“Look to your khal and see what life is worth, when all the rest is gone.”
Synopsis: Daenerys wakes up from the ordeal of childbirth to find that her child is a stillborn monstrosity, her husband a living corpse, and the khalasar she needs to retake the Seven Kingdoms is scattered. And yet Daenerys does not break – already her mind has turned to the occult legacy of House Targaryen. She says goodbye to Drogo.
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.
Dany IX, despite being a penultimate chapter to the fiery climax of Daenerys’ story arc, is actually a much more interesting chapter in retrospective than it is on a first read. It becomes even more so since the under-appreciated final Daenerys chapter of A Dance With Dragons, which demonstrates that when you think George R.R Martin’s plots have jumped the rails, there is always a plan.
The Case Against Mirri Maz Dur
Before I get into the thematic heart of this chapter, I do want to back up my earlier arguments regarding Mirri Maz Dur’s complicity in the murder of Drogo. The godswife appears in the chapter in a way she never has before – “Dany understood in that moment that the maegi was stronger, and crueler, and infinitely more vicious.” Right off the bat, she announces that Rhaego “was scaled like a lizard, blind,w ith the stub of a tail and small leather wings like the wings of a bat. When I touched him, the flesh sloughed off the bone, and inside he was full of graveworms and the stink of corruption. He had been done for years.” Magic has slain Daenerys’ child in the womb.
Now, some have argued that this was caused by Jorah bringing Daenerys into the tent during Mirri Maz Duur’s spell when he wasn’t supposed to. However, the maegi’s comment just a bit later complicates this. While she sets forth that the tent was dangerous, she also denies that the spell was supposed to be the exchange of the life of Drogo’s horse for Drogo’s extended life: “no, that was a lie you told yourself. You knew the price.” In other words, the plan always had been for Mirri Maz Duur’s spell to kill Rhaego and transmute Drogo into a mindless husk – and in order to do that, Drogo had to be brought to the point where he was on death’s door so that Dany would agree to make the exchange. The death of Drogo was necessary for the whole of her plan to be successful, and she had the means, motive, and opportunity to poison Khal Drogo to the point where she could gain the consent to kill Dany and his’ child and violate his body against Dothraki taboo.
Indeed, she almost says as much when Dany accuses her of “murder[ing] my child within me.” The maegi replies: “it was wrong of them to burn my temple…that angered the Great Shepard…the stallion who mounts the world will burn no cities now. His khalasar shall trample no nations into dust.” In other words, we have a confession in all but name to the murder of Dany’s child – but the mention of the burning of her temple, the destruction of her village of her people, and her own rape have nothing to do with Dany’s unborn child. Those events happened because the khalasar of Khal Drogo came to her village – and thus her motive points directly to Khal Drogo as much as it does to a preemptive defense against the Stallion Who Mounts the World. In addition, we should pay attention to her claim that the Great Shepherd was responsible for this – as we saw in Dany VII, Mirri Maz Duur clearly sees herself as the hand of god (“the Great Shepherd sent me to earth to heal his lambs,”) and said from the outset that “the Great Shepherd guards the flock” at a time when Khal Drogo posed a clear and present danger to the other villages of the Lhazarene.
Once again, I say: means, motive, opportunity.
Waking the Dragon
In the very beginning of this chapter, Daenerys has a vision which stretches from her childhood through to her marriage, the death of her brother, including meeting her son: “her son was tall and proud, with Drogo’s copper skin and her own silver-gold hair…when he opened his mouth the fire poured out. She saw his heart burning through his chest, and in an instant he was gone…she wept for her child…but her tears turned to steam as they touched her skin.” It’s a rather startling move for GRRM to frame the death of Dany’s son as a moment where she is choosing to sacrifice her son’s life in favor of her own, choosing to become the dragon rather than birth him as Daenerys spiritually replaces her brother Rhaegar as a dragon in fact as well as in sigil. Note how the recurring phrase shifts from Viserys’ threatening “you don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?” to the negative “don’t want to wake the dragon” to the affirmative “want to wake the dragon” to the imperative “wake the dragon.”
