This article will be talking about Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series. There will be spoilery details if you’re not up to date on the show.
For five seasons of Game of Thrones, there had been occasional references to things that were Valyrian. Mostly weapons that were made of Valyrian steel, although Xaro Xoan Daxos had a Valyrian steel safe deposit box door. Daenerys dramatically schooled a slave master in Astapor by speaking the High Valyrian language.
But what does “Valyrian” mean? It took five seasons, but finally the show presented the noun from which the magical adjective was derived from: Valyria.
Ye Olde Valyria
To be fair, Valyria was mentioned in the second season, when Team Dany was in Qarth (allegedly the greatest city that ever was or ever will be.) Jorah had a conversation with a masked woman who seemed to have some insight into Ser Jorah’s activities as an informant.
This conversation happened as the woman (whose name is Quaithe, not that it matters since we haven’t heard from her in three seasons and I doubt we will again…) was busy painting magical runes on a ship-captain whose voyage was going to bring him close to “Old Valyria”. So sailing near Valyria (wherever that was) sounded dangerous.
On the show, Tyrion and Ser Jorah Mormont do exactly that. Even moreso. They don’t just sail near Valyria, they sail through it. And they helpfully provided some backstory as they did so.
Tyrion: For thousands of years, the Valyrians were the best in the world at almost everthing. And then…
Jorah: And then they weren’t.
Tyrion: And then they weren’t.
They held each other close/
and turned their backs upon the end.
The hills that split asunder/
and the black that ate the skies.
The flames that shot so high and hot/
that even dragons burned/
would never be the final sights/
that fell upon their eyes.
A fly upon a wall/
the waves the sea wind whipped and churned.
A city of a thousand years/
and all that men had learned.
The Doom consumed it all alike/
and neither of them turned.
Tyrion: I *would* clap…
What remains of Valyria is jungles and ruins. People rarely go there.
As Jorah mentioned, pirates avoid it and ship-captains superstitiously fear it. Since it’s so shunned, it appears to have become something like a leper colony. Except instead of lepers, it’s for the Stone Men, people who have succumbed to the contagious and disfiguring disease greyscale. It turns out the greyscale inhabitants are actually a pretty good reason to avoid Valyria.
So what was the Doom? It’s not explicitly said on the show, but from Tyrion’s recitation, the hills were split and a hot blackness rose up and killed dragons in flight. This sounds like a Pompeii-level eruption, that wiped out an advanced civilization that had been dominant for millennia.
The Valyrian Legacy – Dragons
The Valyrians had ruled an empire on the winged backs of dragons; I assume that the dragons were native to the volcanic landmass.
But most of those fire-spitting reptiles died in the destruction of old Valyria. Some survived on the island of Dragonstone, a Valyrian fortress populated by one of the great families of Valyria, the Targaryens. Sadly (for dracophiles) the strongest of those dragons died in a Targaryen civil war, and the remnants produced weaker and weaker offspring, until none remained.
Dragonstone is lousy with carved dragon ornamentation. Legend has it that some of the carvings are actually sleeping dragons, and just require a powerful magic to awaken them. Whether that particular belief is true or not, dragon eggs survived the centuries, were placed in the funeral fire for Khal Drogo, and brought to life by the will of the last Targaryen, Daenerys.
Did I say last Targaryen?
Dany does have a great-uncle (something like that) in old Maester Aemon, the brother of King Aegon “Egg” Targaryen. So there were three dragons and at least two Targaryens.
But then he died.
Maybe there are more Targaryens around, but we’ll have to be skeptical until rumors get substantiated. Anyway, it’s unfortunate that as the dragon population is on the rise, the Targaryen (and therefore Valyrian-descendant) population was on the decline.
The Valyrian Legacy – Steel
Something that is uncommon but not quite as rare as dragons or Targaryens, is Valyrian steel, nearly always in the form of weaponry. Most of the great houses of Westeros have a house heirloom in the form of a Valyrian steel sword.
Valyrian steel is a metallurgical wonder, a wonder that cannot be replicated by current weapon-smithing technology in Westeros and Essos, although some Volantenes (Volantis was a large subject state to Valyria) have enough crafting lore to rework existing Valyria metal.
