Blood, love, (history), and rhetoric: House of the Dragon as Adaptation

‘I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory—they’re all blood, you see.’

— Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

‘I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood.’

— Rodrick ‘the Reader’ Harlaw to Asha Greyjoy, in A Feast For Crows

CREDIT: All screencaps come from So Obsessed. Thank you! ❤

Writing in the early 1580s, the famed English poet Sir Philip Sidney observed of literary depictions, specifically tragic depictions, of historical events:

‘Do they not know that a tragedy is tied to the laws of poesy, and not of history; not bound to follow the story but having liberty either to feign a quite new matter or to frame the history to the most tragical conveniency?’

The Defence of Poesy, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones[i], ll. 1292-96

He also drops some delightful snark on historians, pointing out that:

‘And even historiographers (although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads) have been glad to borrow both fashion and, perchance, weight of the poets. So Herodotus entitled his History by the name of the nine Muses; and both he and all the rest that followed him either stale or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particuliarities of battles, which no man could affirm; or, if that be denied me, long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.’

Defence, ll. 79-86

That one’s for all the Mushroom purists out there.[ii] Or anyone who wants to claim that written history represents what actually happened. As I’ve said many times, there are multiple interpretive layers to any history; hell, there have been legal studies proving that eyewitness statements, even those taken soon afterward, are not always trustworthy, and prone to bias, misinterpretation, and straight up error. So why would we expect historical texts, which are designed not just to describe what happened, but to interpret, contextualize, and make sense of it, to be any more accurate? In short, a historical text best represents not the events it’s writing about, but a combination of what people recall about those events, how culturally important they are, and what the individual writer believes about them.

What I most want to highlight here is the idea of ‘fram[ing] the history to the most tragical conviviency’. In short, that is exactly what the production team behind House of the Dragon are doing with George R.R. Martin’s source text, Fire & Blood. They are picking up this faux history, itself framed as having been written long after the events depicted, with an obvious misogynist slant, based on three primary sources that, while contemporary, suffer from bias and simple unreliability. As I have discussed before, this is Martin playing with a specific type of literary genre—that of the universal chronicle, compiled from a vast selection of earlier sources, framed and recontextualized to appeal to a later audience.

Frontispiece from the 1550 edition of Edward Hall’s The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, aka Hall’s Chronicle, one of the main sources for Shakespeare’s three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. Featuring a convoluted-looking family tree for aforementioned families of York and Lancaster, culminating at the top of the page with King Henry VIII.
Series of screenshots from the opening credits of House of the Dragon.

Because it’s worth pointing out that the narrative as presented in Fire & Blood (hereafter F&B) is not, strictly speaking, a tragic one. It is a dynastic narrative with tragic elements embedded[iii] throughout, but lacks the shaping of those events and the deepening of the personages it moves across its proverbial chessboard into characters with real interiority. It’s the difference between reading Edward Hall’s Vnion of the Two Noble & Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & York and watching Shakespeare’s Richard III murder his way to the English throne while winking at the audience the whole time. These are radically different experiences[iv]—and, as Merry on Learned Hands pointed out the show erases the narrative distance between F&B and the reader, and brings the events of the book viscerally to life.

I talked about how this worked in Episode 4 after it aired, so I’m going to focus on other instances across the series. I’ll also be chatting with the Learned Hands about this topic tonight, so please tune in!

But hang on for now, because this is going to be a long one.

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House of the Dragon 1.10: ‘The Black Queen’

Previously: The Green faction stages a coup! Viserys is barely cold, and Otto’s plan many years in the making springs to action to crown Aegon as king before Rhaenyra even knows about her father’s death. We follow their faction through the next two days as they attempt to take control of King’s Landing, with questionable results. On the one hand, lots of people saw Aegon crowned. On the other hand, Rhaenys interrupted the party just to make an epic exist on Meleys after squashing several hundred bystanders.

By the time I watched this episode, a leaked version had already been circulating for about 48 hours, and the small-but-vocal outrage machine was in full swing. I’m not really going to comment on that except to say that critique is valid, but harassment never is. Do better, #hotd fandom. Most of us are, but the loud ones could use a lecture on basic courtesy.

