Revisiting the House of the Dragon

At the start of the season I reviewed the first episode of House of the Dragon. At the time I anticipated a story that explored dynasticism, social change and the process of historicization.

This proved to be mostly accurate. Certainly the ten-episode season fixated on the question of dynasty and on what constituted a family. Lord Corlys’ insistence that history books remember names rather than blood opened a fascinating dialectic regarding the nature of bastardry. While Rhaenyra’s two eldest sons certainly didn’t look like their father – a gay man who the show informs us tried and failed to sire legitimate children for his wife – the acceptance of their grandfather prioritizes historical record as being the principal significance of the dynasty. It won’t matter, after all this is over, what his heirs looked like, only that they carried his name and that they did these deeds.

Ultimately Corlys ends up being the carrier of the principal discourse concerning the nature of dynastism and how an orientation toward dynastic goals might impact one’s political decisions. His willingness to bite back slights to blood – such as Daemon’s beautifully gory decapitation of his brother for treason – in order to preserve the historical position of his house ends up saying far more about what a dynasty is about, as a political unit, than Viserys’ constant ruminations on prophetic dreams and the significance of heirs. But there was another key theme regarding power that was established in the first episode of this series and that I entirely missed: the question of what power does to the body.

Of course we can see this most obviously in two key examples: the physical decomposition of Viserys throughout the season and the multitudinous deaths that occur as a result of pregnancy.

Let’s start with Viserys as his example is perhaps the least-subtle. Our good-man king is uneasy on the iron throne. The barbs and blades of it cut him and these cuts become infected. As the show progresses and the child-characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent age into their adult performances Daemon, Corlys and most of the initially adult cast remain basically the same. But not so for Viserys as Paddy Constantine becomes increasingly smothered in makeup and special effects depicting the steady disintegration of a man. We can only see this as being quite explicitly the physical toll of power. It is the throne that does this to him and yet he sits upon it. By the time Viserys spends the last of his life desperately attempting to persuade Rhaenyra and Alicent to bury the hatchet despite the worm-tongued whispering of Otto Hightower and the impulsive violence of his brother and son-in-law Daemon he’s already half a corpse, barely able to walk, missing digits, missing an eye.

The loss of an eye is something of an obsession of this text. Not only does Viserys display the terminal signs of decay via a skull-like orbital cavity but also the eye is the price Aemond pays for power. He loses his own eye immediately after he claims Vhagar: the largest of the dragons. In the finale, Aemond’s desire to make Lucerys pay for this with an eye of his own precipitates the manslaughter of Rhaenyra’s son and becomes the first blow in the war which will occupy the future seasons of this show. Lucerys demurs to lose an eye and is barred from power.

It would be easy to treat this as an Odinic metaphor – Viserys loses an eye to sip from Mimr’s well – but this doesn’t fit comfortably as Aemond has no particular wisdom. Rather, Aemond represents nearly the opposite: vast power with all the restraint one would expect of a violently disfigured adolescent. Instead it is an indicator of the toll power takes upon the body.

This idea of power as something physical that eats up its carriers is bound together with the dynastic discourse via the wages of birthing heirs. Of course the death of Aemma was a principal focus of my review of the first episode. But this is echoed across the season. First we see it through the death-in-childbirth of Laena Velaryon. Laena finds herself in the same position as Aemma however, unlike Aemma, Laena takes agency over the matter of her death. Aware that Daemon will be faced with the same decision as his brother – to kill the wife to possibly save the child or to watch both die – she chooses to die, commanding Vhagar (who was her dragon at that time) to immolate her. In this case two sources of power: the power to bring about life and the power to destroy it both take a toll on her body and leave her nothing but ash. Finally, in the last episode of the season we have a third horrific childbirth as Rhaenyra’s discovery of her father’s death and Alicent’s treason seems to precipitate a miscarriage of her fifth child. She survives and, in a truly horrific scene, pulls the still-born baby from her own womb with her own hands, refusing to let the doctors or maids assist her. All the time she is undergoing labour she commands her sons to prevent anyone making decisions in her absence. The childbirth scene then becomes a reflection of Rhaenyra’s willingness to accept the physical toll of power. In this case those powers of life and death at play in the death of Laena are inverted – still-birth and an ascension into a position of command.

But of course all this inter-tangling of childbirth into a discourse around legitimacy (as Otto is quick to point out legitimacy is largely a symbolic affair), dynastism and the position of blood cannot help but touch on the elephant in the room – the incestuous relationship between Daemon and Rhaenyra. Certainly there is plenty to chew on here about blood and its relationship to power in how Daemon slowly seduces Rhaenyra over the years, eventually plotting with her and her husband to fake the latter’s death in order to clear the path for him to wed his niece after the death of Laena. On the topic of incest Freud quotes Frazer, saying, “the law only forbids men to do what their instincts incline them to do; . . . Instead of assuming, therefore, from the legal prohibition of incest that there is a natural aversion to incest, we ought rather to assume that there is a natural instinct in favor of it.” Thus a straight Freudian reading might argue that the incestuous marriage is another method of showing power: Daemon and Rhaenyra can choose to overcome law with their power and thus achieve something desired.

