Chapter focus: Dany IV, ACOK – the House of the Undying

Hey ho! Long time no blog. Bad me. Sorry, full time study is more arduous than I remember it being as an undergraduate, and staying afloat on a sea of commerce subjects didn’t leave me much time to blog about fun things, or do the well over due re-read of ASOAIF.

Maybe I should start that anyway, as I dive into my second trimester. Use a chapter or two of ASOIAF a night as a reward for a day of study?

As I do re-read, I’d like to do more chapter-focused blogs, looking at particular chapters or character arcs in depth. I’ve been thinking a lot about prophecy and Dany, and she has one chapter in particular which resonates throughout the series: her trippy experience in the House of the Undying.

So let’s dive in! Down your cup of shade of the evening, and open the doors of wisdom…

What actually happens

Dany has five POV chapters in ACOK. The first details her experiences after her rebirth in fire at the end of AGOT, as her tiny, vulnerable khalassar struggles to survive the Red Waste desert. This chapter ends with Dany’s first introduction to three leaders of Qarth: Pyat Pree, a warlock of the House of the Undying, Xaro Xhaon Daxos, a rich trader, and the mysterious Quaithe, a shadowbinder.

The second covers Dany’s initial experiences in Qarth, and she receives her first introduction from Pyat Pree to come to the House of the Undying to “drink of truth and wisdom.”

Her third chapter deals with Dany’s frustrations at realising that although she is Mother of Dragons, she is still a beggar queen, just as her brother Viserys had been a beggar king. She resists the charming advances of Xaro Xhoan Daxos as he seeks to be the husband of the dragon queen, and Quaithe continues to give Dany counsel to be wary, guarded and to leave Qarth as soon as possible.

In the fourth chapter, Dany finally heeds the invitation of Pyat Pree, and comes to the House of the Undying. Her bloodriders are unsettled by the crumbling yet still imposing castle, and try to talk her out of her wish to see inside. Dany insists.

“My pleasure barge awaits, even now,” Xaro Xhoan Daxos called out. “Turn away from this folly, most stubborn of queens….”

Ser Jorah Mormont gave the merchant prince a sour look. “Your Grace, remember Mirri Maz Duur.”

“I do,” Dany said, suddenly decided. “I remember that she had knowledge. And she was only a maegi.”

Pyat Pree smiled thinly. “The child speaks as sagely as a crone. Take my arm, and let me lead you.”

“I am no child.”

We start to see Dany’s journey to self confidence and being a queen. She is barely 14, but considers herself no longer a child, having already buried a husband and a child. We can debate the lack of maturity that Dany would have as a real 14 year old until the cows come home, but for now she is starting to do what she wants to do, and she wants a sign.

House Targaryen fled Valyria before the cataclysmic Doom because of visions, and various members of House Targaryen had experienced prophetic dreams, and researched esoteric matters. With this in mind, Dany’s fixation of seeking out prophecy makes sense: in her understanding of what it means to be the blood of the dragon, she is special and prophecies are real.

Once inside the House, Dany is advised by the creepy Pree to always take the door to the right and the stairs upward. Never go down, never take the door to the left. He warns her that she will see more than she bargains for:

Within, you will see many things that disturb you. Visions of loveliness and visions of horror, wonders and terrors. Sights and sounds of days gone by and days to come and days that never were.

Then she downs her glass of shade of the evening and sets out.

True to her instructions, Dany does not enter any of the doors to the left, but that doesn’t stop her from looking within the open doors to see…

  • a beautiful woman sprawled naked on the floor being savaged and violated by four little men with “rattish pointed faces and tiny pink hands”
  • a feast of corpses, savagely slaughtered, with a man with a wolf’s head sitting on a throne above them all
  • a familiar scene, a flashback to her childhood in Braavos with the house with the red door and Ser Willem Darry
  • an unfamiliar scene to Dany, but familiar to the reader: Mad King Aerys giving the order to his pyromancers to ignite the capital, so that Robert Baratheon would be “the king of ashes”
  • Rhaegar telling Elia Martell that their son’s name is Aegon, and “he has a song… he is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” Rhaegar also says, seemingly to Dany, “there must be one more, the dragon has three heads.”

