The theme of motherhood in Sansa’s story has often been considered in the Pawn to Player threads as one of the key issues necessary to understanding the trajectory of her arc, relationships with others, and to ultimately unlock her potential as a player. Sansa occupies most of the story as a maiden, but we believe that it is in the interrogation of the mother archetype that Martin has invested the real conflict and struggles toward self-determination that she experiences. With a critical examination of this as our purpose, the project comprises of three essays, written by Milady of York, Brashcandy and Ragnorak, which all explore different, but complementary topics on the theme. In the final analysis, we hope to dispel the pervasive notion of the mother as passive and to present mothering as a practice which can be empowering and effect change.
FEMALE INFLUENCES II: ON MOTHERHOOD
Milady of York: The Maiden Fair and the Wicked Stepmother: Relationship Dynamics between Sansa and Cersei
Brashcandy: Sansa the Peacemaker: Maternal Empowerment and the Politics of Peace
Ragnorak: The Mother Role Model and its Impact on Character Development: The Case of Daenerys and Sansa
Relationship Dynamics between Sansa and Cersei
by Milady of York
For many readers, the rivalry between a young beautiful maiden and an older woman is as familiar as the tale of Snow White and her stepmother. What isn’t as known is that in the earlier version of this tale the Evil Queen was Snow White’s own biological mother. Neither is it so widespread that the archetypal Wicked Stepmother figure in Western culture, the goddess Venus, wasn’t the heroine’s substitute mother but her mother-in-law.
That goes to show that the Wicked Stepmother archetype isn’t necessarily restricted to a literal stepmother but, instead, is a position that can be filled in by a mother, a stepmother, an in-law, an elder sister, an aunt, the father’s girlfriend, etc.; practically any significant female in the lives of the younger character. And in Sansa’s storyline no one fulfils this role better than Queen Cersei, as the present essay aspires to demonstrate.
Whimsical Goddesses and Naïve Princesses: Mythological and Literary Origins of the Archetype
When attempting to trace the origins of a Western tale, it’s frequent to discover that all roads lead to Greece. In this case, the archetypal Wicked Stepmother can be found in the story of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sexuality. The myth of Eros and Psyche as told by Lucius Apuleius has the unique distinction of being the first and only Hero Journey type of epic with a female protagonist as well as being the ancestor of two of the most popular fairy tales: Beauty and the Beast and Snow White, as it contains three main storylines: the love story of the god Eros and the mortal maiden Psyche, the trials of Psyche, and the one-sided rivalry between Aphrodite and said maiden, of whose beauty she was jealous.
Since Apuleius’ tale has been sufficiently analysed here before, in the present the focus will be on Aphrodite herself in an effort to gain a better understanding of her character and motivations. Who was she and what did she do? Like the great majority, if not all, of the Hellene myths, there are several versions of the same legendary events, oftentimes blatantly contradictory even when supposedly authored by the same storyteller, so the prospect of picking up one single source might look daunting; therefore to lay out a coherent summary of the story of this goddess many sources have been consulted, mainly Hesiod, Homer, Smyrnaeus, Apollodorus, Ovid and Apuleius.
She was born in the sea foam that gathered around the mutilated genitals of the heaven god Uranus in poet Hesiod’s version, which is the most repeated one; hence her name Aphrodite and also why she’s called Aphrogeneia (Foamborn), and she’s described as so beautiful and sweet from her very birth that she was given a place amongst the twelve top gods, the Olympians, and anointed as goddess of love, beauty and pleasure as soon as she appeared before them, wandering from her place of birth towards Olympus as grass and red roses grew beneath her feet. For a long time, she was the most beautiful immortal maiden, occupying herself with “the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight, and love and graciousness.” She was golden-haired, with creamy white skin, and a shapely body, and was either depicted naked or wearing dresses of thin fabric made of woven gold, precious stones and jewels that minor goddesses sew, embroidered and made for her; and her five main attributes were symbolised by a dove, an apple, an scallop shell, a red rose and a mirror, some of the same elements that are also present in the tale of Snow White.
But she didn’t stay a maidenly figure for long, as her very beauty attracted the covetous gaze of all the male gods, single and married alike. One day, she was offered by Zeus as a prize to whoever was daring enough to rescue his wife Hera, trapped in a golden throne fabricated by the resentful smith-god Hephaistos as revenge for being cast as a baby from the sky to the ocean to die, because she was ashamed of having a deformed child. Aphrodite, oblivious to the plans of Zeus to use her as a trophy, had fallen in love with her brother Ares, and upon learning of this scheme by the father of the gods, accepted to be the wife of whoever freed Hera, because the first amongst the aspiring heroes was her beloved Ares, and she felt confident that if someone would achieve such a feat it would be him. After all, nobody could be better suited for this grand rescue than the über-powerful golden boy of the Olympus that happened to be the god of war, right?
Unfortunately, no. The plan of the immortal lovebirds backfired as horribly as the plan concocted by the Lannister twins to be together; and like Jaime found himself trapped in the Kingsguard and Cersei found herself married to a man she despised, Ares found himself defeated in Hephaistos’ forge and unable to fight back because of the flaming metal the smith-god rained on him. In the end, the winner was wine, because the wily god Dionysus managed to get Hephaistos stone-drunk and whilst in that state counselled him to ask for Aphrodite’s hand in exchange for Hera’s freedom once they got to Olympus, which he heeded. So the Mother Goddess was freed, and poor Aphrodite was grudgingly married to the limping divine smith.
That’s more or less when her behaviour described in the ancient sources as “wanton” began. In spite of this marriage, she continued her affair with Ares and not exactly in secret, whilst continuing to ignore her marital duties. The sources don’t agree on whether she did bed her husband or not, because in one version she never shared Hephaistos’ bed, but in another she slept with him to convince him to forge a magical armour for Aeneas during the Trojan War. What all the sources do tell, however, is that none of her children was fathered by him: her first child, a baby girl named Harmonia, was by Ares and was born whilst she was still married to Hephaistos, which eventually caused her husband to repudiate her, turning her into the first Olympian divorcée. The repudiation was an extremely humiliating incident for both her and Ares because of a stratagem by Hephaistos to have their adulterous affair exposed before the eyes of the gods: whilst she and Ares were in the goddess’ marital bed, the chains craftily hidden by Hephaistos sprung from the bed and caught the naked lovers, immobilising them. Then, when the crippled god returned, he displayed them in public like that, naked and chained to the bed.
Come, Father Zeus; come, all you blessed immortals with him; see what has happened here – no matter for laughter nor yet forbearance. Aphrodite had Zeus for father; because I am lame she never ceased to do me outrage and give her love to destructive Ares, since he is handsome and sound-footed and I am a cripple from my birth; yet for that my two parents are to blame, no one else at all, and I wish they had never begotten me. You will see the pair of lovers now as they lie embracing in my bed; the sight of them makes me sick at heart. Yet I doubt their desire to rest there longer, fond as they are. They will soon unwish their posture there; but my cunning chains shall hold them both fast till her father Zeus has given me back all the betrothal gifts I bestowed on him for his wanton daughter; beauty she has, but no sense of shame.
But Hephaistos is wrong here: his wife didn’t reject him because he was lame but because she didn’t want to be married to him in the first place, and because she loved Ares. Anyhow, the outraged husband didn’t agree to release them until one of the Big Three (Poseidon) proposed that the lovers be separated and destined to different locations, and Hephaistos agreed only when Poseidon himself vouched for Ares’ good behaviour. No one vouched for Aphrodite’s, though.
Perhaps because of the three goddesses associated with the Mother figure in Hellene mythology, Hera, Demeter and Aphrodite, the latter was certainly the most conflictive and rebellious, and the one that flaunted her sexuality, what the sources call “having no shame.” For a start, she wasn’t faithful to Ares either; she had other lovers, gods and mortals, one of which was killed in a hunt by Ares disguised as a boar in a fit of Lancel, Osmund Kettleblack and Moon Boy syndrome, and she conceived numerous children by most of them. Her other children by Ares, who eventually became her second husband, were the only legitimate godly offspring she had, and her favourite was her eldest son, Eros. But the propensity of such a prominent goddess to take lovers was frowned upon by the other gods, and because of that and also so she wouldn’t brag that she could make all the gods fall in love with a long list of mortal women through her son, Zeus decided to “teach her a lesson,” even if affairs outside marriage were a common sport amongst the immortals, to judge by what’s in the ancient sources, and in spite of the fact that Aphrodite never made use of violent methods to bed a mortal she fancied. Anyhow, Zeus punished her by making her lust after the mortal prince Anchises, by whom she conceived the hero Aeneas, so she would know the pain of having a child that would age and die.
Being the goddess of beauty, she was very vain and mindful of her position as the most beautiful amongst mortals and immortals, severely punishing anyone that scorned or neglected her cult in favour of some other, and would never suffer rivalry in love either, so despite her own infidelities, she also resorted to taking revenge on at least one of Ares’ mistresses. Her concern for staying unrivalled in terms of appearance precedes the most famous story in which she is involved, that of Psyche, and led her to have a hand in starting a famous war. It was the incident of the golden apple tossed at a banquet by the embittered goddess of strife for not being invited, which had the inscription To the fairest and was supposed to be for the most beautiful. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite each claimed it for themselves, and after a dispute they decided that the matter should be settled by the handsomest man alive, Paris of Troy. Each goddess offered him a reward for the apple: Hera’s was kingship of all men (power), Athena’s to make him invincible in the conduction of armies and war (wisdom), and Aphrodite’s the heart of the most beautiful woman on Earth (love). One can guess whose bribe the Trojan took; after all, love is pretty much the worthiest thing there is, right?
Except that Aphrodite didn’t act in good faith and was in fact fairly unscrupulous in her quest to be awarded the title of most beautiful: the woman was Helen of Sparta, married, with a daughter, and by all accounts enjoying a stable marriage. Paris himself was married at the time Aphrodite made that offer that would bring blood and destruction according to legend. The rest of the story is known: Paris abducted Helen, whom the goddess made to fall in love with him, and the lengthy Trojan War began, in which Aphrodite sided with the losers. And offering sexual favours in exchange for something wasn’t a one-time occurrence either, for she was known to have used sex as manipulation method or as payment at least thrice besides: when she slept with Poseidon “in gratitude” for his intercession before Hephaistos to release her and Ares from the bed, when she seduced Ares into coming to the Trojans’ side instead of supporting the Greeks as he’d solemnly sworn to do, and when she seduced her hated first husband in exchange for an armour for Aeneas. At least two of these occasions were cases of needlessly prostituting herself, because the reason Poseidon interceded for their release wasn’t because he expected anything from her but because Ares was needed; furthermore, Hephaistos would in the end make the best armour for Achilles and not Aeneas as Aphrodite had wished him to, since he owed his survival to goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles, who together with one of her sisters rescued him from drowning in the ocean as a baby, raised him and apprenticed him to smithing. And no matter how much her bringing Ares to their side may have helped the Trojans, in the long run they were defeated, and it earned Ares the wrath of his sister Athena, who during the war beat him into the dust—and not exactly metaphorically—for turning his cloak.
By the time we meet her in The Golden Ass, she’d been absorbed into the Latin pantheon and bore the name Venus. The Romans had turned her into one of the divine ancestors of their people, as they claimed to descend from her son Aeneas, and it wouldn’t do for the industrious, stiff-backed and warlike republic and future empire to have such a capricious, cheerful, flirtatious, sexually uninhibited, easy-going and vain beauty that was too generous with her love as their Mother Goddess, so they modified her personality. She was transformed into a more matronly figure than she ever was in the Greek pantheon, a Mother figure whose attributes and responsibilities would’ve caused hilarity amongst her early worshippers: pure love, moral and sexual decency, domestic bliss, procreation, fertility, protection against vice and protection of prostitutes. In an effort to make their godly ancestress as exemplary as possible, they also wrote out the promiscuity for which she was famous in Greece, and attributed to her only two sons, one immortal (Eros/Cupid) and the other mortal (Aeneas), by two fathers that were also a god (Ares/Mars) and a man (Anchises) respectively, whereas the Greek sources explicitly state that she had numerous children and at least eleven different lovers. Hence why in the story of Cupid and Psyche none of her other children appear save for Cupid/Eros, giving the impression that he’s her only son.
A satirical version of this Venus, the embodiment of military success and civic peace and symbol of an empire, represents the oldest Wicked Stepmother in this type of narrative that has survived in written form to this day. In Apuleius’ story of Cupid and Psyche, the goddess introduces herself in the tale as a nourishing Mother, but quickly contradicts her own assertion with the behaviour that follows, which is far from nourishing and rather cruel.
What stands out in the tale, from Venus’ standpoint, is the sadism she displays in her conflict with Psyche, which takes the form of psychological and physical violence. Revealing the same character flaws she had in the older mythography, Venus falls prey to feelings of envy and jealousy over the mere existence of a mortal maiden who men consider even more beautiful than her, which should’ve been interpreted as a metaphor, in the same sense we now use the expression “beautiful as an angel,” since gods were supposed not to be visible to humans, but which Venus took as a grave offence also because her cult was suffering as a result of men preferring to go pay their compliments to the girl instead. This maiden doesn’t even know she is so beautiful at first, neither is she particularly impressed by the worshipful praise she receives; yet nonetheless the goddess decided to punish her by way of ordering her son Cupid to deprive her of the love that she craves, causing her “to fall in love with the most miserable creature living, the most poor, the most crooked, and the most vile, that there may be none found in all the world of like wretchedness.” So, what she wants is to have the girl suffer psychologically, to see her be tied to a monster that won’t treat her well nor make her happy; she wants to condemn her to a life of utter domestic and personal misery for the crime of being fairer, a beauty she doesn’t want nor appreciates, because all she wants is to be loved and a family of her own, like her sisters do, but believes that she is unlovable because no one dares to take her for a wife. Then when the pregnant Psyche starts her long journey in search for her husband and as a last resort goes to beg Venus for help, the goddess orders she be whipped and beaten bloody by her servants, who also insult her calling her a “wicked harlot;” and when seeing Psyche all bloodied, she abuses her verbally by accusing her of getting pregnant by “playing the whore,” tells her the marriage to Eros was always invalid, refuses to acknowledge she’s the grandmother of the unborn child, and says that she will be lucky if she lives long enough to give birth to “her bastard.” The four tasks Venus imposed on her as additional punishments are also designed to have Psyche killed, very painfully.
All in all, the goddess makes the Evil Queen from Snow White look kind in comparison. But we have to take into account that in this tale the prejudices of the age are at play; both the Greeks and the Romans had unflattering opinions on the stepmother which, in the words of classicist Patricia A. Watson, were “an encapsulation of the negative traits assigned to females in general by a misogynistic tradition which flourished in Greece and Rome.” Both societies shared an overwhelmingly negative perception of the personality and morals of the stepmother, ascribing to her ill intentions towards the stepchildren that revolved around inheritance and affections. But as Watson highlights, there’s a cultural difference between both which could explain Venus’ distinct behaviour: like Aphrodite is laughter-loving and her demeanour tends to be overall good if fickle, the Hellene literary tradition does allow room for a kind and loving stepmother; but just like Venus is more rigid, the Latin literary tradition features a harsh stepmother.
In part, it’s possible that this reflected certain social factors that impacted on the relationship between the children of a man and his new wife that weren’t so pronounced in Greece: the law of primogeniture gave more motivation to a Roman stepmother to mistreat and get rid of a stepchild to favour her own child, whereas a Greek stepmother’s own child had as much chance of inheriting as her stepchild because firstborn didn’t automatically mean heir, at least in Athens; and although divorce was fairly easy in both Rome and Greece, in the latter a woman had the option to challenge the spouse’s unilateral decision to divorce her through an appeal by her male relatives, and in some city-states such as Sparta they had the legal right to divorce, whereas in Rome divorce was a privilege of males and didn’t require as much as a letter of repudiation by the husband until emperor Caesar Augustus gave women the legal right to divorce on their own initiative as well; and whilst a Greek mother could keep her children with herself upon divorce if they didn’t go to the ex-spouse, the children of a Roman belonged to the father and only he could raise them as the mother had no rights over them, not even visitation rights, so the children had no choice but to live with the father and his new wife. Moreover, Roman law complicated things for a stepmother and a stepson that wanted to have a love relationship and marry, because it was forbidden as it was considered incest, whilst in Greece it was permissible for a widowed stepmother to marry a stepson.
Therefore, the evil and murderous stepmother is characteristically Roman; there are more poisonings, physical and verbal abuse, mutilation, murders, attempts at seduction and disinheriting of a stepchild in Roman literature. The theme was so common that they coined the expressions venefica noverca (“poisoner stepmother,” as venefica is a sorceress that prepares potions and comes from veneficus, poisonous) and saeva noverca (“cruel stepmother,” though saeva literally means savage) to name this archetype, which eventually resulted in the term making its way into everyday speech as synonym for something cruel and harsh: if a citizen wanted to speak of his birthplace, he referred to Rome as the “motherland” or “mother country” and a foreign place would be a “stepmother country;” if an army engineer wanted to make the general understand that a place wasn’t good for the legions to set up camp, he’d tell the site was noverca, the hands that had committed an heinous crime were novercales manus, “stepmother’s hands,” and there’s even a case in which noverca is used as synonym for murderess, and so on. In sum, and to quote Professor Watson, in Roman literature the stepmother “encapsulates those qualities thought to be essentially feminine: emotional instability, lack of self-restraint, jealousy and treacherousness.”
Such negative characterisation was absorbed and perpetuated by later fairy tales, and would find its best expression in the large fairy tale collection by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, out of which a minimum of thirteen tales have a stepmother as the villain, and which introduced Little Snow White into the world, the tale that made famous she who is the wicked stepmother par excellence, the Queen.
Such a Grimm Tale
Whilst it’s unanimously accepted by scholars that the plotline that is a characteristic of this tale existed in oral form long before it was written down by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, and that it also existed in written form during the Renaissance, centuries before them, it’s theirs which can be considered the standard version, not only because of the thorough work of scholarship by the Brothers Grimm, who examined many variations of the tale from different places and incorporated elements of some of them to create theirs, but also because of the popularity brought about by Disney with his ground-breaking animated film, which in spite of several changes is essentially the same one narrated by them.
The story begins one snowy day in the middle of winter, with a queen sewing by the window:
And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.
A little while later, the queen dies giving birth to a child whose characteristic appearance is a porcelain-like skin, rosy cheeks and black hair. One year after, the widowed king remarries, and his new queen is a woman extremely beautiful, but also extremely haughty, incapable of withstanding another woman rivalling her in beauty. She possesses a magic mirror which she is fond of asking the following question, as a way of reassuring herself:
Looking-glass, looking-glass on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?”
The looking-glass answered:
“Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!
This is ritualistically repeated every day, and the answer remains always the same, until the princess reaches her seventh birthday, and the mirror, that couldn’t lie if he tried, changes his mantra and announces the dire news to the Queen: she’s no longer the most beautiful, she’s been surpassed by her stepdaughter.
Then the Queen was shocked, and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour, whenever she looked at Snow White, her heart heaved in her breast, she hated the girl so much.
And envy and pride grew higher and higher in her heart like a weed, so that she had no peace day or night. She called a huntsman, and said, “Take the child away into the forest; I will no longer have her in my sight. Kill her, and bring me back her heart as a token.
The huntsman follows the Queen’s order, but he hesitates to murder the little girl when she weeps and begs him to allow her to escape into the wood to never come back again. Moved, and believing that the wild beasts would soon devour her anyway, he lets her go and then hunts a boar, whose heart he takes to the Queen, assuring her that it is the girl’s. She has the heart cooked and eats it.
Meanwhile, the terrified little Snow White runs and runs through the forest until she finds a cottage where every piece of furniture and every object is small and arranged in sets of seven. The hungry girl eats a bit of each plate, drinks of each cup and then goes to sleep in the comfiest little bed, where she is found by the dwarfs on their return. On hearing her predicament, they agree that she should stay on one condition:
If you will take care of our house, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, and knit, and if you will keep everything neat and clean, you can stay with us and you shall want for nothing.”
“Yes,” said Snow White, “with all my heart,” and she stayed with them. She kept the house in order for them; in the mornings they went to the mountains and looked for copper and gold, in the evenings they came back, and then their supper had to be ready. The girl was alone the whole day, so the good dwarfs warned her and said, “Beware of your step-mother, she will soon know that you are here; be sure to let no one come in.
Sure enough, the Queen finds out she’s survived through the tell-tale mirror. Thenceforward, she schemes how to have her veritably killed, and makes three technically successful attempts on Snow White’s life that would result in her falling into a death-like coma.
[…] she painted her face, and dressed herself like an old peddler-woman, and no one could have known her. In this disguise she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs, and knocked at the door and cried, “Pretty things to sell, very cheap, very cheap.” Little Snow White looked out of the window and called out, “Good day, my good woman, what have you to sell?” “Good things, pretty things,” she answered; “stay-laces of all colours,” and she pulled out one which was braided from yellow, red, and blue silk. “I may let the worthy old woman in,” thought Snow White, and she unbolted the door and bought the pretty laces. “Child,” said the old woman, “what a fright you look; come, I will lace you properly for once.” Snow White had no suspicion, but stood before her, and let herself be laced with the new laces. But the old woman laced so quickly and so tightly that Snow White lost her breath and fell down as if dead. “Now I am the most beautiful,” said the Queen to herself, and ran away.
However, the dwarfs found her lying on the floor, and noticing the too tight laces, cut them, and she regained consciousness as a result. She was then warned not to let anyone in next time.
[…] by the help of witchcraft, which she understood, she made a poisonous comb. Then she disguised herself and took the shape of another old woman. So she went over the seven mountains to the seven dwarfs, knocked at the door, and cried, “Good things to sell, cheap, cheap!” Little Snow White looked out and said, “Go away; I cannot let anyone come in.” “I suppose you can look,” said the old woman, and pulled the poisonous comb out and held it up. It pleased the girl so well that she let herself be beguiled, and opened the door. When they had made a bargain the old woman said, “Now I will comb you properly for once.” Poor little Snow White had no suspicion, and let the old woman do as she pleased, but hardly had she put the comb in her hair than the poison in it took effect, and the girl fell down senseless. “You paragon of beauty,” said the wicked woman, “you are done for now,” and she went away.
The dwarfs again saved her by simply removing the comb from her hair. Upon hearing of it, the Queen was even more determined to make a third and final attempt to get rid of the girl even if she lost her own life, so she made a pretty poisoned white apple with a red cheek, disguised herself as a peasant and went to offer it to her stepdaughter, who this time not only refused to let her in but also take anything from her.
“No,” said Snow White, “I dare not take anything.”
“Are you afraid of poison?” said the old woman; “look, I will cut the apple in two pieces; you eat the red cheek, and I will eat the white.” The apple was so cunningly made that only the red cheek was poisoned. Snow White longed for the fine apple, and when she saw that the woman ate part of it she could resist no longer, and stretched out her hand and took the poisonous half. But hardly had she a bit of it in her mouth than she fell down dead. Then the Queen looked at her with a dreadful look, and laughed aloud and said, “White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony-wood! this time the dwarfs cannot wake you up again.”
This time, the mirror assured the Queen that she was in fact the most beautiful once more. As per usual, he’s not lying: coming back home, the dwarfs found that “she breathed no longer and was dead,” and no matter what methods they tried, she stayed dead. Then they mourned her three days, built a glass coffin for her:
Then they put the coffin out upon the mountain, and one of them always stayed by it and watched it. And birds came too, and wept for Snow-white; first an owl, then a raven, and last a dove.
And now Snow White lay a long, long time in the coffin, and she did not change, but looked as if she were asleep […].
Then the king’s son appears in the dwarfs’ wood, sees the coffin and offers gold for it; he’s denied, but after insisting that he fancies the girl therein, he convinces the dwarfs to hand the coffin over to him. Unbeknownst to both him and them, Snow White is soon to come back to the world of the living, but unlike what Walt Disney would have you believe, it’s not a kiss from the prince what reanimates her. No, the thing that reanimates her is an unintentional, down-to-earth and unromantic Heimlich manoeuvre:
And now the King’s son had it carried away by his servants on their shoulders. And it happened that they stumbled over a tree-stump, and with the shock the poisonous piece of apple which Snow-white had bitten off came out of her throat. And before long she opened her eyes, lifted up the lid of the coffin, sat up, and was once more alive. “Oh, heavens, where am I?” she cried.
The prince asks her to go with him and become his wife, which she accepts. Soon the wedding takes place, and the Queen is invited. Before she attend, though, she poses her routine question to the mirror that, much to her surprise, reveals that she’s again been supplanted in the beauty podium:
“Oh, Queen, of all here the fairest art thou,
But the young Queen is fairer by far as I trow.”
The old queen is chagrined, and initially thinks she shouldn’t go; but the negative feelings keep gnawing at her, so to have a little peace of mind, she decides in the end that she should meet this younger queen in person:
And when she went in, she knew Snow White; and she stood still with rage and fear, and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.
White as Snow, Red as Blood, Yellow as Lannister Gold: The Queen vs. Maiden Conflict
Throughout the narrative there’s a notable repetition of the “as white as snow, as red as blood, as black as ebony-wood” line, and there’s a reason for this that goes beyond a basic literary technique to heighten the lyrical flow of the prose. This line is very relevant as it subtly both discloses and emphasises on what the real theme of this tale is: these colours are a representation of the three essential feminine archetypes intrinsic to the three phases of a woman’s life: white is the Maiden because the colour typically symbolises purity and innocence, red is the Mother because of the blood of menstruation and childbirth, and black is the Crone because it’s the waning phase in which wisdom is attained after a long life. In consequence, this symbolism heralds the main plotline of the tale: the clash between two of these aspects and the outcome for both protagonists, which we’ll call the Evil Queen vs. the Maiden conflict, a confrontation between a still immature yet slowly blooming little girl who’ll be a fully mature woman by the end of the story, and a motherly figure unable to deal with the disappearance of a beauty that, to her, is the source of her power and who’ll end up self-destructing because of this failure. The latter role was played by the biological mother of Snow White in the first version the Grimm duo published; but in the later version they released and that is the one we have now, the Evil Mother was replaced by the Evil Stepmother, a modification that Terri Windling attributes to “the desire for the Mother to flourish as a symbol of the eternal feminine, the motherland, and the family itself as the highest social desideratum.” This change also means that the behaviour and personality of the older feminine figure wouldn’t fit in just the Mother archetype but also in that of a fourth: the Queen archetype, the ruler and figure of power and authority.
Such collision isn’t between the archetypes of the Maiden and the Mother/Queen proper but rather between the Shadow of each, the dark, corrupt and maladaptive side of these archetypes that need to be “vanquished,” i.e. reincorporated or assimilated into an individual’s personality, thereby contributing to a more mature, more ample, stronger and adaptive one. Applying the neo-Jungian theory on archetypes to this storyline, the Shadow of this Maiden is to be “the dutiful daughter, her self-worth linked to pleasing others in order to receive their approval. She has not developed a strong sense of self;” the Shadow of this Mother is that “she has the power to abuse and abandon. She can control, criticize and reject,” and the Shadow of this Queen is that she “abuses her power and directs her knowledge and status for negative purposes, clinging to all she has achieved, becoming consumed with acquiring more and more power.”
This theme is easily identifiable in the arcs of two characters in Martin’s books; like in the fairy tale, the colours of the field in the House sigils of the ASOIAF counterparts are the same: in the Stark coat of arms it’s white, identifying Sansa as our Maiden figure, and in the Lannister coat of arms it’s crimson red, revealing Cersei as the Evil Queen motherly figure. And also like in the tale, it’s an one-sided conflict started by Cersei alone without Sansa’s conscious participation, as it starts when she is still a child that hasn’t even flowered (Snow White is seven and Sansa is eleven when their respective Queens target them), but is already poised to replace her as future Queen (Snow White was her father’s heir presumptive, and Sansa was Joffrey’s betrothed). The difference is that Cersei, unlike the Queen, isn’t consciously making a rival of her Maiden but instead directs her suspicions and ill-will towards Margaery Tyrell. This distracts her from the true objective as well as keeps danger away from Sansa, who’d elsewise have suffered even more, this time at the hands of her mother-in-law besides her betrothed’s. But to get a proper grasp of the reasoning behind this, let’s step in Cersei’s shoes and see both girls as she does:
Sansa is twelve, too young, too naïve and foolish, not to mention tractable, her father is dead, her family scattered and soon to perish, her brother won’t rescue her or negotiate her release, she is a prisoner, has no friends and no resources, Joffrey hates her and abuses her physically and verbally. She’s alone and powerless. What could this small girl do to the Queen Regent? Nothing.
Margaery is sixteen, a woman grown by Westerosi customs, and not naïve though she can pretend to be an ingénue, she’s mentored by the cunning and sharp-tongued Queen of Thorns, she has two brothers who can be counted as fine swordsmen, one of them a Kingsguard, her father is a powerful lord who’s in the Council and has thousands and thousands of soldiers under his banners, including the feared Lord Tarly, one of the best army commanders, she has her House’s resources at her disposal, she has her ambitious family and friends at court, Joffrey didn’t have time to lift a finger for or against her and Tommen adores her. She has means and support. What could this girl do to the Queen Regent? Anything.
It does therefore make perfect sense from Cersei’s perspective to suspect that the Tyrell girl instead of the Stark girl is her Maiden. However, both the Queen and Cersei act under the impression that their Maiden is going to be actively the cause of their downfall, and consequently go to extremes of cruelty to preempt such an outcome by having the Maiden murdered or legally executed, which blinds them to the real menace and renders them incapable of foreseeing that the consequences of this unhinged desire to get rid of the rival are what in the end cast them down, and not the Maidens themselves; neither Psyche nor Snow White nor Sansa deliberately strove to replace Venus, the Queen or Cersei, none of them ended up occupying the same rank/position as the older women anyway, even in the cases where they did end up in a high position, and once there none of them directly caused harm to the Queens as payback for their sufferings.
This analysis doesn’t aim to find identical thematic parallels to this fairy tale throughout the entire storylines of Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister, but examine how the archetypal Evil Queen/Stepmother vs. Maiden conflict that makes it stand out comes into play in their relationship over a delimitated timespan, from AGOT to late ASOS, when the Maiden is a captive at the mercy of the Queen and her family. For this purpose, it can prove enlightening to examine the dynamics of their relationship through the narrative pattern to be found in classical myth and fairy tales that depict this type of confrontation, nominally referred to as six principles of maidenhood, which describes the evolution of this conflict from beginning to peak and resolution, and is focused on identifying the Maiden through her actions, her sufferings at the hands of the Queen, and the consequences for her personal development.
Principle I: The Maiden is Persecuted
As a rule, the Maiden figure is always envied for reasons over which she has no control and that can be material—birth and possessions—or immaterial, which can manifest inwardly as an innately virtuous personality or outwardly as physical beauty. Generally she has both, and that attracts the Queenly opponent’s attention and her desire to crush her regardless of the real threat the Maiden poses, so persecution ensues because of the power imbalance between both women that allows the Evil Queen figure to attempt to harm the younger rival.
The usual method of persecution is for the older woman to order the younger’s death, but as the Venus-Psyche story as well as other Stepmother Tales show, the alternative is to cause her a grave humiliation or psychological pain. Cersei’s method of “persecution” falls in the latter category, as she is directly responsible for the death of Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, when she asked for her pelt instead of the guilty direwolf that had been chased away:
Robert started to walk away, but the queen was not done. “And what of the direwolf?” she called after him. “What of the beast that savaged your son?”
The king stopped, turned back, frowned. “I’d forgotten about the damned wolf.”
Ned could see Arya tense in Jory’s arms. Jory spoke up quickly. “We found no trace of the direwolf, Your Grace.”
Robert did not look unhappy. “No? So be it.”
The queen raised her voice. “A hundred golden dragons to the man who brings me its skin!”
“A costly pelt,” Robert grumbled. “I want no part of this, woman. You can damn well buy your furs with Lannister gold.”
The queen regarded him coolly. “I had not thought you so niggardly. The king I’d thought to wed would have laid a wolfskin across my bed before the sun went down.”
Robert’s face darkened with anger. “That would be a fine trick, without a wolf.”
“We have a wolf,” Cersei Lannister said. Her voice was very quiet, but her green eyes shone with triumph.
It took them all a moment to comprehend her words, but when they did, the king shrugged irritably. “As you will. Have Ser Ilyn see to it.
Which caused Sansa to break down in court and a long-lasting emotional hurt, as she’ll miss her direwolf a number of times for the rest of the books:
Her eyes were frightened as they went to her father. “He doesn’t mean Lady, does he?” She saw the truth on his face. “No,” she said. “No, not Lady, Lady didn’t bite anybody, she’s good . . . ”
Lady wasn’t there,” Arya shouted angrily. “You leave her alone!
“Stop them,” Sansa pleaded, “don’t let them do it, please, please, it wasn’t Lady, it was Nymeria, Arya did it, you can’t, it wasn’t Lady, don’t let them hurt Lady, I’ll make her be good, I promise, I promise . . . ” She started to cry.
The twist is that, unlike in the typical plotline where the Maiden is the intended target, Sansa is a vicarious target. Nevertheless, in her eagerness to gain the upper hand over Robert, Cersei doesn’t seem to have stopped to consider that she was harming the girl who at the moment was still going to become the next Queen, and therefore would outrank her, which didn’t come to pass. That, and Sansa’s lack of vindictiveness have benefitted Cersei in the sense that she didn’t pay for the wrong deed.
But if we pay attention to the narratives studied above, we’ll note that even if in none of those stories the Maiden ever avenges herself, she does not lack in allies that eventually are the ones that pay the debt in her name. According to classical myth, unprovoked hurt of an innocent bystander, especially if perversity was the final outcome, was forbidden by the gods as it was considered hubris, defined as “an action that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser,” as classicist Douglas L. Cairns states, for back then it was not reduced to merely a synonym for haughtiness, arrogance and pride as the term is mostly understood in modernity. Cersei’s responsibility in this incident was her hubris strictly in relation to Sansa, therefore can be considered the start of her persecution of her Maiden.
Often, a curse is uttered in such stories that sets in motion the events leading to nemesis and tisis, which in this case would be Robert’s:
“Damn you, Cersei,” he said with loathing.
Following the Hubris-Atē-Nemesis-Tisis cycle, committing hubris meant that retribution in the victim’s stead would be decreed by the gods (nemesis) and would be carried out on the guilty party by means of a steep downfall (tisis) after a long string of other crimes and follies (atē). Ironically, this retribution would fall on Cersei as a result of an attempt to have her supposed Maiden incarcerated and executed by the Faith.
During her nemesis, as she walks shorn, naked and with her feet bare, it’s the hubris against her real Maiden which is present in her mind: Sansa is one of only eight people whose memories haunt Cersei, and intriguingly she also sees the dead direwolf with her:
The queen began to see familiar faces. A bald man with bushy side-whiskers frowned down from a window with her father’s frown, and for an instant looked so much like Lord Tywin that she stumbled. A young girl sat beneath a fountain, drenched in spray, and stared at her with Melara Hetherspoon’s accusing eyes. She saw Ned Stark, and beside him little Sansa with her auburn hair and a shaggy grey dog that might have been her wolf. Every child squirming through the crowd became her brother Tyrion, jeering at her as he had jeered when Joffrey died. And there was Joff as well, her son, her firstborn, her beautiful bright boy with his golden curls and his sweet smile, he had such lovely lips, he …
Principle II: The Maiden is Robbed
The next phase in this conflict is that the Queen deprives the young girl of what is hers by rights, her inheritance, her place in the world and in the family of origin, neutralising her natural protector figure—her father—either by isolating him from her, turning him against her, or killing him, so she’s left defenceless. This can come after the initial persecutory action, even as a direct consequence of such action, and often it’s at this time when the Queenly figure makes the first attempt to murder the girl. It’s also the stage at which the Maiden has to charm the Huntsman into pardoning her life, literally or metaphorically, and into doing a good deed in her favour that goes against the Evil Queen’s interests.
In our ASOIAF example, the equivalent would be the moment Sansa is made a prisoner by Cersei, right after she’d gone to her to ask the queen to bid Lord Eddard to stay in King’s Landing.
There were guards outside her door, Lannister men-at-arms in crimson cloaks and lion-crested helms. Sansa made herself smile at them pleasantly and bid them a good morning as she passed. It was the first time she had been allowed outside the chamber since Ser Arys Oakheart had led her there two mornings past. “To keep you safe, my sweet one,” Queen Cersei had told her. “Joffrey would never forgive me if anything happened to his precious.”
Dishonesty is the method Cersei uses to rob Sansa of her status, as she’s here feeding her the lie that it’s for her protection that she should be escorted to a room that will be her prison, as dishonesty is also how in the tales the Stepmother drives the girl out of her presence and into servitude or death. And although it’s Oakheart the one escorting her, which gives an indication that it’ll be the Kingsguard as a whole who shall represent Cersei’s “woodsman,” it’s the Hound and Jaime who shall be the two Huntsman figures with regard to Sansa; not only because both had been doing the dirty work at the queen’s behest for long before but also because they both are the closest and most loyal to her, and because they both turned to the Maiden’s side in this struggle.
Disney made a change in the story of Snow White that has proved negative, as it stresses on the passive role of the Maiden in a way that isn’t present in the original tale, and which undermines her agency and negates her active role in saving herself, making the Huntsman the active protagonist: she is resigned to her fate, doesn’t suspect nor protests, and it’s him who decides to spare her life out of the goodness of his heart, since she’s just too beautiful to be killed, so he tells her to run away. In their tale, however, the Brothers Grimm made the Maiden, still a prepubescent child and not a young woman like in the animated film, active by truly saving herself when she begs the Huntsman for her life with tears in her eyes and proposes to him an alternative to killing her:
Ah, dear huntsman, leave me my life! I will run away into the wild forest, and never come home again.
And he accepts her alternate solution, covering for her by bringing a beast’s heart to the Queen. Similarly, Sansa had an active role in winning the good will of Queen Cersei’s fierce Hound through her reaction to his backstory, going from a frightened and crying child to offering to him what she had: her understanding and her sympathy. Thenceforward, the end result would be that her first Huntsman would go behind his Queen’s back to protect her whenever he could up to the moment of his desertion. As for her second Hunstman, Sansa didn’t directly influence Jaime’s decision to defy his Queen’s explicit royal order to kill her—“Cersei means to see that the girl is found and killed, wherever she has gone to ground.”—because they were apart and couldn’t interact, but she had an indirect role as she was the reason Catelyn released him.
Principle III: The Maiden Fails to Understand
It’s a rite of passage for the Maidenhood archetype in all tales since time immemorial that the Maiden must make errors of judgment that put her in danger; sometimes only one grievous error, other times a string of repeated errors that make her appear shallow-brained. The purpose of the existence of such missteps isn’t to accentuate the foolishness of the young heroine, as in the Classical mindset from where this archetype originated it was no shame to make a mistake, or even to repeat it, for they considered that: a. Erring is innate, therefore likely to recur, more so when the heroine is young. The younger the heroine, the more errors she makes; b. Mistakes were even necessary for character building, as Maidenhood was a period of inexperience in which three factors—lack of knowledge, poor discernment due to immaturity, and carelessness—are to be overcome. Therefore it was shameful not to overcome the hard consequences of said errors, not committing them per se.
The number could vary, but the Maiden usually “failed to understand” three times in these narratives, possibly because of the mentioned three factors that led her to such predicaments, as happens with Snow White. That’s the number of times for Sansa in relation to Cersei as well. The first “failure,” going to Cersei so she could stay in King’s Landing instead of being sent back to Winterfell, involved the factor of ignorance: she intended to go to the King, but as she was afraid of him she decided to go to the Queen instead, not knowing that she and her father were already in collision course and the fighting would start immediately after.
The second “failure” involves manipulation on the part of the Queen, taking advantage of the yet not fully-fledged discerning abilities of the young. Like her fairy tale counterpart, Cersei dangles “pretty things” in front of her Maiden’s eyes: the love of Joffrey, knowing well that the infatuation with her son is still strong.
Sweet Sansa,” Queen Cersei said, laying a soft hand on her wrist. “Such a beautiful child. I do hope you know how much Joffrey and I love you.”
“You do?” Sansa said, breathless. Littlefinger was forgotten. Her prince loved her. Nothing else mattered.
The queen smiled. “I think of you almost as my own daughter. And I know the love you bear for Joffrey.” She gave a weary shake of her head. “I am afraid we have some grave news about your lord father. You must be brave, child.”
Her quiet words gave Sansa a chill. “What is it?”
“Your father is a traitor, dear,” Lord Varys said.
. . . then she plays on Sansa’s fears:
No,” Sansa blurted. “He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t!”
