Daenerys is No Hero

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If you think Daenerys is a hero, you haven’t been paying attention. She might be the biggest villain on Game of Thrones and we don’t even know it. (Well, we might after the Loot train battle.)

Beautiful and highly sympathetic, Daenerys grew up hunted (not unlike Henry VII). Her silver-haired, narcissistic brother Viserys likely abused her (“Don’t awake the Dragon”) throughout her childhood. To further his own ambition, Viserys sold her at 13 years of age into a horse-trading-style diplomatic marriage. On her wedding night, she was effectively raped by somebody who didn’t even speak her language.

In many ways, Daenerys is the ultimate mind f##k. We see things from her perspective, so we are automatically sympathetic. Yet, Dany is often misguided. Just recently at Highgarden, she got so caught up in unleashing her dragon that she incinerated the helpless Lannister soldiers and destroyed the grain she needs to feed her armies.

Much to many people’s scorn, several years ago I argued that Robert Baratheon was right to attempt to assassinate the newly married Daenerys Targaryen to prevent her from attempting to reclaim the Iron throne.

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Robert Baratheon’s speech about the effects of a Dothraki invasion is likely an allusion to the Henry V’s raids during the Hundred Years’ War. © HBO.

Maybe I’m adopting the medieval mentality of the age too readily, but I’ll say it again: If a conqueror sailed into Blackwater Bay and successfully put King’s Landing under siege – or any other part of Westeros – tens of thousands would die. As I’ve said before: A hurricane is brewing off shore. You have the chance to stop that storm from making landfall and killing thousands of people. Would should you do? This isn’t hard.

At the end of Season 6, Daenerys and Yara (Asha) set sail for Westeros with a fleet of ironborn invaders. Not to be sarcastic, but this isn’t exactly a Red Cross delegation.  Daenerys is a conqueror. Regardless of what lies she tells herself, she’s not coming to help the people. She’s coming to rule. And, blood will be the cost.

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Madonna, is Khaleesi really your hero? Really Madonna? Really???

Historically speaking, conquerors don’t typically just ask politely for cities to surrender themselves. When besieged cities refuse to yield, would-be conquers don’t put hat in hand, shrug, and say, “Aw shucks. I guess I’ll go home now.”

No, they attempt to get what they want through violence. Conquerors and their armies put cities under siege, drive swords through the chests of enemy guards, murder babies, flay townspeople, and rape the local women.

And what happens when conquerors invade? Nothing good.

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Dany rouses her armies with promises of war, conquest, and blood.

Although Daenerys has shown us that she won’t tolerate her armies raping women, battles and sieges mean that people will die.

The WW2 Siege of Leningrad killed 4.5 million people, and the 1258 Siege of Baghdad butchered 2.5 million. On August 2, 216 BC, Hannibal’s one-day Battle of Cannae slaughtered 53,000 to 75,000 men.

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Mirri Maz Duur, as portrayed by Mia Soteriou. © HBO.

Way back in Season, the Lhazareen village healer and maegi Mirri Maz Duur revealed the pain of even those who survive attacks when she spoke of the Dothraki’s attack on her fellow villagers, scoffing at Dany’s naïve claim to have saved her:

“Saved me? Three of those riders had already raped me before you saved me, girl. I saw my god’s house burn, there where I had healed men and women beyond counting. In the streets I saw piles of heads… the head of the baker who makes my bread, the head a young boy that I had cured of fever just three moons past. So… tell me again exactly what it was that you saved?”

Not Cool: Dany is Alexander the Great

Daenerys’ character likely draws on several historical figures: Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Henry VII, and Alexander the Great.

Elizabeth and Cleopatra, the first two historical progenitors, were somewhat decent. The learned polyglot Elizabeth I generally promoted peace and her kingdom flourished – although her subjects celebrated her as the goddess of war (“Bellona”) after she “defeated” the Armada. Elizabeth, however, had her dark side.

After the Armada, some historians have argued that Elizabeth essentially left the sailors who won her victory unpaid in their ships to starve.

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Elizabeth I: an ungrateful narcissist who ignored the starving sailors who saved her country? The defeated Armada’s storm-tossed ships are in the right background pane of this portrait.

We remember Cleopatra for not only her romances and willingness to protect the Egyptian people, but her marriage to her brother and, as Stacy Shift revealed, her love of knowledge.

Nonetheless, Daenerys’ last two historical inspirations — Henry VII and Alexander — were conquerors. Although history doesn’t tally how many people died so that Henry VII could sit on the English throne, blood certainly flowed at Bosworth Field.

