Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Theon V, ACOK


“Ned Stark’s tree, he thought, and Stark’s wood, Stark’s castle, Stark’s sword, Stark’s gods. This is their place, not mine. I am a Greyjoy of Pyke, born to paint a kraken on my shield and sail the great salt sea. I should have gone with Asha.”

Synopsis: Theon has bad dreams, and then Asha shows up to make his life a living nightmare. So Theon decides the way to deal with his problem is to trust Reek even more.

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:

If last Theon chapter is a stress nightmare, Theon V is the full-blown thing, a riotous jumble of horrific imagery haunting our point-of-view character relentlessly, because Theon has damned himself and the bill is about to come due. There’s a moment in many tragedies where everything is starting to go wrong for the villain, but the grand finale hasn’t yet arrived – where Macbeth learns that his wife has committed suicide but Burnham Wood has not yet come to Dunsinane, where Jocasta flees the stage but Oepidus hasn’t yet gone looking for her, where Medea has received the news that her poisoned wedding gift has slain Glauce and Creon but before she resolves to slay her own children – and this is that moment for Theon.

Dream Interpretation with Theon Greyjoy

And so it’s appropriate that, as Theon is about to realize that the jaws of a trap have clamped around his leg and that there will be no escape from the consequences of his actions, that his dreams have turned into nightmares, for he hath murdered sleep:

He crashed through heedless, breathless, icicles flying to pieces before him. Mercy, he sobbed. From behind came a shuddering howl that curdled his blood. Mercy, mercy. When he glanced back over his shoulder he saw them coming, great wolves the size of horses with the heads of small children. Oh, mercy, mercy. Blood dripped from their mouths black as pitch, burning holes in the snow where it fell. Every stride brought them closer. Theon tried to run faster, but his legs would not obey. The trees all had faces, and they were laughing at him, laughing, and the howl came again. He could smell the hot breath of the beasts behind him, a stink of brimstone and corruption. They’re dead, dead, I saw them killed, he tried to shout, I saw their heads dipped in tar, but when he opened his mouth only a moan emerged, and then something touched him and he whirled, shouting…

Unlike in real life, where dreams are just your brain trying to make sense of the random surges of electricity that ripple through your brain during REM sleep, fictional dreams get to be genuinely meaningful and frequently prophetic. So here, Theon is literally being pursued by his crimes, pleading for the mercy he denied to others, prefiguring that he will be denied mercy in his turn. That his crimes take the form of direwolves with human faces dripping pitch works on a number of levels – it’s a call-back to Jojen’s dream from Bran V, it’s a reversal of Theon’s failed hunt for the direwolves, and it’s a way for George R.R Martin to tease the reveal of what Theon actually did without showing his hand at the beginning of the chapter.

At the same time, given some of Theon’s other dreams, the fact that he also dreams about the trees having faces (oddly echoing Qhorin Halfhand) also needs to be analyzed for a second. Theon Greyjoy is not a character whose plot often intersects with the supernatural, and there’s nothing in his background that suggests that he has any magical abilities. So to the extent that he’s experiencing something prophetic in these dreams, you have to wonder whether the weirwood trees are an outside influence bringing about these dreams.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the second dream:

The night before, it had been the miller’s wife. Theon had forgotten her name, but he remembered her body, soft pillowy breasts and stretch marks on her belly, the way she clawed his back when he fucked her. Last night in his dream he had been in bed with her once again, but this time she had teeth above and below, and she tore out his throat even as she was gnawing off his manhood. It was madness. He’d seen her die too. Gelmarr had cut her down with one blow of his axe as she cried to Theon for mercy. Leave me, woman. It was him who killed you, not me. And he’s dead as well. At least Gelmarr did not haunt Theon’s sleep.

Here, 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, we know that this is quite literal foreshadowing that Ramsay will use this to destroy his self-identity and turn him into Reek. It’s also one of the few points that suggest Theon may be a kinslayer who killed his own sons in one of the worst ways imaginable. It’s also a sign that Theon’s barely-held together coverup (which I will discuss below) is starting to get to him, because he’s starting to betray the truth in his dreams – that the miller’s wife was killed when her children were taken, that Gelmarr was there and had to die for that reason. This flashback also gives a nice element of continuity between the two dreams with the running theme of mercy denied, as well as Theon refusing to take responsibility for his own actions and blaming them on others.

However, it’s the third dream where things really go crazy, because even as a dream there’s some stuff going on here that does not make any sense that makes me think that Theon somehow spontaneously opened his third eye (not really):

That night he dreamed of the feast Ned Stark had thrown when King Robert came to Winterfell. The hall rang with music and laughter, though the cold winds were rising outside. At first it was all wine and roast meat, and Theon was making japes and eyeing the serving girls and having himself a fine time…until he noticed that the room was growing darker. The music did not seem so jolly then; he heard discords and strange silences, and notes that hung in the air bleeding. Suddenly the wine turned bitter in his mouth, and when he looked up from his cup he saw that he was dining with the dead.

King Robert sat with his guts spilling out on the table from the great gash in his belly, and Lord Eddard was headless beside him. Corpses lined the benches below, grey-brown flesh sloughing off their bones as they raised their cups to toast, worms crawling in and out of the holes that were their eyes. He knew them, every one; Jory Cassel and Fat Tom, Porther and Cayn and Hullen the master of horse, and all the others who had ridden south to King’s Landing never to return. Mikken and Chayle sat together, one dripping blood and the other water. Benfred Tallhart and his Wild Hares filled most of a table. The miller’s wife was there as well, and Farlen, even the wildling Theon had killed in the wolfswood the day he had saved Bran’s life.

But there were others with faces he had never known in life, faces he had seen only in stone. The slim, sad girl who wore a crown of pale blue roses and a white gown spattered with gore could only be Lyanna. Her brother Brandon stood beside her, and their father Lord Rickard just behind. Along the walls figures half-seen moved through the shadows, pale shades with long grim faces. The sight of them sent fear shivering through Theon sharp as a knife. And then the tall doors opened with a crash, and a freezing gale blew down the hall, and Robb came walking out of the night. Grey Wind stalked beside, eyes burning, and man and wolf alike bled from half a hundred savage wounds.

To begin with, Theon is seeing things here he really shouldn’t be; I could maybe buy that he’d heard the precise manner of Robert’s death, and perhaps he’d guess that Ned’s entourage is dead. But seeing Lyanna in full array – crown of winter roses, a blood-stained garment that suggests both Lyanna’s bed of blood and, for the reader only since that’s not a Westerosi tradition, a wedding dress – is clearly beyond Theon’s knowledge. (I’m also curious about the pale shades, which probably refer to the Stark dead in the tomb, but Theon’s reaction of “shivering” in fear and the “freezing gale” makes me think White Walkers) The capper, of course, is seeing Robb Stark bearing the wounds of the Red Wedding – although unlike in Dany’s visions he’s got his own head. This is just straight-up prophecy, as if the event is throwing ripples backwards in time and Theon is picking up the signal without any kind of heritage, training, ritual, or handy weirwood tree stump. The only explanation, to me, is that the sheer horror of the Red Wedding is so intense that the “dreamers” are picking it up.

The other thing that’s going on here is that we’re seeing a tiny bit of subconscious reflection from Theon about how badly he’s screwed up his old life, which was much better than he’s convinced himself it was. Granted, he’s not responsible for all of the death that’s ensued from the death of Robert to Robb’s death at the Red Wedding (unless you take the stance that by taking Winterfell he helped to convince Roose to pull the trigger, but that’s a stretch), but there’s quite a bit that he is responsible for.

Pictured: Not Farlen.

Theon’s Dwindling Army and the Nature of Consequences

Speaking of things that Theon’s responsible, another thing we see in this chapter is the ramifications of Reek’s plan, which like all too good-to-be-true plans has a hook buried in it that you don’t notice until it’s too late.

These days, he took guards with him everywhere he went, even to the privy. Winterfell wanted him dead. The very night they had returned from Acorn Water, Gelmarr the Grim had tumbled down some steps and broken his back. The next day, Aggar turned up with his throat slit ear to ear. Gynir Rednose became so wary that he shunned wine, took to sleeping in byrnie, coif, and helm, and adopted the noisiest dog in the kennels to give him warning should anyone try to steal up on his sleeping place. All the same, one morning the castle woke to the sound of the little dog barking wildly. They found the pup racing around the well, and Rednose floating in it, drowned.

