Artwork by Tribemun
This is a piece I’ve had in the back of my mind for sometime now, like at least a year and a bit, and I’ve finally found the time to get around to actually doing it.
I’ve heard a lot of comments about how the character of Ramsay Snow comes across as being a one dimensional horror movie villain. In this piece I want to counter this position and really dig into the character of Ramsay Bolton. I will argue that Ramsay is more than a one note B villain. Instead, Ramsay is a well developed and multifaceted character in his own right.
Artwork by Sardag
A bastard born of a horrific rape and murder, Ramsay Bolton is the child of an unknown miller’s wife and Roose Bolton.
“The moment I set eyes on her I wanted her. Such was my due … The miller’s marriage had been performed without my leave or knowledge. The man had cheated me. So I had him hanged, and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying.”
A year later, that same woman bravely gained an audience at the Dreadfort with Roose Bolton in which she presented the Leech Lord with the newborn Ramsay. Upon seeing the child’s eyes, Roose chose not to kill both outright and in fact, aided Ramsay’s mother with her problem.
Once Ramsay was born, both she and her child were thrown out of the home of her deceased husband by his brother. The woman claimed her husband’s brother stole the mill and cast her out. Angered by this, Roose gave the woman the mill along with a pig, several chicks and a bag of stars every year. Additionally, he also had the husband’s brother’s tongue cut out so he could never tell Roose’s liege lord, Rickard Stark, about the events of that year. All Roose asked for in return was that Ramsay never learn who his father was, a promise that was eventually broken some years later.
It’s odd that Roose, a man largely renowned for his complete callousness towards others, not only spared the life of his bastard son and his mother, but even improved their lives to an extent. However, perhaps it is just as simple matter of kinslaying as for all Roose knew, Ramsay was just the child of a woman he raped not his son. Only when he saw Ramsay’s distinctive Bolton eyes was his hand stayed.
“Tell me, my lord … if the kinslayer is accursed, what is a father to do when one son slays another?”
Perhaps it was just a simple matter of custom. Roose Bolton appears to be quite the traditionalist when it comes to Northern customs. He actively practised the custom of First Night, flaying, and even, in a twisted sense, personally executed Robb Stark, an inverse of the custom of the First Men tradition of the man who passes the sentence must swing the sword. He even holds to Guest Right under his own roof, as displayed in both Harrenhal and Winterfell.
However, Roose’s separation from Ramsay was not to last. Years later, Ramsay’s mother braved the danger of the Dreadfort once again and demanded help in dealing with their unruly and wild son. Perhaps not one to have demands put upon him by a lowly commoner, Roose opted to send Ramsay and his mother aid in the form of Reek, a stinking manservant.
“…the day that Ramsay’s mother appeared at my gates to demand that I provide a servant for my bastard, who was growing up wild and unruly. I gave her Reek.”
Despite being a joke by Roose, Ramsay and Reek would grow to become truly inseparable, and would even indulge and further one another’s crimes and depravities.
“It was meant to be amusing, but he and Ramsay became inseparable. It was meant to be amusing, but he and Ramsay became inseparable. I do wonder, though … was it Ramsay who corrupted Reek, or Reek Ramsay?”
Ramsay would later learn the truth of his parentage, either informed by his mother or Reek, and become more violently infatuated with the idea of gaining his rights as a son of House Bolton.
Ramsay’s ambitions would come at a cost for House Bolton though, the life of Roose’s trueborn son Domeric.
“Ramsay killed him. A sickness of the bowels, Maester Uthor says, but I say poison. In the Vale, Domeric had enjoyed the company of Redfort’s sons. He wanted a brother by his side, so he rode up the Weeping Water to seek my bastard out. I forbade it, but Domeric was a man grown and thought that he knew better than his father. Now his bones lie beneath the Dreadfort with the bones of his brothers, who died still in the cradle, and I am left with Ramsay.”
While I have my own reservations about Ramsay being the one responsible for Domeric’s death, Roose apparently believes that Ramsay is capable of such an ambitious move for his own gain. What I do find odd is that Roose, a very powerful lord in the North, did not marry once more and attempt to sire another trueborn heir until he was far older and when his position was about to be less than stable. It seems odd that he would then bring Ramsay and Reek back to the Dreadfort, and raise Ramsay in the style of his heir when he appears to have more than contempt for his bastard son, especially when he doesn’t believe Ramsay will even be able to hold the North once Roose is gone.
We are introduced to Ramsay in A Clash of Kings while his father fights in the south under the banner of King Robb Stark. In the absence of Roose, Ramsay and his crimes are unleashed upon the North and he soon finds himself a wanted outlaw.
“A peaceful land, a quiet people. That has always been my rule. Make it yours.”
It appears that the quiet, peaceful rule of the Boltons never rubbed off on Ramsay as he soon began raising troops at the Dreadfort. These troops were to be used to forcibly take the Hornwood lands when both Lord Halys and his heir, Daryn, of the Hornwood were killed in the south during the fighting, with Roose Bolton being indirectly responsible for Lord Halys’ death.
“The boy is a sly creature by all accounts, and he has a servant who is almost as cruel as he is. Reek, they call the man. It’s said he never bathes. They hunt together, the bastard and this Reek, and not for deer. I’ve heard tales, things I can scarce believe, even of a Bolton. And now that my lord husband and sweet son have gone to the gods, the bastard looks at my lands hungrily.”
Ramsay opts to make his move on the Hornwood when Lady Donella, Harys’ widow, is returning from the Harvest Feast at Winterfell. He captures Lady Donella, takes the Hornwood keep, and forces Lady Donella to marry him before raping her and forcing her to sign a document proclaiming him Lord of the Hornwood. However, his atrocities don’t end there as Ramsay then locks her in a tower without food, where she starves to death after eating some of her fingers, if he didn’t flay the skin off them beforehand.
“He won’t ever be my lord! He made Lady Hornwood marry him, then shut her in a dungeon and made her eat her fingers.”
“Was snow ever so black? Ramsay took Lord Hornwood’s lands by forcibly wedding his widow, then locked her in a tower and forgot her. It is said she ate her own fingers in her extremity.”
At one point Ramsay even brags to Theon Greyjoy about what he did to Lady Donella Hornwood.
Ramsay. Snow, my wife called me before she ate her fingers, but I say Bolton.
However, behind the savagery, there is the unmistakable air of political finesse at play.
Artwork taken from the works of George RR Martin
As the Hornwood lands lie adjacent to the lands of the Dreadfort, the deaths of their lord and heir presented an interesting succession issue as their was no clear heir. Roose Bolton’s own lands border the Hornwwood, Lady Donella was Wyman Manderly’s cousin, and the deceased Lord Halys’ actually had a bastard, Larence, being raised at Deepwood Motte by the Glovers. The Karstarks, Flints, and Tallharts all boasted of ties to the Hornwood through the female line as well. However, when Ramsay made his move against the Hornwood he made himself Lord of the Hornwood which then led to infighting between Houses Manderly and Bolton over the Hornwood lands.
Maester Luwin answered. “With no direct heir, there are sure to be many claimants contending for the Hornwood lands. The Tallharts, Flints, and Karstarks all have ties to House Hornwood through the female line, and the Glovers are fostering Lord Harys’s bastard at Deepwood Motte. The Dreadfort has no claim that I know, but the lands adjoin, and Roose Bolton is not one to overlook such a chance.”
While Ramsay is indeed cunning and good at thinking on his feet, I find it unlikely that he is smart enough to carry out this level of political intrigue without guidance. Ramsay was raised as Roose’s de facto heir for a number of years so may have gained a decent enough education in Northern regional politics to know how to press House Bolton’s claims. That all being said, I believe that Roose Bolton is invisible hand guiding Ramsay during the Hornwood crisis, especially given his role in the death of Lord Halys’ Hornwood at the Battle of the Green Fork. I believe Roose did something similar to what Tywin Lannister claims he did during the Sack of King’s Landing. I believe he told Ramsay to claim the Hornwood lands, knowing full well what Ramsay was capable of, all with the intent of engineering the Hornwood succession in House Bolton’s favour while levelling all of the blame on Roose’s own mad dog, Ramsay.
This certainly explains why Roose didn’t appear to care when he was informed by Edmure Tully of Ramsay’s alleged death at the hands of Rodik Cassel. There is no way he could have known that Ramsay was definitely alive as he was being held as a prisoner in the dungeons at Winterfell. Roose even states that he hopes his campaign in the Riverlands will atone for Ramsay’s actions in the North. With the later forced occupation of the Hornwood lands by Wyman Manderly, perhaps Roose hoped that Robb would award the Hornwood lands to House Bolton at the conclusion of the war. A decent enough plan that had a chance of succeeding since there were really on three remaining claimants to the lands at this point; Larence Snow, Roose Bolton, and Wyman Manderly. Unless Robb legitimised Larence Snow, Roose stood an equal chance of getting the lands outright or even half of them if Robb chose to split the difference between various Northern claimants, and divide the Hornwood lands between them all. Even if Roose loses, he wins. It’s a well executed Xanatos Gambit.
Soon after Ramsay and his crimes become infamous in the North as he freely commits rape, murder, and other atrocities, Ser Rodrik Cassel, castellan of Winterfell, attempts to end Ramsay’s reign of terror. Rodrik and his companions eventually find both Ramsay and Reek just after they had raped, murdered, and defiled a peasant girl. However, Ramsay is able to avoid capture by switching clothes with Reek, who is later killed, and is taken as a prisoner back to Winterfell with his true identity hidden.
Although, thanks to the betrayal of Robb Stark by Theon Greyjoy, Ramsay would not stay a prisoner for too long. After Theon Greyjoy captures Winterfell, Ramsay, disguised as Reek, pledges his service to the Ironborn prince in exchange for his release. Soon enough Ramsay becomes a trusted servant to Theon and helps hunt the Stark boys when they escape Winterfell. He later uses his skills in flaying to fake the deaths of Bran and Rickon by murdering and skinning two peasants boys when the missing Starks couldn’t be found. Ramsay then kills any Ironborn who knew the truth behind the murders and the bodies. It is during these events at Winterfell when we see Ramsay’s capacity for cunning and how it seems to always relate to duplicity and disguise. Although I can’t be sure of this, I’m sure that Ramsay preyed on Theon’s insecurity and arrogance at Winterfell in order to lead him down the path of self-destruction and to Ramsay’s eventual freedom. Ramsay had to know what killing and flaying “Rickon” and “Bran” would incite amongst the Northmen, and he helped push Theon straight into the fray. Ramsay is just lucky that Theon was too afraid to kill him for fear that the Bastard of Bolton had hidden some note that told the truth of the child murders.
Strip off their skins. Lord Bolton, he used to say a naked man has few secrets, but a flayed man’s got none.
Even disguised as a serving man, Ramsay cannot help but tie himself to the Bolton identity.
As predicted, Theon’s luck runs out and the Northmen soon march on Winterfell to liberate the fortress, avenge their fallen princes, and kill Theon. Delusionally unwilling to flee Winterfell and largely isolated from his men, something aided by Ramsay’s murders of some Ironborn soldiers, Theon prepares for a glorious last stand to keep his prize. It is in Theon’s most desperate hour that he turns to his most trusted servant, Ramsay, to help him. Ramsay delivers a solution to Theon, sealing his fate, the fate of the North, and the fate of Robb Stark’s cause. Ramsay offers the aid of the Dreadfort in exchange for a large sum of money. Theon agrees and Ramsay soon rides to the Dreadfort to raise the Bolton levies.
