A companion piece to Episode 92: The Bear and The Maiden Fair, written by Laurel Hostak
Spoilers for Game of Thrones, all seasons
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I conducted yet another character study from the HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. This time, we took a seemingly lesser character—Ser Jorah Mormont—and subjected his character arc to the same scrutiny as we’ve previously applied to point-of-view characters like Daenerys and Tyrion.
The key lens for understanding Jorah was an exploration of knighthood—particularly, the historical and literary code of honor known as chivalry. I’d recommend listening to the episode, as we lay out some of the significant tenets of chivalry, as well as its depiction in art and poetry—particularly in the Arthurian legend. Jorah’s relationship to the seemingly impossible standards of the spoils of knighthood makes up much of the tension and tragedy of his character. In this piece, I want to explore some of the other important parallels to the Arthurian legend in general, and to chivalry’s great literary champion, Chretien de Troyes, in particular.
Chretien was a 12th century French poet, known for the creation of the Arthurian romance, which became a standard strain of the legend. For some context, he begins writing his great Arthurian works some time around 1160, about 25 years after Geoffrey of Monmouth writes his Historia Regum Brittanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), a pseudo historical work that gave King Arthur’s story its widespread popularity and many of its most integral elements. Chretien, writing for wealthy patrons in France, introduces some key details as well: namely the quest for the grail, the expanded and exaggerated role of courtly love, and, of course, Lancelot. From our perspective, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Arthurian legend without these fundamentals.
An important motif that shows up in Chretien and subsequently throughout treatments of King Arthur is Le Bel Inconnu or The Fair Unknown. The motif concerns a boy (usually) raised away from court or civilization, and therefore brought up without knowledge of his own noble blood. The boy goes to court and makes an impression, but must prove himself worthy through a series of trials before being accepted by the court. Chretien’s Perceval, Le Conte du Graal represents this trope: Perceval is raised by his mother in the forests of Wales, but longs for adventure and thus sets out to the court of King Arthur. He is oblivious to the fact that he is the son of a worthy knight. Once at court, he surprises everyone by defeating a knight who threatened the King. From here, the poem employs an entrelacement technique to weave Perceval’s adventures with a simultaneous quest by Gawain. After a series of trials, King Arthur asks Perceval to join his court. Both stories were left unfinished in 1191, though many writers have taken up the heavy task of attempting to finish the work.
What’s important to note about this appearance of The Fair Unknown theme is the conclusion that in these stories, nature will always overcome nurture. Brought up far away from the court, Perceval believes himself of common heritage, but the nobility of his bloodline can’t be erased. He has a natural disposition toward adventure, and no amount of sheltering or misinformation will keep him from embarking on heroic quests. The Fair Unknown archetype crystallizes in the story of Guinglain (written c. 1185-1190, right around the same time as Chretien is composing Perceval). Guinglain’s origins are familiar and rustic, but we soon learn he’s actually the son of Gawain, and therefore related to Arthur himself. Relation to Gawain becomes a central pattern to Fair Unknown stories. Guinglain is literally knighted in court under the name Sir Le Bel Inconnu. Sir The Fair Unknown. We’ll later get Wigalois in the 13th century, an adaptation of Guinglain’s narrative that further emphasizes the title knight’s relationship to his newly identified father Gawain. There are even Lancelot and Tristan texts that incorporate the motif into the characters’ origins. In contemporary fantasy, we get a corollary in the character of Harry Potter, as the Boy Who Lived grows up away from (and ignorant of) the Wizarding World in which he’s famous, yet magic manifests naturally through him. Late in the Harry Potter series, we’ll learn that he happens to be descended from an old and noble magical family, the Peverells, who are themselves immortalized in wizard folklore.
Of course, the most famous fair unknown of Arthuriana is Arthur himself. He’s born of the High King Uther Pendragon, disguised as Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, and his wife, the Lady Igraine. So, technically a bastard, but heir to Uther’s throne nonetheless, though Malory declares him legitimate by Uther’s later marriage to Igraine in his seminal Morte d’Arthur. But he’s not raised by either—Merlin has him fostered by Sir Ector, not revealing the baby’s royal parentage. Yet Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. It’s his destiny to become the legendary king.
So, is this reminding you of anyone?
If you said Jon Snow, you’re either paying attention or you read the title of this post. Well done either way.
Jon Snow grows up in Winterfell, believing himself the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark and a Southern woman he met on campaign with Robert Baratheon. In a scene between Ned and Robert, we learn that the woman’s name is Wylla, though it’s unclear whether Jon has ever learned her name, and Ned refuses to give up any details on her. In Season Five, Selyse Baratheon dismisses Jon as the son of a prostitute. So, even with the blood of a Stark running through his veins, Jon is perceived as a bastard and nothing more. His last name, Snow, he shares with any bastard born in the North. The name matters.
