By Mira Waters
Sansa Stark is easily one of the most hated characters in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, and by extension, of its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. She is considered stupid, shallow, vain, disposable, and deserving of the abuses she suffers soon after her father’s death. Many argue that she learns nothing, does nothing, and that surely she’ll die soon. GRRM, while seemingly a “kill everyone” writer, makes his arcs and parallels painfully clear, and through his subversion of tropes and archetypes, gives his audience a clear indicator of who will survive. Despite the wishes of fanboys everywhere, Sansa Stark is here to stay, and may be one of the most important characters in political-fantasy to date. The young girl, trained in courtesy and domestic arts, began coming of age, gaining political awareness, and fighting for her own survival before many other characters in this series, and has the potential to become the most powerful player of “the game of thrones” in Westeros.
As the eldest daughter of Eddard “Ned” Stark, the Warden of the North, it is only natural that Sansa be brought up to be a lady: a loyal subject to the crown, a pleasing addition to the jovial pageantry of court, a dutiful wife and mother. At the age of 11, Sansa already excels at all that is expected of her. She sews, dances, sings, takes lessons in the high harp and the bells, dresses well, and is already considered an absolute beauty. The dichotomy of feminine Sansa and her tomboy little sister, Arya, coupled with the modern tendency to champion a misunderstanding of feminism in the form of “strong women” only, erroneously causes many readers and viewers to assume that Sansa is somehow in the wrong from the very beginning. They view her through the misconception-colored glasses of “femininity=weakness”, and assume she is weak, soft, and shallow.
However, the tourney in honor of Eddard Stark’s new title of Hand of the King is one of the first instances of us seeing Sansa’s domestic skills weaponized:
Jeyne covered her eyes whenever a man fell, like a frightened little girl, but Sansa was made of sterner stuff. A great lady knew how to behave at tournaments. Even Septa Mordane noted her composure and nodded in approval.
Jousting is brutal. Jeyne and Sansa are of an age, and both squeal with excitement and delight throughout the tourney, but only Jeyne shies away from the more brutal moments. Sansa’s training has taught her to do many things that modern day likes to ascribe to weakness (which is in and of itself false), yes, but it has also taught her that brutality and violence are an accepted part of her society, and a part of the lives of men, men who she will one day marry and serve, and Sansa looks on it without flinching. Even when the knight from the Vale dies, she maintains her composure:
…Sansa sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching with a strange fascination. She had never seen a man die before. She ought to be crying too, she thought, but the tears would not come. Perhaps she had used up all her tears for Lady and Bran. It would be different if it had been Jory or Ser Rodrik or Father, she told herself.
Despite the strange fascination of seeing death for the first time, and the disconnect she felt to this stranger, Sansa still finds a way to empathize. She uses her fascination with songs and stories to humanize a dreadful situation:
The young knight in the blue cloak was nothing to her, some stranger from the Vale of Arryn whose name she had forgotten as soon as she heard it. And now the world would forget his name too, Sansa realized; there would be no songs sung for him. That was sad.
In this one instance, before she is ever truly terrorized by Joffrey or Cersei, before she has any experience or growth in the cut-throat realm of politics, Sansa has used her lessons from Septa Mordane to behave, to maintain composure in the viewing of violence and even death, and to go beyond that and feel for a young knight who meant nothing to her, nothing to anyone present.
Admittedly, Sansa does not enter this series with guile and armored awareness, but she does immediately showcase her ability to use what she has been taught in high pressure situations. She is a problem solver, provided that she has the tools to do so. Early on in A Game of Thrones, she handles the potential fiasco of people being terrified of her direwolf Lady with grace and charm. She plays along with Renly’s game, using her knowledge and courtesy and etiquette to do so without angering her betrothed, the already volatile Prince Joffrey:
He smiled at her. “Now, wolf girl, if you can put a name to me as well, then I must concede that you are truly our Hand’s daughter.”
Joffrey stiffened beside her. “Have a care how you address my betrothed.”
“I can answer,” Sansa said quickly, to quell her prince’s anger. She smiled at the green knight. “Your helmet bears golden antlers, my lord. The stag is the sigil of the royal House. King Robert has two brothers. By your extreme youth, you can only be Renly Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End and councillor to the king, and so I name you.”
Ser Barristan chuckled. “By his extreme youth, he can only be a prancing jackanapes, and so I name him.”
There was general laughter, led by Lord Renly himself.”
While Sansa does not yet understand that she is playing the game of thrones, she is an excellent judge of character, and adept in using her knowledge and social graces to convince people to like her and comfort her. She even responds to sibling rivalry with the mindset of a queen:
Sansa stalked away with her head up. She was to be a queen, and queens did not cry. At least not where people could see.
Sansa’s eagerness to please, idealization of chivalry, and reliance on ordered societal roles has a darker side, however. Exemplified by this are her relationships with Petyr Baelish (“Littlefinger”) and the queen Cersei Lannister.
