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«By Rikke Schubart, associate professor, University of Southern Denmark Contact author: schubart Paper presented at the Conference ...»

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“Of Women & Dragons:

Pride, Postfeminism, and the Female Fantasy Hero in A Game of Thrones

(1996) and First Season of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011)”

By Rikke Schubart, associate professor, University of Southern Denmark

Contact author: schubart@sdu.dk

Paper presented at the Conference “Bestseller and Blockbuster Culture: Books,

Cinema and Television,” 21-22 March 2013, Aalborg University, Denmark

Working draft, plese, not for quotation


Of Women & Dragons:

Pride, Postfeminism, and the Female Fantasy Hero in A Game of Thrones (1996) and First Season of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011)   And there came a second crack, loud and sharp as thunder, and the smoke stirred and whirled around her and the pyre shifted, the logs exploding as the fire touched their secret hearts. She heard the screams of frightened horses, and the voices of the Dothraki raised in shouts of fear and terror and Ser Jorah calling her name and cursing. No, she wanted to shout to him, no, my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine, I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of dragons, mother of dragons, don’t you see!

Don’t you SEE? With a belch of flame and smoke that reached thirty feet into the sky, the pyre collapsed and came down around her.

A Game of Thrones (1996: 779-80) In the last episode of first season of HBO show Game of Thrones (2011–), princess Daenerys enters the blazing pyre of her husband. People around her think she is crazy and about to commit suicide when she walks into the fire. “I am Daenerys Stormborn,” she tells herself in the novel on which the television show is based, “daughter of dragons, bride of dragons, mother of dragons.” She believes fire cannot harm her and, indeed, after the fire dies out she is miraculously alive and holding three newly hatched dragons. Although I am no particular fan of fantasy, I recall feeling thrilled and barely able to wait until next season. I also recall thinking Daenerys was the most intriguing female hero I had met on television. But what, exactly, made her so appealing? What was different?

The show is adapted from George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire which has become the most popular fantasy series since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One explanation for its success is an unorthodox take on fantasy and, especially, the female hero. Daenerys is one of the series’ many male and female protagonists, and though it remains to be seen if she wins the game of thrones, she is a   1   prominent character. Here, we shall look at Daenerys as female hero in the book A Game of Thrones (1996) and season one of the HBO show Game of Thrones (2011–).

Drawing on genre theory, cognitive theory, and postfeminism, I will examine her as female fantasy hero, discuss the emotion of pride, and, finally, ask in what way she represents a development in postfeminist culture.

The Genre: High Fantasy

But first an introduction to A Song of Ice and Fire. Daenerys rather solemnly introduces herself several times in the novel, first when she silently comforts herself on her wedding night, then when she addresses her people before she enters the pyre, and last as she, again silently, reminds herself of her royal descent before walking into the flames. “I am Daenerys Stormborn, Daenerys of House Targaryen, of the blood of Aegon the Conqueror and Maegor the Cruel and old Valyria before them. I am the dragon’s daughter.” She exists in the world of Westeros, which appears to be on primordial Earth.

She belongs to House Targaryen, which is one of seven royal families who struggle over the Iron Throne in the Seven Kingdoms. The Seven Kingdoms were long ago united by Aegon the Conqueror who commanded dragons and they have since been ruled by House Targaryen. That is, until the throne was seized by Robert Baratheon, who at the start of the series has ruled for thirteen years. Thus begins A Game of Thrones (1996), the first book.

The genre is high fantasy which takes place in a secondary world. The scale of events is epic, which means they involve everyone and are narrated in rich details demanding a long story format such as the novel. Typical themes are the grand battle of good and evil, a coming-of-age story, and a quest. High fantasy combines elements from several genres. First, from myth and legends high fantasy has archetypical figures like dragons, witches, wizards, and so forth. Second, from the medieval romance, we find a heroic struggle where “a protagonist either has or develops great and special skills and overcomes insurmountable obstacles in extraordinary situations to successfully achieve some desired goal, usually the restitution of order to the world invoked by the narrative.”1 The “romance” of high fantasy is thus not that of today’s romantic comedy, but that of medieval legends and stories of Arthurian knights. Third, high fantasy shares what John F. Cawelti calls the moral world of the melodrama, which has plural Saint  George  killing  the  dragon,  Bernat   characters and stories intertwining in a grand Martorell  (1434 ­35) scale of events, an underlying moral principle, and a heightened dramatic impact. “In fact, its chief characteristic is the combination of a number of actions and settings in order to build up the sense of a whole world bearing out the audience’s traditional patterns of right and wrong, good and evil.”2

–  –  –

  3   his short stories and novels in science fiction and fantasy, and he had worked in Hollywood as a consultant and writer on series like The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast.7 We see his fondness for the short story format in the design of his books where each chapter is narrated from a character’s first person perspective. A Game of Thrones is narrated by nine characters, seven from House Stark, one from House Lannister, and the last is House Targaryen, the princess Daenerys, who narrates ten of the book’s 72 chapters.8 After the fourth book, development of the HBO show started in 2007 and premiered in 2011, winning two Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and awarded Outstanding New Program by the Television Critics Association. A second season came in 2012 and a third premieres March 31, 2013. Each season follows a book and an overall change is to postpone events by three years and make characters three years older. Thirteen-year old Daenerys is thus sixteen in the show.

