None so blind as those that will not see: Dany and the Mad King

This was my entry for the /r/asoiaf annual tournament. I was beaten by Something Like A Lawyer of Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire fame. Now I’m out of the tourney, I can publicly post my entry, and amend it to look further than just the assigned chapter. (And taking on feedback from /r/asoiaf to adjust the essay is good too 🙂 )

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Finally, a great pair of bronze doors appeared to her left, grander than the rest. They swung open as she neared, and she had to stop and look. Beyond loomed a cavernous stone hall, the largest she had ever seen. The skulls of dead dragons looked down from its walls. Upon a towering barbed throne sat an old man in rich robes, an old man with dark eyes and long silver-grey hair. “Let him be king over charred bones and cooked meat,” he said to a man below him. “Let him be the king of ashes!” Drogon shrieked, his claws digging through silk and skin, but the king on his throne never heard, and Dany moved on.

  • ACOK Dany IV page 632 Harper Voyager 4th edition

It is curious that while Dany was able to recognise her older brother Rhaegar, whom she had never met, when she experienced a vision of him and his family in the House of the Undying, she does not recognise her father, Aerys II Targaryen. Is this ignorance? Or wilful blindness?

I think it’s the latter.

Throughout ASOIAF, Dany has shown that she is unwilling to deviate from the version of history that her brother Viserys taught her: the Usurper, Robert Baratheon, waged an unjust war that ripped the Iron Throne from their family’s grasp, and the Kingslayer, Ser Jaime Lannister, broke his vows when he killed their father despite having sworn to serve and protect him. Time and time again she resists information from Ser Jorah Mormont, Illyrio Mopatis, Ser Barristan Selmy and others that contradicts the concept that her father was blameless in the civil war that led to her exile.

In contrast, her brother Rhaegar had no such delusions about their father’s capacity to govern. We have Jaime’s memory of Rhaegar telling him before he went to the Trident that he planned to call a council, and the implication from TWOIAF that Rhaegar financed House Whent to throw the Tourney of Harrenhal in the hopes of having a clandestine Great Council. All of these political machinations of his elder brother, or even the fact that Rhaegar and Aerys were somewhat estranged, appear to have been lost on Viserys, who was only 6-7 when Rhaegar died and Dany was born. 

Dany’s understanding of her family’s history is entirely based on the stories that Viserys told her, stories laced with her brother’s bias and juvenile understanding of the politics of Westeros. She has grown enough now to know that her brother was foolish, cruel and a poor source of inspiration. Dany is beginning to question some of what Viserys taught her, but has also learned the hard way her own version of the truth: (ASOS, Dany II)

“My brother visited Pentos, Myr, Braavos, near all the Free Cities. The magisters and archons fed him wine and promises, but his soul was starved to death. A man cannot sup from the beggar’s bowl all his life and stay a man. I had my taste in Qarth, that was enough. I will not come to Pentos bowl in hand.”

“Better to come a beggar than a slaver,” Arstan said.

“There speaks one who has been neither.” Dany’s nostrils flared. “Do you know what it is like to be sold, squire? I do. My brother sold me to Khal Drogo for the promise of a golden crown…. Do you think I have forgotten how it felt to be afraid?”

Throughout ASOS, Dany begins to open up to this new arrival, Arstan Whitebeard, whom she later discovers is Ser Barristan Selmy. As she grows to trust him, she asks him for information about her family and the home she has never seen. Through Barristan’s diplomatic testimony, she begins to open up to the prospect that her father was a mad tyrant.

“When the day comes that you raise your banners, half of Westeros will be with you,” Whitebeard promised. “Your brother Rhaegar is still remember, with great love.”

“And my father?” Dany said.

The old man hesitated before saying, “King Aerys is also remembered. He gave the realm many years of peace.”

She also gives away this crucial bit of information: she knows the Iron Throne room was decorated with the skulls of Targaryen dragons past!

“Men are men,” Whitebeard replied. “Dragons are dragons.”

Ser Jorah snorted his disdain. “How profound.” The exile knight had no love for the old man, he’d made that plain from the first. “What do you know of dragons, anyway?”

“Little enough, that’s true. Yet I served for a time in King’s Landing in the days when King Aerys sat the Iron Throne, and walked beneath the dragonskulls that looked down from the walls of his throne room.”

“Viserys talked of those skulls,” said Dany. “The Usurper took them down and hid them away. He could not bear them looking down on him upon his stolen throne.”

To take a line from the unfortunate Quentyn Martell, “oh.”

Dany knew before she stepped into the House of the Undying that her father ruled from the Iron Throne, a “towering barbed throne” in a room where “the skulls of dead dragons looked down” on all.

So let’s revisit her reaction to the House of the Undying and the visions she experiences within. She recognises Rhaegar:

Viserys, was her first thought the next time she paused, but a second glance told her otherwise. The man had her brother’s hair, but he was taller, and his eyes were a dark indigo rather than lilac.

 

And then later in Dany V:

Dany could not let it go. “His is the song of ice and fire, my brother said. I’m certain it was my brother. Not Viserys, Rhaegar. He had a harp with silver strings.”

Ser Jorah’s frown deepened until his eyebrows came together. “Prince Rhaegar played such a harp,”” he conceded. “You saw him?”

She nodded. “There was a woman in a bed with a babe at her breast. My brother said the babe was the prince that was promised and told her to name him Aegon.”

“Prince Aegon was Rhaegar’s heir by Elia of Dorne,” Ser Jorah said.

I’ve been re-reading just Dany’s chapters following Dany IV ACOK, curious to see if she ever thinks back on the vision of her father screaming “burn them all!” So far, nothing. I’ll amend this blog if I do uncover something.

Yet we know Dany does reflect on her visions at the House of the Undying repeatedly. Three heads has the dragon, three treasons will you know, slayer of lies, bride of death, the mummer’s dragon – these are all visions that Dany has discussed with Jorah and Barristan, and reflects upon in her internal monologue.

But she appears to keep secret the vision she dare not acknowledge: the vision that she must know is her father ordering the destruction of King’s Landing.

All the information is there, and confirmed at other times: Dany knows her father was problematic, although the extent to which she acknowledges this varies throughout the books. She knows the Iron Throne is a great towering barbed seat. She knows that in her father’s reign, the dragonskulls adorned the walls.

These are all details she notes at the House of the Undying: the older man with silver-grey hair, the barbed throne, the dragonskulls. But she never seems to go the next step, like she did with the vision of Rhaegar – “I know it was my brother.” She never says “I know I saw my father.”

Corroboration of Dany’s vision: Jaime

Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying directly matches Jaime’s confession to Brienne in ASOS Jaime V 

“Aerys would have bathed in [wildfire] if he’d dared. The Targaryens were all mad for fire.” …

He floated in heat, in memory. “After dancing griffins lost the Battle of the Bells, Aerys exiled him.” Why am I telling this absurd ugly child? “He had finally realised that Robert was no mere outlaw to be crushed at whim, but the greatest threat House Targaryen had faced since Daemon Blackfyre. The king reminded Lewyn Martell gracelessly that he held Elia and sent him to take command of the ten thousand Dornishmen coming up the kingsroad. Jon Darry and Barristan Selmy rode to Stoney Sept to rally what they could of griffins’ men, and Prince Rhaegar returned from the south and persuaded his father to swallow his pride and summon my father. But no raven returned from Casterly Rock, and that made the king even more afraid. He saw traitors everywhere, and Varys was always there to point out any he might have missed. So His Grace commanded his alchemists to place caches of wildfire all over King’s Landing…”

“My Sworn Brothers were all away, you see, but Aerys liked to keep me close. I was my father’s son, so he did not trust me. He wanted me where Varys could watch me, day and night. So I heard it all.” He remembered how Rossart’s eyes would shine when he unrolled his maps to show where the substance must be placed. Garigus and Belis were the same. “Rhaegar met Robert on the Trident, and you know what happened there. When the word reached court, Aerys packed the queen off to Dragonstone with Prince Viserys. Princess Elia would have gone as well, but he forbade it. Somehow he gotten it into his head that Prince Lewyn must have betrayed Rhaegar on the Trident, but he thought he could keep Dorne Loyal so long as he kept Elia and Aegon by his side. ‘The traitors want my city,’ I heard him tell Rossar, ‘but I’ll give them naught but ashes. Let Robert be king over charred bones and cooked meat.’ The Targaryens never bury their dead, they burn them. Aerys meant to have the greatest funeral pyre of them all.”

Conclusion

It intrigues me that Dany does not recognise the Iron Throne, which is she is determined to reclaim, or the great throne room of the Red Keep, which I presume Viserys would have described to her ad nauseum while on the run. 

Dany must know that she is looking at her father, and must know that she is seeing the truth of his madness: he planned to annihilate King’s Landing with wildfire rather than concede to Robert Baratheon.

But she cannot bring herself to acknowledge that this is what she is seeing.

Unlike Rhaegar, who lived through their father’s madness and descent into cruelty, Dany still believes that her family was robbed of their rightful throne. She does not, cannot accept that her father’s actions led to a politically and legally justified civil war to oust the cruel tyrant.

Dany would do well to stop and process this information at some stage. It will be very interesting to see whether Dany has a future opportunity to grill the Kingslayer, and whether she would be open to his testimony, considering that she saw the same moment in the House of the Undying.

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