She finally reaches the top of the tower (while being perplexed that from the outside, the House of the Undying had no towers) and meets the Undying: beautiful men and women, resplendent in luxurious clothing and armour, in a gorgeous room with stained glass windows and beautiful music. They try to tempt Dany:

Come and share the food of forever… long have we awaited you. We knew you were to come to us. A thousand years ago we knew, and have been waiting all this time. We sent the comet to show you the way.

We have knowledge to share with you, and magic weapons to arm you with. Your have passed every trial. Now come and sit with us, and all your questions shall be answered.

But Drogon doesn’t buy it. He flies to the ebony and weirwood door (interesting choice of wood in Essos!) and starts biting and scratching at it. Dany follows his cue, and opens the door to reveal the true forms of the Undying:

… a chamber awash in gloom.

A long stone table filled this room. Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive… The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows…

Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body…

She is not breathing. Dany listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead?

Despite Dany’s fears, the Undying are not dead. This is their message for her, with all the other narrative and descriptions from the text removed:

We live… and we know… the shape of shadows… morrows not yet made… drink from the cup of ice… drink from the cup of fire… mother of dragons… child of three

… three heads has the dragon… mother of dragons… child of storm… three fires must you light… one for life and one for death and one to love… three mounts must you ride… one to bed and one to dread and one to love… three treasons will you know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love… help her… show her…

Dany then is hit with a bombardment of visions:

  • “Viserys screamed as the molten gold ran down his cheeks and filled his mouth”
  • “A tall lord with copper skin and silver-gold hair stood beneath the banner of a fiery stallion, a burning city behind him.”
  • “Rubies flew like drops of blood from the chest of a dying prince, and he sank to his knees in the water and with his last breath murmured a woman’s name”

MOTHER OF DRAGONS, DAUGHTER OF DEATH

  • “Glowing like sunset, a red sword was raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow.”
  • “A cloth dragon swayed on poles amidst a cheering crowd.”
  • “From a smoking tower, a great stone beast took wing, breathing shadow fire.”

MOTHER OF DRAGONS, SLAYER OF LIES

  • “Her silver was trotting through the grass, to a darkling stream beneath a sea of stars.”
    “A corpse stood at the prow of a ship, eyes bright in his dead face, grey lips smiling sadly.”
  • “A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness.”

MOTHER OF DRAGONS, BRIDE OF FIRE

Dany then experiences a final flurry of visions – shadows in a tent, a little girl running barefoot to a house with a big red door, Mirri Maz Duur’s death, a corpse dragged behind a silver horse, a white lion in the grass, the dosh khaleen bowing to her at Vaes Dothrak, ten thousand slaves calling her “Mother!” and pulling at her…

But it’s not the slaves pulling at her. It’s the Undying. Drogon defends Dany and burns them with dragon fire. As the fire spreads, Dany and Drogon run out of the burning building, back to safety in the sunlight. Pyat Pree dances with fury as he realises what has happened to the Undying, and attempts to attack Dany.

Dany’s fifth and final chapter involves her meeting with Barristan Selmy in disguise as Arstan Whitebeard, but before that, she ponders the meaning of the visions she experienced at the House of the Undying with Jorah Mormont. She is particularly focused on figuring out the meaning of “the dragon must have three heads.”

“Do you know what it means, Jorah?”

“Your Grace? The sigil of House Targaryen is a three-headed dragon, red on black.”

“I know that. But there are no three-headed dragons.”

“The three heads were Aegon and his sisters.”

“Visenya and Rhaenys,” she recalled. “I am descended from Aegon and Rhaenys through their son Aenys and their grandson Jaehaerys.”

“Blue lips speak only lies, isn’t that what Xaro told you? Why do you care what the warlocks whispered? All they wanted was to such the life from you, you know that now.”

