Written before the release of the Alayne sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, the following essay is a provocative and detailed examination of the relationship between Sansa Stark and Jon Snow, two characters that we have seen grow and develop in significant ways throughout the series, with Martin establishing their leadership capabilities and commitment to the well-being of those under their care. Despite never interacting on the page up to this point in the narrative, Martin has been careful to suggest the ways in which Sansa draws inspiration from her older relative, and both are poised to undergo important transformations that involve (re)claiming their true identities.
As all worthwhile analyses should, this one stands the test of time, and it is quite revealing to explore how Martin extends some of the mythological allusions around Sansa that the essay outlined after we meet her again as Alayne in TWOW. When she ventures into the vaults to find Petyr Baelish, it can be read as a symbolic descent into the underworld as a Persephone figure, where Littlefinger offers ambiguous reassurance that “the night belongs to you, sweetling, remember that, always.” It is a tantalising quote that may allude more to Sansa’s upcoming role as winter descends upon Westeros rather than her mere stimulating experience at the tourney feast. Furthermore, Littlefinger is seeking to hoard food as the winter approaches, using the Stark words in a moment of bitter irony as he tells Lords Grafton and Belmore “winter is coming” in order to justify his plans. In fitting with the entire LF/Sansa dynamic, this is a perversion of the myth as it is Persephone’s emergence from the underworld that causes the earth to bear fruit again. All things considered, we can expect that LF’s attempts at entrapment and control will ultimately fail. Sansa’s connection to her Stark identity is continually reasserted in the sample chapter through her thoughts and memories, and if the night truly belongs to her as Littlefinger promises, it could prove to be much longer and deadlier for those who have betrayed the Starks of Winterfell.
Sansa and Jon are, as far as I can tell, the only two Starks we never actually see interact in “present” time, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence from a literary standpoint. Everything we know of their past interactions comes via someone’s reminiscences, so each is present in the other’s life, but only in the past, never in the present. If Jon and Sansa meet in the future, it will doubtless come across to readers, in a very real way, as their very first meeting. Given the changes they’ve both undergone since their last meeting, that type of dynamic makes a certain amount of literary sense.
At the beginning of the series, Jon and Sansa seemed to sit at two opposite ends of the “Stark” children’s cultural spectrum: Sansa is viewed by other characters as the most culturally “southern” of the children, (and she did initially seem to value “southern” courtly culture more than Northern culture), while Jon is viewed as the most culturally “Northern” of the Starks because he does not associate with southern-based institutions. Sansa was the Stark child most heavily and explicitly associated with the Faith of the Seven (she was always with her septa and she’s the Stark child we see actually worshiping in the sept the most), while Jon was, at the beginning of the series, the most heavily associated with the Old Gods (given that he’s the only one of the children who does not keep the Faith at all, not to mention Ghost’s physical resemblance to a weirwood tree). Of the boys, Jon looks the most like Ned, while Sansa looks the most (out of the girls) like Catelyn—superficially, readers were encouraged, in the beginning, to associate Sansa and Jon with two different “regions”, one with the South and one with the North.
In AGOT, Sansa and Jon occupied two very different, inherently non-overlapping worlds, and each person’s understanding of how “the world” worked implicitly contained no real “place” for the other. By that I mean: Jon loved to fight, occupied a world in which fighting was the primary activity, and at the beginning had a great deal of difficulty interacting with people incapable of fighting. Look at his initial attitude toward Tyrion as well as the other Watch recruits, for example. Sansa is the one Stark child inherently incapable of fighting. She loved knitting, dancing, listening to singers, things that Jon had no use for—there was no room for Sansa in Jon’s “world”.
And Sansa’s “world” contained no real “place” for Jon. She believed that knighthood and its accompanying (southern) chivalric code were the celebrated foundations of the world, and interpreted everything she saw through that cultural lens. Sansa knew her “world of chivalry” clearly viewed a bastard like Jon with suspicion, and because of that, I think Sansa probably had difficulty holding what seemed like two contradictory notions in her head: on the one hand, Jon was her brother, raised along with her and someone she never seemed to have any open conflicts with (unlike Arya, for example), and on the other hand, as the occupier of a “place” (bastard) that her social code condemned.
