If there’s one thing that I hope I have done in this series, it’s to push back against the idea of essentialism – whether it’s the idea that Northmen are inherently honorable, Valemen inherently isolationist, or the Riverlanders inherently divided. Cultures, societies, polities are all too complicated for such simplistic narratives. This is doubly true for the Iron Islands, because of the way that characters in ASOIAF and certain members of the fandom assume that the “Old Way” is intrinsic, the one and eternal culture of the Ironborn.
As I will attempt to show in this essay, this is not the case. Contrary to Aeron Damphair’s belief in an Old Way that is as unchanging and eternal as the tides, I will show that the Old Way is in fact fundamentally unstable, and as it fails to cope with the pressures placed on it by events, it constantly changes while insisting that it’s not. In comparison, the New Way has been surprisingly stable due to its superior ability to deal with the material realities of the Iron Islands in a complex world of many powers. The irony is that the Old Way constantly attacks the New Way for supposedly weakening the Iron Islands, and thereby brings about the weakness that it decries, leaving the New Way to clean up the mess.
“Archmaester Haereg has argued that it was a need for wood that first set the ironborn on this bloody path. In the dawn of days, there were extensive forests on Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont, but the shipwrights of the isles had such a voracious need for timber that one by one the woods vanished. So the ironborn had no choice but to turn to the vast forests of the green lands, the mainland of Westeros. All that the islands lacked the reavers found in the green lands. Little and less was taken in trade; much and more was bought in blood, with the point of a sword or the edge of an axe…” (WOIAF)
Another one of my running themes in this series is the idea that geography is not destiny. This is especially true, given the way that the Iron Islands’ geography has been used to justify their reaving, as we see from the quote above. But while it’s true that the insular nature of their homeland does mean that the Ironborn would be by necessity a maritime people, it would be a mistake to draw a straight line from this to piracy. After all, the Iron Islands are not devoid of resources:
“Some say that the Iron Islands are named for the ore that is found there in such abundance…tower keeps of lesser lords stand on some of the smaller islets, beside miniscule fishing villages. Others are used for the grazing of sheep…Such riches as the Iron Islands possess lie under the hills of Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont, where lead, tin, and iron can be found in abundance. These ores are the chief export of the islands. There are many fine metalworkers amongst the ironborn, as might be expected; the forges of Lordsport produce swords, axes, ringmail, and plate second to none.
The soil of the Iron Islands is thin and stony, more suitable for the grazing of goats than the raising of crops. The ironborn would surely suffer famine every winter but for the endless bounty of the sea and the fisherfolk who reap it. The waters of Ironman’s Bay are home to great schools of cod, black cod, monkfish, skate, icefish, sardines, and mackerel. Crabs and lobsters are found along the shores of all the islands, and west of Great Wyk swordfish, seals, and whales roam the Sunset Sea.”(WOIAF)
A lack of access to cereal crops is a major setback, but the extensive mineral supplies, skilled metalworking, abundant seafood, and whaling industries more than compensate. Indeed, the Iron Islands’ resources sound a lot like that other island nation founded on “a drear and uninviting place of mudflats, tidal shallows, and salt marshes…brackish waters were rich with fish and shellfish of all sorts, the sheltering islands were thickly forested, and iron, tin, lead, slate, and other useful materials.” (WOIAF) If the Braavosi were able to take the same resources as the Ironborn, take or leave a particular species of sea snail, and use them to build the richest economy in the world by focusing on skilled manufacturing, seaborne commerce, and finance, we cannot say that the Old Way was the only way. Indeed, as we will see throughout this essay, there is more than one way to turn iron into gold.
Side-Note on Chronology
Before we jump into the historical development of the Iron Islands as a polity, I first have to say something about the timeline of the Iron Islands. As readers of this series will remember from last time, I have some issues with the Iron Islands chapter of the World of Ice and Fire. As Elio Garcia has noted, “GRRM wrote the ironborn section mostly without cross-checking with everything else, and we only realized it when it was very late in the process.”
The main problem comes in with the identification of certain Ironborn rulers as having been driftwood kings elected by the kingsmoot when they can’t have been. The first is Harrag Hoare, who as I pointed out in Part IV “is described as having been elected by the kingsmoot, but we are also told that Harrag warred with Theon “the Hungry Wolf,” who was a contemporary of the Andal invasion, and when the Andal Invasion took place, the Greyirons had abolished the kingsmoot and ruled for a thousand years.” The second is Qhored “the Cruel” Hoare, who as I pointed out in Part IV, “is indisputably described as a “driftwood” king who led the Ironborn to the zenith of their power before the coming of the Andals, which is plainly impossible since…the death of Bernarr II and his children could not have happened less than 500 years after the Andal invasion of the Riverlands.”
