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Winter is Coming: Sexual Violence in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Image of a silhouette  of a wolf's head, looking like it is sculpted from white, blue ice. In the foreground skeletal trees. Edges of cover in black.

Before starting this post, I would like to say that in this article I will only focus on the series of novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, and not on the HBO adaptation. I also want to warn readers that this post contains explicit scenes of rape and sexual violence.

The dark fantasy series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire written by George R. R. Martin, is set in a medieval-inspired universe, which emphasises the brutality described in the books as this era has the reputation for being brutal, and it contains graphically violent scenes of war, death, and rape. The series has five books published so far and tells the story of different kingdoms fighting to access the Iron Throne using every means to obtain it, such as war, political machinations, or treachery. The one who gains this throne would govern all the kingdom.  Sexual violence as a recurring theme of the novels represents a variety of different issues linked with patriarchy and sexism, such as the rape of women, and their objectification, as they are treated like a piece of merchandise when they are given to a man in a marriage with no regards to their feelings. Patriarchy is a system that gives power to men while subordinating women. (Butler, 2006 p.56).  In some cases, raping a woman is a way to objectify and possess her, as Robert does to Cersei. Cersei herself rapes another female character to impose her superiority over someone else, and to attempt to escape the patriarchal oppression in which she is imprisoned. This behaviour is coherent with Cersei’s general behaviour throughout the story. She spends the five novels struggling to keep as much power as she can, first as a queen, then as a regent for both her sons. Thus, claiming power through rape is only one more attempt by her to seize more power. Other characters, such as Gregor Clegane and his men, use rape to assert power over someone weaker than them. Consequently, it seems like rape is an issue that touches both sexuality and power.  

In the Song of Ice and Fire series sexual acts are often used to reflect the characters’ personality. Thus, much can be said about the characters who perpetrate rape; when Robert raped Cersei, he was always drunk. (Martin, 2005, p.692). Furthermore, Robert assumes that because Cersei is his wife, he has the right to have intercourse with her, even if she does not consent. This way of thinking is one of the principles of the patriarchal system present in the Westerosi society. The rape of a wife by her husband is not considered as a rape, but simply as a normal sexual intercourse between a married couple because what matters is what the husband wants. The patriarchal system, which is also present in the real world, places men at the top of the hierarchy by promoting male privileges and by subordinating women. (Butler, 2006, p.57). The conjugal rape of Cersei by Robert is representative of the subordination of women. Women are seen as inferior to men because they do not have power over men, nor over their own lives, so much so that they are seen as having no desires of their own. Wives are then subordinate to their husbands because their will and desires are not considered, and because they must obey their husband’s every decision. Thus, Robert does not ask Cersei’s permission before sexual intercourse because, as his wife, she must obey him.

Instead of accepting her subordination, Cersei chooses to try and act like a man to obtain some of the privileges reserved to men. To feel like a man, in a society where domination is linked with masculinity and power and where women are powerless and only valuable as child bearers, she rapes Lady Taena, one of her companions:

Cersei wondered what it would feel like to suckle on those breasts, to lay the Myrish woman on her back and push her legs apart and use her as a man would use her, the way Robert would use her when the drink was in him (Martin, 2005, p.685).

In this passage from Cersei’s perspective, her motivation for the rape is quite clear. She wants to rape Lady Taena not because she is attracted to her, but because she wants to have the same sexual experience as a man raping a woman. Moreover, she is comparing what she is about to do to Lady Taena, with what Robert did to her. She states that she wants to “use” Lady Taena as Robert “used” her. The choice of the verb “use” for sexual intercourse reveals how Cersei felt when Robert raped her, as well as the presence of the patriarchal system in the novels. The verb “use” is mostly applied in the context of using objects, thus, choosing this verb to describe a sexual encounter reinforces the objectification of the other that is a fundamental aspect of rape. Cersei was objectified by her husband; thus, she objectifies another woman to take a man’s place and gain a man’s privilege, at least regarding other women. Her actions can be likened to what Deniz Kandiyoti called the patriarchal bargain (Butler, 2006, p.60). Kandiyoti explains that women employ strategies to gain a degree of power and freedom within the patriarchal system (Kandiyoti, 1988, p.276). By acting like a man Cersei is attempting to make a bargain with the patriarchal system of Westeros to become empowered. The bargain she is attempting to make with her patriarchal society is that by gaining power over other women via rape she would be able to acquire some power, thus gaining some male privileges. However, by gaining power she sacrifices another woman’s power, removing her agency, objectifying her, and re-enacting what Robert did to her (Fraser, 2015, p.152; Young, 2017, p.52). Cersei is attempting to break free from an oppressive system, but she is unsuccessful because she has internalised the misogyny and prejudice of her society (Carroll, 2018, pp.65 -66). By having a woman raping another woman, Martin could have wanted to show the damage that rape could have on women by representing Cersei’s rape as part of her trauma. This can also be linked with the damage patriarchy could cause. A man hurt Cersei so her only option to get some power back is to hurt another woman. However, with this scene Martin has also been criticised. He was accused of writing it only for the benefit of male readers’ fantasies, which is a recurrent problem in fantasy literature (Carroll 2010, p.103).  

Besides, Cersei states that during a war, rape victims ‘were probably praying for a good raping’ (Martin, 2005, p.674). Being herself a victim of rape, she shows no compassion for other women in the same predicament. On the contrary, she is expressing the sexist opinion that if a woman has been raped it was probably because she was asking for it (Fraser, 2015, p.174).

Gregor Clegane and his men also use rape to express power and domination over people weaker than them. They rape the daughter of an inn keeper just because they could, and because the father of the victim was powerless to defend her (Carroll, 2018, p.90). This rape was perpetrated not only because of a sexual drive, but also because the men were in a position of power over the inn keeper and his daughter, and they abused it. One of the men who gangraped the inn keeper’s daughter said after the fact that, ‘maybe she’d decide she liked it after all’ as the young girl stops resisting (Martin, 1998, pp.467, 468). This statement carries the idea, also present in our modern society, that for a woman to be a ‘true victim of rape she had to prove that she had been fighting her aggressor’ (Fraser, 2015, p.174).  Moreover, what the soldier declared after the rape echoes what Cersei will say two books later when speaking about war victims being raped, that they were waiting to be raped.

In the series A Song of Ice and Fire rape and sexual violence is a recurrent theme. It is used in the novels to emphasis the harsh and medieval environment in which the characters exist. In addition, it also represents the personality of the characters, as seen by Cersei’s selfishness and hunger for power, or Clegane’s brutality. Rape is also a reflection of the oppressive patriarchy that is present in the Westeros society. Despite graphic depictions of rape within the novels, the author makes no effort to show how the victims of rape overcome their trauma, except in the case of Cersei.

Bibliography:

Butler, Judith, (2006) History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, University of Pennsylvania Press

Carroll, S. (2018) “Frontmatter”, in Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Boydell & Brewer

Fraser, Courtney, (2015) ‘from “ladies first” to “asking for it”: benevolent sexism in the maintenance of rape culture’ in California Law Review vol. 103 no. PP. 141-203.

Kandiyoti, Deniz, (1988) ‘Bargaining with patriarchy’, in Gender and Society, Vol. 2, No. 3, Richmond College UK

Martin, George R.R. (1988) Clash of Kings, Voyager Books, Glasgow

Martin, George R.R. (2005) Feast for Crows, Voyager Books, Glasgow

Young, Joseph, (2017) Enough about whores: sexual characterisation in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mythlore Spring/Summer vol. 35 no. 2 PP. 45-61.  

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Mary Hamilton: A Woman Wronged

By Kirsten Blackham


This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

‘Word is to the kitchen gone

And word is to the hall

And word is up to madam the queen

And that is the worst of all

That Mary Hamilton’s born a babe

To the highest Stuart of all’

(Baez, 1960)

Mary Hamilton is possibly one of the most well-known and prolific folk ballads of all time. This ballad has been interpreted and sung for more than 400 years and survives to this day. In an era when reproductive rights, consent, and social judgment are at the forefront of governmental change and legislation, this ballad holds unprecedented significance. It is evidence that these issues have been a point of social distress and discussion for hundreds of years.

The ballad itself is the result of ‘group authorship’ – stories that have been told and amended over a large period of time (Tolman, 1927). Ballads and other folk music spread in a similar manner to gossip, and this seems to be particularly relevant to Mary Hamilton (Coffin, 1957). Though altered over time, the song’s emotional core remains; a woman is coerced by a man, often the king, and as a result becomes pregnant. She kills her baby, and hides the evidence of its birth, but not before being discovered by the Queen. As a result she is put to death.

There are two possible real-life sources for Mary Hamilton (Long, 1973). The first source originates from the 16th century, occurring in the court of Mary Stuart, and is mentioned in John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. In Knox’s account, a maid became pregnant and disposed of the baby with the aid of her purported lover, the Apothecary. Both were hanged in Edinburgh for their crimes (Knox, 2017). The second source comes from 18th century Russia. This is where the last name Hamilton comes in. Mary Hamilton was a Lady in Waiting to the Empress Catherine (Long, 1973). Her story is strikingly similar to Mary Stuart’s unnamed maid, with the notable exception that Mary Hamilton alone was put to death. She bore the legal weight of the infanticide, and her partner was not held responsible. All surviving versions of this ballad contain elements from both women’s stories.


Mary, Queen of Scots by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

This begs the question: why does this ballad survive? What is so important about the tale of Mary Hamilton that it has survived for so long? The answer may be found in the content of each version.

There are at least 28 different recorded variations of the ballad, most of which were preserved by James Francis Child in his collection English and Scottish Ballads. However, ballads are meant to be continually sung and reinterpreted by each reciter, and therefore the actual number of ballad variations is unknown. That does not mean, however, that each version is inconsistent with one another. There are a few key points of the ballad that appear in almost every variation. These lines which are the most consistent with the ballad over time can tell us how people felt and continue to feel about her fate.

The first and most common, the naming of the four Mary’s, firmly placing the court of Mary Stuart:

‘Yestreen four Maries made Queen Mary’s bed,

This nicht there’ll be but three,

A Mary Beaton, a Mary Seaton,

A Mary Carmichael, and me.’

(Child Ballad: 173k.8)

This line is essential to the ballad and it appears in almost every single version. Though it is certain that none of the famous four Mary’s who served Mary Queen of Scots were killed for terminating a pregnancy or infanticide, this line is essential to both period and location placement and is an added embellishment that enforces the sense of betrayal later in the tale when Mary Hamilton is put to death.

The next line outlines Mary’s sense of worth as she approaches her death through a choice of clothing.

‘I winna put on my robes o black,

Nor yet my robes o brown;

But I’ll put on my robes o white,

To shine through Edinbro town.’

(Child Ballad: 173A.7)

Mary, instead of choosing brown clothes to indicate a desire to blend in as she rides to her judgment, or black a symbol of mourning, chooses to wear white, a color that represented purity, and may have been quite expensive. This may indicate that the interpreter felt that Mary was, if not innocent, then at least not afraid of her judgment, and wanted to stick out from the queen’s retinue as they rode through the city.

The next line is intriguing, particularly as it relates to the public sentiment towards Mary, and it echoes how the audience should feel about her while listening to the ballad:

When she cam down the Cannogate,

The Cannogate sae free,

Many a ladie lookd oer her window,

Weeping for this ladie.

(Child Ballad: 173A.11)

This line is arguably one of the most important to the ballad when looking at gender, and in particular, women of the past. Though abortion and infanticide were both punishable by death at this time, and throughout most of the lifetime of the ballad, women mourned for Mary. Mary responds to them in the ballad by saying they should not weep for her because she took responsibility for the action of killing her baby (Child, 2010) However, that did not prevent them from weeping for her, nor does it prevent the audience from sympathizing with her. The interpreter further emphasizes the need to sympathize with Mary with the next line:

‘Oh little did my mother think,

The day she cradled me,

What lands I was to travel through,

What death I was to dee.’

(Child Ballad 173A.15)

Invoking the image of her mother cradling her as a child reminds the audience that Mary too was someone’s child, and that her parents could not have known what misfortunes would befall her in the future.

The final line focuses on Mary’s betrayal:

‘Last night I washd the queen’s feet,

And gently laid her down;

And a’ the thanks I’ve gotten the nicht

To be hangd in Edinbro town!’

(Child Ballad: 173A.17)

Mary feels wronged and claims that the only reward she received for her service to the queen was death. It also implies the interpreters felt that Mary had no control over what happened to her. Whether her pregnancy was the result of coercion and rape or of a whirlwind romance from a man at court, she should not have been put to death by the queen.  


Video accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCnP9E4lUzo on 18/02/2021

There could be many reasons for the long life of this ballad. It could have survived because it was a piece of salacious court gossip, or used as a cautionary tale. However, the most probable reason for its survival, considering the tone set by these lines, is that the story of Mary Hamilton is relatable.  Mary Hamilton would not have had access to birth control, and even if she had chosen to keep the baby, she would most likely have lost her position and been banished from court, a fate that may have sentenced her to death in itself. It is unlikely that she would have received support from her partner, and she almost certainly would have been forever labeled for having a child out of wedlock. To this day, people still face the pressure of these circumstances. The legalization of abortion is not even across the board in all or even most countries, and even where it is legal, there is a distinct social stigma attached to it. This ballad represents a social issue, even a trauma that we feel to this day

Bibliography

Baez, Joan, Mary Hamilton (Vanguard, 1960)

Brickdale, Eleanor Fortesque, “The Queen’s Marie” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eleanor_Fortesque_Brickdale’s_Golden_book_of_famous_women_(1919)_-_The_Queen’s_Marie.jpg>

Child, Francis James, English and Scottish Ballads Volume 2 (Rarebooksclub.com, 2012)

Coffin, Tristram P., “‘Mary Hamilton’ and the Anglo-American Ballad as an Art Form,” The Journal of American Folklore , 70.277 (1957), 208–14

Eyre-Todd, George, Scottish Ballad Poetry (Volume 3) (General Books, 2012)

John1948SevenB, “Joan Baez – Mary Hamilton (BBC Television Theatre, London – June 5, 1965)” (Youtube, 2015) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCnP9E4lUzo>

Knox, John, History of the Reformation in Scotland; Volume 2 (Andesite Press, 2017)

Long, Eleanor R., “Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology,” Western Folklore, 32.4 (1973), 225

Preston, Cathy Lynn, “The Way Stylized Language Means: Pattern Matching in the Child Ballads,” Computers and the Humanities, 23.4–5 (1989), 323–32

Tolman, Albert H., “Mary Hamilton; The Group Authorship of Ballads,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 42.2 (1927), 422–32 Uknown, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1560-1592 <https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw04272/Mary-Queen-of-Scots>

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