Jul 7 2011 7:02pm

Parallel Lives in A Song of Ice and Fire

[Note: We’ll discuss spoilers from across all four published novels in the series, so beware!]

With such a vast number of characters in the series — well over a dozen primary characters and what feels like scores of secondary characters — one could argue that any perceived parallels between any particularly pair is nothing more than coincidence. I suppose that’s a valid viewpoint. But I think Martin, as an author, has revealed that he himself is directly interested in comparing and contrasting characters within the story, especially in those occasions when a parallel appears to motivate action. How often does Jon attempt to guide his actions according to what his father believed and taught him? Jorah Mormont more than once compares Daenerys to her dead brother Rhaegar, Tyrion contrasts his responses to present events with what his father did in the past, and more. Parallels are clearly present in the minds of the characters.

But the particular parallels I wish to deal with here are the less obvious ones, the ones where readers see the parallels that characters can’t, largely because the characters are completely unconnected to one another. When GRRM had to split A Feast for Crows into two books, one of the things he stated as a regret was the fact that parallels he had placed in the text comparing Daenerys’s response to her situation as Queen of Meereen and Cersei’s response to her serving as Queen Regent would be obscured. And, to draw a very minor spoiler from the excerpt at the back of A Feast for Crows, Daenerys’s first chapter features her just waking up to the news that someone has died, much as Cersei is woken up to learn of her father’s death in her first chapter. And lets just say that the parallels probably continue, as both face challenges to their rule.

My very favorite example of parallels between characters is one that I don’t believe dawned on me until well after reading A Storm of Swords: Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister. Consider the fact that the young Jaime Lannister — pretty much the same age as Jon Snow — ended up being faced with the incredibly difficult choice of which of his vows were paramount. It’s an affecting scene in A Clash of Kings, when he points how many vows and duties are piled on top of a person in Westeros: duty to the gods, duty to your family, duty to your liege lord, duty to your king, and more. But the choice he made all those years ago — to murder a king — came with a price, one that he preferred to accept and turn into a barrier between himself and the world. Was the choice he made the right one, ultimately? I’ve always argued that he could have reconciled his vows, could have determined to both defend the king he served and the innocent lives he swore to defend when Ser Arthur Dayne dubbed him a knight. More saliently, however, he seems to be on the way to this realization in A Storm of Swords when he informs his fellow Kingsguard that their vow is to defend the king first and foremost... and that may include defending him from himself.

This is a pragmatic look at his duties, finding a structure that focuses on the important parts of his vows and reconciles them. And if we look way up North, beyond the Wall in fact, what does Jon learn in A Clash of Kings? On a desperate mission with the legendary Qhorin Halfhand, their companions killed off one-by-one as wildlings are chasing them through the Frostfangs to prevent them from reporting vital information to Lord Mormont, Jon Snow is finally told one night that they cannot escape. And so Halfhand gives him an order: they will turn their cloaks and join the wildlings. Jon immediately protests that it’s not honorable, that their vows forbid it. Qhorin’s response? “Our honor means no more than our lives, so long as the realm is safe.” Qhorin focuses on the key reason for the vows: the good of the realm.

As Eddard Stark told his son Bran, the Kingsguard — prior to the Kingslayer — were a “shining example to the world,” and that was lost by what Jaime did. Not only that, but the stability of Robert’s reign was negatively impacted by the bad feelings that his pardoning and retaining the Kingslayer, and it’s easy enough to see the harm that Jaime did to himself with his attitude towards what he did and how he was judged. Better if he had made a different choice. What if he had been taught by a Qhorin Halfhand (rather than a White Bull) that his vows could allow him to oppose the Mad King when it was clearly in Aerys’s best interest? Aerys’s path meant death for hundreds of thousands — including himself, something Jaime was obligated to stop him from doing. It’s one thing when a mentally competent king opts to lead a desperate, even suicidal charge in dire straits... but when it’s obviously a mad man? Jaime was too young to temper his understanding of his vows with the kind of pragmatism that Halfhand taught Jon.