Soon enough, Ramsay and his forces march on Winterfell, feigning support for Ser Rodrik Cassel and the Northern host outside Winterfell. However, when the castellan of Winterfell offers him his hand in friendship, Ramsay cuts it off and leads a massacre of the host of Stark loyalists.
Upon obliterating the Northern host, Ramsay presents the corpses of Rodrik, Leobald Tallhart and Cley Cerwyn to Theon as a sign of his loyalty. Theon then opens the gates and meets with Ramsay, who reveals his true identity to his former master. Quickly attacking Theon when the Ironborn prince refuses to give up his his bed-warmer Kyra, Ramsay then proceeds to sack Winterfell. He massacres the inhabitants of the ancient fortress as well as the Ironborn occupiers and captures Theon, the Frey fosterlings, and many women from the castle before burning it down. He then proceeds to push the blame of the rout of the Northmen and the sack of the castle onto Theon and his forces, essentially emulating the infamous duplicity and sabotage of his father, Roose Bolton.
Artwork by Tomasz Jedruszek
Save me the Freys, and burn the rest. Burn it, burn it all.
An interesting occurrence I noticed across A Clash of Kings and A Dance With Dragons is that from their first introduction, Theon and Ramsay complete a full role reversal. Ramsay, disguised as Reek, is imprisoned at Winterfell and later becomes a servant to Theon but later, Theon becomes Reek and a serving man to Ramsay at the Dreadfort.
With the capture of the Frey squires, the rampage against the Northern host, the sacking of Winterfell, and the capture and blame of Theon Greyjoy, the more the politically adept machinations of Roose Bolton become apparent. By this point in the story, King Stannis Baratheon had lost the Battle of the Blackwater and the cause of Robb Stark was lost with the Battle of the Fords, the marriage to Jeyne Westerling, and the loss of Winterfell and his brothers to Theon. In this, Roose Bolton looked for an opportunity to improve the position of his house so he likely ordered Ramsay’s actions in the North once his bastard son revealed that he was alive and had escaped Winterfell.
The capture of the Freys provided a bargaining chip for Lord Walder Frey, the massacre of the Stark loyalist host and the killings of Rodrik Cassel, Cley Cerwyn, and Leobold Tallhart helped undermine and weaken Stark strength in the North, the sacking of Winterfell was intended to leave no witnesses to the actual events that took place there and provided ample opportunity to frame Theon and the Ironborn for the sack, and the capture of Theon Greyjoy provided a bargaining chip against the Ironborn and some justice for the Starks. The capture of all of the women at Winterfell was just for Ramsay though, more prey for his hunts.
Had Stannis succeeded upon the Blackwater I have no doubts that the events at Winterfell would have been far altered from what they are now. Ramsay would have gathered the Bolton levies and likely aided in the assault on Winterfell with the Stark loyalist host, something that may have earned him a pardon for his crimes and rewards for House Bolton, that may have included the Hornwood lands to an extent.
However Ramsay, unlike Theon, was not willing to leave the survival of the Stark boys to chance and spent time hunting them throughout A Storm of Swords. Possibly spurred on by his father to clean up any loose ends since the Bolton betrayal of the Starks was now truly underway and the Boltons couldn’t afford any Stark survivors telling the truth about the events at Winterfell and rallying the North to their side.
Ramsay flays and tortures Theon at the Dreadfort, and even sends some of his skin to Robb Stark to curry favour and show vengeance is being exacted for “murders” of Bran and Rickon.
Artwork by Nenja
After the events of the Red Wedding, where Robb Stark, his mother, and the loyalist Stark host are slaughtered, Roose Bolton, a co-conspirator and active participant in the massacre, is rewarded with the Wardenship of the North, the legitimisation of Ramsay, and with Jeyne Poole, disguised as Arya Stark to be wed to Ramsay, giving the former bastard a claim to the Lordship of Winterfell.
However, that is not Ramsay’s only prize as he brutally and mercilessly degrades, mutilates, disfigures, tortures, and breaks Theon Greyjoy down, and has him become the new Reek, a replacement for Ramsay’s slain serving man.
Ramsay also takes his captured Freys, “Little” and “Big” Walder, as his personal squires, one of whom he corrupts as he did with Reek and Theon. Ramsay now has everything befitting a true and legitimate heir to the Dreadfort as well as its castellan, he has been legitimised, has squires, and is even betrothed to the “daughter” of the Lord of Winterfell, giving him a serious claim on the title.
Artwork by Conor Campbell
Ramsay is trusted with the important mission to capture Moat Cailin from the Ironborn to ensure the safe passage of the remaining Northern host, led by Roose Bolton, and a detachment of 2,000 Frey soldiers back into the North.
Ramsay smartly and successfully uses the mentally and physically destroyed Theon in as an envoy to the Ironborn garrison camped at Moat Cailin in order to get them to surrender peacefully to him. However, Ramsay’s promises food and safe passage are quickly reneged upon as he soon has the surrendering Ironborn flayed alive and their corpses displayed for all to see. However, in doing so, Ramsay earns the enmity of Roose for his infamous crimes and flagrant abuses of power.
Attempting to consolidate power in the North, the Boltons summon the surviving northern bannerman to assemble and pledge loyalty to the Iron Throne and witness the wedding of Ramsay to “Arya”.
However, it is during these events when we first start seeing Ramsay beginning to unravel. As Ramsay leads a failed search to find the missing Freys from White Harbour, Rhaegar, Symond, and Jared, he murders a peasant who addressed him as Lord Snow as opposed to Bolton. Unwilling to let such a slight stand, even if accidental, Ramsay’s willingness to kill this peasant as opposed to politely correcting him speaks to his declining stability. At Barrowton, when Ramsay is barred from Barrow Hall, he is incensed enough to threaten to burn down the entire town in retribution. Flagrantly murdering peasants for simple errors and threatening to burn down the town of one of your own future bannermen does not speak to a person who is entirely in control of himself. Worse for Ramsay is that the Northern lords know it and even Roose isn’t afraid to belittle his bastard son.
Roose: He should have been content to grind corn. Does he truly think that he can ever rule the north?
Reek: He fights for you, he’s strong.
Roose: Bulls are strong. Bears. I have seen my bastard fight. He is not entirely to blame. Reek was his tutor, the first Reek, and Reek was never trained at arms. Ramsay is ferocious, I will grant you, but he swings that sword like a butcher hacking meat.
Reek: He’s not afraid of anyone, m’lord.
Roose: He should be. Fear is what keeps a man alive in this world of treachery and deceit. Even here in Barrowton the crows are circling, waiting to feast upon our flesh. The Cerwyns and the Tallharts are not to be relied on, my fat friend Lord Wyman plots betrayal, and Whoresbane … the Umbers may seem simple, but they are not without a certain low cunning. Ramsay should fear them all, as I do. The next time you see him, tell him that.
All you have I gave you. You would do well to remember that, bastard.
His blood is bad. He needs to be leeched. The leeches suck away the bad blood, all the rage and pain. No man can think so full of anger. Ramsay, though … his tainted blood would poison even leeches, I fear.
Ramsay: He’s mine. You cannot have him.
Roose: All you have I gave you. You would do well to remember that, bastard. As for this … Reek … if you have not ruined him beyond redemption, he may yet be of some use to us. Get the keys and remove those chains from him, before you make me rue the day I raped your mother.
I think Ramsay is deeply afraid of losing everything he has risen up to take through murder, rape, and betrayal. Despite his horrendous crimes, he is actually a success story for bastards in Westeros. Without any repercussions for his crimes, Ramsay has risen far higher than a bastard ever should really be able to in Westeros. He is a legitimised Bolton, the Lord of the Hornwood, and has claims to the Dreadfort and Winterfell, but there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over Ramsay now and he, and everyone else knows it. His gifts are hollow and are under threat from elements entirely out of his control. His intended wife is a fake, his father is expecting a trueborn child that eclipses Ramsay’s own claim to the Dreadfort, and lords and ladies throughout the North are conspiring against him to take both his life and Winterfell in the name of the surviving Starks.
Furthermore, his own monstrously mutilated serving man is still more valuable than he is despite his new name, title, and marriage. Everything that Ramsay has, can pass easily through his fingers and he and his father know it. Helpless and powerless, Ramsay starts losing control, lashing out, becoming more and more reckless with his position and “gifts”, ironically furthering his own destruction and that of his house.
After Stannis Baratheon takes Deepwood Motte, Roose moves Ramsay’s wedding to Winterfell to strengthen Ramsay’s claim to the fortress and to incite Stannis to march against them. However, it is this move that will ultimately doom the Boltons and Ramsay.
In the eternal words of Rorschach, from the POV of the Stark loyalist northern lords and ladies at Winterfell:
“None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME.”
Artwork by Thrumugnyr
So, in a ceremony in the Godswood at Winterfell, Ramsay weds “Arya Stark”, with only himself, his father and Theon knowing the truth of the girl’s true identity as Jeyne Poole.
However, unfortunately for the spiralling Ramsay, Roose’s teachings about appearences mattering are entire lost on his bastard son. For all intents and purposes, to the Northern lords, Jeyne Poole is Arya Stark and she is being horrifically abused by Ramsay for all the North to see.
Robett: The evil is in his blood. He is a bastard born of rape. A Snow, no matter what the boy king says.
Wyman: Was snow ever so black? Ramsay took Lord Hornwood’s lands by forcibly wedding his widow, then locked her in a tower and forgot her. It is said she ate her own fingers in her extremity … and the Lannister notion of king’s justice is to reward her killer with Ned Stark’s little girl.
Corliss: Do you want to die, Wull?
Hugo: I want to live forever in a land where summer lasts a thousand years. I want a castle in the clouds where I can look down over the world. I want to be six-and-twenty again. When I was six-and-twenty I could fight all day and fuck all night. What men want does not matter. Winter is almost upon us, boy. And winter is death. I would sooner my men die fighting for the Ned’s little girl than alone and hungry in the snow, weeping tears that freeze upon their cheeks. No one sings songs of men who die like that. As for me, I am old. This will be my last winter. Let me bathe in Bolton blood before I die. I want to feel it spatter across my face when my axe bites deep into a Bolton skull. I want to lick it off my lips and die with the taste of it on my tongue.
Ramsay’s horrific treatment of Jeyne is actively undermining his own security despite her being an imposter.
Barbrey: The bride weeps … Dressing her in grey and white serves no good if the girl is left to sob. The Freys might not care, but the northmen … they fear the Dreadfort, but they love the Starks.
Theon: Not you.
Barbrey: Not me, but the rest, yes. Old Whoresbane is only here because the Freys hold the Greatjon captive. And do you imagine the Hornwood men have forgotten the Bastard’s last marriage, and how his lady wife was left to starve, chewing her own fingers? What do you think passes through their heads when they hear the new bride weeping? Valiant Ned’s precious little girl. Lady Arya’s sobs do us more harm than all of Lord Stannis’s swords and spears.
Ironically, Ramsay’s treatment of him and being brought back to Winterfell has had a profound psychological effect on Theon Greyjoy. Ramsay’s hold over him is weakening and the man that Theon was is reemerging. I find it ironic that Ramsay essentially destroyed Theon at Winterfell but bringing the Ironborn prince back has had the side effect of reforming Theon’s shattered mind and identity. The intended act of dominance over the North by moving the wedding to Winterfell has had the entirely opposite effect in practice and now the Boltons are truly vulnerable for the first time.
