“I have no place here, he thought, and Asha is the reason, may the Others take her!”
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.
In Theon I, I argued 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,” and had no intention of letting Theon inherit. This becomes abundantly clear in Theon II, a chapter-length humiliation conga. The entire first half of the chapter is a gradual escalation, in which Theon puffs himself up again and again, bragging about his own importance and turning to sexual harassment to fuel his ego:
“Yes, she’s a sweet sight,” he told her, “though not half as sweet as you.”
“Oho,” she grinned. “I’d best be careful. This lordling has a honeyed tongue.”
“Taste it and see.”…
“My cock’s gone hard as a mast for you.”
The woman stepped close and pressed a hand to the front of his breeches…
“Have you ever had a prince?” He asked her. “…you can tell your children’s children that once you loved a king…”
“You’re wasted on Sigrin.”
“Oho. Sigrin told me this sweet ship is wasted on you.”
Theon bristled. “Do you know who I am?”
“Prince Theon of House Greyjoy. Who else?”
“…Lord Balon is but the father of a great man.”
“A humble lordling.”
“Only a fool humbles himself when the world is so full of men eager to do that job for him.” He kissed her lightly on the nape of her neck.
It goes on and on like this, with Theon trying to rebuild his ego by proclaiming his own importance and trying to assert his masculinity over a woman who clearly could not give a shit, and not seeing any of the warning signs. “When Wex saw Esgred, his eyes went round,” but all Theon thinks is that “you’d think he’d never seen a woman before.” When Theon walks through town and “oarsmen and townfolk alike grew quiet as they passed, and acknowledged him with respectful bows of the head,” all he can think is that “they have finally learned who I am, he thought. And past time too.” What Asha and the townsfolk and we, the readers, know that Theon doesn’t is that all of this is setup for a cruel bit of slapstick, where the supposedly confident ladies’ man is revealed to have been groping his sister, and that his sister is more of a man than he is, at least as far as the Ironborn think. But in this moment, Theon is drifting in a fog of self-delusion, still thinking that he can gather “men who would be loyal to him, not to his lord father or his uncles” to possibly overthrow his father and become the man he should be.
I say should be, not is, because running underneath Theon’s egotism in counterpoint is the manifest reality that Theon is completely unfit to lead the Ironborn:
“It has been a few years since I sailed a ship.” And I’ve never captained one if truth be told….
“Bugger the Drowned God. If he troubles us, I’ll drown him again…”
“I have been too long away to know one man from another,” Theon admitted. He’d looked for a few of the friends he’d played with as a boy, but they were gone, dead, or grown into strangers…
“He lives only for his god-“
“His god? Not yours?”
“Mine as well…if I make pious noises as required…”
“The Ironborn would never seat a stranger in the Seastone Chair.”
“I suppose not,” Theon replied, before it occurred to him that some would call him a stranger as well. The thought made him frown. Ten years is a long while, but I am back now, and my father is far from dead. I have time to prove myself.
Seafaring, religion, leading men – all of the things the Ironborn prize in a king, Theon is ignorant of. Nor does he have the self-confidence to parlay the things he does know – the ways of mainland warfare, geographic knowledge of the North, political understanding of the Seven Kingdoms – into respect. But for all that this incessant self-doubt lingers in the back of his mind, Theon can’t bring himself to look his shortcomings in the face, and sets himself up for a fall.
And right at his side is Asha Greyjoy, who uses her secret identity to crack Theon open like a soft-shelled crab. In addition to sexually humiliating him – note the way in which Asha seeks at every turn to be the sexual aggressor and Theon’s complete inability to deal with a woman not his servant – Asha carefully mines Theon for every last nugget of valuable information:
“Will you tell me more of your war, Theon of House Greyjoy? There are miles and mountains still ahead of us, and I would hear of this wolf king you served, and the golden lions he fights.”
Ever anxious to please her, Theon obliged. The rest of the long ride passed swiftly as he filled her pretty head with tales of Winterfell and War. Some of the things he said astonished him.
Thus, the one thing that Theon has that she doesn’t is easily stolen from him. So uncautious is Theon that Asha is able to get him to open up about his thoughts about his own family, thoughts that any half-way decent politician would keep to themselves:
“Tell me of your father. Will he welcome me kindle to his castle?”
“Why should he? He scarcely welcomed me, his own blood, the heir to Pyke and the Iron Islands.”
“Are you?…it’s said you have uncles, brothers, a sister.”
“My brothers are long dead, and my sister…well they say Asha’s favorite gown is a chainmail hauberk…men’s garb won’t make her a man though. I’ll make a good marriage alliance with her once we’ve won the war, if I can find a man to take her.”
“You can marry off your sister…but not your uncles.”
…in the islands it was scarce unheard of for a strong, ambitious uncle to dispossess a weak nephew of his rights, and usually murder him in the bargain. But I am not weak, Theon told himself, and I mean to be stronger yet by the time my father dies. “My uncles pose no threat to me…Aeron is drunk on seawater and sanctity…Victarion is like some great grey bullock, strong and tireless and dutiful, but not like to win any races…he has neither the wits nor the ambition to plot betrayal.”
With that knowledge under her belt, Asha not only is forewarned against any plan of Theon’s, but has valuable information that she can use to undermine any support he might be able to get from his uncles when it comes to the sucession. So confident is Asha in her victory that she even offers Theon advice: “strength is not enough…choose men who have rowed together before, if you’re wise.” She has room to be merciful, because she’s about to drop her trump card.
Thus, by the time that the two arrive in the castle, Asha has set Theon up perfectly for a conclusive, irretrievable humiliation:
“Lady Asha. You’re back.”
“Last night,” she said. “I sailed from Great Wyk with Lord Goodbrother, and spent the night at the inn. My little brother was kind enough to let me ride with him from Lordsport.”
All he could do was stand and gape at her. Asha. No. She cannot be Asha. He realized suddenly that there were two Ashas in his head. One was the little girl he had known. The other, more vaguely imagined, looked something like her mother.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to see who you were first. And I did.”
She unlaced my breeches, he thought, outraged, and she said…oh, gods, and I said…He groaned. He could not possibly have made a more appalling fool of himself…
To the left of the high seat were Theon’s uncles. Asha was ensconced at his right hand, in the place of honor. “You come late, Theon,” Lord Balon observed.
“I ask your pardon.” Theon took the empty seat beside Asha. Leaning close, he hissed in her ear, “You’re in my place.”
“She turned to him with innocent eyes. “Brother, surely you are mistaken. Your place is at Winterfell…and where are all your pretty clothes? I heard you fancied silk and velvet against your skin.”
…Theon had time for a choked gasp before Asha snatched the axe from the air and slammed it down into the table, splitting his trencher in two and splattering his mantle with drippings. “There’s my lord husband…and here’s my sweet suckling babe.”
He could not imagine how he looked at that moment, but suddenly Theon Greyjoy realized that the Great Hall was ringing with laughter, all of it at him. Even his father was smiling, gods be damned…
It’s a potent mix: the internal guilt over quasi-incest, the very visible symbolism of Asha sitting in his place at her father’s right hand, the effortless display of Ironborn skill and bonhomie, and the casual mention that Theon’s reputation is of a womanish greenlander who pays the gold price. What Ironborn worth their salt is going to choose Theon now? As Asha herself points out:
“Ten years a wolf, and you land here and think to prince about the islands, but you know nothing and no one. Why should men fight and die for you?”
“I am their lawful prince,” Theon said stiffly.
“By the laws of the green lands, you might be. But we make our own laws here, or have you forgotten.”
It’s like I said in Theon I: he was doomed from the start. There is nothing Theon could ever have done in his nine years with the Starks – maybe spending some time with the Manderlys crewing a ship so that he could at least stand tall as a ship’s captain, but I doubt that would have been enough – that he could have done to become a Prince of Pyke in truth as well as in name.
The War of Five Kings: Balon Greyjoy’s Grand Strategy
The main political news we get in Theon II is the unveiling of King Balon’s grand strategy for conquering the North and winning independence for the Iron Islands:
“When I require your counsel I shall ask for it,” his father said. “We have had a bird from Old Wyk. Dagmer is bringing the Drumms and Stonehouses. If the god grants us good winds, we will sail when they arrive…or you will. I mean for you to strike the first blow, Theon. You shall take eight longships north-“
“Eight?…what can I hope to accomplish with only eight longships?”
“You are to harry the Stony Shore, raiding the fishing villages and sinking any ships you chance to meet. It may be that you will draw some of the northern lords out from behind their stone walls. Aeron will accompany you, and Dagmer Cleftjaw.”…He was being sent to do reaver’s work, burning fishermen out of their hovels and raping their ugly daughters, and yet it seemed Lord Balon did not trust him sufficiently to do even that much.
“Asha my daughter…you shall take thirty longships of picked men round Sea Dragon Point. Land upon the tidal flats north of Deepwood Motte. March quickly, and the castle may fall before they even know you are upon them.”
“Victarion…the main thrust shall fall to you. When my sons have struck their blows, Winterfell must respond. You should meet small opposition…the Neck is the key to the kingdom. Already we command the western seas. Once we hold Moat Cailin, the pup will not be able to win back to the north…and if he is fool enough to try, his enemies will seal the south end of the causeway behind him, and Robb the boy will find himself caught like a rat in a bottle.”
