“I have a role to learn, and you must do the same….you will need to be brave, and strong…and patient, patient above all..”
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 the Spy
If Sansa I established some of the main themes, Sansa II sets out the key plot elements of Sansa Stark’s story arc for the next book and a half. As I will argue, this story arc takes the form of a change in genre – namely, a shift from fantasy to espionage, as Sansa’s central objective is to engineer an escape from the clutches of the Lannisters, and almost as important, her struggle to decide which rescuer she can trust. There are some rather dense linkages here between theme and plot – the cross-cutting of loyalties, trust vs. suspicion, and ultimately the nature of truth (a huge part of the resolution and revelation of plot threads in ASOIAF, whether it’s the Purple Wedding, the death of Jon Arryn, or the Littlefinger Conspiracy all take place through Sansa’s eyes) – so it’s kind of shocking that so much of the groundwork was left on the cutting room floor or moved around between seasons on the show. More on that later.
I also wonder how much some people’s frsutrations with Sansa’s arc – her indecision and seeming passivity, the way she backslides on the whole reality vs. fantasy thing, the interiority and lack of traditional action – is due to this change in genre. After all, espionage stories (and for that matter, escape stories) are all about building tension through enforced passivity (whether you’re talking about an undercover agent having to suppress their reactions or a prisoner stuck in their cell), constant uncertainty about whether one can trust potential allies (who could be counter-espionage agents or informants for the guards), and wild swings of euphoria and despair as one gets closer to the truth, being discovered, or one’s freedom. But if you’re not expecting this kind of a story, your interpretation of the rhythm of the various beats might be thrown off.
That Sansa’s story is a spy story becomes very clear when we look at the offer that comes Sansa’s way this chapter, and which she will be dealing with for the rest of the books to date:
Come to the godswood tonight, if you want to go home.
The words were the same on the hundredth reading as they’d been as they’d been on the first, when Sansa had first discovered the folded sheet of parchment beneath her pillow. The note was unsigned, unsealed, and the hand unfamiliar…what could it mean? Should she take it to the queen to prove she was being good?…What if it was some cruel jape of Joffrey’s…or perhaps it was some subtle snare to prove she was not loyal.
…Sansa watched the girl suspiciously. Had she seen the note? Had she put it under the pillow?…the queen had her servants changed every fortnight, to make certain none of them befriended her…all her maids spied on her, she was certain. Once she was alone, she thrust the note in the flames, watching the parchment curl and blacken.
A terse offer of rescue, delivered via dead drop, composed by a cutout, a prisoner under constant surveillance, the gnawing fear that any information could be a clever bit of counter-intelligence leading you to your doom – any of these elements could have come straight out of a le Carré novel. And for all that she’s knocked for being naive or not thinking things through, look at how carefully Sansa approaches this offer: she questions its provenance, she examines both the form and content for clues, she’s very conscious that it might be a trap, and she rather pragmatically considers trying to use it to better her circumstances. When she decides to act on the letter, Sansa goes about it with impressive dispatch for a thirteen-year-old: “Sansa threw a plain grey cloak over her shoulders and picked up the knife she used to cut her meat. If it is some trap, better that I die than let them hurt me more, she told herself. She hid the blade under her cloak. A column of red-cloaked swordsmen ran past as she slipped out into the night. She waited until they were well past before she darted across the undefended drawbridge.” Indeed, her one mistake, and it’s the same mistake her father made, is that she assumes that the only enemy she’s dealing with is the Lannisters.
Which brings us to the question of Sansa’s loyalties and the extent to which Sansa is or is not a Stark. This isn’t exactly the place to bring up Sansa’s wolf and the question of her warging abilities, but it’s very clear that Sansa remains a Stark loyalist:
She must learn to hide her feelings better,so as not to anger Joffrey. When she heard that the Imp had sent Lord Slynt to the Wall, she had forgotten herself and said, “I hope the Others get him.”
She missed Septa Mordane, and even more Jeyne Poole, her truest friend. The septa had lost her head with the rest, for the crime of serving House Stark…Sansa even missed her sister. By now Arya was safe in Winterfell…playing with Bran and baby Rickon.
Let us see how brave he is when he faces my brother, Sansa thought.
I’ve always been a bit puzzled at the existence of this debate – it seems clear from even a casual observation that Sansa remains loyal to her family and her home throughout ACOK. To the extent that she ever loses that identity, it happens extremely gradually in AFFC while Sansa is isolated and under extreme mental pressure from Littlefinger, who is trying to remodel her psyche – which has an interesting parallel with Arya and her own struggle over identity vis-a-vis the Faceless Men. My hypothesis is that both of these storylines at the moment are essentially rising action building to a point where the two Stark sisters snap back and reclaim their identities, rather than a downward spiral where they are forever lost.
