A Room Where the Light Won’t Find You: What It Means To Be Ironborn

What went wrong with Ironborn society that led to its current arrested state? Why the unceasing belligerence and inability to forge real, lasting compromises with the present? To simply accept the purely religious explanation is to ultimately accept the viewpoint of the Ironborn’s own fundamentalist party. Regardless of how many caveats one adds, this is how their culture is and has always been and always will be. This is a viewpoint that utterly ignores social and religious change. The Northmen no longer sacrifice people to weirwoods after all, while the Dornish openly disregard many elements of the Faith of the Seven that they disapprove of. Geographic determinism, the argument that the Iron Islands are so poor that it’s no wonder reaving is important to their culture, is equally simplistic. The Sistermen, the Wildlings, the Vale Clans, and the Skagosi are also peoples with a warrior and robber culture, but they don’t fight and steal in ways that are quite so counterproductive to their own self interests. The Bear Islanders and the Northern Clans are also poor and they simply do not reave. There’s also the fact that very wealthy places like the Free Cities and Qarth regularly steal through their trade wars and fleets of pirates. Poverty doesn’t lead to robbery and wealth virtue. Both explanations are unsatisfactory in their own right, but have an additional problem in that they both reduce the Ironborn to a people who cannot change and are stuck as they are. This results in either a kind of misguided sympathy or the wholesale writing off of all sympathy, as well as a one note narrative presence for the reader. It is our intent to sympathetically delve into their mythology and history so that we might understand how they might have come about as a people, how they came to their current tormented condition, and where they seem to be headed.

According to the mythology of the Ironborn they were a chosen people, specially created by one of the two gods (the good one) and given dominion over the Holy Isles “and all the waters of the earth” (World Book 175). The Drowned God is a fearsome, warlike, and jealous deity who will have no idols placed before him. But he is also extremely generous; he drowned for his people, filled the seas with his fish, and made it so all their hardships and suffering would ultimately be for their benefit. He established his islands and his tenets to make his people strong so they might free themselves from all worldly labor and vanity. So freed, upon their deaths they shall enter their god’s watery halls and be feasted and honored for all eternity. It was the Drowned Gods right hand, the Grey King, who established the first kingdom, taught his people to make nets, won them fire, built the first longship, killed Nagga the sea dragon, and fathered the sons who would found the Iron Island’s great houses.

After the Grey King’s one thousand and seven year rule come to an end a deep current enters Ironborn myth, one that can only be described as Old Testament. The constant of Ironborn myth is now degeneration from the original perfect state, with each age bringing more deviations and lessening power. The Grey Kings one hundred children slaughtered one another and divided the islands among themselves. The glory of the godly kingdom faded, but this was still an age of unstoppable and nightmarish warriors, who the First Men could not resist. These mighty men faded away in time as well, but next the prophet Galon Whitestaff brought the Ironborn together under a great Kingsmoot, beginning an age of unified expansion. But this age faded and faltered as well and ended when Urron Redhand slaughtered the last Kingsmoot and established a dynasty that lasted one thousand years. Civil wars and defeats followed in the wake of King Urron, yet all of the islands remained under the true faith. Then the Andals came and with them false gods, tyrannical kings, and tremendous deviation from the Old Way. But the Ironborn were still free and the priests able to defend the faith and keep it alive. Then the Dragons came and the Holy Isles at last lost their independence. This is a mythology that drives its believers to look backwards, always backwards and yet feel a deep continuity with the past. When Aeron Damphair looks upon Nagga’s bones he cannot help but compare this last surviving ruin of “the dawn of days, when mighty men still dwelt on earth and sea” to the present, where “Men were smaller now” (FfC Aeron II). Yet looking upon the bones Aeron’s final thoughts are “It is enough” (FfC Aeron II). For all the changes of man, the will of god and his tenets remains the same. One day his people, lessened though they are, might restore their Kingdom and the Old Ways and become great again.

Let us now turn from a fundamentalist interpretation of this mythology to a social and economic reading of what took place underneath the surface of Maester Yandel’s secular narrative. While the exact truth of the various legends and tales is ultimately unknowable, the story of decline from a blessed state to the present arrested, compromised reality is a very real feature of Ironborn history, one that should not be ignored. Yet the cause of this decline and the resulting arrested reality does not rest where the Ironborn believe it does, a loss of virtue and vitality. Rather, it stems from vastly increased inequality amongst the population of the Iron Islands.

