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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.