“This was no kindly country. They left a trail of dead and dying horses behind them as they went…the old, the sickly, and the lame, the broken anmimals and the ill-tempered. it was the same with the people.”
Synopsis: Daenerys flees across the desert
and the gunslinger follows. On their last legs, her khalasar find refuge in Vaes Tolorro. Dany sends out three riders in search of intelligent life; one returns bringing Pyat Pree, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, and Quaithe of the Shadow.
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.
A Clash of Kings is a weird book for Daenerys – compared to AGOT, where she’s in every other chapter and very much a breakout star, or ASOS where she’s changing the world on a profound level even if she’s not in very many chapters, she’s a rather smaller presence in this book (only 5 chapters, and you’ll note she only enters into the book in the 12th chapter), and her narrative is rather unusual. Dany starts this book in desperate straights, then hangs out in Qarth spinning her wheels, then has a massively hallucinatory experience, and ends the book in a peculiar fashion by meeting a bunch of new people (which honestly, might work better in the start of ASOS) and being in a similar position of needing to get the hell out of dodge. On the surface, her arc looks a bit circular, a bit lacking in dynamic agency
In retrospect, it’s kind of easy to see why Benioff and Weiss got themselves so badly off course on this – they misdiagnosed the kind of story George R.R Martin was telling, and then tried really hard to bend it back and broke it. Because George R.R Martin in ACOK didn’t write Daenerys as a conventional fantasy protagonist; instead (as I will argue), he borrowed from religious literature to construct a prophet narrative. A prophet doesn’t necessarily go from rags to riches, or from a farmboy to a Jedi Master – a prophet’s task is to go out into a desert, to receive visions, and be changed by them. A prophet’s story isn’t about self-actualization or gaining control over one’s environment – it’s about faith, and wonder, and revelation.
A Prophet’s Narrative
The religious imagery is particularly thick in Dany I. Right from the outset, we are confronted with signs and portents: “Daenerys Targaryen had seen it first on the night she had burned Khal Drogo, the night her dragons had awakened. It is the herald of my coming, she told herself as she gazed up into the night sky with wonder in her heart. The gods have sent it to show me the way….”The way the comet points is the way we must go.” The allusion is not particularly subtle – after a miraculous birth, a group of ex-slaves and their messianic leader is fleeing across a desert, following a star. It’s a weird mashup of Moses and the New Testament, and the similarities don’t end there.
To begin with, as is often the case in prophet narratives, the prophet and their people undergo persecution. In Dany’s case, the sources of this persecution are numerous: “She dare not turn north onto the vast ocean of grass they called the Dothraki sea. The first khalasar they met would swallow up her ragged band, slaying the warriors and slaving the rest. The lands of the Lamb Men south of the River were likewise closed to them…the Lhazareen had small reason to love them. She might have struck downriver for the ports at Meereen and Yunkai and Astapor, but Rakharo warned her Pono’s khalasar had ridden that way…”Khal Pono will kill you. He was the first to abandon Drogo.” Dany’s challenge to Dothraki culture has made the Dothraki her enemies; her late (and somewhat self-interested) turn in that direction means that the Lhazareen are as well – both oppressor and oppressed turning against the would-be reformer. However, as Dany accelerates her emancipatory mission from ameloriation of conditions to breaker of chains, noticeably she makes an ally in the latter and is brought by chance to confront the former – suggesting that persecution is a motivator for personal growth.
Along with persecution comes the suffering from the environment: “There was little forage in the red waste, and less water…the deeper they rode into the waste, the smaller the pools became, while the distance between them grew. If there were gods in this trackless wilderness of stone and sand and red clay, they were hard dry gods, deaf to prayers for rain…death followed death. Weak children, wrinkled old women, the sick and the stupid and the heedless, the cruel land claimed them all…Dany hungered and thirsted with the rest of them.” The role of the desert of a source of spiritual purification through mortification of the flesh is a topic I’ll get into more in the historical section, but I’d just note that here, the spirit undergoing purification is Dany’s draconic childron, who “even as…her khalasar withered and died… her dragons prospered.” Second, it’s the suffering of her khalasar (her physical children, as it were) that inspires Dany to become more of a leader, and specifically a kind of leader who “must be their strength. I must show no weakness, no doubt.” Confidence is good, we’ll certainly see in ASOS how useful it can be, but it’ll have its limitations later.
As is frequently the case in prophet narratives, the desert is also a place where Daenerys’ experiences her moment of despair:
“Are we lost?” she asked him. Does this waste have no end to it?” “It has an end,” he answered wearily. “I have seen the maps the traders draw, my queen. Few caravans come this way, that is so, yet there are great kingdoms to the east, and cities full of wonders. Yi Ti, Qarth, Asshai by the Shadow…” “Will we live to see them?” “Perhaps we are doomed if we press on…but I know for a certainty we are doomed if we turn back.” “Dany looked at the horizon with despair. They had lost a third of their number, and still the watch stretched before them, bleak and red and endless. The comet mocks my hopes, she thought, lifting her eyes to where it scored the sky. Have I crossed half the world and seen the birth of dragons only to die with them in the desert?”
These moments of not just being but feeling lost, whether they take place in a desert or in a garden, are important because they provide a touchstone of humanity for what is otherwise a display of inerring otherworldly foreknowledge: Dany decides that “we follow the comet,” and “no word was raised against it. They had been Drogo’s people, but they were hers now. The Unburnt, they called her, and Mother of Dragons. Her word was their law.” She commands that her khalasar enter a city that is “dead, Khaleesi. Nameless and godless we found it, the gates broken, only wind and flies moving through the streets…such places are best shunned. It is known,” but insists, that they break with taboo: “Not to me.” Dany put her heels into her horse and showed them the way.” And lo and behold, rather than come a cropper, “there was food and water here to sustain them, and enough grass for the horses to regain their strength.”
As a prophet, Dany is gifted with dreams that show her the way forward:
“She dreamed of Drogo and the first ride they had taken together on the night they were wed. In the dream it was not horses they rode, but dragons. The next morn, she summoned her bloodriders. “Blood of my blood,” she told the three of them, “I have need of you. Each of you is to choose three horses, the hardiest and healthiest than remain to us. Load as much water as your mounts can bear, and ride forth for me. Aggo shall strike southwest, Rakharo due south. Jhogo, you are to to follow [the red comet] on southeast….find out how far this waste extends before us, and what lies on the other side.”
The sending of the three bloodriders has a strong fairytale/dream logic to it, especially in the use of repetitions in threes. Of course two of the directions are busts – although I’ve often wondered where the “the bones of a dragon” that Rakharo runs across came from, given the Balerion-sized skull. Otherwise, there’s no drama when Jhoqo, “gone so long that Dany feared him lost,” comes “riding up from the southeast” only when “they had all but ceased to look for him.”
And finally, if we were looking for any more signs of a prophet narrative at work, we can end our search at the end of the chapter, with Dany’s encounter with the three
Wise Men emissaries of Qarth who’ve come to look at the child(ren) of whom the star foretold:
“Blood of my blood,” Jhoqo called, “I have been to the great city Qarth, and returned with three who would look on you with their own eyes.” “Dany stared down at the strangers. “Here I stand. Look, if that is your pleasure…but first tell me your names.” “The pale man with the blue lips replied in gutteral Dothraki, “I am Pyat Pree, the great warlock.” “The bald man with the jewels in his nose answered in the Valyrian of the Free Cities, “I am Xaro Xhoan Daxos of the Thirteen, a merchant Prince of Qarth.” “The woman in the lacquered wooden mask said int he Common Tongue of the Seven Kingdoms, “I am Quaithe of the Shadow. We come seeking dragons.”
As we’ll see later, GRRM is once again working a little deconstruction – in this case, at least two out of the three have hidden (and deeply selfish, if not outright malicious) agendas for the sacred child(ren), which suggests that trusting whatever Supernatural Aid that Campbellian Mentor figures are handing out to passersby is a bit of a mug’s game. As for the third, Quaithe might be not be as exploitative as Pree or Daxos, but she’s certainly got her own agenda and it’s yet to be seen whether her prophecy games are ultimately to Daenerys’ good.
