Just War Theory and the Dance of the Dragons: Part I

Last year, I wrote an in-depth analysis of how the conflicts of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire relate to the principles of just war. In that series, I looked at how each of the primary combatants acted, first in the lead-up to the war, then during the fighting itself. Was either side fighting for a just cause?

Today, I’m going to do the same with the Dance of the Dragons, the conflict at the center of the Game of Thrones prequel show House of the Dragon. I will use Fire and Blood, Martin’s book about Targaryen history, as the main source. 

The Competing Claims

The Dance of the Dragons was a civil war fought between rival branches of House Targaryen. Much of the moral discussion around the Dance has revolved around the competing claims of princess Rhaenyra, oldest child of King Viserys, and her younger half-brother, Aegon. Thus, it seems only right to assess the two candidates’ claims as a way to determine whether either was right to go to war.

From the perspective of most readers, Rhaenyra seems like the righteous candidate. She was the king’s oldest child, and Viserys had designated her to be his heir. The main argument against Rhaenyra’s claim, namely, that she was a woman and therefore out of line for succession, is hardly a legitimate argument to a modern audience. Therefore, most of the discussion and advertising around House of the Dragon has centered on Rhaenyra and her Black faction as the protagonists, and Aegon and his Greens as usurpers. 

However, Rhaenyra’s gender was not the only issue at play in the succession, and the will of the previous monarch is not the only factor in determining legitimacy. In feudal monarchies, legitimacy is a vague, arbitrary concept that stems from a variety of variables. Important sources of legitimacy could include the judgement of the previous monarch, consensus of the court and powerful lords, legal precent, and the personal qualities of the individuals in question.

Even the most cursory look at either Targaryen or real history shows that legitimacy is a soup with ever-changing ingredients. Aegon the Conquerer had no legitimacy except for his military strength. Jaehaerys I was a compromise king, chosen by the consensus of the realm’s most powerful lords. Viserys I was elected in The Great Council of 101.

Indeed, one of the most important themes of George R. R. Martin’s writings is the farcical nature of feudal monarchy. Throughout he stories, characters write and rewrite the rules to suit themselves. Each of the participants in the War of the Five Kings, for instance, had at least a plausible argument for the legitimacy of their claim. Indeed, during the Dance, even Rhaenyra was willing to rewrite the rules when it served her interests. For political reasons, she declared that rulership of houses of Rosby and Stokeworth went to the younger male heirs, rather than their older sisters.

Rather than go through each claimant’s resume with a fine-toothed comb, (do I look like Preston Jacobs?) I’m going to leave it at this: both Rhaenyra and Aegon II had reasonable claims to the throne. Rhaenyra enjoyed the support of the previous ruler, and that of many of the realm’s lords. Aegon, for his part, had a similar level of support among the court and lords, and was backed by centuries of legal precedent, culminating in the Great Council of 101.

What is more important than the minutia of each person’s claim, therefore, is how they acted in the crucial few weeks between the death of King Viserys and the outbreak of war. Who made more of an effort at diplomacy? Who drew first blood? And who acted more recklessly in plunging the realm into a catastrophic civil war?


After both Rhaenyra and Aegon II had crowned themselves, the two sides exchanged diplomatic overtures. Rhaenyra was the first to propose terms for avoiding a cataclysmic war.

[Rhaenyra’s] first act as queen was to declare Ser Otto Hightower and Queen Alicent traitors and rebels. “As for my half-brothers and my sweet sister, Helaena,” she announced, “they have been led astray by the counsel of evil men. Let them come to Dragonstone, bend the knee, and ask my forgiveness, and I shall gladly spare their lives and take them back into my heart, for they are of my own blood, and no man or woman is as accursed as the kinslayer.” 

Fire and BLood

It’s hard to overstate just how unreasonable Rhaenyra’s terms were. Her only guarantee was that she would spare the lives of Aegon II and his wife and brothers. She gives no indication that she will spare Otto or Alicent (Aegon’s grandfather and mother) or any of Aegon’s other supporters. Furthermore, she does not promise to allow Aegon or his brothers to keep their titles, status, or station. Without lands or followers to secure their political future, Aegon and his family would render themselves defenseless and insignificant by agreeing to Rhaenyra’s terms. The offer, in short, does not offer a serious attempt to resolve the crisis without conflict.

