“This must not be!”
“This will be.”
Synopsis: Drogo, on the verge of death, falls off his horse and a “khal who cannot ride is no khal.” Desperate to keep Drogo alive, Dany agrees to Mirri Maz Duur‘s blood magic. This violation of Dothraki taboo unleashes total chaos within the khalasar. At this point, Dany goes into labor, but the only option for OB/GYN care is inside the tent where Mirri Maz Duur is communing with the shades of unquiet spirits, so Jorah carries her in. And you thought your health care system was messed up…
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 main event of this chapter is Drogo’s death-in-all-but-name and the political fallout that results. And it’s significant that this crucial turning point balances on the importance of culture. Dany’s rise to power all through this book as come from her ability to assimilate into Dothraki culture – but no convert ever has a perfect grasp on the finer points of their adopted culture, and here she hits the wall and loses everything when she fails to see how her personal desires conflict with the Dothraki way.
The first way that Daenerys undermines herself is in failing to understand the different ways in which Dothraki and Westerosi understand leadership. Perhaps because Khal Drogo was the khalakka of Khal Bharbo, Dany assumes that the same traditions of blood inheritance dominates Dothraki culture in the same way that it shapes virtually everything about Westerosi society. However, in the moment she forgets that “a khal who could not ride could not rule.” The consequences of Drogo’s fall from power and Dany’s failure to understand it shape the entire chapter: the moment Drogo falls, Qotho immediately slips out from the chain of command, and Dany’s ability to command the khalasar in the name of her husband is weakened, as “it is not for a woman to bid us halt…not even a khaleesi.” While Dany is temporarily able to cow him, she quickly finds that “a man and his bloodriders share one life, and Qotho sees it ending. A dead man is beyond fear.” Qotho will form the nucleus of an xenophobic faction that will split the khalasar, as we see on his return.
Next, believing in error that her son can rule in Drogo’s place and keep the army under her command, Dany fails to understand that “the Dothraki will not follow a suckling babe. Drogo’s strength was what they bowed to, and only that. When he is gone, Jhaqo and Pono and the other kos will fight for his place, and this khalasar will devour itself. The winner will want no more rivals. The boy will be taken from your breast the moment he is born. They will give him to the dogs.” As a result of her misjudgment, Daenerys misses out on her chance to escape and places both her life and that of her unborn child in danger.
Finally, Dany willfully ignores how abhorrent Mirri Maz Duur’s blood magic is to the Dothraki and what this means for her insistence that the maegi see to Drogo’s wound. For all that Dany insists that “this is the same. The same,” to the Dothraki, “blood magic is forbidden,” and for those who practice it, “kicks are too merciful…we will stake her to the earth, to be the mount of every passing man. And when they are done with her, the dogs will use her as well. Weasels will tear out her entrails and carrion crows feast upon her eyes.” Daenerys’ public insistence in carrying out this ritual alienates virtually the whole of the khalasar, and in the eyes of many makes Daenerys equally culpable in Drogo’s death by evil magic.
This decision destroys the unity of the khalasar. Qotho and Haggo and Cohollo (the older men of the bloodriders) arrives, bringing the traditional Dothraki healers and symbolically taking up the position of the defenders of tradition. Dany tries to stop him bodily, and the immediate result is the death of Quaro, Mormont’s wounding, the death of Haggo and Cohollo, and almost her own death. Within moments, the kahalasar is broken: “she saw the crowd dispersing, the Dothraki stealing silently back to their tents…some were saddling horses and riding off…fires burned throughout the khalasar.” Crucially, Dany’s flouting of tradition means that when her baby comes unexpectedly, the “birthing women…will not come. They say she is accursed.”
