Starks and Lannisters. Targaryens and Tyrells. The Baratheon Stag and the Bolton Flayed Man. There are so, so many families of varying position and power in Game of Thrones that it could initially be dizzying. Indeed, we still recall how the early seasons were often hyped in major print publications with actual family trees, as well as cheat sheets on the history of the Seven Kingdoms. To the show’s credit, audiences learned it all. Even so, what they discovered was a drop in the bucket for the sordid and glorious world that exists in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. After all, the Seven Kingdoms are more than the snapshot we saw during the life and times of Daenerys Targaryen.
House of the Dragon, HBO’s new highly anticipated prequel series set before the events of Game of Thrones, seeks to change that. The show will wind the clocks back to events that occurred about 200 years before Ned Stark ever traveled to King’s Landing, and it’ll find a far grander and more decadent period than anything we saw from the hobbled kingdoms under the reigns of Robert and Joffrey Baratheon. That includes new major players in “the game” too.
For readers of Martin’s various texts about the world of ice and fire, few of the new players teased by House of the Dragon are as exciting as the Velaryons, another family with the ancient blood of old Valyria in their veins and a powerful lineage. While the Velaryons are all but gone by the time of the events in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the book series on which Game of Thrones is based, in House of the Dragon they are the second most powerful family in Westeros. They also look noticeably different from how Martin describes them in Fire & Blood, the faux-historical text that House of the Dragon draws from.
When House of the Dragon begins, the head of House Velaryon is the legendary Lord Corlys Velaryon, aka “the Sea Snake,” arguably the greatest naval warrior and explorer Westeros ever knew. And while on the page he, like his children, are all described as having the same silver hair and pale complexions of the Targaryens whom they serve, House of the Dragon’s Corlys is played by Steve Toussaint, a British actor of Barbadian descent. In a recent in-depth EW cover story about House of the Dragon, Toussaint, as well as the series’ co-showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, open up about this conscious change from the source material.
“It was very important for Miguel and I to create a show that was not another bunch of white people on the screen,” Condal told EW. “We wanted to find a way to put diversity in the show but we didn’t want to do it in a way that felt like it was an afterthought or, worse, tokenism.”
Condal subsequently came to the realization, with Martin’s advice and blessing (Martin is a co-creator on House of the Dragon), that the Velaryon family provided a conduit to create a more inclusive vision for Westeros than the nearly all-white cast of Game of Thrones. Condal also revealed that Martin initially toyed with the idea of making the Velaryons Black conquerors from a western land before changing his mind and having them also hail from old Valyria.
“Once we had that idea, it just felt like everything fell into place,” Condal said.
And, truthfully, it seems an astute update. It doesn’t break Game of Thrones continuity which established (like its source material) that Westeros is a variation on medieval European history with the complexion to match, but the shift allows the more multicultural realm of Essos to provide a second major family who doesn’t appear identical to the Targaryens. And it also reflects our modern world so much better in what is still ultimately a fantasy realm.
Like the Targaryens, the Velaryons fled Valyria before the Doom, an apocalyptic, volcanic-like destruction that wiped that rich and magic-based civilization from the world. But according to Velaryon family history, they arrived in Westeros generations before the Targaryens, setting up a seat of power on the island of Driftmark, opposite where the Targaryens initially settled with their dragons: Dragonstone. The Velaryons never rode dragons like the Targaryens but instead found their power at sea, eventually building the ships that would carry Aegon the Conqueror’s armies to the Westerosi mainland.
By the time we reach the events of House of the Dragon, Lord Corlys Velaryon is arguably the second most powerful man in Westeros after King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). Prior to his current station, Corlys led a life of high adventure and exploration, sailing nine times to the far east and bringing back the only living Westerosi reports of distant locales like Asshai of the Shadow Lands. (HBO is also currently developing another prequel series, The Sea Snake, about these younger seafaring adventures with Rome’s Bruno Heller.) But by the time we find Corlys in the new series, he is an older man and husband to Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), the woman who under different circumstances should’ve been Queen of the Seven Kingdoms given her seniority over Considine’s Viserys.
While speaking to EW, Toussaint said of Lord Corlys, “No one wants to fuck with him. [The Targaryens] have dragons but still they don’t want to lose the whole ocean, which he commands. He knows he has power and he knows that they need him… He’s this fearless guy. He’s very rich now. He likes people to see that he’s rich. But you, as the actor, have to find a way to humanize it.”
The richest family in Westeros? That’s a strong position to be in, although it may not save you when the wheels start turning. Just ask the Lannisters.
House of the Dragon premieres on Aug. 21, 2022.