“In time, the dragons would be her most formidable guardians, just as they had been for Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters three hundred years ago. Just now, though, they brought her more danger than protection. In all the world there were but three living dragons, and those were hers; they were a wonder, and a terror, and beyond price.”
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 said last time, the transition between ACOK and ASOS is an odd one for Daenerys. This entire chapter, for example, hinges on Dany trying to choose whether to go to Pentos or to Astapor, which you think would be the perfect way to end a character arc as opposed to how one would normally begin an arc.
Regardless of any editing weirdness, a number of important themes are established here that need to be assessed, so let’s get into it.
A Minor Theme on Culture Shock
Starting from the most minor to the most major themes of the chapter, let’s start with the ongoing theme of culture shock and cultural that has been such an enduring part of Dany’s storyline since the very beginning. Now, we haven’t even yet been introduced to the third major culture that Dany will have to interact with – that will have to wait for next chapter – but at the same time, we do see the power of cultural dislocation:
“Her Dothraki called the sea the poison water, distrusting any liquid that their horses could not drink. On the day the three ships had lifted anchor at Quarth, you would have thought they were sailing to hell instead of Pentos. Her brave young bloodriders had stared off at the dwindling coastline with huge white eyes, each of the three determined to show no fear before the other two, while her handmaids Irri and Jhiqui clutched the rail desperately and retched over the side at every little swell. The rest of Dany’s tiny khalasar remained below decks, preferring the company of their nervous horses to the terrifying landless world about the ships. When a sudden squall had enveloped them six days into the voyage, she heard them through the hatches; the horses kicking and screaming, the riders praying in thin quavery voices each time Balerion heaved or swayed.”
In the past, we’ve seen Dany wrestling with culture shock when she was out of her element while among the Dothraki. Here are the Dothraki are wrestling with the existential terror of experiencing the inverse of their cultural worldview – the vast expanse of the ocean echoing the broad plains of the Dothraki Sea but without the personal individual freedom of movement dear to the heart of the nomadic horse warrior, the claustophobia and nausea of being trapped below decks in a cramped ship during a storm, amplified by the disdain and contempt that the Dothraki have for walls and other permanent structures. By contrast, Dany is very much in her element: “no squall could frighten Dany, though. Daenerys Stormborn, she was called…Dany had crossed [the Narrow Sea] half a hundred times as a girl…she loved the sea.”
The question for the future is whether, once the ships finally make landfall in whichever harbor Dany chooses, will she adapt to her new climate with the same ease that she does on board ship, or flounder like her khalasar?
A Discussion of Dracology
The first major theme of the chapter, however, is the behavior and nature of dragons. Up until now, Dany’s dragons have been symbols and signifiers, portents and miracles, but too small for the most part to do anything on their own (save for Drogon’s intervention at the HOTU). Now that the dragons are growing, they are starting to become real characters like the Starks’ direwolves are characters, in that they have distinct personalities and can act on their own:
“Viserion’s scales were the color of fresh cream, his horns, wing bones, and spinal crest a dark gold that flashed bright as metal in the sun. Rhaegal was made of the green of summer and the bronze of fall. They soared above the ships in wide circles, higher and higher, each trying to climb above the other.”
“Dragons always preferred to attack from above, Dany had learned. Should either get between the other and the sun, he would fold his wings and dive screaming, and they would tumble from the sky locked together in a tangled scaly ball, jaws snapping and tails lashing. The first time they had done it, she feared that they meant to kill each other, but it was only sport. No sooner would they splash into the sea than they would break apart and rise again, shrieking and hissing, the salt water steaming off them as their wings clawed at the air. Drogon was aloft as well, though not in sight; he would be miles ahead, or miles behind, hunting.”
“He was always hungry, her Drogon. Hungry and growing fast. Another year, or perhaps two, and he may be large enough to ride. Then I shall have no need of ships to cross the great salt sea.”
“But that time was not yet come. Rhaegal and Viserion were the size of small dogs, Drogon only a little larger, and any dog would have out-weighed them; they were all wings and neck and tail, lighter than they looked. And so Daenerys Targaryen must rely on wood and wind and canvas to bear her home.”
When it comes to the behavior patterns of the dragons, GRRM does an interesting job of borrowing from the behavior patterns of immature predators (the play-fighting especially reminds me of David Attenborough documentaries of lion cubs, for example) while reasoning from first principles to find the distinctively draconic elements. The preference for advantage from height, for example, probably owes more to WWI and WWII fighter pilot movies than it does to the behavior of any species. Likewise, the idea that dragons are always hungry and constantly growing (more on this in a second) is likely borrowed from the Western mythological and folk-lore of dragons as representative of greed and pride, rather than any principle of biology.
At the same time, the chapter does a nice job setting up the tension with regards to the dragons: Dany’s dragons aren’t big enough yet to get Dany home in either a physical or personal sense, so the question becomes will Dany and her dragons make it intact from now to then, and what kind of makeshifts will be needed in the meantime? The other nice thing that the growing issue is a nice setup to get Jorah and Ser Barristan into the conversation:
“How big will he grow?” Dany asked curiously. “Do you know?”
“In the Seven Kingdoms, there are tales of dragons who grew so huge that they could pluck giant krakens from the seas.”
Dany laughed. “That would be a wondrous sight to see.”
“It is only a tale, Khaleesi,” said her exile knight. “They talk of wise old dragons living a thousand years as well.”
“Well, how long does a dragon live?” She looked up as Viserion swooped low over the ship, his wings beating slowly and stirring the limp sails.
Ser Jorah shrugged. “A dragon’s natural span of days is many times as long as a man’s, or so the songs would have us believe…but the dragons the Seven Kingdoms knew best were those of House Targaryen. They were bred for war, and in war they died. It is no easy thing to slay a dragon, but it can be done.”
The squire Whitebeard, standing by the figurehead with one lean hand curled about his tall hardwood staff, turned toward them and said, “Balerion the Black Dread was two hundred years old when he died during the reign of Jaehaerys the Conciliator. He was so large he could swallow an aurochs whole. A dragon never stops growing, Your Grace, so long as he has food and freedom.”
“In King’s Landing, your ancestors raised an immense domed castle for their dragons. The Dragonpit, it is called. It still stands atop the Hill of Rhaenys, though all in ruins now. That was where the royal dragons dwelt in days of yore, and a cavernous dwelling it was, with iron doors so wide that thirty knights could ride through them abreast. Yet even so, it was noted that none of the pit dragons ever reached the size of their ancestors. The maesters say it was because of the walls around them, and the great dome above their heads.”
Right off the bat, we have a sharp contrast between Ser Jorah, who only has folklore (which even he is pretty dismissive of) and is somewhat lacking in imagination and Ser Barristan, who is already showing way too much specific knowledge about the Targaryens for his own good, which works as a nice catalyst for their rivalry. At the same time, this conversation sets up an interesting connection between “food and freedom,” which will take on far more significance in ADWD when the dragons’ feeding habits will lead Dany to eventually shackle her own children, unable to solve the same conundrum of how to balance power and control that her ancestors so often wrestled with.
As we’ll see later, there’s also a suggestion that, as goes her dragons, so goes Dany – as her dragons are growing in size and power, so Dany will increase in power and authority, from the leader of a tiny band of exiles and oddballs, to the queen at the head of an army, building an empire of liberation. And once Dany puts her dragons in chains, so too will she find her freedom of action constrained…
A Discussion of the Other Kind of Dragons
Naturally, the trio goes from discussing the dragons to the House that took them as its symbol and its chief source of authority. It’s a conversation that comes in two parts, increasingly revealing information both about the two main subjects (Aerys II and Crown Prince Rhaegar) and the story-teller, because one thing that has to be said about Ser Barristan Selmy is that he’s a godawful spy, who couldn’t go an entire week before he opens his big Targ fanboy mouth and starts sharing way more information about the royal family than a mere squire would ever know:
“Yet I served for a time in King’s Landing in the days when King Aerys sat the Iron Throne, and walked beneath the dragonskulls that looked down from the walls of his throne room.”
…She beckoned Whitebeard closer. “Did you ever meet my royal father?” King Aerys II had died before his daughter was born.
“I had that great honor, Your Grace.”
“Did you find him good and gentle?”
Whitebeard did his best to hide his feelings, but they were there, plain on his face. “His Grace was…often pleasant.”
“Often?” Dany smiled. “But not always?”
“He could be very harsh to those he thought his enemies.”
“A wise man never makes an enemy of a king,” said Dany.
This is the beginning of an ongoing conversation that Dany and Ser Barristan will continue right through ADWD, in which Dany’s “family feeling” wars with Barristan’s eye-witness accounts. As we can see from this conversation, we can see that Dany has conjured in her imagination an image of her father as an idealized monarch – partially due to her brother’s propaganda and her tendency to dismiss stories ot the contrary as the Usurper’s lies, but also partly out of a desire to believe that the father she has never known (but did see once) was not a monster. Indeed, I would argue that Dany’s attitude towards Aerys II now and later is much like her attitude towards her brother – seeing his flaws to some extent (“Viserys had been stupid and vicious…[a] cruel weak man”) but wishing he had been “wiser and more patient,” unable to forget “the brother who had sometimes let her creep into his bed, the boy who told her tales of the Seven Kingdoms, and talked of how much better their lives would be once he claimed his crown.”
At the same time, on a re-read, this exchange is far more sgnificant to Ser Barristan’s mission than it first appears. Consider that Selmy decided to remain in disguise because he “wanted to watch you for a time before pledging you my sword. To make certain that you were not…mad.” In his first real conversation with this unknown Targaryen, he carefully, discretely alludes to the idea that Aerys II was a paranoid tyrant, and Dany’s first response is to approve of his style of government. No wonder that Ser Barristan kept his mouth shut as to his true identity; perhaps he’s not a completely hopeless spy after all.
The tension ratchets up even further when the conversation moves on from Aerys the King to Rhaegar, his son and the Crown Prince of the Targaryen line. Here again, the thrust of the conversation is the pagantry and glamour of House Targaryen as opposed to the more complicated reality:
“Did you know my brother Rhaegar as well?”
“It was said that no man ever knew Prince Rhaegar, truly. I had the privilege of seeing him in tourney, though, and often heard him play his harp with its silver strings…”Your Grace,” said Whitebeard, “the Prince of Dragonstone was a most puissant warrior, but…”
“…A warrior without peer…those are fine words, Your Grace, but words win no battles.”
“Swords win battles,” Ser Jorah said bluntly. “And Prince Rhaegar knew how to use one.”
“He did, ser, but…I have seen a hundred tournaments and more wars than I would wish, and however strong or fast or skilled a knight may be, there are others who can match him. A man will win one tourney, and fall quickly in the next. A slick spot in the grass may mean defeat, or what you ate for supper the night before. A change in the wind may bring the gift of victory.” He glanced at Ser Jorah. “Or a lady’s favor knotted round an arm…”
“…what was he truly like?”
The old man considered a moment. “Able. That above all. Determined, deliberate, dutiful, single-minded. There is a tale told of him…As a young boy, the Prince of Dragonstone was bookish to a fault. He was reading so early that men said Queen Rhaella must have swallowed some books and a candle whilst he was in her womb. Rhaegar took no interest in the play of other children. The maesters were awed by his wits, but his father’s knights would jest sourly that Baelor the Blessed had been born again. Until one day Prince Rhaegar found something in his scrolls that changed him. No one knows what it might have been, only that the boy suddenly appeared early one morning in the yard as the knights were donning their steel. He walked up to Ser Willem Darry, the master-at-arms, and said, ‘I will require sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.'”
