“If I die, I die friendless and abandoned. What choice did that leave him, but to live?”
Synopsis: Theon “wins” the Siege of Winterfell. And loses at life.
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.
One of George R.R Martin’s favorite tropes in ASOIAF is the meta-ironic revenge: he builds up a villain who you want to see punished for their misdeeds, and then makes their punishment so horrific that the audience recoils as GRRM advances on them wielding empathy like a cudgel. And here’s where it all starts, with a self-pitying teenage narcissist child murderer hitting rock bottom and then meeting one of the worst human beings ever committed to paper. And on a re-read, with full knowledge of what we’re going to learn in ADWD about what happened to Theon Greyjoy, the feelings of empathetic horror are intensified tenfold.
Teenage Identity Crisis
Theon VI begins in a sweaty, desperate, and sub-consciously suicidal scramble for any way out of the mess he’s got himself into that won’t involve acknowledging the huge mistake he made, despite Maester Luwin desperate attempts to get him to act like a reasonable and mature adult:
“My lord prince,” he said, “you must yield…my orders serves…the realm…and Winterfell. Theon, once I taught you sums and letters, history and warcraft. And might have taught you more, had you wished to learn. I will not claim to bear you any great love, no, but I cannot hate you either. Even if I did, so long as you hold Winterfell I am bound by oath to give you counsel. So now I counsel you to yield.”
“…You have no hope of holding here,” the maester went on. “If your lord father meant to send you aid, he would have done so by now. It is the Neck that concerns him. The battle for the north will be fought amidst the ruins of Moat Cailin.”
The instrumental obstacle to clarity and self-realization here is, as it as been since the beginning of the book, Theon’s daddy issues. Taking Winterfell was meant to be a demonstration that A. he’s really a Greyjoy and has triumphed over his Stark upbringing, and B. that he should be Balon’s favorite child and not Asha. Abandoning Winterfell would mean acknowledging that Balon was right and he really is a failure, and his ironclad belief that Balon will send help is a desperate last-ditch attempt to prove that his daddy loves him.
So when this stratagem fails, Theon looks to construct alternative identities as temporary props for the failure of his load-bearing sense of self-respect. The first attempt is “Theon, Ironborn Badass:”
“They made a pitifully small assembly; the ironmen were few, the yard large. “The northmen will be on us before nightfall,” he told them. “Ser Rodrik Cassel and all the lords who have come to his call. I will not run from them. I took this castle and I mean to hold it, to live or die as Prince of Winterfell. But I will not command any man to die with me. If you leave now, before Ser Rodrik’s main force is upon us, there’s still a chance you may win free.” He unsheathed his longsword and drew a line in the dirt. “Those who would stay and fight, step forward.”
“No one spoke. The men stood in their mail and fur and boiled leather, as still as if they were made of stone. A few exchanged looks. Urzen shuffled his feet. Dykk Harlaw hawked and spat. A finger of wind ruffled Endehar’s long fair hair.”
“Theon felt as though he were drowning. Why am I surprised? he thought bleakly. His father had forsaken him, his uncles, his sister, even that wretched creature Reek. Why should his men prove any more loyal? There was nothing to say, nothing to do. He could only stand there beneath the great grey walls and the hard white sky, sword in hand, waiting, waiting…”
“Wex was the first to cross the line. Three quick steps and he stood at Theon’s side, slouching. Shamed by the boy, Black Lorren followed, all scowls. “Who else?” he demanded. Red Rolfe came forward. Kromm. Werlag. Tymor and his brothers. Ulf the Ill. Harrag Sheepstealer. Four Harlaws and two Botleys. Kenned the Whale was the last. Seventeen in all.”
To begin with, let’s note that Theon’s bid for heroic immortality is inherently suicidal – this isn’t a plan for victory, it’s a suicide-by-cop pact masquerading as a glorious last stand. The pitch is far more successful than it has any right to be, given the military situation outside the walls, although whether that’s due to Theon’s essential charisma or the Ironborn’s devotion to their superior race/death cult mentality, I leave up to you. Unfortunately for Theon, this momentary high doesn’t last before the reality that it’s seventeen men against an entirely army comes crashing down on him.
And so Theon does what he so often does when confronted with evidence of his own failure: he creates a new alternate identity to soothe his ego:
“I will not run.”
“I do not speaking of running, take the black….Ser Rodrik has served House Stark all his life, and House Stark has always been a friend to the Watch. He will not deny you. Open your gates, lay down your arms, accept his terms, and he must let you take the black.”
A brother of the Night’s Watch. It meant no crown, no sons, no wife…but it meant life, and life with honor. Ned Stark’s own brother had chosen the Watch, and Jon Snow as well.
I have black garb aplenty, once I tear the krakens off. Even my horse is black. I could rise high in the Watch—chief of rangers, likely even Lord Commander. Let Asha keep the bloody islands, they’re as dreary as she is. If I served at Eastwatch, I could command my own ship, and there’s fine hunting beyond the Wall. As for women, what wildling woman wouldn’t want a prince in her bed? A slow smile crept across his face. A black cloak can’t be turned. I’d be as good as any man . . .
The contrast between Luwin’s message of repentance and absolution, and indeed the far grimmer reality of life in the Night’s Watch, and Theon’s fantasies of power and pleasure is stark indeed. This is not a complete identity, in the sense of a fully-rounded and realized adult identity, it’s an adolescent power fantasy. All that he’s done is (literally, given his “tear the kraken off” thought) change costume from Theon Greyjoy, Ironborn Badass to Theon Greyjoy, Nineties Antihero.
Unfortunately for the would-be prince of Winterfell, the borders of his fantasyland extend no further than the walls, because the moment he gets outside and has to talk to Ser Rodrik, the whole thing collapses into a mess of teenage emotional resentment:
“Ser Rodrik.” Theon reined to a halt. “It grieves me that we must meet as foes.”
“My own grief is that I must wait a while to hang you.” The old knight spat onto the muddy ground. “Theon Turncloak.”
“I am a Greyjoy of Pyke,” Theon reminded him. “The cloak my father swaddled me in bore a kraken, not a direwolf.”
“For ten years you have been a ward of Stark.”
As I suggested above, the Winterfell plot is inextricable from Theon’s identity crisis, and we can see here with the way that a parlay about how to resolve a siege immediately gets derailed by a fight over whether Theon is a Greyjoy or a Stark. Theon’s insistence that he is too a Greyjoy is made rather ridiculous by the fact that, for all that Theon protests, he can’t make up his own mind about which side he belongs to. Even after this conversation, we see Theon “Theon…brooding on the injustice of it all. “I rode beside Robb Stark in the Whispering Wood,” he muttered.” That sense of injustice, linked to his nostalgic memories of military service with Robb Stark, speaks to his continued (if somewhat subconscious) Stark identity.
Equally importantly to insisting that Theon is a Stark ward, Ser Rodrick provides Theon with a new identity, that of Theon Turncloak, the most despised man in the North, who has violated every custom that people hold dear. Theon Turncloak is the man who fought for Robb Stark at the Whispering Wood and then fought against him at the Stony Shore and Winterfell, despite being still in his service as envoy to Balon Greyjoy, the man who “murdered” his foster siblings and thus broke the taboos against kinslaying and the killing of children. Characteristically, Theon attempts to reject this label by pointing back to his Greyjoy identity almost like someone trying to claim the status of prisoner-of-war:
“Hostage and prisoner, I call it.”
“Then perhaps Lord Eddard should have kept you chained to a dungeon wall. Instead he raised you among his own sons, the sweet boys you have butchered, and to my undying shame I trained you in the arts of war. Would that I had thrust a sword through your belly instead of placing one in your hand…”
“…This is craven,” Ser Rodrik said. “To use a child so…this is despicable.”
“Oh, I know,” said Theon. “It’s a dish I tasted myself, or have you forgotten? I was ten when I was taken from my father’s house, to make certain he would raise no more rebellions.”
“It is not the same!”
“Theon’s face was impassive. “The noose I wore was not made of hempen rope, that’s true enough, but I felt it all the same. And it chafed, Ser Rodrik. It chafed me raw.” He had never quite realized that until now, but as the words came spilling out he saw the truth of them.
“No harm was ever done you.”
