Design a site like this with
Get started

I’ve Got You Under My Skin: How George R. R. Martin’s The Skin Trade Influenced ASOIAF

Flaying, the practice of skinning a human alive, is the ancient, gruesome tradition of House Bolton. The Boltons’ entire identity has been built around this terrible tradition.  House Bolton’s sigil is the flayed man, red on pink, and Bolton house words are “our blades are sharp.” Many northerners keep the Boltons at arm’s length because of their association with flaying.  One would think that a reputation for such savagery would help House Bolton rise to power among northern houses, but the Boltons are the bannermen of House Stark.  The Boltons are not blindly loyal to the Starks, though.  In fact, the leaders of House Bolton have had a grudge against their overlords stretching back to the time of the First Men.  Could there be a connection between the Boltons’ propensity for skinning people alive and their animosity towards the Starks? 

 In this essay based on my research and conversations with fellow collaborators and Twitter personalities The Fattest Leech, Shatteredjack, and The Mummer’s Dracolich, I will explore the relationship between characters and concepts in George R. R. Martin’s The Skin Trade and his masterwork, the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) to shed light on the rivalry between the Boltons and the Starks.  There are useful symbolic and narrative parallels to be found throughout Martin’s larger body of work, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to keep this essay focused on connections solely between The Skin Trade and ASOIAF.

Let’s start with a look back at the history of House Bolton.  The World of Ice and Fire lays out the story of the Bolton progenitors, stating that early Boltons raised their infamous holdfast, the Dreadfort, while battling House Stark. The Boltons allied with House Greystark during this war.  The Bolton line survived this conflict while the Greystarks did not.  Theon Greyjoy, telling the tale of this battle, notes that the Starks demanded House Bolton cease the practice it was known best for:

 “…the Boltons bent their knees to Winterfell and agreed to abandon their practice of flaying their enemies.”  

-A Clash of Kings, Theon IV

The Boltons did not forget their heritage and soon discarded their vows.  Within the walls of the Dreadfort, Boltons continued the practice of flaying, passing the custom down through the generations.  It is reputed that for a time the leaders of House Bolton wore the skins of their Stark enemies into battle. Allegedly, the skins of defeated Stark lords adorned the halls of the Dreadfort.  Even if these tales were just propaganda designed to intimidate enemies, these rumors were a chilling warning to noble houses and smallfolk alike not to trifle with House Bolton.  In the current ASOIAF timeline, flaying is most notably and enthusiastically practiced by Ramsay Snow, later legitimized as Ramsay Bolton. While Ramsay has not yet had the opportunity to flay a person from the Stark bloodline, he does carve the skin (and more) off of Theon Greyjoy, ward of Eddard Stark.

Martin freely admits his love for writing horror. Including characters who take great pleasure in peeling their victims’ skin seems like Martin flexing his horror writing muscles, but why include flaying specifically?  Is the shock value enough to support the inclusion of such a barbaric act, or, like the layers of the epidermis itself, is there symbolism cloaked under the skins of the Starks or coldly glinting along the sharp, sharp knives of the Boltons?  Did the Starks have something the Boltons wanted, something worth flaying a person alive to gain?  Why did George R. R. Martin choose to include flaying as part of the Bolton identity? I believe turning to Martin’s werewolf story The Skin Trade provides us with plenty of material to sink our teeth into.

Not Just a Shaggy Dog Story

Not everyone is familiar with Martin’s award-winning 1989 novella The Skin Trade, written seven years before A Game of Thrones, so I’m including a short synopsis of the story below.  I’ll warn you right now that this discussion is going to contain spoilers, so if you want to enjoy The Skin Trade before learning about its major plot points, you should seek out a copy.  Now the spoiler alert is out of the way, onward we go.  

The Skin Trade details the adventures of Willie Flambeaux and Randi Wade. Willie is an unassuming, asthmatic collections agent who happens to be a werewolf. Randi Wade is a private eye with a personal connection to the murders currently ravaging her hometown.  Opposing Willie and Randi’s search for truth and justice are three men: Jonathan Harmon, Steven Harmon, and Roy Helander.  Werewolf Jonathan Harmon is a business owner with an iron grip on the town and a creepy oddball son, Steven Harmon.  Roy Helander suspiciously returns to his hometown after being imprisoned for the savage murder of his sister and other children years before. Lurking below the surface of this conflict, a mysterious supernatural entity called the Skinner glides through the darkness looking for victims to slice with its scalpel-like fingers.  

The plot begins when Willie hires Randi to investigate a murder that soon becomes a string of homicides. As their investigation deepens Willie and Randi uncover one of the town’s biggest secrets: the town is home to a pack of werewolves. The pair learn the murders involve mutilation- the victims are flayed, and the victims are all werewolves.  These murders are an eerie echo of the child murders that occurred while Randi was a child. Randi’s policeman father was investigating the homocides until his own untimely death. According to reports, Randi’s father was killed by a pack of dogs just before cracking the child murder case.

We learn that Willie (and all other werewolves in town) are beholden to Jonathan Harmon, the biggest, baddest werewolf around, a “pureblood” werewolf, capable of changing into an enormous white beast.  Jonathan Harmon claims to be pureblood, while in contrast Willie is the product of a werewolf-human pairing, a bastard of sorts. Willie retains the ability to change, but his wolf form is weak and rangy, nowhere near as powerful as Harmon and his pack.  Already under the scrutiny of the Harmon family, Willie is attacked in his obsessively locked apartment by a creature that looks like a warped rendition of Edward Scissorhands- a creature with sharp, sharp blades for hands. Steven Harmon calls this creature “The Skinner.” Luckily Willie escapes with his hide intact.  Willie and Randi realize the town’s werewolves have been targeted because of a secret uncovered by Steven Harmon.  Unable to change into a werewolf, Steven discovers that wearing the skin of another werewolf has magical properties allowing him to “work the change,” morphing from human to wolf form.  Steven pairs up with Roy Helander, hiring Roy to the dirty work of skinning the victims, promising Roy that he, too, will assume the power to change into a werewolf if he wears the skins. Once Willie and Randi learn the truth behind the gruesome murders, they travel a path leading them to a final confrontation with the Harmon pack.  I’ll leave that exciting bit of reading up to you!

How Does Lycanthropy Work in GRRM’s World?

In order to more fully appreciate the connections between The Skin Trade and ASOIAF, we need to understand the basics of how werewolves work in Martin’s world.  Who better to tell us than the protagonist of The Skin Trade?  According to Willie Flambeaux, lycanthrope genetics are hereditary, but there are other ways to become a werewolf.  Here, Willie explains to Randi how a werewolf can be created through an untreated bite: 

“You’ve seen the movies.  You get bitten by a werewolf, you turn into a werewolf, that is assuming there’s enough of you left to turn into anything except a cadaver… Well that part’s true, or partly true, it doesn’t happen as often as it once did.  Guy gets bit nowadays, he runs to a doctor, gets the wound cleaned and treated with antisepctic, gets his rabies shots and his tetanus shots and this penicillin and fuck-all knows what else, and he’s fine.  The wonders of modern medicine.”

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 293-294

It’s fun to note that Willie believes science, specifically medicine, has eradicated part of the magic in his world.  Inside Martin’s realm, this explanation seems plausible.  Willie describes how he was able to transform Joanie, Willie’s wheelchair-bound lover and first victim of Steven Harmon and Roy Helander, into a werewolf:

“I bit her leg, she couldn’t feel a damned thing down there anyway, I bit her and held the bite for a long time, worried it around good… I nursed her myself.  No doctors, no antiseptic, no rabies vaccine… There was a day or two when her fever was running so high I thought maybe I’d killed her, her leg had turned nearly black, you could see the stuff going up her veins… I’m in no hurry to try it again, but it worked.  The fever broke and Joanie changed.

