History Behind the Thrones: The Unsullied of Essos and Egypt’s Slave Dynasty

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

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As the series currently sits Daenery Targaryen is currently hangin’ out in Mereen, playing queen with approximately the same level of effectiveness that I imagine a bull would run a china shop.

However, in spite of her constant bumbling, fumbling, and stumbling, she has thus far managed to maintain her precarious position of power in a city, society, and culture she knows absolutely nothing about. This is due in large part to The Unsullied: Daenarys’s personal army of highly trained former slaves.

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These highly trained soldiers make up one of the most feared military forces in the world (in spite of their lack of testosterone) and with them behind her Daenarys has been allowed (thus far) to mismanage the cities of the old Ghiscari Empire to her heart’s content. This isn’t exactly uncommon in history. Rulers throughout time have taken, and held power, in spite of their own amble deficiencies because they had a strong military force at their back. However, there is one particular group from history that I am often reminded of when I see The Unsullied; The Mamluks.

For a little under 300 years the Mamluks established a dynasty that expelled the Crusaders from the Middle East, halted the advancement of the Mongol Hordes under Hulagu Khan (grandson of Ghengis Khan), and just generally acted like badasses from their Sultanate in Cairo. What is interesting about the Mamluks, however, is that they are not a particular “house” or “dynasty” but rather a specific rank or caste of slave soldiers in Egypt during the middle ages. They were a military caste under direct control of the Ayyubid Dynasty (the dynasty of Saladin) until they overthrew their masters and established their own Sultanate in 1250.

In the case of the Mamluks they were purchased as young boys (much like the Unsullied) and trained until they had gained mastery in their martial way of life. At this point they were freed, but still expected to stay with and serve the master who had purchased them, only as free men now. The Unsullied are in fact free by Daenerys’s own decree, but rather than choosing to attempt to return to whatever remains of their lives before they were purchased, they too have chosen to stay with their self proclaimed master (Daenerys). In either case, however, the rest of the world still considers the two forces “slave armies” in spite of the fact that they are actually freedmen.

In either case, however, we have a region of our given world which is rich in history, tradition, and culture. In the case of the real world Egypt, one of the cradles of civilization whose famous Nile River was sustaining powerful Kingdoms while Western Europe was simply concerned with the size of their goat herds. And in the case of George R. R. Martin’s world the city of Mereen within the boundaries of the old Empire of Ghis was already old and mighty before the fabled Valyria had even been brought into existence. And in both cases a once disenfranchised, but supremely important martial, servile class has risen up to commandeer and rule this civilization.

Now, the parallel isn’t perfect, but there are several key factors relating the two groups. The Mamluks were never castrated as the Unsullied are. The Mamluks were prized horsemen skilled with a steppe short bow since the boys taken as slaves to be added to the Mamluk ranks were at first largely from the Kipchak Turks on the Steppes of Eastern Ukraine. The Unsullied, in turn, are prized infantry men employing hoplite tactics. In both cases, however, the spear or lance, has been made central to the depiction of these warrior elites.

Mamluk Lances

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Unsullied: Also proficient with the use of pointy things.

Moreover, their reputations as warriors of fabled skill and prowess permeate the whole world int he case of both groups. And perhaps even more interestingly, both groups were compared to Steppe Tribes in order to prove their martial worth. The Mamluks famously defeated a depleted Mongol force in Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, halting the advance of the once unstoppable Mongol Hordes at long last. This victory over the allegedly invincible Mongols allowed Europeans to justify their subsequent defeats at the hands of the Mamluks. After all, they explained, these are the same warriors who defeated the Mongols, its no wonder we were defeated. It wasn’t a fair fight.

The Unsullied, then, when Daenerys is first told about them, are compared favorably to Martin’s own Mongol Horde, the Dothraki. The Slavers in charge of training and selling Unsullied inform her that these are some of the only warriors in the known world who can possibly defeat a Dothraki Khalasaar.

In both situations then we have a caste of elite, world renowned slave soldiers. They are both freed and both rise to immense importance in the political affairs of the world around them (either creating a Kingdom of their own in Egypt as the Mamluks did or as the backbone of a fledgling Empire in the case of Daenerys). The Mamluks eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks whose use of gunpowder proved too much for even an exceptional military tradition such as theirs. It remains to be seen what kind of fate will ultimately befall the Khaleesi and her besieged army in Mereen. However, whereas the Mamluks could constantly replenish their ranks, either with the acquisition, training, and freeing of more slave boys or, ohhh… idk… by procreating… the Unsullied are not so fortunate. So whatever Daenerys does, if she plans to use the Unsullied for it she better act quickly, cuz no matter how powerful these guys are they have a definitely shelf life. *cough* *cough* GO TO WESTEROS ALREADY *cough*

Faith and Darkness: Thoughts on Black Death

black-death-posterA few weeks ago I found myself hunting for material to watch as I eagerly awaited the Season 5 premier of Game of Thrones. I was trolling the free catalog on Amazon Prime as one does on a Tuesday night when I stumbled across the 2010 film Black Death. Now, this movie came out a little less than a year before season 1 of Game of Thrones (April 2011 vs June 2010 for Black Death) but stars a couple GoT all stars in Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Carice van Houten (Melisandre) which certainly caught my eye along with Eddie Redmayne who I personally really enjoy. Tie that to the fact that it was a medieval fantasy movie, and it certainly felt like I had the perfect stop gap to occupy my time before the new season of GoT. What I got, however, was even better than I could have expected.

I expected an action packed swords and sorcery hack and slash thriller, but what I got was a hauntingly dark look into the human psyche and the concept of (specifically but not exclusively Christian) faith which I somehow enjoyed. The film opens in the full heat of the Black Death’s reign of terror over Medieval Europe. Our protagonist is Osmund (Redmayne), a young monk serving in a monastery overlooking a plague ridden English town. Osmund, although he is a monk, has not been fully faithful to his divine vows as he is clearly in love with a woman, Averill, for whom he steals food and whom he encourages to flee the town (in spite of their mutual affection) in order to survive the plague in the remote forest outside of town. She reluctantly agrees to go but only after telling Osmund (who has refused to go with her) that she will wait for him for 2 weeks in the forest. Osmund, in turn, prays to God for a sign of what he should do… stay in the monastery and remain loyal to his vows, or follow his hearth and flee with Averill. His prayers are seemingly answered when Ulric (Sean Bean), a Nobleman sent by the Bishop to persecute a necromancer in a nearby town who has apparently subdued the Plague through the power of Satan. Ulric requires a holy man who can lead his expedition through the very forest where Osmund has just sent Averill into hiding so the party can reach this town in a marsh on the other side of the forest.

Believing he has received the sign from God which he prayed for, Osmund quickly agrees to accompany Ulric, even against the wishes of his Abbot.

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On the way to this village, however, Osmund leads the party to the place where he was to reunite with Averill, only to discover that she has apparently been murdered by bandits. Moreover, these same bandits soon ambush Osmund and the party, and one of Ulric’s men is killed in the ensuing combat. Ulric is furious to find out Osmund’s initial intentions for joining them, and even more wroth that Osmund’s selfishness cost him one of his Holy Warriors. Nevertheless, the party, including a now distraught Osmund, continues on with their original mission to persecute the satanic necromancer.

Eventually they reach their destination and discover that the village in the marsh which they have been sent to find appears no different than any other village across the English countryside with 2 exceptions: the Plague has not yet reached them, and their Chapel is abandoned and hasn’t been used in years. Ulric decides that the party should lay low and stay in town for the night until they can discover where the necromancer is hiding. That night Ulric and the other Holy Warriors are drugged while Osmund is lured off by the town’s matriarch Langiva (van Houten). Langiva leads Osmund into the forest where she and her followers are conducting a ceremony to raise someone from the dead.

black death raise dead

But it isn’t just anyone, it is Averill. Osmund flees in terror after watching Averill rise from the grave, knowing now that Langiva is the necromancer they have come to kill. Osmund, Ulric, and the others are all captured, tortured, and ordered to give up their faith, declare that God is dead, or be brutally murdered by Langiva and her followers. However, Langiva hasn’t completely given up on Osmund yet. She desperately wants to convince a Holy man to give up his faith, and as such has Osmund meat up with the now resurrected Averill. Osmund, however, seeing that her body lives while her soul is trapped in purgatory, decides to kill Averill in order to free her from the pagans and die himself with his fellow Christians.

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While Ulric is being tortured, however, it is revealed that he himself already has the plague, and the entire town is now at risk of infection. In the chaos that ensues following this reveal the other Holy Warriors break free and ultimately Osmund, and one other warrior (Wolfstan) are able to escape, but not before Langiva reveals to Osmund that everything she did was a sham. She is not a sorceress, but rather simply drugged Averill and gave her the antidote in order to trick the townsfolk and Osmund into thinking she had raised Averill from the dead. Osmund, then, murdered a living and healthy Averill. Upon realizing this he becomes distraught, allows Langiva to escape, and his forcibly dragged out of the town to safety by Wolfstan.

What was so spectacularly interesting to me about this movie, then, is the questions it asks about faith (specifically pertaining to Christianity in the Middle Ages, but also being applicable to the concepts of faith and belief at large). It is faith in God which initially separates Osmund and Averill, and which ultimately results in Osmund murdering his beloved. It is faith in God that drives Ulric on his quest for the Bishop . And it is faith in the false sorceress Langiva and her power to drive away the Plague that drives the people of the village to murder for her and serve her.

In this sense, then, belief and faith are incredibly powerful things which can ultimately result in a great deal of harm. The Black Death was described as many things in the Middle Ages: God’s Wrath for human sin, the Devil’s Work running rampant among mankind, or even the work of individual human witches doing Satan’s work among mankind when in fact it was simply a disease spread by nature. However, belief and fear drove the people of Europe to lash out at themselves (in the form of the flagellants pictured in the film) or one another as we see when Ulric’s party encounters a group of townsfolk burning a suspected witch. In the case of this second scenario Osmund begs Ulric to help the girl as she is clearly innocent, and in the end Ulric gives her the only help he can. He kills her so that she doesn’t need to suffer by being burnt at the stake. The townsfolk’s belief in her guilt is too strong for her to be saved regardless of her guilt or innocence.

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Moreover, the faith of the marsh villagers drives them commit horrible crimes against Christians because they believe that she keeps them safe from the plague and even raises them from the dead. In the end, however, she reveals herself to be a deceiver who acts how she does for no reason other than her own lust for power. That is what is truly horrifying about her. She merely does what she does out of a hatred for the society around her and her own desire to control others. And even some of her followers simply follow her only because “she is pretty” and “she is there” when God remains intangible and distant. It is much easier to have faith in someone who is right in front of you and employs trickery than something ethereal.

The truth about the plague free town was simply that the marsh surrounding it kept plague carrying fleas from entering the village. It was not Langiva who kept the pestilence away just like it wasn’t witches who caused it. Nature was guilty in both respects, and humans simply took advantage of the situation and ran away with matters to create something evil out of it. Faith drove them to horrible ends. Indeed, even Ulric’s final act of sacrifice becomes confused between good and evil. Ulric exhibits blind faith that his side is right throughout the movie even though his wife and child were killed by the the Plague. In the end he agrees to act as a time bomb sent by the Bishop to destroy this supposedly demonic and Godless town by carrying the Plague across their protective marsh in his own diseased body.

Buboes, caused by the Plauge, commonly formed under the armpits so seeing them there when Ulric reveals that he has the Plague is no surprise, but in a twist that was certainly no accident, the bleeding buboes end up resembling the wounds, inflicted by a Roman spear, on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion which pierced the His sides.

Ulric Christ

This immediately solidifies Ulric’s own role as a Christ figure and martyr willing to die for his faith. However, in the end all he has really done is bring death to a group of people formerly spared from its ravages. It is true that this town gave up their Christianity and were deceived by an evil woman, but Ulric’s actions, though driven by faith in God, may have resulted in the murder of them all. The film implies that human actions are simply left up to chance, and that faith, though powerful, is more often than not simply misplaced and a dangerous tool abused by those in positions of power, be they a bishop or a supposed sorceress.

What the film does so spectacularly is make the viewer suspend reason and believe in magic for a short period of time before bringing reality crashing down over your head and make you feel foolish for getting as caught up in your belief as the characters in the film do in theirs. Anyone with a casual knowledge of the story of The Black Death in Medieval Europe is aware that the people of the day tied the pestilence closely to their religion, murdering innocent girls as witches out of fear of the spreading disease. As such the viewer initially enters into this film fully prepared to be skeptical of all things religious, magical, and faith oriented. As the film drags on, however, you eventually buy into the magic of the world and the power of the Devil vs. God on Earth as we witness the Dead rise or faith in God prevail, only to have your belief ripped away at the end as you come to your senses are realize that these are just people doing what people do to one another. Judge, persecute, murder. Faith can quickly become corrupted one someone craving power such as Langiva becomes involved, and the fate or happenstance of natural life can quickly be manipulated to one’s favor.

In the end only two members of Ulric’s party survive; Osmund and Wolfsan.

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Moreover, their losses are not justified as they even failed in their mission to apprehend the necromancer. Langiva escapes, and instead Wolfstan captures Langiva’s main henchman Hob, and brings him back to the bishop so he can claim his reward. In this final act we can finally see the human side of logic and reason take root in the events we have just witnessed. Two faiths came to clash, and neither came out victorious. Instead humans brought destruction upon one another and in the the last man standing covers up the disaster with a lie to gain his Earthy rewards out of an event which turned into a religious travesty.  In the end Osmund loses everything he once loved, including his faith when trying to remain true to his beliefs. Misplaced faith can easily lead one astray and create havoc and destruction, and if one isn’t careful faith can become hate, and overcome reason. The time of the Black Death was an era of rampant hate and fear when faith comforted some and drove others to anger, but th emost important thing to remember is that in the end nature and fortune often act out of randomness without any calculated plans. Somethings things just happen, and there is no reason, and to try to create justifications can create far more harm than good.

History Behind the Throne: The Weapons of Westeros – Valyrian Steel

The new season of HBO’s Game of Thrones is nearly upon us, so I figured now was as good a time as any to dust off the ol’ History Behind the Throne series! So without further ado, here is your intro as always, and we’ll get to today’s topic! A quick look into some of the Weapons of Westeros!

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

Varys Examining Assassins Dagger

Valyrian Steel is an oft talked about and hotly sought after commodity in the world of Westeros. We learn via several characters that this intriguing metal is stronger than any iron or steel made by modern smiths, but lighter, more malleable, sharper, and more deadly than anything currently created by the smiths of Westeros (or Essos for that matter). Moreover, we’ve learned throughout the show that smiths in the time we are viewing have lost the knowledge necessary to create Valyrian Steel (thereby making it even more rare and valuable) and very few even have the knowledge of how to rework a Valyrian blade into a new weapon.

Valyrian Steel comes from the oft discussed fallen Empire of Old Valyria.

Valyrian Steel Location

Back then it was plentiful and used to craft the weapons of the once mighty Empire to fuel and press their conquests across the world in which Game of Thrones Takes place. When the Valyrian Empire fell, however, the art of crafting was lost and became clouded in mystery. Rare and highly skilled smiths are still known to be able to re-work already made Valyrian Steel, but the art of creating it from scratch is no more at the time of our story.

Because of its extreme rarity and usefulness the possession of a Valyrian Steel weapon serves as a status symbol in Westeros, and the mere possession of such a weapon can bestow immense amounts of prestige onto its holder. Which explains why, in the picture above, Varys found it to be such a curiosity that a “common catspaw” such as the assassin sent to kill Bran Stark would possess a dagger of Valyrian Steel.

Eddard Stark with Ice

Owning Valyrian Steel is exclusively the prerogative of the extremely wealthy and the extremely rich. Many of the Great Houses of Westeros have, as treasured family heirlooms passed down through the heads of the House, a Valyrian Steel weapon. Take, for instance, Ned Stark’s former sword Ice which was to be passed down to his son Rob before it was stolen by the Lannisters.

Ice Extended

 

And indeed, after stealing the sword from the murdered Ned, Tywin Lannister had it reforged into two blades, one for his son Jaime and one for his grandson the King Joffrey.

 

 

Even with all the Lannister wealth he could not buy a sword, and when he finally had one in his possession (even if it was the treasured heirloom of another house) he wasted no time in reforging it (at great expense) into a new heirloom for his own family. And although Jaimie ultimately rejected his gift, and gave it to Brienne who, again, is struck dumb by this immensely valuable gift.

Or take for instance Longclaw, the Valyrian Steel Heirloom of the House of Mormont. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont decided to give the sword to Jon Snow rather than passing it down to his own son Jorah Mormont who he feels has dishonored his house and his family.

Jeor gives Jon Longclaw

Lord Commander Mormont won’t allow his son to dishonor the blade as well and therefore decided to give it to Snow. This not only elucidates the great financial value inherent in these blades, but also an almost spiritual value placed upon them by their owners.

But how, then, could the show’s creators convey this message that Valyrian Steel was truly something to be treasured, loved, sought after, and even borderline worshipped by the show’s characters? It couldn’t simply be another hunk of metal like any other sword, or else noone would be able to tell the difference. It couldn’t be too gaudy and resplendent or it would resemble the various cheap stand ins the less fortunate Lords of Westeros try to craft in order to make themselves look powerful in spite of their lack of the treasured metal. Valyrian Steel’s beauty is in its austere and cold appearance and the solemn air about it. Lucky for the show’s creatures, they have a historic counterpart to draw upon yet again… Damascus Steel.

Damascus steel comes from, who woulda thunk it, Damascus, in modern day Syria.

Damascus map

Now, the development of this metal started in India, but as far as Medieval Europe was concerned (the historical counterpart to George R.R. Martin’s world) it came from the Middle East, and specifically the sword-smiths of Ancient Damascus. As the story goes, Europeans first came into contact (pun intended) with the metal during the Crusades. Just like in Martin’s world the metal is said to have been (and modern tests prove it was indeed) both harder, lighter, and more flexible than the standard steels available to Europeans at the time. Ergo, it was said that a Damascus Steel blade wielded by a Saracen defending his homeland could cleave a Crusader’s sword in two, and cut straight through his steel mail armor. This was given as an excuse for failed crusades at times and while the veracity of this claim is quite rightfully disputed modern tests have shown that Damascus Steel WAS both superplastic and exceptionally hard simultaneously.

Sad Crusader

Moreover, just like with Valyrian Steel, the ability to craft these weapons was eventually lost in the 18th century (although modern techniques of reproduction do exist). But the most important factor in drawing comparisons between Damascus Steel and Valyrian Steel is the appearance. Here’s Jon Snow’s Longclaw up close.

Longclaw up close

Go ahead and click on the picture to get a full resolution view of it, and you’ll notice a black wavy pattern throughout the middle of the blade. This is the way HBO’s prop designers have chosen to depict Valyrian Steel. And its no difficult feat to take a look at a Medieval Damascus Steel Blade and notice the similarities in the patterns.

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While Jon Snow’s blade may have a more orderly pattern (which tends to happen when its designed in a prop studio) the basic forms are the same.

Both metals were highly sought after in their own times and environments. They eventually ceased to be made and as such remaining products had their value skyrocket, and they became valued heirlooms for the rich and powerful. In either event the possession of such items was a sign of power and prestige in these Medieval societies regardless of their physical properties or the veracity of their superior capabilities. Items can demonstrate worth and value beyond their monetary price, and this is clearly seen in how characters in Martin’s world value their Valyrian Steel. These blades can house hundreds of years of family history inside their beautiful patterns, and therefore need to be carefully cared for as we so often saw Ned doing with his blade Ice in Season One. Moreover, this makes it all the more painful to see someone like Tywin destroys hundreds (or maybe thousands) of years of Stark history by destroying their Valyrian Steel Greatsword, Ice to create blades for his own House. History is not always an ethereal thing, but can be quite corporeal when attached to valued items and artifacts as it is with these blades. In my opinon, then, their existence and the importance placed on them in George R. R. Martin’s world heightens the depth of the world, and makes it feel that much older and more treasured for the viewer. These swords are more than just a prop or plot point, they add immense depth to the series by their very existence, and help make this show even more rich than it already was.

Randy Buehler: Reshaping Magic: the Gathering Entertainment

So, I’ve already discussed that I really love Wizard’s of the Coast’s Trading Card Game Magic: the Gathering and my extreme love for it. Now, obviously this love comes first and foremost from the fact that the game is just fun to play. It is a notoriously complex game that provides an unending amount of mental stimulation when you are involved in a game of Magic which I for one find endlessly entertaining.

However, as I hinted at in my last blog, magic is also incredibly fun to watch even when I’m not the one playing. Part of the reason for this is honestly due to the game’s complexity. Magic is hard. One of my favorite parts about Magic is the kind of people who gravitate to the game, and their gaming backgrounds before finding Magic. Stanislav Cifka is a Pro Tour winning Magic player from the Czech Republic, but before turning to Magic professionally, his focus was largely on Chess where he was an International Chess Master among the best in the world.

Moreover, there are a myriad of Magic players who have gravitated over from or to the game of Poker. Indeed, some of the best poker players in the world, such as Eric Froehlich and David Williams, are World Series of Poker bracelet winners who also just happen to be a couple of the best Magic players around.

Eric Froehlich (Images via Wikipedia and Wizards of the Coast)

Eric Froehlich (Images via Wikipedia and Wizards of the Coast)

Images via cardplayer.com and Wizards of the Coast

Images via cardplayer.com and Wizards of the Coast

Unlike games like Chess and Poker where the rules are set and the variables are known (in theory anyway although players never know which variables will turn up in a given game), Magic is constantly evolving. New cards are constantly being introduced into the game which radically alters the metagame and the types of strategies which can and should be employed by players ranging from the kitchen table players all the way up the scale to Pro Tour Champions. And it is this added complexity and degree of evolution which many players cite as a reason they gravitate toward Magic in place of or in tandem with other games.

I’m not nearly as good as the best Magic players in the world, or even as good as the best Magic players at my local comic shop. As such its really fun for me to watch people better than me play the game. These guys understand the complex ins and outs of the game better than me and can process things a lot faster than I can so while Magic is, first and foremost, a game that I love playing, I actually really love watching the game be played at a high level as well. Moreover, it appears that I am not alone in this endeavor because there is a veritable cottage industry which has arisen over the years of various ways that people like me can watch Magic.

First and foremost among these would be Wizards of the Coast’s own live coverage (and archived footage) of their various high level sanctioned Magic events. I’ve already touched on these events before but essentially they are the live sports equivalent of Magic. They have coverage teams, pre-match predictions, player stats on screen, in-match breakdowns and play by play analysis, post match interviews, and pretty much everything you would expect to see surrounding an NFL football game. They even have the annoying little scrolling ticker on the bottom of the screen that keeps you up to date on other games currently happening!

Moreover, like with all sports leagues an industry of “Talking Head” shows has risen up around Magic’s own professional league to break down what has happened at the most recent tournaments, talk about how new cards have reshaped the various formats of competitive magic, and in general attempt to entertain the Magic loving masses whenever there isn’t a major event going on.

But those are just the big “mainstream,” so-to-speak, viewing experiences around Magic. Perhaps the most consistently generated and frequently viewed Magic related content comes from various players themselves. Specifically I’m referring to the Magic live-streaming community on Twitch and other sites. Most notably this means guys like Paul Cheon (aka HAUMPH) and Kenji Egarashi (aka NumottheNummy). These guys are out there grinding every day, playing countless matches of Magic Online, cracking jokes, and being entertaining live for anyone to watch. Viewers can chat with streamers as the watch them play live, discuss the games the streamer is currently player, or just talk about the inanity going on in front of them. Observe a sample of what Mr. Egarashi has to offer.

However, this is yet again simply the game of Magic being played. It definitely has a different flavor to it than the Professional events and live coverage Wizards puts on, but all of it could still be painted in the “live sports” format of television. Whether it is more akin to a professional league (such as the Pro Tour Coverage of Wizards) the ESPN talking heads analysis (like ChannelFireball’s MagicTV) or simply a pickup league (like the Magic Twitch streamers). What I’d like to throw a spotlight on, however, is something a little different, and that is Magic Hall of Famer Randy Buehler’s various Magic related entertainment endeavors.

Randy Buehler is a Magic the Gathering Pro Tour Winner (he won the first ever Pro Tour he competed in, 1997 Pro Tour Chicago).

Image via Wizards of the Coast

Image via Wizards of the Coast

However, he is also a massive pillar in the Magic community, and has been ever since that 1997 PT Chicago win. He had a wildly successful Magic playing career while he was still an active player, and ultimately parlayed that success playing Magic into a job with Wizards of the Coast’s R&D department actually designing the game he loved. He served as a lead designer for Magic at Wizards, he started the Latest Developments column on Wizards.com, and helped early on in Magic’s podcasting presence. Moreover he has been a longtime member of Magic’s coverage team covering live events for stream / video, a role he still serves in to this day. What I want to talk about for a moment, however, are a couple of Randy’s newest projects.

What I love about Randy is that he obviously loves this game, has an incredibly amoutn of creativity and energy and a well full of ideas for howto provide entertaining content related to Magic. For the vast majority of his career this obviously involved direct, mainstream components of the game (Playing on the Pro Tour, Designing Cards, or covering the Pro Tour) but lately he’s taken an offshoot that I find incredibly interesting, and I hope will spearhead of new movement in Magic’s ancillary entertainment and content production.

Buehler has created two new “Magic TV Shows” lately that, while they still obviously involve playing Magic, push M:tG entertainment in a new direction. The first of these shows is the Vintage Super League. So, for those of you who don’t play Magic “Vintage” is a format of Magic where more or less every card that has ever been printed is legal for your deck, which means the decks get really crazy, and its generally incredibly complex and fun to watch. So Buehler created a League where he and several of the best Vintage Magic players in the world compete in an independent tournament against each other. Now, what I find interesting about this particular show is that it is independent from the mainstream Wizard content community [although they are definitely supportive of his endeavors] and yet has a well developed structure around it unlike some of the streaming (although I certainly love the inanity it isn’t always the most structured content).

Buehler has regularly scheduled matches (live streamed on twitch and available for replay on youtube), online leader boards where fans can follow the league even when matches aren’t happening live, and even live coverage and in match coverage / post match interviews where viewers get to hear from all the competitors in the League throughout the seasons. Now, what’s cool about this league is that Vintage is an incredibly niche format. The cards, because they span Magic’s entire history and are incredibly expensive, are very hard to come upon. Very few players play Vintage, and it is never the format of competition on Pro Tours, and rarely the format chosen for Grand Prix level events (1 Tier below Pro Tours). What Buehler has done, then, rather than keeping people abreast of the current happenings in the Magic community (like the sanctioned events, their coverage [both that produced by Wizards and third parties] and even the streamers do) is educate the community a bit on Magic’s history. His VSL project has broken away from the rut of contemporary Magic coverage to delve a little deeper into Magic’s deep and rich history. When following the Pro Tours alone or just watching streamers draft the newest card sets one’s view of Magic can become very streamlined in a way that unfortunately blinds you to the wider array of Magic. You can fall into the trap of focusing just on “which cards are good right now in Magic, which players are good right now in Magic” rather than looking at core tenants of the game and its history. VSL circumvents these issues and opens up an entirely new spectrum of content for the Magic viewer. Moreover, you get to have some of the best Magic players using the best Magic cards talk you through some games of Magic which really scratches that “understanding the complexity of the game” itch.

The other, and in my opinion more interesting, project Buehler has started of late is his Gauntlet of Greatness series on moxboardinghouse.com.

In this project Buehler has set up a tournament consisting of all the most successful / powerful Standard Format Magic decks of all time. Alright a little explanation. “Standard” is the most popular and most restrictive format of Magic. It consists of just the 2-3 newest sets of printed Magic cards, and thus has a much more limited card pool than a format such as vintage. It is generally the primary format for sanctioned tournament events, and therefore is of a great concern for the contemporary Magic player. However, because Standard never contains more than the newest couple Blocks of cards (the older ones are ‘rotated out’ to keep the format fresh, new, and interesting). This means that ones powerful and feared decks are quickly forgotten once several of their key cards are rotated out of the format. Then, everyone goes from giving ALL the shits to giving none of the shits, and these decks are quickly forgotten.

What Buehler has done here, however, is dredge up some of the greatest standard decks in history and enter them all into a massive, World Cup esque tournament against one another. So, even though the “Psychatog” deck and the “Academy” deck were never “Standard Legal” at the same time as one another (the Academy cards had already been rotated out of standard by the time the Psychatog cards were invented and printed) and therefore were unable to compete with each other in any Pro Tours or sanctioned events, Buehler is having them throw down anyway to see which of the “Best Decks of All Time” is the … well… the “Best Deck of All Time.”

GoG Pools

Image via Randy Buehler, Gauntlet of Greatness and moxboardinghouse.com

 

What I think is particularly cool about this show, however, is the fact that for once in Magic the players are not a central storyline. The Decks are. You see, the same two players (Buehler and his friend Sceadeau D’Tela aka Shadow, another successful and very skilled gamer and Magic player) pilot all 16 decks. The also switch off who pilots which decks in which rounds to make sure that there is nothing special about the pilot of each deck per se.

You see, in regular Tournament level events the skill level of each individual player is very much on display. If you have a professional Magic player and Pro Tour Winner such as Buehler playing against someone who has just qualified for the very first Pro Tour of their career, you can probably be sure that Buehler has some sort of an edge on his less experienced opponent, and that becomes a major storyline in the match. Their choices of deck may end up mattering less than the skill of each player. For Gauntlet of Greatness, however, all that really matters is the decks and making them perform to the absolute peak of their abilities. What makes this format so interesting then is that the decks are the characters. I’m not watching Randy play Shadow I’m watching Jar vs. Dragonstorm or Madness vs. Delver. In a way, then, this show seems to me like a purer format of card vs. card, helping us understand what made certain cards powerful at certain points in Magic’s history, and how various snapshots of time periods in Magic’s history compare to one another. Its just a spectacularly interesting thesis, and watching it play out has been a blast (as I’m sure all future seasons will be as well).

What I love about Buehler and his new projects, then, is that they push Magic Content generation in a new direction. Rather than just approaching this game from the Live Sports direction with Pro Tour coverage or live streamers analyzing the current metagame, Buehler asks interesting questions about Magic’s core tenets, its history, and poignant cards and moments in history that have made Magic what it is today. Rather than focusing solely on the live sport itself, or coverage and recaps of those live events, Buehler let’s us gear Magic entertainment in interesting alternate directions that allow us to ask new questions and see interesting new answers. Obviously I love the Pro Tour coverage and all forms of Magic content that I can get my hands on, but I would love it if Buehler’s approach began to gain traction and further diversify the world of Magic content creation beyond just competitivity and competition and open it up to new avenues of entertainment. Because after all, this game is so interesting and complex, I’d hate for the media surrounding it to be stagnant and repetitive.

Sports, Community, and some Dorky Cardboard Cards: My Love Affair with Magic: the Gathering

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So you may not know this about me, but I absolutely love sports. I can become obsessed with pretty much any kind of sport in a worryingly short amount of time. Especially if you throw a flag behind it (What’s that?! The US national badminton team is playing today?! Let me go get my hat and some shuttlecocks!!!!)

BADMINTON

Although it doesn’t even have to be my country. “What’s that?? The Norwegian curling team is defending their World Championship Title at 4am tomorrow?? That’s it! I’m calling in sick to work!!!”

World’s Strongest Man competition? In. GO ZYDRUNAS SAVICKAS!!!

Seriously. Anything. I mean you’ve got your standard Football, Basketball, etc. but I love various niche sports as well like Ice Hockey, Tennis, and Volleyball. It doesn’t stop there though. Another habit of mine over the years has been follow various faux sports. I’ve already written about my love of fantasy sports, but I also like to take another step and cover some of these faux sports (in particular I’m thinking of MTV’s The Challenge) in the same style as the national media covers real sports.

You see, what I really love about sports is that is an abstractly value-less endeavor which is given mountains of value by countless individuals world wide. Society makes it important in the abstract which leads to countless tangible benefits. For instance, a poor kid from Alabama who was living out of his car with his mother in High School [Eric Bledsoe of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns] can wind up a multimillionaire for playing a game. A game that in no way overtly benefits society. HOWEVER that does not mean there aren’t benefits.  This game invented to pass time among friends creates a multi-billion dollar industry which benefits the world at large ranging from the factory workers in China employed producing memorabilia, construction workers in America building stadiums and the shop / restaurant owners and small businessmen and women who open stores near the arenas to capitalize on game day foot traffic. SO not only do sports of a ‘spiritual’ sort of value for fans, but they have a tangible value as well. But the spiritual side is what I think is more important to me personally. Sports means a lot to wide ranges of people and is a spectacular means of community building. It bonds people together who otherwise would have nothing in common and wouldn’t know each other at all.

Moreover, you can do this with these fake sports as much as any “real” sport. For instance, you can take a fake, pixellated version of a real sport and build an imaginary narrative around it and create an overwhelming community around them (a la John Green, his Swindon Town Swoodilypoopers and his Wimbledon Wimbly Womblys).

You can find a group of friends to watch a bunch of MTV degenerates get drunk and compete in hilarious events a la MTV’s The Challenge. Or you can watch a couple dorks play a card game broadcast all over the internet. And all of these things will be just as fascinating and exciting to me as any “real” sport.

The reason for that is that what I actually love about sport is not the events themselves. Not the physical domination of one group or individual over another. But rather the narrative behind the events. That’s what truly draws me in. I love the community and conversation around sports. As such I find it incredibly exciting and refreshing to take the Sports Fan’s Lens and direct it toward traditional non-sports. I love to cover them in the clichéd or at any rate overdone, fashion of the mainstream sports media to elevate their status (admittedly probably only in my own mind and no one else’s) and sort-of canonize the experience of following them. I love to have those same conversations which are so interesting to me, but change the topic matter to other things I have an interest in. To redefine the varying definitions of “strength” and “skill” depending on what the topic of discussion is. No sports are truly real. No sports truly matter. The only value they hold is what we put into them. That’s why sports can mean so much to one person and absolutely nothing to another.

So naturally I’ve found it especially interesting to gravitate toward various faux sporting events. But it’s even more fun when the people producing the product play along. Let me tell you what I mean. My favorite of these events has been, for the last couple years, to follow the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour. My love of Magic is definitely one of the dorkier aspects of my assuredly nerdy lifestyle, but I don’t really care. I freaking love the game. I learned about the game and was given my first cards when I was 11 years old, but didn’t start playing in earnest until 8th grade or so when I was 13 or 14. However, you can rest assured that I quickly hopped on the bandwagon

Now, the thing that set’s Magic apart from a lot of these other faux sports is that it already has this ‘sports league’ type superstructure built around it. With Magic you’ve got all the components of your standard nation-wide sports league. Magic has a long and storied history of tournament play complete with regular season (Pro Tour Qualifiers and Grand Prixs) and postseason (World Championships and Pro Tours). And they even top the whole thing off with a Hall of Fame voted on by former players and greats of the game. Their tournaments have a coverage team, and even come complete with “sideline interviews.”

You’ve got the third party talking head shows breaking all the happenings of the game down between tournaments.

But the parallel isn’t 100% clean cut I suppose. Something that I think cool layer to following Magic is the interplay between who our actual “athlete” is. See obviously the first and best comparison is to look at the players themselves. But there’s also an interesting argument to consider the player in more of “coach” or “manager” role and the cards themselves as his team or players. Long story short the tactics of magic go so much further than any sport where actions are limited by physical capabilities. In magic is long as your brain can compute high level lines of play and interplay between cards, almost anything is possible. Moreover, you can pre-program your lines of play ahead of time when selecting which cards to play and constructing your deck. So that is why the game has received so many comparisons to high level tournament chess. It’s a mental game that just happens to be covered the same was as its more popular cousins, the physical sports.

But anyway, I think the Pièce de résistance of the game would be the now dual tournaments of the World Magic Cup and the Magic World Championship.

The second of those, the Magic World Championship, is kindof standard fare for something like this. The guys who created Magic over at Wizards of the Coast select the best players of the last year of Magic and play them all off against each other in a massive tournament to find the best of the best. Only the elite are invited. In order to qualify you need to be the Player of the Year (determined by accumulated the most Pro Points in a given year) have won one of the three Pro Tour tournaments that year, or just been generally stellar at competitive Magic that year. However, what I think is more interesting is Magic’s World Magic Cup.

The guys at Wizards took a page right out of FIFA’s book in an attempt to capitalize on a captivating format. Basically ever Magic playing country in the world is allowed to host preliminary qualifying tournaments, build their best 4 player team, and travel to some predetermined location for a splendid week long Magic marathon.  Moreover, they have even drawn directly from the World Cup format in that they have broken the initial stages of the event down into group play before entering the single elimination knock out rounds. During this years Magic World Cup Hall of Famer and Coverage man Randy Buehler even made repeated comparisons to Greece’s 2004 soccer World Cup run to the 2015 Greece Magic team’s own Cinderella run to the finals in the Magic World Cup.

But at the end of the day what I think I like the most about Magic: the Gathering is the community that surrounds it. I love discussing strategies and happenings with other players. I love watching the game evolve. I love playing, and I love watching the experts play one another to see just how far the limits of certain cards or archetypes can be pushed. In some ways I even enjoy watching Magic more than I enjoy watching normal professional sports. Theres just something fun and more inclusive about watching this game. Because at the end of the day I can buy and use the exact same cards, the exact same decklists, and the exact same strategies as any of those guys. Sure these professional players extract more value out of these cards and pilot their decks more expertly than I can, but it doesn’t make Magic feel any less accessible. It just makes me want to improve my own game, my own strategy, and my own analytical ability. To me there just isn’t the same isolation of the layman from the professional with Magic. Regardless of the distance in skill, it feels like we’re all playing the same game.

Moreover, the Pros often feel incredibly accessible. They’re not millionaire athletes so isolated that you’ll never have any contact with them. Rather, they just feel like guys you could hang out with and play this silly card game with on a Friday night, which is a great feeling. And a lot of them just seem like they really want to share their love of the game, and help it survive and thrive while broadening to overall Magic playing community.

Take a guy like Brazil’s Willy Edel.

image via wizards.com

image via wizards.com

Willy is one of the Magic Greats and before is all said and done he will end up in the Hall of Fame. But he’s near the end of his career now. He’s got a wife and a family, and Professional Magic doesn’t always fit in with those things. Moreover, Brazil’s other big player on the world stage (Paulo Vitor Damo de Rosa) has been slowing down his Magic playing somewhat as well. Both Willy and Paulo competed in the World Championship (proving that they’re both still at the top of the game) but only Willy was a part of Brazil’s World Magic Cup team this year. Now, both of them have had tremendous success during their storied careers, but Willy can be seen as a guy who collapsed under pressure and never fully met his potential. There was a time when he was in the conversation for best in the world, but his play in big moments didn’t always back that up. However, lately it hasn’t seemed like that was really his concern. All year long, at every individual event he has competed in he has been talking about how upset he was after Brazil missed Top 8 at last year’s World Magic Cup, and how badly he wants to do better this year. Moreover, he has also been talking about how much he likes his team of young up and comers and how much he wants to help them transition onto the big stage. When you watch his interview after Brazil made the top 8 of the World Magic Cup its hard not to feel for the guy and to root for his country too.

Brazil's 2014 World Magic Cup team from left to right Thiago Saporito, Willy Edel, Gabriel Fehr, and Matheus Rosseto de Oliveira (Image via Wizards.com)

Brazil’s 2014 World Magic Cup team from left to right Thiago Saporito, Willy Edel, Gabriel Fehr, and Matheus Rosseto de Oliveira (Image via Wizards.com)

Brazil missed out on Top 8 of the 2013 World Magic Cup in the last game of the last match of the last day last year, and it really devastated Willy. So it’s no surprise to see him in tears here as he is asked how it feels to have captained  his country to the precipice of ultimate victory. But Willy doesn’t necessarily care about the achievement itself. What he really cares about is that he was able to bring along 3 young nobody’s (who won’t be nobody’s for long, as one of them, Thiago Saporito, actually Top 8’d a Pro Tour just before the World Magic Cup and even made it to the semifinals in that event) with him.

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He competed in the World Championship, an individual event, but you can tell his passion was really with the team competition. He knows that he and Paulo won’t be around forever, and he wants the game he loves to remain live, well, and thriving in his nation after they’re gone. So over the last few years he has dedicated tons of time, money, and energy to bringing up young Brazilian Magic players through the ranks. I get the impression that Willy may know his real time to shine has passed, but he doesn’t really care. He cares about the game and he cares about helping others reach their dreams within the game.

He organizes events to help Brazilian Magic players raise money for airfare and travel expenses so they can travel to Tournaments throughout the world. As you may have guessed Brazil hosts hardly any major events, and its hard to develop an elite Magic player base if they can’t afford to travel to where the tournaments are. As such Willy’s efforts are vital to helping his country rise up into a potential Magic power on the world stage. In a sense Brazil’s position on the world Magic stage resembles her place on the world geopolitical and economic stage. They are a rising nation with world’s of potential, but not yet up to the vaunted heights of the Americas, Japans, or Germanys of the world. However, the building blocks are clearly there and have been for years. And for the world of Magic, having a guy like Willy Edel helping to build your community certainly can’t hurt.

Sports, to me, are all about building a community after all. Whether its watching a football game on Sundays or following a Magic livestream with strangers on the internet, there’s no reason for them exist if not to bring people together. To give people something to talk about. To give them something to experience together, whether actively (doing) or passively (viewing). I don’t run a 4.4 40, and my jump shot is about as awkward looking as a giraffe leaping off a cliff, but I can sure sit at a table with a deck of cards. Don’t get me wrong. I love my athletic sports as much as the next guy, but what really makes these things fun to watch and fun to experience is sharing your thoughts and experiences with others. And Magic might do that better for me than any sport, faux or otherwise. Whether its a good natured joke on a reddit post that goes viral, a South Park episode, or simply a Friday night booster drafting with friends, Magic has found a million ways to make me smile, laugh, and feel like I’m part of something. I’m incredibly thankful to have this stupid card game in my life (in spite of the torrents of money I spend on it) and look forward to watching it grow and thrive far into the future.

How We Fight: Thoughts from The Imitation Game

Imitation-Game-Poster

The Imitation Game is a spectacular movie which is good for far more reasons than I am going to outline in this blog. However, because the movie has already been out for a couple months, and because I feel people would be bored reading any hhypotheticalsynopsis I would write, I’m going to focus on one narrow question / thesis that rose to the front of my mind while I was watching the film. Before we start, however, I just wanna say HIGH HOOOOOOOOOOOOO SPOILERSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!

So stop reading if you want to see the movie unspoiled. Thanks! And now, Preview time!

But anyway, The Imitation Game is a film adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. And just as that title hints, this story is filled with layer upon layer of information, questions, postulations, and thought provoking threads. The movie captures all of this wonderfully, but unfortunately for me that means there is far too much material to write about. Instead, I’m going to focus on one issue that felt particularly poignant from the film; the idea of what makes a soldier.

Now, I suppose I don’t necessarily mean a soldier. I guess I just mean someone working for the betterment of their nation in the most dire circumstances states are ever put into: war. The Second World War is often portrayed as a conflict encapsulating both the best (gung ho marine battle cries and Rosie the Riveter) and the worst (Facism run rampant) of patriotism. Nationalism was at its peak, and everyone seemed to want to help their country however they could.

We_Can_Do_It!

 

But as much as propaganda artists in all countries wanted to convince their people that all jobs were created equal (success on the home front is just as important as the boys in the trenches!) that wasn’t necessarily true. All efforts were definitely necessary in concert for ultimate success, certain jobs definitely deserved prioritization in terms of importance and level of impact. However, it may not necessarily be visible from the surface which jobs are prioritized over others.

The job in question here, as you probably guessed, is the work of Alan Turing and his team of code-breakers. Cracking the Enigma code was perhaps the most influential act committed by the allies during the entire Second World War. It doesn’t always feel this way on the surface, however, when other young men a literally giving their lives for their country and men like Turning were working safely and quietly far away from German bombs and Allied battlefronts. In fact one of the characters Peter, a young math prodigy working on Turing’s team, expresses regret that his work seems so futile while his brothers and cousins are actually fighting in the war. In the end, however, the work done by Turing’s team cracking the Enigma code was one of the greatest achievements to come out of the war, and had long lasting repercussions leading into modern day (the invention of computers).

Enigma Machine

Enigma Machine

Eventually Turing, his team, and his machine crack the Enigma Code, opening the way for the Allies to win the greatest conflict ever fought. It comes with a price, however, as the team learns when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot use their new-found knowledge to immediately begin thwarting German plans, as this would tip the Germans off to the fact that the British had cracked the code. Were the Germans to get wise they could simply devise a new code and Turing’s team would be back to square zero. Instead they must decide how to strategically deploy their new information in such a way that the Germans never suspect they have cracked the code.

War is an inherently inhuman thing in spite of how easily human nature can be oriented toward it. This fact is even more true today than it was during the Second World War when one considers the widespread use of computers and machines in modern warfare. The greatest tragedy that comes out of any war is invariably the massive loss of life, but what Imitation Game elucidates so fascinatingly is that one can crunch the numbers and calculate the requisite loss of life which is both necessary to win the war, while simultaneously being acceptable to the people on the home front.

It really is just a numbers game. There are thresholds that can or can not be exceeded and algorithms to determine how many unlucky individuals can and should be lost when compared to the reward to be gained. What The Imitation Game teaches us, however, is that no human mind is capable of handling this information on its own. Alan Turing’s code breaking machine eventually succeeds Machines can provide us with the requisite mental distance necessary for us to rationalize the decisions which result in the unavoidable loss of life which comes with warfare.

Turing Machine

Turing Machine

War doesn’t make sense. It never makes sense. People aren’t supposed to die young because they speak a different language or worship a different god. Any yet humans have embraced warfare since the dawn of civilization. No one every really understands it, but the still follow through. Ultimately, no one ever will understand it, because the human mind will never be able to fully comprehend or justify the requisite sacrifice.

The very first attack Turing’s team learns about is a German U Boat raid on a convoy carrying food to Britain. Moreover, it just so happens that Peter, the young math prodigy on Turing’s team, knows one of the crew members on this convoy. It is his brother. He wants to save his brother’s life, and indeed has the power at his fingertips. But Turing and his team will not let Peter save his brother. They inform Peter that is is for the greater good that his brother must die, and he must choose not to save him. I don’t believe any brother could ever fully rationalize this choice or justify it by his own moral standards, regardless of the fact that Peter was ultimately forced to go along with Turing and the others. In the end Peter’s brother does die and the Turing team invents a new system by which the British government can determine which attacks can profitably be stopped, and which must be allowed to succeed. A process Turing calls “his bloody calculus.”

The time honored cliche is that no human should have the power to play God. No one has the right to do so or the ability to think rationally enough to make the “correct” decisions. It is only fitting then that Turning, a man derided by his compatriots as being more machine than human, is the one to stop the team from acting on their human emotions (to save Peter’s brother or to save every life they possible can with their new-found knowledge of the Enigma Code) and instead break down the science of war into logical components. Moreover, the task was even beyond Turing himself. His “machine-like” nature provided him with the clarity of mind necessary to see that no human should make these decisions and as such he provided the groundwork for a machine which could do it for us; the computer.

In the end, however, computers can only tell us how to conduct war. They can crunch various variables to determine the value to be gained through conflict. But they cannot and do not make the final decision. Humans and society still determine what a life is worth, and whether they think someone’s life should be taken away. It is humans who are judgmental and emotional, not computers. And it is humanity who still have to make the decisions to go to war, and to violently end lives. To murder and to kill. The computers just make it efficient.

 

History Behind the Throne: Valyria and Ghis, Essos’s Founding Feud

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

wallpaper-daenerys-targaryen-1600

Daenerys Targaryen. One of the most popular characters in the Game of Thrones universe. Either because people legitimately like her story line… or because HBO has a habit of getting her naked at frequent intervals…but hey… whatever brings the casual fans in I guess? …

edited naked dany

Either way, her role in this world is actually much more significant than tits ‘n’ ass. In her current state, as we left Season 4 she is serving as a fulcrum on which two ancient civilizations of Essos bend. But let’s roll it back to the beginning for a second.

Dany is currently dickin’ around in the East. Particularly in the land of Old Ghis. The Ghiscari are a proud and ancient people who built a civilization so large and mighty, that even now, thousands of years after its fall from dominance, it still forms a prominent geopolitical pole .

Valyria and Ghis

The remains of the Ghiscari Empire are the three slave cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, all three of which Dany has recently conquered… or subjected in some way… or something.

Dany Astapor

Dany Yunkai

Dany Meereen

NOW this is important because the Targaryens are the last of the Valyrians left in the world today. Furthermore, Valyria was Ghis’s ancient rival, so there is a lot of loaded narrative here with a Valyrian descendant conquering Ghiscari descendants. Moreover, it is in this rivalry that we see perhaps the best (although not the only) historical parallels for both Empires. Valyria and Ghis are Essos’s version of Rome and Carthage (among other rivals of Rome throughout her history) with Valyria serving as Rome and Ghis Carthage.

rome and carthage

In the case of either example (Valyria and Ghis or Rome and Carthage) the two Empires’ rivalry plays itself out over a great, and economically strategic body of water. In the case of Rome and Carthage, this was the Mediterranean Sea, the most important body of water in the history of Western Civilization. For Ghis and Valyria, however, this means Slaver’s Bay and the Gulf of Grief, strategically and economically important because of its central location along the southern boundary of the continent of Essos, and the fact that it opens up toward the continent of Westeros. In either case then we have two budding superpowers staring one another down over the veritable highway of commerce of their times and places.

This meant that at first they were not in direct contact with one another, and as such were not rivals at the beginning of their histories. Indeed, in either situation (Martin’s world or the real world) one of the two Empires is far older  (Ghis and Carthage) while the other is a relative upstart who only rose to challenge their elders many years after the elders’ rise.

carthage kangaroo

Any student of classical history has heard of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The reason these wars were called “Punic” was not in reference to Rome’s puny arms (as perceived by the Carthaginians listed above) but was rather because the Carthaginians were descended from ancient Phoenicia (located in modern day Lebanon and Israel), and the Latin work for “Phoenicians” was “Punic.” Now, the Phoenicians were super ancient and super famous. I mean suuuuuper famous… they invented the Alphabet! (phonetic? Phoenician? MIND BLOWN)

ALPHABET

BUT ANYWAY the Phoenecians got their start around 1200 BC, and an offshoot of these people, who still spoke their language, were the Carthaginians whose capital city (Carthage) was founded in 814 BC. To put that in perspective, 400 years later, before the Etruscan Wars Rome only controlled a small strip of land on Italy’s Western Coast about the size of Delaware. They weren’t even one of the 5 most powerful nations in Italy let alone the whole of the Mediterranean like Carthage. So Carthage had a far older history and culture than Rome, and far richer and more powerful economically, culturally, and militarily.

However, things did not stay that way. Rome would eventually rise to a point where it rivaled mighty Carthage in the Western Mediterranean. Moreover, both powers in the West far exceeded the strength of their Eastern Mediterranean peers. Indeed the power disparity was so great that many writers in the East looked upon the coming Punic Wars as a battle between two Western Superpowers to see who would earn the right to conquer the East once the war concluded. But I digress… Roman expansion…

Roman Imperial expansion is often portrayed (especially by the Romans themselves) as a series of defensive engagements which only became offensive in order to secure peace and stability for the future. Rome could not coexist with potential threats and hostile nations on her borders, so she sought to conquer and assimilate them. (Please disregard the fact that by conquering one hostile nation on your borders, all you do is add several NEW bordering hostile nations… this argument did not fit in Roman politicians’ logic…)

It was this logic and narrative, however, that pushed Rome to conquer the whole of the Italian Peninsula, and when they were done with that, to engage the Carthaginians in Sicily. Sicily was considered crucial to Rome’s national defense, as it represented (in Roman tacticians’ minds) a launching point from which Carthage could hypothetically invade the Italian mainland. Eventually, a war broke out… then another… and then another… and by the end of it all Rome ground Carthage into the dust, and literally sowed the soil of Carthage with salt so that no civilization could ever rise there again (a little poetic but you get the point).

sowing salt

The same basic story structure holds true for the Valyrians and the Empire of Ghis. Ghis was far larger and more powerful than Valyria in all conventional ways, buuuuut Dragons… Sooooo many Dragons…. burny burny smash smash…

…so that happened. Valyria was able to defeat Ghis, through the use of Dragons, just as soundly as Rome defeated Carthage. However, just as Carthage eventually rose again as a great city (this time as a Roman municipality re-founded and populated by Romans) so too did the people of Ghis not disappear from the history books. Their ancestors remained in the mighty cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen… uuuuntil dragons came back and visited them again…

Unfortunately for the Ghiscari, dragons don't generally just pop in for tea...

Unfortunately for the Ghiscari, dragons don’t generally just pop in for tea…

It is also often said, by the Romans themselves, that Carthage kept them in check both militarily and morally, and once Carthage fell, the world was next. There was no longer any power that could stop Rome. The same appears to have been true for the Valyrians, as once they had disposed of their rivals across Slaver’s Bay they spread West conquering all of Western Essos, and the vast majority of Westeros (later on when the Targaryens left Dragonstone). In doing so both Empires spread their language (Latin was the lingua francia of Europe and High Valyrian serves the same role in Martin’s world) and culture throughout the known world. The Free cities in Essos still speak forms of High Valyrian just like the major cities of Western Europe (Paris, Vienna, Madrid) still spoke Latin even after Rome’s fall, at least in positions of political and religious power.

However, the Carthaginian parallel isn’t perfect. The Ghiscari seem to have devoted a great deal of time and energy adding to a contiguous, continental Empire (likely in order to procure slaves) whereas Carthage was a maritime nation interested in colonial expansion only in so far as it could serve her merchant marine and her navy. In this way, then, Ghis resembles Rome’s next great rival. The only Empire that ever managed to check her growth, many years after the fall of Carthage and widespread Roman expansion: Persia. Whether it was Darius all the way down to the Parthians or the Sassanids… Persia was always portrayed as a menace to the Western world. Whether it was the Greeks or later (and for much longer) the Romans, Persia was always the menace at the gates. The evil power waiting to storm the citadel and sack the Western World (aka the good guys, cuz thats the way history works… but hey, those Persians probably had big bold mustaches which honestly even I’m intimidated by today…).

shahs of sunset

So anyway if we consider the fact that, in spite of Valyria’s crushing victories over Ghis on Dragonback, Ghis, in some form, survived (in the form of the three great cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Mereen) then the Carthaginian parallel doesn’t hold true for the whole of history. Thus, George R.R. Martin appears to have inserted a Persian influence on the Ghiscari. The Persian Empire, though battered, beaten, and vastly changed, remained in existence in one form or another well into the 20th century. More importantly to our discussion, however, is the fact that Persian culture remained an alternative pole to offset its Roman counterpart on the Mediterranean. Zoroastrianism represented vast departure from Roman religious practices, and meant Persia was not only an alternate military, political, and economic counterweight to Rome, but a religious and cultural one as well. Persia and Rome, then, broke the ancient world up into 2 camps divided by their power and rivalry. Also, as an aside, and to further cement the parallel between Ghis and Persia, the primary symbol of Zoroastrianism, the Faravahar, strongly resembles the Harpy Iconography which dominates Ghiscari Religion even down to the time period we are watching now (long after Old Ghis has fallen). [If you recall we saw the Harpy in Astapor, when Dany went to purchase the unsullied, we saw it again over the walls of Yunkai, and a Third time within the city of Meereen. After Dany conquered Meereen she covered the Meereenese Harpy with an enormous Targaryen banner to assert her dominance. We even see the Harpy in those beautiful opening credits to the show.

harpy and faravahar

This is yet another example of how visual mediums, such as television shows like Game of Thrones, have such a distinct advantage in quickly elucidating points over mediums such as books. Seeing a Zoroastrian Symbol quickly reminds the Western viewer that we are looking at an Eastward-ly oriented culture, and must therefore be wary of all that we don’t know about it.

This is an important point, because it defined the foundation of “East” and “West” differences for the Mediterranean world (a legacy which has lasted centuries). The East was always known as different. It was a foreign and scary place… a mentality that reached a boiling point during the crusades after the east became Muslim BUT ANYWAY something similar happened in the world of Game of Thrones. Ghis, though defeated, served as the Eastern most border marker for the Empire of Valyria as they primarily expanded west. This meant that both Persia and Ghis capped the eastward expansion, both territoriality and culturally, of their respective rivals, and kept them relatively bottled up in the west.

In either scenario then we have a younger, ascendant power which rises up to crush its older, traditionally more powerful rival. This victory allows the upstart power to establish its culture, language, etc, as dominant in the conquered terrain. This expansion happens primarily in the West as the defeated power(s) remain a wall, guarding against eastward expansion for the ascendant power.

However, eventually this massive Empire falls, leaving behind a new era. In the case of the real world this is the Middle Ages, and in the world of George R. R. Martin this means the era in which our story takes place. This initial expansion of culture, however, sets the stage for the development of future successor kingdoms and civilizations (the Free Cities and even Westeros for the Valyrians or the eventual Kingdoms of Europe in the real world.)

What we see from Daenerys, then, is incredibly interesting (at least to a dork like me). At the end of Season 4 she mentioned that she intended to stay in Meereen, rather than moving on to conquer Westeros immediately, in order to learn how to be a Queen. By subjugating the remnants of Old Ghis and setting up a new Kingdom for herself in the rubble of her forebears’ rival’s civilization she is essentially forcing a unification of the two old rivals. The Valyrian people and their civilization were both wiped out in The Doom (something we don’t know anything about right now, but probably looked something like this…). The Ghiscari people survived, but their leadership and their Empire did not. Dany, then, is building a new Empire constructed out of the remnants of the two warring rivals, the Ghiscari people and the Valyrian leadership.

So much of Dany’s storyline, in fact nearly all of it, is about “returning home.” To her this means to Westeros. To her family’s throne which is her’s by right. However, this is a home she has never seen and knows nothing about. Indeed she has never once stepped foot on Westeros. She was born on Dragonstone island, and had to flee to Pentos with her brother immediately thereafter. So when she talks about returning home to Westeros, she means a return to the home of her ancestors, the Targaryeans. However, in establishing an Empire in Ghis she is doing herself one better. Valyria is her true home if she intends to consider the lands of her forebears, even if she has never visited them. So while fans like me have been urging Dany on for four seasons to return to Westeros, perhaps her mission is better completed here in the remnants of Ghis, a land fought over by Valyrians and Ghiscari for centuries.

Dany is physically acting out the idea that two separate peoples or nations can form one definition or ideology through rivalry. Valryia and Ghis’s combined history was defined by their rivalry the same way Rome and Carthage or Persia and Rome were. However, in rivalry these nations became so intertwined that from the outside looking in they’re all a part of the same larger narrative. That means they’ve always been part of one substance, and all Dany is doing is taking that from idea to reality. Valryai and Ghis (and Rome and Carthage) measured themselves against one another for centuries, and as such even when one was defeated, they survived in the minds of the other if nowhere else.