Wed
Apr 13 2011 1:00pm

The Surprising Growth of Magic in A Song of Ice and Fire

Magic in A Song of Ice and Fire“... 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.

14 comments
Joel Cunningham
1. jec81
fascinating... but where is all this coming from? i often have trouble following the present-day plot of ASOIAF... most of this history totally eluded me.
Marcus W
2. toryx
One of my favorite things about the series is the way magic isn't an overriding concern. It's more commonly too powerful a device in the fiction (probably the main reason I don't care for the Malazahn series) for my tastes.

With ASoIaF, however, it's hardly present at all and only grows slowly over time in a way that's really organic to the story.

Though I have to admit, I'm not particularly fond of the whole Worg concept. On the other hand, that's still a pretty new thing too. There's no telling how it'll develop. That uncertainty is another thing I love.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
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.

Hmm, that's not really how you do it. This would result in some really overcooked crab. Bring the water to a boil, put in the crab, cook about 6 to 10 minutes (depending on crab size).Crabs do NOT jump out of boiling water. Probably a very poor analogy on Martin's part.
Tegan
4. Tegan
I loved the creeping sense of horror I got from the growing magic the first time I read the books. Dragons may be the most visible form in which it's returning, but the second most visible is all those undead. The wights, the drowned, Berric, etc... you slowly start realizing that there are a lot more dead people walking around than there should be.
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
Ironborn, no magic.

Elsewhere, surpringly large amounts of magic or apparent magic as series develops: Others, wights, psychically connected direwolves, Valyrian steel, the Wall, Dragonstone/Storms End, dragons, Mirri Maz magic, Melissandre R'hillor stuff, greensight, warg, Asshai shadowbinders, House of the Undying, Faceless Men, Coldhands, Un-Cat, Gregorenstein, Horn of Winter, Maester candles, etc.

@1 - scattered through the books.

@2 - I like Malazan but preponderance of magic is disorientating.

@3 - was this an urban myth? I cook lobsters not crabs but, like yours, none has jumped out yet.
Roland of Gilead
6. pKp
Actually, what I found most interesting about magic in ASoIaF was an off-hand remark by a rogue maester at the very end of A Feast for Crows (the last book in the series so far). I don't have it here to check, but it read something like this :
"Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around ? There is no place for magic in the world the Citadel is building".

It implies a sort of struggle between the Citadel (the order of the Maesters, who are the closest thing Westeros has to scientists) and the magical nature of the world. It actually reminded me of this oldish Sierra videogame called Arcanum in which science (well, 19th century science, but you get the point) and magic coexisted and fought each other. I would love for this concept to be developed further in the books to come. The "song of ice and fire" might very well be the battle between the magical tradition (dragons => fire) and the scientific dream of the Citadel (ice => reanimated corpses ? Obsidian candles ? Not really clear on that).

I might be drawing a bit much from a single line of dialogue, but it struck me as important. And anyway, we're probably going to have to wait for the 6th book to find out about that...hope I'm alive when it comes out :)
C C
7. Hatgirl
Before the conversation goes further off track, the best way to kill a crab is chill & stab and the best way to kill a lobster is chill & split or chill & stab
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
8. tnh
The folktale about the critter not leaping out of gradually heating water is normally told about frogs, not crabs. It's not actually true about frogs, either.

Back to the magic ...
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
So, as to the actual magic, I found it a bit disappointing in AGoT (the only volume I've read so far). We get to see the Others right away and some hints at magic, but for the most part it is then absent until close to the end of the book.
I tend to like magic in my fantasy, so the tease didn't do much for me.
On the other hand, I could tell from the various hints that something had happened to curtail the use of magic in this part of the world, so the magic story seemed like it was going to follow the magic returning path--and that can be an ok path for a series.
The hints at the Shadow and the Doom that falls on Valyria were all interesting uses of what I hope will be foreshadowing.
Tegan
10. Oblivion
@ Shalter

Don't worry. The further you get into the series, the more the magic begins to come back (Just read the prologue of A Clash of Kings already!) but as someone above mentioned earlier there's a definite horror element to it as well. All indications point towards a massive LoTR style fantasy war occurring in the later books... Once Martin gets to writing them of course. As much as we enjoy reading about scheming lords and vile backstabbing, the Game of Thrones appears to be preamble to something much bigger in scope.
Steven Halter
11. stevenhalter
Oblivion: That's good to know.
I seem to be able to contain myself from reading forward so far in ASoIaF, so I'm going with that for the read here. I don't particularly mind spoilers, though.
Elio García
12. Egarcia
@1 As Rob said, it's all from the books, just scattered all over the place.

@3, @8, I thought it did sound a bit wrong... but that's how George tells it. :)
Tegan
13. Hummer
I wish the books would have been written utterly without magic. The scenes with magic in it spoil all the fun for me, I almost didn't make it past the introduction.
Tegan
14. JerryLove
The dragons were getting smaller and weaker as magic declined.
The dragon eggs sat unhatched for centuries.

Correlation is not causation; perhaps the dragons are bellweathers of magic rather than the origins of it?

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