Ned Stark was never very good at understanding women. The signs were clear when he brought his illegitimate son home to a resentful wife. And if indeed Jon Snow is not Ned’s son, he didn’t trust his wife enough to share the secret. The decision not only impacted Catelyn, it impacted on Jon, a child keenly aware of his elitist step-mother’s hostility. The Stark girls had a genteel upbringing, but they also fit into a neat stereotype, the beautiful princess and the cheeky tomboy. Indeed why would Ned and Catelyn take them much more seriously at a young age?
“Sansa was a lady at three, always so courteous and eager to please. She loved nothing so well as tales of knightly valor. Men would say she had my look, but she will grow into a woman far more beautiful than I ever was, you can see that…and Arya, well . . . Ned’s visitors would oft mistake her for a stableboy if they rode into the yard unannounced. Arya was a trial, it must be said. Half a boy and half a wolf pup…I despaired of ever making a lady of her. She collected scabs as other girls collect dolls, and would say anything that came into her head.” Catelyn Stark to Brienne A Clash of Kings pg 924
Ned and Catelyn’s daughters were only eleven and nine years-old. Plenty of time to let them grow up. Sansa would outgrow her fairytale dreams, and Arya her awkward boyishness. Ned Stark could not have foreseen his family torn asunder when he took his daughters to King’s Landing to introduce them to society.
The Game of Thrones television version of Sansa Stark is a thirteen year-old Sansa, a little older but none the wiser. There is one rather important incident producers decided to leave out of the series, and that is Sansa betraying her father’s plans to secretly flee King’s Landing to Queen Cersei.
She was the good girl, the obedient girl, but she had felt as wicked as Arya that morning, sneaking away from Septa Mordane, defying her lord father. She had never done anything so willful before, and she would never have done it then if she hadn’t loved Joffrey as much as she did. Sansa A Game of Thrones pg 696
The decision to omit this is not surprising, it is not as if A Song of Ice and Fire fans have never resented Sansa for betraying Ned – quite the contrary. But it is easier to regard Sansa in the first book as a spoiled and disobedient eleven year-old girl who has no idea what consequences her actions will bring. It would have been difficult to translate this on-screen due to the nature of Game of Thrones – there are not many shows on television that kill off a main character in the first season. Sansa’s actions would easily have been seen as completely unforgivable in the wake of Ned’s execution. Her character suffers enough from the “stupid Sansa” syndrome.
Why would Sansa, always the ‘good girl’, go behind Ned’s back? A pre-occupied Ned and an evasive explanation failed to impact on Sansa. Sansa had come from the wintry North, to a glamorous and seemingly eternal summer at court.
She loved King’s Landing; the pageantry of the court, the high lords and ladies in their velvets and silks and gemstones, the great city with all its people. The tournament had been the most magical time of her whole life, and there was so much she had not seen yet, harvest feasts and masked balls and mummer shows. She could not bear the thought of losing it all – Sansa A Game of Thrones pg 610
Sansa doesn’t truly understand the danger they are in. Sansa has had a sheltered and privileged upbringing. She went to King’s Landing with the promise of marrying a handsome prince, one day becoming Queen and giving him a son with golden hair. Now her father is threatening to send her back to her bleak home in the North and shatter her childish dreams.
Sansa is also still harbouring a great deal of resentment towards Arya, and perhaps even Ned, for the loss of Lady. It is easy to overlook that Lady was the first member of House Stark to fall victim to the Lannisters, Ned’s shocking death overshadows it. But something we don’t really see in the series is how hard it hit Sansa.
“Sansa sat up. “Lady,” she whispered. For a moment it was as if the direwolf was there in the room, looking at her with those golden eyes, sad and knowing. She had been dreaming, she realized. Lady was with her, and they were running together, and … and … trying to remember was like trying to catch the rain with her fingers. The dream faded, and Lady was dead again.” – Sansa A Game of Thrones pg 608
It is Bran who understands. After Ned is executed and Sansa is held prisoner at King’s Landing, Cersei forces Sansa to send a letter to Robb.
She says Father conspired at treason with the king’s brothers,” [Robb] read. “King Robert is dead, and Mother and I are summoned to the Red Keep to swear fealty to Joffrey. She says we must be loyal, and when she marries Joffrey she will plead with him to spare our lord father’s life.” His fingers closed into a fist, crushing Sansa’s letter between them. “And she says nothing of Arya, nothing, not so much as a word. Damn her! What’s wrong with the girl?”
Bran felt all cold inside. “She lost her wolf” – Bran A Game of Thrones pg 734
The Princess in the Tower
Yes Sansa betrayed Ned to Cersei. The same could be said for Catelyn talking Ned into going to King’s Landing against his will and better judgement – as it actually happened – or Robb betraying his mother’s agreement with Walter Frey to marry Jeyne Westerling because he slept with her and wanted to protect her honour. Jeyne Westerling’s honour cost them the war and many lives. The same could be said for Ned not turning around and going straight back to Winterfell when Robert ordered that he kill Lady. All of the Starks have made mistakes, and paid for them. Sansa is still paying for hers.
There is an opinion that Sansa has it better than the rest of the Starks, that she is at least ‘comfortable’. Sansa is far from comfortable. She is held hostage and at the utter mercy of the family who murdered her father.
Robb has his mother and most of the North at his back. Bran and Rickon escape Theon at Winterfell, aided by Osha, Hodor, and the Reeds. Even when they become separated, neither are left alone. Rickon is in Osha’s capable hands and Bran has three devoted companions. Arya escaped King’s Landing with Yoren’s help. Arya is in fact the only Stark who is in nearly as bad a situation as Sansa, Arya loses several of her companions along the way. But Arya is stronger, wilier and braver than Sansa. And moreover, Arya is free. For the most part.
Sansa is what our History Behind Game of Thrones expert Jamie Adair calls a ‘prototypical medieval princess’. “Through our twenty-first century eyes, the contrast with her sister Arya is unflattering. Sansa seems stupid, selfish, and spineless next to Arya,” writes Jamie. I’ve always suspected George R.R. Martin deliberately placed Sansa in a cast of otherwise strong women to illustrate the reality of women’s lives in medieval times.
With that said, in medieval times the wife or daughter of a condemned traitor would never have been in danger of violence or rape at the hands of her captors, certainly not one of noble birth. But Joffrey is a different sort of monster altogether.
Sansa stared at him, seeing him for the first time…she wondered how she could ever have thought him handsome. His lips were as soft and red as the worms you found after a rain, and his eyes were vain and cruel.
“I hate you,” she whispered.
King Joffrey’s face hardened. “My mother tells me that it isn’t fitting that a king should strike his wife. Ser Meryn.”
The knight was on her before she could think, yanking back her hand as she tried to shield her face and back-handing her across the ear with a gloved fist. Sansa did not remember falling, yet the next she knew she was sprawled on one knee amongst the rushes. Her head was ringing… Sansa A Game of Thrones pg 942
Sansa’s hopes of returning home are quickly destroyed. The Lannisters are determined to hang onto her, for leverage. Sansa is a pawn. Sansa is a valuable bargaining tool, at first for ransom. Later, with Robb dead and Bran and Rickon presumed dead she is the heir to Winterfell. That doesn’t stop Joffrey from trying to break her. As far as Joffrey is concerned, he is her property and plaything. “A lady’s armor is courtesy,” Sansa will often tell herself, repeating her lessons from Septa Mordane. After repeated beatings and humiliation, Sansa’s survival instincts are kicking in. In fact Sansa can bear quite a lot for a girl who is considered to be so weak.
The TV series doesn’t display the worst of Joffrey’s treatment of Sansa. The producers made the sensible decision to play down this particularly disturbing scene.
“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 bodice 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, “we’ll see how her brother fancies—” Sansa A Clash of Kings pg 580
It is Tyrion who steps in and saves her of course. I think that most of us, as Tyrion is such a popular character despite being a Lannister, wish that Sansa had resigned herself to her fate when it came to marrying Tyrion. After all, we know he has some good in him. And then we think Sansa is shallow for not looking past his appearance. Sansa, who often thinks of him as ‘The Imp’, is little different to anyone else in that respect. Tyrion is loathed by almost everyone. As C.S Hughes has discussed, a handsome Peter Dinklage puts a slightly different spin on Tyrion Lannister. We even have Margaery Tyrell telling Sansa that Tyrion may please her because he is experienced with women.
In fact Margaery tells her nothing of the sort. The Tyrells have been caught in their ploy to marry Sansa to one of their sons and claim her inheritance to Winterfell. When Olenna Tyrell first broaches the subject with Sansa, Sansa is hoping it is Loras she will marry. In the television series it is Loras they offer to her, however in a Storm of Swords it is actually Willas Tyrell Sansa is to marry. He is twice her age, and has a lame leg. Sansa – and admittedly not without much sighing and dreaming of Loras – does resign herself to marrying an older man.
“Willas was as good a name as Loras, she supposed. They even sounded the same, a little. What did it matter about his leg? Willas would be Lord of Highgarden and she would be his lady. She pictured the two of them sitting together in a garden with puppies in their laps, or listening to a singer strum upon a lute while they floated down the Mander on a pleasure barge. If I give him sons, he may come to love me. She would name them Eddard and Brandon and Rickon, and raise them all to be as valiant as Ser Loras. And to hate Lannisters, too. In Sansa’s dreams, her children looked just like the brothers she had lost. Sometimes there was even a girl who looked like Arya.” Sansa A Storm of Swords pg 305
The Lannisters, after getting wind of the Tyrell’s plans, promptly marry Sansa off to Tyrion. Margaery gives her a sad look at the wedding and the rest of the Tyrells ignore her. Sansa is alone again.
It is at her wedding to Tyrion when Sansa finally begins to show some spark of defiance again. She refuses to kneel when it is time for Tyrion to cloak her. “Why should I spare his feelings, when no one cares about mine?” she thinks.
It might be a petty revenge bit at least she is beginning to show some spark again. Her revulsion at Tyrion’s appearance is secondary to what Sansa feels about the Lannisters.
“He speaks more gently than Joffrey, she thought, but the queen spoke to me gently too. He’s still a Lannister, her brother and Joff’s uncle, and no friend. Once she had loved Prince Joffrey with all her heart, and admired and trusted his mother, the queen. They had repaid that love and trust with her father’s head. Sansa would never make that mistake again.” Sansa A Clash of Kings pg 71
Sansa hates the Lannisters, and Tyrion is a Lannister. It is no more complex than that. That we think she should give Tyrion a chance is where we project our own feelings into Sansa, because readers are sympathetic to Tyrion’s plight. We know he hates his family. How is Sansa to know that, and why should she trust him after the Lannisters have murdered half of her family?
It is true Sansa is soft-hearted. Why do we see that as a weakness? Sansa clearly did not inherit her sympathetic and gentle side from Catelyn. Catelyn doesn’t show a shred of the empathy that Sansa can show towards others. Why did Sansa intervene to save Ser Dontos from being killed? She is a prisoner in King’s Landing and he is a Lannister man. Even though she knows the Tyrells are after her inheritance she naively worries about Margaery “she would light a candle to the Mother Above the next time she visited the sept, and ask her to protect Margaery from Joffrey’s cruelty” When Ser Barristan is dismissed from the Kingsguard and everyone is laughing at him “Her heart went out to the gallant old man as he stood shamed and red-faced, too angry to speak.” Her awkward, half-frightened and sometimes grateful gestures of affection towards the Hound have a profound effect on him.
Sansa Stark is far from shallow. The real problem with Sansa may be in our subconscious. Sansa is an unwelcome dose of reality in a fantastic world. Sansa is what most of us would truly be in her situation, a helpless prisoner. The world is not full of Aryas. And A Song of Ice and Fire is not a heroic fantasy tale.
It is Tyrion who gives us a glimpse of the sort of woman Sansa may grow into.
“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. His cousin Ser Lancel had been brought down by Ser Kevan, the first time he’d left his sickbed since the battle…without his father beside him holding him up, he would surely have collapsed. Yet when Sansa praised his valor and said how good it was to see him getting strong again, both Lancel and Ser Kevan beamed. She would have made Joffrey a good queen and a better wife if he’d had the sense to love her.”