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