Now, I think it’s worth noting that, although bastards have far lesser status in Westerosi society, there are “places” that can be carved out for them nonetheless, especially for paternally-acknowledged highborn bastards like Jon: we’re told that bastards have served in the Kingsguard, a bastard (Sam Stone) serves as Master-At-Arms for House Royce of Runestone, a bastard ends up on Cersei’s Small Council, at least one bastard served as Hand of the King, bastards freely join the Citadel and the Faith, etc., etc. But the issue with Jon is that Sansa, during AGOT, pretty clearly viewed knighthood as the central aspect of a man’s worth. To “properly” occupy an honored place in “Sansa’s world”, Jon would have to first be a knight—not just a fighter, but an actual anointed knight, with all of the accompanying chivalric duties and responsibilities. (Look at how she thinks about Jory vs. how she thinks of Alyn in AGOT for an illustration of this.) Jon clearly had the fighting ability to attain knighthood, but unlike the other Starks, he has never kept the Seven at all. Knighthood was never a real possibility for him, as it was for Robb/Bran/Rickon, and presumably Sansa recognized that. I think it was difficult for her, especially early on, to really find a positive place for Jon in her understanding of the world, because he obviously couldn’t be a septon, he couldn’t join the Citadel (she would have recognized Jon wasn’t exactly a bookworm), he was not in line for lordship, and he wasn’t going to be a knight . . . but deep down she loved him nonetheless. So what was he? Where did he fit? How could she believe that knighthood and chivalry were the cornerstones of her society while simultaneously having a relationship with her non-knight bastard brother? I think this is why Sansa was, in the beginning, so very, very keen on pointing out Jon’s exact relationship to her: her half-brother, a bastard. I think deep down Jon really confused her, and this was her way of repeatedly clarifying to herself exactly who Jon was, of seeking a measure of control over a relationship that must have confuzzled her greatly, because its very existence contradicted her understanding of how the world was supposed to work.
Because while Jon and Sansa seemed to have the most “distant” relationship of the Stark children, it’s pretty clear that Jon and Sansa did always love each other deep down. At the Wall, Jon mentioned that he missed Sansa. In ADWD, when he thinks of his lost siblings, right before he starts making plans to head to Winterfell, an image of Sansa brushing Lady’s coat and singing is included. And even in AGOT, though Sansa rarely thought about Jon, when he did enter her thoughts we saw her seem to subconsciously want Jon to occupy a “positive” position in her understanding of the world order. We know from Jon that Sansa tried to teach him how to talk to girls, and though he mentions that she always called him her “half”-brother, there’s no indication she tried to ignore or insult him, as other trueborn children might have done to a bastard. Her love for him was clearly not as “free” as Arya’s love for him was—Sansa’s world of chivalry and knighthood was a stumbling block to such a relationship, so it’s easy for readers to overlook that she did love him. But even in AGOT, look at her reaction to Yoren:
She had always imagined the Night’s Watch to be men like Uncle Benjen. In the songs, they were called the black knights of the Wall. But this man had been crookbacked and hideous, and he looked as though he might have lice. If this was what the Night’s Watch was truly like, she felt sorry for her bastard half-brother, Jon.
It’s easy for readers to focus on her calling Jon her “bastard half-brother” here, but if we look a little deeper, we notice how she also thinks to herself that the singers called the Watch “the black knights of the Wall”. This is important because we know what a huge premium Sansa was putting on the idea of knighthood. Though religion seemingly prevents Jon from attaining knighthood, Sansa seemed to subconsciously look for a loophole there, and found one in the songs: her beloved singers could “grant” Jon a sort of honorary knighthood as a member of the Watch, so that is the route her thoughts took.
(And here we also see that Jon and Sansa, though superficially incredibly divergent, actually did look at the world in somewhat similar ways: each believed in the stories and songs, in honor–just different stories and different methods of honor. Each believed Benjen Stark was the prototypical Watchman. Jon believed all Watchmen were true and honorable, Sansa believed all knights were true and honorable. They each had specific ideas about how a specific place was supposed to be (the Wall and the South), and each of them had those ideas dashed by reality.)
As ASOIAF has progressed, we’ve seen Jon and Sansa slip into each other’s roles, into each other’s shoes. Jon becomes a Lord in ASOS, the same book in which Sansa ceases “being” a Lady. Robb disinherited Sansa at the same time (if the will says what many suspect it does) that he declared he wanted Jon to inherit. Becoming Alayne meant Sansa became a bastard, just like Jon, (and Jon could very well have been declared trueborn by Robb’s will, which would mean that Sansa “became” a bastard and Jon “became” a trueborn Stark). Sansa began her story by loving singers, and has progressed toward disliking them (Marillion), while Jon initially seemed to have no use for singers . . . until he met the singer Mance Rayder. The Littlefinger/Lysa/Sansa dynamic played out almost as a vicious, over-the-top caricature of the Ned/Catelyn/Jon dynamic, with Sansa forced to literally stand in a (heavily skewed and sensationalized) version of Jon’s shoes: Catelyn saw Jon as a living representation of another woman that she feared Ned loved more than her, and Lysa saw Sansa as a living representation of Catelyn, the woman that Lysa (rightly) feared Littlefinger loved more than her. Sansa seemed to have a much closer relationship with her mother than with her father (the exact opposite of Jon), but “Alayne” had a much “closer” relationship with Littlefinger than with Lysa—Sansa takes on with Littlefinger (a much skeevier version of) the relatively close father/child relationship that Jon had with Ned.
