[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 Westeros.org 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. Westeros.org 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.