“All the stories can’t be lies”: Sansa and Idealism
He snorted. “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”
Sansa backed away from him. “You’re awful.”
“I’m honest. It’s the world that’s awful. Now fly away, little bird, I’m sick of you peeping at me.”
Wordless, she fled. She was afraid of Sandor Clegane … and yet, some part of her wished that Ser Dontos had a little of the Hound’s ferocity. There are gods, she told herself, and there are true knights too. All the stories can’t be lies.
There’s a lot that’s been written about Sansa and her journey from naive young girl to having her dreams crushed again and again by the harsh reality of the world. Some even say that Sansa acts as a reflection of the reader, as GRRM ruthlessly deconstructs our expectations of fairy tales, knights, and chivalry. Sansa’s idealism has also been cited by readers who think that she deserved to be punished for it, or that she’s “learned her lesson”. These readers are usually the ones who revel in what they see as the nihilism of ASOIAF. However, I think that’s an incorrect reading of the series, as well as a misunderstanding of Sansa’s purpose within the story.
One of the things I love about Sansa is that she seemingly doesn’t fit with the rest of her family. The Starks are the ruling house of the North, associated with hard winters, rugged terrain, and wild gods. The sigil of House Stark is the direwolf. Not just a wolf, a direwolf, a prehistoric creature of incredible ferocity and strength.
But then there’s Sansa, who loves songs, lemon cakes and pretty dresses, who dreams of romance and gallant knights. Even Sansa’s direwolf is distinguished from the others. And Lady the direwolf becomes an important symbol for Sansa in these books. Lady is Sansa, and represents the injustice of a world where innocents are punished.
“No, not Lady, Lady didn’t bite anybody, she’s good…”
“Lady,” he said, tasting the name. He had never paid much attention to the names the children had picked, but looking at her now, he knew that Sansa had chosen well. She was the smallest of the litter, the prettiest, the most gentle and trusting. She looked at him with bright golden eyes, and he ruffled her thick grey fur.
Lady’s goodness isn’t something that deserves punishment. Like Sansa, she represents
something rare and precious that needs to be preserved, something that’s
all the more valuable because it exists amidst the harshness of winter.
A lot of people talk about Sansa’s relationship to Sandor Clegane as an essential part of her character development. Sandor influences Sansa by exposing her to the grim realities of King’s Landing and chiding her for her belief in chivalry. There is absolutely truth to this, as Sansa’s story is largely a deconstruction and exposure of the hypocrisy of chivalry. But the “honesty” of Sandor’s nihilism is only a half-truth. I’ve often seen honesty described as a trait associated with Sandor, and I guess it comes from the above quote, but I don’t really think Sandor is all that honest, either with Sansa or with himself.
This is a problem I have with a lot of fans of grimdark fantasy that buy into this idea that the world is terrible and therefore it’s those who strive towards good who deserve to be punished. It’s often used as an excuse to justify bad behavior. Saying that it’s really “the world” or “human nature” that’s awful means we don’t have to take responsibility for our actions. It’s also the kind of philosophy that justifies blaming the victim: “if you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way.”
I don’t think that GRRM is really advocating for this kind of worldview, which is why I think Sansa is one of the most heroic characters in the series because although she does become jaded as the series goes on, she never truly loses her belief in goodness, and I don’t think she ever will.
Petyr Baelish famously tells Sansa “life is not a song, sweetling. One day you may learn that to your sorrow.” This is later repeated when Baelish becomes a major player in Sansa’s story at the end of A Storm of Swords.
“Do you perchance recall what I said to you that day your father sat the Iron Throne?”
The moment came back to her vividly. “You told me that life was not a song. That I would learn that one day, to my sorrow.” She felt tears in her eyes, but whether she wept for Ser Dontos Hollard, for Joff, for Tyrion, or for herself, Sansa could not say.
“Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?”
“Almost everyone. Save you and I, of course.” He smiled.
The irony here is that Littlefinger has lied to Sansa about almost everything. Littlefinger is far from honest with Sansa about his intentions towards her, but if Sansa believes that her instincts are lies then it’s easier for Baelish to manipulate her. At this point Sansa has been told so often that she’s just a stupid girl, that her interests and dreams are naive and wrong and shallow and that she was wrong to want good things for herself. This is the biggest lie of all, the lie we tell little girls in order to hurt them, and I hope that by the end of this series GRRM will use Sansa to prove this philosophy wrong.