Sunday, June 23, 2024

Viserys I: Ostrich or King?

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This essay and video were originally published on Gretchen’s personal website on 05/29/2020 as part of her Dragon’s Reign YouTube Video essay series on the Dance with Dragons.

A little over a year ago, when House of the Dragon was announced, I started a series of videos diving into a close read of the Dance of Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that the HBO show will be covering. I’ve had other things going on since then (I moved across the country during a pandemic for starters, yeah, that was a WHOLE thing), but now that it’s in production and they’ve made cast announcements, it’s time to finish what I started. I don’t plan on pulling a George and making everyone wait for an ending that may never come. So, to kick my butt back into gear, I will be posting the videos I have already completed here and adding new content once a month—or more if I have the time/energy—on both The Fandomentals and my personal website/YouTube.

I always include the script of my essays to go along with the video, that way anyone who prefers reading to listening or might need captions can have access to the full text. And I always, always include art credit for any of the images and fanart featured in my videos, which will appear alongside the images used.

So, do you like Targaryens? Interesting female characters? Uncovering the roots of what became the deadliest civil war in Westerosi history? Then let’s talk about the reign of Rhaenyra’s father, Viserys I Targaryen.

Viserys I Targaryen strove to maintain peace all of his life, yet managed to become one of the chief causes of the deadliest civil war in Westerosi History. How did this happen? How did a king who hated conflict so much end up inadvertently causing such carnage?

Hi everyone, and welcome to the Dragons Reign, a series of videos diving deep into the period of Targaryen History known as the Dance of the Dragons. I’m your host Ba’al the Bard and in this episode we’re going to explore King Viserys I Targaryen, the father of Rhaenyra and the king whose reign would end in all-out war.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in Rhaenyra’s battle for the throne that we forget what came before; after all, war doesn’t just happen overnight. Before the straw that breaks the camel’s back breaks the camel’s back, you gotta load up that camel with a bunch of other stuff like jars and fabric and food and…well, you get the idea. It’s a cumulative effect is what I’m trying to say and if the Great Council of 101 was a cache of wildfire waiting to blow, it’s a stockpile that had been building. The heir the Council had chosen, Viserys I, added fuel to that future bonfire with the two most significant decisions he ever made as king: his choice of heir and his choice of a second wife.

Viserys Targaryen, first of his name and fifth king of Westeros, was by all accounts the last kind of man you’d expect to be linked to brutal and bloody war: generous, jolly, quick to laugh, beloved by his people, and a lover of feasts, frolics, tourneys, and all other kinds of merry-making.

Viserys I Targaryen had a generous, amiable nature, and was well loved by his lords and smallfolk alike. The reign of the Young King, as the commons called him upon his ascent, was peaceful and prosperous. His Grace’s open-handedness was legendary, and the Red Keep became a place of song and splendor. King Viserys and Queen Aemma hosted many a feast and tourney, and lavished gold, offices, and honors on their favorites. — Fire and Blood

He oversaw a prosperous kingdom and his court was an “endless round of feasts, balls, and tourneys where mummers and singers heralded the birth of each new Targaryen princeling,” but Viserys lacked his grandfather Jaehaerys I’s interest in direct decision-making, leaving much of the day-to-day rule up to his small council and Hand of the King, Ser Otto Hightower.

Now why does that description ring a bell? Let’s see, a boisterous king who loves feasts and tourneys but doesn’t like being involved in the tedium of actually ruling Westeros and whose ‘golden’ reign preceded a civil war?

If you guessed Robert Baratheon, give yourself a pat on the back.

