Who owns the North? The Umbers do, or so they allege.
This post will be talking in general about House Umber, one of the great northern houses in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and specifically about their large and hairy leader, the Smalljon.
He’s been quite a rascal. But I kind of get where he’s coming from.
Not Great, Smalljon
Let’s have a super fast recap about the Umbers.
In season one, Robb Stark called the northern bannermen to Winterfell, to prepare for marching south in defiance of the crown taking Ned Stark prisoner. The viewers were introduced to the head of House Umber, the Greatjon.
Although initially blustery and insubordinate, the Greatjon took a peculiar liking for Robb and became his biggest advocate, eventually proposing that Robb be declared King in the North. (I say peculiar because he only really took a shine to Robb after Robb’s direwolf Greywind bit off two of the Greatjon’s fingers. Hmmm, maybe this is why Theon was so devoted to Ramsay…)
The Greatjon (according to Season Six dialogue) died at the Red Wedding, and control of House Umber fell upon his son, the Smalljon.
At the end of the third season, Bran Stark ordered his brother Rickon to head for Last Hearth, the stronghold of the Umbers for safekeeping. Bran reassured Rickon that the Umbers were loyal bannermen and Osha the Wildling recounted that even the Wildlings knew what fierce warriors the Umbers were.
Unfortunately the Umbers were probably a bit more fierce than loyal. Early in Season Six, Smalljon Umber traveled to Winterfell to join into an alliance with Ramsay Bolton and the Karstarks. Smalljon handed over Rickon Stark and Osha to Ramsay as proof of his commitment, along with the severed head of Rickon’s direwolf Shaggydog for good measure. (In hindsight, maybe Bran should have sent Rickon and Osha to Bear Island and the fierce Lyanna Mormont.)
Not a cool move, Smalljon.
Now watch me (try to) defend him.
In Defense of Smalljon Umber
Okay, I’ll be tackling a few things here. I’ll be discussing the decisions made by Smalljon Umber, but also some of the complaints that the audience (notably book readers) had in general with House Umber as presented on the show. I don’t have the same emotional investment in defending Smalljon as I had with my defenses of Jon Snow or Olly, but he’ll be my poster-child for the discussion.
Let’s break things down into categories of complaints:
- The loyalties of House Umber
- Shaggydog? Noooo!
- Smalljon! You asshole! Don’t side with the Boltons! Don’t give them Rickon!
As mentioned before, the Greatjon seemed to be Robb Stark’s most loyal supporter (certainly more loyal than Rickard Karstark and Roose Bolton.) Bran specifically identified House Umber as a safe place for Rickon to seek refuge, and that should speak to their loyalties. If I can hint at the book storyline, the Umbers do seem legitimately loyal to the Starks. I’ll handwave away specific details (so as to not spoil people who want to read A Song of Ice and Fire), but in the books the Boltons are relying on the coerced loyalty of House Umber, since one of the Jons (I can’t remember if Greatjon is dead and Smalljon captive, or the reverse) is being held hostage as a guarantee of Umber loyalty.
(There’s a lot more subtlety, nuance, and shenanigans happening in the books. Go read them!)
So audience members familiar with the source material were a bit put off when the Smalljon appeared earnestly to be in a committed alliance with Ramsay Bolton.
To be fair, the initial meeting between the Smalljon and Ramsay started off promising enough. He was delightfully insolent to both Ramsay and the young Lord Karstark as he was pitching the alliance. I admit that I was hoping that the Smalljon was planning to bluster his way into their confidences and then set the villains up for betrayal. (I don’t think I was alone in this hope.)
But then in the very same scene, Rickon and Osha were turned over to Bolton control. That seemed a bit extreme to be part of a hypothetical scam being played on Ramsay.
So why would the showrunners have the Umbers be honestly part of the axis of evil with the Boltons and the Karstarks? Couldn’t they let the Umbers be part of the good guys? Or let them actually be part of a sting on Ramsay? (And therefore not turn over Rickon?)
Well, as unsatisfying as it might be, the show really didn’t have a good framework for that scenario. Let’s think about the North.
It seems unreasonable to assume that the Boltons and Karstarks could sufficiently cow the North without more allies. For the stakes to be credible that the Boltons would be able to enforce their will once Sansa had escaped them, the Boltons needed to be shown gaining ground.
In the books there was more nefarious support for Roose Bolton; he had quietly made some alliances and he could tentatively count on service from the Umbers thanks to the Umber hostage in his control. That wasn’t set up for the show, and really there were few northern houses even established for viewers to be candidates as part of Team Bolton.