Why can’t any new metal be made? The books make some hints about Valyrian steel being forged with magical spells, but I think most people assume that dragonfire was being used as part of the forging process. After all, Balerion’s breath was instrumental in creating the Iron Throne by melting down a thousand mundane steel swords.
So it’s possible that in the future, should Daenerys be so inclined to attend a blacksmithing trade school, that Valyrian steel could once again be produced. Although I think Dany should take some political science classes first. Maybe there will be less of a need for making more weapons.
I’m kidding. There’s a huge need for more Valyrian steel.
The Looming Doom of Westeros
The Doom that destroyed Valyria half-a-millennia before (I think I have the timeline right) is very different than the current doom that’s massing up north, beyond the Wall.
Fire killed Valyria, but now Ice is getting its turn in the form of an army of the dead led by the supernatural Others, the White Walkers.
The undead soldiers are bad enough, since they’re dead they need to be bludgeoned and possibly burned. But the White Walkers are different. They’re so cold, conventional weapons shatter against them, as Sam Tarly discovered when the grip of a wizened Other destroyed his Night’s Watch issue ranger sword.
But as Jon Snow (the Lord Commander with the best hair in centuries) discovered, Valyrian steel is hardy enough to engage with the weaponry of the Others, and destroys White Walkers.
Big deal, I imagine some of you thinking. Fat Sam killed a White Walker with some of that dragonglass, a dagger made from obsidian.
Right on, he did. Dragonglass and Valyrian steel seem to have the same properties. If you stab a White Walker with either, the supernatural being shatters.
I’ll stress the most important word in the above sentence: IF.
When Sam dagger’d the Other, it was basically wearing some rags. Lots of exposed skin. (I have no idea why this one was eschewing clothing. I’m guessing the weather was too warm still, and it was enjoying wearing his summer-time briefs.)
The Others who showed up at Hardhome were at least wearing something like armor. Dragonglass is obsidian, which is kind of brittle. You know, it’s called dragonglass, not dragontransparentaluminum.
If the Others, the White Walkers, armor up even lightly, the dragonglass weaponry might not be that effective. Anyway, the dragonglass probably isn’t effective against the wights (the walking (and running) feral corpses.) But Jon Snow was definitely bisecting ghouls with his sword Longclaw.
Don’t get me wrong, send a boat to Dragonstone and get a bunch of obsidian spearpoints and arrowheads made. But put your money on dragonsteel.
Wait! But DRAGONS!
Yeah, dragons might do more in the fight against the wintry warriors than just lending their name to obsidian’s quaint other handle, or acting as bellows heating up a smithy.
One would assume that dragonfire would roast the wights (who are vulnerable to fire) and hopefully the White Walkers. We know that the Others (not the wights) have some resistance to fire. The spear carrying ice-demon who strode boldy into the Wildling longhouse at Hardhome had an aura that pushed back the flames of the burning lodge.
Fire generally doesn’t behave like that, so it certainly had a supernatural vibe. How would this aura fare against the (probably) equally supernatural flames from a dragon’s maw? I’d put my money on the dragon. (Not literally. I’d stay far away from the big lizard and put my money in a bookie’s hands.)
But from what we’ve seen in the most recent finale of Game of Thrones, dragons aren’t unstoppable. The Sons of the Harpy were putting Drogon at risk from spears, so although dragons might be very effective as weapons deployed against the Others and their hordes, there are only three dragons. Losing even one might be catastrophic.
The Doom of Valyria – Just a thing that happened, or a thing that happened for a reason?
Although I’ve implied that Valyria’s downfall was a natural disaster, for all I know its destruction was part of a much larger game going on, a contest between elemental powers.
Just like Littlefinger believes he’s thinking long term but is missing the bigger conflict, those who are now recognizing the return of the White Walkers and the oncoming Long Night as a bigger deal than the Iron Throne might not have the perspective to appreciate the eldritch actions behind the scenes that are driving the conflict between the Others, humans, the Children of the Forest, dragons, and the ebb and flow of magic in the world.
Maybe one day, Bran and his metaphysical third eye will be able to shed some light on that.
And you all thought Bran wasn’t important! Shame on you.
Assuming I’m right and he is important.
If he’s not, then shame on me for shaming you.
Hodor. (Always good as a last word.)
(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.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there. (Just not the discussion and poem recitation between Jorah and Tyrion. I have no claims to that.)
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.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved