Wed
Jun 22 2011 6:30pm

The Dream of Dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire

[Note: Spoilers through all the published novels and stories are likely to creep in, so beware!]

The rise to power of the Freehold of Valyria some five thousand years ago, according to legend, involved a series of great wars against the Old Empire of Ghis. These titanic clashes—an echo of the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage over control of the Mediterranean—always ended in victory of Valyria. Why? Dragons. The Valyrians were the first (and, so far as we know, only) people in the world to tame dragons. Valyria’s Fourteen Flames, great volcanoes, may have been appealing to the dragons; they seem to have craved heat, and within the Fourteen Flames it’s said that wyrms that were related to dragons burrowed through solid stone. The Valyrians themselves would make claims to legendary descent from dragons, with the blood of dragons in their veins.

Whatever the reality, the dragons were complete game-changers for the balance of power in Essos. The fifth and final war with the Old Empire ended the Ghiscari pretensions, with the Valyrians allegedly razing Old Ghis to the ground and sowing its fields with salt, sulfur, and skulls (another echo of Rome’s destruction of Carthage and allegedly sowing its fields with salt). The might of the dragons was unstoppable, and it seems no one was able to successfully stand against them. When the Valyrians turned their eyes to the ancient and high civilization of the Rhoynar, Prince Garin the Great led an army of a quarter of a million men against Valyria... and it seemed their defeat was disastrous. When Nymeria fled to Dorne, the singers say her ten thousand ships were filled with women and children, suggesting all (or most) of the men of fighting age had died in the conflict with Valyria.

The dragons seemed unstoppable, and the Freehold appears to have established hegemony over much of Essos, or at least its western half. With their dragons to keep their conquests in check and to win wars in which they might gain more and more slaves, they mined great wealth from the Fourteen Flames, and it seems that mineral wealth was what the Valyrians most craved. Why, we’re not sure—perhaps to continue funding further expansion? Or perhaps it had a role in their sorcery? Who knows. Curiously, when they expanded west... they stopped at Dragonstone, it seems, and never seem to have tried to go further west despite the fabled wealth of Casterly Rock and its subjects, thanks to enormous deposits of gold and silver in the area. Another mystery, although we suspect that the Valyrians may have been somewhat guided by prophecies.

After the Doom, Valyria was shattered, and the Freehold was no more. The various Free Cities appear to have struggled for power, with Braavos—the “hidden city,” founded by runaway slaves and refugees in an out-of-the-way place that the Valyrians never found—eventually developing into a great sea power. The last dragons were on Dragonstone, that most westward outpost of the Freehold, and in control of them were the Targaryens. It seems, from the dating of when most Valyrian weapons in Westeros are said to have arrived, that the Targaryens may have bartered away reserves of such weapons to secure their place on Dragonstone during the chaotic period following the Doom. But they didn’t stir, for something like a century, even as the three great dragons grew very great indeed. Martin has stated at a past Worldcon that Aegon and his sisters were approached to join some sort of alliance to control the Free Cities, but he chose to go west instead of east.

The Field of Fire and Harrenhal were the two chief events of the conquest that made everyone else fall in line, more or less; he won four of the Seven Kingdoms with those two victories, and a fifth (the North) fell in line on the strength of them. The stormlands appear to have been conquered militarily and without the aid of the dragons, and we’re still not sure how the King of Mountain and Vale came to lose his crown... but then there was Dorne. Dorne, very notably, remained unconquered despite those dragons. The reason? Guerrilla warfare, to use the modern term; they learned the lessons that no one else noticed, namely that holing up in a castle or gathering in one big army for a set piece battle was manifestly not the way to deal with dragons. They made the Conqueror and his sisters bleed, until one way or another they gave up; we like to imagine that Aegon basically declared victory and turned around and went home, claiming to rule Dorne without really doing so, much as the English kings at one point claimed the crown of France.

The time after the Conqueror was not necessarily bloodless—Maegor the Cruel made sure of that—but the dragons were clearly very powerful persuaders, even though they began to grow less massive. It was a problem that puzzled maesters, who put forward the theory that dragons were meant to be beneath the sky rather than cooped up in cages or cells in the Dragonpit, however massive. The three great dragons died, one by one, in war (the Valyrian dragons having been bred for battle tended to die in them as well; otherwise, it’s claimed the dragons might well have lived forever) and their successors were smaller and smaller until the very last dragon was a sickly, stunted creature. Thanks to the Dance of the Dragons, in which brother fought sister and dragon fought dragon, the vast majority of them were wiped out. That last dragon would die in the reign of Aegon III Dragonbane, and some claim he had poisoned it because he had feared dragons ever since one ate his mother Rhaenyra in front of his eyes.

And here, after all that history, is where things get really interesting. Because the last dragon may have died, but the dream of dragons continued, and that dream has influenced the course of history. We’re told that a number of kings attempted to bring the dragons back, in one way or another. Aegon Dragonbane had nine mages cross the narrow sea to use their magics. Baelor the Blessed prayed over the eggs. Aegon the Unworthy built dragons out of iron and wood (why he would do that, we’ve no idea, but given his reputation he probably was up to no good). Aerion Brightflame drank wildfire in the belief that it would turn him into a dragon (it very effectively turned him into ashes). All to no avail. Dragons didn’t come that easily.

When Daemon Blackfyre rebelled, nearly bringing down the reign of his half-brother (or cousin, depending on who you believed) Daeron the Good, he sent a man by the name of Quickfinger to try and steal away some eggs from the Targaryens, perhaps to serve as a symbol... or perhaps to try and wake them himself, to prove once and for all that he was the true king. After him, his son Daemon II tried to gain an egg and hatch it, believing that his dreams prophesied that a dragon would be born if he did; his plot fizzled, but a dragon was born, in a way, in the form of a more mature and subtle young Prince Aegon Targaryen who would one day be king. As it happens, that particular dragon egg disappeared from Whitewalls, probably falling into the hands of the alleged-sorcerer called Bloodraven, a descendant of Aegon the Unworthy and at the time the Hand of the King. What became of that egg? Its description rather closely matches one of three eggs presented to a certain young Targaryen bride, on the day of her marriage to a certain Dothraki warlord....

Perhaps the most important of these past efforts to raise a dragon, in terms of its impact on the present timeline, was Summerhall. The palatial summer residence of the Targaryens, raised by Daeron the Good at the juncture of the Reach, the stormlands, and Dorne as a sign of the peace had brought about, is in the present time a burned-out ruin. “Summerhall” is a name full of tragic connotations in the Seven Kingdoms, all thanks to that dream of dragons. It seems Aegon V the Unlikely, that young Prince Aegon from years before, attempted to raise one or more dragons only for catastrophe to strike. Aegon died, and his son Prince Duncan the Small, and perhaps also the Lord Commander of his Kingsguard, Ser Duncan the Tall. Jenny of Oldstones, Prince Duncan’s lover or wife, became the subject of a sad song, dancing for her ghosts... and when the ruin came, a kind of dragon was born, the last dragon according to some: Prince Rhaegar.

Summerhall marked his birth, and it marked all of his days after that, leading him onto a path he thought was destined. “The dragon has three heads,” we see in a strange dream-vision, and that certainly seems to have pushed Rhaegar to name his children Aegon and Rhaenys, after two of the three Targaryen siblings who conquered Westeros. Of course, we know how all that ended (well, we mostly know; one part remains in question, but lets just say there’s a theory or two about that). Fire and blood was visited on House Targaryen, and all that was left was Viserys and Daenerys, fugitives. Viserys hatches his plans, Daenerys weds her khal, and at the end of that three new dragons are in the world. But as we see, having dragons alone doesn’t mean you can dictate the fate of the world: everyone wants them, and when they’re young, they’re not that dangerous. As they grow bigger, of course, they’ll become more of a threat... but how are they controlled? There’s a hint that they have an affinity for those with Valyrian blood, so that doubtless helps. Away on the Iron Islands, we’re introduced to a hell-horn which will allegedly control dragons (it rather reminds us of the horns used by the Melnibonians to rouse their sleeping dragons), but at some cost. Was that how the Valyrians did it? And if so, will Daenerys be coming across such a horn? Will she even need it?

So many questions. What we do know is that the latest novel, A Dance with Dragons, is probably going to be quite concerned with questions like these. It’ll be interesting to see what answers (and new questions, of course; it wouldn’t be an “A Song of Ice and Fire” novel without a few new questions in the mix) the novel will provide. The dream of dragons has shaped so much of the background history, it seems inevitable it’s going to shape as much of the present and future, but it seems fire and blood always travel in their wake.

Illustration © Mike S. Miller


Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. Westeros.org can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.

8 comments
King Krims
1. King Krims
Great write-up..

Keep up the good work both of you....
Claire de Trafford
2. ClairedeT
Questions, questions, questions. I hope that we do get some answers at least in DwD - we're all just going round in circles at the moment.
King Krims
3. Owners.Inc
I think the two of you have omitted the role the maesters played in stunting the dragons. It seems to me that the maester may have poisoned the dragons (or malnourished them) in order to root magic out from the world (and thereby increase their own importance). I believe this is mentioned in AFFC
King Krims
4. Chirurgie
Fantastic article. Very well written & great teaser to prepare for Dances with Dragons!
Adam Shaeffer
5. ashaef
These post have me even more eager for ADWD . . .
Gabriele Campbell
6. G-Campbell
Aegon basically declared victory and turned around and went home, claiming to rule Dorne without really doing so, much as the English kings at one point claimed the crown of France.

You can actually stick with the Roman examples for that. Germanicus, who was sent to repair Varus defeat without success, was granted a triumph for his victory over an assortment of German tribes he never conquered, and later Domitian would rename the military districts west of the Rhine as the provinces Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, but the land between Rhine and Elbe - Germania Magna - the Romans never ruled, no matter how many emperors added 'Germanicus' to their name. :)
King Krims
7. zep243
Elio/Linda:
What became of that egg? Its description rather closely matches one of three eggs presented to a certain young Targaryen bride, on the day of her marriage to a certain Dothraki warlord....
I reread TMK yesterday based on above quote, but I don't believe the description quite matches Dany's egg. To paraphrase an admittedly drunken Duncan (sorry) in TMK, the "prize" egg had a scarlet color that shone in the candlelight like fire and blood with whorls of black as a secondary color. There were two other eggs mentioned in TMK, owned by Egg (green and white mixed together) and Aemon (gold and silver with flecks of a fire color, I believe), neither of which match. (Though I did appreciate the symmetry and similarity between these and Dany's eggs.) I really wanted one or more of these eggs to match Dany's as it fits a theory I have of a certain spider and magister duo correctly interpreting a prophecy regarding Dany that everyone prior (including Rhaegar and probably Aegon) seems to have misread. I can elaborate my theory further, but maybe that's best for the ASOIAF forums.
King Krims
8. Scrimshaw
@6 G-Campbell

And prior to the German examples, Alexander the Great threw great victory celebrations for his conquest of India, a feat he never accomplished.

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