“The Mother’s altar and the Warrior’s swam in light, but Smith and Crone and Maid and Father had their worshipers as well, and there were even a few flames dancing below the Stranger’s half-human face…for what was Stannis Baratheon, if not the Stranger come to judge 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.
With Sansa V, we move from having a panoramic view of the city to claustrophobic confinement to Maegor’s Holdfast in the Red Keep, which is an interesting decision on George R.R Martin’s part, because it means that Sansa has no direct view of the battle. While that’s not unusual for a civilian, as I’ll discuss later, it also means that she doesn’t get a view of how 99% of the civilian population is actually experiencing the siege. Given that this is a conscious writing choice by GRRM, there must be some purpose behind it – so let’s explore what that might be.
That Old-Time Religion
One thing that the decision to not have Sansa out in the city is that there’s time for other topics, and here we get a pretty in-depth examination of the Faith of the Seven, which as we’ve noted before is something that ties Catelyn and Sansa together thematically. Sansa V is one of the longest explorations of how the Faith functions for worshipers that we’ve gotten to date, and it’s worth exploring. To start with, Sansa poses a discerning question about the theological ramifications of the Seven’s heptarchianism:
In the sept they sing for the Mother’s mercy but on the walls it’s the Warrior they pray to, and all in silence. She remembered how Septa Mordane used to tell them that the Warrior and the Mother were only two faces of the same great god. But if there is only one, whose prayers will be heard?
Given the history of polytheistic pantheons often coming about via a process of cultural exchange and assimilation, it’s likely that the Seven came to be as part of a religious merger between formerly separate cult, and likely a case in which in which a Mother-Maiden-Crone figure was absorbed by a male-dominated religion, so that their potential subversiveness could be safely channeled. Consider for example, how the female aspects of the seven represent a universal gendered experience – all women age from Maiden to Mother to Crone without embodying anything other than a traditional female role or virtue. By contrast, men are depicted as having varied experiences, separated by class and occupation into the peasantry (the Smith), the knighthood (the Warrior), and the nobility (the Father). Thus, as we can see in the case of the War of Five Kings, when the values that the Mother and the Warrior espouse come in conflict, it is the side that dominates the sociopolitical structure that wins out.
And yet…in the same way that Marianism in Medieval Christianity preserved a female claim on spiritual authority despite the best efforts of the all-male clergy to define what was and wasn’t acceptable doctrine and practice, we can see the survival and resistance of that older way of thinking within the Faith. Consider the Hymn to the Mother:
Gentle Mother, font of mercy/save our sons from war, we pray,
stay the swords and stay the arrows/let them know a better day.
Gentle Mother, strength of women/help our daughters through this fray,
soothe the wrath and tame the fury/teach us all a kinder way.
In this prayer, we can see a unique voice, embodying the “strength of women,” speaking out against an activity literally deified by a male aspect of the Seven. The Mother contests with the Warrior, not merely to protect her sons and daughters, but to end war itself and “teach us a kinder way.” There is a quiet rebellion here, and one that I hope we see again, because it shows us a side of the Seven that contrasts sharply with the Sparrow Movement. For all that the Sparrows decry violence against civilians, there is a narrow puritanism and overt misogyny to the Sparrows that shows up every time they appeal to the judgement of the Father over the mercy of the Mother, and seek to redefine mercy as consonant with torture.
However, Sansa has her own understanding of spirituality apart from the traditions handed down to her, a perspective that deserves independent examination:
Sansa knew most of the hymns, and followed along on those she did not know as best she could. She sang along with grizzled old serving men and anxious young wives, with serving girls and soldiers, cooks and falconers, knights and knaves, squires and spit boys and nursing mothers. She sang with those inside the castle walls and those without, sang with all the city. She sang for mercy, for the living and the dead alike, for Bran and Rickon and Robb, for her sister Arya and her bastard brother Jon Snow, away off on the Wall. She sang for her mother and her father, for her grandfather Lord Hoster and her uncle Edmure Tully, for her friend Jeyne Poole, for old drunken King Robert, for Septa Mordane and Ser Dontos and Jory Cassel and Maester Luwin, for all the brave knights and soldiers who would die today, and for the children and the wives who would mourn them, and finally, toward the end, she even sang for Tyrion the Imp and for the Hound. He is no true knight but he saved me all the same, she told the Mother. Save him if you can, and gentle the rage inside him.
