“Then the storm broke, and the dragons danced.George R. R. Martin, Fire and Blood
WARNING: There will be spoilers for House of the Dragon (the entire show) as well as Fire and Blood. Read at your own risk.
I have to preface this by saying: from a show perspective, I am team black. Several characters on the show have made it abundantly clear that the throne was always meant to go to Rhaenyra, including Viserys whose decision it was in the first place. Even on his deathbed, Viserys never wavered in wanting his daughter on the throne. The show ultimately fails by attempting to force the viewers to see the Dance of the Dragons as an even larger tragedy by making it an accident. This civil war should never have happened; it should have always been Rhaenyra.
As much as I enjoy the show, I prefer the book. The show feels relatively biased towards team black in general and that’s where most of my own personal bias comes from. However, using Fire and Blood and George R. R. Martin’s own words as a basis, the point of the civil war is that neither faction is correct. They’re both power hungry and it’s for that reason that purely because of the book, I’m team small folk. Martin’s stories have always demonstrated that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Targaryens have always been more concerned with having power than using it to help the people and that’s why the majority of them are considered “mad”. They are corrupted by power and don’t seem to realize that the only people who can give them power are the very people who they seem to care least about.
I recently took a philosophy class where we discussed a Hegelian principle called the master-servant dialectic. In summary, the dialectic states that the master can never truly have the power they crave so long as they view the servants as beneath them. For it is only the servants who can give the masters the recognition and power they want. This is a very watered down version of the dialectic but it applies here in the sense that the Targaryens (and Lannisters, Starks, Baratheons, etc.) are more focused on earning recognition from people who are of the same social class as they are. The small folk are always shown as having no stakes in the events other than their lives and the characters that the readers/viewers do get to follow seem to think that the small folk should just be grateful to be alive. They don’t recognize how much power the small folk have and the events of the Dance are a prime example of this.
Martin shows this in many ways in all his works but none so obvious as this. His books center around morally gray characters. None of the characters that we come to know are perfect and there are no truly good or truly evil characters but because the real world is so obsessed with binary declarations of good and evil, it’s difficult for people to process that morality is just as much a spectrum as sexuality. I’ve seen too many people on social media trying to justify the actions of either faction but the truth of the matter is that they are all deplorable people and that’s what Martin, in his works, is trying to make his audience understand but the need to categorize characters as good and bad ultimately make his stories less entertaining. None of them are good people; there is no right and wrong in this situation and even your favorite character has a dark side. And that’s okay. Based on Martin’s own words, let’s examine why both team green and team black are wrong. Fasten your saddlebelts, this is going to be a long ride.
In my opinion, this all could have been avoided had Jahaerys chosen Rhaenys during the Great Council. But there would be no story and so let’s start with Viserys killing his wife and finally seeing enough sense to name his daughter heir. Viserys was off to a good start; he named his daughter cupbearer during his small council meetings so she had an opportunity to learn and he clearly adored Rhaenyra. Not only did Viserys love his daughter, he also loved his brother and wanted to see Daemon succeed which is why he gives his brother position after position in order to prove to the kingdom that Daemon was the man that Viserys always thought he was. However, Otto Hightower – King Viserys’s Hand – greatly disliked Daemon. In fact, initially, Otto was really only against Daemon becoming King: “On no account can Prince Daemon be allowed to ascend to the Iron Throne,” … “He would be a second Maegor the Cruel, or worse.” It was Ser Otto’s wish (then) that Princess Rhaenyra succeed her father. “Better the Realm’s Delight than Lord Flea Bottom,” he wrote.” What changes his mind, you may ask? Power. The same thing that changes every man’s mind in Westeros.
Viserys was obsessed with having a male heir to the point that he caused his wife’s death. Had Aemma lived and only ever given Viserys daughters, he still would not have chosen Rhaenyra over Daemon. Jahaerys set the precedent for males to have a higher priority than females. However, once Aemma dies and the King realizes that the only piece of his wife he has left is Rhaenyra, he comes to his senses and names his daughter heir. But the King was still young and chose to remarry. He was offered many potential brides including Laena Velaryon – Rhaenys’s daughter – who was only twelve.
