Broken men, she realized, dregs from a dozen armies, the leavings of the lords.
[…] Swollen in death, with faces gnawed and rotten, they all looked the same. On the gallows tree, all men are brothers. (AFFC, Brienne VII)
Hello everyone and welcome again to Red Mice at Play. I’m here with the next instalment of the Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things series, and we’re continuing our exploration of broken men.
Before we begin, a lot of real-world has been happening (and is finally gaining traction in the media and online) so I wanted to take this time to encourage any readers to support the Black Lives Matter movement wherever they are based – learn more about anti-racism, sign as many petitions as possible, email or call your representatives on a local and national level (and supra-national where possible, e.g. if you’re an EU citizen) and donate if you can and/or watch this video with adverts if you don’t have the finances to donate right now (comments are on the video for instructions on how to maximise the ad revenue from that video). There’s a lot of primarily US Black Lives Matter resources out there (this is one of the more comprehensive ones, and further petitions and resources are still all over Twitter) but please also make sure to research your local area too, to promote Black Lives Matter and police accountability in your region – the Black Lives Matters carrd includes BLM materials for the UK, Canada and Australia. For instance, organisations in the UK you may want to support include Black Lives Matter UK, UK Black Pride (supporting Black LGBTQIA+ folx), Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (who offer legal advice to immigrants and campaign for a fairer and more humane immigration system), the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (which supports young BPOC in the community) and Stop Watch UK (promoting police accountability in the UK); petitions you may want to support include Justice for Belly Mujinga, Justice for Shukri Abdi, Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums, Include Black British history on the national curriculum, Improve maternal mortality rates and health care for black women. Please note that any petition you sign on the Government petitions website is only open to UK citizens and is a two step process – you will need to give them your email address and then click the link in the email you get, otherwise your signature won’t be counted. Any petition with over 10,000 signatures gets a response from the government and over 100,000 is debated in parliament. Last but definitely not least, support BIPOC artists, writers and content creators in whatever fandoms or genres you love. In the A Song of Ice and Fire community, this includes (but again, is definitely not limited to) The Hype’s Watch, A Don of Ice and Fire, Alicia Kingston, Teflon TV, Quinn’s Ideas, Chrissy of Oldstones, AquaVenatus, A Thousand Eyes and One podcast and Lady Diligence.
Before you continue reading the essay, it would be amazing if you could do just one thing to support anti-racism in your community – sign a petition, write to your MP or senator, subscribe to BIPOC content creators, download an anti-racism e-book, whatever you want.
Now that you have done a thing for today, it’s time to dive in to the essay.
As I stated earlier, we’re going to continue our investigation into the broken motif. So far, we have noticed that there are lots of overlapping motifs between broken swords and broken men, namely that these all appear to be associated with the Last Hero, Lightbringer and greenseeing. We also found that broken men appear to be “broken” by the Others (or their symbolic counterparts), which causes the Last Hero to undergo some kind of ice-to-fire kind of transformation. With that in mind, we concluded the last essay by noting that the Others are associated with dawn, and that the Last Hero appears to have come from the Others while also being a broken man – this suggests that the Last Hero is the dawn that broke, which absolutely fits with the idea of the Last Hero ending the Long Night. After all, night only ends when dawn breaks.
Today, we’ll be building on those conclusions, focussing on outlaws and broken men. That means the Brotherhood without Banners, the Kingswood Brotherhood, the Night’s Watch deserters and finally (finally!) that Septon Meribald speech.
Now before we dive into that, thanks as usual to George RR Martin for writing this series, to all of the myth and symbolism friends I’ve made, to the wonderful Bronsterys for all of his comments and suggestions and to you, dear reader, for spending your time with me today.
That fearsome outlaw band
Throughout our analysis of the cripples, bastards and broken things motif, the Brotherhood without Banners have been reappearing frequently, firstly with the creation of a broken sword:
Smooth as summer silk, Lord Beric slid close to make an end of the man before him. The Hound gave a rasping scream, raised his sword in both hands and brought it crashing down with all his strength. Lord Beric blocked the cut easily . . .
“Noooooo,” Arya shrieked.
. . . but the burning sword snapped in two, and the Hound’s cold steel plowed into Lord Beric’s flesh where his shoulder joined his neck and clove him clean down to the breastbone. The blood came rushing out in a hot black gush. (ASOS, Arya VI)
Then with a broken man as their leader:
“He’s our god too, and you owe us for your bloody lives. And what’s false about him? Might be your Smith can mend a broken sword, but can he heal a broken man?” (ASOS, Arya VII)
Throughout this analysis, we noticed that the Brotherhood Without Banners shares a ton of overlapping symbolism with all of the broken motifs: in particular, greenseeing and resurrection, embodied spectacularly in the undead Beric Dondarrion seated in his weirwood throne:
The voice came from the man seated amongst the weirwood roots halfway up the wall. (ASOS, Arya VI)
Rather obviously, the band of outlaws stars in this essay as well:
“The brotherhood without banners.” Tom Sevenstrings plucked a string. “The knights of the hollow hill.”
“Knights?” Clegane made the word a sneer. “Dondarrion’s a knight, but the rest of you are the sorriest lot of outlaws and broken men I’ve ever seen. I shit better men than you.” (ASOS, Arya VI)
Importantly, this quote directly equates outlaws to broken men, which would suggest that outlaws are also folded into this cripples, bastards and broken things motif. Indeed, outlaws and broken men are mentioned in the same breath pretty frequently:
“‘Twixt here and Duskendale is safe enough,” one man told her, “but past Duskendale there’s outlaws, and broken men in the woods.” (AFFC, Brienne I)
“Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “Is a broken man an outlaw?”
“More or less,” Brienne answered. (AFFC, Brienne V)
If outlaws do fit into the broken man motif, we should see similar imagery and symbolism in other descriptions of outlaws. Notably, Jorah Mormont’s speech to the men about to take the Night’s Watch vows places outlaws as the foremost description of the people joining:
Mormont stood before the altar, the rainbow shining on his broad bald head. “You came to us outlaws,” he began, “poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses. Others have only bastards’ names, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.” (AGOT, Jon IV)
This statement is even broken off from the rest of the speech, as if emphasising the importance of outlaws to the Night’s Watch, and thus the Last Hero archetype. This would suggest that we can expect to see the Last Hero “cripples, bastards and broken things” symbolism throughout the outlaws of the series, such as the Kingswood Brotherhood. Notably, the Brotherhood without Banners is compared to the Kingswood Brotherhood on a couple of occasions:
Sometimes she thought she might go back to Sharna’s inn, if the floods hadn’t washed it away. She could stay with Hot Pie, or maybe Lord Beric would find her there. Anguy would teach her to use a bow, and she could ride with Gendry and be an outlaw, like Wenda the White Fawn in the songs. (ASOS, Arya XII)
“The peasants denied seeing them, but when questioned sharply they sang a different song. They spoke of a one-eyed man and another who wore a yellow cloak . . . and a woman, cloaked and hooded.“
“A woman?” He would have thought that the White Fawn would have taught Merrett to stay clear of outlaw wenches. “There was a woman in the Kingswood Brotherhood as well.” (AFFC, Jaime IV)
While this could just be due to the fact that they are two outlaw bands, it could also indicate some deeper shared symbolism – I feel that the latter option is quite likely, especially as we’ve already come across the Kingswood Brotherhood before:
What a fight that was, and what a foe. The Smiling Knight was a madman, cruelty and chivalry all jumbled up together, but he did not know the meaning of fear. And Dayne, with Dawn in hand . . . The outlaw’s longsword had so many notches by the end that Ser Arthur had stopped to let him fetch a new one. “It’s that white sword of yours I want,” the robber knight told him as they resumed, though he was bleeding from a dozen wounds by then. “Then you shall have it, ser,” the Sword of the Morning replied, and made an end of it. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)
As you may recall, we analysed this scene in a lot of detail in the broken swords essay, and found a bunch of interesting Last Hero vs. Others duelling symbolism. For starters, we see the Smiling Knight’s sword is so notched that it needs to be replaced, indicating that he is the wielder of the broken sword i.e. an archetypal Last Hero figure. This places Ser Arthur Dayne in the role of the symbolic Other, which fits with all of the icy symbolism of the Kingsguard. Moreover, this duel is framed as a fight over Ser Arthur Dayne’s sword, called Dawn… A War for the Dawn, if you will… (I know I’m repeating myself, but I love that pun too much!) We also saw that there were parallels between this duel and the Ser Waymar Royce vs. the actual literal Others duel, in that the Smiling Knight and Ser Waymar Royce both end up with broken swords and a dozen wounds. Again, this places the Smiling Knight in the role of the symbolic Last Hero.