This conversation is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, it’s interesting that Dany’s image of Rhaegar is still that of “her brother Rhaegar battling the Usurper in the bloody waters of the Trident and dying for the woman he loved,” which is how Viserys told the story, rather than the
emo Byronic hero with his silver harp that Dany saw at the House of the Undying. Second, while Ser Barristan’s martial excellence is at the center of the conversation – hence his verbal fencing about Ser Jorah’s jousting – it’s clear that what he admired about Rhaegar had nothing to do with martial excellence. This seems like a case of the different perspective of a master as opposed to an amateur; Dany views swordsmanship as something special because she doesn’t understand it, Ser Barristan knows it inside and out and knows how much is owed to chance, that “however strong or fast or skilled a knight may be, there are others who can match him. A man will win one tourney, and fall quickly in the next.” Thus, he pegs Jorah Mormont as a one-hit-wonder, a man who felt genuine inspiration only the once and then ruined his life in part by trying to recapture it.
Instead, what Ser Barristan values is character, as we might expect from someone who probably grew up idolizing Ser Duncan the Tall. And what he admires about Rhaegar is that he wasn’t a natural warrior, but someone who made himself into one because he was “Able. That above all. Determined, deliberate, dutiful, single-minded.” This brings us to the mystery of Rhaegar Targaryen, who we have only glimpsed in fractured and incompatible glances: abductor and possible rapist, sober-minded political reformer, doomed romantic hero, or prophecy-obsessed fanatic? After all these years and five books, I feel like we are no closer to really understanding what motives drove Rhaegar and what internal conflicts he wrestled with. All I think we can say is that GRRM is a romantic…
Given that this blog is largely focused on the history and politics of ASOIAF, it was rather gratifying that this conversation about Aerys and Rhaegar leads to an ongoing debate between Dany and Jorah Mormont about how to be a good ruler:
“A queen must listen to all,” she reminded him. “The highborn and the low, the strong and the weak, the noble and the venal. One voice may speak you false, but in many there is always truth to be found.” She had read that in a book.
“Hear my voice then, Your Grace,” the exile said. “This Arstan Whitebeard is playing you false. He is too old to be a squire, and too well spoken to be serving that oaf of a eunuch.”
As the image above suggests, Dany’s theory of how to be a good ruler pulls straight from some of the best. While much of Richard Neustadt’s theories of the presidency centered around the necessity to persuade and bargain as opposed to merely command, the ways to maneuver in a system with shared powers, and how to use the various “softer” sources of power to improve one’s bargaining position, he was also very interested in information. In his briefing memos to JFK during the presidential transition of 1960, Neustadt pointed to FDR as a positive example of a president who “disliked to be tied to any single source of information or advice on anything. Even if the source should be a trusted aide, he preferred, when and where he could, to have alternative sources.” By maintaining a diversity of information, a president could avoid being captured by any one part of the bureaucracy, and would be able to engage in bargaining with Congress and his own government from a position of superior knowledge.
By contrast, Jorah advises a suspicious and defensive approach to information, treating everyone around her as a potential enemy. Now it’s hard to say how much of this is what Jorah actually believes is best for a ruler and how much of this has to do with Mormont’s desire to monopolize Dany so that he is both the only adviser she trusts and a default candidate for romantic partner (more on this later). It speaks volumes about Daenerys’ capacity as a ruler than she initially sees the flaw in Jorah’s approach:
“It seems to me that a queen who trusts no one is as foolish as a queen who trusts everyone. Every man I take into my service is a risk, I understand that, but how am I to win the Seven Kingdoms without such risks?”
