TW: sexism, transphobia, sexual violence, rape
“Beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time.”- Eddard Stark (AGOT, Arya II)
Almost from the first moment we hear of Lyanna Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire there’s an air of tragedy surrounding her, in fact the very first time she’s mentioned by name is when Ned thinks:
Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child-woman of surpassing loveliness. Ned had loved her with all his heart. Robert had loved her even more. She was to have been his bride. (AGOT, Eddard I)
Lyanna is here presented in relation to the men in her life; her brother, and man who she was to marry who both mourn her (albeit in slightly different ways). The next fact about Lyanna’s life that the reader learns is that she was apparently kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen, and that this somehow led to her death. ASOIAF fans have for a long time doubted just how true this story is, a point I’ll return to later in this essay. But nevertheless, Lyanna is at first defined by her relationship to these three men in her life, Ned, Robert, and Rhaegar. The reader does eventually learn a bit more about her, such as that she would have liked to carry a sword, and that she wasn’t very pleased about being betrothed to Robert. And, of course, many fans speculate that she was the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree that appeared at the Tourney at Harrenhal to defend Howland Reed. From all accounts, Lyanna was definitely a bit wild and did not wish to conform to the expectations put upon her by society. As Ned noted in the quote that I started this essay with, he saw Lyanna as being beautiful, willful, and dead before her time. Ned here seems to attribute her death to her wilfulness, which is an interesting interpretation. In this essay I want to look a bit deeper into this wilfulness, and the ways Lyanna didn’t conform to societal expectations. I specifically want to look at her (probable) presenting as The Knight of the Laughing Tree, and what consequences this, and her gender nonconformity in general had for her.
Fandom theory background
Now, I first want to note that it’s of course not completely canon that Lyanna was The Knight of the Laughing Tree, but for the purposes of this essay I will assume that is the case. Many other writers and content creators have laid out the evidence for why that could be the case, and why it would explain a lot of the circumstances surrounding the Tourney at Harrenhal and its aftermath, so a lot of my analysis is inspired by their work. I’m especially inspired by the work made by Lady Lady Gwynhyfvar who have suggested that the reason Rhaegar ran off with Lyanna was to protect her from king Aerys, who might have found out that Lyanna was The Knight of the Laughing Tree (Lady Gwynhyfvar 2014). This is also an interpretation supported by The Learned Hands podcast in their episode about Rhaegar’s possible sentencing to Horny Jail (where I had the opportunity to play Howland Reed), where they argue that this could possibly be a mitigating circumstance in Rhaegar’s absconding with Lyanna (Learned Hands 2021a). Essentially, what both Lady Gwynhyfvar and Learned Hands argue is that Aerys, who was known to be paranoid and unstable at the time, would pose a real threat to Lyanna if he realised that she was The Knight of the Laughing Tree. As The World of Ice and Fire points out:
King Aerys II was not a man to take any joy in mysteries, however. His Grace became convinced that the tree on the mystery knight’s shield was laughing at him […] he commanded his own knights to defeat the Knight of the Laughing Tree when the jousts resumed the next morning, so that he might be unmasked and his perfidy exposed for all to see. But the mystery knight vanished during the night, never to be seen again. This too the king took ill, certain that someone close to him had given warning to “this traitor who will not show his face.”
(The World of Ice and Fire- The Targaryen Kings: Aerys II)
As many others have noted, Aerys also ordered Rhaegar to go find The Knight of the Laughing Tree (as told to us by Meera when she relates the story to Bran), and many fans assume that he did find her and that’s why he decided to honour her by naming her Queen of Love and Beauty. This decision also made Aerys suspicious, as Lady Gwynhyfvar also notes. If Aerys later found out, or figured out, that Lyanna was The Knight of the Laughing Tree, it would make sense if he sent soldiers after her, and Rhaegar felt the need to intervene. Or, so goes the theory at least. Other people, such as Learned Hands have also speculated on additional motives on both Rhaegar and Lyanna’s parts, such as Rhaegar being driven by prophesy and Lyanna being driven by a wish to be free from the life her family had planned for her. Or that both of them were driven by lust and romance. But before I look deeper into this, and analyse the circumstance further, I want to look at some scholarly work that I think is relevant to the topic.
