Defending Theon Greyjoy

Posted: March 4, 2014 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This post will be covering events from the first three seasons of HBO’s excellent Game of Thrones. If you’re not caught up on the show, I recommend you skip this post, unless you don’t mind spoilers.

There are tons of characters with shades of gray in Game of Thrones. Some we like, some we hate, some we love to hate.


Dad’s Totally Going to be Impressed With Me. Sharp Dressed Man!

Theon Greyjoy is one of those characters who generates diverse reactions. I know people who are sympathetic to him, who downright hate him, who are fascinated by his journey, or who find his journey so awful that they hope he dies. The sooner the better, they would say.

I guess I’m more in the sympathetic camp, although I admit to finding him more sympathetic on the television show than in the books. I also find him whiny and entitled, but admittedly he has a lot of cause for complaints in the third season (and the second season too; what a messed up homecoming.)

Regardless how you might feel about him, I lump him in with other characters who have done terrible things but who I feel can be on a path to redemption…

Like Jaime Lannister…


Sure, I pushed a kid out of a tower. But chop off my hand, put me in a tub with Brienne, and all is forgiven!

Like the Hound…


Arrr, I might’ve killed Mycah the Butcher’s Boy, but it be a good thing I’m around for those Stark girls.

I’m not condoning the harm Theon did on capturing Winterfell or trying to cover up Bran and Rickon’s escape by killing and burning two innocent farmboys. Theon has to make some amends for that and having the hell tortured out of him by Ramsay Snow isn’t exactly what I want. I’d be delighted if his story eventually brought him on some path out of his personal darkness.

But that’s not the point of this article. I’m here to defend the one choice Theon made that most people have an issue with.

I totally support his choosing Balon Greyjoy over Robb Stark.


You heard me!

I’m sure you’re about to remind me that Theon was raised alongside Robb Stark almost like a brother, and Theon swore fealty to Robb when the hairy bannermen elected him King in the North. I’m aware of all that.

Before I begin my defense, I’d like to hear the Kingslayer’s opinion on oaths. Since he’s the expert.



At some point oaths collide and a decision has to be made to follow one course of honor at the expense of another.

Theon GREYJOY, Not Theon Northy-North

Theon wasn’t a northerner, he was from the Iron Islands. Although it was emotionally moving that he swore allegiance to his friend Robb, that level of fealty wasn’t really his to give.

Theon owed his loyalty to his father first of all.

On the trip from the mainland to Pyke, Theon was certainly one to brag about his rights as Balon’s son. In his mind, the North and the Iron Islands would secede as a unit, the former lords being kings in their respective domains. And when King Balon eventually passed, Prince Theon would ascend to the Sea-Stone chair.


But for Balon, now that his hostage son had been foolishly released from his captivity, this represented the opportunity to secure independence for the Iron Islands in a more straightforward way. Instead of weakly accepting a crown from his previous enemies, he would take his crown by force. By occupying the vulnerable and weakened North.

So Theon had two painful choices: betray Robb by being an obedient son, or become a traitor to his royal father by refusing to wage war on the enemy (or if he had even sent a warning letter to Robb, by providing aid to the enemy.)


Much like Sansa’s dreams of being queen blinded her to what was going on around her in the capital, Theon was possessed by a dream to become a king. Unfortunately, his dream of an alliance between the Iron Islands and the North was a hollow one. The only way for him to become king would be in a strong and independent Ironborn kingdom, and for that to happen the Ironborn needed to strike at the North.

In the past, I’ve broadly defended Balon Greyjoy’s preference for attacking the North as opposed to attacking the West. I maintain that it was a smart strategy.

Should Robb’s forces in the Riverlands prevail against the Lannisters, the Starks would have weakened the most likely force to counterattack the rebellious Iron Islands. With the North occupied by the Ironborn, Robb would be forced to make concessions to an aggressive Balon.

For the Lannisters to succeed against Robb by fully engaging with the Starks in the Riverlands, they would also be forced to negotiate and make concessions to Balon, who could cease occupying the North at any inopportune time, allowing a morale boost and fresh support to Robb’s forces.

Either way, Balon would be in the driver’s seat. Or maybe I should say, the longship helm.

Had Theon chosen Robb over his father, that would have been the end of any chance of ruling the Iron Islands. As one of Robb’s supporters, he might have been treated well by Robb and one day given lands and titles, but to an ambitious young man like Theon, that would have been painfully unsatisfying. He would never be king. And he would still be a turncloak.

Although his decision to support Balon over Robb makes me personally unhappy, since I’m all Team Stark, yo, I understand his decision.

The Brilliant but Bungled Capture of Winterfell

I might be going out on stormy seas here, but in some ways I think Theon went on to make at least one solid rational decision. Taking Winterfell was a master stroke.

Unfortunately, it was his compassion and Northern upbringing that was his undoing.

