Theme Of Otherness In George R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” may seem like a fanciful concept, but this colloquialism was coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in an attempt to elicit hope and strength in the face of adversity. Another German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel, is popular for his lord-bondsman metaphor that he uses to illustrate different states of mind and their consequences. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel discusses the lord-bondsman dialectic, and how each position offers different outcomes for people. On one side of this dichotomy is the lord, the position of power and dominance and the opposite side is the bondsman, the subordinate part who is dominated. In this relationship, it initially appears as though the lord reaps all the benefits while the bondsman is the unfortunate party. However, Hegel argues that ultimately, the bondsman ends up in a stronger position through all the hardships he faces while the lord’s laziness and lax manner lead to his downfall. Hegel says, “the lord, who is conscious of the absolute independence of his own self, and the bondsman, who seeks to preserve his life, even if deprived of freedom”. The different components of this theory are illustrated in an exemplary way by George R. R. Martin in his novel, A Game of Thrones, through the issue of otherness. This paper affirrms Hegel’s claim when Martin uses the contrasting character arcs of Sansa and Arya Stark to illustrate that although initially, otherness produces distress, it ultimately makes one stronger than being in a non-oppressed position. The othered being seems to be in an oppressed position, like the bondsman, they later emerge as stronger and a character that seems to be in a lord’s position is weaker. Although otherness seems to have a negative effect at first, it actually makes one stronger and more capable than

Martin uses Arya Stark’s character to show that initially, otherness appears to have distressing effects. Arya is established as having been marginalized since her childhood. As a member of an upper-class family, Arya is expected to behave a certain way but her personal desires and views don’t align with this traditional view of femininity, leading to her to the experience of otherness. She is described as “taking after their lord father”. Relating her to her father here, instead of her mother, indicates already that she is not like the typical female. When she is described as having a face that was “long and solemn face”, and “lusterless brown hair” the choice of diction that Martin uses to describe Arya’s physical appearance indicate an inclination towards less feminine, and consequently, less appealing features. These images create a masculinized image idea in a readers’ mind of this character. When that is combined with Arya’s talents of horse riding and “running a household”, tasks that are entrusted to males in this world, it confirms Arya’s status as a misfit among females and then she says she “hates needlework”. Added to this, she has already experienced marginalization from females as she reflects on the painful experience of being called “Arya Horseface”, by a girl when she was younger. To continue this sequence of otherness at the present time in the novel, the author teases out the differences in Arya’s behaviour and that of a more traditional female, her sister Sansa, by setting up the contrast between her and Sansa with the fact that “Arya’s stitches were crooked again” but “Sansa’s needlework was exquisite”. Arya “had the hands of a blacksmith” while Sansa had “fine, delicate hands”. Even their voices were contrasted when Sansa’s voice is described as being “soft as a kiss” while Arya spoke “much too loudly” and her voice “cut through the afternoon quiet”. The clear contrast between the two sisters gets developed by the imagery that Martin brings to mind in his style of writing when he describes the two girls. This otherness is seen within Arya’s own family when her own mother is reflecting on the fact that “Sansa would shine in the south” and “Arya needed refinement”. Knowing that she is othered, especially by the females, Arya seems to prefer the company of men, like her brother Jon, and says “they had always been close”. Arya even seems to prefer mingling with people of the lower class, rather than peers of her own class, as seen when Sansa reflects on the fact that “Arya would make friends with anybody”, including “squires, grooms, .. freeriders of uncertain birth”. Often when people are marginalized, they seek out companionship in others who are in a similar position. An important metaphor Martin uses to depict the characters of the girls are their direwolves in the novel. Arya names her direwolf Nymeria, after a warrior princess which happens to be a “a great scandal” unsurprisingly and the animal is seen to embody traits that Arya herself has. He even implies this with “an animal takes after its master”. Arya has the clear characteristics of otherness that mark her as a bondsman in Hegel’s dichotomy. For the lord component, her sister Sansa, seems to be a good fit.

Through Sansa’s character, Martin sets up a foil to illustrate the fate of a character who does not experience otherness. Sansa’s mindset aligns with this since she seems to embody the role of the traditional, female character who is well-liked by others and accepted into the ranks of society much more easily than Arya is. She is described as being “charmed and gracious” and displaying all the talents that someone of her position is expected to have such as being able to “sew and dance and sing”, play “the harp and the bells,” and knowing “how to dress”. The fact that Martin writes this from Arya’s perspective highlights the vast differences between the two sisters even more as it is said in a tone of mutual envy and admiration, setting up their respective characters. Sansa even names her direwolf Lady, who is described as being “as delicate as a queen” and “the prettiest” direwolf, just like her mistress. The archetype of the lord in Hegel’s model is described as enjoying exerting dominance on others. Sansa has a similar mindset when it comes to those she considers to be beneath her. When she says that Jon Snow “gets jealous” of Joffrey and then corrects Arya that he is their “half brother” instead of their true brother, Sansa displays the superiority she feels toward Jon in this relationship and seeks to maintain this inequality. Even with supposed best friend, Jeyne Poole, Sansa acts superior when she scorns Jeyne’s dreams of one of the young lords and thinks “she was being silly”, for daring to dream about being with someone of an upper class. Another aspect of the lord is finding themselves dependent on others to help assert their identity. She does this by constantly surrounding herself with people that she knows admire her, like Jeyne Poole, and constantly complimenting others because that is an important part of how a lady behaves. She constantly reminds herself to maintain this identity and “act like the highborn lady she was supposed to be”. This assertion of identity contributes to Sansa’s frail sense of identity and dependence on others to help affirm her self-identity, a critical trait of the lord in Hegel’s paradigm. As the novel progresses, both Sansa and Arya settle into their respective roles of lord and bondsman even more deeply and their storylines start to resemble what Hegel predicted.

