Thalia Sutton is an independent scholar and writer of fiction. She holds a Master’s in East Asian Studies from Columbia University in the City of New York, and is delighted every time a form has a box allocated in which to check “Master” as her legal title.
Welcome to the fifth installment of the Greek Myth in A Game of Thrones series. (Caution! Spoilers through book 3! Turn back now if you have not yet done your reading for Season 3!)
A Song of Ice and Fire is so vast in scope that, over time, certain characters embody different Greek figures. This can be in their internal strife, their external strife, their personality, or even the physical spaces and objects they encounter. Like Cersei, Sansa embodies first one and then the other, and then both. Yet, where Cersei pulls the matronly types of Hera and Aphrodite, Sansa drags along with her the stories of the maidens Psyche and Penelope. This creates a character and storyline that are both broad and beautiful. Let’s discuss Sansa as Psyche.
But wait, you say, I thought Sansa was a simple, but insufferable, Sue, not some nod to a great work important in literary history! Sansa has in fact quite often been critiqued as a Mary Sue — an emotionally juvenile female character that is the avatar of the writer, inserted into an otherwise free-standing story as the main character and love interest (often of numerous, if not all, important characters of the opposite sex). It is dreamer’s disease to the extreme: the girl doesn’t actually do anything, least of all anything of merit, but she’s rewarded in-story with devotion and praise if she were the best person on Earth. I, too, thought Sansa was a simple Sue, until I realized that she is the stand-in for Eros’s wife, Psyche. And then she became awesome.
Psyche appears as Eros’s wife-to-be in the “Tale of Eros and Psyche,” originally found in Asclepias’s Tale of the Golden Ass. The tale is the story from which Cinderella was created; knowing that, a careful reader can already see a Mary Sue-like character a mile off in the form of Psyche-Sansa. The original myth doesn’t help: While there are many versions of the tale throughout time, often influenced by the cultural norms in which it was translated, in general the story is as ridiculous in its brutality as it is in its dreamy romanticism, often lacking attention to cause-and-effect in its plot, and the complexities of real relationships in its characters. Yet it has tugged the heartstrings of many a romantic, both male and female, throughout history, influencing hundreds of literary works, sculptures, and paintings. So it makes perfect sense to plunk its main character, Psyche, into A Game of Thrones as an unrepentant Sue. It’s brilliant, in fact.
At first, it may seem out of place to put Sansa with the Greek myth influences: other Winterfell characters align more to British and European folklore. But Sansa does in fact go off to King’s Landing to join the other Greek-myth-inspired characters, and, consider this: “Eros and Psyche” is categorized as a folk tale more than religious myth, which ties in to Sansa’s place in both worlds. Furthermore, in “Eros and Psyche,” Eros abducts Psyche away from her home to his faraway palace, an analog to what Joffery does to Sansa in taking her away from Winterfell in book one. Everything seems to fit so far.
Let me relate the first half of the myth to you. Psyche, beloved by all in her province, is so beautiful that men start to equate her with Aphrodite, divine fairest of them all. She attracts Aphrodite’s wrath for this, who sends Eros to curse her. Instead, Eros runs off with Psyche, hiding her in his castle and, basically, eloping. They’re a couple of love birds. Eros, however, always appears in darkness to her. There are many interpretations to this, one being that he wants all without giving any; another being that Psyche is in love with a dream that can never be. Later, she sees Eros for who he is, he runs away in fright, and she is left to wander the world, learning what is actually before her eyes and how to deal with it. And — this is an important part for our analysis — how to deal with it while finding out who she is, yet still maintaining the end goal of finding love.
For our look at A Game of Thrones, first of all, Sansa is suddenly betrothed to Joffery, because his parents say so; it is, like with Psyche, the boy’s parent(s) that direct his gaze first to her. Joffery, like Eros, then whisks Sansa away to his castle, where he sexually terrorizes her repeatedly. Though, this time, his mother knows, and Cersei’s constant jibes at Sansa are much like Aphrodite’s tasks for and constant dissatisfaction with Psyche as a match for her perfect son. Furthermore, Sansa is the fairest of her lands, a princess at one point, and the sister with all the glory even though she doesn’t have much to her other than a belief in love — like Psyche, and like Sues.
As seen before, Joffery is our Eros, so that’s an obvious connection. But, Joffery has the real issues of a first-born boy both coddled and given power, so he’s so selfish that he doesn’t know what love is. He pretends to be good; he knows the forms of chivalry down pat, but doesn’t feel it. He keeps himself in the dark.
That is, until Sansa, like Psyche, can violently assault him and escape.
Husband-stabbing is actually quite common in Greek myth, but in “Eros and Psyche,” Psyche doesn’t actually harm Eros; she only plans to stab him in his sleep because her sisters repeatedly tell her it’ll be in her best interest. They appear only infrequently, but at her request, as they must be delivered to the castle by Eros’s servants. When they do come, they are pleasant enough at first, but quickly fall into an unending spate of coercion, false friendship, and lies, to drag Psyche away from her captor’s palace. She almost makes it, but backs out at the last minute. Eros, while she is being indecisive, wakes up and runs away, back to his mother. Dontos, the man who shows up sporadically and doesn’t ever actually mean well, eventually convinces Sansa that his plot to remove her from the castle is the best thing for her, just as Psyche’s sisters do in the myth. Instead of Joffery abandoning the castle by running, he simply meets his end. (Which is a wickedly wonderful plot twist. Who just kills off Eros? Who does that?!)
