Game of Thrones: Addressing the Ironborn Deficiency

Posted: March 15, 2016 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , ,

This post (as the title suggests) will be talking generally about Game of Thrones and the people of the kingdom of the Iron Isles specifically. The Ironborn were largely absent from the show during season 5, so if you’re at least caught up with season 4 then this post still shouldn’t be all that spoilery.


We do not spoil. Because we’re all driftwood and salt.

Although I could be lying. It’s your choice to trust me or not.

So, no one likes the Ironborn, right? It’s cool either way, this is a safe place.

But I assume most people don’t like them. I mean, they’re all goons, yes? Marauding scumbags. Led by Father-of-the-Year, Balon Greyjoy. Totally reprehensible.

Although maybe it’s just a public relations issue. People might like them better if they had their own trailer. Like these guys:

Because people love that show Vikings on the History Channel.

But Vikings are so cuddly and cute!

I’ve seen some heated discussions online when people suggest that the Iron Islanders are essentially Vikings.  There’s a group of people who are best represented by this Venn diagram intersection.


Basically, the pro-Viking/anti-Ironborn group says these things:

  • Vikings as barbarians is a myth, they were a civilized people.
  • Iron Islanders are just monsters who run around raiding and doing nothing else. They should be wiped out!

Okay, Ragnar, take a breath. Let’s talk about this.

It’s true that the Vikings, if I can refer to ye olde Scandinavian/Norse peoples as Vikings, were not barbarians as we commonly use the term. They were fishermen, they raised livestock, they mined, they farmed. They had culture, they had art.

But let’s not ignore that they also had awesome military technology in the form of longboats.


Time to fish, farm, herd, mine, and other peaceful pursuits. Totally peaceful.

Those seaworthy ships had a long operating range, and their shallow draft hulls allowed for armed men to be brought right up to a coastal or riverside settlement. Right up to them, where raiders could disembark swiftly and attack the target location which would have had virtually no time to prepare for them.

The Vikings might not have been smelly, uncultured, horned-helm-wearing brutes (they had conical, unadorned helms) but they would raid. Back in the old fjords and so on, the Norse society basically had three classes: jarls (nobles), carls (freemen), and thralls (slaves.) Raids were a source of thralls, since many societies believed that it was better to get unpaid labor from someone else’s population.

Raids were also ways of evening out population disparities. If there was a surplus of men, lounging about and getting into mischief, sending them off on a Viking raid would either reduce the extra troublemaking boys or add wives to the population. Okay, maybe I’m over-simplifying that, but it would readjust the ratios of men and women.


So, Vikings certainly could be more than just pillagers (even though raiding was a profitable venture and a social safeguard) – isn’t that true of the Ironborn too?

Time for a quick recap of what we know about the Iron Islands from the show.

Legitimately one of the Seven Kingdoms (the Riverlands isn’t one of the seven, never having had a local king) the Iron Islands, like Dorne, is culturally distinct from the mainland’s social traditions.

Formerly wielding tremendous influence over Westeros (anyone living on the coastlines of Westeros would pay tribute or suffer raids – and the Riverland region in the center was a vassal state of the Iron Islands) Ironborn dominance in the land disintegrated when Aegon the conqueror destroyed the barracked army of Harren the Black at Harrenhal, along with Harren and his sons.


It’s a bit of a fixer-upper. So why is it valuable property in Westeros? It just is.

With the prosperity supported by mass tribute ended, the Iron Islanders had to sustain themselves with what poor bounty they could from their resource-limited islands. And by trading, since their culture was a nautical one. And with raiding and plundering abroad. Because, you know, their culture was a nautical one.

Pretty much like the Vikings.

But unfortunately we don’t get any narratives of plucky, blond haired, blue-eyed noble savages like we might see on the History Channel.

The show’s presentations of the Ironborn are, by and large, rather negative. Although Robb hoped that his foster-brother Theon Greyjoy father Balon to join forces, the elder Greyjoy instead attacked the North.

Balon browbeat Theon into participating in the hostilities, granting his son command of a disreputable and unsavory crew who eventually betrayed him.

The Ironborn all come across like a gang of criminals. Pirates, but not the dashing kind.

But, that’s not entirely true. In the fourth season, Yara Greyjoy led a team into the Dreadfort in an attempt to rescue her captive brother Theon.


We do not sow. We do line up in rows, though.

Unfortunately for Team Greyjoy, Theon’s personality had been subsumed by the identity of Reek, and he resisted the rescuing, forcing Yara to abort the mission.

Not only did the rescue fail, the execution of the raid on the show was not really the best. Ramsay was unrealistically impressive and Yara was made to look foolish and apparently afraid of hounds.

Let me take a moment to defend Yara at least.

Yara came to the Dreadfort to rescue Theon. She had a small force available to her, so she needed to get in, get Theon, and get out. Time was a factor and not one in their favor.

Getting in was easy. Had Theon wished to be rescued, they could have gotten him on the boat swiftly and broken out the anachronistic champagne. But Theon, or rather Reek, resisted. He refused to comply, and he fought back.

He bit Yara. Like a wild dog.

Thanks to the commotion, Team Ramsay arrived and he prepared to make use of the kennel’s assets against the Ironborn. Or as Mister Burns from the Simpsons might say, “Unleash the hounds!”


If they’re killing Boltons, they’re on my team. I just wish they were carrying real shields and not those swimming-kick-boards or whatever.

Ramsay’s dogs, slathering and baring their teeth, did give Yara pause. But not from fear. Yara’s too cool for that, you clowns.

Theon had just bit her and retreated into the safety of his dog pen. He was just one of Ramsay’s hounds now.

There was no point to stay and fight. Time to cut losses and leave before anyone ended up flayed.

The more interesting thing about Yara’s raid was not Theon’s behavior, or Ramsay’s over-the-top Achillean prowess, or Yara’s despair. It was that her team of Ironmen were all reasonably handsome and decidedly non-repulsive, unlike Theon’s original crew.


WHAT? You saying I’m not pretty? Really? Me mother says I’m very comely.

Sure, the crew we see when Yara first gives her speech to Balon, about picking a team of experienced killers and saving Theon… those guys looked pretty rough.

But the team on the actual raid all looked better.

Yara even had a handsome lieutenant with her in the battle, helmetless so we could get a good look at him.


I think the show was trying to lay the seeds of presenting the Ironmen in a slightly-more-neutral light, when before they were always the skeeviest. So why would that be?

The past five seasons have nearly caught up with the books, but there are large chunks of the fourth book that have not made it into the show (including a very significant book three event that should have happened while Robb Stark was still alive, dammit.) Based on casting and other news, it seems like Season Six will finally deal with storylines on the Iron Islands, and these rough and merciless characters might get some depth to them.

I’m delighted, because I’ve been sitting on several Ironborn posts that I can’t publish until certain things happen.

But like Balon the survivor, I can wait patiently for the right time.

So, these Iron Islanders: let’s rate them in relation to other groups in Westeros.

And the big issue:

It’s reasonable for viewers not to like the Ironborn. Worse than being unsavory, they’re also so drab.

Ironborn. More like Ironboring!


Boring are we? Would you prefer to be living in more interesting times?

But we can’t really ignore them or dismiss them. (Because that’s often when they attack.)

Hey! This is a brand new section, only recently added!

I write all my posts weeks before they get publilshed, because I’m too organized or whatever. But after I had put this post to bed, HBO released a nice long trailer. There was a lot of action, cavalry racing about, Bolton shield walls, the menacing Ser Robert Strong, all great.

And the trailer included some shots of Iron Islanders, gathering on windswept hillsides, Yara making out with some young lady, and (sorry for my crappy quality screen cap) this guy:


That’s a Danish actor allegedly cast to play a man from the Iron Islands (book readers know who he is) and is someone I’m interested in watching.

HBO… releasing trailers and making me go back and edit my posts to include the new stuff. Sigh.

(Not that I’m complaining. It just sounds like I am.)

(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) The rest are from the History Channel’s series Vikings. The awesome Venn diagram — I created that! Look upon my works and despair.

I make no claims to the non-Venn diagram artwork, but some claims to the text. So there. 

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2016 Some Rights Reserved

  1. KG says:

    Never realized that the Ironborn’s were that handsome until I saw your post and that image (the last but one) hmmmm… I am going blind ! Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Denise says:

    I think Yara’s enough to make up for all the Ironborn. Too bad she got given such a naff rescue storyline.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. joanna says:

    Apart from Yara, the Ironborn are a riffraff, pillaging, murderous, motley crew with visions of grandeur. A lazy bunch of reaving and raping good for nothings – “We do Not Sow”.

    Vikings on the other hand were murderous seafarers and excellent landlubbers. They did sow – they were good at both. They were so good at it that their ancestry can be found in every royal and commoner’s house throughout Europe today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Uh oh! It’s time for me to armor up and defend the Ironborn!

      Your We Do Not Sow reference is a good one, but that’s the Greyjoy’s words, not the necessarily the motto of the Ironborn. Since they’ve been out of power for 3 centuries, they have to have been doing some sowing, and paying the gold price in peace-able trading. Maybe they still respect not paying for luxury items (Balon’s complaints with Theon was his jewelry. No one pays the Iron Price for a sandwich. You want to have more sandwiches in the future.)

      So the Ironborn have to be behaving somewhat like the farming/mining/trading Vikings to.

      As for the Vikings having ancestry in so many royal and commoner’s house… that’s more of an indication of conquest and spreading that DNA around. Just ask Genghis Khan and the vast population of his descendants, his DNA is found throughout Europe and Asia.

      The Ironborn were great seafarers and landlubbers… they were so successful they were the priority target when Aegon put the dragons into play.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Inga Baranauskienė says:

    I hate the Ironborns but not because they are pillagers etc., but because they are poorly written – probably, the most inconsistent group in Westeros. Look, they live on a bunch of islands an there is not a single tree on them. Tell me, how can you have a fleet when you have no timber? They also are supposed to make life from pillaging. OK, but they have no connections to the Slavers’s Bay. Vikings mainly thrived on slave trade, because the Arab Caliphate consumed slaves in huge numbers. When it went into decline, so did the Vikings – they went from pillaging to state building and they were very good at that: not mentioning Swedish and Danish kingdoms, they created the Kievan Rus’ etc. Meanwhile, the Ironborn have no economical justification whatsoever.
    And their “politics”… If you are under oppression, you don’t act like Balon and you don’t treat people like Balon treats Theon. OK, Balon is a piece of shit, but others are the same: Theon’s crew betrays him in Winterfell, the garrison in Mote Calin kills their captain etc. No group could survive having such a low level of solidarity… So, for me the Ironborn are kind of deus-ex-machina, though the superb acting of the cast made them more believable in the show.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Inga, thank you for your comment! I agree that the Ironborn aren’t very well presented on the show. In the books, there’s more justification for the mutiny at Moat Caillin, and Theon’s crew are loyal, so the Iron Islanders get a raw deal.

      You make an excellent point about their islands, there must be trees for lumber, or else they’re importing lumber from elsewhere.

      It’s not that I love the Ironborn, but I love writing about them… I felt Balon made a solid move by taking on Robb, because in essence, he could keep the Lannisters from trying to reign him back in by threatening to ease up on the stranglehold on the North. It was in the crown’s best interest to allow the Iron Islands to remain independent.

      And I wouldn’t rule out the Ironborn having connections with slavers in Slavers Bay, we really haven’t had any information to make a solid case. (I suspect that’ll be addressed in Season Six.)

      Again, I really appreciate hearing from you, and thank you for reading my post.


      • Inga Baranauskienė says:

        Thank you for your answer and your post – your post are always great (I really liked the oned about Jon and Ygritte), And regarding the Ironbor, I like them better in the show, than in the books. When I watch the show, I can sort of imagine missing details myself.
        And anyway, it’s a good example that a fantasy world building is very complicated. GRRM knows English history, so everything he writes based on that is realistic and believable. However, when he goes beyond, problems become inevitable. But anyway, he does a great work in general and D&D makes it even better.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s nice to hear how much you like the show, that’s great. I don’t think D&D get enough credit in how they manage to adapt the show from the books.

          Thanks for your insights and sharing details of the Kievan Rus. One of my reasons for writing about Game of Thrones is to hear from other people about the show and you’ve given me something to read up on.


  5. Merlin says:

    An argument could be made about the similarities between Ironborn and Vikings, but similar arguments can be made for the Northmen and the Wildlings. Even more, if one is going to label these respective kingdoms and cultures according to some equivalent in our world, then what would all the rest of them be? The Rock? The Reach? The Vale (strikes me as more English than anyone else)? The Targaryens? Dorne? The Stormlands? The Riverlands? Each of the Free Cities, like Braavos? The Dothraki? The many, many, MANY other kingdoms of the past, not to mention the inhuman cultures? Nah… I don’t think one can apply simple labels to these cultures and have them be accurate in any way.

    But, to answer the poll, I’d say the Dothraki are the worst (I’ve read the World of Ice and Fire), and the Thenns eat people, so while the Ironborn are pretty bad… well, I’d say they’re not the worst of all. As for who’d I prefer run the North… I’m going with “Stark.”


    • I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of articles labeling the Vale as Switzerland, Highgarden as France, etc. Dorne is always compared to something like Moorish Spain. I’m not trying to say that there is a 1 to 1 correspondence between the Ironborn and the Vikings, but that it’s wrong to ignore the Viking vibe that’s there in the Iron Island set up.

      But the Ironborn are pretty bad, I agree with you. And not the worst…


  6. sb2711 says:

    Very interesting take. And don’t I love the title for the post. Hahaha 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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