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WILDFIRE AND THE ALCHEMISTS’ GUILD
Anything referred to by its makers as “the substance” should raise eyebrows, especially when said substance will not only melt your eyebrows off, but also your entire face from your skull.
Wildfire, that unstable green liquid that did in Stannis and his fleet at the Battle of the Blackwater, is as mysterious as it is dangerous, because for something so infamous we know very little about it. As we come upon the season six finale of Game of Thrones, an ending where wildfire might bring down one of the most famous cities in the world, we’re going to wade into its murky past to see what we can learn about it.
The properties of wildfire were on full display in season two: It burns until it runs out—even on water—making it a popular choice for warfare. Though, as Bronn and Tyrion feared, it is so dangerous that it even poses a risk to those using it. That’s because beyond it’s lasting and high burn it can and will seep into anything (“cloth, wood, leather, even steel”), setting that on fire, too. And that’s to say nothing about the risks of dropping it: in A Clash of Kings Davos recalls a seaman’s saying, “Piss on wildfire, and your cock burns off.” So, you know, don’t do that.
While we know what wildfire can do, we don’t really know how it is made by the Alchemists’ Guild, a group of pyromancers that have a long history in Westeros (there is another order of pyromancers in Asshai, but it is unknown if the two are associated). The pyromancers of the Guildhall (full members are known as Wisdoms, and they have apprentices and acolytes to aid them) not only keep the recipe for wildfire a secret, but also claim to have other great knowledge only they know—including metal alchemy and birthing living creatures from fire, though the only thing they seemingly do now is make wildfire.
When they prepare it they use small jars of gripped pottery, and fill them in bare stoned cells, above which is a room filled with sand and an enchanted floor. If a fire breaks out (and wildfire is not exactly safe—it’s like having a grenade with the pin almost pulled out…or worse), the floor will fall and the sand will smother the fire.
Once it is jarred and ready for storage it is very, very carefully moved to a vault, where more safety measures are put in place should it go off. A small flame or spark, or being left in the sun, can light it, and that will set off the other nearby jars. And the older the wildfire, the more volatile it is.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the one ingredient the Alchemists do claim is used in making wildfire is magic, and they have, in recent times, claimed their spells are working as well as they did during the time of the dragons (wonder why!), allowing them to make it faster and stronger than they have in generations.
The pyromancers used to have much more clout in Westeros, until the maesters of the Citadel usurped them in that role. There is a theory that the maesters conspired to bring about the extinction of dragons, which adds a wonderful little element to the rivalry between these two groups, one that believes in wisdom and knowledge and purportedly abhors dragons, the other a mysterious cult obsessed with magic and fire made stronger by the winged monsters come to life.
There are some notable examples of wildfire being used in Westeros beyond Thoros of Myr lighting his sword with a thin layer of it and entertaining Robert Baratheon. In A Feast for Crows, Cersei uses it to burn down the Tower of the Hand, and it was used by Brynden Rivers to burn bodies in the Dragonpit during the Great Spring Sickness. Aegon the Unworthy asked the guild to build him “dragons,” contraptions that would spit wildfire he could use to conquer Dorne, but one caught on fire and they were all destroyed in the ensuing fire (along with a quarter of the Kingswood).
But there are three particularly notable examples of its use in history prior to the books and show:
Aerion Brightflame: second son of King Maekar I and older brother of Maester Aemon and King Aegon V, also known as Aerion the Monstrous, drunkly decided one night that if he drank wildfire he would turn into a dragon.
Spoiler Alert: he didn’t, but it did provide a terrible person with a fittingly terrible death.
The Tragedy at Summerhall: frustrated by his inability to enact meaningful reforms for the common folk of Westeros without the Lords of the Seven Kingdoms rising against him, Aegon V (a.k.a. Aegon the Unlikely, the “Egg” of George R.R. Martin‘s Dunk and Egg prequel novellas), became obsessed with dragons, believing he could be a better ruler if he had them.
He tried to find any information he could from the world over, as far away as Asshai, to learn how he might give birth to his dragon eggs, and finally, in 259 A.C. at the Targaryen pleasure castle of Summerhall, he attempted to do that. The details are scant, but the attempt involved pyromancers and wildfire and resulted in a massive blaze that killed the king (his famous Lord Commander Ser Duncan the Tall, and the king’s eldest son and heir to the Iron Throne). Fun fact: Rhaegar Targaryen was also born on this day, and was said to be haunted his whole life by the grief unto which he was born.
The Reign of Aerys II, The Mad King: The short rebirth of the pyromancers’ influence in the on goings of Westeros took place during the fire-obsessed reign of The Mad King. As Aerys II became more interested in wildfire, members of the guild became more prominent in his royal court. Eventually the king started using wildfire to burn his victims, including Lord Rickard Stark, Ned’s father, an event that helped set off Robert’s Rebellion.
It was during that uprising that Aerys had the pyromancers start making large quantities of wildfire, to be stored underneath the whole ofKing’s Landing. (Which is what many believe Qyburn was referencing when he talked of his little birds discovering something huge.) If Robert was going to take the city and the Iron Throne he was going to take a pile of ashes. “Burn them all.”
When Aerys’ Hand at the time (Lord Qarlton Chelsted) failed to talk the king out of his plan he resigned, which led to Aerys burning him alive with wildfire and naming Grand Master of the Guild, Lord Rossart, as his (final) Hand.
When Aerys gave Rossart the order to burn down the city after the Lannisters turned on him, Jaime killed both Rossart and Aerys before the order could be fulfilled, though Aerys believed—like Aerion the Monstrous—that the wildfire would turn him into a dragon.
Fool me once…
Many of those caches of wildfire that The Mad King planned on burning down King’s Landing with were lost, but below some of the greatest buildings in the city to this day, some still remain…including the Great Sept of Baelor.
Which poses an interesting hypothetical: Let’s say you’re a disgraced queen that has lost her only living child to the group that calls the Great Sept its home, and you are almost definitely going to be found guilty by that same group in a trial that will result in your execution. What might you do if you knew that silently waiting below it was an entire cache of old, highly volatile wildfire?
What if you are a vicious, cold-blooded, ruthless queen, whose only concern in life is her family, specifically her children?
Might you, as Jaime Lannister said of Cersei, “burn cities to ash?”
Well, you might not intend to—you might only plan on burning the fanatics that you invited into your city—but the thing about wildfire is it is truly wild, unpredictable, and almost impossible to control. You can have plans for wildfire, but (just like at Summerhall, and just like with Aerion the Monstrous) wildfire never seems to care what plans you have for it.
It certainly feels like this is where we are heading here in the season six finale, because between all the mentions of it and Bran’s visions (of the Mad King, the pyromancers, and the explosion of wildfire), there is also the much older vision Daenerys had in the House of the Undying, where we thought she was walking through an Iron Throne room destroyed by the Long Night and covered in snow, but now seems to look like a Red Keep ravaged by fire and covered in ash.
What do you think? Is the very substance that saved King’s Landing from Stannis Baratheon going to be used to destroy it, the way The Mad King had planned? Tell us in the comments below.
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Game of Thrones Images: HBO
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