“They said no…they said it with great courtesy, to be sure, but under all the lovely words, it was still no.”
…Xaro sighed. “You ought to have wept.” The Qartheen wept often and easily; it was considered the mark of the civilized man.
Synopsis: Dany asks the Pureborn for assistance and gets turned down. Xaro Xhoan Daxos asks her to marry him and gets turned down. Dany meets Quaithe and gets some information, a prophecy, and a warning. Jorah suggests a plan and gets turned down. Dany decides to reach out to Pyat Pree.
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.
When I started my recap of A Clash of Kings, it had been a long time since I’d read the book, and in the intervening time you naturally forget things. In this case, I’d forgotten how little time Dany spends in Qarth – having arrived in the city last chapter, she’s going to the House of the Undying next chapter (going to have to bring my A game to that recap), and be on her way out of the city and the book in the next. At the same time, there’s a richness of detail in the description of Qarth that makes me wish we’d been able to linger a little while longer in the city.
Qartheen Culture, Cultural Power, and the Pureborn
As I mentioned last time, a running theme in Dany’s storyline in ASOIAF is the idea of cultural literacy as power. In this chapter, we see Dany using the same assimilation trick that worked for her before with the Pureborn, “descendants of the ancient kings and queens of Qarth…[who] commanded the Civic Guard and the fleet of ornate galleys that ruled the straits between the seas. Daenerys Targaryen had wanted that fleet, or part of it, and some of their soldiers as well.” Dany tries a number of different techniques to accomplish her aims.
First, Dany goes to the meeting “garbed after the Qartheen fashion…in flowing green samite with one breast bared, silvered sandals on her feet, with a belt of black-and-white pearls about her waist.” This allows her to downplay the damaging association between herself and the Dothraki – given the role that the Dothraki played in destroying the Qaathi empire during the Century of Blood, it’s no wonder that “Xaro had warned her that the Enthroned would never listen to a Dothraki” – by showing a willingness to adapt to the culture of her hosts. It also allows her to play into the Qartheens’ taste for erotic display by showing off her Valyrian features.
Unfortunately for Dany, “for all the help they offered, I could have gone naked. Perhaps I should have.” The problem that she’s run into is that, unlike the culturally multi-lingual Dothraki who are happy to have other peoples assimilate into their culture (albeit through conquest and slavery), the Pureborn are inherently exclusionary – they know that Dany’s not one of them, and they’re not going to look favorably on a nouvelle arrivante trying to copy them. At the same time, Dany’s running into the problem that the elite of the Qartheen are so used to exotic displays that they’ve become de-sensitized to them. While other Qartheen and foreign passersby might be so enthralled by the sight of an exotic beauty and living dragons, the Pureborn can barely muster any excitement:
They never saw me for a queen, she thought bitterly. I was only an afternoon’s amusement, a horse girl with a curious pet…
The Pureborn heard her pleas from the great wooden seats of their ancestors, rising in curved tiers from a marble floor to a high-domed ceiling painted with scenes of Qarth’s vanished glory. The chairs were immense, fantastically carved, bright with goldwork and studded with amber, onyx, lapis, and jade, each one different from all the others, and each striving to be the most fabulous. Yet the men who sat in them seemed so listless and world-weary that they might have been asleep. They listened, but they did not hear, or care, she thought. They are Milk Men indeed. They never meant to help me. They came because they were curious. They came because they were bored, and the dragon on my shoulder interested them more than I did…
As we’ll see repeated later, GRRM’s worldbuilding is moving very quickly here, as he strives to make the culture of Qarth come to life despite the short time he has to spend here, hammering on similar themes until they take on the status of cultural commonalities. As with Volantis, there is a strong emphasis on ostentation and opulence – everything in Qarth is huge and made out of multiple precious – but there’s an unpleasant aftertaste of an unhealthy fixation with past glories that are fading. Here, the ostentation of the Pureborn’s chairs is all about competitive display (it’s a room with a thousand thrones because each of the Pureborn refuse to recognize anyone else being more important than themselves), with no one really taking pleasure in the things themselves, or indeed in what should be an awe-inspiring sight.
