Let’s Dance…With Dragons

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Part of my Dragons Reign Video Series, Video Essay available on YouTube

The Dance of the Dragons is the most detailed and expansive political conflict George R. R. Martin has ever written. With not one but two short stories plus extended treatment in The World of Ice and Fire and a significant chunk of Fire and Blood, this full-on Targaryen dragon-on-dragon civil war gets even more page time than Aegon’s conquest. The amount of work Martin has put into it in and of itself makes the Dance worth diving into – clearly this moment of Westerosi history is important to him. But what makes now the perfect time to take a closer look at the Dance is the possibility that we’ll get a visual adaptation of these events on the prequel show House of the Dragon. And if you need a third reason why the Dance of Dragons ought to get your toes tapping, there’s tantalizing evidence that Martin has foreshadowed many of the major events from the upcoming books in the events and characters of the Dance.

That’s right, to go forward, we must go back.

I’ve been wanting to talk about the Dance for a while because of my interest in the pervasive theme of disempowered women in Westeros, so really, HBO announcing a prequel to Game of Thrones based on Fire and Blood did me a favor. While we know that the show will start with Aegon’s Conquest, if it continues for multiple seasons, there’s no way we aren’t getting the Dance, and I, for one, welcome the depiction of my one true Queen that Never Was, Rhaenys Targaryen (you may never have ruled Westeros, but you will always be the queen of my heart.)

Where was I? Oh right, three years of brutal and bloody conflict that nearly tore the kingdom apart and that left seventeen dragons and tens of thousands of soldiers and smallfolk dead, countless villages sacked, and huge swaths of countryside burned and desolate. A family conflict turned civil war that ended with a young boy watching his mother get eaten alive by her own brother’s dragon. Three years of battles that make Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings look like petty squabbles; namely, twenty one dragons and their riders duking it out over the skies of Westeros while the armies beneath clash and burn. In other words, a dance!

And all this because Aegon II and the Hightower family wanted power and the so-called Great Lords couldn’t abide the idea of a woman ruling Westeros. It’s that damn patriarchy again—messing up everything.

In fact, I think one of the reasons George gave us this specific material before Dany gets to Westeros in the books is to prepare us for what is to come, both in terms of political opposition to the notion of a Queen and the sheer violence and horror of all-out war with dragons on both sides. As to the latter, here’s a hint: it’s mostly very, very bad. It’s not glorious or ‘cool’—it’s blood and death and carnage. When dragons and their riders go toe to toe, or should I say claw to claw, both end up more than a little bit worse for the wear—if they survive at all.

Take this quote from Fire and Blood, which describes the horrific injuries suffered by Aegon II and his dragon Sunfyre after they teamed up with Aegon’s brother Aemond One-Eye and his dragon Vhagar to take on Rhaenys Targaryen and her dragon Meleys, the Red Queen.

Those closest to the dragons did not live to tell the tale. Those farther off could not see for the flame and smoke. It was hours before the fires guttered out. But from those ashes, only Vhagar rose unharmed. Meleys was dead, broken by the fall and ripped to pieces upon the ground. And Sunfyre, that splendid golden beast, had one wing half torn from his body, whilst his royal rider had suffered broken ribs, a broken hip, and burns that covered half his body. His left arm was the worst. The dragonflame had burned so hot that the king’s armor and melted to his flesh.

That’s what dragon on dragon battle does to the survivors. Rhaenys didn’t even get out alive.

A body believed to be Rhaenys Targaryen was later found beside the carcass of her dragon, but it was so blackened that no one could be sure it was her. Beloved daughter of Lady Jocelyn Baratheon and Prince Aemon Targaryen, faithful wife to Lord Corlys Velaryon, mother and grandmother, the Queen who Never Was lived fearlessly, and died amidst blood and fire. She was fifty-five years old.

And the savagery of draconic civil war is hardly confined to the dragons and dragonlords; just wait until we get to the first and second sacks of Tumbleton, where men and dragons compete with each other to create the greater horrors. And the men win.