For the sake of a cut, Dany loses khal, khalasar, baby, and everything…
The second way that Daenerys defeats herself her is failing to understand the cultural meanings embedded in Mirri Maz Duur’s blood magic. I’ve already argued that Mirri Maz Duur had both means, motive, and opportunity to poison Khal Drogo (more evidence on that in next Dany chapter), but here we see how this poisoning works out to her advantage. Within a week, the khalasar that destroyed her village is murdering itself, the man who led the effort is the helpless subject of her necromancy, and Dany gives her consent (a critical factor in a lot of folklore) to give her free reign. And none of this would happen if Drogo didn’t fall from his horse. She succeeds because Dany deceives herself as to which death “may pay for life” even though Mirri Maz Duur points out “this is not a matter of horses,” and in no small part because of her ability to read Dany and understand that the khaleesi would violate any taboo
What happens to Drogo’s khalasar in Dany VIII has many historical parallels – after Atilla was defeated at Châlons in 451 A.D by Flavius Aetius, he was eventually forced to withdraw from Italy, but in the meantime the Eastern Roman Empire invaded across the Danube and defeated the Huns in their home provinces. Preparing to mount a campaign against them, Atilla died of a severe nosebleed while blackout drunk at a wedding feast (although some scholars argue that the Emperor Marcian had him assassinated via his new bride). Immediately, his sons Ellac, Dengizich, and Ernakh fell to fighting over who would inherit, and his army broke into three feuding portions who were destroyed on the banks of the Danube in 454 A.D by the Ostrogoths, destroying the Hunnic empire forever.
The case of the great Genghis Khan works less well – while his death was an enormous setback, the Mongol Empire regrouped under Ogedei Khan and continued to expand, conquering the Manchu, completing the conquest of China, and completing the subjugation of the Persians. Indeed, it wasn’t until 60 years later that the Mongol Empire began to break down into civil wars between rival khans, but even then many of the successor khanates lasted for several centuries.
However, the process by which kos fight to become the new khal and the former khalakkas are killed unless they are strong enough to stake their claim to the succession by force of arms is reminiscent of many patterns of fratricidal warfare seen in kingdoms with either non-primogeniture inheritance (which creates an incentive for brothers to turn against one another when the land is divided between them) or in systems where polygamy created many sons with potentially equal claims to the throne. Fratricide or fratricidal wars were fairly common in Pharaonic Egypt, the Ottomans essentially institutionalized the practice of the oldest son having his brothers executed from the time of Mehmed the II (1444-1481) through to Ahmed the I (1603-1617).
Something to keep your eye on when we see what happens when primogeniture breaks down in A Clash of Kings. The results can be messy…
There’s really only one hypothetical I can see coming out of this chapter:
- Dany runs away with Jorah? The interesting thing with Dany departing the OTL at this point is that Dany actually has at this point everything she needs to wake the dragons – she knows the basics of blood magic now (“only a death can pay for life”), she’s got the eggs, and she’s got to take drastic measures to regain her path now that she’s lost her khalasar. So this particular Chekov’s device is still up on the mantle ready to go to save the world. However, Dany running away has some interesting offshoots: does this draw her back into the direct control of Varys and Illyrio, who’ve been handling her rather on the long finger ever since Pentos? Will Jorah keep playing the role of her controller (incidentally, I’ve never understood why Jorah didn’t tell her that Varys and Illyrio are working together, so that technically he was spying on her on behalf of her supporters), or is he so far gone into his romantic/territorial phase that he’ll try to break free of their grasp and manipulate her? (While this is more of a question for ACOK, I’ve always wondered whether Varys/Illyrio foresaw that eventuality and sent Ser Barristan to her specifically so they could nip him in the bud)
- Jorah’s intended destination of Asshai is quite interesting as well: its remoteness compared to Pentos suggests that Jorah isn’t exactly a loyal spy any more, and it’s an extremely magical place so it’s quite possible Dany could wake not just three dragons, but an army of them given that Asshai is where “dragons stir beneath the sunrise.” Indeed, it seems like Asshai may be a foregone pleasure if we’re to get Dany back to Westeros ever, given that it would essentially double the length of her trip back to Westeros – unless she goes for the whole circumnavigation thing and lands on the west coast, but that seems unlikely.
Book vs. Show:
While I thought this scene in the show was generally well-acted and shot – and I liked the fight scene with Ser Jorah and Qotho – this is where budgetary restraints really started to bite. It was always a problem that Drogo’s 40,000 screamers could never be seen on screen (would it have really cost that much to have a few establishing CGI’d shots of the whole khalasar?), but it really bit here in that the fight involves two people rather than a total breakdown of the khalasar.