“The green lands have made you soft, and the Starks have made you theirs.”
“You’re wrong. Ned Stark was my gaoler, but my blood is still salt and iron.”
Synopsis: brilliant strategist and manly man Theon Greyjoy sails home to Pyke, where everyone falls over themselves to say how awesome and important Theon is, and then he has a heart-to-heart with his daddy, who accepts him completely and instantly agrees to his proposals. Just kidding.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Theon I is one of those chapters that reads completely differently after the publication of ADWD, when you can see the payoff to this setup. I remember initially finding Theon’s interior monologue, reeking (ha!) as it did with Axe body spray, misogyny, and a raging entitlement complex, really annoying (although Theon’s nigh-instant comeuppance is quite cathartic), especially when he actually succeeded in his long-shot plan to take Winterfell (perhaps one of the most consequential POV actions of the post-AGOT series). On the other hand, now that I’ve read ADWD and I go back to this chapter, I am beyond impressed at how precisely GRRM layers in themes that will become absolutely crucial to Theon’s storyline later – the chapter revolves around questions of identity and self-worth, questions that Theon attempts to answer with appeals to his masculinity, and Theon’s inner monologue constantly flips back-and-forth on his feelings about the Starks and his own family.
There’s a lot to get into in this chapter, and I know I’m not going to cover everything.* Someone far better than I at gender theory needs to tackle Theon’s masculine privilege/entitlement, the way in which misogyny covers for his massive insecurity, how Martin uses sexposition to both illustrate character and introduce us to the history and culture of the Iron Islands, and then the deconstruction of the aforementioned in ADWD – and probably has.
* I did want to briefly note the use of conflicting point-of-views, with Theon being so sure that “even the bastard Jon Snow had been accorded more honor than he had,” compared to Jon Snow’s absolute belief that he was on the bottom rung at Winterfell. Interesting how nobody agrees who was the sympathy-invoking underdog, either here or in the case of Arya and Sansa.
Theon’s Never-Going-to-Work Big Plan
One thing I had forgotten about this chapter is how much of the responsibility for the offer of alliance between the Starks and Greyjoys this lies directly on Theon’s shoulders. In part because of the foreknowledge of what Theon’s going to do and what’s going to happen to Robb, the blame tends to get lumped onto Robb as one more example of how the boy king won every battle but lost the war. Here, however, Theon is quite insistent that he, rather than Robb Stark, is primarily responsible for the idea: “There is nothing small about the letter I bear..and the offer he makes is one I suggested to him…It is my plan, not Robb’s,” Theon said proudly. Mine, as the victory will be mine, and in time the crown. “I will lead the attack myself…as my reward I would ask that you grant me Casterly Rock for my own seat.”
And to be fair to the poor doomed idiot, it’s actually not a terrible idea. The plan for the Ironborn to attack the Westerlands from the sea while Robb attacks from the land is actually quite sound militarily:
“By now, Robb is at the Golden Tooth…once it falls, he’ll be through the hills in a day. Lord Tywin’s host is at Harrenhal, cut off from the west. The Kingslayer is a captive at Riverrun. Only Ser Stafford Lannister and his raw green levies he’s been gathering remain to oppose Robb in the West. Ser Stafford will put himself between Robb’s army and Lannisport, which means the city will be undefended when we descend on it by sea. If the gods are with us, even Casterly Rock itself may fall…”
Everything that Theon says here is quite accurate – Robb gets past the Golden Tooth easily, Tywin is unable to come to the relief of the west, the Westerlands are defended by an incompetent leading an inexperienced army, and Lannisport is open for the taking. Given that Robb Stark is undertaking the major risks of facing the remaining army in the Westerlands, it’s a much less riskier proposition than trying to conquer the North (which still has 18,000 soldiers in it and is a much larger territory to be controlled) or (gods forbid) the Reach. Even without the fall of Casterly Rock (it would be easy enough to simply cut it off from supplies and starve it out), the fall of Lannisport and the arrival of 10-15,000 additional troops on Robb Stark’s side at this point in the war would have an impact almost as large as the fall of Winterfell and the Tyrell alliance.
Unfortunately….it’s made abundantly clear over and over again that this was just never going to work. Theon starts this chapter doomed (but oblivious) from the start, already counting the pot while he’s actually drawing dead. To start with, there’s the fact that Balon doesn’t send a ship to Seaguard, “as he’d hoped,” even though Theon had sent word of his voyage (although not its purpose). More importantly, when Theon arrives at Lordsport, he finds”
“A great number of longships, fifty or sixty at the least, stood out to sea or lay beached on the pebbled shore…some of the sails bore devices from the other islands; the blood moon of Wynch, Lord Goodbrother’s banded black warhorn, Harlaw’s silver scythe.”
“Had Lord Balon anticipated him and called the Greyjoy banners?…The thought did not please him. His father’s war was long done, and lost. This was Theon’s hour-his plan, his glory, and in time his crown. Yet if the longships are hosting…”
You can see there in Theon’s last hypothetical that, subconsciously, he realizes that something is badly wrong but can’t admit to himself that his big plan is not going to work. And there’s a series of exchanges between Theon and his uncle where the question of “To what purpose? Why are the longships hosting?…why has my father called his swords and sails?” is answered only with evasions (“Why have longships ever hosted?…Doubtless he will tell you at Pyke.”), which practically state outright that Theon’s mission is going to fail, in the same kind of dramatic-irony-through-repetition-and-reversal that you get in fairy tales and horror movies.
However, I think this is also proof of my earlier argument that Robb letting Theon go was not that consequential. As I alluded to at the time, it would take a substantial amount of time and effort and planning for Balon Greyjoy to assemble 50-60 longships (and their counterparts on the other islands) – far longer than it would take for news that Theon Greyjoy was being sent back to the Iron Islands would take to get from Riverrun to Pyke. Indeed, we see evidence of the time and effort involved from the fact that “Dagmer, the Cleftjaw is gone to Old Wyk at your father’s behest, to roust the Stonehouses and the Drumms.” For all of the Ironborn’s cultural differences, we can’t forget that the same rules of feudal politics apply – banners have to be called, lords have to be placated and alliances made, except now we add the increased difficulty that, unlike land-based vassals, the military forces of the various Lesser Houses of the Iron Islands are likely to be hundreds if not thousands of miles from home and out of contact with the fixed-point raven communication system at any given time.
Moreover, unlike Robb or Tywin or Renly (and to a lesser extent, or Stannis), Balon Greyjoy seems to have spent a substantial amount of time planning out his invasion. Indeed, the fact that Aeron Greyjoy insists that “we are commanded not to speak of this to any man,” and the complexity of Balon’s invasion (involving as it does a threefold attack on key strategic locations in the North), suggests that he’s been planning this…probably from the day after Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon breached the walls of Pyke.
Most tellingly, and in some ways the most poignant detail of all, is that this chapter is chock-full of hints that Balon Greyjoy went into his invasion with the assumption that Theon Greyjoy was going to die, and writing him off as a lost cause. Consider the following exchange between Theon and his uncle Aeron:
“I am not any man, I am heir to Pyke and the Iron Islands.”
“As to that,” his uncle said, “we shall see.”
“We shall see? My brothers are both dead. I am my lord father’s only living son.”
“Your sister lives.”
“A woman may inherit only if there is no male heir in the direct line…I will not be cheated of my rights.”
“…you are a great fool if you belive your lord father will ever hand these holy islands over to a Stark.”
Aeron is very much aware that his brother Balon intends for his daughter Asha to inherit his crown – hence his instantly retorting to Theon’s claim of being Balon’s heir by bringing up Asha (as we’ll see in Theon II, pretty much everyone else on Pyke also knows that Asha is the heir apparent). Indeed, the language used by Aeron – along with his assumption that Theon is a Stark – deliberately echoes that of Balon himself, who will respond to Theon’s repeated claim that he is “your blood and heir” with “we shall see.” I’ll get into the issue of Ironborn tradition and Asha as heir later, but given how the length of time it’s taken Balon to plan and then prepare his invasion, he had to have set it in motion before he knew that Theon had been set free.* Thus, regardless of Balon’s own feelings about Theon’s worthiness (which absolutely play into both Balon and Aeron’s assumptions that Theon has “gone native”), he had already made the decision to go ahead with the invasion, even though this would likely mean the death of his son at the hands of Ned or Robb, like an animal caught in a trap that chews off its own foot in order to escape.