Ramsay’s position is holding by a thread by the end of A Dance With Dragons as all he has come to fear losing has come to pass. His “Stark” wife has escaped with his prized Reek, losing his claim to Winterfell, Fat Walda is pregnant with Roose’s trueborn heir putting his claim to the Dreadfort in jeopardy despite what Roose says about Ramsay murdering any of his trueborn heirs, there are several Hornwood soldiers inside Winterfell likely wanting to even the score with Ramsay for what happened to Lady Donella, and one of Ramsay’s squires is dead, likely murdered by the other. Everything that gave Ramsay his power and position is slipping through his fingers and if that wasn’t bad enough, there are hundreds inside and thousands outside of Winterfell that would happily see the Boltons dead and the Starks returned to power.
However, it is apparently not an entirely hopeless situation for Ramsay as he has seemingly captured Mance Rayder and exposed Jon Snow’s lie about the King-Beyond-The-Wall to the world. Additionally, he has also defeated Stannis Baratheon and his forces in the field. All this and more he explains to Jon in the Pink Letter he sends to the Wall. In the letter, Ramsay also demands “Arya” and Reek back with Queen Selyse Florent, Princess Shireen Baratheon, Melisandre, Val, and the ‘wildling prince’ as additional hostages or he will march against the Night’s Watch and Jon. However, despite his later murder in a mutiny, all Ramsay’s letter does is serve to incite Jon and the Free Folk to march an army against Ramsay.
Again, possibly some beautiful irony given that Ramsay’s story revolves around the themes of identity and deceit, is that he himself has likely been deceived about the truth about the battle with Stannis. If Stannis and the Northern coalition won the Battle of Ice then there is possibly a false Bolton army garbed in the clothing of Freys and Karstarks marching on Winterfell with the intent of taking the castle. It seems a fitting end for the Bastard of Bolton to meet his end at the hands of his enemies using the exact same tactic he himself used to capture and sack Winterfell in the first place.
Artwork by guillemhp
“Was snow ever so black?”
It seems rather obvious that Ramsay is intended as dark mirror of characters like Jon Snow.
As an interesting counter to Ramsay’s actions with the Dreadfort, Jon Snow did the opposite. He was hardly content with his lot in life but still gave up his life to serve in the Night’s Watch. Additionally, while being jealous of his trueborn brother Robb and having aspirations towards Winterfell, Jon actually sacrifices any opportunity to gain his heart’s desire in favour of his siblings’ rights to the ancient fortress and its titles.
Another interesting difference between the two characters is the element of skinchanging. For all Jon is a skinchanger and warg, it is actually Ramsay who acts like much more of beast with his hounds, hunting, and sexual abuse of Jeyne and his other victims.
Lord Janos was red-faced and quivering. “The beast,” he gasped. “Look! The beast that tore the life from Halfhand. A warg walks among us, brothers. A WARG! This . . . this creature is not fit to lead us! This beastling is not fit to live!”
Dolorous Edd took hold of Slynt by one arm, Iron Emmett by the other. Together they hauled him from the bench. “No,” Lord Janos protested, flecks of porridge spraying from his lips. “No, unhand me. He’s just a boy, a bastard. His father was a traitor. The mark of the beast is on him, that wolf of his … Let go of me! You will rue the day you laid hands on Janos Slynt. I have friends in King’s Landing. I warn you—” He was still protesting as they half-marched, half-dragged him up the steps.
The boy is a sly creature by all accounts, and he has a servant who is almost as cruel as he is.
The Boltons have always been as cruel as they are cunning, but this one seems a beast in human skin.
Where Jon refused Winterfell and legitimisation, Ramsay gleefully took to the new name he had falsely called himself for so long. The same goes for their respective titles. Jon was, for all intents and purposes, elected as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch whereas Ramsay forcefully wed, raped, and stole the Hornwood lands from Lady Donella Hornwood, who he later murdered.
Much in the same way that Roose and Stannis are somewhat mirrors of one another, it is distinctly clear how much Jon and Ramsay are intended as two sides of the same bastard coin.
Psychology and Behaviour – A Naked Man Has One Identity, A Flayed Man None
Artwork from the works of George RR Martin
Strip off their skins. Lord Bolton, he used to say a naked man has few secrets, but a flayed man’s got none.
Much like Theon Greyjoy, much of Ramsay’s character arc can be whittled down to the theme of identity. However, where Theon struggles to reconcile his Stark, Greyjoy, and Reek personas, Ramsay’s relationship with identity is one of pure barbarous cruelty and destruction attempting to reconcile itself with his attained refined high status and expectations.
Being bastard born and bastard treated has had a profound effect on Ramsay. He aspires to be more than his bastard birth and to stand shoulder to shoulder, if not higher, than the noble born. His distaste and hatred for his own bastardry and low birth is perfectly expressed through his treatment of his enemies and prisoners, in particular degradation and flaying.
Flaying gives Ramsay the means to destroy the identities of others while degradation gives him a sense of power and status over his victims.
Artwork from Game of Thrones
“Ramsay will use your women as his prey. He’ll hunt them down, rape them, and feed their corpses to his dogs. If they lead him a good chase, he may name his next litter of bitches after them.”
Consider the women he hunts. Ramsay strips, releases, and proceeds to hunt them for sport with his hounds. To him, they are no better than wild game, sport for his own entertainment. The women who give him good sport have their throats slit, are flayed, and are finally devoured by his hounds. Furthermore, new pups born to his hounds are named after the victims who gave him such good sport. By doing this, Ramsay takes a fully fledged person and reduces them to little more than beasts for sport and service, ultimately lowering them to be reincarnated as dogs and upraising himself as their master in death and life. The women who don’t give him good sport and raped, flayed, killed, and fed to his hounds, thus making them little more than brief entertainment and food for his dogs. Being a poor sport, in Ramsay’s mind, makes you worth as much as dog food.