“The lords are gone south with the pup. Those who remained behind are the cravens, old men, and green boys. They will yield or fall, one by one. Winterfell may defy us for a year, but what of it? The rest shall be ours, forest and field and hall, and we shall make the folk our thralls and salt wives.”
This plan is absolutely, 100%, batshit insane, and there is a reason why the fandom largely considers Balon Greyjoy to be the single worst strategist in all of Westeros. Let’s set to one side that Balon, whose main political objective is the independence of the Iron Islands from the Iron Throne, decides to attack the one combatant in the War of Five Kings who is also fighting for independence from the Iron Throne and who wants to ally with him. Even if you take the point of view of an Ironborn who wants to conquer the North, this is a shoddily-designed plan. Note that Balon’s plan envisions a distracting attack at the Stony Shore, a small assault aimed at Deepwood Motte, and a main attack at Moat Cailin – and that’s it, no attack on Torrhen’s Square, no attack on Winterfell itself. The entirety of the interior is left untouched.
Balon assumes that Winterfell will fall, but his plan gives him no way to actually project force the 590 miles from Moat Cailin to Winterfell, or the 300 miles from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell, let alone the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles he’d need to actually make the interior “ours, forest and field and hall,” as he intends. Not only is this poor logistic planning, but the assumption falls down on the first hurdle. We know from ADWD that Deepwood Motte is right next to three thousand hill clansmen who hate the Ironborn, and that there are thousands of Northern soldiers in the central interior who can be mobilized even if they weren’t distracted by the Hornwood affair, and thousands more in the eastern half of the North which Balon has no way of actually attacking.
But even if none of that were true, it’s still poorly designed from an amphibious invasion perspective. In the northern sector, Bear Island is the superior landing zone. To begin with, it’s an island that’s separated from the mainland (an island that the Ironborn were historically able to actually control for extended periods of time), which would allow the Ironborn to attack an isolated House Mormont, and then establish a forward base that can’t be attacked by the landbound Northmen, giving Asha a naval base from which she can dominate the whole of the Northwest, while still maintaining the operational flexibility to reinforce other areas as needed. In the south, while taking Moat Cailin is critical for ensuring that Robb Stark can’t easily fight his way back North, Balon neglects the opportunity to use the riverrine approaches that would lead the Ironborn straight to Barrowton or Torrhen’s Square, which would offer him a forward base in the interior, a short march away from Winterfell with clear lines of supply and reinforcement. Likewise, Balon makes no provision for transshipping the Iron Fleet from Moat Cailin to the Bite, which would allow Victarion to attack White Harbor, Ramsgate, the Dreadfort, Last Hearth, and Karhold, again using riverrine approaches to preserve the Ironborn’s lone strategic advantage.
Instead, Balon pushes the “hard heart of the Greyjoy strength” to Moat Cailin and leaves them there, hoping that the Lannisters will do his fighting for him. But he doesn’t do anything with this strength – in the seven months between the initial attack and Balon’s death, the Iron Fleet doesn’t move from Moat Cailin. Given that the Moat can easily be held against an army from the south by a few hundred men, this is an insane waste of time and manpower that could have been put to better use actually conquering the North instead of grabbing two castles and thinking that means the war is won. Consider what would have happened if the North had put Moat Cailin under siege from the North, especially if they’d been able to cut Victarion off from his boats? Balon’s main strength would have been cut off, starving, diseased, and poisoned, withering on the vine.
As this suggests, Balon’s plan is almost deliberately ignorant of the realities of Ironborn manpower. When Theon arrived at Pyke, he found “fifty or sixty longships,” and Dagmer sent to “roust the Stonehouses and the Drumms,” and in this chapter, “Lord Goodbrother of Great Wyk had come in the night before with his main strength, near forty longships.” 90-100 longships, carrying 30 men each, works out to 2,700 to 3,000 men. Add on to this the 100 larger ships of the Iron Fleet, which can hold 100 each, adding up to the “hard heart” of 10,000 men. That’s it; 13,000 men to defeat and hold the whole of the North. And as I said, Theon is sent with eight ships (approximately 240 men) and Asha with thirty ships (900 men), and everything else, around 12,000 men, is completely wasted at Moat Cailin.
The Ironborn simply do not have the numbers to take the whole of the North. The North is between 900,000 and 1.5 million square miles, so that the Ironborn would have one soldier per 69-115 square miles to try to occupy the whole of the country. Moreover, to really hold the country, the Ironborn would have to batter their way into at least 12 castles (that we know of) and all the defensive multipliers they offer, and then garrison them. All of this on lines of supply and communication stretching 2,000 miles. And winter is coming.
