On paper, the military force that Daenerys Targaryen assembled at the end of Game of Thrones’ sixth season was far and away the most formidable in Westeros. Between Dothraki cavalry, Unsullied infantry, the Iron Fleet stolen away by Yara and Theon Greyjoy, and her dragon air force, it was difficult to see how anyone could possibly stand against her.
Season seven, episode two, “Stormborn,” serves to level the playing field somewhat by having Dany stumble into the significant tactical error of sending the Greyjoys to sail south to Dorne, to try to try ferry the Dornish army up to King’s Landing. That leads them straight into the path of Euron Greyjoy, Theon’s uncle and the now-king of the Iron Islands, who built up a replacement fleet at an implausibly fast pace after Yara and Theon absconded with the Iron Fleet at the end of last season. Euron and his new ships sail to a massive victory in a breathtaking naval battle that leaves Ellaria Sand and Yara captive, Theon alone at sea, and what was supposed to have been the Targaryen fleet in ruins — giving Queen Cersei a shot at maintaining her grip on the Iron Throne.
Euron himself, the man behind the victory, was introduced late in the sixth season and given relatively short shrift as a character before rather suddenly emerging to play this key strategic role. The books, which dwell on the internal politics of the Iron Islands in considerably greater detail, offer us a richer picture of who he is and where he comes from — while at the same time hinting at dimensions of his character that may have been entirely written out of the HBO series.
Euron Greyjoy is the bad seed in a bad family
Euron is the uncle of longtime series regulars Theon and Yara (called Asha in the books) Greyjoy, and the younger brother of their father, Balon Greyjoy. Balon ruled the Iron Islands at the beginning of the show, until Euron murdered him upon returning to the Iron Islands after years of exile. Balon also has two other sons who died before the series began, during the Greyjoy rebellion against former king Robert Baratheon — the failure of which led to Theon being raised as a semi-captive of Ned Stark.
Balon and Euron have another brother, Aeron Greyjoy, who appeared briefly in season six and who serves as a priest of the Drowned God.
In the books, Aeron and Euron have another living full brother, Victarion, as well as a dead brother (Urrigon) and several dead half-brothers whom it is implied Euron may have killed. The show has, thus far, not mentioned these characters, but they may come up later. Book-Aeron is an opponent of Euron’s rule over the Iron Islands, regarding him as an unholy man in part because Euron used to sexually abuse him when he was a child.
All of which is to say that against the backdrop of a Greyjoy family that is generally portrayed villainously, Euron stands out as especially villainous.
Euron is a cosmopolitan and a killer
After the failure of Greyjoy’s Rebellion, Euron took his ship, the Silence, and went into exile far from the Seven Kingdoms. It’s not entirely clear what he got up to during his years away, since Euron is a profoundly unreliable narrator and on both the show and the book he didn’t cross paths with any of the other characters we follow. But he says he went raiding all around the world, and even visited the ruins of Valyria, the collapsed ancient empire from which the Targaryens and their dragons come.
He seems to have gleaned something about the mysteries of the east while abroad, and more concretely has picked up a set of cosmopolitan attitudes and behaviors that contrast with the generally parochial outlook of the Iron Islands. Hence his swashbuckling and somewhat debonair attitude during his dialogue with Cersei in the Red Keep in the season seven premiere. He’s a bit more Pirates of the Caribbean than the dour, dull warriors we see elsewhere among his people.
Critically, however, last season he decided to come home, push Balon off a bridge, and take over for him as king of the Iron Islands. In the books this assassination is pulled off with a bit more finesse and complication, but it’s the same basic story. Euron straight up murdered his brother to take the throne and then send the Ironborn off to war — though in the books his proximate military objective is House Redwyne’s fleet located near Oldtown (where Sam is studying to become a Maester) and not Daenerys, who is still in Essos in the book timeline.
In the books, Euron is mixed up with the occult
But beyond the difference in timelines and the larger family tree, there’s a truly critical difference between the book and show presentations of Euron. In the books, Euron is an uncanny figure who’s mixed up with the occult, the captain of a ship crewed by a group of mute thralls who’ve had their tongues cut out (hence the name Silence).
There is a Euron-focused chapter of the forthcoming book, Winds of Winter, that George R.R. Martin has read at various fan conventions and that features many occult themes. Told from the viewpoint of Aeron Greyjoy, whom Euron is holding captive on his ship as he sails it into battle against the Redwynes, it features several mystical visions of things like a bleeding star, Euron sitting on a throne of skulls, foreign warlocks, and Euron transforming into a kraken-like figure who is accompanied by “hands of white fire.”
Even before the events of Winds of Winter, though, Euron’s characterization in the books contains a key detail that hasn’t made its way to the series: He says he’s traveled to the mystical city of Asshai and he possess a horn that he says he can use to bind dragons to his will. His promise to his fellow Iron Islanders is that he will use this horn to seize control of the Targaryen dragons and conquer the world. Operationally, that means sending his other brother Victarian east with the horn to try to find Dany.
But rather than using a horn to turn the tide of battle, TV-Euron simply got to fight a dragon-less fleet and has made no mention of any such horn — suggesting a significantly simplified role in the show plot that positions him as an ally to Cersei rather than a sovereign conqueror. And that makes sense given the series’ development as it’s outpaced the events of the books: The military situation facing Cersei at the end of season six was simply too desperate to keep her viable without a strong new ally. Letting Euron deal a blow to Targaryen naval power levels the playing field, gives the season a new villain, and keeps one of the show’s most cherished characters in the game for a bit longer.