Quite a few threads on /r/asoiaf have been talking about Theon’s tragic story and bad, bad choices lately, and I’d like to consolidate all the replies I’ve made into one longer blog.
The first time I read ASOIAF, I hated Theon Greyjoy. I thought he was a cocky, arrogant, sexist shithead, and he betrayed the nice guys, the Starks – how very dare he! He absolutely deserved the torture he suffered at the hands of Ramsay Snow.
But… did he? Would anyone? No. I have strong personal, political views about torture and ill treatment (short version: comply with the Convention Against Torture.)
And then I watched the show. Somehow, seeing Theon’s story play out in the flesh, removed from the often dispassionate process of reading, and enhanced by the really excellent acting of Alfie Allen in season 2, I started to feel sorry for Theon and think about how, deep down, he was just a lost, lonely, scared little boy for his whole life.
Trauma #1: Growing up a Greyjoy
What we know about the Iron Islanders, or as I prefer to call them, the Arsehole Pirates of Dickhead Islands, is not complementary. Their ruling house’s words are “We Do Not Sow.” Christ. Their entire culture is based around piracy, raiding, raping and reaving because they’re too dim to figure out how to make crops grow on their unfertile soil.
Theon doesn’t recall much about his early childhood, but the few nuggets he lets slip are not positive.
A Dance With Dragons, Theon I
Theon led the way up the stairs. I have climbed these steps a thousand times before. As a boy he would run up; descending, he would take the steps three at a time, leaping. Once he leapt right into Old Nan and knocked her to the floor. That earned him the worst thrashing he ever had at Winterfell, though it was almost tender compared to the beatings his brothers used to give him back on Pyke.
Yep. Quality child rearing skills there.
He brags to the ship captain’s daughter that he has commandeered into his sex slave about the shitty culture of the Iron Islanders in ACOK Theon I:
“The islands are stern and stony places, scant of comfort and bleak of prospect. Death is never far here, and life is mean and meager. Men spend their nights drinking ale and arguing over whose lot is worse, the fisherfolk who fight the sea or the farmers who try and scratch a crop from the poor thin soil. If truth be told, the miners have it worse than either, breaking their backs down in the dark, and for what? Iron, lead, tin, those are our treasures. Small wonder the ironmen of old turned to raiding.”
It’s interesting that even here, Theon is torn between sneering at how bad the Iron Islands have it, and bragging about how tough his people are. It’s an early sign of Theon’s disconnected thoughts about home – where is his home, the comfort and privilege of Winterfell where he could be executed for his father’s treason at any time, or the cold, dreary harshness of Pyke where he looked forward to a harsh, challenging life?
Trauma #2: Life as a hostage.
As we get inside Theon’s head, we also learn how conflicted he feels about the privileged but unsafe childhood and adolescence he had in Winterfell: ACOK Theon I
Lord Eddard had tried to play the father from time to time, but to Theon he had always remained the man who’d brought blood and fire to Pyke and taken him from his home. As a boy, he had lived in fear of Stark’s stern face and great dark sword. His wife was, if anything, even more distant and suspicious.As for their children, the younger ones had been mewling babes for most of his years at Winterfell. Only Robb and his baseborn half brother Jon Snow had been old enough to be worth his notice. The bastard was a sullen boy, quick to sense a slight, jealous of Theon’s high birth and Robb’s regard for him. For Robb himself, Theon did have a certain affection, as for a younger brother . . . but it would be best not to mention that. In Pyke, it would seem, the old wars were still being fought. That ought not surprise him. The Iron Islands lived in the past; the present was too hard and bitter to be borne. Besides, his father and uncles were old, and the old lords were like that; they took their dusty feuds to the grave, forgetting nothing and forgiving less.
Theon isn’t stupid. He knows that his life in Winterfell was relatively cushy. He grew up not as a bastard, but as a noble ward in a Lord Paramount’s house. We see him act as Ned’s squire at official ceremonies (such as executing deserters from the Night’s Watch,) training with the Stark boys, being allowed to eat with the Stark family and their royal guests, escorting Sansa to this feast in a fine doublet marked with Greyjoy sigils (while Jon is kept below the salt, the shameful bastard hidden from the king,) being included in Catelyn’s super secret godswood pow-wow to discuss her suspicions about the catspaws’ attempt on Bran’s life, he fights at Robb’s side in the War of the Five Kings… Theon is a trusted member of the Stark inner sanctum. At least, that’s how we meet him in AGOT.
