The Dragon’s Shadow: Viserys Targaryen



Viserys Targaryen (image credit to Duhi)

Ser Jorah snorted. “Can you wake the dead, girl? Your brother Rhaegar was the last dragon, and he died on the Trident. Viserys is less than the shadow of a snake.” (“Daenerys III”, A Game of Thrones)

Viserys Targaryen is perhaps the only character more loathed in the early acts of A Song of Ice and Fire than Joffrey Baratheon.  Though only ‘on-screen’ for A Game of Thrones (and even dying partly through that book), Viserys is remembered – by the characters in the universe and readers alike – long after his ignoble death on the Dothraki Sea. He was “the last son of Mad King Aerys”, an “utter fool”, “stupid and vicious”, the man who had tortured and abused his young sister Daenerys and rightly earned his death among the horselords of Vaes Dothrak.

These are not altogether incorrect evaluations of the last surviving prince of House Targaryen. Yet these descriptions do not fully capture the nuanced tragedy which was Viserys’ life.  He had been the late-born hope of his parents’ failing marriage, a probable tool in his father’s power struggle with his chivalrous but flawed elder brother.  As a little boy, he was spirited to a foreign land, never again to see the only home he had ever known. Invested with the title of pretender to a throne he had never been prepared to claim and only barely understood, Viserys wandered Essos, carefully watched but never aided, even by those who wished to use him. He ended his life in a place both spatially and psychologically alien to the splendor of the Red Keep under Targaryen rule; virtually alone among “savage” strangers, mocked and killed with the golden crown for which he had begged virtually his entire life, and finally crying out without mercy to the last of the Targaryen line.

Blood of the Dragon: Prince Viserys Targaryen

Pathetic as his death would be in later years, however, Viserys’ birth was a cause for celebration, and cautious optimism, for his family and dynasty. Since the birth of Prince Rhaegar in 259 AC, Queen Rhaella had conceived at least 8 times, yet each pregnancy ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or death in early infancy.  With all the sons of Aegon V dead, and only Aerys and Rhaella’s father Jaehaerys leaving known, dynastic issue, the proud House Targaryen had been reduced to a single male-line branch.  Prince Rhaegar was healthy and active, but should any ill befall the crown prince before he himself could have a son, the line would end with King Aerys.  Prince Viserys provided a much-needed “spare” for the succession, ensuring that the dragonlords would continue to reign in Westeros. Indeed, with the royal couple able to have living children again, House Targaryen could flourish, as in the days of Jaehaerys the Old King and Daeron II. The shadow of Summerhall seemed to have been finally lifted, and the Targaryens set on a stable path once more.

Yet the newborn prince was already a pawn, both within his divided family and in the greater world of Westerosi politics.  Tywin Lannister, Hand of the King but deeply distrusted by his former childhood friend, used the excuse of the prince’s birth to throw a grand tournament in the west.  That the baby prince hailed as the tourney’s person of honor would scarcely be able to attend would be a trivial matter to Lord Lannister. Viserys’ birth was simply a thin pretext to Tywin’s true motivation: a betrothal between his daughter Cersei and Prince Rhaegar. The gambit failed, but the auspices of his life were undeniable. Prince Viserys had been used for the first time for some ambitious end; it would not be the last.

At home in the Red Keep, Viserys was already being introduced to the harsh division between his father and elder brother. Aerys became obsessively protective of the little boy; he burned the many gifts sent by Westerosi lords in celebration of the birth and insisted on testing even the prince’s wet-nurse for poison. In one way, this protection was understandable; having watched four children die in the cradle, and having waited 17 years to have another living child, Aerys was probably deeply relieved to have this assurance of the Targaryen dynasty alive and well, and fearful that some avoidable incident should kill him. In this action, Aerys was not entirely different from Henry VIII, whose obsessive desire to ensure his son Edward’s succession – another son born after many years of his father’s failing to secure one – drove him to protective measures personal and political; not only did Henry order Edward’s rooms cleaned twice daily and his food tested for poison, but he also imprisoned or executed several remaining members of the former ruling House of Plantagenet under suspicion of treason against the royal Tudor dynasty.

Aerys’ full descent into madness had yet to occur, but he was already eyeing Viserys as a powerful pawn in his eternal battle with his heir, Rhaegar.  Any educated Westerosi – but especially a member of House Targaryen – would have remembered the tense court in the years prior to the First Blackfyre Rebellion; lords discontented with Crown Prince Daeron’s Dornish sympathies and bookish nature turned to the martial, handsome legitimized bastard Daemon, nearly placing him on the throne instead.  Rhaegar shared similarities with Daeron II, even down to his Dornish connections (in the persons of his eventual wife Elia and closest friend, Arthur Dayne); Aerys became increasingly paranoid that chivalrous, popular Rhaegar would overthrow him. The king had the power to name as his heir whomever he chose, as Jaehaerys the Old King had by selecting Baelon over Rhaenys (though empirically, they did so at their own peril, as every instance of this save one led to protracted civil war).  While Rhaegar had been his only child – and the only male-line prince of House Targaryen left – Aerys had no other option; with the birth of Viserys, however, Aerys had a potential alternate heir, ready to be invested as Prince of Dragonstone whenever the king so chose.

