The one mythical beast that none of us can manage to resist is a fire-breathing dragon. There are many mythological creatures that we wish had existed, such as unicorns and gryphons. There is at least one dragon that could be a contender for “greatest dragon ever” wherever you look in today’s entertainment.
With House of the Dragon, we will soon have a feast of dragons to choose from for that prestigious title. Anime has Shenron, video games have Darkeater. However, if you were to ask George R. R. Martin and ourselves which dragon we would most like to ride, we would both undoubtedly say Balerion the Black Dread.
Balerion is arguably the most well-known dragon in the history of fantasy, and it is a darn shame that all we get to see of him in House of the Dragon is his book-accurate black skull (thank you Ryan and Miguel).
However, a dragon known as the Black Dread must have done some pretty, well, horrible things during his existence, and that is exactly what we are here to learn. Without further ado, here is Balerion the Black Dread’s origin story.
Etymology, Birthplace, and Early Years
Certain dragons’ names can reveal if they are genuine “blood of the dragon” beholders or Targaryens who have adapted to life in Westeros. Even Balerion’s name avoided his illustrious past. Balerion was given the same name as a Valyrian deity. Because the Freehold embraced polytheism and permitted the worship of more than a hundred distinct gods in their realms, very little is known about the mysterious gods of the Valyrians.
Maesters think that the reason for their vast empire’s lack of emphasis on personal gods was because they encouraged religious conflict among their people. The Valyrians adopted slavery from Old Ghis, which makes them appear far more conservative than they actually are. They also purposefully concealed their own traditions and rituals to keep the knowledge of their powers from being revealed to the “other races” by not claiming a single god or religion as the foundation of their government.
It is likely that Balerion is just the name of a famous dragonlord from long ago, although that is speculation best left to the maesters as the Valyrians frequently believed themselves to be gods, especially those who were dragonriders. Balerion’s birthplace cannot be contested, as the Black Dread was the only living thing to have witnessed Valyria at its height by the time of the Conquest.
After all, Balerion was born in Valyria and spent his formative years there while bound to an Aegon Targaryen ancestor. Balerion swiftly became the only person to have escaped the Doom of Valyria after Lord Aenar Targaryen sold all of his properties in Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer and relocated to Dragonstone in 114 AC with all of his goods and 5 dragons.
Already a “young dragon” by this point, though Balerion was a male dragon, his sex did not bother the Targaryens too much because the 4 other dragons they had brought with them had all laid clutches of eggs at Dragonstone. And so though Balerion became a sole survivor of sorts at a young age, he wouldn’t have to spend his life in quiet lonesome. He would be joined later in his life by the she-dragons Vhagar and Meraxes, and it is said that Balerion mated with both of them just as his rider would go on to do.
Getting claimed by Aegon Targaryen and Early Military Exploits – Balerion in the field
Though it is possible that Balerion had other riders during the years following the Doom of Valyria that came to be known as the Century of Blood in the East, the one thing that cannot be disputed is the fact that he only became a prominent player after getting claimed by our favourite conqueror. Lord Aegon Targaryen, a descendent of Aenar and Daenys the Dreamer, mounted Balerion towards the end of the Century of Blood.
We know this to be true because Volantis is said to have ruled over Myr and Lys for at least 2 generations, and Aegon is Aenar’s great-great-great-great-grandson, so do the math and in your head and it will make sense, trust us. Anyway, so far, the Targaryens had not involved themselves with the matters of the East, preferring to lord over the skies of their brooding island fortress and strengthening their ties with the remaining families of Valyrian blood that had taken up residence near Dragonstone.
But when the magisters of Tyrosh and the Prince of Pentos approached him with the offer of forming a grand alliance against the Tigers of Volantis, Aegon agreed and mounted Balerion for battle for the first time in recorded history. He flew his dragon south-eastward where a Volantene army was attempting to re-take Lys following a rebellion in the Free City. Aegon burned the fleets of the self-proclaimed “True Daughter of Valyria” and his actions helped end the aggressive expansionist policies of the Tigers of Volantis.
Balerion would never again be involved with an Eastern conflict, but he would visit Essos time and again. His true military exploits, after all, lied in the West. Following the resolution of the conflict in the Disputed Lands, Lord Aegon Targaryen- along with his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys- decided to conquer the continent the Targaryens had been avoiding for over a century.
After gathering up swords and support from the houses that they had developed deep ties with during their residency on Dragonstone- chiefly House Velaryon- Aegon and his sisters landed at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and began construction of the Aegonfort in what marked the beginning of the Conqueror’s Invasion. The castles of Houses Stokeworth and Rosby were close to where Aegon had built his fort, and once they caught sight of his sisters’ dragons, they were quick to submit to their would-be ruler.
Aegon’s first test came when House Mooton of Maidenpool and House Darklyn of Duskendale formed an alliance to end Aegon’s Conquest before it began in earnest. Altogether both sides were said to be fairly evenly matched on the field, with 3,000 troops each though some sources claim Aegon only had a few hundred soldiers with him instead of a substantial 3,000. None of that mattered though, because the Conqueror had something none of the lords of the crownlands had an answer for; he had Balerion.
Aegon mounted his dragon during his first test and showed the Westerosi houses the might of the dragon, ostensibly burning Lords Mooton and Darklyn alongside many of their fighting men. Their descendants yielded their castles to House Targaryen shortly after and Aegon was crowned for the first time as King of All Westeros and Shield of his People. Aegon’s first true test came when he went up against the forces of King Harren Hoare, the ruler of the Iron Islands and the Riverlands.
Meeting on the southern shore of the God’s Eye, the Targaryen forces were able to repel an attack launched by Hoare’s men, but they would retaliate by crossing the sacred lake with muffled oars and killing many of Aegon’s men with deceitful tactics. Once Aegon became aware of what had happened, he used Balerion to kill two of Harren’s sons, who had launched the attack to take the Dragon unawares, and prepared for a showdown that would earn Balerion his nickname.
The Burning of Harrenhal – How Balerion became The Black Dread
We think that it is appropriate at this point to give you a description of this legendary fire-breathing creature. Dragons are known to be majestic, beautiful, unique creatures, with no two looking like the other, but even amongst their ilk, Balerion was a truly singular existence. He was pitch black in colouring, wings, scales and fire included, but his crest and claw and eyes were a bright scarlet and when he shot out his jet of fiery black flame, it was always shot through with red. Balerion even before the conquest had been a massive beast.
His teeth were as large and sharp as bastard swords and his wingspan was so huge, he could drown entire towns in his shadow; for context, the average medieval town was about 640 acres, and George R. R. Martin likes to make things bigger on principle almost, so it is safe to say that Balerion’s shadow fell on the earth for literal miles. His presence was usually enough to scare other lords into submission, but even after losing two sons, it seemed like King Harren Hoare was determined to not give in to Aegon’s rule.
He had spent 40 years building the greatest castle in Westerosi history- Harrenhal- but on the day its construction was completed, Aegon landed at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and presumably dashed Harren’s dreams of becoming the first High King of Westeros. Even after facing a rebellion from the riverlords that were supposed to be under his command, Harren remained defiant when Aegon came to parley with him, and ignored Aegon’s threat which said his line would end by stating stone does not melt and locking himself up within the thick walls of Harrenhal.
It is said Black Harren offered a fat reward to any man that could kill Balerion in the siege and battle that were to come, but he took Aegon’s threat a bit too lightly. That night, Aegon Targaryen mounted Balerion and flew high into the skies over the God’s Eye so as to avoid being detected by Harren’s lookouts. He rose so high that it is said Balerion looked like nothing more than a fly on the moon.
Aegon then bade his mount to descend right within Black Harren’s walls, and once Balerion had reached closed enough, he unleashed his black flame and did not hold back his fury. It is said that Harrenhal had been the best castle to have ever been built in Westeros, period. Its walls were so thick and high that a siege would most definitely fail to breach it, but Harren the Black clearly failed to accommodate flying dragons into his designs.
Balerion’s fire burned so hot that everything flammable within Harrenhal went up in flames at once, and its 5 stone towers cracked open and began melting like glowing candles. By the time he was done, House Hoare was extinct, and Harrenhal was a blasted ruin, said to be cursed till the present day. From that moment onward, Balerion was known as the Black Dread.