Scholarly theory background
I’ve written a lot previously on gender nonconformity in ASOIAF, such as my three Brienne essays, my Alleras/Sarella essay, and Aemy Blackfyre’s and mine essay on Lysano Maar. One of the points I’ve argued there is that even if we can’t completely apply contemporary understandings of gender on ASOIAF, we can do so to a certain degree. This is for three reasons: that the way sex/gender is understood in ASOIAF is more similar to a contemporary understanding of the concepts than a medieval one, that GRRM in general seems to want to examine contemporary issues through a medievalish lens, and that many contemporary theories on gender nonconformity can be applied to older times (I’ll get back to this). I’ve discussed those first two points more extensively here and here if anyone is interested, so I won’t go further into that here. But I do want to discuss how we can analyse gender and gender nonconformity in a historical perspective a bit.
Firstly, people who have transgressed societal boundaries of sex and gender have always existed, as trans activist Leslie Feinberg noted in hir ground-breaking book Transgender warriors (1996). These people have obviously used different words to describe their experiences, depending on what language was available to them, but they have nevertheless existed. Just take a figure like Joan of Arc, who might today have identified as a trans man, as maybe as non-binary, or maybe as a woman but one who enjoyed cross-dressing. As Feinberg writes about Joan: “If society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?” (1996, 31) Trans historian Sølve M. Holm writes this when discussing how to analyse historical narratives of transness and/or gender nonconformity:
I regard (auto)biographical accounts as containing traces of events, bodies, feelings, actions, relationships, institutions, politics, and much more that existed in this period and made specific kinds of impressions on individuals, in relation to which they have acted. However, I do not regard any account as an unmediated representation of, or truthful testimony to, any of these phenomena. Rather, I perceive all accounts as articulations that are dependent on the concepts and narrative models available to the narrator and on the general socio-historical and specific local and temporal situation of their narration, including the narrator’s specific relation to the receiver(s) of the account and the conscious and unconscious intentions, hopes, and fears related to the telling. (2017, 70)
As Holm writes here, they see historical accounts left about gender nonconforming people as traces of the experiences these individuals had, but not necessarily as completely accurate representations of the true events. This, I think, is a fruitful way of approaching looking at gender nonconformity both in real life history and fictional history. As the reader, we don’t always know how the person/character themselves perceive their gender and gender expression, but we see the effects of their behaviour. We can read the accounts told by others of their behaviour, and we can infer a lot based on the reactions of others. If someone acts in a way that others see as inappropriate based on their sex/gender, that can often be seen in their reactions to this behaviour.
