Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Clash of Kings - Part 1

Much like what I’ve been doing with the episodes of the Game of Thrones TV series, instead of a conventional review to this book, I’m going to talk about a few things/characters that especially piqued my interest. If you are looking for a general review, you’ll have to look somewhere else. A Clash of Kings, to me, is just as stunningly amazing as the previous book in its series. Thus it would be impossible for me to do a spoiler-free general review without it being one long sequence of endless gushing. On that note, do not read this if you have not yet read the book!

The Wavering of Theon Greyjoy
Theon Greyjoy is one of those characters who you just love to hate. Before rereading the books this time around, I remembered him as being one of the most frustrating characters to read about because I could recall always wishing I could punch him in the face. In the first book, we learn that he has lived with the Starks for most of his life, though he spent a part of his youth with his family, the Greyjoys, on the tough and merciless island keep of Pyke. In essence, he is the Starks’ political prisoner, punishment for the Greyjoys’ rebellion in the time before the events of the series. As a consequence, he never feels fully attached to the Starks, even though he is treated with the utmost courtesy and raised by Ned Stark as if he were one of his own children.

In A Clash of Kings, he is sent back to his windswept Viking-like archipelago of a home in order to try and call his original family to arms to support the Starks in the upcoming war. Instead, he finds that the Greyjoys wish instead to rebel once again and to raid and destroy the holdings of the Starks. Being the duplicitous little ass that he is, Theon seizes the moment to try and garner glory for himself, traitorously leading his own stealthy operation to seize Winterfell itself, capital city of the Starks. In the process, he shows the cruel rapaciousness the Greyjoys are known for, raping and butchering as many people as need be to hold the peace.
This background story that I just recounted shows how easy it is to loathe this character. I may as well add that Theon’s ego is off the charts, that his self-worth is so gargantuan that it leads him to make absurdly retarded blunders, and that his sexist nature is grating to the extreme. However, despite all of this negativity, I found myself very interested by a facet of his character that I had not noticed before: his conflicted loyalties.

Perhaps “loyalties” isn’t the correct word, as he clearly aligns himself with the Greyjoys. But it is definitely clear that Theon Greyjoy is in constant inner conflict. For here is a man who has no true home and no true people to call his own. Theon spends much of his time in the novel seeking that acceptance and approval. His is a neverending battle; he has to repeatedly question whether he is to act like the Greyjoys or the Starks; his choice is between the way of the Ironborn: rape, raids, and strength through fear, or the way of the Northmen: to be resolute, stern, and yet maintaining a quiet honor.
Thus does Theon become a tragic and thus sympathetic character in my eyes. Nowhere is this more clear than in how he treats his hostages at Winterfell. Theon rages about how they don’t understand that he has treated them as best as he can; he notes that any killings that have happened have been the bare minimum necessary to placate his men. However, this effort is doomed to failure. His captives view him with the loathing reserved for a traitor while his own men view him as a softie brought up in a weak foreign land. Theon seeks to satisfy his bloodthirsty family through bold acts of butchery while simultaneously attempting to treat his former people well.

Consequently, I found myself saddened when Theon’s plans fell apart and he lost more and more control, over the situation and of himself. While his maelstrom of insecurities aren’t a huge part of the series and have little relevance in the long run, I found him to be a well written character with more depth than his surface level savagery would suggest. I, for one, can only imagine how awful it would feel to feel loathed, homeless, and unable to completely align myself with one family or another. Theon Greyjoy demonstrates the nadir of what makes us human; through him we see what it is to be presented with a situation so conflicting that it brings one to confused despair. And I thought I’d make note of that here in an effort to defend the character and to point out that there is greater complexity to him than one might think.


  1. I have to strongly disagree with your assessment of Theon. Since you mentioned the tragedy of his character, I shall compare him with Hamlet, who had a very similar situation: caught between conflicting ideologies and unsure how to act. On the one hand you have a noble, self-reflective character who spends a great deal of time pondering how best to act, and teasing out the consequences of his and others actions; on the other, a self-pitying do-nothing, driven only by appetites and lacking in self-knowledge. But he attacked Winterfell! you say. And did GRRM give a reason for this? What was the moment where Theon swayed from one extreme to the other, weighing his options? Theon is driven by forces, not condemned by his indecision, and in that sense is even less of a doer than Hamlet, the prototype of inaction leading to a tragic demise.

  2. Hahaha, but that is precisely the point I was making! The point is that he is the epitome of the tortured character, even worse off than Hamlet was. Hamlet's approach was better, to be sure. And this is what makes me pity Theon the way I do.

    I think a big part of it is the way he had to cultivate such an overweening pride in himself, almost as a measure of self-defense. He is unable to identify completely with the Starks or the Greyjoys, so he turned totally inward, and thus coming off as the biggest self-righteous prick. A big part of that self-identification is being a doer. He "daringly" strikes at Winterfell because he feels that he has to do SOMETHING or else be rendered irrelevant and risk affecting his fragile view of himself. Then, when he gets there, he is tortured constantly over how to act, trying to compromise between the two extremes and pleasing no one in the process.

    My point isn't that he is suddenly a likable character because of this explanation, more that, with understanding of his psychology, he is a more interesting character to watch, if only because of how tragic, twisted, and torn he is. Does that make sense?