All the colors that had been missing from Vaes Tolorro had found their way to Qarth; buildings crowded about her fantastical as a fever dream in shades of rose, violet, and umber.
Synopsis: Daenerys and her dragons arrive in Qarth to rapturous applause. Dany takes up residence at the house of Xaro Xhoan Daxos, gets an invitation from Pyat Pree to visit the House of the Undying, and receives word that Robert Baratheon is dead.
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.
As I mentioned in Daenerys I, Dany’s story line in ACOK is a bit of an odd departure from the most straightforward rise to power narrative in AGOT and ASOS (and it’s perhaps not surprising that the ASOIAF fandom isn’t quite on board with Dany’s ADWD storyline, which also doesn’t give us a rise to power narrative). Qarth itself doesn’t have a lot of defenders, even among book fans who experienced the city on the page long before Season 2’s rather troubled adaptation.
However, as I will argue in this essay (and in the essays for Dany III, IV, and V), Qarth plays a crucial role in Dany’s prophetic narrative. After all, a prophet needs to undergo temptation.
Qarth as Cultural Experience:
Before I get into that, first a word on Qarth as a culture. When I analyzed Dany’s AGOT story line, I argued that Dany’s arc was grounded in a narrative of culture as power, where assimilation through openness and adaptation trumps rigid bigotry and isolation. This theme of culture as power didn’t end on the Dothraki Sea – rather, in ACOK, we get a different kind of story about culture and power, focusing on the way in which cultural power can overwhelm and oppress the migrant, possibly causing them to lose their identity and their way.
To begin with, Qarth is a very different culture than Dany has ever experienced. Her adaptation to a nomadic warrior culture looked down upon and feared by the Free Cities she grew up on took place through a gradual understanding that the Dothraki had a richer and more complex culture than she had been raised to believe, but it’s still an adaptation where Dany starts at the top of their society from a position of power. In the case of Qarth, Dany is a powerless refugee confronted with an ancient, self-confident (to the point of aggrandizing), cosmopolitan (to the point of decadence) and urban civilization:
“Qarth is the greatest city that ever was or ever will be. It is the center of the world, the gate between south and north, the bridge between east and west, ancient beyond memory of man and so magnificent that Saathos the Wise put out his eyes after gazing on Qarth for the first time, because he knew that all he saw thereafter should look squalid and ugly by comparison.”
The magnificent of the great city was not to be denied. Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone…decorated with animals…the middle wall, forty feet high was grey granite alive with scenes of war…the innermost wall was fifty feet of black marvel, with carvings that made Dany blush.
The Qartheen lined the streets and watched from delicate balconies that looked too frail to support their weight. They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, everyone a lord or lady to her eyes. The women wore gowns that left one breast bare, while the men favored beaded silk skirts. Dany felt shabby and barbaric as they rode past them…how savage we must seem to these Qartheen.
A few things leap out at the reader here: first, Qarth’s description is simply dripping with exotica, a riot of colors and perfumes and ornamentation, a dizzying contrast with the starkness and deprivation of the desert. There’s an interesting pairing of luxury and sensuality with animals and violence, and a liberated, queer sexuality where men dress in ways coded as feminine in Western culture (and indeed, we learn are encouraged to embrace emotional affects again more associated with femininity in Western culture) and where nudity taboos don’t exist – in Qarth, the polymorphously perverse is the social norm. The contrast to the simplicity (at least on the Dothraki Sea) and sharply divided gender roles of the Dothraki is quite comprehensive.