Then we get inside his head, and we learn this troubling fact: he always knew he was a hostage to the man who came to his home and killed his brothers. He knew that Catelyn didn’t trust him – “Who can trust a Greyjoy?” was probably a frequently aired question around Winterfell.
Yet… what does Theon wear when we first meet him? A wolfskin cloak… just like the Starks. Not a squid in sight.
A surrogate family?
From the start, even through the perspectives of others, we learn that Theon is cocky, even arrogant, and a bit unpleasant.
To Bran (AGOT Bran I) he isn’t brother Theon – he’s Greyjoy:
The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.
“Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear.
Bran, who so loves his bastard brother Jon, appears to have adopted Jon’s disdain for Theon.
Theon is quick to suggest killing the direwolf pups, and quick to volunteer for the role. (Eager to win the approval of dour Ned Stark?)
Arya sees Theon as quick to point out that all the other children are, well, children – especially compared to him: (Arya I AGOT)
A dozen spectators, man and boy, were calling out encouragement, Robb’s voice the loudest among them. She spotted Theon Greyjoy beside him, his black doublet emblazoned with the golden kraken of his House, a look of wry contempt on his face….
Joffrey moved into the sunlight in response to Rodrik’s summons. His hair shone like spun gold. He looked bored. “This is a game for children, Ser Rodrik.”
Theon Greyjoy gave a sudden bark of laughter. “You are children,” he said derisively.
This ties back into Theon’s reflections in ACOK that the Stark children had all been “mewling babes for most of his years at Winterfell.” Theon is not just the oldest of them all, he’s the oldest by several years – being about 10 when Ned had to bring him to Winterfell. He’s around 5 years older than Jon and Robb, 7 years older than Sansa, and 10 years older than Arya (who was born during the Rebellion that led to Theon coming to Winterfell.)
Yet for all of his scorn about the Stark babes, Theon not just thinks of Robb as a younger brother, but acts like it too: (Arya I, AGOT)
“Robb may be a child,” Joffrey said. “I am a prince. And I grow tired of swatting at Starks with a play sword.” Joffrey shrugged. “Come and see me when you’re older, Stark. If you’re not too old.” There was laughter from the Lannister men.
Robb’s curses rang through the yard. Arya covered her mouth in shock. Theon Greyjoy seized Robb’s arm to keep him away from the prince… . Theon kept Robb locked in an iron grip until the princes and their party were safely away.
Again, Theon isn’t stupid and acts to keep Robb from doing anything daft (however justified.)
Catelyn might be suspicious of Theon later on in the war, but she invites him to be part of her super secret family chat about her suspicions about the catspaw who attacked Bran. Interestingly, what is Theon’s response to being included in her confidence?
“What I am about to tell you must not leave this room,” she told them. “I want your oaths on that. If even part of what I suspect is true, Ned and my girls have ridden into deadly danger, and a word in the wrong ears could mean their lives.”
“Lord Eddard is a second father to me,” said Theon Greyjoy. “I do so swear.”
Ever eager to prove he considers himself part of the Stark family.
But not all of the Stark family feel the same way towards him, it seems that Robb is really the only one who considers him a brother. Bran’s feelings while riding on his Tyrion-designed saddle and Robb shushes Theon who is attempting to tell a tale of sexual prowess:
Bran looked away and pretended not to have heard, but he could feel Greyjoy’s eyes on him. No doubt he was smiling. He smiled a lot, as if the world were a secret joke that only he was clever enough to understand. Robb seemed to admire Theon and enjoy his company, but Bran had never warmed to his father’s ward.
No wonder. To Theon, Bran is just a mewling babe.
So how does a lonely, lost little boy cope as a stranger in a strange land?
By manufacturing a reality where he isn’t lost and lonely, but special.
