In the wake of “We Light the Way,” the fifth episode of House of the Dragon, everyone wants to know more about Ser Criston Cole and his role in the Kingsguard—a reasonable request, given that he just murdered a man at the welcome feast for a royal wedding. So let’s take our weekly dive into the Dragon mailbag to answer your questions about Criston, plus some other key players in the quest for the Iron Throne.
To appear in future mailbags, message me at @zachkram on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org each week after the Dragon episode airs. This week, let’s begin by lumping a bunch of Criston questions together.
Michael asks, “So is the Kingsguard the single worst idea in Westerosi history, or what?” Dun dun daaaah asks, “What governance is there around the Kingsguard? Who investigates and disciplines them?” Darrell asks, “How does Criston get to keep his job?” And Angela asks, “How in the seven will Criston justify an all-out public murder of a KNIGHT?”
The Kingsguard is a good idea in theory. Westeros is a dangerous place, and the king makes copious enemies. In fact, the Kingsguard was founded early in Aegon the Conqueror’s reign, after Visenya, one of Aegon’s sister-wives, defended him from a pair of Dornish assassins. Visenya, a no-nonsense fighter, reasoned that the king needed better, more comprehensive protection—and when Aegon protested, she highlighted the king’s precarious position in hilarious fashion.
When the king pointed out that he had guardsmen around him, Visenya drew Dark Sister and slashed him across the cheek so quickly the guards had no time to react. “Your guards are slow and lazy,” she said. “I could have killed you as easily as I cut you. You require better protection.” King Aegon, bleeding, had no choice but to agree. Many kings had champions to defend them. Aegon was the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms; therefore, he should have seven champions, Queen Visenya decided. Thus did the Kingsguard come into being.
The Kingsguard is modeled after the Night’s Watch—which predates Targaryen rule by thousands of years—in that its members cannot hold lands or father children, though they don white cloaks instead of black. This setup sometimes causes problems; Tywin Lannister, for instance, grows wroth when Jaime joins the Kingsguard, which removes him from the Casterly Rock line of succession. But most knights chosen for the royal guard view it as a privilege and uphold their sacred vows. The majority of members come from major families, but for the few from lesser houses (including Criston Cole), the position confers tremendous honor.
Yet despite the lionization of the white cloaks, most members of the brotherhood, Barristan Selmy thinks in A Dance With Dragons, “were only men—quicker and stronger than most, more skilled with sword and shield, but still prey to pride, ambition, lust, love, anger, jealousy, greed for gold, hunger for power, and all the other failings that afflicted lesser mortals. The best of them overcame their flaws, did their duty, and died with their swords in their hands. The worst ... The worst were those who played the game of thrones.”
Criston isn’t playing the game of thrones yet—but given his apparent new alliance with Alicent Hightower, he might soon enter the fray. How can he remain on the Kingsguard after committing a public murder?
There are four ways for a Kingsguard member to leave the order. The first is by far the most common: death. As Barristan says in the first ASOIAF book, “Our vows are taken for life. Only death may relieve the Lord Commander of his sacred trust.”
The second comes when a Kingsguard knight is disciplined for breaking his vows of chastity. This could happen to Criston, but given that only Rhaenyra and Alicent know about this particular foible, he should be in hotter water over the murder than the sex. As it is, sleeping around while in the Kingsguard is a bit like jaywalking—it’s technically illegal, but it probably won’t be punished unless it’s particularly egregious. My colleague Riley McAtee detailed those transgressions on Tuesday.
The third potential cause of a white cloak’s departure is treason, which applies to the Kingsguard knights who, like the Praetorian Guard who assassinated Emperor Caligula in ancient Rome, conspired to kill their king.
And the fourth is a future method, nearly 200 years after Dragon, pioneered by Cersei and Joffrey after Robert Baratheon’s death. They dismiss Barristan and Boros Blount basically because they want to (and because Barristan’s removal as lord commander conveniently opens up the position for Jaime). Sure, they come up with justifications—that Barristan is too old and failed to prevent his king from dying, and that Boros, who is later reinstated to the Kingsguard, is a coward—but these are transparent excuses. It takes the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms hundreds of years to start firing their guards at will instead of only for cause.
Note what’s missing from that list: As far as I can tell, no Kingsguard member has ever been dismissed for violence alone. As long as Criston wasn’t also being treasonous with his violence—and he wasn’t, even taking Joffrey Lonmouth’s relationship with Laenor into account—there isn’t any precedent for removing him from his post.
And while previous Kingsguard members may not have ruined a royal wedding with their violence, it’s important to remember the narrow oversight over the white cloaks. The king has the final say on all matters of the brotherhood: He chooses its members, picks a lord commander, and doles out justice when necessary.
All Criston needs to do is ensure that Viserys doesn’t remove him from his post. The dominoes could fall his way. Alicent views Criston as an ally and could convince Viserys not to take action against the knight. Given the situation’s sensitivities, Corlys Velaryon might not want to press charges, so to speak; instead, he might pressure his son to move on from his relationship with Joffrey to his new marriage with the princess, by offering uncomfortable fatherly wisdom about the unmatched “pleasure” of “bedding a woman.” That would leave only Laenor—who could be overruled by his father—and the less powerful Lonmouth family to rue Criston’s continued inclusion in the Kingsguard.