“Perhaps,” she said reluctantly. “Yet the things I saw…”

“A dead man in the prow of a ship, a blue rose, a banquet of blood… what does any of it mean, khaleesi? A mummer’s dragon, you said. What is a mummer’s dragon, pray?”

“A cloth dragon on poles. Mummers use them in their follies, to give the heroes something to fight.”

That last sentence intrigues me, and deserves its own blog as it’s an early indication from GRRM that the mummer’s dragon (fAegon – Varys’ puppet princeling) wasn’t randomly thrown into ADWD to spice things up, but part of his long term vision for the series.

But anyway. We leave Dany in her ACOK journey with a whole bundle of questions about what she saw.

Breaking down the visions

The dragon must have three heads

This was obviously something that Rhaegar was preoccupied with – did this just mean recreating the original trinity of House Targaryen, with a new Aegon, Visenya and Rhaenys? If so, why did he call his eldest daughter Rhaenys and not Visenya?

The commonly accepted fan interpretations to the much-repeated “the dragon must have three heads” are these:

  1. Rhaegar knew that his son, the Prince That Was Promised (TPTWP), would need familial allies – three heads of the dragon;
  2. Dany now has three dragons. Three dragon riders = three heads of the dragon.

This feels a little too neat. Unless Rhaegar had his own powers of prophecy, he could not have known that his as-yet unborn sister would hatch dragons from fossilised eggs, and prepare three dragon riders…. to take the dragons from his sister? No. We don’t need to assume that dragon rider = head of the dragon = secret Targaryen. There are so, so many theories out there trying to link Jon’s Targaryen heritage to his probable dragon riding status, and Tyrion’s potential dragon riding status to a hidden history of rape between Aerys and Joanna Lannister.

Let’s look at the facts in the world of Westeros:

  • dragons are magical beings and hard to tame
  • but they can be tamed
  • Septon Barth wrote a lot about dragons, but his books were mostly burned as heretical by Baelor the Blessed(ly Nuts)
  • Tyrion was obsessed about dragons and dragon riders, reading widely on the topic in his youth
  • during the Dance of the Dragons, the smallfolk girl Nettles tamed the dragon Sheepstealer by bringing him a sheep every day until the dragon finally let her ride him (it?)

Now in the text as it’s presented in The World of Ice and Fire, we’re told that everyone assumed that Nettles could ride a dragon because she was a “dragonseed” (i.e. somehow descended from a little off the books nookie from either House Targaryen or House Velaryon.) I have a simpler hypothesis: she simply tamed a dragon. Because the wise of Westeros think that only one of Valyrian blood can ride a dragon, they created a Valyrian heritage for the farmer’s daughter but the truth is much more straightfoward. Nettles worked with animals her whole life. She understood how to train them. She trained a dragon.

The purpose of Nettles is to demonstrate that Tyrion has the potential to train a dragon too, if he remembers all the knowledge that he read, sobers up and gives it a shot.

But it’s not clear from any of this whether being a dragon rider = being a head of the dragon.

We may never find out what “the dragon must have three heads” really means. For the purpose of the narrative, all that we really need to know is the key thing that Rhaegar says to Elia or Dany during Dany’s vision: “There must be another.”

We know that Elia Martell had difficulties with bearing children, and that bearing Aegon nearly killed her. We know from the rest of the books that Rhaegar was fond enough of Elia that he did not wish her to die in childbirth just to bring him this third child. We assume that this is one of the reasons why Rhaegar’s eyes turned to Lyanna Stark, and why Jon Snow was born and remains so important.

What else does Dany see?

The first vision Dany sees is of a woman being ravaged by four little men. The commonly accepted theory, which I agree with, is that this is Westeros being torn apart by civil war: the four little men represent Joffrey Baratheon/Tywin Lannister, Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon and Robb Stark. Who is the one who is screwing the realm? Probably Renly. As BBFish is fond of saying, Renly had no claim to be king and thoroughly fucked over Stannis’ rightful claim to the Iron Throne given that Joffrey was illegitimate. By splitting the lords of the Stormlands between those who followed the elder Baratheon and those who followed the Lord of Storm’s End, and allying with the Reach, cancelling out Stannis’ marital claim to Reach lords through the Florents, Renly completely undermined his older brother’s more legitimate claim to the Iron Throne and caused a bloody civil war to last even longer that it might otherwise have done. So who is chewing on the teat? Probably Joffrey, the king who is reaping all the benefits of Westeros and bearing none of the risk.

