#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

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Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

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Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

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Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

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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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When arcs come crashing down


Dark-Sansa-2When a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my
favourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow Theon-Greyjoy-Alfie-Allen-in-GOT-206readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

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But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

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But the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

Master Manipulators: Petyr Baelish

One thing we love doing in the fantasy community is pitting random characters against each other in grand showdowns. I suppose this has a lot to do with the form of the genre, where really, each series/book ends in a dramatic encounter between the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, or, to give them their genre-specific names, prophesied hero and dark evil overlord. In our time out of the books however, we like to toss characters from different series against each other, to figure out who would win if, say, there was a cross-world war and Harry Potter found himself facing Darth Vader.star-wars-vader-force-choke

 

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No contest. Clearly Vader would win. Harry could Expelliarmus his Jedi sword, but Vader does have that nifty little strangulation technique.

In my upcoming posts, I’m profiling characters of a certain type in preparation to pitting them against each other—four master manipulators who pull strings and make puppets dance in their respective worlds. You can thank a rather intense and nerdy discussion on Facebook. What makes this comparison difficult is that all their worlds are so different, and their particular skills and positions are largely shaped by the world they inhabit. Therefore, removing them from their contexts and trying to view them objectively is  trifle problematic, but I’m going to ignore such purist concerns in favor of the potential entertainment these comparisons will afford.

Without further ado…

petyrPetyr Baelish

Strengths:

Utter and complete lack of permanent alliances. Littlefinger is loyal only to himself. He shifts and shuffles his allies according to his convenience, does each major house enough ‘favours’ to make them believe that he is firmly part of their team.

Money matters: Littlefinger has his hands on the economic pulse of Westeros, or whatever passes for it. He finds money where there is none to be found, makes his own from his brothels. Money is might, in any universe, and his gold is what allows Littlefinger to buy knives, protection and loyalty from those who have no other reason to work for him.

Lack of discernible agenda: This is, perhaps, Littlefinger’s greatest strength. He always keeps his opponents guessing. Does he support the Lannisters? Yes, for a while. Why? We don’t know. Does he think the Tyrells should have the power? He certainly seems to let them think he does. He plays people so well because he knows what everyone else wants, which is usually power or vengeance, but no one has the same grasp on him because his long-term plan is so hazy. Does he want to marry Sansa and rule through her? That’s a possibility. Does he just want to do whatever upsets Varys’s plans? Also a possibility. Five books in, we have no idea.

Weaknesses:

Lack of physical strength: Granted, we haven’t actually seen Littlefinger in a fight, but from what we know, he’s a small man who, more often than not, hires people to do his killing. He has never been a soldier, was quite thoroughly routed by Brandon Stark when he did try to pick a fight (fine, he was ‘little more than a boy’ but I’m pretty sure that if he had any latent martial skill, it would have manifested by then), and he does not seem the kind of man who has time to invest in physical training. No, Baelish is much too sophisticated for the old school chivalric/martial code of lords like Ned and Robert. It’s precisely why he looks down on them.

Lack of allies: If push came to shove, who would back Baelish up? No one. Even Sansa is, obviously, playing her own game with him. This is the flip-side of being a totally rogue agent. He has no family connections, no romantic connections (except Lysa, who is now dead) and the one bond he does seem to have, with Sansa, will, I predict, be the one that ends up destroying him.

Conclusion: Littlefinger is formidable. He couples immense intellectual capacity with financial know-how, and plays a game that very few seem to be able to see, let alone guess the object of.  I wouldn’t even call his bond with Sansa a weakness, since we don’t know how far he’s playing her and what his eventual aim with her is. I somehow doubt he’s going to be easily seduced and left for dead. No, Littlefinger’s going to have a bigger plan than just getting into bed with her.

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And if he doesn’t, I’ll be rather disappointed.

Next time, I’ll assess the second contestant in this face-off. Who’s it going to be? Now, that’s a surprise.

Theon Greyjoy: Fairy tale Prince

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

Excerpt from a conversation with a friend a few months ago:

Friend: I like Jon Snow. And Tyrion of course.

Me: Of course, I like them too! But liking them is so predictable. I mean, don’t you think…

Friend: (vaguely amused and partly scandalized) Who do you like then? Wait, let me guess. Theon Greyjoy?

By now she’s laughing.

theon fan art 1Yes, I like Theon Greyjoy. He is, believe it or not, my favourite character in G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. I’ve liked him ever since he smirked at Jon in A Game of Thrones and pissed him off. This was because it was fun to see that something could piss off the otherwise broody and angsty Jon Snow.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Theon is my favourite, given my soft spot for tormented, good-looking men who mask their vulnerability with wit and martial prowess. Of course, Theon is a bit of a jerk (as most men in ASoIaF seem to be), but that seems part and parcel of being smart, good looking and rich in Westeros.

I think Theon, in many ways, acts as a foil to Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. If you place the three characters on a spectrum, it would range from Jon, loved and respected by his ‘father’ but uncertain of his place to Tyrion, long detested by his true father and condemned to die by his own family. Theon sits in the middle: he was raised by a man he respected, but he could never be certain of his regard (he states that Eddard Stark always made it clear that, if necessary, he would kill his ward to ensure Balon Greyjoy’s continued good behaviour). He returns to a less-than-warm homecoming and feels that the only way to win back his father’s approval is to turn his back on his foster family. Of course, this only ends in disaster with the Greyjoys, apart from Asha, abandoning him.

I thought this last was illustrated powerfully in HBO’s adaptation of the books when Balon Greyjoy, on receiving Ramsay’s grisly present, states that he ‘has no son’.

Another group Theon can be placed in is that of characters who have lost a sense of self, home and family. The theme of familial belonging is one that runs through the series: characters make decisions keeping in mind the survival of their Houses; those who act selfishly are eliminated. ‘Family’ comes first for many Houses, most notably the Tyrells (whose matriarch, Olenna, engineers a complicated murder in order to ensure her granddaughter gets a good marital deal), the Tullys (their words are, after all, ‘Family, Duty, Honour’) and the Lannisters (it’s all Tywin Lannister can talk about, and Cersei and Jaime do a good job of keeping everything in the family). Characters who lose a sense of where and whom they come from are often the most misguided.

In a previous post I stated that Sansa Stark, Daenerys and Theon are among those who ‘lose’ a sense of self in the series. All three make the mistake of trying to be something they are not: Sansa seeking to bury her northern roots and become a ‘true southron lady’ and Dany trying to purge the violence of her heritage by locking away her dragons. Theon is even more complicated than these two: instead of forsaking his roots, he turns to some half-hearted version of them, seeking to earn back his place in a long-abandoned family. Theon’s revelations and upward climb only happen when he accepts and later, gives voice to the desire that has driven him all along. He never wanted to be one of the Greyjoys; he wanted to be one of the Starks.

But for all his conflicts and complications, what I really like about Theon is quite simple: his arc, despite being hellish and terribly painful in parts, is really the most hopeful. At its corny best, fantasy is about hope. It’s about overcoming darkness and fear and living to fight another day. In the world of ASoIaF, it’s easy to forget that basic moral because Martin does such a good job of tweaking our expectations and playing on conventions. Westeros is no Middle Earth, where all you need is an Aragorn-type nobility and steadfast Hobbit courage to win the day. It’s not even Randland, where ‘love’ and willing sacrifice play such a vital role in the Last Battle. Westeros is not an idealized version of our world; it is our world, with all the petty politics, rivalries and screwing around for advantage. Only, it has the added magic of dragons and unpredictable Fire gods, as well as some strange people called the Others. theon fan art 2

In this dreary, depressingly ‘real’ world, Theon stands out. He makes terrible mistakes, but unlike most other characters, he seems to feel a huge sense of remorse, one that propels him to make a painful journey through A Dance with Dragons. Honestly, I thought Theon OWNED that book. He was the one character who quite visibly progressed through its pages: from ‘Reek’ through to ‘The Prince of Winterfell’ and ending, finally, with ‘Theon’. What really got me was that, honestly speaking, there was no real need for Theon’s story that I could see. Like many of my fellow readers, I assumed that, when Ramsay sent strips of skin to Robb in A Storm of Swords, he was dead. To my mind, he had fulfilled his function in the plot: turn against Robb, harry the North, throw everyone into confusion and thus start the Stark fall. And then it turned out he was alive, if barely. I wondered what Martin would do with him. I did not expect the sort of redemption story I got.

Of course, Theon’s crimes are pretty unpardonable. But I don’t think he’s doing any of what he’s doing (saving Jeyne, reclaiming his sense of self) in order to mitigate his actions and earn himself a lesser sentence. This seems, more than anything, a personal quest, a way in which he can die with some sense of peace. In a universe where everyone wants power or vengeance, it’s heartening to come across a character who wants something like this.

Turning the superficial, smirking jerk into this world’s version of an idealist: Theon is Martin’s dark, twisted but ultimately hopeful fairytale.

 

 

 

 

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.