It is Haereg’s belief is that the Iron Islanders started out as a fishing people and only turned to reaving after they began to exhaust their primeval forests, leaving the barren, deforested islands known today. The initial raids on the mainland were for timber. Over time these raids expanded to include many other things, with profound social consequences:

All that the islands lacked the reavers found in the green lands. Little and less was taken in trade; much and more was bought in blood, with the point of a sword or the edge of an axe. And when the reavers returned to the islands with such plunder, they would say that they had “paid the iron price” for it; those who stayed behind “paid the gold price” to acquire these treasures, or went without. And thusly, Haereg tells us, were the reavers and their deeds exalted above all by singers, smallfolk, and priests alike. (World Book 177)

The benefits of this reaving would have been considerable and broadly felt. The regular reaving campaigns would have allowed numerous common men (and perhaps some women) to acquire wealth and thralls. The thralls and salt wives captured by the reavers raised the status of the common people by relieving their domestic drudgery and freeing them from the necessary toil of working the soil and going into the mines. The reaver’s plunder also protected the commons from famine:

Whenever autumn wanted and winter threatened, the longships would come raiding after food. And so the Iron Islands ate, even in the depths of winter, whilst oft as no the men who had planted, tended, and harvested the crops starved. (World Book 177)

When the Kingsmoots functioned there is good reason to believe that they served to redistribute resources from the nobles and reavers to the fishermen, whose families made up 70% of the population (or more accurately, the Kingsmoots redistributed resources that were taken from the First Men by the reavers or produced by the Islands’ thralls). Yangel states that the ancient Kingsmoots were open to anyone who captained or owned a boat, not merely a longship (World Book 179). In addition to the later great Kingsmoots on Old Wyk, which elected the high kings, each of the populated islands had their own Kingsmoots and these purely local assemblies choose two kings, not just one. More offices would have meant more candidates, more politicking, and more redistribution to the people.

The burst of expansion that began with the high Kingsmoot era opened up new lands for settlement and new fishing grounds for exploitation. The great families would have benefited the most, as is normally the case, but this tide of empire lifted all boats. The fruits of reaving and conquest would have allowed ordinary Ironborn to live well above the lesser peoples of the continent, in full accordance with the tenets of their god. The community of the faithful would have had a unity of thought and purpose never experienced before or since.

But when the First Men of the North, West, and South began to successfully fight back the Ironborn went into retreat and the golden age dimmed. Gradually, inevitably, the costs of the empire rose while the resources derived from it shrank and one by one the colonies were lost. This would have created considerable stress and the consequences are easily guessed at: a lessening of redistribution, a marked increase in inequality and violence, a greater emphasis on family inheritance, and further prestige for those reavers who remained successful. Said changes could easily be behind the story of Torgon Latecomer near the end of the Kingsmoot era. Torgon’s father King Urragon the Bald dies while Torgon was out reaving in the Reach. Torgon’s brothers manipulate the priests into convening a hasty Kingsmoot before he can return so that one of them might be chosen in Torgon’s stead. But the Kingsmoot instead chooses Urrathon Goodbrother, who rather than live and let live decides to put all of Torgon’s brothers to death, clearly fearing they would threaten his rule otherwise. Urrathon’s reign is two years of violence and miserliness (note the combination) that ends when the successful reaver Torgon finally comes home (presumably with the profits of his reaving). King Urrathon is then overthrown and killed and Torgon installed in his place. Torgon then arranges things so his own son Urragon can inherit without a Kingsmoot as well. It’s the childless Urragon’s wish that his nephew Urron inherit the kingship upon his death, but a Kingsmoot is called despite this wish. Now Urron was the Salt King of Orkmont, which means he was the leader of that island’s reavers and likely possessed significant wealth. Urron responds by assembling an army of axmen to slaughter the Kingsmoot and subdue the Iron Islands under his absolute rule.

Urron Greyiron’s coup either brought about, or more likely ratified, a massive fall in the status and well being of the common people. Ratified is more likely, as Urron apparently had no trouble recruiting a large host of warriors who had no love for the Kingsmoot and no fear of breaking taboos and killing priests, indicating conditions had deteriorated significantly. The seeds of this revolution can be traced back to the earliest days with the reverence given to the reavers by the people and their priests. Over time exaltation obviously became privilege and privilege gradually became power. From this point on the Iron Islands were presided over by a hereditary monarch and warrior aristocracy whose obligations to the commons were now feudal rather than democratic. The king’s crown was now made of iron and passed from father to son. Yet new social orders do not cement themselves by force alone. Of equal importance to how Urron’s coup came about is how Urron’s descendants managed to make it stick.