How much Viserys interacted with his brother is debatable. The wide age gap – 17 years – suggests that any interaction would be limited; Robb Stark, for example, considered his 11-years-younger brother Rickon little more than a baby.  Moreover, as Rhaegar spent most of his time at his seat on Dragonstone (and among the ruins of Summerhall), and Aerys kept Viserys safely tucked away in the Red Keep, the frequency of their meetings was probably limited. Still, Rhaegar’s reputation preceded him, and the entire court (except Aerys’ devoted sycophants) would have acknowledged Rhaegar as the seeming ideal of a prince. Even from a young age, Rhaegar had awed maesters with his wits, and the elder prince was no less able in martial or chivalric pursuits.  For a little boy, probably not yet aware that he might have to succeed this brother one day, it was a formidable example to live up to indeed. The impression that Rhaegar made on Viserys is clear from the way Daenerys idolizes this brother she never knew, doubtless repeating language she had first been taught by Viserys. The image of the handsome, gallant, heroic brother, dying for the woman he loved, became fixed in Viserys’ mind at the age of seven; long years of exile and distance transformed an otherwise cold introvert into the lost hero of the Targaryen dynasty.

The greater portion of the new prince’s time was spent with (or, at least, under the watchful eye of) his royal father. We cannot know for certainty the extent Viserys internalized his father Aerys’ paranoia. Barristan Selmy once alleged that Viserys showed signs even in childhood of inheriting his father’s madness, but Ser Barristan is not an unbiased observer; Barristan ignores Rhaegar’s own faults and chooses to remember him only as the lost hope of the realm, and Daenerys as his rightful heiress. Viserys would not have been deaf, however, to the complaints lodged against Rhaegar (and, in all likelihood, Tywin as well) by his father; Aerys felt no need to censor himself later, for example, when he was recorded openly complaining about newborn Princess Rhaenys in front of the baby’s parents. Indeed, a year after Viserys’ birth, Aerys was held hostage in Duskendale; the event psychologically scarred the king, tipping his unstable mind into full madness. Young Viserys, likely even more obsessed over by the king after the latter’s harrowing experience, received the full measure of the king’s deepened paranoia. Acts which signaled a dangerous change to veteran courtiers – refusing to meet with the Hand unless all Kingsguard were present, forbidding any man to approach him with a blade, even to the extent that he forbid razors for his hair or nails – would have been perceived as normal to a prince who knew nothing else.  The king’s deranged state, far from being the dangerous change in personality to those who had known the charming if eccentric young Aerys, became a standard by which Viserys would learn to judge kingship. From this incident and its aftermath, Viserys might have inherited his later obsessive haughtiness on being the “blood of the dragon”; his later statements that “the dragon” could “speak as he likes”, “does not beg” and “does not forget” indicate a man who had at least in part absorbed Aerys’ ruthless determination to separate “the dragon” from the lower men of his realm.

Viserys’ relationship to his mother is likewise shrouded in mystery.  Queen Rhaella might have had a sense of triumph at the birth and maturation of a healthy son (muted, naturally, as Aerys refused to let her be alone with the child, or even touch him) that she had at last escaped the dark days of the past, of dead children and the king’s accusations of her infidelity.  Rhaella and Viserys  would spend key moments together, away from the king – staying home from the Tourney of Lannisport, sent back to the Red Keep at the Tourney of Harrenhal, and finally  spending her last months together on Dragonstone as the monarchy fell.  Viserys never spoke of his mother, except to blame Daenerys for killing her at her birth, but he must have felt her influence; quiet and gentle, she would have stood in stark contrast to the increasingly deranged king.   

For the nobility gathered in King’s Landing, it was a court on the edge of a volcano, waiting for the animosity between father and son to explode. For young Prince Viserys, it was the only life he had ever known. His protective but paranoid father, chivalrous but distant brother, and gentle but suffering mother had given his character a volatile mix of influences, soon to be tested by the trials of war and exile.

King of Ashes: Viserys in Robert’s Rebellion

Viserys, however, would not see firsthand the fall of his dynasty. The three-year-old boy had already been forbidden to witness the marriage of his elder brother to Princess Elia of Dorne – an expression of his father’s open loathing for his elder son and overprotectiveness of the younger prince. Two years later, Viserys and Rhaella were  likewise barred from the great Tourney of Harrenhal; while Rhaegar won the tourney and shocked the crowds by naming Lyanna Stark Queen of Love and Beauty, Queen and prince remained in King’s Landing. It was at this time that Viserys may have first been introduced to Ser Jaime Lannister, newly of the Kingsguard, who had been dismissed from the tourney to guard him and his mother. To Prince Viserys, Ser Jaime might have seemed another role model: closer in age to him than his own brother, young and handsome but already a skilled tourney knight and quick fighter, Jaime made a sharp – and perhaps welcome – contrast to the respectable senior members of the Kingsguard. The boy prince was still too young to begin real arms training, but – much as King Tommen would see the likewise young, dashing, and skilled Ser Loras Tyrell – Viserys may have already fixed Ser Jaime as a heroic figure in his mind – a fixture that the young knight would bitterly destroy soon.

