HBO’s Game of Thrones

The Gothic and Game of Thrones, Part I: The Burial of Sansa Stark

Let’s start with an unpopular opinion that I happen to hold: Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy are, by far, the two best characters in both George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and the TV show based upon it. Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep fondness for Tyrion, I’m on board with Daenerys, Sam, Arya, Catelyn, Brienne and a whole slew of others. But Sansa and Theon are in a class by themselves. This is probably due, in no small part, to their position as Martin’s window into the Gothic, which is a genre that dominates my professional and personal life.

Martin’s series is most often compared to the works of epic fantasy writers like Tolkien and Robert Jordan. He cites historical fiction writers like Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell, and Sharon Kay Penman as some of his biggest influences. With HBO’s adaptation, we have seen horror become a third dominant genre, especially with the hiring of The Descent’s Neil Marshall to direct two of the series’ biggest episodes (season two’s “Blackwater,” and season four’s “Watchers on the Wall”) …and, you know, all the zombies. But, in a series that is so focused on the ways in which people obtain, hoard, and lose political power, it is worth noting that the Gothic threads—especially those in Sansa and Theon’s plotlines—are some of the most explicit and nuanced in their discussion of that central theme. This is the first of two articles on the subject. In this one, we’ll discuss the general ways in which we might talk about Martin and the Gothic as well as do a deep dive into the life of Sansa Stark, the more obvious candidate for the mantle of Gothic heroine.

[Potential spoilers: This article discusses Game of Thrones through Season 7 and the Song of Ice and Fire books through The Winds of Winter preview chapters.]

In order to talk about the ways that Martin’s novel embraces the Gothic and uses it to nuance and sharpen his central conceits, it’s important to understand a little bit about the Gothic in general. It’s a genre that spans four centuries and has a lot of different permutations but, for the purposes of this article, let’s say that the Gothic is a series of interrelated tropes that usually coalesce as stories about imprisoned women. There is the Gothic heroine: usually an innocent maiden who is denied her birthright or her inheritance as part of a dastardly scheme. There is the Gothic villain: usually an older, miserly, but sometimes very seductive man who plans to marry and murder the heroine to get at her money or her magical powers. And there is the Gothic hero: usually an afterthought, but nevertheless a plucky and good-hearted young man who ends up marrying the heroine and inheriting her money (but doesn’t want to murder her). There are often creepy abandoned ruins, ghosts that warn people of past transgressions, corrupt clergymen, psychological torture, and at least one sequence where the heroine faints at the sight of something dreadful.

The Gothic is also a genre in which female authors have dominated and the concept of female interiority is central to its identity. An important feature of many Gothic novels is a female protagonist who spends much of the novel imprisoned or otherwise isolated and, as a result, lost in her own thoughts—bringing her feelings, her fears, and her personhood to the forefront. Many scholars have made a case for one particular trope or another being central but I have always been most convinced by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim that the unifying idea of the Gothic is “live burial,” whether literal or figurative.

One form of live burial that is all but ubiquitous in Gothic novels is imprisonment within a striking space. The genre itself takes its name from the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages because many early Gothic novels were set in the romantic ruins of Gothic castles or cathedrals. The Castle of Otranto, the 1763 Horace Walpole novella that is generally considered to be the first Gothic work, takes place almost entirely in the imposing and haunted Medieval ruin for which it is named. Anne Radcliffe’s 1791 novel The Romance of the Forest is centered around an abandoned abbey that has become a haunt for bandits and been reclaimed by dense woods. While the use of the literal architectural style has become less common in Gothic tales, the trope of setting one’s story in a once-grand place that has fallen into ruin and reflects the corrupting and corrosive excesses of its degenerate residents is still very much a core feature. Martin seems to have a fondness for Gothic spaces that reflect the cruelty and monstrousness of its inhabitants. Sprawling haunted ruins like Harrenhal, dismal forgotten relics like Dragonstone, cursed halls like the Nightfort, and even Martin’s iconic, central vision of a bladed throne that is described as has having a strange will of its own are all uncannily familiar to Gothicists.