Second, Dany follows the Qartheen traditions of bribery and corruption. And she’s quite thorough about it. Not only does she make:
…the traditional sacrifice in the Temple of Memory, offered the traditional bribe to the Keeper of the Long List, sent the traditional persimmon to the Opener of the Door, and finally received the traditional blue silk slippers summoning her to the Hall of a Thousand Thrones…
she follows this up with carefully bribing key members of the Pureborn – “Mathos Mallarawan, Wendello Qar Deeth, and Egon Emeros the Exquisite” – who are supposed to speak for her in the Hall of a Thousand Thrones and lobby their fellow Pureborn on behalf. This is a pretty good strategy: as an outsider, Dany has little information about the Pureborn, whereas these three men would likely know their peers well; likewise, Dany has very limited means of moving the Pureborn, whereas these men have their prior relationships, their votes for trade, and so on. Again, Dany runs into a problem of insufficient cultural understanding. Namely, she doesn’t understand that the Pureborn are so corrupt as to not just take bribes but refuse to follow through on them, because the game is rigged:
…”The men we bought, what did they say?”
“Mathos said nothing. Wendello praised the way I spoke. The Exquisite refused me with the rest, but he wept afterward.”
“Alas, that Qartheen should be so faithless.” Xaro was not himself of the Pureborn, but he had told her whom to bribe and how much to offer. “Weep, weep for the treachery of men.”
“Suppose I sent Ser Jorah to demand the return of my gifts?” she asked.
“Suppose a Sorrowful Man came to my palace one night and killed you as you slept,” said Xaro. The Sorrowful Men were an ancient sacred guild of assassins, so named because they always whispered, “I am so sorry,” to their victims before they killed them. The Qartheen were nothing if not polite.
There’s no way to win against the Pureborn, because they’ve set up the rules in their favor. Ask them for something straight up, and you’ll find that “it is easier to milk the Stone Cow of Faros than to wring gold from the Pureborn.” Offer them bribes to change their minds, and they’ll pocket them without doing anything. Try to take the money back, and they’ll send assassins after you to punish you for your rudeness. So ruthless, so unbound by conventional morality, are the Pureborn that they’ll even violate guest right, as they’re “notorious for offering poisoned wine to those they thought dangerous.”
A City of Fairy Gold
Dany’s trip to the Hall of a Thousand Thrones gives us a strong impression of Qartheen culture – opulence, a constant struggle between ennui and novelty, and false displays of emotion and loyalty. This falseness is key, because Qarth is beginning to resemble your classic fairy kingdom – everyone’s terminally (and lethally) bored despite being surrounded by constant splendor and sensory excess, and you’re constantly surrounded by riches that turn into leaves come the morning. Consider where Dany’s bribe money came from and what happened to it:
Dany would sooner have wept for her gold. The bribes she’d tendered to Mathos Mallarawan, Wendello Qar Deeth, and Egon Emeros the Exquisite might have bought her a ship, or hired a score of sellswords.…She would have been lost without Xaro. The gold that she had squandered to open the doors of the Hall of a Thousand Thrones was largely a product of the merchant’s generosity and quick wits. As the rumor of living dragons had spread through the east, ever more seekers had come to learn if the tale was true—and Xaro Xhoan Daxos saw to it that the great and the humble alike offered some token to the Mother of Dragons.The trickle he started soon swelled to a flood. Trader captains brought lace from Myr, chests of saffron from Yi Ti, amber and dragonglass out of Asshai. Merchants offered bags of coin, silversmiths rings and chains. Pipers piped for her, tumblers tumbled, and jugglers juggled, while dyers draped her in colors she had never known existed. A pair of Jogos Nhai presented her with one of their striped zorses, black and white and fierce. A widow brought the dried corpse of her husband, covered with a crust of silvered leaves; such remnants were believed to have great power, especially if the deceased had been a sorcerer, as this one had. And the Tourmaline Brotherhood pressed on her a crown wrought in the shape of a three-headed dragon; the coils were yellow gold, the wings silver, the heads carved from jade, ivory, and onyx.
