Game of Thrones: Magic of Ice and Fire

Posted: June 27, 2017 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
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This post will be talking about magic, but not really Harry Potter magic. I’ll be addressing some supernatural underpinnings in HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you’re not up on the show, I wanted to state up front that I’ll definitely be discussing plot points.

The blogger would make an awful maegi. One is supposed to make vague statements  and trick the reader into stumbling onto curses and naked spoilers.

No one disputes that there is magic on display in Game of Thrones.

Daenerys Targaryen was given a brief lecture about magic and dragons by the Warlocks of Qarth, while in their House of the Undying.

When your dragons were born, our magic was born again. It is strongest in their presence, and they are strongest in yours.

This post will be about magic and specifically how Daenerys represents a magic that had gone away from the world, and which is now returning in force. I’ll also discuss that there’s a magic that never went away, a passive but persistent kind of magic. As a counterpoint to Daenerys, there’s a character who is the central focus for that type of supernatural element. (Narratively or symbolically speaking. Yes, it’s going to be one of those posts.)

Dragons and Magic

The warlock Pyat Pree laid it out quite clearly. The birth of dragons caused a renewal of the magic that the warlocks had once had and now have again. It’s like the dragons are little scaly fountains of magic.

That seems to track. There was a time when dragons were more prominent in the world (particularly before Valyria blew up) and things seemed to be more magical-conducive. Then the dragons died out and magic faded with them, apparently.

But now, supernatural elements seem to be on the rise. The Others/White Walkers who have slept for thousands of years in the far north have awoken and are on the march. Brrr. Get those Long Night Long-Johns on.

But the Others were active before Dany hatched her dragons. Despite that, the birth of her dragons do seem to be important in discussing magic, since a case can be made that Dany used magic to bring the dragons to life.

Dany received a crash-course in blood magic from Mirri Maz Duur, the Lhazarene maegi who offered to save Khal Drogo’s life (after Mirri most likely ensured that Drogo’s wound would get infected, dooming him.) Mirri taught Dany the central tenet that only death can pay for life.

With the exchange of Mirri Maz Duur’s life (and arguably Dany’s own life since she was reborn like a phoenix) the Targaryen princess miraculously brought into the world three baby dragons.

Mirri Maz Duur: Wait! I can help out with this.
Dany: Naw, I’m good. Besides, you will be helping. In a way.

If we accept the warlocks’ logic that the dragons are a source of magic, or a critical element in magical renewal, Dany’s role as the mother of dragons makes her symbolically the mother of magic’s renewal. She used magic to create more magic.

Even if she was unaware of what was happening. And maybe that’s even more important. Things happen naturally for Dany when she is truly in need.

This exchange between Daenerys and the Spice King of Qarth kind of summarizes (in dramatic language) this potential in Dany.

Spice King: Forgive me, little princess, but I cannot make an investment based on wishes and dreams! Now, if you’ll pardon me –
Dany: Do you know Illyrio Mopatis, a magister of Pentos?
Spice King: We’ve met. A shrewd man.
Dany: For my wedding, he gave me three petrified dragon eggs. He believed – the world believed – that the ages had turned them to stone. How many centuries had it been since dragons roamed the skies? But I dreamt that if I carried those dragons into a great fire, that they would hatch. When I stepped into the fire, my own people thought I was mad. But when the fire burned out, I was unhurt. The Mother of Dragons.
Spice King: 🙂
Dany: Do you understand? I’m no ordinary woman. My dreams come true.

Unfortunately, Daenerys was unable to sway the Spice King’s mind, but he ended up assassinated by a crazy Qartheen coup orchestrated by Xaro Xoan Daxos and his warlock buds. Dany dealt with the warlocks head on, and came out on top. Dracarys!

Dany had a dream of having an army. Dracarys! She had an army.

That army took over a city that irritated her. Unsullied!

Her successes inspired the slaves of Meereen to overthrow the masters, to support her as ruler. Mhysa!

You’d think she was bearing Sauron’s One Ring, she was so successful.

Dany: WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS?
Sauron: Whoa! Don’t yell! I’ll loan you some, Khaleesi!

The slowdown in her story came when she tried to lock her power away, by chaining up Rhaegal and Viserion after Drogon had been supplementing his diet of goats with helpings of goat-herder children.

Cut off from the source of her power, Dany faced her greatest challenges in ruling a Meereen that was in danger of falling to the well-funded and organized Sons of the Harpy. In response to a large-scale Harpy trap, Drogon flew Dany to safety where she could have one of those enlightenment-granting-wandering-around-the-wilderness journeys that mystics sometimes go on.

This spiritual journey of solitude only lasted a few minutes. Soon after, she was rounded up by a khalasar and marched to Vaes Dothrak. Dany seemed to be in bad straits, but that didn’t last too long. Once she’d gathered up the Khals and set them on fire, thanks to poor fire code enforcement among the Dothraki, the flame-resistant princess was back on top.

Nice place, boys. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.

Drogon, her favorite fire-made-flesh family member, had taken Dany away from a bad situation, and although it seemed like she was out of the frying pan and into the fire – fire is where she works best. The Dothraki escorted Dany to their symbolic place of power, and she swiftly took it over.

Warlocks of Qarth: Wait! That sounds kind of familiar…

This is the Song of Ice and Fire and magically speaking, Dany is the fire. To create a large blaze, you first have to create a spark. (Okay, you first need a bunch of kindling and stack up wood properly, it’s a thing, and then you need to create a spark. Yes, yes. I know.) Dany took a spark of blood magic and brought forth the magic of dragons into the world. And has been directing and using that magic.

It’s a very active and dynamic usage, which is a concept that I’ll return to.

Fire is also dangerous when not respected. Throughout Dany’s story, she’s been underestimated by others who didn’t quite realize how dangerous she was. When one plays with fire rather than treating it seriously, one invariably gets burned.

But lets turn down the heat a bit, because there’s another type of magic, and another character to focus on as a representation of that magic.


Best Served Chilled

As I’ve said above, this is the Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve covered fire, so now for the ice.

Stretching the narrow width of the continent in the north is the Wall, a huge fortification of ice, dotted with castles along the southern face.

The Wall is rumored to be reinforced with spells; this must be true, since the weight of the Wall would cause the base to ripple and flow as glaciers do, moving by inches in a year. The Wall has stood for thousands of years, those inches would add up.

Spells must be in place to strengthen the Wall and stabilize it, and it seems reasonable that the reports of wards used to prevent the passage of the Others and their wights should be taken seriously.

The magic that is imbued in the Wall has not faded away like the now-returned magic of the Warlocks once had. The magic had remained strong through the centuries, but it was focused in one place.

A place that is central to Jon Snow’s story.

I will suggest that Jon is Dany’s counterpart magically, with the polarity sort of reversed. She works magic, brings magical creatures into being, makes things happen. Jon has things (sometimes magical things) happen to him.

Awwww, so cute! (And the puppy is cute too, right?)

Along with the Stark children who also have Old Gods connections to varying degrees, Jon was seemingly divinely granted his direwolf companion, the nigh-supernatural Ghost.

Ghost tends to follow Jon’s directives, but takes specific autonomous initiative against magical threats. Ghost located the dormant wights near the weirwood oath-swearing ceremony, and alerted Jon when those undead brothers rose, threatening Jeor Mormont.

In an event only occurring on the show, Ghost ignored Jon’s calls to follow along with Qhorin’s rangers, and instead chose to head back to the Fist of the First Men, to save Sam Tarly. Ghost possibly sensed the wights heading to the Fist, and Sam is one of Jon’s valuable resources. Ghost was instrumental in keeping that resource intact.

When faced with his love for the wildling Ygritte, Jon did not follow his fiery passions: he knew he had to remain true to the Night’s Watch, the force of men who guard and defend the magical Wall. He is naturally pulled towards ice, despite the temptation of fire.

Jon is given literal power over the Night’s Watch, and therefore figurative power over the ancient Wall itself, when he was elected Lord Commander. This was a position Jon certainly qualified for by his valor, but he owed the election to the choices made by his brothers in the Watch. In a sense, the Wall chose Jon. (Sam *really* helped in the books in influencing the election.)

Jon got a lot of attention from the red witch Melisandre, who recognized something powerful about him.

Jon died at the Wall, murdered by his comrades-in-arms, but was resurrected by an external force.

Davos: This isn’t going to get weird, is it?
Melisandre: No, I only have to get naked once per season, and I hit that mark last episode.

Was he resurrected solely by Melisandre, or with some assistance by the Old Gods? Either way, Jon could not resurrect himself with magic.


Forward vs Neutral

I’m not trying to say that Dany is all action and Jon is all passivity, but in relation to their sources of power (dragons vs Old Gods+) Dany exercises much more agency than Jon. Fire is more active than ice.

Dany’s setbacks occurred when she eased up on the action. Rather than moving forward, conquering her way to Westeros and leaving ash and dust behind her, she settled down in Meereen to try and rule. I’m not saying that this was a wrong choice for her, just that it was contrary to her established magically active nature.

Jon’s major setback occurred when he chose to break from the Wall’s traditions. Had Jon been more conservative, his brothers would have had less incentive to rise against him. (They might still have, based on my assessment of the political liability Jon became when Stannis died.) Again, I’m not saying this was necessarily a wrong choice for Jon. His actions in the long view were in keeping with the spirit of what the Wall was for. But the Night’s Watch didn’t quite remember their old purpose.

The interplay of activity versus passivity can be found in other narrative elements that define Dany and Jon. Right down to their names.

Assuming Jon is Rhaegar and Lyanna’s son, both Dany and Jon are of Targaryen descent.

While King Robert was alive, the Targaryen name was specifically a danger to them both, because of the Baratheon’s anti-Targaryen fury.

Dany was actively on the run from the Baratheon assassins, as her brother Viserys strove to keep them ahead of the usurper’s knives. But their name ended up an asset in getting support and patronage from the wealthy and influential Magister Illyrio. From there it was just a step to arranging the political marriage with Khal Drogo and the following events leading to the rebirth of dragons, etc.

Dany now uses her name as a weapon in negotiation.

Dany: SAY MY NAME!
Yunkish Sailors: Uh, Heisenberg?

People know what it means to cross a Targaryen who has dragons at her command.

In contrast, the infant Jon was given a new name, Snow, to conceal his dangerous Targaryen connection. Just like the huge wall of ice that passively protects the realms of men, Jon’s name of Snow protected him. It gave him advantages since he was acknowledged to be Ned Stark’s son, but more importantly it allowed him, the son of Rhaegar, to hide in plain sight at Winterfell.

Jon clung to the name of Snow, even when Stannis offered to name him Jon Stark, and grant him Winterfell. Jon rejected that more active path, and opted to remain a Snow, living at a wall of ice.

Elemental Properties

Ice and fire are thought of as opposites, but that’s a bit misleading. From a temperature perspective, hot and cold aren’t opposites, cold is just the absence of heat.

Both are used in different ways to combat corruption: fire purifies and ice preserves. One is just more dynamic than the other. (Also, one should be used before the rot sets in, since then the other one will have to be used…)

This aspect of preservation makes me consider that Jon wasn’t resurrected solely by Melisandre’s power alone. Jon died at the Wall, the visible representation of Old Gods ice magic, and the magic there very well might have preserved the luckless Lord Commander to make the resurrection possible, as opposed to Jon coming back a shambling inhuman wight, or like Beric Dondarrion who retained his humanity but less and less of his identity.

Less and less of his identity, and less and less rings on his ringmail.


Alright, I probably don’t need to go on and on that we can probably map different parts of Jon and Dany’s natures onto some yin-yang dichotomy. It’s not hard to do, and we can even discuss the exceptions: Dany awoke her dragons, but she was given the eggs by Illyrio. Jon isn’t just someone sitting around whom magical things happen to; he took action by killing an Other by using Valyrian steel.

But you probably get the picture. Dany is moving towards a goal, but maybe it’s not necessarily the right goal, and she should be re-directed. Jon is mostly just trying to survive the upcoming Long Night, but he’s going to need something more active than the large stretch of supernatural ice at his disposal.

From a narrative standpoint, they definitely seem to need each other. Dany has an internal directive “if I look back, I am lost.” She has to be moving forward. What happens when she runs out of things to conquer?

Jon Snow, on the other hand, has a shaky track record when it comes to actions other than playing defense. His plan to assassinate Mance was foiled by Jon’s own honor after sharing drinks with the wildling king. The best we can say about Hardhome was that Jon got some of the wildlings out, that it wasn’t quite a total disaster.

Total disaster would have been the label applied to his emotional commitment to abandoning his strength, a defensive position, and rushing at Ramsay at Winterfell. (Thank goodness for unexpected cavalry rescues, both at Winterfell and at the Wall.)

So Jon could certainly use someone used to taking the fight to the enemy (so he doesn’t have to), and Dany could use someone who, no longer required to rush headlong into danger, can shore up the defenses.

Let’s just hope that when they do meet, one doesn’t cancel the other out.

Frozen Fire

I started this post with idea of just talking about Jon and Dany: how he’s ice and she’s fire, how they and their story-beats are respectively associated with physical symbols of those elements, etc. But I think this topic can be expanded a bit.

Both Jon and Dany (in my opinion) are figures of magical importance, but they’re largely untrained. Dany does not consciously wield fire-magic, although her dragons are an approximate. Jon does not consciously wield ice-magic, but I feel his being at the Wall was significant to his resurrection.

But there are those that do deliberately and consciously exercise magic. Where do they fall in with this Ice/Fire dichotomy?

The Others (or the White Walkers if you must use the show’s preferred term) seem to fall solidly into the camp of ice magic, right? They have a magic that has preserved them for thousands of years, they wield weapons made of ice, and they’re so cold they shatter steel.

But there’s something more to them, an active component that doesn’t typically seem to be in the ice-magic arsenal. They resurrect the dead. We’ve seen that employed as a tool from the fire-magic utility belt, where it makes sense. It’s the spark of life, when used by the priests of R’hllor.

So this “frozen” spark of undeath that the Others use to raise the dead has an unnatural vibe. (Even if the miracle of resurrection from the Lord of Light isn’t something normally thought of as natural.) It’s a shadowy, dark analog to the fire of life.

This blending of ice and fire magic properties is interesting, and the show has provided us a physical manifestation of that to consider, one that’s tied into the creation of the Others. Dragonglass.

Okay, this is outside the scope of my article, but is that horn going to come into play???

Dragonglass is obsidian (there’s loads of it on Dragonstone, a volcanic isle) but in the books it’s also known by another name. The Valyrians called the substance “frozen fire.”

The Children of the Forest created the first (as far as we know) White Walker using dragonglass. (There was probably some other ritualistic magic happening, but the dragonglass shoved into the heart seemed to be the lynchpin.) Dragonglass converted Benjen Stark from a dying wight-to-be into a high-functioning-sentient-wight, working for the Children against the Others. The Others have the ability to confer “life” to the dead, so the role that dragonglass played in their creation seems significant.

Frozen Fire as a magical system has some of the preservative effects of ice, but not entirely. Benjen’s life was preserved, but he just wasn’t looking all that good.

I’ve already touched on the animating aspect of fire magic, and a frozen-version of that is employed with the wights, but it’s a fragile “spark” – it’s disrupted by the passive wards built into the Wall and the weirwood cave of the Children.

The Others vulnerability to dragonglass, and how their magic has limitations gives clues that for them to be defeated, both ice and fire magic might be required. We assume that Dany’s dragons should be the ultimate weapon against the Others, but we’ve also seen the White Walkers directly suppress fire.

There’s some Rock-Paper-Scissors action happening here in regards to magic (that’s a situation we’ve seen before, in regards to the North, the South, and the Far North) so it’s best that Jon and Dany pool their resources, to cover offense and defense.


Alright, I’ll wrap this up, even though I’ve not covered all of the major magical players (like Bran Stark, whose system of magic seems outside of the ice/fire magical dichotomy) – but I think I’ve hit my marks. But the discussion doesn’t have to end, of course. That’s what comments sections are for.

We’re now at the end of June, with just over two weeks until Game of Thrones Season Seven kicks off. I’ll have two more blog posts to go until the show starts up, and then I can take a well-deserved break from blogging about Westeros and just enjoy the show.


(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 claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.

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 2017 Some Rights Reserved

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Comments
  1. writingjems says:

    Very interesting analysis of Dany and Jon’s fire and ice themes to their narrative beats, and especially the idea of the White Walker’s resurrection being unlife as opposed to the Lord of Light’s resurrection being true life (even if something gets shaved off a bit, like with poor Berric). Personally, I think Dany and Jon pooling resources will be essential, because I don’t think Dany can actually defeat the Walkers. I think her dragons will be essential for handling the wight army en masse, but I think the Walkers themselves will be dealt with by Jon and others bearing Valyrian steel and dragonglass.

    I also think Bran is an interesting middleground. He’s a sort of “active passivity.” While he doesn’t directly engage in conflict, he’s actively seeking answers. And when the true war comes upon Westeros, he might physically be sitting back safely behind the army, but actively engaged in using his powers to assist. His abilities often have a connotation with “green” and touching trees (nature), and as we know, nature requires a balance of seasons – summer and winter, hot and cold, fire and ice.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cool, I appreciate you analyzing Bran in the context of the post, along the activity spectrum, and how he, kind of like the Night’s King, is connected via natural magic (as opposed to the NK’s unnatural magic) to some of the elements.

      Thank you for the comment, your writer’s perspective is a bonus.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “He is naturally pulled towars ice, despite the temptation of fire” – this was great.

    “Jon got a lo to attention from Melisandre, who recognize something poweful about him” – of course, he has kings blood, him being the son of prince Rhaegar. Meli saw that just has she did in Gendry

    Liked by 2 people

  3. joanna says:

    Hey Pat, I’m really late with this. You’re at the Con now – fantastic! Will be waiting for all the news. In the meantime … loved the post. It’s interesting that the very thing thing that made the White Walkers – dragonglass – can ‘unmake’ them, like an antidote.

    Ah yes, the yin yang effect. What one lacks, the other has in spades.

    Jon seems to be blissfully unaware of any magical connection he may have.
    – Melisandre did it
    – Lucky I had that Valyrian sword

    Whereas Dany ‘wears’ and rides her magic – literally.

    I’m curious as to How and If they eventually pool their resources. Dany is obsessed breaking the wheel. And Jon’s communication skills suck. In fact, they got him killed. He failed to convince Little Bear. And failed to convince Lord Glover. He gave the most Unromantic Account Ever in the History of Romance of what it’s like to be with a woman.

    “You’re wrapped up in her, she’s wrapped up in you”

    Hardhome:

    “Mance? Oh yeah, I shot an arrow through his heart”

    Way to go Jon, nearly getting yourself killed in alliance negotiations.

    So, anyway, Jon goes to Dragonstone with tales of Wights, Others and the End of the World is nigh.

    Jon: Hello Auntie, can you loan me your dragons? Ice monsters, giant spiders etc
    Dany: Have you taken your meds today?

    Let’s hope Davos saves the day, as usual 🙂
    But I think Dany will be late to the fray – “Got me some kingdoms to conquer”

    – and Jon will be left hanging in the breeze.

    The Last Hero

    Liked by 1 person

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