When we last left off with the political development of the Iron Islands, the Old Way had come crashing down thanks to the arrival of the Andals to Westeros and the ambitions of men with axes. What would fill the void was yet to be discovered…
The Glory and Grandeur of the Greyirons: Footage Not Found
In an act of radical change, House Greyiron instituted a new political order by which “the crown of the Iron Islands would be made of black iron and would pass from father to son by right of primogeniture,” abolishing both the kingsmoot and the system of subsidiary kings such that there “would be no more salt kings, no more rock kings,” and establishing a new royal style as “simply King of the Iron Islands” (although better known as the “Iron King”). The political revolution stretched down throughout the nobility: “the rulers of Great Wyk, Old Wyk, Pyke, Harlaw, and the lesser isles were reduced to lords, and several ancient lines were extinguished entirely when they refused to bend their knees.” (WOIAF) But despite this sweeping and violent reform, and the fact that the Greyiron dynasty would last a thousand years, in one of the strangest lacuna in Westerosi history that I’ve encountered to date, we know almost nothing about almost all the individual Greyiron monarchs.
Indeed, the World of Ice and Fire’s discussion of the Greyirons is remarkably brief and general, glossing over most of a millennium in a mere paragraph:
“But House Greyiron’s grasp upon its iron crown did not go uncontested. Along with the kingsmoot, Galon Whitestaff’s prohibition against the ironborn making war on other ironborn also perished amidst the slaughter on Old Wyk. Over the centuries that followed, Urron Redhand and his successors had to deal with half a dozen major rebellions, and at least two major thrall uprisings. Nor were the lords and kings of the mainland slow to take advantage of the disunity amongst the ironborn. One by one, all the remaining footholds in the green lands were lost. The most telling blow was struck by King Garth VII, the Goldenhand, King of the Reach, when he drove the ironmen from the Misty Islands, renamed them the Shield Islands, and resettled them with his own fiercest warriors and finest seamen to defend the mouth of the Mander.” (WOIAF)
Despite this brevity, there are a couple of important points to note. First, there’s an appropriate irony that the people who came to power by overthrowing the “prohibition against the ironborn making war on other ironborn” found that others were willing to use the same methods against them now that the taboo was gone. Second, just as after the Battle of Leuctra proved that the Spartans were vulnerable, the helots of Messenia and Arcadia rose up against their masters, ending Spartan dominance of the Peloponnese forever, the collapse of the Old Way inspired the thralls of the Iron Islands to make a bid for independence. Third, we can see that the Iron Kings had no better answer to the fundamental problem of Ironborn Empire than any of the Driftwood Kings, and so the Greyirons lost “one by one, all the remaining footholds in the green lands.” (Even if it’s unlikely that Garth Goldenhand’s reconquest of the Shield Islands took place in this period…)
Simply put, the Greyirons seem to have had no new ideas other than Urron Redhand’s innovation, and due to this lack of innovation, the Iron Islands almost went backwards in time, as the Andals turned their attention to the one remaining piece of Westeros they hadn’t conquered and the same phenomena that we’ve seen at work in the Vale and the Riverlands started up again (clearly the Greyirons should have paid more attention to mainlander history…):
“In due time, the Andals swept over the Iron Islands just as they had all Westeros below the Neck. Successive waves of Andal adventurers descended on the islands, oft in alliance with one or another faction of the ironborn themselves. The Andals intermarried with some of the ancient families of the islands and brought others to a bloody end with sword and axe.”
“House Greyiron was amongst those destroyed. The last Iron King, Rognar II, was brought down when the Orkwoods, Drumms, Hoares, and Greyjoys made common cause against him, supported by a host of Andal pirates, sellswords, and warlords.” (WOIAF)
I’m genuinely curious about where all of these “adventurers…pirates, sellswords, and warlords came from,” since the fall of House Greyiron came a thousand years after the Andal invasions began. By this point, the Andals had been ruling in the Vale and the Riverlands, and had been incorporated into the polities of the Westerlands and the Reach, for hundreds and hundreds of years. The most logical case is that these men were the landless younger sons of the Andal houses of the Riverlands, the Reach, and the Westerlands, turning to their ancestor’s professions to get their hands on the last remaining open real estate.
But perhaps more interesting is these unnamed and ambitious Ironborn who threw away the Old Way’s disdain for all non-Ironborn and did what aristocrats living in genteel poverty do best: quickly marry their decorative but useless offspring to the ambitious nouveau riche. It’s also not usual to see ambitious aristocrats cooperating so effectively to bring down their liege lord (as opposed to a revolt backed by one would-be usurper), although it probably helped that the only major accomplishment of the Greyiron dynasty is brutally suppressing various noble rebellions.
The Hoares and the Invention of the New Way
In a sense, we can see the Greyiron dynasty as a thousand-year interregnum between the end of the Old Way and the beginning of the New Way. By contrast, when we get to the new dynasty of House Hoare, we see an explosion of political, economic and cultural reform that truly heralds the beginning of the New Way. Whatever else one says about them, and there are many ugly things that one could mention about them, the Hoares were fearless when it came to experimentation:
“Many believe the tale of Harras’s winning his crown by catching an axe to be no more than a singer’s fancy. In truth, Archmaester Haereg suggests that Harras was chosen because he had taken an Andal maiden for his wife, thereby winning the support of her father and many other powerful Andal lords.
Archmaester Hake tells us that the kings of House Hoare were, “black of hair, black of eye, and black of heart.” Their foes claimed their blood was black as well, darkened by the “Andal taint,” for many of the early Hoare kings took maidens of that ilk to wife.” (WOIAF)
For thousands of years, the Ironborn had held themselves as a people apart and above the mainlanders, even as their early technological edge over them eroded the basis for their belief in their own supremacy. For Harras and his heirs to marry into the Andals to the point of being ethnically distinct represented a shocking rejection of this belief. The New Way seems to have started as the belief that strength was the only thing that mattered, and that any means to achieve this end were legitimate; the Andals had proved their strength by conquering more of the mainland than the followers of the Old Way had ever managed, and so the Hoares would borrow their strength by allying with Andal lords to seize a throne, by marrying Andal daughters to breed their strength into the line, and by embracing Andal culture.
As political theorists from Machiavelli on down have noted, every revolution breeds its own counter-revolution. In this case, the Hoares created a counter-revolution by encouraging the Faith of the Seven:
“True ironborn had salt water in their veins, the priests of the Drowned God proclaimed; the black-blooded Hoares were false kings, ungodly usurpers who must be cast down…Many tried to do just that over the centuries, as Haereg relates in some detail. None succeeded. What the Hoares lacked in valor they made up for in cunning and cruelty. Few of their subjects ever loved them, but many had good reason to fear their wroth. Their very names proclaim their nature to us, even after the passage of hundreds of years. Wulfgar the Widowmaker. Horgan Priestkiller. Fergon the Fierce. Othgar the Soulless. Othgar Demonlover. Craghorn of the Red Smile. The priests of the Drowned God denounced them all.”
“Were the kings of House Hoare truly as ungodly as these holy men proclaimed? Hake believes they were, but Archmaester Haereg takes a very different view, suggesting that the true crime of the “black-blooded” kings was neither impiety nor demon-worship, but tolerance. For it was under the Hoares that the Faith of the Andals came to the Iron Islands for the first time.”