* In turn, this suggests that Robb’s greatest mistake was perhaps, not really that consequential after all, compared to say, his decision to give Roose Bolton command of the Northern foot.
The final detail that adds an element of tragedy to all this is that Theon really should have seen this coming, had he not been blinded by his desire for this to work. After all, Theon knows that “Theon’s father numbered among his titles the style of Lord Reaper, and the Greyjoy words boasted that We Do Not Sow. It had been to bring back the Old Way more than for the empty vanity of a crown that Lord Balon had staged his great rebellion.” It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that a man who cares more for the Old Way than for crowns would respond to being offered a crown with indignation and disgust: “He will give me a crown…he will give me a crown,” he repeated, his voice growing sharp…”the boy will give me a crown…I am the Greyjoy, Lord Reaper of Pyke, King of Salt and Rock, Son of the Sea Wind, and no man gives me a crown. I pay the iron price. I will take my crown, as Urron Redhand did five thousand years ago.”
The Culture of the Ironborn – Appearances and Realities
Speaking of Urron Redhand…the other reason why Theon I is so interesting is that it’s our first real introduction into the culture of the Ironborn, one that’s just as distinctive and distinguished from mainland Westerosi culture as the Dothraki of AGOT or the Dornish of AFFC. The Ironborn are a rather divisive subject within the fandom, with some clearly reacting positively to the bloodthirsty pirate-by-way-of-Vikings vibe and others more negatively to the rape-slavery-and-casual-murder aspects of same (especially in a text which isn’t exactly shy about those kinds of things). And yet, when I went back to this chapter, I found something rather interesting under the surface of Ironborn culture that throws much of it into question.
Let’s start at the beginning: the Old Way is portrayed as an entirely militaristic one, in which the true Ironmen take rather than make, and in which any other way of life is somehow less than fully human:
“When we still kept the Old Way, lived by the axe instead of the pick, taking what we would, be it wealth, women, or glory. In those days, the ironborn did not work mines; that was labor for the captives brought back from the hostings, and so too the sorry business of farming and tending goats and sheep. War was an ironman’s proper trade. The Drowned God had made them to reave and rape, to carve out kingdoms and write their name in fire and blood and song.”
To consider a life of arms to be more noble than a life of labor is hardly unusual within Westeros; after all, the lords of the green lands train their sons primarily in the arts of a heavy cavalryman, with a light smattering of political and diplomatic and administrative skills, and the very terms “highborn” and “smallfolk” indicate there’s no equality of status there. What is different is that the Ironborn live in a slave society and the mainlanders don’t – a commoner and a lord living in Lannisport are both considered Westerlanders and legal persons, even if one has privileges the other doesn’t. But a thrall is property, taken at sword-point no different from cattle or gold or a ship. And this difference is important, because in a slave society, to work is to act like a slave. Whereas in Westeros a landed knight can till his own fields and a peasant is expected to grab a spear and shield and fight for his lord, in the Iron Islands, to exchange coins for goods and services is to admit that you too are a slave.
We can see the influence of a slave society when it comes to matters of gender. I’ll get into the question of how much freedom there is for Ironborn women later (once we get into Asha’s material a bit more), but one thing that’s clear is that one’s status as a woman takes a backseat to one’s category as Ironborn or thrall: “The ironmen of old did such things. A man had his rock wife, his true bride, ironborn like himself, but he had his salt wives too, women captured on raids.”
