Themes in A Song of Ice and Fire
A Song of Ice and Fire is an ongoing series of epic fantasy novels by American novelist and screenwriter George R. R. Martin. The first installment of the originally planned trilogy was published in 1996. The series now consists of five published volumes; a further two are planned. The series is told in the third-person through the eyes of a number of point of view characters. A television adaptation entitled Game of Thrones began airing in 2011.
The story of A Song of Ice and Fire takes place in a fictional world, primarily on a continent called Westeros but also on a large landmass to the east, known as Essos. The three main story lines become increasingly interwoven: the chronicling of a dynastic civil war for control of Westeros among several competing families; the rising threat of the Others, who dwell beyond an immense wall of ice that forms Westeros' northern border; and the ambition of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of a king who was murdered 13 years earlier in another civil war, to return to Westeros and claim her rightful throne.
The series and its TV adaptation receive the most critical response to its themes of magic and realism, politics and society, moral ambiguity of the characters, violence and death, sexuality, feminism, religion, clothing and food.
Magic and realism
Wrestling over the amount of magic to include in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin initially considered writing an alternate historical novel without any magic before opting for one of the most magical alternatives. However, he believes in judicious use of magic in the epic fantasy genre, where magic is kept subtle and the readers' sense of it growing. He also believes that literary effective magic needs to represent strange and dangerous forces beyond human's comprehension, not advanced alien technologies or formulaic spells. Magic needs to be magical by definition, not by its frequent display of power. He therefore avoided overt fantasy elements in the story. The amount of magic gradually increases from the start, but the series is to end with less overt magic than many other fantasies have.
Since all fiction is essentially untrue, Martin believes it needs to reflect reality at least in its core. He agrees with William Faulkner's statement in his Nobel Prize speech that "the human heart in conflict with itself" is the only thing worth writing about, regardless of the genre. He thus tried to give the story a little more historical fiction feel than a fantastic feel like previous authors' books, with less emphasis on magic and sorcery and more emphasis on swordplay and battles and political intrigue. The Atlantic noted that the series attempts to mash together fantasy and realism as two seemingly contradictory genres of literature, and Martin's books are generally praised for their realism. The Atlantic saw the realist heart of the Ice and Fire books in that "magic lingers only on the periphery of the world in which the characters dwell, and is something more terrifying than wondrous. [...] It's a fantasy story that defies expectations by ultimately being less about a world we'd like to escape, at times becoming uncomfortably familiar to the one we live in."
The unresolved larger narrative arc of Ice and Fire encourages speculation about future story events. According to Martin, much of the key to Ice and Fire's story future lies sixteen years in the fictional past of which each volume reveals more. Events planned from the beginning are foreshadowed, although Martin heeds story developments to not be predictable. The viewpoint characters, who serve as unreliable narrators, may clarify or provide different perspectives on past events. What the readers believe to be true may therefore not necessarily be true.
Martin realized fantasy in Ice and Fire in the shown imaginary places in avoidance of overt fantasy elements. He set the Ice and Fire story in an alternate version of Earth or a "secondary world". The story takes place primarily on a continent called Westeros, but also on a large landmass to the east, known as Essos. The style varies to fit each character and their setting; Daenerys's exotic realm may appear more colorful and fanciful than Westeros, which is more based on the familiar medieval history of Europe. Martin was intentionally vague with the size of the Ice and Fire world, omitting a scale on the maps to discourage prediction of travel lengths based on measured distances. The continent of Westeros may be considered of the size of South America, though. Complete world maps are deliberately not made available so that readers may better identify with people of the real Middle Ages who were unaware of distant places. As each new book has added one or two maps, readers may be able to piece together a world map by the end of the series.