Given these parallels, it suggests that the Smiling Knight – and, by extension, the Kingswood Brotherhood and outlaws more generally – are symbolically acting as Last Hero figures in the cripples, bastards and broken things motif. Similarly, key leaders of the Kingswood Brotherhood end up in the Night’s Watch, the institution supposedly established by the Last Hero:
Every man at Castle Black had heard Ulmer’s tales of the great outlaw band of yore; of Simon Toyne and the Smiling Knight, Oswyn Longneck the Thrice-Hanged, Wenda the White Fawn, Fletcher Dick, Big Belly Ben, and all the rest. (ASOS, Samwell II)
Ulmer was thought to be one of the best archers in the land (for what it’s worth, this is another point of comparison with the Brotherhood Without Banners’ Anguy, another incredible archer). Importantly, Ulmer was one of the few who stayed true to the Watch after the mutiny at Craster’s:
“I saw the Fist,” he said, after a long swallow. “The blood, and the dead horses . . . Noye said a dozen made it back . . . who?”
“Dywen did. Giant, Dolorous Edd, Sweet Donnel Hill, Ulmer, Left Hand Lew, Garth Greyfeather. Four or five more. Me.” (ASOS, Jon VI)
This may suggest another link between the Kingswood Brotherhood (and thus, outlaws) and the loyal members of the Night’s Watch, which would in turn suggest a connection to the archetypal Last Hero.
The Kingswood Brotherhood also has some greenseeing connections, which is to be expected from the symbolism we have been seeing throughout these essays. Most obviously, the Kingswood Brotherhood are literally named after a forest – the Kingswood. This self-evidently associates them with trees and thus greenseeing. Indeed, in the song about the Brotherhood, their relationship to the forest is one of the aspects notable enough to be worth mentioning:
The brothers of the Kingswood,
they were an outlaw band.
The forest was their castle,
but they roamed across the land.
No man’s gold was safe from them,
nor any maiden’s hand.
Oh, the brothers of the Kingswood,
that fearsome outlaw band … (ASOS, Arya III)
In addition, there is some evidence that weirwoods are connected with royalty – for instance there are a ton of implications of greenseer kings historically, such as Garth Greenhand, and it seems that the burning tree created by the Grey King of Ironborn myth is likely a reference to the weirwood trees, thus making it a king’s wood.
This connection with trees and woods appears to be relatively common throughout the outlaw motif:
“The man took too great an interest in our choice of route, and those woods . . . such places are notorious haunts of outlaws. He may have been urging us into a trap.” (ASOS, Jaime II)
He could send Podrick Payne questing after Shagga, he supposed, but there were so many hiding places in the deep of the kingswood that outlaws often evaded capture for decades. (ASOS, Tyrion IX)
“’Twixt here and Duskendale is safe enough,” one man told her, “but past Duskendale there’s outlaws, and broken men in the woods.” (AFFC, Brienne I)
“Stay quiet, Podrick. There may still be outlaws in these woods.” (AFFC, Brienne III)
Symbolically, this would suggest to me that the outlaw motif is quite closely connected with trees, which in turn suggests a link to forests and greenseeing. Of particular note is that the woods are the “haunts” of outlaws, implying that the outlaws are ghosts. Ghosts appears to be a clear symbol of skinchanging and/or greenseeing – think for instance of the Ghost of High Heart who receives visions from the weirwoods or of Jon’s wolf, Ghost, who is red and white like a weirwood tree. In addition to this, it suggests that the outlaws themselves are some form of undead, if they are “haunting” the woods, implying resurrection.
Which brings us back to the members of the Kingswood Brotherhood for clues, where we see a mention of Oswyn Longneck the Thrice-Hanged. As has been covered by others in great detail, hanging is a core motif of greenseeing as it is a reference to Odin hanging himself on Yggdrasil. This also implies the idea of resurrection, as Oswyn is hanged three times, which is comparable to Beric Dondarrion’s multiple deaths. As such, it would seem to indicate that the outlaw band has some connections to greenseeing, as would be anticipated from the symbolism we see associated with the cripples, bastards and broken things motif.
In addition, hanging seems to be the typical treatment for outlaws:
“I was hanging outlaws and robber knights when you were still shitting in your swaddling clothes.” (AFFC, Jaime II)
“We’ve hanged dozens of outlaws, but the leaders still elude us. Clegane, Dondarrion, the red priest, and now this woman Stoneheart . . .” (AFFC, Brienne V)
“It could be they were in some outlaw band.” At Dosk, they’d heard a harper sing “The Day They Hanged Black Robin.” Ever since, Egg had been seeing gallant outlaws behind every bush. (D&E, The Sworn Sword)
This would suggest that the outlaw motif is quite tightly linked to hanging which itself appears to be linked to greenseeing. As a slight aside, the song mentioned by Dunk indicates outlaws may be associated with black, given the name of the song: the Day they Hanged Black Robin. This could imply some further Night’s Watch symbolism for the outlaw, given that the Night’s Watch are renowned for wearing black, thus tying the outlaw motif to the Last Hero archetype.
So there are clear parallels between the two Brotherhoods and that this (and other outlaw quotes) appear to be closely linked to some of the main symbolic motifs we’ve been seeing – but what of the real world influences? The song quotes above, “The Day they Hanged Black Robin” I think gives us our main clue…
The Last Hero and his merry men
The most archetypal “real-world” outlaw hero in a medieval setting is Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. As with most legends from several hundred years ago, the myth and legend of Robin Hood varies massively and changes over time.
The comparison between the Brotherhood Without Banners and Robin Hood has been made by others. For instance, both groups contain skilled archers (Robin and Anguy), religious figures (Friar Tuck and Thoros of Myr), bard fighters (Alan-a-Dale and Tom O’ Sevenstreams) and prominent women (Maid Marian and Lady Stoneheart), indicating that these groups are probably meant to be compared. From our symbolic perspective, this may mean that there are themes and features of the Robin Hood mythology that may shed light on our interpretation of the outlaws in the “cripples, bastards and broken things” motif, and thus the archetypal Last Hero.
For our analysis here, it is important to note that Robin Hood is tightly linked to Sherwood Forest, with him and his band of Merry Men inhabiting the forest. This is very reminiscent of the Kingswood Brotherhood in particular, who are self-evidently associated with a forest, and which we outlined as a metaphor for greenseeing earlier. Similarly, Beric Dondarrion is associated with weirwood trees, as he is introduced to us sitting in a weirwood throne:
The voice came from the man seated amongst the weirwood roots halfway up the wall. (ASOS, Arya VI)
This ties in with our exploration of the broken motif so far, with greenseeing being one of the more frequent associations.
Importantly for the Last Hero archetype, Robin Hood is renowned for stealing and it seems that this is being applied to the outlaws in A Song of Ice and Fire. For instance, Beric Dondarrion is called a robber knight:
“It wasn’t for the pleasure of looking at your face, Dondarrion, I’ll tell you that. You’re uglier than me now. And a robber knight besides, it seems.”
“I gave you a note for your gold,” Lord Beric said calmly. “A promise to pay, when the war’s done.” (ASOS, Arya VII)
This occurs as Beric Dondarrion steals Sandor Clegane’s money and, notably, he has also ‘stolen’ Arya in order to obtain ransom money. Ransoming rich prisoners also appears to be connected enough to outlaws in Westeros that this is used to threaten Bran into behaving:
“The wolfswood is full of danger; your last ride should have taught you that. Would you want some outlaw to take you captive and sell you to the Lannisters?” (ACOK, Bran I)
Again, note that the outlaws are linked to a forest, this time the wolfswood, and kidnapping (i.e. stealing a person). This is much like Robin Hood in the early ballads, kidnapping and ransoming rich knights in Sherwood Forest.
The Smiling Knight, who we’ve been considering as a part of the Last Hero archetype, is also named a robber knight:
The outlaw’s longsword had so many notches by the end that Ser Arthur had stopped to let him fetch a new one. “It’s that white sword of yours I want,” the robber knight told him as they resumed, though he was bleeding from a dozen wounds by then. “Then you shall have it, ser,” the Sword of the Morning replied, and made an end of it. (ASOS, Jaime VIII)
Similarly, a prominent part of the ballad about the Kingswood Brotherhood is that they are thieves:
No man’s gold was safe from them,
nor any maiden’s hand.
Oh, the brothers of the Kingswood,
that fearsome outlaw band … (ASOS, Arya III)
Moreover, robber knights are equated with outlaws and broken men as well:
“I was hanging outlaws and robber knights when you were still shitting in your swaddling clothes. I am not like to go off and face Clegane and Dondarrion by myself, if that is what you fear, ser.” (AFFC, Jaime II)
Five hundred knights, blooded and seasoned veterans of the Stepstones, were formed into a new company under the command of Ser Tywin’s brother Ser Kevan, and charged with ridding the west of robber knights and outlaws. (TWOIAF, The Westerlands: House Lannister Under the Dragons)
Shunned and forgotten since Daemon Targaryen and his nephew Aemond had met there for their final flight, Black Harren’s accursed seat had become a haunt of outlaws, robber knights and broken men, who sallied forth from behind its walls to prey upon travelers, fisherfolk and farmers. (F&B Vol. I, Under the Regents: the Hooded Hand)
Some of the other Robin Hood parallels that we can draw with the various brotherhoods speak to the somewhat paradoxical nature of the symbolism of the Last Hero. We touched on this ‘paradoxical’ symbolism a little with the broken sword essay, in that the breaking of the sword and the forging of the sword appear to be the same event, such as Ice being broken and re-forged into Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail. Similarly, the ‘breaking’ of the man appeared to be the catalyst for their Last Hero transformation, as in the case of Bran’s fall or Jaime’s maiming.
Building on this, we see that the outlaws are frequently the ones dispensing true justice, while those who are acting within the law and with the power of the law are also depicted as unjust. For example, Robin Hood is renowned for stealing from the rich to give to the poor, in contrast to the avaricious Sheriff of Nottingham; Beric Dondarrion gives a trial to the Brave Companions and Sandor Clegane and protects the smallfolk of the riverlands from the occupying armies of Stark and Lannister where possible; and the Kingswood Brotherhood begin by protecting the smallfolk as well, as is implied by the following quote:
“If you want [the smallfolk’s] help, you need to make them love you. That was how Arthur Dayne did it, when we rode against the Kingswood Brotherhood. He paid the smallfolk for the food we ate, brought their grievances to King Aerys, expanded the grazing lands around their villages, even won them the right to fell a certain number of trees each year and take a few of the king’s deer during the autumn. The forest folk had looked to Toyne to defend them, but Ser Arthur did more for them than the Brotherhood could ever hope to do, and won them to our side.” (AFFC, Jaime V)
This suggests that the Last Hero could be someone thought of as an outlaw, but who actually tries to uphold justice and protect the population in some way. The Night’s Watch as an organisation would seem to embody this – they operate outside of the normal feudal system of Westeros (and thus its laws) and currently operate as a penal colony (and thus is full of people who have always operated outside of Westerosi law); however, they are also a defensive, protective force for the Seven Kingdoms.
In a similar vein, Robin Hood is also associated with supporting the true king, King Richard I, against the usurper, King John. This is quite similar to Beric Dondarrion and the Brotherhood without Banners, who assert that they remain King Robert’s men, despite the (many and various) other claimants to the throne:
“The king is dead,” the scarecrow knight admitted, “but we are still king’s men, though the royal banner we bore was lost at the Mummer’s Ford when your brother’s butchers fell upon us.” He touched his breast with a fist. “Robert is slain, but his realm remains. And we defend her.” (ASOS, Arya VI)
This could be considered paradoxical symbolism, in that the Brotherhood remain loyal to the king, whilst being named traitors; meanwhile the Lannisters (who name the Brotherhood traitors) are busy fighting on behalf of King Joffrey, who is illegitimate. This appears to be tied to the Last Hero motif, in that the Lannisters name the Brotherhood traitors and rebels when they are, in fact, talking to Yoren of the Night’s Watch:
“And who are you, old man? One of Lord Beric’s cravens?” called the knight in the spiked helm. “If that fat fool Thoros is in there, ask him how he likes these fires.”
“Got no such man here,” Yoren shouted back. “Only some lads for the Watch. Got no part o’ your war.” He hoisted up the staff, so they could all see the color of his cloak. “Have a look. That’s black, for the Night’s Watch.”
“Or black for House Dondarrion,” called the man who bore the enemy banner.
[…] “Open, or we’ll know you for outlaws in league with the king’s enemies.“
[…] “If you are no traitors, open your gates,” Ser Amory called. “We’ll make certain you’re telling it true and be on our way.”
[…] “So be it. You defy the king’s command, and so proclaim yourselves rebels, black cloaks or no.” (ACOK, Arya IV)
As the Night’s Watch are being mistaken for Beric Dondarrion’s brotherhood, this reinforces the already prominent symbolic connections we have seen between the two groups previously, as well as directly connecting the outlaw motif to the Night’s Watch and thus the Last Hero archetype. Importantly for our Robin Hood comparisons, we see that the Last Hero analogues are proclaimed as the traitors, despite not being involved in the war; whereas the Lannister forces are naming others as traitors, despite fighting for a usurper. Indeed, I think there are a number of Last Hero figures who stand accused of being traitors and turncloaks at points in the series (stares at Theon), but I’ll save that for another essay. However, it seems to fit in quite well with our discussion of Robin Hood and outlaws, so I thought it was worth mentioning.
The leavings of lords
One of the quotes I briefly mentioned above linked robber knights, outlaws and broken men:
Shunned and forgotten since Daemon Targaryen and his nephew Aemond had met there for their final flight, Black Harren’s accursed seat had become a haunt of outlaws, robber knights and broken men, who sallied forth from behind its walls to prey upon travelers, fisherfolk and farmers. (F&B Vol I, Under the Regents: The Hooded Hand)
Again we see that these men are “haunting” Harrenhal and the surrounding area, implicating ghosts and thus greenseeing again, tying us back to the themes and motifs we’ve been covering throughout.
For this section, though, it is important to note that these men are the broken men from the remnants of the Dance of the Dragons. This suggests that the defeated armies or deserters from armies can be considered a part of the cripples, bastards and broken things motif. This is something that we also saw as a part of the broken swords essay when the Blackfyre army was routed by a pincer movement from the Targaryens, called the Hammer and the Anvil. We use that event to support the idea that, symbolically, the event that causes the “breaking” is also the event that “forges” something new – the Hammer and Anvil used to forge a sword also breaks the army named after a sword. Now, we can tie this event into the broken men motif, as well as the broken sword motif, because they are a defeated army.
Another key example of defeated armies as broken men is King Stannis Baratheon’s defeat during the Battle of the Blackwater. Building upon the ice-to-fire transformation we discussed in the last essay, Stannis appears to have a number of clear Night’s King symbols in the run up to the Battle of the Blackwater, such as kinslaying, (apparent!) usurpation of a relative, and the creation of shadows, to name a few; however, he and his army are broken upon the Blackwater:
“It’s done! Done! Done! The city is saved. Lord Stannis is dead, Lord Stannis is fled, no one knows, no one cares, his host is broken, the danger’s done. Slaughtered, scattered, or gone over, they say.” (ACOK, Sansa VII)
“With Stannis broken and Renly dead, only a Stark victory can save [Vargo Hoat] from Lord Tywin’s vengeance, but the chances of that grow perishingly slim.” (ASOS, Jaime V)
Importantly, Stannis is described as “dead” and “broken” here: once again, this ties the idea of death (and resurrection) to the breaking event, as we have seen throughout the broken series. Nessie, aka @1QuestingBeast on Twitter and The Unspun Yarn on YouTube, has suggested that the term “host” in A Song of Ice and Fire could be a reference to the host as in the body of Christ during the Eucharist. As the Last Hero is a kind of saviour figure, we have been tracking a fair amount of Christian imagery throughout these essays and I thought it was important to note its use here, given that the breaking event appears to be Stannis’ transformation into a Last Hero archetype. After all, once Stannis’ army is broken, Stannis then heads north to defend the Night’s Watch from the wildling invasion – suggesting that Stannis is now (at least in this part) fulfilling the archetypal role of the Last Hero, protecting the Wall from an invasion from the north. We also know that the breaking of a body is a euphemism for the greenseer transformation, most explicitly with Bran the broken – we covered more examples of physical disability as the “breaking” event in the previous essay. As such, the breaking of Stannis’ host could be an allusion to the symbolic “breaking” of his body and this could be acting as a code for his (at least partial) Last Hero transformation.
We also see that this symbolism can apply to broken men as individuals from armies, in addition to the broken armies as a whole:
After that, hardly a hundred yards went by without a corpse. They dangled under ash and alder, beech and birch, larch and elm, hoary old willows and stately chestnut trees. Each man wore a noose around his neck, and swung from a length of hempen rope, and each man’s mouth was packed with salt. Some wore cloaks of grey or blue or crimson, though rain and sun had faded them so badly that it was hard to tell one color from another. Others had badges sewn on their breasts. Brienne spied axes, arrows, several salmon, a pine tree, an oak leaf, beetles, bantams, a boar’s head, half a dozen tridents. Broken men, she realized, dregs from a dozen armies, the leavings of the lords.
Some of the dead men had been bald and some bearded, some young and some old, some short, some tall, some fat, some thin. Swollen in death, with faces gnawed and rotten, they all looked the same. On the gallows tree, all men are brothers. (AFFC, Brienne VII)
These men are called broken men and are clearly from multiple armies, given the variety of cloak colors and sigils. Importantly, as they have been hanged, these broken men have undergone a death transformation, which has been a consistent part of the motif we have explored so far. As has been explained elsewhere, death by hanging can be considered an allusion to greenseeing as it is an allusion to Odin hanging on Yggdrasil and greenseer symbolism frequently draws from this aspect of Norse myth. Indeed, these broken men share symbolism with Bloodraven, a literal greenseer, as both are depicted as corpses amongst the trees, again suggesting that these broken men are being depicted as symbolic greenseers.
Importantly, Brienne thinks that “on the gallows tree, all men are brothers” – one translation of Yggdrasil refers to this as the gallows horse, again referring to Odin hanging on Yggdrasil so this acts as another reference to greenseeing. More importantly, these men are referred to as brothers, which reminds us of the Brotherhood without Banners or the Kingswood Brotherhood. This suggests that these broken men are likely symbolic outlaws as well. Another brotherhood we’ve tied into the broken man motif is the Night’s Watch, who refer to the members of their organisation as brothers. Indeed, these broken men are described as “improved by death”:
“The sun will soon be setting, and corpses make poor company by night. These were dark and dangerous men, alive. I doubt that death will have improved them.“
“There we disagree,” said Ser Hyle. “These are just the sort of fellows who are most improved by death.” (AFFC, Brienne VII)
This quote has been used elsewhere to suggest that the improvement is likely a reference to the undead Night’s Watch – an implication that is supported by the sunset, i.e. the start of the (Long) night.
So, how exactly are these men improved by becoming corpses? This, I think, goes back to our discussion of ice-to-fire transformations, as we covered in the last essay. These men were hanged for their role in the raid on Saltpans, the description of which sounds like an archetypal Others attack:
“He [the Hound] was seen,” Ser Arwood said. “That helm of his is not easily mistaken, nor forgotten, and there were a few who survived to tell the tale. The girl he raped, some boys who hid, a woman we found trapped beneath a blackened beam, the fisherfolk who watched the butchery from their boats . . .”
