“It’s not Torrhen’s Square I mean to take.”
Synopsis: Theon, Dagmer, and Aeron attack the Stony Shore and ambush the Wild Hares. Aeron insists on sacrificing Benfred
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 my analysis of A Game of Thrones, I described Eddard XII as the point of no return for Lord Stark, the last opportunity he had to avoid his death on the steps of the Sept of Baelor. To me, Theon III is that moment, both for our eponymous point-of-view character and the fortunes of House Stark, as Theon’s departure from Balon’s battleplan leads to the fall of Winterfell and his own downfall.
The Battle of Stony Shore
Indeed, while Theon’s murder of the miller’s boys is usually held up as his moral event horizon, I think he actually crosses that line much earlier; it’s just that he doesn’t realize the impact of his actions until that moment. Consider what Theon has done here:
Of the fishing village, nothing remained but cold ashes that stank when it rained. The men had been put to the sword, all but a handful that Theon had allowed to flee to bring the word to Torrhen’s Square. Their wives and daughters had been claimed for salt wives, those who were young enough and fair. The crones and the ugly ones had simply been raped and killed, or taken for thralls if they had useful skills and did not seem likely to cause trouble. Theon had planned that attack as well, bringing his ships up to the shore in the chill darkness before the dawn and leaping from the prow with a longaxe in his hand to lead his men into the sleeping village.
This is not merely war waged on a civilian population, and indeed Theon’s conduct here is arguably worse or at least more comprehensive than Tywin’s chevauchée in the Riverlands, albeit on a smaller scale – the murder of the whole male population, the rape and sex slavery of the female population, is deliberately organized to provide Theon’s soldiers with the material and human loot that motivates their service, but also to produce a specific effect in the local defenders. In other words, this is atrocity as military strategy.
And, as I’ll discuss more in the historical section, it’s also something of an exaggeration of historical Viking raids (although there’s a rather large controversy on this point). However, just to address the recent controversy about GRRM and his depiction of both sexual violence and medieval society, I think the exaggeration has a purpose. While Martin’s interpretation of the Middle Ages diverges from medievalists, I think we also have to remember that Martin is using history to reflect on our own times and our own society. His desire to depict war as a horror waged against civilian population isn’t primarily motivated by an intense historiographical revisionism – I think it speaks to his attitudes about war in our own time. To me, the Ironborn’s slaughter of the entire male population is evocative of the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s; the systematic use of rape and sex slavery can be seen in the actions of ISIS or Boko Haram (or rather pervasive scandals around sexual violence in pretty much all modern armies).
The violence of the attack on the fishing village parallels the way in which the actual battle is used to undercut “la gloire” of Theon’s little war when Benfred Tallhart and his Wild Hares arrive on the scene:
They’d been joking and even singing as they’d come on, the three trees of Tallhart streaming above them while rabbitskins flapped stupidly from the points of their lances. The archers concealed behind the gorse had spoiled the song with a rain of arrows, and Theon himself had led his men-at-arms out to finish the butcher’s work with dagger, axe, and warhammer….
He kicked at Benfred’s fallen banner, clutched in the dead hand of the squire who’d borne it. A rabbitskin had been tied below the flag. Why rabbitskins? he had meant to ask, but being spat on had made him forget his questions. He tossed his bow back to Wex and strode off, remembering how elated he’d felt after the Whispering Wood, and wondering why this did not taste as sweet.
Theon feels undercut and deflated, because this wasn’t a heroic battle that could be described in poetic terms, like the Battle of the Whispering Woods. There’s not a lot of poetry in hiding in a bush, shooting a group of teenagers less than half your numbers, and then finishing them off when they’re down. Arguably, this is just as much a straight-up massacre as the attack on the fishing village, and once again Theon is directly responsible for the deaths, not of hardened warriors but a bunch of idealistic teenagers, the Northern equivalent of the “knights of summer.”
Another thing that 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 practice:
The rest of his men were looting the corpses. Gevin Harlaw knelt on a dead man’s chest, sawing off his finger to get at a ring. Paying the iron price. My lord father would approve. Theon thought of seeking out the bodies of the two men he’d slain himself to see if they had any jewelry worth the taking, but the notion left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Strip away the romantic illusions, dispel the mythology, and look past the ideology, and what you have is a gang of cowardly murderers, rapists, and thieves, who strike from ambush, run away from a straight fight, and have the gall to think of themselves as hard cases. Compare Theon’s crew to the Bloody Mummers, and the latter come off better for their basic honesty of purpose. And the greatest moral failing of Theon Greyjoy is that, deep down, he knows that there is no glory in bushwhacking, no honor in robbing corpses, but he goes along with it anyway.
