Editorial Featured

The Hero’s Journey in Game of Thrones: Arya Stark

What is the Hero’s Journey? It is a basic narrative pattern common across all cultures and time that seems to be shared by all heroic characters. With this in mind, mythologist Joseph Campbell designed a paradigm, also known as the monomyth, to identify the universal stages of the hero’s journey. In this series, we take a look at Game of Thrones characters and how their unfolding path follows the Hero’s Journey. This time: Arya Stark.

Arya with Needle official

A traumatized and orphaned daughter of the Stark family clan, Arya Stark’s experience on Game of Thrones is unique. Isolated almost entirely from every other storyline since Season 1, her lonely journey has taken her across continents and provided her with a powerful set of Mentors, Threshold Guardians and trials. Thrown into the dark crucible, she grows up before our eyes. She is brave, resilient and confident, but she is also a revenge-obsessed killer fascinated by violence and death. Her dark nature and training as an assassin raises the question: is Arya Stark a hero at all?

It’s important to remember that the Campbellian Hero’s Journey paradigm is highly flexible, so not all stages need appear in order or appear at all, while others flow through many other stages. Joseph Campbell sums up the monomyth concept below:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.

diana-statue-roman-version-of-artemis-louvre-versailles

Please note that what we are looking at here is how the Hero’s Journey fits the Arya Stark character as she is presented in Game of Thrones, NOT in A Song of Ice and Fire. This article deals only with the TV show version, which means the book stories and characters have been altered—telescoped, pared down and folded into each other in a variety of ways, and influenced by the increasing creative input of producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

George R.R. Martin has often said that he hates the predictability of traditional story construction, so why apply the monomyth to Game of Thrones? The Hero’s Journey is not an unassailable formula carved in stone on the side of a pyramid. It is a flexible, living idea, a suggested blueprint of how mankind’s greatest myths bubble up and out of the shared human condition, rising from our shared subconscious across space and time, and even deeper than that, from the structural depths of the very cosmos themselves. For the bloody bard George R. R. Martin, who steeps his stories in mythology, it seems impossible that he could completely avoid Campbell’s theoretical ballpark.

arya-stark-harenhall

Let’s address a threshold question first: can the Hero’s Journey apply to Arya, who as a woman could be called a heroine? As we discussed in our article on Daenerys Targaryen, yes it can. Joseph Campbell’s model applies to members of both sexes because the archetypes symbolize all humanity.

“The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women.” —Joseph Campbell

game-of-thrones-season-4-arya-and-the-hound

That said, let’s get to it. In this article, we will compare Arya Stark’s journey through Game of Thrones to Campbell’s monomyth paradigm and attempt to answer four questions: first, does Arya’s journey fit into the monomyth at all? Second, if Arya’s journey fits the framework, how closely does it mirror the traditional experience of the Campbellian Hero? Thirdly, what clues can the monomyth offer us about her character’s future in Season 7 and beyond? And lastly, is Arya a Hero, or is she something else?

THE HERO’S JOURNEY, PART I: DEPARTURE

1a) WORLD OF COMMON DAY: the hero, unfinished and incomplete, lives in her ordinary world before receiving the call to adventure. (This is a stage described by Vogler, not Campbell, but the world of common day is such a typical starting point for stories I decided to use the stage here.)

Arya’s story begins in a traditional framework: we see her shoehorned into an ordinary world of female pursuits, such as embroidery (“Winter is Coming,” S1, Ep1). She is fulfilling the expected gender role of her largely male-dominated society. We can see parallels between Arya and the ancient Chinese ballad of Hua Mulan, famously adapted as the Disney movie Mulan. Mulan’s story begins with her at home, working at her loom, before responding to the call to adventure.

arya-in-helmet-winter-is-coming-s1-ep1

Arya is an unusual girl, very similar to Mulan: she is drawn to traditionally male-oriented pastimes and shows a talent for them. She does does not want to accept a traditional female role like her sister Sansa and is jealous of her brothers. Arya easily outperforms Bran at archery practice—archery links Arya directly to the Greek Goddess Artemis, goddess of the hunt, wilderness and protector of children, who dominated the world of men. But at Winterfell, Arya will always be trapped in her expected gender role. In the pilot, Bran is taken to witness his father’s beheading of a Night’s Watch deserter as part of his education in the ways of lords and men. Ned Stark would likely never think to bring Arya along on that trip.

Arya again works against the gender-grain when she wears a soldier’s helmet as King Robert Baratheon and his impressive retinue arrive at Winterfell. Ned Stark removes Arya’s helmet as she arrives in the family reception line. It is notable that Arya is the last to join the family, which is something of a harbinger of things to come, as her journey will take her the farthest from home.

arya-bran-sansa-robb-stark-starks-theon

The first episode establishes Arya as the black sheep of the family by both nature and inclination. She also has a special relationship with the other black sheep of the clan: the bastard Jon Snow, who gives gives her the little sword she names ‘Needle.’

