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On A Song of Ice and Fire
An Unreliable World
History and Timekeeping in Westeros
In any setting with a complex history and mythology, it is common for the author to reveal and explore the backstory at the same time the main storyline is driving forward. This is true in A Song of Ice and Fire, where even as the central plot unfolds and we witness Westeros’s descent into the chaos of the War of the Five Kings and Daenerys Targaryen’s tribulations in the distant east, we learn more about the events that came before. We learn about the reign of the Mad King, the Targaryen conquest, the flight of the Rhoynar to Dorne, and the raising of the Wall to defend against the Others. Even as the story moves ahead, it also moves back, giving more depth and resonance to current events by showing how they were set up decades, centuries, or even millennia earlier. But we also learn that the accounts of time and history in the books are not to be trusted, with doubts raised over when events happened, or even if they ever happened at all.
Tracking the Years
One of the defining characteristics of the setting for A Song of Ice and Fire is that the seasons last for years at a time and are unpredictable: a decade-long winter can be followed by a substantially shorter summer. As well as introducing logistical difficulties for the characters of Westeros, it also causes problems for the tracking of history and time. In A Song of Ice and Fire, characters live in a world whose very history is uncertain and ill-defined, where myth and legend are hopelessly and inextricably entwined with accounts of real events. The predominant feature of Westerosi history is vagueness.
Early in A Game of Thrones we are shown the Wall, a vast edifice that stretches across the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms and holds back the threats that lurk beyond, both supernatural and mundane. We are told that the Wall is eight thousand years old. This is a vast number, enough to give even hardened fantasy readers pause. In reality, eight thousand years is almost twice the age of the Great Pyramids, and even with modern archaeological techniques our knowledge of our own comparable historical period (c. 6000 B.C.) is sketchy at best. In a fantasy world lacking such technology, where frequent long winters threaten to destroy civilization entirely, the notion that these people would have any idea what happened eight thousand years earlier seems fanciful.
Some critics have complained about the vast spans of time referenced in the series, calling them “unrealistic.” This criticism is answered—or at least addressed—in the text itself. The spans of time are vast, but they may also be illusory. Over the centuries, tradition and myth petrify into accepted fact; the truth may be very different, in this case, involving much shorter spans of time. When Jon Snow sends Samwell Tarly to research the history of the Night’s Watch in an effort to learn more about the Others, a confused Samwell reports that the number of Lord Commanders to which he can find references is far smaller than less formal histories suggest.
“The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later [. . .]. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights. You know the tales [. . .] we say that you’re the nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but the oldest list I’ve found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders.” (A Feast for Crows)
This is an important statement, confirming the notion that the history of the Seven Kingdoms is based on myths and legends much more than on hard historical facts. Before the Andals came to Westeros, the First Men used runes chiselled into rocks and oral storytelling traditions to pass information on from one generation to the next. There may be some truth in these stories—some of Homer’s account of the Trojan War in The Iliad, drawn from older, oral traditions in our world, has been backed up by archaeological findings at the real site of Troy, for example—but there is also a lot of hyperbole and fantastical invention. Even the Andals’ historical records are inexact and prone to creative flourishes and outright errors, especially since even their arrival in Westeros is impossible to date reliably. “[N]o one knows when the Andals crossed the narrow sea,” Hoster Blackwood explains in A Dance with Dragons. “The True History says four thousand years have passed since then, but some maesters claim that it was only two. Past a certain point, all the dates grow hazy and confused, and the clarity of history becomes the fog of legend.”
It’s worth noting that the appendix to A Game of Thrones actually suggests six thousand years have passed since the Andals’ arrival, whilst Hoster Blackwood’s remarks to Jaime in A Dance with Dragons suggest it could be as little as two thousand. An “error margin” of some four thousand years leaves significant room for doubts, mistakes, and miscalculations.
Seasons of Uncertainty
The enormous difficulty in calculating history in Westeros is down to the lack of regular seasons. When one season might last for a few months and the next for years, records of harvests, plantings, summer festivals, and so on become highly unreliable. Even the maesters of the Citadel, with their exacting measurements and timelines, find themselves arguing over dates and details. Neither has it been revealed in the books how long the maesters or the Citadel have been around. They are just one more example of the fog of uncertainty shrouding the entire backstory of Westeros—one more example of how history itself is an unreliable narrator in the series.
