Every Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal Westeros.org present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index. Some spoilers inherent.
In my previous article, I discussed the history of Westeros in terms of the vast time scales regularly mentioned—the Wall founded 8,000 years ago, the wars between Valyria and Ghis 6,000 years ago, and so on. One of the points to come out of the discussion was that the time-related problem some had wasn’t the time scale, but the multi-year seasons that are a fixture of the novels. It’s one of the first thing anyone mentions when they’re trying to describe the setting. After all, there’s been a long, nine year summer of peace and plenty, and the fact that everyone fears it’s coming to an end is a persistent part of the background. “Winter is coming,” the words of House Stark, are foreboding.
But what causes these strange, unpredictable seasons? We know for certain that they’re not in any way predictable, at least not with the knowledge and observations of the people in the setting. These are “proper” seasons, though, that much we do know. If it’s summer in Westeros, it’s summer in the rest of the hemisphere, too. And yes, it really does seem to have something to do with axial tilt, much as our seasons do. It’s noted that winter means that the days grow shorter. It’s not simply that the weather becomes really cold or really warm, the planet itself appears to change its orbital dynamics in very strange and unpredictable ways.
It’s been a popular topic on the A Song of Ice and Fire forums, this whole matter of what causes the weird seasons. Suggested theories have ranged as far as suggesting dark planets in the near vicinity, perhaps a binary star, and more. But it’s rather fruitless; the author is prosaic on the topic and has provided the direct answer: it’s magic, trying to figure out a scientific, realistic explanation is bound to fail. If the magic means that some sorcerous force works on a planet-wide scale to tilt the planet this way or that... well, that’s what it means. Or is it? Can there be some combination of physical causes that would approximate the apparent-unpredictability and lengthiness of the seasons? I’ve yet to see someone manage anything convincing, but it may be an interesting puzzle for the more scientifically inclined.
Even if we put aside the cause of it, another question comes up: how do you know a year has passed, if you don’t have a dependable cycle of seasons? Martin’s response has noted that a year is related to the completion of one revolution around the sun, and that seasons are a secondary effect. This is why, presumably, the maesters of the Citadel spend so much time on stellar observations, so they can mark the change of seasons. As I was working on this article, however, I admit that two things make me wonder if it “really” works. For one thing, yes, one can use stars as a means of determining where the planet is in its orbit...but doesn’t that depend on a dependable axial tilt? If the planet is “wobbly,” in such a way that it can make seasons last unpredictable lengths, wouldn’t stellar observation have to wrestle with that as well?
This may be a surmountable problem. Once you have a good stellar map, I’d suppose over time you could make enough observations so that you can correct for tilt and still be able to determine where abouts you are in your orbit around the sun. No doubt it’s a complicated thing, and no doubt that’s why the Conclave of the Citadel ends up meeting and going over their amassed records before they declare the start of a new season. In Westeros, white ravens—specially bred by the maesters—are ceremoniously sent out, bearing the tidings.
But one problem seems somewhat less surmountable. Correcting for tilt, observing various astral objects, and so on could probably let you figure out when the Summer and Winter solstice took place. It wouldn’t be predictable, given the way the planet’s tilt refuses to be predictable, but presumably within a short time observations will reveal that the days are lengthening where recently they were shortening, or vice versa....
Presumably, the maesters know that at a certain point of day-length, they’ve crossed into spring or fall. But perhaps I’m entirely wrong, and this notion of correcting for weird, wobbly planetary tilt doesn’t really work. Would you have to amass tens of thousands of observations to be able to make charts that speed up the processing? I’d certainly be interested in seeing books of astrology/astronomy in the setting—I do not believe any have been specifically mentioned—because I’m sure they’d be full of useful information.
The last thing that people wondered about regarding the seasons is a genuine question: just how do you survive a ten-year winter? Or how did people survive the Long Night, a winter that allegedly lasted a generation? The answer is...we don’t really know. Of course, we don’t know that the Long Night actually lasted so long. But there have been multi-year winters in living memory...and in the unknown, southern hemisphere of the planet, they’re suffering a nine year winter right now. Maybe there’s no landmasses much further south than the equator?
I do know that grain can be stored for up three years, if properly turned and kept aired. And as the Russians of the Middle Ages showed, permafrost makes a wonderful natural refrigerant. Surviving a year-long winter seems doable. But after that, there are bigger questions. Where do you get meat? How do you get all the vitamins you need? The Starks of Winterfell may have the wherewithal to keep “glass gardens” where they can grow vegetables and fruits even in winter, but the vast majority of the North doesn’t have that benefit. And how do plants survive? I’ve even been asked if it’s possible that animals might be capable of hibernating for decades in the setting...and I don’t really know the answer to that. It’s not mentioned.
But surely, if a planet was as wonky as the planet of A Song of Ice and Fire, there would have to be some sort of adaptation to it. Maybe plants and trees are capable of stasis, shutting everything down and subsisting on a tiny drip of stored energy for years at a time? The same with animals, one supposes.
In the end, the long seasons are probably a phenomenon that need to be seen as a conceit of the story, one that shouldn’t be looked at too closely. It provides impetuous for a lot of the plot, making the struggles over crowns and thrones seem short-sighted in the extreme, but it’s there to heighten the stakes and not really to provide a sense of realism....
And maybe, just maybe, they’re par of the reason that Westeros seems relatively stagnant, in terms of development. I think back to Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” where the very rare appearance of stars in the night sky has been marked by civilizations running mad and destroying themselves, resetting the developmental clock as the few survivors pick up the pieces. Does Westeros become like this, after every many-years winters? It might very well do so. Perhaps they’ve picked up the pieces again and again over millennia, and that’s one reason that they haven’t yet reached a post-medieval sort of era.
“Winter is coming,” and it means terrible things. And it also means a few headaches, as new readers try to puzzle through these same questions, hunting for answers when there’ll probably be none beyond, “It’s magic.” The “human heart in conflict with itself”—a favorite Faulkner quote of GRRM’s—doesn’t really require scientifically-rigorous astronomy.
Illustration of Sansa in the snow by Michael Komarck
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.