Make it stick they did. On his way back to Pyke, Theon Greyjoy approvingly recollects one of the Redhand’s sayings: “The Drowned God makes men, but its men who make crowns” (CoK Theon I). When Balon Greyjoy rejects Rob Stark’s offer of a crown, he does so by stating: “I will take my crown, as Urron Redhand did five thousand years ago” (CoK Theon I). Among the aristocracy at least, King Urron Redhand’s utterly lawless usurpation has gone down in Ironborn history as a fundamentally legitimate act, the ultimate example of paying the Iron Price. It is clear from this that Urron’s new aristocracy found legitimacy in the only place they could: their status as professional reavers. They were the men who captained the longships and paid the iron price and brought in a trickle of benefits for an otherwise impoverished commons, among them some relief from labor and the ability to look down on thralls. They were the ones with the storied ancestors of the golden age. Paying the iron price in foreign lands therefore legitimized King Urron’s use of it at home. Yet as the Iron Islands became weaker the economic benefits of reaving continued to fall while its costs and risks only increased. An aristocracy that wished to maintain its status and power relative to their own people and to the aristocracies of the greenland kingdoms required a new economic foundation. After the fall of House Greyiron and the elevation of House Hoare the aristocracy found this new foundation in trade.

The Hoares owed their instillation and rule to marriage alliances with the Andals. With these marriage alliances came religious toleration of the Andal Faith in defiance of the Drowned God’s jealous proscriptions. Meanwhile, the Andalization of Westeros created a vast new demand for iron and iron products. The Hoares seized this opportunity, cultivated their marriage alliances, protected the Faith, and successfully discouraged reaving all to create a new empire of trade. This commercial revolution obviously benefited the aristocracy as much as it did the monarchy, for the kings were able to maintain their reforms against considerable popular and priestly opposition. The commons apparently benefited as well, but very unequally:

Instead they traded iron for timber. And when winter came and the cold winds blew, iron ore became the coin of House Hoare used to buy barley, wheat, and turnips to keep their smallfolk fed (and beef and pork for their own tables) (World Book 184).

Yet fewer raids would also mean fewer thralls and salt wives, which would mean a much heavier burden of labor being placed on the commons, particularly in the mines. Mercantile voyages revealed a whole new world for the Ironborn, one where they paled before the power and wealth of Westeros, let alone Valyria and the distant East. It is extremely likely that one of the reasons the new iron price was considered so shameful was because lowborn Ironmen were among those digging said iron out of the ground while the lords used the profits to pay the gold price to wealthy foreigners for all sorts of new luxury. The commercial revolution therefore marked the final diminishment of the common people, many of whom were condemned to live a hard, ungodly life maintaining an increasingly hypocritical elite.

Trade and religious tolerance materially benefited the upper class but harmed their legitimacy. Their positions came from blood inheritance and their wealth from feudal incomes and trade; but their legitimacy, their divine sanction, their right to rule, the justification for hierarchy and inequality, these all came from reaving, which had to be discouraged in order for there to be trade. To rule the Old Way had to be disregard, but to be a member of the ruling class required adherence to the Old Way. A festering contradiction was therefore introduced into the heart of Ironborn society under the first Hoare kings and it was this contradiction that was responsible for the social violence that gave them their distinctively grim names: Wulfgar the Widowmaker, Horgan Priestkiller, Fergon the Fierce, Othgar the Soulless, Othgar Demonlover, Craghorn of the Red Smile (World Book 183-184). These titles, and the priestly accusations of alien blood, indicate a class war being waged by the kings and lords against their own people. All later disasters can be read as failed attempts to permanently resolve the explosive inconsistency behind this violence.