In her final chapter of AFFC, Sansa thinks to herself:
She had not thought of Jon in ages.
Or so Sansa tells herself. But I think there’s a pretty good chance Sansa had actually been subconsciously thinking about Jon ever since she took on the Alayne Stone identity, because Sansa seems to be subconsciously patterning her “Alayne Stone” persona around Jon Snow. Sansa wants “Alayne” to be 14 years old, because “She had decided that Alayne Stone should be older than Sansa Stark”. How old was Jon the last time Sansa saw him? 14 years old. She becomes worried at the prospect of dancing, because she seems to think that, for some unexplained reason, Alayne Stone might not enjoy dancing:
What would she do when the music began to play? It was a vexing question, to which her heart and head gave different answers. Sansa loved to dance, but Alayne…
Dancing is a pretty popular activity among women of all social classes and we know it’s an activity very close to Sansa’s heart, given that she was able to dance even at her own terrible wedding. But then in ADWD we discover that Jon does not appear to enjoy dancing—he refuses to dance with Alys, and Alys teases him about it when she brings up previous dances they were forced to dance together at Winterfell. If Sansa is subconsciously patterning “Alayne” on Jon Snow, then the fact that she’s concerned that Alayne might not enjoy dancing makes quite a bit of sense, given that Jon’s apparent dislike of dancing seems like the sort of thing Sansa would have picked up on. (In other words, if “Alayne” is patterned after Jon Snow, then the “real” reason Sansa fears Alayne won’t like dancing is because Sansa knows Jon, on whom Alayne is molded, dislikes dancing.) Sansa thinks of Alayne as “bastard-brave”, and since she barely knows Mya, what bastard does Sansa want Alayne to be as brave as? The obvious answer is Jon. And we see “Alayne” take on the type of caregiver role with Sweetrobin that the other Stark children (Bran and Arya, especially) seem to have associated with Jon, a role that Sansa herself seemed to take on with people like Beth Cassel and Jeyne Poole in Winterfell, but not with her own younger siblings.
He was only her half-brother, but still… with Robb and Bran and Rickon dead, Jon Snow was the only brother that remained to her. I am a bastard too now, just like him. Oh, it would be so sweet, to see him once again.
This is Sansa’s thought process once Myranda Royce tells her about Jon’s new position as Lord Commander of the Watch. If I’m correct and she’s had Jon on the brain throughout AFFC, then this right here actually serves as a breakthrough for her, because Sansa goes from subconsciously longing for Jon to explicitly longing for Jon. And her thought process here is a pretty useful distillation of how far Sansa’s come from AGOT, a semi-culmination of her ideological journey thus far: the main issues she once had with Jon—that he was a bastard, that he didn’t “fit” the world of knights and chivalry that Sansa loved—have been essentially nullified. She starts out with the “old” Sansa’s thought patterns (“He was only her half-brother”), but then she immediately (and pretty substantially) switches gears and starts openly longing to see Jon again, expressly thinking about how she’s now a bastard too. The ideological barriers between them are basically gone.
Indeed, Sansa’s entire arc had been bringing her closer and closer, ideologically, to the forces (winter, the North, and the Old Gods) represented by Jon. Sansa started out in AGOT preferring the Faith of the Seven, loving knighthood, loving the south, and losing her direwolf. By AFFC, we see her (far) more heavily associated with the Old Gods, favoring a non-knight (the Hound), and in an overall sense, switching gears from the epitomization of a “summer’s child” to (IMO) someone on the path to becoming a “winter’s child”. Jon and Sansa become the Starks who we see most heavily drawing their inner strength from the cold and the snow: Jon mentions on more than one occasion that Ghost loves the snow, we see Jon frequently seeking out the cold (not the heat) at the Wall. We see Sansa literally drawing strength from the snow and the cold at the Eyrie. In the beginning of AGOT, Sansa wanted only to be a queen in the hot south. By AFFC, we see her building a scale model of Winterfell and drawing spiritual strength from the forces of winter.
