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.
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, somebody who didn’t even speak her language basically raped her.
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, recklessly killed Tarley father & son, 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.
Maybe I’m adopting the medieval mentality too readily, but I’ll say it again: If a conqueror sailed into Blackwater Bay and successfully put King’s Landing under siege tens of thousands would die. As I wrote in the article: 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.
Historically speaking, conquerors don’t typically just politely ask cities to surrender. 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, conquerors attempt to get what they want through violence. Conquerors put cities under siege, and their armies drive swords through the chests of enemy guards, murder babies, flay townspeople, and rape the local women.
In ancient times, conquerors would then enslave some of the people in the conquered city and kill the others.
Although Daenerys has shown us that she won’t tolerate her armies raping women, battles and sieges mean that people will die.
Case in point: The World War II Siege of Leningrad killed 4.5 million people. 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.
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.
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.
Like Daenerys, Henry VII was stuck across the Narrow Sea most of his life, on the run from a king. Even as a distant claimant to the throne, Henry’s life might not have been worth much if the Yorkists could have found him.
Yet, 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.
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|
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 traveled 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
Daenerys is the mother of dragons, and dragons are monsters. At a minimum, in the Targaryens’ world, dragons are agents of war. The son whom Dany would have borne (if she hadn’t traded his life away to save 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.
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.)
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 unethical fiery warfare at a distance. 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.
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 GRRM is taking this realistic and historically grounded story? We will all cheer when Dany takes King’s Landing in fire and blood?
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. Maybe 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.