Dances with Wolves: Analyzing the Martial Language of Sansa’s Story

Today, we are joined by a very special guest glass_table_girl for an analysis of Sansa Stark and how she has used courtesy to survive so far, and how she’s weaponizing it for the future. – BryndenBFish


in_the_gardens_of_eyrie_by_bubug-d6j8w82In the gardens of Eyrie by bubug

Every fan can recite the trademark phrases from Sansa’s storyline, such as “courtesy is a lady’s armor” or “women’s weapons.”

Despite these metaphors, Sansa’s storyline through the lens of fighting and warfare goes unexplored, and ignores motifs that contrast with other characters to highlight the themes in both Sansa’s storyline and the progression of her character.

tl;dr: Sansa’s storyline is defined in language that equates her learning to warfare. Throughout her story, she accumulates an arsenal while playing defense, pivoting to an offensive position in her first TWOW chapter with the act of “dancing,” which the books establish to be a metaphor for violence or fighting. By framing Sansa’s education in martial language, the story establishes her learning as becoming a warrior—in a different sense.

A Lady’s Armor

In A Game of Thrones, Sansa constantly refers to her courtesies only as lessons, as something for polite company. The very last words of her final AGOT chapter remind us that she “was a good girl, and always remembered her courtesies.”

Only in her first chapter of A Clash of Kings does Sansa truly begin anew in King’s Landing without Ned, realizing that survival means more than that. Alone in a den of lions, courtesy is no longer just something to have in polite company but is a form of protection.

The first time we meet Sansa in ACOK is the same chapter where she saves Dontos from death with quick lie after quick lie during a tourney—that is later interrupted by the entrance of Tyrion. When Sansa sees Tyrion again for the first time since Winterfell is also the first time that Sansa likens courtesy to militaristic tools:

Sansa felt that she ought to say something. What was it that Septa Mordane used to tell her? A lady’s armor is courtesy, that was it. She donned her armor and said, “I’m sorry my lady mother took you captive, my lord.” (ACOK, Sansa I)

This quote—along with the rest of Sansa’s first ACOK chapter—sets the tone for Sansa’s storyline.

The Marital & The Martial


Flawed by algesiras

That Sansa should liken courtesy to armor in her first reader-witnessed interaction with Tyrion parallels another interaction. When readers first meet Tyrion in both AGOT and ACOK, we see him through the lens of other character POVs, both Starks of a sort.

When Jon—and the reader—meet Tyrion is also the first time that armor is used metaphorically. Responding to Jon’s reaction to being called “bastard,” Tyrion offers the following advice:

“Let me give you some counsel, bastard,” Lannister said. “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” (AGOT, Jon I)

So, when we come to Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding night, we have two armored characters. Tyrion guards himself with the knowledge of who he is so that it may never be used against him, while Sansa guards herself with her courtesy, that no one may ever have reason to hurt her.

“Gods have mercy.” The dwarf took another swallow of wine. “Well, talk won’t make you older. Shall we get on with this, my lady? If it please you?”

“It will please me to please my lord husband.”

That seemed to anger him. “You hide behind courtesy as if it were a castle wall.”

“Courtesy is a lady’s armor,” Sansa said. Her septa had always told her that.

“I am your husband. You can take off your armor now.

“And my clothing?”

“That too.” (ASOS, Sansa III)

Sansa as a wife is now completely bare and vulnerable—both literally and figuratively—and has been invited to speak freely to her husband. Yet Tyrion does not return the favor of removing his own armor:

“A child,” he repeated, “but I want you. Does that frighten you, Sansa?”

“Yes.” “Me as well. I know I am ugly—”

“No, my—” He pushed himself to his feet.

“Don’t lie, Sansa. I am malformed, scarred, and small, but . . .”

Though less explicit than Sansa’s armor, we know from Tyrion’s earlier comments about his own armor that by acknowledging his physical appearance, Tyrion is guarding himself. Yet his reaction to Sansa’s blanket refusal shows something else.

“On my honor as a Lannister,” the Imp said, “I will not touch you until you want me to.”

It took all the courage that was in her to look in those mismatched eyes and say, “And if I never want you to, my lord?”

His mouth jerked as if she had slapped him. “Never?”

Tyrion claims that his armor protects a person from ever being hurt by what they are. (“Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”) But as we see in Sansa’s description, Tyrion has a visceral reaction, “his mouth jerked,” to the implication that Sansa may never want to sleep with him. Because we are in Sansa’s POV, the simile of “as if she had slapped him” may not be objective, but it is an important choice of words. To slap someone is to hurt them, be it little or large.

The problem is that Tyrion, despite having been in a few battles himself, shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of armor. Armor does not negate pain. Even fully clad, a blow in the right place or with enough force will hurt—even if it does not go through nor pierce flesh.

Armor is worn to survive on the battlefield, so that one may fight another day—which is exactly how armor functions in Sansa’s storyline.  

Defining Courtesy

It’s important to note that in ASOIAF, courtesy has a specific meaning that is similar but not quite identical to our modern day interpretation of it.

For modern readers, the term “courtesy” just refers to politeness, and being well-behaved or nice to other people.

However, the first mention of “courtesy” in Sansa’s first AGOT chapter, as well as other instances, shows us that to say courtesy merely equals politeness is an incomplete understanding of the concept—and Sansa’s storyline.

“Well spoken, child,” said the old man in white. “As befits the daughter of Eddard Stark. I am honored to know you, however irregular the manner of our meeting. I am Ser Barristan Selmy, of the Kingsguard.” He bowed.

Sansa knew the name, and now the courtesies that Septa Mordane had taught her over the years came back to her. “The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard,” she said, “and councillor to Robert our king and to Aerys Targaryen before him. The honor is mine, good knight. Even in the far north, the singers praise the deeds of Barristan the Bold.” (AGOT, Sansa I)

A few chapters later, Sansa dreams:

That night Sansa dreamt of Joffrey on the throne, with herself seated beside him in a gown of woven gold. She had a crown on her head, and everyone she had ever known came before her, to bend the knee and say their courtesies. (AGOT, Sansa IV)

For courtesy to refer to knowing who people are and to something that people say to others shows that it means more than that. The term “courtesy” refers to courtly behavior.

In the Middle Ages, people used to study courtesy books to learn “defining demeanour and duties of a courtier… personal hygiene and cleanliness as well as matters of etiquette, courtly duties and codes of behavior.” (Source: The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English) During the Renaissance, these books also encompassed a “variety of intellectual and practical attributes and skills in the ideal man of the age.”

When Sansa refers to her courtesies, she’s not only talking about being polite, though that is often what she relies on. It’s an entire code of what’s expected from her as a lady, and that includes knowing things about the other lords and ladies.

“Loras?” Lady Olenna sounded annoyed. “Don’t be foolish, child. Kingsguard never wed. Didn’t they teach you anything in Winterfell? We were speaking of my grandson Willas. He is a bit old for you, to be sure, but a dear boy for all that. Not the least bit oafish, and heir to Highgarden besides.”

Sansa felt dizzy; one instant her head was full of dreams of Loras, and the next they had all been snatched away. Willas? Willas? “I,” she said stupidly. Courtesy is a lady’s armor. You must not offend them, be careful what you say. “I do not know Ser Willas. I have never had the pleasure, my lady. Is he . . . is he as great a knight as his brothers?” (ASOS, Sansa I)

In this scene, forgetting that Loras cannot wed is a lapse in Sansa’s courteous behavior, because she should know better. Her slip was a figurative chink in her armor.

Sansa immediately girds herself after her mistake before she can make another one, and reaches for her shield of courtesy. Though we soon learn that she was unaware of Willas’s injury, it also being the first time the reader learns this information—since it was also never mentioned to any other characters until later in the book—makes it so that we cannot fault her entirely for not knowing.

Margaery’s response, as well, is apprehensive and seems to be tiptoeing around the subject.

“No,” Margaery said. “He has never taken vows.”

Her grandmother frowned. “Tell the girl the truth. The poor lad is crippled, and that’s the way of it.”

“He was hurt as a squire, riding in his first tourney,” Margaery confided. “His horse fell and crushed his leg.”

Though this should be considered another lapse in Sansa’s knowledge and courteous behavior, the fact that it is also the first time the reader learns of this and that Margaery attempted to skirt the issue makes it forgivable. And though many other nobles are aware of the injury, as we see in Tyrion’s chapter, the use of the word “confided” shows that it isn’t a topic brought up often.

Nevertheless, Sansa’s response was inoffensive enough that the Tyrells didn’t turn her away, winning Sansa their (brief and out-smarted) alliance.

Women’s Weapons


Sansa Stark at the Eyrie by Michael Komarck

“Tears,” she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. “The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And that tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it…

“Have I shocked you, my lady?” She leaned close. “You little fool. Tears are not a woman’s only weapon. You’ve got another one between your legs, and you’d best learn to use it. You’ll find men use their swords freely enough. Both kinds of swords.” (ACOK, Sansa VI)

By now, many readers are familiar with this iconic scene. Cersei steps into the role of educator to teach Sansa about wielding, weaponizing her sexuality to achieve her goals, poignantly against the backdrop of men fighting outside the palace walls on the Blackwater.

We won’t go much into this scene, because it’s fairly straightforward and many others have unpacked it already. Before we move on, though, it’s important to note that even after Cersei explains this to her, Sansa’s storyline portrays her sexuality as a double-edged sword. Sexuality can be a means to one’s goals. For so much of the story, however, Sansa’s sexuality is used against her. Her inability to wield her sexuality is understandable—and perhaps even expected—for someone who is young, essentially a child and has just entered puberty.

But sexuality is not the only weapon that Sansa has in the story.

“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon.” (AGOT, Eddard V)

This quote heard by Sansa’s father is interesting in the context of all the wordplay wrapped up in it. The first thing that comes to mind, when putting this in the context of Sansa’s storyline, is that she played a role in Joffrey’s murder by (unwittingly) bearing the poison that killed him.

When Ned hears this line from Pycelle, though, he is investigating the murder of Jon Arryn, who died from a poison called the Tears of Lys, slipped into his food by his wife of a similar name to the poison: Lysa.

Again, Cersei’s line:

“Tears,” she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. “The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them.”

It becomes entirely apt, then, that Sansa uses tears to cover up the murder of a woman who tried to kill her—and whose Tears eventually led to the death of Sansa’s father.

[Petyr] came up behind her and put his hands gently on her shoulders. “I know how hard this is for you, Alayne, but our friends must hear the truth.”

“Yes.” Her throat felt so dry and tight it almost hurt to speak. “I saw . . . I was with the Lady Lysa when . . .” A tear rolled down her cheek. That’s good, a tear is good. “. . . when Marillion . . . pushed her.” And she told the tale again, hardly hearing the words as they spilled out of her. (AFFC, Sansa I)

Earlier in the chapter, Sansa admits that she is afraid that the fear in her eyes would give away her lie. Through Littlefinger’s coaching, however, she has learned to embrace and use that fear.

The line we see Sansa think to herself shows a little more than that. Petyr did not tell her to cry, but Sansa does so anyway and then qualifies it as “good.” For one of the first times in Sansa’s storyline, we see her being strategic in her women’s weapons.

Though Sansa’s sexuality is often used against her in the first part of the story, her time in the Vale shows her beginning to use the weapons at her disposal, starting with tears and lies.

A Different Purpose

Sansa by Mashiiro

GRRM says of Sansa’s character development,

”Up to now, Sansa has been a piece that other people have moved about the board to achieve their own goals. Using her, discarding her, using her for a different purpose. You know, you’re going to marry Joffrey. You’re going to marry Loras. You’re going to marry Tyrion. She’s beginning to understand how she can play the game of thrones and be not a piece but a player with her own goals and moving other pieces around. She’s not a warrior like Robb, Jon Snow. She’s not even a wild child like Arya. She can’t fight with swords, axes. She can’t raise armies. But she has her wits—same as Littlefinger has.” (Source)

(Note: Because GRRM delivers this quote for the show, it references Loras, but you’ll see that when GRRM says it, they edited and cut the scene to say Loras since Willas is not included in the show. Likely, GRRM initially said Willas until reminded of the change in the show. The sentiment expressed still remains.)

