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Authors: Valerie Estelle Frankel

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Winter is Coming: Symbols and Hidden Meanings in A Game of Thrones

BOOK: Winter is Coming: Symbols and Hidden Meanings in A Game of Thrones
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Thought Catalog
Winter is Coming: Symbols and Hidden Meanings in A Game of Thrones
© Valerie Estelle Frankel 2013
Published By:
Thought Catalog
Digital Books Division
Thought & Expression LLC
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Additive Credits
Cover Photo: © /
Mlenny Photography
Cover Design:
Ebook Design:
This book is not associated with, nor approved, authorized, or endorsed by the writers, publishers, or producers of the book and TV series “A Game of Thrones.”

or those who adore epic fantasy,
Game of Thrones
is riding hard on the heels of
Lord of the Rings.
Fans admiringly describe the complexity of the world, crammed with details from medieval Europe as armored heroes ride through magnificent ruins and ancient castles. Many consider
A Game of Thrones
more realistic than most fantasy, as many characters suffer serious injuries and die, unlike the gentler epics where a happy ending comes to everyone.

This book seeks to provide a deeper look into the series for fans. Who is Jon’s mother and how can we tell? What is the source of Bran’s magic? Or the Night’s Watch’s secret mission? Many have noticed that Westeros is medieval England, with a few visits from Dothraki Mongols, Eastern spice traders, and Celtic tree worshippers. But a deeper look reveals more specific reflections from our world as Zoroastrian Magi infiltrate Westeros, whose kings are reenacting the War of the Roses.

The books contain many prophecies that hint tantalizingly at where characters will end, while the larger history of Westeros offers echoes between its past and future. Of course, Martin himself has dropped intriguing tidbits in posts and interviews. As all these elements mix, they highlight the real conflict of the series—that which is to come, or the prince who is promised, who will battle with ice and fire.

Spoilers are basically avoided; a few mentions are made of characters introduced or still living in the fifth book, but there are no mentions of significant deaths, marriages, etc. beyond season three of the show. Much on how the epic will end is speculation, some of which was set up as early as Old Nan’s tales in the first episode.

George R.R. Martin, the books’ author, is heavily involved on the show, which, though streamlined, is word-for-word accurate to the book in most scenes. Along with writing an episode each season and aiding with casting and set decisions, he remains close with the actors and writers. He notes:

I talk constantly with David and Dan the executive producers and show runners. They’ve done an amazing job and stayed very faithful to the story. There’ve been some changes, but that’s inevitable on a project like this. It’s been a great ride so far and I hope it will continue for many years to come.

Thus, many of the revelations, prophecies, and subplots of the book series may be considered important to the television show. These are explored here, in the spirit of providing deeper insight into characters’ motivations and possible destinies. Material in the book series is reasonably canon for the television show, providing background on the characters and their motivations. In the end, they aren’t just fighting for the Iron Throne, but to preserve their entire world from the coming darkness. Let’s learn how.

Section I: Puzzle Pieces Fitted Together
Chapter 1: You Know Nothing, Jon Snow: The Real Conflict of Fire and Ice

ame of Thrones
has an awful lot of conflicts. However, none of the characters are managing to put the pieces together: The books are called
The Song of Ice and Fire.
might be more accurate. A few things are clear (barring further revelations): The White Walkers are the real threat. Daenerys Targaryen is “meant” by her birth to destroy them with her fire and dragons as the realm’s true protector. And she’ll probably make it back home before it’s completely desolated.

Tyrion notes: “The Seven Kingdoms will never be more ripe for conquest than they are right now. A boy king sits the Iron Throne. The north is in chaos, the Riverlands a devastation, a rebel [Stannis] holds Storm’s End and Dragonstone. When winter comes, the realm will starve” (V.281). Robb was warned that marching away from the Wall was the wrong way, and the Wall’s commanders keep asking the south for aid. However, none comes. Each battle wastes more fighters, leaves more crops trampled into the ground. As Ned Stark warned from the beginning, Winter is Coming… and those who don’t starve will be killed by the Others.

However, the characters are all ignoring this to kill each other, wasting entire armies that they already need in order to take a castle for an episode or two, destroy resources, and move on. They use the wildfire, dragons, and men only to attack one another. Now at last, winter is coming. And they may all be doomed.

