Taking as a given George R. R. Martin’s repeated assertions that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a fantasy with magic, not science fiction, we need to explain the magic of the story in a way that is something more than “a wizard did it” (The Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror X). Martin has also explained that he is doling out the magic as one would spice a stew – too much and you ruin it, too little and it has no flavor. The magic, therefore, has to have rules. What is more, the use of magic has to be consistent with the overall themes of the work. Again, these are: the problematic nature of war, love triangles with loss, great deeds require great sacrifice, and plot twists to the understandings of the protagonists (The world is never as it first appears.).
Martin has drawn on history, historical fiction, fantasy writings, and pre-Christian and non-Christian myths and legends – the songs of pre-history – to write his “song” of ice and fire. In particular he is inclined to use the myths of his heritage in Britain, Ireland, Wales, and the Norse. For example, two of the worlds in his “1000 Worlds” science fiction tales are Baldur and Avalon. Baldur is the Norse god whose death by his brother, Hodur, begins the Ragnarok. Avalon is where the three sisters take King Arthur’s body after the battle with his son born of incest, Mordred. (Lady Gwynhyfar, among others, has explored the link between “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the King Arthur legend if you have an interest in learning more.) Aside from the direct borrowings from this pantheon, specifically for “A Song of Ice and Fire”, there are the reputed four elements that make up the world from ancient Greek, Celtic, and other traditions: fire, earth, water, and wind/ice.
While medical practitioners like Galen extended this idea to treat ailments as imbalances in the four humours (black, green, yellow, and red bile), non-Abrahamic religions treated these elements as those that governed nature. Tapping into those forces could bring about desired outcomes, but the tales are also filled with the dire consequences of dealing in dark magic. In an interesting coincidence, as per the Nova episode on uranium, the aboriginals of a certain area in Australia hold that what was in fact uranium ore was a sleeping reptile whose repose should not be disturbed, and the Los Alamos scientists, who were testing their enriched uranium, referred to it as “twisting the dragon’s tail”. Similarly, we also have all four elements and their related magic in “A Song of Ice and Fire” as per the closing part of the oath Jojen and Meera Reed took before Bran as acting lord of Winterfell: “I swear it by earth and water.” — Jojen. “I swear it by bronze and iron.” — Meera. “We swear it by ice and fire.” — Both. The bronze and iron likely represent the two metals of the First Men and Andals, respectively. The four elements are what constitutes the world.
Per the Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to benefit the hapless humans, fire is not simply cooking or warming oneself, it is also creativity, inspiration, and entrepreneurship. It is also destructive, dangerous, and always capable of spreading beyond control. In “A Song of Ice and Fire”, fire is the dragons, Asshai, and blood magic. The Valyrians utilized blood magic to harness the Fourteen Flames of the Freehold, basically volcanoes, to forge weapons, roads, and tame dragons for an empire built on conquest, slavery, and blood sacrifice. Think the Romans with a touch of the Aztec thrown in for good measure.
It is also the means by which the legendary Azor Ahai, probably also the Last Hero, defeated the Others or White Walkers. Whether the literal story of forging Lightbringer in the heart of Nissa Nissa – Azor Ahai’s “moon and stars” – is true or it is an astronomical reference per Doreah’s story of the star slicing open a moon with dragons pouring out, dragons, Targaryens, R’hllor, and Asshai are all features of the fire element. However, we must always remember that fire requires sacrifice: “fire for blood, blood for fire”. It is not just the motto of House Targaryen and the writing on Dragonbinder. It is one of the themes of “A Song of Ice and Fire”.
The earth element is also hard to miss as are its masters: the Children of the Forest who call themselves the “singers of the earth”. Their holy weirwood trees, heartwoods, are created with blood sacrifice. They dig their roots deep into the earth. When special Children die, they are bonded with the trees. Together they form a collective consciousness of memory, thought, and interconnectedness. In other words, there is great power in the earth. The Children used it twice in their centuries’ long conflict with the First Men. Initially, they deployed it to destroy the land bridge connecting Westeros with Essos, now the Arm of Dorne. Then, with much less effect, they partially flooded the neck connecting the North – their last stronghold – with the rest of Westeros.