Like Robert, Viserys I has many of the marks of what we would call an archetypal summer king from ancient folklore: a peaceful reign, a delight in feasts and revelry, and a jovial nature. Summer kings are also traditionally associated with fertility, like the legendary Garth the Green from The World of Ice and Fire,

Garth Greenhand brought the gift of fertility with him. Nor was it only the earth that he made fecund, for the legends tell us that he could make barren women fruitful with a touch—even crones whose moon blood no longer flowed. Maidens ripened in his presence, mothers brought forth twins or even triplets when he blessed them, young girls flowered at his smile. Lords and common men alike offered up their virgin daughters to him wherever he went, that their crops might ripen and their trees grow heavy with fruit. There was never a maid that he deflowered who did not deliver a strong son or fair daughter nine moons later, or so the stories say.

If Garth the Green was able to make women pregnant with merely a touch, his green ‘hands’ must have been quite potent indeed. And as sketchy as it is, deflowering maidens and having lots of bastard children is another aspect of the summer king. It’s all nature cycle mythology really; he’s a god king who brings fertility to the land by ripening crops and getting them ready for harvest. Back when women were considered little more than property–and back when they didn’t have a good sense of biology, one might add–women were considered analogous to the land in that they relied upon an outside force to make them fertile. Like soil, they just needed the right, ah, ‘seed’ to make them bear children…look I didn’t say that ancient mythology wasn’t sexist. It totally was. Ever heard of a guy named Zeus? Yeah, he was the worst.

Anyway, the idea of a male figure whose seed or presence would make both women and land fertile is fairly common in our world’s ancient folklore, which Martin reproduces (badum tss) in the Garth the Green tale. As Martin likes to do, characters from Westerosi folklore often function as archetypes for characters we see in A Song of Ice and Fire itself and in the histories. Kings who deflower maidens and have lots of bastards like Aegon IV Targaryen and Robert Baratheon for example are fertile summer kings just like Garth.

While Viserys I has the jolly temperament and genial nature we associate with summer kings, he only had four living trueborn children and no bastards—he might have been festive, but he was faithful. Nevertheless, the reign of Viserys I was a time of fertility for the Targaryen family tree and their dragons even if he himself didn’t exactly have Garth’s green…hands.

Many consider the reign of Viserys I to represent the apex of Targaryen power in Westeros. Beyond a doubt, there were more lords and princes claiming the blood of the dragon than at any period before or since…There were more dragons than ever before as well, and several of the she-dragons were regularly producing clutches of eggs. Not all of these eggs hatched, but many did, and it became customary for the fathers and mothers of newborn princelings to place a dragon’s egg in their cradles, following a tradition that Princess Rhaena had begun many years before; the children so blessed invariably bonded with the hatchlings to become dragonriders. — Fire and Blood

Having this many dragons and dragonriders around might have seemed like a blessing at the time, but hindsight colors it with a sense of impending doom. There were just so many dragons around while Viserys was on the throne…one might even say too many dragons. If too many cooks in the kitchen leads to a spoiled dinner, too many dragons in Westeros invariably leads to spoiled lives.

But for now, let’s get back to Viserys himself, the amiable king who usually did whatever his councilors and Hand told him was best for the kingdom because he found it too tedious to rule himself. Now there’s irony for you, the man the Great Council chose to rule Westeros, the man supposedly more fit than any of the more qualified women available, had zero interest in actually ruling Westeros. Go figure.

Throughout his mostly passive reign as king, there were only two significant examples of Viserys I putting his foot down and “brooking no dissent” from his advisors, and his stubbornness on these two matters would have disastrous consequences. These momentous decisions were the matter of his own re-marriage and the matter of succession after his death.

First, the matter of succession. When Viserys I took the throne in 103 AC, he and his wife Aemma Arryn had one living child, their six-year-old daughter Princess Rhaenyra. Like another Arryn woman, Aemma suffered multiple miscarriages and the death of a son in the cradle, but she and Viserys were confident that she would eventually give birth to a son who could be named as Viserys’ heir.

While Aemma and her husband waited and no doubt tried for a son, unrest was brewing in the form of Viserys’ younger brother Daemon. You see, Viserys wasn’t the only one for whom governance was a tedious affair he’d rather offload to others. Daemon also chafed at the offices his brother and king gifted to him, but unlike Viserys, he preferred fighting to feasts and frolics. His itchy sword hand might have kept him busy when there were battles to be fought, but it also made him restless, and this ultimately brought him into conflict with Viserys.

