Symbols in Game of Thrones


Robb and Bran with their newly found direwolf pups. Image: © HBO linked via Wikia.

In many ways, Game of Thrones is written like a traditional literary novel. It has symbols, themes, and foreshadowing – all of which it employs to create a richer story. In this part of last Sunday’s interview, I talk about the symbols I’ve noticed in the books. I’m sure there are probably a lot I’ve missed, so I’d be very interested in hearing what you think.

6. What analysis have you come across reading the books?

Literary analysis? Very little. I have seen some pop culture analysis about the book’s historical background. I found one superb article on “Den of the Geek” (?) maybe. But, the articles I’ve read  sometimes miss the bigger picture. I think they assume that fictionalized history would closely follow the subject’s life and so when it doesn’t match up exactly, they assume there is no or limited historical basis.

7. What symbolism or deeper meanings have you found throughout the books?

George RR Martin does use traditional literary devices, such as theme, symbolism, and foreshadowing.

George RR Martin uses symbolic images to summarize and foreshadow storylines when he first introduces them. For example, at the beginning of the story, shortly after we meet the Stark children, they find a dead direwolf and her orphaned pups. The mother direwolf died after being impaled on a stag’s antler. The direwolf, of course, is the symbol of House Stark and the stag is the symbol of House Baratheon.

Likewise, the names of the direwolves hint at the fate or role of the Stark children. Bran, who may be the one to stop the White Walkers, has a direwolf named “Summer.”

A more dramatic example might be Sansa’s direwolf. When Joffrey and his mother arrange for Lady’s death, it foreshadows that they will kill off Sansa’s dream to be a great lady or a queen. (Admittedly, Sansa will also have to self-mortify this side of her personality to survive.)

When Arya’s direwolf, Nymeria, is missing or lost, it represents Arya’s place on her own path. To a certain extent, Arya has metaphorically lost her way as she succumbs to her darker urges to exact revenge upon those who hurt her family.


Ned Stark looks over the dead mother of the direwolf pups. Foreshadowing the family’s fate? © HBO linked via Wikia.

Other symbols include the ravens, which relate to the Dark Age magic, and undoubtedly quite a few others.

The symbols do not, however, stack up to an allegorical story within a story. There are deeper meanings, but the story is the main event (vs. an allegory where the sub-story is the more powerful tale.) (Incidentally, Tolkien is one of GRRM’s influences and Tolkien was adamant his books weren’t allegorical.)

In my opinion, the dominant deeper meaning of the books is that war is futile. Fighting so one man, like a king or lord, can become more powerful is a travesty. See this blog post

8. Do you think the series deserves the cult following it has?
Yes, I do definitely for both the TV series and the book series. I think even people who don’t like medieval history or epic fantasy respond to it because the characters are so compelling.

We care about the fate of those characters. In fact, we care so much that there was a public outcry when Ned died in Season 1. In Season 3, the public and media couldn’t stop expressing their horror about the Red Wedding for nearly two weeks.

To be honest, I haven’t heard of such a strong reaction to a TV event since when JR Ewing got shot on Dallas back in the 1980s. George RR Martin wants to keeps us on the edge of our seats because we know every character can be in jeopardy.


A scene from the visually stunning and staggeringly authentic HBO’s Rome. If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to watch it with the DVD extras turned on to see the pop-up history facts. Image: © HBO.

Except for perhaps, HBO’s magnificent Rome there have been very few historic-type television series that rival Game of Thrones set design and production quality. HBO has spent millions to bring the intricate worlds in the novels to life and, I’d argue, fueled the recent bumper crop of historic drama TV shows.

In terms of the TV show, it helps that Game of Thrones has something for everyone. Entire families, albeit not one with young kids, can watch it because there is a storyline that appeals to everyone. A male friend of mine jokes he likes it because of the sex and violence. Many women respond to the strong female characters. Men like the combat and military setting. There’s history, mystery, drama, etc. This means GoT is a show that family or friends can make a “date” to watch together, which means more people watch it. Yet it is complex enough that people can debate its meaning.



Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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