Ramsay’s use of degradation to lower a person below him is also perfectly expressed through his treatment of both Theon Greyjoy and Jeyne Poole.
Artwork by Brittmartin
In Theon Greyjoy, Ramsay found his perfect victim. An arrogant highborn prince of noble blood who not only had the blood of kings and was even a friend to one, but was also raised among Lord Eddard Stark’s, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, own children despite him being the son of a former enemy. If Theon’s status and lifestyle weren’t enough to earn Ramsay’s enmity, then the Ironborn’s attitude certainly was. To Ramsay, Theon is someone who got everything Ramsay wanted while being everything that Ramsay hates.
After capturing the Greyjoy prince after the Battle of Winterfell in A Clash of Kings, Ramsay begins to undo and unravel the man that was Theon Greyjoy using torture and degradation. Prolonged captivity with Ramsay stripped Theon of everything he held dear; his pride, his looks, his battle skills, his masculinity, and even his name. Ramsay destroyed Theon Greyjoy and from the ashes of the Ironborn lad arose Reek, a filthy serving man to Ramsay who, at times, is simultaneously both above and below a beast.
Let them laugh. His pride had perished here at Winterfell; there was no place for such in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. When you have known the kiss of a flaying knife, a laugh loses all its power to hurt you.
I’m not him, I’m not the turncloak, he died at Winterfell. My name is Reek, It rhymes with freak.
After the fall of Moat Cailin to the Boltons, in which Theon was instrumental, Reek is rewarded by being raised up to the level of a dog, alongside Ramsay’s other hounds, showing exactly how Ramsay views certain people below him in his personal hierarchy.
Though we get some sense of how Ramsay views women through his treatment of those he hunts, the Bastard of Bolton’s treatment of Jeyne Poole provides even more of an insight into his mentality.
While not as highborn as the Starks, the Poole family are still noble born and of higher birth than Ramsay ever was. However, when Jeyne has to take on the guise of Arya Stark when wedding him, does Ramsay’s rage against highborn society once again emerge. Ramsay is no doubt fully aware of Jeyne’s true identity as a Poole and not Stark, and so treats her as entirely lesser and unworthy of him.
Jeyne is raped, abused, brutalised, and is forced into bestiality during her time as Ramsay’s wife. Much like Lady Hornwood proves, Ramsay’s previous forced marriage, Ramsay would have no doubt brutalised anyone unfortunate to be made his bride but he saves a special amount of brutality for Jeyne but why?
The answer is obvious, because she is not Arya Stark, she is the child of steward that served the Starks and I imagine that fully enrages Ramsay on some level. He is not worthy of a marriage to a true Stark, despite their not being any really available at the time, and is thus left with a lesser and fake option. Ramsay, a bastard, wants all of the incumbent treatment, respect, and power that his father receives, yet he is given an empty marriage to a false Stark, that is technically of higher birth than he is. So Ramsay does what he always does, he degrades and brutalises Jeyne in order to lower her and empower himself. He treats her no better than a sex slave and forces her down to a level barely above Theon. She is made to sexually gratify Ramsay’s hounds and even Theon, who is basically Ramsay’s dog at this point, is forced to sexually assault Jeyne, one again showing exactly how Ramsay ranks people in his personal hierarchy.
Unfortunately for Ramsay, many people inside Winterfell at this time believe that Jeyne is in fact Arya and are both disgusted and enraged by Ramsay’s treatment of Ned Stark’s little girl.
Many may even be feeling a little Righteous in Wrath.
As a side note, one has to consider whether or not Ramsay’s murder and mutilation of the miller boys was in fact a metaphorical way of disguising himself and his identity as a common birthed bastard of a miller’s wife.
With the climactic Battle of Winterfell fast approaching in The Winds of Winter there has been speculation as to how Ramsay will meet his end.
Some argue that GRRM will continue on his trend of poetic deaths for characters and that Ramsay will meet his end by the hands of Theon Greyjoy, not Reek, and Ramsay’s own hounds who have become close with their master’s serving man. As much as I would enjoy this, and although I’m not prepared to discount it from happening, I believe the theme of identity will play a much subtler role. Many speculate that King Stannis Baratheon will infiltrate Winterfell by disguising his troops in the clothing of captured or dead Freys and Karstarks. As such, I believe Ramsay will be undone by this tactic. For a man who has destroyed identities and taken on the identity of others, I think this similar tactic being utilised by his enemies to destroy him would make a fitting end for the Bastard of Bolton.
Bonus points, and as I mention above and below, many Northmen are fighting against Ramsay due to his treatment of Jeyne Poole disguised as Arya Stark. By mistreating an imposter, Ramsay has ultimately doomed himself to be killed by other imposters.
Though he is absent a POV, Ramsay Bolton is anything but a shallow one dimensional character. He is a monster born and raised, and serves as a dark mirror to both Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy.
Ramsay’s character is consumed with the idea of identity and how identity will be the thing that will destroy him. His monstrous sense of self importance and self aggrandisement leading to the degradation and mistreatment of the Theon Greyjoy and Jeyne Poole, and the destruction of their identities, will ultimately destroy Ramsay himself.
Theon: Lord Ramsay is the one Your Grace should fear.
Stannis: I defeated your uncle Victarion and his Iron Fleet off Fair Isle, the first time your father crowned himself. I held Storm’s End against the power of the Reach for a year, and took Dragonstone from the Targaryens. I smashed Mance Rayder at the Wall, though he had twenty times my numbers. Tell me, turncloak, what battles has the Bastard of Bolton ever won that I should fear him?
Theon: You do not know him.
Stannis: No more than he knows me.
18 responses to “Skin and Snow: A Character Analysis of Ramsay Bolton”
From the first read, Ramsay is the most orc like creature that George has created. Orc like in the sense that there is no subtlety to him, no shades of grey, no conflict of human mind, just pure evil. Thank you for expanding into some of his motivations.
