“What is the meaning of this?”
Synopsis: Sansa is summoned to Joffrey to answer for her complicity in the Battle of Oxcross. Despite the best efforts of Sandor and Ser Dontos, Sansa is beaten in front of the court before Tyrion intervenes.
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 in the past I have alluded to Sansa’s plotline in ACOK of abuse and survival, here is where that theme really forces itself to the forefront. Just as the strategic decisions of Tywin Lannister have come crashing down on Arya’s head, Joffrey makes Sansa pay the price for Robb Stark’s victory, in much the same way that an abuser today might have a bad day at work and make themselves feel better by beating their partner. George R.R Martin doesn’t do this lightly or pruriently – rather, this violence is an intrinsic part of a larger deconstruction of chivalry.
The Limits of Survival
Appropriately, Sansa III begins with an exploration of her methods for survival:
“The longer you keep him waiting, the worse it will go for you.”
“Robb’s a traitor.” Sansa knew the words by rote. “I had no part in whatever he did.”
“They trained you well, little bird.”
Sansa is doing what she has learned to do to survive – she’s brushing out her hair and getting dressed nicely, because she knows that “Joff likes me to look pretty, he’s always liked me in this gown, this color.” Indeed, it’s kind of ironic that Sandor Clegane uses the term “they” to talk about Sansa’s training, when he’s the one who provided her with the script she’s had to memorize, back in her last chapter in AGOT. It’s hardly a passive process – as we can see, it requires a good deal of preparation and constant vigilance about Joffrey’s mood (another common element in cases of domestic violence) – but it is a performative one. Long before Arya is sent to Izembaro, Sansa is already learning the basics of the mummer’s craft.
The problem is, and I think this is what makes the audience so uncomfortable, is that no strategy can actually shield Sansa from Joffrey’s wrath, because Joffrey isn’t hurting her because of something she’s done, some flubbed line, but rather using her to gratify himself. Ultimately, every strategy Sansa and her allies try fails:
“Kneeling won’t save you now…stand up. You’re here to answer for your brother’s latest treasons.”
“Your Grace, whatever my traitor brother has done, I had no part. You know that, I beg you please-“
“I’d shoot you too, but if I do Mother says they’d kill my uncle Jaime. Instead you’ll just be punished and we’ll send word to your brother about what will happen to you if he doesn’t yield. Dog, hit her.”
“Let me beat her!” Ser Dontos shoved forward…he was armed with a “morningstar” whose head was a melon. My Florian. She could have kissed him, blotchy skin and broken veins and all. He trotted his broomstick around her…whacking her over the head with the melon…people were laughing. The melon flew to pieces. Laugh, Joffrey, she prayed as the juice ran down her face and the front of her blue silk gown. Laugh and be satisfied.
Joffrey did not so much as snigger.
Pretending loyalty won’t work if Joffrey doesn’t want her loyalty; Ser Dontos’ attempt to distract Joffrey with cruel laughter, much as Sansa did before, won’t work if Joffrey is more interested in blood than slapstick; nor will Sandor’s refusal to beat her and his passive attempts to cut the violence short work, because Joffrey isn’t dependent on Sandor to work his will. And as I’ve pointed out before, this kind of helplessness doesn’t sit well with some readers, all those people who insist that if they were in that situation, they’d do something, they’d figure out some tactic, they wouldn’t be passive like Sansa. It’s the same reason why so often, when people read about some horrific case of domestic violence, they ask “why did she stay? why didn’t she leave?”
But Sansa can’t leave, hasn’t been trained to fight back, and Ser Dontos is hardly Jaqen H’ghar. There is no strategy to avoid the violence, because what Joffrey is after is sexualized violence:
“Leave her face,” Joffrey commanded. “I like her pretty.”
Boros slammed a fist into Sansa’s belly, driving the air out of her. When she doubled over, the knight grabbed her hair and drew his sword, and for one hideous instant she was certain he meant to open her throat. As he laid the flat of the blade across her thighs, she thought her legs might break from the force of the blow. Sansa screamed. Tears welled in her eyes. It will be over soon. She soon lost count of the blows.
“Enough,” she heard the Hound rasp.
“No it isn’t,” the king replied. “Boros, make her naked.”
Boros shoved a meaty hand down the front of Sansa’s body and gave a hard yank. The silk came tearing away, baring her to the waist. Sansa covered her breasts with her hands. She could hear sniggers, far off and cruel. “Beat her bloody,” Joffrey said…
Joffrey’s sexuality is something of a controversial topic within the ASOIAF fandom, especially after the show shined such an ugly spotlight on the topic. Some argue that Joffrey is too young to have sexual desire, or is essentially asexual. I don’t take this position. However much he filters his sexuality through violence, Joffrey is still expressing some sort of desire and gaining gratification here – hence why he wants Sansa’s face to be kept pretty, hence why he’s focusing on making her naked, hence his threats in ASOS. Sometimes, a crossbrow isn’t just a crossbow. It reminds one vividly of Aerys II, someone whose sadistic tendencies very much fueled his sex drive, although thank the Old Gods and the New that Joffrey didn’t live long enough to make wildfire part of his repertoire.
The Question of Chivalry
One of the key questions that Joffrey’s conduct, and Sansa’s experience of it, raises is the question of whether chivalry as a cultural ideal is worth the paper it’s printed on. Joffrey’s commands work as an instant moral test:
“Is this your notion of chivalry, Ser Boros?…What sort of knight beats helpless maids?”
“The sort who serves his king, Imp.”
“Someone give the girl something to cover herself with,” the Imp said. Sandor Clegane unfastened his cloak and tossed it at her. Sansa clutched it against her chest, fists bunched hard in the white wool. The coarse weave was scratchy against her skin, but no velvet had ever felt so fine…
Knights are sworn to defend the weak, protect women, and fight for the right, but none of them did a thing. Only Ser Dontos had tried to help, and he was no longer a knight, no more than the Imp was, nor the Hound…the Hound hated knights…I hate them too…they are no true knights, not one of them.
As we’ll see with examples of Aerys’ royal sadism, knighthood does not pass this test. The only people who even try to do something, Sandor and Dontos, are not knights, as Sansa notices. As with Ser Duncan the Tall, as with Brienne of Tarth, it is the outsiders who aspire to the ideal without experiencing the social privilege that comes with it, who come closest to attaining it. The actual knights, men like Boros Blount and Mandon Moore and Meryn Trant, are cowards, sadists, and bullies – with the best of them a rather pathetic hypocrite. Thus, the symbolism of the Hound’s white cloak – on one level, it’s a symbol of purity and duty actually being used to shield and protect Sansa. On another level, it’s also an act of symbolic resignation, by a man who will renounce his king and refuse to honor any vow, who himself isn’t doing anything more than throwing a blanket after the fact to protect an innocent.
Given Sansa’s experience here, it’s quite interesting therefore, that Sansa uses the trappings of chivalry in The Winds of Winter. While it’s not yet clear to what end, “Alayne” is beginning to see chivalry as an illusion, but an illusion that can be used to change the way people behave.
The Question of Tyranny
Also in this chapter, we see Joffrey finally let loose in full Caligula mode, for everyone to see. It’s been a while for him – he’s been keeping things out of sight while uncle Tyrion was around. But even before he begins torturing his fiancee before the whole court, we see him violating the social contract again: “I killed a man last night who was bigger than your father. They came to the gate shouting my name and calling for bread like I was some baker, but I taught them better. I shot the loudest one through the throat…” It’s a little unclear from context whether he’s referring to the previous incident where he murdered his own subject, or whether it’s happened again, but it’s not a good sign.
And thus, it comes as both a relief and a surprise when Tyrion arrives to explicitly challenge Joffrey’s belief that:
“The king can do as he likes.”
“Aerys Targaryen did as he liked. Has your mother ever told you what happened to him?”
…”No man threatens His Grace in the presence of the Kingsguard.”
Tyrion Lannister raised an eyebrow. “I am not threatening the king, ser. I am educating my nephew. Bronn, Timmett, next time Ser Boros opens his mouth, kill him…Now that was a threat, ser. See the difference?”
“The queen will hear of this!”
“No doubt she will. And why wait? Joffrey, shall we send for your mother?…Learn to use your ears more and your mouth less, or your reign will be shorter than I am. Wanton brutality is no way to win your people’s love…or your queens.”
“Fear is better than love, Mother says…She fears me.”
I’ve talked in the past about the extent to which Joffrey as a prince was shaped by his mother or his father – which is something of a controversial topic. However much his standard of personal behavior might ape Robert Baratheon, his political philosophy is pure Cersei. The problem here is that this kind of short-sighted, half-understood Machiavellianism, filtered through Joffrey’s paranoia, sadism, and desire for control, cannot jibe with Tyrion’s cautious, noblesse-oblige version of social contractualism. There can be no meeting of the minds, because Tyrion’s warning that the social contract will enforce itself violently on a monarch who thinks he’s above it comes across to Joffrey as threats to his life.
So if Joffrey is responsible for Ser Mandon Moore’s assassination attempt – and he’s certainly a prime suspect – here’s the catalyst for it. And for Boros Blount and the other toadies of the court, who can’t comprehend Tyrion’s political theory any more than their king can, here’s the beginning of a case for treason and regicide. And here’s where we see a major shortcoming of Tyrion’s political skills: as with Pycelle, he acts as if he will always have political power. On the face of it, Tyrion’s not saying anything that Tywin does not, but the loss of power will turn words into treason.
There’s another interesting theme in this conversation, the weird power relationship between Joffrey and Cersei. Cersei has the authority of both the mother of a thirteen-year-old boy and the Queen Regent, when she chooses to enforce it. And you’d think that, both as the victim of domestic abuse and someone who’s well aware that if any word of Sansa’s treatment gets to Robb Stark Jaime will pay the price, Cersei would want to clamp down on this. But that’s not how Cersei reacts; rather, she defends Joffrey. I’m not entirely sure why – is this a case of denial, stemming from the unconditional love of a mother trying to ward off a prophecy of her son’s death? Is it driven by Cersei’s paranoia about the “another, younger and more beautiful” queen, so that Cersei rationalizes any violence done to Sansa as preventing herself from being overthrown? Is it Cersei’s refracted picture of Tywin as a political ideal, such that Joffrey’s sadism turns into kingly “sternness” and “strength“?
A Question of Loyalty
If this was even more of a spy story than it already is, this is the part where the protagonist undergoes torture, where the question is whether they will be turned or whether they’ll have the strength of character and mind to keep their secrets and their allegiance to themselves. (Again, it’s not an active moment, but an interior moment) And Sansa passes this test with flying colors:
They’ve put me in Arya’s old bedchamber, from when Father was the Hand of the King. All her things are gone and the furnishing have been moved around, but it’s the same…
Robb will kill you all, she thought, exulting…
“I only want to be loyal.”
“Loyal…and far from any Lannisters. I can scarce blame you for that…they tell me you visit the godswood every day. What do you pray for, Sansa?”
I pray for Robb’s victory and Joffrey’s death…and for home. For Winterfell. “I pray for an end in the fighting.”
…Robb will beat him, Sansa thought. He beat your uncle and your brother Jaime, he’ll beat your father too.
…Ser Dontos was her only hope…if she was locked in the Tower of the Hand, guarded by the dwarf’s men, how would Ser Dontos ever spirit her away to freedom?
To begin with, Sansa doesn’t budge at all from her position. She remains a diehard Stark loyalist, who cheers for her brother’s victories and longs to be in Winterfell – and as we’ll see in “Alayne” from TWOW, she will not give up her allegiance, even after months of Littlefinger’s creepy grooming. This is something that both Stark sisters share – despite their commitment to method acting, they are not going to give in on their identity as Starks of Winterfell, at least to the extent that readers thought at the end of AFFC or ADWD. It’s an impressive show of mental toughness, as I’ll discuss in the historical section.
At the same time, Sansa is preserving her cover story as a good and loyal subject to Joffrey. But it’s important for people to understand why she’s doing it – to begin with, Tyrion is not offering her an escape from King’s Landing or even an exchange of prisoners, only that once the Lannisters have won, he’ll send her to Winterfell. Sansa isn’t interested in waiting for Lannister victory – she wants to score a victory for the Starks by escaping King’s Landing on her own terms and eliminating one of the Lannisters’ main bargaining chips. In order to do that, she needs to be where Ser Dontos can arrange her escape – even if it means having to endure Joffrey’s beatings.
It’s both an incredibly brave decision, but also a rather fraught one. Just as Arya is torn over whether to place her trust in various Northmen, Sansa will have to make decisions about which offers of escape to take. And ultimately, she will actually accomplish her aim of escaping King’s Landing, although not in the way she thought.
The War of Five Kings: The Battle of Oxcross
But enough of desperately depressing domestic violence, let’s talk about exciting military violence! Specifically the event that acts as catalyst for Joffrey’s actions:
“Using some vile sorcery, your brother fell upon Ser Stafford Lannister with an army of wargs, not three days ride from Lannisport. Thousands of good men were butchered as they slept, without the chance to lift sword. After the slaughter, the northmen feasted on the flesh of the slain.”
…”You have a right to know why Joffrey was so wroth. Six nights gone, your brother fell upon my uncle Stafford, encamped with his host at a village called Oxcross not three days ride from Casterly Rock. Your northerners won a crushng victory. We received word only this morning.”
“It’s…terrible, my lord. My brother is a vile traitor.”
“Well, he’s no fawn, he’s made that clear enough.”
“Ser Lancel said Robb led an army of wargs…”
The Imp gave a disdainful bark of laughter. “Ser Lancel’s a wineskin warrior who wouldn’t know a warg from a wart. Your brother had his direwolf with him, but I suspect that’s as far as it went. The northmen crept into my uncle’s camp and cut his horse lines, and Lord Stark sent his wolf among them. Even war-trained destriers went mad. Knights were trampled to death in their pavilions, and the rabble woke in terror and fled, casting aside their weapons to run the faster. Ser Stafford was slain as he chased after a horse. Lord Rickard Karstark drove a lance through his chest. Ser Rubert Brax is also dead, along with Ser Lymond Vikary, Lord Crakehall, and Lord Jast. Half a hundred more have been taken captive, including Jast’s sons and my nephew Martyn Lannister. Those who survived are spreading wild tales and swearing that the old gods of the north march with your brother.”
“Then…there was no sorcery?”
“Sorcery is the sauce fools spoon over failure to hide the flavor of their own incompetence. My mutton-headed uncle had not even troubled to post sentries, it would seem. His host was raw-apprentice boys, miners, fieldhands, fisherfolk, the sweepings of Lannisport. The only mystery is how your brother reached him. Our forces still hold the stronghold at the Golden Tooth, and they swear he did not pass.”
I’ve always thought it interesting that we learn about Robb’s victory at Oxcross from the Lannisters trying to defend King’s Landing, as Catelyn is too far away from Riverrun to hear the new from a Stark/Tully perspective. Part of that has to do with GRRM’s choice to have Catelyn on the scene in Storm’s End. But I think part of the reason is to show how thoroughly Robb Stark has wrecked Tywin Lannister’s plans.
- First, the Westerlands have lost 10,000 men. What I learned in my read-through of the SoSpakeMartin archives that I hadn’t known before is that most of the 4,000 men that Ser Forley Prester rescued from the disaster of the Battle of the Camps are among that 10,000. In total, Robb Stark has killed 21,000 Westermen in about six months; a bit over half of the Westerlands forces raised to date, and probably just under half of the total number of fighting men the Westerlands can muster. This will change the balance of power for a generation – the Lannisters can no longer win the war on their own, can no longer credibly govern the Seven Kingdom on their own. No wonder Tywin Lannister will place such importance on alliances from here on out.
- Second, as a result Tywin no longer has a second army that would allow him to gain the tactical flexibility he had in the opening stages of the war, and the numerical advantage that he has never won a battle without. That last point is very important – from the Rains of Castamere to the Sack of King’s Landing to the Lannister invasion of the Riverlands to the Battle of Blackwater Bay, Tywin has held to his own version of the Powell Doctrine. It is an open question whether Tywin Lannister is capable of winning a battle without a numerical advantage.
- Third, the Westerlands are now under threat and this presents both political and military dangers. Considering how low Lannister morale is already, the Battle of Oxcross must have hit like a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky – the army that they’ve been waiting for to win the war is now destroyed; major lords are dead on the field and fifty more are taken prisoner (and for the officers of Tywin’s army, these are their relatives); and the supposedly impregnable defenses of the Golden Tooth have been completely bypassed, such that Robb Stark is now loose in the west with no one left to oppose him. As I have said before, these are medieval, feudal armies, not professional standing armies; they fight out of political obligation, for a limited time, and they have expectations of their liege lords. It is to Tywin Lannister’s credit that he keeps his army together at all, but I honestly believe that had he not given the order to march west to relieve the danger to the lands and families of his vassals, his army would have begun to break apart.
- Fourth, the focus of the war has been shifted from Harrenhal to Casterly Rock. For months, Tywin Lannister has tried to stay in position at Harrenhal, threatening the Riverlands and hopefully enticing the Starks into a deadly and futile assault while remaining in position to relieve King’s Landing. And now for a second time, Robb Stark has completely altered the strategic picture of the war: Tywin now has to make a choice between King’s Landing and the Westerlands that is, barring the intervention of the Tyrells (and almost, almost would have happened even with that), a lose-lose situation. If he marches west, King’s Landing may fall in his absence and with it everything he’s been fighting for and all political legitimacy. If he marches east, the Westerlands might fall, leaving him as ruler of nothing more than the capitol itself.
I’m a long-time defender of Robb Stark’s military strategy, that’s not exactly a mystery. And part of the reason why I am is that presentism seems to bite down especially hard with regards to this. The Western campaign is frequently derided as a sideshow, as a post-facto justification for pointless raiding, a futile attempt to ward off inevitable defeat. The problem with this is that this ignores everything that’s going on at the moment. The Lannisters are losing the war and have been for seven months. Robb’s stratagem broadly works – Tywin abandons his defenses at Harrenhal and the Lannister occupation of the Riverlands, and comes after Robb despite being badly outnumbered by the combined Stark/Tully forces.
It will take a truly remarkable set of events happening at the right time to make it fail, as George R.R Martin’s thumb begins pressing down on the scales of fate. As we go forward in the series, keep your eyes on all the different things that have to go wrong to make the fall of House Stark possible.
One of the reasons why Sansa’s mental fortitude is so impressive is that it’s not that unusual for people in her circumstances to actually change their allegiances. Stockholm Syndrome, the term coined after the Norrmalmstorg robbery in 1973, was coined to describe the behavior of the hostages, who reportedly came to sympathize with their captor, despite the fact that he repeatedly threatened to kill them if the police and generally was quite violent (some accounts cast doubt on the extent of the mental shift, arguing that the hostages didn’t actually come to identify with their captor, but rather became angered by the police’s militant response that they felt exposed them to unnecessary harm). This idea was also used in the case of the abduction of Patty Hearst, who was badly abused by the Symbionese Liberation Army but who then participated in a number of robberies – again, there was a question of how genuine the “conversion” was, as Patty Heart’s life was often (although not always) threatened by the SLA during those robberies, so it’s unclear to what extent she was “brainwashed” versus doing what was necessary to survive.
Regardless of whether Stockholm Syndrome is real – and even the FBI think that it only happens in 5-8% of cases – “trauma bonding” is not an unusual phenomenon in cases of abuse. It’s essentially a survival technique, whereby the desire to avoid violence and have some sense of control over one’s environment leads to the creation of an emotional attachment with the abuser.
I bring up these recent psychological phenomena because one of the things I find interesting about the Wars of the Roses is how often you get cases of women from one side of the conflict marrying into the other side of the conflict and coming to identify with that side – whether we’re talking about Elizabeth Woodville who married Edward IV despite her first husband’s death fighting for the Lancastrians, or both Isabel and Anne Neville marrying George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester despite both men having fought in the battle where their father was killed, or indeed Elizabeth of York who married Henry Tudor despite the fact that he had killed her uncle Richard and would after their marriage have her cousin Edward of Warwick (her uncle George’s son) executed. And lest we think that these marriages were unwilling or purely political, by all reports all of these marriages were genuinely loving and usually happy, although by no means perfect. Is this Stockholm Syndrome or “trauma bonding” at work, or politically-savvy women making choices about their allegiances? It’s hard to say.
However, it’s all the more impressive that Sansa Stark, however much she pretends otherwise, never gives in to identifying with the Lannisters.
There’s not a huge scope for hypotheticals that don’t go to really dark and unpleasant places (what if Sansa gets killed, for example), so I’m going to skip that. But next chapter will be chockablock full of them, so don’t fret!
Book vs. Show:
Adaptation is a difficult task, and it’s never more difficult when the understanding of a character’s actions depends on an internal monologue that can’t be easily moved from the page to the screen without becoming rather intrusive and usually clumsy. So I understand that adapting this scene was not easy for Benioff and Weiss. And I have to say, in the main, I think they succeeded through fidelity to the text and some great performances from Sophie Turner, Jack Gleeson, Rory McCann, and Peter Dinklage, to get this scene across to the audience.
However, I do think something was lost by excising Ser Dontos from Sansa’s Season 2 plotline after the first episode, because we lose a vital piece of information about her motivations and how they’re informing her decisions, which makes her a much more dynamic and active character than it appears on the surface. Especially in her decision-making in regards to Sandor Clegane and Tyrion, removing Ser Dontos robs the audience of vital information with which to judge her actions.