The only thing that can explain this complete irrationality is, once again, the inherent racism built into the Iron Island’s warrior culture. To Balon, the North is full of “cravens, old men, and green boys,” fit only for being “thralls and salt wives,” its lands existing only as a lebensraum to be conquered rather than to be comprehended as the strategic and logistical challenge they are. To know better is to remember the shameful defeats of Ironborn history – Theon the Hungry Wolf, King Rodrik; Rodwell, Beron, and all the other Starks who refused to give in to Dagon Greyjoy; and Eddard Stark, who brought the fury of the North down on Pyke. And Balon refuses to remember anything but the victories of the past.
The bottom line is this: Balon’s plan never should have worked. That it did tells you how firmly GRRM’s thumb is starting to press on the scales in order to set up the fall of House Stark, and as we’ll see in the succeeding chapters, a lot has to go wrong for this to happen.
This historical section is going to be a bit short, but I wanted to place Asha Greyjoy in the historical context of Viking women. The Scandinavians of the Viking Age were a warlike society, but not one that held the views of their European peers on women in warfare – shieldmaidens fought as part of the elite Varangian Guard for the Byzantine Empire in their wars with the Kevan Rus, joined Leif Ericson’s voyage to Vinland, and fought in internal wars between Swedes and Danes. Shieldmaidens were a frequent trope in Norse sagas and the legends that were later woven into the Ring Cycle.
Now, many of you are familiar with the story that went viral a few months ago that said that half the Viking warriors were women. That turned out to be something of an exaggeration of Shane McCloud’s research, which simply showed that half of Viking settlers were female in one particular gravesite, and which critiqued the practice of assuming gender from whether bodies were buried with weapons, rather than verifying from bone structure and DNA testing.
Nevertheless, McCloud’s work still points to the fact that Viking women were on the very front lines of Scandinavian expansionism, and certainly not hesitant to pick up a sword to defend their new conquests.
I already went into what would have happened if Theon had decided to warn Robb in the last Theon chapter; here, I want to focus on a few other hypothetical scenarios:
- Theon had recognized Asha? Now this one is a little bit subtler and more about character than plot, but I’ve always wondered how much of Theon’s drive to take Winterfell and his refusal to leave it even when it became clear that saying was suicidal was driven by his humiliation at the hands of his sister and his refusal to give up the one victory that he’d been able to salvage. If Theon was on more of an even keel, Theon might have been able to emerge from the war with an impressively-enhanced reputation: he took and sacked Winterfell with 30 men. With that under his belt, rather than a reputation as a gold-pricing greenlander, Theon would have fared much better on the Iron Islands – assuming he survives Euron’s reappearance.
- Balon’s plan had been followed to the letter? Here, I’m treading on my own toes a little bit, as this turning point comes up more in Theon III. However, there’s plenty of stuff to talk about in that chapter, and I wanted to emphasize a bit more how terrible Balon’s plan is. With only Deepwood Motte and Moat Cailin taken, Winterfell remains as the natural rallying point of the North. However poor a strategist he may have been, Ser Rodrik would now have had the time to pull together the 2,000 men he put together at the Battle at Winterfell, the 3,000 hill clansmen, the 400 Umbers and 400 Karstarks, the 3,500 or so Manderly men that Wyman held back, plus the Mormonts, and the Ryswells and Dustins and Flints of the southwest, until he had all 17,000 men left in the North under his command. Robb Stark doesn’t have to cross the Green Fork – which means the pretext for the Red Wedding disappears. Balon dies, Victarion pulls out, and the Ironborn’s vaunted conquest of the North ends with a whimper.
Book vs. Show:
As I said last time, the Theon storyline in Season 2 is one of the real gems, distracting from the mess that is Jon and Dany’s storyline, and the waste that is Bran’s storyline. Benioff and Weiss approach this scene from a somewhat different angle – the emphasis is much more on the interpersonal relationships between Theon, Asha, and Balon, and especially Theon’s sense of abandonment.
Now, some fans have really bagged on Gemma Whelan’s performance as Asha – I regard the various comments about her being not pretty enough for the role as so pettishly sexist (few people would argue that Alfie Allen’s emotional performance is lessened by the fact that he doesn’t exactly resemble the darkly handsome Theon described in the books or by commissioned artists) as to be self-refuting. I will say that the show went in a somewhat understated direction with Asha/Yara, giving her more of a laid-back, sardonic vibe and making the reveal more private and less built up. And I really wish they’d given her the chance to sink her teeth into Asha’s axe-throwing speech or her kingsmoot speech.
But I can’t complain. It’s too damn good.