“Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendor in a field beyond the walls of Pentos, for the Dothraki believed that all things of importance in a man’s life must be done beneath the open sky.
“The horselords might put on rich fabrics and sweet perfumes when they visited the Free Cities, but out under the open sky they kept the old ways.”
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.
The second Daenerys chapter gives us another short glimpse into the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy, especially regarding the timing, which allows us to refine our model from before. While trying to unruffle Viserys’ feathers (scales?) over the Dothraki tradition of waiting for the crones of Vaes Dothrak to do their divination (although we learn later on that Drogo’s stalling has a lot more do to with wanting Daenerys’ child to be born before he goes on campaign, which adds a layer of wiliness to the khal that’s easy to miss), Illyrio argues that the prince should be willing to wait “another few months” or even “another few years.”
Given what we learn during his later conversation with Varys, Illyrio’s preferred timeline for the outbreak of war is at least nine months after Ned Stark’s installation as Hand. He wants that child to be born so that the Dothraki can be brought into play, but it’s not clear why he wouldn’t want the Starks and Lannisters to wear each other out before the Targaryen forces arrive (possibly he was afraid that one side would win too quickly and have a chance to consolidate its grasp on power).
It may well be that Illyrio wanted to give himself time to get Aegon and the Golden Company the time to unite with the Dothraki, or that part of the illusionists’ plan was to win bloodlessly by dividing the country between the Starks and Lannisters and Baratheon, de-legitimize the sitting monarch by revealing the truth of Joffrey’s birth and then confronting a disunited Westeros with an overwhelming army. This stick would be counterbalanced by a picture perfect Targaryen King, Queen, and heir (possibly Drogo “dies gloriously in battle” and Rhaego is passed off as Aegon’s and Daenerys’ child?).
A second theme we have here is the complication of our view of the Dothraki – presented here as a sophisticated, culturally flexible people who can put on “rich fabrics and sweet perfumes” when they visit their second homes among the palaces of Pentos, yet who still hold to their own culture where everything is done under the open sky. This is also a wealthy culture – Drogo personally owns a thousand horses, an opulent palace, and many slaves – and this wealth comes from not merely from conquest but rather from their integrated role in the Essos economy. The Dothraki act as a kind of outsourced mercenary force, paid tributes by rival city states to go sack a different city; they are the chief producers of slaves for Astapor, Yunkai, and Mereen, who in turn export mercenaries, gladiators, and pleasure slaves for a vast continental marketplace in unfree labor, as well as using their labor to produce wine, olive oil, and other staple crops.
Ironically, both Daenerys and some of the audience miss some of this complexity – in part because George R.R Martin chose to give us our initial glimpse into Dothraki culture through the eyes of a sheltered young woman in the midst of severe culture shock. Despite the fact that Daenerys knows all of these facts, the heightened impression she has is exactly the orientalized image that critics of the HBO show criticized: “she was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skin and not true men at all.” As Daenerys begins to acculturate to her new culture, both she and the audience begin to discover the diversity and depth of the Dothraki.
And one thing that Daenerys begins to learn is how the surprising nature of becoming a khaleesi literally elevates her above her brother. While khaleesi do not carry arakh, whip, or bow, she does have her own guards, command over the khalassar through her husband – as the Dothraki say, “her place [is] by the side of the khal,” not behind. (And eventually, as one of the dosh khaleen, she might have wielded enormous spiritual and political power) And it’s appropriate that this is the last chapter where Daenerys is truly afraid of her brother, and yet that fear only comes in dreams and sudden flashbacks where “the fear came back to her then, with her brother’s words. She felt like a child once more, only thirteen and all alone,” because after this day, Daenerys is no longer alone but part of a great khalassar.
One of George R.R Martin’s innovations that sadly didn’t make it onto the screen is the way in which he both displays and subverts the traditional fantasy tropes about barbarians and barbarism. These tropes are one of fantasy’s troubling inheritances from our predecessors – J.R.R Tolkein’s depiction of the Easterlings and Haradrim are at least an unconscious reflection of racial ideas within the British Empire he grew up in; R.E Howard combined his border Texas heritage of animus towards African-Americans and Native Americans with an idiosyncratic form of “noble savage” thinking to create his Hyborian Age.
At the same time, the historical reality is that the Medieval Europe which the fantasy genre was built on was profoundly shaped by invasions of Europe by Arabs (who conquered much of Spain and large parts of southern Italy), Ottoman Turks (who conquered much of south-eastern Europe, all the way up to the gates of Vienna), the Vikings (who terrorized Europe and conquered Normandy, the “Danelaw” in England, coastal Ireland, Sicily and Naples), Mongols, and other peoples. The cultural implications of these invasions were tremendous – the Frankish victory of Charles Martel over the Moors at Tours was critical in limiting the penetration of Islamic culture into Europe and creating a Frankish (and later French) identity as the defenders of a new thing called “Christendom” against outside forces; the Viking invasions spurred apocalyptic and millennial thinking within the Catholic Church; the national myths of the Hungarians, Transylvanians, Romanians, Serbs, Poles, Russians, and more were all built around narratives of resistance to foreign conquerors.
Any fantasy work with a foot in the Middle Ages has to reflect this history. And yet, the line between “Christendom” and “barbarism” was never simple – Medieval Europe was built out of the invasions of Goths, Franks, and Vandals into the Roman Empire, just as Westeros was built out of the invasions of the First Men, Andals, Rhoynar, and Valaryians.
Rather than a climactic fall into a Dark Age that historians from the Renaissance era pictured it as (in part, reacting to contemporary invasions of Italy by the French, Spanish, and the Holy Roman Emperor), there was an enormous amount of acculturation both before and after the fall of Rome – and many Goths, Franks, and Vandals spent quite some time living in the Roman Empire before they took it over. Alaric the Goth, who sacked Rome in 410 C.E, had served in the Imperial auxiliaries and sought the position of commander-in-chief of the Roman army as part of his demands during the second siege of Rome. When the Ostragoths under their king Flavius Odoacer completed the conquest of Rome in 476, they kept the Senate in place, formally acknowledged the suzerainty of the Eastern Roman Empire, took on Latin names and Roman dress.
And it went on and on – Spanish and Italian cultures were deeply influenced by Moorish and Arabian art, architecture, agriculture, and language, as were their peers to the east. Despite our rather schematic view of European relations with other cultures summed up in the image of the Crusades, the reality was that there was just as much commerce and cultural exchange as there was conquest. It’s that complexity of experience, the blurring of the lines between two civilizations, the ambiguity between “invasion” and “internal political coup,” that Martin hinted at in his depiction of the Dothraki, and that Benioff and Weiss didn’t manage to get across in their depiction of the Dothraki arriving in Pentos.
Unfortunately, I don’t really see any hypotheticals here that I didn’t cover in Daenerys I. Perhaps some readers could suggest some?
Book vs. TV:
As I’ve already suggested, the wedding and the bedding are one of the biggest divergences between the book and the TV show. However, unlike certain podcasts that I normally quite like, I think the outcome is more complex than a flat failure. It’s true that they’ve excised much of the complexity of the Dothraki culture; however, I don’t think it’s the multiculturalism that’s the problem. The Dothraki are a slave-owning culture, and any slave culture is going to have a large, multi-ethnic population of slaves. The problem is that we don’t get to see the Dothraki in Pentos as sophisticated, wealthy, acculturated people – and then the reveal of their maintenance of their original culture, with all of its violent, rapey, and slave-owning rough edges.
However, I do think (and I’m aware that this is going to be controversial, so bear with me) that the change to the consummation between Daenerys and Drogo makes sense dramatically. I’ve always found it a bit odd that the two of them have this rather tender albeit awkward first night, then Drogo relentlessly rapes her, then she learns how to “tame” him into accepting a more consensual relationship. The HBO version by contrast has a more realistic and consistent arc, and actually gives Daenerys more agency than in the book.