(Just to preface everything—this is all purely conjecture based off of what I have learned as a Government/History major and my own personal theories as pertaining to Sansa’s fate, as well as some of my own preferences.)
Sansa Stark’s life has been an exercise in survival, and a deconstruction of everything she had ever been taught. Given the tools to be only a good wife, good mother, and good subject to the crown, Sansa has battled corruption, treachery, and flagrant attempts on her life with what little knowledge she has acquired through observation and a keen sense of perception.
What must be said first, of course, is that at this point in the series, Westeros has dissolved into an anarchic intercontinental system. That being said, inside of an anarchy, all actors must act in their own self-interest, for their own self-help, for the chance to acquire the means of survival and the means of acquiring hegemony over others as a means of survival. Anarchies are not permanent: eventually, actors become members of family groups, which become clans, which become ruling families, which become monarchies—and every House, great and small, is aware of that.
Especially Sansa. In order to claim the North as her own, she will have to assert her claim over those who would defy it, and have the legitimacy to back it up. And in order to assert legitimacy, she will need arms, to which extent she will need support. She will also need to defend her claim, above Bran and Rickon, by which she will need the hearts of her bannermen. She will need to make them believe in her, and she will need to prove herself, especially so as a woman in Westeros, that she can be a Queen. That she has the tools to rebuild and rule the North.
Which is a key factor which suggests that she has the means to, at least, seize the North for herself.
The Many Lives of Sansa Stark
Over the course of five books—and a period of approximately four years—we have seen Sansa as the daughter of a High Lord, the future Queen Consort to the King of the Seven Kingdoms, a traitor’s daughter, a hostage, a bastard girl, and the mistress of the Eyrie. Sansa has adopted these roles in her relatively young life as a mean of survival, of self-help. And her adeptness at navigating the world she inhabits in these roles, and using these roles to her advantage, proves that she can:
- A. Adapt quickly. As we’re all well aware, adaptability is key to survival—of a person, of a group, and of a country. For the sake of this essay, assume that any attribute that serves Sansa’s survival as an individual may very well serve her as Queen to assure the survival of the North as a free and sovereign nation.
- B. See how each of these roles fits within the Game of Thrones, and then uses these roles to play not only for her survival, but for the survival of others. The aspect of playing for others—Joffrey, her father, saving the knight on Joffrey’s nameday, Sweetrobin—never really goes away. Sansa is not only playing for herself, or even really for keeps, but for those around her. That, when and if her scope of power expands beyond her immediate surroundings, and perhaps one day becomes the North. Sansa as Queen, I believe, would care for her people.
There is another factor to Sansa’s constant rotation amongst the different pieces on the game board, one that can be overlooked. In order to adequately assume these roles, Sansa must be perceptive and must be observant. Sansa in no way lacks intelligence. Early in The Game of Thrones she uses deductive reasoning to name Ser Barristan Selmy. She knows each House, their sigil, and their histories. She probably can read, write, and speak some Valyrian. She has been exposed to literature and the different religions of Westeros. While education does not necessarily indicated intelligence, Sansa has proved time and time again that she does not lack a sharp mind, if only by the means alone that she can be a Lady, the Crown Prince’s betrothed, the traitor’s daughter, the hostage, the bastard daughter, and survive.
She proves that she understands how the game works, and understands her role as a women inside of a patriarchy even as she begins to resent it. In A Clash of Kings, she tells Cersei that being a woman flowered means that “it means that I am now fit to be wedded and bedded… and to bear children for the king,” knowing very well that it is a prospect that no longer would do her any good, and even further bind her to King’s Landing and the Lannisters, and leave her more vulnerable to attack were Robb to succeed.
After her father’s death, she adapts her strategy. She is versatile, and quick to take up new means of survival. She does not falter when something does not go according to plan. Adapt or die. Win or die.
Porcelain to Ivory to Steel
It is the most repeated quote in fandom in regards to Sansa, and it is true. Sansa steels herself. She braces for impact. Even as an eleven year old girl, even before Ned’s execution, she knows how to steel herself. This is perhaps the byproduct of losing Lady, her first real taste of the monsters in life.
