I spend more time in the comment sections of social media than is probably good for me, but I find it fascinating. Personally, whenever I feel compelled enough to leave a comment on a video or a post, or write a tweet in reply of something, I find myself taking a lot of time to carefully consider what I’ll say, almost to the point of fretting over it. By all this, I mean to say, that putting any type of comment or content on the internet takes a little bit of effort and consideration – at least, on my part.
So when I see the comments of others, I find myself saying, “Wow, why did you even put in the effort?”
That was what I thought when I reviewed a lot of the tweets in response to a recently released photo from the Twitter account for the Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon, depicting Corlys Velaryon, referring to him as “The Sea Snake” (as well as others, such as Daemon Targaryen played by Matt Smith, who also looks great here). I made my way through the replies, after being thoroughly impressed by the design of this character, and wanting to see what the rest of the internet’s reaction was – and a lot of people seem thoroughly perturbed by… something… about the character photo.
The catch was that Corlys is going to be depicted by a black actor, Steve Toussaint. There were a lot of tweets from randos who seemed to regard the photo with more scrutiny – and while many of the most-liked tweets weren’t overtly racist, there were certain racial overtones. “This is supposed to be descendent of a noble Valyrian house? [Laughing-crying emoji]” wrote one user. “I just wanna know how the fuck you gonna explain this,” tweeted another, who specifically went on to clarify in the replies that he was referring to Corlys’ physical appearance and heritage. Another user wrote “So I guess House Velaryon don’t have Valyrian blood in this.” Maybe the most overt response was “I am not racist but I just.hate it,” to which I might offer the Tywin Lannister aphorism of “Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”
One of the most overt responses came from Linda Antonsson, part of the tagteam behind the westeros.org and a contributor to the A World of Ice and Fire encyclopedia. She wrote: “I am not sure it was a wise decision to go for the “valyrian drow” look with Corlys. Fine, they insisted on this weird casting decision, but why then keep the white hair?” Oof… there’s a lot to unpack there. Now, I wouldn’t purport to know more about the series’ continuity than someone who is an official expert in it, but I always seem to remember the silver/white/platinum hair being the distinguishing feature of Valyrian heritage rather than the pale skin – that certainly seemed to be the case in the television show – so it will likely be true for this version of the character.
At the end of the day, this ends up feeling like the “controversy” regarding the casting of Hermione in the Harry Potter play, except with less to be upset about. George R.R. Martin hasn’t tried to defend it with some vague description to justify this that could easily be refuted by another quote. And that comes from the very nature of Fire & Blood reading like a history text more than a novel, and sometimes glazing over details that maybe aren’t essential, such as physical descriptions.
One thing I will say is that there was a screenshot from what appears to be from A Wiki of Ice and Fire, claiming “Corlys’s physical appearance hasn’t been described in any published materials. Moreover, the identity of his mother has not been given, nor the identity of his father’s mother. Both of Corlys’s children with Rhaenys Targaryen, however, had classic Valyrian features of silver hair and purple eyes,” but if this was actually on the wiki, which might have been edited since the casting of Steve Toussaint or the release of the picture. However, though that literal quote isn’t on the wiki, the “Appearance and Character” section for Corlys noticeably doesn’t mention anything specific about how he looks physically. I read Fire & Blood not too long after it came out, and I don’t recall any particular physical descriptors.
And it goes back to a lot of the responses – racist or not – asking the question “How are they going to explain this in-narrative?” and I have to wonder if it really matters at all. The Velaryons are one of the old Valyrian houses – like the Targaryens, they come from a lost utopian society of dragon-riders and near-futuristic technology. Honestly, the notion that people of all races might live peaceably in the utopian dragon riding society makes me believe in it more, not less.
(I mean, after Jaeherys, the Targaryen’s had succesfully established the Doctrine of Exceptionalism, suggesting there were different social rules for Targaryens so if you really needed to retcon why people weren’t racist towards House Velaryon, then just extend that to include all Valyrian houses.)
I think it’s worth concluding this post by pointing out that not all people who think it would be odd to have a black Westerosi character of Valyrian descent are operating in bad faith, but we should politely remind them that it doesn’t necessarily ruin anything in the Game of Thrones continuity, and that we shouldn’t clutch our pearls when they want to make casting choices in the name of representation. Especially not from a series that shat the bed as hard as Game of Thrones did after Season 8. Oh, you’re insisting on strict social norms and continuity on a show where Dany just magically forgets about the Iron Fleet, who immediately kills her dragon? Oh, you can’t imagine a black Valyrian, but you’re fine with Bronn being Master of Coin despite not understanding what a loan was in Season 2? Give me a fucking break.
Anyhow, I think the Dance of Dragons was easily the best segment of Fire & Blood – I’ll be thrilled to see it adapted. Pretty much from the outset, I thought this would be a better spinoff than the potential The Long Night show which was originally rumored. If we have more visuals like we see with Steve Toussaint as Corlys Velaryon, I’ll be pleased.