Many readers so dislike Meereen because Dany’s efforts there seem clearly frustrating, doomed, and pointless, ending in failure. And this reaction is perfectly understandable, because that’s what practically every Westerosi character in the book ends up thinking, including Dany! They all conclude that the peace effort was pointless, Dany was naive and got taken advantage of, and that things always had to end in war, so why did we waste so many chapters leading up to the inevitable?
But a closer look at the Meereenese events gives me quite a different impression. To actually understand what unfolded there, we need to take a closer look at the specifics of Dany’s enemies, their interests, and their actions — rather than viewing them as an undifferentiated mass of evil men with weird names. We also need to correct for the bias of the unreliable narrator by looking closely at the harder facts in the text.
My take is that Dany’s overall course of action in Meereen was moral, correct, admirable, and effective — that the peace she created was real, albeit fragile, like most peaces are. That, up to the moment Drogon returned to the fighting pits, her rule in Meereen was headed toward success, and that neither of her two main enemies, the Harpy and the Yunkai’i, planned to break the peace.
Many readers who think the peace was doomed point to the poisoned locusts as the main “proof” of this. Hey, her enemies were plotting to kill her all along! But if the locusts are the work of the Shavepate, as I argued in Part I, then this implies just the opposite — the attempt was made because Dany’s peace was so successful, not because it was foolish and doomed.
How Dany won over the Harpy
What do we know about the Harpy? As ADWD opens, we learn the Sons of the Harpy are an insurgency that brutally murders Dany’s men or those freed Meereenese who collaborate with her. In Dany’s first four chapters, the murders escalate, even after she takes many noble children hostage. When Dany offers to marry Hizdahr if he can give her 90 days without a killing, the killings immediately stop. When Barristan deposes Hizdahr, the killings immediately restart, with a vengeance. Those are our only hard facts, but they suggest several points:
- The Harpy violence is not “grassroots,” it is centrally planned and directed — that’s the only way the killings can stop so completely and start so quickly
- Because of who they target, we know the Harpy represents the interests of the Meereenese nobles. In fact, I’m just going to use “Harpy” pretty much interchangeably with “nobles,” since the insurgency could not be so successful without very broad support among the nobles.
- The Harpy is unable to match the strength of Dany’s forces in open battle — instead they must rely on acting from the shadows.
- The immediate stoppage of the killings implies that the Harpy can take calculated rational actions.
There are some arguments that the Green Grace, the old priestess who continuously visits Dany’s court to urge her to make an accommodation with the nobles, is The Harpy, or at least a leading figure in the Harpy movement. At the very least, she is able to channel Harpy thinking quite well. It is she who suggests that a Dany/Hizdahr marriage is needed for peace — the deal that stops all Harpy killings immediately.
The Harpy does some truly terrible things to Dany’s people — rape, torture, mutilation. However, it’s a very important point that despite this savagery they appear to be rational, controlled, and interest-based, rather than jihadist or driven purely by extremism. That implies that they can, theoretically, be dealt with — if their interests are adequately addressed.
What are the Harpy’s motivations? Well, Dany has just destroyed their whole way of life, for one thing. But also, recall the first thing Dany did when she made it to Meereen:
“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)
The savagery of the Harpy attacks is likely motivated in many cases by vengeance for their own executed relatives. This was also their first impression of Dany. So they likely started off viewing her as a wholly unreasonable foreign dragon bitch conqueror bent on their utter destruction. Thus, the violent insurgency. They thought they’d be totally screwed unless Dany decided to leave Meereen.
Yet in Dany’s fourth chapter, the Green Grace suddenly suggests that if Dany marry the noble Hizdahr zo Loraq, a peace is possible. What’s changed since the initial rounds of Harpy savagery? One important change was Xaro’s visit — Dany refused his offer to leave Meereen, Qarth declared war, and a blockade was set up. The escalation of the outside threat could have led the nobles, fearing the loss of their lives and wealth in another destructive war and sack of the city, to come to the table. Hizdahr makes comments to Dany implying that he takes this very seriously:
“Meereen cannot endure another war, Your Radiance… Qarth is a city of merchants, and they love the clink of silver coins, the gleam of yellow gold. When you smashed the slave trade, the blow was felt from Westeros to Asshai. Qarth depends upon its slaves. So too Tolos, New Ghis, Lys, Tyrosh, Volantis … the list is long, my queen.” (ADWD DANY IV)
But perhaps the more important change is Dany’s own actions. Since the initial brutal Harpy killings, Dany chained her dragons, and has refused to kill her child hostages. When the Green Grace visits to propose the marriage, Dany’s mercy toward the child hostages is one of the first things she mentions:
“More freedmen died last night, or so I have been told.”
“Three.” Saying it left a bitter taste in her mouth. “The cowards broke in on some weavers, freedwomen who had done no harm to anyone. All they did was make beautiful things. I have a tapestry they gave me hanging over my bed. The Sons of the Harpy broke their loom and raped them before slitting their throats.”
“This we have heard. And yet Your Radiance has found the courage to answer butchery with mercy. You have not harmed any of the noble children you hold as hostage.”…
…”The Shavepate would feed them to your dragons, it is said. A life for a life. For every Brazen Beast cut down, he would have a child die.”
…:These murders are not their doing,” Dany told the Green Grace, feebly. “I am no butcher queen.”
“And for that Meereen gives thanks,” said Galazza Galare. (ADWD DANY IV)
Dany is often criticized by readers for her refusal to make good on her threat and kill the child hostages, which supposedly showed weakness. But, in actuality, Dany’s mercy towards the hostages — combined with the “bad cop” threat of the lurking Shavepate — seems to be precisely what made a peace deal possible. It changed the nobles’ view of Dany and made them realize she was someone they could work with.
So Dany agrees to marry Hizdahr if he can arrange for 90 days without a peace, he is seen visiting various pyramids where the nobles live, and he delivers. The killings stop immediately and they do not start again until the deal is broken by Barristan and Hizdahr is deposed. Slavery remains banned in Meereen. So — if the poisoned locusts are Shavepate’s work — it sure looks to me like the Harpy did nothing at all to break the peace deal that was agreed to.
Of course the Harpy didn’t suddenly become pure of heart. They still loathe Dany and, in a perfect world, would prefer she leave Meereen or die — and Dany loathes them right back. Yes, the peace remains fragile. Sure, it’s possible they could betray Dany or seek to break the peace later on — just like any party to any peace deal in history could potentially change their mind later, as Barristan did in launching his coup. And Dany paid a tough price for peace in giving the detestable former slavers a share in power — but the nobles have also made huge concessions in recognizing her rule and keeping the slavery ban. That’s what peace through political compromise is all about — no side gets everything it wants.
Overall, and contrary to the impressions of most readers, it appears that the Harpy/nobles genuinely did seek a peace with Dany, did nothing to break the peace, and there’s no evidence that they had any plans to do so. Considering that, Dany’s successful resolution to the Meereen insurgency is not a failure at all — it’s quite an amazing accomplishment, that very likely would have held if not for Dany’s departure from the city and Barristan’s coup.
Why the Yunkish Agreed to Peace
Dany agreed to two peaces in Meereen, and the second was with the city of Yunkai. Many readers come away thinking that the Yunkish were obviously treacherous, mocking and taking advantage of naive Dany, and planning to betray her at the first opportunity. So to evaluate whether this peace was real or phony, we again need to zero in on the hard facts about who leads Yunkai, and their interests.
” Hizdahr’s peace—”
“—is a sham. Not at first, no. The Yunkai’i were afraid of our queen, of her Unsullied, of her dragons. This land has known dragons before. Yurkhaz zo Yunzak had read his histories, he knew. Hizdahr as well. Why not a peace? Daenerys wanted it, they could see that. Wanted it too much. She should have marched to Astapor.” Skahaz moved closer. “That was before. The pit changed all. Daenerys gone, Yurkhaz dead. In place of one old lion, a pack of jackals. Bloodbeard … that one has no taste for peace. And there is more. Worse. Volantis has launched its fleet against us.” (ADWD BARRISTAN I)
I’ve cited this speech from Shavepate as being misleading overall, but it’s worth zeroing in on what he says about Yunkai in particular, because it falls into the category of an “argument against interest.” First, he gives us some of our only specific information about the Yunkish leader Yurkhaz, who commanded their forces throughout the book before dying in the chaos at the fighting pits. Dany’s own impressions upon briefly meeting Yurkhaz are that he is old, repulsive, pathetic, and unimpressive. But Shavepate speaks of him with respect, calling him an “old lion,” and saying he “read his histories” — which is significant because it implies he’s not merely a slimeball evil treacherous slaver. Second, Shavepate admits that the Yunkish did genuinely agree to a peace, fearing open combat against Dany’s forces, until Yurkhaz’s death in the fighting pits (and the subsequent launching of the Volantene fleet). I wouldn’t merely take Shavepate’s word on this, but what he’s says here is basically consistent with the hints of Yunkish thinking we glean from other POVs, as I’ll outline.
Some background on Yunkai: Back in ASOS, Dany defeated a Yunkish army and freed all the Yunkish slaves, but left the slaver ruling class of the city behind (rather than having them all killed, as she did in Astapor). After she left, the Yunkish immediately started slaving again, and gathering allies and hiring sellswords for an attack on Dany and Meereen. By the time of Quentyn’s first chapter, Yunkai has hired three sellsword companies, won the support of New Ghis, and is seeking the far more potentially valuable support of Volantis. Dany appears to inspire existential terror in the Yunkish, who spread lurid tales about her evil far and wide, mostly fictional but some with elements of truth (they particularly seize on an incident in ASOS where Dany had her dragons burn the tokar of a Yunkish envoy, to put a scare into him).
The new Yunkish host first marches for a war with Astapor. It’s not clear exactly how it came about, but Dany places the blame for this war on Cleon, the new king of Astapor:
“the armies of the Yunkai’i descend on Astapor. I beg you, come south with all your strength!”
“I warned your king that this war of his was folly,” Dany reminded him. “He would not listen.”
“Great Cleon sought only to strike down the vile slavers of Yunkai.” (ADWD DANY III)
Though the Yunkish (with their sellswords and legions from New Ghis) are victorious over the already-collapsing Astapor, it’s considered more of a slaughter than an actual battle. They then begin marching toward Meereen. But the Yunkish are famed for training bedslaves, not warriors, and the Yunkish host is considered remarkably unimpressive by Quentyn and his fellow Windblown sellswords (so much so that the Tattered Prince quickly begins to consider defecting). So it’s clear that any war with Dany would not be an easy win for Yunkai, which backs up Shavepate’s later comments that Yurkhaz feared fighting Dany and her dragons.
Are there any prospects for peace? The Yunkish slavers are fighting for their very existence and way of life. So the potential peace deal, as laid out by Hizdahr, is quite simple — Dany must pledge to allow the slave trade to continue in Yunkai and all over Essos.
“When you smashed the slave trade, the blow was felt from Westeros to Asshai. Qarth depends upon its slaves. So too Tolos, New Ghis, Lys, Tyrosh, Volantis … the list is long, my queen.”
“Let them come. In me they shall find a sterner foe than Cleon. I would sooner perish fighting than return my children to bondage.”
“There may be another choice. 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. (ADWD DANY IV)
As the Yunkish march toward Meereen, and as various other slave powers continue the blockade, Dany sends Hizdahr to negotiate peace on these terms. They agree on this basic deal, but because the Yunkish do not trust Dany, they demand that the more trustworthy Hizdahr be granted a share of power:
“I want no war with Yunkai. How many times must I say it? What promises do they require?”
“Ah, there is the thorn in the bower, my queen,” said Hizdahr zo Loraq. “Sad to say, Yunkai has no faith in your promises. They keep plucking the same string on the harp, about some envoy that your dragons set on fire.”
“Only his tokar was burned,” said Dany scornfully. “Be that as it may, they do not trust you. The men of New Ghis feel the same. Words are wind, as you yourself have so oft said. No words of yours will secure this peace for Meereen. Your foes require deeds. They would see us wed, and they would see me crowned as king, to rule beside you.” (ADWD DANY VI)
So Dany weds Hizdahr, agrees to permit the slave trade to resume beyond Meereen’s walls, and Hizdahr negotiates the peace deal with the Yunkish. And thus Dany’s second peace is made. Of course, it is immediately scuttled by the disaster in the fighting pits and their leader Yurkhaz’s death in the chaos, but that’s hardly the fault of the Yunkish, is it? We get a brief glimpse into Yunkish thinking about the peace deal in a Tyrion chapter that shows they actually took it quite seriously. Even after Yurkhaz ” perished cruelly whilst a guest of Meereen” — surely a good enough pretext for breaking the peace — and after the launch of the Volantene fleet is known, the most important Yunkish lord wants to honor the peace:
“Have the Yunkishmen chosen a new commander?” “The council of masters has been unable to agree. Yezzan zo Qaggaz had the most support…” (ADWD QUENTYN III)
… Tyrion had soon learned that Yezzan stood foremost amongst those Yunkish lords who favored honoring the peace with Meereen. Most of the others were only biding their time, waiting for the armies of Volantis to arrive. A few wanted to assault the city immediately, lest the Volantenes rob them of their glory and the best part of the plunder. Yezzan would have no part of that. Nor would he consent to returning Meereen’s hostages by way of trebuchet, as the sellsword Bloodbeard had proposed. (ADWD TYRION X)
But Yezzan of course quickly dies of the flux. At this point, after the events of the pit, and with the two most reasonable Yunkish lords dead, and the huge reinforcements now known to be coming from Volantis, war may be inevitable. But the idea that the Yunkish all along were simply taking advantage of Dany’s naivete, laughing at her, and plotting treacheries simply is not supported by the text. Like the Harpy, they appear to have genuinely sought a peace, and reached it.
Was war with the Yunkish certain anyway, because of the launch of the Volantene fleet? Tyrion does observe that, after the death of Yurkhaz, “most” Yunkish lords are merely biding their time and waiting for the fleet. If Yurkhaz had certain knowledge that the Volantenes were soon going to come, this would certainly place the peace deal in a very different light. But there’s no evidence that he knew that. If this were the case, and Yurkhaz was always plotting a double-cross, wouldn’t Yezzan have been totally on board with this plan rather than favoring “honoring the peace with Meereen” after the pits? It’s also possible that — if not for the disaster in the fighting pits — the Dany/Hizdahr regime would have been able to negotiate peace with Volantis as well, promising again to allow the slave trade to continue. The Volantenes are likely not eager for their nice, fancy fleet to face dragonfire, after all.
So, for both the Harpy and the Yunkish, it seems that the supposedly one-dimensional, obviously treacherous, villainous slavers are actually rational actors, able to agree on a mutually beneficial peace. In both cases, the peace deals agreed upon are not scuttled by any actions from the slavers. The Harpy peace is ruined by Barristan’s coup, and the Yunkish peace is ruined by the Drogon-caused disaster at the fighting pits.
So why does Dany herself see things so differently? Upon achieving the twin peaces, why does she feel an overwhelming sense of defeat and dismay? That is, after all, why most readers are so negative about the peaces. To understand Dany’s reaction, we need to take a closer look at what GRRM is doing with her character arc in ADWD. And one reason I think it’s so important that the peaces are real, is that this makes Dany’s arc a lot more interesting.