The three Harmunds sought to resolve the contradiction by leading their fellow islanders into the Faith of the Seven and Andalized Kingship. This would bring a new religion and a new divine justification for the social order, one that would no longer require domestic inequality to be justified by reaving. It would also have allowed the Ironborn aristocracy to openly display their new wealth on their persons, further distinguishing themselves from their smallfolk. Perhaps such reforms were possible, perhaps they weren’t. What is clear is that when Harmund the Handsome embarked on his great reforms he was completely confident in his position and contemptuous of any popular opposition, so the overwhelming reaction caught him completely off guard. Led by a prophet called the Shrike, the people as a whole rose up in the defense of their identity, their god, and the traditional obligations these placed on the upper class. So great was this uprising that King Harmund could muster none of the lords in his defense and he, his mother, and the Iron Islands all suffered horrifically as a result.

Overwhelming in the fullness of his triumph, the Shrike personally mutilated the deposed king and then persuaded the new King, Hagon Hoare, Harmund’s brother, to mutilate their mother, Queen Lelia Lannister, and send her back to Lannisport. The Shrike clearly wished to cement his revolution by provoking a war that would break all ties with the greenlands and forever return the Iron Islands to the Old Way. The war between the Iron Islands and the Westerlands lasted about twelve years and resulted in the deaths of approximately twenty to thirty thousand Iron Islanders. The Islands’ were left “impoverished, burned, and broken” and in the centuries that followed was ruled by a regime riddled with priests and reavers. Yet the Shrike’s revolution ultimately failed. Reaving had a short revival during the “bleak age” he ushered in, but soon it became more impractical than before. The Andalized greenland kingdoms were now far too powerful at sea to be worth provoking.

What the aristocracy and later Hoare kings learned from this debacle was that converting the Iron Islands to the Faith of the Seven or ruling completely without the Old Way were both impossible. There was a limit to which the Drowned Faith, if not the Drowned God, could be disregarded and defied. Yet the days when they could reeve Westeros were clearly gone and so they were forced to look further afield to Essos and the Summer Sea. But reaving in the Stepstones and the Summer Sea are expensive, time consuming, and highly dangerous endeavors. Reavers would have to pay for a long distance voyage, spend considerable time away from home, and face considerable personal risk: storms, inhospitable coasts, pirates, organized anti-pirates, unfamiliar weather, Sothyrosi diseases, and Essosi sorcery. The returns in goods and thralls would be substantially below that of raiding Western Westeros. Piracy in Essos is reaving at its most economically marginal, almost reduced to a form of pilgrimage.

It was Qhorwyn the Cunning who hit upon the plan of using present commerce to pay for future conquest and colonization. If raiding no longer paid it was only because the Ironborn were trying to steal too little, goods and coastal islands. Now they would use their new resources and merchant marine to prepare for the theft of entire countries. King Qhorwyn thus spent his entire reign using the Islands’ trade income to create the greatest arsenal and war fleet the Seven Kingdoms had ever seen. When Qhorwyn died his son Harwyn looked upon this arsenal and quite naturally remarked: “longships are meant to be sailed…swords are made to be blooded” (World Book 186). Having learned from numerous failed wars that the Westerlands, Reach, and North were too strong, Harwyn chose to attack the chaotic and divided Riverlands. Within the space of a year the Iron Islands went from the weakest of the kingdoms to one of the most powerful.

Conquering the Riverlands was clearly not the end of the Ironborn’s ambitions. Harwyn’s son Halleck sought to expand their new kingdom by waging wars against the Stormlands, the Westerlands, and the Vale. These wars were unsuccessful but did not dim the Hoare’s power. Halleck’s son Harran the Black used the resources of the Iron Islands and Riverlands to build the greatest fortress Westeros has ever seen, something way beyond the necessities of consolidation and which makes sense only as the prelude to further continental conquest. Harranhall was meant to be the Ironborn capital of all of Westeros. Of course the Ironborn could not become a continental ruling class without giving up much of their present culture. Yandel observes that “there was more of the Trident than the salt sea in Halleck Hoare” and that the Iron Islands were well on their way to becoming merely a source of revenue, weaponry, and hardened soldiers (World Book 186). Yet as this transformation would only have further cemented the position of the lords and kings they would not have seen this as a problem (if they were even aware of it).

