Maester Aemon, elder brother to Aegon "Egg" Targaryen of Dunk and Egg non-fame. Photo courtesy of HBO
Season six of Game of Thrones is the beginning of the end. Although HBO would be thrilled to see the show bring them subscribers galore into perpetuity, show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have made it clear that they are not going to extend this show forever. Including the ten episodes of the current season, which premiered last night, there are 23 hours left (which might, to be fair, take us three years to reach). George R. R. Martin has long promised us it will be "bittersweet" at best, which seems his way of saying it's going to be brutal, not that that's any departure from the first five seasons of the show, where at any point you may be flayed, skull-crushed, or crossbowed on the john.
So even as the new season takes us in exciting new directions—a shift from war among kings to looming conflicts among queens (Cersei, Daenerys, Sansa, Margaery Tyrell, and Ellaria Sand)—and we brace for the death of any likeable character on the show, there's reason to be optimistic about future stories drawing from the rich history of Westeros and Essos. There have been no meaningful discussions about spin-offs yet, but in a recent interview, George R. R. Martin came up with an idea, saying, "The most natural follow-up would be an adaptation of my Dunk and Egg stories."This is a great plan. The novellas are short chivalric romances that offer neat little stories against the wide backdrop of the history of Westeros. They deploy familiar storytelling elements, are filled with excellent action set pieces, and center around two fun characters. In fact, the humor in the first episode of last night's season premiere displays the promise of lighter, less self-aggrandizing fare, set in this world. The banter between the Onion Knight Ser Davos and Aliser Thorne, Jon Snow's murderer, in which Davos orders mutton in the middle of a tense negotiation, reminded me of everything I liked about the character. Similarly, the Dothraki debate on "what is the best in life" ends far too soon. The show needs humor to offset the portentous threats and prophecies. In Dunk and Egg, such light banter would accompany the jousts, duels, romance, feasts, and even that most deadly of Westerosi traditions—a wedding.
These stories follow the adventures and education of Ser Duncan the Tall—"Dunk"—and the young Prince Aegon Targaryen—"Egg." Fans of the show first heard of Egg when Maester Aemon revealed his identity as a Targaryen to Jon Snow at the end of the first season. (Aemon was Aegon's elder brother. Aemon refused the throne and joined the Night's Watch to avoid any potential conflict over the throne.) In the books, both Dunk and Egg show up from time to time in references to the many rebellions and wars over the Iron Throne. The first novella, The Hedge Knight, follows Duncan, an orphan from Flea Bottom in King's Landing who became a squire to an itinerant, low-status knight. It opens as he buries his former master, takes his armor, and heads to a nearby tournament to make his fortune. On the way, he acquires a stable boy as his squire, and together the big teenager and slender boy wander through the tournament and festival grounds replete with princes and lords, whores and armorers, and a particularly comely puppeteer. There's fighting and politics, a nasty Targaryen embracing his inner Joffrey, and a trial by combat. In the end, Dunk and Egg reject offers of comfortable life in a castle, and instead head off to their next adventure. Dunk thinks that through this travel, he can teach Egg to be a good prince who treats people honorably.
The second book, The Sworn Sword, finds the pair in service to a very poor local knight who runs afoul of the richer neighbor, the Red Widow. Here, the story turns on questions of history and loyalty. What does it mean to be truly loyal to one's liege lord? In the third book, The Mystery Knight, another tournament beckons, this one replete with secret identities, the economics of tournament gambling, and a dragon's egg. Martin has said that he's mapped out six to 12 more stories detailing the adventures of the pair as they head towards their destiny. Egg will become King Aegon V and Dunk will be his Lord Commander of the King's Guard. Not bad for an orphan from Flea Bottom.The novellas are not especially original, but as I said about Star Wars last winter, originality is highly overrated. They conform to expectations in precisely the ways that A Song of Ice and Fire does not. Martin famously launched into his series with the desire to avoid rags-to-riches clichés, but rather created elite powerful families and slammed them into internecine conflict. Martin gave us a classic hero, Ned Stark—then killed him. Martin gave us an elder son to avenge his father's death, Rob Stark, and then offed him, too. In contrast, Dunk comes from poverty and rises to great heights through both the strength of his arms and his good character, a story you've heard plenty of times before. The first novella especially, like the Heath Ledger movie A Knight's Tale, both play around the rich cultural legacy of chivalric romance.Egg's trajectory, meanwhile, kept reminding me of Wart in The Sword in the Stone, book one of T. H. White's classic retelling of the King Arthur myth, in which Merlin teaches the future king to be a good person and ruler. Thanks to his education, Arthur became a good and just king. Similarly, thanks to his time as Egg, Aegon did everything possible to make his kingdom more just, especially for the peasantry. He even allowed his children to marry for love, rather than for politics.Alas, like Camelot, it's all going to end in fire. Both Martin and White are, in fact, extremely interested in the corrupting nature of power (as were plenty of medieval writers of romance). When power derives from force of arms and status of birth, inequality and injustice necessarily increase. That's why, like last night's episode, each of the novellas begin with dead bodies: Dunk's master, random criminals, accused traitors in the books; Jon Snow and Myrcella Baratheon (Jamie's and Cersei's poisoned daughter) in the show. Students of Westerosi history will know that Aegon was a good king. For his efforts, his lords rebelled to protect their power over the peasantry, his good children abandoned their duties for love, and he was left with only the "mad king" Aerys to succeed him. In Westeros, death wins, regardless of good intent. After all, as the meme says, "What part of valar morghulis (everybody dies) did you not understand?Follow David on Twitter.