The Maiden in the Tower/Grail Maiden: An Arthurian reading of Sansa Stark

alayne

art by akizhao

The following essay was originally posted in the Pawn to Player thread at Westeros.org. Pawn to Player is devoted to re-reading and literary analysis of Sansa Stark’s story arc.

In mythology and legend, the tale of the abduction and captivity of a princess is an archetype that conveys one of the central mysteries of chthonic cults, that of rebirth and regeneration, at the same time that it reassuringly conveys the balance of masculine and feminine. At the narrative heart of the abduction myth is the theme of the captive princess. This tale becomes in the telling increasingly complex and distant from its chthonic origins. However, all tales of rescuing a damsel in distress have their roots here.  Early in Sansa Stark’s story arc she travels to King’s Landing as the bethrothed of Prince Joffrey Baratheon and takes up residence in the Tower of the Hand. From there, as events progress, she becomes a captive in the upper reaches of Maegor’s Holdfast. After a short period of release, which is spent as an unhappy wife, she is taken away once more, this time alighting (ultimately) in the Maiden’s Tower of the Eyrie, from which she emerges during her final chapter in Feast.  Our little bird has spent the final months of her girlhood in a cage, represented by a succession of towers. Her periods of controlled release, while in themselves stagnant, can be seen to represent the fruition of growth in her arc, as in this poignant reminder from Ser Osmund as she descends from her chamber in Maegor’s for the final time:

“Do as you’re told sweetling, it won’t be so bad. Wolves are supposed to brave aren’t they?” Brave. Sansa took a deep breath. I am a Stark, yes, I can be brave. “

ASoS, chapter 28

Compare with her descent from the Eyrie where she has found a bravery of a different sort:

Sansa Stark went up the mountain, but Alayne Stone is coming down … Alayne was an older woman, and bastard brave.”

AFfC, chapter 41

The well-known story of Persephone, torn from her mother’s protection by Hades, the god of the underworld and forced to remain as his wife for a part of each year after partaking of the symbolic pomegranate, is at once a tale of regeneration and balance. In the Persephone myth, Demeter spends the months of her captivity searching in vain for her daughter while the landscape (the fertility of which is dependent upon her, the goddess of the harvest) grows increasingly barren and lifeless. Persephone’s ingestion of the pomegranate seeds ties her irrevocably to the underworld, and forces her annual return to her position as the consort of its ruler. We see echoes of this in Catelyn Stark, as Lady Stoneheart, searching in vain for her daughters in the wasteland that the Riverlands has become. Then too there is this scene that marks the beginning of Sansa’s second captivity

“Petyr cut a pomegranate in two with his dagger, offering half to Sansa. ‘You should try and eat, my lady.’

‘Thank you, my lord.’ Pomegranate seeds were so messy; Sansa chose a pear instead…”

ASoS, chapter 68

In choosing the much less symbolically fraught pear, Sansa rejects the cyclical captivity of Persephone for a more temporary version.

We also find a version of the captive princess theme in H.C. Andersen’s famous atmospheric tale The Snow Queen. In Andersen’s story, the young boy Kai is taken by the wicked Snow Queen to her fortress in the far North where he is ultimately rescued by his innocent young friend Gerda, who proves the power of love to conquer evil. There is early foreshadowing of Sansa’s role as the captive princess in AGoT and the tale of the Hand’s Tourney. Cersei, who has yet to reveal her true colors to Sansa, quarrels publicly with Robert at the evening feast. Note the description of Cersei:

“The queen’s face was a mask, so bloodless that it might have been sculpted from snow.” AGoT, chapter 29

Here we are given clear notice that Cersei is hiding her true self (behind a mask) and her future role as captor in the description that so closely echoes the description of the Snow Queen when Kai first beholds her

“She was delicate and beautiful but made of blinding, glimmering ice.” H.C. Andersen, The Snow Queen: Second Story 

The union of Hades and Persephone can be seen as a hieros gamos, or sacred marriage, where the representative of the Earth annually marries a sacrificial king in order to secure a bountiful harvest, with the hidden, underground aspect of Hades representing the potential of fertility, while Persephone represents the culmination of fertility. The hieros gamos is present in many world cultures, perhaps most significantly in Britain, where some have speculated that the union of King Arthur and Gwenhwyfar draws on ancient British traditions involving the sacrificial king and the triple goddess, as evidenced by references to three Gwenhwyfars in the Welsh triads. All these tales hold in common the idea of a union between masculine and feminine which harks back to the earlier mysteries. But it is the tale of Arthur’s Gwenhwyfar which represents the union of the chthonic themes of Persephone with the romantic notion of the damsel in distress. The Arthurian scholar Roger Sherman Loomis finds that behind the tradition of Gwenhwyfar’s abduction by Melwas (alternatively Meleagant in Chretien’s The Knight of the Cart) lay a myth of “the Persephone type” with the important distinction that Gwenhwyfar is held captive in a tower on an island that stands in for the fairy underworld of the early Welsh Arthurian tale The Spoils of Annwn. In The Knight of the Cart Meleagant challenges Arthur to send his Queen to him with a knight. If he defeats the knight in single combat, he will release a number of Arthur’s subjects whom he holds captive. Arthur sends Gwenhwyfar with his foster brother Kay, who is defeated and Gwenhwyfar is seized and imprisoned. Gawain and Lancelot also set out, separately, to attempt a rescue. Gawain comes upon Lancelot walking behind a cart whose dwarf driver tells him to get in if he would have news of the Queen. Lancelot hesitates for two steps because the cart (or pillory) is a mode of transport reserved for criminals and not befitting a knight. He does mount, in most interpretations owning his treasonous affection for the Queen, and thereafter passes every test of his devotion to her. Ultimately he slays Meleagant and restores the Queen to her husband. Arthur however is diminished, in the same way the annual king of the hieros gamos must be as his year wanes.  At the Tourney of the Hand we are introduced to Sandor as Sansa’s rescuer, when Joffrey commands him to escort her back to the castle. During their brief journey together we learn that Sandor’s early longing to be a knight has been transformed into utter scorn for the institution by his vicious brother’s elevation to that rank. He has become instead the Lannisters’ guard dog, illustrated by his “snarling” and “growling” speech. Yet he foreshadows his future as her personal knight errant when he climbs into the back of a cart with her and returns her to her father’s protection. Just as the tale of The Knight of the Cart symbolizes Lancelot’s willingness to stain his knightly honor in the defense of his true love, so Sandor’s story starkly illustrates that true knights aren’t necessarily without flaws and that rescue can come from places unlooked for.

Running in tandem with themes of sacred love, regeneration and rescue we have the Grail legend. While the sacred marriage tells of the need to maintain balance between masculine and feminine, the Grail legend tells of a distressingly out of balance relationship. Psychiatrist Emma Jung finds in the Grail legend a collective meditation on the particular problems of the medieval society– that the masculine, in particular the warlike masculine, has been elevated at the expense of the feminine at the same time that the dark side of divinity has been denied. By stripping away the mysteries of the Earth mother and making sexuality something to be despised rather than revered and throwing up in its place the snow white image of the Virgin, whose “pure” procreation is at odds not only with the human psyche but with the very reality humans lived from day to day, medieval society (led by the Catholic church) created a psychic wound in the collective that could only be healed through a metaphoric journey to reclaim the feminine. In addition, the separation of light and dark in the divine element simultaneously led to a rift between the sacred and the profane that could not be resolved. To be fair, Jung never claims that the medieval mindset was aware of any such thing. Rather this is the work of a collective unconscious, which brings us to the image of the Grail castle.  The Grail castle, according to Jung, can be seen as an expression of that archetypal concept of the unconscious. The Grail itself, hidden away in the castle, represents the Self, the spiritual experience of wholeness and the process of achieving balance between the conscious and unconscious which is present in all people. The Grail Maiden then is the guardian of Self, while the Fisher King (the Lord of the Castle) represents the wounded unconscious who must die or be healed for the good of the collective, or as Emma Jung put it “the Grail King is, as it were, the archetypal image of Christian man as he is viewed from the perspective of the unconscious.” (Jung and von Franz, The Grail Legend )

In The Snow Queen, Kai receives two kisses from the enchantress. The first makes him forget the cold while the second makes him forget his family. To apply Jung’s ideas to Kai, he becomes lost in a wasteland, out of touch with his Self and with a deeply wounded consciousness.  After Robert’s death, with her father set to remove her and her sister from danger, Sansa disobeys her father and chooses the warmth of the south over the cold north of her birth by going to Cersei seeking help. She ends up a prisoner in the highest tower of Maegor’s Holdfast while Lannisters arrest her father and slaughter his household.  After her second audience with Cersei days later she is convinced to write letters to her family requesting their continued loyalty to King Joffrey. When she returns to her tower room that evening she realizes she has forgotten to ask about her sister. Sansa has received the equivalent of the boy’s two kisses from her own enchantress and become a prisoner in her heart as well as her body. The transformation is symbolically complete when Sansa, dressed in mourning (she has dyed her stained white gown black) kneels on the cast off Kingsguard cloak of Ser Barristan Selmy to plead for her father’s life. Her innocent Self, represented by the white gown, has been wounded, as represented by the blood orange stain. Yet she covers this wound with black dye and presents herself to the Lannisters as their captive, kneeling on the symbol of their disregard for knightly honor (the cast off cloak) In truth, Sansa’s life has gone from song to nightmare quicker than Littlefinger can remind her that life is not a song. So begins her season of despair and torment. Her chapters in Game end with Sandor saving her from pushing Joffrey off the ramparts, and a surprisingly tender moment as he wipes the blood, caused by Ser Meryn’s blows, from her face.

“’Thank you,’ she said when he was done. She was a good girl and always remembered her courtesies.”

AGoT, chapter 67

Her disillusion is complete, but she has learned the valuable lesson that, pawn though she may be, she can find protection in a lady’s courtesy.

While the tale of the Fisher King reimagines the hieros gamos, Perceval’s quest represents the need to connect with the Self, to ask the questions that provide one with a numinous experience of one’s inner center.  That the numinous, or spiritual, must needs be a balance between masculine and feminine, light and dark is what has been lost. To accomplish his quest, he must save the Fisher King by asking the question which reveals the Grail (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) Perceval takes many wrong turnings and fails to save the Fisher King on their first encounter. As renowned Jungian analyst Roger Woolger puts it: “The wound of the Fisher King is the medieval image of that damaged consciousness and the terrible alienation from the Earth Mother it has wrought.” Or to put it another way “The Christian fear of the pagan outlook has damaged the whole con­sciousness of Man.” (D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse)

The quest then, is a search for sensuality and balance that has been denied. Perceval, the pure simple youth in touch with the sensual, is the only Arthurian figure to truly achieve the Grail through his quest(ion)ing. (For more on Perceval and his parallels to Sandor, see this essay by Ragnorak at Westeros.org.) On the eve of the Battle of the Blackwater Sansa’s relationship with the Hound comes full circle when he breaks during the inferno and seeks refuge in her chamber. In his extremity he offers to take her with him as he flees the city. She finally delivers the song he has been demanding, in that moment inverting their relationship and becoming his saviour, transforming herself from Gwenhwyfar (the captive) into the Grail maiden, the song representing the answer to the question he has asked her many times but not in the correct way until this moment. Sandor suffers from a psychological wound that terrifies her at the same that she possesses the sole power to heal it. It can be no accident that the proposed matches to Willas Tyrell and her cousin Robert Arryn (which precede the actual matches with Tyrion and Harry the Heir) will prompt her to begin to misremember her final meeting with Sandor, fabricating a romantic kiss where none existed. In a further inversion, Sansa now resembles The Snow Queen‘s Gerda, rather than the captive Kai:

“’I can give her no greater power than she has already,’ said the woman; ‘don’t you see how strong that is? How men and animals are obliged to serve her, and how well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is. She cannot receive any power from me greater than she now has, which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart. If she cannot herself obtain access to the Snow Queen, and remove the glass fragments from little Kai, we can do nothing to help her…’”

Andersen, The Snow Queen: Sixth Story

Sansa’s arc in Clash is marked by the continuation of her torment at Joffrey’s hands which at the same time brings about a period of growth and strengthening that can best be compared with Persephone’s months outside of the Underworld of her husband. On the other hand, most of her chapters in Storm represent a period of stagnation which compares with Persephone’s months of captivity with Hades. It is a time of waiting.  She has moments of hope, but overall is in stasis- waiting to be whisked away first by Dontos, then by the Tyrells. After her forced marriage to Tyrion she seems resigned to her fate:

“Tyrell or Lannister, it makes no matter, it’s not me they want, only my claim.”

ASoS, chapter 28

As Gwenhwyfar was rescued from Meleagant’s tower by her white knight (Lancelot) only to be returned to her unhappy marriage, so is Sansa escorted to from Maegor’s to her union with Tyrion by a pair of white knights (Ser Osmund and Ser Boros) For that matter, in her final descent from the Eyrie she is accompanied by Sweetrobin in his white bearskin cloak. Of note is that this chapter and her future descent from the Eyrie deal with the subject of Sansa’s marriage and the Stark maiden cloak as a powerful symbol of her identity as Princess of Winterfell.  In both, there is someone standing in stead of her father who does not have her best interest at heart. Also in both, the groom or proposed groom is a mere surrogate for a larger interest. Sansa has learned to her sorrow that those who wish to claim her are mostly interested in her real estate.  The presence of the white cloaks in both chapters also serves to draw attention to the missing white cloak of the only masculine figure in her life who has no interest in her “claim” and stands as her true protector– Sandor Clegane.

Joffrey’s wedding day dawns with Sansa waking from a dream of Winterfell. When she looks out her window she sees an amazing castle in the clouds– two castles actually, which soon merge and become one. Like another castle associated with Sansa, much analysis has been applied to this scene. In terms of Sansa’s longing the merging of the two cloud castles into one which resembles her home can only represent her unconscious need to continue to be a Stark (her True Self) which is in contrast to her conscious thought moments later

“They have made me a Lannister, Sansa thought bitterly.”

ASoS, chapter 59

The end of the cloud castle passage is also highly reminiscent of this passage from The Waste Land:

“What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal “

T.S.Eliot

Sansa’s own wasteland is her perpetual entrapment. Her unconscious longs for home and to rediscover her Self. Her conscious mind, in spite of brief moments of hope which reveal the Self waiting to be discovered, focuses on her continued captivity.  Sansa’s upset stomach on Joffrey’s wedding morning can no doubt be attributed to nerves as we later learn that she has hidden clothing in the castle godswood, preparatory to her escape in the aftermath of the wedding. She goes to the Lannister wedding on the arm of her Lannister husband telling herself

I must be brave, like Robb

ASoS, chapter 59

The allusion to Robb holds high significance when the parallels with the RW are considered. Sansa has reached an ending, like her brother, and at this wedding a king will die and a new chapter will begin, furthering the parallels with the myth of sacrifice and regeneration.

As Sansa prepares to embark on her journey into the unknown with Dontos, like Gwenhwyfar fleeing her death sentence with Lancelot, she dons a deep green cloak with a large hood. Worrying that the pearls on her bodice will gleam in the dark she reassures herself “The cloak will cover them.” The attention is drawn back to Sansa sheltering under another cloak, on another night

“She shook out the torn cloak and huddled beneath it on the floor, shivering”

ACoK, chapter 62

Sandor has rejected the cloak for symbolizing his failure to her (“I stood there in my white cloak and let them beat her”) but we know that to Sansa the cloak is inevitably the symbol of protection

“She had dreamed of her wedding a thousand times, and always she had pictured how her betrothed would stand behind her tall and strong, sweep the cloak of his protection over her shoulders, and tenderly kiss her cheek as he leaned forward to fasten the clasp.”

ASoS, chapter 28

The cloak is a powerful metaphor of protection. By donning it, she unconsciously acknowledges Sandor’s power to protect her, even as she continues to deny his “knighthood.”  As she unknowingly moves to her new captivity she hides Sansa Stark in a Grail Castle of her own making, as will be seen when she arrives in the Vale.

Gwenhwyfar endures two captivities in most versions of the legend. In the first, her abduction by Melwas, there is much posturing but the real danger seems to be to the knights who present themselves as her protectors (usually Kay, Gawain and Lancelot) In much the same way, Sansa’s time in King’s Landing is marked by danger and defeat to her father, her brother, her husband and ultimately even Sandor and Dontos. In contrast, Gwenhwyfar’s second captivity with Mordred is marked by real sexual menace. In the final tale of the Vulgate Cycle, Mort Artu, the elements of rescue and imprisonment in a tower are separated. Arthur discovers Gwenhwyfar’s affair with Lancelot and condemns her to burn. Lancelot rescues her and transports her to his castle, Joyous Garde. In the process of the escape, Lancelot inadvertently slays Gawain’s brother Gaheris and sets up the next episode in the drama: the betrayal of Mordred (Medraut). Lancelot flees Arthur’s rage, returning to his own lands in France and incidentally once again returning Gwenhwyfar to her husband. Here we have echoes of Dontos, the well intentioned savior who ultimately returns Sansa to captivity when he delivers her to Littlefinger. Arthur and the vengeful Gawain follow him there, leaving Arthur’s kingdom vulnerable to seizure by Mordred. Sly, untrustworthy and calculating, Mordred lurks in the background until Arthur’s attention is occupied elsewhere, at which time he swoops in and seizes the Queen and the Crown. In like manner Littlefinger keeps himself “offstage” until the attention is briefly directly away from Sansa (by a plot allegedly of his own device) at which time he swoops in (almost literally, on a fast ship) and bears Sansa away to her second captivity. Unlike the distinctly liminal (in spite of Joffrey’s childlike threats and her marriage to Tyrion) sexual nature of her time in King’s Landing, her time in the Vale is marked not only by a sexual awakening of sorts, but by true sexual menace in the form of her natural “father.”  As we saw increasingly in her months in King’s Landing, her thoughts remain her own, but she struggles against the pressure for her to be Alayne Stone in her mind and her heart. Her final chapter in Storm begins, as did her final day in King’s Landing, with a dream of Winterfell. As she wakes she reminds herself

“I am Alayne Stone, a bastard girl.”

ASoS, chapter 80

In spite of her conscious thought, she remembers Winterfell as home and the sight of snow falling on the Eyrie brings her back “to cold nights long ago, in the long summer of her childhood.” When she enters the Eyrie’s garden, she finds “a place of whites and blacks and greys.” The imagery of Winterfell is visceral, but it doesn’t end there, as she begins to build a snow castle which she soon realizes is Winterfell. When Petyr discovers her within the castle walls, he asks her “May I come into your castle, my lady?” There are clear sexual connotations here, with the childhood game “Come Into My Castle” seeming to be a Westerosi version of games in which children mimic adult behavior including, though certainly not limited to, the sexual aspects of marriage and adult relationships. Sansa is wary of his intent, but allows him to help her. In a moment of playfulness she throws snow in his face. When he scolds her for being unchivalrous she replies “As was bringing me here, when you swore to take me home.” While his response to this comment leads Lady Lysa directly out the Moon Door, it is her internal response that is so significant: “She wondered where this courage had come from, to speak to him so frankly. From Winterfell, she thought. I am stronger within the walls of Winterfell.” Here she recognizes the power of Winterfell, her own Grail Castle, to nourish her Self.

While her first chapter in Feast begins with a memory of Winterfell and she is still clearly Sansa in her thoughts, her final two chapters illustrate the increased pressure for her to be Alayne all the time. Scholars debate over whether Gwenhwyfar’s abduction by Mordred is a symbolic “wife stealing” (a theme not unfamiliar to the denizens of the North) or an otherworldly abduction (as the Melwas interval clearly is). In the same way that doubt arises over Gwenhwyfar’s intentions during the affair with Mordred (was she willing or was she forced?) we begin to wonder if Sansa will become complicit in Littlefinger’s plans (in particular his plans for Sweetrobin.) In this case we must be content to speculate on the outcome, since the arc is incomplete. What is clear is that as Alayne descends to the Vale, she has grown in ways that we cannot yet fully appreciate. She has become practiced at deception, yet remains Sansa in her heart, in spite of her repeated thoughts and internal exhortations to the contrary. She has grown in strength as well, and in hope. The act of literally descending from a period of growth to what is most likely going to be a period of stasis (“I must be Alayne all the time, inside and out“) has strong elements of Persephone returning to Hades. Like Persephone, Sansa must put aside her true identity for a time and dance with “the devil.” If indeed Sansa Stark is the Persephone of this story, we have the symbolic foreshadowing of her ability to rebuild the dynasty of her family and regain her Self in the snow castle scene. To engage in a bit of prediction, it is easy to imagine her declaring her Self as Gwenhwyfar does in William Morris’ poetic reimagining and seeing her song come true at last because, although life is not a song, Sansa holds a unique position in the Song of Ice and Fire. The maiden in the tower has a knight who has not only been her savior, but whom she has saved as well. The balance of the two would seem to ensure that one day they will be reunited, as certainly if not as romantically, as Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot are:

“She leaned eagerly, And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

At last hear something really; joyfully Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed

Of the roan charger drew all men to see, The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.”

William Morris, The Defence of Guenevere

 

Works Cited:

Loomis, Roger Sherman (2000). The Development of Arthurian Romance. Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486409559

Jung, Emma and Marie-Louise von Franz. The Grail Legend.  Translated from the German. Princeton University Press. 1998. ISBN  0691002371

Andersen, H.C. The Snow Queen, from The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, translated by D.C. Frank and Jeffrey Frank. Houghton Mifflin Co. 2003. ISBN 0618224564

William Morris, The Defence of Guenevere

http://www.bartleby.com/42/727.html

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse. Page 86.

http://books.google.com/books?id=qpIqaYHpQj0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Woolger, Roger, http://www.deepmemoryprocess.com/page33.html

Various elements of the Arthurian cycle are referenced here including Chretien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, The Mabinogian and the Welsh Triads. Modern works also consulted include those of Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Rosemary Sutcliff.

Websites of interest:

http://www.jungatlanta.com/articles/winter06-the-grail-legend.pdf

http://www.heroicage.org/issues/1/habcg.htm

http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project

http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Persephone.html

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