Content warnings: transphobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, sexual violence, murder, death generally
In the world of ASOIAF, there are several orders that offer their members a chance to start their lives over, to leave behind family names and past deeds. Perhaps the most prominent of these is The Night’s Watch, where, as The Old Bear puts it:
Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew. (AGOT, Jon VI)(AGOT, JON VI)
But there are other places where one can get a clean slate, such as the Citadel when becoming a maester. And, of course, one can quite literally shed one’s old identity at The House of Black and White. One might therefore ask if characters in the story could use these opportunities of shedding their identities to also make gender-related transitions. I have previously written about how the character Alleras might not just be presenting as male at the Citadel to gain entry, but also because they feel like this more closely reflect their gender identity. In this essay, I want to explore that further, as well as the potential other institutions like the Night’s Watch and the House of Black and White have for transitions. I will do this specifically through characters who have a somewhat liminal gender position: Alleras, Brave Danny Flint, and Arya Stark. Essentially, this essay asks: how can certain institutions offer a way to transition for gender nonconforming people in the world of ASOIAF, and which limitations exist for such transitions?
Alleras the Sphinx
In the prologue of A Feast for Crows, the reader is introduced to the mysterious Alleras (“The Sphinx”), a novice at the Citadel in Oldtown. Alleras is described as a slight and comely youth, doted on by the serving girls at the inn The Quill and Tankard. The prologue tells us that he “was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widow’s peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls.” This description, among other things, has led readers to think that Alleras the child of Oberyn Martell, named Sarella Sand at birth (see more of the evidence laid out here). As mentioned above, I have previously argued that Alleras might not just be presenting as male for convenience, but also for more queer/trans reasons. One reason I think it’s important to recognise this possibility is that, as I have written about previously, trans people are often written out of history. As scholars Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt note:
Marginalised identities are often written out of the historical record by those with the privilege of formulating “historical truth”. The Middle Ages is frequently viewed as a time “where men were men, women were women, everyone was the same race and practised the same faith, and no one was corrupted by technology, sexuality or democracy”. This is not how any medievalist worth their salt would put it.
Disingenuous interrogation of the presence of trans people in history is rarely about the factual specifics of the past alone. If talking about trans lives is “anachronistic”, then “trans-ness [is] not an inextricable part of humanity or human diversity”. The transphobe’s dream is an imaginary medieval past in which everyone knows their (gendered) place. Similar themes emerge in the usage of the Middle Ages by the alt-right and beyond: those who fantasize a past in which everyone who mattered was straight, cisgender, white, and Christian. White supremacists and fascists weaponize the Middle Ages to justify their hatred.(Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19)
So, there is value in recognising the possibility of trans people even in Medievalesque stories. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples from our world of people who we might today read as trans (even if that language wasn’t used then). One such example, that I think is interesting to compare to Alleras, is Saint Marinos. Saint Marinos was born around the year 300 in what is today Syria, and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was assigned female at birth, yet he lived for a long time as a monk and passed as a man during this time. After Marinos’ mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.
While Saint Marinos is quite different from Alleras, there are some parallels. Alleras isn’t a monk, but the Citadel is somewhat similar to a monastery in some ways. In medieval times, monks were scholars in a sense, being learned in healing and recording history for instance. And similar to the maesters, they were supposed to be celibate and leave their families behind. Another similarity between Marinos’ story and Alleras’ story is that they both followed in the footsteps of their fathers in a sense, Marinos’ father who joined this monk order and Alleras’ father Oberyn who had studied at the Citadel for a while. Based on the gender they were assigned at birth, they would not have been welcome at these institutions, and wouldn’t be able to follow their fathers, but they did anyway. Some might see that as them only wanting access to spaces denied to them due to their gender, and while that certainly might be the case, I think it’s important to consider the possibility of that not being the only reason. When I’ve written about historical trans people previously, I’ve quoted trans writer Leslie Feinberg and I wanted to do so again. In hir book Transgender warriors, Feinberg talks about historical trans people and how many, especially those assigned female at birth, are often assumed to just pass as another gender for practical reasons. Zie relates this to hir own experiences, writing:
”No wonder you’ve passed as a man! This is such an anti-woman society,” a lesbian friend told me. To her, females passing as males are simply trying to escape women’s oppression – period. She believes that once true equality is achieved in society, humankind will be genderless. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict human behavior in a distant future. But I know what she’s thinking – if we can build a more just society, people like me will cease to exist. She assumes that I am simply a product of oppression. Gee, thanks so much.(Feinberg 1996, 83)
I think this perspective is important to keep in mind when discussing both historical people like Saint Marinos and fictional characters like Alleras. Someone passing as a man might do it for more reason than pure practicality, and to reduce gender nonconformity to just a result of oppression is insulting.
Another aspect I wanted to discuss is how coming to the Citadel might be a way for someone to not only transition but also get away from heteronormative expectations put upon them. To do that, I would like to start by discussing another Medieval Saint, namely Saint Esmarde, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was assigned female at birth but left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. The story of Esmarde describes how they did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020). But, returning to Esmarade, their father would later come to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asked that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else could “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen and venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.
Again, we have someone seeking refuge at a monastery and articulating a new gendered identity while doing so. But it’s worth noting that Esmarade in this story was specifically fleeing heteronormative pressure, not wanting to marry the man their father had chosen for them. In ASOIAF, joining an institution like The Citadel provides a similar escape. I also want to make a note here of how Wright argues that Esmarade’s use of “eunuch” to describe themselves can be seen as an attempt to articulate a genderqueer identity. As I mentioned previously, it is often assumed that trans people didn’t exist historically, but in actuality, historical people just didn’t have the same language available to them as we do today.
As I mentioned, there are of course differences between Alleras’ story and those of Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade, but I think it is interesting that Alleras in some way parallel these stories of historical people who were assigned female at birth but who joined monk orders. There exist even more such stories than the ones I described here, indicating that this was a possible path for some gender-nonconforming people in The Middle Ages. One could create a new identity by joining such a celibate order and pass as a man. Maybe that indicates that such a path would be possible in ASOIAF too.
But another point I think is important to note here is that both Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade were seen as female after their deaths when their bodies were examined. Even though they hadn’t lived as women for years, they were seen as such because of their bodies. That shows that even while someone might transition and live for years as the gender that they consider themselves to be, people might still think their assigned gender is their “true gender.” And there are risks associated with such discoveries, as will become clear with the character I want to discuss next.
Brave Danny Flint
We don’t get many mentions of Brave Danny Flint in the ASOIAF books, but what we get is grim. In ASOS, Bran IV we hear that the Nightfort is “where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered” and in ADWD The Prince of Winterfell Wyman Manderly requests “Or sing to us of brave young Danny Flint and make us weep.” We get another mention in ADWD when Jon and Tormund discuss which Nights’ Watch castle different Free Folk should be assigned to. When discussing some of the Free Folk women, Jon says this:
“Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?”
”Not as I recall. Who was he?”
”A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn’t.” In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort. ”I’ll send the girls to Long Barrow.” The only men there were Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd, both of whom he trusted. That was not something he could say of all his brothers.
The wildling understood. ”Nasty birds, you crows.” He spat.(ADWD, Jon XII)
So, what we know of Danny Flint is that they were someone who was assigned female at birth but presented themselves as a man and joined the Nights’ Watch. This is similar to Alleras and the medieval saints discussed above who also joined all-male orders that are celibate. But with Danny we see the risks of these types of actions. Many of the medieval saints mentioned above were interpreted as female after death, but with Danny we have a person where their supposed true sex directly leads to their death.
