HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon, adapts George R. R. Martin’s book, Fire & Blood. The stories leads to one of the most brutal chapters in Westeros’ history: the Dance of the Dragons. Introducing a new group of Targaryen characters and their various allies and enemies in Westeros, House of the Dragon depicts the Targaryens at their most powerful, almost two centuries before the events of the original Game of Thrones show.
The Dance of the Dragons was a civil war that sprung up over succession to the Iron Throne. It is one of the precipitating events that eventually brought down the power of House Targaryen in Westeros. Princess Rhaenyra, the heir appointed by King Viserys, battled for the right to rule. And while disputes of succession are by no means new to the world of Game of Thrones, the Dance of the Dragons revealed how hostile Westeros was to the idea of a female ruler. Even though Princess Rhaenyra established herself as the most level-headed option for King Viserys’ heir, the king’s male children from his second marriage to Alicent Hightower further muddied the waters of succession to the Iron Throne.
So far, HBO’s adaptation of Fire & Blood has stayed largely faithful to the book. However, it lacks one specific aspect that enhances the story’s focus on how society stifles women in positions of power. Fire & Blood, unlike other Game of Thrones books, is an oral history. Instead of following the story from different characters’ perspectives, Fire & Blood offers a macro view of how narratives of the past are constructed, and the political ends that they can serve. This is apparent when the narrator reveals that two different historical accounts exist for the Dance of the Dragons, one written by Maester Eustace, and the other written by a court fool named Mushroom.
Maester Eustace’s account is a sober recollection of House Targaryen’s fall; Mushroom’s is a deeply sensationalized look at Princess Rhaenyra’s life in particular. In turn, this is a perfect framework for the story of House Targaryen, because of how morally complex many of the characters are. With the narrator unsure of which version of history is true, the book leaves it to the reader to determine how much they want to believe from either one.
This discrepancy comes to a head when the scheming Prince Daemon, brother of King Viserys and uncle of Princess Rhaenyra, returns to King’s Landing. The narrator admits that the history gets muddled between Maester Eustace and Mushroom’s accounts. According to Maester Eustace, Daemon “seduced his niece the princess and claimed her maidenhood,” leading Rhaenyra to later tell her father that she was in love with Daemon. Mushroom, on the other hand, wrote that Rhaenyra longed for Ser Criston Cole, her personal guard, leading Daemon to teach her how to seduce men. This involved sneaking the princess out of the castle and into the Street of Silk, King’s Landing’s red light district. Rhaenyra then tried to seduce Criston Cole, only to have him reject her. Mushroom’s story soon came to light, and Viserys denied his daughter’s wrongdoing before Daemon confirmed that it was true.
House of the Dragon settles this debate by adapting many details from Mushroom’s account. The main difference is Criston Cole accepted Rhaenyra’s advances. In doing so, it tacitly accepts Mushroom’s version as the truth, without interrogating the political ends the story had in the first place. After all, it was Mushroom who leaked Rhaenyra’s purported activities to the court. Clearly men, including Daemon, had much to gain from sullying the princess’ image.
The show did try to replicate the discrepancies in the book. We see it in a scene where Queen Alicent confronts Rhaenyra about her rumored activities with Daemon. However, it falls short of presenting the most central fact of Fire & Blood: the hindsight of men forges history. Rather than unfolding in the present through a neutral party, the history of Fire & Blood frequently presents as a collaborative project, one in which the readers themselves are complicit. Fire & Blood pulls readers in to teach them the early history of House Targaryen. Then, it shows them the patchwork of lies and incomplete truths governing the narrative. In the end, they walk away with no definitive account of what really happened. In this sense, Fire & Blood is less a history of House Targaryen, and more a portrait of the construction of history in Westeros in the first place.
This lack of subjectivity in House of the Dragon is intriguing, given that so much of the show’s themes circle around the subjugation of women like Rhaenyra. By leaving out the roles that Maester Eustace and Mushroom played in documenting the history of House Targaryen, House of the Dragon misses the book’s most damning revelation: even at the height of their power, House Targaryen was never in control of their own narrative. As they terrorized Westeros with their display of dragons and military might, the Targaryens’ power eroded from the inside thanks to men with political agendas watching their every move. While it may be easy to wipe out entire armies full of men with a dragon, not even the Targaryens could extinguish a story spread by men like Maester Eustace and Mushroom.