The queen picked up a letter. The paper was torn and stiff with dried blood, but the broken seal was her father’s, the direwolf stamped in pale wax. “We found this on the captain of your household guard, Sansa. It is a letter to my late husband’s brother Stannis, inviting him to take the crown.”
“Please, Your Grace, there’s been a mistake.” Sudden panic made her dizzy and faint. “Please, send for my father, he’ll tell you, he would never write such a letter, the king was his friend.”
“Robert thought so,” said the queen. “This betrayal would have broken his heart. The gods are kind, that he did not live to see it.” She sighed. “Sansa, sweetling, you must see what a dreadful position this has left us in. You are innocent of any wrong, we all know that, and yet you are the daughter of a traitor. How can I allow you to marry my son?
. . . so she may be willing to do anything to dispel the fear:
But I love him,” Sansa wailed, confused and frightened. What did they mean to do to her? What had they done to her father? It was not supposed to happen this way. She had to wed Joffrey, they were betrothed, he was promised to her, she had even dreamed about it. It wasn’t fair to take him away from her on account of whatever her father might have done.
And right before she asks for what she wants, praises her for coming to her:
How well I know that, child,” Cersei said, her voice so kind and sweet. “Why else should you have come to me and told me of your father’s plan to send you away from us, if not for love?”
“It was for love,” Sansa said in a rush. “Father wouldn’t even give me leave to say farewell.” She was the good girl, the obedient girl, but she had felt as wicked as Arya that morning, sneaking away from Septa Mordane, defying her lord father. She had never done anything so willful before, and she would never have done it then if she hadn’t loved Joffrey as much as she did. “He was going to take me back to Winterfell and marry me to some hedge knight, even though it was Joff I wanted. I told him, but he wouldn’t listen.” The king had been her last hope. The king could command Father to let her stay in King’s Landing and marry Prince Joffrey, Sansa knew he could, but the king had always frightened her. He was loud and rough-voiced and drunk as often as not, and he would probably have just sent her back to Lord Eddard, if they even let her see him. So she went to the queen instead, and poured out her heart, and Cersei had listened and thanked her sweetly…
It’s interesting that it’s only Cersei who places the blame on Sansa thrice: here, later in ACOK during a conversation with the Imp, and in AFFC; and isn’t telling the whole truth in either. Here, she’s spoon-feeding Sansa that what she’d done was good as it was done for love; it was, but not for the reasons she is leading Sansa to believe, and later she doesn’t reveal to her brother that Eddard had already told her about his plans. Through this deft back-and-forth with the child, she finally achieves the desired end, that Sansa should write a letter to her family asking them to bend the knee.
But it wasn’t as immediate, or as easy. Three times her Maiden hesitated and three times Cersei had to dangle the “pretty things” and threaten to take them away:
“[…] Perhaps there is hope for you and Joffrey still…”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You must write your lady mother, and your brother, the eldest . . . what is his name?”
“Robb,” Sansa said.
“The word of your lord father’s treason will no doubt reach them soon. Better that it should come from you. You must tell them how Lord Eddard betrayed his king.”
Sansa wanted Joffrey desperately, but she did not think she had the courage to do as the queen was asking. “But he never . . . I don’t . . . Your Grace, I wouldn’t know what to say…”
“If they do that… why, then we shall know that there is no taint in your blood, and when you come into the flower of your womanhood, you shall wed the king in the Great Sept of Baelor, before the eyes of gods and men.”
… wed the king… The words made her breath come faster, yet still Sansa hesitated. “Perhaps… if I might see my father, talk to him about...”
“Treason?” Lord Varys hinted.
“You disappoint me, Sansa,” the queen said, with eyes gone hard as stones. “We’ve told you of your father’s crimes. If you are truly as loyal as you say, why should you want to see him?”
“I… I only meant…” Sansa felt her eyes grow wet. “He’s not… please, he hasn’t been… hurt, or… or…”
“Lord Eddard has not been harmed,” the queen said.
Then came the third “failure to understand” in ASOS, when the Maiden is being measured for a new and luxurious dress, and the seamstress comments that it comes from Cersei:
“[…] You will be very beautiful. The queen herself has commanded it.”
“Which queen?” Margaery was not yet Joff’s queen, but she had been Renly’s. Or did she mean the Queen of Thorns? Or…
“The Queen Regent, to be sure.”
“None other. She has honored me with her custom for many a year.” The old woman laid her string along the inside of Sansa’s leg. “Her Grace said to me that you are a woman now, and should not dress like a little girl. Hold out your arm.”
The hesitancy of the seamstress and the details she reveals, that Sansa will have a whole new wardrobe—“smallclothes and hose as well, kirtles and mantles and cloaks, and all else befitting a… a lovely young lady of noble birth”—and that many people are working on this—“I have six seamstresses and twelve apprentice girls, and we have set all our other work aside for this.”—are enough hints that there something rotten beneath this present. And though Sansa does rightly suspect the queen’s motives, she doesn’t reach the right conclusion:
But why? Sansa wondered when she was alone. It made her uneasy. I’ll wager this gown is Margaery’s doing somehow, or her grandmother’s.
By attributing this gift to the kindness of the Tyrell ladies, even though she has valid reasons for thinking so given how well they’ve been treating her thus far, Sansa didn’t entertain any suspicions that this was a poisoned apple from her Queen, delivered to her by the betrayal of her naïve trust in Dontos. So she was caught unawares by Cersei when the gown is brought, and she is made to wear it to her own forced wedding by the gloating Regent:
“The gods have been kind to you, Sansa. You are a lovely girl. It seems almost obscene to squander such sweet innocence on that gargoyle.”
“What gargoyle?” Sansa did not understand. Did she mean Willas? How could she know? No one knew, but her and Margaery and the Queen of Thorns… oh, and Dontos, but he didn’t count.
Cersei Lannister ignored the question. “The cloak,” she commanded, and the women brought it out: a long cloak of white velvet heavy with pearls. A fierce direwolf was embroidered upon it in silver thread. Sansa looked at it with sudden dread. “Your father’s colors,” said Cersei, as they fastened it about her neck with a slender silver chain.
A maiden’s cloak. Sansa’s hand went to her throat. She would have torn the thing away if she had dared.
“You’re prettier with your mouth closed, Sansa,” Cersei told her. “Come along now, the septon is waiting. And the wedding guests as well.”
“No,” Sansa blurted. “No.”
“Yes. You are a ward of the crown. The king stands in your father’s place, since your brother is an attainted traitor. That means he has every right to dispose of your hand. You are to marry my brother Tyrion.”
Continuing with the explanation at the beginning, these “failures” are above all supposed to underscore how dangerous the Maiden’s trust and naïveté can be for her when her opponent, independently of whether she’s aware of her as such or not, is another woman in a position of power willing to use any means of the unethical sort to advance her own agenda, because a Queen figure will gladly sacrifice her Maiden with no remorse. For though the Maiden is an innocent victim, she also unwittingly enables the abuse at the hands of the Queen due to her trust and her desire for the “pretty things” on offer to entrap her further. Therefore, the challenge for the Maiden is to overcome this crippling innocence, to integrate the most negative aspects of the archetype whilst retaining the useful aspects; as a broad example: to let go of her people-pleasing perfect girl mindset whilst retaining the ability to charm people. In sum, “the Maiden has to die, and thereby transform and become a woman,” as one Jungian expert put it.
Principle IV: The Maiden is Raped
From our point of view, perhaps the most controversial hallmark of the Maiden literary archetype is that she had to be subjected to either rape or sexual humiliation at some point in the narrative. The order in the list of phases, as any of the others, isn’t stable, because it can be between the two to fourth places, like in our example. This is one aspect that requires a closer look at the context to understand what exactly this consists of.
This hallmark is present mostly in the Classical archetype, e.g. Greco-Roman, rather than in fairy tales, as depictions of rape of beautiful maidens abound in their literature and are even practised by gods themselves, which can be shocking until we discover that they didn’t understand “rape” in the same sense we do now, as intercourse without the other’s consent. It was a broader concept for them, and wasn’t reduced to forced sexual relations like in modern definitions, and they had more words against just one of ours. The action alluded to in this phase was known as raptus (the Latin root of the modern “rape,” hubris is the Greek equivalent of this term), which is semantically broader and referred to abduction of a maiden for reasons that ranged from bad to good and in-between, like the desire to marry without the family’s approval, to name one frequent cause; it was a misconduct that could be punished depending on circumstances, but the disciplinary measures were mostly left up to the criterion of the pater familias and not the authorities, unless it was raptus ad stuprum, abduction with the goal of having forced sex, which was a crime recognised by the law. Additionally, when it came to divine “rapes” of mortal maidens, there’s usually no depiction of any sexual act but rather only the pursuit of the beautiful maiden described in terms that paint it as a seduction process, and some scholars contend that the word is used rather as a metaphor.
Raptus and hubris had also the meaning of “a violent act,” any act that involved the use of force to dominate the other, especially in Greece, where this was essentially an act of dominance and forceful show of power on a weaker counterpart to humiliate and degrade, and thus does tie in with the prior definition of hubris in Principle 1. Whilst there’s no specific word for rape in ancient Greek (it was punished as hubris, and atimia, dishonour), the Latin language did have stuprum and vis, which are words to describe non-consensual intercourse and assault, and like now, they were sexual crimes punishable by the state officials, with harsher penalties in the case of maiden victims.
All of this means that, in mainstream Classical narratives the fourth principle doesn’t automatically translate to rape in the modern sense, as the word used isn’t stuprum but raptus and hubris, which encompassed everything from abduction to sexual humiliation, from verbal to physical abuse, from assault to beatings and torture.
In her confrontation with the Queen, a Maiden is not subjected to unwanted intercourse, as the stories of Psyche and Snow White show, though it could happen in some cases mentioned below. Not in fairy tales, though, because when this became “literature for children,” it was thought that it would be inappropriate to have the prince charming commit such a horrible deed or have the heroine/princess suffer that fate. Hence why earlier versions of tales like Sleeping Beauty which had this plotline were changed in later versions; and a third reason is that the majority of tales with Stepmother vs. Stepchild and Queen vs. Maiden plotlines have two females as protagonists, so sexual abuse is replaced with physical and psychological abuse.
Yet this remained in both the Classical narrative and a few obscure tales for two scenarios that were exceptions to the rule: when the conflict is with a male stepchild or a male version of the Maidenly role, in which case the Stepmother/Queen would try seduction and intercourse with him; and when the Queen figure has a son or a hitman whom she allows or encourages to sexually humiliate the Maiden, like Venus did. The latter is Cersei’s modus operandi with regard to her Maidens: she is an enabler of the beatings and sexualised punishment her son Joffrey inflicts on Sansa and actively participates in her forced marriage, and, finally, attempts to have Margaery punished for what is essentially a sexual crime in her society.
Let’s focus on Joffrey: there’s an argument to be made that the mistreatment of Sansa is Cersei’s responsibility as well. As he’s a minor, king or no, so under her tutelage as both his mother and Queen Regent, it is Cersei’s duty to moderate his behaviour and contradict his orders when they’re inappropriate or harmful, which she doesn’t. She ignores the budding sexual sadist that her son is, and later she’ll reveal that she herself has streaks of that sadism her father also had, which makes it three generations of Lannisters that used sexual humiliation as punishment for Sansa. Joffrey started it, with threats like this one, in AGOT Sansa VI:
“I’ll get you with child as soon as you’re able,” Joffrey said as he escorted her across the practice yard. “If the first one is stupid, I’ll chop off your head and find a smarter wife. When do you think you’ll be able to have children?”
Then he continued with the order to have her stripped:
“No, it isn’t,” the king replied. “Boros, make her naked.”
Boros shoved a meaty hand down the front of Sansa’s bodice and gave a hard yank. The silk came tearing away, baring her to the waist. Sansa covered her breasts with her hands. She could hear sniggers, far off and cruel. “Beat her bloody,” Joffrey said, “we’ll see how her brother fancies—”
The second is Cersei herself, who is complicit by omission and by commission. For the former: she prefers to justify her son’s misdeeds, even when they go against the interests of House Lannister. She considers him “stubborn and unpredictable,” “willful,” and “difficult,” but these are things she tells to explain away his misbehaviour. Instead of exerting her authority over her son, she gives excuses like this one she gave Tyrion on Joffrey’s behalf for having Sansa disrobed and beaten in public:
“My son is too young to care about such things.”
“You think so?” asked Tyrion. “He’s thirteen, Cersei. The same age at which I married.”
“You shamed us all with that sorry episode. Joffrey is made of finer stuff.”
“So fine that he had Ser Boros rip off Sansa’s gown.”
“He was angry with the girl.”
“He was angry with that cook’s boy who spilled the soup last night as well, but he didn’t strip him naked.”
“This was not a matter of some spilled soup—”
No, it was a matter of some pretty teats.
And she does that again when Sansa has her menarche:
He’s never been able to forget that day on the Trident when you saw her shame him, so he shames you in turn. You’re stronger than you seem, though. I expect you’ll survive a bit of humiliation. I did. You may never love the king, but you’ll love his children.
By humiliation she means whatever Joffrey does to her, and that includes future marital rape, like she did. It’s true that Cersei mightn’t have known about some details, such as Joffrey’s threats to rape Sansa even after she’d been married to his uncle, as they weren’t uttered within her earshot, but she’s not entirely unaware of what’s going on either, as it’s apparent by her quoted words that she knows why her son is mistreating her, and doesn’t demonstrate any intention to try and curb his outbursts, but instead puts the burden on her Maiden’s shoulders to bear it all with grace.
As for her complicity by commission, we’ve to touch again her role in Sansa’s forced marriage in the previous phase. What stands out is that Cersei herself had been told by her father days before that she’d have to marry against her will too, and had begged him not to force her to marry “the old squid or the crippled dog boy”:
I am Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, not a brood mare! The Queen Regent!”
“You are my daughter, and will do as I command.”
She stood. “I will not sit here and listen to this—”
“You will if you wish to have any voice in the choice of your next husband,” Lord Tywin said calmly.
When she hesitated, then sat, Tyrion knew she was lost, despite her loud declaration of, “I will not marry again!”
“You will marry and you will breed. Every child you birth makes Stannis more a liar.” Their father’s eyes seemed to pin her to her chair.
Yet despite this, she doesn’t feel any sympathy for Sansa. Instead, she focuses not once but twice on Tyrion, on what a waste it’ll be to give her loathed brother such a lovely bride, and on how loathsome he is, attributing her horrified reaction to reluctance because he’s a dwarf, and not the fact that this is practically the Lannister version of the poisoned apple that will kill the Maiden, have her forever tied to her enemy, be raped by him and bear children by him and likely lose her own life in time. Cersei simply doesn’t deduce that Sansa’s objection to this marriage is in essence the same she herself blurted out when Tywin told her to marry: lack of agency, the refusal to allow her to have a man of her choice, be reduced to just a brood mare . . .
And when she threatens Sansa to have her dragged kicking and wailing to the sept, she gives the Kingsguard permission to handle her roughly as long as they don’t ruin the gown, implying that it’s more important:
“I understand your reluctance. Cry if you must. In your place, I would likely rip my hair out. He’s a loathsome little imp, no doubt of it, but marry him you shall.”
“You can’t make me.”
“Of course we can. You may come along quietly and say your vows as befits a lady, or you may struggle and scream and make a spectacle for the stableboys to titter over, but you will end up wedded and bedded all the same.” The queen opened the door. Ser Meryn Trant and Ser Osmund Kettleblack were waiting without, in the white scale armor of the Kingsguard. “Escort Lady Sansa to the sept,” she told them. “Carry her if you must, but try not to tear the gown, it was very costly.”
“Women were always the cruellest where other women were concerned,” observed the queen during her own walk of shame, seemingly not noticing the irony of such an observation looking at herself: Cersei is an adulteress that had The Ned imprisoned to hide her adultery, but then tried to have a potentially innocent queen convicted of adultery by sending her man for the task; she birthed bastards herself, but had the bastards of her husband killed and the innocent mother who likely couldn’t refuse the king sold into slavery; she had dreams of marrying Rhaegar, but couldn’t stand the idea of Jaime with another girl and she probably killed her, she resents Robert for shouting Lyanna’s name on their bedding, yet that same morning she’d had sex with Jaime, she was raped by her husband and yet she had a hand in what would have been the marital rape of Sansa and also wished rape on other women; she was a beaten wife, yet she looked the other way when her son became an abuser of women (and the reason Joffrey gives for not hitting Sansa himself is “Mother says” he shouldn’t); she aborted the child of the king she abhorred, but told Sansa she’d love the children of the king she abhors, she didn’t arrive a maiden at her marriage ceremony, yet considers Taena a whore when she confesses that neither did she . . . And these are only her actions involving sexuality.
This lack of empathy with women going through the same ordeals she has gone is arguably the major distinctive characteristic of the corrupt Queen archetype, and although from the purely narrative angle it makes the Queen a villainous figure hard to sympathise with, its purpose is to underscore the consequences of a bad or failed integration into the self of the Shadow aspects of the Queen archetype, like the previous principle is a warning to the Maiden with regard to her own Shadow, and the Lannister lioness exemplifies this malfunction perfectly. She’s internalised a “Tywin with teats” image of herself which extends to the employment of sexualised punishment on innocents, and it makes her walk of shame, terrible as it was, acquire a certain sense of symmetrical proportion from the point of view of the Classical narrative as part of the nemesis.
Principle V: The Maiden Rages
After so much emotional and physical suffering at the hands of the Queen and her acolytes, the Maiden undergoes the fifth phase, which is to rage. Such an occurrence takes place only after she’s been “awakened” (by herself or by whoever plays the role of “prince”) and the Queen is recognised as a dangerous figure, thus allowing the Maiden to express her rage and later her grief, which are necessary steps towards shedding her own shadowy aspects. This rage can manifest itself through an eruption of anger, a fit of rebelliousness, defiance and rejection of anything that comes from the source—the Queen—depending on the particularities of the plot and the personality of the Maiden.
Sansa’s “rage” towards Cersei is a process that starts silently in her thoughts in ACOK Sansa I, and is expressed through her mistrust of the Lannisters as a whole, even the seemingly “kindest” of them, which is rooted in her hurt at her mistreatment by the king and his mother:
Sansa watched him walk off, his body swaying heavily from side to side with every step, like something from a grotesquerie. He speaks more gently than Joffrey, she thought, but the queen spoke to me gently too. He’s still a Lannister, her brother and Joff’s uncle, and no friend. Once she had loved Prince Joffrey with all her heart, and admired and trusted his mother, the queen. They had repaid that love and trust with her father’s head. Sansa would never make that mistake again.
A mistrust that extends to the chambermaids around her because she guesses, correctly, that she’s being spied on Cersei’s orders. In ACOK Sansa V, we get the first glimpse of feelings of anger, and not just hurt, towards Cersei expressed through her refusal to even listen to prayers for the king’s safety. Though she singles out Joffrey, these feelings can be extended to Cersei, as she derives her present power from her son’s supposed claim to the throne:
But when the septon climbed on high and called upon the gods to protect and defend their true and noble king, Sansa got to her feet. The aisles were jammed with people. She had to shoulder through while the septon called upon the Smith to lend strength to Joffrey’s sword and shield, the Warrior to give him courage, the Father to defend him in his need. Let his sword break and his shield shatter, Sansa thought coldly as she shoved out through the doors, let his courage fail him and every man desert him.
Later, these thoughts are transferred to her behaviour, impelling her to reject the advice she receives from her Queen upon her flowering:
“[…] Do you want to be loved, Sansa?”
“Everyone wants to be loved.”
“I see flowering hasn’t made you any brighter,” said Cersei. “Sansa, permit me to share a bit of womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.”
For Cersei her advice is reasonable, but it’s the same advice fed her son and which drives much of his misbehaviour—“Mother says it’s better to be feared than loved”—as well as hers, and it comes from the Lannister patriarch, Tywin, making it another point in common for the three generations of lions directly responsible for Sansa’s misery, and also casts doubt on Cersei’s competence as a ruler long before the debacle of AFFC; even before the upcoming show of uncaring incompetence at the Queen’s Ballroom, for “to be loved” goes far past just romantic relationships or people-pleasing, as it involves family relations of all types, friendships, and subject-ruler relationships, areas in which the Lannister queen has failed completely because of her skewed philosophy.
We don’t get Sansa’s reaction to that advice, as the chapter ends abruptly, but we have her reaction to the second time Cersei gave her a variation of the same advice, where in her thoughts we hear echoes of what she surely learnt from observing Lord Eddard Stark rule in Winterfell: a fair ruler will be respected if not loved, an unfair ruler will be hated.
