112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Absent from the Wall: The Frustration of Narrative Trajectory in A Song of Ice and Fire

Daniel Bellum, Independent Scholar

This paper will show how ASoIaF accentuates major themes through negative construction and the programmatic frustration of certain narrative trajectories. More specifically, I will show how the weakness of the Night's Watch in the story is heightened by the conspicuous failure of many characters who ought to go to the Wall to do so. The absence of this "phantom" auxiliary to the Watch serves to emphasize the tragedy of the Watch's inability to stop the impending disaster of the Long Winter.


A major tension in the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is the disconnect between the destructive folly pursued by southern Westeros and the brittle emaciation of the Night's Watch, the only protection from a far more serious threat. We know from the prologue of A Game of Thrones that utter destruction impends from just beyond the magical Wall, and that unless the weakened Watch can find the strength and knowledge to fend off the terrifying Others, the civil war being fought in the rest of the country will become fatally moot. Martin has carefully constructed these themes of doomed vanity in the South and enfeebled valor in the North; he emphasizes the Watch's fragile state, the naked contempt for the Night's Watch among the Westerosi, the constant loss of Watch personnel, and internal struggles within the Watch itself. Even the glimpses into the past of Westeros often emphasize the historical importance of the Night's Watch to Westerosi survival.

In my paper, I will explore a much subtler way that the narrative of ASoIaF accentuates the senselessness of this impending disaster and the weakness of the Watch. I will focus my study on the negative space that the series' narrative creates within the Night's Watch. I will argue that parallel to the narrative thread that shows the weakening of the Watch there runs another narrative which shows the Night's Watch not being strengthened. I will trace this negative impact on the power of the Watch by focusing on the many characters who, at some time or another in the story, seem reasonably poised to take the black but do not do so.

Taken individually, these incidents of stymied induction into the Watch might not seem
particularly momentous.  However, the full list of such characters, when viewed together as a potential auxiliary force for the Watch, a negative space in their ranks, may be viewed a kind of "phantom" Night's Watch which possesses staggering military experience, intelligence, wealth, and moral fortitude - perhaps enough to turn the coming tide. Unfortunately, ASoIaF is a story about that beneficial outcome failing to happen as much as it is about the disaster that does happen.

To examine the construction of this negative theme, which has echoes throughout many of the story arcs in ASoIaF, I will attempt to create a methodology for observing and analyzing narratological elements in literature which seem to be programmatically stymied, apply it to a close reading of this topic in ASoIaF. If I can successfully reveal the negative construction of the "phantom" Night's Watch by examining the frustration of narrative trajectory, this approach will prove a valuable tool in the further analysis of ASoIaF.

Topic Area: