It seems useful, given what’s transpiring in Game of Thrones, to discuss how the show has depicted the ironborn. All in all, the focus on Theon’s storyline has been one of the most rewarding parts of a second season adaptation which has yet to gel together the way that the first season geled together, and it’s notable — to those who complain about book purists — that the best parts of Theon’s story feature new scenes which essentially grab material that’s internal (and situated later, in the novel) and makes it external.
But after placing Theon back in the Iron Islands, the writers haven’t really had much time to really situate the islands in their history, both past and present, beyond the briefest sketches. The show is very good at evoking the Iron Islands as a place, thanks to the rugged Northern Ireland coastline and the fine CGI work to depict the forlorn castle of Pyke and its towers standing on their crumbling stone. But the people of Pyke, their culture, doesn’t have the same benefit.
Part of this is certainly the limitation of budgets: all the ironborn apparently get their cloth dyed the same color, and wear similar cuts. There’s very little differentiation in a way that doesn’t really suit the ironborn of the novels, who are a colorful, boastful people — their beliefs may be grim, but it means they live life to the fullest. Where’s the evidence of the reaving that Black Lorren claims to have been partaking in since before Theon was born? There’s talk of the iron price, but none of the boastful reavers wears the ill-gotten gains of their reaving, the jewelry and accouterments and bits of armor stripped from the dead that they wear as much to proclaim their prowess as to depict their wealth. There’s a lack
Thousands of years ago, the Iron Islands were settled by the First Men. Legend claims that the Seastone Chair — now located in the Greyjoy seat at Pyke — was already there when the First Men arrived, even though the island was uninhabited… but legends are always hard to make sense of in Westeros, especially when they’re legends that descend from a time before anything was written. In any case, the Iron Men developed their own religion, that of the Drowned God who lives beneath the sea, attended by mermaids and valiant warriors who feast with him in his watery halls.
It’s a particularly harsh religion, with a bit of a nod toward Lovecraft with the ritual words, “What is dead may never die.” The kind of individual toughness and responsibility of the culture was part and parcel with ironborn attitudes: every island had its rock king and salt king, one to rule the isle and one to rule its ships and surrounding waters, and the ironborn would elect a high king at a kingsmoot from among these rock and salt kings. Or at least they did, for thousands of years, until Urron Redhand slaughtered the gathered kings at the last kingsmoot (more or less) and claimed the crown for himself and his descendants which began a thousand years of the rule of House Greyiron… until, that is, the Andals swept over the Iron Islands and wiped out Urron’s descendants.
But despite bringing the Seven with them, and the holy zeal of crusaders, the Andals wed the daughters of the ironmen and in time became more and more like the men they conquered, until their own descendants worshiped the Drowned God as well. The Faith has made very little inroad into the Iron Islands, and even less so since the failure of Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, The worship of the Drowned God and the culture that developed around it marks the ironborn as quite distinct from the rest of Westeros. I suppose the strangely similar clothing they all wear on the show does make them stand out, but in a way that undercuts the culture’s rugged (or perhaps rough) individualism.
Another thing that runs beneath the depiction of the ironborn in the novels is the fact that theirs is a dying way of life, something that the show doesn’t quite convey. Theon arrives on Pyke to remark how the ironborn once ruled the waves, taking thralls to labor in the fields and mines, and now there are free ironborn doing such labor because there aren’t enough thralls left (note that thralls are treated as distinct from slaves — slaves can be bought and sold, and their children are born slaves as well, while thralls are not treated as property and their thralldom does not extend to their children). Where once they conquered and slaughtered, more and more of them are turning to peaceful pastimes.
This doubtless is rooted, in good part, with the fact that reaving when Westeros was made up of kingdoms that were often at war with one another and so had fewer resources and little desire to coordinate to defend their shores. Just as the unification of the Seven Kingdoms accelerated the decline of the Night’s Watch — from 10,000 men in Aegon’s day to fewer than 1,000 now — because the general trend towards peaceful relations reduced the “churn” that led to the various regions having plenty of exiles and prisoners and outlaws to send to the Wall, the unified realm was simply too difficult for the ironborn to sustain their reaving. Balon Greyjoy was attempting to recapture a way of life that seemed irrevocably lost.
One last thing worth mentioning regarding the show’s depiction of the Iron Islands…. the ships. The ships are nothing like the ironborn vessels in the novels. Martin borrows from a wide range of sources — and adds a liberal dose of fantasy — when he constructs cultures, but the ironborn are distinctly influenced by the Vikings in a number of ways, and it’s from them that Martin reveals that the most common ship in the ironborn fleet is the longship. The Viking longships were marvels of shipbuilding, with their clinker-built hulls allowing them to be flexible and surprisingly strong for their light weight. The shallow drafts of the ships also made them perfect for what reavers and Vikings both liked best: the ability to beach their ships to launch their raids on the land, and the ability to sail far up rivers to cause trouble.
The longships make the bulk of the ironborn strength, and they exist in plenty despite the more peaceable turn of the last centuries because the ironborn place enormous pride and stock in owning ships — after all, they say every captain is a king aboard his ship — and doubtless because the vessels are used for trade and fishing and other such activities instead of (or in addition to) reaving. But the real backbone of the ironborn fleet? The Iron Fleet, which is made up of hybrid galleys, probably clinker-built not so large as the biggest war galleys of the Redwyne fleet or the royal fleet, but capable of giving the smaller vessels a run for their money.
But what do we see when we glimpse Theon’s Sea Bitch?
A carrack, basically, with a carvel-built hull and a forecastle and all. Theon’s own ship in the novels is actually a longship, rather than a hybrid galley, although with the curious addition of a ram that suggest the prow is rather different from the tall, slender prows of the Viking longships. This ship is simply wrong, and doesn’t fit a vessel used for raiding the Stony Shore. Why did they go that route?
One reason is straightforward: CGI for the ship at sea would doubtless be cheaper if it’s a relatively static vessel, whereas a longship would rightly be expected to use oars on occasion that would require additional animation work that would probably be costly. Furthermore, one can’t help but notice that basically every vessel we see now has more-or-less the same look, some differences in mast types aside. That’s likely because they built just one ship set, which would be used interchangeably. The Myraham, the “cog” which brought Theon to Pyke, is the exact same set as Stannis’s vessel at the end of episode 4.
But on the other hand… we’ve yet to see the Sea Bitch moving at sea, or a close-up of Theon on the deck, so this may not be particularly compelling. It would certainly have been nice to see something more like what’s described in the novels, because the technology of longships and the purposes for which they were built are very closely connected to, and indicative of, the ironborn culture. The caravel is of a piece with the subtle details that disappear in the course of the production. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but there’s a lot of these little things lost along the way to adaptation, which is why the books are and will always be the very best way to learn about the world George R.R. Martin has created.