A Polite Fiction
We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing the story of one of George R.R. Martin’s more divisive characters, Theon Greyjoy. We have looked at his relationship with Robb Stark, we’ve examined the effects that being held hostage for a decade have had on Theon, we’ve discussed choices he was forced to make between his two families and the crimes he committed in the pursuit of ambition. If we take a closer look at Theon’s relationship with his guardians in his formative years we can see how things may have turned out quite differently.
George R.R. Martin discusses the notion of Theon’s “wardship” in the video below.
Theon was always keenly aware that he was really a hostage and not a Stark. It is difficult to say how things may have turned out if Theon had truly felt that he was a Stark. We have discussed two historical counterparts for Theon, Richard III and George Duke of Clarence. Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, spent time as the Earl of Warwick Richard Neville’s ward. George, on the other hand, had not been raised in Warwick’s household. It was George who would side with the Earl of Warwick against his own brother, Edward IV. Richard would side with his brother Edward over his one-time guardian and cousin Warwick. There is no guarantee that Theon would have stayed loyal to the Starks had they really tried to make him their own. Yet we can see the importance of the idea of ‘keeping your enemies close’ when we look at one of George and Richard’s contemporaries, Henry Tudor.
He himself told me on one occasion…that since the age of five he had been guarded like a fugitive or kept in prison. – Commynes on Henry VII
Henry VII, like Theon, was separated from his family at a very young age. A four year-old Henry Tudor was living with his mother and her second husband when Pembroke Castle fell to the house of York. Sir William Herbert would take possession of Pembroke, and within a few months he had also purchased the custody and wardship of young Henry Tudor for £1000, removing him from his mother’s care and into his own household at Raglan Castle. Henry was soon deprived of his title of Earl of Richmond and would see little of his mother over the next few years. However, despite this hostage-disguised-as-ward situation, Herbert proved to be a good guardian. He provided Henry with an excellent education, planned to marry him to his own daughter Maud, and appeared to be nurturing Henry towards a successful career under Edward IV. But Herbert was captured by the Earl of Warwick and executed after the Battle of Edgecote Moor. Henry’s life may have taken a turn during the Readeption but he was forced to flee after Edward IV re-captured the throne, and would spend the next fourteen years in exile.
For many years Margaret Beaufort would work actively towards bringing her son home, and in 1482 had reached an agreement with Edward IV for the disposal of certain of her lands to Henry. The agreement was that Henry would return from exile to be “in the grace and favour of the king’s highness”.1 Margaret was also hoping for more. Her husband Stanley would later recall that “long before communing was had between the said lord Henry and lady Elizabeth about contracting marriage, the said sworn [witness] heard Richard, earl of Salisbury, and the lady Margaret, wife of this sworn [witness], mother of the said king that now is, and divers other noble and illustrious persons saying that the said king Henry and lady Elizabeth were related in the fourth and fifth degrees of kindred, and reciting the degrees aforesaid, and affirming that they were true degrees lineally drawn from the said duke of Lancaster.”2 Perhaps Edward entertained the idea of marrying Henry to one of his daughters to reign him in, and Edward would have been correct in assuming Henry was still a threat. A draft of pardon (undated) from Edward IV to Henry Tudor is written on the back of the patent of creation of Edmund Tudor as Earl of Richmond on 23 November 1452 suggest he may have been considering granting Henry his former title again.3
Both attempts to bring Henry Tudor into the fold fell victim to fate, both William Herbert and Edward IV would die before any plans came into fruition. But it seems Edward IV saw the wisdom in keeping Henry Tudor close. William Herbert was prepared to make Henry his son. History may have taken a very different turn for the house of York had either man succeeded and made a potential Lancastrian heir a loyal York subject.
A Sense of Status
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 taken him from his home. As a boy, he had lived in fear of Stark’s stern face and great dark sword. His wife was, if anything, even more distant and suspicious. 4
You would have to imagine how frightened a ten year-old boy would be being taken to a strange country after seeing his father defeated and his brothers killed. We don’t see this part of Theon’s story, he tells us about it in retrospect, in snatches and brief, bitter recollections. His summary of his relationship with Catelyn here tells us little, but it is not difficult to speculate on.
Catelyn Stark was nobly born and bred and she has always had a sense of her lofty status. When Ned Stark brought Jon Snow home Catelyn’s resentment not only stemmed from Ned’s betrayal, but what she felt was a public humiliation, and she takes this resentment out on a small boy. Catelyn’s behaviour towards Jon is not particularly conventional either. There have been many women in history who have suffered their husband’s infidelities with quiet dignity and we know of many royal illegitimate offspring who were well-favoured by their fathers. It is true that Catelyn had Jon in her own household which was a more unusual situation, but she shows neither grace nor restraint when it comes to dealing with Jon Snow. Her speech to Talisa Stark in Game of Thrones was created for the television series, in reality we only get a very brief glimpse of Catelyn’s guilt in the books.
“Mya Stone, if it please you, my lady,” the girl said.
