“It was not supposed to happen this way. She had to wed Joffrey…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.”
Synopsis: Sansa is summoned before the Queen and the Small Council and informed of her father’s treason. She is then browbeaten into sending a series of letters to her family to tell them to come to King’s Landing if they want to be seen as loyal.
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.
If Sansa I through Sansa III are a deconstruction of romantic medievalism, then Sansa IV is right at the boundary between the romantic illusion and the awakening to the horrific realities behind the fairy tale world of brave knights, beautiful maidens, and just kings and queens. And yet, Sansa hesitates at the threshold of enlightenment throughout the chapter even when one would think that the evidence of dead bodies piling up around her would require her to keep moving, which is a big part of why some people reading the books get so annoyed with Sansa (outside of those whose dislike is driven by misogyny).
However, as I’ve argued, Sansa is something of a stand-in for the reader as the subject of critique – just as Martin was impicitly saying that fantasy fans are like Sansa in that they prefer to believe in a make-believe world that ignores the inherent exploitation and inhumanity of the feudal system that’s part and parcel of the medieval world, I think Sansa’s actions here are at least in part critiquing people’s heroic fantasy of how they’d deal with crisis, and the subconscious fear that the reader would act like Sansa has a good deal to do with why some readers react so negatively to this part of her story.
Whether we’re talking about any number of historic atrocities or something as recent as the spree-shooter scenario, people want to believe that they’d be cool under fire, that they’d take down the shooter or stand up against tyranny, when the reality is…that people differ. In a crisis, some people act heroically (with no guarantee of success), some people act cowardly, some just freeze – and your chance of survival has much more to do with luck than any part of your character. And as we’ve seen over and over again, the reality is that people living in the midst of horror can and do delude themselves and buy into absurd fantasies rather than to confront the reality of their own helplessness.
But so intently do people need to believe that the human spirit always triumphs over adversity that it’s become a completely cliche element of origin stories. In some ways, both Arya and Sansa are critiques of this cliche – Arya gets the classic hero’s journey tropes (the sword, the mentor, the magic coin, etc.) but none of it gives her the self-knowledge that brings about agency and control over one’s environment; Sansa suffers the realistic scenario of victimization and passive survival.
We can see the slow arrival of reality in Sansa’s world throughout this chapter. The description of the battle for the Tower of the Hand focuses on the question of realism with laser-like precision: “somehow knowing that the fighting was real made all the difference in the world. She heard it as she had never heard it before, and there were other sounds as well, grunts of pain, angry curses, shouts for help, and the moans of wounded and dying men. In the stories the knights never screamed nor begged for mercy.” And yet, the Sansa that hears all of this still believes that Jeyne’s father is fine and that the queen will fix all of this, and sees Jeyne as a child for not understanding how the rules work. Likewise, after the second day of complete silence, Sansa still dreams of marrying King Joffrey. Finally, when her father’s situation is revealed to her, Sansa believes that her marriage to her “gallant prince” is the way things are supposed to happen and that everything can be fixed.
Sansa’s decision to agree to Cersei’s demands are ultimately motivated as much by her desire to keep believing in a world in which things happen the way they’re supposed to as they are by her desire to help her father, and the humanness of that choice is something that’s hard to accept.
Two Days of Silence
One curious thing that happens in Sansa IV is that there’s a strange period of two days when “the silence of the grave had settled over the Red Keep,” which is broken by the tolling of the bells for the death of King Robert – to the surprise of Sansa. This is somewhat puzzling; yes, Eddard hid the news about Robert’s death from his kids, but was it really a secret from the rest of King’s Landing?
In either case, why hide the evidence of Robert’s death – given that Cersei’s entire narrative of her counter-coup is that Eddard attempted to “steal Prince Joffrey’s rightful throne…the moment the king was dead.” Ned’s coup and Cersei’s counter-coup was hardly secret – if Sansa could hear the dying, pretty much everyone in the castle could do the same and it’s not unlikely that parts of the city could hear as well. Likewise, it’s completely impossible that someone out the hundreds of servants and Goldcloaks and Lannister guardsmen who witnessed the events didn’t spread the word about what happened, even in the form of unreliable gossip.
Moreover, I don’t understand what the utility of this decision was – the start date of reigns was historically vital, and kings were very particular about these things. Henry VII, for example, officially dated his reign from the day before the death of King Richard III at Bosworth Field in order to place everyone who had sided with the then-reigning monarch as traitors in law, allowing him power to fine and imprison them at his pleasure, thus aiding his drive to place the nobility of England under the heel of the monarch. I just don’t see how advancing the date of Robert’s death helps Cersei and Joffrey.
