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The Higher Mysteries


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Magic is an important and intriguing part of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Many of us have speculated on what it can do, and how it may affect the story in the future.  My own musings have gone in a slightly different direction.  I've made some attempt to find the broader patterns, the fundamental principles or laws of Nature by which magic operates.

(TLDR:  scroll down to the Summary.)

A sword without a hilt


It was Dalla who answered him, Dalla great with child, lying on her pile of furs beside the brazier.  “We free folk know things you kneelers have forgotten.  Sometimes the short road is not the safest, Jon Snow.  The Horned Lord once said that sorcery is a sword without a hilt.  There is no safe way to grasp it.”  (Storm 73)

The phrase "a sword without a hilt" also appears four times in Dance (chapters 28 and 39).  And there are other characters, including some skilled sorcerers, who warn us that the use of magic is fraught with uncertainty


"That is the nature of prophecy, said Gorghan.  Prophecy will bite your prick off every time.” (Feast 45)

Passages such as these led me to believe that the First  Law of Magic -- or perhaps we should call it the Zeroth Law -- is:  We will never know all the laws.  The first page of Winds may contain some magical event that wasn't predictable by studying all the magic in the first five books .  

Stepping out-of-universe for a moment, I found confirmation for this in a quote from a 2017 interview with the George (referenced in the wiki article about magic):


Fantasy needs magic in it, but I try to control the magic very strictly.  You can have too much magic in fantasy very easily, and then it overwhelms everything and you lose all sense of realism.  And I try to keep the magic magical — something mysterious and dark and dangerous, and something never completely understood.  I don’t want to go down the route of having magic schools and classes where, if you say these six words, something will reliably happen.  Magic doesn’t work that way.  Magic is playing with forces you don’t completely understand.  And perhaps with beings or deities you don’t completely understand.  It should have a sense of peril about it.

The same wine in different bottles

During my re-reads, I'm always intrigued by the pattern in these events:


Dany raised the glass to her lips.  The first sip tasted like ink and spoiled meat, foul, but when she swallowed it seemed to come to life within her.  She could feel tendrils spreading through her chest, like fingers of fire coiling around her heart, and on her tongue was a taste like honey and anise and cream, like mother’s milk and Drogo’s seed, like red meat and hot blood and molten gold.  It was all the tastes she had ever known, and none of them … and then the glass was empty.  (Clash 48)


She [Arya] could smell the candles.  The scent was unfamiliar, and she put it down to some queer incense, but as she got deeper into the temple, they seemed to smell of snow and pine needles and hot stew.  (Feast 6)


"When you smell our candles burning, what does it make you think of, my child?”  Winterfell, she might have said.  I smell snow and smoke and pine needles.  I smell the stables.  I smell Hodor laughing, and Jon and Robb battling in the yard, and Sansa singing about some stupid lady fair.  I smell the crypts where the stone kings sit, I smell hot bread baking, I smell the godswood.  I smell my wolf, I smell her fur, almost as if she were still beside me.  (Feast 22)


The first spoonful was the hardest to get down.  He [Bran] almost retched it right back up.  The second tasted better.  The third was almost sweet.  The rest he spooned up eagerly.  Why had he thought that it was bitter? It tasted of honey, of new-fallen snow, of pepper and cinnamon and the last kiss his mother ever gave him.  (Dance 34)


Euron grabbed a handful of the priest’s tangled black hair, pulled his head back, and lifted the wine cup to his lips.  But what flowed into his mouth was not wine.  It was thick and viscous, with a taste that seemed to change with every swallow.  Now bitter, now sour, now sweet.  (Winds preview chapter "The Forsaken")

Four different events, conducted by four different sorcerers, in four different lands, using three different potions, all producing the same effect.

I infer from this that all magic is powered by the same metaphysical force or energy.  The books mention blood magic, fire magic, and water magic as if they are three different arts.  Some readers have gone on to suggest the existence of other types of magic such as ice- or earth -based.  But it seems likely to me that fire, ice, water, blood, etc.  are merely different methods or tools for manipulating the same basic force. For example, some sorcerers use glass candles to see faraway events. but the red priests accomplish the same feat by gazing into a fire.

