“As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.”
Synopsis: Daenerys Targaryen attempts amateur blood magic…and succeeds.
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.
Well, here we are at last, at the end of A Game of Thrones, and at the end of the world Westeros and Essos have lived in for a hundred and fifty years and which once lasted for 3,000 years before Valyria existed, a world without dragons. First of all, I’d like to announce my forthcoming e-book, Race for the Iron Throne: History and Politics of A Game of Thrones, which will be launching on amazon.com on April 6th. If you’ve enjoyed the commentary I’ve supplied for two years now and would like to help Race for the Iron Throne keep on going, please buy a copy, tell your friends, and help spread the word. Second, I’ll be doing a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” for r/asoiaf on the week of April 13th. If you’d like to go on a no-holds-barred geekfest about A Song of Ice and Fire, especially on the later books that I might be a while in getting to, drop by r/asoiaf and ask a couple questions.
I’ll be promoting both of these again later, so don’t worry, I won’t let you forget. On with the program!
The starring event in Dany X is the waking of the dragon eggs, and yet the ceremony itself – and what it tells us (or doesn’t) about how blood magic works – is incredibly opaque and contradictory. To begin with, we have the testimony of Mirri Maz Duur that “it is not enough to kill a horse…by itself, the blood is nothing. You do not have the words to make a spell, nor the wisdom to find them…loose me from these bonds and I will help you.” Accepting this at face value is problematic – to begin with, since Daenerys clearly succeeds in awakening fossilized dragon eggs, it’s not the case that the right spell is necessary (unless we assume that for some reason Mirri Maz Duur used her song while being burned to death to wake the dragons, which I strongly doubt). Second, we have to consider that the maegi is confused about Dany’s objective here – when she says “it is not enough to kill a horse,” this suggests that she thinks Daenerys is trying for Round 2 with Drogo; the same rules may not apply to waking dragon eggs that apply to raising humans from the dead. Third, her plea (and offer) to Dany suggests that she’s lying to try to convince her not to go through with the ritual, and thus save her own life.
If we assume for the moment that Mirri Maz Duur is lying here – that the blood itself is important on its own, more so than any magical incantations; this is supported by Daenerys’ actions here and Beric Dondarrion’s actions later. Alternatively, as suggested above, it may be that a ritual to wake dragon eggs has different rules than a ritual to bring the dead back to life. Then again, it may also be the case that, just as living dragons are foci that enhance magic around them, that dragon eggs act as a focus or a catalyst for magic and this explains why Dany was able to cast the spell without training. This would explain why mages might answer Aegon III’s call for help, or why a Myrish wizard would be interested in waking Euron’s dragon egg, or what went wrong at Summerhall, or why dragon eggs might be sold in Asshai.
However, we also get a second statement on blood magic when Dany has Mirri Maz Duur bound to the pyre: “it is not your screams I want, only your life. I remember what you told me. Only death can pay for life.”…as she stepped away, Dany saw that the contempt was gone from the maegi’s flat black eyes; in its place was something that might have been fear.” This change in Mirri’s attitude further suggests that the words aren’t necessary for magic to work – perhaps spells work to refine and focus magic whereas Dany here relies on the magic equivalent of brute force. But clearly, lifeforce itself is powerful – which makes me somewhat skeptical of S. Alexander’s underlying assumption in the otherwise intriguing “Grand Unified Theory of Magic in Westeros.” If only a death can pay for life, I don’t think Drogo on the pyre or Dany’s child in the womb count – both are already dead before Dany’s ritual starts, and we have to be careful to separate the requirements and effects of MMD’s ritual (which clearly used up Rhaego’s life essence) from the later ritual.
Finally, we have the question of blood and fire – as Dany thinks to herself as she walks into the fire, “she was the blood of the dragon, and the fire was in her. She had sensed the truth of it long ago…but the brazier and not been hot enough.” It’s possible that what was missing from earlier Targaryen attempts to wake dragons is the combinaation of fire with blood magic; we know that Summerhall involved “sorcery, fire” but there’s no mention of blood sacrifices (as opposed to people being murdered ordinarily), Aegon III tried magic but not fire, and Aerion fire but not magic. We also have to considered that there literally is magic in Daenerys’ blood – prophecy and the ability to bond with a dragon, although clearly fire immunity is not included (as opposed to a high degree of tolerance for heat). It’s perhaps the case that a Targaryen trying to do blood magic untutored can succeed where others would fail.
There is also the question of whether what we’re seeing in this chapter is one ritual or two. As we’ve learned from the Princess and the Queen, the process of bonding a dragon is a difficult and highly risky one, and no one ever is able to bond with more than one dragon. And yet Daenerys has managed to bond three dragons (although it’s not clear she could ride Viserion and/or Rhaegal). Given that the chapter combines imagery of birth and marriage repeatedly, it’s possible that what we have here is two rituals – one to waken the eggs and other to bind them to her.
I don’t have much proof for this besides the fact that, contrary to what I had remembered, the dragons awoke before Dany had fully entered the fire: “she heard a crack, the sound of shattering stone. The platform of wood and brush began to shift and collapse in upon itself…and something else came crashing down, bouncing and rolling, to land at her feet; a chunk of curved rock, pale and veined with gold, broken and smoking. The roaring filled the world, yet dimely through the firefall Dany heard women shriek and children cry out in wonder. Only death can pay for life.” Daenerys “stepped forward into the firestorm, calling to her children,” after the first two eggs had cracked, suggesting that the ritual had already worked and that the eggs had hatched and the dragons were alive. This “calling” seems to have both protected Daenerys from the fire, and literally bonded them to her as her children, as they appear to make an exception to their cooked-meat-only diet to drink in her mother’s milk, from the source as it were.
Ultimately, I think this chapter leaves us with more questions than answers – but luckily we get more data in ACOK and ASOS.
The Last Temptation of Daenerys Targaryen
Given that this chapter literally involves the death and rebirth of a messianic figure (especially given how she’s received by the slave population in Essos in ASOS and ADWD), it’s appropriate that in this chapter we see Jorah repeatedly offer Daenerys options to abandon her destiny and live a normal life instead: “I have nothing to offer you but exile, but I beg you, hear me. Let Khal Drogo go…I promise you, no man shall take you to Vaes Dothrak unless you wish to go…Come east with me. Yi Ti, Qarth, the Jade Sea, Asshai by the Shadow. We will see all the wonders yet unseen, and drink what wines the gods see fit to serve us…Drogo will have no use for dragon’s eggs in the night lands. Better to sell them in Asshai. Sell one and we can buy a ship to take us back to the Free Cities. Sell all three and you will be a wealthy woman all your days.” What’s interesting is that Jorah is offering two highly contrasting scenarios – one in which Jorah is appealing to Dany’s interest in exploring the far east of Essos, and another in which Jorah offers comfort and safety in the Free Cities, the equivalent of her red door (more on this in the What If? section later).
Moreover, Dany’s offer to the three warriors of her khas and their threefold rejection has a ceremonial quality that reminds me of Peter’s threefold denial in the New Testament: in each case, she says “to you I give…that was my bride gift, and ask your oath, that wou will live and die as blood of my blood, riding at my side to keep me safe from harm,” and in each case she is refused in terms that reinforce that Daenerys is once again violating taboo. Jhogo states that “this is not done. It would shame me to be bloodrider to a woman,” Aggo refuses saying “I cannot say these words. Only a man can lead a khalasar,” and even Rakharo offers only to make her a dosh khaleen.
Because what Daenerys proposes her is a total inversion and transformation of Dothraki society on every level. To begin with, she proposes that a slave society eliminate all distinctions of bondage – “I see the faces of slaves. I Free you. Take off your collars. Go if you wish, no one shall harm you. If you stay, it will be as brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.” It is this last that is the most radical – Daenerys is not merely manumitting her slaves, but states outright that slaves and freeborn Dothraki will now be equal in her new khalasar, striking at the heart of the Dothraki economy and social hierarchy. At the same time, she also proposes a revolution in gender, with her proposals stating that there will be a female khal, that brave warriors will serve as bloodriders to a woman, that a woman might have the right to name kos, and that khaleesis will have agency over their life course after the death of their khals.
Dany rejects all three offers she receives and stays true to her destiny. Her three warriors will become the first bloodriders of a new khalasar, and Jorah shall recieve instead Valyrian steel sword from the breath of her dragons (which might well be the missing ingredient) and a place in her Queensguard. As a true messianic figure does, Daenerys Targaryen does not adopt the roles of the old world, but creates a new.
Generally speaking, it’s a bit hard to find historical parallels to mystical events of this kind – so we’ll have to look to folklore and myth instead. The iconography of Dany’s rebirth resembles nothing so much as a reverse mirror-image of the birth of Venus from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. In the legends, Venus was born in a similarly violent and disruptive event: the god of time and prosperity Cronus castrating his father Uranus (the sky) at the behest of his mother Rhea (the earth). This Freudian inversion of father and son is a moment of mystical generation: from the blood of Uranus came the nymphs of the ash-tree who would give birth to mankind, the race of giants who would war against the gods themselves, and the Furies, those ancient forces of vengeance and punishment. But from the white sea-foam that rose up from where the testicles fell into the sea, came forth Aphrodite, the positive force of love, fertility, and luck.
In both that case and this we have this interesting combination of the elemental (fire and water) and the primal (murder and castration), producing both beauty and terror in the same act. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Daenerys’ birthing of the dragons has produced religious upheaval in Essos, beginning first among the members of her khalasar who now have no objections to being led by a female khal.
In real world terms, however, we don’t have an example of an event that changed our world in the same way that Daenerys’ ritual has changed her world, until July 16th, 1945 with the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico. Robert J. Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, was a bit of a poetic soul and chose the name of the Trinity test from John Dunne’s poetry. Before the Trinity test, a small but respected fraction of the scientific community speculated that an atomic chain reaction could ignite the atmosphere, as a “”new force [was] loosed on the Earth.” After the Trinity test, we lived in the Atomic Age, in which war was transformed from an activity that produced death on a mass scale but in a contained region, to something that could wipe out all life on earth, even without the very skies being set on fire.
I genuinely don’t think there actually are hypotheticals here; everything in Daenerys’ life has been leading her up to this moment. However, for the sake of argument, let’s ask what happens if Dany had taken up these options with or without dragons:
- Goes East with Jorah? This gets us to the knotty question of Jorah’s loyalty (or lack thereof) to Varys and Illyrio – Jorah’s first offer here seems to go absolutely against the interests of his supposed patrons, who repeatedly attempt to get Dany to come west where they can exert influence over them – more on this later. If Dany goes to “Yi Ti, Qarth, the Jade Sea, Asshai by the Shadow,” it may well be that she learns blood magic and is able to wake the dragon eggs after all, but her advent in the west would be delayed by the distance of several thousand miles. Moreover, Westeros would be dealing with a Witch Queen who had never led a crusade to end slavery nor learned some harsh lessons in the difficulties of rulership.
- Goes West with Jorah? In this version where Jorah remains loyal to Varys and Illyrio, the conspiratorial duo hit the ultimate in fluke draws with the sudden emergence of dragons. My guess is that Illyrio introduces her to her “nephew” then and there, and makes damn sure that the marriage goes through early on, before Dany’s mature dragons raise her beyond influence. When the dragons are of size, the Golden Company lands in the Stormlands as in OTL, except this time with a King and Queen and three dragons. And all of Westeros will tremble.
- Goes to Vaes Dothrak? This is the least likely of some least likely scenarios, but…if Dany arrives in Vaes Dothrak with dragons, the one thing the Dothraki historically feared, all bets are off. Maybe all three get strangled to death, maybe she becomes the Great Khaleesi of the Dothraki, and a horde of hundreds of thousands begins burning its way across Essos to construct an empire the likes of which even Valyria had never seen.
Book vs. Show:
I have almost no complaints about how this was done in Season 1, Episode 10 of Game of Thrones. The showrunners, the actors, and the visual effects artists produced something we really had never seen on television before and proved that this could be more than a medieval setting soap opera – a genuinely believable fantasy show on television.
My one complaint is that, by leaving out Eroeh and Jhaqo and Mago, the show has kind of dropped the Dothraki as a major plot element that seems to be a major part of Daenerys’ plot in The Winds of Winter. But we’ll have to wait and see where GRRM goes with that.