Many times characters face choices that pit their loyalties to their oaths and duties against their loyalties to the people they love. Ned must decide between staying with his family in Winterfell and serving his king in King’s Landing; Catelyn is overcome with grief for her beloved son and ignores her duties to Winterfell; and Jon must choose between leaving the Night’s Watch to help Robb and avenge Ned and fulfilling his vow to forsake all else and serve at the Wall. The difference between duty and love might be interpreted as a conflict between external and internal motivations. Duties are public commitments to individuals or labors, like Ned’s commitment to be Robert’s Hand or Jon’s oath to defend the Wall. Love is highly personal and is not bound by any oath, like Catelyn’s love and protection of her family or Ned’s desire to save Sansa’s life. As characters choose between fulfilling their duties and helping those they love, they must reconsider the value of honor. That is to say, they must weigh their personal sense of virtue against the public perception of their virtue. During his final moments in his cell, Ned seems to realize that there is little virtue in fulfilling his duty to an unethical leader, and thus he makes a false confession to save Sansa.
A Game of Thrones is set in a harsh world, and numerous characters find themselves struggling as they face hard truths. Bran notably goes from a playful young boy with dreams of knighthood to being suddenly paralyzed and bedridden. Every hope he had for the future is abruptly taken away from him, or at least made vastly more difficult to achieve, yet he has no choice but to confront the reality that he can no longer walk. Sansa spends a great deal of the early part of the novel imagining Joffrey as valiant, and she imagines life in King's Landing being all tournaments and pageants where attractive knights compete for honor. But as she meets the inhabitants of the city, and the Hound in particular, she realizes honor holds little importance in King's Landing. And it is only when Joff has Ned beheaded that she finally recognizes Joff for who he truly is. By that point it is already presumed they will marry, and that impending marriage loses its romantic fantasy and comes to seem more like a sentence.
Tyrion, and eventually Jon Snow, face difficult truths as well. Tyrion is small and somewhat misshapen, and he makes it a point to confront these facts as often as he can. He says to Jon Snow that people would rather ignore hard truths, but if you embrace the truth, it can never be used against you. His advice allows Jon to finally come to terms with his role in the Stark family as Ned’s bastard son, and thus not a true member of the family. In each case, the novel suggests that facing a harsh truth is not only necessary but also beneficial. It allows the characters to deal with their respective circumstances, and only by seeing those circumstances clearly can they improve their situations. Tyrion, for instance, who came to terms with his limitations long ago, knows what his strengths and weaknesses are, and he is able to play to his strengths while occasionally even turning his supposed weakness to his advantage.
In the novel, politics amounts to how competing forces jockey to maintain or expand their power, and that jockeying almost always entails some form of corruption. The ruling forces of Westeros, including King Robert, Cersei Lannister, their circle of advisors, and all the lesser lords who wield some amount of power, seem to be in a perpetual state of competition. To maintain an advantage in this competition, they are constantly doing things that are dishonest or corrupt in some form. Littlefinger, for example, swears to Ned he will help win the city guard to his side as Ned tries to dethrone Joffrey, but Littlefinger instead sides with the Lannisters and betrays Ned. In this same situation, Ned, who is among the most honorable characters depicted in the novel, resorts to bribery to win the city guard to his side, essentially giving in to corruption because he has no alternative, though he does so for what he believes a just cause. Cersei Lannister lies about the real father of her son Joffrey, and to cover up her lie she has Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, murdered. Later, a servant under her orders plies King Robert with strong wine during a hunt, deliberately, albeit indirectly, causing his death. In each case, the corrupt act is an attempt to win some measure of power. Cersei wants her son to inherit the throne and control the kingdom, Littlefinger wants to preserve his life and expand his influence in the court, and Ned is trying to wrest power from the Lannisters. The novel suggests that this competition for power, on the largest scale called the “game of thrones,” inevitably leads to corruption.
As characters struggle to see truth from lies, to tell wrong from right, or to avoid seeing hard truths, the book mentions sight in all its forms many times over. Sight is a sense for physically perceiving reality and mentally identifying the truth, but it takes a subjective twist as it moves from character to character. The narrative structure itself is a constantly changing way of seeing things with a different character’s perspective. Catelyn explicitly introduces the motif when she receives Lysa’s hidden message and asks what truth it is that the sender wants them to see more clearly. Bran discovers the truth, and as a result of his deadly knowledge Jaime pushes him through another device for seeing—a window. He begins to dream of the three-eyed crow, which is a creature with an unnatural sense of sight. Eye color is an important detail that reinforces the subjectivity of sight. The royal purple of the Targaryens, the greedy green of the Lannisters, and the dire grey of the Starks represents each family’s character traits and shows that each house has a different way of seeing things. Syrio repeats Catelyn’s lesson when he reminds Arya that she needs to look more closely and see instead of merely watching.
Several of the primary characters in the novel feel themselves to be outsiders. The three most prominent outsiders are Jon Snow, a bastard; Tyrion, a dwarf; Arya, a girl who wants to learn to fight and go on adventures beyond the sewing room, which were traditionally not female pastimes. Each character chafes at the way society views them and dislikes the limitations imposed on them. But there are other outsiders as well. Bran becomes an outsider to some degree after he is paralyzed in the fall. He is no longer able to do the things a boy of his age enjoys doing, and he remains cloistered in his room, apart from the world and aware that his dream of being a knight will not come true. Ned Stark feels himself to be distinctly an outsider when he arrives at King’s Landing. He is not accustomed to the climate of political intrigue and lying and does not feel comfortable in his new role. In each case, the character’s status as an outsider greatly serves to define the character’s image of himself, and it plays a large role in each character’s behavior throughout the novel. For the more mature characters, such as Tyrion and Ned, their roles as outsiders act as a source of strength for them. The younger characters, however, all initially feel their outsider status is a problem, but each begins learning in his or her own way how to turn it into an advantage.