Now Elio posted a suggested fix. I don’t think this fix is enough, for a number of reasons. First, the way that the Iron Islands section is written makes it pretty clear that Qhored Hoare ruled 100-200 years before Urragon III Greyiron, who was the father of Torgon Latecomer, who was the grandfather of Urron Redhand, who started the thousand-year reign of the Greyirons. This, plus the fact that Qhored is exclusively described (both in the Iron Islands and Reach chapters) as having ruled relatively early in the Age of Heroes, when the mainland was occupied solely by the First Men, means that he cannot have been king eight hundred years after the initial Andal Invasion. Second, given that WOIAF places the gap between the Andal’s arrival on the continent and their conquest of the Iron Islands at only “a thousand years,” the exact time that the Greyirons ruled, Qhored cannot possibly have been a driftwood king or a Hoare, nor could Balon V Greyjoy or Erich V Harlaw or Harron Harlaw or Joron I Blacktyde have come after him.
So here are my suggestions for how to clean up the Ironborn timeline. The first fix is the simplest: there are in fact, two Qhoreds who ruled as Kings of the Iron Islands. The first Qhored was a High King of the Iron Islands during the early-to-mid Age of Heroes, and is the king who “famously boasted that his writ ran “wherever men could smell salt water or hear the crash of waves,” and the second Qhored was an early Hoare Iron King, who ruled eight hundred years after the Andal Invasion, who murdered the sons of Bernarr II.
The second fix is to make the periodization more consistent: first came the pre-Andal driftwood kings who ruled from the time of Urras Greyiron to the reign of Urron Redhand around six thousand years ago (i.e, 10,000 BC to ~6,000 BC), more or less simultaneous to the Andal Invasion. (Making Balon Greyjoy wrong by a mere thousand years.) This is the only period in which there were Greyjoy or Harlaw or Blacktyde kings. Second came the Greyiron dynasty which ruled from ~6,000 BC to ~5,000 BC, when they were replaced by the Hoares who ruled from 5,000 BC to 0 AC – among the first of whom was Qhored Hoare, who ended the line of Justmans. The slight complication, that my earlier estimate placed the death of Bernarr II at 5200 BC is solved rather easily; WOIAF says that “centuries would pass” between the fall of House Mudd (which we know happened 180 years or so after the Andal conquest of the Vale, or ~5700 BC) and the rise of House Justman. If we simply extend that plural beyond the minimum of two hundred years, the Justmans could have started their reign in 5,300 BC or later, and then ended around or somewhat after 5,000 BC.
The third change is to firm up a few intersections between the Ironborn timeline and the other timelines: first, Harrag Hoare, Ravos Hoare, Erich Hoare, Balon V, and Loron Greyjoy must have ruled around 6,000 BC shortly before the reign of Urragon III, which began the reign of the Iron Kings, in order for Harrag and Ravos to have been contemporaries of Theon Stark. This does allow them to be driftwood kings, although the timeline gets really squeezed around Urragon III’s reign. Alternatively, the Greyiron’s thousand-year reign could be shrunk and slid somewhat later.
This still leaves the problem of why Bernarr II died at Qhored Hoare’s hands, but I’ll explain how to fix this later.
Historical Development of the Iron Islands:
“Were the First Men truly first?”
“Most scholars believe they were. Before their coming, it is thought, Westeros belonged to the giants, the children of the forest, and the beasts of the field. But on the Iron Islands, the priests of the Drowned God tell a different tale.” (WOIAF)
Before we can get into the main thesis of this essay, we have to talk about where the Ironborn came from, because there are several contending theories. The “more widely accepted view” of scholars and Ironborn alike is that the Ironborn are “of an ancient descent from the First Men—even though the First Men, unlike the later Andals, were never a seafaring people.” (Ibid) The fact that the First Men were not good sailors isn’t actually as much as a hindrance as one might think: after all, the First Men managed to settle the islands off the eastern coast of Westeros from Skagos down to Estermont, and the nearest of the Iron Islands are only a hundred miles off the mainland. And even with relatively crude vessels like the crude coracles preferred by the wildlings today, one can still manage quite long-distance voyages, as Tim Severin proved in 1977 when he duplicated the 4,500 mile voyage of Saint Brendan from Ireland to the Americas.
The second possibility is that, as “Archmaester Haereg once advanced the interesting notion that the ancestors of the ironborn came from some unknown land west of the Sunset Sea.” The idea that the Ironborn are descendants of immigrants from Americos does have some support for it. In addition to Haereg, “Maester Kirth in his collection of ironborn legends, Songs the Drowned Men Sing, has suggested that the [Seastone Chair] was left by visitors from across the Sunset Sea.” (WOIAF) Likewise, Gylbert Farwynd’s claim that “a wondrous land beyond the Sunset Sea, a land without winter or want, where death had no dominion” exists could be a folk memory of the original ancestral home of the Ironborn, preserved in a somewhat distorted form in legend.
