History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Valyrian Steel

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SEASON 1 AND THE RED WEDDING.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Today’s post is short, sweet, and loads of fun.  Today we are going to take a break from the big ideas and grand events of the books and show and look at a very specific material from the books and show that leaves heads and jaws rolling: Valyrian Steel.

Eddard_and_Ice

the books and show Valyrian Steel is a strange and almost mythical material that was created during the height of Valyrian power.  When Valyria fell, like all great empires usually do, the secret to making the material was lost and only a finite amount of the stuff remains.  The steel is remarkably light yet will cut through a man’s armor and weapons like a hot knife through butter so any sword made of Valyrian steel is basically the fantasy equivalent of a lightsaber.  As a result, any family who possesses a sword made of Valyrian Steel keeps it as a treasured heirloom and give the swords names like “Ice” or “Oathkeeper” and “Heartsbane”.  They are also so integral to each bearer’s honor and family that Tywin Lannister saw fit to melt the Stark’s Valyrian greatsword down into two swords as a giant middle finger to the Starks after the Red Wedding.

54cb30859fdd9_-_valyrian-steel-0414-de

Two other features define Valyrian steel other than its rarity and deadly capability: It is extremely difficult to reforge, requiring an extremely skilled smith and techniques that are more similar to magic than science and it is also known for the intricate designs that seem to be woven into the metal itself.

John_Goodenough_ice

Happily everything described in the books and the show about this strange material can be traced back to a real world super metal that made legendary swords: Damascus Steel, also known as Wootz Steel.

96dfec592dc2a7a16a743a07d195850a

Our first record of Damascus steel comes from India where it is believed that it moved to the Middle East and into Europe around the 3rd century AD.  Like it’s Valyrian cousin, Damascus Steel was famous for its beautiful patterns engraved on the steel.  Also like Valyrian Steel, it was incredibly difficult to make and was renowned for making fine swords.

While there was no magic involved in making Damascus steel the forging process was incredibly complex and almost seemed like alchemy.  Without going into too much detail steel is essentially iron with a tiny bit of carbon mixed in.  A smith would take a lump of iron, add a high amount of carbon into the molten metal, and beat and reheat the metal until all but a tiny amount of carbon was left.

Steel is processed at India's Tata Steel Plant in Jamshedpur. India's Tata Steel is likely to make a formal takeover bid for Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus Group at a higher price than previously offered, press reports said on 19 October 2006. The Business Standard newspaper said Tata Steel was likely to raise its offer of 455 pence per share - which values Corus Group at 4.05 billion pounds (6.03 billion euros, 7.56 billion dollars) - due to possible counter bids.

The trick was getting the right amount of carbon, too little carbon and the sword would be too soft to cut anything (not good when you’re fighting someone with armor) and too much carbon would leave the sword brittle and prone to shattering (REALLY not good in battle).  Somehow, the metallurgists responsible for Damascus Steel were able to make a metal that was both hard enough to cut well and soft enough to not break in battle while employing techniques that were similar to modern nanotechnology and haven’t been replicated for centuries (you can find out more, and the source of everything I just described here).  One of the most famous examples of this is the “Ulfberht” Sword.

ulf_rhine

Not much is known about the sword’s origins except the name Ulfberht is stamped on the blade.  We don’t know if it’s the owner of the sword or if it’s the smith who made it but we do know that it was made of the same material, or at least something similar, as Damascus swords.  This was a prized luxury item that was only reserved for the very rich and powerful, say a lord or powerful king.  The Ulfberht sword would have been the real world equivalent of the Stark’s sword “Ice” and would have been something its owners would have cherished.

So there you have it, even the smallest details and materials from the books and show have potential historical similarities.  Tune in Wednesday when we return to form and start talking about the big ideas again.

Advertisements

The Primordial Soup: Art and Technology

Before the article can start I want you to watch this video.

If you can’t play the video or don’t want to watch it let me summarize it.  The video is a series of clips from a documentary called It Might Get Loud.  The entire movie is The Edge from U2, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Jack White from the White Stripes talking about their music and their inspirations.  It is an amazing film and I highly recommend it.  The clip shown above is a set of clips with Jack White calling technology “the destroyer of emotion and truth.  Technology doesn’t do anything for creativity…that’s the disease you have to fight in any creative field, ease of use”.

Speaking purely as an artist myself I am inclined to agree with Jack on this one, in an attempt to make things easier you wind up losing something important, whether it’s some sort of tiny little imperfection that makes your creation special or nugget of truth that you just gloss over because it was easier not to.  For a perfect example of this look at something like the overuse of CGI in movies, mostly during the  1990’s where bad CGI and special effects were everywhere and the ability to fill seats in theaters with nothing more than that led to some really crappy movies.

screenshot-med-12

w964-400x200

download (17)

The thing is that while technology can be used a crutch for poor creative thought and has an annoying habit of turning a lot of creators lazy it is still useful.  Technology should be used as a companion to the creative thought process rather than its replacement and in my opinion there are three ways technology can do this.

Technology for storage and restoration 

Examples: The National Film Preservation Foundation, the Gutenberg Project, countless picture and art restoration efforts.

This is probably the most straightforward and distinct application of technology to creative works.  The fact of the matter is that things like books, famous works of art, and especially early film can be lost very easily.  By using modern appliances like computers, scanners, and digital storage works that would have previously lost to the ages can be cataloged, stored, and brought out for the enjoyment of future generations.

Technology for collaboration and publicity

Examples: Facebook, Dropbox, Itunes, the entire Internet.

The most useful and welcomed application of technology in the modern age. With a few simple clicks anyone from anywhere with access to a computer and a stable connection can connect with and collaborate with anyone else from around the world to create something.  Once that has been done it’s just a simple matter of sharing their work with their friends or anywhere large numbers of people congregate online.  Now anyone has the potential to be seen by millions of people when before it took giant companies with a long reach and deep pockets to get that kind of exposure.  Let me be clear, the technology on display here did nothing to create a work of art, it simply helps the work reach a bigger audience.

Technology for creative augmentation and discovery

Examples: Photoshop, Motion capture, CGI

Yes, I am fully aware that I just spend the majority of this article talking about how CGI ruined movies and how technology destroys creativity but hear me out.  Technology is destructive when used as a crutch but when it is used to augment and support an artist great things can happen.  Thinking “oh I can just use CGI to add a monster into my film and then it’ll be entertaining enough that I won’t have to do anything else” is bad but you still have design the monster, you still have to come up with rules for it and how it works within the story you’re telling, and you still have to make the monster have meaning.  You think that the fact that CGI was used to make these guys.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-groot-rocket-2

and this guy

download (18)

made their movies worse?  Nope, by using CGI and computers to augment and support the creative vision of each of these films both films were able to realize their artistic vision much better then if they hadn’t used the tools available.

So the moral of this article is simple: technology isn’t necessarily a damper on creative thought and artistic production, the artist just has to be careful not to become too reliant on it and expect technology to do his/her job for them.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: the Valyrian Freehold

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!

Today we are going to talk about the big one, the empire that dragged the continent of Essos into the modern age and set the stage for every good and bad thing that has happened to Westeros in the past thousand years: The Valyrian Freehold.

350px-Valyria_of_old

The story goes something like this.  About 5,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones the Ghiscari Empire dominated Essos and the Valyrians were simple shepherds living in the southern most peninsula in Essos.  One day, some unknown shepherd discovered dragon eggs in a volcano chain known as the Fourteen Fires.

350px-Valyrians_find_dragons

Realizing what they had discovered the Valyrians waited for the dragons to hatch and bent them to their will.  The discovery of dragons was the equivalent of learning how to make an atom bomb while the rest of the world was still using swords and the Valyrians quickly built a small empire in the Valyrian Peninsula.

350px-Valyrian_peninsula

This attracted the attention of the Ghiscari who promptly invaded the Peninsula in an attempt to nip the problem in the bud.  Over the course of five brutal wars the Valyrians defeated the Ghiscari and eventually sacked and burned their capital city of Old Ghis.

350px-HBO_Valyria_v_Ghis_III

Now the most powerful force in all of Essos the Valyrians settled down to rule.  After sparing what was left of the Ghiscari (and reaping the benefits of having a group of experienced slave masters to make their lives comfortable) the Valyrians established an empire that would dominate Essos and become the glory of the world, reaching as far west as Dragonstone where the ancestors of Aegon Targaryen would come to rule.

Dragonlord

Even after the decline and fall of the Valyrian Empire people still talk about it as one of the greatest and most important chapters in the world’s history and many look back on it fondly as one of the most influential empires on earth.

The rise of the Valyrian Empire is similar to the rise of Ancient Rome of classical history.  Like the Valyrians the Romans began in a peninsula.

download (16)

Also, the Italian peninsula is known for a long string of volcanoes, but sadly dragons have yet to be discovered in any of them.  Although the Romans didn’t have access to dragons they were incredibly disciplined and very good at winning battles with a new type of military formation: the legion.

ItaleriRomans6021

The legion was made up of citizens and allies of Rome and proved to be so effective that by 290 B.C they had conquered most of central Italy.  However, this brought the attention of the ancient world’s equivalent of the Ghiscari: the Greeks.  By the time the Romans had begun their rise to power the Greeks had a well established presence in Italy, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea.

Greek-Colonies-500BC-R

Rome’s expansion worried the Greek cities in Italy and the Western Mediterranean so in 280 B.C a Greek general named Phyrrus of Epirus landed in Italy with an army of 25,000 men and a group of elephants.

pyyrhus

Despite winning almost every battle, Phyrrus suffered so badly that he once joked that with one more victory he would be lost.  And like the Ghiscari being driven back after attempting to invade the Valyrian Freehold, the Romans eventually beat back the Greeks.

There is another piece of this historical parallel that would come later in Roman history.  After the Romans had beaten back the Greeks they established themselves as the dominant power in Italy.  This would bring them into conflict with another great Mediterranean power: Carthage.

CarthageMap

The Carthaginians and the Romans initially disagreed over who should control the island of Sicily and over the course of a century and two massive wars that many people have talked about in greater detail then I can here.  Long story short, Rome won and in 146 B.C they burned Carthage to the ground.

The Fall of Carthage

We’ll talk about Rome and Valyria’s impact on their respective worlds in another post but from what we’ve seen so far both Valyria and Rome were similar city states that would eventually rise to dominate the known world and establish empires that would last through the ages.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Ghiscari Empire

WARNING:

THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE CURRENT SEASON OF THE GAME OF THRONES AND MOST OF THE BOOKS.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Today we’re going to talk about one of the oldest and most powerful civilizations in Essos and in the entire Game of Thrones universe: The Ghiscari Empire.

World_Meereen

The Ghiscari were one of the first and most powerful empires in the world until they were eventually conquered by the Valyrians (who we will talk about on Friday) and eventually reduced to a handful of cities along Slaver’s Bay: Astapoor, Yunkai, and Meeren.  This is where Daenerys Targaryen has been spending most of her time throughout the series and books and it is the remnants of Ghiscari culture that have caused her the most problems.

Not a whole lot is known about the Ghiscari Empire itself, most of it is so old that a lot of the original culture and heritage has been lost to legend and old ruins.  However, there are three things we definitely know about the Ghiscari.  First, they were famous for their fighting force of “lock step legions”, groups of soldiers who were famous for their rigid discipline and fighting in close knit ranks with spears and shields.

images (7)

Second, they worshiped the Harpy, a wild creature with the head and upper body of a woman and the body of a bird.

Harpy_astapor

Whether or not the Harpy was the only god the Ghiscari worshiped or if it was just part of a pantheon it is widely believed the Harpy played a major part in Ghiscari religion and is so important to the region that it is currently being used as a symbol for everyone who doesn’t like Daenerys’ rule to rally around and form the group the Sons of the Harpy.

son-of-the-harpy-130948

And then there is the final, and most lasting part, of the Ghiscari legacy and perpetual source of conflict and violent debate: slavery.  The Ghiscari were renowned for their ability to enslave and subjugate other people.  In fact, they were so good at it that when the Valyrian Freehold decided that the Ghiscari Empire would be a lovely addition to their new empire the Ghiscari were able to survive and prosper by convincing their new conquerors they could be useful as slave drivers and trainers.

maxresdefault (2)

Today the Ghiscari Empire is a memory since most of their ruling elite were wiped out.  The rest of the Ghiscari realized they had been conquered and assimilated into their new culture, so much so that the original Ghiscari language has been lost.  We’ve met several of these descendants over the course of the show and in some cases.

Good_Masters

It did not end well.

The Ghiscari have also ensured their legacy through the use of the Unsullied, the famed warrior eunuchs that fight in a matter similar to the lock step legions of the old Empire.

images (8)

and the worship of the Harpy has continued, although I would assume that there are many powerful people who would prefer to see that particular god disappear for good.

Daenerys-Targaryen-daenerys-targaryen-34863365-2362-3543

Long story short, while the Ghiscari Empire no longer exists and most elements of its culture have been wiped out or faded with time there are many people (usually slave masters or powerful families around Slavers Bay) who look back on the Ghiscari with pride and as a part of their glorious past.

When we look at the history and culture of the Ghiscari they are just vague enough with just enough nods to a whole bunch of ancient cultures to make classification incredibly difficult.  For example, if you watch the show you see Daenerys living in a giant pyramid that was built by the Ghiscari, a building that would make them similar to the ancient Egyptians.

espyrami

While their “lockstep legions” and massive empire put them on par with the Romans.  But I think the Ghiscari occupy a place in history between these two cultures and are the Game of Thrones equivalent of the Ancient Greeks.

image009

First, there’s the name, if you listen hard enough “Ghis” and “Greece” sound kind of similar.  Second, there are the military similarities.  Granted, the Ghiscari soldiers were called legions but their fighting style of closed ranks and blocks of foot soldiers tightly pressed together bears more of a resemblance to the Greek phalanx and hoplite warfare.

hoplites

Third, there is the subject of slavery.  While the Greeks didn’t build a reputation as slavers that was as brutal as the Ghiscari, they were certainly enthusiastic and supportive of the practice.  Most of Greece’s most famous philosophers like Plato and Aristotle believed that slavery wasn’t just right, it was necessary as part of the natural world order.  While there were some Greeks who spoke out against slavery like the Stoics they were more concerned with personal moral and philosophical perfection than freeing slaves.

Finally there is the impact the Greeks had on the world at large.  What makes the Greeks especially similar to the Ghiscari is their history of maintaining fragments of their culture and serving as an inspiration for the future despite their long history of being conquered.  It’s pretty clear that not a lot of people speak ancient Greek anymore but the impact the Greeks had on the world as a whole, and the people who would eventually come to rule them, makes them perfect candidates for the historical equivalent of the Ghiscari Empire.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: An Introduction to Essos

So now we’re at a point in the history of Game of Thrones where we can take a break from Westeros and explore some of the other parts of George R.R Martin’s universe.  Before we go on there is a quick correction.  I stated in previous posts that Aegon the Conqueror was born in Essos, the continent across the sea from Westeros.  It turns out that several very kind and helpful people have pointed out he was actually born on Dragonstone, a small island technically part of Westeros.  I was wrong and the internet was right.

Aegon’s lineage is interesting because while he was born in Westeros his family legacy places him firmly in the neighboring continent of Essos.

download (15)

Now if you thought Westeros was big, Essos is even more massive.  Essos plays an important part in several key subplots of the books and show serving as the base of operations for Daenerys “I am a goddess among men because I have the last three dragons and I am drop dead gorgeous” Targaryen and as a nice and busy stopover for any character that needs to either run away from Westerosi political intrigue or hire someone to make their problems go away.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse and interesting ethnic groups and cultures to look at and observe and most excitingly (and welcoming considering I need at least six more weeks of material for this blog) it has a long and detailed history of mighty empires and great works of art, culture, and magic created while the First Men and Andals were still fighting in Westeros.  Starting with the slave masters of the Ghiscari Empire and ending with the Doom of Valyria and the beginnings of Aegon’s Conquest, we are going to spend the next couple of weeks talking about the pre history of Essos.

This blog post may seem strange and short since we’re simply laying the ground work for future posts but it just wouldn’t be complete without a historical comparison.  It’s been widely alluded to before, and you probably won’t be too shocked to hear this, but Essos is basically Continental Europe and Russia.

europe

You can see the resemblance in shape and if we look at the history of Europe, especially everything east of Germany and around the Mediterranean Sea, there are quite a few similarities.  While the Celts still ruled Britain and the Saxons hadn’t arrived, the rest of Europe had already seen some of the greatest empires and civilizations known to world history rise and fall.  Starting with the Golden Age of Greece and ending with the Saxon invasion of Britain, we are going to compare the pre history of Essos to the long and detailed history of pre Medieval Continental Europe.

The Primordial Soup: Why is Iron Man so popular?

So this little movie just came out.

Avengers_Age_Of_Ultron-poster1 (1)

It’s safe to say that the Avengers and the Marvel movie experiment has been a massive success, bringing together a team of some of the greatest superheroes of the 20th century.  What’s even better for the fans, and Marvel’s box office bottom line, is that most of these superheroes have built up successful movie franchises on their own.  The mighty Thor can easily draw fans in on his own with his epic fantasy tales (though it doesn’t hurt that he has Loki on his side).

download (9)

Captain American can rake in the box office proceeds with his sense of moral justice amid a world that is increasingly going to hell in a hand basket.

download (10)

And the Incredible Hulk is resilient enough to survive over fifty years worth of comics, television, Ang Lee, and a reboot.

download (11)

But by far the most popular and successful super hero to arise from Marvel’s post bankruptcy movie juggernaut is Iron Man, who over the course of seven years and three movies has managed to rake in over 2 BILLION on his own.

images (3)

But what makes Iron Man so popular?  Why did Marvel decide to kick off their movie universe with an unknown director and problematic lead actor?  Let’s find out.

In order to figure out why Iron Man is so popular we have to go back through his history.  One of the reasons I find his popularity so funny is because Iron Man may be the only hero created so people would hate him.  Stan Lee initially created Iron Man in 1963 during the height of the Vietnam War.  Iron Man aka Anthony Stark, is a “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who designs and builds weapons for the U.S military, which meant he was responsible for the Marvel equivalent of this.

download (12)

which Stan thought would piss off a lot of younger readers.  However, for some odd reason Iron Man proved to be incredibly popular and he developed into a Marvel mainstay.  Due to his capitalist, free wheeling, death dealing lifestyle Stark became the embodiment of American industrial might and militaristic aggression beating back colorful villains like the Crimson Dynamo, an experiment by the Soviet Union attempting to duplicate the Iron Man armor.

images (4)

And the Mandarin, an evil Chinese super genius with ten rings that give him various powers.

mandarin-iron-man-3-villain

It’s pretty clear that most of these villains wouldn’t work today, Iron Man 3 avoided using the Mandarin in his original form, because they were meant to be caricatures of America’s great Communist enemies: the Soviet Union and China.  Through out the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s Iron Man was Marvel’s representation of American industry, conquering his foes with technological prowess and ingenuity.

And then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and just like that the Cold War ended.

berlin-wall_2526447b

You’d think that would be the end if Iron Man, after all what would the living embodiment of the military industrial complex have left to fight, but he managed to keep his position as one of Marvel’s top characters long after the Cold War was over.  As far as I can tell there are two possible explanations for this.  First, there’s the Batman argument, which basically means comic book readers just really enjoy watching a 1%er beat the ever loving crap out of poor people with cool gadgets.  But the second option is much more interesting to me.

Iron Man is a geek.

images (5)

Think about it.  Iron Man makes his living designing machines and gadgets.  From an early age Stark was tinkering, programming, and graduating from MIT at age 15. Heck, his only real superpower is his mind, which was able to develop a suit to give him the powers of a god.  There is no problem he can’t solve with technology and nothing his mind can’t handle.

Now if we take that template and we apply it to our society and our modern day world we can see something interesting.  Who are our real world industrial heroes?  Who are the people we admire for changing the world and making massive fortunes?  The answer is, geeks who developed the products that run our world today.  Computer experts like Bill Gates.

download (13)

Programming innovators like Larry Paige and Sergey Brin.

images (6)

And visionaries like Jeff Bezos.

download (14)

And our fascination with tech innovators doesn’t end with the people who wind up with all our money, it extends to the rest of us as well.  In fact, if you look at the number over the past twenty years, there are more engineers and people studying engineering then ever before.  If you go to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo they are filled with people working on fun and interesting gadgets and tech.  We love the ideals that heroes like Iron Man exemplify like intelligence, confidence, innovation, and curiosity and while it is true that Iron Man does share quite a few similarities in his background with heroes like Batman I think that people tend to be more interested in Batman’s dark atmosphere and fanatic devotion to justice while we are more drawn to Iron Man’s spirit of innovation and creativity.

Unless everyone just likes to associate him with the song, in which case this entire article is completely pointless.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: the legacy of the Targaryens

As I mentioned in the previous article Aegon had practically won his War of Conquest after the Field of Fire.  The final great battle that cemented his rule of Westeros occurred when he defeated the Iron Born by roasting their king alive in the great fortress of Harrenhal.

Balerion_the_black

 

After such a grisly reminder of the power the Targaryens held the rest of Westeros quickly fell into line and a strange form of peace settled over the land.  Now Aegon would face a much more difficult challenge, consolidating and administering his new conquest.

It is important to note that Aegon was a foreigner in Westeros and he knew it.  As a result he understood that the best way to rule seven massive kingdoms with a comparatively small force was to let them rule themselves.  As long as the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms accepted his rule, such as the famous “King who knelt” Torren Stark, Aegon would allow them to keep their title, lands, and vassals.

350px-King_who_knelt

 

Aegon performed another politically savvy move by adopting the Faith of the Seven, treating the members of the Church well by supporting them and building plenty of Septs (the Faith’s equivalent of modern churches), and building a new capital at the place where his army had originally landed, a place later known as the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing.  He also kept a good portion of the important advisory positions within the family and his most loyal subjects, having several children with his sisters (Targaryen incest was and is well known) and appointing his distant relative Orris Baratheon as the first Hand of the King.  All in all Aegon was a successful and wise king whose policies and precedents set the standard for the next hundred years of Targaryen rule.

download (7)

Like Aegon after the Field of Fire, William the Conqueror had the difficult job of consolidating and ruling Britain.  The Norman conquerors were comparatively small in number to the large population of Saxons, Celts, and Danes and they had a distinct culture and language from their new subjects.  They knew they would have a huge challenge ahead of them.

One of William’s first actions after he was crowned King of England was to appoint several of Harold’s former advisers back to their old positions.

download (8)

 

This would not be as successful as William had hoped resulting in a rebellion of English Earls against him, which he crushed with brutal force.  He also gained the favor of the Church in England by replacing most of the previous bishops with Norman clergy and allowing the Church to become a powerful united entity on its own.

4826841065_58e9ed2131_b

 

Unlike Aegon, who had built his new kingdom in Westeros almost exclusively, William still maintained and sought to expand his original holdings in France (England was nice since it gave him and his followers royal titles but it was cold, wet, and smelly unlike his much warmer and wealthier French holdings) so most of his time was spent consolidating his holdings in England and in France, which is a topic for another day.  By the time he was finished William’s empire stretched from the northern reaches of Britain to as far South as Paris.

willmap1

 

William was responsible for creating what we know today as the English monarchy.  His policies and precedents would set the standard for the kings and queens of England for the next thousand years and give rise to one of its longest ruling dynasties: the Plantagenet family.

plantagenet_lions_decal