The crown was the only offering she’d kept. The rest she sold, to gather the wealth she had wasted on the Pureborn. Xaro would have sold the crown too—the Thirteen would see that she had a much finer one, he swore—but Dany forbade it. “Viserys sold my mother’s crown, and men called him a beggar. I shall keep this one, so men will call me a queen.” And so she did, though the weight of it made her neck ache.Yet even crowned, I am a beggar still, Dany thought. I have become the most splendid beggar in the world, but a beggar all the same. She hated it, as her brother must have. All those years of running from city to city one step ahead of the Usurper’s knives, pleading for help from archons and princes and magisters, buying our food with flattery. He must have known how they mocked him. Small wonder he turned so angry and bitter. In the end it had driven him mad. It will do the same to me if I let it. Part of her would have liked nothing more than to lead her people back to Vaes Tolorro, and make the dead city bloom. No, that is defeat. I have something Viserys never had. I have the dragons. The dragons are all the difference.
As with any good temptation, Dany is being made to examine herself and decide what’s most important to her – here, she’s choosing her identity as queen above all else, which helps to explain why she turns down Xaro Xhoan Daxos’ offer to stay in Qarth (succumbing to the surface appeal of unlimited wealth) and Jorah’s offer to leave for the east (succumbing to her fears and desire for a normal life).
Another example of the fairy kingdom nature of Qarth is what we learn of its political culture, which is both byzantine and pointlessly so:
…it seemed to her that Qarth was full of stone cows. The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn.
“If each of the Thirteen would lend me ten ships-““You would have one hundred thirty ships, and no crew to sail them…”“If the Thirteen will not aid me, perhaps I should ask the Guild of Spicers or the Tourmaline Brotherhood?”Xaro gave a languid shrug. “They will give you nothing but flattery and lies. The Spices are dissemblers and braggarts and the Brotherhood is full of pirates.”
And brooding over all were the warlocks, with their blue lips and dread powers, seldom seen but much feared…“Then I must heed Pyat Pree, and go to the Warlocks.”“Heed the wisdom of one who loves you. Warlocks are bitter creatures who eat dust and drink of shadows. They will give you naught. They have naught to give.”
Xaro Xhoan Daxos is a man of gold, she thought, and gold will give me all the ships and swords I need….”Give me ships, and I will make you rich again.”
“Marry me, bright light, and sail the ship of my heart. I cannot sleep at night for thinking of your beauty.”
Dany smiled. Xaro’s flowery protestations of passion amused her, but his manner was at odds with his words. While Ser Jorah had scarcely been able to keep his eyes from her bare breast when he’d helped her into the palanquin, Xaro hardly deigned to notice it, even in these close confines. And she had seen the beautiful boys who surrounded the merchant prince, flitting through his palace halls in wisps of silk. “You speak sweetly, Xaro, but under your words I hear another no.”
As with those prior groups, Xaro is personifying Qarth’s deceptive and frustrating nature – Xaro is wealthy but pretends poverty, Daxos proposes marriage but shows no desire for Dany (which is a sign that there’s something he’s not telling her), Xaro promises help but doesn’t produce any results. All of this feeds into the way Xaro is acting as the chief tempter in Qarth, trying to persuade Dany to accept material wealth and an easy life rather than the hard work of achieving her true destiny, to buy into surface appearance rather than inquire into the true nature of Qarth:
“Let this be your kingdom, most exquisite of queens, and let me be your king. I will give you a throne of gold, if you like. When Qarth begins to pall, we can journey round Yi Ti and search for the dreaming city of the poets, to sip the wine of wisdom from a dead man’s skull.”
“I mean to sail to Westeros, and drink the wine of vengeance from the skull of the Usurper.”…”I have given you my home and heart, do they mean nothing to you? I have given you perfume and pomegrantes, tumbling monkeys and spitting snakes, scrolls from lost Valyria, an idol’s head and a serpent’s foot. I have given you this palanquin of ebony and gold and a matched set of bullocks to bear it, one as white as ivory, and one black as jet, with horns inlaid with jewels.”“Yes,” Dany said. “But it was ships and soldiers I wanted.”
“…there’s one thing he failed to mention. The Qartheen have a curious wedding custom, my queen. On the day of their union, a wife may ask a token of love from her husband. Whatsoever she desires of his worldly goods, he must grant. And he may ask the same of her. One thing only may be asked, but whatever is named may not be denied.”“…with one dragon, Xaro Xhoan Daxos would rule this city, but one ship will further our cause but little.”
