What House of the Dragon and Rings of Power reveal about our society.

What House of the Dragon and Rings of Power reveal about our society.

By Edwardo Pérez

Popular culture tends to proceed along two paths, and often simultaneously: one that reflects society and one that influences society. Our current cultural moment is steeped in medieval fantasy, with shows like HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s Rings of Power leading the way, offering an interesting metaphor for where our society stands.

It’s not insightful to say that we’re polarized, it’s axiomatic. What might be more revealing is to understand not that we’re polarized but that we are at war, in a medieval sense, laying siege to one another in a real-world game of thrones, heeding Cersei Lannister’s observation to Ned Stark: “you either win or you die, there is no middle ground.”

We can call it a civil war and we can perhaps point to various incidents seen in the past few years and call them skirmishes or trial runs. Yet, returning to popular culture and our obsession with medieval fantasy, I suggest that House of the Dragon and Rings of Power don’t just symbolize our war, with House of the Dragon showing us who we are and Rings of Power showing us who we could be, they crystalize the stakes we’re fighting for—because it’s not just a matter of who sits on a throne (a Targaryen or Sauron) it’s a matter of what happens to those who survive when the war is over.

It should be noted that both shows embrace inclusive casting and both shows have been criticized for it, which says more about the critics than it does about the shows. But what’s more significant is how each show’s narrative reflects and instructs our current society—because seeing ourselves in a television show isn’t just about seeing our skin color or our gender, it’s also about seeing our values (and our hopes and dreams … for those of us who still have them).

For Christopher Prendergast, representation “is both historically and conceptually foundational for our thinking about literature and culture.” And Prendergast notes at least two ways of understanding representation—as re-presenting something and as standing for something.

Similarly, as Matthew Potolsky notes, the concept of mimesis, which generally means imitation (or representation), “so defines our way of thinking about art, literature and representation […] that we rely on the concept even if we have never heard of it or do not know its history.”

As Potolsky explains, “mimesis describes the relationship between artistic images and reality: art is a copy of the real,” a definition Potolsky admits only scratches the surface of what mimesis means—because mimesis isn’t just representation, it’s description, it’s connection, and it’s historically situated. In Potolsky’s view, “From its very origins in Greek thought, mimesis connected ideas about artistic representation to more general claims about human social behaviour, and to the ways in which we know and interact with others and with our environment,” adding that “The ability to create and be moved by works of art, [Plato and Aristotle suggest], is an essential part of what it means to be human.”

So what does it mean for our current medieval cultural moment? What are we re-presenting? What are we trying to connect? Why are we moved by authors like Martin and Tolkien? And, in comparing House of the Dragon and Rings of Power, what aspect of reality is each show copying? Or, what does each show stand for?

In my viewing, and I say this with much admiration for the man from Santa Fe, Martin’s narrative isn’t timeless, nor is it particularly inspiring. Yet, it does reflect (perhaps too accurately, along with shows like The Handmaid’s Tale) our current cultural moment. Perhaps this is because Martin’s narrative, for all it’s fantasy elements, is more grounded in the muck of human life, whereas Tolkien clearly exists in the realm of fantasy.

For example, House of the Dragon focuses on one house—Targaryen—and it’s clearly divided. Plagued by infighting, incest, and a complete lack of vision for the future, its narrative reveals how our society is stuck within itself. As the saying goes, we can’t see the forest for the trees because we’re only focused on our tree, our house. Indeed, the concept of society almost seems evil to us, as if loving our neighbor (or at least accepting them and their differences) equates to loss.

So, in our focus on winning, we only see our perspective, we only advocate for what we believe, and we will only accept our way of doing things. House of the Dragon doesn’t even change locations and explore Westeros or Essos. It stays focused on King’s Landing and on House Targaryen (because no one else really seems to matter). This is the bleak reality House of the Dragon imitates.

By contrast, Rings of Power tells several stories in several locations, across different points in time (similar to The Witcher’s first season narrative, which also resonates with our current society). Galadriel seems to be the main protagonist, yet the other characters (and races of Middle Earth inhabitants) aren’t insignificant. Because for J.R.R. Tolkien, every character is integral to the story.

George R.R. Martin’s characters are also significant, especially the ones who might otherwise be dismissed (such as dwarfs and bastards and little girls). Yet, House of the Dragon seems like a cultural step backward. Milly Alcock’s Rhaenyra is a formidable dragon rider, but she’s also a cup bearer—and it says something that Alcock’s Rhaenyra is recast midway through the first season (though Emma D’Arcy is excellent).

What this suggests is that House of the Dragon really isn’t interested in developing a strong female character. Alcock and D’Arcy might be on the posters, but in a narrative steeped in patriarchy, it’s just a ruse. The narrative doesn’t work to undermine patriarchy or reveal any flaws because it doesn’t believe patriarchy is flawed.

Like Margaret Atwood, who has claimed that nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t already happened at some point in history (even U.S. history), Martin has also based his Westeros-set fantasy on actual history.

As Martin explained during a panel at San Diego’s 2022 Comic Con, “I get inspiration from history, and then I take elements from history and I turn it up to eleven,” adding “Game of Thrones is […] based very loosely on the War of the Roses. [House of the Dragon] is based on an earlier period in history called the Anarchy.” As Martin concludes, “I don’t think Westeros is particularly more anti-woman or more misogynistic than real life and what we call history.”

Perhaps Martin is correct. If so, then he is clearly imitating the real by revealing human behavior. However, in terms of history (or the progress of history, if it is supposed to progress at all), this is a step backward—and perhaps for art, too. Because Martin isn’t showing us our potential, he’s showing us our flaws.

I base this on the belief that while art might be mimetic, for art to truly move us, it needs to move beyond mere representation and imitation. For example, Mozart could be criticized for giving us a four-hour opera about a barber who gets married (instead of an opera about some Greek god or brave king). Yet, The Marriage of Figaro transcends the setting and characters (and the politics of a stratified society) to reveal the profound nature of human love.

Game of Thrones almost did this, because there were many profound moments in its eight-season run on HBO. Yet, as its disappointing final season revealed, nothing in the narrative ever really mattered. There was no enduring tale to look back on. Just small moments scattered throughout a narrative that ultimately went nowhere.

This is the difference in Tolkien. There are many small moments, and they all add up to create a timeless tale of love and fellowship.

So why is anyone watching House of the Dragon?

Perhaps it’s because some people like their history turned up to eleven. Perhaps it’s because real is where we’re at. Perhaps it’s because the step backwards that House of the Dragon takes is a step in the direction some in our society want to move toward. For this perspective, it’s not backward, it’s restorative. This is where the medieval notion of hierarchy and heredity and kings speaks to current attitudes regarding fascism, authoritarianism, and nationalism—even the symbolism of building a literal wall around America’s borders (which is what most medieval castles and cities have) suggests a kingdom rather than a democracy.

Nothing against prequels, but it also says something that HBO would rather look backward and focus on the house that mattered least, rather than look forward and craft a series that speaks to the future. Really, what is west of Westeros?

This is what makes the Rings of Power prequel so culturally different than House of the Dragon, because the period Amazon’s show focuses on is the period when every culture came together in an alliance to defeat Sauron.

Yes, evil endured because Isildur kept the ring, and then Deagol and Smeagol found it, and then Bilbo found it, and it didn’t get destroyed until Frodo and Sam took it to Mount Doom. But the point of Rings of Power and of Lord of the Rings is that it takes an alliance to defeat evil. It takes everyone doing their part to combat the forces that seek to destroy the world and rule its ashes.

And this is what makes Tolkien’s history different from Martin’s.

Martin’s history is real—because yes, humanity’s done some bad things (things that don’t need to be turned up to eleven). Tolkien’s history is mythical—it borrows from mythology and from various cultural traditions but Tolkien’s characters aren’t perfect (Frodo keeps the ring, too!), yet in a time when a Civil War II or a World War III could break out at any moment, when the rights of American citizens are being taken away, when democracy itself is being threatened from within, and when history books are being rewritten or banned, I don’t want to be reminded how bad we are (and I’m sorry, it might be historical, but incest and female violence, and marrying children, isn’t something that needs to be turned up to eleven).

It might sound simple and naïve, but I want to see good triumph over evil again. If there’s any parallel to history I want to be reminded of, it’s that the last time the world came together to fight a common enemy that enemy was defeated.

But maybe Martin (and Atwood) has a point, because, like Isildur, we might’ve cut the ring from Sauron’s hand, but then we held on to it … and it’s turned us into Gollum, into a creature of a country at war with itself.

Maybe what we all need is to find our Sam and remember not just that “there is some good in this world,” but that eventually “even darkness must pass.”

Edwardo Pérez is a Professor of English, speculative fiction writer, critical thinker, and possible Loki variant. 

References

Bergeson, Samantha. “George R.R. Martin: ‘House of the Dragon’ Is as ‘Anti-Woman’ as History, Not ‘More Misogynistic Than Real Life.’ IndieWire.com. 25 July 2022.

Potolsky, Matthew. Mimesis. Routledge. 2006.

Prendergast, Christopher. The Triangle of Representation. Columbia University Press, 2000.

5 thoughts on “What House of the Dragon and Rings of Power reveal about our society.

  1. As a student of war, both from the historic side as a civilian and as a soldier with first-hand experience in combat, I see the perspectives can be opposite for the obvious reasons. A soldier must take the view, as you mention, that you either win or lose. Death or life. The options are harsh. Society chooses civilian diplomats, as the definition implies, so diplomacy can be employed with persuasion (ethos, pathos, and logos-old Ari himself), and not slice the other side with a sword.

    Sometimes, society splits itself into two groups without absolutes in values and morals. Each half aligns itself with the side that fits. The two sides are fundamentally different and neither is right nor wrong, just entirely opposite in values. If there seems to be no compromise in those fundamental ideas, society must split and form different countries or regions with legal barriers. No single governing body can ever be the right one for the entire universal body.

  2. As a student of war, both from the historic side as a civilian and as a soldier with first-hand experience in combat, I see the perspectives can be opposite for the obvious reasons. A soldier must take the view, as you mention, that you either win or lose. Death or life. The
    options are harsh. Society chooses civilian diplomats, as the definition implies, so diplomacy can be employed with persuasion (ethos, pathos, and logos-old Ari himself), and not slice the other side with a sword.

    Sometimes, society splits itself into two groups without absolutes in values and morals. Each half aligns itself with the side that fits. The two sides are fundamentally different and neither is right nor wrong, just entirely opposite in values. If there seems to be no compromise in those fundamental ideas, society must split and form different countries or regions with legal barriers. No single governing body can ever be the right one for the entire universal body.

  3. A quick addendum here as well….Martin’s move backward through the pessimistic view of human development is a repeating theme throughout pop culture writing today in scifi as well. Video games, novels, and movies all portray humanity as rolling downhill into a dystopic end. It is the obvious ending without some decisive intervention. I believe humans will fight to the end. Only those who escape the Earth on move outward will survive. Among them will be the Eternals who have brokent The Death Barrier of cell regeneration and the genetic hybrids. Artificial Intelligence will form another group of sentient machines. Humanity’s children will emerge out of the survivors.

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