Many spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. When I first saw the Game of Thrones’ Season One finale I was shocked. They’d just killed off a major character. To me it seemed like they just killed off THE major character. They killed off someone who was on the posters, someone at the center of all of their marketing efforts. I’d rarely seen anything like it. The HBO drama OZ is the probably the only other series I’ve seen that puts every major character in jeopardy. On any Oz episode, anyone you’d known or loved could get a shiv or die in a prison riot. Game of Thrones seemed even more free form than that, especially when I started reading the novels. More major characters face the butcher block in Storm of Swords, Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons. Nevertheless, when I started to look more closely, as a writer, trying to understand what George R.R. Martin was doing, I realized that it’s pretty simple. In fact, it’s all an illusion. There are several characters that simply can’t die. Well, not until the last book anyway. To kill them would bring the whole plot structure crashing down.
Why is that? Let’s take a look at the plot to understand what this brilliant writer is doing (even if it’s unconsciously!) First off, several characters’ stories act as framing narratives for the entire epic. Those characters are Daenerys and Cierce. They’re the twin linchpins that hold up the entire world. That puts everyone else up for grabs. Well, almost everyone. For reasons I’ll explain, I believe that Jon Snow and the Imp will not die or at least not die until the last book. Let’s examine this closely. What I didn’t understand after seeing the first season only was that Ned Stark is by no means the most important character. He is merely a catalyst. He is the central character of the first book only. Therefore, that makes him the central character of one of the minor plots in the series, not the framing narrative that is central to the entire epic.
So, what is that framing narrative? There is one strong frame and two minor ones. These plots represent the story at its most basic level. The simplest stories are only one kind of plot, like an adventure, a mystery, or a revenge tale. The epic naturally consists of many different large and small plots. The best ones encompass all of them in a single narrative. To do that they need a strong frame that dominates all others. In the Song of Ice and Fire, that’s the Quest plot. Everyone is vying for the seat of power, the Iron Throne. Every character is in various stages of getting it or losing it. The Iron Throne is basically a MacGuffin. It has very little real purpose other than to make people’s lives miserable. It represents the corrupting and insidious nature of power. It represents control, or the illusion of control over others. The two minor frames are the Coming of Age and the Revenge plot. All of the younger characters are coming of age in winter, learning the hard truths of the world and adapting as needed. The ones that adapt the best win. Those that adapt the worst die. And everyone has a need for revenge. Everyone has lost someone or something and someone has to pay. These twin needs, the need to grow up and come into your own and the need to right the wrongs of the world through payback, provide the central motivations for the majority of the characters.
Cierce is the central villain of the story. With so many wicked characters, you might think that there is no reason she stands out versus any of the others, but you’d be wrong. She sets everything in motion, as only the true villain can. She sets up Robert Baratheon to be killed on his hunting expedition, which fractures the kingdom and sets everyone against everyone else openly. She hatches the plot to keep her illegitimate son on the throne, Price Joffrey. She is a shadow ruler, the true power source behind all the other pretenders that sit on the throne. She is the character that everyone else opposes. She is the ideal survivor, a pure sociopath who enjoys the suffering of others, and has no qualms about covering up her wrongs with more violence. Her primary goal is to hold on to what she has at any cost. She is the ultimate ego, cunning, always restless, always at war.
Daenerys is Cierce’s opposite. If she had her wish, she would live a simple life. In the books, she remembers a smaller house with a red door as her sanctuary, even as her wicked and egocentric brother thinks the small house is useless and beneath him. She is thankful for what she has and originally has no desire to seize the throne, until she sees the other unworthy people striving for it. The best rulers are always the ones who have no real desire to rule. They are simply called upon to rule because nobody else can. They see what everyone else cannot and so they have no choice but to lead, lest the world be led by those with limited vision, causing trouble for everyone else around them. She is a character who deserves power, one that earns it through her trials. She represents a rebirth, the coming of spring, a ruler that will melt the snow with her dragon fire. She is the fire in the Song of Ice and Fire. More than anything, she represents the true nature of a ruler: strong yet even handed, fierce yet empathic. In short, she is balanced. She is the mother of dragons, bringing back what was lost. Like the Godfather she gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for violence, through assaulting the innocent, then she gives them violence. If they offer her fairness and kindness, then it is returned. She is not afraid to put people to the sword, but only when it’s the right thing to do. Of course, figuring out what the right thing to do in this insidious world, filled with sociopaths around every corner can be hard at first, until you dig a little deeper.