The first example of Sansa “steeling” herself is when the Arryn man is killed, when
“Jeyne Poole wept so hysterically that Septa Mordane finally took her off to regain her composure, but Sansa sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching with a strange fascination. She had never seen a man die before. She ought to be crying too, she thought, but the tears would not come.”
She is introduced to the cruelties of the world, and is able to objectively analyze them.
“The young knight in the blue cloak was nothing to her, some stranger from the Vale of Arryn whose name she had forgotten as soon as she heard it. And now the world would forget his name too, Sansa realized; there would be no songs sung for him. That was sad.”
This journey of Sansa’s, the transformation from porcelain (the death of Lady) to ivory (the knight) to steel (watching her father’s beheading) is not undone. Sansa steels herself. And continues to steel herself. Cold, and calculating, post-GoT Sansa approaches the world as an outsider, using her education and the teachings of other people to adapt. But the greatest quality of steel is that it is strong. Sansa exhibits a subtle strength, as well as her subtle growth towards selflessness. This is, after all, the girl who moved to push Joffrey off the battlements and called for his head.
But steel is not only the quality of her skin—steel is also the synecdoche for a sword. Steel is weapon. Whether Sansa’s transformation to steel will be used as a weapon by the likes of Petyr Baelish or, hopefully, a weapon wielded by herself, is yet to be seen. But she is now, as we know, as hard as the North that we hope she will rule.
But it is not just this transformation which must be marked, but how drastic it is, and how rare it is for someone like Sansa, a highborn, largely ignorant, maiden to undergo such a unilateral change over the course of months, and not be broken by it. Sansa survives everything that is thrown at her, and learns from it, repeating back to herself mantra’s like there are no heroes and in life the monsters win.
After all, “if there was one thing that Sansa Stark had learned [in King’s Landing], it was mistrust.” And she had many teachers.
The Student Will Surpass Her Teachers
Sansa has, quite literally, learned from the best: Cersei, Littlefinger, Sandor Clegane, Lady Olenna, and the universally hard way: through her mistakes.
Let’s review some of the lessons she’s received from her teachers:
- Cersei Lannister—the role women assume in a patriarchy, the confines of the patriarchy, how to gain mobility within the patriarchy, how women are exploited by society, violence against women, the parts of life that look like magic often turn out to be the messiest of all, women’s weapons.
- Petyr Baelish—There are no heroes, always keep your foes confused, the existence of the game, men of honor will sacrifice their honor for their legacy (children), one does not have to have power to be powerful (the inverse of that also holds), trust no one, keep your cards close to your chest, make your moves in time, observe others closely and figure out what their interests are.
- Sandor Clegane—There are no true knights, Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger, there are so, so many shades of grey, everyone has a story.
- Lady Olenna—how to get the truth from lies and evasion, that a woman can be powerful and be above the fray in a monarchy, treachery, All men are fools, if truth be told, but the ones in motley are more amusing than the ones with crowns.
- Her own mistakes—I think we all know those.
Sansa has had a variety of teachers in the game. More than most, and definitely more than her siblings. While things like court intrigue may be absent in the North, Sansa will undoubtedly have to flex her power and claim in the South to be able to combat Stannis at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and the Boltons in Winterfell in order to secure the North.
It is best to remember that at this point, not much is actually left in the North. It has all but been destroyed by the Boltons, the Karstarks, and Stannis’s army. All of the Stark men are fled or dead. The gold is gone. Winterfell is in ruins. There is no food, little protection for everyone, the small and the rich, against the coming winter.
And what does that mean?—It means that Sansa is going to have to use the tools she has been given by her teachers, as well as her education, natural intelligence and perceptiveness to navigate the deadly politics of the Southron part of Westeros to reclaim the North, enforce the boundaries, and rebuild it. She is going to have to do this without giving up her claim to a man, or indebting herself to a house. She is going to have to do it in a secure fashion and quickly before it is too late, and before someone else can encroach on House Stark’s legitimacy again.
The Transformation Not Yet Made
Right now, Sansa is a piece in the game. She is not a player—because that is the safest position at the moment. Littlefinger intends to make her a player, one who will ally with him. If Sansa can complete the transformation from piece to player, I believe she can take the North. As the Queen in the North (or with her claim as heiress presumptive to the Northern throne) she has a large amount of resources at hand.
