HBO’s Game of Thrones

The Gothic and Game of Thrones, Part II: Theon, Sansa, and Shared Trauma

In the first half of this discussion, we looked at the way in which George R.R. Martin channels the Gothic in the Song of Ice and Fire novels. In particular, this is shown through Sansa Stark whose belief in the power of the chivalric stories that Westerosi society uses to mask its inherent cruelty is a kind of retreat—what Eve Sedgwick would term a metaphoric “live burial.” In this second essay, we’ll look to Theon Greyjoy, Martin’s other “Gothic heroine,” as well as parse the way that Game of Thrones uses both Theon and Sansa to try (semi-successfully) to bring out the Gothic in full force within the larger narrative of the show.

The concept of live burial remains essential in the overall power of the Gothic to present a world where the great and glorious are rendered suspect in their inevitable decay, and where female perspectives are privileged for already existing in constricted, entrapped, patriarchal spaces. Because of these two tropes—the ruin of that which was once great and the centrality of feminine experiences and spaces—it is a strange choice, on Martin’s part, to pin the other half of his Gothic explorations to a character who, first, begins his arc in the series as a figure far removed from the paragon of chivalric greatness we expect out of Gothic horror stories and, second, is male.

I’ve written previously about how Theon Greyjoy ends up serving as an unlikely audience surrogate in 2011’s A Dance With Dragons. This is important as it helps establish the close interiority of a terrified protagonist which is often at the center of Gothic narratives. But, in order to understand how Theon goes from being a callous, arrogant, and detestable minor antagonist to one of Martin’s most complex points of identification, one must look into exactly what makes a “Gothic heroine” such a specific character-type, and how Theon manages to embody this type, even without many of what may seem to be the basic requirements.

To recap a bit: Gothic heroines are almost always beautiful women who are portrayed as physically fragile and mentally taxed. They are often the heirs to vast fortunes or ancient titles, but they do not know it. They are also passive in the extreme and often suffer from an erosion of stable identity over the course of their imprisonment at the hands of sinister Gothic villains.

Theon Greyjoy is the youngest son of an already-degenerate house of brutish reavers and pirates. He is the ward of the protagonist Stark family, though both the novels and the television series are quick to point out that “ward” is a euphemism for prisoner. Nevertheless, he is a very well-treated prisoner who, by the time the series begins, has lived half his life among the Starks of Winterfell, becoming a close confidant of the Stark heir and later King in the North, Robb. Martin does not introduce Theon as a point of view character until the second novel, 1998’s A Clash of Kings, where Theon first attempts to broker an alliance between his two families (Greyjoys and Starks). He then tries to win glory for himself by capturing the undefended Stark ancestral home where he proves his incompetence, ultimately losing the loyalty of his men, murdering two young children, and seemingly dying at the hands of Stark loyalists who challenge his rule. He disappears for the entirety of 2000’s A Storm of Swords and 2005’s A Feast For Crows, only to resurface in A Dance with Dragons, horrifically altered both physically and mentally.

Just as Sansa Stark is trapped in Gothic spaces like the Eyrie, Theon spends much of his time in Dance in two terrifying Gothic ruins: Moat Cailin, an ancient set of towers disappearing into a nightmarish swamp, and Winterfell, the Stark family castle which had been previously destroyed by Ramsay Snow and partially but insufficiently rebuilt by the Bolton family to make it their new seat of power. In the previous article, we discussed the need for a Gothic space to have once been a place of nobility and power in order for the impact of its ruin to feel complete, and what better location for that than Winterfell, which was the reader’s vision of “home” for the first two novels, and the center for all that was good and right in Westeros. The television show succinctly lands this gut punch by first having its gameboard-style opening credits feature a ruined and smoking Winterfell, and then by having it replace the Stark Direwolf on its central key with a Bolton Flayed Man.

But the gothicization of Winterfell goes beyond physical ruin. All of Theon’s time there is spent forcing the reader to understand the difference between the Winterfell of his idyllic memories and the Winterfell of his terrible present. He crosses ruined courtyards thinking to himself “I learned to fight in this yard […] remembering warm summer days spent sparring.”

