For those of you that don’t know, Daenerys is one of the main characters in George RR Martin’s phenomenally successful series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Set (mostly) in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, the plot of the series revolves around various unscrupulous noble families betraying each other and chopping each other’s heads off to see who gets to sit the Iron Throne and rule the kingdom. Daenerys is one of these nobles, and her arc of the story revolves around trying to get back to Westeros, punish the people who exiled and killed her and her family, and become Queen. The books are extremely popular – spawning endless fan theories, Halloween costumes and a sexed-up HBO adaptation – and Daenerys herself has been widely hailed as one of the most interesting characters in modern fiction.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: This recap will only cover Daenerys’s character up to the end of A Dance with Dragons and Game of Thrones season 5.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
The question of whether Daenerys is truly in control of her own life is a very interesting one, mainly due to her family position. Daenerys is one of the last living descendants of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, who was deposed before the series begins. She had her brother fled into exile, spent several years running from the various bounty hunters looking to sell them to the new king, and trying to raise money to mount an invasion of Westeros. As such, Daenerys was brought up to believe that the Targaryen claim to the throne was the rightful one, and she was raised with the expectation that she would do everything in her power to make sure that a Targaryen bum would be sitting on the Iron Throne.
At the beginning of the series she has very little power, and this is mainly because she’s under the thumb of her bullying older brother. Once he’s killed, she becomes the last living Targaryen, and starts taking steps to raise an army and head back to conquer Westeros. You might think that this would mean she’d breeze through this question with no problems, but that’s not the case. Daenerys is very aware that she has other goals that she will never be able to pursue, thanks to her Targaryen heritage. She frequently expresses a wish to go back to the house with the red door, where she grew up, or to live as a normal woman with the men she loves.
Daenerys does want to be queen, but her desire to do so is tangled up with her status as the last living Targaryen. Given her upbringing, she feels as if pursuing the Iron Throne is the only option open to her – she owes it to her murdered family to take back what was theirs. She’s fully aware that because of this status, she’s constantly going to be the target of various assassins, and even if she tried to live a normal life it’s unlikely she would be allowed to live. She’s a very active character who does her best to shape her own destiny, but more often than not she’s stymied by forces much larger than she is – including her own heritage. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t see much of Dany’s hobbies – we hear a lot more about the pastimes she doesn’t enjoy, such as watching the gladiator contests in the fighting pits of Meereen. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. What drives Dany through the story is her conviction that she deserves to sit on the Iron Throne; as I’ve already discussed, this is a result of her upbringing and family position, although she does have quite a knack for leadership. She also believes in being a firm and just ruler, trying her best to govern her people in a morally sound way. However, her definition of being a morally sound ruler is very different to that of the people she conquers. This influences her goals again in the last book, where she attempts to rule the city of Meereen and must negotiate her way through the ensuing culture clash. Her overarching goal remains consistent, but her beliefs and smaller goals are often influenced by her circumstances.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Dany is largely consistent. She’s confident, driven, compassionate, can be arrogant, has the capacity to be ruthless to her enemies, and often finds herself torn between doing her duty and following her heart. She almost always ends up choosing her duty, despite the personal losses this can bring her, but tries not to dwell on this.
Daenerys also has a natural knack for leadership and command. She takes to conquering very easily and soon establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with. She’s also the only person in Westeros who can hatch dragons – and the only person who can ride them. As she knows absolutely nothing about dragons when they first hatch, she has to learn very quickly and make things up on the fly – but she manages very well, despite a few bumpy patches along the way.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A strong, driven young queen with a strong sense of justice trying to take her rightful place on the throne.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Daenerys’s love life is a bit of a tricky question, so bear with me here.
Daenerys was raised in a very patriarchal society. Growing up with her bullying older brother, the expectation was that she would not be the one to sit the Iron Throne – he would. Daenerys’s role in securing the Targaryen dynasty was initially seen as someone who could be used to make an advantageous marriage – and this is precisely what happens in the first book, when at the age of thirteen, she is married to the thirty-year-old Khal Drogo in exchange for the support of his massive army.
Even though Daenerys tries to cast off these expectations, earning the respect of many who want to see her on the throne, they never truly leave her. Most people expect her to make a good political marriage in order to secure support for her claim to the throne – and Daenerys knows that this is something she will have to do in order to continue the Targaryen dynasty. Who Daenerys is going to end up with forms a substantial part of the conflict in her storyline, as she’s constantly bombarded with proposals from dudes who only want her for her dragons.
That said, Dany spends most of the books trying to avoid getting married. She knows she’ll eventually have to, and she does, but most of the decisions she makes are not focused around this. She’s much more motivated by her desire to govern her city well, to abolish slavery, to lead her people to safety, to raise her dragons well and of course, to take back the Iron Throne. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Dany goes through all kinds of development over the course of the series. In the first book, she goes from being a victimised child to a strong, confident young woman. In the second and third books, she builds up her army, leading them across Essos and cutting her teeth on her first taste of power. In the latest book, she learns about the difficulties of balancing expectations as a ruler, and comes to understand that governing a city well is much more complicated than conquering it and moving on. She gets impatient, gets arrogant, and even starts becoming a bit more bloodthirsty as she starts losing control of the city. That’s some strong development in all the books, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she have a weakness?
Dany has a few weaknesses that hold her back over the course of the series. One of her main problems as a ruler is her youth and inexperience – but this is a fairly normal weakness for a teenage girl to have, so I’m not counting that. A much more serious weakness is her insistence that she knows best. She can be very stubborn, and has a tendency to impose her moral code on other people. When she tries to rule Meereen this causes serious problems for her, as her moral code clashes with the local culture and she doesn’t always listen to the people who are trying to ease this tension.
She also struggles with the traditional ‘Targaryen madness’. While she is sane through most of the story, she has a tendency to get quite bloodthirsty (especially when things aren’t progressing in the way she would like) and struggles with the temptation to just get on her dragon and unleash hell. This is something that runs in the family – and that she has trouble accepting was true of her own father – and may be the start of more serious mental instability in Dany. The temptation to give in and kill everyone isn’t something that we usually see in female characters, so I’ll give her the full point in case she sets her dragons on me.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Much like Sansa Stark, Dany is one of those characters who can influence the plot simply by being in it – as the last living Targaryen, people are always going to be seeking her out for their own devices. However, this isn’t the case with Dany. She makes the decision to lead her people across the Red Waste, to sack Astapor and conquer Meereen, and to pursue her ultimate goal of becoming queen rather than selling all her stuff and setting up in a nice house somewhere.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
When you look at her character in total isolation, it’s very easy to see Dany as quite a progressive character. She grows from being a meek, obedient child to a strong, confident ruler. She makes difficult decisions, negotiates political settlements, and plans battle strategies – and she’s very good at all these things. She’s also sterile, but doesn’t dwell on this – she quietly gets on with her life despite what this will eventually mean for her plans to re-start the Targaryen dynasty. This is hardly something that you would normally associate with a teenage girl – and in fact, something that’s rarely depicted in fiction at all.
However, where things get tricky is when you start to look at her relationships. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Dany is constantly described as the most beautiful woman in the world (despite how unlikely it is that she skipped the spotty teenage phase the rest of us had to go through). She’s placed on a pedestal by many of the other characters, and certainly for some of them, her beauty is far more important than any of her other good points. As such, she’s inundated with offers of marriage on all sides – but she herself tends to prefer the bad boy types, even when she knows (and admits) that they’re no good for her.
But by far her most problematic relationship is with her first husband, Khal Drogo. First off: when they marry, she is thirteen and he is thirty, which is gross. It’s common knowledge that A Song of Ice and Fire is loosely based on Medieval Europe, which most people tend to use as an explanation for just how young all its characters are – and, in Dany’s case, her young age when she’s first married. However, this actually isn’t true: it was pretty rare for people to marry that young (most marriages took place roundabout the late teens for the aristocracy, and in the twenties for everyone else) and such an age gap wasn’t exactly common. Dany’s marriage is a political one – she’s essentially sold off to a man over twice her age.
It gets worse. In the books, Dany’s wedding night is pretty dodgy. Daenerys and Drogo do not speak the same language, and she fully expects that he will violently rape her. He doesn’t – establishing that she consents and trying to be gentle with her – but there’s no getting away from the fact that here is a grown man seducing a child. Because of their age difference, this is statutory rape. In the show, it’s even worse – even though Dany is a little older, she’s still established to be a teenage girl, and Drogo violently rapes her and she cries through the whole experience. After the wedding night he continues to rape her, and she has to essentially persuade him not to do so by seducing him, which is a frankly squicky kind of logic that I could do without.
In both the show and the books, Daenerys’s marriage to Drogo is presented as a sweeping, epic romance cut short before its time. Her marriage allows her to break free of her brother’s hold over her and grow into a more confident person, and Dany outright says in the books that Drogo made a queen of her. However, this all ignores the fact that in both the books and the show, the relationship is abusive. She is a child and he is an adult – she cannot consent to anything he does, so in both versions of the story their relationship is effectly statutory rape. She starts out being afraid of him, and this gradually turns to love. In the show he repeatedly rapes her, even while she cries – when she decides to seduce him (only so he’ll stop hurting her, I might add) they fall in love, despite everything that he has done to her.
The upshot of all this is that a problematic and, at times, abusive relationship is romanticised for both the viewers and the readers. It must be said that the HBO adaptation is by far the more guilty party here – the book version of Khal Drogo never rapes his wife – but nevertheless it carries all sorts of unfortunate implications about age, abuse and love. Essentially, what their marriage really says is that the love of a good woman can ‘civilise’ even the most brutal and barbaric man – which has all sorts of unfortunate racial implications as well as gendered. Dany’s personality redeems her from completely failing this part of my test, as her marriage isn’t the defining aspect of her character, but she can’t completely pass it, either.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Dany doesn’t have that many relationships with other female characters – and those she does relate to are often all in the same mould. She spends a lot of time with her handmaidens – Irri, Jhiqui and Doreah – but doesn’t really relate to them in any meaningful way. They don’t really become anything more than her servants – apart from on one occasion when she takes one of them to bed with her. I will admit, I don’t really know what to make of this, as while it would add a whole other layer to her character if Daenerys was bisexual, both before and after she sleeps with her servant girl she expresses no interest in women. This isn’t limited to her character, either – Cersei Lannister also takes another woman to bed despite not having expressed much interest in doing so before or after she does so. In both characters’ cases, the description seems to imply that taking female lovers is all tied up with their expressions of power – which is a really interesting way of looking at it – but a much more cynical part of me can’t help but wonder if George RR Martin didn’t include those scenes because he thought it’d be sexy.
She also becomes friends with the freedwoman, Missandei. In the books, Missandei is a young girl, who serves as Daenerys’s translator and cultural attaché. In the show, Missandei is a young woman, and the two have a much more friendly relationship, discussing things outside of their political roles and on a more equal footing. However, Missandei is still Dany’s servant – in both the books and the show – and that undercurrent of deference is never really lost. Most of her relationships with other women take this tone, so I’ll give her half a point for quantity, if not quality.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Daenerys is a determined, driven young woman who’s secure in her own beliefs, has a range of strengths and weaknesses, develops over the course of the story and is consistent in both her personality and skills. She may struggle with total control over her own destiny, as well as her problematic love life, but she’s still a real influence on the plot. She may be a controversial character for some, but she’s certainly a very well-written one – she’s passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite characters – but perhaps someone who might have been better suited to last month. Morticia Addams, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.