Viserys was never a strong-willed king, in fact, Martin writes: “Viserys I Targaryen was not the strongest-willed of kings, it must be said; always amiable and anxious to please, he relied greatly on the counsel of the men around him, and did as they bade more oft than not”. Had this not been the case, Viserys may not have been as easy to manipulate and would not have felt the need to take the case of his second bride into his own hands. But, that’s exactly what happens: “He announced his intention to wed Lady Alicent of House Hightower, the clever and lovely eighteen-year-old daughter of the King’s Hand”. And then, all hell breaks loose.
Viserys’s desire for a son came to fruition in 107AC when Alicent gave birth to their first son, Aegon. Following Aegon’s birth, another daughter: Helaena and a second son, Aemond. It seems like a no-brainer that Viserys would choose the son he had been so desperate to have to be his heir, yet he remains steadfast in his decision to name Rhaenyra heir. Maybe this is because he still feels guilty over Aemma’s death or maybe he wishes to appear strong willed but the motives matter less than the actions.
Following Viserys’s remarriage, Alicent and Rhaenyra began to develop animosity between each other. This largely developed due to Alicent’s desire to be Queen and to have more influence in the realm. She had given Viserys exactly what he wanted but he refused to change the succession. Otto Hightower also began to press the King on the matter of changing the succession in order to give his family more power but Rhaenyra remained the heir. Eventually, the King grew tired of the Hand’s nagging and stripped him of his title. Maybe Viserys thought this would put an end to the whole affair of changing the succession; he was wrong: “Even after Ser Otto had returned to Oldtown, a “queen’s party” still existed at court; a group of powerful lords friendly to Queen Alicent and supportive of the rights of her sons. Against them was pitted the “party of the princess.” Not only does this show that while Otto Hightower was an instigator in the following events, it shows that, ultimately, it was Alicent’s own agency that furthered the animosity and began the civil war.
Alicent’s power hungry nature clashed with Viserys’s desire to see Rhaenyra rule after him and so, she took it out on the only person she could: Rhaenyra. The Princess and the Queen maintained a facade of peace whenever they were present though: “there were some, sharp-eyed, who observed the dragons of one party snapping and spitting flame at the dragons of the other party whenever they chanced to pass near each other.”. As the animosity grew, the factions grew more divided until a fateful tourney when the Princess wore black and the Queen wore green and the greens and the blacks were born.
Daemon, who had been fighting a war in the Stepstones (which I find a great side quest but not important to the point I want to make here), returns. Shortly after, a rumor makes its way around court that Rhaenyra had lost her maidenhead to Daemon. Alicent and the rest of the Greens, seizing on an opportunity to grab power, implore to the King that she is not suitable to be heir because no man would want to marry a “tainted” woman. When the King refuses to change his mind, Alicent proposes a marriage between Aegon and Rhaenyra, which the King promptly refuses. Instead, the King chooses to marry his daughter to Laenor Velaryon despite it being well known that he was gay. Rhaenyra, not on board with this decision, is briefly rumored to have some sort of affair with Criston Cole – her Kingsguard knight – a decision that would come to cause her ruin later. It’s not known what happens after, only that Cole became Rhaenyra’s biggest rival and Alicent’s guard.
Then, the Strong children. Rhaenyra gives birth to three boys, all of whom look nothing like their father and all of whom bear a strong (haha get it?) resemblance to Harwin Strong (Rhaenyra’s Kingsguard). Here’s where Rhaenyra and the blacks are in the wrong. Rhaenyra knows her sons are not true born and she chooses to push a lie that could potentially put the realm in danger. As Rhaenyra remains the heir to the Iron Throne, her son, Jacerys, becomes heir after her. By clinging to her lie, Rhaenyra potentially creates a situation where all the noble bastards of the realm could have a claim to their family’s wealth over their true born sons. Rhaenyra’s decision here is the basis for much of the Dance because she knows that she is at fault yet she chooses to push her falsity. Rhaenyra gives the greens leverage here and they would be stupid not to take it. Rhaenyra knew that the greens were on her heels and wanted her throne, yet she flaunted her privilege and ultimately played a large role in plunging the realm into war.
