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The song of ice and fire series has had a lot of time to seep into the public consciousness. Having been first released in 1996, Game of Thrones has been around for 20 years. The television series has broken a number of records, including being the most pirated show on television. The show also broke the record for Largest TV Drama simulcast, and it averages around 8 million viewers per episode. George R.R Martin’s a song of ice and fire series has sold upwards of 9 million books and even more audio books. This series has had a very deep effect on people, and the viewership and readership only continues to grow. So what is it about the series that people are really interested in?

For myself, I was introduced to the television show before the books. I was encouraged multiple times a by a friend to watch the show, and eventually caved in. The moment I saw the first shot of the first episode, I knew I was going to love this series. I binge watched the show, and then I bought all of the books and read them over the course of a year. I just had to know every detail about every character. The world of a song of ice and fire is a very big one indeed. There are an incredible number of characters that are all three dimensional, that feel completely brought to life by the imagination and detail of George R.R Martin. I was absolutely compelled by how much depth there was to the story, and to the characters. Characters that I loved at the beginning, I ended up hating, and vice versa. I had never encountered material that challenged me like this. Characters weren’t black and white, but shades of grey. The material was just so juicy, and I wanted to absorb every morsel of the material, because I knew it was something special.

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One of my favorite characters in the series is Jamie Lannister. When I was first introduced to Jamie, he was easily a despicable character. Incestuous, willing to kill Bran to save himself and Cersei from being caught in their twincest, he betrayed his king and murdered him, and above all he was a jerk to Jon Snow (among my favorite characters.) All of this seemed so counterintuitive, and so different from what you are usually presented in most medieval fiction stories. Here you have Jamie, a handsome knight, and guard of the king, and he possessed some of the worst qualities of characters in the story. What happened to the stereotype of the chivalrous knight? As if this wasn’t an intriguing enough notion, you get the added bonus that there is much more to Jamie than meets the eye. Once Jamie loses his hand to Vargot Hoat (Locke in the show) Jamie becomes a much more sympathetic character. His encounter with Brienne changes him a lot too. When confronted with losing the two most important things to him; Cersei, and his hand, while simultaneously encountering Brienne, a woman with a strong moral code, Jamie changes for the better. Jamie is an incredible example of how a character can spiral upwards instead of downwards in the face of the harsh adversity that the world of westeros can provide. You find out as the story goes along that Jamie has a lot more going on underneath what he presents to people. He isn’t just an arrogant guy trying to do bad things for the sake of doing them. You see that his motivations for killing the Mad King were purely out of necessity. Just prior to killing the mad king, Jamie is told by king Aerys to bring him his father Tywin Lannister’s head. On top of that King Aery’s wants to “burn them all,” meaning everyone in the city of King’s Landing, because the mad king is overwhelmed by Lannister forces and he is sure to meet his doom soon. Jamie was compelled to break his oath before it was too late. But this brings up an interesting point about what would have happened if this had gone down another way. If Jamie had managed to subdue the mad king and still managed to stop his pyromancer from carrying out the king’s final order, king Aerys still would have been killed by someone. Robert Baratheon won the war, and it was necessary to secure his rule by killing every Targaryen, or anyone who might challenge his claim. So Jamie basically did what was going to be done eventually anyway. Ned Stark was the one to walk in the hall of the iron throne to find Jamie sitting on the throne. Ned Stark was of course appalled by what he had seen Jamie had done. The unfortunate thing is that if Ned Stark would have had his way, and no Targaryen children or heirs were killed, then an eventual rebellion to reclaim the iron throne from the usurper Robert Baratheon would have been inevitable. So ultimately Jamie had done what was necessary to put the final punctuation on Robert’s rebellion.

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An interesting dimension of the characters in the story is their motivations, and although some character’s motivations are steeped in a good place, they often lead them to do terrible things. Every villain is a hero in their own mind, and that becomes clear in the story of a song of ice and fire. One of the characters who makes this concept clear is Theon Greyjoy. Theon is one of the toughest characters to categorize an opinion on. When we first see Theon he is a political prisoner of the Greyjoy rebellion. After Balon Greyjoy’s failed attempt to rebel from Robert Baratheon almost directly after Robert’s Rebellion, Ned Stark is charged with taking Theon as his prisoner, incase Balon wants to try anything slick and start another uprising. At the Stark home Theon is treated very well considering that he is technically a prisoner. The heads of the Stark household don’t treat him much differently than the rest of their children, he is taught weaponry and given an education just the same as the others. Theon conflicts with Jon, probably because Jon is a bastard, and it reminds Theon of what he essentially is. While Theon is with the Stark family, he is loyal and is essentially apart of the family. The moment that Theon returns home to Pyke he is presented with a unique problem. Balon Greyjoy must confront the evidence of his failure in his rebellion and face his son and only heir to Pyke. Balon of course responds like an iron-islander would and treats Theon with contempt. It is all that could be expected of this situation. The Iron islanders are essentially a Viking people, with no mercy and no room for tenderness. Although Theon trying to take over Winterfell came from a place of desperation, to own something, and to have a family, he ultimately fails miserably. He betrayed the closest thing he had to a family (the Starks.) I think some of the most compelling quotes in the series come from Theon. “My real father lost his head at King’s Landing. I made a choice, and I chose wrong.” Quotes like this truly make Theon a sympathetic character. The thing is, you don’t know how Theon would have reacted if things had gone his way when he was trying to hold winter fell. The true test of remorse would have been if he had taken the castle and still felt like he had made the wrong decision. It’s easy to realize you made a mistake when you live the horrible consequences of that mistake. Ultimately Theon would have been doomed to death, it is even stated in the book a dance with dragons that “Robb who had been more a brother to Theon than any son born of Balon’s loins. Murdered at the Red Wedding, butchered by the Freys. I should have been with him. Where was I? I should have died with him.” Theon would have been with Robb that night at the red wedding and died with him. But fate had taken him elsewhere. Theon’s time with Ramsay is the worst punishment for Theon’s crimes. Fate made it so that Theon could experience the full extent of his mistake. So much so that it is considered as too harsh, and at this point the only redemptive “happy ending” Theon could get is to die a clean death. Wether or not Theon is evil, or is still a dispicable character is debated by many people. Stannis Baratheon once said that “a good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad the good.” I disagree with this statement. In the 6th season of Game of Thrones, you see Theon help Sansa escape from Winterfell, and return back to Pyke to help his sister get the seastone chair (although this failed and they bailed on Pyke.) It is evident here that Stannis’ way of seeing the world is inherently wrong. A good act does wash out the good, and a bad washes out the good. There is always a chance for a bad character to change their ways and to redeem themselves. A game of thrones proves that many times over. I would even go as far as to say an even worse act done to someone who has committed a bad act can wash out the bad.  But when it comes down to it we are all who we choose to be, and in some ways by taking over winterfell it was Theon’s true nature, in the sense that it was out of a desperation to be accepted by his father. But I think it was less so who he really was, because in being shown just how royally he screwed up by being captured and tortured by Ramsay, Theon saw the error of his ways. Maester Lewyn even said to Theon that “I’ve known you many years, Theon Greyjoy. You’re not the man you’re pretending to be.”

A common struggle for people in the “known world” of game of thrones is that of power. One of the central themes of this story is the acquisition of power and maintaining it. Some of the characters that embody this are those involved in the war of the five kings, Stannis, Joffrey, Cersei, Balon, Tywin, Renly, and many others. Tywin Lannister was driven by power at a young age, seeing how his father’s lack of command and weak will over his power had almost destroyed his family. Tywin made power and the continuation of his family name as his primary pursuit. So much so, that he would willingly destroy another family house (the Reynes) completely to set an example of what would happen to others if they challenged house Lannister. Although Stannis claims many times that he doesn’t have any interest in the iron throne, he still pursues it, because it is his “duty” and his “right.” “It is not a question of wanting. The throne is mine, as Robert’s heir. That is law. After me, it must pass to my daughter, unless Selyse should finally give me a son. I am king. Wants do not enter into it. I have a duty to my daughter. To the realm.” Stannis is compelled by his code and the laws of westeros to take the iron throne, and he would do anything to get there. At a young age Stannis swore off religion after witnessing the death of his parents, but he eventually takes on the religion of the red god to get his place on the iron throne. He is willing to sacrifice a lot in order to get there, even his own daughter. It is hard for me to accept that there isn’t an ounce of Stannis that wants the iron throne for power, and to at least get some recognition and respect. Stannis is an unfortunate character, because his entire life he’s been gypped out of any recognition or reward for his loyalty or dedication. After securing dragonstone for Robert, and starving with his men while waiting out a siege from the Tyrell army, Robert only responded by giving Ned all of the credit by fending off the siege, and giving Renly Storm’s End. Stannis is somewhat of a tragic character in my eyes. He is so pissed off most of the time that he grits his teeth habitually, he is incapable of showing any affection, or love. It basically boils down to him witnessing his parents death at a young age, and not having any recognition or support of his brothers. None of the Baratheon siblings really liked each other, but Stannis definitely got the worst of it.

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Cersei: “And Stannis has always felt he was cheated of Storm’s End. The ancestral seat of House Baratheon his by rights… if you knew how many times he came to Robert singing that same dull song in that gloomy aggrieved tone he has. When Robert gave the place to Renly, Stannis clenched his jaw so tight I thought his teeth would shatter.

Tyrion: He took it as a slight.
Cersei: It was meant as a slight

There are many characters that don’t actively want or seek power tho. Arya doesn’t want power for the sake of power, she just wants her family, and she wants to survive. She sees that in the world she lives in, strength and the ability to kill give you the power to survive. I think this is part of her eagerness to take Jaqen H’ghar, the hound, the brotherhood without banners, and the faceless men as mentors. These are people that actively get to exert their will in the world, and survive as well. But Arya has no desire for her family’s prestige, and no desire for the iron throne. Arya wants revenge, and some semblance of control over her surroundings. I think this is why she is such a sympathetic character. Because as time goes on, she becomes way more bloodthirsty and psychopathic. She becomes a killer. But this is only because the world around her has taught her to be that way. Arya’s journey is one that most readers can relate to, because that is how we would want to cope in such horrible situations. Thru-ought her journey that eventually took her to bravos and the faceless men, she was being primed to become a more efficient killer, but also just as importantly to treat her identity as malleable. Just after Ned’s death and being spirited away on her journey to the north she has her hair cut, she hides any evidence that she is a female, and also changes her identity so as not to be caught by the crown and taken hostage along with Sansa. Multiple times while on the road north Arya has to hide her identity. While at Harrenhal she must tell lord Twyin a fake story about who she is in order to hide her identity as a Stark from the man who was partially responsible for her father’s death. But the thing is that Arya can’t hide who she is to some degree. In the episode “The Old Gods And The New” while Arya is posing as a stonemason’s daughter, Tywin asks Arya what got her father killed and she replies “loyalty.” So there is still some bit of truth, and inability of Arya not to give up too much of her past. This is seen as well in the book A Feast For Crows. Arya takes on the persona of ‘cat of the canals’ which is a direct reference to her mother Catelyn’s name. So even under her training as a faceless person, Arya can’t get rid of her identity as a Stark. This is even more evident by the fact that she does not give up needle, and hides it under stones outside of the house of black and white. Arya has absolutely no intention of giving up her identity, but of using killing and strength as power to survive and impose her will on the world. A great contrast to that would be Sansa. It took a very long time for Sansa to wake up to the world around her. She is repeatedly faced with the reality of the nasty world she finds herself in while she is in King’s Landing, but refuses to change and adapt to it. Sansa is like a princess from a fairytale superimposed into the world of the sopranos, or grand theft auto. She has this notion of exactly what the world should be, but she had the unfortunate luck of finding herself in the nightmare of a civil war. Most of Sansa’s understanding of the world came from that of songs, and stories that she had heard. She had very little exposure to the harshness of the world of westeros, and granted things weren’t so bad under the rule of Robert Baratheon, but nothing could prepare her for the terrible king Joffrey, or his mother Cersei. Sansa is not how we would want to identify with coping in the world of westeros, it takes a lot of time, and a lot of pain for her to finally wake up to what Joffrey is, while on the other hand Arya wakes up to that truth very early on. Sansa definitely does start to show some much delayed fierceness as time goes on. During Season 5 she plots her own escape from Ramsay Bolton, and although being helped by Theon, Sansa makes a bold move to take her destiny into her own hands and try to escape her abuser and captor. Sansa’s path is a much slower one than Arya’s to self realization and empowerment, and her way of playing the game of thrones is much different than Arya’s, and for all intents and purposes, Arya isn’t even playing the game of thrones, she is playing the game of survival. Having spent so much time in King’s Landing around people like Littlefinger, Cersei, Varys, and Tyrion, Sansa has had some incredible mentors, as has Arya. But Sansa’s mentors taught her much different techniques. Sansa’s skill set relies much more heavily on deception, politicking, secret, and verbal sparring. But Sansa and Arya’s goals are pretty much the same, survival, and reuniting with their family. In season 6 episode 4 Sansa and Jon are reunited, and although Sansa mistreated Jon when they were younger and still in winter fell, all is forgiven, and both are happy to see each other, because at that point none of that matters. In the wake of what happened to both of them, the only thing that matters, is taking back Winterfell, and the hope of some semblance of the life that they formally had. So ultimately what makes the Stark family more sympathetic than other characters in the story is that although they do seek power, they seek power for the sake of having control over their environment, to survive, and to be able to reunite their family, and finally to restore the north to its former place. Because after all, why would you want the north in the hands of a family who has a flayed man on their banner? A man like Ramsay Bolton who actively kills and tortures people for entertainment, is hardly someone fit to rule. Although Ned, Catelyn, and most of the generation of nobles who lived in their time are slowly dying off, the next generation of Starks is the only group fit to rule the north.

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A major theme found in the story of a song of ice and fire is that of a looming danger of the others that threatens the way of life of everyone in westeros. Although there are many characters pursuing their own goals of power, money, land, or influence, non of that means anything in the face of the white walkers. After the episode “Hardome” in season 5, we see that the north is royally screwed. Everyone who has challenged the others have failed miserably. We see immediately in the prologue chapter of A Game of Thrones that the brothers of the night’s watch didn’t stand a chance against the group of the white walkers they faced. I think that the series opening up like this is a pretty big statement from George R.R Martin. After the prologue is finished, the events in westeros are set into motion, and the political events are laid out for us. But this is all preceded by the knowledge that there is a threat that looms north of the wall, something that most people in the story don’t understand yet. As time goes on more and more characters become aware of the threat of the others. Including Jon snow, whose dire wolf pup was noticed by Bran as the first to open its eyes in Bran’s first chapter of A Game of Thrones. Jon Snow is the only character who actively is trying to deal with the threat of the white walkers in A Dance With Dragons and is subsequently murdered for it (temporarily.) This potentially world ending threat of the white walkers is very similar to the real world threat of climate change. While climate change is a very real threat to the world, there are still some politicians who still refuse to acknowledge the threat, although 2015 has been reported by scientists as the hottest year on record. I believe there is great real world value and morals to be learned in fictional stories, and the idea presented in the Song of Ice and Fire series can gives us plenty enough examples to draw from about the current situation with global warming. While many countries are concerned with war, committing acts of terrorism, or fighting acts of terrorism, there are still world threats that could annihilate people indiscriminately despite their religious or political affiliation, despite their age or gender. What good is Cersei’s desperate attempts to stay in control of the iron throne by killing Robert, lying about her illegitimate children with Jamie, or trying to get Margaery killed, when winter comes and the white walkers devour westeros? The same could be asked of people in the real world that what good is fighting over religion, over territories, over illegal immigration, or border control, when there is the threat of climate change, or resource depletion?

One of the most intriguing things to me about such a dense story like the series of A Song of Ice and Fire is how much it can teach someone about human nature. It can provide incredible character studies about how one would act in a world like Westeros. To an incredible degree, George R.R Martin’s story is accurate to human nature, considering that the stories are firmly rooted in the reality of our medieval history. The iron born are directly correlated to the Vikings, The wall guarding the north is equated to Hadrian’s wall,  the faith of the seven is equal to Catholosism, and the initial setup of the story is based off of the Wars of the Roses. It is incredibly interesting for me to be able to look at such a dense story and to be able to draw so much allegorical knowledge from it. One of the most compelling things that passed in season 6 was in episode 7 “The Broken Man” where we see the return of the hound Sandor Clegane. Sandor Clegane finds himself inducted into a group of followers of the faith of the seven, lead by a man named Ray (Ian Mcshane) after Clegane is beat by Brienne, he is nursed to health by the group. Eventually the group is greeted by the brotherhood without banners and Sandor senses danger, he knows from his experience in the world of Westeros that the brotherhood will be back, and they will kill this religious group and take their valuable things like food and weapons. The hound warns the leader of this group, but the leader’s blind faith in the goodness of the world and humanity doesn’t allow him to take precautions or take up arms against intruders. He also admits that no one in the group really knows how to fight. After seeing a lot of shots of the group happily building what can only be presumed to be a new house of warship, you know that this group is doomed. They are way to optimistic, happy, and content to be surviving in the world of westeros. Eventually Ray, and his group of followers of the faith of the seven are robbed, and slaughtered. This scene reminds me of the television series The Walking Dead. If you are familiar with the Walking Dead, then you know that the world after the spread of the virus that created the walkers leaves the world a very tough, unforgiving, and treacherous place. You often find that in the Walking Dead that the living are much worse than the dead. People actively kill each other for supplies and ammo, all in the name of survival. Eventually in season 5, the walking dead’s Rick Grimes and his group eventually land themselves in a place called Alexandria, Virginia. In Alexandria they find a place that is almost completely untouched by the outbreak of the walkers. The people live happy peaceful lives there, and are pretty much completely unaware about what happens outside of their walls. They don’t know what other people have had to do to survive. Rick’s group sees them as weak, unable to fight, and unable to survive. Eventually it is found out that there is a quarry that has pinned an enormous amount of walkers in it, and that is why Alexandria has been unaffected by the outbreak. The quarry served as a perfect trap to keep the walkers at bay, while the people in Alexandria unknowingly were leaving near an incredible amount of zombies just waiting to break out and destroy their town. But this reminds me greatly of the scene with the hound and his time with his group of the faith of the seven, because as he spends time with them, he knows how blissfully unaware they are, and how they are doomed to die. The world of westeros is a cold place where only the strong and ruthless survive. This reminder is made very clear in this episode.

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A Song of Ice and Fire will probably remain one of the most dense fictional materials I have ever read in my life. George R.R Martin has created a world more complex than Tolkien’s in that he has added the element of religion into the mix. There are characters that you can write so much reflective material about, because they give so much for us to study. Wether it be a Lannister, a Martel, a Stark, or an Ironborn. There is an incredible amount of material to analyze, and I am a firm believer that the lessons we can take from stories like this carry over into our life, and may give us a better understanding of ourselves as well as other people.

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