A Bizarre Encounter in the Bazaar
On an entirely different level than XXD’s schemes, Dany III is also where George R.R Martin addresses the growing prominence of magic – after all, it’s only been a few chapters since Renly was murdered by shadows and Arya made a deal with a murder genie – in a narrative where magic had been confined to the margins in AGOT. In a seemingly random encounter in the Qartheen bazaar, Dany sees a magic show:
The mage was gesturing, urging the flames higher and higher with broad sweeps of his arms. As the watchers craned their necks upward, the cutpurses squirmed through the press, small blades hidden in their palms. They relieved the prosperous of their coin with one hand while pointing upward with the other.
When the fiery ladder stood forty feet high, the mage leapt forward and began to climb it, scrambling up hand over hand as quick as a monkey. Each rung he touched dissolved behind him, leaving no more than a wisp of silver smoke. When he reached the top, the ladder was gone and so was he.
“No trick,” a woman said in the Common Tongue.
Dany had not noticed Quaithe in the crowd, yet there she stood, eyes wet and shiny behind the implacable red lacquer mask. “What mean you, my lady?”
“Half a year gone, that man could scarcely wake fire from dragonglass. He had some small skill with powders and wildfire, sufficient to entrance a crowd while his cutpurses did their work. He could walk across hot coals and make burning roses bloom in the air, but he could no more aspire to climb the fiery ladder than a common fisherman could hope to catch a kraken in his nets.”
Dany looked uneasily at where the ladder had stood. Even the smoke was gone now, and the crowd was breaking up, each man going about his business. In a moment more than a few would find their purses flat and empty. “And now?”
“And now his powers grow, Khaleesi. And you are the cause of it.”
This revelation alone makes Dany III one of the most important chapters in all of A Song of Ice and Fire, in it’s own low-key way, because of how rarely we actually get explanations from GRRM about the larger forces shaping the world (although to be fair, that’s part of a deliberate strategy to keep the magic irrational, primal, and occult rather than “I cast Magic Missile at the darkness.”). At the same time, it’s a pretty ambiguous statement; we don’t really know whether the dragons have caused magic to return to the world, or whether the return of magic allowed the return of dragons to the world after so many failures to bring that about. After all, magic was clearly extant to some extent prior to the birth of Dany’s dragons: White Walkers and zombies appear in the Prologue, Bran Stark’s visions and the first signs of warging come in early in AGOT, Mirri Maz Duur’s spells worked, and so on. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that the dragons are acting as a kind of catalyst – even if they aren’t the prime mover, they intensify magic around the world.
It’s also a revelation that raises more questions than it really answers – for example, the difficult question of R’hllorism (more on this in Davos II) and whether Melisandre and her peers are genuinely channeling the divine or whether they’re just really religious mages. We know from Dany III of AGOT that shadowbinding is practiced in Asshai; here we learn that the fire magic (as practiced by Melisandre at the Battle of Castle Black and Benerro in ADWD) isn’t exclusive to the faith either. So at the moment the only forms of magic that are genuinely unique to R’hllorism are clairvoyance through pyromancy, healing via laying on hand, and fire-based resurrection. And even then, the only piece of evidence that there’s something here other than spells-as-prayers is Beric Dondarrion, but that’s a subject for another day.
Finally, on re-read I’m curious what was meant, precisely, by “waking fire from dragonglass.” On a mundane level, obsidian is a good firestarting material, but given the “ice and fire” part of the series title, and the idea that dragons are not just beasties but “fire made flesh,” I’m a little suspicious GRRM was merely giving some good wilderness survival tips. On the other hand, if there’s a deeper meaning there, I’m not sure what it is.
But once she’s done updating Dany on the state of the magical union, Quaithe of the Shadow (clearly the Zelig of ASOIAF) is on hand to give Dany an important warning: “You must leave this city soon, Daenerys Targaryen, or you will never be permitted to leave it at all.” This warning (confirmed by the plots of Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Pyat Pree) is a big part of the reason why I’ve been hammering on and on about Qarth-as-Fairie. The essence of Fairie is that if you succumb to the temptation of glamour and enchantment (and I’m always reminded of Terry Pratchett’s introduction to Lords and Ladies about the underlying meanings of the adjectives we use to describe things that are beautiful), you’re going to accidentally eat the pomegranate seeds or the lotus-leaves and you’re going to be trapped.
