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.

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.

"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)

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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"

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.

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