Few authors have as much power to draw you in with fun characters and thrilling adventures—and then crush your spirit utterly—as George R.R. Martin. But the latest way that Martin managed to make me lose all hope for humanity was especially sneaky. And just tremendously soul-shredding.
Here’s your spoiler warning—if you’re not up to speed on all things GRRM, you might get spoiled. Really! I can’t go into any more detail without actually giving a spoiler. Here’s a gif of Jon Snow versus Michael Jackson, to let you decide whether to take the plunge.
So I am speaking of the Dunk and Egg tales. They’ve been around for years, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading them until they were collected in a shiny volume late last year, called A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
These are a series of three novellas, which take place decades before A Game of Thrones, and they follow a hedge knight named Ser Duncan the Tall (aka “Dunk”) who somehow acquires a very unusual squire named “Egg.” In fact, Egg is really Aegon Targaryen, a royal prince who is too far down the line of succession to have much hope of gaining the throne. Dunk and Egg travel around, having adventures, and Egg sees how the common people live, in a similar fashion to King Arthur going by “Wart” in The Once and Future King.
These stories are more light-hearted and whimsical than Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire tends to be, because they take place more or less during peacetime, and the stakes are generally lower (apart from some larger conspiracies here and there.) But they frequently deal with the awful consequences of those endless wars of dynastic succession in Westeros. And in the second, and most fascinating, story, Dunk and Egg deal with a minor local lord, whose neighbor has annexed his stream, and it’s a microcosm of how difficult and complicated government can be.
As I wrote in my review back in October, Dunk and Egg have a cameraderie that feels very reminiscent of Pod and Brienne in the other books. And even though we know that Egg will become King Aegon V, he and Dunk feel like total underdogs, who sleep in ditches and get a raw deal every time. Dunk is always threatening to clout the future king on the ear, and their friendship is both sweet and earthy.
And the “royal person moves among ordinary people in disguise” trope is one of the best, full stop. Besides Wart, there’s Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and all the many incognito princesses. We’re conditioned by pop culture to believe that any prince or princess who goes among the common people will become an amazing ruler, whose reign will be both just and harmonious. And part of what we see happening in the Dunk and Egg stories is Egg discovering for himself just how challenging and insoluble the problems of statecraft are.
So you sort of expect to end with a hazy sense that Egg became a wise king, who ruled over a contented, peaceful realm, as a result of all the wisdom he gained from being “half a peasant” in his youth. Right?
But this is George R.R. Martin we’re talking about here.
When we talked to Martin at Comic-Con 2013, he told us:
There is always this presumption that if you are a good man, you will be a good king. [Like] Tolkien — in Return of the King, Aragorn comes back and becomes king, and then “he ruled wisely for three hundred years.” Okay, fine. It is easy to write that sentence, “He ruled wisely”.
What does that mean, “He ruled wisely?” What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs? I mean did he just pursue a genocidal policy, “Let’s kill all these fucking Orcs who are still left over”? Or did he try to redeem them? You never actually see the nitty-gritty of ruling.
I guess there is an element of fantasy readers that don’t want to see that. I find that fascinating.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been so disappointed when I found out what actually happens when Egg the lovable squire becomes a king. Martin published a ginormous volume called The World of Ice and Fire back in 2014, and it contains the whole story of Aegon V’s reign. Given that Aegon ruled not long before King Robert—his older brother Maester Aemon is still alive in A Game of Thrones—it makes sense that Aegon didn’t leave Westeros a paradise. But still, it’s a major bummer.
Basically, Egg becomes king because there are no other better heirs, although it takes a Great Council of hundreds of lords to decide on the succession. And then... shit happens.
First off, Aegon takes the throne in the middle of an epic winter that lasts years, and causes widespread starvation—and his attempts to send grain to ease the hunger in the north only win him more enemies in the south. And those wars of dynastic succession which caused complications for young Egg are still going on once he becomes king. As The World of Ice and Fire puts it, “the unlikely king was forced to spend much of his reign in armor, quelling one rising or another.”
Meanwhile, Aegon attempts to push through reforms to give more rights and protections to the common people, but this only provoked defiance from the lords under him. The more Aegon tried to rule, the more frustrated he became by the process of compromise. It seems like, reading between the lines, he learned compassion for the smallfolk, but not realpolitik, from his time as a squire. Even though he witnessed firsthand the trickiness of sorting out disputes like the one over a minor lord’s “Chequy water,” he hasn’t fully taken on board how difficult statecraft actually is.
And then there are Aegon’s children. He married for love, back when nobody thought he had a serious shot at becoming king. And now, all of his kids want to marry for love as well. (Including one son and daughter who want to carry on the fine Targaryen tradition of incestuous marriage.) Aegon has promised all his kids in marriage to various noble houses, and this is a major cornerstone in his plan to build support for his reforms among the nobility—so it’s a huge setback when all of his kids defy him and marry whom they want.
So Aegon’s reign wasn’t particularly successful, overall. He was constantly fighting off rebels, sellswords and pretenders. His reforms were thwarted at every turn. His kids screwed him over. But that’s not why the story of Dunk and Egg leaves me feeling utterly depressed. Rather, I’m horribly bummed about the way they both die.
After facing defiance from his lords and his children, King Aegon becomes obsessed with bringing back dragons. If only he had command of some dragons, the way his ancestors did, he figures he could make everybody obey him. Instead of finding a practical solution to his problems as a ruler, or deploying any of the underdog, scrappy resourcefulness that he was so good at as a boy, he decides his only hope is to wield a few WMDs, so he can exercise despotic power for the good of the realm.
As Aegon gets older, his desire to find a way to bring back dragons grows, until it’s all he can think about. He sends people all over the place, to the farthest reaches of Essos, in search of lore that could bring those dragon eggs back to life and make them hatch once more.
And then, just as Aegon is celebrating the birth of his grandson Rhaegar Targaryen (who later gets killed by King Robert), he does some final experiment to try and bring back dragons. The World of Ice and Fire is vague about what actually happens. But according to other sources I’ve read online, Aegon tries to use wildfire (the stuff that Tyrion uses to nuke Stannis’ fleet) to microwave a dragon egg. And it kills not just himself, but Dunk and a bunch of other people. So Egg dies in the most pointless, foolish, arrogant manner possible, and takes his best friend with him.
Not only that, but in his obsession with dragons, King Aegon has neglected the threat of the “Ninepenny Kings,” an alliance of sellswords with a pretender to the throne, Maelys the Monstrous. As soon as Aegon is dead, the Ninepenny Kings descend and plunge Westeros into a new and horrendous war, that is only settled when a young knight named Ser Barristan Selmy slays Maelys the Monstrous in single combat. Aegon’s son reigns only a couple years, and then is succeeded by... the Mad King.
So even in the short term, Aegon didn’t really leave Westeros better than he found it, and if he hadn’t gotten obsessed with bringing back dragons at the expense of actually ruling, he could have saved everyone a lot of suffering. But his pointless death is what shows that he didn’t really learn enough from his unique experience, back when he was known as Egg.
Top image: Song of Ice and Fire Calendar 2014, art by Gary Gianni. Jon Snow vs. Michael Jackson gif via Sawdust Films. All other art by Gary Gianni, from A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.