Warning: contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode one.
The Targaryens are a complicated dynasty, and not just because they marry their siblings. When the peroxide clan came to Westeros, they dragged the weight of history with them. (And by ‘came’ read ‘invaded and brutally subjugated with dragons’.) By the time Aegon the Conqueror and his two sister-wives flew in and violently imposed unified rule on the Seven Kingdoms, the family had already lost an empire and their homeland.
Why the Targaryens Speak High Valyrian
As House of the Dragon shows, a century on, those losses still weigh heavily on the Targaryen family. Viserys, Daemon, Aemma and Rhaenerys are fluent in Westeros’ Common Tongue (aka English), but slip between that and the family’s native High Valyrian (a dying-out language only used by the time of Game of Thrones in religious ceremonies, which we might equate to, say, our Latin).
High Valryian was a language of Old Valyria, the city on the continent of Essos that, before its destruction, formed the centre of the Targaryen dynasty. It’s the language Daenerys Targaryen speaks to the surprise of the slave masters in Game of Thrones, and where Dany gets the deadly fire-breathing dragon command “Dracarys”. In House of the Dragon’s first episode, Prince Daemon uses High Valyrian with his niece Rhaenerys when he presents her with a necklace of the family dragonhead sigil made from Valyrian steel – another indication of the grip the Targaryens’ past has on the family.
Game of Thrones fans will remember that Valyrian steel is a powerful metal with magical properties and one of only two materials able to kill White Walkers and wights. Very few Valyrian steel swords like Daemon’s ‘Dark Sister’ exist, and the ability to forge the metal was lost along with Old Valyria.
Old Valyria: the Targaryens’ Lost Empire
It’s not just the language, the steel and the sigil that the Targaryens have brought to Westeros with them, but also the city of Valyria – after a fashion. Alone in his chambers, King Viserys I (played by actor-director Paddy Considine) spends his free time carving a model of a city. While Game of Thrones fans might easily mistake it for a representation of his family’s current home, the Red Keep in King’s Landing, they’d be wrong.
As Paddy Considine told Den of Geek, Viserys is building a model of Old Valyria, using historical plans to recreate it as it was destroyed before he was born:
“He’s a historian. He loves the history of the old world. He’s actually recreating a model of Old Valyria made from old sort of plans and things like that. When the Targaryens fled the Doom, the plans of the city itself were taken with them and he’s just recreating a detailed map for historical reasons. He’s a big geek himself and I think he likes solitude. He likes to work away in his own little world.”Paddy Considine, King Viserys I in House of the Dragon
The Doom of Valyria and Aegon the Conqueror
While the fictional Valyrian empire shares a great deal in common with that of Rome (advanced technology and ‘firepower’, centralised government, a scorched earth approach to those who refuse to yield, a few dodgy emperors along the way…) its fall didn’t happen like Rome’s over a number of centuries but in one single event. Closer to the mythological story of Atlantis, Valyria was destroyed by a natural disaster known as ‘The Doom of Valyria’. The most popular theory runs that 14 volcanoes simultaneously erupted, destroying several cities and lands and creating the uninhabitable ‘Smoking Sea’.
Aegon Targaryen, his sister-wives and their three dragons were one of the few Valyrian families to remain after the Doom because prior to it, their family had relocated west to Dragonstone, a volcanic island off the coast of Westeros. The loss of their family’s former empire later inspired Aegon to conquer the continent of Westeros. There, he united the Seven Kingdoms, created the Iron Throne, and began three centuries of Targaryen rule, which ended with Robert’s Rebellion, when Robert Baratheon led an army of rebels against Mad King Aerys II and usurped the Iron Throne.
Mad King Aerys II and Daenerys: History Repeating
The last official Targaryen ruler of Westeros was Aerys II, who was deposed by Robert Baratheon approx. 15 years before the start of Game of Thrones. Aerys was the father of Prince Rhaegar (the secret father of Jon Snow), Prince Viserys, and Princess Daenerys.
Centuries of in-breeding among the Targaryen dynasty (who aimed to keep their bloodline ‘pure’) destroyed Aerys’ sanity, making him an unusually cruel, paranoid, and unpredictable ruler. After his son Rhaegar “kidnapped” Lyanna Stark (who’d been betrothed to Robert Baratheon), her father Lord Rickard Stark and brother Brandon Stark demanded her release. Instead, Aerys falsely accused them of treason and publicly tortured them to death, burning Lord Rickard alive and forcing Brandon to strangle himself to death in an attempt to save his father.
This ignited the spark of Robert’s Rebellion, during which Hand of the King Tywin Lannister betrayed Aerys and joined the revolt. When Tywin opened the gates of King’s Landing to the rebel army, Aerys instructed his pyromancer to ignite hidden caches of wildfire around the city and burn the city to the ground, killing his subjects. Under the instruction of his father, kingsguard Ser Jaime Lannister stabbed the pyromancer and King Aerys to death and saved the city folk, earning Jaime the nickname “Kingslayer”.
The spectre of King Aerys’ madness lingers over the reign of his daughter Daenerys, who eventually completes her father’s bloodthirsty and inhumane plan to destroy King’s Landing, this time using dragonfire. That prompts her nephew/lover Jon Snow to kill her and ensure Westeros is spared the reign of another mad Targaryen.
Dragon Magic: A Promethean Punishment?
Aerys and Daenerys’ madness isn’t the only Targaryen curse, according to King Viserys I in House of the Dragon. In ‘The Heirs of the Dragon‘ King Viserys suggests that the Targaryens were responsible for bringing the Doom of Valyria upon themselves. Standing in front of the dragon skull in the crypt at the Red Keep, he asks his newly named heir Rhaenerys what she sees. Wisely, she tells him that she sees the Targaryens, because the dragons are the source of the family’s power, and without them, they would be no different to any other family. Viserys tells her that the dragons are “a power man should never have trifled with, one that brought Valyria its doom.”
‘The Doom of Valyria’ was reportedly caused by the very volcanoes on the slopes of which the Targaryens had first discovered and recruited their dragons. The family also exploited the volcanoes to mine obsidian (or dragonglass, the Valyrian word for which translates to “frozen fire”). Viserys clearly sees the Doom of Valyria as a punishment for his ancestors trifling with the magic of dragons and stripping the volcanoes of their natural resources.
History teaches King Viserys I that the Targaryens brought about their own demise in Essos, which means his model of Old Valyria could be as much a reminder of his family’s past hubris as it is a historical record.
House of the Dragon airs on Sundays at 9pm on HBO in the US and on Mondays at 2am and 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK.