What Is Dead May Never Die


Theon Greyjoy–son of Balon Greyjoy and heir to the Iron Islands; ward and hostage of Eddard Stark, Warden of the North; friend and lieutenant to Robb Stark, self-proclaimed King in the North; Prince of Winterfell, Theon Turncloak, and “murderer” of Bran and Rickon Stark; flayed and castrated prisoner of Ramsay Snow; Reek–is the most important character in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Now hold up a second, because I can hear the controversy through the computer screen. “What about Jon Snow? Or Daenerys Targaryen, with her dragons? Or what about Tyrion? They’re all far better characters than that dickless chump.” In fact, from what I’ve gathered from Internet forums and such, several readers would like to see Theon die–to finally be put out of his misery.

Well…yes and no. Many of the characters in the series are far more instrumental to the plot than our friend Theon, but his character arc not only resembles the Hero’s Journey archetype but also reflects the dark side of Westerosi culture. In particular, it shows how the age-old tradition of sending children of noble Houses to be fostered with other families can be less benign than it initially seems. In A Game of Thrones, we hear repeatedly that Ned Stark cherished his foster time with House Arryn, growing close with patriarch Jon Arryn and building a brotherly bond with soon-to-be-king Robert Baratheon. Reflective of English Medieval society, this family-swapping game served to build ties between families to ensure alliance in the case of war.

Theon Greyjoy’s situation is different. For those that don’t know, his father, good old Balon Greyjoy rose in rebellion against King Robert to declare the Iron Islands independent of the Seven Kingdoms. Unfortunately for Balon, the Seven Kingdoms swatted him and his joke of a rebellion like a fly. To ensure that Balon wouldn’t do something this stupid ever again, Ned Stark took Theon hostage to 1) threaten Balon, and 2) raise Theon as his own so that when Theon inherited the Iron Islands, he would rule honorably.

Imagine that you’re Theon. You’re nine years old, two of your brothers have been killed, and you’ve been abducted and taken to a faraway land with an executioner’s blade perpetually hanging above your neck. No matter how nicely you’re treated, you are, at the end of the day, a hostage, and if your dad partakes in his delusions of grandeur once more, you’re dead. It’s no wonder that he grows up a narcissistic misogynist: he will do anything to maintain any semblance of superiority to hide his truly low self-esteem.

Now, of course, maybe that’s not enough. Catelyn Stark abused Jon Snow as Ned’s bastard son, yet he made his way as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch! Daenerys, a fugitive-turned-sex-slave faced starvation in the Great Waste, but she managed to rule Meereen with her dragons! And Tyrion, a neglected midget, led King’s Landing to victory against strategic mastermind Stannis Baratheon!

Obviously, Theon’s feats don’t compare to these, but that’s what makes him so undeniably important to the flow of the story. If we’re being honest, Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion are all characteristic outliers–most people in their positions would be dead by book two. George R.R. Martin bends his tone of realism to accommodate this unique triad–and this is ok. To feature a protagonist who behaves exactly as you’d expect given his/her circumstances would be far less captivating.

That’s why reading through Theon’s psychologically damaged perspective is, to me, extremely refreshing. He thinks and feels just as I’d expect from someone reconciling two opposing cultures. His internal monologues often contain some sort of justification for the next horrific crime he’s about to commit, such as murdering an old acquaintance from around Winterfell while raiding the Stony Shore, decapitating Winterfell citizen Farlen for “insubordination,” and killing two innocent farm boys and passing them off as Bran and Rickon. Theon’s guilt is palpable, and, on several occasions, he undergoes actual physical sickness at his own actions.

It’s also interesting how GRRM controls our feelings about Theon so tightly; we went from hating him passionately when he backstabs Robb, but we instantly feel sympathy for him after his torture at Ramsay Snow’s psychopathic hands. His storyline is poetic; he begins as a ward to the most powerful family in the North (the Starks) because of his status as the Greyjoy heir, vainly trying to prove his identity as a Greyjoy, and, as if to answer his questions, he’s again made the ward of the most powerful family in the North (the Boltons) because of his status as the Greyjoy heir, desperately trying to prove his identity as Reek. As they all say, karma’s a bitch. But this particular bitch is more than just bite or bark: it brutally represents the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey archetype basically encompasses the hero’s separation from the familiar, initiation into the new, and the return to the familiar with something from the new. A good example of this is Shrek. He separates from his mellow, peaceful swamp, undergoes initiation when fighting for Princess Fiona, and returns to his swamp with his princess and reduced cynicism. Theon’s case is slightly more graphic–in fact, if we solely apply this three-part formula, he actually undergoes this process twice.