ASOIAF is also in a way a journey for Bastards, from Lord Bloodraven to Jon, they are as different as they come, their motivations and definitions of honor have so much ramifications for the houses from which they spring.
Contrasting Ramsay against Jon, and examining this theme of bastardy (bastardry? Safari spell check is telling me the latter isn’t right, so it must be the former!) gives Ramsay more nuance than he has at first glance. GRRM’s musings about bastards, and the frankly stupid views that Westerosi nobility have about bastards, echo throughout ASOIAF and the Dunk and Egg tales. I feel that after GRRM gave us Jon and Ser Duncan the Tall, as well as the not-necessarily-as-bad-as-the-smallfolk-whisper Bloodraven, we need to have a total bastard (in our sense!) bastard character to understand where this prejudice comes from.
Ramsay’s sadism is wrapped up in his own insecurities about his status. He craves and demands to be treated as a lord’s son, a true born heir, and lashes out when this is rejected. On the contrast Jon knows his place in society – he will always bear the scorn of pious people like Catelyn, and he can’t be the Lord of Winterfell like Robb. But he can earn respect in the Night’s Watch, or even amongst the wildlings, and that is enough for him.
Ramsay wants to be called Lord. Jon just wants to be respected. It’s a big difference. Jon has matured and realised that being a Lord, even if it’s a Lord Commander, is a big responsibility. Whereas Ramsay sees being a lord as a huge jape.
“From the first read, Ramsay is the most orc like creature that George has created. Orc like in the sense that there is no subtlety to him, no shades of grey, no conflict of human mind, just pure evil.”
Orcs also have some thing going on with being descended from Elves, wanting to be the new dominating race, and Uruk-hai considering themselves superior etc.
Or was that just in the movies?
Anyway, I find it amusing when an obsession with being powerful and cruelty against other people in order to feel power, is treated as “shade of grey”, while just enjoying torturing people is “cartoonish evil”.
Because while brutal sadists are comicbook supervillains, power hungry guys who want to take over the world, or proud fascist guys, are so grey and nuanced and conflicted.
Even though in Ramsay’s case, the sadism came before the power aspirations.
And the only “conflict” presented here, is the one between being powerful, and indulging into sadistic urges without limitation.
Ramsay IS an orc.
He’s part of the nihilistic cynicism of ASOIF, representing how in this world serial killers can achieve power, status and impunity – but also how uncontrolled savagery can undermine that, and be a dorn in the eyes of tyrants who only use cruelty with a purpose.
And I guess also the negative repercussions of looking down at bastards.
Or what happens if you’re an intelligent tyrant, and have a bastard son whose whose excesses you tolerate for “amusement”.
I guess the show neglected that particular aspect *shrug*
As always, a thoughtful analysis.
“Much like Theon Greyjoy, much of Ramsay’s character arc can be whittled down to the theme of identity.”
Yes — Ditto Bran, Sansa, Arya, Jaime, Daenerys, and the Hound —
as identity lost and found again; found for the first time; or somehow greatly transformed.
“It seems rather obvious that Ramsay is intended as dark mirror of characters like Jon Snow.”
Yes again. I have this perhaps vagrant notion that EVERYTHING in ASOIAF is a reflection, inversion, or distortion of something else in the story. You provide examples that reinforce that idea for me.
“from their first introduction, Theon and Ramsay complete a full role reversal.”
“I find it ironic that Ramsay essentially destroyed Theon at Winterfell but bringing the Ironborn prince back has had the side effect of reforming Theon’s shattered mind and identity.”
A companion notion is that of being a stranger in a strange land. – all of the surviving Stark kids and Daenerys.
“However, it is apparently not an entirely hopeless situation for Ramsay as he has seemingly captured Mance Rayder and exposed Jon Snow’s lie about the King-Beyond-The-Wall to the world. Additionally, he has also defeated Stannis Baratheon and his forces in the field. All this and more he explains to Jon in the Pink Letter he sends to the Wall.”
This is all very up in the air. There’s an idea that the pink letter is a coded message from someone else – Mance, perhaps. Certainly, there are items there whose surface meanings would be lost on John Snow.
“It seems a fitting end for the Bastard of Bolton to meet his end at the hands of his enemies using the exact same tactic he himself used to capture and sack Winterfell in the first place.”
Yes – another possibility for an inverted reflection.
This really heightened my understanding of a character who, while fascinating, I try not to think about too often in an effort to preserve sanity and stave off the night terrors.
It would be so cool if you’d do an audio version of this – looks fascinating.
Wow, I hadn’t considered doing that but I’ll definitely give it a think.
Seconded! I’d love to hear it.
Another terrific analysis. TV Ramsay is such a farce of a character with his magical ’20 good men’ and insane lack of judgment (poisoned by his enemies!) It’s such a shame that we don’t see the repressed, barely-under control Ramsay of the books, but oh well 😛
Your essay about Ramsay comes off far more interesting to read about then Ramsay Sue in the Show who was become this super villain who seems to get away with everything without retribution. I also thought that Ramsay’s senseless sacking of Winterfell and slaughter of its inhabitants was Ramsay’s way of trying living up to his Bolton Heritage and a tribute to his forefathers the Red Kings who also sacked Winterfell in the past. Which would make sense if Ramsay was taught in the Dreadfort about House Bolton’s history.
I also think that its funny that Ramsay would become every bit insecure and paranoid as Theon was when they both took over Winterfell. Its not a coincidence that there are so many parallels between the two as they try to rule Winterfell. It feels like time was playing out in a horrible mirror universe.
*Both are dealing with identity issues and are trying to make themselves a “true lord” like Greyjoy and Bolton.
* Both are dealing with Fathers who could care less about them and were both in the plans of replacing them with another heir.
