Questions No One Asked – What’s the deal with Valyrian steel?
by Sam Honour
Every epic fantasy worth its salt has epic weapons to match. Lord of the Rings has Narsil, Glamdring and Sting; Harry Potter has the Elder wand; The Chronicles of Narnia has those presents from Santa, I guess? And George R. R. Martin’s epic Song of Ice and Fire is no exception. The powerful and coveted Valyrian steel is renowned to lords and smallfolk alike thanks to its unrivalled strength and alleged magical properties. But what is Valyrian steel? What makes it so powerful? Would it be able to cut through those vacuum sealed plastic packets that nothing on this plane of existence has been able to get through as of yet? Well I’m going to endeavour to answer this question no one asked, whether you want me to or not.
Before we get really stuck in, I’m going to be acting on the assumption that if you’re reading this you’re fully up to date with the ASOIAF books as I’ll be discussing bits and bobs from the whole series, including stuff from the wider history of Westeros. So there’s probably going to be some mild spoilers here and there. If you’re not fully up to date, stop reading this, get yourself to a bookshop and sort yourself out. I recommend them to anyone, including non-fantasy fans, and if you start now you might be finished just in time for the new one coming out. Or not. Only the Seven know when the next one’s coming out and they’re keeping schtum. Go on, I’ll wait.
We first encounter Valyrian steel in the North as Lord Eddard Stark prepares to execute a deserter from the Night’s Watch with the Starks’ ancestral greatsword, Ice. Bran describes the blade as “spell-forged and dark as smoke” so it’s clear right from the get go we’re dealing with something pretty special with this Valyrian steel stuff. The steel was invented in Valyria and is said to have been forged using the dragons that lived there. As we know, the mere presence of dragons in the world allows magic to flourish so using them to craft weapons and armour would likely have a profound effect on the properties of the metal. Perhaps some of the magic that flowed through the veins of the mighty dragons seeped into the steel, imbuing it with spells that not even its creators fully understood? What is agreed on however is that all Valyrian steel blades that exist in the world today were forged in Valyria and ever since the Doom, no one has been able to successfully replicate the work of the smiths that perished there.
So why is it so strong? Given that magic is believed in less and less in the world of ice and fire, most believe Valyrian steel’s strength comes not from ancient and mystical spells but from the great many times the steel has been folded back on itself. This complex process leaves every blade with a distinct ripple pattern and makes them lighter, sharper and stronger than even the finest castle-forged weapons. And while none have perfected the forging of Valyrian steel from scratch, there are those such as Tobho Mott of Qohor who can reforge existing weapons into new ones. Tywin Lannister himself commissions Mott to reforge Ned Stark’s Ice after his death into two new blades; Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper. But even the Qohorik’s steel, although highly impressive, pales in comparison to true Valyrian steel and it is alleged that Qohorik smiths offer infant slaves as blood sacrifices when reworking the metal in an attempt match it.
Because the secrets of Valyrian steel were lost in the Doom, the blades that do exist are highly sought after and absurdly expensive to buy and even then, their owners are usually reluctant to part with them due to their scarcity. For years, even Tywin Lannister with all of the gold of Casterly Rock was unable to procure one to replace his family’s own blade, Brightroar, after it was lost. Most blades are now passed down from generation to generation as heirlooms, each with their own name and unique history, rarely leaving a House’s hands unless through theft or murder. Lord Commander Mormont’s gift of Longclaw to Jon Snow is almost unheard of in the land, thought this may be in part due to his son, Jorah’s, dishonour associated with the blade.
There is also the suggestion that Valyrian steel, alongside dragonglass, is one of the few things that can destroy a White Walker. While there is nought but legend about the Long Night to confirm or refute this claim, Samwell Tarly of the Night’s Watch found reference to ‘dragonsteel’ in the archives at Castle Black being effective against the Others. This ‘dragonsteel’ may or may not be Valyrian steel though given the legends around its forging, it’s more than possible. With this information Lord Commander Snow issued a plea for all the Valyrian steel blades in Westeros to be sent to the Wall to aid in the fight against the Others but due to its value and the social status attributed to their wielders, his request will likely be ignored.
While Valyrian steel doesn’t glow blue or shoot lightning or heal wounds or anything fancy like that, it is impressive and personally I’m looking forward to Sam’s theory about it and the Others being put into practice. It seems to be the only real weapon that Westeros has to fight the White Walkers, what with Daenerys still faffing about in Essos with her dragons, and if the lords of the Seven Kingdoms can put aside their differences long enough to survive the coming winter, it will be to Valyrian steel that they owe their victory.