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.
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…
Like the Hound…
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.
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:
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:
And it seems to not be holding back this guy:
This guy hasn’t been established as a child-killer in the show, but who’s to say what the future could hold?
Quick Unscientific Poll:
People should be careful what they’re wishing for, if they’re wishing for Theon to die soon.
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