Let’s jump back to that first Sansa ACOK chapter. We are re-introduced to Sansa’s story with her being in a position of isolation and weakness. She is at the mercy of Joffrey’s whims, punished with physical abuse if she displeases him.

Arys Oakheart was courteous, and would talk to her cordially. Once he even objected when Joffrey commanded him to hit her. He did hit her in the end, but not hard as Ser Meryn or Ser Boros might have, and at least he had argued. (ACOK, Sansa I)

Sansa learns to be more mindful of her tongue after her lesson at the end of AGOT when she ventures to outwardly defy Joffrey.

A kind of madness took over her then, and she heard herself say, “Maybe my brother will give me your head.”

Joffrey scowled. “You must never mock me like that. A true wife does not mock her lord. Ser Meryn, teach her.”

This time the knight grasped her beneath the jaw and held her head still as he struck her. He hit her twice, left to right, and harder, right to left. Her lip split and blood ran down her chin, to mingle with the salt of her tears. (AGOT, Sansa VIII)

After Joffrey delivers news of Viserys’s death, he tells Sansa that he intends to challenge Robb to a single combat. She replies:

”Did I tell you, I intend to challenge [Robb] to single combat?”

“I should like to see that, Your Grace.” More than you know. Sansa kept her tone cool and polite.

By ACOK, we see Sansa continues to defy Joffrey but with enough subtlety to do it in front of him. During the Blackwater, she asks Joffrey if he will be the one leading his knights into battle, “hoping,” the text says. Her later thoughts and dialogue tell us what she hopes for:

His plump pink lips always made him look pouty. Sansa had liked that once, but now it made her sick.

“They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting is thickest,” she said recklessly. “Though he’s older than Your Grace, to be sure. A man grown.”

On one hand, we see that Sansa has learned to be more ambiguous in her word choice, and that she hopes for Joffrey’s death. Each time she makes a wish for his death to his face, she sees it through the lens of her warrior brother, Robb, showing that though she would be satisfied if Joffrey died during the Blackwater—which we see her goading him towards—what Sansa truly wants is for her family to avenge Ned’s death.

At the tourney, we see another important turn of events. Ser Dontos is about to be executed in a barrel of wine when Sansa reflexively protests. Quickly, she covers up her mistake with a lie: Joffrey cannot execute Dontos on his name day because it would bring bad luck. On her own, perhaps Sansa would not have succeeded. Joffrey sees through her ruse, accuses her of lying and is already riled up from Sansa telling him that there is something he “can’t” do. But because the Hound reinforces Sansa’s lie, she buys Dontos a little more time.

Immediately after, Sansa transforms Dontos’s looming death sentence into a new job.

Unhappy, Joffrey shifted in his seat and flicked his fingers at Ser Dontos. “Take him away. I’ll have him killed on the morrow, the fool.”

“He is,” Sansa said. “A fool. You’re so clever, to see it. He’s better fitted to be a fool than a knight, isn’t he? You ought to dress him in motley and make him clown for you. He doesn’t deserve the mercy of a quick death.”

The king studied her a moment. “Perhaps you’re not so stupid as Mother says.” He raised his voice. “Did you hear my lady, Dontos? From this day on, you’re my new fool. You can sleep with Moon Boy and dress in motley.”

And Joffrey isn’t wrong: Sansa is not so stupid as Cersei says, demonstrating quick wittedness again, so fast we don’t even see her think upon it.

In terms of how the writing is structured, the text is deliberate, going straight into Sansa’s dialogue rather than drawing the reader through a thought process, which would slow down the scene—and would make Sansa seem slower.

Instead, the reader is left with the impression that Sansa has an instinctual understanding of people’s motivations. Both she and the reader know that Joffrey is narcissistic enough that he won’t turn down a compliment nor contradict himself. She takes Joffrey’s words and twists them so that it is Joffrey’s own idea, flattering him to make him more receptive.

Sansa closes by ascribing values to different sorts of punishment. Death is not as bad as a prolonged punishment. Rather than drown him quickly, Joffrey should draw out the rest of Dontos’s life, filling it with so much humiliation that death would be a mercy.

The consequence, as we see later on, is that Sansa secures for herself a new ally, Dontos, who promises to spirit her away from King’s Landing during secret meetings in the Godswood.

Sansa’s intuitive understanding of how to play to people’s images of themselves is no fluke. It gives her an ability to say what people want to hear to meet her own ends.

Even Tyrion, one of the most clever characters in the story, falls for Sansa’s act. In Tyrion’s own POV, we explore another scene in their rosy marriage:

He had become accustomed to his wife’s nightly devotions. She prayed at the royal sept as well, and often lit candles to Mother, Maid, and Crone. Tyrion found all this piety excessive, if truth be told, but in her place he might want the help of the gods as well. “I confess, I know little of the old gods,” he said, trying to be pleasant. “Perhaps someday you might enlighten me. I could even accompany you.”

“No,” Sansa said at once. “You . . . you are kind to offer, but . . . there are no devotions, my lord. No priests or songs or candles. Only trees, and silent prayer. You would be bored.”

“No doubt you’re right.” She knows me better than I thought. “Though the sound of rustling leaves might be a pleasant change from some septon droning on about the seven aspects of grace.” Tyrion waved her off. “I won’t intrude. Dress warmly, my lady, the wind is brisk out there.” He was tempted to ask what she prayed for, but Sansa was so dutiful she might actually tell him, and he didn’t think he wanted to know. (ASOS, Tyrion VI)

In fact, Sansa almost makes a false step in this conversation by refusing Tyrion too hastily. She makes up for it with a similar technique that she used on Joffrey.

When Sansa butters up Joffrey, she knows that he wants to be seen as clever, which would make him a suitable king. With Tyrion, Sansa makes her husband receptive to her suggestion by appealing to the side of him that wants to be understood. Tyrion is referred to by those around him as the Imp, as some sort of gruesome creature. He wants Sansa to open up to him, though. He wants to be seen as kind and benevolent, working for the good of others.

Next, Sansa shows a familiarity with her husband’s interests by first educating him about the Old Gods—since Tyrion enjoys being exposed to new knowledge—then telling him he “would be bored.” She sees that Tyrion likes to feel in the thick of the things, in action, in control at King’s Landing and promises that there would be no such intellectual stimulation for him in the godswood.

Tyrion himself admits that Sansa knows him better than he thought but fails to realize that he doesn’t know his own wife quite as well. He believes Sansa is praying for her freedom and her family’s victory when she is actually plotting her escape. He misjudges Sansa by believing her so dutiful that she would be truthful with him should he ask, when she has just gotten away with lying to his face.

Shot Through the Heart

Sansa’s ability to see others’ vulnerabilities and desires is an intentional part of her characterization. The natural ease with which she identifies and uses these to her advantage makes her a prime a student for Littlefinger.

Returning to the first Sansa chapter in AFFC, we see Littlefinger gift Nestor Royce with the Gates of the Moon.

First, Littlefinger frames it as a token of Lysa Arryn’s appreciation.

He opened the chest, drew out a roll of parchment, and brought it to Lord Nestor. “My lord. This is a token of the love my lady bore you.”

Sansa watched Royce unroll the parchment. “This . . . this is unexpected, my lord.” She was startled to see tears in his eyes.

“Unexpected, but not undeserved. My lady valued you above all her other bannermen. You were her rock, she told me.”

“Her rock.” Lord Nestor reddened. “She said that?”

“Often. And this”—Petyr gestured at the parchment—“is the proof of it.”

“That . . . that is good to know. Jon Arryn valued my service, I know, but Lady Lysa . . . she scorned me when I came to court her, and I feared . . .” Lord Nestor furrowed his brow. “It bears the Arryn seal, I see, but the signature . . .” (AFFC, Sansa I)

We see Nestor hesitate to take the offer for a moment. He acknowledges that he is worthy but hesitates due to feeling that Lysa may not have truly meant for Nestor to have the Gates of the Moon. He even ends the sentiment questioning the document’s validity because of Littlefinger’s signature, and understands the significance of this by saying, “You are . . . dutiful, my lord. Aye, and not without courage. Some will call this grant unseemly, and fault you for making it. The Keeper’s post has never been hereditary.”

The first sentence that Nestor does not finish, though, shows us what he wanted: For Nestor to feel badly about Lysa scorning him and to have “feared” something means that Nestor had something to lose when it came to the Gates of the Moon. Nestor wanted the Gates of the Moon.

After waffling on the gift and revealing the value of the Gates to the reader, Nestor admits to wanting it:

“True.” Lord Nestor clutched the parchment tightly. “I will not say I had not hoped for this. Whilst Lord Jon ruled the realm as Hand, it fell to me to rule the Vale for him. I did all that he required of me and asked nothing for myself. But by the gods, I earned this!”

You did,” said Petyr, “and Lord Robert sleeps more easily knowing that you are always there, a staunch friend at the foot of his mountain.” He raised a cup. “So . . . a toast, my lord. To House Royce, Keepers of the Gates of the Moon . . . now and forever.”

Soon after Nestor Royce leaves, Littlefinger stops Sansa to explain the significance of this scene. He leads his lesson with the question, “You see the wonders that can be worked with lies and Arbor gold?”

Sansa, ever the dutiful pupil, responds:

Sansa hesitated a moment. “You gave Lord Nestor the Gates of the Moon to be certain of his support.”

“I did,” Petyr admitted, “but our rock is a Royce, which is to say he is overproud and prickly. Had I asked him his price, he would have swelled up like an angry toad at the slight upon his honor. But this way . . . the man is not utterly stupid, but the lies I served him were sweeter than the truth. He wants to believe that Lysa valued him above her other bannermen. One of those others is Bronze Yohn, after all, and Nestor is very much aware that he was born of the lesser branch of House Royce. He wants more for his son. Men of honor will do things for their children that they would never consider doing for themselves.”

She nodded. “The signature . . . you might have had Lord Robert put his hand and seal to it, but instead . . .”

“. . . I signed myself, as Lord Protector. Why?”

“So . . . if you are removed, or . . . or killed . . .”

“. . . Lord Nestor’s claim to the Gates will suddenly be called into question. I promise you, that is not lost on him. It was clever of you to see it. Though no more than I’d expect of mine own daughter.”

The last part where Littlefinger ties Nestor’s claim to Petyr’s lordship is Petyr’s own brand of scheming. But the bolded portion is familiar to us, having seen Sansa instinctively do the same thing to save her own skin while in King’s Landing.

Like Sansa does with Tyrion and Joffrey, Littlefinger appeals to Nestor’s personal aspirations, his self-image. Just as Joffrey wanted to be seen as clever and Tyrion as kind, Nestor wants to be seen as a “valued” bannerman, whose loyalty and service puts him above the higher branch of his house, that of Bronze Yohn’s.

Just as Sansa frames the punishment for “Dontos” as being crueler than the swift mercy of death, Littlefinger frames the gift of the Gates as Nestor having earned it—as well as being a boon for his family.

“So . . . a toast, my lord. To House Royce, Keepers of the Gates of the Moon . . . now and forever.”

“Now and forever, aye!” The silver cups crashed together.

By saying “now and forever,” Littlefinger drills in the idea that this is an honor not only for Nestor Royce but will benefit his family for generations to come. Littlefinger says, “Men of honor will do things for their children that they would never consider doing for themselves,” showing how he preys on Nestor’s aspirations for his family to surpass the other branch of the house in prestige (while, of course, alluding back to Ned Stark’s sacrifice to save his own daughters for the readers).

Sansa immediately learns the lesson of the wonders worked with “lies and Arbor gold.” When Littlefinger first asks her to be Alayne, she responds by saying that she is only pretending to be Alayne. Littlefinger then repeats his plea.

”You are Alayne, and you must be Alayne all the time.” He put two fingers on her left breast. “Even here. In your heart. Can you do that? Can you be my daughter in your heart?”

“I . . .” I do not know, my lord, she almost said, but that was not what he wanted to hear. Lies and Arbor gold, she thought. “I am Alayne, Father. Who else would I be?”

Lord Littlefinger kissed her cheek. “With my wits and Cat’s beauty, the world will be yours, sweetling. Now off to bed.”

The text finally shows us Sansa thinking through her answer, rather than doing it instinctively, which shows that she is now conscious of how she appeals to what people “wanted to hear.”

At first glance, it may seem that she is merely parroting back what Littlefinger wants to hear in terms of a student learning to act. But in calling Littlefinger “Father” rather than just responding “Yes” to his question, Sansa gives him exactly what he wants.

GRRM says of Littlefinger’s feelings towards Sansa:

Sometimes he sees Sansa and she’s the daughter he never had, the daughter that he might have had with Cat…But at other times, he detaches himself from that and he’s less Petyr and more Littlefinger and she’s just another piece in the game of thrones…Yet, other times, she’s not Cat’s daughter, she’s young Cat. She’s his teenage fantasies returned again.” (Source)

While the subsequent parts of the quote are obvious in the rest of Littlefinger’s machinations, we see that Sansa hits the nail right on the head by calling Littlefinger “Father.” His response is not merely, “good.” He sees Sansa as having “my wits and Cat’s beauty,” as though Sansa were a creation of both Petyr and Catelyn, as though Sansa had inherited her wits from Littlefinger himself and was of his seed.

Finally, the chapter ends showing us how Sansa has truly taken the lesson of lies and Arbor gold to heart as she appeases Robert Arryn:

“I will.” He cuddled close and laid his head between her breasts. “Alayne? Are you my mother now?”

“I suppose I am,” she said. If a lie was kindly meant, there was no harm in it.

The Best Defense Is…


Artwork by Yulia Nikolaeva

The TWOW Alayne I chapter shows Sansa using courtesy differently than she had before. While talking with Myranda Royce, the girls giggling attracts the attention of Lyn Corbray, whom Sansa knows to be in Littlefinger’s employ.

“Well struck, Ser Lyn,” Alayne called out. “Though I fear you’ve knocked poor Ser Owen insensible.”

Corbray glanced back to where his foe was being helped from the yard by his squire. “He had no sense to start with, or he should not have tried me.”

There is truth in that, Alayne thought, but some demon of mischief was in her that morning, so she gave Ser Lyn a thrust of her own. Smiling sweetly, she said, “My lord father tells me your brother’s new wife is with child.”

Corbray gave her a dark look. “Lyonel sends his regrets. He remains at Heart’s Home with his peddler’s daughter, watching her belly swell as if he were the first man who ever got a wench pregnant.”

Oh, that’s an open wound, thought Alayne. Lyonel Corbray’s first wife had given him nothing but a frail, sickly babe who died in infancy, and during all those years Ser Lyn had remained his brother’s heir. When the poor woman finally died, however, Petyr Baelish had stepped in and brokered a new marriage for Lord Corbray. The second Lady Corbray was sixteen, the daughter of a wealthy Gulltown merchant, but she had come with an immense dowry, and men said she was a tall, strapping, healthy girl, with big breasts and good, wide hips. And fertile too, it seems.

“We are all praying that the Mother grants Lady Corbray an easy labor and a healthy child,” said Myranda.

Alayne could not help herself. She smiled and said, “My father is always pleased to be of service to one of Lord Robert’s leal bannermen. I’m sure he would be most delighted to help broker a marriage for you as well, Ser Lyn.

“How kind of him.” Corbray’s lips drew back in something that might have been meant as a smile, though it gave Alayne a chill. “But what need have I for heirs when I am landless and like to remain so, thanks to our Lord Protector?  No.  Tell your lord father I need none of his brood mares.”

The venom in his voice was so thick that for a moment she almost forgot that Lyn Corbray was actually her father’s catspaw, bought and paid for. Or was he?  Perhaps, instead of being Petyr’s man pretending to be Petyr’s foe, he was actually his foe pretending to be his man pretending to be his foe. (TWOW, Alayne I)

While this quote may seem superfluously long, it displays a couple of elements of Sansa’s character development. We’ll go through it piece by piece. Starting from the beginning, though:

There is truth in that, Alayne thought, but some demon of mischief was in her that morning, so she gave Ser Lyn a thrust of her own. Smiling sweetly, she said, “My lord father tells me your brother’s new wife is with child.”

Earlier, we established that courtesy is more than just politeness but encompasses knowledge about other nobility. Naturally, Sansa would be privy to the knowledge that Lyn has a new nephew-to-be. Her interiority belies that she is not merely making smalltalk, referring to her feelings of “mischief.”

In particular, the text refers to Sansa’s action as a “thrust,” paralleling Lyn Corbray’s earlier swordplay. Rather than merely being polite and saying something for sake of it, as she did when courtesy was her armor when she first spoke with Tyrion in ACOK, Sansa is making a move. To “thrust” is Sansa attacking, going on the offensive.

Corbray gave her a dark look. “Lyonel sends his regrets. He remains at Heart’s Home with his peddler’s daughter, watching her belly swell as if he were the first man who ever got a wench pregnant.”

>Oh, that’s an open wound, thought Alayne.  Lyonel Corbray’s first wife had given him nothing but a frail, sickly babe who died in infancy, and during all those years Ser Lyn had remained his brother’s heir.

When Lyn is first introduced to the reader, he is described by his skill on the battlefield with the sword Lady Forlorn, followed by Petyr saying, “Lyonel got his lands, his title, his castle, and all his coin, yet still feels he was cheated of his birthright whilst Ser Lyn . . . well, he loves Lyonel as much as he loves me. He wanted Lysa’s hand for himself. (AFFC, Sansa II/Alayne I)”

This interaction between Sansa and Lyn confirms what Sansa already knows: that Lyn bears little love for his brother. We also learn that, because this is an open wound, Lyn still had hopes to gain land and become Lord of Heart’s Home.

Alayne could not help herself. She smiled and said, “My father is always pleased to be of service to one of Lord Robert’s leal bannermen. I’m sure he would be most delighted to help broker a marriage for you as well, Ser Lyn.

“How kind of him.” Corbray’s lips drew back in something that might have been meant as a smile, though it gave Alayne a chill. “But what need have I for heirs when I am landless and like to remain so, thanks to our Lord Protector?  No.  Tell your lord father I need none of his brood mares.”

The venom in his voice was so thick that for a moment she almost forgot that Lyn Corbray was actually her father’s catspaw, bought and paid for. Or was he?  Perhaps, instead of being Petyr’s man pretending to be Petyr’s foe, he was actually his foe pretending to be his man pretending to be his foe.

At the end of that same AFFC Sansa II chapter, we learn that Littlefinger has bought Lyn “with gold and boys and promises, of course. Ser Lyn is a man of simple tastes, my sweetling. All he likes is gold and boys and killing.”

Sansa catches on to the fact that Lyn had hoped to be heir—and then lord—of Heart’s Home. In earlier chapters, she used people’s desires as a way to fly below suspicion and protect herself and others. Here, she channels Lyn’s desires to needle him—and gets more potentially valuable information out of it.

Even before Sansa brings up Littlefinger and his role in displacing Lyn, she notices Lyn’s demeanor and animosity about losing his place in line to lordship. While it could still be Lyn putting on a show, during his act in front of the Lords Declarant in AFFC, the text doesn’t mention anything about Lyn’s emotions, only his actions in bearing steel against Littlefinger and challenging Littlefinger to a fight.

Their interaction instead makes Sansa aware of the fact that Lyn is not a man with tastes as simple as Littlefinger believes. She knows that Lyn isn’t interested in “brood mares” but ends up with more information than she bargained for, catching onto the venom in Lyn’s voice. From this, Sansa learns that Lyn has bigger ambitions than just sex and gold, and that Lyn is someone to be wary of, someone untrustworthy.

Dances with Wolves


Sansa Stark by bubug

In the TWOW Alayne I chapter, Sansa does more than demonstrate an ability to use her shield as part of her offensive strategy.

The first encounter with Harry the Heir revisits Sansa relying on her courtesy as armor:

Ser Harrold looked down at her coldly. “Why should it please me to be escorted anywhere by Littlefinger’s bastard?”

All three Waynwoods looked at him askance. “You are a guest here, Harry,” Lady Anya reminded him, in a frosty voice. “See that you remember that.”

A lady’s armor is her courtesy. Alayne could feel the blood rushing to her face. No tears, she prayed. Please, please, I must not cry. “As you wish, ser. And now if you will excuse me, Littlefinger’s bastard must find her lord father and let him know that you have come, so we can begin the tourney on the morrow.” And may your horse stumble, Harry the Heir, so you fall on your stupid head in your first tilt. She showed the Waynwoods a stone face as they blurted out awkward apologies for their companion. When they were done she turned and fled.

Like earlier in the series, Sansa uses her armor to maintain her position and enough respect to have the upper hand at another time. And like that first ACOK chapter, we see some of that same spunk in her interiority where she hopes harm befalls those who have slighted her. That person, coincidentally, happens to once again be her betrothed.

At the feast, guests remark on the lack of singers. Lymond Lynderly and Ben Coldwater discuss the cause of the absence, Sweetrobin’s distaste for them since Marillion “murdered” Lysa.

Rather than keep her head low, this time Sansa volunteers information about the murder.

Alayne spoke up. “His singing pleased her greatly, and she showed him too much favor, perhaps.  When she wed my father he went mad and pushed her out the Moon Door.  Lord Robert has hated singing ever since.  He is still fond of music, though.”

We see that Sansa has gained more courage and that she is more accustomed to lying. She is so comfortable with it, in fact, that she will “speak up” and give more information, adding details to the story she and Littlefinger tell, making it more compelling and believable to those who hear it.

Immediately after, Coldwater invites Sansa to dance, and is followed by many other dance partners.

Finally, we see Sansa dancing with Harry, using Littlefinger’s advice to “bewitch” him.

“[Harry] has a weakness for a pretty face, and whose face is prettier than yours?  Charm him.  Entrance him.  Bewitch him.”

“I don’t know how,”  she said miserably.

“Oh, I think you do,” said Littlefinger … “Keep a good long spoon on hand to beat the squires off, sweetling.  You will not want green boys underfoot when the knights come round to beg you for your favor.

“Who would ask to wear a bastard’s favor?”

“Harry, if he has the wits the gods gave a goose… but do not give it to him.  Choose some other gallant, and favor him instead.  You do not want to seem too eager.”

“No,” Alayne said.    

“Lady Waynwood will insist that Harry dance with you, I can promise you that much.  That will be your chance. Smile at the boy.  Touch him when you speak.  Tease him, to pique his pride.  If he seems to be responding, tell him that you are feeling faint, and ask him to take you outside for a breath of fresh air.  No knight could refuse such a request from a fair maiden.

When the dance begins, we see Sansa takes Littlefinger’s advice, with a whole string of “Sers” as her dance partners. Then at the end of her chapter, we also see her take Littlefinger’s advice by refusing to give Harry her favor. She also touches Harry when “she ran one finger down his cheek.”

As for smiling, teasing to pique his ego and playing the weak, faint maiden to be aided by a chivalrous knight: Sansa refrains from all of these things.

And there he stood, Harry the Heir himself; tall, handsome, scowling.  “Lady Alayne. May I partner you in this dance?”

