In Game of Thrones’ latest episode, “Stormborn,” while her ally Euron Greyjoy scores a tactically crucial victory at sea, embattled Queen Cersei Lannister plots in the crypts beneath the Red Keep with Qyburn about how to neutralize the real source of Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s strength — her air force of three dragons.
Qyburn explains that stories of Dany’s rise indicate that one of her dragons was wounded in battle back in Essos, and that if dragons can be wounded, that means they can be killed. To emphasize the point, he unveils what looks to be a gigantic crossbow (Leonardo da Vinci had a design for one) and shoots a bolt at the skull of Balerion the Black Dread, a long-dead dragon whose bones — like those of many other dragons — are stored in the crypt. The bolt shatters the dragon skull, suggesting it has enough power to kill one of the beasts.
Whether this will work in practice remains to be seen. But history — at least as revealed in George R.R. Martin’s novella “The Princess and the Queen,” which is set in the same universe as the books the HBO series is based on but about 170 years earlier — teaches that dragons can indeed be killed. They are formidable creatures, but not invulnerable ones, and there doesn’t even appear to be a particular trick or gimmick to killing them. You just need to hit them hard enough.
But killable though they are, history also teaches that dragons really are game-changing military assets. And like any weapon, their effective use requires a complementary political strategy. Westeros’s history has been profoundly shaped by the potential and limits of dragon-based warfare, and as Euron’s ambush of Yara’s fleet looks likely to leave Dany more reliant on her dragons, those same limits will likely shape the rest of her character arc.
The rise, fall, rise again, fall again, and rise again of the dragons
In Martin’s books, nobody is quite sure where dragons come from initially, but an ancient city-state known as Valyria mastered the art of training and riding dragons. The Valyrians then used their command of dragons to conquer a vast empire on the continent of Essos that was the dominant civilization of its era. Near the end of Valyria’s existence, House Targaryen somewhat enigmatically chose to leave the empire and settle on the island of Dragonstone off the coast of Westeros.
That was lucky for them because just a few years later came the mysterious and apocalyptic collapse of Valyria, known as the Doom, which entailed Valyria’s total destruction and the deaths of all the other dragonlords.
After the Doom, the only dragons left were the Targaryen dragons. And for 100 years or so, the family and their dragons more or less left the lords of Westeros alone. But then Aegon set out to conquer the neighboring continent. He had only a small army, but he had a dragon (the aforementioned Balerion whose skeleton is now in the Red Keep’s crypt), and he also had two sisters, each of whom also had a dragon. All three siblings had mastered the art of riding their dragons into battle.
Aegon’s successful conquest inaugurated a second golden age of dragons, whose total population eventually rose to 20 as the Targaryen dynasty consolidated its control over Westeros. But then, as depicted in Martin’s novella, a succession dispute led to a Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons (not to be confused with the fifth installment in the Game of Thrones book series, A Dance With Dragons, or the TV show's season five episode “A Dance of Dragons,” neither of which is about this civil war), which pitted dragon rider against dragon rider.
This deadly affair killed most of the dragons — and most of the humans with the ability to tame and ride dragons — leaving only four surviving fire breathers, two of which disappeared, with one roaming wild and untamed. Over the course of the next 20 years, those dragons died off, and the only new hatchling was stunted and deformed and didn’t live long.
Dragons were gone, until about 150 years later when Dany took three dragon eggs with her into a funeral pyre at the end of Game of Thrones’ first season, and they later hatched.
Dragons are definitely killable
The upshot of all of this is that, of course, dragons die.
Dragons generally grow more powerful over time, but Balerion is described as having died of old age when he was about 200 years old.
Dragons can also end up wounding and even killing each other in combat, as happened often during the dance. As described in “The Princess and the Queen,” Sunfyre killed Grey Ghost, for example, but sustained injuries that impeded him during a later fight with the young dragon Moondancer. Moondancer, too, ended up dead at Sunfyre’s hands, but Sunfyre sustained additional injuries in that battle, which left him crippled and unable to fly. After a period of suffering, Sunfyre, too, succumbed to his wounds.
But the civil war also saw dragons killed by more conventional means. At one point, a mob inspired by an eccentric preacher stormed the Dragonpit at King’s Landing and succeeded in killing four dragons that were hobbled by chains.
A variety of dragons have also been killed by being shot or stabbed in the eye. The incident with the most direct relevance to Qyburn’s plan, recounted in the Game of Thrones companion book The World of Ice and Fire, is that during the First Dornish War, the dragon Meraxes (one of the three dragons Aegon used in his initial conquest) was shot through the eye with a bolt from a scorpio.
Dragons are dominant military weapons
Killable though dragons may be, they are nonetheless by far the most dominant military technology in the known world. The vast majority of dragon deaths in combat involved direct confrontations with other dragons. A sneak attack on the hobbled dragons confined inside the Dragonpit confirms that they certainly can be killed by humans, but it also emphasizes how difficult this is to do.
