Sowing the Greyjoys Into the Narrative: How GRRM Patchworked the Ironborn into ASOIAF

Introduction

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In 1993, George RR Martin wrote to his agent about an exciting new proposal for a trilogy of books. Before getting to the meat of his proposed plot, he talked about his writing process:

As you know, I don’t outline my novels. I find that if I know exactly where a book is going, I lose all interest in writing it. I do, however, have some strong notions as to the overall structure of the story I’m telling, and the eventual fate of many of the principle characters in the drama.

This writing process had served him well in the past as Martin was a commercially-successful author by the early 1990s. GRRM thought that they would serve him well for this new story he was working on known as A Song of Ice and Fire. And for a while, those “strong notions” and “not outlining” led GRRM into fascinating and unexpected directions in A Song of Ice and Fire. New POV characters came to the fore, new storylines emerged and the overall story evolved well-beyond the original pitch letter in exciting new directions. But there were hiccups too.

We started to see those hiccups when we analyzed the torturous process by which Dorne and the Dornish POVs entered the narrative, and we’re going to see it again today with the Ironborn.

Originally, there was no Euron, Victarion, Asha, Aeron or even Theon in the pitch letter. These characters either weren’t important to mention in the pitch letter or didn’t exist at all. Importantly, most – perhaps all – of their backstory didn’t exist either. So, how did these characters and their culture rise from nothing to fever pitch by the start of The Winds of Winter?

That’s the question we’ll answer today as we’ll chart how George RR Martin rethought some of his pitch letter ideas and then expanded his cast of POV characters to include Theon Greyjoy. And in the process of writing Theon’s POV chapters, GRRM introduced extensive worldbuilding and backstory. And all of that worldbuilding and backstory then became the springboard by which George RR Martin further expanded his cast of POV characters and angled the narrative towards the endgame of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Meta-Background to the Greyjoy

Theon Greyjoy first appeared in the second chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire accompanying Ned Stark to the execution of Gared. After the beheading, Theon infamously kicked Gared’s head and got called an “ass” by Jon Snow for his behavior. Thereafter, Theon saved Bran’s life from wildlings, accompanied Robb Stark in his battles in the Riverlands and then bent the knee to Robb as King in the North.

Alongside of the introduction of Theon, GRRM sprinkled mentions of the Greyjoy Rebellion and Balon Greyjoy into A Game of Thrones. If you progressed right into A Clash of Kings after reading A Game of Thrones, you might have thought that George RR Martin introduced Theon Greyjoy and the Ironborn backstory in A Game of Thrones in order to establish the groundwork for plot events in A Clash of Kings. And you’d be wrong! Sort-of!

At the outset of writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin wasn’t planning for a Theon POV as he stated in 2003:

George said that at first he was just going to use the original POVs from AGoT for the entire series, then he realized that he needed to see what Stannis was doing, but didn’t want to use Stannis as a POV. So he created Davos. Davos was his first added POV. The rest followed. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 8/28/2003

Still, we can be certain that the culmination of Theon Greyjoy’s arc was always in the cards for A Song of Ice and Fire even if Theon as a POV character wasn’t. We know this, because he mentioned it in his pitch letter. Intriguingly, it wasn’t Theon who was originally slotted to do the deed.

Instead, it was Tyrion.

Tyrion Greyjoy

George RR Martin began writing A Game of Thrones in 1991, but he paused between 1991 and 1993 to write a TV pilot called Doorways. When Doorways wasn’t picked up for a full television run, GRRM returned to ASOIAF and began writing in earnest in 1993. Thereabouts, he sent a pitch letter to his agent in which he outlined the story he planned. And the story he planned has similarities and differences between the pitch to published versions.

The burning of Winterfell is one such plot-point which bore both similarities and differences between the pitch and published forms. From the pitch letter:

Robb will win several splendid victories, and maim Joffrey Baratheon on the battlefield, but in the end he will not be able to stand against Jaime and Tyrion Lannister and their allies. Robb Stark will die in battle, and Tyrion Lannister will besiege and burn Winterfell.

So, in a shocking twist, George RR Martin was originally planning for Tyrion Lannister to be the one to burn Winterfell. But sometime between 1993 and 1996, GRRM had a change of heart about Tyrion being the one to burn Winterfell.

We can be reasonably sure of this date range, because sometime between 1993 and 1996, GRRM elevated Theon Greyjoy to POV status as redditor jen_snow discovered in the second part of her excellent “ASOIAF Archives” series. In her post, ACOK, Theon I was included in the hardback version of A Game of Thrones as a sample chapter for A Clash of Kings in 1996. What this likely meant was that GRRM had changed his mind about Tyrion burning Winterfell and rewrote it into Theon Greyjoy’s storyline. Perhaps, GRRM felt he couldn’t chart a believable way for Tyrion to get into the North to burn Winterfell, or perhaps GRRM founds a more satisfying answer in Ramsay Snow doing the deed via Theon’s arc in A Clash of Kings.

Whatever the case, GRRM promoted Theon to POV status before A Game of Thrones was published. And in writing Theon’s POV chapters, he used established backstory seeds of the Greyjoy Rebellion and mentions of Balon Greyjoy in crafting the narrative. But now that Theon was a POV character, it opened up a new narrative pathway to expand the story via worldbuilding. And some of that worldbuilding revolved around one character first mentioned in A Clash of Kings who would take the story into an unexpected direction.

