Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly just survived the longest night of their lives. But what if the great war at the Wall lasted even longer?
In George R.R. Martin's "A Storm of Swords," the novel that "Game of Thrones" season four takes most of its cues from, the battle between the Night's Watch and Mance Rayder's army lasts much longer than a single night. In fact, there are a few key differences between the books and how the show handled the conflict in "The Watchers on the Wall."
For one thing, in the books, there's a shorter period of time between Jon returning from his undercover assignment with the wildlings, and the wildlings' assault. When Castle Black is attacked by Ygritte and the Thenns, Jon is still reeling from all of the many arrows he earned after double-crossing Ygritte and the wildlings.
The Night's Watch is also better prepared in the books than they are in the show — at least, they're more receptive to Jon's warnings. That's because the Watch is led by Donal Noye, a one-armed blacksmith who is acting as Lord Commander in the wake of Jeor Mormont's death. At this point in the books, Alliser Thorne, serving as Lord Commander on the show, is serving the Watch as master-at-arms of Eastwatch-by-the-sea, the easternmost castle along the Wall.
While Alliser is not the world's biggest Jon Snow fan in both the show and (especially) the books, Donal Noye has much more faith in Ned Stark's bastard son, so much so that he calls every man and child into action — doesn't matter if they're big, small, young, old, veteran or rookie. He even dresses up scarecrows as members of the Night's Watch, to give the illusion that there are more brothers than there really are.
On the show, Ygritte and the Thenns converge on Castle Black at the same time as Rayder's army. In the books, Ygritte and the Thenns arrive well before Mance's forces make themselves known. Jon and his brothers beat back the invaders, destroying them in a hail of arrows and oil-fueled explosions. After the smoke clears, Jon surveys the damage to see if he can find Ygritte.
"He found Ygritte sprawled across a patch of old snow beneath the Lord Commander's Tower, with an arrow between her breasts. The ice crystals had settled over her face, and in the moonlight it looked as though she wore a glittering silver mask."
In other words, there's no dramatic face-off between Jon and Ygritte before she dies; he finds her in the wreckage, already on the cusp of death. Other than that, their final moments together are almost exactly the same on the show and in the books:
"'D'you remember that cave? We should have stayed in that cave. I told you so.'
"'We'll go back to the cave,' he said. 'You're not going to die, Ygritte. You're not.'
"'Oh.' Ygritte cupped his cheek with her hand. 'You know nothing, Jon Snow,' she sighed, dying."
Some time later, Jon awakens from a terrible dream to the sound of two horn blasts: Mance's forces have arrived. As on the show, there are mammoths and giants among Mance's ranks, but even more than we see on the show — at least one hundred, by Jon's count.
Rayder's forces approach the gate, and it's up to Pyp and Grenn to stop them. They light up lamp oil and barrels and drop them on the invaders. "The sounds below changed to shouts and screams," Martin writes, "sweet music to [the Night's Watch's] ears."
It's not enough to stop the assault on the gate. Eventually, the blacksmith Donal Noye takes it upon himself to lead men through the gate to prevent the wildlings from coming through.
"'Jon, you have the Wall till I return.'
"For a moment, Jon thought he had misheard. It had sounded as if Noye were leaving him in command. 'My lord?'
"'Lord? I'm a blacksmith. I said, the Wall is yours.'"
With that, Donal Noye, not Grenn, leads the defensive maneuvers at the gate — which means that it's Donal Noye who ultimately winds up in a fatal entanglement with a giant, not Grenn. When the battle dies down, Jon inspects the carnage in the gate, and sees Noye's body for himself.
"Noye's sword was sunk deep in the giant's throat, halfway to the hilt. The armorer had always seemed such a big man to Jon, but locked in the giant's massive arms he looked like a child. 'The giant crushed his spine. I don't know who died first.'"
As Donal Noye isn't a character on the show, another character needed to take his place at the gate. Grenn drew the short straw on that one; he's a character that's still alive in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels, but on the show, he's the man who died killing a giant. Likewise, Pyp, who took an arrow through the throat and died in Samwell's arms, is still alive in the books; another sacrifice in the name of streamlining the "Ice and Fire" saga for mainstream viewers.
Speaking of Sam, what's he up to while all of the chaos breaks out on the Wall? Actually, he's not even there. His final scenes in season three, where he helps Bran's party pass on through beyond the Wall, take place concurrently with the battle between the Night's Watch and Rayder's forces. He doesn't return to Castle Black until toward the end of "A Storm of Swords."
Finally, how does the battle resolve in the books compared to the show? In "The Watchers on the Wall," Jon deduces that the Watch can't withstand more than another two or three nights of assaults from Rayder's army; he sets out beyond the Wall, leaving his sword behind, presumably to end the conflict by some mysterious means.
In the books, however, Rayder's assaults continue over the course of numerous chapters and days. Janos Slynt and Alliser Thorne return to Castle Black from Eastwatch-by-the-sea after the initial assault. They have heard about Jon killing Qhorin Halfhand, supposedly to infiltrate the wildlings, but they don't buy his story; they want him hanged. Eventually, they agree on an even worse fate: sending Jon out to Mance as an envoy, with the express purpose of assassinating the King Beyond the Wall.
It's not his decision in the books, but on the show, Jon is fully in command of his choice to leave the Wall and head toward the wildling army. Does he have the same assassination plan in mind? We only have one week to wait to see how it all plays out.
What did you think of the assault on the Wall?