The True Fate of Arya in “A Song of Ice and Fire” vs. “Game of Thrones”
**Warning — Possible Spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire*** As we revisit Game of Thrones final season one more time with the release of the season and series on Blue Ray this month, I have some sad news to convey. News of such import and impact the showrunners of Game of Thrones, the television adaptation, didn’t want to convey it themselves. So they hinted at it, while backing away from one of George R.R. Martin’s actual plot points.
Are you ready? Brace yourself.
Arya Stark is Dead.
Likely killed by Daenerys incidentally as Daenerys wrecked King’s Landing — or perhaps directly.
Behold A Pale Horse
Although she lives on in the TV series into the final episode after the destruction of King’s Landing, our first hint she does not live in the books comes at the end of The Bells, Episode Five. Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss wrote the episode themselves, and perhaps could not bear to “kill” her.
Instead, we’re treated to the incongruous and jarring appearance of a white horse. Arya, merely knocked unconscious, awakens, sees the horse, mounts it, and rides off.
It’s Biblical, actually. King James Version, Book of Revelation, Chapter Six, Verse Eight: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…”
Metaphorically, as Arya rides off on that pale horse, she is dead. Or she Becomes Death.
In the Game of Thrones universe, “what is dead may never die…” A worse fate may actually await her at George R.R. Martin’s hands. The Bible verse goes on to say, “… and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
Yikes. Could that mean Arya will be transformed into one of The Others? I don’t think we can go that far in our speculation. In the episodes written by Benioff and Weiss without textual support (the stuff beyond the books), they handled metaphors rather bluntly — such subtlety may be reading way too much into it. But I do think this general reading of it — a signal that Arya is dead — is justified, and confirmed in the final episode.
The confirmation in the final episode, The Iron Throne, comes as we see Arya sailing off into the unknown West at episode’s end. This time, the reference is (of course) to the Bible of Fantasy books, The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (ever notice those middle initials? Hmm…). The allusion was noted by many at the time.
Would George R.R. Martin, noted for using A Song of Ice and Fire to turn fantasy tropes — many created by Tolkien — on their heads, resort to using one of Tolkien’s creations as an ending for Arya? Not Likely. Yet, it does strike me as a metaphor Benioff and Weiss would employ, given their writing style. This is not a slam, nor a sideways critique for ham-handedness, as they obviously strive for relatability to a broad audience. Yet it does indicate that this is likely their creation, and not Martin’s.
Why would they create this? What does it mean? In Tolkien, Frodo sails off to the West, presumably to die, though — notably — Tolkien never states this, though the reactions of Frodo’s companions tell the tale:
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippen, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long gray firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West… But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of The King)
It’s clear from the way the three friends remaining then comfort each other on their way home to the Shire that they know their friend is gone.
Not only is “sailing off into the West” an established Tolkien-inspired metaphorical trope for Death, it’s also a classic Fantasy story’s way of “killing off” its lead character without actually doing so. Though they have commented in a vague way that Arya has gone off to “explore”, it seems far more likely this sailing off was an artistic decision on the part of the showrunners, a signal Arya is gone at series’ end.
The preceding is speculation from deductive reasoning, based on the metaphors and allusions we see in the TV show. The fate reserved for Arya in the books? While she likely dies, based on what we’ve seen, the how, why, where and when of her death remain to be seen. But we can speculate, with less allusion to back us up, more suggestion.
Working back through those, the when is likely during the destruction of King’s Landing, given the appearance of the Pale Horse on the show. The where? Arya gets turned around in the chaos in the streets of King’s Landing during Daenerys’ attack in the TV series. Based on his past plots, one could expect Martin to place Arya in the very square where she saw Ned Stark beheaded, her end in the books given a resonance with her father’s. The why is likely the warning Arya gives her brother John — Daenerys will kill you, you’re a Stark. Daenerys sees her as an enemy.
But the how? Martin is fully capable of killing Arya in collapsing rubble as King’s landing comes crashing down under Daenerys’ attack, giving readers an intimate feeling of the death Daenerys brings to so many. But it could also be Daenerys directly, with or without her dragons, from poisoning Arya, to killing her when Arya attempts to assassinate Daenerys, to accidentally killing her in rubble, to murder with a weapon or with dragon-fire.
My writer’s mind begins to go a little wild with speculation at this point — what if Daenerys destroys King’s Landing hunting Arya? What if the warging ability of the Starks allows them to ride dragons, and Arya steals a dragon, and she and Daenerys have a dragon-battle in the skies above King’s Landing that destroys the city below? What if the Starks can become Others, and Arya rides an ice dragon and attacks Daenerys?
Okay, that last one was a stretch, but it popped into my writer-brain so I shared. But I don’t think Martin would do that to her… at least, not until after she was dead, at the end. Because I believe she dies a sympathetic character.
Why? Arya’s sympathetic death at Daenerys’ hands, however it comes, would add impact and resonance to her warning to John Snow of Daenerys’ true, lethal nature. This might be, albeit in a less direct sense, the most convincing argument for Arya’s death in the books. Seeing his little sister killed by the woman he thought he loved gives John Snow a much more human, believable motivation for killing Daenerys in the end.
It’s not an allusion nor a metaphor provided by the showrunners, but the lack of greater motivation for John suddenly killing Daenerys in the throne room on the TV show perhaps speaks to its absence. For many viewers (who vocally complained about it afterwards), there was a rushed and somewhat artificial quality to John’s motivation for killing Daenerys on the show. Avenging his sister would make his actions, again, a bit more relatable.
And what of the motivations of showrunners Benioff and Weiss? Given the backlash the final season suffered, can you imagine the explosion of fan anger that would have occurred had they killed off such a fan favorite character? They seem to have fallen in love with the Arya character themselves, so saving her was probably not just a calculated effort not to piss off fans. Maybe they couldn’t bring themselves to do it?
Finally, another clue may lie in how the metaphors Benioff and Weiss employed will allow them to gracefully explain how they handled not killing Arya on the show when Martin finally finishes the series (I’m an optimist) and she’s dead. They can explain their motivations and point out that, for those paying attention, they actually did telegraph Arya’s demise, by using the allusions described above, neatly covering their literary butts.
Literary butts? Okay, that’s a metaphor we probably didn’t need. Sorry about that.
So, yes, Arya Stark is dead. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but someone had to break it to you. It struck me first time I saw that white horse — she’s dead. Sure of it then, I share it with you now because time has only deepened my convictions.
If that isn’t something you want to hear? You can comfort yourself that this is all just speculation. I don’t know Martin, nor Benioff, nor Weiss, so there is nothing firsthand here. And who knows? If this gets out, George might get mad and change everything, just because.
We do know Martin’s plans for the final destinies of his characters were shared with Benioff and Weiss. These respectful allusions would have allowed Benioff and Weiss to honor Martin’s chosen fate for Arya while keeping her alive in their version of things. And it will allow them to defend themselves later, if accused by pop culture of wimping out on the story, by pointing to the symbolic way they handled it, for those who could see.
R.I.P. , Arya Stark.
Mike Luoma is a science fiction author, comic book creator, pop culture writer, podcaster and radio host (WBKM.org) from Vermont — more at http://glowinthedarkradio.com. If you enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire and/or Game of Thrones, you might enjoy his take on how Ned Stark’s fate mirrors that of the historical — and notorious — King Richard the Third of England.