“The king…took Sansa’s hand. Once that would have set her heart to pounding, but that was before he had answered her plea for mercy by presenting her with her father’s head. His touch filled with her father’s head. His touch filled her with revulsion now, but she knew better than to show it. She made herself sit very still.”
Synopsis: Sansa is escorted by Ser Arys Oakheart to Joffrey’s name-day tourney, where the mad boy-king is bored and therefore unpredictably murderous. She manages to save the life of the drunken knight Ser Dontos through a timely subterfuge as Tommen takes his first tilt at a quintain and Tyrion Lannister arrives in King’s Landing.
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.
As I discussed in AGOT, I can understand why people feel irritated by Sansa’s character in the first book, although I would argue that this would be a misreading of the text. But I really do have to question people who contend that the Sansa of the first book is this Sansa – and question the empathy of people who are reading the POV of a victim of sustained domestic violence and who still react to her like an annoying child.
Because the Sansa we meet in this chapter is very much a disillusioned semi-adult who has largely abandoned the romanticism of her childhood, and very much a victim of domestic violence. Indeed, Martin’s deconstructionist meta-narrative is especially deep here, in the way that domestic violence is linked together with knighthood and romantic tropes.
We can see this from the start, as Ser Arys Oakheart arrives to escort Sansa to the tourney. On the face of it, this should be the very essence of Sansa’s old ideals – dressing up for a tourney in “a gown of pale purple silk and a moonstone hair net,” escorted by a knight who is “courteous, and would talk to her courteously…Ser Arys had light brown hair and a face that was not unpleasant to look upon. Today he made quite the dashing figure, with his white silk fastened on the shoulder by a golden leaf.” And indeed, Ser Arys is a romantic through-and-through (even before we meet him again in AFFC and learn about his doomed romance with Arianne Martell) as we can see with his belief that the comet signifies “glory to your betrothed. See how it flames across the sky today on His Grace’s name day, as if the gods themselves had raised a banner in his honor. The smallfolk have named it King Joffrey’s comet…this comet is sent to herald Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, I have no doubt.”
Unlike before, Sansa is intimately aware that all of this is a facade built to hide an ugly reality. Her pretty gown “had long sleeves to hide the bruises on her arms. Those were Joffrey’s gifts as well…he had sent Ser Boros to beat her.” The King is a volatile abuser, who routinely abuses her by proxy whenever his sense of absolute power and authority is thrown into question by outside forces that Sansa had nothing to do with. Ser Arys might be a romantic, but it makes him a sap who believes blatant Lannister propaganda – the common folk are actually reacting to the comet by “calling it the Dragon’s Tail” – and who will be manipulated to his death in Dorne. More importantly, Arys’ sense of chivalry doesn’t mask an inherent weakness of character – for all that he believes in the ideals of knighthood, and “once he even objected when Joffrey commanded him to hit her,” the reality is that “he did hit her in the end, but not as hard as Ser Meryn or Ser Boros might have, and at least he had argued.” Arys wants to be a true knight and looks the part, but unlike Dunk or Ser Barristan or Brienne of Tarth, he doesn’t have the inward moral fortitude to stick to his vows when they conflict with the dictates of authority. The surface appearance of courtly love and romantic ideals are there, but not the reality.
And Sansa herself has seen through that surface, and become disillusioned as a result. However, while I’ve argued that a big part of George R.R Martin’s project in A Song of Ice and Fire is to deconstruct a lot of the tropes and cliches of fantasy, I don’t think he’s ever done so from a cynical or a nihilistic perspective. He wants to show the contrast between the ideal and the reality of the Middle Ages, but very much from the perspective of a disappointed romantic. There’s no better evidence for this than this chapter, as Sansa reflects on the difference between the paltry tourney for Joffrey’s birthday and the days of yore:
“She remembered the splendor of it: the fields of pavilions along the river with a knight’s shield hung before each door, the long rows of silken pennants waving in the wind, the gleam of sunlight on bright steel and gilded spurs. Those had been the most magical days of her life, but they seemed a memory from another age now. Robert Baratheon was dead, and her father as well, beheaded for a traitor on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor. Now there were three kings in the land, and war raged beyond the Trident while the city filled with desperate men.”
