The following post contains minor spoilers for “Spoils of War” (episode 4 of Game of Thrones season 7).
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of Game of Thrones, say in a behind-the-scenes video that Arya’s homecoming scene in the latest episode of Game of Thrones was inspired by Odysseus’ return to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey. But the parallels with the Odyssey in that particular scene are not all that strong.
The similarity is that both return home unrecognized and have to spend time proving their identities, but that comparison misses the point. Odysseus was unrecognized because he was in disguise, in order to scope out the situation and figure out what his enemies, the Suitors, were up to, before revealing himself. Arya simply walks up to the front gates as herself–no disguise.
There is a significant reunion scene between Arya and her sister, perhaps similar to Odysseus’ reunions with his son or wife–we’ll get back to this in a bit. Beyond that, there is nothing else that is similar to the Odyssey. At first, it seemed to me that the producers only say that this scene is inspired by the Odyssey to give it an extra sense of importance by calling on a work of Classical literature.
However, even if this one scene has little to do with the Odyssey, there are a number of major parallels between the Odyssey and other aspects of Arya’s journey that are quite interesting to point out.
Both have traveled long distances and gone through many struggles to arrive home. They’ve survived by keeping their wits about them, using their cleverness to handle tough situations, including using disguises, but that’s all pretty basic stuff.
The more fascinating, thematic parallels come out when we start talking about the Faceless Men. Arya, in the past few seasons, had been trying to gain power by becoming “No One” and learning the skills of these anonymous assassins who serve the god of death. Essentially, she attempts to gain advantages for herself by putting aside her own personal identity.
Similarly, Odysseus puts himself in an advantageous situation by becoming “No One.” In the Cyclops’ cave, he introduces himself as “No One,” so that when he blinds the Cyclops by stabbing his eye out, the Cyclops calls out to his neighbors that “no one is killing me.” It is one of Odysseus’ most well-known tricks, and thematically, it suggests that anonymity gives you power–just as it does for the Faceless Men.
But the call toward one’s personal identity often wins out, in the end. Arya uses her newly-acquired skills to seek personal revenge against Ser Meryn Trant, and is punished–ironically in a manner like the Cyclops, by being blinded. Odysseus, eager to claim the glory of his exploit, reveals his name to the Cyclops, and as a result, is cursed by the Cyclops’ father, Poseidon, to have a long and difficult journey home.
Both eventually head home to seek revenge on those who have wronged their families. The Suitors have been violating the tenets of Greek hospitality (xenia) by taking over his home to throw endless banquets, feasting on his livestock and drinking his wine without permission, and attempting to woo his wife and kill his son. In response, Odysseus disguises himself, attends a banquet with the Suitors, and then reveals himself, before proceeding to slay them all.
Similarly, Walder Frey violated hospitality when he invited the Starks to a wedding feast only to kill them. To attain her vengeance, Arya disguises herself to attend a feast with the entire Frey family present and kills all of them in one fell swoop. She then declares her identity by turning her family’s words into a statement of vengeance: “Winter has come for House Frey.”
As it turns out, it is quite fruitful to compare Arya’s journey with the Odyssey. How does this comparison help us as we look forward to the end of Game of Thrones?
One themes of the Odyssey is the difficulty that Odysseus has breaking through the emotional and psychological shell he’s developed after ten years at war and ten years traveling at sea. He has had to be a warrior and survivor, who keeps his feelings locked down to make it through to the next obstacle, and so, when he returns home, he has to rebuild his relationships and personal connections with his family and friends.
In the same way, we can speculate that Arya’s struggles and experiences (e.g. magical assassin school) have changed her so much that it becomes difficult for her to reintegrate with her family, especially as Sansa starts to realize her sister is no longer a little girl but is now a vengeful, dangerous, and cold-blooded killer. It’s not going to be easy for the Starks to be a family again (I haven’t even mentioned Bran turning into an emotionless psychic). Arya may have returned physically to Winterfell, but now, what will it take for her to truly return home and be part of a family once more? Or has she gone too far down this dark path of violence to ever be part of a family?
So, back to that reunion scene: Sansa and Arya reunite in the catacombs of Winterfell and start to reconnect through the statue of their father. They recall their shared “roots,” despite how far they’ve diverged from one another. Then, the “root” imagery is brought to life via the Weirwood Tree, as they meet Bran in the Godswood. In a similar way, Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, reconnect on the basis of an object with important emotional resonance: their bed, which contains a secret only husband and wife know, that it was constructed out of a solidly rooted olive tree.
In the end, what is Odyssey-like about Arya’s return to Winterfell is not the fact that nobody recognizes her at first, but rather, her reunion with Sansa and Bran, and the rebuilding of family connections–and the challenges that will entail down the line.