What’s In a Name – What Does the Title of “A Song of Ice & Fire” Mean?


“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice.”

These are the lines constituting the poem “Fire & Ice” by American poet Robert Frost, conveniently part of the public domain since January delighting poor website owners like myself and no doubt depressing the bank account of many a rich heir, for which I shall shed a single blue tear. It also happens to be one of the main sources of inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice & Fire” series. But, you might well ask, in what sense? Is this just some coy reference, or is there more to it? What can it tell us about the story? What can it tell us about its themes and what might it tell us about what is yet to come? Tell us, senpai Analyze! Tell us! Well, I have heard the great masses shouting out and I shall do my very best to answer all these questions by slowly peeling this magnificent onion to reveal all of the layers of meaning hidden in it and show once and for all to all those Shakespeare groupies that plenty is in a name.

Spoiler Alert: This article references information from “A Game of Thrones” to “A Dance with Dragons” and from seasons 1 through 8 of the TV-series “Game of Thrones.” If you do not want to be spoiled, don’t read this article! Better yet, just go watch the show, read the books, come back and read this article anyway cuz it’s just so damn fabulous.

What Be Ice and What Be Fire?

To decipher the true importance of the title we must first use our little noggings to delineate exactly what the poem by Frost means.

Now I shan’t bore you with lengthy poetry analysis, rather I shall bore you with a short bit of poetry analysis: Once upon a time some scientists (in particular Harlow Shapley whom Frost asked about this) believed that our little globe would either freeze when the earth veered away from the sun, or go up in flames as its loving parent star became a red giant and consumed it whole. Yes, scientists have always been an optimistic lot. These two existential threats are, in the poem, equated instead with two human emotions: Desire and hatred (for fire and ice respectively). Thus the idea is that the threat at greatest danger of destroying mankind is not an external one, but rather based in our own ridiculously flawed humanity.

If only the White Walkers were wandering westward...

The wintery White Walkers wandering the wicy wastes.

And this symbolism isn’t lost on our indomidable author. In an interview with Adria’s News he says “Fire is love, fire is passion, fire is sexual ardor and all of these things. Ice is betrayal, ice is revenge, ice is… you know, that kind of cold inhumanity and all that stuff is being played out in the books.”

It is this which should be our basis for looking at the title and how it interweaves with the story, our Virgil to lead us through this infernal article. Ice represents cold inhumanity and revenge, fire represents passion and desire. And mayhaps also what they cause…

Most obviously the title refers to the two main magical plots surrounding Westeros: The White Walkers and the dragons. But this goes beyond a mere bit of serendipity.

Too Cold, Too Acrimonious

The White Walkers (or Others) are without a doubt the biggest threat to Westeros. Those damned popsicles on legs have been moving closer and closer over five books now and, eventually, they seem set to assault it in full force to destroy all who live and cover the world in ice. However, since they walk at roughly the same speed that Martin writes at, that’ll be some time yet, giving humanity the necessary time to prepare. But what do they do with this time? Well, despite being the biggest existential threat out there, all that stands in their way is the Night’s Watch, an organization that has been shrinking in size for centuries, and the armies of the Seven Kingdoms which have been shrinking right along with them because of a pointless civil war.

Don't worry, Jon got better.

The ol’ hatred catches up with Jon.

Jon is perhaps the character that realizes the impending debacle more than anyone. As a result, he tries his best to prevent it. He tries to get the Night’s Watch to abandon their centuries long animosity towards the wildlings so they can swell their ranks again and heroically defend the wall against the Others. Jon tries to create unity where there is only disunity, but unfortunately Jon’s best just isn’ t good enough. Cold inhumanity and revenge get in the way. Some of the people of the Night’s Watch cannot abide his new policies. They still hate the wildlings and don’t want to treat them as other people. They think that what Jon is doing is wrong and so they kill him “For the Watch.”