Because he had been raised by Ned, Theon had a somewhat naive approach in occupying Winterfell. Once Bran publicly yielded, Theon felt things would go his way because, well, people are supposed to respect when someone yields. Just ask Lommy Greenhands.


Dude, I Said I Yield. I Didn’t Say Stab Me in the Throat!

Since Bran had yielded, Theon did not treat him harshly. No dungeons for Bran and Rickon. Which certainly made it easier for Osha and Hodor to escape with the little lords. Theon was genuinely surprised that the boys had escaped, he’d expected them to behave. And unfortunately for Theon, their escape ended his chance to control the North in a conventional manner.

Yara (Asha) would have probably confiscated the boys as hostages and taken them to a secure location, since it wasn’t in the Iron Islanders’ best interests to commit to controlling points deep inland. That’s way too much *sowing*. The Greyjoy way would be *reaping*, they just needed to control strategic points close to the coast and collect tribute.

Theon had different ideas about warfare, and his ambition and pride pushed him to stick his neck out further than his family could support. Had he struck at Winterfell and abducted Bran and Rickon, that would have been a very different situation. So I give Theon partial credit as a commander. But partial credit isn’t enough in the Game of Thrones. There is no middle ground, dude.

Theon and Winterfell – Both Indefensible

I can’t defend Theon against everything. Staying in the castle was a losing proposition and there is no excuse for the murder of children. I do understand his motivation for trying to maintain control and the illusion of power, but I won’t defend it, can’t condone it, and I want Theon to take some heat for that.

When Theon was under siege at Winterfell and Maester Luwin was urging him to escape and join the Night’s Watch, I was excited. I wanted Theon to make that choice: take the black, turn over a new leaf. And even though Theon was worried that Jon Snow might kill him for what he’d done, I was kind of hoping that the two of their stories would again intersect, since they have so much in common.

But nope, he ends up here:

gameofthrones1366-1369170266 (1)

Can Theon be redeemed? Or is he destined to be a character who would best serve the overall story by dying as soon as possible?

Would it be hard for Theon to come back after his crimes against children? It seemed to work out for this guy:


Did It For Love!

And it seems to not be holding back this guy:


Don’t Do Nothing For Love! I’ Did It For Duty.

This guy hasn’t been established as a child-killer in the show, but who’s to say what the future could hold?


Kill A Kid? Show Me the Money.

Quick Unscientific Poll:

People should be careful what they’re wishing for, if they’re wishing for Theon to die soon.


“What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.

I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there. (Well, at least to the text I wrote. The Ironborn quote is GRRM’s obviously.)

© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved

  1. MikeOsaer says:

    My issue with the above (v fun to read, btw) is that given his being raised at Winterfell, trained at Winterfell, and entrusted by the new Lord of Winterfell to assist him in war… what did Theon have to gain long-term from betraying the Starks?! It didn’t make sense at the time and still doesn’t – Robb wasn’t after claiming the Iron Throne, but was out for retribution. With Eddard dead, Theon could have (hopefully) seen out the war and then decided for himself what he wanted. It was pride, greed and short-sightedness that did for him – not choosing family over friends.

    For all that though, I still hope he gets Ramsey by the balls at some point soon…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mace Olyvarr says:

      Long time? Theon stood to inherit the Iron Islands and become one of the 9 ruling Lords of Westeros and it was about choosing family over friends. I should also point out that he was equally raised in the Iron Islands.

      Another well written article. I agree with most everything that you said. Theon deserved to be punished for what he did when Bran and Rickon escaped (although I don’t think anyone deserves to be flayed), holding Winterfell was a mistake, taking Winterfell was a good plan and that as unfortunate as it is for Robb, Theon’s first duty was to his family. I’m also somewhat curious why the writers added the scene of him swearing fealty to Robb, because that wasn’t in the books. Anyways. Another very well written article.


    • Edwin says:

      Becoming one of the greatest Lords on the continent. What did he have to gain from choosing the North?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Mike, straight up: thanks for saying it was fun to read. That’s more important to me than agreement. I really appreciate it.

    I guess the point I was trying to make: Theon was really invested in eventually being the King of the Iron Islands. On the trip to Pyke, while he was having sex with the captain’s daughter, he was going on and on about how superior the Ironborn were, and how lucky she was to be having sex with a future king.

    Of course, the reality was a bit different.

    Anyway, the long term goal of siding with Balon: to be the king of the independent Iron Islands. Siding with Robb would make him Robb’s non-Northerner adviser, and a traitor to his people.

    I don’t think Theon would have much of a choice once he was in Pyke and Balon had declared his war plans on the North. He’d have to defect to rejoin Robb, and that would make him persona non grata to the Iron Islanders.

    But I totally agree with you that pride, greed, etc. was the lever that forced the decision. I was just framing it as a Love vs. Duty debate (it’s still not a bad framework) since I’ve brought that up in talking about Robb and Jon Snow.