After establishing the juxtaposing positions of the Stark sisters in this model, Martin continues to establish their identities as lord and bondsman through the arcs that their storylines portray. They are described as being “as different as the sun and moon” and live up to this metaphor. In Hegel’s model, the bondsman is described as being in a position where he suffers and tries to put forth his true self but constantly gets pushed down due to his struggle. There are many instances in the novel where Arya tries to assert her individual desires but gets pushed down. In response to her query about becoming a councilor or septon when she was older, Ned says that she would “marry a king and rule his castle”. When she asks her brother Jon why girls are not allowed to fight, he tries to explain to her that “girls get the arms, not the swords”. This may be a metaphor for saying that although girls have the capacity for decision-making, they don’t have the tools- they belong to the family but not the decision-making power. A bondsman “seeks to preserve his life, even if deprived of his freedom” so even though Arya is scolded, she seeks to enjoy her life and try to find pleasures, for example when she confides in Sansa that her fiend, the butcher’s boy, had shown her “a lizard-lion” and “thirty-six flowers” species that were new to her. In many instances, Arya is called a boy and objects, saying that she is “a girl”. Another aspect of the bondsman is that he “learns to be sufficiently patient to defer satisfying his desires” and does this by “restraining their desires and honing their skills”. Arya’s training with Syrio Forel and her persistence despite the difficulty she faces during this journey indicate how she is becoming more patient and working on her skills. As a result of her experience of otherness, Arya develops a keen sense of the environment and an observant nature. Her ability to read complex environments is displayed by the author when she says that this was the “second time she reflected that life was not fair”. At such a young age, this wisdom is uncommon, especially when compared to Sansa’s thoughts and actions. In the case of the lord, he appears to be in a daze of pleasure and self-assurance. During the feast, after the tournament, Sansa was enthralled and “she was drunk on the magic of the night.. so captivated, she quite forgot all her courtesies”. This haze of constant hedonism puts Sansa in a position of ignorance and self-absorption. She finds it difficult to read the environment around her and infer hidden meanings in the language of others. She herself admits many time that she “ did not understand”, “she did not quite understand”, or “didn’t know what to do”, “I don’t understand”. This incomprehensibility of the situation is a key trait of the lord. The lord also “becomes a dependent being” on others since he does not have the capability to exist without the presence of others. This dependency induces a state of stasis, where change is unwelcome and ill-received. “All she wanted was for things to be nice and pretty like they were in the songs” shows Sansa’s desire for her life to be superficial and unchanging. In this mindless existence, she resembles “a pretty little bird, repeating all the pretty words they taught you“, as the Hound adequately points out. As they both become more entrenched in their respective positions as lord and bondsman, Sansa and Arya start heading towards the ultimate ends that their characters allegorical represent.

By the end of the novel, Martin shows that Arya’s position as the bondsman, has allowed her to become stronger and survive while Sansa, as the lord, experiences her own downfall. Throughout her storyline, Arya became stronger through her experiences and at the end, she is free to exploit this. The lessons she learned before are helping her now. Her training with Syrio Forel helps her escape the guards and survive. Her constant reminders to be “quiet as a shadow, light as a feather, quick as a snake” show that she has learned her lessons and is applying them to survive. When she almost falls into the trap of admitting who she is to the decoy men waiting for her and Sansa on a ship, she quickly realizes her mistake and uses to her advantage her appearance of a boy when “they thought she was a boy” so “she’d be a boy, then”. A bondsman is said to also realizes his own freedom, “through the experiences of fear of death, labor and service”. Arya was “still and frightened in the face of death” when she sees dead Stark men in the stable and and went through lots of labor for her sword practice. Finally, a bondsman is “empowered through his labor to be confident with his own, natural strength”. When Arya was alone and scared when she was hiding from guards at the end of the novel, she used the memory of a prank Robb and Jon had played on them at Winterfell as a coping strategy to overcome her fear and “the darkness held no more terrors for her”. The experiences she went through groomed her to become naturally stronger and resilient in the dace of adversity. Sansa, however, had a very different trajectory through the novel and this results in her downfall. Since a lord is dependent on others to survive, when they are gone, the lord becomes helpless and incapable of action. Sansa is lost at the end without anyone, without Jeyne, her direwolf, her father, and her guardsmen. Without these figures around her to stake her identity, she feels lost. Even when she wants to push Joffrey off the wall at the end, Sansa is unable to do it. She is stuck in a prison of her own making and unable to leave or do anything in her favor. The fates of the direwolves are a foreshadowing for what is to occur to their mistresses. Nymeria is free but lost; just as Arya is free from the Lannisters but she is lost in the world. Lady dies, just as Sansa’s original illusions of life and insipid character have died.

In conclusion, this game of crowns and swords comes to an end. Martin clearly illustrated Hegel’s idea of the relationship between a lord and bondsman, and how their experiences lead to their eventual success or downfall. Arya’s state of a mind enables her to survive adversity while Sansa’s incomplete development of self prevents her from freedom. It is important to remember that these are not permanent states of mind and one often experiences both as they go through their mental development. A lord in one setting or point in time can be a bondsman in another. We must remain wary of the perils of this.   

16 December 2021
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