“The substance flows through my veins, and lives in the heart of every pyromancer. We respect its power….any little mistake can bring catastrophe. That cannot be said too often.”
“Sweet, sweet sister…I promise you, that was the last time you will ever strike me.”
Synopsis: the Hand of the King is having a busy day. Tyrion meets with deranged pyromaniacs, takes in the populist sentiments of local religious leaders, meets with envoys from Riverrun, and then has a friendly meeting with his sister the Queen Regent.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Tyrion V is a wonderful cornucopia, which helps to explain why it’s so highly ranked on Tower of the Hand. It’s got everything – crazy magic, religious-inspired class conflict, military planning, and internal political scheming! So let’s get into it.
The Alchemists’ Guild
The first theme in this chapter is the Guild of Alchemists as a political institution. As we learn from Wisdom Haldayne, “My father often told King Aerys as much, as his father told old King Jaehaerys.” And as Tyrion recalls, “once theirs had been a powerful guild, but in recent centuries the maesters of the Citadel had supplanted the alchemists almost everywhere. Now only a few of the older order remained, and they no longer even pretended to transmute metals.” Now, I believe that this quote has been somewhat exaggerated. The Citadel clearly predates the Guild of Alchemists – it’s a pre-Andal institution, with continent-wide influence for a long, long time (the worldbook mentions maesters in the service of White Harbor more than five hundred years ago, multiple generations of maesters at the Nightfort during its period of operation, and Maester Wyllis ventured to Hardhome some six hundred years ago). And when you come right down to it, the maesters just offer services (long-distance communication, education, medicine, weather forecasting, accounting and land management, and the liberal arts) more useful to a medieval society that builds largely in wood than volatile pyrotechnics.
By contrast, the Alchemists are never mentioned in Westeros outside of King’s Landing and never outside of the context of the Targaryen monarchs; in fact, given that the term alchemist never comes up elsewhere other than Lys, chances are that the Guild migrated to Westeros from there, and is using the older lineage of the parent organization to claim greater seniority than it really has. The History and Lore video on the Alchemists sheds more light on this subject:
So here we have the Alchemists first entering royal service in the reign of King Maegor (never a man to break character), and shifting decisively away from attempting to transmute base metals into gold (a practice that would have won them few friends at Casterly Rock), in favor of producing wildfire for Maegor to use in sieges and presumably to torture people to death. The guild seems to undergo a series of ups and downs of royal favor following a series of mishaps: after Maegor, the next usage we hear of is Aegon IV, where several hundred men and a quarter of the Kingswood burnt thanks to the guild’s wooden dragons. Aerion Brightflame uses wildfire in a failed attempt to transmute into a dragon – after which apparently the guild fell into a long decline. Aegon V used wildfire used in a failed attempt to hatch dragon eggs, leading to the tragedy at Summerhall, which probably firmly cemented the guild’s legacy as the cause of catastrophe. Not until Aerys II arrived on the scene with a burning desire to immolate the entire Darklyn family, the Lord Paramount of the North, and eventually all of King’s Landing did the Guild reach its former level of influence.
However, to give them credit, the Alchemists are clearly in possession of quite a bit of real magic. Tyrion might find “their custom of hinting at the vast secret stores of knowledge that they wanted him to think they possessed…annoying,” but it’s pretty clear that the “wisdoms” actually have some knowledge squirreled away down there in the dark. As we’ll see soon, the “process” by which “the substance” is created is itself a spell, and subject to the same influence of the dragons that other schools of magic are (incidentally, this might explain why wildfire became so unreliable post-Dance). However, we also learn that:
“The substance is prepared by trained acolytes in a series of bare stone cells, and each jar is removed by an apprentice and carried down her the instant it is ready. Above each work cell is a room filled entirely by sand. A protective spell has been laid on the floors, hmmm, most powerful. Any fire in the cell below causes the floors to fall away, and sand smothers the blaze at once.”
Assuming for the moment that the “protective spell” isn’t just an obscuring label thrown over collapsible floor/roof supports connected to a fire detector, that’s actually pretty impressive. Very few places in the world have the kind of protective spells laid into the structure of their buildings – the Wall, Storm’s End, perhaps a few other places like the Five Forts or Asshai. At the same time, it is interesting that the Alchemists show some understanding of lab safety, at least when it comes to their own Guildhall, that they show in no other activity.
It is abundantly clear from Tyrion V that the Guild is willing to do anything to get back to where it once was under Wisdom Rossart and “Aerys the Wise:”
“It has been too long since the King’s Hand graced us with his presence. Not since Lord Rossart, and he was of our order. That was back in King Aerys’s day. King Aerys took a great interest in our work…it is our great hope to have the king visit our Guildhall in his own royal person. I have spoken of it to your royal sister…perhaps instead some few of us might call upon the king at the Red Keep. A small demonstration of our powers, as it were, to distract His Grace from his many cares for an evening. Wildfire is but one of the dread secrets of our ancient order. Many and wondrous are the things we might show you.”
The sense of grasping, obsequious desperation is almost palpable – they’ll take any foot in the door, no matter how demeaning, in order to get back into royal favor. Giving a murderous boy-king like Joffrey access to weapons of mass destruction would give most normal men pause, but clearly the Alchemists have no such scruples. And indeed, one of the things that’s abundantly clear is that the Alchemists are, as an institution, completely amoral. We might perhaps chalk up Maegor’s requests to the necessities of war, and Aegon IV’s mishaps due to a king’s lack of care for proper safety procedures, but Aerys II directly asked for wildfire to burn innocent men, women, and children in an act of familicide, and the Guild showed no qualms about it.
Aerys II asked the Guild to perpetuate judicial murder and the undermining of the most ancient right of Westerosi society, and Rossart lit the flames under Lord Stark himself. Aerys II called for thousands of pots of wildfire to be secreted underneath a largely wooden city, and despite everything they know about what “the substance” would do to a city of 500,000 people, Lord Rossart was personally carrying out the order to light them up when Ser Jaime Lannister cut him down. No wonder then that the guild suffered such a loss when the Targaryens fell, with “so many of our masters were murdered were murdered during the Sack of King’s Landing, the few acolytes who remained were unequal to the task.” I’m surprised any of them were left alive.
You know, it’s funny: for all that the maesters are supposedly an untrustworthy organization, engaged in shadowy conspiracies and trying to suppress the truth of the world, in both instances where they’ve clearly acted against another group, I find myself siding with them. Post-Dance of the Dragons, it’s pretty clear that dragons are not safe for humans and other living things. And wildfire is way too dangerous to be left in the hands of these giggling pyromaniacs.
Speaking of dangerously unstable…let’s talk about wildfire. The Guild of Alchemists may be a gang of amoral madmen with delusions of grandeur, but they produce a hell of a product:
“The wildfire oozed slowly toward the lip of the jar when Tyrion tilted it to peer inside. The color would be a murky green, he knew, but the poor light made it impossible to confirm. “Thick,” he observed.”
“That is from the cold, my lord…as it warms, the substance will flow more easily, like lamp oil.” The substance was the pyromancers’ own term for wildfire…
“Water will not quench it, I am told.”
“That is so. Once it takes fire, the substance will burn fiercely until it is no more. More, it will seep into cloth, wood, leather, even steel, so they take fire as well…there is a vault below this one where we store the older pots. Those from King Aerys’s day. It was his fancy to have the jars made in the shapes of fruits…riper now than ever, if you take my meaning. We have sealed them with wax and pumped the lower vault full of water, but even so…much of the stock we made for Aerys was lost. Only last year, two hundred jars were discovered in a storeroom beneath the Great Sept of Baelor.”
“These, ah, fruits of the late king Aerys, can they still be used?”
