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“You Know Nothing”: The Structure of A Song of Ice and Fire


Illustration for article titled “You Know Nothing”: The Structure of A Song of Ice and Fire

Towards the end of my senior year of high school, my much-beloved English teacher assigned us a paper; what made this one different was that he created unique topics for each of us. I ended up with “The Role of ‘Nothing’ in King Lear”. As I’m re-reading the latest two books in A Song of Ice and Fire, that paper keeps rattling around in my head, and I think I’ve finally determined why: while “nothing” was integral to the plot of King Lear, “you know nothing” is equally so for A Song of Ice and Fire.

I read a lot of thrillers; by their very nature, they rely on characters not knowing crucial pieces of information, as well as misdirection and misinformation. Sometimes the reader is privy to information that (some) characters aren’t; sometimes we find things out along with them, and sometimes a character reveals a Deus ex Machina piece of information that only they knew, which—unless you’re Sherlock Holmes—is generally a pretty disingenuous plot device.


Usually, you don’t see that sort of structure much outside the thriller genre (although it does comprise a piece of horror writing); you certainly don’t see it sustained throughout an entire non-thriller series.

However, A Song of Ice and Fire wouldn’t exist as we know it without it. Not only is the series structured in this manner, it’s a structure that’s integral to the plot and the characters, to the forward motion of the story, and to our enjoyment of it as readers. Its very nature relies on it.


I’m approaching this as a reader of the A Song and Ice and Fire series of books, as opposed to a viewer of the TV series.

The Structure of the Series

The largest overarching “Know Nothing” plotline in the series is the Stark children. This begins with two events: Bran being pushed out the tower window, and Ned Stark taking the girls to King’s Landing. Up until those points, you had a fairly standard, straightforward storyline.


Here you also have where Martin’s decision to break the chapters down into character point-of-view becomes an essential component of the books. It’s not just a narrative decision—it’s critical to propping up the structure as a whole. By showing the story from the individual characters’ viewpoints, we get immediate snapshots of what they do and don’t know; as the Omniscient Reader (presumed Omniscient, anyway—more about that later), we can compare and contrast that with what we’ve already read for other characters.

So from this point, off we go on our merry way, where not only do major characters not know important things about other major characters, but more often than not they’re basing their thoughts and actions on misinformation.

  • Nobody (besides Jamie, Cersei, and sort-of Bran) knows who pushed Bran out the window
  • Catelyn thinks Tyrion was involved with the attempt on Bran’s life
  • The Kingdom thinks the three royal children are Robert’s
  • Ned Stark knows Jon Arryn knew something, but he doesn’t know what (until it’s too late)
  • Everybody thinks Arya is a boy
  • Catelyn doesn’t know anything about her daughters’ welfare
  • Everyone thinks Theon killed Bran and Rickon
  • Daenerys doesn’t know Jorah is a spy
  • Daenerys doesn’t know Ser Barristan’s true identity
  • Roose Bolton doesn’t know Arya is his cupbearer
  • Reek v1.0 is Ramsay Snow
  • Gilly and Sam left with Mance’s baby, not her own
  • Rattleshirt wasn’t burned, and now Mance wears a glamour of him
  • Barely anybody knows Catelyn is “alive” as Lady Stoneheart
  • Asha deceives Theon about her identity
  • Jaqen H’ghar changes his face
  • Arya changes her name/identity several times
  • “The Hound” is murdering and killing people left and right

There are dozens and dozens more examples I can give, but you get the general idea. It’s not just one or two unknown variables, or plot twists, or deceptions—the entire series is filthy with them. They make up the main bones of the story’s skeleton (and many of the little bones as well). Maybe it would be a fun drinking game—every time somebody doesn’t know something, or is deceived, drink up! I think you might be dead before the second book is done, though.


Omniscient Readers and Tricksy Authors

For those of us reading the books, you can break plot points down into three categories:

  • What we know that the characters do and don’t know
  • What we don’t know that the characters don’t know
  • What George R. R. Martin wants us to think we know

The first example is easy, the most common one in the books, and one of the main driving forces behind our reactions and emotions as we read through the series; it’s from where the story derives much of its dramatic tension. We feel sad for Cat, because she grieves so much for her two youngest boys, and will never know that they’re still alive. We fear for Arya as she serves Bolton, in case she’s found out. We know Gendry’s the bastard son of King Robert; what (if anything) does that mean for Westeros?


The second example is from where many of the fandom-generated conspiracy theories spring. Who is (are) Jon Snow’s real parent(s)? Who are the three heads of the dragon? Where is Benjen Stark? What exactly does Daenerys’ prophecy mean?

It’s this third section where Martin shows off his Author Trolling Skills. Bran and Rickon? So not dead. Onion Knight? Same thing. Cersei’s valonqar? Sure, it’s totally Tyrion (sarcasm, and yes—that one hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve thrown my hat in the ring). When he writes this sort of thing, we’re put, albeit briefly, in the same positions as most of the book characters; our omniscient position is gone. This is unsettling as a reader, because until proven otherwise in a later chapter, we have no choice but to believe related events; the option to question everything that happens isn’t really an option.


From the mouths of Fools

Taken individually, in another book or series, these are the sort of plot devices that keep readers engaged and guessing. I’d argue that it’s Martin’s use of all three of these that makes A Song of Ice and Fire nearly unique. We enjoy knowing what others don’t; we enjoy not knowing with the hope of knowing at some future point; we enjoy not being entirely sure that what we know (or think we know) is the truth.


To bring this around full-circle, let’s look at King Lear again. It’s well known that Shakespeare used his Fools to speak truth; it appears as though Martin uses his Fool likewise. Patchface has made several prophecies, disguised as Fool’s riddles, songs, or nonsense—and many of them have come true.

And what is Patchface’s constant refrain?

“I know. I know.”

He may be the only one that does.

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