The Valyrian word for dragonglass, as I have just learned from a Game of Thrones Geekopedia, is “zirtys perzys.” Forgive a megafan of the series who is not very impressed with the books, but I didn’t know the Ancient Valyrians called obsidian precisely the same thing I’ve always called it: Frozen Fire. For those of you who’ve read the books 10 times and are now saying “Duh,” bear with me, because, among other things, the show ain’t the books. However, they seem to be using the invented Valyrian language with valiant cogency—I’m starting to pick up on the grammar!
Frozen fire. Fire on ice. Um… hang on:
Obsidian, as you know from our own world, is an extrusive igneous rock, which is to say, solidified lava. Or, if you want to be a fricking poet about it, frozen fire. Because of its specific composition and formation (I’ll spare us both the specifics), it breaks with very, very sharp edges, which is why it was historically used in piercing and cutting tools in areas where people found it. It is considered a true glass, not a mineral, because of its non-crystalline composition. By the time Pliny the Elder wrote about it in the first century of the Common Era, it was old news.
And you don’t have to go to Westeros to find people who consider it to have mystical powers. Plenty of modern folk with a psychic, mystical or blessed-be witchy bent consider it to be very powerful. It’s said to protect people who carry it from negative influences, it’s apparently a heck of an aura-cleanser, and according to some, can aid in the healing of Shit From Your Previous Lives. Hold onto that for a minute.
Now, the Known Properties of Dragonglass:
1. Dragonglass can kill (or re-kill) wights and White Walkers. As Tyrion says, the nomenclature is unclear here. But the army of the dead including its icky icky generals can be stopped (frozen?) by this stuff. Happily, Samwell Tarly figured that out ages ago, putting dragonglass up there with Valyrian steel in the pantheon of substances that can re-dead the dead.
2. Dragonglass can make White Walkers. OK, everyone Green-see’d this with Bran in Season Six.
3. Dragonglass can stop you from becoming a White Walker or a cavalryman in the army of the dead. Benjen Stark is unliving proof of this.
4. Dragonglass arrests, stops, or—yes—freezes stuff. Including, it appears, Greyscale, also known as Westerosi Leprosy or Ser Jorah’s Bummer. They didn’t exactly say it, but when Archmaester Broadbent seemed skeptical about the peel-and-heal move Sam pulled on poor old Jorah, Sam didn’t mention everything he saw in that book he got from the Hogwarts restricted section (thank the gods Walder Frey didn’t find him out of bed after hours!). You have to actually freeze a frame, but in “Dragonstone,” while Gilly is using her newfound literacy to note that Dragonstone is so named because it is a vast mountain of obsidian, the facing page mentions something about Greyscale being stopped, frozen, arrested, by the patient consuming dragonglass. Now, Sam didn’t mention this, but if you were Jorah Mormont, would you be a more compliant patient knowing that skin was actually a triple rum-and-dragonglass? No. No you would not.
5. Dragonglass can be used as a mystical, seamless, totally awesome-sauce building material. The secret, also in the pages of the Book from the Restricted Section, is dragon fire, which is of course why a lot of dragonglass tech has been lost, because they up and went extinct. As you pan around the deserted castle at Dragonstone, watching Tyrion and Dany gaze meaningfully at the high black walls and strange sculptural shapes, please understand you are supposed to be all like: “Dude! Dragonglass! It’s a freaking dragonglass fortress! Whoa!” and stuff like that. Of course, now there are three dragons in Westeros again, on the island where Jon Snow just got the mining rights from the increasingly imperious Dany, so it does seem a tad likely that someone’s going to find out what happens to obsidian when it is melted in the fiery breath of a giant flying mystical reptile. Oh, yeah, and guess what? We left Daenerys and Jon, Davos and Tyrion and Missandei, who between them are rocking some serious strategic brainpower, standing in a castle they do not yet know is Walker-Proof! Um… unless there’s some freaky mojo involving an ice dragon. That could possibly put a wrench in things. Keep Reading, Samwell Tarly.
6. “Three living smiths… know how to rework Valyrian steel”—that is, according to Tywin Lannister, way back before Mini-Caligula King Joffrey got a taste of his own medicine. Book fans know, though I don’t think it’s explicit in the show, that one of those smiths is Mott, the one who took on Gendry as his apprentice and then mysteriously sold him to the Night’s Watch, but Tywin tells Jaime he felt the best one was in Volantis and hired him to rework Ned Stark’s enormous sword, Ice, into the two that would become Oathkeeper (last seen at the hip of Brienne of Tarth) and Widow’s Wail, which Jaime has been carrying around since Joffrey’s untimely demise. So… there just might be four smiths who know how to do it; we don’t yet know if Gendry was taught how to do it. But does anyone think part of the formula for Valyrian steel is not obsidian? I think there’s pretty strong consensus that one of the things Sam’s going to suss out is the formula for the mystical alloy (hopefully he will not have the Tarly family sword, Heartsbane, melted down to do it; it just seems like they need those things), and that the answer will involve obsidian, and most likely, smelting by dragonfire, which would explain why no one’s been able to make the stuff for a long damn time.
7. “The Wall’s not just ice.” Um so Wighty-but-Good Benjen Stark cannot cross the Wall, and he intimates it’s because magic was woven into its foundations. We know that Benjen’s had a little Dragonglass pacemaker implanted in his chest by the Children but that as a Mostly Dead Person he has to stay up North. Anyone got a guess as to what else the Wall’s made of?
One of the meta-lessons of Game of Thrones is… OK, it’s “seriously, don’t get too attached to anyone.” But another big ol’ trope of this series is about the price of ignorance, which is why dumpy, awkward, bookish Samwell Tarly will end up being one of its heroes. In “Stormborn,” the Archmaester Formerly Known as Professor Slughorn (we love you, Jim Broadbent!) notes that the maesters of the Citadel are “the world’s memory.” They are also a tiny secluded cloister who guard their knowledge with a ferocity verging on the dragonesque, although the world at large doesn’t take a great interest in it (again, Westeros isn’t all that different from our world). A zillion books, packed away like so many cold case files in a storage facility, have shouldered the weight of megatons of critical lore and history and interpretation—those books are the actual difference between the living and the dead (well, both can be destroyed by fire, but…).
So far, we’ve seen armies, pikes, spears, lances, swords, horses, zombie-horses, battleaxes, traitors, poisoners, liars, executioners, torturers and a rather spectacular mass-casualty explosion brought to you by the Mad Queen. None of them have a thing on plain old learnedness. The recovery of understanding of the properties of dragonglass (and dragons) will be decisive in determining who wins and who dies. (Part of what will kill Cersei is her myopic, idiot urge to destroy things she doesn’t understand. Maybe that was the actual underpinning of that sweet but slightly obfuscated scene between Tyrion and Jaime when they talk about the simpleton cousin who loved smashing beetles.) As dear ol’ Dad said to her seasons ago, “I don’t distrust you because you’re a woman. I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.” Tywin might have been a raging douchebag, but he wasn’t wrong about that. Naturally, Season Seven finds her with a monomaniacal drive to figure out how to kill, rather than understand, dragons. And dragonglass? Not even on her radar. But thank the gods it’s on someone’s.
Keep reading, Samwell Tarly.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.