Another lesson you should learn, if you hope to sit beside my son. Be gentle on a night like this and you’ll have treasons popping up all about you like mushrooms after a hard rain. The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”
“I will remember, Your Grace,” said Sansa, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me.
And right after that, she goes on to fulfil Cersei’s role when the queen tosses aside her own advice on protecting and comforting the women subjects, drunkenly abandoning the Ballroom.
Sansa is finally able to voice her rage instead of just thinking of it and subtly acting on it when Olenna and Margaery Tyrell invite her to sup with them. The question the Queen of Thorns posed to her was specific and clear: how was Joffrey like? And Sansa replied including his mother in the same category of “monster” as him:
A monster,” she whispered, so tremulously she could scarcely hear her own voice. “Joffrey is a monster. He lied about the butcher’s boy and made Father kill my wolf. When I displease him, he has the Kingsguard beat me. He’s evil and cruel, my lady, it’s so. And the queen as well.
Her first frontal defiance of Cersei occurs during her forced wedding, which the queen overcame by threatening Sansa with the Kingsguard. Even so, she kept a measure of defiance by not kneeling to be cloaked by the queen’s younger brother. Curiously, it was Cersei the first one to laugh at Sansa’s small act of rebellion—and not Joffrey as one would’ve expected—on account of the humiliation of her hated brother:
The dwarf tugged at her a third time. Stubbornly she pressed her lips together and pretended not to notice. Someone behind them tittered. The queen, she thought, but it didn’t matter. They were all laughing by then, Joffrey the loudest. “Dontos, down on your hands and knees,” the king commanded. “My uncle needs a boost to climb his bride.”
And so it was that her lord husband cloaked her in the colors of House Lannister whilst standing on the back of a fool.
The Maiden’s tears are thus overlooked by the Queen in favour of displaying the same glee at the dwarf’s embarrassment as he had done at her dismay at another unwanted marriage. Unsurprisingly, what follows is a forthright formulation of Sansa’s indignant antipathy towards her during the wedding feast:
Sansa sat with her hands in her lap, watching how the queen moved and laughed and tossed her blonde curls. She charms them all, she thought dully. How I hate her.
Her next and last verbalisation of her fury whilst she’s still a captive would come at the banquet for Joffrey’s wedding to Margaery, when she hears one of the singers praising the Queen Mother for her courage during the Battle of Blackwater:
His words made Tyrion feel absurdly grateful, and helped to mollify him as Galyeon sang endless verses about the valor of the boy king and his mother, the golden queen.
“She never did that,” Sansa blurted out suddenly.
“Never believe anything you hear in a song, my lady.” Tyrion summoned a serving man to refill their wine cups.
The singer was likely lauding the queen’s demeanour at the Ballroom, which Sansa knows first-hand had been appalling, so she voices her disgust at such a barefaced falsehood.
Principle VI: The Maiden Grieves
The principle alludes to the completion of transition from girlhood to the next phase for the Maiden through closure, and to the death of the Queen as a result of her own destructive behaviour and destructive emotions.
This is the death-like “hibernation stage” for the Maiden, the period in which Psyche descends to the Underworld to complete the last step of the Hero Journey, and the stage in which Snow White is kept in a “glass coffin” prior to her awakening as a full-grown queen distinct to her perverse role model. Such a state of “not quite death” marks symbolically the death of the Maiden in the story, and indicates her innocence and naïveté are no more and the Shadow is gone, disintegrated. As the Grieving Maiden has arrived to this point after a long string of losses, this process is essentially about mourning each loss—or at least the most emotionally significant one—to incorporate the loss(es) into the girl’s new reality.
As her story is still open-ended and the road ahead looks long, we can’t know for sure how the grieving process will progress for Sansa, how closure will be attained and whether it will be face-to-face with Cersei or away from her. From what we have up to AFFC, we’ve only witnessed the beginning of this process, as the closest to an outward “grieving” moment for Sansa comes right before the snow castle she built at the Eyrie, announced by this line:
She could feel the snow on her lashes, taste it on her lips. It was the taste of Winterfell. The taste of innocence. The taste of dreams.
Which can be interpreted as mourning the loss of Winterfell, that also encapsulates the loss of everything else. Such mourning has characteristics typical of most abuse victims, as the Maiden archetype is, and at the root of this “grieving the loss of innocence” are three themes: trust, security and self-respect. Because la reine Cersei et compagnie, e.g. her Lannister abusers, have lied to the Maiden, she is mistrustful and wary, because the abusers have killed the Maiden’s loved ones, human and non-human alike, had her beaten, robbed her of her home and used her as they pleased, she yearns for safety and returning home, and because the abusers have told the Maiden that she was worthless (calling her “stupid” all the time, mocking her), her sense of self-worth has suffered and she believes nobody will love her but for a claim. Sansa’s grieving seems to be channelled towards hopes of a home, a family of her own and be loved and desired for herself, which are more than just childish dreams to go back to the happy golden days of yore. They are about reclaiming all that she held dear and which was taken away by Cersei.
But the Queen is still in power however diminished, and Sansa is still not over her fear of her, as this passage from AFFC Alayne I demonstrates:
Petyr laughed. “Perhaps I shall. Or better still, to our sweet Cersei. Though I should not speak harshly of her, she is sending me some splendid tapestries. Isn’t that kind of her?”
The mention of the queen’s name made her stiffen. “She’s not kind. She scares me. If she should learn where I am—”
“—I might have to remove her from the game sooner than I’d planned. Provided she does not remove herself first.” Petyr teased her with a little smile. “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them. Mark that well, Alayne. It’s a lesson that Cersei Lannister still has yet to learn […].”
Therefore, closure won’t be attained and the process won’t be complete until Sansa is out of the “glass cage” she is in at present and until Cersei’s demise, or at the very least her final and crushing downfall. In “Chapter 3: Vanity. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” of his book The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales, psychologist Sheldon Cashdan posits that the “defeat of the witch” is the third and last of the three key thresholds in this type of narrative, and has this to say about why the death of the Queen is necessary for the Maiden:
The story could easily end here, Snow White is resurrected, and the prince to his utter delight is blessed with a live princess. But there is one detail that needs to be resolved. The wicked queen is still alive. Her continued existence means not only that Snow White’s life remains in jeopardy, but that the princess is apt to be plagued by vain temptations for the rest of her days. Unless the evil woman is eliminated once and for all, Snow White will never be free.
Similarly, the main reasons why Sansa can’t escape Littlefinger so easily are her marriage to an attainted Lannister and the royal death sentence pending over her head, which thus act like the bit of poisoned apple that keeps her in the glass cage, on display to be sold and bartered for alliances or gold and tempted with political marriages. The fall of House Lannister through the fall of Cersei would be to her advantage.
Whilst in the majority of these narratives the conflict is resolved once the Maiden enters into womanhood, an event sealed by her marriage for love, and the Queen dies as a direct result of her final confrontation with her opponent, there’s a seventh aspect generally not included in the list of principles, which was added by psychiatrist Carl G. Jung: for him, the process is not complete until the Maiden takes the place of the Mother. In other words, the endgame of Maidenhood isn’t Queenship but Motherhood, which fits in best with Sansa’s own desires. At this stage, we can only speculate, but the build-up and the mother imagery around the Stark girl indicates that this is a possibility for her.
Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall, Who is the Bitterest of All?: The Mind of a Queen
Both the Greco-Roman myth and the fairy tale give the Queen a voice instead of just descriptions, making her as much a protagonist of the story as the Maiden is—and in the latter, she’s even a more important character than Snow White—which gives us a much appreciated window into the workings of her mind, and possibilitates finding the answers to questions such as what sort of woman is the Queen, what makes her so callous and wicked, why does she spend so much time looking at her reflection on a mirror, and why is she obsessed with the Maiden?
It’s frequent for the Queen’s motivations to be explained rather simplistically, as befits a children’s story: she is an evil witch who is just jealous of an innocent girl’s beauty—because she’s evil—and it’s this envy that drives her to murder so she can reign unchallenged as the most beautiful ever—because she’s evil . . . But this was never meant to be only a tale for young people and, as it always happens with archetypical plotlines, there’s a deeper theme hidden under a symbol, awaiting to be unearthed once we identify said symbol and unravel its meaning, which is far from simplistic. “As white as snow, as red as blood . . .” introduces us to the true theme of the story, so likewise it’s another oft repeated line that reveals what lies beneath the Queen’s skin:
“Looking-glass, looking-glass on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?”
The looking-glass answered:
“Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!”
A mirror is also present in the mythological proto-narrative, as it was so firmly associated with the figure of Aphrodite that she didn’t go anywhere without a servant carrying her mirror made of polished copper and gold in front of her at all times. See this passage from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass:
Bands of Tritons sported here and there on the waters, one softly blowing on his echoing shell, another fending off with silk parasol the heat of the hostile sun, a third holding a mirror before his mistress’s face, while others, yoked in pairs to her chariot, swam below.
The mirror is the key to understanding the mind of a Queen. Mirrors are objects that are usually linked to beauty and vanity, to narcissism, so does this mean that vanity influences the Queen’s actions? Are pure and unaltered narcissistic feelings what make her so obsessed with her beauty? Not quite. Whilst envy and jealousy and vanity are strong emotions she experiences, they aren’t the source of her behaviour, they are the symptoms that disclose a graver issue. They originate from the Queen’s desire to maintain her status and the power that comes with it.
A power she can’t have by merits because she is a woman, a power she derives from her beauty because her beauty made her a queen.
Psychologist Nancy van der Berg-Cook has an intriguing interpretation of the mirror as a representation of the patriarchal structures that disallow a female to come into power through the same means as a male would: by rightful inheritance in accordance with the laws of primogeniture, by merit or by conquest. Which leave a maiden noblewoman with unsatisfactory ways of attaining power: marriage to a powerful man, regency for underage offspring and the lack of male competitors in the bloodline. Van der Berg-Cook asserts that the idea of the looking-glass as a symbol of the restrictive masculine status quo can be found ever since the first depiction of the Evil Queen speaking to her magic mirror by artist Walter Crane for the 1882 illustrated edition of Snow White , in which the reflection of the Queen’s face is framed by dragons holding torches, which the specialist calls a representation of the “masculine spirit of the mirror,” that is also present in all the later drawings in one form or another.
A similar opinion is held by Ian Robinson, who’s convinced that, apart from symbolising the absent patriarchal figure on which all women’s existences are dependent, the mirror in Snow White also stands for the male gaze which objectifies women. That’s evident in the three most widely known oil paintings of Aphrodite which share the title Venus with her mirror by the great masters Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez, in all of which we see her son, who is the masculine personification of love, holding a mirror reflecting the face of the goddess, and in which the implicit symbolism is in the winged figure of Cupid who, contrary to the ancient texts, is carrying her mirror, doesn’t have his bow and arrows, and whose arms are tied delicately with a red ribbon in Velázquez’s version, thus indicating that love is prisoner of beauty, i.e. that the former is a conditio sine qua non for women to be valued. Out of this trio, Titian’s painting is the one most symbolic of the commodification of feminine beauty through men’s eyes because, as art historian Rona Goffen said, “it is about vision, about being seen, about reality and its reflection, and about the exaltation of beauty that is embodied in the goddess and knowable through sight.”
But perhaps nothing can surpass the symbolical significance of the most famous rendition of the Queen’s talking mirror, the one from the Disney animated film, which embodies “a sort of fiery masculine spirit, that looks frightening, if not downright cruel,” as van der Berg-Cook describes it. This evidently masculine face was given one peculiarity by the Disney artists: it doesn’t have eyes; the eye sockets are empty. As eyes in this scenario represent a gateway into the soul, which would be reflected on the mirror, their absence would indicate a faulty inner vision and self-knowledge, a shaky self that relies on external validators. In other words, that the Queen “relies on this masculine authority to tell her if she is beautiful or not.” And as this authority is extremely negative and judgmental, it “functions to make her feel good about herself only so long as she satisfies the strict requirements of beauty that she holds for herself,” concludes the cited analyst. Thus, complements Cristina Santos, as the Queen’s compulsive looking into the mirror is an action that seeks “affirmation of her self-worth and currency in the marketplace of male desire,” the moment she no longer hears it is devastating.
Note the reaction of Aphrodite on learning that the beauty of Psyche has endangered her worship . . .
Shaking her ambrosial locks with indignation, she exclaimed, “Am I then to be eclipsed in my honours by a mortal girl? In vain then did that royal shepherd, Paris, whose judgment was approved by Jupiter himself, give me the palm of beauty over my illustrious rivals, Pallas and Juno. But she shall not so quietly usurp my honours. I will give her cause to repent of so unlawful a beauty.
. . . and the reaction of the Queen when her mirror sings a new tune:
Then the Queen was shocked, and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour, whenever she looked at Snow White, her heart heaved in her breast, she hated the girl so much.
The Latin phrase used to describe Aphrodite’s emotions is stronger than the weak English translation of “indignant;” it literally means “vehemently inflamed and impatient with feelings of rage,” as per my own translation. And in some English-language editions of the fairy tale, the High German verb—erschrack, shocked—that the Brothers Grimm used to describe the Queen’s reaction is translated as “terrified.” Why are they so fearful of such little girls? Because of their insecurity, not from any true immediate danger to their status. A Queen figure doesn’t fear to be “surpassed in beauty” because of beauty itself, the narcissistic pleasure of being beautiful and admired, but because of what losing it means for her: she will no longer be able to hold a tight grip on the honours in the form of a high position that the male-dominated establishment has bestowed on her. In his book Fairy Tales and After, professor and literary critic Roger Sale explains it succinctly:
There is, for instance, no suggestion that the queen’s absorption in her beauty ever gives her pleasure, or that the desire for power through sexual attractiveness is itself a sexual feeling. What is stressed is the anger and fear that attend the queen’s realization that as she and Snow White both get older, she must lose. That is why the major feeling invoked is not jealousy but envy: to make beauty that important is to reduce the world to one in which only two people count.
Upon this realisation, the Queen takes ruthless measures that are essentially self-preservation moves seen in the context of societies where women have limited opportunity to fully develop their potential, be it intellectual, artistic or athletic, and which equate physical attractiveness with feminine self-worth. Aphrodite, for example, was enthroned as Olympian goddess in the testosterone-filled Olympus due to her beauty alone, and it wouldn’t do for the title of fairest to go to Hera or Athena, or Psyche for that matter, all of whom had more power or more attributes, instead of the goddess of beauty. Athena, for one, was the goddess of wisdom, and apart from extremely beautiful, she was erudite, smart, the patron or arts, philosophy and politics, a superb fighter able to defeat warrior-gods in single combat, she wasn’t sold and bought in the marriage market, nor knew child-bearing and the heartbreak of illicit love, and on top of all the Greek cultural powerhouse, Athens, was named after her; she had much more than Aphrodite, whose only assets were her loveliness and her sexuality. Hence why she’d be so willing to start a decade-long conflagration and persecute an innocent girl to keep the wreath of most beautiful.
Similarly, regardless of which the Queen’s social background was before, she isn’t queen by birthright. Queenship and her place in the castle and the kingdom came to her through marriage to a widowed monarch looking for a pretty and fertile wife to replace his deceased consort. But the very fact that she was able to catch such a golden bachelor thanks solely to her appearance (and her sexuality, it’s implied), conjoined with her social environment that discourages feminine empowerment, have convinced her that there’s no end for female beauty and sexuality other than perversity, that is, using it to achieve the coveted position and to manipulate others, and that she is disposable as soon as her beauty fades and she is no longer beautiful to appeal to men’s desire. Although in the fairy tale it isn’t stated as flatly but rather subtly conveyed through metaphors, this fear is accurately voiced in the film Snow White and the Huntsman in bitter words by Queen Ravenna:
. . . that echo the no less bitter words of Queen Cersei:
I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in for a younger filly.
So, Terri Windling says, when the powerful male gaze drifts from her to another woman, younger and more desirable, all there is for the old queen is “witchcraft […], potions, poisons, and self–protection.”
The misfortune of a Queen is that instead of directing that rage towards the true source, she channels her bitterness towards a Maiden that is as much a victim of the establishment as she is. As Windling theorises, the Maiden is herself a mirror, “a reversed mirror of the queen, reflecting all she is not. Each day she becomes more lovely, more good—as the queen becomes the opposite,” yet she’s just another feminine figure chiselled to fit smoothly within the tiny confines of the shrine set up for women: beautiful, dutiful, virginal, naïve, sweet and unquestioning.
All the male figures present in her storyline are representations of this idealisation and objectification: first the paternal figure/mirror who pronounced her the new ideal female and then didn’t lift a finger to succour her in her plight, of which he is the instigator. Then the Huntsman, who tried to help her only because she pleaded with him prettily, but didn’t do enough, and let her run into the wood fully aware that she was ill-equipped to survive there. Then the dwarfs that made her enter into a domestic labour agreement in exchange for protection, food and shelter, which she honoured, but even knowing she was a too trusting little child they left her alone in the house without taking some protective measures or teaching her to take care of herself in ways more practical than through indulgent admonitions—hence they represent the failure of a social order which encourages males to fancy themselves as caretakers, protectors and mentors for females when they just confine them to the home—and who in the end put her in a glass coffin for display as an object to be desired.
Although it’s not as ubiquitous as the looking-glass and only appears towards the ending of the tale, this object exists for the same purpose as the other: just as the Queen is forever tied to her magical mirror, the Maiden is tied to her glass coffin. Lying lifeless and defenceless therein, she loses her individuality, the Prince and the dwarfs don’t call her by her name or refer to her as a person, a “she,” and instead speak of the coffin, an “it,” as if she had ceased to matter as a human being and had become an object. It’s only after her individuality is recognised that the prince’s permitted to take her with him:
Let me have the coffin, I will give you whatever you want for it.” But the dwarfs answered, “We will not part with it for all the gold in the world.” Then he said, “Let me have it as a gift, for I cannot live without seeing Snow White. I will honour and prize her as my dearest possession.” As he spoke in this way the good dwarfs took pity upon him, and gave him the coffin.
Here is where the hitherto parallel journeys of the Queen and the Maiden differ and both head towards opposite destinations. The Maiden, cast out of her home and her past, away from her family and her kingdom, has grown out of childhood during the “long, long time” spent in the glass coffin, and is given the choice to forge a new life for herself as a grown woman when the prince gives her the chance to elect or reject him once she breaks out of it. Jung believed that had her choice been different, like staying in the cosy house in the forest for example, it would indicate a regression to being the naïve girl that was content with her lot and that was “empty and merely glitters, a welcome vessel for masculine projection.”
At the conclusion of the Queen’s path, on the other hand, defeat or execution awaits her. Whether she dies or not, she gets to witness how that which she fought to prevent from happening comes true before her eyes. And ofttimes her end comes as a result of one last and fatal error born out of that arrogance causing her to see herself secure in having the greatest power and having the upper hand; in the fairy tale, it was spying on a supposed new rival (that is really the same) more than likely to find how to attempt at obliterating the Young Queen, just as she had destroyed the pre-pubescent princess that had been her stepdaughter. That cost the woman her life.
In the narrative itself, it’s not specified who gave the order to have the Queen wear hot iron shoes and dance to her death, but we can guess it was the prince that’s now a King, an archetype that integrates the abilities and characteristics of the other male archetypes, who decreed that punishment. It’s to be noted that the hot iron shoes on her feet are far from random but have a raison d’être: feet are the means we have to move around and get us wherever we wish to go, and are associated with sexuality since Biblical times when the word for this body part was also a sexual euphemism; an allusion to the Queen’s modus operandi. On this, in “Chapter 5: The Fairest of Them All, Queenship and Beauty” of her book Fairy Tale Queens: Representations of Early Modern Queenship, Jo Eldridge Carney wrote the following:
The fairy tale’s system of punishment is horrific but apt: a woman so actively consumed with seeking affirmation from others and with violently undoing her rival is forced to enact her own physical destruction as a public spectacle.
This is ingeniously represented in GRRM’s writing of the manner in which Cersei plotted to destroy Margaery, the Little Queen: she sends her man Osney Kettleblack, the tall, dark-haired, hawk-nosed sworn shield of King Tommen, who has scars on one side of his face, to seduce the wife of her son . . . Familiar? Unbeknownst to the Queen Regent, this tragicomedy she arranged inversely mirrors her true Maiden: her “dog” Sandor Clegane, the tall, dark-haired, hawk-nosed sworn shield of King Joffrey, who has scars on one side of his face, was figuratively seduced by the betrothed of her son.