She considered for a moment. “No. I don’t think so.”

Color rose to his cheeks.  “I was unforgiveably rude to you in the yard.  You must forgive me.”

“Must?” She tossed her hair, took a sip of wine, made him wait.  “How can you forgive someone who is unforgiveably rude?  Will you explain that to me, ser?”

Ser Harrold looked confused. “Please.  One dance.”

Charm him.  Entrance him.  Bewitch him.  “If you insist.”

Rather than play gracious with Harry, Sansa rebuffs him at first, then remembers Littlefinger’s order. Sansa’s tactic, though, seems to have worked, as Harry becomes more desperate, saying “Please” to get the girl he earlier insulted to honor him with a dance.

As for Littlefinger’s next piece of advice, Sansa only touches Harry once, as she is parting. Just as Harry is beginning to warm up to Sansa, though, rather than ask to go outside and let him spend more time with her, she leaves him.

The way Sansa “bewitches” Harry is particularly fascinating. Littlefinger’s words are, “Tease him, to pique his ego,” implying that she should tease him in a way that would make him in a way that would make him feel smart and manly.

Instead, this is Sansa’s conversation starter:

Say something, she urged herself.  You will never make Ser Harry love you if you don’t have the courage to talk him.  Should she tell him what a good dancer he was?  No, he’s probably heard that a dozen times tonight.  Besides, Petyr said that I should not seem eager.  Instead she said, “I have heard that you are about to be a father.”  It was not something most girls would say to their almost-betrothed, but she wanted to see if Ser Harrold would lie.

We see that Petyr’s advice is still ringing in Sansa’s head, but what she says probably wasn’t Petyr’s idea of a pick-up line.

What makes it interesting, though, is that it reminds us of another person’s advice: “You’ve got another one between your legs, and you’d best learn to use it. You’ll find men use their swords freely enough.”

By bringing up the fact that Harry is about to become a father, Sansa brings sexuality into the conversation. The discussion topic of Harry’s fatherhood means that both Sansa and Harry are talking about his “sword” and what comes from it.

And with that, Sansa is in control of the conversation, using her weapon to conquer Harry. When Harry brings up Saffron’s beauty, she responds:

Alayne raised her head.  “More beautiful than me?”

First, Sansa does not let herself seem swayed by Harry thinking another woman beautiful. “Alayne raised her head.” She allows herself to be proud about it, not a dainty, fair maid. She owns being a fair maid.

Next she makes Harry regard her physically. “More beautiful than me?” Harry is invited to behold Sansa’s appearance and to consider her in a sexual light by comparing her to another woman with whom he had sex.

Finally, Sansa ends her barrage with, “Should we ever wed, you’ll have to send Saffron back to her father.  I’ll be all the spice you’ll want.” Again, she is clearly not talking about love, but spice, hotness, tantalizing Harry with idea of sex.

This scene is significant because we see Sansa fighting.

Throughout ASOIAF, the story draws clear connections between dancing and combat.

The first mention we have of dancing at all is in the prologue of AGOT:

Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. Yet in that moment, Will thought, he was a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch. (AGOT, Prologue)

Waymar Royce invites a fight using the term “dance,” and in that moment, comes of age.

The next mention we have of dancing is in Arya’s characterization of Sansa:

“Sansa could sew and dance and sing.” (AGOT, Arya I)

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

The third mention of dancing in the entire series is in the following chapter, Bran II:

The twins Ser Erryk and Ser Arryk, who had died on one another’s swords hundreds of years ago, when brother fought sister in the war the singers called the Dance of the Dragons. The White Bull, Gerold Hightower. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. Barristan the Bold. (AGOT, Bran II)

In the very next Daenerys chapter is our next mention of dancing, a ritual of fighting and death in Dothraki weddings.

Throughout the entire series, from the violent finger dance to Jaime constantly thinking of himself as dancing when he is fighting to the most violent Westerosi civil war, the idea of dancing and fighting is intertwined in the series.

This equivalence manifests most clearly with the one person to whom Sansa is most tied narratively: Arya.

When Arya studies under Syrio Forel, she refers to him as her dancing master and to the Braavosi style of fighting as the water dance. When she names her sword, she calls it needle, even quipping that she is good at sewing later. Arya and Ned—and Sansa, unwittingly—refer to her fighting lessons as “dancing lessons.”

“Sansa could sew and dance and sing,” Arya thinks. But if for Arya fighting is her form of dancing (and sewing), then Sansa can be interpreted as fighting by using her women’s weapons during that dance, making this a pivotal point for Sansa’s character development.

Save the Last Dance


Sansa Stark by JanainaArt

We’ve seen Sansa dance earlier in the story. During her wedding, Ser Garlan the Gallant asks her to dance, which ends with her feeling clumsy after an encounter with Joffrey.

“My uncle will bring you to my bed whenever I command it.”

Sansa shook her head. “He won’t.”

“He will, or I’ll have his head. That King Aegon, he had any woman he wanted, whether they were married or no.” (ASOS, Sansa III)

Though Joffrey gets the last word in, Sansa exhibits one of many small acts of defiance throughout her wedding by telling Joffrey that he wouldn’t get what he wanted. This small act is pointed in that she says to the face of her abuser that she would no longer be his plaything.

What we should notice, though, is how Sansa feels about dancing:

“Lady Sansa.” Ser Garlan Tyrell stood beside the dais. “Would you honor me? If your lord consents?”

The Imp’s mismatched eyes narrowed. “My lady can dance with whomever she pleases.”

Perhaps she ought to have remained beside her husband, but she wanted to dance so badly.

Dancing is something that Sansa truly loves and does for herself. Even in defeat, she would snatch the opportunity to dance because it is important to her—and her character.

Joffrey was dead, he was dead, he was dead, dead, dead. Why was she crying, when she wanted to dance? Were they tears of joy? (ASOS, Sansa V)

In victory, as well, Sansa feels the desire to dance, though she refrains and cries tears of joy. With these two ideas—dancing and tears—juxtaposed against one another, the language again puts dancing in the same context as one of Sansa’s weapons.

