While it may seem like a lot of dying goes on in the Game of Thrones & Song of Ice and Fire universe, there’s also a lot of surviving. Book readers know that hidden amongst the long-winded descriptions of clothes and food (sorry, GRRM…) lie satisfying nuggets of life advice that have gotten our favorite (and least favorite) characters through many a tough scrape. Sifting through them, it’s easy to see that all of us would do well to apply some Westerosi philosophy to our lives.
“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” – Syrio to Arya, Game of Thrones
It’s taken me a long time to learn that although making choices based on fear is usually a bad idea, it’s sometimes much too compelling to resist. If you’re afraid of what others think, you may be dishonest with yourself. If you’re afraid of going outside your comfort zone, you may never grow. People are afraid of driving, afraid of eating, afraid of talking, afraid of leaving those who are hurting them. Life tends to reward those who make decisions based on hope, confidence, and joy rather than fear, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
In Arya’s case, her whole incredible journey is a lesson in shedding fears one by one, until at last she’s begun the process of shedding the ultimate fear – the fear of losing herself and every thing and everyone she’s ever known. Her journey began with Syrio telling her that “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Because she’s been working to free herself from fear since the first page volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, she’ll ultimately have an advantage over others who are consumed by fear of losing power, family or riches.
“Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.” -Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
While many of us may know our flaws, the journey to truly accepting them is nearly impossible. It’s not about people using your flaws against you, it’s about knowing yourself well enough to drink from the well of your own inner strength so much that you have no need of the opinions of those who would exploit your weaknesses.
Accepting our flaws means not allowing ourselves to be defined by our weaknesses or imperfections, and this is exactly what we learn through Tyrion’s journey. He knows how the world sees him, but at every opportunity he works to use his strengths to gain the advantage. His most successful moments happen when he allows people to underestimate him, because almost everyone always does (and he knows it). He’s learned to use his small stature, which was once his greatest weakness, to his advantage. If he can do it, so can we.
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” -Tyrion Lannister to Jon Snow, Game of Thrones
Similar to the quote above, Tyrion continues to share his strategy for success: know who you are and the rest will fall into place. As we’re growing up, our sense of self comes from external sources like our parents or peers. If we’re going to succeed as adults at work and at home, we’ve got to have our sense of self firmly in place so our motivations and values come from ourselves. If we know ourselves well enough to make decisions based on who we really are, we’ll be closer to a life lived without regrets.
“A man who won’t listen can’t hear.” -Osha speaking about Robb, Game of Thrones
From birth most babies are born with a fully developed sense of hearing, unlike sight, which can take months. Listening, on the other hand, is a whole other thing – being a good listener is a rare quality, even into adulthood. Listening involves many other interpersonal skills like compassion and empathy, and also requires, above all, experience. Since people who can’t hear can learn to be great listeners, you could say that you don’t have to be able to hear to listen, but you do have to be able to listen to hear. In other words, you’ll never understand if you don’t make an effort.
Listening helps us connect to loved ones, but it’s also essential to success in the workplace. In 1991, the US Department of Labor reported that listening skills are one of three foundational skills required in the workplace. Being a good listener (and looking like one) make you more efficient (because you understand exactly what needs to be done) and lets coworkers and superiors know they can trust you.
The Game of Thrones characters who do the most listening (and observing) tend to be the most resilient suvivors, while those who won’t listen are punished again and again. Take Robb Stark, for example. While Osha is giving Bran excellent life advice in general, she’s speaking specifically about Robb, who refused to hear her warning about the great threats that loom north of the wall. Unfortunately, Robb didn’t stick around long enough to find out what’s coming from the north because he was too busy not listening to his mother.
Other terrible listeners include Ned Stark, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, and Theon Greyjoy, just to name a tiny sliver of the pie chart of Westerosi bad listeners. We all know how those situations turned out.
On the other hand, the great listeners of the land like Tyrion, Arya, Littlefinger, Daenerys, and Varys have all managed to maneuver through many difficult situations relatively unscathed purely based on their ability to listen, which has allowed them to comprehend their situations and calculate their escapes.
“Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.” -Jon to Arya, Game of Thrones
Back in the long summer days when all the Starks were still living under one roof, Jon was preparing for his journey to Castle Black. He didn’t know what was in store for himself or the rest of his family, but as they parted he gave Arya ‘Needle’ and reassured her that “different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.”
This quote is important to ASOIAF fans for a few different reasons. Firstly, many take it literally – that Arya and Jon will meet again at some castle, which most agree will be Castle Black. While this seems pretty impossible at this point given the current status of both of them in the TV series, it’s nice to imagine Arya running into Nymeria and heading to CB to meet up with a somehow resurrected Jon Snow for a nice little fam jam.
Of course, like many of the quotes from ASOIAF there are a ton of layers here. On a figurative level, this is more life advice from George R.R. Martin telling us that life is about the journey. Like Arya, you may have a predetermined end point, but the thing you have control over is the path you take and the way you take it.
GRRM himself writes about this a lot on his “Not a Blog.” The pressure to finish Winds of Winter is intense, and his fans are ruthless. But, as he says, he’s never been good with deadlines. He spent much of 2015 enjoying GoT promo events and comiccons, which, if you ask me, is so much more important than putting his head down and only coming up for air once the show and the books are finished and the ride is over. I’m so glad he’s taking his own advice and enjoying the ride.
As he explains, “I’ll keep writing. Chapter at a time. Page at a time. Word at a time. That’s all I know how to do.” Which leads us to his next words of wisdom…
“He who hurries through life hurries to his grave.” -Salladhor Saan to Davos, Clash of Kings
No matter how good Game of Thrones might be, the hype will never be as big as it is right now. GRRM is at the height of his fame. To take a minute to enjoy it, and also to take his time and write the book the way it needs to be written is what he (and we) deserve.
When Salladhor Saan says this line to Davos in a Clash of Kings as he’s beginning to consider Stannis’s impending attempted sack of King’s Landing. We know that this thought is in line with Davos’s way of thinking, but definitely not with Stannis’s. It would do many of the kings of Westeros well to cool their jets a little – but as we all know, winter is coming.
As far as this list goes, this quotes is probably the best. The older I grow, the more the concept of slowing down seems to be the secret of a happy life. Let’s all try and remember to take in a few extra of those slower, quieter moments that make life worth living.
While we’re at it, let’s cut GRRM some slack for doing the same.
Have a favorite ASOIAF quote that’s not here? Tell us in the comments!