Let's see. Dragons… check. Magic… check. Ancient gods and talk of prophecies… double-check. Yep, A Clash of Kings is fantasy. But before we dig into this a bit, let's sort out why it's a war drama, too. Not to blow your minds or anything, but the plot is pretty driven by war in this book, so while we spend a whole lot of time off the battlefield, A Clash of Kings is definitely in this genre as well. But now onto fantasy.
We don't suppose it is any surprise for you that Martin's novel falls under fantasy, a genre famed for its use of supernatural or otherworldly elements in constructing its plots and settings. Dragons are usually a good indicator.
But there are other elements of the novel that point to the fantastical, too. For starters, the entire history of the world has been created from scratch and truly impassioned fans could probably write a history textbook on the backstory's rich detail. It is also impossible in our reality for summer or winter to last for ten years during one seasonal cycle, for more than a generation in another, and then less than ten in another. The entire concept ignores this little thing scientists call physics—and throwing science out the window is a classic fantasy move.
If you're looking for a specific classification, A Clash of Kings might be shelved under the subgenres medieval and epic fantasy.
Medieval fantasy takes a medieval setting and blends it with the supernatural trappings of fantasy. Martin based a large part of his world on the Middle Ages, specifically the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses. As such, his society contains the trappings of kings, knights, and chivalry, but places them alongside fantasy motifs like sorceresses and ice zombies.
Epic fantasy is defined as containing "a life and death struggle between good and evil, a large cast of characters, and multiple books." A Clash of Kings definitely has a large cast of characters, and Martin has suggested the series will conclude with seven or eight novels total.
The difficulty with putting the novel squarely in the epic fantasy box is the "struggle between good and evil" part. Few of the characters we've really gotten to know have been entirely good or all evil. Stannis is kind of a jerk, but then again, he does have a point that the Iron Throne is rightfully his; Jaime may have tried to kill Bran, but he did it to protect Cersei, whom he loves. Arguably the Others are pure evil, but since they are still shrouded in mystery, we can't say for certain how that will play out.
The thing about genres, though, is they aren't exclusive clubs that require their members to dress and act exactly alike—they are more like soft guidelines, requiring members to share certain traits but with the flexibility of self-express. As such, we feel we can mark down A Clash of Kings as epic fantasy with little worry. Besides, war's pretty epic in its own right.
When asking "What's up with the title?", we're really asking two questions wrapped into one. We need to think about the novel's title, but there is also the series title to consider. So get ready; we're going to have to pull double-duty for this one:
Early in the novel, Tyrion Lannister comments, "All sorts of people are calling themselves kings these days" (3.Sansa.109). Those people specifically are Joffrey Baratheon, Robb Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, and later on Balon Greyjoy. This might not be a problem except these blokes are all claiming to be the lords over part of, or all of, the Seven Kingdoms, and that's not exactly the best way to get buddy-buddy with fellow sovereigns. (Or so we assume; the only thing we've ever lorded over is the local Pac-Man cabinet.)
As these five kings openly oppose one another, their battles and political maneuverings become known in the Seven Kingdoms as the War of the Five Kings. This war provides the major driving force for the novel's story, themes, and character conflicts, so its title, A Clash of Kings, naturally points toward it as being super important.
We should also point out that it is a clash not the clash of kings. In the series's first book, A Game of Thrones, the title suggested that the story was a singular political game but not the game of thrones. In other words, there would be more games to play regardless of who won or lost.
Similarly, this is simply one clash between kings. The history of Westeros is filled with clashes between monarchs, and it seems unlikely that this clash will put an end to the conflicts of the land. It's simply another rotation in a cycle of war and peace that has been revolving since the birth of the Seven Kingdoms.
Quick aside before moving on: Yes, Daenerys counts herself as queen of the Seven Kingdoms and Mance Rayder calls himself King-Beyond-the-Wall, but we don't count their stories as part of the clash referred to in the title. Their particular conflicts and stories are just too remote at this point and have little bearing on the struggle for the Iron Throne. Sure, that's what sequels are for, but those sequels won't be titled A Clash of Kings either.
In A Clash of Kings, the series title, A Song of Ice and Fire, actually becomes part of the story itself. When Dany enters the House of the Undying, she sees a vision of a man, a woman, and their newborn child. The woman asks the man to write a song for the boy, and the man replies, "He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire" (49.Daenerys.40). Ladies and gentlemen, we have a title drop.
Dany later identifies the man as her dead brother Prince Rhaegar, and Jorah Mormont points out that he had a boy named Aegon, which suggests the woman was Elia Martell of Dorne. Jorah claims that Aegon was killed during the Sack of King's Landing, making any promises of his song being sung unlikely. Plus, Jorah has never heard of any song of ice and fire to boot, and he's a pretty learned dude (64.Daenerys.51-56).
By the novel's end, the song of ice and fire remains wrapped in mystery inside of a riddle stuffed in an enigma. It could be a prophecy, a song, or both, or nothing. Ha.
While its in-story purpose might be revealed in a later novel, we can say for certain that its thematic purpose as a series title is already pretty apparent by now. Consider what George R.R. Martin said about the series title during an interview:
People say I was influenced by Robert Frost's poem, and of course I was, I mean... Fire is love, fire is passion, fire is sexual ardor and all of these things. Ice is betrayal, ice is revenge, ice is… you know, that kind of cold inhumanity and all that stuff is being played out in the books. (Source)
We see all this being played out in the books. In the literal sense, the story contains fire-breathing dragons and the flame-loving Lord of Light countered by the icy Others and the coming of winter. In a more metaphorical sense, Martin's world is full of cold-calculating political maneuvers and fiery bouts of impassioned bloodshed—or as they refer to it in the Seven Kingdoms, the daily grind.
Also, let's pay attention to the fact that it's a song of ice and fire, not a song of ice versus fire. The "and" suggests to us that while these two opposites oppose one another—as opposites tend to do—they also come packaged together and are inseparable. Think of it as a yin-yang type of situation.
Fire and ice both exist together in the world and in the characters inhabiting it. For example, Jon's passion for duty could be his fire, but he keeps confronting the coldness of a reality that doesn't play by the rules, or that shuns him for his illegitimate birth. Tyrion Lannister is a man of serious sexual passions and love for his family, but the betrayals of his sister, father, and others in the court require him to coldly calculate against them. Finally, Catelyn finds herself constantly torn between her fiery love for her family and the cold necessity of her social duty.
As such, finding a balance between their personal fires and ices will be the conflict facing these characters, and may ultimately lead to their successes and failures alike. But we'll have to wait for later books in the series to say more on that.
We can basically sum up the ending of A Clash of Kings in three simple words: to be continued. Martin originally envisioned the A Song of Ice and Fire series as a trilogy, making A Clash of Kings the middle chapter in a longer story. As such, none of the conflicts are resolved, and no characters' personal stories reach their conclusion. Well, except for Renly's because that guy is totally dead.
Let's quickly recount where everybody stands by the end of the novel:
Ultimately, the purpose of all these cliffhangers is to get you to read the third book, A Storm of Swords. Like any good television show, these endings are designed to leave you in suspense, wondering what's going to happen next. It's a huge part of the reason this books series does, in fact, make such a good television show. Its stories were designed like one.
We think we can offer another reason A Clash of Kings resolves none of its many plot threads, though. One of the story's main themes is war, the War of the Five Kings to be specific, and many of the characters hope that by winning the war their problems will be fixed. Catelyn hopes that Robb winning the war will bring her family back together; Tyrion hopes to get some respect and the admiration of those around him; and Theon wants to be recognized by his father and family as a true and proper ironborn.
These are just a couple of examples from the novel of people hoping that by winning their wars everything will break their way. But just look at how these three tales play out: Catelyn's focus on Robb's war results in her losing two more members of her family; Tyrion wins the Battle of the Blackwater but loses his power in the court; and Theon takes Winterfell but comes no closer to receiving his father's love.
And this proves true not just for a couple of characters, but for the Seven Kingdoms as a whole. Consider this quote:
The smallfolk were hiding themselves behind closed shutters and barred doors as if that would keep them safe. The last time King's Landing had fallen, the Lannisters looted and raped as they pleased and put hundreds to the sword, even though the city had opened its gates. This time the Imp meant to fight, and a city that fought could expect no mercy at all. (53.Sansa.21)
For us, the key words here are "[t]he last time." War came to King's Landing in the form of Robert's Rebellion, and that happened recently enough that the people living there now still remember it. In fact, the time between the Sack of King's Landing and the Battle of the Blackwater spanned a mere fifteen years.
While the rebellion might have solved the immediate problem—the Mad King's reign—it clearly did not solve any long-term social or political issues, or you could argue the rebellion did solve them but then created entirely new ones. Either way, had war been a true solution, then King's Landing wouldn't be under attack yet again.
So perhaps the novel is suggesting that conflicts like war really don't solve the problems they set out to, whether personal, societal, or political. In the same way political maneuvering resolves nothing in the first novel, the wars and battles in the second solve nothing either—the problems just keep perpetuating, pushing into the future as new conflicts form in their way. These problems, then, are kind of perpetually to be continued themselves, just like the book's ending.
What's the answer to social discord if not politics or war? We can't say at this point in the series, and it's unlikely the novels will offer any easy answers later. The world is too messy and complicated for a simple, one-word answer like war to be truly effective.
The A Song of Ice and Fire series occurs in a fictional place simply called the Known World. It's called such because the various civilizations haven't yet gotten around to exploring the entire planet, so there might be several unknown islands or even a continent or two chilling just off the edge of the map.
With that said, we still have plenty of setting to consider here. The continent east of the Narrow Sea is called Essos, and we don't know too much about it yet. As of A Clash of Kings, Dany has been the only point-of-view character to spend any time here, so our knowledge of this giant chunk-o-land is limited to the places she's visited and the tidbits she's picked up along the way.
In the west we find the aptly named continent Westeros. Most of the story takes place here since this landmass houses the Seven Kingdoms and the lands beyond the Wall. By the way, the Seven Kingdoms actually consists of nine regions: Dorne, the North, the Reach, the Riverlands, the Stormlands, the Crownlands, the Iron Islands, and the Vale of Arryn.
Since we've already spent a fair amount of bytes discussing Seven Kingdoms and its history in our A Game of Thrones guide, and since its sequel takes place in most of the same locations, we figured, why use up more of the Internet? True, there is plenty of Internet to go around, but instead of discussing the world and its history again, we thought we'd consider how Seven Kingdoms has changed since the first novel.
If you'll recall, the Seven Kingdoms uses a feudalist system of governance, so we'll need to consider how exactly feudalism works first. Please note that this discussion will be entirely in broad strokes as feudalism was wide spread across the European Middle Ages, and it varied depending on country and century.
Atop the feudalist social pyramid is the king, ruler and owner of the kingdom. This head-honcho lends sections of land to various lords (barons, dukes, earls, etc.) to be worked in exchange for taxes and military service when necessary. These lords then divide their land further into fiefs and lend these to vassals, who provide knight service to the lord when necessary. Finally, these vassals have peasants (read: Martin's "smallfolk") work the land to produce crops and other useful materials such as metal ore. Among the peasants are also craftsmen and merchants.
If this is all a little confusing, then you can check out this feudalism flow chart for a visual representation of how land is divided down the social ladder and goods and money flow up it.
We catch a glimpse of how this system plays out in a few of Bran's chapters. As Winterfell's lord, Bran governs the affairs of the North region. He discusses economic strategies and ship building with Wyman Manderly, and how to regulate the harvest with Lady Hornwood (17.Bran)—these people represent the Starks' vassal families. They manage the fiefs, and most have sent knights to fight in Robb's war against the Lannisters. Lady Hornwood's husband, for example, is a knight who dies in the Battle of the Green Fork.
In A Game of Thrones, Martin set up his fictional feudal system, and in A Clash of Kings, we get to see some of the deficiencies within it. To put it simply, civil war just makes everything in life more difficult.
We're sure it's not news to you, but war can be a pretty awful affair, and this is true even in fantasy worlds. As Ser Cleos tells it: "It is bad in the riverlands, Tyion. Around the Gods Eye and along the kingsroad especially. The river lords are burning their own crops to try and starve us, and your father's foragers are torching every village they take and putting the smallfolk to the sword" (21.Tyrion.58). And this is but a taste of the appalling happenings war has brought to Westeros.
In the feudalist system, the vassals are technically supposed to protect the peasants working their fiefs, but most of them have been called to fight in the various armies, leaving few to defend against enemy raids or good-old fashioned banditry.
Even fielding the armies meant to defend the region can harm the smallfolk. Resources must go into building war machines and arming soldiers, and food must go to the knights to keep them in fighting condition. Finally, money is required to pay for it. Armies sure aren't cheap, and maintaining them creates a stopgap in the society's already uneven flow of resources.
Of course, to underfund the army would be inviting defeat, meaning the peasants must suffer or be conquered. Since being conquered means pillage and plunder, what we really mean is the peasants must either suffer or suffer.
And tormented people will do horrible things to survive, as evidenced by, well, all of Arya's story. Her travels on the kingsroad in the first novel were more-or-less safe and comfy. Sure, there was the incident with Joffrey, but we're not counting that because, you know, Joffrey. Watching her travel the same road a second time, though, we get a wildly different picture of the Seven Kingdoms.
She notices starving men and women traveling south for the safety of King's Landing's walls. Many of the travelers are armed with makeshift weapons, and they give "lingering looks at the wagons" (6.Arya.3), deciding whether or not to ambush Yoren's party. Farther along, Arya spies a roadside grave dug for a child—and then "a day hardly pass[es] without one" (6.Arya.7). And let's not forget Ser Amory burning the village despite Yoren's claims of the group's neutrality (15.Arya.69).
Through Arya's story, we get firsthand experience of how the war has broken down the social structure and how this harms the majority of the Seven Kingdoms's populace.
Not that things are much better at King's Landing. Consider what Tyrion observes when he first returns to the city:
The streets of King's Landing had always been teeming and raucous and noisy, but now they reeked of danger in a way that he did not recall from past visits. A naked corpse sprawled in the gutter near the Street of Looms, being torn at by a pack of feral dogs, yet no one seemed to care. Watchmen were much in evidence, moving in pairs through the alleys in their gold cloaks and shirts of black ringmail, iron cudgels never far from their hands. The markets were crowded with ragged men selling their household goods for any price they could get… and conspicuously empty of farmers selling food. What little produce he did see was three times as costly as it had been a year ago. One peddler was hawking rats roasted on a skewer. (4.Tyrion.117)
Talk about painting a word picture—a grimy, nasty, wholly revolting word picture. But this is a key passage in understanding just how disruptive war has been for the Seven Kingdoms. The guards are present but just as scared of the common people as they are of them. Food is in short supply and inflation is rampant. And roasted rat… need we say any more? King's Landing hasn't even been attacked yet, and already the system cannot handle the strain of supporting both itself and a civil war.
Not that the lords aren't doing their job… most of them anyway. Cersei and Joffrey could care less about the smallfolk's hardships, but Tyrion certainly gives being a decent lord the old college try:
He had done all he could to feed the hungry city—he'd set several hundred carpenters to building fishing boats in place of catapults, opened the kingswood to any hunter who dared to cross the river, even sent goldcloaks foraging to the west and south. (16.Tyrion.71)
The problem is not with Tyrion's efforts but with feudalism itself. It just doesn't really work. Unfortunately, though, by the novel's end, there is no relief in sight. The war continues, and only another novel or two in the series will tell if these problems are alleviated in Westeros.
As Dany continues her journey across Essos, she comes to the city of Qarth, and her story parks it there for the rest of the novel. Qarth and its people draw inspiration from the famed Middle Eastern and Asian trading cities of the Middle Ages in much the same way the Dothraki were based on the ancient Mongolians.
After trudging through the Red Waste, Dany and her people make it to Qarth, a city Pyat Pree calls "the greatest city that ever was or ever will be" (28.Daenerys.2). Excellent marketing aside, Dany's more nuanced take of the city goes a little something like this:
Qarth was one of the world's great ports, its great sheltered harbor a riot of color and clangor and strange smells. […] The waterfront was one great marketplace where the buying and selling went on all day and all night, and goods might be had for a fraction of what they cost at the bazaar, if a man did not ask where they came from. (64.Daenerys.59)
The city itself is surrounded by three walls, and the sea sits on its fourth side. This reminds us a lot of Constantinople, a major trading port of the Middle Ages. Well, today the city is called Istanbul, but back in the day it was Constantinople. Why did Constantinople get the works? Not our business.
Anyway, like Qarth, Constantinople had famous walls protecting it (source). Like the Qartheens, the Byzantines grew rich thanks to their city's location as a major trading route. In fact, Constantinople was considered for several centuries "the greatest trading port in the Christian world" as "furs, honey and wax, brought from the North by Russian merchants, were exchanged for spices, drugs, and precious stones from the Orient" passing through the city's ports (source). Constantinople for the win.
We should note, though, that Martin didn't just copy-and-paste Constantinople into his world, rename it Qarth, and call it a day. Several different Middle Eastern and Asian influences went into crafting the city. For example, Qarth's many colored buildings and walls decorated with animals and scenes of war feel inspired by Babylonian architecture, especially the famed Walls of Babylon, one of the ancient world's Seven Wonders. Also, the carvings that depict "men and women giving pleasure to one another" (28.Daenerys.3) were definitely inspired by the erotic sculptures at the temples at Khajuraho.
Ultimately, the importance of trade and money in Qarth are at odds with Dany and her goal of acquiring the ships necessary to invade the Seven Kingdoms. Without money of her own, Dany must decide what she is willing to trade: her principles, her pride, or perhaps her dragons? We'll leave this a spoiler free zone, but if you're curious how Dany's story turns out, swing over to her page in the "Characters" section.
On a side note, Qarth is ruled by a group, and their shared authority is not as absolute as that of the King of Seven Kingdoms. As Dany notes:
The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn. (41.Daenerys.18)
In Qarth more than elsewhere, we're witnessing the beginnings of the bourgeois class in this world. The guilds represent tradesmen who have carved out a class of power and respect in the social structure, one originating not from birth but from economic gains. In our history, the rise of the bourgeoisie resulted in the decline of feudalism, as well as social, economic, and political changes that would eventually lead to the development of Western capitalism (source).
By the end of A Clash of Kings, we can't be certain this will happen in Martin's world or that we'll see this social trend move beyond Qarth. What we can say, though, is that it'll be interesting to see what becomes of Qarth in future entries of the series.
Jon spends a little time at Castle Black, but it's not long before he's off with Jorah Mormont for the Great Ranging. The lands beyond the Wall are a mysterious place, and we can't say much as Jon is just learning about them himself.
The lands seem to be inspired by northern Scandinavia. Like the European peninsula, they are close to the world's pole and filled with forests, harsh weather, and mountainous regions. Consider this passage where Jon describes Skirling Pass:
[It] was really a series of passes, a long twisting course that went up around a succession of icy wind-carved peaks and down through hidden valleys that seldom saw the sun. (52.Jon.17)
Google a picture of Galdhøpiggen, the highest mountain in Scandinavia, and you can easily see the influence.
The lands beyond the Wall feel like a place untouched by time, where wilderness still contends with mankind and magic might exist in the darkness. The forests are thick, a "vast tangle of root and limb painted in a thousand shades of green, with here and there a patch of red where a weirwood shouldered through the pines and sentinels" (35.Jon.18). Here, the wilderness is untamed, and the presence of the weirwood shows they have changed little since the days before the Seven Kingdoms. This makes Jon wonder whether the ghosts and spirits of the First Men really do haunt the forest still (35.Jon.16).
Then there are the people who live in that land: the wildlings. In Westeros, wildlings are viewed as barbarians, savages who kill mercilessly and with little reason. But the truth turns out to be a little more nuanced. As Jon thinks when he meets Craster, his first wildling:
[He] remembered Old Nan's tales of the savage folk who drank blood from human skulls. Craster seemed to be drinking a thin yellow beer from a chipped stone cup. Perhaps he had not heard the stories. (24.Jon.40)
Clearly the stories have been exaggerated, and what Jon finds are people, just like everybody else—these just happen to be his enemy.
When Jon meets Ygritte, we get further hints at how different yet similar the wildlings are. They refer to themselves as the free folk, there are hints at a complex society of hunter-gatherers, and they have their own legends of heroes, such as Bael the Bard (52.Jon.89).
By the novel's end, Jon joins their ranks as a double agent, so we'll no doubt learn more about the wildlings and the lands they call home in the next novel, A Storm of Swords. But that's a discussion for another day.
Despite being set in the fictional lands of Westeros and Essos, A Clash of Kings is noticeably lacking in the thous and forsooths that make old-school poetry such a pain for contemporary readers.
Martin's descriptions are easy to follow, and his characters speak in a way that somehow feels like they belong in a medieval play and modern-day political drama simultaneously. You may have to look up words like portcullis or gorget since you likely don't have either lying around your house. But, hey, that's what dictionaries are for.
The difficulty here is trying to remember who everybody is. Sometimes you can feel like Costello in the famous Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on First," only instead of fielding a baseball team with players sporting crazy names, Martin is populating an entire world with people that have some really crazy names. Looking at you, Xaro Xhoan Daxos.
Thankfully, the Internet is full of fan sites that can help you keep track of the whos, whats, and I don't knows of Martin's world. With a helpful tour guide a mere Google search away, even the most timid readers of contemporary fantasy will find a trek through Martin's world pretty easy-going.
Making a triumphant return from A Game of Thrones, sigils and banners continue to serve as symbols in A Clash of Kings. As in our previous discussion, we should point out that these symbols aren't symbols in the way we traditionally think of them—like, say, an ever-ticking clock might represent the passage of time. Instead, sigils and banners serve more to identify the personalities of the characters that claim them.
Sigils and banners are part of a medieval tradition known as heraldry. Heraldry probably began when medieval knights started painting designs on their shields and armor to help allies recognize each other. Since they needed to be recognized from a distance greater than the reach of a broadsword, their designs were large and featured contrasting colors (source). Over time these signs developed standardized rules, almost like a language, that became known as blazonry (source).
While these blazons are sometimes called coats of arms, Martin has chosen to go with the word sigil, which means "seal or signet," which can be loosely understood as a kind of signature or mark.
Banners were the flags that carried the heraldic image into battle. Sometimes they would be affixed to trumpets or spears, and the size of a banner told you how important the bearer was. Head honchos like kings and princes sported boss-sized banners; barons tended to employ much smaller ones (source). The reason for these banners is to keep track of who's who on a chaotic battlefield—no knight wanted to take an arrow in the back during a fight and hear an ally loudly proclaim behind him, "My bad!"
And these sigils and banners serve the same for the reader as they did the knight back in ye olde days.
Sigils can tell us a lot about characters before we really get to know them, and other times they can remind us who a character is if it's been a while since we last saw him or her.
Since we've already gone over the Starks and Lannisters before, we won't say much about their sigils here. The Starks are still wolves with a family/pack mentality even though the pack is officially scattered, and likewise, the Lannisters remain lions with a strong, alpha-male at the head of the pride (a.k.a. Tywin Lannister).
Rather than retread the last book's sigils, then, let us take a look at some of the sigils introduced in this book.
Ser Davos Seaworth's sigil is the first we're introduced to, and he's rocking a "black ship on a pale grey field—with an onion on its sails" (1.Prologue.74). The use of an onion is notable because, as you might have noticed, most families go with animals, such as foxes or dragons, or objects such as the sun or flowers. The onion clues us in that Davos is a—and we're pretty sure this pun is intended—down to earth kind of fellow.
He's not one for pageantry or standing on social mores. He's about serving a purpose and serving that purpose well, and we see this in his interactions with Stannis throughout the story, as well as in his approach to warfare during the Battle of the Blackwater.
Now consider the Boltons. We saw their sigil of a flayed man in the previous novel, but we weren't really introduced to them then. This northern clan remains wrapped in mystery still, but we've seen enough of their actions to understand that this sigil has been earned for some serious cruelty.
Lord Roose Bolton is as cruel as he is calculating. He kills or tortures any man or woman whom served the Lannisters during Twyin's occupancy of Harrenhal, even if it was simply their job to do so (65.Arya.4). Bolton's message to the survivors is clear: I own you now. When Reek claims, "Lord Bolton, he used to say a naked man has few secrets, but a flayed man's got none" (51.Theon.47), one suspects that this isn't just a saying of Lord Bolton's, but instead that he very likely has done the research to prove it.
Ramsay Snow, Roose's illegitimate son, might be even worse. He forces poor Lady Hornwood to marry him so he can inherit her lands, and then he starves her to death in a tower. When Rodrik finally frees her, she is dead, her mouth bloody, her fingers eaten to sate her hunger (36.Bran.63). Only time will tell what Ramsay does with Theon under his power.
Finally, let's look at Stannis. Stannis's sigil begins as the crowned stag of House Baratheon, but halfway through the novel, he changes it. His new standard is a "sun-yellow banner show[ing] a red heart surrounded by a blaze of orange fire. The crowned stag was there, yes… shrunken and enclosed within the heart" (32.Catelyn.13). Pardon another pun, but this new sigil shows Stannis's change of heart.
See, at the novel's beginning, Stannis claims the throne as a Baratheon and Robert's true heir. But then he realizes that the legacy of House Baratheon has always overshadowed him for his more popular brothers, so he decides to cast his lot with the Lord of Light, symbolized by the heart (11.Davos.126). Since Stannis is still a Baratheon by blood, he keeps the stag present but super small, demonstrating where he feels his true power lies.
Of course, there are too many sigils for us to go over them all, but you'll find they speak volumes about the people they represent. Seriously: It works for just about every character that has one.
For example, the Greyjoys have a Kraken in theirs, a mythical beast of strength and fear. Considering Balon's unreasonable plans to conquer a kingdom in the north, we imagine his view of his house's prowess is equally mythical. And the Hound's sigil of three dogs matches perfectly with his dog-eat-dog outlook of the world. Look at that, another pun.
On second thought, maybe the sigils represent George R.R. Martin's love of the pun.
With so many people professing themselves king of this or lord of that, you can bet some crowns will be popping up here and there. And guess what? You are right. Every crown worn by the vying rulers of the Seven Kingdoms is detailed at some point, so it's a safe bet that we're meant to pay attention to this fancy headwear imagery.
And what's a crown without a throne to sit upon? Ah, but there is only one throne in the Seven Kingdoms, and that's the Iron Throne.
The key to unlocking the symbol of crowns is provided by our dear Tyrion. As he proposes to Cersei, "Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them" (4.Tyrion.61). In this case, queer means "unusual or odd" and not some of its more modern definitions. Unfortunately, "things" is a bit vague, so Tyrion doesn't quite provide us the full answer. And if we can't copy off his paper, well, we suppose we'll have to find the answer for ourselves.
To do that, let's consider the various crowns and those who sport them:
As you might have noticed, each crown is shaped to represent the personality of the one who wears it.
Renly's crown is made of "soft gold" and adorned with roses. Similarly, Renly is a soft man by Westeros standards. Cressen remembers him as a boy enjoying "bright colors and rich fabrics" (1.Prologue.68), and as a man, Renly remains a dapper fellow who has never seen actual combat. He still enjoys color, as evidenced by his Rainbow Guard, and also festivity. For crying out loud, he's on his way to his first war but brings the party with him, complete with tournaments and feasts. Clearly, Renly is not the warrior type, and his crown shows us as much.
Alternatively, his brother Stannis feels society has often cheated him from what is his by right. When the lords sworn to him do not back his claim to the Iron Throne, it is the last slight he will tolerate. As he tells Catelyn, "The Iron Throne is mine by rights. All those who deny that are my foes" (32.Catelyn.41). This anger is represented by the flames of his crown.
Looking at these two, it doesn't seem as though crowns actually changed these characters' personalities in any way, so what are these "queer things" Tyrion is talking about? We'd argue that while crowns did not change their personalities, they do magnify them.
Consider Theon: When we met him in A Game of Thrones, he was a jerk to be sure, but once he claims his crown, we see Theon's more despicable character traits enhance. He murders the miller's two boys, beats his bedwarmer Kyra, and then uses Rodrik's daughter, Beth, as a hostage.
Then there's the poster child of magnified personalities: Joffrey. In A Game of Thrones, Joffrey was always cruel, but he did what his mother told him to at least. Once he put on that crown, he went from cruel to complete sociopath, executing Eddard Stark despite his mother's instructions to let him "take the black" (4.Tyrion.62). Joffrey becomes Joffrey in spades once he dons his headgear.
In A Clash of Kings, Joffrey continues dominating in the Most Hated Character in Westeros contest—and when you consider the challengers, that's practically an accomplishment. He tortures Sansa endlessly, using his Kingsguard to beat her on several occasions, and at one point, he brags about firing a crossbow into a crowd of starving citizens and killing a man (33.Sansa.20). The citizens' crimes? Requesting bread.
But crowns don't just make horrible kings. Robb's crown contains longswords to symbolize his growing strength as a warrior. While we see him very little in the novel, we hear often how his warrior prowess is growing exponentially, leading him to several victories against the Lannisters.
So, in A Clash of Kings, crowns don't make the king. The king makes the crown.
Onto the Iron Throne. This most uncomfortable of seats was forged by Aegon the Conqueror after he subdued the Seven Kingdoms. He had his dragon, Balerion the Black Dread, melt the swords surrendered by his enemies into the shape of a throne (source). The end result is "a tangle of nasty barbs and jagged metal teeth waiting for any fool who tried to sit too comfortably" (26.Tyrion.33). So cozy.
In A Clash of Kings, the throne symbolizes the relationship of war and power in the Seven Kingdoms. Aegon earned his power—his right to rule—by way of combat, and anyone who wishes to own that power must war for it. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, but it is only through Tywin's war that he keeps his kingly butt planted there. Similarly, Renly and Stannis want to claim the Iron Throne, but they must first win it through battle and bloodshed.
Note that the Iron Throne grants political power, but it's not a very comfortable power. Barbs and jagged metal teeth do not sound very relaxing to us, and late in the novel, Joffrey cuts his arm on it. As Sansa wonders how badly he injured himself, she remembers, "They say the Iron Throne can be perilous cruel to those who were not meant to sit it" (66.Sansa.50). Careful there, Sansa—Joffrey might hear you.
In short, in Westeros, it seems that power earned in violence can only be maintained with violence.
Thanks to a lack of Internet and light pollution, ancient cultures did a whole lot more stargazing than we do these days, so they discovered a lot about the patterns of the heavens, namely that they moved in a reassuringly constant way. But every now and then, a comet would appear and wreck the whole reassuring aspect.
The red comet was first spied by Jhogo in A Game of Thrones, but it is featured much more prominently in A Clash of Kings. Every character has now witnessed it streaking through the sky, and its interference in the pattern of the stars has led everyone to believe the times they are a changing.
But before we consider how the characters interpret the red comet's meaning for their world, we should look at how ancient people viewed comets in general to help get us in that medieval mindset.
Today we know comets are icy remnants of the Solar System's birth that continue orbiting the Sun and occasionally swing by Earth's neighborhood for a quick hello before launching into deeper space (source). Here's the thing though: We didn't confirm that Halley's Comet was a regularly scheduled event until 1758, so it was believed a comet's appearance was a totally random event until then.
Even today, we discover new comets all the time, and sometimes comets are lost to us as they burn up in the Sun's immense heat. As such, these objects are still full of surprises and new details for scientists to learn about.
Our ancient and medieval ancestors were still gathering the knowledge we've built upon, so the appearance of a comet in the sky was always a complete surprise for them, one that remixed their worldview to the beat of an R.E.M. song.
They believed that comets were messages from the gods, and since their arrival was so unpredictable, the ancients assumed it had to be a pretty important message. Some saw the tail of the comet as a sword blade and prophesied it signaled war; others saw a woman's head with long flowing hair, symbolizing the gods' sorrow and displeasure with them (source).
As you can imagine, doomsday scenarios such as floods, earthquakes, and all manner of plagues were popular prophecies, making comets the twenty-four-hour news of the medieval world. Since diseases and natural phenomenon were equally mysterious at the time, and war and struggle were constants in life, these doomsday scenarios generally played out as prophesied.
Of course, that's like prophesying that the sun will rise in the east or that someone will be unhappy with election results—it's pretty much a given. On the other hand, no one could say the prophecy was wrong either.
The Seven Kingdoms is more medieval than modern, so you can expect the characters to have a more medieval approach to the red comet. They believe the gods are trying to tell them something and, since texting hasn't been invented yet, sent a solar-sized emoticon to get the message across.
Cressen has seen comets before, but he notes that he has "never seen a comet half so bright, nor yet that color, that terrible color, the color of blood and flame and sunsets" (1.Prologue.3). Everybody who observes the comet will see the same one, but as with most prophecies, the information one receives really depends on the prophet and not the sign itself.
As such, there are a variety of interpretations in the novel about what the gods are trying to tell the world or, for that matter, which gods are doing the speaking. Here are a few of the interpretations:
In many ways, the comet is less a symbol and more an analysis on the act of interpretation itself. The various interpretations of the comet tell us more about the character making the interpretation than any meaning we can derive from the comet itself. It's just like how our ancient ancestors' interpretations of comets tell us more about their culture and lifestyles than the true nature of comets.
Having just lost Khal Drogo and her family, Dany feels lost in the world, so she identifies the comet as a signpost sent from the gods to tell her how to proceed. Likewise, Gendry longs to return to the blacksmith forge and Arya misses her father terribly, hence the unique swords they see in the comet. Greatjon was one of Ned's bros, so he would naturally want to seek revenge for his death. And finally, Theon is a greedy lad who has a habit of claiming things that don't belong to him, castles and comets alike.
It's interesting to note that all of these interpretations, as varied as they are, turn out to be true. Varys and Osha's predictions that it means blood and fire come true in King's Landing, Winterfell, and basically everywhere in Westeros. Although the war is far from over, Edmure does win victories in the Riverlands, and Ser Arys is correct as Joffrey does receive glory in the Battle of Blackwater. Granted, he doesn't earn it, but that's another matter.
It's as though the novel is saying that all acts of interpreting are true—at least for the people making them. For those of us listening, interpretations point to the various truths held by other people.
Then again, maybe that's just our interpretation….
Magic is basically a natural law in the worlds of fantasy, much like gravity or thermodynamics. Instead of scientists, these worlds are populated with old guys sporting white beards, pointy hats, and a penchant for fast-pitching fireballs, assuming they can pass their ability check with a d20 of course.
What makes A Song of Ice and Fire so refreshing is that there are no traditional wizards, and magic is not handled in the traditional fantasy way either. There are old guys in robes called maesters, but they act more like old-timey scientists and doctors than magicians. And while magic is present and accounted for, it's a very elusive phenomenon believed by many to be either tale or ancient history.
If we had to summarize magic's symbolism in a sentence, we'd say magic represents the supernatural in A Clash of Kings. We know that's not a mind-blowing statement, but when you consider how Martin handles the material, especially given its typical use as a fantasy trope, then that statement becomes a little more nuanced. For example, there are several instances of magic in A Clash of Kings, but many of these contain hints that they are simply tricks or illusions.
When Stannis grasps Lightbringer from the burning effigy of the Mother, he supposedly has drawn a magical sword sent to him by his god to defeat their enemies—and yet his glove begins "to smolder" and he quickly "thrust[s] the point of the sword into the damp earth and beat[s] out the flames against his leg" (11.Davos.21). Hardly the image of might and majesty one would expect from a god granting his power to a mortal, right? Feels more like a stage performance gone wrong.
And in case the reader has any lingering doubts that the sword might be the read deal, Salladhor Saan tells Davos that the sword is certainly not Lightbringer. He argues it is merely a "burnt sword" (11.Davos.65), since true magic comes at a far greater price.
Varys's history suggests another instance of maybe magic, this one a bit trickier. After being sold to a mysterious man, Varys was castrated as part of a Blood Magic ritual. The man burned Varys's, um, manhood in the fireplace, and Varys heard a voice emanating from the flames. As he tells Tyrion, "Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer's trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks" (45.Tyrion.128). The eunuch admits he had been drugged and was in pain, but the voice still haunts him—Varys cannot be sure of the reality of his experience, and neither can we.
Finally, there are characters who flat-out do not believe in magic, such as Maester Luwin. Sharing his opinion on the subject, Luwin tells Bran:
"Perhaps magic was once a mighty force in the world, but no longer. What little remains is no more than the wisp of smoke that lingers in the air after a great fire has burned out, and even that is fading. Valyria was the last ember, and Valyria is gone. The dragons are no more, the giants are dead, the children of the forest forgotten with all their lore." (29.Bran.107)
Despite living in a fantasy novel—okay, to be fair, he isn't aware he lives in a fantasy novel—Luwin considers the word magic to be a "want for a better word" for a "different sort of knowledge" (29.Bran.95). This knowledge, whatever it was, is mysterious only because it is lost in history, vanishing from the world when the children and dragons died out.
We don't think it's a stretch to say that, from Luwin's viewpoint, magic would be just like any other knowledge had it stuck around. In other words, it could be studied, catalogued, and then filed away under Not Really That Mysterious After All.
In many ways, this adds a sense of reality to the fantasy. Even in the 21st century, debates occur between people who claim only natural laws govern universe and those who believe supernatural forces influence our world and humanity's path in history—consider this debate between Bill Nye and David Ham on the subject of evolution and creationism as a contemporary example. Many of these debates center on the same themes as Luwin's speech above—that is, knowledge from the past and its value, as compared to the knowledge of the present.
Likewise, modern people often claim to have paranormal experiences, from UFO abductions to encounters with angels, haunted houses to near-death visits to heaven. Others argue these encounters have purely physical explanations, like neurology, or can be explained as good old-fashioned trickery. As you might have noticed, Varys's story is basically a paranormal experience with Tyrion playing the skeptic.
So we end up with a reading experience in which we can't be certain whether magic is real or imaginary, natural or supernatural. And in many ways, the book reads more like a discussion about the supernatural, rather than just assuming magic is a given simply because the book is of the fantasy genre.
In A Clash of Kings, magic seems to be making a comeback, topping the Westeros charts as a number one hit—only this hit is of the assassination variety.
The shadow assassins Melisandre births to kill Renly and Ser Penrose certainly seem supernatural, although we can't say much about them other than they get the job done. Likewise, Bran's skinchanging abilities are also magical, and we learn from Jon's adventures beyond the Wall that certain wildlings, called wargs, have had this power for quite some time now.
The source and extent of magic's return is hidden by the novel's end, but there are hints connecting it with the return of another fantasy trope: dragons. While discussing the creation of wildfire, Hallyne notes to Tyrion that the production of wildfire was sped up thanks to certain spells becoming more effective. He remembers a time when another pyromancer told him that magic "began to go out of the world the day the last dragon died" (50.Tyrion.56). Dragons have certainly returned to the world; does this mean magic will, too?
We bring this up to point out that magic's symbolic nature might change in later books of the series as we receive more information about it. A Game of Thrones has next to no discussion on magic, but A Clash of Kings has significantly more. A Storm of Swords could provide answers for this mysterious phenomenon or leave us with more questions—only time and further reading will tell what kind of symbolic role magic will play in the series A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole.
The imagery of seasons plays a prominent symbolic role in A Clash of Kings. In the Seven Kingdoms, summer is equal to love, gentleness, bounty, and life, while winter amounts to hate, harshness, famine, and death. That's not much different than the symbolic roles these seasons play in countless other novels, plays, and poems.
The only real difference is that a Westeros winter or summer could last ten years. There are hints in the novel of winters that lasted an entire generation. Even given the ridiculous death rate of people in Westeros, that's got to be like, what—forty years? So the seasons may represent the typical fare, but for the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the magnitude of the symbolism is much greater. The seasons are big, and so, too, what they represent.
For example, during Renly's feast, Catelyn thinks to herself, "Winter comes for all of us. […] For me it came when Ned died. It will come for you too, [Brienne], and sooner than you like" (23.Catelyn.109). Here, she doesn't mean that an unpleasant time will come for Brienne, but it'll be over soon, say, three months from now—she means that a truly horrible time will come for Brienne, something so bad that it will either kill her or devastate her world possibly for the rest of her life. Winter's no joke in Westeros.
Similarly, Brienne proclaims, "Winter will never come for the likes of us. Should we die in battle, they will surely sing of us, and it's always summer in the songs. In the songs all knights are gallant, all maids are beautiful, and the sun is always shining" (23.Catelyn.108). Summer is associated with all things good and wonderful: gallant gentlemen, beautiful women, and sunshiny days. Brienne's description of the songs almost sounds like a heavenly afterlife, and this correlation between heavenly imagery and summer shows just how important this season is for the Seven Kingdoms.
Also consider that their technology is stuck in the Middle Ages. This means that winter is a more dangerous time for them. So rather than worrying over a spike in the power bill because their apartments run on baseboard heating, these people need to worry about not starving to death because they didn't save enough crops to last a decade, or can't hunt down enough deer.
So when Bran proclaims to Jojen and Meera, "May your winters be short and your summers bountiful" (22.Bran.37), that's basically the nicest thing you can say to someone from Westeros.
Dream imagery appears often in A Clash of Kings; in fact, Bran's story is approximately eighty-seven percent him dreaming. Thankfully, his dreams are a little more interesting than ours, or a big chunk of this book would be characters going to school and realizing they're only wearing their underwear.
Deconstructing dreams in A Clash of Kings is a difficult prospect, though, since there are different types of dreams. On the one hand, we have the vanilla type of dream—that is, dreams that represent a character's deepest desires. When Catelyn dreams "that Bran was whole again, that Arya and Sansa held hands, that Rickon was still a babe [and that] Robb, crownless played with a wooden sword" (23.Catelyn.1), we get an insider's view of Catelyn's ambition, at what motivates her to act as she does and despair when this scenario becomes less and less likely.
On the other hand, we have types of dreams that are more difficult to analyze. First there are the dreams that have a physical affect on the world, such as Bran's wolf dreams. When Bran sleeps, he enters the body and mind of his direwolf, Summer. During these midnight excursions, Bran thinks "[p]art of him knew it was only a dream, but even the dream of walking was better than the truth of his bedchamber, walls and ceiling and door" (5.Bran.81). These dreams reveal desire, because Bran wants more than anything to walk again.
But instead of staying in the realm of desire, unlike Catelyn's dream above, Bran actually walks in these dreams, and his actions actually have consequences in the world. If Bran kills a man in his wolf dream, that guy is dead. If Bran doesn't wake from his wolf dream for days, his body suffers the consequences of not eating or moving.
Next up there are dreams that foretell the future. Jojen is the main player here with his green dreams. Green dreams prophesiy the future, but in typical oracle fashion, they only do so with enigmatic imagery. As Jojen exclaims, "The green dreams take strange shapes sometimes. […] The truth of them is not always easy to understand" (36.Bran.28). Dany has similar dreams in the House of the Undying, seeing images such as a "feast of corpses" and a "blue flower [that] grew from a chink in a wall of ice" (49.Daenerys.34, 76). Again we're left to decipher.
And to be honest, it's hard to peg down an interpretation for these types of dreams. Perhaps they represent the effect dreams have on reality—in other words, before something can change in the real world, someone has to dream it first.
But if this is the case, then do Jojen's dreams change the world, or do changes in the world alter his dreams? Bran's wish to walk seems to be the catalyst that allows him to skin change with Summer, but Jon might have the same latent abilities. So are their dreams symbolic? Or are they merely plot devices?
Ultimately, by the end of A Clash of Kings, the symbolic and narrative importance of dreams hasn't been fully fleshed out, so we'll have to read the other books to see how important they prove. But the imagery is definitely present, so keep a look out of dreams as you further explore A Song of Ice and Fire.
To write A Clash of Kings, Martin continues to use the third-person limited omniscient technique from the first novel. Fair enough, but now let's break down what this means.
Those in the literature biz call the technique third-person because the narrator telling us the story isn't a part of the story. Rather, he's got a bird's-eye view of the action and looks over everybody's shoulder like a creeper in order to tell the reader what's going on. Consider this sample:
He had a moment to think how pretty it was before Ser Mandon blocked out the view. The knight was a white steel shadow, his eyes shining darkly behind his helm. Tyrion had no more strength than a rag doll. Ser Mandon put the point of his sword to the hollow of his throat and curled both hands around the hilt. (62.Tyrion.31)
Every image and detail is from Tyrion's perspective, but Tyrion is not the one relaying the information. If he was, then the above passage would read something like, "I had no more strength than a rag doll" (we would call this first-person). Instead, some other narrator is looking in on Tyrion's story, his perspective, and his thoughts and then telling us the story through him.
We know; it's kind of weird to suggest that anything in a thousand-page book is limited, but it's true. The narrative technique is limited omniscient but not because it is restricted to a single character. Martin employs ten—count'em, ten—different point-of-view narrators in A Clash of Kings, but we call it limited omniscient because each chapter focuses on a single narrative perspective.
In an Arya chapter, the narrator views the story from Arya's point of view only—we never jump into Gendry or Hot Pie's perspectives, for example. This said, it's still an omniscient narrator because we are given Arya's thoughts and feelings in addition to her actions.
The advantage to this narrative perspective is that it provides the story with both a worldly and personal scope all at the same. By having characters spread across the world, Martin can tell his epic story from multiple locations and show how events in King's Landing affect the people in Winterfell, hundreds of miles away. Even in the age of planes, trains, and automobiles, a single person could never cover that much ground.
On the other hand, limiting each chapter to the thoughts, emotions, and actions of a specific character keeps the story grounded. Great scope can sometimes lead a story to sound like a series of details, disconnected from the human element. By focusing in on individual characters, we see the small consequences of the great battles and world-altering events. In other words, it helps us care.
Here's the breakdown of point-of-view characters and how many chapters they narrate:
As you can see, there are more non-Stark characters in the lineup than in A Game of Thrones, though the Winterfell warriors still dominate the proceedings with half of the spots. But Tyrion Lannister takes home the MVN (most valuable narrator) with a whopping fifteen chapters, while Cressen takes home the dubious Prologue Narrator recognition. Finally, note that none of the so-called kings appear in this lineup.
Here are a couple questions we've been pondering that we thought we'd pass on to you: Why do you think Martin continues to favor the Stark perspective? Why does Tyrion receive so many more chapters than any other character? Are there any characters you really wish would have gotten a point-of-view chapter? Finally, what's Martin's deal with killing off the prologue narrators? Seriously, did a prologue narrator steal his goldfish or something?