It began as a book, as all the best things do. It was a good book, of noble birth, penned by a bearded mage in New Mexico. Quickly, the book grew, first one chapter and then the next, followed by intricate maps and twisting, occasionally inwardly looking genealogies. What was envisioned as the first of three turned out to herald a parade of seven, if the gods are good. Thus, 20 years ago, with a few million keystrokes in WordStar 4.0, A Song of Ice and Fire was born, and George R.R. Martin’s literary reign terror began.
In 20 years worth of Westerosi wheeling and dealing, the beloved, bearded author has served up shocks to our collective system like so many goblets of wine at a fantasy feast. Some were good, some were bad, some were brutally unexpected. Most included the death of a monarch. No list of atrocities in A Song of Ice and Fire could be comprehensive, but, in honor of this auspicious anniversary (not to mention the new illustrated edition of A Game of Thrones, which Del Rey Books is releasing next week to commemorate this auspicious event), we’ve rounded up 20 of the most shocking moments in the five books in the series to date. (The most recent season of the HBO adaptation certainly added a few more, but for the purposes of this list, we’re waiting to see how things turn out on the page.)
Though it should go without saying, the number of spoilers ahead is roughly the same as the number of times we’ve been disappointed by a Baratheon. (So, a lot.)
20. Maester Aemon, Long-Lost Targaryen
You know how it is, sometimes you’re just swapping stories with a pious elderly man about how your families have been slaughtered when the tender, grandfatherly figure reveals he’s one of the last remaining members of a fallen dynasty—the very one that killed your grandfather and uncle. These things happen, provided you’re Jon Snow. Maybe the shock here isn’t so much Aemon’s Targaryen blood as much as the idea that someone could survive in this godforsaken kingdom to the age of 100. There’s also the fact that he could very well be discussing familial tragedies with his great-great-great-grandnephew.
19. Mance Rayder Rides Again
When Stannis, the law-and-order candidate for the Iron Throne, burns Mance Rayder alive after the Wildlings’ ill-fated invasion of the Wall, it seems like an expected end to yet another king who 1) we’ve spent a lot of time with, 2) come to kind of care about, and, 3) apparently don’t deserve. Except it’s not. Turns out Jon fired that mercy arrow into a glamoured Rattleshirt, another pawn in one of Melisandre’s endless shell games. So far, in his second act, Mance is really living his best life, (probably) getting captured and left for old-fashioned Winterfell dead by Ramsay Bolton. Though none of that has stopped the fan theories…
18. The Massacre at Craster’s Keep
It doesn’t truly come as a shock that someone killed Craster, the wildling answer to Walder Frey—only that it didn’t happen sooner. Though I’m sure it came as a bit of a surprise to Craster that his demise was linked to a few loaves of bread and a dude named Clubfoot Karl. Regardless, the Night’s Watch mutiny not only takes down one cranky oldster’s in-home brothel, but also the sitting Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont. It’s a huge moment that showcases the fraying of the Watch, propels Jon Snow toward a dangerous promotion, and puts romance (in the form of Gilly) in the path of Samwell Tarly.
17. Jamie Lannister Pays His Debts With a Pound of Flesh
To just look at Jamie Lannister is to gaze upon a storybook knight in shining armor, with his golden locks, chiseled features, and unparalleled swordfighting ability. Once you see him snogging his sister, the image deteriorates slightly, sure. Yet when Vargo Hoat lops off Jamie’s sword hand, it’s an astonishing break from archetype. That a major warrior character was dealt a permanent blow to his masculinity turned Jamie down a much more interesting path, one filled with depression and self-analysis—and, sure, a little more incest.
16. Khal Drogo Undead
If there’s one rule in this bloody universe, it’s that we absolutely cannot have nice things. Unfortunately for Daenerys, that includes her surprisingly good-natured arranged marriage to hulking Dothraki Romeo, Khal Drogo. When Drogo takes a chest wound in battle, Dany is practical in her request that he treat it with a poultice. When he ignores that advice because it’s inconvenient to the plot, and winds up sorely infected and hovering near death, Dany becomes impractical. Pro tip: Never leave the fate of your dying husband in the hands of a woman versed in black magic when he’s the one responsible for ruining her life. In one fell swoop, Dany loses her unborn child and turns her husband into all but a zombie.
15. Lysa Arryn’s Moonlit Demise
As far as deaths go, few do it with such style as poor Lysa Arryn, pushed out the Moon Door of the Eyrie by the one man she loved most—and the one man you can never trust. Plummeting to your death is dramatic, but even more so because Littlefinger, for once, decided to dirty his own hands. In my own humble opinion, this scene gets overlooked for its importance. Just before Lysa falls with style, she hysterically reveals to Sansa that she was the one who poisoned her husband, Jon Arryn, at Littlefinger’s request. It wasn’t a Lannister plot that set this whole mess in motion—it was a paranoid oddball still so saucer-eyed over childhood crush Petyr Baelish, she was perfectly okay with setting the rest of the realm on fire. Naturally.
14. Sam Tarly Slays a White Walker
Mark my words, if there is a true hero in Westeros, it is Samwell Tarly, and it’s only by accident that his comrades in the Night’s Watch realize it. As the Watch flees the Battle of the Fist of the First Men during A Storm of Swords, Sam becomes separated from the group. But instead of serving as an Other appetizer, Sam slays a White Walker with a dragonglass blade, unearthed by the series’ other unsung hero, the direwolf Ghost. Much as Lysa Arryn nearly single-handedly destroyed Westeros, Sam may be the key to saving it. Who’d have thunk it? Probably not Randyll Tarly.
13. All Hail Lady Stoneheart
Much to the delight of Podrick Payne (and the dismay of everyone else), HBO skipped over Lady Stoneheart’s storyline. Why is it disappointing we haven’t seen revenge-thirsty, post-mortem Catelyn Stark on the small screen? Well, besides the obvious, the way Martin uses magic in this series is genius. While it’s not sprinkled on every page, when he pulls out the wizardry, it’s sure to be a show-stopping moment—as when miracle man Beric Dondarrion passes his R’hllor voodoo onto a three-days-dead Catelyn. Sure, she doesn’t look too good—her throat being evidence of a mortal wound; her flesh gone “pudding soft”—but it’s kind of fun to see a noble, law-abiding Stark go rogue.
12. The Imp’s Revenge
Speaking of rogue, Tyrion Lannister’s splashy exit from King’s Landing certainly proved an exciting turning point in the series. By the midpoint of A Storm of Swords, we knew anyone was fair game for the executioner, so when Tyrion was accused of Joffrey’s deserved, timely death (more on that in a bit), it was worrisome. Might we lose the most intelligent, functional character in the series? No, thanks to the mercy of his brother, the dead boy-king’s father. And what a satisfying murder spree commenced: any plot line that involves killing your emotionally distant, abusive father on a toilet is a good one, and provides a well-deserved cackle for a traumatized reader (sad about Shea, though).
11. The Murder of Lady
In total, brutal honesty, the unjust killing of Sansa’s direwolf Lady almost made me put A Game of Thrones away for good. It was that upsetting, and the Lannisters have not stopped being awful since. Lady, you were a good wolf. While you didn’t bite Joffrey, please know that your death did not go unpunished. The bad man died; your technical executioner, Ned, died too; and your sister, Nymeria, still roams free. Rest in peace, Lady, knowing that Sansa is much better character now than when you saw her last.
10. Melisandre Births a Murder Ghost
You thought Dany’s pregnancy snafu with the Stallion Who Mounts the World was rough? It’s nothing compared to Stannis’ fire priestess giving birth to a shadow assassin, designed to quietly murder his younger brother. Should anyone need a one-sentence summary of the overall motif of this series, I suggest the previous sentence. In that moment, we were all Davos Seaworth, slack-jawed and onion-scented.
9. Viserys’ Golden Crown
So maybe the fact that Viserys was a miserable scumbag can be attributed to the slaughter of almost his entire family and his subsequent life in exile. Maybe. But with Targaryen princes, things usually go one of two ways: 1) noblesse oblige or 2) Bonkers Island. I’d hazard a guess that Viserys was predestined to lean toward Door No. 2. Whether I’m right, the world will never know, because Khal Drogo upended a pot of molten gold over his precious Targaryen head, which is the most remarkable form of death in this series save, perhaps, the fire-blessed demon baby or the most recent wedding.
8. Theon’s Stark Switcheroo
Rarely do I turn a page and shout from the rooftops, “Oh, hurrah, a Greyjoy!” Theon’s mismanagement of the invasion of the North is just one mishap after another, coming to a head when Bran and Rickon, his Winterfell hostages, escape. You had one job, Theon, and it was to utterly destroy the family and the true home of your youth. The killing of the two peasant boys and the trail of bodies it takes to cover up the Stark escape are surprising in how they plumb the depths of Theon’s predicament. Up until now, he’s been an angsty, morally transient young man. He crosses a line after the sacking of Winterfell, though I suppose that’s what you get for palling around with Reek (more on that in a moment).
7. The Purple Wedding
Shocking in that we worried it would never happen, Joffrey’s gruesome murder at his own wedding has, so far, proven to be one of the most joyous events of A Song of Ice and Fire. It feels odd to say that about the painful poisoning of a teenager, but even Joffrey’s own father couldn’t work up much in the way of tears. Frankly, the Tyrells and Littlefinger cut this one a little close, but you still have to applaud Margaery’s ability to escape marriages unscathed. It’s a lesson to all high-born women in Westeros.
6. “The Things You Do for Love” (Bran’s Song)
Can you pinpoint the moment you realized A Game of Thrones wasn’t going to be an ordinary book? For me, it somewhere around the scene in which a knight of the realm shoved a young boy off of a high windowsill after the lad witnessed the worst-kept incestual secret in literary history. There are monumental deaths in this series, but the Kingslayer’s casual crippling of a noble son, setting him down a path to toward becoming Westeros’ next top tree person, serves as an hors d’oeuvre of the horrors to come. One does wish Jamie had been as forceful and disciplined when it came to his own offspring.
5. The Red Viper vs. The Mountain
Trial by combat sure is fun, isn’t it?! Everything about Oberyn Martell’s battle with Gregor Clegane is epic, starting with the stakes: this is Tyrion’s life we’re talking about here. When it comes to horrific violence in this realm, however, this particular battle sis almost wholesome in its straightforwardness, and yet… In the most exciting event to come out of Dorne this century, the Red Viper gets his brains bashed in (literally), but only after sticking the Mountain with the poisoned, pointy end. Revenge is a dish best served cold, posthumously, and with tremendous agony.
4. House Bolton, Et Al
When the house sigil is a flayed man, almost no action taken by its family could be surprising. Yet somehow, the Boltons keep shocking. If they’re not marrying unsuspecting northern and riverlands women, they’re secretly murdering them. If Bolton bannermen aren’t lopping off Kingsguard hands, then the actual Boltons are killing would-be kings. And if they aren’t doing any of that, then Ramsay Bolton is masquerading the benignly devious Reek and tricking Theon Greyjoy to his doom. Reek is dead. Long live Reek.
3. We Know Nothing of Jon Snow
While the TV show has delved into territory unknown and done interesting things with the saddest little Lord Commander, the published books have left us with the most unfair of cliffhangers. When we last saw him in A Dance with Dragons, Jon was bleeding out after being Caesar’ed by members of yet another Night’s Watch mutiny. Yes, one of the most beloved, dour, possibly important, surviving characters looked to be crossing that last adjective from the list. No big. I’m sure we’ll find out what happens in The Winds of Winter. You know. Soon. Soon-ish.
2. The Killing of Ned Stark
When the series began, it looked as if the members of the Stark family were going to be our chief protagonists. We began our journey in Winterfell with a whole, healthy clan. That didn’t even last one book. We crippled a son. We lost a direwolf. And the end of the era of good(er) feelings was punctuated by the dramatic execution of Ned Stark, the ceaselessly noble patriarch of a soon-to-be downtrodden house. We waited for it to be some sort of illusion, for the authorial sleight of hand that saved Ned Stark’s head. But, no. In front of Arya and Sansa, Ned was beheaded and dead, and nothing has ever been the same.
1. The Red Wedding
With the possible exception of poor Ned, every moment highlighted above pales in comparison to the scene most famous for sending countless books hurtling toward the wall (as opposed to the Wall). After the catastrophic turn of events at Edmure Tully’s wedding, I left my copy of A Storm of Swords on the floor for three days so it had time to think about what it had done to me. Once again, we lose an archetypal leading man in Robb Stark, and also his mother, and also, most egregiously, his direwolf. Any thought that the story would center on the Starks vanished along with the glue holding the family together. Even worse, it all took place under a banner of peace at the Frey homestead, where good things go to die. I’m still not over it.
What moment in A Song of Ice and Fire shocked you the most? Let us know in the comments, and preorder A Game of Thrones: The Illustrated Edition, available October 18.