[Warning, this post contains SPOILERS.]
Were I not under strict doctor’s instructions not to overextend myself for precisely this kind of thing, I would be writing SUCH an in-depth post right now*. But given that I am under such instructions, I will say this:
It was bloody EPIC, in the most literal sense of the word. I mean GREEK EPIC. I mean THE ILIAD. I mean Bran Stark is friggin’ Helen of Troy.
It’s not as easy as I would wish to say that epic fantasy can be literature. It should be, but people have weird prejudices, and though Shakespeare would be epically confused by the literary distinctions (drawn by marketing departments) that are accepted too easily by many academics, these prejudices persist.
Granted, there are any number of books where the tropes of epic fantasy are used without thought merely because people like magic and dragons and battles and journeys. And all power to the writers and readers who derive satisfaction from that. There are also infinitely many ‘literary’ books about middle-aged, middle-class white men boning younger women, but are we to suppose from this that there’s nothing more to literary fiction?
It would be naive at best and willfully ignorant at most common to suppose that the best of epic fantasy is as unaware of its roots as its dime-a-dozen knock-offs. Anyone who saw the Elizabethan revenge tragedy of the Red Wedding should already know that Game of Thrones has more to it, but ‘The Long Night’ really dove down deep into our collective subconscious of not only what makes for a satisfying story, but also what makes it epic.
What is epic?
Epic is a literary genre that has its roots in Ancient Greek oral tradition. Most famously, The Iliad and The Odyssey. ‘Literary genre’ in this means ‘type of story-telling’, usually distinguished by shared tropes, themes, and narrative structures. Epic is a literary genre, revenge tragedy is a literary genre, romance is a literary genre, dirty limerick is a literary genre.
Epic is, to the best of my memory, typified by themes that encompass the struggle of nations, by a narrative that takes the hero or heroes on a lengthy journey, by struggles that encompass both gods and humans (or, on a non-religious interpretation, discussions of fate, fundamental ethics, or the individual’s place in the incomprehensibly large universe), and by a narrative form that breaks down a very long story into ‘episodes’.
The episodic structure allows not only for simple chunking of information, but for specific themes to be explored and for each hero to have their moment.
Moments of glory
One key aspect of the epic tradition is that there will be multiple protagonists, each of whom is a hero. This means more than simply being ‘heroic’ in our modern sense of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. Ancient Greek heroes, like Achilles, were semi-divine. Literally. Usually, one of their parents was a god – Achilles, Hercules, all the greats. And the epic form of story telling would give each hero their moment.
More specifically, before they died (always in battle), each hero would have a moment of glory. This is actually one of the things that the film Troy got right. Yes – I hear you, Troy was not nearly gay enough, and the demotion of Achilles and Patroclus’s love to being Cousins who were Best Buds sucked – but they were pretty spot on from the point of view of how significant glory was to Ancient Greek storytelling.
Glory is how you are remembered. Glory is immortality. Glory bridges the gap between human beings and gods.
And one thing we get perfectly in The Long Night is for each hero to get their moment of glory before death. And they were ALL fucking AWESOME.
Theon slaughters dozens of dead men in the Godswood defending Bran, the boy he wronged – now the man, who has just confirmed that Theon has redeemed himself.
Beric Dondarrion meets his final death having saved been brought back by the Red God 19 times, specifically so he could be here in this moment, saving Arya Stark.
And for me, most strikingly heroic of all, Lady Lyanna Mormont, beloved of millions, wise and strong beyond her years, stabs a zombie giant in the face with her dying thrust.
These are all classically epic moments of pre-death heroics, where each hero gets a set fight in which they triumph before they die
Heroes are demi-gods
Note also that although the ‘semi-divine’ rule of Ancient Greek epic is not precisely embodied for most heroes in Game of Thrones, the spirit of it is.
Theon is the son of a king (even if that king bent the knee). There’s also a sense in which he is dead – Theon, Prince of the Iron Islands, died in the Bastard of Bolton’s cell. Reek was reborn in his place. Then Theon fought his way back from the lands of the dead to reclaim his identity. This fits neatly with the Iron Islander religion: what is dead may never die. And he realises that fully just before his death, when Bran acknowledges that he has come home. He is again the person who grew up in Winterfell – a person who was dead who can now never die, because his tale will live on. Semi-divine.
Beric Dondarrion is the most obvious case of a semi-divine character. He died and was brought back to life in service of the Red God 19 times, each time losing a bit more of himself. He freely acknowledges that he is not longer completely the mortal man that he was, but lives only to be the agent of a god in this world. As Bran does for Theon, Melisandre confirms it shortly before his death – he was brought back to life by the god so many times precisely so that he could be here in this moment of glory upon which the world changes.
Lyanna Mormont might be less obviously semi-divine, but she is clearly a hero and a girl with courage, intelligence, and presence of command beyond her years. Her divinity is in standing like a bear before death, despite her youth and small stature, and stabbing death in the face. She dies arguably the most heroic and viscerally satisfying death.
And of course, Melisandre, who has lived too long a life, extended by magic and the will of her god, to die here, in this cold, desolate place. Her moment of glory all the more powerful because her faith was one that had waned. This is more obvious in the books,but still articulated in the show – she never had the emotional connection and faith that propelled Thoros to bring Beric back to life. She didn’t believe she could raise Jon Snow from the dead until she did it. And we see here her emotional connection – as it had been absent in the earlier, darker arts she has practiced.
She achieved great feats under Stannis’s command, but always with external cost – sex with a king, the blood of a king, and worst of all, the sacrifice of Shireen. In the books, we see that she is half charlatan, and that’s perhaps easier to miss in the show, but I think it still holds true. When she works with power but against the spirit of the god she serves, it is always at a cost, and it usually doesn’t achieve the best outcome for her and hers. But as at the Wall, even though she is far from the warm lands of her god, when she wills with feeling and with faith, her powers not only work, they are spectacular. When she lights the trenches that surround the castle, she does so with complete conviction and sheer desperation – and that’s why it works.
Her death, collapsing as a pile of robes in the snow, is the most literal embodiment of a hero returning to the divine from which they were created. On first watching, I thought she literally melted away like a Jedi knight who has lived up to the ideals of the light side of the force. And although rewatching on a larger screen made me reconsider whether her body melted away, I believe the impresison was intentional. It is one of several iconic science fiction moments ‘The Long Night’ draws on to evoke the epic not only with ancient literary tropes but with their modern echoes
The moments of glory
The Long Night gives us more than the ancient trope. EVERY hero gets their moment.
Brienne and Jaime fight with style and pinache and power on the walls and in the courtyard.
The Hound overcomes his PTSD and, surrounded by fire, moves to protect Arya.
Dolorous Edd could not be properly said to be divine in any sense – he is the epitome of an ordinary man – a man of the Night’s Watch who has given himself up for the greater good with no expectation of glory (indeed, vociferously the opposite). And he saves Sam’s life in his moment of glory immediately before death.
The epic literary trope rings with ancient satisfaction in our bones, but the modern commentary of the show and the books take us further. It says that you do not have to be divine (even metaphorically) to be a hero. To make your stand. To make a difference.
Sci-fi and fantasy moments
I mentioned above the Star Wars/Melisandre moment, but long time readers will likely be unsurprised that I picked up on Terminator moments, too.
In fact, I was cursing myself moments before the episode punched me in the face with the visual imagery of the Night King walking out of dragon fire like the T-1000 walking out of the gas tanker explosion. Earlier in the episode I’d noticed a recurrence of the Terminator-like waaaawomp! theme music, which we first heard in the season six episode ‘No One’. For those who don’t recall, we hear it for the first time in that episode when Cersei reasserts her power by using The Mountain as her obedient killing machine (Cersei, played by Lena Headey, whose most notable pre-GoT role was as Sarah Connor in Terminator-franchised series, The Sarah Conner Chronicles). It then recurs as Arya is being chased through the streets by the unrelenting Waif, who also mirrors the mannerisms of the T-1000.
Anyway, there was clueless Terminator fangirl me going, oh, it’s nice that they’re revisiting that theme, but it’s a shame there’s nothing overtly Terminatorish going on here.
What an idiot.
Terminator basically = Death, coming for you. Which everyone has spent the last two episodes describing explicitly, both in reference to the Night King and his army. Let’s quote Kyle Reese for a second:
Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.Kyle Reese, The Terminator
Now listen again to Gendry telling Arya what he knows of fighting the Others (the dead):
Look, I know you want to fight… but this is different. This is… this is death. You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.Gendry Baratheon, Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2
It’s the same feeling of a man trying to get through to a woman that what they’re facing is certain death – absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead/You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.
But it’s better than a direct quote, because it’s updated. Here, Gendry is the one who is scared and Arya is the experienced fighter who knows what she’s doing. And so she responds:
I know Death. He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.Arya Stark, Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 2
And this is what good literature does. It takes a cultural touch point, and it spins it to show us a new side. The warning is the same, but Arya is the hero, and Gendry is the one afraid. I love the Terminator films and I love Sarah Conner, but it takes until the second movie, when she is half-mad, for Sarah to become a badass. And even then, if she’s a kind of hero, she’s not this kind of hero. She’s not the half-divine protagonist – that role goes to her son, John Connor, hero of the resistance, and protagonist of the film, who caused a time-travel paradox to create his own existence.
Arya started her training before her trauma. Arya did her training on screen. Arya is fighting for herself, and not so some man can one day be a hero.
But I’m getting side-tracked. I’ll come back to Arya-as-hero in a bit. I want to briefly mention the other classic sci-fi reference I spotted: Jurassic Park.
Frankly, I’m ashamed it took two watchings, but in my defence, my first viewing was on a tiny screen, and as others have noted, this episode was Very Dark.
I should have seen it in the fact that both the dragons and the dead make noises not unlike the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I should have been primed for it by the fact that there are freakin’ DRAGONS, and the dinosaur link it not a massive leap. But I missed it.
That’s OK, those links are easy to dismiss. What’s not is the fact that the scene where Arya is hiding from the dead in the stacks of the library is almost shot-for-shot the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. Down to Arya’s/Lex’s head movements and the undead bloody well snorting at her like a velociraptor.
Again, it’s a lovely touch. Lex Murphy was another visionary character of the early 90s. She was a girl who was also a computer geek, and she protects her little brother in this scene, ultimately saving him from the dinosaurs. But again, Arya is more than Lex Murphy. Arya is a hero for the girls of the 21st century. She moves with confidence, rather than panic, and we’ve already seen her kill more dead than most of the grown men on the battlements.
And that makes it all the more powerful when, having escaped the library, she later finds herself overwhelmed and on the run in the hallways of her home.
Arya Stark the hero
OK, let’s talk about it now.
Having watched what amounted to a piece of cinematic perfection on Monday 29 April, I was utterly mystified to see ‘Mary Sue’ trending less than an hour later.
Grown-arse men were calling Arya Stark a Mary Sue, because she has the honour of killing the Night King.
It was puzzling and enraging in equal measures. And it’s hard to find a more clear-cut case of that term existing purely for the purposes of misogyny.
For those not in the know, ‘Mary Sue’ was a term coined following a 1970s Star Trek fanfic. You wouldn’t have known it from the way it was presented by the time I was introduced to Star Trek in the 80s and 90s, but Star Trek fandom, from the beginning, was led by women and girls. And they wrote fan fiction. They wrote about adventures in space and they wrote about Spock and Kirk getting it on and they successfully campaigned for the show to be renewed.
And one woman in the 70s wrote a now notorious piece of fanfic in which a character called Mary Sue saved the day and got to make out with their love interest afterwards. You know, like Captain Kirk did every week.
When men – professional authors, even – do this, we call this a self-insert or wish-fulfillment character. But when a woman does it, it is deemed gauche, embarrassing, to be discouraged. So, over the years, ‘Mary Sue’ became the label for any character who fitted the broad tropes of having a tragic (but underdeveloped) background, who was unnaturally gifted (and gifted at everything), who saves the day, and who ‘gets the guy’ as a reward.
I am not the first to point out that this description epitomises Batman. And… the vast majority of male heroes and protagonists across most genres.
What it doesn’t describe, is Arya Stark.
So, she gave the final blow that killed the Night King. And she is a supremely skilled fighter – skilled far beyond what most women could achieve. And her dad and mum are dead.
That doesn’t make her a Mary Sue.
Why not? Well, first off, she doesn’t have a tragic backstory. She lives through tragedy and trauma. Her mum and dad are alive all through season one and play far more pivotal on-screen roles than she does for that season. Both die not to advance Arya’s plot or provide her motivation, but as the result of their own folly.
Arya is supremely skilled, but, as I said on Twitter at the time, show me the eight years of on-screen training that John McClane went through before he survived the events at Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. What’s that? He was just a middle-aged white man who was nearly kicked out of the police force? DAMN, Arya Stark only trained with the first sword of Bravos, the Hound, Brienne of Tarth, and the assassins in the House of Black and White. You’re right, John’s story is way more plausible. [/sarcasm]
And, let’s just note: Arya’s training in ‘water dancing’ started before the tragic death of her parents, and she showed proficiency with a bow at home in Winterfell. Again: her parents were not fridged to explain her sudden dedication to murder skills.
She is very good at fighting, but is she unbelievably good at everything?
Again. No. She sucks at embroidery and diplomacy. She readily concedes that her sister, Sansa, is both brighter than her and more knowledgeable about politics. And she’s not even good at all fighting styles. She’s small, and her fighting abilities are adapted to suit a petite person. When she first fights with the Hound he easily defeats her because her techniques are suited to unarmoured rapier dueling. From him she learns to fight against someone who is broad and tall and has a broadsword. And when we see her later sparring with Brienne, we see what she has learnt. Both women are shown to be experts in their style. Arya is lightning fast where Brienne has power and strength. The fight ends in a standoff where each is positioned for what would have been a killing blow.
Arya learnt to not try to beat people who are taller and stronger than her at their own game. She learnt how to defeat them with her own advantages.
Lastly… Arya is a hero. She’s meant to be larger than life.
The whole idea of a Mary Sue is premised on misogyny. There’s nothing wrong with having wish fulfillment characters – people you can identify with who are better than you, who could defeat your enemies and reap the rewards you desire.
Apparently I have to break it to men that they are not Batman, or James Bond, or John McClane. And they never will be. They couldn’t be. Likely, no one could be – no real human being could do all the things those guys do.
And that’s OK, as long as you don’t start telling women or non-binary people or men of colour or disabled men that they can’t have wish fulfillment fantasies too.
Because somehow your impossible self-inserts are just naturally more believable than ours.
And I like most of those characters – well, not James Bond, never understood why his brand of smugness was meant to be attractive, but most of them. And I’ll do you one better. I LOVE, Superman. And that dude has everything. He’s not even pretending to be an ordinary human (except when… well, Clark aside, you know what I mean).
Wish fulfillment characters are not bad. Heroes are not bad. You just need to learn to share and let other people have some.
Oh, and if you’re interested in those visual references I was jamming about earlier… You know Arya Stark’s move where she goes in to kill the Night King? It’s the same move Achilles uses to kill the giant challenger he has to fight at the beginning of the film Troy.
She’s going for the exact same spot. She just has a back-up plan. Because this is the end of her hero’s journey, not the beginning.
[Edited to add:] Arya as No One
Oh my God readers, I just had a revelation. This moment is ALSO a deliberate callback to Lord of the Rings – the most famous fantasy epic of them all. I’m talking about the moment when Eowyn declares that she is no man, and kills the Witch King.
There was some discussion in the previous episode about what could kill the Night King.
Arya has been asking people what can. Gendry tells her to stop asking. They’re death. Implicitly: no one can kill death. And Arya smirks – she’s killed death before. She killed it in the House of Black and White when she killed the Waif, who, as mentioned above, gets the same Terminator/death-coming-for-you theme tune as the Night King.
As asks again of the war council: will dragon fire kill him?
They hope so, they say.
But it doesn’t. Dragon fire cannot kill the Night King. Jon Snow cannot kill the Night King. Theon Greyjoy cannot kill the Night King. The implication seems to be: nothing and no one can kill the Night King.
And so, No One does.
Arya rejects that identity at the end of her training in the House of Black and White. She says that she is not No One, she is Arya Stark. But is she, still? The deaths she brings, these are not the deaths of the people on her list, they are those other have asked for.
Alright, she kills all the male Freys, and that’s a personal revenge. But she is also avenging Walder Frey’s violation of hospitality on a colossal scale that demands divine retribution.
She kills Littlefinger, but again, she does so at Sansa’s request.
Throughout season eight we see her questioned:
The Hound – wasn’t he on your list? I took him off.
Beric Dondarrion – wasn’t he on your list? For a while.
Melisandre, are you going to kill her? They share a look, and Melisandra answers the question by misquoting herself. Years ago she told Arya she would close many eyes forever: brown eyes, blue eyes, and green eyes. And many speculated that Melisandra would be killed by Arya as she had green eyes. This time, she says “brown eyes, green eyes, and blue eyes“. And we recognise that the White Walkers and the dead all have glowing blue eyes. On first watching, I thought that merely meant that Arya would kill a lot of the dead. But read this instead: Arya kills all of the blue eyes dead people, when she kills the Night King.
This conversation isn’t merely a confirmation that Arya has taken Melisandra off her list, it is a request, from the servant of the Red God to the servant of the God of Death: to kill the Night King.
And because Arya is now No One, she doesn’t kill Melisandre, because she no longer cares about her own list. She kills the Night King instead.
*Reader, I did not follow the instructions.
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