“Do not call it butchery,” Lady Mariya said softly. “That gives insult to honest butchers everywhere. Saltpans was the work of some fell beast in human skin.” (AFFC, Jaime IV)
The word butchery is closely related to the actions of the Others (the killing of Ser Waymar Royce is called “cold butchery”, for instance). Moreover, “some fell beast in human skin” sounds a lot like human skinchanging. In fact, the blame falls on the Hound, but at this point of the story Brienne and company have been told that the Hound is dead. We know those facts aren’t true, but facts don’t matter in 2020 with symbolism. As such, this suggests that wighting a corpse is being symbolised, something that is most associated with the Others. We later learn that it is Rorge who is wearing the helm of the Hound, again suggesting this kind of wighting and therefore Others symbolism. It also suggests that Rorge is using “The Hound” or the image of the Hound as a scapegoat for his own crimes – as Bronsterys is alluding to in his excellent essay about the Others. In case that wasn’t enough Others symbolism, we know that Rorge and company are remnants of the Brave Companions, the sellsword company formerly led by Vargo Hoat. We have done a mini-dive into the Brave Companions with reference to their symbolism when they maimed Jaime, and again we found a ton of Others symbolism with the Brave Companions, such as the lazy slap imitating the lazy parry of the Others (AGOT Prologue) or the arakh “shivering” down to cut off Jaime’s hand. As such, it seems likely that the company as a whole may continue to have Others symbolism as they raid Saltpans.
Altogether, this suggests that these broken men acted like Others during the raid on Saltpans and became Last Hero archetypes, as symbolised by their hanging on the gallows tree. Importantly, with their faded cloaks of many colours and sigils from many houses, these broken men who are now symbolically Night’s Watch men are implied as deserters, which leads us on to our next section.
Jon Snow and the seventy-nine sentinels
We find that the Night’s Watch as an organisation is consistently associated with desertion. For instance, we see Gared executed for desertion in the very first main chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire:
“The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. (AGOT, Bran I)
Given that desertion appears to be one aspect of the broken man motif, it seems important to note that the first deserter we hear of is a deserter from the Night’s Watch who faced the Others. Moreover, we are told time and time again that desertion from the Night’s Watch means death:
“In truth, the man was an oathbreaker, a deserter from the Night’s Watch. No man is more dangerous. The deserter knows his life is forfeit if he is taken, so he will not flinch from any crime, no matter how vile.” (AGOT, Bran I)
“You have learned the words of the vow. Think carefully before you say them, for once you have taken the black, there is no turning back. The penalty for desertion is death.” (AGOT, Jon VI)
And how does Gared die? Well, he dies very much like a sacrifice to a tree:
Finally his lord father gave a command, and two of his guardsmen dragged the ragged man to the ironwood stump in the center of the square. They forced his head down onto the hard black wood.
His father took off the man’s head with a single sure stroke. Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched. (AGOT, Bran I)
This implies that deserters are sacrificed to the tree as a part of their punishment for desertion, with the blood presented as a sacrifice to the weirwood trees. Hey, doesn’t that sound a lot like our Last Hero’s death transformation? Like when Waymar Royce was killed in a grove of trees with blood in the snow (AGOT, Prologue)? And when Beric Dondarrion died in the trial by combat in a hollow hill with weirwood roots and the dirt drank his blood (ASOS, Arya VII)? And when the unnamed captive is sacrificed to the weirwood tree in Bran’s vision and Bran thinks he could taste the blood (ADWD, Bran III)? I think this shows that the execution of the deserter symbolises their return to (or transformation into) the Last Hero.
One of the more famous examples of Night’s Watch deserters is the story of the seventy-nine sentinels:
“There are ghosts here,” Bran said. Hodor had heard all the stories before, but Jojen might not have. “Old ghosts, from before the Old King, even before Aegon the Dragon, seventy-nine deserters who went south to be outlaws. One was Lord Ryswell’s youngest son, so when they reached the barrowlands they sought shelter at his castle, but Lord Ryswell took them captive and returned them to the Nightfort. The Lord Commander had holes hewn in the top of the Wall and he put the deserters in them and sealed them up alive in the ice. They have spears and horns and they all face north. The seventy-nine sentinels, they’re called. They left their posts in life, so in death their watch goes on forever. Years later, when Lord Ryswell was old and dying, he had himself carried to the Nightfort so he could take the black and stand beside his son. He’d sent him back to the Wall for honor’s sake, but he loved him still, so he came to share his watch.” (ASOS, Bran IV)
These are Night’s Watch men who desert the Wall to go south, indicating that the motif of desertion is so important to the Watch symbolism that it gets its own mythology. These deserters end up in the barrowlands, which implies that these characters symbolically die when they go south – after all, the barrowlands are so named for the number of graves in the region, giving it huge symbolic underworld vibes. After this symbolic death, the deserters are returned to the Wall and literally are transformed into guards for the Night’s Watch forever. This fits with the idea of the undead Night’s Watch, that has been proposed elsewhere. They also get their own greenseer symbolism, being linked to ghosts and to sentinels i.e. sentinel trees. This suggests that their death transformation is also a symbolic greenseer transformation, which we have been tracking as a part of the broken series.
Now, the eagle-eyed amongst you (like my good friend, Bronsterys, noted when he proof-read the essay) will have spotted that these Night’s Watch men are called outlaws when they go south. This isn’t quite in line with the outlaw symbolism we looked at earlier in the essay – after all, deserting the Watch is not a particularly Last Hero thing to do. I have some ideas as to why this may be, building on the idea of usurping or corrupting a protective force but those will take us on a very long tangent so we’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, I think the main take-home point is that the seventy-nine sentinels are deserters, who are returned to the Wall and act like undead greenseer Night’s Watch figures, just like our Last Hero.
Speaking of undead greenseer folks, Bloodraven is a greenseer who looks like a corpse:
Seated on his throne of roots in the great cavern, half-corpse and half-tree, Lord Brynden seemed less a man than some ghastly statue made of twisted wood, old bone, and rotted wool. The only thing that looked alive in the pale ruin that was his face was his one red eye, burning like the last coal in a dead fire, surrounded by twisted roots and tatters of leathery white skin hanging off a yellowed skull. (ADWD, Bran III)
This is important to mention here, because Bloodraven appears to be one of the few people aware of the imminent Long Night 2.0 and is working against that by working with Coldhands, the children of the forest and Bran. It’s important to mention Bloodraven here because he is a Night’s Watch deserter.
Bloodraven would rise to become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in 239 AC, serving until his disappearance during a ranging beyond the Wall in 252 AC. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon V)
This again pits a true Last Hero greenseer type figure, Bloodraven, as a Night’s Watch deserter.
This desertion symbolism is also reinforced by prime Last Hero figure Jon Snow, who just will not stop deserting. First, he starts to ride south to be with Robb in A Game of Thrones; then he joins the wildlings in Storm; and then he decides to march on Winterfell in Dance – and each of these desertions includes a symbolic breaking event. To date, two of three result in him returning to the Watch (I presume we’ll be three for three at some point in Winds or Dream, when we see the resolution of events after Jon’s death).
We have already analysed one of Jon’s breaking events; that of Jon’s thigh wound:
Long hours later, the rain stopped. Jon found himself alone in a sea of tall black grass. There was a deep throbbing ache in his right thigh. When he looked down, he was surprised to see an arrow jutting out the back of it. When did that happen? (ASOS, Jon V)
In the previous essay, we noted that this was a symbolic castration as per the Fisher King mythology, with the Fisher King receiving a thigh wound as a santised symbol of their castration. As you may recall, the Fisher King mythology appears to be a piece of real-world mythology being utilised as a part of the greenseer collection of symbols. This arrow wound to the thigh therefore suggests that Jon has acquired some greenseer symbolism here as a part of his symbolic Last Hero transformation.
