songs and ballads and True Knights

sansa stark
from HBO’s Game of Thrones, Season 3.

trigger warning for emotional and physical abuse

Just a heads up– tiny spoilers for Storm of Swords.

I’ve been reading through A Song of Ice and Fire by G. R. R. Martin for the past few months. Ordinarily I speed through fantasy novels like a hot knife through butter, finishing entire series in a matter of days, but I haven’t been able to do that. Game of Thrones was incredibly difficult for me to read, especially after you-know-what for anyone who’s read the books (or seen the show. I have not watched it yet). They are not your typical epic fantasy fare– it’s not that they’re so much darker than other fantasy novels I’ve read, it’s that they are . . . so very deeply human. I’m sure anyone familiar with the series is already brutally aware of this, but none of Martin’s characters are especially good– or especially bad. There are characters you’re rooting for all through Game of Thrones, and character you absolutely despise, but then you get to Storm of Swords and you’re reading the book from the perspective of the “evil” character, and you realize . . . no one’s particularly “evil” in these books. There’s no bad guy.

But, at first, one of the characters I fiercely hated in the first book was Sansa Stark. After the incident in the woods with Arya, especially, and the whole mess that resulted from that. I found myself nodding my head when The Hound constantly insults her with “little bird,” telling her that she’s just a silly little girl that is naive and silly and who romanticizes everything even when her situation should make it clear that Joffrey does not love her and Cersei does not have her best interests at heart. She seems to play a constant game of make believe, seems to purposely delude herself.

But then I read this scene:

“I want you to tell me the truth about this royal boy,” said Lady Olenna abruptly. “This Joffrey.”

Sansa’s fingers tightened around her spoon. The truth? I can’t. Don’t ask it, please, I can’t. ” I . . . I . . . I . . . “

. . .

“Calm yourself child,” the Queen of Thorns commanded.

“She’s terrified, Grandmother, just look at her.”

. . .

Sansa felt as though her heart had lodged in her throat . . . a shiver went through her. “A monster,” she whispered, so tremulously she could scarcely hear her own voice. “Joffrey is a monster. He lied about the butcher’s boy and made Father kill my wolf. When I displease him, he has the Kingsguard beat me. He’s evil and cruel, my lady, it’s so. And the queen as well.”

After the end of the chapter, I had to stop reading just to cry, because it suddenly hit me. I could feel my heart pounding against my bones, everything throbbed– I felt hot and cold flashes everywhere.

I was Sansa Stark.

I’d been raised with the expectation that I would marry a knight in shining armor, or a prince. All the stories I had were in places like Lady in Waiting and Stay in the Castle. All the images I had, all the metaphors, all the stories, fit inside this narrative. I was a princess who had locked herself in a tower to protect herself from “the world,” and I would spend my life waiting for my “one true love” to come and claim me (with permission from my father, of course). This knight-errant, this prince, would be good and noble and just, a “True Knight,” like Sansa would call him. He would follow honorable codes of conduct, be respectful of authority. He would be handsome, and kind. And we would live happily ever after.

So, when I met John*, I instantly saw in him all the traits I’d been taught to look for. He was gallant, charming– a gentleman in every respect. He held the doors open, he stood in the cafeteria line, again, just to get me a cookie. He found the biggest bouquet of stargazer lilies for our first date, remembering after I’d mentioned once that I liked lilies. He wrote me poetry, and songs, he played his guitar for me over the phone, he passed me notes written on 3×5 cards between classes.

Everything, everything, was exactly as I’d been told it should be.

So when he started emotionally manipulating me, I was so utterly blind to it. He was kind and devoted— so when I was up, huddled on the cold tile of my bathroom floor, until two or three in the morning, listening to him rage and sob about how terrible I was being, that I just didn’t understand how much he loved me, I had no way of processing what was happening. Even when he started physically hurting me– twisting my arm, squeezing my knuckles together, pinching me, I was so deeply buried in the story that I believed with all my heart– that I was blind. He was my True Knight. He was rescuing me from myself. He was teaching me how to be good, how to be self-controlled, how to be the meek, quiet, gentle wife I’d been taught I was supposed to be but couldn’t manage to become on my own.

So when Sansa spoke those words, when she said, out loud, what Joffrey was– that he was a monster, and cruel– it was a flash of recognition so strong it bowled me over. There were people around her– people like the Hound, who were trying to show her what was happening, but she couldn’t see it. It wasn’t necessarily stubbornness, or willful ignorance. It was that she didn’t have any other way of viewing her relationship with Joffrey. The songs and the ballads were all she had. For her to admit, really admit, that Joffrey was not the True Knight she desperately wanted to believe he was– I’ve been there.

I was helping with the dress rehearsal changes of a dramatic production the first time I saw it. John* had been made director, and I had actually helped him cast the short play immediately after he’d broken our engagement– and become friends with two of the women in his play. During the final rehearsal, when I was pinning on her wig, she was ranting.

“I don’t know how you were ever in a relationship with him! He is such a jerk!”

I tried not to meet her eyes in the mirror, concentrating on making sure the wig was appropriately disheveled. “What do you mean?”

“He’s so manipulative! It’s like he’s always had everything he’s every wanted, exactly when he wanted it, and we all have to bow and scrape and be his little slaves. It’s like we all have to be mind-readers. If we don’t do exactly what he wants, exactly what he wants, then he completely looses it and starts screaming. It’s a freaking tantrum!”

I laughed, nervously.

“Did he ever do that to you?”

My throat tightened. I couldn’t swallow. My ears were ringing. “Yeah . . . yeah, he did. A lot.”

And, suddenly, her hand was touching mine, holding it still, and I met her eyes in the mirror. She was crying. “That’s not all he did, is it?”

I shook my head, and then she was holding me, and I was sobbing in the dressing room.


After that night, though, somehow– things were better. Worse, but . . . better. Freer, in a way. I’d said it. I’d told someone. I’d finally told someone, and even though I didn’t tell her anything specific, it was like saying those words out loud helped me break out of the cage I’d been in for years.

He was a monster.

A liar.

He’s evil and cruel, my lady.

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