Quick summary of the following events: Daemon marries Laena Velaryon who gives birth to twin girls before dying in childbirth; shortly after his sister’s death, Laenor dies. It’s during Laena’s funeral that Rhaenyra and the blacks make their second mistake. Laena had been the rider of Vhagar, the largest dragon in the world. It had been thought that her daughter Baela would follow in her mother’s footsteps and ride Vhagar, yet this was not to be the case. In the middle of the night, Aemond – Viserys and Alicent’s second son – claims Vhagar for his own. His youngest nephew, Joffrey, had seen him set off with Vhagar and woke his brothers and cousins who were all waiting for Aemond when he returned. A scuffle ensued in which, after Aemond taunts his nephews for being bastards, Lucerys Velaryon (Laenor’s and Rhaenyra’s second son), cuts Aemond’s eye out.
Rhaenyra and the blacks’ mistake comes in the form of not severely punishing Lucerys for what he did. King Viserys attempts to mend their relationship but could do nothing to placate his wife and daughter. Alicent demanded Lucerys’s eye (which was unnecessary) and Rhaenyra demanded that Aemond should be questioned “sharply” in order to determine where he had heard that his nephews were bastards (which was also unnecessary). Instead of growing angry at his daughter for her mistake, he instead chastises his sons – including the one who had just lost his eye – and announces that: “should man or woman or child, noble or common or royal”—mock his grandsons as “Strongs” again, their tongues would be pulled out with hot pincers”. Following this incident, Rhaenyra returns to Dragonstone and Alicent returns to King’s Landing with Viserys.
While Rhaenyra could never have truly mended her relationship with Aemond and Alicent following that incident, she could have improved things by acknowledging that Lucerys needed to be punished. Viserys’s declaration is helpful but he is showing blatant favoritism to his daughter and her family over his wife and sons. Alicent and her family feeling like second class citizens ultimately sours Rhaenyra’s and Alicent’s relationship further.
In the years that followed, Rhaenyra married Daemon and never really learned how to be a ruler. But neither did Aegon. The two claimants to the throne were the two who were the least suited for ruling. Aegon never truly wanted to be King because he always knew his sister would be Queen and Rhaenyra assumed that being the heir and subsequently becoming Queen meant that she had unlimited power and grace from the realm. Rhaenyra and Daemon have a son that they name Aegon, further poisoning the greens’ and blacks’ relationship.
When Viserys dies, Rhaenyra is still on Dragonstone. Alicent and Criston Cole find the King’s body and guard the castle in order to prevent word from getting out. Before Rhaenyra can find out, they crown Aegon. While Rhaenyra is responsible for creating further animosity between the greens and blacks, it is Alicent who bears the responsibility for the war. The greens quickly crown Aegon and when news reaches a very pregnant Rhaenyra, she miscarries. Her anger at losing both her father and child is what propels her to rally her bannermen.
Rhaenyra sends her sons Jace and Luke as messengers to the Starks and Baratheons. When Lucerys lands on Storm’s End, he finds that Aemond has beaten him there. Borros Baratheon denies Lucerys’s request in favor of Aemond’s marriage proposal and Luke leaves. Aemond flies after him and Vhagar and Arrax both attempt to outfly the storm. Vhagar is ultimately successful and Luke falls to his death, sowing the seeds of war.
The next part will dive more in depth into the war itself, however in the events leading up to the war it’s easy to see that both Rhaenyra and Alicent were at fault. Rhaenyra’s entitlement proves that she will not be a competent ruler and her later actions confirm this. Alicent’s ambition and jealousy along with the hatred for Rhaenyra she instills in her children influence the actions that cause the war. Both women are at fault and both are equally in the wrong. Yet, Alicent’s fear for her children’s lives is completely valid and Rhaenyra’s lack of political maturity is not completely her fault. At the end of the day, it is Viserys and Otto who planted the seeds of war and it’ll be the rest of his line that pays the price. In this case, it truly is the sins of the father(s) that is passed down to their daughter(s) and unfortunately for them, it’ll be those same sins that destroy their family.
Next time: We’ll go a little more in depth in how the war brings out the deplorable sides of both the greens and the blacks as well as how their actions impact the small folk. There may be more than one more part as the Dance of the Dragons is extremely long and requires a lot of focus on each of the parts so for now, here’s the introduction.