In the far southwest of Westeros, at the mouth of the river Honeywine, lies the great stone city of Oldtown. For thousands of years, boys, men, lords and bastards came to its famed Citadel – a massive university and library with rows upon rows of scrolls and books – to seek knowledge.
While much of Westeros was a filthy backwater with seven kings squabbling over who is more glorious than whom, the Citadel was a bastion of learning, glowing as bright as it’s lighthouse, towering over the Sunset Sea. For this was the headquarters of the Order of the Maesters, an ancient brotherhood of scholars, some of whom would go on to advise the lords of Westeros on all things scientific, historic and medical.
And yes, Samwell Tarly spent a few episodes here and ran away with some books.
A master can be recognised by the chain he wears around his neck. This is no ordinary chain; each link is made from a different metal – each metal symbolising mastery over some particular discipline or field of knowledge. Silver signifies healing and medicine, bronze stands for astronomy, gold represents mastery over accounting and finances, iron knowledge of warfare, lead of poisons and copper of history. The rarest of these is a link made of Valyrian steel, highlighting knowledge of the dark and occult – that of magic and sorcery.
The material world of Game of Thrones
The immaculately crafted world of Westeros and Essos in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, spans 12,000 years and beyond, sprawling with children, men, magic, monsters, the undead and fire breathing dragons.
But like the world we live in, this fantastical universe is built on a careful scaffold of materials – some of which are magical and some of which are not but all of which are remarkable. If there were no Valyrian steel and dragonglass, the Night King would have turned Brandon Stark into a blue-eyed undead monster and Jon Snow would be a pile of ashes in an empty Winterfell. The white walkers would have taken the North and marched down south all the way to Dorn, leaving no one left to play the game of thrones.
It’s not just Valyrian steel and dragonglass, however. You’ll also find a wildfire, a substance that seems to be a cross between gasoline and uranium. There is gold that made the Lannisters rich. Steel for the swords and daggers. Glass for wine, ceramics for plates, leather for saddles, abalone for armour and bronze for weapons.
In a triumph for Targaryens as well as metallurgy, Aegon the conqueror melted a thousand swords of the vanquished with dragon fire to forge the great Iron Throne, the seat of all power west of the narrow sea.
This is a journey into the material world of A Song of Ice and Fire, more familiar to us as the Game of Thrones. In the epic battle of egos, sword flashing violence, sex, love, revenge, blood and dragons, it is easy to forget that even fictional universes need materials to sustain them and make them ‘real’. In a world as expansive as GoT, these materials and their relationships to the cultures that they spawn mirror our own world and the way we associate with our materials.
Even when they are magical and exotic, like Valyrian steel, they still find parallels from our history – for example, our obsession with creating the perfect steel that does not break, is forever sharp and never flakes away as rust.
The battle of glass, bronze and steel
Materials in GoT not only add detail to the plot but they also play a part in its history, geography and economy.
The ancient Children of the Forest, despite their high magic (or because of it), were primitive tool users relying on blades of obsidian or dragonglass for their day to day needs. Some 12,000 years ago these immortal beings were overrun by the First Men who came across the sea with weapons of bronze. The battle of the First Men and the Children of the Forest was also a battle between bronze and obsidian – between metal and glass. The latter was no match for the former; the magical children would never again dominate the history of their own land.
Then, after 6000 years, came the Andals, with their ships, a new faith and most importantly, weapons made of steel. The Andals overran all of Westeros, tearing down thousands of weirwood trees and bringing the Age of Heroes to an inglorious end. Powerful ancient gods were no match for the new god: steel.
These men from the east drove the children to the frigid north while all houses – expect the proud Starks – welcomed the new men, their swords and their gods. Of the Gods, there were seven – the Mother, the Father, the Crone, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Stranger and of course, the Smith.
The Smith was the lord not just of steel but also of creation and craftsmanship. As civilisation prospered, materials were no longer some mysterious magic, they were daily divinity – a necessity without which there was no life.
The lost steel of Valyria found in Damascus
At the same time to the east, wonderfully tame dragons turned a land of shepherds to the great Valyria that would be the greatest civilization ever known. The Valyrians were sorcerers turning the dull and boring black metal called iron to the illustrious Valyrian steel. This steel is unbreakable, never loses its sharpness and does not rust. It is distinguishable by the distinct patterns on its surface as shown in the image below.
The Doom of Valyria took with it the secret of their steel, but we on Earth have had metals that are no less legendary. During the crusades, knights from Europe coveted swords made of Damascus steel – that curiously possessed the same surface designs, was supposedly unbreakable, flexible, slender and never turned into rust. Damascus steel was so fabled that it was rumoured that every freshly forged sword was driven into a healthy slave to imbue the blade with his life force.
The secret to Valyrian steel may have been lost in the Doom of Valyria a few centuries ago, but thankfully the secret to Damascus steel has been found: carbon nanotubes. Indeed, microscopic analysis of ancient steel specimens have shown that trace amounts of carbon nanotube-like structures are present in them. We now have a good understanding of how they lead to robust, flexible lightweight swords.
The Great Wall
Before the Andals came, Bran the Builder made the Great Wall of the North, stretching from the Frostfang mountains in the east to the Bay of Seals in the west. 500 kms long, 700 feet high and 300 feet wide, this colossal structure is almost entirely made of ice – and high magic.
In our world, glaciers are often half a kilometer in thickness, so the wall is technically possible. Further, what material is more magical than ice – once a liquid, now a solid – a bonafide shapeshifter, strong and sensuous.
With over eighteen different atomic structures (or phases), ice is the material with the single largest number of variations known to man.
- The ice that we are familiar with is called Ice Ih (‘ice one h’).
- Ice VII (Ice Seven) is a high-pressure variation that is stable up to 500°C!
- Ice II is thought to be the major constituent of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons.
It is no wonder then that the ancients turned to ice to guard them against the terrors of the night – we know very few materials that are so handily magical.
Fantastic glasses and where to find them
Real-life glasses such as obsidian have been found in Ancient Egypt and even in some prehistoric sites, making glass one of the first engineering materials known to man. Even after thousands of years, glass continues to be an exciting material with ever new possibilities.
Today we have glass that is highly thermal shock resistant, does not expand at all with temperature and can withstand the impact of an AK-47! Functionally, we have glasses that selectively allow some parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to enter while absorbing others, glasses that change colour at the press of a button and high-quality optical glasses that have made it all the way to the Hubble space telescope.
These glasses may not stop the White Walkers, but they add immeasurable value to our lives asking very little in return. Our dragonglasses are mined not just from Dragonstone but from all around the world. Today, we even have glasses made of metals that are used in nuclear reactors, electronics and biomedical devices. Like the children in Westeros, we channel the magic of our technology, chemistry and thermodynamics to engineer ever new types of glasses that open for us new worlds of opportunities.
In the articles to come, we shall explore some of these materials in greater detail. We will specifically focus our attention on Valyrian steel, dragonglass and iron. These materials are part of the lore of the Game of Thrones, but they are not all fabrication as we have seen above. This is a deep dive into their history and the materials from our world that have inspired them.
This is a tribute to a world that has captivated us – made us love, hate, fear and lust. It is a testament to the magical world of materials that we live in today. Whether you love Game of Thrones and want to sink deeper into that world before the series ends, or you are simply a lover of materials, this is for you.
Like the Valyrians, the Giants and the Children of the Forest, our lives – despite their sheen – is fragile and precarious. Let us learn its secrets before the night falls upon us.
For the night is dark, and full of terrors.
* These images were taken from Game of Thrones, or from websites created and owned by HBO, the copyright of which is held by HBO.