* Both men treat women horribly, while not to the extent like Ramsay, Theon also treated women with little regard like not taking care of his unborn child of the women he knowingly impregnated.
*As Rulers of Winterfell, they struggle to find a way to defeat an army approaching their way while dealing with a mysterious insurgency killing off their own supporters.
*As you wrote before it is only fitting that Ramsay were to be defeated by the same tactic he used against the last ruler of Winterfell Theon Greyjoy.
Now the only thing missing would be Theon’s pov to witness Ramsay’s demise at the hands of Stannis a just man.
The instant I starting thinking about Ramsay’s “through a mirror darkly” paradigm to Jon Snow, I came across that part of the article. It would seem GRRM is playing the nature/nurture game with respect to bastardy, though it’s said/implied in the book that Ramsay was always unruly, which is the same thing Cersei said about Joffrey.
There’s also the possibility that Jon is not a bastard (if R+L=J and if Rhaegar and Lyanna were married. I struggled with this concept until I realized that Targs did practice bigamy alongside incest e.g. Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives), but it’s the identity he’s lived with his entire life. It would be a slap in the face to Ramsay in Jon in truth was never a bastard, and they were never remotely on an even keel no matter what he (Ramsay) might do. Not that they’d ever be anyway by truth of their actions alone.
My theory on Ramsay’s actual death is that he will be killed by Roose himself. Assuming that your theory on Stannis’ upcoming infiltration of Winterfell is true (and I believe that it is, and relish it being so), at some point the trap will be sprung and Bolton soldiers begin being slaughtered. At this point Roose will become cognizant of the scale of his son’s failings and furiously blame him for what is, to all intents and purposes, the end of their House. Ramsay, of course, will bite back and quite possibly say something he shouldn’t and Roose will, for perhaps the first time, truly lose his temper and do what he’s wanted to do since the day Domeric died, indeed since the day the miller’s wife walked in with a pale eyed babe – he will strike his son down. What worse way for Ramsay to die then to be struck down by the very father who he’s wanted so badly to acknowledge him?
My theory on Ramsay’s actual death is that he will be killed by Roose himself. Assuming that your theory on Stannis’ upcoming infiltration of Winterfell is true (and I believe that it is, and relish it being so), at some point the trap will be sprung and Bolton soldiers begin being slaughtered. At this point Roose will become cognizant of the scale of his son’s failings and furiously blame him for what is, to all intents and purposes, the end of their House. Ramsay, of course, will bite back and quite possibly say something he shouldn’t and Roose will, for perhaps the first time, truly lose his temper and do what he’s wanted to do since the day Domeric died, indeed since the day the miller’s wife walked in with a pale eyed babe – he will strike his son down. What worse way for Ramsay to die then to be struck down by the very father who he’s wanted so badly to acknowledge him
“Our own banner is a flayed man for Christ’s sake!”
“My banner – you’re not a Bolton, you’re a Snow.”
This analysis portrays Ramsay’s penchant for gratuitous flaying as a psychological expression of his “identity” hang-ups – however, flaying is already a Bolton practice, how does that figure into this?
He probably discovered that, and then “ran with it” as it seemed to fit his psyche.
However, why do the Boltons flay? The Bolt-on tinfoil theory does an unrelated but similar thing and claims that Roose is an immortal who slips into new skins all the time, but that seems to be lacking from the analysis on thsi page.
In the show, and judging from that line, Ramsay is someone who’s picked up his family’s sadism without its political application or awareness – Roose flays with a purpose, and Ramsay thinks by doing that for fun he somehow “honors the tradition”.
This, of course, in general, is a reflection of what can generally happen when you’ve got a callous violent entity using terror to attain power – they’ll surround themselves with more chaotic sadists “looking for a job”, or attract those by their presence, and bad apples “born into” that environment will feel like running with that part and not so much the purposeful, “intelligent” strategy and self-limitation.
And they’ll have to keep those chaotic sadists on a tight leash if they want to maintain their results.
So, remove all the deep psycho symbolism, where Ramsay’s got an elaborate model in his head with skins representing identity, reincarnations into dogs via naming, and, in the show at least, you’re left with a very valid concept very much in the line with the “general themes”:
The natural consequences of various measures, in this case calculated cruelty by intelligent tyrants – for the tyrants, and also for their environment in terms of how such outgrowths fuck everything up for the people even more.
A mad dog thrives in that environment, and then USURPS THE POWER – you should be very afraid.
That exchange, then, also clarifies that Ramsay isn’t a Bolton in connection to his chaotic misapplication of the “family tradition” – followed by him legitimizing himself by proving his alledgedly “chaotic” cruelty as useful after all.
Then, however, he starts being counterproductive again with Sansa, resulting in threats of delegitimization – he makes a bold move to prevent that, briefly turns into the feared supervillain, but ultimately burns out as a result.
So whatever went wrong here, was with the finer details of execution – such as the question what happened with his brilliance of training Theon into a useful tool, now that he’s tormenting Sansa without such purposeful benefits.
If the books apparently draw a cohesive picture of that “turning point” (skinning the Moats at the height of his success, and getting petulant about his newly acquired status with the peasant), I guess it’s contestable whether the same can be said about Sansa and the tax flaying.
“Book readers” who are reading this article and immediately jump into the “lol D$D just made an invincible cartoon LOLOLO while in the books it’s such a thoughtfully drawn character” circlejerk, ought to, I don’t know…. jump right out of said circlejerk again?
Ramsay in the show has all the purpose he requires, in general – he, and his bastard identity / legitimisation, represent an important generality about evil and power.
Even if has nothing to do with “stripping skin symbolizes stripping others’ legitimacy”.
However, you can critiicize the show for inconsistencies, sloppy execution of its own concepts, or forgetting its own set-ups, which a lot of people are doing already elsewhere.
(Yes, you @asoif westeros org.)
wait, function test?
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