“‘Ice,’ that sword was called. It was as wide across as a man’s hand, and taller even than Robb. The blade was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel.” — A Game of Thrones
In GRR Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s wildly popular TV adaptation, “Valyrian steel” is the epitome of finely-crafted swords. Forged in dragon’s fire and imbued with spells long forgotten, Valyrian blades were stronger, sharper, lighter, and more durable than all other killing implements. And like their fearsome reputation, the blades are black like a smoky soul and swirl with the mark of thousands of folds.
But if the Kingslayer can get his hand on one, could we, with all our modern metal-working and chemistry, hold a Valyrian blade as well?
Below, from the American Chemical Society’s Reactions YouTube channel, materials scientist and blacksmith Ryan Consell examines all the properties of Valyrian blades and attempts to find a suitable steel stand-in. His conclusion? The infamous steel may not be steel at all:
As Consell explains in a thorough blog post, getting all the properties of a steel blade just right is a balancing act. Steel — an alloy of mostly iron and some carbon — can have radically different properties depending on how much carbon is added, what temperature the steel is made at (and how it is cooled), and if the steel is folded.
So-called “spring steels” might do the trick. With 0.6 percent carbon and a pinch of silicon and manganese, spring steel “will keep an edge, bend without breaking, and is really difficult to shatter,” Consell writes.
But there are two problems: the properties that make Valyrian steel so recognizable — the swirls on its surface (from folding) and its color — would make a steel blade worse. First, steel is a silvery grey. You can treat it with chemicals and dyes to make it a smoky black, but a quick buffing will expose the silver beneath. Second, folding steel over and over may make it look worthy of a legendary warrior, but the process actually weakens a blade.
“Folding metal and forging it out doesn’t do anything good for a blade,” Consell writes, “Every fold adds inclusions into the material; bits of oxide, soot, sand and other impurities from the environment would work their way in and mess up the steel.”
In other words, Valyrians would only be “pattern welding” their swords if they had poor quality steel that they were trying to improve. And if you then melted down these pattern-welded swords to make more, the swirls would disappear. Sorry Jamie.
But all these chinks in Game of Thrones‘ material science armor doesn’t mean that something like Valyrian steel couldn’t exist. Consell speculates that (unless magic is the best explanation) a material other than steel could do the trick. If Valyrian steel was more like a metal matrix composite, or a material with a metallic framework that incorporates another non-metallic material like ceramic, we could get a sword that is nigh indestructible, sharp, light, resistant to heat, and menacingly dark. A titanium/silicon-carbide composite fits the bill.
However, “[composites] are often incredibly difficult to make, requiring vacuum chambers, enormous pressures and temperatures, vaporized metals and extremely careful chemistry,” says Consell. To make Valyrian steel a reality, in a fantasy/medieval world, would then require engineering even we haven’t fully mastered yet.
It would be “the stuff only a wizard can do.”