George RR Martin is, consciously or unconsciously, playing a game of values when he tells the story of Daenerys Targaryen, since she is depicted as advocating for the values of a true modern Leftist.
‘They can live in my new world, or they can die in their old one.’
— Daenerys Targaryen
George RR Martin’s fantasy epos A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) – also known as Game of Thrones in the televised version – is one of the most Right-wing works of literature written in the modern day. It is typical of the story that, of those characters who can be perceived as having higher motives in some form, most of them are on the Right rather than on the Left. Of course, there is a degree to which many of the characters who appear over the course of the story are quite base, and driven by greed, fear, anger, and so on. But quite many of the characters actually belong to a sphere of higher values.
We can take for the purposes of illustration the example of Ned Stark. Ned is the head of the Stark family, one of the ruling houses in Westeros, the fictitious kingdom in which most of the story takes place. More than anything else, Ned is characterised by his strong sense of honour and duty; a sense that, in the end, is stronger than his will for life. We can also take the example of Oberyn Martell, who I have written of in my essay ‘The Ecstasy of Vengeance’, and his obsession with exacting vengeance for the murder of his sister and her children. It ends up being an obsession that drives him to risk his life in order to avenge the murdered daughters of House Martell.
Many more examples could be given, but these two are enough to illustrate the type of motives that are typical of the characters who are featured in ASOIAF. These characters fights for honour, glory, vengeance, or power. They fight for themselves, or for their house, or for their lord, or for their kingdom. Perhaps they fight for personal honour, or to avenge a crime committed against their house, or out of loyalty to their lord or king, or even to preserve the balance of power within the realm. What they don’t fight for, however, are things like equality, markets, diversity, tolerance, or any other such values for which the radical ideologues of the modern day would have people fight.
The characters of ASOIAF are, if they happen to have any values at all, conservative, nationalist, reactionary, primal, and very untimely in general. There is one notable exception, and this exception is Daenerys Targaryen. The remarkable thing about Daenerys is that she is a Leftist who finds herself in a reactionary world. Of all the characters in this story, she is the only one who fights for equality and freedom, and the only one who can be described as a proponent of radical ideologies. One can therefore presume that she would be portrayed as a genuine heroine, but actually she is not. In fact, she is portrayed as being just as cruel as a Trotsky or a Lenin.
Daenerys is one of the most powerful characters in the story, and her trajectory depicts her evolving from a frightened girl to a powerful political leader. In the story, House Targaryen once ruled Westeros but was dethroned after an insurrection from within the ranks of the nobility against Daenerys’ father, Aerys, who was also known as the ‘mad king’. House Targaryen was crushed, and Daenerys and her brother Viserys were forced to flee for their lives to Essos, the continent that lies next to Westeros. The Targaryens had once deployed dragons in their service, and since then House Targaryen has always had a special relationship with dragons. Important members of the Targaryen family are referred to as ‘the dragon’.
At the beginning of the story, it does not seem that Daenerys will become the dragon, because she is completely dominated by her vicious brother who bargains her away to a warlord in exchange for an army for retaking the kingdom of Westeros, which he perceives to be his by right. Daenerys is thus sold off to the violent warlord Drogo, who leads an army of Dothraki, a nomad people who live by horse and bow, pillaging and plundering, and who honour strength and despise weakness. One can compare this ‘marriage’ to a blue-blooded girl of European ancestry being married off to Genghis Khan.
This event is the tipping point of her life, and one can say that it is the first step she takes out of Hell and into Purgatory. Daenerys soon learns to use her female charms to manipulate Drogo, thus making her own existence more bearable until she actually gains a degree of influence as his khaleesi (similar to a queen). At one point Drogo is injured during a duel, which he fought in order to defend Daenerys’ honour, after she refused to let one of Drogo’s warriors have their way with the women as spoils in a conquered village following a successful raid. One of the women that Daenerys rescued offers to help Drogo, and she persuades Drogo into accepting her help even though he is reluctant.
Drogo should have listened to his gut feeling, because the healer happens to be a demon in disguise who poisons him in order to avenge the destruction of her village. In the end, Drogo dies, and Daenerys loses the life she had previously enjoyed as his khaleesi. When Drogo’s funeral pyre is built and his body is about to be burned, Daenerys decides to join him in the flames and follow him into the next world, as per the Dothraki custom. She walks into the roaring fire, and brings with her three dragon eggs that she had received on her wedding day as a gift. This is a truly amazing scene, especially in the television serial, where one can actually see it happening.
When the flames die out, Daenerys walks out of the ashes completely untouched, and with three baby dragons around her. It is necessary to view this scene in symbolic terms, because this is when all of her old life is burned away. She undergoes catharsis, to use Aristotle’s term, and thus purges herself of her former weakness. She becomes who she really is: the dragon. As is only fitting, she sets out to reclaim the kingdom of her House, Westeros, with the clear intent of destroying all those who once did harm to it. Westeros is to be taken back and thus submit to the rule of the Targaryens once again, with fire and blood if necessary.
At least, this is the ambition that the typical character of the ASOIAF world would have; a primal desire to take back the kingdom of one’s fathers. Daenerys, however, soon sets this ambition aside in order to pursue other objectives. This is because, at heart, Daenerys is a Leftist, and it soon becomes clear that taking back the kingdom of her fathers is of little interest to her when compared to her new-found goal of freeing the oppressed. The quest to free the oppressed becomes the next step in her trajectory, as she comes to the region that is known as ‘Slavers’ Bay’.
Two things happens at this point in the story. First, Daenerys begins her quest to free the slaves of Slavers’ Bay and cracks down on the social order there, which had fundamentally relied upon slavery as a practice. Second, Daenerys becomes one of the most vicious and brutal characters in aan extensive gallery of vicious and brutal characters. It begins with Daenerys coming to the city of Astapor, a city that is run by slavers, where she receives an offer to purchase a large and skilled slave army consisting of the so-called ‘unsullied’. The unsullied are a strange type of warrior, having been castrated at boyhood and thereafter trained to unconditional obedience and superior fighting skills.
Daenerys offers to purchase the entire army of eight thousand such warriors, but she is unable to pay the price that is demanded by the slavers. Instead she offers them one of her dragons, and they are quick to accept. But it is all a ruse, and when she is handed the sceptre that gives her authority over the fearsome warriors, she betrays the slavers and orders her new army to kill every last one of them, an order they immediately follow. This is Daenerys’ first major deed in her struggle to free the oppressed, but not the last.
Just as memorable is her conquest of the city of Mereen, which is the hub for slave trade in the region. The masters of the city foresee that she will come to their city, and as a greeting they leave the body of a murdered slave at every mile she has to cross in order to reach the city. Daenerys takes the city by force, and after doing so she exacts her vengeance on the former elite of the city by having many of them killed and left along the road to Mereen, not caring if they had a hand in the earlier cruelties or not.
Daenerys makes a powerful statement at this point, and it is quoted at the beginning of this essay: ‘They can live in my new world, or they can die in their old one.’
At this point in the story, Daenerys has more or less forgotten about the revanchist ambitions that she once had and which was her initial motivation. It is interesting to note how her motives change throughout the story and how they soon take on an ideological form, becoming a war for liberation and equality. This is of course very atypical for ASOIAF, in which most characters fight merely to preserve their privileges or to gain new ones. Daenerys is the only character who actually fights to break down the social order, and is prepared to kill those who oppose her ideological ambitions. All the slaves are freed, and most of those who once owned slaves are killed off by those who were formerly their property. The depiction of the misery that Daenerys’ ambitions create is actually stronger in the books than in the series. In the books, the entire region breaks down in civil war because of Daenerys’ attempts to establish her new world upon the ruins of the old one. The politics of revolution are truly imposed with fire and blood in this reactionary and hierarchical world.
The interesting thing here is that Daenerys – despite her being perhaps the only one of the major characters with a modern mindset – is not really glorified. Rather, she is depicted as cruel, treacherous, fanatical, and hard to reason with. There is a remarkable scene in which she is told about a rebellion by the remnants of the old regime in one of the cities which she now controls, and her first impulse is to send her troops there with orders to kill everyone who can be tied to the old rulers. She is, in the end, swayed by one of her more sensible advisors to choose a more peaceful and pragmatic solution.
George RR Martin is, consciously or unconsciously, playing a game of values when he tells the story of Daenerys Targaryen, since she is depicted as advocating for the values of a true modern Leftist: equality, a will to liberate the oppressed, the ambition to destroy the old order, and a vision of universal brother- and sisterhood. At the same time, she is depicted as having the character of a Lenin or a Trotsky: vicious, treacherous, fanatical, and basically not very nice. There is thus a deconstructive element to this story, because it depicts the values of the modern and enlightened mind as being enforced by a true dragon being unleashed upon the world.