Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What is Dead May Never Die: The Death and Rebirth of Theon Greyjoy

*Warning* The following contains spoilers from A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter. Also may contain inadvertent spoilers for HBO's Game of Thrones.

Theon in the North by Amok

Theon Greyjoy is one of the most controversial and divisive characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Theon starts out as a self-entitled jackass who literally wants to stab puppies the first time that we meet him. From there he goes on to become a turncloak, child-killer, and possible kinslayer. From the beginning Theon Greyjoy is a very difficult character to like. However, reading his chapters in A Dance with Dragons, he is also a character that it's very difficult not to feel sorry for.

In many ways this sort of divide represents the epitome of what makes George R.R. Martin's writing so brilliant. Something which, I personally feel, has been lost in translation with HBO's Game of Thrones. Cowards can be heroes, heroes can be villains, and villains, sometimes, can be redeemed. People often point to Ramsay Snow as an example of how "grimdark" ASoIaF is. To me, this is a misinterpretation of what Theon's chapters are really about in ADwD. Theon's arc is about redemption. In transitioning from Theon Greyjoy to Reek and back again he not only comes back to himself, but in doing so also comes into himself as Ironborn for the first time. To understand how, let us first take a brief review of a particular Ironborn ritual.

The Ironborn and Drowning

The Ironborn are a warrior culture that are united by their shared worship of a deity known as the Drowned God. Think Baptist Christianity being practiced by Vikings, if the Bible were written by H.P. Lovecraft. The following prayer is a central part of both the Drowned God religion, and Theon's character development ADwD.

What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.

Damphair by Donato Giancola
This prayer refers primarily to the practice of ritual drowning that plays a number of important roles in Ironborn culture. In addition to drowning their enemies as a form of sacrificial execution, the Ironmen themselves are also "drowned," both metaphorically, and sometimes literally. Children on the Iron Islands are anointed by or submerged in seawater as a form of baptismal "drowning." The holiest and most devout members of the faith, known as Drowned Men, are literally drowned in seawater and resuscitated by a priest via mouth to mouth.

The purpose of these rituals is to take away the fear of the drowning. The Ironborn are a seafaring warrior people, and their Valhalla lies beneath the waves, in the Drowned God's watery halls.

Consider the following excerpt from A Feast for Crows, taking place during the Ironborn attack on The Shields:

He vaulted over the gunwale, landing on the deck below with his golden cloak billowing behind him. The white roses drew back, as men always did at the sight of Victarion Greyjoy armed and armored, his face hidden behind his kraken helm. They were clutching swords and spears and axes, but nine of every ten wore no armor, and the tenth had only a shirt of sewn scales. These are no ironmen, Victarion thought. They still fear drowning.

A big part of the strength of the Ironborn is that many of them are absolutely fearless in battle. They aren't afraid of death, and this is symbolized in part by the fact that they've already "died" via ritual drowning. Hence the words "what is dead may never die." When a drowned man rises, he is therefore "harder and stronger" than those that have not already "died" (even in a purely symbolic manner).

You Have to Know Your Name

Smiler by Marc Fishman
The last that we see of Theon before the POV shift to Reek is during the sack of Winterfell by the Boltons. The very last thing that he sees before losing consciousness is his horse, Smiler, burning. This is symbolic of the impending destruction of Theon's own identity, as the most common physical characteristic that people associate with Theon is that he is constantly smiling. It's the very first thing recalled by Arnolf Karstark when Reek is paraded before him and Hother Umber by Ramsay.

It's a commonly held opinion among the fandom that AFfC and ADwD represented a relative dip in quality compared with the previous three books. Personally, I disagree. I think that the two most recent books are just widely misunderstood. They're transition novels, moving the story on from the War of the Five Kings, and setting up the War of Ice and Fire. One technique that Martin plays with in these transitional novels involves the naming of the titular characters in POV chapters. Depending upon the role that they are playing, or, more importantly, the tole that they are transitioning into, the chapters are given ambiguous names such as The Reaver, The Ugly Little Girl, or The Dragontamer. Names and identity are tremendously important in Theon's chapters, as foreshadowed as early as AGoT when he remarks that Hodor may not know much, but none could deny that he knew his name.

Over the course of ADwD Theon's POV chapters are given five different names, and in each of them we see him transition into a new role before finally coming back to himself.
  • Reek (3 chapters).
  • The Prince of Winterfell
  • The Turncloak.
  • A Ghost in Winterfell.
  • Theon


"Him? Can it be? Stark's ward. Smiling, always smiling." -- Arnolf Karstark.

TheonReek by Marc Fishman
We don't immediately know who we are dealing with when we first meet the unfortunate creature known as Reek, eating rats and whimpering in the darkness. The real horror and tragedy of these chapters comes not from the torture and degradation that Reek has been forced to endure, but from the gradual realization of who he really was.

Reek is everything that Theon was not. Theon was proud to the point of arrogance. He would mock Roose Bolton to his face, making jokes about leeches, and he would constantly boast of how close he came to crossing swords with Jaime Lannister in the Whispering Wood. He returns to the Iron Islands in fine clothes and jewelry, proclaiming himself a prince and expects everyone to bow and scrape to him. Reek is less than a dog. He considers the rat that he catches such a feast that it brings tears to his eyes, and he's terrified to even speak in Ramsay's presence, afraid that saying the wrong thing will cost him another finger. In fact, he panics when he even thinks the word 'Bastard' as he remembers that Ramsay is a Snow now, not a Bolton (again, we see the importance of names).

Ramsay's conditioning of Theon is more understandable here than it is in the show, because we see the ways that he stripped away the identity of Theon Greyjoy piece of by piece, ripping out the teeth that he used to smile with, castrating him, making him beg Ramsay to cut off his fingers and toes, and essentially turning him into an unrecognizable creature. Even When Ramsay sends him to treat with the Ironborn at Moat Cailin, he never calls himself Theon. He calls himself Balon's heir, but never uses the name Theon. All the while the narration refers to him as Reek.

"I am Ironborn," Reek answered, lying. The boy he'd been before had been Ironborn, true enough, but Reek had come into this world in the dungeons of the Dreadfort.

Even when Roose Bolton takes him away from Ramsay, Theon continues to deny his own identity, insisting that he is Reek and, more importantly, that the other was dead. Refusing still even to say his own name.

"Please m'lord, m'lady, there's been some mistake." He fell to his knees, trembling like a leaf in a winter storm, tears streaming down his ravaged cheeks. "I'm not him, I'm not the turncloak, he died at Winterfell. My name is Reek." He had to remember his name. "It rhymes with freak."

Now consider these words in the context of what it means to be Ironborn. Theon Greyjoy is dead. But what is dead may never die.

But Rises Again...

Her name is Jeyne, it rhymes with pain.

Bran the Wedding by Thrumugnyr
A popular interpretation of Theon's actions upon his return to Winterfell is that seeing Ramsay victimize another person galvanized him into action. This is the approach that HBO has decided to run with, and I do believe that Theon's sympathy for Jeyne as Ramsay degraded her and stripped away her identity played a part in his transition. He thought about mercy killing her the night of her wedding to Ramsay, and even of trying to kill Ramsay himself. But that was not the primary factor in Theon's transformation, which began in earnest before the wedding. I accredit this shift, rather, to Theon's return to his true childhood home, Winterfell.

The first hint that we have of Theon's shift in perspective comes in the Chapter titled The Turncloak. The chapter name itself is alludes to this, as his previous chapter had ended with Theon saying that the Turncloak was dead. We see it as well in the narration, which now refers to him as "Theon Greyjoy" rather than as "Reek" as it had in the previous chapters.

When "Reek" was in Moat Cailin, he pretended to be Balon's heir. When he came to Winterfell, he really did become Theon Greyjoy again, even if it took him a while to realize it. Despite having chosen his kraken blood, we see in these chapters how much Theon truly considered himself to be a Stark all along. He recalls how he used to fantasize that perhaps Lord Eddard would marry him to Sansa one day, and he wishes that he had died beside Robb at the Twins. When he visits the crypts with Lady Dustin, he refers to the ancient king Theon Stark as his "namesake." Giving away "Arya" to Ramsay as her father's ward also had a profound effect upon Theon. He even refers to himself as "a Stark at last" in reference to his now grey and white coloring.

They Know My Name by Thrumugnyr
Perhaps the most pivotal moment comes when Theon prays before the Heart Tree in Winterfell's godswood. The godswood is often presented as the heart of Winterfell (no pun intended). The grove itself is older than the castle around it. It was in the godswood where Ned first learned about Jon Arryn, and the thought of that place being burned is what moves Jon Snow to reject Stannis's offer of being made Lord of Winterfell. As Winterfell is being rebuilt, so too is Theon's old identity coming back (again, recall that Smiler, Theon's symbolic identity, burned while the castle burned around him). It would make sense, therefore, that Theon would feel at most in touch with his old self in the very heart of Winterfell.

When Theon is praying to the Heart Tree, he see's Bran's face in the Weirwood for a moment. In his grief and pain addled madness Theon thinks that he's seeing a ghost, before remembering that Bran isn't really dead. In reality Bran was seeing Theon through the eyes of the Weirwood, but was unable to communicate with him. Theon does, however, hear a whisper through the leaves. Only a single word: "Theon." Hearing his own name from the Old Gods, the Stark Gods of the North, is what completes the transition, bringing the man who was once Theon Greyjoy back to himself again.

The Ghosts of Winterfell

Theon's epiphany in the godswood occurs during his second to last chapter in ADwD, titled A Ghost in Winterfell. During this same time a number of killings take place throughout Winterfell, all of Frey or Bolton men. Some have theorized, based in part on the similarity to Arya when she was "The Ghost of Harrenhal," that Theon himself may have been committing the murders without being consciously aware of it in a theory known as Theon Durden.

While there are some things that seem to point in the direction of the Theon Durden theory, such as Theon losing time and the constant references to him still being able to use a dagger, I think it is more likely that the majority of the killings were carried out by the spearwives that came to Winterfell with Mance Rayder. The reasons that the Northern lords give for Theon's innocence make sense. He doesn't have the strength left, for example, to break Yellow Dick's teeth. If the chapter was titled "The" Ghost in Winterfell, then I might be convinced that it was Theon. But there are a number of "ghosts" present in this chapter, including:
  • Abel (an anagram for Bael the Bard).
  • Bran, through the Weirwood.
  • Ramsay's hounds, which each bear the name of a woman he murdered.
  • Theon himself.
  • The killer.
  • The hooded man.
  • The Stark ghosts from the crypts with the missing swords.

Now it's possible that Theon could have killed Little Walder, as it was mentioned multiple times how much the boy took after Ramsay, and even in his current state Theon should still have been able to overpower a small child (something also remarked upon at various points in the book). The spearwives deny responsibility for that killing, and Manderly seems just a bit too obvious for my liking. Personally I think that it was Big Walder that killed him. Big Walder becomes increasingly frightened by his cousin, and when he reports the death he is covered in blood. Little Walder's blood is frozen solid by the time that the others go to it.

Greyjoy Again, Harder and Stronger

"I had to have two heads, else they would have mocked me … laughed at me …"

Theon feared being laughed at by his kin so much that he murdered the Miller's family to cover up the Stark Boys' escape. After what Ramsay did to him, he's mocked and laughed at nearly everywhere that he goes as something less than human. But now he doesn't care, because he knows there are worse things out there than mockery.

"When you have known the kiss of a flaying knife, a laugh loses all its power to hurt you."

When the spearwives threaten to cut Theon's throat, he only smiles at them. When Stannis threatens to have him killed, Theon laughs in his face. He's not afraid of die anymore, or to be mocked, or damn near anything else that isn't Ramsay.

Asha and Theon Meeting by Mustamirri
When Theon first returned to Pike all of his concern was with appearances and his image as the prince of the Iron Islands. He was so disconnected from his roots that he didn't even recognize his own sister. When they meet again after his escape from Winterfell, she's the one who doesn't recognize him. Ramsay's torture turned his hair white, and the lack of sunlight gave his flesh the withered look of an old man. But Theon only smiles at her shock and calls her sister, remarking that this time he did recognize her. Their situation is turned around, and now he is the one coming from the position of knowing to her ignorance.

Theon's still afraid of Ramsay, as we see when he hisses at Stannis not to call him a bastard, but Ramsay is the only thing that he's afraid of anymore. Not dragons, not Others, not death. This is his real strength, the strength of the Ironborn. The Drowned Men don't fear death, because they've already died. Theon Greyjoy "died" and became Reek, and now that he's risen again, he's stronger than he was before.

What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.


  1. A+, that was fantastic. Will now digest it.

  2. good read, thanks for the effort

  3. This was an honest joy to read. Theon, to me, is one of the most compelling characters in the story or fiction in general so it's great to see a breakdown of the character like this