Life magic


“It is not a matter of gold or horses.  This is bloodmagic, lady.  Only death may pay for life.” (Game 64)

When I read those last two sentences, I sometimes wonder if "bloodmagic" is actually a nickname for what might better be called "life magic."  It seems that life itself is a sort of energy or essence that can be manipulated by magical means.  It can be moved from one body to another.  The statement that "only death may pay for life" even suggests that there is a sort of "conservation of energy" -like rule in effect: to save one life, you must destroy another. This principle is also mentioned in Arya's conversation with Jaqen H'ghar after she saves his life


“The Red God has his due, sweet girl, and only death may pay for life. This girl took three that were his. This girl must give three in their places. Speak the names, and a man will do the rest.”  (Clash 30)

To the sorcerer, life is not an absolute; it can be measured or divided in various quantities.  In other words, some creatures are more alive than others.  This is demonstrated most vividly by Ser Beric Dondarrion, who thinks, speaks, and leads the Brotherhood Without Banners in ways that are largely normal,  despite having been killed several times.  But he no longer eats or sleeps; and he remarks that each time he is revived, some pieces of his personality are lost.  Coldhands and Lady Stoneheart seem to be in a similar condition.  Further down the "aliveness scale" is "Ser Robert Strong" (the reanimated Gregor Clegane), who never eats or speaks, but has some ability to follow instructions; and finally the wights, who seem to have lost all capability for communication and higher-level thought.

The story contains some examples of "bloodmagic" that involve actual blood, such as Melisandre's use of Edric Storm's blood to kill Stannis's enemies, or the fortune tellers who read someone's future from a drop of their blood.  But perhaps the power is not in the blood itself;  it's in the life force that the blood carries.  If that is true, we might expect that other types of living or formerly living flesh can also be used for magic.  And indeed, that seems to be the case.


Jon Snow turned to Melisandre.  “What sorcery is this?” 
“Call it what you will.  Glamor, seeming, illusion ...  The bones help,” said Melisandre.  “The bones remember.  The strongest glamors are built of such things.  A dead man’s boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones.  (Dance 31)

Similarly, the Faceless Men use the faces of the dead to create powerful, long-lasting glamors.

Transcending space and time

Magic users and communicate across great distances, and even across time, with the past and the future.  For this essay, let us define "communication" broadly, to include actions such as prophecy, where the magician is able to receive information, even though there is no specific transmitter.  Prophecies are about the future, of course; but from Bran's experience with the Children of the Forest, we know that magic can allow one to see the past as well. 

From Sam's conversations at the Citadel (Feast 45), we know that glass candles can be used to converse with people far away, and also to observe distant activities.  So magic can be used to transmit and receive information through space, over great distances.  It can also be used to receive information through time, from the past and the future, but apparently not to transmit.  Bloodraven tells Bran as much:


"I have my own ghosts, Bran. A brother that I loved, a brother that I hated, a woman I desired. Through the trees, I see them still, but no word of mine has ever reached them.  The past remains the past.  We can learn from it, but we cannot change it.”  (Dance 34)

However, there are a few hints that it might be possible, both in the text and. if memory serves, in comments by the author. 

To summarize all of these powers, we can say that magic can be used to move information around the universe in ways that transcend space and time.  But can it move physical objects, as well as information?  Have we seen any examples in the story of teleportation, telekinesis, or time travel?

The firemage in Qarth (Clash 40) was apparently able to levitate; but it's possible that he was using a powerful glamor to conceal a wooden or rope ladder, as well as himself when he reached the top.  The geometry of the House of the Undying seemed to defy the laws of physics (Clash 48), but it's possible that Daenerys' perceptions were distorted by the shade of the evening that she had drunk.  And in their war against the First Men, thr Children of the Forest reportedly used magic to create massive upheavals of the earth and sea.  But that was thousands of years ago; and some maesters believe that the causes were natural:  sinking land or rising sea levels.  So telekinesis may be possible in this world; but so far. it hasn't figured prominently in the story.
Magic and heredity

Certain magical abilities , particularly greensight (prophecy) and skinchanging, seem to have a biological or genetic component.


“Only one man in a thousand is born a skinchanger,” Lord Brynden said one day, after Bran had learned to fly, “and only one skinchanger in a thousand can be a greenseer.” (Dance 34)

The Children of the Forest recognize greenseers by their unusual eye colors, which suggests a genetic connection.  And of course, the Valyrians were known to marry family members "to keep the bloodlines pure."  We don't know exactly why they considered this purity to be important; but it seems that anyone with Targaryen ancestry has some possibility of being able to bond with and ride a dragon.  And again, eye color is a common marker of this ancestry.

So genetics can influence magic; and the reverse also seems to be true.


