There’s been a lot of talk lately about the supposed neutrality of the NW. Indeed, there is the mantra stating, “the Watch takes no part.” There are also numerous references to the fact that when a man takes the black, his House loyalties, feuds and politics are to be put aside; a Watchman is loyal only to the Watch.
However, the Night’s Watch vows make no mention of political neutrality:
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 and all nights to come.
In the first part of the vow, the Watchman promises to abstain from any personal gain and attachments by joining the NW. The Watchman vows to conduct no business other than that which serves the NW. The final portion covers the lifetime contract of speaking the vow.
In the second part, the Watchman outlines his duties. Although this part of the vow uses symbolic language and exact interpretations vary with more supernatural meanings, it is clearly stating their purpose: To be the ones who fight when it seems hopeless and uncertain (sword in the darkness); To keep vigilant for signs of external dangers (watcher on the walls –note, not the WALL); To battle the threat before us (the fire that burns against the cold); To be the hope for salvation (the light that brings the dawn); To alert the realm of danger (the horn that wakes the sleepers); To be the first line of defense protecting ALL men (the shield that guards the realms of men).
It is our opinion that the actual vow is sacred, and that it takes precedence over the tradition of the Watch’s neutrality. We believe that the Watch has forgotten it’s original purpose, and holds to the word of custom, such as “the Watch takes no part.” Instead, we argue that it should go back to the essence of the vow, as Jon does, to uphold the true duties of the Watch: to save the world from apocalypse. When circumstances arise where the vow conflicts with custom, we maintain that protecting the realm IS the right thing to do, even if it means involving the Watch in the realm’s affairs.
We believe that the true nature of the Watch is to guard the realms. When the realm does not comply, heed the Watch or otherwise interfere, we believe that the Watch must take a stand in order to fulfill its true purpose.
For most of its history, the NW was a prestigious institution, respected by the kingdoms and later, the Iron Throne. Political neutrality made sense; the Lord Commander held the same status as the great Lords, and the kingdoms maintained respect and support to the Watch reciprocally. Importantly, the Stark in Winterfell, the King of Winter, had a cooperative agreement with the Watch; if the NW is the first line of defense, Winterfell is the second. A stable and united North is requisite for the NW to perform its service to the realm. Without cooperation of the North, and the kingdoms generally, the NW cannot properly protect the realm.
Recent years have weakened the Watch. Instead of noble families sending their sons, the reputation of the Watch declined, instead manned by criminals for whom the service is a form of punishment rather than honor. Manpower is at an all-time low, and the Throne has repeatedly refused requests for aid. Additionally, the NW has been faced with recent challenges to their neutrality; Cersei attempted to have the NW infiltrated and Jon killed, and Yoren was attacked and killed by Armory Lorch who ignored the NW neutrality.
Neutrality is a two-way street. Between the Throne’s ignoring Mormont and Jon’s pleas for aid (which it was their duty to fulfill), and the fact that the NW’s neutrality had been violated by authority of the Crown directly, it is our opinion that the NW vow to protect man must supersede the custom of keeping neutrality. There is no reason, for either the reader nor Jon to believe that the Boltons will uphold their cooperative relationship with the Watch. In fact, that Roose participated directly in the Red Wedding killing Robb and violating guest right- the most sacred of laws- suggests that he should not be counted on to uphold this other duty. All signs point to the fact that in order for the Watch to be effective, measures must be taken to secure the North and bolster strength at the Wall.
We posit a few things. 1. Jon’s quartering Stannis at the Wall is not a violation of neutrality, but an extension of guest right. 2. Jon’s advice to Stannis is a violation of neutrality, but given the fact that Stannis is the hope for the securing of the North, that Jon is acting on the interests of the Watch itself, and thus, not breaking his actual vow. 3. Any action Jon takes to secure the North- short of taking titles and lands- is in the interest of the Watch, and in accordance with the actual vow; thus, he is not an “oathbreaker.”
In terms of making hard choices, the following provides some evidence for the need to interpret vows to their essence, rather than the word. From a conversation with Aemon:
Jon’s fingers were in the bucket, blood up to the wrist. “Dywen says the wildlings call us crows,” he said uncertainty.
“The crow is the raven’s poor cousin. They are both beggars in black, hated and misunderstood.”
Jon wished he understood what they were talking about, and why. What did he care about ravens and doves? If the old man had something to say to him, why couldn’t he just say it?
In characterizing Jon's value judgments we think Aemon's "choose and live with it for the rest of your days" is a good starting point. I think Aemon's point with the Doves is that there are no holy and pure hard choices; all hard choices are black and you will be misunderstood and hated by someone for every hard choice you make. The NW prefers to make the hard choices. Here Jon actually has a black and white choice that feels hard but is merely emotionally difficult and chooses his oath over family. Also Jon literally has blood on his hands and is the one serving up the "feast for crows" as Aemon speaks.
Killing the Halfhand and sleeping with Ygritte are his two major black choices and he is misunderstood and hated by some for both of them. Here is where he learns that some choices are worth more than one man's honor. (Ned's advice to Arya about "the lie was not without honor" might be a good comparison to make here.) These two "black" choices allow Jon to stop an attack on Castle Black from the south, the same direction the Boltons would come from.
Then there's this. A Bard's truth is a greater truth rather than a literal truth just as the spirit of an oath is a greater meaning than the literal oath. Jon is the son of Bael and the Lady of Winterfell-- the Bastard of Winterfell who makes the two people one. The Bastard of the story ignored the greater truth that the Wildlings and Starks are one people only to be flayed by a Bolton. Jon will suffer the same fate if he ignores his greater oath (the realms of men) for his literal oath.
“No more than you are.”
“Me?” He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You said you were the Bastard o’ Winterfell.”
“So the son slew the father instead,” said Jon.
“Aye,” she said, “but the gods hate kinslayers, even when they kill unknowing. When Lord Stark returned from the battle and his mother saw Bael’s head upon his spear, she threw herself from a tower in her grief. Her son did not long outlive her. One o’ his lords peeled the skin off him and wore him for a cloak.”
“Your Bael was a liar,” he told her, certain now.
“No,” Ygritte said, “but a bard’s truth is different than yours or mine.
In sum, we believe that Jon is bucking tradition, but not breaking the essence of his vow.