Another one that very recently dawned on me, and one that I expect many will wonder at, is a parallel involving Catelyn Stark’s relationship to her husband... and Arianne Martell’s to her father, Prince Doran. In both cases, the men have secrets that they feel obligated to keep from these important women in their family, and they go about it in a way that drives a wedge between them. In the case of Catelyn, the nature of Ned’s relationship to Jon’s mother, and his insistence that Jon be raised at Winterfell as if he were very nearly a trueborn son, was an amazingly difficult thing. I would even hold that it’s a cruel thing, the way Catelyn describes Eddard frightening her in the early days of their marriage because she dared to ask her husband questions. Yes, fans are very likely to be very sympathetic to Eddard Stark — especially if, like many, you think you know why he has to keep this secret from her — but from Catelyn’s perspective, Eddard’s behavior seems indefensible, exerting his privilege as husband (and thus the dominant relationship, in the patriarchal Seven Kingdoms) over his wife.

Not only that, but Eddard’s approach to matters sets up the very situation that many seem to abhor Catelyn for: her deliberately distancing herself from Jon Snow. Eddard’s refusal to compromise, to even talk about why he’s acting in such a personally unacceptable away and in a rather unusual fashion according to cultural norms, is the real problem. Catelyn is merely acting the part she’s given, a noblewoman who’s first duty is to her husband and to her children, not to his by-blows, especially a by-blow raised to act as if they’re noble and perhaps consider themselves better than the trueborn siblings.

Now look at Arianne Martell. Her father hides from her the secret betrothal he made years before, and to do this effectively, he practically dehumanizes her, sending one unsuitable and objectionable suitor after another. Naturally, Arianne refuses them all, much as Doran planned. But he seems quite unaware, or perhaps unwilling to accept, the opinion of him that his daughter developed because of this. Is it any surprise that Arianne comes to think that he sees her as a burden, as a weak and wanton woman that he’d rather foist on a dotard like Lord Beesbury or (worse) on Walder Frey? Worst of all, Arianne genuinely loves her father and wished only to be loved... but because of his secret, and his way about keeping it, she thought he despised her.

The secrets that men keep from the women in their lives are damaging things, clearly, examples of them believing they know best. In Catelyn’s case, with any sort of compromise unilaterally refused to her, she froze out Jon Snow from her sphere of life rather than distance herself from her husband; love proved too strong, and one might argue that she was too meek to make a stand and refuse to accept what Eddard offered her. In Arianne’s case, meekness was never an issue — she rebelled against her father, first in the small and immature ways of a girl... but then she goes much bigger, plotting against him. Note that she doesn’t plot to destroy him, however; she imagines that she will have him retire to his Water Garden, to spend his days in comfort and to finally rest from the burdens of rule that must have been even more of a burden as extreme gout began to take its toll on his health. Arianne’s plans may be somewhat naive, but that’s largely because Doran took his neglect further than just sending a parade of laughable suitors at her, he feigned more complete neglect so that the rest of the realm bought that he really didn’t care much for her. She never had the opportunity to learn from him, in other words, so it’s no surprise she took her lessons from the Red Viper.

As George might put it, there’s many and more parallels in the novels, but those two above are among my favorites. I’ll offer up a third pair, just for discussion: Eddard Stark and Davos Seaworth.

Every Thursday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index. Some spoilers inherent.

Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio Garcia crossed an ocean to join Linda Antonsson in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.

David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
I'd actually argue that Davos complements the Jaime/Jon comparison you mentioned early in your post, rather than Eddard himself. For one thing, Eddard is already burnt toast by the time Davos emerges from Dragonstone. For another, Eddard's tale is bound up in the failure of honor for honor's sake, whereas Davos' story falls more in line with the idea of loyalty and conflicting vows.

Keep in mind that all three of their stories reflect men, sworn to protect a vow, working against their benefactors for the greater good of their station. Jon slays Quorin Halfhand and joins the Wildlings, because it is the only way to live, gather information, and inform his commander of the enemy's movements. Jaime reflects on killing a mad king in an act that he sees as just, but feels he broke his vows to perform a greater good. Davos has neither worry of betrayal, but bends his own vows to work against Stannis' own interest by trying to undermind Melissandre. They're three different takes on effectively the same situation, and other arcs in the same novel follow a similar theme.