Similarly, Martin sets up Winterfell as a haunted space. As Stannis’ army threatens to besiege Winterfell, Theon thinks “He was trapped here with the ghosts. The old ghosts from the crypts and the younger ones he had made himself [the retainers he killed when he previously sacked the castle] My work. My ghosts. They are all here and they are angry. It is not merely the dead Kings of Winter down in the crypts who may yet rise vengefully , but the ghosts, figurative and literal, of his own past. This passage is even contained in a chapter entitled “A Ghost in Winterfell.” Theon is both afraid of the haunted halls of Winterfell and of himself haunting it.

In the previous essay, we also discussed Martin’s change in naming conventions between Storm and Feast, where he begins to use chapter titles that reflect not simply the full first name of a character (Ned Stark, for instance, is only ever referred to in chapter titles as “Eddard,” his rarely used full name), but a perceived or assumed identity. Arya Stark, who is training to become a shapeshifting assassin, has chapters named for her false identities (“Cat of the Canals,” “Mercy,” etc.) in the novel while her sister, Sansa, is exclusively referred to as “Alayne,” the pseudonym she adopts while masquerading as her captor’s daughter.

Theon’s chapters in Dance are the apotheosis of this literary move. He starts out being referred to as “Reek,” the name he has been given by his captor, Ramsay Snow (later Bolton). This is the most extreme version of the play on identity that Martin has his characters toy with. Where Arya and Sansa are largely assuming an identity (though both are beginning to blur the line between what is a lie and what is a new reality), Theon is utterly transformed into Reek, inside and out. The first “Reek” chapter in Dance takes almost two thirds of its length to even vaguely suggest that Theon and Reek are one and the same and even then, it does not use his name, having a character describe him, in dialogue only as “Stark’s ward”. Martin makes it clear that Reek has all but forgotten that he ever was Theon Greyjoy.

The name itself is a fraught and complex affair. Martin explains that it initially belonged to Ramsay’s manservant who was nicknamed “Reek” because he suffered from a condition akin to trimethylaminuria. In A Clash of Kings, Reek is brought to Winterfell after Ramsay Snow is supposedly killed. By the end of the novel, we learn that the original Reek was killed in Ramsay’s place and that the man in Theon’s dungeons is Ramsay himself. So it is name that is always associated with servitude, even though it applies to three different men throughout the course of the series. But where the original Reek supposedly took the name as a mark of familiarity, and Ramsay only dons it to escape death, Theon is consciously sculpted into Reek through a combination of physical and psychological torture.

Reek opines throughout his inaugural chapter on the complicated system of targeted and random cruelty that he experiences at Ramsay’s hands: parts of him have been flayed in accordance with an ancient, supposedly abandoned Bolton family custom, he subsists on rats and worse, fingers and toes have been removed, and the lord who identifies him as Stark’s ward points out that “his hair’s gone white and he is three stone thinner”. Most significant among his injuries is his castration. The Game of Thrones TV series makes the moment of his castration an important beat—the climax (or perhaps nadir) of his season three arc. The novels, in my opinion at least, handle this far more interestingly. There are only ever oblique references to the removal of his genitals and they are subtle enough that I absolutely did not pick up on them in my first read-through. The most obvious comes when Reek believes that Ramsay is demanding he have sex with Ramsay’s wife (more on that later): “For a moment, he did not understand, ‘I… do you mean… m’lord, I have no…’”. We never get any outright statement of the act itself. Instead, it lingers, unvoiced and shameful—as difficult to state as his original name

This particular mutilation is significant on two levels. First, it is a further meditation on the way in which Theon is an identity that no longer exists. The Theon Greyjoy of the first two novels is often characterized by his voracious sexual appetites and the trouble they get him into. Theon regularly sleeps with the wives and daughters of his servants and attempts to sleep with his sister, having failed to recognize her—ending up humiliated as a result. Though it would be an oversimplification to think that Theon’s genitals are the core of his person, Martin suggests they are important enough to his identity that their loss is tantamount to Jaime Lannister, Westeros’ greatest swordsman, losing his dominant hand.