The third, and far more entertaining, theory is the one that the priests of the Drowned God prefer, a somewhat watery (if not to say fishy!) autochthonic origin story:
“According to their faith, the ironborn are a race apart from the common run of mankind. “We did not come to these holy islands from godless lands across the seas,” the priest Sauron Salt-Tongue once said. “We came from beneath those seas, from the watery halls of the Drowned God who made us in his likeness and gave to us dominion over all the waters of the earth.” (WOIAF)
This account, which as maesters note would make the “ironmen…closer kin to fish and merlings than the other races of mankind,” nevertheless has support from several recurring themes and concepts in the series. The first is the “oily black stone” that the Seastone Chair, which supposedly predates the first of the Ironborn, is made of – this same stone shows up on the Isle of Toads, whose inhabitants have “an unpleasant fishlike aspect to their faces, and many have webbed hands and feet” and on the nearby Isle of Tears and Ax Islands; in Sothoryos, the “ancient city of Yeen…A ruin older than time,” is “built of oily black stone, in massive blocks so heavy that it would require a dozen elephants to move them;” and Asshai itself is made of “stone [that] has a greasy, unpleasant feel to it.” According to Maester Theron, this stone is the “work of a queer, misshapen race of half men sired by creatures of the salt seas upon human women. These Deep Ones, as he names them, are the seed from which our legends of merlings have grown, he argues, whilst their terrible fathers are the truth behind the Drowned God of the ironborn.” (WOIAF)
The second parallel is to the squishers of Cracklaw Point. Similar to the Deep Ones and the inhabitants of the Isle of Toads, the squishers “look like men till you get close, but their heads is too big, and they got scales where a proper man’s got hair. Fish-belly white they are, with webs between their fingers. They’re always damp and fishy-smelling.” And similar to the Deep Ones, the squishers mate with humans: “they come by night and steal bad little children, padding along on them webbed feet with a little squish-squish sound. The girls they keep to breed with.” (AFFC) Nimble Dick’s tales that “some say the First Men killed them all, but don’t you believe it,” might help to explain how the Deep Ones died out – perhaps, like the Children of the Forest, the Deep Ones were not numerous enough to hold back the invasion of the First Men, and were pushed back under the waves from whence they sought to return through a slow assimilation with humanity on those island fortresses where their presence had always been strongest.
And if this sounds farfetched to you, consider also the third parallel, with the men of House Codd. These Ironborn, uniformly despised by their peers as incestuous cowards, have a common appearance as “pop-eyed and wide of mouth, with dead white flesh.” (ADWD) Given the similarity to the description of the squishers, the Codds may be hated by the Ironborn not solely because of their low birth and bad reputation, but because of the way that the uncanny valley sets in when we move fromsomething non-human with human features (which we like) to something human-ish but with non-human features (which triggers instinctive fear and loathing). They may even be distant kin to the Borrells of Sweetsister, with their “webbing between the three middle fingers of his right hand…”
The First Collapses of the Old Way
One of the useful things about history is that once you get into the archives and start looking at the actual records, you can use what you’ve found to scrape away the layers of mythology that have been layered on top to obscure the truth. In this case, the myth in question is that there is one eternal and unchanging Old Way, handed down by the Drowned God, which has guided the Ironborn from the beginning. Rather, as we can see from an examination of the pre-Andal period, the Old Way was always contingent, evolving, and unstable in the face of any kind of pressure.
As we’ve discussed above, reaving was always an economic choice made by the Ironborn, who could have exchanged the iron they had for the timber and food they needed. What the WOIAF gives us is a broader political and economic context for why that choice was made and what the long-term implications were for the Iron Islands’ polity going forward:
“Archmaester Haereg has argued that it was a need for wood that first set the ironborn on this bloody path… when the reavers returned to the islands with such plunder, they would say that they had “paid the iron price” for it; those who stayed behind “paid the gold price” to acquire these treasures, or went without. And thusly, Haereg tells us, were the reavers and their deeds exalted above all by singers, smallfolk, and priests alike.”
“Many legends have come down to us through the millennia of the salt kings and reavers…Most infamous of all was Balon Blackskin, who fought with an axe in his left hand and a hammer in his right. No weapon made of man could harm him, it was said; swords glanced off and left no mark, and axes shattered against his skin.”
“The lands the reavers plundered were densely wooded but thinly peopled in those days…The feeble fishing boats and trading cogs of the First Men, which seldom ventured out of sight of land, were no match for the swift longships of the ironmen with their great sails and banks of oars. And when battle was joined upon the shores, mighty kings and famous warriors fell before the reavers like wheat before a scythe, in such numbers that the men of the green lands told each other that the ironborn were demons risen from some watery hell, protected by fell sorceries and possessed of foul black weapons that drank the very souls of those they slew.” (WOIAF)
Reaving seems to have emerged as an opportunistic behavior enabled by a technological advantage – the people of the islands had figured out how to work iron (perhaps just because it was the main material to hand, or perhaps as a technology learned from their fishy masters…) thousands of years before the Andals brought their Rhoynish knowledge to Westeros. In the legends of Balon Blackskin and the demonic “wolves of the seas,” we can see the legacy of a conflict in which one side had armor that was impervious to bronze weapons and iron weapons that could cut through bronze armor with ease.
