Theon Greyjoy: At The Heart Of A Complex Character

There are many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire that are extremely intriguing and interesting, but Theon Greyjoy is one such character that garners divided loyalties among both the readers and viewers. Often dismissed as someone who is disloyal and took rash decisions, Theon never really receives any particular analysis or interest in the face of other popular characters like Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister or even Daenerys Targaryen.But I consider Theon Greyjoy as an absolutely stunning character and one of my favourite of the entire series.

First things firsts: Theon Greyjoy did not betray the Starks.

I am not saying that Theon was justified in claiming Winterfell but to completely dismiss him as a betrayer is wrong. Theon was not related to the Starks nor did he owe them any kind of loyalty because he was eventually their prisoner. He was taken from his family by Eddard Stark as a ward to prevent his father Balon Greyjoy from any type of future revolt. Imagine the pain that a ten year old boy who has been torn away from his home has to endure in this situation. No doubt, Eddard Stark might have treated Theon with a lot of kindness, but the psychological trauma a child faces in such a situation is undeniable. So while Theon was given a lot of comforts in terms of clothing, food and education, he was still a hostage with the Starks. This means that despite some deep-rooted Stockholm syndrome, Theon could never regard Eddard as a father, evident by the following quote: “Lord Eddard had tried to play the father from time to time, but to Theon he had always remained the man who’d brought blood and fire to Pyke and take him from his home. As a boy, he had lived in fear of Stark’s stern face and great dark sword.”

Talking about Catelyn Stark, she was from the beginning itself always vary of strangers and Theon would have received literally little to almost no maternal affection from her. With the Stark children, Theon shared a complex relationship with them as well. While Theon liked and even respected Robb, the incident with the wildlings must have really hurt him both psychologically and emotionally. The incident that I am referring to is when Bran is attacked by the wildlings and Theon shoots them. Instead of showing his gratitude to Theon, Robb criticises him for risking Bran’s life. This really hurt him, because he wanted to be appreciated for saving Bran’s life. Theon did not trust Jon Snow as he was a bastard and shared almost a non-existing role with the other Stark kids. In the end, these seemingly small incidents played a big role in Theon Greyjoy’s life and he never really accepted Winterfell as his home. After having gone through so much pain and anguish, it is difficult to expect any type of loyalty from Theon Greyjoy.

Added to all this, Theon is frequently alienated by the northmen and he knows that he will never be accepted as one of their own. No amount of gentleness and care can erase this. “As if ten years in Winterfell could make a Stark. Lord Eddard had raised him amongst his own children, but Theon had never been one of them. The whole castle, from Lady Stark to the lowliest kitchen scullion, knew he was hostage to his fathers good behaviour, and treated him accordingly. Even the bastard Jon Snow had been accorded more honor than he had.”

This need to belong defined Theon for a very long time. That is why when he did not find acceptance among the Starks, Theon tried his best to win favour in the eyes of his father, Balon Greyjoy. His attempt to take Winterfell was all part of his plan to make his father proud of him. Also when Robb tells Theon to return to Pyke, his intention was not to betray the Starks. All he wanted was that his father accepts him as his son and that his battle strategy is met with applause. He intends to be of help to both his father and Robb. Theon’s plan backfires when he arrives at the Pyke and is met with complete humiliation and rejection. His clothing is mocked and he is accused of forgetting the ways of the Iron Islands. When he tried to resolve the entire conflict, he is accused of being a traitor and as someone who has sold his loyalty to the Starks.
“He (Robb) looks on me as an older brother, he–”
“No.” His father jabbed a finger at his face. “Not here, not in Pyke, not in my hearing, you will not name him brother, the son of the man who put your true brothers to the sword.” 

After the failure of establishing a Stark-Greyjoy alliance, Theon is forced to take sides with either the Starks or the Greyjoy. Unfortunately, Theon is living in the world of Song of Fire and Ice and no matter which side he takes, he will always be labelled as a deserter. Additionally, as Theon knows that Robb cannot win the war without the help of the Iron Islands, he decides to side with his family.

This immense need to prove himself, not just to his father but to himself is what flares up when Theon decides to seize Winterfell. The plan to sack Winterfell is amazingly sound and demonstrates amazing calibre and intelligence; a quality that Theon is often dismissed with possessing. Another interesting part of Theon’s personality is revealed when Winterfell is sacked.

“The rest of his men were looting the corpses. Gevin Harlaw knelt on a dead man’s chest, sawing off his finger to get at a ring. Paying the iron price. My lord father would approve. Theon thought of seeking out the bodies of the two men he’d slain himself to see if they had any jewellery worth taking, but the notion left a bitter taste in his mouth.”

