Written by Jennifer Vineyard
Larys Strong, you now have our full attention.
You’ll recall that Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), the master meddler of “Game of Thrones,” took several seasons to reveal his schemes — it wasn’t until Season 4 that it became clear that he helped incite the War of the Five Kings. Now his possible counterpart in the prequel “House of the Dragon” — the fast-advancing fan favorite Larys Strong (played by Matthew Needham) — is tipping his hand by burning down his own House. Just halfway through Season 1, he has engaged in deft manipulations and shocking murders that set the stage for the coming war known as the Dance of the Dragons. But the man remains an enigma. Is he trying to crown a ruler … or kill one?
It might be too soon to say where Larys’ true loyalty lies — it remains a mystery in George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood,” the imaginary history upon which “House of the Dragon” is based. Still, there’s much we can glean from the first half of “Dragon,” from “Thrones” and from Martin’s other books without spoiling the series too much. Here’s a look.
The seed is Strong
At first glance, Larys wouldn’t seem like the kind of guy to bear a murderous grudge against his father and brother, or to harbor any resentment of their connections to King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and Princess Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy).
Lord Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) was a sensible and educated man, one whose counsel wasn’t clouded by self-interest. (Larys must have taken Meddling 101 from someone else.) Lyonel, a champion of precedent, had argued that Rhaenyra should not have been named heir. Did Larys agree? Surely, if he wished to align himself with Alicent (Olivia Cooke), there were easier ways to help get her father, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), reinstated as Hand of the King. Lyonel had already expressed his wish to resign, after all. But even so, Larys chose to ruthlessly force the issue by sending a group of criminals to torch the family castle, Harrenhal, and kill his father and brother. Larys chose chaos.
He also sacrificed his big brother and only known friend, Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr). Was he shamed by the court gossip that his brother was the father of Rhaenyra’s children? It’s more likely that he would see the benefit of a direct line to the princess’s lover and protector. (Remember, Harwin was a witness to Rhaenyra’s first night out, which could have been how Larys first became aware of her adventures.) Larys could have escalated the dynastic confusion — establishing that Rhaenyra’s heirs, his nephews, were illegitimate. But he treated his own family like chess pieces, and removed them from the board.
Speaking of heirs, Larys — previously the uncelebrated second son — is now Lord of Harrenhal.
Disappointing second sons have to develop alternate strengths. Martin has a tender spot in his heart for characters who are “cripples, bastards and broken things” — think Bran and Tyrion — and he demonstrates how they rise above their physical limitations with enhanced mental or magical abilities. Larys, who walks with a limp because of a clubfoot, falls into this trope, his compensating strength being a gift for collecting court secrets. (Witness his behavior at the royal hunt, when he joins the noble ladies and positions himself to study their reactions.)
A keen observer, Larys not only places himself where hot gossip might be served, but he’s willing to stir things up to get a reaction. There are conspiracy theories that it was Larys, not Viserys, who somehow relayed the request that Rhaenyra be given morning-after tea. Because how else could Larys know about it? Grand Maester Mellos doesn’t seem the sort to be that indiscrete. If Larys did offer Rhaenyra a serving of tea and psychopathy just to ingratiate himself with Alicent, it was a cruel setup. The mere act of being served is enough to cause suspicion, as he well knows.
In “Fire & Blood,” Larys carefully learns all the secret passages in the Red Keep, as a way to eavesdrop and also to disappear. He becomes the lord confessor, a nicer name for the royal torturer. It’s a position he probably holds already in “Dragon,” judging by his interactions with the condemned prisoners (and his grisly habit of taking their tongues, a Westerosi NDA). With his position in court, Larys also resembles Varys, who ensures the silence of his “little birds” in the same manner.
I smell a rat
So far, magic on “House of the Dragon” has been low-level — dreams, prophecies — despite the fact that the story is taking place during Peak Dragon. Could it be that bigger magic is happening behind the scenes, behind wooden eyes and twitchy noses? “House of the Dragon” has been a little heavy-handed with its imagery of the weirwood tree in the Red Keep godswood (irrespective of the fact that most people gathering there don’t believe in the old gods). There’s also a recurring motif of rats scurrying around the edges of the story. They infest bedrooms, ballrooms, and secret passages, and according to some theories, could be nonhuman agents of Larys Strong. What if he’s gathering information by greenseeing (looking through the trees’ carved faces) and warging (taking over the bodies of animals)?
It’s not as much of a stretch as it sounds. Larys grew up in Harrenhal, which is on the north shore of a large lake known as the God’s Eye. In the middle of this lake is mystical place called the Isle of Faces, one of the last refuges of the Children of the Forest. And in “Fire & Blood,” Larys is also associated with Alys Rivers, a proto-Melisandre witchy woman of indeterminate age who claims to see visions in fires. (She was either his wet nurse or his half-sister, possibly both.) If Larys is an adherent of a magical religion, he might also practice blood magic — blood oaths, blood sacrifice — convenient justifications for his bloodletting.
A cursed castle
Horrible things are known to happen to lords of Harrenhal, a group that in “Thrones” included Janos Slynt and Littlefinger. People in Westeros often attribute these misfortunes to a long-standing curse, dating back to Aegon’s Conquest. King Harren the Black wanted to have the highest hall and the tallest towers in all of Westeros, and his obsession resulted in the deaths of thousands of enslaved workers. On the very day that this great labor was completed, Aegon began his conquest. His dragon, Balerion the Black Dread, soon reduced Harrenhal to cinders.
In “Fire & Blood,” the cause of this second conflagration is never determined, although the histories point to several possible culprits, most with motives to eliminate Harwin Strong and prevent him from revealing the illegitimacy of Rhaenyra’s children. Now, Larys indirectly provides this protection for the Targaryens and Velaryons while simultaneously giving credit (and blame) to the Hightowers — but why? Is he playing all sides against each other, as Littlefinger once did? Is there no one he won’t sacrifice?
Larys believes that love is a weakness, and that life is better unencumbered by it. This is a philosophy that would seem to ensure dynastic extinction. Sure enough, by the time “Game of Thrones” begins, Harrenhal is held by House Whent, and House Strong is no more.