Dragon Fire, Greek Fire, Dark Fire

I notice dragon’s fire has played a major part in recent episodes of Game of Thrones, but this article is about dragon fire, the mysterious substance Tyrion discovered hidden in the vaults under King’s Landing.

You’ll remember dragon fire from the dramatic finale of series two, when Stannis’s invading fleet is repelled by Tyrion’s deft tactics and Littlefinger’s diplomacy in making sure the troops of Highgarden rally to the Lannisters’ cause. The decisive blow to the fleet was the use of dragon Fire, an ancient weapon stored deep in the vaults of King’s Landing.  You’ll also remember it from the giant green explosion that wiped out the Sept, the ancient temple of the Gods, in Kings Landing at the end of series six.

Before the Battle of Blackwater, dragon fire had not been used in Westeros since many generations past, and had been dormant until Danaerys hatched her dragons on the other side of the world… The Lannisters knew nothing of this, of course, but happily reaped the benefits.

Dragon fire was surely inspired by the mysterious antiquity / early mediaeval weapon, Greek fire. Greek fire was a weapon that the Byzantines used in their battles against the invading muslims, a rushing liquid fire. Actually, Tyrion’s other successful ploy, the spreading of a grand chain across the river, is also a tactic that the Byzantines used against the Turks (in their case, unsuccessfully). Martin has obviously done a bit of reading around Byzantine history – and indeed the visual style chosen for King’s Landing in the series owes a lot to the Byzantines.

Greek fire disappeared from history for the rather prosaic reason that people seemed to lose the recipe. The attempted recovery of the formula is at the centre of the plot of the second of C.J. Samson’s Shardlake mysteries, Dark Fire. Thomas Cromwell has fallen from favour at court, having set up Henry VIII with the disastrously plain Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by the Howards, who seek to undo the reforms of Cromwell and Cranmer, agitate for Cromwell’s downfall. When Cromwell catches a whiff that someone in London has cracked the ancient formula of the ‘dark fire’ of the Greeks, he gets Shardlake on the case, hoping to recapture the king’s affection through the discovery.

Naturally, Shardlake has to solve some murder’s on the way, this being a detective story. We know of course, that Cromwell won’t succeed, because of course, no one ever did manage to recreate Greek fire, but that doesn’t stop it being an absorbing story. Somewhat as in Game of Thrones, there is an ancient flask or two of the ancient substance hanging around, which lets Samson describe what it might have been like – ‘alive with fire, brighter than a thousand candles’…not quite as dramatic as dragon fire, but still…


Andals, Vandals, Visigoths and Vicissitudes 

In Westeros, the Andals are the people who, in ancient times came across the narrow sea from Essos, and settled the Seven Kingdoms. They were not the first people to populate the continent, however – there were earlier peoples, who were subjugated or pushed to the fringes of the continent.
There is a lot of the early history of England in this. In the early dark ages, during what historians call the great migrations, the Germanic Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from Denmark and Northern Germany and settled the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, subjugating or pushing the Celtic and Pictish inhabitants to the fringes, or intermingling with them, depending on which historian you ask.
But the word ‘Andal’ brings to mind another germanic tribe of the great migrations era, one who travelled somewhat further afield…
The Vandals were first recorded living in Poland, but during the great migration worked their way down to Spain. I guess you could think of them as the dark ages equivalent of those sun burnt North Europeans who leave the cold north for the sun and sand of the Costa del Sol, except with swords. Given that their name has become synonymous with thuggery and destruction, we can take it that they didn’t rub along especially well with the Latins, Basques and Phoenicians who already inhabited the Iberian peninsula.
The Vandals then moved on to North Africa, where they were a force to be reckoned with for some two hundred years. It was Vandals who were besieging Algeria when Saint Augustine died, and it was in a daring sack of Rome that their reputation for cultural destruction was sealed. They conquered Sicily and Sardinia, and a good strip of what is now Tunisia. The decaying Roman Empire had to make peace with them and accept them as a regional power, but they eventually met their match in the great East Roman General Belisarius, who won their territory for The Byzantium Empire and took their men for galley slaves.
Robert Graves, who covers this episode in his (much recommended) historical novel Belisarius, depicts the Vandals as rather louche, having grown comfortable on the relative luxury of the south. They must at least have been very good warriors, and decent seafarers too. But it is true they left no lasting legacy or cultural achievements.
Another group of southward bound germanic invaders, the Visigoths, who stopped in Iberia for good, adopted the local lingua franca – Latin – and turned it into the tongue that would become Spanish. One linguistic legacy of the Visigoths was the loss of ‘f’s from some common Latin-origin words – apparently they had trouble with the consonant, and that’s why Latin facere became faire in French, and Facir in Italian (and gave English the word facility among others), but became hacer in Spanish.
Some years ago I spent a year teaching English in a town in Andalusia. One of the students in my class was blonde, and could easily have passed for a Dutch or English woman. She explained that in her village, up in the mountains, a lot of people were blond, and local lore had that down to them being the descendants of Visigoth sheep herders, while the darker skinned lowlanders were of a Latin-Moorish-Jewish stock.
But could her ancestors have been Vandals? One of the few contemporary descriptions of the Vandals, from the Roman historian Procopius, reads ‘they all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon’ – a tribe of blonds, then. And Andalusia, after all, was named, by the Moors, after the Vandals. Andalusia or Al Andalus should properly be Vandalusia or Al Vandalus, but the Moors or the Visigoths they conquered lopped the ‘v’ off the name.
Perhaps George Martin thought about all this and realised that the back formation from Andalusia is the Andals, and thought it a cool sounding name. Or maybe it is just a linguistic coincidence – but it’s a good excuse to tell the story of history’s best known property damagers.

You Know Nothing, Angela Merkel

As last week, I looked at the similarities between Daenerys and George Bush, this week I have some thoughts on another unlikely comparison between a Game of Thrones character and a contemporary political figure. No season six spoilers here, by the way, but if you’re not up to date with season five, stop reading now!

When the men of the Night’s Watch stabbed Jon Snow, and left him to bleed to death in the snow in the court yard of Castle Black, it broke many a heart, typically a female viewer’s heart. But the traitors had their reasons. To them he had broken the most sacred of his duties when he let the Wildlings cross the wall and settle in land to the south. They believed their duty was to protect the realms of civilised men from the barbarians to the north. He saw his mission as more universal: to protect mankind itself from a more sinister threat still – the daemonic white walkers and their army of dead.

To Snow, who has experience of that evil force, not to mention a certain sympathy with the Wildlings, the Night’s Watchmen’s hostility to the Wildlings is narrow and self-defeating, born of their ignorance and irrational fears.

On the other hand, the Wildlings have a history of aggression towards the southrons, and a nasty habit of raiding and pillaging. Many will have lost friends fighting the Wildlings. Snow’s steward, Olly, watched his family being killed by them. It’s no wonder he’s the one who lays the trap for his would-be mentor. To the men of the Night’s Watch, Snow’s decision to let the old enemy through the walls, and grant them territory is simply an incomprehensible betrayal.

Back in the real world, there are many who find equally incomprehensible Angela Merkel’s broad welcome to the hundreds of thousands of migrants flowing over Europe’s borders over the last few months. The unspoken code that she has broken is this: that the primary duty of any leader is towards their own countrymen, the defence of a nation’s borders and the survival of its people and culture. By letting in a huge number of migrants, she has put the safety and survival of strangers ahead of her own people’s (and, as her country is the leading country in the EU, that of the continent as a whole.)

But to Merkel and her sympathisers that is the whole point. Her duty – our duty – is to the whole of humanity, not to one section of it. The people crossing the borders of Europe, so this argument goes, are not ‘strangers’ at all, but our fellow human beings, whom we have a moral duty to house and feed – and to let settle in our lands. This kind of universalist thinking is very popular these days, in theory, but only a few Western European nations seem to actually be putting it into practice enthusiastically, notably Germany and Sweden, although not all the people in those countries are quite so blithe about the wisdom of the open borders policy.

In Game of Thrones, whatever sympathy one might have for Olly, even for Alliser Thorne, and co, the principals for which Jon Snow was martyred will most likely be proved right. The Wildlings, after all, will come in useful when it comes to the expected apocalyptic showdown with the White Walkers from the icy wastes of the far north.

Alas, in the real world, things are more complicated. A great number of the migrants pouring into Europe are not, as was previously assumed, refugees from Syria, and a large proportion are fit young males, some of whom have been involved in sexual assaults of the kind made infamous in Cologne on New Years Eve. Among the migrants too, ISIS terrorist cells have slipped into Europe, including some individuals involved in the terror attacks in Paris late last year. We expect more attacks to come, though hope they don’t. Then there are the great long term challenges of assimilating huge numbers of migrants into European societies – and unlike the Wildlings, the real migrants just keep on coming. Against all that, whatever the strength of the humanitarian arguments, it is hard to see Merkel being vindicated the way Snow will be.

Daenerys, Bush and Missions Unaccomplished

George W Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, and Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon-taming heroine of George R.R. Martin’s immensely popular Game of Thrones series are not, on the face of it, very similar. But in the roles that they inherited and the tangles they found themselves in there are some uncanny similarities: they are both inheritors of grand dynasties – Daenerys of the mad king Targaryen, Bush of his namesake and father, George ‘no W’ Bush…

But I was thinking more in  terms of their politics and, depending on how things turn out in Martin’s series, the legacies they leave on their respective planets .

Bush is well known for his foreign policy adventurism in the Islamic world – his removal of the Taliban and Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both actions were a response to the atrocity of 9/11, the first directly and the second more obliquely and controversially. But they were underpinned by the ideology of neo-conservatism. Neo-conservatives thought (and still think) that American military power should be used proactively to effect good in the world. They also thought that, once the bad guys were dispatched, the people of the Middle East would embrace democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, once the regimes fell, the countries fell into Islamic extremism and sectarian strife, with the US and her allies left unpopular policemen in the area fighting bitter guerrilla insurgencies, whose fighters could easily melt back into the civilian population and wait for the media to document US ‘atrocities.’ The administration’s single biggest mistake in Iraq sprung from their idealism: with the ideologue Donald Rumsfeld as US Secretary of Defence, the decision was made to disband the Iraqi police force and army, who, tainted though they were by association with Saddam, were the one force who could have quelled the disorder during the transition into the new era.

So much for Bush. Onto Daenerys. Having secured an impressive army in Qarth, the mother of dragons, makes her way through Slavers’ Bay. Somewhere along the way she decides that the immense power that she has won should be used to effect good in the world. Against the advice of some of her advisers, pragmatic types more worried about events in Westeros (the West, that is) than the lifves and liberties of those in the East, she decides to free the slaves of those cities. After the initial euphoria, things are not as easy as expected. Slavery, though evil, had given structure to those societies, and with nothing to take its place, people are lost and vulnerable. The fanatical ‘Sons of the Harpy’ fight a murderous insurgency and then melt into the civilian population, endlessly provoking Daenerys into making brutal reprisals. In the book, though not (yet?) in the series, a brutish former slave becomes a tin pot tyrant and leads an army to conquer Daenerys’ power base in Mereen – it seems many of the people she freed decide they quite like violence and servitude after all.

I don’t think Martin set out to comment on US policy; he just seems to have a grasp of the way that reality has a way of undermining idealism. To go by Bush’s experience, Daenerys will not have an easy time, though she seems at least to have a more pragmatic set of advisers.