Winter is Coming

Many of Old Nan’s stories detail a world of long ago, with an endless winter and the terrible Others not seen in a thousand years. It seems clear that these evil forces are returning, and the heroes will need to fight them much as they did once before. Old Nan explains to Bran in the first episode:

Oh, my sweet summer child. What do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for the long nights when the sun hides for
, and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord; when the white walkers move through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts, and women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept and felt their tears
on their cheeks. So is this the sort of story that you like? In that darkness the white walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds.

Once more, winter is coming… and it seems the evil was defeated before but… how?

  • In the book, after a nearly-identical speech, Old Nan tries to entertain Bran with a story about the Others: Thousands of years ago, a night lasted a generation, in the heart of winter. The Others came during that winter, and they hated “iron and fire and the touch of the sun” (I.240). Continuing the tale above, the last hero of the First Men set out to find the children of the forest, whose ancient magics could restore mankind’s lost wisdom. He left with his sword, a dog, his horse, and twelve companions. When only he was left, the Others attacked… and then the tale is interrupted.

    Certainly, our heroes need knowledge of how to fight the Others. Will Jon, with his knowledge of the Wildings, go on this quest? Or is Bran doing it for him? Is the dog significant—was this hero a shapechanging warg? Will the children of the forest, tiny mound-dwellers like the Celtic elves, tell our heroes how to defeat evil?

  • When Bran and Rickon leave Maester Luwin in the Godswood at season two’s end, six of them set out—exactly half of twelve, just as half of Bran is left to be a hero. Bran, Rickon, Hodor, Osha, Jojen, and Meera walk into the forest (in the book, these last two children were staying at Winterfell and escaped with the Stark boys).

    If one adds the people, from guides to fellow travelers, the children find on the way North, the number reaches exactly twelve companions, at least for a night here and there. As Bran and his wolf travel steadily north, his story echoes the Last Hero’s. He’s even a descendent of the First Men, as all Northmen are. On his hero-quest, it’s clear that Bran will descend into the darkest place all alone, as the Last Hero once did. There, he will confront the Other beyond the curtain, the one he has seen in his dreams. (
    See Bran’s Dream

  • Describing the First Men, Jon says, “I think they were afraid. I think they came here [to Westeros] to get away from something. I don’t think it worked” (2.5). Did the cold follow them from another place?

Fire and Doom in Old Valyria
  • The Targaryens with their dragons and magic came from Old Valyria, far to the east, source of lost secrets like Valyrian steel. The sky is always red above Valyria, and those who look on that land are doomed. Around it lays the cursed smoking sea. Thousands of years ago, every hill for five hundred miles exploded, filling the sky with fire and killing even the dragons. “Red clouds rained down dragonglass and the black blood of demons” (V.446). What happened? How did the Valyrians, with their dragons and magic, destroy their own world and cause their volcanoes to erupt?

    In the present day, the greatest kingdoms of the western world are threatened by an invasion of ice-based creatures and an endless winter. One civilization was destroyed by fire, and the next will be destroyed by ice—all part of some grand cycle that we don’t yet understand.

  • In an interview, Martin answered why his saga is called
    Ice and Fire
    , saying that the Wall and the dragons were “the obvious thing but yes, there’s more.” He noted:

    People say I was influenced by Robert Ford’s poem [clearly, Robert
    ’s poem is meant], and of course I was, I mean… Fire is love, fire is passion, fire is sexual ardor and all of these things. Ice is betrayal, ice is revenge, ice is… you know, that kind of cold inhumanity and all that stuff is being played out in the books.

    Fire and Ice

    by Robert Frost, 1920

    Some say the world will end in fire,

    Some say in ice.

    From what I’ve tasted of desire

    I hold with those who favor fire.

    But if it had to perish twice,

    I think I know enough of hate

    To say that for destruction ice

    Is also great

    And would suffice.

    The short poem links fire with desire and greed (a possible cause of the Doom of Valyria), while ice is equated with hatred—surely, even if the Others are not evil, their human adversaries are filled with hate and fear towards them. An instant, fiery explosion is said to destroy the world first, followed soon by a slow, icy death. The characters of Martin’s saga are facing the latter.

  • Six hundred years ago, Hardhome exploded north of the Wall. The “screaming caves” nearby seem to be “haunted by ghouls and demons and burning ghosts” (V.522). Was it the same kind of volcanic explosion that destroyed Valyria? Or monsters under the earth, like the fabled ice dragons? Or firewyrms described as “boring” through soil and stone, as one of Dany’s dragons does (IV:321)? Is this a clue that events are repeating?