When dragons are unleashed against forces that lack dragons, they have time and again proven to offer a decisive military edge.
During Aegon’s War of Conquest, dragons defeated both a massive combined Westerlands/Reach army in open combat on the Field of Fire and an entrenched force of Ironborn and Riverlanders who'd taken refuge at the allegedly impregnable fortress of Harrenhal (Balerion’s flames melted the stone). After witnessing the devastation of rival armies, Torrhen Stark and his Northern host decided that discretion was the better part of valor and chose to bend the knee.
Dragon-based warfare has its limits
Despite their potency at defeating massed enemies, dragons are fundamentally ineffective at controlling a mass of territory.
Consequently, when the Dornish chose to resist Aegon’s conquest via what amounts to a strategy of guerrilla warfare, they were largely successful. Targaryen dragons were able to devastate Dornish castles and prevent the Dornish from assembling a standing army in the fields. But like the American military fighting in Vietnam or Afghanistan, the Targaryens found that air power is difficult to use against forces that are willing to scatter and conceal themselves. Only large numbers of boots on the ground could actually control Dornish territory, a prospect whose costs proved daunting. Dorne was eventually brought into the Targaryen empire via marriage alliance, which helps explain Dorne’s semi-privileged position in the Seven Kingdoms (its leader is styled a “prince” rather than a mere “lord”) as well as Dorne’s strong loyalty to the Targaryen dynasty.
Dornish resistance, though effective, was also costly. That few ultimately pursued such a strategy is testament to not only the power of dragons but also Aegon’s pragmatism about his military objectives.
He was ruthless in decapitating regimes that opposed him — replacing the Gardeners of the Reach, the Hoares of the Iron Islands, and the Durrandons of the Stormlands with Houses Tyrell, Greyjoy, and Baratheon, respectively. But lesser houses that were willing to submit to him maintained their lands, castles, and titles. In exchange for surrendering, the rulers of Houses Stark, Lannister, and Arryn lost the title “king” but remained “lords paramount” of their respective regions, and in a practical sense they retained enormous autonomy.
Critically, Aegon did not attempt to reform political or social practices in any meaningful way. The Targaryens adopted the Faith of the Seven, while allowing the North and the Iron Islands to stick with their respective religions. Legal systems continued to vary from place to place, and the lives of ordinary people and even the lesser nobility and the vast majority of knights would have been essentially unchanged.
Daenerys doesn’t want to be “Queen of the Ashes”
At least twice in “Stormborn,” while plotting strategy on Dragonstone, Daenerys justifies her approach on the grounds that she does not wish to be “Queen of the Ashes” — i.e., a tyrant who comes to power by wreaking havoc on her subjects.
The precedent of Aegon’s conquest suggests it’s at least possible that she could execute a purely dragon-based strategy with perhaps less bloodshed than she fears. Dorne and the Reach are already prepared to submit; we know (but Dany doesn’t) that Jon Snow would gladly trade away his title for the giant pile of dragonglass she is sitting on; and Petyr Baelish is too much of a survivor to attempt to stand and fight against the odds. A targeted dragon strike on the Red Keep might well kill Cersei and break her political power with little need for further fighting.
People would die in this strategy, including innocents, but it’s far from clear why Dany would think that shuttling a Dornish army north and having it set siege to a major city would be a less bloody option. Now, given the defeat of her fleet at Euron Greyjoy’s hands, she may have no choice.
The larger issue is that while dragons are an incredibly potent tool for defeating massed armies and forcing the formal surrender of foreign political elites, as she herself learned in Meereen, they’re less good at executing a program of social reform. Given that slavery is already illegal in Westeros, it’s not entirely clear what she has in mind in this respect, but Dany is certainly an idealist, and idealism often proves to be an awkward match for a political strategy that’s based on flying death machines.
About that army of the dead
Ever since the first season of Game of Thrones, the show has made it seem pretty obvious that we are headed for some kind of confrontation between flying, fire-breathing dragons and the ice monsters in the North. Martin’s series of books is even formally called A Song of Ice and Fire, and the dragons sure seem like the fire.
Based on everything we know, this checks out.
Dragons breathe fire, and fire is the only reliable way to kill the White Walkers’ undead minions, the wights. White Walkers can also be killed by Valyrian steel, whose manufacture is a lost art just like the Valyrian art of dragon riding. But they can also be killed by dragonglass, a material whose name certainly suggests a connection to dragons, and which is available in great quantities on Dragonstone.
Given all this, it’s interesting that the legends of the Long Night — referenced in somewhat different ways by the Red Priests Melisandre and Thoros, by the Winterfell servant Old Nan, and by a few different Maesters — don’t say that the Night’s King was subdued by dragons. Instead, Azor Ahai and/or the Prince That Was Promised (the very same prince — or princess — that Melisandre referred to when meeting with Dany in “Stormborn”) slayed the White Walkers with a flaming sword, and Bran the Builder constructed the Wall to protect the Realms of Men long before the Targaryens brought dragons to Westeros.