This opinion editorial contains mild spoilers for the novel "Fire and Blood," the atlas "The World of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin, and possible spoilers for the 2022 HBO fantasy drama, "House of the Dragon."
When HBO blessed my Twitter timeline with pictures of characters from the upcoming fantasy series "House of the Dragon," I was ecstatic to see Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, announced in the tweet as his moniker everyone in Westeros knows: the Sea Snake.
Set in the same universe and continent as the hit show, "Game of Thrones," this "House of the Dragon" will take us back to Westeros--and back in time--into the politics of Daenerys Targaryen's ancestors at the height of their power, but at one of the worst times in their history.
When they tweeted a picture of such an essential character in the story, I lost my mind obviously because, holy cow, a BLACK MAN is playing THE GOAT of the entire "Fire and Blood" book.
It's the silver Valyrian dreadlocks for me in this tweet. I also enjoy the piece of driftwood in the background, a nod to Driftmark, the island where he is Lord of the Tides.
Black folks in fantasy shows have been a rarity, at least in the programs I've seen. A friend of mine created a Facebook page to better give representation on social media of Black girls in fantasy and science fiction genres. I also think about how badly I wish to be cast as Nettles in "House of the Dragon," should they decide to have her in the show, so there's a desire present for people of color to be, and see themselves, in fantasy shows.
While I'm hyped about the tweet and the photo, the Twitter replies are full of people who are not. You can check the tweet's replies for yourself, but a lot of them all surround a statement and question that only a few people are dumb enough to type:
Corlys Velaryon is of Valyrian descent. Valyrians are "supposed" to have pale skin. Why is the Sea Snake not pale-skinned?
The answer is: Valyrians aren't "supposed" to be pale-skinned. You can find ONE passage about pale-skinned Valeryons in the current "A Song of Ice and Fire" story, and yes, Valyrians as a race often have pale skin, but the word often has never had the same meaning as always.
To squash this debate, I'm going to use "Fire and Blood" and "The World of Ice and Fire" to show that it can and does make sense for Corlys Velaryon and his line to be black.
A Little Background
Even though news sites and HBO's "House of the Dragon" About section says the events of the series 300 years before the events of "Game of Thrones," current pictures and film production only revolves around one specific event that took place 170 years before the events of the original show.
This is the Dance of the Dragons, the civil war between two different factions of House Targaryen. Two half-siblings--the sister being the official heir to the Iron Throne and the brother being the old king's firstborn son--tore the realm apart and significantly decreased the Targaryens' [literal] firepower.
Lord Corlys Velaryon took the side of the sister as the heir to the Iron Throne was once married to his son.
House Velaryon is an ancient house in Westeros. They live on an island called Driftmark, west of the Targaryens' island home, Dragonstone. It's believed they were one of the first Valyrian households to settle in Westeros, living on Driftmark way before the Targaryens even thought about uprooting their entire life onto the rocky, smokey island next door.
Being of Valyrian descent, they possess the silver hair and purple eyes all those descended of Valyria do. Whether or not the Velaryons--particularly the House members alive during the Dance of the Dragons--have pale skin is never mentioned in "Fire and Blood."
We never get skin color descriptions of Corlys Velaryon and his children; we know they have the Valyrian look with purple eyes and silver hair. These two specific traits separate Valyrian-descended individuals from the rest of the world. The 40 dragon-riding overlords of Valyria only married themselves and their family members to keep the ability to ride dragons between themselves and not everyone.
Unlike the dragonlords of Valyria, where the Targaryens are from, I think it's safe to say House Velaryon cared less about genetic purity. They were not a powerful household in the Valyrian Freehold. Never dragonriders on their own, they did not have the pressure of keeping their Valyrian features amongst their own house.
House Velaryon's natural talents lay within sailing ships, boatbuilding and nautical navigation. They could travel wherever they wanted on their ships with their maritime talents, and they did so--ships were the only dragons House Velaryon needed.
At the height of their power, House Velaryon "ruled the seas," and House Targaryen "ruled the skies."
"Fire and Blood" and "The World of Ice and Fire" hint that these two had an alliance before the unity of Westeros. When the latter left Valyria, multiple marriages with House Velaryon occurred throughout the generations leading up to the birth of Aegon I the Conqueror, whose mother was a Velaryon too.