We can see this made manifest in two people who Theon specifically has killed – Benfred Tallhart and Todric – because Theon doesn’t consider peasants to be real people, he has to have it shoved in his face before he understands. It’s crucial therefore that Theon Greyjoy be responsible for the death or someone he knows:
“Robb will gut you, Greyjoy,” Benfred Tallheart screamed. “He’ll feed your turncloak’s heart to his wolf, you piece of sheep dung.”
Aeron Damphair’s voice cut through the insults like a sword through cheese. “Now you must kill him”…Uncle Aeron was relentless. “When he spits on you, he spits on all of us. He spits on the Drowned God. He must die…He must be given to the god. The old way…you will come as well. You command here. The offering should come from you.”
That was more than Theon could stomach.
There’s a strong parallel here to Theon’s feelings about Patrek Mallister – and ultimately to Robb Stark himself – in that Theon, ultimately cannot bring himself to kill someone in who’s company he had “spent a fortnight,” who he remembers mocking over his “neck thick as a boar’s, heavy with muscle and fat.” It’s almost as if, as long as he confines himself to fighting peasants, he can pretend that he’s not actually making war on his friends, but Benfred is too stark a reminder that it is impossible for Theon to avoid it if he continues on this path.
It is telling, therefore, that Theon cannot bring himself to kill Benfred in the name of a god Theon doesn’t believe in, but that he can when it comes to killing an Ironborn (albeit accidentally) :
Theon was quicker. He drew on the hand that clutched the drinking horn, figuring to give them a shot to talk about, but Todric spoiled it by lurching to one side just as he loosed. The arrow took him through the belly.
The looters stopped to gape. Theon lowered his bow. “No drunkards, I said, and no squabbles over plunder.” On his knees, Todric was dying noisily. “Botley, silence him.” Fishwhiskers and his sons were quick to obey. They slit Todric’s throat as he kicked feebly, and were stripping him of cloak and rings and weapons before he was even dead.
As with his actions to date and in the future, Theon kills here out of insecurity. Wanting to demonstrate his control over his own men, he winds up killing one of them for a minor offense – which normally would alienate men from their leader, except that the Ironborn show themselves to be so completely lacking in the basic loyalty between fellow soldiers that they eagerly participate in his murder for their own gain.
Theon and Identity
The point of all of this is that in both his thought and action, Theon can’t bring himself to be an Ironborn – he doesn’t believe in the Old Way, he doesn’t believe in the Iron Price, and he doesn’t believe in the Drowned God. At the same time, Theon can’t quite bring himself to be a Northman instead, even though he can’t stop himself from reflexively “imagin[ing] what Eddard Stark would have said.” This habit of morals bothers Theon – “that thought made him angry too. Stark is dead and rotting, and naught to me, he reminded himself” – in no small part because you can’t be an Ironborn and adhere to Ned Stark’s code, but also because it undercuts his victimization narrative. How bad could Ned have been, if he remains Theon’s conscience?
Throughout the chapter, Theon insists that the Starks had excluded and oppressed him: “I am no Stark.” Lord Eddard saw to that...[Dagmer] gave me more smiles than my father and Eddard Stark together. Even Robb…he ought to have won a smile the day he’d saved Bran from that wildling, but instead he’d gotten a scolding, as if he were some cook who’d burned the stew.” However, Theon responds to comments about his worth by immediately referencing how “The Starks knew my worth. I was one of Brynden Blackfish’s picked scouts, and I charged with the first wave in the Whispering Wood. I was that close to crossing swords with the Kingslayer himself.” Again, there’s an inconsistency – the Starks hardly could have consistently slighted him and denied him the praise he was due if they repeatedly honored his efforts in the war.
The explanation for this contradiction is stated quite baldly – “I am a Greyjoy, and I mean to be my father’s heir” – but everyone around him is reminding him that that means disassociating himself from the Starks who Balon and the rest of the Ironborn hate: “Theon, the Boy Wolf is your friend, and these Starks had you for ten years.” This link to the enemy makes him suspicious to the tribe at large, such that “some of his men saw only a soft boy from the green lands when they looked at him.” And to put an even finer point on this, Dagmer inadvertently adds to Theon’s raging insecurity and daddy issues ( by trying to explain that the reason Theon’s father is cold to him is that “it is only your lord father does not know you. With your brothers dead and you taken by the wolves, your sister was his solace. He learned to rely on her and she has never failed him.”
So in typical Theon fashion, rather than gradually building up sweat equity and proving himself to be a reliable and dutiful son, he decides to go for a get-rich-quick scheme to catapult himself over his sister/replacement figure:
“If my sister can take a castle, so can I.”
“Asha has four or five times the men we do.”
“But we have four times the wits, and five times the courage…”
Note that the most frequent description of his plan isn’t how it’s going to be pulled off, but rather that it’ll be “a deed that the harpers will sing of for a thousand years,” and that the fact that Theon is horribly outnumbered means “fewer men means fewer glory.” This isn’t a plan meant ultimately to win the war for the Greyjoys, but rather to help Theon “prove myself with some great deed.” On the face of it, Theon’s plan has a pretty solid grounding on human psychology:
…you’ll take the great part of our force and march on Torrhen’s Square. Hellman Tallhart took his best men south, and Benfred died here with their sons. His uncle Leobald will remain, with some small garrison…you will make camp outside their walls and set to building catapults…let the raven fly. The castellan at Winterfell is a brave man, but age has stiffened his wits as well as his limbs. When he learns that one of his king’s bannermen is under attack…he will summon his strength and ride to Tallhart’s aid.”
The problem is that it only works because Theon knows Leobald Tallhart and Ser Rodrik Cassel. In other words, Theon’s plan only works because Theon is more of a Northman than he is an Ironborn. So regardless of whether he actually took Winterfell or failed, daddy is never going to love him for it.
But let’s assess the plan from a strategic rather than military perspective, shall we? To begin with, in addition to all of the problems with resupply, reinforcements, and logistics that Asha will bring up in Theon V, this is a plan that entirely relies on his enemies doing exactly what he wants them to do, which is always dangerous in military planning. But even then, it really requires Ser Rodrik to commit all of his men to the relief of Torrhen’s Square for it to work – had Ser Rodrick held back 50 or even a hundred men to guard Winterfell, Theon’s raid would have failed. In other words, we should see GRRM’s thumb pressing very hard down onto the scales of fate at this moment.
However, even with the demiurge on his side, Theon’s plan resembles his father’s quite a bit, in that he doesn’t really think about what comes next – rather than have Dagmer’s force try to slip around Ser Rodrick and make it to Winterfell, which would give Theon a big enough garrison to hold off a siege, he has them take Torrhen’s Square which isn’t of any use to Theon stranded some 200 miles away. Likewise, rather than skedaddle with Bran and Rickon once he’s captured them, he stays in place out of pure ego. Finally, Theon’s got no plan to deal with a siege of the North.
So speaking of the Ironborn and the extent to which they’re an exaggeration of the historical Vikings…let’s talk about the origins of the Viking myth, the raid on Lindisfarne. The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, at it came to be known, stands right off the coast of Northumbria, a tidal island that’s connected to the mainland during low tide and then isolated at high tide, much like the Quiet Isle in the Riverlands. It was originally founded by Irish monks under the direction of Saint Aiden in 634, and became quite distinguished when one of its abbots was canonized as Saint Cuthbert.
Unfortunately for the monks of Lindisfarne, the isolation of their holy isle, which had made it so perfect for secluding oneself from the secular world in contemplation of God, also made it a great target for an amphibious assault. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island (Lindisfarne), by rapine and slaughter.
It’s not exactly what you would consider a nuanced account – the attack on God’s house is presaged by supernatural portents, as a sign that the spiritual injury becomes an injury to the land in a kind of Christian modification of the old Fisher King mythology. And the emphasis is very much on the lurid violence, as it is in Alcuin’s version of the same story, saying “never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. . . .The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”
The attack on Lindisfarne was followed up by a number of similar attacks – Monkwearmouth–Jarrow monastery was attacked in 794, Iona abbey in Scotland was attacked in 795, and there would be a number of follow-up attacks through 806. Some revisionist historians have suggested that the repetitions are evidence that the grand guignol descriptions are somewhat exaggerated – after all, if there were follow-up attacks to previous raids, they couldn’t have been so comprehensively violent, since someone had to be left alive to stay at those monasteries to be raided later, and they must have restocked their treasures somewhat, otherwise why come back?
However, these raids are also important because they gave time for the reputation of the Vikings as pagan barbarians out for loot and plunder to be established, well before the 860s when the “Great Heathen Army” showed up as an organized military force which seized York in 866, overran Northumbria, Mercia, and East-Anglia, and formed a long-lasting Viking kingdom in the Northeast of England known as the “Danelaw.” (I’ll discuss the Great Heathen Army more in Theon V when Asha and Theon get into a debate over military strategy) The two images don’t really mesh very well – chaotic bandits looking only to smash and grab from civilized Christian Europe vs. well-organized armies capable of conquering and administering far-flung territories.