If Sansa had reacted to the death of her father and her current imprisonment by going the Full Littlefinger, and becoming nothing more than a cynical, emotionless manipulator, most of the drama would fall out of her story. But a Sansa who still yearns for something good to happen, some heroism left in the world – once again, mirroring the reader’s reaction to a fictional world in which the good guys die and the bad guys triumph – that’s a Sansa who still has something to strive for and something to lose.
Sansa’s major preoccupation in this chapter is simply surviving and trying to avoid Joffrey’s domestic violence – which brings up the subject of how the fandom has reacted to this storyline. In this chapter, Sansa’s lady’s courtesy has now become a survival strategy in the same way of many domestic violence victims: “the king was growing bored. It made Sansa anxious. She lowered her eyes and resolved to keep quiet, no matter what. When Joffrey Baratheon’s mood darkened, any chance word might set off one of his rages.” As I’ll discuss in a moment, this context is critically important for the stakes of Sansa’s actions later in this chapter – any action on her part brings the risk of being beaten. And yet, much of the audience seems to look past this when they critique Sansa for being a “passive” character.
On one level, readers’ discomfort with Sansa’s plotline makes sense – Sansa’s plotline, especially in ACOK and ASOS, is a masterwork of constantly building tension, with Sansa as the protagonist of a prison escape drama crossed over with court intrigue, so it’s meant to make the reader feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and desperate for something to happen (just like Sansa is feeling!). However, something has to be said about the specifically gendered problem that some readers have with Sansa. We’re all familiar with reactions to news stories about violence against women, where people (mostly men) respond by blaming the victim for not being the right kind of victim, for staying in the relationship or the apartment with their abusers, for not fighting back, for being passive. Hence the imaginary heroics of people who say they would marshal hypothetical martial arts skills to beat down their attackers, the brave assertions that they would leave or call the cops or die bravely, etc. etc. ad nausea. It’s an odd mix of misogyny and a kind of empathy gone wrong, where the reader imagines themselves in the shoes of the victim, and responds to the fear and helplessness not with sympathy or anger at the abuser but projecting anger back at the victim who inspired these feelings.
The same thing is happening here – Sansa’s in a position where that same cocktail of fear and helplessness apply, but unlike the standard of fantasy tropes, there’s no heroic figure to deliver her from danger, and even when the monster is slain, there’s no return to status quo, only further danger. And unfortunately, part of the readership has reacted to that in a rather sexist fashion that really fails to go beneath the surface. Take for example the argument that Sansa doesn’t resist her predicament – while it’s true that Sansa doesn’t stab Joffrey in the chest and vault over the walls of the Red Keep, in this chapter, she’s always quietly resisting, whether it’s a case of snarking off to Joffrey:
“…your traitor brother. Maybe I’ll feed him to wolves after I’ve caught him. Did I tell you, I intend to challenge him to single combat?”
“I should like to see that, your grace.” More than you know. Sansa kept her tone cool and polite, yet even so Joffrey’s eyes narrowed as he tried to decide whether she was mocking him.”
…or continuing to resist Lannister propaganda by insisting on remaining a Stark loyalists in the safety of her own mind, as when she watches Janos Slynt’s son in the tourney: “I hope he falls and shames himself, she thought bitterly. I hope Ser Balon kills him. When Joffrey proclaimed her father’s death, it had been Janos Slynt who seized Lord Eddard’s severed head by the hair and raised it on high for king and crowd to behold, while Sansa swept and screamed.” Interestingly, of all the many captives in A Song of Ice and Fire (Theon and Jeyne Poole, arguably Daenerys re: Drogo), Sansa is one of the few who never gives into Stockholm Syndrome – she knows who her enemies really are and will not give up on that, no matter what. There is an existential victory there, and if you don’t believe me, ask Winston Smith.
