In the third season of Game of Thrones, the popular HBO fantasy adaptation, Theon Greyjoy has descended in popularity. He may not have held much clout to begin with, but he has always been a personal favorite of mine. Halfway through season three, he has managed to completely alienate himself from both the Stark house, and his own noble family. Though his actions have thus far appeared deplorable, Theon has always held a special place in my heart, and deserves a defender.
As a child, he was handed over to a family that was, albeit caring, ultimately a prison; a punishment for his father’s rebellion. With the strict gender roles in play at the Iron Islands, to take Balon Greyjoy’s last living son was to essentially plunge a sword through his lineage. While the Starks were kind and caring to Theon, he knew he was not one of their own. Bloodlines are, as we well know at this point, incredibly important in the Westeros culture. Birth into a noble family holds weight and value to those who are – and are not – privileged enough to be a part of these ancient families.
Through no fault of their hospitality, Theon has never felt to be truly part of the Starks’ family. He longs for his kin – specifically his father – and to be surrounded by the salt water that surrounds his ancestors’ graves.
We find out quickly that this longing is not shared. Upon his return to the Iron Islands, he unknowingly meets his sister, who is so disassociated from the memory of her brother and the young man that stands before her, she tricks him and humiliates him, allowing him to fondle her as though he were of no relation or importance. When meeting his father for the first time since childhood, his father is repulsed at the sight of him: from the superficial matter of his robes, down to the reminder of his lost sons, and the Starks’ victory over his failed rebellion.
Upon his homecoming, Theon soon realizes in horror how symbolic his existence has become. To the Starks, at the time of his surrender, he was a token of war – specifically the losing side. He was a hostage in comfortable charge, unable to leave and return home to his family. Until, of course, a new war began, which unraveled the protocol of the previous one. To his father and sister, his last remaining relatives, he is a ghost of his fallen brothers, and a walking reminder of Balon Greyjoy’s failure.
After spending a lifetime with the Starks, Theon knows the distance of a false family. He spent his youth watching, as an outsider, this loving and honorable kinfolk. He longed for his own place at a noble table, inside his own castle walls, on the knee of his own doting father. He wishes to belong, fully and completely, to the family that was owed to him by birthright.
Theon’s return to the Iron Islands marks his descent into a futile march for respect. Growing up, the lack of respect he received in Winterfell could always have been blamed on the Starks. He was not their heir, nor did he have any say over their house. He had been so convinced that he would receive, and was owed, the same sort of respect the Stark boys – save, perhaps, Jon Snow – had been showered with in their homeland. In the Iron Islands, he is immediately disenchanted and aghast that he has not been bestowed with some innate sense of ferocity or respectability. His status is undermined by sailors and fishermen, who care nothing of his presence. The moment he steps off the boat and onto home soil, his self-important status is completely deflated, punctuated by the sexual trickery his own sister plays on him.
It’s easy to look at Theon as weak, and unreasonable, and a bit of a jerk. He is all of these things. But he is also human. He is also a son. He has no true sense of belonging, and the angst and troubles he cultivated in his formidable years within the Stark home were often blamed on events that occurred during his childhood, perhaps even before he was born. He was in no way in control of his own destiny when he was placed into the care of the Starks. How was he to know that the life he had there – the life of comfort, yes, but the life of distance and periphery – would end up being the best he would ever hope to have? The Starks are good, honorable people. But they are not his people. Few other noble families in Westeros feel the needs to accept other nobles houses until war and convenience force them to, so why must Theon? His life is, unequivocally, unfair.
Now, Theon’s attempts to distance himself from the Starks – while seeking the approval of his father – have landed him in purgatory. While many audience members wish he would die, or believe he deserves this endlessly looping fate, I hold out hope that Theon will rise above the madness, and atone.