In Defense of Balon Greyjoy. Wait, WHAT?

Posted: December 16, 2013 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV

Warning: I’m talking HBO’s Game of Thrones here, and I won’t be talking about anything that hasn’t been shown in the television show (or strongly hinted.) I won’t be having any spoilers for future plot points involving the secessionist self-crowned King of the Iron Islands, the butt that sits on the Sea-Stone chair, Balon Greyjoy.


Pull that Goddamn Rope! And That Other Goddamn Rope!

Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of House Greyjoy. But I think that they are a great part of the story. I just wished that they’d joined with Robb Stark and the North in a coallition against the Lannister-led regime. But I’ve been thinking on this, and maybe that wouldn’t have made sense. Balon Greyjoy probably made the right call in attacking the undefended North.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to assume, dear reader, that you’re up to speed on the Iron Islands, Balon Greyjoy’s previous rebellion, and how his son Theon was held hostage as a ward of Ned Stark in Winterfell for a decade. Should you want a refresher, I’ve provided this helpful recap (there are no spoilers other than for the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, it’s safe to read if you up to date on the show.)

When Theon came to offer to his father the terms of Robb Stark, the King in the North, I was dismayed when Balon had other plans. Rather than attacking the Lannisters by surprise, he intended to attack an easier target of opportunity. Since we see the chapter through Theon’s eyes, much of Balon’s reasoning seems to be based on shallow reasoning. Balon is offended by how the Starks have raised Theon to be somewhat soft, and foppish (in Balon’s eyes.) Balon is offended by the language of Robb’s offer: that Robb would give him a crown. Balon’s position, echoed in the Ironborn culture, was that something given is of no value, the only thing that has value is the thing that is taken.


Balon would take his crown. He would earn it by striking at a hated enemy. The North.

This seemed extremely pissy of Balon when I read the book the first time, and it still rather rings true when seeing it presented on HBO’s Game of Thrones. But it seemed to make more sense to me on television, since I wasn’t so close to Theon’s point of view on the show as I was when reading his experience unfold.

Balon wanted independence for the Iron Islands, and he wanted his own crown, not to sit on the Iron Throne of Westeros (though some confused television entertainment writers mistook this fact.) Robb Stark also wanted independence for the North, his own crown, and not to sit on the Iron Throne of Westeros. He just wanted Joffrey off it. It seemed to me, that these two wayward kings could ally with a Baratheon, *any* Baratheon, and work to kick out the Lannisters.

But I eventually came to realize that booting out Joffrey was not in Balon’s best interests. Balon had tried to secede from the Seven Kingdoms before, after Robert’s rebellion. With the overthrow of the long-reigning Targaryen dynasty, Balon must have felt that there wasn’t sufficient goodwill and potential for cooperation in the post-rebellion kingdoms to beat down another rebellion from the remote Iron Islands. He was wrong.

At the time of the series, the kingdoms were splintered and fighting among themselves. As long as Joffrey was on the throne, this period of chaos could only help the Ironborn secure themselves as a sovereign state. To do so, they would need access to more resources. With Robb Stark bringing the bulk of his fighting men south into the Riverlands, the North was weak and vulnerable. It just made sense.


Are You Sure You’re My Son? You Really Do Look Like the Milkman. I’m Doubly-Glad I Had that S-O-B Drowned.

Balon was not attacking the North with the goal of conquering it, or as a springboard to reclaim the old might of the Iron Islands (remember smoking, melted Harrenhal? The last king of the Iron Islands died there roasting.) He wanted a secure and free island kingdom, and attacking the Lannisters would not provide that.

This might seem a bit off-topic, but please bear with me. My workplace office is filled with a reasonable amount of wonderful people who watch Game of Thrones, and play boardgames. We occasionally play boardgames at lunch. Because we can do what we want at lunch. Stop looking at me like I’m a slacker. Sometimes we’ll play a game that is sufficiently complicated that it requires several lunchtimes to finish.

Earlier this year, we completed two games of A Game of Thrones: the Boardgame. Yes, we were playing the Game of Game of Thrones. Get all that laughter out now. None of us died, even though we all couldn’t win.


In the first game, I was House Greyjoy. In the second game, I was House Stark. It pretty much cemented my understanding that House Greyjoy isn’t going to win the Game of Thrones, but they can certainly do better fighting in the North and keeping what they’ve taken than striking at House Lannister and getting mixed up in trying to hold onto territory in the middle of Westeros.

(House Baratheon won, both times.)

Now, a game is a game, and the books are the books (and the television show blah blah blah you get the point), but I think the game as a simulation is not that far off from the realities of warfare that Balon was considering when he was making his plans. With the Seven Kingdoms at war now that Robert was dead, it was the right time to carve out his kingdom, and hold it a few years while the dust settled. The longer they could be free and free to build up, the more likely they could weather the eventual backlash when power reconsolidated at the capital.

So, Balon Greyjoy, you might be a creep and I’m mad at you for taking on the Starks when they asked for help. But I understand. You do not sow. You only reap.

Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.

Images of Balon aboard ship and Balon crowned were found respectively at:

I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2013 Some Rights Reserved

  1. momninate says:

    You do have to admire the Greyjoy’s strategy, right? I don’t love the Greyjoys, Balon or his son Theon, but if you look at it from the point of view that, well, it is a game of thrones and most of them aspired to be kings themselves, the Greyjoys struck at just the right moment. Sure, you still don’t love them even now that they have Winterfell. Still. Good thinking for the Greyjoys.


    • First off, thank you so much for commenting on my Balon Greyjoy post!

      I’m not Team Greyjoy, but I think it’s fair to look at the various houses and see what rationale drives them.

      Again, thank you for the feedback. Right on!


  2. Balon *should* see no advantage in helping anyone consolidate power, as a consolidated power will only crush him in the end. His only real play is to keep Westeros fractured, a collection of smaller kingdoms. IMHO, he failed, by attacking the homelands of the Northern Army, the only one besides Tyrrel which could hope to create stasis with the Lannisters. He should have sold himself to whomever was weaker at any one time: the North, Lannister or Tyrrel. Only by keeping all 3 in play could he survive as an independent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent comment. It’s certainly not in Balon’s best interests for the remaining kingdoms to sync back up.

      Really, the only advantage that the Ironborn have in keeping themselves independent is their experienced navy, to prevent armies from being moved from the Westeros mainland to the isles, but that doesn’t seem sustainable if they have no foothold on the mainland as well. (Sadly, I don’t think the show is going to be following much of the Ironborn plot from the books, so I won’t be able to keep writing Ironborn essays. Maybe.)


  3. Max says:

    How exacly will Balon Greyjoy get an independent state by attacking the North? I have some points that may need your clarifications:
    1. The Greyjoy’s motto is “We do not sow”. That’s right, they don’t tend the fields, they don’t work the mine, they take from the others, they pay the iron price. Rape, pillage and burn is their lifestyle, and that lifestyle is not going to be tolerated by any Westeros kingdom, be it Stark, Lannister or Baratheon. When the mess is over and someone’s ass is on the Iron Throne, they will be crushed yet again, just ask Ned and Robert.
    2. Taking an empty Winterfell is easy work for anyone, but how are they going to keep the North? They’re, in Yara’s words, hundreads of miles from the sea, which remove them from their greatest advantage. The Northmen hate their guts for being ungrateful backstabbing bastards (thanks, Theon). Hell, Ramsey retakes Winterfell with a few hundreds men.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thanks for the question! Much of what I about to type is conjecture, but some is backed up in the books, or follows from real-world-ish stuff.

      It’s not an easy row to hoe, for the Ironborn in keeping their secession viable. Especially since the Greyjoy’s Do Not Sow.

      But that’s the Greyjoys. The Iron Islands might be poor, but they have to have some kind of resources or else they’d all have starved in the past 300 years. They’re not Iceland. Although the Greyjoy’s don’t sow, the Ironborn do what they need to do to survive. They have a badass ship manufacturing process, apparently, unless the Drowned God magically gives the boats, something I’d be willing to imagine if only to have more magic in the environment. So someone on the Islands are farming, even if it’s crappy farming.

      Because they’re great navigators, they have some ability to make trading work for them, and bring stuff back to the Islands, which might attract other traders (we know Theon was brought to Pyke on a trading ship, so there’s some commerce.)

      Since the Ironborn excel at naval combat, and a large collection of non-Ironborn Westerosi ships were destroyed at the battle of Blackwater, they currently can prevent any naval blockades, incursions, etc. They can dictate naval terms in the Northwest (the Tyrells probably still have some ships, I’m not saying that there’s no one else on the water in the western seas.)

      We’ll ignore Theon’s capture of Winterfell, which does have symbolic significance but no strategic value to Balon. By controlling Moat Caillin, the greatest defensive position along the southern border of the North kingdom, Balon cut off the North from any southern reinforcements (so they’d have to take ships from the southern-east coast up to the northern-east coast.) But Balon controlled the western coast. Robb had already taken the bulk of the northern fighting men and they were trapped below the Neck (well, trapped is too strong a word, they were stuck in the Riverlands, which was friendly territory until the Freys made things unfriendly.)

      Tywin was unwilling to engage Balon with Lannister ships, because why would he? Balon was doing him a favor in weakening Robb symbolically by cutting off the North and lowering morale of his men. Balon also could negotiate with Tywin: Don’t screw with me, or I’ll make things easier for the North and withdraw.

