Sex, Lies, Unreliable Narrators, and a Highly Significant Dagger: Analyzing House of the Dragon Ep. 4

The latest episode, “The King of the Narrow Sea,” brings sexual intrigue and a major prophecy to the fore as Daemon and Rhaenyra reunite in King’s Landing. As always, there’s plenty of relevant history and some key references to analyze, as the show grapples with the many unreliable narrators of Fire & Blood and features a dagger (and a legend) that will be extremely familiar to everyone who’s watched Game of Thrones and/or read the Song of Ice and Fire books. It seems that House of the Dragon is doing its best to correct some of the missteps and omissions of the original series and reintroduce some pivotal lore and major plot points the earlier show overlooked… (Some spoilers for Game of Thrones and the novels below, for anyone who might be avoiding those.)

 

The Title

“The King of the Narrow Sea” is the style granted to Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) after he defeats Craghas Drahar and ends the War in the Stepstones. Due to the slightly compressed timeline of the show, the Daemon of Fire & Blood actually rules from Bloodstone for just over two years, though it is a title that always rings hollow. The only other people who will rule the Stepstones as “monarchs” are the leaders of pirate armadas and other Targaryen pretenders such as Maelys the Monstrous. As such, being King of the Narrow Sea is an empty honorific—king of a tiny chain of islands devoid of resources and coveted by surrounding nations who need it to secure their trade routes. It is a kingdom he could not hope to secure and would be all but worthless even if he succeeded. In spite of his recent triumph, Daemon is a still a brash, petulant troublemaker whose unfitness to rule is made obvious with every hungover groan and sneering rebuke.

 

The Prince That Was Promised

Screenshot: HBO

We finally have the words. Fans of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels are likely quite familiar with the phrase that Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) reads off of the Targaryen dagger in this episode. The show explicitly links it to the dream of Ice and Fire mentioned in last week’s explainer. It may well be that the unexplored dream that Martin ascribes to Aegon the Conqueror might, in fact, be the same as the dream that Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) older brother Rhaegar has about “that prince that was promised” whose song “is the song of ice and fire.”

We’re gonna take a bit of time to break down this particular prophecy despite its fleeting screen time, because it looms large enough in Martin’s books to give the entire series its name…

We never get a complete reading of the prophecy, but certain phrases crop up repeatedly. We know that the “Prince That Was Promised” is a savior figure who will fight against “the Other” and is often referred to as “the one true king.” Melisandre links this particular dream to a prophecy from her god, Rh’llor, the Lord of Light, which states “When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt.” Azor Ahai is a long-dead champion of Rh’llor who forged his sword, Lightbringer, by tempering it with the blood of his beloved wife. The Other is Rh’llor’s inverse–a god of ice and darkness in Melisandre’s dualistic religion. Azor Ahai reborn/the Prince That Was Promised will participate in the “War for the Dawn” the final conflict between humanity (and possibly the nearly extinct Children of the Forest) and the Others (called White Walkers in the original Game of Thrones series). Part of the prophecy also involves bringing stone dragons to life by shedding the blood of kings.

In Martin’s books there are multiple possibilities for who this Prince could be. Let’s run down a list:

  • Melisandre initially believes that the Prince is Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). He is “reborn” when a red comet is visible in the night sky (the red star bleeds) during a ceremony on the beach (salt) of the volcanic island of Dragonstone (smoke). His sword bursts into flame when pulled from a wooden statue of The Mother (one of the deities of the Faith of the Seven). The fact that this sword gives off no heat is later a cause for suspicion as to the validity of Melisandre’s read on the Baratheon king. Melisandre also attempts to sacrifice one of Robert Baratheon’s bastard children, Edric Storm, in order to bring the carved stone dragons of Dragonstone to life (in the series, Edric Storm is replaced by Gendry, played by Joe Dempsie). Also casting doubt on Stannis’ claim on the prophecy is the belief held by numerous Targaryens past that the Prince That Was Promised will come from the bloodline of Jaehaerys II (the father of the Mad King, Aerys, and grandfather or great-grandfather of every other person on this list).
  • Daenerys Targaryen was born during a terrible storm on Dragonstone (salt and smoke). Later, under the light of the same comet that saw Stannis ordained, she walks into Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre (smoke) as the loyal Jorah Mormont sheds tears (salt). The immolation of either Khal Drogo, her stillborn son, Rhaego, or herself (shed blood of Kings) does appear to hatch her fossilized (stone) dragons. Her flaming sword might be the fire produced by those dragons. This theory is believed by Maester Aemon, who tells Samwell Tarly that the gender of the prince is immaterial seeing as the word in High Valyrian is gender-neutral and that dragons are believed by some to be possessed of the sort of sequential hermaphroditism seen in clams (and in frogs, according to Jurassic Park).
  • In A Feast for Crows, Aemon also tells Sam that he initially believed Rhaegar himself to be the Prince That Was Promised, saying “I thought…the smoke was from the fire that devoured Summerhall on the day of his birth, the salt from the tears shed for those who died. He shared my belief when he was young, but later he became persuaded that it was his own son who fulfilled the prophecy, for a comet had been seen above King’s Landing on the night Aegon was conceived, and Rhaegar was certain the bleeding star had to be a comet” (A Feast for Crows). Rhaegar died in battle against Robert Baratheon; his son Aegon was either murdered by Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, or else spirited away to Essos where he grew up to be a prince in secret, protected by the exiled knight, Jon Connington, and briefly advised by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Martin’s books have not yet revealed if the Aegon Targaryen backed by Connington is a fake or not.
  • Finally, in A Dance with Dragons, the last book Martin has currently published, we get the possibility that the Prince That Was Promised might be Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). In a scene similar to the finale of season 5 of Game of Thrones, Jon is murdered by Night’s Watch mutineers who believe he is compromising the integrity of the organization. His blood steams against the winter snow (smoke) and his body is christened by the tears (salt) of Night’s Watch’s Lord Steward, Bowen Marsh. While the comet that heralded Stannis and Daenerys is long past, Snow is killed as he is about to investigate a fight between one of Stannis’ Knights, Ser Patrek of King’s Mountain, whose sigil is a blue star on a gray field, stained red after being pummeled by a Giant, Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun, making a “red star bleed.” Of course, in this scenario two things must be true. First Jon Snow must be resurrected; it happened in the HBO show, but Martin’s book ends without any indication that Melisandre or anyone else will intervene. Second, the red star bleeding needs to be an actual reference to the prophecy and not just an in-joke based in Martin’s playful rivalry with his friend, the Montreal-born Patrick St. Denis (Ser Patrek of King’s Mountain). St. Denis is a fan of the Dallas Cowboys football team (a blue star on a gray background), and therefore at odds with Martin’s own beloved New York Giants (the giant’s name, Wun Wun, is pronounced “one one” in honor of Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who wore #11 on his jersey).

One more complicating factor in the Prince That Was Promised legend is the oft-mentioned Targaryen aphorism, “the dragon must have three heads.” This is not mentioned in Melisandre’s Azor Ahai prophecy but appears to be part of the dreams that various Targaryens have had over the years. The three dragon heads refer to the three-headed dragon on the Targaryen family sigil (representing Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters, Visenya and Rhaenys, or else the three dragons they rode—Balerion, Vhagar, and Meraxes). It could also mean that the Prince That Was Promised may not be a singular person, but three separate individuals, in which case Daenerys, Jon, and Aegon might all be legitimately the subject of the prophecy.

With Martin more involved in House of the Dragon than he was towards the end of the original series, it makes sense that some of the most important elements and subplots left out of Game of Thrones would make their way back in. One potential stumbling block, however, is that, in giving up the Prince That Was Promised storyline, the original show went wildly off the rails of what many suspect is A Song of Ice and Fire’s ultimate endgame. After all, in the world of the show, the closest thing we have to a Prince That Was Promised is Arya Stark (Masie Williams). Melisandre speaks to Arya’s importance in her own curtailed plotline at the Battle of Winterfell. The only real link between the Targaryens and the final battle with the Others is Viserys’ Valyrian steel-and-dragonbone dagger, which Arya will eventually use to kill the Night King (who, incidentally, is another amalgamated invention of the show).

The focus on this dagger in the scene between Rhaenyra and Viserys in House of the Dragon is pretty cool, and the revelations that it was forged in Valyria and that the prophecy is secretly inscribed on it are both worthy attempts to make it a more storied and mythical part of the Targaryen legacy. That said, it doesn’t quite square with how the original show chose to play the final battle between Ice and Fire, and all of that backstory will still have to contend with the lack of prophecy in the original series.

 

Unreliable Narrators: The Many Loves of Princess Rhaenyra

Screenshot: HBO

As I have stated in previous explainers, Fire & Blood and the novellas on which they are based are written from the perspective of Archmaester Gyldayn, who wrote his chronicle over the course of the end of the Mad King Aerys’ reign and the beginning of Robert Baratheon’s reign (between ten and thirteen years before the events of Game of Thrones). Gyldayn spends much of the book discussing his sources and pointing out moments where they disagree with one another. For the time period covered by House of the Dragon, Gyldayn relies on accounts and testimonies written by Grand Maester Munkun (who will not join Small Council until after the events depicted in the show), Septon Eustace (a member of Viserys’ staff whom Gyldayn thinks is reliable and honest but who seems to balk at any rumors of impropriety) and a court fool named Mushroom (who is the closest source but prone to embellishment, and is especially credulous when it comes to sex scandals).

Showrunner Ryan Condal confirmed that Mushroom would be cut from the show. This is likely a way of sidestepping some potential ableism, seeing as Mushroom is, in part, meant to be a forerunner to the kinds of stereotyping Tyrion Lannister will face—a little person as the butt of an endless series of jokes. However, in cutting Mushroom (and, presumably Septon Eustace as well), the showrunners are also choosing to definitively resolve things that Martin leaves purposefully vague.

Tonight’s plot points surrounding the rumors of Rhaenyra Targaryen and Daemon (Matt Smith) having a sexual relationship come from one such moment of ambiguity. Gyldayn tells us “Eustace, the less salacious of the two, writes that Prince Daemon seduced his niece the princess [… when] brought before the king, Rhaenyra insisted she was in love with her uncle and pleaded with her father for leave to marry him” (Fire & Blood 367). Whereas he says of Mushroom’s account, “it was Ser Criston Cole that the Princess yearned for but [he] was a true knight, noble and chaste […] Daemon  told his niece, ‘I can teach you how to make him see you as a woman’ […] the Prince went on to show his niece how best to touch a man and bring him pleasure” (Fire & Blood 368).

The show, in this moment, makes a truth far more complicated than the ones proposed by Gyldayn. Rhaenyra and Daemon go to a brothel where they begin kissing and disrobing, but Daemon pulls away and leaves before anything further happens. Rhaenyra goes on to seduce Ser Criston Cole immediately afterwards. Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) misreports it as a consummated affair, telling the king that Daemon and Rhaenyra had been seen “coupling”; Rhaenyra denies it to both Queen Alicent (Emily Carey) and Viserys, while Daemon lies by omission, seeming to confirm Hightower’s account to his brother. In this way, the show gives readers of the books a sort of secret history that could reasonably give rise to Gyldayn’s suppositions. The fact that the truth is both more complicated and centers Rhaenyra’s desire—rather than making her simply a pawn of Daemon’s ambition—also serves as a corrective for Gyldayn’s narrative, which continually underestimates Rhaenyra’s self-possession and will.

 

Odds and Ends

Screenshot: HBO

There are a few other things in this episode worth a mention.

  • The Backwoods and Brackens: At the beginning of the episode, we witness a spat between unnamed heirs of House Blackwood and House Bracken. Martin famously has the two Riverland Houses at one another’s throats throughout his books and in all the various time periods he writes about. Additionally, the startlingly violent Blackwood lordling may be a reference to Benjicot Blackwood, a figure from Fire & Blood who, a few years later in the timeline, becomes a fearsome warrior (at age eleven in the text), surprising his brothers in arms. Given that the events in which Benjicot becomes a revered child soldier are ten years away, it seems likely that this is the show giving a quick nod to a character they do not intend to depict.
  • Secret Tunnels in the Red Keep: Daemon leaves Rhaenyra an escape room-style diagram showing how she might leave her room undetected. Daemon’s great-great uncle, King Maegor the Cruel, had back corridors and secret passages built into the holdfast to allow for quick escapes, spycraft, and conveniently spiriting people away to the dungeons. After completing construction, Maegor had all the builders killed, lest they reveal the secrets they had been privy to. It is these same tunnels that Varys and Qyburn will later use to learn the secrets of Cersei’s court.
  • Tansy Root Tea: In the final scene, Grand Maester Mellos (David Horovitch) delivers an abortifacient in the form of a tea to Rhaenyra, which serves as a heartbreaking sign that her father does not believe she did not sleep with Daemon. Martin mentions the historically accurate tansy root and pennyroyal as means for terminating a pregnancy throughout his books. Tansy root plays a particularly central role as the word that Hoster Tully repeats on his deathbed while in the throes of dementia. His daughter, Catelyn Stark misinterprets this as the name of some peasant woman her father loved and spurned when, in fact, he is filled with regret for having forced his other daughter Lysa to abort her unborn child with Petyr Baelish. Though this deathbed moment was cut from the show, House of the Dragon sets up historical resonances here, where birth and abortion are both decrees handed down by fathers to the daughters who lack the bodily autonomy to choose.

This fourth episode is further solidifying my conviction that House of the Dragon is not only matching its predecessor’s reputation for complex, vicious intrigue but correcting some of the faults and oversights of Game of Thrones. It was a relief to have sex scenes which were more than showcases for the male gaze and sexual scandal without explicit and harrowing sexual violence. It’s also genuinely exciting to see this prequel actively concern itself with central elements of Martin’s books which were missing from the original series. Are you excited for more links to prophecy and promised princes? And do you think that the show is investing wisely in linking itself to the larger mythology of the Others and Azor Ahai? Let us know in the comments.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on itunes or through your favorite podcatcher. His fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary and his article “Exhuming M. Paul: Carmen Maria Machado and Creating Space for Pedagogical Discomfort” is forthcoming in Victorian Studies.

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