More importantly for our essay, Jon acquires this wound when deciding to return to the Watch, after playing the deserter with the wildlings:
“You’ve been charged with oathbreaking, cowardice, and desertion, Jon Snow. Do you deny that you abandoned your brothers to die on the Fist of the First Men and joined the wildling Mance Rayder, this self-styled King-beyond-the-Wall?” (ASOS, Jon IX)
As has been noted elsewhere, the wildlings frequently symbolise the Others and, as such, Jon’s fake desertion from the Watch is a symbolic transformation into an Other. His return to the Watch is therefore his transformation (back?) into the Last Hero archetype, and is accompanied by the breaking event, i.e. his symbolic castration. As you may recall from the last essay, the healing of Jon’s symbolic castration is described in language a lot like the forging of Lightbringer, suggesting some Azor Ahai-as-hero vibes. In addition, Aemon defends Jon by saying he “took the Wall, and held it, against all the fury of the north” (ASOS, Jon IX), which again sounds like a very Last Hero thing to do. Altogether then, this faux-desertion and real-return to the Watch is very reminiscent of the seventy-nine sentinels who, upon being returned to the Wall, symbolically become the very best Night’s Watch men – eternally guarding the Walls, facing North to defend the Wall.
Similarly, although we haven’t seen the full ramifications of this play out yet, Jon Snow was all set to desert at the end of his final ADWD chapter:
Jon flexed the fingers of his sword hand. The Night’s Watch takes no part. He closed his fist and opened it again. What you propose is nothing less than treason.
“No. I ride south.”
“The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. “It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words … but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.
“The Night’s Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless …” Jon paused. “… is there any man here who will come stand with me?” (ADWD, Jon XII)
As a result of his desertion (in word if not yet in deed), Jon is killed by his own men at the Wall. Importantly, the very first wound is a neck wound, very much like a sacrifice – for instance, the sacrifice of animals as a part of real-world religious rituals – and occurs just after Jon Snow, the Lord Commander, thinks that he needs a horn. The sacrificed horned lord imagery depicted here is a huge part of A Song of Ice and Fire symbolism, and so it seems very important to note that this imagery appears right as our traditional Last Hero figure forswears their vows. To me, it seems highly reminiscent of Gared, the deserter executed on the stump of a tree which then drank his blood – again, we’re seeing similar death and sacrifice imagery around the deserters.
The last Jon Snow desertion we’ll cover today (although the first chronologically) occurs in A Game of Thrones, Jon IX, shortly after Ned’s execution and it’s a doozy so we’ll be covering it in a lot of detail. (Huge thanks to Bronsterys for pointing this chapter out to me!!)
We start the chapter with one of the clearest symbols of the Long Night:
Wind whispered through the stable, a cold dead breath on his face, but Jon paid it no mind. (AGOT, Jon IX)
The “cold winds” are a clear indication of the Others, as is mentioned in the common phrase “the cold winds are rising” alluding to the return of the Others. Moreover, the Others are depicted as being the avatars of death in a sense, as the antithesis to the warmth of life (ACOK, Jon VII). This should therefore give us a clue that much of what is happening in this chapter pertains to symbolism surrounding the Long Night.
The first thing that happens is that deserter, Jon Snow, rides down Sam Tarly:
For an instant Sam stood his ground, his face as round and pale as the moon behind him, his mouth a widening O of surprise. At the last moment, when they were almost on him, he jumped aside as Jon had known he would, stumbled, and fell. The mare leapt over him, out into the night. (AGOT, Jon IX)
Sam accrues some hella Last Hero vibes during the series, like being the only member of the Night’s Watch to kill an Other and being the last of 13 to arrive back from Craster’s Keep, reminding us of the Last Hero and his twelve companions. Moreover, Jon thinks soon after that Sam may have broken his wrist in the fall:
He hoped Sam hadn’t hurt himself, falling like that. He was so heavy and so ungainly, it would be just like him to break a wrist or twist his ankle getting out of the way. (AGOT, Jon IX)
This suggests that Sam is acting like the Night’s Watch/Last Hero figure, as he is being broken by Jon (yes, this does place Jon as an archetypal Other/Night’s King character in this particular exchange). In addition, Sam is described as a moon figure here (“his face as round and pale as the moon behind him”), so Jon thinking that Sam may have broken his wrist makes Sam a symbolic broken moon, a huge signifier of Long Night symbolism.
As Jon rides south, he muses on the potential consequences of his actions and, as with any deserter from the Night’s Watch, he thinks that he will die:
He was clad in black from head to heel […] Any bit of it could mean his death if he were taken. (AGOT, Jon IX)
He found himself thinking of the deserter his father had beheaded the day they’d found the direwolves. “You said the words,” Lord Eddard had told him. “You took a vow, before your brothers, before the old gods and the new.” Desmond and Fat Tom had dragged the man to the stump. Bran’s eyes had been wide as saucers, and Jon had to remind him to keep his pony in hand. He remembered the look on Father’s face when Theon Greyjoy brought forth Ice, the spray of blood on the snow, the way Theon had kicked the head when it came rolling at his feet. (AGOT Jon IX)
This symbolically reminds us of the sacrificial imagery around Gared’s execution. As such, we can see that Jon (kind of) symbolically died the moment he chose to desert the Watch. Importantly, Jon thinks he would prefer not to die “trussed and bound and beheaded like a common brigand” – again, this ties the deserter imagery to the outlaw imagery, and thus to the “cripples, bastards and broken things” motif as we have seen throughout this essay so far.
Unsurprisingly (if you’ve read been reading any of the broken essays), we also see a ton of greenseer imagery. For starters, Jon has Ghost the wolf with him throughout this scene, who has white fur and red eyes exactly like a weirwood tree, and whose name appears to be a symbolic reference to greenseers. In another example, Jon takes a break from his ride to sit under a tree and eat an apple:
Jon sat under the trees and ate his biscuit and cheese while his mare grazed along the kingsroad. He kept the apple for last. It had gone a little soft, but the flesh was still tart and juicy. He was down to the core when he heard the sounds: horses, and from the north. (AGOT, Jon IX)
As has been outlined in this Twitter thread, people sitting under trees frequently appears to be a greenseer reference. We saw one example of this in the previous essay, when Lommy Greenhands was sat underneath the oak tree with a leg wound and killed, very much like a sacrifice to the tree. More obviously, Bloodraven, an actual literal greenseer, sits underneath a weirwood tree entangled in its roots, so Jon sitting under the tree would appear to be a representation of him symbolically becoming a greenseer. Importantly, Jon sits under the tree to eat an apple, which is likely a reference to the Garden of Eden myth – the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is often depicted as an apple, thus associating apples with the fire of the gods (aka the knowledge and power of the gods). In A Song of Ice and Fire, the knowledge and power of the gods is greenseeing and is acquired by eating the seeds of the weirwood tree (and potentially a good friend *coughJojenPastecough*, but that bit is less important here). As such, symbolically, Jon sitting beneath a tree and eating an apple can be considered as him becoming a greenseer.
