How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways,” was my reaction to Sansa throughout much of A Game of Thrones. Well, no, not loathe, that’s a bit strong, I’ve never wished her to go die in a fire, but I shan’t deny that the Sansa of the first book was as annoying as all get out.
First of all,
Sansa racks up a fairly sizable count of things that go wrong because of her naivety and/or her overwhelming desire to marry a boy that she really should have recognised as being bad news.
Which are really only two in number: 1) keeping silent when being quizzed about the whole kerfuffle down by the river and 2) blabbing to Cersei about Ned’s plans. But, they are still fairly big screw-ups. I can still remember thinking ‘This is all your fault’ rather hard at Sansa after I’d finished reading the execution of Ned.
This, ladies and gents, was the sucker punch of Martin killing someone who’d seemed, up until then, to be his main character. In some small way this could be laid at Sansa’s door, but it was oh so much more the fault of the men and woman who’d manipulated her, as well as Joffrey’s fault for being…Joffrey.
Sansa screwed up, yes. Frankly a lot of people screw up in these books. Ned’s own particular huge mistake pretty much seals his fate even before Sansa runs to Cersei. Catelyn makes things infinitely worse when she nabs Tyrion. Stannis and Jon Arryn messed up their whole investigation into Robert’s bastards, setting the Lannisters on their tale.
These are grown men and a grown woman. Sansa is eleven, going on twelve, and in both the case of the wolf and of running to Cersei she’s under immense pressure and has a fervent desire to achieve the goal of marrying her handsome prince. More experienced, if not necessarily wiser, people have made mistakes before her, and they’re going to be making mistakes after her.
So, my exasperation at her mistakes assuaged, for the most part, I’ll move on to another aspect about Sansa that used to annoy me:
Sansa is written as desiring things that would appeal to a privileged eleven year old girl who liked that sort of thing. She adores songs and stories and beautiful clothes, she dreams of attending tournaments, she sews, she plays the harp, she is the Classic Princess that Martin brutally deconstructs.
Fair enough, I understand that. I could even identify with it. Apart from the attention she pays to clothes and the musical ability, neither of which have ever been a large factor in my life, I was rather like Sansa when I was eleven. Except that, instead of sewing and such, I’d spend a whole lot of time reading and imagining and not wanting to be disturbed.
But I was also rather like Arya, in that I was the younger of two sisters and heavily into sports and being outdoors a lot; I lived for playtime and was heartbroken when I went to senior school and learned playtime was no longer an option. I used to combine the two by making up stories for myself as I practised my tennis in the backyard.
Getting back to the point: the problem is that, though Sansa was written as an eleven year old girl with eleven year old likes and concerns, I thought at times that her concerns were too innocent for this time period. She seemed far too naive for the brutal and gritty medieval setting Martin had constructed. She acted like a child in a period where childhood ended at an appallingly early age when compared to today. By medieval standards, Sansa’s practically an adult, since the laws tended to designate adulthood started along with puberty; 12 for girls, 14 for boys.
Surely, I thought – as Sansa giggled over strawberry pies and didn’t twig as to what had happened to Jeyne Poole – a real medieval noblewoman, at this age, would not act like…this. Surely she would also not use the words ‘nice and pretty’, I’ll warrant. ‘Nice and pretty like the songs’. Sansa’s naivety offended my all-knowing sensibilities, because I was clearly right and Martin was clearly wrong.
(Also, can I just interject something here, because this still really irritates me even now; after everyone else has been killed, including her father, Jeyne’s no longer there when you return to your rooms. What is wrong with you, girl? That was your best friend and you’re not even concerned about what might have happened to her? No, you just curl up with a book of stories. I mean, sheesh.)
Once I’d cooled down I recalled that, despite the harsh life that a lot of people led six hundred years ago, even when it came to the nobility, there was also a lot of escapism among those who had the luxury to indulge in it. Which, again, were the nobility. Noble and wellborn ladies were at least as obsessed with tournaments as their knights were – the church tried repeatedly to ban such occasions because of the fighting they glorified and the base emotions they inspired, which shows you just how popular they were. And it takes two to tango in the realms of courtly love.
Sansa might have been brought up in the harsh North but that doesn’t necessarily mean the harshness rubbed off on her. Catelyn came from the South, and the stories she told her daughters had their effect because Sansa was soon dreaming of all the…shudder…‘nice’ things in the songs and stories.
Who are we to blame her for that?
Everyone daydreams. Everyone. Even if your life, compared to that of a person’s six hundred years ago, is a relative paradise, you’ll still daydream on occasion.
In spite of the world she grew up in, Sansa’s naivety and idealisation of Joffrey soon makes a melancholy sense; she hit the jackpot with Joffrey and she knows it, and she’s ecstatic at her wonderful fortune. If things had been different she might well have been betrothed to someone old enough to be her father, or someone who already had a whole brood of bastard children, or someone who’d beat her.
Look at them, look at Joffrey. Back to them, back to Joffrey. If you were an eleven year old, heterosexual girl obsessed with courtly love and stories and such – who knows she’ll have to marry someone no matter what – which would you pick at first glance?
With the prince, the future king of the Seven Kingdoms, who’s comely and charming…sort of, to boot, as her betrothed, Sansa is in heaven. Naturally she’s going to want to fight for it tooth and nail, and even do silly damaging things to achieve that goal. She’ll attack anything that intrudes on that dream which, yes, includes her little sister.
True, she was frankly obnoxious about putting most of the blame of Lady’s death on Arya, but how rational is she really supposed to be? In her mind she didn’t do anything wrong, nor did Lady, so why should she suffer because Arya behaved like a disrespectful idiot and hurt her golden prince? If I was punished for something my sister did to a person I liked a lot, or vice versa, I’d want to kill her. No joke, we were violent girls.
This, in turn, leads to the next problem I had with Sansa:
Compared to Arya, she never actually did much.
I had something of a point with this one at least. Sansa in the first book is very much a reactionary character, while Arya is an acting character. While Sansa mostly experiences and suffers things, Arya strikes out and does things like:
- fight Joffrey,
- have ‘dancing lessons’,
- explore throughout the castle and catch cats,
- escape the guards,
- kill the stable boy,
- survive in Flea Bottom for weeks,
- try to save her father(the key word being try, of course…)
Sansa, by contrast, would often watch a thing happen and endure the consequences, or even the backlash. She does go before the small council, and before Joffrey to plead for Ned’s life, but at the rather rushed time (I was so annoyed with Sansa by this point I was actually skimreading her sections, I know, I’m horrible) I was not impressed. Arya was the one I cared about at this stage in the game, and I wanted to know what’d happened to her.
I can see now that this attitude was a very unfair one to take, both towards Sansa and toward G.R.R. Martin. I actually think that all the fantasy books I read while growing up spoiled Sansa for me for a while, and even spoiled my perceptions of female protagonists at the time as well.
Because I grew up reading about girls that helped free Narnia and ruled as queens. I read about a girl that lied and spat and fought like a tiger, and who travelled between worlds to become the new Eve. I read about girls who grew up on the American prairies and helped with homesteads. I read about girls who became princesses by working hard to deserve it. I read about a girl who was top of her year and helped defeat the Dark Lord (although, to be fair, I was in my very late teens when that finally happened). I read about girls who dressed up as boys to go on adventures. I read about girls who guarded the living when the Dead arose. I read about girls who got stuff done and saved the day.
So I lapped up tough, rebellious Arya, and choked on dutiful, gentle Sansa. Because god forbid a heroine can do things and be heroic without having to pick up a weapon, or be rebellious and unhappy with their situation in life. ASOIAF has taught me a lot about how Martin seems to have a thing for mutilating characters’ hands, but also to appreciate the ‘woman’s courage’ that Sansa and her mother both possess.
So Sansa reacts rather than acts. She’s still learning to play the game of thrones.
And I’m sure we’ve all noticed that Arya doesn’t get very far with being rebellious and wielding Needle either.
Finally, my last problem with Sansa echoes an attitude in a far different genre. For visual reference I direct your attention to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Yes, I know, bit of a left turn, bear with me:
She found herself thinking of those same drive-in horror movie epics where the heroine goes venturing up the narrow attic stairs to see what’s frightening poor old Mrs Cobham so, or down into some dark, cobwebby cellar where the walls are rough, sweating stone…and she, with her date’s arm comfortably around her, thinking, What a silly bitch…I’d never do that! And here she was, doing it…
Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot, Illustrated Edition, Hodder, p366
Quite simply, I watched Sansa much as I’d watch someone in a horror film – which doesn’t happen too often; I love reading horror but I don’t like to watch it – and
I wanted her to do better.
Or imagined that I’d do better in her situation, that I’d be more sensible, that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes as her or act in such an idiotic way.
After the heat of the reading moment, do I still think that? Hell no. I don’t want to think about what I was like at eleven. Just as I probably wouldn’t survive in a horror film without a lot of dumb luck, Westeros would tear me apart and chew and spit me out. It’s incredible that Sansa’s even survived this far!
So, there you have it. Is Sansa by far my favourite character, now that I recognise Martin’s oh so clever and twisty use of her in terms of stories and unlikely heroines? Ah – no. I don’t have a number one favourite character when it comes to this series, since it’s such an ensemble piece.
But I am very interested and invested in seeing how her character ends up – assuming she survives.
I wouldn’t put it past him.