“Oh, yes…but carefully, my lord, ever so carefully. As it ages, the substance grows ever more, hmmmm, fickle, let us say. Any flame will set it afire. Any spark. Too much heat and jars will blaze up of their own accord. It is not wise to let them sit in sunlight, even for a short time. Once the fire begins within, the heat causes the substance to expand violently, and the jars shortly fly to pieces. If other jars should happen to be stored in the same vicinity, those go up as well.”
As I’ve said in the past, GRRM likes to remix history, so his “substance” isn’t exactly equivalent to the ancient greek fire – more of which in the historical section. Certainly, the two are alike in that greek fire could not be put out with fire, and indeed water was said to make the fire stronger – however, greek fire could be put out with strong vinegar or old urine, and guarded against by felt or animal hides soaked in the same, which is quite unlike wildfire. The way in which wildfire gets more potent and unstable with age actually resembles dynamite, which “weeps” or “sweats” nitroglycerin if stored for long periods of time, making it quite unstable. My paternal grandfather, who was a Royal Engineer in WWII and spent much of the war alternatively building and blowing up railroad bridges in India, told stories about transporting “weepy” dynamite in the back of an Army jeep across dirt roads in an Indian summer and one case in which a charge meant to level a hill instead blew an enormous crater in the earth due to the unpredictably powerful nature of “weepy” dynamite.
That being said, one of the things I find strange about wildfire is that, given that it melts stone, that we haven’t seen it have a more drastic impact on Westerosi siegecraft. For all that “pyromancer’s piss” is highly dangerous, the potential for simply melting breaches into enemy walls is too great that you wouldn’t see it used quite often, with attendant changes to the structure of Westerosi castles. The only explanation I can think of is that wildfire is simply too damn dangerous to be transported long distances, and/or that “the pyromancers kept their recipe for wildfire a closely guarded secret, but Tyrion knew that it was a lengthy, dangerous and time-consuming process. He had assumed the promise of ten thousand jars was a wild boast.” For around 150 years between the death of the dragons and the rebirth of the dragons, it’s quite possible that wildfire couldn’t be easily mass-produced on the scale needed for sieges – the 4,000 pots from King Aerys’ day seem like a lot, but across 21 years of his reign, that’s a rate of only 190 a year (compare that to 3,840 produced just in the current year for Queen Cersei).
Tyrion’s approach to the use of wildfire is a surprisingly modern one, with attention paid to safe practice and efficiency:
“It’s empty pots I’m asking for, understand. Have them sent round to the captains on each of the city gates…the alchemists will be sending a large supply of clay pots to each of the city gates. You’re hto use them to train the men who will work your spitfires. Fill the pots with green paint and have them drill at loading and firing. Any man who splatters should be replaced. When they have mastered the paint pots, substitute lamp oil and have them work at lighting the jars and firing them while aflame. Once they learn to do that without burning themselves, they may be ready for wildfire.”
It’s almost a Taylorite time-and-motion method of warfare, and one wonders what Tyrion might have been able to accomplish had he had more time to turn an army of “men willing to join the City Watch for a full belly and a bed of straw…ragged defenders,” into a more disciplined fighting force. And I think the contrast between this and normal practice helps to explain why wildfire is such a seldom-seen thing on the battlefield.
At the same time, it has to be said that wildfire is a kind of Russian doll of Chekov’s guns (apologies for the mixed metaphor), with new elements of future mayhem popping up all over the place. First, we have the catapult to fireship head-fake in this book. Second, we have the lost wildfire cache hidden under the city, getting ever more explosive by the day. Third and finally, we have the ongoing mystery of the tragedy at Summerhall, and whatever role wildfire played there.