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Henry VII was the first Tudor king to adopt the dragon sigil. Henry’s son was glamorized wife-killer Henry VIII. Portrait by Sittow.

Like Daenerys, Henry VII was stuck across the Narrow Sea most of his life, on the run from a king. As a distant claimant to the throne, Henry’s life might not have been worth much if the Yorkists could find him.

Due to Henry VII’s own highly effective, lingering propaganda — coupled with the financial bounty his Bluebeard-esque son’s cavorting has landed upon modern-day England — Henry VII remains enshrined as a hero who founded a great dynasty.

Would you go home if it cost thousands their lives?

The various interests of his contemporaries live on in the analysis of his reign. An aristocratic taint lingers on to distort our analysis of the Tudor elder; he isn’t celebrated sufficiently for breaking the back of the nobility. (The overmighty noble caused wars and a weaker nobility ultimately helped pave the way for class equality.)

Henry VII placed debt-bonds on the nobles to protect his own hide, but this promoted peace and stability – a crucial and refreshing change for the English after the last century. Henry was also skilled, albeit not necessarily innovative, administrator, and his miserly ways left the treasury in superb shape when his spendy son inherited it. But, I digress. The bottom line is Henry was a conqueror – and I’d argue that from George RR Martin’s perspective that isn’t typically a good thing.

When we analyze historical subjects, we get caught up in the propaganda inherent in the primary sources and at least attempt to cast a critical eye towards them.

History should not be so siloed that we on one hand we blindly adopt the historical perspective in the primary sources (“history by the winners”) and yet write social histories about the pain of the peasants average man – as though overlord conquest and oppression are wholly unconnected to the pain of war-ravaged peasants and exploited subjects.

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Alexander the Great in a mosaic.

Daenerys’ other progenitor – Alexander the Great – is remembered as one of the greatest rulers and conquerors the world has ever seen. One fan site even describes itself as “dedicated to the most charismatic and heroic king of all times.” Alexander is celebrated in countless Top Ten lists as one of the greatest rulers and conquerors (like the last one is something to be proud of). Titles of his biographies lionize him:

  • Alexander The Great: Great Leader and Hero Of Macedonia
  • Alexander the Great: Lessons from History’s Undefeated General
  • Alexander the Great: The Brief Life and Towering Exploits of History’s Greatest Conqueror
  • And my personal favorite: Alexander the Great: Man and God

History still sees conquest as a heroic trait, conveniently overlooking the number of people who died at these men’s hands.

This is a very loose accounting of Alexander the Great’s death toll at his biggest battles:

Battle of the Granicus 15,000
Battle of Issus 50,450
Battle of Gaugamela 53,500
Battle of the Hydaspes 23,310
Total 142,260

 

I’ve never seen any estimates of the total number of people who died as the result of all of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. Assuming that 7,000 of his soldiers plus the enemy combatants died for the other campaigns and Alexander slaughtered, say, a 1,000 townspeople each time he captured the city itself, his wars led to very crudely:

  • 266,260 people who died
  • 285,000 women, children, and men who were enslaved and sold

Compared to World War II’s death toll of 50-80 million, this may not sound like much. But, think about it: 551,260 people were irrevocably harmed for the glory of Alexander (well that and a whole lot of loot for his men).

All combined, Alexander the Great’s “harm toll” would be as though somebody blew the city of Florence Italy or even New Orleans, Louisiana off the map. It’s not insignificant.

Aren’t all lives supposed to be precious? Is it really fair to our historical ancestors – the everyday people Alexander harmed – to continue to swallow the propaganda of the time and not see him for what he was: another blood-soaked general? Should we continue to give history’s despots a pass because “that’s the way it was back then”?

While history may have only recorded one perspective – that of the victorious conqueror – what about attempting to at least acknowledge the perspective of his victims? We may not know the names of the soldiers and townspeople Alexander killed and enslaved, but chances are pretty high they didn’t see him as one of history’s greatest men.

Surely we should be characterizing Alexander the Great as a “brilliant general whose reckless disregard for human life caused untold suffering” – and not just “Alexander the Great was a brilliant general” full stop?

This is what George RR Martin is doing with Daenerys. He is messing with our minds by showing us her human side. He is building sympathy for this character the way a historical biographer unwittingly builds sympathy for her subjects – by showing us Dany’s childhood, her suffering, her kindness. And George gets close to Dany… by showing us her everyday life, from her point of view, he is subtly screwing with the narrative perspective the way movies like Reservoir Dogs did.

We have travelled so much of Daenerys’ journey with her that we won’t even see that she’s a monster until it is too late.

