Thursday, September 29, 2022

House of the Dragon: The Targaryen history behind HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel

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House of the Dragon, the long-awaited prequel to Game of Thrones, is finally here, and you know what that means: It’s time for a refresher course on the Targaryens — the family that ruled for three centuries over all of Westeros. Thanks to one talented fanartist, we have a gorgeous family tree to help you figure out what’s happening when the show premieres Sunday night.

The series adapts portions of George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood, a collection of stories accompanying the Song of Ice and Fire series upon which the Game of Thrones universe is based. The book is a partial history of the Targaryens, with whom fans will be well-acquainted, since their reign stretches from Daenerys all the way back to the first king of Westeros. They’re famed for their ability to tame dragons; hence, “house of the dragon.” That rare talent helped the Targaryens establish an immense dynasty over the realm; but as always when we’re dealing with Game of Thrones, even empires can topple, and the iron throne is never a safe place to sit.

Because we’re dealing with a prequel, we’re going to be dropping some major plot points for both the book series and the forthcoming show, so be warned: from here on in, there be dragons and spoilers!

If you’re expecting familiar faces, you’re in for a shock: House of the Dragon takes place 190 years or so before the storyline of Game of Thrones begins, and though many things have stayed the same through the centuries — King’s Landing is still the capital of Westeros, the Starks are still the lords of Winterfell — we have a whole cast of characters to familiarize ourselves with and complicated family dynamics to parse.

We’re introduced to some of the key players in House of the Dragon’s first episode, but there’s a major learning curve thanks to the sheer size of the Targaryen family and their tendency to repeat names from generation to generation. Other family trees in this universe are often easier to follow because they’re, for example, all named after the Muppets; but with the Targaryens, you have something like a dozen Aegons, a half-dozen Aemons, a slew of Viseryses, and on and on. Oh, and let’s not forget their infamous tendency to marry each other — a fun Targaryen trait we’ll soon witness.

We won’t know everything the TV series will retain from the books, of course, so a lot of what we’ll be discussing is speculation based on the main plot lines of Fire and Blood. The series has made some changes, but most of the major events in this tumultuous Targaryen era are so far the same.

The series plops us in the middle of an ongoing simmering family conflict about — what else? — succession. If you’re confused about where exactly we are in the Targaryen family timeline, never fear: DeviantArt user Maryon B.’s Targaryen family tree is a gorgeous (and GRRM-approved!) road map through three centuries of huge Targaryen broods, internal squabbles, civil war, and, yes, inbreeding.

We first introduced cafemadrid readers to Maryon’s fanart all the way back in 2016, when she gave us her insights on the long process of creating the tree. A year later, the tree came in handy to help explain one of the series’ biggest plot twists. Now, the “Targtree” can fulfill its ultimate purpose and help us all prep for the upcoming series! Click here for the full-size version.

We stan a lovingly detailed infogram.
Poly-M/DeviantArt

House of the Dragon lands in the middle of the family tree, about halfway between the time the first Aegon Targaryen, known as Aegon the Conqueror, united all of Westeros, and the final fall of Daenerys Targaryen in the series finale of Game of Thrones. The events depicted in House of the Dragon’s first episode set us up to enter the period highlighted on the family tree as the Dance of Dragons — a time when the question of succession split the Targaryens apart and led to a brutal civil war.

The Dance of the Dragons era of the Targ family tree.
poly-hebdo/Tumblr

The years preceding the beginning of the show witnessed a long period of fighting known as the Faith Militant Uprising that ended only when the reigning king, the cruel Maegor I, died mysteriously. After his death, the only remaining son of the previous king, Jaehaerys I, succeeded to the throne.

But because of the preceding generation of chaos, the line of succession isn’t clear. So, at the start of House of Dragons, Jaehaerys summons a council to choose the next heir. The two Targaryens with the best claim to the throne are his grandson, Viserys, and his granddaughter-slash-grandniece, Rhaenys. They’re both his grandchildren, so both have an equal claim to the throne. But because Westeros has never had a queen as ruler before, the council chooses Viserys to be the next ruler; thus he becomes Viserys I.

Still, Rhaenys, nicknamed “the Queen that Never Was,” is a popular member of the royal family, and many people still profess loyalty to her and her progeny. Meanwhile, until Viserys can produce a male heir — or until the court decides it’s fine for a woman to rule — his brother Daemon is next in line to succeed to the throne. But Daemon isn’t exactly a popular choice.

Let’s take a closer look at our main players. If the books are any indication, their projected storylines won’t be all roses.

Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Corlys (Steve Toussaint)

Rhaenys, a.k.a. “the Queen that Never Was,” was the product of a marriage between Jaehaerys’s eldest son Aemon and Aemon’s own aunt, Jocelyn Baratheon. In her adolescence, she gained fame as one of the Targaryen dragonriders as well as for her beauty. At 16, Rhaenys married a man nearly 20 years her senior: the gallant Corlys Velaryon, known as the “Sea Snake” for his daring sea expeditions. (Their age difference seems to be reduced in the TV series.) Together, they make a power couple at court, and their children continue to have a claim to the throne. But because Rhaenys is a woman, and because her oldest heir, Laena, is also a woman, her family continues to be passed over for the line of succession — which frequently puts her and Corlys at odds with King Viserys.

Viserys I (Paddy Considine)

A wise but foolish king.
Ollie Upton/HBO

Viserys, played in the show by Paddy Considine, is a kind and generous king who brings stability to the realm. However, when it comes to the question of succession, he’s fanciful to a fault in his pursuit of a male heir. This leads to him making a horrible decision that results in the death of his first wife, Aemma, and their newborn son. It also leads to him hedging his bets about who his heir should be after he remarries and has more children. His indecision leads the heirs in question — his daughter Rhaenyra and his son Aegon — to battle for the crown.

This conflict plays out while the king is still alive, leading him into frequent tussles with his own family members as he attempts to wrangle them all into submission and clear the way for his daughter, Rhaenyra, to inherit the throne. However, not infrequently, the one he winds up butting heads with is Rhaenyra herself.

Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy)

Is she a hero or an antihero? Time will tell.
Ollie Upton/HBO

Rhaenyra is Viserys’s firstborn child, the daughter of his first wife Aemma. Clever and athletic, Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a teen) is at first more interested in riding her dragon, Syrax, than in winning games of thrones. That changes when her father can’t make up his mind who to appoint as his heir, and she becomes first an unwitting pawn and then an active player in the battle for succession.

Following Aemma’s death, Viserys marries Alicent Hightower (played by Emily Carey as a younger woman), a girl only a few years older than Rhaenyra herself. As she grows up, Rhaenyra finds herself at odds with her former friend Alicent, and soon they’re locked in a battle over whether Rhaenyra or Alicent’s son Aegon should take the throne after Viserys’s death.

Their supporters become divided into “blacks” and “greens” after the two women make fashion statements at a tourney following the marriage; “blacks” are Rhaenyra’s supporters after she dons a gown in traditional Targaryen red and black. The greens and the blacks aren’t just about who’s more popular; the greens also represent the widespread belief that a woman shouldn’t be able to inherit the crown. Support for Rhaenyra, a.k.a. identifying as one of the blacks, is a sign of support for women’s equality.

Rhaenyra’s love life is its own dramatic saga. She remains enamored all her life with her own uncle, Daemon, who’s 16 years older. She also has a thing for a dashing knight named Criston Cole (played by Fabien Frankel), who we see getting flirty with her in the first ep. Criston, however, ultimately becomes her enemy after he allies with Aegon and convinces him to go for the crown.

Later, Viserys, trying to dodge his wife Alicent’s suggestion to marry Rhaenyra to their son Aegon, pressures her into marrying Rhaenys’s son Laenor Velaryon instead. Rhaenyra hates this idea — for one thing, Laenor is gay — but Viserys threatens to disinherit her unless she agrees. The two wind up having three strapping sons, but their real father is generally thought to be Rhaenyra’s lover, Harwin Strong (to be played by Ryan Corr), who serves as Rhaenyra’s loyal servant and sworn shield. Or, as our artist Maryon said, “Don’t call them Strongs — even if they are in both ways.”

Rhaenyra’s real nuclear family?
poly-hebdo/Tumblr

Things don’t end well for Rhaenyra and Harwin, unfortunately — the situation is just too unstable for Rhaenyra to keep a lover on the side while the line of succession is in dispute, and the king sends Harwin into exile. Rhaenyra responds by secretly marrying her uncle Daemon after Laenor Valeryon’s death — which infuriates her father.

In the ensuing drama, and with conflict heating up between Rhaenyra and Alicent and Aegon, she relocates to the Targaryen keep of Dragonstone, which means she’s not around when King Viserys dies. Instead of telling Rhaenyra about her father’s death, Alicent and Aegon prepare to anoint Aegon as the new king. When Rhaenyra finds out, she enters into a rage from which she never fully recovers. In her quest to take the throne for herself, she winds up going to some very dark places. But the two sons she bears with Daemon, Viserys II and Aegon III, ultimately do both become rulers of Westeros, so perhaps in the end, she wins.

