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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.