The following essay first appeared in a slightly different form on the Pawn to Player thread at westeros.org, as a part of their Female Influences project. Reprinted here with many thanks to PtP co-hosts Milady of York and brashcandy for involving me in this endeavor.
When thinking of Sansa and Arya Stark readers often tend to see them as opposites, from their first scene to their last. Though this opposition of characters is undeniable, it doesn’t mean that opposites have to be always in conflict. A complementary interpretation is possible, as the following incident illustrates:
In AGoT, chapter 65, Arya wonders why Sansa is on the steps of the Great Sept as their father is brought before the mob, and why she looks “so happy.” The reader knows that Sansa has used her courtesy and her pretty words, a lady’s armour and weapon, to buy her father’s life:
“As it please Your Grace, I ask mercy for my father, Lord Eddard Stark, who was Hand of the King.” She had practiced the words a hundred times. […] King Joffrey looked her up and down. “Your sweet words have moved me.” He said gallantly, nodding, as if to say all would be well. “I shall do as you ask … but first your father has to confess …” ” AGoT, chapter 57
When it becomes clear that Joffrey is ordering Ned’s execution, Arya
… threw herself into the crowd, drawing Needle […] Arya slashed at them with Needle […] She could still hear Sansa screaming.
At first glance these are two very different reactions to the same situation: Sansa— accommodating and sensitive, attempts to create a shield for her father, while Arya— belligerent and headstrong, would use her sword to defend him. On closer examination, the two girls doing exactly the same thing: using their individual talents in an effort to defend and save their father’s life. Their talents and actions in this situation are complementary, but their objective is the same.
Sisterhood refers to the relationship of two females who share a parent or parents. But a secondary definition of the word is “the solidarity of women based on shared conditions, experiences, or concerns.” While GRRM admittedly created Arya and Sansa as complementary characters, I propose that the shared bond of their sisterhood has embedded a blueprint in the arc of each girl, that their arcs and the roads each has to travel after their parting in King’s Landing move in tandem each to the other, along seemingly opposite paths, but progressing towards a common outcome: reunion with their family and the reformation of the pack. Ned’s words to Arya in AGoT reflect the values the girls were raised with, which will affect this outcome:
“Let me tell you something about wolves, child. When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm … Sansa is your sister. You may be as different as the sun and the moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you …” AGoT,, chapter 22
From the beginning, we are alerted to the differences between the two girls:
“Sansa’s work is as pretty as she is,” Septa Mordane told their lady mother once. “She has such fine, delicate hands.” […] “Arya has the hands of a blacksmith.” AGoT, chapter 7
Sansa even points out the difference to Cersei, in a moment of self defence:
“I’m not like Arya,” Sansa blurted. “She has the traitor’s blood, not me. I’m good…” AGoT, chapter 51
Yet, are they really so different? Septa Mordane, she of the blacksmith hands analogy, has this sentiment for Sansa, who loved Lady as much as Arya loved Nymeria:
“You’re a good girl, Sansa, but I do vow that when it comes to that creature you’re as willful as your sister Arya.” AGoT, chapter 15
Even in their occasional indifference to each other, there are similarities:
“It was not until later that night, as she was drifting off to sleep, that Sansa realized she had forgotten to ask about her sister.” AGoT, chapter 51
Not to be outdone, Arya initially spares no thought for her sister once she escapes the horrors of King’s Landing:
“when at last she slept, she dreamed of home … She yearned to see her mother again, and Robb and Bran and Rickon . . . but it was Jon Snow she thought of most.” ACoK, chapter 1
Shortly we see both girls having thoughts of their home and the “pack”, coupled with assertions of their defenses:
What was it that Septa Mordane used to tell her? A lady’s armour is her courtesy, that was it. She donned her armour and said, “I’m sorry my lady mother took you captive, my lord.” […] Once she had loved Prince Joffrey with all her heart, and admired and trusted his mother, the queen. They had repaid that love and trust with her father’s head. Sansa would never make that mistake again. ACoK, chapter 2
