The fall of Winterfell is such a pivotal moment in A Song of Ice and Fire that it’s incredibly hard to overstate its importance in the grand scheme of things. The actual fall arguably took almost half a book ago when the castle was lost to a band of not-so-merry raiders but this chapter nonetheless represents a point of no return, not just for the ancient stronghold itself but also for its original owners. We will naturally talk a great deal about the implications of this chapter at the end of this discussion but lest we forget, this chapter doesn’t feature only Winterfell’s final fall but also Theon’s. This chapter, Theon’s last in A Clash of Kings, is also possibly his last ever – the creature he becomes later on is largely unrecognizable and is certainly far removed from the Theon Greyjoy we’ve seen thus far. Theon is easily one of Martin’s most complex characters, in no small part due the sheer number of influences compelling him to act in different ways. In each of his chapters in this book, it has felt as though his character has been forced to compromise and reconcile values that have come into evermore conflict – both internally, as evidenced by Ironborn’s pragmatic cruelty versus the Stark’s honourable loyalty, and externally in the more literal conflict between those factions. Theon, instead of picking one side or the other, continued to try to reconcile the irreconcilable and in doing so made a series of a profound misjudgements that led him to his current position – forsaken, paranoid and doomed.
“I will not claim to bear you any great love, no, but I cannot hate you either.”
Before we get too carried away talking about Theon though, let’s spend some time considering the collateral damage that is left implied but unstated. No mention after this point is made of any of the other inhabitants of Winterfell making it out alive. We see Maester Luwin die when Bran emerges from the crypts but I, for one, did not really think of the other inhabitants until right now. What happened to little Beth Cassel after all those threats and all that posturing? What happened to the workers and laborers and their wives and their children? As bad as they have it, it is Luwin I feel the worst for. His position is utterly miserable – he has served the Starks loyally for more than a decade, watched the family grow and prosper (not in the political sense, but in the less storied domestic happiness sense) only to see it all apart at the hands of a man they considered one of their own. He is bound to his oaths, no matter how much they rankle but the conflict he experiences isn’t quite as one dimensional as that. This isn’t a simple of matter of his heart telling him to do one thing and his oaths another. Instead, his heart is conflicted because as terrible as he believes Theon to be (remember that at this point Luwin strongly suspects that Bran and Rickon are alive), he also understands Theon better than Theon understands himself. He knows just what kind of psychological and cultural forces are pushing Theon to behave the way he is. Luwin’s keen understanding of Theon’s personality, while not perfect, allows him to come within inches of snatching at least a partial victory for all sides from the jaws of abject defeat. Of course, this being ASOIAF, inches was as close as he was ever going to the get but still, the quote above is a good reminder that Luwin does have some lingering consideration for Theon.
“I took this castle and I mean to hold it, to live or die as Prince of Winterfell. But I will not command any man to die with me.”
This really just wraps Theon’s character up in a nutshell, doesn’t it? Since this is his last chapter in a very long while, I’ll rehash some of the more salient details that I’ve touched upon in previous chapters and try to tie it all up nicely, but no promises that this won’t just end up being a long-winded, rambling mess. As I’ve said before, Theon’s character is one that is composed of parts that are relentlessly, constantly, at ends with each other. On one hand, you have his Ironborn core. Much like an immigrant’s son, Theon doesn’t really understand the culture of his parents but nevertheless feel some sort (arguably) misplaced loyalty to it. His return to Pyke demonstrated the degree to which he had idealized and romanticized his homeland and his return to it. Theon also feels a deep sense of loneliness and isolation – he is no Stark; that much has been made very clear to him again and again so it isn’t unreasonable for him to want a place where he belongs and is accepted. Unfortunately, acceptance will come only at the price of his foster family’s happiness and lives and this is where Theon’s troubles truly begin. He essentially wants to have his cake and eat it too – he wants to play the part of the honorable Stark, having been influenced by Ned; but he also wants the Ironborn’s respect which means defying honor and using underhanded methods and being a raider instead of a warrior. His biggest shortcoming is being unable to choose one side and stick to it and that brings us back nicely to the quote above. The Ironborn are little more than pirates, truly, and no matter what Theon chooses to believe about his people, there is just no way around the fact that pirates do not go down with the ship. Theon was nurtured to act in a way that conflicted with his ostensibly Ironborn nature but in his men’s case, there is no such conflict – they are the pragmatic Reavers; they pillage, loot then get the fuck out of dodge. It’s almost painfully ironic how well Theon’s speech would have worked on Stark men, if he was on their side.
“Hostage and prisoner, I call it.”