1b) CALL TO ADVENTURE: the hero is presented with a challenge, problem or adventure and she can no longer remain within the safety and comfort of the World of the Common Day. She embarks on a journey into a new and frightening realm.

“The first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated “The Call to Adventure”—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. The fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground … but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delight.” —Joseph Campbell

The world of Winterfell shifts with the severe injury to Bran. The world of Westeros shifts with the death of Jon Arryn and King Robert’s request that Ned Stark return with him to King’s Landing as his new Hand. Ned Stark takes Arya and Sansa with him, opening up a new world of wonder for Arya in “The Kingsroad” (S1, Ep2). If we continue to follow the Hua Mulan story, this stage occurs when Mulan’s father is ordered to serve in the army, and she leaves to serve in his place.

arya-with-sansa-defeating-joffrey

The experience quickly turns tragic when the brutal Joffrey Baratheon assaults Arya and the butcher’s boy, Mycah, as he and Arya practice swordplay on a riverbank near the Inn at the Crossroads. When Arya courageously (but unwisely) rises in Mycah’s defense, Joffrey turns on her. Arya’s direwolf Nymeria attacks Joffrey and Arya hurls his sword into the stream. This incident results in the execution of Sanas’s direwolf, Lady, when Nymeria cannot be found (Arya had driven her away), and the murder of Mycah by The Hound.

Arya feels responsible for Mycah’s death. We see her early tendency to obsess about violent revenge when she stabs the table with her knife at King’s Landing, telling the horrified Sansa that she’s practicing “for the Prince” (“Lord Snow,” S1, Ep3). Septa Mordane reacts by saying “Arya would rather be a beast than a lady.”

arya-stark-knife-table-kings-landing

We see Arya repeatedly resist her expected role, such as when Ned discovers her with her weapon, Needle.

Ned: “A little lady shouldn’t play with swords.”

Arya: “I don’t want to be a lady.”

Acceding in part to her wish, Ned hires Braavosi swordsman Syrio Forel to train Arya in the art of swordplay. As Arya’s first Mentor, Forel reinforces Arya’s gender-blurring theme when he intentionally identifies her as male, calling her “boy” and saying, “Boy, girl—you are a sword—that is all.” Forel is an important sounding board for Arya. Their sessions help establish her character and hint at her future. Arya’s progress continues to parallel Hua Mulan here, because both girls receive weapons training.

arya-and-syrio

When motivated, Arya proves a dedicated student. When Ned finds her practicing her balancing in a castle stairwell, she counters his concern for her safety with her new teacher’s philosophy: “Syrio says every hurt is a lesson. And every lesson makes you better” (“Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things,” S1, Ep4). This personal mantra will serve her well when she undergoes the brutal tests and trials of the Faceless Men. The next exchange between Ned and Arya is telling—we see her early certainty about who and what she is:

Arya: “Can I be lord of a holdfast?”

Ned: “You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights and princes and lords.”

Arya: “No, that’s not me.”

arya-cripples-bastards-and-broken-things

At the Tournament of the Hand later in the same episode, we get another suggestion of the deepest, darkest potential of Arya’s personality. While most everyone around her is shocked and horrified by the bloody death of Ser Hugh of the Vale, Arya watches him die with fascination, and even the hint of a smile. Arya’s character is quickly and intimately connected to the theme of death. This is reinforced by what Forel tells her when she expresses worry over her father’s injury in “A Golden Crown” (S1, Ep6): “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to death: ‘Not today.'”

The Hero’s call to adventure often occurs while the world or land is dying or under threat. While all this is going on, we have already glimpsed the return of the White Walkers. Winter is coming.

2) REFUSAL OF THE CALL: the hero, not fully committed, considers turning back, but a mentor convinces her to remain.

Originally, Arya is thrilled to answer the call to King’s Landing. But she must run when the Lannister forces move to purge the Stark contingent in “The Pointy End” (S1, Ep8). She is protected by Forel long enough to escape to the streets where she kills for the first time, skewering a stableboy as he tries to steal Needle from her. It’s a quick moment, the result of Arya’s instinctive reliance on Forel’s training, and although she is startled, she immediately shakes it off and continues on.

In “Baelor” (S1, Ep9), Arya is living on the streets and trading captured pigeons to survive. She is drawn to the Sept of Baelor when she hears news of Ned’s trial, but Yoren of the Night’s Watch, warned by Ned, prevents her from witnessing Ned’s beheading.

arya-ned-execution

This horror at the loss of of her father (and eventually, her mother), links Arya’s story to that of Batman, a modern hero born of ancient myth. Batman, like Arya, suffers severe emotional trauma and embarks on a quest for revenge. Both journeys can be seen as anchored in the Greek myth of Heracles and his heroic 12 Labors, which he is driven to do after the tragic death of his family (Hercules himself killed them, under a ‘madness’ induced by angry Goddess, Hera).

In “Fire and Blood,” (S1, Ep10), Yoren snatches Arya up and carries her into a stairwell. His loyalty to Ned has probably saved her life, since her rage and obsession with revenge would probably get her identified and captured by the Lannisters, if not killed. Although Arya struggles against Yoren (Refusal of the Call) he convinces her to accompany him North. By cutting Arya’s hair and demanding that she pose as a boy named “Arry,” Yoren continues her character’s gender-bending theme, saying “You’re coming with me, boy.”

arya-stark

As Arya makes the leap to the next stage in this episode, she is also completing her transition to a new temporary identity that has been hinted at all along: beyond being mistakenly identified as the opposite sex, she will now attempt to represent herself as male. If we look at the Hua Mulan ballad again, Mulan performs a similar gender-bending act: she dons her father’s armor and poses as a man.

3) CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD: the hero reaches the limits of her known horizon: beyond lies darkness, danger and the unknown.

Arya’s passage into this stage is pronounced, both externally and internally. In the physical realm, she heads north along the Kingsroad into the unknown, disguised as a young male recruit for the Night’s Watch. Her companions are Gendry (who quickly realizes she is female) and Yoren (“The North Remembers,” S2, Ep1).

arya-and-gendry-heading-north

But Arya has already crossed an internal threshold. Her killing of the stableboy does not haunt her; in fact, she considers it an accomplishment. When bullied by Hot Pie before leaving the city (“Fire and Blood,” S1, Ep10), she threatens him with her sword. “You want it? I’ll give it to you. I’ve already killed one fat boy. I’ll bet you’ve never killed anyone. I bet you’re a liar. But I’m not. I’m good at killing fat boys. I like killing fat boys.”

The late Ned might have hoped that his daughter would become a wise warrior in the tradition of the famous Greek Athena, but Arya’s trauma and natural instincts lead her down the the path of the Roman Bellona, the goddess of war.

lommy-arya-and-hot-pie-kings-landing

Shifting from victim to aggressor, Arya shows a viciousness we haven’t seen before. She did kill a fat boy—she is telling the truth—and it looks like she has no qualms about doing it again. She also delivers the line “I’ll bet you’ve never killed anyone before” with condescension, as if she has achieved a higher status because she has taken a life and he has not.

Stricken by insomnia, Arya gets into the pre-bedtime ritual of reciting the names of those she wants to kill from Yoren. He tells her the story about repeating the name of the man who killed his brother, “like a prayer, almost” (“What is Dead May Never Die,” S2, Ep3). She soaks up the apparent deep satisfaction he got from killing the man, although he had to join the Night’s Watch to avoid justice for the act.

4) SUPERNATURAL AID: once the hero is committed to the quest, a mentor or guide shall appear who often awards her a magical talisman to aid with her journey.

“For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little or crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” —Joseph Campbell

For Arya, her supernatural aid comes in the form of the Faceless Man, Jaqen H’ghar, who first speaks to her in “The Night Lands” (S2/Ep2). Jaqen will loom large on Arya’s journey. He functions as both an archetypal Threshold Guardian and Shapeshifter, as well as his primary role as Arya’s Dark Mentor. The tradition of the Mentor appearing from another magical realm is common, such as Merlin in the King Arthur tales or Athena, transforming into the iconic figure named ‘Mentor,’ to assist the youthful Greek Hero Telemachus in The Odyssey.

jaqen-hghar-1280

After Arya saves Jaqen and his two companions from death in “What is Dead Will Never Die” (S2, Ep 3), she is taken by the Lannister. Arya also loses her sword, Needle, to the Lannister soldier Polliver in this episode, and he uses it to murder her friend Lommy. Although Arya is very attached to Needle because Jon Snow gave it to her, she loses none of her own self-identity. Her strong sense of self isn’t dependent upon external items. Jaqen reappears to Arya in “The Ghost of Harenhall” (S2, Ep5), looking to restore the balance between life and death:

Jaqen: “A man pays his debts. The man owes three.”

Arya: “Three what?”

Jaqen: “The Red God takes what is his, lovely girl. And death may only pay for life … You stole three deaths from the Red God—we have to give them back.”

Jaqen’s murders eventually allow Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie to escape their captivity at Harenhall, and he returns to her again in “Valar Morghulis,” (S2, Ep10). Although he has fulfilled his debt to her, Jaqen sees something in Arya—perhaps her strong sense of self and her obsession with killing and death—and he tries to recruit her into his order. “The girl has many names on her lips: Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin Lannister, Meryn Trant, Ilyn Payne, The Hound. Names to offer up to the Red God. She could offer them all, one by one.”

jaqen-arya-iron-coin

Needing to make her way to Jon Snow in the North, Arya declines Jaqen’s offer, although it tempts her. He gives her an iron coin that will allow her to always find him: it isn’t magic, but it is “a coin of great value,” a powerful, utilitarian talisman. Female mythic heroes and goddesses almost always possess a talisman, such as the Welsh Ceridwen and her Cauldron of the Deep. Arya will use the iron coin later, after a long Road of Trials (which is still ongoing), to seek him out in Braavos and begin her training as a Faceless Man.

