In this article:
- Targaryen inbreeding is notorious in the pop culture and in the world of A Song and Ice and Fire because of how taboo it is, even in a setting where cousin marriages are normal.
- The Targaryen tradition of marrying brothers and sisters to each other helped to stabilize their dynasty by keeping all components of their power within their family.
- That hasn’t stopped fans from wondering why the Targaryens aren’t all weirdly deformed and mentally unstable, leading to theories about how genetics works in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragons.
- But most of these theories assume that inbreeding hurts the Targaryen family. But what if it doesn’t? What if it’s actually the other way around and it’s outbreeding that’s corrupting their bloodline?
Targayen this, Targaryen that. We’re well past the point of A Song of Ice and Fire being a niche book series that only the most diehard fantasy enjoyers know about. Head over to r/HouseoftheDragon or to the comments section of any post about the show and you’ll find people proclaiming their allegiance to Team Black or Team Green as if the Dance of the Dragons is fantasy Superbowl.
As if people being split between siding with the Greens or Blacks weren’t enough, there’s also a split between people who are still grossed out by Daemyra (move over R + L = J) and people who have come to terms with Targaryen incest since Daenerys and Jon did the deed.
The incest really isn’t all that surprising since noble families in the real world did it all the time, but what is suspicious is that Targaryen inbreeding doesn’t seem to hurt the family as much as it should. Aside from the ole “Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss the coin in the air.”, most of the Targaryen family members seem to be okay and don’t have a hint of the infamous Habsburg jaw.
To some fans, this just means that the Targaryens are really, really lucky they aren’t all infertile yet, but the more dedicated ASOIAF enthusiasts have a different proposition: The Targaryen madness happens because the Targaryens aren’t inbreeding enough.
Why Does the Targaryen Family Practice In-Breeding?
Clearly, the Targaryen family tree is more like a family wreath. So, let’s backtrack a bit and think of why the Targaryens even practice inbreeding in the first place. While many noble families in the real world practiced cousin to cousin marriage, this was often done between cousins who were both from noble families, allowing their respective families to forge an alliance and gain more political power.
This is how the Hapsburg Dynasty ran their operation and it’s why many of Europe’s monarchs are related to each other. Now, you’d think the Aegon the Conqueror would marry off his sisters, Rhaenys and Visenya, to Westerosi lords and marry a Westerosi lady himself, but because they were conquering the continent with their world’s version of nukes (read: dragons), that wasn’t really necessary.
Targaryen inbreeding may seem counterintuitive but it served these functions:
1. To Keep Political Power in the Family
Targaryen inbreeding meant that their dynasty couldn’t be easily infiltrated by outsiders who wanted to marry in their own family members to curry favor with the reigning monarch. Hello, just look at what Otto Hightower did by getting Alicent to marry Viserys.
By making Targaryen kings marry their sisters, the family ensured that the only people whispering into the ear of the most powerful person in Westeros was also someone who had the Targaryen dynasty’s well-being pretty high up their priority list, even if they didn’t care about individual family members. Aemma, Viserys’ first wife, was an Arryn but she and Viserys were both descended from King Jaeherys and Queen Alicent.
Of course, this wasn’t always 100% a rule, but you can see how it makes sense as a method for maintaining political power and stability.
2. To Keep Dragons in the Family
So far, the only people in both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon we’ve seen riding a dragon are members of the Targaryen family. While the Velaryons have dragons of their own, as in the case of Seasmoke and Laenor, they still get their dragons through their Targaryen relatives. Laenor has Seasmoke because he’s Rhaenys Targaryen’s son and the same goes for Rhaenyra’s children.
It’s Targaryen tradition to place an egg in a newly born family member’s crib to see if it hatches and bonds with them – a sign that they were born to be dragon riders. By never marrying too far out their own family lines, the Targaryens could better control who gets dragons.
3. To Retain Their Dragon Riding Abilities
Okay, you’re probably thinking they could just go “dragons for male line descendants only!” but many characters in the show believe that Targaryens have a dragon rider gene that comes from Old Valyria’s ancient dragonlords so anyone who has Targaryen blood could theoretically ride a dragon.
4. To Keep Targaryen Features
Let’s address the elephant in the room: The Velaryons are black, yes. Moving on, other Targaryen features in the books include purple eyes and near-white/actually white hair. There’s a specific “Targaryen look” that the family tries to maintain for their main line to some extent.
Rhaenys Targaryen has black hair in Fire and Blood because she has Baratheon blood, but the Baratheons are so intermarried with the Targaryens that they’re just a part of the usual pick list for Targaryen spouses.
Other common choices were the Velaryons (who are the closest related and are also Valyrian in their own right) and the Arryns. There’s a lot of back and forth between these families that it was likely the Targaryens mostly married them to make it likelier for Targaryen features to show in their descendants.
So is that what’s saved them from inbreeding complications? The fact they have enough other families blood mixed into their own? Well, maybe but also, maybe not because this is ASOIAF and in this franchise, we’re always performing blood magic.
Valyrian Blood Magic: The Targaryen Family’s Dark Secret
Game of Thrones introduced us to blood magic through Melisandre who needed a king’s blood to work her spells. Its hinted in the books that this type of knowledge stretches all the way back to the days of old Valyria. Mix this with implications in the books about humans with animal blood, like the Stark “wolf blood” and the Targaryen “blood of the dragon”, and you can see where this is going.
We’re getting hints that the warging/psychic bonding magic that the Targaryens are able to ride dragons because they’re part dragon themselves. How that works exactly is anyone’s guess, but it’s no secret that Old Valyria practiced magic heavily and would use blood magic to mix humans with animals.
The city of Gogossos on Sothoryos was once a colony of the Valyrian Freehold. Old Valyria used it as its own version of Australia by exiling her criminals there. Valyrian sorcerers would also force slave women to mate with animals to create half-human offspring.
Now hold that thought in your head and consider that many Targaryen stillbirths are described as monstrosities with scales and wings.
Going off that, let’s assume that the Targaryens and the Valyrian dragonriders as a whole may be part-dragon because of a twisted magical eugenics program intended to give them dragon-riding powers. The dragonlord families marry into each other to keep it going but with the Doom of Valyria, House Targaryen really has no one but their own family members.
And it’s when they start to marry non-dragonrider families that things start to go wrong.
Targaryen Inbreeding May Not Be the Reason the Targayens Are Unstable
The gods aren’t tossing coins whenever a Targaryen is born. It’s more like their blood has been corrupted by external factors that the original Valyrian blood magic sorcerers previously eliminated from the dragonrider bloodlines.
Think about it, the only Targaryens known to have gone ‘mad’ were born after they started interbreeding with Westerosi families. Visenya’s son Maegor was a bit off his rocker, but that’s implied to have more to do with him being resurrected, kind of like the resurrection side effects suffered by Berric Dondarrion in Game of Thrones.
It’s possible that something about breeding with non-dragonriders has destabilized whatever magic the Targaryen bloodline has, leading to the weird birth defects and insanity that’s said to accompany Targaryen greatness.
Another way of looking at it that doesn’t involve Westerosi blood corruption is that marrying out has diluted the Targaryen magic bloodline to the point that they lose their dragon riding abilities and the magic that keeps them from succumbing to the biological effects of inbreeding. This is paralleled in the series by dragons “disappearing” from the world as magic fades from it.
Or if you want a more real-world-y answer, the Targaryens aren’t all deformed and vegetative because inbreeding doesn’t cause genetic defects but rather makes it likelier for you to have copies of a defective gene so the Targaryens just got really, really lucky.
But where’s the fun in that?