Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen: A Review
Even attempting to review one book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would be a herculean task. Reviewing the whole series in one sitting would be next to impossible. The sum of the story is simply too vast and complex, with far too many twists and intersections. Similarly, attempting to show one single message or theme that comes from the world of Westeros would be
equally impossible, for there honestly isn’t one. Much like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, people of all politics and pulsations can find something in Game of Thrones that will be validating to their predetermined beliefs. Conservative or communist, atheist or believer, reactionary or anarchist, there is something for everyone (which I theorize is a big reason for the huge following both the books and the HBO series have amassed).
What I will be examining today is the message that I feel can be taken away from the storyline of Daenerys Targaryen, would be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. In case you are the only person on the planet to be unfamiliar with the series, I shall briefly summarize. Daenerys (called Dany by her fans) is the last surviving heir of the Targaryen dynasty, who had conquered and united the land of Westeros due to their unique ability of control dragons. The Targaryens ruled Westeros for centuries until the reign of King Aerys II, known as the Mad King. Due to his unfortunate habit, born from insane paranoia, of burning people alive, Aerys was deposed in a rebellion during which every last Targaryen was killed except Daenerys and her brother Viserys (who dies in short order after being introduced). Daenerys is singularly obsessed with reclaiming her father’s throne and restoring Targaryen rule to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and in doing so measuring out vengeance to the “Usurper’s dogs” who murdered her family.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I do not much care for Daenerys. This does actually surprise some people at times. “But you’re a monarchist?” is often the most common reason. While yes, I am a monarchist, but people often fail to understand that involves loyalty to the institution not the man (or woman in this case). My interest is in preserving the Throne itself, not any one individual who happens to sit upon it, for indeed there have been many bad Kings and Queens throughout history who deserved to lose their thrones. In the world of Westeros, the Targaryens, to be frank, lost any claim they had to the Iron Throne (as the royal chair is known) the moment dear Aerys starting indulging in his pyromaniac fascinations. As the Chinese would say, that cost them the “Mandate of Heaven”, which is the idea that a dynasty’s legitimacy came from its service for the good of the people, and once that was lost another more deserving dynasty should take its place. It is also worth noting that the rebellion that overthrew the Targaryens was hardly the French Revolution 2.0. This was not so mass of marauding peasants proclaiming a new Republic, but rather a revolt by the nobility of the land against a mad tyrant which ended in the installation of a new King. The new monarch, Robert Baratheon, was even of Targaryen blood (albeit distantly) so one can even go so far as to argue the Iron Throne was rightfully his once the immediate royal family was disqualified from the succession. None of this seems to matter much to dear Dany, who simply assumes the Iron Throne is hers because without ever bothering to give the reader any real argument as to why that should be the case.
Furthermore, having followed Daenerys’ story thus far, it is very obvious she would make a rather piss poor Queen if she ever did manage to take back the throne of her father. Seeking an army with which to reconquer the Seven Kingdoms, she comes to slave cities of the old Ghiscari Empire in Slavers’ Bay (well there’s a welcome start to our “heroine’s” quest). There, she is rather appalled to discover that slavery, when viewed in the flesh, is actually rather appalling. Using the power of her three dragons, and some admittedly cleaver trickery, she overthrows the ruling slaver families and wins the loyalty of an army of former slave soldiers called the Unsullied. Despite now having the army she desires, Daenerys resolves to stay in Slavers’ Bay for the time being to set the region to rights and learn how to be the Queen she longs to be.
Well, at least you can say she had good intentions. Unfortunately what comes from them can only be described as shambles. The first city Dany comes across, Astapor, is liberated as previously mentioned, after which she promptly marches away with her new army leaving an appointed council freed slaves behind to run things. What could possibly go wrong? Everything as it turns out, as Astapor soon falls into total ruin as backstabbing and anarchy breaks out as slaves raise themselves up as the new masters and make the old masters the new slaves. Next the last Targaryen comes to the city of Yunkai, which caves in to Daenerys demand to free its slave population and end the practice forever. Again, she marches away, and (can you believe it?) the Yunkai immediately go back on their word reinstitute slavery. Finally she comes to Meereen, the greatest of the old Ghiscari cities, where she incites the slave population to rise up in revolution and open the city gates’ to her army. This time, Daenerys decides to stay and rule the city personally.
Here we see Daenerys change tacks. While previously she has acted impulsively to the point of recklessness, now she becomes utterly indecisive. She knows the old ruling families conspire against her, but she does nothing to act against them. She speaks of how she wants to unite all of Meereen together, both former masters and slaves, but utterly rejects most of its traditions which she finds distasteful (such as the tradition of gladiator combat). Now, you can rule by being revolutionary or you can rule by being a conciliator, but you cannot be a conciliatory revolutionary. In short order, Daenerys wishy-washiness leads to an urban insurgency being waged against her by the old ruling families, called the Sons of the Harpy, while her former slaves turned freedmen (who are understandably a bit bitter after centuries of being, well, slaves) grow increasingly frustrated with her continued overtures of appeasement to the old ruling families. While all this has been going on, Yunkai forges a coalition of the remaining slave cities which besieges Meereen and is even joined by non-slave cities such as Volantis and Qarth who are simply fed up with the entire region having been plunged into chaos. Oh and a terrible plague breaks out.
This storyline serves as an excellent example of the perils of revolution. Indeed it is very much an anti-Spartacus in this sense. We see that revolution, like fire, once ignited can quickly spread out of control and accomplish nothing but death and destruction. This is done without defending slavery, which is rightfully condemned, but rather by making the point that the methods used to correct injustice matter just as much as the injustice itself. Compromise, conciliation, reform, and persuasion are not as sexy as revolutionary righteousness, but they ultimately work better with much less blood. Reforming traditions to adapt to change allow people a bridge that is denied when they are cast aside utterly.
Even more powerfully, we are shown that the power of a monarch comes not from the individual, but the institution, and what it symbolizes to its subjects. Daenerys may call herself Queen of Meereen, but she really isn’t because to people of Meereen (excluding the former slaves who follow her out of gratitude) she isn’t. The HBO show especially does an excellent job of portraying this, as we see that the Sons of the Harpy aren’t made up just of noblemen and former slavers, but ordinary people who see Daenerys as a foreign occupier who has turned everything they have ever known on its head.
I am often puzzled by Daenerys popularity with readers/viewers of Game of Thrones. As far as I can tell most of it seems to come from the perception of the character as a feminist icon. This itself is deeply puzzling. Yes, the character happens to be a woman but aside from that I’m not sure what there is to root for on that front. She thinks she should be Queen of Westeros because her father used to be King, not really the most empowering message. For a good deal of the books, she obediently follows the lead of various male advisors who attach themselves to her. Those decisions she does make on her own authority, as previously mentioned, usually end in shambles. If you want inspiring female characters, George R. R. Martin provides plenty of them, but Dany is most certainly not.
My own preferred candidate for the Iron Throne is one I will delve into on another occasion, but Daenerys Targaryen definitely would be at the bottom of the list. She is an excellent example of how telling the reader to perceive a character in a certain way is pointless unless we are actually shown the character in that light in the actual story. Willfully blind and at times arrogant, alternating being impulsiveness and indecisiveness, she would most assuredly be a most wanting Queen of Westeros. We can only hope this will never actually occur. Her character arch does offer an excellent example of the perils of revolution, however, and how the best of intentions can lead to the most disastrous of results.