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(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) Study Guide." July 13, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-Series/.
Course Hero, "A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) Study Guide," July 13, 2017, accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-Series/.
The title A Game of Thrones refers to the strategies put into play during battles for ultimate power. With the novel's focus on kings, queens, knights, and "pawns," it is also an allusion to the game of chess, a game at which George R.R. Martin excels and which certainly must have enhanced his ability to develop the intricate plots that are the hallmark of his books.
The phrase "game of thrones" appears throughout the series, but its most telling use is in this quote by Cersei Lannister, whose ambitions destroy her own life and the lives of those around her: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
Most of the events in A Song of Ice and Fire take place on the two continents Westeros and Essos. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a cycle of seasons exists where summers can last a decade or more, and winters a lifetime. The Seven Kingdoms—actually nine large regions—are each overseen by one of the Great Houses of Westeros.
The kingdoms are bordered on the north by a great ice Wall, built centuries ago as protection against the Others, a humanoid race that has the power to raise the dead and seeks to destroy any creature "with hot blood in its veins." Although the Others have not been seen for thousands of years, they are rumored to be massing in the frozen wastes behind the Wall. The Night's Watch, a once-noble military order established to hold the 300-mile-long Wall, is now a weak remnant of what it was, manned primarily by criminals and outcasts. As a result, the Wall and its 19 defensive castles are largely unmanned, and any attack could be catastrophic.
In the kingdoms themselves, a more immediate danger is brewing. Fifteen years prior to the events depicted in A Game of Thrones, Robert Baratheon unseated the reigning Targaryens, who had ruled from the Iron Throne of Westeros for over 300 years. Known as Robert's Rebellion, the war was set in motion when Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen kidnapped Lyanna Stark, Robert Baratheon's betrothed. Rhaegar's father, the Mad King Aerys II Targaryen, then had Lyanna's father and eldest brother executed when they demanded Lyanna's safe return. The Starks and Baratheons joined forces against the Targaryens, securing the allegiances of House Tully and House Arryn in the process. Eventually, they were joined by House Lannister, which originally swore fealty to the old king but then turned against him in what became known as the Sack of King's Landing. Tragically, by the time victory was won, Lyanna had died. Cersei Lannister was married to the devastated Robert to cement the Baratheon–Lannister alliance, but their marriage became a toxic one.
Although Robert Baratheon is now king, he is an increasingly weak one, and his hold on the kingdom is tenuous at best. His brothers, as well as other powerful lords from around Westeros, are eyeing the throne, considering how they can gain it for themselves.
The following summaries provide more detail about the key story lines in A Game of Thrones.
Eddard "Ned" Stark, Warden of the North, is a man of great honor and integrity. He lives at Winterfell with his wife, Catelyn, and their five children, Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. The family also includes Jon Snow, Ned's bastard son, and his ward, Theon Greyjoy. The words of House Stark are "Winter Is Coming," and its sigil is a direwolf, an animal once thought to be extinct. However, Ned and his sons find a dead direwolf in the forest one day and rescue its six pups. Each of the Stark children takes one, and the animals soon become almost spiritually and, in Bran's case, telepathically bonded to their owners.
Word comes that King Robert Baratheon is traveling to Winterfell. He arrives with his wife, Cersei, and their children, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen. Cersei's twin brother, Jaime, a knight of the Kingsguard, and their younger brother, Tyrion (a dwarf known as "the Imp"), are also in attendance.
Robert asks Ned to take on the advisory role of Hand of the King, because the former Hand, Jon Arryn, has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Ned is hesitant, but Catelyn Stark receives a letter from her sister, Lysa, Jon Arryn's wife, expressing suspicions that the Lannisters were behind her husband's death. Concerned, Catelyn urges Ned to accept the position, saying that this is the best way to find out what happened and to ensure their own family's safety.
Unfortunately, the family's safety is already at risk. Bran Stark, who loves to climb the walls of Winterfell, peers through a window during one of his adventures and witnesses Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime having sex in one of the castle's isolated rooms. Bran is spotted, and Cersei panics. Jaime, unconcerned, casually walks over to the window and pushes the boy off the ledge. Bran lives but ends up in a coma.
Despite the tragedy, Ned finally accedes to Robert's request and accompanies him to King's Landing. Because the Starks have agreed to a marriage between Joffrey, heir to the throne, and their daughter Sansa, both Sansa and Arya accompany him. Sansa Stark, a romantic and somewhat shallow girl, is giddy at the prospect of being part of the royal court. Arya Stark, who has no interest in becoming a "lady" and much prefers swordplay to needlepoint, responds far less enthusiastically. Ned placates her by secretly arranging for her to have fencing lessons.
Catelyn stays behind with Bran Stark and his brothers. Jon Snow, however, who has never felt welcome or accepted by Catelyn, believes it is time for him to make a change. He decides to "take the black," as his uncle Benjen Stark has done, and serve as a member of the Night's Watch. He leaves, gifting Arya with a small sword she christens "Needle," and is accompanied on his journey by Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion, a brilliant man and great observer of the world and human nature, wants to see the Wall for himself.
After Ned leaves, an attempt is made on Bran's life, but his direwolf, Summer, fights off the intruder. Catelyn suspects the attack on Bran is tied to the Lannisters, and she travels to King's Landing to tell Ned of her suspicions. She takes with her the dagger that was used in the attack.
Bran, meanwhile, is slowly recovering but has lost the use of his legs. He is also experiencing disturbing visions, including one of a three-eyed crow who tells him it can teach him to fly. On his way back from the Wall, Tyrion stops in to check on Bran and designs a saddle that will allow the boy to ride again. Later, while Bran tests the saddle, he is ambushed by a band of wildlings and deserters but is rescued by his brother Robb, Theon Greyjoy, and two of the direwolves. The sole survivor among the attackers, a wildling woman named Osha, swears to serve them.
In the Crownlands, the Starks are witnessing the unsettling truth about the Lannister/Baratheon family. Robert is weak, Cersei is cold and manipulative, and Joffrey has a strong sadistic streak. While Joffrey and Sansa are on an outing, they encounter Arya and the butcher's boy, Mycah, play-fighting with sticks. Joffrey taunts the boy mercilessly until Arya cracks her stick over the back of Joffrey's head. A fight breaks out, and Arya's wolf, Nymeria, attacks Joffrey.
When Cersei hears of these events, she is incensed and accuses Arya and Mycah of ambushing her son. She insists that Arya's direwolf be found and killed and that Arya herself be punished. Arya runs off, and Cersei sends Sandor Clegane, a brutal man nicknamed "the Hound," to find her. Later, Clegane returns, saying he has not found Arya or her wolf. But he drops Mycah's body at Ned's feet. Cersei, still not satisfied, also demands that Sansa's gentle wolf, Lady, be killed in Nymeria's place.
Catelyn arrives in King's Landing, but before she can reach her family, she is intercepted by her childhood friend, Petyr Baelish—known as "Littlefinger" in reference to the small strip of land on which his home seat is built—who has somehow gotten word of her arrival. Petyr had once been in love with Catelyn and is now Master of Coin for King Baratheon. Catelyn tells Petyr of the events at Winterfell, and upon examining the dagger used to attack Bran, he tells Catelyn it belongs to Tyrion Lannister. Catelyn wants revenge, but Littlefinger advises her to wait until they have more solid proof. After finally meeting with Ned and sharing news of the events at Winterfell and what Littlefinger has told her, Catelyn begins the journey back home.
Catelyn and her contingent stop at an inn along the way. To her shock, she encounters Tyrion returning from the Wall. When she sees the man she now believes tried to kill her son, her soldiers take him prisoner. She delivers Tyrion to the nearby Eyrie, home of her sister, Lysa, who lives there with her young son and is half-crazed since her husband's death. Catelyn leaves Tyrion's fate to her, but Tyrion, vehemently insisting he is innocent, insists on the option of a trial by combat. The mercenary sellsword Bronn becomes his champion and wins the battle.