  • Summerhall is another mysterious disaster, happening at the time of Prince Rhaegar’s birth and costing him his great-grandfather. King Aegon V sought to create a hot enough fire to hatch the petrified dragon eggs, but instead burned down himself and several family members in an intense conflagration. Ser Barristan recalls Summerhall as an incident of “sorcery, fire, and grief” (V:875). Were the Valyrians attempting a similar experiment?

Daenerys’s Birthright

Daenerys comes from the line of hereditary royalty who managed to unite the kingdoms and protect them all with the might of dragons. They’ve always interbred, probably to keep their amazing dragon magic strong. She is the heir to Westeros, in a way that none of the quarreling families can claim. Illyrio Moptis, who arranges Daenerys’s wedding to Drogo, later tells Tyrion: “There is no peace in Westeros, no justice, no faith… and soon enough, no food. When men are starving and sick of fear, they look for a savior. […] A savior comes from across the sea to bind up the wounds of Westeros” (V:30).

With the Targaryens gone, many claimants all battle for the throne, all of them selfish and flawed… suggesting that only the rightful monarch, one linked to the land, will end the unceasing war for resources and restore the ancient birthright.

Further, Daenerys may be more than the one true queen—she and her dragon magic may be the only weapon against the coming winter.

  • The High Septon prayed for seven days and nights in Oldtown and then anointed Aegon the Conqueror. “For the Crone had lifted up her lamp to show him what lay ahead.” (IV.421). He saw a future in which Westeros would need Targaryen rule.
  • Today, Archmaester Marwyn believes in the Targaryens. He lives in “the oldest building at the Citadel,” the Ravenry, where flocks of ravens perch among an ancient but still-living Godswood (IV.680). Perhaps just as the new gods told the Septon to trust in the Targaryens, the old gods offer the same message.
Daenerys’s True Power
  • Rhaegar as well as Prince Daeron (from Martin’s short story “The Hedge Knight”) and Daenerys have prophetic dreams, like the Starks. Like the Starks, Daenerys has raised her animals, sigil of her house, from babies. She may share the Stark gift for animal transformation, which has remained a secret only because her family has lacked the training. The direwolves have not been seen in Westeros for centuries, much like the dragons—both appear figures of prophecy, come to aid the chosen ones in the battle to come.
  • Aerion the Monstrous (who’s mentioned gleefully by Joffrey) died drinking a cup of wildfire, believing it would transform him into a dragon. Though he was mad, perhaps he’d read or dreamed some of the forgotten lore and knew the truth: the Targaryens’ bond with dragons may be a warg bond, indicating they can ride in the minds of animals as the Starks can. He also saw wildfire as a substitute for dragonfire,
  • Many fans are struck by mad prince Viserys, who swears Daenerys will anger him and “wake the dragon.” He’s later revealed to be powerless, as Daenerys is the only true child of the dragon, resistant to fire and capable of hatching the eggs. However, Viserys’ ramblings have interesting echoes. Prince Aerion (from “The Hedge Knight”) shares a mad cruel temperament with Viserys and Aerion the Monstrous. All three claim that they
    the dragon—this is more than coincidence and likely more than madness—the gift of prophecy and the instinct to transform are warped within them but real and manifesting itself. Perhaps Daenerys will truly “wake the dragon” and transform, like Bran and his siblings, into her animal companion. In turn, this would mean the Stark children could ride inside the minds of dragons.

Of course, in every hero tale, the hero receives a magical sword. The problem in this series is that too many swords are mentioned, at least in the books:

  • Red Priestess Melisandre’s flaming sword Lightbringer was created in legend by tempering a sword in the blood of the hero’s wife:

    To fight the darkness, Azor Ahai needed to forge a hero’s sword. He labored for thirty days and thirty nights until it was done. However, when he went to temper it in water, the sword broke. He was not one to give up easily, so he started over. The second time he took fifty days and fifty nights to make the sword, even better than the first. To temper it this time, he captured a lion and drove the sword into its heart, but once more the steel shattered. The third time, with a heavy heart, for he knew beforehand what he must do to finish the blade, he worked for a hundred days and nights until it was finished. This time, he called for his wife, Nissa Nissa, and asked her to bare her breast. He drove his sword into her breast, her soul combining with the steel of the sword, creating Lightbringer. (II:115)

    This echoes Daenerys’s experiences at the end of season one—that only death can pay for powerful magic. The sacrifice of Drogo’s horse, like the lion in the Lightbringer tale, is not enough. Similarly, the magic to end the Others’ attack will have to come from blood and sacrifice as well as power.