The fictional history of Westeros stretches back some twelve thousand years. The Ice and Fire story can be considered to be set in a post-magic world where people no longer believe in dragons and the Others. The characters understand only the natural aspects of their world, but the magical elements like the Others are not within their understanding. Coming from an impoverished family background of former wealth, Martin always felt attracted to stories of fallen civilizations and lost empires. The lost empire of Valyria in Ice and Fire was once a high civilization similar to Rome before the Dark Ages. These elements may give the story a poignant sadness. The Wall, which Martin believes to be unique in fantasy, was inspired by Martin's visit to Hadrian's Wall in the North of England close to the border with Scotland. Looking out over the hills, Martin wondered what a Roman centurion from the Mediterranean would feel, not knowing what threats might come from the north. The size, length and magical powers of the wall were adjusted for genre demands.
One of the most conspicuous aspects of the world of Westeros is the long and random nature of the seasons. Fans have developed lengthy scientific theories for the seasons, but Martin insists there is a supernatural fantasy explanation instead of a scientific one. Martin rather enjoyed the symbolism of the seasons, with summer as a time of growth and plenty and joy and winter is a dark time where one has to struggle for survival.
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is primarily populated by humans, although giants, the so-called "Others" and the Children of the Forest appear as other sentient species in the extreme North of Westeros, beyond the Wall. In addition to ordinary animals such as dogs, cats, and horses, some species of animals inhabiting Martin's world are similar to real-world Pleistocene megafauna such as aurochs, direwolves, and mammoths. Of these megafauna, only aurochs are commonly encountered throughout Westeros, as a domesticated herd animal. Direwolves and mammoths are only found in the Lands Beyond the Wall in the extreme north. The direwolves adopted by the Stark children exhibit signs of being far more intelligent than common dogs or wolves. Each wolf pup grows to reflect the temperament of the child they bond with. Dragons and kraken appear as legendary animals.
Children of the Forest
Children of the Forest are presented as the original inhabitants of Westeros. The Children of the Forest are frequently mentioned in the series but have not been seen in thousands of years. They are thought to be diminutive humanoid creatures; dark and beautiful, with mysterious powers over dreams and nature. The Children of the Forest developed their physical abilities based on their slim stature and were able to live in their natural environment without destroying anything. They were graceful, quick and agile, able to move with quiet swiftness on land as well as through mountains and trees. George R. R. Martin has stressed repeatedly that they are not elves. He said of the matter: "The children are... well, the children. Elves have been done to death."
Some of their magic came from their close affinity to nature and their own concentrated focused growth of primal sensory abilities. The Children were able to see and listen throughout the land with weirwood trees and godswoods. They had no metal but they are said to have used obsidian weapons and weirbows in battle. The Children of the Forest fought a series of wars against the First Men, a civilization of primitive warriors wielding bronze weapons and riding horses, who crossed over from Essos, the eastern continent, via a land bridge (destroyed in the resulting conflicts). This ended with the Pact of the Isle of Faces, with the First Men taking control of the open lands and the Children remaining in the forests. The Pact was weakened after four thousand years by the emergence of the Others, who were finally thrown back by the Children of the Forest and the First Men in the War for the Dawn, through the combined use of dragonglass, fire, the magic of the old gods and the building of the Wall. In the following centuries the Children gradually disappeared, and it was presumed that they left Westeros or became extinct. Little of their legacy is present in the timeframe of the series beyond their worship of nameless nature gods still practiced by some in the North, and the remaining Weirwoods.
The Others 
The Pact between the Children of the Forest and the First Men was weakened by the emergence of the Others, an enigmatic and malevolent supernatural race from the furthermost north, who swept south into Westeros and caused great death and destruction, bringing about a night that lasted a generation and a winter that lasted decades. In the War for the Dawn, the Others were finally thrown back by the Children of the Forest and the First Men, through the combined use of dragonglass (obsidian), fire and the magic of the old gods. The Children and the First Men then raised a vast Wall of stone, ice and old magic from one coast of Northern Westeros to the other to bar their passage south should they come again.
