The wolf in the mirror
Each member of the Stark family experiences some form of abject misery throughout the course of A Song of Ice and Fire. Outside events drag them across the continent, away from their family and home, and slap them hard across the face with the realism of a world without each other. Each of their respective journeys are uniquely shaped. Both parent and child are forced into their own niche, their own spot on the map, and surrounded by their own players within their mini- game of thrones.
Despite these many different arcs there are themes and values shared by all Starks, but I would like to discuss one that I have noticed: the idea of becoming what you hate.
The realism mentioned above is a oft-discussed aspect of George RR Martin’s series, but what is talked of less often is the effect this realism has; specifically on a family of, essentially, children. How these young people interact and react to that realism, that bottom line. Each of the Starks are introduced to this world in different ways, but all must deal with it. They have to deal with being taken off the normal route of growth, with the decisions of others but more often the choices they themselves have made, and the consequences of said choices.
Eddard Stark had his own meeting with these facts some two decades previous, when he journeyed south on a mission of justice. He instead found death and horror, and if A Game of Thrones tells us nothing else, it’s that Ned never got over that. He may have got home safe, sure, but the internal trauma and essential PTSD that remains in him is telling of the experiences his own children face throughout the series.
I believe that each Stark eventually comes to betray something of their older selves in order to survive. They, one way or another, are forced to make exceptions, to make the tougher choice, and wind up as something they once personally hated. It is a perfect portrait of how cruel the world of Westeros is, that this group of young children can be transformed so, can be almost turned inside out.
After leaving Winterfell each Stark eventually has to try and find a new place in the world. They fight against violence, betrayal and straight up evil. Through all of it, from all different corners of the land, each Stark must look in the mirror, and decide what kind of wolf is staring back.
We begin with the big dog/wolf. The patriarch of the Stark family is the first to suffer new parameters to which he must align, and as a fully-grown adult is perhaps the most aware of the changes he makes to himself to do just that. Ned is also a great starting point because the changes in approach and lifestyle have the very worst of repercussions.
Eddard Stark is famous for two things: honour, and being northern. Speaking on the second subject first, Ned lives in the ideal place. Winterfell and its home region are remote, difficult to get to and rather stubborn in their ways. Just like mountain-hidden Dorne, this all allows them to keep out of the affairs of the southerners and their courts, which suits Ned just fine. Politics and power struggles are not the northern way of life. The system is more simple there. Say what you mean and say it with a beard. And that’s general northmen. No one is more a stickler of the rules than Eddard Stark. The very first chapter of the story is focused on Ned teaching this ideal to young Bran.
Bran had no answer for that. “King Robert has a headsman,” he said, uncertainly.
“He does,” his father admitted. “As did the Targaryen kings before him. Yet our way is the older way. The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.
-Eddard Stark; Bran I, A Game of Thrones
Ned, a man who has internalised so much pain relating to dishonor, lies and betrayal, lives his life on the right side because he needs to, because that’s what he clings to, and it is what has given him the family and life he has. After all, if he had not stepped in to fulfill the betrothal of Brandon Stark and Catelyn Tully, he would not have his wife or his children.
The south, therefore, represents everything he hates, and he knows that as soon as he realises he’s going there.
“Lord Eddard Stark, I would name you the Hand of the King.”
Ned dropped to one knee. The offer did not surprise him; what other reason could Robert have had for coming so far? The Hand of the King was the second-most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. He spoke with the king’s voice, commanded the king’s armies, drafted the king’s laws. At times he even sat upon the Iron Throne to dispense king’s justice, when the king was absent, or sick, or otherwise indisposed. Robert was offering him a responsibility as large as the realm itself.
It was the last thing in the world he wanted.
- Eddard I, A Game of Thrones
Besides the fact that almost his entire family were murdered down there (his and Robb’s eventual fates are good arguments for the curse), the south is also the manifestation of politicking, the fake smiles and secret handshakes that would all freeze to death in the north.
When Ned and his retinue arrive in King’s Landing he does a more than admirable job at resisting the pull of the river. He refuses to play the game amongst Petyr, Varys, Pycelle and others; he insists on doing things the northern, straightforward way. Considering we get two straight books where the Hand of the King is the essential main character, we get an easy comparison. Tyrion’s approach to Hand-ing (I hear it, and I’m sticking with it), is about as different you could get from Ned’s.
Unfortunately for Ned, it’s Tyrion’s tactic that gets the job done. Ned only becomes more and more frustrated, falling deeper into a mystery and seeing nothing go his way. When his friend, his entire reason for being there, dies from the tusks of a boar, watching from the sidelines is no longer an option. Ned has to dirty himself, has to walk into the depths of the filth in order to try and stamp some goddam honour onto King’s Landing. Even though it is with the noblest of intentions, Ned becomes a player. Not a good one, and not for long, but a player.
The need for deceit was a bitter taste in his mouth, but Ned knew he must tread softly here, must keep his counsel and play the game until he was firmly established as regent. There would be time enough to deal with the succession when Arya and Sansa were safely back in Winterfell, and Lord Stannis had returned to King’s Landing with all his power.
“I would ask this council to confirm me as Lord Protector, as Robert wished,” Ned said, watching their faces, wondering what thoughts hid behind Pycelle’s half-closed eyes, Littlefinger’s lazy half-smile, and the nervous flutter of Varys’s fingers.
- Eddard XIV, A Game of Thrones
It all ends with Ned in a cell, and then later, without a head. The final insult is that before he dies, Ned besmirches himself further in an attempt to protect his daughter, and declares himself a far dirtier player than he could have ever dreamed of. Some believe this, some do not, but it’s a bitter end to Ned’s arc either way and our largest trendsetter for injustice. From the moment we finish that Arya chapter, the tone is set for the series, and for Ned’s children.
Robb is the first child to really have the world bear down on him, and his shoulders start holding the weight at Winterfell. Already left with a castle to run and people to rule, Robb finds himself in command of an army after Ned’s arrest. He is a teenage boy dealing with grizzled men and scarred warriors. He is faced by the infamous Tywin Lannister and the fact that every step will cause huge ripples in the war’s water. Already, Robb has to become two. His old self, Robb the boy, and his second, ‘Robb the Lord’, as Bran puts it. It’s the first instance of a Stark having to change themselves to deal with a new reality, though not the last.
Robb’s arc is one of growth, responsibility and tragedy, ultimately. Ingrained in that is that we see the best blueprint of Ned’s fathering. All Stark children carry Ned with them as they go, but Robb is the closest one to being able to genuinely replicate his father. Like Ned, Robb was Lord of Winterfell. Like Ned, Robb rode south in pursuit of justice and to save his family. Like Ned, he had to make the tough calls, and look men in the eye while he did it.
The best example of this is quite far along in Robb’s campaign, when Rickard Karstark avenges his dead sons by killing two unarmed boys. Robb is faced with two options. One leads to the detriment and weakening of his campaign. The other is unhonourable. No prizes for guessing which one Robb took. And like Ned before him, no executioner was summoned.
Long Lew waited beside the block, but Robb took the poleaxe from his hand and ordered him to step aside. “This is my work,” he said. “He dies at my word. He must die by my hand.”
- Robb Stark; Catelyn III, A Storm of Swords
Robb’s honour isn’t all negative. His approach is one that wins the hearts of many, and his numerous victories in the field only add to that. But where Robb becomes what he hates doesn’t occur in the field.
Robb was not being evil when he slept with Jeyne Westerling. He was not being someone he hated when he married her for honour’s sake. But when you look at the overall, Robb became exactly what he never wanted to be. Yes, he chose honour, like his father, but men died because of his mistake. A war ended, a cause stopped, and justice was never served, all because of a decision he made. Without a doubt, the knowledge that his decision doomed thousands upon thousands of men would have hurt far more than any Bolton blade.
That’s it for the deceased bunch, and perhaps the most straightforward cases of my point. That’s not to say that the younger Starks don’t become what they hate, just that it’s a bit more abstract. The case of Sansa is actually one of the more interesting ones. She goes through such an eye-opening shift, in so violent a way, to read it is fascinating, especially how she deals with imprisonment, abuse both physical and emotional, and all the other horrors that go alongside. The bitter realisations and broken dreams should have crushed her, yet Sansa keeps finding a way to march on.
Honour is something Sansa doesn’t get to rely on so much, not if she wants to live. Valiantly declaring “No Joffrey, I resist you. My own brother is the true king and vanquish you he shall!” would have resulted in nothing but pain and death. Sansa learned how the game was played and she started playing it. Her own specific type of bravery.
But this is not her becoming what she hated. How could Sansa hate game players, when she did not yet realise there was a game? Instead, recall that youthful Sansa from A Game of Thrones who was swept away with the knights, the tourneys, the dresses, the hair, the everything. Sansa was in love with the establishment. It was court, royalty and nobility that mattered to Sansa. The worst possible thing would be outside those lines. How ghastly.
“Yes,” she said, “but why must he be so cruel? He called me your bastard. Right in the yard, in front of everyone.”
- Sansa Stark, Alayne I, the Winds of Winter
I find delightful irony in that being a bastard would have been Sansa’s worst nightmare, and that is exactly what she ends up doing in the Vale.
“Natural?” Sansa was aghast. “You mean, a bastard?”
- Sansa Stark; Sansa VI, A Storm of Swords
Alayne Stone is born of necessity, and is another requirement to keep Sansa safe (as well as being handy for Petyr Baelish’s machinations). It’s not something Sansa resists, in fact she plays her role perfectly, as her time in King’s Landing taught her to do. Unlike Ned and Robb, it has not lead to anything disastrous so far, and she is not tormented by thoughts of betraying her former self, or anything of that nature. I don’t believe she even realises the irony I enjoy so much.
I think most would expect this situation to be resolved at some point, and for Sansa to return to her former station. Which becomes interesting again: perhaps she is the only Stark able to come back from that which she once hated.
From the girl who cared most about tourneys and court to the boy who cared most. It doesn’t much get spoken of about Bran, but he was just as into the courtly scene as Sansa, just the male side of it. Bran longed to be a knight, riding in jousts and go off having adventures. Yes, true, he still saw this through northern-focused eyes, slightly more than Sansa did, but it is the same scene.
Bran was going to be a knight himself someday, one of the Kingsguard. Old Nan said they were the finest swords in all the realm.
- Bran II, A Game of Thrones
Broken, Bran thought bitterly as he clutched his knife. Is that what he was now? Bran the Broken? “I don’t want to be broken,” he whispered fiercely to Maester Luwin, who’d been seated to his right. “I want to be a knight.”
- Bran VI, A Game of Thrones
Early Bran had another obsession, one that ironically crops up because he’s not yet old enough to do the riding and hunting he wants to. When denied that chance, Bran goes back to climbing, his childhood skill that is his, and his alone. In a brilliant chapter that shows his deep connection to Winterfell, the reader also gets it really hammered home how important Bran’s physical ability is to him. Not only is he using it now in his climbing, but in his dreams of being a knight.
Perhaps it is talked about so little because it is so fleeting. Bran falls at the end of his climbing chapter, and all the above dreams are shattered. Needless to say it is a long journey to mental recovery by Bran. He becomes isolated, moody, sometimes angry as he’s forced to watch other boys play and fight and continue to mimic those glorious knights. Bran, robbed of almost all independence, can only watch. Bran never specifically hated cripples, or the idea of being one, not in the short time we knew him pre-fall, but it is most certainly the opposite of everything he loved.
Where Bran beats out his other family members is his eventual ability to accept. Time is the main advantage given to him, his breaking occurs so early in the narrative that we are able to see how Bran eventually deals with his injury, makes it part of him, and finds a new focus in the powers eventually revealed to him. While this is commendable and certainly very good for Bran, its a slightly unfair comparison. Robb and Ned certainly never had time to deal with their respective mirror-demons, if they did indeed have the ability or desire to. Sansa’s arc may yet have her turning her new situation into one of victory. But Bran shows us this the most. A new world of seeing through time and living in a wolf’s skin does a great job of distracting Bran from his new constraints, and essentially gives him a new world to replace his old one with.
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
- Tyrion Lannister; Jon I, A Game of Thrones
Tyrion gives the advice to Jon, but it seems Bran takes it best.
By the time of Dance Bran is not nearly so bitter as he once was. Angry, yes. But not as before. He is well on the way to becoming the three-eyed crow, and the freedom of his mind seems to have alleviated the restrictions of his legs.
Arya & Rickon
The youngest daughter and youngest son of Eddard Stark are the two outliers to my concept. We simply don’t know enough of Rickon to be able to say what he hates, except perhaps quiet, well behaved boys. On top of that, we’ve not seen him since early ASOS, so who even knows what he has become?
As for Arya, the thing she hated most early on was likely her sister (although true hate is a little strong), and the idea of ‘girly girls’. Any chance of that is scuppered when Yoren takes her from the steps of Baelor. From then on Arya lives a life of lice and mud and sleeping rough. If anything, Arya becomes what Sansa hates. The only brief brush Arya has with the lifestyle of a lady is in A Storm of Swords.
“Who dressed the poor child in those Bolton rags?” she demanded of them. “That badge . . . there’s many a man who would hang her in half a heartbeat for wearing a flayed man on her breast.” Arya promptly found herself marched upstairs, forced into a tub, and doused with scalding hot water. Lady Smallwood’s maidservants scrubbed her so hard it felt like they were flaying her themselves. They even dumped in some stinky-sweet stuff that smelled like flowers.
And afterward, they insisted she dress herself in girl’s things, brown woolen stockings and a light linen shift, and over that a light green gown with acorns embroidered all over the bodice in brown thread, and more acorns bordering the hem.
- Arya IV, A Storm of Swords
She might get a bit scrubbed up after making her way to Braavos, but its still not enough to say she becomes what she hates. The only real hint we get of such is in her pre released Winds of Winter chapter, where Arya takes on the guise of Mercy. Even the name itself has to conjure thought on Arya’s issues with giving mercy, especially when thinking of her list and her final interactions with the Hound. To get back to the point, the Mercy chapter focuses on Arya having to take on the identity of an actress playing a young, fair maiden, not entirely unlike her sister. I suppose, if we really want to stretch, this is the best case of Arya becoming what she hates. And even that is short-lived, seeing as the end of the Mercy chapter has Arya saying goodbye to the character forever after she decides to take vengeance on Raff the Sweetling.
I left Jon slightly separate from the others. Not because I am some Alliser-Thorne-bastard-hating-type, but because when I started applying my hypothesis to the various Stark children, I couldn’t make Jon fit. I could simply not see how Jon became what he hated. There was some irony in this, seeing as Jon has the biggest change in station of all the Stark children, going from unwanted (in his eyes) bastard to Lord Commander of an ancient order of humanity’s defenders. (Sansa comes in second, but hers is not so pronounced, likely temporary, and heading in the opposite direction). As far as I figured, Jon didn’t hold any special hatred towards Lord Commanders, or authority in general. Just about the only thing Jon definitively hated was Alliser Thorne, so if you wanted to say Jon became upper management, like Thorne was, you could, but you’d be cheating. The exact same can be said if you want to try it on with the line “Jon hated the idea of being a steward but that’s what he became.” No. Not good enough.
To be honest, I was a bit stumped, until I stopped looking at just beginning and end. No Stark journey is a straight line, but none is so jagged as Jon’s (and maybe Arya’s). Through his arc he has become things, unbecome them and become them again. Despite being pretty moody all the time, hatred rarely bursts out of Jon, but it does seep into these jagged edges, and its mostly a hatred of his own making.
The first instance comes in A Clash of Kings, in the Skirling Pass, when Jon obeys Qhorin Halfhand’s final order, and becomes a wildling. At this point Jon is obviously not a huge fan of wildlings, but he doesn’t spew loathing for them either. They are just kind of there as a painted on enemy, and Jon dislikes them as much as any northman. Either way though, Jon becomes one of the enemy.
At the beginning, this isn’t too much of an issue. He’s on a mission. He’s obeying orders. He’s not really one of them, he’s a brother of the Night’s Watch, and he’ll stay that way.
As we all know after reading A Storm of Swords, it doesn’t go to plan. As time moves on, Jon becomes more and more submerged into the world of the Free Folk, especially with the help of young Ygritte. Before long, the whispers in his mind become louder and louder. The maybes and ifs and buts, and before you know it, Jon is breaking his oaths.
Whether it be by nature or nurture, Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s son, and there is nothing worse than oath breaking. Jon and Robb are similar in many respects, and this is one of them. Like Robb in the south, Jon betrayed himself by getting swept up romantically, and both became what they hate.
While the consequences for Robb were definitive, the case of Jon becomes much more interesting, because he eventually does it again. When the time comes, after passing back over the Wall, Jon deserts his new group, heading back to the watch. He betrays others he cares about because throughout his entire arc Jon is a man defined by duty. In his youth he might have dreamed about Daeren Targaryen, the Young Dragon and other knights, just like Bran did. Unlike Bran, Jon never had an avenue to that becoming reality. Its part of the reason Jon and Arya bond so well; they are the only two not on an obvious path. Robb will become Lord of Winterfell, Sansa will become a lady and bear children to some lord, Bran will become a knight, or a northern equivalent and rule a holdfast in his brother’s name. Even young Rickon, who doesn’t know it yet, will do the same. Arya knows her path, but hates it. Jon has no path at all.
Which is why, when he joins the Night’s Watch, Jon becomes so invested. Yes there’s growing pains, Alliser Thorne, jealous brothers, the news of his siblings, an abandonment attempt and Maester Aemon’s famous speech on choice, but it all leads to Jon choosing finally and ultimately to be a man of the Night’s Watch. Until he isn’t. And then when he is again.
Jaime, famously, lays it out straight:
Jaime reached for the flagon to refill his cup. “So many vows . . . they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”
-Jaime Lannister; Catelyn VII, A Clash of Kings
This applies as much to Jon as anyone else, constantly pulled in different directions by his confounded duty, being forced to turn his back on multiple groups until it all winds up with him in command and the wildlings ‘defeated.’ Needless to say, Jon has spent many an italicised thought on what is right, what he should do, and who he is, but the best confirmation comes when Jon is presented with an option afforded to no other Stark children: the chance to be what he’s always wanted to be.
When Stannis offers Jon Winterfell is the moment we can truly and honestly see Jon for the crow he’s become. Even with such an offer, he sticks to his vows and oaths, he sticks to his duty, and stays at Castle Black. In this instance, Jon is everything he himself admires.
Which makes his final choice all the more significant.
Jon has a pretty successful time of it in A Dance With Dragons. The wildlings come, he appeases both Stannis and his queen, his mission to bolster and prepare the Night’s Watch for the Others goes about as smoothly as you could hope. Jon is sticking to, and delivering on, his duty. That’s not to say there aren’t temptations. The aforementioned Winterfell, Val, the Karstarks, the possibility of Arya; there is always something that is not Night’s Watch-based to take him off the path. For almost the entire book, Jon resists, until his final chapter.
When Jon reads the Pink Letter, (and believes Arya to be further danger), he does it again. He breaks his oath, abandons his duty, does what he himself despises. And he pays for it.
While it’d be tempting to cram in a ‘Jon hates the undead, Jon comes back as the undead, Jon becomes what he hates’ angle, I’m going to resist. Jon is such an interesting case because he doesn’t just become something he hates once. He doesn’t even become the same thing. There are multiple instances of Jon doing exactly what he hates: breaking oaths, letting others down, and it all happens because he is trying to protect people. Ygritte dies in the battle, Gilly has her baby taken away, Aemon is sent away from the Wall, the new rangers are killed by the Weeper, Castle Black mutinies. All because of Jon trying to do the right thing.
Jon might have the biggest change in station, but he also is so much more than just one thing. He’s a crow, he’s a wildling, he’s a steward, he’s an apprentice, he’s a lover, a brother, a warrior, a Stark, (a Targaryen), he’s a Lord Commander. Because Jon stretches himself between all these different things, he’s never fully any one of them. There’s only one thing he’s always been. In so many ways, Jon doesn’t have to become what he hates, because he is already is just that; he’s already a bastard.
ASOIAF pulls in heaps of families and characters, but the Starks remain the focus even after five books and numerous new POVs. They all left Winterfell to go out and experience the world, discovering the hardships and realities along the way. So tough has the path been that most of them have been twisted into something they never would have contemplated. Its an intriguing thought to wonder if their eventual returns to Winterfell can bring them closer to something they once were, or if they will perhaps keep going further and further down a darker path. The effects of Westeros at war reach all, but none so much as our dear Stark children, and what kind of wolf stares back at them from the mirror.