Arya Stark Earned Her Destiny, She Is No Mary Sue
Warning: Contains Spoilers
It was one of the most jaw dropping moments of the show, with the tension of the seemingly hopeless Battle of Winterfell splintering like a sheet of ice.
Arya Stark – a young woman who in happier days play-fought with wooden swords – destroyed the Night King with her own quick thinking, skill with weaponry, and steely nerve.
With one well placed jab of Valyrian steel, Arya put an end to the malevolent supernatural force which has overshadowed the series since the very first scene.
A slightly slower reaction or a less confident aim and all would have been lost. It was an assassin, not a soldier who was needed to smash this icy devil to smithereens, and Arya was the catlike killer prepped to pounce.
Unfortunately, Arya’s victory hasn’t sat well with all viewers, with some accusing the showrunners of having created a ‘Mary Sue’ character.
If you are unfamiliar with this term, the dictionary definition of a Mary Sue character is as follows:
Mary Sue is a term used to describe a fictional character, usually female, who is seen as too perfect and almost boring for lack of flaws, originally written as an idealized version of an author in fanfiction.
The Mary Sue is indeed a trope of certain weak strains of sci-fi and fantasy writing. This term is all too often used to dismiss resilient female characters as stereotypes.
Arya can in no way be reduced to a mere Mary Sue, and everything we have seen from her so far has built up to this climactic moment.
Arya has been resourceful from the very beginning, wise beyond her years following some harrowing childhood experiences and far, far tougher than her small, slight appearance may suggest.
However, she did not enter the show perfectly equipped to deal with the myriad of challenges she has been forced to face after being orphaned and left to fend for herself.
Nor is she by any means a flawless character. Bloodthirsty and vengeful to the extreme, there is – to paraphrase Melisandre – a real darkness in her, despite her strong, Starkish moral compass.
Arya’s journey towards becoming the greatest hero of the show has been long and grueling, and she has had to put the work in to build upon her natural abilities.
Official Fellow and Tutor in Medieval English Literature at the University of Oxford, Carolyne Larrington, spoke with UNILAD about how Arya’s defeat of the Night King is perfectly in keeping with her developing story arc.
Professor Larrington said:
Arya’s story arc has – from the day we first saw her in Winterfell in S.1, ep.1 – taken her along a path that’s unconventional enough for a girl, but entirely fitting for a hero.
That first episode proposes Ned, then Bran as possible epic heroes, and then the position of both is compromised by the way their stories develop.
Even the Night King himself – played by actor and stuntman Vladimír Furdík – approved of his demise, telling The Daily Beast how it was a ‘good decision’.
Drawing comparisons with the redeemed character of Theon Greyjoy, Professor Larrington continued:
Bran said to Theon that all his decisions up to that point led him to where he was now – in the Godswood – home – fulfilling a particular redemptive destiny.
So too Arya, from Syrio Forel to her journey with the Hound to her time in the House of Black and White to the baroque vengeance on the Freys, has been on a path that is not morally uncomplicated, but which has made her entirely appropriate to unsettle our expectations.
Daenerys tried – and spectacularly failed – to eliminate the NK; Jon was pinned down by Viserion, even though he wanted to reach Bran, but Arya’s confrontation with Death, personified by the NK, was absolutely embedded in the developing narrative of the show.
Indeed, every brutal moment of her character arc has strengthened and shaped her for this great destiny, a cathartic conclusion which is truly satisfying for those of us who have respected Arya from day one.
We first learn of Arya’s agility during her peaceful childhood in Winterfell, where she delights in outshining her brothers with bow and arrow.
Her tomboyish nature is seen as amusing to her family, who indulge her wild tendencies without ever imagining she would become the greatest warrior of any of them.
Her early steps are gentle, and even sweet. The gift of a small sword, Needle, from her favourite sibling Jon Snow and surprise water dancing instruction with Syrio Forel from her father, Ned Stark.
At this stage, it is still assumed she will inevitably grow out of her unladylike ways and marry a great lord, in accordance with her father’s expectations for her. It is not expected she will be forced to become resourceful.
However, early lessons in combat have proven a poignant echo of what was to come, with her wide-eyed love of weaponry becoming her means of survival, revenge and ultimately a means of protecting the remaining members of her family.
Like her direwolf Nymeria, Arya has moved far away from the domestic comforts of her early years, giving up her identity completely before returning – hardened inside and out – to her true Starkish nature.
The showrunners took pains to show us the harsh reality of Arya’s training in Braavos. Far away from the land of her birth, Arya is relentlessly tested over and over again to the point where she can truly become ‘no-one’.
During this long period of training, she is blinded and beaten, stabbed in the guts and taught how to literally wear the faces of the dead. This was no mere karate class.
At 18 years old, Arya is only a few years older than her ‘brother’ Jon at the start of the show, when he set on a course to join the Night’s Watch.
Prior to his time at Castle Black, Jon never had cause to draw a sword to a foe, while Arya is already a seasoned fighter, with a sizeable body count to her name.
And yet nobody ever felt it was ‘Mary Sue’-ish of Jon to infiltrate wildling territory and kill wights. Let alone eventually rise to the prestigious position of Lord Commander before dying, resurrecting and being hailed as the King of the North.
Of course, Jon worked hard to earn this level of respect but his impressively precocious CV has rarely been questioned by viewers. Any doubts as to his advanced dragon riding skills have been attributed to his Targaryen blood, an innate specialness which transcends further scrutiny.
It was naturally expected by many that Jon’s many titles would continue to snowball, with the accolade of Night King Slayer further solidifying him as somebody set apart from the rest.
Maisie Williams herself told Entertainment Weekly how she worried people would think Arya didn’t ‘deserve’ this victory:
It was so unbelievably exciting,
But I immediately thought that everybody would hate it; that Arya doesn’t deserve it. The hardest thing is in any series is when you build up a villain that’s so impossible to defeat and then you defeat them.
Sadly, even the boyfriend of Williams appears to think Jon was the character more deserving of becoming the slayer of the Night King:
It has to be intelligently done because otherwise people are like, ‘Well, [the villain] couldn’t have been that bad when some 100-pound girl comes in and stabs him.’ You gotta make it cool.
And then I told my boyfriend and he was like, ‘Mmm, should be Jon though really, shouldn’t it?’
Yes, Arya’s defeat of the Night King was surprising but this was a way more satisfying moment than it would have been if he was dispatched by the most typically anticipated hero character in the show, the universally revered fan favourite for the throne, Jon Snow.
UNILAD spoke with Professor Raluca Radulescu, a Medieval Literature professor from Bangor University who views Arya’s triumph as part of a collaborative effort on the part of the remaining heroes. A fittingly unified wolf pack, so to speak.
Professor Radulescu told UNILAD how she is ‘very pleased’ with Arya’s big moment as she had thought ‘it would be – boringly – Jon Snow or Daenerys’:
He’s [Jon Snow] a bit like King Arthur. Because he’s the bastard son who turns out not to be the bastard son, he’s the chosen one – very messianic, very Christlike – so frankly, that would have been a bit boring.
So the fact that they had chosen to turn it this way, I think it’s much more interesting.
Professor Radulescu continued to discuss how the depiction of female characters overall has improved, becoming more interesting than their male counterparts:
They’ve all been enhanced in some sort of way, and they’ve grown up. And I think it’s quite nice to watch that.
I think they are given much more power in their own right, although the fantasy genre is very dominated by patriarchal models.
One of the most striking parts of Game of Thrones as a series is its ability to surprise, both in terms of the characters and in regards to the sharp, shocking turns of various plots.
Writer of the original literary series George R.R. Martin is well versed in the fantasy genre, and knows how to subvert expectations while maintaining a core, purposeful narrative thread.
Having long since moved beyond the book material, the Game of Thrones showrunners have remained loyal to this sense of slowly unfurling the characters’ destinies, without giving a firm sense of a central perspective.
A less daring show wouldn’t have stayed true to Ned Stark’s head being lopped off in the first season after setting him up as the protagonist, or given an incestuous, would-be child murderer a second chance to become honourable.
Perhaps in a less imaginative story, the plucky youngest daughter of the main family would have just remained on the sidelines, longing to be as strong and as powerful as her brothers.
However, in this universe, the little sister is given agency to develop the sort of fighting skills which leave grown men gobsmacked on the battlefield.
What do we say to those who describe the fiercest fighter in Westeros as a ‘Mary Sue’? Not today!
You can now – finally – watch the new season of Game of Thrones on HBO or Sky Atlantic.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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