The rest of the Seven Kingdoms does not do much better on this count. While the threat of the Walkers approaches they repeatedly ignore calls for help from the Watch. Instead choosing to focus on vengeance and their own desire for power. Robb fights because he wants revenge for his father, the Lannisters desire to keep their side on the throne, Doran Martell prepares to rise up against the throne to avenge his brother and Elia, Littlefinger’s desire for power is instrumental in setting the Starks and Lannisters against each other. As a result of all this wanting and hating a civil war leaves the kingdoms in disunity and more vulnerable to the White Walker threat than they have been in over a century.

And it is here we find the first layer of meaning. George R.R. Martin, in an interview with Al Jazeera, said that “…one of the dynamics I started with there was the sense of people being so consumed by their petty struggles for power within the Seven Kingdoms, within King’s Landing, who’s gonna be king, who’s gonna be on the small council, who’s gonna determine the policies, that they’re blind to the much greater and more dangerous threats that are happening far away on the periphery of their kingdoms.” It is ice, the hatred of the Night’s Watch and Robb’s desire for vengeance, and fire, the desire of the Lannisters to have one of their own on the throne, that creates disunity in the realms of men. And it is this that the external threat will exploit to bring ruin to them all. It is disunity that will destroy us. This is what the beings of ice represent: an existential threat that we are too disunified to face. But there is more…

Like an Icy Boomerang

As pointed out earlier ice primarily represents hatred and revenge. It would thus be quite fitting if the beings made of ice represented this as well. And this, especially taking the TV-show into account, seems to be exactly where the story is going.

He done gone got iced.

In their desire for vengeance the Children of the Forest coldly turn an innocent man into their living weapon.

In the TV-show we know that the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers. Being too few in number to stand against the incursion of man into their lands, they transformed captured humans into living ice weapons to use against them. And while I’m sure some disillusioned show watchers will be sharpening their stakes and polishing their crosses to prepare to send me back to the hell from whence I came upon reading this, I do believe this is likely in the books as well.

Aside from the fact that our intrepid author has written lots of science fiction in the past, the idea of an out-of-control weapon being a common one in sci-fi, there are some hints in the text at this. Particularly in “A Dance with Dragons” where, when one of the children talks about the dwindling of their species, Bran observes “She seemed sad when she said it, and that made Bran sad as well. It was only later that he thought, Men would not be sad. Men would be wroth. Men would hate and swear a bloody vengeance. The singers sing sad songs, where men would fight and kill.”

Maybe the Children are not so different from us after all. Perhaps the green-eyed bastards are just as big of a bag of dicks as humanity. Maybe they did hate and swear bloody vengeance. If so then it was this need for vengeance that created the ice creatures that assail our protagonists now. It is this need for vengeance that nearly destroyed them as well. The Walkers are vengeance made flesh, in the form of ice, that threatens to consume the world.

When You Piss on Wildfire…

But I’ve spent so much time talking about ice, what about giving fire some love? At the risk of my cock burning off, let’s give that a shot. In order to understand the meaning of fire we must first understand the meaning of dragons since dragons are specifically stated in the text to be “…fire made flesh….”

I think it is a generally agreed upon truth that dragons… are fucking awesome. Dragons are majestic beings to behold. Hoorah to Daenerys for bringing these wonders into the world! Dragons allow one to soar above the clouds like a bird. Seeing that you cannot help but hail the mother of dragons! They have beautiful coloured scales, as if they were a living mosaic. Oh, hoorah! They are gigantic engines of destruction which are used by the powerful to oppress the weak through boundless violence! Oh yay, hoorah, hoorah! They breathe fire and can burn cities full of helpless innocents to the ground leaving nothing but a blasted wasteland! Oh, hoorah, hoorah, hoorah!

Pompei meets Chernobyl

The products of these magnificent creatures.

That’s right, in case you couldn’t tell from my exquisitely subtle literary device: As cool as dragons might be their closest equivalent in our world are WMDs. They represent power, having been associated with the rulling dynasty of Westeros for years, and the desire for power. In this way they embody the fire, the desire, of Robert Frost’s poem. But above all they represent what people use to obtain and maintain that desired power: War, violence, death and oppression. Fire & Blood. Dragonriders crack whips near dragons and the dragons go towards the pain. That should say enough. And through these associations they represent the second way the world might be destroyed: by war. By humans destroying ourselves, quite possibly with nuclear fire.

