“He was no dragon…fire cannot kill a dragon.”
Synopsis: Dany passes through the Dothraki’s hazing ceremony, and receives a prophecy of her child’s future, which pleases the khal. Viserys is less pleased, until Khal Drogo gives him a golden crown. At which point, he doesn’t feel much of anything anymore.
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.
It’s a bit strange even to me, but it kind of feels good to be back in Essos in Dany V, after ten chapters of densely-plotted Westerosi political machinations. In this chapter, we get a further helping of Dothraki culture and assess the life and (gruesome) death of Viserys Targaryen, the King Who Never Was.
Dothraki Culture Gets Complicated
As I’ve mentioned before, the Dothraki culture presented in A Game of Thrones is far more complicated than what we got on the HBO series’ first season, when it comes to their role in Essosi commerce, their ability to move back and forth between different material cultures, and the way in which the khalasar itself creates certain cultural values and ideals often invisible to Westerosi observers.
In this chapter, the reader along with Daenerys gets exposed to more (and more complicated) aspects of Dothraki culture, beginning with the tricky question of gender. First, we learn that the women of the dosh khaleen wield an enormous amount of cultural, religious, and political power across the whole of the Dothraki people: “when their lord husbands died…they were sent here, to reign over the vast Dothraki nation. Even the mightiest of khals bowed to the wisdom and authority of the dosh khaleen.” Given their role as the center of religious and mystical power within the culture, and the fact that the dosh khaleen are really the only trans-khalasar institution in Dothraki life, one might conclude that the Dothraki are a matriarchal society, akin to Native American tribes where only men could be chiefs, but where the women of the tribe alone elected who the chief would be.
At the same time, we learn that “if the mother…choked on the blood or retched up the flesh…the child might be stillborn, or come forth weak, deformed, or female.” Equating female sex with deformity, weakness, and death doesn’t exactly suggest gender equality, let alone matriarchal values. Likewise, the fact that the Dothraki creation myth omits women altogether (the first man and the first horse being born at once in an act of parthenogenesis, without the involvement of any female force) points to a misogyny equal if not more so than in Westerosi culture.
So which is it – matriarchy or misogyny? Well, it could either, could well be both, with a form of separate spheres in which some women (notably only the wives of the khals gain power, not rank-and-file Dothraki women) are given power within specifically-female areas of life, while excluded from military and economic power. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to get much more data, unless Dany takes a trip back to Vaes Dothrak and we get to see more of the dosh khaleen. The larger point here is that cultures are incredibly complex, and readers should be very careful about getting all of the data in before we, as outsiders to that culture, make judgements.
On a different cultural topic, we can also see more of the Dothraki’s cultural imperialism and sense of manifest destiny. We’ve already seen a bit of this with the Dothraki custom of dragging the statues of foreign gods back to Vaes Dothrak as tribute to the superior virtues of the Great Stallion, but here we get a much fuller explanation of how the Dothraki see themselves in the world: “as swift as the wind he rides, and behind him his khalasar covers the earth, men without number…his enemies will tremble before him, and their wives will weep tears of blood…the milk men in the stone tents will fear his name…the prince is riding, and he shall be the stallion who mounts the world.” Dany’s son is prophecied to be the Dothraki messiah, the “khal of khals” who “will unite the Dothraki into a single khalasar, and ride to the ends of the earth…all the people of the world will be his herd.” In other words, a key part of Dothraki self-identity and religious purpose is a sense of imperialist Manifest Destiny.
Which gets to something that I’ve noticed in discussions of ASOIAF online and the critique of Daenerys’ storyline, especially in A Storm of Swords and A Dance With Dragons, as a colonialist one in which a white woman (practically an albino) saves the benighted eastern masses of people of color by striking down their orientalist despot masters and establishing an enlightened government. I’ve written elsewhere why I think this analysis is exporting post-colonialist theory that emerged out of our earth’s historical experiences, especially in the 18th-20th century, and why it misses some of the subtleties of the specific historical and anthropological experiences of this different world, and that our colonialist readings (while absolutely valid and a necessary part of the discourse) shouldn’t overwhelm an anti-slavery reading of the plot. However, the reason I bring this up here is to note that Dany isn’t the only one with imperialist or colonialist ideology in the world of ASOIAF, that the Dothraki have it as well.