Before discussing Danny’s violent end further, I would like to briefly look at some historical parallels for them. There are many historical examples of people who were assigned female at birth dressing in masculine clothing to join military orders or armies, from the English civil war (Stoyle 2018) to the American civil war (Hendrix 2017). Fellow ASOIAF analyst Aemy Blackfyre has also compared Danny Flint to the legend of Hua Mulan. There are also quite a few examples of people assigned female at birth who left for the American West in the 19th century and went on to pass as men, some living as cowboys (Boag 2005). Here we have people leaving their families behind to hold traditionally male positions, often in all-male spaces. While it is of course possible that they did that because they wanted to escape female oppression, it should be noted that many of these people lived as men for years. And if they did that for purely practical reasons, to gain freedom, that was a risky strategy. I previously quoted Leslie Feinberg who discussed that historical people assigned female at birth might not just choose to pass just to escape oppression. Feinberg goes on to talk about how just how difficult it can be to pass as a man:
But could she pass as male on board ship, sleeping with and sharing common facilities with her fellow sailors for decades and not be discovered? Of course, hundreds of thousands of women have dreamed of escaping the economic and social inequities of their lives, but how many could live as a man for a decade or a lifetime? While a woman could throw on men’s clothing and pass as a man for safety on dark roadways, could she pass as a man at an inn where men slept together in the same beds? Could she maintain her identity in daylight? Pass the scrutiny of co-workers? Would she really feel safer and more free?(Feinberg 1996, 85)
Feinberg’s point here is partly that it’s difficult to pass as a man, and partly that it’s dangerous to try it. It requires dedication. With Brave Danny Flint we see just how dangerous it can be to be discovered.
In my view, it is clear that what happens to Danny Flint isn’t just your run-of-the-mill sexual violence that we often see in ASOIAF. They were targeted specifically because of their gender nonconformity. As my friend Sam of the Rainbow Guard put it on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, it seems likely that GRRM was inspired by the highly publicised fate of Brandon Teena. For those not aware of Brandon Teena, he was a trans man who was raped and later murdered in Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993 (Halberstam 2006, 22). Or rather, Brandon was one of three murder victims (the other being his friend Lisa Lambert and her friend Philip DeVine, a disabled African American man). After the fact, the main focus has been on Brandon, but it is worth noting that one of the murderers had ties to white supremacist groups, so it seems likely that this influenced the murder of the other victims. I will, however, mainly focus on Brandon for the purposes of this essay. Brandon’s life and death were also the inspiration for the movie Boys don’t cry (1999). Given that these events happened during the nineties, it is therefore quite possible that GRRM would be aware of this when he was coming up with the fate of Danny Flint.
Brandon Teena was not originally from Falls City but moved there because he had friends there. It seems like his version of masculinity was quite different from the mainly white working-class town he moved to, and not just because he was assigned female at birth. While living in Falls City, Brandon had dated several women, who in a documentary after his death described him as a dream guy, a man who knew what women wanted (Halberstam 2005, 28). Halberstam notes that:
We might conclude that Brandon lived up to and even played into the romantic ideals that his girlfriends cultivated about masculinity. Brandon’s self-presentation must be read, I believe, as a damaging critique of the white working-class masculinities around him; at the same time, however, his performance of courtly masculinity is a shrewd deployment of the middle-class and so-called respectable masculinities that represent an American romantic ideal of manhood.(Halberstam 2005, 28)
So, in a way, Brandon was “better” at being a man than the other men in his surroundings. At least according to the women in Falls City. But being assigned female at birth, he was still seen as a fraud. This, in the end, contributed to his rape and murder. So, what I think is important to consider with Brandon Teena, and how his fate relates to characters like Danny Flint, is the motives behind the attack. It’s not just “ordinary” sexual violence, it’s sexual violence (and murder) because of gender nonconformity. As Halberstam writes regarding Brandon Teena:
(…) for the men, the body must be the final arbiter of manhood, because, in a sense, this is the only competition within which they can beat the version of masculinity that Brandon champions. When Brandon literally did not measure up to the physical test of manhood, his two male “friends” took him out to a remote spot, where they then raped and sodomized him. The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied.(Halberstam 2005, 66)
Essentially, Brandon was punished for his gender nonconformity and masculine identity by sexual violence and then lethal violence. His embodiment forcibly straightened out, any trans and queer tendencies crushed by male sexual violence. As Halberstam puts it “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality.” (ibid)
It also bears mentioning that in the aftermath of Brandon’s death, his suffering and story were claimed by some different groups. Some understood his fate as that of a masculine and/or queer woman and read the attack as misogyny and homophobia. Today, most people would probably agree that Brandon was trans and that this attack was fuelled by transphobia. But that shows how in death, someone’s identity is easily misunderstood and misconstrued for future histories. We see a similar tendency in the stories of medieval saints I shared earlier, they too were understood as female in death. And in ASOIAF we hear of the story of Brave Danny Flint, “A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black” (AWDW, Jon XII). My point here is that we shouldn’t assume that Danny was a girl. It is very possible that they identified as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And regardless, it is clear to me that the violence done toward them is fuelled by transphobia.
The story of Danny Flint shows how perilous it can be to be trans/gender nonconforming. So, while I have been discussing how places like The Citadel and The Night’s Watch can offer a blank slate for those who want to escape their previous lives, doing so isn’t without risk. Such transitions can result in pain or even death. And speaking of death…
Arya of House Stark
Arya Stark is a character who defies gender expectations in so, so many ways. I have previously written an essay about how she troubles gender norms, and how her story can resonate with many trans and gender nonconforming people. I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily think she’s trans, but I know people who read her as such, and I do think her story is still relevant to consider in relation to trans topics. For instance, her passing as a boy while out on the road exposes her to a lot of the same risks as trans people experience. But here I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of her story, her connection to death and the House of Black and White.
Even before Arya ends up at the House of Black and White, she is connected with death in many ways. She has her revenge/kill list, she hangs out with the resurrected Beric, and later with Sandor and his horse Stranger. Arya’s connection to death is interesting to consider since the Stranger of the Faith of the Seven is quite… queer. The Stranger is someone you don’t really worship in the Faith, but he constitutes a sort of necessary shadow to life. He’s described as both male/female and half-human/animal, for instance:
They were all afire now, Maid and Mother, Warrior and Smith, the Crone with her pearl eyes and the Father with his gilded beard; even the Stranger, carved to look more animal than human.(ACOK, Davos I)
And the seventh face… the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable. Here the face was a black oval, a shadow with stars for eyes. It made Catelyn uneasy. She would get scant comfort there.(ACOK, Catelyn IV)
So, the Stranger is genderless (or genderfull?) and there is also something not quite human about him. Given all that and that he’s also the god of death, it makes sense that he’s not the most worshipped god. But even if people don’t tend to pray to the Stranger, some do.
Tyrion lingered after his cousin had slipped away. At the Warrior’s altar, he used one candle to light another. Watch over my brother, you bloody bastard, he’s one of yours. He lit a second candle to the Stranger, to himself.(ACOK, Tyrion X)
Tyrion who often sees himself as an outsider and is seen as monstrous, not quite human, clearly relates to the Stranger. As I’ve discussed previously, trans people are also often seen as monstrous and not quite human. To me, the reason the Stranger relates both to someone as Tyrion and Arya, outsiders in their own ways, is that he represents the abject. As feminist scholar Julia Kristeva might put it, the abject is that which is uncomfortably close to us (the subject) but which is impossible to assimilate into ourselves (Kristeva 1984). The abject represents that which we reject for being unbearable and unthinkable, but which still resides inside ourselves. For the subject to come into being, it needs to reject the abject which we see in ourselves but also that which we see in others. For us to make sense as people, not just to ourselves but also to others, we must reject that which is abject, monstrous, weird, queer. That is why trans people are often pushed into the zone of the abject by cisnormative society (Stryker 1994).
