Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Women of Westeros, Part 1

So I've been wanting to blog about my trip through George R.R. Martin's series for several weeks now. It's always hard to know how to write about books that are strongly plot-driven, and these are so highly unpredictable. Many main characters have been killed off, or their nature completely changed. Victory occurs when defeat's expected, and vice versa. Evil triumphs over good on many occasions.

But one thing that stood out to me was the role of women in the books. As I mentioned in last month's post, women are very repressed in the Seven Kingdoms. The acceptable roles for women are that of wife and mother, of servant, or of septa (similar to a nun). Prostitutes aren't exactly "accepted," but it's acknowleged that they have their place in society, and they appear frequently in the books.

As the books develop, however, many women emerge that don't fit the defined roles in Westeros. Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, Danerys Targaryen and Brienne of Tarth were the ones that interested me the most.

Arya Stark is only 8, but is an ungovernable child. She's very headstrong, she hates needlework and dancing (unlike her sister Sansa, who enthusiastically works towards becoming a noble wife). Her father, Eddard (Ned) Stark, becomes the Hand of the King at the opening of the series, and within the confines of the court, her nature is merely irritating to those around her. She fights with the septa who has the thankless task of trying to make a lady out of her, and squabbles constantly with Sansa. She strikes a compromise with her father, who allows her "private needlework lessons," and also allows her to keep her sword, which he names Needle.

When her father's star falls from the sky, however, her time spent with Needle proves to be a literal lifesaver. It's not long before her swordfighting lessons gain practical application. The fact that her spirit was never broken allows her to survive her exodus from the castle and the horrors of war she's confronted with along the way. She's disguised as a man, forced into servitude, kidnapped over and over, but manages always to endure. I felt George R.R. Martin took her character in an odd direction in A Feast for Crows, so it will be interesting to pick up A Dance with Dragons and continue to follow the Arya storyline.

Brienne of Tarth is also a child, though twice Arya's age. She was given less of a choice in what she would become. Brienne is described, harshly, as large and ugly. Stronger and more powerfully built than many men, with buck teeth and a freckled face, she is most unsuited to the stereotypical female gender role. We first meet her when she's fighting in a tournament at a palace held by Renly Barthaeon, brother to the king, and onetime contender for the throne. When she wins, she's given the opportunity to ask for any boon from Renly, and all she requests is to become a member of the Rainbow Guard, which serves and protects Renly.

Chaos reigns Westeros, though, and her service is as short-lived as Renly himself. She offers her service to Lady Catelyn Tully-Stark (the hyphenation is mine), who asks her to escort the prisoner Jaime Lannister from Riverrun to King's Landing, and negotiate the release of her daughters, Sansa and Arya. Throughout the rest of the books, Brienne dresses as a man, and is frequently mistaken for a man. Once her gender is ascertained, however, she's subject to ridicule, and to attacks. She and Jaime are captured by a group of outlaws at one point. It's telling that although their first inclination is to threaten her with the most violent rapes imaginable, the form of humiliation they ultimately choose is to force her to wear a frilly dress and fight a bear in a pit.

Brienne has absorbed the lessons of chivalry and honor. She keeps all of the vows that she swears, even the ones that are solely between her and someone who is now dead, even when it would be more advantageous and convenient to abandon them, and even when no one would know that she'd betrayed anyone. It comes out in bits and pieces that she's endured a lot of pain, however. She was the subject of an extremely cruel "contest" to win her virginity, and rather than sympathize with her, the lord who ultimately put a stop to it blamed her for tempting its organizers. She was betrothed three times, and at least one of them was broken when her intended met her face to face.

The qualities which she possesses would have made her a valued and respected knight if she were a man. Since she's female, they earn her little but ridicule. Her journey towards carving out a place in society is an interesting one, though. When we see her last in Feast, she and her companions have been kidnapped and are all hanging from nooses, but not dead yet. It seems she's agreed to do something that will push her sense of chivalry and honor to its limits, so it will be interesting to see how she resolves her various loyalties in A Dance with Dragons.

I will finish up with Cersei and Danerys in the next post. This one was rather longer than I intended already.

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