Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon's cast has been shaping up, and the choices made here may have deeper implications about the source material than some fans realize. Fans went through the predictable round of debate when the show cast Steve Toussaint to play Lord Corlys "The Sea Snake" Velaryon. However, making the head of this great house a person of color might tell us more about the mysterious origins of dragons in George R.R. Martin's fantasy world.
Toussaint, an acclaimed Black British actor, will play fan-favorite character The Sea Snake — the head of House Velaryon, which is the only great house in Westeros besides the Targaryens to claim descent from Old Valyria. In his latest book Fire and Blood, Martin explains that the Velaryons were never dragon-riders, but they do have some common ancestry with the Targaryens in the distant past. Fans of Martin's writing have puzzled over the mysteries of Valyria, dragon-riders and their fall from prominence, all of which loom much larger in the books than they do on TV. With their fan theories in mind, casting a person of color as a Velaryon is not just a bid for diversity or a race-blind casting choice — it may actually be a very deliberate hint about Valyrian history.
To explain why I'll briefly outline the mysteries and the leading fan theories on them. Martin's books often reference "The Valyrian Freehold," an imperial nation that ruled the continent of Essos up until about 500 years before the events of the main series. Through unreliable tidbits of fictional history, he explains that Valyrians possessed advanced forms of fire-based magic, much of which were made possible by their close bonds with dragons. Valyria was destroyed in a magically-induced cataclysmic volcano eruption, leaving the Targaryens as the last surviving bloodline of dragon-riders.
This implies that dragon-riding is genetic, and many of Martin's characters take this for granted — hence the Targaryen propensity for incest. Fans have delved even deeper — YouTuber The Disputed Lands sums up some of the best fan theories about magical genetic engineering in ancient Valyria, and the existence of human-dragon hybrid chimera in Martin's world.
If the ability to ride dragons derives from nothing more than ancestral proximity to these old genes, then it is telling that the head of House Velaryon is not white. For one thing, it means that the show will depict Valyrian identity as diversely as Martin wrote it, but it also means that anyone could have distant, unknown dragon-riding genes, even if they don't have pale skin, silver hair and purple eyes. This fact may be proven true in House of the Dragon when a dark-skinned young woman named Nettles attempts to tame a wild dragon by sheer force of will.
On the other hand, Martin has hinted since the beginning of his series that there is more to bonding a dragon than genes. The story of Nettles is the strongest example — in Fire and Blood, the Targaryens have more dragons than riders, and so invite common people to attempt to ride their extra dragons in an effort to increase their military strength. They assume that anyone who succeeds in riding a dragon must be a descendant from either a Targaryen of Velaryon bastard with latent dragon-riding genes. With a dark-skinned man at the head of House Velaryon, it would be no surprise that a dark-skinned woman like Nettles could have Valyrian blood.
However, this revelation might disappoint fans who assume Nettles' story is proof that anyone can learn the semi-magical ability to ride a dragon. Whether or not the truth of this mystery will ever be revealed is unclear, as Martin's books have rarely gone back as far as the Valyrian freehold. Regardless, casting Toussaint as Corlys Velaryon gives fans a much clearer picture of how diverse Valyrian identity can be.
House of the Dragon is filming now in the U.K., and is expected to premiere sometime in 2022 on HBO. Martin's books are available now in print, digital and audiobook format. For more details on the mysterious origin of dragons and Valyria in his work, check out The World of Ice and Fire and Fire and Blood.