    But from a medieval point of view, where lordlings would grow up fostered in other families for diplomatic or political reasons, but still might be expected to one day go to war against those people if that’s how the winds blow, I don’t think Theon’s choice was irrational given the possible rewards of sitting on the Sea Stone chair.

    Hey, I want to thank you for your feedback. I appreciate and respect what you are saying. I probably haven’t convinced you, but that’s one thing I like about Game of Thrones. The people and the situations are so complex, we can totally have differing opinions and still enjoy the show.


  3. nice post! I can definitely understand your POV regarding Theon. I wish Joffrey would go up against Ramsay Snow. That would be interesting. As for Theon, I just can’t get over the fact that he’s Lily Allen’s kid brother. Ha! He does a really good job coming up with contorted facial expressions. I’m wondering if Yara’s plot to rescue him will be successful, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Theon just kills himself after that.


    • Hey Alina, thanks for your comments.

      We didn’t see much of Theon’s dad and sister in Season Three, but I was happy to see them. Balon is just so creepy and cold, but Yara can be surprisingly affecting. Her speech to Theon in season two, asking him not to die so far from the sea was really touching, so I’m looking forward to what the show has in store for her in the upcoming season.


  4. I got into GoT late in the game, and Theon is strangely, one of the most compelling, heart-breaking characters for me. Why? Because he, like the hound, like Jon Snow (but perhaps worse) has been given such a raw deal. A boy without a true home. He is also a bit like Tyrion: given up on by dear old dad. I absolutely loved his speech to his father, about giving up his ‘only boy’, leaving him alone for 9 years. His father is typical Thrones parental assery: a grasping, power hungry man who would rather emasculate his own son than ever admit to the part he played in Theon’s fate. Dude can’t handle the truth. And regarding the Starks: Theon may have been treated kindly, but he is like a step son, once removed, with a vague threat of death standing behind it. Unlike Jon Snow who shares at least some parental lineage, he will never be ‘one of them’. He isn’t allowed to fully express his love or pride of his real family’s customs. When the dire wolves are found, each stark child – even Jon Snow, the ‘bastard’ gets one. There are tons of small ‘separate and kinda unequal’ moments, that point towards his outsider status. So he cloaks himself in pride and attempts to grab power wherever he can, because he’s never been in the position to have it, having known no true home. So: I am pro Theon and forgiveness and hoping for a redemptive storyline. And DEAR GOD, do I hope he snaps out of the ‘Reek’ madness and takes out flipping Ramsey. Now that’s a character we can all safely hate!


    • Thank you so much for this comment! I appreciate people willing to extend the concept of forgiveness to Theon, who I really feel sorry for.

      I’ll respond in more detail here later, but thank you again for this feedback.


  5. KG says:

    I was totally against Theon because for me betrayal of trust is a big issue and I can never get over it. (As for Jaime, I can’t forgive him ever for pushing that kid down, never!) But even then I didn’t want him to suffer with someone like Ramsay. Having said that, your post convinced me to give him a chance at forgiveness.


    • Theon’s betrayal of Robb is understandably maddening. It was kind of a hard thing for me to decide to try and defend Theon at all, so I completely get where you are coming from.

      Thank you for bringing up Jaime and the reminder about his original evil deed in the series, pushing Bran out of the tower. In February 2015, I’ll be writing up something about the Kingslayer, with forgiveness as a theme.

      Thank you so much, by the way, for going back to these older posts, I’m glad you finished reading the books and could check out my articles! Welcome!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ctrent29 says:

    I had never felt any anger over Theon’s “betrayal” of Robb. Frankly, he had no real reason to be “loyal” to Robb. He had spent half of his childhood and some of his adulthood as the Starks’ hostage. That is exactly what he was . . . a hostage. I had a problem with Theon’s Season 2 actions after he took Winterfell. Otherwise . . . no. I saw no reason why he should have been loyal to the Starks.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ctrent29 says:

    I guess I’m more in the sympathetic camp, although I admit to finding him more sympathetic on the television show than in the books. I also find him whiny and entitled, but admittedly he has a lot of cause for complaints in the third season (and the second season too; what a messed up homecoming.)

    I didn’t care for Theon’s sacking of Winterfell or the murder of those two boys to hide the fact that he could not find Bran and Rickon. But . . . I saw no real reason why he should have been loyal to the Starks. He was their hostage, not their guest, a “bastard” like Jon Snow or Ned, a distant relative or an adopted son. A hostage. He did not owe the Starks a lick of loyalty. In fact, Theon would have been expected by Westeros society to be more loyal to his family than even Robb, whom he had befriended.

    As for Theon being entitled . . . he was high born. I have noticed, while watching the series, that most of the high born characters had a tendency of harboring an entitled attitude. Even the Starks.


Speak Your Mind (Please) (Oh, first timers will be Moderated...)

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.