Given that Theon took Winterfell with around thirty men, the loss of three of them is a price that Theon can ill afford to pay, even before we learn that he’s ordering the death of his own men to cover up that he killed the miller’s boys and Bran and Rickon are still alive. Leaving aside the fact that this is kind of insane military strategy, it’s another glaring signal that Theon should be paying attention to that something is wrong about Reek. Because for all that fans have given the show shit about Invincible Shirtless Ramsay the Military Genius, his Northern Ninja routine is rather impressive here. At the same time, though, the killings create the impression that there’s a Stark loyalist insurgency operating inside Winterfell, and given his recent unveiling of the two children, there’s every reason to believe one exists:

Theon could feel the blood rushing to his face. He took no joy from those heads, no more than he had in displaying the headless bodies of the children before the castle. Old Nan stood with her soft toothless mouth opening and closing soundlessly, and Farlen threw himself at Theon, snarling like one of his hounds. Urzen and Cadwyl had to beat him senseless with the butts of their spears. How did I come to this? he remembered thinking as he stood over the fly-speckled bodies…

He could not let the killings go unpunished. Farlen was as likely a suspect as any, so Theon sat in judgment, called him guilty, and condemned him to death. Even that went sour. As he knelt to the block, the kennelmaster said, “M’lord Eddard always did his own killings.” Theon had to take the axe himself or look a weakling. His hands were sweating, so the shaft twisted in his grip as he swung and the first blow landed between Farlen’s shoulders. It took three more cuts to hack through all that bone and muscle and sever the head from the body, and afterward he was sick, remembering all the times they’d sat over a cup of mead talking of hounds and hunting. I had no choice, he wanted to scream at the corpse. The ironborn can’t keep secrets, they had to die, and someone had to take the blame for it. He only wished he had killed him cleaner. Ned Stark had never needed more than a single blow to take a man’s head.

The killings stopped after Farlen’s death, but even so his men continued sullen and anxious. “They fear no foe in open battle,” Black Lorren told him, “but it is another thing to dwell among enemies, never knowing if the washerwoman means to kiss you or kill you, or whether the serving boy is filling your cup with ale or bale. We would do well to leave this place.”

“I am the Prince of Winterfell!” Theon had shouted. “This is my seat, no man will drive me from it. No, nor woman either!”

The execution of Farlan the kennelmaster, whom Theon promised protection to in his previous chapter, is the perfect example of the injustice and misrule that he has brought to Winterfell. For all his promises of good lordship, for all his comparing himself to Ned Stark, at the end of the day Theon Greyjoy is fundamentally selfish and only uses power to advance his clumsy sense of his own interests, while making everyone else pay the price for his mistakes. No wonder therefore, that Theon botches the job and fails to pass the test.

At the same time, one can see yet another parallel for the futility of the whole Ironborn invasion here. Even at its most leaderless and most divided, the North is not like the Riverlands during the time of Harwyn Hardhand and the Ironborn are not prepared to conduct an occupation in the face of an entrenched resistence. What Black Lorren says here at Winterfell will be echoed a thousand-fold by the poor bastards who get left behind to die at Moat Cailin or the men who die in the woods running from Deepwood Motte.

Not pictured: any damn reinforcements.

Asha Arrives To Make Things Worse

In addition to the nightmares, another running theme is Theon’s complicated feelings at the thought of Asha’s arrival: he wants to get back at her by flaunting his new status, he deeply resents the fact that he’s dependent on her aid, and he fears that she’ll mock him because of that dependence:

Theon washed the sweat and sleep from his body and took his own good time dressing. Asha had let him wait long enough; now it was her turn. He chose a satin tunic striped black and gold and a fine leather jerkin with silver studs…and only then remembered that his wretched sister put more stock in blades than beauty. Cursing, he tore off the clothes and dressed again, in felted black wool and ringmail. Around his waist he buckled sword and dagger, remembering the night she had humiliated him at his own father’s table. Her sweet suckling babe, yes. Well, I have a knife too, and know how to use it.

Last of all, he donned his crown, a band of cold iron slim as a finger, set with heavy chunks of black diamond and nuggets of gold. It was misshapen and ugly, but there was no help for that. Mikken lay buried in the lichyard, and the new smith was capable of little more than nails and horseshoes. Theon consoled himself with the reminder that it was only a prince’s crown. He would have something much finer when he was crowned king.

Asha. It was her doing. My own sweet sister, may the Others bugger her with a sword. She wanted him dead, so she could steal his place as their father’s heir. That was why she had let him languish here, ignoring the urgent commands he had sent her…

The fact that Theon is so profoundly traumatized by his one encounter with Asha speaks to an underlying fragility in his psyche lying just beneath the surface, and it’s this weakness more than anything else that ultimately makes it impossible for him to be an Ironborn. Compare Asha’s easy confidence and sang-froid to how quickly Theon’s bravado crumbles in the face of her mockery:

He found her in the high seat of the Starks, ripping a capon apart with her fingers. The hall rang with the voices of her men, sharing stories with Theon’s own as they drank together. They were so loud that his entrance went all but unnoticed. “Where are the rest?” he demanded of Reek. There were no more than fifty men at the trestle tables, most of them his. Winterfell’s Great Hall could have seated ten times the number.

…Theon Greyjoy strode to where his sister was sprawled. Asha was laughing at something one of her men had said, but broke off at his approach. “Why, ’tis the Prince of Winterfell.” She tossed a bone to one of the dogs sniffing about the hall. Under that hawk’s beak of a nose, her wide mouth twisted in a mocking grin. “Or is it Prince of Fools?”

“Envy ill becomes a maid…What else would you call it? With thirty men, I captured Winterfell in a night. You needed a thousand and a moon’s turn to take Deepwood Motte.”

“Well, I’m no great warrior like you, brother.” She quaffed half a horn of ale and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I saw the heads above your gates. Tell me true, which one gave you the fiercest fight, the cripple or the babe?”

Both in her person and the revelation that she’s only brought twenty men with her, Asha s an instant reminder to Theon that there is no cavalry coming, no way for him to escape this situation with face intact. Not that he has much face when Asha verbally emasculates him once again, showing how little respect his whole “no mercy” response to Bran and Rickon’s escape has won him. Even in a culture that historically has not blushed at the murder of children – see Qhored the Cruel’s murder of the Justman heirs for one example – Theon’s actions have won him no respect, either from his own men or from his sister, because they can sense that these are actions taken out of desperation and fear rather than from a position of strength and dominance.

And just like in a stress nightmare, the situation only gets worse for Theon once he and his sister have a private conversation, because why not combine public humiliation with private humiliation?

“How do you expect me to hold Winterfell if you bring me only twenty men?”

“Ten,” Asha corrected. “The others return with me. You wouldn’t want your own sweet sister to brave the dangers of the wood without an escort, would you? There are direwolves prowling the dark.” She uncoiled from the great stone seat and rose to her feet. “Come, let us go somewhere we can speak more privily.”

She was right, he knew, though it galled him that she would make that decision. I should never have come to the hall, he realized belatedly. I should have summoned her to me.

It was too late for that now, however. Theon had no choice but to lead Asha to Ned Stark’s solar. There, before the ashes of a dead fire, he blurted, “Dagmer’s lost the fight at Torrhen’s Square—”

“The old castellan broke his shield wall, yes,” Asha said calmly. “What did you expect? This Ser Rodrik knows the land intimately, as the Cleftjaw does not, and many of the northmen were mounted. The ironborn lack the discipline to stand a charge of armored horse. Dagmer lives, be grateful for that much. He’s leading the survivors back toward the Stony Shore.”

She knows more than I do, Theon realized. That only made him angrier. “The victory has given Leobald Tallhart the courage to come out from behind his walls and join Ser Rodrik. And I’ve had reports that Lord Manderly has sent a dozen barges upriver packed with knights, warhorses, and siege engines. The Umbers are gathering beyond the Last River as well. I’ll have an army at my gates before the moon turns, and you bring me only ten men?”

Here, we learn that the situation is even worse than it initially appeared – Asha’s only lending him ten men out a residual sense of pity and empathy (note how throughout this conversation Theon is always a step behind his sister, both in taking the initiative and in information) and Dagmer Cleftjaw has been soundly beaten at Torrhen’s Square. If we needed any further confirmation that the Ironborn’s dreams of conquest were lunacy, here we learn their crippling vulnerabilities when it comes to warfare against the rest of Westeros. While skilled in naval combat, marine operations, and amphibious assaults, the island-bound warriors have no cavalry of their own and lack the training mainland infantry get to stand up to cavalry assaults, which virtually ensures that they will lose any major battle they fight.

Credit: Tomasz Jedruszek

Reconciling the Ironborn’s history of conquest with this is a bit tricky – one answer might be that the Ironborn were more prepared for war during the time of Qhorwyn Hoare and Harwyn Hardhand, that the Riverland’s access to water allowed them to conquer territory through command of the rivers without risking open field battles, that once they had the Riverlands they could draft compliant houses into providing cavalry auxiliaries (in a weird crossover between the Vikings and the Romans), and that once you got to the second generation there were “ironborn” who’d grown up in the Riverlands colonies trained in mounted combat.

