Monday, 23 April 2012

A Game of Thrones: Catelyn and Arya Stark

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for all five books, including A Dance With Dragons. If you are currently reading or plan to read A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, do not read this post. You have been warned!

Unlike most readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, and viewers of the HBO TV series Game of Thrones - or so the internet informs me - I have loved Catelyn Stark since the moment I began the series, and strongly disliked her daughter, Arya. As they are both narrating characters, we are privy to their thought processes, and unlike most of the other point-of-view characters in Ice and Fire, Arya struck me as dull and one-dimensional. In the first book, she appeared to me to be an example of the 'rebellious tomboy' stereotype that is so popular in fantasy fiction, and seemed to have little more to her than being 'gutsy', 'fierce' and 'loyal'. How much more interesting, I thought, to read about female characters such as Catelyn and her other daughter, Sansa, who more realistically negotiate a patriarchal medieval society by exploiting traditionally feminine roles and using political strategy and intelligence to achieve their goals (Sansa, of course, is still in training here) rather than a rather anachronistic little girl who prefers slashing up things with a sword.

Now, I can't say that my opinion of Arya has done a 100% U-turn (she is still one of the characters whose chapters I look forward to least) but my initial impression of her was wrong. And part of the reason I am finding her arc increasingly interesting is the parallels I've been noticing between her and her mother, Cat.

Fans of the series often seem to lump Catelyn and Sansa together, as the two most feminine narrators, the two characters they most dislike, and - on a surface level - through the obvious physical resemblance. It has been convincingly argued that Sansa is, in fact, much more like her father, Ned, although as I've said, I would argue that Catelyn and Sansa share a strategic political (as opposed to battle strategy) aptitude which Ned lacked (both he and Robb are clearly much more comfortable on a battlefield than in a board meeting). I would like to suggest that there are also two key similarities between Arya and Cat that illuminate both characters' arcs in the series thus far, especially after Cat's death and resurrection as 'Uncat':

1. Emotion and reason: Arya, unsurprisingly for a nine-year-old girl, is frequently governed by emotion. She is impulsive and tends to act on instinct, although it has also been shown that her instincts are often right. However, her impulses are often risky and dangerous, both for herself and for others; witness her attack on Joffrey in the tussle over Lion's Paw in book one (which was morally right but strategically ill-advised) or her escape from the Brotherhood without Banners in book three, which brought her into the hands of Sandor Clegane. Catelyn almost always
behaves in the opposite manner; her decisions are usually (although not always, as I will note) rational and calculated. However, as we are privy to Catelyn's thought processes, we know that her initial reaction is often emotional, and she has to consciously push it aside to make a better choice.
To an extent, this is, obviously, common to all the characters, but there is something about the vivid violence that is often displayed in Catelyn's thoughts that reminds me of Arya, rather than, for example, Sansa, who tends to be much more passive, even in extremely emotional situations when you might expect she would be imagining horrible fates for her tormentors.

The major (and possibly, only) example of Catelyn making a poor decision that is governed by emotion is her release of Jaime Lannister at the end of book two. I personally think that it would have been a good idea to broker an exchange of hostages - Jaime for Sansa - because (a) Jaime's value as a hostage was over-exaggerated; he's a fantastic swordsman, but not a key Lannister battle commander and (b) Sansa's value as a hostage was underplayed, as proven by her forced marriage to Tyrion, where Robb could have wed her to a Tyrell. However, even as a Cat fan, I have to admit that such strategic considerations were not in her mind at her time. She did what she did because of grief and frustration, because she thought Bran and Rickon were dead and because Robb was waging a pointless war that she thought was ill-advised in the first place. Like Arya hitting Crown Prince Joffrey, the action was morally right but otherwise wrong and foolish. When Catelyn makes emotional decisions like this, I believe we can see her similarities to her daughter, who regularly names Jaime's sister and lover in her list of those she wants dead, and chooses the wrong people to kill when she is given two free deaths, because she happens to hate them most at the time. [This is not intended to be a criticism of Arya; she is extremely young, and because of this, tends to let her emotions get the better of her more often than her mother.]

2. Justice and vengeance: But arguably, this is more
important. Both Arya and Catelyn are strongly concerned with justice; which is not the same thing as desiring vengeance. Arya protests about the sham trial in book one, which results in Lady's death, because 'it's not fair'; Lady was uninvolved and Joffrey was in the wrong. Catelyn wants justice for her murdered husband, Ned, but not to the extent of starting a war. She arrests Tyrion because she believes he is responsible for the attempt of Bran's life, but when trial by combat proves him innocent, she lets him go, rather than exacting vengeful retribution anyway. Both characters, are, I think, initially distinguished by their strong sense of just morality, which differs from Ned's characteristic honour, and Sansa's courtesy; and this is a good reason to like both of them.

However, Martin shows us how a desire for justice can be distorted into a desire for vengeance, when life becomes too cruel for mercy. This is most evident in Cat's arc. Put me in the camp that believe that Lady Stoneheart, or Uncat, is crucially different from Catelyn Stark. The mockery of her resurrection is that she becomes a character that is in many ways the negative of her former self; the emotional desire for violent revenge that she carefully repressed in life becomes her raison d'etre in death. However, a similar thing seems to be happening with Arya. As she trains with the Faceless Men to become an assassin, she is allowing her desire to exact penance for the dreadful things that have happened to her family to override some of the best things about her character; her ability to stand up for the poor and dispossessed, her sense of social and moral justice.

Ironically, again, both characters exact their revenges through a mockery of justice. Uncat puts her victims through trials that are ostensibly just but inherently unfair, leading to her attempt to hang the innocent Brienne and Pod. Arya claims to be acting on her father's authority, as the last remaining Stark (she believes) when she murders a Night's Watch deserter in Braavos, and steals his boots. These actions echo legality but are in reality far distant from a proper trial or a judicial execution, and indicate how far Cat and Arya have been warped by their experiences. Neither of them can really be blamed for their current states of minds; three days dead, Cat is clearly not the person that she once was, and Arya is an emotionally damaged child. The tragedy lies in what has happened to these two characters, who were once voices of reason and sanity.

3. Their fates: It seems evident that Uncat will be 'laid to rest' by the time the series is done. A positive outcome for both her and Arya would be to discover that fate has not been as cruel as they think it has. Uncat could discover that all her children save Robb still live, and Arya could be reunited with her siblings and Jon. In this way, Uncat could rest in peace and Arya could begin to heal. Another possible outcome is that they both perish - Uncat still in pursuit of vengeance, and Arya having lost her Stark identity and all that she once was, to become nothing more than a tool of the assassins. This is unlikely, as I believe Arya will survive the series, but I believe that thematically, it would be effective. Either way, I believe that these two characters will continue to mirror each other as the series progresses. Sansa cannot take her mother's name when she goes into hiding, but when Arya needs yet another alias for selling fish in Braavos, that is exactly the name she chooses - Cat.


  1. Thanks;
    Interesting approach to Cat-Arya. I came from and I think, your vision approaches more carefully what I intended to say about Catelyn's thought process and character development.

  2. Thank you! Catelyn is such a complex character, I feel I still haven't fully got a handle on her, but I hope to write at least one more essay about Cat, Arya and Sansa in the future.

  3. very interesting, brief and complete essay, thank you :)

  4. Thank you! When I find the time, I hope to write a few more Game of Thrones essays - hopefully soon :)

  5. While I have never cared much for Catelyn Stark at all. I did enjoy your post here. I agree that Arya (Who is by far one of my favorite characters) is surprisingly similar to her mother. It can be seen many times in her unforgiving nature. If e go all the way back to GoT and listen to Cat as she speaks of Jon. He was an innocent child whom many times she treats worse than she does those who have wronged her. Arya is the same with her names. i.e. The Hound. While he enjoyed what he was doing. He actually was doing what he had been told to do. In that world when your king, prince, queen and so forth tell you to do something you do it. You do not question. Yet Arya would have killed him for doing his duty no matter how awful what he did was it fell under duty. They are much more alike that we see at first glance. Thanks for the post.

    1. I really like your point about Arya and the Hound mirroring Catelyn and Jon - I agree, I think with these two situations we see both Arya and Cat clinging too tightly to preconceived ideas (Arya thinks that the Hound = bad, Cat thinks that Jon = a threat to her children) and that they both act emotionally, rather than rationally. I'm actually writing up a longer, extended version of this post at the moment that will deal with Sansa as well, so have been thinking a lot about this!