If Neustadt were there in the room (and wouldn’t that be an interesting AU?), I would imagine he would be nodding vigorously. While it’s true that a president’s advisers, Federal bureaucrats, Congressional supporters, and allies in their political party will all have their own agendas, will provide the ruler with carefully curated information, and will try to “capture” the president if they can manage it, it’s also true that a president cannot accomplish anything by pulling back and trying to maintain distance – rather, a successful leader works to offset these inevitable downsides so that they can continue to make use of these indispensible institutions while still preserving their independence.
Jorah and Paranoia
And as both the daughter of Aerys II and the recipients of the prophecies of the House of the Undying, Dany has even more reasons than most to beware of the appeal of paranoia. Not only will she have a lot of power to throw around not too long from now, but she has to be very careful that she doesn’t get so caught up trying to figure out who’s prophecied to betray her that she ignores the very real threats around her, or mistakes one for the other:
“The Usurper on his Iron Throne had offered land and lordship to any man who killed her. One attempt had been made already, with a cup of poisoned wine. The closer she came to Westeros, the more likely another attack became. Back in Qarth, the warlock Pyat Pree had sent a Sorrowful Man after her to avenge the Undying she’d burned in their House of Dust. Warlocks never forgot a wrong, it was said, and the Sorrowful Men never failed to kill. Most of the Dothraki would be against her as well. Khal Drogo’s kos led khalasars of their own now, and none of them would hesitate to attack her own little band on sight, to slay and slave her people and drag Dany herself back to Vaes Dothrak to take her proper place among the withered crones of the dosh khaleen. She hoped that Xaro Xhoan Daxos was not an enemy, but the Quartheen merchant had coveted her dragons. And there was Quaithe of the Shadow, that strange woman in the red lacquer mask with all her cryptic counsel. Was she an enemy too, or only a dangerous friend? Dany could not say.”
This is what makes Jorah such a dangerous adviser to Dany, because it’s not as if she doesn’t have she doesn’t have enemies and that prophecy weighing down on her, and here he is, encouraging her worst instincts. Indeed, I would argue that Jorah is especially dangerous, because he keeps pointing out additional potential enemies to worry about, which runs the risk that Dany’s attention will be directed in the wrong direction, trying to root out hidden enemies, and ignoring the real threats.
At the same time, because Dany does have a lot of enemies in the world, it’s not like he’s always wrong either. Take this conversation as an example:
“We are on our way once more.”
“Yes,” he said, “but to what, my queen?”
“…Sit, good sir, and tell me what is troubling you.”
“Three things.” Ser Jorah sat. “Strong Belwas. This Arstan Whitebeard. And Illyrio Mopatis, who sent them….the warlocks in Qarth told you that you would be betrayed three times…”
“Once for blood and once for gold and once for love.” Dany was not like to forget. “Mirri Maz Duur was the first.”
“Which means two traitors yet remain…and now these two appear. I find that troubling, yes…I have seen how deftly he handles that staff of his. Recall how he killed that manticore in Qarth…has it occured to you that Whitebeard and Belwas might have been in league with the assassin? It might all have been a ploy to win your trust…”
“These are Illyrio’s ships, Illyrio’s captains, Illyrio’s sailors…and Strong Belwas and Arstan are his men as well, not yours…he was not born wealthy. In the world as I have seen it, no man grows rich by kindness. The warlocks said the second treason would be for gold? What does Illyrio Mopatis love more than gold?”
From a re-reader’s perspective, we know that Jorah is actually two-thirds wrong here. Ser Barristan’s loyalty runs bone-deep, and both he and Belwas will save her life and risk their lives for her again and again. As Dany will call out in the future, Jorah is speaking her largely from a jealous, possessive desire to drive away any other man who might replace him either as an adviser or romantic partner; when Dany thinks that “he does all he does for love,” she’s more right than she knows, and as a woman destinied to suffer betrayal for love, that should worry her deeply.
