If A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones have taught us anything, it’s that one can never truly define or anticipate the complexity of human relationships, or what one person means to another. In Westeros, as in life, affinities spring up between the unlikeliest of people, and this chemistry, which causes many fleeting meetings of eyes, moments of sadness, thrills of horror and small smiles of recognition, is often so powerful and so interesting that we can’t wait to get these people alone together to observe like scientists what sort of things they’ll get up to. Game of Thrones abounds with relationships like this, but the ones that simultaneously cause the most controversy and the most swooning are without doubt those that stem from Sansa and Arya’s odd propensity to experience intense chemistry and identification with creepy, oddly magnetic men that are much older than either of them. For Sansa, it’s Sandor and Littlefinger, for Arya, it’s Jaqen. But here comes the problem: readers and viewers who oppose these relationships aren’t so much concerned with the fact that our heroines are associating with amoral killing machines, amoral sociopaths or amoral Faceless Men, only with the fact that they’re experiencing these feelings in spite of a huge age gap. Don’t the Stark girls have more important things to worry about? Let’s appeal to the mother grundies to calm the fuck down, and take a better look at why hurling accusations of inappropriateness and paedophilia around does nothing but make mountains out of molehills and sling mud at beautiful things.
Medieval history and the fantasy genre both abound with significant age gaps between men and women, none of which lead to much disaster.
During the Crusades, for instance, Frankish nobility, particularly girls, would often marry as young as nine or ten (consummation not allowed), with fourteen to sixteen being the norm. Many of these political marriages to significantly older men were terrific successes: men of thirty or forty would fall passionately in love with their young brides, and the marriage would often come to resemble the relationship that exists between modern couples who have known each other since infancy. Men would see their wives as incarnations of youthful optimism and innocence, and women would see their husbands as father figures that would protect them and that they could look up to. Suggesting to such a couple that their relationship is indecent on the grounds of an age gap would probably get you drawn and quartered if you were lucky. For once, incredibly, the Crusaders are right: there is nothing indecent about this kind of love. If anything, it is more profound than many modern relationships.
Then there’s the question of age gaps in the fantasy genre. In more classical fantasy novels, notably the works of David Eddings, there exists a healthy quantity of teenagers falling in love with teenagers, but also a fair amount of very young women in their late teens to early twenties beginning relationships with middle-aged men, with great success. The Malloreon is perhaps the best example of this. The Margravine Liselle, an ingenious and witty young spy, falls in love with the infinitely but adorably devious spy and reader-favourite Silk. Now middle-aged, he used to amuse himself with chasing her and pulling her braids when she was still a little girl, and consequently has trouble with the decidedly adult feelings that he now cultivates towards her. But in all ways, they’re a perfect fit: they’re an ideal intellectual match and brilliant at their shared profession, the depth of their feelings often concealed by a constant witty repartee that becomes part of their daily life. There’s also the moving case of Zakath and Cyradis. A powerful and ruthless Emperor in his mid-forties, Zakath is possessed by a horrifying guilt and anger brought on by his having executed the woman he was in love with for a treason she did not commit. He spends most of his life paying the world back by drowning it in blood. Cyradis, on the other hand, is a young Seeress defined by her delicate archaic speech and a vulnerability caused by the blindness she must adopt in order to maintain the power of prophecy. Each is inspired by instinct to protect the other, so that each becomes the refuge and the peace of the other. So: are you honestly going to tell Liselle, Silk, Zakath and Cyradis that their feelings are indecent? Liselle, Silk and Cyradis might even let you live. Zakath would simply crucify you.
BUT! I hear you say. We don’t want Sansa and Arya to stay away from Sandor, Littlefinger and Jaqen because they’re older than them! It’s because they’re dangerous company for anyone. Yes, this is also a good argument. Boring, but good. But if we object to Sansa and Arya hanging out with such dangerous people, then why do we fixate so constantly about an age gap that isn’t actually relevant to how dangerous these men are? Maybe it’s because chucking a word like ‘paedophilia’ into an argument is a sure-fire way to get your opponent to back down.
BUT! I hear you say. You’ve talked about ages fourteen to sixteen being normal in the Crusades and late teens, early twenties being normal in fantasy. In the books, Sansa and Arya start out as eleven and nine respectively, in the TV series as thirteen and eleven. It’s not okay for girls that young to be romantically involved with older guys, is it? No, it definitely isn’t. Except that Sansa and Arya aren’t ‘romantically involved’ with any of these men. They simply feel a connection with them, an attraction to them that they can’t really account for (and don’t forget that Sansa rejects Littlefinger’s advances). And it’s not like you need to be grown up to feel a connection with someone. All this ‘shipping’ that some people find so disturbing is simply in anticipation of something truly great that could occur once the girls hit an acceptable age. For both of them, but for Sansa in particular, that deadline is not far off.
Human relationships, and especially human feelings, are intense and complicated. We find ourselves watching others, listening to others, trusting others, without knowing why. This is called chemistry, and it exists in any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise. This is an ageless truth, and living as we do in a modern age often makes us forget that things that harken back to our past, even in as indirect a way as fantasy, should be understood as they were in that past. In the Crusades and in classical fantasy, a fourteen year old is a woman grown: in reading A Song of Ice and Fire and watching Game of Thrones, that should be our attitude too.
(featured image is by game-of-thrones-confession on tumblr)