Or maybe I’m just over-analyzing an unimportant detail.
What’s much more important is Sansa’s interview with the queen and the heart of the Small Council (Littlefinger, Pycelle, Varys), the real meat of the chapter. It’s an interesting scene in part because it’s the first time that we see Cersei interacting with the core of the Small Council (Martin pointedly describes Littlefinger as sitting at Cersei’s left hand, Pycelle kept at the end of the table, and Varys hovering above), a political dynamic that will essentially dominate ASOIAF until Cersei’s being deposed in A Feast For Crows, and how the major conspirators are going to interact in “public” outside of Eddard Stark’s presence.
Littlefinger Be Creeping
Littlefinger’s presence here really defies the stereotype of the immaculate mastermind. To begin with, Littlefinger is openly creeping on Sansa, to the point where “she could feel Littlefinger staring. Something about the way the small man looked at her made Sansa feel as though she had no clothes on.” Even Cersei notices how weird he’s acting when he openly states that “she reminds me of the mother, not the father…Look at her. The hair, the eyes. She is the very image of Cat at the same age.” He might as well be carrying a cue-card around with him that says “I am obsessed with getting back teenage Catelyn Tully because I am not dealing well with teenage drama, and I am motivated by an intense desire to revenge myself against those who wronged me.” Hence his ludicrous comment that Eddard Stark’s sons don’t matter, but “Lady Catelyn and the Tullys” should be feared, yet more evidence that Littlefinger is not acting rationally here.
The second important thing he does is to take possession of Jeyne Poole, and the coolness with which Cersei basically sells a child into sex slavery as long as it’s not done “in the city,” is quite disturbing. However, the fact that Littlefinger asks for Jeyne Poole at this point is significant – he’s beginning to set up his plan for a fake Arya that will be put into effect in A Storm of Swords, over a year later. I honestly doubt that Littlefinger was planning to have the fake Arya married to the Boltons in order to expose her once he got Sansa married to Harry the Heir; rather, he was just thinking that a fake Arya would be useful in many different future scenarios (a potential peace offering to the Starks that would work long enough to get Jaime out of custody? a source of intelligence on Winterfell itself? a bargaining chip to win the support of a powerful unmarried lord to be named later?), especially if Arya was dead, and realized that he could manufacture Jeyne into something useful.
Finally, there’s an interesting little moment where he gets snippy with Cersei when she tells him to keep his sex-slaving out of the city, which brings up an interesting question: was this around the time that Littlefinger had asked for Sansa’s hand in marriage? We know from Cersei’s chapters in ADWD that Littlefinger asks around the time that Ned Stark is alive and in prison, but that Cersei turns him down because “he was much too lowborn.” Given that Littlefinger likely turns against Cersei at this point by influencing Joffrey into having Eddard Stark executed, it may well have been the case that what Littlefinger wanted in return for the Goldcloaks was Sansa’s hand in marriage (which, in combination with the later Harrenhal deal, would have allowed him to rise in the ranks of the nobility and protect himself if the Starks ended up on top). Cersei turns him down, which prompts Littlefinger to go to Plan B (have Ned executed, exacerbate the civil war, prevent Sansa from being traded away by Cersei).
* addendum: interestingly, Littlefinger stays out of the discussion about the letters altogether.
Pycelle the Bad Cop
As someone who’s one of the worst conspirators in King’s Landing and generally out-of-the-loop, Pycelle takes a very prominent role as Cersei’s bad cop – providing false testimony of Eddard’s treason, arguing against the marriage to Joffrey on the grounds that “a child born of traitor’s seed will find that betrayal comes naturally to her,” backing up Cersei on Sansa’s letters, and in general being an unctuous presence. And unlike Littlefinger and Varys, he’s largely unaware of the larger meta-conspiracies at work (outside of his suppositions about Cersei’s children and Jon Arryn).
What makes Pycelle’s presence here especially irritating is the sheer hypocrisy of his tirade against treason. After all, this is a maester who routinely breaks his vows of chastity, a doctor who violated the precept of “first, do no harm” by stopping an effective regimen and allowing Jon Arryn to die of neglect under his care, a member of the Small Council who repeatedly betrayed his vows of loyalty to the Iron Throne, first to King Aerys, then to Jon Arryn and Ned Stark.
