It’s time I explained myself. For as long as I have been a diehard Game of Thrones fan (basically since the moment I set eyes on it), I have been defending my steadfast fondness for the often-reviled Theon Greyjoy. Up against widespread and vehement opposition, I have been reduced to referencing such gems as “You just don’t get it!” and “You’ll see in a few seasons…” This isn’t enough. I am here to state my case (neutered for HBO-current continuity; no spoilers from books 3-5!)
First, a little backstory. HBO does a superb job of describing the astoundingly rich world, history, and characters of Game of Thrones, but it’s impossible to convey everything. The war currently being waged in Westeros is called The War of the Five Kings. It was preceded, roughly 17 years ago, by another war called Robert’s Rebellion, which you can guess from the name is the conflict that set the late Robert Baratheon on the Iron Throne (before that was a three-hundred year Targaryen dynasty.)
About 8 years after that revolution, another high lord got it in his head to become a king himself: Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands led his own ill-fated rebellion, which King Robert and his old friend Ned Stark put down with embarrassing ease. They allowed Greyjoy to remain lord of his Iron Islands, but at a price. The two oldest Greyjoy heirs died in the battle; his youngest and only remaining son was taken back to Winterfell to be raised as Stark’s ward, which is a polite way of saying “captive to his father’s good behavior.” And that boy was Theon Greyjoy.
So it was that Theon spent more of his life with the Starks than the Greyjoys. If you watch closely, the show gives brief glimpses of such a life’s nuances. Throughout season 1, various visitors comment negatively on Theon in passing; it’s clear his father’s reputation hangs over him like a cloud. Of course, you may say, Theon seems to have had a good life in Winterfell, raised alongside the Stark boys. The key word here would be alongside: like the bastard Jon Snow, Theon grew up with the Starks, but not as one of them. Separate but (not) equal. In the books there’s some more detail about how the Stark children regard him; most are indifferent, with Sansa positively disdainful; only Robb treats him kindly, like a true brother. For his part, Ned Stark was ever a fair man, but never a kindly one; he treated Theon well, but never forgot what he was.
Sadly, even Robb’s favor is conditional. The two are best of chums when they’re getting shaved for the big feast in episode 1, but by season 2 Robb is King in the North, and Theon is never more glaringly the outsider. Robb keeps him close and listens to his friend’s counsel, but developments have only highlighted their stations, and tensions begin to strain. When Robb makes the foolish mistake of sending Theon to treat with his kin, a lifetime’s daddy issues come to a head.
“You can’t go home again” is the thesis of Theon’s plotline in the first half of season 2, and now we’re starting to get at my compassion for him. As the ship bearing him approaches Pyke, Theon shows a brief glimpse of anxiety over his homecoming. He covers it up with characteristic bravado, for that’s just who he is; but the cockier he acts, the more I’m sure he’s trying to compensate for. Uncertain what will meet him, he insists to the captain’s daughter (and more so to himself) that everyone who’s anyone will be there, elated to receive their long-lost prince. It’s a hard pill to swallow when no one picks him up at the docks, because it threatens to confirm his fear that nobody cares.
After his sister humiliates and likely traumatizes him, Theon finally comes face-to-face with his father, after so many years. It is not the reunion anyone would hope for. Balon disparages Theon’s Northern affects and acts, at best, coldly towards his only son. He acts the therapist, asking Theon how he feels about Ned Stark’s death. Theon answers like a good Ironborn boy, saying “What’s done is done,” but a little emotion creeps in, and Balon disdains it. He senses his son is changed, and he isn’t wrong; Theon is no proper Iron Islander, devoid of the intrinsic cultural identity that comes from growing up in a place. Not content that he’s fully alienated his son yet, Balon goes on to denigrate Theon’s place in Robb’s army; where he sees himself a trusted counselor, Balon sees a lowly errand-boy. The final nail in the coffin of Theon’s alienation is to see his sister raised above him in their father’s esteem and affection, embodying all the glory Theon might have held in another life.
Through the crushing reunion with his father, Theon’s worst fears are illuminated and, to him, proven true. He already knows he doesn’t belong in the North, but has comforted himself all these years that it isn’t his true home; now he returns to Pyke to find himself outcast there as well. Ned Stark regarded the boy coolly all his life, and he finally returns – thinking himself the prodigal son – to a father who neither wants nor needs him. His own brothers were killed when Theon was a boy, and now doubt is cast on his relationship with surrogate brother Robb. In every possible way, he is a young man without roots. He lacks home, family, and all the foundational support we take for granted in well-adjusted individuals.
It is in this state that Theon strays from the moral high ground. In Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs, after food and safety the most basic human requirement is a sense of belonging, love, and affection. Only once this is achieved can an individual move on to pursue esteem and self-actualization. Without feeling a part of anything or cared for by anyone (and really, does anybody love Theon?) this character is incapable of growth. And so he acts not to do the honorable thing (like Ned Stark) or to advance his empire (like his father), but to try to make his father respect and maybe even love him. Theon abandons his ties to the Starks, for he cannot be both, and devotes himself foolhardily to the Greyjoy cause.
He then goes on to make a series of ill-thought-out decisions geared more toward his own cause than the Iron Islanders’ in general (see: seizing Winterfell). The arc we see here is someone backing himself into a corner. Theon has burnt his bridges with the Starks and requires a way to impress his father and their constituents; he acts boldly (as many have), but has middling success. With the taking of Winterfell, he irreversibly cements his betrayal of the Starks, and is met with widespread hatred (and this from people he grew up with, remember!) Yes, Theon did an ignoble thing, but capturing castles is fairly de rigeur in this world. What’s notable isn’t the deed but the collateral damage on the soul of the captor, as Theon learns to his dismay.
Now Theon’s bed is made, and by the time he pretends to kill the youngest Starks, there could be no turning back anyway. It is the act of a desperate and hopeless man, and one that will haunt him in legacy and memory alike. I understand the instinct here to despise the newly minted Theon Turncloak, but I disagree with it. In a world where we forgive (perhaps not formally, but we certainly don’t revile) a character who killed the king he swore to defend and once pushed a little boy out a window, sympathize with one who wrongfully imprisoned and nearly executed an innocent man, and positively adore one who stabbed another child in cold blood, it seems naïve to hate Theon so absolutely.
Theon is a cautionary tale. Game of Thrones reminds us that “the truth” is what the winners say it is: Cersei says just as much to Joffrey. Already, the narrative of Robert’s Rebellion has long since been rewritten as the overthrow of a bad (and mad) king for the good of the kingdom, when it was really a vengeance quest by a spurned suitor. The saddest “truth” is the tale of Ned Stark, the traitor who lost his head for betraying his king. My point with these examples is that had Theon been successful, the Iron Islanders would have wound up calling themselves Kings in the North, Theon would have (unironically) been the Prince of Winterfell (a name he is later called pejoratively), the raid of Winterfell would have been hailed as a great military victory, and we would love him as we do the Starks. (Don’t act like Robb isn’t killing far more people than Theon!)
We only forgive Robb for it because he’s killing “the right people”, because we perceive him to be “the good guy.” A great strength of the Song of Ice and Fire books is the shifting character point-of-views, which reveal that there are no good guys and bad guys; the show does this too, but it will take a bit more time to flesh everyone out.
The matter of Theon is one of perspective. He may be a cocky S.O.B. and he may annoy you; but he is still one of the most devastatingly human characters in this series. There is a reason his name at the top of a chapter always elicited my glee. His story will only get better (worse?) and eventually melt even the cold hearts who claimed to hate him. Hopefully now you’ll have seen some good in him before it comes to that.