Let’s think about it: Theon is brought to Winterfell when he’s old enough to understand what has happened: his father rebelled, lost a war, and his punishment was that his son would be a hostage.
Now I do not see Ned as the kind of guy who would remind a young hostage that if his selfish, moronic father rebels again, he will be killed. But… would everyone in Winterfell have kept that thought to themselves? What about all the Northern men who served in Ned’s armies in the Greyjoy Rebellion? What about the guys angry at the fuckwit Iron Islanders who killed their mates and raided their home villages? They might remind Theon about this, every week of his life in Winterfell.
Theon describes to Maester Luwin that the noose of his hostage situation in Winterfell chafed him, chafed him raw. Theon is smart enough to know that he had a good deal: Ned was kind to him, treated him as a foster ward rather than a hostage. But no amount of honey to the deal could change its terms: Theon always knew that he was a hostage to his family’s behaviour.
That’s some pretty serious shit to grow up with on your plate, on top of god knows whatever fuckery resulted from being raised by the Arsehole Pirates of Dickhead Islands in the first place.
So Theon develops this cocky, arrogant self image to compensate for his hostage status: he’s Ned’s ward, not his hostage. He’s the last son of Balon Greyjoy, the heir to the Iron Islands (conveniently ignoring or forgetting all that he was ever taught about the Iron Price and a ship captain being king of his ship.) He’s the oldest of the boys at Winterfell – he gets to show Robb and Jon how to be a man (i.e. by fucking whores in Winters Town.) He has the freedom of being a highborn foster ward to roam around and do as he pleases. He doesn’t have to listen to lectures about how to run Winterfell (or any other noble’s keep) like Robb and Sansa do. He doesn’t have the social taint of bastardy as Jon Snow does.
In AGOT, Theon is eager to prove himself worthy of trust – he volunteers to go to King’s Landing when Cat finds the dagger. Now, what’s also interesting here is that while Cat later says that Theon cannot be trusted, she herself brought Theon into a very secret, very serious conversation between herself, Robb, and Rodrick Cassel. Theon is an integral part of the Winterfell household. They’ve become accustomed to Theon as this slightly annoyingly cocky and wayward foster brother. Then when Robb calls his banners, Theon fights alongside him – like a brother.
Then the Northern lords decide to crown Robb DAKINGINDANORF. What does Theon ask Robb to confirm before he also pledges himself to the Northern kingdom?
“Am I your brother? Now and always?”
Theon needs that validation that he’s useful and he’s loved by the Starks.
Then in ACOK he gets the idea that he should be Robb’s envoy to the Iron Islands. Now in all fairness, I think Theon went to Pyke in good faith to be Robb’s envoy. The show does a really good job of showing this explicitly, right down to Theon’s struggle with a letter he writes to Robb advising Robb of his father’s plan to raid the North… which he ultimately burns, but it was almost sent too.
Because once he got home…. all that shit he buried about being taken away from his family, plus being overtly REJECTED by not just his father and sister, but his entire culture… the cocky self image that Theon created as a safety bubble to deal with being removed from his home as a child is suddenly shattered.
Does Theon make terrible decisions? Sure.
But are his actions illogical? No. They’re the actions of someone desperate to belong. He keeps being reminded that he’s not really a Northerner – even though Cat trusted him to tell him about her suspicions around Bran’s fall, she didn’t trust him to be an envoy for Robb. That chafed. Robb’s blithely ignorant to the obsessive need that his “big brother” has to be respected and to have a home.
He’s survived his childhood by telling himself that he is special. Then he gets home and finds out… he really isn’t special. In fact, his home culture hate him because they think he’s been tainted by his time in Winterfell.
So he goes off and tries to prove himself a true son of Balon Greyjoy – and Ned Stark. He tries to capture Winterfell like a Greyjoy, but then tries to rule it as a Stark, and fails at both.
One of the saddest lines about Theon is when Asha visits him at Winterfell.
“Don’t die so far from the sea, little brother.”
In reality, Theon has been a long, long way from the sea since he was 10. He doesn’t know how to be an Iron Islander anymore, no matter how much he might brag about the excellence of the men of Pyke in sailing, raiding and archery.
