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Game of Thrones season 7 premiere: Dragonstone and the Targaryens, explained

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode one, “Dragonstone.”

Game of Thrones’ new season premiere ends with a scene fraught with import, as Daenerys Targaryen and her invasion force finally land in Westeros.

It’s a big scene in part because Dany is now setting foot on the soil of her native continent for the first time in the entire series, after six seasons’ worth of buildup. (Some book readers have been waiting for this to happen since 1996, when A Game of Thrones was first published.) But for fans who know the history George R.R. Martin wrote for the Targaryen family, there’s even more resonance in Daenerys’s specific choice of landing site: the island of Dragonstone.

Viewers may recognize the island and its stone-dragon-filled castle because it served as the home base for Stannis Baratheon in several previous seasons. But in Martin’s mythology, Dragonstone is much more than “that place Stannis spent a lot of time sulking.”

It’s the first territory Dany’s Targaryen ancestors claimed in Westeros centuries earlier.

It’s the place the Targaryens plotted the conquest of the rest of the continent.

It’s the place Dany herself was born.

And it’s a place that could hold the key to defeating the White Walkers.

Dany’s Targaryen ancestors came from the east and first landed at Dragonstone

Dany sails to Westeros at the end of season six.

In Martin’s history, most of the major families we’re aware of (such as the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Greyjoys) are said to have lived in Westeros for thousands of years. The Targaryens, in contrast, are relative newcomers. Their ancestral roots are instead on Essos, the eastern continent Daenerys has been traipsing around for the past six seasons.

Specifically, the Targaryens are descended from the people of the ancient city of Valyria — the dragon-powered empire that dominated much of Martin’s world centuries ago, in a sort of analogue to the real-world Roman Empire. The Targaryens’ white hair (and, in the books, purple eyes) mark them as Valyrian rather than Westerosi.

According The World of Ice and Fire, a companion book by Martin — a relevant excerpt from which you can read here — the Targaryens were just one among many Valyrian noble “dragonlord” families.

But the Targaryens stood out for their exquisite timing. That’s because they decided to pull up their roots and move away from Valyria just a few years before the empire’s mysterious and apocalyptic collapse (an event that entailed Valyria’s total destruction and the deaths of all the other dragonlords).

For their new home, the Targaryens claimed a small island off the eastern coast of Westeros, which they named Dragonstone.

Dragonstone was the first foothold the Targaryens used to eventually conquer all of Westeros

A scene from season two in which Stannis’s crew sits around Aegon Targaryen’s Painted Table.

Martin writes that for 100 years or so after the Targaryens took Dragonstone, they essentially left the lords of Westeros alone. Then Aegon the Conqueror came along and decided to shake things up.

Though Aegon only had a small army, he decided that with the help of his three dragons, he could take over the entire continent and unify its seven kingdoms under his leadership, making him the first king of all Westeros.

At Dragonstone, Aegon plotted his invasion. He had an enormous table carved and painted to look like a detailed map of Westeros. (You may remember this table as the one Stannis and Melisandre, er, enjoyed each other on back in season two.) Then, Martin writes in The World of Ice and Fire:

On the seventh day, a cloud of ravens burst from the towers of Dragonstone to bring Lord Aegon’s word to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. To the seven kings they flew, to the Citadel of Oldtown, to lords both great and small. All carried the same message: from this day forth there would be but one king in Westeros. Those who bent the knee to Aegon of House Targaryen would keep their lands and titles. Those who took up arms against him would be thrown down, humbled, and destroyed.

Through a combination of savvy diplomacy and dragon-powered military victory, Aegon and his sisters (who were also his wives… oh, you Targaryens!) took over the continent, one kingdom at a time.

Some royal families — the Starks, Lannisters, and Arryns — agreed to give up their claims to kingship and kneel to Aegon, and were therefore left in charge of their domains. Others — the king of the Stormlands, the king of the Iron Islands, and the king of the Reach — refused to do this, so Aegon had them killed.

Among the kingdoms, only Dorne managed to successfully resist Aegon militarily. Still, he declared victory anyway, founding the city of King’s Landing at which he would rule the continent, and melting down his enemies’ swords to create the famous Iron Throne.

King Aegon was followed by a line of Targaryen kings who would rule Westeros (Dorne eventually came around) for nearly three centuries, the last of whom was Dany’s father, the Mad King Aerys.

Still, the first island the Targaryens took always remained important to them — the heir to the Targaryen king was given the title “Prince of Dragonstone.” The final Prince of Dragonstone was Dany’s older brother Rhaegar Targaryen, who was heavily implied to be Jon Snow’s secret father in the season six finale.

Robert Baratheon, Ned Stark, and company eventually deposed the Targaryen dynasty, and Mad King Aerys and Rhaegar were killed. But Aerys had sent his pregnant wife Queen Rhaella to Dragonstone beforehand, where she gave birth to Daenerys. The queen died in labor, but Daenerys and her older brother Viserys were spirited away to the eastern continent before the Baratheons finally took over the island.

Dragonstone in the present-day action of Game of Thrones

Stannis sulks at Dragonstone during season three.
Helen Sloan/HBO

We’ve seen Dragonstone several times in previous seasons of the show — as the domain of Stannis Baratheon, who ruled the island after the Baratheon takeover.

Dragonstone was first introduced as Stannis’s home base when he joined the show in season two, and the castle was the site for several scenes where he, Davos, and Melisandre would alternately strategize, mope, and burn infidels. But it always had more of a Targaryen history (hence the stone dragons everywhere).

At the end of season four, Stannis abandoned the island to go north to the Wall. But he never made it back to Dragonstone, instead being killed outside Winterfell at the end of season five. (That’s Stannis’s fiery heart banner that Dany pulls down.) And lately, the Lannisters seem to have been too busy with their various other problems to secure the island — leaving it essentially undefended for Daenerys and her invasion force.

So now, Dany hopes to follow in her famous ancestor’s footsteps, and plot her conquest in Dragonstone while sitting around Aegon’s Painted Table (which she runs her fingers across toward the end of the episode).

But Dragonstone is important for another reason: As Samwell Tarly discovers this episode, it’s a volcanic island that holds deposits of the obsidian-like substance dragonglass, one of only two materials that the series has established can kill White Walkers.

The White Walkers shatter ordinary weapons that come into contact with them and even seem unaffected by fire (which can destroy their reanimated zombie servants, but not the Walkers themselves). So fighting them will obviously be a challenge.

Back in season three, though, Sam stabbed a White Walker with a dagger made of the relatively brittle dragonglass — and the Walker swiftly disintegrated.

Jon Snow later found out that another substance, Valyrian steel, can also kill a White Walker — but since the Valyrians were all wiped out centuries ago, this material is extremely rare. (If you’re keeping count, Jon, Sam, Brienne, and the Lannisters each have a Valyrian steel sword. There’s also a Valyrian steel dagger an assassin tried to kill Bran Stark with back in season one, though its whereabouts now are unclear.)

So to effectively supply a whole army with weapons that can affect White Walkers, our heroes will need a whole lot of dragonglass. And now that Dany has taken the island of Dragonstone, she’ll be conveniently supplied with the weapons her forces will eventually need should they someday fight the White Walkers. So she’s now strongly positioned to succeed not only in her conquest of Westeros, but also in that larger conflict lurking just beyond its northern border. What could go wrong?

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