This chapter is our introduction to Arya Stark, and it’s mostly about character (rather than providing me with fodder for wacky theories and/or foreshadowing for the future.)
The first thing I want to say is that there seems to be this weird fault-line in fandom involving the Stark sisters: apparently if you like Arya, you cannot like Sansa and vice versa, and I think this potentially based on a great oversimplification particularly of Arya’s character. There’s the sense (fostered in part by the show) that Arya despises “girly” things and thinks that other girls are “stupid” but that’s not in the text, certainly not here. What we get is an Arya who wishes she could be better at the things her society and upbringing consider valuable assets in a highborn lady, although that is of course not all that she wishes. (Brienne, when we meet her and get inside her head, presents a similar case.) Only, in Arya’s case, she has the misfortune to both not be very good at things like embroidery and have a sister who is, from Arya’s perspective, flawless at doing those kinds of things.
As cute as Arya’s introduction was on the show, it established her as that “not like other girls/other girls are stupid” character right from the beginning, and Book!Arya is just more subtly drawn than that. (She doesn’t come in and show up her brother at archery, and in this chapter Jon tells her she’s too skinny to fight even with practice swords, a salutary dose of realism!!)
In other words, I think at least early on, Martin manages to avoid the pitfalls of making Arya “special/not like other girls” which is something that a lot of fantasy series tend to do, devaluing “girly” things and valorizing girls who are tomboys. Arya is much more complicated than this reductionist view - she actually wants to fit in, but she also wants to do her own thing, and the conflict between those two goals is one of the most interesting aspects of her character.
Now that I’ve had my polemic, onto the actual chapter:
“It wasn’t fair. Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys… It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. Well, that and manage a household. Sansa had never had much of a head for figures.”
Alas, poor Arya is confined in a sewing room with her sister, Princess Myrcella and Septa Mordane, being mortified by how bad her own sewing. (OK, there is maybe a tiny bit of foreshadowing here with our learning that Septa Mordane told Catelyn that Arya “has thehands of a blacksmith.” Aww, Gendry!!!)
Arya is a sharp observer who notices that Princess Myrcella’s stitches are no less crooked than her own, not that Septa Mordane would ever comment on that. She overhears Sansa, Jeyne Poole and Beth Cassel talking about “the prince.” Arya soury notes that Sansa got to sit with the “tall handsome one” while Arya had to sit with the “little fat one” (but honestly, Arya really did get the better part of that deal.)
Sansa blushes at the thought of being queen, and bristles when Arya says Jon thinks Joffrey looks like a girl. Sansa says that Jon is jealous of Joffrey because Jon is a bastard, and Arya defends Jon, saying “he’s our brother” which Sansa corrects to “half-brother.” The altercation draws Septa Mordane’s attention, and she tells Arya her embroidery will not do at all. This is all too much mortification for poor Arya and she bolts from the room.
This passage doesn’t suggest that Arya despises her sister’s accomplishments and girly ways, but that she wishes she had some share of Sansa’s beauty, etc., a perfectly natural reaction for a younger sister.
However, Arya does have one thing that’s all her own, and that’s her direwolf Nymeria, “who loved her, even if no one else did.” (Ha! The hyperbole of a nine-year-old!!) Arya has, interestingly, named her direwolf after the warrior queen from Essos.
Arya decides to go watch the princes and her brothers practicing fighting under the eye of Ser Rodrick Castle, rather than waiting for inevitable punishment for running away from her sewing lesson. She and Jon watch the boys from a hidden alcove; Tommen and Bran spar at first, with Robb calling out encouragement and Theon with “a look of wry contempt on his face.” (So that’s twice we’ve seen Theon being kind of shitty, what with kicking the decapitated head of Gared, and now being contemptuous of little boys.)
We learn that Arya and Jon are especially close, in part because they are the only two Stark kids who look like Ned. Robb, Sansa, Bran and Rickon all take after the Tullys, with “easy smiles and fire in their hair.”
Jon is excluded from the arms practice because “bastards are not allowed to damage young princes.”
Jon notes that Joffrey’s coat of arms is halved between Baratheon and Lannister symbols. “The Lannisters are proud … He makes his mother’s House equal in honor to the King’s.”
“The woman is important too!” Arya says, in probably the most significant line of this chapter.
Bran and Tommen’s bout ends with Tommen rolling in the dirt (awww!) and when Ser Rodrick asks Robb and Joffrey if they want to go another round, Joffrey asks for live steel instead of practice swords. Ser Rodrick, who is responsible (and who’ll be in trouble if Joffrey ends up with any cuts) says he’ll let the boys have tourney swords, not live steel.
At this, “a man strange to Arya, a tall knight with black hair and burn scard on his face, pushed forward in front of the prince.” (DUN DUN DUN! Although we’ve briefly glimpsed Sandor Clegane through Eddard’s eyes, this is the first time he speaks, and of course, he will play such a huge role in Arya’s - and Sansa’s - storylines so I find it really interesting to see how Arya first perceives him.) He seems to be every inch the loyal dog who does exactly what Joffrey commands, telling Ser Rodrick that Joffrey is his prince. “Who are you to tell him he may not have an edge on his sword, ser?”
Sandor tells Robb that he killed his first man at age twelve, and not with a blunt sword, getting Robb to the point where he too demands live steel. Ser Rodrik won’t budge, and at this Joffrey tells Robb to come see him when he (Robb) is older. Things nearly come to blows, as Robb curses the prince, but Theon keeps Robb from actually hitting Joffrey and Joffrey gets tired of the game and withdraws. Ned’s belief - expressed in the preceding chapter - that Bran’s presence in King’s Landing and sweetness of nature will somehow soften the young Lannisters toward the Starks doesn’t seem born out, at least not with Joffrey, who seems very clearly to want to establish his dominance. It’s our first real sign that he’s trouble!
Jon tells Arya to run back to her room and teases her that she’ll be sewing through the long winter, and when spring comes, “they will find your body with a needle still locked tight between your frozen fingers.” (I *REALLY* hope this isn’t foreshadowing anything for poor Arya.)
Arya says she hates needlework and that “it’s not fair.”
“Nothing is fair,” Jon tells her (and in the very next chapter, we will learn the truth of that in this universe!)
When poor Arya returns to her room, she finds both Septa Mordane and her mother waiting for her. Uh oh!!