Why the Dance of the Dragons War Makes Daenerys’s End More Tragic on Game of Thrones
Last time an Aegon got in the way of Targaryen Queen, it didn't end well then either.
Like many others, I’m still processing the whole mess that was the Game of Thrones finale, and what the hell happened with Daenerys Targaryen. As a book reader, I have turned to the text for some answers. One of the things that I think hints at the core of the Jon Snow/Dany conflict comes from looking into the past at the history of Westeros and the last time a male and female Targaryen went head-to-head for the Crown, the 129 AC to 131 AC War of succession also know as the Dance of the Dragons.
Back in the old days of Westeros, there was King Viserys I Targaryen, who had one daughter Rhaenyra, through his wife Aemma Arryn, who despite her last name being Arryn was Viserys’ cousin. Due to not having any male heirs with his wife, Viserys did begin to groom his daughter to be his heir. She became her father’s royal cupbearer (not as dirty as it sounds) at the age of eight and was always by her father’s side at feasts, balls, and other events. She had a role on the small council, and Viserys also made the lords and knights of the pledge to defend her rights of succession.
But then he went and got married again. He married Alicent Hightower, who was not a cousin or relative at all, and they ended up having four children, including a male heir by the name of … Aegon, which is Jon Snow’s true Targaryen name.
Despite initially having a good relationship with each other, Queen Alicent and Princess Rhaenyra fell into conflict. There could only be one true lady of Westeros, and with Alicent having multiple potential male heirs to the throne, it made it so that the two women grew to hate each other. Rhaenyra was still called her father’s heir despite Aegon, and for Alicent, that was a threat. The realm became torn into two factions—the “greens” (Alicent) and the “blacks” (Rhaenyra).
When Viserys died, Queen Alicent and the Kingsguard was sent out to summon the small council members to talk about who would take over. Ser Otto Hightower, the Hand of the King and father of Alicent, said that Prince Aegon would be crowned, but Lord Lyman Beesbury, the master of coin, insisted Rhaenyra should be crowned a queen because of the vows made previously. The Hightowers felt strongly that if Rhaenyra was made queen then she could kill all of them, and honestly as the story unfolds, not a bad guess, which is what allegedly prompted Aegon to take the throne.
The reason women were not allowed to rule as heirs in their own right despite being born first was because of a ruling made in 101 AC during the first Great Council at Harrenhal. Princess Rhaenys Targaryen was the daughter of Prince Aemon Targaryen and Lady Jocelyn Baratheon, and like her future namesake was groomed to be queen, but when her father died as the heir apparent, her grandfather, Jaehaerys I, had to choose a new heir and passed over his granddaughter for Baelon Targaryen, her uncle.
Baelon then died from a burst belly, leaving the question of who would inherit up again. Despite Rhaenys being popular, a dragonrider, and a certified badass who was raised to rule, the whole vagina thing was just something they couldn’t get past. So Rhaenys was passed over again in favor of Baelon’s son, Viserys I. Bringing us full circle. That meeting set the precedent that women would be overlooked in favor of a male heir whenever possible regardless of their birth rank or accomplishments.
When Rhaenyra found out about the death of her father and the treachery of her siblings, her anger caused her to go into labor, one that lasted for three days and resulted in a stillborn child. Rhaenyra swore revenge on her family. Rhaenyra made her own counsel at Dragonstone, which became known as the black council which included her (ahem) husband-uncle Prince Daemon, sons Jacaerys, Lucerys and Joffrey, Lord Corlys Velaryon, and his wife, Princess Rhaenys, who I’m sure was 1000% ready to help at least one Targaryen queen win. Rhaenyra was crowned queen at Harrenhal, ironically, and the war began.
The conflict became even more personal when Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys was killed after attempting to peacefully deliver a message to Storm’s End, but his half-uncle Aemond Targaryen was there and followed the younger boy on his own dragon and killed Lucerys, earning him the name kinslayer.
Prince Daemon swore revenge and send two men known as Blood and Cheese to murder one of Aegon’s sons. Blood and Cheese broke into the Queen’s rooms and barred the doors. They told Queen Helaena (sister-wife of Aegon) to choose which of her sons would die. Helaena tried to offer up herself, but the men told her that it had to be a son and she reluctantly chose Maelor, because he was a baby and thought he wouldn’t know what was happening. However, Blood cut off the head Prince Jaehaerys instead, right in front of her, grabbing the head and leaving the body behind. The event deeply traumatized Helaena, who on top of everything felt guilt every time she looked at her living son and eventually she committed suicide in her grief.
As the war waged on, the smallfolk, of course, suffered the most as dragon fire filled the skies and scorched the land. After losing another son in combat, Rhaenyra decided to say f—it and use her dragons to take King’s Landing with Fire and Blood. The warring continued and eventually the smallfolk turned against Rhaenyra totally. Aegon was able to take over and took back the city. Rhaenyra fled and was eventually captured along with her remaining men, her ladies, and one of her living younger son Aegon the Younger. Rhaenyra was fed to her younger brother’s dragon in front of her son.
Aegon II became King of the Seven Kingdoms, but the person to succeed him was Aegon the Younger (III), Rhaenyra’s son, because better the son of a queen than a queen herself. Rhaenyra’s other son, Viserys II would also be king following his brother.
This fictional history lesson*, which you can get a fuller look at in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood or A Wiki of Ice & Fire, is to share with you the history that Dany is aware of when Jon reveals his truth to her. I know for many there was much ado made of the fact that she was more upset about his claim to the throne than incest, but as you can see by the Targaryen family tree, incest isn’t exactly a big deal for them.
What is a big deal is that there has never been a woman who has sat on the Iron Thron before Cersei Lannister. Both Targaryen women who tried were killed by dragons and while that wasn’t Dany’s literal fate, she was indeed killed by another Targaryen, a “true dragon” in another sense.
(*A lot of this is inspired by the event in British History known as The Anarchy where Empress Matilda attempted to becoming Queen of England after a similar situation to Rhaenyra’s, just without dragons. It’s also a really good “story”).
Happy Fourth of July because Breaking the Wheel has never been easy!
(image: Helen Sloan/HBO)
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