The Politics of Hunger:
A second major theme of the chapter is the growing power of the politics of hunger, which is slowly but surely rousing the smallfolk from political slumber. Pity the poor Hand of the King who has to keep the smallfolk of King’s Landing loyal to a king like Joffrey I. Normally, a symbolic gesture like “His Grace has prohibited all feasting until such time as the war is won.” At my insistence. “The King does not think it fitting to banquet on choice food while his people go without bread,” would be just the kind of thing to satisfy the moral economy of the masses. Unfortunately, Tyrion’s statement rings falsely when compared to political statements like this:
“Only three nights past, another mob had gathered at the gates of the Red Keep, chanting for food. Joff had unleashed a storm of arrows against them, slaying four, and then shouted down that they had his leave to eat their dead.”
Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake,” nor did she actually buy du Barry’s damn necklace, but in 1789, it was enough that this woman lived so richly, and gambled so highly, while her people starved. Set that against a king who murders his own people and recommends cannibalism as a cure for starvation. Compared to this, Joffrey’s petulant sadism before the riot seems almost minor. As I’ve said elsewhere, there are limits to the obedience owed to a sovereign under a monarchy, and Joffrey’s just crossed them.
Thus, it’s no accident that this violation coincides with a revival of millennial, populist, and anti-monarchical religious sentiment:
“Behold the Father’s scourge!…We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all, but no more!”
Before the publication of the World of Ice and Fire book, the riot in A Clash of Kings appeared to some as a sui generis event, a kind of random backlash inspired more by hunger than any kind of ideology. However, the new information we have suggests rather than the smallfolk of King’s Landing are tapping into a rich tradition of religiously-inflected radicalism. In this instance, we have a commoner calling outright for the overthrow of the monarchy, using religious ideology in opposition to the hegemonic power of feudalism. Moreover, this is a commoner who’s politically literate – he’s aware of both Stannis’ public letter and the Lannisters’ rebuttal and is using them for his own ends.
More importantly, this commoner is preaching a class conscious ideology. The highborn are “maggots,” the King is an abomination and the one before him a “Whoremonger,” and the zenith of the collapse of virtue is that “gold is all” rather than piety. This logic is powerful enough to even criticize the Faith’s equivalent of the Pope, a man the devout believe is literally the avatar of the gods; his gluttony in a time of famine spiritually dethrones him, to the point where the smallfolk of King’s Landing will tear him limb from limb for his impious behavior.
Finally, I would argue the riots also look quite different in the wake of A Feast For Crows and the rise to power of the Sparrow movement. Rather than a sui generis event, they instead resemble the forerunner of a powerful sea change in popular opinion that will soon reshape the political system – a classic case of the power of historical forces and social movements vs. the agency of the great and the powerful.
Update on the War of the Five Kings:
In addition to weighty political themes, Tyrion V also gives a good dose of military strategy, where we get a rather good picture of how the Lannisters see the war. This begins with Ser Cleos Frey’s report about the conditions at the front:
“It is bad in the Riverlands, Tyrion. Around the Godseye and along the kingsroad especially. The riverlords are burning their own crops to try and starve us, and your father’s foragers are torching every village they take and putting the smallfolk to the sword…even with a peace banner, we were attacked twice. Wolves in mail, hungry to savage anyone weaker than themselves. The gods alone know what side they started on, but they’re on their own side now.
“The boy sits idle at Riverrun…I think he fears to face your father in the field. His strength grows less each day. The river lords have departed, each to defend his own lands.”
This passage brings up a number of interesting issues. To begin with, we see the violence that started so casually in Tyrion’s storyline that has so profoundly affected Arya’s storyline beginning to interfere with the plans of the nobility – first it’s peace envoys, next it’s Brienne and Jaime, then it’s Saltpans and the political ramifications of that, a cascade of unintended consequences. Next, I had simply forgotten that the Riverlords had resorted to scorched-earth tactics – if nothing else, this helps to explain the formation of the Brotherhood Without Banners. If their own lords are the ones burning the crops they need to survive, no wonder the smallfolk are taking such a “plague on both your houses” attitude. It’s quite reminiscent of the so-called “Clubmen” of the English Civil War, who fought both Royalists and Parliamentarians who attempted to conscript their relatives, requisition their crops, or commit less official crimes.
