“How long must I look?”
Synopsis: Sansa wakes up to the nightmare that is now her life, gets beaten by Ser Meryn Trant on Joffrey’s orders, watches
Caligula Joffrey dispense justice, and is then brought to see her father’s head on a spike and considers “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”
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 VI is a brilliant conclusion of George R.R. Martin’s deconstruction of romantic fantasy, and it strikes me as strange that so many people don’t see the deconstruction, especially after this point, because so much of the chapter revolves around imagery of waking up from dreams to see a nightmarish reality around them.
And as she wakes up, Sansa suddenly can see everything clearly: “Sansa stared at him, seeing him for the first time…She wondered how she could ever have thought him handsome. His lips were as soft and red as the worms you found after a rain, and his eyes were vein and cruel.” And what’s important is that from this moment on, Sansa refuses to give in – she openly states “I don’t want to marry you,” tells Joffrey to his face that “I hate you,” and when faced with her father’s head on a spike taunts Joffrey with the idea that “maybe my brother will give me your head.” Even when she takes the Hound’s advice – which I’ll discuss in just a second, she resists inside by refusing to give Joffrey the reaction he wants, insistent that “he can make me look at the heads but he can’t make me see them.”
Indeed, in this chapter, Sansa moves from being a romantic idealist to an outright cynic, turning on her own illusions: “there are no heroes, and she remembered what Lord Petyr had said to her, here in this very hall. “Little is not a song, sweetling,” he’d told her. “You may learn that one day your sorrow.” In life the monsters win.” And the context of this shift is crucial – it comes right in the midst of Joffrey’s judgments as Sansa muses on justice, “wishing she could hurt [Lord Slynt], wishing that some hero would throw him down and cut off his head.” This desire for cosmic and absolute justice, “to right the unrightable wrong,” to be delivered by some external paragon of virtue has been right at the heart of romantic medievalism from long before the time of Cervantes. If GRRM’s deconstruction in the Sansa chapters has a thesis, I think it could be summed up as “there is no justice, there’s just us.” Indeed, I would argue that one could interpret the character arc of many female protagonist of ASOIAF is a transition from desiring justice to come from above to enacting it themselves – whether we’re talking about Catelyn becoming Lady Stoneheart, Brienne slaying the very symbol of the devastation of the Riverlands, or Arya’s Batman origin saga. And I’m willing to lay money on the same happening with Sansa’s arc in The Winds of Winter.
At the same time, Sansa doesn’t and can’t wholly reject the tropes of chivalric romance – as the Hound (her fellow critic of the gap between the knightly ideal* and reality) reminds her, they can also be a means of survival when you’re dealing with a psychopath who thinks in fairy tale logic. “Save yourself some pain girl, and give him what he wants…he wants you to smile and smell sweet and be his lady love…he wants to hear you recite all your pretty little words the way the septa taught you.” By working within the genre, Sansa can eke out survival – and if she survives long enough, she may yet learn to prosper. Although the difficulty is that Joffrey is only half inside the logic of fairy tales, and the other half is madness. “He wants you to love him…and fear him” makes sense in Machiavellian politics, but not in a marriage.
* speaking of which, I have a side note about Meryn Trant that I’ll stick in the comments because it doesn’t really fit here.
In the Court of the Crimson King
At the same time, the revelation of Joffrey’s evil goes deeper than the surface level – the moment he gets in power, with no one willing to check him, his psychopathy comes to the fore. And it’s a truly terrifying blend of sadistic cruelty and an eerie parallel of Sansa’s immature romanticism. On the one hand, Joffrey states with a straight face and an odd spirit of wounded righteousness that “if he hadn’t been your father, I would have had him torn or flayed, but I gave him a clean death,” who has his knights beat his intended wife, who only shows interest in “what it pleased him to call justice” when it means he can order a thief’s hand chopped off, a minstrel’s tongue ripped out, or a woman to be imprisoned for the sake of love, who casually speaks of having Sansa executed for bearing “stupid babies,” and who has the godsworn executed.
On the other hand, there’s something terrifyingly childish about Joffrey’s sadism. When he comes to Sansa, Joffrey speaks of “Mother says I’m still to marry you…my mother tells me it isn’t fitting that it isn’t fitting that a king should strike his wife;” when he’s walking Sansa to see her father’s head, he inquires about his birthday present as if he hadn’t executed her father only a few day’s earlier; and when he learns that his uncle has been defeated by Robb Stark, when he has Sansa beaten it’s because she’s not acting as a “true wife,” in a deliberate echo of Sansa’s belief in a “true knight,” and his plan to “raise a host and kill your brother myself” while Renly and Stannis menace King’s Landing is exactly the kind of romantic delusion that Sansa once believed, only reflected over gender lines.
It’s this combination that makes Joffrey so dangerous, in that it makes him a tyrant who’s only interested in violence rather than power: “nine cases out of ten seemed to bore him; those he allowed his council to handle, squirming restlessly…when he did choose to make a ruling, though, not even his queen mother could stay him.” To Joffrey, being a king means that he gets to impose a boy’s cruelty on others – thieves should have their hands, people who love traitors “must be a traitor too,” and technical disputes over property rights should be settled in duels to the death. If it were Cersei in charge all the time or if Joffrey was a power-hungry despot who actually ruled with an iron fist, there would be a certain predictability to it. Instead, all there is total uncertainty about who’s actually in charge at any point in time, and the cruel farce where the same King who still does what his mommy tells him and sneaks around her back using childish loopholes can also order grown men to their deaths.
On a side note – while I intend to go further into depth with this in Part V of Hollow Crowns, there is an interesting question about where Joffrey is getting these ideas. On the one hand, the idea that all traitors must be punished, all thieves maimed, all fights to the death, probably doesn’t come from Robert, who whatever else he might have been was a man who generally forgave his enemies if they weren’t blood Targaryens, and was never interested in punishment. More likely, although it’s not precisely clear from the text, is that the same woman who demanded bloody satisfaction for a dog bite impressed on her son that royal justice ought to be severe – but failed to foresee how her son might interpret her lesson.
Speaking of one of the distinctive elements of the new King’s madness, I think Joffrey’s clear misogyny has roots in both parents. We can clearly see an inheritance from Robert in his belief that a “true wife does not mock her lord” (with Cersei’s independence as proof in Robert’s eyes that she’s not a proper wife), that violence is the way to correct one’s wife (even though doing so oneself is “unkingly”), and that the only thing that matters about a wife is whether she can bear children. At the same time, Joffrey clearly gets instruction on gender issues from his mother: “you truly are a stupid girl…my mother says so…she worries about our children, whether they’ll be stupid like you.” Cersei’s massive internalized misogyny is a topic I plan to get into in AFFC, but the comment from Joffrey that “women are all weak, even her, though she pretends she isn’t,” reminds me a lot of Cersei’s exceptionalist identity.
Anne Neville lived most of her life as a bargaining chip for the House of Warwick, as was the case for many women of her caste and time. Born in 1456 in the very castle of Warwick that served as the heart of her father, the Earl of Warwick’s empire in the north of England, Anne was in a sense a participant in the Wars of the Roses by birth – her father was the Kingmaker and the richest man in England, her mother was a de Beauchamp and the heiress of Warwick, and her maternal great-aunt was the wife of Richard, Duke of York and the mother of the “three suns” of York. Indeed, she spent much of her childhood at Middleham Castle where Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and George, Duke of Clarence, were fostered and thus grew up with some of the major political and military actors.
While there isn’t much direct evidence, it was widely rumored that the Nevilles and the Yorkist Plantagenets would strengthen their blood ties by marrying Anne to Richard and George to her older sister Isabelle. However, within eight years of Edward IV’s triumph of Towton, both of the Neville girls became collateral damage in the feud between King and Kingmaker – Edward blocked the engagement of his brothers to the two girls after their father objected to his own marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Isabel was married to George two weeks before her new husband and her father fought her brother-in-law at Edgecote Moor. When Warwick’s rebellion fell apart politically, Anne’s hand was the price of a Lancastrian and French alliance necessary for an invasion of England in 1470.
Anne the former Yorkist was thus married to Edward of Lancaster (although the marriage wasn’t consummated in case a later change of plans would be politically advantageous to both sides), the heir of her family’s long-time enemy, placing her on both sides of the Wars of the Roses. When Edward of Lancaster was killed at the Battle of Tewksbury, Anne had lost both father and husband in a period of about two weeks. The next year, she married Richard of Gloucester, who had fought on the opposing side at both Barnet (where her father had died) and Tewksbury.