Young Teora Toland said it best (spoiler warning for a Winds of Winter pre-released chapter):

They were dancing. In my dream. And everywhere the dragons danced the people died.

This shouldn’t surprise us as readers, what else should we expect from dragons bred for war? And that is what the Targaryen dragons were bred for according to Jorah.

Ser Jorah shrugged. “A dragon’s natural span of days is many times as long as a man’s, or so the songs would have us believe . . . but the dragons the Seven Kingdoms knew best were those of House Targaryen. They were bred for war, and in war they died. It is no easy thing to slay a dragon, but it can be done.”

I don’t normally like to quote flesh-peeling psychopaths, but Ramsay wasn’t wrong when he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “If you think the story of dragons fighting has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Nevertheless, the Dance of Dragons isn’t all blood and chaos! There are stories of heroism and love and noble sacrifice; there are well-written, nuanced, and interesting female characters (even some queer ones! BLESS YOU GEORGE), and some of my favorite male characters in the history of Westeros have parts to play in the drama. (Why hello there Corlys the Sea Snake, rawr—use fanart). And because Martin goes into so much detail, you can really connect with the characters involved in the drama; it’s about as close to the experience of reading the main books as possible imo, which is why it’s such a rich story to dig into, despite the horror of it.

If the idea of dragons and dragonriders duking it out while the soldiers and smallfolk die beneath them sounds familiar, that’s probably because it seems like A Song of Ice and Fire itself is headed in that direction. That’s right, Martin didn’t just put a lot of details into the Dance to flesh out his world and history (which it does) or because he thinks dragons and battles are like, way cool bro, (which he clearly doesn’t), but because he’s exploring and foreshadowing potential arcs and conflicts for the endgame of A Song of Ice and Fire. I mean seriously, he named the fifth book in the series A Dance with Dragonsand this book is explicitly setting up the looming conflict between Dany, Aegon/Young Griff, and Jon (and very likely Cersei, who isn’t a Targaryen but who is doing her best Mad King Aerys impression).

We know Martin likes to do this kind of thing in his historical worldbuilding—he gave us a historical Long Night to foreshadow the events of the upcoming Long Night, for example—so the idea that the Dance of the Dragons foreshadows what’s going to happen in the Dance with Dragons is… not exactly a stretch of the imagination.

And to be fair, I’m certainly not the first to point out these potential parallels. When House of the Dragon was announced following the end of the final season of Game of Thrones, a lot of people who knew about the Dance zeroed in on Rhaenyra as a potential Dany 2.0: she’s the heir to the Iron Throne who, after a brief reign in Kings Landing, turns paranoid, is called a mad queen, and dies. (Technically Rhaenyra predates Dany historically, so maybe show!Dany should be called Rhaenyra 2.0. But since GoT aired first, show!Dany is “Rhaenyra 1.0”)…anyway, regardless of who did it first, the choices David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made about Dany’s death parallel Rhaenyra’s death after the Dance. And given how ‘well’ Dany’s final scene went with viewers, not well at all, you can imagine just how well the idea of seeing yet another female character die at the end of a long battle for the throne would go.

Purely on the basis of surface parallels, it makes sense to connect what we saw with Dany on the show with Rhaenyra’s arc: they’re both dragon princesses returning to Westeros to claim their throne after it was usurped, leading to brutal warfare and the princess’ death after only a brief reign upon the Iron Throne. Rhaenyra even has three children (and their three dragons) from her first marriage kind of like how Dany has three “children” (who are dragons) from her marriage to Drogo. Rhaenyra is the leading lady of the faction of the Targaryen civil war known as the Blacks, just like Dany is the leading lady of the soon-to-be invading army that will come with dragons. Plus it seems very likely that Dany will lose control of one of her dragons to an enemy—my bet is Euron or Aegon or somehow both—meaning there will be literal dragons fighting each other over who is the legitimate heir to the throne. Dany’s “dance partner” is Aegon VI just like Rhaenyra’s dance partner was Aegon II.

And that’s it, end of story; I can end this series of videos and their parallels right here and now. Bye everyone!

Just kidding!

In fact, a deeper examination reveals that the closest character parallel to Rhaenyra in the Dance isn’t Dany at all, it’s someone else. Let’s see if you can guess who:

A beautiful young fair-haired woman who ought to inherit her father’s seat is passed over in favor of a younger brother, and in retaliation, she seeks to gain as much power as possible to prove that she ought to rule. She eventually succeeds, sitting the Iron Throne for a short time. Three of her children are secretly bastards, and one of them is named Joffrey. After the birth of her children and the passage of time, this beautiful young woman becomes less attractive, causing her to feel threatened by younger and/or more beautiful women. After the death of one of her children, she grows increasingly paranoid about their safety. The casual way in which men steal power from her (or attempt to) only heightens her suspicion of everyone around her, including those who might have been loyal to her. She holds King’s Landing for a time, where her paranoia and violence reach their peak, but is eventually ousted. Finally, she is killed by her younger brother

That’s right folks, the closest parallel to Rhaenyra is Cersei Lannister, which means that Cersei is going to be eaten by a dragon. Or wait, she’s going to be eaten by her younger brother—scratch that, that’s already happened. Multiple times.

What I’m trying to say is that Cersei has far more in common with Rhaenyra Targaryen than Dany does, and for those of us who were so hurt and angered by Dany’s ending on the show, that’s a welcome bit of encouragement indeed. I’ve actually seen other A Song of Ice and Fire fans using the ostensible parallels between Rhaenyra and Dany to justify the idea that Dany going mad and dying “is exactly like what the books will show us.” Well, I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. Dany isn’t Rhaenyra 2.0.

If you want a better parallel for Dany, I suggest looking to Rhaenys Targaryen, the Queen who Never was. Instead of hiding behind castle walls wringing her hands about her children and the men plotting to steal her throne the way Rhaenyra did, Rhaenys rode her fearsome mount Meleys the Red Queen fearlessly into battle. She was clever, capable, possessed of a fiery spirit, and didn’t hesitate for a moment to put herself and her dragon on the line when it mattered most…which sounds an awful lot like someone we know (Hint: It’s Dany).

Unfortunately, Rhaenys does die in the Dance, but her death looks a lot more like one we would expect for Dany: Rhaenys sacrifices herself in a battle against the usurping king Aegon II (a false king or mummer’s dragon) and his brother Aemond One-Eye, who has a blue star eye, “night black” armor, and a dragon with heavy ice dragon symbolism. That’s right, Rhaenys dies in a dragon-on-dragon fight with a guy who shares symbolism with the Others and the Night King. Huh, sounds like that could foreshadow Dany dying in her fight against the Others and any potential Night King that may emerge in the final books (my money is on Euron).

The point is, if Dany is going to die at the end of the books, sacrificing herself for the good of the realm makes far more sense with the character we believe her to be than what the show gave us. And if anyone in the books is going to get killed by her brother after going mad ruling King’s Landing for a time, it’s Cersei. 

Long story short, if the ending to Game of Thrones discouraged you and the idea of seeing Rhaenyra Targaryen as “Dany 2.0 ” on House of the Dragon turns you off, take heart! I don’t think that’s what we’re getting for Dany in the books. My friend and fellow A Song of Ice and Fire mythhead Lucifer Means Lightbringer is doing an excellent job of showing us just that over on his channel with his recent Dany reread videos, and I hope to add to this greater work of reminding everyone who the real Daenerys Targaryen is by diving into the Dance and investigating where the characters and plot points line up, and where they don’t.

I also just want to take a close look at this fascinating and dark period of Targaryen history on its own, and it just so happens to tie into my larger interest in disempowered and disinherited women of Westeros so, it’s a real win-win for me even though it’s a net loss for Westeros as a whole…you know, given all the dead people and dead dragons and burned villages and such.

Okay well, I think it’s about time to wrap up. I don’t have a Patreon, but I do have a Ko-fi link in my channel header if you feel like keeping me hydrated while I work. Please be sure to hit like and subscribe before you go, and I’ll see you next time on the Dragons Reign, where we’ll begin to get to know the Dance, and the Dancers.