Brow Beat

History Has Some Bad News for Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen

Sorry, Dany.


So what now in Westeros? With Season 6 of Game of Thrones finished and a solid year to wait for Season 7, I got curious about whether Daenerys, sailing to Westeros at the head of an invasion fleet, has any chance to enact the social change she seems devoted to. Has any conqueror ever pulled off this kind of move in the real world? So I exchanged ravens—er, hopped on the phone—with Kevin Uhalde, an associate professor of history at Ohio University. Uhalde teaches early medieval history; he’s also a Game of Thrones fan. Spoilers abound, for Season 6 of Game of Thrones and also for the past 2,400 years of world history.

Slate: In terms of social structures, systems of governance, technology, and types of leaders, which era of human history does Westeros most resemble to you?

Kevin Uhalde: For historians it’s a real Rorschach test. I’m preparing to teach a course on medieval Europe right now, so as I watched the sixth season I kept seeing parallels with early medieval Europe. When I was watching the first few seasons I was teaching a course on the end of the Roman Empire, so all I saw were Roman and Byzantine parallels. My wife teaches ancient history, so she sees a lot of Hellenistic parallels to Alexander the Great and ancient Greece. I have a colleague who teaches Buddhism and Hinduism, and he can go on and on about all the parallels he sees with central Asian history. It’s clear George R.R. Martin reads pretty widely and his historical precedents don’t just come from Europe.

The Season 6 finale ends with Daenerys sailing to Westeros at the head of an invasion fleet, bent on claiming the Iron Throne. Is there a historical example of a leader who pulled off the kind of coup she’s attempting, invading with a genuine but contested claim to the throne?

Daenerys’ invasion of Westeros seems to me like the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England or the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror. William the Conqueror had probably the most tenuous claim to the throne of all the people vying for it, certainly weaker than Harold Godwinson.* But luckily for William, Harold was fighting against Harald Hadrada and other Danes up in the north, and that’s what allows William to win at the Battle of Hastings.

Dany doesn’t just want to be queen, she wants—to paraphrase from a recent episode—to “leave the world better than she found it.” Is there a historical parallel from the medieval era of a leader attempting something like that, trying to remake the world in his or her image?

Dany’s new-age rhetoric and the sense that she’s a revolutionary force is part of her charisma. There’s definitely precedent for leaders being seen as revolutionary figures who are somehow going to overturn the status quo. But Daenerys’ claim to the Iron Throne rests on the idea of continuity, the idea that the Targaryens will come back. So there’s definitely this tension that the show seems to be testing the limits of. When she leaves her lover Daario in the Season 6 finale, she indicates that she’s going to go back to depending on old politics to form alliances—like marriage, presumably with the old houses—when she gets back to Westeros. Like medieval Europe and the British Isles, Westeros is a zero-sum game in terms of territory, resources, and power. That’s why things like marriage and hostage-taking become keys to maintaining power—there really isn’t that much wealth to go around, and you can’t really trust anyone. That seems to be the world Daenerys is planning to return to, and she’s already cutting deals. So it’s hard to see how that changes.

It’s also unclear to me whether she even believes in social change. In the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians freed the helots, the slaves in Sparta. But they did that because they knew that was one of the best methods for undermining Sparta and defeating them. Freedom was a tool, and Daenerys has shown herself to be a savvy leader. Hegel argues that social change usually happens in spite of successful leaders, like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and that they actually end up being destroyed by that change.

We’ve got two seasons of Game of Thrones left, according to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Based on historical precedent, is that enough time to depict the kind of military campaign Dany’s attempting?

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Europe precedent would dictate more than two seasons. Historians refer to the Anglo-Saxon conquest as a shorthand,but most agree that there really was never anything like an invasion. Instead there were a bunch of small-scale, short-term raids. On the other hand, William the Conqueror did something you could see in a television season because he won a big, decisive military victory at the Battle of Hastings. So that’s what would make this fit in two seasons. And then what you wouldn’t see is the decades where William and his Normans went around either making alliances or destroying people’s castles one by one, using that top-down, heavy-handed approach that’s time-consuming and costly.

Could Dany’s dragons be the tactical advantage that brings her victory?

If all Daenerys’ enemies are foolish enough to get the bulk of their forces all at one battle like Harold Godwinson did at the Battle of Hastings, that’s where her dragons could do the most damage.* They’re a great short-term advantage, both as very dangerous weapons and in terms of reinforcing Dany’s mythology and charisma. But the technologies that historians typically think are the most decisive are usually small innovations whose ability to change warfare comes from compounding effects over time. The classic case is the stirrup, an innovative advantage that only showed when it was combined with tactics, and things like hoplites, long spears, and Roman shield formations. Whenever you do see technologies in antiquity or the Middle Ages that offer huge advantages like a dragon would, they tend to be more defensive. Greek Fire and early gunpowder and cannons were very effective, but they were most famously effective at protecting the walls of cities like Constantinople or Byzantium for hundreds of years.

What’s your sense of George R.R. Martin’s understanding of the history he’s riffing off?

George Martin has always been upfront that his story is deeply informed by history. His characters are constructed around the way that ancient and medieval people thought about their world, about history, and about time. And even though it’s a show defined by its heroes, what really drives the plot and sets the tone for the stories is all the stuff outside people’s control. History is all sorts of contingencies coming together to make something—to make events turn out the way they do. Small people are able to bring about the destruction of people who might have done great things, like at the Red Wedding. Those things do happen. The more you try to have control over all of them, greater the certainty that something is going to slip out of your control.

I also think Martin has a philosophy of history. Daenerys’ talk of breaking the wheel and what she says to Yara Greyjoy about leaving the world a better place has implications for social change and revolutions, but that’s of course a historical view too. It’s a simplification of many philosophers of history who display two dominant views of history: either a cyclical, circular, or wheel-like idea of history where things repeat themselves, or a linear idea of progress. Most people don’t think of history just as cyclical or just as linear. We’re messy in our thinking, and we think of it as both. Dany’s whole bid for legitimacy rests on the idea of not having historical change, but then she also has this idea that you can break that pattern.

The Season 6 finale seems to be setting up a three-way struggle for the throne among the Lannisters in King’s Landing, the Starks in the north, and Daenerys. Who would you put odds on in that fight?

I would put my money on Daenerys, but I wouldn’t bet that she’s going to make the world a better place. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that she won’t.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*Correction, July 8, 2016: This post originally misidentified the ruler William the Conqueror defeated at the Battle of Hastings. He defeated Harold Godwinson, not Harald Hardrada.