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When we last saw Jon Snow, he was trying to figure out his life and his place in the world. In A Clash of Kings, Jon is… still trying to figure things out in his life? Wait, really? Is this the same story from the last novel?
Well, yes and no. Jon's is a coming-of-age story, one spread out over several novels. While he has determined his place is with the Night's Watch, he is trying to decide what exactly it means to be a brother in black in a complex world.
We'll say it: In the last novel, Jon Snow could be a bit of a jerk. All right, fine, he could be a class-act jerk. He felt he was superior to other Night's Watch recruits, did not hold back during their training sessions, and more-or-less moped about because he was the illegitimate child of the otherwise honorable Ned Stark.
But he learned his lessons thanks to the help of his BFF Sam and some advice from Tyrion Lannister. In A Clash of Kings, Jon continues to grow up and become a true brother to the men of the Night's Watch. When Chett tries to fight him, Jon coolly responds, "I'll not fight a brother while we're beyond the Wall" (24.Jon.98), and no amount of insults will heckle him to change his mind. See? He's learning.
His status as an illegitimate child is still irksome, but proving himself worthy is no longer the sole motivation in his life. This is evident when Mormont tests him, pointing out that his brother Robb will become a king while Jon will serve the realm, defending it and receiving neither praise nor song. Mormont claims he knows this fact will trouble Jon and asks what Jon will do about it. Jon says he'll just be troubled and keep his vows all the same (7.Jon.119)—he has learned that he cannot change how he feels, but he can change how he acts.
Clearly, Jon has found his place in the world: He's a man of the Night's Watch through and through.
As soon as Jon becomes comfortable with his place in the world, though, that place gets a whole lot more complicated. In the first novel, the picture of the Night's Watch's mission was pretty clear-cut: Night's Watch equals the good guys; wildlings and the Others are the bad guys; good guys fight bad guys and win. Callooh! Callay! The End.
In this way, Jon's story felt like it was being set up as a very simple coming-of-age hero story, like he'd be the Luke Skywalker of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. But then Jon starts learning some hard truths.
The first lesson comes at Craster's Keep, where Jon discovers that Mormont knows Craster is marrying his daughters and murdering his sons—but Craster also helps the Night's Watch by keeping rangers alive in times of peril. As Mormont tells Jon, "Your heart is noble, Jon, but learn a lesson here. We cannot set the world to rights. That is not our purpose. The Night's Watch has other wars to fight" (24.Jon.196). Boy, we sure don't remember the scene in Star Wars where Luke had to choose either letting an infant murderer live or defeating the Galactic Empire.
The moral of this story? Pick your battles. Or keep your eyes on the prize. Or… hrm. It's a little less cut-and-dry the more we dig into it.
Jon's views are further complicated when he meets Ygritte. He tries to kill her—she is the enemy, after all—but when it comes time to do the deed, he cannot. As he later tells Qhorin, Ygritte had no evil in her (54.Jon.22). Through Ygritte, Jon learns that an enemy is only an enemy because of where one is standing in the world (52.Jon.82). Again, morality isn't quite so simple as it might first appear.
Finally, Jon learns that duty is not as simple as pointing his sword at the bad guys and going to town. He is forced to kill fellow ranger Qhorin Halfhand to trick the wildlings into accepting him among their ranks, so by the novel's end, Jon's place in the Night's Watch has been threatened as he joins the wildlings to become a double agent. As he steps over Qhorin's body to join Ygritte and wildlings:
He thought of Samwell Tarly then, of Grenn and Dolorous Edd, of Pyp and Toad back at Castle Black. Had he lost them all, as he had lost Bran and Rickon and Robb? Who was he now? What was he? (69.Jon.102)
Will Jon stay a member of the Night's Watch or find a new place among the wildlings? Will he lose the place in the world he worked so hard to find? We'll have to wait and see.
In addition to Jon's complicated view of his role in the world, he is also broadening his horizons. Consider this scene as Jon travels through Skirling Pass:
Yet even so, Jon Snow was not sorry he had come. There were wonders here as well. He had seen sunlight flashing on icy thin waterfalls as they plunged over the lips of sheer stone cliffs, and a mountain meadow full of autumn wildflowers, blue coldsnaps and bright scarlet frostfires and stands of piper's grass in russet and gold. He had peered down ravines so deep and black they seemed certain to end in some hell, and he had ridden his garron over the wind-eaten bridge of natural stone with nothing but sky to either side. (52.Jon.18)
We get to journey through these wonders with Jon, and as he learns about this world and explores new places, so do we. In doing so, Jon takes the reader to places we've never been before, which is one of the particularly cool things about reading fantasy stories.