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Ask the Maester: Dragons, Human Sacrifice, and More Dragons

The answers to all of your questions from this week’s penultimate episode of the season.

Tom asks, “It would seem from the ‘Inside the Episode’ that the Shireen horrible twist was actually from GRRM and not Benioff/Weiss. Does that surprise you? Aren’t Shireen/Selyse still at Castle Black in the book?”

Crackpot theory: A few years back, when Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss met with George R.R. Martin in Santa Fe so that the author could map out his story to its end — beyond what exists in the books — Martin, in the great tradition of J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and every writer everywhere whose job is to literally make things up as they go along, just kind of told B&W a bunch of bullshit. I mean, not total bullshit. That’s harsh. But, like, he’s sure of the solid brickwork of those story points, with the gaps mortared together with some yada yada. Again, that’s a writer’s job. And, really, who among us would not go so far as to build a 700-foot-tall wall of bullshit once the six- and seven-figure checks started flying to and fro? Is Martin going to be like, “No, I don’t really know the ending. I guess I’ll give the money back.” Do you really think the whole reason he hasn’t finished the books is because he writes slowly?

That’s how I explain Benioff and Weiss dropping a “When George told us about this …”1 as a way to explain how they arrived at the scene from “The Dance of Dragons” in which Stannis Baratheon has his daughter Shireen burned at the stake to gain the favor of the Lord of Light. Because, OK, apparently that will happen in the books. But it doesn’t happen on the march to Winterfell in the books, and the timing matters because context matters.


1.

In addition to seeming like a bit of a cover-your-ass move, their explicit reveal that Shireen’s sacrifice is a future plot point from the books was, in my opinion, uncalled for. The vast majority of book readers have kept spoilers to themselves all these years, something the showrunners have gone out of their way to praise readers for. It would be nice if they would return the favor.

What bothers me about the scene is that it’s based on a character acting in a way that’s counter to how he’s been depicted all series. Stannis has been depicted as one of the greatest generals in the realm. He held the Storm’s End against a one-year siege by eating rats. So if the device that gets Stannis to the place where he’s desperate enough to burn his only daughter and heir alive2 is (1) some snow and (2) a sudden and convenient ineptitude at doing war stuff, that feels off to me. Stannis, “the greatest military commander in Westeros” per Davos, is in enemy territory, on the march toward a belligerent castle, and for some reason (i.e., to make this scene happen) he doesn’t have scouts out or watchmen guarding the camp or have his army — made up largely of professional mercenaries who themselves should know better — in the state of alertness necessary in a war. Also: Ramsay is now a ninja. I don’t buy it.


2.

Stannis may be rigid, but he isn’t blind to politics. In burning Shireen, he may have won the battle, but he’s lost the Throne. None of the lords of Westeros would back a kinslayer.

Of course bad things happen on Game of Thrones. But when you arrive at those things through contrivances, it cheapens the shock. It’s about consistent storytelling.

gameofthrones_shireen_StakeHBO

Jon asks, “Have Stannis’s men all bought into this whole ‘burning people alive’ trend, or are they just too afraid to speak up on account of said burning? I just have a hard time accepting that all of his men would be cool with losing at the Blackwater, practically freezing to death, and then watching their leader burn his own daughter.”

Some of his men are true R’hllor-heads. Others are not and are surely bothered by it. Considering the heavy dependence on sellswords, it’s probably something like 70-30 non-R’hllor.

Alexandra asks, “My brother and I are having an argument, hope you can settle. Was Dany summoning Drogon or preparing for death?”

The  mechanics of dragon riding are somewhat gnomic, but, in my opinion, Dany was preparing for death, and Drogon sensed that she was in danger. More on this after the next question.

Philip asks, “Can only Targaryens ride dragons? Do they need a special bond with a specific dragon to be able to ride or can all Targaryens naturally ride any dragon? What did she whisper to Drogon that commanded him to fly?”

It sounded like she just straight-up said, “Fly.” But did she command him, or did he just do what his instinct told him to do because dudes were throwing spears at him? It’s unclear at this time. A prospective dragon rider probably doesn’t need to be strictly Targaryen, but the histories suggest that said rider does need to have some Valyrian dragon-riding lineage to even begin the process of bonding with a dragon.

Our best information on the dragon-rider relationship comes from the history of the Dance of the Dragons, the very same event that Shireen was studying before her father so unceremoniously set her on fire because it snowed. The Dance was the first Targaryen civil war in Westerosi history, and like all those that followed, it was caused by the question of succession. In 129 AC, King Viserys I Targaryen passed away in his sleep. Viserys had several children, but far and away his favorite was Princess Rhaenyra, the only surviving child of his first marriage to Queen Aemma Arryn. Early on, Viserys decided that Rhaenyra would succeed him on the Iron Throne, and he made that fact abundantly clear both in word and deed, taking the princess to every small council meeting and having her sit at the foot of the Iron Throne when he held court. When she came of age, Rhaenyra was given the castle of Dragonstone, marking her as the official heir apparent.

King Viserys himself ascended to the throne because of the ruling of the Great Council of 101 AC, a conclave of nobles (the first of several throughout Westerosi history) called together during the reign of King Jaehaerys I to decide the question of succession. The two main claimants were Laenor Velaryon, the son of Princess Rhaenys,3 and Prince Viserys.4 It’s complicated, as all A Song of Ice and Fire things are, but what you need to know is that in picking Viserys as the heir, the Great Council of 101 set the male line of the house above the female line in this question of inheritance. Laenor’s claim flowed from his mother, while Viserys’s came through his father. You can see the irony. The ruling that put the crown on Viserys’s head in the first place also disqualifies his heir of choice from becoming queen.


3.

The eldest daughter of then-king Jaehaerys’s eldest son.

4.

The eldest son of the king’s third son, Baelon the Brave and the Princess Alyssa, his sister.

Complicating matters after the death of Rhaenyra’s mother, King Viserys took a new wife, Alicent Hightower, the daughter of Otto Hightower of Oldtown, the King’s Hand. Alicent was ambitious; she first came to court as the teenage nurse of Viserys’s grandfather, King Jaehaerys the Conciliator, and at times the Old King would, in the delirium of his advanced age, mistake young Alicent for his own daughter, a mistake the young nurse didn’t try that hard to correct. With the help of her father, she steadily gained power and influence, and quickly bore the king four children, including the sons Aegon and Aemond.

And so the stage was set. Queen Alicent, not willing to sit idly by while her sons were stripped of what she viewed as their birthrights, began agitating for King Viserys to change the line of succession. Viserys, a Type B personality until the day he died, simply ignored the rising tensions between his queen and his daughter.

Doing a blow-by-blow is a tale for another day because the story contains numerous twists, turns, betrayals, and questions of paternity — all the regular Game of Thrones stuff, but like 150 years in the past and involving a bunch of Targaryens with similar names. The important thing is that both sides — the blacks of Princess Rhaenyra and the greens of Queen Alicent and her brood — had dragons. The blacks, in fact, had more dragons than they had suitable riders. A probably not-surprising side effect of centuries of Targaryen residency on the island of Dragonstone is that the island was widely populated by numerous Targaryen bastards, known colloquially as the “dragonseed.” So, badly in need of riders, Rhaenyra’s (possibly bastard-born) son Prince Jace promised legitimization, lands, titles, and riches to any seed that could mount and ride a dragon. Sixteen prospective riders died attempting to gain their mounts and nearly 50 were burned and/or maimed. All of the seeds — the many crispy, chewed-up failures, and the very, very few successes — were a wild and woolly bunch of half- and quarter-blooded Targaryens from the bottom rungs of the Westerosi social spectrum. Hugh Hammer, the bastard son of a blacksmith, gained Vermithor, the former dragon of King Jaehaerys. Seasmoke — once the dragon of Laenor Velaryon, who was passed over by the Great Council of 101 — took upon its gray-white back some random 15-year-old boy named Addam. The most notably successful dragonseed was a teenage waif of unknown background by the name of Nettles. With the daily gift of a freshly killed sheep, Nettles managed to domesticate Sheepstealer, one of the three wild dragons of Dragonstone, a mud-brown beast that gained its name from swooping down on unsuspecting flocks.

This raises the important question: Who has enough Targaryen DNA to ride the other dragons?

Sean asks, “It seemed to me that the Harpy insurgents could have killed or at least seriously injured Drogon if they would have swarmed him or shot him with enough crossbows, spears, etc. How did the dragons of old die? Were they slain? Did they die of old age? Or do we even know. I remember seeing some dragon bones in the dungeons of the red keep back in Season 1.”

They absolutely could have killed Drogon. It’s important to remember that Drogon is a very young dragon — less than three years old — and thus quite vulnerable. As dragons age, their scales become thicker and stronger, growing more resistant to damage and flame. The beasts themselves grow to immense sizes, their flame-breath growing more powerful with each passing year. For reference, here’s a picture from the World of Ice and Fire book of history showing Aegon the Conqueror riding Balerion the Black Dread.

Aegon_on_BalerionThe World of Ice and Fire

And here’s Dany on Drogon:

gameofthrones_dany_drogonride

 

Almost there, shorty! Eat your vitamins and people and horses or whatever it is you eat and one day you’ll grow up big and super-ass strong.

Balerion passed of old age at more than 200 years old, so they do eventually die on their own. As for bringing down one of these creatures, most of the violent dragon deaths we know about occurred during the dragon-on-dragon combat of the aforementioned Dance of Dragons civil war. In other words, the best way to kill a dragon seems to be with another dragon. But with enough bodies and an insane commitment, dragons can be brought down with swords, axes, spears, and arrows. This is assuming, of course, that the dragon’s movements can be somehow limited and the beast can’t just fly away.

Toward the end of the Dance, a horde of rioters numbering in the high thousands, spurred to action by a half-mad prophet, stormed the dome on Rhaenys’s Hill, known as the Dragonpit, within which the royal dragons were stabled. At the time four dragons, each restrained by heavy chains, were in the Pit: Shrykos, Morghul, Tyraxes, and Dreamfyre. Even chained, the dragons were dangerous and the four of them killed (according to some stories) several thousand rioters. Whatever the true number — and the cost was certainly high — all of the dragons were killed. A woodsman named Hobb the Hewer managed to leap onto Shrykos’s neck and split its head open with an axe, though it did take seven strong blows. Morghul was killed by a spear through the eye. Tyraxes got tangled in his chains and was brought down by several dozen attackers. Dreamfyre managed to tear her chains out of their moorings and went flying around the inside of the dome, raining fire on her assailants. She was hit by numerous projectiles — arrows, crossbow bolts, and spears — in the course of the battle. One bolt managed to scratch one of her eyes and she flew in a blind rage at the dome, which then cracked and collapsed, crushing her and untold numbers of rioters under the rubble. Dany — or whoever is running the show with her flying around willy-nilly on Drogon — would be wise to put Rhaegal and Viserion, her two smaller dragons, under heavy guard.

Also, there are whispers that the extinction of the dragons was helped along by nefarious means, perhaps via poisoning by the Maesters of the Citadel.

Dan asks, “How do you spread the Grayscale? Davos gave Princess Shireen a number of kisses, and Jorah and Daenerys had a little hand-holding session … so does everyone end up looking like an alligator?”

dany_jorah_hand

Probably by touch, but we don’t know everything. Shireen, though scarred by the disease, is no longer an active carrier, having survived a number of years with no further spread of the scale. I think it’s fair to assume that it takes at least direct contact with a sufferer’s scaly region to cause transmission, not contact with an unaffected limb or body part. Jorah is careful to offer Dany the hand that’s attached to the non-fucked-up arm and his rash is covered by his leather bracers. Is that enough? Probably. In the books, a character by the name of Jon Connington fraternizes with lots of people in close quarters while wearing gloves that hide a growing gray patch. None of his compatriots have, as of yet, come down with the disease.

Still, point taken. Jorah, stop touching people.

Aaron asks, “Why was Melisandre able to use leeches for king’s blood and kill three prominent figures last time and this time she needed someone burned at the stake?”

Who said the leeches really worked? Robb died at the Red Wedding, the result of a long and convoluted assassination plot involving the Lannisters, Freys, and Boltons; Joffrey died by poison at the hands of the Tyrells and Littlefinger. There’s no clear causality there. Seems downright coincidental, if you ask me. I think it’s fair to wonder if Melisandre overrepresents her blood magic abilities.

Jared asks, “Last week and last night we saw Wun Wun smashing ice zombies right and left. We also saw some attack the Wall in Season 4. Where are the rest of the giants at?”

Dead, most likely. I’m pretty sure Wun Wun is the last of his kind.

Eric asks, “Why do the Wildlings and Night’s Watch returning from Hardhome have to go through the gates at Castle Black?  They were on ships and Castle Black is far inland, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to sail directly to East Watch by Sea?”

It’s a great question. I imagine the best answer, setting thousands of wildlings loose behind the Wall, is greatly troubling to lots of people. If you bring them through the gate, you can at least take a census, count the fighters, count the children, and see who has weapons and how many. It’s a controlled entry, rather than just a free-for-all, pun not intended. In the books, Jon’s wildling relocation plan calls for the Free Folk to surrender their valuables on the way in, as a kind of toll. Armbands of gold and metal, weird skulls, rare furs — Jon has the Watch collect whatever the wildlings have as a hedge against starvation, just in case they have to buy food.

Scene of the Week: A Taxonomy of Dany Looking Emotional in the Presence of Her Dragons

hotmeatflesh

Hot Meat Flesh.

gooddog

Good Dog, Bring It Here. Bring It Here.

atthevets

At the Vet.

spinesthighs

How Am I Remaining So Calm With All These Dragon Spines Spearing My Thighs?