The Others re-emerge at the beginning of A Game of Thrones and have since only been seen at night, and are always accompanied by intense cold. The Others appear as tall, gaunt, graceful humanoids with glowing blue eyes. They wear armor that shifts in color with every step, and wield thin crystal swords with blades so cold they can shatter steel. Others move silently, but their voices sound like cracking ice; it is hinted that they have their own language. Creatures killed by the Others soon reanimate as wights: undead zombies with similarly glowing eyes. Wights are not simply limited to humans, as the Others have been known to kill animals such as large bears to bring them back as bear-wights subject to their will, which are used to deadly effect in battle, as well as being seen riding on wight horses. The Others exhibit a weakness to weapons made of dragonglass, which can pierce their armor easily. According to records, they are also vulnerable to dragonsteel, which is suspected to be the same as Valyrian steel. In death, they seem to melt into a pool of extremely cold liquid. Wights do not exhibit the same weakness to obsidian, but are vulnerable to fire. Martin said that readers were "definitely going to see more of the Others in The Winds of Winter", where their history is explored, although Martin said "I don't know if they have a culture."
In the backstory of A Song of Ice and Fire, Aegon the Conqueror brought three dragons to Westeros and used them to unify the Seven Kingdoms. His descendants bred them in captivity, but they dwindled and died out after most were killed in a civil war between rival Targaryen heirs two hundred years before ASOIAF begins, known as the Dance of the Dragons. At the beginning of story, they are considered extinct and only petrified dragon eggs are left. At the end of A Game of Thrones Daenerys is able to hatch her three dragon eggs in the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo, bringing the species back to life.
The dragons in the story are scaled, fire-spewing, reptilian creatures with animal-level intelligence. Though some accompanying artwork for A Song of Ice and Fire portrays them with four legs and a detached set of wings, George R.R. Martin insists that this is incorrect. He applied as much rationalism as possible during their design so that the dragons can actually hold their weight in the air. Therefore, his dragons are more serpentine and slender than what other artists imagine, and they have four (not six) extremities, of which two are the front wings. Also, Martin first considered having the Targaryens use a pyrotechnic smoke-and-mirrors approach to feign dragon powers, but decided to go with "real" dragons instead. Martin never wanted to do talking dragons because he wanted them to differ from humans. Martin sees the dragons as the nuclear deterrent, making Daenerys as the sole owner the most powerful person in the world. Comparing the situation to modern-day states with nuclear arsenals, Martin tries to explore whether weaponry power not only bestows the power to destroy, but also to reform, improve, or build.
Politics and society
The Daily News found the story focus "more on Machiavellian political intrigue than Tolkien-esque sword and sorcery". Since Martin drew on historical sources to build the Ice and Fire world, The Guardian saw a startling resemblance between Westeros and England in the period of the Wars of the Roses, where "One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins." As in the Middle Ages, the characters define their alliances by their home towns or kinship, not by modern-day concepts like countries or nationalism. The king was seen as an avatar of God so that the legitimacy of kingship was very important. Martin wanted to show the possible consequences of the leaders' decisions, as general goodness does not automatically make competent leaders and vice versa.
The Atlantic regarded A Song of Ice and Fire as "more a story of politics than one of heroism, a story about humanity wrestling with its baser obsessions than fulfilling its glorious potential" where the emergent power struggle stems from the feudal system's repression and not from the fight between good and evil (see section #Moral ambiguity). The Guardian saw Martin's strength in "his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. [...] It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin's characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives."
The novels are to reflect the frictions of the medieval class structures, where people were brought up to know the duties and privileges of their class. Martin also explores in how far birth and social class, or values and memories make up people's identity. Among the characters losing their names and very identities are Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy; Arya goes through several different identities before joining the Faceless Men with the ultimate goal to become no-one so as to be able to freely assume other identities. On the other hand, Quentyn Martell and his companions deliberately mask their identity by assuming false names, although it never really affects who they are in private.