But where Cersei’s actions built upon the “weapon between the legs” caused her imprisonment and her social shame, Sansa’s actions based on “make them love you” saved her life. That brings into focus another hidden theme of the tale: the nature of the replacement of the Queen by the Maiden is in essence that she has to succeed where the former failed. The Maiden has to continue her journey better equipped this time if and when she has integrated the lessons from the Queen’s enmity and the glass coffin to break free.
And the Queen? In “Chapter 6: Cracking the Magic Mirror, Representations of Snow White” of his book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films, tale expert Jack Zipes explains why there’s only doom and no “redemption” for female arch-villains like the Queen and Cersei:
Despite its seemingly happy end, this tale is tragic: the beautiful queen has a major flaw in her character that leads to her downfall, namely her vanity. [Compared to Snow White] She was more real and complex as a woman, more erotic, and driven to desperate acts by her magic mirror. In fact, the tale should have been given the title “Cracking the Magic Mirror,” for the mirror has a powerful hold on the queen and to a certain extent, on Snow White. The queen’s actions are determined by the mirror’s representations of herself as exemplifying beauty and evil, or associating evil and vanity with beauty, and these mirror representations are taken as the truth by the queen. Had she perhaps doubted and cracked the mirror, cracked the meaning of the mirror, she might still be alive today.
Instead, continues Professor Zipes, the Queen will either dance to her death, die by accident, be banished, or disappear, and:
Meanwhile, the magic mirror, the instigator of the queen’s evil actions and the cause of her demise, continues to live in most cases without punishment and to reflect the standards of beauty throughout the world.
Therefore, the way out of this poisonous dynamic was to disregard the mirror, to crack the mirror and shatter it to pieces, through refusing to internalise his deceitful words that “reflect nothing more than the machinations of the apparatus.” The tragedy of the ASOIAF equivalent of the Queen is that she not only has never taken a hammer and smashed her own mirror either, but what’s worse, she’s well past being pliant like the tale’s Queen and actively mimics the mirror.
Cersei of House Lannister doesn’t have a magical mirror, she has Tywin. Her lord father was the biggest influence for her as well as for her little brother to a greater extent than for her twin, who had the fortune of living out of the Casterly Rock sphere during part of his formative years and of meeting other distinct male role models, such as Arthur Dayne, who provided a valuable counterbalance to the Lannister patriarch’s negative one. The motherless girl, however, was always under her sire’s tight control and in absence of a maternal role model, or any other positive role model for compare and contrast purposes, formed an emotional bond that she’d be unable to sever even after he was dead, building her notions of how an ideal Lannister (and by extension an ideal self) and an ideal ruler should be on his twisted philosophy.
It can be argued that the promise of a happy life in the enviable position of Rhaegar’s queen was the first step towards absorbing her mirror’s worldview at the age of six or seven. Considering that seven was the age in which both boys and girls in feudal societies begin their formal education and training to fulfil their respective gender roles, it also would’ve been about that same time that she noticed the gender divide through her games with Jaime, in which they exchanged their clothing and pretended to be the other, and it wasn’t lost on her that even her idolised father treated her differently when he mistook her for her brother. Through the twins’ flashbacks, we see that little Cersei knew she was the eldest lion cub and had the ambition, the vitality, and the character to be trained as heir to the Westerlands, and as such expected to be treated accordingly; but all that education for “glory and power” went to her younger twin, and she was left with sewing needles and a promise of “birth and moonblood” on a royal bed:
When she was just a little girl, her father had promised her that she would marry Rhaegar. She could not have been more than six or seven. “Never speak of it, child,” he had told her, smiling his secret smile that only Cersei ever saw. “Not until His Grace agrees to the betrothal. It must remain our secret for now.”
And she trusted her mirror wholeheartedly. Father knew best and he’d get a great future king as husband for his beautiful little girl, and for that promise, she willingly kept the secret from her closest companion, spent years daydreaming about the dragon prince, and visited that eastern maegi whose words would possess her mind even years later. In the ancient Hellene and Roman myths and narratives, prophesy is a conditioned warning from gods to mortals, to let them know that their folly, present or upcoming, would be their undoing, so they’d recognise that something wasn’t right and change it for the better; and it’s only if and when the mortals ignored the warning or tried to forestall the fulfilment of its contents in a manner that offended the gods that they decreed the nemesis of the infringer; and then, exclusively then, the prophesy became an inevitable fate they won’t escape.
Applying this take to Cersei’s case, Maggy the Frog’s prophesy can be also interpreted as conditioned warning in the classical sense. In reply to her questions, the maegi is telling her that her father will not fulfil his promise of a royal husband, which was never meant to be for Cersei’s happiness anyway, as she believed. She’s a pawn in her father’s game to advance the interests of House Lannister, and he won’t bother to make sure that whoever marries his daughter will at least be a good man and treat her kindly. What matters is that the man has a crown so there’ll be a Lannister queen and a child with Lannister blood on the throne; and that her father’s and her own ambitions and the amoral methods employed to keep that ill-gotten power will have dire consequences that could be prevented.
Instead, ten-year-old Cersei mimics her father and threatens to solve any problem through the violent murder of the rival (“If she tries I will have my brother kill her.”), insults the fortune-teller, and chooses to listen only to her mirror because “her father had promised it, and Tywin Lannister’s word was gold.” And then likely she herself set things in motion through the death of her friend Melara Hetherspoon, who had an infatuation with Jaime and of whom she thinks resentfully:
Melara had turned out to be a greedy little schemer with ideas above her station.
Which contrasts with Sansa’s thoughts on Jeyne Poole’s infatuation with a man of higher station:
Of course, Jeyne had been in love with Lord Beric ever since she had first glimpsed him in the lists. Sansa thought she was being silly; Jeyne was only a steward’s daughter, after all, and no matter how much she mooned after him, Lord Beric would never look at someone so far beneath him, even if she hadn’t been half his age.
It would have been unkind to say so, however, so Sansa took a sip of milk and changed the subject.
Like her Maiden, this Queen had dreams of romance, of being a powerful and loved queen of Westeros and mother to silver-haired princes as her father had promised her. But unlike Sansa, she never tried to dissociate herself from her mirror’s words even after her dreams were crushed and the mirror again promised someone better for her spouse:
Father found no better man. Instead he gave me Robert, and Maggy’s curse bloomed like some poisonous flower.
It’s as a result of the degradation that this marriage meant to her that she becomes deeply bitter, manipulative, dishonest and hard . . . but still doesn’t fault her mirror, still doesn’t crack it, even though her own words to Sansa and her inner monologue reveal that being sold off like property to a man like Robert affected her deeply, and despite the fact that amongst the first things she feels relieved about upon Tywin’s death is that “there will be no more talk of forcing her to wed again.” Having for a looking-glass a misogynistic father that utilised rape and sexual humiliation as punishment and “educational method” for a son is terrible enough, but to strive to emulate him and surpass him as she does for the entirety of AFFC demonstrates her incapacity for self-reflection, for analysing people and situations accurately, and is emblematic of how deeply she has internalised the mirror’s representations, to the point that she treats women like the mirror treats them in an effort to suck out the mirror’s masculine power for herself.
That Queen Cersei’s bitterness is directed not only at the status quo but at her own gender and at herself, for sharing the gender of the victims, is the greatest twist GRRM has made to differentiate her from the archetypal Queen, rendering her more monstrous yet also more complex than her counterparts of myth and tale, as both Aphrodite and the Queen are comfortable with their femininity, happy with being women, and they never express any wish whatsoever to be like men; they fight even if dishonourably for a place for themselves in a male world as females unhappy with the impositions on their gender, but that nevertheless have to please the mirror to get on top and stay there. Cersei, on the other hand, goes far beyond: she doesn’t want to please the mirror, she wants to be the mirror.
In her seminal study Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich speaks of “the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that potential—and all women—shall remain under male control.” Although this conflict can be glimpsed in the lives of other central female characters, it is in Sansa’s narrative that it achieves its true resonance and development, with Martin employing motherhood as the guiding theme in illustrating how she moves from the position of pawn to player, from longing for a home within the institution to seeking to escape it. But escape itself is not enough. As my essay will go on to argue, Sansa’s player status will be realised through her role as a peacemaker, a vital responsibility that Martin has foreshadowed throughout her chapters. This responsibility is directly predicated upon Sansa’s experiences of mothering, involving what Sara Ruddick refers to as “maternal thinking,” which empowers women and their children, and is ultimately opposed to the dehumanizing destruction of war.
The Institution of Motherhood
. . . for most of what we know as the “mainstream” of recorded history,
motherhood as institution has ghettoized and degraded female potentialities.
As outlined by feminist maternal theorists, the institution of motherhood is an oppressive function of the patriarchy, operating to control and influence women’s behaviour and attitudes in the service of a restrictive ideology. This ideology seeks to cement the stereotype of the “good” mother, who is “naturally” loving and caring at all times, and who sacrifices her identity and self-interests on the altar of the family.
According to Rich:
Institutional motherhood demands of women maternal “instinct” rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than creation of self. Motherhood is ‘sacred’ so long as its offspring are ‘legitimate’—that is, as long as the child bears the name of the father who legally controls the mother.
What is generally appreciated as Sansa’s naïveté and “blindness” for much of AGOT has everything to do with her investment in the allure of patriarchal motherhood, both in how she views Cersei as the Queen, and her own relationship with Joffrey. For a girl who prided herself in excelling in the courtesies and proper behaviour of her social class, what could be more attractive than fulfilling the most sacred rites of them all—those ordained by the institution of motherhood? When Ned reveals the decision to send her and Arya back to Winterfell, Sansa’s distress is focused not on a desire for power and the pageantry of being a Queen, but in having the honour of being married and a mother to Joff’s children:
“Who cares about your stupid dancing master?” Sansa flared. “Father, I only just now remembered, I can’t go away, I’m to marry Prince Joffrey.” She tried to smile bravely for him. “I love him, Father, I truly truly do, I love him as much as Queen Naerys loved Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, as much as Jonquil loved Ser Florian. I want to be his queen and have his babies.”
“Sweet one,” her father said gently, “listen to me. When you’re old enough, I will make you a match with a high lord who’s worthy of you, someone brave and gentle and strong. This match with Joffrey was a terrible mistake. That boy is no Prince Aemon, you must believe me.”
“He is!” Sansa insisted. “I don’t want someone brave and gentle, I want him. We’ll be ever so happy, just like in the songs, you’ll see. I’ll give him a son with golden hair, and one day he’ll be the king of all the realm, the greatest king that ever was, as brave as the wolf and as proud as the lion.”
It’s perfectly in line with the ideology of patriarchal motherhood, right down to providing Joff with little Lannister lions in his own image. The irony, of course, is that the truth of Joffrey’s parentage undermines the very foundations of the institution that Sansa esteems. Sansa’s longing for a son who will be the “greatest king that ever was” illustrates how institutionalized motherhood continually replenishes patriarchal dominance. She becomes the perfect victim for Cersei’s manipulations after her father is imprisoned, desperate to prove that she can be a loyal wife to Joffrey:
The queen looked at her, troubled, and yet Sansa could see kindness in her clear green eyes. “Child,” she said, “if I could truly believe that you were not like your father, why nothing should please me more than to see you wed to my Joffrey. I know he loves you with all his heart.” She sighed. “And yet, I fear that Lord Varys and the Grand Maester have the right of it. The blood will tell. I have only to remember how your sister set her wolf on my son.”
“I’m not like Arya,” Sansa blurted. “She has the traitor’s blood, not me. I’m good, ask Septa Mordane, she’ll tell you, I only want to be Joffrey’s loyal and loving wife.”
This exchange reinforces Rich’s words above on how patriarchal motherhood encourages “relation to others, rather than creation of self”. Although her concern for Ned is paramount, she believes that being Joff’s wife and securing his love will make him lenient towards her father.
When Joff orders Ned’s death towards the end of AGOT, it not only constitutes Sansa’s awakening to his true nature, but more critically, to her acute powerlessness as his betrothed. Amber E. Kinser explains in Motherhood and Feminism:
For a woman, being able to decide if and when she wants to become a mother is a critical starting place for her power. To exercise full agency in this way, a woman must have knowledge about reproductive processes, sexuality, contraception, adoption, abortion, and other variables so that she can make informed decisions. She also has to have the power to say when she would be sexually active and with whom.
As Joffrey takes Sansa to see the spiked heads adorning the castle walls, he wastes no time in touting his control over her: a control that is informed by her utility as a vessel for giving birth:
“I’ll get you with child as soon as you’re able,” Joffrey said as he escorted her across the practice yard. “If the first one is stupid, I’ll chop off your head and find a smarter wife. When do you think you’ll be able to have children?”
Sansa could not look at him, he shamed her so. “Septa Mordane says most … most highborn girls have their flowering at twelve or thirteen.”
Joffrey nodded. “This way.” He led her into the gatehouse, to the base of the steps that led up to the battlements.
The beautiful dream of children with Joffrey has now officially become Sansa’s nightmare. Motherhood in these circumstances means imprisonment, unhappiness and potential death. Engaged to Joffrey and as a captive in KL, Sansa faces the distinct possibility of having her choices negated and her body used as a tool to further the Lannister agenda; it is little wonder then that the experience of her first menarche inspires such terror. Cersei acknowledges the change in Sansa’s desires, but still tries to keep her subservient by telling her that although she no longer loves Joffrey, she will love their children. It’s advice straight out of the patriarchal manual on motherhood, and is the height of hypocrisy for Cersei, who could not bear to have Robert’s offspring herself. The appeal to loving Joff’s children is only to conceal what is really at stake if Sansa were to accept such a “compromise”: her agency and autonomy.
The Rebellion I – Better Husbands
. . . every mother must deliver her children over within a few
years of birth to the patriarchal system of education, of law,
of religion, of sexual codes; she is, in fact, expected to prepare
them to enter that system without rebelliousness or “maladjustment”
and to perpetuate it in their own adult lives.
Cersei communicates the expectation outlined in the above epigraph when she tells Sansa:
Joffrey will show you no such devotion, I fear. You could thank your sister for that, if she weren’t dead. He’s never been able to forget that day on the Trident when you saw her shame him, so he shames you in turn. You’re stronger than you seem, though. I expect you’ll survive a bit of humiliation. I did. You may never love the king, but you’ll love his children.
Knowing that true love is no longer possible between Sansa and her son, Cersei seeks to ensure that Sansa will at least be a compliant wife and mother for the sake of her children. But even before the attempt at trying to burn her bedding revealed an active—if desperate—resistance to such counsel, the conversation that takes place with Joffrey at his name day tourney is revealing:
Tommen got his pony up to a brisk trot, waved his sword vigorously, and struck the knight’s shield a solid blow as he went by. The quintain spun, the padded mace flying around to give the prince a mighty whack in the back of his head. Tommen spilled from the saddle, his new armor rattling like a bag of old pots as he hit the ground. His sword went flying, his pony cantered away across the bailey, and a great gale of derision went up. King Joffrey laughed longest and loudest of all.
“Oh,” Princess Myrcella cried. She scrambled out of the box and ran to her little brother.
Sansa found herself possessed of a queer giddy courage. “You should go with her,” she told the king. “Your brother might be hurt.”
Joffrey shrugged. “What if he is?”
“You should help him up and tell him how well he rode.” Sansa could not seem to stop herself.
“He got knocked off his horse and fell in the dirt,” the king pointed out. “That’s not riding well.”
“Look,” the Hound interrupted. “The boy has courage. He’s going to try again.”
They were helping Prince Tommen mount his pony. If only Tommen were the elder instead of Joffrey, Sansa thought. I wouldn’t mind marrying Tommen.
Taking place after the dramatic rescue of Dontos and right before Tyrion makes his return to the city, this exchange is often overlooked or viewed as just another example of Joffrey being inconsiderate to his siblings. But looked at in the context of this essay, it is important for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with how it depicts Joffrey as a potential father figure, not simply as a brother. In actively supporting Tommen, Sansa displays a positive maternal attitude to the young boy: wishing him luck and going so far as to chastise Joff for his ungracious behaviour. It’s obvious that she would find any family structure where Joff acts as the head of the home to be untenable. The second reason – and integral to Sansa’s chastisement of the king –is that it’s the first example we have of her courageous mothering or what Rich refers to as “nurturance as resistance”. Here, Sansa is not only championing Tommen’s rights not to bullied or belittled, but is also fighting back against the institutional power that wants to render her powerless and passive in this role. The fact that she is willing to oppose Joffrey again after taking the considerable risk to save Dontos highlights mothering as practice in which Sansa actively chooses to mount an opposition to oppression. In the words of leading maternal scholar Andrea O’Reilly:
The reality of patriarchal motherhood must be distinguished from the possibility or potentiality of gynocentric or feminist mothering. In other words, while motherhood as an institution is a male-defined site of oppression, women’s own experiences of mothering can nonetheless be a source of power.
It is difficult to realise that power as a captive with the Lannisters, but the opportunity Sansa is given in ASOS to escape to Highgarden and marry Willas Tyrell reveals just how such power might work. In the second dream of marriage to a more humane husband, Sansa envisions her motherwork as an extension of her identity and her fight against oppression:
She pictured the two of them sitting together in a garden with puppies in their laps, or listening to a singer strum upon a lute while they floated down the Mander on a pleasure barge. If I give him sons, he may come to love me. She would name them Eddard and Brandon and Rickon, and raise them all to be as valiant as Ser Loras. And to hate Lannisters, too. In Sansa’s dreams, her children looked just like the brothers she had lost. Sometimes there was even a girl who looked like Arya.
While she is still cognizant of negotiating with the institutional pressure on mothers—If I give him sons, he may come to love me—the passage represents a radical reimagining for her vision of children within marriage, and positions Sansa to hold an active militancy in shaping her children’s lives. What was once abstract—“as brave as the wolf and as proud as the lion”—has been replaced by the concrete: “as valiant as Ser Loras.” Furthermore, these children are now part of her familial heritage, given the names of her father and brothers, and resembling them in appearance as well. A little girl who looks like her famously nonconformist sister symbolically completes the dream of maternal insurgency.
The Rebellion II: At the Crossroads of Sexuality and Motherhood
. . . mothers with a feminist conscious move from an
inauthentic obedience to the values of the dominant
culture toward appreciating how many of these dominant
values are unacceptable and, thus can be actively challenged.
Fiona Joy Green
The interplay between Sansa and Cersei during the Battle of Blackwater outlines the contrast between their perspectives and behaviour on the critical issues relating to patriarchal authority, female exploitation and inequality, sexuality and power. It also becomes a referendum on their duties, not as Queenly competitors, but as mothers and caretakers. Cersei is capable of feeling only disdain for the women in the castle:
The queen studied the wives, daughters, and mothers who filled the benches. “Of themselves the hens are nothing, but their cocks are important for one reason or another, and some may survive this battle. So it behooves me to give their women my protection. If my wretched dwarf of a brother should somehow manage to prevail, they will return to their husbands and fathers full of tales about how brave I was, how my courage inspired them and lifted their spirits, how I never doubted our victory even for a moment.”
But Cersei goes on to show no such courage as the Queen and representative of the royal household (or royal caretaker) during the crisis. Instead, it’s obvious that her primary preoccupation is about ensuring the safety of her son Joffrey, and only Joffrey, even if it means endangering her family’s interests:
Osney was all smiles as he knelt beside the queen. “The hulks have gone up, Y’Grace. The whole Blackwater’s awash with wildfire. A hundred ships burning, maybe more.”
“And my son?”
“He’s at the Mud Gate with the Hand and the Kingsguard, Y’Grace. He spoke to the archers on the hoardings before, and gave them a few tips on handling a crossbow, he did. All agree, he’s a right brave boy.”
“He’d best remain a right live boy.”
Where’s my son?”
“The castle gatehouse. He wanted to command the crossbowmen. There’s a mob howling outside, half of them gold cloaks who came with him when we left the Mud Gate.”
“Bring him inside Maegor’s now.”
“No!” Lancel was so angry he forgot to keep his voice down. Heads turned toward them as he shouted, “We’ll have the Mud Gate all over again. Let him stay where he is, he’s the king—”
“He’s my son.” Cersei Lannister rose to her feet. “You claim to be a Lannister as well, cousin, prove it. Osfryd, why are you standing there? Now means today.”
When she leaves the room in a rush, injuring the already wounded Lancel, panic threatens to set in. But it is Sansa’s quick thinking and reassurance that restores some measure of calm. As noted, she may have filled the void left by the Queen, but the role she performs is distinctly maternal. Martin makes this clear in the description of those most affected by Cersei’s departure:
“Oh, gods,” an old woman wailed. “We’re lost, the battle’s lost, she’s running.” Several children were crying. They can smell the fear. Sansa found herself alone on the dais. Should she stay here, or run after the queen and plead for her life?