Origins of the Crow’s Eye

When George RR Martin initially planned A Song of Ice and Fire, he planned for it to be a trilogy. But when A Game of Thrones grew in the telling, he opted for a “four-book trilogy.” The expansion was A Clash of Kings, and part of the reason why the books expanded was the introduction of the Greyjoys.

But in writing the Greyjoys into the narrative, GRRM invented the worldbuilding, culture and backstory of the Greyjoys and the Iron Islands. And in developing these concepts, GRRM stumbled upon ways of expanding the story further. He discovered Euron.

Euron Greyjoy does not come up in George RR Martin’s pitch letter. He’s not mentioned by name or even alluded to in A Game of Thrones. However, as we talked about in the last section, Theon’s first chapter from A Clash of Kings was written before A Game of Thrones was published. In that chapter, George touched briefly on Euron Greyjoy:

Old men were cautious by nature. His father was old now, and so too his uncle Victarion, who commanded the Iron Fleet. His uncle Euron was a different song, to be sure, but the Silence did not seem to be in port. (ACOK, Theon I)

Euron Greyjoy was in George’s mind quite early on. But was this an aspect of worldbuilding or a seed to integrate Euron into the narrative?  

This is a difficult question to answer! However, by Theon’s second Clash chapter, Theon and Asha Greyjoy have a conversation in which Martin seeded the narrative for Euron Greyjoy’s return to the Iron Islands:

“Euron Croweye has no lack of cunning, though. I’ve heard men say terrible things of that one.”

Theon shifted his seat. “My uncle Euron has not been seen in the islands for close on two years. He may be dead.” If so, it might be for the best. Lord Balon’s eldest brother had never given up the Old Way, even for a day. His Silence, with its black sails and dark red hull, was infamous in every port from Ibben to Asshai, it was said. (ACOK, Theon II)

And we can be relatively sure that George had this clearer conception of Euron in mind by ACOK, Theon II when we start to connect other parts of the A Clash of Kings to it. In Clash, Theon is happy Euron isn’t on the Iron Islands, but if he wasn’t on the Iron Islands, where was he? 

Of all places, probably Qarth.

In Daenerys Targaryen’s fifth chapter in A Clash of Kings, we get a mention of a curious character living in Qarth: Urrathon Nightwalker

“It is said that the glass candles are burning in the house of Urrathon Night-Walker, that have not burned in a hundred years.” (ACOK, Daenerys V)

From this single reference in A Clash of Kings, a theory was born: that Urrathon Nightwalker was incognito Euron Greyjoy. 

This might appear tinfoil, but there are hints in later books that Euron has some interesting Qartheen connections. In A Feast for Crows, Euron makes an interesting claim:

Euron drank deep from his own cup, and smiled. “Shade-of-the-evening, the wine of the warlocks. I came upon a cask of it when I captured a certain galleas out of Qarth, along with some cloves and nutmeg, forty bolts of green silk, and four warlocks who told a curious tale.” (AFFC, The Reaver)

In Winds, Aeron Greyjoy notices a curious set of captives the captives in the hull of Euron Greyjoy’s ship Silence:

Last were two warlocks of the east, with flesh as white as mushrooms, and lips the purplish-blue of a bad bruise, all so gaunt and starved that only skin and bones remained. One had lost his legs. The mutes hung him from a rafter. “Pree,” he cried as he swung back and forth. “Pree, Pree!” (TWOW, The Forsaken)

Additionally, Marwyn the Mage explains the uses of a glass candle — a glass candle like the one Urrathon Nightwalker possesses:

“The sorcerers of the Freehold could see across mountains, seas, and deserts with one of these glass candles. They could enter a man’s dreams and give him visions, and speak to one another half a world apart, seated before their candles.” (AFFC, Samwell V)

And then we have this disturbing scene from A Dance with Dragons:

Beneath her coverlets she tossed and turned, dreaming that Hizdahr was kissing her … but his lips were blue and bruised, and when he thrust himself inside her, his manhood was cold as ice. (ADWD, Daenerys VII)

Bruised and blue lips are two of Euron’s physical traits. Entering Dany’s dreams reads as though Euron is using a glass candle — like the one that Urrathon Nightwalker possessed. The Urrathon = Euron fan theory has been around in many iterations over the years, but the two best publicly-available version of the theory can be found in the ASOIAF Facebook page by Kyle H and in reddit form by redditor YezenIRL.

For our purposes, if Urrathon is Euron, it seems that GRRM was establishing groundwork for Euron’s whereabouts in A Clash of Kings. Combining this with the character establishment in Theon’s first two chapters, George RR Martin was seeding the narrative with overt and oblique references to Euron seemingly in support of Euron’s introduction later in the story. 

The Storm Before the Gap

By the time George RR Martin was closing in on finishing A Clash of Kings, he knew that he no longer had a four-book trilogy. So, he did something which flew in the face of his gardener-style of writing: he wrote an outline.

Here’s Adam Whitehead’s account of what happened:

By early-to-mid 1998, [A Clash of Kings] had ballooned in size just as Thrones had. Martin, once again, had to make the decision to split the book and hold back material for an additional volume. This time, he also wrote a more detailed outline. This new outline (which has never been seen publicly) suggested to him that the whole series would be longer than originally planned. What had been the first novel was going to be three, whilst the originally-planned final book would now be two. As a result, the series leapt from four volumes to six: A Game of ThronesA Clash of KingsA Storm of SwordsA Dance with DragonsThe Winds of Winter and A Time for Wolves (a title he disliked, but a better one escaped him for the moment). – Adam Whitehead, “A Song of Facts and Figures: A Clash of Kings”

Speaking of the five-year gap, George RR Martin first referenced it in late 1998 — just a few weeks after A Clash of Kings was published:

I am not completely certain how long a period of time A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE will cover. There will be a gap of about five or year between the end of A STORM OF SWORDS and the beginning of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, but overall… well, we’ll have to wait and see. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 11/30/1998

My suspicion was that Martin came upon the idea of a “Five-Year Gap” between Storm and Dance around the same time that he outlined all of the plot points he wanted to cover in A Song of Ice and Fire while writing A Clash of Kings. And in doing research for this essay, I came upon a GRRM interview from 2011 where he indirectly confirmed it:

Elio Garcia Jr: I know that you’ve said that somewhere in the course of writing A Clash of Kings you put everything on hold to — maybe not outline, but just rough out the major events you wanted to do. How much of that is still in play or has it changed a lot?