Varys Playing the Long Game
As is his wont, Varys holds back for the most part – he’s the first one to declare Ned Stark a traitor, a clear sign that he’s accepted the new regime at least publicly, but unlike Cersei and Pycelle, he doesn’t verbally work over Sansa to get her to agree. He shows some sympathy to Sansa, but from a position of “helpless distress,” and doesn’t get in the way of Cersei’s objective here.
Interestingly, we know that Varys has got his hands on Eddard Stark’s seal – which is something that hasn’t really come up much, but could be potentially quite valuable down the road. Given Varys’ skills at mummery and forgery (back when he was “returning” people’s letters in Pentos), he could easily produce a carefully edited version of Ned Stark’s “last testament” backing up Tommen’s bastardy as a way to discredit the Lannister/Baratheon claim on King’s Landing just as Aegon VI brings his army to bear.
What’s curious about Cersei’s gambit here is how much effort she’s putting in to browbeating a child into sending these letters – after all, if the larger point (as Catelyn will describe it later) is to remind Robb and Catelyn that she’s got Sansa and Eddard under her thumb in order to cow them into quiescence, she could easily send that letter herself without the need for this playacting.
Indeed, her whole strategy here is a bit odd – to give Cersei credit, she’s at least suggesting the outline of a modus vivendi (that they’ll let Ned go and marry Sansa to Joffrey if the Starks play nice) rather than attempting all-out war against both the Baratheons and the Starks. However, her modus vivendi couldn’t possibly stick.
To begin with, as Cersei well knows from her father, a Great House simply cannot allow their members to be treated like this – to allow the Lannisters to assault their head of house and then arrest him, to hold their children captive, is to announce to the world that House Stark is weak and can be attacked without retaliation. Moreover, there’s the fact that Tywin and Jaime have attacked the Riverlands – the extended family of the Stark has spilled blood and lost lands, treasure, and men to the Lannisters, and that’s equally hard to ignore. And there’s also the fact that Arya is still missing and Cersei can’t give her back, which is rather crucial.
At the same time, Cersei knows that Stannis is out there and Renly’s escaped to Highgarden – if Eddard lives and heads for the Night’s Watch, the word is going to get back to Robb and Catelyn about the whole incest thing. Given what Cersei’s done to their family, they’re going to believe the worst about him, especially if Ned’s willing to bend his honor enough to confirm when they hear from Stannis. So at the most, Cersei’s bought herself a few months.
However, the call to come to King’s Landing and bend the knee in person doesn’t quite fit the model of Cersei the peacemaker. Given what Aerys did to Rickard Stark, and now what’ s happened to Eddard Stark, the whole of the North is going to see that command as essentially an order of execution. Either Cersei knows that this is how Robb and Catelyn will see it and doesn’t care – either because she’s underestimating the power of the Starks and thinks they’re too cowed to react like a Lannister would in the same scenario, or because she wants to somehow get them to fight a limited war because she’s got hostages – or she’s really badly misjudged the political situation.
And the saddest thing of all is that this is the height of Cersei’s political control over the situation – the Starks, Baratheons, Tyrells, and Tullys are still largely hypothetical enemies, her enemies in the capitol are in chains, and her family is too far away to take her power away from her. It’s all down-hill from here.
So in the grand game of historical parallels, I’ve previously rather briefly suggested that Anne Neville is a good fit for Sansa. Given the situation that Sansa finds herself in, I thought I’d explore this parallel a bit more. The thumbnail sketch is that both women were daughters of powerful Northern lords who became the center of a rebellion against a powerful Queen whose son the lords claimed was a bastard and lacking in royal blood, and that both women found themselves divided between the two sides of the war (Anne married both Lancastrian and Yorkist princes, Sansa is engaged to Joffrey and then married to Tyrion who in many ways resembles Richard III).
However, the point I want to emphasize is that both women both were at one and the same time a symbol of power, desired as heiresses to the North when the male line was extinguished in war, and very much at the mercy of the powerful feudal powers around them. Richard Neville was not known as the Kingmaker for nothing, and very much positioned himself as the pivot of English politics, using his family as bargaining chips – at least according to some sources, Anne was engaged or was intended to be engaged to Richard Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) when her father wanted to unite the Houses of York; when he changed sides and allied himself to Margaret D’Anjou and the Lancastrian cause, Anne was married to a stranger, Prince Edward of Lancaster. A year and a half later, she was married to Richard of Gloucester, although here it seems Anne had some agency in the matter and wanted the match.
