You can find the summaries and analysis for all chapters from A Game of Thrones on this index.
Down below, the lordling called out suddenly. “Who goes there?” Will heard uncertainty in the challenge. He stopped climbing; he listened; he watched.
The woods gave no answer: the rustle of leaves, the icy rush of the stream, a distant hoot of a snow owl.
The Others made no sound.
The prologue to A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is one of my favourite prologues of all time. I used to struggle to get through these first few pages in a book, wanting to get to the real story, but this prologue is the story, and it changed the way I see prologues forever.
There are other very good prologues in fantasy books, the ones from Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson being two more personal favourites.
But this is about A Game of Thrones, so here is a quick summary of the events that take place in the prologue, then I will get into the analysis.
Brief Plot Summary
Three rangers from the Night’s Watch are tracking wildlings north of the Wall. These rangers include Ser Waymar Royce, Gared, and Will. Will, once a poacher and a skilled tracker, reports to Royce that the wildling raiders are dead, but the knight orders Will to take them to the bodies so he can see them for himself.
When they arrive at the ridge Will had previously seen the corpses, they find no bodies and no blood, only weapons. Gared stays with the horses, while Will is ordered to climb a tree to try and scout the area from above.
Once he is high enough in the sentinel tree, Will watches in horror as one of the Others fights and kills Royce (Gared is away from the area with the horses). Will climbs down after he thinks the Others have gone, but is killed by Royce’s reanimated corpse, now one of the Others.
For such a short chapter, a complete story in its own right, the prologue of A Game of Thrones introduces much more than you might think on a first readthrough. Having read the full series (what is available, at least), I noticed several instances where Martin introduces some interesting themes, characters, and places that we will see later on in the books.
It goes without saying that this brief analysis will go into spoilers, so if you have not read all the books in A Song of Ice and Fire, do not risk spoiling the series for yourself and stop reading here!
I reread this prologue today, as the weather starts to turn and the warmth of the Sun finally cedes to the October cold. There is an icy feeling to these scenes that stretches beyond the page and into your bones. George R.R. Martin shows off his writing talent in these few pages, encompassing you within the frostbitten woods for the final outing of these men of the Night’s Watch.
It is a shame we don’t get more of these characters later in the book, but their deaths set the tone for the book (Gared dies in the first “Bran” chapter, beheaded by Eddard Stark – they switched him and Will for the TV show). More about tone in a minute.
Introducing the Others as a serious threat in the prologue is a fantastic choice that really pays off throughout the books. Just when you start to forget about them because everyone is so busy killing each other and that’s fun and exciting, but then some mentions the Others and a sense of dread washes over you.
The very first three sentences introduce this threat, if with some clever wordplay:
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
We, the reader, are supposed to assume that Gared is afraid of ghosts and is being rightly, though unpleasantly, mocked by Royce. On a reread, I feel like this initial interaction, on the first couple of lines of the book, is telling you to be very, very afraid of the dead.
The deaths of these rangers and the horrors that await the world from the other side of the wall create a truly epic narrative, showing you that the characters you see on the page are only a tiny piece of a much grander story.
Setting the Tone for the Series
Sex, murder, and dragons. That’s what people who haven’t read the books or watched any of the HBO adaptation think of A Song of Ice and Fire. They would be right. Sort of.
A Song of Ice and Fire is essentially the story of dragons conquering all. The conquest of Aegon I Targaryen, along with his sisters/wives (yeah, lots of incest in the series too), was achieved basically because no one (except Dorne) had an effective answer to dragons. You either knelt or burned.
Now we have Daenerys and her three dragons. She will hopefully be making her way to Westeros soon, and when she does, we know the Others will eventually break through the Wall and descend upon the people of Westeros. They are going to need dragons to conquer that great threat.
So, in the prologue of the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, we have this great threat introduced in a terrifying and visceral way. They seem unstoppable, inevitable, and that sets the tone for the series. There is always this lingering threat of the Others, no matter who wins what war, who’s ass is on the Iron Throne, the Others are coming, and they will kill you all.
Other tone promises we get are hard characters with hard lives, honour and chivalry being a moral compass, and the sudden deaths of everyone we were just introduced to and were kind of starting to like. People throw this series into the “grimdark” category, and it certainly fits that subgenre, but sometimes labels are not helpful. Calling A Song of Ice and Fire “grimdark” is like calling The Way of Kings “military fantasy”. Sure, in some respects they fit those categories, but there is a lot more to them, especially due to the scope of the narratives.
Cool References in the Prologue
Okay, some nerdy stuff now. I love the odd name drop, and we get “Mormont”, who is Lord Jeor Mormont, the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Additionally, Maester Aemon is referenced when talking about Gared’s frostbitten ears being cut off in the past.
And finally, King Robert I Baratheon, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm of Westeros, simply referred to as “Robert” by Royce as he redeems himself in battle against the wight.
House Mallister is also referenced, when telling us about Will being caught poaching on their land, given the choice between losing a hand or joining the Night’s Watch. The Mallisters are loyal to the Starks, joining Robb Stark in his battles to come.
Instances these Events are Referenced in Further Books
The wildling Craster mentions that three rangers stopped at Craster’s Keep while they were searching for the wildling raiders. This refers to Ser Waymar Royce, Gared, and Will.
In A Dance with Dragons, there is a possible sighting of Ser Waymar Royce’s broken sword. A wildling gives it to the Night’s Watch when Tormund’s host comes to Castle Black. The sword is described as having three sapphires on the hilt.
Here concludes my thoughts on the prologue of A Game of Thrones, with a couple of extra interesting facts. Let me know in the comments what you thought of the prologue, what you thought of my general overview, and whether I missed anything interesting out!