Now that winter is here, and the time is nigh to do full-scale battle with the Night King and the army of the dead, the limited bits of Valyrian steel strewn across the Game of Thrones world are more precious than ever. It’s the one kind of steel that can kill White Walkers, and most believe it can only be forged using dragon fire and arcane magic. But setting aside anything mystical or dracarys!-related, how similar is Valyrian steel to what could be considered its real-life counterpart? And how close can we get to fashioning an impervious blade using our own form of material-world manipulation, science?
First off, a quick refresher of what Valyrian steel is exactly. As its name implies, Valyrian steel was forged using dragon fire in the Freehold of Valyria before the city’s demise. It keeps its edge forever, is much stronger and lighter than normal steel, and it’s gone unmade since the fall of Valyria. And while it can’t be forged, it can be manipulated—by only the most skilled bladesmiths—as in the case of Ned Stark’s great sword, Ice, which was refashioned into Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper. (By the way, if you have any qualms with this description, we refer you to this young George R.R. Martin fellow describing the material himself in the clip below.)
As for the blades’ closest visual analog, Damascus steel, that has its own somewhat mythical origin story, rooted in the Near East. It can be traced back to India to around 500 AD, where it was known as Telangana, Wootz, or Ukku steel. Like Valyrian steel, Damascus steel was christened with a name (given by invading crusaders) based on the place where it was made, Damascus, Syria. After gaining a reputation for being able to cut through swords made of lesser steel, and for displaying distinctive watery swirls on its face, Damascus steel weapons became downright legendary, coveted by many great warriors. It’s even said that Alexander the Great was armed with a Damascus steel sword.
Although the technique for making Damascus steel doesn’t involve dragon fire, it does require very high temperatures and a unique forging technique that is still, to do this day, shrouded in mystery. It’s thought that the process generally required heating up Wootz steel to an abnormally high 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit before cooling it down to room temperature over the course of a day.
As it cools, the Wootz steel is reheated, reshaped, and then abruptly doused with water. This quenching process, suddenly cooling the glowing hot steel with water, gave the blade a special hardness (by shrinking the crystal grain size of the material). The water used to quench the blade was referred to as “Dragon Blood.”
Damascus steel blade with trademark “Damask” pattern on its surface. Image: Wikimedia / Tamorlan
Many bladesmiths have claimed that they’ve been able to revive the ability to forge Damascus steel, although it seems that the consensus among those in the know is that nobody’s been able to crack the process. The New York Times reported on two metallurgists at Stanford University back in 1981 however, noting that “the mystery of Damascus steel appears solved.” That may not be exactly the case however, because even though the alloy they came up with was rich in carbon (with around 2% carbon content vs. 1% for normal steel), the material used to forge original Damascus steel swords utilized metals with trace impurities of Tungsten and Vanadium. Sometimes you need imperfection for perfection, right?
But what if we wanted to ignore trying to make any link between Valyrian steel and Damascus steel? What’s the strongest sword we could make today?
It seems like for ultimate blade strength, you’d go with a titanium alloy — a combination of titanium and several other elements like iron, chromium, cobalt, nickel, etc. As for sharpness, you’d be looking at the volcanic glass known as obsidian, which can have a cutting edge merely nanometers thick. (Except you couldn’t in reality use obsidian because it fractures too easily.) Its Game of Thrones correlate is dragonglass, another one of those materials that Jon, Daenerys, and every other breathing thing is going to need to fight off the army of the dead.
What do you think about the relationship between Valyrian steel and Damascus steel? Does it blow your mind that even with all of our modern technology, we still can’t recreate a smithing technique that’s more than 1,500 years old? Forge your thoughts in the heat of the comments section below!
HAS GAME OF THRONES ALREADY SHOWN ITS ENDGAME?
[brightcove video_id=”5543142464001″ brightcove_account_id=”3653334524001″ brightcove_player_id=”rJs2ZD8x”]