The unpredictable seasons also answer another common criticism about technological stasis in Westeros. The kingdoms in A Song of Ice and Fire have seen historical epochs pass much as in real history, just at a slower rate. We are told that the First Men brought bronze to Westeros some twelve thousand years before the start of the books. By tradition—which, as we have already seen, may not be entirely reliable—the Andals followed with iron and horse-riding some six thousand years later. In reality, the Bronze Age in Europe lasted from roughly 3200 to 600 B.C., a period of twenty-six centuries. The following Iron Age overlapped it, extending from 1200 A.D. to 400 B.C., a period of sixteen centuries. If we take into account the slowing of technological progress due to the long winters, effectively mini ice ages occurring up to several times a century, the corresponding technological ages in Westeros only last two to three times longer than their real-life counterparts.
That said, we are also given conflicting information about technological and sociological matters: the appendix to A Game of Thrones tells us that the Andals brought the concept of chivalry to Westeros, but in A Feast for Crows, Samwell Tarly suggests that the institution of knighthood is a more recent one and highlights the fact that some stories speak of knights living a thousand years before they could have existed. This is, of course, a nod to the legend of King Arthur, where knights in the medieval tradition are depicted as living and fighting a clear half-millennia before such fighting men came into being.
A wild card in this matter is the existence of magic. The degree to which magic was practiced in Westeros before the Doom of Valyria is unclear, but certainly at one time magic was used for formidable tasks, such as the raising of the Wall and the building of Storm’s End. The notion that magic retards technological development, if not preventing it altogether, is a common conceit in epic fantasy. Magic in Westeros, even when used, was not as prevalent as in other fantasy stories, and its use may have helped slow, but not prevent, technological advancement. This conflict between magic and science is given a clearer definition in A Feast for Crows, when we are told that the maesters of the Citadel believe that magic should be made obsolete and stamped out wherever it is encountered for the benefit of science.
The backstory to A Song of Ice and Fire thus lacks definition up until the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror in Westeros, a mere three centuries before the start of the series. At this point history suddenly snaps into focus, and we get hard dates for the reigns of the Targaryen kings and major events that happen during their reign. Before that, history is less hard fact and more shifting legend.
History on a Personal Scale
This unreliability of history extends onto a more personal scale as well. Characters are defined by their experiences and what has happened to them in the past, as well as by their families and their family histories. These histories themselves often suffer from uncertainty as much as the larger-scale timeline. Jon Snow, a major protagonist of the series—if not the major protagonist—is a character uncertain of his own identity; he doesn’t know anything at all about his real mother, not even her name. Cruelly, he is not privy to information that the reader and even other characters possess. Catelyn Stark never told him about the rumors that his mother might be Ashara Dayne of Starfall, and Arya has not been able to tell him that his mother might be the Dayne servant, Wylla, as revealed to her by Edric Dayne in A Storm of Swords. This latter point is crucial, as Wylla was identified by Eddard Stark as Jon’s mother to his best friend, Robert Baratheon.
This mystery is at the heart of the series, gaining more power as readers learn that Eddard Stark might not even be Jon’s father in the first place. In this instance we are given conflicting information from multiple sources about the matter. Jon may be the son of Eddard and Ashara, or Eddard and Wylla, or Eddard and an unknown fisherman’s daughter from the Vale of Arryn. Or he may not be Eddard’s son at all but a child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, claimed by Eddard to protect him from Robert Baratheon’s fury. Of course, if he were the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, he would be illegitimate . . . unless his parents had secretly married. Since Targaryens could take multiple wives and all of their offspring would have a claim as heirs, this could theoretically give Jon a claim to the throne, although one that would be very hard to prove.
Going back further, even the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna’s relationship is clouded by mystery. Robert Baratheon believes that Rhaegar abducted and raped Lyanna. Eddard is less sure. Later, in A Storm of Swords, Howland Reed’s children seem to tell Bran that the relationship between the two began more romantically, with Lyanna weeping at Rhaegar’s musical skills. We also know from A Dance with Dragons that Elia Martell, Rhaegar’s wife, could not bear any more children, whilst A Clash of Kings tells us that Rhaegar believed his children would play an important role in preventing the return of the Others. We can infer that Rhaeger was already looking to find another wife to bear him a third child to complete the prophecy. Martin gives us most of the pieces, but it is up to the reader to put it all together, at least until the moment the truth is revealed in later volumes—if it ever is.
Wheels turn within wheels, and the information we are offered within the books is fragmentary, requiring the reader to stand back and combine the scattered facts and perspectives into a larger picture. Popular history, as spread by King Robert, tells us Lyanna was abducted and raped. Other versions of the story tell us she and Rhaegar may have been lovers, or that Rhaegar may have used her to fulfill a line in a prophecy. Even seemingly clear-cut information is not entirely trustworthy: Brandon Stark, Eddard’s elder brother murdered by the Mad King, is described as a fiery but brave warrior, devoted to his betrothed, Catelyn Tully. Yet we learn in A Dance with Dragons that he had little to no interest in Catelyn, while another source, Ser Barristan Selmy, hints that he was a violent man. Brandon may have even sexually assaulted Ashara Dayne, getting her with child, which would explain a great deal about Ashara’s pregnancy and her behavior toward the end of her life. Even what appear to be straightforward elements of backstory turn out to be more complex, more shrouded in doubt, than they first appear.
To this end, the message of A Song of Ice and Fire may be that nothing is certain, not the world’s history and not the history of any individual within it. Everything is in the eye of the beholder, and the acts of one character may be heinous crimes to some but heroism to others. Tyrion Lannister tries to save King’s Landing from assault by destroying Stannis Baratheon’s fleet on the Blackwater. He partially succeeds—and is condemned by the people of King’s Landing as a criminal and monster. The reader has a greater perspective from which to judge the characters’ actions in the novels, but we are dependent on what the characters know about each other and about more ancient history. And if even contemporary events cannot be fully understood, what hope is there for the events thousands of years removed?
In A Dance with Dragons, we are offered a glimmer of hope, through the agency of the Last Greenseer: “[Y]ou will [. . .] see what the trees have seen,” he tells Bran Stark, “be it yesterday or last year or a thousand ages past.” This potentially opens up a window on the past through which Bran—and the reader—can gain a privileged vantage on events that had only been available through unreliable tales. We already have seen that the First Men used to engage in blood-sacrifices to the old gods, a truth that is not revealed in the other histories and stories. We have also seen through the heart tree that Lyanna Stark was a skilled swordswoman, capable of besting her younger brother—the future First Ranger of the Night’s Watch and a very capable soldier—in mock combat. This fuels speculation that Lyanna herself was the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree who avenged Howland Reed’s humiliation in A Storm of Swords, and gives another reason for why she and Rhaegar may have met and developed a connection. The addition of even a small scene, which may at first appear only to offer flavoring, can deepen our understanding of the backstory and fuel speculation.
Uncertainty as Engagement
The Song of Ice and Fire novels and the Game of Thrones TV series have benefited from the internet. Fans gather at blogs and online forums to debate the questions raised by each new release, whether it’s Jon Snow’s parentage, the reasons for the unpredictable seasons, or the motivations of the Others. Discussions of this sort—though sometimes very . . . lively—increase the readers’ engagement with the story, allowing them the opportunity for active rather than passive participation. It helps create and maintain a loyal and enthusiastic fanbase and gives those fans something to talk about during the waits between novels.
As the story of A Song of Ice and Fire draws to a close, many of the questions raised within its pages will be answered. Martin himself has told us we will learn the reason the seasons are out of joint and the truth behind Jon Snow’s parentage. After almost two decades of discussion, it’s inevitable some fans will have guessed those answers already, but for those who have, it’s a tribute to the skill with which the author assembled those mysteries and seeded clues to their resolutions in the story.
It’s unlikely that all the mysteries will be solved, however. Larger questions about the nature of magic and religion in the world will surely remain, and rightfully so. Westeros itself is a place built upon unreliable time and fractured history, so for the series to end with mysteries still shrouding the landscape would only be fitting.
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