Hands are tools for action, and in A Game of Thrones, they are essential for the performance of one’s duty. The motif is most apparent in Ned’s title as Hand of the King. The title represents how he is unequivocally sworn to advise the king and do his will. The saying goes that what the king dreams, the Hand builds. Hand injuries also recur. Catelyn suffers severe cuts on her hands protecting Bran. Jon sustains serious burns on his hands protecting Commander Mormont. These injuries represent Catelyn and Jon’s self-sacrifice in the performance of their duties. Varys, meanwhile, is constantly rubbing his powdered hands together. It seems an unproductive use of his hands, but it represents his mind at work, scheming.
Westeros is a large continent, but its communications flow remarkably smoothly with the use of ravens. The distinction between a raven and a crow is subtle, but the symbolic difference is not. Physically, a crow is smaller in size, and Old Nan says that crows are all liars. The three-eyed crow in Bran’s dream, despite its supernatural sight, also lies to Bran. Commander Mormont calls the crow the poor cousin to the raven, which is slightly larger in size. In Westeros, ravens carry the truth from one character to another. Often, when someone speaks of a message, they simply refer to the correspondence as a bird. Likewise, Varys calls his spies and informants his birds. While in flight, a bird’s eye view sees everything below it at once, but when it lands, the bird can only relay a message from the sender. Thus the bird motif represents the passing of information from one person to another, and the type of bird indicates something about the validity of that information. The injured raven that brings news of Ned’s death could represent the damaged nature of the truth in its message, since Ned died as a result of his untrue confession.
The direwolf is the symbol, or “sigil,” of House Stark, and so each of the direwolf pups the Stark children adopt becomes a symbol of the child that cares for it. Robb’s wolf, Grey Wind, helps him defend Bran from wildlings and fights fiercely in the battle where Robb’s men capture Jaime. The wolf’s behavior and its plain grey fur make it the most like the animal appearing on the house sigil, a grey wolf on a white field. As Robb becomes the new Lord of Winterfell, his wolf accordingly grows into a fitting symbol for the house as a whole. By contrast, Jon finds his albino wolf separated from the rest of the litter, the wolf’s situation paralleling Jon’s own feeling of being an outsider in his family. It is the runt of the litter, much as Jon is the Stark bastard and considered inferior. He names the wolf Ghost, which fits the animal’s soundless movement and eerie appearance. But the moniker also corresponds to Jon’s feeling of invisibility in the eyes of Catelyn and many others.
While it lives, Sansa’s small wolf is polite and well behaved, just like its owner and its name, Lady. Arya’s wolf, Nymeria, is fierce and willful like her owner and the warrior princess for which it is named. When Arya strikes Joff, Nymeria notably follows suit and bites the boy. After that incident, the fates of Lady and Nymeria foreshadow the fates of their masters, as both wolves become separated from the family. Bran’s wolf is one of the smartest of the litter, and Luwin also notes that Bran is surpassingly clever when he tries at it. Bran’s choice of name, Summer, seems to be a kind of antidote to the coldness of the north. Rickon’s wolf, Shaggydog, is wild and unruly like its immature owner.
The Iron Throne represents the difficulty of ruling and the brutality necessary to gain power. According to the story told in the novel, Aegon the Conqueror built the Throne out of the swords of his conquered enemies because he did not think that a king should sit easily. The throne represents the king’s power over his adversaries, specifically his military power. The swords are a reminder to all, the king’s friends as well as his enemies, that the king rules through force. Military strength is the foundation of his rule; those who do not obey will be punished, and those who betray the king will be killed. But the literal discomfort of sitting in the throne serves as a constant reminder to the king that wielding such power is not easy. The position is not one of luxury and ease. Instead, it is one of tremendous responsibility and often uncomfortable decisions. That the throne was forged by the fiery breath of the dragon Balerion is also symbolic, but it speaks more to the rise of the Targaryens. Though outnumbered, Aegon the Conqueror had a power far greater than any number of swords, and that was his dragons. Though it isn’t yet clear how the reappearance of dragons in the world will play out in the series, it seems certain that Daenerys’s dragons will make her a formidable force.
The Trident River divides into three major forks, and so it is a place of change and divisive decisions. Robert, we learn, split Rhaegar Targaryen’s chest open on the Trident, and in doing so changed the course of the war. Arya fights Joff in the same place that Robert fought Rhaegar, and Arya throws Joff’s sword into the river along with Rhaegar’s rubies, which studded the sword. Through this fighting, the children divide the Stark and Lannister houses by bringing the tensions between them into the open. Later, Robb makes a major decision on the Green Fork of the Trident as well. He crosses the river at the Twins, divides his army, and in so doing earns a great strategic advantage that changes the course of the Stark war against the Lannisters. It is in many ways the geographical nexus of Westeros, and the multiple forks of the Trident symbolize the divided loyalties of the kingdom as well as the vast number of history-changing decisions and battles that have occurred, and will continue to occur, at this place of change.