But when the septon climbed on high and called upon the gods to protect and defend their true and noble king, Sansa got to her feet. The aisles were jammed with people. She had to shoulder through while the septon called upon the Smith to lend strength to Joffrey’s sword and shield, the Warrior to give him courage, the Father to defend him in his need. Let his sword break and his shield shatter, Sansa thought coldly as she shoved out through the doors, let his courage fail him and every man desert him.
This is a rare moment of cross-class unity, showing a strong contrast with Sansa’s experience of the King’s Landing riot, which speaks all the more highly of Sansa given how little exposure she’s had to the smallfolk since coming to the capitol. At the same time, Sansa shows an interesting ambiguity in singing “with those inside the castle walls and those without…for all the brave knights and soldiers who would die today, and for the children and the wives who would mourn them.” In so far as much as GRRM has brought some of his anti-war perspective, I think it comes here in the recognition of the common humanity of both sides, the refusal to utterly condemn or dehumanize one’s enemy. Indeed, for Sansa “the quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” – allowing her to pray for both Tyrion and the Hound, the two Lannisters/Lannister followers who have showed her some human decency and thus are redeemable as people.
Sansa’s emphasis is rather more on the latter, and raises some interesting questions about the Hound. First, is it the case that “he is no true knight?” The Hound refuses to hit women no matter who orders him to, did save a young maiden from danger, will demonstrate enormous bravery in the field in Davos III, and while he certainly did murder Micah, that doesn’t make him that different from most knights. It may be the case – continuing Sansa’s theme of surfaces vs. reality – that Sansa is reacting to his surface appearance and performance rather than looking at his actions at a deep level. On the other hand, the Hound’s sanity is less than secure, so as we’ll discuss in Sansa VII, his offer of escape might well be one to avoid. Regardless, Sansa’s plea to the Mother to “save him if you can, and gentle the rage inside him” seems to be one of those rare cases in which the Seven seem to act at least on a thematic level, given how the Hound manages to survive the battle, his trial by combat, the Red Wedding, and a near-fatal wound, and does find peace on the Quiet Isle.
At the same time, Sansa’s sense of mercy has one specific limit – Joffrey. In a refreshing avoidance of Stockholm Syndrome, Sansa goes decidedly Old Testament and prays for Joffrey to fail as a warrior, because as I feel we have to keep repeated, she’s still a Stark at heart. (As we can see from the fact that she prays for “Bran and Rickon and Robb, for her sister Arya and her bastard brother Jon Snow, away off on the Wall. She sang for her mother and her father, for her grandfather Lord Hoster and her uncle Edmure Tully,” to say nothing of “her friend Jeyne Poole, for old drunken King Robert, for Septa Mordane and Ser Dontos and Jory Cassel and Maester Luwin.”) And as with the Hound, this seems to be a case where Sansa’s prayer to the Mother to “let his courage fail him and every man desert him” comes true – Joffrey abandons his men on the walls of King’s Landing and the gold cloaks do rout as a consequence.
Something to think about when it comes to burning holy statues…
The Reverse Uriah
Speaking of cursing Joffrey to defeat, Sansa is summoned by Joffrey “as if he were calling a dog,” and has to once again fall back into her performance of loyalty, while trying to keep herself safe from his deeply disturbing sexual sadism:
“My new blade, Hearteater.”
He’d owned a sword named Lion’s Tooth once, Sansa remembered. Arya had taken it from him and thrown it in a river. I hope Stannis does the same with this one. “It is beautifully wrought, Your Grace.”
“Bless my steel with a kiss.” He extended the blade down to her. “Go on, kiss it.”