Now, there are those who argue that all Martin is doing here is moving from one Orientalist trope (the savage Other) to another (the decadent Other), only this time changing the skin color to albino-white to cover his ass. There’s something of a point there, but I think there’s more going on. Yes, GRRM is borrowing from an old trope of sword-and-sorcery, a genre that was hardly innocent of trafficking in orientalist tropes (think Robert E. Howard, H.P Lovecraft, H Ryder Haggard, and Michael Moorcock), but I don’t think Qarth is the “decadent east” trope. Rather, it’s the Lost Civilization trope – Qarth is a pretty close parallel to the Atlantis of Howard’s Bran Mak Morn or his Hyperborea of Conan the Barbarian’s era, the Melnibone of Moorcok’s Elric, the Land of the Lotus Eaters. And historically, these Lost Civilization tropes were very much part of an anti-modernist declension narrative focused at Western urban civilization and often depicted pale, over-refined, decadent, and paralyzed-by-ennui elites whose advanced civilizations and ancient magics were doomed to fall and be replaced by the earthier, more robustly masculine, hero. (Not that there aren’t echoes of the fear that urban cosmopolitanism was going to sap Western civilization of its masculine vitality, thus requiring war to make men of the generation of 1914, which is an idea not entirely un-associated with imperialism and the Yellow Peril). And let’s be honest, a city of slave-masters who think they’re the greatest civilization that’s ever existed – there’s no way the Qartheen aren’t white.
Second, part of the discourse in that quote focuses on the Qartheen as believers in cultural supremacy grounded in a kind of hyper-sophistication that makes Dany question her own status, hence: “Dany felt shabby and barbaric as they rode past them…how savage we must seem to these Qartheen.” Dany is entering Qarth, not as a Princess of the blood of Old Valyria, but as an immigrant Dothraki, overwhelmed by her new surroundings. This over-the-top opulence and preening boosterism is necessary to put Dany in the position of a cultural underdog, who has to navigate a new society and once again go through a process of learning. Without the wealth and the colorful display and the decadence, Dany doesn’t have anything to struggle against.
The Temptations of Daenerys Targaryen
Third, and this is where we get back to the prophet narrative, there is also a mystical purpose to Qarth’s cornucopia of the senses – the city represents the place of illusion and temptation that a prophet must overcome through insight. Think Jesus being tempted in the wilderness in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where dominion over the earthly kingdoms is on offer – Robert Graves in King Jesus has an especially trippy version of this story. Think the Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, being tempted by the demon Mara, who offers him his three beautiful daughters who represent Craving, Boredom, and Passion, in attempt to forestall the Buddha from attaining nirvana.
Thus, when Dany arrives in Qarth, she’s immediately given two alluring offers to lead her off the true path:
“If you see here anything that you would desire, O most beautiful of women, you only have to speak and it is yours….The Thirteen shall set a crown of black jade and fire opals upon her lovely head…She had not expected a palace larger than many a market town. It makes Magister Illyrio’s manse in Pentos loook like a swineherd’s hovel…she would have her own gardens, a marble bathing pool, a scrying tower and warlock’s maze. Slaves would tend to her every need…
“On the morrow, you shall feast upon peacock and lark’s tongue, and hear music worthy of the most beautiful of women. The Thirteen will come to do you homage, and all the great of Qarth.”
“It shall be as I promised, Khaleesi. Come with me to the House of the Undying, and you shall drink of truth and wisdom.”
On the one hand, Dany is offered worldly wealth – which is in turn linked to royal power through the symbolism of crowns and homage, and represented by Xaro Xhoan Daxos (or XXD as he shall be known from now on, because I’m not typing that more than once). On the other hand, she is offered access to esoteric power as represented by Pyat Pree. Both offers are immediately represented as potentially tainted, all surface beauty and rotten interior. XXD’s wealth is dismissed as mere “baubles,” and Pyat Pree’s House of the Undying as a “Palace of Dust…built of bones and lies…gifts [which] will turn to dust in your hands.” At the same time, there is a faint suggestion that these two offers are actually just opposite sides of the same coin – note that XXD’s palace offers a “scrying tower and warlock’s maze.”
Indeed, a third path, the path of prophetic knowledge, is represented to Dany by Quaithe of the Shadow, who offers:
…only a warning. “Beware,” the woman in the red lacquer mask said.
