- "Half the Targaryens went mad, didn't they?... What's the saying? 'Every time a Targaryen is born the gods flip a coin.'"
- ―Cersei Lannister
House Targaryen carries the trait for insanity in its bloodline. Over three hundred years of heavy inbreeding, marrying brother to sister whenever possible to "keep the bloodline pure," resulted in many of the medical problems seen with incest, particularly mental instability.
The most prominent example of the Targaryen madness was the last Targaryen king, Aerys II, who subsequently became known as "the Mad King". In his youth, Aerys was initially perceived as charming and ambitious, but as he grew older, Aerys suffered from some sort of paranoid schizophrenia. He heard voices in his head that weren't real and these voices told him to burn people alive because they were all plotting against him.
Other Targaryens displayed highly bizarre personalities, though they were not strictly speaking "insane". They didn't experience hallucinations or hear voices, but some had aggressive, sociopathic personalities. Aerion Brightflame (despite not being a product of incest), the older brother of Maester Aemon and King Aegon V, eventually succumbed to the delusional belief that if he drank wildfire it would transform him into a dragon but instead, it killed him.
The effects worsened with each generation of compounded inbreeding. By the later centuries of their rule, it was joked that when a new Targaryen was born the gods would flip a coin to decide if they would be a brilliant statesman or insane. This does not mean that all Targaryens were as a rule mentally unstable, as seen with how Daenerys Targaryen's oldest brother Rhaegar was considered a great man by all who knew him, and Maester Aemon became a wise and revered adviser to the Night's Watch for many decades.
Generally, if a Targaryen had multiple sons and one of them was clearly mentally unstable, they would try to skip over him in the line of succession in favor of a more stable younger son. Therefore, fewer of the early Targaryen kings had mental problems, because if a king did have a mentally unstable son he wouldn't be allowed to succeed his father. However, during the last century of their rule the Targaryen madness became increasingly common, making it more and more difficult to avoid having a mentally unstable son inherit the throne.
Although not a Targaryen himself, Joffrey Baratheon's incestuous bloodline is speculated to have produced similarly severe defects in his sanity. Joffrey is the child of twin lovers, Jaime and Cersei Lannister, and did not have a drop of Baratheon blood in his veins. While he didn't suffer from hallucinations, Joffrey was a sadistic, megalomaniacal sociopath, with delusions of grandeur. However, his brother and sister - also the children of Jaime and Cersei - did not appear to suffer the same defects.
Known Mad Targaryens
- King Maegor the Cruel was the first original Targaryen King who displayed the infamous madness, he overthrew and murdered his nephew for the Iron Throne making him a kinslayer, and after construction of the Red Keep was completed, he had all of the masons and workers massacred so that only he would know the castle's secrets. His entire reign was engulfed in war in the Seven Kingdoms, he is particularly known for his devastating conflict with the Faith.
- King Baelor the Blessed was overzealously obsessed with religion and purity, to the point that he starved himself into an early grave because he believed that food is of this world, and the material world is sinful.
- Prince Rhaegel, older brother of King Maekar, had massive delusions and was known to randomly take off his clothes and dance naked through the halls of the Red Keep.
- Prince Aerion Brightflame, son of King Maekar and nephew of the Prince Rhaegel. Aerion killed himself drinking wildfire, believing it would turn him into a dragon.
- King Aerys, the Mad King, son of King Aegon V and nephew of Aerion. The infamous Mad King. Had violent visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as a near-permanent feeling of persecution, which drove him to execute anyone who slighted him out of fear that they were conspiring against him. Tried to blow up King's Landing with wildfire, believing he would rise from the ashes as a dragon.
- Prince Viserys Targaryen, second son of Aerys II, had delusions of greatness and would have frequent, violent outbursts of jealous anger towards his sister, Daenerys. He ultimately sealed his own fate by drunkenly threatening Daenerys and her unborn son, prompting Drogo to pour molten gold on his head.
- Queen Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of Aerys II and sister of Viserys, whose insanity peaked in the Battle of King's Landing, in which she razed the city with dragonfire (which also prompted caches of wildfire exploding), killing tens of thousands of civilians after the Lannister army had surrendered. Prior to this, she showed some signs of the disease, particularly in the form of megalomania (somewhat like her brother Viserys), including the crucifixion of 163 Great Masters in Meereen after the Siege of Meereen, regardless of their personal guilt or innocence, and burning her enemies for insubordination. The slaughter in King's Landing, in addition to her subsequently stated desire to "liberate" the entire world, led to her death at the hands of her nephew and lover, Jon Snow.
Status of current Targaryens
Jon Snow (Aegon Targaryen)
- "I still don't know how her coin has landed. But I am quite certain about yours."
- ―Varys to Jon Snow.
As the last living son of Rhaegar Targaryen, Jon has the potential of inheriting the Targaryen madness as even less inbred Targaryens have been known to shown signs of it. So far, Jon has shown no such signs. Unlike his aunt, Daenerys, he shows disappointment or even remorse when he feels forced to kill. For example, he only executed Janos Slynt because he refused to obey a direct order, an intolerable act among the Night's Watch, and he slightly hesitated before letting the sword fall, implying even at that moment he wished he didn't have to behead Slynt. Later, he only executed Alliser Thorne, Othell Yarwyck, Bowen Marsh, and Olly after they betrayed and killed him, and even though it was Olly who led him into the trap and ultimately struck the fatal blow, Jon later expressed remorse for hanging him, as he was only a boy younger than Bran Stark. Arguably, however, his execution of the betrayers can be seen as hypocritical, as while he used his position as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch to order the execution, he then immediately argued that he was released from his vows upon death. He cannot reasonably argue that he was both released from his vows after death, and had authority as Lord Commander for a time after his resurrection.
He has expressed rage at least once, although it is difficult to attribute this to madness. He nearly murdered Ramsay Bolton with his bare hands, but stopped out of respect for his "sister", Sansa Stark. Although the sacking and burning of Winterfell and murder of Rickon Stark affected them both and he also saw his friend Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun slain in front of him, Sansa suffered severe abuse at Ramsay's hands, including rape. That said, Jon only managed to regain control and release his grip on Ramsay when he saw Sansa, suggesting that Ramsay's horrendous actions brought forth minor, residual madness; however, he has never shown such brutality since. He was horrified after hearing about the execution of the Tarlys and witnessing the burning of King's Landing, showing he is much more intolerant to needless violence than Daenerys. When Tyrion urged Jon to assassinate Daenerys for the threat she posed, Jon was resistant to the idea due to his love for her. He pleaded with Daenerys to opt for mercy over continued killing but when Daenerys showed she was resolved to destruction, Jon ultimately assassinated her by stabbing her through the heart, ensuring her death would be too quick for her to suffer. He was devastated after carrying it out and later admitted to Tyrion that he didn't feel it was right.
In short, while Jon is capable of brutality, it takes direct harm to his family and friends as part of an effort to provoke him to bring him to that stage, and the resulting extreme violence has solely been directed towards those provoking him. More likely, the death of anyone who forces Jon to resort to violence would be a standard form of execution or resulting from battle. By contrast, Daenerys was more willing to utilize violence and had been indiscriminate in its use even before succumbing to madness.
- "The 'dragon spawn' were famous for losing their minds. It was the price they paid for centuries of keeping the bloodlines pure, and Aerys more than happily continued the 'noble' sister-fucking tradition of his forefathers."
- ―Robert Baratheon on the Targaryens.
- "Babies or no, theirs was the same cursed blood that flowed within the Mad King's veins. They were 'dragon-spawn', and couldn't be allowed to survive. What would they grow to be, loyal subjects?...Was it a crime to put an end to a family of lunatics born of incest?"
- ―Robert Baratheon on the deaths of the Targaryen children.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, on a few occasions, Targaryens were born who had benign but nonetheless delusional personalities, such as Baelor "the Blessed". Baelor was admittedly a well-intentioned man but lost his grip on reality, becoming obsessed with religion - not in a puritanical way but by carrying altruism and pacifism to an absurd degree. An overzealous fool, he prayed more than he ruled, wore only a crown of flowers, and died without heirs because he never consummated his marriage for fear of sinning. He even locked his three sisters away in a tower (mockingly called the "Maidenvault") to avoid carnal temptations. He made a stonemason the new High Septon due to the beauty of the religious statues he carved - despite the fact that he was illiterate and knew no prayers - believing him the Smith in human form. After the stonemason died, Baelor replaced him by appointing an eight year old boy as High Septon.
There are also examples of Targaryen children who were born mentally disabled, but because they were never seriously considered in the line of succession, little was recorded about them and they are given only scant mentions in the royal histories. The daughter of Aerion and Aemon's oldest brother is recorded as being born "feeble-witted".
The generations of inbreeding practiced by the Targaryens usually resulted in mental health problems, though at times they also produced severe detriments to physical health. Some Targaryens were intellectually and emotionally normal, but possessed such fragile health that they suffered from numerous ailments and died young. A prominent example of this was the Mad King's father Jaehaerys II, a good and honorable ruler who possessed frail health and died after ruling for only three years (however, Jaehaerys II has been officially cut from the TV series continuity).
Aegon II Targaryen's children also had several health problems as a result of their incestuous bloodlines, their mother being Aegon II's own sister Helaena. Aegon II's son Jaehaerys was born with six fingers on his left hand, and six toes on each foot, but otherwise was a completely healthy, mentally stable, and happy young boy. Jaehaerys's twin sister Jaehaera, however, is described as possibly having some form of autism spectrum mental condition. Jaehaera did not smile or cry as a baby, or any of the normal reactions a baby has, and at the age of six was called "sweet and simple". Even so, due to the death of the rest of her immediate family, Jaehaera eventually became queen when she was wed to her cousin Aegon III Targaryen, to end the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. Jaehaera never gave Aegon III any children, however, and after her death Aegon III later remarried to a lady of House Velaryon who gave him five children.
The heavy Targaryen inbreeding also caused severe health problems in the Mad King's own progeny with his sister-wife Queen Rhaella: Rhaegar, Viserys, and Daenerys actually weren't their only children, just the only ones to survive infancy. Rhaegar was born in 259 AC and Viserys was born in 276 AC - in the intervening 17 years, Queen Rhaella had no less than two stillbirths, three miscarriages, and three infant sons who were born alive but were so sickly that none of them lived more than a year. It was speculated that the stress from all of these dead children is one of the factors that accelerated Aerys II's spiral into insanity (not the root cause, but it certainly didn't help).
The "Targaryen Madness" wasn't always initially present, and sometimes grew worse with age. Aerys II himself, while remembered as "the Mad King", was perfectly sane as a young adult. As the years passed, however, he had lapses into unstable behavior that gradually grew worse and worse, and longer in duration. Many were willing to ignore these eccentric episodes when they passed, but by his mid-40's Aerys had become completely unstable, hearing voices that weren't there, becoming irrationally paranoid, and burning men alive for his own amusement. At first, Daenerys wasn't willing to believe the tales of her father's madness as anything more than rumors spread by Robert Baratheon, but after Ser Barristan Selmy joins her service, at her request he gives her a frank report on the nature of Targaryen madness.
Daenerys becomes deeply concerned when she learns that Targaryen madness was often a late-onset condition: her own infamously insane father showed little sign of mental instability into his late-20's, thus there is no real guarantee that the apparently-sane teenaged Daenerys will not suddenly turn violently insane at some point in the future; either one year in the future or twenty years in the future.
House Baratheon in the current generation is closely related to the Targaryens, as Robert Baratheon's paternal grandmother was a Targaryen, thus making Robert's father the first cousin of King Aerys II. Every now and again when certain people disparage the three Baratheon brothers, they sometimes speculate that their "drop of dragon-blood" from their partial Targaryen descent made them a little odd. For example, Olenna Tyrell thought this was a contributing factor in what made Renly Baratheon so rash that he thought he could proclaim himself king, even though Robert had two sons and a middle brother (Stannis) before Renly in the line of succession.
Ironically, if Joffrey Baratheon was the actual son of Robert Baratheon, he would have had some Targaryen blood in him - and this may have been used to explain his erratic behavior. Secretly, however, Joffrey is actually the product of incest between twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister, whose own parents, Tywin and Joanna Lannister, were cousins, and has no relationship to the Targaryens.
Aegon Targaryen (son of Rhaegar and Elia), who is revealed to be alive in A Dance with Dragons, behaves on two occasions in such manner that perhaps implies he carries the Targaryen insanity strain: first, he becomes angry when Tyrion defeats him in Cyvasse, kicks the board and orders Tyrion to pick up the pieces; that makes Tyrion muse "He may well be a Targaryen after all". Second, a few days after he, his guardian Jon Connington and the Golden Company arrive at Westeros, he becomes domineering and arrogant, and overconfidently states that he intends to conquer Storm's End. It would be premature, though, to determine whether these are early signs of the Targaryen Madness; it can simply be a typical behavior of an adolescent.
- "Breaker of Chains"
- "Kissed by Fire"
- In the fifth novel, Ser Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys that her father lusted after Joanna Lannister and acted indecently at her bedding. Based on that, there is an unverified fan theory that Aerys slept with Joanna (with or without her consent), and he is the father of Jaime and Cersei. Joffrey's personality supports (but does not confirm) the theory: he could have inherited that strain via Cersei, who is also somewhat mentally unstable and capable of homicide and sadism, though in smaller scale.