The second layer of significance is bound up in the phallocentric nature of Westerosi society. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms are extremely patriarchal and, like many of the medieval polities on which they were based, are obsessed with the production of legitimate heirs. Every non-patrilineal order and unlanded association in his novels are explicitly forbidden from marriage or children, and are celibate in order to avoid a conflict of loyalty to anything other than the realm as a whole. His Night’s Watch, Maesters, Septons, Kingsguard, and Silent Sisters perform essential functions to the whole of the Kingdoms and therefore, cannot be trusted to have families. This places castrated cis-men (who Martin refers to, universally, as eunuchs) in a unique position; they are both welcomed for their lack of distracting familial loyalty (as with the famously disciplined Unsullied soldiers) and feared because they exist completely outside of the value system to which Westeros assumes all men subscribe (as with Varys, the Royal spymaster). In a world where patrilineal pedigree and the production of an heir is everything, the eunuch is a dangerous, auxiliary free agent. In being castrated, Theon Greyjoy is fully transformed from the heir apparent to one of the great houses of Westeros into “Reek,” a being with no purpose save to serve his sadistic master. The physical mutilation reinforces and makes permanent the psychological reconditioning.

All of this is central to the repurposing of Theon/Reek into a Gothic heroine. I certainly do not mean to suggest that the physical loss of Theon’s genitals has made him either female or nonbinary. The characters of Martin’s world have, at best, a hazy understanding of the relationship between sex and gender. Theon is definitely a man by our current understanding of gender (insofar as he always identifies as male), but Westerosi standards definitely do not view Theon as one (seeing as his mutilation has made it impossible for him to participate in the central activity of Westerosi masculinity). I am interested in how that dichotomy makes him a liminal figure within the world of the series—very much like a traditional Gothic heroine who both manages to be a hyper-feminine object of masculine desire while also serving a somewhat proactively “masculine” function by solving the mysteries of her imprisonment and working to take charge of her own destiny when her traditional protectors (like family and retainers) have either been killed or proven traitorous.

In gender, in name, and in core identity, Theon proves to be a figure who cannot be easily categorized. Martin continues to play with this throughout Dance. Much like Sansa is asked to be “Alayne Stone” not just in public but in her heart, Ramsay Bolton demands that Theon become Reek internally or be further tortured. He must choose between keeping his identity or having his skin flayed off. And compared with Sansa, the Gothic themes of identity are even more nuanced. Gothic heroines are often secretly the heirs to vast fortunes or forgotten titles which cause both Gothic villains and Gothic heroes to take a marital interest in them. Ramsay demands that Theon become Reek while also asking him to masquerade as Theon. First, the Bolton heir has Reek wear a Theon-shaped disguise in order to get his former Ironborn countrymen to surrender to the Boltons at Moat Cailin. Later, Roose Bolton, Ramsay’s father, has him again pretend at Theonhood in order to convince other Northern Lords that a minor Northern noblewoman and former handmaiden to Sansa Stark, Jeyne Poole, is Arya Stark, so that Ramsay can marry her and thereby strengthen the Bolton claim to Winterfell and the title of Wardens of the North.

This sets up an evolving naming convention that tracks Theon/Reek’s slow emergence from his psychological imprisonment. What begins as a command from Ramsay that Theon has “to remember his name”—in this case, “Reek”—becomes a personal imperative for his reclamation of Theonhood, as when, in his final appearance in Dance, Theon reintroduces himself to his sister Asha (Yara in the show) as Theon saying “you have to know your name”. In the intervening length of pages, his chapter titles stop being titled “Reek” and slowly start reassembling bits of his shattered identity, using epithets at first, with chapters like “The Turncloak” and “The Prince of Winterfell” before his last chapter in the novel is finally titled “Theon” again. The only time he is directly referred to as Theon without his own self-denial during this process is during Ramsay’s wedding when he thinks the heart tree in the godswood speaks his name. Many have speculated this may be Bran warging into the tree and thereby lending an aura of the supernatural to his reclamation. But whether or not the moment is hallucinatory or magical, Theon is restored only though an experience with that which seems to be outside our ken. Much like the Gothic heroine who rises from her grave through a magic incantation, ingenious potion, or through never having been dead in the first place—only rumored to be—Theon emerges from the live burial of his Reekhood, remembering his true name, and free, temporarily, from the grasp of his tormentor.

