By Ken Mondschein
In adapting Fire and Blood into House of the Dragon, the showrunners have left out one important character. It’s a case where art imitates history.
For those unschooled in the academic field of Martin-ology, HBO’s House of the Dragon is based on Fire and Blood, George R. R. Martin’s prequel, of sorts, to A Song of Ice and Fire—the incomplete series of novels which, in turn, was the basis for Game of Thrones. The thing is, the part of Fire and Blood that House of the Dragon is based on is a very unusual sort of prequel in that it purports to be an actual history of the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, written by one Archmaester Gyldayn generations after the events occurred. Gyldayn’s history, in turn, is based on fictional primary sources: accounts written by a septon (priest) named Eustace; a Maester (academic) named Munkun; and the Testimony of Mushroom, written by the eponymous court jester, who is described as a “three-foot-tall dwarf” with an “enormous head.”
Of the three fictional chroniclers, Mushroom is by far the most amusing, peppering his account with debauchery and ribald humor. Mushroom is also one of Martin’s numerous outsider characters, a leitmotif we see throughout his career—Vincent in Beauty and the Beast, the Wild Cards series, and of course, Tyrion Lannister and Samwell Tarly in A Song of Ice and Fire. Even Dany and Jon in the original storyline have an “outsider” quality to them. In fact, one could say that the central moral question of the series is what the bullied and powerless do with power once they gain it.
Further, in tying together three fictional accounts to tell the fictional history of a fictional continent, we can see Martin’s obsession with the real-world practice of medieval history. (We can also see it with Tyrion’s “drinking and knowing things” and the deep archival dives performed by Sam Tarly, who is, of course, the historian of the main series’ storyline.) So much of the information we have about the premodern world comes from later compilations, paraphrases, and unreliable narrators. Our source for the alleged debauchery at the sixth-century Byzantine court, for instance, is Procopius of Caesarea, who was close to the action but also had a bone to pick with Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Much of the history of England before the Norman Conquest comes from the convoluted Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The chronicler Froissart, one of our best sources for the Hundred Years’ War, compiled testimonies of events he was not himself privy to. The list goes on.
So, considering all of this, where the hell is Mushroom in House of the Dragon?
The elephant in the room, of course, is that Mushroom’s absence writes a person with a visible disability out of the narrative. (Unlike many worlds based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Martin’s world doesn’t have generic fantasy dwarves, but regular humans who happen to have a certain condition. For more on dwarves, people with dwarfism, and representation in film, see my “How Willow got so many things right.”) We can hypothesize that the showrunners perhaps didn’t want “another” person with dwarfism to compare to Tyrion Lannister. One person with dwarfism is a novelty; two starts to approach a trend. People will talk. Still, while Game of Thrones had the incomparable Peter Dinklage, it’s not like there’s a shortage of actors with dwarfism, and Mushroom is a very, very different character from Tyrion.
Rather than copping to this, however, the answer the showrunners gave for writing Mushroom out is that they didn’t want to confuse the audience with differing accounts of events. To be sure, the idea of the unreliable narrator—and Mushroom is nothing if not unreliable—is a time-honored literary device, and films Rashomon to Gone Girl to Joker have used the same idea to great effect. Though House of the Dragon needn’t have had such devices to include Mushroom as a character, the reason the writers have to excuse his absence is that they wanted to concentrate on the “real history” of Westeros.
“As fun as that Rashomon style of storytelling is, we kind of left that to the book, and decided to, instead, try to define what we thought the objective truth of this actual history was, as we saw it,” showrunner Ryan Condal said in an interview with Polygon. “Certain historians are right, and certain historians are wrong. Sometimes they all get it right. Sometimes they all get it wrong—sometimes Mushroom’s even right, by chance. And I think that was the fun of the adaptation is getting to really interplay with the book as a companion piece.”
The thing is, In the real world, there is no such thing as “actual history” or being “right” or “wrong.” Our knowledge of the past is imperfect. Was the Empress Theodora a prostitute or not? We can’t know. Did the leader of the English side in the famous Combat of the Thirty during the Hundred Years’ War really call out to the French knight Beaumanoir, “Drink your blood, your thirst will pass”? We can’t know. Neither Froissart, who was a young teenager when the event took place, nor his source, Jean le Bel, mention it. After all, neither Froissart not Le Bel were there, and both describe the Combat for their aristocratic patrons as a perfect chivalric exercise of valiant knights. The “drink your blood” line is rather found in a contemporary narrative poem by an anonymous author whose language makes it clear that he was from the region where the Combat took place. Rather than a perfect chivalric contest, for our anonymous poet, the Combat was two opposing garrisons in neighboring castles hacking one another to death out of boredom.
Just as our knowledge of the past is influenced by chroniclers’ decisions of what to leave in, take out, or add, as historians, we always make choices about what to write. It wasn’t so long ago that women were not considered part of the narrative, nor were people who were not white Europeans. Before that, it was the third estate, the workers and peasants, who were left out. In fiction, when we don’t have to rely on surviving evidence, we get even more leeway. Condal and his fellow showrunner Miguel Sapochnik have clearly made a decision on what their fictional world will include—and while it has plenty of sex between the beautiful and the beautiful and violence committed by the powerful on the weak, it doesn’t have outsiders like Mushroom, even when they’re canonical.
We’ll see what happens when it’s time for the Dragonseeds to show up.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Ken’s latest book is On Time: A History of Western Timekeeping. Click here to visit his website. You can also fellow Ken on Twitter @DrKenMondschein