We all know that the crossroads inn is the location of pivotal scenes: Nymeria bites Joffrey nearby; Catelyn takes Tyrion prisoner; Sandor and Arya kill some people from Arya's revenge list; and Brienne meets Gendry and slays two of Arya's demons. While the site of the inn puts it at the perfect location to mark turning points in the story, There has to be a deeper meaning. Why would Septon Meribald spend so much time relaying the detailed history of the inn unless that history carries meaning?
Some of the pieces of the symbolism started to come together when I reread the scene where Theon kneels for a blessing from his uncle Aeron, who pours seawater onto Theon's head, confirming him as a follower of the drowned god. Theon reminds himself that he is kneeling because this act of obedience is a small concession as he works his way toward a crown (as the future king of the Iron Islands). The kneeling takes place in front of an inn.
I realized that Theon's kneeling, crown and inn had to connect with Thorren Stark kneeling to concede to Aegon the conqueror, who took the crown of the Kings of Winter from him at that moment. Later, the Inn of the Kneeling Man was built at the spot where Thorren bent the knee.
So we have the Inn of the Kneeling Man where Thorren is "uncrowned" (although he rises as warden of the North) and the unnamed inn on Pyke where Theon is "drowned". How does this connect to the crossroads inn?
The earliest known name of the inn at the crossroads was The Two Crowns, Meribald tells us, after Jaehaerys I Targaryen and his sister/queen, Alysanne. Jaehaerys built the King's Road on which the inn was located. So the association of inns and crowns seems to be established.
But then the inn changed: a new innkeeper became an ironsmith on the side and "forged" a sign with a black, three-headed dragon. The inn then became known as The Clanking Dragon. I suspect "clanking" is an example of one of GRRM's wordplay clues, and that it can also be read as "clan king." The clan of the king at that time would be Targaryen, but we are getting a hint here that the Targaryen "clan" is splitting into factions as the Blackfyre line, illegitimate descendants of King Aegon IV, coincidentally adopt the three-headed black dragon as their sigil. Lord Darry, loyal to the Targaryens, chops the sign into pieces and throws it in the river. The wiki reminds us, "Eventually one of the iron dragon's heads washed up on the Quiet Isle, red with rust." So the era of the three-headed black dragon ends and it appears that the red dragon with one head has emerged - but it is rusty. Perhaps representing the decline of House Targaryen's power and influence? Too much madness, too much reliance on Hands of the King?
So the signs and changing names of the inn seem to be hints about the history of Westeros, whether or not a crown is used directly. The Bellringer Inn is another old name of the crossroads inn. We know that the Battle of the Bells was a decisive victory that proved Robert Baratheon's rebellion was a force to be reckoned with. So this name for the inn could have been an homage to that moment in Westeros history and the impending change in leadership. Speaking of which, the books give us another inn called The Peach, home to Robert's illegitimate daughter, Bella, conceived around the time of the Battle of the Bells. The sign for this inn is a peach with a bite out of it. Could this be foreshadowing of the injury that will befall Brienne at the crossroads inn? In A Feast for Crows, Biter will bite Brienne's face, removing a chunk of flesh from her cheek. We also had a famous biting of a peach by Renly as Stannis watched. Soon, Melisandre's shadow baby slays Renly, and Stannis can't stop thinking about that peach.
I can't turn off my instinct to look for puns and wordplay, however, so I wonder whether there is also a little anagram in Bellringer? Could "rebel ring" be a reference to the War of the Ninepenny Kings? Or does it come back to Robert again, who recruited a ring of supporters for his rebellion?
Once the author has established the inn at the crossroads as a hub for information about the Westeros monarchy, perhaps he uses these less central inns to provide additional hints that will tell us what to expect in the future. For instance, Davos has a key meeting in an inn on Dragonstone:
Davos had a thirst. He took his leave of his sons and turned his steps toward the inn. Out front squatted a waist-high gargoyle, so eroded by rain and salt that his features were all but obliterated. He and Davos were old friends, though. He gave a pat to the stone head as he went in. “Luck,” he murmured. (Davos I, A Clash of Kings)
Tyrion is compared to a gargoyle at an earlier point in the series and, at a later point in the series, we are told that sailors rub the head of a dwarf for luck. Does this "sign" outside of the inn foreshadow an important meeting between Davos and Tyrion? And will that meeting lead to regime change? This may not tie into the inn pattern, but Robb and Catelyn Stark have an important conversation at the tomb of King Tristifer at Oldstones, which is also eroded by rain to the point of being almost unrecognizable. Soon after that scene, Robb dies at the Red Wedding.
