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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.