As the revisionist historians of the 1950s and 1960s suggest, part of the reason why we remember the former more than the latter has to do with the power of the clerical chroniclers to write the history books. These monks had a tendency to describe people in relation to how they dealt with the Church – the Goths who sacked Rome come off fairly well, in no small part because they spared Church property; the Vandals become synonymous with senseless destruction despite their track-record of good government in their newly conquered territories in Spain and North Africa because they didn’t.
To me, there’s only one main hypothetical here – what if Theon’s capture at Winterfell doesn’t happen? However, there’s a number of different ways this could happen, and I want to discuss them separately.
- Theon sticks with the plan? This one is rather interesting, because it means that Torrhen’s Square doesn’t get taken. Ser Rodrik doesn’t get distracted by the need to relieve Torrhen’s Square and instead has a more free hand to mobilize the North once it becomes clear that this is a major attack (one of the things that isn’t clear is when exactly news of Moat Cailin’s fall arrives). Winterfell remains the locus of Stark control over the North, and with Ramsay in custody, the Boltons aren’t free to interfere with Ser Rodrik’s mobilization. For Theon, this means that Balon’s death makes him a leading candidate for the kingsmoot, which potentially splits or unifies the anti-Euron bloc depending on whether Asha and Theon can work out a deal and/or whether Aeron and Victarion consider Theon sufficiently Ironborn to get their support. It’s quite possible Theon might end up captured and/or dead at Euron’s hands, or flee like Asha to some unknown fate.
- Theon gets turned back? Let’s say that Rodrik leaves more guards at Winterfell or somehow runs into Theon’s band on the way to Torrhen’s Square. This still leaves Winterfell intact, but raises the question of whether Theon decides to take Torrhen’s Square as his prize – it’s a decent holdfast, it’s right on a river (which allows for resupply), and with 200 men Theon could easily hold out against Ser Rodrik’s forces. With Deepwood Motte and Torrhen’s Square held securely, the Ironborn actually have a more decent hold on the periphery than in Balon’s initial plan. The main question here is what happens to the Iron Fleet at Moat Cailin, and what happens after Balon’s death – do the Ironborn follow up on these initial victories (say, by attacking Barrowton and giving themselves more of a contiguous territory to occupy/defend?)? Do these victories make it harder to persuade the Ironborn to abandon the North for the Reach? Even if Winterfell holds, can the Ironborn dig in as they have done in previous eras?
- Theon gets captured? This is sort of the worst case for Theon, although it’s pretty close to what happens to him in OTL, albeit without his disastrous tenure as Prince of Winterfell intervening. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s not credible than Theon’s capture could get Balon to remove himself from the North (although Balon’s death will largely accomplish that). What’s more interesting is what happens after Balon’s death – is Theon in absentia a better candidate than Theon in person? Can Euron invade the Reach without being worried about the Northmen planting a puppet king in the Iron Islands in his absence? Does Asha try to reach out to the North with a variation on her OTL proposal, using the “latecomer” precedent to invalidate Euron’s kingsmoot (which probably is going to happen in TWOW with Reek)?
Book vs. Show:
There are two main differences between the book and the show on this point – first, after the streamlining of the Stony Shore/Torrhen’s Square business, Benfred Tallhart is replaced by Ser Rodrik, which works as the audience is familiar with Ser Rodrik and thus his death has emotional stakes that Benfred’s wouldn’t. Also, Theon kills him directly rather than allowing it to happen, which increases the impact on Theon’s character – I actually prefer this to Theon’s more hands-off version in the books.
Second, given the absence of RamsayReek, Dagmer Cleftjaw is turned into the devil on Theon’s shoulder, helping Theon to capture Winterfell, prompting him to kill Ser Rodrik, suggesting the burning of the miller’s boys, and betraying Theon at Winterfell. It’s a simple fix, but I do feel that something was lost. Theon’s circular story in Season 3, the inconclusiveness of Asha/Yara’s storyline in Season 4, a lot of this is caused by the need to establish Theon and Ramsay’s relationship. Had they actually met in Winterfell, with Ramsay pretending to be Reek and pushing Theon to more and more evils, Theon and Asha/Yara’s storylines could have been cleared up substantially (possibly allowing for time to show Balon’s death), and Theon’s Season 3 plotline would have had much less of the “mystery box” feel to it and more emotional grounding on the sudden reversal of power relationship between these two characters.