What the White Hart Stag and Boar Really Mean in House of the Dragon

We examine the importance of the king’s hunt on the latest episode of House of the Dragon, and how the animals they find offer ill omens.

Viserys and Rhaenyra hunt in House of the Dragon
Photo: HBO

This article contains House of the Dragon episode 3 spoilers.

It is no small thing when a king goes hunting. As author George R.R. Martin is no doubt relieved to see—after previously suggesting the depiction of a king’s hunt in Game of Thrones was one of his great regrets—King Viserys’ chase during last night’s House of the Dragon was quite the spectacle.

When a stag finally fell beneath the gaze of Viserys (Paddy Considine), there were horses and hounds, broad pavilion tents and bards to sing in them. Even his toddler son by his second wife, the teenage Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), is on hand to bask in the opulence of the Targaryen monarch’s alleged greatness. But right down to the dour countenance on Viserys’ face… something very wrong appears to be occurring.

The sequence was the centerpiece of Sunday night’s House of the Dragon. Ostensibly, Viserys is there to celebrate the second name day of young Aegon, but to everyone else in the court, it looks like the beginning of royal transition—one where Viserys will snatch the Iron Throne from his eldest child Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and bestow it on his firstborn son. The look of deliberation on Viserys’ face, especially when his daughter eschews his company, suggests he is thinking this too.

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All of which gives added weight to the white stag (or “white hart”) that Viserys chases in Aegon’s honor. It also portends several intriguing possibilities when it becomes Rhaenyra, and not her weak-willed father, who finds the beast. But what does that and the boar she skewers really represent? We’re here to unpack that and more below.

Viserys, the Failed Hunter and Failing King

Early in the episode, before Viserys and his child bride depart on the hunt, Viserys is given an urgent message from Ser Vaemond Velaryon (Wil Johnson): Despite having dragons at their backs, the Velayron war against the Crab-Feeder on the Stepstones is failing. Reinforcements are needed immediately. Unfortunately, Viserys is only dimly aware of these ill tidings. In fact, the Targaryen king refuses to even glance at the doom-ridden parchment.

“It’s been three years,” Viserys bemoans. “It can wait another three days.”

There is irony in this. After all, as we later see confirmed, Viserys does not even enjoy hunting. Nonetheless, the milquetoast king is determined to play the milquetoast host. He will hold a hunting party to celebrate the second name day of Aegon—a child too young to remember the festivities, and who’s event is too grand for a lad that Viserys is determined to raise as the spare and not the heir. As Viserys ultimately confirms at the end of the episode, he remains committed to making Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) his successor to the Iron Throne, if for no other reason than he seems determined to honor “your mother’s memory.” The other irony here is, of course, that Viserys drove poor Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) to a preventable death in forced childbirth.

Yet as we see on the hunt, Viserys is an indecisive man who waffles and stews, making problems worse for himself and ultimately his kingdom while he dithers. This is crystallized when he finally kills his stag. Before that fatal moment, the king has seemingly accepted the wisdom of his serpent-like Hand, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), that a spotting of a white hart (the most rare of stags) is a sign from the gods that proves Aegon’s royal pedigree. Before the dragons came, the White Hart was, after all, the symbol of royalty in the lands that now comprise the kingswood. But Viserys fails to slew that beast in young Aegon’s name.

Instead he is awakened on the final day of the hunt by his king’s men, who have captured a generic stag on their horses and with their hounds. By the time the old king comes upon that common creature, it can barely move as Viserys is allowed to “hunt” it with a spear gifted to him by Casterly Rock. His men hold the animal in place, even directing the king of where best to strike the animal dead.

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And yet, his heart isn’t in it.

Viserys misses his target on the animal’s body, making a bad situation worse as he is forced to reluctantly stab the creature again, leading to a prolonged and agonizing death. A king’s party becomes a butcher’s work.

Such is how Viserys goes about all of his decisions. If Viserys is committed to defending Rhaenyra’s claim on his throne, he should be eager to dispel the gossips instead of fanning their flames by celebrating Aegon at a hunt that many of his courtiers assume is a signal of the boy’s ascent—so much so that Jason Lannister is bold enough to speak aloud to the king about how best to wrestle away Rhaenyra’s claim on the Iron Throne. Meanwhile Viserys’ own Hand similarly schemes against Rhaenyra by suggesting she should marry her little brother, who is also 16 years her junior.

A smart king would recognize Otto for the duplicitous power-seeker that he is. And if he wanted Rhaenyra as his heir, then he should dispose of Otto as his Hand. But like killing the wrong stag, or considering the aid desperately needed in the Stepstones, Viserys is a king who prefers to avert his eyes and hope for the best.

He will miss.

Rhaenyra, the White Hart, and the Boar

Conversely, there is Rhaenyra’s outsider-perspective of the hunt. Referring to the Princess of Dragonstone and heir to the Iron Throne as an outsider should seem like a paradox, but in a crumbling situation established by her father it is impossible to be anything else.

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Consider that during the princess’ first scene this week, her own bard is dismissed by her former friend and current mother-in-law, Queen Alicent. It’s telling how divided the bard’s loyalties are, too. He at once wants to honor the wishes of the princess, who seeks to have him play the same song ad infinitum. However, the king’s consort and mother of the child all presume to be the true heir wishes for him to depart. Ultimately he begs the pardon of “my princess” while obeying “Your Grace.”

The men of the realm, down to a lowly bard, all see Alicent and her son as the future, and Rhaenyra as the remnants of a hasty solution three years past its expiration date.

So Rhaenyra goes hunting on her own, alongside her beloved white cloak of the Kingsguard, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). She rejects this farce of a hunting party, all there to honor the baby brother who she knows is expected to replace her. And the pair run across two quarries of their own: a wild boar and a white hart.

The former feels like a self-aware nod to the series Game of Thrones by head writer Ryan Condal and his co-scribes. During the hunting sequence that Martin detested, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) is positioned to fail while hunting a boar. Plastered with too much wine and distraction, the first king on the previous Westeros TV show could barely lift his war axe before the boar skewers him through (off-screen). By contrast, when a boar from a more advantageous position seeks to slay young Rhaenyra in much the same way, she is able to hold it off long enough for Ser Criston to injure the beast… and for her to then slaughter it.

One could argue with this one action, Rhaenyra proved herself more worthy to sit the Iron Throne than any man we’ve seen ascend that high seat of power on either TV series: Viserys or Robert, Kings Joffrey or Tommen.

Yet just as important is that, unlike her wreck of a father, Rhaenyra and Ser Criston do find the white hart at the end of the episode. The morning light has broken, and Rhaenyra’s silver hair is stained with the blood of her own night of butchery. Yet she remains clear-eyed when she sees the majestic beast. According to old Ser Otto, the animal signifies royalty and presumably divine right. He asserted the creature’s appearance spoke to Aegon’s alleged regality. Yet it’s Rhaenyra who crosses the white stag’s path. If this world full of magic really works in the province of signs and prophecies, then surely this is an omen that Rhaenyra’s claim on the throne is better than her half-brother’s.

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But she doesn’t kill the animal. In fact, she tells Criston to put away his sword when he considers the idea. Unlike Viserys, this daughter might actually value the wonders of their realm. And yet, by refusing to claim the top prize as her own, she also denies a chance to prove to the male courtiers she is their better. Not that they would probably recognize it.

Instead Rhaenyra enjoys a small victory. It feels profound. And fleeting.