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“The Watch Takes No Part:” Analyzing Jon’s “Oathbreaking”


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#1 butterbumps!

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 09:40 AM

Ragnorak and I are spinning this off as an auxiliary to the Learning to Lead thread in order to discuss the issue of Night’s Watch vows and “oathbreaking” as it pertains to Jon’s decisions throughout DwD.

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:

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 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:

Doves and pigeons can also be trained to carry messages,” the maester went on, “though the raven is a stronger flyer, larger, bolder, far more clever, better able to defend itself against hawks… yet ravens are black, and they eat the dead, so some godly men abhor them. Baelor the Blessed tried to replace all the ravens with doves, did you know?” The maester turned his white eyes on Jon, smiling. “The Night’s Watch prefers ravens.”
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?

Why does the NW prefer Ravens? Ravens and Doves are being compared. Then the NW is the poorer cousin of the Raven, the crow, which is parallel to the pigeon. Baelor the Blessed is choosing Doves while the NW is choosing Ravens. How does this relate to Jon choosing to stay or go?

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.

Do not fail me, he thought, or Stannis will have my head. “Do I have your word that you will keep our princess closely?” the king had said, and Jon had promised that he would. Val is no princess, though. I told him that half a hundred times. It was a feeble sort of evasion, a sad rag wrapped around his wounded word. His father would never have approved. I am the sword that guards the realm of men, Jon reminded himself, and in the end, that must be worth more than one man’s honor.

Jon again choses his vow over his family. So I think we have a good history and reasoning building for Jon's choices and none of it points to his family over his oath.

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.

“Were they your kin?” he asked her quietly. “The two we killed?”
“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.

#2 theguyfromtheVale

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 09:58 AM

Thank you for this comprehensive post. I admit I feel much the same: neutrality is often a very prudent stance, but neutrality for it's own sake paralyzes. Jon has many hard choices to make, but any way he chooses, he will be unable to uphold the Watch's neutrality. So then, the best choice is the one that actually benefits the Watch: helping Stannis and fighting the Boltons.

On a slight tangent: why has noone so far called Roose Bolton a kingslayer for the RW yet?

#3 ARYa_Nym

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:01 AM

I believe that he did break his vows in ADWD with the idea of having a wildling army going North but as the same with Ygritte GRRM makes it sympathetic since he's the "hero".

If the wildlings consider him their king (which is nonsense btw) and he accepts it then that's another vow broken. King and NW are incompatible. The last time it was done was the NK. Since Bloodraven keeps calling him king I think he will eventually break his vows even more and possibly leave.

#4 butterbumps!

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:03 AM

I believe that he did break his vows in ADWD with the idea of having a wildling army going North but as the same with Ygritte GRRM makes it sympathetic since he's the "hero".

If the wildlings consider him their king (which is nonsense btw) and he accepts it then that's another vow broken. King and NW are incompatible. The last time it was done was the NK. Since Bloodraven keeps calling him king I think he will eventually break his vows even more and possibly leave.


What vow does he break by having Wildlings go North? Do you mean the Hardhome expedition, or marching on Winterfell? The NW vows do not state that they cannot ally with Wildlings or anyone else, so long as their interest is the Nights Watch.

ETA: Yea, I actually kind of like Roose, but for sure, he's a kingslayer. I don't think his participation in RW is openly discussed in the North- not while there are hostages. He maintains that he was a victim of the RW too, iirc.

Edited by butterbumps!, 01 August 2012 - 10:05 AM.


#5 Tagganaro

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:04 AM

Fantastic thread!

I'd like to add that LC Mormont came to a similar conclusion in ASOS before he was killed, though it'd be interesting what he would think about Jon + Stannis.

Don't have the books with me, but something like "The NW has lost its true purpose. We didn't build the Wall to keep savages from stealing women. And now our real enemy is here and we don't even know how to fight it."

It might be worth posting that passage as well.

#6 ARYa_Nym

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:08 AM

What vow does he break by having Wildlings go North? Do you mean the Hardhome expedition, or marching on Winterfell? The NW vows do not state that they cannot ally with Wildlings or anyone else, so long as their interest is the Nights Watch.

Marching to Winterfell. Now, GRRM made it sympathetic with the Ramsay letter so readers feel that Jon just had to leave his post on the Wall.

#7 butterbumps!

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:12 AM

Marching to Winterfell. Now, GRRM made it sympathetic with the Ramsay letter so readers feel that Jon just had to leave his post on the Wall.


Right, but that's kind of our point-- that is was done with the interests of the Watch foremost, and as such, is not breaking any vow. We're arguing that a chaotic North, headed by the highly uncooperative Boltons, is a death sentence for the Watch, and by extension, a death sentence for the realm. In order to fight the threat beyond the Wall, and actually protect the realms of men, it's imperative to secure Winterfell. If he does not interfere, then he would be failing the primary duty as a Watchman. Neutrality is not part of the oath, and he was not deserting.

Edited by butterbumps!, 01 August 2012 - 10:13 AM.


#8 Rolex Baratheon

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:15 AM

I do not think he broke his vows. Stannis was given guest right as that Karstark fellow would have had his intentions not been bad. Taking the men of the Night's Watch and Wildlings south to fight Ramsay Bolton was not a wrong decision either, since Bolton had sent Jon a brazen threat and hence threatened the Night's Watch itself.

I was so pissed at Othell Yarwyck and that narrow-minded, ham-headed Bown Marsh. Their lack of understanding or pretty much everything made me cringe, and when they killed a perfectly logical commander like Jon, I was extremely angry.

#9 Scipio Africanus

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:15 AM

Marching to Winterfell. Now, GRRM made it sympathetic with the Ramsay letter so readers feel that Jon just had to leave his post on the Wall.

Marsh, Thorne & Friends aren't seeing the bigger picture. Then again they're patsies for another faction who wanted Jon eliminated because of Robb's will.

The hatemail which "Ramsay" sent was made public by Jon, so the NW at Castle Black knew what had happened. "Ramsay" demanded things that Jon nor the NW could provide. That meant the only other option was conflict. Castle Black couldn't be defended from the south. Everyone including the NW knew this, for hundreds of years. I suppose the only option would've been surrender in the minds of Marsh. But it is my belief Marsh by that point didn't care about any of that and was acting under order of others.

What Jon did was tactically sound, and while you could say he was legally stretching his own vows he wasn't getting the NW envolved just him personally. Again I believe Marsh cared nothing for that either and had decided to assassinate Jon long ago under instructions of another faction.

#10 Brony Stark

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:16 AM

Well said

#11 The-Spiders-Little-Bird

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:16 AM

I definitely am becoming very sympathetic to this view. Jon realizes the KW cannot hope to hold off the Others, even with the support of the Wildlings, and that a weak North cannot hope to win the battle before them. Because the Ramsays are a direct threat to their ability to hold to their vows, it is not contrary to their vows to involve themselves in the conflict. I think this has definite connotations with World War II and I'll think on it a bit more as I re-read.

Brilliant and fresh analysis.

#12 The Doctor's Consort

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:17 AM

Lately for some unknown reasons I think that the fact that Jon broke his vows by helping the wildlings and wanting to march to the South it’s his ultimate sacrifice for him to forge the new Lightbringer-NW and meet his destiny.

#13 Ice Turtle

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:18 AM

I wonder if the neutrality isn't understood in the wrong way. I think that it doesn't mean that you do not interfere, but that interests of one kingdom, shouldn't mean more than interests of the other kingdom so the LC of NW is a political figure but his purpose is not to advocate the interests of one kingdom but those of NW and mankind. Something like Iron Bank or the Faith in the times of seven kingdoms.

So Jon has a right to arrange marriage of Alys and Magnar.
He had right to let willings settle in the Gift.
He had right to give Stannis shelter and exchange wildlings south the Wall for information.

The most problematic point is sending Mance for Arya, but Mance is Stannis captive, not Jon's.

#14 ARYa_Nym

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:18 AM

Right, but that's kind of our point-- that is was done with the interests of the Watch foremost, and as such, is not breaking any vow. We're arguing that a chaotic North, headed by the highly uncooperative Boltons, is a death sentence for the Watch, and by extension, a death sentence for the realm. In order to fight the threat beyond the Wall, and actually protect the realms of men, it's imperative to secure Winterfell. If he does not interfere, then he would be failing the primary duty as a Watchman. Neutrality is not part of the oath, and he was not deserting.

Stannis was already doing that. He helped Stannis in the way that he could. Winterfell will most likely be secured without Jon's physical presence and without a wildling army.

There's no telling how the Northmen would react to a bunch of wildlings on their land either. It may be fight first listen later. Jon thinks that it would turn North against Stannis but for some reason it doesn't apply to him.

#15 Hear me Meow

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:22 AM

Stannis was already doing that. He helped Stannis in the way that he could. Winterfell will most likely be secured without Jon's physical presence and without a wildling army.

There's no telling how the Northmen would react to a bunch of wildlings on their land either. It may be fight first listen later. Jon thinks that it would turn North against Stannis but for some reason it doesn't apply to him.


Jon may think Stannis is dead at this point though.

#16 ARYa_Nym

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:24 AM

Jon may think Stannis is dead at this point though.

He's not certain but he realized that the letter has lies in it.

#17 Hear me Meow

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:24 AM

I'm confused as to why everyone thinks Roose would be unable to defend the wall. He doesn't want dead people running all over his lands. At present he is trying to secure his hold over the north, just like Stannis. Granted Roose did not go to the aid of the wall like Stannis did, but why assume he won't when the magnitude of the threat is revealed to him? He would also have the support of the Iron Throne which Stannis would lack.

#18 Golden&Crimson

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:25 AM

I think this decisions were important and for the greater good of the Watch and of the Kingdoms of Men, and if for some people can be called treason or evil decisions, they call that because they didn´t see the big picture and are too attached to the text of the Oath and not to the spirit of the Oath:

Obeying the orders of Half-Hand - killed the ranger, "deserted" to the Wildlings and had a relationship with Ygritte; so he can inform the Watch of the movements of their enemies.
Accepting the Wildlings thru The Wall - so they cannot came wights and turned to be several thousands of enemies to the Night´s Watch; making the duty of the Watch in dealing with the Others easier.
Receiving Stannis in the Wall and give him advice - because the King was the only help the Watch received.

I must say that my idea of the acts of Jon changed, and i see him now has a person that tried his best for the greater good of all mankind, and his only mistake (that triggered is murder(?)) was the decison to advance against Ramsay Bolton, instead of staying in The Wall, and reinforce the power of the Watch and his allegiance with the Wildlings.

#19 ARYa_Nym

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:26 AM

I'm confused as to why everyone thinks Roose would be unable to defend the wall. He doesn't want dead people running all over his lands. At present he is trying to secure his hold over the north, just like Stannis. Granted Roose did not go to the aid of the wall like Stannis did, but why assume he won't when the magnitude of the threat is revealed to him? He would also have the support of the Iron Throne which Stannis would lack.

Yes. Only Ramsay is a problem. But a ruthless cunning person could be good. Granted he's no Tywin but he could be a good asset.

#20 Tagganaro

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Posted 01 August 2012 - 10:27 AM

There's no telling how the Northmen would react to a bunch of wildlings on their land either. It may be fight first listen later. Jon thinks that it would turn North against Stannis but for some reason it doesn't apply to him.


This has been argued before, but Stannis is a foreigner. Jon is a son of Eddard Stark- He is uniquely positioned to serve as a "bridge" of sorts between the Northmen and the wildlings, since they both respect his status as a son of Eddard Stark.