It should also be mentioned that Arya has an early brush with the potentially supernatural Melisandre meets her in “The Climb” (S3, Ep6). The Red Woman looks into Arya’s eyes and says “I see darkness in you, and in that darkness eyes staring back at me: brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes … eyes you’ll shut forever. We will meet again.”

5) THE BELLY OF THE WHALE: when crossing the magical threshold the hero enters a womb to be reborn, so rather than conquering what lies beyond, the hero is swallowed into the unknown and may appear to have died.

Arya Stark is swallowed by the monster when she enters the House of the Black and the White in Braavos (“The House of Black and White,” S5, Ep2). Joseph Campbell’s description of this mythological stage is perfect for Arya:

This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation … instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshiper into a temple—where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal.

jaqen-opens-door-for-arya-house-of-black-and-white

Self-annihilation seems to be the ultimate goal of the Faceless Men’s death cult. They take new recruits like Arya and break them down to turn them into “no one,” as Jaqen describes in “High Sparrow” (S5, Ep3): “A girl wants to serve herself. Here we serve the Many Faced God. To serve well, a girl must become no one … There is only one God. A girl knows his name. And all men know his gift.”

Arya is supposed to lose her identity, along with her personal belongings. But she can’t bring herself to cast Needle into the bay along with everything else of hers. As she progresses further towards becoming “no one,” more doors open in the temple, leading her closer and closer to the innermost sanctuary, the Hall of Faces.

Arya and Jaqen H'ghar official

Mythology is replete with examples of Heroes being swallowed by the beast in this stage, such as Osirus trapped in his sarcophagus or even the Big Bad Wolf gulping down Little Red Riding Hood in the original version of the fairy tale. Jaqen had better be careful, however: the hero Hercules, once inside Poseidon’s sea monster, cut his way out from the inside and destroyed it.

Arya has now moved into the second phase of the Hero’s Journey: Initiation.

THE HERO’S JOURNEY, PART II: INITIATION

6) THE ROAD OF TRIALS: the Hero must undergo a series of tests, some of which he will fail, to prepare him for his transformation.

This stage of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey carries through many episodes of Game of Thrones.

“Once having crossed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.” —Joseph Campbell

game-of-thrones-arya-and-the-hound

Arya enters this stage early: her swordfight with Joffrey, training with Syrio Forel, Ned’s execution, the journey north, becoming Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer, being captured by The Brotherhood without Banners, being captured by The Hound…they’re all part of her trials. The impressive gatekeepers she faces—Tywin, The Hound and even Jaqen H’ghar—dominate her journey. You would think her trials stage might be over when she reaches the House of Black and White, but it’s really just starting all over again. Joseph Campbell explains why a hero’s trials can keep coming and coming:

The ordeal is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold … for many-headed is this surrounding Hydra; one head cut off, two more appear—unless the right caustic is applied to the mutilated stump. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.

Arya sweeps (Official HBO)

In the House of Black and White, Arya is tested repeatedly, first with menial tasks, until Jaqen is convinced that she is ready to pass through the next door. In “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” (S5, Ep6) Jaqen takes Arya into the inner sanctum, the Hall of Faces, and says: “Is the girl ready? … No. she is not ready to become ‘no one.’ But she is ready to become someone else.”

We can see parallels between Arya’s dark apprenticeship and that of Nathalie Portman’s Mathilda in the film The Professional, where the hitman Leon takes the young girl (who has witnessed the murder of her family) under his wing and teaches her his violent trade.

7) THE MEETING WITH THE GOD: the Hero experiences losing herself in unconditional love, usually represented by finding the man she will always love the most, her ‘soul-mate.’

Gendry Arya

This stage is not applicable to Arya, mainly because of her age and situation. An early potential love interest is hinted at with Gendry—but that’s stretching it.

8) TEMPTATION: the hero faces temptations, both physical and pleasurable, that threaten to stall or completely defeat her quest.

Arya succumbs to the temptation of revenge: in “The Dance of Dragons” (S5, Ep9), she sees Meryn Trant (one of the names on her list) arrive in Braavos. She lies to Jaqen, abandoning her well-prepared mission to kill the Thin Man and using a face from the Hall to ambush Trant in a brothel (“Mother’s Mercy,”S5, Ep10). As Trant dies, Arya speaks to him. “You know who I am? I’m Arya Stark. Do you know who you are? You’re no one. You’re nothing.”

Upon Arya’s return to the House of Black and White, she is confronted by Jaqen and The Waif. Jaqen says “A girl has taken a life. The wrong life. The girl stole from the May-Faced God. Now a debt is owed and only death can pay for life.” Jaqen drinks poison and dies but another Jaqen appears. “The faces are for no one,” he says. “You are still someone. And to someone, the faces are as good as poison.”

jaqen-the-waif-and-arya-official-hbo

Arya, seeing her dead face among many she pulls away from the corpse, screams, her eyes gone white, blinded. This physical attribute links her to Loviatar from Finnish mythology, the blind daughter of the god of death. From here, Arya is cast away to live life on the street as a beggar, with the Waif coming along and beating the crap out of her on a regular basis (“The Red Woman,” S6, Ep1). Jaqen returns to the battered, destitute Arya and tests her with temptation (“Home,” S6, Ep2):

Jaqen: “Who are you?”

Arya: “No one.”

Jaqen: ” … If a girl says her name, a man will give her eyes back.”

Arya: “A girl has no name.”

Game of Thrones

Approving of Arya’s response, Jaqen brings her back into the House of Black and White and has her train against the Waif (“Oathbreaker,” S6, Ep3). Arya continues to suffer brutal beatings in the staff-dueling sessions, but she still gets in a lick or two. Jaqen sees this, and takes her to a pool in the lobby, one we know contains a deadly poison, to drink. “If the girl is truly no one, she has nothing to fear,” he tells her. Arya swallows the poison, and her eyesight returns.

Jaqen: “Who are you?”

Arya “No one.”

It would seem that, by what looks like the most stringent Faceless Man standard, Arya has become ‘no one.’ After more trials, Jaqen sends Arya on another assassination mission, this time to kill an actress named Lady Crane (“The Door,” S6, Ep5). He sends her off with an ominous warning: “A girl has been given a second chance. There will not be a third. One way or another, a face will be added to the wall.”

Arya will fail in her mission once again. The consequences of her failure will lead her to the next stage.

9) ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER: the hero must confront someone with the ultimate power over her life, often a father figure.

The Hound poses as Arya’s father at certain points along their journey, but his function is more of a powerful Gatekeeper. It is Jaqen H’ghar who takes on the role of the father figure in Arya’s story, for he has the ultimate control of life and death over her for the longest period of time. When Arya refuses to kill Lady Crane, it is Jaqen who sends the Waif to kill her. The Atonement stage can often be unpleasant and dangerous, such as Luke facing Darth Vader in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back or Oedipus realizing the identity of his father in Oedipus Rex.

No One

Once Arya defeats the Waif (“No One,” S6, Ep8) and places her face in The Hall of Faces, the stage is set for her confrontation with the enigmatic Jaqen:

Arya: “You told her to kill me.”

Jaqen: “Yes. But here you are. And there she is. Finally, the girl is no one.”

Arya: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell and I am going home.”

Arya glares at Jaqen, who looks mysteriously pleased.

“The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned.” —Joseph Campbell

jaqen-screen-shot

It seems odd that Arya’s repeated failures and the loss of the Waif would please Jaqen H’ghar. Perhaps he is impressed by Arya’s resilience and mastery, but it seems more likely that he has a master plan in mind, and Arya is acting in a fashion he had hoped for. If The House of Black and White is as aware of the looming threat in the North as much as Melisandre and the Red Priestesses are, then there is a good chance they’re working to prepare for it as well. And what better contribution can the Faceless Men make than sending a well-trained but unfettered assassin northwards, ‘someone’ free to act as they desire rather than bound to the restricting set of beliefs of a ‘no one’, someone who can still side with the living and kill enemies before they ever know what hit them?

10) APOTHEOSIS: the hero suffers a death, either physically or spiritually, and achieves a state of knowledge and understanding to equip her upon her return.

Arya and the Waif

Arya is nearly killed by The Waif in “The Broken Man” (S6/Ep7) but manages to escape a mortal wounding by leaping into a Braavos canal. The Waif watches from the bridge, seeing nothing but blood in the water, and it appears that Arya is dead. This death or near death scenario is an important stage in the Hero’s journey: Christopher Vogler describes Apotheosis (he calls it ‘the Supreme Ordeal’) this way:

This is the critical moment in any story, an Ordeal in which the hero must die or appear to die so that he may be born again.

Arya’s initial stabbing, plunge into the water and resurfacing elsewhere is heavy with symbolism. It’s a baptism which Campbell sees more as a rebirth—”a re-entry into the womb”—than a cleansing of sin. Arya changes once she emerges from the canal: she realizes that she cannot run from the Faceless Men and her obsession with death—she must confront them head on.

arya-runs-from-waif

From the moment Arya surfaces from the canal, she is active on her own behalf: she finds Lady Crane to save her from bleeding to death, she lures The Waif into a room she has prepared to fight her, and she takes The Waif’s face as a trophy back to the Hall of Faces and Jaqen H’ghar. From there, she retrieves Needle and leaves to make her own way—without Mentors or Threshold Guardians—in the world.

“Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.” –Joseph Campbell

11) THE ULTIMATE BOON: the hero achieves the goal of her quest, the thing she has suffered so many trials to attain. The boon often appears in the form of an elixir, ability, knowledge, or a symbolic object such as the Holy Grail. The hero must then eventually return to the Common World and use the boon to everyone’s advantage.

What is Arya’s ultimate boon? It seems to be the ability to deal death and exact her revenge: these are the things she has been questing to obtain ever since her father was beheaded on Joffrey’s orders. Once she leaves the magical realm of the Faceless Men’s death cult, still steadfast in her own identity, she returns to the Common World and goes straight to the Twins to cut the throat of Walder Frey (the perpetrator of the Red Wedding, where Robb, Talisa, Catelyn and Grey Wind were murdered), but only after serving him his two sons in a pie (“The Winds of Winter,” S6, Ep10).