In the eyes of Westerosi culture, Daemon was every inch the pinnacle of manly prowess, the very image of what a future king should be. Where Viserys came to be as plump as he was jolly, Daemon was lean, handsome, and fit. Where Viserys had never been much of a fighter or jouster, Daemon had been knighted at 16 and was a renowned warrior. After the death of Balerion the Black Dread, who had been Viserys’ mount until 94 AC, Viserys refused to claim another dragon, making him a dragonless king. Daemon, on the other hand, rode Caraxes, the dragon that had once belonged to Jaehaerys I’s firstborn son and heir, Aemon Targaryen. Daemon also carried the sword Dark Sister, the legendary Valyrian steel sword that had once belonged to Queen Visenya, sister-wife of Aegon the Conqueror.

Daemon’s roguish, restless nature made him a thorn in the king’s side for most of Viserys’ reign, and much like a future Daemon in the Targaryen family tree (his very own great-grandson, in fact), Viserys’ younger brother was as ambitious as he was handsome. Since Viserys lacked a son when he ascended the throne, Daemon regarded himself as the heir apparent. He was desperate for the king to name him Prince of Dragonstone, which Viserys flatly refused to do, most likely because he still expected to father a son.

It’s not hard to see that Viserys’ reluctance may also have had something to do with the kind of man Daemon was. When he was made Commander of the City Watch, he was what one might call “effective,” but he brought a cruel kind of justice to the roughest places in the city.

Prince Daemon took eagerly to the work of the gold cloaks, and oft prowled the alleys of King’s Landing with his men. That he made the city more orderly no man could doubt, but his discipline was a brutal one. He delighted in cutting off the hands of pickpockets, gelding rapists, and slitting the noses of thieves, and slew three men in street brawls during this first year as commander. — Fire and Blood

He was definitely dangerous, and not just in a darkly handsome kind of way. It’s easy to see why gentle Viserys would balk at making such a harsh man his heir. And Viserys wasn’t the only one to oppose the idea of Daemon as heir; Viserys’ Hand Ser Otto Hightower denounced the idea, believing that Daemon would be a second Maegor the Cruel. So opposed was he to Daemon succeeding Viserys that Ser Otto even proposed to his brother, the Lord of Oldtown, that Rhaenyra should be named Viserys’ successor, famously writing, “Better the Realm’s Delight than Lord Flea Bottom.”

Ah ha! So the lords of Westeros were willing to consider a female heir…if the potential male heir was especially distasteful to them. This just goes to show that the precedent set by the Great Council depended more on their personal and societal preferences than the men themselves would like to admit.

Ser Otto’s “wishes” to see Rhaenyra named heir would eventually come true, but not until after the year 105 AC, which brought the tragic death of Viserys’ wife Aemma in childbirth… and then, even more tragically, the death of their newborn son only a day later.

Once his mourning for his wife and son had run its course, the king moved swiftly to resolve the long-simmering issue of the succession. Disregarding the precedents set by King Jaehaerys in 92 and the Great Council in 101, Viserys declared his daughter, Rhaenyra, to be his rightful heir and named her Princess of Dragonstone. In a lavish ceremony at King’s Landing, hundreds of lords did obeisance to the Realm’s Delight as she sat at her father’s feet at the base of the Iron Throne, swearing to honor and defend her right of succession. — Fire and Blood

Thus was Rhaenyra Targaryen, then but eight years old, declared Princess of Dragonstone and heir to Viserys I Targaryen to the acclaim of Ser Otto Hightower… and to the utter disappointment of her Uncle Daemon. Ironically enough, the passage of time would see these same two men on opposite sides of this exact issue, but that’s further down the timeline.

Let’s pause and ask the question of why Viserys chose Rhaenyra as his heir. It could be that he did it only to prevent Daemon from becoming his heir… after all, it’s true that Viserys was livid with Daemon, who had openly mocked the death of Viserys’ son by calling him the “heir for a day.” So it is possible that Viserys was so done™ with Daemon that this factored into his decision to make his only child his heir, despite the fact that she was a little princess rather than a little prince.

It’s probably too simplistic to say that he chose Rhaenyra simply to spite Daemon, however.

Viserys knew his choice would cause a great deal of conflict, which he always sought to avoid, so he must have held very strong convictions on this matter, something more than anger or spite for his brother. Viserys didn’t hate his brother either, or even lack affection for him. While he wasn’t blind to the kind of man Daemon was, he loved his brother all the same and put up with Daemon’s antics and ambitions with the patience of a saint. Viserys was certainly willing to say no to his willful, impetuous brother, like when he refused to set aside Daemon’s marriage just because Daemon no longer liked his first wife, but overall he struck a reasonable balance with Daemon. Far from trying to punish or sideline Daemon, Viserys strove to maintain peace between Daemon and Ser Otto for years. This is a good example of Viserys’ inclinations as ruler: making sure any bickering parties never come to blows but never quite putting an end to their disagreements either. So long as everybody “just got along,” he wasn’t inclined to interfere.   

So as you can see, Daemon and Viserys had a complex relationship, and their occasional disagreements don’t really explain Rhaenyra being named heir. They also don’t explain why Viserys never wavered in his support of his daughter as his heir for the rest of his life. Well, almost never… there was that one time where he threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t get married to Laenor Velaryon, but that could very well have been a bluff. Even kings can be overbearing when their teenage daughters are strong-willed. Other than that one time, Viserys was as stubborn as he had been decisive, refusing to be swayed by any argument that would disinherit his eldest daughter.

Moreover, if it were truly only to prevent his brother Daemon from becoming king after him, why would Viserys not change the succession later, once he had sons to inherit?

[T]hough the queen had given the king not one but two male heirs, Viserys had done nothing to change the order of succession. The Princess of Dragonstone remained his acknowledged heir, with half the lords of Westeros sworn to defend her rights. Those who asked, “What of the ruling of the Great Council of 101?” found their words falling on deaf ears. The matter had been decided, so far as King Viserys was concerned, it was not an issue His Grace cared to revisit. — Fire and Blood

A rare display of decisiveness from the king who left the rule largely to his councilors—so perhaps Viserys truly did believe in the rights of his daughter as his firstborn child and heir.

…And perhaps Viserys wasn’t as weak-willed as the maesters perceived him to be. Looking at his life, we can see a pattern in his behavior: a preference for maximum peace and minimal conflict. He left the rule of Westeros largely up to others because he preferred the peace that comes from not being the decision-maker, but when he did make up his mind on something, he expected absolute obedience and would take steps to ensure that ‘trouble makers’ were removed, or at least placated so that he didn’t have to deal with any ensuing conflicts.

For example, after he named Rhaenyra as his heir, Viserys supported his brother Daemon’s sea campaigns in the Stepstones, and not just out of brotherly affection. So far as Viserys was concerned, the campaigns kept Daemon busy and prevented him from stirring up trouble in King’s Landing. When Ser Otto began to voice his support for Alicent’s children to be named Viserys’ heirs instead of Rhaenyra—an issue the king had made clear he didn’t want to revisit—Viserys simply replaced him as hand. When dissent started brewing between his wife and daughter, he placated them with gifts until they didn’t fight around him.  

So he wasn’t meek or indecisive, he just hated conflict so much that he was willing to avoid making decisions if that kept his life as pleasant and disagreement-free as possible. Again, shades of Robert Baratheon here.

In one other significant matter Viserys proved himself to be most decisive, again with tremendous consequences for himself and for the kingdom: his remarriage.

Rhaenyra had been named Viserys’ heir in 105 AC, not long after the death of his wife and infant son. But despite receiving oaths of loyalty from the lords of Westeros, Rhaenyra’s legal claim didn’t sit comfortably with their patriarchal minds. Rhaenyra might have been preferable to Daemon, but many of the lords and councilors still wanted the king to have a male heir, which meant that Viserys would have to marry again and (they hoped) father a son.

Grand Maester Runciter wanted King Viserys to marry Lady Laena Velaryon, daughter of Queen Who Never Was Rhaenys Targaryen and Ser Corlys Velaryon. She was beautiful, adventurous, and her mount was no less than Vhagar, the oldest and strongest of the Valyrian dragons after Balerion had died. Marrying her would also have helped to heal the wound caused by the Great Council, when Laena, her mother Rhaenys, and her younger brother Laenor were all passed over for inheritance in favor of Viserys.

It’s quite possible that the Dance could have been avoided altogether if Viserys had married Laena, but we’ll never know for sure because like Robert Baratheon, Viserys decided to marry the daughter of a king’s hand after the death of his first love. That hand was Ser Otto Hightower, and the lady was his daughter Alicent.

This decision stirred up plenty of drama and hurt feelings, just as the naming of Rhaenyra as his heir had. Daemon Targaryen wasn’t happy to hear that his brother had married again, potentially pushing him even further down the line of succession. Corlys Velaryon simmered as well, as he (rightfully) felt his house had once again been slighted by the Targaryen kings who had passed over Rhaenys in 92 and his son in the Great Council of 101. In fact, Viserys’ marriage drove Daemon and Corlys into an alliance—an alliance that would become the heart of Rhaenyra’s power in the Dance.

Meanwhile, even those who didn’t personally resent Viserys’ decision to marry Alicent Hightower had qualms about the match. Her father, Ser Otto Hightower, had been Hand to both Viserys and his grandfather Jaehaerys I, and Ser Otto was as resented as Viserys was loved—even before his daughter became queen of Westeros:

[A]n able man, all agreed, though many found him proud, brusque, and haughty. The longer he served, the more imperious Ser Otto became, it was said, and many great lords and princes came to resent his manner and envy him his access to the Iron Throne. — Fire and Blood

Small wonder, then, that after Viserys announced his choice of bride rumors began to spread that Ser Otto had brought Alicent to court specifically to ensnare the king. While it’s certainly possible that Ser Otto took a page out of Tywin Lannister’s playbook by conniving to marry off his daughter to the king, there were plenty of legitimate reasons for Viserys to choose Alicent. She was by all accounts both clever and beautiful, and Viserys would have gotten to know her personally while she was tending his ailing grandfather Jaehaerys I.

Alicent had one other point in her favor—she was six years older than Laena, who was only twelve when she was proposed as a match for King Viserys. I don’t know about you, but I’m far more comfortable with a power-hungry, scheming father-in-law than a child bride, and it’s reasonable to think Viserys might have felt the same.

We can’t know for sure whether Ser Otto had any hand in the matchmaking between Viserys and Alicent, but we know that Viserys could be occasionally strong-willed. Therefore I think it’s quite plausible, and perhaps most likely, that he chose Alicent out of personal desire and simply chose to dismiss any objections made by his councilors about suitability or the repercussions it would have with the Velaryons. That’s what Archmaester Gyldayn, narrator of Fire and Blood, seems to think as well,

In this instance, however, His Grace had his own notions and no amount of argument would sway him from his course. He would marry again, yes…but not to a twelve-year-old girl, and not for reasons of state. Another woman had caught his eye, the clever and lovely eighteen-year-old daughter of the King’s Hand, the girl who had read to King Jaehaerys as he lay dying. — Fire and Blood

He’d chosen his wife and his councilors would just have to accept it. It was the second time he’d acted with absolute decisiveness, and that would come back to bite him. Or rather, it would come back to bite everyone else but him. In fact, his choice in bride would have deadly repercussions for the entire realm, for it was Alicent Hightower who schemed to make her son Aegon king in Rhaenyra’s stead.

Which once again should remind us of Robert Baratheon, whose decisions about his personal life also had disastrous political implications that he largely ignored. To be clear, I’m not saying they were the same person or that their behavior toward their wives and children are morally equivalent. Viserys wasn’t abusive to Alicent or her children the way Robert was, and Robert clearly had commitment issues and more than just a wandering eye. Robert was a worse father and husband than Viserys, hands down. No, the similarity between the two kings lies in the fact that both chose to focus on personal comfort and enjoyment rather than the good of their kingdoms. Neither man acknowledged the political implications of their personal lives and decisions, turning a blind eye to fraught political and interpersonal situations that infringed on their pleasures. 

While Viserys mostly left the rule up to his councilors, whenever he did put his foot down, he would then ignore any and all potential fallout of the decision he had made. Robert Baratheon might have been more swayed by the political machinations of his Lannister in-laws—which makes sense since he was also more reliant upon their support for his own reign—but like Viserys, he also ignored brewing conflicts and left wounds to fester because he prioritized his own enjoyment. Both just wanted to have a good time and the cost of the so-called peace during their lifetime was a flurry of violence afterward—a storm of swords if you will. 

Now, we’ve moved on from monarchical forms of government in our society and everyone seems to have agreed that it was a good idea to have a system with greater checks and balances built in (well, almost everyone). In a society like Westeros that has supreme executive power, it is incumbent upon that power to seek out lines of conflict and use the power of the throne to settle disputes as soon as possible, without falling into tyranny. I’m looking at you, Bloodraven, with your ruthless efficiency and your magically-enhanced spy network. McCarthy would have killed to have a thousand eyes and one. 

Anyway, looking back on Viserys’ life, we see that being a peacekeeper between warring sides was a large part of who he was both as a man and as a king. He kept the peace between Daemon and Ser Otto in the first years of his rule, and when bitterness sprung up between his second wife and his daughter, he strove to keep the peace there as well. 

King Viserys loved both his wife and daughter, and hated conflict and contention. He strove all his days to keep the peace between his women, and to please both with gifts and gold and honors. So long as he lived and ruled and kept the balance, the feasts and tourneys continued as before, and peace prevailed throughout the realm … though there were some, sharp-eyed, who observed the dragons of one party snapping and spitting flame at the dragons of the other party whenever they chanced to pass near each other. — Fire and Blood

But as you can see, this wasn’t a true peace so much as a lack of direct confrontation, a veneer of nicety made up of false pretenses and hidden enmity simmering just below the surface rather than being soothed and dissipated. Viserys could keep the fires banked, but he wasn’t a fire extinguisher.

There are a lot of reasons why that might be the case. Perhaps his own positive disposition prevented him from seeing how resentments can boil and fester. Like Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, he just didn’t understand that some people can’t or won’t forgive and forget. Or perhaps he was so conflict avoidant that he preferred the facade of false friendship to honest confrontation. Or maybe there was a little bit of both. Regardless of the reason, the result was the same,

So long he lived and ruled and kept the balance, the feasts and tourneys continued as before, and peace prevailed throughout the realm… — Fire and Blood

But only so long as he lived, which is exactly as Viserys would have preferred it. If there was going to be war in Westeros, he’d rather die than have any part of it. How ironic then that the two most decisive moments in his life and reign eventually led to such bitter conflict. His desire for peace, or more accurately his desire to avoid conflict, created and stoked the resentments that would boil over into violence between the wife of his choosing and the daughter who delighted him and the entire realm.

That’s it for this episode of the Dragon’s Reign. You can buy me a cup of tea on Ko-fi if you feel like keeping my brain juices flowing, the link is in my channel header. Please be sure to hit like and subscribe buttons before you go, and I’ll see you next time on the Dragons Reign, where the dragonflame burns hot but the women are straight fire!

Featured Image “Viserys I” Courtesy of Karla Ortiz

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