Sansa Stark, World-beater or Stockholm survivor?
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: this post will contain some serious spoilers for books 3-5 and certainly for the television show season three, which hasn’t been released on dvd as of this posting. If you haven’t read to the end of book five, please turn back now and check out one of our other fantastic posts! Otherwise, let’s venture into the incredibly intriguing world of Character Profiles!
I solicited topics for Thoughts on Thrones last week, and immediately I got a really fantastic one; Sansa Stark. She is one of the mos polarizing characters on the show, with fan bases around the world split about how important she is to the kingdom and ultimately to the end game of this never-ending conflict betwen the kingdoms and their Iron Throne.
When the series begins, there is a young, auburn haired beauty in Winterfell whose dreams involve the courting of gallant knights and marriage to a high-born noble or a price of the realm. Sansa Stark is the epitome of a doe-eyed beauty, taking after her mother in physical appearance but not having her feet firmly in reality in the same way as her duty-bound family. She is a young girl who prefers to imagine her life as a flight of fancy rather than seeing the stark environs that surround her; she is easily the softest of the Stark children, and she seems intentionally blind to the world in all of its brutality and horror.
Winter is Coming. These are the words of her father’s family, and at the outset of the series, it is possible that never have these words been more true. The kingdom is, unknown to any of its inhabitants, on the cusp of a war that will tear it to pieces while, in the deepest, darkest reaches of the north, the ancient enemies of mankind rise from their millenia-long slumber. It is always true that winter is coming in both a literal and metaphorical sense, there will always come a time when resources are scarce and allies are few; but when the match is set to the tinderbox that is Westeros, the lines between kith and kin, ally and traitor may become even more blurred. Sansa, more than any member of her family seems to be ignorant of the coming storm. Even Brandon, a seven year old in the prime of his childhood is seeing how desperate the world has become as he witnesses his father executing a deserter from the Night’s Watch as the winds turn cold. Arya, the younger of the two Stark daughters sees the truth of reality, understanding that there is no value to needlepoint and flattering princesses in a world where men tell deadly secrets in the safety of the dark.
Family, duty, honor. These are the words of her mother’s family, and it would seem that Sansa has never heard these words once in her young life. An eleven year old girl who has been raised to be a lady of the realm is the most important political asset the Starks possess in a world where marriage and progeny are the surest way to end wars and create alliances. This young girl is a single piece on the chess board of Westeros, but to the Starks is perhaps the most valuable piece, she will enable the Starks to increase their influence across the realm in the same way that the engagement of Catelyn Tully to Brandon Stark (Eddard’s older brother) pulled the trident into the North and away from the influence of the Lannisters in the west. Catelyn was a woman who understood her role in the world, she was realistic about how she was able to help her family progress in the Game of Thrones, providing her father (and ultimately her brother) a powerful ally as well as putting increased pressure on Lord Frey of the Twins to side with the north as his liege lord Hoster Tully has done.
Sansa Stark is incredibly selfish as the curtain is pulled back on the opening act of her very interesting life. She is concerned with her own desires, and with her fantasies about the future and has little concern for her sister or brothers and their brutish habits and ignoble pursuits. She has little respect for her family, believing herself to be in no small measure superior to her siblings. She disregards her half-brother Jon completely, regardless of the love her father has shown him and how close he is to Arya as well as the boys. She even goes so far as to betray her own sister not a month after her engagement to Prince Joffrey, this costs her her beloved Direwolf (a loss she blames Arya for, despite her own blame), and subsequently drives a great wedge between her and the person who should have been her single-most loyal and powerful ally as both girls grow over time. This indicaets to me that she really doesn’t understand the truth of the world: there is nobody you can truly depend on in the same way you can depend on family. Even when the world is falling down around her, had she cultivated a stronger bond with her family there is every possibility that she would not have found herself swirling within the desperate situation we find her in at the conclusion of Dance with Dragons.
Duty is perhaps the single most-shared trait between the Starks and the Tullys; if Sansa was going to share any trait with her family it should be this one, as Duty has been drilled into her head since birth. And this seems to be the one area where she understands what it that is expected of her as an eldest daughter of a lord of the realm. She understands that she will be ‘sold’ off to the most politically advantageous prince in order to forge an alliance between her house and that of her husband; her role in life will be to support her Lord and provide him with heirs in order to ensure that whatever family takes her in will endure the coming winter. As i noted above, she betrays her family very early on in her betrothal to Joffrey, taking his side in the argument that occurs at Castle Darry between the Prince and the younger Stark girl. This is one aspect of duty that is touched upon by the elders around her; she cannot expect to have a constructive relationship to the man who is meant to be her husband if she is unable to take his side in public, even if it means hurting herself and her family.
This sense of duty remains constant as the story progresses, but the question must be asked whether this is an active process or if she is merely unable to express her own needs in life. She hedges during the short conflict between Joffrey and Arya, and refuses to give credence to either story. Later on in her story she remains passive, finding herself acted upon by the Lannisters, the Tyrells and eventually Lord Baelish as he rescues her from the gentle imprisonment in which she finds herself in King’s Landing. She has acted in a very dutiful fashion over the course of her storyline, but she never demonstrates any growth while her circumstances demand constant adaptation.
Honor. This one is difficult to parse, since Honor is such an intangible characteristic. Does Jaime Lannister have honor? He killed the king he was sworn with his life to protect from all dangers in order to save the lives of many thousands of Westerosi and put an end to a conflict that could have stayed drawn out for quite some time yet. Does Petyr Baelish have honor? He agreed to a plan with Eddard Stark to overthrow the king of Westeros and the queen regent and place Stannis on the Iron Throne and then betrayed the husband of his beloved Catelyn in order to ensure that the status quo would be preserved, and potentially prevent a war from coming to pass between the Stark/Baratheon alliance and the Lannisters rising up in defense of their young bastard king.
If one does the wrong this for the right reasons, is that honour? What about doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? And how does one truly define right and wrong when it comes to a game of thrones as brutal and intriguing as the one presented in SOIAF. But in this case, one has to suggest that Sansa does not qualify under either stipulation. She never makes an active choice one way or the other, and in her passivity she refuses to take a stand; she never has a position to defend which is at the very least one defining feature of an honourable individual.
So if she isn’t a Stark, and isn’t much of a Tully, then what is she? She is a vessel into which her partner is able to pour themselves. She is a mirror that reveals the true nature of those around her, and for that very reason she is necessarily without her own active pursuits.
Take, for example, her incredibly tumultuous and thankfully short-lives relationship with Joffrey Baratheon, King of the Andals, first of his name, blah blah. When Sansa meets Joffrey, she is the perfect image of a lady, soft, demure, obedient; and it is pretty clear that Joffrey saw in this an opportunity to explore the darker aspects of his nature. He saw no reason to pretend to be anything but a psychopathic maniac with a sadistic streak as wide as the river of blood trailing behind him. This contrasts sharply with Joffrey’s relationship with Margaery Tyrell, who is a politically savvy and active player in her own life: Margaery has been a queen already in her young life, and from all appearances was an integral part of the plan to ally the Tyrells with the Lannisters by stealing Sansa’s man.
When Joffrey meets Margaery he is intimidated by her, and this immediately leads to a toning down of his outwardly sadistic actions; but principally he imprints on her in the way he had imprinted on Cersei up until that point, looking to her for approval. This is not at all how he reacted to Sansa. Ginger Stark gave him license to be himself, whereas he felt he needed to be something different (better?) in order to gain the approval of his second fiancee.
This pattern continues over her next two relationships, though the term is perhaps misappropriated in describing these interactions as such. When she is wedded to Tyrion Lannister, his demeanor changes around her as it compares to how he responds to virtually anyone else in King’s Landing. He is kind and sweet and even celebate around her, not even bringing up the decree from his father that they consummate the marriage and he impregnate her immediately. This is not to say that he is angelic around her, he remains a drunkard, and cheats on her incessantly with his mistress; but for a man whose prowess in the political game of King’s Landing is matched only by one person (*cough*Olenna*cough*) to turn it off completely around his young, scared wife is a true testament to how Tyrion might have been had he been born under different circumstances.
Sansa Stark is a young, naive girl who never misses an opportunity to fail to assert herself except for a small number of exceptional moments. When King Robert Baratheon succumbs to his injuries and passes away, Eddard Stark conspires with Petyr Baelish and Renly Baratheon to take the throne away from the Lannisters, and dishonor the family by exposing the incestuous nature of Cersei and Jaime’s relationship. When this plot is exposed (by Ned’s own actions), the Stark patriarch is arrested and sentenced to die for treason.
This is the one instance in the first volume of the series where Sansa takes a stand for her family, demonstrates honor and seems to understand desolation her life is about to become. Sansa takes it upon herself to stand up to Joffrey, to plead with him for mercy for her father and she negotiates successfully (seemingly) for her father’s life in exchange for his admission of guilt. In doing so, she gains a measure of respect from her future mother-in-law, and she gains the smallest amount of self-respect; all up until the moment that Joffrey shows the rest of the world what he had been keeping between him and his fiancee to that point: this young boy is a monster in regal garb. With one short phrase, Joffrey beheads Eddard Stark, as well as Sansa Stark’s sense of security. “Ser Illyn, bring me his head!” And her heart, you piece of garbage… her poor soft, vulnerable heart.
But let’s move onto a success that Sansa experiences in her trials against her own passivity. On Joffrey’s name day, the day that he turns 13 years old, the young King holds a tournament in his own honor. During this tournament, Ser Dontos was supposed to compete in the joust yet when his name was called he wasn’t ready to participate. He was drunk and unable to perform, which was a grave dishonor to himself and his house in front of the young king.
Joffrey decalres his intention to have the man executed for his insolence, for dishonoring himself, and insulting the king with his drunken foolishness. Sansa sits at his side and, in a rare moment of political savvy, convinces the king to spare the man’s life, turning him into a dumb fool (literally) rather than another corpse littering the castle walls. By twisting the king’s words, Sansa shows us that she is capable of taking an active role in her own circumstances, however we quickly see her choosing the passive path immediately thereafter. In fact, it isn’t until she is approached by Ser Dontos that she even contemplates the possibility of escape from these circumstances.
After Joffrey is assassinated at the Purple Wedding, Sansa is swiftly evacuated from the capital by a Ser Florian she is not expecting: Petyr Baelish, the Littlefinger. Littlefinger is a man of many talents, not the least of which are intrigue and betrayal; however there is one person he has loved and protected no matter the consequences: Catelyn Stark. Baelish challenged Brandon Stark (Eddard’s elder brother, the man Catelyn was originally betrothed to) to a duel upon learning about the betrothal and was embarassed beyond words by not jsut the beating, but also the pity that Catelyn had for him as he was being defeated soundly by the much larger, stronger and faster Stark.
This did not dampen the fire he had in his heart for the auburn-haired Tully beauty, and there has been wild speculation over the past couple of years that this fire has transferred from one Tully woman to another as he goes to great risk to rescue Sansa from inevitable arrest during the panic following the death of the king. In many ways, one can suggest that Catelyn had a similar literary role to Sansa, being initially viewed as weak and without value, but instead serving as a vessel for the development of those characters around her (in Catelyn’s case, we could argue that she provided a measure of development for Petyr, Eddard, and eventually Robb). In this way, one can see the difference in Petyr’s character as he interacts with these two women which contrasts sharply with his relationships with any other character.
Littlefinger acts in the shadows exclusively via his interactions in well over 90% of his relationships with others: but when it comes to Catelyn and Sansa he finds himself performing very open actions (betraying Ned stark and pushing Lysa Arryn through the moon door in a direct intervention to prevent Sansa’s murder), both to ensure that nobody can come between him and the object of his affections, but also as a measure of revenge for those whom he feels has cost him the love of his life. It is a testament to the evolution of Petyr Baelish while in the company of Sansa that he is able to separate his romantic feelings for her mother from his desire to establish a strong influence ni the north. His plot at the end of a Feast for Crows to wed Sansa to the heir of the vale, Harold Hardyng, in order to reclaim the north, and Winterfell with it demonstrates that he is finally willing to give up on the fantasy he has harbored for decades in order to level up his intrigues.
I think that ultimately what I’m headed towards is this point: Sansa Stark is a tool, used to develop the personal identity of those around her. She has grown by bits and pieces over the course of the series; she is no longer as naive as she once was, and she no longer dreams of knights and flowers and silks, but until she was rescued by Petyr Baelish she was still incredibly ignorant of courtly intrigue. It is Baelish who begins to tutor her in the ways of court under the name of Alayne Stone, disguised as Baelish’s own bastard daughter. She begins to pick up a number of Petyr’s plots while they are at the Vale, catching on right away to the fact that Petyr had paid off Lyn Corbray to breach etiquette during a parlay in order to ensure that the littlefinger would be named Regent of the Vale.
Despite her own personal development over the course of the FFC/DWD chronology, it is most demonstrative that she is used by the author as a whetstone, sharpening the traits of the characters she interats with: these traits continue to play important roles in the lives of those characters even after she leaves them. The cruelty and sadism of Joffrey is still readily apparent, mostly at the Purple Wedding, when he gleefully cheers on the dwarves jousting during the wedding feast and taunts his uncle Tyrion mercilessly during the same.
It is the tenderness that we see in Tyrion through his travels East following his imprisonment that is most notable. Excepting his short-lived friendship with Jon Snow during A Game of Thrones, we never realyl get to see Tyrion being anything but calculating. He learns a lot about himself during his time with Sansa, and he takes that forward with him as he poses as Hugor Hill voyaging down the river Rhoyne alongside Griff and those tasked with his protection rescued from Kings Landing. Taking Young Griff under his underdeveloped wing in order to give him another perspective on trust, life and what his future will involve really shows us that his growth was not simply temporary: Young Griff is no underdog (Tyrion’s traditional bread and butter), and yet Tyrion comes to care for the teenager as they travel towards Volantis.
We can look at this trend even further back into her relationships with her family and how it has described their growth over the course of the story. She and her sister, Arya, always had a very contentious relationship principally centred around Arya’s inability and unwillingness to adopt a more lady-like persona. Arya rebels against this constant provocation by developing further and further from ladylike behaviour, even going so far as to become an initiate of the House of Black and White, the institute of the faceless men.
Sansa’s relationship with Jon Snow is the final example I wanted to point to in order to demonstrate this trend. Sansa Stark never interacts on screen with her half-brother, however her attitude towards him shine clear as day, and we get a feeling of how she feels towards her brother through Jon’s interactions with Catelyn. We know that Sansa takes after her mother in many ways, and her disdain for the blemish on her family’s honor that Jon represents in certainly one further example of this; Catelyn treats Jon like a personal affront, the fact that Ned had the audacity to bring this bastard home with him following the rebellion hangs over Winterfell castle like a cloud of betrayal that never clears. Sansa’s attitude towards Jon mimicks this, her belief is that nothing is so good as nobility; and Snow is as ignoble as they come, staining the beautiful grey tapestry that her ancestors have woven in ruling the North for generations.
I feel as though all of this really points to how important Sansa is in the development of the story; a number of principal characters can credit much of their long-term growth to their interactions with her. Arya rebelled against Sansa’s judgment and finds herself training to become an assassin, Jon used the condescension he felt by his half-sister and the matriarch of his ‘family’ in order to forge his own honor as a man of the Night’s Watch, and Tyrion Lannister found an empathy within him during his time married to Sansa that came out during his voyage down the Rhoyne; which ultimately resulted in Young Griff deciding to invade Westeros immediately rather than wait for the arrival of Daenerys at Volantis. Perhaps it is going to be the time she spends with Petyr Baelish that will prove transformative for the young woman, enabling her to become a principal in her own right. She will undeniably have been instrumental to the future of Westeros as her actions have already driven events in Westeros and abroad, but perhaps she will experience enough tutelage and personal growth by the time the series has run its course in order to be a direct actor rather than being a passive creature upon whcih actions are acted.
There is enough speculation on the internet as to her role in the end-game of the Song of Ice and Fire. I feel as though her impending marriage to Hardyng will not be the end of her story. She may wind up staking her claim to Winterfell and the North durnig the events of Winds of Winter, but I feel as though she is destined for a much grander marriage and inevitably for a much grander stage upon whcih to perform her new-found talents for intrigue. I suspect that we will see Sansa Stark sitting in the King’s Landing throne room as Queen of Westeros as was foretold by her father so many years ago. There is a neatness to her potential marriage to Aegon VI Targaryen, for it is in many ways her influence on Tyrion’s character that provided Aegon the push to invade Westeros alone, and it would be very valuable to the newly reforged Targaryen dynasty to establish a strong alliance with the north by marrying the eldest daughter of Winterfell.
Perhaps I’m completely wrong about this, and I would welcome nearly any resolution to her story – so long as there is a resolution – but I feel as though this character has been written with a certain destiny in mind. She has been brought low so many times over a couple of short years of war, it would only be fitting for her to rise, like the phoenix from the ashes of the Lannister family to take her seat beside the rightful King of the Andals and not some monstrous bastard resultant from incestuous copulation. Sansa Stark is treated like the red-headed step child of the Westerosi saga, but I feel as though this is little more than a red herring; we are meant to be distracted by her arrogance and ignorance, which will allow us to be pleasantly surprised when she proves herself ultimately capable and inevitably a principal actor upon the destiny of the realm.
I hope that you have all enjoyed this piece. I understand that it is pretty long, but I was really intrigued by the topic, and even though I surpassed page six many paragraphs ago, I feel as though there was still a lot of her character left to be explored. I feel as though this is the true testament to the depth of SOIAF, even the character perceived to be the least significant can prove to be more important than ever imagined.
I feel as though it might be a while before I do another one of these truly long-form pieces, but perhaps I’ll get another truly intriguing topic next week and I’ll be proven a liar.
Until next time, never take your little sister for granted: she might just grow up to be an assassin!