“… sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.” - A Storm of Swords
Magic in “A Song of Ice and Fire” is one of those subjects that’s always engaged fans. A Game of Thrones basically starts with none at all. There may be a 700-foot Wall made of ice that stretches 300 miles, yes, and the prologue opens with the mysterious Others with their icy blades and blue-eyed wights, but after this glimpse at an eerie threat in the lands beyond the Wall, the magic largely disappears from the novel. Each novel gradually expands the scope and importance of magic, although its use is rarely pivotal so far, and often comes with a price. Martin has compared his approach to the reintroduction of magic to the setting to boiling a crab: put it in the water when it’s already hot and it will leap out, but place it in cold water and gradually heat it and it’ll stay put. It seems just as well that it’s now growing, as a new Long Night—the legendary winter that lasted generations, until the Night’s Watch defeated the Others in the Battle for The Dawn—threatens while the Seven Kingdoms is mired in the struggle between high lords.
It wasn’t always the case that magic was so rare and limited, as the wonder-works of the past reveal. The Wall’s physics-defying grandeur has to do with the magic in it, magic that also prevents magic from crossing its boundary, which likely explains a large part of why the threatened destruction of the Wall (by the ancient Horn of Winter, which legend says could wake giants from the earth) is such a danger. Jon no longer felt his strange connection to the direwolf, Ghost, when the Wall separated them. Another ancient bulwark, far to the south, seems to share this property: the walls of Storm’s End, said to be the seventh and mightiest castle raised on the site by the first Storm King. Both of them are connected together by legends that claim Brandon the Builder oversaw their raising, and even that children of the forest helped build them.
It’s the children of the forest who were most associated with magic in the past of Westeros. Their greenseers were said to be able to see through the eyes of the carved weirwoods they left across Westeros (the First Men and later the Andals cut most of them down), to have power over beasts and birds and fish, and to see the future with their greensight. When the First Men first crossed the land bridge that joined the eastern continent of Essos to Westeros, the songs say the greenseers gathered at the site of Moat Cailin to “bring down the hammer of the waters,” shattering the land bridge so that now the maps show the Broken arm in Dorne and the string of islands called the Stepstones. But it’s the songs that say it, while the maesters seem hesitant. If the children had a different kind of wisdom, that was one thing, but the power to shatter continents?
Once you move past the children, native magic in Westeros is much rarer. There are descendants of the First Men on either side of the wildlings who can still skinchange, slipping into the minds of beasts. Does Lord Yohn Royce’s ancient bronze armor, covered in the runes of the First Men, truly protect its wearer from harm? Perhaps. On the other hand, though the priests of the Drowned God on the Iron Islands see their ability to resurrect a man that has been drowned (an extreme form of baptism) as a show of the god’s favor, its description—and the fact that a maester of the greenlands was able to use his study of it to resussitate Ser Duncan the Tall, many years before the era of the novels—makes one suspect it’s a primitive sort of CPR rather than any true magic. There were the dragons and the occasional Targaryens who had dreams of things to come, but they were in origin foreign to Westeros. Wildfire, the “substance” made by pyromancers of the Guild of Alchemists, may also have its origins in the east, but their guild is certainly faded from its old glories as wildfire began to lose its potence.
Even the maesters of the Citadel have a link for the study of magic, but to reference another work of literature, it’s not unlike the difference between theoretical magicians and practicing magicians. Not that the students don’t all try to actually make a spell work, but they inevitably fail, confirming the Citadel’s view that magic is largely gone from the world.
Until recently, that is, as events across the narrow sea have developed.
Essos is the place where magic seems to have clung most tenaciously, though with faded glory. The red priests of R’hllor can occasionally glimpse images in flames, the warlocks of Qarth drink shade of the evening to take the caul from their eyes and see into the other world, and in Asshai by the Shadow all manner of sorcerers—necromancers, spellsingers, aeromancers, and more—are said to gather and practice their arts. Perhaps Essos retains that magic because of the Shadow, but it may have to do with dragons and ancient Valyria. The dragonlords of Valyria created the greatest empire the world has known with the dragons they controlled. Their magic was used to build and control their domain: straight roads of fused stone that run straight as arrows and show no wear after centuries, citadels of fantastical shapes made of stone worked as if it had been clay, glass candles that allowed men to communicate at vast distances, Valyrian steel that could hold an edge like no other, and more.
The Freehold of Valyria was a marvel, until the Doom came some centuries prior to the novels. Even the maesters say that magic has been in decline since then, and doubtless have their theories as to why. One that seems hard to ignore, however, has to do with the dragons that forged their empire. The pyromancers claim that the “substance,” wildfire, was more potent when the Targaryen dragons still lived. Was it the death of so many dragons in the Doom, a cataclysm that shattered Valyria and left a few remnants of its fiery mountains among the demon-haunted Smoking Sea, that actually heralded the decline of magic? And if dragons somehow returned, is that why magic is now growing in strength?
Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. Westeros.org can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.