Varys justified his betrayal this past episode of “Game of Thrones” with a vintage Westerosian observation: Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath. Sound familiar? It should; Cersei entertained a similar thought on the eve of the last sack of King’s Landing.
“Half the Targaryens went mad, didn’t they?” she asked Tyrion. “What’s the saying? Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.”
But was the Targaryen dynasty really so riddled with “madness?” Or is the stigma overstated? And is Dany being judged in part because of gender-based stereotypes about “crazy” women?
True, some members of that royal line, which is full of incest, were afflicted with mental illness. But most expressions of Targaryen madness have other explanations. Even if the gods do flip a coin, the results aren’t so clear as heads or tails. Sometimes, the coin lands on an edge.
Let’s start with dragon dreams, a peculiar form of prescience that some Targaryens possess. When Dany had one such dream, she knew she could walk into the funeral pyre with her dragon eggs and that they would hatch, as she revealed later in Qarth.
“When I stepped into the fire, my own people thought I was mad,” she told the Spice King. “But when the fire burned out, I was unhurt, the mother of dragons. Do you understand? I’m no ordinary woman. My dreams come true.”
Having such dreams might drive anyone mad. Testing their truth can require major risks. Centuries before the War of the Five Kings, Daenys Targaryen had dragon dreams about the Doom of Valyria 12 years before it happened, prompting the family’s migration to Westeros. That move might have seemed irrational at the time, but it turned out to be a wise decision. A volcano eruption is said to have wiped out the city of Old Valyria, and the Targaryens were the only dragonlords to survive.
But the family’s track record when it comes to dragon dreams is pretty hit-or-miss. Prince Aerion Targaryen drank a cup of wildfire, believing it would transform him into a dragon; it didn’t, and he died. King Aegon Targaryen V tried to hatch some dragon eggs and burned down the great castle of Summerhall instead. Their dreams looked a little less like prophecy and a little more like madness.
And yet, Aerion and Aegon’s brother Prince Daeron Targaryen did have dreams that came true, even if he didn’t always understand them when he had them. Meanwhile, the other royal brother, Maester Aemon, who refused the throne, didn’t have such dreams until he was on his deathbed.
The actions of King Maegor Targaryen, known as Maegor the Cruel, were sometimes attributed to madness, but his cruel nature might have been rooted in a traumatic brain injury, not heredity. (During a trial by combat, he took a blow to the head, collapsed and fell into a deep coma for about a month.)
Likewise, King Baelor Targaryen, known as Baelor the Blessed, fasted himself to death after he also suffered a great injury. In his case, he sustained multiple snake bites in a Dornish serpent pit until he lost consciousness. Some considered Baelor a holy man, but others thought him erratic and wondered whether it was the snakes’ venom, not his genes, that had damaged his brain.
Was Prince Rhaegel Targaryen insane because he liked to dance naked around the Red Keep, or was he simply a natural nudist? We have only secondhand recollections, so it’s impossible to know whether this man was sweet-tempered and gentle, as some said, or basically feebleminded.
Queen Helaena Targaryen certainly suffered from depression. It drove her to suicide. But she also had been forced to make an awful Sophie’s Choice between which one of her two sons had to die. All three of her children had been threatened with death if she refused to make a choice, and so she reluctantly named her youngest son — only to have the assassins kill her eldest instead. Wracked with guilt, she refused to eat, bathe or even look at her youngest son. That hardly seems genetic.
King Aerys II, the Mad King, was definitely mentally unstable. But then consider the trauma he suffered as a prisoner for six months during the Defiance of Duskendale. (And it’s possible that Varys helped feed the Mad King’s paranoia with whispers of traitors and treason.)
Dany’s brother Viserys was probably the closest to their father in temperament, given to delusions of grandeur, irrational furies and an obsession with regaining that which he perceived to be his birthright. Even Rhaegar, Dany’s other brother, was something of a wild card, reckless and obsessive. Compared to these other Targaryens, Dany always seemed the most reasonable. If Targaryen incest made an inheritance of mental illness more likely, it seemed to have skipped her.
Has her mental health actually changed? Dany is in a dark frame of mind right now, having lost two of her dragon “children,” and Jorah, and Missandei. She’s in mourning. She has faced a series of setbacks and betrayals. Her ruthless decision to take revenge on a surrendered enemy and the innocent population of King’s Landing may not be defensible, but it’s not insane. It’s a war crime.
How different is it from the terrible things we’ve seen done by many men in this narrative (on a smaller scale, because they didn’t have dragons)? How many of them were called crazy?