Game of Thrones and Family: Paying the Iron Price

At its core, Game of Thrones is a story about family. It is about how far one must be willing to go to protect one’s family. It is about choosing which family one belongs to, and in making that decision, whether blood ties reign supreme or whether “adopted” families can be one’s true family. It is about the power that stems from one’s family connections. It is about marriage bonds, which are meant to tie two families together in alliance or two people together in love, and what happens when such bonds are broken. These are among the topics that we will discuss in this series regarding the role of family in Game of Thrones.

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In a previous post, I discussed Tywin Lannister’s view of family, which states that it is a source of power and prestige that must be protected at any cost from all enemies. How does this view differ from that of Balon Greyjoy, the so-called King of the Iron Islands? Balon certainly does not care much for the life of his son, Theon. Does Balon have some greater vision or goal for his family dynasty, or is it all about personal gain for him? What about Theon’s sister, who offers a different view of family? Who, in the end, should be considered Theon’s true family?

The following post contains SPOILERS from Game of Thrones. Do not proceed unless you wish to see the discussion of MAJOR PLOT POINTS from Season 3.

After an entire season of Theon being tormented by an unknown captor for apparently no reason, we learn in the finale that Ramsay Snow, the bastard son of Lord Bolton, is using Theon to place political pressure on his father, Balon Greyjoy. The King of the Iron Islands refuses to pull his forces from the North, even after seeing Theon’s “favorite toy” chopped off and delivered in a box. Immediately, I found myself comparing Balon Greyjoy to Tywin Lannister. Despite making everyone in the family rather unhappy and miserable, Tywin does at least value the lives of his children, in the end: he honors the idea of family by saving Tyrion at birth, even against his own desires. I thought at first, then, that Balon represents the other end of the spectrum, for he easily abandons his son to endless torture to maintain his own political gains. Both fathers, I figured, take their views to such extremes that they create all sorts of problems for their children.

I realized later, though, that Balon and Tywin are similar in that they view family not in terms of love or affection but in terms of power, prestige, and the continuation of dynasty. To pull out of the North would be to weaken the military position of the Greyjoy family. In addition, Balon cruelly notes that Theon is essentially worthless now that he is unable to continue the family line. So, to Balon, the dynasty and the continuation of the family as a unit of political power rests above the individual considerations of the family’s members.

Perhaps another, even more pessimistic view, is that Balon does not care at all for the idea of family. The culture of the Ironborn is based on the idea of power, of taking what one wants by force—by paying the so-called “iron price”. This is an individualistic concept, not all concerned with the connections of family and entirely unlike Tywin’s view, which ignores all individual concerns for the sake of family. Perhaps Balon thinks that he alone is responsible for his conquest of the North and therefore does not feel the need to surrender all of his newly-gained power for Theon, who he thinks to be a useless son.

Yara, Theon’s sister, follows a different concept of family, one in which all family members, no matter what, are to be protected. She defies her father and sails off to save Theon. After the cruelty of her father and the cold, logical decisions of Tywin Lannister, Yara’s decision here seems refreshing, almost heroic. In previous scenes from Season 2, Yara had displayed two sides: one, the cool exterior appearance that displays the power necessary to maintain control in the Ironborn culture, and two, a softer side that reveals a sense of affection for her brother that she cannot outwardly display to her followers. In the end, we see that she values family in itself and is unconcerned with any of the higher notions of power or prestige that Tywin or Balon might care about.

Theon, notably, has a problem in that he cannot properly identify with any family as his own. He, taken as a ward/hostage and raised with the Stark children, tries for a time to recognize the Starks as his family, even swearing allegiance to Robb. When he returns to the Iron Islands, the pressure to be loved or recognized by his father pushes him to betray his old family, but he does not have the strength or will that Balon wants in a son, especially not in the Ironborn culture. Theon, in Season 2, goes through a ceremony, essentially a “baptism”, that represents him being reborn as a Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, but in reality he remains as lost as ever and has not undergone any radical change as a person. His desire to be a leader pushes him to show power through cruelty (note his actions during the conquest of Winterfell). At the same time, he feels guilt for having betrayed the Starks, whom he fears may have been his real family all along.

Perhaps if his sister manages to rescue him, Theon might finally feel that he is part of a family, that he has someone who cares for him despite anything else that might get in the way. This, I hope, will be the turning point for Theon as a character. With the help of his sister, he may at last overcome the difficulties and sufferings that have plagued him for so long. Maybe we shall see a different side of him in the future. But with everything in Game of Thrones that has gone wrong so far, this admittedly optimistic speculation is likely to be entirely incorrect, especially now that Ramsay Snow has forced him to abandon his identity as a Greyjoy and become Reek.

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2 thoughts on “Game of Thrones and Family: Paying the Iron Price

  1. Thanks for the analysis. Theon in particular is a favorite character of mine. He’s one of those classical tragic figures who made the decisions that brought him to his fate. Great comparison of the Lannister and Greyjoy patriarchs, on how the differ, and how they’re cruelly similar.

    1. Thanks for reading! One of the things I love about Game of Thrones is that the characters are all real and well-written, and Theon is a wonderful example of that: he is a very real complex person, who does not possess the power or confidence to withstand the problems that surround him. And thank you for pointing out the classical tragedy parallel; I may take a closer look at that in a later post.

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