Quick Quiz: Name all the northern houses mentioned by the show before Season Six.
I think the list would be:
Hornwoods, Cerwyns, and Glovers don’t even get mentioned (I believe) until Season Six (and if they do, it’s just in-passing.) Having any of those out-in-the-woods Houses suddenly be an evil force in the North would have been kind of out of left field. Who are these guys? the viewers might wonder.
We see a Manderly at the Red Wedding (book readers recognized the Manderly merman on one of the guests who gets killed) but that epic family is not introduced by name in the first five seasons and had they been brought in as evil Bolton patsies, I would have set fire to something and been typing in ALL CAPS for years to come.
The show can’t have the Mormonts join with the Boltons, that would have deprived us of Lady Lyanna Mormont and her all-around awesomeness.
I hope we’ll see the crannogmen from House Reed one day, but the little swamp-dwellers would never be teaming up with House Bolton; the relationship between House Stark and House Reed is super-strong.
The Karstarks were already in bed with the Boltons so with no one else to satisfyingly shore up the Bolton threat… the Umbers have to be nefarious by default. (I don’t have to be happy about it to recognize the reasons. Or at least rationalize a reason. The showrunners might not have given this as much thought as I have.)
I can understand people having a hard time letting go of the idea that the Umbers were secretly loyal, despite Smalljon’s villainous actions. Those desperate for the Umbers to be part of some anti-Bolton conspiracy carefully dissected the Smalljon’s interaction with Ramsay, clinging to anything that might support their position. Which brings me to Shaggydog.
(I apologize to animal lovers who are going to find the following picture unpleasant.)
When the Smalljon presented his high value captive Rickon to Ramsay, the new Lord Bolton was reasonably skeptical.
Ramsay: How do I know that’s Rickon Stark?
The Smalljon had brought along a bona fide to make his case, and tossed the head of Rickon’s direwolf Shaggydog on a nearby table.
Some show watchers were skeptical as well.
Watchers: How do we know that’s Shaggydog’s head?
I mean, Ramsay might have said that as well. But he seemed to accept that the Smalljon had a severed direwolf head, staining the dining room table. He didn’t question if it was actually a direwolf head. But some watchers did.
The hope was that the Smalljon had not actually killed Shaggydog, but had killed some other wolf, a regular sized wolf. It was hoped that this was all a trick. Those who believed the head was fake insisted that the head was too small.
I’m not exactly sure how a fake head would be useful if the Smalljon was pulling a fast one, since he was also turning over the legitimate Rickon to Ramsay.
Rickon: Hold on, you’re turning me over to Ramsay Bolton?
Smalljon: Relax, kid. The important thing is that I’ll only be pretending to have killed your direwolf too!
Rickon: Awesome! Hilarious prank on Ramsay!
To be honest, as heads go I don’t know why the head on the show is considered small. It’s hard to say one way or another, since we don’t have a good objectively-sized object (like a yardstick) in the frame as a reference to scale the head.
But it’s lying on a table. That’s clearly a table, not a bench.
Assuming the table is about 3 feet wide, the head doesn’t seem smaller in size than other direwolf heads we’ve seen in scale.
Later on, we see Shaggydog’s head on the ground, away from anything other than trampled grass for reference. One of the Game of Thrones podcasts I listen to has a host who prides herself on calling out continuity errors, and she was angry that Sansa and Jon didn’t question why Shaggydog’s head was so small.
Ramsay: Oh, and you know, I have Rickon.
Sansa: As if! How do we know you have Rickon?
*Smalljon* tosses the head of Shaggydog.
Sansa: Pshaw! That head’s totes too small.
Jon: Really? It’s kind of the same size as Ghost’s. When was the last time you saw Lady’s head up close?
Jon: Sorry! What did I say?
Ramsay: Pass the popcorn, boys. This is going to be fun.
In the podcaster’s mind, the head was obviously and objectively itty bitty, but no one on the show was treating it that way, making her call it out as a continuity error. I suggest that someone had made an error. Just not the show.
I understand why people were upset with the idea that Shaggydog might be dead and were hoping he was still alive. The direwolves just really feel important. After the episode, I saw a tweet accusing the Game of Thrones showrunners of not understanding that the direwolves are the souls of the Stark children.
I think the showrunners have a better insight into the metaphysical workings of Martin’s universe than we do. And I’ve never really been on board with that type of statement about the Starks and their animals. The direwolves are certainly connected to the children and probably connected to the abstract and passive-aggressive-at-best Old Gods, but are they the kids’ “souls”?
Did the children not have souls before the direwolves were born, around the time that Ned was beheading the Night’s Watch deserter? Seems like the kids were doing okay without souls before that then.
ANYWAY, it was uncool of Smalljon Umber to behead Shaggydog. Let’s just put that out there. But let’s agree that it was Shaggydog, RIP. Oh yeah, and Rickon’s dead too. So that’s bad, I guess.
Unfortunately, Shaggydog was just a victim of practical decision making on the behalf of Smalljon Umber.
Hard Decisions for a Hard Man in a Hard Situation
I doubt I’ll be able to drum up any sympathy for the Umbers; those who side with Ramsay Bolton are just going to be considered bad guys and on the wrong side of history.
Ramsay was probably one of the most irredeemably evil characters on the show (and in the books.) But in some ways, Ramsay was kind of a refreshing character in his simplicity. Most everyone else on the show has some shade of grey. And I think the Smalljon falls into that grey category.
Let’s examine Smalljon Umber’s situation at the Last Hearth (the Umber family stronghold.) His father and many of the Umber men rode off to fight in the south, and died, so they are undermanned.
The Boltons control Winterfell and the legitimized Bolton heir, Ramsay, married Sansa Stark, giving him a claim to the North based on the traditions that are there for stability and to reinforce the legitimacy of authority.
The Bolton army is still intact from the southern war, and are probably reinforced with mercenaries (I suspect Stannis’ sellswords abandoned him to go serve the Boltons, rather than ride around aimlessly in the North, of which there’s been no indication.) The Karstark army, allied with the Boltons, also was not greatly affected from the southern adventuring, since they abandoned Robb in mass after Rickard Karstark was beheaded.
Since Smalljon Umber told Ramsay that Jon Snow was leading an army of Wildlings that he’d let in through the Wall, this implies that the Smalljon did not have an accurate picture of what was happening at Castle Black.
I’m going with the assumption that Alliser Thorne, prior to assassinating Jon, let the word out that Jon had gone renegade to give Thorne some cover for his treacherous actions. Otherwise, the Smalljon’s statement doesn’t make any sense since Jon didn’t ask for the Wildlings to join in with him until after he’d gotten the letter from Ramsay, asserting that he had Rickon Stark. After the Umber transfer of Rickon.
When Wildlings come over the Wall, the Umbers are often negatively affected. Wildling raids forced the depopulation of much of the land immediately south of the Wall, and the Umbers are the northernmost northern house. As Smalljon told Ramsay, when the Wildlings come, we have to fight them.
Umber-Wildling conflicts happen with enough frequency that Osha specifically knew the reputation of the Umbers as badasses. It’s not unreasonable of the Smalljon to anticipate a fight.
So, to face the Wildlings, Smalljon Umber would need help from the warden of the North.
But there was a problem: what to do about Rickon?
The Umbers had been sheltering the last known living Stark child (not counting Sansa.) In general, it was looking bad for the Stark kids.
- Robb was dead
- Sansa was a fugitive from the crown’s justice, and had ended up controlled by the Boltons before her escape
- Arya was presumed dead
- Bran (assuming Rickon told the Umbers what Bran was doing) was North of the Wall and therefore could be assumed dead.
There did not seem much hope for the Starks, realistically. And Smalljon needed help immediately. The Wildlings had already been let through the Wall and would be moving southwards. When Winter came, Thenns could be feasting on Umber smallfolk. (Okay, we know that the Thenns are now probably all undead and still north of the Wall, but Smalljon doesn’t know that.)
I’m imagining these options for Lord Umber:
- Join with the Boltons, but continue to quietly shelter Rickon in secret
- Join with the Boltons, but send Rickon to Castle Black to be with Jon
- Join with the Boltons, but keep Rickon as a declared prisoner/hostage of the Umbers
- Join in fully with the Boltons, and turn Rickon over to Ramsay
Wait! (I hear you say!) Lord Umber doesn’t have to join with the Boltons! He could have reunited Rickon with Jon and joined in on cleaning house in the North, honorably!
Sure. He could have. But let’s assume Lord Umber wasn’t considering that. Maybe I’ll noodle that through in a bit, but let’s stick with my “joining the Boltons” decision tree for now.