Daemon (Matt Smith)

He’s hot, then he’s cold.
Ollie Upton/HBO

Daemon Targaryen is popular with everyone except the people who can make him the next king. King Viserys’s right-hand man, Otto Hightower (played by Rhys Ifans), repeatedly blocks Daemon from becoming the next heir and then chooses Rhaenyra over him as successor — at least, he does until his own daughter Alicent marries the king.

But for all his enemies suspect him of plotting to take over the throne, Daemon, a.k.a. the “rogue prince,” has better things to do, like seducing his brother’s daughter Rhaenyra and conquering his own kingdom. Daemon is congenial but aggressive, and he has a bad habit of killing all his potential love rivals. He falls for Rhaenys’s daughter Laena Velaryon — a convenient match in terms of maintaining his place at court — but Laena’s already engaged. No problem; he kills his rival in a duel.

Later, rumor has it he murders his own brother-in-law, Laenor Velaryon, then married to Rhaenyra. Then he maybe seals the deal by murdering Rhaenyra’s lover Harwin, thereby successfully taking out both of his rivals for Rhaenyra’s hand, and marrying her. Ultimately, all of this may have just been Daemon’s way of getting as close to the throne as he could. In short, Daemon Targaryen is not a man you want to cross.

Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno)

A dancer with eyes everywhere.
Ollie Upton/HBO

Sometimes called “Misery,” Mysaria starts out as a sex worker in King’s Landing, but quickly becomes indispensable to her patron and lover Daemon as a source of information. From there, she becomes the ranking spy first for Daemon and later for Rhaenyra, which makes her one of the most powerful people in Westeros. Not too shabby for a dancer from Essos.

Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke)

On one level, the Dance of Dragons is really about the clash between two former friends, Alicent and Rhaenyra, who grew up in the king’s court together only to be pulled into opposite sides of the ongoing dispute over who will inherit the throne. The Hightowers were and are a small but powerful house; Alicent’s father, Otto Hightower, served as Hand of the King to Jaehaerys and now serves as Hand to Viserys.

The Hightowers haven’t always had the most fruitful relationship with the crown; several generations prior, Maegor I’s unsuccessful marriage to a Hightower provoked dissension among her powerful family and kicked off the events leading to the Faith Militant Uprising. Now, Otto schemes successfully to present his daughter Alicent to Viserys as a suitable bride. They are married when she’s just 18.

Rhaenyra and Alicent are the best of friends, until they aren’t.
Ollie Upton/HBO

A note on royal marriages here: In Martin’s history of the Targaryens, the timeline is often compressed, with many royals forming alliances and marrying at very young ages. In Fire and Blood, Viserys marries Aemma when he’s just 16 and she’s only 11. (She dies in childbirth at age 23.) He later marries Alicent at age 29, when she’s 18 and his own daughter Rhaenyra is just 9.

In House of the Dragon, all of these characters have been aged up significantly except for Alicent, who is still 18-ish. This makes her much closer in age to Rhaenyra — much more of a peer than a stepmother twice her age. But that also means that instead of an 18-year-old being coerced into marrying a 29-year-old, she’s an 18-year-old being coerced into marrying a man of about 50. This of course makes the issues of consent, control, and power imbalance even starker, and arguably makes Alicent’s role in the story to come one that’s less about power-seeking and more about survival.

Initially, Alicent wants her own son, Aegon, to marry Rhaenyra, even though there’s a considerable age difference between them. (That they’re also half-siblings is just fine, of course.) When that doesn’t fly with Viserys, she ends up promoting Aegon as heir above Rhaenyra. The women’s conflict deepens when Rhaenyra’s former crush, Criston Cole, becomes loyal to the Hightowers and ultimately becomes Alicent’s personal sworn shield. Alicent’s color is green, which makes her supporters “the greens” opposed to Rhaenyra’s “blacks.”

Alicent’s fierce and fiercely loyal brood.
poly-m/DeviantArt

Alicent is a tricky figure; she alternately tries to make peace with Rhaenyra and avoid conflict while strategizing ways to put Aegon on the throne. Rumors abound that she poisoned her own husband, the king, in order to hasten his demise and crown Aegon while Rhaenyra’s back was effectively turned.

Like most of our other players, the pursuit of the throne doesn’t end well for her or many of her progeny. But she does pull off her original goal; she survives to see her son become ruler of Westeros. Through succeeding generations, the Hightowers continue to remain wealthy and powerful; following the conquest of Dorne, they become loyal to House Tyrell. (If the name is familiar, Margaery Tyrell’s mother is a Hightower.)

Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney)

It’s easy to see why there was so much resistance to Alicent’s son Aegon becoming king: He’s like a smarmier, hornier Prince Joffrey. You’ll see.

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