The ShortRead for 19th November
The World of Ice and Fire
Author: George R. R. Martin (with Elio M. García, Jr. and Linda Antonsson)
What's the story: Fans of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series know suffering. In addition to losing some of their favourite characters with little warning, they also have to endure a feeling of frustration that arises at the conclusion of each book: just as you think things are headed toward a final dramatic sequence, you realise the last 30 pages aren't another chapter, but a lengthy appendix of names and houses.
The World of Ice and Fire makes that helpful list look like a feeble address book. Delving into the never-before-seen history of Westeros and the lands beyond the seven kingdoms, this vast tome sees Martin add a rich history to his already monumental work. From battles to beasts, family trees to family feuds, this is a must for every Ice and Fire fan.
Release date: Out now
The Dawn Age
There are none who can say with certain knowledge when the world began, yet this has not stopped many maesters and learned men from seeking the answer. Is it forty thousand years old, as some hold, or perhaps a number as large as five hundred thousand—or even more? It is not written in any book that we know, for in the first age of the world, the Dawn Age, men were not lettered.
We can be certain that the world was far more primitive, however—a barbarous place of tribes living directly from the land with no knowledge of the working of metal or the taming of beasts. What little is known to us of those days is contained in the oldest of texts: the tales written down by the Andals, by the Valyrians, and by the Ghiscari, and even by those distant people of fabled Asshai. Yet however ancient those lettered races, they were not even children during the Dawn Age. So what truths their tales contain are difficult to find, like seeds among chaff.
What can most accurately be told about the Dawn Age? The eastern lands were awash with many peoples—uncivilized, as all the world was uncivilized, but numerous. But on Westeros, from the Lands of Always Winter to the shores of the Summer Sea, only two peoples existed: the children of the forest and the race of creatures known as the giants.
Of the giants in the Dawn Age, little and less can be said, for no one has gathered their tales, their legends, their histories. Men of the Watch say the wildlings have tales of the giants living uneasily alongside the children, ranging where they would and taking what they wanted. All the accounts claim that they were huge and powerful creatures, but simple. Reliable accounts from the rangers of the Night’s Watch, who were the last men to see the giants while they still lived, state that they were covered in a thick fur rather than simply being very large men as the nursery tales hold.
There is considerable evidence of burials among the giants, as recorded in Maester Kennet’s Passages of the Dead—a study of the barrow fields and graves and tombs of the North in his time of service at Winterfell, during the long reign of Cregan Stark. From bones that have been found in the North and sent to the Citadel, some maesters estimate that the largest of the giants could reach fourteen feet, though others say twelve feet is nearer the truth. The tales of long-dead rangers written down by maesters of the Watch all agree that the giants did not make homes or garments, and knew of no better tools or weapons than branches pulled from trees.
The giants had no kings and no lords, made no homes save in caverns or beneath tall trees, and they worked neither metal nor fields. They remained creatures of the Dawn Age even as the ages passed them by, men grew ever more numerous, and the forests were tamed and dwindled. Now the giants are gone even in the lands beyond the Wall, and the last reports of them are more than a hundred years old. And even those are dubious—tales that rangers of the Watch might tell over a warm fire.
The children of the forest were, in many ways, the opposites of the giants. As small as children but dark and beautiful, they lived in a manner we might call crude today, yet they were still less barbarous than the giants. They worked no metal, but they had great art in working obsidian (what the smallfolk call dragonglass, while the Valyrians knew it by a word meaning “frozen fire”) to make tools and weapons for hunting. They wove no cloths but were skilled in making garments of leaves and bark. They learned to make bows of weirwood and to construct flying snares of grass, and both of the sexes hunted with these.
Their song and music was said to be as beautiful as they were, but what they sang of is not remembered save in small fragments handed down from ancient days. Maester Childer’s Winter’s Kings, or the Legends and Lineages of the Starks of Winterfell contains a part of a ballad alleged to tell of the time Brandon the Builder sought the aid of the children while raising the Wall. He was taken to a secret place to meet with them, but could not at first understand their speech, which was described as sounding like the song of stones in a brook, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water. The manner in which Brandon learned to comprehend the speech of the children is a tale in itself, and not worth repeating here. But it seems clear that their speech originated, or drew inspiration from, the sounds they heard every day.