But Deleuze and Guattari are skeptical of this Freudian reading of incest, saying, “By placing the distorting mirror of incest before desire (that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?), desire is shamed, stupefied, it is placed in a situation without exit, it is easily persuaded to deny “itself” in the name of the more important interests of civilization (what if everyone did the same, what if everyone married his mother or kept his sister for himself? there would no longer be any differentiation, any exchanges possible).” This sarcastic response to the Freudian read of incest and the right of kings leads them to say, “Although we can see social production’s interest in such an operation, it is less clear what makes this operation possible from the point of view of desiring-production itself.” In other words: what does it matter to the formation of the self whether a desired object is a mother, a sister, a niece, an uncle?

They relate the incest prohibition (via the work of Clastres) to prohibitions among the Guanyaki people against a hunter eating his own kill. This circulation of spouses then becomes a pro-social act that helps to distribute power and keep its twin, desire, flowing. In this case the issue with incest that leads to its inscription as a taboo becomes not one of power over law but rather of selfishness over pro-sociality and as one online commenter pointed out House of the Dragon is a show about incredibly selfish people – “as if each of the Kardashians had a nuclear-capable F-22.” So perhaps we can treat Daemon and Rhaenyra’s romance as being an indicator of the same sort of selfishness that might lead a person to drive a continent into a war that Rhaenyra says would create a kingdom of fire and ash over the grief of two dead children.

But even this doesn’t quite cut to the heart of it. Turning again to Deleuze and Guattari, later discussing the work of Claude Levi-Strauss they say, talking specifically of the distinction between mother-son incest on one hand and uncle-niece incest on the other, “the mixing of the generations in the son-mother case has the same effect as their correspondence in the case of the uncle-sister, that is, it testifies to one and the same intensive germinal filiation that must be repressed in both cases. In short, a somatic system in extension can constitute itself only insofar as the filiations become extended, correlatively to lateral alliances that become established.”

This then situates the incest prohibition again in the position of power. Why is incest prohibited? Because it closes the door to political marriage. And boy howdy but there’s a lot of political marriage in this story. Both of Daemon’s first two marriages and Rhaenyra’s first marriage are purely political. The same can be said of Alicent’s marriage to Viserys and of every other marriage barring that of Rhaenyra to Daemon. In all these cases marriage exists to spread the net of power, to secure advantage, to maneuver through the process of alliance. These children become markers of alliances as clear as the green and black clothes of the two factions. What this says, then, of Daemon and Rhaenyra is that their political marriages have accomplished the extent of what they believe they can do. Principally this has been to entangle the Velaryon into the Blacks. We have seen, from Corlys already, that for many of the characters in this show names mean far more than blood and they have tied the name of Velaryon ever tighter via their inter-marriage. This then situates the Hightowers as having played a different game, insinuating Alicent into a marriage to achieve power but then spreading the children and grandchildren that arose from this family among many families in order to achieve more power, more influence.

Otto Hightower believes that power is a matter of symbols and trappings – a crown, a sword, the cheers of the masses, and of marriages. But Rhaenyra and Daeamon know that power is something else: the ability to give and take life. The birthing bed and the fire of the dragon. Having secured all of that power they thought they needed why not let their taboo desires flow?

Abercrombie, Martin and Magic-Light Fantasy

I’m going to put this up here now, I might include spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire in this post. Stop reading now if that bothers you. There will be spoilers in the very next paragraph.

The last book came out two years ago and so I’m not going to care if you are still watching season three and don’t want to know, for instance, that Jon Snow was stabbed in the back by his brothers and might be dead. After all, come on, if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet why are you reading the blog of some minor fantasy author?

There might be spoilers for other books, also published more than a year ago, but you probably won’t care, because there’s no HBO tv show about them yet.

I’m going to also say, straight up, that there should be more TV shows based on magic-light fantasy series. After all, they do them in China all the freaking time and although sometimes terrible there’s also some really entertaining television that comes out of the genre.

The blog Wuxia Edge is a great resource for those television series and you should totally read them.

What is Wuxia

I’m going to be jumping back and forth a bit between authors like George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie on one side and authors like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng on the other. That’s because there is a large precedent for fantasy with a lot of the characteristics that Martin really pioneered in English in the 1990s going back to the early 1900s in China. This is a genre I’m particularly fond of and it is just as influential to my writing as the other newer fantasy authors I’ll be mentioning.

In fact, the Black Trillium is effectively a wuxia story so, yeah, influence.

But outside of a small fandom the word hasn’t spread into North American consciousness beyond the possibility of a suspicion that it involves kung fu in some way. (BTW: don’t get me started that they changed the name of the film linked above to “Dragon” for the NA release. So damn lazy.

In shortest form, Wuxia is a modern genre of Chinese historical fantasy. Specifically it is a genre which grew out of the tradition of stories of youxia, knights-errant, who collectively formed an underworld of bandits and heroes whose conflicts frequently reflected the political struggles of dynastic China.

Wuxia is fantastical within very limited constraints. There is a template of abilities that youxia could access that could easily be seen as supernatural. These included:

  1. Qinggong – “Lightness Skill” was a subset of abilities that allowed the characters in wuxia to make incredible leaps, to move with exceptional speed and to fly.
  2. Neigong – “Internal energy” was a process through which characters could heal themselves or others through the manipulation of energy. They could also enhance their own strength, resilience and the potency of their other abilities by practicing neigong techniques.
  3. Extreme martial skill – This included strength and finesse that crosses the line into supernatural levels, the use of patently bizarre fighting techniques and the ability to wield cumbersome, unlikely or improvised weapons.
  4. Magical weapons – These generally had three characteristics: increased resistance to damage, unnatural sharpness and the ability to enhance the strength of the wielder. They are often coveted.

And that was it. With a few notable exceptions there weren’t other magical elements to the stories, nor were these elements presented as being unnatural. The characters were exceptional but any individual could achieve at least Β some measure of their ability through diligence, hard work and sufficient luck.

These magical elements and the societal fantasy elements of the underworld of heroes and villains is what separates Wuxia from straight-up historical fiction. It’s not much. The world of Wuxia is nearly our own. However creating a fantastical element gave Wuxia authors the license to interrogate their own history, their myths and their ideals in a way that would strain the bounds of suspension of disbelief in a less fantastical historical thriller.

By introducing a fantasy element, the authors of Wuxia stories gave themselves freedom to push their social and moral implications of their stories into uncomfortable territory.

This included:

  • Frequently questioning the parental analogy for teachers and leaders which was a hallmark of Confucianism.
  • Questioning the virtue of political and religious leaders.
  • Questioning the nature of patriotism vis a vis the state.
  • Challenging the divide between law and justice.

This is not an exhaustive list.

And this brings us to the magic-light fantasy novels of the post-GRRM English scene.

Before Game of Thrones

Prior to Game of Thrones the majority of commercially available fantasy was a tired retread of Lord of the Rings.Β (Ok, I’m going to stop right there and make sure to point at the words commercially available I know just as well as you that there were plenty of people like Barry Hughart, Christopher Priest and Ursula K. Le Guin writing innovative and unusual fantasy that was nothing at all like Tolkien between the end of the 1960s and the mid 1990s – but Β most of them weren’t widely read and certainly weren’t widely read outside of fandom; that was still the domain of Eddings, Brooks, Anthony, etc.).

There was also a moderately broad view, stoked in part by Tolkien’s loud protestations against allegory in fantasy that fantasy fiction should be escapist adventure fiction rather than trying to comment on deeper matters.

And the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire changed that with the swing of a headsman’s blade. It was evident this wasn’t escapism. What’s more, it really seemed that Martin was trying to tell us something.

This idea – that fantasy didn’t have to equal simple escapism – took off and now we have a much richer genre as the deeper fantasy reaches broader audiences.

Enter Joe Abercrombie.

Questioning the Nature of Heroism

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s second most recent book and it blew my mind. The six-hundred page tradeback abandons any hint of magic (the “wizard” in the book uses politics, threats and three cannons), it abandons an epic scale, confining action to a single valley and it uses a medieval battle as an opportunity to interrogate the idea of heroism.

In the story it presents us with:

  • A boy headed to war for the first time with dreams of being a hero
  • An ancient corporal who survived many previous engagements and who has a terrible reputation
  • An old war leader, weary of the fighting and aching from age and misuse
  • A young princeling with a reputation for loose talk and cowardice
  • A disgraced sword master who wants to die
  • The politically ambitious daughter of the commander of the army
  • A collection of vain and useless generals and lords

And the story invites us to look at the unvarnished actions of these various protagonists as they fight and die over the course of three days and ask whether any of them are heroic.

Is the death-obsessed master a hero for being undefeated in the field of battle when, inside, he’s a bitter and miserable shell of a man?

Is the boy who hides in a closet and kills another boy on his own side one day a hero for saving the man standing next to him on the next?

Is the woman who recovers sixty prisoners and carries a plea for peace a hero when her own friend is dragged off by a brute to a life of slavery and abuse and she does nothing to stop it?

And beyond inviting us to ask what constitutes a hero the story is willing to ask whether heroism is something to aspire to in the first place. Why, in fact, would anybody want to be a hero?

Don’t get in your own way

Magic is fun. I wouldn’t be a fantasy author if I didn’t like putting some in my stories. But here’s where I’m going to make the pitch for toned-back magic. For reasons that should be obvious, Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing have been circulating a lot this week. The best takeaway from them is, in my view, that a writer should not “distract the reader from the story.”

Fantasy frees us to talk about big concepts. It gives license to our audience to suspend disbelief about the little things enough for us to test concepts that might not fit otherwise. It does this, in part, by requiring us to suspend our disbelief about big things like how physics works.

That’s a pretty big risk. Good fantasy is always a gamble.