I will say for the record that I haven’t agreed with all the choices the showrunners made on House of the Dragon. But that’s part of engaging with media. It isn’t made for any one of us personally; it’s made by a group of people coming to a consensus and trying to please a larger group of people with heterogeneous viewpoints and interests. By definition, it’s not going to please everyone. And, by all means, if you’re inspired by your displeasure, write or draw your own version of events. One of the fun things about Fire & Blood is how much of it is open to interpretation. What happened on House of the Dragon is just one version of events. Nobody has claimed anything else.

This definitely feels like the other half of Episode 9, bringing us Rhaenyra’s side of this sorry tale of family strife and uncivil war. And what a heartbreaker it is—loss upon loss, compounded by the weight of a new crown. When she turns to face the camera at the end of the episode and the season, we all know what’s coming.

Then the storm broke, and the dragons danced.

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.09: ‘The Green Council’

Previously: In an episode that I assume is subtitled ‘Paddy Considine’s Emmy Nomination Reel’, Viserys bids a tragic farewell to both of his families, wishing as we all do that he had worked harder to bring them together. Vaemond Velaryon explains why he’s correct and everyone else is gaslighting him, but ends up losing his head anyway. It’s not Rhaenyra and Daemon’s brightest moment, even if we understand why it went the way it did. And considering the Hightower candidate is a sex pest who doesn’t want the job, well, they’re still the better option. Rhaenyra and Alicent almost come to a détente—they are, at one point, even holding hands by choice—but Alicent’s hard zealous turn prompts her to pay attention to just enough of her husband’s deathbed ramblings that she decides to push forward with her father’s agenda to put Aegon on the throne.

In France, when they still had a monarchy, it was traditional upon the death of the king, to announce, “Le roi est mort, vive le roi” [The king is dead, long live the king]. It’s an encapsulation of the concept of the king’s two bodies. The quick and dirty explanation is that you have the body natural, which is the physical body of the person (usually a cis man) called ‘king’, and you have the body politic, which is the title of the king, the institution of monarchy that passes—whether through blood lineage or through election—from one king to another. But within that liminal space between kings yawns a power vacuum. This episode is about the desperate rush to fill that vacuum.

Viserys had decreed in the first episode of this season, some two decades before his death, that his title and his power would pass to his daughter Rhaenyra, notwithstanding prior decisions that had favored male primogeniture over direct. We have watched as the people around Viserys questioned, threatened, and attempted to subvert his decision, and we have watched him remain steadfast. The reason, according to both Viserys in character and to actor Paddy Considine, was his unwavering love for his first wife Aemma, and the guilt he felt for having, in essence, ordered her death in his desperate search for a male heir.

Now, it would have been better if Viserys had made that intention clearer. If he had not only reacted to the people around him, but proactively supported Rhaenyra. It’s never brought up in the show, but in Fire & Blood (as I have mentioned before), Viserys considers making Rhaenyra Hand of the King after the murders of Lyonel and Harwin Strong. If that had happened, if he had given that authority to Rhaenyra—as his grandfather Jaehaerys had done with both of his initial heirs—the political landscape would look very different. But that’s not how it went, and Viserys has left a powder keg with a lit fuse behind him. It just remains to see who sets it alight and exactly when the fireworks start.

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.08 ‘Lord of the Tides’

Previously: Two funerals, one wedding, and two elopements. Poor Corlys and Rhaenys start the episode burying their daughter and end it having to bury their son. Except that we the audience (along with Daemon and Rhaenyra) know it isn’t really Laenor, because Laenor and Qarl are headed to the Free Cities to be happy and gay together. We hope. We really hope. Rhaenyra comes to Driftmark with one husband and leaves with another, plus a definite twist to her reputation.[i] And Aemond and Vhagar eloped, upsetting everybody except for Otto, who continues to be The Actual Worst.

Note: I want to give due credit to Emmett (@PoorQuentyn) and Manu (@ManuclearBomb) of the NotACast Podcast for a really insightful and fun discussion on Monday night, and that I’m sorry for the tech mess that cost everyone labor, time, and bandwidth.