    The stories of Azor Ahai and that of the dragons’ origin in the world both mention a crack in the moon, subtly tying them together. If the dragons are Daenerys’s Lightbringer, then Daenerys sacrificing Drogo to create them may have already fulfilled the prophecy. More likely, it set the stage for a greater sacrifice to come. And for this, the foretold hero will need a magic sword,
    whoever he or she may be

  • Stannis’s Lightbringer has an unknown origin—Melisandre brought it from the east, so it may be real, or it may be a decoy with no magic whatsoever. It may or may not be Valyrian steel.
  • Jon has Longclaw, a gift from his commander and a sword of bear and wolf, appropriate for a warg. (There are rumors the Mormonts are bear-wargs, though nothing has been proven.)
  • One possibility for Lightbringer is the sword Oathkeeper, which a greedy Tywin forges from Ned Stark’s sword Ice into a new red Lannister sword, blending ice and fire. It’s strangely smoke-stained, and has already killed Ned Stark—a serious sacrifice for the Stark children, but since none of them chose it (despite Sansa’s tiny betrayal), this loss likely foreshadows another greater sacrifice to come. Given eventually to Brienne, it might easily pass to a Stark and become the Oathkeeper of Daenerys and her allies, protecting Westeros. Its brother, given to Joffrey and named Widow’s Wail, has a similar potential. If three swords are needed, for the three-headed dragon of Daenerys and her partners, this pair could both be needed.
  • Another Targaryen sword is Dark Sister, blade of the Targaryen kings’ bastard and spymaster Bloodraven, fate unknown. Arya specifically mentions it while serving as Tywin’s page on the show, foreshadowing its importance. It may be in the North with Bloodraven, and so pass to a Stark.
  • If Tyrion Lannister is our hero and needs a sword, he knows where to find Widow’s Wail in King’s Landing. Another possibility for him or anyone is Brightroar, the ancestral sword of House Lannister. This name of course suggests the roar of flames as well as lions. It was lost in Valyria long ago (III: 359). If Tyrion discovers his ancestral sword, he may even prove to his family that he’s a real Lannister.
  • There are other magical swords: Ser Arthur Dayne’s fabled Dawn glows with a white light and was carved from a meteor (echoing the red comet!). It famously passes only to one who’s worthy, echoing the Lightbringer legend. With the metaphor of morning ending the long night, it may have a part to play—Maester Aemon even calls the upcoming endless winter the “war for the dawn” (III.884). The Sword of the Morning is a constellation, as is the Ice Dragon—ice and fire are enacting their battle in the heavens (III:355). However, Dawn’s owner died battling Ned Stark at the
    Tower of Joy
    and Ned (allegedly) took it to the Dayne castle, where it sits unused. It may have a link with Jon,
    his biological family
    , or his tale. However, its lack of mention after book two suggests a lack of importance.
  • Its counter is Blackfyre, Aegon the Conqueror’s greatsword, “a fabled blade of Valyrian steel passed from king to king… until Aegon IV chose to bestow it on Daemon [his bastard son] instead of his legitimate son, Daeron… Some felt that the sword symbolized the monarchy, so the gift was the seed from which the Blackfyre Rebellions grew,” Martin explains.
    The Blackfyre children finally fled across the sea and founded the mercenary army known as the Golden Company. They attempted five more civil wars to take the throne, but all were unsuccessful. The fate of Blackfyre after the last of these battles, the War of the Ninepenny Kings, is unknown, but the Golden Company likely kept it. This sword may be closest to Dany geographically and would be fitting as the sword of her conqueror ancestor.
  • The following conversation between Martin and a fan is intriguing, especially the final question:

    Did the Targaryens own a family sword made of Valyrian steel, like Ice or Brightroar or Longclaw?


    And if yes, what was it named and what happened to it - Rhaegar had it on the Trident, maybe?

    The most famous of them was named Blackfyre. It was long lost by Rhaegar’s day, however.

    Or, if you can’t tell right now, will we find out about it in a later book?


  • Along with the most obvious blades and mysterious Lightbringer, there are many swords of light and darkness, ice and fire. There’s the dragonbone hilt dagger sent to hurt Bran and rumors of weirwood bows. Most lords have Valyrian steel swords. For instance, Sam’s cruel father has the symbolically appropriate Heartsbane—how ironic if his son should need it to save Westeros as a great hero. Valyrian steel is rumored to kill the Others in ancient books of lore (V.100). Perhaps that’s why the Houses have prized it so greatly.
BOOK: Winter is Coming: Symbols and Hidden Meanings in A Game of Thrones
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