The Field of Fire & Forging the Iron Throne – Balerion the Black Deterrent
After the burning of Harrenhal, the only other time Balerion would be used during Aegon’s Conquest would be during the Field of Fire, where all three Targaryen dragons took flight for battle for the first and only time. Balerion, Vhagar and Meraxes burned 4,000 soldiers from the combined forces of King Loren Lannister and King Merne Gardener whilst inflicting burn wounds on 10,000 more.
All things told, the Targaryens suffered minor losses, while the King of the Rock barely survived the flames and House Gardener met its end within them. Following the Field of Fire, Aegon took Balerion to Oldtown and was officially crowned as the King of the Andals, Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. He rode through Oldtown on the Black Dread’s back and thereafter Balerion’s role shifted from being an assault weapon to being a deterrent as well.
Because although Aegon’s Conquest had united the Seven Kingdoms, they were in the nascent stages of accepting Targaryen rule and civil wars could break out at any moment if the crown did not make substantial efforts to preserve and enforce their rule. So 2 years after his official coronation, Aegon flew Balerion to the Iron Islands and landed on Great Wyk to solve the succession problem of the maritime kingdom.
He did not grant leadership of the ironmen to one of his own followers however, allowing them to choose their own leader, and they picked the Lord Reaper of Pyke, Vickon Greyjoy. Thereafter House Greyjoy remained loyal to the Targaryens so long as their dragons roamed the skies. They would send their longships to defend Aegon’s western coastline, and even sent the head of a pretender king to his son’s council following Aegon’s death.
Following the resolution of the succession of the Iron Islands, Aegon would often conduct Royal Progresses throughout the Seven Kingdoms, taking one of his wives with him whilst the other held court at the Aegon Fort. During these progresses, the sight of Balerion kept Aegon’s new lords in check, and he used the swords he had gathered from them to create the most-enduring symbol of Targaryen rule in Westeros; it is said that the Iron Throne was forged with a thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, tempered with the fiery breath of the Black Dread, but historians claim that the seat was built by armourers instead.
Either way, Balerion became a symbol of Aegon’s right to rule over Westeros and also acted as a heavy-handed peace-ensuring measure. But that wasn’t the end of his days burning enemies to ash, because Aegon’s Conquest wasn’t over yet. Having taken control of all the territory north of the Boneway, Aegon focused his attention towards Dorne, intent on completing his conquest, but was met with resistance like no other. And it was in the years following this Dornish Resistance that Balerion would truly earn his style as the Black Dread.
The Wrath of the Dragons – Balerion’s Many Burnings
In 4 AC, the Targaryens launched a full-scale invasion of Dorne and Aegon did not use Balerion in the conflict at first. He opted to conquer Dorne using conventional military strategy but ended up paying the price when the Dornish used bloody guerrilla tactics to exact heavy losses. Even though Aegon had flown Balerion to Sunspear and put the abandoned castle- and all of Dorne- under the clemency of the Iron Throne to finally “complete his conquest”, he was met with rebellion as soon as he and Rhaenys returned to King’s Landing.
After his Hand of the King and half-brother Orys Baratheon was mutilated by the Wyl of Wyl and several of his supporters and their men were tortured and given gruesome deaths, Aegon finally gave in to his grief and loosed Balerion upon the Dornish. The king burned the keeps of House Wyl in the Boneway and turned the sands near Sandstone, Vaith and Hellhole into glass alongside Visenya and her dragon Vhagar.
When the Dornish refused to join his rule, Aegon burned every castle in Dorne from Balerion’s back- save Sunspear- at least twice over the course of 2 years that came to be known as The Dragon’s Wroth. Balerion’s burning of Dorne would only cease in 13 AC, when Aegon and Nymor Martell signed a peace treaty to bring the conflict between Dorne and the Iron Throne to an end.
He would remain Aegon’s mount and companion until the Conqueror’s death, after which Balerion did not light up his rider’s funeral pyre for another had claimed him. Maegor, Aegon’s son through Visenya, had been waiting for his father to pass so he could claim Balerion because he thought the Black Dread to be the only dragon worthy enough to become his mount. When Jonos Arryn of the Vale defied Maegor’s brother King Aenys, he flew Balerion to the Eyrie to put down the rebellion. Though Balerion’s flames weren’t loosed upon the traitor Arryn and his supporters, they were all hanged by command of Prince Maegor.
When Maegor was commanded to go into exile for 5 years by his brother King Aenys, he took Balerion with him and when he returned, he brought Fire & Blood to the Faith of the Seven. This was because the Faith did not approve of ancient Valyrian customs- such as incest and polygamy- and had only kept silent about Aegon’s abominations due to his immense power as a politician.
Seeing that the son was not the father, the Faith rose up in rebellion during the reign of Aegon’s son Aenys, and when Maegor usurped his brother’s throne, he meted out a brand of justice that earned him the nickname Maegor the Cruel. After surviving a harrowing Trail By Seven and awaking from a 30 day coma, Maegor mounted Balerion and burned the Sept of Remembrance- the base of the Faith Militant’s elite wing- to the ground with no warning whatsoever. Maegor’s archers and crossbowmen shot down all those who tried to flee the Sept.
He used the Black Dread multiple times in his war with the Faith, burning Poor Fellows and Warrior’s Sons and the retainers of rebel lords alike during the Battle at the Great Fork of the Blackwater Rush. Maegor would use Balerion to burn the seats of Houses Lorch, Doggett, Falwell and Broome as well as those of other pious lords in the Westerlands, while his mother did the same in the riverlands with Vhagar.
Maegor even threatened to burn the Starry Sept at Oldtown- the centre of the Faith of the Seven- if they kept up with their pious denouncements of the way of the dragon, but the city was spared Balerion’s flames thanks to a change in leadership. Maegor would also use Balerion to commit one of the worst acts in Westerosi custom. When his nephew Aegon decided to press his claim despite his uncle’s clear stranglehold on the Iron Throne, Maegor decided to make an example of him.
Prince Aegon marched towards King’s Landing from Pinkmaiden with nearly 15,000 men riding atop his dragon Quicksilver, but when Maegor and Balerion showed up in the skies, Aegon’s side knew the fight was lost before it ever even began. Balerion was at least 5 times the size of Quicksilver and battle-hardened besides. He swooped down on the younger dragon in the Battle Beneath the God’s Eye and killed both dragon and rider, thereafter earning Maegor the unenviable tag of kinslayer.
When construction on the Dragonpit was completed, Balerion was the first dragon to be housed within its walls, however that wouldn’t be for another 8 years as after Maegor’s death, the Black Dread simply returned to Dragonstone and laired in the Dragonmont until someone else tried to claim him. Throughout a great chunk of his known life, Balerion was ridden by two warriors of unmatched repute, but the effects of their actions could not have been more different.
Where Aegon Targaryen unified 7 Kingdoms with Balerion’s fiery breath, Maegor nearly undid it all in his blood-soaked war with the Faith. But both conflicts would end up reinforcing the sheer terror of the Black Dread, and even in his old age, Balerion was known to be a wilful beast. When King Jaehaerys ascended the throne, he would often advise his counselors and dragon keepers not to disturb Balerion as he was “not a beast to be trifled with”. For over half a decade, Balerion would reside at Dragonstone before being claimed for the final two times by the unlikeliest of riders.
A trip back home and life in a dome – The final years of the Black Dread
In 54 AC, when he was over a century and a half old, Balerion found an unlikely rider in the form of Crown Princess Aerea Targaryen. She was only 12 years old when she approached the dragon to claim him and it was perhaps that very fact that made it a huge mistake for the young girl. Remember when we called Balerion wilful? Well, if you claim a dragon and cannot overpower its will using your own, then the dragon will be the one making decisions whilst flying, not you. And it appears that that is exactly what happened because the young Aerea disappeared shortly after claiming the Black Dread towards the end of 54 AC.
Balerion was not spotted anywhere in Westeros, even after Aerea’s mother went looking for him on her dragon Dreamfyre. There were reports coming in from Essos that stated the presence of a dragon as far as the fighting pits of Meereen, but King Jaehaerys’ council never paid too much attention to those stories. For over a year the search for Aerea Targaryen continued, before one day in 56 AC, the Black Dread flew into King’s Landing in what is perhaps the grimmest scene from Fire & Blood. Princess Aerea Targaryen looked like someone had charred her to the bone; she was stick-thin, dishevelled and running a fever that had apparently burst all the blood vessels in her eyes.
