Look Into the Flames: Swords and Shards

Brienne Jaime Knight of the Seven Kingdoms Season 8 802

By Red Aly

Every mystery embedded in A Song of Ice and Fire offers rich ground for theories to germinate as we wait for the conclusion of the series. The best theories are community-building pursuits as they inspire animated discussion among fans and maintain interest between books and between seasons. There is only one rule here: Keep it fun! Be warned: This series may contain major book spoilers and is intended for people who have read all of the A Song of Ice and Fire books released so far, as well as Fire and Blood. Based on F&B, this article contains probable spoilers for future episodes/seasons of House of the Dragon.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, the fabled Valyrian steel swords are impossible to overlook. George R.R. Martin devotes pages to building up their backstory and all the key characters’ arcs are influenced in some way by them to the extent that they could be considered characters themselves. Yet they are mysterious.  Their value is inseparable from the fact that no one knows how to make them anymore and so new ones cannot be made. They are priceless family heirlooms, their stories embedded in the stories of  the preeminent families of Westeros. Furthermore, it seems that not only is Valyrian steel very rare and valuable, but it is necessary in the coming fight against the threat from the North; while ordinary  steel shatters when it is used against White Walkers, Valyrian steel does not. This is therefore a crucial tension in the series.

Valyrian steel weapons are needed for fighting together on the same side in the same place, but they are instead spread across the continent and  belong to people who are busy fighting each other. Maybe there is no need for further theories  about them because already we can see how GRRM has woven the swords into the essential core of  the series. This is after all a story that follows the Seven Kingdoms’ ruling families as they war amongst themselves and fail (so far) to come together to face more important existential threats.  The family swords are perfect symbols of this.

Azor Ahai and Nissa Nissa, by Tim Durning for FFG
the forging of Lightbringer, by Tim Durning for FFG

But I, for one, like to speculate that there might be more to it. The myth of Azor Ahai and the forging of Lightbringer demands a closer look. Lightbringer is a step further than even  priceless Valyrian steel, something truly wondrous. It is a detail that simply would not have been included in the series at all if not to provoke speculation. We, the readers, are expected to tie ourselves into knots just as the Priests of R’hllor and various Targaryens have done trying to figure out who the Prince that was Promised or Azor Ahai reborn might be, and what or where Lightbringer might be. The possibilities fans have proposed are endless, but all stem from one of these basic premises:

  1. Lightbringer is not a sword at all i.e.:
  • A leader or hero
  • Dragons
  • A unifying idea
  1. Lightbringer is an existing ancient weapon that just needs heat and light added to make  it truly special i.e. :
  • Dawn
  • Blackfyre
  • Catspaw dagger
  1. Lightbringer is a sword that is forged in the series i.e.:
  • Needle
  • Something completely new
  • Ice and its derivatives

From these premises a great number of theories are possible. I will devote the remainder of this article to just the last on the list for two reasons: First, because to me it ties together the best story threads in the most compelling way. And second, because it suggests a yet-to-be revealed reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s shards of Narsil (from The Lord of the Rings) that does not seem accidental. The idea is that Lightbringer is a sword that does not yet exist but is being forged via the events of the story, eventually becoming a symbol of unity just as Andúril was. While it does not yet exist, it is being made from all or part of one that did: Ice.

Ned Stark 101

Ice is, after all, the sword featured in the very first chapter. It caught our imaginations early and never let go. It was wielded by Ned Stark (played by the same actor who played Boromir in The Lord of the Rings!) and the red comet appeared in the sky just after it was used to kill him. It has been split into two swords (shattered!!) by this point in the story, however these swords seem to reject their new form; they will not hold the red dye and in spite of their ownership, neither one is or has ever been truly wielded by a Lannister or nominal Baratheon. But most importantly, Ice is the only candidate for Lightbringer that has a connection to nearly all of the characters contending for the role of Azor Ahai reborn. The only notable exception is of course Daenerys.

Whenever Lightbringer finally emerges from myth to influence the events of the main series there is no doubt that it is or will be something magical. GRRM never spells out exactly how magic works because he wants it to remain mysterious and unpredictable, but he does hint that there are elements that must come together for it to work. Regarding the swords, we know that the ancient Valyrians used blood magic and so it seems likely that the process of making Valyrian steel also involved blood magic. Furthermore, if Valyrian steel weapons have embedded blood magic then maybe it is not just because they are priceless that they are passed down in families, but because they are bound by blood. In other words, I suspect that it matters that Ned was killed using his own sword. I suspect it is relevant that Ilyn Payne, who killed him, may soon be involved in a fight against Brienne and Oathkeeper, which is, after all, one of the “shards” of Ice.

The original Lightbringer was the sword of legendary hero Azor Ahai. According to the story he  labored for 30 days and 30 nights on his first attempt but when he tempered the sword with water it shattered. Ice itself may not have shattered when Ned executed the Night’s Watch deserter and then cleaned the sword in the pools of Winterfell, but his family certainly began to break apart from that moment and these ancestral swords are symbols of their families. Arya and Sansa’s relationship with each other and with Ned grew bitter after Ned was forced to kill Sansa’s direwolf Lady using Ice.  Even assuming the theory is true then, it is impossible to be confident of where exactly we are in the forging and tempering process. Still, there is no doubt that the splitting of Ice resembles a shattering  both physically and symbolically.

Ice has been split only once, which means it may see a second “shattering”. After all, in the myth,  Lightbringer was created on the third attempt after both the first and second attempts shattered. As the split of Ice was symbolic of the destruction of the Stark family, let us consider that a second  shattering could be symbolic of the devastation of the Baratheon-Lannister royal family who now claim these swords. The story implications are certainly interesting. Indeed, the trajectory the Lannisters are on at the end of A Dance with Dragons suggests fragmentation and impending doom for several of them. Tyrion killed Tywin and is on the other side of the world. Jaime was ignoring Cersei’s letters before being captured in the Riverlands. Myrcella is on a dangerous trip back to King’s Landing from Dorne, past lands occupied by Aegon and accompanied by some who do not wish her well. Cersei is a prisoner of the Faith, while Tommen is loyal to her enemies. All it would take is for any one of them to be killed with a “shard” of Ice and the pattern would be established.

Maybe then we should consider that Joffrey’s use of Widow’s Wail to demolish “the Lives of Four Kings” might actually be foreshadowing of the eventual use of this sword for regicide.

Dragonstone Shore, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), 1x10 (3)

There is a final complicating factor to consider of course, and that is the question of how the Targaryens figure into this. After all, this discussion of the “shards” of Ice does not yet touch the Targaryens or fully account for why Ice would be more special in the end than the historic swords that for hundreds of years symbolized the royal dynasty of Westeros. Dark Sister and Blackfyre have yet to make confirmed appearances in the main series, yet their importance in Westerosi history is clear. I have suggested that we may see a second splitting of Ice, but maybe the division of Ice into Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper was already the second shattering, and the first was the splitting of Blackfyre and Dark Sister, along with all of the internal strife during the Targaryen age that was associated with those two swords. Many fans believe that Blackfyre in on its way to Aegon. Some speculate that Dark Sister may be hiding in plain sight as Longclaw, or that it is entombed with Lyanna Stark in Winterfell’s crypts – either way destined for the hands of Jon Snow. None of this can be confirmed yet. We can, however, note that the histories contain many interesting details such as Bloodraven as the last known wielder of Dark Sister, his rival Bittersteel as the last known wielder of Blackfyre, and the fact that Daemon Targaryen used Dark Sister to kill Aemond Targaryen in the Dance. The association of these two swords with a long, drawn out “shattering” of the Targaryen family is well established.

I would venture to suggest, therefore, that while GRRM’s version of Andúril may turn out to be Ice put back together again just as the shards of Narsil were, it seems more likely that this is all headed in a different direction. This is a song of Ice and Fire, after all, not just Ice. The process of bringing these contrasting elements together has been long and difficult, full of tragedy, and that makes it all  the more rewarding when it finally happens. The unifying symbolic weight of a reforged sword is more earned if it truly does represent the coming together of the Kingdoms: A sword for a new era, forged from one shard of Ice, and a spark of fire.

Whatever your take on it, the myth of Lightbringer is compelling stuff. To me the idea that a new forging story is woven into the series and that what will be Lightbringer is deeply connected as an artifact to many, or all of the principal characters, is exciting and rich ground on which to base predictions of where the series is headed. I also like the idea that even if it is a new sword, it is one that was made from old ones, complementing the way the series weaves history and present and conceiving of time as a repeating but mutable pattern.


  1. Wow, I really thought, people would have more ideas about Lightbringer than this….

    Speculate! I promise, it is fun.

  2. « Furthermore, it seems that not only is Valyrian steel very rare and valuable, but it is necessary in the coming fight against the threat from the North; while ordinary steel shatters when it is used against White Walkers, Valyrian steel does not. This is therefore a crucial tension in the series. »

    Yeah with the Hardhome scene, the show basically confirmed that the magical fire steel sword made with a blood sacrifice was Valyrian steel, the famous magical steel made by the people who do fire and blood magic… Lightbringer was the first valyrian steel blade made.
    Every valyrian steel blades are a Lightbringer, no need to reforge a sword, the tale is not a prophecy.

  3. R’Law,

    That is certainly one possibility, but one I very much doubt.

    Why would Maester Aemon be so convinced that Stannis’s sword was wrong because it had no heat though? Valyrian steel swords in general do not have heat either. It is not just because Stannis’s sword was not Valyrian steel that Aemon knew it felt “wrong”.

  4. Red Aly,

    Because Lightbringer is indeed supposed to generate heat. Stannis’ sword glows but remains cold.

    And the secret to understanding how Lightbringer works lies in the obsidian.
    In the books, Lightbringer is describe as having the same powers as obsidian: it contains fire magic, it burns without being consumed and kill the Others (they melt).
    When Sam fights the Other, he stabs him with the obsidian dagger. The dagger begins to burn, once the Other is melted, only the dagger remains, intact and cold.
    That’s how dragonglass works and that’s how the dragonsteel sword, Lightbringer, works too. It’s not constantly burning, it burns in contact of ice and we’ve seen that the Other’s blades freeze steel until it breaks, that’s the whole point of making a sword that can generate heat.

    In the series, obsidian does not work in the same way.
    It doesn’t burn and the Others don’t melt, instead they shatter in pieces.
    The core idea remains: Lightbringer has the same powers as obsidian.
    Valyrian steel, a steel made with blood and fire magic, kill the Others like obsidian and can withstand their freezing blades because the steel contains fire magic.

    What we can expect in the books, is that a character will fight an Other with a valyrian steel blade, and when the blades will clash, the VS blade will get cover in frost and will start to burn to counter it, just like the dragonglass dagger started to generate when Sam stab the Other.
    It will probably be Jon, like in the series, since Jon doesn’t believe in the Lightbringer/Azor Ahai myth, he finds the idea of a blade generating heat ridiculous and put all his faith in the tales of the Last Hero and the dragonsteel sword, the irony being that they are the same thing hence a big surprise for him when Longclaw will start to burn to counter the freezing blade of an Other.

  5. R’Law,

    You are speculating, but passing it off as fact, just saying. We have absolutely nothing in the texts to suggest that Valyrian steel suddenly gets hot when in contact with WW. I mean, it is possible, but it is simply your speculation.

    And I doubt it is all there is to this. GRRM is a known Tolkien fan, with numerous references to Tolkien’s works in these books. The whole series is basically a reaction to Lord of the Rings, with certain parallels but mostly attempts at more character complexity and historical grounding. The Narsil shards and the splitting of Ice are very unlikely to be coincidental in their parallels.

  6. Red Aly: You are speculating, but passing it off as fact, just saying.

    Yeah, that’s a big big problem in this fandom — when theories and fanon become adopted as canon in personal views -_-

  7. Red Aly,

    You started when you said that valyrian steel doesn’t shatter against the Other’s blades yet we haven’t seen it if it’s true in the books.
    I did say “what we can expect” and I don’t came up with those facts with my own imagination, the only thing that can kill the Others right now is obsidian, Lightbringer is describe as having the same powers, by looking at how obsidian works we can see how Lightbringer works.
    The obsidian dagger started to burn when Sam stab the Other, then came back cold and intact.

    « Sam rolled onto his side, eyes wide as the Other shrank and puddled, dissolving away. In twenty heartbeats its flesh was gone, swirling away in a fine white mist. Beneath were bones like milkglass, pale and shiny, and they were melting too. Finally only the dragonglass dagger remained, wreathed in steam as if it were alive and sweating. Grenn bent to scoop it up and flung it down again at once. “Mother, that’s cold.” »

    It’s a fact that is confirmed by Marwyn:

    « “Call it dragonglass.” Archmaester Marwyn glanced at the candle for a moment. “It burns but is not consumed.” »

    Lightbringer, a sword that can burn without being consumed (as opposed to Beric or Thoros’ blades that have been shown to be damaged by fire) and kill the Others just like obsidian:

    « In battle the blade burned fiery hot. Once Azor Ahai fought a monster. When he thrust the sword through the belly of the beast, its blood began to boil. Smoke and steam poured from its mouth, its eyes melted and dribbled down its cheeks, and its body burst into flame. »

    So obviously the blade would be cold until it clashes with an Other which is why the sword is said to “burned fiery hot” in battle, outside of the battle it wouldn’t just like the obsidian dagger is not constantly burning.
    It also make sense in narrative point of view, a blade that suddenly stated to burn is a twist but a twist that has been teased with the prologue, the Other’s blade destroying steel and with Sam’s obsidian dagger.
    In the show, they reduce the fantasy elements, the obsidian and the steel doesn’t burn but they still kill the Others the same way and the blade can withstand their swords because of the fire magic aspect.
    And obviously there is only one magical steel made with fire and blood magic in the univers, it’s Valyrian steel.

    Don’t really see the point with Tolkien, yes Martin loves LOTR but that doesn’t mean he will copy its work. I’m not basing my theory on LOTR but on the facts, the clues that Martin has given in ASOIAF.

  8. R’Law,

    That is really interesting and good points. I still don’t see it as an argument for Lightbringer though, but rather evidence that the Valyrian steel swords are indeed needed in the North. I guess it comes down to if you really think that dozens of separate Valyrian steel swords make a satisfying resolution of the way Lightbringer has been built up in this story. I think Lightbringer is a level beyond Valyrian steel. You think any and all Valyrian steel satisfies the story arc here. We shall see I guess.

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