The Culture of the Ironborn – Appearances and Realities
Speaking of Urron Redhand…the other reason why Theon I is so interesting is that it’s our first real introduction into the culture of the Ironborn, one that’s just as distinctive and distinguished from mainland Westerosi culture as the Dothraki of AGOT or the Dornish of AFFC. The Ironborn are a rather divisive subject within the fandom, with some clearly reacting positively to the bloodthirsty pirate-by-way-of-Vikings vibe and others more negatively to the rape-slavery-and-casual-murder aspects of same (especially in a text which isn’t exactly shy about those kinds of things). And yet, when I went back to this chapter, I found something rather interesting under the surface of Ironborn culture that throws much of it into question.
Let’s start at the beginning: the Old Way is portrayed as an entirely militaristic one, in which the true Ironmen take rather than make, and in which any other way of life is somehow less than fully human:
“When we still kept the Old Way, lived by the axe instead of the pick, taking what we would, be it wealth, women, or glory. In those days, the ironborn did not work mines; that was labor for the captives brought back from the hostings, and so too the sorry business of farming and tending goats and sheep. War was an ironman’s proper trade. The Drowned God had made them to reave and rape, to carve out kingdoms and write their name in fire and blood and song.”
To consider a life of arms to be more noble than a life of labor is hardly unusual within Westeros; after all, the lords of the green lands train their sons primarily in the arts of a heavy cavalryman, with a light smattering of political and diplomatic and administrative skills, and the very terms “highborn” and “smallfolk” indicate there’s no equality of status there. What is different is that the Ironborn live in a slave society and the mainlanders don’t – a commoner and a lord living in Lannisport are both considered Westerlanders and legal persons, even if one has privileges the other doesn’t. But a thrall is property, taken at sword-point no different from cattle or gold or a ship. And this difference is important, because in a slave society, to work is to act like a slave. Whereas in Westeros a landed knight can till his own fields and a peasant is expected to grab a spear and shield and fight for his lord, in the Iron Islands, to exchange coins for goods and services is to admit that you too are a slave.
We can see the influence of a slave society when it comes to matters of gender. I’ll get into the question of how much freedom there is for Ironborn women later (once we get into Asha’s material a bit more), but one thing that’s clear is that one’s status as a woman takes a backseat to one’s category as Ironborn or thrall: “The ironmen of old did such things. A man had his rock wife, his true bride, ironborn like himself, but he had his salt wives too, women captured on raids.”
This martial and slave-taking culture also creates a different attitude to status and hierarchy. As Theon states, “Ironborn captains were proud and wilful, and did not go in awe of a man’s blood. The islands were too small for awe, and a longship smaller still. If every captain was a king aboard his own ship, as it was often said, it was small wonder they named the islands the land of ten thousand kings.” The nature of the longship (and its centrality in Ironborn life) explains part of this equality; on a longship, every hand is required to pull the oar, the deck is all of one level, and there’s no private cabin. And as Theon puts it, “when you have seen your kings shit over the rail and turn green in a storm, it was hard to…pretend they were gods.” However, part of this also comes from the slave aspect – historically (and I’ll get into this in more detail below), slave societies require a certain solidarity among the non-slave population that requires a certain equal treatment – no free person can be treated as less than a slave, lest slaves start to get ideas – and slave-masters, having experienced the heady rush of absolute ownership over other people, tend to be extremely touchy about being treated as equals (lest they be treated as slaves).
Here’s the problem, though. In this chapter, Ironborn culture is presented as eternal and unchanging, bringing with it all the complicated issues of “authenticity.” As Aeron Damphair sees it, “Men fish the sea, dig in the earth, and die. Women birth children in blood and pain, and die. Night follows day. The winds and tides remain. The islands are as our god made them.” Ironborn culture is unchanging because it is ordained by the Drowned God, who brought forth fire from the sea to lead the iron born to “go forth into the world with fire and sword,” who teaches his people unyielding defiance (“what is dead may never die…but rises again, harder and stronger”) and who blesses them with “salt…stone…[and] steel.”
