Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: ACOK, Theon I

“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.

Political Analysis:

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.

Historical Analysis:

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.

Not quite historically accurate.

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 eliteConsider 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.

What If?

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:

230 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: ACOK, Theon I

  1. Fernando says:

    I guess you’ll talk a little more about this as Theon’s chapters progress, but I never had any problem with the excision of Reek/Ramsay from Winterfell. Making Theon’s conflict basically an internal one actually made it more compelling–a rare feat of the show, which tends to externalize as much as it can.

    • I didn’t have a problem with that, more a problem with the Bran/Rickon fakeout.

    • Sean C. says:

      I don’t think Ramsay’s being excluded was a problem for the bulk of the story. It was a problem for the ending of the story in season 2, which I think was borderline incomprehensible for people who hadn’t read the book (I saw a lot of people who were confused as to whether the burning of Winterfell was supposed to be a mystery or if they had missed something).

      • Yes, exactly. Theon’s storyline in season 2 was great until the finale where it got the anticlimactic and confusing ending, with the burning of Winterfell happening off-screen and unexplained until the season 3 finale. If only the show had cast Ramsay for season 2, we could have gotten a spectacular finale resolution to the storyline, with Ramsay’s revelation and the burning of Winterfell.

        • I think the burning of Winterfell still could have worked had it been clearer that the Ironborn die mysteriously and didn’t get a chance to burn Winterfell.
          In fact, you probably could have shot it as a seen from inside the crypts with them hearing the sounds of battle and coming out and seeing the dead Ironborn and then Luwin gives them a cryptic warning that Northmen did this, ergo it’s not safe to stay in the North.

      • Winnie says:

        To be fair, I think they wanted to surprise people with the Roose reveal at the RW.

        Letting viewers know, a Bolton was responsible for burning WF would have given it all away too soon.

      • I think it would have made more sense if you’d seen the Ironborn dead among the ruins of Winterfell.

    • I don’t see how the lack of Ramsay in Wintefell made Theon’s conflict any more internal than it was in ACOK. The TV version of Dagmar/Theon’s right hand man in the show does the exact same things and performs the exact same role as Reek!Ramsay did in the book, minus the sacking of Winterfell. The only thing that was changed was adding confusion, and making the relationship between Theon and Ramsay less meaningful.

  2. S. Duff says:

    Another thing I’d like to point out again is that being forced to turn to trading has actually been very good for the Ironborn. Lord Botley’s keep has been rebuilt in stone instead of wood, the new inn is several times larger than the old one, ect. That money has to come from somewhere, and as you said those merchant vessels had to be looking for something.

      • David says:

        A follow-up question in this vein: what could we reasonably imagine the ironborn were exporting? The Iron Islands seem relatively resource-poor, they’re not well-situated as a trading hub between other parties, and even with their martial culture it’s difficult to imagine that they might be exporting manufactured products like weapons (that are superior in quality to what you could get on the mainland.)

        Any thoughts?

        • Crystal says:

          Rodrik Harlaw moonlights as a rare-books dealer?

          Harlaw island is mentioned as being the richest, so I think they might export crops or wool, given that it is on the same latitude as the Riverlands. The Goodbrothers of Great Wyk are mentioned as having iron mines. Finally, it’s possible that the islands export fish, which I’m sure are abundant in their waters.

          • David says:

            RE: Rodrik – LOL.

            And that makes sense for both Harlaw & Goodbrother, thanks. My only point of skepticism is RE: the fish – apart from salting, do they have reliable preservation methods for long voyages? Are the fish available to them considered delicacies worth transporting, when there are presumably local fishing industries that can produce cheaper fare? And would the IB export what seems to be their major food source, given their scant supply of arable land?

          • Andrew says:

            Harlaw is also known for its ponies, possibly akin to Shetland ponies, which are in demand throughout the Iron Isles, and that could be another source of income.

            Harlaw is the most populous so I would imagine it is the most fertile of the Iron Isles. One thing I would like to add about House Harlaw is its sigil: the scythe. The scythe is often seen as a weapon wielded by Death/the Grim Reaper in popular culture, but it is actually a farming tool used for harvesting grain. This fits with the Reader’s suggestion, and his constructive ideas compared to House Greyjoy’s “We Do Not Sow.”

          • Winnie says:

            Good point Andrew about the Harlaw’s more constructive minded aims. Pity Asha didn’t take her uncle’s lessons to heart more than her father’s.

            As you say ponies, from Harlaw could be an export item not just for the Iron Islands but beyond as well, then there’s wool, iron core, and of course the Iron Born could try to market themselves as being where the world’s best sailors are born and bred. Put some effort into developing their shipbuilding industry and of course population control (thank you moon tea!) and researching new forms of agriculture to help make the best use of their land.

          • Ian says:

            One minor point about the Harlaws’ sigil: Rodrik may have a constructive plan for the Ironborn, but the sigil is entirely of a piece with the Old Way. Remember, as Steven points out, one of Balon’s titles is Lord Reaper of Pyke – the whole point of “We Do Not Sow” as a motto is that they are by contrast very enthusiastic reapers of other people’s fields.

          • Andrew says:

            The Old Way isn’t about reaping other people’s fields but taking the harvested grain by force. The scythe is a farmer’s toll primarily, not a weapon.

          • Ian G. says:


            How then do you explain the title of Lord Reaper of Pyke? The point is to say that they reap the benefits without doing any of the boring preparatory work. The scythe is of a piece with the rest of the Old Way trappings, not some sort of counterpoint.

          • Andrew says:

            Except the Reader is a counterpoint.

        • JT says:

          Iron. The ship Theon arrives on is trading food from the Reach for iron ore from the Islands IIRC.

        • Fish, iron ore, other metals. The Iron Islands are poor farmland, but they have plenty of minerals. Also, I’d imagine goods that “fell off a ship” are traded.

          • Meereenese Liberation Front says:

            They are situated on the wrong side of the continent to become the main naval middle-men – but nevertheless, more important than the export of primary goods should be the Ironborns’ reputation of seafarers daring to go where few others would. As Tris Botley remarks to Asha, just one trip to the Shadow Lands pays for a lifetime. So I believe when a merchant (a mercantile lord) wants to trade with Essos, the Summer Isles etc., he calls upon the Iron Isles longships. That on the way some goods fall off the ships of the Ibbenese, Braavosi, Summer Islanders etc. – well, that’s of course a bonus. (In medieval and early-modern times, it was nigh impossible to distinguish between naval trade, maritime warfare and piracy.)

          • I’m not thinking “main middle-men” as much as “purveyors of stolen goods on the cheap.” In other words, you can get more from the Braavosi, but if you go to the Ironborn, you only pay one tenth of the usual price.

    • Mitch says:

      I’ve recently been reading the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Dimond, which examins why some cultures historically advanced faster and overtook others.

      A little oversimplified, but it was the establishment of efficient food production which allows populations to grow (more people, more germs), and free up workers to become professional soldiers/create complex government systems.

      Since the Ironborn view farming and food production as beneith them, I believe this would truly hold back their society from becoming as powerful as it otherwise could.

      I feel like one could write a whole book applying Diamond’s theories with George R.R. Martin’s fiction.

  3. I think sending Theon was a bad move on Robb’s part, but it’s also understandable. They had grown up together and were genuinely close. However he should have understood Theon’s status as a ward, and realized that freely giving him up was a very poor decision. I guess he probably thought that giving Balon his only son back would engender goodwill in the man, in which case I guess Robb is mostly guilty of misunderstanding Ironborn culture.

    • David Hunt says:

      I would guess that Robb based his assessment on Balon’s character and likely reactions on discussions that he had with Theon. Thus, he got a view of him through the rose colored glasses that Theon envisioned him. He should have realized that a nine year old memory of an eighteen year old man was a poor basis for diplomacy. Although I don’t think there’s much excuse for that sort of short-sightedness, but I can understand it. Even though Theon has grown up as a ward/hostage of the Starks, he was the oldest of the boys and I think that would have given him some small amount of subtle influence over Robb.

    • Crystal says:

      It was understandable, especially because Robb seems to have genuinely thought of Theon as a brother of sorts, but it really was one of Robb’s dumber moves. He should have listened to his mom.

      I agree that Robb probably thought in terms of winning Balon over and did not understand the culture or just what a complete idiot/waste of oxygen Balon was.

      • But the question is – if the invasion was going to happen anyway, how dumb was it?

        • David Hunt says:

          I think that question has to viewed in light of the fact that Robb didn’t know that Balon was about the invade. Given that, an important sub-question is “Should he have known?” If he did suspect…well I can see Robb sending Theon to Pyke as a way to avoid having to chop the head off of his childhood friend when it would do as much good as closing the door of the now empty barn.

          However, I think Balon was going to great lengths to keep news of him massing his fleet from getting out, If Robb didn’t suspect Balon was about to invade him, sending Theon away was, at best, too trusting.

          • That’s true as far as it goes, I’m just pointing out that next to the question of how intelligent a move it was, there’s also the question of how consequential it was.

        • True but if the invasion happened without Theon, then Winterfell doesn’t fall. And then the northerners drive out the Ironborn, and Robb has no reason to return North, so no Red Wedding. The entire series is re-shaped.

        • Mitch says:

          The fall of Winterfell was not originally in Balon’s plans. That was Theon overcompensating after feeling he needed to reassert his Iron Born roots.

          If Robb doesn’t send Theon, Winterfell never falls. This has a lot of downstream ripples—Bran and Rickon are never believed dead, Catelin never releases Jamie, Robb doesn’t need to act with such urgency to get back and defend his homeland, and Roose might’ve been a little more cautious in setting up the Red Wedding.

          I mean, Iron Born invasion is still not great, but not quite the crisis the sack of Winterfell ended up being.

        • Crystal says:

          Just thought of something else – in GoT Eddard IV, Ned tells Catelyn that they need to keep a close eye on Theon because Ned might need Balon’s fleet. So Ned was thinking in terms of using Balon’s son as leverage. Therefore, I think that it would be understandable if Robb tried to do the same thing, instead of sending Theon away.

          Of course I do not know if Theon would have been any kind of leverage against Balon even with Ned; I know Ned would think in terms of “I wouldn’t want my children to be harmed, so therefore, Balon wouldn’t, either.” Certainly if it came down to it, Ned would have executed Theon, and would do so with a lot less hesitation than Robb. Neither Ned nor Robb knew that Balon had basically disowned Theon. (And I will reiterate, I think disowning one’s only son is something that most Westerosi lords would find hard to comprehend, given the emphasis on family lineages and birthrights. Even *Roose Bolton* will keep a maniac like Ramsay in the family fold, and Ramsay is so far gone that he poses a real danger to his father and his plans.)

          • You’ve hit the nail on the head – Balon here is embracing the classic assymetric behavior of the guerrilla fighter in order to (re)gain tactical freedom.

      • illrede says:

        Listening to his mother would have been adhering to convention; generally a good thing to do. As a matter of calculation, it was also good.

        Thing of it being, Balon was directly defying convention and ultimately ignoring calculation. Thoroughly.

        The Ironborn invasion of the North during the War of the 5 Kings is a good “people make history” moment from GRRM, reminding me of those “why did they have to have THIS king THEN?” moments you get. Generations of Greyjoys had passed, waiting and assessing, for moments like that. The best one they get- better even than one for the Dance of the Dragons, the Blackfyre Rebellion (and Roberts Rebellion, for that matter), and the Lord Reaper of Pyke is somebody who wants nothing more than avenge himself on a dead man.

        • WPA says:

          Yeah, Robb’s primary mistake is basically assuming rational actions from a major power player who theoretically should be able to make them (arguably the biggest non-Bolton blows to the Starks come from actions by their enemies that are in and of themselves, disastrous blunders – the execution of Ned, the Ironborn action, Theon attempting to take Winterfell, the Frey’s essentially dooming themselves via the Red Wedding). The idea that Balon would actually react with a, “fine, go ahead and shoot the hostage.” response at the first opportunity to rebel again is probably not something anyone would have expected.

