What is the Hero’s Journey? It is a basic narrative pattern common across all cultures and time that seems to be shared by all heroic characters. With this in mind, mythologist Joseph Campbell designed a paradigm, also known as the monomyth, to identify the universal stages of the hero’s journey. In this series, we take a look at Game of Thrones characters and how their unfolding path follows the hero’s journey. This time: Daenerys Targaryen.
Daenerys Targaryen. The Khaleesi. Mother of Dragons. If ever a Game of Thrones character lived and breathed classic fantasy elements, she is it. It’ll be fun to see how she fits into Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which Campbell sums up as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.
But isn’t the Hero’s Journey a man-thing, a model built for testosterone spewing demi-gods like the Greek Achilles, stripped to the muscular waist bashing in the heads of monsters and fathering thousands of children with their gigantic man-tools? Wouldn’t the brawny, monosyllabic Khal Drogo be a better fit for the monomyth than little, doe-eyed Daenerys?
Not necessarily. Yes, the Hero’s Journey is skewed to the male perspective, because it was created by a male academic studying a long history of patriarchal societies where the mythological heroes on traditional journey quests were almost always male.
“. . . there are no models in our mythology for an individual woman’s quest.” —Safron Rossi, ed. (The Goddess)
Yet Joseph Campbell suggested that his model for male heroes could be used to study female heroes because the archetypes symbolize all humanity:
“The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women . . .”
While we can see elements of the hero’s journey in the female stories from ancient mythology, such as the Sumerian Innana and the Egyptian Isis, we are looking at lore fragments, not the original tales. The earlier earth goddess’s place in the cosmos was usurped by the arrival of male-dominated, patriarchal Semitic cultures who appropriated the heroic-questing elements of the female myth. The female hero quest did not reappear in force until thousands of years later in the forms of Athena and Artemis in the ancient Greek pantheon.
Since this is the third installment in the Hero’s Journey series, I won’t go into the whole explanation and structure of the Hero’s Journey paradigm/monomyth again, but if you’d like you can revisit the discussion here.
It is important to remember that the Campbellian Hero’s Journey paradigm is highly flexible, so not all stages need appear in order or appear at all while others flow through many other stages. You will notice that I have rearranged a few of the Campbellian stages to better fit the chronological order of Daenerys’ story.
In his book, The Writer’s Journey, author Christopher Vogler distilled Campbell’s 17-stage monomyth down into a more modern and manageable 12-stage model and we will occasionally refer to this more streamlined version as well.
Please note: this article traces the path of the Daenerys Targaryen character through a female-oriented version of the Hero’s Journey. If you’re interested in the mythological roots of the archetypal role of the Heroine, I recommend you also read my upcoming Game of Thrones as Myth: Daenerys Targaryen as the Heroine Archetype article, which explores how her character reflects the expression of the female hero archetype in ancient myth, namely in the forms of the Mother Goddess and the rescuer.
I have bragged all along that the Hero’s Journey is nothing if not flexible, and I think the paradigm can handle the focus shift between the male and female hero. The last thing I want to do here is jam a female character into a male paradigm (the whole ‘man with boobs’ mistake): as in the real world, the women on Game of Thrones experience different expectations than the men. GRRM’s heroines are as brave, intelligent, talented and confused as the men, but their genetic materials, opportunities and stations in life are different. I’ve included some research from female writers and academics who have tackled the feminine version of the monomyth, so I hope that helps broaden the perspective of this article a bit.
Lastly, I’d be suspect if I didn’t acknowledge that George R. R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been criticized for their handling of female characters in both ASOIAF and Game of Thrones. Before we go further, I’d like to remind the reader that since George R. R. Martin’s world springs from a primarily medieval base, the sex roles reflect that time in history when women were often seen as subservient to men.
What do we want to do here? First, let’s see if Daenerys Targaryen’s journey through Game of Thrones fits the basic framework of the monomyth. Second, if Daenerys’ journey fits, how closely does it mirror the traditional experience of the Campbellian Hero? Third, if we can label her a Campbellian-style hero, what might our findings predict, if anything, about the future of Daenerys’ character in Season 6 and beyond?
