House Targaryen of Valyria and Westeros

Aegon_on_Balerion

Aegon riding Balerion, in The World of Ice and Fire. Artwork by Jordi Gonzalez

Fire and blood, the blood of Old Valyria, the three heads of the dragon. In Westeros, the Targaryens are the pinnacle of dynasties; they made kings surrender their ancient crowns or die screaming in dragonfire. Aegon the Conqueror made a mockery of even the most powerful king, Harren the Black, ending Harren and his line in one day from atop Balerion the Black Dread. That is who they are now; but back in their old neighborhood of Valyria, the Targaryens were not the kingdom-conquering badasses we know now.

Valyria by tommyscottart

The Targaryens are from the now obliterated Valyrian Freehold in Southern Essos. Before the Doom, the Freehold was the absolute power in the known world. From their peninsula, the Valyrians flew their dragons wherever they pleased and brought ancient civilizations to their knees, one after another. One of their first victims was the Ghiscari Empire.

When Daenerys conquered Slaver’s Bay, she was actually completing the millennia-long war of the Valyrians against the Ghiscari. Before Valyria, the Ghiscari Empire ruled over much of Western Essos using their Lockstep Legions (the forerunners of the Unsullied) until the Valyrians came. The dragonlords broke the Ghiscari, utterly destroying their capital city of Ghis and leaving only the three cities of what became known as Slaver’s Bay intact. In a further brutal act, they sowed the lands of the Ghiscari with salt so that they would never grow crops again. This caused the remaining cities to rely heavily on their only remaining industry, slavery. And despite the Valyrian Freehold’s name, their primary import was slaves to work the mines in their homeland. The nightmare Dany walks into in Slaver’s Bay was one made from the greed of her ancestors.

Where_is_Valyria_2

Old Valyria circled in Red

Another of the Valyrian Freehold’s conquests was the destruction of the Rhoynar. You may remember that name from the titles of the King of Westeros. They rule over the Andals, First Men, and Rhoynar. The Rhoynar came from Western Essos along the Rhoyne River, again, until the Valyrians came for them. The Rhoynar put up a centuries long fight but eventually they lost to the dragonlords and princess Nymeria put her people on 1000 ships and sailed for Westeros. There they conquered most of Dorne and joined House Martell in a permanent partnership becoming Nymeros-Martell. A huge reason Dorne resisted the Targaryens so fiercely is the painful memory of the original Valyrian conquest which left an entire civilization in ruins.

The Sorrows of the Rhonyar by Dmitri Bielak - Fantasy Flight Games

The Sorrows of the Rhonyar by Dmitri Bielak – Fantasy Flight Games

The rest of the world trembled when Valyria turned their eyes toward them. Although you’d expect a Roman style emperor, the Freehold itself has an unusual structure for governance. Rather than a central ruler or single locus of power, the Freehold was composed of all freeborn landholders. Almost sounds democratic right? That would be wrong. It was instead an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. In practice the Freehold was dominated by the forty most powerful houses in Valyria. Ah, here you must be thinking, this is where the Targaryens come in! Given their domination of all comers in Westeros, they must’ve been a key feature of the Freehold. A integral piece of the great Valyrian empire, the three-headed Targaryen dragon directing legions across the world.

The truth though is far from expectation. Of the forty families who ruled the Freehold, the Targaryens are the absolute last of the families in terms of power. In the context of Westeros, rather than the Starks or Lannisters or Baratheons, they would be closer in power to House Swyft of Cornfield or House Tallhart of Torrhen’s Square. If the show took place in pre-Doom Valyria, the Targaryens would be a house you struggled to remember the name of because they were mentioned only once in passing. The Freehold barely cared about the Targaryens. And yet, even the lowest of the Freehold brought the kingdoms of Westeros to their knees with ease.

In a way this displays a reason the Valyrians never bothered conquering Westeros. It was, in their eyes, a backwater group of savages not worth the effort of ruling. From the Valyrian perspective, they spent centuries systematically destroying the Rhoynar and Ghiscari with their full might of legions and enough dragons that they blotted out the sun. The lowly Targaryens conquered all of Westeros with only three dragons and barely an army. It’s comical how easily the Seven Kingdoms fell against a sliver of Valyrian power. This also informs why the Targaryens are the only survivors of the Doom among the members of the Freehold. They had much less to lose.