And yet throughout this chapter, we are bombarded with evidence that Ironborn culture is unstable and constantly in the process of changing, and that the “Old Way” is far removed from the actual lived experience of actual Ironborn people. As Theon points out:
“those days are gone. No longer may we ride the wind with fire and sword, taking what we want. Now we scratch in the ground and toss lines in the sea like other men, and count ourselves lucky if we have salt cod and porridge enough to get us through a winter.”
Aegon the Dragon had destroyed the Old Way when he burned Black Harren, gave Harren’s kingdom back to the weakling rivermen, and reduced the Iron Islands to an insignificant backwater of a much greater realm. Yet the old red tales were still told…all across the islands.”
The Ironborn do not practice the Old Way; as the Mallisters note, “the bell” meant to warn Seagard of Ironborn raiders “has been rung just once in three hundred years.” Three hundred years is a long time, approximately twelve generations in length, long enough to obliterate the distinction between master and slave (especially when slavery is not practiced across the generations). While House Codd is despised by the nobility of the Iron Islands, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Ironborn probably have thrall blood in them. More importantly, the Ironborn themselves have had to turn to peaceful occupations to eat and survive, no matter what the Iron Price and the Gold Price might say. Balon Greyjoy, separated by his feudal taxes from the need to feed himself from his own labor, might turn up his nose at goods bought with gold, but the Tyroshi trading galley and the Ibbenese Cog in the harbor are trading with someone and they’re not going to come if iron is the only thing on offer.
In other words, what we’re dealing with here is not a living culture but a revanchist one. Just as the people of Astapor and Yunkai and Meereen call themselves the sons of Ghis even though they are actually the descendants of a dozen peoples and mostly Valyrian, even though they’ve forgotten the Ghiscari language and now speak a mere dialect of Low Valyrian, even though their religion is essentially reverse-engineered from the archaeological remnants of a culture that no longer exist, so too do the Ironborn invent what the Old Way is and was, ignoring the signs of change along the way in favor of an imagined continuity. For example, Urron Redhand is held up by both Theon and his father as a paragon of the Old Way, a man who teaches the Ironborn that “the Drowned God makes men…but it’s men who make crowns” – and yet, it’s Urron Redhand who ended the original, authentic tradition of electing the King of the Iron Island at a kingsmoot and made the crown an inherited position, and whose line was then violently interrupted by the Andal invasion (for all that the Ironborn seem to pretend that never happened). Likewise, for all that the Ironborn are represented as having always followed the Drowned God, there was a sept in Lordsport before it was burned, which means there was a large enough population of followers of the Seven to support a church.
None of this is to say that the Ironborn’s self-conception isn’t powerful; as we’ll see, it’s powerful enough to inspire war, again and again. But it is important that we recognize that when Balon or Aeron or Victarion or Euron or Theon use their supposed heritage to justify their actions, what we’re seeing there is a political choice, to use history as the blunt force trauma of justification and legitimation.
On the face of it, Ironborn culture is a pretty straightforward expy for Viking culture, at least as it was understood by 19th century historians, who tended to rely a bit heavily on church chroniclers who propagandized rather heavily against anyone who touched church property and on Scandinavian sagas that were long on embellishment, in other words by the same sorts of folks who gave us the image of the violent, unkempt barbarian in the horned helmet that’s almost entirely invented.
The more revisionist history that came around starting in the mid-20th century paints a more sober picture:
- First, the “Viking era” was a relatively brief part of Scandinavian history (and indeed, many today label it an era in pre-history, given the paucity of written records from the Scandinavians themselves), lasting only from the late 8th through the 11th centuries C.E – afterwards, you’re dealing with more centralized monarchies.