This process seems to have been at first illicit – hence the use of the euphemism of “paying the iron price” – but gained in legitimacy because it introduced a marked inequality between those who engaged in reaving and those who didn’t. As non-reavers either experienced a substantial relative decline in their material standard of living or paid inflated prices for mainland goods, we can see the origin of the caste system of reavers and thralls forming. And as the dominant force in society, with a monopoly on economic resources, the reavers found the rest of society eager to legitimize “their deeds exalted above all by singers, smallfolk, and priests alike.”
In this fashion, the social groups that created the Old Way began to gain political dominance, despite making up less than a third of the population. Which brings us to the coalescing of the Iron Islands into a polity, where we can see the first signs of the Old Way’s instability:
“In the Age of Heroes, the legends say, the ironborn were ruled by a mighty monarch known simply as the Grey King. The Grey King ruled the sea itself and took a mermaid to wife, so his sons and daughters might live above the waves or beneath them as they chose. His hair and beard and eyes were as grey as a winter sea, and from these he took his name. The crown he wore was made of driftwood, so all who knelt before him might know that his kingship came from the sea and the Drowned God who dwells beneath it.”
“The deeds attributed to the Grey King by the priests and singers of the Iron Islands are many and marvelous…he ruled the Iron Islands for a thousand years, until his very skin had turned as grey as his hair and beard. Only then did he cast aside his driftwood crown and walk into the sea, descending to the Drowned God’s watery halls to take his rightful place at his right hand.”
“The Grey King was king over all the Iron Islands, but he left a hundred sons behind him, and upon his death they began to quarrel over who would succeed him. Brother killed brother in an orgy of kinslaying until only sixteen remained. These last survivors divided up the islands between them. All the great houses of the ironborn claim descent from the Grey King and his sons save, curiously, the Goodbrothers of Old Wyk and Great Wyk, who supposedly derive from the Grey King’s leal eldest brother.”(WOIAF)
As we have seen in the case of Brandon the Builder in the North and Artys Arryn in the Vale, a legendary founder can be invaluable in the formation of a polity, either by singling out a particular family as having a legitimate right to rule, or by creating a formula for how to step into the shoes of that legend and take on their mantle. It certainly didn’t hurt that the legend of the Grey King links secular and sacred power, placing the authority of the Drowned God behind the monarchy and vice versa. However, we can see in this legend that the authority of the Drowned King broke down immediately with a failed succession that led to a civil war, because when you build your society around the moral superiority of armed robbers, they tend to treat legitimate political authority as something else they can nick from people at swordpoint.
The historical research of the Citadel actually puts a finer point on this by shifting our focus from likely-fictional Aquaman Expys and pointing our attention to the impact of the Old Way on political institutions:
“The oldest surviving records at the Citadel reveal that each of the Iron Islands was once a separate kingdom, ruled by not one but two kings, a rock king and a salt king. The former ruled the island itself, dispensing justice, making laws, and settling disputes. The latter commanded at sea, whenever and wherever the island’s longships sailed.”
“Surviving records suggest that the rock kings were almost always older than the salt kings; in some cases the two were father and son, which has led some to argue that the salt kings were no more than heirs, crown princes to their fathers. Yet there are other instances known to us where the rock king and salt king were of different houses, sometimes even rival houses known to be inimical to one another.”(WOIAF)
This system of diarchy, reminiscent of the Roman Republic, the classical Spartans, actual historical traditions of Swedish monarchs, and the widespread practice of having spiritual and temporal kings (for more on this, read the work of James Frazer or Robert Graves), seems to have come from an earlier period where the people who worked the land and the people who worked the sea were of equal status in Ironborn society. The problem is that this system, where a rock king “ruled the island itself, dispensing justice, making laws, and settling disputes,” could not endure in a society in which reavers were acquiring all the economic and social power, and so the tensions between father and son and rival houses exploded into civil war.
And I would argue that it is in the wake of this civil war that the Old Way truly came into being, as a creation of the priesthood of the Drowned God. At the center of the Old Way was a political settlement between the priestly class and the reavers in which the former bestowed legitimacy on the latter (to the disfavor of the land-dwellers) in return for giving the priestly class the authority to define what is and is not legitimate in Ironborn society (something that would later lead to a good deal of instability):
“Elsewhere in Westeros, petty kings claimed crowns of gold by virtue of their birth and blood, but the driftwood crowns of the ironborn were not so easily won. Here alone in all of Westeros men made their own kings, assembling in great councils called kingsmoots to choose the rock kings and salt kings who would rule over them. Whenever a king died, the priests of the Drowned God would call a kingsmoot to choose his successor. Every man who owned and captained a boat was allowed a voice at these unruly gatherings, which oft went on for days, and in a few instances far longer. The ironborn also tell of occasions when the priests called “the captains and the kings” together to remove an unworthy ruler.”