          In the same vein, though the invasion may have been unavoidable, sending Theon resulted in Theon’s foolishly doomed yet somehow successful pipe-dream mission. I think he can still be blamed for sending Theon personally rather than sending an emissary with a letter- that and saying, “I’ll give you a crown” as that pretty much spikes things even if Balon were in a mood to listen to alternatives.

          • Winnie says:

            Very VERY good point about how the most disastrous crimes against the Starks were all colossal blunders. For that matter the Bolton betrayal wasnt the smartest long term move either since no one else in the North wanted House Flayed Man in charge. Really our favorite leech lover should have understood he was signing his own death warrant with the Red Wedding even if House Frey was stupid enough to believe the Lions would protect them-and frankly I’m still surprised they were that dumb. Really it took a LOT of people making VERY irrational moves for things to turn out so badly for the wolves-and even so they’re still coming back.

          • Crystal says:

            I don’t think any reasonable non-Islander would expect that Balon would so disregard his *only living son*. Even Randyll Tarly waited until his younger son was born to disinherit Sam. Thinking that a lord would value his only son is a reasonable assumption to make, given the value lords place upon heirs and the continuation of their family name. Asha would automatically inherit in Dorne, as she is older than Theon, but this isn’t Dorne and I don’t think Robb or Catelyn or Theon expected things to be the same.

            And given that a few of the Iron Islands lords assumed that Theon *was* the rightful heir, greenlander or not, in AFFC, I think it’s even an assumption that could be made of an Ironborn lord like Rodrik Harlaw or Baelor Blacktyde. But Balon is divorced both from mainstream Westerosi culture and, indeed, from reality.

          • Ian says:

            I agree entirely that Roose Bolton’s betrayal was a gamble that is very clearly not going to work out. With that said, if you grant him the goal of becoming the Warden/Lord Paramount/King of the North, this was about as good an opportunity as he or any other Bolton was ever going to get. What’s doing him in is a combination of 1) Theon’s incompetence in letting Bran and Rickon get away, and the bad luck not to catch either of them; 2) Ramsay being an utter lunatic; and 3) Stannis’ decision to go north. The third is an utter wild card that no one can reasonably be expected to have considered.

            It could have worked, if Stannis hadn’t shocked everyone and gone north. You could easily imagine Roose waiting till he had an heir by Walda, then turning on Ramsay and sacrificing him in the name of a peaceful land and a quiet people. It’s pretty clear from Davos’ audience at White Harbor in ADWD that Roose, by himself, was an overlord that people would at least consider grudgingly tolerating.

            It was always a gamble, but overthrowing the Starks was never going to be a risk-free proposition. I think Roose’s strategy was about as good as it could have been, given the objective.

          • Winnie says:

            Thing is while Stannis’ arrival up North certainly accelerated the disintegration of the Bolton position, there hold was always shaky to begin with. Remember, Tywin was counting on the fact that the North wouldn’t accept Bolton rule, (let alone Greyjoy’s,) hence his marrying Sansa to Tyrion in hopes of putting a Lannister heir at WF. Which wouldn’t have worked either, but still. And fact, is Roose’s involvement with the RW made him *hated* all over the region-it wasn’t just a mere regicide, he helped murder members of every good Northern household not to mention the *thousands* of Northern soldiers whose deaths he so coldly planned. Throw in the fact that Ramsay’s depravity is infamous, and that any legitimate heirs Roose might have been hoping for would be half-Frey, and you have a recipe for rebellion. ESPECIALLY since as Roose knew full well, there were living Stark heirs out there

  4. Crystal says:

    Yay! The Theon chapter is up!

    I never thought to compare the Iron Islands culture with the slave-owning antebellum American South, but I can see it now. Great job! I never thought the Ironborn corresponded *that* closely with the Vikings, who seem to have been as interested in trading as in raiding, and very interested in settling down and intermarrying with the locals. (Which is why red hair is so prevalent among the Irish and Scots…) Interestingly, the Varangian Guards were the “Kingsguard” of the Byzantine emperors, and were made up of Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, forging yet another farflung cultural/trade connection for the Scandinavians. Imagine if the Kingsguard were made up of Ironborn…But the comparison with the antebellum South is compelling.

    That makes me wonder how ethnically distinct the Ironborn nobility is from the commoners, considering that the thralls and salt wives are most likely a mixture of just about every other ethnicity from Westeros and Essos? Was there a racial caste system along the lines of the American South? Probably not to the same extent, because the racial system in the ASOIAF world is so different, but it makes me wonder.

    Now as for “what ifs” – I think that if Theon never got the chance to capture Winterfell, things would have been VERY different, because I think it was the sack of Winterfell that pushed Roose into full-on betrayal. He was always hedging his bets, I think, but it was Robb being “The King Who Lost The North” that gave Roose his grand opportunity. Robb might eventually have lost or been betrayed, but the sack of Winterfell gave rise to the ultimate damning cascade of events – Roose’s betrayal, Catelyn’s releasing Jaime, leading to the loss of the Karstarks, Robb sleeping with Jeyne and losing the Freys.

    I have to wonder if Balon would have made Asha get married if she was actually acclaimed his heir. If he’s written Theon off for lost, then if Asha doesn’t have kids, his family dies out. Given that most lords seem to be very concerned about their family lineage continuing, this seems odd…but otoh this is *Balon* the Brainiac we are talking about. While one alternately cringes and guffaws through Theon’s inner monologues here, when it comes to thinking things through, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Asha got her brains from the Harlaws.

    And Alfie Allen did/does a terrific job as Theon.

    • Winnie says:

      Well Asha could always have followed the example of the Mormont women and had heirs without a husband.

      But I suspect Balon just wasn’t thinking ahead. As usual.

    • There doesn’t seem to be a racial caste, since the sons of thralls can become Ironborn if they convert and the sons of an Ironborn man are Ironborn.

      The issue of Asha’s marriage if she’s the heir get tricky a la Elizabeth I, given the usual rules about husbands getting the land and title.

      • David says:

        A separate “what-if:” what if Robb’s initial rush south had been accomplished via a promise of marriage to Asha (and thereby securing the Harlaw ships to convey his army southward), rather than with the Freys?

        Balon would have spit blood at the very thought, sure, but Asha would have seen the possibilities (and as I think an episode of Podcast of Ice & Fire pointed out, Robb would have had a much kinkier sex life.) It’s just not clear how much independent/Harlaw-backed influence she could swing RE: providing the hulls to move that many men, or whether her acceptance would have precipitated an internal conflict within House Greyjoy. It’s also not clear that Balon would have been in a great position to force Asha’s refusal, since his alternate choice of heir has been a Stark ward for ten years.

        • Crystal says:

          A Robb/Asha marriage is a fascinating what-if! Arya would certainly have been thrilled to have Asha for a good-sister.

          In addition to the Harlaws, Asha probably could have brought Baelor Blacktyde and the Botleys around to her side as well. And there was another lord (Merlyn?) in AFFC who supported her claim. I don’t know whether Balon would have gone along reluctantly because Asha was his favorite child, or disowned HER and grumped, “I have no children!” Some sort of island civil war might well have happened. But Robb could have gotten the Harlaws, Botleys, Blacktyde and his ships, and Merlyn and his, for a not-too-shabby fleet, which he might have been able to use against Lannisport or maybe Fair Isle, or at least to shlep his army around.

          • David says:

            Ooh, I’d forgotten about the other “green land” IB houses; good call.

            RE: Balon, I really do think he’d have had some kind of shock-induced medical event. I think his love for Asha and his hatred for the Starks are arguably two of (if not *the* two) driving forces in his psyche, and a Robb/Asha marriage would be a stress-test like no other. I think he’d probably start by trying to imprison Asha as a “bring her to her senses” measure, but I like her odds of fighting her way free of that sort of trap.

            LOL. Asha/Arya would be a trip at least on par with the wolf-and-dog-roadtrip-of-doom. Would love to see some good fanfic of that at some point.

        • That would be another useful match. Freeing up his western flank so that he can move the other half of the North down to the major theater of operations, gaining naval mobility on the west coast, and politically gaining another of the seven kingdoms, would have greatly helped.

          And I think it could have helped with the Frey negotiations as well.

      • David says:

        (Also: many belated thanks for tipping me off to David Blight’s Yale videos! I’m pretty sure his Reconstruction SCOTUS material helped me ace my Constitutional Law exam last term.)

  5. priddy says:

    Great Post, Steven. I love how you have debunked the “Old Way.” Throughout history many militant extremists have believed in an idealized version of the past – some “Golden Age”, when everything was still “pure” and “good” – and that they had to purify society to in order to return to it (Puryfication meaning spilling a lot of innocent blood).
    Especially the character of Aerion Greyjoy I could re-imagine as for example a right-wing militant shouting for every true christian patriot to defend the US against godless liberals and immigrants, or as an iman raging in a mosque against crusaders and zionists.

  6. priddy says:

    Small correction. I mean Aeron Greyjoy.

  7. Winnie says:

    LOVE the comparisons between the IB and Antebellum South; and how both those cultures are notoriously self-pitying in their imagined persecution complex about those mean Greenlanders/Yankees who didn’t let them practice slavery. Boo hoo. So unfair!

    And yeah, Alfie Allen is one of the unsung treasures of the show, (despite looking nothing like the description of Theon in the books) by adding such nuance to such a contemptible (yet pitiful) character. I would argue in some ways his is the boldest performance by far especially when he transforms into Reek. He gives you a much better understanding of Theon on screen than you got reading the books-you always know why Theon’s doing what he’s doing even when Theon doesn’t.

    I also look forward to Steve’s take down of Balon’s Grand Strategy and thoughts on Asha.

    Personally, I’m in the camp that if the IB *had* joined up with Robb and invaded the Westernlands then the Tyrell/Lannister alliance NEVER would have happened. Even Mace couldn’t have failed to read the writing on the wall if news hit that Lannisport was lost and the Rock was under siege; the Lions are going down-don’t let them take you with them.

    • Crystal says:

      I agree about an Ironborn/North alliance torpedoing a Tyrell/Lannister one. If Tywin lost Lannisport, let alone the Rock, he would have been in as bad a position as Robb after the loss of Winterfell – not just a blow to his lands, but his prestige as well. I wonder if they would have kept on with the Margaery/Renly marriage, or perhaps sought to marry Margaery to Robb, depending on whether Margaery was already married to Renly at that point. What they probably would have done is sought Sansa for Willas, that is if Robb didn’t think to marry her to Theon to cement an Ironborn alliance.

      And if the Ironborn had set right off for the Westerlands, sacked Lannisport and probably Fair Isle as well, Tywin would have *had* to leave KL and go defend the Westerlands. Cue “All Hail King Stannis!” in KL, the Lannisters disgraced and banished, Littlefinger beheaded, and Master of Ships Davos Seaworth.

      • Winnie says:

        Well given that Renly was dead, I think Margaery/Robb would have been a good play for the Roses…or even Margaery/Edmure. Or just have House Tyrell sit out the rest of the WoFK which may have been their smartest possible move of all, AND would also mean all Hail King Stannis and precluded the RW as well.

        • Crystal says:

          I’d forgotten that Renly was dead by that time – sometimes those timelines are confusing. But yes, the Tyrells would have either sat out the war or at least not have joined the Lannister side.

          And scratch “disgraced and banished” – there would have been a lot of *dead* Lannisters – Cersei and her incest bastard children, Jaime for kingslaying, Tywin because I don’t think Stannis would want him alive (perhaps he’d be executed for allowing Gregor Clegane to run wild, or for killing the Targaryen children). I don’t know if Stannis would find a reason to execute Tyrion, but for sure he’d be banished – Stannis is the one who wants to ban all whorehouses, after all, so I don’t think Stannis wants his enemy’s debauched prodigal son around.

