84 pages 2 hours read

George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


A Game of Thrones is a 1996 epic fantasy novel by George R. R. Martin and is the first in his long-running A Song of Ice and Fire series. The novel introduces the audience to the fictional world of Westeros, where characters become embroiled in a complicated web of plots, conspiracies, and betrayals as they pursue power. A Game of Thrones won numerous awards on publication and was adapted for television in 2011. This guide is written using an ebook version of the 2003 Bantam Books edition.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of graphic violence, sexual assault, child and domestic abuse, rape, and incest. In Martin’s lineage system, the term “bastard” is both technical and pejorative; it references a well-defined yet spurned social status throughout the Seven Kingdoms comprising children who receive special surnames because their parents are unmarried. Additionally, this guide uses the term “little person” instead of “dwarf.”

Plot Summary

A Game of Thrones takes place on the fictional continent of Westeros, which experiences years-long seasons of varying intensity. The majority of Westeros comprises the Seven Kingdoms, and a monumental wall of ice separates the northernmost portion of the continent from the frigid wasteland beyond. In the Prologue, a group of men from the Night’s Watch—the ancient but derelict organization that guards the Wall—track a group of “wildling” people who live beyond the boundaries of the realm. Pale, blue-eyed wights kill most of their party.

After the longest summer ever recorded, King Robert Baratheon travels north to the castle of Winterfell to see his old friend, Lord Ned Stark. About 15 years earlier, Ned helped Robert overthrow the previous king, Aerys II Targaryen. Before Robert’s arrival, Ned executes the only surviving member of the Night’s Watch party who encountered the wights for desertion; his story is considered outlandish. However, Jon Snow (the son of Ned, who wasn't married to Jon's mother when Jon was born) sees the man’s fear. After, a group of direwolf puppies is discovered in the woods. Each of the five Stark children is given a direwolf puppy to raise. Direwolves are the sigil of House Stark.

Robert arrives after the news that his and Ned’s mutual father figure, Lord Jon Arryn, is dead. Arryn was the Hand of the King, the king’s most powerful advisor. Now, Robert wants Ned to fill the position. Ned does not trust Robert’s wife, Queen Cersei, who is part of the infamous Lannister family. Her twin brother Ser Jaime is a member of the Kingsguard, and her younger brother Tyrion is mockingly referred to as “the Imp” as he has dwarfism. Catelyn, Ned’s wife, urges Ned to accept the role. She is worried about the ulterior motives of the Lannisters and concerned about the offense Ned may cause if he declines. While the royal retinue is in Winterfell, Ned’s young son Bran spots Cersei and Jaime engaged in an incestuous sexual relationship while climbing the castle walls. Jaime pushes Bran from a window, and the fall paralyzes Bran and puts him in a coma.

Ned travels south with Robert. His oldest son Robb stays in Winterfell with Catelyn, the comatose Bran, and the youngest Stark, Rickon. Ned’s two daughters, the refined Sansa and the unruly Arya, travel with him to the capital, King’s Landing. Jon joins the Night’s Watch, hoping to prove his worth. Strange rumors have traveled south about the dangers in the freezing unknown regions.

At the same time, across the sea in Pentos, Daenerys Targaryen meets her new husband. Daenerys and her older brother Viserys are the last remaining members of the royal family Robert dethroned. Viserys wishes to marry Daenerys to a Dothraki horse lord named Khal Drogo and use Drogo’s army to retake the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys receives three dragon eggs as a wedding gift and meets an exiled Westerosi knight named Ser Jorah Mormont, who swears his loyalty to her. As Daenerys becomes more ingrained in Dothraki culture, Viserys becomes increasingly frustrated with his sister. He shouts at her and hits her. Daenerys begins to understand Viserys’s weakness.

Ned and his daughters travel south with the royal retinue. While Sansa falls in love with her betrothed—Robert’s son Prince Joffrey—Arya practices sword fighting with a local common boy. When Sansa and Joffrey find Arya and her friend, an argument breaks out and Joffrey is bitten by Arya’s direwolf. Cersei insists on punishing someone following Joffrey’s lies about the incident. Arya chased her direwolf away, so Sansa’s direwolf is executed in its place. In Winterfell, an assassin tries to kill the comatose Bran but is stopped by Catelyn and Bran’s direwolf. Because of a letter from her sister Lysa, Jon Arryn’s widow, Catelyn suspects the Lannisters are to blame. She travels south to warn Ned. At the Wall, Jon learns that the Night’s Watch is not as honorable as he expected. He must humble himself and help his fellow recruits, especially the disinherited Samwell Tarly, who is continually bullied by the master-at-arms Alliser Thorne.

Catelyn arrives in King’s Landing before Ned. She meets an old acquaintance, the realm’s master of coin, Littlefinger. He confirms her suspicions that the Lannisters were behind the attack on Bran and the death of Jon Arryn. Ned promises to investigate, and Catelyn returns north. On the way, she meets Tyrion Lannister and takes him prisoner. She hauls Tyrion to Lysa’s mountaintop castle nearby. Tyrion demands trial by combat, and he survives with the help of a sellsword named Bronn. Tyrion and Bronn are sent out into the woods around the castle, where they meet the violent clansmen whom Lysa hoped would kill them. Instead, Tyrion makes a deal with them.

Ned investigates the death of Jon Arryn. By meeting Robert’s “bastard” sons, he realizes that Cersei’s blond-haired children were fathered by her brother Jaime rather than the black-haired Robert. Ned struggles with the politics of King’s Landing. He resigns as Hand, and he is attacked by Jaime Lannister as revenge for Catelyn capturing Tyrion. Ned is reinstated as Hand with a broken leg, and he sends men north to punish Lannister men who are harassing smallfolk in the country. Meanwhile, Daenerys becomes pregnant with Khal Drogo’s child, and Viserys is increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress toward Westeros. After Viserys insults everyone, Drogo kills him. In the aftermath, Drogo promises to travel west and take back the Seven Kingdoms for Daenerys.

Ned confronts Cersei about her incestuous relationship. Before he can tell Robert, the king is fatally wounded in a hunting accident and foul play is suspected. Robert dictates a will before his death to make Ned regent of the realm until Joffrey comes of age. However, after Robert’s death, Cersei ignores the will. Joffrey becomes king, and Ned is arrested for treason.

As the Lannisters try to establish control of King’s Landing, Robert’s younger brother Renly plots a rebellion against Joffrey while Arya escapes and Sansa is held prisoner. In the north, Robb calls the northern lords and mounts a rebellion of his own in response to Ned’s arrest. After winning notable defeats against the Lannister armies and capturing Jaime, Robb’s men declare Robb as King in the North. At the Wall, Jon is made steward for the lord commander. He saves the old commander from a reanimated corpse that resembles the wights from the Prologue. After initially offering mercy to Ned if he confesses to the made-up charges, Joffrey changes his mind and Ned is publicly executed. Arya escapes King’s Landing by presenting herself as a boy while Sansa remains a prisoner. Jon is tempted to travel south to help his brother avenge their father, but he remains loyal to his oath. Drogo is wounded in a raid, and despite Daenerys’s attempts to heal Drogo with magic, she is forced to euthanize him and gives birth to a stillborn, dragon-like creature. She burns Drogo’s body and steps into the flames with her dragon eggs. Daenerys emerges unharmed with three baby dragons.

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