“Of all. They shall come day and night to see the wonder that has been born again into the world, and when they see they shall lust. For dragons are fire made flesh, and fire is power.”
On the one hand, Quaithe is quite right – both XXD and Pyat Pree want Dany’s dragons and will hatch schemes to acquire them. On the other hand, it’s not exactly like Quaithe is without her own agenda. As I talk about on the BLAH podcast on prophecy, Quaithe’s prophecies often have an element of self-fulfillment to them (as will the prophecies of the House of the Undying). By giving prophecy, she alters Dany’s willingness to trust this party or the next, to go in this direction or the other. And let’s be honest, there are few places less wholesome in all of Planetos than Asshai, “where nothing is forbidden” and where “shadowbinders [in] lacquered masks [to] hide their faces from the eyes of gods and men…alone dare to go upriver past the walls of Asshai, into the heart of Darkness.”
I also want to touch on this idea that the dragons are “fire made flesh, and fire is power.” Now, as I’ve talked about before, it remains unclear whether the dragons’ rebirth is a cause or a sign of the rebirth of magic into the world. However, the World of Ice and Fire does make it clear that dragons are inherently magical – the Valyrians claimed them to be the “children of the Fourteen Flames;” Septon Barth claims that the “bloodmages of Valyrian used wyvern stock to create dragons,” probably by inter-breeding them with fire-wyrms (which would explain the “children of the Fourteen Flames” thing, since the fire-wyrms were found there); it’s possible that the Valyrians may have interbred with dragons somehow to gain their control over them; and it’s possible that dragons and the art of taming dragons was brought to Valyria “from the Shadow,” the dark beating heart of sorcery. More on this next time.
In the midst of all of this temptation, Dany must divine the right path and correctly interpret the visions, to uncover her true purpose:
Her people had followed her across the red waste as she chased her comet, and would follow her across the poison water too, but they would not be enough. Even her dragons might not be enough…the Bleeding Star led me to Qarth for a purpose. Here I will find what I need, if I have the strength to take what it is offered, and the wisdom to avoid the traps and snares. If the gods mean for me to conquer, they will send me a sign, and if not…
Now, there’s not a small part of the fandom that really doesn’t like Daenerys, especially when she gets into this Chosen One mentality, which they see as “entitled.” And some of that is coming from a general fatigue with Destiny as a character trope. Now, I can see where this is coming from – destiny is something of an over-used trope, especially since a generation of scriptwriters gulped down George Lucas’ rather unsubtle use of Joseph Campbell and turned destiny into a substitute for character motivation, character growth, and, in general, effort. However, I think destiny can be done right, and there’s a reason why it was right at the heart of the origins of Greek drama. Destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it, works when it’s used as a way to discuss the inherent human fear of both the inevitability of death and the sheer randomness of suffering. Destiny should be something to be feared and fought against, a way for heroes to exert their free will and individualism – not something to be easily accepted after a token Refusal of the Call.
And I think GRRM uses destiny and prophecy rather well – it’s never an unalloyed good, it tends to offer both greatness and suffering in equal measures, and its something that if pursued brings ruin, and if struggled against or attempted to be outflanked only brings itself closer to enactment. Prophecy didn’t make Aegon V or Rhaegar or Jaehaerys II or Cersei or Jojen the self-actualized heroes of Joseph Campbell – it brought them death and misery and paranoia. And as we’ll see with the HOTU, it’s not promising Dany a smooth ride, and it will lead her into darker and darker paths.
But in defense of Dany the Chosen One, I defy anyone to walk into a raging inferno and come back, unharmed, with three dragons, all the while a portentous comet hangs overhead without getting a bit full of messianic self-regard. Dany genuinely has accomplished miracles; her actions are marked out by prophecy and her choices led her across deserts to reshape the world.
The War of Five Kings: the View From the Eastern Theater
At the same time, Dany isn’t just a destined messiah – she’s also still very much Daenerys of House Targaryen, an exiled princess who believes herself to be the rightful monarch of Westeros and who is now having to figure out how to make that happen:
If her sun-and-stars had lived, he would have led his khalasar across the poison water and swept away her enemies…the Dothraki sacked cities and plundered kingdoms, they did not rule them. Dany had no wish to reduce Kings’ Landing to a blackened ruin full of unquiet ghosts…I want to make my kingdom beautiful, to fill it with fat men and pretty maids and laughing children. I want my people to smile when they see me ride by, the way Viserys said they smiled for my father. But before she could do that she must conquer…
This interior monologue is interesting because it shows a Dany who’s far more introspective than she’s given credit for. Back in AGOT, Dany was strongly pushing for her husband to cross the Narrow Sea and put her (or at least her son) on the Iron Throne by force, and was willing to accept mass enslavement as the cost of that (up to a point). In the wake of the disastrous repercussions of her actions, here she re-examines her initial plan and doesn’t like what she sees. In a book absolutely filled with a running theme of what makes a good ruler, and how good rulers should act, it’s important to note that Dany is one of the few who stops to reckon the consequences of the pursuit of power and what she actually wants to do once she has it.
Her goal is a little naive (as the mention of Viserys’ romantically biased view of his father suggests), but on the other hand, Dany at least recognizes that it’s a goal that can’t be achieved without warfare, requiring a balancing of means and ends. Hopefully, this is a sign that the Daenerys who emerges once again from the Dothraki Sea will not have completely abandoned her principles in favor of bloodshed.
At the same time, Dany’s campaign to become Queen of Westeros gets a major boost in this chapter:
“Dragonmother, Stormborn, I tell you true, Robert Baratheon is dead.”
“Outside her walls, dusk was settling over Qarth, but a sun had risen in Dany’s heart. “Dead?…you are certain? The Usurper is dead?”
…”Torn by a monstrous boar whilst hunting in his kingswood…other say his queen betrayed him, or his brother, or Lord Stark who was his Hand. Yet all the tales agree in this: King Robert is dead and in his grave.”
…”The boy sits the Iron Throne now,” Ser Jorah said.
“King Joffrey reigns…but the Lannisters rule. Robert’s brothers have fled King’s Landing. The talk is, they mean to claim the crown. And the Hand has fallen, Lord Stark who was King Robert’s friend…”
“This changes everything…Before, the Seven Kingdoms were like my Drogo’s khalasar, a hundred thousand made as one by his strength. Now they fly to pieces, even as the khalasar did after my khal lay dead.”
And yet, this news brings about argument rather than consensus – an argument in which both have a point. On the one hand, Jorah is correct that, without an army and/or fully-grown dragons, Dany doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning the Iron Throne. On the other hand, Dany is quite correct that the War of Five Kings has created a destabilizing effect that radically alters the strategic context: where once Dany’s landing would have been confronted by an alliance of houses Stark, Baratheon, Arryn, Tully, and Lannister almost impossible to defeat, even with the hypothetical support of Houses Martell and Tyrell, now the royal power bloc is shredding itself to pieces.
And yet…Dany won’t actually arrive in Westeros until the War of Five Kings is over, and this makes me wonder how much of GRRM’s original plot structure remains intact. In the original trilogy, Dany doesn’t get to Westeros until Book 2, whereas the entirety of the War of Five Kings, from Eddard Stark’s doomed Handship to the Red Wedding and Tyrion’s exile, was supposed to happen by the end of Book 1. On the other hand, events in Westeros have gone well beyond their stopping point in the original trilogy when Dany was meant to arrive, which might suggest a foreshortened Daenerys invasion in favor of getting her up to the North for the second Battle for the Dawn.
