My understanding is that The Wall was built a long time ago -- on the order of thousands of years -- to keep all the nasty stuff from invading the more-developed parts of Westeros. It's also my understanding that nothing has really happened there for a similarly long time.

1,000+ years is a very long time, in human terms. Can you imagine Hadrian's Wall or The Great Wall of China still being patrolled? The time span is so long that several empires would have been-and-gone and whatever threat originally existed has long since faded into legend. Even if patrolling the wall didn't naturally diminish through complacency, it seems like "Military Strategy 101" and basic economics not to man hundreds of miles of wall, in bad conditions, against no obvious threat.

Enough time has passed such that any patrols would have dried up years ago. I can understand that tradition and some sense of honour and duty would give The Night's Watch some momentum, but not enough to last as long as it has. If my assumptions are correct, why is it manned at all; or even been left to deteriorate/become a tourist attraction?

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    The Great Wall was manned for ~2300 years so....
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:15
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    It's important to note that The Wall isn't nearly as well kept as it was in its prime. They mention that many forts along it are no longer manned and that those forts are falling apart. So while the wall is still manned, it's not being manned nearly as much as it was when it was first made. Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 15:57
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    “The time span is so long that several empires would have been-and-gone and whatever threat originally existed has long since faded into legend.” — Well, yes. That’s exactly what happened. Grumpkins and snarks. “why is it manned at all” — Wildlings. Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 16:15
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    2300 years is not that much when your empire exists in medieval stasis (warning tvtropes link).
    – Edheldil
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 19:36
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    I have neither read the books nor watched the series beyond snippets on YouTube. But my impression was that today, the Watch is basically a penal bataillon, where criminals, "unwanted individuals" etc. are sent, where people go who have nowhere else to go to, with the occassional idealist thrown in? Isn't it? And when you have those people, you put them to some kind of work, just to give them something to do...?
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 8:14

4 Answers 4


While The Others have faded into legend, there are still the Wildlings who live north of the wall, and they have a tendency to raid and otherwise harass the people who live south of the wall. As I recall from the books, many people thought that the Watch was to protect against the Wildlings, and not Others as many people stopped believing in them as actual beings several thousand years ago.

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    This seems to be the correct answer, do you have any quotes to back it up though?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:18
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    @Xophmeister If you had a massive defence would you tear it down and put up something piddly because the threat was lowered or would you keep the badass defence?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:28
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    @Xophmeister: Your notion that the wall itself is enough to keep out the Wildlings is debunked by the fact that we actually see Jon, Ygritte, Thormund etc climb the Wall. We can argue about the efficiency of only having a few castles manned along the wall, but it does prove the point that wall is not enough in and of itself.
    – Flater
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:52
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    @Flater It's not enough to keep out every wildling ever, but it's a seriously good deterrent against large numbers. Yes, we see them climb the wall, but we also see that it's extremely slow and risky. It limits wildling attacks to small groups of skirmishers - and since there's no way to get back or get resupplied, those attacks are basically suicide missions. Even with a full wildling army outnumbering the defenders by orders of magnitude, the only practical attack was on the tunnel.
    – Graham
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 17:45
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    It's a truism in most militaries that any obstacle is only as good as the direct and indirect firepower used to support it. Obstacles never stop, they only slow. If you don't have someone defending it, you might as well not have it.
    – Paul
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 2:37

Cultural habit

It has always been the case that anyone convicted of a crime can choose to forgo sentencing, if he pledges his life to the Night's Watch.

There are only a handful of people who still voluntarily take the black. Benjen Stark and Jon Snow are examples of this (it is somewhat of a tradition in the Stark family that younger siblings go to the Wall if they do not inherit the house, which is the main motivation for Benjen and Jon afaik).
Sam Tarly did not go to the wall voluntarily (Randyll Tarly forced him to go), but it's important to note that he did not commit any crime which caused him to take the black.

Around the time of Season 1, there are many allusions to how the Night's Watch is made up of nothing more than criminals. Even Jeor Mormont himself says so in the books:

A Game of Thrones - Tyrion III

"The Watch has no shortage of stableboys," Lord Mormont grumbled. "That seems to be all they send us these days. Stableboys and sneak thieves and rapers. Ser Alliser is an anointed knight, one of the few to take the black since I have been Lord Commander. He fought bravely at King's Landing."

