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An issue has been occurring to me as I am reading the first book. That is: why do people in the North, especially the Starks, take the Wall so seriously? Moreover, why do the people on the Wall take their role so seriously?

The reason I ask is that the stories of the Others are thought to be mere legend from thousands of years ago. Old Nan serves as the typical crone who tells "wives' tales" to people like Bran, and Jon recalls some of the Others as he goes into the Haunted Forest the first time. But no one really seems to actually take them seriously--Tyrion refers often to "Grumpkins and Snarks" with humour.

Now perhaps some would say it is to protect the realm from the wildlings, but we see quite early that people like Osha can cross the Wall in various ways without detection. And a, what, 600 foot wall that attempts to block the entire width of the northern Kingdom? Obviously it is built for something more formidable, but no one seems to have any clue who that would be.

Obviously, later in the series, and the show, we find out the real reason, but, in the many many eons before this time, why do they take the Wall so seriously? Obviously it serves as a kind of penal colony for many people, but there are those like Jon and his Uncle Benjen who actually volunteer to go, that such an act is one of honour.

  • 3
    Because they always have? – AAlig Sep 7 '18 at 13:08
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    One or two wildlings sneaking through the wall isn't a problem. A whole army of them led by someone like Mance Rayder would be... – Darren Sep 7 '18 at 13:24
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    "And a 600 foot wall that attempts to block the entire width of the northern Kingdom? Obviously it is built for something more formidable" I think you answered your own question. Given that someone built this enormously huge wall, it means there's a good reason! – Rebel-Scum Sep 7 '18 at 13:35
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    In medieval times, a river was a pretty good defence against invading armies. That didn't mean that no one could cross that river at all. – Mike Harris Sep 7 '18 at 14:31
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    Asked like a true southerner. – svenvo7 Sep 7 '18 at 21:43
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Wildlings

In current times the Wall and the Night's Watch have mainly been protecting the realm from the Wildlings. Whilst not quite as honourable as a role it is still something to be taken seriously. You can't exactly blame them for not being able to defend a stretch 300 leagues with less than 1000 men.

Tradition

The Night's Watch is a long standing tradition in Westeros. It may not be as glorious now as it once was but such a traditional thing is worthy of taking somewhat seriously even if you don't believe in the supposed reason for it being there.

Got to be there for something

You don't just build a 600 foot wall for anything, there has to be a reason behind it. Even if the Others have fallen into legend people must still see some truth in them or just imagine another reason for them.

The Oath

"Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow," they recited, their voices filling the twilit grove. "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 the nights to come."

A Game of Thrones, Jon VI

The oath is an important factor, they are swearing to protect the realm of men, that is not something to be taken lightly no matter what they are actually protecting against.

The oath also means they shall take no lands, wife or father no children. That isn't something to promise to lightly and if you've given up all that you must be pretty serious about the cause (if you go voluntarily of course).

Many don't

However, the simple fact is that most of the people at the Wall are just there because they have to be i.e. they had no other choice. These people don't really take it seriously.

  • Will add in some sources when I can... internet is a bit choppy at the moment. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 7 '18 at 13:25
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    The "got to be there for something" argument is called Chesterton's fence – Cephalopod Sep 7 '18 at 19:57
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    This is a great answer. Allow me to add that the people from The North is extremely superstitious. They may not believe in "The Others", but they do fear the giant wolves, bears and other creatures that live in the other side of the wall – Cenlan Sep 7 '18 at 20:23
  • Well and the other thing to is that even if the threat behind the wall is gone, to stop defending a wall would allow it to become taken as a fortification by any other groups seeking power. You don't leave a castle unattended just because the capital moved. – The Great Duck Sep 9 '18 at 4:40
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why do people in the North, especially the Starks, take the Wall so seriously?

Practical reasons -

Those in the North have been raided by wildlings in living memory, and bear an active and healthy animus against wildlings, who don't subscribe to the same hierarchical respect for law and ownership.

Those wildlings, as you point out, made it past the Wall. The Northmen have a completely reasonable expectation that, without the Wall, many more would be coming south, stealing, killing, and harassing.

Impractical reasons -

The Northmen still pray to trees that they believe can see them. Is it really so far from that to believing that there are monsters in the North that the Wall keeps back? Religion is a really good method of enforcing both rules and opinions over time.

why do the people on the Wall take their role so seriously?

True belief -

Some, like Benjen Stark, are Northmen who believe in both the practical (wildling) and the abstract (eeeevil) reasons for the Wall.

Gotta believe in something -

Some, Nobles who have been sent to the Wall for treason and the like, simply have to make the best of their new life. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!

Gotta keep your head.

Of course, the threat of being beheaded for leaving helps keep everyone who doesn't really believe in line. And, it being a military hierarchy, the more-believers are going to rise to command of the less-believers, ensuring that military discipline enforces the "reasons" for being there.

5

Pride

The North doesn’t have much—the land is difficult to farm, winters are especially brutal, there are some pockets of resources but nothing astounding (like Casterly Rock’s gold mines). The southern kingdoms have wealth, prestige, comfort, and power. The North has got... the Wall.