The destruction of Harranhall and the end of the Black line brought everything Qhorwyn and Harwyn had built crashing down. Now the specter of subjugation, and even annihilation, loomed over the Ironborn (it should not be forgotten how many mainlanders called for Aegon to wipe out the Ironborn with his dragons). While the lords fought futilely amongst themselves, the priests crowned a would be messiah and hoped for divine salvation. When this messiah failed and walked into the sea thousands committed suicide with him, testifying to just how traumatic this moment was. After the Islands surrendered to King Aegon I he allowed the lords to choose the House that would govern them. In need of a lord with legitimacy, they elected Vickon Greyjoy, the Lord Reaper of Pyke, who to please Aegon allowed the Faith of the Seven to return and ushered in a long period of hard, unhappy peace. The Ironborn had returned to the same halfway house they had thrice now tried to escape from, only worse than before, as now they lacked their independence and had to pay taxes to the Iron Throne. While the Targaryens had dragons the Ironborn accepted their subjugation, but, after the Dance of Dragons more or less destroyed them all, this acceptance instantly vanished.

There never was any hope of the Ironborn accepting their diminished position within the Seven Kingdoms. While there is a tradition of reform, exemplified by such figures as Baelor Blacktyde, Rodrick the Reader, and Quellon Greyjoy, its presence has always been weak and too foreign, too associated with septans, books, and maesters. There is a much more solid tradition of pragmatism, but that will always be a dead end. The reason it will always fail to take hold is to be found in its very justification: the Ironborn’s weakness. Moderation and pragmatism borne of a weak position are necessary and sensible, but uninspiring. When the Ironborn’s position appears to strengthen this undesirable moderation and restraint will no longer appear necessary and will promptly be discarded, for to not discard them would be defeatist. If the Ironborn aristocracy cannot restore themselves to their rightful place when the constraints upon them slacken then it will be clear that the fault for their subjugation lies not with the power of their enemies but with themselves. And then it will be laid bare for all of the faithful to see that the elite do not deserve their position or their power. So of course the Ironborn burst from their restraints whenever the central authority falters: the Red Kaken’s outlawry during the Dance of Dragons, Dagon’s reaving in the aftermath of the Great Spring Sickness and Blackfrye Revolt, Balon’s Rebellion in King Robert’s unsteady early years, and Balon’s Second Rebellion during the War of Five Kings.

There’s an element of classic insanity in all these attempts, of doing something over and over again and expecting different results. This is most apparent in the figure of Balon the Twice Crowned. In his first Rebellion Balon was clearly emulating the reaving of Dagon and the Red Kraken. In his second Rebellion and Northern War Balon makes an attempt at being Harwyn Hoare. Of course the failed models of the past fail yet again, but they are the only ones available to the Ironborn that do not involve surrender. Balon’s First Rebellion is crushed without any victories to match the Red Kraken’s and during the Second Rebellion he cannot conquer the North. And then Euron came back from the East…

With the knowledge of the above history, what do we make of the events that followed? In Aeron Damphair’s Kingsmoot there was no inspired resurrection of the pristine ancient ways, such as those were. Power was limited the lords and longship captains, the same warrior class entrenched by Urron Redhand, with the commons silently looking on. What occurred instead was a bastardized assembly of self serving aristocrats clinging for dear life to a bastardized tradition that they desperately seek to preserve by raising up a bastardized king. Instead of the great men of their golden age they get a proud, impious, and sadistic mystic, a man who represents everything that is very rotten in the Iron Islands and who mobilizes them behind yet another destructive attempt at resolving their contradictions, only this time with chattle slavery, blood magic, and dragons, the same things that built and destroyed Valyria.

To be Ironborn is not to be “caught between dreams of past glory and the poverty of the present” as Maester Yandel writes (World Book 193). Such a clichéd statement is true of many peoples, places, and times; it is ever the stuff of dissatisfaction. Rather, to be Ironborn is to be completely imprisoned by the past and the present. It is to be trapped in a dark room where real light won’t ever find them, stumbling about in pursuit of ghostly will-o’-wisps that can only lead them in circles, bloodying themselves with slips and falls. No escape anywhere…or so it seems. There are in fact two doors, hidden but now discoverable. To pass through the first door is to undo Urron’s coup, return the commons to power, and make the lords lay down their axes and privileges. In short, have a government where legitimacy rests with the will of the people and not with the iron price. To pass through the second door…well, that would mean to help bring about the end of the present world so that the aristocracy might have a new one more suited to them.

“Crow’s Eye, you call me. Well, who has a keener eye than the crow? After every battle the crows come in their hundreds and their thousands to feast upon the fallen. A crow can espy death from afar. And I say that all of Westeros is dying. Those who follow me will feast until the end of their days.” (FfC Aeron II)

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