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 294

Willie fills Randi in on language used to describe aspects of being a werewolf as he tells Randi about Joni’s success at “working the change,” the common term for turning from human to wolf and back:

“Lycanthropes are skinchangers.  We turn into wolves.  Yeah, we’re carnivores… but there’s meat and there’s meat.  You won’t find nearly as many rats around here as you will in other cities this size. What I’m saying is the skin may change but what you do is still up to the person inside.

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 295-296

While the image of werewolves munching alley rats might be amusing, the quote shows us two important things- that one preferred term for a werewolf is “skinchanger” and that turning into a wolf doesn’t drive you insane or remove one’s humanity or logical thought process.  Any mental instability that a werewolf may exhibit comes from the human side of their aspect, which naturally brings us to crazy werewolf extraordinaire, Steven Harmon. He’s unpopular because he was one of the suspects in the child murders that occurred when Randi was young.  Everyone in town thinks he’s strange, and his reputation has been a black mark on the Harmon name.  In order to cover up the murder suspicions, Jonathan, Steven’s father, made a truce with the police while Steven was under investigation for the child murders.  Joe Urquhart, a police officer, notes below:

Steven’s never been right in the head, everyone knows that, he was the one who killed the kids, ate them.  It was horrible, Harmon told me so himself, but he still wasn’t going to let us have Steven.  He said he’d… he’d control Steven’s… appetites… if we closed the case.  He was good as his word, too.  He put Steven on medication, and it stopped, the murders stopped.”

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 314

What exactly is it that is wrong with Steven?  Sure, he has a reputation for weird behavior and has been accused of killing children, but what kind of behaviors does he exhibit that put others off and makes the rest of the werewolf pack view Steven as a wild card?  What caused his mental instability?

Werewolf eugenics… What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

According to Jonathan Harmon, werewolves were once a thriving, dominant force.  Years have diminished the pack and now the last pureblooded werewolf, Jonathan’s son Steven, is mentally ill and unable to work the skinchange. 

“Steven is sicker than you think.  Something is missing.  Too inbred, maybe.  Think about it.  Anders and Rochmonts, Flambeauxes and Harmons, the four great founding families, all werewolves, marrying each other generation after generation to keep the lines pure, for how many centuries?”

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 315

The community of werewolves, while suspecting inbreeding caused Steven’s strangeness, also acknowledges that breeding outside of the werewolf community can make werewolf genetics perform in non-standard ways.

“What do you think, we get together for a lodge meeting every time the moon is full?  The purebloods, hell, not many, the pack’s been getting pretty thin these last few generations.  But there’s lots of mongrels like me, halfbreeds, quarterbreeds, what have you, the old families had their share of bastards.  Some can work the change, some can’t.  I’ve heard of a few who change one day and never do manage to change back.  And that’s just from the old bloodlines, never mind the ones like Joanie’s.” 


The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 293

Inbreeding or diluted bloodlines can effectively make the skinchanging ability go haywire.  As noted in the quote above, pureblooded werewolf lines have had their share of bastards, and the bastards exhibit a spectrum of ability. Steven has been unable to work the change that even some of the werewolves with much more diluted blood can.  Beyond this deficiency, Steven engages in strange behaviors and carries a reputation as a mentally ill recluse holed up inside his father’s massive estate home.  Steven’s conduct caused police to suspect his involvement in the first rash of child murders in The Skin Trade, and the shadow cast over Steven never lifted. 

“‘It was Steven’ Joe insisted, ‘it had to be, he’s insane.  The rest of them… you can do business with them, Randi, listen to me now, you can talk to them.’”

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 314-315

Now that Steven’s lunacy and genetic aspect thereof is established, let’s pause to compare the dynamics between Jonathan and Steven Harmon with that of Roose and Ramsay Bolton.

Steven and Ramsay are arguably insane and unrestrained, while Jonathan and Roose are calculating, and can “do business.”  Roose is like Jonathan Harmon because he is a pureblood, is coldly logical, is in a position of power, and has a son who is considered twisted and cruel.  Steven and Ramsay are alike because they are both considered defective in some way yet are still acknowledged in the pureblood family.  Most significantly, Steven and Ramsay both share a penchant for flaying their victims and have families who cover up for them, keeping their gruesome secret under wraps.  In both families there is emphasis on the power that comes with purity of bloodline and disdain for those who are not of pure blood, the bastards.

The status of a character as a bastard is important to be aware of in both The Skin Trade and ASOIAF. Some of the bastards in The Skin Trade are literal, such as the halfbreed and quarterbreed werewolves.  Others, like Steven, are figurative bastards. Within ASOIAF, Ramsay Bolton is notably called out as a bastard, and his status as such affects his behaviors as he grows.  Roose makes the following admission about meeting Ramsay’s mother:

“I was hunting a fox along the Weeping Water when I chanced upon a mill and saw a young woman washing clothes in the stream. The old miller had gotten himself a new young wife, a girl not half his age… The moment that I set eyes on her I wanted her. Such was my due. The maesters will tell you that King Jaehaerys abolished the lord’s right to the first night to appease his shrewish queen, but where the old gods rule, old customs linger.” 

-A Dance with Dragons – Reek III

The custom Roose is talking about here is the rite of First Night, where the lord has the right to sex with any woman within his domain on her wedding night.  Roose interpreted this idea loosely, raping the miller’s wife when it pleased him, not on her wedding night.  Any children begotten of First Night practices are considered bastards.  Some lords elevate or even cherish these children while others, like Roose, neglect and denigrate them.  Ramsay has long desired legitimacy, but his mother was a commoner, a miller’s wife. This tie to the common folk leaves a mark on Ramsay that cannot be erased even if Roose legitimizes Ramsay.  Roose eventually grants this boon, changing Ramsay’s last name from Snow to Bolton and entrusting Ramsay with certain powers attached to the Bolton name. After Ramsay gets what he so deeply desires, the stain lingers.  Ramsay’s lineage remains a stinging, deep-seated insecurity: 

“His lordship was not a bastard anymore. Bolton, not Snow. The boy king on the Iron Throne had made Lord Ramsay legitimate, giving him the right to use his lord father’s name. Calling him Snow reminded him of his bastardy and sent him into a black rage.

A Dance with Dragons, Reek I

Despite gaining influence that comes with being named a legitimate heir, this legitimacy isn’t enough for Ramsay to overcome the Westerosi stigma or his own self-loathing, and this is expressed in Ramsay’s behavior.  Those familiar with Ramsay understand that there is something different, something wrong about him:

“’The evil is in his blood’ said Robett Glover. ‘He is a bastard born of rape. A Snow, no matter what the boy king says.

‘Was ever snow so black?’ asked Lord Wyman. ‘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.”

“The Boltons have always been as cruel as they were cunning, but this one seems a beast in human skin,” said Glover.”

A Dance with Dragons, Davos IV

This quote shows us the prevailing attitude towards bastards in Westeros.  The Westerosi view bastards as people with beasts hidden underneath their human skin.  It’s not a big leap to translate that Westerosi distaste to the actual werewolves and other non-human creatures in The Skin Trade.  Even within the werewolf community, this mindset is present.  Police officer and werewolf Rogoff doesn’t hide his scorn when talking about Steven Harmon’s deficiency:

“He got the bloodlust, he got inhuman strength, he burns at the touch of silver, but that’s all.  The last of the purebloods can’t work the change!”

