The Night’s Watch, the Grey Wardens, and Historical Martial Orders

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Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) trains some new recruits at the Wall. © HBO.

The following article is courtesy of Ross Wittenham. Ross writes about the relationship between the medieval and the modern at HistoryMine (http://histmine.wordpress.com/). (Due to technical issues, please copy the URL into your browser.)  Please welcome Ross and check out his website.

The fantasy genre has been heavily influenced by both real-world history and also other works of fantasy. One comparison that I have come across a fair bit in my <ahem> questing is the comparison between A Song of Ice and Fire’s Night’s Watch, and the Grey Wardens of the Dragon Age role-play computer game series by EA and Bioware.

The protagonist of Dragon Age: Origins is ‘The Grey Warden’; an individual who is recruited or conscripted into a martial order. The Wardens were established to combat an ancient evil, but at the point you are recruited, they are at their weakest, just when they need to be at their strongest. Any of this sound familiar?

I thought it might be interesting to compare the Grey Wardens with the Night’s Watch, and contrast them with some crusades-era knightly orders. Real-world history has had a significant influence on both series, but they do differ in some interesting ways. To kick things off, here is a Grey Warden and three non-warden buddies slaying some ‘Darkspawn’, who represent a similar level of threat as the White Walkers:

Scum of the earth

Many of the Night’s Watch are convicted criminals, who have been granted a stay of execution and sent to the Wall. The same is true of the Grey Wardens; with several of the origin stories ending in a stay of execution. While nobles, bastards and knights are recruited into both groups, these are not Knightly Orders. The distinction might be that while the Night’s Watch bemoan the degeneration in their ranks, the Wardens celebrate it. Anything to overcome the Darkspawn.

Kit Harington, John Bradley. Image: Helen Sloan © HBO

Kit Harington, John Bradley. Image: Helen Sloan © HBO

Military orders would typically accept people from all strata. However, that did not mean they were dishing out horses and plate mail to all-comers. Most of that was provided by the individual, or his family, in much the same way that Jon Snow brought a castle-forged sword, a horse and Ghost with him. Some criminals could take up the crusades in order to escape conviction and to beg forgiveness for their crimes from God. However, this had to be agreed by all parties, and when the Templars were eventually dissolved, it was because they faced heretical and criminal charges.

An army of paupers

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The Grey Wardens from Dragon Age. © Bioware.

The Night’s Watch and the Grey Wardens are both fairly poor. Some enlightened rulers might give them a one-off tribute now and then, but most forget that they even exist. One of the main reasons for this is that they don’t hold much territory, or perform any other services. The Grey Wardens have occasional safe-houses and fortresses, but these do not produce any income. The Night’s Watch has The Gift; a stretch of land to the South, running parallel to the Wall. However, it has been neglected, and does not provide much support.

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Grand master and senior Knights Hospitaller (1307).

In contrast, while the crusading orders initially relied on donations, these had a spiritual incentive. Those who donated towards the crusades believed that they would spend less time in limbo. The Knights Templar were initially known as the “Poor Knights”, and their sigil was of two knights riding a single horse. However, they quickly developed into a powerful institution, even establishing a international proto-banking system. Several orders, such as the Teutonic Knights and the Hospitallers founded their own states, and were extremely influential.

A modern recreation of a Knight's Templar soldier. Image: JoJan on Wikimedia Commons

Recreation of a Knight Templar. Image: JoJan on Wikimedia.

Political neutrality

In theory, both the Night’s Watch and the Grey Wardens are politically neutral. In reality this simply isn’t the case. The Grey Wardens have been banished from at least one country for their part in an attempted coup, and they hold major political influence in the land surrounding of their headquarters. As an order, the Night’s Watch has generally been pretty true, but plenty of individuals have set out to become rulers on either side of the Wall.

Initial support for the crusading orders was probably given on the basis that they would provide relatively cheap auxiliary forces that would protect areas the crusader princes had little interest in. However, over the centuries this changed. As the orders grew more successful they were given greater territorial responsibility, both in the holy land and in Europe. Eventually they had enough responsibility to act as major vassals, and even state rulers.

The duty that cannot be foresworn

One of the main differences between the two orders is that it is possible to leave the Night’s Watch; Mance Rayder being the prime example. An oath is sworn, and oath-breakers are hunted down, but there is a limit to how far justice will be pursued. One ex-Warden suggests that if you hide well, you don’t have to wear the uniforms or attend the parties, but Grey Wardens are bound to their darkspawn enemies with blood magic. Over the years this taint becomes increasingly stronger, until eventually their ‘Calling’ happens, and they descend into the darkspawn nests, in the hope of a glorious death.

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The Grey Warden Griffon © Bioware.

Unlike the Night’s Watch, Wardens are allowed to marry, although it seems that most Warden marriages are fated to end in tragedy one way or another.

In the real world, members of military orders swore vows, which usually included vows of celibacy. They dedicated their lives to the order, though set-length employments may have been permitted.  As a brother got older, he would retire from active service, and take on other responsibilities, such as training, prayer or administration.

Survival of the order

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The Grey Warden Warrior © BioWare

Both the Night’s Watch and the Grey Wardens have existed much longer than any real-life military order. The Hospitallers technically still exist, but have transformed multiple times from their original incarnation. They are probably best known as the St John’s Ambulance. Other orders were around for much shorter periods of a few centuries at most. When the crusades came to an end, support waned. The orders that had no real purpose but retained significant influence were tackled by religious and state institutions.

By contrast, the Grey Wardens have existed for over 1,200 years, while the Night’s Watch has existed for over a staggering 8,000 years. In that time, the Grey Wardens have defeated five Darkspawn blights. However, the Night’s Watch has hardly had any contact with the White Walkers/Others at all and has been reduced to guarding against the wildlings. Given this, it is impressive that they have a standing force of as much as 1,000 men, three garrisoned castles, a small fleet, and a 300-mile-long wall.

Ross is a writer and editor who runs the History Mine blog, has an unholy love of fine cheeses and a minor obsession with his hair. History Mine investigates the ways history is portrayed in the world around us. Expect cursing, pop culture references, and lots of cool videos, pictures and such.

10 Comments

  • Reply May 28, 2014

    Grant

    Jon mentions to Ygritte that there have been several Wildling incursions over the Wall in the past. Between that and everything we see, the Night’s Watch probably kept itself relevant and in existence by transferring their focus from guarding against the absent White Walkers to the consistent threat of the Wildlings. Pretty likely that the ancient Stark kings (well, the Seven Kingdoms but really the Starks are the most supportive and relevant) viewed the organization as a cheap way of maintaining a garrison to stop Wildling invasions that otherwise the Starks would have to deal with themselves*.
    As for the Wall, well anyone on the right side of the wall will have it regardless of what their organization is viewed as. Once it’s up, no one’s going to smash it.

    I wonder if there’s a more recent influence on the creation of the Night’s Watch, the French Foreign Legion. It has a reputation for accepting anyone who can pass training and a somewhat less deserved one for including some criminals.

    *Between the cold, less than impressive living conditions, internal violence and lack of farming potential in the area, I really do not get how they could possibly have such a large population.

    • Reply May 28, 2014

      rosswittenham

      Hi Grant, you make some really relevant points. My surprise is that in 8,000 years they have not become obsolete, and even manage to maintain a significant, relevant force. Real-world history would suggest that they would become obsolete, or that one Stark at some point or another would prefer to exchange the cheap support for direct control over the Wall and the Gift.

      I’m afraid that I don’t know nearly enough about the French Foreign Legion to be able to comment. However, another parallel you could draw would be Sharpe’s Rifles, who all became ‘chosen men’ after one misdemeanor or another, but who all have particular skills that Sharpe is able to call upon when he needs to. The Wall may be a way to avoid some punishments, but as Tyrion points out early on, “most choose the knife”.

      • Reply May 28, 2014

        Grant

        Martin does seem to exaggerate how long a human organization could actually last, but the survival of the current Night’s Watch through wars between Boltons and Starks, Stark monarchs, the Targaryean rulers all the way to the events of the books is probably best explained by the simplest reason. There was really nothing to gain and a lot to lose.

        Even at the height of Stark independent power before the Targaryean arrival, there just wasn’t any glory, plunder, (probably) desirable lands or strategic reason to want the Wall and its surrounding area. Attacking the Night’s Watch would probably be considered by most to be a pointless waste when there were always enemies in the south, the Night’s Watch doesn’t show much sign of ever possessing immediate wealth or especially valuable land, having direct control of the Wall doesn’t do much to enrich a king or improve his defenses, the Wall’s defenses are deliberately designed to not protect from a southern attack as a reassurance to the Starks and the Night’s Watch can’t oppose the Starks because it relies on their good will to get recruits sent through.

