‘Game of Thrones’: The Tragic Rise and Fall of The Mad King

Donna Dickens
TV HBO
TV HBO Game of Thrones Fantasy

WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE FIFTH EPISODE OF GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8, “THE BELLS,” FOLLOW.

The Mad King. Perhaps no other character in Game of Thrones has loomed as large as King Aerys II Targaryen, despite being dead for decades before the first episode of the series. The Mad King’s actions reverberate down the line of history, affecting everyone from the Starks and the Lannisters to Aerys’ daughter herself, Daenerys Targaryen. Dany spent a majority of her life fighting against her father’s reputation. She swore to become a better ruler than her ancestors. But as her losses accumulated, Daenerys’ resolve faltered. In the Season 8 episode “The Bells,” Dany found herself continuing the cycle of fire and blood her family is known for, decimating King’s Landing with dragon flame.

As Daenerys continues her transformation into the Mad Queen, we’ve looked back at the early warning signs in her own narrative. But if Dany is capable of both great mercy and justice as well as a capacity for petty cruelty, what does that mean for the legacy of King Aerys II? Luckily, author George R.R. Martin has written extensively about the events leading up Robert Baratheon ascending the Iron Throne. Dig back deep enough in the histories and a theme emerges: King Aerys II did not begin life a tyrant. But monarchs are only remembered for who they are at the end, not who they were in the beginning. At the end of the day, Dany’s isolation and increased paranoia in the face of losing allies echoes the mistakes and tragic life of her father.

SETTING THE STAGE

No one is born in a vacuum. We all come screaming into this world already connected by a complex web consisting of all our family’s loyalties and betrayals. As an author, George R.R. Martin is second to none in fleshing out these family trees. Not just as a list of names, but as living and breathing people who loved, hated, schemed, and plotted.

The future Mad King was born in 244 AC, over a decade after his grandfather Aegon V ascended to the Iron Throne. Born the eldest child to the Aegon V’s heir, Prince Jaehaerys, Aerys grew up during a time of relative peace. King Aegon V, known to history as Aegon the Unlikely, was a benevolent and bonny king. Easy-going and open-handed to a fault, the merciful legacy of Aegon V would, however, be overshadowed by his descent in his own flavor of madness. A madness that would end in multiple deaths and scar Aerys II forever at the formative age of 15.

THE EARLY YEARS

Raised from infancy as heir to the Iron Throne, young Aerys lacked for nothing. His nursery was shared with his younger sister, Rhaella, who was born in either 245 AC or 246 AC (the births of female children, even among the nobility, are not always recorded). At a young age, the two siblings were betrothed to each other by command of their father, Prince Jaehaerys. It had been prophesied that “The Prince Who Was Promised” would be born of Aerys and Rhaella, though neither child wished to marry. By the time the ceremony would bond them, neither Aerys nor Rhaella would show any fondness towards each other.

Instead, the future Mad King would turn to other peers for companionship. From the age of eight, Aerys II was inseparable from his boon companions, Tywin Lannister of Casterly Rock and Steffon Baratheon of Storm’s End.

The foundation of boyhood friendship would be hammered into an unbreakable bond in the aftermath of the Tragedy at Summerhall. In 259 AC, King Aegon V invited all his favorites to the castle of Summerhall to await the birth of his first great-grandchild. At 15 and 13 respectively, Aerys and Rhaella were about to become parents. However, Aegon V had ulterior motives. Using unknown resources, he hoped to hatch dragon eggs in a desperate attempt to stave off an upcoming war with traitors from across the Narrow Sea. Everything would go wrong.

Summerhall would burn to the ground, taking King Aegon V and many of his closest kin and advisors with him. During the inferno, Rhaella gave birth to Prince Rhaegar Targaryen , though history does not say how she, Aerys, nor their parents survived the blaze. What is known is surviving a trauma like that, especially one born of desperation and fevered belief, would leave lasting mental scars. It’s possible Aerys interpreted the event as punishment from the gods, as he would believe to be the future cause of other tragedies.