Valyria_5x05_(4)

The ruins of Valyria, in season 5, episode 5

The bell tolled for Valyria and it is called the Doom. The peninsula of Valyria had fourteen volcanoes throughout it, known as the Fourteen Flames, that their imported slaves constantly tended and mined. And in one day, all fourteen volcanoes exploded and destroyed Valyria forever. The Targaryens were the only ones who abandoned the Freehold and escaped the Doom, and they were ridiculed for it by the Freehold and especially for the reason they left: prophecy.

eRW66xD

The Dragonlords of Valyria, by Magali Villeneuve

Aenar Targaryen, the head of house Targaryen and Dragonlord of the Freehold, had a precocious daughter name Daenys. Daenys had incredible dreams of the future, dreams that came true. Her best known dream though was that the Valyrian Freehold would end in one night. Somehow, likely through consistent dreams coming true, Daenys convinced her father Aenar that if the Targaryens did not flee Valyria they too would burn in the Fourteen Flames. Imagine being Aenar. You’re not the most powerful lord in the Freehold, but you are a part of it. You have dragons, wealth, influence, many slaves, and are on the inside of the greatest empire the world knows. And yet, your daughter is pleading with you to give it all up and set sail for that island of savages known as Westeros on the word of her dreams.

Aenar listened, and twelve years before the Doom he sold all his holding in the Freehold, packed up his house and dragons, and sailed for Westeros. Aenar the Exile he was laughingly called by the thirty-nine remaining Freehold families. The three-headed dragon became the laughing-stock of the empire. Aenar left with five dragons and only one, the young Balerion later known as the Black Dread, survived the trip. Aenar took the volcanic island Dragonstone, whether for the resemblance of his volcanic home of Valyria or Daenys’ visions it is unclear, and made it the new seat of his family.

HBO Game of Thrones

Photo: HBO

The bravery and absolute trust Aenar had in his daughter Daenys is incredible. The Starks lost their home of Winterfell early in the story and their children are obsessed with reclaiming it. The Lannister home of Casterly Rock has such meaning for the family that Tyrion thinks taking it will break Cersei’s power base. The Brackens and Blackwoods have been fighting for a thousand years over hills and mills and forests between their castles. And yet Aenar gave up everything they had for Westeros where the people worshipped odd shaped trees and rode horses into battle instead of dragons.

At this point you’d expect that from Daenys came Aegon the conqueror and his sisters Rhaenys and Visenya that took Westeros with fire and blood. And again, you’d be wrong. Aegon and his sisters wouldn’t land in Westeros for almost a century after Aenar settled his family on Dragonstone. There were five generations of Targaryens between Aenar the Exile and Aegon the Conqueror. In that time the two other dragons, Meraxes and Vhagar, were born and raised to adulthood. With three dragons and Aegon, Visenya, and Rhaenys as dragonriders as well as a century of knowledge of Westeros, the Aegon the Conqueror landed on the Blackwater rushes and changed Westeros forever.

The Freehold is also unusual in Planetos in that they don’t have a single religion. The Dragonlords viewed all religions as the opiates of the masses, and while they had gods they didn’t honor them much and considered themselves gods. The Valyrian approach was an odd mix of tolerance and indifference. They did what they liked but would prevent any one faith from becoming dominant in their empire. Aegon’s dragons Balerion, Meraxes, and Vhagar were named after their gods. Upon coming to Westeros, Aegon gave up what little faith they had and embraced the Faith of the Seven, although not all of it. The Targaryens would still practice incest and polygamy throughout their reigns as was allowed in Valyria. Although the Targaryen abandonment of the Valyrian religion could be tied to the Doom, if your gods let your homeland end in one day what’s the point in honoring them?

The Targaryens wisely have never returned to Valyria, post-Doom. Another Valyrian dragonlord was less wise. Aurion of Valyria was the only other dragonlord who survived the Doom. He declared himself the Emperor of Valyria and raised an army of 30,000 troops in the Essos city of Qohor. He mounted his dragon and led his army into the Doom. Neither Aurion, his dragon, or his 30,000 strong army was ever seen again.

This is a primary lesson of the Targaryen family, and one that Daenerys Targaryen thinks this phrase constantly throughout the books:

“If I look back, I am lost.”

