Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark are very unlike what some may expect of a typical medieval lady. The only daughter of a minor knight, Brienne has trained up as a warrior and has been knighted for her valour in the field of battle. Meanwhile Arya, a tomboyish teen when we first met her in series one, is a trained and hardened assassin. No damsels in distress, then – they’ve chosen to defy their society’s expectations and follow their own paths.
Yet while they are certainly enjoyable to watch, neither character is as unusual as modern viewers may think. While the books and television series play with modern perceptions (and misperceptions) of women’s roles, Arya and Brienne resemble the heroines of medieval times. In those days both real and fictional women took arms to defend cities and fight for their community – whether it was Boudicca or Joan of Arc. They went in disguise to look for their loved ones or ran away from home as minstrels or pilgrims. They were players, not bystanders.
Medieval audiences were regularly inspired by stories of women’s acts of courage and emotional strength. There was Josian, for example, the Saracen (Muslim) princess of the popular medieval romance Bevis of Hampton, who promises to convert to Christianity for love (fulfilling the wishes of the Christian audience). She also murders a man to whom she has been married against her wishes.
There is the lustful married lady who seduces Sir Gawain in the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight too. As well as Rymenhild, a princess who eventually marries King Horn in an early example of the romance genre, and who very much wants to break moral codes by having sex with her beloved before their wedding, which at that point has not been decided upon.
Medieval stories of such intense desire celebrate the young virgin heroine who woos the object of her desire and takes no notice of the personal, social, political and economic effects of sex before marriage. This is the case with both Arya and Brienne. Arya chooses her childhood friend Gendry to take her virginity on the eve of the cataclysmic battle against the undead. Brienne does the same with Jaime Lannister, the night after the cataclysmic battle – but only after he earns her trust over many adventures together.
It is the emotional strength and courage of these heroines that drives their stories forward rather than their relationship to the male hero. Throughout Game of Thrones, this emotional strength has also helped Arya and Brienne stay true to their missions. Arya’s continued strength has to be seen in the light of what has happened to her, however. Brienne began the story as a trained “knight” but Arya’s journey has seen her learning, through bitter experience, the skills she needs to survive.
A medieval audience would have been attuned to this message of self-reliance. Especially given the everyday gendered experiences of women who ran businesses, households and countries, married unafraid of conventions, or chose not to marry.
It is not too far-fetched to think that Arya and Brienne could together lead the alliance against the evil queen Cersei, having both learned that fate reserves unlikely rewards for those who prepare well and carry on in the name of ideals rather than to improve their own status. The frequently (and most likely deliberately) unnamed heroines of medieval romance similarly prove to be resourceful – and often rose to power, leading countries or armies, without even a mention of prior training.
The medieval heroines that went unnamed provided a perfect model for women then to project themselves onto. The Duchess in the poem Sir Gowther, under duress (her husband threatens to leave on the grounds of not providing an heir), prays that she be given a son “no matter through what means”, and sleeps with the devil – producing the desired heir.
In the Middle English romance story of Sir Isumbras, his wife – whose name we are not told – transforms from a stereotypical courtly lady, kidnapped by a sultan, to a queen who fights against her captor. She becomes an empty shell onto which medieval women – especially those who do not come from the titled aristocracy – can project themselves. She battles alongside her husband and sons when his men desert him, with no training, only her own natural qualities to rely on.
These real and fictional heroines of the Middle Ages had no choices: they found solutions to seemingly impossible situations, just as Brienne and Arya have done. These two are unsung heroes, female warriors who stand in the background and don’t involve themselves in the “game”. While the men celebrate their victory against the undead White Walkers with a feast at Winterfell, Arya – whose timely assassination of their leader, the Night King, enabled the victory – shuns the limelight.
While the conclusion to the stories of Arya and Brienne is yet to be revealed, given the heroines that inspired these characters it will not be surprising if it is the women warriors – not the men – who will drive the game to its end.
Raluca Radulescu, Professor of Medieval Literature and English Literature, Bangor University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.