House of the Dragon Episode 4 Mailbag High Valyrian Do You Speak It

House of the Dragon Episode 4 Mailbag High Valyrian Do You Speak It

Ringer readers are the best. I know this because in last week’s House of the Dragon mailbag, I made an offhand comment about the average speed and distance that horses can travel. Mere hours later, I received a detailed email from reader Tim, informing me about horses with superlative range, if not quite the ability to travel dragon-length distances in a single day.

But enough about horses! Today we’re focusing on dragons, both figurative and literal, after the phenomenal Battle of Rook’s Rest. Read on to learn about Meleys’s questionable combat experience, Targaryen genetics, High Valyrian tutelage, and more.

M asks, “Why does Rhaenys imply a couple times that Meleys has major battle experience? Did Meleys ever participate in any conflict?”

When making the pitch that she should fly to Rook’s Rest, Rhaenys tells Rhaenyra, “Meleys is your largest dragon and no stranger to battle.” And when she saddles up, she tells her dragon, “We’re off to battle again, old girl.” This latter line was so notable it even made its way into the pinned tweet from the official House of the Dragon account.

But when has Meleys been “off to battle” before? As Rhaenyra herself says in this episode, her father (King Viserys) and great-grandfather (Jaehaerys) presided over “80 years of peace” before the Dance of the Dragons. And Meleys has had a rider for only 55 years, meaning she’s never flown in wartime.

Meleys’s first rider was Alyssa Targaryen, Viserys and Daemon’s mother, who claimed the beast just after her wedding in the year 75 AC. Initially, Alyssa wanted to try for Balerion the Black Dread, but the dragonkeepers persuaded her to pick a faster, younger dragon instead; enter Meleys, who had never previously been ridden. (“Red maidens, the two of us, but now we’ve both been mounted,” Alyssa joked after her first trip into the skies.)

Alyssa never fought in a war and died just nine years later, after a difficult childbirth, paving the way for young Rhaenys to bond with and ride Meleys for the next four decades. But unless Rhaenys fought alongside her husband in the Stepstones without any of Fire & Blood’s narrators noting as much, she’s never been in a war, either.

I can conceive of one potential explanation for the focus on Meleys’s battle experience in “The Red Dragon and the Gold.” To understand it requires delving into the piecemeal publication history of Fire & Blood. The source text for House of the Dragon reached shelves in 2018, but large swaths of the text had previously appeared in other collections and novellas. Fire & Blood includes:

Material from The World of Ice & Fire (published in 2014)

Sons of the Dragon (published in 2017)

The Rogue Prince (published in 2014), which covers most of Dragon Season 1 up until Viserys’s death

The Princess and the Queen (published in 2013), which covers Season 1 after Viserys’s death and beyond

(Note, by the way, that the title of the novella that explores most of the Dance juxtaposes the princess and queen, or Rhaenyra and Alicent—not Rhaenyra and Aegon. This story was never simply about the two rival claimants for the Iron Throne.)

So George R.R. Martin took all of that already-written material, edited and expanded it, and added new chapters to form Fire & Blood. In the process, he introduced some changes to his existing work—including to one crucial line about Meleys’s background.

This is the phrasing used to describe Meleys at Rook’s Rest in The Princess and the Queen, which, as a reminder, was published first: “Against Vhagar alone she might have had some chance, for the Red Queen was old and cunning, and no stranger to battle. Against Vhagar and Sunfyre together, doom was certain.”

And here’s the phrasing in the same scene in Fire & Blood: “Against Vhagar alone she might have had some chance, but against Vhagar and Sunfyre together, doom was certain.”

Both passages feature the same words—except the latter cuts the phrase “for the Red Queen was old and cunning, and no stranger to battle.” Incidentally, Rhaenys repeats that exact phrase in this episode, when she calls Meleys “no stranger to battle.”

My guess—which was confirmed this week by Martin collaborator Elio García—is that Martin initially conceived of Meleys as a hardened veteran, only to realize, when expanding Targaryen history, that she never could have fought anywhere before. That’s why he changed the line in Fire & Blood. Now, as to why the show’s writers kept this incorrect history instead of using the amended version? I have no idea.

Ev asks, “Why do some Targaryen kids have white hair but others (Rhaenyra’s, Jon Snow) do not? Is there a rule or just chalk it up to story reasons?”

When two Targaryens have children, or when a Targaryen conceives with a Velaryon (another family with Valyrian ancestry), the result is perfectly predictable: The babe will be born with purple eyes and silver hair, the phenotypic markers of the royal house.

The question is whether we can identify an inheritance pattern in situations with just one Valyrian parent. As Ev correctly notes, Rhaenyra’s kids with Harwin Strong, who all have brown hair instead of silver, aren’t the only examples: Jon Snow is the child of one Targaryen (Prince Rhaegar) and one non-Targaryen (Lyanna Stark), and he has dark hair, too.

There’s also the interesting case of the now-departed Rhaenys, who was born to a Targaryen father (Aemon, King Jaehaerys’s eldest son) and a Baratheon mother (Jocelyn, daughter of Alyssa Velaryon and the lord of Storm’s End). In House of the Dragon, Rhaenys has silver hair like all the other members of her family.

But she doesn’t in the source text. In The Princess and the Queen, Rhaenys was written with silver hair, but for Fire & Blood, Martin changed her description so she had “the black hair of her Baratheon mother and the pale violet eyes of her Targaryen father.” As Jon Arryn would say in Game of Thrones, and Ned Stark would later discover, “The seed is strong” when it comes to Baratheon genes.

(As an aside: Before marrying a Baratheon, Alyssa Velaryon’s first husband was King Aenys, and King Jaehaerys was one of their children. So Alyssa was both Rhaenys’s grandmother on her mother’s side and her great-grandmother on her father’s side; this also means that Rhaenys and her own father were first cousins. The Targaryen family tree is hilarious.)

In other cases, however, a child with one Targaryen parent still has the family’s classic colors. All of Viserys’s children do, even though he married Aemma Arryn (whose mother was a Targaryen, to be fair) and Alicent Hightower. Complicating matters even further is that, even though Viserys’s kids with Alicent all have the same hair color, as do Rhaenyra’s kids with Harwin, the hereditary result of a union between one Targaryen and one non-Targaryen isn’t always binary.

Daeron II, a future Targaryen king, marries Myriah Martell, who has the dark hair and eyes typical of the Dornish house. Their children include Baelor Breakspear, whose hair is “dark and peppered with grey,” according to The Hedge Knight; and Maekar, whose hair is “a pale silvery color touched with gold.” (Both Baelor and Maekar will appear in next year’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms spinoff.)

A similar split occurs with Maekar’s children in the next generation, whom he sires with a noblewoman from House Dayne: Daeron the Drunken has “sandy brown hair,” while Aerion and Aegon (a.k.a. Egg) have the typical Targaryen coloring.

A century later, Rhaegar Targaryen has two kids with Elia Martell before running off with Lyanna Stark. According to Martin, “Rhaenys looked more like a Martell, Aegon more a Targaryen.”

Here we can pinpoint one possible pattern because, in all three of these examples, the oldest child looked more like their non-Targaryen mother, while the subsequent children we know of took on Targaryen characteristics. By this logic, if Rhaegar and Lyanna had conceived a second child after Jon Snow, that babe might have looked more like his dad. One theory analyzing this trend concludes that “Targaryen genes are somehow ‘infectious,’” so they would influence a non-Targaryen mother after she carried one half-Targaryen baby to term.

Martin’s character decisions ultimately prioritize story reasons. Rhaenyra’s kids with Harwin need to have black hair so it’s obvious she’s flaunting her affair; Jon can’t have silver hair or else King Robert—who wanted to wipe out the entire Targaryen line—would be suspicious and want him killed. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun to try to determine dominant and recessive genes, or how magic might affect Targaryen DNA, or what other strange mesh of real-world biology and fantasy worldbuilding is at play.

Joe asks, “Why do only Targaryens learn Valyrian? I’d think at least maesters should know it.” And Peter asks, “Are Aegon and Aemond really the only people at the Small Council table that understand High Valyrian? Based on the reactions, it seemed as if the rest were somewhat following along, but was that just based off tone/body language?”

If the Valyrian Freehold is George R.R. Martin’s version of the Roman empire—and he was definitely influenced by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when constructing Targaryen history—then it follows that High Valyrian would be his world’s version of Latin.

And just as Latin, while a dead language in the modern world, influenced many other extant languages, so too does High Valyrian carry a legacy in Martin’s world. That’s mainly true in Essos, with its closer connection to Old Valyria.

Daenerys uses her secret knowledge of High Valyrian to trick Master Kraznys and seize control of his Unsullied in Slaver’s Bay. Melisandre and Thoros of Myr, both of whom hail from beyond the Seven Kingdoms, converse in High Valyrian in Thrones. And The World of Ice and Fire notes that each of the Free Cities “has come to have its own tongue. These are all corruptions of the original, pure form of High Valyrian, dialects that drift further from their origin with each new century since the Doom befell the Freehold.”

One of those cities is Braavos, where Arya studies High Valyrian at the House of Black and White. The Braavosi call-and-response of Valar morghulis, Valar dohaeris uses High Valyrian words. (In the first book in the series, Arya, who was never particularly studious outside of water dancing lessons, can’t read a foreign language that she thinks might be High Valyrian. Going to Braavos forces her to expand her skill set in more ways than one.)

In Westeros, knowledge of High Valyrian is much less common. In the shows, it appears that only Targaryens and dragonkeepers speak the language. But in the books, some highborn characters know the language, at least haltingly, thanks in large part to the learned members of their households—which suggests, to Peter’s question, that at least Grand Maester Orwyle should be able to follow this Small Council conversation.

Tyrion learned High Valyrian from Casterly Rock’s maester, and Cersei learned a crucial word from her prophecy (valonqar, or “little brother”) when she asked a septa its meaning. Samwell Tarly says, “I only have a little High Valyrian.” And a book-only character named Quentyn Martell (Oberyn’s nephew) “could read and write High Valyrian, [though] he had little practice speaking it.”

That dynamic seems like a decent reflection of Latin knowledge in the United States now; some students in elite universities might study the old empire’s language, but most people don’t know it beyond a couple widespread words or phrases. When a singer at Joffrey and Margaery’s royal wedding belts out a ballad in High Valyrian, Tyrion thinks it wasn’t a crowd-pleaser because “most of the guests could not speak” the language.

I’d imagine that more Americans would learn Latin if, say, using a Latin code phrase were the only way to fire a gun, like how the Targaryens use High Valyrian to speak to their dragons. But even here, there’s more nuance in the books: The first time in the series that Drogon receives the dracarys command and barbecues a piece of meat, Daenerys explains to Jorah, “It means ‘dragonfire’ in High Valyrian. I wanted to choose a command that no one was like to utter by chance.”

In other words, it seems as if Daenerys chose to use High Valyrian as her command language for convenience and safety, not because it was the only way Drogon would learn. After all, if dragons are like dogs, then it makes sense that they could learn commands in many languages; maybe the Targaryens use High Valyrian only because that’s their mother tongue.

Buff asks, “What is the line of succession like on the Aegon side of the Targaryen tree?”

“The king does not lack for heirs,” says a voice in the preview for next week’s episode. But there are only two realistic candidates to sit the Iron Throne if Aegon is dead:

Aemond is the obvious choice and Aegon’s primary heir, as the oldest male Targaryen on team green

Daeron, Viserys and Alicent’s youngest child, is next on the list. He hasn’t appeared on the show yet, but we know he’s in Oldtown, after Otto Hightower mentioned him earlier this season.

Helaena (who’s actually older than both Aemond and Daeron) and Jaehaera, Aegon’s surviving child, could theoretically stake claims of their own—but the misogynists who championed Aegon over Rhaenyra surely wouldn’t consider other female claimants.

In Fire & Blood, the question of Aegon’s heir is more interesting because he and Helaena have a second son, in addition to the now-dead Jaehaerys. While Dragon cut little Maelor from its cast (which complicated the Blood and Cheese murder), in the book, the king’s son would in theory have a stronger claim than the king’s brother. It would be a tricky case—especially when 2-year-old Maelor would require a long regency—of a kind that has caused controversy in Westeros before.

The preference for a king’s son over a king’s brother is why Daemon is rumored to cheer after the death of Viserys and Aemma’s newborn son in Dragon’s pilot, because that boy would have jumped Daemon in the line of succession. And this same setup led to a mini civil war about 90 years before the Dance of the Dragons, when King Aenys died and his half-brother, Maegor, sought the throne even though Aenys’s eldest son, Aegon, was the named heir.

But none of that nuance is relevant for the Maelor-less show. Aemond is the clear heir for now.

Alex asks, “What’s the rule on Targaryens and being injured by fire? We know Daenerys is the unburnt and Viserys is very much not but how does it work in the Dance of Dragons? Are some folks more flammable than others? Is Aegon injured by the fire?”

Aegon is definitely vulnerable to dragonflame, as are all humans in this show. Remember that in Season 1, Laena dies when she begs Vhagar to roast her. I went longer on this misconception in a Season 1 mailbag, but the rule of thumb to remember is that, as Martin once wrote in all-caps in a chat with fans: “TARGARYENS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO FIRE!”

Dragons are a different story. Again, in Martin’s words: “Dragons, on the other hand, are pretty much immune to fire.” In Fire & Blood, he explained in more detail why dragons are generally protected, writing, “A dragon’s scales are largely (though not entirely) impervious to flame; they protect the more vulnerable flesh and musculature beneath. As a dragon ages, its scales thicken and grow harder, affording even more protection.”

Note a couple exceptions in that explanation: Younger, smaller dragons are more vulnerable if their scales haven’t yet thickened sufficiently, and their eyes—a weak point not covered by scales—are potentially susceptible to fireborne injury. But generally, dragons can’t harm other dragons with their bursts of flame, which leads to the sort of up-close battle tactics that the dragons employed at Rook’s Rest. That passage in Fire & Blood continues:

“When two dragons meet in mortal combat, therefore, they will oft employ weapons other than their flame: claws black as iron, long as swords, and sharp as razors, jaws so powerful they can crunch through even a knight’s steel plate, tails like whips whose lashing blows have been known to smash wagons to splinters, break the spine of heavy destriers, and send men flying fifty feet in the air.”

Biting the opponent, instead of blasting them with fire, is how Vhagar killed Meleys and Arrax. It’s also how Balerion killed Quicksilver a century earlier, in the war following Aenys’s death—meaning that’s how every known dragon battle has ended at this point in Westerosi history.

Tom asks, “I know there’s a lot of serious stuff going on within the show that needs to be parsed properly … but is nobody even going to mention that the second Targaryen king had a name that, going by the rest of the family’s names, was almost certainly pronounced ‘Anus’?”

I’ll mention it, Tom! I mentioned King Aenys in three previous responses in this mailbag, just for you.

Unfortunately, King Aenys’s name is probably pronounced Ayn-EES, based on the way characters pronounce “Rhaenys.” But an “Anus” pronunciation is certainly more entertaining—Dragon might be focused on showing viewers the horrors of war, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun

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