Rhaenyra Targaryen is quickly making herself a household name. House of the Dragon, the prequel to the wildly popular Game of Thrones (2010-2019), is the hottest show on TV this season. Pun intended. Its success, though, wasn’t guaranteed.
No new show has entirely filled the fantasy hole left by Game of Thrones. Networks are certainly trying, though. Netflix took on Andzrej Sapkowski’s The Witcher, and Amazon dug back into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth lore to create Rings of Power.
Hence, it’s no surprise that HBO isn’t saying goodbye to Westeros anytime soon. The show wasn’t even finished before HBO greenlit several prequels. Most never made it out of development hell, but House of the Dragon now lights up screens every Sunday night. (Sort of. You may also have to turn the brightness up to see anything.)
House of the Dragon wasn’t a guaranteed success despite its ties to Game of Thrones, either. The once-beloved series went up in flames during its final season. While many characters made nonsensical decisions, the character who got the worst writing was Daenerys Targaryen. Considering how unpopular the finale was, HBO choosing to adapt Rhaenyra’s story seems especially risky at first glance.
Of all the stories about the dragon-riding, intermarried Targaryens, why is the other one about a Targaryen princess who barbecues Westeros?
There’s no way to say for sure. However, House of the Dragon‘s story connects to the characters of Game of Thrones and the themes of A Song of Ice and Fire in more ways than just the timeline. It even potentially offers a new way to see the main saga.
Spoiler warnings for all things Westeros: A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire & Blood, Game of Thrones, and House of the Dragon!
Why Rhaenyra Targaryen?The ending for Rhaenyra Targaryen, at first glance, looks alarmingly similar to Game of Thrones season 8. A Targaryen princess engages in incest with an uncle/nephew, goes mad, and people die…so does she.
Admittedly, the story in Fire & Blood is a well-written and excellent tragedy. Still, Game of Thrones‘s shadow looms large. Why are we having another story about mad queens, anyways? Does HBO think women rulers are that bad?
Fire & Blood was written and published between A Dance of Dragons and the still-awaited The Winds of Winter. This raises a question, too: why did George RR Martin focus on Fire & Blood instead of the next installment in his A Song of Ice and Fire?
Well, Rhaenyra Targaryen has been directly mentioned in the main series… and her story may be significant to it! In fact, other House of the Dragon characters reflect characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, too.
With that in mind, how exactly are Rhaenyra, Daemon, and Alicent connected to the main saga?
Mad Queens: Rhaenyra vs. DaenerysThe main comparison of Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock & Emma d’Arcy), of course, is to Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). The books and Daenerys herself compare Dany to Rhaenyra.
A Dance With Dragons, the most recent book in Martin’s saga, takes its name from the civil war House of the Dragon covers. In Chapter 11, Daenerys ponders:
But how could she not look back?… Was I so blind, or did I close my eyes willfully, so I would not have to see the price of power? Viserys had told her all the tales when she was little. He loved to talk of dragons… She knew about the Field of Fire and the Dance of the Dragons. One of her forebears, the third Aegon, had seen his own mother devoured by his uncle’s dragon.
(The mother mentioned here is Rhaenyra Targaryen.)
Clearly, this passage indicates the dragons’ power can be used to destroy. It also asks Dany to learn from Rhaenyra’s example.
We also know the dragons are the only hope to save the world from the Others (White Walkers in Game of Thrones). In the show, the dragons both save the world and destroy Daenerys’s legacy. This is likely to happen in the books too, even if the “how” isn’t quite the same and there is, you know, a theme instead of incomprehensible glop.
In terms of their characters, Rhaenyra and Daenerys are both intelligent, strong women who believe that ruling is their birthright. This is in spite of what their misogynistic society says.
However, Daenerys has a practical idea of what ruling looks like: freeing slaves and breaking the system. Rhaenyra Targaryen does not. She wants to break the rules by becoming queen, but she never shows care for the positions of other women in Westeros.
Sadly, Rhaenyra ends up enslaving other women. Her story, rather than breaking down a sexist society, only makes life for Westerosi women worse. Because of the war’s chaos, everyone cites Rhaenyra as a reason women shouldn’t rule.
But Daenerys isn’t the only character who talks about Rhaenyra in the books…
Rebel Princesses: Rhaenyra Targaryen & Arianne MartellArianne Martell never appeared on Game of Thrones despite her important role in the books.
Princess Arianne is the oldest child of Dorne’s House Martell. Like Rhaenyra, Arianne is brilliant, ambitious, and not shy about her sexuality.
Arianne’s introduced after Joffrey dies. When Arianne hears Tommen will be crowned king, she says “nope.” See, in Dorne, the oldest child inherits the house no matter their gender. Since Tommen’s elder sister, Myrcella, is in Dorne, Arianne takes matters into her own hands. She decides to crown Myrcella as queen to give Dorne leverage.
The crowning ceremony ends disastrously. When confronted by her furious father’s council in A Feast for Crows, Chapter 13, Arianne insists she modeled the ceremony after Rhaenyra Targaryen’s:
The first Viserys intended his daughter Rhaenyra to follow him, do you deny it?
Like Rhaenyra, Arianne assumes people will come around to her opinions simply because rules and traditions say people should obey her. She refuses to be told she can’t rule because she’s a woman, but she doesn’t think about the place of other Westerosi women. Arianne’s skilled at manipulating others, yet unaware that she can also be manipulated.
By the end of A Feast for Crows, Arianne finds out she’s a pawn in her father’s plan to restore the Targaryens. Arianne’s younger brother hopes to marry Daenerys, but Arianne doesn’t want to bow to her little brother. Sound familiar?
Will I need to kneel to him?
In the released Arianne chapters from The Winds of Winter. However, she has an eerie premonition of dying among “a dance of dragons” (the civil war in House of the Dragon). A girl warns:
They were dancing. In my dream. And everywhere the dragons danced the people died.”
Rightful Heirs, Terrible Siblings: Rhaenyra Targaryen & Stannis BaratheonThe last character who mentions Rhaenyra Targaryen in A Song of Ice and Fire is Stannis Baratheon.
In the third novel, A Storm of Swords, Stannis turns to his priestess, Melisandre. Melisandre tosses leeches named after the other “false” kings into the fire. Stannis claims that these false kings need to die because calling yourself king when you aren’t is treason. Traitors must die, no matter who they are.
traitors have always paid with their lives… even Rhaenyra Targaryen. She was daughter to one king and mother to two more, yet she died a traitor’s death for trying to usurp her brother’s crown.
There’s more at play here than a simple condemnation, though. Stannis, after all, also fights his younger brother for the crown. In fact, even before this scene, he killed Renly with Melisandre’s shadow magic. Yes, Stannis is the elder brother, and so Robert’s rightful heir. Ned Stark insisted on going by the law, even though siding with Renly could have saved his life.
Except, Rhaenyra is the rightful heir too.
Viserys declared Rhaenyra his heir. She’s older than her brother Aegon. Hence, Stannis condemning Rhaenyra for treason is ironic, to say the least.
Yes, Rhaenyra goes full mad queen eventually. However, we know from the show that Stannis, too, will betray someone with fire. Arguably, his crime will be worse than anything Rhaenyra ever did: he burns his own daughter alive.
Game of Thrones portrayed Stannis (Stephen Dillane) sacrificing Shireen for power. However, in the books, Stannis’s motivation is the genuine belief that he’s the only one who can save Westeros from the Long Night. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and all that.
Stannis wants to be a good man, not a powerful man.
Unfortunately, being technically right doesn’t mean you’ll be good. Sincerity can’t change impact. He’s wrong about being the world’s savior, so Shireen dies for nothing.
Mother of Waters’: Rhaenyra Targaryen & Cersei LannisterWhile this next character doesn’t mention Rhaenyra in the books or show, there are still enough similarities to make for an interesting comparison. Like Cersei Lannister, Rhaenyra is the mother of three children with her husband. In fact, Cersei’s oldest and Rhaenyra’s youngest share the same name: Joffrey.
However, these kids are actually not her husband’s.
Of course, there’s a key difference here, and it has nothing to do with incest. Instead, it’s that Cersei leads Robert to believe her kids are his by blood. Rhaenyra and Laenor Valeryon (Nate Theo, John Macmillan), on the other hand, have no such deception.
Ned Stark finds Cersei’s secret out by realizing that no Baratheon child has been born with golden hair. Similarly, Alicent repeatedly comments on Rhaenyra’s three sons’ dark hair and spreads rumors that they were fathered by Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr).
Most likely, this rumor is true. However, are Rhaenyra, Laenor, and Harwin really at fault in the same way that Cersei might be? Westeros wouldn’t accept a queen being with a man she wanted, or a gay man, so Rhaenyra and Laenor were forced to marry. They then make the best of their situation with an agreed-upon arrangement. Laenor even considers the three boys his own despite their blood, naming his youngest after his lover Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod).
Still, where Rhaenyra goes wrong is that she underestimates society’s hostility towards illegitimate children. She and Laenor might be progressive, but the world isn’t forgiving enough to allow their sons to inherit the Iron Throne.
Evil Queens: Alicent Hightower & Cersei LannisterIf you talk about evil queens in Game of Thrones, everyone thinks of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) first and foremost. House of the Dragon‘s Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey; Olivia Cooke) seems poised to take Cersei’s crown.
However, is either queen really evil? Neither of them wanted to marry their kings, and they weren’t exactly their husbands’ first loves either. Both Alicent and Cersei are pawns in the hands of their scheming fathers, sold for political power.
That said, Alicent’s treatment of her stepdaughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen, brings to mind Cersei’s treatment of Sansa Stark and Margaery Tyrell. The added tragedy in House of the Dragon is that Rhaenyra and Alicent start off as friends, which is not the case for Cersei and her potential daughters-in-law.
However, the desire for power eventually consumes Alicent too. Like Cersei, Alicent likely murders her husband to ensure her son gets the throne.
There is an even clearer parallel between Alicent and Cersei, too. In Fire & Blood, Alicent demands that her husband take out Rhaenyra’s son’s eye. Why? Rhaenyra’s son accidentally took out her son’s eye while stopping Alicent’s son from bullying his brother.
This incident brings to mind a scene in A Game of Thrones, the first book in the main series. Cersei demands that Sansa’s dire wolf, Lady, die in place of Arya. Arya’s dire wolf bit Cersei’s son, Joffrey, to stop Joffrey from bullying Arya.
Alicent eventually dies alone, outliving Rhaenyra in years but not in victory. She spends her last year locked up in a tower, with three of her children dead. The one child she has who outlives her then dies, ending Alicent’s bloodline.
Wicked Stepmothers: Alicent Hightower & Catelyn StarkWhile Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) was always a protagonist in Game of Thrones, the books have her take a slightly darker turn. After her death, she’s resurrected as a merciless zombie named Lady Stoneheart. However, Lady Stoneheart isn’t the anti-Catelyn. Instead, Lady Stoneheart is all of Catelyn’s worst traits… traits Alicent shares.
Catelyn is a loving wife and mother, but she’s terrible to her stepson. She views Jon Snow (Kit Harington) as a threat. Her coldness, projected jealousy, and barbs about the role of illegitimate children echo Alicent’s behavior towards Rhaenyra Targaryen.
Like Catelyn with Jon, Alicent views Rhaenyra as a threat to her kids. She excludes Rhaenyra and spreads rumors. These rumors are that Rhaenyra’s sons are actually not fathered by Rhaenyra’s husband. While rumors might be true, Alicent uses prejudice against illegitimate children to undermine Rhaenyra’s fitness for the throne.
After death, Lady Stoneheart goes after her loved one’s loved ones (such as Robb’s book-canon wife, Jeyne) in the name of revenge, of an eye for an eye. Yet she isn’t achieving anything but hurting the loved ones of the same people she wants to avenge. Alicent, too, demands an eye for an eye, literally.
This “eye for an eye” is paid back against Alicent by Rhaenyra and Daemon during the Dance of the Dragons.
Daemon & Rhaenyra Targaryen’s LegacyDaemon (Matt Smith) and Rhaenyra Targaryen eventually marry and have three children of their own. (These are not the same kids Alicent spreads rumors about.) Two of their sons become kings. The youngest, Viserys, is an ancestor of quite a few characters in the books, including the three who mention Rhaenyra directly: Stannis Baratheon, Arianne Martell, and Daenerys Targaryen.
He’s also the ancestor of Jon Snow and Aegon Targaryen.
The show gave Jon Snow (Kit Harington) the name Aegon Targaryen, which is unlikely to be his real name in the books because, well, there’s already an Aegon Targaryen. He’s just not Jon. Aegon Targaryen, or “Young Griff,” believes himself to be a real Targaryen. However, the narrative strongly hints that he’s really a Blackfyre.
What is a Blackfyre? Well, they’re the side family who descends from a group of kids Rhaenyra and Daemon’s grandson, Aegon IV, fathered out of wedlock. One is even named Daemon, and Daemon Blackfyre rebelled against the Targaryens and founded House Blackfyre.
Actually, one of Aegon IV’s illegitimate kids is still alive in the main saga. Brynden Rivers, Daemon Blackfyre’s brother, is the three-eyed crow. He mentors Bran Stark. That’s not the only connection either. Brynden Rivers wields Dark Sister, the same sword Daemon Targaryen uses in House of the Dragon.
In The Winds of Winter’s released chapters, Arianne heads to meet Aegon. A repeat dance of dragons between Aegon and Daenerys seems quite likely… and it might just occur over King’s Landing.
Daenerys: Rhaenyra Targaryen 2.0?The problem with all these parallels is that the end of Game of Thrones looks like, well, a copy of House of the Dragon‘s already-written ending. No systems break. Women rulers bring fire and blood.
That’s pretty depressing. You might even say it’s nihilistic.
Yet Martin himself has insisted he is not a nihilist:
That particular criticism is completely invalid. Actually, I think it’s moronic. My worldview is anything but nihilistic.
He’s also directly stated what his philosophy is:
I was always intensely Romantic, even when I was too young to understand what that meant. But Romanticism has its dark side, as any Romantic soon discovers… which is where the melancholy comes in, I suppose.
Romanticism is a type of artistic idea. Unlike nihilism, which says nothing matters, romanticism focuses on the self, on value in art, nature, and yes, love. Romanticism is about beauty.
What is beautiful about Game of Thrones season eight? What is beautiful about repeating the story with House of the Dragon?
Rhaenyra Targaryen & A Song Of Ice And FireWell, maybe the show’s adaptation of the novels was extremely loose, more of a checked list rather than a natural progression of character motivations with complex framing and appropriate expectations. Historian Steven Attewell, along with other writers, have written fairly convincing arguments that this is exactly what happened.
Plus, Martin recently commented:
At a certain point, as the show went on, I found I had less and less influence, until by the end, I really didn’t even know what was going on. Some of these things I watched like everybody else and [was like], “oh…okay…” That’s… [sentence trails off]
Sadly, we can’t point to the books with certainty to highlight the themes and contrasts of the stories. At least, not yet. However, if the books do indeed end with a woman saving the world despite likely, and complexly, understandably, not being remembered with any kindness—well, that could be a beautiful story.
It could even be a story that adds beauty to the tragedy of House of the Dragon‘s story. It could ask questions of its readers: what determines how we remember people? What makes a hero from a villain? The tables could even turn.
Rather than examining misogyny in the books, A Dream of Spring could ask readers to review how female leaders, in particular, are discussed.