          • David Hunt says:

            Tyrion expected to be very dead if Stannis took the city. I’m willing to cede that he knew Stannis well enough to accurately predict his fate.

            Jaime would not have been executed for killing Aerys. He was pardoned for that crime by Robert and I don’t think Stannis would undo that. What Jaime would be executed for is high treason, namely cuckolding Robert and putting his own bastards in the line of succession.

          • John says:

            I could potentially see Stannis allowing Tywin and Tyrion to take the black, and allowing Kevan to inherit the rock. Cersei, Jaime, and their children are done, though.

        • Margaery/Robb is a great what if.

          • Winnie says:

            It not only could have won Robb the war it probably would have been better for M too. And Sansa might well have ended up the next Lady of the Reach-or the Iron Islands. As is I have a bad feeling M won’t survive Queen C or
            The coming chaos to Kings Landing. For that matter all the Roses may be doomed now thatWinter has come.

          • WPA says:

            One could also imagine the Queen of Thorns suggesting a Tyrell–esque Margery/Edmure matching if Robb were still unavailable.

          • ajay says:

            IIRC it’s something Catelyn thinks later on, when Robb announces his marriage to Jeyne: something to the effect of “Really, if you _had_ to break your word and irritate the Freys, couldn’t you at least have done it for that nice Tyrell girl and her father’s twenty thousand soldiers?”

        • illrede says:

          The North/Ironborn would have succeeded as a secessionist pact though. If they stick to that, the available range of actions is restricted.

          Not that an immediate falling out between Robb and Balon wouldn’t make a Tyrell/Stark play for the Iron Throne possible.

          And Robb didn’t choke much over adding the Riverlands to his crown.

          • John says:

            A Tyrell/Stark/Greyjoy alliance is interesting to contemplate. It feels like the Lannisters are basically doomed here. Tywin is likely defeated by Robb, and King’s Landing is taken by Stannis, so they’re out.

            So what you end up with is Starks and Tyrells facing Stannis in King’s Landing, with the Vale and Dorne uncommitted. Neither the Starks not the Tyrells have made war on Stannis up to this point, but Robb has declared himself King of over half the country, and the Tyrells supported Renly and then held aloof. So neither of them is in Stannis’s good books, either. On the other hand, they have the military advantage. Stannis has, roughly speaking, the resources of the Crownlands and Stormlands behind him, while his potential opponents have the Reach, the Riverlands, the North and, essentially, the Westerlands.

            Robb and Mace (or, more likely, Olenna and Catelyn) could try to set terms for a submission to Stannis, but they might be inclined to fight it out, instead. Especially since submission would mean an immediate break with Balon, with uncertain consequences. So maybe we end up with the Stark-Greyjoy-Tyrell alliance basically fighting to dismantle the Seven Kingdoms entirely.

      • Well Margaery is already married at this point – do you mean the Margaery/Joffrey marriage?

    • Thanks!

      Never might be stretching it a bit; significantly more unlikely. After all, the Reach isn’t exactly fond of the Ironborn and Mace might think his army is big enough that it doesn’t matter. But Olenna would be much more careful, and it’s still possible at this point for the Tyrells to pull a Tywin on Tywin.

  8. David Hunt says:

    Another vote for Alfie Allen as a great addition to the show. I remember watching the corresponding events on the show (I hadn’t yet read the books) to this chapter and thinking that the Theon was literally and entitled prick.

    It’s my understanding that the antebellum South is the South before the Civil War. What we’ve got now is more like the South during/after reconstruction. Imagine what the South might have done if the U.S. got into a major European war in about 1875 or so. This might be a good appreciation of where Balon is coming from.

    • David Hunt says:

      I forgot to mention that Show-Theon acting like such a twit made his explicit anguish over whether to warn Robb more poignant. The fact that he almost chooses the Starks over his own blood makes his downfall more tragic.

      • Winnie says:

        Agreed. The show does a better job of showing certain points where The on could have chose differently and where had he done
        So he might have saved himself like him being presented with the option of taking the black earlier.

    • JT says:

      Agreed 100% on Alfie Allen. Dinkledge, Charles Dance and Massie Williams seem to get a lot of the kudos (as they’re all spectacular), but I think Alfie Allen has been just as spectacular.

      The way he manages to portray both outwardly cocky (but inwardly unsure of his place) Theon, and Reek with the 1000 yard stare is incredible.

      In this last season, the scenes where Ramsay gives Theon a bath, and where Theon negotiates the surrender of Moat Cailin were real tour de forces by Allen.

    • I was a bit ambiguous there; I see elements of both ante- and post-bellum South in the Iron Islands, in that they both have the revanchist attitude but also the slaves.

  9. JT says:

    So what’s the (realistic) best-case “what-if” scenario for Theon? We know Balon won’t consent to Theon’s plan, wants to invade the North, and that Theon is stuck between his adopted family and his biological one.

    I’d say ending up as Ramsay’s plaything is the worst thing that possibly could have happened to Theon. A quick death from Robb is sub-par outcome, but better than what actually happened. Ending up in the Night’s Watch is even better (Theon is alive, non-castrated, can actually eat food, has his digits..), but even that’s not great.

    Is there a realistic possible scenario (i.e. I don’t think Theon is going to flee to the free cities and become a mercenary) where Theon could have ended up whole and reasonably happy?

    • illrede says:

      Take Winterfell, do as Asha suggested- torch the place and abscond with the two princes. Get back to the Iron Islands and cash in; lands, good Northern marriage, status among the captains and his family.

      Probably get murdered by Euron even then, though.

      • WPA says:

        Ransoming the boys after returning to the islands as the Greyjoy Who (Temporarily) Took Winterfell is probably his best out- and would make Euron’s job harder in killing him as well, he’d need at least two Faceless Men for that.

        Though it’s also worth noting that even if Theon/Robb’s plan had worked and both the Ironborn and the North achieve full independence- they’ve basically set up a scenario where the Ironborn will be able to take up the Reave and Rule lifestyle against the Northern Kingdom at no later than after Robb and Theon’s generation. Arguably an evenly split Seven Kingdoms (and probably more than that, dubious of Dorne and the Stormlands cooperating in a rump coalition) with continuing instability would be almost certainly unable to subdue the islands. Beyond Robb and Theon’s personal cooperation, what is to really prevent generations of warfare between the Ironborn and the North from resuming almost at once, or within years of any peace? Arguably Theon may have had a shot (if he were in a more devious mindset) arguing with Balon that the best chance for the resurrection of the Old Way would be to assist the North/Riverlands in their independence campaign and then after maybe a couple years- launching their own smash and grab invasion against either Robb’s kingdom or the remaining four or so Kingdoms.

    • David says:

      Robb & Asha propose a marriage alliance (see above.) Balon keels over in shocked cardiac arrest. Theon is the best man at the wedding of his sister and his best friend.

      Aeron boycotts the wedding and goes off to start a drowned-men/KKK terror campaign, but he’s an annoyance rather than a threat. Victarion grumbles, but his habit of obedience runs too deeply to do much more than that; give him a chance to kill and loot the westerlands, he’ll do as he’s told.

      Euron, on the other hand… well, Robb/Asha/Theon will get to face the anime villain together. Fun times would be had by all.

    • Winnie says:

      Personally I think the Nights Watch would have been a good deal for him-he keeps all his body parts and as The on noted he could have enjoyed great hunting at the Wall, there were local brothels, black was his color anyway, and he could have had chances for advancement. He wasnt temperamentally suited to being a ruler/lord anyway.

      • Doug says:

        Theon decides not to try to fake Bran and Rickon’s death, so Rodrik Cassel agrees to let him take the Black. Jon has no reason to hate him and needs good archery teachers and hunters, so Theon makes the transition to Jon’s time as Lord Commander without problem. Plus, there are now more women around the Wall.

    • That’s a good question. Not sure of the answer.

    • John says:

      Why does everyone assume Robb executes him if Balon attacks? It seems more likely to me that he holds on to him. Executing him now just removes whatever small chance you may have of exchanging him for something valuable later, and obviously won’t do any good at dissuading Balon from doing what he’s already going to do. And Theon is Robb’s friend and hasn’t actually done anything disloyal. I’m dubious that Robb would actually go through with such a step.

      • Because the whole point of having someone as a hostage against someone’s good behavior is that you have to follow through to show that you’re credible in your threats.

        It’s the same reason why Robb had to kill Rickard – if you let someone get away with defying you openly to your face, you have to respond otherwise no one respects you.

  10. JT says:

    I’d be interested to see if others agree with me on this point – I always found Theon’s chapters (and his arc as a whole) to be some of the best writing and characterization GRRM has done in the entire series.

    I went from hating Theon (when he’s on Pyke/conquering Winterfell) to realizing how in over his head he is (as the prince of Winterfell) to pitying him (as Reek) to finally being happy when re-discovers himself (somewhat) and defies Ramsay.

    • Winnie says:

      Well put. Theon’s chapters at Winterfell are a little like Cersei’s in AFFC-you’re watching a disaster unfold before your eyes told from the perspective of a hilariously obtuse, un-self aware, and ultimately pitiful character. Alfie’s ability to embrace all that so fully was in my opinion one of the bravest performances on the show. It’s not I think coincidental that AA is one of the very few male actors in AGOT, (as opposed to the dozens of women) to go full frontal. He’s just willing to take risks and go places, (like his transformation into Reek) that many actors simply wouldn’t have the guts to do. I hope to be seeing a great many things from him in the future.

      • MightyIsobel says:

        It is really interesting to compare Theon at Winterfell to Cersei in KL as POVs, I agree. I actually think he is a more reliable narrator than she is, but YMMV.

        • JT says:

          Yup. I actually think Theon in ADWD (after he’s become Reek and then re-discovered) is probably the most self-aware narrator in the entire series.

          Of course, that’s a long way (and many extremities) from here. Right now, he’s more or less totally oblivious.

  11. Andrew says:

    1)I think Pyke reflects the state of the family that dwells within akin to “The House of Usher.” Pyke is a bunch of different keeps and towers on different stacks separate from one another and connected only by thin supports such as rope bridges just as House Greyjoy is made up of individuals each working for their own ends, and loyalty/ties to one another being very thin. Balon died on a rope bridge when the FM Euron hired severed it, just as Euron severed his connection to Balon.

    2)The Iron Isles we see later is one that is changing with Lord Gorold Goodbrother holding his maester in high regard, and Lord Merlyn described as “a bald round fleshy man who styled himself ‘Lord’ in the manner of the green lands, and dressed in furs and velvets.” Baelor Blacktyde who follows the Seven.

    3)How did Balon expect to take the North? It is the largest of the Seven Kingdoms in terms of landmass. The Ironborn would have to spread themselves thin, and overextend their supply lines with Northmen likely attacking those supply lines and practicing scorched earth tactics to leave nothing for the Ironborn to feed themselves. Also it goes in line with what Tyrion said about the mountain clans: “They’re fierce warriors, but not soldiers. In formal battle, discipline is more important than courage.” Their advantage is in ship-to-ship combat which is a free-for-all when battling on deck.They lack the discipline needed in battle on the mainland, as demonstrated at Torrhen’s Square when Rodrik’s armored charge broke their shieldwall. That is not taking into account Northern winters which would significantly inhibit the Ironmen in hostile enemy territory with the Northmen having the advantage since they are accustomed to Northern winters and are fighting on the defensive in their home territory which they know better than the Ironborn.

    4) Balon, the man who is lionized by most of the Ironborn and his family, is described as a small, old and thin man whose joints ache. Perhaps representing that the desire for the Old Way and independence, which is glorified, for the decadent, frail thing it is.