The Winds of Winter

Is Arya’s action for the common good? Is her use of the secret training (and extra face?) provided by the Faceless Men used in a heroic fashion? Walder Frey was a monster, and yes, it’s probably justice that he be killed. But Arya murdered him without regard to the law, and reveled in his horror at having consumed two of his children. Not very heroic of her.

THE HERO’S JOURNEY, PART III: RETURN

12) REFUSAL OF THE RETURN: after having found enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the common world to bestow the boon on his fellow man.

Arya has obtained the boon she wants and she’s on her way back home to exact her revenge. No refusal here.

13) THE MAGIC FLIGHT: if the gods have been jealously guarding the boon, sometimes the hero must risk everything to escape with it.

If you consider Arya’s learning of the Faceless Men’s secrets the boon, then this stage can fold into the Apotheosis stage for Arya. Refusing to carry out her mission and kill Lady Crane in “The Broken Man” (S6. Ep7), Arya goes into hiding and attempts to book passage back to Westeros. A face is needed for the wall, but The Waif could simply kill Lady Crane herself: instead, she wants to kill Arya. Jealousy may have something to do with it, but the bigger motivation is she feels Arya is unworthy to escape with the boon and her knowledge of the secrets of the Faceless Men.

Game of Thrones

UPCOMING STAGES

14) RESCUE FROM WITHOUT: the Hero needs powerful guides and rescuers to bring him back to everyday life.

Lady Crane’s lifesaving care for Arya may be considered a part of this, but it remains to be seen what obstacles, friends and enemies pop up between Arya and Winterfell, and beyond.

15) THE CROSSING OF THE RETURN THRESHOLD: the Hero must retain the wisdom gained on her quest while she struggles to return to normal life and learns how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world.

This could be a big stage for Arya: her life has been so abnormal it may be difficult for her to adjust if she makes it home to Jon and Sansa. She may also struggle if they want her to turn her hard-won talents towards new enemies rather than towards crossing names off her long-tended death list.

game-of-thrones-season-4-finale-arya

CONCLUSION: let’s remember our four original questions. First, does Arya’s experience fit into the Hero’s Journey at all? If we make the obvious adjustments to accommodate a female hero, I’d say the Arya moves through the stages of the journey pretty much like clockwork so far.

Second, if Arya’s journey fits, how closely it mirror the traditional experience of the Hero? Arya’s experience is unique because it is a tale of innocence lost that sometimes fits the mold of the traditional hero and sometimes tips it on its head. Her hefty Road of Trials, masterly Mentors and powerful Threshold Guardians fit the paradigm very well, but her transformation into a female child assassin bends at the definition of “heroic.” We’ll return to this issue below when asking if Arya truly is a Hero archetype.

Arya kills Meryn Trant dead--Official HBO

Thirdly, what clues can the monomyth offer us about Arya’s future in Season 7 and beyond? Let’s take a look. The structure of Game of Thrones can be seen to roughly fit the overall three-part structure of the Hero’s Journey. Part 1 (Departure) = GoT Season 1, Part 2 (Initiation) = GoT Season 2-6 (remember that Campbell says that this is a “favorite part of the myth-adventure” so it makes sense that it would take up a lot of space) and Part 3 (Return) = GoT Remaining Seasons.

If we turn to our expectations for the upcoming stages (Rescue from Without and Crossing the Return Threshold) then we would predict Arya’s return to Winterfell to be bumpy. Though she would be overjoyed to reconnect with Jon and Sansa, it will be difficult for her to integrate into their world given her strange experiences. And remember, she’s still all about her list.

106676-game-of-thrones-arya-stark

And now the final question: is Arya a true Hero, in the classic sense of the archetype? Her journey certainly fits the monomyth stages well, structurally, but the big problem arises when you measure the kind of person Arya has become. She still retains much of the sweetness, loyalty and empathy we have always known her for (she decides not to kill Lady Crane because she seems to be ‘good’). Her early fascination with violence and death isn’t a game changer, but Arya’s willingness to kill and her sadistic pleasure in taking revenge are (and separates her from our example of Hua Mulan). She has slaughtered a lot of nasty people, and that’s normal for classic heroes, but a rage-driven revenge killing spree is not particularly heroic. She has also murdered someone who simply managed to get in her way: the stableboy in King’s Landing.

One could argue that killing the stableboy was a form of self-defense, since Arya was desperately trying to flee. Leaving the skewered lad behind, lets look at Arya’s sadistic streak: she likes to stand over her victims and watch them die, including the Frey soldier who bragged about sewing Grey Wind’s head onto Robb’s corpse (“Mhysa,” S3, Ep10). Later, Arya cut Polliver down and repeated his words back to him as he bled out (“Two Swords,” S4, Ep1), slowly butchered Meryn Trant (“Mother’s Mercy,” S5, Ep10) and reveled in Walder Frey’s horror as he, throat cut, realized his sons were baked in the pie she just served him (“The Winds of Winter,” S6, Ep10).

maisie-williams-arya-season-4-game-of-thrones

Arya is not a conventional white armored hero. She can’t be. The stages of her journey fit the monomyth but her violent streak is too sadistic, even when selectively (and arguably, appropriately) applied to bad guys. Is she an anti-hero with a disillusioned streak? Perhaps. There is still a lot of good left in the girl, but it seems to me that she straddles the pantheon of anti-heroes and tragic heroes just as Batman does.

Let’s look at examples of a modern anti-hero and tragic hero. Beatrix Kiddo (The Bride) in the Kill Bill films is an anti-hero. She is a good woman on a bloody revenge quest against the people who wronged her. After killing Bill (and a lot of other people), Beatrix is able to return to her former self and move on. Her journey shares some parallels to Arya’s: she is brutally traumatized (Ned’s death), mentored by the magical master Pai Mei (Jaqen H’ghar) and embarks on a revenge tour.

Walter White in the TV series Breaking Bad is a tragic hero. White starts out noble enough, as a good man breaking the law in order to financially protect his family, but he is eventually consumed by his own hubris and killed. His journey shares some interesting parallels with Arya’s, namely a split personality and the power of a name. (Breaking Bad: “Say my name.” “Heisenberg.” Game of Thrones: “Who are you?” “No One.”)

Tragic heroes may have admirable qualities, but their darkness usually wins out and destroys them in the end. Westeros is a bloody world, and killing is going to continue to be a part of nearly every characters’ life. In the midst of this, Arya is still hell-bent on revenge. We can only hope that she is able to turn back towards the better aspects of her nature—as Beatrix Kiddo does—and not end up being betrayed by the hate in her heart.

I hope you enjoyed taking a quick look at Arya Stark’s hero’s journey through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. All quotes by Joseph Campbell are from The Hero with a Thousand Faces unless otherwise noted. All quotes by Christopher Vogler are from The Writer’s Journey unless otherwise noted.

HJ Update S6

Other articles in the ARCHETYPE and HERO’S JOURNEY series:

Hero’s Journey: Jon Snow

Hero’s Journey: Daenerys Targaryen

(Anti) Hero’s Journey: Tyrion Lannister

Alliser Thorne as Archetypal Threshold Guardian

Melisandre as Archetypal Dark Herald

Osha as Archetypal Protector

Jon Snow as Archetypal Hero

Daenerys Targaryen as Archetypal Hero

Hero’s Journey: Bran Stark

Hero’s Journey Update: Season 6

Qyburn as Archetypal Shadow

Ser Davos as Archetypal Sage

Ser Jorah as the Archetypal Dishonored Knight

Other Myth and Story-related Articles

Dire Wolves: Real and GRRM Imagined

The Happy Relationships on Game of Thrones

18 Comments

  • I was only able to quickly skim the article right now, but Arya being my favorite character in both mediums I’ll read it more thoroughly when I can.

    Considering her as on-the-line between hero and anti-hero, or essentially good and bad, is pretty much the theme for ASoIaF characters isn’t it. Everything that she’s done though is what makes the character great. Even though now behind, book-Arya has a longer list of kills than on the show when you count them all up, yet even she doesn’t feel too far gone to me. I still think it wouldn’t seem like the character is so dark and troubled if it were a boy. In this genre a young man going around slicing and stabbing men to defend himself and for justice would be totally normal. Those are her targets. I think we may see a little bit of Arya just being Arya towards the end of season 7, before all the shit hits the fan.

    • I think you’re right. Arya often seems to be judged by fans using the standard of the Disney princess. But “that’s Sansa”, as Arya would say. Arya really seems to be on “the hero’s arc”. So does the Hound, for that matter.

    • Hi Clob! I think Arya will have a respite at home with Jon and Sansa, in the middle of S7 as well. But I disagree with you on her actions seeming more normal if she was a boy — the sadistic streak is unsettling for either male or female, imho.

  • On the “Rescue from Without”, the obvious rescuer would be Jon Snow, who Arya thinks of often, and vice versa. There’s a good chance, however, that Jon has compromised himself by getting emotionally close to Sansa; the two meeting Arya as a pair or even a couple could be a further trauma, and not a rescue.

    Maybe re-encountering the Hound, and joining with him and the Brotherhood w/o Borders on their quest north – which is also Jon Snow’s quest – would be a more effective rescue. Certainly more emotionally satisfying, in my biased opinion. As with the Hound, it would put Arya’s perceptive and killing skills to good use and be appreciated.

    However, the best and most likely rescuer will be Nymeria. Per the books, which I hope are not entirely irrelevant, Nym and her giant pack are still terrorizing the riverlands, and that’s where we last saw our girl. For budgetary reasons, HBO may skip the pack…

    • All good potential options, Z. Jon and Nymeria would both give everything to rescue Arya is she needs help. The Hound is an interesting option, though I’m not so sure how he felt about being left to die a slow death.