GRRM: I’ve talked in general about the chronological changes, so for example I had wanted the kids to get older in the course of the books originally, but that wasn’t working out the way the story was going. When that became obvious, I came up with the five year gap. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 7/8/2011

The Five-Year Gap worked as a solution to age the Stark kids up and press the story forward to the plot-points after the conclusion of A Storm of Swords as Martin stated in 2003. But to set the stage for the Five-Year Gap, Martin had to create the groundwork for events that would unfold during and after the gap. So, he brought Oberyn Martell to King’s Landing and planted seeds for Dorne’s plot in A Storm of Swords. He began referencing the Blackfyres in Davos, Jaime and Catelyn chapters. And a Corsair King returned to the Iron Islands.

The Voyage of the Corsair King

As we talked about above, Euron Greyjoy likely posed as Urrathon Nightwalker in Qarth. Later in A Feast for Crows, he claimed to have raided a Qartheen galley, boosted their supply of Shade of the Evening and sailed on. But to where?

A potential answer can be found in Daenerys Targaryen’s second chapter in A Storm of Swords. There, Dany negotiated with the Good Masters of Astapor to purchase Unsullied for her conquest of Westeros. In the process of negotiation, Dany overheard Kraznyz mo Naklos and Missandei talking about another person who was interested in purchasing the Unsullied before Dany arrived in Astapor: 

“Only three days past I showed these same Unsullied to a corsair king who hopes to buy them all.”

“The corsair wanted only a hundred, your worship,” Dany heard the slave girl say. (ASOS, Daenerys II)

Who is this supposed corsair king? We never receive confirmation of his identity, but we do find out a potential direction that the corsair king headed to in A Feast for Crows: west

“A new corsair king had risen in the Basilisk Isles and raided Tall Trees Town.” (AFFC, The Queenmaker)

Admittedly, it is not certain that this corsair king is the same one who attempted to purchase the Unsullied from Astapor in Storm, but it stands to reason narratively-speaking that two mentions of a “corsair king” indicates that they are one and the same. The reason this is important for our purposes is that I think Euron is the corsair king, and he was the same individual who raided Tall Trees Town. 

In Victarion’s first Feast chapter, Victarion Greyjoy sails into Old Wyk, and he takes a gander at the ships in port and notices one ship in particular: Euron’s Silence:

The men upon the shore had spied their sails. Shouts echoed across the bay as friends and kin called out greetings. But not from Silence. On her decks a motley crew of mutes and mongrels spoke no word as the Iron Victory drew nigh. Men black as tar stared out at him, and others squat and hairy as the apes of Sothoros. Monsters, Victarion thought. (AFFC, The Iron Captain)

“Men black as tar” was Victarion’s crude and racist description of the men aboard the Silence. The reality is that these men weren’t the monsters Victarion believed them to be. They were likely Summer Islanders. How did Euron get Summer Islanders aboard the Silence when he was never reported to be anywhere near the Summer Islands? The answer is that these Summer Islanders were likely captured during Euron’s raid of Tall Trees Town and then impressed into service aboard the Silence by Euron. 

That long theory digression is important for our purposes, because GRRM seemed to be outlining the voyage of Euron Greyjoy from Qarth to Slaver’s Bay to the Basilisk Isles to Tall Trees Town to the Iron Islands. In the background of all the major plot movements in A Storm of Swords, Euron was approaching, and GRRM put in the work to show that when Euron arrived in Westeros, it wasn’t a bolt out of the blue. Rather, it was an A to B to C to D progression. 

But after this point, Euron Greyjoy arrived in the Iron Islands, and he abandoned all of his former titles. He arrived as himself, ready for a fight. 

The First Draft of the Kingsmoot Greyjoy Civil War

Two-thirds of the way through A Storm of Swords, Catelyn and Robb received big news on journey north to the Twins for Edmure Tully’s wedding: Balon Greyjoy was dead:

Catelyn’s heart skipped a beat. “You are telling us that Balon Greyjoy is dead?”

The shabby little captain nodded. “You know how Pyke’s built on a headland, and part on rocks and islands off the shore, with bridges between? The way I heard it in Lordsport, there was a blow coming in from the west, rain and thunder, and old King Balon was crossing one of them bridges when the wind got hold of it and just tore the thing to pieces. He washed up two days later, all bloated and broken. Crabs ate his eyes, I hear.” (ASOS, Catelyn V)

The reason for GRRM writing Balon’s death into A Storm of Swords appears two-fold. In direct plot-terms, GRRM gave the Starks a sliver of hope just before brutally crushing that hope at the Red Wedding. On the other hand, this mention allowed Martin to set the stage for the future of the story.

Because Balon Greyjoy didn’t just die. He was murdered, and then Euron Greyjoy conveniently showed back up on the Iron Islands the next day as the Captain of the Myraham relates to the northmen:

“Euron. Crow’s Eye, they call him, as black a pirate as ever raised a sail. He’s been gone for years, but Lord Balon was no sooner cold than there he was, sailing into Lordsport in his Silence. Black sails and a red hull, and crewed by mutes. He’d been to Asshai and back, I heard. Wherever he was, though, he’s home now, and he marched right into Pyke and sat his arse in the Seastone Chair, and drowned Lord Botley in a cask of seawater when he objected.” (ASOS, Catelyn V)

A lot of this plot information received significant expansion in A Feast for Crows, but it’s intriguing here that GRRM had the bare-bones of Euron’s arrival outlined in A Storm of Swords. But now that Balon Greyjoy was dead and Euron had showed back up to sit the Seastone Chair, what would happen in the Iron Islands? A Feast for Crows answers this question definitively as we’ll discuss in the next two sections, but during A Storm of Swords, GRRM had another idea in mind.

Late in Storm, Stannis brought a fair and balanced news-break to Jon Snow:

“The ironmen are fighting amongst themselves since Balon Greyjoy’s death, yet they still hold Moat Cailin, Deepwood Motte, Torrhen’s Square, and most of the Stony Shore.” (ASOS, Jon XI)

Stannis doesn’t mention combatants, sides or stakes, but it’s fair to surmise that the Ironborn were engaged in a civil war during the timeline of Storm of Swords. And we can be fairly confidently that Euron Greyjoy was at the center of this conflict given the context from the earlier Catelyn chapter.

Still, “The ironmen fighting amongst themselves” is ambiguous, and unfortunately, it’s the only word we receive in A Storm of Swords about what occurred in the Iron Islands after Euron returned. It seems likely that George RR Martin left this intentionally ambiguous as he hadn’t quite decided how the conflict would take shape. It also seems likely that GRRM originally planned to resolve this conflict off-page during the Five-Year Gap.

The Greyjoy Mega-Prologue

GRRM probably had Balon’s rise and fall and Euron’s return in mind prior to completing A Game of Thrones, and he felt that he could accomplish both with off-page mentions in A Storm of Swords. Then, it seems that GRRM likely felt that he could make a dramatic introduction of Euron Greyjoy in A Dance with Dragons on-page after the Five-Year Gap.

To editorialize for a moment: when you look at the way Martin originally intended to handle Euron’s rise in A Song of Ice and Fire, this was not satisfactory storytelling. GRRM did potentially trace Euron’s return to the Iron Islands in a neat way via Urrathon Nightwalker and the Corsair King. But then when Euron arrived in-person on the Iron Islands, GRRM originally opted for a “Tell-don’t-show” approach. Given that GRRM was likely planning for Euron to emerge as a character in his own right after the Five-Year Gap, it may have come across as cheap or hollow storytelling. At the very least, Euron’s rise would have required a lot of retrospective and flashback storytelling which may have proved clunky. 

Thankfully, George RR Martin eventually saw some of these issues in writing the Five-Year Gap. In 2013, GRRM gave an interview with Charlie Jane Anders. And while he didn’t mention Euron Greyjoy by name, he related how the issue of flashback storytelling became a major problem in writing the Five-Year Gap for other characters:

“But what I soon discovered — and I struggled with this for a year — [the gap] worked well with some characters like Arya — who at end the of Storm of Swords has taken off for Braavos. You can come back five years later, and she has had five years of training and all that. Or Bran, who was taken in by the Children of the Forest and the green ceremony, [so you could] come back to him five years later. That’s good. Works for him.

Other characters, it didn’t work at all. I’m writing the Cersei chapters in King’s Landing, and saying, “Well yeah, in five years, six different guys have served as Hand and there was this conspiracy four years ago, and this thing happened three years ago.” And I’m presenting all of this in flashbacks, and that wasn’t working. The other alternative was [that] nothing happened in those five years, which seemed anticlimactic.

The Jon Snow stuff was even worse, because at the end of Storm he gets elected Lord Commander. I’m picking up there, and writing “Well five years ago, I was elected Lord Commander. Nothing much has happened since then, but now things are starting to happen again.” – GRRM Interview, Observation Deck, 7/23/2013

So, Martin abandoned the Five-Year Gap, and in abandoning it, GRRM was able to incorporate storylines he planned to occur off-page during the Five-Year Gap into the narrative proper — like Euron’s rise to power.

The literary avenue that GRRM decided to take in telling Euron Greyjoy’s story was a familiar one. In Clash, GRRM elevated a secondary character (Theon) into POV status after deciding to rewrite the burning of Winterfell storyline. He used the same trick in writing A Feast for Crows by first making the prologue a single-POV chapter from the perspective of Aeron Greyjoy:

“Initially, when I began this a million years ago, there was just one chapter: Aeron Damphair at the Kingsmoot. We saw the Kingsmoot through his eyes.”  – GRRM, GamePro.com Interview, August 2003 (Web Archive)

So, the original idea was for the kingsmoot to be a single-chapter Prologue POV from Damphair’s perspective, but then GRRM decided to flesh out the kingsmoot more. In doing that, he ended up elevating two other secondary/minor Ironborn characters who had been introduced in A Clash of Kings to POV status.

“But, it expanded as you can see. There is stuff leading up to the Kingsmoot. I tell the Kingsmoot from three different viewpoints; similar in the Dornish thing.” – GRRM, GamePro.com Interview, August 2003 (Web Archive)

But instead of promoting them to full POV status, GRRM planned for these POV characters to occupy parts of the “Mega-Prologue.”