These two themes of the Ironborn way of war and the complicated (if not entirely broken) family dynamics between Theon and Asha come to an immediate clash when Asha tells him to abandon Winterfell and he refuses:

“Father commanded me to take Deepwood Motte,” she snapped. “He said nothing of me having to rescue my little brother.”

“Bugger Deepwood,” he said. “It’s a wooden pisspot on a hill. Winterfell is the heart of the land, but how am I to hold it without a garrison?”

“You might have thought of that before you took it. Oh, it was cleverly done, I’ll grant you. If only you’d had the good sense to raze the castle and carry the two little princelings back to Pyke as hostages, you might have won the war in a stroke.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To see my prize reduced to ruins and ashes.”

“Your prize will be the doom of you. Krakens rise from the sea, Theon, or did you forget that during your years among the wolves? Our strength is in our longships. My wooden pisspot sits close enough to the sea for supplies and fresh men to reach me whenever they are needful. But Winterfell is hundreds of leagues inland, ringed by woods, hills, and hostile holdfasts and castles. And every man in a thousand leagues is your enemy now, make no mistake. You made certain of that when you mounted those heads on your gatehouse.” Asha shook her head. “How could you be such a bloody fool? Children…”

“You are blood of my blood, Theon, whatever else you may be. For the sake of the mother who bore us both, return to Deepwood Motte with me. Put Winterfell to the torch and fall back while you still can.”

“No.” Theon adjusted his crown. “I took this castle and I mean to hold it.”

There’s an irony here in the fact that both of them actually have a point – Theon’s right that the North cannot be held without Winterfell, that it is the political heart of the country, and that it will be a symbol of resistance for the divided Northmen to rally around (as they are in fact doing already); Asha is right in that the Ironborn do not have the capacity to do so and can only securely hold those areas accessible by the sea, in a watery form of interior lines. But that raises a major question about whether Asha is dissenting from Balon’s plan, because her critique of Theon could equally apply to the whole of Balon’s plan. If the Ironborn cannot fight and win major land battles, if they cannot dominate the vast interior of the North, then regardless of whether Balon gets his alliance from the Lannisters that he proposes in Theon XI, he’s on a fool’s errand. On the other hand, Asha’s mentioning that Theon should have taken hostages and razed Winterfell suggests that she’s not so much abandoning Balon altogether as preferring her own peripheral strategy, whereby the Ironborn stick to grabbing coastal territories and using hostages to keep the North quiescent. But we’ll have to wait for AFFC before we get to the problems with that strategy…

At the same time, however, Asha is positioning herself here as the dutiful child and her brother as the screwup black sheep, perhaps because Balon’s plan has gotten her territory that is genuinely defensible from an Ironborn perspective. And, as with all siblings, that’s the worst possible position for her to take, because it makes Theon instantly defensive and cling harder to the one thing he’s got that makes him something more than Balon Greyjoy’s least favorite child. Which does make me wonder how sincere Asha’s being here – after all, Balon Greyjoy’s getting up there in years and we know that Asha is his preferred heir. Why not make certainty doubly sure by making a token effort to persuade Theon to leave, while ensuring that he’ll stay and die in Winterfell?

by Thrumugnyr

Reek, Reek, It Rhymes With Nemesis

Once Theon has made his terrible, terrible decision to stay, Reek suddenly appears, now that there’s no escape from his clutches. And unfortunately for him, this is the moment Theon decides to worry that Reek might be a baddie:

Theon had not heard him approach, nor smelled him either. He could not think of anyone he wanted to see less. It made him uneasy to see the man walking around breathing, with what he knew. I should have had him killed after he did the others, he reflected, but the notion made him nervous. Unlikely as it seemed, Reek could read and write, and he was possessed of enough base cunning to have hidden an account of what they’d done.

“M’lord prince, if you’ll pardon me saying, it’s not right for her to abandon you. And ten men, that won’t be near enough.”

“Well, might be I could help you,” said Reek. “Give me a horse and bag o’ coin, and I could find you some good fellows…a hundred, might be. Two hundred. Maybe more.” He smiled, his pale eyes glinting. “I was born up north here. I know many a man, and many a man knows Reek…”

Leaving aside the fact that Theon should have known something was off when Reek showed himself capable of killing veteran Ironborn soldiers in a full-blown paranoid defensive posture, it’s really not a good idea to wait until someone has a secret to blackmail you with to start thinking about maybe killing him. But honestly, Reek is throwing out red flags left and right with the extent that I’m pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose to see how far he can push it before Theon sees what’s going on:

  1. While portraying a smallfolk best known for atavistic depravity, he reveals that he can read and write at a time where almost no smallfolk can.
  2. He tells Theon that he can find hundreds of Northmen willing to fight for the man who just condemned himself as a guest-right breaker, a kinslayer, and a murderer of child Starks, when anyone in their right minds would get the hell out of Winterfell and never come back.
  3. The only thing he asks for in return is to sleep with a woman, and like any case when a contractor offers you a suspiciously low bid, this should have put Theon on alert.
  4. His eyes – for the love of the Drowned Gods, Theon, you’ve met Roose Bolton before, what’s your excuse?

And so Theon, in the grand tradition of tragic protagonists who put their own necks into the noose, decides to give Ramsay everything he asks for and hope for the best. And given that he decides to take out his frustration and desperation through a vicious rape of Kyra, I’m not feeling a whole bunch of sympathy for him.

Historical Analysis:

In the past, I’ve talked a bit about the early Viking attacks on England. But it was a far distance from these opportunistic raids to the kingdom that would be known to history as the “Danelaw.” In 865 CE, the leaders of the various Viking bands who had been doing quite well from themselves with shipborn raids decided to first merge, and second abandon their previous strategy in favor of one of history’s greatest gambles. Under the leadership of Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless, two sons of Ragnar Lodbrok (who fans of the History Channel’s Vikings may be familiar with), they landed in numbers in East Anglia. In a stunning act of short-term thinking, the Saxon King of East Anglia gave them horses and supplies in return for them attacking someone else, because giving Vikings mobility on land always works well for the land-based Saxons.

credit to Wikipedia’s Hel-Hama.

By 867, the “Great Heathen Army” had conquered Northumbria, which at the time was divided by civil war between the rival Kings Osberht and AElla, captured the great Northern city of York. After installing the Saxon Ecgberht as a puppet king – the Vikings often liked to work through quisling rulers, the origins of Asha’s strategy from AFFC – they proceeded to invade Mercia and hold the city of Nottingham to ransom, after a failed siege from the combined forces of the Kings of Wessex and Mercia. Temporarily balked in the west, the “Great Heathen Army” turned east and invaded East Anglia, defeating their King Edmund and conquering the Kingdom in 869. (Fans of BBC America’s The Last Kingdom will recognize the rather brutal death of King and future saint Edmund from Episode 2)

Two years later, the Vikings’ numbers were swelled by a second Danish army and they made a push to wipe out the interfering West Saxons, only to be unexpectedly defeated by King Aethelred at the Battle of Ashdown – the death of said King in that battle clearing the way for the ascension of Alfred to the throne of Wessex. Alfred, something of a cool customer, bribed the Vikings to go away and attack someone else. Which they did, conquering Mercia in 874.

In less than a decade, the Vikings had gone from opportunistic pirates to the masters of three out of four of the great Saxon Kingdoms, and they’d done it by ignoring the rules of Viking warfare. So maybe Theon’s gamble wasn’t such a bad one, after all.

In the next Theon chapter, I’ll discuss how the Vikings lost it all.

What If?

There’s two hypotheticals I want to address in this chapter, so let’s dig in:

  • Theon had gone with Asha’s plan? This is an interesting scenario, because it creates some rather large ripple effects, not all of them beneficial to the Ironborn. While certainly Theon would gain great renown among the Ironborn for taking Bran and Rickon prisoner, things would get complicated indeed following the Red Wedding, when the Greyjoys would have to deal with the fact that A. they’re definitely not getting a treaty now, and B. their would-be puppet leaders now have two mainland oppositions in the form of the Lannister-backed Boltons (who now have a problem that the Starks have heirs who they can’t get to) and Ser Rodrik’s loyalist rump centered around White Harbor (who have the same problem for different reasons). It’s possible that Theon and Asha together, plus the two Stark kids, could have sold Asha’s peace policy at the kingsmoot, but I doubt that Euron was going to take no for an answer. So possibly Stannis captures many more prisoners at Winterfell? Or possibly Asha and Theon flee and try to work out a deal with Ser Rodrik? At the same time, Bran’s path to the Three-Eyed Crow gets that much more difficult, with attendant and unknown cosmic consequences.
  • Reek hadn’t gone/had been killed? Here’s where you really get GRRM’s thumbs on the scale; I’ll talk about this more in much more detail in Theon VIII, but the short version is that without Reek’s WWE-style out of nowhere hitting Ser Rodrik from behind with a folding chair, Winterfell is retaken by Ser Rodrik and the Northmen. Bran and Rickon emerge from the crypts and the North emerges in a stronger position, having been unified in the defense of its capital and liege lords. While it’ll take some time for the process to complete itself, the Reeds go into their full-scale guerilla warfare against Victarion Greyjoy as the men of the Barrows and Rills cut as much of the Iron Fleet off from the sea as they can and Ser Rodrik sends one of the Starks up into the hills to rally the clans and Bear Island for an attack on Deepwood Motte.
  • Which in turn means Robb Stark has no need to march north to his doom at the Twins. And without a free hand in the North, Roose Bolton’s political options narrow significantly…

Book vs. Show:

As I’ve said before, HBO’s Game of Thrones generally handles Theon’s Season 2 plotline very well, anchored by an amazing performance from Alfie Allen. While there’s quite a bit of stuff that didn’t make it from page to screen – most critically Ramsay and the deaths of the Ironborn and Ser Rodrick’s siege – the central confrontation between Asha (I refuse to say Yara) and Theon.

