The Night's Watch is an organization of soldiers on Westeros that protect the Wall on the north end of the continent. They are responsible for keeping wildlings, the Others, and other creatures that live beyond "The end of the world" out. At the start of the tale, Jeor Mormont is Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. Jon Snow becomes Lord Commander of them later in the books. Stannis Baratheon and other characters become involved with the Night's Watch as well.
All members of the Night's Watch swear the following oath after finishing the initial training.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
Game of Thrones
In the HBO series, the oath was changed slightly to:
Hear my words and bear witness to my vow. Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am ... the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
Structure of the Night's Watch
Men of the Night's Watch are divided between three different orders: the Rangers, the Builders, and the Stewards. Each order is led by its own officer, each appointed by the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch: the First Ranger, First Builder, and First Steward.
- Rangers - the true warriors of the Night's Watch. While all black brothers are expected to have some basic arms training and to take up a sword in defense of the Wall itself, the Rangers are the ones who are sent on dangerous scouting expeditions beyond the Wall, to track wildlings movements. When the Watch was more numerous in past centuries they formed the core fighting group sent to destroy large wildling warbands who attempted to pass south of the Wall.
- Builders - who physically maintain the structures of the Night's Watch, and repair the Wall itself.
- Stewards - who provide for the day-to-day needs of the Watch: gathering, cooking, and serving food, repairing clothes and equipment, tending to the horses and messenger-ravens, and gathering firewood. By far the largest of the three orders.
Each castle of the Night's Watch also has a maester assigned to it. These maesters take the oath of the Night's Watch and are considered full black brothers, but are not considered part of the three orders. Given that there were never more than nineteen castles along the Wall, there were never more than nineteen maesters in the Night's Watch at any one time. Since there are only three active castles on the Wall in modern times, there are now only three maesters in the Night's Watch at a time.
The leader of the Night's Watch is the Lord Commander. Each Lord Commander serves for life, and a new Lord Commander is democratically elected by other members of the Night's Watch in a Choosing.
It is unknown if there is any formal procedure to depose a Lord Commander and elect a new one, in cases where the current Lord Commander violates his oaths or is deemed medically unfit to lead, etc.
Recruiters commonly known as "Wandering Crows" travel to the cities of southern Westeros to gather up new recruits to join the Night's Watch. In recent years, most of these tend to be criminals, murderers, rapists, and thieves taken from the dungeons of major cities and towns. A few also join because they are desperately poor and have no better options. Once in a great while, a younger son or bastard son of a major noble House will decide to join the Night's Watch, but they can often afford to travel to the Night's Watch on their own initiative (such as Jon Snow and Waymar Royce). Sometimes, they are either forced by their families, who deem them unworthy of their noble House or even fathers using it as a means to disown their sons, who either bring shame or disappointment to their House's name. In an extreme case (such as Samwell Tarly's), a father might threaten his son with death, which forces them to join out of fear.
Recruiters are few in number, and they are not considered a separate order in the Night's Watch. Instead, they are drawn from trusted members of the three orders, often those who can no longer fight well due to injuries, but who can still travel.
The Night's Watch is grievously under-strength by the beginning of the book series, having fallen from 10,000 when Aegon the Conqueror invaded to less than 1,000, divided into three garrisons at Castle Black (600 soldiers), the Shadow Tower (200 soldiers) and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea (less than 200 soldiers).
Of these 1,000 men, almost 300 are killed in the Great Ranging, due to the disastrous Battle of the Fist of the First Men and subsequent Mutiny at Craster's Keep. This further reduced the Night's Watches ranks to only 700 men, and perhaps worse, killed off most of their senior officers and best warriors, including Lord Commander Jeor Mormont himself. The expedition force consisted of one hundred men from the Shadow Tower and two hundred men from Castle Black.
After the Battle of Castle Black, the Night's Watch takes a headcount: their entire manpower (including the garrisons at Eastwatch and the Shadow Tower) has been reduced to 589 brothers. Most of the losses are taken at the Battle of the Fist of the First Men, and more at the following Battle of the Bridge of Skulls and the Battle of Castle Black.
Castles along the Wall
There are nineteen castles spread out along the southern face of the Wall as bases for the Night's Watch. Patrols from these castles would travel along the top of the Wall watching for threats from the north, or repairing damage to the Wall. Each castle also contained a tunnel cut under the Wall, through which scouting parties would travel to the north to track wildling movements.
As the Night's Watch dwindled over the centuries, however, most of these castles were abandoned, and their tunnels sealed with ice. By the end of the reign of King Robert Baratheon, only three major castles along the Wall are still manned: Castle Black, the Shadow Tower, and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
The Gift is a region to the south of the Wall under the direct control of the Night's Watch. It lies at the northern edge of the region known as the North. It was donated to the Night's Watch by House Stark when the order was founded thousands of years ago, in order to support the Night's Watch with food and provisions. The Gift is officially not subject to the authority of Winterfell, and is technically not part of "The North", but is a special administrative zone directly ruled by the Night's Watch.
The Gift is sparsely populated by only a handful of smallfolk, as most have relocated to the south over the generations while the Night's Watch dwindled and wildling raiding parties over or around the Wall increased in frequency. The northern areas closer to the Wall are almost completely empty. The closest significant settlement near the Wall is Mole's Town, located a few miles down the Kingsroad from Castle Black.