“Prompted by their Andal queens, these kings granted the septas and septons their protection and gave them leave to move about the islands, preaching of the Seven. The first sept on the Iron Islands was built on Great Wyk during the reign of Wulfgar Widowmaker. When his great-grandson Horgan permitted the building of another on Old Wyk, where the kingsmoots had been held of old, the entire island rose up in bloody rebellion, goaded by the priests. The sept was burned, the septon pulled to pieces, the worshippers dragged into the sea to drown, that they might regain their faith. It was in answer to this, Haereg alleges, that Horgan Hoare began to slaughter priests.” (WOIAF)
It is here that we see the origins of the conflict between the Old Way and the New Way. For a thousand years, the priests of the Drowned God had lost their political power to the secular authorities of the Iron Islands; the combination of the threat to their religious monopoly and the popular appeal of a crusade to burn out this foreign Faith brought them back into Iron Islands politics. Wielding that old-time religion like a driftwood club, the priests were able to tie nativist bigotry (hence the “Andal taint” and the “black blood”) to religious extremism (hence the Faith of the Seven reimagined as “demon-worship”), a potent cocktail of hatred.
Lest we think that this conflict is a straightforward Good vs. Evil affair, the Hoares were ready to meet the partisans of the Old Way head-on. Erich the Ugly might have quailed in the face of opposition from the priesthood, but these followers of the New Way simply applied the lesson of Urron Redhand en masse. Modernizers they may have been, but men like Wulfar Widowmaker and Horgan Priestkiller got their names by using revolutionary violence against the priests of the Drowned God and anyone who followed them. And they were remarkably successful in this effort – again and again, they were denounced as ungodly, false kings, and again and again the Hoares and their Andal allies outmaneuvered and out-brutalized their opponents. In this manner, the New Way was born.
So what did the New Way consist of? As we have seen, it meant a religious reformation, albeit one aimed as much at making the Ironborn no longer “hostis humani generis” but part of the continent-wide church of the Faith of the First Men and thus a part of the broader Andal nation and a kingdom who one could do diplomatic deals with. It also meant a new political and economic orientation to the mainland:
“The Hoare kings also discouraged the practice of reaving. And as reaving declined, trade grew. There was still a wealth of iron ore to be found beneath the hills of Great Wyk, Orkmont, Harlaw, and Pyke, and lead and tin as well. The ironmen’s need for wood to build their ships remained as great as ever, but they no longer had the strength to take it wherever they found it. Instead they traded iron for timber. And when winter came and the cold winds blew, iron ore became the coin the kings of House Hoare used to buy barley, wheat, and turnips to keep their smallfolk fed (and beef and pork for their own tables). “Paying the iron price” took on a whole new meaning…one many ironborn found humiliating and the priests decried as shameful.” (WOIAF)
Trade would be the New Way’s way to make the Iron Islands strong: by trading iron and lead and tin for timber and food, the Hoares were able to massively increase the material living standards and the fleets of the Ironborn. However much the new way of “paying the iron price” might rankle priests and their traditionalist followers, it was both far more productive and more sustainable than the smash-and-grab of reaving. Moreover, while the New Way “discouraged the practice of reaving,” it’s more likely that, in practice, they simply discouraged reaving in Westerosi waters where it was bad for diplomacy and trade, and turned a blind eye to piracy in more remote waters. And of course, the wealth gained by the New Way could always be put to more martial uses.
This is where I think Qhored Hoare comes into the story – the relative timing of the Justmans’ dynasty and the Hoare dynasty suggests that he must have been one of the early Hoare monarchs, from a time when the New Way was still in its infancy and less distinct from the Old Way – for all that Harras married into the Andals and his heirs promoted trade, it had still been the finger-dance that had won them the crown. It is this kind of a king, named after the great Qhored, who might look across Ironman’s Bay and see the strength of House Justman as a regional rival and potential threat to the rebuilding of the Ironborn’s strength. And it’s noticeable that Qhored’s strategy was to target the Riverland’s leadership by defeating Bernarr II and ending his line, not to conquer the Riverlands themselves. Perhaps Qhored the Younger knew that the old dream of empire was no longer viable, but that he could divide the Riverlands through civil war and thus keep them from interfering with the rise of the Hoares?
Regardless of where Qhored fits in the timeline, it is in this section on the Hoares that we begin to encounter a problem where the chroniclers start to become unreliable narrators, overly influenced by the followers of the Old Way. Let’s take for, example the idea that “the nadir of ironborn pride and power was reached during the reigns of the three Harmunds.” When we examine the details of their reigns, however, it’s hard to see any signs of weakness and decline:
“On the isles, they are best remembered as Harmund the Host, Harmund the Haggler, and Harmund the Handsome. Harmund the Host was the first king of the Iron Islands known to be literate. He welcomed travelers and traders from the far corners of the world to his castle on Great Wyk, treasured books, and gave septons and septas his protection. His son Harmund the Haggler shared his love of reading, and became renowned as a great traveler. He was the first king of the Iron Islands to visit the green lands without a sword in his hand. Having spent his youth as a ward of House Lannister, the second Harmund returned to Casterly Rock as a king and took the Lady Lelia Lannister, a daughter of the King of the Rock and “the fairest flower of the west,” for his queen. On a later voyage he visited Highgarden and Oldtown, to treat with their lords and kings and foster trade.”
“Though Harmund II accepted the Seven as true gods, he continued to do honor to the Drowned God as well, and on his return to Great Wyk spoke openly of “the Eight Gods,” and decreed that a statue of the Drowned God should be raised at the doors of every sept. This pleased neither the septons nor the priests and was denounced by both. In an attempt to placate them, the king rescinded his decree and declared that god had but seven faces…but the Drowned God was one of those, as an aspect of the Stranger.” (WOIAF)
Whatever one’s attitudes to the merits of literacy, religious toleration, and diplomacy, it has to be admitted that the Lannisters of the Rock aren’t the kind of people who would offer dynastic marriage alliances or fosterage agreements to weaklings, any more than the Gardeners of Highgarden would engage in diplomacy and trade talks with an insignificant polity. To me, this seems like a clear case of Old Way bias in the sources, that Harmund the Host and Harmund the Haggler were likely richer and more powerful than any Kings of the Iron Islands since the time of Qhored the Cruel and that their supposed weakness comes from a lack of understanding of the virtues of “soft power” in the first place, but most of all extreme hatred of Harmund II’s religious reforms.
Indeed, I think we can see in the first two Harmunds a remarkably successful strategy of cultural, economic, and political engagements with the mainland. By encouraging literacy and cultural exchange, Harmund the Host not only ensured that trade continued to grow, but also ensured that the Iron Islands would remain abreast of technological innovations elsewhere in the world. Moreover, I think we can draw a straight line from his protection of the Faith of the Seven to his ability to normalize relations with the other kingdoms of Westeros, as influence flows both ways – with Harmund as their patron and an entire kingdom of souls to gain, septons in the courts of the great kings and lords were no doubt whispering into the ears of their masters the sacred and secular benefits of engaging with the Iron Islands. Likewise, in the case of Harmund the Haggler, we see a monarch who was not only known as a successful trader, but also someone who actually won the Iron Islands their first real allies in Westerosi history. And unlike his ancestors who had reacted to domestic dissent with axe and flame, Harmund II tried to synthesize the two faiths of the Iron Islands and forge a cultural identity that combined a respect for tradition with progress.
And lest we see the revolt that followed as a genuine expression of religious independence against foreign innovation, it should be noted that the Ironborn did not revolt against the Hoare Kings until they tried to follow up their religious and economic revolutions with a genuine social revolution:
“…Harmund the Handsome (influenced, some say, by his Lannister mother, the Dowager Queen Lelia) announced that henceforth reavers would be hanged as pirates rather than celebrated, and formally outlawed the taking of salt wives, declaring the children of such unions to be bastards with no right of inheritance. He was considering a measure to end the practice of thralldom on the isles as well when a priest known as the Shrike began to preach against him. Other priests took up the cry, and the lords of the isles took heed. Only the septons and their followers stood by King Harmund, and he was overthrown within a fortnight, almost bloodlessly.”
“What followed was far from bloodless, however. The Shrike himself tore out the deposed king’s tongue, so he might never again speak “lies and blasphemies.” Harmund was blinded as well, and his nose was cut off, so “all men might see him for the monster he is.” In his place, the lords and priests crowned his younger brother Hagon. The new king denounced the Faith, rescinded Harmund’s edicts, and expelled the septons and septas from his realm. Within a fortnight every sept in the Iron Islands was aflame. King Hagon, soon to be known as Hagon the Heartless, even permitted the mutilation of his own mother, Queen Lelia, the Lannister “whore” who was blamed by the Shrike for turning her husband and sons away from the true god. Her lips, ears, and eyelids were cut off and her tongue ripped out with hot pincers, after which she was bundled onto a longship and returned to Lannisport. The King of the Rock, her nephew, was so angered by this atrocity that he called his banners.” (WOIAF)
The priests of the Drowned God had been denouncing the Hoare Kings for nine generations, but no one had listened. It was only when Harmund the Handsome tried to end the practice of reaving, thralldom, and the taking of saltwives that the lords of the Iron Island turned against him and the alliance of the warrior caste and the priesthood that Urron Redhand had rent asunder was reforged. And leading this alliance was the Shrike, a dark reflection and corruption of Old Way prophets like Galon Whitestaff. Galon Whitestaff had preached peace among the Ironborn; the Shrike tortured and mutilated the King and the Queen Mother. And while his revolt had destroyed the Faith of the Seven on the Iron Islands and restored religious authority over the monarchy, the Shrike’s work did not bring back the Old Way.
Instead, the Shrike’s fanaticism brought about the worst catastrophe in the history of the Iron Islands, for in rejecting the New Way and House Hoare’s alliances with House Lannister in such a public and brutal fashion, he had brought the wroth of the Westermen down on the Iron Islands:
“The war that followed left ten thousand dead, three-quarters of them ironborn. In its seventh year, the westermen landed on Great Wyk, smashed Hagon’s host in battle, and captured his castle. Hagon the Heartless was mutilated in the same fashion as his mother before being hanged. Ser Aubrey Crakehall, commanding the Lannister armies, ordered that Hoare Castle be razed to the ground, but as his men were looting, they came upon Harmund the Handsome in a dungeon. Crakehall briefly considered restoring Harmund to his throne, Haereg claims, but the former king was blind, broken, and half-mad from long confinement. Ser Aubrey granted him “the gift of death” instead, serving Harmund a cup of wine laced with milk of the poppy. Then, in an act of mad folly, the knight decided to claim the kingship of the Iron Islands for himself. This pleased neither the ironborn nor the Lannisters. When word reached Casterly Rock, the king called his warships home, leaving Crakehall to fend for himself. Without the power and wealth of House Lannister to prop him up, “King Aubrey” saw his power crumble quickly. His reign lasted less than half a year before he was captured and sacrificed to the sea by the Shrike himself.”
“The war between the ironborn and the westermen continued in a desultory fashion for five more years, finally ending in an exhausted peace that left the Iron Islands impoverished, burned, and broken. The winter that followed was long and harsh, and is remembered on the isles as the Famine Winter. Hake tells us that three times as many ironmen perished of starvation that winter than had died in the battles that preceded it.” (WOIAF)
Once again, the Old Way had been put to the test and failed in a moment of utmost crisis. Twelve years of war, the Iron Islands invaded, conquered and occupied, thirty thousand fighting men lost (and who knows how many Ironborn civilians perished) – all of this is the fault of the Shrike and his mistaken belief that religious and ethnic purity could somehow restore the Ironborn to their Golden Age. (To say nothing of his failure to understand that if you need to import food to live, it’s a really bad idea to permanently alienate your major trading partners.) And yet the horrible irony of all of this is that the Shrike escaped punishment. Hagon the Heartless was tortured and hanged for his un-filial behavior, the Iron Islands itself suffered immensely, but somehow the Shrike managed to escape punishment and ended up getting to make one last human sacrifice in the person of King Aubrey. If there is a revision of the Iron Islands section of the World of Ice and Fire, my hope is that, this time, the Lannisters give the Shrike a taste of his own medicine.
It is my belief that no small part of the Old Way revisionism of Balon and Aeron Greyjoy is due to the fact that men like the Shrike told the popular history of who was to blame for the Famine Winter, placing the burden of guilt on the New Way instead of where it belonged. The ultimate irony, of course, is that just as his violent revolution had caused the war in the first place, the Shrike’s fundamentalism could not bring the Ironborn wealth or power, and so it would have to be the New Way that cleaned up his mess:
“It would be centuries before the Iron Islands recovered, a long slow climb back up to prosperity and power. Of the kings who reigned during this bleak age, we need not treat. Many were puppets of the lords or priests. A few were more like the reavers of the Age of Heroes, men such as Harrag Hoare and his son Ravos the Raper who savaged the North in the years of the Hungry Wolf’s bloody reign, but they were rare and far between.”
“Both reaving and trade played a part in the restoration of the pride and prowess of the islands. Other lands now built larger and more formidable warships than the ironmen, but nowhere were sailors any more daring. Merchants and traders sailing from Lordsport on Pyke and the harbors of Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont spread out across the seas, calling at Lannisport, Oldtown, and the Free Cities, and returning with treasures their forebears had never dreamed of. Reaving continued as well…but the “wolves of the sea” no longer hunted close to home, for the green-land kings had grown too powerful to provoke. Instead they found their prey in more distant seas, in the Basilisk Isles and the Stepstones and along the shores of the Disputed Lands. Some took service as sellsails, fighting for one or another of the Free Cities in their endless trade wars.” (WOIAF)
We don’t know when exactly the Hoares ceased to be mere figureheads and once again asserted themselves as the driving force behind the New Way, but once again the New Way proved its worth. The Ironborn’s traditional skills at navigation were repurposed to allow Ironborn merchants from Lordsport (the first mention of an Ironborn city, a key sign of economic development) and the other islands to establish trade links to the Lannisport and Oldtown (two of the biggest port cities in Westeros) and indeed, extending those links out to Essos and the Free Cities. At the same time, as probably had been the case before, the New Way allowed reaving to continue in a regulated fashion, out in the Basilisk Isles and the Stepstones where piracy was already rampant, and combining it with mercenary service, so that they were more privateers than pirates. In such a fashion did the Iron Islands recover and become richer than ever before, with “treasures their forebears had never dreamed of.”
The zenith of the New Way came with Qhorwyn the Cunning, who stood at the opposite pole from Qhored the Cruel. Qhored’s empire was built with violence and brutality, Qhorwyn built his with shrewd economic policy:
“A shrewd and avaricious king, Qhorwyn had spent his entire reign accumulating wealth and avoiding war. “War is bad for trade,” he said, infamously, even as he was doubling, then tripling the size of his fleets and commanding his smiths to forge more armor, swords, and axes. “Weakness invites attack,” Qhorwyn declared. “To have peace, we must be strong.” (WOIAF)
In a nutshell, this is essentially the mercantilist economic policy of Thomas Cromwell: use a favorable balance of trade to build up fiscal reserves, use those to enhance the military capacity of the state, use that as a deterrent against attack so that trade can continue to flow. And it worked, better than he could have anticipated, for it created the naval and military might that his son would use to conquer the Riverlands. Harwyn Hardhand’s story I discussed in detail in the Riverlands essay, but I think it’s important to know the ways in which Harwyn differed from the Old Way. To begin with, he was cultured and cosmopolitan, having “sailed with a succession of reavers in the Stepstones, visited Volantis, Tyrosh, and Braavos, became a man in the pleasure gardens of Lys, spent two years in the Basilisk Isles as a captive of a pirate king, sold his sword to a free company in the Disputed Lands, and fought in several battles as a Second Son.” (WOIAF) And while Harwyn would go on to found a second Ironborn Empire, it was not done in the name of the Old Way – Harwyn spent his time in the Riverlands, and his son and grandson did the same, seeing the Iron Islands only as a source of troops, not as the font of all religious truth.
Nevertheless, as I argued in that essay, we see in Harwyn and his descendants an attempt to fuse the New Way and the Old Way – the “gold price” recontexualized as acceptable, as long as trade could pay for armies and war materiel to allow the true Ironborn to spend their lives warring for more and more territory. And just as with the Empire of Qhorwyn, the empire of the Hoares ultimately perished because they were never able to establish loyalty among their subjects. This was the ne plus ultra of the New Way – Harwyn and his heirs would not repeat the “mistake” of Harmund the Handsome, of trying to treat Ironborn and mainlander as equals. And so when “the dragonflame that destroyed Harrenhal put a fiery end to King Harren’s dreams, the domination of the riverlands by the ironborn, and the “black line” of House Hoare,” no one mourned the passing of one of the most inventive and pioneering dynasties in Westerosi history.
The Least Loyal Vassals: the Ironborn Under the Targaryens
“From that day to this, the Lord Reapers of House Greyjoy have ruled the Iron Islands from the Seastone Chair on Pyke. None since the Red Kraken has posed a true threat to the Seven Kingdoms or the Iron Throne, but few can truly be described as leal and faithful servants of the crown. Kings they were in days gone by, and even the passage of a thousand years cannot erase the memory of a driftwood crown.” (WOIAF)
The fall of House Hoare did not, however, end the endless conflict between the Old Way and the New Way. It almost did, because after several thousand years of them flipping back and forth between bloody-handed piracy and religious fanaticism, diplomacy and trade and culture exchange, and iron-handed empire-building not that different from the aforementioned piracy, the mainland was done putting up wth the Ironborn:
“But who would rule them? On the mainland, some urged Aegon to make the ironborn vassals to Lord Tully of Riverrun, whom he had named Lord Paramount of the Trident. Others suggested that the islands be given to Casterly Rock. A few went so far as to implore him to scour the isles clean with dragonflame, putting an end to the scourge of the ironborn for all time.” (WOIAF)
Now, I have to admit that when I discussed this in Part IV, I forgot that Casterly Rock was in the running for the rulership of the Iron Islands. And this competition between the Riverlands and the Westerlands may help to explain why neither got the prize – not only did handing over the Iron Islands to foreign rule conflict with the Aegon Doctrine, but Aegon had every reason to want to avoid conflict between his new vassals and any disturbance in the balance of power. At the same way, the fact that people around Aegon recommended the cleansing virtues of fire instead does suggest how bad the Ironborn reputation was on the mainland, even after the New Way.
The irony was that, if the mainlanders had simply kept schtum and avoided giving Aegon any ideas, the Ironborn might have done the job for them without any need for draconic napalm. Because with the collapse of the hereditary principle that House Greyiron and House Hoare had established, the Ironborn went back to their oldest system of government:
“The death of Harren the Black and his sons left the Iron Islands kingless and in chaos. Many great lords and famous warriors had been serving with King Harren in the riverlands. Some died with him in the burning of Harrenhal, others when the riverlands rose against them. Only a few reached the coast alive, and fewer still found longships waiting, unburned, to carry them home.”
“…Left to fend for themselves, the ironborn immediately fell to fighting.”
“Qhorin Volmark, a minor lord on Harlaw, was the first man to claim the kingship. His grandmother had been a younger sister of Harwyn Hardhand. On the basis of that tie, Volmark declared himself the rightful heir of “the black line.” On Old Wyk, twoscore priests gathered beneath the bones of Nagga to place a driftwood crown on one of their own, a barefoot holy man called Lodos who claimed to be the living son of the Drowned God. Other claimants soon arose on Great Wyk, Pyke, and Orkmont, and for a full year and more their followers fought each other by land and sea.” (WOIAF)
This bloody civil war is almost like a tree ring of Iron Islands politics – with Qhorin Volmark, you have the attempt to carry on the hereditary principle albeit through the female line; with Lodos, you have an intensification of religious extremism, with the kingsmoot which originally was supposed to lend religious legitimacy to secular rulers reconfigured as a cultish ceremony anointing a messiah figure; and with the unnamed kings on the other islands, we see almost a return to the first days of the Rock Kings and Salt Kings.
In a major turning point in history, Aegon the Conqueror moved on from his initial stance of paying “little heed to the Iron Islands in the immediate aftermath of Harrenhal” and decided that it would be his design that would define the Iron Islands going forwards. The Iron Islands would not be destroyed, nor allowed to remain a foreign country (albeit one crippled by civil war). It would be incorporated into his new kingdom by force:
“Aegon the Conqueror put an end to the fighting in 2 AC when he and Balerion descended upon Great Wyk, accompanied by a vast war fleet. The ironmen collapsed before him. Qhorin Volmark died at the Conqueror’s own hand, cut down by Aegon’s Valyrian steel blade, Blackfyre. On Old Wyk, the priest-king Lodos turned to his god, calling on the krakens of the deep to drag down Aegon’s warships. When the krakens failed to appear, Lodos filled his robes with stones and walked into the sea to “take counsel” with his father. Thousands followed him. Their bloated corpses washed up on the shores of the isles for years to come, though the priest’s own body was not amongst them. On Great Wyk and Pyke, the surviving contenders (the king on Orkmont having been slain the previous year) were quick to bend the knee and do homage to House Targaryen.”
“Aegon chose a different course. Gathering the remaining lords of the Iron Islands together, he announced that he would allow them to choose their own lord paramount. Unsurprisingly they chose one of their own: Vickon Greyjoy, Lord Reaper of Pyke, a famous captain descended of the Grey King. Though Pyke was smaller and poorer than Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont, the Greyjoys boasted a long and distinguished lineage. In the days of the kingsmoot, only the Greyirons and Goodbrothers had produced more kings, and the Greyirons were gone. Exhausted and impoverished by years of war, the ironmen accepted their new overlord without demur.” (WOIAF)
With the death of Volmark at his own hands, Lodos’ religious delusions leading to mass suicide, and the other contenders desperately bending the knee, Aegon had as close as there could be to a clean slate. In an interesting example of the Aegon Doctrine, he reached back to the kingsmoot of millennia past – and this may have been something of a mistake, because it gave the Greyjoys of Pyke an independent source of legitimacy, as opposed to the dependency of the Tullys and the Tyrells on the new regime, or the Baratheon and Arryn blood ties to his own family. Most notably, what Aegon’s intervention failed to do was to make a definitive statement about the Old Way and the New Way.
And so instead, we see a new dynasty which had to somehow contain both traditions, and this tension over time would lead them to become the Targaryen’s most disloyal vassals. We can see this conflict within the first two generation of Greyjoy Lords Paramount. Vickon Greyjoy was Aegon’s Man and a follower of the New Way:
“It took the Iron Islands the best part of a generation to recover from the wounds inflicted by Harren’s fall and the fratricidal war that followed. Vickon Greyjoy, enthroned on Pyke on the Seastone Chair, proved a stern but cautious ruler. Though he did not outlaw reaving, he commanded that the practice be confined to distant waters, far beyond the shores of Westeros, so as not to provoke the wroth of the Iron Throne. And since Aegon had accepted the Seven as his gods and been anointed by the High Septon in Oldtown, Lord Vickon allowed the septons to return to the islands once again to preach the Faith.”
“This angered many pious ironborn and provoked the wroth of the priests of the Drowned God, as it always had before. “Let them preach,” Lord Vickon said, when told of the unrest. “We have need of winds to fill our sails.” He was Aegon’s man, he reminded his son Goren, and no man but a fool would dare rise against Aegon Targaryen and his dragons.” (WOIAF)
We see here once again the careful regulation of reaving and the return of the Faith of the Seven to the Iron Islands, as if the Harmunds had come back. But in Vickon this seems to have come less from conviction about the merits of the New Way as much as a firm belief that the Targaryens and their dragons represented such a threat to the Iron Islands that they had to be placated at all costs. As we will see with his son, however, this meant that the Greyjoy’s embrace of the New Way was only as strong as they perceived the Targaryens to be at any given moment.
While Aegon the Conqueror sat the Iron Throne, they were strong indeed. However, with the crowning of Aenys Targaryen, the weaknesses of the Targaryen monarchy was laid bare – and this created an opening for Goren Greyjoy to rewrite the terms of the New Way:
“These were words that Goren Greyjoy would remember. When Lord Vickon died in 33 AC, Goren succeeded him as Lord of the Iron Islands, putting down a clumsy conspiracy to restore the black line by crowning Qhorin Volmark’s son in his stead. He faced a more serious test four years later, when Aegon the Conqueror died of a stroke on Dragonstone, and his son Aenys was crowned king in his stead. Though amiable and well-meaning, Aenys Targaryen was widely perceived as a weakling, unfit to sit the Iron Throne. The new king was still on his royal progress when rebellions began to break out all across the realm.”
“One such revolt convulsed the Iron Islands, led by a man claiming that he was the priest-king Lodos returned at last from visiting his father. But Goren Greyjoy dealt with it decisively, going so far as to send the priest-king’s pickled head to Aenys Targaryen. His Grace was so pleased with the gift that he promised Lord Goren any boon that was within his power to grant. As sage as he was savage, Greyjoy asked the king to give him leave to expel the septons and septas from the Iron Islands. King Aenys was forced to agree. A century would pass before another sept was opened on the islands.” (WOIAF)
As we can see from this passage, the Greyjoy hold on the Iron Islands was not that much stronger than Aenys’ hold on the Iron Throne, with Goren facing rebellions both from the Hoare legitimist-successionist camp and the religious fundamentalist camp which had contended for power prior to the elevation of his father. Goren’s solution to this is quite interesting: on the one hand, as Urron and his followers did, Goren embraced “savage” violence against rivals and Old Way extremists. But on the other hand, Goren jettisoned the Faith of the Seven from the New Way. The political logic here is actually quite sound: the trade-oriented politics of the Hoares had been quite effective, and without the Faith of the Seven to mobilize the priesthood of the Drowned God and thus rank-and-file Ironborn, the Greyjoys could continue to rule with the rest of the New Way firmly in place:
“For long years afterward the ironborn remained quiescent under a succession of Greyjoy lords. Eschewing further thoughts of conquest, they lived by fishing, trade, and mining. All the width of Westeros lay between King’s Landing and Pyke, and the ironborn had little and less to do with affairs at court. Life was hard upon the islands, especially in winter, but that was as it had always been. Some men still dreamed of a return to the Old Way, when the ironborn were a people to be feared, but the Stepstones and the Summer Sea were far away, and the Greyjoys on the Seastone Chair would allow no reaving closer to home.” (WOIAF)
It is periods like this that make me see the Old Way as understood by characters in ASOIAF as fundamentally a revanchist movement projecting a false continuity with the past. For much of Ironborn history – most notably the roughly five thousand years of Hoare rule, minus the brief interregna of Qhored Hoare and Hagon the Heartless – the Ironborn have lived under and prospered by the New Way, with the overwhelming majority of their population making their living “by fishing, trade, and mining,” and the reaving impulses of the remaining 30% of the population directed outwards. In a sense, what the New Way did was to simply expand the radius of community that Galon Whitestaff had decreed to include the whole of Westeros, allowing the Ironborn to become a part of the Targaryens’ new polity.
Unfortunately for the Iron Islands and the mainland both, because of that failure to deal conclusively with the conflict between the Old Way and the New Way, we would see the beginning of the revanchist period of the Old Way with the rise of that most disloyal vassal, Dalton Greyjoy:
“The better part of a century would pass before the kraken woke, yet the dreams never died, for the priests still stood knee deep in the salt sea preaching of the Old Way, whilst in a hundred wharfside brothels and sailor’s taverns old men still told tales of days gone by, when the ironborn were rich and proud, and every oarsman had a dozen salt wives to warm his bed by night. Many a boy and young man grew drunk upon such stories, hungry for the glories of the reaver’s life.”
“One such was Dalton Greyjoy, the wild young son of the heir to Pyke and the Iron Islands…In his fifteenth year, whilst fighting in the Stepstones as a sellsail, he saw his uncle slain and avenged his death, but he took a dozen wounds and emerged from the fight drenched head to heel in blood. From that day forth, men called him the Red Kraken.”
“Later that same year, word of his father’s death reached him in the Stepstones, and the Red Kraken claimed the Seastone Chair as the Lord of the Iron Islands. At once he began building longships, forging swords, and training fighters…The storm he had foreseen broke the next year, when King Viserys I Targaryen died in his…and the orgy of bloodletting, battle, rapine, and murder known as the Dance of the Dragons began. When word reached Pyke, the Red Kraken is said to have laughed aloud.” (WOIAF)
The first thing that should be noted about the Red Kraken is that he was essentially an Old Way fanboy – he had never lived under it, nor had any of the old men telling stories in taverns or the priests of the Drowned God. Like the Masters of Slaver’s Bay, Dalton Greyjoy’s Old Way was a modern invention used to cloak robbery, theft, rape, murder, and slavery with the thinnest veil of legitimacy. (Note the way in which sexual violence is the glue that gets the “working class” of Iron Islands society to buy into the Old Way.) Even Dalton’s boyhood reaving was fully within the boundaries of the New Way, as it was confined to outside the realm.
The second thing that should be noted is that the new-Old Way is profoundly opportunistic, only really capable of existing during periods of civil war or other crises that prevent the central government from intervening, especially when the contenders for the Iron Throne are stupid enough to give the Ironborn license to get going:
“Throughout the war, Princess Rhaenyra and her blacks enjoyed a great advantage at sea… King Aegon II reached out to Pyke, offering Lord Dalton a place on the small council as lord admiral of the realm if he would bring his longships around Westeros to do battle with the Sea Snake…The princess asked only that he attack her enemies. Amongst those enemies were the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, whose lands were close to home and vulnerable. Lord Jason Lannister had taken most of his knights, archers, and seasoned fighters east with him to attack Rhaenyra’s allies in the riverlands, leaving the westerlands thinly defended. Lord Dalton saw opportunity.”
“…the Red Kraken and his ironborn fell upon the westerlands like wolves upon a flock of sheep. Casterly Rock itself proved too strong for them, once Lord Jason’s widow Johanna barred its gates, but the ironmen burned the Lannister fleet and sacked Lannisport, carrying off vast amounts of gold, grain, and trade goods, and seizing hundreds of women and girls as salt wives, including the late Lord Jason’s favorite mistress and their natural daughters. Further raids and depredations followed. All up and down the western coasts the longships sailed, raiding as they had in days of old. The Red Kraken himself led the attack that captured Kayce. Faircastle fell, and with it Fair Isle and all its wealth. Lord Dalton claimed four of Lord Farman’s daughters as salt wives and gave the fifth—“the homely one”—to his brother Veron.”
“For the better part of two years, the Red Kraken ruled the Sunset Sea as his forebears had done of old, whilst elsewhere in Westeros great armies marched and clashed and dragons wheeled across the skies and met in bloody battle.”(WOIAF)
The opportunism continued with Dalton’s targets, focusing mostly on the lands of House Lannister which had been denuded of defenders thanks to the Dance of the Dragons. Moreover, while the Ironborn were able to capture the traditional Ironborn bases of Kayce and Fair Isle, the Red Kraken could not conquer the Westerlands as Harwyn Hardhand had the Riverlands. Dalton didn’t even hold onto the port city of Lannisport or even to hold onto the Lannister navy, most likely because of his characteristic short-term thinking but also possibly because the Ironborn didn’t have the manpower to man the walls or crew the ships. And to me, this shows the essential dead-end nature of the new-Old Way – there’s no way for them to win in the long term, because they don’t have the strength to hold onto any of their gains, and I think the adherents of the new-Old Way know it at a subconscious level, and it’s that cognitive dissonance that makes them lash out at the New Way so strongly, why they can never integrate into the status quo.
Indeed, if the choice between the new-Old Way and the New Way was being made purely empirically, there are repeated experiments which have proved the failure of the former. Indeed, the Red Kraken stands as an excellent case study:
“Peace in King’s Landing did not mean peace in the west, however. The Red Kraken had not lost his appetite for battle. When the council of regents ruling in the name of the new boy king commanded him to cease his raiding, he continued as before.”
“In the end, it was a woman who would prove the Red Kraken’s undoing. A girl known to us only as Tess opened Lord Dalton’s throat with his own dagger as he slept in Lord Farman’s bedchamber in Faircastle, then threw herself into the sea. The Red Kraken had never taken a rock wife. His closest heirs were his salt sons, young boys fathered on various of his salt wives. Within hours of his death, a bloody struggle for succession broke out. And even before the battles began on Old Wyk and Pyke, the smallfolk of Fair Isle rose up and slaughtered those ironmen who still remained amongst them.”
“In 134 AC, Lady Johanna Lannister took her revenge for all that the Red Kraken had inflicted on her and hers. With her own fleets destroyed, she persuaded Ser Leo Costayne, the aged lord admiral of the Reach, to deliver her swordsmen to the Iron Islands. Embroiled in their own war of succession, the ironborn were taken unawares. Thousands of men, women, and children were put to the sword, scores of villages and hundreds of longships put to the torch. Ultimately Costayne was slain in battle, his host largely scattered and destroyed. Only a portion of his fleet (laden with the spoils of war, including many tons of grain and salt fish) returned to Lannisport…but amongst the highborn captives they brought back to Casterly Rock was one of the Red Kraken’s salt sons. Lady Johanna had him gelded and made him her son’s fool. “A fine fool he proved,” Archmaester Haereg observes, “yet not half so foolish as his father.” (WOIAF)
Just as the Shrike’s religious fury brought down the wroth of the Westermen down on the heads of the Ironborn, so too did Dalton Greyjoy’s embrace of the new-Old Way brought the vengeance of all of Westeros back to the Iron Islands. As with the fall of Qhored’s empire we see the smallfolk on Faircastle murdering the Red Kraken and his garrison. And as with the Famine Winter, we have to add to the military casualties that the Ironborn suffered during the invasion a large but unknown number of civilian casualties. Because in addition to the “thousands of men, women, and children…put to the sword,” we have to add the many more thousands who starved to death in the “terrible, hard winter” that lasted from 130-136 AC, because Joanna Lannister had directed her ire at the “many tons of grain and salt fish” that the Ironborn had stored to keep them alive in the winter.
Indeed, I would argue the passage above presents the disaster of 134 AC, likely due to a new-Old Way bias in the sources. For example, the Iron Islands chapter doesn’t mention that the famed admiral Alyn “Oakenfist” Velaryon was
“dispatch[ed]…to the westerlands to deal with the Red Kraken’s longships when Lord Dalton Greyjoy refused to give up his prizes and cease his reaving. This was a perilous journey, intended almost certainly to result in Lord Alyn’s defeat or death. Instead, Oakenfist turned it into the first of his six great voyages.” (WOIAF)
Given the success of Oakenfist’s mission and the fact that you had two larger mainland fleets up against a smaller and leaderless Ironborn navy, I think it’s highly unlikely that if the “ironborn were taken unawares” that the Reach’s forces were “scattered and destroyed,” especially since enough of his ships made it back to transport “many tons” of captured goods. Rather, what I think happened is that Leo Costayne (eager to get all the glory for himself before the Master of Ships could arrive) let his flag ship and his vanguard get isolated and destroyed. However, I think Oakenfist’s skill and the weight of numbers prevailed, thus why “hundreds of longships,” representing the bulk of the Iron Island’s naval capacity were destroyed.
But as with the Famine Winter and Aegon’s intervention in 2 AC, there was no reckoning for the new-Old Way. Once again, the New Way would be called in to rebuild after the latest disaster, but just as some present-day political ideologies cannot fail but only be failed, so too can the new-Old Way never fail, for after all “what is dead may never die.” Hence, Dalton Greyjoy, a man who brought the Iron Islands nothing but misery, is “revered amongst them to this day and counted as one of their great heroes” for his daring and boldness. Returning to my revanchist argument from ACOK, it’s highly reminiscent of the Lost Cause’s lionization of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, despite (or perhaps because) of the damage it did to the Confederacy, because it fit so perfectly into the myth of magnolia and chivalry.
And so the Iron Islands returned to the seesaw of the new-Old Way and the New Way. The next period of Ironborn history is a bit vague: while we know about Dagon, Alton, Torwyn, and Loron Greyjoy, who ruled at various points between 134 AC and the reign of Quellon Greyjoy which began sometime before 260 AC, we don’t know in which order they ruled. Nevertheless, we can see that back and forth dynamic at work: Dagon Greyjoy responded to the crisis of the Blackfyre Rebellions by raiding from the North down to the Reach (and of course, eventually got his thanks to the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens), but Torwyn Greyjoy seems to have remained loyal to the Iron Throne despite the temptations of Bittersteel. Loron the Bard seems to have been caught between the two Ways, hence his “tragic friendship with young Desmond Mallister,” whereas Alton Greyjoy’s westward ambitions resemble Gylbert Farwynd’s politics which stand completely orthogonal to the whole new-Old/New split.
However, by the third century after the Conquest we would go through one last cycle between the New Way and the new-Old Way that would, once again, reduce the Iron Islands to ruin and misery. The cycle began with “to Lord Quellon Greyjoy, the wisest of the men to sit the Seastone Chair since Aegon’s Conquest” and one of the most successful advocates of the New Way. In part this had to do with the way that Quellon personally exemplified all the best qualities of the warrior caste of the Iron Islands; between his sheer physical might and his “renown as a warrior,” it could hardly be argued that Quellon was a weakling. As with previous adherents of the New Way, Quellon squared the circle by directing violence in a socially acceptable manner:
“In his youth he earned renown as a warrior, fighting corsairs and slavers in the Summer Sea. A leal servant of the Iron Throne, he led a hundred longships around the bottom of Westeros during the War of the Ninepenny Kings and played a crucial role in the fighting around the Stepstones.”
“As lord, however, Quellon preferred to walk the road of peace. He forbade reaving, save by his leave. He brought maesters to the Iron Islands by the score, to serve as healers to the sick and tutors to the young; with them came their ravens, whose black wings would tie the isles to the green lands tighter than ever before.”
“It was Lord Quellon who freed the remaining thralls and outlawed the practice of thralldom on the Iron Islands (in this he was not wholly successful). And whilst he took no salt wives himself, he allowed other men to do so but taxed them heavily for the privilege. Quellon Greyjoy sired nine sons on three wives. His first and second wives were rock wives, joined to him with the old rites by a priest of the Drowned God, but his last bride was a woman of the green lands, a Piper of Pinkmaiden Castle, wed to him in her father’s hall by a septon.”
“In this, as in much else, Lord Quellon turned away from the ancient and insular traditions of the ironborn, in hopes of forging stronger bonds between his own domains and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. So strong a lord was Quellon Greyjoy that few dared speak openly against him, for he was known to be strong-willed and stubborn and fearsome in his wroth.” (WOIAF)
While Haereg describes this as turning away from the traditions of the Iron Islands, I see it more as a productive channeling of those impulses: the Ironborn would continue their naval tradition, but in loyal service to the Iron Throne, helping to undo some of the reputation of the Greyjoys as the least loyal vassals. Likewise, by asserting the right and privilege of granting the right to reave abroad, Quellon was able to restrict the practice while making the lords and captains who wished to continue it desirous of his favor – in sharp contrast to Harmund the Handsome. Most impressive of all is Quellon’s social transformations: he brought the maesters to the Iron Islands and provided a significant technology transfer and avenue for cultural transformation. And in a coup that shows how far more adept he was in governance than Harmund the Handsome, Quellon managed to successfully ban thralldom (similar to Tsar Alexander II of Russia) and the taking of salt wives, by using the tax system to create disincentives rather than a far more disruptive ban. As for how he managed to pull this off, I think we have to look to a combination of personal strength but also a more flexible approach to cultural politics. For all that Haereg sees Quellon as rejecting his heritage, the fact that Quellon’s first two marriages were traditional rock marriages conducted by priests of the Drowned God undercut any criticism when he married a greenlander in the light of the Seven.
Thus, Quellon Greyjoy was able to carry the New Way to its logical end without rebellion or reaction. His tragedy would be that none of his sons, “relentless in their hunger for gain and glory,” would learn anything from his example. We will never know what might have been if his sons Harlon, Quenton, Donel, or Robin had managed to survive their childhood encounters with disease and Euron Crowseye, but their deaths meant that the succession would pass to Balon Greyjoy, his oldest son from his second marriage. When Balon took the Seastone chair, he systematically undid everything his father had built:
“Yet even as a child, Lord Balon had burned to free the ironborn from the yoke of the Iron Throne and restore them to a place of pride and power. Once seated on the Seastone Chair, he swept away many of his lord father’s decrees, abolishing the taxes on salt wives and declaring that men taken captive in war could indeed be kept as thralls. Though he did not expel the septons, he increased the taxes on them tenfold. The maesters he kept, for they had proved themselves too useful to forsake. Whilst he did put Pyke’s own maester to death for reasons that remain somewhat obscure, Lord Balon immediately petitioned the Citadel for another.”
“Lord Quellon had spent most of his long reign avoiding war; Lord Balon began at once preparing for it. For more than gold or glory, Balon Greyjoy lusted for a crown. This dream of crowns has seemed to haunt House Greyjoy throughout its long history. Oft as not, it ends in defeat, despair, and death, as it did for Balon Greyjoy. For five years he prepared, gathering men and longships, and building a great fleet of massive warships with reinforced hulls and iron rams, their decks bristling with scorpions and spitfires. The ships of this Iron Fleet were more galleys than longships, larger than any that the ironmen had built before. In 289 AC Lord Balon struck, declaring himself the King of the Iron Islands and dispatching his brothers Euron and Victarion to Lannisport to burn the Lannister fleet. “The sea shall be my moat,” he declared, as Lord Tywin’s ships went up in flames, “and woe to any man who dares to cross it.” (WOIAF)
Balon’s regime cannot be understood as anything but a counter-revolution against Quellon’s New Way, both in domestic and foreign policy. And as fans of ASOIAF know well, for all of Balon’s preparations – his construction of the Iron Fleet to try to match the superior naval technology of the mainland – his rebellion went no better than that of Dalton or Dagon. Despite an early victory burning the Lannister fleet at anchor, Balon’s war ended with the Iron Islands comprehensively invaded, his own castle stormed, and most of his line ended by fire and sword.
The root of the defeat was twofold: first, a political miscalculation and second, an even more significant strategic error. According to George R.R Martin, Balon mistakenly believed that “Robert, as a usurper, might not have the strong support of the other lords the way that a Targaryen king would have.” The problem here is that, however much he might have been a usurper, Robert had fought his way onto the Iron Throne with the support of four Great Houses of Westeros who made up a powerful military bloc. Moreover, at no point did Balon reach out diplomatically to those Houses who stood outside the bloc – the Tyrells of Highgarden and the Martells of Sunspear – to build a secessionist coalition that could have had a fighting chance against Robert’s alliance, especially if the Tyrells’ ships could have blocked the passage of the royal navy around Dorne. Even if he had tried, it wouldn’t have worked; the Tyrells and the Martells might not have loved Robert, but Balon Greyjoy’s open declaration that he would return to the Old Way meant that the Ironborn were once again hostis humani generis and represented a threat to both the Reach and Dorne. But Balon was far too much of a romantic to see how his new-Old Way was harming his own prospects, and so he never even tried.