A common theme in the fantasy genre is the battle between good and evil, although Martin deliberately defied the conventions and assumptions of neo-Tolkienian Fantasy. Whereas The Lord of The Rings had succeeded with externalizing villainousness through ugly black clothes, Martin felt that Tolkien's imitators oversimplified the struggle between good and evil into stereotypical clichés. William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize speech rather serves as a paradigm for Martin's writing; Faulkner said that only the human heart in conflict with itself was worth writing about. Just like people's capacity for good and for evil in real life, Martin explores the questions of redemption and character change in the Ice and Fire series. The New Yorker summarized that "Characters who initially seem likable commit reprehensible acts, and apparent villains become sympathetic over time", and The Atlantic said that even the TV adaptation "does not present the viewer with an easily identifiable hero, but with an ensemble of characters with sometimes sympathetic, often imperfect motives".
Attracted to gray characters instead of orcs and angels, Martin regards the hero as the villain on the other side. The Wall's Night's Watch, whom Martin described as "criminal scum [who] are also heroes and they wear black", was a deliberate twist on fantasy stereotypes. As any universally adored or hated fictional characters are too one-dimensional to present real life, Martin writes his characters with well-mixed natures so that readers will invest in and identify with them. The actions and politics in the novels leave it to the reader to decide about who is good and evil. Characters are explored from many sides through the multiple viewpoint structure so that, unlike in a lot of other fantasy, the supposed villains can provide their viewpoint. This is necessary since in the real-world throughout history, all human beings justify their deeds as the right thing and the opponent's as the villain. It may not always be easy to determine who represents the good and evil side in real life, as some of the darkest villains in history had some good things about them, the greatest heroes had weaknesses and flaws. However, according to Martin, Tyrion Lannister is the most morally neutral main character in the book, which, along with his cynicism, is what makes him his favorite character.
Violence and death
The New York Times praised Martin as "unapologetically coldblooded", saying the book series was no children's literature with "a boy being thrown off a balcony, a woman having her face bitten off, a man having his nose cut off, a girl having her ear sliced off, multiple rapes, multiple massacres, multiple snarfings (devouring) of people by animals [and] multiple beheadings". Entertainment Weekly saw Martin's ruthlessness about killing beloved characters as a hallmark of the series, leading "fans to throw their books across the room — only to go pick them up again". The Washington Post said that the characters' vulnerability and possibly impending death "lends a welcome sense of uncertainty to the proceedings and helps keep the level of suspense consistently high throughout".
Although fantasy comes from an imaginative realm, Martin sees an honest necessity to reflect the real world where people die sometimes ugly deaths, even beloved people. The deaths of supernumerary extras or orcs have no major effect on readers, whereas a friend's death has much more emotional impact. Martin kills off main characters because he finds it really irritating to know early in the story who as the hero will come through unscathed. Martin dislikes this lack of realism, comparing the situation to a soldier scared the night before a battle. Martin wants his readers to feel that no one is safe as they turn the page. Martin prefers a hero's sacrifice to say something profound about human nature, and points readers not wanting to get upset or disturbed to the plenty of books for comfort reading.
When picking characters to die in battle scenes, Martin chooses secondary or tertiary characters from the character lists without giving much thought, as he sees these characters as hardly developed and in some cases just as names. However, the death and time of death of many major characters have been planned from the beginning, although these scenes may not always be easy to write. A scene called the "Red Wedding", which occurs about two thirds through A Storm of Swords and leaves several major characters dead, was the hardest scene Martin had ever written. He repeatedly skipped writing the chapter and eventually wrote it last for A Storm of Swords. Readership response ranged from praise to capitulation, but Martin said the chapter "was painful to write, it should be painful to read, it should be a scene that rips your heart out, and fills you with terror and grief."
The wars in the novels are much more morally complex than a fight between good and evil. The novels are to reflect that wars have substantial death rates. The novels' attitude toward war is shaped by Martin's experiences with the controversies of the Vietnam War. As Martin was against the Vietnam War, the books reflect some of his views on war and violence and their costs. However, he hates to think that the voice of the author comes through like in the Barefoot Septon's anti-war speech in A Feast for Crows, as he wants to remain an invisible puppeteer.