He had never sounded more like a stupid little boy. Sansa touched her lips to the metal, thinking that she would kiss any number of swords sooner than Joffrey. The gesture seemed to please him, though. He sheathed the blade with a flourish. “You’ll kiss it again when I return, and taste my uncle’s blood.”
Only if one of your Kingsguard kills him for you. Three of the White Swords would go with Joffrey and his uncle: Ser Meryn, Ser Mandon, and Ser Osmund Kettleblack. “Will you lead your knights into battle?” Sansa asked, hoping.
“I would, but my uncle the Imp says my uncle Stannis will never cross the river. I’ll command the Three Whores, though. I’m going to see to the traitors myself.” The prospect made Joff smile. His plump pink lips always made him look pouty. Sansa had liked that once, but now it made her sick.
“They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting is thickest,” she said recklessly. “Though he’s older than Your Grace, to be sure. A man grown.”
It doesn’t take a PhD in Freudian psychoanalysis to note that Joffrey’s sword is a penis substitute – which makes Arya taking his first sword and throwing it in the river even more emasculating – but given the context of his stripping her in the throne room, his fascination with violence, and his lack of sexual interest in general, making her kiss his sword is a symbolic violation. At the same time, I think we can also see that Joffrey is trying to perform masculinity, playing the great warrior (although he doesn’t really think through his desire to become a putative kinslayer), without really being able to follow through. By contrast, Sansa’s survival mechanism put her in good stead as she attempts to goad Joffrey onto the battlefield so that he can get himself killed, using the tropes of chivalric romance to disguise her efforts.
Sansa Among the Women
Once this confrontation is over, however, Sansa goes into seclusion, passing from unity with the masses to a class-based isolation. And she will remain there until almost to the end of the book, stuck with the highborn women in Maegor’s Holdfast:
Almost every highborn woman in the city sat at the long trestle tables, along with a handful of old men and young boys. The women were wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters. Their men had gone out to fight Lord Stannis. Many would not return. The air was heavy with the knowledge. As Joffrey’s betrothed, Sansa had the seat of honor on the queen’s right hand.
While Sansa’s class position provides her with the
reality illusion of security, in contrast to Arya who spends all of A Clash of Kings exposed to the war in the Riverlands, there is no such mental safety. Because sitting at the center of it all, like a black hole sucking in all optimism and sanity, is Cersei Lannister. Now to be fair to Cersei, she’s slowly losing her mind for some rather important reasons. As we’ll go into more in Sansa VI, Cersei hates her own gender but is forced by her gender to shelter in this room. Despite every attempt she’s made to seize power in her own right, she’s spend the entire book losing every scrap of power she managed to grab to the brother she sees as the agent of her destruction, and now finds herself literally removed from power and shoved back into the woman’s sphere.
At the same time, there’s something of an irony in her interactions with Sansa here, in that for all that Cersei pretends to be the caricature of a “Strong Female Character,” it’s Cersei who’s cracking under the strain and Sansa (the one who Cersei belittles constantly, in no small part because of her performance of femininity) who is keeping calm and carrying on:
“Be seated,” the queen said when she had taken her place on the dais, “and be welcome.” Osfryd Kettleblack held her chair; a page performed the same service for Sansa. “You look pale, Sansa,” Cersei observed. “Is your red flower still blooming?”
“How apt. The men will bleed out there, and you in here.” The queen signaled for the first course to be served.
To begin with, I think this is meant to be a kind of a shallow and facile observation. Yes, we’ve seen throughout ASOIAF that childbirth is equated with battle, but usually the people making that comparison (Aerion Damphair, Randyll Tarly) are misogynist douchebags of the first water. (While I’m at it, I might as well make a quick stop at the Accountability Corner and admit that I dropped the ball on this topic in Catelyn V, as I didn’t analyze Brienne’s swearing of fealty to Catelyn and her definition of “a woman’s courage.” I will try to repair this error before the book comes out) At the same time, Cersei’s seeming calmness barely masks an ocean of crazy floating under the surface. Her concern about Sansa’s health would normally be a rare moment of decency, but when you know that Cersei is plotting to include her in Cersei’s murder-suicide pact, it comes off as really dissociative:
She was climbing the dais when she saw the man standing in the shadows by the back wall. He wore a long hauberk of oiled black mail, and held his sword before him: her father’s greatsword, Ice, near as tall as he was. Its point rested on the floor, and his hard bony fingers curled around the crossguard on either side of the grip. Sansa’s breath caught in her throat. Ser Ilyn Payne seemed to sense her stare. He turned his gaunt, pox-ravaged face toward her…
“Why is Ser Ilyn here?” Sansa blurted out.
The queen glanced at the mute headsman. “To deal with treason, and to defend us if need be. He was a knight before he was a headsman.” She pointed her spoon toward the end of the hall, where the tall wooden doors had been closed and barred. “When the axes smash down those doors, you may be glad of him.”
I would be gladder if it were the Hound, Sansa thought. Harsh as he was, she did not believe Sandor Clegane would let any harm come to her.
For all that Sansa is called a naif, she often has good instincts about people. Way back in her first POV chapter, she pegged Ilyn Payne as a bad person. And so, it turns out that Cersei can’t fool Sansa despite her belief to the contrary. Now, Ilyn Payne’s purpose is something that I’m going to hold off discussing into Sansa VI where there’s a lot more material to work with, but just to tease that discussion, I want to remind people that Cersei is proceeding on the basis that this is Maggy the Frog’s prophecy at work. Now, there’s a lot of ways that doesn’t really make sense as interpretation of prophecy – all of her children are still alive, Sansa’s not really in any position to take everything away from her, and Tyrion isn’t exactly in a position to kill her. However, I think it does push back on people who critiqued Cersei’s AFFC chapters as being too focused on the prophecy as a motivating factor; you can see clear signs of how it’s affecting her behavior several books earlier.
Speaking of Cersei losing it, in addition to the looming presence of Ilyn Payne, her pretense at cynical detachment is one of those things that seems at first glance as knowing wisdom, but begins to unpeel at the edges:
“Won’t your guards protect us?”
“And who will protect us from my guards?” The queen gave Osfryd a sideways look.
“Loyal sellswords are rare as virgin whores. If the battle is lost, my guards will trip on those crimson cloaks in their haste to rip them off. They’ll steal what they can and flee, along with the serving men, washerwomen, and stableboys, all out to save their own worthless hides. Do you have any notion what happens when a city is sacked, Sansa? No, you wouldn’t, would you? All you know of life you learned from singers, and there’s such a dearth of good sacking songs.”
“True knights would never harm women and children.” The words rang hollow in her ears even as she said them.
As I have said many times, GRRM is not a nihilist, he’s a romantic who has some understanding of reality. Yes, much of what Cersei says comes to pass – the goldcloaks do rout when they think the battle is lost, and there’s quite a few cases of looting and the like. But it’s not the whole of human nature either. Ser Jacelyn Bywater, Tyrion, Podrick Payne, and so many more will show quite astonishing levels of bravery in the face of overwhelming circumstances. So while Sansa’s idealism is perhaps not entirely right, I don’t think it’s entirely wrong either; it’s just that heroism doesn’t always get rewarded and often comes from unexpected people. And for that matter, Cersei’s own cynicism, her sang-froid at the idea of losing the battle, is a hollow shell, as we’ll see in Sansa VII.
A discussion of the sieges of Constantinople would not be complete without a discussion of the role that religion played in the defense of the city. In no small part because the city was founded by Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantinople was fervently Christian, albeit in a uniquely Byzantine way that other parts of the Christian world didn’t always agree with. And first among those fervently-held beliefs was the idea that Constantinople was God’s chosen city. This began with the idea that Constantine was divinely inspired when he saw the location of Byzantium and was directed by God to build a city there to honor him; after all, legend held that Constantine had had a vision from God before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that granted him victory and made him master of the known world, so it wasn’t exactly a stretch.
But it didn’t end there. One of the beliefs encouraged by the Patriarchy of Constantinople was the idea that the city itself was divinely protected, that it would never, could never fall to the enemy. This was a belief that was highly appealing to the Byzantine people, especially when barbarians came raiding over the often-porous borders of the Empire and refugees fled toward the imperial capitol for protection. And whatever you might believe about the religious origin of that protection, the odds seemed to bear it out – Constantinople was besieged at least twenty times in its long history, and only twice that history was it successfully taken (by outsiders at least; Byzantines didn’t count sieges during civil wars).
Underlying that belief was the Hodegetria, an icon of the Virgin Mary, supposedly painted by Saint Luke and brought to Constantinople by the wife of Emperor Theodosius II (the same emperor who built the walls, so you can see the association). This icon was the chief among Constantinople’s many icons, some of which were set into the Theodosian Walls and were believed to provide supernatural protection. (Hence why the Empire’s religious conflicts over iconoclasm vs. iconophilism were so controversial)
Central to its legend was the Persian Siege of 626: at a time when the Persians had conquered Palestine, Syria, Armenia and were invading Asia Minor itself, when the Emperor Heraclius was out in the field in Mesopotomia far from the capitol, when the capitol was surrounded by an army of 80,000 Persians, Slavs, and Avars, the city’s defense fell to the Patriarch of Constantinople. To rally the 12,000 defenders, the Patriarch carried the Hodegetria around the Theodosian Walls to bless them. Again and again, the Slavs and Avars attacked the walls; again and again they were hurled back. Then from the Asiatic side, the Persians and the Avar-Slav alliance sent force their navies to try to attack the sea walls and land men to continue the assault on the land walls.
The Patriarch called out the Byzantine navy, and the single Byzantine fleet destroyed both the Avar-Slavic fleet and the Persian fleet as they attempted to attack the sea walls of Constantinople. At this moment, word arrived of the Emperor Heraclius’ victories in Mesopotamia, the Persians were forced to retreat, and the Avars and Slavs fled the field. Credit for the victory was given, not to the sailors and marines, but to the Hodegetria. The Virgin Mary’s protection held.
The first Arab Siege of 674-678 only continued this belief. After decades of military disasters which had seen the Arabs sweep out of the deserts and conquer Persia and virtually all the Byzantine Empire’s eastern territories, now the great general and Caliph Muawiyah was knocking on Constantinople’s doorstep. Knowing that the Byzantine army was exhausted and demoralized, Constantine IV put his money into the Byzantine navy and the newfangled weapon of Greek Fire. Four years of grinding siege warfare and naval combat ended one night in early 678, when Constantine IV sent in his ships with their fire and the enemy routed. As the Arab fleet sailed home, it was almost completely destroyed by a huge storm that swept into the Sea of Marmora and scattered the ships that had humiliated Emperor Konstans II at the Battle of the Masts into non-existance. Once again, credit was given to the Hodegetria, which had visited God’s wrath upon the enemy.
So beware of people who pray to the Mother. Their prayers are answered.
There’s really no scope for hypotheticals here, so check back next time!
Book vs. Show:
“Blackwater” is one of my favorite episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones, easily in the top five episodes of the entire show, so you’re not going to get much in the way of critique from me. Lena Headey, finally given some leeway not to underplay Cersei, gives some of the best drunk-acting the series has ever given, as a woman on the verge of losing her mind but held together by the shreds of pride. And Sophie Turner holds up well in enduring the unending attentions of Queen Cersei, who behaves like a boss at a Christmas party who turns out to be an over-friendly drunk who wants everyone else to be just as drunk as they are.
If there’s a bum note in the scene, it’s that the whole business with Shae and Ilyn Payne doesn’t quite come off right. Shae’s whole encounter with Cersei only points to how poorly the whole disguise-Shae-as-Sansa’s-maid plan works in a scenario in which Shae is an Essosi woman and not a Westerosi. Likewise, how her thigh dagger was supposed to stop Ilyn Payne never made any sense at all.