History of Thrones: The Maesters of Oldtown and a World Without Magic

In our series History of Thrones, we examine important historical events and people from the complex and controversial past of Westeros, ones that might tell us something about the story going forward on Game of Thrones. However, you might prefer to bury your head in a book if you think theories are spoilers.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.


The maesters are like the brothers of the Night’s Watch. The “knights of the mind” give up their family names and titles, and (are supposed to) live celibate lives, all in a lifetime of service to the Seven Kingdoms. But while the brothers in black stood as the Realm’s swords in the darkness, the maesters role is to illuminate Westeros with wisdom. Theirs is a world of science, medicine, and knowledge—one that might not have room for magic and dragons.

Maesters train at the Citadel of Oldtown, one of the oldest in Westeros, founded before mankind got more creative naming things. Beautiful and prestigious, Oldtown is Westeros’s largest city (in size), with cobbled streets and stone structures. It sits in the south near the western coast of the Reach, not far from Dorne, along the Sunset Sea at the mouth of the Honeywine river. It’s location has long made it one of the most important and busiest ports in the the entire world, making it the richest city in the Seven Kingdoms.

While no one knows its true origins, its founding is believed to go back millennia, at least 12,000 years to the Dawn Age when the First Men arrived and warred with the Children of the Forest. The city eventually came to grow around the seat of House Hightower, one of the most ancient and most prestigious families in Westeros. Their home at the center of Oldtown is known as Hightower (also named before mankind got creative), the tallest structure in Westeros. Standing higher than even the Wall, atop Hightower castle is a beacon that works as a lighthouse for ships entering the port.

The tower sits on an oily, black stone that is so old and mysterious no one knows what it is or who built it, leading to wide-ranging, sometimes crazy theories that get to the question of the very origins of life in the world. Oldtown might predate the coming of the First Men, and much more.

One of the most important monuments of the city is the Starry Sept, the former seat for the High Septon of the Faith of the Seven. It was here where Aegon the Conqueror was crowned as king of the Seven Kingdoms by the High Septon himself, and where Aegon was then anointed in the faith. (Though House Targaryen refused to stop practicing incest, forbidden by the religion.) Though the faith’s headquarters moved to King’s Landing—to the now destroyed Sept of Baelor—it still plays an important role in Oldtown.

But an even older institution still makes its home there, at the Citadel where maesters train. Thought to be the single greatest center of knowledge in the world, with books and scrolls going back thousands of years, the Citadel is where maesters earn their chains. Each link forged of a different metal indicates a mastery of a field of study. Among the links that can be earned are silver for knowledge of medicine and healing, yellow gold for math and economics, and black iron for ravenry.

Among their many functions maesters are Westeros’s mailmen, responsible for the message-carrying black ravens of the Seven Kingdoms. There are also white ravens, which announce the changing of the uneven seasons. Sam and Gilly saw the white ravens heading out to announce the coming of winter when the two arrived in Oldtown.

Once a student – which is apparently a really crappy position – has earned a link, they go from a novice to an acolyte, but they don’t graduate to maester until they have a chain they can wear around their neck. They never remove their chain, not even to sleep, so they can be reminded of their service to the realm.

There are four classifications within the order:

Maesters: Assigned to individual houses to advise the lords and ladies of the castle or keep, to whom they are supposed to remain loyal to without political affiliation. (This is why Maester Luwin advised Theon after he took Winterfell. Maester Luwin’s position was to the Lord of Winterfell, not the Starks.)

Archmaesters: Senior members who are thought to be the master of a particular field, earning them a mask, ring, and rod of that subject’s metal. Archmaesters also sit on the Conclave, the governing body of the Citadel.

Grand Maester: The Conclave also elects the Grand Maester, who advises the King and sits on the Small Council. (Even such an exalted position does not guarantee a maester will follow all of the order’s rules, as Grand Maester Pycelle often served House Lannister over the entire realm, in violation of his vows).

Seneschal: A randomly chosen archmaester responsible for governing the Citadel for a year–a job no one seems to want.

Despite their ubiquitous presence throughout Westeros, in some ways the maesters are a mysterious order, and not everyone trusts them. The Citadel is not open to women, and its enormous library contains books so rare the world considers them lost forever – if the rest of the world even knows they ever existed. Their loyalties to the houses they serve aren’t always certain either. In A Dance With Dragons, Lady Barbrey Dustin refers to maesters as “grey rats,” saying they can’t be trusted because they are a close knit order who know all of their lords and ladies’ darkest secrets and share them with the Citadel.

She is far from the only person who thinks the maesters are way more influential and powerful than they would like anyone to know. And they might be as dangerous as Lady Dustin fears, especially if they were the reason dragons died out in the first place, in what is referred to as the Grand Maester Conspiracy.

The maesters are men of knowledge and science, and while the world was full of magic for almost the entirety of the order’s existence, it largely disappeared with the death of the last dragons 150 years before Daenerys hatched three of them. While some believe dragons died out because House Targaryen started locking them up in the Dragonpit of King’s Landing, stunting their growth until they became as small as cats, at least one character in the novels thinks the maesters brought about the end of the creatures in secret. His opinion carries extra weight since he is isn’t just a member of the order, he is the archmaester of magic and the occult.

Known as Marwyn the Mage, he believes the maesters may have killed off the dragons covertly because they are opposed to magic, and dragons are thought to be directly tied to the presence of magic in the world (it has seemed to come alive again with the birth of Daenerys’ three). Magic is unpredictable, and it makes knowledge insignificant, robbing the maesters of their power. As men who put their faith in science and tested wisdom, even the study of magic is taboo, with only one in a hundred earning a Valyrian steel link for mastery of it. The order might very well have decided there was no place for dragons in the world because there was no place for magic, especially when it challenged their position.

It’s also possible they had less nefarious reasons for conspiring to kill off the dragons. They might have decided beasts known as “fire made flesh” were too dangerous for the world and thought they were being benevolent in destroying them. If they were though they almost damned mankind to extinction.Without them the Battle of Winterfell would have ended long before Arya had a chance to kill the Night King.

The archmaesters weren’t smart enough to see the White Walkers coming, how dragons were going to help defeat them, or that they needed to respond to mankind’s extinction. What good is a book with no one left to read it?

The maesters loathing of magic might explain why they are so protective of those very books Sam stole. The older the scroll the more it could reveal about a world the maesters wish to keep hidden, and the steps they have taken to destroy it.

And now with the Great War won dragons are heading south. Daenerys has to worry about Cersei and scorpion bolts, but the Mother of Dragons and her two children could be undone by Oldtown’s greatest secret: the maesters are far more powerful than anyone realizes, and their hatred of magic and dragons didn’t die with the Night King.

Images: HBO

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