Among the plot twists are the death of apparently crucial characters and the reappearances of believed-to-be dead characters. However, The Atlantic said that Martin's penchant for unpredictability may make the reader grow increasingly skeptical of apparent deaths, alluding to Jon Snow's fate in A Dance with Dragons. Martin believes that bringing back a dead character necessitates a transformative experience of the character. The body may be moving, but some aspect of the spirit is changed or lost. One of the characters who has come back repeatedly from death is Beric Dondarrion, The Lightning Lord, and what has happened with him echoes with some of the other revived characters; bits of his humanity and his past lives are lost every time he comes back from death, his flesh is falling away from him, but he remembers the mission he was sent to do before death.
The fantasy genre rarely focuses on sex and sexuality as much as the Ice and Fire books do, often treating sexuality in a juvenile way or neglecting it completely in Martin's eyes. Considering sexuality an important driving force in human life that should not be excluded from the narrative, Martin equipped many of the Ice and Fire characters with a sex drive to make the books truer. Martin was also fascinated by medieval contrasts where knights venerated their ladies with poems and wore their favors in tournaments while their armies mindlessly raped women in wartime.
The inexistent concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages served as a model for Daenerys's sexual activity at the age of 13 in the books. Many high-born women were married at or below that age because the onset of sexual maturity turned children into full adults. With the Targaryens, the novels also allude to the incestuous practices in the Ptolemaic dynasty of Ancient Egypt to keep its bloodlines pure. However, Martin also saw a sociopathic element in the incestuous relationship of the twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister, whose strong bonding inhibits their pairing with others whom they regard as inferior.
Martin aims to let the readers experience the novels' sex scenes, "whether it's a great transcendent, exciting, mind blowing sex, or whether it's disturbing, twisted, dark sex, or disappointing perfunctory sex". However, he blamed the American puritanical attitudes towards sex for some readers' offense with the novels' sex scenes. Martin believes only a strong double standard can explain the lack of objections to an axe going through someone's head, while a penis going into a vagina causes aversion. Accusing the novels of gratuitous sex is inseparable to accusing them of gratuitous violence, feasting or heraldry, as neither advance the plot. Providing sensory detail for an immersive experience is more important than plot advancement for Martin.
Because of child pornography laws, the television adaptation was forced to either extenuate the sex scenes for the younger characters or age up all characters. HBO valued the sex scenes so much to opt for the latter, adding some sex scenes to the TV series while leaving out others from the books. The premiere of Game of Thrones was followed by many debates about the depiction of sex, rape, and female agency in the franchise. USA Today's assessment that HBO added "so many buxom, naked prostitutes that TV's Westeros makes Vegas look like a convent" earned Martin's reply that there were many brothels in the Middle Ages. Amber Taylor of The Atlantic saw the depiction of sex as one of the show's most distinctive aspects, "cheesy only insofar as sex is fundamentally absurd". Despite HBO's freedom to titillate viewers with sex and nudity, none of the show's sex scenes felt superfluous for her; some of Daenerys's TV scenes "make her vulnerability more real than any political exposition". Taylor also lauded HBO's "admirable choice [...] that its nonconsensual sex scenes are deeply unarousing, in marked contrast with shows on other networks that use a historical setting as window dressing for prurient depictions of rape". Some critics also analyzed sexuality in the light of women's powers (see section #Feminism).
The idea of who people are and what makes them who they are is a prominent theme throughout the series, becoming more prominent as the series goes on. Point of View characters change their names, even to a point where they lose their identity in the chapter title. This is best exemplified in the character of Arya, who goes through a number of identity changes as she makes her way from King's Landing to Braavos: Arry, Nymeria, Nan, Salty and Cat of the Canals, among others. (Her chapters in A Dance With Dragons see her called 'The Blind Girl' and 'The Ugly Little Girl'.) Martin says "Arya has gone through a dozen different identities, even getting to Braavos — where the ultimate goal of the Faceless Men is to become no-one, and to be able to assume identities as one assumes a suit of clothes.
