29

From their vows:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all nights to come.

Why do they need to vow that? Why celibacy is important for the order?

  • the Oath makes me think of Hughes funeral in Fullmetal Alchemist when his daughter is frantically begging her mother to stop the people "burying daddy" because "he still has work to do and if they bury him he wont be able to get up". i'm unsure of the history but "take no wife" and "father no children" could just to vow not to "leave a family behind who will morn my passing", after all, what's more gut wrenching than seeing a child who doesn't understand that someone they love is never coming back. – Memor-X Jun 12 '14 at 0:14
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    It says nothing about celibacy. Having no wives and no children is not the same as being celibate. – Robert Jan 19 '15 at 20:44
  • because children can be the only thing more important than the mission. – Skooba Feb 20 '16 at 19:43
  • Seriously? Have you tried running an active military unit with soldiers having women and children? Uh... no. – einpoklum Jun 16 '17 at 19:36
38

I believe the vows of the Night's Watch go back through the ages, in the order of thousands of years, back to mythical heroes like Brandon the Builder and before him. GRRM has allowed his characters somewhat free interpretation of what these vows mean.

Sam (and Bran's group) was made aware of the old gate, under the Nightfort, which tied the vow to the gate's magical quality. I believe there are more such ancient magical qualities tied to the vow. There seems to be some purpose to Jon and Sam saying their vows before a heart tree, for example.

Many black brothers seem to believe that protecting the realm from wildlings is the core of the oath, whereas we have seen that Stannis and Jon have made the interpretation that their duty is to protect the realms of men, in which wildlings are considered on the side of the realm. I believe this comes close to the original intent of the vow. As Lord Commander Mormont said (paraphrasing):

"You don't build a wall hundreds of feet high to keep out raiders."

In the time when the oath was conceived, I believe the intent was to form an elite guard force, whose sole task was to guard against the ancient evil, the Long Night, The Great Other. As is mentioned in many of Jon's chapters, I cannot remember if it was Maester Aemon or Lord Commander Mormont, family ties are strong, and the ones who test a man's oath the hardest.

While other men might be part of the realm; Lords, servants, knights, fathers, etc, the Night's Watch stands outside it. They have severed all ties to it. Their sole focus is the danger north of the wall. It is in their name: The Night's Watch, they who watch against the Long Night.

Night gathers, and now my watch begins.

They are watchmen. Not primarily soldiers, or an army.

It shall not end until my death.

Making this pledge binds you forever, so that you shall never have any cause to think of your past or your future.

I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.

This is the meat of the pledge: To forever forsake your claim to your place in the realm.

I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all nights to come.

This last part to me has always revolved around "the watcher on the walls", "I shall live and die at my post" and "the horn that wakes the sleepers," -- which also ties into the very dramatic 1-2-3 blasts of their horn signals: Once for rangers returning, twice for wildlings, three times for Others.

While other people, such as for example the Lord of Winterfell and his men, may take up arms against the enemies of the realm, they are not pledged to guard against the Long Night, their attention may be divided. They might enjoy coming home a cold evening, sitting in front of their fire with their children and turning a blind eye to the dark and cold night outside.

But someone has to be the one to keep watch, to wake the sleepers, to bear witness to strange events, to listen to the forest and sense the creeping cold. Someone who spends his life in the cold and empty forests and learns how to read its signs.

Much like in the prologue to AGOT, Gared and Will could sense something was wrong, but Ser Waymar Royce could not.

I guess in short it boils down to no division of loyalty and no distractions. Much like any knight can protect the king in his own right, and has his own place in the protection around the king, a knight of the Kingsguard has the duty of being the first and innermost line of defense. His watchfulness can never waver for a second, as Ser Barristan notes in ADWD:

But the battle was never truly done for a knight of the Kingsguard. Threats came from everywhere and nowhere, at any time of day or night. [....] For every hour of fighting, a Kingsguard knight spent ten thousand hours watching, waiting, standing silent in the shadows. King Hizdahr's pit fighters were already growing bored and restive with their new duties, and bored men were lax, slow to react.

I think Lord Commander Mormont demonstrated it the best. On their ranging, he comes to the conclusion that something very bad is happening, that the wall and the Night's Watch's purpose is not what they thought. He was able to make that deduction because his only focus in life is being the watcher on the walls. That guard who has spent thousands of hours watching and recognizes the danger in time.

  • Your point about the focus is somewhat flawed. Yes, Mormont was focused, but many others (in fact, the majority) in the Night's Watch have taken that very oath, yet do not have that focus. Foreswearing children does not make them all superior guardians. Mormont, Gared, and Will were all good, skilled men, experienced at their tasks. Ser Waymar Royce, however, swore those same vows. While Royce was a novice, there are plenty who were veterans who had sworn the vows, but weren't particularly competent (Allister Thorne comes to mind). – Beofett Apr 5 '12 at 12:40
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    @Beofett The oath is not a magic spell. Like I said, many black brothers have their own theories and also as you pointed out, varying levels of commitment to the Watch. There is also the fact that the NW has been the "trash bin" of Westeros, where all the unwanted people have been dumped for generations. The central part is the cutting of existing and potential bonds to anything but the Watch. – TLP Apr 5 '12 at 13:39
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    Also, while others may not have been strengthened by their lack of children, one cannot say how children would have weakened their commitment. – TLP Apr 5 '12 at 13:43
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    +1 Awesome, well supported answer. In so many words, it's clear the purpose of the vow is to sever all ties to the "wordly" realm, so that the watchers can remain neutral and focus on their task. Having children which can be taken hostage or get involved in feuds would be a weakness. Having parents or siblings can be a weakness too, but at least you can avoid having children. – Andres F. Aug 1 '12 at 19:11
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    "family ties are strong, and the ones who test a man's oath the hardest." Was Maester Aemon. – Möoz Apr 17 '14 at 2:16
44

Without having read one word of the source material outside of his quote two possibilities spring to mind:

  1. No division of loyalties.
  2. No distractions from duty.

Or Both. These ideas are the unifying themes of this text.

  • 2
    ... and keenly divined accurately. – Josh Apr 4 '12 at 16:58
  • 1
    Yep. If you start having and raising kids, pretty soon you're a budding kingdom all your own. – peacedog Apr 5 '12 at 19:27
  • Wow, are you sure you haven't read the books? Because this is the most likely answer (I have read the books!) – Andres F. Aug 1 '12 at 19:16
25

One of the major purposes the Night's Watch serves, in addition to acting as guardians and protectors of the Wall, is that they also function as a way of getting rid of "undesireables". While the bulk of these are criminals, there are a significant number of nobility that join the Night's Watch.

These nobles are usually sons who are further down in the lines of succession to their House (such as Aemon Targaryen and Benjen Stark). In some cases, having too many heirs is frequently seen as creating the possibility for future strife. In others, there may be a desire to change the lines of succession (such as with Samwell Tarly being kicked out for his younger brother), or eliminate any possibility for contesting the established succession.

Sending these men to the Night's Watch is an alternative to having to kill them, either through murder or war (and remember that kinslaying is particularly reviled).

By forcing these men to swear never to have any children, the Watch reduces the risk that their claims to the House succession will be passed on to the next generation.

It is the same reason for the lines about not wearing any crowns, winning any glory, or holding any lands.

This is also why members of the Night's Watch are also encouraged to sever all ties to their family, even though that is not a part of the vow.

  • 3
    I have always believed that this effect of the Night's Watch's vows is secondary. Not that the vows were created for this purpose. If it were so, I hardly think that Starks would consider it as honourable as they do. – TLP Apr 5 '12 at 10:59
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    I've had this debate before, and as far as I know, we have no idea why Benjen joined the watch, except for hints such as the one you pose, and also that for Starks, the NW is an honourable calling. Personally, I do not believe that Benjen chose the NW due to lack of options. He is a Stark of Winterfell, brother to the Warden of the North, I believe he would get many marriage offers, and would not be doomed to a life of poverty. Also, it is important to note that Benjen did not join the Watch until after the war, with Ned as Lord and all other Starks dead. – TLP Apr 5 '12 at 12:21
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    There is actually a question about this: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/5895/2256 I think I might post my own theory. – TLP Apr 5 '12 at 12:26
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    I feel confident that we will learn something of Benjen in the upcoming books. I have a feeling he will turn out to be Coldhands, but I would rather he turned up alive. – TLP Apr 5 '12 at 13:41
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    I support TLP in this: the Watch as a last resource for criminals is secondary. The main and original purpose of the Watch was to guard the realms of men against external horror, possibly supernatural in nature. The vow reflects this, though it's clear from the books most of Westeros has forgotten this. – Andres F. Aug 1 '12 at 19:13
12

In the first book this conversation provides the reason:

"Jon, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night's Watch take no wives and father no children?" Maester Aemon asked.

Jon shrugged. "No." ...

"So they will not love," the old man answered, "for love is the bane of honor,the death of duty. ... Tell me, Jon, if the day should ever come when your lord father must needs choose between honor on the one hand and those he loves on the other, what would he do?"

Jon hesitated. ... "He would do whatever was right ... No matter what."

"Then Lord Eddard is a man in ten thousand. Most of us are not so strong. What is honor compared to a woman's love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother's smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy."

"The men who formed the Night's Watch knew that only their courage shielded the realm from the darkness to the north. They knew they must have no divided loyalties to weaken their resolve. So they vowed they would have no wives nor children."

6

I thought that the logic of fathering no children was explicit and well explained in the books and on the show.

If a conflict ever arose where a Man of the Night's Watch had to choose between staying on the Wall or riding of to save one of his children from some danger, most men would choose to help their families.

The temptation to abandon their duty is strong enough to sway some Black Brothers when it is a sibling or parent who is in trouble. The urge to protect a son would make it significantly hard for them to stay at their post.

6

This seems to a fairly common thing in Westeros. The knights of the Kingsguard also vow to not hold any lands, get married, or father children, and so do the Maesters of the Citadel.

All three of these groups are very much like monastic orders, which emphasize duty and service.

  • +1 Yes, very much like monastic orders. Of course, many characters from ASoIaF are flawed and frequently break their vows. – Andres F. Aug 1 '12 at 19:17
3

Aemon Targaryen spells it out very clearly to Jon - and Cersei says it as well - love can make you do things you might not do. It weakens you, in the sense that you may do things for your children or lover that would damage your ability to do the job. Celibacy is an advantage so that you can concentrate on one specific thing, like a priest.

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