This post discusses events from “The Winds of Winter,” the unreleased sixth book in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Martin released a new chapter of the book last week.
George R.R. Martin has never shied away from the ugly side of human experience in his epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Set in a fictional medieval kingdom and following a conflict inspired by the War of the Roses, the series has given readers a world where children are murdered, slavery is practiced on an appalling scale and sexual violence is rampant. But even after thousands of punishing pages, the chapter in the sixth book in the series, “The Winds of Winter,” which Martin released last week, feels even sadder than usual.
It follows Arya Stark, once the youngest daughter of a noble house and now a near-anonymous trainee in a mysterious fraternity of assassins. During the brutal series of events that trailed Arya on her journey from her home kingdom to an independent island nation, Arya acquired a list of enemies, men and women who killed her friends and family. In the new chapter, one of those men, Rafford, travels to the city-state where Arya lives now. Though still a child, she seduces him into leaving a theater with her, then murders him. Even given the awful events that precede this murder, the chapter is a striking entry in Martin’s critique not just of chivalric fantasies but also of fairy tales.
Bad things happen to children in fairy tales, of course. As with Cinderella, they lose their mothers and acquire stepparents who are prejudiced towards their own children. Like Hansel and Gretel, their own parents may abandon or abuse them, making them vulnerable to people who would prey upon them. And as with Little Red Riding Hood, they may encounter grave dangers simply in going about the world. But while fairy-tale children may be eaten or beaten, the dangers they face are usually decidedly different from those that face young women of marriageable age, whose sexual maturity means they are exposed to violent and unwanted advances or cruel husbands.
That distinction has always been somewhat collapsed in “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Marriages are regularly contracted — if not consummated — when the parties are children. Sansa Stark, Arya’s older sister, is stripped and beaten by her first fiancee, the psychotic King Joffrey Baratheon. She is married off to another much older man shortly after she begins to menstruate but long before she is psychologically prepared to be sexually active. She is astonishingly fortunate that her husband is kind enough not to insist that they have sex before she is willing.
But this latest chapter from “The Winds of Winter” tears down that boundary even further. To get close to Rafford, Arya offers herself up to him. “This one is a child,” one of the other man in his entourage insists. “I am not,” Arya lies. “I’m a maiden now.” She lets Rafford touch her and kiss her and she touches his genitals before stabbing him in the thigh.
Arya has had harsh experiences before this and has done other very adult things. She witnessed her father’s public execution, the murder of her young friend and the deaths and torture of adult men. She herself has killed, both in self-defense and for revenge. And she has been subject to vicious language and threats, including threats of sexual assault. But this is one of the first times we have seen Arya, the little girl who was so tomboyish that she was able to pass for a military recruit, put herself forward as a sexual being. And it feels like a tremendous tragedy that she is doing so before she is ready, physically or mentally, and in a situation that has nothing to do with pleasure or affection, just violence.
I have long argued that “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its television adaptation, “Game of Thrones,” have as one of their primary subjects the ways in which sexual violence contributes to the decay of all sorts of societies, from monarchies that see themselves as enlightened to nomadic, raiding kingdoms to merchant cities. If this chapter is a true indication of what is to come, “The Winds of Winter” may push this insight into dreadful new frontiers. Even if Arya Stark survives to the end of George R.R. Martin’s epic, her experiences do not just diverge from the difficulties of her fairy-tale counterparts: They are the sorts of traumas that make it even harder to imagine any sort of truly happy ending.