Arya is not the only character to change her name or have her name changed for her. Her sister Sansa Stark assumes the identity of Alayne Stone. Tyrion Lannister travels under the names Yollo and Hugor Hill. Catelyn Stark becomes Lady Stoneheart. And Theon Greyjoy's chapters in A Dance with Dragons are titled: Reek, The Prince of Winterfell, The Turncloak, A Ghost in Winterfell, and finally, Theon again. Martin says: "Identity is one of the things that I'm playing with in this series as a whole, and in this particular book — what is it that makes us who we are? Is it our birth, our blood, our position in the world? Or something more integral to us? Our values, our memories, et cetera." 
Martin provides a variety of female characters to explore some of the ramifications of the novels being set in a patriarchal society. Martin says that he wrote all characters as human beings with the same basic needs, dreams and influences, and that his female characters are to cover the same wide spectrum of human traits like the males. Martin claims to identify with all point-of-view characters in the writing process despite significant differences to him, be it gender or age. He sees himself neither as misogynistic or a paragon of feminism, although he acknowledged that some values inoculated within childhood can never be fully abandoned, even those consciously rejected. He says that he appreciates the discussions whether the series is feminist or anti-feminist, and is very gratified of the many female readers and how much they like at least some of the female characters. He says that he does not presume to make feminist statements in either way . Martin's books frequently depict and refer to rape and humiliation, most cases of which are perpetrated upon women.
The Atlantic noted that Daenerys and Queen Cersei share the parallels of being forced into marriage, having powerful strengths of will, and being utterly ruthless toward their enemies. As bloodline and succession are the quickest and surest way to assert strength in Westeros, Cersei takes advantage of motherhood by procreating with her brother Jaime, thereby leaving her hated husband Robert without a true heir in revenge. Martin said that Cersei's walk of public penitence in A Dance with Dragons may be read as misogynistic or feminist. Jane Shore, mistress of King Edward IV, was punished similarly after Edward's death. Cersei is defined by her pride, and this punishment was directed at women to break their pride, but was never inflicted on men.
Critics addressed the series' portrayal of women after Game of Thrones began airing in 2011. Ginia Bellafante wrote in a piece from The New York Times that the series was "boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population's other half" and considered it a "true perversion" that "all of this illicitness [in the TV series] has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise". Although there may be women who read books like the Ice and Fire series, Bellafante said to never have "met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to The Hobbit first". The article received so many responses that the New York Times had to close down the comments section.
Ilana Teitelbaum of The Huffington Post responded in an article called "Dear New York Times: A Game of Thrones Is Not Just for Boys", claiming that Bellafante's piece was not only rife with inaccuracies, but also patronizing to female readers. Teitelbaum defended the many sex scenes in the TV series because the books as a source sprawl with them. She encouraged discussion of the Ice and Fire books and the fantasy genre from a feminist perspective, but rejected Bellafante's point that only men are interested in fantasy, considering Bellafante's characterization of fantasy as "boy fiction" as a promotion of gender stereotyping offensive to the genre as well as to women. Scott Meslow of The Atlantic noted the need to differentiate between depicting misogyny and endorsing misogyny, as the series is set in a world in which sex is the primary means by which women can assert their power. Meslow states that although the TV series may sometimes toe the line between Skinimax-style exploitation and genuine plot advancement, the sexual scenes also invite the viewers to sympathize with the series' women.
