Instead of kicking off with a bang, the first episode of Game of Thrones season 8 strategically placed the characters exactly where they needed to be as the encroaching Winter drew close. As part of the preparations for battle, “Winterfell” gifted viewers a number of reunions — the most heartening of which saw Jon Snow and Arya meet for the first time since the beginning of the series.
Jon was never particularly close with Sansa, who often alienated him due to his status as a bastard. However, when the pair reconvened after several seasons apart, they were ecstatic to see each other. When Arya came home last season, Jon was still at Dragonstone. “I hope he comes back soon,” Sansa told her. “I remember how happy he was to see me; when he sees you, his heart will probably stop.”
While the series captures the closeness of Arya and Jon — specifically in the season 1 scene in which Jon gives her Needle — it doesn’t quite delve into the significance of their relationship like George R.R. Martin’s novels do. Labeled as a bastard, Jon often felt ostracized in Winterfell. The only sibling of his that truly understood this was Arya, who experienced similar treatment due to her tomboyish nature. They were outsiders, but they had each other.
Throughout all five books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, Jon and Arya constantly think about each other. In fact, George R.R. Martin originally planned for them to be two vertices of a love triangle, the other vertex being Tyrion. This was scrapped at the drawing board, and Martin has since stated that he wishes it never came to light in the first place. The leak complicates their closeness in the books, which can be read as either platonic or romantic, the latter only being a factor because of what we weren’t supposed to know.
Despite Martin abandoning the idea of romance between them, Jon and Arya’s stories are often intertwined, even when they’re halfway across the world from each other. For instance, compare this passage from Martin’s first novel, A Game of Thrones:
Arya… he missed her even more than Robb, skinny little thing that she was, all scraped knees and tangled hair and torn clothes, so fierce and willful. Arya never seemed to fit, no more than he had… yet she could always make Jon smile. He would give anything to be with her now, to muss up her hair once more and watch her make a face, to hear her finish a sentence with him.
And this one from later in the novel:
“When you ride back to the Wall, would you bring Jon a letter if I wrote one?” She wished Jon were here right now. He’d believe her about the dungeons and the fat man with the forked beard and the wizard in the steel cap.
Throughout the series, the two often think of each other when they feel isolated from the world around them. The relationship is even transposed onto their direwolves, Ghost and Nymeria (who happen to be the only direwolves that are still alive). In A Game of Thrones, Martin writes, “Nymeria stalked closer on wary feet. Ghost, already larger than his litter mates, smelled her, gave her ear a careful nip, and settled back down.” Even the language evokes the personalities of Jon and Arya. “Stalking” can be compared to what Sansa says in season 8, episode 1; when Jon asks where Arya is, Sansa says she’s “lurking” somewhere. Similarly, the idea of Ghost playfully nipping his sibling’s ear resonates with the way Jon often mussed up Arya’s tangled hair, an image he thought of while he was at his loneliest at Castle Black.
It’s often remarked that Jon and Arya are the only two Starks who inherited the family look. Robb, Bran, Rickon, and Sansa all have the auburn hair of House Tully, hereditary on their mother’s side. By contrast, Jon and Arya are long-faced — Arya is actually teased by Sansa’s friends for this, who call her “Arya Horseface” — and have grey-blue eyes with dark hair. In season 8, both of them wear their hair like Ned’s: long and neatly slicked back.
Ned was beloved to all of his children, but particularly so by Jon and Arya, who often clashed with their mother — Arya for neglecting her needlework and sporting a tomboyish appearance, and Jon for being the son of another woman. However, the only person to whom they were even more loyal than their father was each other. This is exemplified by the scene in which Ned finds Arya’s sword in A Game of Thrones, which eventually leads to her training with Syrio Forel:
“My nine-year-old daughter is being armed from my own forge, and I know nothing of it. The Hand of the King is expected to rule the Seven Kingdoms, yet it seems I cannot even rule my own household. How is it that you come to own a sword, Arya? Where did you get this?”
Arya chewed her lip and said nothing. She would not betray Jon, not even to their father.
Needle bears particular significance in Jon and Arya’s relationship. Both the show and the books feature the iconic scene in which Arya jealously watches her brothers learn how to fight. It’s Jon who eventually gives Arya her first sword, before uttering the famous phrase “stick ’em with the pointy end.” While the sword often reminds Arya of her brother, perhaps the most affecting reference to it is made in Martin’s fourth book, A Feast for Crows:
“It’s just a stupid sword,” she said, aloud this time...
... but it wasn’t.
Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow’s smile. He used to mess my hair and call me “little sister,” she remembered, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes.
The above passage refers to Arya’s need to relinquish all of her possessions before becoming “no one” at the House of Black and White. While she discards most of her belongings, she secretly keeps Needle, her one reminder of home and her brother. In a lot of ways, Needle is something that continuously binds the two together. In A Dance with Dragons, when Jon dies at Castle Black after the mutiny orchestrated by Ser Alliser Thorne, he thinks of only Ghost and Arya:
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger’s hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air the wound was smoking. “Ghost,” he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold…
“Stick them with the pointy end” seems out of place here, but that’s because this is a stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered at death’s doorstep. Of everyone he ever knew, Jon dies with Arya on his mind — the one person who ever truly understood him.
The series has progressed significantly further than the books in season 8, but it’s only when you consider the two version of the stories in parallel that the cathartic reunion between Jon and Arya achieves maximum gravitas.
“You used to be taller,” Arya teases, sneaking up on her brother while he stands beneath a weirwood tree. After a short exchange, the two siblings rush into a magnificent embrace, finally reunited after feeling alone in the world for so long. When you look at it plainly, it’s a touching scene, a reunion that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But when you consider just how much this means to the two of them, you’ll be able to see how much weight it carries. In many ways, this is probably the most significant reunion in all of Game of Thrones, and it culminated in one of the most genuinely heartwarming and affecting scenes the series has ever known.
“Have you ever had to use it?” Jon asks her in the most recent episode, brushing off her jest beneath the looming weirwood tree in the Godswood.
“Once or twice,” Arya says, the expression on her face painting a thousand words. It’s a lie, obviously, but as Ned once told Arya after she chased Nymeria away to spare her being executed: “Even the lie was… not without honor.”
Cian Maher is a freelance writer who sometimes spends more time replaying games than playing new ones, which is obviously problematic, but also very fun. If he could talk about Pokémon and Overwatch forever, he probably would.