Tyrion is released, and he and Bronn leave the Eyrie. As they travel, Tyrion tells Bronn about his first love, a girl named Tysha, whom he and his brother, Jaime, had rescued from an attack when Tyrion was very young. Tyrion had fallen in love with the girl and married her. When his father, Tywin Lannister, learned of the marriage, he forced Jaime to reveal the girl was a whore. Tywin then gave the girl to a barracks of soldiers to use as they pleased.
Suddenly, Tyrion and Bronn are attacked by a mountain clan called the Stone Crows. Tyrion survives by promising them riches and weapons in exchange for his safe return.
Still in King's Landing, Ned has been investigating Jon Arryn's death, gathering information from many sources, primarily Littlefinger and Varys, a member of the king's small council who deals in whispers and secrets through a network of child spies. Ned learns that Jon Arryn and Robert's brother Stannis had discovered the truth about Cersei and Jaime and realized that the three Baratheon children were the product of the siblings' incestuous relationship.
Robert's younger brother, Renly Baratheon, urges Ned to take Cersei into custody, but Ned chooses mercy, giving Cersei the opportunity to flee with her children before he tells Robert what he knows. Before anything can happen, though, word comes that the king has been mortally wounded in a hunting accident. Just before he dies, Robert names Ned as Regent and Protector of the Realm, telling him to pass the crown to his brother Stannis, the rightful heir. Knowing he will need support when he tries to execute Robert's requests, Ned asks Littlefinger to arrange the backing of the City Watch. Littlefinger warns him it might be better to support the Lannisters, eventually ousting Cersei and Jaime if necessary. But Ned says this would be treason, and Littlefinger agrees to help him.
After Robert Baratheon's death, Ned convenes the small council to confirm him as Protector of the Realm, but he is summoned to the throne room, where Joffrey is proclaimed king and Cersei destroys Robert's will. Ned tries to push forward with the truth and orders the Kingsguard to arrest both Joffrey and Cersei. To his shock, the Kingsguard arrests him. Littlefinger has betrayed him, choosing to align himself where the power is, and Ned is thrown into a dungeon.
Joffrey immediately makes his grandfather, Tywin Lannister, his Hand, puts his mother on his small council, and dismisses Ser Barristan Selmy—a celebrated and respected old knight—from the Kingsguard. The latter move is made so that Jaime Lannister can be made new Lord Commander and to allow the brutal Sandor Clegane to become a member of the guard.
To further ensure Ned's silence, Cersei threatens his daughters, Sansa and Arya. She tells Ned that in exchange for a false confession of treason, she will free his daughters and allow him to "take the black" and spend his life on the Wall. Ned at first refuses but is advised by Varys, still on the small council, to accept the offer. Ned finally agrees. However, during his public confession, King Joffrey spontaneously decides to ignore the agreement and show his power by ordering Ned's execution. Ned is immediately beheaded in front of his horrified daughters. Sansa is put into custody because she is the "daughter of a traitor," but Arya manages to escape.
The country is catapulted into war. Lord Tywin Lannister directs his son Jaime to lead an army against House Tully in response to Tyrion's abduction. Robb Stark takes his own army of northmen south to help defend House Tully and to avenge his father. Robb gains an advantage in battle by winning the support of House Frey, an allegiance arranged by his mother with a promise that Robb will marry one of the Frey daughters. As the battles continue, Robb captures Jaime and imprisons him at Riverrun, and Tywin realizes he has been bested. He sends Tyrion, who has joined his family's army and acquitted himself well in the battle through the support of his Stone Crows, to King's Landing to advise the young King Joffrey. Robb is proclaimed King in the North by his supporters. Meanwhile, Renly Baratheon leaves King's Landing for the powerful House Tyrell in the south. There, he marries Margery Tyrell and is also declared king. The loyalties of Westeros are now split between Stannis, Joffrey, Renly, and Robb.