The next vision Dany sees is the Red Wedding: Robb Stark with Greywind’s head, his Northern forces slaughtered over dinner. This is so obvious that it’s amazing that the Red Wedding came as such a shock to readers on the first read through. We were literally told in the second book that Robb was in danger at a feast.

The flashbacks that Dany has to events that are familiar to her, or familiar to readers, are very interesting. She remembers her childhood fondly, and experiences a strong longing to go back to the house in Braavos with the red door. She sees the truth of the Mad King for herself, but is not yet willing to understand that the rumours of her father’s cruelty and the justification for his removal from the Throne are true. Then she sees Rhaegar talking about his son and the “song of ice and fire.” Dany doesn’t stop to think about what the hell the song of ice and fire is, but readers do… given that it’s the name of the series. Also interesting is that the Undying invite her to drink from the cup of ice and the cup of fire – something I hadn’t picked up until re-reading the chapter now.

Daughter of death, slayer of lies, bride of fire

These are very particular visions that Dany experiences in triplets.

The daughter of death trio are Dany’s familial losses – interestingly, not her father or mother. But we revisit the deaths of her brothers, Viserys and Rhaegar, and what could have been of her son Rhaego as the Stallion Who Mounts The World. GRRM has never directly confirmed it but many fans believe that the woman’s name on Rhaegar’s lips as he died at the Trident was ‘Lyanna’.

The next trio is very, very interesting.

A false Lightbringer in the hands of a shadow-less blue-eyed king? That would be Stannis Baratheon. Dark of hair and blue of eyes is the Baratheon look, and Stannis has given his shadows to Melisandre. The lie that Dany will slay is that Stannis is Azor Ahai Reborn – because he’s not, she is.

A cloth dragon being cheered – this would be Aegon, or fAegon. I believe that this foreshadows the Dance of the Dragons coming in The Winds of Winter – Aegon will win his way to the Iron Throne, wiping out Cersei and her Lannister forces, but will then face the true dragon with actual dragons, and come to a crispy end. Curiously, Dany’s conversation with Jorah foreshadows Varys’ perfect prince monologue to Kevan Lannister in the epilogue in ADWD, and a meta analysis of why Aegon is in the books at all: “mummers use them in their follies to give heroes something to fight.” But who is the hero, Dany or Aegon? The readers may have a very different view to the people of Westeros, when faced with a conquering queen with a horde of barbarians from Essos and dragons blowing up the city. In any event, the lie that Dany will slay is the Blackfyre lie: Aegon is not a true dragon, or at the very least, he doesn’t have control of true dragons. She does.

The final image in the slayer of lies is very puzzling: a beast who breathes shadow fire rising from a crumbling tower. Does this relate to whatever Euron has in store for Oldtown? And if so, how does it link to Euron’s plans for Dragonbinder and Dany? What is the lie that Dany will slay here?

The bride of fire trilogy is problematic, because remember Dany has already been married twice… and Hizdhar Harzoo doesn’t fit the description of a smiling corpse at the prow of a ship. However the first and third are pretty straightforward: her silver mare trotting to the place where Drogo consummated their marriage (ahem… through rape….) and Jon Snow. Now, I don’t like the idea that Jon and Dany are destined to meet and fall in love. Frankly, I think Jon has other things on his mind, like not being dead and defeating the Others. But the “blue flower” (a blue rose, like Lyanna’s?) blooming in a chink of ice (the Wall) and smelling sweet (representing true love, not a rape-y marriage or political marriage or an Ironborn marriage) does tend to lean towards the JxD TWOO WUV theory. Unfortunately.