In the chapter preceding the TWOW chapter, Sansa ponders the upcoming feast:

“Lord Nestor will have no singers at the feast, only flutes and fiddles for the dancing.” What would she do when the music began to play? It was a vexing question, to which her heart and head gave different answers. Sansa loved to dance, but Alayne . . . (AFFC, Alayne II)

Sansa may have tried to model Alayne differently from herself, but it is so important to her character that she cannot keep herself from dancing. And as we’ve seen, Sansa dancing is an integral part of her development in that chapter.

The story shows us how important dancing is to this particular protagonist as Sansa is the only character we witness and experience dancing through her own point-of-view chapters during the course of the story. While we may get flashbacks from other characters who think fondly of dancing or may tell stories of their dancing, we never actually see them dance in “real time” during the story.

This uniqueness of the emphasis on dancing in Sansa’s current development shows that this will play an integral part in the rest of the story.

In the preview TWOW Arianne chapter, we learn a little of what’s to come through a “dragon dream,” a premonition.

Teora gave a tiny nod, chin trembling. “They were dancing. In my dream. And everywhere the dragons danced the people died.” (TWOW, Arianne I)

GRRM himself said that there would be a second dance of the dragons in the series.

Hi, short question. Will we find out more about the Dance of the Dragons in future books?

The first dance or the second?

The second will be the subject of a book. The first will be mentioned from time to time, I’m sure. (Source: So Spake Martin)

We know that when the text or GRRM refers to dragons dancing, warfare is actually the subject. Following Sansa’s progression so far, her growing arsenal of weapons and how GRRM equates her “different purpose” to being a warrior, we see that the stage is set for her to become another player—another dancer—in this fight.

Since the beginning of the story, we have seen Sansa exhibit an innate ability for reading people and using their aspirations for themselves, a tactic used by one of the best masterminds in Westeros. Through her many mentors, she learns new weapons and grows to use them throughout her storyline, becoming a strategic manipulator through dancing.

Now, we see Sansa coming of age and being called to become a fighter during her time in the Vale, through the act of dancing. Like her father, Targaryen aggression will drag the Lord Protector of the Vale into another civil war—and the Starks will once again be called to seek justice for the North. For Ned, it was his father and older brother meant to inherit, Rickard and Brandon. For Sansa, it is the same, the deaths of her father and brother named king, and perhaps even for her younger brothers.

And if the analogy between her skills as a literal dancer translates to her skills as a figurative one, she will be a formidable dancer and player who enjoys the political fight of the game of thrones. The question now is who will be Sansa’s dancing partner?

glass_table_girl can be reached at @arhythmetric


Filed under ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF Political Analysis

14 responses to “Dances with Wolves: Analyzing the Martial Language of Sansa’s Story

  1. What an excellent essay. I like finding people who really understand Sansa, who know that thinking her corresponding to an idea of traditional femininity makes her stupid and useless is missing her character and themes. My applause to this fine analyst of ice and fire.

  2. MCH

    Like your essay on Sansa. It certainly gives me something to think about her and her style of fighting, rounding out her character.
    We all have our ways of hiding our true feelings to the world, and you’ve shown how quickly she learnt. One false step in Kings Landing and as the daughter of the traitor Ned she’s dead.
    But as Tyrion said after he stopped Mance hitting Sansa as commanded by Joffery she will survive ( sorry can’t remember the exact quote) I think from your essay she may just develop the necessary skills to do that.


  3. Oz

    Another pleasantly insightful read! Thank you. I have always impatiently waited for Sansa’s character development to finalize so I can enjoy her giving back what’s due. Most people write her off completely as a player and it’s nice to see a thoroughly researched piece showing her strong progression.

  4. Janice Hilll

    Really well-written analysis.

  5. That was excellent essay. Subtle and clever are not synonyms of passive and she is certainly one whose development I’m very interested to read about.


    Amazing essay, and wonderful to see a new writer! Brilliant insight and thanks for sharing.

  7. AL

    Lovely essay. As interesting as battle analysis and straight up political strategy sessions are, in reading ASOIAF I find the court subterfuge far more intriguing and in its discussion the Lady Sansa always features prominently, for the reasons you outlined above.

  8. Mike Target

    It’s a good analysis, even if I find the character completely unlikable, and, for the most part, annoying.

  9. “The problem is that Tyrion, despite having been in a few battles himself, shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of armor. Armor does not negate pain.” What an absolutely brilliant insight in this phenomenal Sansa essay. She is a far more complex character than so many give her credit for, serving so many purposes: the deconstruction of romanticism (not my assessment but blogger Steven Attewell’s observation in his chapter by chapter analysis) and the necessary idea that one does not have to be a warrior in order to be strong.

    A thing I noted while reading this was how GRRM uses duality not only between characters, but within them, a potential internal song of ice and fire that serves as a possible foundation for coloring so many of them in grey. We have Tyrion and we have the Imp; Jaime and the Kingslayer, Sandor Clegane and the Hound, among others. The latter persona is apparent upon shallow, surface analysis, but even the slightest peek deeper reveals so much more. Though Sansa doesn’t have a named other side, I think her character still fits this motif as many see her as annoying and pointless, but in the end, she will be one of the most powerful players of all.

  10. This is an amazing essay with one of the most profound, well-researched analysis on Sansa’s character that I have ever read. I’ve always felt that Sansa is deeply misunderstood by many readers, for the simple fact that she’s not as flashy as her feisty younger sister. However, I think that many readers make the same mistake as so many characters in ASOIAF: they underestimate Sansa. There’s more to her than meets the eye. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for her in TWOW.

  11. Pingback: Bailando con lobos: ensayo sobre el lenguaje marcial en la historia de Sansa Stark (1ª parte)

  12. Pingback: [Juego de Tronos] Bailando con lobos | El Goreano

  13. Pingback: Bailando con lobos: ensayo sobre el lenguaje marcial en la historia de Sansa Stark (2ª parte)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s