An Arthurian Song of Ice and Fire

Posted: November 23, 2019 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones
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The final season of Game of Thrones has come and gone, closing the chapter on the conflict between Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens with battles, betrayals, and the unexpected choice of a boy-king to rule over (most) of the kingdoms of Westeros. The conclusion of the story was tied in with the tragic fall of Daenerys Targaryen, who ambitiously considered herself The Last Dragon and had long sought to reclaim the seat of power that had been literally forged by her ancestors.

There’s solid analysis talking about Daenerys as a tragic hero in the Shakespearean mold. I’ll be happy to recommend articles from ShakespeareOfThrones discussing the Shakespearean ending to the series, as well as /r/asoiaf subreddit moderator glass_table_girl and her epic opus on Daenerys which predicted a literary-inspired tragic fall. But I’m not here to talk about Shakespeare. Instead, I’d like to talk about Daenerys and her association with the other prominent Targaryen in the story, Jon Snow, from an Arthurian perspective.

Straight up, I’m not an Arthurian scholar, just an Arthur Rex fan, man. And Arthurian means different things to different people. Without getting myself too tied down with different literary sources and conflicting accounts, as well as actual historical references to a guy (or guys) who might have inspired the stories about the fictional King Arthur, I’d like to summarize the points of King Arthur’s usual narrative that I’ll to use as a reference in looking at the ending of Game of Thrones. I’m pulling this from written works like Morte D’Arthur and The Once and Future King (with maybe some Idylls of the King thrown in there) and details from Arthurian movies. Look, King Arthur legends are plentiful and come from lots of sources. It would be a shame not to try and refer to as many as I could.

Rather than make this post an even larger wall-of-text, I’ll summarize the common (in my opinion) Arthurian story elements on a different page, which you can either check out or not.

In 2012, George RR Martin gave an interview where he mentioned that his motivation for writing Catelyn Stark was to fill in a hole that often occurs in fantasy: the perspective of the hero’s mother.

Then, a tendency you can see in a lot of other fantasies is to kill the mother or to get her off the stage. She’s usually dead before the story opens… Nobody wants to hear about King Arthur’s mother and what she thought or what she was doing, so they get her off the stage and I wanted it too. And that’s Catelyn.
— George RR Martin

Martin referencing Catelyn’s viewpoint in the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire as being his wish-fulfillment of hearing Queen Ygraine’s thoughts strongly implies a King Arthur allusion for the young King in the North Robb Stark. That’s certainly valid and could be explored – Robb is a young, gallant hero king, whose military successes against the villainous Lannisters inspired supernatural legends about him in the Riverlands. But his story is a sharply truncated Arthurian tale. As if Arthur got crowned, started to unify the land, married Guenivere, but is killed by treacherous assassins before meeting Lancelot, or receiving Excalibur with the blessing from the Lady of the Lake, or siring his incest bastard Mordred, or any of the messier parts of Arthur’s tale that really sets the doomed, tragic tone. (Okay, the Red Wedding was tragic, I’m not trying to diminish that.)

Rather than dwell on the specifics of Martin’s quote in regards to Catelyn and Robb, his reference to Arthurian characters justifies discussing A Song of Ice and Fire through an Arthurian lens. As if the Arthurian story-cycle was something similar to the stories that Old Nan told to her young Stark charges at Winterfell.


The political structure of Arthur’s Britain would seem familiar to the inhabitants of Westeros, who had lived though a drama-filled monarchical dynasty ever since Aegon Targaryen crowned himself King of the Seven Kingdoms. Uther Pendragon strongly resembles a Targaryen figure, with the on-the-nose dragon reference, his nation-state ambition of ruling all of the Britons, and his impolitic lust which started a war with one of his allies, the Duke of Cornwall. If Robert Baratheon had heard the story of Uther arranging non-consensual sex with the Duke’s wife, he’d probably rage about Rhaegar using magic to trick Lyanna, even though Robert would probably have done the same had he had access to Melisandre of Asshai’s glamours.

There are certainly differences between the Targaryen dynasty and Pendragon’s short rule. For one, the Targaryens had a dynasty, and it was multi-generational. When Prince Rhaegar died at the Trident and Aerys died in King’s Landing, the Seven Kingdoms had been an established political unit for centuries, so Robert could just step in. (Well, Balon Greyjoy made a play to secede, but that got slapped down effectively. For awhile.) Uther Pendragon’s Britain had only recently been unified and when he died, the old geopolitical locales reasserted their sovereignty.

Like in Westeros, in Briton power resides where men believes it resided. Robert took the Iron Throne, the remnants of the Targaryen dynasty were whisked away overseas and did not have significant support at home. (Prince Doran might argue this point.) In Uther’s Briton, there was no long-established inertial power keeping the various regions together, particularly with the conspicuous absence of Uther’s heir.

But there was something in legendary Briton that was absent from Westeros: a supernatural sword in a stone.

The sword didn’t proclaim that it could only be pulled by Uther Pendragon’s true heir, it stated something more generic.

Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
— Morte d’Arthur, Chapter V

(Hey, quick aside. I’m using the quote from Sir Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, but I prefer to think that the sword would have said Britain instead of England, since the anachronistic King Arthur was (in my head-canon) a Briton – and the Angles and Saxons would be invaders from his perspective. Mallory is writing from the perspective of Arthur being an English king, which is fine. But that’s a different discussion to have some other time.)

Power resides where men believe it resides, to again quote Varys, and even though the local warlords would have killed baby Arthur rather than recognize his claim granted by his recently deceased dad, there was consensus among them that the miraculously appearing sword was a relevant path to power. Britain had been unified through force of arms by Uther, and various candidates imagined that they (or possibly their sons) could step into Uther’s role as king of the Britons.

The irony here is that although the barons might have argued against investing any authority into Uther’s baby son, their participation in qualification tourneys to attempt to pull the sword indicated their acknowledgement that the wielder of the sword has – as mentioned often in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – supreme executive power. So when Arthur, Uther’s son, is revealed and he is wielding the Sword in the Stone (sometimes identified as Excalibur, but not always) they are faced with the decision to either commit to the authority that they had been invested in earlier, or to deny it.

To quote Monty Python again, strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. (If only Monty Python had leaned in on the Sword in the Stone myth instead of jumping to the sexy Lady of the Lake variant…) Stannis Baratheon runs into this when Melisandre of Asshai, the Lady of the Lake of Fire, tries to legitimize Stannis’ claim by declaring him the divine hero Azor Ahai, and gives him a counterfeit magical sword. If one is going to brandish a magical sword as the basis of authority, it had better back up those claims with magical impressiveness.

In the most recent King Arthur movie, Guy Ritchie did just that by empowering the sword Excalibur with overwhelming supernatural force. The fact that Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur is Uther Pendragon’s son is at best secondary to the fact that his sword can enable him to destroy small armies by himself.

The bottom line is that Arthur pulling the sword from the stone did not necessarily provide a clear answer to the succession issue after Uther’s death, instead it pushed Britain into war as Arthur fought to reclaim the kingdom that had existed when his father was king, against forces aligned to prevent that and largely to protect their own autonomy.


In my introduction I implied that I wanted to talk about Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in an Arthurian context, and I apologize if I needed to establish what I considered the political situation of King Arthur’s Briton first. (That’s why I moved a full-blown summary of Arthur’s life to another page entirely.) Both Jon and Dany share characteristics with Arthur, starting from the traumatic and auspicious circumstances of the births.

Both Jon and Daenerys are born from the Targaryen dynastic line, and have a claim to the Iron Throne. Jon has the better claim, not necessarily because he is male and Daenerys is female (that does matter though, an importance which I’ll address later.) Had Jon been Rhaegar’s daughter instead of his son, Jon’s claim would still be better than Daenerys’. Jon’s claim is also better than Viserys’ claim (before Viserys got a golden shower which eliminated his claim entirely) since the rights granted to King Aerys’ grandson through the eldest son supercedes the rights of any of Aerys’ other children’s claim.  (I apologize if this is old news, but I’ve found that I have to constantly explain Targaryen family trees and how the power flows.)

Jon seemingly has tighter similarities to Arthur. As a child, Arthur is spirited away without knowledge of who he is or how he has a claim to the throne. He’s raised with some privilege (the foster son of Ser Ector) and is kept safe and educated.

Jon is spirited away to Winterfell as the bastard son of his unrevealed uncle, Ned Stark. He’s raised with some privilege and is kept safe and educated.

Daenerys is not hidden away per se. She and her older brother Viserys have targets on their backs as the last known Targaryens. They’re kept safe and educated early on abroad by the loyal Ser Willem Darry, but with his death the Targaryen children are desperate fugitives until taken in by Magister Illyrio Mopatis and become pawns in his machinations with Lord Varys.

Ned kept the information of Jon’s royal blood scrupulously secret, and any education Jon received that could be applied to his eventual role as King in the North was at best coincidental. Jeor Mormont might have planned for Jon to succeed him as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but no one was planning on Jon Snow becoming a king.

The real comparison to Arthur goes to Daenerys, when she hatches three dragons from the pyre of her dead husband, Khal Drogo. The Targaryens conquered Westeros with dragons. They cemented a dynasty so firm that after the last of the literal dragons died, Targaryen rule went on for over another hundred years, with the largest threat to Targaryen rule being the Blackfyre Targaryens.

When the North seceded at the end of A Game of Thrones, part of their argument to Brexit was that the last King in the North had bowed to the dragons, and the dragons were no more. The Greatjon Umber was speaking metaphorically in his argument, but it’s clear that the Targaryen power respected by Torrhen Stark was the literal monsters at Aegon’s command.

Daenerys pulling three infant dragons from their stone eggs is an echo of Arthur miraculously withdrawing the steel weapon from its stony prison, an instrument that the Britons had acknowledged signified their ruler (even if some Briton warlords renounced that later.) The dragons not only reinforced Dany’s Targaryen identity, they opened doors for her in Qarth, they inspired an almost religious loyalty in her followers, and most importantly of all – when grown the dragons could destroy armies.

Just like the ones overwhelmed by Charlie Hunnam wielding the tactical nuke Excalibur in Guy Ritchie’s movie. (You guys, it’s a good movie. Read my review and I’ll make my case.)


When Daenerys arrived in Westeros, the Seven Kingdoms were largely broken up. The North and Iron Islands had seceded, the Riverlands were in chaos, the Vale appeared to be backing the North, the Stormlands were … maybe the show forgot about the Stormlands. (They were probably controlled by Lannister stooges.) The Lannisters directly controlled the West and the Crownlands.

On her side was the principality of Dorne and the kingdom of the Reach. Both the Tyrells and the … uh… Sands administration were unhappy enough with the Lannisters that they’d support Daenerys in attacking Cersei in King’s Landing. This was an implied vote for a Daenerys administration from Dorne and the Reach, but it honestly was more in line with the enemy of my enemy is my friend sentiment and less we’re so glad the Targaryens are back, we’ve missed you sentiment.

King in the North Jon Snow had traveled to Dragonstone, not necessarily to bend the knee or even support an assault on King’s Landing, regardless of the North’s outstanding issues with Cersei Lannister. He’d come to report on and seek allies against the terrifying threat to all the living in Westeros: an undead army led by inhuman monsters who had their eyes on the warm, vibrant south.

Fast-forwarding some episodes: Dornish ships were sunk, Tyrell castles were taken, Lannister armies were burnt, and a wight was heisted from Beyond the Wall by a commando raid with an unbelievable communication capability and surprise dragon air support. During these dramatic events, Jon Snow abdicated his crown in favor of Daenerys, Cersei falsely agreed to a cease-fire, Dany’s forces relocated north to prepare for an invasion of wights, and Jon and Daenerys fell in love. I mean, they are two very attractive people.

The problem to be revealed eventually to the young lovers is their blood relation. Unknown to them during their romantic rendezvous, Jon is Dany’s nephew. This become an unbalancing factor between the two later, as Daenerys considers Jon’s threat to her claim to the Throne, and Jon’s unwillingness to keep his lineage an absolute secret. Or to continue an incestuous relationship with her, regardless if it is made known or not.

Daenerys understands the paternalistic attitudes among the Westerosi. Jon not only has a better claim, but he’s also a man, and therefore he’s more attractive as a ruler to the lords she had hoped to win over.

Bad romantic relations and their consequences is a repeating feature in the Arthurian stories. Arthur being conceived out of traditional wedlock could have been an issue in regards to Arthur’s legitimacy. The solution in the narrative was to make it clear that Ygraine’s husband was dead in battle before Arthur’s conception. (Uther is also a super-creep. Just a reminder.)

Arthur is seduced via magic by his half-sister, Margause, which produces Mordred, a birth that contributes to the end of Arthur’s happy reign. (Arthur contributes to his downfall as well by trying to murder Mordred, killing a number of innocent children in a King Herod-esque scheme.)

But the most complicated Bad Romance relationship must be the love triangle between Arthur, his queen Guinevere, and his best friend/best knight Lancelot du Lac. The scandalous shenanigan is of such importance, Thomas Mallory includes the story of Sir Tristan and Isolde in Morte d’Arthur as a point of comparison, contrast, and emphasis. Sir Tristan and Queen Isolde fall in love with one another thanks to the unfortunate use of a love potion, which leads Isolde’s husband King Mark of Cornwall to try and murder Tristan. King Mark is presented as a villain to make King Arthur look relatively innocent by comparison. (In Idylls of the King by Lord Tennyson, Tennyson goes all-in on presenting Arthur as innocent and oblivious, Guinevere and Lancelot not-so-innocent.)

Occasionally, Arthurian stories blame Lancelot and Guinevere’s infidelity on a host of problems. In Jon Boorman’s Excalibur, Arthur’s discovery of the affair brings ill-health to the king which is reflected across Britain (thanks to the medieval notion that the rulers and the land are connected.) This (at least in some stories) is the reason the Holy Grail is sought, to restore the damage.

In the story of Jon and Dany, there really isn’t a love triangle. It’s just Jon and Dany.

Tyrion: Well, if a thrupple is needed, perhaps I can step in and –
Me: No.
Tyrion: Fine. One has to try.

And to the dismay of Jonsa fans, Jon and his cousin/not-half-sister Sansa only had a platonic relationship.

But there was a third side forming a triangle with Jon and Dany. Dany was willing to have a romantic relationship with Jon Snow, former King in the North. But Jon was also Aegon Targaryen, the secretly and inconveniently legitimized child of Dany’s brother Rhaegar Targaryen. Jon wasn’t comfortable having sex with Aegon’s (his) aunt. Dany might have been willing to have a romantic relationship with Aegon Targaryen as well. Lord Varys had been plotting to share the information about Jon’s lineage and superior claim across the realm, feeling in his gut that Jon/Aegon would be a better ruler.

After all, Jon had abdicated his power for her. Aegon Targaryen might do that again and be content as her consort. With the death of Viserys and Rhaegal, Dany had the only remaining dragon after all. It would have to be carefully managed.

But he wasn’t willing to commit to that possible offer from Dany. Which led to tragic consequences.

Alright then. Let it be fear.
— Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones S8 E5 The Bells


Even the noblest of kings and the most chivalrous of knights may find themselves overcome by rage and lust and envy, and commit acts that shame them and tarnish their good names.
— Fire and Blood, Volume I

King Arthur and Queen Guinevere had no children, and being childless puts a fair amount of pressure on a royal family (usually the pressure is more heavily distributed to the queen, unfortunately) who needs to have an heir (and maybe a spare) to ease any concerns about succession. The birth of Mordred, Arthur’s son by his half-sister Margause, seemed to crank up the pressure on Arthur.

Fearing that the bastard Mordred would grow up and be used one day as a threat to his realm or any future children Arthur had, the king ordered all children born during the month that Mordred was born (that would be May, these are the May Babies) to be loaded on a ship which was set adrift. It eventually wrecked and sank. Unfortunately for Arthur, his mass murdering plan did not work as intended. Mordred survived and was whisked into hiding, where he would be safe from his father.

Years later, the adult Mordred took advantage of the scandal of Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot to erode support for King Arthur, resulting in Mordred capturing Camelot, and eventually mortally wounding Arthur in battle – at the cost of his own unhappy life.

Arthur’s killing of innocents tends to get glossed over in Arthurian stories, which is understandable unless someone wants to present Arthur as the bad guy. But it wasn’t that he’d gone mad, some madness that called for the killing of May-born children. Arthur made a decision based on a process of reasoning. That’s not an excuse, it’s just an observation. Arthur weighed his fears against his actions, and chose baby-drowning.

Because monarchs usually have their actions excused, people instead blamed Merlin as an evil counselor (but weren’t likely to do anything about it.) We see this kind of activity throughout King Joffrey’s reign, where the nobility turned a blind eye to his excesses, and people were likely to blame Tyrion, the Demon Monkey, for actually being responsible for their problems despite his efforts keep them safe.

“Don’t you see the jest, Lord Varys?” Tyrion waved a hand at the shuttered windows, at all the sleeping city. “Storm’s End is fallen and Stannis is coming with fire and steel and the gods alone know what dark powers, and the good folk don’t have Jaime to protect them, nor Robert nor Renly nor Rhaegar nor their precious Knight of Flowers. Only me, the one they hate.” He laughed again. “The dwarf, the evil counselor, the twisted little monkey demon. I’m all that stands between them and chaos.”
— A Clash of Kings, Tyrion X

But Joffrey is not our Arthur here (despite King Robert’s bastards being murdered right and left.) Daenerys is.

I won’t re-litigate my opinion that when Daenerys burned thousands of people in King’s Landing, it wasn’t from madness or grief or some other extreme emotion. She had weighed her options as the city was surrendering around her, and felt it would benefit her in the future as a ruler to make an unambiguous statement.

Alright then. Let it be fear.

If you want to see my argument in support of this, you can read my article on Watchers on the Wall where I break down my take.

Arthur, in trying to secure his reign for the future, created the situation that led directly to his ruin at the hands of Mordred, the bastard of Camelot. Daenerys, in following her logic (just accept that for the moment) with the intent of securing her reign for the future, created the situation that led directly to her death at the hand of Jon Snow, the bastard of Winterfell.

Unlike Arthur, Dany doesn’t really get a pass, her reign after capturing King’s Landing ends abruptly without the people of Westeros having a chance to blame Tyrion (for example) on the mass burning of civilians. Although maybe my argument, that her use of dragons wasn’t maniacal, is a pass.


Mordred dies on the battlefield, but Arthur lives long enough for his sword to be returned to the Lady of the Lake. His body is taken by mysterious samite-clad ladies (so many ladies are wearing samite in Morte d’Arthur) on a boat trip to Avalon, where it is rumored he still lives, and can return in Britain’s greatest need.

Daenerys dies in the throne room, and her last remaining monster-child Drogon gently picks her up and flies off into the distance. I don’t need to validate any crazy theories people may have, but in a world where resurrection is possible, there is that thought that maybe Drogon flies Daenerys’ corpse to a sufficiently connected worshipper of R’hllor, who could use the power of the Lord of Light to bring terrible life back to the Mother of Dragons.

I’m not sure how classically Arthurian that would be, since Arthur is prophesied to come back in a time of need, and not as Lady Flaming Stoneheart. Because resurrected Dany would be PISSED. But, I’m currently reading Once and Future by Kieron Gillen, where right-wing Make Albion Great Again chuckleheads manage to resurrect King Arthur, with the thought that he would help them get rid of all the brown people in England. Their oversight is that Arthur only recognizes Britons as legitimate inhabitants of the British Isles, and this undead monster king begins to slaughter the English, who share bloodlines with the Saxon invaders Arthur kept out of ye olde Celtic lands back in his day.