Indeed, within the context of the series, to the sense that “Manifest Destiny” thinking appears, it mostly comes out of Essos: the Valyrian Freehold’s imperial ambitions continue to structure the culture and politics of the continent, much of the Ghiscari culture is a re-invention of an older imperialist tradition, the Volantine belief that they are the rightful heirs of Old Valyria and their attempts to reclaim that empire by force, the conflicts between the Free Cities over the Disputed Lands, Aegon the Conqueror’s belief in “one land, one king”, and now the Dothraki belief that they were meant by the gods to rule the world. The same attitudes don’t really appear among the Westerosi, who notably stay out of Essosi politics save when it involves rival claimants to the Iron Throne (as in the case of the War of Ninepenny Kings), save perhaps among the Ironborn, who believe that they have the right to reive and to rule. The larger point here: just because we have an analogue for Medieval England, and an analogue for Renaissance Continental Europe and points east, we can’t assume that West = colonialist and East = colonized. We need to look beyond geography and analyze the historical dynamics of the world in question before we begin to compare them to our own.
What Viserys Was
And now the death of Viserys Targaryen, Third-ish of his name. George R.R Martin has given us many deaths of villains – from Joffrey choking to death to Tywin’s will being overcome by the rudeness of biology – but I don’t know whether he’s ever given us a more pathetic villain, brought to his death a complete failure reduced to helpless babbling pleas for mercy.
So what was Viserys, in the end? At one point, Dany points to their shared past, that “he is my brother…and my true king…he was the only one left…he is all I have.” In the past, Viserys was once the hope of his house, a figure of childhood memories of judgement and protection who loomed over Daenerys, a role that Dany still gives him – witness her willingness to hand over the dragon eggs. At the same time, this moment is one in which that image of Viserys is destroyed before his death; note that the moment Viserys puts his sword to her belly, Dany refers to him as “this man who had once been her brother.” Jorah points the way to the truth, that Dany now has a husband, a child-to-be and a destiny that has nothing to do with him any more.
To Varys and Illyrio, Viserys’ place is uncertain. Given their hold over Young Griff/Aegon VI and the intense level of secrecy they wove around him and the focus on his education and training, compared to the extensive neglect of Viserys (who was allowed to wander as the Beggar Prince for around 5-6 years before Illyrio gave him a place to live), Viserys seems like a pawn used as a distraction to keep Robert Baratheon’s eyes away from the true prince they meant to place on the Iron Throne. At the same time, the fact that Viserys’ name was used on the marriage contract with the Martells, whose support is vital for a successful landing in Westeros, suggests that at least at one point he was considered important to their plans (unless they were sufficiently ruthless enough to gamble that Doran Martell wouldn’t really care which Targaryen prince his daughter would be bethrothed to).
To Khal Drogo, Viserys seems to have been something of an appendix from the beginning – after all, if you’ve got a son who’s supposed to be the Stallion Who Mounts the World, why bother giving the “Iron Chair” to his whiny uncle? One thing that’s absolutely clear is that Viserys’ lack of understanding of Dothraki culture killed any possible working relationship between the two of them; a khal isn’t going to respect a Cart King, a Sorefoot King, which is probably one of the reasons Illyrio wanted to keep Viserys away from the khalasar.
Ultimately, it’s his lack of understanding – “she knew what a drawn sword meant here, even if her brother did not” – his failure to adapt to this new culture he’s living among, that brings Viserys to his death by cultural snobbery.
There is one other important thing to note about Viserys and the manner of his death. While it’s true that GRRM is willing to kill any character when it suits his story, it’s absolutely not true that anyone dies randomly in ASOIAF (he’s far too intricate in his plotting for that). Here we have the first on-screen death of a major character (depending on how major one considers Jory Cassel), and it’s the death of a king in the act of being crowned. In ASOIAF, prophecy always comes with its own heralds and forerunners, echoes of the future rippling backwards in time, Here, the message is clear – kings are going to die, and the crowning of kings is going to bring horror rather than joy. Anyone wondering what’s going to happen to Robert and Joffrey just needs to pay attention.
Another sign that GRRM never acts randomly is that he doesn’t choose just any form of death for Viserys, but a historically famously form of murder, death by pouring of molten gold. The Consul Manius Aquillius was despised by the people of Anatolia for levying crippling taxation upon them to fill his own purse (Aquillius had previously managed to skate from a charge of maladministration as governor of Sicily based on his war record), and so when Mithridates of Pontus defeated him at Protostachium, he was paraded through the streets of Anatolia’s capitol on the back of a donkey, where Mithridates the Great had molten gold poured down his throat to the cheers of the crowd.
When Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome and so infamously avaricious that he was called “Crassus rich as Croeseus” (the inventor of coinage), invaded the lands of the Parthian Emperors to plunder the riches of the East, and was routed at Carrhae, the victorious Parthians meted out the same fate to him (having heard of and clearly been impressed by Mithridates’ punishment). According to Plutarch, his head was then used as a prop in a staging of The Bacchae at a Parthian royal wedding.
In some tellings of his death, the Emperor Valerian (the only Roman Emperor ever to be captured on the battlefield, again by the Persians) was forced to swallow molten gold as the crowning of ritual humiliations (that began with being used as a human footstool for the Emperor Shapur the Great), possibly as a way to mock the Emperor’s offers of lavish ransoms if he was freed. Following this death, the Emperor was skinned and the skin stuffed so that it could be kept as a trophy of the greatness of the Persian Emperors. If you think George R.R Martin has a sick mind, all I can say is look at this historical example and realize that, if anything, Martin is rather tame compared to the kings and emperors of history.
It’s not accidental that Viserys’ death in this fashion comes after he attempts to steal Daenerys’ wedding gift and use to it to further his royal ambitions – Martin is symbolically punishing the prince for his vanity, his pride, and his greed. At the same time, it’s not an accident that all of these historical deaths involved the triumph of an eastern monarch over a western one; Martin’s playing with some orientalist tropes here, but instead of this death being seen as an outrage that must be avenged, as they were historically, instead it’s shown as a righteous judgement for a coward and a bully, and one that clears the way for a Queen who combines East and West to rise.
There’s really only one hypothetical that matters here (yes, there’s also the possibility of what if Viserys had actually managed to kill Dany’s baby, but given that the baby dies anyway, it doesn’t really change anything; Viserys might have gotten away with stealing the eggs if the timing had been different, but I think the rule of Chekov’s Dragon Eggs holds): what if Viserys had avoided his brutal death here? It’s not likely, given his raging ego and need to be recognized as the most important person where ever he goes, but it’s possible Viserys gets so drunk that he passes out and sleeps it off without ever making it to the feast, so maybe he survives.
On one level, Viserys’ story is kind of done, so it seems a bit unfair to keep dragging things out. However, on a petty and personally satisfying level, it would be kind of hilarious to see his sister birth the three dragons that his family has been trying and failing to achieve since the time of Aegon III. On a plot level, it might actually change things a bit – the Martell marriage doesn’t need to be changed, so Quentyn probably isn’t sent to Meereen, which means he probably isn’t burninated to death by Rhaegal in the attempt to tame…Viserion. In turn, this may well mean that what looks like a forthcoming alliance between the Martells and Aegon VI (Blackfyre?), which seems likely to happen in The Winds of Winter.
Book vs. Show:
The major thing we gain from transition between book and show is the addition of the scene between Jorah Mormont and Viserys where the knight prevents the prince from stealing his sister’s dragon eggs. It’s a great scene, because it makes Viserys’ actions less insane and provides a strong through-line when it comes to Viserys’ motives, that his betrayal of Dany ultimately comes from his insecurity and thwarted desire for love and admiration, and ultimately his realization that he is not the dragon he desperately feels he must be. It’s also a good scene because it rounds out Jorah Mormont’s feelings towards Daenerys, by putting his loyalty to her and his desire for in conflict.