Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1787
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin is a fantasy set in Westeros. Fourteen years before the story begins, the Targaryens ruled Westeros after having conquered the Seven Kingdoms with the power of their dragons. When the mad king, Aerys Targaryen, raped Lyanna Stark, murdered her brother, and attempted to murder their allies, the Starks, Baratheons, and Arryns rebelled and overthrew the king. Afterward, Robert Baratheon was crowned king and Jon Arryn was appointed the “Hand of the King.” Meanwhile, Ned Stark returned to Winterfell, in the north, the seat of their power and where A Game of Thrones begins.
Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark of Winterfell is a responsible man who lives up to the words of his family: “winter is coming.” He fathered a child outside of wedlock but has claimed the boy, Jon, and raises him alongside his “trueborn” children, Robb, Sansa, Bran, Arya, and Rickon. They are all “summer children”—not one of them has known “winter.” Ned is teaching his children about the importance of carrying out justice. He has sentenced a deserter to death and carries out the execution himself because “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” As Ned and his retainers leave, they come across a litter of direwolves. There is one for each of his children, including Jon. When Ned returns home, he learns that the king and his court are about to arrive in Winterfell.
King Robert has traveled to Winterfell from his throne in King’s Landing because the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, has died. He wants Ned to take Jon’s place. He also proposes that Sansa marry his son and heir, Joffrey. Although Ned and Robert were childhood friends, the latter has changed a great deal. King Robert is a fat man who does not take his responsibilities seriously. Ned is quick to forgive his king but feels suspicious of the queen, Cersei Lannister. Ned has never trusted the Lannisters because they did not join the rebellion against the Targaryens until it was clear it would succeed. Also, Cercei’s twin brother, Jaime, was sworn to defend the king with his life but instead killed him and has carried the name Kingslayer ever since. Ned would rather not take on this responsibility, but he is a man of duty and accepts Robert’s appointment.
Ned is shocked to discover how much influence the Lannisters have over the kingdom. Young Bran is even more shocked when he discovers Jaime and Cersei sleeping together. To keep their secret, Jaime throws Bran out of a castle window. Bran survives the fall but is in a coma. It is with great sadness that Ned leaves Winterfell, accompanied by his daughters, Sansa and Arya. Catelyn remains behind with her sons, Robb, Bran, and Rickon, but even she leaves by ship after she prevents an assassin from murdering Bran. Jon elects to travel north to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch.
The Night’s Watch protects the realm from the monsters and wildlings beyond the Wall, though most people dismiss these “grumkins” as fairytales. Still, it is considered a noble calling to join the Watch, and the men vow to abandon politics and their family—and to never leave their duty. The queen’s dwarf brother, Tyrion (called the Imp), accompanies Jon to the Wall. Although the Starks and Lannisters dislike each other, Jon and Tyrion begin to form a friendship along their journey when Tyrion informs Jon that “most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” In Jon’s case, the truth is that the Watch is no longer a noble calling; men only join it to avoid imprisonment and death sentences.
The journey south is also full of disillusions. Arya is determined to learn how to use a sword; she asks Mycah, a peasant child, to teach her. When Sansa and Joffrey discover them, Joffery attacks Mycah. Only Arya’s direwolf, Nymeria, saves the boy’s life. However, when the queen sees her son’s ravaged arm, she demands that the beast be killed. Ayra’s wolf is nowhere to be seen, so Cersei insists that they kill Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, instead. Robert agrees in spite of Ned’s protests. Arguing that the man who “passes the sentence should swing the sword,” Ned kills the wolf himself; Joffrey’s protector, Sandor Clegane, kills Mycah. By the time Ned arrives in King’s Landing, he already doubts his admiration for Robert and is tired of the south’s squabbling politics. He soon secretly meets with Catelyn, who explains her suspicions that the Lannisters tried to kill Bran and that they may have killed Jon Arryn as well. Ned thinks the two mysteries might be part of the same web, so he begins to retrace Jon’s steps, and he finds Robert’s bastard children in brothels.
Ned’s family members seem unhappy with their new circumstances. Sansa enjoys being near gallant knights, but it becomes hard to believe in heroism when she sees a knight slain while jousting in the hand’s tourney. Arya mourns her friend Mycah; she does not accept King’s Landing as her new home until Ned hires a “dancing master” to teach Arya to use a sword. In Winterfell, Robb is struggling to become a “lord.” Bran wakes up from his coma after dreaming about a three-eyed crow that demands that he learn to fly. He discovers that his body is paralyzed from the waist down: he will never be a knight. Meanwhile on the Wall, everyone teases Jon about his bastard birth. It seems that everyone’s dreams about glory and heroism have failed.
Ned still struggles to solve the mystery of Jon Arryn’s death. On her way home to Winterfell, Catelyn meets Tyrion in an inn as he is returning south from the Wall. She rouses local knights against the dwarf, seizes him, and takes him east to the Vale of Arryn, where her sister, Lysa, sits as regent until her son can take power. When word of this reaches King’s Landing, Jaime attacks Ned and his troops, leaving Ned’s leg wounded and his men dead. However, Tyrion manages to outwit his captors and demands a trial by combat. His champion, the sell-sword Bronn, wins his freedom.
Eventually, Ned realizes the same truth that led to Jon Arryn’s death: none of Queen Cersei’s children were fathered by the king. The Baratheons have black hair, which always “beats” the golden hair of the Lannisters. Instead of acting on his knowledge, Ned warns Cersei of his knowledge and gives her a chance to flee Westeros. She replies, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or die.” When Ned goes to see Robert, he learns that the king has gone hunting. When he returns from the trip, he is dying. The boar that he tried to kill has instead killed him. Robert asks Ned to take charge of the realm until Joffrey comes of age.
Sadly, when Ned does move to take power, he finds himself outmaneuvered. The Lannisters have more soldiers at King’s Landing than Ned does, and though he thinks he has secured the cooperation of the City Watch, their commander has made an agreement with the Lannisters. Ned is accused of treason and thrown in the dungeon. The last of his men are killed. Arya escapes thanks to her “dancing lessons,” but Sansa is held hostage. Ned knows nothing of this. He only knows that the Queen will offer to spare Ned’s daughters if he confesses to treason. When word of Ned’s imprisonment reaches Winterfell, Robb summons his banners and rides south.
The Lannisters, meanwhile, have marched east to free Tyrion, unaware that he has freed himself. The Lannisters have two armies: one led by Lord Tywin and the other by Jaime. Robb is seemingly outmatched, but he divides his army. He sends the footmen after Lord Tywin as a diversion and attacks Jaime, who is laying siege to Riverrun, the seat of Catelyn’s father. The plan is a success and Robb manages to take Jaime prisoner. Robb hopes to exchange Jaime for Ned, but it does not matter: although Ned confesses to treason, Joffrey breaks his mother’s promise and has Ned executed anyway.
For the time being, the Lannisters control the throne. Their control is unjust and cruel, but the politics of the realm do not matter to the Night’s Watch. Jon is tempted to join his brother in battle. He has completed his training and has become a brother of the Night’s Watch and steward to Ser Jeor Mormont, the Lord Commander. Jon’s new brothers refuse to allow him to break his oaths, and they return him to the Wall. Jon will be needed because things there have taken a turn for the worse: the dead are walking. Now, only the Wall stands between the “Others” and the realm. It would be better, Ser Jeor reflects, if the realm were led by a strong king as opposed to a boy like Joffrey. The realm has had a long summer but now a long, cruel winter is coming.
The realm will soon have more kings than it can handle. King Robert’s younger brother, Renly, declares himself king in the south. Robb’s bannermen declare him the King of the North. No one knows what Robert’s older brother, Stannis, will do. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, another king has been amassing an army. Viserys Targaryen, the last of the dragons, has wed his sister Daenerys Stormborn (Dany) to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki to gain their alliance. Among other gifts, Dany receives three dragon eggs in honor of her marriage to Khal Drogo. For the first time in her life, Dany has real power as opposed to a claim to power, and she quickly learns how to lead. When Viserys abuses Dany, Khal Drogo kills him, making Dany the last of the Targaryens.
Before his death, King Robert did his best to ensure that there would be no Targaryens at all left, and he put a bounty on Dany’s head. When a Westeros merchant attempts to kill Dany, Khal Drogo declares that he will invade Westeros. However, he dies of wounds taken during his first battle on the campaign. The Dothraki leave Dany, but she takes her possessions and burns them in a pyre with her dragon eggs inside. When the flames die, Dany is left with three hatched dragons. All who stand witness to their birth become hers. As the novel ends, “the night [comes] alive with the music of dragons.”