In the ongoing War of the Queens in HBO’s Game of Thrones, the choice seems obvious. Between the ambitious but fundamentally decent Daenerys (“Dany”) Targaryen, and the murderously scheming Cersei Lannister, the fandom is all in for Dany. The show's writers seem to be, too: fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister, who pointedly believes in nothing, declares “I believe in you, Daenerys Targaryen”; Ser Davos Seaworth, a voice for compassion in a kingdom otherwise soaked in blood, jokes about “changing sides” to Dany--in the very presence of his liege lord Jon Snow, in fact. Meanwhile, from the dour looks on the face of Cersei’s brother-lover Jaime, even he seems resigned that Cersei's reign over war-torn Westeros must end.
But the writers and the fans have it all wrong. Their mistake doesn't lie in the characters of the Queens themselves. It lies instead in the legacies of their families, and what they mean in the context of history--including medieval-ish, semi-plausible, made-up history. To pick wisely, the right question should not be "Who do you prefer to have a cup of mead with?". Rather, it should be "Which side is better for Westeros in the long term?" And the answer to that is--very arguably--the detested Lannisters.
Exploring why demands a deep dive into fake history. In the canon of George R.R. Martin’s original novels, the Targaryens are the realm’s dynastic ruling house. Hailing from across the Narrow Sea, they conquered the continent using strategic weapons of mass destruction—giant fire-breathing dragons--to subdue six of Westero’s seven independent kingdoms (and exact the submission of the seventh). The Iron Throne itself was forged from the surrendered weapons of the Targaryen's enemies.
For three centuries, they brooked no defiance. Whole castles, like the impregnable Harrenhal, were literally melted into submission. Targaryen power could easily be called "pharaonic” in the depth of its absolutism. Indeed, it also resembled the pharaohs in the manner of their succession--by institutionalized incest within the royal house.
The predictable climax of all this inbreeding was the reign of the “Mad King” Aerys II, who planned to put down a rebellion by incinerating the entire capital and everyone in it with chemical weapons (aka “wildfire”, a kind of medieval napalm). The tyranny of the Targaryens was nominally ended by the military victory of Robert Baratheon. But the real coup de grace was administered by the Lannisters, who became the power behind Robert’s throne. This is where Martin’s first novel picks up the story.
Unlike the Targaryens, who ruled by blood, the Lannisters are most associated with finance, political gamesmanship, and clever use of diplomacy. Their family motto is “A Lannister always pays his debts”--a useful trait when forging alliances. The paterfamilias, Tywin Lannister, is a gimlet-eyed master of realpolitik who does not bed his daughter Cersei, but marries her off strategically. His son Jaime, the “Kingslayer”, was the one who finally put old Aerys out of his misery. True, he’s sleeping with his sister. But the fact that he killed a king and survived attests to a simple yet profound political development: that no one, not even the monarch, is above responsibility for his acts.
These two clans, admittedly, are not ideal options. But like the election of 2016, these are the choices we have. Is it better to be ruled by a closed dynastic family whose absolute power is backed up by magic creatures only it can control? Or one where power is negotiated, shared, and contested?
In actual history, the trajectory is clear: Europe became modern because its versions of the Lannisters, not its Targaryens, ultimately triumphed. Instead of god-kings, the continent evolved into a system of multiple, mutually-suspicious centers of power. Those rivalries led to competition between kingdoms that sparked revolutionary changes in technology and culture. And it was because of them that Lannister-esque Europe soon surged ahead of global rivals like India and China (ruled, appropriately enough, from its own “Dragon Throne”).
No doubt, Dany is the more immediately appealing choice. But there’s also no doubt about what kind of system she would seek to restore. It might be a just world, but only because Dany opts to be just. It might be a peaceful one, but only because Dany alone possesses the ultimate weapons. There would be no guarantees about her heirs. They might well might be more like the Mad King--or her insufferable brother Viserys, who was so stridently entitled he was killed by his own ally. Of the benevolence of kings, Thomas Jefferson was understandably skeptical: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
The Lannisters, meanwhile, are a withered branch. All of Cersei's children are dead. Petty and ruthless as she is, she still lives in a world defined by politics, not magic. As soon as she can't pay her debts, she will pass from the scene.
The Lannister’s plutocratic rule at least contains the promise of modernity. I can more easily see one of Cersei’s descendants, mortgaged and weak, signing a Westerosi version of the Magna Carta. The sons of platinum Dany, born to rule, backed up by dragons? Not so much.
Faced with the choice of Dany’s forever dynasty and Cersei's short-term tyranny, the choice is clear. When the armies of Westeros clash next, I’ll be rooting not for the Dragon, but for the Lion.
Nicholas Nicastro's latest novel, Hell's Half-Acre, was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.
© 2017 Nicholas Nicastro