We just finished watching Season 3 of Game of Thrones last week-end – because we don’t have HBO, we always end up binge-watching it on disk when it’s finally released. I have to be honest though. Binge-watching wasn’t the easiest way to experience this time around. The show keeps upping the ante (which is great), and so this season was fairly relentless as far as bad things happening to EVERYONE goes. Just to give you some perspective, this is coming from the woman whose brain went, “aw, bummer”, and kept eating popcorn when Ned Stark lost his head.
So, for those who have yet to see Season 3: This post is spoiler-dependant, so if you don’t know what happens, and don’t want to know what happens, (all five of you), be warned. And for those of you who haven’t been sucked into the cultural phenomena that is GoT (possibly a saner life choice), I’m going to give a quick run down of the two plot points I’m going to talk about. They are:
1: Jaimie Lannister’s Be-Handing
2: Theon Greyjoy’s castration and torture
Fun times, right? Ok. So for those who don’t know this already, Jaimie Lannister is widely considered to be the deadliest man in the Seven Kingdoms with a sword. He’s a preternaturally good fighter, so much so, that that is, up to this point, who he is – the Kingslayer. There’s a lot one can say about him, but for the purposes of this post, that’s enough.
Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, is the weak, insecure, son of
the Lord of the Iron Islands, a hard-assed enclave of seafaring bad-asses. He clings to this identity because he is hostaged out to a rival family as a boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has identity issues, an over-inflated sense of his nobility, and an over-fondness for prostitutes (and pretty much any other woman willing to let him at her).
Now, going back to bad things happening, (because bad things happen to everyone on this show. It’s endemic). So far, since the show began, the apparent protagonist has been imprisoned and be-headed, (Ned Stark, Season 1); an exiled princess has been sold into marriage to a barbarian by her insane, creepy brother; the King of Westeros has been murdered by his wife so that he won’t find out that his children were actually fathered by her twin brother, (love those Lannisters); various women are raped, almost raped, and often killed; babies and children are murdered; and, of course, there’s the Red Wedding, wherein a good chunk of the protagonists are slaughtered at a feast. I could go on. So what makes what happens to Jaimie and Theon different?
In most of the cases I listed above, the characters are either killed outright, or left intact enough to move on from whatever violin befell them. This is not the case with Jaimie and Theon, because Jaimie and Theon are stripped of their vital parts.
When Jaimie’s sword hand is cut off, he loses not only the hand, but his ability to be the man he had been. In short, he loses his identity. Suddenly, the deadliest man in seven kingdom cannot defend himself against a rag-tag group of course soldiers. He is vulnerable in a way that is unnatural to him, which makes his attempts to fight left-handed so difficult to watch. It’s not the hand that disturbs so much as the dismantling of his identity. Luckily, for Jaimie, this dismantling leads to an interesting evolution as a character and he becomes, arguably, a more complex and nuanced man as a result.
Theon Greyjoy is not so lucky. Through a series of Terrible Decisions ™, Theon finds himself in the custody of a sadist, being punished for betraying the man he swore loyalty to as king. Over the course of days, Theon endures psychological and physical torture that softens his already fairly weak mind, until the day comes when he is fully castrated, and his severed parts are sent to his father in a box. Shortly thereafter, he accepts a new name from his captor. He ceases to be Lord Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, and becomes Reek, a “pile of meat”.
The significance of Theon’s castration has been well-covered. This piece in the LA Review of Books is especially interesting, so I won’t stray too far down that road. That said, there is a point I want to make.
While Jaimie’s identity is challenged, it remains, fundamentally, in tact. He is still Jaimie Lannister and his reputation, pre-maiming, is strong enough that it helps see him through afterwards. Theon, however, does not and cannot recover from the loss of his sex organs for two reasons. The first is fairly general. When he is castrated, Theon loses the thing that identifies him as a man – a great loss to any male, but one especially difficult for Theon, who relies on sex to assert his wobbly sense of power and prowess. The second is that, when he loses his reproductive organs, he ceases to be his father’s true heir, because he can no longer sire children. In fact, his father abjures him on those grounds after receiving the box that contains those organs. So, the loss of a penis is, for Theon, not just the loss of important bit of anatomy, it’s literally the loss of his manhood, of his personal identity, and of his legacy and identity as a Greyjoy, as his father’s son.
Unlike another character, Varys, who becomes a powerful spymaster as a result of castration as a boy, Theon’s identity was established enough at the moment of the loss, that the severing unravels him. He really does cease to be Theon Greyjoy in that moment, and becomes something entirely else. Something far less.
In the end, for both Jaimie and Theon, it’s the loss of these vital parts that disturbs. Beheadings and slaughters, no matter how violent, end in death. There’s a finality there. It’s not personal. There is no specifically ironic justice to be endured. For Theon and Jaimie, their losses are intensely personal to the point of irony, (in a truly Dante’s Inferno sort of way), and they are made to live on after.
It’s interesting, and heart-breaking, and it makes me think about what are, for me, my own vital parts, and what I would do if they were suddenly and violently taken away. I don’t know. I can’t imagine. And I’m grateful to live in a world where it is very like that I won’t have to find out.. that said. if anything is to be gotten from GoT, it’s that no one is really quite safe. Bad things can happen to anyone.