However, this passage also brings up a curious question – how exactly is Tywin feeding an army of around 20,000 men? Living off the land is all very well and good, but from the very basic calculations I’ve done from studies of medieval logistics, Tywin’s army would need around 500 tons of grain a week (let alone any meat or vegetables). It’s not really practical for 900 reavers to collect and transport that much grain – a thousand pounds of grain per man! – on a weekly basis. To me, the only explanation here is that Tywin is taking food from further afield from the southern Riverlands, especially if the fields are being torched to deny forage. It’s always seemed strange to me that the only sources of food into King’s Landing that we read of in Tyrion’s chapters are Rosby and Stokeworth – nothing about Duskendale, or Antlers, or Rook’s Rest, or Crackclaw Point (i.e, the northern part of the Crownlands). Given that we learn later that Tywin’s foragers were active in the region of Sow’s Horn, I think the logical conclusion is that Tywin is requisitioning this region for his own supply, thus denying it to the capitol – thus indirectly causing the riot that nearly extinguishes his monarch.
At the same time, I think we also begin to see the flip-side of the Stark’s strategic situation from Catelyn I. If in that chapter the Starks were fretting about losing the Riverlords, dividing over the question of Harrenhal, and worrying about the new threat of Stafford’s western host, here we can see the Lannisters trying to make the best of their new Fabian strategy:
“It seemed to him that Robb Stark had given them a golden chance…All the while, their cousin Ser Stafford would be training and arming the new host he’d raised at Casterly Rock. Once he was ready, he and Lord Tywin could smash the Tullys and the Starks between them.”
“Father sits in one castle, and Robb Stark sits in another, and no one does anything.”
“Not all of us can be as bold as Jaime, but there are other ways to win wars. Harrenhal is strong and well situated…the city will not fight in a day. From Harrenhal it is a straight, swift march down the kingsroad. Renly will scarce have unlimbered his siege engines before Father takes him in the rear. His host will be the hammer, the city walls the anvil…Harrenhal is close enough to the fords of the Trident so that Roose Bolton cannot bring the northern foot across to join with the Young Wolf’s horse. Stark cannot march on King’s Landing without taking Harrenhal first, and even with Bolton he is not strong enough to do that…meanwhile Father lives off the fat of the riverlands, while our uncle Stafford gathers fresh levies at the Rock.”
Right now, the Lannisters are in a tricky defensive position – with Tywin hunkering down in Harrenhal, “still, poised, his tail twitching,” as their only army in the field – and Tywin has the unenviable responsibility of trying to cover two separate fronts with just the one army. This last responsibility is no joke – while Tywin is only around three weeks away from King’s Landing, he has to worry about both Renly’s slow-moving giant army and Stannis’ much more mobile smaller force at the same time. Likewise, although Tywin is fairly safe at Harrenhal, it’s also the case that there are dangers if Tywin marches out of Harrenhal (a downside Tyrion fails to mention). If Tywin moves west, then Roose Bolton can cross the Trident behind him, potentially placing Tywin between two Stark armies, and he leaves King’s Landing unguarded. On the other hand, if he moves south, then he allows Roose Bolton to cross the trident, link up with Robb, and hit Tywin’s army with their combined strength out in the open. Tyrion’s strategic advice also misses two weaknesses in Tywin’s position – one, Roose can link up with Robb by heading west over the Forks rather than south over the Trident, and two, Tywin’s army can’t be in two places at once.
On the positive side, Tywin can’t be immediately attacked, would trounce Robb if he was attacked, and the longer Tywin wait, the weaker Robb Stark gets and the stronger he becomes. If Stafford Lannister can get his army up and running, then Tywin will once again have numerical superiority against the entire Stark/Tully alliance, and equally importantly he’ll once again have two armies to move against two armies, which is hugely important for strategic flexibility, and which Robb Stark has enjoyed ever since the Battle of the Camps approximately three months ago. With this, Tywin can potentially rout the Stark/Tully alliance and consolidate control over the Riverlands, and then turn on the besieger of King’s Landing (as long as the city hasn’t fallen yet).
And as we’ll see, Robb Stark will thoroughly wreck Tywin’s plan on both a strategic and tactical level, by refusing to do what the Lannisters want him to do: hold still.
The final topic in our update on the War of Five Kings: peace. While most people are familiar with the maxim that war is a continuation of politics by other means, the reverse can be true – in this case, we see how peace talks can be made to serve war aims. As hard as Catelyn Stark tried to get Robb Stark to agree to send an offer of peace, it’s clear from this chapter that the Lannisters have absolutely no intent of accepting it:
The boy does not want too much. Only half the realm, the release of our captives, hostages, his father’s sword…oh, yes, and his sisters.
“These terms will never do.”
“Will you at least consent to trade the Stark girls for Tion and Willem?”
“No…but we’ll propose our own exchange of captives. Let me consult with Cersei and the council. We shall send you back to Riverrun with our terms.”
If this was it, one could at least say that peace negotiations are a delicate process, requiring a good deal of back-and-forth as each side tries to figure out what the other side’s must-haves and red lines are. Unfortunately, although Catelyn doesn’t know it yet, she has a bigger problem. Namely, that the Lannisters have no intention of negotiating in good faith. Following hard on the heels of Tyrion’s discussion of the Lannister’s wait-and-see strategy, he thinks: “Let the boy wait at Riverrun dreaming of an easy peace. Tyrion would respond with terms of his own, giving the King in the North just enough of what he wanted to keep him hopeful. Let Ser Cleos wear out his boney Frey rump riding to and fro with offers and counters.”
And this is why, ultimately, I think that ASOIAF fans who argue that Catelyn was right about the war and should have been listened to all along aren’t quite right. As Brynden Tully reminded us back in AGOT, you need the other side to want peace too. And here the Lannisters have no interest in making peace – they’ll use peace talks to try to achieve immediate military aims, and as we’ll see in the next Tyrion chapter, they will not hesitate to subvert the peace process with covert violence.
Cersei, the Enemy Within:
And finally, Tyrion has to contend with his sister, who in this chapter shows herself to be a very real enemy to Tyrion himself, a danger to the Lannister cause, and a generally poor politician (although, for once, a decent mother). No wonder Tyrion prefers “angry and stupid to composed and cunning.”
To begin with, Cersei strenuously resists the idea that Myrcella should be married off, for any reason:
“Myrcella is my only daughter. Did you truly imagine I would allow you to sell her like a bag of oats?”
Myrcelle, he thought. Well that egg has hatched. Let’s see what color the chick is. “Hardly a bag of oats. Myrcella is a princess. Some would say that is what she was born for. Or did you plan to marry her to Tommen?”
…”I am Joffrey’s regent, not you, and I say that Myrcella will not be shipped off to this Dornishman the way I was shipped to Robert Baratheon.”
On a personal level, Cersei’s complaint is completely understandable; her own political marriage was a catastrophe and she doesn’t want that same fate for her daughter. But on a political level, Cersei shows little understanding of the importance of dynastic alliances – as Tyrion notes, at some point the Lannisters must have some allies otherwise they will be crushed trying to fight the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, and alliances are made through marriages. Nor does Cersei present much of an alternative suggestion. Indeed, Cersei is consistently opposed to all the marriage offers for her children – she was clearly terrified that Sansa might be the young queen of prophecy, and she hated the idea of both Joffrey and Tommen’s weddings to Margaery for the same reason. And yet, she also knows rationally that her children must marry and can’t marry each other Targaryen-style. And so she remains, caught on the horns of a dilemma.
However, Cersei’s combination of prophecy-based fear and bizarrely incompetent greed for power makes her a genuine enemy to anyone trying to practice good government in King’s Landing, whether they be Eddard Stark or Tyrion Lannister:
“You’ve offered too much, and without my authority or consent…don’t threaten me, little man. Do you think Father’s letter keeps you safe? A piece of paper. Eddard Stark had a piece of paper too, for all the good it did him.”
Eddard Stark did not have the City Watch…nor my clansmen, nor the sellswords that Bron has hired.
When trying to evaluate how good a job Tyrion’s doing as Hand, I think we have to acknowledge that (unlike his father) he has to deal with a Queen Cersei who threatens his life, attempts to abduct and torture his lover, and may very well have ordered his assassination at the Battle of the Blackwater (more on this later). And to give Tyrion credit, he rolls with this threat with impressive aplomb thanks to his twin focus on information control – which in this chapter gives him the identity of Cersei’s informant on the Small Council – and military hegemony, which he has carefully constructed over the last four chapters.
And those two factors will be central to Tyrion’s rise and fall as Hand of the King – as we will see in later chapters.
Tyrion V gives us some great material for historical parallels, so let’s get into some of the weirder aspects of medieval Europe.
First, the historical parallel for wildfire, as will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with European history, is Greek Fire. Greek Fire, or pyr thalássion, is one of the great mysteries of medieval history. A form of incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire against its enemies from the 7th century through the 12 century, Greek Fire was such a state secret that no written recipe for the material survived to the present day; at the time, it was considered so important to Byzantium that legends developed that it was literally given by God to the Emperor Constantine to defend Christianity from its enemies, and that anyone who tried to reveal the secrets of the stuff would be smote by God himself. For hundreds of years, historians have puzzled over what the hell it really was, have conducted impressively fiery experiments, and controversies reign over rival theories.
Most likely, Greek Fire was made of some combination of crude petroleum, which the Greeks called naptha, which would explain how it was able to burn on water, and some form of natural resin (probably pine resin) to thicken it up, and make the flames more intensely hot and long-lasting. This combination has been tested by historians using a reconstruction of the siphon device placed on Byzantine ships to shoot Greek fire at enemy vessels, and produced a fire that burned at over 1000 degrees celsius (which is easily hot enough to make steel melt). At the same time, however, Greek Fire was not a “superweapon” that made the Byzantines all-powerful. It was largely limited to naval combat, range was always a problem, using it in a city threatened unstoppable fires, and counter-measures were quickly created. As I mentioned above, old urine or vinegar could put out Greek Fire, so the Turkish navy responded by draping furs soaked in either substance as crude, in both senses of the term, fire shields.
And now we get to alchemy, the weirdest of the weird when it comes to medieval history. On the one hand, alchemy was a kind of premodern science aimed at some truly science-fictional goals: the transmutation of base metals into gold, the elixir of eternal youth and the panacea to all diseases, the universal solvent, and the philosopher’s stone which could be any or all of these, depending on the source. On the other hand, and perhaps because the actual track record of creating any of these things was around zero, alchemy was also a deeply mystical tradition, in which all of those goals were actual metaphors and analogies for human perfection and regeneration, the movement from ignorance to enlightenment through the discovery of spiritual truth, and that somehow alchemy could produce “living” or spiritual silver and gold as opposed to “vulgar” physical precious metals.
And that dualism kind of sums up a lot about alchemy. It was at one and the same time a seriously wacky cult that invented reams and reams of hermetic mythology, mystical re-interpretations of Aristotelian philosophy, and at the same time the origin of modern chemistry and scientific practice. Jabir ibn Hayyan, the great Arabian alchemist of the 8th century, basically invented the idea that practical experimentation is the source of truth, and created a lot of the basic laboratory equipment used by chemists today as well as a lot of fundamental processes like crystallization and distillation, when he wasn’t trying to find the philosopher’s stone. Paracelsus, the 16th century Swiss alchemist invented toxicology, named zinc, and is often credited with the invention of laudanum and early antisepsis – although he also believed that all human diseases could be cured through taking infusions of gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, iron, and quicksilver, because those corresponded to the seven planets, and everything in the macrocosm corresponds to the microcosm within us all..and now I’ve gone cross-eyed.
In some ways, alchemy is everything to all people – a huckstering cargo cult that often financed itself through the production of counterfeit gold, an attempt to understand the natural world through observation and experimentation that counter-productively wrapped everything up in esoterica, coded language, and cyphers, the source of much of Isaac Newton’s inspiration and the source of the idea that you could grow homunculi with jars of stored semen and that basilisk blood could turn copper into gold.
There’s actually quite a bit of room for hypothetical scenarios in Tyrion V, but this essay is getting pretty long so I’ll just mention a few and we can discuss others in the comment thread:
- Cersei doesn’t consent? One of the genuine moments of choice here is that Cersei doesn’t have to give in to Tyrion’s plan to send off Myrcella – as the Regent, she has the power to nullify Tyrion’s diplomatic suggestions. What happens next is quite interesting – immediately, Myrcella doesn’t go to Dorne, which possibly butterflies away the riot, or at least the riot happening in the immediate presence of the royal family, although given Joffrey’s behavior it’s just a matter of time, really. On the one hand, this means that Myrcella doesn’t get injured in Dorne, Ser Arys Oakheart doesn’t die, and possibly that there’s no opening for Ser Robert Strong (especially if the riot’s butterflying saves Ser Preston Greenfield’s life). On the other hand, this also means that Oberyn Martell doesn’t die and possibly is the one sent to Dany instead of Quentyn, Arianne’s plot has no locus, and Doran never formally agrees to ally with the Lannisters, leaving him a dangerous free agent in the game of thrones.
- Robb Stark finds out about conditions in King’s Landing? This is one I hadn’t considered. Now, there probably isn’t time for this to work as Robb has already begun to march west, but it’s possible that if word had reached him immediately after Oxcross that King’s Landing was starving and its defenders were green and would likely break, that Robb might have tried to solve his strategic dilemma by taking his roughly 17,000 and swinging them in between Tywin and King’s Landing, in the hopes that threatening the capitol might draw Tywin out from Harrenhal. If that happened, and if Roose Bolton had crossed the Trident behind Tywin in a timely fashion allowing Robb to trap Tywin between the two armies, it’s possible that Robb wins the War of Five Kings in a way he never imagined, taking the Iron Throne itself. What the hell he does with it, I have no idea.
- Robb’s terms never make it to King’s Landing? Now this is an interesting one – if Cleos Frey gets whacked by “wolves in iron” on the way to King’s Landing, and Tyrion never receives the terms, there’s no opportunity to send an embassy back, and certainly not before Catelyn gets back to Riverrun. If Catelyn was in Riverrun when Jaime attempted to escape and experienced those events herself, she’d probably be less inclined to trust Tyrion’s offer to trade Jaime for her daughters, and it’s possible she doesn’t release Jaime, or at least in the way she does in OTL. In that case, it’s possible that even post-Blackwater, House Stark is able to salvage its position short of near-total destruction.
- Tyrion doesn’t visit the Alchemists? This one I find fascinating. If Tyrion is simply distracted enough not to re-shape the wildfire plan, some really interesting things happen. To begin with, Stannis’ fleet survives – which means a lot more men land on the north bank of the Blackwater, and a lot of men can be ferried over from the south bank. So it’s quite possible Stannis gets across the river in time to seize the city before Tywin’s army can land in his flank and rear – although that might mean he gets captured because he’s not in place to get rescued by Salladhor Saan’s fleet. On the other hand, without the rigorous preparation Tyrion put it place, it’s also possible that Stannis seizes a city that’s about to burn to the ground/explode, or that Tywin wins his greatest victory only to see King’s Landing and his hopes of a dynasty literally go up in smoke.
Book vs. Show:
The show played this one pretty straight – the major divergence with the wildfire plan doesn’t come until the actual battle itself – so check back next time!