It’s unsurprising to me, then, that the North takes it seriously—it’s kind of like taking themselves seriously. If the Wall weren’t important, why on earth are they living there? Why did their ancestors live there? “Because they couldn’t get better land further south,” is an unpleasant, self-effacing answer—not one many people want to be the answer.

Likewise, the people of the south don’t want to feel like they owe the North anything. They don’t want to believe that the North is “sacrificing” or that their hardship is “for the greater good.” So they dismiss the Wall as unimportant. They do want to believe that they live in better lands because they and/or their ancestors were “better” in one way or another, and so got better land. That’s also a matter of pride.

And of course, in reality, both are right—the Wall is important, but getting stuck with guard duty also is rather getting the short end of the stick. It’s all a matter of perspective: are you honored to take on this duty and hardship, as the Starks are and have been? Or are you bitter about it, feeling slighted by it? They aren’t in the North, but Walder Frey and Balon Greyjoy might fall more into that latter category.

The North seems to follow the Starks’ example and take pride in it. Considering how difficult their lives are, those who don’t probably left—or lacked the willpower to endure and died out. They also likely saw social sanction if they questioned the importance of the Wall in front of their proud neighbors, which both makes their lives more unpleasant, and much more difficult if they lack friends to provide aid.

Any other consideration pales in front of this, I think. The wildling raids aren’t terribly severe and despite the rather poor state of the Night Watch at the time of A Song of Ice and Fire, they were quite capable of dealing with them

until Mance Rayder, but then, before the events of the books forced issues, not even the wildlings themselves took seriously the idea that someone could actually unite them against the crows

(minor spoiler from A Storm of Swords about what the wildlings have been up to)

The North would have had to devote far more resources to defense if the Wall didn’t exist, of course, but it did exist, and its existence alone would have been sufficient to allow a minimal number of men to keep raids down to a minimum—the North probably wouldn’t have ignored the Wall, but if wildling raids were the only reason to worry about it, they probably would have treated service there much more contemptuously, as the southern kingdoms did.

The Others were long forgotten and even the North didn’t take them seriously.

  • Pride and customs is indeed a great part of why the northerners take the duty on the Wall a little more seriously than the people who live in the other regions of Westeros. This is noticeable even out the North. If we take the Royce as an example, they are known to be a proud house, with their lineage being traced from the age of the Dawn as one of the first kings to rule the Vale, they are known to be descendants from the First Men, they respect the "old ways", and we see Bronze Yohn Royce send his youngest son, Waymar, to the Wall. – FernandoRibeiro Sep 10 '18 at 11:55
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People don't take it that seriously, not even in the North.

ASOIAF presents us the Night's Watch as an institution in decline, and it's been heading this way for centuries. There are 19 castles along the wall, and the Watch had 10,000 men at the time of Aegon's conquest, but at the start of AGOT we have 1000 men manning 3 castles, and clearly struggling in terms of men and resources.

We also see a huge difference in the quality of people in the Watch; the shieldhall in castle black is supposed to be a separate dining hall for noble-born members, with their coats of arms displayed on the walls, and there are examples of very high status men joining the Watch for the honour. For example, the lord commander during Aegon's conquest was the brother of King Harren the Black, and close relations of the King of the North have previously joined. Now most members are not there voluntarily - they're generally smallfolk with no martial training sentenced for crimes. The noble born they do have are generally unwanted children like Samwell Tarly, those that got on the wrong side of the throne like Alliser Thorne or, if things had gone to plan, Ned Stark, and bastards like Jon. We also have Jeor Mormont who joined later in life, after he had adult children able to take over from him, and Benjen Stark and Waymar Royce who are unusual cases of younger sons being inspired to join for honour.

The reason the Watch hasn't completely vanished is due to the Wildlings and the threat of a large scale invasion like Mance Raydar planned. Single Wildlings coming over the Wall isn't an issue, what the northern lords are concerned about is a group large enough to actually win a battle and take land and castles. It makes sense for them all to slightly contribute to the Watch, because the Wall allows a small force to defeat a much larger one - they many not really understand why the Wall was built, but it's still a very useful defensive fortification they can use. Also remember how much the Northerners and the Watch hate the Wildlings (this is clear when Jon plans to settle them in the North) - they take their roles seriously because they are defending the realm against a despised enemy. The last time the Wildling's got past the wall was only 70 years before the start of the series.

The Starks are the house most supportive of the Watch for a few reasons. Firstly they have a lot to lose from a Wildling invasion. They are ultimately in charge of defending the Northern border for the King, and responsible for keeping their vassals's land safe, and they'd lose a lot in reputation if there was battle south of the wall. Also they have a history with the Wall, with ancestors who were notable Lord commanders. This is a long standing alliance they're expected to honour. The Wall was build and Watch established by the founder of house Stark, and trusting him means continuing to man it. Also, the modern Starks are generally more in touch with the supernatural than the other houses - they strongly worship the Old Gods, and Old Nan keeps the the traditional stories alive, even if they're not entirely believed.

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