Game Of Thrones author George R.R. Martin tells a story about how he didn’t plan on putting any actual dragons in the books when he started writing the first one. Then he had a conversation with fellow writer Phyllis Eisenstein, who famously told him, “George, it’s fantasy. You’ve got to put in the dragons.” Now he says he can’t imagine the series without them, and neither can we.
What would House Targaryen be without its dragons? What would Westeros be? A lot less interesting, that’s for sure. When Game Of Thrones begins, dragons are thought to be extinct, yet still spoken of in hushed, reverent tones, and memorialized in songs and stories. In the original HBO show, there are scenes where you can see the intimidatingly huge skulls and bones of the long-dead beasts beneath the Red Keep. It isn’t until the end of season one that dragons return to the world, thanks to Daenerys Targaryen.
The new series House Of The Dragon is set 200 years earlier, in an era when House Targaryen and their dragons were at the height of their power (their fates tend to coincide). Most of what we know about the history of this period comes from Martin’s 2018 book Fire And Blood, which provides the inspiration for the series. There are also tidbits of history sprinkled throughout Game Of Thrones. And this coming October we’ll have an even more thorough account with the release of the book The Rise Of The Dragon. For now, though, here’s a brief account of the history of dragons in Westeros and how they might be relevant to House Of The Dragon.
The Targaryens trace their lineage back to the ancient civilization of Valyria, which once took up a large part of the continent of Essos, across the Narrow Sea from Westeros (think ancient Rome with dragons). They were among several families of noble dragonlords, but when a young Targaryen girl named Daenys had a vision of a coming disaster, the family took off with their dragons to the island of Dragonstone, off the coast of Westeros. Not long after that, a cataclysmic event known as “The Doom of Valyria” destroyed the entire Valyrian peninsula, including all the people and dragons residing there.
Thanks to their foresight, the Targaryens and their dragons were spared. One of them, Balerion, a.k.a. “The Black Dread,” would become the largest and most feared dragon in the history of Westeros. He’s still living at the point House Of The Dragon begins, some 200 years later. His most famous rider was the first Targaryen king, Aegon the Conqueror, who united the Seven Kingdoms under his rule and was the first to sit on the Iron Throne (he built it out of the weapons of his fallen enemies). Aegon was the first, though not the last, of Targaryen rulers to use dragons as a cheat code in conquest.
But he didn’t do it alone. Aegon had the help of his sister-wives Queen Visenya and Queen Rhaenys, who had dragons of their own. Visenya claimed Vhagar, who was almost as large as Balerion, and just as fearsome. In the book A Game of Thrones, Tyrian Lannister says that Vhagar was so huge you could “ride a horse down her gullet.” Vhagar will have a few riders after Visenya, including two characters we’ll meet in House Of The Dragon (dragons tend to have only one rider at a time, but they may have many riders over their long lifetimes). Meanwhile, Rhaenys and her dragon Meraxes laid waste to all who would oppose House Targaryen, until they both perished during the first Dornish War, proving that dragons are not completely invincible.
At their strongest, the period during which House Of The Dragon is set, the Targaryens claimed no less than 20 living dragons under their command. Some of the prominent dragonriders and their dragons include:
- King Jaehaerys I and Vermithor, a.k.a. “The Bronze Fury”
- Queen Alysanne and Silverwing
- Prince Daemon and Caraxes
- Lady Helaena and Dreamfyre
- Princess Rhaenys and Meleys, a.k.a. “The Red Queen”
- Lady Baela and Moondancer
- Ser Laenor Velaryon and Seasmoke
- Prince Aegon and Sunfyre, a.k.a. “The Golden”
- Princess Rhaenyra and Syrax
Following this period of great prosperity for the realm and the Targaryens, a dispute over succession leads to the family turning against itself and the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. During the conflict, a large number of dragons (and their riders) perish. This marks the beginning of the end for the dragons of Westeros. They simply stop hatching; no one really knows why. Perhaps it was the savagery of dragon-on-dragon violence during the war that caused the remaining dragons to give up on the world. Within two generations, the last dragon will be born—and die soon after—during the reign of Aegon III, henceforth nicknamed “The Dragonbane.” The extinction of dragons brings with it longer, harsher winters, and weakened magic throughout the world.
Still, the Targaryens would manage to keep their hold on the Iron Throne for another 150 years even without any dragons to threaten their enemies. During this time there are several disastrous attempts to hatch the remaining eggs left in the world. One Targaryen king set an entire castle on fire in an attempt to hatch five eggs. Another simply tried sitting on one for a day and night, to no avail. The extinction seemed pretty permanent until …
More than 2o0 years after the events of House of the Dragon, Daenerys Targaryen is presented with three dragon eggs as a gift at her wedding to Khal Drogo. The eggs are thought to be petrified, but still extremely valuable. After Drogo dies, Dany’s companion Ser Jorah Mormont suggests selling the eggs to fund her quest to retake Westeros. Fortunately, she doesn’t listen. Instead, she places the eggs on her husband’s funeral pyre and then walks into the fire herself (her Targaryen blood makes her immune to the flames). For whatever reason, this precise combination of events at this exact time causes the eggs to hatch, and Dany becomes the proud mother of three baby dragons: Drogon (said to be a reincarnation of Balerion), Viserion, and Rhaegal. And that’s where the history ends, for now.