To what extent Viserys knew of the most important events of Robert’s Rebellion is speculative at best.  Only five years old at its start, Viserys could not have had a great enough political understanding to grasp the causes of the war. He never mentioned the dual executions of Lord Rickard Stark and his heir Brandon, which horrific murders – especially Lord Rickard’s, burning alive – would have left a deep impression on the boy if he had been an eyewitness; it may be reasonably presumed, then, that he did not in fact see that event happen. Whatever information did trickle back from the front lines to the Red Keep would probably have been distilled for the prince by his mother or caretakers. Individuals of complex background and standing became simple characters, easy villains for a child to understand; questions of treason and tyranny, of the rights of kings and their vassals, would be parsed down to a simple tale of good and evil a child could easily rationalize. Daenerys would remember the villains of these stories later, quoting her brother’s lessons: 

And with [Robert Baratheon] stood the great lords her brother had named the Usurper’s dogs, cold-eyed Eddard Stark with his frozen heart, and the golden Lannisters, father and son, so rich, so powerful, so treacherous. (“Daenerys II”, A Clash of Kings)

Yet Viserys would not be in King’s Landing to witness this Lannister treachery firsthand. The Battle of the Trident had irrevocably turned the tide of the Rebellion to the rebels’ favor; war, which had seemed so distant to the court before, now appeared not merely a possibility but a terrifying certainty. Ever paranoid, now certain that the rebel army would make for King’s Landing, King Aerys ordered his wife and remaining son to remove to Dragonstone.  Viserys could not have known that he would never see again his father or the place he had spent his entire life, but he would have been certainly scared and confused. His gallant, heroic brother was supposed to smash the evil Usurper on the Trident and save the day; instead, his brother was dead, and that same terrible Usurper was racing to do the same to him and his family. Viserys would be haunted until his death by thoughts of the Usurper coming to kill him, but the nightmares probably started on the fearful voyage to Dragonstone.

Dragonstone, ancient seat of House Targaryen, might have appeared dark and foreboding to a little boy (especially one who had only ever enjoyed the splendid Red Keep), but it was safely away from the fighting on the mainland and protected by the royal navy. That safety would prove crucial for Viserys and his mother as more blows fell against their crumbling dynasty. True to Aerys’ fears, rebels – led by his old friend and Hand, Tywin – sacked the capital; Viserys’ former guard Jaime Lannister slew Aerys himself, while Elia and her children were brutally murdered.

Viserys, just six years old, likely did not comprehend the political destiny now laid upon him, though Queen Rhaella would have understood; only she, Viserys, and her unborn child remained of the royal Targaryen line. The queen may have insisted the modest household of Dragonstone recognize her son as the true King of Westeros, as Marie Antoinette was rumored to have done with her son Louis-Charles after his father’s execution; Viserys, never educated with the idea that he would be king, may have found himself addressed as ‘Your Grace’, a style he had only ever heard used with his father and mother. For a seven year old boy still grieving for his father and brother, the radical changes to all he had ever known and expected would have been much to absorb.

Worse was to come, however. In 284 AC, as a fearsome storm howled across Dragonstone and shattered the remaining royal fleet, Rhaella gave birth to her third surviving child. The queen lived long enough to name the newborn girl Daenerys, but  shortly thereafter died, leaving Viserys without a royal guardian – or, more importantly, a blood parent – to instruct him on his confusing destiny.

In the span of a year, Viserys had lost his father, brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew, and now mother. His home in King’s Landing had been invaded, and the villainous Usurper who had killed his brother was now sitting on the throne – a throne his mother had told him was supposed to be his. The nightmares he had suffered since the Trident, of the Usurper and his dogs coming to kill him, now seemed even more likely; indeed, Viserys may not have known it, but the Usurper’s own brother Stannis was preparing to sail for Dragonstone and take control of the remaining royals. Viserys likely felt lost, alone, terrified, and angry. Every person who was supposed to protect him – his royal father, his gallant brother, his gentle mother, the Kingsguard – had died (or, in the case of murderous Jaime Lannister, betrayed him).  He had not done anything wrong, but everything wrong seemed to be happening to him. His world was collapsing in on itself from forces far too complex and powerful for Viserys to understand; the would-be king was simply caught in the middle.

The King Across the Water: Viserys in Exile

For the moment, however, the would-be Viserys III would not be completely abandoned. Ser Willem Darry, former man-at-arms of the Red Keep and brother of the fallen Ser Jonothor Darry of the Kingsguard, contrived a plan to keep the Targaryens safe. Daenerys recalled the story, doubtless told to her by Viserys himself, of the daring escape from Dragonstone:

By then only Dragonstone itself, the ancient seat of their House, had remained of the Seven Kingdoms that had once been theirs. It would not remain for long. The garrison had prepared to sell them to the Usurper, but one night Ser Willem Darry and four loyal men had broken into the nursery and stolen them both, along with her wet nurse, and set sail under cover of darkness for the safety of the Braavosian coast. (“Daenerys I”, A Game of Thrones)

Viserys might have been relieved to be away from the Seven Kingdoms which had given him so much grief over the past year and a half, but his situation was precarious. The Targaryen wealth had been kept in King’s Landing and was now in the Usurper’s hands, and Rhaella had likely brought little with her to Dragonstone. Nor would Ser Willem and his allies, working in secret and stealing away at night, have provisioned themselves well from the Targaryens’ household; their flight was based on speed rather than sustenance. The little king might have hoped – buoyed by Willem Darry, perhaps – that powerful loyalist families (Ser Willem’s own among them) would shortly overthrow the Usurper and summon him back from his temporary Essosi sojourn. Indeed, Viserys might have recalled from his lessons the story of the Blackfyres, whose situation somewhat mirrored his own. A hundred years before, House Blackfyre (also defeated on the field of battle) had fled across the Narrow Sea, there to lick its wounds and plot its next attempt at retaking the throne “usurped” by Daeron II. Now, the great-great-great grandson of Daeron made the same journey.

