deep reads

What Khaleesi Could Learn From George R.R. Martin’s New Dragon-Heavy Story

Photo: HBO

While you were not-so-patiently waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish writing The Winds of Winter, the still-gestating sixth book in his best-selling “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga, the author decided to throw fans a curveball with this week’s release of a novella set in the same world inhabited by Tyrion, Khaleesi, and the gang. The lengthy story is embedded in Dangerous Women, an anthology of fantasy writing co-edited by Martin, and along with its impressively long and GRRM-name-checking title — The Princess and the Queen, Or, The Blacks and the Greens: Being a History of the Causes, Origins, Battles, and Betrayals of the Most Tragic Bloodletting Known as the Dance of the Dragons, as set down by Archmaester Gyldayn of the Citadel of Oldtown ((here transcribed by George R.R. Martin)) — the novella is notable for featuring no fewer than 20 dragons, and not those cute baby ones, either. This uptick in the dragon population is possible because the new story takes place some 170 years before the action depicted in A Game of Thrones; it’s set during the Targaryen Civil War, better known as — you guessed it — the Dance of the Dragons.

Since Westerosi history is a subject our favorite Targaryen doesn’t know nearly enough about, given her exiled upbringing, we find ourselves wishing we could gift-wrap this new story and airmail it into the pages of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” addressed to Daenerys for her edification. Here are a few things Khaleesi would learn from The Princess and the Queen, not least of which is: Never send your dragon to fight another dragon. [Note: Mild spoilers below for anyone who hasn’t read up through A Dance of Dragons.]

Primogeniture in Westeros
The Targaryen family line is a twisted one, because of all the institutional polygamy and incest (she’s my sister and my wife) — just try making a family tree, and you’ll see. The princess at the center of this tale, Rhaenyra, is married to her uncle, which is an improvement over being married to her brother, at least. Long before her father King Viserys dies, he decides that the heir to the Iron Throne should be the only living progeny from his first marriage, his daughter Rhaenyra. So even as a child, she attends meetings of the Small Council and hundreds of knights and lords were sworn to uphold her as queen regnant, when the time came. But when Viserys dies, his second wife, Queen Alicent, along with Ser Criston Cole, plots to put her eldest son — Rhaenrya’s younger half-brother Aegon II — on the throne instead. Shades of Cersei, anyone? Alicent even goes so far as to let the king’s corpse rot in his bed for a week, to delay announcing his death and give her the time to rally people to her cause. This is the root of the civil war — and if you were on Rhaenyra’s side, supporting her claim, you were with the “Blacks,” and if you were on Alicent/Aegon’s side, you were with the “Greens.” (Rhaenyra also gets a raw deal from the historian, and is described as being out of her mind, but given that she just had a stillbirth, her father was dead, and her half-brother had taken away her throne, it’s understandable that she’d be a little upset.) The war of succession has mixed results — after tons of bloodshed on both sides, both Rhaenyra and Aegon II die, although Rhaenyra’s son gets the throne in the end. But the real legacy of all this is that no woman has ruled Westeros since, that female claimants to the throne are only considered after all possible male ones, no matter how distant the relation. Dany, take note.

History Repeating Itself
Not only does our princess in this tale share an experience with Dany — her stillbirth is described in much the same way, resulting in a dead, twisted baby sporting a stub of a tail and scales (making it sound more dragon than human) — but she might also share some alliances. The families of Westeros, for the most part, haven’t changed much since the civil war — although some have seen a change in fortune here or there. The complicated web of alliances during the Dance of Dragons have parallels with the ones made during Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings, which would give Dany a good idea of which houses might rally to her cause — or not. (Don’t count on the Baratheons or the Arryns, despite being distantly related, for instance.) Also, there are little lessons about other people at court and in the Kingsguard and their various betrayals, which remind us of Littlefinger, Varys, and others.

What gave this civil war its nickname is that the Targaryens had a distinct advantage over any other house, and not just for battle purposes. (Which do you think is more impressive — sending a message via everyday raven, or flying there and delivering it in person?) Some believed that only someone with Targaryen blood could ride a dragon — which would work great for a paternity test, if it were true. But during a moment when the Targaryens realize they have more dragons than riders, they hold a contest of sorts called the Sowing to give “dragonseeds” (bastards who supposedly have at least some Targaryen blood) a chance to win over their own dragons. This, as you might imagine, goes as well for most as it did for Quentyn Martell in A Dance With Dragons, whose hopes that merely having “dragon blood” might help him tame one of Dany’s dragons are dashed in a bath of fire. But seeing how many people tried their luck just as he did, he doesn’t look quite as stupid anymore — apparently approaching a dragon and hoping for the best is a time-honored tradition. For two strong men, Hugh the Hammer and Ulf the White, and one teenage boy, Addam of Hull, this method works. One particularly clever teenage girl, Nettles, decides to feed her (hopeful) dragon a freshly slaughtered ram every morning, until the dragon “learned to accept and expect her.” And since the dragon’s called Sheepstealer, this particular offering goes over really well, and she’s ready to ride — despite not looking Targaryen at all. (She’s described as having black hair, brown eyes, and brown skin, when most Targaryens, as we know, are blonde.) Strategies of familiarity and food seem to count more than blood.

Dragon-Riding, Part 2
A dragon is said to accept only one rider — and won’t take a second rider until the first rider is dead. (Conversely, a dragon won’t accept someone else’s rider.) This is part of the dragon’s bonding process — maybe because it takes so much to win one over? — but this supports the idea that there is something more going on between a dragon and its rider than, say, a horse and its rider — some sort of soul connection, or magical skinchanging or warging, like with the Starks and their direwolves. “We shall not pretend to any understanding of the bond between dragon and dragonrider; wiser heads have pondered that mystery for centuries,” the historian writes, noting that the queen’s dragon Syrax threw someone familiar to her to his death when he tried to ride her, and that another dragon, Dreamfyre, somehow sensed when her rider Helaena died — even though the dragon was in a different location — and broke her chains in the dragon pit “at the moment of her death.” These sorts of tales, attributing shared feelings and motives between dragons and riders, lend credulity to the mythos surrounding this special relationship, that somehow the Targaryens were “closer to gods than the common run of men.” But if the reason the Targaryens could ride dragons was because of this mystical bond, they wouldn’t need saddles, chains, and steel-tipped whips to take a mount. Which they do. (Curiously, no dragon horn is mentioned.)

Dragon Fighting
While it is advantageous to command your own dragon, it’s not unlike having a nuclear bomb when the other side has them, too. As the new story reveals, mutually assured destruction applies here: In most fights between two dragons, both beasts will die. During the civil war, not only has Westeros been charred to a crisp, but many dragons have been deployed and sacrificed. Only in one of the four dragon fights depicted in the story did the victor fly away — and that was in a case where its opponent was much younger and barely able to fly, let alone fight. (Fun “fact”: Dragons don’t use fire when fighting other dragons.) By the end of the civil war, the dragon supply has been seriously depleted. Dany is riding Drogon by the time A Dance With Dragons rolls around, but as the history lesson in The Princess and the Queen makes clear, she would be wise to ensure that her other “children,” Viserion and Rhaegal, don’t wind up in enemy hands.

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