The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 315

At this point we can tell that both Steven and Ramsay are viewed with repugnance and outright hatred by their family and community.  Both go against prevailing societal norms and practice perverse behaviors, but why? Can they be fixed?

Cannibalism Might Do the Trick!

Unfortunate events and emotional abuse led Steven Harmon toward a tendency for abnormal behavior.  To understand why Steven’s strangeness led the community to reject him, let’s turn to this colorful quote from Willie.  Willie recalls a day when he visited the Harmon estate with his father: 

“I found Steven in the woods, playing with some poor sick mutt that had gotten past your fence.  He was holding it down with his foot, and pulling off its legs, one by one, just ripping them out with his bare hands like a normal kid might pull petals off a flower. … He couldn’t have been more than eight.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 251

Hmmm… dismembering a dog at age eight?  Steven’s preoccupation with pain and lack of empathy at such an early age is troubling.  Other characters mention Steven’s monotone voice and the emptiness in his blue eyes.  In fact, the vacant blueness of Steven’s eyes is mentioned at least four times through The Skin Trade.   There’s something missing inside of Steven.  The boy was demonstrating abnormal behavior early on and it’s obvious that he was never able to overcome his demons, but it wasn’t for lack of trying to “fix” him.  Unfortunately, these efforts to fix Steven were misguided and carried out without care or love.

It turns out that there was a bestial root from which Steven’s aberrant behavior sprang. Jonathan Harmon came up with the idea that if Steven ate human flesh, he might be “cured,” might be able to skinchange.  Jonathan, searching for an easy way to obtain human meat, was the culprit behind the child killings that Willie and Randi remember from their youth.  Police officer Rogoff tells Randi:

“The old man had some crazy idea that if Steven ate enough human flesh it might fix [Steven], make him whole.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 315-316

Rogoff isn’t afraid to tell Randi this because Jonathan Harmon has the whole police department bought and paid for.  He continues:  

“‘It didn’t’ work,’ Rogoff echoed, ‘but by then Jonathan had got the taste.  Once you get started it’s hard to stop.’”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 316

We learn Jonathan’s attempt to help his son transform into wolf form is a failure. Instead of presenting his son with acceptance for what he is when the semi-cannibalism experiment fails, Jonathan reinforces the idea that Steven is less than a dog, damaging Steven further by confirming that he is even more undesirable after being forced to eat children.  The secondary outcome of this situation is that Jonathan ended up with a taste for human flesh, a major taboo in werewolf culture.  Jonathan falls victim to the lure of consuming human meat, while other werewolves follow the unspoken rule.  This reticence to consume human flesh is most likely due to the werewolves’ connection to their human side. It’s important to keep in mind that the choice to eat children is solely Jonathan’s.  As stated in a quote in the previous section , Jonathan’s wolfish self is controlled by his human mind. This situation is rather ironic since Jonathan views himself as the cultured leader of the wolf pack and notes: 

“We live in a time of corruption and degeneracy, when the old truths of blood and iron have been forgotten.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 250

In The Skin Trade, Jonathan Harmon describes himself as the most powerful pureblood werewolf, claiming that pureblood werewolves are superior to those with diluted blood:

“You ought to see me, Miss Wade.  My fur is white now, pale as snow, but the stature, the majesty, the power, those have not left me. … The pureblood is rather more.  We are the dire wolves, the nightmares who haunt your racial memories, the dark shapes circling endlessly beyond the light of your fires.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 327

Despite his grand appearance and all his bluster, Jonathan lacks one half of what sets werewolves apart from wolves: humanity. He is a killer and, in a sense, a cannibal. Werewolves are, after all, partly human.  Jonathan is a hypocrite who believes he is the shining example of werewolf genetics yet is given to inhuman, taboo appetites. Even worse, Jonathan’s relationship with his son, the continuation of his precious bloodline, further demonstrates this hypocrisy. Jonathan identifies as the pinnacle of his species, the leader of the pack, and because of this, Jonathan is doubly ashamed of Steven’s shortcomings. This shame is expressed as Jonathan’s disdain toward Steven.  Jonathan makes no effort to hide his opinion, coldly admitting to Willie:

“My family is all gone but for Steven, and Steven, let us be frank, is not all that I might have hoped for in a son.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 250 

Jonathan Harmon feels ashamed that his only offspring is defective, treats his son terribly because of his personal hangups, and never accepts his child the way a loving parent would.  Steven’s inability to skinchange is something that is inborn and unchangeable much in the way Tyrion Lannister is born a dwarf.  As Tyrion points out in A Game of Thrones, Jon I, “all dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”  The same sad logic applies to Steven.  He can’t help the genetic flaw that makes him less than what his father hoped for.  Through no failure of his own doing, Steven can never feel legitimate because of his inability.  

Jonathan’s gory, cannibalistic efforts to fix Steven may have come from a misguided concept of how to care for the child, but the outcome was traumatizing Steven. The horror of forced cannibalism combined with the feelings of unworthiness instilled by his father defiled Steven’s sense of self, but deep down, Steven still longed for legitimacy, for belonging.  Steven’s subsequent actions can be explained as his way of proving loyalty to Jonathan, of proving that he is worthy of being his father’s son.  Steven’s strange, terrible attempts to out-do the cruelty of his father are a direct result of his father’s rejection.  Even though Steven’s behaviors are inexcusable, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for any child who is a victim of abuse and who sees themselves as undesirable or worthless to their parents through no fault of their own.  

Similarly, Ramsay’s bloody pastimes seem to be a result of the way Roose treats Ramsay. It’s no secret Roose keeps Ramsay at hand just in case he doesn’t produce a legitimate heir.  Roose holds this over Ramsay’s head, dangling the hope of becoming a legitimate heir in front of Ramsay to keep Ramsay in check and loyal to Roose’s causes.  Ramsay knows this.  He understands that he must obey Roose, must never disappoint Roose, if he is ever to gain the Bolton name.  This is terrible knowledge to Ramsay, and as he absorbs this information, it warps him into a man who enjoys flaying human beings. Ramsay internalizes this understanding and repeats the pattern of his father’s emotional brutalization every time he chooses to torture others.  Just like with Steven, Ramsay’s behaviors are beyond forgiveness, but they are rooted in the feeling that he can never measure up to his father’s expectations.

 In both cases, legitimacy is not up for debate.  Jonathan and Roose both concede that they are the fathers of Steven and Ramsay respectively.  This open admission of bloodline says something about Martin’s views on incest, rape, and purity of blood.  For a detailed and thought-provoking look into Martin’s negative views on purity of blood, treat yourself to The Fattest Leech’s essay on incest here.

Jonathan’s flaunting of the unspoken werewolf taboos about eating human flesh calls to mind skinchanging commandments Varamyr Sixskins learns as a child.  Varamyr is the most powerful skinchanger Jon Snow encounters during his time beyond the wall, and immediately recognizes Jon as a fellow skinchanger.  Like Jonathan, at his core Varamyr has little humility and acts like a petty lord after he bests his mentor, Haggon.  Here, we learn about the rules of skinchanging Haggon attempted to impress on Varamyr: 

“He could almost hear Haggon growling at him. ‘Men may eat the flesh of beasts and beasts the flesh of men, but the man who eats the flesh of man is an abomination.

Abomination. That had always been Haggon’s favorite word. Abomination, abomination, abomination. To eat of human meat was abomination, to mate as wolf with wolf was abomination, and to seize the body of another man was the worst abomination of all. Haggon was weak, afraid of his own power. He died weeping and alone when I ripped his second life from him. Varamyr had devoured his heart himself. He taught me much and more, and the last thing I learned from him was the taste of human flesh.

That was as a wolf, though. He had never eaten the meat of men with human teeth. He would not grudge his pack their feast, however.”

-A Dance With Dragons, Prologue

Martin had previously written about the father-son duo of Jonathan and Steven Harmon’s cannibalism so naturally he explored the same concept as he created Ramsay’s character. Despite this similarity I caution against a one-to-one reading of any set of characters in Martin’s larger ouvre when contrasting with ASOIAF.  Martin is a master of taking an old idea and changing it just enough to make it new.  It’s never overtly stated that Ramsay eats human flesh himself, but he threatens cannibalism and enjoys forcing people to self-cannibalize.  Ramsay locks his first wife, Lady Hornwood, in a tower room where she eats her own fingers before succumbing to starvation. Additionally, Ramsay threatens the person responsible for murdering his minion Yellow Dick, saying: 

“‘When we find the man who did this,’ Lord Ramsay promised, ‘I will flay the skin off him, cook it crisp as crackling, and make him eat it, every bite.’” 

-A Dance With Dragons, A Ghost in Winterfell

Another hint of Ramsay’s flirtation with cannibalism is contained in the “pink letter,” the ransom note received by Jon Snow at Castle Black challenging Jon to retake Winterfell. If it was written by Ramsay as advertised, he threatens the following unless his conditions are met: 

“Keep [the hostages] from me, and I will cut out your bastard’s heart and eat it.

Ramsay Bolton,

Trueborn Lord of Winterfell.”

-A Dance With Dragons, Jon XIII

It’s possible Martin is using some aspects of Steven Harmon’s story as a template for his later creation, Ramsay Bolton.  Before we move on to what are perhaps the strongest parallels between Steven and Ramsay, we should have a look at another intriguing relationship between The Skin Trade and ASOIAF, the link between direwolves, werewolves, iron, and blood.

Iron and Blood, Werewolf Style

“‘We built this city out of nothing,’ he said.  ‘Blood and iron built this city, blood and iron nurtured it and fed its people. The old families knew the power of blood and iron, they knew how to make this city great.’”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 247

Here Jonathan Harmon is telling Willie about the history of the four major werewolf houses in their area.  These families are ancient, with history going back as far as human memory.  Jonathan recounts the roles of the various werewolf families who rose to the top:

“The Rochmonts hammered and shaped the metal in smithies and foundries and steel mills, the Anders family moved it on their flatbeds and steamers and railroads, and your own people found it and pried it from the earth.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 247-248

Three out of the four werewolf founding families worked together to establish fortunes in the iron industry.  There is an undeniable connection between werewolves and iron here, yet it seems unrelated to any important plot points.  Werewolves aren’t your typical neighborhood dog digging into the ground to bury a bone.  The werewolves wanted iron badly enough to do the back-breaking labor of mining and refining it… but why?  Perhaps we’ll find the answer later on when we learn about The Skinner.

You come from iron stock, William Flambeaux, but we Harmons were always blood.  We had the stockyards and the slaughterhouse, but long before that, before this city or this nation existed, the Old House was a center of the skin trade.  Trappers and hunters would come here every season with furs and skins and beaver pelts to sell the Harmons, and from here the skins would move downriver.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 248

In contrast to the other three families, the Harmon werewolves first amassed their fortune killing and flaying as fur traders. Here is the intersection between the Harmon’s historical relationship with the skin trade and Steven’s grisly pastimes.  The Harmon’s identities are rooted in blood, pain, and death, so it’s only natural that Steven continues the legacy and because of his degeneracy, represents the worst qualities of the Harmons.

One might notice that Martin has carefully named his werewolf families.  There are some fascinating and relevant names here.  Willie’s own surname, Flambeaux is the French word for torch.  This links werewolves to the concept of fire or heat, a detail that will come up later in this essay.  Rochmonts may have been named for the French “roche moutonnée,” or “sheepback” mountain, an image that evokes the phrase “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  Apparently the Anders clan is the most human of the group.  Their last name translates as “strong and manly,” which is a rather amusing take on what a werewolf might be.  Lastly, we have the Harmons.  Harmon translates as “soldier,” which could be viewed as some sort of guard or sentinel clan, but I think Martin is making a play on words with the Harmons’ last name.  If you say the name in a certain way, you come to realize it sounds like “harm man.” If that’s the case, Harmon is a moniker that most certainly fits both child-killer Jonathan and indiscriminate killer of humans and werewolves, Steven Harmon.  

Lycanthropes of The Skin Trade aren’t the only wolves with ties to iron and blood.  Here we see Robb Stark assuming the leadership of the Northern houses: 

“Lord Hoster’s smith had done his work well, and Robb’s crown looked much as the other was said to have looked in the tales told of the Stark kings of old; an open circlet of hammered bronze incised with the runes of the First Men, surmounted by nine black iron spikes wrought in the shape of longswords. Of gold and silver and gemstones, it had none; bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.”

-A Clash of Kings, Catelyn I

Robb’s crown is an echo of the crowns worn by the aptly named Kings of Winter, ancient Stark kings who now reside in the crypts beneath Winterfell.  They understood the power of iron and fire in a way that has been forgotten over the centuries.  Now only Old Nan remembers the importance of these symbols.

“Old Nan nodded. ‘In that darkness, the Others came for the first time,’ she said as her needles went click click click. ‘They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.’”

A Game of Thrones, Bran IV

The Others specifically hate iron, fire and creatures with hot blood in their veins.  Just like the Others, direwolves are a northern creature. When thinking about the advance of primitive man, iron and fire were essential weapons enabling humans to live in harsh northern conditions.  Direwolves might have a thick coat of warm fur, incredible strength, and dagger-like teeth enabling survival, but humans need fire to keep them warm and iron weapons to fight off northern dangers.  Direwolves that might have once been enemies became allies at some point during the reign of the First Men.  Ancient Starks proved direwolves could be tamed and partnered with despite their ferocity.  We may never know how the Stark skinchanging bond with direwolves developed, but nevertheless it exists in the ASOIAF universe.  I believe the skinchanging bond was created by Martin to make us think of the Starks and their direwolves as a team, the first and strongest bulwark of defense against the howling northern wastelands ruled by the Others. Both humans and direwolves have hot blood running through their veins and would be targets for the Others, but both Starks and their direwolves are supernaturally able to battle the cold.  Could iron and fire symbolize man and wolf’s partnered dominion over nature and climb to supremacy in the north?

Like PETA Says, Fur Is Murder

Steven Harmon, Roy Helander, Willie, and Randi all figured out the magical means to turn Steven into a werewolf before self-proclaimed direwolf Jonathan.  It turns out you only need one simple ingredient: a werewolf skin.

Something was fastened around his neck and knotted beneath his chin.  Randi leaned forward to touch it, and drew back when she saw his face…He had one eye left, a green eye, open and staring…Roy had grown gaunt to the point of emaciation…Something was knotted under his chin, a long twisted cloak of some kind, it had gotten all tangled when he fell.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 301

Here we have the first hint both Steven and Roy used skins as cloaks to work skinchanging magic.  Randi realizes Roy was wearing the skin of Joanie, a female werewolf, but she and Willie are unsure why at that point in the story.

