This article includes content relating to the Dance of the Dragons, and therefore contains potential spoilers for House of the Dragon, as revealed in GRRM's writings. Anyone wishing to remain completely spoiler free for the new show should avoid any articles displaying this tag.
Behind the scenes
Corlys Velaryon was announced as a lead character in House of the Dragon on December 11, 2020. On February 11, 2021, it was announced that Steve Toussaint had signed on for the series. The character breakdown reads as follows:
- "The lord of House Velaryon, a Valyrian bloodline as old as House Targaryen, "The Sea Snake," is the most famed nautical adventurer in the history of Westeros. He built his house into a powerful seat that is even richer than the Lannisters and that claims the largest navy in the world."
Discussion has been raised about Corlys's race in the TV series after Steve Toussaint's casting was announced, as he is a black actor born in the UK to parents from Barbados. In the first official promo photos, Corlys appears to be depicted as mixed-race, with black skin but Valyrian silver-white hair. In the books, House Velaryon is a minor noble family from Valyria, whose members thus generally have classic Valyrian features like the Targaryens: very pale white skin, platinum-blonde hair, and purple eyes (though the last detail was cut from the TV show).
No physical description for Corlys himself, however, has ever been given in the books - nor his mother's identity, nor his father's mother's identity. It is somewhat implied that he looked Valyrian, because both of his children are started to have had classic Valyrian features. Nonetheless the books do not treat his physical appearance as significant.
The short answer is that even in the books, it appears that the lower-ranking Valyrian families of the minor nobility simply weren't as strict about blood purity as the dragonlords themselves.
The long answer (click to expand):
- This particular section contains MAJOR spoilers for House of the Dragon. Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers for the upcoming prequel series should not click [Expand].
There are other details in the books indicating that the vast Valyrian empire, which spanned across parts of three continents, was more racially diverse than the stereotype about Targaryen incest meant to "keep the bloodline pure". Since the first novel, it has been stated that the former Valyrian provinces in the Free Cities are a racially diverse mix of many different ethnic groups that spread around under the rule of the Valyrians (either as slaves who were later freed, or simply merchants seeking new opportunities). Moreover, the 2014 The World of Ice & Fire sourcebook, in its chapter on Pentos, stated that:
- "Pentos [was] founded by Valyrians as a trading outpost...The first Pentoshi were merchants, traders, seafarers, and farmers, with few of high birth amongst them; perhaps for this reason, they were less protective of their Valyrian blood and more willing to breed with the original inhabitants of the lands they ruled. As a consequence there is considerable Andal blood amongst the men of Pentos."
The implication is that the upper-tiers of Valyrian society practiced inbreeding, the ruling forty dragonlord families, but that the middle and lower classes weren't as strict about blood purity. The modern Pentoshi are stated to be a mix of middle-class Valyrian merchants and seafarers with local Andals (the Andals being the major ethnic group in southern Westeros). The Velaryons themselves are stated to not be dragonlords but a family of the lesser nobility, who specialized in being "merchants and seafarers" - just like Pentos.
This is somewhat comparable to the Casta system in colonial Latin America, where ruling "pure blooded" Europeans were at the top of the social pyramid (Peninsulares and Criollos), while conquered non-Europeans were at the bottom (Indios and Negroes), but a racially mixed middle-ranking group developed from lower ranking Europeans who intermarried with the lower classes (Mestizos). Indeed, many colonial empires in history produced mixed-race or "creole" people in the outer provinces from lower-ranking families from the capital region who intermarried with the locals - such as Barbados in the British Empire, Haiti in the French Empire, etc.
These details also seem to match leaks that came out in late 2018 about the proposed Doom of Valyria prequel, which described Valyrian society as divided into basically three large factions:
- The Sphinxes - the "blue blood" old aristocracy, descended from the original nobles and priests who ruled Valyria since even before they discovered dragons.
- The Free Holders - all of the local elites out in the conquered provinces, who eventually became powerful merchant-princes, ranking below the dragon-lords but above the slaves.
- The "Young Dragons" - the younger aristocracy of the Valyrians, "new men", whose families started out as common soldiers who rose to dragonlord status from plunder gained during Valyria's wars of conquest. Comparable to Roman soldiers who intermarried with locals in Britain or Egypt, they weren't as strict about blood purity and several of them were mixed-race. The Targaryens themselves were a minor member of the Young Dragons - and the Velaryons weren't even dragonlords, thus ranking below the Targaryens themselves.
Thus it seems quite possible that the Velaryons, as a minor non-dragonlord family of merchant seafarers who encounter many different foreigners, wouldn't be as strict about blood purity as the Targaryens themselves.
As for whether black people would be found in the region they lived, Summer Islander merchant ships are actually a common sight in all of the major ports of Westeros, from Lannisport to King's Landing. Without clear explanation, the Game of Thrones TV series cut multiple Summer Islander characters who live in King's Landing itself (such as Chataya); also, on Samwell Tarly's trip from the Wall to Oldtown, he stops in Braavos to switch vessels, and continues the rest of his journey on the Summer Islander ship Cinnamon Wind. Summer Islanders are thus a common sight in ports across the Narrow Sea, where the Velaryons conduct extensive maritime trade.
A separate issue is that medieval people did not have the same concept of "race" as we do, and this is reflected in the books. Conceptions of race on groupings of "black" or "white" were only developed in the Early Modern era from the 1600s onwards, to retroactively try to justify the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. Ancient and Medieval Europeans didn't see themselves as part of one unified "white" race: conceptions of ethncity weren't even based on physical appearance so much as more complex culture zones based on religion, customs, language, and behavior. Essentially, ancient Romans considered Germanic barbarians and black Ethiopians to both equally be "foreigners" separate from their own ethnic group.
The upper Valyrian dragonlord families, somewhat similarly, were so fixated on incestuous in-breeding that intermarrying with any "foreigner" was frowned upon, regardless of their specific skin color. Valyrians didn't consider themselves part of the same "race" as the Andals anymore than they did the Summer Islanders, even though both Valyrians and Andals have white skin.
Despite this, there are cited examples of Velaryons and even Targaryens marrying Andals before the Dance of the Dragons. King Viserys's first wife was Aemma Arryn (his first cousin, the result of King Jaehaerys's daughter Daella marrying Rodrik Arryn). As for the Velaryons themselves, the head of the family and lord admiral of the royal fleet after the Targaryen Conquest was Aethan Velaryon, Corlys's great-grandfather - and the books state that Aethan married a non-Valyrian, Alarra Massey. Their union produced Corlys's grandfather Daemon Velaryon, as well as Alyssa Velaryon, the mother of King Jaehaerys and his sister-wife Queen Alysanne. Through her Massey grandmother, even Alysanne didn't have classic Valyrian features: she had honey-blonde hair and blue eyes.
The implication seems to be that House of the Dragon made a minor change by having Corlys's own mother be a black Summer Islander, as no details about her at all were given in the books. This doesn't outright break the rules of the storyverse, anymore than making the pirate Salladhor Saan black did in Game of Thrones. This would only affect Corlys himself, and not the numerous minor branches of Velaryon cousins who also enter the story. We of course await what explanation is given in the first season of the TV series, either in on-screen dialogue or by the writing staff.
In the books
- This particular section contains MAJOR spoilers for House of the Dragon. Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers for the upcoming prequel series should not click [Expand].
Corlys was named after Ser Corlys Velaryon, the first Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Corlys once sailed his Ice Wolf beyond the Wall but was unsuccessful in find a northerly route around Westeros. He then sailed aboard his Sea Snake on multiple voyages to Essos, accumulating wealth from visits to Qarth, Yi Ti, and Leng. Corlys was the first Westerosi to visit Nefer in N'Ghai and to navigate the Thousand Islands. During his last travel, Corlys filled the Sea Snake's hold with gold and bought twenty more ships at Qarth, loading them with spices, elephants, and silk. Corlys took his nickname from his famous ship, the expeditions of which are described in Maester Mathis's The Nine Voyages.
Corlys became head of House Velaryon after the death of his grandsire. Richer than Lords Lannister or Hightower through his expeditions, Corlys used his great wealth to construct a new seat, High Tide, where he stored his eastern treasures.
Lord Corlys and his fleets fought alongside Prince Daemon Targaryen during the War for the Stepstones. When Daemon declared himself the King of the Stepstones and the Narrow Sea, Corlys placed the crown on the new king's head.
The children of Corlys and Princess Rhaenys Targaryen both died in 120 AC, Laena Velaryon from childbed fever and Ser Laenor Velaryon from a quarrel with Ser Qarl Correy. Later in the same year Prince Daemon, Laena's widower, married Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, Laenor's widow.
In 126 AC Corlys was struck with a sudden fever; the issue arose of who would succeed him as Lord of the Tides should he die. With his trueborn children dead by law the title would go to his grandson by Rhaenyra, Jacaerys Velaryon. However, Jacaerys would presumably ascend the Iron Throne after his mother and so Rhaenyra urged him to name Lucerys Velaryon as his heir. The Sea Snake also had six nephews and the eldest, Ser Vaemond Velaryon, protested that the lordship should pass to him on the grounds that Rhaenyra's sons were bastards sired by Ser Harwin Strong. The Velaryon protesters were dealt with by the Targaryens and Lord Corlys presumably recovered.
Lord Corlys Velaryon sat on the black council during the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons; he was the greatest lord to pledge his strength to the cause of Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen, who was opposed by her half-brother, King Aegon II Targaryen. More than half of Rhaenyra's army was made up of men sworn to House Velaryon. Corlys's fleets also gave the blacks superiority at sea.
When Lord Bartimos Celtigar urged the princess to fly from Dragonstone to King’s Landing at once and reduce the city to ash and bone, Corlys demanded to know how that would serve them, telling him "we want to rule the city, not burn it to the ground".
The Sea Snake commanded the Velaryon fleet when it closed off the Gullet and sailed back and forth from Dragonstone and Driftmark, blocking all shipping entering or leaving Blackwater Bay and thereby choking off trade to and from King's Landing. Eventually, the Velaryon blockade was broken by the Battle in the Gullet and High Tide was sacked.
On Dragonstone, after receiving the news that his wife, Princess Rhaenys, had fallen at Rook's Rest trying to come to the aid of Lord Staunton, angry words were exchanged between the queen and Lord Velaryon. Corlys blamed Rhaenyra for his wife Rhaenys's death. He told Rhaenyra that it should have been her who died, that "Staunton sent to you, yet you left it to my wife to answer, and forbade your sons to join her!" All the castle knew that Princes Jacaerys and Joffrey Velaryon had been eager to fly with her to Rook's Rest with their own dragons.
In late 129 AC, Prince Jacaerys brought the Lord of the Tides back into the fold by naming him Hand of the Queen. Together the Hand and Jacaerys planned an assault upon King’s Landing. Not long after, one of the riderless dragons, Seasmoke, took onto his back a fifteen-year-old boy known as Addam of Hull. Lord Corlys went so far as to petition Queen Rhaenyra to remove the taint of bastardy from Addam and his brother, Alyn. The queen complied and Addam Velaryon became Corlys's heir to Driftmark.
After the queen took King's Landing, as Lord Ormund Hightower's host advanced slowly on King's Landing, with Prince Daeron scouting ahead on the Blue Queen, Lord Corlys suggested to Rhaenyra that the time had come to talk. He urged the queen to offer pardons. He proposed to let the Faith of the Seven take charge of Queen Alicent Hightower and Queen Helaena Targaryen, so that they might spend the rest of their lives in prayer and contemplation. Corlys suggested that Princess Jaehaera Targaryen, the daughter of Rhaenyra's rival, King Aegon II, be made his own ward, and in due time married to Rhaenyra's son, Prince Aegon the Younger, binding the two halves of House Targaryen together once again.
Rhaenyra demanded to know what of her half brothers, Aegon II, Aemond, and Daeron. Lord Corlys suggested they be spared and sent to the Wall. When Corlys mentioned the sacred vows of the Night's Watch, Rhaenyra questioned the vows of oathbreakers, stating that "Their vows did not trouble them when they took my throne." Her husband, Prince Daemon, echoed the queen's misgiving and suggested a hard line, but the queen decided to steer a middle course.
After the Two Betrayers switched sides, Lord Corlys was the only person on the black council to speak in defense of the dragonseed. He remarked that Ser Addam and his brother Alyn were "true heirs" and worthy of Driftmark and that Nettles had fought valiantly in the Battle in the Gullet. The Hand's impassioned protests were in vain as by this time the queen had been betrayed so often, by so many, that she was quick to believe the worst of any man. Queen Rhaenyra commanded Ser Luthor Largent to arrest Addam in the Dragonpit. Addam, who had been forewarned, managed to make his escape by flying away with Seasmoke. When the balked and angry Luthor returned from the Dragonpit, he accused Corlys of treachery. Corlys did not deny it. Bound and beaten, but still silent, he was taken down into the Red Keep's dungeons and thrown into a black cell to await trial and execution. This action lost Rhaenyra her fleet. When it became known that Lord Corlys was languishing in a dungeon under the Red Keep, the army that had sailed from Dragonstone to seize the Iron Throne began to abandon Rhaenyra's cause by the hundreds. The ones that remained could not be trusted.
Once Aegon II Targaryen returned to King's Landing after the death of Rhaenyra, Lord Corlys was released and pardoned, allowing him to serve Aegon on his small council. Corlys did not simply betray the remaining members of the Blacks who were still in the field: originally Aegon II considered executing Aegon III, who was (for all anyone knew) Rhaenyra's last remaining child. But Aegon II needed the wealth of House Velaryon and to ensure they wouldn't continue fighting him, so in return Corlys was able to negotiate the concessions that he would have a seat on the small council, that Aegon III would be spared, and even that Aegon III would be betrothed to Aegon II's last remaining child, Princess Jaehaera.
When the approach of Lord Cregan Stark's army towards the capital became known, Corlys advised Aegon to take the black. The king refused, however, and was mysteriously poisoned soon after.
Lord Corlys was arrested by Lord Stark in what became known as the Hour of the Wolf. He was later freed thanks to an edict of King Aegon III Targaryen that Baela and Rhaena Targaryen persuaded him to issue. Black Aly Blackwood agreed to marry Lord Stark if he honored the edict, which he did. Thus Corlys was freed and served as one of the regents of young Aegon III.
Corlys was regarded as the most powerful of the regents of the young king until his death of old age in 132 AC, at the age of seventy-nine. His body lay in state beneath the Iron Throne for a week.
|Lord:||Lord Corlys Velaryon||Heir:||Laenor Velaryon|
|Title(s):||Lord of Driftmark|
|Current members:||Rhaenys Velaryon|
|Deceased members:||Daemon Velaryon|