Sansa’s decision is to stay and help—a role that is performed despite fears for her own safety, is reminiscent of her support of Tommen at the name day tourney. The important distinction is that this is now a public performance that contributes significantly to the peace within the castle, highlighting that mothering does not have to be confined to the realm of the private to make a difference. Her attentions towards Lancel are those of a caretaker—helping him to his feet and requesting that he be taken to the maester—despite her misgivings about assisting a member of the Lannister family. These maternal actions involve Sansa assuming public duty, but not necessarily the queenly title that many readers believe is foreshadowed in the scene.
Cersei’s earlier lamentations on the restrictions of gender and the different ways she and Jaime are treated—“Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood”—is an important message on how gender norms and societal constructs impinges on female potentiality; but her dismissive and callous attitude towards the women in the castle places Cersei in the realm of patriarchal oppression, not feminist solidarity. Accordingly, her advice to Sansa that women’s tears are not the only weapon reveals a dependence on male authority which does nothing to empower or advance women’s interests. Rich states:
Outside of the mother’s brief power over the child—subject to male interference—women have experienced “power over” in two forms, both of them negative. The first is men’s power over us—whether physical, economic, or institutional—along with the spectacle of their bloody struggles for power over other men, their implicit sacrifice of human relationships and emotional values in the quest of dominance. Like other dominated people, we have learned to manipulate and seduce, or to internalize men’s will and make it ours, but it is nothing more than the child’s or courtesan’s power to wheedle and the dependent’s “power” to disguise her feelings – even from herself – in order to obtain favours, or literally to survive.
The inappropriateness of Cersei’s advice is shown when Sansa returns to her room and finds the battle-weary Sandor Clegane. It is neither tears nor the weapon between her legs that is able to soothe Sandor or ensure Sansa’s survival; rather, it is the maternal compassion and concern of the Mother’s Hymn:
Gentle Mother, font of mercy,
save our sons from war, we pray,
stay the swords and stay the arrows,
let them know a better day.
Gentle Mother, strength of women,
help our daughters through this fray,
soothe the wrath and tame the fury,
teach us all a kinder way.
In effecting positive change via this experience, Sansa is able to counter the cynical values espoused by Cersei and acknowledge a different kind of female strength which the Queen cannot appreciate.
Just as the act of mothering outside of the institutional ideology has valuable bearing as a source of power and strength for Sansa, the refusal to mother is another important rebellious action that safeguards Sansa’s selfhood and protects her from the exploitative measures enacted by oppressive patriarchal figures. It is through the marriage to Tyrion Lannister, and the realisation that her claim turns her into commodity, that we see Sansa’s feminist consciousness coming into full bloom.
I don’t want any Lannister, she wanted to say. I want Willas, I want Highgarden and the puppies and the barge, and sons named Eddard and Bran and Rickon. But then she remembered what Dontos had told her in the godswood. Tyrell or Lannister, it makes no matter, it’s not me they want, only my claim.
Whereas before she was committed to still working within the institutional boundaries of marriage and motherhood with Willas Tyrell, the flagrant power grab and negation of her will by the Lannisters effectively cancels the last vestige of illusions Sansa held about her ability to be fulfilled in such arrangements – even with some measure of maternal agency in Highgarden. As Sara Ruddick attests, feminist consciousness is “a confusing, often painful, but irresistible recognition that the stories they have told themselves about ‘being a woman’ are self-deceptive and do not serve their interests.”
Sansa confronts the deceptive nature of these stories when she views her husband’s body and understands how female desire has been discounted in the institution of marriage:
Look at him, Sansa told herself, look at your husband, at all of him, Septa Mordane said all men are beautiful, find his beauty, try. She stared at the stunted legs, the swollen brutish brow, the green eye and the black one, the raw stump of his nose and crooked pink scar, the coarse tangle of black and gold hair that passed for his beard. Even his manhood was ugly, thick and veined, with a bulbous purple head. This is not right, this is not fair, how have I sinned that the gods would do this to me, how?
How does Sansa rebel against the attempts to do violence to her body and her homeland? She does so by refusing to provide the emotional nurturance Tyrion deeply craves. In short, she chooses not to mother him:
And their nights together in the great bed were another source of torment. He could no longer bear to sleep naked, as had been his custom. His wife was too well trained ever to say an unkind word, but the revulsion in her eyes whenever she looked on his body was more than he could bear. Tyrion had commanded Sansa to wear a sleeping shift as well. I want her, he realized. I want Winterfell, yes, but I want her as well, child or woman or whatever she is. I want to comfort her. I want to hear her laugh. I want her to come to me willingly, to bring me her joys and her sorrows and her lust. His mouth twisted in a bitter smile. Yes, and I want to be tall as Jaime and as strong as Ser Gregor the Mountain too, for all the bloody good it does.
“Theon Greyjoy.” Tyrion sighed. “Your lady mother once accused me . . . well, I will not burden you with the ugly details. She accused me falsely. I never harmed your brother Bran. And I mean no harm to you.”
What does he want me to say? “That is good to know, my lord.” He wanted something from her, but Sansa did not know what it was. He looks like a starving child, but I have no food to give him. Why won’t he leave me be?
By refusing to perform the fundamental role that the institution demands of all women, Sansa undermines its attempts to control and imprison her. In repudiating the ideology of patriarchal motherhood, she aligns herself with the tradition of mothers that Rich refers to as “outlaws from the institution of motherhood.” Considering the nature of her escape—wanted for the murder of King Joffrey—I think this metaphor is extremely apropos.
Becoming an outlaw does not mean that one has managed to escape the institution of motherhood for good, however, and it’s in taking an oppositional stance that the real fight for agency and self-determination begins. This becomes distressingly clear to Sansa in the very next chapter after she escapes KL, only to encounter another patriarchal enforcer of motherhood in her aunt Lysa. As we saw with Cersei, Lysa has suffered under oppressive stipulations for women: forced to abort her baby and later having to marry a much older man she despised. Yet it makes her no more enlightened to the suffering of other women or interested in not perpetuating this prejudice. The first question she asks Sansa after feigning niceties:
As Sansa stepped back, Lady Lysa caught her wrist. “Now tell me,” she said sharply. “Are you with child? The truth now, I will know if you lie.
It is not a question asked with the intention of sympathising with Sansa or safeguarding her interests, but rather as Lysa soon discloses, part of determining if her niece will make a suitable wife for Sweetrobin, and not have Robert be made to accept the “dwarf’s leavings.” For Sansa, it is more confirmation of how she’s treated as an object for her claim:
The thought made Sansa weary. All she knew of Robert Arryn was that he was a little boy, and sickly. It is not me she wants her son to marry, it is my claim. No one will ever marry me for love. But lying came easy to her now. “I . . . can scarcely wait to meet him, my lady. But he is still a child, is he not?”
Still a child, and one that Lysa obviously expects Sansa to mother whilst as acting as a wife, putting aside her own feelings and happiness to cater and coddle the little lord:
“Robert has weak eyes, but he loves to be read to,” Lady Lysa confided. “He likes stories about animals the best. Do you know the little song about the chicken who dressed as a fox? I sing him that all the time, he never grows tired of it. And he likes to play hopfrog and spin-the-sword and come-into-my-castle, but you must always let him win. That’s only proper, don’t you think? He is the Lord of the Eyrie, after all, you must never forget that. You are well born, and the Starks of Winterfell were always proud, but Winterfell has fallen and you are really just a beggar now, so put that pride aside. Gratitude will better become you, in your present circumstances. Yes, and obedience. My son will have a grateful and obedient wife.”
It is the expectation of this dynamic that causes Sansa to feel so strongly against the prospect of remaining in the Eyrie, added to the discomfort she feels concerning Marillion and Petyr’s unwanted attentions. She is back in a fundamentally disempowered role, but mounts her resistance upon an assertion of authority in womanhood and Winterfell:
I will tell my aunt that I don’t want to marry Robert. Not even the High Septon himself could declare a woman married if she refused to say the vows. She wasn’t a beggar, no matter what her aunt said. She was thirteen, a woman flowered and wed, the heir to Winterfell. Sansa felt sorry for her little cousin sometimes, but she could not imagine ever wanting to be his wife. I would sooner be married to Tyrion again. If Lady Lysa knew that, surely she’d send her away … away from Robert’s pouts and shakes and runny eyes, away from Marillion’s lingering looks, away from Petyr’s kisses. I will tell her. I will!
The subsequent events that end in Lysa’s death derail Sansa’s hopes of fleeing the Eyrie (and Petyr), but as previously noted, flight doesn’t guarantee relief from the pervasive and intrinsic pressures for women to conform to the demands of patriarchal society. In order to truly escape the institution of motherhood, Sansa must tackle it head-on: a direct engagement that is prefigured by her actions towards Tommen and later on during the Blackwater Battle. In effect, she has to work at achieving a platform of maternal power, one that involves sustained mothering of a child and the potential to shape the politics of peace in war-torn Westeros.
The Discipline of Maternal Thinking: Sweetrobin in the Eyrie
In any culture, maternal commitment is far more voluntary
than people like to believe…Both maternal work and the
thinking that is provoked by it are decisively shaped by the
possibility that any mother may refuse to see creatures as
children or to respond to them as complicated, fragile and needy.
As we begin this new section, it’s important to note the core characteristics that shape Sansa’s personality and govern her relations with others, especially those in trouble or torment in some way. This kind of compassionate empathy is readily apparent in the “grand” gestures she makes towards men like Sandor Clegane and Dontos Hollard, but the smaller ones truly clinch the impression of someone with an intrinsic reaction to human suffering and a committed effort to alleviating it somehow. We see it in how she responds to her friends like Jeyne Poole, when the girl is sent to her room during the violence of the coup, and towards acquaintances like Lollys, whose impaired capabilities makes her an even bigger target for exploitation. Coming back from Myrcella’s farewell voyage, it is Sansa that encourages Joffrey to give aid to the peasant with the dead baby, and later she tries to warn Margaery Tyrell about the danger of her marriage to Joffrey.
This is not to make the case that Sansa is a “natural mother”. Such a designation only serves the interests of institutional motherhood, eliding the very real struggles all mothers endure and the fact that not all women – regardless of personality type or inclination – choose to mother. As we will go on to explore, Sansa’s mothering of SR is a task beset by frustrations, fears and worries, as it is with triumphs, transformations and affection. But what Sansa’s compassion speaks to is a response that does not ignore the needs of others, and informs the motherwork she performs. Sara Ruddick, whose work is instrumental to the argumentation of this section, states:
Neither birth nor the actual presence of a vulnerable infant guarantees care… To be committed to meeting children’s demand for preservation does not require enthusiasm or even love; it simply means to see vulnerability and to respond to it with care rather than abuse, indifference or flight.
Sweetrobin—the sickly Lord of the Eyrie—is the consummate vulnerable child, made even more so by Lysa’s excessive pampering and indulging. We get our first glimpse of him during Cat’s stay in the Eyrie, where she brought Tyrion Lannister on charges of conspiring to kill Bran:
“Mother?” a small voice said. Lysa whirled, her heavy robe swirling around her. Robert Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie, stood in the doorway, clutching a ragged cloth doll and looking at them with large eyes. He was a painfully thin child, small for his age and sickly all his days, and from time to time he trembled. The shaking sickness, the maesters called it. “I heard voices.”
Lysa goes on to refer to him as “baby” a total of five times in the remainder of the conversation and consolidates the image of SR as a helpless infant by breastfeeding him. Such a show of defective parenting stuns her sister:
Catelyn was at a loss for words, Jon Arryn’s son, she thought incredulously. She remembered her own baby, three-year-old Rickon, half the age of this boy and five times as fierce. Small wonder the lords of the Vale were restive. For the first time she understood why the king had tried to take the child away from his mother to foster with the Lannisters …
Lysa’s over-protective parenting style has its roots in her traumatic history of miscarriages and stillbirths, but it doesn’t make the effect on her son any less egregious. What she accomplished is the stunting of SR’s growth – an emotional handicap that manifests in the boy’s wilful behaviour and hysterical outbursts. Not only was Lysa endangering her son’s personal development, but the confidence in his role as Jon Arryn’s successor is slowly eroding as the Blackfish reveals to Cat:
Her uncle’s voice was troubled. “Lord Robert,” he sighed. “Six years old, sickly, and prone to weep if you take his dolls away. Jon Arryn’s trueborn heir, by all the gods, yet there are some who say he is too weak to sit his father’s seat. Nestor Royce has been high steward these past fourteen years, while Lord Jon served in King’s Landing, and many whisper that he should rule until the boy comes of age. Others believe that Lysa must marry again, and soon. Already the suitors gather like crows on a battlefield. The Eyrie is full of them.”
It is into this prickly and tense situation that Sansa enters at the end of ASOS, with her own fears for her safety against Cersei’s accusations and Lysa’s desires to install her as SR’s wife in due time. It is the dreaded relation to SR that fuels Sansa’s anger and frustration at the child, as she can’t imagine having him to tolerate him as a husband. Although LF seems to have more coercive power over Sansa as a result of Lysa’s death, the crucial import of the latter’s passing is that it facilitates the restructuring of Sansa’s relationship with Sweetrobin, and contributes to the development of what Ruddick calls “maternal thinking”. Fiona Joy Green states:
Once women understand that is it the social construction of women’s reproductive power and the configuration of their relationships with their family members that are burdensome and overbearing and not mothering itself, then, … they can challenge and transform the oppressive conditions of motherhood, conscious of alternatives and resistance and cognisant of their ability to confront and transgress unacceptable dominating values of patriarchal constructions of motherhood and mothering practices.
Between the time of Lysa’s death and Sansa’s journey down the mountain in her final chapter of AFFC, a vital window of opportunity opens up, enabling Sansa to have primary control as SR’s caretaker and to positively influence the boy’s potential. In her extensive study of mothers and the wider impact they can have on society, Sara Ruddick establishes maternal thought as a discipline—akin to those in the field of science or education—which engages a mother’s work on three central tasks: preservation, emotional and intellectual growth, and social acceptibility or training. Ruddick notes that “in any group of thinkers, some mothers are more reflective than others, either out of temperamental thoughtfulness, moral or political concerns, or most often because they have serious problems with their children.” In considering the case of SR, all of these factors come into play, as Sansa is mothering a sickly child under the volatile conditions of political unrest, intrigue, criminal activities and fears for her own life if she’s found by the Queen’s bounty hunters. It’s a delicate balance that must take into consideration personal and political necessities, and will require active strategizing and risk-taking on Sansa’s part.
Preserving a child’s life is, according to Ruddick, “the central constitutive, invariant sum of maternal practice.” It’s essentially a promise of protection that every mother implicitly makes to ensure the life and well-being of the children under their care. The emphasis falls not on what mothers feel exactly, but on what they do, and this “doing” does not permit deliberate acts of violence or negligence. The “official” moment where Sansa assumes the work of preservative love towards SR comes at the end of her first chapter in AFFC:
Sometime during the night she woke, as little Robert climbed up into her bed. I forgot to tell Lothor to lock him in again, she realized. There was nothing to be done for it, so she put her arm around him. “Sweetrobin? You can stay, but try not to squirm around. Just close your eyes and sleep, little one.”
“I will.” He cuddled close and laid his head between her breasts. “Alayne? Are you my mother now?”
“I suppose I am,” she said. If a lie was kindly meant, there was no harm in it.
Readers tend to focus on the part of it being a lie which seems to undermine the possibility of any genuine good arising from Sansa acting as SR’s mother. However, in examining Sansa’s actions in the chapter up to this moment, we see that she has indeed been acting as SR’s de facto mother already, showing concern over the effect of Marillion’s constant singing on the boy, reassuring him that LF truly loved his mother, and making sure that he is presentable to meet with Nestor Royce and the other men coming to the Eyrie. In effect, she’s already enacting the three critical tasks of motherwork, and her wary acquiescence to SR’s question does not negate the relevance of this behaviour. It’s also an interesting example of how LF’s teachings come to mean something entirely different when put in the context of Sansa’s values and experiences. His lies are most definitely not love, just the bare cover he puts on them to make them more appealing and palatable to people. In contrast, SR’s question comes partly out of neediness, but also from an awareness of how Sansa has treated him since his mother’s death. As a game player, it suggests Sansa being a lot more convincing than LF likes to believe he is; and in terms of human to human interaction, under which the mothering of SR falls, it highlights a sincere sensibility in Sansa’s efforts to care for the boy.
There are three features of preservation that Ruddick calls the scrutinizing gaze, maternal cheerfulness and holding. The first is a kind of mental ability which mothers develop to detect dangers and help safeguard their children, even from themselves. The gaze can be witnessed in much of Sansa’s interactions with SR, as she learns to monitor his behaviour for signs of the shaking, and to minimize their severity. However, because the scrutinizing gaze is inherently limited—mothers cannot control their children’s behaviour at all times and/or the circumstances surrounding them, mothers learn to adopt cheerfulness “as a virtue” according to Ruddick. For a child as temperamental and recalcitrant as SR, Sansa’s cheerfulness becomes a necessity:
“I’ll speak to him,” Alayne promised, “but only if you get up out of bed. It’s beautiful outside, Sweetrobin. The sun is shining bright, a perfect day for going down the mountain. The mules are waiting down at Sky with Mya . . .”
“Sweetrobin,” she said gently, “the descent will be ever so jolly, you’ll see. Ser Lothor will be with us, and Mya. Her mules have gone up and down this old mountain a thousand times.”
But Ruddick cautions that there can be a downside to maternal cheerfulness:
. . . for mothers, cheerfulness threatens to break down into cheering denial, its degenerative form. Mothers are tempted to deny their own perception of harsher realities because they so wish the world were safer for their children.
This “cheering denial” recalls Lysa’s repeated assertions to SR that the Eyrie was impregnable and that no one could hurt him:
“The Eyrie is impregnable,” Lysa Arryn declared calmly. She drew her son close, holding him safe in the circle of her plump white arms. “The Imp is trying to frighten us, sweet baby. The Lannisters are all liars. No one will hurt my sweet boy.”
When Tyrion declares that the Eyrie was “merely inconvenient,” we witness just how structurally unstable Lysa’s attempts to reassure her son prove to be; winter eventually comes to the Vale, and the Eyrie is no longer habitable:
Still, it would not serve. On the valley floor autumn still lingered, warm and golden, but winter had closed around the mountain peaks. They had weathered three snowstorms, and an ice storm that transformed the castle into crystal for a fortnight. The Eyrie might be impregnable, but it would soon be inaccessible as well, and the way down grew more hazardous every day. Most of the castle’s servants and soldiers had already made the descent. Only a dozen still lingered up here, to attend Lord Robert.
That Robert would eventually have to leave the Eyrie does not seem to be something Lysa Arryn gave much thought to, but basing his security on remaining there was only setting the boy up for a greater crisis of anxiety in the long run. Holding, the next feature of preservation love, also has a degenerative side which is evident in Lysa’s relationship with SR, where she “holds” him too close: an overprotectiveness that is detrimental to the boy’s growth. Instead, positive holding in Ruddick’s definition consists of “seeing with an eye toward maintaining minimal harmony, material resources and skills necessary for sustaining a child in safety.”
When SR has another seizure on the day that the Lords Declarant are expected at the Eyrie, Sansa makes a very pertinent observation that I believe encapsulates her commitment to SR’s preservation, and has symbolic meaning for the giant prophecy uttered by the GHH. Looking at boy as he is carried off to be leeched:
I could carry him myself, Alayne thought. He is no heavier than a doll.
The doll is widely appreciated as “the giant” that Sansa slays as per the GHH’s prophecy, either as fulfilling the prophecy itself, or as a red herring of the real event to come. Alayne’s observation heavily suggests that the correct answer is with the latter assumption, as what she confirms is the frailty of the boy which is like a doll. In essence, SR is no giant. Sansa’s anger on that day was directed towards the boy and his toy, but it was ultimately misplaced. There is another candidate in the room who provokes SR’s fit:
“Your mother is dead, my lord. Until your sixteenth name day, I rule the Eyrie.” Petyr turned to the stoop-backed serving woman hovering near the kitchen steps. “Mela, fetch his lordship a new spoon. He wants to eat his porridge.”
Just as LF admits that he is the real power behind SR, I think we’re meant to understand that he’s the real giant behind the doll. It is Sansa’s mothering of SR that allows her to see just how helpless the boy truly is, but also opens the possibility of making a critical intervention.
