Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Clash of Kings - Part 2

The Genesis of Arya Stark

For the longest time, I never thought much of the character of Arya Stark. It wasn’t that I actively disliked her or anything, it was more the fact that her character never seemed to do much that was exciting compared to the actions of other characters. Also contributing to this perspective was the fact that, in A Clash of Kings, she spends a great deal of her time in the company of whiny boys, serial killers, and the nastiest factions that the books can muster (Cleganes, Lannisters, the “Bloody Mummers”, and the Boltons). As a consequence, her chapters tended to feature accounts of atrocities, murder, and the least likable personalities/side characters you can think of.

But on this read through, I found myself reading into her chapters with far more depth and attention than I was before, appreciating her psychology and personality to a much greater extent. I already knew what would happen for the characters that I really liked; I wanted to focus on those characters who didn’t get quite as much time in my eyes. And, by the end of this book, I found that she is now one of my all-time favorite characters.
Arya Stark is easily the most adventurous of all the Stark children. When presented with the option of knitting or learning how to swordfight, she picks the sword any day. Though she can come off as a tomboy, it doesn’t define her character so much as her powerful desire to do what she wants, even if what she wants doesn’t correspond with what is expected of her in such a medieval era.

Perhaps most tellingly, Arya, more than anyone else in the series, is favorably compared to Lyanna Stark. I found this comparison to be very interesting. Lyanna receives more second-hand characterization than any other person in the series aside from Rhaegar Targaryen. She was a wilful and fiery beauty that many men fought over. King Robert Baratheon was betrothed to her before her death, and up until his own end he still pines after her as his “lost love”. Rhaegar himself crowned her as the Queen of Love and Beauty before kidnapping her and sparking the titanic rebellion that resulted in the Westeros we know in the present time.

From what we know of Lyanna, she was a wilder sort of girl who would sooner go horseback riding in the forests than knit embroidery, an extreme rarity in an era where women are expected to stay home and make babies. This is a mirror of Arya and her own personality; we learn as the book goes on that Arya is made of far sterner stuff than the average girl, echoing Lyanna’s own path through life.

But most of all, I found Arya’s approach to adversity to be heartbreakingly genuine. Here is a girl of ten years old who goes through more suffering than possibly any other character in the series. She is forced to watch her family ripped to shreds, her father killed, her sword trainer murdered... She is forced to go undercover as a recruit for the Night’s Watch before this new protector of hers is attacked and killed... She is captured by a faction of serial killers and rapists, required to serve as their servant girl, only for them to be replaced by a whole different kind of evil group that make her handle leeches or else face near certain death.
Despite all of this pain and difficulty, Arya manages to stay on top the only way she knows how. She stands up to it like one of the direwolves that adorn her House sigil. She refuses to back down or give in to fear. When needed, she stays quiet and keeps out of the way, but every fibre of her being struggles tenaciously to find a way to remain calm and escape. In doing so, she seizes upon the teachings of her sword master, the guidance her father gave her, and the determined recital of the names of those whom she would revenge herself upon.

Those scenes that spoke most powerfully to me were those where Arya goes to the godswood to try and keep it all together. Let there be no mistake; it is clear that Arya is, at heart, traumatized by her experience. By the end of the book, she looks at cold murder as something that is often necessary. When she goes to the godswood, she is haunted by memories of how good and peaceful things were before the war broke out. She wonders what has happened to the rest of her family and whether anyone else is even alive. Like anyone does in a time of turmoil, she questions herself before rallying and forcing herself to remain strong, no matter the cost.
Another aspect of her story that I found interesting as well as saddening was how everyone always fails her. Time and time again, Arya tries to find someone to help her. Syrio, Yoren, the Night’s Watch boys, Jaqen H’Ghar, Gendry. Every single time, they fail to give her the support she so desperately desires, so desperately needs. This gives impetus to the tragic, albeit necessary, change to her character that she has to embrace in order to endure. There are no friends for Arya, nobody who can help her. There is only survival and the sword.

Consequently, Arya has become one of the most interesting characters in the books for me, a girl with whom I’m very curious to see how she turns out and who I’m quite emotionally invested in. Wilful, genuine, youthful, and badass; Arya is one of the greatest characters I’ve encountered in storytelling.


  1. "Just so...." I agreed completely. I also wonder if there is a connection between the stark children who have embraced their direwolf, and those who have let them run wild or go rabid. Obviously R.R. Martin uses them as a sort of mirror to the soul.

    Goddamn I need to read Dance with Dragons. I can't wait to see what kind of blind assassin Arya becomes.

  2. I'm so looking forward to Dance of Dragons. I'll get there eventually. I would make some complaint about the books being long, but considering how the vast majority of it is unadulterated awesome, I can't criticize!