Game of Thrones

Photo: HBO

Valyria is gone, the Doom rules the Freehold now. The Targaryens look towards the future, not the past, and make their own way. The Valyrian Freehold clung to its power, cruelty, and subjugation for as long as they could and were consumed in the same fires they used against their enemies. There’s no way back for House Targaryen. Not to Valyria, not the Mad King and the Red Keep. As the Three-Eyed Raven, the bastard son of King Aegon IV, says to Bran:

“The past is already written. The ink is dry.”

The Targaryens listened to truth when they heard it and made the unthinkable, impossible choice so that they would live past the end of their homeland. When we look at the end of Game of Thrones with Daenerys and Aegon Targaryen (see: Jon Snow) remember that in the past, their family has done whatever it takes to survive. Lose their dragons, their home, their people, culture,  everything they have, if it means survival. No price is too high if it means the three-headed dragon still soars.

22 responses

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    1. Excellent read. I think it would be a good prequel for HBO to consider, though quite expensive to pull off. I would watch it if I survive waiting for S8

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    2. A man needs no name,

      I wouldn’t hate it myself. Not my choice for a spin off though, it’d be very heavy on the fantasy and magic. Lots of dragons, wizards, court politics and a little lacking on story elements you can relate to. Westeros is recognizably our pop culture idea of a medieval society so you have some grounding. Valyria would be… unrecognizable as a society. The best way in story wise would probably be through the slaves, maybe the creation of the faceless men. Or someone captured and forced into the Fourteen Flames.

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    3. Damn good write-up JoeMagician! GRRM had quite an imagination in creating the history of his fictional world. You did an incredible job of distilling it for a “pre-books reader” like me.

      A couple of questions if you don’t mind (or anyone else who knows the answers):

      • You wrote that “Aenar left with five dragons and only one, the young Balerion later known as the Black Dread, survived the trip.” Then, over the next five generations of Targaryens, “the two other dragons, Meraxes and Vhagar, were born and raised to adulthood.” As a result, Aegoj and his two sisters each had a dragon – as Show! Arya reminded Tywin.

      • Q: Where did “the two other dragons” come from? If Balerion was the only dragon to survive the Targaryens’ trip from doomed Valyria to Dragonstone, did he or she produce two eggs (without a mate) more than a century after arriving on Dragonstone?
      • And do dragons live that long such that young Balerion made the exodus from Valyria and was still alive and kicking five Targaryen generations later?

      • Did Martin indicate that dragons reproduce asexually? After all, Balerion was the sole surviving dragon. Meraxes and Vhagar came along much later…how?

      I’m curious – and also want to entertain one of my (many) tinfoil theories based on similarities of dragon behavior and biology to real world avian physiology. For example, when Drogon “abandoned” Dany for a while and at one point was spotted by Tyrion and Jorah flying over the ruins of Valyria, I figured he or she was engaging in post-juvenile nesting behavior. That’s what pet birds, even those that are hand-fed and closely bonded to their human, will do. They’ll suddenly seek privacy, and search out a remote site to hide a nest to deposit their eggs. (PS BTW I thought Drogon’s abdomen looked conspicuously distended in S7e4, as if he or she was carrying a full clutch of eggs when flying towards the soon-to-be-roasted Lannister army.)

      • Do the books suggest how or why the 14 volcanoes in Valyria blew up? Was it a natural cataclysmic event like in ancient Pompeii? Or did some idiot rocket scientist come conduct an experiment that went terribly wrong? The descriptions from the poem recited by Tyrion and Jorah on the show made it sound like somebody nuked the whole place on purpose – or they experienced a warp core breach and couldn’t shut it down. Or did the slave leaders – the forebearers of the Faceless Men – sabotage the subterranean mines?

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    4. Great essay.

      What do you think the lesson is here?

      They burn down KL and the monuments their ancestors built to defeat the dead showing the same lack of sentimentality for the past in order to survie into the future?

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    5. Thanks Joemagician for the great read! I particularly like how you connected the actions of Old Valyria led to the issues of present-day Slaver’s Bay. I find it fitting that Dany would be the one to attempt to end slavery, and in the books, this time around the Ghiscari are the ones to raze their own land so that Dany can’t help the former slaves. Also weren’t the Faceless Men born in Old Valyria as well? I can’t remember when they left Valyria prior to the Doom.

