A Song of Ice and Fire, and Feminism: The Women of Westeros
When I describe the A Song of Ice and Fire book series (and the accompanying HBO series titled after the first book, Game of Thrones) to friends who aren’t familiar, I say, “If you liked the Lord of the Rings you should check it out.” Of course, LOTR isn’t exactly the same, but they are in a similar genre, and certainly have fans in common. In fact, one aspect in which they differ is that George R.R. Martin (author of ASOIAF) includes more women. Like the books (which are not short), the characters are multifaceted and incredibly detailed, as is the world in which they live, Westeros (the continent on which the bulk of the action happens). This allows for a richer exploration of them as people, both good and otherwise. Consequently, the men and women, as well as the boys and girls, are given space to flourish as well as fail.
Tolkien gave us Galadriel, and the beloved badass that is Eowyn. But Martin gives us a scrappy Arya, the youngest daughter of House Winterfell, a major house, therefore assuring her status as highborn. She could care less though. She’s much more comfortable sword-fighting than sewing. She’s a bit of a young Eowyn, albeit more bloodthirsty as her character progresses – no Martin character is perfect. Arya is the daughter of Catelyn Stark, a fiercely passionate character. Circumstance has not been kind to Lady Catelyn, but she more than holds her own. She provides much-needed counsel to her son, the self-proclaimed King of the North, even serving as his envoy. She has also made some serious mistakes. She essentially kidnaps the wrong person and later makes a dangerous decision regarding prisoners of war and her children. Catelyn is a loving and strategic-thinking person, but sometimes she acts out more than she acts judiciously. There were times when I hated her, but that’s what people do. They make decisions for all kinds of reasons, only some of which are wise.
Of course, Martin has not written his characters as equals. Equality among genders and classes is about as far fetched as the world beyond the Wall. The world in ASOIAF is unlike ours in many respects (direwolves, dragons, various forms of the undead) and yet very much resembles ours in others (gender disparity, social classes, adultery). As the master of his books, he surely could have written his women to be equals, but he didn’t. In Westeros, only men rule. GRRM has given us a world that is dangerous and volatile, where even most highborn are prone to early death. As the second sex, the women must navigate their world all the more carefully, oftentimes subliminally. They must play a different game within the dominant, male-driven Game of Thrones. As Catelyn and Arya can attest, it can be done, but it’s far from easy. Then again, nothing in GRRM’s world is ever easy.
For fans of ASOIAF, you surely noted the very notable exception of the Targaryans, who do in fact allow women to rule, and more specifically Daenerys, the last living heir. As a fan, you also know that there is no easy way to sum up ASOIAF in a blog post of any reasonable length. I haven’t touched on Cersei. Or the wildlings. More blogs may be needed. Stay tuned.
Image from http://www.boomtron.com/2011/07/a-game-of-thrones-reread-catelyn-eddard-daenerys-chapter-34-35-36/