But there are many variables here. Here is one possible chain of events:
- Whether or not Sansa’s wedding to Harry the Heir will occur. Politically, it is a very intelligent move by Littlefinger, one that will then be followed by the timely death of Sweetrobin. My pet theory is that Sansa will end Littlefinger before he can end Robert Arryn and reveal herself, and with Sweetrobin’s favor and the favor of the Lords Declarant of the Vale, secure the forces of the Vale.
- With the men-at-arms from the Vale, Sansa can then take back the Riverlands, especially if Brynden the Blackfish resurfaces. By using the Houses of the Vale and the Houses in the Riverlands still loyal to the Tullys and the Lannisters besieged at King’s Landing, the armies could easily usurp the Freys and take back Riverrun and the take the Twins, and the Riverlands would once again swear to the North.
- With the men of the Riverlands and the Vale at her disposal, Sansa could march North surrounded by military advisors and reclaim Winterfell and cast out Stannis and the Boltons.
- Using her marriage to Tyrion and position as Lady Lannister, Sansa could use the gold from Casterly Rock to rebuild the North and import food and supplies to reconstruct the glass gardens and Wintertown.
Any and all of these theories depend on Sansa’s ability to assert her claim as a woman—which at this point, with Bran slowly becoming a tree, Rickon spirited away to Skagos, and Arya losing her identity all together, is the strongest) and married to a man who has not been heard from for years and therefore unable to assert power over her, and the lessons she has learned from Cersei and Lady Olenna—and not be subsumed by the men of the Northern houses and subjugated back to the role of piece instead of the player she could become.
I believe this will not happen, for several reasons, chief among them the Mormonts of Bear Island and the Manderlys, which are both houses which are either headed by women or are soon about to be headed by women. But it is not only women in charge within the North that could secure Sansa’s place on the throne. There is another important factor.
Rumors of Dragons
Daenerys has already proven her prowess as Queen, and has men like Tyrion Lannister and arms from the free cities and the dothraki to back up her claim. If Dany can secure the South, then Sansa will be secure in the North.
There is a theory in International Relations that bipolar systems are the most stable. Westeros has, in the period of less than five years, been within a unipolar system and a multi-polar anarchic system. But, if the North and South can balance, then Westeros should find peace. And if the North and South can find peace, and can balance with women sitting the thrones in both courts, then both of those women can find peace.
Realistically, if Sansa secures the Vale and the Riverlands, as is the result in almost all variables, and Daenerys has her army of Unsullied, her dragons, Dorne, and the other Southron kingdoms, they may almost balance each other out, creating that bipolar system. Daenerys may have the power to conquer the North and their sworn territories, but it would, at least theoretically, do Daenerys best to leave them well alone and allow for this two-power system.
The Maiden Queen
GRRM has spent some time assuring that Sansa’s maidenhead remained intact, and that it continues to remain intact. Sansa is a virgin. And it is a plot point—it is unsurprising, given the political currency that virginity is given in patriarchal societies. But Sansa’s position as a virgin also allows for some intrersting parallels to be made between her and another virgin queen—the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.
Here is the section of this essay where I can actually feel certain in the conclusions that I am drawing, because GRRM very well ignore IR theory just as well as he may have Daenerys avoid the conclusion that reaching a bipolar system with women behind each power would benefit her the most. But here, we can tell that GRRM may slowly be drawing Sansa into the position of being Queen Elizabeth’s Westeros analogue.
Elizabeth I was born during a time when her father, Henry VIII, was desperate for a son in the quest of solidifying the Tudor claim on the English throne. Disregarded as a daughter, and later marked as the daughter of a traitor (Anne Boleyn), Elizabeth was raised to be a highborn lady. After the death of her father, brother, and the execution of Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth was held hostage by her mentally ill sister (Bloody) Mary for almost a year before Mary’s death, putting Elizabeth on the throne.
In government, Elizabeth was much more moderate than the previous Tudor monarchs had been. Her personal motto was, interestingly enough, “video et taceo" which roughly translates to “I see, and say nothing.” There were constant factions against her rule, and against her life.
But she adapted to her circumstances, and survived. By seeing, and saying nothing—but adapting. Like Sansa.
Elizabeth I adapted by obtaining the title of the Virgin Queen. During a time where the English were readily slaughtering women for the charge of being a witch (or being generally unwilling to fit into the gender binary where women are subservient and dependent on men, either as a daughter to a father, sister to brother, or wife to husband), Elizabeth could not afford to marry. Instead, she turned to an icon to transform her role as Queen into an iconic post—a post that was already conveniently divine.
By invoking the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth was both free of the constraint of any man, excepting God, and the mother of her country.
Two of the most beloved figures in the faith of the Seven are the Mother and the Maiden. And while the Seven do hold strongly in the North, the most Southern regions excepted, Sansa will need to make the nobles of the Riverlands and the Vale love her in order to get the North. If she can be the Maiden Queen and the mother of her country (whereas Daenerys is the mother of dragons, Sansa may soon become the mother of wolves, fulfilling the fire and ice binary) Sansa’s journey to parallel Elizabeth I may be completed, allowing her, like Elizabeth, usher in a Golden Age for her people.
Challenges to Her Claim
Right away, we can eliminate Arya. Arya does not want the throne, does not seek out power, and has little to no claim to Winterfell, especially if Sansa is present. That being said, Bran and Rickon are Sansa’s only legitimate contesters to her claim as Queen in the North. Jon Snow also remains a threat, but a lesser one.
Bran, of course, is the largest threat of the three. He is the oldest legitimate son left, and would ostensibly have the support of the Reeds. But he is slowly turning into a weirwood—possibly irreversibly. But more than that, Bran is disabled. He cannot wield a sword or shoot an arrow. He cannot fight for his claim in the way Sansa can, and cannot rally the forces needed to back up his claim like Sansa is able to. His claim is legitimate, but weak because he does not have the support nor the means of securing his claim If he decided to take kingship from Sansa.
To the point of Rickon, he has been raised by wildlings since he was three, and knows nothing of what a highborn son would learn—he cannot read, write, do figures, wield a sword, meet with his bannermen, or rally them for his cause. In Skagos, he is powerless. And his return from Skagos is not a sure thing. Davos has been sent to his own death, possibly, in retrieving him. Either way, he is incredibly young, and not suited to rule. Even if he does return, Sansa could claim power as his regent.
But Bran and Rickon’s lack of power does not necessarily secure Sansa’s claim to the throne either. As mentioned in the earlier section, Sansa will, like Elizabeth I, have to make her people love and support her, not just House Stark, not just the throne, not just the idea of a free and independent North. If Sansa can win over her bannermen and prove herself as an able Queen before Bran or Rickon make a reappearance, she may very well keep the throne.
Again, as aforementioned, this is doubly so if Daenerys is on the throne in the South. Because, inevitably, Daenerys and Sansa will combat two heirs who, by Westerosi custom, have a better claim than them by the right of being sons instead of daughters. Daenerys has Aegon—and possibly Jon Snow if the R + L = J theory holds true—to keep from usurping her claim, and Sansa has both of her brothers—and possibly Jon Snow, although he has already turned down Winterfell once—to keep from usurping her claim. If one woman can keep her claim, than the other can keep her claim, by the way of the simple balance of power.
Sansa, First of Her Name
“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And, a very small man can cast… a very large shadow.” To the point of repeating myself ad nauseum, Sansa must make people love her, to support her, to believe that power resides in her. And I believe that she has to tools to make people love her, to navigate the roles she is handed and the role which I ultimately hope she may take for herself.
But more than that, I believe that Sansa genuinely has the tools and the strength to actually rule. Actors in a government work for their own interests.
Sansa, while disillusioned and now the logical and pragmatic de facto mistress of the Eryie, still desperately wants to believe in songs. But she no longer wants to believe in them in ignorantly, as the blind child that she was when she first left for King’s Landing, before her first transformation to porcelain.
It would be her best interests to try and make a world more like the songs and stories. To fix the North. Make her realm a better place for all, to avenge those wronged in the songs. To secure a second chance. But she’ll do it realistically.
And it will make her an excellent Queen.