It did not please her; it was an effort for Catelyn to keep the smile on her face. Stone was a bastard’s name in the Vale, as Snow was in the north, and Flowers in Highgarden; in each of the Seven Kingdoms, custom had fashioned a surname for children born with no names of their own. Catelyn had nothing against this girl, but suddenly she could not help but think of Ned’s bastard on the Wall, and the thought made her angry and guilty, both at once. 5
In Jon Snow’s case he is not afforded the usual advantages that would come from being the illegitimate son of a noble when he is sent to the Night’s Watch. In this respect Ned really failed Jon. If Jon is indeed the son of who we think he is, then Ned should have had a better life planned for him, even more so was he actually his own son. He could not have failed to see how Jon was treated by Catelyn and it may have been kinder to Jon to ward him out to another family where he needn’t suffer the humiliation he received at her hands. As we can see Catelyn is very aware of how she treated Jon. She may also have been aware of the impact her treatment of Theon Greyjoy had on a small boy.
How the Starks Failed Theon Greyjoy
It never crossed Robb Stark’s mind that Theon would betray him. For Robb the plan was straightforward and Theon’s loyalty assured, Theon had sworn an oath to him. Not only was Theon bound by that oath, he had been raised alongside Robb, and to Robb that meant they had a bond. It is Catelyn who begs Robb not to send Theon to treat with his father Balon Greyjoy. Robb possesses all the naive optimism of the young. No one can fault Catelyn Stark as a mother, she took a hands-on approach to raising her children and she nurtured a close-knit family. The Stark children, when we meet them, are good-natured and generous children, and despite the harsh living in the North they are even a little sheltered. Catelyn has deep reservations about sending Theon to Pyke, firstly she likely knows that Balon may be resistant to an alliance and that Theon is like to be swayed by his father. Secondly we might surmise that Catelyn Stark knew deep down that she and Ned had never made Theon their own and that Theon had no cause to choose the Starks over his own flesh and blood.
Ned’s role in Theon’s upbringing would have been quite conventional. Theon is raised alongside his sons and Ned would have been a reasonably constant presence in Theon’s life. Theon does actually admit Ned attempted to be fatherly, yet Theon was still slightly fearful of him. Imagine then, if Catelyn Stark had taken a little time to show some motherly affection for that frightened ten year-old boy who had been brought into her home. Had she shown a little interest in Theon, had she taken some time to try and nurture a relationship with him perhaps betraying the Starks would not have crossed Theon’s mind. And had the Starks actually fulfilled their responsibilities as his guardians he may not have been so hell-bent on his Pyke inheritance.
In a feudal society as Theon’s legal guardian Ned Stark would have been traditionally entitled to any income Theon earned from land holdings during his minority, and he also would have been responsible for arranging a marriage for Theon. However technically Theon is not a ward, and he doesn’t appear to earn any income. What we need to question now is why this young man, at nineteen years-old, had no prospects for the future. Theon should have at least been betrothed, if not married, by this age. Theon’s position in the Stark household is still ambiguous. So Theon, having already entered adulthood, had no real family ties, no mother and father figure to guide him, and no prospects for his future.
Is it any wonder then, that Theon may have had a rather grim view of his future in the North and wanted more for himself? At nineteen he could have been married with an infant or two in the cradle, reinforcing his ties to the North. Had he an official position in Ned’s household then he may have felt more loyalty to his lord. Had he left for Pyke with a true sense of being a valued member of the house of Stark, had he adapted to his life in the North and had he a family of his own, these factors may have given Theon pause when it came to making the choice between the Starks and the Greyjoys. In the end, as Theon had nothing, he had to look out for himself.
There is a futility in looking at what may have been of course, Theon Greyjoy was always going to follow a particular path. The beauty of George R.R. Martin’s characters is that they are complex, in many cases they are deeply flawed. It is a natural human instinct to question things and to empathise with others. Perhaps that is why George has yet to finish Theon’s story and we have yet to dismiss him. We should be more dismissive of Theon, he betrayed his best friend who he should have viewed as his own brother, he broke his oath, he murdered two children and he drove another two from their home and he murdered people at Winterfell who had watched him grow up. We could arrive at the conclusion that Theon is simply bad, and perhaps that he deserved his fate. Yet when we look at the creature that Theon has become we are filled with horror, we are discomfited, perhaps we empathise with him. Perhaps we wonder what may have been if Ned and Catelyn Stark had only taken the time to empathise with that ten year-old boy who was cruelly snatched from his home and his family, and what may have become of Theon Greyjoy.
All Game of Thrones images are copyright HBO.
- Underwood, Malcolm G., Jones, Michael K., The King’s Mother Cambridge University Press, pg 60-61 [↩]
- Calendar of Papal Registers Vol XIV July 1484-92 [↩]
- Underwood, Malcolm G., Jones, Michael K., The King’s Mother Cambridge University Press, pg 60-61 [↩]
- Theon A Clash of Kings pg 219 [↩]
- Catelyn A Game Of Thrones p475 [↩]