The Meeting With Ser Dontos:
When Sansa arrives at the godswood, she undergoes one of those bait-and-switch moments of euphoria and despair – skewing from a renewed romanticism (her desire for a “true knight,” her belief in the Florian and Jonquil legend) to disappointment, to measured skepticism, to hope. And while this might be seen as a case of backsliding, I think there’s more going on:
Help me, she prayed, send me a friend, a true knight to champion me…
“Ser Dontos,” she breathed, heartbroken. “Was it you?…what do you want with me?”
“Only to help you…as you helped me.”
…”Tell me who sent you.”
“No one, sweet lady. I swear it on my honor as a knight…the singers say there was another fool once who was the greatest knight of all…sweet lady, I would be your Florian…”
This is madness, to trust myself to this drunkard, but if I turn away will the chance ever come again?
Home, she thought, home, he is going to take me home, he’ll keep me safe.
To begin with, I think the fact that Sansa’s desire for a true knight is immediately undercut by the Rabelaisian reality that is Ser Dontos, the drunkest knight in Westeros, along with Sansa’s later discussion with Sandor, shows that GRRM is still in the process of deconstruction and subversion. The Florian and Jonquil myth, the idea of a homely fool who turns out to be a great knight out of the transformative power of love, has certain resonances to the fairy tale of the Beauty and the Beast, a subject GRRM is quite familiar wit (and also with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I haven’t been able to find any comments by Martin about that text). Here, it’s being contrasted against a more conventional narrative with a more conventionally handsome protagonist, but it’s also a deception.
I say a deception, because I think the whole narrative of Florian and Jonquil was thought up by Petyr Baelish as part of his ongoing conspiracy. After all, Petyr Baelish spent more time interacting with Sansa than almost any other adult character (outside of her family) in AGOT, and especially discussed with her the nature of heroes and stories. Baelish knows that Sansa’s preferred heroic figure is something like the Knight of Flowers, but that she’s someone susceptible to the allure of stories and romanticism (perhaps in the same way that Baelish was as a young man?). So here he takes advantage of both the compassion she showed for Ser Dontos and her love of stories, to create the perfect go-between, someone she would trust because he’s both harmless and helpful, just like Florian. But critically, Ser Dontos is not a potential competition for Littlefinger in grooming Sansa – Dontos will certainly creep on her (in part because I think there’s something creepy about the Florian role to begin with), and he will help her escape, but there’s no risk that Sansa might become interested in him as she might have done had Littlefinger used a go-between who fit that conventional heroic rescuer framework better, like Ser Shadrich or one of the Kettleblacks.
After all, if this was just about spiriting Sansa away, why go to the trouble of keeping the theme of Florian and Jonquil going, and why arrange Ser Dontos’ death in front of Sansa in such a way to disillusion her about the character of her rescuer? Because I think in Littlefinger’s mind the rescue process is part of a larger project to groom Sansa Stark into being his perfect mate – and that requires “enlightening” her about the real nature of life so that she shares Littlefinger’s beliefs as well as his bed. More on this theme later.
Literary Deconstruction With Sandor Clegane
It’s hardly an accident that Sansa goes straight from meeting Ser Dontos to literally running into Sandor Clegane. After all, Sansa is going to spend the rest of A Clash of Kings choosing between these two unlikely champions, who are more similar than what one would think. Both men are not-knights – Sandor by choice, Ser Dontos by royal decree. Both men don’t fit the classic heroic model (and Sandor himself is a very good fit for the Beast figure in Beauty and the Beast), although Sandor is a bit closer to the fantasy anti-hero, given his physical prowess. Both men are alcoholics with inappropriate feelings towards young women, although one will act on that and the other won’t. In this chapter especially, both men are essentially debating the Florian and Jonquil myth:
“What’s Joff’s little bird doing flying down the serpentine in the black of night?” When she did not answer, he shook her. “Where were you?”
“The g-g-godswood, my lord,” she said, not daring to lie. “Praying…praying for my father, and…for the king, praying he’d not be hurt.”
“Think I’m so drunk that I’d believe that?” He let go his grip on her arm, swaying slightly as he stood, stripes of light and darkness falling across his terrible drunk face. “You look almost a woman…face, teats, and you’re taller too, almost…ah, you’re still a stupid little bird, aren’t you? Singing all the songs they taught you…sing me a song, why don’t you?…some song about knights and fair maids.”
