You Know Nothing (About Song of Ice and Fire)

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

You Know Nothing (About Song of Ice and Fire)

Dance with Dragons coverOn Thursday I finally finished my month-long reading of the new George R.R. Martin book, A Dance with Dragons. And while I could sit down right now and reveal a ton of spoilers, I will instead take a different road and talk about the overarching story themes across all five novels that I’ve only just realized. Sometimes I’m a slow reader, not just in terms of pace, but also in terms of picking up on the broader details in a work until I’ve sat with it for a some time. I’ve spent months going through A Song of Ice and Fire, and only now has all of this actually struck me.  So here is a thematic overview of the series coming from the mottoes of the lordly houses of Westeros.

The Starks: Winter Is Coming
Work for the Common Good

When Old Nan tells you stories about The Long Night, you had better listen, because there’s wisdom in those words. Very few people are looking at the bigger picture, and perhaps no one is at all. Those who act in concert with the bigger picture get derided as mad, but ultimately this will lead them to a better position. Most everyone is only looking out for himself, and doing things that are utterly destructive (to others and themselves) regardless of the consequences. With a winter of indeterminate length settling into the country, Westeros is still in the dregs of a continent-wide civil war, utterly destroying the last harvest and killing off the people who would have brought that harvest in. This can’t possibly end well. Only those who have been working for the common good, and they are few, can even begin to help people make it through this grim future. 

The Targaryens: Fire and Blood
Birthright Varies from Kin to Kin

One of the recurring themes in Song of Ice and Fire is that there are certain qualities in each royal house that are just waiting to be awoken. There are talismanic creatures whose fates are entangled with those of their owners. When the humans fail to become one with their beasts, or even recognize their warnings, the humans suffers, and harshly. Beyond their animal ken, there are also near magical abilities that only work when one is truly aligned with his/her true nature. When a pretender to that power tries to exert some kind of authoritative claim to that power, he is viciously cut down. But become one with your power, and you will see the most miraculous things you will ever know, and people will tremble before you.

The Lannisters: A Lannister Always Pays His Debts
Debts Must Be Repaid

While not their official words, this is the most common phrase associated with the Lannisters. This is taken both literally and metaphorically. It’s no secret that from the very first book that the kingdom is totally bankrupt and has been amassing a tremendous amount of debt for wine and tournaments.  They’re borrowing from every royal house and foreign countries to keep King’s Landing fat and fatter.  But every debt has to be repaid eventually, and if the king doesn’t pay up, well, maybe the banks will find someone who will and finance them instead. Beyond the debts of actual monetary value, there are also debts of besmirched honor and tarnished virtue. These require acts of contrition in order to truly expiate the guilt. Some characters take this seriously and go to great pains to restore their honor, and others do only what is required while crossing their fingers so that they can get through the shame and get back to business as usual. 

The Wildlings: You Know Nothing
Presumption Is Hubris

I know the Wildlings are not a royal house, but theirs is the greatest wisdom, especially in the latest book. The biggest mistakes are those created from characters who are completely ignorant of the culture that they are attempting to dominate. People just grossly assume that everyone acts the way that they do, and that the conqueror can proceed as he always has lived and force his way upon the group he's conquering. You see this when people take the wrong hostages (people who have no value in terms of lineage, because succession doesn’t occur the same in other parts of the world); when people attempt to operate with a concept of honor when cunning is required, and vice-versa; when someone attempts to act where he is unqualified or ill prepared; and when someone veers from the course that they must take. All of these people succumb to their hubris to some degree, and often unto the bitter, bitter end. Interestingly, only those who know that they know nothing are doing well, and those who feign at doing nothing are thrown for a loop. Game of Thrones DVDs come out next year.

-- Eric Riley