Sansa, the Starks and Westerosi parenting

A long time ago, nearly three years now, I wrote about Sansa Stark.

sansaFor some reason, I was attempting to ‘defend’ her, this child of the north who seemed (at that time) so out of her element, so unprepared for the evils that regularly plague the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Sansa, more than her other siblings, seemed spectacularly defenceless at the start of the series, even more than Bran, who was early on showing signs of superpowers. Sansa had arguably what would become the greatest political clout—marriage to Robert’s heir—but she had few skills that would enable her to survive in such a court, or so it seemed.

Someone, in a comment on my post, pointed out that this was unforgivable. Sure, Sansa is only 12 years old when the books start, but that’s no excuse for her utter childishness. When I think of it, her willingness to run and rat to Cersei Lannister when this very same woman had proven, earlier on, that she was more than capable of cruelty (it was Cersei who suggested that her direwolf, Lady, be killed) is quite strange. How come Arya’s instincts about people are so much more on-point than hers, given they’ve grown up in the same environment? From the get-go, Arya dislikes the Lannisters, and hates most of the people she meets in court. She is much more small folk friendly than her sister, or her brothers, for that matter, and unlike them, doesn’t seem afraid of slumming it, fitting right into the environment fate has forced upon her.

But Arya’s always been a rebel, unlike her older sister. And she found tacit support for her rebellion in both her father and her older brothers, notably Jon. Ned even hires a ‘dancing master’ for her, encouraging her quite openly in her ‘needlepoint’ lessons. 

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I’m not sure Sansa enjoys that same sort of solicitous attention. She’s shown to be ‘approved of’ and counselled by her mother, in one short scene where Catelyn is doing her hair, and speaking to her of her betrothal to Joffrey. She basks in the praise of Septa Mordane, who commends her needlework and disparages Arya’s much less neat attempts. Cersei’s bits of praise for her beauty and her ability to make her son happy are what drive Sansa into her arms, a huge contrast to her alienation from her father (brutally illustrated when Eddard gives her a doll in HBO’s A Game of Thrones and Sansa retorts that she hasn’t played with dolls since she was eight). Honestly, Sansa seems a cipher to her parents; Catelyn can’t quite comprehend how easily she can be swayed to go to the south, and Eddard appears to have lost any connection with her at all.

True, Westerosi nobles do not seem paragons of parenting in general. Balon Greyjoy, Roose
Bolton, Walder Frey, Randyll Tarly, Robert Baratheon, Stannis…the list goes on and on and on. Mothers too, when not over-indulgent, like Lysa, seem distant and forbidding, like Selyse Baratheon, if they’re not dead or simply silenced by the excessively patriarchal
household. But this being said, Eddard and Catelyn are (usually) regarded as good parents, because they seem affectionate, do not abuse their children verbally or physically and take care to provide them good homes and advice, where possible. Winterfell, at the start of the series, is almost paradisiacal in comparison to what we see of other keeps later—everyone seems happy, content, and the lord and lady are quite obviously compatible with one another, if not crazily in love. The siblings support each other, usually, and are not conspiring to kill and outdo one another. Even the ward, Theon, and the bastard, Jon, lead decent lives—though angst does them in later on.

It’s only later that we see how out of place Winterfell is in the scheme of things, how very different from every other keep and family we come across. Highgarden sounds lovely when Margaery sells it to Sansa, and true, the Tyrells do seem to stick together and be a decent enough clan, but she has most likely been trained in arts that Sansa does not possess. This is even more obvious in the TV series, but it’s hinted in the books too that Margaery is smarter and more cunning than she seems, unlike the relatively less sophisticated Sansa.

Did Catelyn and Ned just not do their job, instead suffusing their children with an idealism that leaves them open to attack? And, to tie back to what I was saying earlier, besides not giving her the weapons to survive in court, did her parents just not really connect with ned and caatSansa, instead leaving her to the devices of books and embroidery and other preteen girls? Cat and Ned seem curiously ‘modern’ parents in some ways, letting their children do more or less what they want (Arya being a case in point), and it’s true that they probably never thought they would be sent so far from Winterfell, let alone out of the north altogether. But still, given their political importance, and the fact that they command the north, it seems a bit..,odd they weren’t taught more savvy. I mean, there are politics at work in the Night’s Watch, for the old gods’ sake! No place, not even the paradisiacal Stark-ruled north, could be so awfully clean—and we see that when the Boltons come into power.

Of course, this could just be Martin’s way of building a huge contrast between the Starks and everyone else, making sure our moral allegiance, such as it is, lies with them. I don’t know about other readers, but I can’t make myself warm to the Lannisters or the Targaryens as a clan, no matter how much I might like individual characters from those houses (Jaime for the win). The Starks seem ‘normal’ in our scheme of things, but that only sets them apart, leaves them open to manipulation and power plays in Westeros.