It’s not until Season Six that a long-running fan theory (see R+L=J) is confirmed, and as we await the premiere of Season Eight this coming Spring, Jon has yet to discover his true lineage and true name: Aegon Targaryen. Seven seasons of character development have unfolded with Jon Snow as an archetypical fair unknown. Circumstances have most certainly slowed down his star, yet it continues to rise as he’s elevated to positions like Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and, oh, The King in the North, in spite of his name.
What’s the significance of the name reveal? Let’s begin with the name we know our hero by. ‘Jon’ is a fairly common name, with variants in almost every language. In Hebrew and Germanic languages, it means ‘Jehovah has been gracious; has shown favor.' Since the 19th century, the name ‘John Doe’ has been in use by courts and law enforcement when the true name of a man is unknown. The last name ‘Snow’ connotes the cold, white, pristine substance. Fair, like Snow White, whose own story isn’t far from The Fair Unknown in itself. We might as well dub him Sir Le Bel Inconnu, and it would jive nicely with the recurring “You know nothing, Jon Snow” refrain.
Now let’s look at the name Lyanna and Rhaegar intended to bestow on their son. ‘Aegon’ is the name of the conquering king of Westeros, who rode dragons into battle and was the first of his dynasty to sit on the Iron Throne. ‘Targaryen’ is the dynasty, and the house that flies banners illustrated with dragons. Know who else flew dragon banners? Uther Pendragon, whose name translates to ‘Chief-Dragon.’ So in this double-whammy, we can connect Jon Snow to Arthur, son of Uther, and to an inescapable royal destiny. This fair unknown would be king.
Through the naming convention and parallels to the Arthurian legend, Martin and the show’s creators are signaling heavily at the endgame. The Iron Throne is Jon’s destiny, just as the throne of Britain was Arthur’s. Yet Martin rarely makes his conclusions easy, and takes delight in subverting expectations. He takes inspiration from literary sources ancient, medieval, and casts them into the flaming, unpredictable chaos of reality. He throws history into the fighting pits with them. So I’m interested in how Jon Snow subverts his fair unknown predecessors.
“There’s power in you. You resist it, that’s your problem. Embrace it,” Melisandre tells Jon in Season Five. It’s a true insight. Jon is, like Arthur before him, a strong and sensitive leader capable of inspiring people to fight for him. In Westeros, that’s the most valuable kind of power one can wield. Yet Jon is reluctant to accept laud. He’s resistant to power when it’s laid at his feet. This makes him remarkably different from other power players in the game, including his Targaryen relative Daenerys, whose mostly benevolent rise has seen her accumulate and consolidate power. In this way, Jon is embracing ‘Stark-ness’ more than anyone who carries the name.
The decision to join the Night’s Watch, the refusal to take absolute power or to join the war for the throne of Westeros—Jon’s choices stand in direct opposition to the typical fair unknown narrative, and thus break apart its ultimate conclusion. If nature is to overcome nurture, Jon should have ventured to King’s Landing seasons ago, his Targaryen blood boiling. He should have longed for glory. Instead, Jon becomes humbler and more reluctant as his arc bends. He spends the first few seasons traveling further and further North—physically moving away from his throne—and doesn’t venture South of Castle Black until he’s literally killed and resurrected, and his next stop is to defend the Stark family home of Winterfell. His subsequent journey to Dragonstone is only undertaken as a means to defend the North from White Walkers.
A lot can—and will—happen in Season Eight, so there’s no knowing where Jon will go. But there’s an argument to be made that Jon’s ‘Stark-ness’ will keep him off the throne, assuming he survives. Ned hated sitting on it, even as Hand of the King, and it’s likely Jon will never treasure the thought of ruling the Seven Kingdoms. He might make a good king. But he’s got to want it to take it, and right now he’s pledged to a Targaryen who wants it more. In Jon’s case, nurture overcomes nature. His greatest moral model is, and always will be, Ned Stark—a fact he proved when refusing to bend the knee to Cersei. Jon may be a fair unknown, but most likely, he’ll stay unknown. My bet is he won’t reveal his true name in favor of the one that marks him a bastard. Ice and fire are at battle within him, and he’ll choose ice. He’ll choose Snow.
What do you think? Let us know on Twitter.
If you enjoyed some of the insights in this blog, check out my sources. I highly recommend this lecture from The Great Courses, King Arthur: History and Legend, Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Book images are Amazon affiliate links, meaning if you buy the book or the lecture, the podcast will get a small percentage. Thank you for your support!