Martin ensures that the majority of Sansa Stark’s plot in A Feast for Crows is spent in such a place. The Eyrie, seat of House Arryn, which was previously visited during Tyrion and Catelyn chapters in A Game of Thrones, becomes deeply unnerving in Sansa chapters, featuring pillars like “fingerbones” and “shadows [that] danced upon the floors and pooled in every corner”. We are told that there was “no quieter castle in the seven kingdoms” and her final vision of it in the novel is that, in oncoming winter, it is a perverse fairytale structure: “a honeycomb made of ice”.

But, as with all Gothic spaces, the haunted quality is more than physical. Sansa spends months in the largely empty Eyrie after the murder of her aunt listening to the sad music of the singer falsely accused of the crime. Martin opens Sansa’s chapters in the fourth novel with the assertion that “No matter where she went in the castle, Sansa could not escape the music. It floated up the winding tower steps, found her naked in the bath, supped with her at dusk, and stole into her bedchamber even when she latched the shutters tight”. The Gothic is often a meditation on female powerlessness where the gaze of the patriarchy (and oftentimes of the Gothic villain patriarch) is literally built into the architecture: the painting with cut-out eyes through which a woman is spied upon, or the ghastly cherubic heads that magically turn to watch their hapless mark. Here in the Eyrie, the music of the doomed singer follows Sansa into intimate spaces; it observes her naked, it plays at marital domesticity with her while she eats, it sneaks into her bedroom, menacingly. The music is a polymorphous metaphor as well: the soundscape of the Eyrie, the sound of her captor Littlefinger’s plans coming to fruition, the mournful song of Marillion—a man who tried to sexually assault her. In two sentences, Martin makes the Eyrie a place of not just imprisonment, but of the peculiar mixture of loneliness and sexual menace that defines so much of the Gothic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In many of the most iconic Gothic novels—Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) just to name a few—the central plot of the novel involves a coerced, forced, or otherwise suspect marriage. Much of Sedgwick’s vision of “live burial” is the acquiescence of the Gothic heroine to the matrimonial assault provided by the Gothic villain who may or may not desire her but needs something from her, be it her virtue, her dowry, or her lineage. Sansa Stark is something of an overdetermined Gothic heroine insofar as she is constantly being used as a pawn in numerous marriage plots. The novels begin with her being engaged to Prince Joffrey Baratheon to secure an alliance between the Northern and Southern regions of Westeros. Once her native North is in open rebellion against the throne, she is married to Joffrey’s uncle, Tyrion Lannister, in an attempt to give him a kingdom to inherit via their prospective children. After Tyrion is framed for Joffrey’s murder, Sansa is abducted/rescued by Petyr Baelish who has an unhealthy obsession with Sansa’s mother. In the books, Baelish plans to marry her off to Harry Hardyng, the unlikely heir to yet another region of the fractured kingdom. By contrast, the TV show has Baelish marry her to Ramsay Bolton, the heir to the family that became the Wardens of North after Sansa’s own family was slaughtered. So that’s three different marriage plots in the books and one alternate version in the show, all of which are Gothic novels in miniature.

The main villain of Sansa’s plotline in the novels and certainly the animating force behind her misfortunes in the show is Petyr Baelish, often referred to as Littlefinger. Even apart from his relationship with Sansa, Littlefinger ticks many of the boxes commonly found in Gothic villains. He is a scheming social climber who uses his cunning to upset the “natural order” of aristocratic succession and lay claim to titles and lands beyond his reach. Like many Gothic villains, he is physically unimposing—described early on as very short and prematurely gray. This means that, in grand Gothic tradition, the menace he represents is not in brute strength; Gothic heroines often fear for their lives in Gothic novels, but it is because the villains have set clever traps for them. In Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and many other works, there are scheming servants that watch the heroine’s every move. Littlefinger has a vast network of paid informants and loyal spies seeded in various courts throughout Westeros; Sansa is initially drawn into his grasp by trusting in the knight-turned-fool, Ser Dontos Hollard, who turns out to be invested in her only so far as Littlefinger’s money carries him. In France’s tradition of the tale of Bluebeard, the means of control is a magical (and bloody) key, and, indeed, Gothic villains often employ or are themselves practitioners of dark, magical arts. Littlefinger also commands sinister and arcane forces—though in Martin’s fantasy-light narrative these forces are economic and political in nature. Sansa even draws the comparison between Baelish’s smooth talk and sorcery after witnessing him play a number of lords off against one another, saying, “He bewitched them. But perhaps the greatest weapon that Gothic villains wield is the power of doubt and terror. Eve Sedgwick’s paramount principle of “live burial” also refers to a kind of self-burial that comes as a result of gaslighting. Gothic heroines are often portrayed as so isolated and misinformed by the villains that imprison them that they begin to believe they are mad. Littlefinger’s repeated insistence that “some lies are love”  is offered to Sansa as a bit of wisdom for surviving courtly intrigues, but it is the mantra of the serial gaslighter.

And this brings us to one of the more Gothic structural aspects of Martin’s novels: Martin does not number his chapters and only titles them with the name of the close third person “narrator.” This becomes much more interesting and complex in books four and five when characters begin to be identified by something other than their full first name. In some cases, the nomenclature appears to be a sign of the character’s “lesser” status in the narrative. Martin admits that he needed to add in a few more narrators than he planned in order to make the scope of his story work and, in these cases, relatively minor characters get points of view but also have their individuality stripped away by giving them descriptive titles. This includes folks like Ser Arys Oakheart who is called “The Soiled Knight” in his single chapter, and in the cases where the character has multiple chapters, it changes each time to further relegate them; for example, Quentyn Martell’s chapters are titled, variously “The Merchant’s Man,” “The Spurned Suitor,” “The Windblown,” and “The Dragontamer.”

Martin also uses this convention to begin to ask deep questions about the effect of gaslighting on identity, playing into the Gothic themes of interiority and live burial. A central feature of many Gothic novels is the slow dissolution of self when subjected to the Stockholm syndrome that follows long imprisonment. Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel The Woman in White, for instance, hinges on the revelation that two different women are, in fact, one and the same and that the unfortunate heroine has been so thoroughly brainwashed that she herself does not realize it. Sansa, who must pretend to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter, Alayne Stone, has her Feast for Crows and upcoming Winds of Winter chapters titled “Alayne.” This is revealed to be more than a writerly flourish as Sansa’s chapters in those novels deal with the ways in which the eldest Stark daughter begins to blur the line between her pretended identity and her actual one. In A Feast for Crows, Littlefinger tells her that she “‘must be Alayne all the time.’ He put two fingers on her left breast. ‘Even here. In your heart.’”. By the time of The Winds of Winter, Sansa’s internal narrative reflects her slow conversion from one person to another: “She felt alive again, for the first since her father…since Lord Eddard Stark had died.”  

Alayne Stone is careful to correct herself when she begins to think of herself as Sansa Stark, but Martin also uses her narrative to explore the whole of these struggles with assumed identity. Martin is fairly explicit about this in her first Feast chapter, wherein Sansa attempts to discern whether or not she can trust her protector/captor:

He had saved her. He had saved Alayne, his daughter, a voice within her whispered. But she was Sansa too…and sometimes it seemed to her that the Lord Protector was two people as well. He was Petyr, her protector, warm and funny and gentle…but he was also Littlefinger, the Lord she’d known at King’s Landing, smiling slyly and stroking his beard as he whispered in Queen Cersei’s ear. And Littlefinger was no friend of hers. […] Only sometimes, Sansa found it hard to tell where the man ended and the mask began. Littlefinger and Lord Petyr looked so very much alike.

As Sansa attempts to reckon with whether or not she can be Alayne Stone and not just pretend to be her, she comes to the startling conclusion that there is no way for her to trust in any action, no matter how seemingly altruistic. Littlefinger/Petyr is a rapidly collapsing binary and Sansa is increasingly unable, throughout A Feast for Crows to discern whether or not any action is a part of the man or the mask.

This is made all the more uncomfortable and dangerous by the fact that it is the lie that protects Sansa. As Alayne Stone, she is Littlefinger’s bastard daughter and thereby immune to his sexual advances. As Sansa Stark she is a surrogate for Catelyn—the only woman Littlefinger professes to have loved—and thereby exposed to his predatory behavior. It is, after all, only after Sansa’s aunt Lysa has seen Littlefinger kiss her that she threatens Sansa’s life—a course of action that ends with Littlefinger murdering Lysa. And at the end of Sansa’s Feast for Crows chapters, Littlefinger simultaneously drops the mask, letting Sansa in on his plans to elevate her to Lady of the Vale, while also demanding her physical affection. After she kisses him on the cheek to welcome him home from travels abroad, Martin tells us that “He pulled her closer, caught her face between his hands and kissed her on the lips for a long time. ‘Now that’s the sort of kiss that says welcome home. See that you do better next time’”. By chapter’s end, he reiterates his promise to secure her future, saying, “So those are your gifts from me, my sweet Sansa […] That’s worth another kiss now, don’t you think?”. It is one of the few times in the novel that Littlefinger calls her “Sansa,” fully acknowledging her autonomous identity as someone other than a daughter under his control. It also comes with a demand for recompense. If Littlefinger is dropping the mask and revealing that he is her advocate, he also reveals that he expects her sexual attentions and is, in fact, her captor. She is his hostage even as he seeks to foil her other would-be captors.

If this revelation is not much of a surprise to the reader, it is one to Sansa herself. Throughout the first three books in the series, Sansa thinks in terms of songs and fairytales. She is utterly seduced by the sanitized pageantry of Medieval courtly love. When the drunken, debt-ridden Ser Dontos offers her a way out, she thinks of him as “my Florian,” a legendary fool whose buffoonish exterior hides his martial prowess and romantic heart. Sansa has often occupied a place of contempt for misogynists who cite her belief in these stories as proof of her lack of intelligence. But, if Sansa is obsessed with fairy tales of brave knights and virtuous maidens, so too is the rest of Westeros. Even Littlefinger, who claims to be beyond the reach of comforting stories has lived his entire life in the shadow of one—throughout the novels, it is revealed that, as a boy, he challenged Catelyn’s fiancee, Brandon Stark, to a duel for her affections. The TV show condenses his line of thinking thus:

[Catelyn] loved me too. I was her little confidant, her plaything. She could tell me anything, anything at all. […] The castle she wanted to live in and the man that she wanted to marry. […] So I challenged him to a duel. I mean, why not? I’d read all the stories. The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories. In the end, she wouldn’t even let him kill me.  

Though Littlefinger has built his life in reaction to this incident and seemingly made himself into a cure for this kind of hopeful romanticism, he is still beholden to it. It is not so much that Littlefinger sees the world as it is, but that he sees it as the inverse of the stories he once believed in. When taking Sansa from the capitol, he even slips back into the grandly romantic fairytale of his youth, telling her, “I could never have [Catelyn’s] hand. But she gave me something finer, a gift a woman can give but once. How could I turn my back upon her daughter? In a better world, you might have been mine, not Eddard Stark’s. My loyal loving daughter.” Littlefinger, it would seem, cannot help but try and justify his actions through the rose-tinted glasses of courtly love stories.

Martin has made Westeros a place of unimaginable cruelty and horror, but it is a place whose outer appearance is one of genteel pageants, stirring tourneys, and heroic battles between easily differentiated good and evil. We even see this revisionism in response to events within the novels themselves. Joffrey’s wedding involves a song called “Renly’s Last Ride” where a murdered would-be claimant to the throne and former enemy of the Lannisters is reimagined as having repented in death and come to the aid of his foes to defeat his murderer and clear his good name. We as readers know the mundane reason that Renly’s armor appeared to ride into battle, but it is the song that wins out. Westeros is built on the songs and stories that Sansa is so often criticized for being obsessed with.

And the Gothic, as a genre, is similarly built on songs and stories. Gothic fiction largely takes place in ruins, as we discussed earlier. But those ruins must be remnants of once-great places in order for the effect of their desolation to be felt. There is a reason that we think of ghost stories as taking place in sprawling castles, stately English manor houses, and decrepit mansions. The story of greatness comes first and the Gothic is produced in the decayed and degenerate difference between what was then and what is now. In that way, Sansa’s dawning recognition of her thorough entrapment and the fact that she clings, in that live burial represented by her false identity and circumstances, to stories of a past that has long since ceased to be, is our recognition of just how Gothic Martin’s world truly is and how everyone—from villains to heroines—is buried alive within it.

In part two, we’ll look at Theon Greyjoy, Martin’s other great Gothic heroine, and the way in which the show has attempted to double down on these themes by bringing the two of them together.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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