‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, ‘Game of Thrones’, and Arianne Martell: How Arianne’s Absence Explains Why The Story Needs Her

Now. I showed up to the whole A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones thing about ten years late. That may make me unqualified to talk much about it. But earlier this year, I read all the books and watched all eight seasons in the span of, like, three weeks, which has the benefit of leaving everything very clear in my mind. So I really want to talk a bit about how huge of an impact Arianne has, even though she didn’t show up until the fourth book.

From what I understand, there was a huge outcry over Arianne’s absence from the show. As there should have been – she’s fantastic. And the irony in excluding not only the character whose greatest fear was that her father intended to disinherit her in favour of her brother but said brother as well, only to make the sibling that has the greatest place in the narrative the youngest one, whose only contribution in the books that have been released so far has been to play board games with his fiancée and cry one time…well, it’s painful. But excluding her had ripple effects throughout the entire plot, even well after the show wrapped up their version of the Dornish storyline.

The problem with excluding her goes beyond just Arianne, of course – equal primogeniture isn’t just a world building detail included for the sake of the plot, it’s the beating heart of the Dornish narrative, just as much as Arianne herself is. The House Martell of the days in which the main story takes place was cofounded by a woman, with her name passed down to her descendents. It was a woman that ruled Dorne when they resisted Aegon’s Conquest. It was a woman who arranged her daughter’s marriage to the future King of the Seven Kingdoms. From the cofounder of House Nymeros Martell all the way down to Arianne, nearly all of the most important, in a historical sense, members of this family – and nation state –  are women. Game of Thrones completely disregarded all of that.

The show did more than just remove Arianne. It entirely gutted Dornish culture by changing references to Oberyn, Doran, and Elia’s mother – the ruling princess of Dorne in her own right – to being about their father. It made Doran’s heir a son, rather than a daughter. In the final season, they had the new ruler of Dorne be some random man. There was no reason to do any of those things – hell, there was less than no reason. Because the women in the Dornish story matter. The Unnamed Princess of Dorne is important. As a political player she was enormously effective! Tywin Lannister’s victories were a result of brutality – the Reynes and Tarbecks, Elia and her children. The Princess of Dorne’s were a result of politics, not war crimes. All of this is a major part of the political state of Westeros at the start of the series.

So why does this matter and how is it relevant to Arianne and the rest of the story? It matters because of what the story is missing without her: without Arianne, the story doesn’t have a woman that is her father’s heir at the same time as she lives in a sexist world. It doesn’t have someone who has a functional relationship with a parent, not because that parent did everything perfectly, but because they both worked to fix it and start being honest each other. It just doesn’t have the adult woman that’s an unambiguously good person taking on a leadership role.

The age changes and casting of older actors obfuscate the issue. But in the books, there are clear distinctions between the adults and the children. Sure, there’s some gradation – the few years between Margaery and Sansa matter, Brienne isn’t a child anymore but she’s still young, and so on – but you can easily categorize the characters into child and adult. And after Catelyn’s death, the two main adult women in the story are Arianne and Cersei (I know Asha probably counts, given that she’s had more chapters than Arianne, whom I’m counting, but still, she bores the hell out of me, so I’m ignoring her for now). What makes that powerful is that they are absolutely two sides of the same coin. Arianne is a better foil for Cersei than any other character could ever be.

Neither of them are fighters in the physical sense. They both crave their father’s approval. They were both extremely close to their fathers as children, only to grow away from them as they grew up. They’re both ambitious and intelligent. But while Cersei wants Tywin’s approval for the sake of Casterly Rock and her inheritance as his eldest chlid, Arianne wants Dorne largely because it’s representative of Doran’s love. Tywin had a “secret smile” for Cersei when she was a child, and Doran has one for Arianne when she’s an adult. Cersei never repaired her relationship with Tywin, while Arianne did with Doran. Hell, even their respective relationship with two of Cersei’s children demonstrates their differences – Tommen is afraid of Cersei, but Myrcella adores Arianne. These are characters whose stories parallel each other with the arguably primary difference being…Arianne doesn’t alienate everyone around her by being a dick.

The show doesn’t have that character that can balance Cersei. Not after Catelyn’s death. And because of that, there’s no one to drive home the idea that as understandable as Cersei’s misanthropy is from  a woman in a patriarchal society, it’s not excusable. Arianne is in a similar position, but manages to still care about other people. She demonstrates better than any other character that none of Cersei’s character traits are inherently wrong. She also uses sex to manipulate, but with much better goals and not without getting emotionally invested in return. She has just as much ambition and determination to prove herself, but she believes firmly that there are lines that she should not cross – she wants to be a good ruler, not just a ruler. Cersei claims, both to other people and to herself, that it’s about self defence and defence of her children. That’s not entirely a lie. But it’s also demonstrably not the entire truth because of how she refuses to actually return to the Westerlands and do her job as the Lady of Casterly Rock, how she flat out refuses to let Tommen learn the things he needs to learn, how her love for Joffrey came at the expense of her other children in very real ways.

The problem with society’s treatment of women, as the show presents it, is that they don’t have the right to rule. It doesn’t actually show that, though, because even though we don’t see any of the female heads of houses, by season eight, no one actually raises any objections to women as heads of houses. But through erasing Arianne and Dornish equal primogeniture, they erased both the complexity and the precedent for accepting women leaders, which results in that casual acceptance of Sansa, Yara, and the like not actually making much sense. Either there were cultural obstacles that needed to be overcome or there weren’t. But the writers tried to have it both ways, which was incoherent.

The thing is…no one actually cares if women rule as regents. Not really. Whether it be Lysa in charge of the Vale after her husband’s death or how Ned intended for Catelyn to govern at Winterfell in his stead while he was off in King’s Landing until Robb was older, it’s not an unusual position for women to be in. Women do have some degree of political power here. The real issue isn’t that they have no rights. It’s a two fold problem – first of all, it’s about how men are prioritized in terms of inheritance. And secondly, it’s about how the control that women have is usually fragile and unsustainable.

Ned left Cat in charge. But when war broke out, Robb was the one that took command. When Robb drafted his will, he pushed Sansa down in the line of succession in favour of Jon, who had specifically taken an oath not to inherit anything. Even though Cersei is queen regent, Jaime has the power to dispace her and send her back to Casterly Rock, pretty much because he’s a man. And that doesn’t even get into how she became the Lady of Casterly Rock by default – Tywin was dead, Tyrion was on the run after killing him, Jaime was in the Kingsguard. Arianne calls attention to that women’s fragile and unsustanaible power by having her story start off as explicitly about it.

Arianne is in the best possible position for a woman anywhere in Westeros. She’s Dornish and an eldest daughter, meaning she can inherit; she’s the daughter of the ruling prince of Dorne; and she’s beloved by her people. She stands to become one of the most powerful people on the continent. But she’s still a woman in Westeros, and since she’s not stupid and can see how other women are being treated in the world…she is rightfully scared of being cast aside for Quentyn! Getting Dorne isn’t just about a castle and power for her, it’s about safety. Women do not have a lot of options in Westeros. Arianne losing her inheritance means she loses her power. It means she could be pushed into an unwanted marriage. She could end up like Lysa, married to an old man, or Cersei, to an abusive one, and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The character whose story is closest to Arianne’s is Sam, what with his father passing over him in favour of his younger brother. And because he’s male, there are clear differences. Sam could go to the Night’s Watch. If he really wanted to, he could have fled and gone anywhere else, while remaining reasonably safe by virtue of being a man. Arianne could…what, join the Faith? Her options are a lot more limited.

Arianne being Dornish puts her in a better position than anyone else. With just about everywhere else, even if a woman is her father’s heir, she only rules in her own name if she’s not married. Otherwise, her husband is in control of her lands. That was the reason Robb passed over Sansa in the line of succession, after all – he didn’t want Tyrion to get Winterfell. The fact that Arianne is Dornish means that that doesn’t hold true for her. Her inheritance is hers. So long as she actually gets it. If she doesn’t, she’s just as trapped as any other woman. As I said before, Dorne represents to Arianne her father’s love. That’s true, and it’s the forefront thought in her mind. But there are practical reasons for that fear as well.

Arianne very much does have the skillset required to govern. She dismisses her purview as “feasts and frolics”, and longs to be responsible for taxes, hearing out petitioners, but her perception of that is largely a confirmation bias. The letter Doran wrote – which he almost certainly never sent, but that’s a different story – made her view everything as evidence that her father didn’t love her and wanted to circumvent her to make Quentyn heir. But organizing feasts and coordinating visitors is no small task. It requires a lot of work and planning, as well as knowledge of all the guests. It’s not a bad use of Arianne’s strengths, but she can’t see that because she’s too worried that it means she’s being cast aside.

She’s not one of one to think too highly of herself and her abilities. If anything, Arianne has a tendency to downplay her own skills. She doesn’t seem to realize how valuable her ability to convince is. Myrcella will do pretty much anything she asks. She got Cedra on her side while literally imprisoned in a tower using nothing but words. She managed to calm down an angry Obara that had just stormed out of a feast. These aren’t small feats, they’re big – the second didn’t pan out for her, but the first and last? Those are what salvaged Doran’s plan and stopped him from crashing and burning. From the moment he told her the truth, Arianne and Doran became a team. And unlike Robb with Catelyn or Tywin with Cersei,  Doran knows damn well how to use his daughter’s strengths.

She’s patient, she’s loving, she is remarkably talented at convincing people to follow her. She is capable of more than she realizes, and she demonstrates better than any other character the power of women and the skills a good leader has. It’s not Dany. It’s not Sansa. It’s not Cersei. It’s Arianne with the collection of traits, learned and innate both, that would make her an amazing ruler. She has the experience with organization, what with her work in event planning. She’s spectacular at making friends and is beloved by the Dornish. She understands people and knows how they think. She’s patient enough to wait for more information before acting. She knows intuitively when she should make decisions and when she should defer to people with greater expertise in the subject area. Erasing her, and the competence of her Sand Snake cousins, is harmful.

Not only does Arianne herself provide the example of a woman ruling in her own right, her entire story revolves around women in power. She wants to lay the groundwork for people accepting a woman on the Iron Throne by championing Myrcella’s claim. Tyene gave her the idea for that in the first place. Her cousin Nymeria is going to represent Dornish interests in King’s Landing by claiming their council seat. And to top it all off, Arianne will represent Dorne by going to parlay with Aegon herself. The show cut all of that. And what does that do? Well…it brushes aside the hows of the matter, ignoring all the ways in which characters would have to fight and plan to get what they need and want. It’s like what they did with Sansa and the Vale. In the show, she didn’t make friends or anything, the only reason she could get their army to ride to her defence was that Littlefinger was obsessed with her! It’s a cop out written by people that value military power more than diplomacy.

Women in power is an actual theme in the story, not just something tangential. But the show doesn’t explore that in any depth. It cut out mostly everything about Maege Mormont, including her elder daughters. It ignored the fact that Brienne is her father’s only heir and the implications of that in terms of marriage. It disregarded how Jaime and Kevan both planned to set Cersei aside and had every reason to believe it was possible because they were men. All these are different facets of the same issue of the role of women in politics that’s anchored by Arianne, whose story is specifically and explicitly about institutional sexism. And it leaves all these moments that the Game of Thrones writers seemed to want to mean something feeling very hollow.

Brienne as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard was supposed to be a triumphant moment. Most of the criticism I’ve seen towards it has been about how it would have been more satisfying for her to be on Sansa’s Queensguard, but I think that also misses the point – either way, she’s committed to a life as a glorified bodyguard rather than taking on her own leadership role. There’s no character growth there. Sure, she was knighted and had her value acknowledged, but she’s still pledging her life for other people’s as from the moment we met her. She never had to face the same kind of challenges she did in the books, so she ended the story with the same beliefs as she started it with.

For Benioff and Weiss, no one mattered except the lead characters, and that leaves a much flatter story – the Dornish characters’ actual goals don’t matter, just how they can be vilified or turned into Dany’s sidekicks. Brienne’s conflicted feelings on what she wants out of life and longing for love don’t matter, she’s just there to support the Starks, even though the only Stark with whom she had more than a one sided relationship where she contributed for nothing in return was Catelyn. She had no relationship at all with Bran. Her relationship with Sansa was basically just one between an employer and an employee. So after Catelyn, the show’s dynamic between a sworn shield and the person they swore to protect became just…servitude. Nothing complicated or two sided. Which is again, something Arianne could contribute to expressing beautifully, because of how much more nuanced her relationship is with her sworn shield.

Daemon loves her. He’s sworn to protect her. But he also has his own shit going on, his own sense of right and wrong, and he is not a blind sidekick. His life is about more than just slavish devotion and pining. He’s allowed to have wants and needs of his own, which show Brienne is really never afforded. And he challenges Arianne, tells her things she doesn’t want to think about, has close relationships with her cousins – it’s not quite that their relationship is one of equals, because that’s overly simplistic, but they’re on the same level. She trusts him. She neither wants nor expects a voiceless protector, she wants an advisor, and that’s what he is.

So why is Arianne’s relationship with Daemon important to lending insight to Brienne’s position, you ask? Why not just actually express some more complexity in Brienne’s arc without it? Well…because she shares similariites with them both while also being in a very different position than either of them. Let’s start with Daemon. Daemon was very close to Oberyn, and is still close to Oberyn’s daughters. House Martell is extremely important to him, even outside of his relationship with Arianne. And he’s a bastard born to a father with trueborn children. So him swearing his sword to his princess…well, it makes a lot of sense for a man who has clearly been shown to make his own decisions. It’s an extremely respected vocation for someone that won’t inherit; it means that he has the ear of the most powerful people in his homeland; and it lets him be close to the woman he loves. Brienne, though, she’s her father’s heir. She has her own responsibilities that she will, at some point, have to return to. She swore herself to Renly, she swore herself to Catelyn, she’s practically killing herself trying to fulfil her oaths, and sooner or later, she’ll need to question whether she’s like Daemon or not. Whether being a bodyguard is really what she wants out of life. And if she decides no, the contrast between her and Daemon can make it clear just why that decision makes sense. Which in turn allows for contrasting her with another female heir – Arianne.

If Brienne’s story is in equal parts about womanhood and knighthood, Cersei’s story is about power and motherhood, Sansa and Arya’s stories are about growing up…Arianne’s is about family and choice. And those are themes that are present to a greater or lesser degree everywhere else in the story. And by ignoring how central Arianne is to those themes, we have many of the same events, but no themetic coherence linking them all together in a way that makes sense.

The scene where Cersei argues with Tywin about remarrying is in the show, and that version is phenomenal. I would never deny that. Lena Heady killed it. But it fell so flat compared to the books because of the lack of context – how Tywin considered marrying Cersei to a Greyjoy and shipping her off to the Iron Islands. How Brienne’s third betrothal was to a man thrice her age who told her outright he intended to beat her. How Lysa underwent a forced abortion and was married off to an old man. How one of the things Arianne takes as evidence of her father’s lack of love for her is the insulting suitors she’s offered – old men without teeth – and the way Doran actively refused offers from younger men. Arianne’s story is extremely explicit about all of this and why it matters! In the eyes of teenage Arianne, not only does Doran not want her to succeed him, he doesn’t want her to marry anyone powerful or important – refused to let her meet Edmure Tully and Willas Tyrell – or even that loves her – refused Daemon Sand her hand. She becomes the connective tissue between all these women facing marriages they don’t want. It’s not just cruel women or ugly women or weird women; it’s not just a consequence of a time of war. It’s misogyny, plain and simple.

An argument that I remember seeing for years before I started reading the books or watching the show was about who has it “worse”, feminine women or masculine women, especially through the lens of Sansa and Arya. And that’s just so reductive. It’s the gross argument that there’s a way for women to win, that misogyny only applies to some women, that others have it easier. That’s not true at all! And it relies on viewing “masculine” and “feminine” as two diametrically opposed things. In this case, I think the obvious non-Arianne example is, again, Brienne.

The show erased a lot about Brienne’s character, and the most important part, I think, is just how much of her story involves love and romance. Her loyalty is incredibly easy to win, to the point where all it takes is the slightest kindness. When it comes to what we know of her past, it’s pretty much all to do with romance – her failed betrothals, how she’d been in love with Renly from pretty much the moment they met, the people in Renly’s camp that courted her for a bet. We don’t know when she first picked up a sword or why. We barely know anything about the kind of man her father was other than what we can infer. But we know about her romantic history, because it’s that important. Even into the present, we see her relationship with a man that wants to marry her for her island and the way Jaime takes over from Renly in her thoughts, we see how her initial swearing herself to Renly had more to do with being in love with him than it did anything else. It’s not possible to remove the romantic element from her story. Her story is every bit as much about womanhood as it is knighthood. Arianne is the other side of that, just as she is the other side of Cersei. Where Brienne’s story revolves around romantic love, Arianne’s is about familial. Yes, she has love interests that matter to her, but they’re not nearly as important as Doran, Quentyn, the Sand Snakes, and that makes her just as important as Brienne in terms of preventing the story from splitting the women into “masculine” and “feminine” categories.

She’s the beautiful woman that wears silk and jewels that’s also very much a believer in dressing practically for whatever the task at hand is, wearing a veil to keep the sand out of her eyes and mouth. She’s not a fighter, but she knows the desert as well as Darkstar, keeps the knife gifted to her by her cousin in her boot, and is a skilled enough horsewoman to be able to vault onto her horse when she’s exhausted after a long day of hard riding. She’s the femme fatale that’s in complete control of that as a role she plays. She’s actively involved in wartime negotiations in a way that no woman has been since Catelyn. She’s both the former teen rebel and the dutiful daughter, loved by bastards and nobles alike. She’s vividly real, and she makes the story so much better through her presence.

In the released books, Arianne has two chapters from her point of view. That’s nothing! That’s fewer than Quentyn! I was talking to a friend pretty soon after I finished reading the books, and our conversation went to House Martell and the different roles the members of the family play in the overall story. It had been several years since she had last read them, and she was shocked to realize that Quentyn had more chapters from his perspective than Arianne. Arianne’s impact is so much that she feels so much bigger than she is. She’s so human that it’s hard to look away.

She’s logical and dutiful, but she often thinks with her heart instead of her head. She’s smart, but still has a lot to learn in terms of carrying out plans in a non-controlled environment. That combination of innate intelligence, knowledge, and experience makes her perspective completely unique in the story. No one, not one person, can fill that void, no matter how many similarities to her they have.

Take Cersei. Cersei isn’t stupid! She’s not. But she is kind of inept. She doesn’t pursue knowledge. She doesn’t try to learn more. She makes dumb decision after dumb decision because she acts without thinking; she doesn’t actually learn when they blow up in her face; and she doesn’t at all understand why, beyond run of the mill misogyny and her conviction that she’s smarter than everyone, people would prefer to have Tywin or Jaime in charge. That’s very different from how Arianne watches and waits and gathers information for as long as she possibly can before she does anything, how she’s politically savvy enough to understand why Lord Yronwood would prefer Quentyn as Prince of Dorne to her and wrap that into her understanding of the situation. Yes, Arianne reached the wrong conclusion. But it was a very understandable conclusion to draw from the information that she had. And because Arianne is the type of person taht’s actually capable of learning from her mistakes, experience is helping her make better decisions and better conclusions. She and Cersei are both smart, ambitious women with issues with their fathers, but Cersei could never make her redundant. That same thing holds true for every other character.

People are always talking about how smart Tyrion is, right? But the issue there is…he thinks he’s smarter than he is. He is incapable of keeping his mouth shut when it would be the smart choice. He has to have people know how smart he is. Arianne’s intelligence doesn’t stem from a classroom. It comes from observing and experiencing, erring and fixing it. What she does is provide insight on just about every other female character in the story. She adds depth to the narrative and fills in the gaps so that the themes are fully articulated, rather than just disconnected pieces of a motif. She’s who many of the younger women could one day grow up to be. She has Sansa’s femininity and compassion, demonstrating what an adult Sansa could be like. She has Arya’s frustrations with a father that doesn’t give her the same freedoms she knows other people have. She has Cersei’s ambition, but more kindness.

The show felt hollow at many points for many, many reasons. One of those reasons was the lack of Arianne Martell. She unapologetically takes up space. She doesn’t ever try to shift blame onto other people. She’s harder on herself than anyone else could ever be. And she forces everyone else to face the fact that she matters, that people from other houses and other parts of the continent are important. It’s not just the Starks, Targaryens, and Lannisters that are important; it’s not just characters that have been around since the first book. The themes that are supposedly expressed fall flat without her.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s