        And the Night’s Watch doesn’t lose relevance because they always have the Wildlings. Maintaining a permanent Stark garrison to stop their incursions would be expensive, the Wildlings somehow thrive beyond the Wall so a garrison will always be required, and the Wildlings are inherently opposed to the monarchist civilizations south of the Wall so there’s no chance of a Stark king ever deciding to shift policy and favor the enemies of the Night’s Watch. If not for the Wildlings, the poor environment north of the Wall and apolitical nature of the Night’s Watch, it’s probable that eventually they would have disappeared. But they, and humanity, got lucky and had the perfect circumstances to remain in existence.

    • Reply May 29, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      “Between the cold, less than impressive living conditions, internal violence and lack of farming potential in the area, I really do not get how they could possibly have such a large population”

      If you leave bread out of the equation the nobility in the Middle Ages ate a high protein diet, which could be hunted – and cooked all of the nutritional value out of their vegetables. I don’t think food would be a particular problem for Wildlings unless the game started dying out, and that does not seem to be the case. They can fish, hunt and keep livestock.

      Wun Wun, who is a vegetarian, also seems to manage fine.

      • Reply May 29, 2014

        Grant

        True, but the vast majority of the post-Roman empire/pre-modern nation-state European population wasn’t nobility. You can manage to have a diet high in meat when your section of the population makes up such a small amount that you’re not likely to be able to make a significant dent in the prey population.

        And the issue still exists of how exactly they are hunting all of those animals, presumably for centuries and millennia, and not hunting them to extinction (and also how they’re going to even feed the livestock with land that’s far colder than even the Stark kingdom) the same way fish and herd animals were and are seriously threatened by the increase of humans who eat a lot of meat. Remember that in a lot of the meat-eating world today, our hunger is satisfied by herd animals that are specifically raised in areas where you can feed them. The Wildlings don’t have that advantage.

        • Reply May 29, 2014

          Olga Hughes

          Extinction can also be brought on by cataclysmic shifts in weather and there has been references to extinction in the case of direwolves and dragons – not coincidentally magical animals. The actual climate in Westeros is based on magic in the end.

          Firstly there are several references to population decline North of the Wall – giants, mammoths, higher infant mortality. I don’t think their population is actually increasing.

          Secondly you have to allow for ten thousand years of adaptation and evolution. North of the Wall is vast, the free folk are not all concentrated in one area but there are many small villages and there is no reason to assume they are not actually aware of limiting hunting activities to allow for re-population. Obviously the animals the free folk are able to raise have adapted to the climate and feed. And they don’t have a population in the tens of millions that would need to rely on factory farming.

          Thirdly they also raid, something he Vikings who also had poor farming conditions utilised.

  • Reply May 28, 2014

    Jun

    I am curious about the sentence “In the real world, members of military orders swore vows, which usually included vows of celibacy.” Knights Templar as well? It seems rather impractical to attract men to join the order if this rule was strictly enforced.

    • Reply May 28, 2014

      rosswittenham

      I’d say that it would be impossible to police this kind of vow (as it proves to be for the Night’s Watch). Nonetheless, the Templar ‘Latin Rule’ assumes celibacy will be maintained. These are monastic orders as well as military ones, and they were trying to appeal to pious, devout men rather than career soldiers.

  • Reply June 7, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I wasn’t quite sure where to post this, but thought this might be appropriate as the Night’s Watch are at the wall and the Wildlings are north of the wall. In an attempt to broaden my vocabulary I signed up (nearly two years ago now) to Dictionary.com when they had a “word a day” offer to email the meaning of one word per day. Of course some of the words have already been known to me but towards the end of May the word “wildling” was sent. I had not realised the word existed outside Mr Martin’s books. I am paraphrasing as I don’t want to cause any problems relating to copyright pertaining to Dictionary.com but it seems the word means a plant or animal that is wild and entered the English language in the 1800s.

    Back on track, I must visit “History Mine” some time as the above article is thought-provoking. As well as having the thoughts on possible historical roots for “Game of Thrones” story threads to mull over, I am grateful to this blog for the links to other blogs of interest that I knew nothing about before.

    • Reply June 7, 2014

      rosswittenham

      Thanks for the compliment, and please do check out History Mine. Hopefully we’ll be featuring a guest blog from Jamie when this season is over.

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