So, Arya is associated with this genderless and abject god. And then she joins the House of Black and White, where someone can quite literally shed their identity and transform their body. As my friend Elena pointed out on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, the House of Black and White really have some interesting potential for people who might want to change their body. Of course, the downside is that you have to join a death cult and completely abandon your previous life and identity. But to some people, that might be preferable to living in accordance with the expectations of your assigned gender, that you don’t identify with. It is interesting that this death cult offers an opportunity to completely change your body. You can literally change your face, and assumedly this also means you can change how your gender is perceived by others. Someone assigned female at birth could get a masculine face, and pass as a man with this new identity. That we get this possibility in specifically a death cult is noteworthy. As mentioned previously, in Westeros at least, the death god is somehow associated with the queer and monstrous. He’s the abject. That we get the association between that and the Faceless men who can change their appearance makes sense in a way. In abjection, you can find more possibilities than in normative conceptions of personhood. If you embrace the abject, you can do and become more. Trans scholar Susan Stryker makes a similar point when discussing the way trans people are often seen as monstrous and abject. She gives the reader this message:
Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.(Stryker 1994, 241) [my bolding of text]
If you are to embrace a form, an existence, outside of the normative, you must risk abjection. You must question that which is taken for granted. That way you can discover the seams and sutures in yourself and unravel those to give yourself a new form. Arya, and others who seek the House of Black and White, have accepted abjection when giving themselves over to the Many-Faced God. Giving themselves over to death. For Arya, when she comes to the House of Black and White, she has lost almost everything. She has already had to give up parts of her identity so many times and she’s had to take note of her seams and sutures when creating the different personalities that she’s embodied (Arry, Nan, Salty, etc). When she arrives at the House, she willingly eats the Kindly Man’s worm. In doing so, she embraces this symbol of death. The abject. She moves toward abjection, like the others at the House of Black and White. And in this abjection, a new subject can be created. In death, a new life can be created. Death must pay for life, as they say.
It should be noted that this way of creating a new subjectivity and new bodily form is hardly as healthy as what Stryker proposes. The harm that it does to Arya’s psyche and body seems more similar to what transphobes fear gender-affirming healthcare means. And one does wonder about the ethics of using these faces- did the previous face owners consent to their faces being used like this? I can’t help but think of some early transphobic feminists’ criticism of trans people, where transsexuality was referred to as “necrophilic invasion” and trans women were accused of exploiting women by “appropriating” female bodies (see my essay about trans history for more on this). Given all of that, I want to acknowledge that it is not completely unproblematic to compare the Faceless men and the House of Black and White to the transition trans folk might go through today. But it’s also worth noting that it seems like in the world of Planetos, this might be one of the few ways people can see of completely escaping their circumstances. Which says a lot. At the House of Black and White, the erasure of one’s previous identity is more complete (and effective) than in the other orders I’ve discussed. The past won’t come back to haunt you as it did for Brave Danny Flint. You can completely remake yourself.
There are also some other key differences between the House of Black and White and the other institutions I’ve discussed. For one, even though the people there are referred to as the Faceless Men, there are women at the House too. In fact, in contrast to the black brothers of the Wall, the House of Black and White seems to embrace a slightly more dualistic approach, being open to more people. This is evident even in their symbolism, with the black and white door to the House and the black and white robes that acolytes wear as compared to the black clothing of the Night’s Watch. But on the other hand, the House has a very strict (black and white) approach to who can become a full-on member of the order. One has to completely surrender one’s previous identity, to a much more extreme extent than what the Citadel or the Night’s Watch require. But as mentioned above, that also means you can truly leave your old life behind.
So, in conclusion, it seems like characters in ASOIAF could use these institutions of the Citadel, the Night’s Watch, and the House of Black and White to get a clean slate- pursuing a life and identity that feels more right to them. In this cisnormative world, it might very well be easier to start over than to transition in your old community. Of course, some of these orders require more extreme commitment to starting over, but for some that might be preferable to the life they were living previously.
These stories of transition also echo the history of our world, for instance with people who were assigned female at birth joining monk orders or the military. But as our own history tells us, even if you manage to transition there are risks of violence if your past or body is revealed. Because people tend to think those aspects of you speak to your “true” being and “true” sex. This can lead to tragedies like that of Brandon Teena in our real world or Brave Danny Flint in ASOIAF. Such fates make me worry for Alleras in the upcoming ASOIAF books… But even if that isn’t the case, if you don’t die a violent death, your identity might very well not be recognised after your death. The histories might erase your transness/queerness. This is why it’s important that we uplift trans histories and trans stories in medieval-esque fiction. Stories are powerful and they help us fight for a better world. A world where someone can transition without having to join a literal magical death cult.
Special thanks to Sam and Elena for helping inspire this essay, and extra thanks to Sam for helping me access some theoretical writing while I was on the road. Thank you also to Merry for discussing Arya with me and helping me sort out my thoughts. Thank you to Virginie for beta-reading. And of course, thank you Sanrixian, DREADLady Forlorn, and Sasha for the artwork!
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