Friday, February 25, 2022

Green Phoenix - Building Better Backstories VI

I am back from HarmonyCon and I am ready to talk some shit about A Song of Ice & Fire, the (hopefully) ongoing fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. Those of you who are not of the reading disposition may know this series better through its television adaptation, Game of Thrones.

Now everyone and their mother has given an opinion on the final season of Game of Thrones and how much of a fucking catastrophe it truly was; an opinion that I agree with and thus feel I have little to nothing to contribute towards. But what some people may not know is that I actually think that there is an element of the George R.R. Martin's world that is born from the author's own mind that I actually think was a major missed opportunity and a failing on his part.

My problem stems from the Ironborn, the Viking inspired pirate civilization that lives on the barren rocks to the West of Westeros. Considered primitive and inherently untrustworthy, our most present viewpoint of Ironborn culture for most of the series stems exclusively from Theon Greyjoy, who is a prisoner (ward) of House Stark following a massive failed Independence movement perpetrated by Theon's father.

Theon's story soon expands to include several other characters that shift the focus of the story towards the selection of a new Ironborn king, which leads to Theon's uncle usurping his sister's position and placing both of them in potentially dangerous political waters, with implications that Euron Greyjoy has something very magical and dark going on in the background. In the books, this storyline has yet to be fully actualized; but the TV series did precisely dick-all with most if not all of the Ironborn plot (a fate seemingly shared by the Dornish).

But I think that there actually was a storyline that Martin could've made had he recontextualized Balon Greyjoy's independence movement and the general relationship between the Ironborn, their own history, and the Iron Throne as a whole. One that could've helped to build conflict between the Westeros as a whole and feed indirectly into the larger plot involving the Others.


The Ironborn's Goals Make No Damn Sense

Before we can fix the Ironborn's plan, we have to explain why it, as this segment's title so eloquently puts, makes no damn sense at all from a tactical or strategic perspective. And before that, we have to know what Balon, Victarion, and later Euron, actually want.
Within the context of the book series, the Ironborn remained largely neutral during Robert's Rebellion, when Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark fought to overthrow King Aerys II Targaryen. At the time, the Iron Islands were ruled by Balon, Victarion, and Euron's father, Quellon Greyjoy. Now Quellon is important because he was something of a "progressive" as far as the Iron Islanders were concerned, rejecting the "Iron Price" promoted by the Drowned Priests and promoting a culture of reaving for the Ironborn. However, Balon was able to convince Quellon to initiate raids on Targaryen supporters in the Reach as a means of making some money from the entire Rebellion and cozying up to the rebel forces, a decision which led to Quellon's death and Balon's succession to the Lordship of the Iron Islands.

Balon then counted on the new Baratheon dynasty to lack the public support necessary to enforce obedience and declared the Iron Islands independent from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Which was an incredibly stupid decision, as Robert was popular enough to get all the Seven Kingdoms to unite against the Iron Islands, kill two of Balon's children, and force the complete surrender of the Iron Islands and destruction of the fleet. Following the war, Balon's only remaining son Theon is sent to live in Winterfell as a ward and hostage to motivate Balon's obedience.

We then cut to almost a decade later and when the War of the Five Kings starts up, Robb Stark, the newly elected King in the North, sends Theon to parley with his father to ally the Iron Islands and the North together to fight off the Westerlands and Reach. Balon then decides that instead of allying with the North, he will invade the North and reave and pillage it since all their soldiers are fighting in the South. An action which directly results in the fall of the Northern Independence movement and once again unites the Seven Kingdoms against the Ironborn, an almost exact repeat of his previous defeat.
When Euron kills Balon and usurps the throne during the Kingsmoot, he shifts his focus of Ironborn independence to the brilliant idea of stealing dragons of Daenaerys Targaryen and taking over the Iron Throne themselves.

And here lies the major issue. Balon, Victarion, Aeron, and Euron seemingly never learn anything in the decade between their first Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings. Nor do any of them, for all their love of Ironborn heritage seem all that inspired to examine and learn from Ironborn history. The Ironborn have a very particular message written all throughout their history in A World of Ice & Fire and by examining this, I believe that we can learn very quickly that Balon and his brothers are rather idiotic.
And rather than seeking independence on their own with no outside help, or the even dumber idea of trying to conquer Westeros with dragons; the Ironborn should instead be operating on a much more nuanced plot that could actually integrate them better with the other storylines presented in the book, streamlined their inclusion in the show, and actually set them up as a major obstacle for Jon Snow's plotline at the Wall.

Rather than seeking independence on their own from Westeros, they should be working towards the abolition of the Iron Throne itself, and allying with the Kingdoms of the North, Riverlands, and Dorne to achieve it.


Ironborn History and the Iron Throne

Published in 2014, The World of Ice & Fire is an encyclopedia written by George R.R. Martin in collaboration with Elio M. GarcĂ­a Jr. and Linda Antonsson, the heads of the fansite. The book details the history of the World of Westeros, with particular focus on the various regions and family's of the Seven Kingdoms both before and after the formation of the Iron Throne. Reading this book is tremendously satisfying for those of who enjoy deep world-building and want to understand or appreciate a deeper subtext at play for the events of the main line novels and short stories.

And having read The World of Ice & Fire, I have come to the conclusion that the Iron Throne was the worst thing to ever happen to the Iron Islands and their entire national focus should be its abolition and the independence of not only the Iron Islands, but the other Kingdoms as well, especially when you then put the lessons that should be learned from the Greyjoy Rebellion.

In short, the Iron Islands prior to the formation of the Iron Throne and a unified Seven Kingdoms was easily among the most powerful of the kingdoms of Westeros, holding at various times throughout its history literally any land within sight of the ocean and at the time of Aegon's Conquest, ruled over the Riverlands with an "iron" grip. They were powerful, respected, and the wealth of the rest of the Seven Kingdoms was theirs for the taking.

Then the Targaryen's came and the Iron Islands were essentially forgotten and ignored by the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Only three occasions ever really enable the Iron Islands to make a major impact on the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, and these moments were always under the pretext of taking advantage of the chaos and division within the Seven Kingdoms. Therefore any reasonable student of history with the world of Westeros (and though the Iron Islands are culturally more backwards than even the worst bits of mainland Westeros, there still exists some strong thinkers like the Lord of House Harlaw, Rodrik the Reader) would be able to create a pretty effective strategy for securing a prosperous future for the Iron Islands while not completely abandoning the so-called "Iron Price" that the Ironborn value so much.

And that plan essentially hinges on ensuring that the Seven Kingdoms can never unite as a unified military or economic entity ever again. Prior to the formation of the Iron Throne, the Ironborn could essentially travel wherever they wanted, raiding and pillaging where they pleased, and their victims could rarely make proactive moves against them without giving political rivals a backdoor by which to attack them. In so doing, the Ironborn benefited from the perpetual wars and fears of wars that wracked the mainland during the Age of Seven Kingdoms. But a unified Westeros, as shown by Aegon's Conquest and the failed Greyjoy Rebellion is a legitimately dangerous force when presented against the almost hilariously small Iron Islands. So solitary independence of the Islands by themselves is just pure stupidity and Balon Greyjoy deserved to be shoved from the highest towers of Pike for all the damage he allowed to occur to the Islands.

And from a functional standpoint, the Iron Islands desire for independence is actually a very reasonable request for them to desire. For the member nations of the Seven Kingdoms, rule by the Targaryens did next to nothing to actually support and uplift any of the Seven Kingdoms through association, with perhaps a few minor modifications to national infrastructure and a standardization of weights, measure, and judicial practices, all of which were essentially established under two monarchs centuries before the events of the Main series. This lack of development or investment is actually a quality shared by most of the Seven Kingdoms, as the Targaryen's largely spent most of their time and finances fighting internal conflicts, living in absolute decadence, or trying to prevent themselves from being supplanted following the death of their dragons. Independence isn't jsut about power, it actually could allow the Iron Islands to properly secure their own economic security, since the Islands are actually incredibly poor in their current state and no other nation will willingly work with them.

So with these two qualities in mind, this is how I think the Iron Islands should have operated as soon as Theon lands on the Iron Islands and requests Balon ally himself with Robb Stark. When Theon shows up, Balon immediately begins to open up a dialogue with the North to secure independence for not only the North, Iron Islands, and the Riverlands, but suggest the dissolution of the Seven Kingdoms altogether. He could then send Victarion and Aeron to raid the Westerlands and the Reach, actions which would force the Lannisters and the Tyrells on the defensive, as Robb Stark now has the Western shores of the North secure with the Ironborn fleet and the enemies of the new Independence movement suddenly become more clear as the actual objectives of the war shift entirely.

The North would likely agree with the dissolution of the Iron Throne as a political entity, not noticing or caring much for the potential political ramifications decades down the road of a series of kingdoms that cannot unite against the Ironborn. The result is that Robb's war would be far more effective in such a outcome and Theon's loyalty would secure him a higher standing within House Stark and House Greyjoy, preventing the Sack of Winterfell and slowing the rise of Ramsey Snow.

However, Theon's loyalty also has a much larger consequence. The prevention of the Red Wedding. The Red Wedding occurred as a result of Robb Stark marrying Jeyne Westerling to prevent her from being dishonored by him sleeping with her, insulting House Frey and giving Tywin the political knife he needed to stab Robb in the back. Without the Fall of Winterfell, Robb never sleeps with Jeyne Westerling and therefore never breaks his alliance with House Frey.

In addition, the lack of Ironborn incursion into the North removes the need to withdraw from the Westerlands, allowing the Northerners to continue to sack and pillage the Westerlands. With the unified independence movements working to essentially surround and destroy the Westerlands, I could actually see the Lannister's becoming more desperate and ironically reliant on the Tyrells to secure their position. As Tywin's power is built on fear and reputation, two forces which are only effective as long as a person remains fearful and well-reputed, the continued occupation or even collapse of his family's seat, which I have no doubt Robb could accomplish given enough time and localized support (especially if some Westerlander houses see brighter prospects with an independent Westerlands ruled by another House).

As for the Reach, the Tyrells would absolutely be opposed to independence, as their position within the Reach has always been tentative and other powers in the region might actually use the weakness of the Lannister's to supplant the Tyrells and take join the independence movement, especially houses like the Hightowers or Tarlys, both with a history of grand ambitions and a general loathing of the Tyrells. And with the Reach in chaos, the Tyrells military support might be stretched away from King's Landing and the Crownlands, leaving an opening for Robb Stark to move towards the city.

The fall of Renly and Stannis would be all but secured following the Battle of Blackwater Bay, supposing the new political arrangement didn't completely force the Tyrells away from the city at just the right time. It's possible that Stannis might continue his invasion of the North, perhaps taking the place of the Ironborn in narrative; but this is unlikely in my mind.

What is less conjecture is the role of Dorne and the Vale of Arryn. Dorne was never conquered by the Targaryens and in fact joined by marriage a little over a century before the start of the series. As such, I cannot help but feel that an independence movement with designs to eliminate House Lannister as a political entity would strongly appeal to Prince Doran and Oberyn Martell. I could easily see Oberyn Martell joining up with the Independence movement should Doran choose to remain neutral or continue on his Targaryen restoration plan, though this is rather poor for Dorne in the long run. You could still have the fight between the Mountain and Oberyn, but on a battlefield rather than a trial by combat. As for the Vale, I think the idea of potentially becoming King of the Vale would highly entice Lysa Arryn and Petyr Baelish, perhaps enough to actually make a push with Robb and the rest of the movement; in exchange for Sansa marrying Sweetrobin or Harry the Heir, assuming she is taken out of King's Landing after the Purple Wedding.

All in all, I could very easily see the outcome of the War of the Five Kings shifting towards the complete abolition of the Iron Throne. Of course, any such war would likely result in major shifts in military strategy and having a smaller or less successful betrayal on House Stark is incredibly likely, leaving aside more magical events which might push Brandon Stark up beyond the Wall.
And that has nothing to say with what might happen if Balon Greyjoy is killed by Euron and the dragon plan gets pushed. So from but a single change in decisions, the story crafted by George R.R. Martin is able to remain a little bit more focused, it keeps the Ironborn more relevant by allowing us to possibly follow raids on the Southern lands of the Reach through Theon's story, rather than a grim story of torture with Ramsey Snow. And it helps to more naturally bring in the other major players without wildly stretching the story out, keeping things a little bit more focused and Westeros based.

However in an ironic twist of fate, the alliance of the Ironborn with the North actually puts both nations in a very bad position in terms of Jon Snow's storyline. And helps to keep that plot moving forward on a thematic basis.


Ironborn and the War for the Dawn

Jon Snow's storyline in A Song of Ice & Fire is fairly straight-forward and isolated from most, if not all, of the major players in the story. This is especially the case following the Red Wedding and the death of most of the Starks. Essentially, Jon's story details his rise to the Lord Commandership of the Night's Watch and his efforts to unify as many people as he can to face the Others, including the Free Folk from Beyond the Wall.

This is an effort made more difficult by the War of the Five Kings, but would be made substantally if not impossible to achieve under a divided Westeros should our new timeline's Greyjoys and Starks be successful. While on one level, a victorious Robb Stark actually ensures that Jon's position at the Wall has a potentially stronger ally, the presence of Catelyn Stark might make his chances of getting Robb to listen to his pleas less likely, as she might see his alliance with the Free Folk as a plot to invade the North or grant himself a Crown, a thing which happened in the history of Westeros.
We also have the antagonism of Stannis Baratheon and any independent North, as Jon Snow had to ally himself with Stannis and Stannis will never accept Robb as King of the North, so I can almost certainly see a war going on between the two if Tywin is defeated down south. Otherwise, Stannis might be the impetus for Bran's exodus from Winterfell and we could have a fight between Ramsey Snow and Stannis with Ramsey as a "good" guy (as weird as that idea might be).
And with Jon trying to gain any ally he can, it may ultimately come down to establishing a Great Council to spread word. I could actually see Daenaerys Targaryen, the newly independent Kings all coming together and Jon Snow or his followers rolling in with a wight to prove the existence of the Others as a possible resolution to the crisis. But prior to such a thing, an Ironborn alliance could actually result in an emotional story of brothers fighting brothers, as Theon and Jon actually dislike each other very much and a more chaotic internal division brought about by Jon being opposed to the independence movement, for admittedly good reasons, is deeply compelling to me and actually has me taking a much closer look at just what a more logical Iron Islands storyline could do to the overall direction of the series.

Well...we will leave that to fanfiction, I guess.



Thinking on just what the Ironborn's storyline could've been had George R.R. Martin redirected the characters to be more tactical and strategic really has me disappointed in the storyline that we did get. The whole story of A Song of Ice & Fire, and especially what little we get of that storyline in A Game of Thrones, had so much potential but seemed to focus more on the Ironborn being uneducated and brutal pirates, when the idea of them being manipualtive and long-term schemers with dreams of past glories resonates so much more to me.

Building the Greyjoys as people with the kind of presence and pride in their own people, transforming them into legendary figures like Ragnar Lodbrok or Ivan the Boneless in our own history, seems far more compelling. A simple alteration of the Ironborn's plot would also streamline the story and ease the introduction of other characters whilst still leaving room for the dark and dramatic elements that we have long since grown to love.

In fact, I don't think I've seen anyone really examine what such a story would actually entail. It's a fascinating idea to explore, shifting the Ironborn to be a little more like tactical conquerors and a little less like dumb raiders. They were inspired by the Nordic cultures but Martin seems to have gone too deep a focus on the stereotype of Vikings rather than the rich history and legacy that the Norse had on the wider world.

And the story is all the lesser for it, in my opinion.
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