Emotional and Intellectual Growth
As established, SR’s time with his mother contributed greatly to the underdevelopment of his emotional and intellectual capacities. Both Catelyn and Brynden Tully make mention of the cloth-doll he carries, and Cat is shocked to see him still suckling at Lysa’s breast. Most troubling perhaps is the boy’s seeming disconnect from the seriousness of death and the pursuit of justice, as he makes repeated calls to see Tyrion Lannister “fly.” The ways in which Sansa begins to correct these issues vary from the direct to indirect, but her strategies are successful in fostering the child’s growth.
When Sansa “kills” SR’s doll, it symbolically represents the role she will play in his life: removing the central emblem of his “babyhood” and influencing the emergence of a self-reliant child. It is noteworthy that after SR’s doll is destroyed, we never see him carrying another one during AFFC. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he has stopped playing with dolls entirely, or that he never had another one made, but there’s an effective separation between him and an ever present toy, which was seen even in official gatherings:
The wretched boy had started it, looking down on him from a throne of carved weirwood beneath the moon-and-falcon banners of House Arryn. Tyrion Lannister had been looked down on all his life, but seldom by rheumy-eyed six-year-olds who needed to stuff fat cushions under their cheeks to lift them to the height of a man. “Is he the bad man?” the boy had asked, clutching his doll.
The next custom that Sansa ends is SR’s habit of seeking out beds—mostly her own—when he is frightened or missing the comfort he found in his mother’s embrace. In getting Lothor Brune to lock him in at night, Sansa promotes the boy’s emotional growth, as the urge to sleep in her bed and nuzzle her breasts reflected Lysa’s excessive pampering that stunted her child’s normal development. For Lysa, keeping SR as physically and emotionally tied to her was necessary for her own self-worth, but Sansa realises the value and the need to promote SR’s independent sense of self, and relating to his ability to inspire confidence in his bannermen. It’s suggested in ‘Alayne I’ that SR has gotten used to sleeping in his own bed even though he complains of hearing Marillion’s singing:
“But I hear him every night. Even when I close the shutters and put a pillow on my head. Your father should have cut his tongue out. I told him to, but he wouldn’t.”
So far, these “removal” methods have been necessary to jumpstart SR’s maturity, but they do not engage what Ruddick sees as the core of advancing growth: “to nurture a child’s developing spirit – whatever in a child is lively, purposive, and responsive.” Sansa’s strategy for this involves teaching SR a story which she is uniquely suited to appreciate. Recall what Lysa says to her when they are at the Fingers:
“Robert has weak eyes, but he loves to be read to,” Lady Lysa confided. “He likes stories about animals the best. Do you know the little song about the chicken who dressed as a fox? I sing him that all the time, he never grows tired of it…”
When we next see SR in the story however, it’s not the story of the chicken dressed as fox that he requests:
“Lord Nestor Royce has come up from the Gates to see you.” Sansa wiped beneath his nose.
“I don’t want to see him,” he said. “I want a story. A story of the Winged Knight.”
If, as Lysa confides, SR’s favourite stories involved animals, and specifically a favourite song about a chicken and a fox, just how does he come to favour one about a legendary Arryn descendant?
The Winged Knight was Ser Artys Arryn. Legend said that he had driven the First Men from the Vale and flown to the top of the Giant’s Lance on a huge falcon to slay the Griffin King. There were a hundred tales of his adventures. Little Robert knew them all so well he could have recited them from memory, but he liked to have them read to him all the same.
It points to Sansa being the direct influence in SR’s love of this new tale, and it’s a fitting connection given the relevance of knights/knighthood in her arc. The importance for SR’s development in having the Winged Knight as his heroic model cannot be overstated. It is the fabled knight that inspires SR’s bravery on the journey down from the Eyrie, giving him a confidence that is remarkable when compared to what he was like under Lysa’s tutelage:
A hundred feet down, a sudden gust caught hold of them. The bucket swayed sideways, spinning in the air, then bumped hard against the rock face behind them. Shards of ice and snow rained down on them, and the oak creaked and strained. Robert gave a gasp and clung to her, burying his face between her breasts.
“My lord is brave,” Alayne said, when she felt him shaking. “I’m so frightened I can hardly talk, but not you.”
She felt him nod. “The Winged Knight was brave, and so am I,” he boasted to her bodice. “I’m an Arryn.”
Alayne took Robert’s gloved hand in her own to stop his shaking. “Sweetrobin,” she said, “I’m scared. Hold my hand, and help me get across. I know you’re not afraid.”
He looked at her, his pupils small dark pinpricks in eyes as big and white as eggs. “I’m not?”
“Not you. You’re my winged knight, Ser Sweetrobin.”
“The Winged Knight could fly,” Robert whispered.
“Higher than the mountains.” She gave his hand a squeeze.
Lady Myranda had joined them by the spire. “He could,” she echoed, when she saw what was happening.
“Ser Sweetrobin,” Lord Robert said, and Alayne knew that she dare not wait for Mya to return. She helped the boy dismount, and hand in hand they walked out onto the bare stone saddle, their cloaks snapping and flapping behind them.
In each of the passages, Sansa acts as SR’s champion, reinforcing the ideal of the Winged Knight, and encouraging SR to see himself as possessing such qualities. Sansa goes one step further and “knights” him on the mountain, calling him “Ser Sweetrobin.”
There’s another layer of meaning in the value of the Winged Knight for Robin’s story, and that has to do with the fascination of seeing people “fly.” Whilst Lysa Arryn nurtured this proclivity in its destructive form, Sansa is able to shift the focus towards a positive sense of purpose for the young boy, and one could easily make the case that SR’s obsession with flying was a defence mechanism of sorts to hide his feelings of insecurity and vulnerable. Therefore, Sansa’s introduction of the Winged Knight tales not only inspires more courageous behaviour on SR’s part, but has lasting effects towards the construction of a stronger self-esteem and identity.
The fostering of SR’s growth attended to personal objectives, but the aim of social acceptability extends these goals to the public arena, taking into consideration the child’s adjustment and impression in the wider community. For SR, who is expected to maintain the confidence of his father’s bannermen and be seen as a worthy ruler of the Vale when he comes of age, social acceptability and the training done to secure need to be at the forefront of any conscientious mothering that seeks to protect his interests.
Sansa’s understanding of this and her active responses are constantly underscored by Martin. She cleans him up to be presentable when Nestor Royce comes to visit, tries to reassure him when the Lords Declarant are coming up the mountain, and challenges Maester Colemon’s advice to have SR strapped to his mule on the descent from the Eyrie:
The Lord of the Eyrie cannot descend from his mountain tied up like a sack of barleycorn.” Of that Alayne was certain. They dare not let the full extent of Robert’s frailty and cowardice become too widely known, her father had warned her. I wish he were here. He would know what to do.
What Sansa does know is how to go about training SR’s nature to become more self-sufficient, noble and confident. She achieves this through the technique of positive reinforcement: challenging SR to aspire to these virtues by reinforcing the social recognition of strength he craves. As Ruddick attests:
Training presumes the trainer’s ability to judge the “natural” tastes, desires and behaviour… Such natures are educated, that is, they are “led out of” temptation in to the virtues “naturally” awaiting them.
It’s important to appreciate that this is a deliberate act of training on Sansa’s part, one that she employs whenever appropriate, and can recognise the need for it in how others relate to the child:
When she turned back, Robert Arryn was propped up against the pillows looking at her. The Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale. A woolen blanket covered him below the waist. Above it he was naked, a pasty boy with hair as long as any girl’s. Robert had spindly arms and legs, a soft concave chest and little belly, and eyes that were always red and runny. He cannot help the way he is. He was born small and sickly. “You look very strong this morning, my lord.” He loved to be told how strong he was.
When he felt the cold wind on his face, Robert quailed, but Terrance and Gyles were behind him, so he could not flee. “My lord,” said Mya, “will you ride down with me?”
Too brusque, Alayne thought. She should have greeted him with a smile, told him how strong and brave he looks.
“My lord is brave,” Alayne said, when she felt him shaking. “I’m so frightened I can hardly talk, but not you.”
The most controversial point in this final AFFC chapter is during Sansa’s conversation with Maester Colemon where readers believe that she’s being carelessly negligent with SR’s health, and expressing an alliance with Littlefinger that doesn’t bode well for SR:
“Just give him a cup of the sweetmilk before we go, and another at the feast, and there should be no trouble.”
“Very well.” They paused at the foot of the stairs. “But this must be the last. For half a year, or longer.”
“You had best take that up with the Lord Protector.” She pushed through the door and crossed the yard. Colemon only wanted the best for his charge, Alayne knew, but what was best for Robert the boy and what was best for Lord Arryn were not always the same. Petyr had said as much, and it was true. Maester Colemon cares only for the boy, though. Father and I have larger concerns.
It’s obvious that Martin meant for this to raise at least a few eyebrows, and cause some consternation in readers, especially when LF reveals his plans at the end of the chapter. However, when placed in the proper context of Sansa’s acting as a mother to SR, and what that entails, the scene is not so alarming, and doesn’t suggest or foreshadow that Sansa will be complicit in LF’s plans to poison the boy. As we’ve explored, mothering involves three crucial tasks, all of which are balanced in order to achieve the maximum benefit for the child. That Sansa recognizes the imperative to make a favourable impression on the Vale lords when SR descends the mountain does not mean that she has put aside the aims of preservative love or fostering growth. These concerns are all interdependent and constitute the nexus of maternal thinking.
Her advice of administering a little sweetsleep to mitigate the stress of the descent is proved to be correct, because SR does suffer a minor fit after he crosses the land saddle, which may have been considerably worse without the suppressant:
And then they were on the other side, and Mya Stone was laughing and lifting Robert for a hug. “Be careful,” Alayne told her. “He can hurt you, flailing. You wouldn’t think so, but he can.” They found a place for him, a cleft in the rock to keep him out of the cold wind. Alayne tended him until the shaking passed, whilst Mya went back to help the others cross.
Even so, there is no doubt that too much sweetsleep could endanger Robert’s life, and that (perhaps) Maester Colemon and (most definitely) Littlefinger do not have the interest of either “the boy” or “Lord Arryn” at heart. Concerning the maester, Sweetrobin reveals that he had something “vile” put into his milk the night before the descent. When Sansa confronts the maester, he stammers but doesn’t offer an explanation for what it was:
“…. He says you put something vile in his milk.”
“Vile?” Colemon blinked at her, and the apple in his throat moved up and down. “I merely . . . is he bleeding from the nose?”
When Sansa descends the mountain and meets with LF, the task of protecting SR has become a stark question of life and death, peace and war. The maternal agency she was able to explore with the little lord is threatened by LF’s certainty that SR will die, and the news that he has made a marriage pact for her with Harry the Heir to facilitate the retaking of Sansa’s bithright. For what seems like a recurrent nightmare of powerlessness, Sansa faces the prospect of an unfulfilling relationship orchestrated by the will of a patriarchal dictator with the primary concern of her claim to Winterfell.
The very story of how Harry the Heir became the heir reinforces the oppressive conditions of patriarchal motherhood for women who are defined by their ability to produce heirs and die shortly afterwards almost in recognition of having fulfilled their essential purpose. The remaining daughters of Elys and Alys all experience varying degrees of social segregation and victimization:
“… The eldest had been left terribly scarred by the same pox that killed her sisters, so she became a septa. Another was seduced by a sellsword. Ser Elys cast her out, and she joined the silent sisters after her bastard died in infancy. The third wed the Lord of the Paps, but proved barren. The fourth was on her way to the riverlands to marry some Bracken when Burned Men carried her off. That left the youngest, who wed a landed knight sworn to the Waynwoods, gave him a son that she named Harrold, and perished.” He turned her hand over and lightly kissed her wrist. “So tell me, sweetling—why is Harry the Heir?”
It may explain Harry’s lineage, but it also highlights a tradition that Sansa has been fighting against since she was a captive in KL. Critically though, Sansa is no longer the powerless maiden without resources or allies. The Eyrie has been as much a training ground for her as it was for Robert Arryn, and the discipline of maternal thinking leads not to destruction of life and war-mongering that LF presents. Instead, as the final section explores, it will inspire a maternal activism on Sansa’s part that is intimately tied to the politics of peace.
THE PURSUIT OF PEACE
I take maternal thinking to be an engaged critical
and visionary perspective that illuminates both the
destructiveness of war and the requirements of peace.
Sansa has always been involved in the politics of peace. As the only Stark who remains trapped in the Red Keep after the execution of her father and disappearance of her sister, she becomes the embodied symbol of the failure of the warring factions to reach peace, even in the form of an exchange of hostages. In her first chapter of the novel she demonstrates a natural affinity towards peacekeeping when she quickly identifies Renly Baratheon to placate Joffrey’s anger, but is then unable to intervene quickly enough to prevent the incident at the Trident from escalating beyond control. The fall out leads to Sansa’s first personal experience of the cost of conflict: the death of Lady.
The next time the theme of peace features centrally in her arc is during the small council meeting following the coup, where Cersei attempts to manipulate her into writing the letters advising her family members not to rebel:
Your lady mother will no doubt fear for you dreadfully,” the queen said. “You must tell her that you are well and in our care, that we are treating you gently and seeing to your every want. Bid them to come to King’s Landing and pledge their fealty to Joffrey when he takes his throne. If they do that … why, then we shall know that there is no taint in your blood, and when you come into the flower of your womanhood, you shall wed the king in the Great Sept of Baelor, before the eyes of gods and men.
In the end, she sends four letters to three of the great houses: Stark, Tully and Arryn in the Vale. Despite the manipulation in play, I believe this scene has important foreshadowing potential for Sansa’s eventual peacemaking efforts as a representative of one or more of the central families she’s aligned to in the text. Martin’s handling of Sansa’s peacemaking potential is directly associated with her mothering practices – encompassing both the literal and symbolic experiences- and articulated through the principles of non-violence and anti-war sentiments expressed in song.
The preceding parts of the essay looked at how Sansa moves from the institutional tyranny of motherhood into an empowered and proactive form of mothering, facilitated by the awakening of a feminist consciousness that actively seeks to resist the injustices of patriarchal dominance. Ruddick explains how the aims of mothering are antithetical to those of war:
All women’s work—sheltering, nursing, feeding, kin work, teaching of the very young, tending the frail elderly—is threatened by violence. When maternal thinking takes upon itself the critical perspective of a feminist standpoint, it reveals a contradiction between mothering and war. Mothering begins in birth and promises of life; military thinking justifies organized, deliberate deaths.
This is not to suggest that mothers do not support war and don’t make war themselves and both have been amply explored in Martin’s work. Rather, I would argue that the interrogation of war and its effects relates to the larger thematic framework of ASOIAF, and is part of Martin’s critique of institutional practices. The perspective that Sansa gains through her role as a mother positions her as the one to not only challenge this violence, but to provide constructive solutions for it.
These answers can be gleaned in the non-violent approach mothers take to dealing with their children and the struggles of mothering – vital in not compromising the work of training and growth that they have invested for the child’s benefit. It is what Ruddick calls the “non-violence of the powerful”:
I can think of no other situation in which someone subject to the resentments at her social powerlessness, under enormous pressure of time and anger, faces a recalcitrant but helpless combatant with so much restraint.
This immediately brings to mind Sansa’s experiences with Sweetrobin, and in particular that final day in the Eyrie:
“I want a hundred lemon cakes and five tales!”
I’d like to give you a hundred spankings and five slaps. You would not dare behave like this if Petyr were here. The little lord had a good healthy fear of his stepfather. Alayne forced a smile. “As my lord desires. But nothing till you’re washed and dressed and on your way. Come, before the morning’s gone.” She took him firmly by the hand, and drew him out of bed.
The ideals of renunciation and reconciliation that govern peacemaking non-violence are exemplified in Sansa’s behaviour and interaction with those who could be classified as enemies:
“Help him,” Sansa commanded two of the serving men. One just looked at her and ran, flagon and all. Other servants were leaving the hall as well, but she could not help that. Together, Sansa and the serving man got the wounded knight back on his feet. “Take him to Maester Frenken.” Lancel was one of them, yet somehow she still could not bring herself to wish him dead. I am soft and weak and stupid, just as Joffrey says. I should be killing him, not helping him.
When she meets Tyrion in the courtyard prior to the battle and tells him she’s going to the sept to pray, the Imp is pessimistic:
“I won’t ask for whom.” His mouth twisted oddly; if that was a smile, it was the queerest she had ever seen.
Yet, as soon revealed, Sansa does indeed include Tyrion Lannister in her prayers:
… and finally, toward the end, she even sang for Tyrion the Imp and for the Hound.
Although there are many other examples throughout the text that illustrate Sansa’s non-violent practices, I have chosen to focus on her POV chapters during the Blackwater battle. It is Sansa’s first encounter with organized warfare and her perspective during this time offers a concentrated and symbolically rich critique of war as it is happening. It is also the first time we see her assuming publicly the role of maternal peacemaker in response to Cersei’s abandonment of responsibility and surrender to war’s despair. If we think back to the other time Sansa performed a public service relating to peacekeeping for Cersei, it makes for a potent contrast.
Songs and singing—so central to Sansa’s character and development—are the chosen metaphoric vehicles through which we see her grappling with the human cost of war and expressing a vision of change. Her first POV during the battle affirms the fundamental incompatibility between what war represents and what “The Mother” reveres:
They had been singing in the sept all morning, since the first report of enemy sails had reached the castle. The sound of their voices mingled with the whicker of horses, the clank of steel, and the groaning hinges of the great bronze gates to make a strange and fearful music. In the sept they sing for the Mother’s mercy but on the walls it’s the Warrior they pray to, and all in silence. She remembered how Septa Mordane used to tell them that the Warrior and the Mother were only two faces of the same great god. But if there is only one, whose prayers will be heard?
Sansa’s question has deeper philosophical value, but the meaning for her character is immediately recognizable when she enters the sept and joins the gathering in prayers. The language choice indicates an irresistible compulsion:
Through the quiet, the singing pulled at her. Sansa turned toward the sept. Two stableboys followed, and one of the guards whose watch was ended*. Others fell in behind them.
(*highlighted for potential foreshadowing of Jon and Sansa working together to achieve peace; something that Jon was already instrumental in creating between the wildlings and the Watch.)
Sansa lights candles at all the altars of the Seven, but it is the maternal symbolism that is most apparent. She sits between “a wizened old washerwoman and a boy no older than Rickon, dressed in the fine linen tunic of a knight’s son” and then joins in the singing of the mother’s hymn, which she remembers having been taught by her mother, not Septa Mordane. Her prayers encompass everyone in the Stark family and household, extending to all those who will be affected by the war; right at the end she makes a direct appeal for the Hound’s salvation:
He is no true knight but he saved me all the same, she told the Mother. Save him if you can, and gentle the rage inside him.
Sandor Clegane holds special significance on this issue of the essential conflict of military thinking vs. maternal thinking. As Milady of York noted in her essay, the Hound has been a soldier for half his life, carrying out the commands of the Lannisters in Casterly Rock and KL.
In sum, all those textual examples do serve to highlight that the Hound is not just a traditional royal bodyguard, that he has a baggage of experience and knowledge from being both a low-ranking fighter following orders and as a commander planning battle strategies, leading men into battle, etc., and is likely been doing that for a long time:
“I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich men dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too—they’re all meat, and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers.”
These words of his to Sansa on the rooftop of Maegor’s Holdfast definitely do speak of a life that sounds more like that of a soldier than that of a sworn shield since boyhood.
As a hardened and battled-tested soldier, Sandor would appear to legitimise what Ruddick calls “war’s murderous mutilation and death.” Not quite fitting either stereotypes of the beastly male or the just warrior of Ruddick’s definitions, he is nonetheless expected to die heroically like the latter, “instantiating an ideology of death and sacrifice that masks crude injury”:
Sandor Clegane wrenched off his helm with both hands and let it fall to the ground. The steel was scorched and dented, the left ear of the snarling hound sheared off. A gash above one eye had sent a wash of blood down across the Hound’s old burn scars, masking half his face.
Sandor’s refusal to carry on fighting (due in large part to the resurfacing of his childhood trauma due to Tyrion’s primary weapon of warfare) undermines the ideology of war from the inside out. That a man, or rather a soldier, like Sandor, can break/away from war and seek out genuine emotional care and contact provides a valuable alternative from which to rethink men’s participation in organized violence. Ruddick states:
It is an ongoing task of militarists to create a fiction of death to satisfy the emotional demands of ordinary soldiers and anyone who mourns their “sacrifice.” In the fragility of military ideologies of death lies a peacemaker’s hope. It is thus a peacemaker’s task not only to deconstruct that fiction but to provide an alternative account of bodily death.
