So, what was the point of Dany’s sojourn in Meereen?
Many just dismiss it as wholly filler, without any real purpose at all except to pad out the books. Others think that Dany as a character “regressed,” returning to a state of incompetence, naivete, and passivity. Others think the point was about giving Dany “practice” ruling, so she could make mistakes, and eventually become a better ruler when she reaches Westeros.
Here’s why all these interpretations miss the point:
“The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.” -George R. R. Martin
Martin has paraphrased this quote from William Faulkner time and time again in interviews, yet many readers haven’t fully internalized it. It means Martin is not interested in merely showing characters “leveling up,” like a video game, progressing from incompetent naif to awesome badass. His main interest is in exploring his characters’ values. And throughout the series, he creates drama by forcing characters to choose between their core values — love vs. duty, honor vs. pragmatism, vows vs. innocent life.
With that in mind, a closer look reveals that Dany’s plotline in Meereen has been very cleverly designed as a series of tests of her values, and one value in particular. Each test is designed to ask — how far will Dany go to make peace and protect innocent life? With nearly every new chapter, Dany is asked to give up something else she wants or desires, for the good of the Meereenese people. The use of her dragons. A share of power in Meereen. Some of her anti-slavery reforms. Her desire for vengeance. Her desire to right every wrong she sees. Her distaste for cultural practices she finds abhorrent. Her sexual autonomy. Her happiness. Her pride. Her chance at Westeros.
Dany’s arc is revealed in how she responds to these tests, and how she tries to balance her moral ideals against her own darker impulses and desires. Part of Dany genuinely does want peace, and wants to sacrifice a great deal to protect innocent life. But another part of her would rather she take what she wants, through fire and blood.
The main drama of the Meereen plotline lies in Dany’s mind and in her choices. On the surface she is struggling with the Meereenese — but her most crucial struggle is with herself. And the outcome of this struggle will have momentous consequences for Westeros.
Dany’s Motivations for Making Peace
Dany entered Meereen as a violent conqueror, an “avenging dragon.” Motivated by her disgust at the treatment of slaves, she had decided to overturn the slave trade throughout Slaver’s Bay by force. Earlier, she had left the now-free city of Astapor in the hands of a council of former slaves — “a healer, a scholar, and a priest.” But by the last chapter of ASOS, she learns her council has been overthrown by Cleon the Butcher King, and Dany is forced to ask herself what her influence has wrought.
Missandei leaned close to Dany. “He was a butcher in Grazdan’s kitchen,” the girl whispered in her ear. “It was said he could slaughter a pig faster than any man in Astapor.” I have given Astapor a butcher king. Dany felt ill…
…The master of the Indigo Star was Qartheen, so he wept copiously when asked about Astapor. “The city bleeds. Dead men rot unburied in the streets, each pyramid is an armed camp, and the markets have neither food nor slaves for sale. And the poor children! King Cleaver’s thugs have seized every highborn boy in Astapor to make new Unsullied for the trade, though it will be years before they are trained.” The thing that surprised Dany most was how unsurprised she was. She found herself remembering Eroeh, the Lhazarene girl she had once tried to protect, and what had happened to her. It will be the same in Meereen once I march, she thought. (ASOS DANY VI)
So Dany quickly learned that violently overturning the status quo, without staying behind to build a new status quo, left only new horrors behind in Astapor. The city’s fate only grows grimmer in ADWD, when it collapses into utter hell. Astapor is a constant reminder to Dany of why she can’t simply leave Meereen behind.
Once ADWD begins, it is clear that simple conquest through force has not brought peace in Meereen, either. Dany faces many problems in the opening chapter, the foremost being the Harpy insurgency murdering her allies. But the chapter closes with by revealing a killing that wasn’t committed by the Harpy:
“It were the black one,” the man said, in a Ghiscari growl, “the winged shadow. He come down from the sky and … and …”
No. Dany shivered. No, no, oh no….
…”Those are no sheep bones.”
No, Dany thought, those are the bones of a child. (ADWD DANY I)
This is the girl Hazzea, killed by Drogon. Dany repeatedly thinks of her through the rest of the novel; she is a reminder of the horrors that Dany and her dragons are capable of. Astapor and Hazzea are two important symbols of what it truly means when “fire and blood” is unleashed.
Mother of dragons, Daenerys thought. Mother of monsters. What have I unleashed upon the world? A queen I am, but my throne is made of burned bones, and it rests on quicksand… I am the blood of the dragon, she thought. If they are monsters, so am I. (ADWD DANY II)
As seen above, Dany’s desire to make peace is also driven by some newfound self-doubt about her own nature. Back in her final ASOS chapter, Barristan explained the concept that many Targaryens have the “taint” of madness. These words haunt Dany throughout the rest of that chapter, and in Meereen as well. Note below that, as she announces her decision to stay in Meereen, her mind flashes to wonder whether she is mad. She is using her fear of her darker side to motivate herself to achieve something good and constructive:
“Aegon the Conqueror brought fire and blood to Westeros, but afterward he gave them peace, prosperity, and justice. But all I have brought to Slaver’s Bay is death and ruin. I have been more khal than queen, smashing and plundering, then moving on.”
…“You have brought freedom as well,” Missandei pointed out.
“Freedom to starve?” asked Dany sharply. “Freedom to die? Am I a dragon, or a harpy?” Am I mad? Do I have the taint?
…”I will not let this city go the way of Astapor. I will not let the harpy of
Yunkai chain up those I’ve freed all over again.” (ASOS DANY VI)
We can see these comments stay with Dany, because she alludes to her greatest fear in ADWD. In a previous draft of the chapter, Martin had her express that fear more explicitly:
“My fears were burned away the day I came forth from the fire. Only one thing frightens me now.” “And what is it that you fear, sweet queen? “I am only a foolish young girl.” Dany rose on her toes and kissed his cheek. “But not so foolish as to tell you that.” (ADWD DANY III)
She looks at Ser Barristan and tells him that she told Xaro that she feared only one thing, though she would not tell the merchant what. Ser Barristan guesses that she only fears her dragons. “Myself,” Dany tells him. (PARAPHRASED EARLIER DRAFT OF ADWD DANY III)
Dany’s Violent Impulses
Dany has good reason to fear herself. We can think of her as having two sides, mother and dragon, and her dragon side is capable of great violence and cruelty when she is angered. She grows particularly angry when she feels something is incredibly unjust or evil — and she wants to respond with violence. So in revenge for the Meereenese slavers’ crucifixion of 163 slave children, she crucified 163 slaver prisoners.
“How many?” one old woman had asked, sobbing. “How many must you have to spare us?”
“One hundred and sixty-three,” she answered.
She had them nailed to wooden posts around the plaza, each man pointing at the next. The anger was fierce and hot inside her when she gave the command; it made her feel like an avenging dragon. But later, when she passed the men dying on the posts, when she heard their moans and smelled their bowels and blood . . .
Dany put the glass aside, frowning. It was just. It was. I did it for the children. (ASOS DANY VI)
Even though her righteous anger is understandable, Dany’s indiscriminate revenge killing of prisoners of war makes her queasy and should make us queasy too. Early in ADWD, she unleashes one more extremely disturbing bit of violence, again because of righteous anger, and while thinking of herself as a dragon — she responds to the murder of innocents, by approving the torture of innocents:
“Three freedmen, murdered in their homes,” the Shavepate said. “A moneylender, a cobbler, and the harpist Rylona Rhee. They cut her fingers off before they killed her.”
The queen flinched. Rylona Rhee had played the harp as sweetly as the Maiden. When she had been a slave in Yunkai, she had played for every highborn family in the city. In Meereen she had become a leader amongst the Yunkish freedmen, their voice in Dany’s councils. “We have no captives but this wineseller?”
“None, this one grieves to confess. We beg your pardon.”
Mercy, thought Dany. They will have the dragon’s mercy. “Skahaz, I have changed my mind. Question the man sharply.”
“I could. Or I could question the daughters sharply whilst the father looks on. That will wring some names from him.”
“Do as you think best, but bring me names.” Her fury was a fire in her belly. (ADWD DANY II)
In the same chapter, Dany orders hostages to be taken from the noble families that are suspects. She fears what she might have to do to the hostages, but seems to be telling herself she might go through with it.
“They are afraid for their children,” Reznak said. Yes, Daenerys thought, and so am I.
“We must keep them safe as well. I will have two children from each of them. From the other pyramids as well. A boy and a girl.” “Hostages,” said Skahaz, happily.
“Pages and cupbearers. If the Great Masters make objection,explain to them that in Westeros it is a great honor for a child to be chosen to serve at court.” She left the rest unspoken. (ADWD II)
So early on in ADWD, with a mass execution, torture of innocents, and the collection of child hostages, Dany is close to unleashing her darker side on Meereen.
How Dany Turns Away from Violence, Toward Peace
But those are the last of Dany’s violent, vengeful actions in Meereen to date. Motivated by Hazzea’s death, Astapor, her innate compassion, and her fear of herself, Dany decides to turn away from a path of violence.
First of all, she chains her dragons. As mentioned, she does this because of Hazzea’s death, but the action is fraught with symbolic import. She is actually trying to chain her own violent impulses and potential to kill innocents. Second, despite further Harpy killings, she refuses to harm the child hostages. I argued in Part II that this was likely very important in changing the Meereenese nobles’ perceptions of Dany and making peace possible.
Dany’s fourth chapter is a turning point in her rule. First, the Green Grace visits, and after praising her mercy toward the hostages, suggests that Dany could make peace with the Harpy by marrying Hizdahr. For the good of her people, Dany thinks she should:
“A highborn king of pure Ghiscari blood could reconcile the city to your rule. Elsewise, I fear, your reign must end as it began, in blood and fire.”…
…Daenerys Targaryen had other children, tens of thousands who had hailed her as their mother when she broke their chains. She thought of Stalwart Shield, of Missandei’s brother, of the woman Rylona Rhee, who had played the harp so beautifully. No marriage would ever bring them back to life, but if a husband could help end the slaughter, then she owed it to her dead to marry. (DANY IV)
Hizdahr is sent up, says he can make peace with the Harpy, and outlines what it would cost to eventually make peace in Yunkai as well:
“The Yunkai’i can be persuaded to allow all your freedmen to remain free, I believe, if Your Worship will agree that the Yellow City may trade and train slaves unmolested from this day forth. No more blood need flow.”
“Save for the blood of those slaves that the Yunkai’i will trade and train,” Dany said, but she recognized the truth in his words even so. It may be that is the best end we can hope for. (DANY IV)
The eventual conditions of both peace deals have now been laid out. Dany is intrigued at this other path, and for the good of her people, challenges Hizdahr to see if he can truly stop the violence:
“Peace is my desire. You say that you can help me end the nightly slaughter in my streets. I say do it. Put an end to this shadow war, my lord. That is your quest. Give me ninety days and ninety nights without a murder, and I will know that you are worthy of a throne. Can you do that?”…
… “My people are bleeding. Dying. A queen belongs not to herself, but to the realm. Marriage or carnage, those are my choices. A wedding or a war.” (DANY IV)
At this point, though, Dany is not yet fully committed to following through — she tells Barristan, “Ninety days is a long time. Hizdahr may fail.” The chapter closes with two temptations, where characters offer Dany seductive alternatives that have far less concern for innocent life in Meereen. First, Barristan advises her to just leave and go to Westeros. He also reminds her that marrying Hizdahr would hurt her chances for taking Westeros. For purposes of conquering Westeros, this is good advice, but from the perspective of someone concerned about innocent life in Meereen, it would only condemn the Meereenese to an Astapor-like fate.
“Westeros is far away.” “Lingering here will never bring it any closer. The sooner we take our leave of this place—” “I know. I do.” Dany did not know how to make him see. She wanted Westeros as much as he did, but first she must heal Meereen. (DANY IV)
Finally, Dany meets with Daario. Many fans come away thinking Dany’s attraction to Daario merely reveals her girlishness and immaturity. But in ADWD, Daario’s main importance is to symbolize the path of war — violent, amoral, charismatic, seductive, taking what one wants — and to tempt Dany toward that path. Every single time the two meet, Daario proposes some bloody and violent action to break the peace. Dany’s attraction to him shows that some part of her is quite drawn to this mindset. Here, Daario proposes that Dany deal with the Meereenese nobles not through peaceful compromise, but through a Red Wedding:
“Winkle them out of their pyramids on some pretext. A wedding might serve. Why not? Promise your hand to Hizdahr and all the Great Masters will come to see you married. When they gather in the Temple of the Graces, turn us loose upon them.”
Dany was appalled. He is a monster. A gallant monster, but a monster still. (DANY IV)
Is Daario giving good advice? Well, how are things working out for the Freys lately? Dany is outraged and sends him away, again harkening back to her greatest fear — of herself, and what she could become.
“He would make a monster of me,” she whispered, “a butcher queen.” (DANY IV)
But we will later see that Daario’s words have lingered in her mind.
Will Dany follow through on the peace?
Peacemaking isn’t easy — it’s painful, challenging, risky, and by necessity involves you not getting everything you want. After the terms of the eventual peace deals are outlined in Dany IV, her next three chapters represent a slow, agonizing trudge toward her eventual acceptance of the deal.
But in them, the cruel god George R.R. Martin puts her through the wringer by throwing three general types of plot elements at her: (1) Unpleasant concessions she’ll have to make for the peace, (2) New temptations to break the peace, (3) Wrenching reminders about what breaking the peace would mean for innocent life. These events are all quite unpleasant for Dany — some especially unpleasant. As she becomes more and more unhappy, it becomes clear that the drama of this part of her arc is all about whether she’ll be able to force herself to stick to the peace deal.
Her first temptation is from the Shavepate. Though the Harpy killings stopped nearly a month ago, there are some Meereenese ships participating in the Qartheen blockade. Shavepate, conveniently, implicates every single ruling family of Meereen as participating, and suggests arresting all their relatives in the city. Dany refuses, putting aside action against her enemies in favor of peace. But she wonders if she’s being naive:
“Your Worship should have a look at this. A list of all the Meereenese ships in the blockade, with their captains. Great Masters all.”
Dany studied the scroll. All the ruling families of Meereen were named: Hazkar, Merreq, Quazzar, Zhak, Rhazdar, Ghazeen, Pahl, even Reznak and Loraq. “What am I to do with a list of names?”
“Every man on that list has kin within the city. Sons and brothers, wives and daughters, mothers and fathers. Let my Brazen Beasts seize them. Their lives will win you back those ships.”
“If I send the Brazen Beasts into the pyramids, it will mean open war inside the city. I have to trust in Hizdahr. I have to hope for peace.” Dany held the parchment above a candle and watched the names go up in flame, while Skahaz glowered at her.
Afterward, Ser Barristan told her that her brother Rhaegar would have been proud of her. Dany remembered the words Ser Jorah had spoken at Astapor: Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably. And Rhaegar died. (DANY V)
Next, Dany hears a prolonged report of the situation of the Astapori refugees. Dany regrets not doing more for them earlier, but is grudgingly convinced that any help she gave them would have put Meereen at risk. This is another important feature of the peace — Dany has to restrain her desire to right every wrong in the world, and fix every injustice, to focus only on her own city. And again, the guilt of using her power wrongly haunts her:
“I know. I know. It is Eroeh all over again.”
Brown Ben Plumm was puzzled. “Who is Eroeh?”
“A girl I thought I’d saved from rape and torment. All I did was make it worse for her in the end. And all I did in Astapor was make ten thousand Eroehs.”
“Your Grace could not have known—” “I am the queen. It was my place to know.” (DANY V)
Meanwhile, the Yunkish are approaching, Plumm advises her to loose the dragons on them, but Hazzea is brought up and Dany refuses. Barristan urges sending out the Unsullied, but Dany knows she would lose control of Meereen if she did so. Backed into a corner, she realizes what she has to do for her people, though she can barely say it — she has to give up her body, marrying herself off for the greater good:
“I cannot fight two enemies, one within and one without. If I am to hold Meereen, I must have the city behind me. The whole city. I need … I need …” She could not say it.
“Your Grace?” Ser Barristan prompted, gently. A queen belongs not to herself but to her people. “I need Hizdahr zo Loraq.” (DANY V)
Next, she visits the Astapori refugee camp herself and organizes humanitarian food aid to the starving hordes — though their plight saddens Dany, she enjoys helping them, and thinking of herself as a mother. Afterward, she has a humiliating wedding planning meeting with the Green Grace and Reznak, who say that Meereenese culture requires Dany’s womb to be examined by Hizdahr’s family. She refuses this but must accept all the other cultural preconditions for the wedding, despite finding them ridiculous, and thinks of Brown Ben’s comment that if a man wants to be king of the rabbits, “he best wear a pair o’ floppy ears.” She also recalls a very different comment:
“Your Worship must marry Hizdahr in the Temple of the Graces, with all the nobility of Meereen on hand to bear witness to your union.”
Get the heads of all the noble houses out of their pyramids on some pretext, Daario had said.
The dragon’s words are fire and blood. Dany pushed the thought aside. It was not worthy of her. “As you wish,” she sighed. “I shall marry Hizdahr in the Temple of the Graces wrapped in a white tokar fringed with baby pearls. Is there anything else?”
So a tempting violent path flashes in Dany’s mind, but she pushes it aside. Next, as a final humiliation, she is told she must reopen the fighting pits, a bloody Meereenese cultural practice that she despises. She reminds herself that “a queen must listen to her people,” and says Hizdahr can do it, but she wants no part of it. Hizdahr then visits, and confirms that Yunkai will agree to peace if Dany allows slavery outside Meereen’s walls, and if he and Dany wed:
“Marriage or carnage. A wedding or a war. Are those my choices?”
“I see only one choice, Your Radiance. Let us say our vows before the gods of Ghis and make a new Meereen together.”
The queen was framing her response when she heard a step behind her. (DANY VI)
At this very moment Martin presents Dany with another temptation — Barristan tells her that Daario has returned, and he is wounded. Dany never responds to Hizdahr, and her thoughts are revealing:
“Blood?” said Dany, horrified. “Is that a jape? No. No, don’t tell me, I must see him for myself.” She was a young girl, and alone, and young girls can change their minds.
“Convene my captains and commanders. Hizdahr, I know you will forgive me.”
“Meereen must come first.” Hizdahr smiled genially. “We will have other nights. A thousand nights.” (DANY VI)
When Daario enters, he reveals the infuriating news that Brown Ben Plumm has defected to Yunkai. This worsening of her military position forces Dany to her most unpleasant compromise yet — she decides she must close the gates to the Astapori and let them starve. For Meereen, she has to. But it tears her apart.
And this is revealing. Dany has hated many of her compromises for the Meereenese, but above all else, she hates forcing herself to tolerate injustice elsewhere. And this compromise makes her so miserable that she immediately flirts with breaking the peace deal entirely — via Daario:
She wanted to scream, to gnash her teeth and tear her clothes and beat upon the floor. Instead she said, “Close the gates. Will you make me say it thrice?” They were her children, but she could not help them now. “Leave me. Daario, remain.” (DANY VI)
Dany then begins her affair. I’ll save most of my thoughts on Daario for a later post, but for now, suffice to say her affair places the peace deal at great risk, and symbolizes how she is somewhat attracted to the easier and more pleasing path of war. However, despite this reckless behavior by Dany, the peace deal and the wedding proceed, and despite Dany’s increasing love for Daario, she gives him up.
Before the wedding, Martin gives Dany one final test. When Quentyn arrives, Martin is effectively asking Dany which she cares about more — making peace for the Meereenese, or her future prospects in Westeros? And she chooses Meereen, easily and without a second thought. The prospect of Westeros has receded for her — while she still claims she intends to go one day, the fatalism of her statement reveals how much she has shelved those ambitions.
“One day I shall return to Westeros to claim my father’s throne, and look to Dorne for help. But on this day the Yunkai’i have my city ringed in steel. I may die before I see my Seven Kingdoms. Hizdahr may die. Westeros may be swallowed by the waves.” Dany kissed his cheek. “Come. It’s time I wed.” (DANY VII)
And then she does, and the peace is made.
For peace, Dany has chained her dragons, restrained her impulses toward violent revenge, agreed to marry a man she doesn’t love, agreed to abandon a man she does love, agreed to share power with people she detests, agreed to allow slavery outside Meereen’s walls, agreed to indulge various cultural practices she dislikes, and given up her best chance at Westeros, her body, and potentially her own happiness — and, toughest of all, agreed to let thousands of Astapori starve outside her gates. She wasn’t perfect, and did flirt with abandoning and risking the peace at times, but her overall course of action here is an impressive and astonishing series of self-sacrifices and self-submissions, all for “her people.”
And if Dany’s arc in the book ended with her marriage, it would be the story of how she summoned the immense courage and self-restraint to make those sacrifices.
But her arc doesn’t end here.