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Game of Thrones as Myth—Jon Snow as the Archetypal Hero

In this series, we take a fast and fun look at Game of Thrones characters and what traditional archetypes they fall into.

What is an archetype? In fantasy and myth, certain types of characters constantly reappear: stalwart Heroes, odd Mentors offering talismans, Threshold Guardians and their tests, dangerous Shapeshifters, otherworldly Shadows, dark Villains, sly Tricksters, and more. As you scan the above list, you can probably drop some Game of Thrones characters into one category or another, or even into multiple categories.

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This series examines how Game of Thrones characters fit into the archetypal frameworks developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and the more modern version by Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey). Both Campbell and Vogler employ the works of psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, who, along with many other academics, suggested that the archetypes of myth and legend sprang from a human collective unconscious, since they appear in so many different cultures separated by space and time.

In describing these common character types, symbols and relationships, the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung employed the term ‘archetypes,’ meaning ancient terms of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race. —Christopher Vogler.

Campbell argues that human beings are biologically hardwired to understand the symbolism and expression of character archetypes. Otherwise, we would be incapable of participating in the shared human experience of storytelling.

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Summoned or not, the God will come.  —motto over the door of Carl G. Jung’s house

As we segue into Game of Thrones characters, it is important to remember that archetype is not a straightjacketed category but rather a flexible function of storytelling. Any individual character can (and usually does) express various archetypal traits or even moves from one category to another as the story unfolds.

So let’s tackle our Hero, Jon Snow. The word ‘hero’ is derived from the Greek word hērōs, which means something along the lines of ‘warrior’ and ‘defender.’ A hero is someone who is ready to sacrifice to protect the greater good. In fact, the Hero must sacrifice in order to transform himself and the world he is attempting to save, for “the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming.” (Campbell)

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Jon Snow is perhaps the story’s most obviously traditional hero. Even his last name, a signifier of his bastardy, offers symbolic nods to whiteness and purity. He is an orphan, an unwanted son whose birth took place under vague circumstances, carried into a land of exile where his new mother (Catelyn Stark) refused to love him.

Snow’s true lineage is mysterious—whether he’s actually the product of Eddard’s Stark extramarital affair, as we’re told, is hotly debated—and the truth may now be buried with Ned. These inauspicious beginnings anchor Jon Snow in the traditional hero role presented by Campbell and Vogler, where the hero is “frequently unrecognized or disdained” (Campbell). He has counterparts in figures like Romulus, who was abandoned and suckled by wolves before founding Rome, and Luke Skywalker, the poor farm boy of uncertain parentage from Star Wars.

Now, let’s examine Jon through the lens of Vogler’s psychological and dramatic functions of the Hero.

Psychological Function of the Hero

The character of Jon Snow enters the story of Game of Thrones as a young man seeking his destiny. He is thoughtful and honorable, but also uncertain of himself and forever an outsider within his adopted family.

In psychological terms, the archetype of the hero represents what Freud called the ego—that part of the personality that separates itself from the mother, that considers itself distinct from the whole human race…the hero archetype represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness. —Christopher Vogler

From the very beginning, Jon Snow seeks his own place and completeness. For him, a bastard son with no claim or title, that means becoming a member of the Night’s Watch. However, membership in the Night’s Watch does not complete Jon, as his aloofness and well-developed fighting skills set him apart from the others, and so his hero’s quest to find his place in the world must continue.

Dramatic Function of the Hero: Audience Identification

We all need somebody to root for in a story, especially in one as unpredictable and bloody as Game of Thrones, and Jon Snow serves (up until the end of Season 5, at least) as one of the show’s three main viewpoint characters (along with Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen). As a hero, Jon has qualities, both good and bad, we can all identify in ourselves, and that allows us to see the world through his eyes. Let’s take a look at these qualities in more detail.