Let’s now turn to the counteroffer sent by the Green council.

The terms offered by the king were generous, Munkun declares in his True Telling. If the princess would acknowledge him as king and make obeisance before the Iron Throne, Aegon II would confirm her in her possession of Dragonstone, and allow the island and castle to pass to her son Jacaerys upon her death. Her second son, Lucerys, would be recognized as the rightful heir to Driftmark, and the lands and holdings of House Velaryon; her boys by Prince Daemon, Aegon the Younger and Viserys, would be given places of honor at court, the former as the king’s squire, the latter as his cupbearer. Pardons would be granted to those lords and knights who had conspired treasonously with her against their true king. 

Fire and BLood

Aegon’s terms, while perhaps not “generous,” are nevertheless far more lenient than those offered by the Blacks. Aegon’s’ council goes farther than Rhaenyra in two respects: first, it promises to pardon all of Rhaenyra’s supporters, not merely her immediate family. Secondly, it guarantees lands and power to both Rhaenyra and her children. Keeping Dragonstone, a secure and prestiegous seat, would mean that Rhaenyra could protect herself and her family for the foreseeable future. Keeping her allies would ensure Rhaenyra’s political survival.

Nevertheless, I’m still not sure that a reasonable lord could have accepted the terms as initially offered. By placing Rhaenyra’s younger sons at court, Aegon is essentially demanding hostages from Rhaenyra to ensure loyalty and good behavior. However, these terms are a good starting point for negotiation. It is not hard to imagine a more reasonable ruler issuing a counteroffer, much as Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark exchanged countless messages during A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. Yet when Grand Maester Orwyle came to Dragonstone to deliver the terms, Rhaenyra rejected the offer out of hand and had the old man’s chain of office violently stripped away.

The relatively good terms offered by the Green Council is all the more striking because, at the start of the war, the Greens enjoyed a far stronger military position. By all rights, Rhaenyra should have offered the better terms, instead of the reverse. All in all, the Greens showed far greater willingness to avert bloodshed through the diplomatic exchange.


Many readers have speculated that the sources of Fire and Blood are heavily biased against the Blacks and Rhaenyra. Claiming that the Green’s terms were “generous” as Munkun does, is certainly an overstatement. It is possible that additional information could paint Rhaenyra in a more favorable light. Unfortunately, we must make do with the sources we have.


While the failure of diplomacy caused both the Blacks and the Greens to muster their armies and send out emissaries, it would be wrong to suggest that war was inevitable. Instead, the Dance of the Dragons began after the death of Lucerys Velaryon, son of Rhaenyra, at the hands of Aemond One-Eye, brother of Aegon II.

The death of Lucerys

Aemond’s action was far more significant than just one combatant killing another. In the world of feudal nobility, the members of the royal family weren’t just representatives of the realm, they were the realm. Killing one of Rhaenyra’s sons was the modern equivalent of stealing the water or natural resources of another country, that is, a direct challenge to their right to exist. Furthermore, Aemond also killed Lucerys’ dragon, Arrax. In a world where dragons are the ultimate form of military power, killing a dragon is like sabotaging a country’s nuclear arsenal or military infrastructure. And that’s not even counting the emotional effect of the death on Rhaenyra, the leader of the Blacks. All in all, killing Lucerys and Arrax marked a huge escalation in the conflict, the single point at which negotiation and mediation became truly hopeless. 

The killing amounted to a declaration of war, and outweighed all the Greens’ tepid peace overtures. And while the Green Council and Aegon did not directly order the killing, they deserved much blame for the conflict that subsequently arose.

The Blacks acted no better. Rhaenyra made no serious attempt to negotiate. Instead of responding to Aegon’s terms with a counteroffer, her faction began to take military action, blockading King’s Landing with Velaryon ships and seizing Harrenhall even before the death of Lucerys.

All in all, the Dance of the Dragons is a clear case of a war unjustly begun by both sides. Both Greens and Blacks proved stubborn and unwilling to carry out prolonged negotiations. Perhaps that was in part due to the years of festering hatred between the two factions. Either way, both sides proved altogether too quick in rushing into a tragic and ultimately avoidable war.

Next time, we will examine how the two sides fought the war. Did one side act with more restraint and decency than the other? How do dragons fit into our concept of the rules of war? Find out next week.

2 thoughts on “Just War Theory and the Dance of the Dragons: Part I

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