Saturday, December 21, 2013

AGOT Commentary: Daenerys I

Daenerys I

Character: I thought for a while that I didn’t like Daenerys. Then I realized my dislike started after A Clash of Kings, which I think did her a big disservice. It wasn’t so much that I disliked her, but the way her plotline was being handled. When I first read A Game of Thrones, I did enjoy her chapters. She wasn’t my favorite character, but I didn’t hate her, either. She was certainly the character with the most effectively drawn arc. No wonder Martin could afford to grab her chapters and publish them as a separate book. He did a great job charting her rise from powerless orphan to claimant queen. It’s a staple of fantasy, but I do believe Martin gives it his own spin.

You can draw some parallels between Daenerys and Jon Snow. The vagaries of her life demanded that she become observant, a realist, mistrustful. When she’s being dressed by Illyrio’s servants, the younger girl remarks that Khal Drogo is so rich that even his slaves wear golden collars. Later when she does see a slave, she notices he’s wearing an ordinary bronze collar. She knows better than to take everything at face value, and is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.   

Perception is not synonymous with courage, though. Nor does it give Daenerys the impetus to alter her place in the world. After all, unlike Jon, her only source of containment is her brother Viserys, her polar opposite. While Daenerys has no compunctions against admitting she never felt like a princess, Viserys can’t imagine himself as anything other than a prince. He can’t grasp that he’s lost the kingdom of his forefathers, that he doesn’t have what it takes to win the throne, and that he’s being used by the people he thinks are his friends. His inability to adapt dooms him from the start.  

Viserys has no real control over anything except Daenerys, and he doesn’t have the initiative to remedy that. He thinks the Dothraki will win the Seven Kingdoms for him, but he doesn’t even know the basic fact that Dothraki don’t like sailing, and I’m sure Illyrio didn’t bother filling him in. Viserys takes him at his word because a) he doesn’t have a choice and b) he gets to play the part of king-in-exile hearing news from a trusted loyalist. Anything and anyone that lets him live out his fantasy is a welcome remedy to his beaten-up self-esteem.

Daenerys is a frightened little girl, and what she wants most is for the fear to stop. She longs for the few havens she’s known in life, but more than anything, she yearns for anonymity. She would love nothing better than to lose herself amid the raggle-taggle children in the streets, to not be a part of Viserys’ plan, and who can blame her? But she’s been too long under Viserys’ thumb to imagine something else. And when an alternative is given to her (marriage to Khal Drogo), the cure seems worse than the disease.

Plot: As far as making the story work and creating the most conflict, the key development in this chapter is our new perspective on Robert’s Rebellion. We’re fresh off Catelyn’s viewpoint, where Ned, Robert, and their whole gang are implied to be heroes for deposing Aerys II. Now the tables are turned on us by seeing two victims of that power shift.

Not only is Daenerys’ account of the Rebellion more gruesome, it’s also more detailed and poignant. In Catelyn’s memories there’s no indication of Rhaegar Targaryen dying for the woman he loved, the sack of King’s Landing, or the murder of a baby before the eyes of his mother. Dany is definitely an unreliable narrator, as she herself admits since the backbone of her knowledge stems from Viserys’ perspective. The reader cannot tell right away how much of the story is true, but it helps Dany’s telling that she provides many more details than Catelyn and that her plight is disturbing enough to elicit some sympathy. And since history is always written by the victors, it also makes sense to suspect our heroes’ version of Robert’s Rebellion. This dissonance will stay with the reader for a good chunk of this book and make occasional appearances in future volumes.

Setting: New scenery, including different cultures. More of Westeros is revealed here, though only in the shape of mere names. The Unsullied, the red priests, and the Lord of Light are other new elements that’ll impact the story down the road. The same goes for the Free Cities scattered here and there from beginning to end. Doesn’t make them any less valuable, though.

I do think the subject of slavery bears mentioning, though. I find it riveting that although slavery is illegal in Pentos, the institution is alive and well. This facetiousness will stay with Dany and guide her anti-slavery crusade later in the saga. More than that, I like how Martin has handled the theme of slavery in his books, not shying away from its cruelty, but also not turning the series into a diatribe against it. The widespread acceptance of slavery being an affront to morality is extremely recent in Western history, and works of fiction like this allows the modern reader to see why the institution endured for so long
(and why it still exists in some quarters of the world, openly or otherwise).

Conclusion: I find Viserys and Daenerys to be refreshingly complex characters, and a good indication of Martin’s capabilities. Arguably Viserys is too damaged psychologically to make for much of a morally complex character, but the account of his deteriorating sanity does translate into a powerful and compelling read. It’d be most rewarding to read one day a more in depth story of Viserys growing up between the fall of Dragonstone and his arrival in Pentos, although I probably shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Featuring Daenerys as a terrified girl with no direction home and almost no strengths save for her awareness is an intriguing choice, one that abounds in promise as it steers away from most archetypes. A real triumph.               


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