Science Behind the Magic: Valyrian Steel

This was the second part in my posts looking at the magic in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. The first part about the Others’ Ice swords can be found here.

What is Valyrian Steel?

When it comes to Valyrian steel I am sure there are some long lost spells and other forms of magic still lost which renders it nigh impossible to forge new Valyrian swords but even old Valyrians had to figure this all out. They didn’t wake up just knowing how to forge dragonsteel. They had to start somewhere. To figure that out we have to take all that we know about creatures and objects that share similar properties.

GRRM has discounted theories about Valyrian steel being natively from a magical source such a dragon bone. He has also quite clearly stated that the magic comes from the forging techniques.

Question: A brief question about Valyrian steel – is it the metal that makes the sword so special (provenance, age, etc), or is it the forging (spells, techniques)

GRRM: Forging techniques and spells, actually. There is magic involved in the making of Valyrian steel.

So Valyrian steel take a normal source (iron) and imbues it with special forging techniques and magic to make it something more. For that reason I think that a normal blacksmiths forge will not be good enough to forge it.

Connection between dragonglass, dragonsteel & dragons

Valyria is famous for is their dragonlords and their connection to dragons. Most theories about the crafting of Valyrian steel suspect that dragons are involved which is why it is no longer possible to forge them. No dragons = no swords. Simple right? The problem with this is that it doesn’t explain why obsidian also kills the Others. What could both valyrian steel and obsidian have in common that could fight the Others?

In an older interview with GRRM he talks more about obsidian being referred to as “dragon glass” and he hints that there is a reason behind it.  

Shaw: Is there a certain reason why they named obsidian “dragonglass” or why you did that?

Martin: Yes, there is a reason.

Shaw: Are dragons somehow the mortal enemy of the Others?

Martin: There are a lot of legends, and you’ll be hearing more about them in the future books, but a lot of stuff about Others and about dragons maybe isn’t completely understood by the people of the present. Obsidian is of course volcanic glass; it’s formed by immense heat and pressure down in the earth. The dragons themselves are creatures of intense heat.

Shaw: I wasn’t sure if you had added something to obsidian for the fantasy.

Martin: I’ve given it magical characteristics that of course real obsidian doesn’t necessarily have. After all, we live in a world that has no magic. My world does have magic, so it’s a little bit different.

So here he makes the connection between Dragons and Obsidian and how they both are connected with intense heat. How does Valyrian steel fit in?

“The armor of the Others is proof against most ordinary blades, if the tales can be believed,” said Sam, “and their own swords are so cold they shatter steel. Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian.” He remembered the one he had faced in the haunted forest, and how it had seemed to melt away when he stabbed it with the dragonglass dagger Jon had made for him. “I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it.”

“Dragonsteel?” Jon frowned. “Valyrian steel?” (AFFC Samwell I)

I do not think it is a coincidence that dragon glass and dragon steel are both associated with Dragons which are “creatures of intense heat.” Why can’t this mean that dragons created both? Or they are from the same source?

When Sam is shown the burning glass candle in the Citadel he first asks what feeds the flame however Marwyn is quick to ask “what feeds a dragon’s fire?” implying that the two are connected.

“What feeds the flame?” asked Sam.

“What feeds a dragon’s fire?” Marwyn seated himself upon a stool. “All Valyrian sorcery was rooted in blood or fire.” (AFFC Samwell V)

Where dragonsteel is made

Dragons, dragon steel and dragon glass candles all have ties to Valyria and Valyrian sorcery. One of the returning themes of the text is that every action has a price. It would make sense for this to apply to magic as well. So what did the Valyrians do and what was the price they paid? Well quite simply they learned how to manipulate blood and fire, the blood and fire found in the earth. The area around the Valyrian Freehold is volcanic which conveniently is a natural source of obsidian. According to the SSM Dragons are also a creature from this environment so it makes sense they go hand in hand. Valyrian steel is known as dragon steel not because it is forged from dragon blood or dragon bones but because it also is forged in the same environment that dragons and dragonglass comes from. Volcanoes.

To really oversimplify the process forging steel requires taking iron, removing its impurities and then adding in carbon. To remove the impurities the iron has to be heated to well… a really hot temperature. There is a theory out there that since dragon glass is frozen fire it could be the fire hot enough to make Valyrian steel. If that isn’t it, well you are in a volcano and it don’t get much hotter anywhere on Earth. If that is part of the process the next challenge is keeping that temperature consistently hot enough to complete the process. In which case a volcano would be a great place to be. Now the traditional method for adding carbon back into the purified iron is using charcoal. However you can use gases or plasmas such as carbon dioxide or methane. Volcanoes it turns out expel a lot of CO2. (Tinfoil theory: so do dragons and thats why the weather is weird.)

If Valyrian steel needs to be first forged in a Volcano we now have the case that the 3 objects which have a chance of fighting the Others comes from the heart of the earth. But what about the price that the Valyrians paid?

They paid that price with the Doom of Valyria.

tl;dr Valyrian steel swords are forged in Volcanoes because that is the natural environment for dragons and dragonglass.

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