A Clash of Kings
or, Winterfell was torched 25 years ago
Many spoilers ahead for a book that has been out for over two decades.
A Game of Thrones is perhaps best known for the way it subverts your expectations as a reader of epic fantasy.
Ned Stark loses his head. Daenerys Targaryen loses her lover, her pregnancy, and her army she needs to regain the throne of her father.
We end the first novel with none of our characters getting what they want. Instead, the rewards that seemed promised from the first pages are nowhere to be seen. If anything, those rewards are even farther away and achieving them is unimaginable.
Despite all those initial disruptions of the genre you think you know, I would say that A Clash of Kings is really where the knots to this epic get tied.
Again, this reread is full of surprises. All the little movements of tiny pieces that will pay off in a few thousand pages just flew right past me the first time. Of course, part of this is because no one expects a name mentioned briefly during conversation by secondary characters to launch into the heart of the narrative and start mucking about. But there’s so much of what comes later baked into this novel.
We see the beginnings of the Sparrows, the slave revolts, the intrusion of people like Euron Greyjoy and Beric Dondarrion, but we also see the foundations of Lady Stoneheart and Stannis’ decent into rage and vengeance. And then, of course, there are the prophecies Daenerys and Bran hear.
But I think there’s a single storyline in this novel that does much to explicate the whole of the series.
Before we dive into that, I just want to say how much I appreciate the structure of this series. Yes, it’s one massive story chopped up into several books. But Martin does the very wise thing of ensuring each individual volume has its own self-contained arc. We begin this novel with Stannis’ determination to claim the Iron Throne and we end the novel with his armies smashed to pieces, King Joffrey celebrating his consolidated power.
In this way, each novel has a central arc with various storylines stretching along in the background to be resolved later.
Anyway, I want to talk about Theon Greyjoy.
Before this novel, we don’t really know Theon. We know his father rose up in rebellion about ten years ago. When that rebellion was crushed, Theon was taken to be raised by Ned Stark. Theon is older than Robb and Jon and often appears with a wry, mocking smile.
From the little we see of him, we do understand that he’s at least a bit arrogant and disrespectful. He’s been in Winterfell a long time and has been treated well, but he remains separate.
It’s the first of many structural surprises Martin gives us with his choices of narrators. This is used most effectively in the next book with Jamie Lannister’s POV. Theon seemed rather inconsequential in A Game of Thrones, which makes it a bit surprising that we enter his head to push the story along.
And what we see in this first chapter through Theon’s eyes is a marked contrast between how he is perceived and how he wants to be understood. Arrogant and haughty, crass and cruel, he lords his status over commoners, abusing them for his own vanity and desires. He is, to put it bluntly, a shit.
He sucks real hard.
And everyone around him cowers away and obeys because, well, he’s the son of a great lord. Then he arrives on Pyke demanding the same deference. He is, after all, the son of the man who rules this kingdom.
But what he meets is indifference and suspicion. Theon expects to be treated as the kidnapped son finally able to return home to his father, his people, and to be celebrated for this return home.
But he is seen as a stranger. Worse than a stranger, he is seen as a son of Ned Stark, who crushed the Greyjoy rebellion, resulting in the death of Theon’s brothers and his own imprisonment in Winterfell. His own father views him only with suspicion, with coldness. The coldness one would expect from an enemy.
Robb Stark, the King in the North, sent Theon to his father to make an allegiance. Theon took hold of hope, brought his desires to Balon, his father. They could conquer the land of the Lannisters while they’re busy fighting the Starks. They could become, in a single move, one of the most powerful houses in all of Westeros.
Balon, though, sees a better plan.
To strike for the North, newly emptied of its armies by Robb Stark.
In A Game of Thrones, we came to understand the competing motivations and goals of different characters, different houses. But this is where it becomes viscerally real.
Robb has a plan. Theon takes that plan a step further, hoping to help his father make himself yet another new king in Westeros. He presents this plan to his father, but his father already has a plan. More than simply having his own plan, he sneers at Robb’s plan and distrusts his own son who brought him this plan.
Everyone has a plan. Everyone’s plan is different. Whose plan gets enacted has everything to do with armies and cunning.
Had Theon presented himself and his plan differently to his father, maybe Balon could have been convinced. If Balon Greyjoy had less hate in his heart for the Starks, perhaps he would have thrown his weight against the Lannisters and shattered their hold on the Iron Throne. If Tywin Lannister were less famously fierce and brilliant and wealthy, it’s possible Balon Greyjoy goes in for the kill.
But, things being what they are, Theon begins to lose his grasp on his own narrative.
We next see him humiliated by his sister, who he doesn’t recognize and who he paws at in a familiar way. A haughty noble lord with an appetite for women. Asha, his sister, drives the point Balon made further home. And it is a jagged, notched knife sawing through Theon’s pride and hope.
He is a stranger. Worse, he is a Stark. To be considered a Greyjoy again, he must prove himself by subordinating himself to his sister and even to those outside house Greyjoy.
Theon chafes against all of this. It burns in him. No one likes him. No one trusts him. No one even sees him as Theon Greyjoy.
For the ten long years that he spent in Winterfell, he never forgot who he was. He chafed at life there as well. He longed to return home and be a son to his father. Instead, Ned Stark became a kind father to him. A father he didn’t want, but the only one he had.
But Theon had hoped and dreamt of returning home to a grand welcoming. He had hoped to be embraced by his father and named heir.
Instead, he receives only scorn.
He obeys and goes to the North to assist his sister and uncles in raiding along the coast and gaining a foothold to continue to wage war from.
But, see, Theon has a new plan. A bold and reckless plan. One that will make his father proud. One that will demonstrate that he is a true Ironborn worthy of not only the name but of house Greyjoy. It will put him above Asha in his father’s eyes. It will show Balon and everyone else that Theon’s return home was the best thing to happen to the Ironborn in generations.
And so, with just a few men, Theon captures Winterfell. He imprisons Bran and Rickon, who were once like little brothers to him. To show that he means to rule, he must demonstrate a level of cruelty that he finds unpleasant, albeit necessary. His men are Ironborn, after all. They won’t respect him if he’s not willing to butcher and kill a bit. These are hard men and so Theon must make a stone of his heart.
When Bran and Rickon escape, it’s a bit of panic settling in. He looks around Winterfell and sees people who had known him for ten long years who see him now in a new light.
Where once he was a stranger made ward of the Starks. Slowly over the years, he had fallen into their lives. He may have been an Ironborn, a Greyjoy, but he was also Theon. Haughty and rude, yes, but still a man they knew. A man they watched grow up among them.
They see him now as a traitor. Never mind that he was never one of them. Not he, not Theon. He was no Stark, but a Greyjoy, and he’d prove it so.
But all those hard northern eyes on him. It’s not the simple hatred people have for an invading conqueror. No, this is different. Had Asha taken Winterfell, they would understand. What were the people of Winterfell to her? Who were the Starks to her but people who humiliated her father and killed her brothers?
But Theon? Had he not walked these streets, these halls? Did he not know all of them by name?
Theon, demanding to be seen as a Greyjoy, spurning the name of Stark, makes a choice that can’t be undone. With the help of Ramsay Bolton—then claiming to be Reek, Ramsay’s servant—he murders two children and leads all of the North to believe that they are Bran and Rickon of house Stark.
And the hatred for him settles deeper. He wakes screaming from the horror of what he’s done.
When Asha arrives to fortify Winterfell and help him hold it, he meets a new disappointment.
Asha isn’t there to hold Winterfell. She’s there to take him home. Not only is his bold capture of Winterfell not to be celebrated by his sister or father, it is seen as the highest folly. Asha tells him that armies already descend upon Winterfell and there’s no way for him to hold it. She tells him to burn it and come away with her.
Infuriated, Theon refuses.
Theon, again, is not seen as the person he wishes to be. No one is there to celebrate his actions or even encourage him. Instead, he’s castigated for his stupidity and for disobeying orders.
The only one who ever encouraged him were the people of Winterfell and even the Starks. And he can never go back. Not now. Not after all this. And so he makes his final stand to hold Winterfell, even if it kills him.
Reek offers him another plan. He knows people in the north and can rally people to help Theon. To Theon, this is a shot in the dark. He has no hopes of success and he doesn’t especially trust Reek, but it’s this or his own death.
When Reek returns and saves Theon by killing the northern armies surrounding Winterfell, Theon believes he’s vindicated. He made bold choice after bold choice, and now he is the ruler of Winterfell.
Of course, Theon is, once more, hopelessly wrong. Reek reveals himself as Ramsay Bolton. He kills Theon’s men and burns Winterfell and the fate of Theon is unknown.
This single storyline could be its own standalone epic fantasy series, really. Instead, it’s only a single thread in this tapestry. Not even a major thread, mind! Theon began the novel as a somewhat tertiary node of power. He ends the novel with his fate unknown but stripped of anything resembling power or narrative agency.
But this is the whole of this novel. Each storyline is full of plans smashing into other plans. Plotting and dealing and compromising and backstabbing to get your way. Because it’s not just Theon who has a plan that gets turned upside down before he buckles and collapses under the weight of his own choices.
It’s Tyrion and Jon. It’s Bran and Catlyn. It’s Sansa and Arya. At different points, they all believe they understand what’s at stake and what must be done. But, in different ways and to differing degrees, their plans are ripped to pieces and they must now make choices they likely thought unimaginable until circumstances pressed them tightly into a corner they never expected to see.
I could go on and on about this novel. It’s not my favorite of the series. It’s not really the one people tend to remember most strongly. But I do believe this is the novel that really laid down the definition of what modern fantasy literature would now be.
A Game of Thrones was bold and subversive, but A Clash of Kings is so knotty and slippery and full of so many surprises, large and small, that it kicked off thousands of imitators.
So what is there to say about A Clash of Kings?
Well, it’s a bit like standing on a boat in choppy water. The floor beneath you keeps moving and you struggle a bit to find your sea-legs. Then, as soon as you begin to feel comfortable, the wooden floor beneath your feet becomes sand. And so you’re bouncing around, your feet both sinking and trying to find balance, and you start running in a direction just because anything has got to be better than standing still and drowning. You leap to the next boat only to find its rocking deck made of more sand. Run, run, run. Keep running, even as the water’s sloshing against your ankles, your knees, because maybe, just maybe, you’ll make it to shore before you drown.
Onto A Storm of Swords next month.