Do you agree that Aegon's storyline is just a big test for all the other characters?
Yes, he serves as a test for Dany and Tyrion, but *enormous intake of breath*
I think Aegon’s role in the story cuts deeper than that. What Aegon is, is fantasy. He is epitome and emissary of the genre. Every detail is in place. The exile prince, his squad of mentors, his waiting army, the sun catching the dewdrops on the breeze as it teases his banners. It’s all there, all perfect, an idealized genre self-portrait captured as if on the big screen…and then the projector breaks, and the film snaps and starts to burn.
Because of course *zoom out* there’s this entire other story around that cozy lil self-contained bubble narrative, one called A Song of Ice and Fire that’s been going on for five books! And once that bubble bursts and the self-contained narrative sets out to conquer that big ol’ pre-existing narrative, well, that’s when the jaws clamp shut.
See, Varys is certain that he’s cut the Gordian Knot for good this time. He’s figured out how to save the world. He’s got this gigantic practical joke simmering in the genre’s juices. He’s tying up the loose ends, putting the final pieces in place, happy to preen in public while secretly plotting to pull everyone back from the abyss if he has to personally send millions into the Void himself to do it. He will wade across oceans of blood, Utopia forever calling from just over the horizon…
If that all sounds familiar, I think that’s because it’s supposed to.
Ozymandias’ blood-soaked joke was built (in-universe, no less!) from the stuff of horror and scifi comics, decades’ worth of pulp detritus mashed together into one Ur-Image, and Varys’ joke too is designed as fulfillment and parody of the generic ideal, with medieval fantasy as the genre in question. To the Citizens of Westeros, and The Readers Who Inquire Within It: here is my answer to my riddle. The “perfect prince.” Don’t look too closely, now! You might smudge the paint!
And that’s the problem: the generic ideal is an image, nothing more. Aegon’s probably a Blackfyre, he’s not the main character, Dany is coming with fire and blood. His name was stolen for him, a disguise as much as the hair dye. There’s no *there* there. In essence, GRRM is laying out the genre’s shortcomings as a built-in counter-narrative to his own, illuminating what he’s done differently with the actual protagonists. Here’s what it would look like if the Targaryen claimant came back to Westeros with an army right after they were introduced. See how it doesn’t feel earned, compared to Dany, who we’ve seen struggle for multiple books in Essos with power and death and the longing for home? Here’s how it would go if Rhaegar’s son knew all along who he was and what his destiny was, all handed to him on a platter. See how empty that is, compared to Jon, who has had to build his own identity from scraps and fragments and the hard-earned certainty that the wildlings are among the people he is sworn to protect?
If the genre-reconstructionist drumbeat throughout ASOIAF is we can tell these stories better, than Aegon’s storyline is an absolutely necessary part of that whole. This is the story not told better; these are the tropes left unvarnished and unexamined, and as such this is the kind of fantasy that needs to be put to bed. The ironic scare quotes that seem to hover around every narrative element in Aegon’s story are there by design. Like a lot of self-conscious genre commentary, it borders on parody, and as such, it is supposed to feel fake. The real deal is elsewhere in the narrative, where being the hero is slow, fitful, complicated, deeply human, impossibly moving work. Tell these stories better; the “perfect prince” as a cherished ideal must die so that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, the imperfect princes, may live.
To what emotional end, one might reasonably inquire? The pathos, as with any dream-machine that explodes shortly after takeoff, comes from the dreams put into it. Duck inventing his own name, Haldon missing half his maester, Jon Connington chasing his ghosts into the grave…castoffs and exiles all, shoring their fragments against the ruin. They’re projecting it all onto the boy, just like Varys, just like the reader does to so many cookie-cutter genre protagonists. The sadness comes from peeling back all those layers and realizing that Young Griff is just a random kid who could’ve been happy riding the Rhoyne for the rest of his days. Instead, somebody told him he was Aegon VI Targaryen, the main character of a fantasy story, and ruined his life.
Aegon is the “mummer’s dragon,” which makes him a puppet, which makes his story about thinking you’re the protagonist even though you’re actually a puppet, and “the hero never dies” but puppets burn. Take a look at his not-cousin Quentyn, his fellow Not The Hero squinted at by the narrative spotlight in ADWD, if you’re wondering at his fate. Georgie very deliberately soaked Quent in tropes like they were gasoline, and then lit the match. He’s doing the same for poor Aegon.
As such, for me, Aegon ranks alongside Quentyn and First Book Sansa in terms of the author’s angriest writing about his own genre. Fantasy here is rendered as a series of mirages designed to funnel you onto the slaughterhouse floor. “What am I doing here? Father, why?” ADWD is bitter and direct about the lies these kids are being told, from the ashes of the dragonpit beneath the Great Pyramid to the trail of skeletons outside Varamyr’s lair. Beyond satire, beyond deconstruction, this is the author recreating the entire genre as a subplot and then burning it down. This, the author is saying with Aegon’s story-within-a-story, this is what you’re used to. It’s what I’m used to. And it’s not good enough. Here are its bones, Jon and Dany and the readers back home: build something better with them.
Aegon is a sword swung at Gordian’s Knot, only for it to shatter. I think we are meant to see him as Tyrion saw him, that night in the Sorrows: perfect and frozen, staring at the Stranger as it crawls toward him with its hands outstretched, not believing until it’s too late that it’s for real this time.
The archetype crumbles into the abyss. Fantasy dies. Fantasy is born. Fantasy lives again. Aegon’s bones are picked clean in no time, and the stories are prowling, hungry. Come on, step right up, who wants to be the hero? You? You? You…?