Massive trigger warnings for rape, abuse, and mutilation up ahead.
With the possible exception of Cersei’s penance walk, the Jeyne-Theon-Ramsay storyline in A Dance with Dragons was both one of the best and also one of the worst reading experiences I’ve suffered my way through. The whole thing is incredibly uncomfortable. I can think of very few villains worse than Ramsay, and his treatment of both Jeyne and Theon is so appalling that it’s difficult to imagine anyone so evil.
Game of Thrones’s fifth season attempted to tackle this subplot. Unsurprisingly, it failed. The show was also incredibly offensive in the process. At face value, this seems like an odd thing to say. What happens in the show is nowhere near as bad as what happens in the books. In Game of Thrones, Sansa replaces Jeyne, Ramsay rapes her, and the whole thing is rather senseless. In the books, Ramsay does a lot more than rape Jeyne. He threatens to mutilate her—her body is covered in his bites marks—and he forces her into acts of bestiality. On top of all that, he rapes Theon by proxy, since he also forces him to help in Jeyne’s torment as well. It’s worse than I just made it sound. Significantly.
Yet A Song of Ice and Fire does not treat this subject matter the same way Game of Thrones does. What happens in the books is awful, but it’s not just for shock value. The storyline tells us a lot about a person’s identity and autonomy, about rape culture, and about the monsters who hurt us. There’s a lot to unpack here, so for this post, I’m going to get into Theon’s issues with identity and then talk about Jeyne and rape culture in a second post.
To start with, let’s take a look at Ramsay’s character and what he is to the narrative. There are a lot of horrible characters in the books. The Mountain comes to mind—he rapes numerous people, murdered his own father, abused his brother, and even mutilates others. He is a butcher of a character. Yet even someone as horrible as the Mountain doesn’t really compare to Ramsay, and that has to do with how we view these two characters. The Mountain is a monster that we watch from a distance—there’s no POV character directly victimized by him. The same is not true for Ramsay. His character exists to torment Theon and, by extension, us.
In the books, he goes about this by stripping Theon of everything that defines Theon’s identity. Theon is a proficient archer, so Ramsay cuts off Theon’s fingers so he can’t shoot a bow and his toes so he can’t walk properly. He breaks Theon’s teeth so he can’t smile. Under all the stress, Theon’s hair turns grey, and even though he is not quite twenty, he looks other than sixty. It’s also quite possible that Ramsay castrates him. Theon’s worth as both heir to the Iron Isles and hostage to the Starks is taken from him. By the time Ramsay is done, there’s nothing about who Theon was that remains. So when Ramsay gives Theon the nickname Reek, it is a moniker that Theon latches onto, because that’s the only person Theon thinks he can be, and indeed that’s who he needs to be in order to survive this ordeal.
Even the name Reek has more meaning in the books than it does in the show. In Game of Thrones, Ramsay calls Theon Reek because Theon smells. In ASoIaF, there’s a lot more to it. Ramsay used to have a servant named Reek to whom he was very close, or at the very least obsessed with. The two did everything together, and Ramsay viewed him as an extension of himself. Unfortunately for Ramsay, Reek dies, and in response, Ramsay seeks out another person to become his new Reek. Theon is his eventual victim.
Ramsay is the literal monster under Theon’s bed. His role in the story is to strip away Theon’s identity, and yet Ramsay’s character is entirely dependent on Theon’s identity in order to have a purpose in the narrative. We don’t know a lot about Ramsay other than his past with the original Reek, and it’s not often that GRRM gives us villains who have no redeeming qualities, which is another reason why Ramsay’s character is so interesting. His whole existence is defined by his relationship to others. He needs Reek, so he makes Theon into a new Reek. He wants Theon to be just as dependent on him as he is on Theon.
And because we read these chapters from Theon’s perspective, we experience a lot of the fear and agony that Theon goes through. We spend numerous chapters watching Theon struggle with his own identity and his own past and what he does and does not deserve. Theon’s character is a victim of circumstances, even before meeting Ramsay—he was taken as a hostage as a young boy, and growing up away from the Iron Isles makes him an outsider to his own people. As a result, Theon makes some really shitty decisions. He betrays the Starks—the closest family he has—murders two little boys in the process, and considering his more or less privileged life despite his circumstances, he’s a giant womanizer who also probably raped someone at one point in time.
Theon’s arc under Ramsay is not about him seeking redemption, yet redemption is something that he does find eventually, at least in the eyes of the audience, though not in the eyes of the rest of Westeros. Despite his crimes, we don’t view what he goes through as justified. Ramsay’s not there to bring justice down upon Theon; he’s there to make sure Theon is also a victim. Ironically though, Ramsay’s attempts to strip Theon of his identity do just the opposite. For a while, Theon does struggle with who he is as a person and his own role in the all the events the led up to his capture by Ramsay, and he goes by the name of Reek. It is not until he goes out to pray before Winterfell’s Weirwood when he hears Bran’s voice call him Theon that Theon remembers who he is—because he thinks the old gods remember his name.
This is a powerful moment and an important tale of recovery, because we can see that Theon’s character was not defined by his ability to shoot a bow, or by his worth to both the Starks and the Greyjoys. In the process of removing the things that Theon used to identify with, Ramsay also removed the things that gave Theon identity issues throughout his whole life, and in the end, all that is left is Theon.
Eventually, Theon manages to save both himself and Jeyne from Ramsay’s clutches. Helping Jeyne is not something he initially wants to do—in fact, he is coerced into it by other characters. Theon does give in, and his relationship with Jeyne is also rather powerful. Like him, she’s struggling with her own identity issues and her own torments that she wants to escape from. However, Theon doesn’t save her in order to redeem himself. This storyline is not about a former rapist helping a rape victim in a quest for salvation. For Theon, saving Jeyne is about saving the one part of Winterfell, his home, that he didn’t destroy. Jeyne also happens to be the one character who doesn’t look down on Theon, and instead shares his misery. This moment is also about simply getting away by any means necessary.
Eventually, Theon and Jeyne jump from the parapets much like Theon and Sansa do in the show. But unlike in the show, this is not done to simply escape. At first Theon plans to use a rope to lower them to safety, but he loses access to the rope during the escape. Jumping at this point was less about escaping and more about not being caught, even if that meant possibly dying from the fall.
Theon’s entire arc in A Dance with Dragons is one of the better tales of identity that I have ever read—the meaning and depth that goes into his struggles make these passages less about shock value and more something we can learn from. From Theon, we can see that the horrors from our past don’t need to define us and that no matter how bad it gets, we can recover and reclaim ourselves. Maybe in the process, we can also find a way to be a better person and make amends for our past mistakes.
These passages are not just about Theon, however. Jeyne also plays an incredibly important role in this subplot, which I will talk about next time.