This is a very interesting thing because if you remember the words of house Greyjoy is we do not sow and by not wanting to take the jewellery from the dead man’s bodies, Theon is literally rejecting the core values of his own house. When he prioritises the safety of Winterfell and executes one of his man for raping a northern women, he has completely alienated himself from his own house. In addition, the reasoning given by Theon for sacking Winterfell is also noteworthy. While the sacking was partly done to please his father, taking Winterfell did not have benefits in terms of war strategy because of its faraway location. If revenge was what Theon was looking for, the best way would have been to take Rickon and Bran hostage as that would have brought the Starks to their knees and won him a lot of strategic importance for the war as well. However, the desperation of Theon to cling to Winterfell is a proof that he considered it is home, even if it was to a small measure. While Theon never felt safe at Winterfell, by making himself a prince of that region, he is only trying to discover a place that he could actually make his own and call home. In the process, Theon made several miscalculations, which ultimately led to his downfall. The most grievous of his faults was to oversee the murder of the miller boys and have their bodies posed as that of Bran and Rickon Stark. To worsen his situation, Theon failed to win any allies during his rule as is evident from one of the most marked quotes in the book, “If I die, I die friendless and abandoned. What choice did that leave him, but to live?”


Anyway most of Theon’s efforts prove to be in vain as he loses his hold over Winterfell very soon. When he opens the gate for reinforcement, he actually puts the final nail in his own coffin. After killing all the Ironborn, Ramsay captures Theon, after which he loses his identity and begins his life as Reek.

In the next two books (namely A Storm of Swords and Feast of Crows), Theon is only mentioned as undergoing extreme trauma and has been stripped off every identity by Ramsay Bolton. There is no POV for him in either of these two books.

By the time we reach Theon in the Dance of the Dragons, he has been converted into Reek, a name given to him by Ramsay. Interestingly, Ramsay till now does not have any point of view chapters and we know him, mainly through the eyes of Theon Greyjoy. This is why I believe that Ramsay Bolton, however despicable and unredeemable he may be, has a vital role to play in shaping Theon Greyjoy’s life. If you remember Reek, the name given to Theon Greyjoy is the name of the servant who was responsible for creating Ramsay. In other words, Theon is forced to take on the identity of the man who was responsible for the creation of Ramsay. GRRM could very easily have not given the torturer of Theon an identity, but by giving him a face in Ramsay, the author is trying to prove the symbolic value of Ramsay in Theon’s life.

That is why it is only when Theon escapes the clutches of Ramsay after being traumatised, broken and completely without identity, does he finally discover himself. Free from the house that he was born into and social titles, Theon can finally confront his true feelings and emotions. After having gone through intense emotions of trauma and turmoil, Theon is finally ready to accept death because he is glad to be alive and be a person with his own identity.

For me, Ramsay was the final piece in the growth arc of Theon. Like they say it is darkest before dawn, Ramsay was that darkness for Theon. Ramsay is important not because of what he did to Theon but because he had a major part in removing the guilt that Theon had been carrying in his heart. Because he isn’t a person; he is the worst of Theon’s fears and the symbol of Theon’s greatest fear of all; the lack of identity. He is a necessary yet vital stain on the heart of a beautiful character that I love.

Another thing that I want to talk about is what is that gives Reek the strength to become Theon again?Jeyne.
“He will flay me from head to heel this time, and no amount of begging will end the anguish. No pain Theon had ever known came close to the agony that Skinner could evoke with a little flensing blade. Abel would learn that lesson soon enough. And for what? Jeyne, her name is Jeyne, and her eyes are the wrong colour.”

Their relationship is so complicated, but they are connected because at its core, they are two people who are in horribly desperate situations bonding and surviving together. Before her, Theon had long gotten over any ideas of fleeing. He had the chance to do so when Ramsay sent him to lure in the ironborn, but he had been moulded into complacency. With Jeyne, things are different. As he grows closer to her, he becomes willing to risk everything he values for her. It is also worth bearing in mind that Theon does this with no motive other than to keep her safe. He knows that she isn’t Arya Stark. He knows she has no political value. When all of the Stark bannerman heard Jeyne sobbing through the night, they didn’t lift a finger to help her. Theon, however broken he may have been, at whatever cost, did.
“Stay close to me,” Jeyne said, “Don’t leave me.”
“I will be right beside you,” Theon promised.”

This according to me is one of the most outstanding personality trait in Theon. Despite experiencing abuse even he can’t put his head around, he is still able to be selfless. When he rescues Jeyne Poole, he is putting her safety above his greatest fear. He is risking falling back into the hands of Ramsay, yet it is worth it on the off chance that he can get away with Jeyne. Theon Greyjoy is incredibly strong, incredibly brave, and he is worthy of admiration. Most of all though, he is worthy of his name.

In final conclusion, do I believe that Theon Greyjoy is redeemable in the eyes of the readers? Yes, maybe not because by now you must have realised that redemption in Westeros is painfully difficult, if not impossible. Jamie Lannister had to lose his hand before he could be redeemed in our eyes and Sansa Stark had her own share of hell to bear before she could stand on her feet and claim to be a influential character in the world of the Seven Kingdoms.

I really do not know what is going to happen to Theon in the coming books, because he seems to have effectively closed the doors of both Pyke and Winterfell. After whatever he has gone through, I think death will prove to be the best redemption for him. And even though that might seem like a tragic end, I feel Theon has managed to find himself and his identity, freeing himself from all other attachments. But his actual fate I guess is left best in the hands of his master, GRRM for the time being.