These twists and turns of fate have given way to two fundamentally incompatible myths. In the Ricardian story, Anne and Richard were a pair of star-crossed lovers who were meant to be together, unluckily divided by civil war and Anne’s marriage to a psychopathic prince (one of many inspirations for Joffrey), and finally reunited at last when the Good Guys triumph. In the Lancastrian story, brought to life most vividly by Shakespeare’s Richard III (Act I, Scene II), Anne is a dupe who is seduced by her husband’s murderer through appeals to her vanity, only to be cast aside when the monstrous tyrant decides to throw her over for his own niece. What historical evidence exists leans somewhat to the Ricardian side – Anne Neville went to some lengths to get married to Richard of Gloucester, although it’s hard to know whether this was due to True Love or her desire to get out of the custody of her brother-in-law George of Clarence, whom she clearly hated.
This part of Sansa’s story clearly takes from the Ricardian portrait of Edward of Lancaster as a sadistic little bastard (literally, in the eyes of the Yorkists). More on this when we get to Sansa’s interactions with Tyrion.
This chapter gives us only a few hypothetical scenarios, but they’re doozies:
- Sansa pushes Joffrey? For a moment in this chapter, Sansa has the opportunity to kill Joffrey, although almost certainly at the cost of her own life, but chooses not to. If she had, some really interesting things happen: in the short-term, Tyrion’s management of King’s Landing gets much easier, since Tommen is a tractable child and not prone to murdering starving peasants, and Cersei will have something other than himself to focus on. (On the other hand, as we’ve seen from the Princess and the Queen, bad P.R that involves tragic deaths of noblewomen can have explosive consequences) It’s quite possible that the Tyrell marriage alliance still happens – although a young child under his mother’s regency is less appealing a prospect that a crowned King on the verge of his majority (and it’s not clear whether the sunk cost issue played into the second marriage). The Purple Wedding, however, is completely butterflied away, which means Sansa (assuming she isn’t murdered on the spot) isn’t vanished, Tyrion isn’t accused of treason (and doesn’t marry Sansa, come to think of it), Oberyn Martell never fights the Mountain, and Tywin isn’t killed by his own son. Now it’s possible that some of these same events happen differently – the Tyrells aren’t the only ones who know how to use poison and Oberyn is clearly looking to kill everyone involved in his sister’s death one way or another – but it wouldn’t be the same. At the same time, with Sansa dead, Jaime Lannister isn’t freed by Catelyn, and it may well be that the Starks pull out of the war using Jaime as the lever, since the person responsible for Ned Stark’s death is dead.
- Joffrey marches on Robb? This hypothetical is absolutely hilarious. It would require Cersei being more incompetent than usual to allow this, but I could see a scenario in which Joffrey marches out of King’s Landing at the head of six thousand Goldcloaks, and Stannis takes the undefended city in a cakewalk and crowns himself King on the Iron Throne before Renly can get to it. This sets up a strange re-tread of the Siege of Storm’s End, except this time Stannis has a huge symbol of political legitimacy on his side and a huge navy to keep the food flowing into the capitol. While Renly’s army is too big for Stannis to defeat on the field, his political coalition could well begin unraveling if the Reacher lords begin to worry about what happens if Stannis survives. Now, the larger question is whether Tywin intercepts Joffrey before Robb’s army utterly destroys his green forces somewhere in the Riverlands – if he does, then Tywin’s army is a bit bigger, and Robb has less incentive to march west and every incentive to put the head of House Lannister and their claim to the Iron Throne under siege at Harrenhal. If he doesn’t, it’s quite likely that Joffrey dies on the banks of the Trident, dealing the Lannisters a devastating blow to their political legitimacy and inflating Robb Stark’s military legend even more. Tywin is reduced to a rebel lord with 20,000 men cut off from their home territory, facing enemy kings to both sides.
Book vs. Show:
The show played this pretty straight, with the exception of the somewhat older Joffrey being less childlike and more sadistic in his particular kind of insanity. It’s not a huge change, however.