Jon Snow and Bran Stark

Dramatic Function of the Hero: Growth and Flaws

We become attached to the character of Jon Snow because we watch him grow up: we witness his personal isolation and his first journey from home to the Wall; we see him develop from a boy into a man; we experience his pain as he learns of his family’s misfortune, his sense of helplessness at being unable to assist them, and his awakening to an understanding of the oath he gave to the Night’s Watch (love vs. honor). We see his first love affair with Ygritte, his betrayal of her and the wildlings, and her eventual death; we see him become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, thus fulfilling the potential Ned Stark, Jeor Mormont, and even Mance Rayder sensed in him; and we see (perhaps) the final snuffing out of the hope Jon represented.

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Like all good Hero characters, Jon Snow is both heroic and flawed. His ironclad sense of honor is both a strength and a glaring weakness. Jon and his adopted father, Lord Eddard Stark, both soldiers, compromise themselves in the cloak-and-dagger world of politics where shadowy players like Varys, Littlefinger, and the Lannisters thrive. For Jon Snow, his honor is the one profound link between him and the legacy of Ned, which may be why he cannot abandon it in favor of political prudence. Like his father, this stubbornness is his undoing.

Also, Jon’s betrayal of Ygritte’s love, even if rationalized as necessary to escape from the wildlings and return to the Night’s Watch, is, on a certain level, unforgivable.

Ygritte and Jon Snow

Jon Snow tries to live with honor, while knowing that honor often gets his family members murdered. —David Benioff and D. B. Weiss

Dramatic Function of the Hero: Sacrifice and Facing Death

Sacrifice, not strength or courage, is the true mark of the Hero. Jon Snow, like Hector in the Iliad and Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, is willing to sacrifice his life in defense of the greater good, for he has become a Watcher on the Wall.

In his Night’s Watch oath, Jon relinquishes marriage, property, children and titles, all traditional life goals in which many men find fulfillment. After that, Jon continually risks loss and death: he defies Alliser Thorne to protect Samwell Tarly as soon as he arrives at Castle Black (and again later, when he mercy-kills Mance Rayder), sacrificing the goodwill of his superior; he rides north of the Wall to confront whatever horrors await him there, sacrificing his safety; he kills the legendary Qhorin Halfhand, sacrificing his claim to brotherhood, in order to gain the trust of Mance Rayder; he betrays Ygritte so he may return to the Night’s Watch, thus sacrificing his chance at love; and he ultimately risks (and perhaps loses) his life by attempting to unite the wildlings with the southerners.

Jon Snow in a boat--Official HBO

Is Jon Snow dead? Skipping around the rumors and speculation for now, let’s take a look at the archetype. The traditional Hero, as a part of his journey, must always face death. The hero may escape death, appear to die but survive, or actually enter and return from the world of the dead, such as legendary heroes Odysseus or Cú Chulainn. If Jon Snow is going to reappear in Game of Thrones, it seems like some version of the last two scenarios is required. Obviously, there is a possibility that Melisandre may use the reanimating power of her Lord of Light to resurrect Jon: we remember another follower of the Lord of Light bringing Beric Dondarrion back from the dead in Kissed by Fire (S2/Ep5). But then again, George R.R. Martin is a master at manipulating expectations—and he just loves to screw with us.

“Oh, you think he’s dead, do you?” —George R.R. Martin, talking about why he killed Jon Snow

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Also, as Season 6 looms, the Game of Thrones story rests more and more in the hands of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who seem just as ready as Martin to confound traditional expectations. It would be wonderful if Jon Snow rose again and completed the full cycle of his Hero’s Journey, but it isn’t a requirement: the Hero need not defeat death if he falls in defense of those he is protecting, as Jon does as a Watcher on the Wall. Like Bellerophon, who was cast down as he attempted to fly Pegasus up Mount Olympus, or Alexander the Great, who was poisoned by his own weary soldiers, Jon is ultimately betrayed by those he serves.

Yet despite Bellerophon’s blind, crippled and disgraceful end, he remains a Hero, as he slew the Chimera in the years before Hercules, and Alexander’s heroic legacy is not lessened by his own early death.

Jon Snow’s assassination at the hands of his own men is messy, shocking, and unfair. But such is the world of Game of Thrones–the manner of Jon Snow’s demise (and his prospect of resurrection) does nothing to diminish the kind of Hero he has already become.

Conclusion: Jon Snow’s character in Game of Thrones fits the Hero archetype in the traditional Campbellian sense. He is an unwilling hero, plagued by doubts and often forced down his path by others, but he is a true Hero nonetheless.

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The Hero Jon Snow: Specifics

House: Stark
Sygll: Dire Wolf
Animal: Ghost the direwolf
Weapon: Longclaw
Nemesis: Alliser Thorne and that White Walker dude on the dock in Hardhome Night’s King
Sidekick: Samwell Tarly
Greatest Love: Ygritte of the wildlings
Greatest strength: Honor
Greatest Weakness: Honor
Greatest Mystery: Parentage
Color: Black (he took the black, looks good in black)
Tarot Card: The Chariot
Ice Cream: Vanilla (pure as the driven Snow, right?)
Future Prospects (Season 6): Unknown, but hopeful

23 Comments

  • Hero – a person or character who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage, bravery or self-sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good; a man or woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her brave deeds and noble qualities.

    Jon Snow fits the bill, every word of it; which means he will die, eventually (the last episode of the show, perhaps?)

  • Assigning him the tarot card of the chariot (journey, determination, victory) is interesting. Did you choose that card or is it the nominated card for the hero?

    There’s that whole thing about there only being seven basic plot lines ( though I think more recently someone has said there’s 20 something, but either way). My initial thought was – GRRM can play with us, and he does, and we love him for it. But he can only actually go so far before we lose all identification with the narrative thread. But then I started thinking more about Campbell, archetypes, the seven basic plots, bathos, catharsis etc etc all these literary constructs and you’re really onto something. We can crackpot with our tinfoil as much as we like but whatever happens it will remain within these frameworks. That’s not a dis on GRRM, it’s inescapable and it doesn’t prevent him from being fresh and unexpected in how he manipulates these structures. I’d quite like to do a re-read with these parameters in mind. There’s something about a redemptive hero too yea? Jamie/Theon?

    Thought provoking article, thank you.

  • We all know the words when a crow dies: “and now his watch had ended”.
    Jon is a man of honor, he tries to follow all the rules as possible.
    Westeros needs men like him.
    Melisandre returns to castle black because she might knew lord stannis wouldnt make it,
    After his wife and half his army abandoned him.
    Now she might put her magic in Jon? and use the words that thoros of myr told her.
    Now she knows it can work, so lets hope she does.
    And Jon might rise again as a free man, free from his vows he swore to honor when he took the black.
    Maybe we see Jon back in that episode “battle of bastards”!

    • When Thoros is recounting to Melissandre his bringing back to life Beric, she asks something like why was he given that power and how his faith must have been so strong and he in turn tells her it actually happened at a low point where he’d about given up (or something like that) and then the Lord of light answered his prayers. Mel is at a low point herself right now. You know, how she returned to Castle Black all defeated.

  • In season 1 we see Ned and Robert talk about jon’s mother “wylla”,
    Gameofthrones.wikia.com tells me that she is from a region controlled by house dayne,
    Vassals to the Martells of Dorne.
    That site doesnt list “Wylla” in the members of house Dayne.
    What if wylla is a member of house Dayne, that makes Jon not a snow ?
    But who is going to tell….

    • Any bastard Ned Stark fathered would have the surname “Snow” regardless if the child was conceived in Dorne or Kings Landing. He is the Lord of Winterfell of the North & any bastard he fathered would be a snow. Just as all of Oberyn’s bastards carry the surname “Sand” despite Oberyn conceiving the children with foreign ladies all throughout the world. He is a Martell of Dorne, so his bastards will all be Sands of Dorne.

      • And besides many people speculate that Rhaegar fathered Jon with Lyanna Stark, thus he would no longer be a Snow but a “Blackfyre”? Unless he was a legitimate Targaryian through some secret polygamous marriage ceremony. Correct me if I’m wrong about any of this.

      • Agreed. Something that’s always bothered me though is what about Mya Stone? Did Robert just never acknowledge her and that’s why her name isn’t Mya Storm?

        • by this criteria all royal bastards must have waters as surname.

          in the case of robert: edric waters ; this rule do not apply to gendry and mya because robert don’t know about them.

          and in the case of aegon iv: daeron waters, aegor waters, brynden waters and shiera waters.

          the only explanation for me is that the bastards surname are associated with the location where the children was raised (jon snow) than the location of birth.

  • I believe it’s all about Jon! He is the Song of Ice and Fire. There’s SO much more story to be explained about him.
    With Jon gone, there’s NO ONE left that is even close to be as honorable and good as him.
    Every story needs a hero .. And it’s him.
    I did not read the books (yet) and I heard what happened with Jon in the books…yet I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I’ve never been SO upset about the betrayal and murder of a character on TV until Jon Snow!! And SO mad!
    I know, it’s just a story and a great one too!! But also the most depressing and heart wrenching one!! Cuz man they know how to tear your heart apart!! I would LOVE to see the Starks have things going
    The silver lining I guess is that I can’t get more heartbroken anymore lol:)
    I’m certain he will be back! Better be!! I don’t want to go on watching without Jon.
    But I’m sure I will anyway !!❤️

    • You should read the character analysis on Jon Snow https://meereeneseblot.wordpress.com/essays/ and it may alter how you see Jon as an “honorable character”. Sure he seems to always have the best of intentions, but his actions and decisions often are foolhardy and poorly thought through.
      Anyways, nice write up, just a minor correction, Kissed by Fire is from season 3, not 2. Cheers

      • Foollhardy and poorly thought out are both subjective terms and often depend on your own ‘philosophy’ towards life.
        If you believe in honor and courage and ‘chivalry’, your approach will be vastly different to someone who believes in a Machiavellian approach to life.

  • Wonderful write up. I have read the “monomyth” theory before about Jon Snow. Is there a way to print this article?

  • Jon already rejected the temptation of Melisandre. He also reaffirmed his love for Ygritte and their story arc continued in that scene. “The dead don’t need lovers, only the living”. “I know…but I still love her.” And how does Melisandre know about “you know nothing, Jon Snow?” (S5E4)

    I don’t think Melisandre will resurrect Jon, I think Jon will be put on a pyre and have a Daenerys Targaryen-esk experience. You know, since he is Targaryen. I think they will give him a transformational journey from his perspective (think Daenerys House of Undying but in the realm of the fire god R’hllor aka the Lord of Light) and he will reunite with Ygritte periodically (Rose Leslie spotted all over Belfast during shooting season, twice with the Game of Thrones cast…once having coffee with all the Night’s Watch crew and at the Wrap Party) because *A.* their story arc continued in the Mel seduction scene in S5E4, *B.* because now Jon is also dead, and a reunion would continue the ‘hero’s journey’ and give meaning to Jon’s transformation and *C* it would tie Jon more directly to Daenerys Targaryen, since Dany also saw Khal Drogo after he died and was cremated.

    If Jon got revived instantly it would feel shallow and if nothing of his transformation was shown from his perspective it would bring nothing to his character growth. Plus it’s a little too obvious and easy just to say Mel will revive Jon. I think Melisandre will WITNESS Jon’s rebirth/revival, carrying forward her story, but not participate in it.

    And if I’m wrong and Melisandre simply does revive Jon? Then it’s boring and shallow writing because my theory is 20 times better.

  • Wonderful Article! This type of content is why I come to WIC. Love the thoughtful articles and theorycraft.

  • I have rencently re watched. Season five and I noticed something odd maeseter Ameon says to Sam its sad being the last living targaryen not even a second later Jon shows up and Ameon notices him before same does !