When he’s nine years old, Theon separates from his native island of Pyke to be fostered by Eddard Stark as a hostage. He is initiated his whole life being raised by Northeners, learning a new culture of honor and endurance. After Robb sends him back to the Iron Islands to recruit Balon’s ships to attack King’s Landing, it’s expected that Theon will use the information he’s learned to triumph at home. GRRM does a spectacular job of upending that expectation, as it’s just too good to be true. Not only do we see Theon fail in his diplomatic mission, but we see through his very eyes the heroic redemption that he wants. It’s as though he knows he’s this close to being a real hero, but he decides to betray Robb and back his father because of his intrinsic desire to belong to a real family. At this point, he is no hero.

Speaking of his family, House Greyjoy’s words are “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger,” illustrating in a sentence the intent of the Hero’s Journey. Iron Islanders believe in the Drowned God, drowning their citizens to send them to the Drowned God’s feast only to resuscitate them, as they are now stronger and wiser for having dined with their Lord. Theon’s second Hero’s Journey matches the arc of his house words, beginning with Ramsay Snow torching Winterfell and abducting him as a hostage. He is separated from his adolescent home yet again and initiated violently and systematically as Ramsay tortures him until Theon “dies” and Reek is born. Ramsay removes everything that Theon prides himself on piece by piece:

  1. His fingers, taking away Theon’s proficiency for archery. Theon now only has seven fingers.
  2. His teeth, thus making Theon’s classic white smile all the more wretched.
  3. His penis, making his sexual exploits null and void. Note that it’s not implied that Theon’s testicles are gone; it’s possible that he still produces sexual hormones but no longer has the method by which to use them.
  4. His name. By far and large the most impactful part of Theon’s transformation is his descent from Theon Greyjoy, heir to Pyke and the Iron Islands, to Reek, Reek, it rhymes with freak.

However, as we know, what is dead may never die. We endure almost the entirety of A Dance with Dragons morbidly fascinated with Theon’s frail condition as he slowly transitions from Reek back to Theon Greyjoy. In fact, all of his POV chapters in the book showcase his “return” from tortured hostage to an unsteady yet genuine Theon Greyjoy. The first three chapters are entitled Reek, signifying his decrepit mental state, but he soon begins the end of his heroic arc when his fourth chapter is entitled The Prince of Winterfell. In this chapter, we see Theon struggling with his identity, choosing to remain Reek to avoid the guilt from his disastrous actions as Theon in capturing Winterfell. His next chapter, entitled The Turncloak, glosses the beginnings of his repentance through his prayers to the gods, followed by A Ghost in Winterfell, in which Theon wishes to die “a man’s death” as “Theon” and not “Reek” to both put a quick, dignified end to all the suffering that he has experienced and to pay for the sins of his previous life.

Finally, by his seventh and final chapter, entitled Theon, we witness the conclusion of Theon Greyjoy’s return as he finally makes a decision that, for once, is not meant to please anybody as he so desperately tried to please his father Balon, his foster brother Robb, and his torturer Ramsay, but is meant purely to help another person. In tandem with the dignity he has begun to reach for in the previous chapter, Theon finally understands what it means to be a “man,” and he enforces his understanding by saving fellow Bolton hostage Jeyne Poole.

At the end of this arc, we realize that yes, Theon Greyjoy is a weak person who has arguably had a better childhood and adolescence than many other characters in the story yet has a shittier personality to show for it, and for this reason, it’s easy to find him unlikeable or useless. We all prefer to read about the tough, idealistic mavericks who never give up, like Jon Snow or Daenerys, as they represent what we want to be, but in doing so, we end up stomping on those narrative arcs which are dictated more purely by character than by the overarching plot.

Not only does Theon personify everything wrong with the Westerosi political alliance system, but his redemptive arc tells one of the realest tales in modern fantasy fiction. He’s no prince; he’s no hero at all. He is a vain, self-absorbed young man who plays with decapitated heads, fucks any woman he can get his hands on, and attacks his childhood home to attain a twisted sense of control–we almost want the villain to catch him. And, defying convention yet again, he doesn’t immediately escape the villain’s evil lair with the beautiful princess to miraculously save the day; he becomes a part of the evil lair, surviving by convincing himself that he truly belongs there. And he lives there for weeks, struggling to forget everything outside of the lair. And one day, the facade shatters; he rises again, harder, and stronger, no longer succumbing to the villain but thinking for himself and escaping with the beautiful princess. He may be a tad unconventional, but he has become a hero.

And I believe that, in some way, Theon Greyjoy will save the day, missing fingers and all.


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