Daenerys is the Mother of Monsters

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Drogon incinerates people in the fighting pit. © HBO.

Daenerys is the mother of dragons, and dragons are monsters. At a minimum, in the Targaryen’s world, dragons are agents of war. The son who Dany would have borne if she hadn’t traded his life away for Khal Drogo would have been the greatest conqueror the world have ever known. Chills.

By some assessments, the two greatest conquerors in history are Genghis Kahn and Alexander the Great. Imagine if Genghis Kahn and Alexander the Great had a son together? You’d have the most fearsome conqueror the world had ever seen. And, that’s what the offspring of Daenerys (Alexander the Great) and Kahl Drogo (Genghis Kahn) was destined to be.

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Not to be mean, but it was a good thing this never happened. Dany with Rhaego and Drogo. © HBO.

It’s Mirri Maz Duur, the wise woman and sorceress of Lhazar, who stops Dany’s baby (“Rhaego”) from being born alive and growing up to conquer the world. (She tricks Dany into sacrificing his life to save Drogo.)

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Mirri awaits her death.

Ultimately, Daenerys exacts revenge from Mirri Maz Duur by burning her on Drogo’s funeral pyre.

It’s somewhat ironic that this wise woman — who opened Danerys’ eyes to the harm conquest caused and stopped Dany’s son from growing up into the ultimate war machine – is burned alive to give birth to an even greater threat: the fire from above, the world-destroying dragons.

And, in a way, this is fitting. The Dothraki represent the birth of war from the stone-age horse people. Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn represent an institutionalization of this behavior. By the time of agriculture and birth of written history, waging war had become a way for leaders to say in power and employ the armies that kept them there.

Dany’s dragons represent war through machinery. The twentieth century mechanisms for waging war are mechanized and impersonal – planes that fly in the sky and burn villages to the ground with the drop of one bomb, submarines with their missiles, and nuclear bombs. It’s no coincidence that the showrunners likened Drogon to an F16.

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Dany directs Drogon to destroys the loot train at Highgarden. © HBO.

Fighter planes enable wealthy nations to destroy thousands with the push of a button. And, so, the dragons represent a culmination in the evolution of a war machine: from the Proto-Indo European shepherds who first waged war against neighboring tribes to leaders with standing armies to fire power from above and other machinery, perhaps the ultimate evil.

Tell me again, is Daenerys — this woman who gives birth to war — such a hero? Do we think that’s where this story is headed?

Post-script: Dany’s redemption

I’ve grown somewhat fond of Daenerys. Although she treated hundreds of soldiers to an exceptionally painful death as they were burned alive, I think it’s possible she could redeem herself. Fundamentally, Daenerys has a good heart – and maybe Jon can show her the way. <Queue the chirping birds>

The problem is that Daenerys has come of age with Viserys and then the Dothraki: two parties who only ever cared about conquest. It’s too sweeping to say that conquest is always wrong. But, perhaps Daenerys needs to realize that war is rarely justified when it is just for one person’s glory. And, I’m not sure that that will ever happen.

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

8 Comments

  • Reply August 8, 2017

    Jun

    The Tyrion viewpoint shot in this episode is pretty much exactly the scene of Coriolanus outside Rome. He was driven out by the Roman people, and now he has brought the Goths back to kill them all.

    I think the argument about Daenerys’ (or rather Tyrion’s) strategic failure to date is not necessarily intended to show her hubris, but rather a bald plot device to force her to marry Jon Snow. The burning of the wheat is probably a shortcut to a key point that occurs in the books via other paths. We have certainly seen the TV series taking some very short short cuts to get to some specific endpoints.

    That aside, there is plenty of hint in ADWD that Dany will wage war in Westeros, with or without the Dothraki army (I’m inclined to go with the Second Sons instead), but definitely will burn a few with her dragons, following Aegon the Conqueror’s steps. Considering that GRRM is a diehard fan of Richard III, it’s hard to imagine that Henry VII is a hero in his story …

    I’m curious about your thoughts on Jaime’s recent argument that, if Cersei brings peace and stability to the kingdom, who cares how many people she kills to get there? (BTW, Jaime has become quite a propagandist in the TV series.) Coming from a system where peace and stability literally kill average people, I do find this argument interesting.

  • Reply August 8, 2017

    Jamie Adair

    I had thought about writing an article called “Is Cersei the hero?” One of my coworkers commented that she thought, “If Dany is turning into a villain, does that mean Cersei is a hero?”
    Sure, Cersei has done many offensive and amoral things, but she has made tactical strikes (the Great Sept) and not actively declared war on anyone. While we may hate the twincest loving queen, she may actually be responsible for fewer deaths than Dany. (I’d seriously need to add this up but I think its possible.)

    • Reply August 8, 2017

      Jun

      It could work if GRRM has written it, but it’s hard to make the argument work because the TV series are throwing logic and the world he carefully built out of the window. I cannot take it seriously because the TV plot of Cersei’s military victories is so callous and utilitarian and built on nothing. I don’t know where to begin to list all the absurdities. In fact, there are so many absurdities in only the recent battle sequence alone that listing them would take me two hours.

      Ultimately, however, I blame GRRM.

    • Reply August 8, 2017

      Jun

      Just thought of a point. Just because both battles in which Euron Greyjoy and Jaime/Tarley won were kept off screen (probably purely for $$$ reasons), it does not mean there was no casualty and collateral damage.

      If we want to expand on the humanity and mercy in wars, the debate inevitably hits the wall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and cannot stay within the context of the TV series.

  • Reply August 9, 2017

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    I’m probably in a minority, possibly a minority of one, but I actually have a certain sympathy for Messrs. Benioff and Weiss – they probably thought they would have the 2 final books in the ASOIAF series to work from when they originally started adapting the series to the small screen (and GRRM did write an episode per season earlier – I think the last one he wrote was Joffrey’s death). As a person who knows the books and the show I don’t mind that the action has speeded up heading towards the end of the series. Even William Shakespeare has played a bit fast and loose with a timeline https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/10/double-time-othel

    I know some people have felt that the later (mostly non-book inspired) series of the show have conceded to fan-service but book Jojen said that the wolves would come again, so I think it’s possible the Starks may regain Winterfell in the books. I don’t think that Cersei appearing to gain the upper hand at the start of season 7 is giving way to fan-service; I think a number of people would have preferred to see Dany go along with Yara’s plan in episode one and go full throttle on Kings Landing with all her might.

    Good call on the similarities between Daenerys and Alexander the Great, Jaime. Didn’t book Dany have one boob hanging out because that was the way the Merenese noblewomen dressed? I heard a radio programme about Alexander the Great some time ago and remember it was referenced that he adopted the dress of some place he conquered (may have been Persian dress).

  • Reply August 10, 2017

    Argie

    On some level, I feel that GRRM’s stance is that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. When power is sought (Dany) or taken (Cerci) it is bad, period. It may be varying degrees of bad, but it’s not pure. Jon, on the other hand, was named King in the North without desiring it, and chosen by his people to lead them. He is an unwilling participant, and has no qualms about sharing pwoer if it is in the interest of his people, unlike other self-proclaimed rulers. I get the feeling more and more that the endgame is to remove all “monarch-type” rule and have the people decide who they want to rule them, even if it means smaller kingdoms. (Perhaps GRRM is a Scottish nationalist sympathizer, given the North’s role in this story? Or even th many foreign colonies who struggled for independence?)

    I also think that Varys clearly stated this idea when he went head-to-head with Dany. He told her, in no uncertain terms, that his loyalty was with the people, not any one leader. Although it appears he is helping her, he might be helping her wate a war which will eliminate those in power. Time will tell.

    Even Britain, with its lengthy history of monarchs, succumbed to democratic rule.

    I think Dany is still a bit childish in her obsession with everyone “bending the knee”. We also see this immaturity when she asks almost a complete stranger, “what would you do?” regarding major military operations. I am hoping against all hope that Jon will tell her to stop trying to force everyone to bend to her will and just work together with the people she wants to rule and they will come to love her if she is worthy (as they did in Essos).

    In her defense of attacking with Drogon, she could have easily smote all the soldiers, but she didn’t. She did burn some to leave an entry point for her soldiers, but then went after the supplies, so the rest of the army ahead of them would be limited in their ability to advance. It is a classic military tactic, cutting off supplies. She also could have taken the three dragons, but she didn’t. I am not an advocate of war, but most people don’t look sympathetically on the Germans in WWII, and no one cried for them when they were defeated or lamented all the German soldiers who died, many of which were dragged into a story they did not support. In looking at her her motives and Cerci’s, neither one has a clear reason for why they want to rule the seven Kingdoms, Cerci to create a dynasty for herself and Jamie or Dany, just because she was born to the line. Neither one are worthwhile reasons for leading and both women are incredibly dangerous. They are both so out of touch with the people they will be ruling.

    Jamie made an excellent point about the fickleness of the people, as long as their lives are calm, they won’t care how many had to die to get there. That might be the lasting message of the story for the masses. You need to participate because when you don’t, you don’t know hwo or how you will be ruled.

  • Reply August 14, 2017

    Pat

    Hero is a fraught term, isn’t it? I take it that you are using it in the modern sense, as you seem to define it in opposition to the role of the villain. But in the classical sense, a hero is not defined by moral rectitude, but by martial prowess. In fact, the classical hero may have more in common with the modern anti-hero in that the famous classical heroes were defined by their character flaws, not their moral paragonity(sic- me).
    It came to my mind considering your poll about the ethics of dragon fire because I was watching the film TROY recently as Hector offered to have a duel with Agamemnon and so forego the whole Trojan War. Of course, Agamemnon refuses since Brian Cox knows he would have no chance against Eric Bana, and then goes on to show that his motivation for refusing is that if even if he won a duel he would only get Helen back, as opposed to getting to sack Troy.
    Setting that aside, however, it does raise another question such that while a heroic duel would definitely minimize general casualties, that doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be equitable. After all, why would you suggest a duel of champions unless your champion was stronger, and why would I agree if my army was stronger? Is it unethical for you to have a stronger champion, or for me to have a stronger army? You may say, it depends on the source of that strength. If the strength derives from unethical sources, then it would proceed that the strength itself is unethical, as in say your champion was stronger because he stole a magical weapon or my army wrongfully occupies a position of strength that it illegitimately conquered.
    On the show, everybody makes a point that it would be wrong of Daenerys to burn King’s Landing to depose Cersei and kill all those civilians. On the other hand, isn’t it wrong for Cersei to hide out in King’s Landing and endanger all those civilians? If Dany were cruel enough to attack, then Dany would be at fault for their deaths, but Cersei would also be at fault for placing them in harm’s way in the first place, given that we assume most of the King’s Landing small folk would rather be alive than die for any particular monarch. Soldiers are not civilians, of course. Now, Dany’s soldiers are volunteers, and we may presume a significant portion of the Cersei’s are conscripts in some way or another. But I think it is a stretch to say that it is unethical to kill soldiers just because they may not be fighting entirely voluntarily; they still made the decision that they would rather try and kill you than risk being killed by their own rulers. I submit that Dany would have been ethically justified in attacking King’s Landing, despite the collateral damage, by the same arithmetic of avoiding the general suffering that resulted from the invasions of Casterly Rock and High Garden. The point that is made, however, is that it would not have had this desired aim as it would have made the rest of the Kingdom think she was a bloody tyrant without regard for the general populace, thus prolonging the war. This is the mistake that Cersei made when she bombed the Sept of Baelor. She may have eliminated her enemies of the moment, and she may be able to use the threat of Dany’s invasion to get people like the Tarleys to follow her, but if she did manage to prevail against Dany, what loyalty could she ever expect? Realistically, she has to keep a war going on in perpetuity to maintain her position, be it against Dany, the North, or whomever. Similarly, it turned out that if Robert Baratheon had never tried to assassinate Dany, then she never would have been set on the path to try and conquer Westeros.
    Bringing it back around to the original topic, what makes Daenerys a hero in the modern sense of the word is that she does have a moral sense, or more properly, has developed one. Dany has gone from wanting to be Queen out of a sense of it being owed to her, to wanting to be Queen out of a desire to help the common folk. Dany is willing to spare even those who have fought against her. In Meereen, this backfired on her, but she was still willing to give the Tarleys a chance. The true test of her heroism would be in how she rules. Maybe that can be one of the spin-offs. It seems to have worked out in TV land for Victoria and the two Elizabeths…

    • Reply August 16, 2017

      Jamie Adair

      Hi Pat – and welcome. This is a great comment. I especially like this point, ” On the other hand, isn’t it wrong for Cersei to hide out in King’s Landing and endanger all those civilians? ” I hadn’t thought of that.

      So, yes, I do mean hero in the modern of colloquial sense.

      So I agree that Daenerys has a moral sense about some things — e.g., experiences she can relate to such as slavery. But, what exactly motivates her to fight? To me, her main drive seems to be her sense of entitlement to the throne and her desire to go home. Her desire to help people break their chains or to change the system (“break the wheel”), seem to be much smaller, vaguer concerns.

      Daenerys could turn out to a revolutionary — if she actually does try to change the system fundamentally — and revolutions often lead to hardship and chaos. Societies can’t change overnight.

      Now, I agree that Daenerys does give people a chance and that she can show mercy. She is a far better, more benevolent ruler than most. But, fundamentally her drive is conquest.

      Most people see Daenerys as a hero or a good guy, which is why I wrote the article. But, I can’t imagine that GRRM would see a conqueror as good. I could be wrong…

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