This martial and slave-taking culture also creates a different attitude to status and hierarchy. As Theon states, “Ironborn captains were proud and wilful, and did not go in awe of a man’s blood. The islands were too small for awe, and a longship smaller still. If every captain was a king aboard his own ship, as it was often said, it was small wonder they named the islands the land of ten thousand kings.” The nature of the longship (and its centrality in Ironborn life) explains part of this equality; on a longship, every hand is required to pull the oar, the deck is all of one level, and there’s no private cabin. And as Theon puts it, “when you have seen your kings shit over the rail and turn green in a storm, it was hard to…pretend they were gods.” However, part of this also comes from the slave aspect – historically (and I’ll get into this in more detail below), slave societies require a certain solidarity among the non-slave population that requires a certain equal treatment – no free person can be treated as less than a slave, lest slaves start to get ideas – and slave-masters, having experienced the heady rush of absolute ownership over other people, tend to be extremely touchy about being treated as equals (lest they be treated as slaves).
Here’s the problem, though. In this chapter, Ironborn culture is presented as eternal and unchanging, bringing with it all the complicated issues of “authenticity.” As Aeron Damphair sees it, “Men fish the sea, dig in the earth, and die. Women birth children in blood and pain, and die. Night follows day. The winds and tides remain. The islands are as our god made them.” Ironborn culture is unchanging because it is ordained by the Drowned God, who brought forth fire from the sea to lead the iron born to “go forth into the world with fire and sword,” who teaches his people unyielding defiance (“what is dead may never die…but rises again, harder and stronger”) and who blesses them with “salt…stone…[and] steel.”
And yet throughout this chapter, we are bombarded with evidence that Ironborn culture is unstable and constantly in the process of changing, and that the “Old Way” is far removed from the actual lived experience of actual Ironborn people. As Theon points out:
“those days are gone. No longer may we ride the wind with fire and sword, taking what we want. Now we scratch in the ground and toss lines in the sea like other men, and count ourselves lucky if we have salt cod and porridge enough to get us through a winter.”
Aegon the Dragon had destroyed the Old Way when he burned Black Harren, gave Harren’s kingdom back to the weakling rivermen, and reduced the Iron Islands to an insignificant backwater of a much greater realm. Yet the old red tales were still told…all across the islands.”
The Ironborn do not practice the Old Way; as the Mallisters note, the “the bell” meant to warn Seagard of Ironborn raiders “has been rung just once in three hundred years.” Three hundred years is a long time, approximately twelve generations in length, long enough to obliterate the distinction between master and slave (especially when slavery is not practiced across the generations). While House Codd is despised by the nobility of the Iron Islands, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Ironborn probably have thrall blood in them. More importantly, the Ironborn themselves have had to turn to peaceful occupations to eat and survive, no matter what the Iron Price and the Gold Price might say. Balon Greyjoy, separated by his feudal taxes from the need to feed himself from his own labor, might turn up his nose at goods bought with gold, but the Tyroshi trading galley and the Ibbenese Cog in the harbor are trading with someone and they’re not going to come if iron is the only thing on offer.
In other words, what we’re dealing with here is not a living culture but a revanchist one. Just as the people of Astapor and Yunkai and Meereen call themselves the sons of Ghis even though they are actually the descendants of a dozen peoples and mostly Valyrian, even though they’ve forgotten the Ghiscari language and now speak a mere dialect of Low Valyrian, even though their religion is essentially reverse-engineered from the archaeological remnants of a culture that no longer exist, so too do the Ironborn invent what the Old Way is and was, ignoring the signs of change along the way in favor of an imagined continuity. For example, Urron Redhand is held up by both Theon and his father as a paragon of the Old Way, a man who teaches the Ironborn that “the Drowned God makes men…but it’s men who make crowns” – and yet, it’s Urron Redhand who ended the original, authentic tradition of electing the King of the Iron Island at a kingsmoot and made the crown an inherited position, and whose line was then violently interrupted by the Andal invasion (for all that the Ironborn seem to pretend that never happened). Likewise, for all that the Ironborn are represented as having always followed the Drowned God, there was a sept in Lordsport before it was burned, which means there was a large enough population of followers of the Seven to support a church.
