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