Gemma Whelan has not exactly been given the respect from the show fandom that she deserves; after all it’s not her fault what happened with her character (and indeed, the entire Ironborn story arc) in Season 4. But I defy anyone to say that she hasn’t absolutely nailed the complex relationship that her character has with Theon, the exasperated, condescending, fiercely loyal attachment of an elder sibling for a screwup younger sibling. Her heartfelt plea to Theon to “don’t die so far from the sea” is absolutely essential for anyone to buy her dramatic, season-ending speech from Season 3 where she pledges to bring him back, come hell or high-water. (Note to the showrunners: don’t write that kind of a narrative check without being very sure that you can pay it off later on. Because if you bounce that check, perhaps with some hunting dogs, you only alienate the audience)


104 thoughts on “Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis: Theon V, ACOK

  1. Iñigo says:

    Ramsay is far more dangerous than what he seems in Dance. Here he goes from being some prisioner to controling the situation and Theon, proving that he is not as big a idiot as Roose claims.

    • Winnief says:

      The problem was never that Ramsay is stupid…the problem is that Ramsay is completely nuts. He has good short term cunning, but he can’t do any kind of long term strategy. In that respect he’s a little like Cersei.

    • Technically he did in last chapter, but…I don’t think Ramsay’s an idiot, I think the issue is that he lacks self-control in non-survival situations.

      • Space Oddity says:

        Yep. Ramsey can be cunning when his life is on the line, but when he’s in a position of power, then the big point becomes hitting you over the head with the fact that he, Ramsey S̶n̶o̶w̶ Bolton has power over you, and screw nuances.

      • Winnief says:

        Exactly. It’s why Ramsay will flay people who surrendered to him under agreement of safe conduct because it amuses him to do so, without considering what it does to his credibility to offer mercy on those who surrender in the future…or for any other kind of agreement. He can manage to cope with immediate threats all right but he’s almost incapable of considering the bigger picture and long term consequences-something Roose is much better at. (And Roose is also a LOT more naturally…cautious then his bastard son as well.)

  2. Balmiki Ghosh says:

    Fantastic analysis as always. Could you please write a blog on what could have been the best strategy for Balom Greyjoy to take advantage of the War of Five Kings in order to enhance the position of his house and to push forward the independence of the Ironborn?

    • Grant says:

      Besides allying with Robb independence seems to be something of a nonstarter. Every single other major player has absolutely no intention of seeing the Ironborn leave, and the Ironborn don’t have nearly enough power to make it happen on their own.

    • Winnief says:

      The best strategy would have been to take Robb’s deal. I’m still waiting for Asha to acknowledge that fact.

      • Keith B says:

        That would have been extremely risky, as Balon realized. It would have meant going against Tywin Lannister, who is known to be extremely ruthless and who has a 40 year track record of success in war, politics and government. And however unlikely it was that they could have held the North, it was simply impossible to hold even part of the Westerlands.

        I don’t see what was so dumb or crazy about Balon’s plan. Suppose the worst happens and it collapses immediately. The North has no ships and no allies with a fleet worth mentioning. So the Ironmen retreat to their islands. They keep all the thralls and salt wives, plus any loot they’ve acquired. Everyone they killed is still dead, all the women they’ve raped are still raped, Balon has some revenge against the Starks, and there’s nothing the North can do about it. Or they might get lucky and hold onto some territory for a while. They have timber for their ships and people to rule over. There’s even a chance that Tywin will accept Balon’s offer, in which case they’ll have help in controlling the North.

        Will they get pushed out eventually? Sure, they always do. But eventually could be a while. This is what they’ve been doing throughout their history, and by their lights it’s been working out for them. Even after the Greyjoy Rebellion, which was a complete catastrophe, they managed to recover in ten years and were ready to give it another shot. So why should they stop?

        • Grant says:

          It was bad for many reasons.

          The first is that it only worked in the first place because Robb was in the south at the same time there was open fighting between Northern lords. There was no way that Balon could have anticipated the second would happen.

          Second, not only was there no chance of Tywin ever accepting Iron independence, Balon didn’t even bother to make sure that Tywin would be on board with this before Balon started his invasion, throwing away any ability to leverage the Iron Islands’ position in the war.

          Third, Balon’s goal was political independence. So he naturally attacked the only other major power fighting for that general goal, as opposed to focusing his power fighting the Baratheons, Lannisters and Tyrells who would naturally opposed to it.

          Fourth his plan got his people very little even when you take away the goal of independence. They were losing men, they were incurring the costs of those men not working on ‘peacetime’ work and the plunder wasn’t worth it as we see by A Dance With Dragons.

          On Tywin’s successes, he’s done alright but he’s never had the brilliant large scale victories that Robb had, not until the Battle of Blackwater and that had a great deal of luck and the work of his disregarded son. He’s a dangerous man, but not a more dangerous one to face in battle than Robb or Stannis.

          As for the Greyjoy Rebellion, that ended with the Greyjoy fleet shattered, Balon’s own castle taken, two of Balon’s sons dead, his third made a hostage, Balon forced to swear fealty to Robert and the only reason Balon wasn’t killed was that the winning side didn’t see a reason to kill him.

          So Balon’s not just a bad leader but a terrible war leader who had an opportunity to either greatly advance the Ironborn position after the disaster of the last rebellion by siding with the Baratheons or Lannisters, or to gamble on winning full independence by siding with the Starks. Instead he threw that opportunity away because he wanted vengeance on the Starks and he was too dumb to realize that meant making nice with the Iron Throne.

          • rewenzo says:

            I would just add to this that Balon’s (and the Iron Way’s) best bet is for a breakup of the 7 kingdoms. United, the Ironborn can neither be independent or reave, because they will be despised and greatly out gunned. This isn’t speculations. This has happened several times already. Their only chance is for the kingdoms to go their separate ways, and to exploit those divisions.

            The only faction who would allow this is Robb’s. If Robb wins, he takes the North, the Riverlands, maybe the Vale, and goes home. If that happens, there’s no real reason for Dorne to stay in with their traditional enemies in Highgarden and Storm’s End. Then you’re down to the Reach, the Stormlands, and the Crownlands. Maybe they keep at it, maybe they don’t. But without dragons and without control of the continent, there’s no real purpose to this alliance at all.

            What’s incredibly moronic about Balon’s failure to see this is that this was the logic that motivated his first rebellion. That after the fall of the Targaryens, the kingdom would not be able to unite against him and would fall apart. Here, he actually has a kingdom that is falling apart – and what does he do? He attacks the one faction that wants him independent, directly aiding all the factions that want him under their thumb. It’s not even shortsighted. It’s just dumb.

          • Keith B says:

            You’re not thinking like an Ironman.

            Political independence is a means to an end. What Balon wants most of all is to preserve their way of life. Granted it’s based on robbery, murder, rape, kidnapping, slavery, and complete disregard for human life including their own. But hey, at least it’s an ethos.

            If the choice is between attacking the North and the Westerlands, there are two major advantages to attacking the North:

            First, it limits the downside risk. He only risks the men and ships he’s sending, because the North has no navy. It can’t strike back. The Westerlands has a major port and a fleet, and it has enough money to build as many ships and hire as many sellsails as it needs. If Tywin wins, it has the entire kingdom behind it. If Robb wins, he has only the Riverlands and still can’t retaliate.

            Second, Robb is an untried boy and Tywin is the most formidable man in Westeros. You seriously underestimate Tywin when you only mention his military talents. He may not be the most brilliant general around, but he’s much more than just a military commander. As a political leader, he completely outclasses everyone else. He’s the chessmaster. He’s also ruthless and unscrupulous. You don’t bet against Tywin. He will find a way to beat you.