When Aegon I conquered Westeros, it was Velaryon ships that brought the armies to shore. Throughout the Targaryen dynasty, Velaryon ships have made up a majority of the Royal Fleet. When Aegon I assembled his very first small council, a Velaryon was named the master of ships, and then his Velaryon son was named master of ships after him. Velaryons were selected so often to this position it was nearly considered hereditary. When Queen Visenya assembled the very first Kingsguard, a Corlys Velaryon was named Lord Commander.
Genetics in "Planetos"
Steve Toussaint's Corlys Velaryon was named after first Lord Commander Velaryon, who was his great-granduncle. His grandfather was Daemon Velaryon, the master of ships under two kings and later Hand of the King.
Corlys is the eldest son of Daemon's eldest son, but neither book says which of Daemon's three sons is the elder. The only thing the books can say about his father is that he had silver hair, as Daemon is the Velaryon. Most importantly: Corlys Velaryon's mother is never mentioned in any source material published. Not a name or where she was from.
This enigma of his maternity is essential to why it makes sense for House Velaryon to have this stark difference between themselves and their Targaryen allies. We do not know who the mother of Corlys Velaryon is, and because of this--and the seafaring culture of the house--it is quite possible she could be anyone from anywhere.
Most people in Westeros have distinct physical features that set them apart from different houses. Descendants from one house might have big ears; in Dorne, four types of people make up the population. While the Targaryens and Velaryons have their silver hair and purple eyes, House Baratheon (founded by a half-Targaryen) has black hair.
Strong genes in two houses have evidence of merging in children. Corlys Velaryon marries Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, the daughter of a Targaryen king's thirdborn son and his Baratheon aunt-wife. This parental match gave her the most distinct appearance of all the dragonriders of her time: the Baratheon black hair and the Valyrian violet eyes.
These physical features on his wife lay the groundwork for the idea that the most dominant traits of both parents will shine through their child, which could be the case with her husband, Corlys Velaryon, whose skin color could be a dominant trait from his mother.
Though, in the grand scheme of things: it does not matter which parent of Corlys' was the one who gave him his dark skin because in "House of the Dragon," both of his parents will already be dead, and he is the Master of Driftmark.
Why Do People Care so Much?
Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, isn't Ned Stark. Viewers in "House of the Dragon" will not come to love him, only to see him die because he trusted the wrong person. Corlys plays the Game of Thrones and plays it as well as Cersei Lannister in the original show. "House of the Dragon" viewers will not just come to love him--they will fear him, cheer for him and hate him.
Hundreds of people died during the Dance of the Dragons, highborn and lowborn alike, and the Sea Snake stays alive until the very end. He makes kings and kills them. His children and grandchildren were dragonriders. He's traveled on nine distinct voyages, daring to go places no Westerosi man had never gone before and rose House Velaryon to be the richest house in the kingdom for a time, surpassing Houses Lannister and Tyrell in wealth.
Fans of the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series know that casting an actor to portray Corlys "Sea Snake" Velaryon in "House of the Dragon" would be an important role to fill. He isn't someone who will be in just a couple of episodes and then killed--being in all 10 episodes of the season, he will survive until the end, when the fighting is over and the dragons are dead.
Some fans care so much about how he's a dark-skinned Valyrian descendant. People think Steve Toussaint is not the best casting; they would prefer someone white, under the guise of "source material accuracy," "poor costume design," and "plot importance."
Pale skin in fantasy media has always been the default in the United States, and the reaction to the choice of Toussaint being Corlys Velaryon drives this point. For some reason, people cannot fathom a Black man being one of the power players in a world where dragons rule, people can be brought back to life, and an existential threat of death lies behind a gigantic chunk of magical ice.
To these people, I say: life is hard. Move on.
Black people are in your fantasy shows, and they're here to stay. This a work of fiction, created not only by people who've had to read the source material but by the man who created the world himself.
Westeros is not, and has never been, made up of only one kind of individual; "The World of Ice and Fire" serves as a reminder for that. The point of having so many Houses, and the point of each house having its own distinct culture, personalities, stories, histories, and appearances, is to make them different from another. Having similar traits and features is one thing; to think the Velaryons could still have all their Valyrians after generations of marrying other people outside of the Valyrian Freehold and seafaring is historically inaccurate to what we know about them and the world around them.
The only agenda behind this casting is the same as the automatic greenlight of "House of the Dragon" without a pilot first: to visually encapsulate the greatest fake civil war ever known and hope people receive it better than they did Season 8 of "Game of Thrones."