Post-Dontos, just like Psyche post-sisters, Sansa is set to wander the Earth. Without Eros’s protection (or persecution), she’s emotionally lost. Everyone else’s opinions about love and the world’s “truth” have clouded her vision; her only option left is to continue with the heartache, or reassess the world for what she actually wants. She chooses the latter, perhaps for the first time.
During her wandering, though, she continues to look for true love. Along the way, she goes to several goddesses looking for help in her hunt to find Eros, including Hera and Demeter. All the while, however, Aphrodite is sending goons to scour the Earth to bring her to justice. This includes Hermes, the god of commerce and communication. In one version, Aphrodite offers Hermes ten kisses to bring her back.
Sound familiar? Sansa becomes the most wanted person in the kingdom after leaving King’s Landing, and in a great twist, Hermes — Littlefinger — actually finds her, and keeps her for himself, including those kisses. Since Hera is also Aphrodite in Game of Thrones, Sansa first goes to the only other elder woman still sitting atop her throne in Westeros — her aunt, Lady Lysa. Here, an easy argument can be made for Lysa as Demeter: she has one child she parades around and yet shelters, akin to Persephone. She lives atop her mountain in most enviable bargaining position; she thinks she’s the best thing in the world; and she withholds her armies from the King out of spite, and deference to keeping her child (safe). Yet, she’s also afraid of Cersei, and her cadre. So she doesn’t help Sansa … much. In the same way, Demeter doesn’t help Psyche … much. Psyche goes into her temple, begs for help, and gets pointed in a useful direction.
As for loose ends in the myth, in the Bullfinch version of “Eros and Psyche”, Psyche’s wicked sisters die by trying to gain their ill-begotten reward (Eros’s riches and affection): they fall off a cliff in a leap of faith, and aren’t caught. Dontos, trying to regain riches and status from Joffery (Eros), dies next to a cliff and is thrown to the fishes. However, in the rarer version from The Golden Ass, it is Psyche that, in a rather mysterious and sudden turn of personality and outlook, lies to her sisters and gets them to throw themselves off the cliff, full knowing they will not survive. She begins to learn to manipulate people. Which Sansa learns from Littlefinger.
So, what can we predict for Sansa? — that she will end up more devious than Arya when it comes to knocking off her enemies? That the wolf will bare her teeth? I, for one, sure hope so.
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But there is still one thing that is worth shedding some light on here. I am so glad Martin put his take on Psyche’s story into his song of love and intrigue, because here we see a girl who believes wholly in love stories, is confronted with the reality of most people being self-serving and awful, but who also learns how to deal with it in an incredibly badass way.
Since Game of Thrones is a fantasy series that is great precisely because it is aware of its tradition and manipulates that, I thought it a perfect thing to do to pay homage to a Sue somewhere in the work. However, even as Psyche, why give Sansa so much screen-time if you’re just doing a tongue-in-cheek jibe at Mary Sues? A Sue didn’t have to be one of the main characters at all. Sansa-as-a-Sue at first seems well at-odds with the level of integrity we’ve seen imbued in the portrayal of other women in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Unless, I thought, Martin was actually taking pains to address this issue that is so prevalent and problematic in our geek culture: unrealistic expectations of love and caring that come when women are told that if they just ignore themselves enough throughout childhood, they will have sacrificed everything to others, thus making themselves a good person; and as a good person, they will be rewarded as an adult, by their dreams of love and marriage coming true. It’s the ultimate pay-in-advance system, and it is a huge problem for geeks who grow up on fantasy’s love stories (and for women in America in general). The stresses of that real-life system come out most obviously as Mary-Sue Syndrome, the bane of the crowning glory of geekery known as fanfiction.
But why assume someone is going to this much trouble in a story that’s about action and intrigue? Well, we already know A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic and a character drama. But it’s more than that: everyone’s motivations ultimately come back to love. Tyrion and his lost wife; Twyin and his lost wife; Jaime to his father; Cersei to Robert; Robert to Lyanna; Dany and Drogo; Rhaegar; Jon and his hang-ups on being loved and being able to love another; even Arya and Sandor have it in a reverse way: hating someone so much that they lose self-love. There are even love stories in the in-world stories the bards tell. The Song of Ice and Fire is a love story, and Martin is doing us a community service by showing us how to overcome the bad writing that cause Sue Syndrome, and its subsequent lost hearts. Literary value aside, that is an incredibly important community contribution to fantasy and sci-fi. Give this man more awards.
This Series comes in 8 parts:
5. Sansa as Psyche; Lysa Arryn and son as Demeter and Persephone; Littlefinger as Hermes (Spoilers through book 3)
6. Loras and Renly as Achilles and Patroclus (Spoilers through book 1)
7. Brienne and Margaery as Briseis and Helen of Troy (Spoilers through book 3)
8. Stannis and Renly as Apollo and Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, and Cassandra (Spoilers through book 2)