I Will Take What Is Mine With Fire & Blood

Daenerys exhibiting her usual hotness.

The mother of dragons, the child of fire.

They are also important game pieces in the pursuit of power. Euron’s desire for power is focused on them, Quentyn ‘I-can-totally-tame-a-dragon-despite-being-terrified-of-a-15-year-old-girl’ Martell dies trying to obtain one for his father’s powerplay and they are equally central to Daenerys’ quest for power (even though her desire to sit on the Iron Throne is more complicated than that).

If Daenerys does indeed go bad and burn down King’s Landing in the books, and there is reason to believe she will, then together these two things would paint a rather clear, if morbid, picture. How it is desire, especially the desire for power, which leads to war and war may be our end.

And so the main two threats to Westeros are not simply White Walkers and Dragons but vengeance and the desire for power, lack of unity and war. The creatures merely serving as symbollic embodiments of these concepts through their association with ice and fire (similar to the roles of ice and fire in the poem).

Aragorn 2.0?

Spoiler alert: No.

Is his the song of ice and fire?

But the title also appears in our story more directly. “‘He has a song,’ the man replied. ‘He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.'” These are the words everyone’s favourite mad Targaryen, Rhaegar, speaks to Elia in Daenerys’ vision at the House of the Undying about his son and heir Aegon. It all sounds rather epic, you can’t deny that. A heroic figure rising from an ancient royal line to fight back the great enemy and stop their onslaught. But doesn’t that feel just slightly familiar? If you’ve ever read “Lord of the Rings” then it should.

The whole idea of the prince that was promised who’s song is the song of ice and fire all seems very romantic, but does that really suit Martin’s more gritty writing-style? Or, considering what we already know about the symbollic meanings of ice and fire and the destruction they bring, could it be something darker and more complicated?

Melisandre’s position on the matter is, predictably, rather black and white. She says “The way the world is made. The truth is all around you, plain to behold. The night is dark and full of terrors, the day is bright and beautiful and full of hope. One is black, the other white. There is ice and there is fire. Hate and love. Bitter and sweet. Male and female. Pain and pleasure. Winter and summer. Evil and good.” She believes in death and life, that everywhere there are opposites at war. That the prince that was promised, Azor Ahai, is a big strong hero needed to defeat the Great Other and his minions.

Meera and Jojen however have a different take on the whole thing. When Bran insists that Meera can’t both hate and love the mountains by saying they’re different “Like night and day, or ice and fire” Jojen responds that “If ice can burn… then love and hate can mate.” Ice and fire are not complete opposites that can never meet but both part of the same thing. Two sides of the same coin.

Jon Snow is one icy motherfucker to be stabbin someone so hot.

The human heart in conflict with itself, a song of ice and fire.

And I think this ties into the only war that matters. Perhaps an Azor Ahai focused on the dualistic ideas of Melisandre will cause only further suffering as fire and ice have done so far. Maybe the real war isn’t the one of a fiery warrior against the evil, icy others, but perhaps the real war is one of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Fire and ice as part of every person. With every person seeking to transcend their own hatred and keep control of their passions and desires.

This much better fits Martin’s writing-style, since pretty much every bloody time he’s had the chance he’s trotted out that Faulkner quote saying that “the human heart in conflict with itself” is the only thing worth writing about.

So what does the title mean? It means that this is a story about vengeance and hatred, love and desire and how they, through the war in every person’s heart, have the potential to shape the world for better or for worse. How our fiery passions might cause the wars that will destroy us, or how our cold inhumanity towards one another and our obsession with vengeance might divide us when we should unite.

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Copyright: The picture of Aragorn is a screenshot from “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” The rights to “Lord of the Rings” belong to Middle-earth Enterprises and were writting by J.R.R. Tolkien. The other images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Game of Thrones is created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, belongs to HBO and was inspired by the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin. The poem used at the start of the article is by Robert Frost and has been in the public domain since the 1st of January 2019.

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