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    6. Ten Bears:
      Damn good write-up JoeMagician! GRRM had quite an imagination in creating the history of his fictional world. You did an incredible job of distilling it for a “pre-books reader” like me.

      A couple of questions if you don’t mind (or anyone else who knows the answers):

      • You wrote that “Aenar left with five dragons and only one, the young Balerion later known as the Black Dread, survived the trip.” Then,over the next five generations of Targaryens,“the two other dragons, Meraxes and Vhagar, were born and raised to adulthood.” As a result, Aegoj and his two sisters each had a dragon – as Show! Arya reminded Tywin.

      •Q: Where did “the two other dragons” come from? If Balerion was the only dragon to survive the Targaryens’ trip from doomed Valyria to Dragonstone, did he or she produce two eggs (without a mate) more than a century after arriving on Dragonstone?• And do dragons live that long such that young Balerion made the exodus from Valyria and was still alive and kicking five Targaryen generations later?

      • Did Martin indicate that dragons reproduce asexually? After all, Balerion was the sole surviving dragon. Meraxes and Vhagar came along much later…how?

      I’m curious – and also want to entertain one of my (many) tinfoil theories based on similarities of dragon behavior and biology to real world avian physiology. For example, when Drogon “abandoned” Dany for a while and at one point was spotted by Tyrion and Jorah flying over the ruins of Valyria, I figured he or she was engaging in post-juvenile nesting behavior. That’s what pet birds, even those that are hand-fed andclosely bonded to their human, will do. They’ll suddenly seek privacy, and search out a remote site to hide a nest to deposit their eggs. (PS BTW I thought Drogon’s abdomen looked conspicuously distended in S7e4, as if he or she was carrying a full clutch of eggs when flying towards the soon-to-be-roasted Lannister army.)

      • Do the books suggest how or why the 14 volcanoes in Valyria blew up? Was it a natural cataclysmic event like in ancient Pompeii? Or did some idiot rocket scientist come conduct an experiment that went terribly wrong? The descriptions from the poem recited by Tyrion and Jorah on the show made it sound like somebody nuked the whole place on purpose – or they experienced a warp core breach and couldn’t shut it down. Or did the slave leaders – the forebearers of the Faceless Men – sabotage the subterranean mines?

      Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      As to how they got more dragons, dragons are born from eggs so it’s likely they brought some with them that they hatched on Dragonstone. I don’t think we’ve ever heard of them being able to reproduce asexually, although they can change gender. So also possible the eggs were laid by Balerion who got pregnant on the journey

      And yes, when dragons are given free reign to hunt and fly wherever they like they can live hundreds of years easily. The bird comparison is really great, I hadn’t heard that one before!

      In the books, the kindly man says the Faceless men take credit for causing the Doom. Appears to be, from that interaction, a revenge and anti slavery move. Valyria made it’s wealth on the slave trade and turned every territory it took into a part of that industry. How is very much unknown, it’s implied that the Valyrians used magic to keep the volcanoes from erupting and perhaps the faceless men interrupted those spells.

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    7. House Monty:
      Great essay.

      What do you think the lesson is here?

      They burn down KL and the monuments their ancestors built to defeat the dead showing the same lack of sentimentality for the past in order to survie into the future?

      Imo, the lesson of their escape from the Doom is that in the past the Targaryens have done what many consider unthinkable in order to survive. And also they listened to unlikely sources when they spoke truth. If you listen to prophecy and dreams in our world, you’re gonna have a rough time. For these characters magic is real and shouldn’t be ignored when it proves it’s ability.

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    8. Dark Sister:
      Thanks Joemagician for the great read! I particularly like how you connected the actions of Old Valyria led to the issues of present-day Slaver’s Bay. I find it fitting that Dany would be the one to attempt to end slavery, and in the books, this time around the Ghiscari are the ones to raze their own land so that Dany can’t help the former slaves. Also weren’t the Faceless Men born in Old Valyria as well? I can’t remember when they left Valyria prior to the Doom.

      They were indeed 🙂 The kindly man claims the faceless men, who are escaped Valyrian slaves, blew up Valyria. They also helped found Braavos after some harrowing escapes on ships. It casts some interesting questions on what Daenys knew and how. Were her visions true like Bran and her descendent Daeron? Or were they true because she knew the faceless men? The official story is that she was a seer so I presented that, there’s some wiggle room for tinfoil though

      Much of the problems Dany encounters are the creation of her own people. It’s sort of lost on Dany, however the open hostility she encounters with her dragons is not unjustified. The Valyrians were terrifying and ripped apart ancient lands and people for their own gain. When people like the Qaartheen debate killing her and her baby dragons before they reignite the Freehold is an unfortunately logical reaction to how horrible the Valyrians were.

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    9. Joemagician,

      Yes that makes sense. But I guess what I was really asking is do you envision a specific scenario or scenarios where that insight could play itself out in Season 8?

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    10. Joemagician,

      Great essay Joe! Love reading articles that discuss GRRM’s crazy detailed history that is ASoIaF.

      To touch on what lesson can be learned here… I like your analysis! While I don’t know if their history will play a big part in their decision making (Jon and Dany’s), I do think that they will have to rely in part on magic if they are going to win this war. I can definitely see characters having to rely on the power of R’holler and prophesy in general in the upcoming season. And what magic has proved itself more real (to the viewers) than the power of the Lord of Light?

      The analysis of what brought on the Doom is also great. I love how GRRM leaves things to vague and up in the air for speculation, which is very realistic since history can be distorted throughout millennia’s of passing the history down. I also get the feeling that the Faceless Men brought on the Doom (maybe with some sort of blood sacrifice into the Fourteen Flames).

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    11. “ ….The Targaryens wisely have never returned to Valyria, post-Doom……If I look back, I am lost.”

      In the season 7 finale (S7ep7), during Dany’s conversation with Jon in the dragonpit, she had to have “looked back” to the past to recognize that the Targaeryn conquest of Westeros with subsequent settling in KL (including consigning the dragons to the pit) was ‘the beginning of the end’ for her people. Exploring the caves in Dragonstone in episode 4 (S7ep4) was important because it revealed the dragonglass and evidence of the prior struggle with the whitewalkers. Maybe part of S8 will be Dany (and Jon) realizing the need to literally do some more digging into the past (in Valyria and in Westeros) to learn from its mistakes and successes . Maybe Dany will dream of Valyria.

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    12. A nice little journey through fake history. Good, easy-to-read writeup and very thorough – thanks for educating me!

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    13. Joemagician: In the books, the kindly man says the Faceless men take credit for causing the Doom.

      I have always speculated that an atomic incident destroyed Valyria for two reasons.

      People who stray into the Valyrian realm get sick and die, possibly from the atmosphere still containing nuclear residue with high halflives.

      Statues of gods dragged back to the horse people homeland show misshapen creatures, which suggests to me that nuclear fallout afflicted creatures and ruined their genes. Compare animals in the Chernoble region today.

      While the Faceless men may have been mining the volcanoes for destruction, another explosion may have occurred before their plans came to fruition.

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    14. House Monty:
      Joemagician,

      Yes that makes sense. But I guess what I was really asking is do you envision a specific scenario or scenarios where that insight could play itself out in Season 8?

      Tough to say, and I haven’t seen any of the spoilers despite contributing to Watchers, but it could mean the end of House Targaryen as we know them. The stories of how Valyria started was sheep herders who discovered dragons/were given them by an older civilization. They were nothing before, and raised up into being the most powerful modern civilization. If they lose all their dragons for the sake of humanity, and Dany or Jon, they might fade back into being nobodies again. Really without their dragons, they’re really nothing special.

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    15. How can the Targaryens be the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of Valyria, but have lesser houses that were sworn to them such as Valeryon and Celtigar? I thought there was an unknown number of Valyrian lesser noble houses some very old and respected (like Serenei of Lys’s family), but there was were only 40 dragonlord families. Even if the Targaryens listed #40, that’ still pretty ratified air. Being the least powerful member in a 40 person cabal that essentially controls the world is pretty powerful.

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    16. Soman,

      The Targaryens were just the lowest house to hold land in the Freehold. There were definitely families that were seen as lower, but I don’t think they held land so they weren’t important enough to be mentioned. The Targaryens were seen as a sort of “laughing stock” of a family among the noble houses of Valyria, though, that is for sure.

      I believe House Celtigar was formed after the Doom, but I am not certain. I don’t believe this was an actual house in Valyria. As for the Valeryons, I am also not certain, but their Wiki page says they fled Valyria even before the Targaryens did; I would assume they were a lesser house that did not hold land but I’m not certain. They didn’t swear fealty to House Targaryen until after the Doom, though.

      As to the Targaryens still being pretty powerful even though the were the lowest of the low in Valyria, I believe Joe mentioned this in the article. He wrote, “And yet, even the lowest of the Freehold brought the kingdoms of Westeros to their knees with ease.” The Targaryens may have been the lowest of the low, but they were still powerful as fuck. Imagine what the truly powerful families of Old Valyria could have accomplished in Westeros? Well, even more Fire and Blood, that is for sure.

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    17. Jaehaerys,

      A laughing stock among the 40 dragonlords? I buy that, but in a Valyria as a whole? It would be easier if we knew how many noble houses there were and how the society was stratified. In Volantis for example, only the oldest noble families that can trace their decent back to Valyria could live behind the black walls. Everyone in Aegon IV’s court acknowledged Serenei of Lys’s family as being old and storied just financially poor, but no one could deny her bloodline was the creame of the crop.

      What I’m trying to say is that it appears there were maybe hundreds of noble houses in ancient Valyria just like Westeros; but the there were only 40 families who were dragonriders and controlled the Freehold. Like I said earlier even if the Targaryens were #40 and the least powerful dragonlord family (which I believe), they still had a seat at the table (one of only 40 seats) in the most powerful empire in the history of that world.

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    18. Soman:
      Jaehaerys,

      A laughing stock among the 40 dragonlords? I buy that, but in a Valyria as a whole? It would be easier if we knew how many noble houses there were and how the society was stratified. In Volantis for example, only the oldest noble families that can trace their decent back to Valyria could live behind the black walls. Everyone in Aegon IV’s court acknowledged Serenei of Lys’s family as being old and storied just financially poor, but no one could deny her bloodline was the creame of the crop.

      What I’m trying to say is that it appears there were maybe hundreds of noble houses in ancient Valyria just like Westeros; but the there were only 40 families who were dragonriders and controlled the Freehold. Like I said earlier even if the Targaryens were #40 and the least powerful dragonlord family (which I believe), they still had a seat at the table (one of only 40 seats) in the most powerful empire in the history of that world.

      When I said the Freehold barely cares, specifically meant the other 39 families not Valyria in general. Make good points about the Velaryons and Celtigars. It’s all about perspective, do the Starks consult the Glovers when they go to war? Or do the Barartheons halt an offensive if the Dondarrions object? No. The Targaryens were in an exclusive circle to be sure but still on the outside of who truly ruled the Freehold
      Purpose of the essay was to dispel the idea that before Westeros the Targaryens were a world power. They were a tiny part of a whole, but yes much better off than almost anyone.

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    19. Very interesting and well-researched write-up, thank you, JoeMagician.

      Doesn’t change that I care very little about the awesome Valyrians and their awesome culture and their awesome dragons. I was attracted to the show and the books because it was so little fantastical, mainly character-driven, intriguing…

      I care about the ASoIaF books and the tv show because they focus on Westeros. I care about Westeros and its people. I really couldn’t give a shit about anything in Essos, dragons or not. Sorry.

      My main grievence with GRRM is that he’s lost the plot, or the focus, and become prey to his own overwhelming fascination with the bloody Targaryens.

      So we won’t get the rest of the ASoIaF books because GRRM has moved on to his favourites, the Targaryens and their twisted history. We’ll get a book or two about them. That’s what he apparently writes about nowadays.

      Shrug.

      He’s not my bitch. But I am allowed to have a sinking opinion of him and his “professionalism”. Hey, if I had millions, I wouldn’t do any serious work either, but I wouldn’t promise to do any either.

      Shrug.

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    20. Sorry for sounding a bit harsh on GRRM. I didn’t mean it to come out like that. The guy is retirement age and financially secure, he doesn’t have to service us fans. I’m sure he does his best and worries about it but he shouldn’t need to. He should just enjoy, and to hell with his needy, entitled fans.

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