The Dragonpit of King’s Landing provided a dramatic backdrop for some tense negotiations in the season seven finale of Game of Thrones – but what is it, exactly?
The answer, touched upon in the show – which suggests it may have helped cause the decline of the dragon-riding Targaryens – is that it was originally a sort of giant playpen for dragons.
According to George RR Martin’s books, in its heyday the structure was an “immense domed castle”, with a roof above it that, along with its great walls, helped keep its fire-breathing inhabitants from escaping.
The problem, of course, is that caging dragons is never a good idea, at least as far as the dragons themselves are concerned. (Easily-roasted smallfolk and their unfortunate children may well disagree.)
In Martin’s world, the size of a dragon is a reflection of its age – they never stop growing – and its access to space. But according to the Game of Thrones wiki website, only free-range reptiles will reach their full potential: “If dragons are chained or confined into an enclosed space for long periods of time it can hinder their growth and their overall size.”
Consequently, some of the oldest Targaryen dragons, such as Balerion the Black Dread (used by Aegon the Conqueror to help him take Westeros, and seen in the show in skull-form) grew to an immense size. The unlucky beasts that came later, after the pit was built, were much smaller.
Likewise, in the TV show it’s evident that Drogon, who has never been locked up, is bigger by far than Rhaegal and the undead Viserion.
Chaining a dragon and placing it inside an enclosure, no matter how large, will always impact upon its growth. “A cavernous dwelling it was, with iron doors so wide that thirty knights could ride through them abreast,” Ser Barristan Selmy says of the Dragonpit in the books. “Yet even so, it was noted that none of the pit dragons ever reached the size of their ancestors. The maesters say it was because of the walls around them, and the great dome above their heads.”
Later, another character, Quentyn Martell (cut from the TV show, along with most of the Dorne-related plot), has a similar reflection, after being told that Viserion and Rhaegal are “smaller than the queen’s monster”, and realising that it must be because of their imprisonment.
“None of the dragons born and raised in the Dragonpit of King’s Landing had ever approached the size of Vhagar or Meraxes, much less that of the Black Dread,” he thinks.
Why does the Dragonpit need to be in ruins?
The books describe the Dragonpit as a blackened ruin with vast iron doors and a collapsed-in roof, and explain that it was partly destroyed after a mob of King’s Landing commoners rose up against their Targaryen rulers, many years before the events of Game of Thrones, and decided to slay their “demon” dragons. (If you found poor Viserion’s death upsetting, you might want to skip the next part of this explainer.)
At the time of the revolt, Westeros was in the throes of a Targaryen civil war, known as the Dance of the Dragons, and only four dragons were being housed in the pit.
The rioters, who were under the influence of a mad prophet known as The Shepherd, broke into the pit and brutally attacked three of the chained dragons inside – prompting them to unleash their fire, and turn the entire pit into a blazing inferno.
After three of the poor creatures were dispatched, a fourth, named Dreamfyre, tried to escape by flying directly upwards. Sadly, she ended up bringing part of the roof of the dome down with her and getting crushed to death.
A fifth dragon (we did warn you: this is not a happy story) perished after a young Targaryen Prince tried to ride her to the Dragonpit, in an attempt to halt the chaos. The dragon in question, Syrax, shook off her inexperienced rider (dragons will generally only allow themselves to be ridden by one living human at a time), then bravely flew down to attack the dragon-murdering mob, refusing to fly away to safety.
Where was it filmed?
The show created an impressive “look” for the pit – one that reflects the idea of a once-great monument reduced to ruins – by using a Roman amphitheatre, located in the Roman city of Italica near Seville in Spain.
The amphitheatre, historians say, was once an appropriately Targaryen-like attempt at showing off. Designed to raise the importance and status of the town, it could seat up to 25,000 people, despite the fact that the actual population of Italica was less than half this.
Last year, according to Watchers on the Wall, the popular tourist spot was closed to the public between October 17 and November 12, to allow the Game of Thrones team to film there.