Saving Ser Dontos
Indeed, Sansa just can’t stop herself from resisting, so possessed is she of “a queer giddy courage.” Thus, the case of Ser Dontos Hollard, the drunkard knight whom Sansa saves from a most painful death:
“the crowd was howling with laughter…all but the king. Joffrey had a look in his eyes that Sansa remembered well, the same look he’d had at the Great Sept of Baelor…Sansa heard herself gasp. “No, you can’t.”
Joffrey turned his head. “What did you say?”
She could not believe she had spoken. Was she mad? To tell him no in front of half the court? She hadn’t meant to say anything, only…Ser Dontos was drunk and silly and useless, but he meant no harm…He knew she was lying, she could see it. He would make her bleed for this.”
As I suggested before, the stakes are important here – Sansa isn’t changing her Facebook icon or signing a petition from the safety of distance. She’s standing up against an insane tyrant and risking a beating, and that’s an act of impressive heroism from a 12 year old with no support system and virtually no resources to her name. However, it’s a kind of heroism we don’t see a lot of in fantasy – it’s the heroism of being a good person, someone who stands up for people being abused. Normally in fantasy, evil is overcome through action – even Frodo gets a chance to swing a sword now and again. But we rarely see a peasant organizing a general strike as a means of overcoming oppression, and few fantasy novels revolve around preventing wars through diplomacy.
Moreover, Sansa’s heroism here has huge implications – it’s formative in getting Sandor to break out of passive dislike of the power structure and his loyalty to someone wholly unworthy of it, which in turn has huge implications for Arya’s survival later. Likewise, as I’ll discuss more in the What If? section, her saving Dontos is absolutely pivotal. In her own way, Sansa is changing the world around her, just like her sister.
The Kids Are (Mostly) All Right
Another theme in this chapter is that, really for the first time, we get a picture of Joffrey by way of contrast with the rest of his family. And as if in silent rebuke to everyone who claims that genetics are responsible for Joffrey’s psychotic mentality, we find out that Tommen and Myrcella, who share a lot more genetic material with Joffrey than most siblings do*, are actually decent people.
* Specifically, Tywin and Joanna Lannister had 12.5% shared DNA, which should boost Jaime and Cersei’s shared DNA above the normal 50% for fraternal twins, which for their kids in turn gets boosted by their incest by another 25%. Feel free to correct me on this point.
Tommen is described as a rather rambunctious, good-natured child who’s generally pleasant to Sansa although he clearly doesn’t understand that she’s there as a prisoner rather than his future in-law, as “plump little Prince Tommen jumped up eagerly” for his turn at the quintain, defies his brother in so doing, but then gets up for a second run at the thing despite getting “spilled from the saddle.” Sansa goes so far as to give him the stamp of approval that “he reminded her of her own little brother, Bran.” Interestingly, Tommen seems to have imbibed the same Lannister-first identity as his older brother, crying out “Casterly Rock” rather than say “the Red Keep” or “Storm’s End.”
Myrcella is described as both more intelligent than Joffrey, easily outarguing him on the issue of Tommen getting to joust – ” “Mother said I could ride.” “She said,” Princess Myrcella agreed. “Mother said,” mocked the king. “Don’t be childish.” “We’re children,” Myrcella declared haughtily. “We’re supposed to be childish.” – and in terms of simple human decency when Tommen is hurt, “Oh,” Princess Myrcella cried. She scrambled out of the box and ran to her little brother.” Indeed, she’s clearly the most intelligent and strong-willed of the three, and it’s easy to see why others have looked to her as a Queen Regnant.
By contrast, Joffrey’s sadism – his beating of Sansa, his joy at the thought of Viserys’ death, his fondness for “making men fight to the death,” his call to have Ser Dontos murdered without cause (always a bad sign when a royal forgets that knights have the right to due process via trial by combat at the very least), his casual talk of mass murder, etc. – stands out even more by contrast. Ditto his lack of empathy (“your brother might be hurt.” Joffrey shrugged. “What if he is?”) and lack of emotional affect (“I am sorry for your loss as well, Joffrey.” “What loss?” “Your royal father?” “Oh, him. Yes, it was very sad, a boar killed him.”) Given the similarity in their DNA, and the similarity in their upbringing, Joffrey’s evil has less of a cause, and makes it feel more like the “born evil” trope often seen in pedophobic fiction (Rosemary’s Baby, the Omen, The Good Son, etc.).
This is only emphasized by Tyrion’s relationships with his double-nephews and double-niece. Tyrion loves and is loved by Tommen and Myrcella, but Joffrey clearly hates him (and the feeling is mutual) and is a leading candidate in the attempt on Tyrion’s life later – more on this in future chapters.
A Word on Tyrion
One of the really difficult issues I’m going to have to get into in ACOK is Sansa’s relationship with Tyrion, or rather the lack of same. In the fandom, this is a constant source of conflict, involving defenders of Sansa, defenders of Tyrion, detractors of either or both, and Sansa/Tyrion shippers, and issues of both sexism and ableism. I’m going to try to navigate these waters as best I can, as someone who’s not particularly a partisan of either side but also as someone who (as an able cishet white dude) can’t speak from experience here.
The plain fact is that Sansa experiences here the absolute reverse of love at first sight when she meets her future husband for the second time: “He held the reins in his left hand and carried his right arm in a white silk sling, but otherwise looked as grotesque as Sansa remembered from when he had visited Winterfell. With his bulging brow and mismatched eyes, he was still the ugliest man she had ever chanced to look upon.” And yes, this reaction is absolutely grounded in Westerosi standards of beauty, and how those are constructed by both ableism and sexist conceptions of both gender roles – as we’ll see in ASOS, a good deal of the way in which Tyrion faces ableist discrimination is gendered, as he is seen as a “halfman,” has deep anxieties about his manliness both in sexual and military terms, and generally has difficulty performing masculinity as expected of him by Westerosi society.
However, if we’ve learned one good thing from third-wave feminism, it’s that (as long as all parties are consenting adults on a level playing field) it’s no good to try to discipline sexual desire to fit a political line – the loins want what they want. Right or wrong, Sansa isn’t attracted to Tyrion and it’s a doomed effort to force desire where there is none.
At the same time, while Tyrion wants to be a good person and help Sansa, there never really was any possibility that a relationship founded on trust could emerge – not because of shortcomings or mistakes by either party, but simply because of an issue of timing. Tyrion and Sansa are thrown together after the death of Ned Stark (to say nothing of the Red Wedding), and nothing can fix that: “He speaks more gently than Joffrey, she thought, but the queen spoke to me gently too. He’s still a Lannister, her brother and Joff’s uncle, and no friend. Once she had loved Prince Joffrey with all her heart, and admired and trust his mother, the queen. They had repaid that love and trust with her father’s head. Sansa would never make that mistake again.”
In terms of historical comparisons in Sansa I:
- the proposed method of executing Ser Dontos goes straight back to Shakespeare’s version of the Wars of the Roses. Edward IV’s treacherous brother, George of Clarence, famously was put in the Tower of London for high treason by way of hiring an astronomer from Oxford University to predict the date of King Edward’s death, a crime known as “imagining and compassing” the death of the King. He was found guilty and formally attainted by Act of Parliament, and then quietly executed in 1478. While most likely his head was removed by sword or axe, Shakespeare tarted up the event by having Richard III’s henchmen murder him by drowning him in a “butt of malmsey wine.” (George was known for being something of a drunk, and having the means of death be drowning in liquor) A butt is an archaic unit of liquid storage, equivalent to about 120 gallons, and malmsey was a rather expensive imported wine from the Canary Islands, a rather sweet Mediera.
