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6 September 2019

Is Samwell Tarly the true hero of Game of Thrones – or just a Mary Sue?

By James Cooray Smith

Two highlights of Game of Thrones’ 2019 premiere featured Samwell Tarly. The first saw him somehow remaining polite and respectful as Queen Daenerys Targaryen accidentally informed him she’d had his father and brother executed. The other was when he told his friend Jon Snow the series’ big secret: that Jon is also a Targaryen, secretly fostered, and thus legally King. (This, unfortunately, makes Jon’s lover Daenerys his Aunt. Eww.)

Placing these two moments in close proximity also flags the parallels between Sam and Jon’s adoptive father Ned Stark, the series’ highwater mark for integrity. Both raise a child saved from an abusive, incestuous family as their own; both lose their father and brother to Targaryen bloodlust. Sam has little reason to mourn the father who enlisted him in the Night’s Watch under threat of death, or the brother for whom he did it, but he weeps anyway. That’s who is he is. Decent, honest and true.

This partly reflects Sam’s nature as a best friend to one of the show’s leads, a supporting figure and reactive character with no agenda of his own (and one named for Samwise Gamgee, best friend to Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings). But there’s more to it than that.

 The term “Mary Sue” comes from Lieutenant Mary Sue, the protagonist of A Trekkie’s Tale, published in the Star Trek fanzine Menagerie (#2, 1973). Star Trek fan writing had by then become over-populated with characters who were thinly veiled avatars for their authors, and in A Trekkie’s Tale writer Paula Smith mocked that tendency.

Her term stuck, and escaped into a wider culture war, where it roams uninhibited. Recently, we’ve suffered the (ridiculous) assertion that Rey in Star Wars is one such character. But if you’re looking for self-insert characters in that saga, you might want to note that “Luke S” = “Lucas”. And while I’m an admirer of George Lucas, this non-coincidence is largely uncommented on, because such characters are less criticised when the author and/or character are male, so much so there isn’t an agreed term for it.

When we meet Sam he’s being bullied by his new ‘brothers’ in the Night’s Watch, and we quickly learn his tragic history. He’s an awkward, overweight teenage virgin, and not much good in a fight, suggesting he won’t exactly thrive in a military order. Yet within a few episodes the Night’s Watch’s Lord Commander respects Sam’s intelligence, noting that while he thinks he’s a coward, he knows he’s not a fool. Because Sam isn’t just an author insert: he’s the assumed audience for a doorstop series of fantasy novels, a bullied, socially awkward fat lad who reads even fatter books. Which is why, for him, everything eventually comes good.

Sam’s relationship with Gilly, the young wildling woman who becomes his lover and common law wife, is, whatever the colour of Sam’s outfit, a classic white knight situation. He rescues her and her son from their abusive father, and then again from mutineers amongst the Night’s Watch, and finally conquers his physical cowardice in order to defend them from a White Walker, becoming the first person in centuries to kill one in the process. When Gilly tells him she’s in awe of his learning, we discover he had childhood dreams of being a wizard like those he’d read of in books, further aligning him with the audience.

Sam is always respectful of Gilly, even though his initial infatuation with her is prompted by straightforward desire. (“I can’t steal her. She’s a person, not a goat!” he says when it’s initially suggested he take her from her father.) Aware of the abuse she’s suffered, he maintains his distance, caring for her and her son, while never suggesting their relationship could be anything other than platonic. It’s another common fictional trope, this time used to indicate male decency: the willingness to bring up another man’s child as his own for love of its mother.

Eventually Sam is injured defending them, and that’s when Gilly gently propositions him, as the series briefly detours into another fan fiction sub genre, Hurt/Comfort. She has come to love him because of his decency. All he had to do was be true to himself and wait, and everyone would see his true worth.

Because, Sam, of course, is not a coward at all. He’s not physically adept, but morally, intellectually, he’s courageous, capable of defying his family, his order, even his Gods. He’s capable of an impromptu speech that gets his widely disliked friend elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. More, when he achieves his dream of studying at the Citadel and discovers that the Maesters he longs to join are largely foolish old men, he tells them so and leaves, pausing only to cure incurable disease along the way. For a man disinherited for his uselessness, he’s surprisingly good at everything. Which is another agreed characteristic of a Mary Sue. Or perhaps Marty Stu.

Where is all this going? Some might think the logical conclusion is that Sam would end up Monarch of the Seven Kingdoms, but that misses the point. That isn’t who he is. Everything that has come to Sam throughout Game of Thrones – love, family, education, respect, friendship – has been something that he wanted. The ordinary things of life which have been denied to him. He’s never shown the vaguest interest in power.

You’re probably thinking that it’s deeply unfair to caricature Sam in quite these terms. He’s a beacon of humanity in an often relentlessly bleak series, and one sensitively and beautifully played by actor John Bradley. And you’d be right. But let’s be honest, it’s hideously unfair at least 99.9 per cent of the time someone does it to female characters, too.

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