“The stallion who mounts the world has no need of iron chairs.”
“To Rhaego son of Drogo, the stallion who will mount the world…to him I will give this iron chair his mother’s father sat in.”
Synopsis: Despite Dany’s entreating, Drogo refuses to march west and invade the Seven Kingdoms. Dany visits the Western Market, where she suffers mild peril from a hapless amateur assassin before being saved by Jorah. Drogo changes his mind and gives a stirring WWF Smackdown promo.
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.
Drogo and the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy
Daenerys VI is a slightly unusual chapter for A Game of Thrones in that it largely centers around the political side of her story – especially how events in Essos are intersecting with the King’s Landing plotline. To begin with, it’s interesting that the chapter begins with Dany failing to persuade Khal Drogo of the virtue of crossing “the black salt sea” with “wooden horses with a thousand legs” in order to regain an “iron chair,” despite the conversation taking just after Drogo takes “pleasure” in her. It’s a sign, however oblique, that Dany isn’t going to fit into the role of a political wife who acts through her husband (in the same way that say, Margaery excells in), that her skills and her story are otherwise.
This failure is also significant in that Drogo’s flat refusal to envision crossing the Narrow Sea calls into question his part in the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy: namely, did Drogo ever intend to lead an army to Westeros in the name of his wife and her family? If not, what was the unseen negotiation between Illyrio and Drogo about, even if it wasn’t understood as a bargain of a bride for an army? Illyrio’s involvement in the exchange is somewhat inexplicable if that last wasn’t part of the point, given his investment in a Targaryen restoration. On the other hand, while Jorah seems confident that Drogo will change his mind eventually, as “the Dothraki do things in their own time for their own reasons,” Drogo’s refusal seems quite emphatic.
Given that both Varys and Illyrio are intelligent men, and how far back Varys informed King Robert of the wedding (the best Game of Thrones timeline I’ve seen estimates Varys’ information as being passed on six months after the wedding and it is now six months since that happened), it may well have been the case that Varys and Illyrio had always planned to use a failed assassination attempt against Dany to force Drogo’s hand, and that the only difference that the attempts on Bran’s life made were to accelerate the timeline somewhat. It would very much fit Varys’ style as a conspirator – hands-off to an extreme, using the resources of others to do his work for him while remaining out of sight, and a high degree of precision and delicacy (after all, the attempt has to be both credible but not successful, which is difficult to gauge from a continent away). More on this below where I talk about the assassination.
The Egg and the Blood of the Dragons
It’s not just a thematic signposting that Dany fails to act as a political wife – it’s also a subtly important plot point. It is Dany’s sense of frustration and despair that causes her to breath new life into “the fading memory of a red door” and to once again think to herself as “blood of the dragon…the last, the very last…the seed of kings and conquerors,” who cannot ultimately be at home among the Dothraki (again, back to our old theme of assimilation). Daenerys could be content to just be the mother of the Stallion Who Mounts the World, but the dragon cannot be. And it’s this feeling that drives Dany to react to an attempt on her life by putting dragon eggs in a charcoal brazier.
It’s also telling that, right around when she makes the decision to do this, Dany feels a moment of disassociation, literally “hear[ing] her own voice saying, “Ser Jorah, light the brazier,”" as if from outside her body and wonders later whether “was it madness that seized her then, born of fear? Or some strange wisdom buried in her blood?” Someone more versed in the darker side of Targaryen history might have answered both, since the Targaryens have shared a common obsession with awakening dragon eggs since the time of Aegon III. Aegon III summoned nine eastern mages to hatch the remaining eggs; his son Baelor sought the intercession of the Seven through prayer to no avail; Aegon IV attempted to create mechanical dragons; Aerion Brightflame sought to drink wildfire to become a dragon, and Aerys II may have sought to do the same on a larger scale with his collaboration with the Alchemists’ Guild (given Hallyne’s comments). Even a “good” Targaryen like Aegon V ultimately destroyed himself and much of his family in the attempt to waken dragons at Summerhall.
Why and how Dany succeeded where they failed is something I’ll discuss in the future, but I did find it interesting (given Melisandre’s prophecies about Azor Ahai) that Dany thinks that “a dragon was air and fire…not dead stone,” which suggests that the stone dragon breathing shadowflame is somehow a perversion of the natural order.
To set the stage for the major event of this chapter, we are treated to a more in-depth look at Vaes Dothrak as the place where east and west meet: “the caravans made their way to Vaes Dothrak not so much to sell with the Dothraki as to trade with each other.” As England was once the workshop of the world, Vaes Dothrak is the world’s marketplace. Notably, it’s also where commercial culture intersects with gift culture, with neither truly dominating; while Dany believes that the Dothraki may “not truly comprehend this business of buying and selling,” it’s telling that the Dothraki manage to get themselves paid in salt and silver (two universal commodities of the ancient world) without having to incur any of the normal risks of long-distance trade.
At the same time, we also get something of a portrait of intercontinental commerce. The West (which, in a show of trans-cultural relativism, here includes the Free Cities of Essos’ western coast) brings garlic and pepper (spices historically being one of the most profit-intensive by volume commodities of the premodern era); Lysene perfumes, Pentoshi dyes, Myrish lace and textiles (the Free Cities’ predominance in luxury manufactured goods suggests their advanced economies relative to Westeros, much in the way that the Benelux region outpaced much of the rest of Europe in the early Modern period); Lannisport goldworks (whose relatively advanced manufacturing might explain why Lannisport is a thriving port despite being on the wrong side of Westeros for commercial purposes); and of course wine.
In exchange, the East brings exotic animals (manticores, elephants, and the zorses of the Jogos Nhai, who seem to be a semi-nomadic people that live north of Yi Ti); wine, safrron, and jade from Yi Ti; amber and dragonglass from Asshai; spices from Qarth (one of the few products made by a city otherwise built on export-import); and the gods alone know from the exotic cities of Bayasbhad, Shamyriana, and Kayakayanaya. We also get a sense of a truly rich diversity of ethnicities and cultures: the Jogos Nhai are plainsdwelling zorsemen whose moonsinging religion somehow is the largest denomination in Braavos; the people of Asshai are “dark and solemn,” but noticeably not the same as the Shadow Men who wear tattoos and masks (which corrects the common misconception that Quaithe is of Asshai); the pale people of Qarth who we’ll get to know more of later (their pale skin may be a sign of Valyrian ethnic heritage or not, but it does point to the fact that Essos is incredibly racially diverse, but not predominantly of color as far as we know – a point that will be important when we come to Dany’s campaign against the slavers later); the people of Yi Ti whose queues, jade, and poetry suggest an analogue to China under the Manchu; and Bayasbhad, Shamyriana, and Kayakaynaya, who seem to have a strong tradition of women mercenaries and body-piercing.
The reason I take the time to describe all of these different cultures is to point out that people who take GRRM to task for creating a “savage and brutish monolith” in Essos really haven’t paid close attention to his writing. While Martin certainly does exoticize the East to an extent (in part I would surmise because of his love of older historical fiction and fantasy works that borrowed liberally from Orientalist traditions in Western literature), he clearly has paid attention to how his world works and made these cultures far more than caricatures. Essos is a place of staggering diversity, but it’s also a continent whose history, geography, culture, and economy are actually logically connected – think of the interactions between Valyrian and Ghiscari cultures and their influence hundreds of years later, or how the Dothraki play such a critical role in creating and maintaining inter-continental trade routes). It’s also a place, not to put too fine a point on it, that is materially, economically, and culturally far more advanced than Westeros and always has been – which means that as readers, we have to be very very careful about making assumptions about racial privilege and colonial mentality in a world whose history is not our own.
The Assassination Attempt
And now to the main event, the assassination “attempt” by the hapless wineseller. I use scare quotes there, because of how clearly staged this seems in retrospect: Dany is lured to the market where an assassination attempt is about t0 take place because Jorah informs her of a caravan of 400 horses under the command of a merchant captain from Pentos has arrived bearing letters from Illyrio. The moment Jorah gets his letter from Illyrio in private, he knows what’s going to happen – pegging this one wine merchant out of a huge crowd as the specific threat to Dany. While Jorah says “I did not know..until the man refused to drink, but once I read Magister Illyrio’s letter,” I highly doubt the letter only warned of King Robert’s offer. I think the letter quite explicitly named the assassin so that Jorah would save her, thus ingratiating himself with Daenerys and Drogo as Varys and Illyrio’s controller on the inside of the khalasar. Further evidence of the set-up is seen in the fact that when Merchant Captain Byan Votyris arrives on the scene, “he seemed to know what had happened without a word being spoken.”
Another detail that points to the fakery of this attack is how completely incompetent the assassin is – he seems not to recognize Daenerys until she is named right in front of him, he makes a clumsy switch between wine casks, he hesitates and stalls when challenged, he’s a terrible liar with a bad case of the flopsweats, and so on and so forth. It all screams patsy.
And keep in mind, this is an assassination attempt by Varys. As we see from A Dance With Dragons (and as I will argue with regards to Tywin, A Storm of Swords as well), when Varys wants someone dead, he attacks with precision, thoroughness, and utmost stealth. When you see him being this sloppy, you know it’s on purpose. And lo and behold, the outcome of this attack is to accomplish precisely what he wanted back in Arya III – Drogo changes his policy on a dime and will now invade Westeros.