He was scaring her. “T-true knights, my lord.”
“True knights,” he mocked. “And I’m no lord, no more than I’m a knight. Do I need to beat that into you?” Clegane reeled and almost fell. “Gods…too much wine. Do you like wine, little bird? True wine? A flagon of sour red, dark as blood, all a man needs. Or a woman…drunk as a dog, damn me. You come now. Back to your cage, little bird. I’ll take you there. Keep you safe for the king.”
“Why do you let people call you a dog? You won’t let anyone call you a knight.”
“I like dogs better than knights…one autumn year, Lord Tytos came between a lioness and her prey…my grandfather came up with the hounds. Three of his dogs died running her off. My grandfather lost a leg, so Lannister paid him for it with lands and a towerhouse, and took his son to squire. The three dogs on our banner are the three that died, in the yellow of autumn grass. A hound will die for you, but never lie to you. And he’ll look you straight in the face…and that’s more than little birds can do, isn’t it? I never got my song.”
“I…I know a song about Florian and Jonquil.”
“Florian and Jonquil? A fool and his cunt. Spare me.”
If Dontos is essentially arguing that he is capable of performing the role of Florian despite being physically not up to the job, because the nature of heroism flows from inner moral commitment (think of it as the Dumbo model of heroism), Sandor is advancing a critique on very different lines. To Sandor, songs like Florian and Jonquil are propaganda, lies meant to keep song birds in their cage, and to deny the monstrous reality behind the illusions of medieval romanticism. This builds on top of his earlier arguments about the ideals of knighthood as they apply to his brother Gregor, but what’s new here is the way he contrasts the fiction of Florian and Jonquil with the reality of his own grandfather. Here, violence is an omnipresent and random threat, the victim not an idealized picture of innocence but a man we’ll come to know later as an incompetent, and the price of a knighthood, the price of heroism, is a lifelong disability (an echo of Sandor’s own wounding) and the death of loyal and honest friends.
I’m not well-read enough in gender theory to parse exactly what’s going on with Sandor’s very gendered dismissal of Florian and Jonquil – but I’m hopeful that one of my readers will chime in with a suggestion. My first guess is that Sandor is constrasting the earthy reality of sexual desire vs. the ideal of courtly love, but I’m not feeling very confident in that.
Joffrey Makes Things Worse
In the last Tyrion chapter, I mentioned the way in which the siege of King’s Landing is putting the social contract under tension, by bringing into question the king’s protection of his people. In that instance, Tyrion was able to at least keep things from getting worse by interposing the Handship between the King and his people; now that he’s not the POV, he’s not on hand when Joffrey decides to compound inaction and apathy with outright sociopathy:
“What was the trouble?”
“Fools at the gate…some loose tongues spread tales of the preparations for Tyrek’s wedding feast, and these wretches got int their heads they should be feasted too. His Grace lead a sortie and sent them scurrying.”
If A Clash of Kings is a meditation on the nature of monarchy – what makes a good king, what makes a bad one, whether one can ever become the other – and part of GRRM’s answer is that “a king protects his people or he is no king at all,” than Joffrey stands as the worst king possible. There can be no better example of the breakdown of the political order than a king who, when confronted by starving people asking for the scraps from his feast table, makes war on his own subjects. And this is only the beginning of King Joffrey’s campaign against the smallfolk of King’s Landing, driven as he is by a hatred for those below him and his absolute certainty in his own infallibility.
The history of royal escapes – is really fascinating, and provides a lot of material to work with, but I’m going to be a bit parsimonious with the topic, and not dole out every historical parallel and anecdote right away. After all, we’ve got six more Sansa chapters to go just in ACOK, and it remains a relevant topic for Sansa up until at least Sansa V of ASOS, so I don’t want to run out.
So instead, I’ll just introduce the topic by saying that there’s something a bit historically inaccurate about the degree of security at the Red Keep – it’s way too good. Historically, in Medieval England, royals escaped all the damn time when they weren’t supposed to, especially royal women, because as women they could more easily call upon the ideals of both Church and chivalry for their protection in time of need, and thus win over unlikely rescuers. The Wars of the Roses are littered with royal escapes – Margaret d’Anjou was especially good at them, but the Duchess of York and her sons were no mean escapologists, and the Neville ladies were especially adept. However, I’ll leave these cases for another time and instead talk about my favorite escape – the escape of the Empress Matilda from Oxford Castle.
During the Anarchy, the historical analogue to the Dance of the Dragons, the Empress Matilda (King Henry I’s chosen heir) experienced an extremely tumultuous year in 1141 CE. After a crushing victory at Lincoln in February, where her usurping cousin King Stephen I was captured, she failed to be acclaimed Queen of England, and then suffered an equally crushing defeat at Winchester in September, which forced her to release Stephen. This lead to a stalemate throughout 1142, in which the two parties each held half of the country, but were unable to bring the other to battle. In December, Stephen unexpectedly marched from Bristol to lay siege to her headquarters at Oxford Castle, intent on starving her into submission.
Outnumbered and surrounded, the Empress took advantage of the wintry weather and escaped during a snowstorm, according to legend by dressing herself all in white as camouflage, being lowered over the walls, and crossing the frozen River Isis on foot and alone. While King Stephen received the surrender of the castle garrison, Matilda made her way to friendly forces and re-established a new headquarters at Devizes Castle, where she continued the war in England until 1147.
Given that Sansa II revolves entirely around the letter from Ser Dontos, I’m going to focus my comments therein:
- Sansa doesn’t take up Ser Dontos’ offer? This is an incredibly significant decision. Consider the following: without Ser Dontos, it’s quite possible that the Lannisters don’t get wind of the Tyrell wedding, so that her marriage to Tyrion might never happen. In turn, this might mean that Sansa is safe in Highgarden when the Purple Wedding happens, and said wedding might happen in a very different way (without the ongoing public conflict between Tyrion and Joffrey over Sansa, it’s quite possible Tyrion’s not a good enough fall guy). Certainly, the Purple Wedding probably doesn’t happen with Sansa wearing the purple hairnet in question.
- Now, this brings up the question of what exactly the Tyrells’ motives were for making the marriage: did they just want her claim, as Dontos will suggest, or were they mixing practicality with morality as they will do in other cases? Did they want a link to the Starks in order to replace the Starks post-Red Wedding? Or were they looking to broker a peace? (After all, the offer is made months before the Red Wedding…more on that later) And how would their politics have changed if Robb had outlived Tywin?
- In turn, this also means that Littlefinger’s plan gets a major hiccup – without a Sansa Stark to marry to Harry the Heir, Littlefinger lacks a viable way to link the North to the Vale and the Riverlands. Now, Littlefinger being a persistent fellow, it’s likely that he’d make a second approach. He certainly has assets in the capitol – the Kettleblacks, Lothor Brune, his allies in the bureaucracy, his debtors and creditors among the merchant class, etc. – so he could probably manage to abduct her. The difference would likely be in Sansa’s perception of the event – unlike OTL, where Sansa feels quite ambivalent toward Littlefinger, I think in this scenario she would see herself much more as a prisoner and Littlefinger much more of an enemy.
- Sansa informs the Queen? This is a very interesting possibility. On the one hand, it’s quite likely that Sansa’s actions would lead to a much closer captivity for the Stark daughter, at least in the short-term. Certainly, Cersei and Tyrion would have Ser Dontos arrested and tortured – which means it’s quite possible Littlefinger’s head goes up on a spike, or he goes on the run to the Vale, at which point things get really destabilized. The Purple Wedding probably gets butterflied away, and it’s quite possible the Vale turns anti-Lannister, which may or may not happen in time to aid the Starks.
- However, I think it’s equally likely that Ser Dontos is killed “attempting to escape” or “hangs himself in his cell, and Littlefinger has to go back to square one. The difficulty is that, once the Lannisters know that someone is trying to steal Sansa, the level of security is going to increase dramatically. Which leads to the possibility that Sansa remains in King’s Landing following the Purple Wedding. How she’d be dealt with is an interesting question: certainly, Cersei would want her put on trial for murder along with Tyrion. On the other hand, Tywin is not going to let the heir to Winterfell be put to death, and her claim needs to be maintained. So it’s possible Sansa is around to appear as a character witness for Tyrion – and it’s interesting whether as the loyal wife abused by a monster king, she’d be able to sway the public narrative, if not the totally rigged trial.
Book vs. Show:
And so begins the botch. The HBO show goes weirdly off the rails in Season 2 with Sansa, and I say weirdly, because this story-line in the show is not entirely awful but disjointed and missing key components. Ser Dontos is saved on schedule, and indeed shows up as a jester in Blackwater, and then disappears for an entire season, popping up right before the Purple Wedding. While I love how the show shot the Purple Wedding, I do think they lost some of the impact of what happened by losing the foreshadowing of Ser Dontos.
Likewise, I think we lose a good deal of Sansa’s thematic arc in Season 2 by losing the tension and contrast between Ser Dontos and Sandor Clegane. But that brings up what happens with the Sandor story, and that’s a whole ‘nother mess…