So for that reason, Littlefinger is both a good and bad mentor for Sansa (and here I’m going purely on the books, where no selling off to Ramsay happens). He develops her latent potential for power games, thus honing her from ‘survivor’ to agent. At the same time, he accelerates her move from naive idealist to world wary young woman. I suppose this is only to the good, in Westeros. Idealism, when it’s not backed by power, doesn’t take you far. Just ask Dany, the only character who can really afford to be idealistic. But then again, she’s got them dragons and that fire-proof skin. Not all mortals, certainly not Westerosi ones, are so blessed.

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Immortal love

LOTR The Two Towers 024Valentine’s Day is coming. For some reason, it’s become cool to hate on it, and diss it as a ‘commercial holiday’, because you know, every holiday is so pure and untouched by the reigning force of capitalism (Christmas and Diwali being prime examples). I’ve even seen people calling out the ‘fallacy’ of celebrating it as a day of ‘love’, pointing out that the eponymous St. Valentine was martyred on this day, and hence, we should probably mark it with sadness rather than bursts of hearts and chocolate. I disagree with such folk; as Taylor Swift said, and as St. Valentine would probably agree, the best way to show the ‘haters’ who ‘gonna hate’ is to just shake it off and shove your happiness in their face, proving that nothing’s going to keep your happiness down.

I’ve realised that it’s become cool to hate on the concept of romantic love in general. Or to be cynical about it at least. The pop culture aimed at people over the age of 18 seems full of mixed messages: on the one hand, you’ve got romantic comedies, that promise that no matter how klutzy and socially awkward you might be, you will find true love; on the other, there are the Girls style shows that indicate that from rooms, people will come and go, but you should concentrate on being Michelangelo. ‘True love’, many things tell us, does not really exist; there are people who help you grow or achieve things, but you cannot rely on them to be around forever, nor do they magically solve all your problems, the way a Disney prince once did.

I’m of the latter school of thought. I don’t think there is ‘one’ single soul mate for anyone, and that romantic love is largely a matter of timing. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind to recognise what you feel, what the other person feels, not to mention a host of other factors that ultimately dictate whether or not a relationship unfolds. In fact, the idea of having just ‘one’ person terrifies me because it automatically lessens your chances of happiness; what if you mess it up, or miss that person altogether? Would you never be happy?

snape and lily

Despite my  reservations about such a thing playing out in real life (happiness= one ‘true’ soul mate), I can see why it holds such appeal in fiction. ‘I like the idea,’ a friend told me, when I expressed some dislike for Snape’s unstinting love for Lily. ‘Doesn’t it seem so special to be loved in that way, like no one else can ever compare?’ Sure, it’s all right if the person is fictional, but as I noted in this post, unrequited love is very poetic, but it is extremely painful in reality.

I think, in some ways, the fascination for the immortals, for vampires and Elves and other such beings, is tied up in this desire to feel ‘special’. Okay, let me try and explain this: people diss Twilight for a number of reasons, and yes, I’m one of those who does not consider it spectacular literature, but I can see why so many people love it. I can see why men and women think it would be amazing to be loved like Edward loves Bella, stalking and vampirish urges and all. The idea that someone who has literally lived for hundreds of years, seen thousands of people, picks you, of all humanity, to love—now THAT would make anyone feel special. The same idea applies to Arwen and Aragorn. Here’s an Elf who has lived thousands of years. She has seen many, many specimens pass through her life, more than a few of whom must have been drop dead gorgeous, accomplished, wise Elves, maybe even a few men. And yet, it was Aragorn, at that point a not-so-well-washed, uncrowned Ranger from the north, for whom she gave up her immortality, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

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In every romantic relationship, I would think, there’s that need to feel special, to feel like though there may have been people before you, and may be others after you in your significant others’ life,  you are somehow different. To be chosen by someone like Edward, or Arwen, or a billion other vampires who go after their mortal prey for reasons other than culinary denotes that you have something more than all those others they have met before. Something does separate you from the herd of humanity, and someone special, who knows what they’re on about (having seen a hell of a lot of the world) has noticed that in you and decided to love or desire you for it.

Okay Twilight fans, now I sort of get what you’re on about. Doesn’t mean I think your ship is a better one than Cersei/Jaime, and that’s saying something.

Cersei Lannister and the Perils of Love

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

For some reason, this morning Cersei Lannister’s words from Season 1 of a Game of Thrones came back to me with a force they never displayed in three viewings of the episode:

All the things men do to show you how much they care.

ImageThere’s something so profoundly sad about the way she says it.

