She entered the series a naive young girl with dreams of handsome princes and happy endings, and has since become a tough and resourceful political leader.
Sansa Stark came to understand the unjust universe of Game of Thrones at the same pace as the audience and – despite not having the awe-inspiring abilities of siblings Bran and Arya – has arguably had the strongest and most realistic character arc.
She may not have travelled beyond the wall or journeyed across faraway lands, but Sansa – a survivor and a shrewd student of human character – has what it takes and more to become a wise and capable queen.
Sansa’s narrative first unfolded at King’s Landing, the epicentre of power, where her childhood dreams of marrying into greatness were realised as hollow trinkets in comparison to the less glittering worth of her family’s honour.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sansa soon longed to return to the peaceful, quiet innocence of her childhood. However, when she finally returns home, it has changed beyond all recognition.
But so, of course, has Sansa herself. In her words, ‘my skin has turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel’. No longer is she merely decorative, breakable, tradable.
Sansa’s potential to be ‘a great beauty’ was once the focus of the other characters’ interactions with her. However, her pretty gowns have long since been replaced with darker shades, thick fur and family emblems; closely resembling the garments favoured by her fiercely protective late mother.
Her change in clothing has not been as remarked upon as those of Cersei, who looks more and more otherworldy with each costume change. However, this sterner – more distinctly ‘northern’ – appearance still marks a profound internal shift.
Sansa has gone from being used as a pawn to secure marriage licences, to being extremely logical; more than capable of advising seasoned fighter Jon on matters of military strategy. Not, of course, that everyone has yet learnt to listen to her.
Unlike her more battle-worn siblings, Sansa – with her deceptively ‘gentle heart’ – has seen the brutality of Westerosi politics close up.
She knows the inner workings of King’s Landing and the dynamics of the Lannister family better than any of the living Starks. She has learnt to outsmart liars and false allies, despite being by her own admission a ‘slow learner’.
Sansa is amongst the more reflective of the main players and – unlike other potential queens I could mention – knows when she has made a mistake and resolves to do better.
Her apology to ‘half-brother’ Jon about being an ‘ass’ to him when they were kids perfectly illustrates just how far she has come in recognising her flaws. Her snobbishness has given way to tolerance, her sense of entitlement shook by years of uncertainty.
UNILAD spoke with Amanda Digioia from the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) about the leader Sansa has become.
Ms Digioia has previously written academic texts about fan phenomena in relation to Game of Thrones, with Sansa being one of her favourite characters.
Ms Digioia – who even has a tattoo dedicated to Sansa on her forearm – told UNILAD:
Sansa doesn’t have weapons training, or dragons (which are the equivalent of nuclear weapons in Westeros) that she didn’t bother training properly (looking at you Daenerys), or ‘strength’ that is coded as masculine.
But Sansa remained standing as her world disintegrated around her, she has transcended her multiple traumas, and she is, above all, a survivor.
Ms Digioia continued:
Sansa’s endurance is what impresses me the most. Endurance is one of the most essential skills for human survival. Is it as exciting as torching your enemies with dragon’s you barely trained (Daenerys is far more guilty of this in the books than in the show)? No.
Is it as cunning as blowing up the Great Sept of Baelor with the majority of your political enemies inside? No.
Is it as daring as taking the bait of a psychopath after ignoring the counsel of someone who knows that psychopath, and running mindlessly into the middle of a battlefield (you know nothing, Jon Snow)? No. Endurance is not imposing, or seductive.
But is as impressive as any of these other traits, and is a testament to Sansa’s ability to learn, adapt, and survive.
Admittedly, our admiration for Sansa does not come as easily as say with Arya or Tyrion. She is not immediately heroic, or even likeable.
Her happy, protected childhood had left her spoiled and unprepared for the cruelty beyond the walls of Winterfell, and she has had to adapt through drawing from a deep well of inner strength.
Indeed, Sansa’s bravery in the face of unimaginable trauma is an under-discussed aspect of the show. More terrible things happen to Sansa than perhaps any other member of the main cast, but she is not simply a passive victim.
Sansa spends large periods of time interacting with some of the most heinous and unforgivable villains of the show. However, she is able to keep her cool and show restraint during impossible situations. She can pick her battles and knows when to wait for the opportune moment.
Sansa is also way more sassy than we give her credit for, delivering some of the best one liners in the show. Who could forget her sly retorts to the endlessly slappable Joffrey? (‘Or maybe he’ll give me yours.’ Yes Sansa!)
Anyone who still views her as a vacuous Disney Princess should look to her linguistic capabilities, her speech making which is arguably superior to that of the far more revered public speaker Daenerys.
Although her monologues are shorter and sharper, they are truly memorable and also have a powerful effect on the person listening.
Consider this cutting indictment directed at the dastardly Littlefinger who fatally underestimated Sansa after marrying her off to the the sadistic Ramsay Bolton:
The other things he [Ramsay] did, ladies aren’t supposed to talk about those things, but I imagine brothel keepers talk about them all the time.
I can still feel it. I don’t mean ‘in my tender heart, it still pains me so.’ I can still feel what he did, in my body, standing here, right now.
The rape of Sansa was arguably the most distressing and controversial moment in what is a notoriously violent TV show, and understandably drew criticism from many viewers.
Sansa’s admonishment of Littlefinger was cathartic for many viewers who had been left traumatised by the scene, and showed Sansa as the powerful woman she was always meant to be.
Sansa later shows similar oratory skills and confidence when eventually sentencing the infamously duplicitous Littlefinger to death, outwitting a man who has outsmarted those far older and supposedly wiser than herself.
Speaking with Rolling Stone, Sophie Turner – who plays Sansa – said:
In the beginning, I was jealous of Maisie [Williams], because she got to do all these sword fights and be the badass. I was like, ‘I know my character is very powerful.’
Sansa adapts better than Arya. If Arya was in Sansa’s situation at the beginning, she would have had her head cut off.
And if Sansa had been in Arya’s position, Sansa would have been bullied to death. . . . It was really frustrating how slow it was, but it just makes it all the more satisfying. I’m happy she’s only just coming into her power now.
As a more feminine, ladylike figure than other strong female characters in Game of Thrones – Ygritte, Brienne, Yara – Sansa perhaps does not always get the viewer respect she deserves.
Ms Digioia spoke with UNILAD about the surprising power wielded by the eldest Stark sister:
I see lots of commentators online that hate Sansa, and the majority of them identify as male. These commentators call her weak, annoying for speaking her mind (many points that she raises are absolutely valid, but Gods forbid she contradicts Jon Snow), and worthless because she can’t wield a physical weapon.
But what is more powerful than any sword is the power of Sansa’s mind, and her ability to endure. Sansa is a competent ruler, not a flashy conqueror, which is a favourable trait for long term stability in any realm.
For example, each house that obtained the Iron Throne via conquest has lost it (first the Targaryens, making Daenerys’ claim invalid, and then the Baratheons).
The Targaryen rule was also plagued by conflict (the first Dornish War, Robert’s Rebellion, etc.) and civil war (the Dance of Dragons). Sansa’s skill set is what is needed for lasting peace and competent ruling.
Sansa has the good, loyal heart of a Stark, but – unlike other members of her family – does not let her feelings get in the way of her decision-making. Consider her resignation to the unavoidable fate of little Rickon, which she had figured out long before Jon’s dawning realisation on the battlefield.
Sansa’s ascension to the throne would also make a lot of narrative sense, when bearing in mind the real historical events George R.R. Martin drew from when writing the original fantasy book series.
Ms Digioia observed how Sansa has a historically significant counterpart in Elizabeth of York, who would go on to birth the Tudor dynasty:
Martin loves the War of the Roses and has obviously drawn inspiration from that conflict, as well as other historical events (the Black Dinner, the Massacre of Glencoe, Hadrian’s Wall, etc.). Some aspects of Sansa’s story are very reminiscent of Elizabeth of York. Both Elizabeth and Sansa are redheads.
Elizabeth was born into an insecure court (much like the chaos in Westeros). Elizabeth had a failed betrothal to the king of France, Sansa had a failed betrothal to Joffery.
Elizabeth was a rival to a queen (Margaret of Anjou), and Sansa is an opponent of Cersei. Elizabeth was sister to a king, and so is Sansa. But, in the end, it is Elizabeth who became Queen of England (though not Queen regent), and literally gave birth to the Tudor dynasty.
I have no doubt that Sansa will be standing tall at the end of the series as a winter rose (the pale blue flower that is the most beautiful of all the ones grown in the gardens of Winterfell), although I doubt that the Iron Throne will exist at the end of the series.
Iron Throne or not, there is only one queen I will be bending the knee to this season. Long live Queen Sansa, wielder of the sewing needle, eater of lemon cake and survivor of monsters.
Season 8 of Game of Thrones will air in the US on HBO on April 14, and Sky Atlantic early morning April 15 in the UK.
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