Take Theon, for instance. Trapped by vows to both his own family and the Starks, he tries to follow his ambition while maintaining a sort of faux loyalty to both. He ignores his father's orders and forgets their customs, but allies with the Ironborn against the the family that fostered him. Seemingly betraying everyone around him, he does one thing that always struck me as interesting; namely, that he takes Winterfell himself.

Now, some may call this the ultimate betrayal of Robb and his family, but I've always seen it differently. I see it as - as we saw with Jon, Davos and Jaime - a betrayal for the greater good. Theon saw that the Greyjoys were in a firm position to overwhelm and break away from the North, and so he saw to it that he would be the one to rule in Winterfell, to prevent unnecessary cruelty to the people who raised him. He gains a territory for the Greyjoys, while protecting the Starks. In his mind, it is the best of both worlds, but his poor decisions and reckless ambition eventually spell ruin for everyone involved, himself included.
Lurking Canadian
2. Lurking Canadian
I always saw a kind of parallel between Ned and Randyll Tarly. (Not in parenting style, obviously.) They strike me as the only two noblemen who believe in the rule of law, that oaths should be kept for their own sake, not just until a better offer comes along, and so on. Tarly's just luckier that he happens to be on the winning side.
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM
I always like the odd comparison between Tyrion and Sansa. They started from opposite poles, headed towards each other, and now are moving in tandem.

Sansa starts out as physically perfect and has an unrealistic sense of knightly honor and justice. Tyrion, in contrast, starts out as one who is almost as physically imperfect one can be and claims to see and act on things as they are. While Sansa and Tyrion's physical appearances can't change overmuch, the ensuing books show Sansa moving more and more towards a realistic sense of seeing people as they are; and Tyrion moves towards acting like a knightly ideal - such as when he vows not to harm Sansa in ACOK and lives up to it, at great cost to himself, in ASOS; charges bravely into battle in ACOK; and treats Shae like his true love rather than a whore through all the books. Of course, like Sansa's earlier beliefs, Tyrion's ideals are quickly smashed by reality in painful ways.

The scenes from their short marriage are incredibly painful, as Sansa is early in her realism phase and can't believe his courtly actions could possibly reflect reality and Tyrion won't move past his earlier courtly promise of no harm to actually claim his "rights" to commence a physically loving relationship ... that actually might have worked out okay for them, as Sansa got to actually interact with the man behind the disability in more than a formal way.

Now, leading into a ADWD, I'm fascinated to see their respective paths. Blinders are off both their eyes, both have experienced loss and heartbreak, but both still believe in honor and justice. Both are highly intelligent and I expect great things from both of them. Also, my favorite personal prediction is that by the end of the series they will be married again in truth, likely as King and Queen of Westeros.

Birgit F
4. birgit
Jaime was too young to temper his understanding of his vows with the kind of pragmatism that Halfhand taught Jaime.

Shouldn't the second Jaime be Jon?
Lurking Canadian
5. sixthlight
Tyrion won't move past his earlier courtly promise of no harm to
actually claim his "rights" to commence a physically loving relationship

Er, yes. If he'd just gone ahead and raped his terrified thirteen-year-old wife, everything would have been totally okay! (You do understand just how creepy your use of the term "physically loving" is here, right?)
Lurking Canadian
6. The Greatjon
I don't think Theon was balancing any kind of vow or affection to the Starks through his taking of Winterfell. I fully believe that if he had found the "real" Bran and Rickon he would have had their piked on Winterfell's walls rather than the poor young farmhands who were put there in their place.

I've always seen Theon's actions as a result of a lack of foresight and an overabundance of reckless, blind ambition; probably stemming from his desire to prove himself as worthy of his name and position as heir to the Iron Islands after spending the majority of his life aslittle more than a well-treated prisoner of House Stark.
Lurking Canadian
7. ducky
I also don't see how Tyrion could have fostered any kind of loving relationship with Sansa. Breaking that promise would have meant rape, because she wanted nothing of him.

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