The book begins as three men of the Night’s Watch, Waymar, Will, and Gared, search for a small group of wildlings, uncivilized people who live north of the giant wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms. Scouting ahead, Will finds the wildlings dead. He returns to Waymar and Gared with the news and tells them the wildlings appear to have frozen to death. The recent weather, however, has not been nearly cold enough to kill a person. Will and Gared sense that something is wrong, and Gared suggests they build a fire. Waymar arrogantly demands that they press on. The three head to the location where Will found the bodies, but they are gone. A group of ghostly white figures, known as the Others, surround Waymar. He duels with one of the figures while Will silently watches from a tree. Waymar is killed, but when Will climbs down, Waymar’s reanimated body rises up and strangles him.
Bran attends the execution of Gared, who ran away after Will and Waymar died but was caught and condemned as a deserter. Ned Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, performs the execution himself, using the greatsword Ice to behead Gared. Robb Stark argues that Gared died bravely, while Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son, believes that Gared was terrified. Ned explains to Bran that a man can only truly be brave when he is in fact afraid. Ned also explains his belief that the man who passes a death sentence ought to perform the execution himself. On the ride back to Winterfell, home of the Stark family, the party discovers a dead direwolf with five live pups. Ned’s men are about to kill the animals when Jon points out that the pups are the same in number and gender, three male and two female, as Ned’s trueborn children. He says it’s a sign that the Starks were meant to have them. As the party rides away, Jon discovers a sixth male pup with white fur and red eyes and takes it for himself.
Catelyn walks to find Ned in the holy forest within Winterfell’s walls, known as the godswood. Catelyn reflects on the meaning of the words of the Stark house, “Winter Is Coming.” While Ned is cleaning his sword, Ice, he tells Catelyn that Gared was scared to madness. Catelyn informs Ned that Jon Arryn, the former Hand of the King, is dead. Ned is deeply saddened, since Jon Arryn was like a second father to him while the man raised and defended Ned and Robert. Ned is excited to hear that Robert, his old friend and now the king of Westeros, is coming to visit Winterfell. However, Ned bears a grudge against Robert’s wife Cersei and her family, the Lannisters. In the war that Ned and Robert fought against the Targaryens, who ruled Westeros before Robert, the Lannisters did not join Robert until his victory was nearly certain.
East of the continent Westeros, across the Narrow Sea, in the city of Pentos, Viserys prepares his sister, Daenerys, for a feast to take place that night. At the feast, she is to meet Drogo, the Dothraki warlord, or khal, her brother is forcing her to marry. Viserys and Daenerys are the last in the line of the royal family Targaryen. They fled Westeros when Ned and Robert defeated the Targaryen armies. Daenerys’s only memories of childhood are of a big house with a red door on the Braavosi Islands. Since leaving the house, she and Viserys have wandered from host to host, and for the last year they have lived at the home of the wealthy merchant Illyrio. Daenerys wants to go home, but she is not entirely sure where her home is. Her brother assures her that her home is in Westeros. Viserys is forcing Daenerys to marry Drogo so that Drogo, with his massive army, will help them retake Westeros.
Back in Winterfell, Robert arrives and immediately visits Winterfell’s crypts with Ned. There they pay their respects to Lyanna, who was Ned’s sister and Robert’s bride-to-be before she was kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar Targaryen. Rhaegar’s actions were part of the cause of Robert’s Rebellion against the mad king Aerys Targaryen. Robert bitterly remembers killing Rhaegar on the Trident River. Ned recalls how Lyanna died of a fever. Robert fondly reminisces about the time he and Ned spent together as children, and he tells Ned how much he hates being king. Robert asks Ned to be the new Hand of the King, which Ned expected. He also asks Ned to wed his eleven-year-old daughter Sansa to Robert and Cersei’s twelve-year-old son Joff, which is a surprise to Ned. Ned does not wish to accept the position as Hand, but he asks for time to consider the offer.
The prologue sets an eerie and gruesome tone for the rest of the novel. The chapter presents an enemy that seems unlikely to concern itself with the political conflict mentioned in the book’s title, the game of thrones. The Others are sentient, sword-wielding, have a language of their own, and do not appear to be human. Indeed, though they kill all the humans they encounter in the prologue, it seems that their victims, like Waymar and the missing camp of wildlings, do not stay dead. The book’s human characters may form sinister plots against one another, but the Others present a far more serious, supernatural threat. The most dangerous part could be that no one realizes the Others are a threat. Ned believes them to be extinct, but Catelyn reminds him that up until now direwolves were believed to be all but extinct. The supernatural elements of the prologue alert the reader that the world of the book is one of low-level magic. The threat of the Others puts the book’s political conflicts into perspective.
The execution in chapter 1 introduces a baseline sense of what Ned views as proper justice. A man who deserts his comrades is punished with execution, but not before he is questioned. Temporary insanity is clearly not a valid defense, since Ned later admits that Gared was scared half-mad. After the execution, characters do not discuss whether Gared was guilty or innocent, but instead, the manner in which he died. Ned explains that the judge must carry out the execution himself if he believes his decision to be just. Even though other lords have executioners, Ned holds himself to a higher level of accountability. Considering Gared’s sound advice and repeated warnings to his young leader, Waymar, the reader is left to decide if Gared’s death was truly just.
The direwolf dead in the snow is a startlingly clear symbol to nearly everyone but Bran, the chapter’s perspective character. The direwolf is the symbol of House Stark, while the stag is the symbol of House Baratheon. The sight of a direwolf slain as a result of the antler of a dead stag is more than enough to shock Ned’s men into silence. If it is indeed an omen, it can only mean bad things for the houses Stark and Baratheon. The reappearance of any member of the direwolf species is ominous by itself. The animal’s presence south of the Wall further indicates that problems from north of the Wall, such as those described in the prologue, may be headed south. Even the animal’s name, with the prefix “dire,” warns of future days as dark as the Stark words, “Winter Is Coming.” When Jon points out that each pup has a corresponding child in the Stark family, he marks them as symbols for the children as well. Jon’s outcast albino pup seems to match up very well with his identity as a bastard child by the surname Snow.
Daenerys’ chapter provides a distinctly different perspective from the other point-of-view characters in the book. Her knowledge of the history of Westeros is the distorted version of reality that Viserys has told her, and so the narrator refers to Robert as the Usurper in Daenerys’ chapters. According to Viserys, Robert and his treachery against Aerys Targaryen are the cause of all Daenerys’ misfortune. Nonetheless it is immediately clear that Viserys’ pride, cruelty, and even stupidity are to blame for Daenerys’ unhappiness. Her brother threatens her, molests her, sells her into marriage, and tells her that he would gladly let forty thousand men rape her. Daenerys is terrified of him, but she believes that the only way home is through his plan to regain the throne. Even if Viserys had a more realistic plan, Daenerys would still have difficulty returning home, since she is unsure what home means to her. The red door motif represents her fading memories of her temporary home in Braavos.
The Stark words, “Winter Is Coming,” warn that dark times are ahead. At face value, the words are always true regardless of the time of year. Though Westeros’ seasons change in length, they inevitably pass from summer to winter and back again. Even if the weather is warming, the Starks are certain that before long it will be winter again, and so their words advise preparedness. Symbolically, the words imply the inevitability of hard times. Good fortune comes and goes, and the Stark words warn that even if things are going well, one’s health and prosperity can and will always be worse at some point. Catelyn finds the words troubling because although they are pessimistic, they are unavoidably true. The words of other houses make claims about honor, pride, and glory, but the Stark words are a statement of fact.