The second error was a military one, although I would argue it too was founded in the delusions of the new-Old Way. While Balon “thought he could defeat Robert at sea,” at the end of the day the Iron Fleet only numbered a hundred warships – the royal navy was twice this size, and Robert could also call upon the navies of Gulltown, White Harbor, and Storm’s End just within his own coalition, and as it turned out, it wasn’t hard to persuade the Redwynes and Hightowers that allowing piracy to prosper on their northern border was a bad idea. Even on naval terms, the Iron Islands simply cannot hope to win an extended conflict with the mainland, especially when you have a gifted commander like Stannis Baratheon who can wield superior numbers with efficiency. But even sweeping all of this aside, Balon’s strategic insanity can further be seen in the fact that the first thing he did after burning the Lannisport fleet was to attack Seagard. The Iron Islands were already highly unlikely to win their naval war to begin with, but to squander their limited manpower in a futile attempt to recreate Harwyn Hardhand’s empire in the Riverlands at the very same time is one of the worst blunders imaginable.
And so it goes to the present day, with the Iron Islands constantly throwing itself into military disasters again and again, believing that this time the Old Way will win out. And in their desperation to somehow make the world resemble their fantasies, they have turned to Euron Crowseye, who cares nothing for petty conquest and who seeks to ascend to heaven on a bonfire of their souls…
While the Iron Islands has had various ill-defined civil wars, they lack the well-development inter-familial rivalries that we’ve seen in previous installments in this series. This is rather odd, given that you’d think the Iron Islands’ long history of kingsmoots, civil wars, and brutal murders would have produced some long-lasting grudges.
Instead, the main internal rivalry of the Iron Islands is the conflict between the Old Way and the New, a conflict that often creates divisions between generations and within families. While one might think that the more abstract and ideological nature of the clash would make it less violent, but world history shows us otherwise – while blood feuds and vendettas have their long-burning tendencies, there’s really nothing to match the intense violence of an ideological conflict.
Thus, in the name of the Drowned God or in the name of “progress,” Ironborn have axed, drowned, mutilated, burned, tortured, and otherwise brutalized each other in with the gleeful abandon of the justified and legitimized: Galon Whitestaff and Erich the Ugly, Urragon Badbrother and Torgon Latecomer, Horgan Priestkiller and the followers of the Drowned God, the Shrike and Harmund the Handsome, and on and on.
At the same time, one of the dynamics that’s impossible to miss in the Historical Development of the Iron Islands is that the New Way is constantly undercut by the Old Way’s appeal to tradition until a crisis point is reached in which its progress is completely reset by a sudden resurgence of the Old Way that leads to a complete disaster. One of the underlying problems seems to be that the New Way is largely a project of elite reform (revolution from the top down, if you will) that lacks a firm social base. Given the large numbers of Ironborn who work as merchants, artisans, and fishermen, this seems like an obvious mistake – what is needed here is some sort of Reformation-like event that combines ideology and social group formation to permanently mobilize and organize these potential forces in society into a constituency.
Despite the fragility of the New Way, it looks positively functional in contrast to the constant failure of the Old Way. So why is it that the Old Way keeps failing? Well, internally, we see the tension between the aggressive instincts of the warrior caste and the desire for security and stability among the priesthood – hence why we go from two kings to one king, kingsmoot to inheritance, all before the Andals arrive. For a tradition that’s supposedly eternal, the Old Way actually has some of the highest rates of political change in Westeros, especially in comparison to the improbably long-lived royal dynasties of the mainland. Externally, we get a conflict between the imperatives of tradition and the imperatives of realpolitik – the former demands that the Ironborn act as hostis humani generis and try to conquer the world at the same time, the latter notes that if they try this, more powerful nations will not only defeat them abroad but follow them home and take their revenge on the home islands.
What explains this phenomena? Here is where we get to the idea of “hollow strength” that I mentioned before: “hollow strength” is a situation in which a nation is stronger than its rivals due to unusual (and often external circumstances. One of the classic examples of “hollow strength” is French military strength in the interwar period, which was heavily dependent on maintaining German disarmament.
My belief is that, contrary to the argument in the fandom that thralldom allows the Iron Islands to punch above its weight, thralldom and the Old Way have actually been holding back the Iron Islands. Here, the historical parallel is to Sparta. The origins of Spartan power in the Peloponnese began with their conquest of Messenia in the 7th century BCE – with the land seized from the Messenes and their population reduced into helots, each Spartiate could have their own plot of land and an unpaid and unfree labor force to work it for them, creating the basis for the professional military caste that made up the Spartan phalanx, which would go on to conquer most of the Pelopennese and eventually almost all of Greece, and give Frank Miller and Zach Snyder happy feelings.
You may be asking, isn’t this an argument for thralldom, not against? Well, the problem with the Spartan system is that, when you set up your social hierarchy with the overwhelming majority of the population working to keep a narrow warrior elite sitting around idle so that they’re always available for war, you actually massively limit your military reserves. Yes, the Spartiates were some of the best infantry in the world, but at its height, Sparta could only muster 8,000 of them – thus the idea of “hollow strength.” As long as the Spartans could keep the periokoi (official second-class citizens), helots (state-owned slaves), and other inferiors down through terror, and the Spartiate army remained intact, the system could just barely hold together.
But the system also meant that losses couldn’t be replaced – especially since Spartiates married late and weren’t allowed to live with their wives until they were thirty, demotions for cowardice or failure to pay your dues to the communal mess were common, and casualties in battle would have an spiraling effect as dead Spartiates failed to sire heirs. So it was simply a matter of time before the hollowness of Spartan strength was shown: the Battle of Leuctra, which I discuss above, only involved the loss of perhaps a thousand Spartiates…but that represented a tenth of total Spartan manpower. And then when the despised helots of Messenia and Arcadia revolted, the Spartans lost both land and labor they needed to keep an entire class of men living without working.
Well, the same is true for the Iron Islands. The Ironborn, especially the followers of the Old Way, believe that “amongst the ironborn, only reaving and fishing were considered worthy work for free men. The endless stoop labor of farm and field was suitable only for thralls. The same was true for mining.” (WOIAF) This attitude massively limits economic development, but it also means that there are large sections of the population that the Iron Islands cannot mobilize in times of war, and the Ironborn aren’t numerous to begin with.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
And this brings us to the strengths and weaknesses of the Ironborn: they’ve got shock and mobility on their side. They can (and do) attack anywhere where their narrow-hulled longboats can reach before the levies of the mainland can be raised, achieving the element of surprise. Likewise, their mobility allows the Ironborn to concentrate the whole of their force against only a portion of their enemy’s strength, achieving local superiority.
But the problem of the Ironborn is that they have limited numbers. Contrary to fandom estimates that the Ironborn have thirty thousand men, there is no textual basis for this figure. Harwyn Hardhand, making use of the increased military resources that Qhorwyn the Cunning had bequeathed to him, landed in the Iron Islands with only three thousand men. Balon Greyjoy launches his invasion of the North with a grand total of thirteen thousand men, which is pretty damn close to Elio Garcia’s estimate of 15,000.
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.