"Stormborn," the second episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season, featured gruesome violence, a lengthy nude scene, and the threat of dragons flambéing a main character — a typical Sunday night on HBO. But the most important moment for the long game involved none of the usual Thrones attractions; instead, a brief grammar lesson carried tremendous implications for the final 11 episodes of the show.
"The Long Night is coming," Melisandre tells Daenerys in High Valyrian during their chat on Dragonstone. "Only the prince who was promised can bring the dawn." When Dany responds that she’s not a prince, Missandei interjects: "Your grace, forgive me, but your translation is not quite accurate. That noun has no gender in High Valyrian, so the proper translation for that prophecy would be ‘The prince or princess who was promised will bring the dawn.’"
Dany smiles. Her eyes glimmer with confidence. "I like it better," she says. "And you believe this prophecy refers to me?"
Melisandre does. Now Dany appears to as well. The exact details of the prophecy are tricky (our in-house Maester, Jason Concepcion, dug through the history of it), but the basics hold that a fabled savior, born amid salt and smoke and beneath a bleeding star, will defeat the White Walkers. Dany’s acceptance of the PTWP mantle represents another mark in her favor as she fights for the Iron Throne — as if she needs another advantage on top of her three dragons, vast armies, and intelligent advisory board. It imbues her claim with mythos in addition to the birthright she already possesses; it makes her seem preordained to succeed. But the prophecy also might have been the worst news Dany could have received as she embarks on her Westerosi conquest.
To analyze how Dany’s acceptance of her apparently prophetic fate might affect her, let’s pivot to another queen. Ignore her central casting in the plot; Cersei’s greatest thematic role in the broader Thrones story is to exhibit the dangers of prophecy as motivation. It’s one thing for George R.R. Martin to illustrate his theory of prophecy via pithy quotes, like Tyrion’s in A Dance With Dragons: "Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head." It’s another for Martin to develop a main character and villain whose chief purpose is proving the merits of that pith.
Cersei’s motivation over many books and seasons of the show is to evade her own fate. There’s a reason the first flashback the show ever used — in the cold open to Season 5 — was young Cersei’s encounter with Maggy the Frog, who said of Cersei’s future children, "Gold will be their crowns. Gold their shrouds." In the books, Maggy’s fortune has two additional components: first, that the valonqar (High Valyrian for "little brother") would "wrap his hands about [Cersei’s] pale white throat and choke the life from [her]," and second, that another queen, "younger and more beautiful," would "cast [Cersei] down and take all that [she holds] dear."
Cersei was already a vindictive, self-righteous character in her youth, but Maggy’s words consumed her and morphed those negative traits into shortsighted, self-destructive, and prophetic self-fulfilling behaviors. It doesn’t help that she likely misjudges the identities of the rival queen or the little brother Maggy mentions. The valonqar is probably Jaime, but Cersei believes it’s Tyrion; she accuses the latter of killing Joffrey, eventually leading to Myrcella’s death after the Sand Snakes sought revenge for Oberyn’s death in Tyrion’s trial by combat. The "younger and more beautiful" queen is probably Daenerys, but Cersei believes it’s Margaery; she plots to destroy the latter, eventually leading to Tommen’s death. Gold shrouds came for all her children anyway, and in two cases as a direct result of Cersei’s own actions.
Cersei and Dany aren’t direct parallels here, as the latter seeks to fulfill a prophecy, not avoid it. But Thrones characters don’t fare any better when they eagerly embrace divinatory destinies. Melisandre has a track record in convincing royals that they are the prince(ss) that was promised, and Stannis committed atrocities in his misguided quest to prove himself. (That those atrocities centered on human burnings amplifies the worry that Dany, now with Melisandre by her side, could veer too far into Mad Queen territory.)
The list continues with a pair of historical examples. The Mad King Aerys II married Rhaella Targaryen, his sister, after a woods witch foretold that the PTWP would be born from their line. However, their union produced a succession of miscarriages, stillbirths, and dead infant princes, contributing to Aerys’s burgeoning paranoia. Their first son, Rhaegar — Dany’s older brother and Jon’s father — became obsessed with the PTWP prophecy, first believing it applied to him and then to his son Aegon. It’s unclear quite how Rhaegar’s fixation manifested, but the text suggests it influenced Lyanna’s kidnapping/elopement, thereby catalyzing the demise of the Targaryen regime and his own death.
Another book example comes via Victarion Greyjoy, a brother of Balon and Euron who was omitted from the show. After suffering a mortal sword wound in battle, Victarion is healed by a red priest at sea, in a manner that causes his wound to visibly smoke. Hello, salt; hello, smoke. (Adding another PTWP candidate midway through the fifth book is George R.R. Martin’s greatest in-text troll move to date.) The priest then fills Victarion’s head with sweet nothings about the Iron Fleet captain’s prodigious destiny; now, Victarion is off trying to steal a dragon in Meereen, a foolish decision that will lead in all likelihood to — again — his own death.
Employing prophecy in this fashion isn’t a unique device in fiction. It works similarly in the other most popular fantasy series in recent memory, too: In the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling builds the very notion into the key prophecy, which explains, "The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches … and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal." After hearing the first part, Voldemort fulfills the rest, attacking infant Harry and marking him as an equal. Martin isn’t reinventing (or breaking) the wheel, but he’s making it spin with a whole cluster of characters in the same thematic direction.
How will that pattern play out in Thrones Seasons 7 and 8, with Dany adding another lofty descriptor to her long list of honorifics? Forget Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains; she now believes herself the long-awaited savior of the human race from eternal darkness. Which she very well might be! Dany is the most promising PTWP prospect the story has produced, but with the way Martin twists prophetic meanings so that the obvious answer is likely the wrong one (see: the valonqar), there can be no certainty. The PTWP might be Jon, or Jaime, or some combination of characters in Martin’s most powerful example yet of the tricky nature of the half-trained mule. (I subscribe to that theory — that the different cultural interpretations of the prince that was promised/Azor Ahai/Last Hero/stallion that mounts the world suggest that one single person isn’t Westeros’s great hero.)
And if Dany isn’t that fated princess, she’s in the same trouble that Rhaegar, Stannis, and others were in before her. Humility would serve her well. Just compare two Targaryen quotes. In "Stormborn," Jon tells the assembled Northern lords, "You all crowned me your king. I never wanted it. I never asked for it," while in the preview for next week’s episode, Dany declares with typical bravado, "I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will."
Even if those assertions apply specifically to thrones rather than the broader prophecy, they illustrate the two leaders’ divergent approaches. One line implies a deferential attitude that allows for flexibility to ensure the safety of the realm; Jon’s just fine turning down more titles, titles, titles as long as he can repel the White Walkers. The other line exposes a strain of intransigence that brings Dany into perilous territory. Saving the world will require sacrifice — of friends, pets, and, most pertinent here, personal ambitions. Jon’s proved himself capable of doing so. Dany hasn’t, and her list of ambitions continues to grow.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.