      • I gather from the books that he felt he probably deserved it. On the other hand, the “Death by Brienne – a WOMAN” could have gone over differently with him!

  • As usual, I have to disagree with a great deal of this. You continue to pound square pegs into round holes and call it a fit.

    Call to Adventure – Doesn’t work for Arya, because she has no choice in the matter. She’s leaving Winterfell for King’s Landing whether she likes it or not. Control or lack of control over her own fate is an important theme in Arya’s arc.

    Mentor – is obviously Syrio.

    Supernatural aid – initially was Nymeria, who she was forced to abandon. Important point for later developments.

    Threshold/Threshold Guardian – as you noted.

    But at this point, we have to stop and determine what Arya’s real quest is. It’s to Go Home and Reunite With Her Family. That is her real goal. what her eventual boon will be. She gets sidetracked. (Arya only chooses to go to Braavos when she thinks the rest of her family is dead.)

    Temptation – That’s what Jaqen H’ghar is all about, but it’s on two levels. He offers Arya an alternate home if she will give up … herself and everything that is important to her. Arya wants to learn the skills of the FM (but not join them) in order to exact revenge on her personal enemies. She rejects the FM and escapes Braavos, but still falls victim to temptation by killing Trant and Walder Frey. She has yet to realize that revenge is useless – it won’t bring back her father, mother or her brother. The Journey is about character growth, and Arya has to grow past her need for revenge. She will need to reject attempting to complete her list if she is to escape a darker fate.

    And there the show stands. (Arya’s plunge into the Braavosi canal is symbolic of nothing more than D&D’s poor writing ability.)

    Atonement – will be solving the long-term basic conflict in her life. In Arya’s case, that will be with Sansa, supposedly coming this season.

    Many of the steps in the Return phase are often skipped. They are likely to be here, also. Modern shows usually opt for quick denouements.

    To reiterate, Arya’s main goal, her boon, is to Go Home and Reunite With Her Family. The revenge interlude is a subversive sidetrack, and the question is whether she will outgrow the desire for vengence. GRRM loves to subvert tropes. He rarely plays anything straight. You’ve missed the whole point of her story.

  • We certainly have a different take on things, Ibbison. I think, if Arya’s main quest was to return home and reunite with her family, she never would have taken that boat ride to Braavos–she still had to think that Jon was still alive at the Wall, at the very least–she would have found a way to continue north. But, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    • In the books, Arya first asks the captain to take her to Eastwatch; the captain declines. Later, she realizes that there is no place for her on the Wall, so there is no point in sailing north.

      Your post is based on show continuity, of course. Still, even in show continuity she has no place at the Wall. D&D’s story for Arya in season 5 and 6 is ridiculously weak; her motivation for rejecting the FM is not convincing. In the books (as revealed in the “Mercy” sample chapter), her motivation is crystal clear – family. All those who truly understood the story saw the opening lines of “Mercy” as a long expected event.

      • In the show she also asks the captain to take her north to the wall and he also declines saying there is nothing at the Wall for her.

  • I just can’t be there with Arya- I can’t pinpoint it and I probably should be more eloquent in these articles to justify the fact. I looked up to my brother and it screwed me over. Maybe I’m jealous……

  • I don’t get this insistence on Sansa and Arya being antagonists that needs to be “resolved.” Yes they had their differences as kids but who didn’t squabble with their sisters as children. They both have gone through hell, both have loved and lost their family and both have grown up. When looking at the play in Braavos, Arya’s face was as upset at what was being depicted about Sansa as it was when stage Ned was being beheaded. And Sansa showed happiness on both instances when she was told Arya was alive.

    I hope she will eventually give up her sadistic murderer ways by returning to her family, which includes Sansa. Saint Jon the savior is getting a bit old (I mean he is already saving the whole of humanity).

    Will it be a conflict free reunion? Of course not. But the sisters going at each other’s throas as in season 1 implies neither of them have grown as people or as characters.

    • I will keep this in show continuity.

      In Ep 102, Sansa lies about what she remembers in order to defend Joff, her Perfect Prince From the Songs. By doing so, she betrays her sister. That betrayal backfires on her, leading to the death of her direwolf Lady, symbolizing her severance from House Stark.

      The antagonism between Sansa ans Arya is a fundamental aspect of season 1. If you don’t get that, you fundamentally don’t understand the series. Sansa and Arya represent two fundamentally different ways of dealing with adversity. Those two methods are on a very basic level incompatible; they must confront each other and be resolved if the narrative is to have any resolution. (Yes, the resolution may result in a compromise, but that is still a resolution.)

      The differences between Sansa and Arya are fundamental to the series; if you don’t get that, you haven’t been paying attention.

  • Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Arya has been a joy to watch. People that worry about Arya’s lust for revenge need only look at other current heroes (Deadpool, John Wick, etc) to see that aspect of her character is more a reflection of society today and our disdain for classic heroes.

    “You know nothing Jon Snow”.

Leave a Comment