- Prince Tommen’s historical parallel is a bit tricky – can’t find any particular mentions of a prince who was crazy into cats – but if we take as our starting point that Tyrion is a parallel of Richard III and that Robert Baratheon bears some similarities to Edward IV, then Tommen resembles Richard of York, the younger of the two Princes of the Tower, especially in the way that he is supposedly threatened by Tyrion and “disappears” from the Red Keep. Thankfully, Tommen seems to be a bit luckier than his medieval counterpart, and has survived to be crowned.
- By the same logic, Myrcella’s temporal twin would be Elizabeth of York. As a scion of the House of York, Elizabeth’s hand in marriage offered political legitimacy to whoever wed her, as both Richard III and Henry Tudor vied to marry her and thereby add her claim to the throne to theirs. While Elizabeth was never attacked as Myrcella will be, the intersection of her birth order and Dornish law will make her very much a powerful factor in the game of thrones.
There’s only one major hypothetical I can see here:
- Ser Dontos dies – this one is hugely, if subtly, consequential. Without Ser Dontos to provide an alternative route out of King’s Landing, it’s quite possible that Sansa takes up Sandor Clegane’s offer to take her out of King’s Landing during the chaos. What would happen after that is entirely up for debate – possibly Sansa is taken back to Riverrun, but who knows what the Hound wants without money as a motivating factor.
- If Sansa elects to stay, things still diverge quite substantially – if Sansa doesn’t have Ser Dontos to confide in about the offer to marry her to Willas Tyrell, it’s quite possible that the Tyrells’ plan isn’t leaked to Petyr Baelish, which in turn may mean that the Lannisters never get word of it, butterflying away the Tyrion/Sansa wedding. The murder of Joffrey likely goes ahead as scheduled, but probably with Sansa smuggled out to Highgarden – in turn, this short-circuits Brienne’s mission in AFFC, unless she confines it to looking for Arya.
- One of the issues I’ll need to confront in the future that I’ve yet to form a definitive opinion on is what the Tyrells’ overall political strategy was if they had gotten Sansa and her claim to Winterfell. Were the ng planning to push the Lannisters from power altogether and build their own majority government under a Tommen puppet? Were they planning to try to force some kind of peace (after all, their offer to Sansa predates the Red Wedding by two months) between the Starks and Lannisters? Or were they considering changing sides once again – after all, Tywin’s only winning because of his Tyrell alliance and nothing stops the Tyrells from allying with Rob and eliminating the competition? Or was this just good dynastic politics?
- If Sansa marries Willas – how do the Tyrells put their claim to the North into effect after Rob’s death? There must be a Stark in Winterfell and Willas is the heir to Highgarden so he can’t leave the south – maybe the plan is to have their second son made the heir to Winterfell, since the oldest couldn’t really rule both Highgarden and Winterfell? For that matter, how do the Lannisters and the Boltons organize the North, post-Red Wedding? Certainly, the Lannisters can offer Roose Bolton the title of Warden of the North, but his claim to Winterfell would be badly damaged, and the marriage to even a fake Arya would lack legitimacy – even if the male Starks are wiped out, the older sister should inherit before the younger.
Book vs. Show:
While the show makes the tourney a much smaller affair, and definitely diminishes the role of Tommen and Myrcella, I think Sophie Turner’s acting is impeccable in this scene – it’s like Sansa stepped straight off the page and onto the screen. Likewise, Rory McCann’s acting is quite good here in an important scene for the Hound/Sansa storyline.
While many people have argued that Sansa’s storyline has been totally botched in the show, I think this scene points to a somewhat different phenomenon. Rather than getting every scene wrong, there’s this weird unevenness, where certain scenes are nailed dead-on and others are either excised or changed or done badly (for example, while I know they didn’t like the scenes they shot with Ser Dontos and Sansa in Seasons 2+3, given that they still went back to him in Season 4, it really feels like they should have done a re-shoot until they got it right). If it was just the former, then I’d write off the show as poorly written and directed, and lower my expectations. However, the fact that it’s the latter makes me very confused about why writers and directors who can do amazing work both in terms of following the text and departing from it, and who seem to have at least a partial handle on these characters, can’t get their batting average up higher.