Thursday, April 9, 2015

'Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds...': Women and Mothers in George RR Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire'

I've had this in the works for a year or so. My ambition with this blog just kept growing until heights became unreachable. To do this comprehensively is just too big a task for right now so it is going to be more of an opinion piece supported by what research I have managed to do.

What I have written is shorter, simpler but still researched and something that I can build upon in the future. It centres upon two of my ‘favourite’ female characters in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister. As usual these ‘favourites’ of mine are much maligned by a lot of the readers and show-watchers. I’m also aware that when citing ‘good female characters’ in Game of Thrones, many would automatically think about Daenerys, Brienne or Arya – all who are ‘good’, or ‘badass’, in very overt ways. I love Brienne and Sansa, and like Arya and Daenerys, but they are quite easy to like and engage with as a reader – and I like a challenge. Daenerys, Arya and even Brienne all gain a certain degree of independence outside the moulds of society, determining their own path by fortune and by their own design. Catelyn and Cersei are, in some ways, more… troubling, and certainly more trapped.

There will be spoilers for show-watchers, so I would only read on if you have read the books, know plot and character details or aren’t bothered about knowing since they may not be included in the show anyway.

Catelyn and Cersei appear to be on opposite sides and become enemies: Stark vs Lannister, honour vs dishonour, good vs evil, North vs South etc. Upon closer inspection, they parallel each other in many regards. They are united by a simple fact: they will do anything to save their children.


Through all their apparently warped, and sometimes murderous actions (particularly Cersei), both are driven by tragedy, loss and a feeling of powerlessness because of their sex and roles as wives (not necessarily by choice) and mothers.

The show has its own interpretation of the characters, which is just that, an interpretation. And there are times when it strays from the source material but Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley are both fantastic actresses who, I think, do understand their characters and play them well.

Particularly in her point-of-view chapters in A Feast For Crows, the reader can see just how paranoid Cersei is and how haunted and affected she was by a prophecy she was told as a young girl. The prophecy she must live with is enough to drive her mad – as she is told that she will outlive all of her children (‘Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds … and when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you’ FFC, 611), endure an adulterous husband and will lose her power and status. She must live every day of her life, raising her children, knowing/fearing that they will die before her and there is nothing she can do to stop it (‘Queen you shall be … until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear’ FFC, 610).
Catelyn, too, thinks that she has outlived all, or nearly all, of her children (she does not count Jon as one of them). She believes Bran and Rickon to be dead, Arya to be lost/dead, Sansa in the clutches of the Lannisters and witnesses Rob’s own horrific murder. In the books, as opposed to in the TV show, she releases Jaime Lannister after hearing of Bran and Rickon’s apparent deaths, believing Sansa to be the only child she could possibly get back. (The show often omits details which seem small but actually radically alter or disrupt the continuity and character development, Robb is understanding of her motives in the books). In terms of their children, Cersei and Catelyn both seem doomed to suffer the worst as mothers.
The show has kind of broken my heart by apparently, so far, omitting Lady Stoneheart (Beric Dondarrion gives his ability to Catelyn when he finds her body in the river, and resurrects her as a mute, deformed living corpse). This storyline extension is one that takes part of womanhood – or of motherhood, in the wake of such horror – to a next stage which deserved to be seen. I am not saying I want Stoneheart for a cheap revenge narrative, but because she could come to stand for so much more. Catelyn was always a leader in life, her sex just didn’t allow it, she acted as advisor to Rob and stood by his side as a duty, rather than remaining in Winterfell to mother Bran and Rickon. Her most important warnings go unheeded because no one takes her opinion as ‘emotional’ woman and mother, seriously enough. I would like to see her lead the Brotherhood and where that storyline goes.

Valerie Estelle Frankel, in her book Women in Game of Thrones: Power Conformity and Resistance, writes of Lady Stoneheart as a ‘female monster’ (145). She is ‘the lady who was once highborn, conformist, lovely, well-spoken and proper has become her own shadow, a monster that lurks in the wild and subverts the patriarchy as a fearsome outlaw’ (145). She argues that such ‘female monsters produce shock, not because they are unusual… but because of their unwomanly conduct. With their immorality and amorality, they challenge human conventions’. Lady Stoneheart certainly conducts herself with a sense of amorality, in what we see of her. She is bloodthirsty and willing to hang Brienne and Podrick for their links to those who sinned against her. Estelle Frankel also alludes to a trope of folklore in which ‘women die powerless, betrayed by men, and then rise as monsters’ (146) – which aligns with the events of the Red Wedding and its aftermath. Stoneheart thus becomes an ‘outlet of female power’ and a representation of the ‘outcast’ (146), who can finally come back and challenge all the norms and standards of the world that trapped and pillaged her. She is finally unleashed as a warped but individual and independent woman, who could potentially be involved in the power play of Westeros.

By the end of A Dance With Dragons, nearly all of Cersei’s family ties are dissolved as well. She has been reduced to beast and outcast after her walk of shame and time in captivity – it will be interesting to see how that has changed her in Winds of Winter. It may create a Stoneheart out of her, having to fight for herself and rebuild her own world.

The show captures some of Cersei’s anger at being stuck as a woman in a man’s world (as cited by Estelle Frankel), as she sees it, which appears many times in the books. In episode 4 of series 3, she rallies against Tywin:

‘Did it ever occur to you that I am the one that deserves your confidence and your trust? Not your sons. Not Jaime or Tyrion, but men. Years and years of lectures on family and legacy … Did it ever occur to you that your daughter might be the only one listening to them, living by them, that she might have the most to contribute?’

This parallels a quote from A Feast For Crows, where Cersei rises in the wake of her father’s death:
Cersei did not weep, no more than her father would have. I am the only true son he ever had.’ (FFC, 54)

And this remains one of my favourite scenes from the series:

Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls Series 4, Episode 5. Lena delivers that line so beautifully. It’s a little different to the book material but I think it ties in to Cersei’s mothering side and how hard it was for her when Myrcella was sent away. Perhaps part of her is playing Oberyn, to win him to her side, but I am certain there is something genuine in this scene too.

Her love for her children, whatever delusions accompany it, is certainly there in the books. Joffrey’s death is much more poignant in the book (on a separate note, so is Ygritte's - so moving) – even narrated by Tyrion, who, in that moment, sees just a scared thirteen year old boy, not a tyrannical menace: ‘the boy’s eyes met Tyrion’s. He has Jaime’s eyes. Only he’d never seen Jaime look so scared. The boy’s only thirteen. Joffrey was making a dry clacking noise, trying to speak. His eyes bulged white with terror … “Nooo,” Cersei wailed, “Father help him, someone help him, my son, my son…”’ (Storm of Swords Part 2, 257) and then ‘When he heard Cersei’s scream, he knew that it was over… His sister sat in a puddle of wine, cradling her son’s body. Her gown was torn and stained, her face white as chalk … it took two Kingsguard to pry loose her fingers’ (258).

Furthermore, unlike in the show, Jaime is not present at the wedding and Cersei can only describe it to him later: ‘If you had seen how Joff died… he fought, Jaime, he fought for every breath … He had such terror in his eyes … When he was little, he’d run to me when he was scared or hurt and I would protect him. But that night there was nothing I could do … Joff is dead and Myrcella’s in Dorne. Tommen’s all I have left.’ 429

This is Cersei at one of her moments of most profound and utter powerlessness. The inability to protect and save her child causes her immense grief and parallels Catelyn’s in the moment she kills Walder Frey’s wife, only for him not to care. Both are devastated by their own inability to save the ones they love. Both, driven mad by it.

In A Feast For Crows, Cersei is intensely protective of Tommen. When a sip of wine goes down the wrong way, she has a kind of panic attack and shows her true vulnerability:

‘My son is safe, Cersei told herself. No harm can come to him, not here, not now. Yet every time she looked at Tommen, she saw Joffrey clawing at his throat. And when the boy began to cough the queen’s heart stopped beating for a moment. She knocked aside a serving girl in her haste to reach him. … “I’m sorry, Mother,” Tommen said, abashed. It was more than Cersei could stand. I cannot let them see me cry, she thought, when she felt the tears welling in her eyes. She walked past Ser Meryn Trant and out into the back passage. Alone beneath a tallow candle, she allowed herself a shuddering sob, and another. A woman may weep, but not a queen.’ (FFC, 202)

She vows that no harm will come to him while she lives, she will ‘kill half the lords in Westeros and all the common people, if that was what it took to keep him safe’ (613). While Cersei’s point-of-view chapters don’t always do much to characterise her beyond her manipulations and schemes, she has moments of tenderness that we have not been privy to before:

“I will break my fast with the king this morning. I want to see my son.” All I do, I do for him. Tommen helped restore her to herself. He had never been more precious to her than he was that morning, chattering about his kittens as he dribbled honey onto a chunk of hot black bread fresh from the ovens… I was never so sweet and innocent, Cersei thought. How can he ever hope to rule in this cruel realm? The mother in her wanted only to protect him; the queen in her knew he must grow harder, or the Iron Throne was certain to devour him” 661-2

Certainly she is a warped character – as a daughter of Tywin Lannister, she was bound to be to some extent. She recognises her own youthful naivety in Sansa Stark and both punishes her and tries to protect her from it. But she is intelligent, fierce and protective – though she often channels these parts of herself in destructive ways. They are traits that Catelyn shares. Both make mistakes, they are human, but they are both far more complex women than they initially seem and of immense value to Martin’s writing. They deserve to be taken a little more seriously by watchers and readers – and show-runners. A character like Cersei, perhaps not always deserving of sympathy, still deserves an attempt at empathy.

Additionally, I would like to say that the series’ apparent omission of Arianne Martell is perhaps one of its most blatant disservices to women. One of the wonderful aspects about Dorne, which Oberyn tries to explain to Cersei in that scene I included, is that gender does not matter in terms of hierarchy – women can rule and be heirs – they can fight and hold their own, even the ‘bastards’ (see the Sand Snakes, Oberyn’s ‘bastard’ children). Arianne is the heir to Dorne. Yet the showrunners have appeared to erase her and transferred her status to a male character who is frankly not that interesting in the book. This is even more annoying given that she is going to a point-of-view character in Winds of Winter! Arianne, Stoneheart/Catelyn and Cersei, even a character like Val the wildling princess, would, if all featured in the TV show, have been complex female characters involved in the power play of Westeros – two, at least, in charge of men.

I do watch the show and have enjoyed it – brilliant casting, acting, settings, effects - but it does have its failings. I think some, completely made up, brothel scenes could be sacrificed – and I’m not convinced Talisa was a great character addition when they somehow made the Red Wedding even more horrible by having her stabbed in her pregnant stomach… Some of their creative decisions have not made sense (Tyrion and Jaime parting on good terms, then Tyrion going on a murderous rampage?!). I know it’s an impossible job to maintain consistency and continuity when condensing books of these sizes into a ten episode season of a one hour TV show, but Ros and Talisa are hardly more interesting than an Arianne or a Stoneheart, or even Tysha. Still, showrunners have said not to judge until they have finished their story, so we shall see how it plays out. In the meantime, I await the Winds of Winter with great interest. I thoroughly recommend readings the books for the immense plot and character detail that are there – it is a lot more rewarding.

Full Citation for Valerie Estelle Frankel:

-          Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance by Valerie Estelle Frankel. North Carolina: McFarland & Company inc., 2014