We covered the “mega-prologue” in the previous essay on how GRRM gardened Dorne into the narrative, but to recap: the mega-prologue was a 200-250 manuscript page prologue that contained most of Dornish and Ironborn POV chapters that ended up in A Feast for Crows. Some or all of these chapters appear to have been written soon after GRRM abandoned the Five-Year Gap in September 2001 as he conducting readings of the Dornish POV chapters by early 2002.

Around the time he was doing these readings, he was also alluding to having clearer notions of Euron in the story:

Euron is not a faceless man. Yes, you’ll see the Crow’s Eye in A FEAST FOR… hey, what a coincidence… – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 3/21/2002

By Summer 2002, GRRM was stating that his mega-prologue was seven chapters in total. We know that three of those chapters were “The Captain of the Guards”, “The Soiled Knight” and “The Queenmaker” as these were all read at conventions. It’s almost certain that GRRM had written several of the Ironborn prologue chapters by this point, but the earliest confirmed date I could find for when the Ironborn mega-prologue chapters were completed was early 2003 as GRRM announced that he was sending the Ironborn chapters from the mega-prologue to Dragon magazine to publish as a sample: 

A FEAST FOR CROWS continues to grow, though slowly. I hope it will be worth the wait. There will be an excerpt from the new book published in the March issue of DRAGON magazine, available at most good newsstands and gaming stores. It’s called “Arms of the Kraken.” – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 1/20/2003

“Arms of the Kraken” was then published in the March 2003 edition of Dragon Magazine. For those interested, scans from the original magazine can be found here. For our purposes, the chapters that GRRM published in Dragon magazine were:

  • The Prophet
  • The Kraken’s Daughter
  • The Iron Captain
  • The Priest (Later re-titled as “The Drowned Man”)

Intriguingly, in 2016, GRRM briefly mentioned that he experimented with switching POVs for the kingsmoot:

I did some [switching POVs] in DANCE when I was struggling with the Meereenese knot, and also in FEAST with those kingsmoot chapters … but elsewise, nah, usually know which POV will work best before I begin. – GRRM Notablog Comment, “A Taste of This, A Taste of That”, 5/11/2016

This POV switching must have occurred prior to 2003 though as the POVs and chapters published in the “Arms of the Kraken” novella were one and the same with the ones that ended up published in A Feast for Crows.

But there was an interesting omission among the Ironborn chapters published in “Arms of the Kraken”. And there was another Ironborn chapter that GRRM wrote in the process of writing A Feast for Crows that ended up in A Dance with Dragons. 

Extending The Arms of the Kraken

Most Prologue POV characters in A Song of Ice and Fire die in their chapters. Even if they don’t die in their prologue chapters, they never turn up against as POV characters. And that puts us in an interesting place when it comes to the Ironborn POV chapters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Four Ironborn chapters were included in “Arms of the Kraken”, but they were not the only Ironborn chapters in A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. Asha, Victarion and Aeron (and Theon) had additional chapters.

The question is whether GRRM planned to write more Ironborn chapters beyond the mega-prologue chapters. The answer is that GRRM was not planning to have these Ironborn (and Dornish) POV characters achieve regular POV status — that is, until he decided to make them new POV characters. In a 2003 interview, GRRM stated:

“There are a lot of new viewpoint characters. I suppose that is probably the biggest news as of today – but there is no guarantee that things won’t change. I have ripped apart the idea of my original 250-page prologue for the beginning of A Feast for Crows. I decided it didn’t work as the prologue, but I am not dropping any of it. I am just carrying all those characters through as new viewpoint characters. I needed to continue with those stories.” – GRRM, GamePro.com Interview, August 2003 (Web Archive) 

For a long time (2001-2003), GRRM appeared satisfied with showcasing Dorne and the Iron Islands in prologue form only. But there was a familiar problem with this type of storytelling. Would relegating the Ironborn (and Dornish) to prologue status without exploring their on-page journeys result in satisfying storytelling? As GRRM indicated in the quote above, he eventually realized it wouldn’t.

So, in September 2003, GRRM officially announced to fans that he abandoned the Mega-Prologue and was now spreading the Ironborn and Dornish chapters throughout A Feast for Crows. The story had expanded again, and GRRM’s statement about needing to continue the Ironborn stories was a major reason why the mega-prologue was abandoned. And we can see this in action in a partial draft manuscript list of chapters that Martin had completed by October 2003:

This list of completed chapters (released as an image from the “Deeper Than Swords” exhibition at Texas A&M University’s Cushing Library) showed where GRRM was at after two years of writing ASOIAF after abandoning the Five-Year Gap. It also had a curious mention near the bottom of the list: “The King’s Brother.” 

The published version of A Feast for Crows does not have a chapter titled “The King’s Brother.” So, the title was reworked for the published book. But whose POV was it? By process of elimination, we can narrow the potential identity down to only a few choices: Jon Snow, Bran Stark, Aeron Greyjoy and Victarion Greyjoy. Jon never receives chapters with descriptive titles. So, not Jon. GRRM mentioned that he hadn’t written any Bran chapters by the time he split Feast and Dance in 2005. So, not Bran. That leaves Aeron and Victarion Greyjoy. 

For reason that we’ll unpack below, it’s not Aeron Greyjoy. His titles were always religious in origin: “The Prophet”, “The Drowned Man” and “The Forsaken.” And Aeron’s “The Forsaken” chapter was most-likely written during the timeline of writing A Dance with Dragons. So, it’s Victarion Greyjoy, and given that Victarion’s “Iron Captain” chapter was written before January 2003, and his ADWD chapters were written in 2010-2011 (W’ll unpack this in a later essay), this chapter is Victarion’s “The Reaver” chapter.