Treasons, fires and mounts

three fires must you light… one for life and one for death and one to love… three mounts must you ride… one to bed and one to dread and one to love… three treasons will you know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love…

The commonly accepted fan wisdom with this part of the Undying’s prophecies is:

  • Dany will have three major fire related events
  • Dany will have three husbands
  • Dany will know three treasons

I agree with the first one, and agree that we’ve already seen the first: the fire for life was Drogo’s funeral pyre which gave life to her three dragons. I think the fire for death will be the destruction her dragons cause to Meereen during the Battle of Fire, and if the books follow the show, her firey path of destruction in Vaes Dothrak that finally convince the Dothraki to follow her.

The third one is a mystery, and I really like the interpretation of Steven Attwell:

The third is most interesting, because it breaks the pattern of “for” in favor of “to,” (another case of GRRM screwing with threes!) and because “love” is the common denominator in these prophecies. A lot of people think this has something to do with Jon Snow…  My hunch, based on the fact that she’s lighting a fire “to” (which suggests a salute to someone) and my own thinking about what’s likely to happen with Jon and Dany, is that it may well be Jon’s funeral pyre, an honor done from one Targaryen to another. After all, there’s nothing that says love has to mean romantic, or that it can’t be a tragic love…

GRRM has deliberately kept a lot of information vague about the last time the Others were a legitimate threat, and it’s all shrouded in in-universe legends and myths. But Old Nan says that the true story of the Last Hero is a sad one, and following the theory that whatever Old Nan/Septon Barth say is right, this could mean that whoever plays the role of the Last Hero in the coming War for the Dawn is doomed to a kamikaze run. If I had to lay down my cards, place my bets and be forced to say who is the one person who is AAR/TPTWP/TLH, I’d say it’s Jon Snow. (As elaborated elsewhere, if those three legends are separate people, then I have different answers.) But if all legends lead to one person, then it’s Jon, so I can see Dany doing Jon the honour as a nephew, possible lover, and fellow dragonrider of giving him a Targaryen funeral.

The “three mounts to ride” – I don’t agree that this means three husbands, simply because we have another husband prophecy from the Undying about Dany’s role as a bride of fire. I think that this literally means three important mounts, as in three important beasts that she rides. One to bed – Drogo’s gift to her at their wedding was her silver mare, and she remembers this gift lovingly (even though she has totally got Stockholm Syndrome about Drogo!). One to dread – Drogon. She can’t control her dragon, she barely clings on to him when she finally does fly him, and flying on him leaves her burned. So what is the mount to love? I’m going to branch out from the pack here and say that it has nothing to do with husbands, or war, or regaining her throne. Throughout the books, Dany longs for a home, represented by the big red door in Braavos. I think the mount to ride will be a ship that takes her home, whether that home is in Braavos, or Dragonstone, or King’s Landing.

The treasons one is interesting. Do the Undying mean Dany will be betrayed three times, once for blood and once for gold and once for love, or will Dany betray people three times?

If it is Dany who will be betrayed, then we have perhaps already seen two of the three: Mirri Maz Duur betrays Dany’s trust in healing Drogo to kill Dany’s unborn child through a magical ceremony, to avoid Rhaego fulfilling his destiny (that Dany sees in the HOTU) as the Stallion Who Mounts the World and to get revenge for the murder of her people by Drogo’s khalassar. Jorah is revealed by Barristan Selmy to have been feeding information about Dany back to Robert Baratheon in exchange for gold and a pardon to return to Westeros. Are these the simple answers to this prophecy? Seems likely.

Lingering questions

When I re-read this chapter now, the questions that keep coming to mind are:

  • what the hell does it mean that “the dragon must have three heads”????
  • what is this shadow beast taking flight from a tower? What is Euron’s plan for Oldtown? (I’m fairly certain it’s nothing pleasant)
  • What are the treason Dany will know for love?

What do you think? Have your say in the comments below.

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5 thoughts on “Chapter focus: Dany IV, ACOK – the House of the Undying

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