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Jon Snow Is the Only Possible Hero in ‘Game of Thrones’

The popular show presents a classic example of a heroic fantasy story that lacks just one thing: actual heroes.

by David Perry
Jun 1 2015, 5:00pm

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in 'Game of Thrones.' Photo courtesy of HBO

Warning: If you aren't caught up on season five, spoilers abound.

Game of Thrones presents a classic example of a heroic fantasy that lacks just one thing: actual heroes. Sure, there are many interesting characters—some of whom we like despite ourselves—but pretty much everyone lets us down.

The Mother of Dragons, Daenerys, has spent endless episodes failing to govern Meereen either justly or effectively, getting her best warriors injured or killed, and losing control of her dragons. Season five could be retitled "Daenerys Fails at Everything She Tries." Tyrion has shown up to help, and their conversation last episode was an outstanding quiet moment. But, putting his undeniable charisma aside, let's remember that he murdered a prostitute he had forced to service him because she dared to sleep with his father. Sansa has been turned back into a victim, after a few glimmers of hope early on. Arya, my favorite Stark, just performed euthanasia on a sick child and is currently busy on her first assassination mission for the Many-Faced God. She's going to serve him... with poisoned shellfish? Not exactly the rousing sword fight to the death that we grew up with. Which leaves us with one possible hero: Jon Snow.

Not that we necessarily need him. After all, plenty of shows don't have heroes. It's frequently argued that we're in the era of the anti-hero, generally charted from Tony Soprano to Walter White and Don Draper, with Frank and Claire Underwood, and perhaps Luther and Alice, as current contenders for Anti-Hero-In-Chief. The premier HBO dramas— The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, and Boardwalk Empire—all feature casts dominated by powerful, mostly white, mostly male anti-heroes. Clearly, the model sells.

And yet, Game of Thrones , as a work of heroic fantasy, belongs to a different genre than any of the other HBO dramas. When George R. R. Martin began writing A Song of Ice and Fire in the early 90s, he specifically decided to write against the grain of his own genre. Instead of a hero emerging from humble origins (perhaps with some kind of secret nobility or divine blessing), his point-of-view characters are almost all members of the Great Houses of Westeros. Though many become humbled—or dead—they start out rather mighty. It's a story of the internecine conflict among the one percent, while everybody else suffers.

While Martin was writing the first book, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series came out, which focuses on the rapid ascent of a peasant to the world-shaking Dragon Reborn. Martin's focus on the elite who want to stay elite, with no mystical elevation of a peasant (or, for that matter, a hobbit) to glory and power, offers a kind of rebuke to this model.

Nonetheless, Jon Snow is the one character, featured prominently in both the books and the show, whose plot arc so far very much follows the traditions of heroic fantasy. For one thing, he's a bastard. Sure, he's the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and was raised with all kinds of perks compared to most people, but his relative isolation is made very clear from the beginning of the series. Catelyn Stark, Ned's wife, treats him terribly. He feels alienated from his family. He and Tyrion bond (sort of) over being different. Eventually, Jon takes himself to the Wall and joins the Night's Watch. As Ramsey Bolton of all people observed in episode seven, Jon has done very well for himself indeed, rising to great prominence as the lord commander. He was even offered Winterfell itself by Stannis. Though, Jon heroically turned it down to remain true to his vows.

In fact, much of Jon's story has followed the classic hero's quest. He leaves town and goes on a journey, first to Castle Black, and then out with the expedition into the North. There, he gets cut off from his companions and is taken prisoner, kills his superior Qhorin Halfhand (at Qhorin's command, so that Jon can infiltrate the Wildlings), confronts supernatural forces in the North, falls in love Ygritte, a beautiful Wildling spearwife, with whom he gets to have sexy times in a hot springs. Later, he betrays Ygritte in order to remain honorable, is elevated to command the defense of Castle Black against a vast force, and is even rescued by the unexpected arrival of the king. Among Game of Thrones characters, his alone is the heroic arc.

In the most recent episode, Jon Snow sailed north to Hardhome, where the bulk of the Wildlings are gathered. As the zombie hordes descend, he rallies most of the Wildlings to his plan, building the first glimmer of an alliance between peoples who have been warring for centuries. Alone of all the major characters (except maybe for Stannis and Melisandre, but let's remember that Stannis is currently considered murdering his daughter for political gain), Snow understands the existential threat that's coming and what it will take to battle it.

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What's more, Jon may have a secret origin story, concealed even from him, that oft-employed device in speculative fiction (think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, another hero following the classic quest narrative). The books and show have been very coy about Snow's parentage, a move that would be pretty anticlimactic if it turned out Ned Stark—violently against his character—had a roll in the hay with some farm girl or serving wench. Fan theories abound (massive unverified spoilers at that link, be warned), and if any of them are true, it only confirms the sense that he's the one true hero of the series. His ancestry has been concealed from those around him, ready to be revealed at just the right dramatic moment.

That's if he manages to negotiate the arrival of hordes of terrified Wildlings south of the Wall, keeps his pissed-off brothers in the Night's Watch compliant, resists the machinations of Stannis and the Boltons alike, and can weather his own guilty pangs over watching Ygritte die in his arms (after she was shot in the back by Olly, the farm boy who saw his own family murdered by Wildlings). Honestly, Tyrion's decision to be drunk whenever possible or Daenerys's decision to wall herself up in a pyramid with her mercenary lover, look much more rational than Jon's attempt to save the Seven Kingdoms. Being a hero brings nothing but trouble.

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