Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Sansa V, ACOK

 “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?”

Synopsis: Sansa is trapped in Maegor’s Holdfast with Cersei, who’s not looking very stable.

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.

Political Analysis:

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.

credit to mustamirri

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.

Historical Analysis:

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.

What If?

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.


91 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Sansa V, ACOK

  1. Sean C. says:

    Looking back on these chapters, I think they function as a kind of last word on the Sansa/Cersei dynamic. This is the fullest exploration of the characters’ philosophies and differences, and there’s little more for Sansa to learn about her. Other than her nasty little cameo interaction in ASOS Sansa III, this is the last real interaction (I think their meeting again is unlikely).

    Adaptation-wise, these scenes in Maegor’s Holdfast are probably the high point of the season, and perhaps the series, for Sansa; it’s pretty much all downhill from here (with the few blips of competence basically unearned due to the botching of her skills growth).

    • Yeah, I think that’s right.

      Well, I liked Sansa’s plotline in Season 4.

      • Sean C. says:

        Season 4 was limp most of the way through (removing her involvement in her escape; none of her scenes with Littlefinger were as good as the book ones, though part of that is Gillen’s now customarily awful acting; Turner is doing all the work to make those moments watchable). Lots of people got excited by the ending, which was totally unearned, but at least raised the possibility that the character would be on an upward trajectory going forward, which Season 5 crushed immediately, and therefore in retrospect it thoroughly loses its lustre.

  2. winnief says:

    The quiet drama unfolding in the tower is actually my favorite part of Blackwater and I want to congratulate you on nailing it so perfectly. We have Cersei insisting more than ever on Sansa’s weakness and stupidity while in actuality the teenage hostage is showing far FAR more strength and wisdom than the Queen Regent. Its a telling moment and actually I think the whole dynamic between them here was setting up Sansa as the YMBQ. In fact its one of the chief reasons I believe Sansa is the one.

    I also enjoy your thoughts on the Seven. I remember that in AFFC the Mother has the most candles lit to her showing how powerful the idea of the merciful matriarchal goddess really is for people.

    I agree that Lena and Sophie were sheer dynamite together. One touch from the show that I loved was Sansa’s crack…”I will pray for your safe return Lord Tyrion…just as I pray for the Kings.” Dinklages reaction was priceless.

    • David Hunt says:

      While I agree that Sansa shows a good deal more courage than Cercei and that she has more courage (or “strength”) than the Queen Regent in general, the takeaway that I got from all this is that Cercei has lost hope and Sansa hasn’t. Given their relative position, I can sort of see why.

      Cercei is looking at a huge army and navy that’s coming to overwhelm her. Her only hope of coming out of it alive is Tyrion who she considers incompetent for any task except working toward her destruction where he is an unstoppable nemesis.

      Sansa, on the other hand, has a real chance of her position improving if Stannis takes the city. She’s a lady of a Great House who is enemies of the Lannisters. Even if Stannis takes her as a hostage, she’s no longer subject to Joffrey’s whims, and can expect to be treated according to her station without abuse. Stannis might actually kill her if the politics call for it, but so would the Lannisters and he’s not going to do it on the pretense that she’s magically causing him to lose battles. If she can survive the storming of the Red Keep, her prospects seem likely to improve.

      However, as we will see in her next chapter, Sansa is just better at the queenly duties of maintaining morale that she takes up in Cercei’s stead, for two important reasons. First, as a Stark, she’s had the duties of her station drilled into, probably since she could make complete sentences. She knows what’s needed all the way down to her bones. Cercei has learned what’s expected of her as well, but she doesn’t care about it. She makes a token gesture, but what Cercei has internalized is the snobbery of Tywin Lannister who sees all other people and families in Westeros as some lower class of life.

      Secondly, Sansa is better at maintaining the spirits of her fellow women in the Maidenvault because she’s just a good person, and she tries to keep people from panicking because it’s a kind thing to do.

      • winnief says:

        Exactly. Cersei mouths the words about what’s expected of her but she has no understanding of what it requires or how important it truly is.

        Whereas Sansa instinctively understands that in a situation like this all eyes are on the Royal Household and people WILL take their cues from what they see their queen do. And Cersei’s current behavior is NOT going to inspire much in the way of loyalty.

