Ask the Maester: The Doom of Valyria, the Greatest Fighters in Westeros, and the Heartbreak of GreyscaleHBO
Tormund mentioned that the remaining wildlings have gathered at Hardhome. Where and what is that?
One of the wonderful side effects of George R.R. Martin’s insanely detailed world-building approach is that his story’s inner mysteries seem all the more enigmatic against the backdrop of thousands of years of fake history. Who are Jon Snow’s parents? What happened to Valyria? What happened at Summerhall? Hardhome is one of the little mysteries, a ruined vestige of what the North beyond the Wall might’ve been. Hardhome is — or was — on the eastern coast of the lands Beyond the Wall, on the tip of a peninsula called Storrold’s Point. The water there is deep and teems with fish. The geography of the peninsula creates a natural harbor, the perfect place for a market town. And that’s what Hardhome was for a little while — the nearest thing the wildlings had to a town. The only real information about what Hardhome was like comes from a Maester who spent three years there before it was destroyed. Oh, yeah — it was mysteriously wiped off the map. This is Game of Thrones, after all. Northern lore has it that either the cannibals from the island of Skagos raided and destroyed the town, devouring the residents in the process, or slavers from Essos and beyond carried the inhabitants away to eastern chattel markets. No one really knows.
What we do know is that Hardhome was destroyed some 600 years prior to the events of the show. It is said that the flames that devoured the town were so intense, the glow they cast on the horizon was visible to the Night’s Watch brothers standing sentinel atop the Wall. Considering that the distance from the Wall to Hardhome appears to be around 150 miles as the crow flies, that story is either bullshit or indicative of something really extraordinary. Sailors passing by the site in the days after its destruction reported that all that remained of Hardhome was blackened rubble, bleached bones, and corpse-choked rivers. Hardhome’s cataclysmic end and the way the wind off the Shivering Sea howls across the many caves that dot the cliffs above the former almost-town lend the ruins an air of haunted tragedy. It is a place that both wildlings and Rangers consider cursed.
Speaking of places that were destroyed under strange circumstances, what happened to Valyria?
The Valyrian empire, with the Valyrian homeland at its center, once stretched from Slaver’s Bay in the east to the Narrow Sea in the west. The closest historical analogy for Valyria is the Roman Republic. Valyria operated as an oligarchy in which every landholding house had some kind of voice in the government. When the need arose, the ruling families would elect their version of a Roman dictator, whom they called an Archon, to take the reins of power for a limited time. Both the Roman and Valyrian empires leaned heavily on slave labor. And, like the fall of Rome, the Doom of Valyria ushered in several centuries of chaos, after which only remnants — some architecture, some weapons forged from Valyrian steel, roads, the language — of this advanced culture remained.
Valyria was on a volcano-laden peninsula in the south of Essos between Slaver’s Bay and the Rhoyne River. The volcanos — known together as the Fourteen Flames — were the source of the Valyrians’ material wealth and, perhaps, also the key to their ability to wed magic to technology. Countless numbers of slaves toiled in the mines beneath the Fourteen Flames, stripping out precious metals and ores that, when treated by some magical process, produced the fabled Valyrian steel. These weapons began finding their way across the Narrow Sea in the two centuries immediately preceding the Doom, becoming the ultimate status symbols for the various competing Westerosi kings and lords in the time before Aegon’s Conquest. The Valyrians raised jet-black buildings that appeared to be molded from molten stone — no joints, no visible brickwork — often with swooping towers designed in the shapes of dragons. Probably the best example of what Valyrian architecture was capable of is the titular castle on the island of Dragonstone — where the Targaryens survived the Doom; currently held by Stannis Baratheon — which looks like the work of H.R. Giger high on hash staring at the cover of a Dio album.
‘The World of Ice and Fire’
According to Valyrian folklore, dragons were the greatest treasure found underneath the Fourteen Flames. The Valyrians claimed dragons were birthed from the volcanoes “as children,” which is how the empire came to be in possession of the beasts. Other stories say that dragons came from far off in the east, from the Shadow Lands of Asshai, and were delivered to Valyria by unknown peoples who taught the future dragonlords how to tame the creatures. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that only the Valyrians solved the riddle of how to harness the animals, eventually wielding them as instruments of war upon whose scaly backs they would conquer most of Essos and, in time, all of Westeros.