On the Nature of Dragons
The second major theme of this chapter is the natural history of dragons, because there’s no way that a huge dragon fanboy like George R.R Martin introduces dragons into the world without taking his sweet time explaining how they work. Subverting expectations, George keeps the dragons small for quite some time so that he can write about the draconic life cycle:
“The dragons were no larger than the scrawny cats…until they unfolded their wings. Their span was three times their length, each wing a delicate fan of translucent skin…when you looked hard, you could see that most of their body was neck, tail, and wing. Such little things, she thought as she fed them by hand, or rather tried to feed them, for the dragons would not eat…until Dany recalled something Viserys had told her…so long as the meat was seared, they gulped down several times their own weight every day, and at last began to grow larger and stronger. Dany marveled at the smoothness of their scales, and the heat that poured off them, so palpable that on cold nights their whole bodies seemed to steam.”
The idea that dragons grow with freedom and food works is well-grounded in the mythology and folk-lore of dragons, who in the Western tradition are allegorical animals representing greed (pretty much since Beowulf laid down the flying dragon on hoard of gold motif) and pride (by way of symbolizing the devil: ” The dragon is the greatest of all serpents, or of all living things upon the earth…To this dragon the devil is likened, who is a most enormous serpent…As it is said to be crested, so is he himself the king of pride.”) What’s interesting about the way that GRRM uses this tradition is that he uses it to tap into primal fears of mothers with children failing to thrive, to add to Daenerys’ motivations and make her a more convincingly real mother figure. As she reflects later, “they had been born from her faith and her need, given life by the deaths of her husband and unborn son and the maegi Mirri Maz Duur. Dany had walked into the flames as they came froth, and they had drunk milk from her swollen breasts.” And as with all children, they represent both hope for the future, and a terrible source of anxiety and fear; they are still only “hatchlings…one swipe from an arakh would put an end to them…every man who sees them will want them, my queen.”
On the more mystical side, it’s pretty damn clear that these dragons are not just born of fire, but are themselves a source (maybe a heart?) of fire. We also learn in this chapter that “Aegon’s dragons were named for the gods of Old Valyria..Visenya’s dragon was Vhagar, Rhaenys had Meraxes, and Aegon rode Balerion, the Black Dread.” This suggests another connection between the dragons and the metaphysical world – after all, I wouldn’t be surprised if the gods of the ancient Valyrians, living as they did in the shadow of great volcanos, were fire gods and the dragons were seen as avatars of those gods. Given the close link between religion and magic and the fact that the Valyrians’ magic was almost all fire-based, the parallels between the Valyrians and the Rhoynar (with their river god, water-magic, and giant turtles seen as symbols of divinity) would be exact.
Finally, we have what I feel is a rather hopeful bit of foreshadowing. As she watches her children grow, Daenerys looks forward to the day when they will be big enough to ride: “If I had wings, I would want to fly too, Dany thought. The Targaryens of old had ridden upon dragonback when they went to war. She tried to imagine what it would feel like, to straddle a dragons’ neck and soar high into the air. It would be like standing on a mountaintop, only better. The whole world would be spread out below if I flew high enough, I could even see the Seven Kingdoms.” uHopefully, now that we’ve gotten to the dragonriding, we can also get to the Seven Kingdoms.
A Note on Jorah’s Story:
I did want to acknowledge Jorah’s backstory here. I’m going to delay the discussion here until later when Jorah’s motivations are more relevant and important, but I’ve often wondered why George decided to stick the infodump here, as it kind of interrupts the tension of their situation out in the desert.
My hypothesis is that GRRM wanted this in the back of people’s minds when he reveals the “three treasons.”
Especially in the history of the three great monotheistic faiths, the desert is a place where prophets go to commune with the divine and otherworldly. In Exodus, the desert is where Moses goes to speak to God, to receive commandments, to follow pillars of fire, to make water appear from broken rocks. In the New Testament, the desert is where Jesus undergoes his temptations from the devil. In the Qu’ran, Mohammed goes to a cave in the desert outside Mecca to receive the word of Allah.