I believe it’s possible to unearth a writer’s true morality through the stories he tells. A writer is never any one of his characters, but sometimes one character represents him more than any other. Three characters stand out to me as the moral compass of the story: Daenerys, the Imp and Jon Snow. My thought is that Martin sees himself as closer to the Imp and Jon, but wishes he were Daenerys. Like all writers, Martin is in many ways a monk and not a man of action. He prefers solitude and the workings of his own mind. Writing is a lonely journey. It requires copious amounts of alone time. Jon is in many ways this type of character. He stands outside of the politics. That is the surest way to win the game of thrones. Don’t play. Don’t get caught up in the back and forth, the rise and fall of the forms of the world. This is in many ways a Buddhist philosophy. The world will do as it does and you should just let go and cling to nothing. Yet, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines. Jon must have some purpose, some way to survive and he does that by taking the black.
The Imp represents the second kind of morality. He is not classically moral in any way. He helps keep the throne for his nephew despite hating him. Yet, he is moral because he has no illusions about life. He sees the nature of reality for what it is and acts accordingly. He’s sees people as stupid and violent and dangerous and he too gives them exactly what they need. He often spells out the consequences of what people have done, despite their blindness. He is a chameleon. He is not afraid to lie and cheat, but never for the sake of it. He does it because it is necessary to survive in a world of dangerous people. The Imp is fluid, adaptable. When a lie is necessary, a lie is told but never because he enjoys lying. It’s simply because people are not capable of hearing the truth.
Like all writers, Martin idolizes the man of action or in this case the woman of action. Daenerys is strong willed and sure of her goal. She knows who she is at almost every turn. This is the nature of the classic Odyssian hero, someone who can think on their feet, a brilliant tactician and warrior, a born leader, a survivor. Few real people actually possess this kind of self-awareness and strength, which is why I believe she is in many ways a fantasy for Martin, something we all should aspire to, but will never actually reach. She is simple, uncluttered, yet keenly aware of human nature and life’s dangers. She is a true pragmatic hero.
Ned Stark, on the other hand, represents exactly the type of character that does not fit Martin’s morality, so it’s really not a surprise in the least that he dies once the initial shock wears off. He is the classic fantasy hero, noble, uncompromising, someone who simply cannot tell a lie, no matter what the consequences. This character, while praise worthy, simply cannot survive in the real world. Because he can’t lie or compromise for a greater cause he causes untold misery for others. For example, because he can’t buy people’s loyalty through bribes, like Littlefinger, who controls the police force of the world, he can’t arrest the bastard king Joffery and become king himself. He is an absolutist. He kills a boy who escapes from the Wall in the early pages. While he is noble in that he insists on swinging the sword himself, he still kills the boy in a way that represents absolute law with no understanding of the specific facts of the case before him. This is akin to a judge who puts everyone away for the maximum sentence for stealing, even the little girl who steals to feed her family. He represents true blind justice, without the human element, and so he dies because this is never the justice the world needs.
The wicked characters of the world survive for much longer than the noble ones. What Martin seems to be saying here is that all evil has its day. People who are willing to do violence and who enjoy the suffering of others always have a place in the world. Of course, they always die violently. This is simple justice at its best. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The nature of the world is wicked and those who play the game can be more for a time, but eventually they are cut down by their own violence.
Song of Ice and Fire is a big story, but as you’ve seen, it’s rather simple at its core. The framing narratives act as the spine of the epic. The smaller stories can be something else entirely. Each book is a smaller plot, a mystery or a love story, or a love triangle. For example, the first book, Game of Thrones, is really a simple mystery. Why was the first Hand of the King killed? Ned plays a detective, but not a very smart one. He looks a little too closely before getting the axe by the same people who did in the Last Hand. Of course, once you understand all of this, the story can lose a little bit of its ability to surprise. Nevertheless, I still enjoy it immensely. I may know who is untouchable and who is up for grabs, but I still don’t know when people will get the chop. And that is half the fun.