“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”
After the execution in chapter 1, Ned explains to his son that one cannot be brave unless he is tested, and throughout the book we see that Ned's lesson to Bran applies to more than just bravery. What Ned means is that bravery consists in overcoming fear, not in the absence of fear. What Ned implies is that it is the triumph over fear that is worth praising, and that being without fear isn't particularly praiseworthy in itself. Catelyn raises a similar point when she tells Robb that the Greatjon isn't an ideal choice to lead because he is fearless. She believes it makes the Greatjon act without considering all the risks involved, and in this way being fearless is actually a detriment.
The same premise later applies to the notions of honor and duty that we see primarily in Ned's and Jon's struggles. As Commander Mormont suggests to Jon, one's oath to the Night's Watch is easy to keep if it is not in competition with anything. But it is precisely when that oath is in conflict with, for instance, love for one's family that the oath is proved. In other words, for Jon it is overcoming the temptation to join Robb that proves the strength of his oath. In Ned's case, he finds that it becomes difficult to maintain his honor when it is in conflict with his survival, but that is also when his honor means the most. In King's Landing, he quickly learns that being honorable puts him at a disadvantage, and it is his honorable decision to give Cersei advance warning of his intent to tell Robert about Joff's real father that ultimately leads to his death.
“The things we love destroy us every time, lad.”
Commander Mormont says these words in chapter 52 when he tells Jon about Robert’s death and Ned’s alleged treason, and he later repeats the same words in chapter 70 after Jon returns from his midnight attempt to desert the Watch in order to help Robb. In the first instance, Commander Mormont refers to Robert’s love of hunting and Jorah’s love of the wife for whom he sold poachers into slavery. The second time Commander Mormont refers directly to Jon’s love of his family and the way it conflicts with his duty to the Night’s Watch. The quote is an explicit statement of the theme of the conflict between love and duty. Throughout the novel, characters struggle to reconcile their devotion to the people and things they love with their duties, which take them away from what they love. Ned, for instance, leaves his family at Winterfell because he feels it is his duty to serve as Hand of the King when asked. Jon nearly abandons the Night's Watch to join Robb knowing that if he's caught he'll be executed. Even Aemon, who never allowed his love of his family to shake his devotion to the Night’s Watch, seems heartbroken from watching the destruction of his family.
“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.”
Tyrion Lannister first says these words to Jon near the end of chapter 13, but the words echo through multiple times over the course of the book. Robert is perhaps one of the best examples of a character who avoids hard truths. As Littlefinger points out, Robert has a great deal of practice closing his eyes to things he would rather not see, and he does so in the novel in instance ranging from Lady’s death to Jaime’s crimes against Ned. But several other characters also seem to ignore difficult realities. Catelyn appears to realize she has wrongly imprisoned Tyrion but can't admit it, while Lysa is so deep in denial that she likely believes her own lies. Sansa closes her eyes to the truth repeatedly, including to Joff’s wickedness and her role in Ned’s death.
Not all characters fall victim to this way of thinking. Most notably, Tyrion never allows himself to forget what he looks like and how others see him as a result. Rather than avoid the truth, he confronts it at every turn and even finds ways to turn it to his advantage. He counsels Jon to similarly embrace his status as a bastard, and as Jon begins to do so, he also begins to understand his upbringing was more privileged than he initially realized. Samwell Tarly also confronts the truth about himself, acknowledging that he is a coward rather than pretending otherwise. Throughout the novel, Tyrion’s quote, like Syrio’s parting advice to Arya, plays into the sight motif. Syrio tells Arya that she must see instead of merely watching. That is, he advises her to actively search for the truth beneath appearances. Tyrion’s quote points out that most people choose not to see a hard truth, but only by doing so can one see a situation—or oneself—clearly.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
At the end of their meeting in chapter 45, Cersei tells Ned that, unlike the blurry lines between right and wrong, there are very well-defined consequences to winning and losing the game of thrones. The implication is that winning means a great deal of power while losing inevitably means death, and that anyone playing the game of thrones must do whatever is necessary to win. The book contains several of these players, including Robert, Cersei, Littlefinger, Varys, Stannis, and Renly. Each seems more concerned with winning power than governing the realm or doing what is right. Ned, however, often tries to do what he considers right and honorable rather than what will allow him to win. He declines Renly's offer of troops because, according to the law, Stannis is the heir to the throne. He also tries to spare Cersei's life by telling her that he intends to tell Robert about Joff's true father. He does not play to win, and the result is that he loses. The consequence for Ned is death.
“Ned tried a swallow. ‘Dregs.’ He felt as though he were about to bring the wine back up.
‘All men must swallow the sour with the sweet. High lords and eunuchs alike. Your hour has come, my lord.’”
In chapter 58, Varys visits Ned in his cell to bring him bitter wine and bitter news about what has happened to the Stark family and the realm at large. Varys’s words capture the abrupt and drastic changes of fortune that befall many characters throughout the story. These reversals of fortune, the novel suggests, are as inevitable as the hard times promised by the Stark words, “Winter is coming.” Varys speaks to Ned, for example, after Ned has gone from the king's Hand and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom to an accused traitor locked in a dirty cell. Robert’s fortunes also continue changing for the worse from the day he becomes king to the day a pig’s tusk impales him. Drogo takes an abrupt fall from a powerful khal to a brain-dead body. Other characters have even more frequent reversals of fortune. Daenerys ascends to power over the khalasar, descends into a miserable widowhood after her stillbirth, and then returns to power as the master of three dragons. Tyrion begins the story as a noble lord, becomes Catelyn’s prisoner, and then rises to lead a small army into battle. Life, Varys implies, is both sour and sweet. Everyone will experience both triumphs and failures, and as we cannot always control our fates, one has no choice but to accept both together.