Betrayed by his family
People tend to overlook the significance of what happens when Theon arrives on Pyke. Sure, we all focus on how lost and angry Theon is when his grand welcome turns out to be a fizzer.
Theon arrives in the Iron Islands, genuinely intending to be Robb’s envoy, with these delusions he’s built up over the years while a hostage in Winterfell about how the return of the heir of Pyke to the Iron Islands will be a big deal.
Then he gets there… and no one cares. No one is at the docks to meet him. He makes his way to the castle, and finds out that his father is already plotting to raid the North as King of the Iron Islands.
Now, let’s remind ourselves: why was Theon Greyjoy taken as a hostage in the first place?
SO THAT BALON GREYJOY WOULD NOT CROWN HIMSELF WITH THE DRIFTWOOD CROWN AND GO TO WAR WITH THE NORTH AGAIN.
For. Fuck’s. Sake.
Theon has spent his life imagining that his family really care about him and that Balon’s good behaviour is really because he doesn’t want to lose his son… and the first thing that he learns when he arrives in Pyke is “Didn’t care, crowned myself anyway.”
Gee. Thanks Dad.
Now, I’m not an expert on child psychology, but I do know a bit about living with selfish, arsehole fathers. Even when you should have expected them to do something extremely shitty, it still hurts. It hurts a lot, in ways that are hard to describe. You know that you should have expected this and it shouldn’t hurt anymore but… it does. (Speaking from personal experience.)
This is why I describe Theon as a lost, lonely little boy inside.
Stolen from his home, the only way he coped was by pretending that he was being fostered at Winterfell, and that his family really thought he was very special. It’s an easier pill to swallow than “my father is so selfish he doesn’t care about me, and wrote me off as dead as soon as Ned Stark took me to the greenlands, and the Starks will never accept me truly because I’m a hostage, not a foster.”
He is DESPERATE for praise in Winterfell and in Pyke. He tries to make up for it with a cocksure attitude when we first meet him, but deep down he’s just a lost little boy who was stolen from his family and raised as a hostage.
That scene between Theon and Luwin in ACOK/Season 2 where Theon finally articulates what has been eating at him for all these years – the leash that Ned Stark had to keep him on for Robert Baratheon, “It chafed!” (Side note: Theon in S2 is some of my favourite GOT stuff. God, that is some of Alfie Allen’s best work. Such good acting.)
And of course the circle turns fully when he admits while in the Bolton dungeons that “My father died in King’s Landing.” What’s interesting is that when Theon pledges his allegiance to Robb in DAKINGINDANORF scene, what does he say?
“Am I your brother? Now and always?”
“Now and always.”
“You have my sword. The King in the North!”
I was rewatching this recently when Mum stayed for Xmas and I got her to binge on GOT while I wrote
tried to look like I was writing my many postgrad assignments.
It’s really curious, knowing what we know later about Theon’s fall, that this is his precondition to Robb for pledging his sword to him: am I part of your family? Do you consider me a brother? Do you trust me as an equal?
Poor Theon was so desperate for a home, for a family, that he went to extreme and abhorrent lengths to prove himself to his birth family… only to find that they still considered him tainted by the ‘greenland’ values of Ned Stark.
He never could win, so he took the desperate measures of a man pushed to the brink to try and be accepted by both cultures. He wanted to be the raiding pirate son of Balon Greyjoy, who seized the Iron Islands’ greatest loot in the North… but he also wanted to rule Winterfell as the Prince of the North and Islands, with the respect from his men and the people of Winterfell that Ned Stark commanded.
All Theon wants it to be loved and respected, and he doesn’t understand why he isn’t because he’s spent years telling himself that he’s really a very special snowflake… but he is just another pawn in the game of thrones.
It’s such a tragic story, even before he gets to the dungeons of the Dreadfort.
Sure, Theon does terrible, awful things and betrays the Starks in one of the worst ways imaginable. But by the old gods and the new, his arc is so tragic and powerful. We cannot forget that lost, lonely little boy desperate to belong.