But that’s not all: Quaithe also has a prophecy to give Dany! And that’s really important, because as I’ve been arguing, Dany in ACOK is a prophet figure. This is Dany’s reward for looking past the surface level and seeing the truth about Qarth – she gets to continue on her destiny rather than getting trapped and forced to live a life of unimaginable luxury high off her gourd as sorcerous vampires slowly eat her soul. And what is her destiny?
“Where would you have me go?”
“To go north, you must journey south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.”
“What is there in Asshai that I will not find in Qarth?”
Now, this prophecy is a mere amuse-bouche compared to the Caligula-esque all-you-can-gorge buffet that is the next Dany chapter, but there’s some interesting things we can pull out of it:
- First, we can learn about where Dany is going – she’s going West to Westeros because everything about her family and her childhood will drive her to do so, and she’s going to the North because the White Walkers are going to break come streaming over the ruins of the Wall and Dany’s conception of queen-as-mother will drive her to do so, and she’s going back to deal with the Dothraki because GRRM doesn’t like leaving loose ends untied (although it’s interesting that Dany takes up the mantra “if I look back, I am lost” when prophecy is telling her to do the complete opposite).
- Second, we can see that Dany’s already done a lot of this prophecy – in her trip from Pentos to Vaes Dothrak to the Lhazareen to Qarth, she’s already gone south and east, and along the way has become the Mother of Dragons and the Breaker of Chains. This is one of the main reasons, by the way, that I don’t hold with the circumnavigation theory – Dany’s already done that part of the prophecy, there’s no need to re-do it.
- Third, and this is probably the more controversial of my opinions on this section, I think the reference to the light and the shadow shows that GRRM originally intended Dany to go to Asshai – and has since realized that his gardener-like writing style means he can no longer do that. If Dany’s time in Slaver’s Bay had taken up less time, there might have been enough time for her to get to Asshai and all the way back to Westeros without putting the entire North plot on hold for way too long, but as it stands, I think Asshai is now out of the picture.
However, I do want to leave you with this disquieting thought. As I’ve described the layout of Dany III (and IV), Quaithe serves as the third who breaks the pattern, the one “wise man” who’s actually trying to help Dany achieve her destiny and not pursue her own agenda. But what if instead the structure is that Quaithe is just like the other two, and actually out for her own ends? After all, as we’ve seen the prophecies that Dany learns have a negative impact on her future behavior, with the best example being the way that the three betrayals prophecy has made her far more paranoid than she was before. So what if Quaithe is using Dany as a blunt instrument of prophecy, even if she knows that doing so will be the worse for Dany personally?
What Was Jorah’s Original Plan?
The final point I want to address before I jump into the historical stuff is the role that Jorah plays. Now, granted that Jorah’s selfish paranoid attitude towards other men is not a good basis for any kind of relationship (romantic or otherwise) between himself and Dany, but ironically in Qarth it actually works for Dany. Because he’s such a suspicious bastard, Jorah’s the one who figures out Xaro Xhoan Daxos’ scheme, and who keeps Dany looking for the razor blade hidden in the candy (which will be vitally important for her in the House of the Undying).
At the same time, we know from ASOS that Jorah is still spying on Dany while claiming loyalty to her – however, I think the situation might be somewhat more complicated than rank betrayal. To begin with, we know that Varys and Illyrio are part of a conspiracy to put a Targaryen on the Iron Throne, so that sending reports to Varys doesn’t necessarily mean sending reports to Robert Baratheon – unless Varys thinks that he can hurry up the invasion that way. However, this chapter gives us reason to question Jorah’s loyalty to the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy:
“I would be glad to leave this city, if truth be told…but not for Asshai.”
“East…Illyrio would sell you as quickly as he would a slave.”
For a paid informant, Jorah works awfully hard in this chapter (and indeed, all the way through ASOS) to undermine Dany’s trust in Illyrio and disrupt Illyrio’s plans. I think that the same avaricious attitude that led him to try to drive away XXD, Daario, and Ser Barristan was also leading Jorah to try out his own conspiracy. Namely, Jorah was hoping to sever Dany from anyone else’s plans so that he could marry her himself and either become the power behind her throne or get her to settle for the easy life as he’d proposed previously. It may well be that one of the temptations of Qarth was made on Bear Island.
So let’s talk about the politics of Qarth and some potential historical parallels. On the one hand, the deviousness, corruption, and seemingly meaningless competition between the various factions is quite reminiscent of the Byzantine tradition of mediating politics through the demes – professional fan clubs for the chariot racing teams of Constantinople:
After all, at the end of the day, what precisely is the difference between a Blue or a Green? And yet, despite the inherent meaningless of these divisions, thousands of people died because of these divisions.
On the other hand, the deep interconnections between commerce and politics are highly reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. The Pureborn, for example, could see a parallel with the nobility who claimed unbroken (and highly dubious) lines of descent from the Roman Republic, and held themselves above the mere merchants and bankers. At the same time, just as there is little that practically divides the Pureborn from the merchant guilds (especially in the desire for money), many of these same families claiming ancient ennoblement were up to their necks in commerce and mercenary work as they were in statecraft or the church.
So there’s a couple interesting hypotheticals here:
- the Qartheen said yes? If Dany got her fleet at this moment, a lot of things change. On a character level, just as Stannis’ defeat at the Blackwater is key in forcing him to undergo character growth without which he would have been an absolutely awful king, short-circuiting Dany’s rise to power would have made her a far less politically capable ruler, and critically one without much of an idea of what to do with power once she got it. Speaking of which, one of the major changes that would have come from this is that Slaver’s Bay would have remained unliberated. In addition to changing the lives of tens of thousands for the worse and better, this would dramatically reshape Volantine politics (link), as well as rerouting the lives of Tyrion and Jorah, Victarion and Moqorro, Quentyn and Co. and many other characters.
- Dany had said yes to Xaro Xhoan Daxos? A bad marriage promise isn’t impossible to get around – usually people in fairy-tales who try to trap other people with promises demanded in ill faith come to bad ends, and it’s quite likely that Drogon would have been no more willing to call the Qartheen merchant his master than he was with Kraznys mo Nakloz. On the other hand, I wonder if Dany getting burned by a bad political marriage would have made her a little bit more cautious about Hizdahr zo Loraq or any of her other future husbands.
- Dany went to Asshai? Here’s one where I don’t really have very much in the way of answers, because we know almost nothing about Asshai. However, my guess is that GRRM set up Asshai as a city of sorcery as a kind of threefold revelation thing about Dany’s destiny and the truth of her past – first she gets some hints at the House of the Undying, then Quaithe and Ser Barristan fill in more of the details, then she gets the motherload in Asshai. Ultimately, I think GRRM is going to arrive at the same place – namely, Dany going through a process of enlightenment – but just do it in a different place through different means. Possibly this is why Marwyn the Mage became so much more prominent later in the series?
Book vs. Show:
As I said last time, Benioff and Weiss badly mishandled this section in Season 2, and it’s a case where decisions made early in the production process have negative implications later on. Here, because they’d set up that the Qartheen aren’t interested in Dany, they can’t set up the situation where Dany becomes a universal object of fascination and desire to the point where she’s got enough cash that she can offer inducements to people to try to get ships. When Dany’s pleas to the Pureborn are foregrounded by the fact that they’ve taken bribes and reneged, you’re on her side; when Dany is simply shouting at the Spice King that he should give her ships because she’s special, she seems like an entitled Viserys clone. Likewise, the loss of this context robs character moments of foreshadowing – if we’re shown ahead of time that the Qartheen are false dealers, then XXD’s betrayal carries greater resonance; if we’re shown ahead of time that Dany’s dragons are bringing magic back into the world, then Pyat Pree’s plans to capture her and the dragons to use as an eternal magical battery make more sense.
And what makes all of this so frustrating is that, when you look at what I call the David Lynch Garden Party, and you look at the costuming, the set design, the simple bit of camera magic to produce the Pyat Prees, there really was the potential to make Qarth the bizarre, dreamlike place of temptation and revelation that it should have been.
Such a waste.