Theon gets the more cutting lines here, but I feel that Ser Rodrik is on the firmer ground here. Theon really has nothing to complain about when it comes to his treatment at Winterfell – yes, he occasionally got a few cutting remarks when he was acting like an entitled frat boy, but Jon Snow had a much colder reception and managed to refrain from rank betrayal. Theon, as Ser Rodrik points out repeatedly, was raised and educated exactly like Ned Stark’s own children, whereas he himself has treated his hostages with threatened and realized murder. His poor treatment is almost entirely a product of his own mind. And throughout this scene where Theon and Ser Rodrik are arguing about whether the Starks were actually mean to him, I think what Theon is trying to say but can’t articulate verbally is: “MY DADDY DOESN’T LOVE ME, NO ONE THINKS I’M COOL, AND I CAN’T DEAL WITH HOW BADLY I FUCKED UP.”
Another thing I find fascinating about this exchange is that, as much as he protests, Theon actually starts leaning in to the Theon Turncloak identity as high emo, believing that “If I die, I die friendless and abandoned,” and complaining that “It was one thing to go into battle surrounded by friends, and another to perish alone and despised.” Since he’s believed to be a villain, he decides to act like one by threatening Beth Cassel’s life in pure Snidely Whiplash fashion, but he doesn’t have much conviction behind it as much as he has high levels of depression:
As the sun moved, the shadow of the tower moved as well, gradually lengthening, a black arm reaching out for Theon Greyjoy. By the time the sun touched the wall, he was in its grasp. If I hang the girl, the northmen will attack at once, he thought as he loosed a shaft. If I do not hang her, they will know my threats are empty. He knocked another arrow to his bow. There is no way out, none.
…They will attack, he thought gloomily, staring at the flames. Ser Rodrik loves his daughter, but he is still castellan, and most of all a knight…
To me, this reads like Theon having hit a complete dead end in terms of having a psychologically satisfying place in the world and attempting suicide-by-cop. Unfortunately for Theon, he doesn’t get his wish.
Speaking of my suicide-by-cop theory, one of the reasons why I like it, is that I think it adds a lot to the next scene where Theon and Ser Rodrik finally get down to actually talking about the terms of surrender rather than squabble like infants:
“Say what you have to say, old man. What would you have of me?”
“Two things,” the old man said. “Winterfell, and your life. Command your men to open the gates and lay down their arms. Those who murdered no children shall be free to walk away, but you shall be held for King Robb’s justice. May the gods take pity on you when he returns.”
“Robb will never look on Winterfell again,” Theon promised. “He will break himself on Moat Cailin, as every southron army has done for ten thousand years. We hold the north now, ser.”
“You hold three castles,” replied Ser Rodrik, “and this one I mean to take back, Turncloak.”
Theon ignored that. “Here are my terms. You have until evenfall to disperse. Those who swear fealty to Balon Greyjoy as their king and to myself as Prince of Winterfell will be confirmed in their rights and properties and suffer no harm. Those who defy us will be destroyed…If this host is still in arms before my gate when the sun sets, Beth will hang,” said Theon. “Another hostage will follow her to the grave at first light, and another at sunset. Every dawn and every dusk will mean a death, until you are gone. I have no lack of hostages.”
Theon’s bluster here, his sneering villainy in threatening the lives of civilian hostages, is so over the top (and yet so ineffectual) that it really makes me think that he’s trying to provoke Ser Rodrik into storming the castle and killing him rather than taking him prisoner. I say ineffectual, because everyone at that parlay knows that Balon Greyjoy isn’t coming to rescue Theon, and that the Ironborn invasion of the North is never going to be successful. As Ser Rodrik points out, three castles is not a kingdom, and thirty men cannot hold Winterfell. There’s also a horrible irony in the fact that Theon places so much of his faith in the security of Moat Cailin, which he will be responsible for taking from the Ironborn once he’s remade as Reek.
At the same time, I do wonder to what extent Ser Rodrik might have had a better time of it had been less merciful and less honorable than he was here. After all, as we’ve talked about before, most sieges don’t end in assaults, they end with treachery or by surprise. Why not send 30 men over the walls in the middle of the night? Why not offer one of the gate guards a bag of gold and a fast horse? Because, at the end of the day, Rodrik Cassel is a good man who’s trying to win a battle without civilian casualties.
The Battle That Never Was
This is where we get to the most influential battle that never happened in the War of Five Kings. I say the most influential battle, because if this battle had actually happened, Robb Stark doesn’t have to march through the Twins back to the North, his political position is much restored among his own people because Winterfell has been retaken and his brothers are alive, and if word gets back to Catelyn soon enough it’s possible that Jaime Lannister isn’t let free. Even if the Red Wedding happens in this scenario, Roose Bolton will be fighting against a united North rallying behind another King in the North. But in order to make sure that never happens, GRRM has to pull off an audacious switcharoo, stacking the deck against Theon:
“There will be no siege. Perhaps they will spend a day or two fashioning ladders and tying grapnels to the ends of ropes. But soon enough they will come over your walls in a hundred places at once. You may be able to hold the keep for a time, but the castle will fall within the hour…”Theon climbed the watchtower at the angle where the eastern and southern walls came together to have a look at his doom. The northmen were spreading out to encircle the castle. It was hard to judge their numbers. A thousand at least; perhaps twice that many. Against seventeen. They’d brought catapults and scorpions. He saw no siege towers rumbling up the kingsroad, but there was timber enough in the wolfswood to build as many as were required.Theon studied their banners through Maester Luwin’s Myrish lens tube. The Cerwyn battle-axe flapped bravely wherever he looked, and there were Tallhart trees as well, and mermen from White Harbor. Less common were the sigils of Flint and Karstark. Here and there he even saw the bull moose of the Hornwoods. But no Glovers, Asha saw to them, no Boltons from the Dreadfort, no Umbers come down from the shadow of the Wall.
If anything, this battle is somewhat over-determined – two thousand men do not need catapults and scorpions to overwhelm seventeen. Honestly, they probably don’t even need grapnels and ladders – they could probably take the walls by building a couple of human pyramids. Most likely, going by what we’ve seen of him before, Ser Rodrik deliberately over-prepared for this battle, probably trying to over-awe the defenders and win a bloodless victory, when he might have just rushed them and won his victory before anyone had a chance to stop him.
However, I think we can also see the legacy of the Hornwood crisis all over this battle that never happened. To begin with, the fact that there are no Glovers, no Boltons, no Umbers, few Karstarks or Flints, and no mountain clansmen point to the failure to mobilize that is Ser Rodrik’s ultimate downfall, as with a full mobilization, Winterfell wouldn’t have had to be rescued in the first place. In addition, while it’s still borderline possible that Ramsay could have sucker-punched the Northern army at 2,000 men, if the full 17,000 had been mobilized at Winterfell, there’s no way in hell that 600 men could have pulled that off.
Deliverance Unto Evil
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the moment where for five seconds, everything goes right for Theon Greyjoy. To begin with, note how GRRM has Theon hearing the news while waking from a dream, similar to how he’s been woken up by bad news in Theon IV and Theon V; he’s deliberately breaking the Rule of Three in order to off-foot the reader:
“PRINCE THEON!” The sudden shout shattered his daydream. Kromm was loping across the ward. “The northmen—”
He felt a sudden sick sense of dread. “Is it the attack?”
Maester Luwin clutched his arm. “There’s still time. Raise a peace banner—”
“They’re fighting,” Kromm said urgently. “More men came up, hundreds of them, and at first they made to join the others. But now they’ve fallen on them!…these are northmen, I tell you. With a bloody man on their banner…”
“By the time they reached the battlements, dead men and dying horses were strewn about the market square outside the gates. He saw no battle lines, only a swirling chaos of banners and blades. Shouts and screams rang through the cold autumn air. Ser Rodrik seemed to have the numbers, but the Dreadfort men were better led, and had taken the others unawares. Theon watched them charge and wheel and charge again, chopping the larger force to bloody pieces every time they tried to form up between the houses. He could hear the crash of iron axeheads on oaken shields over the terrified trumpeting of a maimed horse. The inn was burning, he saw…”
While this is without a doubt one of the bigger Deus Ex Machina moments in the entire series – Ramsay appears out of nowhere with a force of men who’ve barely been hinted to exist, like a heel coming out of the crowd to smack someone over the head with a folding chair – I’ve found that I don’t mind it as much on a re-read as I did the first time. For one thing, as I said above, 600 men vs. 2,000 is within the bounds of reason if we compare it to similar ambushes like the Whispering Wood, the Battle of the Camps, or Oxcross, and if you pay attention, you’ll note that Ramsay’s six hundred men are entirely cavalry, which gives them the advantage of speed and shock against a disorganized opponent. (Although the buildings should even up the odds somewhat, which is an odd detail to note) For another, on a re-read, I noticed that Ramsay’s sudden arrival to “save” Theon’s outnumbered defenders parallels the end of the Battle of Blackwater, with Tywin and the Tyrells coming in as the literal cavalry. It’s a technique that I’ll have to pay more attention to going forward, to see if GRRM does this battle-mirroring elsewhere.
It is also a fantastic reveal for Ramsay
Snow Bolton, especially that the first words he speaks are a response to the question:
“Are you friend or foe?” Black Lorren bellowed…
“Would a foe bring such fine gifts?”
“”How many men did you lose?” Theon asked Red Helm as he dismounted.
“Twenty or thirty.” The torchlight glittered off the chipped enamel of his visor. His helm and gorget were wrought in the shape of a man’s face and shoulders, skinless and bloody, mouth open in a silent howl of anguish.
“Ser Rodrik had you five-to-one.”
“Aye, but he thought us friends. A common mistake. When the old fool gave me his hand, I took half his arm instead. Then I let him see my face.” The man put both hands to his helm and lifted it off his head, holding it in the crook of his arm.
Especially on a re-read, this couldn’t be more obvious. While he never lies, Ramsay never actually answers the question about whether he’s a friend or a foe and says straight-up to Theon’s face “he thought us friends. A common mistake. ” He’s all but carrying around a giant neon sign that says “I AM GOING TO BETRAY YOU.” Due to the fact that the Citadel has yet to isolate and electrify neon gas, Ramsay decides to make up for it by wearing some of the most cartoonishly evil armor this side of Sauron’s Spikes-of-Evil from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, not merely wearing the Bolton sigil of the flayed man but actually cosplaying as it.
Reek, Reek, it Rhymes with FUBAR
Here’s where we finally get the reveal of who Reek actually is, who has actually come to break the siege of Winterfell, and there is no explanation other than the overwhelming influence of Nemesis itself to explain why Theon doesn’t take one look at the man pictured above and realize exactly who he’s dealing with:
“Reek,” Theon said, disquieted. How did a serving man get such fine armor?
The man laughed. “The wretch is dead.” He stepped closer. “The girl’s fault. If she had not run so far, his horse would not have lamed, and we might have been able to flee. I gave him mine when I saw the riders from the ridge. I was done with her by then, and he liked to take his turn while they were still warm. I had to pull him off her and shove my clothes into his hands—calfskin boots and velvet doublet, silver-chased swordbelt, even my sable cloak. Ride for the Dreadfort, I told him, bring all the help you can. Take my horse, he’s swifter, and here, wear the ring my father gave me, so they’ll know you came from me. He’d learned better than to question me. By the time they put that arrow through his back, I’d smeared myself with the girl’s filth and dressed in his rags. They might have hanged me anyway, but it was the only chance I saw.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. “And now, my sweet prince, there was a woman promised me, if I brought two hundred men. Well, I brought three times as many, and no green boys nor fieldhands neither, but my father’s own garrison.”
“…Ramsay.” There was a smile on his plump lips, but none in those pale pale eyes. “Snow, my wife called me before she ate her fingers, but I say Bolton…”
A word on Ramsay. In part because of the way the show has, in my opinion, over-used Ramsay as a plot device, there’s a lot of debate in the fandom about Ramsay’s capability and intelligence. If we look at the way that Ramsay reveals how he faked his death, I think we get a pretty good picture of who he is – he’s someone who’s capable of pretty damn clever improvisation, but who is fundamentally an uncontrolled psychopath. Ramsay is captured in the first place because he’s incapable of overriding his appetites to the point of maintaining awareness of his surroundings. (Incidentally, while it’s a subject for another time, I do find the existence of Old Reek, and their shared fascination with sexual sadism, an interesting question of which one made the other. Probably a case of the chicken and the egg) And while he successfully carries out his disguise and tricks Reek into dying in his place, if it hadn’t been for the incredibly unlikely turn of events of Theon taking Winterfell, he probably would have died a captive at Winterfell.
However, I’m also fascinated by how Ramsay is working here thematically. His last line there perfectly sets up his core motivation of being recognized as a Bolton, but it also fascinatingly parallels Theon’s own arc. Both men are the youngest sons of disapproving fathers, motivated to impetuous action by the need for acknowledgement and respect. The difference between them is that Ramsay authentically is the kind of person Theon think he needs to be to win his father’s love, an imposing figure who commands fear and obedience from everyone around him, and I shudder to think how far Ramsay would have risen had he been raised on the Iron Islands and validated by the Old Ways. However, Ramsay is also a more realistic perspective on that kind of 90’s villain protagonist, a figure straight out of nightmare. (And while I recognize that kinkshaming is not in fashion in fanfiction circles, I really hope that people who make him the starring role in BDSM fantasies actually understand that real-world BDSM involves carefully negotiated consent…)
GRRM wastes very little time shining a spotlight on Ramsay’s villainy by showing us that, unlike Joffrey, here is a bully who is not a coward and who will respond to defiance with unrelenting violence. As I said in the introduction, this is also where GRRM punishes us for wanting Theon punished:
The Bastard’s backhand caught him square, and his cheekbone shattered with a sickening crunch beneath the lobstered steel. The world vanished in a red roar of pain.
Sometime later, Theon found himself on the ground. He rolled onto his stomach and swallowed a mouthful of blood. Close the gates! he tried to shout, but it was too late. The Dreadfort men had cut down Red Rolfe and Kenned, and more were pouring through, a river of mail and sharp swords. There was a ringing in his ears, and horror all around him. Black Lorren had his sword out, but there were already four of them pressing in on him. He saw Ulf go down with a crossbow bolt through the belly as he ran for the Great Hall. Maester Luwin was trying to reach him when a knight on a warhorse planted a spear between his shoulders, then swung back to ride over him. Another man whipped a torch round and round his head and then lofted it toward the thatched roof of the stables. “Save me the Freys,” the Bastard was shouting as the flames roared upward, “and burn the rest. Burn it, burn it all.”
As someone who recently went through two molar root canals in one year, I really don’t react well to any mouth-related trauma, and the way that GRRM describes Ramsay breaking Theon’s face with a backhand is eye-watering. And it’s all over incredibly quickly, with Theon’s would-be Ironborn heroes hacked down ingloriously within a few seconds.
Amidst the carnage, however, there are two very important political points. The first is that Ramsay says “save me the Freys.” As I argued back in Arya X, I think that the Freys and the Boltons agreed to betray Robb Stark before the news came back about the Crag, and this is an excellent point of evidence in my favor. There is no way that an uncontrolled psychopath like Ramsay would deliberately spare the life of any civilian child, much less adopt them as his squires, without being told to. And that requires Roose to have sent a message to the Dreadfort telling them to betray Rodrik’s force and prevent the retaking of Winterfell by loyalist forces, something he absolutely needed to have happened lest the North be held against him on his way home, and that message wouldn’t have included a strict instruction to preserve the lives of Walder Frey’s kin unless Frey had signed on the bottom line already.
Moreover, without the Red Wedding, Roose is exposed to accusations of high treason – there were several hundred survivors of Ramsay’s attack who could have sent a raven down to the Riverlands, and Ramsay’s force attacked while wearing Bolton livery and carrying Bolton banners. It’s a sign of how Ramsay’s uncontrollable tendencies are something of a liability; hence needlessly burning Winterfell, the one place in the North that is a safe refuge in the long winter, in the middle of autumn.
The extent to which nobles are able to fake their own deaths in ASOIAF is actually one of the most accurate parts of the series. With the absence of photography, artistic traditions of realism, and more importantly mass media, most people didn’t know what powerful people looked like (yet another reason why sigils and heraldry were so important). Thus, faking one’s death was an option open to noblemen in desperate situations.
