A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) | Study Guide

George R.R. Martin

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A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) | Symbols

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Iron Throne

Perhaps the most pervasive symbol in the book, the Iron Throne has tremendous significance, not only for readers but also for the characters in the story who are seeking to rule the Seven Kingdoms. First and foremost, the throne represents both power and the king's authority. To sit on the Iron Throne means to rule the continent of Westeros. But there are subtler meanings as well.

The Iron Throne is said to have been built by Aegon I Targaryen from the swords of his enemies and reportedly contains a thousand blades. It is described by Stannis Baratheon as "ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives ... tangled up and melted." Aegon's purpose in building the throne was to make it serve as a constant reminder that a king should never sit easy. His responsibilities are far too great, the role too dangerous, and the threats to his power unrelenting.

The throne fulfills its purpose well. At one point, Jaime Lannister recalls that the Mad King, for example, became so paranoid about his enemies that no blades were allowed in his presence: "Blades tormented him, the ones he could never escape, the blades of the Iron Throne." His successor, Robert Baratheon, tells Ned that the throne is "a monstrous uncomfortable chair" and that "sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one." His difficulties, though, are cut short by his death.

The Iron Throne continues to torment the characters lusting after it. It slowly cuts away at Stannis Baratheon's remaining honor and sense and seems to bring death and pain to whoever sits on it. And much later in the series, Cersei Lannister is plagued by nightmares where the Iron Throne is cutting her to shreds.

Direwolves

The most obvious use of symbols in the series is in the representation of the great houses of the Seven Kingdoms. The sigil (or sign) of House Baratheon is the stag, a mighty animal whose antlers resemble a crown. The symbol of House Stark, rulers of the harsh and unforgiving north, is a gray direwolf—a massive animal, until recently thought to be extinct. The Lannisters, among the richest of the Westeros families, are represented by a golden lion, another "king" of beasts. The sigils not only serve as a sort of shorthand for the reader, but show how the members of each family view themselves.

The direwolves become the most important of these symbols, first taking on significance when Ned Stark and his sons encounter a dead direwolf with a shattered stag's antler protruding from its throat. This omen is impossible to ignore—House Baratheon, with its stag sigil, could bring disaster to the Stark family. With King Robert's arrival at Winterfell, those events are indeed set in motion.

More importantly, however, the dead wolf is discovered to have just given birth to pups. Jon Snow points out to his father, "There are five pups ... Three male, two female," and the young wolves seem to be meant for the trueborn Stark children to raise. Moments later, though, a white pup is found nearby, possibly "driven away" by the others; that pup becomes Jon's and a symbol of his outsider status.

From that point on, the Starks develop powerful spiritual and telepathic bonds with their animals, with the wolves taking on the characteristics of their owners. Grey Wind, Robb's wolf, is a powerful beast that could serve as the sigil of House Stark and the animal embodiment of the eldest son, later known as the Young Wolf. After recovering from his fall, Bran names his wolf Summer, perhaps a symbol of renewal and hope, which the boy himself will later come to represent. Arya's wolf is Nymeria, named after a warrior princess, and is as fierce and unruly as her owner. Sansa's is Lady, a name that reflects the girl's own demeanor, while young Rickon's Shaggydog takes on the boy's own undisciplined personality. And finally, Jon's wolf is named Ghost, his white coloring making him distinctly different from the others.

The wolves are much more than companions, however. They become the Stark family's fiercest protectors and their eyes to the wider world, with Jon, Bran, and Arya eventually able to enter their wolves' minds. The direwolves also impact or share the fates of their owners. Summer saves Bran from an assassin and later becomes Bran's eyes and legs as the boy journeys toward the Wall. Nymeria joins in Arya's attack on Joffrey when he torments the butcher's boy and then, like Arya, disappears into exile and gathers a "pack" that begins ravaging the forest. After the attack on Joffrey, Sansa's innocent wolf Lady is sacrificed by Cersei's order in Nymeria's place, leaving Sansa defenseless and equally at the mercy of the Lannisters. Robb's Grey Wind later becomes his partner on the battlefield and literally joins him in death, and Jon's Ghost, who begins as the smallest and "least" of the pups, grows as strong and resourceful as his master, often playing a key role in Jon's growth and triumphs.

Seasons

In Westeros, summer can last a decade and winter a lifetime, and the seasons represent more than shifts in temperature or daylight to the people who live through them. Summer is considered a time of life, growth, and hope. The winters bring "the long night"—cold, despair, and an endless struggle for survival. The words of House Stark—"Winter is coming"—are especially ominous at the beginning of this story and bring with them a sense of impending doom. Not only is the long night coming, but there are also disturbing rumors of armies massing beyond the great Wall to the north, some human and some not.

Summer and winter take on additional meaning through the followers of R'hllor, the Red God, and the opposing entity, the Great Other. R'hllor is said to be the god of light, heat, and life, while the Great Other is aligned with the forces of darkness, cold, and death. The two gods are said to wage an eternal war over the fate of the world, so the arrival of winter brings with it the fear that the Great Other is gaining power. As the series progresses, winter becomes more imminent, and the powers of darkness do indeed seem to be gaining strength.

Dragons

Daenerys's three dragons are perhaps the most thrilling elements in the book. From the moment they are born, they promise magic, wonder, and excitement. They also lend themselves to a variety of intriguing interpretations.

First, to the people of Westeros and Essos, dragons have entered the realm of myth, but they have always represented magic and the seasons. It is believed that magic began to leave the world when the last dragon died and that the winters became colder and harsher. Dragons are also a reminder of a more glorious past, when Targaryen Dragonlords flew their beasts into battle and used them to unify the Seven Kingdoms.

The dragons also have another, less romantic, meaning. In the words of the shadowbinder Quaithe, "Dragons are fire made flesh, and fire is power." Power, of course, is what every ambitious person in Westeros and Essos is seeking, so the dragons become the ultimate prize to be won. Whoever owns them becomes nearly invincible, able to dominate anyone they choose. In this sense, the dragons become a metaphor for the weapons of war. When they are possessed by reasonable people and used for honorable purposes, they can be a means of maintaining peace. But when used for the wrong reasons, they literally become weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, the dragons are also a symbol of Daenerys herself. She possesses the "blood of the dragon" and their fiery spirit as well. As they grow in power, so does she. But when she loses control, so do they. And when she is forced to chain two of the creatures to prevent them from harming her subjects, she imprisons the strongest part of her soul. Only Drogon remains free, but he is enough to save Daenerys from herself in the pits of Meereen.

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