The novels portray several competing religions. Martin included religion in the novels to make them more realistic. After all, religion was very important to people living in the Middle Ages. Considering himself a lapsed Catholic with atheist or agnostic streaks, Martin is fascinated by religion and spirituality. Since entirely made-up religions are more difficult to make plausible, George R. R. Martin based the series' major religions on real religious systems, which he tweaked or expanded with imaginative elements, without doing one-to-one transformations. The fictional history of Westeros shows how each religion evolved. Each of the religions reflects its culture's temperament. However, Martin regards any (real or fictional) religion's claim to truth with suspicion and has never been satisfied by standard answers to questions like how a benevolent God allows for a world full of suffering.
According to Time magazine, no religion is presented as the true faith, although there are eerie displays of power on many sides, nor do any have a monopoly on virtue. Martin tries to slowly reveal in how far the many different kinds of magic in the Ice and Fire world may be manifestations of the same mysterious supernatural forces, and readers can puzzle out the relation between the religions and the various magics. Readers remain free to wonder about the validity, teachings and supernatural power of the competing religions in Ice and Fire. Martin said the series' gods are unlikely to appear as deus-ex-machina in Westeros.
Faith of the Seven 
The Faith of the Seven, often called simply "The Faith", is the predominant religion for most of Westeros' population, although it has only few followers on the Iron Islands and in the North. Martin based the Faith on the medieval Catholic church and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Seven describe the seven aspects of one god, consisting of the Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Smith, Warrior, and Stranger instead of Christianity's Father, Son and Holy Spirit. According to Martin, the Mother, Maiden and Crone were inspired by Pagan views of womanhood, while the Father, Smith, Warrior as traditional Abrahamic masculine elements were added later. The Stranger, who is neither male nor female, represents mystery and death. Each godly aspect is in charge of different things; the Mother is prayed to for healthy child birth, the Warrior for strength in battle. The symbol of the Faith is a septagram (continuously drawn seven-pointed star).
Many of the objects and titles around the Faith draw their names from the Latin word for "seven," which is septem. A temple or edifice of the faith is called a sept. A priest of the Seven is called a septon (male) or septa (female). The Faith's hierarchy is also drawn from Catholicism, being headed by the High Septon, who in turn is elected by a clerical high council known as the Most Devout. The Faith also has equivalents of monks and nuns of various orders, of whom the Silent Sisters are the most prominent, taking a vow of silence and caring for the bodies of the dead. In the fictional backstory, the Andals introduced the Faith of the Seven during their invasion of Westeros. The High Septon and Most Devout were based in Oldtown for thousands of years, until the Targaryens conquered Westeros and moved the Faith's seat into the newly constructed capital city at King's Landing. The Seven Pointed Star is among the Faith's most important holy texts.
Old Gods 
The Old Gods are nameless deities worshipped by the Northern population of Westeros. Martin loosely based this belief system on "animism and traditional Pagan and various other Celtic systems and Norse systems", which he blended with fantasy elements (Weirwood trees) of his own imagining. The fictional backstory gives the Children of the Forest as the origin of this religion, who worshipped trees, rocks, and streams when Westeros was still populated by many non-human races. Instead of temples, scriptures or a formalized priestly caste, the Children of the Forest used Weirwood trees as their religious symbols, white trees with red leaves and red sap that would make the trees appear to bleed when cut. The Weirwood trees eventually became the center of their worship. When the First Men (human beings) came to Westeros from Essos, they accepted the Old Gods as their gods. The Andal Invasion resulted in the conversion of the southern population of Westeros to the Faith of the Seven, while the First Men in the North remained unconquered. Their descendants in the north still worship the Old Gods. Many ancient godswoods of Southern noble houses remain as converted secular gardens.
