deep reads

How Does George R.R. Martin’s New Short Story Tie in to Game of Thrones?

If you’re suffering from Game of Thrones withdrawal in the wake of the fourth-season finale, George R.R. Martin is offering you a remedy: a short story set in Westeros, about the seeds of the Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. The Game of Thrones prehistory is tucked away in his latest cross-genre anthology, Rogues, and hints at what might be to come in his remaining novels in the series and the HBO adaptation. (It’s also chock-full of stories by the likes of Gillian Flynn, who writes about a “psychic” con artist who gets duped herself, and Neil Gaiman, who gives a sequel of sorts to Neverwhere with a Marquis de Carabas adventure in London Below, once he comes back to life.)

But it’s Martin’s story that brings us Thrones junkies here today. “The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother” isn’t just a diversionary tale about long-ago and forgotten Westerosi history. As a companion piece to “The Princess and the Queen” (from last year’s Dangerous Women anthology), it provides some valuable insight into wars of succession, especially when a woman is considering taking the Iron Throne. We’re gonna go in-depth here, so prepare for some intense Game of Thrones–ness.

Although the focus in “The Rogue Prince” is the power-hungry Prince Daemon, brother of King Viserys I, the real story is the struggle between Viserys’s daughter, Princess Rhaenyra, and his second wife, Queen Alicent, who wanted her sons to take the Iron Throne before their older half-sister. Incest being common in the Targaryen line, Daemon is both Rhaenyra’s uncle and her second husband. The fruit of their incestuous union isn’t a threat to the throne in the way that, say, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, with their brood of impostor Baratheons, might be. But Rhaenyra’s reputed promiscuity is.

Depending on who is telling the tale, there are all sorts of other rumors about Rhaenyra — about whom she gave her virginity to, and how. Was Daemon truly a rogue prince because he decided to “teach” his princess niece how to please a man, yet still retain her maidenhood? According to a fool named Mushroom, Daemon gave her personal instructions by day and then took her by night to the brothels in King’s Landing. Later, it’s said, Daemon was sent into exile for providing this kind of education, and for potentially ruining her chances at making a good match. (“Give the girl to me to wife,” he purportedly told his brother the King. “Who else would take her now?”)

She was later wed to Laenor Velaryon, who was more on the Renly/Loras side of the sexuality spectrum; he wasn’t too concerned with her virtue. But when she started having children with brown hair — instead of the typical Targaryen silver-blonde — even more rumors started. Had she taken a lover, perhaps her latest champion, Ser Harwin Strong? Were her three sons illegitimate bastards? The hair color tipped people off the same way it rang an alarm bell for Ned Stark about Joffrey many years later — blonde hair is a recessive gene.

None of this helped Rhaenyra’s claim, since even if Viserys I had declared her, his only living child, to be his heir, there were those who didn’t want to risk her bastards ever taking the Iron Throne. So they focused on the question of whether or not a queen could rule. The issue had come up once before — when King Jaehaerys chose his second-born son, Baelon, as his successor, only to have Baelon die before him. A Great Council was convened to determine whether Princess Rhaenys — Jaeharys’s granddaughter under his first-born son — or Viserys, his grandson under his second-born son, would take the Iron Throne. Viserys became King, although a few key dissenters — notably the Starks and the Baratheons — would have picked Rhaenys, who became known as the Queen Who Never Was.

During this later dispute between Rhaenyra and Alicent’s son, Aegon II, the annals of that Great Council were dusted off so they could see which lords favored the male claimant over the female. And they considered how Aegon the Conqueror took Westeros with the aid of his dragon-riding sisters. (Something Arya reminds Tywin about on the show, as well as who originally owned the sword Dark Sister — which becomes Daemon’s sword.)  The question doesn’t seem to be whether or not women can rule, but whether or not this woman should rule. With the rogue prince as her husband, the Hand of the King Otto Hightower objected, “It will be Daemon who rules us, a king consort as cruel and unforgiving as Maegor ever was.”

Despite having the birthright — which even Aegon II recognized, saying, “What sort of brother steals his sister’s birthright?”— her entourage was deemed to be unacceptable, especially to those who coveted the throne and the power behind the throne for themselves. Her first husband was gay; her children from the first marriage were bastards; her second husband was a rogue (although no more a rogue than Aegon II himself, who wedded his own sister and took many a mistress). Nonetheless, Queen Alicent, a sort of proto-Cersei, was determined that her children would rule. Like Joffrey and Tommen, her children had all the visible symbols of legitimacy: sitting on the Iron Throne, living in the Red Keep, wearing the right crown, being anointed by a septon of the Faith, and having the royal treasury at their disposal. The key difference was that Rhaenyra’s side had more dragons — and what better way to prove her sons were true Targaryens than to have them ride?

The war was brutal, and the love that the people had for Rhaenyra as a princess turned to hate as the body count grew, claiming many a member of the Targaryen family and causing riots in the streets and a storming of the Dragonpit, where several of the dragons were killed. Finally, toward the end, King Aegon II fed his half-sister to his dragon Sunfyre. “It ate her, while her son watched!” Joffrey told Margaery in glee, recalling one of the few lessons he ever retained. Had Joffrey bothered to read past that point in his history books, instead of slicing them, he would have learned that King Aegon’s victory was short-lived: He only ruled for six more months, and Rhaenyra’s son, Prince Aegon II, succeeded him. So in a way, Rhaenyra won — or at least her line did.

Any future female leader(s) of Westeros would do well to bone up on Rhaenyra’s story. Maybe Tyrion left a few books lying around?

Explaining George R.R. Martin’s New Short Story