Let us embark with Daenerys Targaryen on the Hero’s Journey (monomyth) through Game of Thrones.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY, PART I: DEPARTURE
1a) WORLD OF COMMON DAY: the heroine, unfinished and incomplete, lives in her ordinary world before receiving the call to adventure. (This is a stage described by Vogler, not Campbell, but the world of common day is such a typical starting point for stories I decided to use the stage here)
The Daenerys Targaryen story begins in a traditional framework: we see Daenerys in her ordinary world of royal exile in Pentos, under the care of loyal Targaryen royalist Illyrio Mopatis and under the control of her older brother Viserys (S1/Ep1 Winter is Coming). As with the vast majority of ancient mythical female figures such as Brynhildr the shieldmaiden and Cinderella the persecuted heroine (the earliest variant of this tale probably being that of the ancient Greek Rhodopis from 7 BC), Daenerys is dominated by the male figures in the story.
Daenerys is unformed at this point, naïve, almost mute, a soft child being used as a pawn in the hands of her power-hungry brother who has betrothed her to the savage Khal Drogo.
1b) CALL TO ADVENTURE: the hero is presented with a challenge, problem or adventure and she can no longer remain within the safety and comfort of the World of the Common Day. She embarks on a journey into a new and frightening realm.
“The first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated “The Call to Adventure”—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. The fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground … but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delight.”—Joseph Campbell
It is important to remember that Daenerys, like Tyrion Lannister, is essentially captured and forced to answer the call to adventure, for she does not want to embark on this particular journey. We see the khal accept her as his bride to be, and her fate is decided. Daenerys is a political pawn, for the vile Viserys needs Drogo to accept Daenerys as his bride so he can gain control of Drogo’s army to retake Westeros and the Iron Throne.
“I need you to be perfect today. Can you do that for me? . . . When they write the history of my reign, sweet sister, they will say it began today.”—Viserys Targaryen (“Winter is Coming,” S1/Ep1)
Arranged marriages among nobility are as common in Game of Thrones as they are in myth and history, normally being used to cement political alliances; the biblical Phoenician Queen Jezebel’s delivery to King Ahab and the union of Prince Humperdink and the Princess of Guilder in The Princess Bride are good examples of this tradition.
The Hero’s call to adventure often occurs while the world or land is dying or under threat. We have already glimpsed the return of the White Walkers. Winter is coming.
2) REFUSAL OF THE CALL: the hero, not fully committed, considers turning back, but a mentor convinces her to remain.
Here is a stage where the female experience in Game of Thrones makes Daenerys’ journey different from that of most of the males. Daenerys does not want to be wed to Khal Drogo as a reward for allowing her brother to use his army. Her refusal of this call to adventure can be seen in her eyes and body language, but she accepts her role because it is expected of her in her culture. She is frightened and unhappy, but she is powerless to save herself. She, like Helen in the Iliad, is wife-as-property, and at the mercy of men.
“I don’t want to be his (Khal Drogo’s) Queen. I want to go home.” —Daenerys
“So do I. I want us both to go home. But they took it from us . . . we go home with an army. With Kahl Drogo’s army. I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all forty thousand men and their horses too, if that’s what it took.” —Viserys (“Winter is Coming,” S1/Ep1)
At this point, Daenerys is utterly alone. She has no mentor, no parents, no allies at all. Her situation parallels the Chinese Legend of Miao-shan, which highlights the immense and abusive pressure a father could place upon his daughter to marry.
3) CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD: the hero reaches the limits of her known horizon: beyond lies darkness, danger and the unknown.
In Beauty and the Beast, Belle agrees to remain in the company of the horrible beast in order to rescue her father, just as Daenerys agrees to sacrifice her future so her brother can regain the Targaryen kingdom. And, like the Samoan Hina, the Fairy Voyager, who enters the glittering sea to escape her parents’ abuse, Daenerys enters the Dothraki Sea, which to her is a frightening Otherworld.
Daenerys crosses her first threshold very early in her journey and, as with Jon Snow, her stage includes a physical act of changing location. She leaves the pampered world of exiled nobility and rides with Viserys to the Dothraki encampment where she is wed to Khal Drogo (“The King’s Road,”S1/Ep2). She also meets a man who will prove an important part of her life as her story continues: the dishonored knight Jorah Mormont.
4) SUPERNATURAL AID: Once the hero is committed to the quest, a mentor or guide shall appear who often awards her a magical talisman to aid with her journey.
“For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little or crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” —Joseph Campbell
On her wedding day, Daenerys receives a trio of petrified dragon eggs as gift from Magister Illyrio Mopatis, a protector (albeit one who is using her for political ends) who has watched over her safety for a year.
“Dragon’s eggs, Daenerys, from the shadowlands beyond Asshai. The ages have turned them to stone but they will always be beautiful.” —Illyrio Mopatis (“Winter is Coming,” S1/Ep1)
Once Daenerys realizes how to hatch the eggs, they will provide her with one of her greatest sources of power.
