Spoilers for episode 1 of House of the Dragon, “The Heirs of the Dragon”
One of the first major setpieces in HBO’s House of the Dragon is the tournament celebrating the imminent birth of Viserys and Aemma’s newest child, who is expected to be Viserys’ heir. Intercut with the knights beating the shit out of each other is the birth itself, which does not go well, to put it mildly. Between the prologue depicting the Great Council of 101 AC and this sequence, which appears smack in the middle of the episode, the showrunners prepare us for the core tension and reason for the conflict that will define the series.
Tourneys are not only a major medievalist touchstone (meaning, they’re one of those events that’s culturally associated with the Middle Ages), but also a frequent setting in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and ASOIAF-adjacent works. Martin uses them to establish social and political dynamics, and as a crucible for putting characters together and brewing drama for the storyline. The Ashford tourney in the Dunk & Egg novella “The Hedge Knight,” for example, shows class dynamics and the limits of chivalry. Joffrey’s nameday tourney in A Clash of Kings has a poor turnout both because of the ongoing civil war and because Joffrey commands very little respect or love; it also represents Sansa’s fading belief in chivalry and allows her to rescue Dontos, which has a major impact on her later story. And, of course, there’s the Great Tourney at Harrenhal, which we only see in memories and stories but was a flashpoint for Robert’s Rebellion, which still haunts most of the adult characters in ASOIAF.
Taken purely at face value, the “Heirs” tourney itself leans into spectacle and knights showing off. Medieval jousting was already an extreme sport, but House of the Dragon makes it even more so; on first viewing, my reaction was “it’s a joust, not a relay race.” The grab-the-next-lance-and-go approach is much more dynamic and would require much more skill, not to mention perfect timing, on the part of the knights than any set of jousting rules I know of (which included a brief rest and reset period after each tilt). It’s a change very much made for screen; it looks cool but would be very impractical.
The tournament itself seems to collapse various approaches from across the Middle Ages. In its earlier forms, c. 1050-1220 CE, a tourney was a melee, with the one-on-one tilting emerging only in the 13th century. The melee was extremely dangerous, though not usually lethal (not that deaths didn’t happen, but they weren’t the goal). As the sport evolved, chivalric rules and values came to dominate, and tournaments became just as much about spectacle as knightly prowess. The “Heirs” tourney combines spectacle, prowess, and violence, with the later-medieval tilting giving way to earlier-medieval melee and the rules mostly discarded. Nobody stops Daemon from attempting to injure or kill his opponent’s horse, and nobody stops the joust from turning into a brawl that leaves at least one knight dead. Instead, the audience cheers both, even shouting “kill him!” from the stands.
What all of this indicates about Westerosi noble society under Targaryen rule (or at least Viserys’ rule) is that outright violence is more acceptable even in circumstances that should be ruled by courtesy and chivalry. While the ASOIAF-verse frequently argues that chivalry is a pretty lie, “silk ribbons tied round the sword,” as Sandor Clegane puts it (A Storm of Swords Arya II), and extreme violence at tourneys is not uncommon in the core novels, usually there’s some lip-service paid to honor and dishonor and rules that must be followed. But not here. (I’ve discussed chivalry in history and ASOIAF in more depth with the lovely Learned Hands here.)
Even when the knights at the tourney are performing their chivalric roles by asking women for their favors, they undercut or belittle the act; Boremund Baratheon requests Rhaenys’ favor by calling her “The Queen Who Never Was,” then dismisses her wish for good luck, while Daemon Targaryen requests Alicent Hightower’s specifically to annoy her father and prefaces it by saying that he’s already confident he’ll win. The traditional role of women in tourneys is much reduced here, while the violence is loudly celebrated.
This doesn’t mean that everyone’s thrilled with it. Corlys is concerned that this level of violence is a poor way to welcome “our future king,” and Rhaenys responds that the men just have a lot of pent-up aggression because there hasn’t been a war in like 70 years. Showrunner and writer Ryan Condal echoes this sentiment in the Inside the Episodesegment, claiming that the tourney lets them “tell the story of unrealized aggression that’s let out in a very visceral way.” This sense that men are violent creatures at their core runs throughout ASOIAF, from Jorah’s assertion to Daenerys that “there is a savage beast in every man” that comes to the fore when violence offers itself (A Storm of Swords Daenerys II) to Jaime’s observation that war leads men to act outside of their usual temperaments.
Steelshanks Walton commanded Jaime’s escort; blunt, brusque, brutal, at heart a simple soldier. Jaime had served with his sort all his life. Men like Walton would kill at their lord’s command, rape when their blood was up after battle, and plunder wherever they could, but once the war was done they would go back to their homes, trade their spears for hoes, wed their neighbors’ daughters, and raise a pack of squalling children.A Storm of Swords, Jaime VI
The idea that masculinity necessarily equals violence is deeply essentialist, but also very common in medievalist media. Susan Aronstein, Amy Kaufman, Marya DeVoto, and Richard Kaeuper (among many others) have written fairly extensively about how the Middle Ages are seen as a site of pure masculinity, a time before feminism fucked everything up. The idea goes back so far that it’s baked into medievalist modes of thinking, one of those things that makes a depiction of the Middle Ages “feel” authentic to modern audiences. So it’s very difficult to tell whether in the ASOIAF-verse it’s something the characters wrongly believe or if it’s something Martin—and in this case, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik—believes and is using the story to demonstrate. Either way, what we end up with is a society that revels in violence and bloodshed, with chivalry a thin veneer over that violence.
The joust is only one way that violence is demonstrated in this episode. Intercut with the various tilts is the reason for the tourney in the first place: Aemma giving birth to Viserys’ child. The link between the two is made even more obvious by the yonic design of the tourney field; male violence is exercised over a female symbol, just as the audio of the tourney overlays Aemma’s screaming as the maesters cut into her to attempt to deliver the baby. After her first scream, no further audio is heard from that scene, only music, the cheers of the crowd, and two knights fighting.
It’s a scene that’s extremely difficult to watch, both for the actual blood and physical violence and for the psychological violence. At no point does anyone suggest asking Aemma what she wants, or even explaining what’s going to happen. Aemma’s life, choices, and personhood are never taken into account, not even by Viserys, who claims to love her. Aemma had already been reduced to a vessel to carry a child, as evidenced by the conversation she and Viserys have earlier in the episode in which she points out how difficult childbearing has been for her. Here, she’s further reduced to an obstacle between Viserys and his heir, one who must be removed, no matter the cost. And the writers, cinematographers, editors, and actors call on us to bear witness to how a patriarchal society treats women of childbearing age and ability. Like most medievalisms, it’s as much a condemnation of our own society (speaking as a woman in a post-Roe America, where the maternal death rate for Black women was already a travesty before that SCOTUS decision) as a look into a pseudo-medieval one.
These two types of violence, overlaid and intercut, make it clear from episode one what kind of society we’re going to be dealing with. It’s one based in toxically masculine violence and misogyny. One where even noblewomen are valued only for their childbearing abilities and discarded as soon as they can no longer, or no longer wish to, bear healthy children. It’s the society Rhaenyra will fight with her whole life, as Rhaenys warns in episode 2: “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.” It’s the core conflict at the heart of the series, the core tragedy at the heart of the series, and Sapochnik and Condal pull no punches on introducing that conflict from the very beginning.
Susan Aronstein, “The Return of the King: Medievalism and the Politics of Nostalgia in the Mythopoeic Men’s Movement,” in Medievalism and the Quest for the “Real” Middle Ages, 2001
Marya DeVoto, “The Hero as Editor: Sidney Lanier’s Medievalism and the Science of Manhood,” Studies in Medievalism 9, 1997
Richard Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry, 2016
Amy Kaufman, “Muscular Medievalism,” The Year’s Work in Medievalism 31, 2016
“Medieval Jousting” in the World History Encyclopedia
Sandra Martina Schwab, “What is a Man?: The Refuting of the Chivalric Ideal at the Turn of the Century,” in Beyond Arthurian Romances: The Reach of Victorian Medievalism, 2005