When Sansa leaves the sept we read:
A few guards paced along on the gatehouse battlements, but otherwise the castle seemed empty. Sansa stopped and listened. Away off, she could hear the sounds of battle. The singing almost drowned them out, but the sounds were there if you had the ears to hear: the deep moan of warhorns, the creak and thud of catapults flinging stones, the splashes and splinterings, the crackle of burning pitch and thrum of scorpions loosing their yard-long iron-headed shafts . . . and beneath it all, the cries of dying men. It was another sort of song, a terrible song. Sansa pulled the hood of her cloak up over her ears, and hurried toward Maegor’s Holdfast, the castle-within-a-castle where the queen had promised they would all be safe.
We know of course that Maegor’s turns out to offer no true safety with the presence of Ilyn Payne, and the queen has no sincere support to give. Sansa may pull the cloak over her ears, but the sound song of war is not so easily silenced. It does not only exist in the weapons, but in the cries of dying men, frightened children, innocent maidens and merciful mothers. Sandor’s presence in her room continues the challenge to Sansa to resist slipping into the despair and sense of futility that violence can elicit:
I’ll go to sleep, she told herself, and when I wake it will be a new day, and the sky will be blue again. The fighting will be done and someone will tell me whether I’m to live or die. “Lady,” she whimpered softly, wondering if she would meet her wolf again when she was dead.
Then something stirred behind her, and a hand reached out of the dark and grabbed her wrist.
The mother’s hymn provides relief to the soldier and hope to men and women, but it also offers a challenge to the peacemaker, to be actively involved in creating “a better day” and teaching “a kinder way”. And just because Martin may have worried readers had forgotten that a maternal practice of peace would be Sansa’s central task going forward, he offers us another song; in addition to the hymn, it is the only one out of all the songs that are named in Sansa’s chapters that we are given the lyrics to:
After “Alysanne” the singer stopped again, long enough for Sansa to snatch an hour’s rest. But as the first light of dawn was prying at her shutters, she heard the soft strains of “On a Misty Morn” drifting up from below, and woke at once. That was more properly a woman’s song, a lament sung by a mother on the dawn after some terrible battle, as she searches amongst the dead for the body of her only son. The mother sings her grief for her dead son, Sansa thought, but Marillion grieves for his fingers, for his eyes. The words rose like arrows and pierced her in the darkness.
Oh, have you seen my boy, good ser?
His hair is chestnut brown
He promised he’d come back to me
Our home’s in Wendish Town.
LOOKING AHEAD TO TWOW:
Westeros will receive but it doesn’t need any more kings and queens fighting for power and a throne. While there’s no doubt that Sansa would make a competent Queen who would employ love, and not fear, to inspire her subjects’ devotion, the evidence in her arc highlights that her power will not reside in traditional Queenship, but expressed through the aims of peacemaking. As we saw with Jon, Westeros needs peacemakers: people who can resist violence and reconcile differences.
Littlefinger: The man who said that life is not a song is set up for a rude awakening. If Sansa’s arc will be realised in the achievement of peace and stability for Westeros, then we don’t have to look to a prophecy to authenticate the belief that she has to “slay” the one responsible for much of the chaos, specifically effected through the victimization and betrayal of mothers.
To the above point, whilst I have noted the non-violent ideals of a maternal peace politics, it does not mean that Sansa herself is incapable of doing violence or does not wish harm on others. As Sara Ruddick points out, “although she will never celebrate violence, a peacemaker may herself act violently in careful, conscientious knowledge of the hurt she inflicts and its cost to her as well as her victim.”
Sandor’s role: If the Elder Brother is already in the Vale as we suspect, it opens up the possibility of a quicker reunion between Sansa and Sandor, and offers Sansa another avenue to make love, not war. That the EB, a man of peace, has picked back up the sword points to his recognition that the war is not over, and Sandor’s symbolic value for Sansa’s peacemaking efforts have already been noted, added to him relinquishing the violent Hound persona that defined his life as a soldier. As Milady of York’s essay indicated, Sandor has experience in tactical strategizing and commanding men, skills which I believe can also be useful outside of the battlefield.
The Vale’s army: Could be deployed as a sort of peacekeeping force; I don’t see a scenario where they trek North to reclaim Sansa’s birthright as LF foretold. Doing so would mean going to war, starting with the death of SR. It’s fundamentally incompatible in light of Sansa’s personal and political mothering efforts.
The case of Daenerys and Sansa
Motherhood in fantasy is usually an archetypal thing rarely explored through an actual maternal character. There are reasons for this: mothers are supposed to be protective and sheltering figures, and all that mothering, when properly done, tends to protect our protagonists from things like incentive moments. It is easier to address the idea through a magical Mother Goddess figure or the protagonist’s internal memories than to construct a plot that can somehow reconcile a positive mother figure with the prerequisite failure to protect her child protagonist from the plot. Martin uses his complex realism and rich cast of multi-generational characters to explore both mothers on the page and the impact mothers have as role models.
Cat is probably the most involved and complex treatment of a mother on the page. We get the boy-king going off to war with his mother still telling him what to wear and what to say, and we see it through her eyes, not his. We see a mother struggle with the balance of protecting and letting go. And since Cat is a POV character, she also offers us the best insight into a maternal role model for Sansa with whom we also have the benefit of her perspective. Sansa has had all the benefits of a noble upbringing, a stable home and family, younger siblings to practice the maternal role with, and a mother to model herself after.
In contrast to Sansa we have Dany, who has absolutely no female role models, positive or negative, in her life at all. Martin throws this girl with no maternal role model into the maternal role herself: Dany evolves into Mhysa, an archetypal mother who ends up acting as the external iconic maternal figure for the oppressed of Essos, in a way much like motherhood typically serves as an internal influence for the motherless protagonist. Her evolution into that role offers a good contrast with Sansa. Both girls are about the same age, both experience a sense of captivity and yearn for freedom, and both have compassionate inclinations that conspire with their circumstances to lead them to a maternal role. And they have somewhat similar, though inverted, starting points over the first book with the primary difference being role models.
Dany starts off defined by her technical role as younger sister, but in reality is closer to a mix between daughter and chattel; and her betrothal is one of commerce whose purpose is to start a war. Sansa’s betrothal is political as well, but it has its roots in the genuine affection between Robert and Ned and is one designed to preserve a peace. Ned agrees in large part out of a sense of family responsibility; there is the protection of Cat’s sister and her son, and a familial duty to the foster father and brother (family beyond blood) who filled the roles of his biological father and brother who were killed, ironically, by Dany’s father. Sansa’s betrothal is therefore rooted in the maternal aspects of duty and sacrifice to protect the family, which is the very thing that ought to have stopped Dany’s betrothal.
Mothers are the cornerstone of our sense of “home.” Sansa has had a stable home, a place to call her own, and the journey her betrothal launches is met with a sense of adventure. Dany has been migrant since her distant memory of the house in Braavos; which is the closest thing she has to a sense of home and it is something she feels was prematurely stripped from her. She meets her betrothal’s journey with a sense of dread, and her isolation is demonstrated by her being the only woman at her betrothal and her not even having a common language to speak with anyone at her own wedding. In contrast, Sansa has Jeyne and Beth to gossip with when she learns the news, and her father and brothers, who are so protectively concerned for her welfare she doesn’t feel the need to even ponder her own potential safety.
The theme of home will recur for both Sansa and Dany. Dany continually yearns for the house in Braavos, that was never her home and the only things she truly draws from it are a vague sense of having been safe and loved by Darry. It is a thing she seeks to recreate, but has no blueprint in her experience to do so. In truth, it was much the same place as Illyrio’s manse—a place where luxury and comfort came at a price. Perhaps on some level Dany understands this, since she knows that they had to leave because the servants stole the gold and her reticence in accepting Illyrio’s hospitality is concern over the price. She embraces her freedom on the Dothraki Sea, yet doesn’t embrace it as a home.
What do you pray for, Ser Jorah?” she asked him.
“Home,” he said. His voice was thick with longing.
“I pray for home too,” she told him, believing it.
Ser Jorah laughed. “Look around you then, Khaleesi.
But it was not the plains Dany saw then. It was King’s Landing and the great Red Keep that Aegon the Conqueror had built. It was Dragonstone where she had been born. In her mind’s eye they burned with a thousand lights, a fire blazing in every window. In her mind’s eye, all the doors were red.
Thus the Seven Kingdoms and Viserys’ dream of “home” become a stand in for the home in Braavos that never truly was. Much is made of Sansa’s initial naïveté regarding stories, but Dany only gets those stories as a wedding gift from Ser Jorah; she lacks even fairy tales as basic guidance. When she initially finds Vaes Tolorro, a mother’s choice, a place to plant trees, she doesn’t embrace it as a home. She only embraces Meereen as “home” after seeing the destruction her intended method of claiming King’s Landing has brought upon Astapor. Even then, Meereen isn’t intended to be a home but merely the blueprint she never had for how to claim Westeros as a home. By the end of Dance with Dragons, Dany is still so lacking in a sense of home that she embraces Drogon’s meager cave as Dragonstone.
The role of Mother is defined by children and “home” is the place in the world a mother makes for those children. Dany didn’t recognize a home when she stumbled upon it because she never truly had one. With no female role models at all, she can only rely on the meager guidance of the two male figures who came closest to providing her with safety—Viserys and Khal Drogo. So it is little wonder she tries to carve out a place for her children with fire and blood.
Sansa is quite different. In an emotionally cruel captivity in King’s Landing, she can find comfort in the Sept and the godswood, both religious traditions and beliefs that recall her parents with the latter also being a strong reminder of home itself. She never simply yearns for the place but also the company of family and the people of Winterfell in general. She is able to tap into memories of Bran while she encourages Tommen. She is able to disregard her surrogate mother Cersei’s advice because she has a different role model in Cat (something Dany can’t do with MMD or the Green Grace because these are her first real female encounters ever). She’s had a mother and younger siblings, so she can become the person Colemon and Lothor Brune seek help from in dealing with Sweetrobin. Even when Littlefinger lies to her about taking her home, she is able to rebuild Winterfell in snow and draw strength from it. She is stronger within the walls of a Winterfell she built for herself in exile. This sense of home allows Sansa to mother herself, while Dany’s lack of it plays into her frustration, depression, and arguably her need for Daario’s companionship when a part of her believes she should avoid it.
Dany’s marriage fortunes turn out fairly well despite it all (sure, there’s ample room to quibble, but not when Viserys is the starting point…). Drogo seems to genuinely care for her and she begins to develop a sense of belonging, if not “home.” The Dothraki Sea is a migrant life that seems to embody more of a sense of freedom than home. Yet Dany still lacks any real role models; her only female companions are her handmaidens who are in truth slaves. While Sansa learns about dealing with men from Septa Mordane who is an authority figure placed over her by her mother, Dany learns about men from a former whore who serves her as a slave given to her by her brother.
Dany has no equals or superiors among women and no exposure to a social hierarchy. In fact, I don’t think Dany recalls the name of a single female in her life prior to the events we see. Sansa has her mother and Septa Mordane as authority figures, and her sister is her equal other than the minor factor of a small age difference. She has Jeyne and Beth in her circle of friends, who she learns to treat as equals despite the station difference, and maids among the smallfolk who are at a lower level. Old Nan has no station of note, but is respected for her age and service to the Stark family. And almost immediately, Sansa is exposed to a Queen and Princess who while in her social stratum are her superiors. A huge part of motherhood is guiding children on the path to finding a place in the world, and to do that one must first know what those places are. We see Sansa clearly exposed to and comfortable with understanding how people fit into those places, while Dany’s experience is limited to being a slave and a free person with slave-owner authority over others and little if anything in between.
We see the results of this repeatedly throughout the series. Despite being in a position of extraordinary weakness in King’s Landing, Sansa is able to engage those around her. Tyrion is impressed by how well she navigates social functions, and her skills in this regard play into the Tyrell women finding her a desirable asset for their House even if less than benevolent in their motivations—a role they’ll reject Cersei for. We see Sansa dance at her own miserable wedding and socially engage those around her.
Dany is in a position of power in Meereen, but does very little socializing even at public events. It isn’t that Dany fails to personally win over political players so much as that she doesn’t know that she should be going through certain motions to even try. We don’t ever see Dany dance at a celebration, or make others feel at ease with little compliments, or even just chat. A great deal of the flat portrayal of the Meereenese is Dany’s failure to gossip, to learn there is a Lancel-like sick son she ought to inquire after or even discover that two families have a feud like the Brackens and Blackwoods. Sansa is fully armored, the garb of Westeros, in courtesy while Dany only thinks to put on floppy ears—a token facsimile of being Meereenese. Part of the maternal social role is to know, as Cat described it, the hearts and hearths issues of other families, and Sansa is fully engaged in this respect, but Dany isn’t because she’s never even seen another woman in a social environment.
Has Dany ever even held a baby? I can’t think of where she has or would have. Sansa has her younger siblings with her mother’s example to begin to learn how to be a mother. Arya used to come up with names for the smallfolk’s children, and while Sansa frowned on her sister’s fondness for associating below her station, newborns in a community like Winterfell are celebrated, so Sansa likely had the opportunity to coo over each newborn and also got to witness the mothering practices of all the families in Winterfell. We see this difference in background play out in their stories.
Barristan trains knights for Dany; he has 27 boys he thinks of as “his orphans,” yet Dany has never come to see them train or practice. These orphans have entered the service of the one they call “Mother,” but Dany isn’t aware of how to offer motherly encouragement to them like Sansa is—or even aware that she should.
Princess Myrcella nodded a shy greeting at the sound of Sansa’s name, but plump little Prince Tommen jumped up eagerly. “Sansa, did you hear? I’m to ride in the tourney today. Mother said I could.” Tommen was all of eight. He reminded her of her own little brother, Bran. They were of an age. Bran was back at Winterfell, a cripple, yet safe.
Sansa would have given anything to be with him. “I fear for the life of your foeman,” she told Tommen solemnly.
Tommen gave a shout of joy and ran off to be readied, his chubby little legs pumping hard. “Luck,” Sansa called to him.
Sansa found herself possessed of a queer giddy courage. “You should go with her,” she told the king. “Your brother might be hurt.”
Joffrey shrugged. “What if he is?”
“You should help him up and tell him how well he rode.” Sansa could not seem to stop herself.
“He got knocked off his horse and fell in the dirt,” the king pointed out. “That’s not riding well.”
The result is this contrast between the very personal motherly attention Sansa gives Tommen with this distant maternal archetype of a woman that inspired these orphans’ calling, but who doesn’t even know their names.
There’s also the dynamic with other women. The closest thing Dany has to an equal or a friend is Missandei. When they have one of their most personal talks, Missandei tells Dany about her home, and Dany offers to get a ship to send her back, but Missandei prefers to stay. Dany offered the best thing she knew how based on her experience, she wanted to give the closest thing she knew to her own house in Braavos memory; but it is fairly clear that Missandei has moved well beyond her old home and needs to build a new one, to find her place in the world much like Dany’s own struggle. Even though Dany is fairly consumed with her own future husband, she never thinks to try and provide for Missandei in this regard, something that comes as second nature to Sansa.
Of course, Jeyne had been in love with Lord Beric ever since she had first glimpsed him in the lists. Sansa thought she was being silly; Jeyne was only a steward’s daughter, after all, and no matter how much she mooned after him, Lord Beric would never look at someone so far beneath him, even if she hadn’t been half his age.
We see it again with Lothor Brune and Mya Stone. Sansa notices he always smiles when he speaks of Mya, and then wonders what Mya thinks of him. She assesses him and concludes that he’d be a good match for her as a person and for their mutual stations; and wonders if Mya could do better and thinks if her father had acknowledged her that she could, but as an unacknowledged bastard Brune is a good choice so long as Mya is content with the match.
Brune would be a good match for a bastard girl like Mya Stone, she thought. It might be different if her father had acknowledged her, but he never did. And Maddy says that she’s no maid either.
Without a stable family background and role models, Dany doesn’t know how to do this or even that she should be doing this maternal role. She doesn’t think to take Missandei to watch one of Selmy’s training sessions to see if any future knights and Missandei exchange smiles. She doesn’t think of making matches for Irri or Jhiqui when they’re going through their “it is known” spat over who Rakharo likes more. Missandei’s choice to not go home is a choice to build a new home elsewhere, and Dany empathizes and identifies with her, but despite her own inner desires to find love never thinks to embrace that facet of the matriarchal role and find a match for her.
There is also an interesting contrast in their relationships with “old women.” Dany tried to be maternal with Mirri Maz Duur and was rejected and betrayed. She is trying to be a mother to the Green Grace’s city, and finds another hostile reception if not the very Harpy that plagues her. In the first, Dany advocated Dothraki marrying the Lamb women, and in the second Dany herself is going to marry a Ghiscari. These older women do not see or identify with Dany as a maternal figure or welcome her maternal influence into their realms. In Sansa’s case, though both Cersei and Olenna’s intentions toward her were less than benevolent, both of these older women sought Sansa out not just as a marriage for their House but the favorite son/grandson and heir as well. They want Sansa as the matriarch of their next generation.
So while Dany’s arc touches on almost every maternal theme in a literary sense (and quite powerfully, I would add), Dany herself struggles as a mother largely because she has nothing even close to a role model, and is so ill-prepared by her prior life for the task. She approaches motherhood from the deficits fate and experience have imposed upon her. She wants to protect “her children” from her own negative experiences, but is unaware of how to nurture them, to treat them as family or create a home for them.
It takes the counsel of another woman for her to think of her own political marriage, but she never considers offering a Brown Ben Plumm or others lordships to start families of their own with a series of marriages to unify her divided people. Her first marriage was a sale of chattel to buy a home for her brother at the cost of her exile, and not the unification of two Houses. She’s willing chattel in her second to buy a paper peace, but the transactional and sacrificial nature are much the same. Sansa’s betrothal was for the good of the family including Lysa, Sweetrobin, and Edmure. It is the maternal Cat that makes this point, not Ned, and later again we see a maternal recommendation that Robb and Arya marry to help save Ned. These marriages are shared sacrifices to protect the family and all recommended by the matriarch. Dany’s past experience leads her to believe her children ought to be protected from such marriages to the scant extent she thinks about her responsibility to arrange marriages at all.
Dany’s rebirthed an extinct species to become the mother of dragons and is an icon of motherhood for the oppressed of a continent, but struggles to mother herself and those most dear to her. By the end of Dance with Dragons, we see her embracing Fire and Blood over planting trees, which is not surprising considering Viserys and Khal Drogo are her two primary role models in life. Her experiences in Meereen do make her more of a veteran which somewhat diminishes the vital nature of role models, and it seems likely that she’ll have additional advisors when she heads to Westeros. Yet in her immediate future she still seems to lack a “crone” figure, which may be cause for concern. She’ll need to embrace that Fire and Blood when she lands in Westeros, but she’ll still need to make alliances which do require an element of planting trees or at least seeds. Westeros needs a maternal figure like a Cat who is willing to let old grudges and a Jaime go if the realm is ever going to have peace.
As Brashcandy’s essay points out, Sansa seems to be the one most likely to fill that peacemaker role. We see her leadership when Cersei leaves during the Blackwater, and a willingness to pray for Tyrion despite her misery in the marriage. Pragmatically, she’s one of the few characters with a personal relationship with virtually every faction and probably the only one with a positive personal relationship to each faction. Her personality is a significant factor, but without the skill sets of her courtesy armor and Cat as a role model she couldn’t have survived to this point with so many potential allies among the North’s enemies. We’ve seen Sansa’s tendency to gauge marriage prospects since Game of Thrones, and continue to see it on her trip down from the Eyrie with Mya Stone and Lothor Brune. She seems inclined to find the best possible happiness within the restrictions of her station. We’ve seen how Robb’s first inclination was to consider assaulting the Twins rather than paying the toll; and he was also unwilling to trade Jaime for Sansa and Karstark preferred revenge for his sons’ deaths to getting his last son back. In both these cases, it was Cat who sought a peaceful alternative and Cat who preferred to let injustice stand so that her family might live. If Sansa parallels Cat’s path in this peacemaker regard, she may succeed in persuading other matriarchs and reach an accord that Catelyn could not with Cersei.
Gentle Mother, font of mercy,
save our sons from war, we pray,
stay the swords and stay the arrows,
let them know a better day.