This arc is rendered in parallel on the Game of Thrones television show, which seems deeply invested in bringing out some of the more Gothic elements of Martin’s novels. This is centered on the decision to scrap Martin’s plot with Sansa Stark in the Vale and instead have Littlefinger plan to marry her to Ramsay Bolton in Winterfell. In overall structure, the two plots remain similar. Sansa, at the mercy of Littlefinger’s political machinations, is married off to the heir to one of the seven kingdoms. While her courtship and marriage to Harry Hardyng has not yet occurred, there is reason to suspect that he is a callous monster of a similar type (though nowhere near the same degree) as Ramsay Bolton. Bringing Sansa home to Winterfell on the show also carries with it the Gothic qualities of a despoiled home, a violated place once thought sacrosanct. But it also, importantly, brings Westeros’ two Gothic heroines together and allows them to enter into new permutations of Gothicism.

In order to discuss this, however, we will need to discuss the relationship between the Gothic and rape. This is obviously a sensitive subject and one that the show especially has been rightly criticized for mishandling. I’m going to begin with the caveat that I think Sansa’s rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton was an incredible misstep by the writers/directors/showrunners of Game of Thrones. Given how horrific, prevalent, and largely ignored rape is in our culture, any portrayal of it in fiction must be done with sensitivity, and with clearly thought-out purpose. Having more women in the writers’ room and in the director’s chair would certainly help mitigate ill-conceived uses of fictional rape, and Game of Thrones, for being a series that boasts an impressive roster of well-rounded female characters, has a surprising dearth of both.

The scene in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (Season 5, Episode 6), is staged badly in large part because it is an attempt to combine two different scenes that have very different aims and character purposes. We will get to those and how the novels make Gothic use of a parallel scene, but it is also important to have a general understanding of the ways that rape has historically been used in Gothic novels and in Gothic plot lines within novels of other genres. It behooves us first to say that many early Gothic novels rely on the unspoken threat of rape as a nebulous fear that is implied, but never explicit, in the minds of Gothic heroines.

Occasionally, this threat is euphemized into a general fear of the mysteries of the marriage bed. It makes sense, of course: if marriages in the Gothic are forced, then so is the sex that marriage implies and facilitates. In many early novels like Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa (which is not a Gothic novel per se, but contains a number of extremely Gothic elements), rape is referred to only obliquely. The Gothic villain, Lovelace, after spending many, many, MANY pages scheming to seduce Clarissa, writes to a friend: “the affair is over. Clarissa lives.”  In Charlotte Brontë’s similarly semi-Gothic 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, the Gothic villain (who is, also, inexplicably, the Gothic hero), Mr. Rochester, keeps his mad wife locked in the attic and his chief sin is described as “bigamy.” But by the time Jean Rhys reinterpreted and updated the novel in her 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea, literal rape of Antoinette Cosway and metaphorical rape of the colonized Caribbean (what late 18th century Gothic writers often called “rapine”) is at the center of Mr. Rochester’s character.

Many other Gothic novels and tales which elide rape still wed sex and violence in ways that force the two concepts together. Bluebeard, the Gothic villain of French folktales, marries young women and then murders them, keeping their corpses in a secret chamber. Ramsay Bolton is a Bluebeard figure if ever there was one. In Dance, we are told that he literally hunts his rape victims and names his monstrous mastiffs after them as a sort of display of their corpses. He is, himself, the product of a Gothically-tinged rape—conceived, we are told, “beneath the tree where [his mother’s murdered husband] was swaying”. Beyond this generationally overdetermined relationship to sexual violence, Ramsay delights, sadistically, in the psychological impact of torture, especially at the intersection of sexual intimacy and violence.

And here we come to the ways in which Martin, Benioff and Weiss, and writer Bryan Cogman attempt to use rape in service of Gothic themes of the violation and degradation of home. As described earlier, in Martin’s novel, Ramsay marries Jeyne Poole, masquerading (in Woman in White fashion) as Arya Stark. Theon/Reek is ordered into Ramsay’s bedroom on the wedding night and forced to perform cunnilingus on Jeyne before she is raped by Ramsay. While Cogman’s script for “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” elides Theon’s physical involvement in Sansa’s rape, it still places him in the room, forced to watch.

In both versions, Ramsay is an agent of Gothic violation. Much like a once-beloved home is made Gothic through neglect, decay, and pillaging, the Bastard of Bolton destroys intimacy by forcing familial and friendly relationships to encompass sex and sexual violence. In Martin’s novel, Theon is made an active participant, placed in the role of many Gothic heroines by being simultaneously a victim of and pawn in a Gothic villain’s plot. While Cogman’s decision to cut Theon being forced to perform cunnilingus in the show’s version (his exact response was “No! Lord no. No-no-no-no-no. No.) is perfectly understandable and no doubt would have been all but impossible to have filmed responsibly, it also created the conditions of possibility for how the scene was widely criticized. By keeping the moment centered on Theon and removing Sansa’s visual presence in her own sexual assault, the scene becomes about Theon’s reaction to Sansa’s experience, and removes her from her own trauma, essentially fridging her.