As civil war takes root in the Seven Kingdoms, the men of the Night's Watch, stationed at Castle Black, one of three manned castles on the Wall, are facing another threat. North of the Wall, rangers have discovered the mutilated bodies of wildlings, free people who had broken with the Seven Kingdoms and now live in the frozen north rather than serve the lords of Westeros. After the grisly discovery, one of the rangers is attacked by the Others and killed, terrible proof that the creatures of legend are real and are once more bent on destroying humans. Worse, one of the murdered wildlings comes back to life as a reanimated corpse known as a "wight," adding an almost inconceivable level of horror to the danger posed by the Others.
The Watch has also been attempting to deal with Mance Rayder, a former brother of the Watch who left to join the wildlings and has named himself King-beyond-the-Wall. The tribes of wildlings all follow him without question and are no friends of the Night's Watch.
When Jon Snow joins the brothers in black, he learns about both threats and discovers that the Watch is now made up primarily of criminals who were offered service at the Wall in lieu of punishment or death. Jon finds his indoctrination into the Watch difficult. He and other new recruits are constantly bullied by the older members, and the brutal master-at-arms, Alliser Thorne, takes an instant dislike to him. Jon finds a way to stand up to Thorne, however, earning the friendship and loyalty of several of the other young men, including Samwell Tarly, a brilliant but fearful boy. Jon is also supported by blind Maester Aemon, one of the revered scholars of the Seven Kingdoms assigned to Castle Black, whom Jon is shocked to discover is a member of House Targaryen, granduncle to the deposed Mad King.
Jon's position in the Watch changes yet again when the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Jeor Mormont, is attacked by a wight. Jon saves the Lord Commander, who senses greatness in the young man and becomes his mentor. But when Jon hears of the deaths of his father and his brother Robb in the war, his grief almost makes him forsake the Watch. His friends convince him to remain, and Mormont directs him to join a band of rangers who will ride north of the Wall to investigate what is happening with the wildlings, the Others, and any other unknown threat.
On the continent of Essos, across the narrow sea from Westeros, two other individuals are also playing the game of thrones. Viserys and Daenerys (also known as Dany) Targaryen, assumed to be the last of their bloodline, were hidden away by loyal retainers in the Free City of Pentos after Robert's Rebellion and were eventually placed under the guardianship of the merchant Illyrio Mopatis. Now Viserys plans to reclaim the Iron Throne by wedding his 13-year-old sister to Khal Drogo, warlord of the Dothraki, who commands a horde of 40,000 mounted warriors. Among the wedding gifts Daenerys receives are three petrified dragon eggs, reminders of a time before dragons became extinct, when the Targaryen Dragonlords ruled all of Westeros, triumphantly riding the huge beasts into battle.
Young Daenerys is at first terrified by the fearsome Khal, but he is unexpectedly tender and patient with her. Eventually, a deep love develops between them. Daenerys also learns to respect the Dothraki and their culture and becomes increasingly comfortable and confident in her role as their Khaleesi, or queen. She is aided in her growth by Jorah Mormont, the son of Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Wall. Jorah was exiled to Essos for dealing in slaves, but has offered to accompany Daenerys as her adviser and protector. Daenerys's happiness grows even more complete when she becomes pregnant with Drogo's child, whom the Dothraki believe will be their promised prince, the Khal of Khals, the "stallion who mounts the world."
Daenerys's growing status does not sit well with her brother, who becomes increasingly impatient with the Dothraki "savages" and with Drogo's delay in providing him with the promised soldiers. Eventually, a drunken Viserys insults Drogo at a Dothraki feast. He then attacks Daenerys, threatening to harm both her and her child if Drogo does not help him gain his crown. Drogo obliges by pouring molten gold on Viserys's head, killing him.
By this point, Daenerys has developed her own steely resolve to regain the kingdom stolen from her by "the usurper," Robert. Drogo shows no interest in helping her achieve her ambitions, until an attempt is made on Daenerys's life in a village marketplace by an assassin hoping to earn the reward put on her head by Robert Baratheon. Enraged, Drogo swears he will go to war for her, and he begins sacking nearby towns to gather the wealth he will need for ships to take his warriors across the sea. Daenerys is disturbed by the barbaric attacks, finally convincing Drogo to at least stop the raping of the women.
