Through the central civil war plot of the novel, Martin explores the chaotic nature of warfare, showing that it destroys not only people and objects, but knowledge and certainty. War causes immense suffering, and that suffering gets compounded by the fact that the confusion of battle and military maneuverings means that characters constantly act in ignorance of the full state of affairs. During battle, no one really has any idea what is happening, as Martin shows in the experiences of Davos and Tyrion. The battle scenes involving both men are extraordinarily chaotic. But even before battle has begun, basic questions like where rival armies are located cannot be reliably answered. Rumors also proliferate about who is alive and dead without any way to tell what’s true from what’s false. The main means of communication in Westeros is raven, and so information takes days to travel from one place to another. Robb and Tywin take advantage of the confusion and the lack of reliable information to launch stunning sneak attacks. Because the reader sees events in the novel through the eyes of the character, the reader is also often unaware of what is happening in other regions of the kingdom.
Additionally, war, the novel suggests, is not just chaotic for the participants, but also for the innocent bystanders caught in its path. As Arya heads north to the Wall, for instance, she and her group encounter several destroyed or abandoned villages whose residents have been displaced by the fighting. Outlaws use the turmoil of the war to raid and loot, and it becomes clear that nobody can be trusted. The war turns all certainty and morality on its head, leaving everyone distrusting everyone else and taking advantage of any situation they can.
Many characters in the novel have a disability or social disadvantage of some kind: Tyrion has dwarfism, Bran cannot use his legs, Jon is a bastard. While such disadvantages often get presented as weaknesses, Martin shows that they can actually be sources of strength. Tyrion, for instance, develops his mind in lieu of his body, and becomes the most intelligent character in the novel, one who lives by his wit. Bran initially suffers greatly because of his paralysis, as it destroys his dream of becoming a knight. But with the help of Jojen Reed, Bran learns to thrive in a different way, by getting in touch with a rare ability deep within himself, one that makes him much more powerful than he would be if he was not disabled. Jon finds that his social status doesn’t matter in the Night’s Watch, and he earns the respect of his peers and commanders alike. With these characters, Martin inverts expectations and reveals that deviations from the norm need not be drawbacks at all, but can actually be virtues.
Martin’s novel abounds with young characters who have to mature quickly, and with these characters he shows the importance of learning to confront, and ultimately accept, harsh truths. Bran, for instance, must learn to accept his paralysis so that he can move past it, and once he does he begins to thrive again. The theme reaches its clearest expression in the character of Sansa, who has long believed in idealistic and romantic tales of virtuous knights, beautiful ladies, and true love. Sansa thought that going to King’s Landing would allow her to live out such stories, but instead she sees that knights are just people, complicated and often duplicitous, that ladies can be scheming and cruel, and that love can be a fraud enacted for personal gain. Sansa has a hard time abandoning her childish view, but the novel demonstrates that she must if she hopes to survive in the court at King’s Landing, where she is held hostage.
Though the action of the novel takes place across numerous settings that can feel far removed from one another, several characters nonetheless pass through abandoned settlements on their journeys. Daenerys, for example, camps in an abandoned city, Jon passes one abandoned village after another north of the Wall, and Arya and the Night’s Watch recruits come across several abandoned homesteads before their disastrous battle in an abandoned town. In the world of the novel, most of the action apart from battles takes place either in cities or in bustling castles. The abanonded settlements, then, form a sharp contrast to these spaces in which daily life normally unfolds. They emphasize how fragile social life is and how easily civilization can crumble into turmoil during times of war. In that sense the motif works to reinforce the theme of the chaos of war throughout the book.
Between Craster and his daughter-wives, Theon and Asha, and Cersei and Jaime, incest or the possibility of incest occurs time and again in A Clash of Kings. In fact, incest haunts the novel to such a degree that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire civil war plot turns on it. The discovery of Joffrey’s incestuous parentage—and thus that he is not the legitimate king—led to the death of several characters in Game of Thrones, and it continues to play a major role here. Stannis hopes to use the accusation of incest as a way of turning public sentiment away from the Lannisters, and it continues to be a criticism lobbed at the royal family even after their victory at King’s Landing. An incest taboo is often seen as a basic condition of civilization. By depicting the repeated flouting of that taboo, the novel suggests that the world we see in the book exists precariously on the threshold between civilization and primitivism.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, information cannot spread any faster than a raven can fly, and there is no such thing as a press or other social institution committed to uncovering truth. The lack of rapid, reliable information means that rumor has great power, and characters regularly spread and speculate on rumors. Some rumors, such as the claim that Robb and his men eat their enemies, appear obviously preposterous, while others, like those regarding the movements and whereabouts of armies, may have some basis in fact. The challenge for the characters comes in discriminating trustworthy rumors from sheer fiction. Stannis’s claim about Joffrey being the product of incest and therefore not the rightful heir to the Iron Throne seems plausible to many characters but can hardly be accepted without some more compelling evidence than Stannis’s word. Evaluating the truth of this particular rumor is of the utmost importance in the novel, but few, if any, of the characters in the novel have the means to confirm or refute it. In this way the novel shows what terrible problems the lack of dependable information and the pervasiveness of rumor can create.
A fiery red comet hangs in the sky throughout the novel. Time and again, the book shows characters offering competing interpretations of the comet, and readers may well expect that by the end they will get a definitive answer regarding what the comet represents. But the book uses the comet in a less direct way. In essence it represents the ways in which people try to find meaning in events and phenomena that may be inherently meaningless. Nearly every character who tries to interpret the comet does so in a self-interested way—to Stannis’s faction it is a sign that the Lord of Light protects him, to Joffrey’s faction it is a sign that he is the rightful heir to the throne, to Theon it is a sign of his great destiny, and so on. No one seems to consider the possibility that the comet means nothing, and the novel shows the folly and subjectivity that mark the effort to ascribe meaning to random events.
Each house has a sigil, an identifying symbol that is used on banners, flags, shields, and clothes. House Stark, for example, uses a wolf, while House Lannister has a lion and House Targaryen a three-headed dragon. In a literal sense, the sigil serves as a shorthand for a person’s backstory. At a glance, one person can identify another person’s allegiances, grievances, and history simply by looking at the sigil he wears. Thus each sigil represents a family as a whole and suggests something about the character of the sigil's wearer. A wolf sigil representing House Stark informs any viewer that the wearer is dutiful and spartan. A lion sigil tells a viewer that the wearer is a Lannister, meaning he is probably rich and inclined to indulge himself. The use of sigils also lends the book an element of historical realism, since many medieval families had elaborate crests and colors.
The direwolves represent the old world, before the First Men arrived in Westeros, and the Starks’ connection to that older, more natural time. A major dramatic element of the series is the reappearance of long-vanished magic in the world, and the direwolves are one of the most striking examples. No direwolves have been seen south of the Wall for more than 200 years before the Starks discover a litter of direwolf pups in Game of Thrones. The Starks sigil, notably, is a direwolf, and they supposedly have wolf blood in their veins. There is a pup for each Stark child, and as the story progresses over the two novels, not only are the animals themselves extraordinary, but they seem to have supernatural bonds with the Starks. Both Jon and Bran explicitly demonstrate the ability to enter the minds of their wolves, and rumor has it that Robb can control his wolf as well. Most of the world of Westeros has abandoned the Old Gods for the hierarchy and ceremony of the Seven, but the Starks still pray to the Old Gods, and their direwolves underscore the power of that ancient, animistic faith. In the context of the novel, the supernatural bonds the Stark children share with their wolves imply that the Starks are special in a way that is not yet clear, and they will play a significant role in the events that unfold in the series.
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