“life is not a song, sweetling. You may learn that one day to your sorrow.”
Synopsis: Sansa talks with Jeyne Poole about her father’s actions last chapter, gets creeped on by Littlefinger, gets into a fight with Arya, argues with her father about being sent back to Winterfell, and helps uncover the last piece in the puzzle of Jon Arryn’s investigations.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Sansa III is going to be a bit of a short recap, because much of the chapter is a recap of Sansa’s perspective during Eddard XI so that not that much new happens. However, GRRM does further develop a number of interesting themes.
First, the theme of romanticism, which I’ve discussed at length in the previous two Sansa chapters. At this point in her life, Sansa thinks that Loras should be the one sent out after Ser Gregor because he “even looked a true hero, so slim and beautiful,” that men aged twenty-two are too old to be heroes, and it’s wrong for someone as “old and smelly” as Yoren to be a member of the Night’s Watch (even though as we’ll see, Yoren is one of the most selfless, and characteristically unseen, heroes of the series). What’s new here is a sense of agency in this romanticism – Sansa is not merely recapitulating the lessons she’s learned, but rather actively trying to re-write reality to fit the stories she prefers, in this case inventing a dream in which Joffrey hunts the white hart. However, as we’ll see, reality always creeps in at the edges of Sansa’s romanticism, as by this point Sansa is darkly aware that “Joffrey liked hunting, especially the killing part,” although she remains in denial about his more homocidal tendencies.
I think this is why we have this moment where Lord Baelish suddenly appears, almost like the serpent in Eden, to creep on her while offering some of the benefits of adulthood (the right to question her elders) and some of the harsher lessons – that “life is not a song, sweetling. You may learn that one day to your sorrow.” This meeting is even more disturbing in retrospect, given that Baelish is actively working to destroy her family, attempted to get Sansa’s hand in marriage, and is currently grooming her in many unpleasant ways. In his own way, Littlefinger is a dark satire of Sansa’s outlook, someone whose obsession with Catelyn Stark both as a romantic conquest to be recreated in Sansa’s person and as one of the architects of the destruction of his own romantic story and therefore someone whose families he intends to destroy lies just underneath his pretense at cool, cynical rationality.
I also think this approach to reality explains something of the conflict between Arya and Sansa in this chapter. Arya doesn’t really fit into Sansa’s model; she’s a highborn lady who doesn’t look or act like a highborn lady, and for Sansa this gets rolled up into a role as someone who “tries to spoil everything…she can’t stand for anything to be beautiful or nice or splended,” in part because her appearance is a reminder of the rudeness of real life, ratty clothes and skinned knees and all, and because she keeps insisting on unpleasant truths about the world – and about Joffrey – that don’t fit into Sansa’s stories.
Secondly, the ongoing story of Eddard’s investigation comes to a climax. We get the moment at which Eddard figures out the truth of Joffrey’s birth, thanks to Sansa’s insistence that “he’es not the least bit like that old drunken king,” and the moment when Sansa decides to inform on her father to Cersei. Realizing that Joffrey is not Robert’s son, Eddard seeks to do exactly what Jon Arryn sought to do when he reached the same point in his investigation, only for both men to be undone from within. We see in this chapter Sansa’s motivations for running to Cersei (probably Sansa’s most significant action in the book), to prevent the loss of her romantic dream of the life she wants to lead, but the question of the impact of her decision to do so remains one of the more hotly contested issues in the fandom.
So what did Sansa’s actions result in?
- Eddard’s defeat by Cersei? No. Cersei is informed of Eddard’s intentions by Eddard, and it was Littlefinger who provided the muscle for her coup (or counter-coup). Sansa probably gave her advance notice of Eddard’s intention to act, but it was notice she was going to get in any case, and Cersei’s main plan to murder Robert and install her son on the Iron Throne was basically underway.
- Sansa’s capture and Arya’s escape? Probably. After all, Sansa didn’t know and couldn’t have told Cersei that Eddard had realized the truth of Cersei’s incestuous adultery (she finds that out from Eddard), his dealings with Littlefinger and Renly hadn’t happened yet, and thus the details of Eddard’s planned coup couldn’t have been given away. However, what could have been given away is that Eddard was planning to get Sansa and Arya away – thus, when the coup is underway, Lannister soldiers are on hand just as the Stark household is planning to leave, with agents in place at the Tower of the Hand and at the docks where the Wind Witch was waiting to take them to White Harbor. If this hadn’t happened, it’s quite possible that Sansa, Arya and the rest of the Stark household would have been out of the city when Eddard was captured.
- Eddard’s death? No. It’s pretty damn clear that this came out of Joffrey’s own cracked brains, and Sansa shouldn’t be held accountable for it. Sansa was responsible for the offer of clemency being offered, which got Eddard out of the dungeons long enough to “confess,” but given Littlefinger’s likely role in persuading Joffrey to execute her father, it’s quite likely that had Eddard remained schtum in Sansa’s absence, that Littlefinger would have probably had him murdered in his cell in order to prevent an exchange of hostages from ending the hostilities between Stark and Lannister (however momentarily – once Eddard’s released, he’s going to go to war on behalf of Stannis).
On a sidenote, it’s interesting that Sansa has a kind of waking wolf dream about Lady at this point. Honestly, I find the warging subplot one of the more opaque and less interesting in the series, and I don’t think that Sansa’s turnaround is going to be related to her warging abilities, but it’s an open question that people should feel free to talk about in the comments.
The white hart (a hart is an archaic term for a stag) has a deep background in mythology and folklore – Quintus Sertorius, the great Roman general turned rebel, famously owned a white deer that he claimed to be a gift from the goddess Diana who would utter prophecies to him; the Celts believed that the white hart was a messenger from the “otherworld” that would appear when taboos were about to be violated, as a symbol of purity; in Hungarian mythology, the white stag leads the brothers Hugor and Magor to Scythia, founding the Hunnic and Magyar peoples. The early Christians latched on to this iconography like they did so many symbols, such that Saint Eustace (a martyred Roman general) sees a crucifix between the antlers of a white stag and converts.
Medieval storytellers of Arthurian legends mixed all of these pagan and Christian traditions together into something more recognizable from Sansa’s stories – the white hart appears in the forests around Camelot, inducing Arthur’s knights to chase after it, but the beast is incredibly difficult to hunt down, and instead leads the knights to some other objective. Sir Percival chases a white hart into the domain of the wounded Fisher King so that the land can be healed (although in another book he kills a white hart); Sir Gawaine chases another white hart that appears at the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, but ends up dishonoring himself when he kills a lady in the hunt.
Given the historical allusions to innocence, and the eventual fate of the white hart (to be discussed later) in this book, I wonder its appearance at this point of the narrative is meant to suggest the innocence of the realm that’s about to be lost in the ensuing War of Five Kings.
There’s really only one hypothetical question here: what if Sansa doesn’t go to Cersei? As I’ve discussed above, this alternate timeline does not mean that Eddard’s attempted coup is going to succeed, but it probably means that Sansa and Arya get away from the city. This has some very interesting consequences:
- Without Sansa in captivity, Eddard doesn’t make a confession. This doesn’t mean that he’s going to have a dramatic scene where he gets to publicly reveal everything he knows to the people of King’s Landing – Cersei isn’t that stupid and isn’t going to have Eddard in public without assurances that he’s going to keep his mouth shut about the truth – or that that denunciation would have been believed and acted upon. But it would mean that his death would be delayed, and the timing of his death is important, because a week later comes Robb Stark’s victory at Riverrun and Jaime’s capture. In that scenario, Cersei is going to be extremely careful about keeping Eddard alive and well to trade for Jaime- a trade that might actually work.
I don’t think it happens – Littlefinger needs Eddard dead in order to keep the war going, so Eddard probably dies in his cell – but that does change things. Instead of Eddard dying at Joffrey’s hands, he instead dies mysteriously. That’s not going to change how Robb and Catelyn are going to view the situation, but it would change how the Lannisters view the event. Instead of being a regrettable failure that nonetheless has to be publicly endorsed since it’s the King who did it, it’s now a reason to look inwards for who was responsible for their hostage’s death. And that could have all manner of consequences.
- Sansa and Arya probably make it to White Harbor. Now, it’s an open question about whether Eddard sends a letter with them detailing the truth of his investigations, but let’s say he does. Firstly, this changes the politics of the Stark war effort; if they know about Eddard’s wishes regarding the true king, the Starks aren’t going to go for the King in the North, which is helpful in terms of making alliances, but at the same time they’re probably committed to Stannis. Stannis probably has a much easier time getting support from the Stormlands, etc. if he’s got a substantial northern army backing him, and his letter is more likely to be believed if Eddard’s letter corroborates his arguments, which weakens Joffrey’s and Renly’s standing as claimants to the Iron Throne. Incidentally, this also means that Robb doesn’t approach Balon with his proposal for an alliance, since he wouldn’t be thinking in terms of secession; although whether that stops an invasion or just the capture of Winterfell is up for debate.
The biggest change here is probably to Sansa and Arya’s trajectories, and a bit less so to Catelyn’s. Both Sansa and Arya are spared a huge amount of trauma (seeing their father executed, being viciously abused by Joffrey, being hunted and seeing the worst of the war in the Riverlands, etc.), but their character development becomes an open question. Sansa will be slower to abandon romantic tropes and Arya’s turn to the dark side gets short-circuited if she never goes to Harrenhal and she remains under Syrio Forel’s tutelage. The hypothetical plotline of Sansa’s betrothal to Willas Tyrell might well become a reality, especially after Renly’s death when Robb is greatly in need of allies; Arya might be engaged, although in hand she’s probably too valuable to be wasted on a Frey. What is likely is that Catelyn is much more likely to remain in the North since all four of her younger children are up there – in all likelihood, this greatly improves the North’s response to the Ironborn attack (assuming this happens), but it also possibly butterflies away Catelyn’s negotiations with Walder Frey, her journey to Bitterbridge and Storm’s End, and much of Brienne’s storyline and Jaime’s for that matter.
Book vs. Show:
The show excises a lot of this material, which makes sense since a lot of it is inside Sansa’s head, and cuts directly to Eddard telling Sansa and Arya they’re about to leave. It also adds a scene where Joffrey brings Sansa a present to make up for his anger towards her (albeit on his mother’s instructions), which I actually think works rather well to remind the audience of what she sees in Joffrey and why she might turn to Cersei in desperation.
On the other hand, we don’t get as much the idea of Sansa’s romanticism in general – as opposed to how it narrowly applies to Joffrey and her future with him – and we lose the interaction between her and Littlefinger, the latter of which especially would have been especially useful for future character development.