During one of these battles, Drogo is injured. Daenerys enlists the help of a woman she had rescued during one of Drogo's village invasions to tend to his wound. But the woman—a maegi who works in blood magic—betrays Daenerys in revenge for the destruction of her town. Both Drogo and Daenerys's unborn child die. Daenerys builds a massive funeral pyre for Drogo, placing the three dragon eggs on his body. She lights the pyre, and as the flames rise, she inexplicably walks into the center of them. When the fire finally dies down, Daenerys emerges unharmed—cradling three baby dragons that have hatched from the eggs.
A Song of Ice and Fire is told entirely from the third-person limited point of view (POV), meaning that the reader is privy only to the thoughts, experiences, and memories of the character experiencing them. This choice of narrative style is particularly effective in this series because the POV character changes from chapter to chapter. A Game of Thrones alone contains eight different POV characters, plus an additional character whose perspective is given only once, in the prologue. (The total number of POV characters in the first five books eventually reaches 31.)
The use of multiple POVs allows readers to experience events from a variety of perspectives, creating a richer, more complex, and sometimes more frustrating reading experience than if the tale were told from one POV only. The frustration surfaces because third-person limited narration is, by definition, subjective—readers must assume each character's views are, to some extent, unreliable, skewed by their own experiences and biases. No observation can be taken at face value, and no decision can be assumed to be the right one.
The benefits of this approach to narration are many. First, George R.R. Martin has said that he wanted his story to be true to how events unfold in the real world, where there are always many sides to a story and where right and wrong are dependent on who a person is and what facts they possess. To Robert Baratheon and Ned, for example, King Aerys II had to be overthrown because of his son Rhaegar's abduction of Lyanna Stark, the king's murder of Ned's father and brother, and his own growing madness. To Aerys's daughter, Daenerys, however, Robert is the usurper who stole her kingdom and murdered her own father and her brother Rhaegar, whom she believes truly loved Lyanna. And as Varys points out to Ned Stark at one point, it's primarily the innocents who suffer and die when lords play the game of thrones—in their eyes, no one's actions are justified.
The use of multiple POVs also allows the author to create an elaborate puzzle of a story, doling out bits of information—some of it misleading or inaccurate—when he wants the readers to have those details and strategically withholding others. For example, readers follow Catelyn's line of reasoning as she attempts to figure out who attacked her son Bran, but it's not always clear if what Catelyn observes, or the information she is given by people such as Littlefinger, is dependable. As a result, readers are continually being forced to rethink their own conclusions and question their predictions about what might—or should—happen next. At other times, readers are in possession of information that the characters are not, and the sense of dramatic irony, or a feeling of foreboding, is heightened.
The author has never explained his choices for POV characters or his process for making them. In A Game of Thrones, most of those characters are the ones the reader is most invested in or for whom Martin seems to want to provide the most insight. Others are less critical characters—they function as useful "observers," or witnesses who allow readers to see events play out in a particular setting, such as King's Landing, or at an important moment in time. Or these characters can represent a way of looking at the world. Sansa Stark fulfills both of these roles, for example, as the readers see the court of King's Landing and the royal family through the distorted lens of her romantic illusions about palace life.
Interestingly, many important characters are never given a POV chapter. The actions of Robb Stark, Ned's oldest son and one of the heroes of the emerging war, are described primarily by his mother and other characters. Readers never see his inner struggles or his reactions to his sudden elevation to king. They never experience conflict or triumph through his eyes. Instead, they are only made aware of the impact his actions have on others or see him not as the bold leader he likely envisions himself to be—and obviously is—but as the 15-year-old boy his mother sees him as—intelligent and brave but still prone to rash decisions and in need of her counsel.
Similarly, the reader is never quite sure what is going on in the minds of some of the novel's more enigmatic characters, such as Littlefinger or Varys. Their true motives, allegiances, and loyalties remain unknown, leaving readers as much in the dark as any character in the novel and giving them a taste of how difficult it would be to know who in this world can be trusted.
Martin has clearly stated that he has no interest in traditional fantasy tropes, which dictate (among other things) that the heroes are wise and their actions unquestionable. Instead, he prefers his heroes flawed, troubled, and capable of making disastrous choices.
Eddard "Ned" Stark is, without question, one of the most principled characters in A Game of Thrones and the one readers quickly come to admire and identify as the hero of the story. He sees life through a lens of honor and integrity and lives by a strict code of duty, fairness, mercy, and integrity. When forced to execute a man who has deserted the Night's Watch, Eddard teaches his sons that this is a task he must do himself—that no man should presume to dispense justice without being willing to mete out the punishment himself—and insists that they watch as he carries out the execution with his broadsword, Ice.
But this same incident signals a flaw in Ned's strict moral and ethical code. The man he is executing has fled from the Watch, not because he is a coward or deserter by nature, but because he has seen something that terrified him to his core. In Ned's eyes, however, the man has broken an oath, and there can be no question as to the consequences. But it could also be argued that every situation is unique, deserving of careful thought and consideration, which means Ned's code of honor could be perceived as somewhat simplistic, and perhaps even inadequate, for the complex moral dilemmas swirling through the chaos of Westeros.
In a much more critical instance, Ned has been named Protector of the Realm by Robert Baratheon prior to the king's death. Ned knows Joffrey is the child of incest between Robert's wife, Cersei, and her brother and takes steps to pass the crown to the rightful king, Stannis Baratheon, because such is the law of the land. He enlists the help of Petyr Baelish, a man whose own ethics are questionable but who makes a compelling argument for another approach. Given Stannis's volatile nature and thirst for revenge, Petyr warns Ned that his proposed course of action might plunge the country into war, resulting in more chaos and destruction than if the Lannisters were left in power. "Seat Stannis on the Iron Throne," Petyr says, "and I promise you, the realm will bleed."
Ned refuses to even consider this option, saying, "It is not a choice. Stannis is the heir." He does not seem to weigh the cost to the country or its people against the benefits of staying silent—his priority is simply that the law of the land be followed. And as readers later discover, this decision results in the tearing apart of Westeros and the loss of thousands of lives.
Sadly, Ned's moral code ultimately proves to be his own undoing, because it renders him almost incapable of recognizing which people and situations are truly worthy of his loyalty and trust. He is slow to perceive the depths of treachery, evil, and malice of which even his supposed allies are capable. He remains loyal to Robert Baratheon, his boyhood friend, in part because of the courageous man Robert once was during the rebellion against the Targaryens. But his loyalty nearly blinds him to the fact that the weak, ineffective king Robert has become is a liability to the kingdom and may no longer be deserving of his support. And when Ned discovers the appalling secret of the Lannisters, he feels duty-bound to reveal it, assuming that because their actions are immoral and his own intentions just, he will receive the support needed to put the rightful king on the throne. But his trust in people such as Petyr Baelish proves to be his downfall, and his code of honor and sense of mercy doom him when he apprises Cersei Lannister of his intentions. While Ned tries to show mercy by giving Cersei time to escape with her children, Cersei and Petyr orchestrate Ned's arrest.
Only when the lives of his own daughters are threatened does Ned finally realize his code is not sufficient to save him or them from the enormity of the forces aligned against them. He betrays his principles and his honor, admitting to a treason he did not commit and publicly naming Joffrey the true king. But even this final reversal, committed with the intent of saving his children, proves tragically inadequate. He is executed with his own sword, Ice, a sad commentary on the inadequacy of his code.
Ned's wife, the former Catelyn Tully, is a strong, intelligent, and politically astute woman who is the embodiment of the Tully words "Family, Duty, Honor." These qualities would appear to make her a driving force for good and worthy of readers' admiration, which, in many ways, she is. But as with her husband, those attributes also have a less positive side, causing her to view events primarily in terms of how they might affect her husband and children and not within a larger context. This perspective clouds her judgment and leads her to make a series of rash decisions. As a result she becomes the catalyst for many of the more destructive events in A Game of Thrones, some of which contribute to the fall of House Stark and help plunge Westeros into war.
Readers first become aware of Catelyn's flaws in a minor way, through her treatment of Jon Snow. She resents the boy because she sees his existence as proof of her husband's infidelity and as an affront to her own children—despite Jon's deep bond with almost all of them. At one point she even says to Ned, "He is your son, not mine. I will not have him." In treating Jon so coldly, she creates an outsider out of someone who is deeply loyal to the family and would have proven invaluable in the dangerous times to come. In the end her dislike of him sends Jon to the Wall, leaving Winterfell that much more vulnerable.
Much more serious is Catelyn's response to the letter from her sister, Lysa, accusing the Lannisters of killing her husband, Jon Arryn, former Hand of the King. Arriving shortly after the king and his family travel to Winterfell, the letter puts the Starks on guard, especially because Ned has just been offered the position of Hand. Ned now sees the south as "a nest of adders" and wants to refuse Robert's offer, but Catelyn urges him to accept it, saying he must do so to find the truth about Jon Arryn's death and to put himself in a position of power that will ensure safety for her sister and for their own children. Ned acquiesces, but the decision ultimately results in his own death and his daughters' captivity in King's Landing.
But even that is not Catelyn's worst error in judgment. When Bran is pushed from a window and later attacked by an assassin, Catelyn's fury drives all caution and reason away. In her eagerness to find an answer, and in her blind prejudice against the Lannisters—brought on by her sister, Lysa's, unsubstantiated claim—she unquestioningly accepts Petyr's strong insinuation that Tyrion Lannister is responsible for the attempt on Bran's life. When she encounters Tyrion in an inn on her return journey, she takes him prisoner—an ill-considered move that effectively begins a war of retribution by the Lannisters against House Stark and House Tully. That war will eventually draw her eldest son, Robb, into battle.
Her attempts to protect her family, then, begin extending onto the battlefield, where she meets Robb as his army marches south from Winterfell. Because she still sees Robb as a 15-year-old boy, Catelyn feels it is her duty to advise him. When Robb is about to put a trusted bannerman in charge of his infantry, for example, Catelyn intercedes and convinces him to give the command to Roose Bolton, a cold, calculating man who will later turn on the Starks and be instrumental in the destruction of Winterfell. In trying to protect her family, Catelyn unwittingly orchestrates their downfall.
Lev Grossman of Time magazine observed that there is no character in the series, however loved, for whom Martin "will not orchestrate that character's doom." This quote captures one aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire that sets it apart from most fantasy novels that preceded it. In traditional fantasies, the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn—good triumphs, and sinister forces are ultimately overcome. This is not the case in A Song of Ice and Fire, a fact that is shockingly established near the end of A Game of Thrones.
By making Ned Stark a major character in the first book and the very first POV character in the series, readers are led to believe this is "his" story and that they will be following it through the end of the series. Moreover, he is the individual who most clearly fits the role of hero. He exemplifies goodness and integrity, is beloved by his family, and is respected by most who know him. He also has no desire for fame or power and quickly earns readers' admiration.
According to the "rules" of most fantasy novels, Ned might encounter challenges and even experience tragedy, but he would be certain to prevail over his enemies. In A Game of Thrones, however, Ned is betrayed by those he trusts or to whom he shows mercy, and he is beheaded before the eyes of his horrified daughters. Readers are both shocked and devastated by his death, doubly so when they realize the scheming, amoral characters who orchestrated his downfall not only escape unscathed, but greatly benefit from their actions. After these events, readers learn they can assume nothing, and there is no guarantee any character will survive from one novel to the next. This, George R.R. Martin has said, is exactly the reaction he is after. Good people are betrayed and "die ugly deaths" in the real world, and Martin does not want his readers to be able to turn a page with complacency, or with any expectation that a character they love or admire will be safe.