The Female Fantasy Hero

What, then, does the female fantasy hero look like? Well, as a trueborn Targaryen Daenerys has lilac eyes, silver-pale blond hair, and is stunningly beautiful. She is thirteen, skinny, and terrified when Viserys sells her to the thirty-year old horselord Khal Drogo, who commands a fierce, nomadic warrior people.

Dany looked at Khal Drogo. His face was hard and cruel, his eyes as cold and dark as onyx. Her brother hurt her sometimes, when she woke the dragon, but he did not frighten her the way this man frightened her. “I don’t want to be his queen,” she heard herself say in a small, thin voice. “Please, please, Viserys, I don’t want to, I want to go home... “We go home with an army, sweet sister.

With Khal Drogo’s army, that is how we go home. And if you must wed him and bed him for that, you will.” He smiled at her. “I’d let his whole khalasar fuck you if need by, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too if that was what it took to get my army.”9 In the first book and the first season, Daenerys grows from an insecure girl bullied by her brother into a self-confident young woman, a khaleesi of the Dothraki people, and, when Drogo dies, a widow and mother of dragons.

Daenerys combines traits from a universal hero with the fairy tale heroine. In his classic study The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1993, original 1949) Joseph Campbell describes the archetypical adventure of the universal hero as “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”10 This structure – departure, initiation, return – is found in myths and legends across the world. The journey mirrors an inner transformation which ends with the hero’s discovery of his hidden powers: “He is ‘the king’s son’ who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power – ‘God’s son.’”11

Campbell describes his hero as a man and his trials as confrontations with a father:

“the work of the hero is to slay the tenacious aspect of the father (dragon, tester, ogre king) and release from its ban the vital energies that will feed the universe.”12 The underlying story is both religious – a god/son revelation – and psychological – “The mighty hero of extraordinary powers... is each of us: not the physical self visible in the mirror, but the king within.”13 This “king within” is a savior-figure who “brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole.”14 Like Campbell’s hero, Daenerys, too, was raised in exile and sent on an unwilling journey. She, too, is the chosen one, not the son of a god, but the daughter of a family   4   who once commanded dragons. And she, too, must face numerous trials in an initiation into heroism and self-awareness. Her trials, however, are atypical for a hero and instead typical for a fairy tale heroine.

There is an overlap between adventure and fairy tale, as protagonists in both genres face trials, tests, and supernatural events. An important difference, however, is that where adventure has a male hero, the fairy tale has a hero and a heroine with different initiaries. Both, says fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar, must learn humility and compassion if they are to pass the three tests. But where the fairy tale hero gains a kingdom, a princess, and the power to rule, the heroine may win a husband but loose what power she had. Also, the way she learns humility and compassion is different from a fairy tale hero. He just needs to befriend the magic beings he encounters on his way to solve the tests later on. Fairy tale heroines, in contrast, must be beautiful and good, and are often also vain and proud. For the latter, vanity and pride, they are severely punished. Tatar says they are “humbled in the course of their stories. In fact, humbled is perhaps too mild a term to use for the many humiliations to which female protagonists must submit.”15 If fairy tale heroes are happy-go-lucky, heroines are “victimized” and “abased and forced to learn humility.”16 They pick lentils in the ashes, are imprisoned in high towers, must be silent for six years, and are almost burnt at the stakes.17 Thus, their stories, tests, and prize differs from the hero’s. They are initiated into a life of marital submission, as feminists have pointed out.18 And their tests require abasement and deprivation rather than slaying dragons.

When it comes to initiation, fantasy is less rigorous than the fairy tale.

Campell says the initiation is “a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.”19 Where the fairy tale is short, initiation in adventure can be streched out indefinitely (or into seven books). After her wedding, Daenerys leaves the free cities where she has spent her entire life and travels across a vast continent of golden plains and mountains to the far-away city of Vaes Dothrak. Her challenges are not in the distinct form of the test, yet I will nonetheless summarize them into three distinct challenges: she must stand up to her brother, face her husband, and kill a witch.

The Test of Character

The second phase – the initiation – is a learning proces in both the adventure and the fairy tale. When the universal hero passes the threshold, he experiences “the ‘purification of the self’” and his “senses are ‘cleansed and humbled’.”20 So, too, the fairy tale heroine learns “compassion and humility, which are both acquired characteristics rather than innate traits.”21 Tatar divides fairy tale tests into an initial test of character where the hero must show compassion and humility to befriend magic helpers, next an impossible task which he solves with the aid of these helpers, and last a trial where he faces the ultimate advisary. Looking at Daenerys’ ten POV chapters, her initial test is to deal with her eight-year older brother which she does in chapters one, three, four and five. Here, the emotion of pride at stake.

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