Stable boys are not really criminals, but the underlying message is clear: the Night's Watch is mainly staffed by former criminals.

It stands to reason that the Wall was more or less considered as a form of community service, and when you stop taking in new recruits, you are essentially condemning more criminals to death. This may invoke the ire of the people, and may be hard to change.

The Wildling threat

During Jon Snow's time with the Wildlings, he is seen climbing the Wall. Wildlings still raided the lands south of the Wall, so the Night's Watch still had a purpose other than protecting against the White Walkers.

A Clash of Kings - Jon V

Restless, Jon squatted by the fire and poked at it with a stick. He could hear the Old Bear's voice inside the tent, punctuated by the raven's squawks and Qhorin Halfhand's quieter tones, but he could not make out the words. Alfyn Crowkiller dead, that's good. He was one of the bloodiest of the wildling raiders, taking his name from the black brothers he'd slain. So why does Qhorin sound so grave, after such a victory?

I'm struggling to find direct quotes about Wildling raiding. There are mentions by Old Nan, but she's an untrustworthy source as she's telling Bran scary stories.

However, you could argue that the usage of "Wildling raider" inherently implies that they perform their raids south of the Wall, since there is nothing to raid beyond the Wall.

This quote directly refers to wildlings going south of the wall:

A Clash of Kings - Bran II

Hother wanted ships. "There's wildlings stealing down from the north, more than I've ever seen before. They cross the Bay of Seals in little boats and wash up on our shores. The crows in Eastwatch are too few to stop them, and they go to ground quick as weasels. It's longships we need, aye, and strong men to sail them. The Greatjon took too many. Half our harvest is gone to seed for want of arms to swing the scythes."

Not only does this prove that the Wildlings raid south of the Wall, but it also highlights that the Night's Watch is considerably understaffed.

  • I can't find a quote yet but I'm sure there are others, like Old Nan I believe, that also still believe in the others/White Walkers. They might be regarded as daft/crazy by the majority but it could also be a reason.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:32
  • @TheLethalCoder: I have been looking for quotes for a while now, and have discounted Old Nan as her stories are not necessarily factually correct. Though I am struggling to find decent quotes, I can argue that the usage of "wildling raider" inherently proves that they go south of the wall (or at the very least raid the Night's watch), as anyone taking up residence beyond the wall is considered a Wildling anyway.
    – Flater
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:36
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    -1. Cultural habit? If they had no purpose, the disruptive elements / second sons / bastards they wanted to get rid of would've been sent somewhere else 2b productive. No monarch would send & supply them just for them to stand on the wall and look pretty.
    – user68762
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:39
  • A Clash of Kings - Jon VIII: ...They wore only what bits of armor they had looted from dead rangers or stolen during raids. Wildlings did not mine or smelt, and there were few smiths and fewer forges north of the Wall.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:41
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    @D.O.B.Y2.0 The NW is seen as punishment in their society - To go to the bleakest place to defend against a low threat and not carry on your family anymore. That's why the cultural aspect carries on. If you send someone on community service they might be comfortable and still be able to carry on their family name, the NW is worse in that aspect.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 14:48

It's practically unmanned, actually.

The Night's Watch was once a formidable force, superior to the army of any one of the kingdoms of those days most likely.

It manned nearly 20 fortresses along the wall and farmed a significant stretch of land to its south (the "Gift" and the "new Gift"). Castle Black (and its surroundings?) used to house 5,000 Night's Watch fighters; the Watch must have had, what, over 20,000 members all counted, if not more.

See this Wiki of Ice and Fire article about this.

... so, relative to what it means to actually man the wall - the smidgen of NW members we have at the beginning of GoT (under 1,000), with only 3 fortresses manned - is not very significant. Now, Ok, they do manage to hold off Mance Raider, but: 1. Stannis helps them and 2. That's not what they're supposed to be defending against.


I think it all comes down to technology. In our world, the technology progressed very much in that time scale that manning a wall is basically useless. However in Westeros, not only the technology did not progress, but it actually regressed. Whatever civilizations that built the castles like Storm's End, Casterly Rock or the Wall itself have not existed for at least 8000 years.

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