Word came down over the weekend that Iwan Rheon, who played Simon on the wildly inventive dark British superhero series Misfits, has joined the cast of Game of Thrones. And some folks are speculating that he may play Ramsay Bolton, the illegitimate son of Roose Bolton, the lord sworn to Robb Stark who entered the show last season suggesting it might be a good idea to flay some of the enemy host, loosening their skins as a way to loosen their tongues. I hope that’s the case. Rheon is a fantastically chilly actor, and I think he’d bring something special to a role that I think is one of the most important in the Game of Thrones universe. Folks who haven’t read the books and are averse to spoilerdom might not want to read further.
Ramsay plays a pivotal role in the plot of Game of Thrones going forward. It’s he who takes Winterfell from Theon Greyjoy at the end of the second season. But instead of restoring the Northern alliance from the threat of conquest by the faction of the Greyjoys who want to carve out an addition to their kingdom on the fertile mainland, his possession of the castle turns out to be a dagger in the hopes of Northern consolidation. His family betrays the Starks and Ramsay, at the end of A Dance With Dragons, appears to have lured Stannis Baratheon into what may be a fatal trap, a battle in the midst of a blizzard.
But even more importantly, he’s an example of two themes that are critical to George R.R. Martin’s novels: the dangers of unchecked appetite, and the transmission of sin from generation to generation. While Joffrey Baratheon is one of the most hateful and frightening characters in the early novels and seasons of Game of Thrones, Ramsay Bolton easily eclipses him in A Dance With Dragons. Joffrey may order Sansa beaten, but he asks for her face to be preserved: he continues to see her as human, even if he wants to violently control her. Ramsay, on the other hand, is in the business of turning women into non-persons. He hunts them like game, rapes them, flays them and murders them, the order depending on his mood and the quality of chase they give him. And if they are particularly feisty, Ramsay names his female dogs after his victims. Ramsay doesn’t just want to control women, he wants to obliterate what makes them people, turning them into chunks of meat or animal. He represents appetite unchecked by social norms or conventions. When he does marry, Ramsay has no concern for rumor, locking one wife in a tower to starve to death and subjecting the other to particularly brutal marital rapes. Ramsay’s utter lack of shame or need for approval is one of the most monstrous things Martin presents us with, and this is in a world that includes zombies created by nature and man, dragons of legend, and the routine cruelties of feudal tyrants.
And while Ramsay is an unprecedentedly terrible monster, his monstrousness is not sui generis. As I wrote for my essay in Beyond the Wall:
In A Storm of Swords, Roose admits to Catelyn Stark that Ramsay’s “blood is tainted, that cannot be denied.” While he undoubtedly means that his line has been polluted by having to divert it through an illegitimate son who is half-peasant, Robett Glover provides an alternative explanation in A Dance with Dragons: “The evil is in his blood. He is a bastard born of rape. A Snow, no matter what the boy king says.” While it may be decidedly anti-modern to blame children who are the product of rape for his parents’ sins, there’s something to the idea that unpunished rape is a sin that carries implications far beyond individual victims and perpetrators, a crime that comes back to haunt the society that permits and enables it. This is the one moment in the novels when the characters acknowledge an argument that Martin’s been building for us all along: rape produces damage that lingers beyond a single act, a single victim. It can produce monsters that contribute to the destabilization of entire societies.
Ramsay Bolton isn’t the only child who is the unintended consequences of his parents’ sins. Joffrey Baratheon inherits his father’s entitlement and taste for clumsy sexual violence, Robb Stark his father’s emotional sense of duty, the Sand Snakes their father Oberon’s impatience and strategic wrath. Ramsay’s just the worst example of how violent indifference can flower into murderous sadism, at a cost to nations.