Arya is practicing her stitching as Sansa and her friends discuss Prince Joffrey. The elder girls are convinced that Joffrey likes Sansa and that they will one day be married. Princess Myrcella is with them as well. Septa Mordane, their instructor, is unhappy with Arya’s stitching and Arya, feeling humiliated, flees the room crying. She goes to her direwolf, Nymeria, for comfort and runs with her to the practice yard where the boys are practicing swordplay. She runs into Jon, who was not allowed to practice with the highborn children since he is baseborn. They turn to observe the current combatants; Prince Tommen and Bran. Jon observes Joffrey’s coat of arms and note the presence of both the royal sigil and the Lannister coat of arms on Joffery’s vest and concludes that it is a sign of Lannister arrogance and ambition. Joffrey and Robb are called up to go another round but while Robb is eager to continue, Joffrey is uninterested in using practice swords and suggests using live steel instead. Robb readily accepts but Ser Rodrik Cassel, Winterfell’s master-at-arms refuses. This prompts Sandor Cleagane, a man-at-arms sworn to the service of House Lannister, to challenge Ser Rodrik’s authority but to no avail. This leads to Joffrey offhandedly insulting Robb’s honour and leaving prompting an angry outburst from Robb. Jon notes to Arya that the incident is over and that she should meet Septa Mordane and accept her punishment. Arya returns to her room to find both Septa Mordane and her mother waiting for her.
This chapter is, unsurprisingly, all about introducing Arya to the readers – which involves the usual stuff like showing us the essence of her personality. We see the independence of her thoughts, her pride and her insecurities not just through her own thoughts and actions but also through her relationships with other characters, chiefly Sansa and Jon. Given how little time the Stark children all have together, these scenes are our bookmarks to flip back to when/if we get that much anticipated reunion. We get a little additional information about other characters as well, such as Sansa and Joff.
I find it fascinating how so many people see Arya as more grown-up than Sansa even at this point. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion in the light of how unbearably infuriating Sansa is in this book. However, when seen objectively there is no stretch of imagination large enough to accommodate Arya under the banner of a mature grown-up; she isn’t, and she shouldn’t have to be. She’s all of nine years old and even by Ned and the North’s ridiculous standards, no one is mature at that age. However, I do feel she is more observant and more insightful than Sansa. It’s not that I think Sansa is necessarily stupid, it’s just that she lacks that crucial ability for critical thought and even by AFFC, she has yet to fully develop a mind and personality independent of those around her, be it her mother, Cersei or Littlefinger. I would love to expand on this now, but I’ll save it for a Sansa chapter down the line. Arya’s constant questioning of the world around her, which we see even at this stage in the book, where she questions (mentally) the quality of the Princess’ stitches makes her worldlier than Sansa, though that’s hardly a lofty standard. However, her recklessness and inability to work within the system she was born in (however inherently FUBAR that system might be), means that despite her many other gifts, she has a good deal of growing up to do, which under normal circumstances would be perfectly fine since, you know, she’s just nine fucking years old.
I’m not sure if I’m forcing this next point or not, but I couldn’t help but feel on this read through that Martin has written Arya and Sansa as diametrically different characters who have spent the series so far trying to come to a common middle ground. Arya is taught, perhaps even forced, to think her actions through and to bid her time while Sansa is given sharp, brutal lessons on the difference between stories and reality. There was an almost off-hand mention of Ghost being bigger than his litter-mates here and that actually surprised me. I feel there is some significance to this that I’m missing out, but I can’t for the life of me think of anything right now.
On the basis of this introductory chapter itself, it isn’t hard to see why Arya is so popular. Everyone loves the underdog and having tom-boyish girls try to eke out their own space in the shadows of their more accomplished, feminine and attractive elder siblings is just about the easiest way of making a character sympathetic. Given what Arya goes on to do, it’s hardly surprising that Martin started her off as a popular character, although her sociopathic deeds only seem to have improved her popularity. It also helps that there’s a world-weary humour to Arya’s voice as well. I can’t remember off-hand if it lasts all the way through, but it is something that I intend to pay closer attention to this time around.
Here’s an interesting questions for you: if Arya had the same personality but was born older that would have still been a social outcast? What I’m asking basically is that, did Sansa get to become queen bee by virtue of being the lord’s daughter and older or does she have a natural alpha female thing going on?