Updated: Nov 24, 2018
The tragic tale of ambition and loss
Back in the Age of Heroes, the Iron Islands had a form of government somewhat similar to a democracy. Each of the islands had two kings: a Rock King, who ruled the land, determined laws, dispensed justice and settled disputes, and a Salt King, who ruled the seas and the entire fleet for that island. Once they anchored, the Salt King was subject to the rules of the land until he sailed again. The kings were chosen in a kingsmoot, and genreally came from a noble house. On occasion, the two kings were rivals, and they often attacked the other islands in their own archipelago, until a local prophet called Galon Whitestaff called for the unification of the Iron Islands into a single kingdom. From then on, the ironborn could no longer war their own kind, carry off each other's women or raid each other's shores. Galon called a kingsmoot at Old Wyk where a "High King" was chosen. Each island still had two petty kings, but they stood beneath the High King. Once that first High King died, his son tried to claim the Driftwood crown, but was threatened and Galon made sure to pass the message that the kingsmoot was a mandatory ceremony. That worked for a long while until some five thousand years ago Urron Greyiron became High King. The use of the word "became" is deliberate, as Urron was not chosen. His uncle had usurped the crown before him, and before dying, expressed his wishes for his nephew to be the next High King. The priests, however, wanted to make sure that the kingsmoot would take place, so on the day of that kingsmoot, Urron and his axemen descended Nagga's Hill on Old Wyk and slew all captains, the thirteen salt and rock kings, half a hundred priests and prophets and he took the title for himself. Instead of a driftwood crown, he had one made of black iron and the rulers of Great Wyk, Old Wyk, Pyke and Harlaw were reduced to lords. Those who refused to bend the knee, were murdered and their entire families extinguished. Urron decreed that the ironborn could again go back to attacking one another, made his position hereditary and his line ruled as kings of the Iron Islands uncontested for approximately one thousand years. When the Andals swept over the Iron Islands, they brought their bloody traditions with them. Their arrival in Westeros was something akin to the crusades. They invaded the land with superior weapons, warring and killing those who stood before them. They burnt out weirwood groves, hacked down faces and murdered the Children of the Forest that had survived the First Men. The history of Westeros as we know now, was mostly written after their arrival, and using their writing system, which means it has their perspective - that also explains why the vital stories of the Long Night aren't easily found anywhere, because the First Men used runes and the history books accessible nowadays were written by Maesters using the Andals' system. That is why a great deal of history is lost. It also explains why books such as "the World of Ice and Fire", written by a maester, have to be taken with a grain of salt.
The only place the Andals never managed to invade was the north, as they were stopped at Moat Cailin. Their invasion of the Iron Islands, however, was inevitable. Their settlements and castles were stronger, their sailing ability was superior and their warriors were deadlier. At first, they weakened the ironborn grip on the Sunset Sea, and then they started to invade the Iron Islands in waves. As the ironborn were quarrelsome by nature, many of their houses would unite with the Andals to remove the power of their rivals and that was how the Greyiron lost their crown. Harras Hoare then became king by marrying the daughter of an Andal warlord. He implemented the Faith of the Seven on the islands, and promoted trade instead of reaving. The priests of the Drowned God could never accept either faith or tradition, and did everything in their power to make the people go back to their original faith. They were so successful that even the Andals in the Iron Islands converted to the Drowned God religion. Instead of ruling from the Iron Islands, king Harwyn Hoare decided to conquer the Trident from the Storm king Durrandon. Harwyn, his son Halleck and his grandson Harren spent most of their reigns fighting their neighbours and rarely took care of the islands. They were called Kings of the Isles and the Rivers. Harwyn reigned mostly from his horse's saddle. At night, his castle was a tent. His son ruled from a tower in Fairmarket and while he lived there, his son Harren built Harrenhal by the God's Eye. It was during Harren's reign that his line ended with the burning of Harrenhal. The Greyjoys of Pyke then became ruling lords of the Iron Islands and the Tullys of Riverrun became the ruling lords of the Riverlands - the Tullys by rebellion, turning cloak and betrayal and the Greyjoy because King Aegon allowed a kingsmoot to choose one last ruler, and the Greyjoy won. It seems the words "family, duty, honour" didn't hold much significance back then... Perhaps it never has. The Greyjoys were at least true to their own words.
When the Targaryen dynasty came to a crashing halt, lord Balon Greyjoy attempted a secession against the Iron Throne. His logic was sound - the Iron Islands had bent the knee to the Targaryens, not to the Baratheons - but his presumption was costly. Evidently, three hundred years living as bickering reavers afraid of the Targaryens, weakened the ironborn's strength. They didn't know Westeros enough to see that the greenlanders were far better trained at combat than they were. Because they attacked fishermen and traders at sea and won those battles, they considered themselves tougher, braver, crueler. Perhaps crueler was a correct assumption, but their training was lacking and their development simply wasn't up to par. The Greyjoy Rebellion was less of a rebellion and more of a massacre. Lord Quellon Greyjoy wanted to strengthen the relationships between the Iron Islands and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, much like lord Rickard Stark wanted to do with the North. Near the end of Robert's Rebellion, Quellon died in the battle at the Mander and his eldest son, Balon, wanted nothing to do with his father's reforms, so he became lord of the Iron Islands and spent five years building a new fleet of one hundred war galleys which was named 'The Iron Fleet' and as the Greyjoy had stayed neutral through most of Robert's Rebellion, Balon assumed the other houses would be weaker and divided. Six years after Robert was crowned, Balon proclaimed himself King of the Iron Islands, attacked Lannisport and set all ships anchored on fire. Victarion tossed the first torch onto Lord Tywin's flagship. That one-sided success gave Balon freedom to attack against Seagard in the Riverlands and a false sense of victory. Rodrik, lord Balon's eldest son, was responsible for the attack in the Riverlands and there he was slain by lord Jason Mallister. His reavers were thrown back into Ironman's Bay in defeat. Robert's brother, lord Stannis was master of ships. He took the Royal Fleet, joined it with the Redwyne fleet from the Arbor and Oldtown. They caught up to Victarion's fleet and violently smashed it in the Straits of Fair Isle. Aeron Greyjoy was captured and thrown beneath Casterly Rock. There is no definition of a dungeon, simply that he drowned, was found by fishermen, taken to Casterly Rock in chains and spent his days there, however long it was, with "lions, boars and chickens" (as per his memories). The experience was definitely traumatizing, because he left that war as "Damphair", a changed man, a religious fanatic and entirely mad, certain that he had been chosen by his god as he resuscitates his followers with the 'kiss of life'.
Lord Stark joined the battles from the North, lord Tywin from the west bringing along the Mountain. Lord Stannis subdued Great Wyk and Ser Barristan Old Wyk. The final battle was led by Robert himself alongside Ned, and they attacked Pyke, brought down a whole town and a castle, then a part of Pyke, killing that way lord Balon's second son. Once they breached, Thoros of Myr with his flaming sword was the first man in, closely followed by ser Jorah Mormont.
Balon was brought to Robert in chains where he was forced to bend the knee and swear fealty to the Iron Throne. That is an important consideration, because the fealty was not to the Baratheons, but to the throne itself. The only remaining son of lord Balon, Theon Greyjoy, was given into the care of lord Eddard Stark as to ascertain the father's good behaviour.
Theon grew up in Winterfell, and although he received all the honour and respect worthy of a lord's son, he was clearly a hostage. He was trained and educated, had freedom to come and go in the castle and some of the surrounding areas, but he wasn't part of the family. His only true connection was with Robb and even then, there are issues. He was nine years old when his father's rebellion ended, which means he had spent nine years hearing the ironborn nonsense, thinking he was a prince under his right, that his father was a mighty man, that the ironborn were strong and powerful and that his people were somewhat better and/or smarter than the greenlanders. The pink-tinted glasses were mixed with simple childhood innocence. When he was a little kid, his life in comparison with the other ironborn was indeed mighty. He arrived in Winterfell and what he kept as a memory was not that his father's castle was a decrepit hovel, but that it was huge and majestic. He didn't see his father as a bitter old fool, he saw him as a brave king. Growing up with those perceptions, and most importantly, spending more than half his life thinking his perceptions were the absolute truth, made him smug and arrogant. Yet, he had a loyalty of sorts to the Starks. His name - Theon - was the name of a Stark king who was ruler of the north when the Andals invaded Westeros. King Theon Stark's story is fascinating. He fought against the Andals with the help of the Boltons, defeated the greatest Andal invader - Argos Sevenstar - tied Argos's dead body to the prow of his ship, sailed to Andalos, slaughtered hundreds of Andals, set their heads on spikes along the North's east coast as a warning, then he conquered the Three Sisters in the Bite and landed an army on the Fingers, which was the place the Andals used as their arriving point into Westeros. From there, he defeated rebels in the Rills, aided the Night's Watch on the biggest defeat the wildlings have ever faced - one that took them a whole generation to recover - and then, the king of the Iron Islands, Harrag Hoare, conquered Stony Shore, burned part of the Wolfswood and had his son set base in Bear Island. King Theon killed Harrag's son, freed Bear Island and expelled the ironborn from his shore. "Prince" Theon Greyjoy's name, true to George Martin's genius, foreshadows his life. He was brave, he was impressive, but had his life marked by battles and wars, highlighted by the ironborn invading the northern shore only to lose it afterwards.
Once Ned left to go to King's Landing, aware of the dangers the south presented, he wisely chose to keep Theon in Winterfell. Theon stayed and was loyal to Robb, obeyed him, bent the knee to him, supported him. The Young Wolf, at first, didn't behave properly with the newly found power and position. Theon received no recognition for saving Bran when he was attacked by the wildlings, but eventually Robb grew and chose to trust him. Theon was never granted the chance to grow up and learn by experience. All he had were lies and dreams that he was, somehow, something better than the truth. As a main antagonist in a Clash of Kings, Theon's chapters show the readers the depth of his confusion. He wanted to be loyal to Robb, but he also wanted to be worthy of his father's approval. He failed to see that the world had no place for who he grew up thinking he was or the truth of who he became. He wasn't the son of a king, he wasn't a ward, he didn't stay loyal, he wasn't worthy. He wasn't from the North, but too northerner for the ironborn. He wasn't ironborn, but too ironborn for the northerners. He wasn't anything at all. All he was, was lost. Reluctantly, he supported his father's newest attack. The true show of double standards is demonstrated by the fact that, had he done what he did while standing by the Starks, attacking the Lannisters, his actions would have been revered. He invaded Winterfell, which wasn't a feat others could manage, but now that he has, he let the world know that, with enough courage, it is possible. Knowing about the history of the Iron Islands as well as Theon's, gives the clear impression that it was all one single movement. They lie, cheat, usurp, rebel, kill, betray, get caught, get beaten, bend the knee, promise to behave, lie, cheat, usurp, rebel, kill, betray, get caught, get beaten, bend the knee, promise to behave, lie, cheat... Poor Theon was just another cog in a machine that had been broken long before he came into the world.
He was described as a superb archer, which is probably why his fingers and toes were removed. With fewer fingers, fewer toes, (and even fewer teeth), Theon wasn't a superb anything anymore. His moral compass did not point due north. As a matter of fact, his moral compass had no needle. Ramsay is a terrifying villain, but Theon was no flower. He allowed two innocent children get murdered so he could save face, betrayed the only friend he'd ever had in his own house, forced a girl to sleep with him, killed his own men when he couldn't find Bran and Rickon... His arc is shocking! He was an arrogant womanizer, a turn cloak, went through torture until his mind snapped, and returned gradually, at first showing that he felt justified in his actions as he victimized his situation - He didn't want to be a ward. He wanted to be a prince! - until, after much suffering, he become noble and humble. The issue, however, is not if he was or not a villain, but rather that the torture he suffered was so beyond horrific, physically, mentally and sexually, that the reader never gets to feel that dark satisfaction in knowing he paid for his crimes. The punishment was too tragic and what the reader feels is pity. After he let Ramsay kill the miller's kids, however, he was tormented. He had nightmare after nightmare, until he dreamed about the feast the Starks had thrown king Robert, and in the dream, he saw himself eye the serving girls, having a good time, until it turned and he noticed they were all dead, the king with his guts spilling out and headless Ned. He saw dead Jory, Fat Tom, Hullen, Mikken, and all the men who traveled south, then he saw the miller's wife with whom he used to sleep, the wildling he killed in the wolfswood when Bran had been attacked, Lyanna and her crown of blue roses wearing a white gown spattered with gore, leaving the reader with the absolute certainty that she was married and died giving birth, and to show that it was a prophetic dream, he sees Robb and Grey Wind bleeding from half a hundred savage wounds. He was a cynic, but then surrendered to the Old Gods when he heard his name, begged to be allowed to die as Theon and not as Reek, and they did hear him, because a Dance with Dragons names his chapters "Reek", "The Prince of Winterfell", "The Turncloak", "The Ghost of Winterfell", and then, "Theon". He sacrificed everything to save Jeyne, which shifted his position from villain into hero, but he was captured by lord Stannis who said he will have to kill Theon to appease the northerners for his crimes against the Stark boys. Luck is really not his element.
He is both good and evil in his own mind and beautifully written to show that dichotomy between his verbal and non-verbal lines. His parallels are drawn against Robb, Ramsay, Ser Jaime, Joffrey, Daemon Blackfyre, Bran, Beth Cassel and, most evidently, Jon, where one joins the Night's Watch for honour's sake, rises to Lord Commander, and is the heir to the Iron Throne while the other wants to claim his land's throne, rises himself to leadership and command and refuses his only salvation, which would have been the Night's Watch. They were both outsiders in Winterfell growing up, both faced prejudice thanks to their "fathers'" actions, one was a Stark in everything but name, the other was a Greyjoy in name but not in anything else, and both hold, unknowingly, the solution to a major problem - where Jon is who he is, so beyond discussion, Theon was dismissed as craven by the invaders in the north, who discussed around him and with him all issues that would be considered extremely sensitive, which now gives him knowledge that can grant him and his sister freedom as well as Stannis or even Jon, a victory against the Boltons. Theon's story isn't over yet and neither is his suffering, but he has finally found that element he lacked, the one that brought his growth and a sense of justice. Mayhaps he cannot rule the Iron Islands, as he has proven to be a terrible ruler, but he is the first real evidence that what is dead may never die, but raises again harder and stronger. #TheonGreyjoy #Reek #PrinceTheon #TheTurncloak #ASOIAF The Price of Treason