It’s in this moment, wrapped in a prophetic dream that comes as much from her Targaryen blood heritage as it does from Mirri Maz Duur’s blood magic, that Dany arrives at the plan to hatch her eggs, thus why “they found her on the carpet, crawling toward her dragon egg.” Well before she’s reminded that “only death can pay for life,” Daenerys already knows that she can bring them to life at the cost of someone else’s. Which lends itself to an interesting question about blood magic: how much do you need to know what you’re doing? Clearly Mirri Maz Duur has had some training, and so too have the three R’hllorite priests (Thoros, Melisandre, and Moqorro), and presumably the follower of the Old Gods that Bran witnessed through the treenet did as well, but Dany didn’t, nor did Beric Dondarrion, and it worked for them. So it’s possible that all that blood magic requires is willpower and death – which leads to an interesting question: would the Mad King’s exit plan actually have worked, birthing a dragon from nothing?
Speaking of Targaryen madness, one of the things that the Princess and the Queen has revealed is that deformed dragon-babies run in the family – which reduces Mirri Maz Duur’s involvement to the graveworms thing, although it could be argued that the spell brought out latent tendencies already existing in the blood, as it were. Which makes a lot more sense to me than the idea that the Targaryens could engage in that steady a practice of very close incest (brother-sister rather than cousin-cousin) and not have to deal with nasty recessive alleles popping up. As I’ve discussed before, royal incest in history tended to go hand-in-hand with infanticide – given the importance of the “Targaryen look” as a sign of semi-religious awe and legitimacy, I would imagine this would be doubly true for the ruling House of Westeros.
The Wages of Taboo
On an entirely different track, Dany IX also shows the consequences of Dany’s desperate attempt to save her husband. Where once Drogo’s khalasar was an entire world unto itself and a geopolitical force to be reckoned with, now “a count might show a hundred people, no more. Where the other forty thousand had made their camp, only the wind and dust lived now.” Unlike the people of Westeros, for whom the land structures their identity and lives, to the Dothraki the nation is the people.
For a micro-second, Dany tried to use the memory of Drogo to hold back the tide of Dothraki culture – the commandment that “it is the right of the strong to take from the weak.” It failed completely, and the old pattern reasserted itself quickly, as “Ko Pono left left first, naming himself Khal Pono, and many followed him. Jhaqo was not long to do the same….there are a dozen new khalasars on the Dothraki sea, where once there was only Drogo’s.” And for all that G.R.R.M has been criticized for making the Dothraki a supposedly one-dimensional picture, there is a deep cultural logic at work: a nomadic society where property is only what one can carry doesn’t think about succession in the same way that a settled agricultural society does; the division and multiplication of khalasars ensures that population pressures don’t over-tax the Dothraki Sea beyond the capacity of khals to keep their people fed; the interplay of kos, khas, and khal offer incentives for loyalty to keep the chain of command intact and the hope of advancement to keep khalasars from breaking off all the time instead of at punctuated, culturally-mediated occasions; at the same time, the fear of a khalasar’s destruction and the reality of inter-khalasar warfare is mediated by the religious promise of Vaes Dothrak, that come the time of prophecy, the Dothraki will all be one.
Likewise, the revenge of Mago and Jhaqo is an assertion of Dothraki culture and tradition against a foreign interloper – Mago symbolically reasserts both his own position and the proper order of Dothraki gendered hierarchy by brutalizing the child the khal’s foreign wife “stole” from him. Likewise, Jhaqo strengthens his position as a newly-forged khal by offering “restitution” to his man who he could not protect when he was Ko Jhaqo (which must have hurt his standing within the khalasar) – and in return gains a loyal bloodrider.
Moreover, GRRM clearly invests more importance in this incident than people had thought for a long time, because of all the khalasars that Daenerys finds herself among in her misunderstood final chapters of A Dance With Dragons, it is the same khalasar that she promised “by the Mother of the Mountains and the Womb of the World” that “before I am done with them, Mago and Ko Jhaqo will plead for the mercy they showed Eroeh.” At this very moment, Dany coins her mantra “if I look back I am lost” – and yet, she has “gone back to go forwards.”
Now we come to Mirri Maz Duur’s prophecy – one of the few prophecies that made it from the book to the show, by the way, and one of the most frequently misunderstood. The “object” of the prophecy isn’t the return of Dany’s fertility, or the birth of her child – those are signs of the prophecy’s fulfillment. The object is the return of Drogo “as he was.”
Now, I agree with those who argue that there are clear signs that the prophecy is being fulfilled: the Martells have risen up in the west while Quentyn Martell died in Meereen, the Dothraki Sea is drying out, and the great pyramids of Meereen have been “blowing in the wind” of Dany’s dragons’ breath. Likewise, I think that *part* of the prophecy has come true with regards to Dany – I think she underwent a miscarriage on the Dothraki Sea at the end of A Dance With Dragons, and is now capable of bearing a child. However, the prophecy requires that “your womb quickens again, and you bear a living child” – and Dany hasn’t yet given birth to a living child.
As to what it means for Drogo to come back, I’m not sure. I doubt it refers to his literal resurrection; his body is clearly burnt to ashes and I don’t think the Khal’s actual return would have much dramatic purpose at this point. It could refer to Drogo returning as her “sun and stars” – so perhaps the prophecy suggests that Dany’s next child would be the reincarnation of Drogo or be named after Drogo in the same way that Drogon was. A third option is that the prophecy might be referring to Daenerys’ death – that Drogo will return to her in the sense that the two of them are united in the afterlife (certainly, the show’s version of Dany’s visions in the House of the Undying points in this direction).
One of the strange things about modern social and cultural politics is how often people assume that birth control and family planning came into existence around 1960, whether they think of them as a liberating force or the source of cultural and moral decline. However, one of the things one learns as a historian is that human beings are startlingly similar over huge gaps in time, in terms of the things they worry about, the things they strive for, and the difficulties they struggle with. As far as family planning goes, it’s one of the closest things to a historical constant I’ve ever seen, with the major differences being what kinds of technologies are available, and how the physical and cultural environment creates relatively stable patterns of incentives.
Pretty much at any time and place one can name, humans have sought to modulate their fertility for various reasons – and quite often, they’ve turned to infanticide to do, regardless of cultural and religious taboos around death and childbirth. By comparing both the spacing between births and especially patterns of gender wherever records of childbirth can be found, demographic historians have uncovered an entire world of human activity that’s almost never written about directly.
In Medieval and Early Modern England, for example, trends shifted from roughly equal births of men and women in the 13th century to a dramatic shift to male births around the time of the Black Death until well into the 15th century – suggesting that families were responding to shortages in the labor market and trying to make sure that they had enough male children to work the farm and inherit the estate. In the 17th century, infanticide was common among young female servants who lacked the capacity to start a family and whose labor was necessary in weaving, dairy production, and other agricultural labor markets, and the practice of women being secluded from men but accompanied by other women during “lying-in” sometimes resulted in communal verdicts of “stillbirths” and other times in prosecutions for murder, depending on a number of different factors.
As a number of historians have found, medieval and early modern Europe practiced infanticide regularly, despite the Catholic Church placing enormous social taboos against it starting at the end of the 4th century A.D – with some historians describing it as halfway between a discretely sanctioned social practice and a crime. For example in Medieval and Early Modern Belgium, infanticide was legally considered not merely murder but witchcraft, and punished by burning, legal torture, or being drowned in a river. However, in the Early Modern period, the courts shifted to treating many cases as accidental deaths and ordering lesser punishments. Likewise, in England, various legal loopholes were created in the 17th century to modulate verdicts against single women (especially those who might otherwise become a drain on the poor relief system).
This practice was not confined to Europe. In Han China, for example, we have scattered evidence that infant abandonment was considered illegal – but exceptions were made in law for children born with deformities, and trends in law went back and forth between those who saw abandonment as murder and those who saw it as an unpleasant necessity for families who could not support another child. In early modern Japan, there’s strong evidence that peasant families deliberately limited family size in order to better reap the benefits of economic growth and rising incomes; keeping family size under control allowed for more income per capita within the household, prevented either dowries or inheritances from over-taxing the family’s estate, both of which were powerful economic motives. In the period between 1600-1870, Japan managed to drop its population 8 million people below previous historical trends, and the results were a marked improvement in standards of living. However, as historians have noted, it wasn’t just about economics – in Japan, married couples seem to have selected for gender balance within the family, but only after the second baby.
The larger point to all of this is – if you ever think that a social or cultural custom is brand-new, it probably is a very old custom being experienced in a different way due to a change in technology or environment or institutions.
While I try to consider most hypothetical scenarios, I try to keep them within the bounds of consistent character motivations and personalities – and I don’t see any way that Dany doesn’t make the decision to euthanize Drogo and have Mirri Maz Duur burnt to death. Everything in her story up to this point, everything in her personality, all of her motivations, is leading her to this point.
Some things may well be destined to happen.
Book vs. Show:
The show played this one pretty straight, so I don’t have much to say. My only complaint is that I felt the lack of a visibly huge khalasar earlier in Season 1 did make the reveal of their disappearance a bit disappointing as you couldn’t seethe difference that much.