What the Women of Westeros Mean to Me
I have always been a firm believer in the magic of how the right book or series can seem to find a person when they are most in need of it. I, however, avoided the call of the Game of Thrones franchise for quite some time. Despite how many people assured me that I would enjoy the books and television show, I refused to watch it on the grounds of how much blood and violence I’d heard was in it. As a chronically ill and severely depressed person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following a fatal car accident I had been in at the age of 15, I had a tendency to be extremely wary of anything I might find potentially triggering. That is, until a day came when I reached an ultimate low, when the circumstances of my life managed to get so bad that I was convinced nothing in this world could possibly trigger or upset me more than I already was. Seeking an escape in problems that were not my own, I began to binge read/watch the series and to my surprise what I found in its volumes was not triggering, but instead cathartic as defined in terms of Greek theatre: “The purification and purgation of emotions through art that results in renewal and restoration.” In other words, the show slowly but surely came to mean one thing to me: Healing. Through the plights of the show’s leading female protagonists in particular, I found a means to better process, understand, and ultimately overcome trauma of my own.
On the Art of Sword Fighting as a Metaphor for Overcoming Hardship:
One of the first scenes that really caught my attention on the television show is when Arya began training in the art of sword fighting, or water dancing, with the First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos, Syrio Forel. Watching this scene, I began to reflect on my own childhood desire to learn fencing after reading about it in the swords and sorcery novels that I loved. It was not enough for me to simply read of these adventures. At the age of nine I, akin to Arya, sought adventures of my own and began to train in fencing. Since then, I forgot how many lessons could be acquired in the art of sword fighting. But Syrio and Arya reminded me.
In their first scene together, Syrio begins by tossing a wooden sword to Arya that she unfortunately misses. “Tomorrow, you will catch it,” Syrio assures her before informing her that holding it in only one hand is all that is needed. “It’s too heavy!” Arya protests. To which Syrio replies, “It is heavy as it needs to be to make you strong.” Often, in life I have told myself this. This and “Every hurt is a lesson and every lesson makes you better.” When life’s burdens appeared to become too unbearable, when I looked around and saw no other kids my own age struggling with the same chronic illness as myself, or knew no other 15 year olds who had been in a life changing car accident. These things will make you stronger, I assured myself. I continue to assure myself of this.
On Being Calm in the Face of Trouble:
Despite being seemingly overcome by the weight of the wooden sword she must learn to bear in one hand, Syrio must remind Arya: “Remember child, this is not the dance of the Westeros we are learning: The knight’s dance. Hacking and hammering. This is the Braavos dance: The water dance. It is swift... and sudden!” Against Syrio’s words, Arya first tries to strike Syrio by charging at him full force, but he keeps moving away swiftly as Arya expends more and more energy trying to hit him. It is not until Arya learns to be calm and swift like he is that she begins to make progress.
The next time Syrio and Arya meet, Arya is visibly upset. Shaken by the idea that her father might stand trial for treason, she tells Syrio that she is not in the mood to practice today. “You are troubled,” Syrio says. “Yes,” Arya replies, before Syrio starts prodding her with his sword. “Good,” Syrio says. “Trouble is the perfect time for training. When you are dancing in the meadow with your dolls and kittens, this is not when fighting happens.” After trying to get her attention once more he says, “You’re not here! You’re with your trouble. If you’re with your trouble when fighting happens, more trouble for you” as he strikes Arya to the ground. He later adds, “How can you be quick as a snake or as quiet as a shadow when you are somewhere else?” For me, this has served as quite possibly the most practical advice for overcoming mental and physical trauma I have ever received. One must be calm in the face of hardship in order to function through the pain. Either you learn to bend with the wind or you get knocked off your feet in the wrath of the storm.
Later, in season six, Arya illustrates true mastery of this concept in addition to how to turn a potential disability into a strength when it is only after learning how to fight blind that she is able to defeat the Waif once cornered. Calmly, swiftly, Arya cuts the light to fight in darkness since in that circumstance, after having trained blind, she had the upper hand. In my own life, struggling with both chronic physical and mental illnesses, I often find a similar theory to hold true. Trying to get through a day with chronic physical and mental pain can feel like struggling to fight in the dark when you can’t even see a few feet in front of you. Often in these circumstances, I have tried to charge through my troubles as if attempting to take down a castle wall, but in doing so I only tired myself out by expending more and more energy on the adrenaline that comes with anxiety without much success or progress made. However, I find that it is only when I can remain calm, find my center, and balance as Arya does that I am truly able to overcome these barriers.
While in the House of Black and White, Arya also learns how to utilize the faces to become other people. But, even before coming to the House of Black and White, Arya tries to “pass” as a boy for safety to escape those who would have her captured or killed for being a Stark. Living with chronic illness makes me feel like I also do this to an extent. Wear the faces. Every morning when I put my makeup on, I think to myself that I’m putting on a mask. Trying to make myself look less pale and sickly. I have come to feel as though most days in life I am “passing” or trying to “pass” to come across as well when I am sick because I feel that my career or relationships depend to an extent on my ability to do this. Though recalling this, I remind myself that these struggles—even seemingly the disability of my illnesses—are like Arya’s temporary visual impairment only making me stronger.
Perhaps, one of the most memorable lines Syrio tells Arya is, “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: not today.” This line is repeated to Arya again when she meets Jaqen H’ghar in the House of Black and White and when she reunites with Melisandre before proceeding to take out the Night King in season eight. I too have often repeated this phrase myself many times. I think it when my illness has gotten bad. When I’ve need to go under anesthesia. When I’ve needed surgery. When I’ve had to fight for my life as my illness demands. I have also come to say this to my own depression and anxiety when it begins to debilitate me: “Not today.”
Moreover, I found myself saying this when I managed to get into yet another car accident on the way to a job interview, as if the gods would mock me. As the truck slammed into me and I pulled over across a lane of traffic and into the shoulder, I remember thinking, hoping, and praying: “Not today.” And it wasn’t. Despite the fact that my car was totaled and I already suffered from driving related post-traumatic-stress-disorder after the first fatal car accident I’d been in at 15 to begin with, I got out, brushed myself off, somehow managed to still make it to the job interview on time, and miraculously landed my first teaching job.
What I have come to realize since then is that the gods weren’t mocking me that day. If anything, they were showing me how strong I was and how far I had come in a manner akin to how Arya’s journey comes full circle in a sense when in season eight she ends up back in King’s Landing (where her father was beheaded back in season one). When Arya sees her father get beheaded, it reminded me of how I felt after the first car accident I had been in when I saw my mother run out and kneel over the mangled body of a woman bleeding out in the street. I’ll never forget the awkward angle of the woman’s body in the road and the way she lay in a pool of her own blood. I tried to run over to the woman laying motionless and my mother hovering over her, but samaritans who had stopped and pulled over held me back like Arya had been when she was pulled away by Yoren. I think in this moment, both of us felt helpless as we were dragged away from the bloodshed, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t already see what had happened and some things cannot be unseen.
Although many fans were disappointed that Arya did not get to kill Cersei in season eight, episode five, I understood it. After having been wronged many times, I understand how it can actually take more strength and moral character to turn away from an opponent than to charge at them. In this case, as the Hound tells her, there would be no coming back from that fight. Fighting Cersei in the midst of Daenerys’s dragonfire with the building crumbling around them would mean an almost certain death for Arya in addition to Cersei. The fact that Arya doesn’t need to kill Cersei tells me more about her character growth than killing her would have as, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Arya already defeated the Night King, which in a sense represents Death itself. She doesn’t need to kill Cersei too. Instead, she chooses Life for herself and for others as she tries to help women and children escape the fires and destruction in King’s Landing.
From a Little Bird to a Phoenix:
Given everything I have been through living with chronic physical and mental illness, people tend to make the mistake of believing that I, like Brienne of Tarth, have become indestructible, indomitable to a degree. Forged in the fire of my experiences. A phoenix rising from the flames. This is true to an extent, however my strength does not make me inhuman.
Many of my friends and family members did not seem to truly realize this and as such were shocked to see (after everything I had already endured) the devastating effects of a relationship gone awry in my life after the man I was in love with left me to go marry someone else. It is for this reason that I can seriously empathize with Brienne when she is deserted by Jamie after their first intimate night together. Although people have said that it was out of character for Brienne to sink down into the snow and cry after everything she had endured, I understood it, and seeing her humanity in that moment helped me realize that it was ok for me to be upset given my circumstances too. This man who had left did not break me, just as Jamie’s leaving did not break the warrior in Brienne. Furthermore, Arya’s refusal of Gendry’s offer to become Lady of Storm’s End to instead travel independently and find out what is “West of Westeros” helped me embrace my own independent spirit and desire to place my career, writing, and love of travel above the prospect of pursuing romance anyway.
However, the truth of what this show has meant to me crystalized in my mind in season eight, episode four after the Hound tells Sansa that most of her hardships of having been bought, sold, and raped across the Seven Kingdoms since leaving King’s Landing could have been avoided had she gone with him when he offered to escort her home. Sansa replies, though, that had it not been for her hardships, “I would have stayed a little bird forever.” Her hardships, along with those of Arya, Brienne, and countless other characters, are what made them strong, and ultimately placed them in positions of power by the series finale. Hearing Sansa admit this compelled me to begin to understand how this applies to my own life as well. More importantly, studying the narratives of these characters allowed me to find a narrative of sorts and meaning in my own life struggles, and like so many of them, begin to turn pain into purpose as I continue on in my life journey as a teacher and writer to illuminate the way for others so that they may not feel so alone or suffer in solitude as long as I had.