Fetch Me a Block: Examining Jon Snow’s Leadership

art by acazigot

Jon Snow shows much promise as a leader in the fan favorite “Fetch Me a Block” scene where we see the end of Lord Janos Slynt’s watch. But of course the foundation of Jon’s leadership style has been laid long before, as far back as when we first see him in AGoT.

In Bran’s first PoV chapter, Ned has been called to execute Gared, the Night’s Watch deserter. Here we learn about “Stark” justice for the first time, but we also learn some key things about Jon. We learn from Bran that Jon is an “old hand at justice” but also that his half brother is extremely perceptive. And very quickly we see him act on that quality, when he convinces Ned to let the children keep the direwolf pups by leaving himself out of the count. Upon observing that there are five wolf pups, three males and two females, he says to Ned:

“You have five trueborn children, three sons, two daughters. The direwolf is the sigil of your House. Your children were meant to have these pups, my lord.”

This clever maneuver by Jon makes one take notice quite quickly of his ability as a diplomat. Later in his own PoV we witness Jon observing the welcoming feast for King Robert and his family. He sees through Cersei’s smile, and finds Robert a great disappointment, thinking that here was a fat man, walking like one “half in his cups.” When his uncle Benjen comments on Ned’s apparent unhappiness, we learn that Jon has noticed it as well. He thinks “A bastard had to learn to notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes.”

It begins to be clear that Jon is perceptive, understands justice and is able to manipulate situations to favorable outcomes. These qualities will prove to be the keys to his leadership style as he evolves into a leader of men. We should also consider that Jon grew up among a community of men, and his education probably closely mirrored Robb’s, who was being groomed to be the future Lord of Winterfell. They would have had a number of strong male influences, from Ned and Benjen to Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik, and living in a castle male role models would be present in all aspects of daily life, so Jon had the opportunity to observe many kinds of male leadership in action. And we know he was observant, so it’s logical to imagine he absorbed many lessons,  not only from his main role models, but also from the likes of Hullen, Mikken and Jory Cassel. Knowing the organisation of a castle and a Lord’s retinue, would leave him well qualified to take the reins of an organisation such as the Night’s Watch. In fact, by the time that happens one could argue he was uniquely qualified for the role. But in the meantime… while he has a the foundation early on, he has to build upon it.

Moving ahead to his first days at the Wall we see Jon learn a sharp lesson from Donal Noye, after some of his fellow recruits attack him in the armory. Jon’s victories in the training yard had earned their hatred. Donal accuses Jon of being a bully– using the advantages of his upbringing to humiliate his opponents. He tells Jon that he had best start thinking about the backgrounds and abilities of his fellow recruits, or “sleep with a dagger by your bed.” Donal is really forceful and this turns out to be a valuable lesson in empathy for Jon, one we’ll see him act on time and again when he has to deal with the Wildling, first as a spy and then when he makes the decision to let them cross the Wall as Lord Commander. But before we look at the Wildlings, let’s look at Jeor Mormont and Maester Aemon.

These two men are very important influences on Jon. The first time we see Jon with Maester Aemon, he is manipulating an outcome in nearly the same way as he did with the direwolves in that first chapter. He convinces Aemon to take Samwell Tarly as a steward, by using logic and a lesson he learned from Maester Luwin about diversity. Jon really shows his powers of observation and skill as a diplomat there. After he makes his case, Aemon tells him “Maester Luwin taught you well … Your mind is as deft as your blade.”

We know of course that he succeeds with Sam, but at the same time he makes an enemy of Chett, who is displaced in the process. This will have serious consequences in the future, when a disgruntled Chett takes part in the mutiny during the Great Ranging. It’s also not unlike Jon’s future decision to let the wildlings cross the Wall, which as we’ll see shortly has dire consequences. Jon seems to have a blind spot for the negative results of his decision making. Even when he makes perfectly sound decisions– like convincing Aemon to release Sam from training, and later, allowing the Wildlings to cross– he might not fully anticipate the reactions of people around him.

When Jon is accepted into the NW he is named steward to LC Mormont. At first he is angry, seeing Alliser Thorne’s vengeance in denying him a place with the Rangers, but Sam points out that Mormont requested him specifically which can only mean one thing– being groomed for command. Jon accepts the challenge. He has some key interactions with the LC which culminate in Jon saving him from the wight Othor. In his capacity as Mormont’s steward he is taken into his counsels, made aware of key events in the realm and as a reward for saving his life, he is given the Valyrian steel bastard sword Longclaw.

Just before that Jon is given some key advice by Maester Aemon. He counsels Jon that “love is the bane of honor, the death of duty.” He is trying to convince Jon that he must let go of his family and their troubles in the South. In the process he reveals his own identity, telling him that he must make his own decision and live with it “for the rest of his days.”

Later, when Jon attempts to flee South to Robb’s side he is brought back to Castle Black by his friends and Mormont has a heart to heart with him. Among other things, he says to Jon “When dead men come hunting in the night, do you think it matters who sits the Iron Throne?” This is something that Jon must have in his mind later when Stannis Baratheon appears at the Wall.

These lessons from the Lord Commander and Maester Aemon really seem to stick with Jon. He realises the truth of Mormont’s words, and as things progress he often thinks back to Aemon’s wisdom. In fact, after he sends the Maester South with Sam Tarly it seems like his words stay with him, including one phrase that is highly significant to his development.

Maester Aemon’s final words to Jon before he leaves the Wall echo words he spoke to his brother Aegon decades before — “Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born.” These words seem to signify Jon completing his journey to leadership. In a sense embl, they’re emblematic of his journey from young boy to man of the NW, encompassing many of his growth decisions, and most significantly, his actions with Ygritte and Wildlings. Jon’s decision to let the Wildlings cross actually originated with Stannis, but it really shows the type of pragmatic decision maker he’s become.

Jon’s interaction with Stannis really defines who he’s become as a leader. In many scenes Jon seems to be channeling Ned Stark when he deals with Stannis. He is firm, courteous, honest and honorable and at the same time not afraid to stand up to him. In fact he seems to embody the quality that Cotter Pyke seemed to be looking for in a Night’s Watch Lord Commander, someone who “has the belly to stand up to Stannis Baratheon and that red bitch.”  We see quite early that Stannis measures him up and judges that he’s Ned’s son, going as far as to offer him Winterfell, but at a price– not only must he declare for Stannis and abandon hope that any of his trueborn siblings still live, he must leave the Night’s Watch, marry Val and burn the Winterfell heart tree. It is that last condition that really weighs on Jon, when he thinks of it his conclusion is “I have no right… Winterfell belongs to the Old Gods”

This really seems to make his decision, especially when he is rejoined by Ghost after a long separation. He realises that Ghost has this weirwood coloring, and that Ghost also belongs to the Old Gods. Given his connection with Ghost, it seems like Jon realizes that he himself belongs to the Old Gods and could no more sacrifice the Winterfell heart tree than he could Ghost. He is about to stand up to Stannis and Mel and say no, when, in the final choosing ordered by Stannis, he is chosen Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

Jon immediately sets about making difficult decisions. He plans to send Sam away with Maester Aemon and Gilly and Dalla’s boy, to save the Maester and the infant from Mel’s fires. He is ruthless in this decision, reminding himself at every turn of Aemon’s advice to “kill the boy.” Then when he comes to the decision that we opened with, how to deal with the mutinous Lord Janos Slynt, he proves himself to be a ruthless leader, making a decision worthy of Ned Stark.

Then, when it comes to supporting Stannis’ decision to let the Wildlings through the Wall, Jon makes his most fateful decision yet. Standing against the conservative recommendations of Bowen Marsh, arguably his second in command, he decides to let the Wildlings through the Wall. He is informed by his time amongst the wildling that they are simply men and women who have the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the Wall and he realises that they are not the true enemy. In spite of Marsh’s caution that they cannot feed the Wildlings, and his obvious mistrust of them, Jon knows that allowing them to pass is not only humane, it is the right thing to do.

When Jon agrees to feed the Wildlings from the NW’s dwindling food stores and even accepts their fighters and spearwives into his command, he sets himself up to be at odds with Marsh at almost every turn. All of this comes to a head with Jon’s final series of decisions regarding the Wildlings and Ramsay Bolton.

While all of this really must have seemed a bridge too far for Bowen Marsh, Jon sees their value, not only in adding to the dwindling ranks of the men in black, but that in preventing their deaths he denies the real Enemy the chance to swell it’s undead army any further. Jon made the only decision he could have made. He is perceptive and empathetic, a man of honour and justice and unfailing logic. These qualities, revealed to us from the very start, led him to this decision. But, as with Chett, Jon still has that blind spot about the potential of those who disagree with him to cause trouble. He is making a man’s decisions as the leader of the NW, but in that one important respect he has yet to kill the naive boy that he once was. Jon has grown into his early promise as a leader in most ways. But that one blind spot seems to play an important role in his fate at the end of ADwD, when his decision to lead a force of Wildlings against Ramsay Bolton leads to the implementation of an assassination plot by members of the Night’s Watch.

As discussed in Radio Westeros E06: Jon Snow — Only the Cold

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3 Comments

  1. Well done. I would add only that Jon’s experience with others’ emnity — Cat’s relentless and smouldering anger — did not prepare him for the consequences of angering others. He lived with the primal anger of his stepmother; he could do so as well with that of his peers.

    • Thanks for reading & the input! I think that’s an excellent observation. I wondered about the lack of female influences, but you’re absolutely correct that Cat’s resentment might have desensitized Jon to the consequences of anger. Which makes me wonder about the possible sub-textual significance of Jon being armored in “black ice”, something I’m certain has multiple connotations in story.

  2. Another aspect, trivial I suppose, never mentioned is that Aemon’s mantra Kill the Boy is foreshadowing Jon’s last chapter when the brother’s of the NW killed the boy. When he revives we will see the Man.

    Regarding the black ice I always figured it was symbolic of Dragon Glass which the Valyrian’s called frozen fire. he dreamed he was armored in dragon glass which would be practical when battling The Others.

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