I have periodically compared Rhaenyra to various European monarchs and today we’re going to talk a little about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. I’ve written about her here, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about her history, but suffice it to say that there are commonalities between Rhaenyra’s marriage to Daemon and Mary’s third marriage to James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell.

As I wrote before,

“Darnley’s [Mary’s 2nd husband] death and its aftermath are simultaneously the most famous and the least known episodes in Mary Stuart’s life. We know that Mary ended up married to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, in May 1567, but it is unclear whether or not it was under her own power. Plenty of novelists—and more than a few historians and journalists […] assume that Mary chose to marry Bothwell, a move that damaged her reputation beyond repair and sent her fleeing into England, ultimately to her death. In this era of #MeToo, we must acknowledge the possibility that when Mary was intercepted by Bothwell on her way to Edinburgh on 24 April 1567, she was, in fact, abducted against her will. Moreover, that her subsequent marriage to him does not denote consent so much as a conscious decision to make the best of her situation in an era where her reputation would have already been ruined by an assault.”

Fire & Blood hedges its bets, as it so often does in these instances. Laena dies, then Laenor, and only afterward, the Strongs perish mysteriously in a fire. Viserys briefly considers making Rhaenyra Hand of the King, but instead chooses to reinstate Otto Hightower out of ‘familiarity’ (384). Shortly afterward, he learns that Rhaenyra and Daemon have secretly married on Dragonstone, and the chronicle emphasizes the age difference between the two and lingers on the outrage of the nobility.

In House of the Dragon, Rhaenyra is the one who seizes the moment, who proposes marriage to her uncle Daemon in spite of the danger to her reputation. She is choosing to embrace fear rather than love, to cease to be the Realm’s Delight and to become instead the heir to the throne willing to forge strategic alliances and fight for what’s hers. But there will always be those who whisper that it was Daemon’s doing, that Rhaenyra is controlled by him, is somehow carrying out his will rather than her own. I appreciate that the show is making it clear that this is her choice, and—more importantly—why she’s doing it. And we see in this episode that, up to a point, she succeeded.

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.07: ‘Driftmark’

Previously: Holy time jump, Batman! Rhaenyra delivers what we learn is her third child, all of whom take after their dad. Who is not her husband. Oops. To Laenor’s credit, he publicly acknowledges all three as his, and their bio dad, Harwin Strong, is still a presence in their lives. At least until the end of this episode. RIP, Harwin Strong. Also RIP, Lyonel Strong, the best Hand. Alicent, in the meantime, is reaching the boiling point with Rhaenyra’s constant flouting of (admittedly arbitrary) moral standards. Her own three children are deeply strange, and she is egged on by Criston Cole (The Worst) and Larys Strong (the devil on her shoulder who tells her murder is always the answer). On the far side of the Narrow Sea, in Pentos, Daemon’s little family with Laena Velaryon also threatens to fall apart when Laena’s pregnancy goes very wrong. At least she went out the way she wanted? RIP to a real one.

We begin with Laena Velaryon’s funeral.

Like weddings, funerals are a hotbed for emotional turmoil. People let things slip, secrets come out, truths are revealed. The veneer cracks—sometimes breaks. For someone like Alicent, for whom the veneer is everything, this is a minefield. For Rhaenyra too, but in a different way. She already knows her façade is crumbling, if it ever existed at all. Aegon is the one who says it out loud, and everyone is forced to acknowledge it, before agreeing to do precisely the opposite, and pretend it’s not true.

As Viserys told Rhaenyra back in Episode 4, the truth doesn’t matter. Only the perception. If the Targaryens, Velaryons, and Hightowers can all agree that Jace, Luke, and Joffrey are the children of Rhaenyra’s marriage and unquestionable heirs to the throne, we can all move on. Right?

Of course not. That was never going to work. So long as Viserys is alive, he can force everyone to pretend it works, but he’s living with the knowledge that he’s almost certainly leaving a civil war in his wake. Otto, now reinstated as Hand, knows this and is planning for it. Rhaenyra suspects it, and makes her own plans in response.

The battle lines are clearly drawn by the episode’s end. First blood has been spilled, literally and figuratively. As Otto points out to Alicent, it’s an ugly game they’re playing, and while nobody quotes Cersei from Season 1 of Game of Thrones, we know what happens if you lose.[i]

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.06: ‘The Princess and the Queen’

Previously: In the grand tradition of royal weddings in Westeros, Rhaenyra and Laenor’s married life begins with bloodshed. Criston Cole, unable to stomach the thought of being less important to Rhaenyra than the Iron Throne[i], beats Laenor’s not-exactly-secret boyfriend Joffrey Lonmouth to death in the middle of the sangeet pre-wedding banquet. This was after Alicent made a savage entrance clad in a spectacular green gown that at least Larys Strong and her uncle Hobert recognized as a formal declaration of hostilities against Rhaenyra. Also Daemon murdered his wife Rhea Royce (RIP, you went out gloriously) but, against all odds, was not the one who ruined everything for Viserys this time. We end not with a glorious royal wedding, but with a midnight ceremony where two heartbroken teenagers are bound to one another for life.

This was always going to be a challenging episode. We’re halfway through the season and we’re about to change actors for the two main characters. We’ll also be adding an entire new generation of characters to the mix, plus additional dragons (yay!). Not to mention a ten-year time jump. And, for what it’s worth, I think the show succeeds, while still leaving plenty of room for headcanons and fanworks galore.

Did I agree with all the choices? No, I did not. The Velaryons have definitely been shortchanged. I’m of two minds on Larys Strong. But, overall, I thought it worked. The two new leads are excellent, the kids are off to a strong (ha) start, and I will sadly pour one out for Lyonel Strong (the best Hand) and his most excellent son, clearly the best sports dad, Harwin Breakbones.

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.05: ‘We Light The Way’

Previously: Viserys and Alicent now have two kids—Aegon and Helaena. Rhaenyra still doesn’t have a husband. Daemon returns from the Stepstones just long enough to upset everybody, light a fire under Rhaenyra’s love life, unintentionally contribute to the firing of Otto Hightower, and get the mother of all hangovers, before being exiled yet again for bad behavior. Rhaenyra, frustrated with society’s expectations of conformity and the double standard applied to women, decides to try out what it’s like to be a man and finds she likes it. Only she can’t get anyone else to give her the benefit of the doubt, except for Criston Cole, who clearly has no idea what he’s getting into. Alicent, in the meantime, thinks her friend is heading straight to hell. Rhaenyra assures her that she did nothing wrong, that ‘Daemon never touched me’, but that is at the very least a lie of omission, and is likely to come back to haunt her sooner rather than later.

***

On the spectrum of notable Westerosi weddings, this is definitely below Red and possibly also below Purple, given the number and political significance of the victim(s) involved. But the real moral of the story is you shouldn’t get married in Westeros.

Also, as I have been saying since the first episode, put the men in the goddamn trash. The only reason Alicent and Rhaenyra end up on opposite sides is because their dads are both terrible. Differently terrible, but terrible all the same. Also, boo Criston Cole. I knew I was going to hate him. It just took longer than expected.

The theme of this episode was what my four-year-old daughter would call ‘patriarchy behavior.’[i]

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On histories, their construction, and their adaptation: Shakespeare and House of the Dragon

I know my recap of the most recent episode was already the opposite of brief, but it turns out I do have more to say. I’m not surprised—the events depicted in Episode 4 overlap with some of the sections of Fire & Blood that I find the most interesting. I won’t call them my favorites because there are elements within them that I find skin-crawling, but the way they’re written is totally dodgy in all the ways I love.

Before I get into it, this is going to spoil certain things as they occur in Fire & Blood, so be warned. Also it will spoil all three parts of Henry VI by William Shakespeare and various events during the Wars of the Roses, if that is even possible. I’m going to speculate on what I think may happen in upcoming episodes of House of the Dragon, but I haven’t seen any leaks or anything, so no spoilers other than for what’s in the trailers.

CW: Brief, non-graphic references to sexual abuse, sexual assault, harm to children

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.04 ‘King of the Narrow Sea’

Previously: We rejoin our story some 2-3 years later, with the eldest son of Viserys and Alicent, Prince Aegon, celebrating his second birthday. Alicent is also heavily pregnant with a younger sibling for him. So all the vultures lords have gathered to figure out when Viserys is going to take the obvious next step to disinherit Rhaenyra in favour of his son and hand his daughter off to the highest bidder. 17yo Rhaenyra has zero interest in any of this, and is convinced her dad is just looking to get rid of her, now that he has the son he wanted. All these emotions come to a head during a lavish royal hunting trip in the Kingswood, where pretty much everyone ends up inebriated and disappointed (except for Alicent, who is too pregnant to drink and therefore just disappointed). Meanwhile, in the Stepstones, Laenor Velaryon has the brilliant idea to send Daemon on what is essentially a suicide mission to bait Craghas Crabfeeder, and a well-timed letter from Viserys promising assistance does the rest. Daemon kills the Crabfeeder, and we are introduced to Laenor’s gorgeous dragon Seasmoke. Viserys and Rhaenyra reconcile—at least for the moment—and he promises her two things: first, that she is, and will remain, his heir; and second, that he will allow her to choose her own husband. A pity he only does this in private, and not where all his lords can hear and take note of it.

Also, on a quick personal note, my new book is out! Co-authored with Helen Young, in the Cambridge Elements series on the Global Middle Ages.

***

So that’s what this type of plotline looks like when directed by a woman.

It shows.

Buckle in, all, because this is going to be a long one. There are so many fascinating intersections of gender, power, desire, jealousy, ambition, and love running through this episode like spiderwebs. How do we negotiate our desires when it seems the entire world is watching? How important is the perception of things compared to the truth? And, of course, the undercurrent through this entire episode, how much power can a woman in a patriarchal society truly have over her desires?

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House of the Dragon Recap 1.03: ‘Second of his Name’

Previously: Six months have passed since the death of Queen Aemma and the investiture of Rhaenyra Targaryen as her father’s heir, and nothing has changed for Rhaenyra. Nobody gives her any respect, her best friend is strangely distant, and the uncle she used to have a close relationship with is holed up on Dragonstone with his girlfriend and his private army (#AGCAB). By the end of the episode, however, she has confronted Daemon about his resentfulness (and earned his respect as well as launching a thousand Daemon/Rhaenyra shippers[i]), and at least appears to have reconciled with her father…at least until the final scene, when Viserys announces that he is going to marry Alicent. Doubly betrayed by her dad and by her best friend, Rhaenyra flees the Small Council chamber, and the credits roll. Also: Otto continues to be The Actual Worst; that Craghas Crabfeeder guy is making good on his name and Corlys enlists Daemon’s help to take him out dragon-style (thus taking the idea Rhaenyra advanced in an early Small Council scene); we meet Laena Velaryon[ii]; and Criston Cole joins the Kingsguard.

This episode spirals out from the title—second of his Name. Little toddler Aegon, who says not a single word in this entire episode, and yet the whole world seems to orbit around him. The plot hinges on whether or not Viserys is going to return to the status quo and officially designate his son the heir to the throne. And Viserys is clearly feeling the weight of those decisions—Paddy Considine’s performance this episode was just fantastic.

Secondarily, we have the question of who Rhaenyra is going to marry. She thinks—not unreasonably, given how everyone is treating her—that Viserys is trying to sideline her so he can promote his new son and ultimately supplant her as heir. The men around Viserys certainly seem to think that’s where things are headed. We see multiple conversations between the lords in this episode, all looking forward to when things will return to normal. But Viserys, and Rhaenyra, remain adamantly convinced otherwise. As she has been all along, Milly Alcock is making Rhaenyra her own character, rather than an amalgamation of Arya and Daenerys (which I admit I had worried about a little given the way she’s written in F&B; it would have been an easy way out and they didn’t take it).

I really enjoyed this episode. Again, there was room to breathe. We had two main locations (the Kingswood/King’s Landing and the Stepstones) and two main plotlines. Both were at least somewhat resolved, or if not resolved, at least temporarily dealt with. We got lovely character moments, some great references for the book nerds (NYMERIA! Jaehaerys as a terrible dad!), and plenty of dry humor (Master of Complaints, heeee).

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