SWEET SUMMER CHILDREN NO MORE

When Aerys’ father ascended the Iron Throne in 259 AC as King Jaeharys II Targaryen, Westeros was on the brink of war. Across the Narrow Sea, a loose coalition of villainy had assembled. Known as the Ninepenny Kings, they were led by a former Westerosi noble named Maelys Blackfyre, also known as Maelys the Monstrous.

King Jaehaerys II had never been a military man. Wracked with illness since childhood, the new king was clever but his lack of martial expertise. But Jaehaerys was hardened by the watching his family die. Instead of waiting for the Ninepenny Kings to come to Westeros, in 260 AC the Targaryen army set sail for Esso, bringing the fight to them. Among the squires on the longships were Aerys Targaryen, Tywin Lannister, and Steffon Baratheon. Each would also come back knighted, with fire in their bellies and the desire to remake the Seven Kingdoms into a better version of itself.

THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

After the Ninepenny Kings were soundly defeated, King Jaehaerys presided over two years of peace. Then in 262 AC, King Jaehaerys II died suddenly at only 37, after complaining of shortness of breath. At the age of 19, Aerys II ascended the Iron Throne. He would rule for the next 21 years.

Immediately after his coronation, King Aerys II declared his best friend Tywin Lannister to be the Hand of the King. The infamous tale recorded in the song “The Rains of Castamere” happened in the short time between the Ninepenny Kings and Aerys II taking the Iron Throne, making Tywin an excellent choice to forcefully and succinctly handle the business of the realm.

While history now remembers Aerys II as the Mad King, when he came to the throne no one could have predicted his eventual end. A handsome war hero with a beautiful wife and a strong son and heir, Aerys was the realm’s great hope. Charming and proud, Aerys was well-liked by men and well-loved by an unending string of mistresses. His vanity and changeable nature were not unusual traits for royals, and in the first years of his reign, Aerys II channeled his vanity into a series of doomed projects.

Wanting to be known as “Aerys the Wise,” he thought at first to invade the Stepstones where he had done battle and bring the land under the wing of Targaryen rule. He wanted to build a new Wall in the North hundreds of miles further up, bringing all the land between to the Seven Kingdoms. He wanted to replace King’s Landing with a better city, one built of white marble, with better infrastructure and sanitation. He wanted to divert water from vast reservoirs under the mountains to create a channel to make the Dorne deserts bloom.

None of these projects came to fruition, due to both logistical issues and King Aerys II’s own fleeting nature. As with women, the king would discard an idea as soon as he grew bored with it. Instead, Tywin Lannister found himself increasingly stepping into the administrative void. While Aerys II planned his legacy, Tywin reduced tariffs on port cities and repealed unpopular laws, increasing his respect amongst the nobility and merchant classes. He repaired infrastructure and had new roads built, held massive tournaments to entertain the masses, and punished those who preyed on the poor. He even took the crown’s debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos on himself, paying back the full amount from his own coffers to avoid a costly and devastating war.

What began as Aerys II pawning off the drudgery of day-to-day operations to his rigid and efficient friend would slowly morph over the next two decades. Tywin would come to see King Aerys II as ungrateful, lazy, and entitled while the king would begin to interpret the actions of his Hand as first insubordinate, then arrogant, and finally, treasonous. George R.R. Martin goes out of his way to make sure readers understand that his characters’ memory is subjective and everyone positions themselves as the hero of the story, even those seen as monsters by history.

In an interview with Observation Deck, Martin discussed humanizing even the most maligned of characters. “That’s a comic book kind of thing, where the Red Skull gets up in the morning [and asks] ‘What evil can I do today?’ Real people don’t think that way. We all think we’re heroes, we all think we’re good guys. We have our rationalizations when we do bad things. ‘Well, I had no choice,’ or ‘It’s the best of several bad alternatives,’ or ‘No, it was actually good because God told me so,’ or ‘I had to do it for my family.’ We all have rationalizations for why we do s***ty things or selfish things or cruel things.”

IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT A WOMAN

Things would not start to fall apart for King Aerys II until 274 AC, but the seeds were planted in the earliest days of his reign. Two years before Aerys II took the Iron Throne, Lady Joanna Lannister became a maid-in-waiting to Aerys II’s wife. It would be while in the Queen’s retinue that Lady Joanna would meet and rekindle her friendship with Tywin Lannister. The two married in 263 AC.

Around the same time, Queen Rhaella abruptly dismissed Lady Joanna from her service, quipping to her husband the king that she would not stand him “turning my ladies into whores.” The rumor that Aerys had taken a liking to Lady Joanna was exacerbated by Aerys II taking liberties with Lady Joanna’s person during the bedding ceremony, to the point that Tywin became angry. To avoid further conflict, Lady Joanna returned to Casterly Rock after the wedding. Whether both Tywin and King Aerys II loved Joanna Lannister or if the king simply took offense to Tywin “winning” the lady’s affection is unknown, but their rivalry over her would alter the history of Westeros. Over and over again, Martin’s writing reflects the messiness of reality, with major historical events hinged on the petty feuds of friends and family.

For the next several years, the realm hummed along like a well-oiled machine. But things in the royal household were deteriorating quickly. Queen Rhaella suffered a heartbreaking series of miscarriages and stillbirths, with one pregnancy after another ending in tragedy. At first, Aerys II mourned with his wife. Then, in 266 AC, Lady Joanna Lannister gave birth to healthy twins: Cersei and Jaime. When told the news, the king reportedly stated: “I appear to have married the wrong woman.”

Paranoia and jealousy about Lord Tywin grew to consume the king. When Lady Joanna died in childbed in 273 AC giving birth to Tyrion, King Aerys II cruelly suggested it was justice from the gods to teach Tywin humility. Taking the one joy from Tywin’s life and replacing her with a monstrous baby seemed fair recompense to the king who saw his Hand as unfairly receiving the life that should have rightfully have been his. King Aerys II seemingly felt threatened by Tywin on multiple fronts, as the he had a loving wife, the respect of the people, and a nursery full of healthy children.

Looking for logic in the happenstance of fate, the king decided the Seven were punishing Queen Rhaella for infidelity. He came to believe her numerous miscarriages and stillbirths were the result of the gods purging any bastards from taking the Iron Throne. After all, the new were locked in a loveless marriage. Why wouldn’t she cheat on him? In 270 AC, he confined his wife to Maegor’s Holdfast in the company of Septas, a virtual prisoner until the end of her life. However, the miscarriages continued.

MADNESS BEGINS

After four years of confinement, Queen Rhaella finally gave birth to a living son, Prince Jaehaerys, in 274 AC. King Aerys II at last had a second heir should anything befall Prince Rhaegar. But it didn’t last, The baby died later that same year and the king went mad with grief. Convinced his son had been murdered, he had the royal wet nurse beheaded, ostensibly for putting poison on her breasts. Not satisfied, Aerys II next turned his ire on his current mistress. Convinced she’d had the infant prince murdered in a jealous rage, King Aerys II had both her and her entire family tortured to death. Desperate for a second living son, the king fasted for two weeks and claimed the gods had told him to renounce his adulterous ways.

In 276 AC, Prince Viserys was born. The survival of this new baby solidified in the king’s mind that he had finally pleased the gods. However, terror that his new son would die drove Aerys II further down the road to madness. Kingsguard surrounded Prince Viserys’ cradle day and night and none were allowed to touch him without the king’s permission.

At this point, it helps to understand the Aerys II was feeling the pressure of three hundred years of Targaryen rule. The Summerhall fire had nearly wiped the royal family off the map. King Aerys II had no brothers or cousins, no aunts or uncles. He and his sister-wife were alone. The need for a large royal family to replenish the family tree would have been all-encompassing and increasingly desperate.

With that in mind, it helps explain what happened next. Hoping to mend the rift that had opened up between them, Lord Tywin Lannister threw a lavish tournament at Lannisport to celebrate the birth of Prince Viserys. But all that goodwill was undone when Tywin suggested it was past time for Prince Rhaegar to take a wife and put forth his own daughter, Cersei, as a potential bride. King Aerys II rebuffed the offer, saying that while Tywin was a good and loyal servant, royalty did not marry servants. The insult would harden Tywin Lannister against the king permanently.

However, from the king’s perspective Lord Tywin had extended an olive branch only to rip open old wounds. There was Tywin Lannister surrounded by wealth that outshone that of House Targaryen. On top of that, the joy at Prince Viserys’ birth was curdled when Aerys realized that without a daughter to marry Rhaegar, the bloodline would continue to be depleted. Having been forced into a loveless marriage to maintain Targaryen purity, it would make sense King Aerys II would balk at such a match. In fact, when Prince Rhaegar eventually married Elia Martell, the king wouldn’t touch his grandchildren, saying they “smell Dornish.”

THE DEFIANCE OF DUSKENDALE

By 277 AC, King Aerys II had devolved from the delight and great hope of the Seven Kingdoms to a man beaten down by loss and isolation. His oldest friend had become a rival. But as Hand of the King, Tywin Lannister had grown too powerful to simply remove from office. However, the king was beginning to wrest power away from Tywin as early as 270 AC. Not in a healthy, intelligent way but out of spite. If Tywin suggested one way of doing things, Aerys II would go the other way. If a policy the king approved soured, he would blame Tywin regardless of whether or not he was at fault.

The politics around the city of Duskendale are long and complex, but for the sake of this tale just know it was once a robust port city that had fallen into decline as traders moved down to the coast to King’s Landing. Hoping to reinvigorate the local economy, Lord Denys Darklyn wanted a charter from the crown to become semi-autonomous like Dorne. Tywin suggested Aerys II refuse with the strongest language possible, causing the king to decide to treat with Lord Darklyn out of spite. It was a mistake.

For reasons unknown, Lord Darklyn’s forces captured King Aerys II and put his guards to the sword. For the next six months, the king would be at the mercy of the Darklyn family, causing a national crisis. While a prisoner, Aerys II was treated poorly. His keepers had dared to lay hands on his royal person, they had pushed and shoved him, stripped him of his royal finer, and confined him to small quarters. When Aerys II pushed back against such treatment, he was physically struck. For a man who spent his entire life in pampered luxury with his personal space sacrosanct, it would have been an unthinkable experience.

In response to this treason, Lord Tywin Lannister raised his banners and set siege to Duskendale. When asked why he would not treat with the Darklyn’s, especially as they threatened to kill King Aerys II, Tywin replied: “if [they] do, we have a better king right here.” He meant Prince Rhaegar, who had come along to help defend his father’s life and honor.

And that might have been what happened, if not for Ser Barristan Selmy. The knight offered to secret himself inside the city to free the king. Tywin agreed and Ser Barristan found himself, under cover of darkness, scaling the walls of the city with his bare hands. Using the element of surprise, he freed King Aerys II from his prison and fought through Lord Darklyn’s men to the stables.

A TYRANT IS BORN

Six months of imprisonment was the final straw that broke King Aerys II. From that moment forward, he saw everyone around him as an enemy. He became convince Lord Tywin had a hand in Duskendale but could not prove it. House Darklyn itself was erased from existence. The king had them slain, every man, woman, and child in an echo of Tywin’s destruction of Castamere years earlier.

From that moment to his last, Aerys II was never the same. After such rough treatment at the hands of his own nobles, the king refused to be touched by anyone. Not even servants. As such, his appearance grew more and more disheveled. His fingernails became long and gnarled while his hair grew into a long, matted tangle. Aerys II refused to leave the Red Keep, seeing danger and traitors everywhere.

Determined not to let Cersei Lannister become queen, Aerys II sent Lord Steffon Baratheon to Essos in 278 AC to find a suitable bride for Prince Rhaegar, one with the blood of Old Valyria. This edict helps solidify that keeping the Targaryen bloodline pure was always top of mind for King Aerys II.

It was not to be. Instead, Lord Steffon’s mission was a failure. Both he and his lady wife died within sight of their House seat of Storm’s End when a squall broke up their ship upon the rocks. Isolated and paranoid, King Aerys II was convinced somehow Tywin was responsible for Steffon’s death. It is highly unlikely Tywin had anything to do with Lord Steffon’s death, but the Lannisters inching closer to the Iron Throne made every coincidence suspicious in the eyes of a king actively looking to find betrayal.

Unable to trust anyone, not even Queen Rhaella and Prince Rhaegar, whom he suspected as wanting to supplant him on the Iron Throne, Aerys II refused to meet with anyone, not even Tywin, without all seven Kingsguard at his side. At the same time, Aerys II fell into the trap of his forebears. Where King Aegon V had tried to hatch dragons to stop the Ninepenny Kings, Aerys II became convinced that Duskendale would never have happened if the Targaryens still had dragons.

To this end, he raised up the Guild of Alchemists to prominence to use sorcery to return dragons to the world.  While they did not succeed, their wildfire secrets would help the king punish his enemies in lieu of dragon flame. Burning replaced beheading as the means of execution and from all accounts, the king greatly enjoyed watching his enemies scream in agony. By 280 AC, the smallfolk of Westeros were whispering about the “Mad King.”

TREASON OR SALVATION?

Everything came to a head in 281 AC when Ser Harlan Grandson of the Kingsguard died in his sleep. King Aerys II declared his Hand’s young son, Ser Jaime Lannister, was to be elevated to the role of Kingsguard. At only 15 years of age, Ser Jaime saw it as a great honor. But Lord Tywin saw it rightly as punishment. Kingsguard serve for life and may take no wives and father no sons. By removing Jaime from the Lannister line of succession, the king was forcing Tywin to leave Casterly Rock to his younger, hated son, Tyrion. Upon hearing the proclamation in the throne room, Lord Tywin immediately resigned as Hand.

Later that same year, Lord Whent of Harrenhal would announce a grand tournament to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. A noble but impoverished family, gossip raged about where Lord Whent had acquired enough gold to cover not only the lavish event but also the large prizes. To this day, it is believed Prince Rhaegar funded the tourney at Harrenhal as a smokescreen for an unofficial Great Council meeting.

With King Aerys II becoming crueler and more paranoid with every passing month, the matter of what to do with him needed to be hashed out, but in utter secrecy. Prince Rhaegar had cause to be concerned. The distrust between father and son had grown so great that King Aerys II was effectively holding Rhaegar’s wife, Princess Elia Martell, and their children hostage in the Red Keep. Talk swirled that Aerys II planned to put his “disloyal” son aside in favor of Prince Viserys.

What happened next is known to all. The coalition between Prince Rhaegar, Lord Tywin Lannister, Lord Rickard Stark, and Lord Jon Arryn fell to pieces when Rhaegar fell in love with Lady Lyanna Stark. When the two ran away together, it would trigger the war that would become Robert’s Rebellion. Convinced Prince Rhaegar had abducted Lady Lyanna, Lord Rickard and his eldest son Ser Brandon would demand satisfaction from King Aerys II and be executed for their trouble. From there, the long-festering wounds of the nobility burst and brought down a rain of destruction that would see the Targaryen dynasty all but eradicated. In trying to avoid his greatest fear, King Aerys II merely hastened along the death of his House.  Only Prince Viserys and the newborn Princess Daenerys — birthed on Dragonstone after a frenzied flight by Queen Rhaella from King’s Landing prior to the sacking — would survive beyond 283 AC.

The story of the Mad King is one of tragedy. Some monsters are born, but most are made. From his perspective, King Aerys II was forced into a loveless marriage that would haunt his adult life with the specters of dead children. He would watch his family burn to death in their determination to become dragonlords once more. One of his closest childhood friends would help him run the kingdom, only to rise to become both a better ruler and threat to Aerys II’s power, setting up a confrontation based on fear and jealousy. In another world, one where the king was confident in his rule and Tywin Lannister curbed his pride and ambition, the lands of Westeros would be peaceful and prosperous under the reign of King Rhaegar Targaryen and his obscenely wealthy queen, Cersei Lannister.

Donna Dickens
Donna has been covering genre entertainment for nearly a decade. She is a mom, a wife, a Slytherin, a Magical Girl, a Rebel, and a fan of House Tyrell.
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