Option 1) Continue the shelter Rickon
I’m honestly surprised that Rickon could have been kept a secret from Roose Bolton and Ramsay for as long as he was. It might not be that difficult to keep some random walnut-smashing lad incongnito. After all, one feral northern child looks much like another. But this one was accompanied by a direwolf. Keeping Shaggydog a secret must have been very difficult, especially with Bolton tax collectors coming around.
Once the Smalljon decided to join in with the Boltons, he wouldn’t be able to keep that a secret indefinitely. In the books, Bran did not send Rickon to the Umbers, because Bran knew that it would just be too dangerous, that no one, not even the Umbers, could be trusted. This kind of proves that point.
Option 2) Let Rickon go
This seems like a good plan, but once Rickon was with Jon, Jon could poison the alliance Lord Umber felt he needed with Ramsay by dropping the information that the Umbers had been sheltering Rickon. The last thing the Smalljon needed was for Ramsay to suspect him of skullduggery. Look at the map above. The Last Hearth is bordered by the Dreadfort and Karhold lands, i.e. the Boltons and Karstarks. Lord Umber can’t risk being caught between aggressive Wildlings and the armies of the Warden of the North.
It was too risky to release Rickon, even if it would have been an honorable thing to do, since the Smalljon could no longer afford to shelter Rickon.
Option 3) Keep Rickon as a hostage
That’s a fine idea, if only Ramsay cared about Rickon’s long term health. Since the Umbers were assuming that they’d be fighting the Wildlings, and needed support from the Boltons and Karstarks, this probably wasn’t a way to get assistance from Ramsay.
Option 4) Full commitment
Turning Rickon over to Ramsay kind of wipes the slate clean of sheltering him previously, and it did the trick of getting the Umbers into an alliance against the theoretical threat of the renegade Jon Snow and his army of Wildling monsters.
The problem as I alluded to before: the Smalljon was operating on the false assumption that Jon had brought in a Wildling army, and that the Wildlings were there to invade. But it was a reasonable assumption. Wildlings raid and invade. That’s what they’ve always done.
Defending the Defenders of the North
We all can agree that if the Smalljon had had a better grasp on the situation, maybe he would have chosen differently. The Wildlings were not truly invaders, they were refugees from a more terrible threat. Jon wasn’t looking to use them to conquer the North. On the contrary, it wasn’t until Ramsay delivered threats to Jon that he got on board with Sansa to try and challenge Ramsay for Winterfell.
But that situation wasn’t going to happen.
The Umbers were traditionally the first responders to any major Wildling incursion that got past the Wall and went further south of the Gift (the band of territory that parallels the Wall.) The news that thousands and thousands of Wildlings had been let in through the Wall, not breached or scaled over, but were let through, implied Night’s Watch complicity and demanded immediate action. The show never presented any evidence that the Umbers were properly briefed on the situation happening in the far North and as for the Wildlings, there had been recent atrocities committed by Tormund Giantsbane and his cadre in villages in the Gift and at Molestown.
Reports that the Wildlings had come to settle peacefully would have been laughed at at the Last Hearth.
On the other hand, the Boltons had just expelled a different set of invaders from the North, the Ironborn. Jon Snow and his Wildlings did not free Moat Cailin of the Ironborn that were preventing access to the North from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Ramsay Bolton did.
Robett Glover was not helped by Stark forces in recapturing his home of Deepwood Motte from Yara’s Ironborn, the Boltons did that. So from many yardsticks of northern tradition and custom, the Smalljon was in the right in joining his forces with men who had shed blood for the North against men who had recently shed innocent northern blood.
Lord Smalljon Umber will not go down in history as one of the great northern heroes (unless the Starks suffer an unpredictable turn of events and someone nostalgic for the brief Bolton rule gets to write the history books) but I think it’s fair to say that he was fighting for something more than just ambition and power.
We don’t know his thought processes when it came to betraying the trust of the Starks, but in my own contrary way, I’m inclined to give him some benefit of the doubt. It’s not in my interest to praise him, but I won’t be going out of my way to condemn him.
This of course does not absolve me from the ire and wrath of people who love the direwolves and insist that anyone working with the Boltons deserve only the harshest scorn. I completely understand that.
Who owns the North? Well, certainly not the Umbers. But I hope that now that the battle for Winterfell is over, the Snow King can make peace with the Umbers, allowing them to bend the knee, maybe he’ll take some hostages (who will be well-cared for, not the way Jaime was mistreated by Robb) and allow the Umbers to participate in what they’re good at and what they’re known for. Defending the North.
Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. — Ned Stark
(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.)
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