Martin identifies it as a prologue in order to hint to us that the real book hasn’t started so maybe we shouldn’t be looking around for a hero yet. We aren’t that surprised when things end badly. So Martin gets to tell a little contained short story with its own beginning, middle and end. He gets us to care about the characters a little bit, but not too much, just enough to find it horrific when they’re dispatched.
But Martin is also doing something else interesting: He’s telling the whole story of the novel, indeed of the whole first trilogy (Martin was still planning on just doing three books at this point.) Martin’s story has a definitive moral: Young men should not lead old men. In this book, we get two horrific young rulers in the form of Joffrey and Robert Arryn, and we get hints that Robb Stark might be rashly declaring himself King in the North. (Robb’s rise will indeed turn out to be disastrous in the next two books.)
But you don’t need to read the whole book because it’s all right there in the prologue. Three rangers have been sent north of the wall, the youngest of whom is the son of a lord, so he’s been put in charge of the other two. This young “lordling” has a beautiful but unnotched sword that has “never been swung in anger” (not a good thing!) He cares more for his honor and glory than he does for the lives of his men. We get a line that could be used in many storylines throughout the book:
- “If I need instruction, I will ask for it,” the young lord said.
So our prologue is a cautionary tale in more ways than one. It’s warning about the danger of the white walkers, but also about the dangers of the lordling class. We may only notice the first danger, but the second has been subconsciously planted. It’s never too early to introduce your theme.