Sansa, Arya and creepy older men: why people need to calm the fuck down.

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.

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Game of Thrones -  The Ghost of Harrenhal - Arya

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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Why Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister was a really good idea

So here’s my major complaint about Game of Thrones so far. The first season was so faithful to the book it had most fans spending the better part of each episode dancing jigs of joy on the couch. The second season made so many changes to the book that there were just as many people yelling ‘Oh no they DIDN’T!’, ‘The North Remembers!’ or simply ‘fuck!’ And yes, a lot of those changes were disasters (Daenerys [hangs head in misery]) and Jeyne becoming Talisa (‘Okaaay…but why?’), but a couple of them were really the shit. One that was the absolute shit of the shit was to kick Roose Bolton out of Harrenhal and make Arya, Arry, Weasel or Nan, depending on who you asked, Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer instead. Not only does this give us a premature insight into Arya’s psychology when she starts empathising with someone on her List, but also gives us a truly great, profound relationship that doesn’t occur in the books at all. This is one of the big advantages of making changes to the books, and is no doubt the kind of thing the producers were hoping for when they made all those other adjustments – just that most of the other adjustments were kind of crap. So let’s take a look at why Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister is a gigantic roaring success (pardon the symbolism).

Both Arya and Tywin are looking for someone to listen to them, and the immediate mutual respect that each feels for the intelligence of the other is the first step in that wish being realised. The fact that they aren’t equals helps a great deal, and seems to resemble the Victorian model of a master-servant relationship in that while a huge gulf of class yawns consistently between them, you’d be hard pressed to find a more intimate relationship. Tywin would never discuss things so intimate as his relationship with his father with anyone who was his equal, or even his relative: he’d risk looking weak, affectionate, or worst of all, guilty; plus he’s simply not that kind of person. He can, however, discuss such things with a servant he trusts: they’re obliged to listen, won’t give an opinion even if asked for it and would not consider such an intimidatingly powerful personage to be weak, affectionate or guilty under any circumstances. In her turn, Arya is able to speak to him about the emotions and goals of her own life. He’s one of the first people she is able to talk to about her father’s death, and though she approaches the subject by telling a spectacular lie about being the daughter of a literate stone mason, which amuses Lord Tywin no end, she is able to transmit to him her despair at her father’s being executed by one thing: loyalty. The effect that Ned’s death has had on her is something deeply personal and which she certainly wouldn’t confide to the likes of Hot Pie.

game-of-thrones-2-05-arya-makes-a-pact-with-prisonerSo where does this mutual respect actually come from? I’d say it starts right from the beginning: Tywin is smart enough to see that Arya’s not a boy and compliments her on her intelligence; he then rates her as being a lot smarter than the Tickler and his gang of hooligans and plucks her out of there immediately. And while I’m willing to bet that Arya would probably have called him ‘you stupid’, threatened him and tried to kill him at the first opportunity had he been anybody else, there’s a lot of grudging appreciation going on beneath the surface at Tywin’s intelligence, as well as at the fact that Gendry’s not going to die and that her own lungs are not going to be carved out. Conclusion: the kind of respect that exists between Arya and Tywin is the sort that inevitably exists between one intelligent person and another, and it’s a powerful factor in bringing them together despite their differences.

This respect for intelligence is all over the place in the Arya-Tywin dynamic, particularly as regards Arya, who Tywin praises constantly for her sharpness, even humiliating one of his men by declaring ‘My cupbearer can read better than you,’ to the entire Lannister war council. Like Tywin, Arya also needs someone to listen to her, and Tywin’s being impressed and inspired by her passion for female warriors like Visenya Targaryen rather than bursting out laughing is something that she must deeply appreciate, having met with nothing but ridicule from everyone except Syrio. I think that Tywin reacts respectfully when he hears of her ambitions because he can very likely see the warrior she’ll someday become. That’s one of Tywin’s greatest and most frightening gifts when it comes to Arya – seeing right through her. Through her speech, he sees that she spends day after day pretending to be somebody else and even offers her advice on how to better her performance, a suggestion that is met with a courteous wall of flawless lying that he immediately recognises as such, but chooses not to act on, either because of his fondness for her or because it would not be worth his time. There is also, of course, the epic ‘Anyone can be killed’ scene, in which the staring gazes of both actors resemble throwing petrol bombs at the screen and Tywin’s regard for Arya probably reaches its zenith.

tywin-lannister-1024Nevertheless, despite their respect for each other, their relationship does teeter on the edge of a barbed wire fence, Tywin occasionally freaking the hell out of Arya, Tywin throwing Arya out of the room with icy courtesy for impertinence, Arya stealing his mail before it gets to the ravens. Then there is the small matter of Arya’s List: as mentioned in the introduction, he’s definitely on it and she certainly has ample opportunity to get Jaqen to see to him, but somehow doesn’t. Something tells me that this is an Easter egg left along the roadside for the time Arya will spend as the Hound’s hostage, when she discovers with fury that she forgot to say the Hound’s name one night, probably a sign of compassion on her part. This leaves her absolutely livid with herself and results in her effectively smothering such cowardly sensations by ensuring that the Hound gets as long and painful a death as possible. I cannot honestly say I believe that she’d wish such a thing for Lord Tywin.

Then quite suddenly, the fun is over: Tywin leaves Harrenhal and barely says a word to her. As we’ve said, he’s not exactly the affectionate type, but this looks infinitely worse if we look a little back; to Tywin’s remark that Arya’s view that conventional femininity is stupid reminds him of Cersei. This, taken together with the nature of their entire relationship, brings Arya into the position of surrogate child and Tywin into the position of surrogate father. I don’t mean for a second that Tywin’s going to pull a Ben-Hur and adopt her – he’d never do that in a million years. What I mean is that she’ll be inspired to want to do her best to please him, and he’ll ultimately abandon her. Just look at the ways that Tywin has abandoned his own children.

Now let’s think hard about the fact that this beautiful, complex relationship, with so many dimensions to it, does not stem from the books, but from some unknown person (probably the producers) having to make changes to the story. If this is what Game of Thrones is capable of coming up with when changes need to be made, we can only hope that there’s plenty more of it in season 3.