Some thoughts on Ramsay Bolton and his uses as a device in Theon’s story.
I, and many other hardcore Theon fans tend to have an interesting relationship with Ramsay, because although we hate him, I feel that many/most of us are interested in him despite the loathing we feel for the person he is. I tend to very mindlessly hate many of the non POV villains in ASOIAF (Qyburn, Tywin, Walder, Gregor, etc) But with Ramsay, I feel more drawn to despite being the worst of them. I had always wondered why I was so interested in a character who is probably ASOIAF’s most cookie cutter bad guy. He lacks any redeeming qualities and isn’t really a very complex person. He doesn’t have an especially compelling backstory and is wholly inexcusable for his actions. He is by all means, the most reprehensible character in ASOIAF, which is an impressive feat on it’s own.
Yet if you take a look at the Greyjoy/Theon fans, we as a whole love to discuss him. We love the Reek chapters. We love incorporating the Boltons into fanworks and breaking them down. Greyjoy fans and Bolton fans have a long history of intermingling very closely and are paired together more than any other houses i’ve seen. Martell and Sandor fans don’t do this with Gregor. Stark and Tully fans don’t do this with the Freys. But the Boltons, and particularly Ramsay, have a really interesting connection to Theon’s story that is wholly unique.
I’ve come to realize that it isn’t Ramsay I am interested in as a character, but rather, Ramsay as an extension of Theon.
Ramsay Bolton is never seen through the eyes of any other POV character but Theon. His purpose is to develop Theon’s storyline and give merit to his thoughts, feelings, and emotions. They could have easily just hurt Theon and used multiple non characters to do it- GRRM could have implied torture without a face.
But he didn’t. He gave personification to Theon’s fear. He gave it a name and a title and a story and had it walk and talk and breathe as an independent person. He constructed a character that put every horrible emotion Theon ever experienced as a prisoner and gave it the name Bolton. and that is what Ramsay is. He isn’t a person. He is the monster under Theon’s bed.
Despite dominating Theon in every possible way, Ramsay Bolton has very little own his own literary agency. To every other character, he is a shadow- a predator lurking in the dark only known by his reputation. Thus so far, his character has existed almost exclusively as a device for Theon’s narrative. It is amusing given the circumstances, but in a literary sense, Ramsay is a character who belongs to Theon. By not having Ramsay interact with other POVs face to face, he has created a beautiful loophole in a power dynamic that was hijacked and dominated by Ramsay.
In ACOK, Ramsay serves under Theon, which makes his eventual enslavement of Theon so much more painful and compelling. That the man once barking out orders to an oily servant would become the very thing Ramsay pretended to be. But then there is that catch- The bastard who acts as Theon’s master is ironically almost completely dependent on Theon for characterization. His existence would not be possible without him. Theon may have lost his agency and identity to Ramsay, but Ramsay wouldn’t have his in the first place as a character without Theon.
Theon is probably my all time favorite character, so when I read him, I try to look on the bright side of things, which can get next to impossible when reading his ADWD chapters. Chapters that most fans can agree are the darkest, most horrific chapters in the story- but in this disgusting mess of torture, there is hope for Theon; and again, that boils down to what this “device character” Ramsay Bolton is supposed to achieve. Why his personification is so important and this intimate, identity related torture is so vital to Theon’s storyline.
Let’s go back again to ACOK. To when Ramsay called himself “Reek”, a name we find out later was taken from a foul smelling servant that may or may not have been the greatest facilitator of Ramsay’s evil. Reek, according to Roose, may have been the person best responsible for constructing Ramsay’s identity and he was important enough to Ramsay’s identity for him to take on that name in Winterfell.
The man Reek, who arguably made the man Ramsay, was now given to Theon, who was unmade by him. Theon is forced to take on the identity of the man who made his master. Ramsay isn’t just the monster under Theon’s bed, he is a symbolic personified idea of destruction as a means for redemption. He is a character that has no human experience with identity, yet his history and actions drawing back to Reek make him a symbol for identity as well.
And it isn’t until Theon is unmade that he can finally break free of the chains that have been binding him for most of his life. He spent most of it trying to make sense of his own identity in relation to his time as a prisoner, as a man, and as a human being caught between two extreme cultures that refused to wholly accept him.
It isn’t until escaping Ramsay’s clutches traumatized, broken, and completely without an identity that he begins to feel the joy of simply being himself. He doesn’t take comfort in his name or his house or where he grew up or his social status, but for being Theon. No last name is needed. No titles are needed. It’s him and his collection of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The things he loved to do. The people he wanted to love. His faith and hope. and it is then that he is at peace for the first time in his life. As a Greyjoy he was abused by his brothers and looked at as weak. As a prisoner of the Starks, he was robbed of all live and affection and status. As a slave, he experienced both of those hardships to the greatest extremes of his life. This 19 year old boy spent his whole life in turmoil and pain- and by the end of it, he is in fact, so at peace that he accepts death because he is so overjoyed to be alive and Theon.
For the slow, I am not making the argument that Theon deserved Ramsay’s torture, or that it was “good for him”, but there was an unexpected end result in his time as Reek. Ramsay was the final piece of Theon’s growth arc. He was the darkness before the dawn.if you will. Ramsay Bolton is important and interesting NOT because he as a character is valuable or irreplaceable or has an important story to tell, but because he has a hand in developing Theon Greyjoy and laying to rest the one great buden he carried. Because he isn’t a person; he is the worst of Theon’s fears and the symbol of Theon’s greatest fear of all; the lack of identity. I have never looked at Ramsay as a character as much as I look at him as a necessary yet vital stain on the heart of a beautiful character that I love.