Likewise, Sansa’s marriage to Joffrey, however much initially desired on romantic grounds, is ultimately decided by questions of dynastic alliances in the crypts of Winterfell. Following the death of her father, when she very much would like to be rid of Joffrey, she doesn’t have much of a choice. Her marriage to Tyrion is the very definition of unwilling, and it’s unlikely that her wedding to Harry the Heir will be much better.
Hopefully, Sansa will end more happily than Anne, but it’ll take some luck and some smarts…as we’ll see down the road.
Given that not a lot happens in this chapter, there’s only scope for a few hypothetical scenarios I see here:
- Sansa had dug in her heels? Let’s say that for whatever reason, Sansa decides not to send the letters and sticks to it. On the one hand, this isn’t going to change much with Robb and Catelyn; Robb’s going to march for King’s Landing no matter what letters Cersei sends. On the other, it might change some things with Sansa and Cersei. After all, Cersei’s paying a lot of attention here to how pliable Sansa’s going to be (because if Sansa actually becomes a hostage-bride, she needs to make sure that her son isn’t going to get assassinated on his wedding night), so a bad response might mean that Sansa comes in for more strict captivity to break her spirit – ironically, saving her from Joffrey’s tender mercies.
- Cersei had agreed to Littlefinger’s request? This is extremely unlikely, but let’s say Littlefinger was more forceful in his negotiations with Cersei and Cersei, caught in between a rock and a hard place, sells off Sansa. To begin with, this now means that Littlefinger is either a potential Lord of Winterfell replacing the hypothetical Tyrion, or protected from the wrath of a vengeful King Robb if the Starks are victorious – a nice win-win for Littlefinger. If he can scoop up Harrenhal as per OTL, then arrange for Lysa’s death, then become Robert Arryn’s guardian as his “good-uncle,” then he’s really getting close to being the pivot point in the War of Five Kings. However, it also means that Littlefinger will have to head up North to claim his territory there, and that’s not going to be easy with a man who doesn’t have the military training of a Bolton.
- However, it also means that Catelyn’s behavior might be altered – if she realizes how much Littlefinger betrayed her (unlike in the show, Catelyn doesn’t really confront this fact in the books), she might be the only person in Westeros who could figure out Littlefinger’s behind the whole war. Likewise, if it’s known that Sansa is essentially lost to her, she probably doesn’t make her disastrous call at the end of ACOK, which might mean that the Starks might avoid the Red Wedding by trading Jaime back to Tywin.
- Jeyne Poole hadn’t been given to Littlefinger? One really has to step back and admire George R.R. Martin’s intricate plotting when you realize that he set up, in a seemingly inconsequential line in the very first book, the fake-Arya plotline that will be so pivotal to the main plot of his fifth book – because Jeyne Poole is really the only possible candidate for a fake Arya. And without a fake Arya, things become very interesting indeed. Once Sansa disappears and Tyrion’s attainted, there really isn’t a fig leaf of continuity that Tywin can throw over the Bolton takeover. While this does mean that “Ned’s girl” isn’t quite the rallying cry she is in OTL (which in turn might spur Manderly to be more proactive in getting Rickon off of Skagos), it also means that Roose Bolton loses much of the legitimacy that allowed him to bring the Dustins, Ryswells, Lockes, Stouts, and half the Umbers into his mistrustful coalition. Thus, when Stannis makes his move, Roose is likely down to little more than his own House and the Frey expeditionary force.
- However, in an impressive display of the butterfly effect, this changes events at the Wall much more profoundly – without his “sister” in harm’s way, there’s little need to have Mance Rayder saved and then sent to Winterfell. In turn, this means that much of the information in the “Pink Letter” remains valid, which in turn may rob the conspiracy against Jon Snow of its justification/catalyst for a coup d’etat, given that Jon Snow would have much, much less reason to openly betray his vows and march south.
Book vs. Show:
This scene in the show, while well acted, really does suffer from the lack of internal monologue, given that much of the meta-plot in this chapter is about how Sansa’s viewpoint is or isn’t changing after the attack on the Tower of the Hand. Likewise, some of the machinations are changed here – Littlefinger argues that “she’s an innocent, she should be given a chance,” which indicates his interest in Sansa but didn’t happen in the book; Varys is much more silent than he is in the chapter, and so forth.
The major change is that, rather than have the emphasis for Sansa’s motivation to write Cersei’s letters be her desire to maintain the world in which she’s still going to marry Joffrey, there’s much more of an emphasis on Sansa trying to save her father, which makes her actions more understandable and sympathetic than in the text.
However, given that GRRM himself wrote this episode, maybe he’s trying to make a point to the fanbase.