Part of the problem with finding a good historical parallel for Qarth is that it’s so over-the-top, it more resembles a planet that Picard or Kirk might be dropped on for an episode than anywhere in the real world. On the other hand, one of the things that human beings have been very very good at is coming up with fictional cities to explore in their imaginations.
Last time, I talked a little bit about the literature of lost cities, but I really only scratched the surface on mythological metropolises. For example, the Kingdom of Prester John, which Europeans in the 11th through 17th centuries believed existed somewhere in India, Ethiopia, or Asia, was supposed to be a mystical place where the Fountain of Youth, the Gates of Alexander, and the literal Garden of Paradise could be found. Notably, a big part of the Kingdom is a Christian, often seen as quasi-European, nation that’s going to come to the rescue of Christendom, and it’s not an accident that the legend gained prominence between the period when the Crusades fell apart and the period in which the Ottoman empire pushed up to the gates of Vienna.
Likewise, the city of Shangri-La, basically invented out of whole cloth by James Hilton in 1933, was supposed to be a mystical utopia ruled over by enlightened monks, where all knowledge would be preserved against loss in war, and in which people would be free from death…only to perish if they ever left. Again, probably not an accident that Hilton’s book came out in the 1930s with the fear of another mechanized war and the loss of civilization very much in the atmosphere. In both cases, we have a sense that these mythic cities are supposed to represent harmony, refuge in a time of crisis, and the end of death – which fits Qarth to a tee.
On the other hand, one of the reasons I namechecked Homer’s Lotus Eaters is that there’s an undercurrent of hidden menace underneath Qarth that doesn’t really pop up elsewhere – the idea that there’s a place so lovely that you never want to leave, where the total absence of the need to strive doesn’t lead to genuine fulfillment but a kind of blissful apathy that becomes a living death. What Qarth adds to the mix is the sneaking suspicion that when the illusion falls away, you’re trapped in somewhere rather nasty.
I’m going to cover the two offers in the succeeding Daenerys chapters, so I’m going to give the hypotheticals a pass for this chapter.
Book vs. Show:
And here’s where the botch kicks in…the problem starts right when Daenerys gets to the gates of Qarth and the Thirteen decide to turn her away. This is a misguided attempt to add drama and urgency to Dany at that moment, but it fails completely, because everyone in that moment knows that she can’t possibly back up her threats if she’s going to die without entry into Qarth. It only succeeds in making her look petulant and one-note as if the only thing she can do is to promise people they’ll die screaming. And that tone continues so consistently throughout the next three episodes that it spawned entire memes:
It’s so clearly an example of the writers backing themselves into a corner that they have no way to get out, save by making up a Star Trek-style “right of sumai” that XXD invokes for seemingly no reason. And this brings up a larger problem: by excising the “three wise men” introduction of Qarth, the show doesn’t set up the idea that Dany’s dragons will be a source of fascination and desire, something she’ll have to guard against those who want to take them from her. By making Pyat Pree and XXD’s motivations a mystery, you don’t care about it when it’s happening and when the revelation comes it doesn’t have the impact it should. Likewise, without the desire and cupidity to set up why Dany thinks she might be able to get ships from the Qartheen, her frustration at the Spice King comes off as entirely unwarranted and yes, entitled.
What irritates me is that I think you could have done something really interesting by playing it a little closer to the books: have Dany be greeted by XXD, Pyat Pree, and Qarth. Build up the will-they, won’t they tension and then suddenly subvert it with sudden offers of fantastical wealth, mystic knowledge, and prophecy. Hell, make an explicit allusion to the Three Wise Men – it’s a fairly well-known story on a global scale, so you can get the audience thinking everything’s ok. Then you set up the stinger that this all might be a trap. That way, there’s some stakes when XXD makes his offer and Pyat Pree makes his invitation.
And what’s so depressing about all of this is that there are a few instances in the Qarth storyline – the picturesque sight of Qarth through the gates, the weird dinner party where Pyat Pree(s) shows up – where you get a sense that there was the possibility of so much more.