This is up for debate and I’d love comments on this. It’s not hard to see either side in this. Yes, Theon was always painfully aware of his status as a prisoner and hostage and it can’t be easy growing up aware that your very life depends on your father’s (far from guaranteed) good behavior. If Theon grows up with some serious resentment for the Starks, who’s to blame him? I’m picking a side though; in the bigger scheme of things, some small-time emotional neglect is nothing compared to how much worse things could have been. Rodrick spells it out himself – Theon could have been chained and beaten or just kept under room arrest the whole while. Certainly, Ned didn’t need to educate the boy or treat him any better than a servant. We need look only at Ramsay Snow to see just how horrifying a real prisoner’s situation can be. So, boohoo Theon, suck up it and be thankful you’re not Reek. Oh, wait.
“Robb will never look on Winterfell again,” Theon promised. “He will break himself on Moat Cailin, as every southron army has done for ten thousand years.”
Martin is toeing the line between foreshadowing and outright spoiler.
“And your own House? Beth is the last of your blood.”
It’s very interesting to me how this would have all played out. Theon thinks he’s got Ser Rodrick, and to an extent he does, but he so aptly puts it shortly after, it’s all irrelevant – if the army does not withdraw, he will have to kill the girl, at which point they no longer have anything to lose and will continue attacking anyway. If the army attacks, killing the girl gains him absolutely nothing. Yet, for all that, given Theon’s current state of mind at this point in the chapter, I have no doubt that he would killed Beth Cassel if it guaranteed him his life. He would have felt bad about it but he would have done it nonetheless. Rodrick Cassel would have tried to take the castle too even if it meant watching his daughter hang but that’s just the kind of guy he is. Of course, none of that comes to pass, for better or worse.
If I served at Eastwatch, I could command my own ship, and there’s fine hunting beyond the Wall. As for women, what wildling woman wouldn’t want a prince in her bed?
Of course, you’d have to worry about Jon or one of his friends slitting your throat in the middle of the night, but apart from that and especially considering the alternative, I think that it’s quite an incredible deal. It’s agonizing how close Theon came to caving in before things took a turn for the even worse. Had Luwin had his brainwave half a day earlier, Rodrick would have been in Winterfell and chances are that Ramsay would be the one facing execution. It doesn’t come to pass however, and moments after, Ramsay Snow makes his triumphant return. I always think of Ramsay swooping in to save Theon as an extreme deconstruction of the Battle of Helm’s Deep – the calvalry charge of the Rohirrim pushes Saruman’s forces back and evil is repulsed but this is the exact opposite situation where pure evil utterly routs the good guys in order to save the slightly less (?) evil guys. The final twist to all this is that the rescued folk are actually doomed too.
“The Dothraki believe the stars are spirits of the valiant dead,” Theon said. Maester Luwin had told him that, a long time ago.
This seems like such an odd remark to make. I don’t really have a comment beyond that but just given the general tone and atmosphere of this part of the chapter – tense, action-packed, suspenseful – Theon’s idle remark just feels very out of place. I can’t quite get what kind of tone Martin was going for here really or to what end.
“Aye, but he thought us friends. A common mistake. When the old fool gave me his hand, I took half his arm instead. Then I let him see my face.”
Oh for the love of God, he’s literally announcing it! Theon is uncomfortable at this point and he is probably keenly aware that although the large army outside the gates is defeated, he doesn’t stand a much better chance of defeating the smaller cavalry that has replaced it, should said cavalry prove to be hostile. This little piece is followed up by the big-ish reveal that Reek was Ramsay the whole while! It’s not particularly interesting to us though so I won’t dwell on it beyond pointing out that it establishes beyond any doubt what kind of person Ramsay and is what kind of treatment the first Reek received at his hands. If anyone ever suspected that it was a partnership of equal influence, this should convince them otherwise. The chapter ends predictably with Theon trying one final attempt at holding on to his dignity and his woman, not truly comprehending how dire his situation is. Martin uses his trademark cliff-hanger instead of establishing Theon’s death, which was quite a shitty move given that we weren’t told that Theon was alive all the way until ADWD.
So with that, we leave Theon for the next two (!) full books. His journey in this book saw him turn from a loyal, rising star in the Northern army, where he would have held the position of Robb’s right hand man and a potential future Hand of the King (yeah, I know you’re not convinced, neither am I, but it’s fun to pretend) to lying broken and bleeding, alone and friendless in a burning Winterfell – the most hated man in the North. The chapter’s implications are truly breathtaking though – Rodrick’s defeat establishes the Bolton’s the key power in the North and Ramsay’s attack establishes that the Bolton aren’t just the key power in the North but that they are also anti-Stark. This now means that the ‘North’ is effectively south of the Neck for all intents and purposes and that Robb’s authority extends only to the soldiers immediately around him, and even then not really. The events of this chapter aren’t really the final nail in Robb’s fast closing coffin, but I can’t help but feel that it really hastened the pace of events that would lead to that sealing. Up next, Tyrion wakes up noseless!