            On the other hand, the Westerlands is a lot richer. But for the Ironmen, what’s important is not how much they steal, but whether they’ve paid the iron price. As long as they take it through force rather than honest labor, they’ve preserved their self-respect. After all, you can’t put a price on integrity.

            It’s not at all clear that siding with Robb would have gained political independence for the Iron Islands in the long run. If Balon attacks the Westerlands and Tywin loses, someone else will be King of Westeros, presumably Stannis or Renly. Neither of them is more likely to accept an independent Iron Islands than Tywin. Since the North has no navy, it can’t help defend the Iron Islands directly, and it’s unlikely it would go to war with the rest of Westeros.

            The Westerlands will be subject to the Iron Throne come what may. If he attacks them, he’s the enemy of whoever wins the war for the Iron Throne. If he attacks the North, and the North wins independence, he’s still safe from them. If the North loses the war, he is effectively an ally of the winning side, so he can salvage some gain, even if he is not able to remain an independent state.

        • rewenzo says:

          1) I think Balon’s whole thing is that he doesn’t care about the consequences of losing. He’s already lost two sons (and his third kind of) to his last stupid rebellion and he’s already lost a war against Tywin Lannister. Doesn’t really seem to dissuade him.

          2) If he really wants independence, Robb is his best bet because Robb is the only king not looking to re-create the 7 kingdoms. He’s fighting for the right to secede at this point. He doesn’t need Balon to swear him fealty. Every other claimant is backed by forces that are irreconcilable to the notion of Ironborn independence.

          3) By attacking Robb, Balon only really helps the Lannisters. The Lannisters will eventually require the Greyjoys to submit to their rule. And the Greyjoys don’t get anything from the Lannisters for attacking the North. As Tywin says, why should he pay Balon for doing something he’s already doing.

          4) If Balon allies with Robb – it’s very possible they win! There’s no reason to assume the Lannisters will win. All they have is the west, which is very exposed to the Ironborn, and the crownlands which is very exposed to everybody. They’re opposed by every other house. (The neutral Arryns are really only hostile neutrals. The Martells may be formally allied with the Lannisters but will not fight on their behalf and hate them.) Robb controls two kingdoms and is currently beating the Lanisters single handed. Ironborn intervention on Robb’s behalf may not be necessary and could be decisive.

          5) And the rewards are great. Actual independence for the first time in 300 years. All the gold and wealth they can carry away from the west. These are huge gains, and achievable.

          6) The only difference between Balon’s first and second rebellions is that in Balon’s first rebellion he had NO chance of success. Here, he had a good chance of success and threw it all away.

        • Highly disagree here.

          1. If pure pragmatism was the reason he didn’t fight Tywin, why not reach out to Tywin first before invading the North?

          2. It’s a lot easier to hold part of the Westerlands – it’s a smaller region, it’s more compact, it’s got some big islands and peninsulas with good water access, and there’s lots of gold to be pillaged.

          3. If the worst happens in the North, Balon has squandered his limited manpower for no benefit. The Iron Islands are weakened in a world without allies.

        • Lann says:

          I agree that the best strategy at the moment would have been an alliance with the Starks. Then if things go south Balon would do a Frey and see what Tywin offers in exchange for betraying Robb.

    • Well, allying with Robb would have been a good idea to do that. Balon could have held Fair Isle and the Kayce peninsula quite easily, and turned the coast land into his own personal preserve. Yes, Casterly Rock and the hills would have been harder to crack, but it’s a lot easier to do that with the Lannisters gone and being able to settle your Ironborn on fertile soil with lots of horses.

  3. Grant says:

    “Reek hadn’t gone/had been killed? Here’s where you really get GRRM’s thumbs on the scale; I’ll talk about this more in much more detail in Theon VIII, but the short version is that without Reek’s WWE-style out of nowhere hitting Ser Rodrick from behind with a folding chair, Winterfell is retaken by Ser Rodrick and the Ironborn.”

    Northerners I presume.

    As for the Ironborn, the time they ruled over the Riverlands was centuries ago, and with the deaths of so many important figures at Harrenhal plus being heavily restricted to their own islands and the sea I imagine that any land capacity they had died off before too long.

    The main problem I could find with Theon in the show would be that they forgot the entire point of Theon pretending to kill Bran and Rickon and what would result from that. Even a great actor can only do so much with a script that doesn’t understand action and consequence.

  4. Ethan says:

    As Theon notes in his ADWD chapters at Winterfell, the Wildling murders are a mirror to Ramsay’s own; someone exploiting the guards’ trust to kill them when their guard (ha) is down. So, is it really that unlikely for Ramsay to achieve the murders of three men who would have not considered him a threat, as Theon similarly doesn’t? Certainly more plausible than shirtless, dual-wielding, video-game protagonist invincibility.

    • Winnief says:

      Maybe but remember the Wildlings including Mance are depicted as being pretty bad-ass themselves.

      Personally, I suspect D&D have elevated Ramsay to such a threat level is because they plan on having Jon kill him, (thus also perhaps part of the reason for the abomination of having Sansa marry Ramsay-to make it more personal too,) and so want the inevitable showdown to be more dramatic. I’m not saying it was the right decision, mind you, but I think that was their reasoning.

    • Captain Splendid says:

      Man am I dumb. I always figured the guerrilla style killings were Osha’s doing.

    • Mance was a trained ranger and had six fighters with him to carry out those murders; Ramsay was solo, and was killing people who (after the first kill) were actively taking precautions against it.

      • Ethan says:

        I don’t wish to be contray, but the Ironborn were taking precautions against the inhabitants of Winterfell as they were under the belief they were committing the killings, hence the execution of Farlen and Black Lorren’s complaints about “never knowing whether the washerwoman meant to kiss you or kill you”. So Ramsay is not suspected. As such, what training or skill is required to push an unsuspecting man down some stairs, another into a well, and to slit anothers throat?

  5. Winnief says:

    LOVE this analysis Steve. On reflection I think you’re right and Asha was always pursuing her peripheral strategy of “take enough important people hostage, and the North will consent to colonial occupation.” Of course as events in ADWD make abundantly clear that strategy was completely unworkable too.

    I think Asha’s problem is that she’s been too isolated from the mainland all these years to understand how crazy all this really is. Intellectually she knows that residents of Bear Island have a reputation for being tough, that the Hill tribes are fighters, etc, but in practice she was still caught off guard by the level of resistance the IB met with in the North. And she also an event that seriously tore at her own self-identity when she lost the Kingsmoot and that factor figured into her decision to stay at Deepwood Motte long after it became clear she needed to leave. The two siblings aren’t really so different after all.

    And yeah, I LOVED the way the show handled all this from Rodrik’s execution to Yara/Theon at WF. Alfie’s performance I think actually made Theon’s psychological journey and mental breakdown even better on screen than on the page.

    And I know it’s jumping the gun for Theon VI but I thought Theon’s YOLO speech followed by being taken prisoner by his own men was a fantastic moment that truly summed up the IB, (and foreshadowed what later takes place at Moat Cailin.) Now the post-burning of WF was arguably poorly handled but I maintain that everything about the build-up, (including Lewin acting as Theon’s conscience,) was sheer brilliance.

    • Andrew says:

      Yes, it is something you see throughout her arc. Her uncle, The Reader AKA the sanest man on the Iron Isles, offered her to make her his heir to Ten Towers, but she chose to forgo that to go to the kingsmoot. She loses, and the results force her into exile when Euron decides to remove her as a threat whereas if she stayed at Ten Towers from the kingsmoot Euron would have likely left her alone (then all she’d have to do is wait for him to be killed in battle then make her claim).

      She then is given a proposal by Tristifer to make a life as a trader, but she turns that down and is captured at Deepwood Motte with nearly her entire force slain. Although, to be fair, the attack proceeded before she could make a decision. He was on the mark when he said “You are clinging to Sea Dragon Point the way a drowning man clings to a bit of wreckage. What does Sea Dragon have that anyone could ever want? There are no mines, no gold, no silver, not even tin or iron. The land is too wet for wheat or corn.” It was an act of desperation as the land is hardly worth the trouble with no arable land, no minerals and most importantly, no people. She is trying to create a kingdom in the North with no hope of success; she is definitely Balon’s daughter.

      Whenever she is given a choice between a more peaceful life and action, she chooses action which ultimately results in digging her deeper into the hole.

      • Grant says:

        In her defense she had no idea that Euron was going to be there with his horn and promises of dragons and she was known as Balon’s preferred heir. That might or might not have been enough to sway a choice between her and Victarion.

        I’ve wondered if she was planning on using Theon to recreate an old argument told to her as a story of how a king’s son was able to force another Kingsmoot because he hadn’t been present at the last one to make his claim. I’m not sure if she knew that Theon was alive or not when she went back to the North.

        • winnief says:

          I think she knew Theon was alive but she hadn’t realized the significance of the loophole though the Reader had….which is why he told her to read up on her history an order Asha originally found incomprehensible. She only figured out what uncle Rodrik had tried to tell her when Tristifer mentioned Torgon’s story. Ironically Tris wasn’t thinking of Theon but trying to tell Asha she didn’t have standing to challenge the Kingsmoot since she’d been there and had her chance unlike Torgon.

      • winnief says:

        Precisely. I think Martin is using Asha as a deconstruction of the Action Girl trope since in her case it doesn’t work to her benefit and is part of a deeply immoral cause as Alyssane Mormont points out. And while the Mormont women are tough as hell they are NOT into danger or violence purely for its own sake. They’re too busy actually running Bear Island thank you very much.

        Also in retrospect I think it was a real mistake for Asha not to try to make a political marriage match before the Kingsmoot…not just to bolster her own support but to also answer the invisible specter of who would be her heir. It might not have made the difference but it couldn’t have hurt.

        I think that Asha was genuinely shocked not just at the low level of support but at how much her beinga woman was held against her. She was used to her own sailors worshipping her and Balon had annointed her his heir so I think she got as nasty a surprise after his death as Theon did with his homecoming to Pike when she realized how precarious her situation really was.

        • Andrew says:

          1. She is trying to prove she is just like one of the boys, but she should remember that these guys look on reading as unmanly and perverse, think Balon was great despite bringing disaster to the Iron Isles, think Balon’s plan to take the North as well as Euron’s plan to take all of Westeros are great ideas, and the latter being done with the promise of dragons no one had heard of up to that point. These guys are idiots. What are the chances of a woman winning the support of a bunch of mostly poorly educated, sexist bigots?

          2. As to the Mormont women, you’re right. As Lady Maege explained and the carving on Mormont Hall of the nursing mother with a battleaxe suggests, their reason for being warriors was not born out of a desire for glory, recognition or plunder, but the need to defend their children as well as themselves from raiders. It makes me admire Mormont women for being warriors, in a way more so than Kingsguard and Faith Militant given their pursuit of the martial path is for the purely selfless reason of a woman defending her family.

          • winnief says:

            Exactly the Mormont women are Mama Bears…generally not looking for a fight but woe to anyone who infringes on their territory.

            Also I always thought Maege was especially awesome for restoring her House’s fortunes after Jorah nearly ruined the clan. Asha could look to her as a role model.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack with Asha in AFFC.

      I also liked the YOLO speech.

      • Winnief says:

        I especially like that it was deliberately crafted as a double to Tyrion’s speech at Blackwater. Tyrion expressly urges people to fight NOT for ‘honor’ or ‘glory’ but out of sensible self-preservation to protect themselves, their homes, and their loved ones from the inevitable horrors that would follow if Stannis takes the city. Theon makes it all about honor, glory, and fame after death. Look which appeal actually works…

  6. Brett says:

    And without a free hand in the North, Roose Bolton’s political options narrow significantly…

    I would guess that he would just say it was a rogue effort by his bastard son, and be publicly thankful for his death (as he was in the book to Catelyn anyways). It’s not like Ramsay would be around to finger him for conspiring against the Starks anyways.

    As for Whelan, she’s alright. It’s just always felt like she’s playing the character so low-key and quietly, when Asha is anything but that. There’s been a few moments where it feels right, but still.

    • winnief says:

      Agree. Ultimately Ramsay is disposable.

      Whelan is a more low key version of Asha but perhaps that’s related to the larger story arc.

      • Ser Biffy Clegane says:

        Toning down Asha seems like a waste of an easy fan favorite. Let her some with her full finger dancing, quipping, Maid banging, peace counseling, scenery chewing pirate awesomeness and you’ll sell tons of HBO Go subscriptions.

  7. Hi Steve I enjoyed your dissection on Theon’s psyche and his interaction with Asha, I wanted to note that Theon was also affected by Robb’s outburst in GOT and this has a major impact on Theon as well, he still remembers it even as Reek and wished he died at Robb’s side.

    I was looking forward to this chapter for many weeks because I was interested in asking more about one of your hypotheticals? If Theon followed Asha’s advice, wouldn’t he also take The Reeds, and the Walders as well? More hostages to cripple Robb’s Northern-Riverlands alliance.

    Since Bran and Rickon are alive as hostages at the Pike wouldn’t this prevent the Red Wedding from coming into fruition? Robb and Cat made their mistakes out of the belief that Bran and Rickon were dead. Would taking the Starks hostage end the war prematurely? Does Robb give in to the Ironborn’s demands

    What does the War of the Five Kings look like after this?

  8. rewenzo says:

    Another reason why Theon should be suspicious of Reek’s pledge to find hundreds of Northmen to fight for him is:

    “I was born up north here. I know many a man, and many a man knows Reek…”

    Yeah, people know Reek as the murdering raper of dead bodies guy who smells preternaturally bad all the time for no discernible reason who was the lackey of Ramsay Snow, a man widely reviled as a monster. What kind of cache does this guy really have that he can raise an army? Against the Starks. In the north.

    Of course, the first time reader looks at this and thinks, Reek’s just trying to get off the sinking ship.

    • winnief says:

      Which is exactly what Theon should have assumed too. He just wasn’t thinking clearly.

      • winnief says:

        In fact now I wonder if one reason D&D didn’t include Ramsay in season 2 besides saving the surprise for later and of course cast bloat wasbecause they didn’t think viewers would buy the idea of Theon putting his hopes and trust all on a figure like Reek in the first place. And that might have even been the right call at the time however gratuitous the storyline became in later seasons.

      • Keith B says:

        In Theon’s defense, it’s no more foolish than Robb’s decision to release him in the first place, or Rodrik’s decision (with Maester Luwin’s concurrence) to leave Winterfell completely undefended, or Catelyn and Ned’s decision to accept Littlefinger’s word about the dagger at face value, when it should have been completely obvious that Tyrion was being set up. Or many other horrible decisions by many other characters. Theon was acting out of desperation. What’s their excuse?

        • Grant says:

          Robb trusted Theon as a close friend and supporter of his in the war and had thought that Balon would listen to his son. He was wrong on the latter and horribly overestimated Theon’s loyalty, but based on what he would have known it’s not such a bad gamble.

          Catelyn still viewed Baelish as a friend, especially since she’d never been to King’s Landing and hadn’t seen how he acted at court, and couldn’t find a reason why he would lie to her. It was still a case where she should have looked at the facts, seen oddities and inconsistencies and looked further, but while it’s less reasonable than Robb’s it wasn’t outright stupid (again based on what she knew) to trust Baelish.

          As for Theon letting ‘Reek’ go, it was stupid but it does have the defense that Theon couldn’t see how it could possibly make things any worse than they already were.

          • Keith B says:

            Exactly, it couldn’t make things worse. (Although actually it did make things worse, but that wasn’t foreseeable.) Theon was going to die. That justified desperation tactics.

            It wasn’t Theon Robb had to trust, it was Balon. Theon was the one bit of leverage Robb had. Balon has no incentive to do anything Robb wants if he has Theon back. If Robb had promised to release Theon after Balon’s assistance, it would have made more sense. (Wouldn’t have worked, but Robb couldn’t have known that.)

            Catelyn didn’t have to assume Littlefinger was lying, but if he was telling the truth, someone must have stolen Tyrion’s dagger and used it in an attempt to frame him. Because nobody would have given an assassin an extremely expensive and unique dagger that could easily be traced back to him, when any ordinary anonymous knife would do. Even a moron like Lancel Lannister would have seen that. Catelyn and Ned, not so much.

        • winnief says:

          Yet another reason I disagree with the view that Martin always has things turn out so badly because of ‘realism’. The tragedies that occur here happen because Martin wants them to happen. Plain and simple.

  9. Kingmaker says:

    “Even at its most leaderless and most divided, the North is not like the Riverlands during the time of Harwyn Hardhand and the Ironborn are not prepared to conduct an occupation in the face of an entrenched resistence.”

    I think the North’s proto-nationalism is a major factor here. The Riverlords never seem to exhibit a shared identity (and generally seem more concerned with personal autonomy), and the peasantry certainly doesn’t, which makes rallying widespread support to throw out ‘invaders’ a tough sell.

    Whereas the Northerners very much seem to see themselves as ‘Northerners’ (at least, the lords do), which collectivizes their opposition to the Ironborn and makes a divide-and-conquer approach much less likely to succeed.

    “Which does make me wonder how sincere Asha’s being here – after all, Balon Greyjoy’s getting up there in years and we know that Asha is his preferred heir.”

    I’m a bit skeptical, just because of what we see of her thoughts later on in the series.

    Re: comparing the Ironborn to the Danes. I think there is one major difference here: England is *way* smaller than the North. The Northmen of Westeros are able to rally their forces and push back the invaders without much threat of retaliation, whereas the Northmen of Europe are able to threaten most of the Saxon kingdoms in fairly short order.

    • winnief says:

      Exactly. Invading the North isn’t invading England but more along the lines of trying to invade Russia….and with the winter season coming too. I doubt even the fiercest Vikings would have made any headway on that one. The only times its even been tried were by Bonaparte and Hitler both of whom were megalomaniacs…and we all know how it turned out for both of them

      • thatrabidpotato says:

        The Mongols did it. Rather easily, in fact.

        • winnief says:

          Ok but neither the Vikings or IB had anything close to the same numbers as the Mongols. (Nor the convenient geograhical proximity. )

          • thatrabidpotato says:

            Oh yes, granted. Just saying that the Mongols successfully conquered Russia, so it has been done.

        • Hedrigal says:

          Not really, they forced a group of weak and divided principalities that would later form the core of the Russian state to pay them tribute and fealty. Which is important because at that point they didn’t have the defense in depth essential to many of their other defenses against invasion.

      • Keith B says:

        The Vikings did invade Russia, and ruled a significant part of it for a couple of centuries. Check out the article “Varangians” at Wikipedia.

      • blacky says:

        The Rus were Northmen—Where Russia gets it’s name…

    • There’s a couple factors that I think shaped proto-nationalism.

      First, the early success of the Starks in unifying the North means that the various houses spend a long time as fellow vassals of one kingdom. The weakness of the early River Kings meant that large parts of the Riverlands (especially the hills region south of the Trident and the eastern region that’s closer to the Crownlands or the Vale) spent a lot of time developing outside of the realm.

      Second, the Northern houses have a shared ethnicity and religion – the Riverlands are divided by faith and heritage. The Blackwoods back the Durrandon invasion because they were opposed to the Teagues’ religious policy, and the Brackens vice-versa.

      • Ser Biffy Clegane says:

        … and the Starks have been offering winter shelter for milennia…

        • winnief says:

          Plus there may be a vague memory of the metaphysical importance of having Starks at WF that influences people if only sub consciously.

      • Space Oddity says:

        Hell, let’s remember that chunks of the Crownlands used to be part of the Riverlands at various times. It really seems that one of the region’s big problems is that a large chunk of its nobles were kings of it (or chunks of it) at one time. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Aegon I chose the Tullys, a prestigious old house who had never been kings at all, to be the new Lords of the Trident. (‘First to answer the call’. And how the hell do you track that?)

  10. Chinoiserie says:

    I had not noticed Lyanna wearing a white dress before. With her roses and blood stained dress she would resemble a bride from a horror film, quite interesting.

    Regarding the dogs and the iron born in season 4, they had more planned but they had budget/time issues so most had to be cut, which was unfortunate. Looking forward to seeing Asha/Yara in Season 6, hopefully she will have an interesting storyline and her story is just not given to Theon. The people who dislike Gemma Whelan usually do so because they see Asha as more beautiful and attractive and while Asha might have a bit more playful and sexy quality about her I think Gemma nails the role.

    • winnief says:

      I am interested in the IB storyline for Season 6 too…though as some pointed out since the show has made the IB’s shortcomings so apparent it will be harder to consider them a real threat….but of course KL IS in a state of chaos right now…

    • It just seems badly handled – the Greyjoys are there in Season 2 but not in Season 3 until the end, there in Season 4 but not in Season 5, etc.

      • Winnief says:

        Yeah, and of course there was Yara’s shaggy dog story in Season 4, which could have been cut completely with NO loss. Though again, Alfie was tremendous in those scenes and watching him ‘pretend’ to be Theon Greyjoy at Moat Cailin was simply spell binding.

        Everyone who thinks we could have cut Dorne out completely in Season Five and replaced it with the events on Pike raise your hand!!! I thought so.

        I wonder if part of this is that D&D just aren’t big fans of the IB, (with the exception of Alfie’s Theon of course-clearly they LOVE him for obvious reasons,) and thus prefer not to spend much screen time there.

        • David Hunt says:

          Oh yeah? Think of what they did to the books’ Dorne plots and turned it into for the show. Now tell me you’d rather they’d have done that with the Iron Islands material. I dare you.

          • thatrabidpotato says:

            People say they butchered the Sand Snakes. They didn’t.

            The Sand Skanks are the worst characters in the books by a hundred miles. Flat, cheesy, basically Westerosi Power Rangers, with ridiculous personas and motivations. From what I’ve heard, the show had them spot on.

          • Winnief says:

            I agree. The Dornish storyline was equally bad on paper and on screen.

          • No, not by a long shot. The Sand Snakes are not Martin’s best inventions, but they are miles and miles better than the clowns on the show.

            This is a good summary of the season 5 Dorne storyline, if it can be called that.

            Season 5 has one great quality: it is sure to make people appreciate AFFC and ADWD much more by comparison. Like, you know all the talk about how Brienne’s storyline in AFFC is “boring” and “with no action” (which is actually not true)? Well, in the show she stands most of the season outside of a castle waiting for a candle to be lit. So, enjoy that.

          • Anyone who claims that the Dornish storyline was as bad in the books as in the show needs to offer me a proof that they have actually watched or followed recaps etc. of season 5, and that they actually remember anything about the Dornish storyline from the books. Otherwise, I won’t believe you, because it’s frankly unbelievable anyone could seriously think that.

            The Dorne storyline in the books is not one of my favorites… but dear gods, it’s a masterpiece to the piece of steaming BS that was the “Dorne” “storyline” on the show. It’s incredible that someone actually wrote, directed, shot and edited that and thought it was a good idea.

          • thatrabidpotato says:

            In fairness, I don’t have HBO (or access to any TV really), so the only parts of the show I can see is what’s on YouTube.

            That said, I just find it very hard to believe that it is possible to be “miles and miles” worse than the book Sand Snakes, they’re that bad.

  11. thatrabidpotato says:

    “She’s sitting, and he’s standing, and he’s still looking up at her” – a comment on the YouTube video of the show’s version of this that I will never forget. To me it perfectly encapsulates Theon’s attitude towards her, and how so much of what he does is an attempt to get out from beneath Asha’s shadow.

    I’d forgotten most of what happens in this chapter, to be honest. It’s been a long, long time since I read Clash, since my copy of the book got borrowed and never returned, but even when I still had it I avoided Theon’s last few chapters. Reading all the utter folly he commits, and the atrocities, and GRRM’s blatant thumb on the scales…. it’s just too much. I never read the Red Wedding, either- it’s enough to know what happens.

    Steven, I don’t think there’s any chance that Asha was deliberately encouraging Theon to get himself killed. She deeply, genuinely loves him, both here and at the end of Dance. I think her terrible appeal to him is a function of how little she knows him after nine years apart, and how she just can’t hold her scorn and anger back at what he’s done. She’s not making a carefully considered appeal, she’s speaking from the heart, and it’s not what Theon wants to hear.

    • Winnief says:

      Theon’s chapters have the same sense of impending disaster as do Cersei’s chapters in AFFC, but the latter are strangely fascinating and offer a sick satisfaction, (seeing Tywin’s precious legacy collapse and all) while Theon’s are just depressing because this is also bad for the Starks and the North and because it just feels wrong to have Winterfell desecrated in such a fashion. (Though, damn if having the Bolton’s there isn’t even WORSE.)

      And I agree I don’t think Asha wanted Theon to stay-for all the sibling rivalry I really do think she was trying to save him. After all she’s so far ahead in the game as it were at this point, that it really makes no difference to her position as Balon’s heir whether Theon stays or goes…but it will be the difference to whether Theon lives or dies. She just didn’t know how to argue with him persuasively. And I think the show’s decision to add that “don’t die so far from the sea speech,” really helped clarify that.

      I must say considering their final parting and then eventual reunion with one of my favorite lines, “You have to remember your *name*” I for one will be very VERY interested in how their relationship evolves in the future-especially since Asha is definitely going to want Theon to use the Latecomer Loophole for the Kingsmoot. (Ironically, I doubt Theon even *wants* to rule the IB anymore…but he’s now arguably a lot more fit for it.)

      • thatrabidpotato says:

        He’s only fit for it if Ramsey didn’t remove his manhood, and the evidence is in favor of it being gone, unfortunately.

        I second that Asha and Theon’s fate from here out will be very interesting indeed.

        • I think Asha might produce the captain’s daughters baby to “show” Theon’s fertile.

          • Winnief says:

            And regardless even if Theon becomes the next Lord of the Iron Islands, his heir could very well be a child of Asha’s….IF she survives long enough to have one…or he could just legitimize a previously sired bastard.

          • Winnief says:

            And now I have a theory that Asha may bear an out of wedlock child, but Theon will claim it as his own, thus ‘proving’ his manhood, giving him an heir, and with the added benefit of literary symmetry since it’s what Ned did with Jon.

          • David Hunt says:


            Asha might make claims on Theon’s behalf, but I doubt he’ll be showing any political ambition of his own. I think his only ambition at this point is to die in a way that will salvage a bit of his reputation so that he won’t be wholly remembered as the child-murdering kinslayer, I’m confident that he has no desire to rule over anyone at this point.

          • thatrabidpotato says:

            *May* bear an out of wedlock child? Try *will*. I will bet anything that she’s already pregnant with Qarl’s kid, conceived at Deepwood in her first Dance chapter. She very pointedly thinks about the need to brew moon tea in that chapter… and never does.

  12. John W says:

    “…Reek’s WWE-style out of nowhere hitting Ser Rodrik from behind with a folding chair, ”

    LOL. 🙂

  13. MightyIsobel says:

    My tinfoil to explain Theon’s prophetic dreaming is that Winterfell is a “soft place” of faerie lore, where the barriers between life and death are thin. That is why there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, because their presence keeps the boundaries solid, because magic.

    So, Theon unseats Bran, and reality comes unmoored for himself, his men, and the Winterfell survivors, contributing to the toxic brew of his own insecurities, violent ambitions, and misplaced trust.

    • Winnief says:

      I actually really like that theory! And if Winterfell is ‘cursed’ for Non-Starks that would also fit in with the trouble the Boltons later have.

      • MightyIsobel says:

        It also lines up well with the Steven’s theory that Winterfell is a magical Other-fighting place.

        In any case, I would be surprised if we get a definitive answer to the question. It’s subtly done, and well-integrated with effective character work, and that’s the beauty of it.

    • David Hunt says:

      Tyrion remembers in one of his chapters that although he appreciated Winterfell, he felt entirely out of place there, as if the castle itself resented his presence. Something like that anyway. Perhaps Winterfell literally feels that it belongs to the Starks…or maybe that they belong to it.

      • Winnief says:

        I actually like the latter even more-that Winterfell ‘claims’ the Starks as its own and wants them there.

        Which might be very VERY bad news for any Non-Starks who try to claim Winterfell as their own. It was notoriously disastrous for Theon, it’s becoming a death trap for the Boltons by Dance, and increasingly it looks like occupying Winterfell is gonna have an unhappy ending for Stannis as well, (and poor Shireen. Sob.). Perhaps the castle not only resents intruders but ill wishes them and brings them misfortune as well the way Harrenhaal has been cursed for anyone who goes near it.

        Of course *Jon* may be able to hold Winterfell safely since he is after all half-Stark.

        • They are all “half(or less) Starks”, since the Starks didn’t practice incest in every single generation. (I guess you could say the possibly-still-alive Benjen is a “full Stark”, but only if we disregard all the previous generations of Starks who did not marry their cousins.) Heck, even Targaryens didn’t practice incest in every single generation.

          This is why I never can understand why people say someone is a “half-Stark” or a “half-some other family”. The only ones who are “full” something are Craster’s descendants, who are “full” Craster-ites. (ewww)

          • Winnief says:

            Point taken. The only real difference is that Jon’s Stark blood comes from the maternal side of his family rather than the male.

            Kinda OT, but one reason Jon turned out so much better than so many other Targaryen heirs, (including yes, Rhaegar and Dany,) is that he has the whole ‘hybrid vigor’ thing going for him. Well that, and that he wasn’t raised to consider himself a Targaryen with all the Great Dragon Destiny and sense of entitlement that entails.

  14. John Galvano says:

    I guess another what-if is What if Theon listens and leaves with Asha?

    • Winnief says:

      That’s actually a pretty darn good what if? In that event, Ser Rodrik takes back Winterfell with no opposition at all, (so even with Reek’s bunch on the way, they don’t have the chance for the stealth attack,) and Rickon and Bran are found alive and well, with Winterfell back under Stark control which might butterfly away the Red Wedding since even if Cat and Robb have still made their mutual screw-ups, Roose Bolton might well decide that with living Stark heirs still holding Winterfell, it ain’t worth it. Without Roose’s help, Walder Frey’s gonna be a helluva more reluctant too.

      Now what happens to Theon, then when he comes back to the Iron Islands is anyone’s guess. He no doubt has to eat a lot of humble crow, and he has NO chance at the Kingsmoot at this point, (Though he might have some satisfaction in being able to point to Balon and Asha and say, “Look the Lannister’s refuse to support you and the Northern invasion is a bust…TOLD YOU SO!!!” So after Balon’s death my guess is Theon goes on the run with Asha, and there’s no latecomer loophole available.

      • Ser Biffy Clegane says:

        That is a good What If?

        Since Theon is clearly in succession but has almost no allies, my guess is that he tries to claim the Seastone Chair and that Euron kills him immediately.

        • Winnief says:

          Alternatively, Asha makes Theon the same offer she did to Victarion-her support in exchange for him making her chief advisor…which *might* just work especially if Damphair decides to support Theon to stop Euron.

          • Ser Biffy Clegane says:

            Come to think of it, what’s in it for Asha? She can’t let Threon go back to Pike with the treasures of Winterfell, at least not without her. Did she take Theon and the loot back to her castle, or does she go back with him?

  15. […] for the would-be prince of Winterfell, the borders of his fantasyland extend no further than the walls, because the moment he gets […]

  16. […] death and resurrection. Let’s begin with the fact that Bran, who suffered a supposed death in Theon V, is shown alive down in the crypts under […]

  17. Sourjapes says:

    Skipping ahead a little to ADWD here, it is interesting how Ramsay is kind of Theon’s mirror image. In a way they are both bastards who want to be accepted by their adoptive family. Ramsay may be a Bolton by blood, but of-course by law and name he is not. It perfectly parallels Theon’s subconscious desire to be a Stark, but also his need to be accepted by the Ironborn and his Greyjoy family.

    Deep down Theon is very insecure and his proud and cocky way of carrying himself merely masks that. He probably lusts after women because they validate him, as you point out with his dream about being castrated.

    Ramsay too I think, feels the same way but expresses it more directly. He rapes and brutalizes women because in stark contrast to Theon, he at least appears ugly and ungainly and has likely never been successful with women unless he could use force to make them submit. His lashing out at people for calling him a bastard or a Snow might as well be manifestations for how Theon feels whenever he is reminded that he is a hostage and not a true Ward or Son.

    Of-course, Ramsay is a literal devil sitting on Theon’s shoulders and compelling him to do more and more wicked acts to save his pride. In appearance and mannerism he perfectly represents Theon’s in security and later when he has Theon in captivity he might be a manifestation of Theon’s guilt. For all that Theon suffers he largely thinks it is well deserved.

    I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point clear enough (even if I have rambled).

    To me it looks like Ramsay really only exists to be a foil to Theon so I am curious as to how long he will survive in Winds now that Theon has come to terms with his guilt and insecurity and found a measure of confidence in himself again. The manifestation of his insecurity has no reason to stick around anymore.

  18. […] the “blood” and the “chains” language doesn’t link back to either Theon’s or Dany’s visions so we don’t necessarily associate this prophecy with those because […]

  19. libluini says:

    “Unlike in real life, where dreams are just your brain trying to make sense of the random surges of electricity that ripple through your brain during REM sleep, fictional dreams get to be genuinely meaningful and frequently prophetic.”

    There are no “random surges of electricity” during REM, our brain is just ordering and sorting memories. Since that often creates a chaotic mess, it makes dreams kind of weird. Normally not a problem, since our brains have mechanisms to make sure we don’t remember any of that involuntary working. Sometimes though the mechanism fails, so we remember a dream. Sometimes if fails partially and you get those weird dreams you remember clearly just after waking up, but after a while it fades away and you can’t recall it because your brain erases the memory without asking you for consent. Brains are weird!

    Anyway, if you get someone obviously mentally unwell as Theon, you get messed up dreams and a stressed mind is more likely to fail to erase them. Hence, he could have had dreams 1 and 2 even in real life. Only the third dream is fully prophetic, which is revealed when Theon suddenly notices things he couldn’t possibly remember himself: This is the sign that outside forces have penetrated his dreams. The rest though? Just the natural dreams you get from self-induced trauma.

  20. […] factors, many (if not most) of them completely unforeseeable (to say nothing of unlikely) – like Theon taking or Ramsay burning Winterfell. This in turn means that it can be difficult to sort out the truly […]

  21. […] a number of approaches: Dany has a prophetic dream but has no context to put the pieces together; Theon also has a prophetic dream and context, but no clues that would help him understand how his dream […]

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