University of Cambridge > > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > Coming of Age When Winter is Coming: the Stark Choices of Late Medieval and Early Modern Youth

Coming of Age When Winter is Coming: the Stark Choices of Late Medieval and Early Modern Youth

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The six Stark children share one common feature – they are all still young, and perceived as such by the society in which they live. Perceptions of youth mutated from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries in England, but common features included an emphasis on youth’s pliability, its temptations and struggles, and hence its importance as ‘the choosing time’ between salvation or damnation. This dualistic idea was bolstered by the Protestant Reformation, emphasising that to have any chance of attaining heaven one had to repent, and swiftly.

Although medieval and early modern youth was characteristically long, shifting and ill-defined for both sexes, boys tended both to leave childhood earlier as apprentices or pages, and to take longer to prove themselves as men. Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow that ‘Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born,’ but both Jon and Robb, like stereotypical medieval youth, struggle to choose manly reason above boyish passion. When Robb, through lust and short-sightedness, fails to ‘kill the boy’, Walder Frey does it for him. Jon also fails to take Aemon’s advice, as we see after he risks everything to save his ‘sister’, although it seems possible he may be able to redeem himself if he is resurrected.

For girls, youth was tied much more tightly to the dictates of biology, beginning with puberty and ending upon marriage with the loss of virginity, as demonstrated by Sansa’s uncertain status. Still not quite a woman, Sansa has to choose between truth and lies. It’s possible that, under Littlefinger’s tutelage, she could become too cold and calculating, ‘killing the girl’ – her former self – and becoming Alayne Stone, a name which echoes the merciless persona of her undead mother, Lady Stoneheart. As for Arya, Martin shows us how her desire for justice can be distorted into a desire for vengeance, when life becomes too cruel for mercy. Unlike Sansa, her danger is not ‘killing the girl’ but ‘killing the woman’. Her 36-year old companion in the House of Black and White, the ‘waif’, is still a child; if Arya continues to train as an assassin, she too, it is implied, will have to give up her adult future.

As in medieval and early modern models of the ‘ages of man’, which related life-stages to the seasons, youth is represented as a brief ‘autumn’ in A Song of Ice and Fire. All of the Stark children are associated with summer; either born in the long summer, like Arya, Bran and Rickon, or seen as green boys with ‘the smell of summer’ on them, like Robb and Jon, or enchanted with the knights of summer, like Sansa. At this point in the series, summer is over, but winter is not yet here, which is analogous to the medieval Christian idea that Judgement Day was continually close at hand. If winter symbolises the resurrection of the dead and God’s final judgement, we are entering autumn, the ‘choosing time’ – and all the living Starks have choices to make.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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