WARNING: Spoilers for Game of Thrones!!
Controversy abounds when a woman achieves greatness. Especially in the age of the MRA, where reddit gold buys you the right to prosthelytise Jordan Peterson opinions from your cum stained keyboard. My first reaction when I saw Arya Stark kill the Night King was a scream that worried the neighbours. My second was a sickening dread in the thought of logging on.
In an interview with actress Maisie Williams, she describes her first moments learning of the outcome to the Battle of Winterfell;
It was so unbelievably exciting…but I immediately thought that everybody would hate it; that Arya didn’t deserve it.
It is understandable that Williams might have her reservations. Embodying a character like Arya, who is dominant, powerful and in control of her own fate must be a considerable task for any woman growing up in a society where such stable and assured autonomy is only offered to the most privileged of women, and only on somebody else’s terms.
Perhaps more than any character in pop culture history, Arya Stark represents an ideal so fundamentally against the grain of society that even the most switched on, contemporaneous feminist might balk at her existence. She’s violent and vulnerable, charming and taught, independent and bound to the family she loves. That these characteristics are enmeshed into the mess of her, existing all at once, is near unheard of.
And it is all on display in the third episode of Game of Thrones, season 8, her arc demonstrating her prowess on the battlefield as a lone warrior, and the necessity of other people to help her. She might not be alive if Sandor Clegane and Beric Dondarrion didn’t come to her rescue, but she is warrior able to stand beside them in battle. She might have been terrified by the press of wights, but she still survives.
That she is still alive might be the most offensive outcome of all, when women characters like her are more often martyred after use, like an expired jar of mayonnaise.
In Arya we see the opposite. She fights for herself just as well as anybody else. Her deserving of anything is not a question — her journey has been one in which the things she loved were taken from her, and she chooses to take them back. It is a similar arc to her sister, Sansa, but not quite the same. Because while Sansa still conforms somewhat to the established hierarchies of her society, Arya busts free from them so thoroughly there is no containing her, there is no box for her, she is not a trope, or an ideal. She is a person.
The question then isn’t whether or not she deserves this, but how did she get to here, and what can we learn from her?
A Call to Adventure
When we meet Arya, she is already a fighter. Better at the bow and arrow than her brothers, her only obstacle seems to be the gender expectations in her community. She is the first character we are shown with personality, and with a sense of purpose. We recognise her as an outlier, made all the more vivid when she is given a sword by her brother, Jon Snow.
The parallels between Jon and Arya are, well, stark. But it is in this exchange that we see their connection standing as testament to both their fates. Jon recognises Arya’s abilities, and in that, more than anyone else, he sees who she is and what she can become. He breaks convention by weaponising her, giving over what little power a bastard has in a society that perceives him as an outcast as well.
Arya too gives him recognition and a sense of belonging; he is a true brother, and a person worthy of love. This is not only an exchange of gifts, but an exchange of power — a provocative exchange that sets their journeys in motion.
The sword, named ‘needle’ in a feminist critique too biting for an eleven year old, might be compared to Luke Skywalker’s light saber, or even Frodo’s ring. It becomes a symbol of strength and opportunity, but also the burden of responsibility. Having the tools to fight means she must learn how to wield them, and moreover, obliges her to a higher moral principal — with great power, comes great responsibility, etc.
There is no doubt that Jon was widely perceived as the protagonist, or ‘the one’, made all the more apparent in Ned Stark’s death. His own Luke Skywalker moment comes later, when he’s gifted with long claw in a much more conspicuous parallel. For both Jon and Arya, these weapons present what Joseph Campbell dubs a ‘call to adventure’ in his breakdown of the archetypal ‘Hero’s Journey’. But unlike Jon, who recognises the task before him within an established understanding of what an adventure is, and what his role is in it, Arya is stopped short of seeking adventure by a society set on constraining her.
Though Jon is denied a place in traditional society, it doesn’t take long — two episodes in fact — for him to find a place where he is given a sense of belonging, and where he can become the hero he has set out to be. In contrast, no matter how much Arya might rail against convention, she is told adamantly that there is no place for her in the story that is yet to come.
The Unknown Warrior
On July 14, 1940, in a BBC broadcast, Winston Churchill addressed his nation on the brink of invasion, his people despairing in the wake of the decimation of the Royal Airforce, telling them;
This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes. There are vast numbers, not only in this Island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a War of the Unknown Warriors.
It is arguable that in Game of Thrones, George RR Martin set about writing this war, Churchill’s mythic war of anonymous but vital people who are often overlooked in the history books, coming together to save themselves. It doesn’t seem a coincidence, then, that more than any other character, Arya is hidden and protected by anonymity and disguise.
When she trains with her sword, she calls it ‘dancing lessons’. After her father is executed, and her vulnerability is heightened, she is dressed as a boy, wearing the disguise as a suit of armour. When she confronts her fate at the House of Black and White, her most profound and important lesson is in how to blend in.
In many traditional and popular hero arcs, men are taught to establish themselves, to value their name and to seek out recognition. Rocky Balboa’s journey in Rocky, for example, might be characterised as a rise of the underdog into prestige. Arya and Rocky are both epic heroes trained to defeat an enemy, but Arya is trained in subterfuge, taught that her name is a liability, and that her best opportunities lie in pretence.
In this she is a direct homage to perhaps the most famous hero in Western mythology, Odysseus, who won the Battle of Troy with his infamous Trojan Horse, wheeling it through the gates as a gift. With her training, her wisdom and her ultimate agenda, contained within the body of a small, lithe woman, the case could be made that in the Battle of Winterfell, Arya is a Trojan Horse herself — underestimated, undetected, and vital to the enemy’s defeat.
Whether he knew it or not, many of Churchill’s ‘unknown warriors’ were women, fighting, spying, working and salvaging for their country during World War II. A casualty of that war was a strong and unyielding patriarchy, not quite broken, but certainly bent. Women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and when the war was done, many refused to return home.
Arya refuses too, when she is in her home with her family, to regress back into contrived social norms. There is a tug toward convention we feel in season 7, when she is put in direct competition with her sister by the writers, but we learn this too is subterfuge — however clumsily handled.
Arya’s purpose is so grounded in her humanity, and her capacity to love, not just the people around her, but herself, that in spite of her lessons to become ‘no one’, she is unyielding in her desire to be someone. Anonymity has been the curse of women throughout history who have rejected social norms and gone into hiding, for fear of punishment and death. Arya’s most important choice was to keep needle, salvaging her identity and rejecting the idea that for a woman to be great, she must sacrifice herself.
To understand how Arya became the eponymous hero in the Night King story, it might be worth considering why Jon Snow is not. This, of course comes with the caveat that he is still a hero, simply not the one we expected him to be. Although, considering the lengths he went to, the battles he fought, and the people he has already saved — these expectations beg the question, why did we expect so much from one person?
It’s often overlooked that in our most epic stories, there is very rarely one hero. Star Wars has at least three, for example, plus a couple of minor robot heroes for good measure. Lord of the Rings follows Frodo, an underestimated but nevertheless capable hero, and it also follows Aragorn, a prince turned runaway rogue. In the Song of Ice and Fire books, through perspective writing, George RR Martin makes it very clear that this isn’t any one person’s story, and near every person we read through has a unique and worthwhile journey.
By the absence and killing off of particular characters, the show has proven there are limitations in television story-telling that the books simply need not conform to. We understand the Daenerys Targaryen arc as parallel to Jon Snow’s, because there is a clear visual dynamism and contrast between the two, we know they are central because they are routinely centred in each episode, and we are enamoured by their journeys because they are both played by post-pubescent, exceedingly attractive actors. Well, maybe not onlybecause of that.
The narrative rarely centres on Arya because she, ironically, spends most of the story stuck in a middle space, somewhere between childhood and adulthood. As a child, she is unable to seize the power Dany does, or else seek out adventure like Jon. Her character growth is through education, and though that education sometimes involves cutting people’s faces off, it is still laborious, and sometimes tedious to watch. But even so, under her extended training montage, a plan was hatched to centre Arya as the saviour of her home, and to frame Jon as utterly useless.
A complaint raging around the internet in the wake of The Battle of Winterfell is that Jon never has his final fight with the Night King — but I assure you, he does. Jon’s battle with the Night King is to convince the Seven Kingdoms that the Night King is real, and to build an army that can fight against him. Headstrong and often unwilling to listen, Jon has always been terrible at strategy, demonstrated most overtly in the Battle of the Bastards, which, as Sansa points out, he loses, and she wins. The battle for Jon has always been a battle against hubris and entitlement — in himself and in others — a conflict that still rages on. But, as demonstrated in the first episode by handing Arya a sword, he recognises what really matters and allows his power to be distributed.
It might not be as exciting as hand to hand combat, but the reality is, without Jon’s persistence and integrity, Arya wouldn’t have been in a position to fight. The reality is that if Jon had come up against the Night King he would have likely suffered the same fate as Theon — a capable fighter who never stood a chance.
Arya might wield the dagger, but it is hubris that kills the Night King. He anticipates both Jon and Dany’s attacks, he uses the bodies of the dead as an expendable and replenishing resource, he brushes off attacks with a casual gesture and he falls to the ground without fear. His mistake is to take his sweet-ass time killing Bran, apparently feeling invincible, or at least impervious to attack.
Arya’s skill in covert operations, and her ability to assess and target the weaknesses of men gives her a clear tactical advantage in this circumstance, where direct attack is near impossible, and the enemy is accustomed to his own strength. Jon isn’t very good at strategy, so it is no wonder that his strategy failed. But Arya isn’t only Jon’s sister (or cousin, I suppose), she’s his protégé, and through her, Jon’s legacy and heroism is realised.
There will be a lot written about Game of Thrones in the future as a feminist text, but in my mind it is important to recognise that this show is not a political manifesto, it does not ask that we consider these characters as idealistic or motivate us to be like them — otherwise I’m sure they’d be faced with a great number of liability suits.
What it gives us, in Arya, and in many other characters, is an example of the potential in people who are overlooked — overlooked because they’ve had their power stripped away from them by societal conditioning, by “tradition”, or by brute force. Arya is what happens when we shift our idea of power as something we need to barricade others from at all cost, into something we can exchange. She wouldn’t have been the hero she is without Jon, and, without her, he surely wouldn’t have won.
This was first posted at medium.com