But, like a satisfying brothel romp (or a life without tyranny), it couldn’t last forever. Most of the theories on what the hell caused the Doom, posited by various septons and historians, center on the Valyrians somehow losing control of whatever magics they had woven into place over the centuries to bridle the power of the Fourteen Flames. Perhaps they finally drilled down too far into the mountains, or perhaps they fell out of favor with this or that religion. Again, no one knows. What everyone agrees on is that, 400 years before the events of the show — a century before Aegon’s invasion — the Fourteen Flames erupted all at once, with devastating power. Every living thing in Valyria was either incinerated — dragons included — or drowned when the sea rushed in to fill the smoking crater where the center of the peninsula had been. What ruined remains of Valyria still stand are now considered cursed. The destruction was biblical: boiling lakes, great fire-breathing vents in the earth, red clouds raining down smoldering debris, dogs and cats living together. Over the years since the Doom, numerous expeditions undertaken by various treasure hunters have attempted to sail into the smoldering wreck of the ancient empire, never to be seen again. The reason Lord Tywin was so thirsty to melt down Ice, the Stark family’s Valyrian sword, was that the Lannisters lost their own Valyrian blade, Brightroar, when their pre-Conquest ancestor King Tommen II Lannister sailed to Valyria in search of riches with it strapped to his belt. He was last seen in Volantis taking on supplies. Why the Lannisters continue to name their children after this chump is also a mystery. Seriously, you’d think the name “Tommen” would be taken out of the rotation. The only surviving family of dragonlords were the Targaryens, who escaped to the outpost of Dragonstone more than a decade ahead of the Doom because they heeded the prophetic dreams of one Daenys “The Dreamer” Targaryen, Aegon the Conqueror’s great-great-great-grandmother.
Carl asks, “In honor of the late Ser Barristan, who is the greatest single combatant in Westeros?”
After consulting with Archmaester Mallory “Mother of Dragons” Rubin, my list is:
• Young Ser Barristan Selmy. Just read my obituary from last week.
• Ser Arthur Dayne of the Dornish House Dayne, a legendary knight of the Kingsguard whom King Joffrey mentions early in Season 4 while flipping through the Kingsguard Book of Brothers. Considered by many to be the archetype for Westerosi chivalry, Dayne carried the title “Sword of the Morning,” which signified his right to carry House Dayne’s greatsword, Dawn. He once unhorsed his best friend, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, after an epic jousting tilt. Was last seen alive … well, never mind.
• Oberyn Martell. Beat the Mountain (or rather, would have, had he chilled on the trash talk). Was known to treat his weapons with poison, so, basically, if he cut his opponent once, the fight was over.
• Jaime Lannister (with both hands). Won his first tourney melee at 13; made a member of the Kingsguard at age 15. Though, to be fair, the Kingsguard thing isn’t as great as it looks on the résumé. There’s plenty of reason to think that the Mad King, who was feuding with Tywin at the time, made Jaime a Kingsguard knight just so the younger Lannister couldn’t inherit Casterly Rock. Still, dude could fight.
• Brienne of Tarth. Beat the Hound. Fought an admittedly dead-tired and just-out-of-captivity two-handed Jaime Lannister1 to a standstill.
Runners-up in no particular order: Eddard Stark, Bronn (show version), the Hound, the Mountain, Syrio Forel.
Ryan asks, “I’m wondering, why did the wildlings get trapped beyond the Wall in the first place?”
They were just on the wrong side when the Wall went up all those years ago.
Kirk asks, “Why are the titles not consistent within Westerosi houses? We never hear Sansa referred to as a princess (I don’t think) but I always seem to hear sons/daughters of non-royal houses referred to as such at random. Is there any consistency to the title conventions?”
I think what’s happening, at least with the title of “princess,” is that you’re conflating legitimate claimants to the Westerosi title (Myrcella, Shireen of House Baratheon) with the Dornish cultural tradition of referring to the ruling members of Dorne’s nobility as “prince” or “princess.” The real answer is that, yes, there is some general consistency to titles, but many titles reflect their region’s distinct history. For instance, Euron Greyjoy of the Iron Islands holds the title “Lord Reaper of Pyke,” which reflects the traditional, pre-Conquest appellation for the Ironborn Kings who once ruled from the island of Pyke.
Greg, Aris, and Ashley ask, “Why doesn’t Jorah just cut off his arm?”