However, he’s not entirely wrong about Illyrio. As we have seen in the past, Illyrio’s self-interested support for Dany has been a double-edged blade indeed, depending on her position in his protean conspiracy. When it suits his interests to have her protected, as he did in Pentos and by sending Jorah with her across the Dothraki Sea, and by sending Barristan and Belwas, he will do so. However, Illyrio is perfectly comfortable with putting her at (calculated) risk, as we saw with the wine-seller in Vaes Dothrak, and he was perfectly comfortable with the idea that she might die on the Dothraki Sea – because his primary interest is “Aegon.” As long as Dany can be of use to Aegon – as a bride to boost his standing as a Targaryen, as a source of dragons, or whatever – then Illyrio will protect the asset he wants to make use of. But if she steps outside that relatively narrow lane, I have no doubt that Illyrio would have her assassinated in a heartbeat.
On the other hand, Ser Barristan Selmy would probably the worst possible person in the world to give that order to, so Jorah’s still full of it.
Once he’s gotten Dany questioning the loyalties of everyone around her, Jorah finally broaches his plan. And you really do have to hand it to him in a “you magnificent bastard” way, because it’s one of those plans that works in so many different ways:
“I have a plan to put to you.”
“What plan? Tell me.”
“Illyrio Mopatis wants you back in Pentos, under his roof. Very well, go to him…but in your own time, and not alone. Let us see how loyal and obedient these new subjects of yours truly are. Command Groleo to change course for Slaver’s Bay…it is Astapor I’d set my sails for. In Astapor you can buy Unsullied…put ashore there, and continue on to Pentos overland. It will take longer yes…but when you break bread with Magister Illyrio, you iwill have a thousand swords behind you, not just four.”
“…What use are wealthy friends if they will not put their wealth at your disposal, my queen? If Magister Illyrio would deny you, he is only Xaro Xhoan Daxos with four chins. And if he is sincere in his devotion to your cause, he will not begrudge you three shiploads of trade goods. What better use for his tiger skins than to buy you the beginnings of an army.”
First, let’s consider Illyrio: not only does this plan keep him physically separate from Dany, but it also begins to drive a wedge between them, by encouraging Dany to “test” their relationship through various actions that go against Illyrio’s interests, and potentially alienating Illyrio in the process. As we see later in ADWD, this change of direction has a huge impact on Illyrio and the Golden Company, requiring the latter to march to Volantis as opposed to staying in the Disputed Lands.
Second, let’s consider Jorah: primarily, this plan benefits him by maintaining his monopoly over Dany. Not only is it a test of whether she’ll take his side in a conflict, but it also sets up Jorah to potentially claim a good deal of credit for her invasion by being the one to acquire her army. (It also plays into his backstory and worldview : Jorah the exile banished for selling slaves goes right back into his old line of work, which already signifies that Mormont isn’t long for Dany’s company.) However, the most crucial thing we learn about this plan is how it relates to his larger ambitions, because just like Illyrio, Jorah has an agenda that doesn’t always track with Dany’s:
“Oh,” was all Dany had time to say as he pulled her close and pressed his lips down on hers. He smelled of sweat and salt and leather, and the iron studs on his jerkin dug into her naked breasts as he crushed her hard against him. One hand held her by the shoulder while the other slid down her spine to the small of her back, and her mouth opened for his tongue, though she never told it to. His beard is scratchy, she thought, but his mouth is sweet. The Dothraki wore no beards, only long mustaches, and only Khal Drogo had ever kissed her before. He should not be doing this. I am his queen, not his woman…
“Your Grace…the dragon has three heads…you have no brothers, but you can take husbands. And I tell you truly, Daenerys, there is no man in all the world who will ever be half so true to you as me.”
Many authors better than me at analysis of gender have pointed out how intensely creepy Jorah’s behavior is here. First, in a very Trumpian fashion, he’s making sexual advances on someone without their consent (indeed, once Dany has a second to think about it, she very much disapproves of his actions) or even their foreknowledge. Second, there’s the age issue: Jorah’s in his mid-40s, Dany is only 15. Third, there’s the whole obsession with his second wife.
What hasn’t been talked about as much is Jorah’s vaulting ambition in this moment. Jorah doesn’t kiss Dany solely because he’s in love with her/obsessed with her; he’s doing it to bootstrap himself from exiled knight to King of Westeros. And while he claims that he’s just going to be one of two Kings Consort, look at the way that he’s trying to get her to distrust everyone else and only trust him (“no man in all the world who will ever be half so true to you as me“). To me, this is scarily reminiscent of Daemon Targaryen’s svengali-like relationship with Rhaenrya during the Dance, and if Jorah had gotten his way on this, it would have been incredibly damaging to Dany’s cause when she got to Westeros (more on this in a bit).
Dany I is also the first chapter where we really get introduced to the idea of the Unsullied, when they stop being the fat eunuchs with the pointy hats and become the Three Thousand of Qohor. So I thought I’d address the legend of the Three Thousand here instead of in the main body, because it’s easier to talk about their place in Westerosi history and their similarities to real-world history in one place:
“Do you know the tale of the Three Thousand of Qohor?”
“It was four hundred years ago or more, when the Dothraki first rode out of the east, sacking and burning every town and city in their path. The khal who led them was named Temmo. His khalasar was not so big as Drogo’s, but it was big enough. Fifty thousand, at the least. Half of them braided warriors with bells ringing in their hair.”
“The Qohorik knew he was coming. They strengthened their walls, doubled the size of their own guard, and hired two free companies besides, the Bright Banners and the Second Sons. And almost as an afterthought, they sent a man to Astapor to buy three thousand Unsullied. It was a long march back to Qohor, however, and as they approached they saw the smoke and dust and heard the distant din of battle.”
“By the time the Unsullied reached the city the sun had set. Crows and wolves were feasting beneath the walls on what remained of the Qohorik heavy horse. The Bright Banners and Second Sons had fled, as sellswords are wont to do in the face of hopeless odds. With dark falling, the Dothraki had retired to their own camps to drink and dance and feast, but none doubted that they would return on the morrow to smash the city gates, storm the walls, and rape, loot, and slave as they pleased.”
“But when dawn broke and Temmo and his bloodriders led their khalasar out of camp, they found three thousand Unsullied drawn up before the gates with the Black Goat standard flying over their heads. So small a force could easily have been flanked, but you know Dothraki. These were men on foot, and men on foot are fit only to be ridden down.”
“The Dothraki charged. The Unsullied locked their shields, lowered their spears, and stood firm. Against twenty thousand screamers with bells in their hair, they stood firm.”
“Eighteen times the Dothraki charged, and broke themselves on those shields and spears like waves on a rocky shore. Thrice Temmo sent his archers wheeling past and arrows fell like rain upon the Three Thousand, but the Unsullied merely lifted their shields above their heads until the squall had passed. In the end only six hundred of them remained . . . but more than twelve thousand Dothraki lay dead upon that field, including Khal Temmo, his bloodriders, his kos, and all his sons. On the morning of the fourth day, the new khal led the survivors past the city gates in a stately procession. One by one, each man cut off his braid and threw it down before the feet of the Three Thousand.”
This event was a major turning point in Essosi history for many reasons. First, it stopped the advance of the Dothraki, so the Free Cities of the western coast did not meet the same fate that the great empires of the Sarnori and the Qaathi did and were able to keep developing as civilizations and cultures. As a result, Westeros would continue to exist in a world in which there were highly developed city-states to their east, and thus we get trade and cultural exchange, and the War for the Stepstones, and the Three Daughters’ involvement in the Dance of the Dragons, the Blackfyre exiles morphing into the Golden Company, and on and on.
Second, it established the reputation of the Unsullied in what must have been very early in their development. Remember, the Valyrians had destroyed Old Ghis five thousands years prior, and we learn from the WOIAF that “after the Doom came to Valyria, the cities of Slaver’s Bay were able to throw off the last of the Valyrian shackles, ruling themselves in truth rather than playing at it. And what remained of the Ghiscari swiftly reestablished their trade in slaves—though where once they won them by conquest, now they purchased and bred them.” The Battle of Qohor, therefore, established the socioeconomic status quo we know today: the Dothraki raid for slaves and sell them to Slaver’s Bay, Astapor trains them and sells them to Qohor and Volantis and the other slave cities, and as a result the Dothraki are kept in check as tribute-takers and raiders rather than conquerors.
But what about our own history? Well, I’m going to hold back somewhat, because Dany’s going to spend a couple chapters in Astapor and I don’t want to run out of material on historical slave-soldiers before we even get there. Instead, I want to talk about Thermopylae, or how we think of Thermopylae. For centuries, and indeed to the present, the story of Thermopylae has been told as the Spartans vs. the Persians, the stoic self-sacrificing Leonidas saving Western Civilization from the “Asiatic despotism” of the Persians. And when you let Frank Miller and Zach Snyder get their hands on it, the pre-existing cultural essentialism, exaltation of warrior culture, and only slightly subtextual homoeroticism of the original gets taken up to eleventy-stupid:
Now, there are many problems with this myth: the denigration of the great world-civilization of the Persians, the systematic erasure of everyone else who fought and died at Thermopylae, the reality that Leonidas got his ass kicked because he didn’t bother to put scouts up on the hills, the fact that the supposedly-degenerate Athenians were the ones who actually won the war by beating the Persians at Salamis. But most of all, I think the problem comes with identifying the Spartans as somehow emblematic of Greek democracy, which in reality the Spartans despised and tried to stamp out wherever they could. Because the Spartans were anti-democratic aristocrats who ruled over one of the most brutal slave societies that ever existed, and thought that democracy gave helots ideas about being people. Which is why I want to make a plug for a great corrective to the Frank Miller/Zach Znyder narrative, the incredible graphic novel Three by Kieron Gillen, which is the story of three helots trying to make their way to freedom while being hunted by a bunch of blood-thirsty slavecatchers.
I’d like to focus on two main hypotheticals for this chapter:
- Dany headed to Pentos? If Dany didn’t listen to Jorah, Essos changes (or rather doesn’t change) rather dramatically. In the cities of Slaver’s Bay, the Masters continue to be masters and the slaves continue to suffer. In Volantis, the elephants remain in power and the city doesn’t go to war in the east. The economy of Essos isn’t roiled up, Free Companies remain in the Disputed Lands rather than travelling to the east, and huge numbers of butterflies start beating their wings.
- But for Dany personally, I think this means she comes face to face with Aegon very quickly, with Illyrio pushing hard for them to marry, and at the very least, for Aegon to be “tested” with one of Dany’s dragons, with the Golden Company being held out as a carrot to get her to sign on the line.
- Dany married Jorah? This one is a bit harder to assess, because it remains in the more nebulous realm of interpersonal dynamics. For one thing, it’s quite possible that even with a marriage, Dany’s reaction to the relevation about Jorah’s spying could easily see him exiled (or perhaps killed if the intensification of the betrayal is enough) as per OTL. But if Jorah makes it to Westeros, it would be a huge problem politically. Jorah is a penniless exile slaver from a minor house of the North; he’s not going to be bringing any allies with him, and given his paranoia and controlling nature, he’s going to cause diplomatic crises if he thinks that Oberyn Martell is being too charming or something like that.
Book vs. Show:
Dany’s Season 3 plot is one of her better ones, certainly. And this chapter’s scenes are done very well – the CGI of her dragons improved immensely from Season 2, showing dragons cavorting and fighting over fish. And overall, I thought Emelia Clarke and Ian Glen do a great job in their short scene. However, I do think there’s something lost by not having Ser Barristan in the scene to clash with Jorah, and by having Jorah’s arguments for the Unsullied be both grounded in realpolitik as opposed to self-interest, and eliminating the connection with Illyrio.