Instinctively, Sansa does not trust Petyr. Her first observation of Petyr is very astute: “He had grey-green eyes that did not smile when he did.” Her instincts immediately encourage her to remove herself from any situation Petyr is in. When he speaks to her, she feels vulnerable, naked. Unfortunately, Sansa shoves down her intuition and engages him in the name of courtesy and decorum, which gives him all the power he needs to begin grooming her, even before he’s solidified the downfall of the Starks and her complete dependence upon him.
With Cersei, Sansa initially respects, admires, and comes to trust her, because it never occurs to her to question a queen. Sansa’s admiration of Cersei both confuses her relationship with Joffrey and strains her relationship with her father during his discovery of the true lineage of the Baratheon children. Cersei gives Sansa enough compliments to soothe her and convince her that she is doing everything right — and enough information and semblances of trust to make Ned’s reluctance to share what he knows as hurtful as it is perplexing.
Though Sansa’s relationship with these two characters are marked as failures and idiocy by many, they provide her with excellent lessons. With Petyr, she learns that her initial instincts are invaluable. (This, much later, is the only thing remaining to her once she’s fully in his grasp, the only thing that helps her hold onto her identity as Sansa and not lose herself in Alayne entirely.)
Both Petyr and Cersei are present in Sansa IV, A Game of Thrones, where one of her most important lessons take place. During Joffrey’s bloody ascension to the throne, Sansa is imprisoned in her room. She is unaware of the true situation, though she hears the sounds of fighting all around her and is told by Jeyne that everyone is being killed. After several days, Sansa is taken before the Small Council. (Where she says of Petyr, “…she could feel Littlefinger staring. Something about the way the small man looked at her made Sansa feel as though she had no clothes on,” again ignoring her intuition’s red flags because of learned behaviors.) Sansa is told her father is a traitor, but per her established pattern of behavior, she tries to use courtesy and logic in equal measure to assure the Council that this could not possibly be the case. Cersei quickly reprimands and guilts her, and Sansa realizes that she has to do what it takes to protect her family.
Per the instructions of the Council, Sansa writes a letter to her brother Robb, telling him not to take up arms, but to swear fealty. This move is frequently criticised (second only to her choices regarding Nymeria, Arya, and Joffrey before King Robert), but she does not do it because she believes it to be true. Sansa is confused and conflicted, but knows something isn’t right. The lesson she learns here will be the most important lesson in her arc: the truth isn’t what matters. In this moment, her deftness with courtesy and presentation begin to meld with the necessity to play-act for preservation.
When Sansa goes before the entire court to beg mercy from Joffrey for her father (a courageous move that she is not given nearly enough credit for), she uses her mother as a guide, as the basis for her role: “I must be as strong as my lady mother.” She uses all the tools she has — her courtesy, her political lessons, even Joffrey’s love for her, to save her father’s life. Unfortunately, she soon learns that love is nonexistent, and Joffrey’s promise of mercy is horribly broken.
Before tragedy strikes, Sansa has every tool she needs to become a political ruling force to be reckoned with. (“Courtesy is a lady’s armor.”) In the face of complete despair and ruin, her will only gets stronger, her choices shrewder, her skill and new capacity for performance only improving with her hatred of her captors:
Once she had loved Prince Joffrey with all her heart, and admired and trusted her his mother, the queen. They had repaid that love and trust with her father’s head. Sansa would never make that mistake again.
From A Game of Thrones to A Dance With Dragons, Sansa is ever more maligned and abused, but also grows smarter. She takes in information from every source — from Joffrey, Cersei, Petyr, Sandor Clegane, Tyrion Lannister, Ser Dontos, the Tyrells, and Lysa Tully — and turns it into a lesson. The last we saw of Sansa Stark, she was in the palm of Petyr Baelish, but ever aware and ever wiser. (“He is serving me lies as well.”) Sansa still clings to anger, plays her part as a piece for the moment, but does not forget who she truly is or what was done to her:
…Littlefinger was no friend of hers. When Joff had her beaten, the Imp defended her, not Littlefinger. When the mob sought to rape her, the Hound carried her to safety, not Littlefinger. When the Lannisters wed her to Tyrion against her will, Ser Garlan the Gallant gave her comfort, not Littlefinger. Littlefinger never lifted so much as his little finger for her.
Sansa’s arc is dependent upon her finding her agency and becoming a player in the game of thrones. (Though she may also have potential within the magical arc of the series.) Her passive action is not weakness or stupidity. It is her only option and she is working it to the best of her abilities, toeing the line between survival and destruction, identity and dissociation, self-care and necessary self-denial. From the beginning of this story, she has had every tool she needed to rule. Sansa Stark was a sheltered child thrown into emotional and political turmoil. And despite her grief, her guilt, and her longing, she has carried on, “…to porcelain, to ivory, to steel”. She is a wolf, a Stark, and at home in winter and turmoil, high functioning in peril. Her courtesy is not only armor, it is easily weaponized, she only needs the realization and the opportunity. Sansa Stark is very well the political Chekhov’s gun of this series. Not only will she live through the barbaric and oppressive nature of this society, she will be better than it.
She had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me.