The Blackfyres, however, had numerous advantages which the newly exiled Targaryens lacked. Though Daemon “the Younger” had been roughly Viserys’ own age at his own exile, he was fortunate enough to have the mature, ambitious Ser Aegor Rivers to guide his movements and plot for the future.  Some who had risen for the Black Dragon had followed his sons into exile as well, including the Stricklands and Toynes; the Blackfyre princes grew up not only skilled in arms, but fully conscious of their claimed inheritance, versed in the Blackfyre narrative by native and wellborn Westerosi. Bittersteel’s organization of the uniquely knightly, largely Westerosi Golden Company ensured that the Blackfyres would pose a threat to the realm decades after Daemon was shot down on the Redgrass Field.

By contrast, Viserys had only Ser Willem Darry. Ser Willem was a good man and true to the Targaryen cause, but he was no Bittersteel. Master-at-arms of the Red Keep (a position possibly granted him due to his brother Jonothor’s place in the Kingsguard), Willem Darry had neither the political acumen nor the fearsome reputation to give pause to the Baratheon regime now occupying the throne.  Darry’s loyalty was unquestionable, but Viserys needed more than mere loyalty.  He needed someone who could guide him in thto the awesome responsibility before him, to teach him what it meant to be the rightful heir to the proud and storied House Targaryen, while simultaneously managing his counter-revolution in Westeros.  Willem Darry was a good man, but he was not that man; he was an able knight and worthy arms trainer (if Rhaegar’s skills are any indication), but he lacked the acumen of command that could make him a fearsome (or effective) regent.

Darry’s contributions were not inconsiderate, of course. Seemingly without aid he arranged for a suitably grand lodging in Braavos for King Viserys and Princess Daenerys, and kept them relatively solvent through their four years’ stay there. Even more, Ser Willem signed on behalf of his king the marriage pact which betrothed Viserys to Arianne Martell.  While we cannot know the extent to which Willem Darry actually negotiated the pact, his very participation in its signing suggests that he had taken on an effective role as regent for the minor king. Though never trained to handle a political position, Willem Darry proved himself willing to take one on in service to the boy he saw as his rightful king.

Viserys himself likely expected to rely heavily on Ser Willem – as a manager, teacher, perhaps even foster-father – but he was destined to be disappointed. At some point in their exile, Willem was struck down with an unnamed disease, which in its last stages confined him to his bed. As possibly the only other Westerosi in the household (certainly the only highborn one mentioned), Ser Willem would have been the only one able both to continue Viserys’ education and to instruct him in arms, as he had once trained Rhaegar. Highborn boys would begin to squire around Viserys’ age, but the only other knights in Essos would be dubious members of the free companies, particularly the Golden Company – that force which not 30 years’ prior had invaded the Stepstones with Maelys Blackfyre. Increasingly sick, Ser Willem could not take on the task himself (and how bitterly Ser Willem, the former master at arms, must have rued the sickness which prevented him from doing the one task he could assuredly perform). Nor could he scour the free companies for a knight suitable for a king to serve as squire; indeed, without the pretender actually living in the house, and with Willem’s ability to terrify the servants into obedience curtailed by his illness, the largely Essosi household would probably collapse if Viserys left to serve in a free company. Ser Willem could continue to teach Viserys the history and lore of the Seven Kingdoms, but his “classes” would be based on his own education of decades prior; the lessons had not been designed for a Lord of Darry, much less a Lord of the Seven Kingdoms.

Even this situation, however, was preferable to what happened next. After just a few years in the Braavosi household, Ser Willem Darry died, and once again, an adult protector had been ripped away from Viserys by cruel Fate, though this time there would be no adult to step into that role afterward. With Ser Willem’s death, the household servants took what little money the Targaryens had and drove them out of the house. Viserys was around 13, Daenerys around 5; both would spend roughly the next decade on their own in unforgiving Essos.   

The Beggar King

The situation of the newly homeless Targaryens was dire.  In Braavos, Ser Willem Darry had at least been able to establish something of a court in exile; with a highborn Westerosi adult at the head of the household, the pretender king could at least gain a basic understanding of his role, and appear as the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne.  Now, the would-be Viserys III and the Princess Daenerys were left to fend for themselves on the streets of Essos.

True, their Targaryen name earned them some respect, especially in the first years of their wanderings; in a land where the dragonlords had once ruled supreme (and which had strong mercantile ties to the Seven Kingdoms), these direct descendants of Valyria and former royals merited some homage. Yet as their exile grew longer, fewer men of power proved willing to back the Targaryens; clearly, no loyalist Westerosi family seemed likely to rise up against the Usurper and plead for the return of their “rightful” king anytime soon. As money became scarcer, Viserys was forced to sell what little he had salvaged from their already-modest exile in Braavos; even Queen Rhaella’s crown fell into the hands of merchants. Only Rhaenyra, claimant for the throne in the reign of Aegon II, had suffered the indignity of selling a crown (though that had been no mere consort’s crown, but the crown of the Old King himself). That moment marked a dark turning point in Viserys’ life, as even young Daenerys could see; divested of the only symbol of royal authority which he had been able to bring into exile, Viserys lost what little actual authority he could claim (another poor comparison to the Blackfyres, who had managed to smuggle their famous eponymous sword into exile with them).

It was Viserys’ unfortunate fate that he lacked a natural protector, one who would have welcomed him with open arms and supported him, at least as an honored pensioner. When the Catholic James II of England was overthrown by his Protestant daughter, he and his son found refuge with his Catholic first cousin, the powerful Louis XIV of France; James’ son and grandson would live and die in a villa gifted by the Pope. When the Blackfyres sought a suitable place in Essos to regroup after their failure, the Archon of Tyrosh (home of Daemon Blackfyre’s wife Rohanne, and probably a relative of hers) welcomed the pretender court. Yet no one welcomed Viserys; he was lost in a land to which he had no natural connections and which seemed intent on not forming one with him.

Even the Golden Company refused to help the pretender king. True, the free company had never been a supporter of the Targaryens – indeed, it had been founded by Bittersteel specifically to place a Blackfyre on the Iron Throne.  Nevertheless, the Golden Company was the only specifically Westerosi presence in Essos, its members including knights and landless exiles who nursed claims (real or spurious) to lost lands in the Seven Kingdoms. Yet the men of the Golden Company had proved that exile far from their “ancestral” holdings was preferable to return to Westeros under Viserys’ red dragon banner. The rejection likely humiliated and enraged Viserys; he had now been denied not simply by third-party Essosi, but by “his people”, Westerosi, men who wanted to go home.

That lack of help did not mean men were not interested in him. Doran, Prince of Dorne, had not immediately declared for Viserys, as his brother Oberyn urged him to, when the Rebellion ended. However, he consented to the secret betrothing of his daughter Arianne to Viserys, negotiated by Oberyn and Willem Darry in Braavos (though, as Viserys never commented on it, it seems likely Viserys never knew – or did not remember – that he had been offered a Dornish bride and Dornish swords). Yet after the betrothal contract was signed, Doran made no attempt either to contact Viserys or to fulfill the terms of the treaty.  Prince Doran originally planned to foster hig daughter Arianne with the Archon of Tyrosh, but he abandoned his strategy (without, of course, telling the would-be king at the heart of it what he had done) when his wife, Mellario, protested. Despite his connections to the Free Cities – the Sealord of Braavos oversaw the betrothal treaty, the Princess of Dorne Mellario hailed from Norvos, and Doran himself fostered the Archon of Tyrosh’s daughter – Doran made no effort to give the exiled Targaryen royals a place to stay, much less hope that the Prince of Dorne and his bannermen would rally to their cause.  

Viserys himself believed in a far more nefarious interest in himself and his sister – namely, the interest of the murderous Usurper.  The pretender king was not entirely wrong; Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was infamous, and he would later demand from his council the assassination of Daenerys after her marriage to Khal Drogo.  To what extent Viserys was correct in his belief is up for interpretation.  Viserys’ paranoia over the supposed hired knives at his back harkens to the suspicion that had characterized the reign of his father Aerys, the Mad King. Aerys had suspected everyone – including his heir Rhaegar and his Hand Tywin – of hatching devious plots to unseat or kill him, and it seems that Viserys’ behavior mirrored that of his father.

But were hired knives after Viserys?  Daenerys’ (admittedly young) memories of her erratic childhood suggest that Viserys’ belief in imminent assassination was at least in part misplaced:

They had wandered since then, from Braavos to Myr, from Myr to Tyrosh, and on to Qohor and Volantis and Lys, never staying long in any one place. Her brother would not allow it. The Usurper’s hired knives were close behind them, he insisted, though Dany had never seen one.  (“Daenerys I”, A Game of Thrones)

Spending nearly a decade of wandering a land completely foreign in its language and customs, being constantly dismissed in his claim for a throne he had only belatedly been taught to believe was his, suspecting always that the men who had murdered his father and brother were close and ready to do the same to him – it would have been a trying situation for the strongest of personalities, and Viserys’ was far from the strongest. Frustrated at the lack of assistance from the loyalist families of Westeros, denied assistance by any adult, and cheated by the merchant princes of Essos who “stole” treasured family heirlooms, Viserys lashed out at the sister who had no way to understand his struggle.  Wandering around Essos was normal for Daenerys, but for Viserys, home would always be the Red Keep, with its dragon skulls and his father on the Iron Throne:

“We will have it all back someday, sweet sister,” he would promise her. Sometimes his hands shook when he talked about it. “The jewels and the silks, Dragonstone and King’s Landing, the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms, all they have taken from us, we will have it back.” Viserys lived for that day.” (“Daenerys I”, A Game of Thrones)

What Viserys did to Daenerys – physically and psychologically abusing her over years – absolutely cannot be excused or justified, of course. Yet theirs was a more complex relationship than, say, that between their own father and mother.  Viserys violently snapped at her childish desire to be a sailor, but he also sold their mother’s crown to ensure they could still eat; he used her to buy himself the promise of a Dothraki horde, but he also taught her all she knew about the Seven Kingdoms and its leading families (simplistic as those lessons might have been).  Indeed, Daenerys acknowledged what she owed to her brother during their long exile:

“My mother died giving me birth, and my father and my brother Rhaegar even before that. I would never have known so much as their names if Viserys had not been there to tell me. He was the only one left. The only one. He is all I have.” (“Daenerys V”, A Game of Thrones)


Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen (image crdit to Aprilis420)

Theirs was a complicated relationship from its outset, built on the unsteady foundation of stunted destinies and increasingly doubtful prospects.  Having only a limited experience with his parents and guardian Willem Darry, Viserys was not mature enough at 13 to play parent to his younger sister, much less to give her the royal education he himself lacked.  Instead, Viserys blamed Daenerys for what she could not control – being born too late to wed Rhaegar, killing their mother in childbirth – because, as he likely saw it, life punished him for what he could not control – the murders of his father and brother, the death of his mother, the loss of his kingdom. Any reminder that he was failing at his new life’s mission of being the Targaryen pretender would drive him to fury, forcing him to remember all of the uncontrollable accidents of fate that had pushed him into this role. His patience, probably not in great supply anyway, was whittled thin over years of exile; pride – in his Targaryen name and royal title, the only assets he had left – was his sole remaining comfort, slowly exaggerating the already-extant weak and cruel features of his personality. What he saw as an affront to that pride – including, for example, Daenerys refusing to show him proper deference as her king – he punished, pettily and cruelly, much as his father had pettily punished his “usurping” Hand, Tywin.

After long years of hopeless peregrination, however, the would-be Viserys III thought he had found a savior. Magister Illyrio, a merchant prince in the rich Free City of Pentos, welcomed the Targaryen pretender and his sister with open arms, giving them free run of his expansive manse. Viserys could not know, however, that even more disappointment awaited him in his future, nor that this betrayal would prove fatal.

A Crown for a King: Viserys’ Death on the Dothraki Sea

The final chapter of Viserys’ sad life began with the intervention of Magister Illyrio of Pentos and invitation to live at his manse. Not since he was a boy of 13 had Viserys had an adult protector, someone who could confirm him in his kingship and provide him with the royal state he thought he deserved.  Illyrio not only gave him the full run of his massive manse, and provided for his needs, but addressed him in royal style.  When seemingly no one wanted to support Viserys’ claim to the throne of Westeros (at least openly), the impossibly wealthy and influential Illyrio had rescued him and treated him as the king he was. Even better, he confirmed what Viserys already suspected: that Westerosi secretly but eagerly awaited his return, and would rally to their rightful king when he landed.

It was, of course, too good to be true. Illyrio and his spymaster friend Varys had been playing a longcon for 16 years, and Viserys was simply a necessary pawn to be maneuvered for their true goal – seating Young Aegon on the Iron Throne. Illyrio saw that Viserys had hit a nadir of desperation and began nursing his ego.  A year of such behavior would have been no less than intoxicating to Viserys; denied royal treatment for years, he now had one of the richest men in the rich city of Pentos backing him and giving him all the royal styles he craved. That intoxication was crucial. Illyrio and Varys needed Viserys to be completely reliant on the magister to agree to their machinations. For years, Varys and Illyrio had ignored the Targaryen royals for years, allowing the worst parts of Viserys’ personality (including his deep paranoia) to become exacerbated; then, as if overnight, Illyrio flooded Viserys with smooth confirmations of the rightfulness of his claim (a clear reversal of Illyrio and Varys’ scrupulous and early training of Young Aegon). Illyrio became the balm to Viserys’s shattered pride, and Viserys increasingly listened to Illyrio’s whispers to find the comforts that had been long lacking in his life.

What neither conspirator realized was that Viserys was by this point in his life too fractured  a personality to follow any scheme other than his own.  Over a decade of playing the Targaryen pretender under increasingly desperate and poor circumstances had turned Viserys from a presumably handsome young prince (as his father had been) to a gaunt, suspicious figure absolutely focused on gaining what was his by rights and punishing those who denied him. To that end, Viserys would pay any price – including selling his sister and only remaining family member to a “barbarian” Dothraki horselord – but he would not surrender any control over his fate. Not only did Viserys attempt to claim Daenerys’ maidenhead prior to her wedding (a last desperate attempt to exert his Targaryen “royal” authority, claiming the dual ancient rights of Valyrian incest and first night), but he would follow Drogo’s khalasar – a reminder, as he believed, that the rightful Lord of the Seven Kingdoms had bought the warlord’s armed services and expected to be repaid in due course.

It was, of course, a foolhardy decision. Viserys had barely survived in Essos as a pretender to the Westerosi throne; the customs of the Free Cities might have been different from those of Westeros, but enough of these city-states had dipped into Westerosi (or Westerosi-involved) politics to understand what Viserys’ claimed position meant. The Dothraki, however, were the most alien culture Viserys was likely to meet (at least west of the Bone Mountains). Their language and customs were foreign, far more so than the metropolitan cultures of the Free Cities and the lingua franca of High Valyrian to be heard throughout the Essosi city-states. The “rightful” claimant to an iron chair across the poison water meant almost nothing to the warlike horselords who made their living through plundering Essos. Viserys was no warrior, able to impress a culture which respected only strength; in the eyes of the Dothraki, the pale-haired khalakka who had never swung a sword in battle, much less assembled a khalasar of his own, was clearly not a man to respect.  

Daenerys, for her part, might have been content to adopt the ways of the people who treated her so (relatively) grandly, but Viserys had no desire to do the same.  The same oversimplification of the world which had colored his childhood perception of Robert’s Rebellion now seemed to apply to his adult views as well. He was Viserys III, rightful King of Westeros; Daenerys would always be his obedient baby sister, the coin with which he would buy an army; and the Dothraki were merely barbaric savages, thought useful in their fighting prowess, who would be his sword arm when he took back his homeland.  

Indeed, Viserys grossly underestimated the growing influence of his younger sister. He had raised Daenerys on his own desperation and homesickness, never missing an opportunity to remind her that she was a princess, the blood of the dragon. Yet Daenerys had also suffered the same privations as her brother; if she had never known another life, that fact did not make their poor circumstances any less degrading. Made Drogo’s khaleesi, however, and able to gain influence over her warlord husband, Daenerys discovered that she had the power to control (at least in a limited fashion) a hundred thousand people. If Illyrio’s royal styling of Viserys had been intoxicating after years of denial from every corner of Essos, Daenerys’ actual power must have been even more so to a girl who had always been second to her royal claimant brother. Now the khaleesi struggled to reconcile Viserys’ place in her mind: the weak, cruel brother who refused to respect her and the authority she wielded versus the rightful Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, to whom she owed fealty and devotion.

Viserys’ discovery of his lack of control over Daenerys marked the final breaking point of his short life. Neither disparaging language nor physical violence – those forces which had proved so useful to Viserys in their wanderings around Essos – could now cow a girl whose husband commanded an army 40,000 strong. Viserys now faced a sister willing to defy him, even humiliate him, if he rebuked her. Though Viserys did not recognize the supreme insult of his Dothraki nicknames – Khal Rhae Mar, the Sorefoot King, and Khal Rhaggat, the Cart King – he would not have been blind or deaf to the snickerings of the Dothraki who saw him; no man who walked or rode a cart could ever be respected as a man, much less a would-be khal.  His father Aerys had taken murderous vengeance upon the Darklyns and Hollards who had so humiliated him at Duskendale, even daring to strike his royal person; Viserys, raised largely in a post-Duskendale court, likely saw a need to remind the insolent Dothraki and his sister that no man mocked the dragon without cost.

These feelings – of humiliation and weakness, fear and rage, desperate pride and fading hope – came to a head in Vaes Dothrak. Viserys had traveled in the khalasar for months, going ever farther east, thousands of leagues away from the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. Drogo had made no move to fulfill his end of the Daenerys bargain; now that his unborn son had been proclaimed the “stallion who mounts the world”, the powerful khal would doubtless be more interested in forging his son’s imperial inheritance than in following Viserys back to the foreign land of Westeros across the sea. The city of the horselords, at the far edge of “western” Essos, made a convenient line in the sand from which Viserys could deliver his ultimatum to Drogo (or, rather, to the sister who served as the necessary conduit to the khal):

“I want what I came for,” he told her. “I want the crown he promised me. He bought you, but he never paid for you. Tell him I want what I bargained for, or I’m taking you back. You and the eggs both. He can keep his bloody foal. I’ll cut the bastard out and leave it for him.” (“Daenerys V”, A Game of Thrones)

His drunken demand might have been comical to the unimpressed Dothraki in another context – but Viserys had drawn his sword while delivering it. To bear steel in Vaes Dothrak is a grievous crime, and to shed a free man’s blood within the sacred city equally so. While a naked blade may be a clear Westerosi sign of the threat its owner wished to convey to his audience (it is no mistake that Robb greets Tyrion Lannister with a sword unsheathed across his knees), the Dothraki saw only a man insulting their sacred laws. Worse, Viserys had pricked Daenerys with its point; the blood she would have shed would have been minimal at best, but such a grievous crime taken against a khaleesi doomed Viserys, had he but known it.

In the end, Viserys’ death was full of ironies. He who had been so proud of being the blood of the dragon had been burned to death by molten liquid. He whose father had burned men alive as criminals now found himself receiving a similar punishment. He who had spent the vast majority of his life begging for a crown had received a fiery golden one. Yet it was also a tragically pathetic end. He who had been denied aid to take “his” throne so many times received the briefest moment of hope, and was allowed a few seconds to smile at the fulfillment of his destiny before being cruelly disillusioned. He who had asserted his haughty royal standing at every turn was reduced to a childish, animalistic creature, screaming, crying, and whimpering as he died. He who had sacrificed much to ensure that he and his baby sister survived their tumultuous exile and regain their royal places in Westeros saw as his last vision that same sister, no mercy in violet eyes she shared with him, making no move to stop her husband from giving him his “rightful” crown.


You were supposed to be my wife, to bear me children with silver hair and purple eyes, to keep the blood of the dragon pure. I took care of you. I taught you who you were. I fed you. I sold our mother’s crown to keep you fed …

“You never understood. Dothraki do not buy and sell. They give gifts and receive them. If you had waited …”

I did wait. For my crown, for my throne, for you. All those years, and all I ever got was a pot of molten gold.  (“Daenerys X”, A Dance with Dragons)

There are many and valid reasons not to mourn or sympathize with Viserys Targaryen. In life, he was cruel and weak, a man who had no qualms about physically and psychologically abusing his younger sister to achieve his ends. His foolishness is remarkable not merely to us as readers but to the characters who knew him; willing to believe any flattery that confirmed his own opinions, Viserys refused to accept sensible advice and died because of his open ignorance and disdain of Dothraki customs.

Yet there is more to Viserys than merely a one-dimensional villain, an overly simple character to despise in life and cheer in death.  His paranoia, suspicion, and fear were direct consequences of his brief royal childhood and sundering of his world in Robert’s Rebellion.  The mantle of pretender rested heavily on a boy who had never dreamed of the role, and the adults who should have helped him (or at least had an interest in his survival and claim) did nothing to aid his trials. Years of exile changed the already-weak prince into the villain who appears in A Game of Thrones, and if we do not mourn him, we might at least show a little pity to the last dragon prince.

Thanks for reading! Questions? Comments? Find me on Twitter, and follow the blog while you’re there! Remember you can also find the blog on Facebookand Tumblr as well!


Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF History, ASOIAF Meta

9 responses to “The Dragon’s Shadow: Viserys Targaryen

  1. Azaghal

    Excellent Essay on a character, who is too often oversimplified and villified for traits most of us would have after his life. It was a real joy to read this 😉

  2. Crystal

    Great essay! Viserys, like Cersei, was both an abuser and a victim (and that’s the way it usually is). Unlike psychopaths like Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton, one can feel sorry for Viserys and see how he ended up the way he did.

    Given that not only were his parents brother and sister, but so were his grandparents, *and* that the Targaryen bloodline was not exactly genetically sound, I can believe that Viserys might have had some inborn instability. But I think his upbringing would have traumatized and damaged a child from unrelated and genetically sound parents. It was like something out of Dickens after he went into exile, and even before that, Aerys went beyond “helicopter parent” into “chemtrail parent.” Viserys never had a chance.

    I think if Viserys had been fostered with some other family, and of course never had to endure exile, he might have turned out high-strung but basically OK. If Aerys (ha ha, I know) had arranged a dynastic marriage with Viserys to, perhaps, a Hightower or Royce daughter, and sent Viserys to foster with one of those families, then he would have had a stable upbringing with normal people. (Given that Bronze Yohn Royce was eager to take on Sweetrobin Arryn and turn him into a proper lord, he would have done everything he could to make a proper prince out of Viserys, and any “I am the dragon, you can’t tell ME what to do” nonsense would have been nipped in the bud. Interesting what-if, there!)

  3. Lecen

    Excellent piece of text! I believe Viserys could have turned into a far different had his life been different as well. I don’t even think he was insane like his father, just really angry and traumatized.

  4. Tywin of the Hill

    The impression I got while reading about Aerys II youth was that he was pretty much like Viserys. Eccentric, prone to delusions of grandeur, and with a propensity to bear grudges.
    I think that both would have eventually turned out as they did, even without the Defiance of Duskendale or the exile. Perhaps they would have needed more time, but in the end they would show in which side of the coin they had fallen at birth.

  5. The Smallfolk

    Great essay. As nasty a character as he was by the time we meet him aGoT, the story of Viserys III is an unfortunate one. The whole awful story is told in snippets during the course of the first book and illuminated further in the rest, but his plight is easily missed when we’re faced only with his current character and his questionable choices and motivations. The various and numerous trials and humiliations that he had to face from an early age paint him as a tragic figure continuously left out in the cold by circumstances outside of his control;
    -> cruelly stripped of the only life he knew to live in comparative squalor by a war against his father for which he never really understood
    -> struggling there-after to provide for not only himself but also for his infant sister on the streets of foreign cities that did not even speak his language for the most part
    -> laughed at by people from his own continent who could genuinely help him without knowing that they were privy to larger plans that he was no part of that were secretly working against him
    -> fed half-truths and out-and-out lies by powerful people looking to use him and his sister for their own ends

    The fact that he and his sister survived for so long says a lot about him and makes his end all the more tragic, however that’s not to say he wasn’t a piece-of-work though who didn’t deserve the end he got. He was the one who spelled his own downfall in the end.

  6. An amazing essay on a character that is much vilified and misunderstood in the ASOIAF community. When I first read AGOT, I was saddened that Viserys died halfway through the novel. He seemed to have so much potential as a villain. Of course, his death, much like Drogo’s, is an important part of Daenerys character arc.

    After reading all of the 5 existing books, my view of Viserys changed. I no longer saw him as a villain, but as a tragic figure. Although I could never agree with or justify his decisions and actions in regards to his treatment of Daenerys, I can understand how a scared little boy was transformed into an angry, twisted, bitter young man after years of tragedy, loss and fear. Now, I can’t help but wonder how Viserys’ life may have turned out if he hadn’t been under his father’s influence, if Rhaegar hadn’t died at the Trident, if he had been wise enough to avoid Illyrio’s flattery and machinations, or if he had been patient and understanding of Dothraki culture and customs. There are so many “what if’s” with Viserys. But had anything gone his way, we would have never gotten Daenerys’ rise to power or her dragons, nor would we be discussing the tragedy that was Viserys life.

  7. Viserys might never have been The Most Stable Person, but in a happier world, he could be a smirking, annoying, dynastically unimportant prince. Still, even pre-Rebellion the Targ family situation was toxic; I wouldn’t want an older brother like prophecy-obsessed Rhaegar, though I suppose his kids might be all right playmates. I think I agree with others; best case scenario, Rhaegar succeeds and he gets betrothed to an heiress of a Great House and fostered out. Leaving aside that Rhaegar might decide Viserys should make a completely nonsensical match For Prophecy. Maybe he and Dany would make the politically important matches in order for Rhaegar to justify Rhaenys marrying Aegon… who knows?

  8. Renatta Hosein-Bishop

    A really great write up! I too have always felt a little sorry for the tragedy that was Viserys’ life. The one point I want to make in addition to everything that was mentioned here is this: Viserys grew up watching and learning from his father’s extreme paranoia and at a young age saw that his father, as insane as everyone thought him to be- WAS ACTUALLY RIGHT- he died with a sword through the back from one of his own Kingsguard! I have no doubt that Aerys’ death justified his “insanity” from the perspective of young Viserys.

  9. Pingback: “La sombra del dragón: Viserys Targaryen” (t) | Un blog a cinco alturas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s