In this chapter, men of the Night's Watch on a ranging consider returning back to the Wall after their scout, Will, reports that the group of wildlings they were sent to track appears to have frozen to death. But the warm weather (incapable of killing so many so suddenly) has Ser Waymar Royce to order them to confirm the report. But the wildlings aren't were Will saw them – instead, the rangers of the Night's Watch are confronted by Others, with eyes that burn like ice and a deep and strange cold that follows them, who kill Ser Royce, leaving the silent tracker Will to watch undetected – until Royce rises again, his body now mangled, and with the unnatural blue eyes to match the now-departed Others.
The events of the chapter are set into motion, inexorably, when Ser Waymar Royce says, "Tell me everything, Will, leave nothing out." In many ways, the entire scene is driven by his curiosity. A fair reading of their orders (as is pointed out by Gared, the 40-year veteran of the Night's Watch who is driving the conversation about needing to return). His experience and wariness of the woods beyond the wall is an interesting foil to the curiosity of Waymar – he doesn't want to know the strange things in the darkness. He's heard the stories – everyone has – but he's been around long enough to know they aren't just stories, even if he can't prove it, and might never say it.
Their much younger leader, the immaculately equipped Ser Royce, is trying to put his preparation to use. Asking if people are unmanned by the dark, or if the dead frighten them, prompting and later ordering them to continue. In many ways, he's an excellent leader for the task of tracking – the goal isn't defense, it's information, so a persistent and stubbornly curious presence is probably who you want in charge. Their goal was tracking, learning information, and reporting back – to leave without that desired understanding sacrifices the curiosity inherent in their mission.
Curiosity comes at a cost. Ultimately, the lives of the men killed, but also the requirement that they confront their fears. The unnatural feelings may well be a distance effect of the same beings that bring the sudden and overbearing chill with them. This mission is not driven an idle curiosity like reading a Wikipedia page – every day they spend away from the wall has a cost, and a risk. Waymar asks lots of questions, asking how they died, and soon he learns. But he's observant enough to notice they couldn't have frozen when the wall was weeping, and clever enough to notice he ought to be curious. But we see another model of curiosity:
“Can’t you feel it?” Gared asked. “Listen to the darkness.”
There was nothing to see. Gared is calling him to a curiosity of the higher mysteries. That, truly, is the wisdom needed here, more important than any answer to a curiosity for them. When Ser Royce calls out “Answer me! Why is it so cold?”, I think he knows that's an impossible question to answer. It is a mystery beyond the scope that he could handle, and he assumes the experience of others might help him address it.
When we read "When he found the courage to look again, a long time had passed, and the ridge below was empty.", I'm reminded that curiosity is so frequently set across from cowardice. Could you write something you're really proud of? Could you start a business? Could you achieve your dream? You don't know, but fear can override your desire to find out. Perhaps if we wait too long too look for our dreams, we may not find them – perhaps, like Will, we will find ourselves made into a shell of a person? He didn't have a lot of better choices, so the metaphor breaks down, but in general, we do, limited only by our curiosity and courage.
Reading Practice - PaRDeS
Today, we'll be using the tool of Pardes – a four-step deep reading practice that treats the work as an orchard, where we can reach up and grab anything and know it will be juicy.
Today, the randomly selected sentence is:
All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.
The Peshat (or surface meaning) is simply Will observing the same thing that drives the fear in Gared. The sense of something wrong is there, Will observes, but he isn't unnerved by it quite so much.
The Ramez or hidden and hinted meaning is a bit more elusive, as you might guess. This is the first day since his first ranging that Will had been feeling the terrors beyond the wall. Not since he had experience to replace the stories he'd heard growing up. And his feeling is so specific. It begs the question: he's an excellent tracker, an excellent observer. If he feels this specific thing, this cold and unloving force, shouldn't we take that seriously?
But Will doesn't. He understands his duty is to treat it casually. Perhaps the hint is that the vague symbols and feelings our viewpoint characters feel but do not share are worthy of taking seriously?
Derash tells us to compare similar occurrences of these words, and the thing that strikes me is that, Will is the only person doing his job as he swore. Gared is cautious, Royce is curious, and Will just watches, hoping they won't involve him in their argument, Will watches the wildlings to see they aren't moving, he watches the violence with the Others. And that's his sacred task – he is a Watcher On The Wall. He is not killed by needing to know as much as he can, and he is not so cowardly as to desert. I think it's wise to give us this viewpoint into this scene, allowing us to get used to watching the events as well.
The Sod – the secret or esoteric meaning – is, perhaps, that we are connected with each other, and can feel love through that unspoken and even unnoticed bond. The love must be sent, otherwise it's absence wouldn't be so notable to Will. So the esoteric meaning of the text is to pay attention to those who love you, and feel their love, even when they aren't around.
I'd like to bless Ser Waymar Royce. We later learn that warnings of the truly inexplicable beyond the wall aren't taken seriously, and there's always the excuse that there are infirm men on the wall making these reports – rapists, thieves, people you shouldn't trust. Royce is precisely the unflinching realist that allows organizations to build up the credibility they need, the reputation that they won't be scared by shadows. Even when the shadows are there, slicing through your armor and making you their dark puppet. He's trying, people, and we should admire that, and never feel ashamed when we follow our curiosity into darkness, even when the darkness gets us in the end.