northern expressions

how to win friends and influence people

I had Mikken make this special. The bravos use swords like this in Pentos and Myr and the other Free Cities. It won’t hack a man’s head off, but it can poke him full of holes if you’re fast enough.” (Jon II, AGOT)

This scene happens early enough in the series to be an establishing moment where there’s not really a point of comparison. The reader is still getting used to the universe and the characters, so all we really have to go on is narrative convention: of course Jon has to leave for the Watch because that is where the heroing is, of course Arya has to get Needle because spunky little tomboys need to get cool shit so they can do cool shit. But, in light of what we’ve learned about him since, it’s worth pausing to check this as a baseline for the character: his idea of thoughtful gift-giving is to sit around contemplating the best way for a small-sized nine-year-old to kill people and figure out what she needs to do it.

Not only is this an early baseline, it is also somewhat invisible because it in some ways clicks into modern sensibilities. Narrative expectations mean that spunky little tomboys can be expected to get “anything you can do I can do better!!” empowerment, and so Jon doesn’t just give Arya a stick and tell her to go out and play with it the way little boys are told, but he gives her a real weapon and stresses the need to practice in secret.

Of course, in a lot of ways this challenge to convention is good: Arya does have a physical need to protect herself and a psychological need to escape the feminine expectations that threaten to stifle her. But some parts of convention are conventional for a reason. Kids who are trained to be warriors play with sticks, because children having real weapons and understanding what they do is highly unsafe and deeply unsettling. The fact that Jon sees past the oppressive and arbitrary aspects of conventional training speaks to his instinctive tendency toward principled pragmatism; the fact that he doesn’t seem to get the more sensible aspects of convention speaks to – something. Recklessness, arguably, though I think it’s an expression of his fundamental insecurity, a schematic understanding of the world as a fundamentally unsafe place. Jon’s gifting of Needle, both the good and bad of it, is a sharp contrast, perhaps even an unconscious response to, their father’s bone- deep avoidance.

This isn’t an unreasonable mindset for Jon to have. Winterfell is a heavily martial place to grow up, even by Westerosi standards. Day in and day out, he and Robb studied war and trained for battle. For Robb, all of this built on a stable foundation: he learned these things so that he could become Lord of Winterfell, an intrinsically dependable place in the world. Jon, though, grew up under the completely accurate impression that he would be tossed out on his ear the moment he became inconvenient. Skill at arms is really the only asset he’s going to have once he comes of age. What is a means to an end for Robb is an end in and of itself for Jon, because it has to be. That’s not optimal in any event, but it’s an especially unhealthy environment for a kid to be learning how to do violence.

An outside possibility is that Jon has some residual dragon dreams deep in his subconscious, that he can sense a world of trouble brewing the way Ghost can smell an oncoming storm, and he knew on some level that she’d need something to protect herself. Arguably this hypothesis explains the gory but apt specifics he gives her - Ned will have his head “hacked off” and Jon himself will be “stuck full of holes” - but it also highlights the callousness of what he’s saying here. To a kid. SHE’S NINE, YOU FREAK.

“Look, if you want, I can show you how to defend that.”

Alliser Thorne overheard him. “Lord Snow wants to take my place now.” He sneered. “I’d have an easier time teaching that wolf of yours to juggle than you will training this aurochs.”

“I’ll take that wager, Ser Alliser” Jon said. “I’d love to see Ghost juggle.” (Jon III, AGOT)

Grenn was standing his ground as Jon had taught him, giving Albett more than he cared for, but Pyp was hard-pressed. Rast had two years and forty pounds on him. Jon stepped up behind him and rang the raper’s helm like a bell. As Rast went reeling, Pyp slid in under his guard, knocked him down, and leveled a blade at his throat. By then Jon had moved on. (Jon IV, AGOT)

Jon bonding with his friends through Ye Olde Karate Kid Montage is cute, and it is of concrete use for them. But it’s also a really good excuse for him to be aggressive with people he hates. This instinct is, on balance, probably more good than bad. The people he hates are rapists and bullies, people who prey on the weak, people who deserve to be challenged and even hated. But it speaks to the character’s harder edges that he is willing and able to utilize his friends’ vulnerabilities in his own agenda, and that said agenda usually involves some figurative spit in the eye or a literal knock on the head.

Jon probably never thought about the whole incident that started his friendship with Grenn again. Like, “hey, man, I sprained your wrist, you jumped me in my room, HAPPENS, BRO.” Grenn, on the other hand –

“You did slay the Other, though, so it’s not the same.”

“I just…I never…I was scared!

“No more than me. It’s only Pyp who says I’m too dumb to be frightened. I get as frightened as anyone.” Grenn bent to scoop up a split log, and tossed it onto the fire. “I used to be scared of Jon, whenever I had to fight him. He was so quick, and he fought like he meant to kill me.” (Sam, ASOS)

– remains unsettled enough by training with Jon that he empathizes with how Sam feels when facing off against a white walker. This is almost comedic exaggeration, but Grenn is going to have to face people and things who actually mean to kill him. If he hadn’t had decent training – not Thorne’s John Hughes villain-esque beatdowns of the weak, but real fighting – the Aurochs would’ve been roadkill. This is an experience that Jon seeks out for himself:

There is always someone quicker and stronger, Ser Rodrik had once told Jon and Robb. He’s the man you want to face in the yard before you need to face his like upon a battlefield. (Jon, ADWD)

But being able to simulate a genuinely terrifying foe for someone he cares about, without even thinking about it, is an unusual thing to be able to do. This is what he learned back at Winterfell, spending ten years playing at war with Robb, mentoring Arya at arms and Bran in Northern justice: expressions of love involve instruments of death.

He had made a dagger for Grenn as well, and another for the Lord Commander. (Jon, ACOK)

Jon had made daggers for himself, Sam, and Lord Commander Mormont, and he’d given Sam a spearhead, an old broken horn, and some arrowheads. (Sam. ASOS)

This discrepancy in who got the third obsidian dagger is probably an editing error, but I much prefer the in-universe explanation that Sam doesn’t actually know who the dagger was for because Jon just mutely handed Sam an armful of artisan weaponry and expected him to figure out what to do with it. Jon would be a terrible Secret Santa, you guys. Terrible.

Jon prowled around Satin in a slow circle, sword in hand, forcing him to turn. “Get your shield up,” he said.

“It’s too heavy,” the Oldtown boy complained.

“It’s as heavy as it needs to be to stop a sword,” Jon said. “Now get it up.” He stepped forward, slashing. Satin jerked the shield up in time to catch the sword on its rim, and swung his own blade at Jon’s ribs. “Good,” Jon said, when he felt the impact on his own shield. “That was good. But you need to put your body into it. Get your weight behind the steel and you’ll do more damage than with arm strength alone. Come, try it again, drive at me, but keep the shield up or I’ll ring your head like a bell….” (Jon, ASOS)

What is with this ringing heads like bells, Jon. What.

Jon wouldn’t care how many people she had killed, or if she brushed her hair. (Arya, ASOS)

1) True, 2) oof, that poor kid, and 3) that is the exact proportion of emphasis Jon would put on those two things.

All of this paints a picture, sweet but savage, like a kitten dragging home a chirpy little birds’ nest. Jon has a strong commitment to empowering others to protect themselves. Jon creates and sustains his strongest relationships primarily through enabling others to kill.

This is not the most important thing about Jon, but I think it’s an aspect to the character that is key to understanding the whole: Jon is deeply, unquestioningly, comfortable with violence. He is not comfortable with status play, and he is deeply adverse to the abuse of power. But he is able to compartmentalize how he feels about someone from his willingness to either do violence to that person, or to push that person toward dangerous situations.

This has been an interesting, and for my money underrated, aspect of the character in the story so far, but it’s really one to watch going forward. R’hlloric resurrection (resurrection generally, actually) doesn’t change people, but it doesn’t quite bring them back the same, either. They come back with motivations they had before, but without the reasons they have to hold back on those motivations. Beric remains a patriotic soldier, but forgets the mother and fiancée he loved and missed before the first time he died. Lady Stoneheart is driven by Catelyn’s vengeful streak, though unsoftened by Catelyn’s empathy and reflectiveness. Even Robert Strong seems to be the Mountain without his migraines. It’s not clear, as of yet, what aspects of Jon the red god will bring forth, whether they will include that berserker* rage he’s ripped into Thorne and Iron Emmett, or this strange pattern of affection, violence, and detachment. Or maybe both.

*In Norse mythology, berserker warriors were said to “transform” when they wore their wolf skins into battle. The more you know!


July 21 2015 - Protesters set fire to an ISIS flag tied to the flag of the ruling Turkish AK party.

Thousands of people gathered in London in solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attack in Suruç, Northern Kurdistan, and to express their anger about the Turkish government turning a blind eye to IS. [video]