For example, in the Battle of Hastings, William of Normandy faked his own death in order to provoke his men into a “method” feigned retreat that would lure the Saxon infantry off the high ground and out of their shield wall to where his cavalry could effectively destroy them. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s version of the Battle of Shrewsbury, King Henry IV sends several decoys dressed in royal heraldry to distract Harry “Hotspur” Percy.
In non-pseudocide cases, Alfred the Great of Wessex was reputed to be a master of disguise – once disguising himself as a peasant when the Danes had routed his army, which is supposedly when the “try try try again” story with the burnt oatcakes (which also crops up in the legends of Robert the Bruce) happened, and another time disguising himself as a minstrel to spy on the Danish:
“[Alfred] played and sang in the very tent of Guthrum, the Danish leader, and entertained the Danes as they caroused. While he seemed to think of nothing but his music, he was watchful of their tents, their arms, their discipline – everything that he desired to know.”
(England Under The Good Saxon, Alfred, by Charles Dickens)
The list goes on and on: the Swedish House of Vasa, including Kings Gustavus I, Gustavus II (known to history as Gustavus Adolphus), Gustavus VI, and Christian X, seems to have made it a tradition to go out in disguise, which makes me wonder whether the Swedes were just humoring them after a certain point.
So at this point, I’m sort of surprised that so few people in ASOIAF are in disguise.
There’s are a ton of hypotheticals here, so I’m sure I’m going to miss a few. But here’s some that came to mind:
- Ser Rodrik isn’t sucker-punched? As I said above, it was overwhelmingly likely that Ser Rodrik would win the Siege of Winterfell. This in turn would reveal that Bran and Rickon are, in fact, not dead. For several reasons, this might butterfly away the Red Wedding – not only does it remove much of the immediate reason for the Wedding’s setup, it also disrupts the Wedding’s potential effect by leaving Stark heirs alive. Possibly Roose and Walder go for capturing Robb rather than killing him in order to try to compel Bran to surrender rather than fight on.
- Theon is captured by Rodrik? This one I find more interesting based on what happens later with Balon Greyjoy’s death. It’s quite possible that, in a scenario in which Robb doesn’t need to fight his way back home, the North might use Theon as a captured King of the Iron Islands to force an Ironborn withdrawal from the North, either through negotiation or through subterfuge as in OTL. It’s even possible, albeit highly unlikely, that Asha’s plan for the Iron Islands to switch sides after Balon’s death might be possible, with the North pushing for an Ironborn attack on Lannisport or the Shield Islands to force Tywin and the Tyrells to split their forces.
- Theon goes to the Watch? This one gets really weird. Theon’s left it way too late to go on the Great Ranging, but he’d be right on time for the Battle of Castle Black. It’s possible he could die here, but it’s also possible that Theon might survive and try to run for Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, given his overweening arrogance.
- Theon dies? This one is interesting. If Theon dies at Ramsay’s hands, this means that he’s not on hand at Moat Cailin. Now Roose will eventually push through, but not without taking a lot of casualties, which would definitely weaken him in the upcoming conflict with Stannis. He’ll have a bigger problem with legitimizing “Arya” at Ramsay’s wedding, but I don’t know how consequential that will be. The bigger issue to me is that it’s quite possible that “Arya” either never escapes (which is a horrible thought) or dies escaping, which is a huge problem for the Boltons.
Book vs. Show:
And so we come to the end of Theon’s Season 2 arc, which ended on a high note. Theon’s moment of despair with Maester Luwin, his frustration with the anonymous hornblower, and his defiant speech to the Ironborn are some of Alfie Allen’s best acting. I even don’t mind the way it left the mystery of who captured Theon and who destroyed Winterfell.
However, I do think that the show wrote itself into a ditch with this particular plotline. With Theon not appearing in ASOS or AFFC, this really only left them with interpolations and his few ADWD chapters, and pretty much all of the rest of the cast nowhere near him for at least a season. But even then, I think there was more they could have done to build a psychologically interesting relationship between Theon and Ramsay that didn’t make so much of Season 4 repetitious compared to Season 3.