Similarly, Jon uses the trees to hide himself from his black brother friends who’ve come to find him:
He led the mare off the road, behind a thick stand of grey-green sentinels. “Quiet now,” he said in a hushed voice, crouching down to peer through the branches. (AGOT, Jon IX)
Jon is hiding behind some sentinel trees, reminding us of the seventy-nine sentinels who deserted from the Nightfort, and he is peering through the branches, which sounds like he is using the tree to see, again providing us with some of those greenseer vibes.
Despite his best efforts, Jon’s friends find him (thanks in no small part to Ghost having none of Jon’s shit). This leads to a confrontation between Jon and his friends, where we get this interesting description:
“Stay back,” Jon warned him, brandishing his sword. “I mean it, Pyp.” They weren’t even wearing armor, he could cut them to pieces if he had to. (AGOT, Jon IX)
As Bronsterys has brilliantly described in this essay, the lack of armour is a clear Last Hero reference. Again, we can see this as Jon-Night’s King confronting a group of Night’s Watch-Last Hero figures – unlike the start of this chapter, where Jon-Night’s King rides down Sam-Last Hero, the Last Hero figures manage to surround and subdue Jon. They do this by reciting the vows of the Night’s Watch at Jon, which is kind of like they are re-inducting him to the order. I noted in the previous essay that broken oaths and broken words At the end of the passage, Ghost emerges:
Ghost moved out from under the trees and Jon glared at him. “Small help you were,” he said. The deep red eyes looked at him knowingly. (AGOT, Jon IX)
While there is not a literal weirwood tree for Jon to say his oath to, Ghost symbolically acts like the weirwood tree, via his coloring, his name and his appearance from “under the trees”. This “re-induction” is a lot like what we see with the seventy-nine sentinels, who are returned to the Wall and become eternal watchmen, buried in the ice, and suggests that Jon is (for the time being) an archetypal Last Hero figure. This is in line with the Other-to-Last Hero transformation which we saw in the previous essay.
Honor is another point of comparison between the seventy nine sentinels and Jon’s desertion in this chapter:
The Old Bear snorted. “Do you think they chose me Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch because I’m dumb as a stump, Snow? Aemon told me you’d go. I told him you’d be back. I know my men … and my boys too. Honor set you on the kingsroad … and honor brought you back.”
“My friends brought me back,“ Jon said.
“Did I say it was your honor?” (AGOT, Jon IX)
“Years later, when Lord Ryswell was old and dying, he had himself carried to the Nightfort so he could take the black and stand beside his son. He’d sent him back to the Wall for honor’s sake, but he loved him still, so he came to share his watch.” (ASOS, Bran IV)
Here, we see that honour returns the deserters to the Night’s Watch but, importantly, it is someone else’s honour; Jon’s friends’ honour in the first case and Lord Ryswell’s honour in the second. Indeed, throughout this chapter, Jon is obsessed with his honour, and doing the honourable thing, and leaving Longclaw behind because he isn’t “lost to honour” and trying to work out whether Aemon’s choice to stay at the Wall in the face of the complete destruction of his family was honourable. It’s almost like honour is a theme George is exploring or something. I don’t have any firm conclusions on honour symbolism as yet (it’s on the very long to-do list), but I wanted to note that the Night’s Watch pledge their life and honour to the Night’s Watch, and Qhorin tells Jon that “our honor means no more than our lives, so long as the realm is safe” (ACOK, Jon VIII). In context, this is Qhorin telling Jon to fake his desertion to the wildlings, meaning that Jon will be considered as a traitor and an oathbreaker by many, thus sacrificing his honour by all appearances (even though he’s actually keeping his vows). In contrast, Jon as intended true deserter here (and thus symbolic Night’s King) is obsessed with keeping his honour, even as the acts he engages in are dishonourable. Again, it seems like we could be dealing with that same paradoxical symbolism we have seen throughout these essays – the breaking event is also the (re-)forging event; the outlaws dispense justice, while the lawful rulers act unjustly (link section); the Night’s Watch men most willing to sacrifice the outward appearance of their own honour are actually the most honorable (side eyes Jaime, the sometime Last Hero with “shit for honour”).
Altogether, this would appear to depict Jon Snow deserting the Watch at the start of the (Long) night, in a kind of Night’s King transformation, and then being transformed into the Last Hero at the end of the (Long) night. This is exactly the kind of ice-to-fire transformation we discussed in the previous essay. This is reinforced by the language around dawn:
When day broke, Jon walked to the kitchens as he did every dawn. (AGOT, Jon IX)
Importantly, we see daybreak. As we discussed in the broken swords essay, the sword Dawn does not break in the duel between Ser Arthur Dayne (symbolic Other) and the Smiling Knight (symbolic Last Hero), which we interpreted as a metaphor for the Long Night – the night is long because dawn never breaks. So Jon’s return to the Wall being accompanied with daybreak would, symbolically, appear to be a good sign. Indeed, after a brief chat with Jeor Mormont, Jon re-affirms his commitment to the Watch because he is reminded of the wights and the true war:
“The cold winds are rising, Snow. Beyond the Wall, the shadows lengthen.”
[…] “When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?”
[…] “All I know is that the blood of the First Men flows in the veins of the Starks. The First Men built the Wall, and it’s said they remember things otherwise forgotten. And that beast of yours … he led us to the wights, warned you of the dead man on the steps. Ser Jaremy would doubtless call that happenstance, yet Ser Jaremy is dead and I’m not.”
[…] “So I will have an answer from you, Lord Snow, and I will have it now. Are you a brother of the Night’s Watch … or only a bastard boy who wants to play at war?”
Jon Snow straightened himself and took a long deep breath. Forgive me, Father. Robb, Arya, Bran … forgive me, I cannot help you. He has the truth of it. This is my place. “I am … yours, my lord. Your man. I swear it. I will not run again.” (AGOT, Jon IX)
This again reinforces the idea of Jon as an archetypal Last Hero, heading north into the deadlands to face the Others.
And it wouldn’t be a good chapter of Long Night symbolism without an allusion to Lightbringer, of course:
“Your brother is in the field with all the power of the north behind him. Any one of his lords bannermen commands more swords than you’ll find in all the Night’s Watch. Why do you imagine that they need your help? Are you such a mighty warrior, or do you carry a grumkin in your pocket to magic up your sword?” (AGOT, Jon IX)
The term “magic sword” is used almost exclusively to refer to Stannis’ Lightbringer or the myth of Lightbringer’s forging, so Jon having a grumkin in his pocket to “magic up his sword” is likely an allusion to Lightbringer.
So, I think that about does it for Jon’s desertions, and I think this demonstrates that a core part of the archetypal Last Hero’s transformation is that they are a deserter at some point, and their return to the Wall sees them executed (or symbolically sacrificed) to turn them into the best defense against the Others.
And the man breaks…
The arch-desertion story is Septon Meribald’s broken man speech (and S/O to the fabulous Scad for his performance of this speech at Ice and Fire Con a few years ago). As you may recall the prelude to this speech is another reference equating outlaws and broken men:
“Lord Randyll has better ways to deal with broken men—steel and hempen rope.”
“Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “Is a broken man an outlaw?”
“More or less,” Brienne answered. (AFFC, Brienne V)
Again, we see this link between broken men and outlaws, with the death-by-hanging greenseer metaphor as a core part of the cripples, bastards and broken men motif. This segues into Septon Meribald’s description of broken men, which I just cannot cut:
“Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They’ve heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.
“Then they get a taste of battle.
