Welcome, all you fellow lizards!
No predictions here. Instead, I want to analyse the three characters from the original Game of Thrones prologue through a psychological lens, as I think it might shed some light on the subtext of what GRRM is trying to portray with these characters. Apologies in advance for the long read but hey, what else you gonna do while George finishes off that “final quarter” of Winds of Winter? Exactly.
This interpretation is based on what is a sightly outdated model these days (but less so in the 90s when GRRM was first writing) - the Triune brain. You’ve probably heard of our ‘lizard brain’ that kicks in when there’s a fight or flight situation. Say you’re in a dimly lit car park. it’s eerily quiet. No-one else around. That part of your brain that screams ‘get the hell out of here!’ is your lizard brain. But there are two others we’ll need to look at, too.
Quick background for those who want to read up further: Paul D. MacLean devised this model of the brain in the 1960s as a simple-to-understand explanation of how the different parts of the brain evolved and work together. Even though this theory has been criticised in recent years, it still serves as a useful model to explain why our brains work the way they do. This page has nifty easy-to-digest diagrams and such: https://www.lisahosokawa.space/blog/triune-brain-model-why-are-we-using-it
Anyway, a short summary: there are three parts of the brain, the Lizard brain, the Mammalian brain and the Human brain, with the last being the most recent to evolve. I believe our three prologue characters have much in common with these three distinct parts of the brain, and GRRM may be using them to introduce some concepts that play a bigger role in the story to come. So let’s do a quick Triune Brain 101.
NB: I’m no expert and these are all simplifications (i.e. go easy on me).
The Lizard Brain (Survival state)
The smallest and oldest part of the brain, also called the basal ganglia. It takes care of:
Survival / sensing danger
Flight or fight responses
Eating + drinking
Basic bodily functions
Temperature and blood flow
This is the part that kicks in if you try to hold your breath too long, the part that keeps you from being a corpse, basically, and it can be the most rigid and compulsive of the three parts.
We’ll be associating this part with Gared, the grizzled man of the Night’s Watch, who escapes the Others but is later beheaded by Ned Stark for desertion.
The Mammalian Brain (Emotional state)
This next oldest part, bigger than the lizard brain but still dwarfed by the third part, is associated with the limbic system, it is responsible for:
Pleasure / pain
This is the emotional heart - the part that takes care of the survival of the extended self, family etc. As well as providing the emotional centre, it holds the functions of memory and observation, and also does some decision-making duty.
Will, the young poacher-turned-ranger, is our stand-in for this part of the brain.
The Human Brain (Executive state)
The youngest part of the brain, this is also by far the largest. Also known as the neo-cortex (bit of a simplification, but that’s fine for a literary model). It is the sphere of:
This is the part that that is always in control, unless life-or-death situations arise. It has the most potential to grow and change, and is the most flexible. Broadly speaking, it is what separates us from animals.
The ‘lordling’ Ser Waymar Royce will be our personification of this aspect.
So, how do we link our three prologue characters to each part of the brain? GRRM provides each with some defining characteristics and roles to play in the chapter which will allow us to more easily map them to each part. You can even re-read the prologue now, before going any further, to see if any of the above rings true.
Didn't think you would OK, now I’ll get into the connecting tissue. GRRM uses a few different techniques to make associations. Physical characteristics, behaviour, dialogue, metaphor, etc. Together, he’s able to paint a picture of of each aspect of the Triune Brain. We’ll start with:
Gared - “Old Lizard Brain”
As an overview, we can say that throughout the prologue it is Gared who is most concerned with communicating ideas of self-preservation. He has the instincts of a veteran of the Night’s Watch, and is mistrustful of his young commander. He even gets the first words of the book:
“We should start back.”
He notices the woods growing dark, and his instincts kick in. Flight v fight.
We should also mention here that Gared has spent “forty years in the Night’s Watch, man and boy”, which fits our model: the oldest part of brain is the oldest member of the trio. He is also likely the smallest, Bran describing him as ‘scrawny’. This also fits the Triune brain model.
We then see Gared taking note of the dangers of the temperature, another of our Lizard Brain functions:
“There's hard riding before us. I don't like this weather. If it snows, we could be a fortnight getting back, and snow's the best we can hope for. Ever seen an ice storm, my lord?”
A warning which Ser Waymar takes no heed of. We’ll come to him soon.
We then get a long speech from Gared about the dangers of the cold. This is something which Gared is kind of obsessed with, unsurprisingly being north of The Wall. But then, as the lizard brain’s job is keep the body alive, if we read ‘the cold’ as a metaphor for death this fits in perfectly with our analogy. The long speech is oddly eloquent coming from the usually sullen Gared, as Waymar notes, but after all - protecting against the ‘cold of death’ is the Lizard brain’s domain.
Then Gared reveals his face, pulling down his hood:
Here GRRM adds another layer to the symbolism. Lizards typically have no ears and are cold-blooded: the first hint that we are following a Triune Brain model. His next contribution comes when they ride deeper into the woods:
Again, Gared is the early-warning system. And again, Waymar pays no heed. Will, as usual, is caught in the middle. It’s worth noting that the three Night’s Watchmen rarely work together as part of a cohesive unit. Warnings are unheeded, commands are accepted begrudgingly, bad decisions are made all around. If this is a picture of the brain at work, then there is something amiss in the workings of its grey cells.
Next, Gared insists on starting a fire.
The Lizard brain is again overruled by the commanding Human brain, but Will sees Gared seething:
Gared's hood shadowed his face, but Will could see the hard glitter in his eyes as he stared at the knight. For a moment he was afraid the older man would go for his sword. It was a short, ugly thing, its grip discolored by sweat, its edge nicked from hard use, but Will would not have given an iron bob for the lordling's life if Gared pulled it from its scabbard.
Will observes that, if push comes to shove, Gared would have no trouble overcoming the commander - well, the Lizard brain should have dominance in survival situations. Gared accepts the order, however. The Lizard brain is unceremoniously quietened, and from this moment on Gared is literally gone from the prologue. We see and hear no more from him, his disappearance unremarked upon but felt keenly, as we will see.
In Gared’s absence, the Others arrive. “Team Brain” must cope with this threat now at only two-thirds strength.
Will: “The Animal Heart”
Will is our POV character, and central to providing us with details of the story as well as glimpses of back-story. Through him we experience memories, emotions and value judgements of the two other men. This is the realm of the Mammalian brain, forever sandwiched between the others.
We should here note that in terms of age, Will lies between Gared and Ser Waymar, which again fits with the Triune model. Also fitting are his first words, which provide a memory:
“My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.
Through Will we shall receive other memories. He is the mammalian brain in full operation:
Fear, laughter, eventual bravery as the habit is formed. Mammalian brain traits all. Will also shares something of Gared’s unease - these two parts of the brain do share this connection. Will is able to turn the instinctual unease in to an emotion, however: fear.
Will also has some sense of social structure. He reflects on the men back at the Wall laughing at Ser Waymar’s pompousness, and thinks about how hard it must be to take orders from a man you have laughed at in private. And for some extra mammalian symbolism, GRRM makes Will’s back-story be that of a poacher, who was caught red-handed, skinning a buck in a high lord’s woods. He also has a talent for moving silently through the woods. All very wolf-like.
His memory skills are further displayed next, as he recounts in great detail the wildling camp:
When Ser Waymar attempts to make an inference, Will is quick to correct him. Memory is the domain of the mammalian brain, and it is in this regard that Will shows his strength:
Smaller though it may be, the mammalian brain must assert itself in its own specialised areas.
Now might be a good time to note the difference in sizes between the three men, expressed in the size of the horses they ride: Will and Gared ride small garrons, while Ser Waymar rides a “great black destrier”, a huge warhorse not fit for ranging. This fits the Triune model as the neocortex is bigger than both other parts combined.
Will then climbs a tree (more animal-like symbolism) and observes the arrival of the Others. But with Gared - our Lizard brain - gone from the story, we start to see a disconnect at work. Will finds himself experiencing fear but is now unable to process it:
“Fear filled his gut like a meal he could not digest. He whispered a prayer to the nameless gods of the wood, and slipped his dirk free of its sheath. He put it between his teeth to keep both hands free for climbing. The taste of cold iron in his mouth gave him comfort.”
Overwhelmed by his instinctual fear, he turns to comforting habit - one realm of the mammal brain: a whispered prayer, the feel of a familiar object. Soon afterwards, when he opens his mouth to utter a warning to his commander, he finds himself unable to, and even begins to doubt his own instincts:
“Will opened his mouth to call down a warning, and the words seemed to freeze in his throat. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow, some trick of the moonlight. What had he seen, after all?”