The Valyrians were more than dragonlords. They practiced blood magic and other dark arts, delving deep into the earth for secrets and twisting the flesh of beasts and men to fashion monstrous and unnatural chimeras. (wiki article: "Valyria")


In the flesh pits, blood sorcery of the darkest sort was practiced, as beasts were mated to slave women to bring forth twisted half-human children. (World: The Basilisk Isles)

The tide in magical energy


When the fiery ladder stood forty feet high, the mage leapt forward and began to climb it ...  When he reached the top, the ladder was gone and so was he.  
“A fine trick,” announced Jhogo with admiration.  
“No trick,” a woman said in the Common Tongue.
“Half a year gone, that man could scarcely wake fire from dragonglass ...  And now his powers grow, Khaleesi.  And you are the cause of it.” (Clash 40)


“...  [Magic spells], hmmm, seem to be working better than they were.” Hallyne smiled weakly.  “You don’t suppose there are any dragons about, do you?” (Clash 49)

These passages, and some others, suggest that dragons are the source of magic, or of the energy that powers it.  But are they?

Magic was once more common in this world, but it somehow faded away over time, while the Targaryen dragons were also becoming smaller and fewer.  Now the dragons have returned, and so has the magic.  But are the dragons the cause, or just an effect? 

Daenerys's dragons hatch at the end of Game (chapter 72).  but there are a number of magical events that occur before then.  Ser Waymar Royce is killed by an Other in the Prologue; and from the words of Osha and some other wildlings, we know that their activity had been increasing beyond the Wall for some time before that.  Also, the Starks' direwolves appear in chapter 1 of Game.

The "bleeding star," the red comet, first appears in the story in Game 66, when Maester Luwin is observing it.  We read about it again in Game 72, when it rises just as Daenerys is starting the ritual that hatches her dragon eggs.

The queen of magic

From the forum:  

"U.  B.  Cool" Posted February 16


George R.  R.  Martin has said more than a few times.  Dany is very special.  She is the only one who could hatch petrified dragon eggs and bring the species back to life.  

According to a YouTube video by "Bridge4," the George has said that "Targaryens are not immune to fire."  The fact that Daenerys survived Drogo's funeral pyre was "unique, magical, wondrous, a miracle;" and she will "probably not" be able to do it again.

it's interesting that, in the above quote, Quaithe tells Daenerys, " ...  his powers grow, Khaleesi.  And you are the cause of it.”  Not the dragons, but Daenerys herself.  is this possible?

I don't think we know exactly when the tide turned, and magical energy started to return to the world.  We first see it at the very beginning of the story, in the prologue of Game.  But later, we learn from the wildlings that the Others had been increasingly active beyond the Wall for some time.  Quaithe tells us that the firemage's powers had grown considerably in half a year; but that's just one point on the graph that we're trying to draw.

Daenerys married Drogo on her 14th name day (Game 23).  So she must have been born about 14 years before the start of  Game.  It seems plausible that that's when the magical energy started to return:  when she was born.  But even if it did, again, let's not confuse cause with effect.  It's possible that the birth of Daenerys herself -- if she is indeed the one to fulfill the ancient prophecy -- was brought about by by magical forces. in other words, Daenerys, like her dragons, is not the cause of the return of magical energy; she is merely another of its effects.


Here, then, are the seven principles or Laws of Magic that I have been able to identify.

 0.  The true nature of magic is somewhat elusive.  We don't understand it completely, and perhaps we never will.
 1.  All forms of magic are powered by the same basic forces or energies.  Characters may speak of blood magic, fire magic, and other types as if they were separate arts; but actually, it's just their words, potions, etc. that vary.
  2.  Life force can be manipulated with magic.  Sorcerers can take the force from a living creature, and use it to reanimate a dead one, or for various other purposes.
  3.  Magic can be used to send and receive information in ways that transcend space and time.  Sorcerers can see distant events and communicate with distant people.  They can also see events in the past or future, although they probably can't communicate with people in different times.
  4.  Some magical abilities are hereditary, and can be passed in varying degrees from parent to child.  Conversely, magic can be used to manipulate genetics, e.g. to mate humans with other creatures and produce half-human offspring.
 5.  There is a "tide" or cycle in magical energy.  When the cycle is at its low point, sorcerers' abilities are limited, and magical creatures such as dragons  and Others become scarce.  When the energy returns, sorcerers' powers increase, and magical creatures return to the world.
  6.  Daenerys has a special and unique relationship with magic.  She has abilities that are not well understood, and that may extend beyond what other sorcerers can do.

I welcome comments from other readers who may have discovered additional Laws, or found flaws in my clumsy reasoning.

Your humble scribe,
Aebram of Underhedge

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