Tyrion has a stay at an inn that points to another motif associated with inns: metallurgy. We had the owner of what is now the crossroads inn making a three-headed iron dragon, and we have Gendry (heir to a king?) setting up shop as a blacksmith at the crossroads. When Tyrion arrives at King's Landing to act as Hand of the King while Tywin wages war, he discovers that smallfolk are flocking to the city in search of protection only to find that they are "taxed" of their belongings for the privilege of entering the sheltering walls. Tyrion doesn't like the hardship and suffering he has seen on the road, and he doesn't admire his sister's heartless taxation of these desperate people fleeing the bloodshed and destruction of the countryside. As he observes this strife and hardship of his sister's rule, he stays at an inn "beneath the sign of the broken anvil." The monarchy is not functioning as it should, in Tyrion's eyes, and the inn where he is staying reflects the "broken" condition of the smith's workplace.
There are other specific inns that seem significant:
Catelyn stays at an inn on Eel Alley in King's Landing when she makes her secret trip to tell Ned about the attempt on Bran's life. It appears that Jaime and Cersei stayed at that same inn (Jaime recalls in a flashback) when Cersei dressed as a serving wench and seduced Jaime until he agreed to join the Kingsguard. (Cersei later says that it was located on Weasel Alley, but Jaime corrects her.)
Bran III and Jon V in ASoS both describe an old, ruined inn in the area of the north known as The Gift, strongly associated with Queen Alysanne (who was strongly associated with The Two Crowns, the early name for the crossroads inn). Bran's traveling group decide to stay overnight in the tower called the Queenscrown, built by Alysanne, instead of huddling in the ruined inn. Jon's group of wildlings spot an old man and a horse trying to take shelter at the old inn.
Jon walked away. A rotten apple squished beneath his heel. Styr will kill him. The Magnar had said as much at Greyguard; any kneelers they met were to be put to death at once, to make certain they could not raise the alarm. Ride with them, eat with them, fight with them. Did that mean he must stand mute and helpless while they slit an old man's throat?
Near the edge of the village, Jon came face-to-face with one of the guards Styr had posted. The Thenn growled something in the Old Tongue and pointed his spear back toward the inn. Get back where you belong, Jon guessed. But where is that?
He walked towards the water, and discovered an almost dry spot beneath the leaning daub-and-wattle wall of a tumbledown cottage that had mostly tumbled down. That was where Ygritte found him sitting, staring off across the rain-whipped lake. "I know this place," he told her when she sat beside him. (ASoS, Jon V)
Jon is ordered to kill the man, but he won't do it and he flees the wildlings (with the help of Bran's direwolf) and begins his return to the Night's Watch. A significant turning point in his identity and his arc. What does it mean that the wildling orders Jon to "get back" where he belongs, and points to the inn? What does it mean that Jon tells Ygritte that he knows this place, and looks to the Queenscrown tower? The Queenscrown seems to bring us full circle again to The Two Crowns and Jaehaerys and Alysanne and an era when the realm was relatively united and at peace. What does it mean that both Jon and Bran are present on this stormy night at this place?
There are still a lot of details to sort out. Many of the inns are located on riverbanks or next to other bodies of water. There is a strong motif of apples associated with many of the inns, perhaps related to the peach symbolism mentioned earlier. Davos stops at an inn where he eats Sister Stew, a seafood specialty of the Three Sisters islands. Jaime, Jon, Arya and Bran all encounter ruined inns. Brienne stays at a number of inns on her journey - the Old Stone Bridge and the Seven Swords (a reference to the kingsguard). Sam Tarly finds many inns in Braavos with specific names (Arya, as the Blind Girl, visits many of the same places) and Maester Aemon relays a memory or dream: "I dreamt of Oldtown, Sam. I was young again and my brother Egg was with me, with that big knight he served. We were drinking in the old inn where they make the fearsomely strong cider." So there we have a future king drinking strong cider (an apple reference again) and a link to Brienne through her ancestor, Duncan the Tall. Speaking of beverages at inns, when Brienne and Jaime and Ser Cleos Frey stopped at the Inn of the Kneeling Man, specific mention was made of the ale that was brewed at the inn. Could there be wordplay around beer + inn = Brienne?
A number of the people staying at inns or encountering ruined inns seem to be central characters, whose names come up often in this forum in connection with predictions about the future of the monarchy. I think there could be something important about the future of the Iron Throne (= Inn or Other) hidden in the clues about inns.