This is all speculation, however—in the book, Criston doesn’t need to confront this problem because he kills Joffrey during a tourney to commemorate Rhaenyra and Laenor’s wedding. And with a 10-year time jump coming before the next episode, it’s possible that Criston’s non-indictment will never be explained on screen. The more important matter is what Criston’s rage means for the growing schism within the Red Keep, and the aftermath in the book, at least, seems poised to carry over to the show:
King Viserys was most wroth as well; a joyous celebration had become the occasion of grief and recrimination. It was said that Queen Alicent did not share his displeasure, however; soon after, she asked that Ser Criston Cole be made her personal protector.
Randy asks, “Daemon being single means what exactly?”
He can marry again. Remember, the issue with Daemon’s pursuit of Rhaenyra wasn’t that they’re blood relatives—that’s normal, and even preferred, for the Targaryens. The obstacle was that Daemon already had a wife, and Aegon the Conqueror was the only acceptable exception to the realm’s polyamory taboo. (Maegor the Cruel also took multiple brides, but he’s not a model to follow.) Even for Targaryens and their “queer customs,” that’s a step too far.
But now that Daemon is single again, he can pursue a marriage more to his liking—preferably with a woman who can match his Valyrian blood. He might be feeling a bit left out, given his relatives’ spouses. Daemon’s parents were siblings. Viserys married Aemma Arryn, who was half-Targaryen. Rhaenyra married Laenor. Rhaenys married Corlys.
And if Daemon finds a new wife, he might be more eager to father children, who would have the pure Valyrian blood he desires to keep the Targaryen line strong. As I mentioned in an earlier mailbag, the Targaryens at present are mighty but not numerous, so the few Targaryens of parenting age—namely, Daemon and Rhaenyra—need to get going to help populate the royal house.
Nicole asks, “What skin does Larys have in the game?”
After his first extended scene in the show, it already seems clear that Larys will be Dragon’s version of Littlefinger—for better (schemers are entertaining) and for worse (his Littlefinger impression was extremely heavy-handed). But the similarities between the two characters come more from their actions than their backgrounds. Littlefinger came from a tiny, minor house with meager land holdings, so he was about as close as this world gets to a self-made man. Larys, conversely, is the son of Lyonel Strong, lord of Harrenhal.
Granted, Larys has his own social ceilings to potentially shatter. He’s a second son, younger than Harwin, which means he’s not set to inherit his family’s massive castle. And his lifelong limp prevents him from becoming a knight, which means he has to prosper with brains rather than brawn. In this respect, he resembles Tyrion more so than anyone else in Game of Thrones.
I admit that backstory doesn’t really explain Larys’s motivations. Does he want to improve his social standing? To help his family rise from merely influential to commanding an entire region? To help choose the next king or queen?
I can’t answer those questions, because even book readers have no firm grasp of what those motivations are. “The enigma that is Larys Strong the Clubfoot has vexed students of history for generations, and is not one we can hope to unravel here,” Fire & Blood’s narrator writes. “Where did his true loyalty lie? What was he about? … So may we ask, but none will answer. [Larys] keeps his secrets.”
For now, at least. Maybe, just as Littlefinger unveiled his grand plans bit by bit over time, Larys’s schemes will come into greater focus as the show progresses.
Nick asks, “Is Arthur Smith game-planning for the maesters because ‘bring the leeches’ is about as effective as not throwing to Kyle Pitts? Would they ever cut Viserys’s arm off?”
I’ll answer your second question first, because I’m just as intrigued to find out as you are. At this point in the book, Viserys still has all his fingers—but on the show, he’s been missing a couple digits for three episodes. If Dragon keeps escalating his health problems, there’s no telling how far Grand Maester Mellos will go to treat the king. Viserys’s body has another decade to decompose during the time jump, after all.
Meanwhile, I suppose I should note that your first question references the Atlanta Falcons, and the falcon is the sigil of House Arryn. Aemma Arryn died after a medical procedure conducted by the maesters. Curious.
More broadly, that question hints at a fan theory called the Grand Maester Conspiracy, which suggests that the Seven Kingdoms’ scholars have a secret plan to rid the world of magic—namely, of Targaryens and their dragons. Some book-only characters within the ASOIAF universe believe in this theory, too. A Northern woman named Barbrey Dustin alleges that the maesters were instrumental in inciting Robert’s Rebellion. And a heterodox archmaester named Marwyn the Mage tells Samwell Tarly, “Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around? Gallant dragonslayers armed with swords? The world the Citadel is building has no place in it for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons.”
Yet Hanlon’s razor tells us never to attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Vast conspiracies are fun fodder for speculation, but it’s more likely that Mellos is merely steadfast in his leeching ways and therefore unequipped to succeed at his job. The maesters as a whole are opposed to progress, both in Dragon and Thrones, so Mellos fits into that lineage when he overrules Archmaester Orwyle, an underling to the grand maester who recommends a poultice-based treatment instead.
Moreover, there are numerous historical parallels to Mellos’s antiquated medical practice, even within U.S. history. Doctors infamously removed 40 percent of George Washington’s blood over a 12-hour span leading up to his death because they didn’t know any better. The medical care of President James Garfield after his shooting sketches a dark comedy. (“Yes, I shot the president, but his physicians killed him,” Garfield’s assassin said.)
So Mellos might be enacting one small part of a massive, multigenerational maester conspiracy. Alternatively, he might just really like maggots and leeches. Gross.