‘Game of Thrones': Clues About the Ironborn and House Greyjoy From Real Viking History (Guest Blog)

“The Vikings were very much better fighters on land than the Ironborn,” Oxford University medieval literature professor Carolyne Larrington writes

Those ferocious sea-going raiders, the Ironborn look set to play a crucial part in the seventh season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Yara and Theon Greyjoy have allied themselves with Daenerys Targaryen, but somewhere out on the seas is their murderous uncle Euron, with the rest of the Ironborn fleet.

Conflict seems unavoidable — as the trailers for suggest. Ironborn military power is underpinned by their slender, beautifully designed warships which allow them to strike at will along the Westerosi coastline, and so it’s tempting to compare them with the Vikings, the medieval Scandinavian raiders who brought terror to Europe for three centuries. While there are some strong parallels between the show’s vision of the Ironborn and their real-life inspiration, there are also some striking differences.

Take jewelry, for example. When he discovers that Theon’s splendid neck chain was bought rather than stolen, Balon tears it from his son’s neck, snarling, “That bauble around your neck, did you pay the iron-price for it, or the gold?” Balon clearly is not the kind of medieval Scandinavian king who would be celebrated by his court poets (skalds) for distributing treasure; no one would praise him as a “breaker of rings” or a “thrower of gold” or even a “hater … of the flame-red dragon square,” to cite just a few of Old Norse poetry’s terms for the generous king.

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Not many actual Vikings would have shared Balon’s sober tastes. The Ironborn are surprisingly drab in their clothing and wear few adornments. But Vikings loved their bling — and they loved to show it off. Gleaming arm rings, solid gold neck rings, intricately worked brooches: All made clear in what great esteem their wearer was held. A Viking warrior would delight in recounting the heroic deeds for which famous kings had rewarded him with his treasure.

The military successes of the Viking-age Scandinavians — settling northern England, founding Dublin and establishing the duchy of Normandy — were possible because their ships could travel far up the great rivers of Europe. The Great Army which swept across northern England in 865 A.D. took horses from those they defeated and thus were mobile enough to achieve military success inland, away from the rivers and coastlines where they easily could regroup on their ships.

The Vikings were very much better fighters on land than the Ironborn. They certainly wouldn’t have made the fatal mistake that Theon did in attacking Winterfell — and which Yara pointed out very clearly to him. Theon could not possibly hold Winterfell, so far from the sea and the Ironborn’s longships, without an adequate army; thus his arrogance pitched him straight into the power of Ramsay Bolton.

Balon’s death, caused in the show by his brother Euron, leaves the Ironborn campaign in disarray.

“My brother Balon made us great again, which earned the Storm God’s wrath,” Euron Greyjoy eulogizes when he calls the kingsmoot to determine the royal succession. “He feasts now in the Drowned God’s watery halls, with mermaids to attend his every want. It shall be for us who remain behind in this dry and dismal vale to finish his great work.”

Balon’s people worship the Drowned God who protects them in their voyages. His adversary, the Storm God, is bent on destruction; when tempests rage the two gods are locked in conflict. After death, as Euron proclaims, the Ironborn journey to the Drowned God’s halls. Here the dead men feast while lovely mermaids bring them food and drink.

The Ironborn’s faith is very different from any version of Viking religion that we know of, but their belief in life after death closely resembles a watery version of Valhalla, the god Odin’s great hall, where the valkyries bring heroes who die in battle. Here they fight by day and feast by night, practicing for the mighty conflict in which they will fight by the side of the gods when ragnarök, the end of the world, comes.

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When Yara and Theon sailed to Meereen to put their 50 ships at the disposal of Daenerys Targaryen for her long-anticipated invasion of Westeros, Daenerys agreed to support Yara’s claim to the Salt Chair, the Ironborn throne. In return she extracted a promise from the would-be queen: “No more reaving, roving, raiding or raping,” and Yara agreed, with some reservations.

What then will the future of the Ironborn under Queen Yara look like? The Vikings may have left their homelands because population pressure made it hard for them to sustain a living by agriculture on the thin soils and limited flatlands of the Norwegian or Icelandic fjords. When a man’s Viking days were done, he was happy to retire to an Icelandic farm and raise a family. For most of the Viking Age, Vikings were already successful traders, dealing in foodstuffs, timber, furs, falcons and slaves all across the North Atlantic, settling into lives as merchants and craftsmen in thriving towns such as Bergen and Trondheim.

The Iron Islands are rugged, uncultivatable terrain, with no natural resources. Balon Greyjoy’s proud boast is, “We are Ironborn, we are not subjects; we are not slaves, we do not plough in the fields or toil in the mine. We take what is ours.”

Ironborn tradition rejects both agriculture and trade and so Yara will find it very hard to make good on her promise if she and Daenerys win their thrones. Will Euron’s traditional Viking raiding or Yara’s new vision of peaceful co-existence with the neighbors represent the Ironborn future? We may soon find out.


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