Perhaps you have noticed that two of the biggest television shows airing (or streaming) right now are both fantasy epics based on popular novels exploring the time period before a popular previous adaptation. While it would be reductive to call HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power the same kind of show — they extremely are not — occasionally, in ways big and small, they do some of the same things. Like last weekend, when the latest episodes of each show both engaged in the classic trope of having an experienced sword fighter school some young whippersnappers in the best way to study the blade.
[Ed. note: This episode discusses the plots through episode 5 of The Rings of Power and episode 6 of House of the Dragon; these moments might be considered spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing.]
A brief summary for those who only watch one show, or neither: In “Partings,” the fifth episode of The Rings of Power, the elven warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) has finally garnered support from the uppity human island nation of Númenor to mount an expedition to the mainland of Middle-earth in an effort to thwart dark forces that may herald the return of Sauron. Because this expedition needs volunteers, all manner of inexperienced youths are volunteering and therefore being put through their paces in swordsmanship. In this, Galadriel, uninvited, challenges a few of them to take her on at the same time, and she takes them to school.
Airing a few days later, House of the Dragon’s “The Princess and the Queen” features a big time jump and a new status quo. As part of its tour of the way things are now, the episode pauses to show the youngest additions to the cast being coached in swordsmanship by Ser Criston Cole, Princess Rhaenyra’s former (secret) paramour, while King Viserys and other members of the court watch. When Prince Aegon, the eldest child of Queen Alicent and King Viserys, gets a little cocky on training dummies, Criston challenges him to spar with his teacher, with a little help from his brother. Unlike Galadriel in The Rings of Power, Ser Criston isn’t having fun with his pupils, but he is disrespecting them, and hilariously so.
These two scenes are a good moment to examine what each show is doing differently, and why one may work for you while another may not. This is, after all, not a terribly uncommon trope — many medieval/fantasy stories indulge in this kind of scene. It is, therefore, the kind of scene worth deconstructing to see what the storytellers care about most.
The Rings of Power mostly uses this trope as a moment to breathe and have a little fun. At this point in the series, Galadriel has mostly been on her back foot, beset by storms and people who will not believe her. Now she is finally free to pursue her mission of hunting Sauron, and with an army at her back at that. It’s cathartic, therefore, to see her take the initiative and make forward progress while showing off what she’s capable of. However, this moment in “Partings” does not impart much the viewer does not already know, having already gotten a brief rundown of Galadriel’s centuries-long life thus far and her experience during the first war with Morgoth. It does little to change the dynamics between characters or externalize any internal struggles. It’s mainly there for spectacle, something “Partings” reinforces by taking the time to show children excitedly running through the streets to watch.
House of the Dragon’s training scene, however, is doing an absolutely dizzying amount of character work — both for people we have met, and a few we are meeting for the first time. For example, it’s through this scene that we learn teen Aegon Targaryen is a little prick that will also bully those younger than him when adults are watching; earlier in the episode he, Jace, and Luke make fun of little Aemond Targaryen for not having a dragon by giving him a pig instead.
But there’s a lot going on in this seemingly inconsequential scene. Not only does it serve as a brief introduction to the young Targaryens, it moves the story forward in a big way. As the scene escalates, Ser Criston pits Prince Aegon against Princess Rhaenyra’s much younger son, Jacaerys Velaryon (his [scribbles on napkin]… nephew?), and the scene takes a much meaner turn. Jacaerys, it’s revealed, is not his father Laenor’s (John Macmillan) son, but secretly the child of Rhaenyra’s new paramour, Ser Harwin Strong — just like her other two kids. Criston, it turns out, hates Harwin for this, and uses Aegon’s petulance to indirectly bully Jacaerys.
This is the moment that makes the scene extremely consequential for the show. Harwin will not stand for this, and because of it, he and Criston come to blows — making a whispered suspicion of parentage all but confirmed in the eyes of the court. It’s what gives power players like Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) leeway to make moves against Rhaenyra, as the question hanging over King’s Landing is whether or not the kingdom will accept the Crown Princess Rhaenyra as Queen when Viserys has a male heir in Aegon.
Midway through each series, The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon have established themselves enough for audiences to get a good feel for them. Both are going after a slow burn, but vary wildly in scope. House of the Dragon’s narrower focus and intended audience of older viewers affords it the space to try its hand at density, where a sword fighting lesson can externalize a lover’s quarrel in the midst of heaps of palace intrigue. By the end of it, no one is in the same place they were when it began.
The Rings of Power, however, is positioned as an all-encompassing fantasy epic for anyone to get lost in. Spectacle is the name of its game thus far, and Galadriel’s demonstration is a small-scale one that underlines the series’ ambition. It is also playing the long game, but choosing to move from dazzling moment to dazzling moment, in the hopes that it has the time to sink into the people and places it is introducing viewers to. It asks more of its audience, and in return, it sets up greater expectations for itself. That said, since it’s working with perhaps the most widely known fantasy world in existence as its source material, it’s a safer gamble than it would be for any other show. But it’s a gamble nonetheless.
If both of these sword fighting scenes were in a friendly sword fighting competition with one another, House of the Dragon’s would have a much easier time holding its own than the one in The Rings of Power. Before you accuse me of bias, just ask yourself: Would each episode make as much sense without said sword training scene? “The Princess and the Queen” hinges on it, while “Partings” does not. Does that make House of the Dragon the better show? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But what it does do is help show the great variety possible within even the most generic-sounding fantasy fiction, especially with two shows that, when described in the broadest of terms, sound exactly the same.