Guardians or Guards? Theon Greyjoy and the House of Stark

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

Young Henry VII, by a French artist (Musée Calvet, Avignon)

Young Henry VII, by a French artist (Musée Calvet, Avignon)

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.

Theon and Jon must wait behind the family when King Robert arrives at Winterfell

Theon and Jon must wait behind the family when King Robert arrives at Winterfell

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

 

jon-snow-ned-stark-800-450

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.

Theon goes home after ten years as a hostage in the North

Theon goes home after ten years as a hostage in the North

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.

  1. Underwood, Malcolm G., Jones, Michael K., The King’s Mother Cambridge University Press, pg 60-61 []
  2. Calendar of Papal Registers Vol XIV July 1484-92 []
  3.  Underwood, Malcolm G., Jones, Michael K., The King’s Mother Cambridge University Press, pg 60-61 []
  4. Theon A Clash of Kings pg 219 []
  5. Catelyn A Game Of Thrones p475 []
Olga Hughes

Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other pop culture news, including books, film, sci-fi and medieval history.

24 Comments

  • Reply August 4, 2014

    Jun

    The question of Theon’s prospects is very interesting. Because he is not a ward of the Starks, the Starks are technically not responsible for finding a match for him. But then his own father does not seem interested in doing that either, or at least negotiating for his release. Politically, the Stark family would prefer to see the Greyjoy lineage die out or have a pro-Stark head of family (ie, not Balon). So if they were a bit more savvy they should have gotten rid of Balon and installed Theon as the leader of the Iron Islands, and marry one of their daughters or cousins to him to ensure the alliance.

    From what I remember from reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Black Arrow,” a ward is likely to be treated well and married well if he or she has property and income, ie, a ward of value. It seems that the Iron Islands do not operate in the feudal system (“We do not sow”), and therefore Theon is unlikely to have an income from land and farming. It’s quite possible that the Greyjoy family is not even considered aristocrats in Westeros. If I remember correctly, Greyjoys seized the Seastone Throne only a couple of generations ago. Their position on Pyke is hardly that stable, and they don’t seem particularly serious about the line of accession per Westeros customs, either (the process in fact is more “democratic”, like the Viking society). Thus Theon has even less leverage for his position.

    • Reply August 8, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Jun,
      Olga asked me to let you know that she cannot reply to this comment because she can’t connect to this site. (Right now this site is almost completely down in Australia due to some issues (AFAIK) with my web hosting company. ) I’m hoping to get this fixed ASAP: I just found out today. Sorry about this…

      Jamie

      • Reply August 10, 2014

        Jun

        Thanks, Jamie. I didn’t know Olga intended to reply to my comment on this. Hope she gets on soon.

        • Reply August 11, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          Yes, I still need to call Go Daddy and troubleshoot the issue with them. Naturally, I believe the issue is on their end and they will automatically assume the issue is on my end. 🙂 The long and short of it though is that I will finally have time to call them for a few hours and troubleshoot this tonight, so hopefully performance will improve soon. (Normally I would have called them immediately but I have been traveling back from Canada over the last few days.)

          If anyone reading this is experiencing slow load times — even if you are not in the Asia Pacific, please send me an email.

          • August 11, 2014

            Jamie Adair

            Good news for anyone experiencing slow load speeds for this site. I now know what is causing the issues. In the short term, you may notice fewer posts and animations on the home page. But the real issue is the server my web-hosting provider put this site on has become overcrowded. To solve this issue, it requires that I migrate the site to another server.

            In the longer term, I plan to change web hosting providers to one that can guarantee performance longer term. I’d like this site to download quickly no matter where you are in the world. It is no fun for those in Australia if you have to wait nine minutes for it to download!

            I’m hoping to migrate in the next 1-2 weeks. Right after I finally finish a long-awaited article for Ross W. @ HistoryMine.

          • August 17, 2014

            Olga Hughes

            Well I’ve finally been able to get on Jamie, hopefully there’s no more issues.

          • August 19, 2014

            Jamie Adair

            Oh wow. That’s good news. I’m still looking at migrating. I only got halfway through the research and prep this weekend.

    • Reply August 17, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      I agree Jun, removing Balon and putting Theon in power would have gone a long way to keeping the Iron Islands under control. That’s my problem with Ned of course, he always had so little foresight. Robert was of course useless.

      The Greyjoys are an ancient family even if they’re not wealthy. The Iron Islands didn’t produce anything in the way of farming or from their mining, they could only mine tin or lead. With that said it is still a a part of the Seven Kingdoms and the islands are still ruled from Pyke. It would be in their best interests to keep them on side. Men are far more dangerous when they have nothing to lose. And as Ned gave Theon nothing, Theon was a ticking time-bomb. Of course Cat was afraid when Robb sent Theon to Pyke, she would have known Theon had no reason to stay loyal to them.

      As for the Stark’s material gain from Theon’s wardship, lords would often help their retainers financially, queens might provide dowries for their ladies-in-waiting and neither would gain anything but loyalty for it. The fact is Theon was under the Stark’s care and they were responsible for his well-being. In my opinion they failed. On the other hand it may be that Ned didn’t do so because he knew he would have to kill him if Balon rebelled again.

  • Reply August 5, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I tried to post earlier today with no luck so will try to keep things brief. From memory, I said something about the fact that in feudal times one was expected to be loyal to one’s liege lord but nowadays one might foster the right of a smaller place (e.g. the Iron Islands) to be free of the “The North”. In the UK there is the possibility that soon Scotland may go its own sweet way (depending on the outcome of the referendum that is to be held). An argument might be made that the Starks were being acquisitive by insisting that the Iron Islands become part of “The North” politically. Then another argument might be made that they were forced into taking action because of the raids made on the mainland by the Iron Islanders.

    I took against Theon for what he did at Winterfell in “A Clash of Kings”, then felt sympathy for him later in the series after he fell into Ramsay’s hands (I don’t want to “spoil” for people who have not read the books, but the matter of the torture was somewhat more subtle in the books). Theon is hardly the most savvy political animal in Westeros, I feel.

  • Reply August 5, 2014

    Grant

    I don’t know how to use spoilers here, so I’ll just dance around them as best I can.

    With Jon, I’d say it was precisely because of who Jon might be that Eddard kept him so close instead of being sent to be a ward elsewhere. It let Eddard keep a constant eye on Jon’s development and behavior (vital considering recent history), keep him under Winterfell’s protection and ultimately send him to the Wall, possibly the best place for Jon to go to settle everything (based on what Eddard would have known at the time).

    • Reply August 7, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hey Grant,

      To do spoilers, just try to put the spoiler lower in the comment so people don’t read it on the home page comment feed. And preface it with ====TV SPOILER=== or something like that. Thanks for asking. This summer I’ve been meaning to make the site more spoiler conscious. For example, put posts in categories by season or book so that people who aren’t current with the TV show can read the site.

    • Reply September 2, 2014

      ABarlow

      I don’t think there is any indication in the books or the show that Ned ever had intended to send Jon to the Wall. In the books, when the idea is first presented to him, the text seems to suggest that this is the first time that the idea had ever crossed his mind. As the article points out, an interesting failing of Ned, in the context of this society, is his short-sightedness regarding establishing the future of people in his care. Jon, like Theon, is certainly of marrying age in this society, and Ned probably could/should have found suitable marriages for them among his vassals–probably lesser vassals, in Jon’s case, but Jon might have say been a nice choice for, say, Lady Hornhold (I think that was her name), who was instead married to Ramsay Snow. It’s quite interesting, actually, that Ned and Catelyn had not arranged for marriages for any of their children, Jon or Theon. An important lord who was closer to the king than his own brothers should certainly have had some overtures.

  • Reply August 8, 2014

    Grant

    Well, I’ll give it a try then. This one isn’t exactly a spoiler since it so far has yet to be actually confirmed or even outright suggested by a character in the books, but the nature of it would change more than a few things in the story if correct that I’ll give it the same treatment the Red Wedding received prior to the end of season 3 of the show.

    ====POTENTIALLY MAJOR BOOK SPOILER===

    For those not aware, among the fans of the books there is a very popular theory based on some of the dreams, visions, memories, statements and actions throughout the series that Jon Snow is in fact the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. If so then Eddard Stark’s decision to keep Jon at Winterfell rather than sending him to be ward of another family actually makes a good deal of sense considering the situation.

    First let’s remember the chronology. If Jon is the child he might be, then Eddard would have found him shortly after the Lannisters had as many Targaryen children killed as they could, and while we don’t know the details, we do know that Eddard had argued so fiercely with Robert over it that Eddard had left Robert to finish the war on his own. So clearly any Targaryen, even a bastard, in Westeros would be in constant danger and Eddard would need to protect him.

    And from that we have the question of where would there be security. Obviously being an unimportant bastard son of Eddard Stark would be the best security, but in the event that the truth somehow came out, Eddard would need to be able to physically defend Jon and the only place where he could feel sure of that would be Winterfell itself. There are plenty of lesser houses of course, but none of them in the north would be as reliable and defensible as Winterfell.

    And last let’s remember the Targaryen madness. We can’t be entirely certain, but it’s very possible that Viserys was at least partially mentally unstable in the years leading up to his death and the entire rebellion against the Targaryens was started because of the insanity of Aerys II. While Jon wouldn’t have resources at his command that the Targaryen kings did, Eddard still might want to watch for any signs of insanity that would mean that Jon would have to be kept away from any position at all, while also letting Eddard directly supervise Jon’s upbringing.

    So it wasn’t remotely kind for Catelyn and especially not so for Jon, but considering how dangerous Jon’s mere existence was, it was the best move to make to try to avert Jon’s death and any future wars.

    • Reply August 17, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      I’m curious, why do you think the Wall was the best place to send him Grant? If we’re looking outside what has to happen in the books of course. I’d have thought if keeping Jon alive was important, sending a 14 year-old boy to the Wall would be about your worst option.

