Study Guide

A Game of Thrones Memory and the Past

By George R. R. Martin

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Memory and the Past

He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. (1 Prologue.11)

Because most of the characters in <em>A Game of Thrones </em>can't read, people often only know history through an oral tradition. And we might not always want to trust the stories people tell. (Heck, we might not want to trust the books they write, either.)

They were old, those eyes; older than Winterfell itself. They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true; they had watched the castle's granite walls rise around them. It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea. (3 Catelyn 1.7)

If George R.R. Martin were writing a historical novel about the American Civil War, he might assume we know something about what was going on at the time. But since he is making up this world and its entire history, he has to tell us everything we need to know. This is why we often get little snippets of people thinking about history. Good strategy, Mr. Martin.

Yet sometimes Dany would picture the way it had been, so often had her brother told her the stories. The midnight flight to Dragonstone, moonlight shimmering on the ship's black sails. Her brother Rhaegar battling the Usurper in the bloody waters of the Trident and dying for the woman he loved. The sack of King's Landing by the ones Viserys called the Usurper's dogs, the lords Lannister and Stark. Princess Elia of Dorne pleading for mercy as Rhaegar's heir was ripped from her breast and murdered before her eyes. The polished skulls of the last dragons staring down sightlessly from the walls of the throne room while the Kingslayer opened Father's throat with a golden sword. (4 Daenerys 1.13)

Here we're faced with a character remembering the recent past – except these aren't her memories. These are just stories that Viserys has told to Daenerys. (Actually, they're not even his memories either; he certainly wasn't at the battle of the Trident when he was a baby.)

He turned his back on it and lifted his eyes to the Wall, blazing blue and crystalline in the sunlight. Even after all these weeks, the sight of it still gave him the shivers. Centuries of windblown dirt had pocked and scoured it… (20 Jon 3.69)

In <em>A Game of Thrones</em>, we're only getting the most recent dirt on a world that has a long, long history. For example, think about the Wall that the Night's Watch guards: as Jon notes here, it is centuries old. (Which, come to think of it, is actually only about two summers ago, because of their messed up seasons.)

"The Others," Old Nan agreed. "Thousands and thousands of years ago, a winter fell that was cold and hard and endless beyond all memory of man. There came a night that lasted a generation, and kings shivered and died in their castles even as the swineherds in their hovels." (25 Bran 4.18)

Just as there's some disagreement between the Targaryens and the Starks about what happened in recent history, there's also some tension between the storytelling of Old Nan (and Osha) and the history books of Maester Luwin. Do you trust Nan because of her age or do you think that she's just a little out of it?

<em>The Lineages and Histories of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, With Descriptions of Many High Lords and Noble Ladies and Their Children</em>, by Grand Maester Malleon. Pycelle had spoken truly; it made for ponderous reading. (28 Eddard 6.23)

Well lookie here. A record of the past that's written down. Eddard goes about solving the mystery of Jon Arryn's death both through people's stories and this important – and very boring – book. How does the presence of the book change the way Eddard is able to interpret history? Is something more likely to be true just because it is written down?

Yet somehow the monster seemed to know she was there. She could feel its empty eyes watching her through the gloom, and there was something in that dim, cavernous room that did not love her. (33 Arya 3.27)

When you first read this passage, Arya's fears might just seem like the result of an overactive imagination: lost in a cellar, she thinks a skull is still alive. But once you finish the book and see that dragons really do return, you might change your tune. Is this an example of foreshadowing? (Also, don't forget that Tyrion has a similar experience with the dragon skulls in the royal castle [14 Tyrion 2.22]).

"Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew." (49 Jon 6.9)

Jeor Mormont explains that the people who join the Night's Watch have to pretty much start from scratch. Interesting: they have to remember the long history of the world (check out the next quotation), but they're forced to forget their own individual histories.

"We ought to have remembered. The Long Night has come before. Oh, eight thousand years is a good while, to be sure... yet if the Night's Watch does not remember, who will?" (61 Jon 8.33)

The Night's Watch is the first line of defense against the Others, who are almost a mythological threat these days. For that reason, it's super important that these guys have a grasp of the history. That way they avoid the mistakes of the past… right?

As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons. (73 Dany 10.60)

WHOA. Ahem. We mean, at the end of this book, we see the return of something historical that everyone thought was gone for good. (It's an interesting parallel to the Prologue and first Bran chapter, where we see the Others and a direwolf for the first time in a long time, too.)

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