Nerd School: The Targaryen Curse- Madness in the Blood

by Joe on April 5, 2013


Previously in the series : The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros, The War of Conquest, Tyrion vs. Richard III

“Madness and greatness were two sides of the same coin and every time a new Targaryen was born, the gods would toss the coin in the air and the world would hold its breath to see how it would land”

In our evolution of understanding the affliction colloquially known as madness, we have seen it grow from a punishment of the gods into a complex environmental and genetic disorder.  In fact the idea of the term madness being a catchall for numerous disorders has been dismissed for decades.

However, in the world of Westeros, the madness of the Targaryens is considered a curse. Being a society without the advanced sceince and medicine of today we can understand why. The question remains, where does this madness really come

from? Though in a world of magic and dragons, the idea of a curse could be a real possibility.

Joffrey and Caligula- I think the producers were going for something here

Joffrey and Caligula- I think the producers were going for something here

It’s easy to use the supernatural as a catchall of everything we don’t understand. However, Let’s assume the truth may lie more in the area of genetics.

What is known about the Targaryens is that until Daeron II brought Dorne into the seven kingdoms through marriage into the Dragon’s bloodline, the ruling family of Westeros was known for the marriage of brother to sister.  While not only taboo culturally, incest presents a  genuine genetic  danger.

Imagine you have a human being. This human has blonde hair, a known recessive trait which comes from a specific gene.  Now this trait can remain hidden in generations of genes. It will appear under the right circumstances. In most cases the circumstance would be if both parents carried the blonde gene.  In High School Biology we are taught  this through a Punnett square.

Originally by otterpop89

Courtesy of  otterpop89

When two genes meet they interact. One of the genes will be dominant over the other, meaning it will show up like the Baratheon’s black

hair, and the other will be recessive and won’t show itself. This gene, the recessive one, will still be there.

When two individuals come from common genetic backgrounds, recessive traits have a higher likelihood of being expressed. It’s why the Irish tend to have more red hair, or the Swedish, blonde.  In terms of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Targaryens had expressed recessive traits such as platinum blonde hair and violet eyes, making them hallmarks of their house.  Since each member of the couple carried the gene they were able to transfer the genes to their offspring. This may not necessarily seem like a bad thing as you can breed desirable genetic traits in offspring. However not all recessive traits are cosmetic or beneficial.

Let’s say for the sake of simplicity that there was a “madness” gene in Targaryen bloodline.  The Targaryen penchant for inbreeding, allows the “madness” gene starts showing up more often in their offspring.  Barristan Selmy noted that  Viserys showed the same symptoms as his father. Those symptoms went far back in the genetic line as Baelor the blessed who locked his sisters up to prevent them from tempting him sexually, and maybe even further.


Viserys be cray

We tend to think that the genetic problems are just related  to the Targaryens. Yet, Cersei Lannister stated that she was afraid her own son  Joffrey’s cruelty was linked to his incestuous parentage. Maybe this means that both Jamie and Cersei carried a similar recessive gene for “madness”.  Robert Arryn also suffered from several physical disabilities, though his parents were not related.  However his own mother Lysa showed signs of “madness” as well. The real culprit is more than likely the tight breeding pool amongst the noble houses of Westeros. In order to maintain royal blood, royal families often marry their children together to maintain familial, social, and economic ties.

For 300 years the noble houses of Westeros intermarried. Though this might seem to spread genetic diversity, it actually created a closed pool. This was similar to the problems the noble houses of Europe faced. One of the most famous examples  of a genetic trait royally making an appearance  was the House of Habsburg.  The Habsburger Jaw was  typical for many Habsburg relatives over a period of six hundred years. The Habsburg Jaw became so bad that by 1700 Charles II of Spain, could not properly chew his food.

That's a big jaw

That’s a big jaw

Besides the jaw deformity, Charles II also had a huge number of other genetic physical, intellectual, sexual, and

emotional problems. It is speculated that the simultaneous occurrence in Charles II of two different genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis could explain most of the complex clinical profile of this king, including his impotence/infertility which in the last instance led to the extinction of the dynasty.

Francis II from the house of Hapsburg married his  cousin Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, and several of their children had genetic health problems. Their daughter Marie Anne is said to have had hideous facial deformity and also being mentally deficient. Their son Ferdinand who became an emperor was also mentally deficient and suffered from Hydrocephalus. He also had several seizures daily like Robert Arryn.

A more recently  famous genetic disease that  European royalty suffered from was hemophilia. Britain’s Queen Victoria, through two of her five daughters (Princess Alice and Princess Beatrice), passed the mutation to various royal houses across the continent, including the royal families of Spain, Germany and Russia. Victoria’s son Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany suffered from the disease. For this reason, hemophilia was once popularly called “the royal disease”.

Czar Nicholas II and George V note the similarity to each other and Planet Arbitrary Blogger Pat B.

Czar Nicholas II and George V note the similarity to each other and Planet Arbitrary Blogger Pat B.

Interestingly enough The Russian Romanov royals only son Alexi’s fight with hemophilia allowed the family to become influenced by Rasputin, and contributed to their eventual downfall in the revolution. Aerys Targaryen’s own madness contributed to his downfall as his decisions gave the rebellion a reason to fight.

The supreme irony is that the method used  to maintain a pure royal bloodline in reality corrupts it.

Read some other stuff from Joe, hear him on the Planet Arbitrary podcast, or follow him on Twitter @planetarbitrary

Read Joe’s other articles:

The Walking Dead: Off With Their Heads- Katanas in a Post-Walker World, If I Only Had a Brain- Biology and Headshots, Keep on Walking- How Walkers Get Their Groove Back, Big Smiles- The Dangers of the  Walker Bite

Doctor Who: Doctor Who Season 6 Round Up, An Alternate History of the DoctorDoctor Who Season 6 primer, Psychology, and Regeneration, The Pitfalls of Paradoxical Storytelling, The Missing Episodes

Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer IIGame of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros, The War of Conquest, Tyrion vs. Richard III

Star Trek: Evening the OddsStar Trek Blu-rays 1 and 2 Trek in your Queue 1 and 2, Obama TrekStar Trek: A Different Generation, Failed Star Trek Spinoffs

Assassin’s Creed: How Accurate is Your Musket?, Assassin’s Creed Revelations  Primer

Misc: Sci-Fi ComposersThieving Sci-Fi, Paranormal Activi3The Walking Dead Primer, The Genre Problem, Conan Primer, Mutant Fatigue, Sci-Fi A-Team, A Love Letter to Natalie PortmanThor Primer


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