      As long as the seven kingdoms were fighting, that extended the time that Balon wouldn’t be messed with.

      The longer that the conflict goes on, with Ironborn not having to fight, and while stockpiling supplies from the western part of the north, fortifying their position, the more stronger they’d be when things settled down.

      And winter is coming. No one wants to fight a land war in winter, and the Ironborn’s coastal dominance guarantees supply lines, and the ability to move troops great distances to harrass vulnerably areas up and down the coast.

      The longer the islands remain free, the longer that they could remain free. Highgarden might strike a deal with the Ironborn, or the Martells of Dorne might decide that they could secede as well in fact, instead of the shadowy secession they’d already done, being an almost independent principality.

      The Ironborn, even though they’d only had those little islands, had once parlayed their naval prowess into a formidable kingdom, gathering tribute from the entire coast of Westeros (allegedly) and were mighty enough to have conquered the Riverlands, directly in the middle of Westeros, separating the various other kingdoms. There is where they built the formidable fortress of Harrenhal, which ended up a tomb for Black Harren’s descendants when Aegon came with dragons to burn the stone towers.

      So, in the face of a non-united Westeros, I give the Ironborn a chance to make their bid for independence work.


      • Max says:

        Those are all possible scenarios Balon could make use of to advance his cause, but that’s the problem. Any leader worth his salt will do what you have outlined. Anyone but Balon. He insulted his only surviving son, ignored his plea for an alliance with the North, or any noble house for that reason. Balon could not think out of his outdated “We do not sow” notion. The Ironborn might be resourceful or even cunning on the sea, but if their leader remains an idiot, there’s not much they can do. Westeros might be roasted alive by dragons but when the dust settles, there’s nowhere for Balon to hide. Ship can be built, men can be trained, Balon can’t hide behind his fleet forever, But I agree that he could make something out of this mess, but not for long.


        • Yeah, but I think Balon is doing what I outlined. He captured Moat Caillin and the western coastline of the North, and Tywin went on record saying that he wouldn’t move against Balon since it wasn’t in Lannister interests.

          An alliance with the North would have then committed Ironborn into attacking Lannisport and other Lannister targets, which was how Balon lost Theon’s older brothers. We understand that Balon was an ass to Theon, but sending him on raids along the coast was a way to give him action and experience without putting his male heir in too much danger.

          Obviously, this did not work out for Balon, as Theon fell into Ramsay’s hands.

          Anyway, I don’t see Balon as inflexible as you suggest, since he survived Robert’s crushing of his rebellion. Robert had no patience for fools or weak opponents, but the strong (like Ser Barristan) he embraced as worthy opponents and pardoned.

          Balon earned Robert’s respect. Robert certainly didn’t have to allow him to continue to be the Lord of the Iron Islands after rebelling, so there was something that Robert appreciated and respected in Balon. This was pretty much when Robert was at the height of his strength and faculties, before it all went to pot and he became a huge clown of a king.

          It’s okay that we have different takes on Balon, I totally agree that anything I’m saying is speculative at best. I do appreciate your take on the Ironborn, who are more interesting in the books than in the show.


          • Max says:

            I agree that Balon does have some skills as a leader or else he wouldn’t be one, but there is a huge difference between a pirate lord and a king. He was tough, he was competent at naval warfare but he was also enough of a fool to attack Westeros at the height of Robert’s reign. The same Robert Baratheon who defeated the Targaryens, killed Prince Rhaegar on the Trident, fought three battles in one day, and took the Iron Throne by conquest. That’s arrogant and stupid. His initial victories like Lannisport is due to surprise more than anything, when Robert had his shit together he steamrolled Balon. Robert could have some respect for him, but I pesonally think his decision to spare Balon was a mistake. Stick his head on pike right then and there and Robert could save himself a lot of trouble. At least Yara and Theon have more sense.
            About his actions in War of the Five Kings, the main point of debate is his decision to attack the North instead of an alliance with Robb. I do think it was a mistake. I agree that holding Moat Caillin give him a strategic advantage, but for what? The North is frankly a cold, barren wasteland with little resources and far from the sea. Keeping the North won’t do him much good. By allying with Robb he had the chance to attack and take Casterly Rock, the richest region in the Seven Kindom, and he actually had a good chance of winning this time. His defeat in Greyjoy’s Rebellion happened because Westeros was united under one king, now there are half dozen of self-proclaimed king fighting for the throne, Balon suddenly becomes a hot commodity many people would like have. There are so many things he could do that make him an actual king but he made the worst choice possible, probably out of spite.
            In short, a king you need to be tough, competent and willing to compromise, concede and negotiate when the needs arise. Balon doesn’t have the second part. His action so far had proved that. I might be biased against him but that what I think.

            Liked by 1 person

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