Warning: contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 8 ‘The Lord of the Tides’.
In the three centuries between Aegon the Conqueror and Aegon ‘the artist formerly known as Jon Snow’, there are a total of nine Aegons in the Targaryen family tree. That’s standard practice for a royal name (the English got stuck in an Edward and Henry rut for a good few centuries), but clearly impractical when it comes to deathbed wishes and ancient prophecies, as we shall see.
In House of the Dragon episode eight ‘The Lord of the Tides’ something catastrophic happens to the Targaryens. It’s not caused by greed or pride or somebody getting their head surprise-sliced in half; it’s a genuine and regrettable mistake. On his deathbed, King Viserys mistakes the person he’s talking to, and – due to the multiple Aegons situation – they mistake the person he’s talking about. The result will prove disastrous.
In the six years since we last saw him, King Viserys I’s condition has greatly deteriorated. By episode eight (set around 129 AC), he’s bed-ridden, missing an eye and in constant pain. That pain is treated by ‘milk of the poppy’ (a Westerosi opiate the equivalent of our morphine), which addles his mind. When daughter Princess Rhaenyra visits his bedside on her arrival from Dragonstone, at first Viserys confuses her for his wife Alicent. At the end of the episode – after Viserys has exerted himself attending a supper he hoped would mend bridges between the family’s Green and Black factions – the King is attended by Alicent but mistakes her for Rhaenyra.
Big mistake. Big. Huge.
All the way back in episode one ‘The Heirs of the Dragon’, Viserys let Rhaenyra in on a royal family secret. Their ancestor Aegon the Conqueror had a prophetic dream he named ‘the Song of Ice and Fire’. It spoke of a great winter coming one day to destroy the world of the living. All Westeros must come together against it, ruled by a Targaryen king or queen descended from his blood “strong enough to unite the realm against the cold and the dark.” That king or queen is “the prince/ss that was promised.” Aegon the Conqueror’s ‘song’ was magically embedded in the blade of the Valyrian steel dagger Viserys wears throughout House of the Dragon, and which is by his bedside in his final moments.
In episode eight, Viserys’ heir Rhaenyra had come to ask him to protect his grandson’s claim to Driftmark (via their ‘father’ Ser Laenor Velaryon, whose uncle was contesting the succession). Rhaenyra also confessed that she doubted whether she had the strength to succeed her father on the throne. She asked Viserys if he believed that Aegon the Conqueror’s dream was really true, and that she would be the one to fulfil it. Viserys answered her question, but too late, and in his opiated confusion, speaking to the wrong woman.
Queen Alicent having no knowledge of the Targaryen prophecy passed down from royal heir to heir, didn’t understand Viserys when he – thinking he was talking to Rhaenyra – said that yes, he believed Aegon’s song was true and yes, she would be the one to unite the kingdoms against the coming darkness. “The prince that was promised, it is you, you are the one, you must do this,” he said to Alicent. She appeared to grasp only the words “Aegon”, “Prince” and “You must do this”, and interpreted them to mean that Viserys wanted their child Aegon (a wastrel rapist she’d earlier called no son of hers) to inherit the Iron Throne instead of his sworn heir, Rhaenyra.
“I understand, my King,” said Alicent, when she absolutely did not. Now, through no fault of her own (the TV series clears Alicent’s name in a way that Fire & Blood‘s ‘she poisoned him’ rumors don’t), Queen Alicent wrongly believes that King Viserys’ dying wish was that Prince Aegon be crowned Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. Viserys’ real dying wish, of course, was for Princess Rhaenyra to take the throne. It’s quite the mess, and extremely regrettable after Viserys made such a sterling effort to unite his clan and inspire them to forget the quarrels of their past.
For the romantics among us, Viserys’ final last words had nothing to do with any variety of Aegon, prophecy or throne. As the screen went to black and he took his last breath, we heard him say simply “My love”, as if in greeting. Who would he address as such? His first wife Queen Aemma, surely, in the Game of Thrones afterlife.
That’s all very well for Viserys, who is finally out of his misery, but the situation he’s left behind is an untenable one. The newly repaired bonds between Alicent and Rhaenyra will surely not stay fast when the Queen attempts to follow what she believes were the King’s instructions and install their son on the Iron Throne instead of his daughter.
Just think – if only the Targaryens didn’t insist on calling every other child ‘Aegon’, this whole mess could have been averted.
House of the Dragon airs on Sundays on HBO in the US and on Mondays on Sky Atlantic in the UK.