“The power wielded by these prophets of the Drowned God over the ironborn should not be underestimated. Only they could summon kingsmoots, and woe to the man, be he lord or king, who dared defy them. The greatest of the priests was the towering prophet Galon Whitestaff, so-called for the tall carved staff he carried everywhere to smite the ungodly. (In some tales his staff was made of weirwood, in others from one of Nagga’s bones.)”
“It was Galon who decreed that ironborn must not make war on other ironborn, who forbade them to carry off each other’s women or raid each other’s shores, and who forged the Iron Islands into a single kingdom, summoning the captains and the kings to Old Wyk to choose a high king to reign supreme over salt kings and rock kings alike. They chose Urras Greyiron, called Ironfoot, the salt king of Orkmont and most fearsome reaver of that age. Galon himself placed a driftwood crown upon the high king’s head, and Urras Ironfoot became the first man since the Grey King to rule over all the ironborn.” (WOIAF)
While the creation of the kingsmoot seems like a benign, democratic reform that, in the eyes of some, offsets the practices of reaving and thralldom, I think if we look below the surface, we see something more troubling at work. This new “Old Way” has unacknowledged elements of a theocracy – while on the Iron Islands “men made their own kings,” it was men like Galon Whitestaff who had the power to “call a kingsmoot” to name a new king or to replace an old one, and who had the authority to make legislation, making them kings in all but name.
We see this phenomenon happening almost immediately with Galon Whitestaff deposing Erich I, in a move that greatly enhanced the authority of the priesthood and the kingsmoot. And it’s Galon, and not Urras Ironfoot, who used his authority to create the Iron Islands as a polity, both through the centralizing measure of the kingsmoot, but also in his decrees that “ironborn must not make war on other ironborn, who forbade them to carry off each other’s women or raid each other’s shores,” which ensured that the violent impulses of the reaving caste would be focused outside the home islands – preventing future civil wars – and allowed for cooperation in the drive for loot and plunder.
At the same time, I think we have to see the creation of the office of High King of the Iron Islands as a major part of the decline in the status of the land-dwellers: whereas in the past, the land-dwellers at least had authority over their own day-to-day lives, now the High King would “reign supreme over salt kings and rock kings alike.” And while the rock kings did get to vote in the kingsmoot, their handful of voices would be canceled out by the salt kings and then decisively out-voted by the captains, who would elect a High King favorable to their own interests. Thus, by the time that we even get to the first High King of the Iron Islands, we have already seen the Old Way break down twice – first with the civil war after the Grey King’s passing and second with the invention of the High Kingship.
The Rise and Fall of the Ironborn Golden Age
“The centuries that followed were a golden age for the Iron Islands, and a dark age for such First Men as lived beside the sea. Once the reavers had gone forth seeking food to sustain them during hard winters, wood to build their longships, salt wives to give them sons, and the riches the Iron Islands lacked, but they had always returned home with their plunder. Under the driftwood kings the practice gave way to something far more difficult and dangerous: conquest, colonization, and rule.” (WOIAF)
This golden age plays an integral role in the politics of the Old Way to the present day, because it is used as part of a declension narrative key to revanchist politics: once, the Iron Islands was great because we followed the Old Way, now we are weak because of the New Way; if we return to the Old Way, we will be great again. However, if we look closer at the history of this period, we see a fundamental instability and fragility to the Ironborn imperium, that I would argue is due to the fact that, as I’ve argued in Part IV, the Old Way is fundamentally unsuited as an ideology of “colonization and rule.”
Let’s start by examining this empire at its height, to see where the fault lines were. As WOIAF states unambiguously:
“the driftwood kings reached the zenith of their power under Qhored I Hoare (given as Greyiron in some accounts, and as Blacktyde in others), who wrote his name in blood in the histories of Westeros as Qhored the Cruel. King Qhored ruled over the ironborn for three-quarters of a century, living to the ripe old age of ninety. By his day, the First Men of the green lands had largely abandoned the shores of the Sunset Sea for fear of the reavers. And those who remained, chiefly lords in stout castles, paid tribute to the ironborn.
It was Qhored who famously boasted that his writ ran “wherever men could smell salt water or hear the crash of waves.” In his youth, he captured and sacked Oldtown, bringing thousands of women and girls back to the Iron Islands in chains…” (WOIAF)
As we can see below, Qhored ruled an empire that stretched from Bear Island in the North to the Arbor in the south and “controlled the Sunset Sea.” And yet even at the height of their power, the “ironmen seldom ventured far inland,” so that the total landmass of their empire was relatively modest by comparison to the mainlander kingdoms they warred with. It’s also an indication of what I will describe later as the “hollow strength” of the Ironborn – that even at the height of their strength, the Ironborn lacked the population to conquer and hold the vast interior of Westeros.