“They weren’t just murdered, Randi.  They were skinned.  That’s where the legend comes in.  The word is skinchangers, remember?  What if the power was in the skin?  So you catch a werewolf, flay it, slip into the bloody skin… and change.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 297

Now Randi has connected the dots. This is the reason specific people are being killed and flayed. Steven is flaying the skins from werewolves to work skinchanging magic.  She later sees the lengths Steven is willing to go to to maintain secrecy, killing Roy Helander in order to continue flaying werewolves:

“Jonathan didn’t do [Roy], I did… He wasn’t very strong at all.  After a while he changed into a man and then he was all slippery, but it didn’t matter, I-”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 303

This quote shows us two important pieces of information.  First, Steven is confessing to the murder of Roy Heland, Next, he is letting the reader know that Roy (a presumably normal human), was able to work skinchanging magic by wearing the skin of a werewolf.  Steven also notes that Roy was weak, a characteristic of a bastard or werewolf with diluted blood.  We don’t know if Roy had any werewolf blood in his family tree, but it’s clear that working the change is something that had never happened before donning the cloak of werewolf skin.  We know that Steven is the last in the pureblooded line of Harmon werewolves, and during a conflict with Willie, we see Steven getting ready to usurp the power of his flayed victim yet again:

“Steven was adjusting his ghastly cloak, pulling flaps of skin down over his own face.  The skin trade, Willie thought giddily, yeah, that was it, and in a moment Steven would use that damn flayed skin to do what he could never manage on his own, he would change, and then Willie would be meat.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 317

This passage explicitly shows us that by flaying and using the stolen skin Steven will be able to work the change that has been denied to him previously, despite his lineage. While Steven’s deformity is invisible, still, he remains a disappointment to his father.

Readers of Theon Greyjoy’s gut-wrenching chapters during his slow transformation into Reek know that Ramsay uses flaying as a sadistic form of torture. Here, Theon describes the horror of flaying: 

“Lord Ramsay would never simply cut off a man’s finger. He preferred to flay it and let the exposed flesh dry and crack and fester. Reek had been whipped and racked and cut, but there was no pain half so excruciating as the pain that followed flaying. It was the sort of pain that drove men mad, and it could not be endured for long.”

-A Dance With Dragons, Reek I 

It’s not just peeling skin off fingers and toes that Ramsay loves:

“‘He is a great hunter,’ said Wyman Manderly, ‘and women are his favorite prey. He strips them naked and sets them loose in the woods…When Ramsay catches them he rapes them, flays them, feeds their corpses to his dogs, and brings their skins back to the Dreadfort as trophies. If they have given him good sport, he slits their throats before he skins them. Elsewise, t’other way around.’”

-A Dance With Dragons, Davos IV

We know Ramsay likes flaying so much that he’s willing to strip the skin off just about anyone who crosses him, and not necessarily in small strips or patches…. he’s willing to make a cloak of a human skin: 

“’What man?’ Ramsay demanded. ‘Give me his name. Point him out to me, boy, and I will make you a cloak of his skin.’”

-A Dance With Dragons, Theon I

Ramsay is not flaying his victims to change into a werewolf like Steven Harmon. Ramsay specifically refers to making a cloak of a man’s skin.  Ramsay’s general propensity towards flaying shows us that Martin might be refining concepts he developed earlier in Steven Harmon’s character. It appears Martin is recycling Steven Harmon with small changes and transmuting him into Ramsay Bolton.  It’s hard to know for sure if Martin is drawing on mythologies like the story of Jacob and Esau as he writes these characters, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility.  For those unfamiliar with the story of biblical brothers Jacob and Esau, younger brother Jacob covers himself in the skin of a goat to impersonate his hairy older brother Esau and steal his birthright.  Jacob tricks his blind and gravely ill father, Issac, into conferring his blessing and ruling power onto him instead of Esau. (For more on Jacob and Esau in reference ASOIAF, visit Ross Miller’s excellent essay here.) Perhaps Martin is echoing this ancient story to make a larger statement about how stealing a person’s skin is like stealing their identity.  It seems safe, though, to conclude that Martin is intentionally creating direct correlations between the skin-thieves Steven and Ramsay.  This may speak to the concept of Boltons flaying Starks specifically, perhaps wearing their skins as a means to gain skin changing powers in ancient times, but before we explore that idea, we need to uncover some more similarities between characters in The Skin Trade and ASOIAF.  Needless to say, the parallels between Steven and Ramsay are more than skin deep…

Rubies, Garnets, and Bastards 

“…his hands closed round the head of his walking stick… ‘A wolf’s head’ he said.  Its eyes were red.  ‘Garnets?’ Willie guessed.  Jonathan smiled the way you might smile at a particularly doltish child. ‘Rubies,’ he said, ‘set in 18 karat gold.’”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 249

Jonathan Harmon, pureblooded werewolf and rich jerk extraordinaire, holds a walking stick with a snarling wolf’s head with ruby eyes, and claims that as a pureblood he is a no mere werewolf- he is a direwolf.  Hmmm… a snarling direwolf with glittering red eyes… Ring any bells? This symbol recalls the Starks, whose sigil is the direwolf.  The Winter Kings and other dead Stark leaders’ effigies are depicted with their faithful direwolf at their side.  In present-day Westeros, the Stark children cavort with their psychically connected direwolves. Yet there is an even more obvious connection when Jeor Mormont gives Jon Snow his ancestral house sword after replacing the pommel with the sigil of Jon’s house:

“The pommel was a hunk of pale stone weighted with lead to balance the long blade. It had been carved into the likeness of a snarling wolf’s head, with chips of garnet set into the eyes…Where Ice was a true two-handed greatsword, this was a hand-and-a-halfer, sometimes named a ‘bastard sword.’”

-A Game of Thrones, Jon VIII

 Given that one of Jon Snow’s parents, Lyanna Stark, has the Stark tie to direwolves, Jon Snow would, by the logic laid out in The Skin Trade, be a halfblood wolf.  Longclaw, the “bastard sword” is given to Jon, who, to the best of every non-greenseer’s knowledge, is a bastard.  The garnets in the pommel of Longclaw are red like rubies but a poor replacement for true rubies.  Garnets are considered less precious than rubies.  One could say a garnet is like bastard ruby; therefore, it’s telling that Jon’s sword is a bastard sword decorated with a garnet-eyed white direwolf.  To hammer home the connection between garnets, bastards, and direwolves, Martin specifically describes the eyes of Jon’s direwolf, Ghost.

“Ghost was curled up asleep beside the door, but he lifted his head at the sound of Jon’s boots. The direwolf’s red eyes were darker than garnets and wiser than men.”

 – A Game of Thrones, Jon VII

Not only are Ghost’s eyes the deep red color of garnets, they possess a smoldering heat: 

“When the direwolf raised his head, his eyes glowed red and baleful, and water streamed down from his jaws like slaver. There was something fierce and terrible about him in that instant.”

-A Clash of Kings – Jon IV

“Ghost appeared beside him, his warm breath steaming in the cold. In the moonlight, his red eyes glowed like pools of fire.”

-A Dance with Dragons – Jon III

The description of Ghost’s eyes as red, hot, and glowing is important.  I believe Martin’s template for giving Ghost his distinctive red eyes was worked out years before in The Skin Trade. Several times in The Skin Trade, Martin notes that the werewolves’ eyes are red, glowing. The following quotes describe werewolf-cop Rogoff’s eyes:

“…slitted eyes glowing like embers from a muzzle black as coal.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 319-320

“Blood matted his jaws, and his eyes stared at her through the windshield, glowing that hideous baleful red.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 323

We’ll circle back to the heat contained in Ghost’s eyes later in the essay. For now, note that Martin has been entertaining the notion of werewolves and direwolves with red eyes like hot coals since at least 1989. In The Skin Trade, all the werewolves have those fearsome eyes including Willie Flambeaux.  During his faceoff with Steven Harmon, Willie (in werewolf form), we see the fire-ice opposition between the character’s eyes:

The wolf’s hot red eyes met his cold blue ones and it was hard to tell which were more inhuman.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkeley books 1990, p 316

This quote shows us a certain ice-fire opposition between Willie and Steven, a topic we’ll delve into in more detail later on.  For the moment, let’s keep our mind focused on rubies and garnets.

Rubies are associated with pureblood characters like Rhaegar Targaryen, whose breastplate was famously decorated with rubies before it was bashed in by Robert Baratheon’s warhammer. The presumably pureblooded members of House Lannister have an even stronger association with rubies. Cersei Lannister wears them on her mourning gown after Robert Baratheon’s death.  Tyrion Lannister wears a chain of rubies and lion heads while he acts as Hand of the King.  Twincest offspring Joffrey wears a crown decorated with rubies and black diamonds. To top it off, Joffrey’s sword, Lion’s Tooth, has lions with ruby eyes and claws. Tywin Lannister is more than happy to point out in A Storm of Swords, Tyrion IV, garnets “lack the fire” of rubies.  In a way it’s true.  Rubies are a bright red, the color of fresh blood, while garnets are dried blood color, a deep, dark red.  Given their attitudes, it’s no wonder snooty Jonathan Harmon and the members of House Lannister prefer the bright color and implied status of rubies.  All of these characters identify themselves as being above others’ social status, especially bastards.  It follows that bastards or non-pureblood people are exactly the kind of folks who deserve garnets.  

Now that we have laid out the idea that garnets are an indicator that a character is a bastard or non-pureblood, can you guess who, besides Jon Snow, likes to bedazzle with garnets?  I have no doubt you can…

 “Ramsay Bolton stood beneath them, clad in high boots of soft grey leather and a black velvet doublet slashed with pink silk and glittering with garnet teardrops.” 

-A Dance with Dragons, The Prince of Winterfell

While the Harmons, Targaryens, and Lannisters have their rubies, bastard-blooded Jon and Ramsay have garnets.  Like flaying, this detail binds this collection of characters together.  Here is another example of Martin reusing and refining concepts and characters contained in The Skin Trade and filtering them into ASOIAF.

Fingers Like Knives-The Skinner

One last connection remains in our exploration of connections between flaying in The Skin Trade and ASOIAF: the Skinner.  In The Skin Trade, there is a mysterious supernatural creature with blades for fingers whose mission is collecting the skins of werewolves.  In the quotes below, we can see how to summon the creature, the Skinner:

“Willie Flambeaux knew what was happening, knew that when the fog cleared the mirrors wouldn’t be mirrors anymore, they’d be doors, doors, and the skinner would come…”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 319

There was blood on the mirrors and they were full of fog, a silvery pale fog that shimmered as it moved.  Something was moving through the fog, sliding from mirror to mirror to mirror, around and around.  Something hungry that wanted to get out.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 319

From these passages, we learn spilling blood on mirrors is the key to opening a portal between whatever mystical realm the Skinner occupies and the world of The Skin Trade.  More importantly, this passage gives us a connection between the Skinner and the Others.  When the Others are coming, it’s common to encounter some form of icy mist or blinding blizzard. Descriptions of the Others’ armor in the prologue of A Game of Thrones are reminiscent of a silvery mirror reflecting the forest around them.  The Others possess supernaturally blue eyes.   These symbolic links with mist, the colors silver and blue, and mirror-like reflections come from the very small amount of canon information we have about the Others, but do the parallels hold given further information?  Yes and no.

Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took. […] In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge-on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost-light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor.

-A Game of Thrones, Prologue

“It was in front of him, behind him, off to the side.  It was a hound, gaunt and terrible; it was a snake, scaled and foul; it was a man, with eyes like pits and knives for its fingers.  It wouldn’t hold still, every time he looked its shapes seemed to change, and each shape was worse than the last, more twisted and obscene.  Everything about it was lean and cruel.  Its fingers were sharp, so sharp, and he looked at them and felt their caress sliding beneath his skin, tingling along the nerves, pain and blood and fire trailing behind them.  It was black, blacker than black, a black that drank all light forever, and it was all shining silver too.  It was a nightmare that lived in a funhouse mirror, the thing that hunts the hunters.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 319

These two quotes show us undeniable parallels between the Others and the Skinner.  We see that the Skinner is a shapeshifter, a creature that has the ability to absorb or reflect light at will, and that it exists to take the skin from werewolves, presumably to kill them.  Both the Skinner and the Others are able to move silently, have some sort of magical shimmering armor or aspect that makes them difficult to see, and both have a single-mindedness about them.  Both carry razor-sharp implements to do their dirty work.  Both are magical or supernatural, and are pure nightmare fuel.  But we were talking about all these parallels between Boltons, Starks, and werewolves… how do the Others and the Skinner fit in?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I believe Martin is taking ideas that were showcased in The Skin Trade and transmuting them for inclusion in ASOIAF.  While there may not be a surface-level connection between Boltons, the Others, and the Skinner, Martin uses a more subtle approach to connect the symbols uniting these figures.  It seems that on one level, Martin is using these symbolic relationships to manufacture characters and scenes with compelling, dramatic language.  On another level, it appears that Martin is using these symbols to build depth throughout his writing and comment on the tension between ice and fire, characters who embody fire and ice like the Starks and Boltons do.  

Here we see Martin set up similarities in appearance between the Boltons and the Others: 

“Roose Bolton’s own face was a pale grey mask, with two chips of dirty ice where his eyes should be.”

-A Dance With Dragons, The Prince of Winterfell

Ramsay shares the same “dirty ice” eyes as his father.  In fact, it is really the only resemblance between them.  As anyone who has read ASOIAF can tell you, eye colors are symbolic in Martin’s writing and worth noting.  As noted prior, Steven Harmon’s eyes are quite distinct as well.  Instead of eyes like ice chips, his eyes are blue, vacant, and unnerving much like the eyes of the Others.

The Others’ faces are icy, cold, and mask-like in their inhumanity, just like Roose’s in this quote.

“Roose Bolton’s pale eyes were fixed on Theon, as sharp as Skinner’s flaying knife.” 

-A Dance With Dragons, A Ghost in Winterfell

Martin cleverly unites Roose Bolton with the Skinner concept.  This may seem like a coincidence or a one-off line, but Martin pays exquisite attention to detail in his writing and leaves nothing to chance.  In the quote below, notice how Martin carefully packs garnets, the action of slashing, meat, blood, and pale, icy eyes into this brief passage: 

“Ramsay was clad in black and pink—black boots, black belt and scabbard, black leather jerkin over a pink velvet doublet slashed with dark red satin. In his right ear gleamed a garnet cut in the shape of a drop of blood… His lips were wide and meaty, but the thing men noticed first about him were his eyes. He had his lord father’s eyes—small, close-set, queerly pale. Ghost grey, some men called the shade, but in truth his eyes were all but colorless, like two chips of dirty ice.

A Dance With Dragons, Reek I 

This gaunt icy appearance pops up when Martin describes Steven Harmon, upon whom aspects of Ramsay’s character were likely based: 

“The man, or boy, or whatever he was, […] was gaunt and sallow, and his blue eyes stared into the lens with a vacancy that was oddly disturbing.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990, p 276

These quotes show us that when Martin writes about the Boltons, he is using certain colors, actions, attributes, and sensations to create symbolism: pale silver-grey, icy cold, masks (sort of like a mini cloak), blood, and meat.  Think back to Old Nan’s stories about the Others and you’ll remember that they hate all things with hot blood in their veins and, like Jonathan and Steven Harmon, consume the flesh of children.  Similarly, werewolves in The Skin Trade and the Stark’s direwolves in ASOIAF share symbols indicating warmth.  They have eyes like hot embers as mentioned in the section about rubies and garnets.  The Stark stronghold, Winterfell, is a warm outpost in a frigid land, its walls heated by hot springs lying below the castle.  There are other parallels, but suffice it to say that Martin is purposefully aligning werewolves and the Starks with iron and heat much in the same way he is aligning Steven, Ramsay, and the Skinner with the cold of the Others.  Think back to The Skin Trade’s connection between werewolves and iron.  Even back in 1989, Martin was forging a connection between wolves and iron through the Flambeaux, Rochemont, and the Anders families, and again, Martin has taken an element of an old idea and transmuted it to work within his ASOIAF world.

Comparisons between the Others, the Harmon father-son duo, and  Roose and Ramsay Bolton continue.  All are hunters with peculiar tastes.  Jonathan hunts children to eat them.  Steven hunts werewolves to steal their skins.  Ramsay hunts women for sport. Roose, out hunting fox one day, ends up raping and impregnating Ramsay’s mother a different kind of hunting conquest.  The last of the ancient Bolton Red Kings was called Rogar the Huntsman (Rogar is referenced in The World of Ice and Fire, The North: The Kings of Winter), and just like the Others, the ancient Boltons vocally and specifically hunted for Starks, the Northern skinchangers.  The Skinner and the Others hunt people just as the Harmons and Boltons do.  

At this point we can see Martin has set up opposition between characters carrying ice or fire symbolism and it is set up well in the following quote, Martin twines together symbols that evoke the Others while pairing them with wolves:  

The things below moved, but did not live. One by one, they raised their heads toward the three wolves on the hill. The last to look was the thing that had been Thistle. She wore wool and fur and leather, and over that she wore a coat of hoarfrost that crackled when she moved and glistened in the moonlight. Pale pink icicles hung from her fingertips, ten long knives of frozen blood. And in the pits where her eyes had been, a pale blue light was flickering, lending her coarse features an eerie beauty they had never known in life.

She sees me.

-A Dance with Dragons – Prologue

This scene, pointed out to me by The Mummer’s Dracolich, features frozen, dead humans who have been wighted, or killed and reanimated by the Others.  These wights are looking toward Varamyr Sixskins in wolf form and two pack members in the moments before they fight to the death.  Varamyr is in wolf form here to show us the dynamic between wolves and Skinner characters.  Earlier we compared Jonathan Harmon and Varamyr in the section about cannibalism. Varamyr was like a renegade werewolf who flaunted the taboos of skinchanging just as Jonathan broke the unspoken rule against eating human flesh in The Skin Trade.  

In opposition to Varamyr and his wolf pack are wights, specifically Thistle.  Note how Martin describes Thistle.  He compares the pink icicles hanging from her fingertips to “long knives of frozen blood.”  Fingers like knives are the most distinctive feature of the Skinner.  Similar to Steven Harmon’s vacant blue eyes, Thistle’s eye sockets are literally vacant but are lit with pale blue light.  One of the things that makes the Skinner so threatening to werewolves of The Skin Trade is the fact that the creature can see or sense them even if they are not in wolf form.  Thistle, despite her lack of eyes, “sees” Varamyr, whose essence is inhabiting his skinchanged wolf.  Not only does the symbolic language add drama to this passage, it also shows us that in both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Skin Trade example of how ice and fire are diametrically opposed abound.

Hopefully by this point, one can see the symbolic alignment between the Others, the Skinner, and the Boltons. There’s one more connection. Perhaps it’s no more than a mere nod to The Skin Trade, but it’s present nevertheless.  One of Ramsay’s entourage, the “Bastard’s Boys,” is named Skinner and takes part in flaying: 

“Reek knew the cost. Seven, he thought, seven fingers. A man can make do with seven fingers. Seven is a sacred number. He remembered how much it had hurt when Lord Ramsay had commanded Skinner to lay his ring finger bare.”

-A Dance With Dragons, Reek II 

It’s remarkable how Martin has reworked the concept of the supernatural Skinner in The Skin Trade into the equally sadistic but decidedly unmagical Boltons in ASOIAF with such subtlety and efficiency.

Mirror, Mirror and the Wall

In the current ASOIAF timeline, both Bolton and Stark bastards, Ramsay and Jon, are surrounded by mirrors… but the mirrors are disguised.  Jon is stationed at Castle Black at the foot of the biggest mirror in Westeros- the Wall.  While it’s never referred to as a mirror, the wall repeatedly reflects scenes playing out before it.

“The sun was high in the sky, and the upper third of the Wall was a crystalline blue from below, reflecting so brilliantly that it hurt the eyes to look on it.”

-A Storm of Swords, Jon IV

Reflections glimmered off the Wall, every crack and crevice glittering pale blue.”

-A Dance With Dragons, Jon VII

Perhaps most intriguing is this last quote:

“Jon Snow could see his own reflection dimly inside the icy walls.”

-A Dance With Dragons, Jon X

Here Jon can see his own reflection inside one of the ice cells in the wall, a place where his body is likely to be stored after his death at the end of A Dance with Dragons.  Jon’s blood will be spilled on the mirror at the Wall… and the Wall is where the Skinner-like Others will likely break through to invade Westeros.  With this in mind, reading this quote from The Skin Trade might send a shiver up your spine when you think about what horror’s Jon’s blood might release: 

There was blood on the mirrors and they were full of fog, a silvery pale fog that shimmered as it moved.  Something was moving through the fog, sliding from mirror to mirror to mirror, around and around.  Something hungry that wanted to get out.”

-The Skin Trade, Berkley Books 1990 p 319

On the Bolton side of things, Ramsay will soon be in a standoff against Stannis Baratheon and the remainder of his shivering army.  Stannis’ encampment is at the edge of a frozen lake.  Many readers familiar with Canteuse’s Night Lamp theory speculate that Stannis will use the perilous frozen ice to his advantage in the upcoming battle.  Again, blood will be spilled on a frozen “mirror” of ice.  Will this act summon the Others as well?  Only time will tell, but it seems possible that Jon’s murder and the frozen lake battle combined might be powerful enough to summon the bloodthirsty Others from their frozen realm.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think the important thing to remember about parallels between the Boltons, the Others, and the Skinner is that Martin was using elements of werewolves and the Skinner from The Skin Trade to inform writing decisions he made as he created House Bolton and its relationship with House Stark.  There is an appearance of a creature with Other-like qualities in The Skin Trade; however, this does not necessarily translate directly to ASOIAF or help us make predictions about what’s going to happen with the Others in The Winds of Winter and beyond.  Any predictions are purely hypothetical on my part.  These similarities might exist simply as a flourish of Martin’s artistry.  It is my contention that Martin has been playing around with these ideas and archetypes for years, fine tuning them little by little until they were ready for his magnum opus, ASOIAF.  

Grudge Match: Skinners vs Werewolves in ASOIAF

So what does this swirl of skinchanging, direwolves, garnets, bastards, and flayers have to do with the relationship between the Starks and Boltons in ages past? We’re going to get into some speculative territory here, and we may never have any definitive answers, but it’s fun to compare Martin’s older works with his masterwork to see which ideas have been picked up and polished off for our appreciation.  

Steven Harmon can be lumped in with “cripples, bastards and broken things,” unable to work the skinchange but ready to commit unspeakable acts in exchange for the magical ability. Ramsay Bolton is a bastard willing to do unspeakable things to become the legitimized heir of Roose Bolton.  Both sons want to belong, to be viewed as worthy of their genetic heritage, yet both fail to be absorbed into the fold.  Both Steven and Ramsay are associated with flaying, blood, cannibalism, and icy colors and are in close proximity to direwolf figures Jonathan Harmon and House Stark respectively.

 Jonathan Harmon is a power-hungry, bloodthirsty werewolf. Jonathan produced a flawed male child, Steven. Jonathan allowed Steven to live despite his inability to skinchange or find a mate, but made his scorn for Steven known.  Jonathan chose to minimize his son’s less savory activities, paying off the police department to protect Steven.  Jonathan broke the cardinal werewolf vow when he killed children and brought their bodies home for Steven to eat, becoming addicted to human flesh himself.  Roose Bolton is bloodthirsty and hungry for power as proven by his role in masterminding the Red Wedding.  He produced what he saw as a flawed male child and kept his son at arm’s length. Roose’s disdain psychologically damaged Ramsay. Roose kept Ramsay near in case he didn’t produce any legitimate male heirs, never letting Ramsay forget that he was viewed as less than worthy. Roose turned a blind eye on Ramsay’s flaying and torture. Roose broke his vows of servitude to the Starks when he betrayed them at the Red Wedding. 

The four remaining pureblood werewolf houses in The Skin Trade are facing extinction and are in a war of sorts against the dilution of their blood by non-werewolves. In ASOIAF, having diluted blood makes one a bastard and second class citizen.  In both works, dilution of blood is considered a negative quality.  Steven Harmon and Roy Helander engage in the horrific process of flaying to usurp the magic of the lycanthrope’s skin. They flayed werewolves specifically to make skinchanging possible, to realize their childhood dream of becoming something magical that was outside of their natural abilities. Ramsay Bolton flays Theon and sends a piece of his skin along with a (very rude!) letter to work some “magic” persuasion of his own and gain the Bolton surname. Both Steven and Ramsay use this specific form of torture to gain power and legitimacy in the eyes of their fathers.

Jonathan Harmon considers his child a metaphorical bastard because of his inability to change into werewolf form.  Roose openly acknowledges that Ramsay is a bastard.  Jonathan Harmon openly admits his son’s difference and his resulting disdain for the boy, while Roose Bolton does not shy away from the term or its implications for Ramsay.  Steven and Ramsay carry the heavy burden of their status as bastards and each of them is ashamed of this aspect of their nature.  Both turn to harming others 

In The Skin Trade, wolves are everywhere.  Pureblooded Jonathan Harmon calls himself a direwolf and, once transformed, is a huge white animal like Jon’s direwolf, Ghost. The eyes of all the werewolves in The Skin Trade are a smoldering red and easily comparable to Ghost’s eyes.  Meanwhile in ASOIAF, wolves abound as well.  House Stark has a permanent symbolic tie to direwolves. Eddard Stark’s legitimate children and Stark halfblood Jon Snow have a psychic connection to their direwolves referred to as skinchanging.  Both Stark children and werewolves of The Skin Trade describe the process of turning into a wolf, whether literally or through warging as skinchanging. Werewolves in The Skin Trade have red, glowing eyes like burning embers, while Jon’s wolf, Ghost, has red eyes “darker than garnets,” almost always described as glowing or burning.  

Werewolves in The Skin Trade and ASOIAF’s Ghost have fiery red eyes like rubies or garnets.  There is language describing the Stark direwolves as possessing a certain heat or being impervious to the cold despite living in a frigid northern climate. Willie’s last name, Flambeaux, practically screams “heat!”  Three of four werewolf families in The Skin Trade have strong connections to the mining and forging of iron, a fiery process, while in ASOIAF, the wolf-associated Starks are connected to iron via their ancient crown and traditional stories. These fire-evoking qualities are in direct opposition to the icy Other- and Skinner-like attributes of Steven Harmon and Roose and Ramsay Bolton.  Roose and Ramsay have eyes like dirty ice chips while Steven Harmon has blue eyes.  The Others bring the cold and the Skinner brings its sharp, sharp blades to flay werewolves.  It seems that Martin is specifically using symbolic language to hone a particularly keen edge on this verse of his song of ice and fire.

Martin makes it clear in The World of Ice and Fire that Boltons have been flaying their victims since ancient times, while Ramsay, Steven and Roy are all flaying people in present ASOIAF and The Skin Trade timelines. House Stark and House Bolton have a long-standing feud, and it’s rumored that the skins of past Stark kings adorned the walls of the Dreadfort at some point in time.  More importantly, this quote mentions Boltons wearing cloaks made from skins of Starks: 

“The wars between these two ancient families were legion, and not all ended in victory for House Stark. King Royce Bolton, Second of His Name, is said to have taken and burned Winterfell itself; his namesake and descendant Royce IV (remembered by history as Royce Redarm, for his habit of plunging his arm into the bellies of captive foes to pull out their entrails with his bare hand) did the same three centuries later. Other Red Kings were reputed to wear cloaks made from the skins of Stark princes they had captured and flayed.

-The World of Ice and Fire, The North: Kings of Winter

With all these parallels, is it possible the original conflict between House Stark and House Bolton began as a feud between Stark skinchangers and scheming Boltons attempting to claim the skinchanging ability for their own?  This would explain why the Boltons practiced flaying specifically and what the Boltons were seeking once they had the skins.  The Boltons wanted the ability to warg direwolves and possibly other powerful animals. Perhaps they dreamed of usurping the Starks and ruling over these presumably pureblooded skinchangers in a shift of power from fire to ice.  There is also the possibility that the Boltons were a monstrous offshoot of House Stark, children born with some sort of mental or supernatural flaw, who felt cheated out of their skinchanging inheritance and developed a method to cope with their shortcoming.

I hope you have been entertained by this exploration into how concepts and characters in Martin’s novella The Skin Trade made the jump to his masterwork, ASOIAF.  By diving deeply into traits and symbols shared between werewolves of The Skin Trade and the Stark family, we see enough similarities emerge that it’s nearly impossible to deny the bond these works share.  The same rings true for the links between Jonathan and Steven Harmon, Roose and Ramsay Bolton, the Others, and the Skinner.  While the relationship between The Skin Trade and ASOIAF is not a case of copy-and-paste, it is compelling enough to imagine the implications and suggest that there was an untold story buried in the sands of time to explain the conflict between the Starks and Boltons.  This conflict may have been based on the Bolton’s inability to perform the Stark’s supernatural skinchanging feat with House Bolton’s jealousy subsequently sparking a deadly grudge against House Stark.  If nothing else there is enough food for thought here to make a feast, and you, reader, are most welcome at the table… just make sure it’s not a cloak of human skin you’re wearing when you come.


2 thoughts on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin: How George R. R. Martin’s The Skin Trade Influenced ASOIAF

  1. My word, that is one fine essay you’ve wrote, my Lady!

    I’m here because of LmLs recommendation on Twitter, and indulged to stay. Also I have never heard of The Skin Trade before, so thank you so much for this!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close