“I have never been nothing. I am the blood of the dragon.” —Daenerys (“Baelor,” S1/Ep9)
Daenerys’ talisman-gift is similar to Jon Snow receiving Longclaw from Jeor Mormont at Castle Black. Female mythic heroes and goddesses almost always possess a talisman, such as the Welsh Ceridwen and her Cauldron of the Deep.
5) THE MEETING WITH THE GOD: the Hero experiences losing herself in unconditional love, usually represented by finding the man she will always love the most, her ‘soul-mate.’
This stage normally appears in Part Two of the Hero’s Journey, but since the stages are interchangeable, it seems to fit best here. The God (not Goddess, as in the male Hero’s Journey) is Khal Drogo, about as masculine and Herculean a character as one might find in all mythology.
“The ultimate adventure, when all barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis … within the darkness and the deepest chamber of the heart.” —Joseph Campbell (Here we have to adjust ‘Queen Goddess’ to ‘King God’ for the female hero, but it works just fine.)
Though at first Daenerys must suffer Drogo’s unwanted matrimonial lust, she, like the apparently doomed Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, decides to take charge of her own destiny on the marriage bed. While Scheherazade tells cliffhanger tales, Daenerys learns how to crack Drogo’s outer shell by engaging his carnal urges, and she soon becomes Drogo’s partner rather than his concubine. Daenerys and Drogo discover a powerful connection, and Drogo becomes the greatest love of her life so far.
“Tonight I would look upon your face.” —Daenerys, to Drogo, while lovemaking (“The King’s Road,” S1/Ep2)
“The meeting with the God(dess) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati) …”—Joseph Campbell
Drogo’s recognition of Daenerys as an important part of his life allows her to wield influence among the Dothraki. She quickly embraces her growing sense of power and unstoppable destiny, as we see in “Lord Snow” (S1/Ep3):
Daenerys: “Tell them all to stop.”
Jorah Mormont: “You want the entire horde to stop? For how long?”
Daenerys: “Until I command them otherwise.”
Jorah Mormont: “You’re learning to talk like a queen.”
Daenerys: “Not a queen: a Khaleesi.”
In her position as Khaleesi, Daenerys begins to assess a return to Westeros. She is also aware that Viserys is too weak to regain the Iron Throne:
“If my brother was given an army of Dothraki, could you conquer the seven kingdoms?” —Daenerys, to Jorah Mormont (“Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things,” S1/Ep4)
And Daenerys quickly shakes loose of her brother’s tyranny:
“I am a Khaleesi of the Dothraki. I am the wife of the great Khal and I carry his son inside me. The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”—Daenerys, to Viserys (“Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things,” S1/Ep4)
Daenerys’ certainty of her own destiny also allows her to stand aside as Drogo destroys Viserys, for her brother has proven himself an unworthy pretender to the Iron Throne.
“He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.” —Daenerys, at the death of Viserys (“A Golden Crown, S1/Ep6)
6) THE BELLY OF THE WHALE: when crossing the magical threshold the hero enters a womb to be reborn, so rather than conquering what lies beyond, the hero is swallowed into the unknown and may appear to have died.
Jorah Mormont: “Don’t ask me to stand aside as you climb on that pyre. I won’t watch you burn.”
Daenerys: “Is that what you fear?” (“Fire and Blood,” S1/Ep10)
Daenerys walks into Drogo’s funeral pyre—an obvious magical threshold—and vanishes, reemerging from the ashes in the morning unscathed and carrying three baby dragons.
“… instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.” –Joseph Campbell
Daenerys leads her tiny khalasar into the Red Waste in search of her destiny. The transition from girl to woman continues, but, more importantly, Daenerys has begun a journey of self-discovery. Her journey into the flaming pyre to become the true Mother of Dragons echoes the Descent of Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess who journeyed into the underworld to rescue her husband, Tammuz.
Daenerys has now moved into the second phase of the Heroine’s Journey: Initiation.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY, PART II: INITIATION
7) THE ROAD OF TRIALS: the Hero must undergo a series of tests, some of which she will fail, to prepare her for her transformation.
This stage of Campbell’s Hero’ Journey carries through many episodes of Game of Thrones.
