“And perhaps the dragon did remember, but Dany could not. She had never seen this land her brother talked of, Casterly Rock and the Eyrie, Highgarden and the Vale of Arryn, Dorne and the Isle of Faces, they were just words to her.”
“They are your people and they love you well,” Magister Illyrio said amiably. “In holdfasts all across the realm, men lift secret toasts to your health while women sew dragon banners and hide them against the day of your return from across the water”…Dany had no agents, no way of knowing what anyone was doing or thinking across the narrow sea, but she mistrusted Illyrio’s sweet words.”
Synopsis: Daenerys Targaryen receives a gift from Magister Illyrio at the hands of her brother Viserys Targaryen, who advises and warns her on her presentation before Khal Drogo of the Dothraki. As Daenerys, Viserys, and Illyrio go to meet her bridegroom-to-be, they discuss the loyalties of Westerosi folk both great and small. In the wedding party, they encounter Ser Jorah Mormont, the exiled lord of Bear Island. The bride and groom meet for the first time.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Many observers talk about Daenerys undergoing a hero’s journey in A Game of Thrones, from a terrified, abused little girl into a khaleesi and the Mother of Dragons, and they’re right. But politically, we see some very early signs of Daenerys being something much more – especially in comparison to her brother.
In this chapter, Viserys Targaryen is very much introduced as a romantic, monarchist exile, weaving “his web of dream,” obsessed with the day when “we will have it back… the jewels and the silks, Dragonstone and King’s Landing, the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms, all they have taken from us.” (And how typical that when Viserys speaks of Westeros, he always speaks of things, not people) As a result, he believes all of the lies that Illyrio Mopatis pours into his ear – because he wants to believe them, because they fit into the drama he’s constructed in his head about the way his life is going to happen. By contrast, Daenerys Targaryen is essentially a second generation immigrant – and a political realist. Her home is “the big house with the red door” where she had “a lemon tree outside her window,” and that is the restitution she initially wants – to have her childhood back. Because she knows she doesn’t know anything about the Seven Kingdoms, because these places are just names to her, she has a more calculating approach. She doesn’t trust Illyrio’s descriptions of Westeros on the grounds of her experience of Essos, because Illyrio reminds her of the faithful servants who stole their money and left them destitute, because she listens to “talk in the streets” that Illyrio sells his friends like commodities, and because in her world, no gift is given without a price.
It’s in this decision, to trust one’s own experience over one’s dreams, that we begin to see why Daenerys and not her brother is the true dragon, that it is the traumatized 13 year old who can see the mocking smiles that her manic depressive brother cannot. And as we learn later, one of the horrifying ironies is that the world Viserys has constructed of the noble exiles in flight from the hired daggers of the evil usurper is a paranoid illusion – Jon Arryn had called off the assassins long ago, and Robert Baratheon had spent decades interested in other matters. Had Viserys not schemed to make himself a military threat to King Robert, he might well have lived a long and peaceful life in Essos or seen the fruition of Illyrio and Vary’s great scheme. It was only when he made himself into a threat that the dream he had lived was summoned into reality.
Another political theme that’s set up in this chapter is how conflicting perspectives shape our understanding – in this case, our understanding of Robert’s Rebellion. After being introduced to Lord Eddard Stark as a noble and honorable man, and to the rebellion as the act of a courageous man defending the lives of the wards he had sworn to protect, we see Stark as “the Usurper’s dog” and party to the murder of children in the sack of King’s Kanding. We will later see how Robert interprets the actions of Rhaegar, but here they are seen as the romantic efforts of a man “dying for the sake of the woman he loved.” What we believe, who we believe depends on who we trust, which side we’re on. For all that Viserys is a romantic fool who for some strange reason thinks that the Greyjoys might welcome his return, he’s not totally wrong – the Martells really do “burn to avenge Elia and her children” and, as we learn so much later, are genuine Targaryen loyalists. The Darrys lost much when they went down fighting to the last for the Targaryens and might well welcome a chance for revenge; the Redwynes are unlikely to move with both heirs in King’s Landing but Viserys has no way of knowing that. The Tyrells are more mercenary and have their own plans in the works, but they are the most powerful house that’s on the outside looking into the halls of power.
What Martin is showing us here – even through Viserys’ rose-tinted glasses – is that no civil war is ever over, no civil war is ever won.
A third theme we can explore here is the Targaryen practice of marrying brother to sister, to keep the line pure. This (supposed) Valyrian custom was imported by the Targaryens upon their arrival on Westeros, although apparently no one not of the Targaryens outside of Cersei Lannister actually has ever adopted it. Why the Valyrians actually practiced incestuous marriage, let alone polygamous incestuous marriage is unexplained and fairly inexplicable; the Valyrian Freehold was a Republic, not a monarchy, so there was no dynastic purpose, no royal blood to keep pure. The only explanation is that it might have something to do with the sorcery of dragons, since the Valryian Freehold’s empire and the Targaryen dynasty both rested on the ability to control dragons reliably.
However, as a method of avoiding political conflict by keeping legitimacy in the family, as it were, it was a miserable failure. No less than four political crises – the revolt of the Faith Militant, the Dance of Dragons, the possible murder of Baelor I, and the Blackfyre Rebellion – can be linked to incest. Directly following the death of Aegon the Conqueror, the Faith Militant rose against Aenys I as the practice of incest is a sin in the eyes of the Seven. This revolt lasted ten years, brought down Aenys I, outlasted Maegor the Cruel, and nearly ended the Targaryen dynasty in its first generation. While the Dance of Dragons wasn’t directly prompted as much by incest as by conflict between egalitarian primogeniture and male succession, the fallout from the Dance with Dragons, where Aegon III married his cousin which resulted in two sons and three daughters, had huge long-term consequences.
When Baelor I refused to consummate his incestuous marriage, it created a political crisis of succession, where the children of his sister Elaena (who had married her cousin), the child of Daena (supposedly by Aegon IV), and his uncle Viserys all had claims to power – and may well have led to his death as a way of resolving the crisis. The Blackfyre Rebellion was doubly the result of incest. Daemon Blackfyre, despite having been born a bastard, could claim legitimacy, not merely from his natural father Aegon IV, but also from his mother Daena Targaryen and through her, from Aegon III. Moreover, Daemon’s claim could be bolstered by the rumor that his rival, Daeron II, was actually the child of Queen Naerys and Aemon the Dragonknight. At the same time, Daemon’s motives for claiming the throne supposedly include his love for his half-sister Daenerys.
It’s quite likely that even had Viserys not married Daenerys to Khal Drogo that the custom would have failed – Viserys ultimately was trapped between his feelings of fraternal love, incestuous love (hinted at in Game of Thrones and confirmed in Dance With Dragons), and his hatred for his sister: “her mother had died birthing her, and for that her brother Viserys had never forgiven her.” In this way, Viserys actually mirrors Cersei Lannister, that great admirer of Targaryen traditions – like her, Viserys hates a sibling for having caused the death of their mother and desires a sibling carnally, but in his case they’re the same person.
A final political theme is the question of what exactly Illyrio is doing with the marriage to Khal Drogo, and how it fits in with his and Varys’ overarching conspiracy. Clearly, he’s the originating force of the marriage, and he gets his finder’s fee for making it happen; he seems to be acting as Viserys’ handler, although he doesn’t try very hard to keep Viserys close at hand in Pentos after the wedding (this is perhaps due to Viserys’ superfluity, given that they have a personally-trained Targaryen male in hand). When we see him later in Arya III, he seems to be preparing a Dothraki invasion that he wants to time with the birth of Daenerys’ son, although it’s probably not the case (as Robert Baratheon thinks) that he’s waiting for the next generation to act. Given his gifts to Dany of the dragon eggs and bed slaves, he seems to want the marriage to work. At the same time, however, we learn from Dance of Dragons that “I did not think Daenerys would survive for long amongst the horselords” – so what was the purpose? Was it merely an attempt to bolster the military forces open to Illyrio and Varys, adding the horde of Khal Drogo to the Golden Company, so that Aegon VI will have an additional 40,000 men behind him? If so, why did Varys deliberately botch her murder, since we know he can assassinate with precision? Why complicate matters by adding Rhaego to the line of succession, or was Rhaego supposed to be a backup if Aegon VI died in the process of conquering Westeros?
A few things seem probable – to begin with, Varys and Illyrio made no effort to hide Viserys and Daenerys from Robert Baratheon in comparison to their intense efforts to keep Aegon’s identity a secret; indeed, they didn’t offer even financial support between the death of Willem Darry and the arrival of the siblings at Illyrio’s doorstep, although that might have been deliberate neglect in order to make Viserys desperate enough to wed his intended bride to win an army. Although they knew through Varys that Jon Arryn had forestalled any assassination attempts, it’s probable that they intended Viserys and Daenerys to act as decoys – why look for the supposedly deceased Aegon when there are two Targaryen pretenders right in front of you? It’s also clear from Dance of Dragons that an enormous amount of effort went into Aegon’s training and that Varys intended him to be the main Targaryen claimant. In the end, I think we’re going to have to wait for the Winds of Winter to fully map out a conspiracy that by this point has collapsed into so many contingency plans and adaptations to unforeseen events that its original shape is very hard to understand.
Despite the seemingly obvious drawbacks of hemophilia, porphyria, and flipper babies, royal incest was a historical phenomenon in many cultures. The Pharoahs of Egypt most closely resemble the Targaryen pattern, although they tended to stick to half-brother/half-sister marriages until the Ptolmys, who went in for direct brother-to-sister marriages. The Incas and the royal house of Hawaii also went in for brother-sister marriages. In medieval Europe, direct incest was both illegal and condemned by the Church, with the bizarre case of Jean V of Armagnac the only case I could find of a brother-sister marriage.
The danger of this practice can be seen in the case of the House of Hapsburg, in both its Austrian and Spanish lines was well-known for “consanguineous marriage,” including one marriage of an uncle to a niece. Even avoiding direct incest of brothers and sisters or fathers and daughters, they still succeeded in increasing the inbreeding coefficient tenfold to the point of parent-child and brother-sister levels. This lead to recurrent problems with deformity, infertility/importance, mental disorders and retardation, and other genetic abnormalities.
Given these problems, it’s surprising the Targaryens lasted as long as they did with so few obviously deformed offspring, given how brother-sister marriage increases the risks of genetic disorders beyond the levels associated with marrying first cousins. It’s possible that, like some royal houses engaged in direct incest, they practiced infanticide to weed out obvious cases of maladaptive traits. This might explain how so many Targaryens are described as having been beautiful (although part of that may be the association between Targaryen traits like silver hair and purple eyes with power and therefore beauty) – although they clearly missed a spot when it came to Maelys the Monstrous. Their track record when it comes to weeding out less obvious conditions that might have affected the mind is less good (although it’s hard to separate nature vs. nuture in these circumstances): Maegor the Cruel, Aerion Brightflame, Rhaegel Targaryen, Mad King Aerys II, the list is hardly inspiring.
The marriage between Daenerys and Khal Drogo brings up an interesting historical point – it’s probable that the Dothraki are patterned not off the Mongols, but rather the Huns, and Khal Drogo himself on that most famous Hun, Attila, and Daenerys off of the Roman princess Honoria. In 450 AD, the willful and infamous lady Honoria, sister to the weak Emperor Valentinian III, sent a plea for help to Attila in overcoming her brother, and offered in exchange her hand in marriage – and half of Gaul. At the time, Attila was one of the greatest warlords in the known world, extracting tribune from Constantinople, laying waste to the Balkans, and smashing Roman armies. To win Honoria’s hand and secure her position, Attila invaded Gaul, capturing Metz, Rheims, and Paris – before being defeated at the Battle of Châlons. When Valentinian III denied him his bride, Attila invaded Italy and practically burnt it to the ground – the city of Venice was founded out in the lagoon by refugees trying to get away from his horsemen. So like Khal Drogo, Attila would lay kingdoms to waste for the sake of his bride – and like Drogo, Attila would die no warriors death, but from a most minor injury – he suffered a massive nosebleed while intoxicated, and choked to death on his own blood.
I see three possible what ifs emerging out of this chapter:
- What if Viserys had succeeded in his effort to deflower his sister the night before her marriage? Besides the likelihood that Drogo would have called the wedding off, it’s quite possible that Rhaego might have been born even more deformed than he was – interestingly, the only example I can find of an obviously deformed Targaryen baby. However, Illyrio had foreseen this possibility and put guards outside her door that night – lest “Viserys might have undone years of planning.” This last phrase is tantalizing; clearly Daenerys was an integral part of their planning, yet Illyrio was expecting her to die on the Dothraki plain and her son seems far less crucial given the existence of Aegon VI. Indeed, had Daenerys been groomed as a perfect Targaryen queen, why not save her for Aegon?
- What if Khal Drogo had turned Daenerys down? Here we have a hypothetical that only brings up further questions about this conspiracy – why did Varys and Illyrio want a Dothraki khal and his khalassar, given how unlikely it would be that the Khal would have taken orders from Jon Connington or Aegon? Did they want cannon fodder for a failed invasion meant to draw away attention from the real threat, like one of Varys’ mummers tricks?
- What if Viserys and Daenerys were assassinated before they arrived at Pentos? This, I think, is actually one of the least consequential hypotheticals for Varys and Illyrio – they would have lost their decoys, but the core of their plan would have been intact. However, just as with the second hypothetical, we have some enormous consequences for the larger plot – with no Drogo, no Rhaego, and thus no dragons. Robert Baratheon’s desire to extirpate the Targaryen line might have brought about the downfall of the world, depending on how crucial those dragons are to stopping the Others. Even leaving aside the larger metaphysics, it’s possible that Eddard Stark becomes so disillusioned with Robert, coming hard on the heels of the murder of Elia and her children, that he flat-out refuses the Handship.
Book vs. TV Show:
The show plays this chapter fairly straight, although they shift the meeting of Drogo and Daenerys to have Drogo on his horse – which I think is an improvement, actually. One interesting little change is that the phrase “a man should be able to do what he likes with his chattel” is shifted from Illyrio the slave-trader to Viserys, which emphasizes Viserys lack of empathy for anyone but himself, and also his unfamiliarity with Westeros. Westerosi peasants are not chattel, insofar as much as they have the right to appeal for the King’s justice – which suggests they have a legal status above that of property.