After dismounting Balerion, the only thing she could say was “I never” before she collapsed. As for the dragon himself, something had happened to Balerion which- if leaked to the general populace- would end up threatening Targaryen power for time immemorial; the Black Dread had not just been hurt, he had been deeply wounded by something that left a 9-feet-long jagged rent in his left side that was still smoking and dripping with hot blood.
This was a problem for the Targaryens because up until that point, Balerion had been a nigh-invulnerable sign of strength and stability for their dynasty. Countless wars and a recorded dragon fight did not leave as much as a scratch on him, and yet here he was with multiple half-healed scars and a wound taller than Yao Ming. Septon Barth conjectured that since Aerea could not bend Balerion to her will, the Black Dread took her to his birthplace instead, implying Balerion went to Valyria with the Princess of his back.
And based on the account of Aerea’s death that Septon Barth gives us, we’re inclined to believe him as well. But the fact remains that after this fateful flight, Balerion the Black Dread would spend the rest of his life in the Dragonpit at King’s Landing. It is said that if a dragon is fed and given enough space, it will never stop growing, and yet Balerion did stop growing in 93 AC.
At the peak of his size, he had been big enough to swallow a woolly mammoth whole, and at the peak of his strength, he was said to have been able to devour aurochs like lemon cakes. Now, in his old age, Balerion became moody and extremely slow, to the point that he wouldn’t even retaliate if harmed. In the year 75 AC, Prince Baelon Targaryen, Jaehaerys’ second heir, smacked Balerion’s snout when he entered the Dragonpit to claim a dragon for himself and lived to tell the tale.
His lady wife was also advised to not mount the Black Dread by the Dragonkeepers given his advanced age, but that would not stop their son Viserys from claiming Balerion for his mount in 93 AC. By this time, the Black Dread had stopped growing as we’ve already mentioned and was infinitesimally slow to rise. Viserys had to struggle to get Balerion off the ground, and only circled King’s Landing on his back thrice before landing him at the Pit again, fearing his frail body would not be able to fly Viserys to Dragonstone. Balerion would pass away the very next year, in 94 AC, and would be the only Targaryen dragon from Aegon’s day to have died of old age.
Legacy of the Black Dread
At the time of his death, Balerion had easily counted more than 210 years in this world, making him the oldest known living dragon in Westerosi history and beyond. He had built a reputation as being a fierce and independent dragon who only obeyed riders that were as wilful as he was. Balerion was unanimously considered to be one of the biggest reasons for Aegon’s mostly-successful conquest and unification of Westeros, to the point he is still spoken of with high regard even by the people whose ancestors he probably directly had a hand in burning. After his death, Balerion’s skull was the largest one kept on display in the throne room of the Red Keep.
It was taken down only when Robert Baratheon became the King of Westeros, at which point the skull was relocated to the dungeons and cellars of the Red Keep where Arya Stark found it whilst chasing cats. Although Balerion is no longer around in person, he has been reborn in spirit as Daenaerys’ black dragon Drogon, whom her blood-rider Aggo calls Balerion come again.
Indeed, Drogon’s colouring and temperament seem to imitate the Black Dread’s in more than one fashion, and unless George finishes writing his stories, we cannot say whether Drogon will become as famous- or infamous, based on your understanding- as his ancient Valyrian counterpart. Daenaerys also named a ship after the Black Dread during her voyage from Qarth to the cities of Slaver’s Bay as a way to tell the world that the dragons had returned for Fire & Blood.
House of the Dragon has taken out a significant chunk of Balerion’s final years because in the series’ truncated timeline, Aerea Targaryen does not exist, which takes out the possibility of Balerion ever returning to Valyria, but that is the only major difference to his story made in the show.
Other than that, he is treated with literal reverence, as you can see his skull resting upon an altar when Viserys names Rhaenyra his heiress. If you take the ending of Game of Thrones Season 8 seriously, then it is possible that Drogon followed in Balerion’s footsteps and took Dany’s dead body to Valyria- or that one place in the Dothraki Sea where he was hatched, to be more precise- and that would be a very neat tying up of events from a narrative point of view.
And if you don’t, then 1) thank you, and 2) we’re sorry because it’s highly unlikely that we are going to get to see Balerion as anything but a skull cinematically, but that is fine by us because it preserves his legend. Balerion the Black Dread was one of the most dangerous and recognizable dragons that the Known World had ever seen, and his death was perhaps the most-deserved one in the books.