Many writers for hundreds if not thousands of years have focused on the extremes of the desert and the austerity (and thus in some minds purity) of the environment as the source of this religious significance. Get away from worldly pleasures, reject the material, and you get closer to the metaphysical – and you can hardly escape the world of the flesh more than living out in the desert. Hence the phenomenon in the Middle East, from the 5th century to roughly the 12th century, of stylite hermits who go into the desert and live at the top of pillars, trying to get as far away from the earth and as close to heaven as you can get.
Thus, it’s not surprising that George R.R Martin, deciding that Daenerys needs to toughen herself for the spiritual trial she’s about to undergo in Qarth, went with the desert and once he was writing a desert journey story, the familiar tropes and symbols came along for the ride.
The other place that Martin is clearly borrowing from to build Vaes Tolorro, one of the many many fascinating ruined cities that he populates his world with, is the alluring romantic trope of the lost city. One of the absolute staples of Victorian adventure stories, from whence came the pulp novel, from whence came comic books, from whence came the fantasy genre itself, is the lost city. After all, along with the colonial and imperialist drive came the romanticization of the “undiscovered country,” and what better contrast to the untamed wilderness than a lost city, an implicit statement that, out “there,” civilization has been lost in the past, whereas the west is progressing, modernizing, and urban?
And in the desert, you get one of the best lost cities of all time: Irem of the Pillars, known to Westerners since the translation of A Thousand And One Nights as the City of Brass, described by T.E Lawrence as the “Atlantis of the sands.” This one has everything going for it. In the Qu’ran, Irem “of the lofty pillars” is described as a city of great opulence and wonders “the likes of whom had never been created in the lands,” but also a place of “corruption” and “oppression” that so angers Allah that, when its king Shaddad defies the warnings of the prophet Hud, “your Lord poured upon them a scourge of punishment,” sinking it beneath the sands. The Thousand And One Nights added some great detail to the legend, describing the city as a place where efrits and djinns had been summoned into brass bottles to serve the kings, a lost city of riches hidden in the Empty Quarter.
And…back in 1992, a team of archaeologists may just have found it using satellite technology, if Irem of the Pillars is the historical Ubar, a fortress city that dominated the frankincense trade routes for thousands of years, becoming fantastically wealthy. If this is the case, it may well be that the fall of Ubar may have come from its location on top of a giant limestone cavern, which collapsed under the weight, causing the city to fall into a giant sinkhole.
Now, Vaes Tolorro is not quite as impressive, but I’ve got to believe that Irem was floating in the back of Martin’s mind when he was writing it – certainly, when you look at the map book, overflowing with lost cities like Carcosa, the City of the Winged Men, Bonetown, the Cities of the Bloodless Men, K’Dath, the cannibal city of Adakhakileki, Nefer, Stygai, places that we will unfortunately likely never get to see in ASOIAF, you absolutely get the sense that George R.R Martin was brought up on the lore of lost cities and loves them with a passion.
Unfortunately, there’s not really space for hypotheticals here – George R.R Martin is very deliberately putting Daenerys on the railroad tracks her so that he can get her to Qarth and blow your minds.
Check back next time!
Book vs. Show:
I’ll come right out and say it: David Benioff and D.B Weiss botched Daenerys plotline in Season 2. The pleasures of her storyline are really far and few between – I liked the multiple Pyat Prees, the Drogo cameo – but I think they honestly came close to destroying the audience’s goodwill and trust in Emlia Clarke, and that honestly would have been a disaster for the show.
I think we can see the problems almost immediately: while I think it’s accurate to say that they got the hardship, suffering, and despair in the desert right, what they missed was the mystical side. I get that Book 2 kind of puts Daenerys on the sidelines a bit in terms of sheer narrative propulsion compared to her crusade through the Slave Cities and her eventual return to Westeros, but they needed to turn her story into a trippy revelation if they were going to pull off anything close to the original. I say this as someone who fully understands why the show abandoned the use of prophecy almost entirely; both on tv and in literature, prophecies can be a trap that distracts attention from everything else other than the prophecies. People stop paying attention to character development or plot in their attempt to solve the riddle, and the solution the creator comes up with is never as good as the one in people’s heads, almost always leading to disappointment.
That said, I think they could have honored the spirit if not the letter of Dany’s storyline, especially if they didn’t have a better alternative than the one they went with.