    • S. Duff says:

      As pointed out in the comments below, there’s a lot of metaphorical foreshadowing associated with Pyke and Balon. Very astute observations!

    • Crystal says:

      Great observations! I hadn’t thought about the castle being symbolic of the separation of the Greyjoy family, or Balon being so old, but I see it now.

      And agreed about the Northern terrain and winters making it impossible for the Ironborn to hold the North indefinitely. The North is *huge*. And as we saw in ADWD, the winters are brutal. Even at Moat Cailin, they were already getting picked off and starved out by crannogmen.

    • 1. Interesting allusion.
      2. Yep, the “Old Way” not changing is complete bs.
      3. I don’t know. I’m also not sure why he didn’t try to take Bear Island while he was at it.
      4. Good point.

      • Andrew says:

        1. I think House Greyjoy will go the way of the House of Usher: extinction.

        3. He didn’t want to take Bear Island as he wanted to focus on the mainland, the bulk of the North which includes the capital, where men could hop from castle to castle.

        • 1. Quite possibly.

          3. That makes less sense. The further he gets from the coast, the less supplies or reinforcements or line of retreat he is.

          • Andrew says:

            1. I think Asha will die in the North, Victarion in Essos and Euron at Oldtown. Theon is gelded and can’t procreate for the house, and Aeron is sworn to the Drowned God.

            However, I do see Aeron trying to crown himself in an act of desperation akin to the Ironborn priest-king Lodos. Of course, there is one theory of that is when Bran and Blodraven send the Hammer of the Waters to Pyke. It would be an ironic end for Aeron; the Drowned Man dies by drowning.

            3. Well, he wanted to take the entire North, a plan which itself doesn’t make sense.

          • Lauren Anderson says:

            Fewer supplies.

  12. Erin says:

    One of the things I really liked about this chapter were the descriptions of Pyke itself, a dank and nasty keep on a slowly eroding headland, that’s smaller and colder than Theon remembers. Theon’s given a years-unused chamber where the sons of a king were murdered in their beds (hmmm…), the rushes on the floor are old, and the wall hangings are green with mildew. Even the treatment of the domestic animals is telling, as the sheep and pigs “huddled in their pens, while the castle dogs ran free.” (I’m assuming from this Theon’s more used to seeing fat and happy domestic animals waiting for shearing/slaughter and castle dogs in their kennels.) All the atmospheric details show us that Pyke is not just a miserable place, it’s a place ruled by someone who does not have his priorities in order. Balon’s sitting and brooding over the past while his house, his actual house, crumbles and decays around him.

    Also, Steven, you’ve got a typo. “Amd administrative skills.” I can’t wait to hear what you’ve got to say about the Greyjoy Rebellion itself!

    • Winnie says:

      Well said Erin! Balon’s neglect of Pyke, allowing it to rot, also demonstrates that he wouldn’t know what to do with any new territory in the North or elsewhere even if he could conquer it. He has no good administrative skills.

    • Crystal says:

      Another great observation. The scene where Theon is housed in a room where the Riverlord’s kids are murdered is great foreshadowing.

      I’m reminded of Littlefinger’s home keep on the Fingers. There’s not as much mold, but it’s likewise shabby and cheerless, with very few servants. LF, like Balon, focuses more on appropriating what isn’t his than tending to his home.

      • Winnie says:

        Another good parallel. Little finger goes out of his way to sow chaos across all Seven Kingdoms to rise to power…but what’s going to be left of the Realm for him to rule? As show Varys put it he’s making himself a kingdom ofn ashes. Also all his work to show old Holster he was so good enough for one of his daughters tends to prove just why the old man and the rest of the nobility were right to despise him. Ultimately his goals are just as doomed as that of the Lord Reaper.

  13. Alfred Borden says:

    Excellent analysis, as always, but I felt that the IB=AB South parallel was a little forced:

    First, race isn’t a dividing line in IB society the way it was (is? is.) in the South.

    Second, the children of thralls are born free.

    Third, thralls (and/or their children, and children’s children) have much greater economic, political and social leverage than AB slaves.

    Fourth, because thralls are captured personally by IB warriors, the slave system is more fragmented and slaves are more equally distributed among IB than white southerners. (As opposed to a landed upper class owning a disproportionately high concentration of slaves)

    Fifth, as Vic mentions in ADWD, the idea of selling slaves is distasteful to the IB, so the dynamics of an internal slave trade aren’t in place.

    Sixth, there aren’t any rebellions by thralls, or, more importantly, fears of such among the IB. By itself this is a shortfall in a direct comparison, but I think it’s important to consider that this might indicate that thralls feel that they have more of a stake in IB society and are overall more content with their position than slaves in the AB South. Of course, I’m not defending slavery in the Iron Islands, which is of course a horrifyingly illiberal practice, just observing that it differs from slavery in the AB South.

    Seventh, it doesn’t seem like issue of slavery is itself a dividing line between the IB and the rest of Westeros: the violent incursions are the main problem, as per the Vikings.

    Eighth, and I’m not sure about this one, but it seems like there are far fewer thralls relative to IB, although this is a little skewed because:

    Ninth, intermarriage between children of thralls and IB seems to be, as you mentioned, common, which is a *huge* difference between the two societies. Though the sexual dynamics are somewhat similar in terms of salt wives and the rape of female slaves, the reverse isn’t as much of an issue. Of course, descent from thralls in looked down upon, but as in Harry Potter the practical necessity of intermarriage for population expansion has effectively diluted “pure” blood.

    I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes, and you’ll have a convincing explanation for all these points, because THIS BLOG FUCKING ROCKS.

    • WPA says:

      I think he’s not looking at the Ironborn and Antebellum/Reconstruction South as a one to one correspondence but an example of a society where its peculiar labor system and its “master” values bring about a greater cohesiveness among its dominant society across class and bloodlines (herenvolk democracy). So the Ironborn Reave and Rule identity and its view of itself as a society of warriors who take what is theirs and let the thralls do the labor back home makes even the lowest member of the Codd family manifestly superior to every other non-Ironborn person in existence. At the same time this also locks in a social compact that most Ironborn buy into that values the “Old Way” above more practical considerations. This relates to the antebellum South’s social compact based on the idea that the grandest plantation owner and the most dirt poor illiterate tenant farmer have far more in common socially than the slave population. This is reinforced by shared duty in the mounted patrols meant to discourage slave escapes/uprisings and a resulting sense of shared citizenship out of their shared master class status. In addition to the racial issues, this also had the side-effect of locking in white Southern support for a slave system (the peculiar institution) that impoverished and politically marginalized a sizable percentage of its own free labor force in exchange for a “higher” social status .

      • Alfred Borden says:

        I appreciate the feedback, but I’m still not convinced. For starters, as a general principle, I think we can agree that any combination of two historical events will have some similarities and some differences, and by definition cannot be absolutely similar or different. That being said, there’s definitely a sliding scale in terms of the effectiveness of parallels, and I think that the historical analysis leans a bit too heavily on the AB South comparison. In a broad sense, yes, both the AB South and the IB have strong military traditions, a disdain for other cultures and a heightened level of internal cohesion derived from a master race ideology.

        But the historical analysis section takes it further than that, and IMO fails to account for enough of the specific dynamics of AB slavery to justify “Victarion or Euron…in a pointy white hood.” . For example: “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”. Again, in a broad sense this is true, but I think the lines between thralls and IB are *much* blurrier than those between slave-owning whites, poor whites and black slaves, for the reasons I described before. Likewise, “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.” is true in the abstract sense of cultural unity, but when we specifically compare it to IB society the fact that there is no fear of slave-on-master violence severely undermines the parallel.

        And finally, GRRM is very skilled in terms of dramatic economy, so I find it hard to believe that after establishing at great length the parallels between the slave cities and the AB South he would reuse historical material. If anything, I think some of the Victarion POV material in ADWD is meant to sharpen the contrasts between the two systems.

        (Also, let it be noted that I find the fandom love of IB society distasteful)

        • Meereenese Liberation Front says:

          I think you’re partly right – many aspects of the IB society correspond as much to the AB South as to any other slaveholder society, for example the Greek polis (which was also a democracy of the happy few). As there’s no real “racial” divide between slaves and slaveholders (put a thrall in weapons, and you wouldn’t be able to distinguish him from an Ironborn), the latter might even be the more apt comparison – except for the small fact that there’s nothing comparable to Greek art, philosophy etc. on the Iron Islands.
          And that’s where the analogy Steven draws does convince me: the Iron Islands are, just like the AB South, an anachronism, and that leads to all the brooding on the past, the revisionist histories, the ineffectual rulership, the mindnumbing stupidness of the whole bunch.
          The analogy might not work as a 1:1 historical classification, but it certainly highlights a central trait of IB society.

    • Well, thanks for the spirit.

      1. That’s true. But race doesn’t have to be a dividing line in a slave society. Russian serfdom, for example.
      2. Not unknown in slave societies, or indeed in the U.S in the very early days of slavery. The detail of converting religions is huge – early on in the history of the Virginia colony (pre-1676), it wasn’t considered acceptable for one christian to own another, so conversion to Christianity was a major way for slaves to win their freedom.
      3. That’s true, but then again black freedman also had more leverage than black slaves.
      4. Yes and no. It’s a bit more equally distributed, but you’d expect captains to get more than individual soldiers/sailors, and lords more than captains.
      5. That is a significant difference.
      6. That we know of. Pre-WOIAF, we know very little about the history
      7. I think it rather is; no other Westerosi kingdom has this practice, Aegon abolished it, and it’s a major source of hostility between the Iron Islands and the regions they once controlled.
      8. We don’t know what the figures are like.
      9. I don’t know how common it is; clearly it’s not common enough to escape stigma.

  14. This is also why I don’t make an exception for Asha in my general hatred for the Ironborn characters. In some ways she’s worse than Victarion because she’s smart enough to know invading the North is the worst move for the Ironborn and she might be the only one with enough influence to change Balon’s mind. Victarion is evil but also so dim you have to wonder if he can comprehend concepts like morality.

    Who knows if it would have made a difference or what she did before Theon showed up but her being reasonable at the King’s Moot seems like closing the barn door after the horse has left and had time to take up tap dancing.

    • Winnie says:

      LOL to that analogy. Yeah, Vic at least may be too dumb to know better, Euron’s crazy, and Balon was dumb AND crazy but Asha went along with a plan she KNEW was going to be a complete debacle simply to stay in Daddy’s good graces. As the Reader said, she’s no better than a crow trying to feast on carrion.

      Though, if Asha survives, (and that’s a BIG if,) there might repeat *might* be some hope for redemption for her, in that she might someday rule the Islands and try to move them into a direction more along the lines of what her favorite uncle has suggested. I do think, that seeing what happened to Theon and her conversations with Alysanne Mormont have given her something to think about there not to mention what’s going to happen to the Iron Born under Euron’s command. In some sick way, they actually deserve it; because they picked him and because Euron is truly the twisted logical extension of the entire Iron Born culture. It’s a revealing moment for Asha when she’s finally confronted with just how deeply the madness in her culture has become set in.

      • S. Duff says:

        I think Asha is going to be Stannis’ chosen ruler of the Iron Islands, but I don’t think that will happen until Euron is defeated halfway through a Dream of Spring.

        Based on the show bypassing Justin Massey and having Stannis just hire the mercenaries before the Wall, it’s possible his mission succeeds, so he may end up consort to the Lady Paramount of the Iron Islands.

        • Winnie says:

          Especially if Selyse died…

          Or Asha could well conceive and bear children out of wedlock. I still think her discussion with Alyssane about how Mormont children are sired by bears was foreshadowing.

  15. Black_Goat says:

    Great post, as usual.