        I agree Cersei lacked for good role models and Tywin failed to get across to her noblesse oblige but I also think Tywin would be the first to be disgusted if he’d seen for himself how she behaved here. “No more of this drunken wallowing in self pity…you’re a Lannister and Queen…show some dignity for Seven’s sakes!”

      • John Galvano says:

        Yeah, I really appreciate Sansa now that I’ve analyzed/reread. Despite all the awful crap she’s experienced she is still a really good person at heart.

    • Andrew says:

      When you compare Sansa to Cersei, Sansa shows to be more mature, stronger, smarter and ultimately more capable at 13 than Cersei is in her mid-30s.

      Even Tyrion notes her capabilities in ASoS: “She is good at this, he thought, as he watched her tell Lord Gyles that his cough was sounding better, compliment Elinor Tyrell on her gown, and question Jalabhar Xho about wedding customs in the Summer Isles . . . She would have made Joffrey a good queen and a better wife if he’d had the sense to love her.”

      Cersei frequently overestimates her own abilities while she underestimates Sansa’s. Sansa has the ability to make friends while Cersei’s antagonistic nature loses friends and makes enemies.

  3. Andrew says:

    1.”but there were points of color in her cheeks”

    Cersei’s been drinking?

    2. Yeah, that comment regarding Sansa’s flowering is pretty tasteless. It shows how much Cersei internalized her society’s misogyny.

    3. “You’ll kiss it again when I return, and taste my uncle’s blood.”

    Add to this his thinking about Sansa kissing her severed brother’s head later on, and it shows his preference for sexualized humiliation.

  4. David Hunt says:

    Steven, once again a great read. I was fascinated by your talk about religious icons in Constantinople. I had read somewhere that emperors would parade with holy icons in times when the city was in peril, but I don’t think I’d ever heard of the Hodegetria. I know that I’d never heard that holy icons had been built into the city walls themselves.

    As a sidenote, after listening to the History of Byzantium podcast episode on the city that you linked to in a previous article, I have to say that my favorite of the religious icons that they had on display on the giant plinth that Constantine’s statue was on, was the alleged hatchet that Noah used to build the ark.

  5. Julian says:

    Completely OT, but I was trying to figure out the inspiration for Qyburn’s name (not for any sinister reason, honest), and it reminded me of the word “cybernetic,” which has a Greek root that uses a plosive “k” sound in kybernetikes (“governance”), kybernetes (“governor” or “captain”), etc.

  6. Brett says:

    Do you think there’s anything magical behind the Seven? Some of the followers do seem to have meaningful visions and dreams.

    • thatrabidpotato says:

      I don’t. I think the Seven are completely, 100% powerless and fake. The only visions I remember Faith followers having are just as easily attributable to outside influences.

    • winnief says:

      Or the Seven could also be another face of the Old Gods themselves….

      But even if the Seven aren’t ‘real’ in the sense the old gods are they can still be a source of spiritual comfort to their followers.

    • I think it’s possible that the Seven-in-One could once have been an aspect of one of the sources of supernatural power in the world of Ice and Fire. (As are many of the other gods, including the Drowned God and R’hllor.) But whatever it is, it’s very weak now, as people have come to believe in the shell of religious structure surrounding the god rather than the god itself. (See Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods for more on this idea.) There may be occasional influence on the world, but it’s very unlikely to be expressed in major miracles such as that shown by the followers of R’hllor. (And for those, the ones such as resurrection probably would not have happened without the resurgence of magic in the world.) But… sometimes, small things.

      (FWIW GRRM has said we’ll never see absolute proof of any god’s existence and no literal deus ex machina showing up, so we’re free to speculate in any direction.)

      • medrawt says:

        As you point out, if Martin says we’ll never really know for sure about any of these gods, then we can’t really know any of this stuff for sure, or be confident of the connection between magic and divinity. The suggestion that The Seven might be active hadn’t occurred to me, because I was focused on the idea that whatever powers are associated with them haven’t manifested in the way that the powers associated with R’hllor and the Drowned God and the Old Gods have manifested. But perhaps they are present, either weaker, as you suggest, or just holding to a less obviously intercessory role … sending visions, nudging people one way or another in response to prayer, but not manifesting their power overtly.

        I do like your idea that the modern followers of The Seven have gotten sort of confused and watered down and perhaps that’s why they’re not seeing such direct evidence of the divine … like the Ironborn’s interpretation of the Drowned Men. I sort of want Damphair to meet Patchface and twig that Patchface is much more the Real Deal than he is.

        (re: that interview, I don’t have a problem with GRRM ruling out overt confirmation of divinity, though I do wonder how he’ll manage not explaining the relationship between magic and supposed divinity when he explains, as he’s said he will, the magically-imposed seasons … but I think the specific answer he gives is kind of an annoying copout. He doesn’t think gods pop up in our real world because he doesn’t believe in them; throughout history plenty of individuals have believed in some sort of divine manifestation. He also doesn’t believe in magic, but his books take place in a world rife with it. The analogy between us and Westeros doesn’t justify anything if he’s literalized resurrection and prophetic sight and dragons and impossible magic weather.)

      • thatrabidpotato says:

        I’ve been aware of that quote of his for some time, so a lot of this is certainly my headcanon. But at the same time, it really is striking how out of the four major religions of Westeros, the Faith of the Seven is the only only that shows ZERO magical power backing it up.
        We may never see proof positive of any given god’s existence in the books, but it just feels like we’re seeing proof negative when it comes to the Faith.

      • I love Small Gods, so I endorse this theory.

    • I’m not sure. It’s odd, given that every other religion has more explicitly magical things going on with it.

      On the other hand, the Seven believed that the Seven actually walked the earth in Andalos, and that’s pretty explicit.

      • Space Oddity says:

        To be fair, we have at least one, and possibly two Septons that were probably magicians. (Barth and Murmison, the literal miracle worker who for some inexplicable reason suddenly did a 180, and supported Targ incest to the point of marrying Aenys’ kids.)

        On the other hand, both were clearly heterodox Sevenites.

  7. thatrabidpotato says:

    With regards to Sansa praying for Joffrey’s death and humiliation: I don’t think she was talking to the Mother for that one. It’s not the Mother’s sphere, and Sansa’s prayer deliberately echoes the septon’s prayer, as if she’s telling the male gods: “Don’t listen to him, do this instead.”

    • David Hunt says:

      I’ve noticed that Sansa has a really good record of praying for people to come to bad ends and then getting her wish. I’m particularly thinking about her invocations against the Slynts. I think that Janos’ son is humiliated in the joust like she asked for, not that it’s much of a stretch to have that happen. But she also hoped that some hero would cut of Janos Slynt’s head because he had held Eddard down in his own execution. That EXACTLY what happened. The young hero, Jon Snow, avenges Sansa and Eddard by executing Slynt by beheading.

      Here, the Hound will eventually learned to put aside some of his rage on the Quiet Isle and Joffrey’s men will desert him in battle. Although Sansa hasn’t shown any warging effects since Lady died, I sometimes wonder if she still has magical talents like pretty much every one of her siblings.

      • Sean C. says:

        If so, she has the classic genie problem of being unable to wish for things for herself, given how infrequently those work out.

      • winnief says:

        Good points both of you. Sansa can ask for justice for her enemies and mercy for others but so far she’s been deprived of rescuers.

      • Grant says:

        It’s possible, but it’s just as possible that it’s the same things about them that make her wish for their ruin lead to their ruin. Janos is untrustworthy and won’t follow orders to do dangerous work so inevitably he runs into military discipline. Joffrey is a coward (or at the least a teenage boy who isn’t especially brave) who hasn’t done anything to improve anything, so he runs from battle and his men fail him.

        When it comes to the divine and magic* in ASOIAF, it can often be a case of ‘maybe, maybe not’.

        *For example, Melisandre’s leeches. Maybe they were what killed Robb, Joffrey and Balon, maybe it was just those men (used very loosely for Joffrey) were all major leaders in a situation where their deaths benefited other dangerous people.

        • David Hunt says:

          Oh, that’s definitely a possibility. The specificity of Janos Slynt’s death struck me when I re-read ACOK the first time and noticed Sansa’s hope for his beheading.

          It might relate to my interpretation of the leeches. I think Melisandre saw the deaths of the other kings in her fires and then put on a show for Stannis witht he leeches to convince him of her power and win him over enough to give her Edric Storm to sacrifice and raise the stone dragon. Maybe Sansa isn’t laying curses on these people, but foretelling fates that they will meet anyway. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll every know for sure.

          • winnief says:

            That was always my interpretation of the leeches too. If setting up targets for assassination it was rather an odd trio-Tywin would be a much more logical candidate than Balon who wasn’t really a problem for Stannis. Or all three of Cersei’s kids for that matter. No I think she ‘saw’ they were all doomed in the near future and wanted to ‘prove’ her powers to Stannis.

          • Grant says:

            Stannis was the one who was doing the naming though, and you would think that if he were choosing he’d pick Tywin. And she normally isn’t that good with her visions. She could tell that a girl was fleeing later on, but had no idea who it was.

          • I thought they had already had talks about what it was about, that it was meant to kil usurping/rebel kings (though how they thought that would help much in Joffrey’s case when his brother would just be crowned as the next Lannister figurehead, I don’t know), not that Stannis was deciding who to name on the spot.

      • Crystal says:

        Harry the Heir had better have a nice sturdy helmet then, considering Sansa’s wish in her TWOW chapter.

        • Space Oddity says:

          Am I only one who isn’t sure that twerp isn’t being set up to fail big?

          • Space Oddity says:

            IS being set up to fail big! That’s what I meant.

            Look, I’m pretty damn sure Harry is never going to be the next Lord of the Vale.

          • Crystal says:

            I agree that Harry the Heir is not going to rule the Vale. Nor is he going to marry Sansa, for that matter. He’s a red Harryng if ever there was one.

          • Exactly. Harry the Heir has red herring written all over him – does anyone really think a character with that name and nickname is supposed to be taken seriously?

            I’m also starting to think that Sweetrobin won’t die any time soon, because everyone is expecting him to. He’s also had character development since the last time we saw him, and his relationship is Sansa is interesting.

          • Space Oddity says:

            Oh, yeah. Either Sweetrobin is going to shock everyone by proving shockingly durable and outliving most of the people who thought they were going to profit by his death, or Timmet son of Timmet is going to show up with an army and his mother in tow, and start saying “Who’s the one-eyed tribesman who’s got Arryn blood? Me, that’s who.” Which will be followed by Harry humiliating himself in some fashion.

      • I was thinking of Slynt too.

  8. Something interesting here — Sansa’s prayer, “for the living and the dead alike”, is what makes it very hard to tell if she’s been informed at this point of Theon’s taking Winterfell and the reported deaths of her brothers. Tyrion was informed in his last chapter, but it’s anyone’s guess if the news was told to Sansa. She lists Bran and Rickon in the prayer, but along with definitely dead people like her father and King Robert and Jory Cassel, and unknowns like Arya, so we don’t know what category she puts the boys in. And her repression/compartmentalization of bad thoughts means even if she were aware of Winterfell she wouldn’t necessarily express that in any chapter, especially these stressful ones.

    Anyway, the first we know that she knows for sure is in ASOS, when she realizes she’s Robb’s heir, but we never get an immediate reaction from her. I do find it frustrating that Arya gets a reaction scene to this news and she doesn’t, (and for that mater Sansa’s reaction to the Red Wedding isn’t even in her own POV), but, well, GRRM.

    • Sean C. says:

      One of the weirder realizations I had when thinking about the show’s season 5 changes is that I don’t think Sansa has ever so much as thought Theon’s name in the books, even in terms of how he supposedly murdered her brothers.

      Also in terms of missing reactions, Jon’s lack of initial reaction to all the stuff that happened while he was on the ranging is a bit disappointing.

      • poorquentyn says:

        Yeah, this is a consistent problem with everyone but Arya, ain’t it?

        • Sean C. says:

          I’ll be interested to see, next time we check in with Bran, if he’s already gotten the infodump about everything that happened post-ACOK. As far as he knows, Sansa and Arya are in KL (Arya’s dream in “Mercy” suggests he’s aware of her) and Robb and Catelyn are still alive.

          • I think Bran knows that Arya wasn’t mentioned in the letters sent from KL so he must have assumed she was missing/presumed dead like Robb did, but yeah, he’s definitely aware of her now. As for Robb and Catelyn, Bran dreamed of the Red Wedding via Summer’s connection to Grey Wind, but repressed it. (“No, I mustn’t think about that dream. He had not even told the Reeds, though Meera at least seemed to sense that something was wrong. If he never talked of it maybe he could forget he ever dreamed it, and then it wouldn’t have happened and Robb and Grey Wind would still be…” –ASOS Bran IV, c.f. ADWD Bran III where he wants to teach Robb how to fly.)

            But he knows Grey Wind is dead, he knows Robb is dead… as for Catelyn, his POV hasn’t let on what he knows, but the weirwood roots in the Brotherhood’s cave make me think he’ll know about Lady Stoneheart by TWOW for sure.

            (And I hope a raven talks to Sansa one day, but lord knows if I’ll ever get my wish…)

      • winnief says:

        Yeah. While the whole storyline for Sansa last season was misguided they did at least address her feelings about Theon.

        And for that matter on the show we get Jon’s reaction to the RW.

      • thatrabidpotato says:

        Sansa mentions Theon once, talking to Tyrion in their litter on the way to the Purple Wedding.
        “And Theon Greyjoy killed him, but that was later.”
        Other than that, she never thinks of him.

      • It was probably meant to avoid doing the same “shock and grief” scene for several different POV characters. It would get repetitive fast. How many different ways for people to hear about their siblings’ deaths can you think of?

        There’s one issue though where a lack of reaction even later is odd. We know Jon knows about Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion at least by ADWD. And unlike Arya, he is not disbelieving it or repressing it. But he only thinks about Tyrion that he was a good friend to him (even though they knew each other for a very short time) so he didn’t think Tyrion would do something like murder his father. So, Jon clearly doesn’t hold Sansa’s forced marriage to Tyrion against Tyrion, unlike Robb and Cat, for instance. So, does he think that Tyrion was an innocent party there? Is he sure Tyrion didn’t rape Sansa (as opposed to Robb and Cat, who immediately assumed he did), even though consummating that marriage was politically important? Does he care? Did he even think about it? It’s a pretty strange oversight.

    • It’s a good question. I could see it going either way.

  9. Oh, and show-Shae’s thigh dagger was meant for attempted rapists in the looting of the Red Keep/possible sacking of the city, not for Ilyn Payne.

    • Oh. I completely misread that scene then.

      • IIRC the scene goes like: Shae tells Sansa to run back to her room and lock the door, Sansa asks her “what about you?”, and Shae says fiercely “no one is raping me” and lifts her skirt to show the thigh dagger, but I might be misremembering.

    • Grant says:

      I’d thought that she meant she’d use it on herself, since any would-be rapists there will probably be well armed.

      • Sean C. says:

        That was what I thought as well.

        But then, she was inexplicably able to use that dagger to force Cersei’s maid-spy into silence about Sansa’s period, so perhaps it has magic powers that would allow her to slay much more powerful attackers.

        • Grant says:

          A maid is easier to cow with a threat of violence than an armed man, though you’d think she could just report to Cersei both that Sansa’s finally ready to be wed and that there’s this strange maid that threatened her life if she talked (that would get Shae dragged off for questioning fast).

          • Sean C. says:

            Yeah, that was what I meant. The logical outcome of that scene should have been Shae’s head rotting atop a spike.

      • David Hunt says:

        Shae, even ShowShae is not the type of person to commit suicide. She meant that she’d kill her rapist. I give her the credit to plan on letting the man get close before palming the knife and cutting his throat. It might not have worked, but I’m pretty sure she was planning something like that.

        • Grant says:

          It almost definitely wouldn’t have worked considering that he probably wouldn’t be alone and would be a trained fighter, but maybe that’s just how she goes. Take a chance to get a stab in even if the odds are bad.

          • Andrew says:

            The Wrath of the Khan’s podcast mentions that many women would commit suicide prior to the fall of the city.
            In ADWD wasnt there a cannibal who goaded Stannis’ men into killing him before he could be burned? I think Shae was thinking something on those lines- better to go down swinging on your own terms.

          • The ironborn were trained and that didn’t stop Osha.

            As long as you don’t kill a friend the others may just pick easier prey. It would take luck but worst case Show Shae is taking some of them with her.

          • Grant says:

            I really do not think that they would leave her to find someone else. I could believe that a woman probably pretty used to fighting for her life could get one or two men who aren’t expecting violence, I couldn’t believe that Shae could kill a would-be rapist, escape any of his comrades nearby (most of whom will be armed and wearing armor) and get out of there safely. If she’s got that dagger and is being realistic, she’s either got it for suicide or one last act of defiance.