Amputation is one of the standard treatments for the early stages of greyscale, along with baths and various soaks and medicinal rubs. It’s not a perfect cure, though, and Jorah hacking off his arm would (1) be life-threatening without the guidance of a Maester to stave off infection, and (2) give away that he has the disease. Assuming Jorah makes it to Meereen, he probably wouldn’t make it into the city, much less into Daenerys’s presence, if it was known that he was infected with greyscale. He would be either executed or shipped back to live out his days with the stone men.
Derrick asks, “How long does Jorah have before he turns into a stone man?”
Very hard to say, but my guess is that, barring remission, Jorah’s best-case scenario (meaning the slow version of the disease) is a couple of years before he goes full stone man. But his symptoms would be super obvious way before that.
Daniel asks, “So, is Shireen OK? In the last episode, it was alluded to that Stannis got her healed from it. Is everyone aware of this cure for greyscale?”
Once the disease stops spreading, the afflicted are fine, if scarred for life. The cures, as mentioned above, are pretty widely known. It’s just that it’s unclear if any of the treatments are any more effective than luck and prayer.
Molly asks, “Question: Do Ramsay and Roose Bolton know that Theon didn’t actually kill the younger Stark bros?”
Yeah, they know. Clearly, they aren’t keen to let anyone else know. That’s why the Boltons sent their henchman Locke undercover with the Night’s Watch last season.
Patrick asks, “I was wondering about the history of winters. How frequently do they arrive? How long do they last? More importantly, how much territory do they affect?”
Here’s what I wrote on the subject earlier this month in a precap:
Remember, though, seasons in Westeros are of indeterminate length. A winter might last a year, or it might last 10 years — or even longer. Adding to the difficulty, sometimes there are false springs and false autumns. To survive winter, every community — villages, cities, and castles — needs to be laying away food all summer, however long that may be. No region of Westeros understands that reality like the North does, where the climate is crisp and snows are visible even in the height of summer. In the North, when winter hits, it’s not uncommon for an aged relative to announce to their family that they’re going hunting and walk out into the woods with no intention of ever returning so as to give the young a better chance at survival.
So, owing to its location, the North is obviously the region most directly affected by winter. That said, though the snows and cold will reach the south a bit later, once winter hits, it will hit everywhere in Westeros. It will snow in the Riverlands, in King’s Landing, and in Dorne. A system for predicting when the seasons change, and for predicting how long each holds sway, has thus far eluded the Maesters of the Citadel.
The question, then, is what happens in Essos and the rest of the world. There is no definitive answer on this, but my personal theory — and one I’m sure is shared by other book readers — is that winter spreads out from the far, far northern lands beyond the Wall — the so-called “Heart of Winter” — impacting those places that are closest to its point of origin first. Under this theory, if the winter goes on long enough, then it should engulf everything, everywhere, from the North to Meereen to the Summer Islands. As evidence, I would point to the legend of Azor Ahai, the apocryphal hero whose heroism and magic sword, if one believes the tales, ended the Long Night thousands of years ago, and whose story originates in the far eastern Shadow Lands of Asshai. Also, the ancient travel writer Lomas Longstrider noted that the Rhoynar spoke of “a darkness that made the Rhoyne dwindle and disappear.”
Daniel asks, “At this point of the show, what is the tale of the tape between the Warden’s North army and Stannis’s? It was mentioned Stannis has the advantage, but aren’t there a lot of undecided swing-states in the North that haven’t taken either side of the war?”
Stannis has the larger army with more cavalry, and he is the more seasoned commander. On the downside, he is also on foreign ground, with a force of southerners and mercenaries not kitted out for winter combat. It’s roughly a two-week slog from Castle Black to Winterfell, assuming the weather holds, and all of those horses and men need to eat at least a couple of times a day. Roose and Ramsay’s position in the North may be tenuous, but they have a freshly rebuilt Winterfell and, if the snows start falling, they could and would sit within their walls and wait for Stannis and his army to freeze and/or starve to death. As for swing states, no one loves the Boltons, but no one wants to get flayed, either; pretty much every noble house in the North will sit tight and wait to see who looks like they’re going to win before committing to a side.
Scene of the Week
“If we sit here and do nothing, thousands will die.”
“Aye, and I say let them. Did we make peace after the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”
This post initially stated that Ser Arthur Dayne hadn’t yet made an appearance in the series; it has been updated to reflect a mention of him in Season 4.