    A note on what would happen if Robb does not send Theon: Yes, MC and DM still fall to the ironborn, and Robb probably has to execute his buddy. But if Theon doesn’t go to Pyke, Winterfell almost certainly does not fall. If WF never falls to Theon, it is never sacked by Ramsay. I’ve always been under the impression that there was some communication between Roose and Ramsay after the latter has been dispatched by Theon to raise troops, in which Roose tacitly gives his son permission to sack WF. At the very least, Roose’s own betrayal was spurred on by the fall/sack: he’d have to think twice about participating in the Red Wedding if the remaining northern lords would still have Bran/Rickon/Winterfell to rally behind.

    • Winnie says:

      Roose himself said that Theon was what made it possible for him to stage his coup. He took that as a sign that it was Game Over not just for Robb but the entire Stark family. He may have been right about the former but he was wrong about the latter as I think he’s just starting to learn.

    • Yeah, what the Boltons do in this scenario is very hard to predict.

  16. Roger says:

    Robb trusted and loved Theon like a brother, but he didn’t really know him. Despite his smiles and jokes and womanizing, Theon was still a forgotten child. And a forgotten child’s wrath can be terrible.

    I don’t think Robb would have killed Theon if Balon had started war previously to his depart. Theon was Eddard’s hostage, not Robb’s. Robb could proclaim Theon “legitimate Lord” of the Iron Islands, and consider Balon a traitor for failing his peace agreement with Eddard and King Robert. Perhaps even promising him to Sansa to give him some weight. Lord Theon could assemble some followers in the Iron Islands (for example Lord Blacktyde). Without allies and without the surprise factor, Balon would have failed as miserabily as the first time he tried. But I digress…

    About Ironborn culture. In ADWD Asha said they don’t tolerate failure. But Balon (and previously Dagon Greyjoy during Aerys I reign) both were defeated and they were still respected. I find it curious…

    Personaly I think Theon’s plot in Second season had good points. But was generally bad realisated and full of errors. SOme of them should have been prevented by directors.

    • illrede says:

      On not tolerating failures, later on I get the impression the only thing Asha knows about the Battle of Fair Isle (fought between her Uncle and Stannis when she was a child, that saw the destruction of the Iron Fleet) is what her captors tell her about it. She certainly doesn’t bring up in her mind that the people she is held by have extensive experience with ironborn, having subdued one of the Iron Islands during the rebellion.

      “Things we don’t talk about” seems to be very much in effect.

      • Winnie says:

        Or it could be that Asha’s thinking, (probably correctly) that the IB are less likely to tolerate failure from a *woman*. Even though, Daddy got *crushed* by Robert, Ned, and Stannis, he could still be revered and call up his ships again for another stupid doomed venture but she wouldn’t be given anywhere near the same latitude.

        But I agree, that Asha like the rest of the family may be in the thrall of some revisionist history and never owned up to the fact that the IB for all their supposed bad-ass superiority to Greenlanders *lost* their Noble Rebellion-and lost BIG. Remember, she tries to cling to the Stony Shore concept long after its clear, it won’t work and that staying in the North is folly. She’s too wedded to her family’s mythos and she has to get past that.

        • S. Duff says:

          We do start to see cracks in the Ironborn’s support for Balon foolhardy ventures. Lord Sharp is pissed that his son died at Winterfell, for example, so he supports Asha.

      • Roger says:

        In the Kingsmoat, Victarion admited having been defeated once. The battle was public knowledge, but people simply doesn’t talk about it. Not directly. Not even Asha used Fair Isle as an argument against her uncle.

    • I think Robb’s hand would have been forced, similar to Rickard.

      • Amestria says:

        I don’t know if it’s *that* similar. On top of murdering two young prisoners and sending his army after Jaime without leave, Rickard thumbed his nose at Robb for his past mercy and continuously insulted him. I doubt Theon would have been similarly suicidal. He also had some emotional levers to pull with Robb, being BFF and all. So it would have been a very unpleasant decision for Robb, quite unlike the Westerling marriage, Catlyn’s pardon, and the Karstark execution, all of which featured Robb picking the course of action in tune with his emotions (infatuation, motherly love, and fury, respectively).

  17. jpmarchives says:

    First things first – Stephen, your blog is the best of its kind. You bring me fresh insight into this series with every word you post. Keep up the superb work!

    Alright, enough kissing ass. I had to comment once we reached Theon’s first chapter because I find his arc both fascinating and infuriating, which is exactly what GRRM intended. Theon is awful in most of his ACOK chapters, combining breathtaking arrogance and entitlement with severe self esteem issues and a lack of personal identity. But as unpleasant as he is I still pity him, if only because I struggle to see what else he could have done to avoid his awful fate. Staying with Robb ensures his death at the hands of a man he later acknowledges was his brother, going to Pyke and staying loyal to Robb would have resulted in his capture and possibly his execution and we know what happens when he decides to take Winterfell. Like Oedipus doomed to sleep with his mother and kill his father, Theon was on the slippery road to Winterfell, Ramsay and Reek the moment he got off that ship.

    When rereading ASOIAF I’ve always found Balon Greyjoy to be an enigma in both characterization and political motives. I am under the impression that Balon’s decisions here are the most transparent symptom of GRRM’s “authorial hand”; the Ironborn attacked the north not because it made sense to do so but because GRRM wanted Robb’s cause to fail, setting up the return of the Starks at the conclusion of the story. This might be too harsh – after all, Theon is a well rounded character with an excellent arc – but I’ve never seen the Ironborn as an integral part of the story. Instead I view them as a faction who’s existence was required to foul up Robb’s campaign and to (hopefully) bring Dany the ships she needs to get back to Westeros and enter the Game of Thrones proper when TWOW comes around.

    • Winnie says:

      Yeah more often than not the Iron Born seem to be a plot device-note they choose the Crows Eye and his obviously mad scheme which helps propel so many events in Feast like the attack on the Reach. As you say Martin had to put his thumb on the scale to make things turn out quite so badly for the Starks.

    • Crystal says:

      I agree with you and Winnie. While Theon’s character arc is one of the best in the series (along with Sansa’s and Jaime’s), and the Reek-to-Theon arc in ADWD was a shining light in a disappointing book, Balon, Victarion and most of the other Greyjoys and Ironborn seem like plot devices. I agree that Balon, in particular is a manifestation of the authorial hand/thumb on the scale. Balon exists to help doom the Stark cause, and Victarion to get ships to Dany, and later as a delicious grilled-calamari snack for Drogon, no doubt.

      • Winnie says:

        And since the show has already given D any enough ships I’m betting they get rid of Vic entirely. No loss there.

        • Andrew says:

          I think the “dragons plucking krakens form the sea” may point to that.

          I think Victarion kills Hizdahr, Daario (if Vic won’t let Dany’s husband live why would he take any chances with her lover? Daario doesn’t exactly make their relationship a secret), Barristan for standing in the way who is still bound to defend his king, and Jorah (who is from Bear Island where kids are told to fear krakens rising from the deep) who would die trying to kill Vic rather than chance for the woman he loves to marry him, especially if he finds out what happened to Victarion’s last wife.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it.

      However, I disagree with your description of the Ironborn merely as a deus ex machina. I don’t think GRRM would invest in no less than four Ironborn POVs if they didn’t have both a thematic as well as a plot importance to his overall story.

  18. Meereenese Liberation Front says:

    Great read once again!

    Three questions:

    1) Would Theon, if he had wished to, have had any chance of warning Robb? No ships got out, and getting access to the maesters’ raven network might prove tricky, as Balon so deeply mistrusted him.

    2) Why didn’t Balon try to obtain Tywin’s support *before* the invasion? Post factum, he didn’t have anything other to offer than, as Tywin accurately points out, what he’s doing anyhow (i.e. fighting the North).

    3) Why the hell didn’t Robert (or, as his prudent advisor, Jon Arryn) subdue the IB for good after the first rebellion – i.e. forbid any construction of war ships, claim hostages from all noble families (one Theon doesn’t make all that difference, as you point out – and what if he dies in his youth)? Where did the IB get the means to rebuild their Iron Fleet after Stannis had destroyed it? Cersei has to bankrupt the realm for just a few ships, but the IB sail to Meereen with a hundred. And which lord would be so stupid as to trade timber to the IB, given that their islands are obviously deforested?

    • Winnie says:

      1. Hard to say. He might have been able to get a message out or he might not but point is
      he didn’t even try.

      2. Because Balon’s an idiot who’s being completely irrational about this whole thing. It really was the dumbest plan ever and it made conflict between the Iron Born and Iron Throne inevitable.

      3. Well Ned probably urged mercy and except for the Dragons Robert wasnt especially vindictive. Also I think Martin gave the Iron Born culture plot armor hence their ability to rebuild too.

    • David Hunt says:

      My layman’s guesses:

      1) I’d guess not, at least not in any explicit fashion. I’d have to believe that any message that Theon sent to Robb would be read before it was sent. It’s possible that Theon might hide a warning in the phrasing to alert Robb, but Theon doesn’t strike me as that clever.

      2) Surprise and secrecy were extremely important to Balon’s plans. Once he sends a raven to Tywin, he has to assume that a secret that big will get out . The bird could be intercepted. The maester at the Red Keep could be compromised. Tywin might leak the news to the Northmen. Robb having to commit men to defend the North by sea would at least restrict his ability to reinforce his army in the Riverlands/Westerlands. Plus, Balon did burn Tywin’s entire fleet in Lannisport just ten years earlier. Tywin might feel that he’s got a “debt” to repay for that.

      3) As to why there aren’t more hostages from the Ironborn, you’ve got me. As to where the ships came from, although the Stannis and Paxter Redwine defeated the Iron Fleet, I doubt many of them were actually sunk, but rather taken in boarding actions. Insane as this may sound, I suspect a lot of them went back to Iron Islands after they were subdued. After the Iron Born were defeated, they needed their ships to be a taxpaying province of Westeros. Without them, they may as well not be in the Kingdom at all. It’s the old, bit about if the enemy bends the knee, you must help him up or no enemy will ever surrender again.

      Those are my best guesses.

      • Meereenese Liberation Front says:

        2) You’re probably right. As Tywin does all this succesful scheming by ravens, I tend to forget how highly insecure this means of communication is. (Even without letters to the mainland, Balon is pretty lucky no news of his plans left the Iron Islands. One grumpy Lord would have been all it needed.)

        3) Good point – and it’s probably not only the taxes, but, as I speculated in another post, the fact how vital the IB are for the rest of Westeros for intercontinental trade (at least for one in which the terms are in their favor). Still, seems pretty mercantile for someone like Robert – maybe he just looked out for another fun war in ten years’ time?

        • David Hunt says:

          Nah, after the fighting was done, Jon Arryn stepped up to him and said “Here’s how the peace is going to work…”

      • jpmarchives says:

        I think you’re right on the ball with 1. and 3. but Balon’s attempt to gain an alliance with Tywin in ASOS is too stupid to be excused by allusions to counter intelligence measures. It’s difficult to say whether or not Tywin would have taken a pact with the Greyjoys in exchange for their help against Robb before they invaded the North, but the end result would still be the same – Tywin represents the status quo and is looking for an alliance that would help him maintain it. The Tyrell/Lannister team up does this perfectly, whereas Balon would claim a crown no matter what, which is ultimately unsustainable and the idea of Lannisters helping the Ironborn take over the North is frankly ludicrous.

        A more “in character” reason why Balon decided to send a missive only after he’d already attacked the Starks is that he doesn’t think in terms of gold or alliances; Ironborn take their crowns and pay the Iron price. From Balon’s perspective he’d already done that and was coming to the table as a powerful conqueror, but this devotion to Ironborn culture shows just how delusional he was. By supporting Joffrey, Tywin was supporting the claim of the “rightful King of westeros”, making the North as much Joffrey’s property as it was Robb’s. Balon failed to understand the broader political picture; one in which any Ironborn conquest would be painfully short, unless he hitched his horse to a faction who’s only goal was destabilizing and changing the current status quo. Joffrey, Stannis and Renly would all be obligated to stop Balon in his conquests, whilst Robb was the only one who wouldn’t, as King of just the North and Riverlands. But because Robb’s father was tangentially connected to Balon’s defeat nine years before, the entire North had to pay. Apparently. For some reason.

