Warning: MASSIVE spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.
Excerpt from a conversation with a friend a few months ago:
Friend: I like Jon Snow. And Tyrion of course.
Me: Of course, I like them too! But liking them is so predictable. I mean, don’t you think…
Friend: (vaguely amused and partly scandalized) Who do you like then? Wait, let me guess. Theon Greyjoy?
By now she’s laughing.
Yes, I like Theon Greyjoy. He is, believe it or not, my favourite character in G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. I’ve liked him ever since he smirked at Jon in A Game of Thrones and pissed him off. This was because it was fun to see that something could piss off the otherwise broody and angsty Jon Snow.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Theon is my favourite, given my soft spot for tormented, good-looking men who mask their vulnerability with wit and martial prowess. Of course, Theon is a bit of a jerk (as most men in ASoIaF seem to be), but that seems part and parcel of being smart, good looking and rich in Westeros.
I think Theon, in many ways, acts as a foil to Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. If you place the three characters on a spectrum, it would range from Jon, loved and respected by his ‘father’ but uncertain of his place to Tyrion, long detested by his true father and condemned to die by his own family. Theon sits in the middle: he was raised by a man he respected, but he could never be certain of his regard (he states that Eddard Stark always made it clear that, if necessary, he would kill his ward to ensure Balon Greyjoy’s continued good behaviour). He returns to a less-than-warm homecoming and feels that the only way to win back his father’s approval is to turn his back on his foster family. Of course, this only ends in disaster with the Greyjoys, apart from Asha, abandoning him.
I thought this last was illustrated powerfully in HBO’s adaptation of the books when Balon Greyjoy, on receiving Ramsay’s grisly present, states that he ‘has no son’.
Another group Theon can be placed in is that of characters who have lost a sense of self, home and family. The theme of familial belonging is one that runs through the series: characters make decisions keeping in mind the survival of their Houses; those who act selfishly are eliminated. ‘Family’ comes first for many Houses, most notably the Tyrells (whose matriarch, Olenna, engineers a complicated murder in order to ensure her granddaughter gets a good marital deal), the Tullys (their words are, after all, ‘Family, Duty, Honour’) and the Lannisters (it’s all Tywin Lannister can talk about, and Cersei and Jaime do a good job of keeping everything in the family). Characters who lose a sense of where and whom they come from are often the most misguided.
In a previous post I stated that Sansa Stark, Daenerys and Theon are among those who ‘lose’ a sense of self in the series. All three make the mistake of trying to be something they are not: Sansa seeking to bury her northern roots and become a ‘true southron lady’ and Dany trying to purge the violence of her heritage by locking away her dragons. Theon is even more complicated than these two: instead of forsaking his roots, he turns to some half-hearted version of them, seeking to earn back his place in a long-abandoned family. Theon’s revelations and upward climb only happen when he accepts and later, gives voice to the desire that has driven him all along. He never wanted to be one of the Greyjoys; he wanted to be one of the Starks.
But for all his conflicts and complications, what I really like about Theon is quite simple: his arc, despite being hellish and terribly painful in parts, is really the most hopeful. At its corny best, fantasy is about hope. It’s about overcoming darkness and fear and living to fight another day. In the world of ASoIaF, it’s easy to forget that basic moral because Martin does such a good job of tweaking our expectations and playing on conventions. Westeros is no Middle Earth, where all you need is an Aragorn-type nobility and steadfast Hobbit courage to win the day. It’s not even Randland, where ‘love’ and willing sacrifice play such a vital role in the Last Battle. Westeros is not an idealized version of our world; it is our world, with all the petty politics, rivalries and screwing around for advantage. Only, it has the added magic of dragons and unpredictable Fire gods, as well as some strange people called the Others.
In this dreary, depressingly ‘real’ world, Theon stands out. He makes terrible mistakes, but unlike most other characters, he seems to feel a huge sense of remorse, one that propels him to make a painful journey through A Dance with Dragons. Honestly, I thought Theon OWNED that book. He was the one character who quite visibly progressed through its pages: from ‘Reek’ through to ‘The Prince of Winterfell’ and ending, finally, with ‘Theon’. What really got me was that, honestly speaking, there was no real need for Theon’s story that I could see. Like many of my fellow readers, I assumed that, when Ramsay sent strips of skin to Robb in A Storm of Swords, he was dead. To my mind, he had fulfilled his function in the plot: turn against Robb, harry the North, throw everyone into confusion and thus start the Stark fall. And then it turned out he was alive, if barely. I wondered what Martin would do with him. I did not expect the sort of redemption story I got.
Of course, Theon’s crimes are pretty unpardonable. But I don’t think he’s doing any of what he’s doing (saving Jeyne, reclaiming his sense of self) in order to mitigate his actions and earn himself a lesser sentence. This seems, more than anything, a personal quest, a way in which he can die with some sense of peace. In a universe where everyone wants power or vengeance, it’s heartening to come across a character who wants something like this.
Turning the superficial, smirking jerk into this world’s version of an idealist: Theon is Martin’s dark, twisted but ultimately hopeful fairytale.