Besides this, I also want to note a few more theoretical perspectives that I think can be relevant to understanding Lyanna Stark’s story. The first such is the concepts of straight lines and life lines. As for instance researcher Anna Siverskog notes, society generally assumes that a person will follow certain paths through life, and these expectations are furthermore generally based in heteronormativity. That is to say, a person born with a vagina is expected to identify as a woman, be attracted to men, and behave like a woman should in general. This should include, for instance, dressing feminine, wanting to pursue relationships with men (but not sleeping around), and eventually settle down with a man, marry, and have children. People who do not follow this expected path in some way are seen as queer to different degrees. When it comes to sexuality, Siverskog notes that people are expected to follow the straight line of heterosexuality, and so to say ‘fall in line’ because:
[H]eterosexuality is something that is expected in the family, through insistence that children should repay their debt (life) through life. The pressure to reproduce (family heritage) often happens through language about love, happiness, and care which pushes one to follow certain lines. To refuse to follow the line is to be seen as ungrateful, a source of sorrow for the family. (Siverskog 2016, 48) [my translation from Swedish]
Siverskog goes on to describe how people who do not follow these straight lines through life, either in regards to sexuality or gender, often are punished by society in different ways. This can include everything from discrimination and (fear of) harassment to loneliness and isolation. This is, of course, also something several other researchers have written loads about. What I want to focus primarily on here is violence toward gender nonconforming people. As for instance researcher Thalia Mae Bettcher notes, it is sadly very common that violence toward trans and gender nonconforming people is explained by the perpetrators by saying that the victim were deceiving them in some way by not dressing/behaving as the gender they were assigned at birth. As Bettcher writes:
Fundamental to transphobic representations of transpeople [sic] as deceivers is an appearance-reality contrast between gender presentation and sexed body. For example, an MTF who is taken to misalign gender presentation with the sexed body can be regarded as “really a boy,” appearances notwithstanding. Here, we see identity enforcement embedded within a context of possible deception, revelation, and disclosure. In this framework, gender presentation (attire, in particular) constitutes a gendered appearance, whereas the sexed body constitutes the hidden, sexual reality. (2007, 48)
So, by not revealing their trans status, a trans person might risk violence by someone who feel as if the trans person is deceiving them (even if this is obviously not the case, the trans person is just living their life). But, as Bettcher also notes, revealing their trans status might also lead to violence or other negative consequences. No matter what you do, people might decide to punish you very violently for being gender nonconforming. Researcher Jack/Judith Halberstam makes a similar point, when writing about the rape and murder of Brandon Teena, ostensibly for being trans. Halberstam notes that, in the eyes of society “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality” (2005, 66). That, according to Halberstam, is why two ‘friends’ of Brandon Teena felt compelled to rape and murder him for not conforming to gender norms. As Halberstam puts it: “The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied.” (ibid) So to sum up, if one deviates from one’s expected path through life, the consequences can be absolutely horrible. On that sad note, lets return to our wilful wolf, Lyanna Stark.
As Ned noted, Lyanna was known for being wilful and not necessarily following the rules. It should, by the way, be noted that the word “wilful” is much more commonly attributed to girls than boys (who are more likely to be called “strong willed”), especially girls who won’t fall in line (Ahmed 2017, 68). So, it’s rather appropriate in a way that Lyanna is described this way, since she seemingly did not want to follow the path set out for her. We see from Bran’s weirwood visions that she would practice sword fighting as a child, even if she apparently wasn’t allowed. But this is truly only the precursor to her deciding to take on the persona of The Knight of the Laughing Tree.
Now, Lyanna probably had several motives for doing this, including wanting to stand up for Howland Reed after he had been attacked by several knights’ squires. Another motive was probably simply that she liked fighting and horseback riding and that she was a bit of a wild wolf. Perhaps she also relished breaking free of the gendered expectations put upon her, if only for a little while. Regardless of her exact motives, the result can be seen as a form of cross-gender expression, similarly to what Leslie Feinberg wrote about Joan of Arc. If we assume that Lady Gwynhyfvar is correct in her assertion that Lyanna was discovered by Rhaegar and later Aerys, this might make us look upon the situation slightly differently. As I noted above, in our real-world gender nonconforming people (including trans people) might face violence for being seen as “deceivers”. In ASOIAF, we have a similar example in the story of Danny Flint who dressed as a man and joined the Nights Watch and was later raped and murdered after their “brothers” discovered what they saw as Danny’s true sex. Now, I’m not saying Lyanna is trans. We have no information about how she saw her gender herself. But I think her dressing as The Knight of the Laughing Tree had similar consequences to what trans people might face and could’ve ended similarly to the story of Danny Flint. There is plenty of evidence that Aerys was violently sexist, besides just being violent in general. We can see that in his treatment of his wife, but for instance also in how he treated Lady Serala Darklyn after the Defiance of Duskendale. While Aerys ordered the death of all of the Darklyns, it’s noted in The World of Ice and Fire that he specifically ordered that Lady Serala’s tongue and genitals were torn out before she was burned alive. Rhaegar would be aware of this and might very well fear that Aerys would react extremely violently upon finding out that Lyanna had been The Knight of the Laughing Tree. Afterall, Aerys had already deemed the mystery knight a traitor at the tourney, and that was before he found out that it had been a woman. It seems very likely that he would be extremely enraged if he found out the truth and would see Lyanna as a deceiving traitor who had to be punished.
So, assuming this was the case and Rhaegar decided to try to rescue Lyanna, and that this led to the alleged kidnapping of Lyanna, I now briefly want to touch on the last part of her life. From what we know, Lyanna and Rhaegar ran off together, maybe got married, and then Lyanna had a child by Rhaegar before dying (presumedly due to the childbirth). Many have speculated on why Lyanna would agree to go off with Rhaegar, if indeed it was a choice. I support the interpretation that Learned Hands put forth in their Rhaegar episode, that it was a mix of not wanting to be with Robert and being in love with Rhaegar, as well as being a bit of a spur of the moment decision due to the threat posed by Aerys. Nevertheless, Lyanna clearly proved to be the wilful young woman that Ned describes by running off with someone who wasn’t her betrothed. She did not follow the path set out for her by her family. Once again, she refused the expectations set down on her. As The Knight of the Laughing Tree she broke gender norms, by running off with Rhaegar she broke norms around respectable sexuality. It’s tragic then to consider how her life ended, as for instance Maester Merry of Learned Hands have noted (2021b). Lyanna spent her whole life running away from all these norms, but in the end she ended up getting trapped by her uterus, literally, and dying. It’s in a way as the story itself punished her for her gender deviance and, as Halberstam might put it, corrected it through the enforcement of heterosexuality.
Lyanna Stark’s story is a sad one in many ways. We first hear of her as she’s being mourned by two of the men in her life, and throughout the story she’s almost always referred to in relation to one man or another. Yet she tried to be her own woman, making her own path through life. She learnt how to fight, she jousted, and seemingly she ran off with the man she wanted. Yet, as many gender nonconforming people she met resistance. I’ve argued here that one of the reasons why she had to run off with Rhaegar in the first place was that Aerys would react very violently if he found out about her actions. Not just because Aerys was paranoid and violent in general, but especially because Lyanna transgressed the accepted boundaries for sex and gender in Westeros.
Lyanna spent her life transgressing boundaries, deviating from the path set out for her by her family. But in the end, what killed her was just the sort of thing she had tried to outrun. It’s almost as if the world couldn’t quite let her get away from the heterosexual narrative. Her gender deviation had to be corrected through heterosexuality and motherhood, even if it cost her life. It’s tragic.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Bettcher, Thalia Mae. 2007. “Evil Decievers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia, 22(3): 43-65.
Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.
Halberstam, J. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place. New York: New York University Press.
Holm, Sølve M. 2017. Fleshing out the self: Reimagining intersexed and trans embodied lives through (auto)biographical accounts of the past. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.
Lady Gwynhyfvar. 2014. “Rescue at the Crossroads.” November 6, 2014. https://ladygwynhyfvar.com/2014/11/06/rescue-at-the-crossroads/
Learned Hands. 2021a. “Episode 15: ‘The Horny Trial of Rhaegar Targaryen’.” January 21, 2021. https://www.stitcher.com/show/learned-hands-the-official-podcast-of-the-westerosi-bar-association/episode/episode-15-the-horny-trial-of-rhaegar-targaryen-80997050
Learned Hands. 2021b. “Episode 15.5: BONUS Horny Jail Livestream Audio.” January 30, 2021. https://www.stitcher.com/show/learned-hands-the-official-podcast-of-the-westerosi-bar-association/episode/episode-15-5-bonus-horny-jail-livestream-audio-81239893
Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Game of Thrones. London: Harper Voyager.
Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Storm of Swords. London: Harper Voyager.
Martin, George, Linda Antonsson & Elio García. 2014. The World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bentam Books.
Siverskog, Anna. 2016. Queera livslopp- Att leva och åldras som lhbtq-person i en heteronormativ värld. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.
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