        • David Hunt says:

          Yeah, my #2 is only a possible reason why Balon waited to make the offer to Tywin till after the invasion of the North was in progress, not why he decided to invade in the first place. It seems clear that Balon mentally heaped all the blame for the loss of his two older sons almost entirely on Ned Stark. I don’t see any rational reason that this should be so as Robert and (especially) Stannis were instrumental in giving him a good thumping the last time, unless it was Ned who personally killed them both (which I doubt). The only reason I can see for this is that Ned is the guy carried off his last living son, so he’s the one who gets to collect all his ire at not being the great and feared king that Balon was clearly meant to be.

          • Winnie says:

            As The on noted Ned didn’t personally kill his brothers and you’re quite right that the Stags were more instrumental in crushing the squid than even the wolves. Yet another reason Balon’s invasion of the North feels like Martin playing the contrivance fairy.

            And yeah even The on noted that the Iron Born invasion was guaranteed to put them in conflict with the Crown.

          • Andrew says:

            Well, Winnie the reason Balon chose the Starks over the Baratheons was because the Baratheon’s lands, the stormlands, are on the other side of Westeros, out of Balon’s reach. The same goes for the Arryns and the Vale. Balon humiliated Tywin by burning the fleet at Lannisport, so there isn’t as much a chip in his shoulder regarding the Lannisters. So that leaves the Starks, who have a western coast, and took his son to hostage. They were the most likely target.

    • Roger says:

      My opinion is:
      1) Best option for Theon would have been leaving his men after landing at Stone Shore and ride to Robb. But he still risked himself to be beheaded, or simply jailed. It was highly difficult to send a message from Pyke, nearly impossible for somehow hasn’t been there for 10 years.
      2) As someone has said, Balon couldn’t wait and didn’t want alliances without recognition of his Crown. And that needed fait acompli. “Balon thinks like a sacker, not as a king”, Tywin dixit.
      3) Probably Robert thought Theon and young lord Blacktyde were enough. And probably the Iron Fleet had to be re-built again after Fair Isle (that was a total defeat, with many ships rammed and many noblemen dead, like the Reader’s sons). Also Robert didn’t expect a new civil war in Westeros. Probably Balon now can field less men than in his First Rebelion.

    • 1. Maybe? Unlikely.
      2. Who knows. I don’t think he thought that far, he just wanted to attack right now.
      3. Well, Robert did a lot of damage and did take hostages. But I think there’s a limit to the kind of imposed weakness you can impose with the limited monarchy of Westeros – you need inspectors to check for warships who won’t die, or be imprisoned, or bribed, you need a method of communication that can’t be intercepted, etc.

      • Roger says:

        Also, imposing worst terms of rendition would have only prolonged ironborn’s resistance. And in feudal Westeros the King can’t keep his army on the field eternaly.

        • illrede says:

          I am recalling a swath of “Andalized” (imprecise term) Ironborn (at least one of them a former hostage) that showed up for the invasion/kingsmoot plot and did what they could to keep the Iron Islands part of the realm. They just died for it; conversely, they died for it.

          If Robert had used that opening he created as more of a proper stalking horse instead of a slap-dash patch he later forgot about- executing Balon and at least some of his brothers, raising up marginal houses to authority, throwing support behind the returning hostages- heck, within the constraints of his Lannisters-vaccuuming-up-all-royal-favours court, just having them swear oaths to Casterly Rock…

          “Leave well enough alone if it’s quiet” was NOT the policy to follow there, though. But it was the only one Robert Baratheon had if a war wasn’t immediately on offer.

          • Roger says:

            I think you refer to Baelor Blacktyde. His father died in the War, and he was sent to Oldtown as hostage (being then moreless of Theon’s age). He was heavily influenced by the big city, even worshipping the Seven. When Balon accused Theon of having become a “greenlander”, he probably remembered Blacktyde.

            Not surprisingly, he was the only islander who refered to Robert as “King Robert”.

            Baelor didn’t oppose the Iron Islands independence, AFAIK, but he wanted peace with the North at all costs. Suporting Asha to the end (and dying for him).

            I don’t think any Islander would have liked becoming a Westerner. Lannisport is far away, and Pyke is too close.

          • Crystal says:

            My guess is that Jon Arryn was the one who was behind most of Robert’s decisions, including the “leave well enough alone” approach to the Iron Islands. Robert hated “kinging,” as he put it, and delegated most of the business of ruling to Jon Arryn. And Jon “As High As Honor” Arryn was going to take the honorable approach if at all possible. Which meant that a representative of probably the most honorable sub-culture in Westeros was dealing with the least honorable one, but nobody had any idea that it would come back to bite them.

        • Yep. Unless you’re willing to go the full Roman, it’s hard to keep someone down forever.

  19. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, I just wanted to pop in and congratulate you on producing another fine Chapter analysis; at this point I will also go on record as supporting your comparison of the Ironborn with the Unreconstructed Post-Bellum South (I may have noted before that I suspect Lord Balon’s personal motto is ‘The Norse will Rise Again!’).

    I should also state that (passion for Assassin’s Creed IV aside) when it comes to Pirates I’d sooner see them hanged than hang out with them (I truly do hope that Euron Crow’s Eye finds his finish on the rope’s end where he belongs).

    • Winnie says:

      Actually, given the prophecy it sounds more likely Euron will feed Drogon just as Vic will. I have this crazy theory though, that Euron will marry Cersei, (possibly with in absentia,) as a desperate last ditch attempt on her part to hold onto power if/when the Lannister/Tyrell alliance is obliterated.

      • Crystal says:

        Euron marrying Cersei is something I would love to see! And I could see Cersei doing that in a bid to hang on to her power. As long as they don’t reproduce…

        I agree that Euron is going to be dragon food in the end. Euron: “Me conqueror, you saltwife!” Dany: “Dracarys!” Euron: dies screaming as he is dragon-grilled

        • Winnie says:

          That scenario sounds like Vic’s fate. Unless Martin intends it for both brothers which seems redundant…another reason perhaps for D&D to cut Vic?

      • Andrew says:

        I think clues point to a certain crow/NW man taking out Euron’s Crow’s Eye in Oldtown. That man’s archery skills have improved, and the last time his arrow made it into an Ironborn longship.

        • Winnie says:

          Well we would all LOVE to see that happen, (especially if Randyll Tarly were there to watch, the old bastard,) but again, the prophecy seems to suggest that Dany is going to be facing Euron. Which given that Martin in his latest interviews has suggested that Dany still won’t be traveling to Westeros anytime quickly in Winds means that Euron might be around for a while yet.

          • WPA says:

            There is the appalling (but keeping with some patterns, interesting) possibility that Euron’s completely insane plan to reave and invade the Reach might actually work (at least for a time).

            But yes, the prospect of Sam Tarly ending up a legendary soldier-scholar-philosopher lord in future histories is an endlessly amusing one.

          • Winnie says:

            Well given Martin’s sadistic penchant for letting the worst possible things happen, (i.e. Ned’s beheading, the burning of Winterfell, the RW, the Red Viper’s death, etc. etc.) it would be entirely like him to let some truly horrible things happen in the Reach because a. Cersei didn’t release Paxter’s fleet in time or b. Euron dabbling in dark magic or c. both. Like maybe Euron’s after something in Oldtown to help him summon up storms or such against his enemies.

            One problem I have is how do Euron and Aegon co-exist as factions in Westeros at the same time? Does Euron just hold one side of the coast and Aegon the other or will Euron kill Aegon and burn KL?!? But again isn’t Dany supposed to vanquish both of them, (which would mean they were both active in Westeros when she gets there.) I think Martin may have boxed himself in a bit with all the prophecies.

          • Andrew says:

            Except Euron is in Westeros, and the only kraken headed for Dany is Victarion. The “sea of blood” is the exact same description Jorah gave the Dothraki Sea when it blooms. I think the kraken is Victarion who goes into the Dothraki Sea to find her out of impatience, because he wants to go the Volantene fleet arrives.

            Who is to say Victarion doesn’t lose an eye in the fighting?

        • Winnie says:

          And it just occurred to me that true to Martin’s sadistic streak he may be setting it up for the Crow’s Eye to be the death of our beloved Sam; just as he made us think Robb would one day meet Tywin on the field of battle only to have Robb and his slaughtered at the Twins, and how he let us have a brief moment of hope when Oberyn challenged the Mountain.

          • Andrew says:

            Except what about Jaqen? Sam is our only POV in Oldtown, and his death wouldn’t contribute to the plot in any meaningful way, IMO. There is no battle plans being made for Sam to fight Euron, so I doubt that analogy fits. I also doubt then glimpses at his archery skills are for nothing.

      • JG says:

        Good call!

    • Thanks very much!

      Yeah, the piracy thing is something I’ll get to later. Way too much romanticization.

      • Andrew says:

        I look at Euron, and I see a kind of subversion of the romanticized pirate. At first glance Euron has all the characteristics of a pirate one would want to read about: he is cunning, charismatic, good sense of humor/laughs a lot, visited exotic places, lots of treasure and he even has the eye patch. Of course, it ends there as Euron is a complete psychopath who his entire family hates, which is pretty much saying something if one Greyjoy is hated by all the rest. He rapes, murders and humiliates others, not a knight of the sea who rescues damsels in distress, but makes them damsels in distress in the first place. He treats his whole family like shit: raping one brother, assassinating another, horning another, and even comparing his children to shit.

    • Roger says:

      Euron has enemies everywhere (even in the Iron Isles). Don’t lose the faith!

  20. Amestria says:

    Omigawd, this has been up for less then two days and it already has 117 posts! You guys must really have wanted to talk about Theon…

  21. JT says:

    It’s funny you mentioned Euron and Victarion and how some people think they’re “badass”.

    Making characters that come off as badass at the expense of being believable seems to be a trap Martin fell into in AFFC. I always found Balon and Asha (even before she becomes a POV character) to be well drawn three dimensional characters with believable motivations (not ones I’d agree with, but ones I can recognize).

    Compare them to some of the characters, especially in Dorne and the Iron Islands that we get in AFFC. I always wonder what Martin’s thought process was when he created Darkstar, the Sand Snakes, and Euron.

    “Jaime Lannister is too thoughtful and he can’t fight anymore. I want another handsome anti-hero with great sword skills. But this one should be more badass. Oh and he needs a badass nickname as well.” -> Darkstar

    “Brienne is really popular with women. But she’s too morose from dealing with scorn her entire life. I’ll create more female fighters, but get rid of the pathos and make them badass. Oh, and they all need badass nicknames as well.” -> The Sandsnakes

    “Balon was an okay antagonist, but he was just a bitter old man. I need a more badass Iron King. And he should have magic powers. Oh and a badass nickname as well.” -> Euron “Crow’s Eye” Greyjoy

    • Amestria says:

      “I always wonder what Martin’s thought process was when he created Darkstar, the Sand Snakes, and Euron.”

      Well, given that all these characters go on and try to do very horrible things, he might have been in a somewhat deconstructive frame mind. Or maybe not, but it reads that way.

      I enjoyed all those characters though, they’re all people who are putting on a badass performance. Darkstar is an absolutely hilarious wannabe (he’s as trashy, immoral, and full of himself as Daario, but without the *skills*) but he’s undoubtedly good with a sword (otherwise he wouldn’t be the most dangerous man in Dorne – though I think Doran meant he’s dangerous in the same way as Lyn Corbray is dangerous). The Sand Snakes are exactly the sort of daughters the Red Viper would raise, honestly (vicious killers totally ax-crazy about avenging their family). There’s also a great deal of celebrity in how they style/identify themselves (their signature weapons, outfits, personalities) and if they seem a little artificial at times that’s because they are. Euron presents himself as having achieved the ideal of what it means to be Iron Born while actually breaking a lot of the rules, which is probably the only way this ideal can be achieved – also, he’s a sociopathic killer and serial rapist whose private behavior even unnerves hardened Victarion. And they’re all legitimately dangerous because people buy into their performances, Euron most of all.

    • jpmarchives says:

      Personally, I have no problem with larger than life characters in ASOIAF. Some work as deconstructions (Golden haired Jaime isn’t the best knight in the realm, the warrior maid Brienne being the truest knight of them all ect) and others work as perfectly straight tropes (monsters like Ramsay and Gregor being good examples.) What really bothered me about AFFC was the number of POVs in places we didn’t really need them, where Martin has been carefully (almost sadistically) keeping us in the dark in other areas. With four POVs from the Greyjoys, that makes them the second best represented family in Westeros behind the Starks. Considering their comparative relevance to the story, that seems bizarre.

      • Roger says:

        Personaly I would have enjoyed a POV of the Tyrells or from someone in the Stormlands.

      • Winnie says:

        Martin does seem inordinately fond of the Squids for some reason. I agree that it would have made more sense to hear from the Roses at some point given their importance to the plot. I worry that Martin is procrastinating about giving us the really important stuff because he’s stuck.

        • David Hunt says:

          I can sorta understand why we don’t have any POV characters inside the movers and shakers of the Tyrell camp. Cercei is arguably the dominant character of AFFC and a huge part of what’s driving her is her paranoia regarding the Tyrells. She is totally convinced that the every member of the family is in a conspiracy to destroy her. That every Tyrell bannerman is in it or entirely of tool of Tyrells with no agendas of their own, ignoring how even the Tyrells sometime acknowledge that several other houses have a better claim to be the heirs of House Gardener and how it’s obvious that half of them would jump at the chance to supplant the Tyrells. That anyone who suggests that she’s working against her own interest by openly working against the Tyrells has been bought by them. Etc.

          The hell of it is that despite the fact that she’s paranoid, she’s not wholly wrong. Trusting anything Littlefinger says is treacherous, but I think there’s good reason to believe that the Queen of Thorns was the one who actually murdered Joffrey and it’s hard to believe Margaery wasn’t involved given that she was drinking from the same cup. So some of the inner family, at least, is probably plotting to destroy her, but which ones? Does Mace know? Are any of their close retainers like Paxter Redwine involved? A lot of that mystery would disappear if we had a window into the minds of one of the Tyrells.

          As to someone from the Stormlands, well there usually nothing happening there. When there is, there’s usually a POV there to watch it for us. If you just want someone from the Reach or the Stromlands to see things through, wells there’s Samwell and Brienne.

      • Amestria says:

        The Greyjoys are probably about to become a whole lot more relevant. The Martels too. Seeing how little of the first three books took place on the Iron Islands and Dorne I think the extra POV were worth it.

        I think we’ll get a Willas POV next book. He’s a cripple (so he’d be another narrator whose fallen afoul of social expectations), he’s in charge of defending Highgarden & the Reach, and he probably has little idea of the larger picture. Perfect POV character.

        • Sean C. says:

          GRRM has said there won’t be any new POV characters (some have taken this to mean no new characters who are POVs, thus not excluding preexisting ones from becoming POVs, but I don’t think that’s the case).

          • Amestria says:

            He might be lying.

            In any case, if a new POV is added then it will probably be Willas because he fits the usual profile (crippled in a society that idealizes physical ability, bookish in a society that looks down on this, and sympathetic to the Dornish in a society that is somewhat racist against them and with whom they will soon be at war with). At the very least we’ll have an extended meeting with him, like the one we had with Rodrick the Reader.

      • Rufus Leek says:

        Technically the Greyjoys are tied with the Lannisters for second. Kevan got the last chapter of book 5. But it does seem unusual that they’ve gotten so much ink.

    • It’s hard to tell how much of this is a knowing wink – especially with Darkstar.

      I don’t have a problem with the Sand Snakes.

      Euron’s a loon, but he’s at least an important loon in terms of connecting Westeros to Dany.

  22. Andrew says:

    1) “But Greyjoys were not murdered at Pyke except once in a great while by their brothers”

    Theon proves to be right about that as we see what happens to Balon.

    2) With Victarion, Theon does prove astute. Victarion is the weak link of the family intellectually with strengths being he is the biggest, strongest warrior in the family. Although what does one say about comparing him to Drogo for Victarion fans? I don’t think that is an apt comparison. Thoughts?

    Before I forget, good job on another chapter analysis.

  23. scarlett45 says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis as always. They are a joy to read. I was at Comic Con on Thursday and I mentioned your blog to several of my line mates. Hopefully it will drive more traffic to your site. Sadly I didn’t get a badge for Saturday this year and Hall H is just crazy.

  24. James SC says:

    One thing I always thought was interesting was how friendly Theon was with Patrek Mallister, the Mallister’s job seems to be to protect the Riverlands from the Ironborn.

    If Theon wasn’t sent and Balon invaded anyway, Im not sure Robb would be forced to kill Theon. Imprison him definitely, but Idk about killing him. Robb obviously values him more than Balon. Heck even the Northerners consider him Stark enough to name him kinslayer. I imagine them hearing about it and being like “well this is awkward”, and Theon checking in to a guarded room at Hotel Riverrun. Go to War with Balon, kill him and install the pro-Stark Lord Theon.

    Another question would be when does being a hostage aka “Fostering for good behavior” run out. Was Theon basically Stark property until Balon died? Or could have Balon leased him back sooner if he was a bitter curmudgeon?

    (Two comparably highborn noble hostage/foster type situations I can think of are Loras and Quentyn though both were probably entered into as friendlier terms and with both parties trying to grow stronger ties.)

    • Amestria says:

      “Heck even the Northerners consider him Stark enough to name him kinslayer.”

      I think they hurl that term at Theon just to punish him for betraying Rob (he gave Rob an oath, correct?) and attacking Ned’s home and family. By law and blood the Starks were not his kin.

      The Northmen are generally very myopic when it comes to Theon, for example Rodrik Cassel’s shock and fury when Theon threatens to hang Beth should the Northerners attack. As the Mountain Clansmen would tell you, the Starks of old were no strangers to executing child hostages. And as Theon himself repeatedly points out, he was a hostage. But then the Northmen are not responding rationally, so everything Theon does is evil, even when its something the Starks have done. But then, atrocities are always bad when the other side does them and excusable when committed by one’s own side.

      • Also, it’s not entirely clear who’s calling him a kinslayer. That might be in his head.

        • Amestria says:

          The washer women call Theon a kinslayer and that’s definitely not in his head:

          “Not us.” Rowan grabbed him by the throat and shoved him back against the barracks wall, her face an inch from his. “Say it again and I will rip your lying tongue out, kinslayer.”

          They’re Wildling women from Beyond the Wall, they obviously don’t know what happened at the mill in regards to Theon possibly killing illegitimate sons, and they’ve undoubtedly heard the account of what happened from Northmen. So it seems likely that they picked up the insult from the northerners.

          Another example of Northern myopia is the outrage at using Beth:

          “This is craven,” Ser Rodrik said. “To use a child so… this is despicable.”

          “Oh, I know,” said Theon. “It’s a dish I tasted myself, or have you forgotten? I was ten when I was taken from my father’s house, to make certain he would raise no more rebellions.”

          “It is not the same!”

          Theon’s face was impassive. “The noose I wore was not made of hempen rope, that’s true enough, but I felt it all the same. And it chafed, Ser Rodrik. It chafed me raw.” He had never quite realized that until now, but as the words came spilling out he saw the truth of them.

          “No harm was ever done you.”

          “And no harm will be done your Beth, so long as you-”

          Ser Rodrik never gave him the chance to finish. “Viper,” the knight declared, his face red with rage beneath those white whiskers. “I gave you the chance to save your men and die with some small shred of honor, Turncloak. I should have known that was too much to ask of a childkiller.”


          Compare with past Stark practice:

          “The free folk have neither laws nor lords,” Jon said, “but they love their children. Will you admit that much?”
          “It is not their children who concern us. We fear the fathers, not the sons.”

          “As do I. So I insisted upon hostages.” I am not the trusting fool you take me for … nor am I half wildling, no matter what you believe. “One hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. A son from each of their chiefs and captains, the rest chosen by lot. The boys will serve as pages and squires, freeing our own men for other duties. Some may choose to take the black one day. Queerer things have
          happened. The rest will stand hostage for the loyalty of their sires.”

          The northmen glanced at one another. “Hostages,” mused The Norrey. “Tormund has agreed to this?”

          It was that, or watch his people die. “My blood price, he called it,” said Jon Snow, “but he will pay.”

          “Aye, and why not?” Old Flint stomped his cane against the ice. “Wards, we always called them, when Winterfell demanded boys of us, but they were hostages, and none the worse for it.”

          “None but them whose sires displeased the Kings o’ Winter,” said The Norrey. “Those came home shorter by a head. So you tell me, boy … if these wildling friends o’ yours prove false, do you have the belly to do what needs be done?”

          So Cassel, and a lot of other Northmen, are deliberately choosing to ignore not only the circumstances of Theon’s wardship but a whole lot of Northern history.

    • James SC says:

      Also, would Theon be able to take the Black instead if Robb’s hand was forced by Balon’s invasion? I know Karstark probably wouldn’t have been able to go that way, but I’d think Robb wouldn’t want to kill Theon and look for a way out of it.

      Also not a lot of taking/offering of the Black during the WOT5K. Seems that mainly reserved for after the spoils are being taken ala Jaime ending the seige at Riverrun. I’m a little surprised Roose didn’t send any people to the wall either to get rid of some undesirables or as a mercenary squad like in the show. (Well not that surprised, a Flayas gotta Flay.)

      • illrede says:

        I think the lack of the Black being taken/offered is to recall the breakdown of mitigating conventions the Wars of the Roses saw.

  25. David Hunt says:

    I’m not aware of any established traditional standard for how long you keep hostages for. However, I will note that Robb’s peace offer to Cercei at the beginning of ACOK specifically set out terms for the North getting hostages that would be returned gradually over a term of (I think) 5 years. OTOH, Theon’s stay at Winterfell seems to have been going on for a long time and I suspect that his stay there was expected to go on pretty much for as long as Balon was alive because no one trusted Balon. Then again, Theon was surrendered after the Iron Islands were utterly thrashed, as opposed to a negotiated peace where neither side has achieved a clear victory.

    • illrede says:

      Well, Theon hoped to get a Stark marriage out of it. On the other hand, Catelyn’s commentary would suggest that is not where her and Ned’s minds were at. Yet again, the Northern peers accept Theon as Ned Stark’s ward, good enough to qualify as a kinslayer or give away a bride. And then again nationalities will as a rule view their actions as embodying perfect justice when in conflict- Theon may have been promoted from “hostage” to “ward” out of bias when the distinction became relevant.

      He’d reached his majority, though. If they didn’t have a plan for him that doesn’t look good at all.

    • Ian G. says:

      Robb’s terms to Cersei included the indefinite detention of Jaime as a guarantee for Tywin’s good behavior. What this meant when Tywin died is beyond me – I know I’d be extremely reluctant to release Jaime Lannister after years in captivity, but maybe the hope was that Tywin would live long enough that Jaime would have rusted as a warrior and commander.

      • David Hunt says:

        Jaime was to remain Robb’s hostage “for his father’s good behavior.” Although there was not a specified end date, I suspect that Robb planned that to be a point that they negotiated out after the peace was in place for a few years and he saw what Tywin was willing to do the get his son back. Plus, since Jaime was in the Kingsguard, he (theoretically) couldn’t inherit the West and Casterly Rock would pass to someone else. I don’t know if Robb expected Tyrion to inherit, but Tywin wasn’t young. It might be that Robb figured if he kept Jaime until Tywin died, he’d hold off a new war until his most dangerous foeman was dead.

        Of course, all of that is part of the pipe dream where the Iron Throne actually agreed to let Robb have half the Kingdom. I doubt that Robb really expected his terms to be accepted, at least at the time that he made it. I think that the offer was a political move. By making the offer, all of the Iron Throne’s bannermen know that peace can be bought. They’ll be thinking about how much that peace costs versus how much they have to sacrifice to keep the war going from here on out. Plus, Robb turns the offer into part of his military strategy. He’s fully aware that the Lannisters will try to draw out any negotiations to allow them to mass new armies to attack him with, so he doesn’t wait for the counter offer and invades the Westerlands, making sure that it’s Tywin who pays the price of delay instead of him. I think the final part of that grand strategy was to threaten Lannisport and the Rock so that Tywin would have no choice but to buy him off and accept peace on Robb’s terms. Only then, would Robb be likely to get terms roughly in line with what he had demanded.

      • That was specifically in the context of Tywin’s good behavior during the exchange of prisoners; the rest is left ambiguous.

    • Crystal says:

      I surmise that the plan *may* have been to keep Theon until Balon died, and then return him to be the “acculturated” new Lord of the Islands, possibly with a Northern bride in tow. I doubt that bride would have been Sansa or Arya, who would be kept back for better marriages, but maybe someone like Alys Karstark or Wylla Manderly. Ta-da! No more rebellions! No more Old Way! (Or so Ned would assume…)

      Primogeniture of some kind is such a rock-solid institution in the rest of Westeros that I don’t think it occurred to anyone that Balon’s only living son wouldn’t inherit the lordship. (And that is what makes Robb not hanging on to Theon so stupid. *We* might know that Balon considered Theon expendable, but neither Robb nor anyone else would even think that, due to the value of legitimate sons everywhere else but Dorne.) And, Balon or no Balon, there are enough ironborn lords who would support Theon’s claim anyway (Harlaws, Botleys, Merlyns, Blacktyde).

      tl;dr: Ned intended to keep Theon until Balon died, and then return him as a tame Lord of Pyke.

      • David Hunt says:

        Westerosi lords do find ways around male primogeniture. Most notably, Randyll Tarly “encouraged” Sam to join the Night’s Watch, thereby allowing his second son to inherit, by telling him to get out (before sunup!) or he’d be murdered in a “hunting accident.” I’ve wondered if other lords haven’t foregone the courtesy of giving their sons a warning before arranging for them to accidentally decapitate themselves whilst combing their hair. All jesting aside, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to read that some of the more cold blooded lords had arranged to make sure that the son they thought most likely to further the family interests would inherit. It’s my understanding that Roose Bolton basically turned a blind eye to Ramsey murdering his son. I guess he figured if he let Ramsey murder him, he wasn’t fit to rule the Dreadfort.

        Balon seems to have come up with a fairly novel way of getting around male primogeniture. After he decided that Theon must be irretrievably contaminated with Greenlander ways, he simply makes plans to attack the North, thus forcing Robb Stark to remove him from the line of succession (and the planet). Thinking about the timing of events, I suspect that hearing about Theon’s exploits in Robb’s army may be what made Balon write him off. Theon saw this as proof of his valor but Balon just saw his ex-son fighting beside the hated Starks.

        Final thought. There’s one very ruthless, immoral lord I can think who I believe would never get rid of an heir to arrange a more favorable succession: Walder Frey. If Merrit’s POV is accurate, Lord Frey had been drilling the value of taking care of your family into his first-born son for sixty years.

        • Crystal says:

          Randyll Tarly did wait until he had another son before getting rid of Sam. And Walder Frey has spares – dozens of them. Theon was the only survivor of Balon’s sons. So I think a reasonable assumption from Robb’s or Ned’s POV would be that Theon inherits. But Balon is not reasonable, of course. I don’t think Ned or Robb would have known that, or assumed it, however.

          With Roose, I wonder if he thought that he didn’t have sufficient proof that Ramsay poisoned Domeric. He suspected it but didn’t have the concrete evidence that would clinch it. But, yes, he seems oddly unfazed both by Domeric’s death *and* the prospect of Ramsay killing any legitimate children by Fat Walda. I find his blase attitude strange, considering it’s unlikely the Bolton family line will continue, but, Roose has several screws loose.

          He is, I think, shooting himself in the foot by making Ramsay his heir and giving him free rein. Robett Glover (IIRC) said that there have been worse lords than Roose and he could be dealt with, but Ramsay was a monster. I think Ramsay is going to be killed as soon as someone can get away with it. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Roose did it – he says the only reason he hasn’t killed Ramsay yet is because of the taboo against kinslaying.

          That taboo, incidentally, may well be why Balon is willing to risk Theon being executed – he gets rid of Theon but without being an actual kinslayer, which seems to be the bright line which nobody wants to cross.

          • WPA says:

            I wonder if that’s a last ditch gambit option by Roose if things go badly for him at the Battle at Winterfell? To just bend the knee to Stannis and simply hand Ramsay over to him to be beheaded right there and then, assigning blame to his bastard for his various crimes (and blaming the blood, etc).

          • Roger says:

            Roose didn’t care about proofs. Nobody cared about Ramsay, so he could have killed him without problems. But he still needed an heir, and he wanted one of his own blood. So Ramsay was the only option. That or marry again. And he couldn’t wait for another son to grow. Of course he doesn’t like Ramsay, but I don’t feel he really cares about what the Monster of the North will do after he is gone.

          • David Hunt says:

            “That taboo, incidentally, may well be why Balon is willing to risk Theon being executed”

            I think that you nailed it. I think I remember Victarion’s repeated statements that a kinslayer was accursed. IIRC his POV says that Balon told him that. Ned or Robb Stark offing Theon for him, though…

      • Roger says:

        I agree with you. But I think the Lord of Pyke is a perfectly suitable match for the daughter of the Lord of the North.

  26. zonaria says:

    Installing Theon as a puppet Lord of Pyke would surely be very naive – he would either go native or be overthrown by the natives the first moment the mainlanders’ backs were turned.

  27. Kevin Moore says:

    I thought I’d solved my WWoW problem (waiting for the winds of winter) by slowly re-listening to the 5 books, pausing after each chapter to read your brilliant post and all the comments. Now that I’ve made it to the edge here, I see I’ve just traded one waiting game for another … sigh …

  28. Tim says:

    Is it possible that a Stark/Greyjoy alliance could have been formed if the proposal was packaged in a way to comply with Ironborn sensibilities. Clearly Balon was already planning the reaving of the North well ahead of Theons arrival but if the initial proposal was more intelligently presented could an alliance have been formed.

    Theon is brought to task for being a toady of the Starks and for Robb’s offer to give the crown to Balon. It seems it was this, the lack of an Iron price, which most offends Balon. What if the offer was put forward as a joint alliance of North and Iron Islands, a kindred struggle for both to gain their independence from yoke of tyranny from the South and of Kings Landing in particular. That both parties would be paying the Iron Price for their independence and therefore both crowns would be won rather than gifted.

    I could see a more eloquent proposal stirring the blood of Balon and allowing him to see beyond the wolf to the stag, and the threat to the Iron islands that a return to the status quo would present. Maybe Balon was too far gone in his delusions, but by presenting the alliance in such a way, could he be convinced of the obvious. That none of the warring parties would tolerate the secession of the Iron Islands, and that the North, in this instance, is the natural ally.

    Or maybe not. Balon doesn’t seem much for long term planning and his last rebellion went so well after all.

  29. Shadow says:

    1. I seem to recall Ned telling Cersei that, unlike Robert and Tywin, Ned does not kill children. Robert knew that about Ned since Robert’s Rebellion and the killing of Rhaegar’s children – only shared grief over Lyanna’s death healed that breach between them. So why is Ned the Lord who ends up with the nine year old Theon as a hostage after the Greyjoy Rebellion? Shouldn’t the Crown have picked a Lord without those scruples?

    2. I think if Theon had not gone to Pyke, Robb would have been psychologically destroyed by having to behead a Theon who was not only his best friend but also had honorably served and risked death for Robb in battle on numerous occasions. Of course it’s a different story after Theon betrays Robb at Winterfell, but if Theon never goes to Pyke the betrayal at Winterfell never happens and when Balon invades the North Robb still sees Theon as his true and loyal friend and supporter. Not saying his bannermen wouldn’t have forced Robb to do it, just saying it would have destroyed him, and the irony is that Balon doesn’t care what happens to Theon.

    • 1. It’s a good point. I think Robert chose Eddard because a. he likes giving stuff to his buddies because they’re his buddies, as opposed to out of political calculation. And b. Eddard is the Warden of the North and kind of man on the spot re the Ironborn. And c. The alternative would be Tywin, who Robert resents.

      2. Yeah, it would have been awful.

      • Edwin says:

        I don’t think it was Roberts idea. He never took any other children as wards from rebels. Even from people who actually did owe him loyaty (The Storm Lords that rebelled against him for Aerys).

  30. […] Theon I, I argued that “Balon Greyjoy went into his invasion with the assumption that Theon Greyjoy […]

  31. […] links the Wild Rabbits and the fishing villagers is the way in which both are used to critique the Old Way of the Ironborn. This is what “the iron price” looks like in […]

  32. […] this series) than any other part of the Seven Kingdoms other than the Westerlands – see here, here, here, here, and here. And one of the things I’ve learned is that the Iron Islands is a […]

  33. […] ““I’m Prince Theon now. We’re both princes, Bran.” speaks both to Theon’s desperate need for status and recognition, but also to his odd desire to have things both ways, as both a […]

  34. […] fame has written extensively on Ironborn culture, but I’ll point to this paragraph from his analysis of Theon I in […]

  35. […] we can see a number of things going on. To begin with, we see Theon’s ongoing obsession with proving his masculinity with sex, such that his anxieties about losing face manifest as castration. And of course, following ADWD, […]

  36. […] comes as no surprise to people who’ve read my Theon chapters, I don’t really think much of Balon Greyjoy as a political or military leader and this move […]

  37. […] instrumental obstacle to clarity and self-realization here is, as it as been since the beginning of the book, Theon’s daddy issues. Taking Winterfell was meant to be a demonstration that A. he’s […]

  38. […] remember how revelatory this chapter was back in 2000 when A Storm of Swords was first released. Theon I in ACOK was the first instance of a former secondary character turning into a POV character […]

  39. […] Westeros. However, it’s also one of the more mythologized events, the key part of the story of Ironborn supremacy and the inherent inferiority of the “green landers” – especially the ones that the Ironborn […]

  40. […] of the Old Way to the present day, because it is used as part of a declension narrative key to revanchist politics: once, the Iron Islands was great because we followed the Old Way, now we are weak because of the […]

  41. […] suitable only for thralls. The same was true for mining.” (WOIAF) This attitude massively limits economic development, but it also means that there are large sections of the population that the Iron Islands cannot […]

  42. […] that we the readers do, she’s absolutely right: Balon had been preparing to go to war long before Theon was sent to Pyke, and he had no commitment to Theon either as kin or as an […]

  43. […]  In it’s way, it’s not that different from how Ironborn adherents of the Old Way distort their own history, for much the same […]

  44. […] Following my analogy of the Iron Islands to the Antebellum South, this is quite reminiscent of the South’s embrace of the “mudsill theory” to sell poor […]

  45. […] messenger than the “captain of the Myraham,” a cowardly abusive father last seen knuckling under to Theon Greyjoy. However, his unassuming nature (“sin…without a trace of originality,” as Lord […]

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