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

George R.R. Martin

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A Song of Ice and Fire (Series) | Themes



Among the great houses of Westeros, family is of critical importance, and the defense of family and family honor are the ultimate duties. But why family is important, and how it is defined, varies greatly from house to house. In fact the very concept of family is not as obvious as one might assume. Because Westeros is a feudal society, marriages are brokered for strategic reasons and not necessarily for love, and the children of the family may be trueborns, bastards, wards, or hostages. So what readers might think of as family is more the exception than the norm in Westeros.

The Starks probably represent the most traditional of the Westeros families. Although the marriage was arranged, the relationship between Ned and Catelyn is one of mutual love and respect. Ned and Catelyn also love their children unequivocally—with the exception of Jon Snow, whom Catelyn has never accepted—and keeping them safe is their greatest priority. This is one of the reasons Ned agrees to take on the role of Hand of the King in a treacherous court and why Catelyn travels to King's Landing when Bran is attacked and stays on the battlefield to advise Robb. Catelyn's desire to protect family also extends to other relatives, with Catelyn determined to support her sister, Lysa, and her family at Riverrun.

House Lannister, however, represents a very different interpretation of family and its importance. To Tywin Lannister, family honor and prestige—the image that family members present to the world and the power they wield—are far more important than affection or relationships. For this reason, Tywin sees Jaime as his golden child, the perfect representation of the gold lion sigil of the Lannisters. Cersei, on the other hand, is valuable primarily for how she can bring power to the family through a strategic marriage. And Tyrion, the dwarf, is an abomination in his father's eyes, a cruel subversion of the Lannister name. Tyrion's whoring and drinking, ironically brought on by the rejection he feels from his family, only add to Tywin's displeasure. Despite this, Tywin still sees to it that Tyrion has the respect of those outside the family—not for Tyrion's sake, but for the sake of the family's honor.

For Walder Frey, family is a twisted combination of these two versions. For him, family means having as many wives and siring as many children as possible to make the name Frey ubiquitous throughout Westeros. He is on his eighth wife and has over 100 descendants, although he knows few of them and has affection for none of them. But the reputation of his family's name is of even higher importance and literally drives him to murder when he feels that Robb Stark has disrespected him and his family.

Other Westeros families appear at different points on this spectrum, and no two are alike. And although family is important to all of them, it is for vastly different reasons.

Power Corrupts

A Song of Ice and Fire is, at its heart, about people seeking power. Some characters seek the ultimate power represented by the Iron Throne, while for others, power is more subtle and personal. In any case, they want it for one of two reasons: to benefit others or to benefit themselves. The two are not mutually exclusive, but over time the latter often overcomes the former and can result in the corruption of the person wielding the power.

For most of the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, the quest for power is not remotely altruistic. Some, such as Daenerys and Stannis, believe the Iron Throne and the power it represents are their birthright. Some, such as Tywin, feel that their superiority to others entitles them to power. Others, such as Joffrey, want power in order to control, demean, or destroy. And still others, such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei, see power as a way to validate their own identity, command the respect of others, or provide a path to revenge.

In each case, the quest for power reveals a great deal about the person seeking it, and power often leads to corruption. Varys, for example, says he works to put certain people in power for the good of the realm. Yet he resorts to lies, deceit, and even murder to do so. Even Daenerys, who begins marching through Essos with the intention of liberating slaves, loses her focus along the way. As her power grows, she becomes almost intoxicated by it, ignoring her advisers and becoming almost barbaric at times, as when she nails 163 of the Grand Masters of Meereen on posts outside of the Great Pyramid in retribution for their treatment of the slaves.

One reason power is so treacherous, and appears to corrupt those who wield it, may be that it seldom comes easily. Those seeking power are in constant competition with each other, which results in one of several outcomes. Good people may be destroyed, which was the fate of Ned Stark. Corrupt people can triumph, which was the case with Joffrey and—at least temporarily—with Cersei and Tywin. And those that begin with good intentions are corrupted along the way as they struggle to cope with the power they have been given. As Tyrion says at one point to Cersei, "Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them."


A lesson learned too late by Ned Stark is that the key to survival in a dangerous world is to trust no one. In Westeros and Essos, honor and integrity stand little chance against deceit, treachery, and betrayal. The former are part of a fragile code for living an ethical life. The latter are powerful weapons or tools used to achieve far less positive objectives. In A Song of Ice and Fire, treachery and betrayal far outweigh the honorable actions. In fact, they are the stock-in-trade of several key characters.

Petyr Baelish and Varys are the most subtle of the characters who deal in betrayal. To achieve greater status in the world, Petyr uses half-truths and carefully orchestrated deceptions to betray Ned Stark, Catelyn, the Lannisters, Lysa Arryn, Jon Arryn, and almost anyone who stands between him and the power he seeks. Varys, who says he works for the good of the realm, also deals in lies, betrayal, and even murder, using them to clear the path for those he deems worthy of ruling Westeros. Readers would expect men such as these to pay for what they have done, but both seem to emerge unscathed, usually having achieved their goals.

Less subtle are individuals such as Cersei, who recklessly betrays everyone, from her husband Robert to the people who serve her to the High Septon himself. Theon openly betrays the family that raised him, and there is Walder Frey, who serves up the ultimate betrayal at the Red Wedding.

Even good people are forced to betray others, although the reasons are often beyond their control. Jon Snow is forced to betray Ygritte and the wildlings in order to fulfill his vows to the Night's Watch. Robb betrays his promise to Walder Frey in an attempt to do the honorable thing by marrying Jeyne Westerling. Catelyn sets Jaime free, betraying parts of her family in order to save others. Daenerys lies to her enemies to gain the advantage in battles, and later she cannot forgive the earlier deceptions of Jorah Mormont.

Through these story lines, George R.R. Martin seems to be implying that in the world of ice and fire, as well as in real life, it is always better to err on the side of suspicion.

Duality of Human Nature

In most fantasy novels, there are good characters and bad ones, heroes and villains, black robes and white robes. But in A Song of Ice and Fire, almost all characters are presented in shades of gray. This is the author's way of asserting that there is good in the worst of people and bad in the best of people. It also reflects his agreement with William Faulkner's statement that the best fiction deals with "the problems of the ... heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing."

This approach is reflected in almost every character in the book, with the exception of a few purely evil characters such as Ramsay Snow and Joffrey Baratheon. Otherwise, Martin focuses on the duality of human nature, the fact that one person can commit horrible deeds but then perform acts of incredible compassion or courage. Jaime Lannister is perhaps the most obvious example. He is first presented in the story as the Kingslayer, a man capable of betraying the man he was sworn to protect and even of pushing a child to his death. But readers later find that Jaime is tormented by what he has done. He also has the capacity to show tremendous love for his brother, Tyrion, compassion and affection for Brienne, and a desire to redeem himself.

Even characters as twisted as the Hound, Sandor Clegane, are shown struggling with who they are. Clegane can murder and destroy, but he can also protect others and experience love, as is revealed in his relationship with Sansa. Even Theon Greyjoy, who betrays the Starks and murders two innocent boys, was once a staunch friend of Robb Stark and shows signs of still having some of that goodness deep within him.

This duality is not displayed only in the more negative characters. Even those considered "good" have a darker side to them. Catelyn Stark treats Jon Snow with indifference and even hostility and shows an almost perverse willingness to believe the worst of people she thinks may hurt her family. Daenerys can give in to arrogance and sometimes show herself to be ruthless, almost barbaric. Even Tyrion, one of the more compassionate and principled characters in the book, is driven to patricide when his anguish overwhelms his decency.

By making his characters so complex, Martin makes them real. He also prevents readers from making any assumptions and allows them to consider the puzzle of human nature.

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