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Mance deserts the Night's Watch because he wants to be free. But later, he becomes a rallying point for the wildlings, drawing them together to fight the Night's Watch. We later learn that (mild ASOS and Season 3 spoiler.)

Mance's intentions are somewhat benign - he only wants to settle his people safely beyond the Wall to protect them against the Others.

But what I don't understand is why he deserted beyond the Wall in the first place. If he was aware of the threat of the Others - as an experienced ranger of the Night's Watch might have been - it would have made far more sense to go into hiding south of the Wall. What purpose did it serve for him to unite the wildlings?

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Your assumption is that Mance knew about the threat before he deserted. No one knew of the threat, it is only until the battle on the Fist of the First Men that Mormont is aware how big a threat the walkers are. –  TLP Jul 7 at 12:02

3 Answers 3

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Mance was born a wildling. In A Clash of Kings, Chapter 53 (Jon) we learn that he was a wildling child and was taken by the Night's Watch and raised there, where he remained for a big part of his life.

We also know that he was attacked by a shadowcat while ranging and was healed by a wildling woman. She healed him and fixed his black cloak with red patches. When he returned to the Wall, he was asked to remove it and replace it with the regular black one of the Brothers. He didn't want to do that, so he left the Wall to live free, the way he wanted.

He couldn't go South of the Wall, since they would kill him for a deserter of the Wall, so he had no other choice but to go North of it.

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Oh okay, I missed that part rereading. So when Mance talks about "my people", he's really correct. –  Leo King Jul 7 at 15:57
    
The last sentence doesn't make much sense: the question asks why he deserted in the first place, i.e. if he wouldn't have deserted, he wouldn't... be a deserter? Sorry to state the obvious... –  Lohoris Jul 7 at 20:22
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@Lohoris I'm not sure I understood what you said. He wanted to leave the Wall. Thus he would be a deserter. If he went south of the Wall, they would kill him. –  Shevliaskovic Jul 8 at 1:56
    
"But what I don't understand is why he deserted beyond the Wall in the first place" –  Lohoris Jul 8 at 7:37
    
@Lohoris He was sick of the Night Watch life - he wanted his freedom. Going south would mean death, so the only options were going north, or staying with the watch (which he didn't want to, as described in the answer). In other words, he judged his chances, and decided that going beyond the wall is the safer option. After uniting the wildlings, he had a better bargaining position. Not to mention that he might have wanted to help his fellow wildlings against the Others (provided he knew about the impending danger and the severity of the threat). –  Luaan Jul 8 at 9:00

As long as I remember, when Mance fled, no living black brother had ever seen the Others or their spectres. The Others are seen as a distant threat, many men no longer believe in them, and although the Night's Watch can be more conscious on the matter, very few of them expected they would suffer an attack from the Others within their lifetime. The current goal of the Night's watch was to defend the Wall against wildlings, more than any supernatural menace.

So, I guess Mance Rayder had no idea he would see the Others when he deserted.

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Most of those south of the wall (if not all) are children of the summer. The population only knew the tales and children stories of what lurks in the north. None had come face to face with Icewalkers and the like and so discounted them.

Mance wanted to get "his people" out of harms way. The Crows had pushed them further north then they wanted to be. As it stood the wildling army marched on Castle Black to keep from being boxed in and being dead is not the worst thing that could happen.

Prior to Stannis coming north fewer and fewer southern holdings were willing to send even criminals north let alone able bodied men being conscripted as war fodder. Many of the Keeps along the wall were not being manned so the personnel at Castle Black were but a token resistance. Mance knew the score though the wall is still the wall. Had Stannis not intercepted the wildlings north of the wall... (at this point I would be rewriting the book, =)).

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