Cersei, the consummate top-bitch that many men (and women) detest, says this during her brief condolence meeting with Catelyn Stark. Bran lies unconscious before them and a depressed Cat is making one of her signature guardian wreaths, beseeching the Mother to take pity upon her son. Cersei, who we know is one of the reasons Bran lies here in such a state, talks of her firstborn son with Robert and his death, of how her husband ‘beat his hands bloody’ on the walls, wailing against the gods. She mentions that when ‘they’ came to take the baby away to the crypt she screamed and cried, but Robert ‘held’ her.

But Robert held me. He held me.

She sounds perfectly genuine about all this, and even her sympathetic ‘I pray to the Mother that she return your son to you,’ seems true to me.

Cersei Lannister is such a wonderfully complex character. More than anyone in that messed-up world of A Song of Ice and Fire, she scares me because she seems so perfectly to figure forth how the world can really mess up a smart, loving woman, drive her to take monstrous and psychotic steps to protect her happiness. She seems to me like a warning sign against so many things: against love, against attachment and, scarily enough, the perils of non-attachment as well.

Tyrion thinks of Cersei as stupid, which she is in many, many ways. She is not half as smart as she gives herself credit for, he says. She grasps at more than she has the ability to hold, a tendency I would say results from her ever-present feeling that she has not been given her due. Because the world (she thinks) underestimates her, she compensates by overestimating her abilities. Because she feels abandoned (first by her mother, then by her husband, father and brother), she makes up for it by lavishing what might be an unhealthy amount of affection on her children, displaying a blindness to their faults (especially Joffrey’s) that leads to terrible decision making and political shortsightedness. She is so very terrified of being left alone that she gallops ahead making friends in the wrong places, trading favours for the illusion of safety and ignoring the advice of those whose only intention is to keep her from losing her head.

In some ways, Cersei reminds me of Voldemort. Like him, she’s acting crazily on the basis of a prophecy made to her in a smoky tent long years before the series opens. She is half convinced of the truth of the prophecy, which states that she will only die after she has seen her three children laid in ‘golden shrouds’ before her. Like Voldemort, one could say that her very desire to ensure that the prophecy does not come to pass is what will lead to its fulfillment. Terrified that Tyrion is the one responsible for Joffrey’s death, she turns against him completely, thus ensuring his cast-iron will to revenge himself upon her. Certain that Margaery plans to steal Tommen from her maternal grasp, she acts like a headless chicken and attempts to drive spokes into the progress of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance. A Storm of Swords, A Feast of Crows and A Dance of Dragons are all littered with examples of Cersei’s mother-headed thinking.

Motherhood is a very powerful motivating force in A Song of Ice and Fire, since it’s the one career path most of its women (the royal ones, that is) can aspire to. You have Catelyn Stark, the idealized home-maker, loyal to her husband and her children, following them across the land as they wage a war that she doesn’t fully agree with. There’s Dany, who, unable to bear children (supposedly), sets herself up as a sort of Universal Mother figure (Mhysa) for the poor and defenceless, compromising on her duties to her ‘true’ offspring: her dragons. There’s also Melisandre, who literally makes magic out of the process of birthing and messes up a major political player’s ambitions (Tyrells, I’m looking at you).

For Cersei though, since her dreams of a happy and loving marriage have been shaken and destroyed not once but twice, every Imageupsurge of affection is directed towards her children. Neither does she seem to have any especially close female friends and, lacking the support of a female coterie, something that Margaery enjoys, her only ‘trusted’ ally is, for a very long time, her twin. Even her connection to Jaime is premised on the idea that he is a lot like her. Her attraction, for sure, is based on that. In fact, Jaime even reflects that Cersei wouldn’t be happy with his beard because he won’t ‘look so much like her’ any more.

Cersei’s relationship with Jaime begs the question: is she capable of loving anyone apart from her children? Her regard for Jaime seems something born of a desire to live through him, rather than any real affection for him. The moment he begins to assert some form of independence, call her out on her bad decisions and contradict her wishes, she seems to lose interest in him. She sees his questioning her as an abject betrayal, a turning away from the family that he has helped to create. Cersei is so terrified of being left alone that she sees hints of it everywhere: even from the father of her children and her ‘other half’.

When you read her, it’s all too easy to sympathize with Cersei. At least for me. As someone who cares heedlessly and passionately, who throws herself into things (sometimes, my friends might say, stupidly), I can see where she’s coming from, how the abject fear and near-certainty she has of being alone has driven her to the bad place she occupies now. I think,  more than anything, Cersei displays what routinely frustrated love can do, how it seeks a safe channel and then will do whatever it takes to defend it. I think Cersei is the road that Voldemort was afraid of (yes, I mix fandoms sometimes), the perfect example of the sheer stupidity and fear that come with being so completely attached to something that you cut ties with everything else.

So yes, ironically enough, I think Cersei Lannister is the perfect embodiment of love, albeit love of a crazy, crazy sort. But then again, what in the Song of Ice and Fire world is not crazy?