Sansa resolves to armour herself in courtesy, steeling her heart against the girlish love and admiration that once filled it. While for Arya we see a resolution to stand fast with sword in hand:
It made her sad to think of Sansa and her father. […] If she was a real water dancer, she would go out there with Needle and kill all of them, and never run from anyone ever again […] Arya wouldn’t let them die for her like Syrio. She wouldn’t! Shoving through the hedge with Needle in hand, she slid into a water dancer’s stance. ACoK, chapter 5
As Yoren leads her towards Harrenhal, Arya’s hope that she will find someone to rescue her sounds like an echo of her sister:
That was what knights did; they kept you safe, especially women. ACoK, chapter 14
We know Sansa has long believed in true knights, and while she still hopes, we begin to see the cracks in her conviction:
Knights are sworn to defend the weak, protect women and fight for the right, but none of them did a thing. ACoK, chapter 32
“True knights protect the weak.” He snorted. “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods.” […] Wordless, she fled … there are gods, she told herself, and there are true knights too. All the stories can’t be lies. ACoK, chapter 52
Arya’s hope begins to fade as well after she is taken by The Mountain’s men:
By the time she marched, Arya knew she was no water dancer […]Syrio would never have sat silent in that storehouse, nor shuffled along meekly with the other captives. The direwolf was the sigil of the Starks, but Arya felt more a lamb, surrounded by a herd of other sheep. ACoK, chapter 26
In ACoK, chapter 18, Sansa receives a mysterious message saying “Come to the godswood if you want to go home.” Her thoughts at first are full of fear of betrayal, yet she resolves to go:
“If it is some trap, better that I die than let them hurt me more.”
Over the course of several months, Sansa meets Ser Dontos in the godswood of the Red Keep, forging an alliance that she believes will take her home to Winterfell once and for all. During those months, we hear the following words in her internal monologue on more than one occasion echoing the resolve she felt on her visit, “I can be brave.” In fact, Sansa tells herself to “be brave” so many times in her final chapters in King’s Landing, it seems to have become her mantra.
By the time she flees King’s Landing in ASoS chapter 61, Sansa’s emotional shield is fully functional. Her internal monologue has grown increasingly rebellious, while the façade she presents to the world is all courtesy and pleasant words. As Tyrion tells her, “You hide behind courtesy as if it were a castle wall.” Yet as she flees, she feels her skin has turned “to porcelain, to ivory, to steel…”
Meanwhile at Harrenhal, Arya has been finding her courage and visiting the godswood as well. Arya uses her time in front of the heart tree to practice her needlework, recite her ever growing litany of judgement, and pray:
I was a sheep, and then I was a mouse, I couldn’t do anything but hide […] Jaqen made me brave again. He made me a ghost instead of a mouse. ACoK, chapter 26
Help me you old gods …Help me get those men out of the dungeon so we can kill Ser Amory, and bring me home to Winterfell. Make me a water dancer and a wolf and not afraid again, ever. ACoK, chapter 47
Arya finds her prayers answered in the form of Jaqen and weasel soup. Sansa’s prayers for delivery seem to be answered by Ser Dontos. But prayers, as we soon see, can be answered in unexpected ways. While Dontos ultimately spirits Sansa away, it is not yet to Winterfell; and while Jaqen does help Arya to free the northmen, which leads to the death of Amory Lorch, and is indeed the agency that allows Arya to rediscover her identity and conquer her fear, neither are Arya’s prayers for home answered. Both girls are set to move into a new phase of their journeys, but in paying homage to the gods of their father each has strengthened their gift– the shield has become steel, and the sword arm stiffened.
The next major settings in the arcs of the two girls are Braavos and the Vale. In the interim, between godswoods and the destinations, each forms a brief alliance with a faction that may one day prove fortuitous: Arya with the Brotherhood without Banners and Sansa with the Tyrells. During these brief interludes (a matter of weeks really) both girls complete a reconnection with their “Stark family values.”
Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid? That is the only time a man can be brave Eddard to Bran, AGoT, chapter 1
Brave. Sansa took a deep breath. I am a Stark, yes, I can be brave. ASoS, chapter 28
I must be brave, like Robb… ASoS, chapter 59
… she felt calmer than she ever had in Harrenhal. The rain had washed the guard’s blood off her fingers, she wore a sword across her back, wolves were prowling through the dark like lean grey shadows, and Arya Stark was unafraid. ASoS, chapter 3
You never could lie for love nor honor, Ned Stark. Robert Baratheon, AGoT, chapter 30
My father always told the truth […] Joffrey is a monster. He lied about the butcher’s boy and made Father kill my wolf. When I displease him he has the Kingsguard beat me. ASoS, chapter 6
“You are very beautiful, Sansa,” he told her. “It is good of you to say so my lord.” She did not know what else to say. Should I tell him he is handsome? He’ll think me a fool or a liar. She lowered her gaze and held her tongue. ASoS, chapter 28
Arya, being younger, struggles with the moral implications of her survival instinct. I found this line reminiscent of Ned’s “there were some secrets it was too dangerous to share”:
Arya told of Yoren and their escape from King’s Landing as well, and much that had happened since, but she left out the stableboy she’d stabbed with Needle, and the guard whose throat she’d cut to get out of Harrenhal. Telling Harwin would be like telling her father, and there were some things she could not bear having her father know. ASoS, chapter 17
Her father used to say that a lord needed to eat with his men, if he hoped to keep them. “Know the men who follow you,” she heard him tell Robb once, “and let them know you. Don’t ask your men to die for a stranger.” AGoT, chapter 22
“Another lesson you should learn, if you hope to sit beside my son. Be gentle on a night like this and you’ll have treasons popping up all about you like mushrooms after a hard rain […] The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.” “I will remember, Your Grace,” said Sansa, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I’m ever a queen, I’ll make them love me. ACoK, chapter 60
“Don’t be afraid,” she told them loudly. “The queen has raised the drawbridge. This is the safest place in the city. There’s thick walls, the moat, the spikes …” […] Sansa went to to Ser Lancel and knelt beside him […] “Help him,” Sansa commanded two of the serving men. ACoK, chapter 62
Arya took the lead, kicking her stolen horse to a brisk heedless trot […] Arya kept them moving at a slow steady pace. ASoS, chapter 3
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. AGoT, chapter 2
But when the septon climbed on high and called upon the gods to protect and defend their true and noble king, Sansa got to her feet. […] Let his sword break and his shield shatter, Sansa thought coldly as she shoved out through the doors, let his courage fail him and every man desert him. ACoK, chapter 57
Ser Gregor, Dunsen, Polliver, Raff the Sweetling, The Tickler and the Hound. Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, King Joffrey, Queen Cersei…
Arya’s oft-repeated litany of judgement changes somewhat by the end of Storm:
Ser Gregor the Mountain… Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn and Queen Cersei […] she was glad [Joffrey] was dead, but she wished she could have been there to see him die, or maybe kill him herself. ” ASoS, chapter 74 (emphasis mine)
Both girls have yet to complete their journey to fulfill this particularly ideal but their thoughts, cold and unyielding as the north itself, indicate they understand the Stark concept of righteous judgement.
Their thoughts about Robb and their faith in his prevailing over his enemies are strikingly similar:
Robb will beat him, Sansa thought. He beat your uncle and your brother Jaime, he’ll beat your father too. Sansa, ACoK, chapter 32
Robb will kill you all, she thought, exulting. Sansa, ACoK, chapter 32
Robb has beaten them every time. He’ll beat Lord Baelish too, if he must. Sansa, ACoK, chapter 65
If the Lannisters hurt Bran and Rickon, Robb will kill them every one. He’ll never bend the knee, never, never, never. He’s not afraid of any of them. Arya, ACoK, chapter 64
“The Lannisters will soon have Riverrun under siege.” “Robb will beat them.” Arya, ASoS, chapter 43
Another important point of intersection in their arcs occurs during Arya’s time in the Riverlands: their respective interactions with Sandor Clegane. This intersection may well have great significance in their future arcs. Certainly he is a figure that looms large in both their lives for a time, and his exit from each girl’s story is closely tied to the theme of mercy.
In Storm, we remember Sansa praying for the Hound before the Battle of the Blackwater:
“…and finally, toward the end, she even sang for Tyrion the Imp and for the Hound. He is no true knight , but he saved me all the same, she told the Mother. Save him if you can, and gentle the rage inside him. ACoK, chapter 57
And of course, she delivers his “song”, the Hymn of the Mother which is all about mercy, in their final interaction.
After he seizes Arya, in their confrontation with Polliver and the Tickler, the Hound finds out that the little bird has flown King’s Landing:
“A pretty girl, I hear,” said the Tickler. “Honey sweet.” He smacked his lips and smiled. “And courteous,” the Hound agreed. “A proper little lady. Not like her bloody sister.” ASoS, chapter 74
He sees the clear difference (even invoking shades of the shield and sword metaphor, when he refers to Sansa’s courtesy and Arya as “wolf girl”) but he appreciates and identifies with both.
Arya’s “mercy” is of a different sort. Foreshadowed by this, after she leaves his name out of her “prayers”:
Sandor moaned and she rolled onto her side to look at him. She had left his name out too, she realized. Why had she done that? She tried to think of Mycah, but it was hard to remember what he’d looked like. She hadn’t known him all that long. All he ever did was play at swords with me. “The Hound,” she whispered, and “Valar morghulis.” Maybe he’d be dead by morning… ASoS, chapter 74
Finally at the end, harking back to Eddard’s statement that the one who passes the sentence should wield the sword:
“Do it! The gift of mercy … avenge your little Michael …” “Mycah.” Arya stepped away from him. “You don’t deserve the gift of mercy. ASoS, chapter 74
As we see with Dareon, Arya has no trouble wielding her blade when she has determined that death is deserved. In this case, what she must really be saying then is that the Hound does not deserve to die. In her interactions with the Hound, Arya moves a bit closer to Sansa’s position.
In AFfC chapter 6, Arya arrives in Braavos and her thoughts turn to Winterfell, but only for half a heartbeat. Telling herself that all is lost, she determines that she doesn’t need her pack:
But that was stupid. Her home was gone, her parents dead, and all her brothers slain but Jon Snow on the Wall […] Arya never seemed to reach the place she set out to reach […] what good had friends ever done her? I don’t need any friends, so long as I have Needle.
Yet, much as we will see with Alayne, Arya’s inner thoughts are often at odds with what she says aloud or even what she wishes to think. She continues to think about Winterfell, about Old Nan and Maester Luwin and her family even as she tells herself she will not. And we know that for her Needle is
… Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and father, even Sansa… Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people… the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room… Jon Snow’s smile. AFfC, chapter 22
As Arya beholds the Titan at close range, she is awed by its scale “He could step right over the walls of Winterfell,” and when Yorko Terys delivers her to the steps of the House of Black and White, she affirms her Stark identity:
“I am a wolf, and will not be afraid.”
After she enters, she reveals who she is:
“I am Arya, of House Stark.” “You are,” he said, “but the House of Black and White is no place for Arya, of House Stark.” “Please,” she said, “I have no place to go.”
She stubbornly clings to her identity, to her Stark qualities and her memories, in spite of being told she must abandon them. And her observation about Braavos’ Titan has a very interesting parallel with what is happening with her sister in the Vale.
Sansa arrives at the Eyrie at the end of Storm with no illusions that her aunt is little better than the Lannisters, with the intention of marrying her to her son to take advantage of her claim. Her thoughts are also full of Winterfell, home and her lost family, though she also spends much time thinking that she must be Alayne. Her first chapter to open at the Eyrie begins with a dream of home, of sharing a room with her sister. It continues with the oft discussed snow castle. In terms of connection with her sister’s arc, one line stands out:
…he stepped over both walls with a single long stride and squatted on his heels in the middle of the yard. ASoS, chapter 80
In the aftermath, as Sansa is escorted by Marillion to Lysa her thoughts echo Arya’s on the steps of the HoBaW:
I am a Stark of Winterfell, she longed to tell him. Instead she nodded, and let him escort her down the tower steps and along a bridge.
Later, as Lysa drags Sansa to the Moon Door, we have echoes of Arya in Harrenhal, contrasted with Cat’s bravery:
“You squeak like a mouse now, but you were bold enough in the garden, weren’t you? […] Your mother was brave at least.” ASoS, chapter 80
When Petyr arrives, echoing the Kindly Man’s statement to Arya, a ranting Lysa tells him:
“Why did you bring her to the Vale, Petyr? This isn’t her place. She doesn’t belong here.” ASoS, chapter 80
In her new phase, Arya begins honing the skills foreshadowed with her “needlework”, while Sansa continues to develop her own foreshadowed by her “armour of courtesy”—her diplomacy and kindness, and her social and political skills. The parallels identified above, and the continued similarities in their thoughts, illustrate that their arcs, while different in approach, continue in a complementary direction.
Both Sansa and Arya assume new identities at this stage. As Alayne and No One they must present these new identities flawlessly to the world, for their own survival. But in spite of continued self-assurance that they are indeed becoming those characters, both remain Starks in their hearts:
I am not your daughter, she thought. I am Sansa Stark, Lord Eddard’s daughter and Lady Catelyn‘s , the blood of Winterfell. AFfC, chapter 10
“Who are you?” he would ask every day. “No one,” she would answer, she who had been Arya of House Stark, Arya Underfoot, Arya Horseface. She had been Arry and Weasel too, and Squab and Salty. Nan the cupbearer, a grey mouse, a sheep, the ghost of Harrenhal … but not for true, not in her heart of hearts. In there she was Arya of Winterfell, the daughter of Lord Eddard Stark and Lady Catelyn, who had once had brothers named Robb and Bran and Rickon, a sister named Sansa, a direwolf named Nymeria, a half-brother named Jon Snow. AFfC, chapter 22
As Sansa concludes her stay in the Eyrie, she focuses on presenting Alayne Stone to the world, telling herself:
I must be Alayne all the time, inside and out. AFfC, chapter 41
And yet she still demonstrates Stark qualities:
Bravery: “So you’re brave as well as beautiful,” Myranda said to her
Honesty: “Almost, I said. I saw you…”
Leadership: Alayne knew she dare not wait for Mya to return. She helped the boy dismount, and hand in hand they walked out onto the bare stone saddle…
Judgment: One of the squires sniggered, until she said, “Terrance, lay out his lordship’s riding clothes and his warmest cloak. Giles, you may clean up that broken chamber pot.” (A minor point of justice, but a judgment nonetheless)
Arya is also focused on being No One, more importantly on not being Arya of House Stark. Yet she is still the night wolf, and her experiences with the cats of Braavos prove she cannot leave her identity wholly behind. As well, she remains a Stark. Her bravery is beyond question, she is learning to speak truth while hiding her innermost thoughts, and in learning to follow the FM learns a valuable in leadership.
As for judgment, she remembers a lesson learned from her father early in life:
The girl was not sorry, though. Dareon had been a deserter from the Night’s Watch; he deserved to die.
Last we see Sansa she is poised for the next phase, possibly one that will bring some moral ambiguity through her continued association with Petyr Baelish, but one that seems to be moving her closer to home, to Winterfell. Her sister as well is moving on to a new phase. Her conflict is clear as she is about to begin an unknown apprenticeship under the auspices of the Faceless Men. But it’s also clear that she is unable to fully abandon her true self and her memories of home.
The sun and the moon, the shield and the sword do not exist without each other but move in concert, each complementing the other. So do these sisters. To paraphrase the words of GRRM: they have issues to work out, but they need each other. One day we hope they will meet again to prove that the solidarity of sisterhood can overcome even the most diametrically different personalities.