Gared’s absence leaves Will literally unable to correctly process his fears, or even act on them. The survival instinct is gone, replaced with … what? An inner voice telling him not to worry, to ignore the clues his senses are giving him? Most unhelpful. This could have something to do with his close proximity to the trees (which, due to Bloodraven’s presence, could be treated almost as background characters). It’s an eerie moment in a chapter full of eeriness.
The Other chooses this moment to make its entrance. And now we come to Ser Waymar.
Ser Waymar: Man of Reason
The leader of the party, and also the youngest; also the largest in stature, on his mighty warhorse; and also the only one who is seemingly interested in getting to the bottom of the mystery of the dead wildlings.
In the Triune brain model he is the neocortex, the most recently-evolved part of the brain. The human aspect. In his modes of speech we also see this: he questions, he probes, he attempts to find evidence and draw conclusions:
"Are they dead?" Royce asked softly. "What proof have we?”
Yet he is mocking of Gared’s lizardly ‘instincts’.
"Do the dead frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
"We have a long ride before us," Gared pointed out. "Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling."
Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. "It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”
This is the neocortex keeping the lizard brain in check. We cannot allow our lizard instincts to lead us, but it would be unwise to cut them off completely. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Then Waymar does ask Gared a question:
"What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?" Ser Waymar asked casually.
Casually. Almost as an afterthought. When we access the lizard brain, we often do so without thinking, of course. And then Gared’s ‘eloquent’ response surprises Waymar.
"Such eloquence, Gared," Ser Waymar observed. "I never suspected you had it in you.”
To tap into one’s lizard brain is akin to channeling a primal force. As unsettling as it may be, however, it serves a purpose. But Ser Waymar’s condescending tone keeps Gared in check yet again. It also marks an escalation in their tension.
Next, we see that Ser Waymar is consistently the voice of reason and analysis:
He deduces with the cold calculation of the neocortex. But not without the aid of Will’s mammalian memory skill. His determination to solve this mystery will cause instinct to abandon him, however. More evidence of the ‘separation’ that has occurred in our Triune brain model next:
Ser Waymar ties his horse far from the other two. Gared is soon to vanish, Will to be sent up a tree to passively observe. How will our Human aspect cope on its own against the threat of the Others? His sword is sharp and bright, as a mind is sharp. It is no longer working in harmony with the other two aspects, however. Ser Waymar on his own lacks the fundamentals of survival.
The cold has snuck up on him without the Lizard brain to sense it in advance. And his Mammalian brain has been silenced, watching from a tree, 'unable' to call out. The butchery that follows by the Others is the final death of the neocortex, and as the Human brain is conquered, so it in turn attacks the next level down. Wighted Waymar rises to attack Will as an icy parody of life: an animated corpse.
Only the lizard brain is left alive in this scenario, due to it having the sense to remove itself from the action. Of course, Ned Stark soon beheads Gared for desertion. This is possibly mirroring by GRRM: just as the primal forces of the Others exterminate the human aspect, so too do the ‘civilised’ forces of Winterfell execute the 'lizard' aspect. Each are punished for their inability to cooperate and work as a functioning team, leaving the unit as a whole vulnerable to external threats. This is a theme that plays out as the books continue.
The Triune Model at work
So how does GRRM use this model elsewhere, and to what end? Well, there are several parallels and connections. The dragon has three heads. The three forks of the Trident river. The three ruling triarchs of Volantis. We have no shortage of ‘three-in-one’ symbolism. But one that most closely mirrors the Triune model is probably the layout of Winterfell. As we will see, the bulk of the castle closely resembles that image of the brain most of us carry in our mind: a labyrinth of grey matter. The neocortex.
The godswood, which covers several acres, is no small part of the castle either:
This green hub of nature is our mammalian brain, at the heart of which lies the giant weirwood, our central lizard brain representative:
Ancient, far older than the grey maze of Winterfell itself and the other trees that surround it. Blood-red leaves at the centre of a green godswood, which lies at the heart of a sprawling grey mass - a perfect model for the situation and size of the Lizard brain in our Triune model. The deep, dark pool next to the tree may even be analogous to something deeper still.
OK this is already way too long, so I’ll leave it there for now. If I have time to write a follow-up I might focus on some examples in the rest of the books. Thanks for reading to the end!