Jon Snow does not die, but is sent into exile beyond the Wall. (Okay, technically he’s sent back to service in the Night’s Watch, but the final shot of the series has this air of Jon turning his back to the south, and heading into the North, the true North, where maybe he’ll stay.

Unless he stays there until Westeros really, really needs him. I mean, he’s died once already. What if he just … doesn’t die? The Once and Future King in the North.


This essay is not intended to choose which of our two Targaryens might be more like King Arthur than the other. They’re both Arthur-like, just like Arthur has analogues in his own story. King Mark is clearly presented as the Overtly Evil King Arthur, and Mordred himself is like young Arthur, being hidden away to avoid being murdered because of who his dad was.

Dany’s dragons can exhibit Excalibur-like traits as symbols of beyond-the-mundane power in a way that Jon’s Valyrian blade Longclaw does not. Jon can be like Arthur, as well as like Mordred, since Mordred was the bastard that Catelyn saw whenever she saw Jon. Even though Jon was a hidden prince.

Comparing the intersection of lore between two large and detailed fantasy series is engaging. Was George RR Martin inspired by the tales of King Arthur? Probably. It’s not really that interesting or relevant a question. It’s enough that comparisons can be made.

Consider the Iron Throne, almost the literal opposite of Arthur’s Round Table. The Iron Throne accommodated one person, the ruler. It was sharp and hazardous, boasting the inexplicable death of at least one monarch on its blades. The Round Table had no edges, accommodates many who sat in theory as equals. Any position at the table was no better or worse in status. (Although I assume Arthur’s chair looked more ornate. And there is the Siege Perilous, a chair at the Round Table that would kill any knight who sat there besides Galahad. That’s a cranky chair.)

I would be remiss to not mention King Bran Stark and the Arthurian Fisher King. But that’s a topic talked about at length by others.

There could easily be more for me to say about A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones and comparisons to the stories of King Arthur. But, maybe I should just open it up to comments. The show is over (and who knows when the books will be coming out) but there’s no reason for the discussion to end so soon.

(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) Also, John Boorman’s Excalibur, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

I make no claims to the images, but some claims to the text here (text that I wrote, and was not quoting from A Song of Ice and Fire and other works.) So there.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2019 Some Rights Reserved

  1. teageegeepea says:

    Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur didn’t do those things which you note Robb didn’t do.

    It seems that Aerys disinherited Rhaegar’s children after the Trident, naming Viserys as his heir. So Jon would come later in the books.

    Most of the “English” today are of predominately British descent, with the heaviest Anglo-Saxon ancestry being along the “Saxon shore”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback.

      I had a long breakdown on what I was considering as part of Arthur’s story for this post – I linked to it, so I don’t mind you bringing in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur, but I consider all the the things that Robb didn’t do as things that Arthur did. I mean, we know that the earliest Arthur stories don’t include Lancelot at all, since it was added much later. But I think Lancelot is an important part of the Arthurian stories.

      Aerys officially disinheriting Rhaegar’s son Aegon is news to me. This is the first I’ve heard of it. Do you have a source from ASOIAF or TWOIAF?

      I won’t doubt your genealogical statement, you’ll have to take it up with Kieron Gillen, and maybe he’ll clarify that the guys bringing back Arthur in the Once and Future comic were from Essex or Sussex or something.


  2. ghostof82 says:

    I loved this, another brilliant essay. The idea that Jon will live forever in the North (I was surprised the show never raised how indestructible he seemed to be post-resurrection) and will only come South when the Mother of Dragons returns for vengeance… that’s really nice. When I re-watch season 8 in a few weeks I’ll have that possibility hanging in the air and see how it flies. The two of them would be like Gods walking Westeros battling it out over the fate of the world… it may not be Canon but its a nice way to massage ill-feeling to how the final season played out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and the feedback! I appreciate what you are saying about feelings in regards to the final season. It’s fun to image Dany coming back, Jon coming back to deal with her, and the third godlike being, King Bran, getting involved in a more meaningful way than Season 8 afforded.

      Thanks again!


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