Jon Snow is – or was – the most honorable character on HBO’s heralded Game of Thrones TV series. Snow stands alone next to his father, Ned Stark, who also lost his neck at the end of Season 1 for the same character flaw: rigid adherence to his honor system. Whether or not one agrees that such a dogmatic disposition is “flawed” or not isn’t the issue at hand here. Instead, we will explore the meaning of honor and the nature of Jon Snow’s supposedly “righteous” execution. I say righteous because Snow was ushered into a corner where a sign posted read “TRAITOR” while each Night’s Watch member who stabbed him with his knife honorably stated, “For the Watch” upon drawing out his blade from his body.
Was Jon Snow a traitor?
Remember when Stannis Baratheon asked Jon Snow to bow to him as king and he would stand again as Jon Stark, no longer a bastard? Yet Snow refused. He mentioned time and again during the series that he swore an oath to the Night’s Watch and that he would not break that oath. (Of course, breaking the oath of sexual abstinence didn’t seem to be a major problem for him earlier on in the series. To be fair, however, this particular oath of the Night’s Watch is a bit pernicious indeed, having seen most every member violate it at one point or another.)
Returning to our question, we must understand honor a bit more before we can judge Snow as a traitor or not. When considering this characteristic, the word “integrity” comes to mind. Integrity is an interesting term when one considers the essence of it as integral. Here we might get a fuller sense of the word honor by assessing it as a state of being where one is whole, complete and unified. More specifically, integrity also implies an essential quality. That which is integral is necessary, fundamental and required.
Thus we have an image of honor that confers a state of absoluteness anchored upon a fundamental rudiment.
In light of this, was Jon Snow honorable? Ultimately, the Night’s Watch executioners sentenced him because he gathered up their sworn enemy and brought them into Castle Black for both safe-keeping and future fighting aid – sounds like the mark of a traitor when cast in that light. But alas, in reality Snow was caught in the crossroads of honoring tradition vs. securing the future. In his eyes, the Wildling enemies were essential to helping not only the Night’s Watch, but all of The Realm in weathering the upcoming winter and the evil it brings with it. Jon Snow thought he was acting honorably by making peace with the enemy, even if precariously so, in order to join forces against an even greater evil. But an oath is an oath, is it not? Bringing the sworn enemy into your camp does not always win one any friends – a dangerous move when one considers that Snow already had very few friends at Castle Black.
Perhaps there exists a phenomenon we might call, “The Curse of the Big Picture”. There is no argument that Snow thought he was acting in the best interests of everyone in the entire world. He was willing to forego with traditions and formalities in order to secure and protect the future. After all, the Night’s Watch is “Protector of The Realm”. He was acting, in essence, as a visionary. There’s a dilemma visionaries face, however, and that’s garnering support from the masses. It can be a challenge trying to convince others of a vision one only sees in his own mind, while everyone else is rooted firmly in their traditional belief systems.
In Snow’s case, he pulled a risky move without already having the full support of the Night’s Watch. There was already contention towards him for being their leader, and now he was about to reach (far) beyond the norm.
What’s a bastard to do?
Jon Snow prioritized. Good story telling – and real life – is full of decisions requiring the hero (that’s you and I, along with Jon Snow) to determine what matters most in any given moment. We often want an ideal decision making scenario – one in which selecting Option A doesn’t potentially destroy Option B. It’s one thing to choose A knowing that B may be available to us later, or if we don’t really care too much about B (sorry, B), but it’s an entirely different story – one where heroes are made, actually – when we know our decision for A completely obliterates B. When we care for B, and still see value in it, how can we be so willing to let it go, let alone destroy it completely?
In the case of Snow, he valued “Protecting The Realm” over “Fighting The Wildlings”. Both objectives are part of the Night’s Watch oath, and yet he felt that one had to be broken to fulfill the other. By prioritizing what was to him the bigger picture, he was able to break a lesser oath in honor of the larger one. While his decision proved fatal to him, the ultimate effect of it has yet to be seen.
It seems then that Jon Snow’s death may indeed be both honorable and ironic. I label it ironic because an honorable, bootstrapping hero is executed for being a traitor, but honorable because internally he betrayed his oath and his men not with the intention of double-crossing them, but because of them. He chose a different form of honor, one in which they couldn’t understand nor accept.