Sansa Stark has had one of the most turbulent and fascinating character arcs on Game of Thrones. She began Season 1 as an immature tween who liked lemon cakes, proper ladylike behavior, and dreamt about marrying a handsome prince. When Joffrey’s sadistic nature made itself known, she cowered instead of fighting back. In the first few seasons, we pitied her, but we also met her every move with a sentiment of, Goddamnit, Sansa! But fast forward to Season 6 and she’s a woman with a steel spine who is ready to raise an army, march into battle, and die for what she believes in. And if her male allies are too busy having an existential crisis to help, she’ll do it all by herself. If it wasn’t already apparent, “Book of the Stranger” made it clear: As a character, Sansa Stark is the deconstruction of a Disney princess.
If it sounds like we’re giving the writers too much credit for a haphazard character arc, we’re not. In general, Game of Thrones operates as a fantasy narrative that deconstructs fantasy tropes: In the David and Goliath story of Oberyn versus The Mountain, Goliath triumphs; revenge tales are quashed before they play out (The Red Wedding). Of the two handsome honorable knights with the most status, one fucks his sister and killed his king and the other is gay. The closest thing the show has to a true knight who embodies the idea of chivalry is a woman.
So far, so fantasy. But George R. R. Martin drew from Tolkien and history like The War of the Roses and Hadrian’s Wall. How does Sansa fit in — surely Disney princesses aren’t among the material Martin and the Game of Thrones writers are plumbing?
Snow White and Cinderella aren’t, but they embody the general fantasy archetype of the princess in the tower awaiting her white knight or handsome prince. Even Tolkien wasn’t immune. Arwen gives up her kickass elf immortality for her King. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, he’s Aragorn fucking II Elessar — but it’s hardly breaking the trope. And that’s fine for Lord of The Rings, in the old-school fantasy tradition, it isn’t a story known for its female characters.
But in the new-school fantasy of Game of Thrones, most female characters get their just due and old-school traditions get shoved out the window as hastily as Jaime shoved Bran Stark in Season 1. Each prince or “nobleman” Sansa ends up with is a sadistic psychopath who is anything but noble or princely (Joffrey, Ramsay) or a schemer seeking to use her for his own ends (Petyr Baelish).
But Sansa’s progression doesn’t happen overnight. Even by Season 3, when she knows better than to daydream about courtly love and handsome knights, Sansa briefly gives herself over to whimsey at the short-lived prospect of marrying Loras Tyrell. “I feel like I’m in a dream,” she tells him, unaware that she’s the wrong gender to meet his interest. “Yes. Me too. Definitely,” he says, sounding utterly bored.
Her process of awakening is gradual, as it should be. She is, after all, a teenage girl, and Game of Thrones takes its time with character development. For much of the first four seasons, she still leans on her white knights to save her from wicked men. Though in true subversive Game of Thrones fashion, her saviors are hardly the shining courtly types she imagined when she was younger.
It’s the disgraced dwarf and the fearsome-looking, crude, bloodthirsty warrior who are kindest to her. The Hound is nobody’s idea of a hero, least of all his own. Sansa might be the only one in the world who sees him that way.
By the end of Season 4, when Sansa’s allies have fallen away and Petyr Baelish is her last remaining unlikely not-so-white knight, she finally catches onto the game and impresses even Baelish with her cunning. But many viewers were disappointed by her Season 5 arc, which puts her in the hands of yet another sadistic psychopath, who locks her in a tower to be brutalized, and seemingly takes away her hard-earned agency.
And while there’s fault in how the writers chose to construct it, Season 6 has unfolded her storyline gloriously: The princess has escaped the evil ogre (Ramsay) and found yet another stalwart hero. Two, in fact, in the form of Brienne and Jon. And yet, at long last, she’s not counting on them to rescue her. She’s grateful for their presence, but she’s not leaning on them.
She’s rescuing herself. When she tells a reluctant Jon they must take back the North, she says, “I want you to help me, but I’ll do it myself if I have to.”
That line in “Book of the Stranger” might be the most important one she’s said thus far. It’s the Sansa equivalent of Ned getting his head chopped off, of Oberyn losing his fight, of Bran getting shoved out the window. Sansa and Game of Thrones are saying “good riddance” to the princess in the tower trope and turning it around for good.
Jon Snow might be the character whose story everyone is anticipating with baited breath this season — but don’t underestimate Sansa, the anti-Disney princess. All hail the Queen of the North.