None of this is to say that the Ironborn’s self-conception isn’t powerful; as we’ll see, it’s powerful enough to inspire war, again and again. But it is important that we recognize that when Balon or Aeron or Victarion or Euron or Theon use their supposed heritage to justify their actions, what we’re seeing there is a political choice, to use history as the blunt force trauma of justification and legitimation.
On the face of it, Ironborn culture is a pretty straightforward expy for Viking culture, at least as it was understood by 19th century historians, who tended to rely a bit heavily on church chroniclers who propagandized rather heavily against anyone who touched church property and on Scandinavian sagas that were long on embellishment, in other words by the same sorts of folks who gave us the image of the violent, unkempt barbarian in the horned helmet that’s almost entirely invented.
The more revisionist history that came around starting in the mid-20th century paints a more sober picture:
- First, the “Viking era” was a relatively brief part of Scandinavian history (and indeed, many today label it an era in pre-history, given the paucity of written records from the Scandinavians themselves), lasting only from the late 8th through the 11th centuries C.E – afterwards, you’re dealing with more centralized monarchies.
- Second, going “viking” was not the center of Scandinavian culture and society – rather, it was seasonal work undertaken by fishermen, sailors, farmers, etc. to supplement their incomes, given the limitations of Scandinavian climates. In this light, it’s not that different from the piracy practiced by many other coastal people in this, earlier, and later periods.
- Third, “viking” existed as one part of a spectrum of economic and military activities. On the one hand, the same longships that were used to rob abbeys were also used for trading and exploration; the same axes and swords for a bit of robbery and plunder were often turned to more civilized uses, like mercenary work. And critically, scholars have often conflated actual “vikings” with more straightforward conquest – raiding for spending money was all well and good, but what Scandinavians wanted was better farmland. Hence the conquest of Normandy, the eastern half of Ireland, the Danelaw in England, the two Sicilies, Kievan Rus, and so on and so forth. And when we look at these conquests, we don’t see the barbarians of the chronicles – “Northmen” founded cities and towns, encouraged commerce, conducted adminstration and taxation and legal systems, and tended to assimilate into the local culture (albeit at the top). Granted, they were still conquering other people’s lands, but that hardly makes them that different from say, the Anglo-Saxons who had taken Britain from the Romanized Britons, or the Franks who had subjugated the Romanized Gauls, a few hundred years earlier.
- Fourth, “viking” raids existed in a context of push and pull factors. Overpopulation and limited arability in Scandinavia was a factor in getting young men to bring in ready money from overseas; it’s also been suggested that anti-pagan discrimination by Christian traders was a motivating factor in acquiring foreign exchange by force. Others have noted that the crusades of Charlesmagne against the pagan Saxons of continental Europe pushed the Saxons up into Scandinavia, again creating overpopulation, a need for more land, and a dislike of Christians, and thus pushing the “vikings” into England, Ireland, Northern France, etc. Still others have noted that the increase in Viking activity also coincided with the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, and can thus be seen as a sort of testing of the political and military vaccum that proceeded more serious efforts to deal with internal problems by grabbing for a cut of Europe along with everyone else.
Now, Martin is clearly a romantic who likes the older history of the Vikings, but as we’ll see, he also understands the more practical side of history. However, there are clearly elements of Ironborn culture that don’t have any correspondence with Viking society – the extreme emphasis on caste and slavery, the resentment complex towards the mainland, the revanchist attitude and born-again religion.