And what I like about Drogo’s oath is that it already sets up the idea that we’re not going to get a sanitized, heroic “rightful heir overthrowing heroic usurper” narrative – Drogo comes to give his son the Iron Throne not out of any sense of justice, but because of a personal vendetta; he comes not to liberate Westeros, but to bring destruction, mass rape, slavery, and cultural destruction to its people. And Dany bears full culpability for this.
In the past, I briefly compared Vaes Dothrak to Genghis Khan’s capital city of Karakoroum. In this section, I’m going to briefly discuss the Silk Road, before focusing more specifically on the history of silver and salt as trade goods. Historically, the Silk Road is the closest equivalent we have of the way in which Vaes Dothrak unites two continents. First linked up around 130 BC when the Han Dynasty defeated the nomadic Xiongnu and linked China to the Hellenized Bactrian kingdoms in modern-day Afghanistan (and thus to Persia and points west), the Silk Road stretched for 4,000 miles from Turkey to China and lasted as a major trade route for around 1500 years.
While silk might be quite exotic, the histories of two more mundane commodities – silver and salt – help to explain why the Dothraki take their tribute in these forms (the seed I’ll leave up to your imagination).
In no small part due to its abundance, silver was the practical currency of both the Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire (Rome also used gold, but it tended to be for higher denominations, while the humble silver denarius became so ubiquitous that it serves as the origins of the Spanish dinero, the Arabic dinar, and the d used for British pennies up until 1971). Silver was just rare enough (and pretty) to be widely considered valuable and common enough to be serve as a basis for currency (in the second century AD, Rome circulated more silver than all of Europe and the Abbasid Caliphate combined five times over in the 9th century AD). It also posed some of the first problems of trade imbalances in world history – the strong Roman demand for Chinese silks (there’s the Silk Road again!) caused a significant drain of silver eastward that frequently destabilized Roman currency values. The Chinese insistence on silver in exchange for tea, silk, and porcelain in the 19th century caused a similar currency drain from Western Europe, which led to the adoption of opium from India as a product that generated its own demand, and then the Opium Wars.
Salt seems a far more humble commodity, but no less influential on world history. Prior to the modern age, with our mass productions systems and easy access to refrigeration, salting was one of the few technologies available to preserve food – which led to it being considered universally valuable. As a result, many fortunes were founded on salt: Rome itself was founded on top of an ancient salt road, which helped the settlement grow from a tiny hillfort community into the master of Italy. The “Old Salt Route” between Lübeck and Lüneburg produced so much “white gold” that it helped to provide the foundation for the Hanseatic League and massively undermined the economic strength of 16th century Poland, whose prosperity had relied heavily on salt exports. Genoa and Venice fought wars over control of the salt trade; the salt tax (known as the gabelle) was so despised in 18th century France that it was a leading complaint during the French Revolution. The British East India Company levied a high tax on Indian salt in 1835 to force India to import salt from Britain (where there was a center of salt production in Cheshire), and thus the salt tax was one of Mohatma Ghandi’s major targets in his noncooperation campaigns of the 1930s.
Needless to say, the Dothraki seem to have a pretty sweet (or is that salty?) deal worked out for them in Vaes Dothrak.
I only see two conceivable hypothetical alternatives to the events (really, just the event) of this chapter:
- the attempt had succeeded? In the highly unlikely event that Varys hadn’t completely scripted out the wineseller’s failure, let’s say Dany and Drogo drink the wine as Dany had intended. With both of them dead, the geopolitics of Essos change dramatically. Slaver’s Bay is never destabilized with the conquest of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen; Varys and Illyrio have to move on their Aegon/Golden Company plan much, much sooner (possibly by maneuvering to try to bring Pentos and/or Tyrosh in on their side, in a recapitulation of the War of Ninepenny Kings); Volantis doesn’t shift towards the tigers; and Euron Crowseye has to come up with a different plan, which potentially makes the Ironborn far more dangerous than they are to Westeros in OTL. The metaphysics are more uncertain but more momentous – the dragons are never reborn, which may mean that magic doesn’t regain its strength (it’s not entirely clear whether they’re cause or consequence of magic’s revival), which might tip the balance of the Battle of Blackwater Bay, and it may well be that the entire world is doomed.
- Drogo never decides to go to Westeros? The wineseller somehow kills himself out of pure stupidity, or never sees Dany in the market. Potentially history changes once again – with a strong enough butterfly effect, Drogo never takes his wound and never encounters Mirri Maz Dur, so may very well survive – as well might Dany’s son. At some point but much later, the War of Five Kings gets much much worse when a Dothraki army lands in Westeros. Many of the same geopolitical forces change, but it may well be that the rebirth of the dragons still happens; after all, blood magic and dragon lore isn’t unknown in Westeros.
Book vs. Show:
The show did this one pretty much on the nose, with the added wrinkle of showing us Jorah meeting a non-mute little bird (which, wtf?) to make it very clear to show-watchers what’s going on with the assassination attempt.