Given the way Sansa seems to have been sliding more and more “toward” Jon as her arc has progressed—given the way her arc has been bringing her closer to him both ideologically and thematically—I wonder what implications Jon’s stabbing (and the potential future that stabbing could bring for him) have for Sansa’s future. Because the myth of Persephone looms large over both Jon and Sansa, and given what happened to Jon at the end of ADWD, I’m very, very curious what GRRM has in store for Sansa’s arc, especially now that winter has come.
Both Jon and Sansa encounter “the pomegranate”: Sansa is offered a literal pomegranate by Littlefinger, while Jon’s rulership arc in ADWD was confronted at every turn by the Old Pomegranate, Bowen Marsh. The pomegranate, in Greek mythology, is what causes Persephone to become Queen of the Dead in perpetuity, and it’s the reason winter comes in the first place—winter, in Greek mythology, being viewed as Demeter’s grief at her separation from her daughter when Persephone descends every year to rule in the Underworld. The pomegrante causes Persephone to undertake two disparate roles, to become a creature of two separate worlds: she is both the Goddess of Spring and the Queen of the Underworld simultaneously (and concurrently), she rules in both the sunlight and the darkness. That idea—of a person moving between two contradictory spheres of existence, of a person gaining strength by a capacity to move between the darkness and the light—is a theme GRRM has played around with in other works, so there’s an excellent chance he’s exploring it in ASOIAF as well.
Both Jon and Sansa choose to reject “the pomegranate”: Jon rejects the Old Pomegranate’s demands for the future of the Watch, Sansa rejects Littlefinger’s attempt to have her eat an actual pomegranate. But look at what happened to Jon in ADWD: he refused to acquiese to the Old Pomegranate’s wishes, but the Old Pomegranate would not quietly accept rejection, choosing to physically attack him: there’s been a lot of speculation on these boards that the attack on Jon will lead to some death-based transformation, that he (like Persephone) might find himself transformed (and possibly occupying a new leadership role) because of the Old Pomegranate. GRRM apparently had some Sansa chapters prepared for ADWD, but he pushed them back to TWOW. I’m very curious about what those chapters contained.
Because winter has now come, and in winter, Persephone rules over the dead. Sansa’s arc has tracked Persephone in some pretty substantial ways: at the beginning of AGOT, when summer was in swing, she was the Stark most heavily associated with the warmth and frivolity of the South, just as Persephone was the flower-loving Goddess of Spring; Sansa was forced to marry, against her will, a man heavily associated with worldly wealth (in Greek mythology, Hades is associated with wealth because gold, silver, and jewels are drawn from beneath the ground, and Hades of course rules the Underworld). As winter approaches, Sansa loses her childlike innocence and naivete. And winter has now hit Westeros, and will presumably hit with a vengeance during TWOW—so what will Sansa become in the winter? Where winter is a time of imprisonment for Persephone, with spring/summer freeing her to walk the warm world above, it seems that summer was a time of imprisonment for Sansa, and winter might end up freeing her. And the story of Persephone ends with Persephone holding dominion over the dead during the winter. This might be a hint toward our pomegranate-associated characters’ future, especially given the heavy associations both Jon and Sansa have with the living dead. (With Jon, those associations are obvious—he’s a living man who wears black, his direwolf is named Ghost, he’s fighting wights. With Sansa, the associations are less obvious but no less profound: Sansa’s direwolf is dead (and since the Starks “are” their direwolves, Sansa is both alive and dead simultaneously because part of her is dead while part of her lives on), Littlefinger associates her with Catelyn reborn (and Catelyn has literally become the walking dead), not to mention the Hound: “The Hound is dead” we are told, and this “dead man” of course hated fire—I doubt it’s a coincidence that this description of the Hound, as a walking dead man who hates fire, sounds quite a bit like a wight.)
And then there’s this bit from AFFC:
All around was empty air and sky, the ground falling away sharply to either side. There was ice underfoot, and broken stones just waiting to turn an ankle, and the wind was howling fiercely. It sounds like a wolf, thought Sansa. A ghost wolf, big as mountains.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that AFFC and ADWD were originally meant to be one super-book. Could Sansa have been “sensing” Jon’s “death” here? Is the “ghost wolf” Ghost? Or is there a hint here for Sansa herself? She’s become a Stone, and she’s been told that a stone is a mountain’s daughter. The cold winds are howling, and she thinks the cold winds are becoming a ghost wolf—is Sansa, she of the dead direwolf, en route to her own eventual death and resurrection?
(*Originally published in Pawn to Player as part of our Male Influences project.)