(credit to HotbrownDoubleDouble)
An even more influential factor has to do with how the subjects of Qhored’s empire felt about their overlords. As I mentioned in Part II of this series, one of the major shortcomings of the Ironborn empire is that the people who lived under it developed no loyalty to their new masters, in strong contrast to the process of consolidation and identity formation we see in the history of the Starks and the Arryns:
“The mightiest of the Northern clans are the Wulls, the fisherfolk who dwell along the shores of the Bay of Ice. Their hatred of the wildlings is matched only by their hatred of the men of the Iron Islands, who have often raided along the shore of the bay, burning their halls, carrying off their crops, and taking their wives and daughters as thralls and salt wives. Large tracts of the Stony Shore, Bear Island, Sea Dragon Point, and Cape Kraken have all been held by ironmen at times. Indeed, Cape Kraken, closest to the Iron Islands, has changed hands so many times that many maesters believe its populace to be closer in blood to the ironmen than to Northmen…”
“the Lannister coastline lay closer to the Iron Islands than did any other kingdom, and the wealth of Lannisport and its trade was a constant temptation to the reavers of those benighted isles. Wars between the westermen and the ironborn erupted every generation or so; even during periods of peace, the ironmen came raiding after wealth and salt wives. Fair Isle did help shield the coast farther south; for this reason the Farmans have become famous for their hatred of the ironborn…” (WOIAF)
Despite the fact that these coastal regions were held and colonized by the Ironborn to the point where they are majority-ironmen in ethnicity, no Ironborn identity ever took hold in these regions, suggesting that not only did Qhored and those who came before him fail to win the hearts and minds of the native peoples, but also that the Ironborn who settled on the mainland abandoned their identity (as we saw with the Hoare kings of the Riverlands in Part IV). In an inversion of the failure of both the Old Gods and the New to take root on the Iron Islands, here we see the Old Way failing on the mainland. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise: the Old Way exalts the sea-faring raider, denigrates the farmer as slave-like, and views mainlanders as a lesser class of human, which is hardly likely to attract any converts from the native population and creates massive cognitive dissonance for any Ironborn who gets their hands on some fertile mainland soil.
As a result of this ideological blockage, the expansion of the Ironborn empire did not bring with it any increase in manpower. And so it was only a matter of time until the kingdoms of the green lands developed to the point where they could begin the work of dismantling the Ironborn empire:
“…after Qhored, a slow decline began. The kings who followed Qhored played a part in that, yet the men of the green lands were likewise growing stronger. The First Men were building longships of their own, their towns defended by stone walls in place of wooden palisades and spiked ditches.”
“The Gardeners and the Hightowers were the first to cease paying tribute…The growing strength of the westerlands posed an even more acute threat to the dominion of the driftwood kings….”
“In the century that followed, a succession of weaker kings lost the Arbor, Bear Island, Flint’s Finger, and most of the ironborn enclaves along the Sunset Sea, until only a handful remained. It must not be thought that the ironborn won no victories during these years…Yet all these triumphs proved short-lived, along with many of the kings who won them. As the centuries passed, the kingdoms of the green lands grew stronger and the Iron Islands weaker…”(WOIAF)
There remain major questions about when this happened. For example, the Reach chapter says that “the kings of House Gardener contended for three centuries” to push the Ironborn out of the Reach, culminating with Garth Goldenhand’s re-conquest of the Shield Isles, and that Garth Goldenhand ruled the Reach at least four generations before the Andals arrived in the Reach. However, the Ironborn chapter tells us that Garth Goldenhand reigned at least two hundred years after Urron Redhand, who in turn ruled at least 400 years after Qhored (but likely more than that, considering that Torgon Latecomer was elected “late in the Age of Heroes,” many centuries after the loss of the Arbor, which in turn was over a hundred years after Qhored’s passing). Likewise, the Westerlands chapter places Gerold the Great (who raided the Iron Islands and took his famous hundred hostages) as at least the eleventh Lannister King after the Andal migration into the Westerlands, who “came late to the westerlands, long after they had taken the Vale and toppled the kingdoms of the First Men in the riverlands,” whereas the Ironborn chapter places him only a hundred years or so after Qhored, and at least 300 years (and likely more) before the thousand-year reign of the Greyirons.
In turn, this raises serious questions about why the Ironborn empire collapsed. The first possibility is that the Ironborn empire’s failure was largely due to the political development of the mainland from the era of the Hundred Kingdoms into consolidated polities: with larger states comes larger populations to recruit soldiers from, a larger fiscal base to outfit and pay those armies, and a central political authority that can mobilize and coordinate these resources. Thus, the Starks’ unification of the North allowed them to push the Ironborn out of Bear Island, the Stony Shore, and Cape Kraken; the Gardeners of a united Reach were able to take back the Arbor and the Shield Isles; and the Lannisters of the Westerlands not only able to recapture Kayce, Fair Isle but also raid the Iron Islands themselves. With the sleeping giants of the mainland mobilized at the same time up and down the Sunset Sea, the Ironborn’s limited military manpower could no longer (even with the longships giving them superior mobility and surprise) establish local superiority and hold back the tide.
