I had written this awhile back for /r/asoiaf. I figured since I’ve been too busy with the baby to create new content I might as well publish some old posts on here in case people haven’t read them yet. Enjoy!
Let’s start with what we know
I mentioned in the last post that I was actually interested in finding out more about how the Others’ magic actually works. Since we don’t actually know much about them this is mostly going to be speculation. However there are parallels between what is written about the Others and other forms of magic in the series. One of the first places to start is with what we actually know the most about – their weapons. We have had multiple instances now where contact has been made with the Others and their fighting described. I think that there is enough in these passages to at least provide a closer hint to the nature of the Others’ magic and how it ties in with the overarching themes of ice and fire.
Crystal Swords Description
We are first introduced to the Others in the prologue of A Game of Thrones. It is in that prologue that we also get a detailed description of their crystal ice weapons.
The Other slid forward on silent feet. In its hand was a longsword like none that Will had ever seen. No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed almost to vanish when seen edge- on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing, a ghost- light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew it was sharper than any razor. (AGOT, prologue)
GRRM tends to describe a lot of swords (and other objects) as being razor sharp but what is interesting about this description is that a very similar one is used to describe another material that has magical properties:
Torchlight ran along its edge, a thin orange line that spoke of razor sharpness. Dragonglass. What the maesters call obsidian. Had Ghost uncovered some ancient cache of the children of the forest, buried here for thousands of years? The Fist of the First Men was an old place, only . . . (Jon IV, ACoK)
Dragonglass/obsidian is the weapon that the Children used before the First Men. I think this was deliberate because it is another way to tie the magic of the Others with that of the Children. We do know that obsidian is a material found in nature and GRRM has decided to imbue it with its own magical properties. In fact the Valyrians actually referred to it as “frozen fire.” (AWoIaF) What does this all have to do with the Others’ crystal swords? Well they are in fact made from frozen water… or ice. (Groundbreaking theory I know!) Which is also what GRRM says in that same interview I linked to in the last post.
Shaw: Do you know what substance an Other sword is made from.
Martin: Ice. But not like regular old ice. The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine and make substances of it.
Like GRRM said, this being the Others means it can’t just be any ice. So what do we do to find out more about it? Well let’s see what else GRRM wrote.
Crystal Swords & Armor in Action
The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. It slid away from Paul’s axe, armor rippling, and its crystal sword twisted and spun and slipped between the iron rings of Paul’s mail, through leather and wool and bone and flesh. It came out his back with a hissssssssssss and Sam heard Paul say, “Oh,” as he lost the axe. Impaled, his blood smoking around the sword, the big man tried to reach his killer with his hands and almost had before he fell. The weight of him tore the strange pale sword from the Other’s grip. (ASoS, Sam I)
Now this is where I would like to share this video of a simple experiment where they put dry ice (frozen CO2) in water. Dry ice is an interesting case study to look at because it is, well, super cold. Like −78.5 °C cold. In fact if you watch the video when putting a cube of dry ice in water you get a reaction that hisses and causes the water to “smoke.” The swords aren’t the only clue that GRRM leaves with us about the nature of the Others’ magic. Their armor is magical as well. In fact when Sam stabs one of them with an obsidian (frozen fire!) blade we get a description of how the armor is subsequently destroyed.
He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man’s foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.
When he opened his eyes the Other’s armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in its throat. It reached down with two bone-white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked. (ASoS, Sam I)
There are two key pieces here one is that noise with is made on contact and the other is the fact that the armor basically melts. What reacts like that when fire heats it? Ice. Going back to the dry ice experiments, it turns out there are lots of those where people try cutting dry ice as well. When a metal blade is heated and then touches dry ice we get a rather unpleasant sound. Also as the blade cools it once again become almost impossible to cut through the ice.
What does this all imply?
The Others know how to manipulate cold, specifically ice. I also think that their magic is similar to that of the Children which could have a couple of implications. The control of the wights for one could be a type of warging and if it is are they aware of what the wights sense? I also am toying with the idea that they also possess their own form of ice dreams. If there are green dreams and dragons dreams that tell something of the future it is very likely that there are ice dreams. Also /u/JoeMagician wrote this great post about how there is more to Waymar Royce than the fact he died in the prologue. The Others are looking for something (or someone?) and acting different based on *something.* Why shouldn’t it be a prophetic dream? Most importantly though it does give the Watchers & Wildlings something to fight.
Tormund turned back. “You know nothing. You killed a dead man, aye, I heard. Mance killed a hundred. A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise up … how do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teeth … air so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest … you do not know, you cannot know … can your sword cut cold?” (Jon VII ADwD)
Old Nan tells the story of the Last Hero and mentions that his sword broke as well due to the fact it froze.
”… One by one his friends died, and his horse, and finally even his dog, and his sword froze so hard the blade snapped when he tried to use it. And the Others smelled the hot blood in him, and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—” (Bran IV, AGoT)
The Others are the embodiment of cold. They can manipulate the temperatures of water/ice to the extreme where it acts similarly to dry ice in our world. We know that normal swords shatter when they hit the ice crystal swords because it somehow insta-freezes the metal.
Ser Waymar Royce found his fury. “For Robert!” he shouted, and he came up snarling, lifting the frost-covered longsword with both hands and swinging it around in a flat sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The Other’s parry was almost lazy. When the blades touched, the steel shattered. (Prologue, AGoT)
The reason why obsidian can kill the Others is because it is pure crystallized fire. Valyrian steel, being a forged in a similar environment and with special magic related to fire and blood, will most likely react similar to obsidian. So yes, Jon’s sword most likely can cut cold.
And if you want to read about the science behind Valyrian steel, head over here!