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.
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.
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