“Once having crossed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.” —Joseph Campbell
Daenerys Targaryen is sometimes smug and arrogant about her grand destiny, but she needs that kind of certainty to survive the trials she faces. Similar to the Mayan goddess Ix Chel, she must persevere through setbacks and heartache. She endures the death of both Khal Drogo and their stillborn son and her abandonment by nearly all of the Dothraki tribe. Her further tests include the journey through the Red Waste, capturing the Free Slaveholding Cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, losing and recovering her increasingly wild dragons, freeing the Unsullied, ordering executions, mishandling the Sons of the Harpy rebellion and the loss of Barristan Selmy.
Daenerys may be a charismatic leader and rescuer of slaves, but she struggles with governing:
“How can I rule seven kingdoms if I can’t control Slavers Bay? Why should anyone trust me? Why should anyone follow me?. . . I will not let those I have freed slide back into chains. I will not sail for Westeros. . . . I will do what Queens do. I will rule.” —“First of his Name,” S4/Ep5
Joseph Campbell explains why the hero’s trials keep coming and coming:
The ordeal is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold … for many-headed is this surrounding Hydra; one head cut off, two more appear—unless the right caustic is applied to the mutilated stump. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.
8) MAN AS THE TEMPTER: the hero faces sexual temptations which threaten to make her stray from or abandon her quest. (A classic example of a Queen being tempted off-course by a masculine hero is the story of Lancelot’s love for Arthur’s Queen Guinevere in the tales of King Arthur’s court.)
As with Jon Snow with Ygritte and Tyrion Lannister with Shae, Daenerys is tempted by her greatest love, Khal Drogo, to abandon her perilous quest and be content in togetherness. After the death of Viserys (“You Win or You Die” (S/Ep7), Khal Drogo seems happy to remain in his khalasar with his Khaleesi:
“The stallion who mounts the world has no need for iron chairs.” —Drogo, to Daenerys
Daenerys seems like she might be content as an earth-mother at this stage, with her love for her beloved khal and their child in her womb, but she gently prods Drogo to reconsider conquering Westeros.
“According to the prophecy, the stallion will ride to the ends of the earth.” —Daenerys, to Drogo
Drogo is later infuriated by Westerosi attempts to assassinate Daenerys and decides to conquer the world for their son, but the dream is doomed.
Daenerys’ temptation to cast everything aside for a life of love is not over with the khal’s death, for the warlocks of Qarth, who draw Daenerys into the House of the Undying and attempt to trap her with visions of her greatest desires, select both the Iron Throne and a heavenly scenario where Drago and her son Rhaego still are alive.
“Or maybe this is a dream. Your dream, my dream . . . I do not know. These are questions for wise men with skinny arms. You are the moon of my life. That is all I know and all I need to know. And if this is a dream I will kill the man who tries to wake me.” —Drogo, “Valar Morghulis,” S2/Ep10)
Daenerys is able to escape the temptation of the Drogo illusion, and continue on with her quest.
9) ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER: the hero must confront someone with the ultimate power over her life, often a father figure. Daenerys never meets a mother figure on her journey; for her, the one who holds her fate in his hands is a father figure, and that father figure is Jorah Mormont.
Though sent to spy on Daenerys, Jorah saves her life numerous times. He has also fallen in love with her.
“You have a good claim. A title. A birthright. But you have something more than that. You may cover it up and deny it but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved. Someone who can rule and should rule. Centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times I look at you and I still can’t believe you’re real.” —Jorah Mormont, (“The Ghost of Harrenhal,” S2/Ep5)
When Daenerys learns of Jorah’s betrayal, the pain cuts so deep she cannot forgive him.
“You betrayed me from the first. You sold my secrets to the man who killed my father and stole my brother’s throne. You want me to forgive you? . . . If you are found in Meereen past the break of day, I’ll have your head thrown into Slaver’s Bay.” —Daenerys, to Jorah (“The Mountain and the Viper,” S4/Ep8)
When Jorah returns in the fighting pits of Meereen, Daenerys still casts him back into exile.
“One endures the crisis—only to find, in the end, that the father and mother reflect each other, and are in essence the same …” —Joseph Campbell.
In “The Dance of Dragons” (S5/Ep9) Jorah returns to fight and win in the great Pit of Daznak and then throws a spear to save Daenerys from a Son of the Harpy. In the chaos of the ensuing attack, Jorah offers Daenerys his hand—they look at each other, she takes his hand, and they are atoned (at least, it looks like they are).
“The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. She beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned.” —Joseph Campbell
10) APOTHEOSIS: the hero suffers a death, either physically or spiritually, and achieves a state of knowledge and understanding to equip her upon her return.
When we arrive at Daenerys’ final scene of Game of Thrones in “Mother’s Mercy,” (S5/Ep10), Daenerys is surrounded by Dothraki and lost to everyone except Drogon, who lies nursing his wounds. If Daenerys survives this new trial and finds a way to return to Meereen and regain her high position, it may prove a rebirth for her.
Christopher Vogler describes Apotheosis (an area of the Journey Vogler calls ‘the Supreme Ordeal’) this way:
This is the critical moment in any story, an Ordeal in which the hero must die or appear to die so that he may be born again.
Let us return to the ancient lore of the Goddess, and look at perhaps the oldest story of them all, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the sky goddess Inanna’s descent into the netherworld:
“At each of the seven thresholds that Inanna crosses into the underworld she must remove an item of clothing or jewelry so that ultimately she arrives at her sister’s kingdom naked, divested of all worldly items. When she finally reaches the very depths, her sister, Ereshkigal, kills her with the ‘eye of death’. . .” —Joseph Campbell, (Goddess)
When Daenerys is captured by the Dothraki, she is essentially naked, having been taken away from her throne and worldly possessions; she is even without the wounded Drogon. She sheds a ring (ostensibly to serve as a clue for anyone who might be looking for her). These are interesting parallels with the ancient Inanna story, who after three days of hanging on a hook is resurrected and returns to the upper world.
“Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.” –Joseph Campbell
CONCLUSION: let’s remember our three original reasons for taking a look at Daenerys’ journey in Game of Thrones through the prism of the monomyth paradigm. First, since there are few female hero-quest journeys in ancient myth, does Daenerys’ experience fit into the Hero’s Journey at all? If we make the obvious adjustments to accommodate a female hero, I’d say the Daenerys character fits the paradigm very well.
Second, if Daenerys’ journey fits, how closely it mirror the traditional experience of the Hero? Daenerys’s experience is very much one of a traditional hero.
Thirdly, what clues can the monomyth offer us about her future in Season 6 and beyond? Let’s take a look. The structure of Game of Thrones can be seen to roughly fit the overall three-part structure of the Hero’s Journey. Part 1 (Departure) = GoT Season 1, Part 2 (Initiation) = GoT Season 2-5 (remember that Campbell says that this is a “favorite part of the myth-adventure” so it makes sense that it would take up a lot of space) and Part 3 (Return) = GoT Remaining Seasons
It appears that the end of Season 5, with Daenerys trapped alone in the wilderness surrounded by unknown forces, the story leaves us in the middle of her Apotheosis stage (just like Jon Snow.)
The next stage in Season 6 would be The Ultimate Boon, (the final stage of Part 2 of the Hero’s Journey). In the Ultimate Boon, the hero achieves the goal of her quest; for Daenerys this would be an army or power which enables her to regain the Iron Throne. The boon often appears in the form of an elixir, ability, knowledge, or a symbolic object such as the Holy Grail. The hero must then eventually return to the Common World and use the boon to everyone’s advantage.
Once the Ultimate Boon stage is accomplished, the monomyth paradigm advances into Part 3 (Return), which includes 7 stages in Campbell’s model: Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Within, Crossing the Threshold, Return, Master of the Two Worlds and Freedom to Live.
If we look ahead to the Refusal of the Return stage, the Hero may initially refuse the responsibility of bringing the magical boon back into the World of the Common Day. Since Daenerys’ quest has always been to return to Westeros and take the Iron Throne, I’m not anticipating that she might refuse the return. She does mention remaining in Meereen to rule, but that doesn’t feel like a permanent thing. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the next stage, Magic Flight, the Hero’s attempt to return and use the boon is made perilous by the evil forces doing everything in their power to prevent her from using it against them. If the lords of Westeros hear of Daenerys gaining a boon, we know they will do everything in their power to destroy her.
I hope you enjoyed taking a quick look at Daenerys Targaryen’s hero’s journey through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. It was interesting to run a female hero through the paradigm gauntlet. You may argue with how I adjusted the focus of the stages to accommodate a female hero, but the argument for Campbell’s theory is that we are all inextricably bound to some extent to the collective human unconscious from which the ancient flow of the Hero’s story must spring.
All quotes by Joseph Campbell from The Hero with a Thousand Faces unless otherwise noted.
All quotes by Christopher Vogler from The Writer’s Journey unless otherwise noted.
OTHER WIC GAME OF THRONES AS MYTH ARTICLES in the ARCHETYPE and HERO’S JOURNEY series: