There is a Khan’s daughter,
Who steps on in a swinging manner,
And has the marks of twenty tigers…
When Aegon Taragaryen swept through Westeros with his sister-wives, Rhaenys and Visenya, he did so with a vision—that of a unified Westeros, rather than seven kingdoms of shifting alliances, under one king. He succeeded, with the exception of Dorne, but the Dragon’s Peace didn’t last, ruined by his sons, Aenys and Maegor, the first for lack of will, the second the exact opposite. Both left behind a kingdom in rebellion that never matched the glory of its founder’s era—though it’s also said that in the last twenty years of his rule, Aegon was somewhat of a recluse, leaving the reins of governance to his sisters.
Chengis Khan too had a vision for his empire—that of a Great Khan and a centralized authority ruling from and chosen in the steppe, according to Mongol tradition. His four sons, Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui, fractured Chengis’ succession, and divided the empire into separate khanates that would never reunite, as the four brothers were more interested in bickering over titles and drinking than in truly ruling. Lacking in sisters, Chengis relied instead on his four daughters Checheyegin, Alaqai Beki, Al-Atun Beki and Tolai to rule over early conquered nations in his stead.
Chengis’ life was shaped by women, by his wife Borte and his mother Hoelun. He had gone to war for Borte, in defiance of all tradition, and he strived to balance the Mountain and the River—the male and female elements that, when combined, formed the strongest bond under the blue sky according to Mongolian spiritual belief.
His sons and their partners unmade this within a generation.
Yet the rebirth of Chengis’ line is certainly due to a woman, and so is that of the Targaryen dynasty.
Game of Thrones is not without its Mongol references and inspirations. George R.R. Martin wrote the Dothraki as a composite of nomadic peoples from the Asian steppe to North America, including the Mongols. They provide, after all, the go-to image (if a caricature) of unstoppable hordes of Eastern barbarians on horseback.
Several elements of Dothraki culture mimic the Mongol and Gokturk of the steppe. The Turkic people had Khans, the Dothraki have Khals. The city of Vaes Dothrak stands as Karakorum once did, where the Dothraki hold their version of Kurultai, the Khalar Vezhven. The Dothraki don’t shed blood in their sacred city, reminiscent of the prohibition against the spilling of blood before Tengri. And of course, a Khal who can’t ride is no Khal.
But beyond the worldbuilding of A Song of Ice and Fire, symbolically of course, there is more that ties Game of Thrones together with the history of the Mongols, especially in the stories of its queens, and that of the Queen, Daenerys Stormborn.
We will take a deeper look at the connections and affinities reverberating between history and fiction, but can also learn from the story of one of the many figures swept along in Daenerys’ wake.
It is true of the Ulus Mongol as it is of everything, that men of little value make the histories while greater men go forgotten. It is true of Game of Thrones just as well.
Among the series’ many truncated story lines, the story of Daario Naharis strikes me as one of the most tragic but also most beautiful. I wonder how the young slave boy from Essos—raised to a life of servitude and violence and who, through a twist of fate like no other, found himself lover and killer for the greatest queen who ever lived—ended his days.
We know what happened after the great hopes of the Mongol empire faded into disunity. Left behind by a queen who would never return to carry the burden of her legacy, what might we learn from the eventual fate of Daario Naharis?
Look for a moment beyond the swagger and see the pain beneath. Take a good look at Daario… Used his whole life for the entertainment of others. Used by the woman he loved as a stud and blade, and yes, Daario sold himself cheap but why wouldn’t he? Cheap is what he was.
…Who steps on in a graceful manner,
And has the marks of thirty tigers…
When Esen Khan (Esen Taishi) attempted to purge the Borijin, his grandmother Samur spirited away and raised a young boy in secrecy; this was Esen’s nephew: Bayan Mongke, the last descendant of Chengis with a true claim to the Mongol throne. Hidden throughout his life, he found himself propelled into the role of Golden Prince by his uncle, the puppet Khan, Manduul.
A boisterous teenager, Bayan Mongke took to the title and the honors. His skills, looks, and charisma all helped with the trick of feigning natural leadership, but Bayan Mongke was not a Khan—he looked like one, and that was not enough. He died in an unmarked location in the Gobi Desert, murdered, after attempting but failing to reunite the horde.
In A Game of Thrones, Viserys Targaryen bemoans his fate to Jorah Mormont, the weight of the greatest dynasty that ever lived borne on the shoulders of a young boy. Hidden among friends and allies, always a knife’s throw ahead of the next killer. Spirited away and raised in secrecy as a rebel attempted to extinguish his family line.
Viserys, like Bayan, was no king. The Dothraki khal, Drogo, made sure he knew this to be true before the end. Like Bayan’s Borijin braggadocio, Viserys embodied all the bravado of the Targaryen dynasty—the name, the claim, but none of the fire. That fire was instead the birthright of his sister. Viserys acted with all the arrogance of leadership and tried to reclaim his birthright but died forgotten, despised even by those who might have loved him.
Viserys would never reclaim the Iron Throne, but his sister Daenerys Stormborn would. Bayan never restored the glory of the Mongol empire, but his aunt by marriage, Manduhai Khatun did.
In many ways, the attempted purge of the Targaryen dynasty was a blessing in disguise for Daenerys, who otherwise would have (at best) been destined for the life of sister-wife to Viserys. Never to lead, never to rule, forgotten from the histories of the greatest dynasty the world had ever known.
It would have been unimaginable to erase Visenya and Rhaenys Targaryen, Aegon’s sister-wives, from the histories. Women without whom Aegon could not have conquered Westeros, their symbolic value is too grand…but generations later, the legacy of female Targaryens had dwindled, and Daenerys is seen as merely an attractive pawn to be sold to the highest bidder, as happened eventually to the Borijin princesses.
Both Daenerys and Manduhai found themselves married to a Khal and a Khan respectively. Both lost their husbands, and against all odds, both rose back up from the most desolate of ashes to restore their name and people to greatness.
…who steps on in an elegant manner,
And has the marks of forty tigers…
She wasn’t a Borijin, but she captured the spirit of the Great Khan in ways no other ruler had in two hundred years.
She was not the first woman to run the empire; Toregene Khatun had ruled as regent after Ogedei’s passing and is presumed to be responsible for the better decisions attributed to her husband. She was a concubine and not a Mongol, yet she ruled. Sorghakhatani ruled as regent after the passing of Guyuk Khan, Torgene’s son. She’s was Tolui’s wife and not a Mongol either yet she also ruled. Her most famous son was Kublai.
So was it for Manduhai, married to Manduul, a puppet Khan of Islamized Mongol warlords. When he died she could have easily become the wife of another important man, or another prize of Mongol submission to the warlords, and she almost did—but instead, she ruled.
Bayan Mongke was never to be Khan but his son would be, the sickly Batu Mongke, whom his father had ignored and who had been raised in secrecy.
Manduhai restored the Mongol’s spiritual connection to the Earth Mother. She married and nurtured Batu Mongke into Dayan Khan and reconquered the Mongol territories of the northern steppe and south of the Gobi desert, leading her armies through battle even while pregnant with twins.
She brought dignity back to a people who seemed to have lost all sense of direction, and launched a dynasty that culminated in the 4th Dalai Lama, and whose power lasted in Mongolia well into the twentieth century.
In the same spirit that Temujin had sought to transform the culture of Mongol leadership and forge an empire based on meritocracy, so did Manduhai restore the disunited Mongols. Chengis had dissolved clan divisions and replaced them with a unified Mongolia. Manduhai dissolved the separate Borijin lines and molded them into one.
Daenerys too was the Daughter of the Dragon. Not simply a Targaryen (after all, Jon Snow was a Targaryen too). Daenerys was the Dragon. The Unburnt.
This could have easily gone unnoticed. A murmur among the Khalasar of an odd-looking Khaleesi whom heat couldn’t touch, and perhaps dismissed as superstition based on her pale, otherworldly looks. She might have died always sensing that she was meant for more, but never learning how or why, nor the full extent of her thwarted destiny.
Where Manduhai rescued Batu Mongke and nurtured him as he grew from a frail boy to a Khan, so did the Mother of Dragons foster spawn of her own. Just as Manduhai had carried the infant khan in a basket on her horse, by her side even into battle, Daenerys carried her baby dragons in a basket on horseback. Batu Mongke was not Manduhai’s son, neither were the dragons truly Daenerys’ offspring, but these proved to be the longest and deepest relationships of their respective lives.
Like Chengis and Manduhai after him, Daenerys wished to break the wheel, to shatter the shackles of tyranny and inequality that corrupted the world she knew and that had destroyed her family. Her destiny would be to lead the Dothraki. Rising, at the passing of Khal Drogo, from a small band of scared and confused nomads, pushed from the steppe and into the desert into the greatest force that would sweep the world, if only for a time.
In a way she succeeded, and in a way she did not. How long her legacy lasted over The Bay of Dragons, the former Slaver’s Bay would depend on the man she left to rule in her stead, Daario Naharis. In Westeros her passing left a legacy of early democracy, if only Brandon Stark would ever die. It had cost Daenerys her life, her wafer-thin faith in the people she had to trust after a life of being blown on the gales.
Unlike Manduhai, Daenerys compromised in political marriages. The first to Drogo was, at the start, none of her choosing. Another to Hizdhar zo Loraq proved a mistake. She abandoned Daario, a man who loved her unconditionally, for political opportunity. She placed her heart in Jon’s hands; he betrayed and killed her.
Unlike Queen Manduhai the Wise, who died revered as the mother of a nation reborn, Daenerys reminded the world of who the Targaryens were and died reviled in the process, her ideals slowly eroded by betrayal after betrayal until she ultimately became the tyrant she despised.
In many ways the collapse of the Targaryen dynasty echoes that of Chengis Khan’s. Many point to the Toluid Civil War between Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq Boke as the moment which finally broke the empire, allowing the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate to truly become independent. Kublai was never the Great Khan in truth, unable to influence or settle the internecine wars between his cousin and brother, leaving the seeds of disunity to grow.
In the same way, The Dance of Dragons, the Targaryen civil war, marked the beginning of the end for the descendants of Valyria, never to be restored to their former glory, their dragons—the mark of their power, culture, mode of conquest, and very identity—shrinking with each generation as madness slowly destroyed their ruling scions. In the end two children were left, and it is sheer luck that anything was left at all—but the flame never died.
As anthropologist Jack Weatherford puts it in The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: “Like Genghis Khan, Manduhai recognized that a nation conquered on horseback had to be ruled from horseback.” That wisdom distinguishes Manduhai from Daenerys. Manduhai recognized the source of Mongol strength, while Daenerys, swayed by advisors, never truly embraced what made her a Targaryen: the wrath of her mighty dragons.
It is not for lack of intuition or effort: Daenerys’ instinct was always to burn. What and whomever she could burn, she did. She threatened to burn Qarth, she would have burned the rebellious cities of Slaver’s Bay if she could have, and perhaps she should have. Yes, her legacy would have been different, but would have any of the freed slaves cared? Certainly the histories would have rendered an appropriately subjective view of her slaughters. Perhaps if she had followed her impulse she would have reached Westeros much more quickly and less frayed, less damaged.
While her slaughter at King’s Landing is seen as an act of madness, is it so hard to understand? Would you have acted differently in the moment, the rage of magical beings roaring through you, your outlets frustrated at every turn by advisers who would betray you over and again? Alone. Unloved in a land that was yours in heart, but also alien and hostile.
Daario was the only one who understood the true flame within Daenerys, and just as a Khan who can’t ride is no Khan, told her “a dragon queen with no dragons is not a queen”.
She let fearful men who thought they knew better think for her—men who, in the way of arrogance, confused their own interests for hers, and never recognized her true glory.
…who steps on in a delicate manner,
And has the marks of fifty tigers.
Heartbreak doesn’t bode well for men already rendered broken and cynical by a life that only seems to shine brightest for the worst.
It is somewhat of an understatement that Chengis and his male progeny had a penchant for fermented beverages. But loss has always aggravated it among the Khans—first with Ogodei at the passing of his favored son Khochu in China, but also Kublai Khan, at the rapid passing of his son Jingam and then, the final nail in the coffin—the passing of his wife, Chabi.
Chabi, by all accounts, was more than a wife to Kublai. She was his closest friend and confidant. Kublai was never the same after she passed, sinking to the bottom of his cup, into isolation and depression. Depending more and more on corrupt advisers, his descendants increasingly lacking in strength and ability with each passing generation.
For all his faults, Daario Naharis was not the worst. Far from it. Daario who fought for beauty, who had given all of himself to Daenerys and never asked for anything in return. As he said himself, he was not proud. He didn’t care if she married other men, bedded other men, as long as there was a small room for him in her heart, a space that said that she saw him, the bleeding young boy who had never known any trust, any friendship, any love beyond the adoration for his skill at killing men.
We do not know with any degree of certainty what may have happened to Daario after Daenerys left him to keep the peace in Meereen, abandoning the warrior to this unfamiliar, unwanted role. Did he rise to the occasion, restore order over the Bay of Dragons and perhaps found a dynasty of his own?
Daario was never a peacekeeper, never a ruler. A leader surely, a proven warrior undoubtedly…but when Daenerys departed, what had he left to fight for?
The torching of the slavers’ fleet by Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion would have left the cities of the Bay in need of restored order, which Daario would have done easily with the help of the Unsullied left behind. He would have kept them for Daenerys, sure that she would return someday. Perhaps peering into the west at dusk, hoping against hope for the shape of a dragon drawn against the setting sun.
But it wouldn’t last. The politics of Old Ghis cities run deep, as Meereen had proven. Millennia of enmity between the masters and the slaves does not make fertile ground for peace. Mossador had demonstrated that. The Ghiscari had ruled before Valyria was a dream in a dragon’s mind, and the deep cultural tides would prove hard to navigate to a man for whom diplomacy came as naturally as parley to a Dothraki.
While Daario may have maintained a loose grip on the bay, word of Daenerys’ death would reach him eventually, and what then? Would Daario wander into the smoldering remnants of Valyria to die among the Stone Men? Give in to the drink, and fight to an unremarkable end in the pits?
I don’t think so.
I think Daario would have left in the night, once the alcohol wore off, taking only his knives with him, no food and no water, making his way north, losing himself in the tall grasses of the Dothraki Sea among the ruins of cities long gone. He wouldn’t gallop—he would trot, fighting off the occasional hrakkar half-heartedly, wishing for death.
He would make his way at dusk—passing under the Horse Gate of Vaes Dothrak, the Mother of Mountains a darker shadow against the sky—to fall off his horse, exhausted and bruised, at the feet of the Dosh Khaleen now free to rule. Freed of the tyranny of the Khals by his Khaleesi, where her true legacy lay, not in the nostalgic corners of an empire never to be rebuilt, but as Manduhai in another universe, in the land where she had found her strength, in the heart of the steppe, and served.
- The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford, Crown; Illustrated edition (March 1, 2011)
- The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, Urgenge Onon, Routledge; 1st edition (December 1, 2011)
- The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, Igor de Rachewiltz, University of Wisconsin (2015)
- Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics, Jason Porath, HarperCollins (October 2016)
- Tough Mothers: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs, Jason Porath, HarperCollins (April 2018)
- Barbarians at the Wall: The First Nomadic Empire and the Making of China, John Man, Bantam Press (June 2019)
Mame Bougouma Diene is a Franco-Senegalese American humanitarian and the US/Francophone spokesperson for the African Speculative Fiction Society. You can find his work in Strange Horizons, Omenana, Fiyah! EscapePod, AfroSFv2 & V3, Dominion and others. He was nominated for two Nommo Awards and his debut collection Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night (Clash Books) was nominated for the 2019 Splatterpunk Award.