“A girl is no one.”
— Game of Thrones
Most of us have all we can do to be who we need to be, to juggle the few social roles that seem necessary, and to hang on to, and nurture, some kind of authentic inner self. Like true primates, though, we like to fiddle with things. When we want to mentally fiddle with what more complex identity problems might be, we turn to fiction.
Fiction lacks punch without conflict. The plot may engender conflict, but it is the internalization of that conflict in characters that really interests us. We wonder what will the character do: stay or go, fight or flee, love or withdraw, take revenge or forgive. When we are really engaged we are identifying with the character and thus are trying on an alternative self, risk free, like trying on a shirt at the store.
Currently the world is captivated by the story being told in the television serialization, Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. In that boiling stew of social strife no character tells us more about identity conflict than Arya Starck, princess of Winterfell.
Arya begins with a conflict between her own nature, which is active and warrior-like, and the expectations of her family and culture, which is for her to be a traditionally feminine princess, suitable for being traded in marriage as payment for political alliances. Her sister Sansa in fact is betrothed to the future king Joffrey, blind to his severe character flaws, but Arya sees through him and stands up to him, at her own peril. So there is also in Arya some of the truly honorable character of her father Eddard, Lord of the North in Westeros. Eddard is honest, just and fair, upright almost to a fault, lacking the casual cruelty that is rife in Westeros’s ruling class.
Arya takes the first steps towards a violent future when she tries to teach herself fencing with a servant boy. Later her father realizes her desire for fighting skill. He hires her an elite fencing master who can teach her techniques suitable to her young age (around 11) and petite stature. She acquires her own small sword. naming it “Needle” as a mockery of the needlework that her mother expected her to pursue. She might have turned out like her father, becoming a fighting princess and thus harmonizeing her “true self” and her social position. But the death of the king and treachery from Joffrey sees her witness the unjust beheading of her father Eddard.
In the long odyssey that follows her escape from her fathers’ fate, we see her adopting multiple aliases to avoid being identified. She experiences many horrible things as she travels across a land overrun by a multi-sided war of succession. Beneath the various commoner roles she has to play for survival, she is still the wronged aristocrat, clinging to a list of enemies whose names she recites before going to bed. She thus keeps burning an internal fire for revenge against those who have wronged her, her family, and her friends. She gradually adopts a darker side of honor that her noble father never had. She kills an innocent stable boy accidentally. Thus freed to be a killer, she finds various ways to kill people on the list, dispatching some of them by her own hand. When she can, she surfaces the Arya identity so her victims know why they are dying.
She has an encounter with a criminal, Jaqen, who helps her kill some enemies because he owes her his life. He invites her to join his cult to learn better techniques. She demurs, but when they part she is astonished to see him transform into a person with an entirely different face. He leaves her a coin that can be used as a token to find him. After other misadventures and the loss of her mother and brother to more treachery, she abandons a quest to find her remaining brother, and, seemingly on a whim, heads overseas to Braavos, the home city of Jaqen and his death cult, the Faceless Men.
The cult maintains a temple, the House of Black and White. They offer painless death to people seeking a way out of life. By magic means they store the faces of these people. The faces can be worn by their operatives who engage in the cult’s other “service”: killings for hire. These are done for money but can also have some twisted rationale about which contracts should be accepted or refused.
Jaqen points out that Arya could continue her life in several ordinary ways, but to become a Faceless Man “a girl must be no one.” Arya persists, throwing away clothes and money belonging to Arya Starck, but secretly stashing Needle. The cult proceeds to try to eradicate Arya’s birth identity and its baggage, like her enemies list. She is taught to go out on the street and observe, adopting various street identities. The goal is to learn how to become someone new for long enough to carry out assassinations contracts. Arya, long used to being someone else, has no trouble with the new identities, but gets distracted when she unexpectedly meets and kills people on her enemies list.
In an attempt to finally rid Arya of a permanent identity, the cult uses a drug to force her to be blind for a period of time. She is also stressed by being forced into repeated mock combats with a sighted assassin known as The Waif. Finally the time comes when, asked who she is, Arya says, “a girl is no one”, and Jaqen believes her. He will give her one more chance, to assassinate a popular actress. Arya poisons the actress’s drink but, conscience struck, knocks it aside at the last second, and then implicates the jealous rival actress who had commissioned the act.
Marked for death as a failed acolyte, Arya is wounded by The Waif, but then defeats her. Jaqen offers to let her now be a Faceless Man, but Arya decides to become Ned Starck’s daughter again. She goes back to Westeros and uses their face transplanting magic to destroy the entire extended family that had murdered much of her clan in the treacherous Red Wedding.
Arya’s fictional life stretches the idea of identity past the limits of what might be seen in any real life. She has an underlying character, or true self, that gradually morphs from honorable warrior aristocrat to vengeful killer. Her willingness and ability to use force go beyond what a girl of her age should be able to do.
She adopts many aliases, even changing gender for a time. Her early aliases last for long periods measured in days or weeks, but at night her underlying identity briefly surfaces as she recites her litany of enemy names. Under social pressure from the cult, she experiments with having a null identity, being “no one”, on top of which various poses such as urchin, street vendor, or beggar can be put on and off like masks. Her ability to do this arises from social pressure in the form of military-like hazing and brainwashing, a forced sensory isolation via temporary blinding, as well as her own meditation-like mental practice and concentration.
Put to the test of carrying out an unjust killing however, she returns to her former mode of being, a dynamically dual identity. Inside she is Arya Starck, a princess of an honorable but persecuted family. Outside she now is a master at adopting the false personas that are the tool for destroying her enemies.
Few characters in fiction go to Arya’s extremes, and even fewer in real life. But we love stories about spies who have powers of identity transformation that we can’t imagine having. Martin portrays this as happening under the enormous pressure of war and historical upheaval. We shall see later many less extreme circumstances in which identity fission or plurality may occur.