The second possibility is that the Ironborn empire’s collapse ultimately was the result of Andal technology transfer. From the Iron Islands chapter of WOIAF, we learn that:
“…unlike the First Men who had gone before, the Andals were fearless seamen, with longships of their own as swift and seaworthy as any that the ironborn could build. As the Andals flooded into the riverlands, the westerlands, and the Reach, new villages sprang up along the coasts, walled towns and stout stone-and-timber castles rose over every cove and harbor, and great lords and petty kings alike began to build warships to defend their shores and shipping.” (WOIAF)
Likewise, from the Reach chapter of WOIAF, we learn that this acquisition of naval technology, fortifications technology, and ironworking technology was not merely the result of ethnic succession but also a matter of state policy by the growing states of the mainland:
“The Three Sage Kings also found lands and lordships for the more powerful of the Andal kings descending on the Reach, in return for pledges of fealty. The Gardeners sought after Andal craftsmen as well and encouraged their lords bannermen to do the same. Blacksmiths and stonemasons in particular were handsomely rewarded. The former taught the First Men to arm and armor themselves in iron in place of bronze; the latter helped them strengthen the defenses of their castles and holdfasts.” (WOIAF)
This explanation is attractive, because it neatly mirrors the explanation for the rise of the Ironborn empire: a monopoly on iron arms and armor and effective ship designs allowed the Ironborn to punch above their weight against the First Men on the mainland; the Andal invasion allowed those mainland kingdoms who could successfully navigate their way through the chaos the opportunity to erase this technological inequality and harness their superior human and physical capital. Whatever the creed of the Old Way might say about the superiority of Ironborn to Greenlanders, fifteen thousand men cannot rule a continent of forty million men.
Whether you think the first or second explanation is correct, I would like to add a third, complementary theory: the Old Way led the Ironborn to create an empire so predatory and dehumanizing that it provoked its subjects into rebellion. We know that the “Gardeners and the Hightowers were the first to cease paying tribute,” but that’s hardly a surprise when the “the ironborn even raided up the Mander with impunity” despite having been paid tribute not to. As I said of the Riverlands, when submission does not buy you peace, rebellion is the only answer. Likewise, when we look at the Westerlands, that realm most exposed to the Ironborn’s depredations, we see popular resentment leading to rebellion: “Fair Isle was the first to fall, when its smallfolk rose up under Gylbert Farman to expel their ironborn overlords. A generation later, the Lannisters captured the town of Kayce when Herrock the Whoreson blew his great gold-banded horn and the town whores opened a postern gate to his men.” Given that Herrock the Whoreson was an bastard of House Kenning of Harlaw, in the fall of Kayce we see the same phenomena as in the North of Ironborn blood failing to lead to Ironborn sympathies – why be loyal to your father’s people among whom you can never rise above the status of a despised half-caste, when instead you can revolt against them and make yourself a lord?
The Old Way Cracks Under Pressure
The strength of an ideology is not found by examining when things are going well for its adherents, when the world acts in ways that fit with its mental framework, and where the solutions that ideology proposes prove to be effective. Rather, the strength of an ideology is in its ability to adapt and endure moments of crisis. So how did the Old Way hold up, when their beliefs in the superiority of the Ironborn to the greenlander, the reaver to the tiller of the soil, were thrown into question by defeat after defeat at the hands of the Starks, the Lannisters, the Gardeners, and the Hightowers?
It snapped like a reed, as the thin veneer of religiously-infused unity peeled away and the Ironborn began to fight over the scraps of their empire like wolves fighting over a bone:
“…late in the Age of Heroes, another crisis weakened and divided the ironborn further still. Upon the death of King Urragon III Greyiron (Urragon the Bald), his younger sons hurriedly convened a kingsmoot whilst their elder brother Torgon was raiding up the Mander, thinking that one of them would be chosen to wear the driftwood crown. To their dismay, the captains and kings chose Urrathon Goodbrother of Great Wyk instead. The first thing the new king did was command that the sons of the old king be put to death. For that, and for the savage cruelty he oft displayed during his two years as king, Urrathon IV Goodbrother is remembered in history as Badbrother.” (WOIAF)
More than any other form of government, election-based systems of transferring power require good faith and trust in the process to maintain legitimacy. Here we see these political norms fraying under tension, with Urrogan III’s younger sons calling a snap election to cheat their oldest brother of a chance to declare his candidacy. But even more threatening is the election of a High King who summarily dispenses with the decrees of Galon Whitestaff against internal violence – because once that taboo is violated, you get a race to the bottom where embracing political violence against your enemies is absolutely necessary because if you don’t do it to them first, they’ll do it to you. And so even when the Old Way tried to re-assert control and restore the status quo, it failed:
“When Torgon Greyiron returned at last to the Iron Islands, he declared the kingsmoot to be invalid because he had not been present to make a claim. The priests supported him in this, for they had grown weary of Badbrother’s arrogance and impiety. Smallfolk and great lords alike arose at their call, rallying to Torgon’s banners, until Urrathon’s own captains hacked Urrathon into pieces. Torgon the Latecomer became king in his stead, and ruled for forty years without ever having been chosen and proclaimed at a kingsmoot. He proved to be a strong king, just and wise and fair-minded … but he could do little to arrest the declining fortunes of the Iron Islands, for it was during Torgon’s reign that most of the Cape of Eagles was lost to the Mallisters of Seagard.”
“Torgon had struck one blow against the institution of the kingsmoot in his youth, by throwing over its chosen king. In his old age he struck another, calling upon his own son Urragon to help him rule. At court and council, in war and peace, the son remained at his father’s side for the best part of five years, so when Torgon finally died it seemed only natural for his chosen heir to succeed him as Urragon IV Greyiron. No kingsmoot was summoned, and this time no Galon Whitestaff arose in wroth to protest the succession.” (WOIAF)
In the case of Torgon Latecomer, we can see how precedent acted as a one-way ratchet against the Old Way, preventing any return to “normalcy.” For despite the priesthood’s alliance with Torgon to oust Urrathon Badbrother, Torgon was in the driving seat and could rewrite laws and taboos: invalidating a kingsmoot by decree, installing himself as king without a kingsmoot, and continuing Badbrother’s policies of executing his political opponents would have been bad enough on their own. (A further warning sign is that despite Torgon’s supposedly able rule, Torgon couldn’t halt the decline of the Ironborn empire, proof positive that the Old Way had no answers.) Perhaps the priests of the Drowned God thought of Torgon in the same way that the conservative elites of Rome saw the dictator Sulla – a one-time necessary evil that would suppress the unruly plebeians with violence and terror and then pass away, allowing the old order to continue on like nothing had ever happened.
If that was the case, the priests of the Drowned God were just as mistaken as the patrician elite of the Roman Republic. Because once it had been demonstrated that violence could overthrow a kingsmoot, and that a strong enough monarch could overrule the priesthood, there was no way to unlearn those lessons. And so the alliance of the warrior caste and the priesthood of the Drowned God came apart in a bloody melee:
“The final, fatal blow against the power of the captains and the kings assembled was dealt when Urragon IV himself died, after a long but undistinguished reign. It had been the dying king’s wish that the high kingship pass to his great-nephew Urron Greyiron, salt king of Orkmont, known as Urron Redhand. The priests of the Drowned God were determined not to allow the power of kingmaking to be taken from them for a third time, so word went forth that the captains and kings should assemble on Old Wyk for a kingsmoot.”
“Hundreds came, amongst them the salt kings and rock kings of the seven major isles, and even the Lonely Light. Yet scarcely had they gathered when Urron Redhand loosed his axemen on them, and Nagga’s ribs ran red with blood. Thirteen kings died that day, and half a hundred priests and prophets. It was the end of the kingsmoots, and the Redhand ruled as high king for twenty-two years thereafter, and his descendants after him. The wandering holy men never again made and unmade kings as they once had.” (WOIAF)
In this way, the Old Way died, a victim of its own internal contradictions. For thousands of years, the Old Way had revolved around validating the armed aggression and open theft of a warrior elite, directing their violent impulses outwards and creating internal order only through the combined forces of the monarchy and the cult of the Drowned God. But in that system, the reavers’ obedience to the law is only as strong as the king’s ability to keep handing out wealth and the individual’s fear of the Drowned God. When the king’s ability to redistribute wealth is kneecapped by the loss of an empire that no amount of prayer to the Drowned God could prevent, all it took to bring down the system was one man willing to use axes against unarmed priests.
 This is especially complicated by Balon Greyjoy placing Urron Redhand as having lived five thousand years ago, around 4700 AC. (Theon II, ACOK)
 While Maester Theron sees a direct link between the Seastone Chair and the base of the Hightower, I disagree. First of all, the fused stone is described as “plain and unadorned,” as opposed to greasy or oily. Second, Archmaester Quillion’s comparison to the mazemakers’ structures, whose descriptions are far more akin to the Hightower than the Seastone Chair, would suggest the opposite. The mazemakers were “destroyed by an enemy from the sea: merlings in some versions of the tale,” which would make them enemies to the Deep Ones.
 Although this does raise the question of where the hell the Ironborn are getting their ships now if they ran out of trees thousands of years ago, since
 Which is also suggested from the fact that, according to the maesters, “the First Men and the early Andals raised square towers and keeps. Round towers came sometime later.”