The worship of the Drowned God is a local religion of the Iron Islands, and reflects the Islands' cruel environment. In the fictional history, when the Andals invaded Westeros, they usually forced the local First Men to convert to the Faith of the Seven, but the Andals that invaded the Iron Islands instead adopted the local religion and culture. According to the Ironborns' belief, the Storm god was an evil god and drowned the Drowned God. The Drowned God now lives in the sea, which the Ironborn see as their heaven to which they will return after death. The Ironborn do not fear dying at sea or drowning; indeed it is their saying that "What is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger." In a ritual that Martin compared to baptism, people are drowned in sea water (their holy water) and then brought back to life. The belief system of the Drowned God encourages martial prowess, and essentially preaches that the Ironborn's traditional activities - piracy, sea raiding for treasure and female captives, causing wanton death and destruction - are all positive and praiseworthy. Capital punishment often takes the form of drowning in seawater as a sacrifice to the Drowned God. Martin's inspiration for the Drowned God came largely from the godlike entities of HP Lovecraft's horror stories; in particularly, Cthulhu and Dagon.
R'hllor, also known as the Red God and the Lord of Light, is a religion practiced primarily across the Narrow Sea, and his priests have only had a small presence in the Seven Kingdoms at the beginning of A Game of Thrones. This religion has a strong focus on prophecy and on ecstatic visions that one receives through communion with the flames. The antithesis of R'hllor is the "Great Other", a god of ice, darkness, and death. According to Martin, this faith is roughly based upon the fire worship of Zoroastrianism. This religion's dualistic aspects of a good and an evil god are also inspired by Zoroastrianism, along with the Cathars of Medieval Europe who were annihilated during the Albigensian Crusade. In A Song of Ice and Fire, ancient prophecies in the books of Asshai suggest that the ageless struggle between the two deities will come to a head when the messianic figure Azor Ahai returns to the world, wielding the sword Lightbringer and stands against the invasion of the Others, a supernatural race who live on the furthermost North and are said to be children of the Great Other. A prominent worshipper of R'hllor is the priestess Melisandre, who has powers given to her by a divine force and believes that all other religions worship demons and have to be destroyed. Beginning in A Clash of Kings, Melisandre foresees Stannis Baratheon as the reborn Azor Ahai and influences him to convert to this faith and use the fiery rituals of R'hllor in his quest for the Iron Throne.
A Dance with Dragons explores the different religions of Westeros and Essos more than any other novel in the series. Arya's Braavos chapters in A Dance with Dragons refer to 17 different obscure religions, which Martin is "probably never going to reveal in much detail". An Essos location named the Isle of the Gods also makes subtle nods to other fantasy authors and mythoses Martin admires, for example homages to Roger Zelazny and H. P. Lovecraft.
The god of death is an element of several religions in Westeros and Essos, even being the center of the Cult of the Faceless Men in Essos. Martin thought that "worship of death is an interesting basis for religion because after all, death is the one universal. It doesn't seem to matter what gods you pray to. We all die in the real world and in fantasy worlds. So if there was one culture where you did not die, I suspect that God would become very popular. They will promise us eternal life, but whatever." He said the belief that "the world we live in was created by the evil god [is] kind of persuasive" when "you look at the world, particularly the Medieval world."
Food is such a central element in the Ice and Fire series that some critics have accused Martin of "gratuitous feasting". By fans' count, the first four novels name more than 160 dishes, ranging from peasant meals to royal feasts featuring camel, crocodile, singing squid, seagulls, lacquered ducks and spiny grubs. Adam Bruski of The Huffington Post said the vivid descriptions of food do not just lend color and flavor to the fictional world but almost appear as a supporting character. Some dishes have a foreshadowing nature or are particularly appropriate to the mood and temperament of their diners. Much of the realism of Martin's cultures comes through their unique foods and tastes. The meals signal everything from a character's disposition to plot developments, but also forebode the last profitable harvest before the coming winter. Inedible-sounding food was eaten at the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, preparing readers for the nauseating circumstances to come.
Fans seeking to immerse themselves deeper in their favorite fictional worlds have started cooking dishes from the books. The culinary fan blog "Inn at the Crossroads" received over a million hits. Martin, who is "very good at eating [but] not too much of a cook", received repeated requests to write a cookbook over the years. Two rival cookbooks based on the series are announced, with A Feast of Ice and Fire being released in May 2012.
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