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.
Old-School Business Cards
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.
Going Medieval on You
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.
Sigils, Sigils Everywhere
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.