"Sexual Violence and Myth-Making in ‘Game of Thrones’"
I’ve mentioned Beyond the Wall, a collection of essays about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, to which I am a contributor, which is available on Amazon now and in stores tomorrow. I’ve got an excerpt of my essay, which explores sexual assault as a critical element in Westeros’s understanding of monstrosity, here (WARNING: WITH HEAVY SPOILERS FOR A DANCE WITH DRAGONS):
The first thing we know about Ramsay Bolton, born a bastard but legitimated by his father, is that he abuses his wife. After he is recognized by his father, Ramsay marries Lady Hornwood to gain control of her ancestral house, then leaves her to starve to death in a tower cell…the Bastard of the Dreadfort takes up the unpleasant habit of hunting down women in whom he’s interested: “When Ramsay catches them he rapes them, flays them, feeds their corpses to his dogs, and brings their skins back to the Dreadfort as trophies. If they have given him good sport, he slits their throats before he skins them. Elsewise, t’other way around” (A Dance with Dragons)…When Theon Greyjoy falls under Ramsay’s control, the sadist gelds him, partially flays him, and forces Theon to participate in sexual assaults, most notably on a servant who is impersonating the late Ned Stark’s younger daughter, Arya. So while women are not Ramsay’s only victims, his crimes sooner or later seem to involve them.
Eventually we learn that the Bastard of the Dreadfort is, himself, the product of sexual violence. Roose Bolton raped Ramsay’s mother in an exercise of his first night rights, a story he relates in A Dance with Dragons with a casualness that’s chilling:
“I was hunting a fox along the Weeping Water when I chanced upon a mill and saw a young woman washing clothes in the stream. The old miller had gotten himself a new young wife, a girl not half his age. She was a tall, willowy creature, very healthy-looking. Long legs and small firm breasts, like two ripe plums. Pretty, in a common sort of way. The moment that I set eyes on her I wanted her. Such was my due. The maesters will tell you that King Jaehaerys abolished the lord’s right to the first night to appease his shrewish queen, but where the old gods rule, old customs linger [. . .]. So I had him hanged, and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying. If truth be told, the wench was hardly worth the rope. The fox escaped as well, and on our way back to the Dreadfort my favorite courser came up lame, so all in all it was a dismal day.”
In A Storm of Swords, Roose admits to Catelyn Stark that Ramsay’s “blood is tainted, that cannot be denied.”…While it may be decidedly antimodern to blame children who are the product of rape for his parents’ sins, there’s something to the idea that unpunished rape is a sin that carries implications far beyond individual victims and perpetrators, a crime that comes back to haunt the society that permits and enables it. This is the one moment in the novels when the characters acknowledge an argument that Martin’s been building for us all along: rape produces damage that lingers beyond a single act, a single victim. It can produce monsters that contribute to the destabilization of entire societies.
And Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse were nice enough to have me on their Boiled Leather podcast to discuss the essay and to discuss both sexual assault and portrayals of consensual marital sex in the franchise. Talking to them, and after recently re-reading A Dance With Dragons, I realized how struck I was by Alys Karstark as a transformational figure. This northern girl runs away from a marriage she can’t abide, but she doesn’t abandon the idea of a marriage that’s also a strategic alliance. Her marriage to the Magnar of Thenn is nothing if not strategic. The union of a Northern noble lady and the leader of the one group of wildlings most likely to integrate well into Westeros’s system of governance and nobility is the first bridge between these two cultures that will have to learn to knit together. Alys’s marriage also means she denies anyone else the ability to use her as a pawn: she can’t be used to cement another allegiance, thrown away on another one of the swiftly-fracturing alignments that will sew enmity among Westeros’s noble houses for generations even after this war is over.
And her marriage to him is one of the only ones in the franchise that isn’t tainted by violence, and suggests some of the only joyful, unconflicted sexual heat we’ve seen in the franchise in a long time. When Melisande asks her, “Alys, do you swear to share your fire with Sigorn, and warm him when the night is dark and full of terrors?” Alys promises “Till his blood is boiling.” Her new husband’s feelings seem to be mutual: “The Magnar all but ripped the maiden’s cloak from Alys’s shoulders, but when he fastened her bride’s cloak about her he was almost tender. As he leaned down to kiss her cheek, their breath mingled. The flames roared once again.” And she gets him at the dance floor at their wedding. Maybe it’s drink, maybe it’s that they’re comfortable with each other. But it’s lovely to see that Westeros’s sexual and marital institutions aren’t a total bulwark against happiness, that there are people who work within those institutions, pursuing peace in the realm and at home at the same time.