“For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe.
“They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now.”(AFFC, Brienne V)
We see that the smallfolk being mentioned by Septon Meribald are very much like green boys when they begin the war; notably, they begin the war by seeking “glory”. This should give us an early heads-up that the man before he breaks does not fit into the Night’s Watch/Last Hero archetype, as the Night’s Watch specifically swear to “win no glory”. Importantly, the men who have tasted battle and not broken also have subtle Other or ice-wight symbolism – they are described as “Others [who] go on for years” and serve “some other lord”, which seems like it could be another “other”/Others double entendre. This symbolism would seem to be reinforced by the “fathers los[ing] their sons”, which is very reminiscent of Craster sacrificing his sons to the Others. Sons dying before fathers would also seem to imply an upturning of the natural order of the world, which is a motif that recurs a lot around symbolic Long Night events.
The pre-broken men also appear to engage in acts that seem very similar to the raid on Saltpans:
“If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too.” (AFFC, Brienne V)
Again, we see the Others symbolism here in the slaughtering of sheep again reminds us of Craster, sacrificing his sheep to the Others once he has run out of sons. In addition, these pre-broken men carry off daughters, which is a signature move of the wildling raiders, who frequently appear to represent the Others themselves. I’m sure some of you are pointing out the apparently contradictory thief symbolism here – these pre-broken men that I’m pitching as Others are stealing, but I previously indicated that was a Last Hero thing (link section). However, I think there is an important distinction here: these pre-broken men are stealing from the smallfolk, which is the opposite of Robin Hood-esque outlaws stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
And then we get the all-important breaking event:
“And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world . . .
“And the man breaks.” (AFFC, Brienne V)
The knights themselves are the ones who cause the man to break, and they have a ton of Others symbolism which has been described by Bronsterys: they are knights, charging forward, heavily armoured and so on. As we have discussed in a couple of places so far in this series, the Others figure appears to be the one who breaks the sword, so it seems fitting that the Others archetype is the one who breaks the man.
“He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man.” (AFFC, Brienne V)
The broken man is depicted here as a deserter and a coward, motifs that both appear to be related to the Night’s Watch and Last Hero archetype – I have a number of ideas about cowardice and bravery as it pertains to the Last Hero and Others, but those will take some extra essays to explain, so I’m afraid you’ll have to take me on trust here. Importantly, after the breaking event, the broken man lives “more beast than man”, which is suggestive of a skinchanger and potentially a symbolic second life within their animal. This is likely to parallel Jon Snow’s death at the hands of the Night’s Watch, one of Jon’s breaking events. In addition, the broken man forgets about his home, which appears to parallel the resurrected Beric Dondarrion’s loss of memory:
“Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair.” (ASOS, Arya VII)
Returning to Septon Meribald’s speech, we then learn that he speaks so powerfully and eloquently of broken men because he fought in the War of the Ninepenny Kings and likely was a broken man himself:
“The War of the Ninepenny Kings?” asked Hyle Hunt.
“So they called it, though I never saw a king, nor earned a penny. It was a war, though. That it was.” (AFFC, Brienne V)
*shiver* ooh, I get chills every time, it’s so good.
Anyway, with the idea of Septon Meribald as a broken man, we can use what we know of the rest of his life to work out more about the Last Hero motif. Notably, Septon Meribald is a lone wanderer with animal companions (his donkey and his dog), which sounds a lot like a skinchanger type – the Last Hero of course setting out in his travels with his dozen companions, his horse and his dog. It is also highly reminiscent of Coldhands (an undead Night’s Watch man and probable skinchanger), wandering alone north of the Wall with his elk and ravens as companions. Septon Meribald indicates that his wandering is a penance for his sins earlier in life, reminding us of the Night’s Watch’s purpose as a penal colony and the truest of the Night’s Watch characters (symbolically) being those who were punished for desertion. Moreover, when Septon Meribald and company encounter the Brotherhood without Banners, Septon Meribald is allowed to travel onwards in his circuit of the Riverlands, which suggests (at least symbolically) a level of collaboration between the Brotherhood and the septon. Given the seemingly never-ending connections between the Brotherhood without Banners and the cripples, bastards and broken things motif, this symbolism may also transfer onto Septon Meribald, himself a likely broken man. It also ties the outlaws to the broken man motif once more, in case you hadn’t .
Overall, Septon Meribald and the broken man speech appears to show, quite clearly, a transformation process – from naïve green boy, to an Other soldier, and then the breaking event catalysing the Last Hero transformation.
As we covered in the last essay, the Last Hero appears to have come from the Others and symbolically is a broken man, as we covered in the last essay. Septon Meribald’s speech gives us a clear indication of one of the Last Hero’s breaking events – they deserted the Others.
Wow, I feel like we have covered a lot in this essay, so let’s recap.
We started off by discussing the Brotherhood without Banners and the Kingswood Brotherhood, and worked out that the outlaw motif is connected to the cripples, bastards and broken things motif. In turn, we (re-)discovered that the outlaws are connected to the Night’s Watch and Last Hero archetype, via the many references to greenseeing and death/resurrection. We also noted that there are many parallels between the legends of Robin Hood and some of the patterns we’re seeing around our outlaw Last Hero archetypes.
We saw that many of the “outlaws and broken men” quotes refer to defeated armies or deserters. With that in mind, we found that the Night’s Watch as an organisation is renowned for desertion, given that we are introduced to a deserter of the Night’s Watch in the first main chapter of the series and we see Jon Snow deserting constantly. Importantly, the execution of the Night’s Watch men often represent a symbolic sacrifice and a transformation into the Last Hero, as is demonstrated by the execution of Gared and the seventy-nine sentinels.
This led to our discussion of the broken man speech from Septon Meribald, which recounts the hypothetical smallfolk deserting their armies. In this speech, we see a clear transformation into an Other-like ravenous figure of destruction, the breaking event and the transformation in to the Last Hero archetype.
Together, the analysis of Jon Snow’s desertions, the seventy-nine sentinels and the broken man speech suggests another way that the Last Hero could have broken – the Last Hero may have deserted from the Others.
So where to next?
I think this essay has opened up a couple of avenues of research within the Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things series. Firstly, the outlaws and desertion motifs introduces the idea that turncloaks, traitors and rebels may also be involved in this constellation of symbolism – think here of Theon Turncloak, or the outlaw groups and Night’s Watch men being accused of being traitors and rebels. Secondly, this suggests that oathbreakers and broken words may be closely tied to this symbolism – Jon stands accused of oathbreaking, for instance, and we saw last time that oathbreaking is very associated with Jaime. I’m not sure which of these analyses I’ll do first, but they’re coming (hopefully) soon.
In addition, I want to compare bravery and cowardice in the series, as I believe there is some of that great paradoxical Others/Last Hero symbolism buried in there. I might use what we’ve learned about the Brave Companions over the past couple of essays to dive a little bit into that and take a break (lol) from some of this broken symbolism.
Thanks as always for your time in reading this essay! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this essay – you can add a comment on the essay below, or say hi to me over on Twitter @elsmith1994. If you enjoyed this essay and would like to check out more like it, a list of my essays can be found here and my good friend, Bronsterys, has some amazing essays which can be found here.
See you soon and continue supporting Black Lives Matter!
Archmaester Emma x