Growing up Potter: For the Dog Star

ImageIt’s been more than a year now since I began posting to this blog. A lot of things have changed in that time, both for me, personally, and the wider world. Some things haven’t, such as the fact that I have scarily intense relationships with characters in fantasy novels. Perhaps the most ‘intense’ of those is the one I share with the man my blog is named after.

I have been planning to write about Sirius Black for a long while, but have been defeated each time by a feeling of inadequacy. It’s hard to write about something even you don’t understand, that many people around you find ridiculous (for good reason), that you expect yourself to grow out of. So I tried to assuage my need to write about this character by channelling it into watertight, specific aspects of his presentation: in a post where I compared him to Jaime Lannister and called him a Poor Little Rich Boy; in connection with the larger theme of slash fanfiction; moaning about how I couldn’t find good Wolfstar fics. I did scrawl a Facebook note on him once, fuelled mostly by adrenaline (my exams had just been postponed and a friend dared me to do it) and called it a ‘Manifesto’, but I have never sat and attempted to write a serious piece on what he means to me.

Yes, I’m sure I’ve a lost a good number of my readers already. ‘Fangirl’, you’re snorting. What on earth is a twenty-four year old doing writing about a silly crush she has on a fictional character? I wonder myself. But I’m hoping, through this post on Sirius, to find something vaguely profound in this whole matter.

Like my beloved Wheel of Time books, the Potter series saw me through high school and into college. Harry and company were as important to me as my closest friends, seeing me through the ups and downs of adolescence and into adulthood. Harry and I probably experienced our first major crushes at the same time. Unlike him, of course, I was a lot more articulate about asking people to go to the ball.

My first ‘love’ in the Potter books was, predictably, Harry himself. I felt that here, at last, was a boy who got it, who knew what a hassle growing up was (I’ve alluded to this cosmic connection between us before). I remember wishing, fervently, that Harry would somehow magically step out of the books and find me and we would have amazing adventures together. It’s embarrassing to admit that I had these daydreams till I was as old as sixteen, but that’s the burden of being a fantasy and book-crazed teenager.Harry potter hot

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in the first week of my undergraduate life. The timing was wonderfully symbolic—as Harry died and came back to life, a part of my own journey ended and a new one began. I put him away with some amount of grief and annoyance (he had married Ginny and not me, after all), and didn’t think about him very much until three years later, in the first year of my Masters’.

Postgrad was a tough time for various boring and petty reasons which I will not go into here. Sufficeth to say that what prompted me to pick up the Potter books again was a combination of nostalgia and a desire to escape to what I perceived to be a ‘simpler’ time. When I was living it, of course, school had hardly seemed ‘simple’, but everything looks better from a distance. It is known.

Instead of finding a blandly comforting story, my re-read of The Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows threw up a bunch of questions which have prompted a number of posts on this blog. Additionally, the re-read showed me that my interests had shifted considerably. I was no longer in love with the Boy Who Lived.

I was in love with Sirius Black.

Now, a number of people have asked me what on earth I find so compelling about a less-than-major character. One friend, on seeing my ‘Sirius Play-list’ stuttered that perhaps an immense amount of fanfiction reading had clouded my perception of Sirius, built him up into something more than canon supports. Another said that Sirius was the stereotypical ‘cool guy’, and that while I was fascinated by the idea of him, I would hardly be able to tolerate him if he were to suddenly appear before me. I will concede points to both friends. True, the amount of fanfiction I’ve read probably has done its bit to bolster Sirius’s image in my eyes. And true, Sirius would probably have been too loud and ‘obnoxious’ for me to consider getting to know (if we had gone to the same school). Post-Azkaban Sirius, however, would have been a completely different person and one that, I think, I might have gotten along with. We could have been broody and angsty together.images

But let’s not waste time thinking of what could have been.

Anyone who’s read the books knows why Sirius is eminently crush-worthy, so I won’t go into it here. It’s not any of those immediately apparent things that pull me towards him, though—not his gorgeous looks, his fierce intelligence or his tragic air. Instead, it’s what I like to think of as his defining trait, one that really jarred me out of my slump of despondency when I re-met him.

I’m talking, of course, about his fantastic sense of defiance.

Sirius Black is, above all things, a rebel. Smack him down, and he will surge back up, twice as eager to prove himself. Lock him up in a soul sucking prison for twelve years? He will quietly and inconsiderately refuse to make things easier for you by going mad. Station dementors around the campus and the neighbouring village with the sole aim of catching him? He’ll sneak right past them and make himself at home as a loveable stray. Tell him he can’t come out of house arrest to save his godson? He’ll cavort about in the heart of the Ministry of Magic and duel Voldemort’s ‘lieutenant’.

In a godfather, this sense of defiance is, at times, lamentable. Sirius can’t very well hope to keep a raging Harry in check if he can’t live by the rules himself. Removed from his context and seen as a peer rather than a mentor, however, Sirius’s irrepressible spirit becomes a very attractive quality. And yes, in case you were wondering, it was three years ago that I started seeing him as a peer rather than an older, removed ‘adult’ character.

Now, I never considered myself the kind of girl who liked ‘defiant’ people. At least, not those who are loud about their defiance. Remus Lupin was more my ‘type’, I thought. He was academic, he was insecure and yet sort of quietly steadfast, and he was morally complex. For the record, I don’t subscribe to the ‘opposites attract’ theory either, so my regard for Sirius really was sort of random.

Except it really wasn’t. In the grand ship known as me-Sirius (ha!), context was and is everything. When had I found and latched on to him? When I was in some sort of transition period, when I was at an emotional and personal low. I needed energy and inspiration and he, with his half-crazed sense of freedom and unwillingness to just shut up and live by the rules, gave it to me.

Would I call him a knight in shining armour? Yes and no. Yes because I am a romantic and, despite my enlightened feminist views, I still like to picture a handsome young man sweeping up on a horse (or a flying motorbike) and whisking me away on dull days. No because, let’s face it, Sirius, for the duration of readers’ acquaintance with him, is not in a position to be saving anyone but himself. Also no, because, as we all know (and I assure you, I know as well), he is a fictional character and hence, any inspiration he brings about generate, finally, in me. It’s what I make of him and the way Rowling has presented him, after all, that really matters.

I’ve moved past the drama that drove me to Potter, but my regard for Sirius and what he represents endures. He taught me a very important lesson when I needed it: trust yourself even if you can’t rely on anything else. The world gets dark, it gets depressing and ugly, but screw that, he seems to say. Screw that ‘gentle night’. Sirius rages, always rages, against the dying of the light.

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Sansa Stark: Martin’s Disney Girl

WARNING: There are spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

ImageGrowing up, I was very much a Disney child. I watched all the movies and my parents bought us the video tapes (so retro!) as well as cassettes of song compilations. They even took us to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where we spent three magical days riding the rides, greeting the characters and eating all sorts of bad food. It was, as you might imagine, heaven for a seven year old.

Of course, Disney also did mess me up a little, as it probably did most of those who grew up with it in its princess heyday. Based on the lives of Ariel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I was convinced at the very impressionable age of six that there was nothing greater than finding a beautiful Prince Charming and kissing him in a heart shaped fade-out. Later, when the more ‘independent’ heroines like Pocahontas and Mulan came along, I revised my opinion a little bit. This may be chiefly due to Pocahontas, my favourite Disney ‘princess’ of them all, who ended up with no Prince Charming in the end.

Evil whispers inform me, however, that she gets one in the sequel. Thankfully I have never seen the atrocity known as Pocahontas II, though I may have to some day.

But yes, for a long and rather cloudy-headed time, I thought that, based on the wishes my heart made, some day my prince would come and we would find a whole new world together (see what I did there?). My prince would be perfect. He would ride a horse, he would fence and he would, most importantly, love me and I would be his queen.

Or princess, as the case might be.

Like I said, it was only as I ‘grew up’, met less sappy heroines, that I realized that was not what ‘love’ and relationships were all about. But because I have been through that earlier stage, I cannot possibly hate a character that many others seem to detest: Sansa Stark.

Sansa is that Disney girl. She’s pretty, she’s polite, she’s sappy and she loves songs of ‘knightly’ valour and romance. She sews beautifully, she can sing and yes, she is graceful too. She falls in and out of love with gorgeous knights, giggles with her girlfriends, and, in short, believes that fairy tales do come true. Unfortunately for her, she’s terribly out of place in a world where honourable men lose their heads and golden-haired beauty often cloaks a beast.

I see why people dislike Sansa. She is silly, granted. She trusts easily and runs to the wrong person with information, thus setting in motion a series of events that leads, eventually, to the loss of (almost) her entire family. She does not (apparently) have the vengeful grit of Arya, the existential angst of Jon Snow, the heroism of Robb. Unlike her fellow Starks, she seems more than happy to make the shift to the southron court and be surrounded by the perfumed and the glamorous. If she were in The Hunger Games, she would probably have lapped up the fashions of the Capitol.

But think about it—Sansa is 12 at the start of the books. I remember myself at 12, awkward, gawky, heading into a phase where noticing boys was alarming and wonderful and always dreaming (not so secretly) of being whisked off into the covers of a Harry Potter. I was more likely to listen to a Backstreet Boys song and sigh than to read the Art of War or be interested in the politics of the world around me. Yes, I grew out of it, eventually, but I took my time.

Sansa doesn’t take her time. The girl we see at the close of A Game of Thrones is very different from the fluttery, nervous one we listen to at the start of the book. This Sansa has a determined edge, one that causes her to almost give in to the temptation of pushing Joffrey off a narrow rampart. Think about that: this is the same girl, supposedly, who lied on his behalf on the kingsroad, speaking (in her unwillingness to speak) against her sister.  At the start of the book, Sansa couldn’t bear to cross her ‘beloved’, was unwilling to see anything wrong with him. By the close, she is willing to risk her own life to make sure he meets his end. The reason she holds off? The Hound steps in.

How good was YOUR gaydar at 14? Huh?

How good was YOUR gaydar at 14? Huh?

Unlike Arya, Sansa’s grief for her father does not transmute into rage. Arya’s response is consistent with her character—always presented as ‘wilder’ than her siblings, more apt to answer with her heart than with her head. Sansa, on the other hand, at first becomes rather suicidal, but then later, when offered hope in the form of her brother’s rebellion and then the Tyrells, she regains a little of her former optimism. Her trusting nature is both her greatest weapon and her weakness. It opens her up to all sorts of manipulation, but it also wins her the rather twisted but very useful regard of Sandor Clegane.  Now, I think, based on all that she’s gone through, she wears her naivete chiefly as a mask. Sansa will continue to be underestimated, but that is all to the good in the game of thrones.

There are very few idealistic characters in Martin’s series, and the ones we see are very often read as stupid. For instance, there’s Dany, who sits around in A Dance of Dragons trying to rule a city that’s not ‘home’, that will never be home to her the way Westeros or the ‘house with the red door’ is. I’m not the only reader who had a problem with Dany in Book 5, wanting her to just get on with her quest to invade Westeros. She tries so hard, so very hard to build her ideal city on the dust of Meereen’s bloodstained bricks, and what does she achieve? She loses her dragons and, Martin would have us believe, her very ‘self’. At the close she regains it, with the memory of her house’s words: Fire and Blood.

Sansa and Theon, I think, are the only other characters who go through this loss of identity^, of rootedness. Sansa loses hers early on, when Lady is killed. With the death of the direwolf, she loses her emblematic connection to the north, and hence her absorption into the intrigues of King’s Landing seems all the more inevitable*. In the TV show A Game of Thrones, Ned remarks that Sansa has started looking like a real southron lady, her hairstyles and her clothes mimicking the fashions of the court. Sansa is eager to shed the north, and in her desire to stay among her new ‘friends’ she makes perhaps the greatest mistake of her life. The rest of the books, thus far, have seen her steadily losing her glamorous illusions about the south and wanting, more than anything, to go ‘home’.

It’s easy to dismiss Sansa, to dislike her and read her apparent quietude as ‘insipidity’. She reminds me, in some ways, of Jane Seymour in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies—seemingly stupid and obtuse to the dangers around her, but delivering, at certain junctures, sharp barbs that pierce right through armour. For instance, who can forget this wonderful moment in Season 2 of the show (A Clash of Kings if you’re going by the books) when, with a few well chosen words, Sansa plants the idea of rushing into the thick of the fray in Joffrey’s head? ‘They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting’s thickest,’ she says, all innocent eyes and cool composure. Of course it drives Joffrey wild.

That is not the mark of a stupid or insipid person.

And so, Sansa Stark, I raise a toast to you. You bring to life the tricks and traps of adolescence, of being quijotically in love with fiction and fairy tales. You pass through nightmarish trials, but you somehow have the stability of mind to hold on, not lose yourself to rage and despair. In that hope-starved universe of power-crazed and desperate people, I don’t know many who would be able to boast the same.

Salut!

*I wonder, really, how the direwolves would have survived in court. Martin solved that problem for himself by killing them off/removing them early.

^I will hopefully talk more about this in another post, some other day. Stay tuned.