The only good Balon Greyjoy is a dead Balon Greyjoy.
Okay, this post will be talking about Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Specifically, I’ll be talking about Balon Greyjoy, the former King of the Iron Islands. I’m kind of glad he’s dead.
Whoa! Usually I don’t drop spoilers about characters on Game of Thrones at the very top of the post. Yeah, yeah, I know. But there are some things that are hard to keep quiet about – and I’ve had to keep quiet about Balon’s demise for a very long time. Hopefully you’ll understand as I explain.
Balon Greyjoy Finally Meets Up with the Drowned God. FINALLY!
I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot. It’s not that I harbored any particular ill-will towards Balon Greyjoy. It’s just that he lived so very, very, very long – on the show.
In the books, Robb Stark outlived Balon in the War of the Five Kings. Stannis outlived Balon. Those three leeches in season three, one for Robb, Joffrey, and Balon? As far as we know, that magical voodoo might have worked, and Stannis lived to see all of his enemies die.
On the show, Balon outlived Robb Stark and even outlived Stannis! It was so strange that Balon kept going and going, even His Grace King Joffrey got confused.
In some ways this change was a big deal: the show’s delay of Balon’s death had ripples that altered storylines. In book canon, Robb Stark got word that Balon Greyjoy was dead while the Stark/Tully host was en route to the Twins for Edmure Tully’s wedding. This was exciting news to the Young Wolf since he was currently locked out of the North by invading Ironmen.
Robb shrewdly predicted that the Iron Islanders would have to have a Kingsmoot, and that the commanders of the Ironborn would be heading home for the political conventioneering, leaving the dregs of their crew to defend the captured northern holdings. The moment was at hand for the Stark forces to re-establish control in the North. You know, right after the wedding.
Sadly for Robb, Roose Bolton had different ideas for securing the North. With the blessings of Tywin Lannister.
Since the show did not opt to kill off Balon in a timely manner, Robb’s grand plan for the post-wedding was instead to capture Casterly Rock. That’s it. Just, you know… capture Casterly Rock.
So in a way, Roose Bolton heroically prevented all of the northern forces (and Freys, if they’d joined up as Robb hoped) from dying in some pointless siege that couldn’t possibly have succeeded.
I don’t have a large heartburn over this, but the revisions to the story do make Robb seem a bit less on top of things, strategically.
Balon’s extra-life doesn’t just affect our viewpoint of Robb as a commander, it also affects another king’s reputation negatively. Balon himself.
Yeah, I know. Usually living longer equates with success, but Balon’s longer life on the show really tarnished his rep. Allow me to explain. (Or bloviate. I’ve been accused of being long-winded on these posts. I apologize.)
Live Fast, Die Young. Or At Least Earlier.
In the books, (during a dark and stormy night) Balon was reportedly knocked off of one the swaying crazy bridges between the towers on his Pyke stronghold. Book readers have long assumed that he was assassinated. The show supported that theory.
Balon dies earlier, but he dies more or less at the top of his game. His Ironborn controlled the western coastline of the North, and the biggest naval threat in the region, the Lannisters, were unwilling to challenge him in Ironman’s Bay (to be honest, Tywin was content to leave Balon alone and let the Greyjoys continue to undermine Robb Stark’s legitimacy) so Balon’s gamble of attacking the North instead of accepting Robb Stark’s offer of an alliance seemed to be a rational move.
In contrast, Balon Greyjoy on the show lived long enough to see the Boltons repel all of his forces. The Ironborn just seemed ridiculously unable to handle ground-based operations. Despite one of the largest fortresses in Westeros, Harrenhal, originally being the seat of an amazingly successful invading-and-staying Ironborn king. (Until dragons. Dragons are pretty awesome, yo.)
Balon was rather stubbornly dense about this reversal of fortune.
Yara: We totally got our asses kicked.
Balon: Well get your ass back in there and kick back.
Yara: But we suck! It’s embarrassing and inexplicable!
Balon: You suck! Suck less! As your king, I order you to be less sucky!
Balon’s invasion and subsequent losses were so poorly regarded by the Ironborn, that when Balon’s brother Euron presented himself at the Kingsmoot and confessed to killing his royal brother, the Ironborn basically ignored the fact that Euron was an accursed kinslayer and embraced him as the new wearer of the driftwood crown.
(As a book reader, that was a bit hard for me to swallow. Kinslaying is not a light matter among the followers of the Drowned God.)
So, why am I glad that Balon’s dead? It’s really just a relief to be able to talk about it.
I was expecting Balon to fall off (or be pushed off) that bridge three seasons ago. It’s hard to keep a secret like that for so long. Balon was just one of those rare cases of a show character who outlived his book analog, when usually the reverse has been happening.
I was starting to get worried that Balon would outlive everybody. After all, he was the last of the original five kings to die. And he survived just by chilling out and letting everyone else kill each other off. Stannis should have used that tactic.
What is Dead May Never Die…
On the other hand, I really can’t complain much about how the show adapted Balon’s story. The relative generalship of Balon (and by extension, Robb) really isn’t that much of a big deal in the larger scheme of things. And if the showrunners felt that Euron’s public acknowledgement of killing his brother was the lever to get him elected, it’s better that Balon had been a crappy commander who’d lost the support of his warlike people, instead of the fiercest Greyjoy since Dagon Greyjoy from one hundred years before.
And the show at least didn’t take away one of Balon’s more important and positive aspects. My boy Balon had some progressive ideas.
For one of the staunch and inflexible Ironborn, Balon was practical enough to recognize that his daughter Yara would be a fine heir for his legacy. This was kind of an unusual situation for Westeros, and especially on the Iron Islands. I don’t think Balon gets much credit, and probably rightfully so, but Balon wasn’t one of the typical patriarchs who regarded daughters as children best married off for political advantage.
Should Yara Greyjoy eventually become Queen of the Iron Islands, it will no doubt be largely from her own merits, from her willingness to support the agreeable-in-overturning-the-power-structure Daenerys Targaryen, but also from the early patronage of her father, who could have raised up obstacles in her path like a brutal storm, rather than a favorable wind or a sheltered harbor. (Check me out, being all nautical! My own dad would be so proud!)
Okay, I come here not to praise nor condemn Balon Greyjoy, but to send him on his way to the halls of the Drowned God. But don’t let that stop anyone from wanting to talk about Balon. Now that he’s dead, I’m happy to talk about him, at length.
(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.)
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