You Know Nothing, Jon Snow – A Character Study

We haven’t done much with Game of Thrones in a while, but with the show returning early next month, the excitement is filling us again. As such, it’s time to look at a few of the characters, and be thinking about what’s up with them, both in what has already happened in the show, and then into the future from the books.

Today I wanted to talk about Jon Snow. While all of George R.R. Martin’s characters are strong, have their own motivations and plans, some see more development than others. And this may be more true for Jon Snow than for anyone else. As the bastard brother living in the shadow of future lords and kings, he was young, naive, and had no real prospects at the beginning of the tale. From there, he becomes our main eyes in the north, the one who really learns what is going on in this world.

Alright, I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers for the most part, but from here there be spoilers. I’ll move chronologically so if you find yourself reaching the point where you’re caught up… read beyond that at your own risk!

The Man in Black

Filled with youthful thoughts of honor, valor, and duty, it’s really no surprise that Jon Snow is talked into joining the Night’s Watch. This is really one of the first things we see in the books, and it is how we are really introduced to this character. The young boy, outcast in his own family, who gets the runt, albino dire wolf. Leaving because the best he can probably hope for is glory in the Night’s Watch.

However, we quickly find there is not much left of the Night’s Watch – they are few, the best of them have grown old, and the younger ones are nothing of the calibre of those who came before them. Jon Snow is easily the best among them, the one who’s had fighting training, who has actually chosen to be there.

So early on he must go from the humble and low place he starts from, and learn humility. While he was the least among his household, his household was still one of the most powerful in the world – and his life was pretty good. He spends much of the first book learning humility, and growing as a character that way.

However, when he hears of what has happened to his family, heard that his brother has gone to war, he wants to give up everything to go join him. He has not fully understood that his decision was a life decision – if he leaves, it means death. Or maybe, he pushes this out of his mind, because the place he ended up was not the place he meant to be. The Night’s Watch was not the strong bulwark of civilization. But stay he must – and his friends remind him of this; his new brothers.

The other thing Jon learns, importantly, in the first book is that the White Walkers have returned. He kills a zombie-man, only burning down part of a tower to do it. Probably a win.

It is critical, I think, that you have this character who has learned important aspects of humility and leadership, of duty despite reality, at the same place where the ultimate battle is going to be taking place. When the walkers come, and they will, the Wall is where the action will be, and it’s someone like Jon Snow you need there.

Crow No More

While the second book (and season) are interesting with Jon exploring out into the north with the Night’s Watch – and while we learn things about it, and find that the Night’s Watch still has a bit of its old mettle to it, this part is not so much the point for Jon Snow.

No, what is the point is what he then does, for duty, following orders: abandon the Night’s Watch, join the Wildlings, and even kill one of his mentors. Then, he has to lie about his purposes, breaks his vows just about every way they can be broken, and he really just falls apart.

He reaches a point where he no longer knows whether, given the opportunity, he would return to the Night’s Watch. Also, he doesn’t know if he could – would they believe his story, believe he was following orders? Or would they kill him for a turncloak?

Complicating matters to no end is Ygritte, the Wildling woman who has claimed Jon Snow as her own. Though she learns a bit about life to the south from him, he learns far more from her – because as she famously, and constantly, points out to him, he knows nothing.

He learns much of the Wildlings, meeting their leader, Mance Rayder, and most of the tribal leaders. And amongst all these people, they are also agreed that Jon is one of them – at least, insofar as they don’t kill him on sight. Their belief does not make Jon’s life or work any easier. Here he ends up with yet another adoptive family, and he is in another place where he could be happy.

Or at least, and especially, with Ygritte, he is happy. In another life, he could see the two of them happy. He hopes they can run away, get away from all of the people – Wildling and Night’s Watch – who would kill them. But they’re both fighters, and in the end, neither of them would have been happy with that life. But they might have had a short-lived happiness in each other. But no, that is not the life for Jon Snow.

Crow Again, Crow Again, Jiggety-Jig

So that’s where Jon Snow was left at the end of the last season, as they split book three in half. He has left the Wildlings, and fled back to the Night’s Watch. If that’s where you’re at, this would be a good point to turn back.

This season is going to be a really good one for Jon Snow. He’s spent two and a half books – or three seasons – learning. Because really, he knew nothing. But he’s learned a level of humility, earned the respect of his peers – and the leadership – in doing so. He’s learned of the continued existence of their ancient enemy – once thought dead. And he’s learned about the Wildlings, their leaders, their ways, and the fear they hold for the White Walkers as well.

But most importantly, he’s learned that the Wildlings are coming.

This is the information that he is going to bring back, and prepare the Night’s Watch with. This season sees him turning on the Wildlings, defending his brothers in arms, turning their advantages against them, and just generally switching sides. Again.

It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be epic, and it’s going to be sad by the end. Because to really make Jon Snow’s character as sad and lonely as it is, he of course has to kill Ygritte. His one chance at happiness, and it’s not only taken away from him, but it’s his fault. At a distance, with an arrow, so he didn’t have to face it – the only way he could have done it.

Into the Later Seasons

Jon Snow was annoyingly absent in the fourth book, but I imagine they will be combining four and five into two or three seasons to get through that. At the end of three, and into five, Jon Snow and Night’s Watch are joined by Stannis and his group, Melisandre and her prophecies and god.

Jon Snow, leader of the Night’s Watch, then decides to get rid of his one remaining friend – Sam Tarly – and send him down to train as a maester. Once again he is alone.

However, it’s a good decision. A strong decision. They need a new maester, and Sam is the perfect choice. And he makes a far better decision, though no one gets it. He invites the Wildlings to join them.

All of his learning, everything he has been through, pay off so well. As he realizes who the real enemy is, and brings in a whole army of people to join the cause. To fight the White Walkers. The Night’s Watch was stretched to hold three castles, but they can do so much more with the addition of these new troops.

No one else in Westeros could have or would have made this decision. They would have fought the war to beat them, or left them on the other side of the Wall – where they would have died and ended up becoming walkers themselves. Which would have surely doomed the realm. Jon Snow is vital in the survival of the realm.

So… then there’s where he ends up at the end of book five. Dead in the yard.

By that point, no other character has gone through as much development, except maybe Dany and Tyrion. No other character knows as much about what they face, except maybe the Mance – and we’re not sure he’s still alive either. So how do you kill a character like this?

The answer is apparently, with a bunch of knives.

Speculation – Who is this Jon Snow?

Okay, so there’s still plenty not known about Jon Snow. For instance, what about the man who recruited him to the Night’s Watch? A major goal he set himself to – finding his uncle. Where is he?

My thought is that he’s Coldhands, but I guess we’ll see if this plotline ever gets resolved.

However, thinking more broadly of his family… who is he? Who was his mother? Who was this woman who Ned Stark was willing to break all of his honor and vows for? The speculation runs throughout the whole series, and comes up at interesting points.

However, the most interesting theory I’ve heard is that he is a Targaryen. That this would allow him to be a dragon rider, to work with Dany. That this is the secret that has been kept. That he would be of the old royal line.

There’s even question as to whether Ned was his father, since otherwise he would only be a Targaryen by marriage – to be blood of the dragon, he would need to be Rhaegar’s son. Was this Ned’s secret? He would have accepted all of the shame that was heaped on him to protect that sort of secret. And he would have treated Jon as his son.

However, most of these sorts of speculation are largely moot without the main one: is Jon really dead? There’s no good healers around to keep him together after the stabbing, so dead is most likely. However… What is dead may never die.

Melisandre is there. And we know the priests of the red god have the power to potentially bring people back from the dead. This opens up the possibility of Jon Snow being Azor Ahai, hero for the red god. At this point, really, you have to hope that this is the case. Because otherwise, all this hard work and growth in this character was for nothing.

5 responses to “You Know Nothing, Jon Snow – A Character Study

  1. Personally, I think John is Ned’s nephew and Rhaegar is his father. A Targaryen, in other words.

    And do not believe that last scene we saw him in was definitive.

    Remember, the Hound rode Arya down and bashed her skull in, but apparently later he just gave her a tap so he could scoop her up.

    Martin’s deaths mean nothing until he says “this guy is dead.” he’s a master of pretend-killing.

    You are right about this part:
    No one else in Westeros could have or would have made this decision.

    I totally agree with that.


    • I guess part of my thought is, even one knife wound, untreated like it might be for Jon, could be his undoing. His maesters are gone and a portion of his men against them. It’s not looking good.

      That said! I totally do not believe the letter Jon gets at the end of Dance with Dragons, with several claims about people being killed. I believe none of that. It’s off-page, and coming from THE unreliable source. Nope. Not a thing.

      And Jon has made several decisions that really are the sort that make sense once read, but aren’t what you might be thinking or expecting. Not the decision that would generally be made. He’s making the hard decisions, the impossible or out-of-the-box ones, and it’s this lonely road he’s walked to get there… Martin has put too much work into him! AHHHH I just want the next book out.


  2. I enjoyed reading your Jon Snow retrospective, I’m a big fan of Jon from the books, and am greatly looking forward to his story this season.


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