In the aforementioned interview, Cogman defended his change by saying “It’s still a shared form of abuse that they have to endure, Sansa and Theon. But it’s not the extreme torture and humiliation that scene in the book is.” I certainly don’t disagree with the idea that what the show gives us is certainly a form of shared abuse, but it misses an opportunity to understand the nature of shared trauma and the specifically Gothic degradation of once-beloved things. My dear friend and fellow Game of Thrones scholar, Tova, laid out the dynamic rather perfectly: Jeyne is revealed to have had a crush on Theon back in the halcyon days before the first novel. Theon is revealed to have fantasized that that Ned would marry him to Sansa, so that he would finally be a real part of the Stark family and actually have a home in Winterfell. What Ramsay does is take those innocent childhood fantasies and turns them into violence. To force people to do something they might have wanted to do freely—to steal it from them as a viable, consenting choice—is the heart of the Gothic. It buries desire alive and lets it rot until it is a cruel, painful parody of itself.

While the show failed to justify the way that Sansa’s rape was filmed or to capitalize, in that moment, on the overwhelming Gothic horror of what might happen in bringing the series’ two Gothic heroines together, it has done an absolutely excellent job of defining their relationship in the aftermath. Gothic heroines often faint when presented with danger, or kill themselves when they are too thoroughly trapped by their captors. These acts of self-negation are, in Gothic novels where women have immense interiority and virtually no agency, proactive acts of denial to the villains who harangue them. Theon and Sansa leap from Winterfell’s parapets in “Mother’s Mercy” (Season 5, Episode 10) in just such an act of denial. In “The Red Woman” (Season 6, Episode 10), when about to ford a freezing stream, they have the following exchange:

Theon: It’s the only way to throw off the hounds.

Sansa: But it’s too cold. I can’t. I won’t make it. I’ll die.

Theon: I’ve seen what his hounds do to a person. This way is better.

Most recently, in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” (Season 8, Episode 2), Bryan Cogman takes the time to remind us of the depth of their connection and the importance of their pairing. Shannon Liao points out that in that episode, “Sansa visibly tears up as she rushes to hug Theon. Over the past two seasons, we’ve watched Sansa reunite with her long-lost siblings Arya, Jon, and Bran, but she didn’t weep when she saw any of them.” There is a recognition of a bond that goes beyond the one she shares with her other siblings. I would argue this bond is one not only of shared trauma, but the recognition of their parallel roles. Bryan Cogman even seems to underscore this by panning down to them during the “Jenny’s Song” montage on the line “the [ghosts] who’d been gone for so very long / they couldn’t remember their names”—as if in recognition of Martin’s meditations on their similarly fractured identities.

That final shared moment on the show (seeing as Theon finally earned his redemption in death during episode 3, “The Long Night”) features the two of them sharing a meal in silence and looking to one another with complex expressions that have been interpreted multifariously—one Refinery29 article put it rather succinctly with an article entitled “Pardon Me, But Are Sansa Stark & Theon Greyjoy in Love?” It is not so simple, much to the dismay of all of us “Starkjoy” shippers out there. But I do think that the pairing resonates so much because the show has been keen throughout its run to understand the value of the Gothic Heroine.

As think piece after think piece is released on the badassery and intelligence of Sansa Stark (a truly welcome change from the endless tide of misogyny that we saw aimed at the character just a few years ago), it is important to remember that the show is interested in playing on the Gothic in a way that is hardly novel but important and well done: Gothic heroines rescuing themselves from their villains. You will note that, over the course of these two articles, there has been almost no discussion of the Gothic hero. That is mostly because the Gothic hero is relatively unimportant in such stories: The rescue from live burial is unimportant compared with the inward evolution of the heroine during her entrapment. Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy are the Gothic heroines of both the novels and the television series and, in rescuing themselves and one other from their shared and respective villains, they have finally earned a moment of peace and a connection that is hard to define, but undeniably satisfying to see.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

 

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