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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.