  • Reply August 18, 2014

    Grant

    On the Wall there would be Benjen Stark and Jeor Mormont to be part of his upbringing. It would be a very hard life, but for a 14 year-old already trained with sword, horse and bow you could plausibly hope that he would live to become a full ranger.

    And the Night’s Watch is a good choice for their vows, specifically those against fathering children or owning lands. With that, while Jon could theoretically start a rebellion, it would be hampered by the fact that he’s not only stuck at the edge of the Seven Kingdoms, but also as part of an organization that makes it very clear that you can’t go home. And if Jon did stay a loyal member of the Night’s Watch? Well, problem solved. He’d never have any lands and no children to raise the banner of rebellion in later years.

    And on the subject of the Night’s Watch, I made a slight error when discussing its lands a while back. The books mention that due to the constant population declines the Gift was having trouble producing much, so Eddard Stark had considered negotiating with Mormont to settle new lords on the lands in hopes that they would provide another bulwark against Wildling raids. However, they would pay their taxes to the Night’s Watch instead of him, so it wouldn’t have been a land grab by the Starks.

    • Reply August 19, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      Fair enough I suppose I was thinking in terms of the high mortality rate at the Wall, especially among the newcomers.

  • Reply August 18, 2014

    Jun

    Ned is in a bit of a pickle regarding Jon Snow. At the time of sending Jon to the Wall, Ned has no idea he would never ever come back to Winterfell, and there is no clear sign of massive danger from the Wildlings or the Others at the time. Also he might have panicked a bit with Robert’s visit (Jon being a Targaryen). Going to the Wall isn’t necessarily a terrible fate, given that historically a number of Stark second sons and other lords did go serve at the Wall. It is only in recent years that the Wall is becoming a garbage bin for human scum of Westeros. However, the aristocratic members of the Nights Watch still tend to maintain a higher status as we have seen.

    In addition, I wonder if Ned secretly does not want to see more Targaryen offspring being produced. For all he knows, Rhaegar abducted and raped his sister and Aerys murdered his father and brother. He hates the Targaryens.

    • Reply August 19, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Jun, this is a very intriguing point, ” I wonder if Ned secretly does not want to see more Targaryen offspring being produced.” I have the same theory as Grant above.

      But in my mind – and this is cheesy! – the ASOIAF series always ends like a bad musical where Jon Snow marries the leading female claimant to the throne — perhaps Daenerys or better maybe Stannis’ daughter or Sansa even. I can’t imagine GRRM will do that because it is a little too tidy. Also, Jon has taken vows…

      • Reply August 19, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        I would be surprised if Daeny makes it to the end of the books, but you’re leaving out my man Varys’ plan with the new character we met in ADWD. I would think he might be planning to marry those two off.

        Jun Ned knows what we don’t know. I don’t think Rhaegar abducted her though. Maybe he hates Targaryens, but I don’t think he’s got it in him to hate anyone, not enough anyway.

        • Reply August 23, 2014

          Jun

          Yeah, I know, Dany’s existence is necessary for the growth and transport of the dragons back to Westeros. After that who knows…

          No one currently alive knows what happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna and The Tower of Joy, except perhaps Howland Reed. Given Martin’s apparent tendency to sympathize with cripples, dwarves, and bastards over the beautiful, rich, and powerful, I highly doubt the virtues of the prince whom everyone seems to have loved (Rhaegar), but that’s just my cynical suspicion.

          • Olga Hughes
            August 24, 2014

            Olga Hughes

            That’s a good point. I probably think that Robert is always wrong in general LOL therefore I wonder if she really was abducted.

      • Reply August 23, 2014

        Jun

        Hahaha I like an ending of Jon Snow marrying Daenerys or another female claimant to the Iron Throne, but only if they do the wedding in a DIsney musical fashion, in which everyone breaks into songs. 😀

        ——— Spoilers for ADWD ————

        The current theory I’ve seen is that Jon has to die to be released from his vows, which may be happening now.

        • Olga Hughes
          Reply August 24, 2014

          Olga Hughes

          Everyone loves a good musical 😀

          —SPOILERS—

          No one is dead until I see their head on a pike. I refuse to believe he is going to kill Jon.

  • Reply May 20, 2016

    Jenni

    My understanding of how medieval nobility viewed the future of their children is that it was a matter of allocating each child to the role that would be most beneficial to the family. The potential to achieve this being dictated by the opportunities available to them and their ability to make the necessary financial contributions and/or political manoeuvres. Therefore, the eldest son, Robb, is required to take over his father’s responsibilities as warden of the north in order to preserve order and their way of life. It seems logical to me that Ned would send his second oldest ‘son’ to deal with the next biggest threat to their community, namely that winter is coming, by serving at the wall like his uncle. The ideas shared above that this move also protects Jon from either becoming entangled in the game of thrones or producing offspring that complicate it, would also seem to be credible motives for ned’s character, assuming r+l=j.

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