- Second, going “viking” was not the center of Scandinavian culture and society – rather, it was seasonal work undertaken by fishermen, sailors, farmers, etc. to supplement their incomes, given the limitations of Scandinavian climates. In this light, it’s not that different from the piracy practiced by many other coastal people in this, earlier, and later periods.
- Third, “viking” existed as one part of a spectrum of economic and military activities. On the one hand, the same longships that were used to rob abbeys were also used for trading and exploration; the same axes and swords for a bit of robbery and plunder were often turned to more civilized uses, like mercenary work. And critically, scholars have often conflated actual “vikings” with more straightforward conquest – raiding for spending money was all well and good, but what Scandinavians wanted was better farmland. Hence the conquest of Normandy, the eastern half of Ireland, the Danelaw in England, the two Sicilies, Kievan Rus, and so on and so forth. And when we look at these conquests, we don’t see the barbarians of the chronicles – “Northmen” founded cities and towns, encouraged commerce, conducted adminstration and taxation and legal systems, and tended to assimilate into the local culture (albeit at the top). Granted, they were still conquering other people’s lands, but that hardly makes them that different from say, the Anglo-Saxons who had taken Britain from the Romanized Britons, or the Franks who had subjugated the Romanized Gauls, a few hundred years earlier.
- Fourth, “viking” raids existed in a context of push and pull factors. Overpopulation and limited arability in Scandinavia was a factor in getting young men to bring in ready money from overseas; it’s also been suggested that anti-pagan discrimination by Christian traders was a motivating factor in acquiring foreign exchange by force. Others have noted that the crusades of Charlesmagne against the pagan Saxons of continental Europe pushed the Saxons up into Scandinavia, again creating overpopulation, a need for more land, and a dislike of Christians, and thus pushing the “vikings” into England, Ireland, Northern France, etc. Still others have noted that the increase in Viking activity also coincided with the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, and can thus be seen as a sort of testing of the political and military vaccum that proceeded more serious efforts to deal with internal problems by grabbing for a cut of Europe along with everyone else.
Now, Martin is clearly a romantic who likes the older history of the Vikings, but as we’ll see, he also understands the more practical side of history. However, there are clearly elements of Ironborn culture that don’t have any correspondence with Viking society – the extreme emphasis on caste and slavery, the resentment complex towards the mainland, the revanchist attitude and born-again religion.
I would argue instead that the Ironborn resembles the Civil-War era (white) South, which George R.R Martin researched in preparation for his novel Fevre Dream, which posited vampires as part of the parasitic plantation elite. Consider the similarities: just as the Ironborn strongly emphasize the differences between ironman and thrall, the South laid down sharp divisions between white and black, free and slave; just as the Ironborn treat one another with a rough equality, historians have pointed out how the necessities of white unity against the threat of slave rebellions required the creation of a cultural attitude in which all whites were equal, and had to be treated better than black slaves. Within the reigning ideology of slavery, the idea was that slavery created a mud-sill effectthat lifted up even poor whites by freeing them from the need to perform the worst kinds of labor, and thus creating in the South a kind of herrenvolk democracy. (If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend David Blight’s lecture series on the Civil War and Reconstruction which are available for free on iTunes)
Most importantly, like the Ironborn in the wake of Aegon’s Conquest and the failure of the Greyjoy Rebellion, the white South had engaged in a failed rebellion in the hopes of maintaining a society and culture based on human exploitation, bitterly resented their defeat and the end of their “peculiar system,” and through the use of violent terrorism believed that their true, original culture would “rise again.” Likewise, in the face of their defeat, the white South turned to the revision of history to posit a South that was the victim rather than the initiatior of a civil war, that had fought for the purest constitutional motives rather than in defense of a social system now universally regarded as evil, and that had previously enjoyed a harmonious and virtuous social order more in line with the martial virtues of the past than the tawdry commercialism of the victorious Yankees.
So, next time you think about how “badass” Victarion or Euron might be, imagine them in a pointy white hood.