Tower of the Hand

In Defense of Theon Greyjoy

Published:
Oct 7, 2016, 9:00 AM ET
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Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows on TV these days, and so it's regularly covered in the media, often by people who aren't necessarily huge fans. Through reading/watching interviews, articles and so on, I have discovered that whenever Theon is mentioned certain opinions are put forward that appear to be considered "everyone's opinion" or, even, straight-up "the truth." I would like to challenge some of the most common ones, as I think his character deserves to be judged with a certain nuance that he hasn't received up until now.

Let's start with his status in the Stark household: even in the show it's outright stated many times that Theon is a hostage. In the books Ned mentions Theon just once, and it's about using him to force his father to fight for them in case a war breaks out. So in theory Theon's status should be clear to both book and show fans, yet somehow whenever I read articles on Theon, the Starks are referred to as his "adoptive family," or something similar. It seems like people are trying to downplay Theon's unfortunate position in Winterfell. I'm not necessarily suggesting that this is done deliberately, it's probably due to the fact that most chapters in the books are told from a Stark's point of view and Theon isn't exactly a well-liked character, so people are automatically biased in favor of the Starks.

Too often it seems like people pick a side and then hold a confirmation bias in favor of that side. Therefore, in this case it becomes a Theon vs. the Starks situation, and considering that the Starks hold the most POVs and are overall probably the most beloved family, most people will pick their side and romanticize their relationship with Theon, which automatically makes Theon's betrayal out to be worse.

I however, don't need to pick a side, as I don't believe that the Starks having a hostage, in any way reflects badly on them, since it's what was expected of them to do in that specific situation in the society they live in (or more specifically, on Ned, because obviously the children had nothing to do with it: how it gets extended to them is beyond me). I don't need to romanticize the truth, as I don't think the truth hurts my view of the Starks as the mostly positive protagonists of the story. I also don't think that making it a case of Theon vs. the Starks is in any way productive.

This might seem like an arbitrary thing to hammer on, but it makes a world of difference to Theon's character. Being an adoptive child would have been a completely different experience for Theon, and he would not have been the person we meet at the beginning of A Game of Thrones.

Asha, in the books, refers to her brother as being "a meek and shy child" who lived "in awe and fear" of their older brothers, Rodrik and Maron. Theon didn't have an easy childhood: he grew up in a culture that celebrated the stereotypical idea of "strength" above all, and being such a shy child he didn't fit in that kind of cultural climate. As a result his brothers regularly beat and bullied him. Yet, through growing up in such a culture, it's only logical that he admired the people who abused him, that he aspired to be like them even; he learned that if he wanted to be loved and accepted he had to change, become more like his brothers.

At the age of nine his father's rebellion goes horribly wrong; Theon watches from the safety of a tower how his home is invaded, or at least that's how it must have looked like for him. Children tend to see the world in black and white, and therefore Theon probably thought that the Starks, Baratheons and Lannisters were evil invaders who came to destroy his home. Both Rodrik and Maron die in battle and as Balon's last living heir, he's sent away with one of those "evil invaders" to go live in Winterfell under threat of death should his father rebel again. Of course later on he learns that they are not evil and even wants to be one of them, because they do actually accept people for who they are, unlike his own dysfunctional family, but of course he can never truly be a Stark.

His relationship with Ned must have been confusing, because on the one hand Lord Stark was his captor, on the other hand he was the only possible father figure Theon could relate to in Winterfell. And from Theon's point of view he probably felt like he was getting mixed messages from Ned, considering that Ned provided Theon with all that he needed and treated him fairly, which to a person like Theon - who thinks through their emotions - must have meant that he cared about him, and yet he received no warmth from Ned, who kept an emotional distance because he knew he might have to kill Theon one day.

Ned demanded Theon be present during executions, even allowing him to carry his sword, which from Ned's point of view meant probably treating him fairly, including him with his children and not alienate him more then he already was; but for Theon this was a reminder of his own possible fate. Theon's response during Will's execution in the very first Bran chapter of A Game of Thrones is to kick the severed head and smile: this is clearly a defense mechanism to hide his fear, not only from everyone else but also from himself. He's in denial and overcompensating in order to deal with these emotions that he deems unacceptable, because he learned from his family that he needs to be "strong." And being afraid would be considered a weakness.

The Theon we meet in A Game of Thrones is nothing like the meek, shy child Asha described: he's grown up into an unstable, sarcastic jerk. In a desperate attempt to be accepted he has essentially altered his personality according to what he learned, back on the Iron Islands, was the "right" way to be. Of course all of this happens subconsciously: Theon isn't aware that he's doing this, but it's abundantly clear that he pretty much just wants to be loved, like any one of us does.

And it's no wonder that he's so desperate for this love, that he barely received it on the Iron Islands, but at least there he had his mother, his sister and Dagmer Cleftjaw, who was more of a father to him than Eddard and Balon together; he had friends and lived in a familiar place and culture. It was far from perfect and in some aspects the Stark household was a more positive environment to grow up in, but any positive influence Theon could have enjoyed of living with the Starks was overshadowed by his hostage status.

He's not just a stranger, but everyone is perfectly aware of where he comes from, who he is and what his father did, and he's judged for that. Maester Luwin even tells Bran that Ned tried to "gentle" Theon, because the ironborn are savage people. This shows a clear prejudice towards the ironborn, unsurprising in a world like this. So from the moment he arrived there, even as a child, he was judged for his father's actions; maybe not outright, but a lot of communication is done through body language and so Theon probably felt the hostility coming from the northerners. Even just a few people being openly hostile towards him would get him to internalize how he was unwelcome, and he'd easily get over-sensitive to those things, given that he was a young child who already had a low self-esteem and problems being accepted. He became friends with Robb Stark, but Ned's oldest son was only five years old at the time, not exactly someone you can talk to about all your problems, so it's no wonder that Theon mentions he had secret places where he hid when he wanted to be alone. He kept all his problems to himself, his fear, his anger, his need for love...

Furthermore, he developed an identity crisis, uses several defense mechanisms, has absolutely unhealthy thinking patterns and all around is a complete emotionally unstable mess. This is how we meet him at the beginning of A Game of Thrones, but this emotional instability only becomes a problem for him when he is sent back to the Iron Islands and is confronted with the reality he'd been trying to deny for years.

It's important to realize that Theon is the kind of person who doesn't deal with reality itself: he deals with how he feels about reality, and if he doesn't like how he feels he'll find some way to romanticize facts in order to make himself feel better, which is of course only a temporary solution because at some point reality will catch up with him and he won't be able to deny the truth anymore. This is what Theon does while living in Winterfell: when he realizes that he'll never truly be a Stark, he fixes his "unacceptable" feelings about that by romanticizing his own family and in particular his relationship and future with them. He mentions in A Clash of Kings that he often imagined his homecoming and since denial requires overcompensation, he probably imagined it even better than what it realistically could have been like. On his way home Theon continuously points out how much of a typical ironborn he is, how the sea is in his blood and this is "his" time. This is part of that overcompensation: he's insecure about his heritage because he was gone for so long, and never really was a typical ironborn to begin with. So he needs to keep himself convinced of how well he fits in to support his fantasy. But of course it can't last forever, and he's sorely disappointed when his homecoming isn't only dissatisfactory but he's downright bullied by his father and sister: he's clearly not welcome and not trusted. It turns out that he doesn't belong on the Islands either. Now, this is the basis on which his entire emotional stability has rested on for years, and of course it turns out that stability was just an illusion; any support system that rests upon something so fragile as a romanticized fantasy is not really stable, it's bound to crumble eventually. And it does: Theon becomes agitated, loses control of himself and constantly searches for ways to make himself feel better, nothing seems to work until he comes up with the "brilliant" plan to take Winterfell.

And here we have arrived at the second notion about Theon that is often spoken of in an not nuanced enough way, even if that nuance is exactly what defines his character. "He betrayed the Starks" may be the most common thing said about Theon, yet, there is way more to it than that. Theon never set out to betray the Starks. Neither did he do it out of revenge, or hatred. It's actually more the other way around. Theon tells himself that he takes Winterfell to impress his father, and while that may be a part of it, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't the main reason, but rather a cover up from Theon to hide the real, subconscious one. Theon is reaching back to that other place where he wanted to belong, Winterfell. He is essentially making the same mistake he made before: back when Winterfell didn't accept him he decided that that wasn't a problem, there was always Pyke, but now that Pyke hasn't accepted him either, he needs Winterfell to. And if it won't accept him willingly he'll force it to.

You may ask, how is this so obvious? And my answer would be that it's clear because the moment he's in Winterfell he barely even thinks about his father: if at all, suddenly it's all about what the people of Winterfell think of him and how he tries to lead like Eddard Stark so they'll love him and respect him like they did Ned.

Of course this plan also goes horribly wrong, because invading a place is no way to make it accept you. Theon thought he could force it to but that proves impossible and he sinks deeper and deeper into paranoia, because with every decision he makes it becomes worse and quickly he has no more ways to deny reality.

Theon's character is essentially a deconstruction of the traitor trope, in the sense that while he is the traitor, he gets to that point through making very human mistakes rather than simply being a bad person. Furthermore, it's presented from his point of view in a rather sympathetic way.

In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge that Theon was a hostage rather than an adopted son of sorts, because he would have never been the person we met in A Game of Thrones if it weren't for that fact. And he had to be that person in order to make the mistakes that eventually lead him to "betray" his captors.

Everything that I have written here and much more is explored in my book on him Rising Harder and Stronger. You can find it on Amazon.com.

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