The gods the children worshipped were the nameless ones that would one day become the gods of the First Men—the innumerable gods of the streams and forests and stones. It was the children who carved the weirwoods with faces, perhaps to give eyes to their gods so that they might watch their worshippers at their devotions. Others, with little evidence, claim that the greenseers—the wise men of the children—were able to see through the eyes of the carved weirwoods. The supposed proof is the fact that the First Men themselves believed this; it was their fear of the weirwoods spying upon them that drove them to cut down many of the carved trees and weirwood groves, to deny the children such an advantage. Yet the First Men were less learned than we are now, and credited things that their descendants today do not; consider Maester Yorrick’s Wed to the Sea, Being an Account of the History of White Harbor from Its Earliest Days, which recounts the practice of blood sacrifice to the old gods. Such sacrifices persisted as recently as five centuries ago, according to accounts from Maester Yorrick’s predecessors at White Harbor.
This is not to say that the greenseers did not know lost arts that belong to the higher mysteries, such as seeing events at a great distance or communicating across half a realm (as the Valyrians, who came long after them, did). But mayhaps some of the feats of the greenseers have more to do with foolish tales than truth. They could not change their forms into those of beasts, as some would have it, but it seems true that they were capable of communicating with animals in a way that we cannot now achieve; it is from this that legends of skinchangers, or beastlings, arose.
In truth, the legends of the skinchangers are many, but the most common—brought from beyond the Wall by men of the Night’s Watch, and recorded at the Wall by septons and maesters of centuries past—hold that the skinchangers not only communicated with beasts, but could control them by having their spirits mingle. Even among the wildlings, these skinchangers were feared as unnatural men who could call on animals as allies. Some tales speak of skinchangers losing themselves in their beasts, and others say that the animals could speak with a human voice when a skinchanger controlled them. But all the tales agree that the most common skinchangers were men who controlled wolves—even direwolves—and these had a special name among the wildlings: wargs.
Legend further holds that the greenseers could also delve into the past and see far into the future. But as all our learning has shown us, the higher mysteries that claim this power also claim that their visions of the things to come are unclear and often misleading—a useful thing to say when seeking to fool the unwary with fortune-telling. Though the children had arts of their own, the truth must always be separated from superstition, and knowledge must be tested and made sure. The higher mysteries, the arts of magic, were and are beyond the boundaries of our mortal ability to examine.
Yet no matter the truths of their arts, the children were led by their greenseers, and there is no doubt that they could once be found from the Lands of Always Winter to the shores of the Summer Sea. They made their homes simply, constructing no holdfasts or castles or cities. Instead they resided in the woods, in crannogs, in bogs and marshes, and even in caverns and hollow hills. It is said that, in the woods, they made shelters of leaves and withes up in the branches of trees—secret tree “towns.”
It has long been held that they did this for protection from predators such as direwolves or shadowcats, which their simple stone weapons—and even their vaunted greenseers—were not proof against. But other sources dispute this, stating that their greatest foes were the giants, as hinted at in tales told in the North, and as possibly proved by Maester Kennet in the study of a barrow near the Long Lake—a giant’s burial with obsidian arrowheads found amidst the extant ribs. It brings to mind a transcription of a wildling song in Maester Herryk’s History of the Kings-Beyond-the-Wall, regarding the brothers Gendel and Gorne. They were called upon to mediate a dispute between a clan of children and a family of giants over the possession of a cavern. Gendel and Gorne, it is said, ultimately resolved the matter through trickery, making both sides disavow any desire for the cavern, after the brothers discovered it was a part of a greater chain of caverns that eventually passed beneath the Wall. But considering that the wildlings have no letters, their traditions must be looked at with a jaundiced eye.
For more excellent reads, check out our previous choices below - just click on the link:
(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)