          • That wasn’t a similar situation at all, so I don’t see how it applies. Osha was supposedly an ally of the Ironborn, getting cosy with one of the guys and promising sex – one of the signs that this is what happened in the books is that he had two cups, IIRC; so this was clearly meant to be a date. She used seduction to get close to him and then killed him. Similarly to the “washerwomen” in ADWD.

            Shae would have been attacked by a group of armed men on a rampage, looking to rape and possibly kill whoever they find.

          • Probably a “I’m going down fighting” kind of thing, she would try to stab them and maybe take out one or two if she’s lucky, and they would need to fight her and kill her then.

  10. Chinoiserie says:

    The Mother/Warrior contrast coupl be just be your usual commentary about the contrast of peacefull and violent ways of religion and not a hint that there was ever this idealized matchriarcal religion. And the Seven are obviously a commentary of Christianity, catholics expecially with its three aspects, I see Seven as monotheistic religion. And I see that Smith represents building figuritavely and literary, Warrior strength in battle again figuratively and literary, and Father judgement. So the class lines are more incidental than intended. They nor Wisdom/Mercy/Innocence might not have been gendered for worship either in the first place but it is the society that gendred the worship not the other way around.

    Sorry if there are typos, writing from a phone and English is not my first language.

    • Just a theory on my part.

      • Grant says:

        Unless we ever see direct evidence that deities do exist (and I think Martin’s said we won’t), from the constructed religion point of view it makes sense to assume that at some point in the Faith’s past the Seven were separate deities* that were combined. I’m not sure if there’s any religion on Earth that doesn’t have a considerable amount of assimilation and combination from the religion of the ancient Egyptians to Shintoism. Exactly who and when is up to question of course.

        *Of course given the setting it’s equally possible that the Seven really are real and all seven are aspects of a greater deity.

    • John Galvano says:

      What is your first language, if you don’t mind me asking?

  11. Steven Xue says:

    Funny how Cersei has a low opinion about the loyalty of sellswords later on she doens’t have such prejudices towards the Kettleblacks who are a sellsword house. She is going to promote one to the Kingsguard and make another the head of the Goldcloaks.

  12. John Galvano says:

    Which of the Arab sieges was the closest to success?

    • Roger says:

      Probably the 674-678 but it’s difficult to say. They managed to keep a stronghold near the straits and launch periodic raids for years, but without success.

  13. First Time Caller says:

    What always makes me wince in this scene is Cersei blithely talking about Sansa’s menstruation, right in front of her and everyone else. To me, it’s a sign that – just like you said – she’s completely losing it.

  14. Roger says:

    Cersei assumes Stannis men would rape and kill (as his father did 15 years ago). Even Tyrion tells the men the city will burn. But it must be noted Stannis keeps his men disciplined. At Castleblack his men came from apocaliptic defeat at Blackwater, from tiresome travel to the wall, from a forced march from Westwatch and from a battle with giants and mammouths… And he didn’t allow them to sack or “have fun” with the Wildlings.

    Of course Blackwater is a bigger and chaotic battle. But burning the city and killing the noble women at the Red Keep is completly against Stannis interests. He needs the city and he needs the hostages. Also some kinglanders would welcome him.

    Ironicaly is Tyrion who almost burns the city with his wildfire plot. And a Lannister’s commander (the Hound) who almost rape a girl.

  15. […] perspective. We also see Joffrey’s visit to the Great Sept of Baelor that Sansa witnessed in Sansa V, but the focus on prayer and religion as a civilian response to war is paired with a slightly wider […]

  16. […] I would place second – she’s in the Red Keep, where Mandon Moore and Joffrey were prior to leaving for the walls, but she’s also walled up in Maegor’s Holdfast when Tyrion joins the sortie and not […]

  17. […] a camera to cover the new regime in King’s Landing) And in retrospect, I almost wish that Sansa V, Sansa VI, and this chapter were back-to-back a la Dany’s novellas, because the parallels […]

  18. […] I’ve talked before about how GRRM uses the recurring motif of “true knighthood” to talk about the romanticization of warfare vs. the existential nature of honor. But here, the fact that Jaime, who we’ll find out later in this book was once the biggest fanboy of knighthood culture, is the one posing as the cynic points to the truth that Sandor Clegane is not the only disappointed idealist in ASOIAF. […]

  19. […] doesn’t yet know that her prayer has, in fact, been answered. (Which is not the first time that a prayer of Catelyn’s blood has seemingly been answered by GRRM the Seven…) […]

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