I would argue instead that the Ironborn resembles the Civil-War era (white) South, which George R.R Martin researched in preparation for his novel Fevre Dream, which posited vampires as part of the parasitic plantation elite. Consider the similarities: just as the Ironborn strongly emphasize the differences between ironman and thrall, the South laid down sharp divisions between white and black, free and slave; just as the Ironborn treat one another with a rough equality, historians have pointed out how the necessities of white unity against the threat of slave rebellions required the creation of a cultural attitude in which all whites were equal, and had to be treated better than black slaves. Within the reigning ideology of slavery, the idea was that slavery created a mud-sill effect that lifted up even poor whites by freeing them from the need to perform the worst kinds of labor, and thus creating in the South a kind of herrenvolk democracy. (If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend David Blight’s lecture series on the Civil War and Reconstruction which are available for free on iTunes)
Most importantly, like the Ironborn in the wake of Aegon’s Conquest and the failure of the Greyjoy Rebellion, the white South had engaged in a failed rebellion in the hopes of maintaining a society and culture based on human exploitation, bitterly resented their defeat and the end of their “peculiar system,” and through the use of violent terrorism believed that their true, original culture would “rise again.” Likewise, in the face of their defeat, the white South turned to the revision of history to posit a South that was the victim rather than the initiatior of a civil war, that had fought for the purest constitutional motives rather than in defense of a social system now universally regarded as evil, and that had previously enjoyed a harmonious and virtuous social order more in line with the martial virtues of the past than the tawdry commercialism of the victorious Yankees.
So, next time you think about how “badass” Victarion or Euron might be, imagine them in a pointy white hood.
There are a few hypotheticals I want to address in this chapter. I’m sure I’ve missed some, so look to the comment section for more:
- Balon Greyjoy says yes? I highly doubt this was ever possible, given what we learn in this chapter and Balon’s temperment and character. But let’s say that Balon gets hit on the head shortly before meeting Theon Greyjoy and suffers a sudden reversal of personality. Well, I think much of what Theon says comes to pass – shortly after Robb Stark’s victory at Oxcross, Lannisport falls from a combined sea- and land-attack, and Casterly Rock is put under siege. I’m of the opinion that, barring a bit of deus ex machina from GRRM as happens with Winterfell, Casterly Rock will hold out for an extended period of time, but it doesn’t need to fall to have a political impact. With Lannisport sacked and Casterly Rock under siege, Tywin’s impetus to cross the Red Fork increases dramatically, as does the pressure on his own political coalition. That might be enough to keep Tywin trying to cross just one more day, and prevent him from linking up with the Tyrells. Alternatively, if the news reaches Highgarden that the Lannisters have just lost their major port city and are in danger of losing the capitol of the Westerlands, I think the Tyrells think twice about allying with them. Especially since in this scenario, rather than facing an invasion of the North, Robb Stark can now look forward to the next phase of the war with 10-15,000 Ironborn allies and another 18,000 Northern soldiers who can now march south through Moat Cailin to help end the war once and for all.
- Theon warns Robb? This is something that the T.V show raised much more than the books, but it’s an interesting possibility that ought to be discussed. If Theon sends a letter to Robb warning of the Ironborn invasion, a couple critical things change: firstly, Theon is likely to spend the war a prisoner in Pyke if his treason is discovered, and that may be his best outcome. However, he’s highly unlikely to engineer the attack on Winterfell, which means that the North eventually rallies to push out the Ironborn with their superior numbers, Robb Stark doesn’t suffer a massive loss of prestige that forces him to abandon his southern campaign, possibly Roose Bolton thinks twice about the Red Wedding, Catelyn definitely doesn’t set Jaime free. Possibly Robb Stark trades Jaime to Tywin for peace and calls it quits; possibly he just hangs on long enough for the deaths of Balon, Joffrey, and Tywin to destabilize his enemies and squeaks through.
- Theon never goes? As I’ve suggested earlier and I think demonstrated here, given Balon’s preparations, the likely outcome of Theon’s offer being sent by a different courier is that Balon Greyjoy attacks the North, Robb Stark is forced to execute his best friend (which has to top even the Rickard Karstark beheading for an unpleasant task for the young king), and then the gradual expulsion of the Ironborn from the North.
Book vs. Show:
I have many complaints about Season 2. Theon’s storyline is not one of them. With a few minor exceptions, Season 2 saw a near-perfect execution of Theon’s A Clash of Kings storyline, anchored by a revelatory performance from Alfie Allen. While the excision of Aeron Damphair is regrettable, and might possibly cause some issues in Season 5, Theon’s arrival in Pyke and his complete humiliation in front of his father (played by an always-excellent Patrick Malahide) is about as perfect as you get. And besides, this was just damn beautiful: