It has been said more often than once that the ‘Rings of Power’ series is nothing compared to Lord of the Rings. With the way prepared by ‘The Hobbit’ movies, Tolkien’s universe has been thoroughly ransacked. What was an epic fantasy series of books echoed in a swashbuckling, and occasionally moving, series of films has become a crude and naïve imitation of something far removed from Tolkien’s rich imagination. It is hard to watch. But Tolkien’s books have another echo — book series from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, now made into the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’. This series is notorious for its visual depiction of the violence of medieval Europe. The series is a lumbering giant, with some great character portrayals, some fascinating storylines, and some grave narrative errors, all woven into a rich tapestry of televisual epic fantasy. Now ‘House of the Dragon’ has offered something completely new: a streamlined adaptation of Martin’s universe to focus on themes of power and duty and maturity, returning us to a widened version of Tolkien’s own Middle Earth, of which Martin’s Westeros and Esos are clearly an imitation. Thus, while much of television and film echoes Tolkien without surpassing the original source material, House of the Dragon adds something to Tolkien’s universe that is worth engaging with. It is concerned with the central puzzle of Tolkien’s imaginary, in response to C. S. Lewis’ Christian-inspired Narnia series. The puzzle reflects a Machiavellian subversion of Christianity, echoing classical antiquity’s unity of morality and politics. The puzzle is power.
The problem with Game of Thrones is how the violence often seems gratuitous, or confused. House of the Dragon is much more precise. Every act has complex motivations that are channeled through the prism of power. The series jumps years significantly but moves from moment to moment at an exhilarating pace. Narratively, the series is practically flawless. Conceptually, the series shows power to be both unwieldy but also natural to human endeavour. The characters are entrapped in webs of their own making but are also somehow more principled than those of the Game of Thrones world. The pressures of this more focused prequel lead to terrible evil being inflicted by more-or-less everyone, despite their hope to be good. House of the Dragon depicts a never-ceasing, unfurling tragedy. It is exact and relentless. It is powerful and compelling, devastating and determined, fearful and hopeful.
Prophecy runs through this series as much as it does in Tolkien’s world, and the prophecy derives from political figures rather than religious doomsayers. Prophecy is a historical phenomenon transmitted down the generations. It is impervious to the hopes and dreams of individuals or the wills of their gods. It is akin to evolutionary selection, where prophetic predictions are merely anticipations of future steps on the cycle of change. In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen hopes to ‘break the wheel’. But in House of the Dragon, the wheel is the condition of possibility for making and breaking anything at all. As such, brutality is not avoided — but it is accepted for what it is: a part of human nature and an aspect of our fallen, fractious world. It is when we deny this that true brutality is unleashed. As such, by accepting without glorifying violence, House of the Dragon wakes us up to the inescapability of our condition, and to the necessity of adaptation. Si vis pacem, para bellum, as the Romans once said. If you want peace, prepare for war. Or face the dragon’s wrath.