“The Reaver” continued the story from the kingsmoot and depicted Euron’s conquest of the Shield Isles. The conclusion of the chapter had Euron Greyjoy telling Victarion Greyjoy to go east to Meereen to bring Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons to him. And it seemed to have been written after GRRM abandoned the mega-prologue. There’s the potential, too, that GRRM deciding to write this chapter was one of the triggers for him to abandon the mega-prologue. But it wasn’t the only one.

The Northern Krakens in ADWD

In August 2003, GRRM read a Jon Snow sample chapter at a bookstore appearance. When George read the chapter, he believed this chapter to be the second Jon chapter. But it turned out not to be the second chapter in publication form. Instead, it was Jon’s fourth chapter from A Dance with Dragons.

This may seem like a distraction from the thrust of this essay, but it has implications for the Ironborn. The synopsis includes this information in it:

Jon says that Deepwood Motte is the best place to start the war for the north. it’s the closest to the wall, easy to creep up on, made of timber, and most importantly, in the hands of the ironmen, not northmen. restoring the castle to it’s rightful owners is a good thing (said by Jon or Stannis, I don’t remember). Stannis can’t afford to get mixed up with the Umbers, so he suggests that Stannis cross a goat track through the mountains and emerge at gates of Deepwood Motte. the people there are petty lords, not Umbers (Flint, Big Bucket, etc.). Jon says that the Norreys will help – they are friends of the Night’s Watch.

This is key information for us, because it highlights the direction GRRM was taking one angle of the story. GRRM had Stannis heading for Deepwood Motte early in writing A Dance with Dragons. And recall that this was the castle that Asha Greyjoy captured from House Glover in A Clash of Kings. 

The problem with a mega-prologue was that GRRM would have a hard time getting eyes on Stannis’ attack on Deepwood Motte. The already-highlighted solution was that GRRM made the Greyjoy POVs into regular viewpoint characters. And that’s precisely how he solved the issue of showing the Battle of Deepwood Motte on-page. Interestingly, he completed this chapter before the publication of A Feast for Crows.

After GRRM announced the publication date and split between A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, he mentioned at a convention that he had cut one Ironborn chapter from A Feast for Crows to A Dance with Dragons:

AFAICT the only Iron Islands chapters in aFfC will be the Arms of the Kraken story. Asha will feature in at least one chapter in aDwD (which is already written). – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 5/27/2005

Noting that the fan-recount was wrong about “The Arms of the Kraken” chapters being the only ones that were set to be published in A Feast for Crows, we should also note that this additional Asha chapter wasn’t in the manuscript chapter list from October 2003 — meaning that it either wasn’t written yet or wasn’t in finalized form. My suspicion is that it may have been in some sort of draft form before October 2003 as events from the Jon sample chapter that GRRM read in August 2003 flowed neatly into events from Asha’s first ADWD chapter: “The Wayward Bride.”

“The Wayward Bride”, then, was the first post-mega prologue Asha chapter that GRRM wrote for ASOIAF. Asha’s chapter, though, wasn’t the only Greyjoy POV that GRRM planned for A Dance with Dragons. In 2004, Martin alluded to Theon’s return in the books:

Theon won’t be in A FEAST FOR CROWS, but that’s not to say he won’t turn up again in some future volume. He’s not dead… though at times he wishes he were. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 7/6/2004

As far back as 2001, GRRM was refusing to comment on whether Theon was alive or dead, and his fate after Ramsay burned Winterfell was left somewhat ambiguous. Again, as has been emphasized repeatedly in this essay, the reason why Theon’s fate was left ambiguous and that GRRM wasn’t answering questions about the topic was both to give GRRM the wiggle room to develop the story and prevent spoilers. Still, GRRM 2004 statement feels like a hint to Theon’s return as a POV character.

The first confirmation that Theon would return as a POV character came when GRRM published ADWD, Reek I as a sample chapter in Spectra-Pulse Magazine in April 2008. It’s not clear whether GRRM always intended Theon to return as a POV after Clash, and there’s no evidence I’ve been able to find that would indicate one way or another beyond the two statements he made in 2001 and 2004. But the purpose for Theon’s return as a POV character in A Dance with Dragons was to get a perspective on the Boltons. And this coincides nicely with what GRRM ended up doing with Asha.

While Theon was seeing what Ramsay and Roose Bolton were up to, Asha lost the Battle of Deepwood Motte and was taken prisoner by Stannis Baratheon. It’s intriguing to note that the end of “The Wayward Bride” has a northern clansman raising his axe to Asha Greyjoy. Did GRRM intentionally leave Asha’s fate a cliffhanger as he hadn’t quite figured out whether Asha would live or die? It’s certainly possible that GRRM may have been unsure what to do with Asha.

However, GRRM did a reading of “The Wayward Bride” at a convention appearance in 2007. From my research, GRRM has only read or released one sample chapter where the POV character dies (Varamyr Sixskins ADWD Prologue which he read as a sample in July 2007). So, it seems that if GRRM wasn’t sure whether Asha survived originally, he had made a decision by 2007. She was going to live on.

The Winds of Writing

After 2007, though, things become murky on Greyjoy POV chapters that GRRM was working on. As we discussed above, GRRM released the first Theon chapter from A Dance with Dragons in 2008. But we don’t learn much about GRRM writing Ironborn chapters until 2010. By 2010, GRRM began solving some of his writing issues for A Dance with Dragons, and the book moved towards the final stages of completion. Around this time, GRRM became much more chatty about his progress in writing A Dance with Dragons, hinting about chapters he was working on for the book. For us, this becomes a convoluted part of this essay as chapters George was writing during this time were written for A Dance with Dragons, cut to The Winds of Winter and sometimes even moved back and forth between both books before GRRM settled on one spot for the chapter to stay.

In Summer 2010, GRRM began cryptically referring to several POVs by the code-names of Yogi, Barney and Fred. Fred is of particular interest to us for reasons we’ll unpack in a moment. First, the quote by GRRM:

Finally, might mention that I finished a chapter of the DANCE today. I had one last chapter about this particular character — I will call him Fred — to finish, and then I am done with him for the book. Of course, in the writing, it turned into three chapters. So I finished a Fred chapter a week ago, and a Fred chapter an hour ago, and yet I STILL have one Fred chapter to finish. Sigh. The horizon recedes continuously before me. – Notablog, 6/30/2010

Adam Feldman made a strong case a few years ago that “Fred” is none other than Theon Greyjoy. This makes sense given that it’s a male character with more than three chapters who was unconnected to the Meereenese Knot. The only other character who potentially fits the bill is Davos Seaworth, and we know that GRRM had written at least two Davos chapters while writing A Feast for Crows. So, George didn’t write three Davos chapters in Summer 2010. It’s Theon.

From that notablog quote, we can see that GRRM finished two Theon’s late ADWD chapters “The Turncloak” and “A Ghost in Winterfell” in mid-2010, and he still had one chapter “ADWD, Theon” or “TWOW, Theon I” to finish. Here’s where things get a little confusing: Theon’s final ADWD chapter seemingly took a long time to finish. By late 2010, GRRM alluded to it snowing in Santa Fe, New Mexico (where he lives) and also to it snowing on “krakens.”

It’s snowing. On Jon. On the krakens. On me. – GRRM notablog, “Snow”, 12/16/2010

Given that snow features prominently in Asha’s two final chapters, Theon’s final ADWD chapter and Theon’s TWOW chapter, “krakens” here indicates POV chapters from Asha and Theon. Asha’s “The King’s Prize” chapter makes the most sense given that “The Wayward Bride” was completed prior to 2005, and “The Sacrifice” was among the last chapters finished by GRRM for ADWD. The Theon chapter is more tricky. It could be his final ADWD chapter or his TWOW chapter. 

Whatever the identity of these chapters, GRRM was really fleshing out the northern plotline of A Song of Ice and Fire by showing both the Stannis and Bolton sides of the new war for the North. It’s curious that GRRM was writing new Asha chapters at least five years after he finished “The Wayward Bride” and within four months of finishing A Dance with Dragons. Part of me wonders whether GRRM didn’t plan to showcase Stannis’ march from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell at all. Perhaps he was planning for the entirety of Stannis’ journey to be shrouded in mystery and only hinted at in reports that Jon received at the Wall and Theon heard at Winterfell. But then he realized he should show the march to Winterfell and the Battle of Ice on-page rather than keep it off-page. (Sound familiar?)

Regardless, a few months later, GRRM indicated that he was still working on “a pair of krakens”:

Wrestling with a pair of krakens. One almost subdued, t’other still writhing and twisting and slapping me alongside the head with her tentacles. After them, I’ve got a wolf to face. – GRRM notablog, “Snowstorm on Skull Island”, 2/15/2011

Her tentacles means that he still had an Asha chapter to write. This chapter is very likely Asha’s “The Sacrifice” chapter, but Theon’s final chapter and arc were almost completed in writing. But then in early April 2011 (a month and a half after the quoted notablog post), GRRM submitted a manuscript partial to his editors in which he annotated several missing chapters: 

Redditor _honeybird captured this image and then compared the missing chapters to the published version of A Dance with Dragons, and she found out which specific Theon and Asha chapters were missing from this manuscript:

The chapters noted as missing from the manuscript correspond to Theon I, The Sacrifice (Asha), Jon XI, XII, and XIII (although Martin only noted two more Jon chapters in the manuscript, not three), and Tyrion XII, as well as another Bran chapter that ended up not making it to the final published version. – Redditor _honeybird: “I went to the Cushing Library and went through the entire 1600-page original ADWD manuscript. This is what I found.”

Confusing matters even more: GRRM wrote that additional Theon chapter which he ended up cutting to The Winds of Winter. We can be fairly confident that GRRM wrote this Theon chapter prior to completing A Dance with Dragons, because he released it as a sample in late December 2011: two weeks after he completed his six-month A Dance with Dragons tour and several days before he planned to start writing new material for The Winds of Winter. But this presents some more confusion: Given that Theon’s final ADWD chapter was still incomplete by April 2011, it seems probable that Theon’s Winds chapter was completed prior to GRRM polishing Theon’s final Dance chapter into a high sheen. And this makes sense given that in a since-deleted interview, GRRM’s editor Anne Groell talked about how Martin removed one sequence from A Dance with Dragons and another sequence came out of the book after she lobbied for it:

So [GRRM] voluntarily pulled one big sequence out of the book. I lobbied for another…and it came out, too. People may hold me to blame for this, but I still think it was the right choice. The book is so big and complex and rich and wonderful that adding these two sequences would not have made it any better than it already is.

These two sequences were likely the Battle of Ice and the Battle of Fire as GRRM planned to conclude A Dance with Dragons with these battles before he ended up cutting them to The Winds of Winter. Knowing that Theon’s chapter works as a prologue to the Battle of Ice, and that GRRM completed several Battle of Fire chapters before they were cut to Winds, it seems likely that the Theon Winds chapter was completed before GRRM completed his final Dance chapter. And this was not the only Ironborn chapter GRRM completed for A Dance with Dragons that ended up in The Winds of Winter.

Rewinding back to mid-2010, GRRM revisited our old friend Aeron Greyjoy:

Just kicked Aeron Damphair’s scraggly arse out of DANCE WITH DRAGONS. He only had the only chapter, and it will work better early in the next book than late in this one. (That’s how it looks to me today, anyway. I reserve the right to change my mind).So DANCE has gotten a smidge shorter. But is still not done.

The good news is that I seem to have written more than a hundred pages of THE WINDS OF WINTER already. – GRRM notablog, “Dancing”, 7/31/2010

A Feast for Crows left Damphair in the horrifying position of watching the Ironborn elect his brother and abuser to the Seastone Chair in his final chapter. After telling Victarion that he would rally the Ironborn to overthrow Euron, Damphair disappeared. 

It’s not precisely clear when this Aeron Greyjoy chapter was written. But for reasons we’ll analyze in a future installment of this series, I’d argue that this Damphair chapter was written around the same time that Victarion’s A Dance with Dragons chapters were written (2010). So, it’s interesting to note that GRRM seemingly didn’t write an Aeron Greyjoy chapter between 2002 and 2010. Was GRRM trying to deal with Damphair’s plot off-page again? Did George always play to write this chapter? There’s no definitive answer to this question. But it’s possible that George was going this direction before he went in a (better) direction.

Conclusion

George RR Martin is a talented and imaginative author, but is not perfect.  In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, he wrote thousands of pages of brilliant plot material. And also he kept trying to push major events with plot ramifications off-page — like with the Ironborn in A Song of Ice and Fire.

Fan regard for the Ironborn arc from A Clash of Kings to The Winds of Winter remains mixed. While many fans praise Theon’s chapters in Clash and Dance, others look at the work that GRRM put into writing other Ironborn chapters into ASOIAF with a shrug and a “why?” 

Hopefully in charting the hard road GRRM took in writing the Ironborn into A Song of Ice and Fire, we can see the why. For my part, doing the research and writing for this essay helped me to shrug less. It’s also reinforced something I’ve felt for a while now: that GRRM took the hard writing road in creating the Ironborn storyline in A Song of Ice and that it’s nearly accidental that George RR Martin completed A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons at all.

And perhaps we can glimpse the issues for The Winds of Winter. In 2016, GRRM talked about his progress and why he wasn’t finished The Winds of Winter. In the notablog post, he mentioned a chapter he was writing. Or rather, he talked about a chapter that he was revising:

I worked on the book a couple of days ago, revising a Theon chapter and adding some new material, and I will writing on it again tomorrow. – GRRM, notablog, “Last Year: WINDS”, 1/2/2016

But that’s an essay for another time.

Thank you for reading. I invite you to follow me on twitter. Additionally, I invite you to listen to the NotACast podcast: a podcast I co-host with esteemed human being PoorQuentyn! We recently started our four-part series on “The Forsaken” which contains a synopsis of this essay.

I am indebted to the research done by others before me:

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Sowing the Greyjoys Into the Narrative: How GRRM Patchworked the Ironborn into ASOIAF

  1. Saying that a corsair king had “risen” on the Basilisk Isles sounds like he’s from there or it’s his base of operations rather than just passing through.

  2. Aless

    Great essay Jeff! I absolutely love the Greyjoys and their story line (I love pirates and Lovecraftian horrror), but I can see why others can find their story line wonky or poorly executed, especially for the reasons you highlighted above. Sigh, I will never understand GRRM’s distaste for outlining, it seems so crucial to me esp. with ASOIAF.

  3. Coltrane

    Jeff,

    Really enjoyed this essay and your insights into the writing process. I’m fascinated by the idea that GRRM made a mistake in abandoning the 5 Year Gap, but that in doing so we are getting a richer, more interesting (if messier) story.

    One piece of feedback around the description of the scene in Dany’s ADWD dream. You labeled it disturbing – it certainly is – but isn’t it worth also making explicit that the text implies Euron raped Dany? I realize this isn’t the main point of the article but it struck me as odd to mention that scene and not acknowledge it.

    Thanks for the continued contributions to the fandom.

  4. Ioseff

    The essays (the Dornish one too) are so excellent I’ve got to say, I am also thinking on a lot of GRRM way of writing and the thing is the next: GRRM is a storyteller, first and foremost. The “tale grew in the telling” will ALWAYS be there… of course, each tale adds to the macrotale, so, just like between Game and Dance came up a whole trilogy (and of actual monstruous size) I wouldn’t put up my hopes that he will improve “rate-writing” that is, the rate of written material that will definitely make it down the editors. The man said it himself but I’ll be concise: At every crossroad, he’ll send explorer down each road. And have the reports. And it WILL take time. So I would not be hopeful that the next book will even be called “Winds of Winter”, and instead will have another name, and Winds of Winter would be the next one… or even a whole trilogy comes up in-between. I know, I know, I know, he said he is now focusing POVs in locations and there will be a massacre… which is what happened at Storm and here we are.

    I would like to write to you more about this, since the very beginning of AGOT and expectations about Bran, the reason why I think Euron was introduced, the change in chronology history, the weird introduction of the specific phrase “five thousand years” and all that so if you would please submit an email I’d love to have a little exchange about it (without social media, I mean)

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