grace.” And now it comes. Jon closed his burned fingers and opened them again. “You ask too much.”
…“Your Grace,” said Jon, with chilly courtesy, “I have housed your men and fed them, at dire cost to our winter stores. I have clothed them so they would not freeze.”
Stannis was not appeased. “Aye, you’ve shared your salt pork and porridge, and you’ve thrown us some black rags to keep us warm. Rags the wildlings would have taken off your corpses if I had not come north.”
Jon ignored that. “I have given you fodder for your horses, and once the stair is done I will lend you builders to restore the Nightfort. I have even agreed to allow you to settle wildlings on the Gift, which was given to the Night’s Watch in perpetuity…. The stones of those forts are mortared with the blood and bones of my brothers, long dead. I cannot give them to you… I took an oath, Your Grace. The Wall is mine.” (JON I)
But later, Jon starts to get more pragmatic, as he knows he needs Stannis to win:
King Stannis said, “Lord Snow, tell me of Mors Umber.”
The Night’s Watch takes no part, Jon thought, but another voice within him said, Words are not swords. “The elder of the Greatjon’s uncles. Crow-food, they call him…
…”Once Lord Roose has joined his strength to Ramsay’s, they will have you outnumbered five to one… Sire, this is a bold stroke, but the risk—” The Night’s Watch takes no part. Baratheon or Bolton should be the same to me. “If Roose Bolton should catch you beneath his walls with his main strength, it will be the end for all of you.”
…Jon realized that his words were wasted. Stannis would take the Dreadfort or die in the attempt. The Night’s Watch takes no part, a voice said, but another replied, Stannis fights for the realm, the ironmen for thralls and plunder. “Your Grace, I know where you might find more men. Give me the wildlings, and I will gladly tell you where and how.” (JON IV)
This is an important scene, as had he done nothing and "stayed completely neutral", Stannis would have likely marched to the Dreadfort and died there. Instead, Jon gives him a way to get an army and prolong the fight - it looks like he is starting to play the game of thrones.
Jon gradually starts to get it clear in his head that he is in Stannis' camp and not just neutral as we progress in the story:
“Lord Snow?” a soft voice said.
He turned to find Clydas standing beneath the broken archway, a parchment in his hand. “From Stannis?” Jon had been hoping for some word from the king. The Night’s Watch took no part, he knew, and it should not matter to him which king emerged triumphant. Somehow it did. (JON VI)
…Stannis had taken Deepwood Motte, and the mountain clans had joined him. Flint, Norrey, Wull, Liddle, all…. The Night’s Watch was sworn to take no side in the quarrels and conflicts of the realm. Nonetheless, Jon Snow could not help but feel a certain satisfaction. (JON VII)
Finally, he also sends a raven to Stannis warning about the Karstark treachery.
Clydas had dispatched a raven to Deepwood Motte to warn the king of Arnolf Karstark’s treachery, but whether the bird had reached His Grace in time Jon did not know. (JON X)
It seems he is no longer conflicted about helping Stannis.
Now, helping Stannis is clearly not "staying neutral." He has broken his oaths to the Watch by helping Stannis.
But what choice did he have? If he had stayed "completely neutral", either Stannis himself would have overpowered the Watch and got his way, or Stannis would have lost and the Lannisters / Boltons would take vengeance on the Watch, or both. Remember that this is a time when Jon is also trying to integrate Winldlings into the North - he knows the Watch needs him. So he has a choice - either stay completely neutral and watch the likely destruction of the Watch, or support Stannis. Supporting the Lannisters is not an option as (1) Stannis is already at the Wall with his forces and (2) Jon would always be a threat to the Lannisters / Boltons as the son of Ned Stark.
in between, he also sends Mance to rescue Arya. Once again, I argue that this is a breach of his vows if he rescues his sister from a lord. It is "taking part in the affairs of the realm"
What good are oaths when following them makes you unable to help your little sister get raped for life? What good are your oaths to the Watch when following them leads to the destruction of the Watch? I see this as similar to Jaime's situation. What good are his knightly vows if he lets several thousand people die?
I believe Jon did break his oaths, but I say he was right to do it. He was forced to choose a side, and he chose Stannis. If he hadn't, it would have led to the likely destruction of him and the Watch.
The only thing which i feel he could have done differently is that he could internalized his support for Stannis sooner. He needn't have felt so conflicted about helping Stannis, and could have just given him what he asked for and helped him more openly. Maybe he could have accepted Stannis' offer of Winterfell.
What do you think?