Unfortunately for clarity’s sake, many have misinterpreted the Children’s use of magic in two important ways. First, they claim that those two magical events were water events, not earth. Second, they claim that the Children’s magic had become dissipated, that it is like it came from a storehouse. Once they had unleashed it on the land bridge, they did not have enough for the Neck. With regard to the water power theory, the Children’s earth power takes the form of earthquakes. Underwater earthquakes produce upsurges in the sea – tsunamis, in other words. That is how they shattered the land bridge and partially flooded the Neck. The reason why the second event was only partially successful was because the Children’s power is linked to their weirwood net. The First Men had simply destroyed too many heartwood trees by that point for the Children to produce the same effect with the Neck as they had with the land bridge.
It is also highly likely that the Horn of Winter, Horn of Joramun’s, reputed power of “waking giants of the earth” refers to calling upon the sleeping Children that are part of the heartwood trees’ roots that Bran sees in Bloodraven’s cave. Tormund’s nursing at the giant’s teat is also likely to be a story about how Tormund received succor from the Children of the Forest in one of their caves. Bloodraven refers to the paste Bran is to drink and his training as nursing from the earth. Given the traditional enmity between the Children and humanity, as per Bran’s observation that others would not go peacefully into that good night, and Martin’s practice of putting humanity at odds with collective-minded antagonists that manipulate thoughts and dreams (“And Seven Times Never Kill Man”, “The Guardians”, and “A Song for Lya”, the Earth-Hrangan War, among others), the Children of the Forest are unlikely to be the pacific, peaceful helpers of Bran and Bloodraven that they appear to be.
The water element of “A Song of Ice and Fire” centers on the Iron Born. There, according to The World Book, the Drowned God of the sea contends with the hostile Storm God on behalf of humanity. Instead of claiming descent from the First Men, the Iron Born claim to be the children of mermen. They too have a dragon, a sea dragon of course, but their relationship is hostile. The legendary progenitor of the Iron Born, the Grey King who had children with a mermaid and slew the greatest of the sea dragons, Nagga, making a throne and throne room of its bones is their hero. The oily black stone at the base of this building on Old Wyck that appears in other seaborne areas such as the foundation of the Hightower at Oldtown is one among many homages to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, the Cthulhu mythos author. Once again, as per my previous post on the Others, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is not Lovecraftian. Thus, there are no otherworldly “deep ones” for example.
Instead of the sea dragon, the followers of the Drowned God prefer the traditional sea monster as their “deep one” equivalent – a kraken, or giant squid. As for any manipulation of water, we have the enigmatic Patchface who seems to have a connection with underwater magic. We also have the effect of blood sacrifice for ships to gain favorable winds from both Melisandre, Euron, and Moqorro. However, given Martin’s frequently expressed disdain for organized religion and his self-professed “agnostic/atheist” position, it is unlikely there is any actual drowned god, just like there is unlikely to be a R’hllor or its opposite – the Great Other who cannot be named.
The wind or ice beings are also not hard to spot. They formed the nightmare horror in the prologue to the first book, A Game of Thrones. The Others or White Walkers are icy creatures who are not only adapted to the cold, they are often associated with it. Their language sounds like ice cracking. They use ice armor and weapons. They come from the Land of Always Winter. While the Valyrians are wielders of fire and fire-breathing dragons, the White Walkers raise the dead and appear to be of ice dragons. In the time of the Long Night, they flourished and tried to conquer all of Westeros. They were driven back and an ice wall that is warded against them – the Wall – now divides the North from the Land of Always Winter with the Wildlings or Free Folk stuck on the wrong side. It also appears that they take unwanted babies – bastards, known as Snows in the North – as sacrifices, offerings for some unknown reason and possibly protection as Craster appeared to be doing.
As for their role in the overall plot, I have written about this extensively in a different post, but, to summarize: The White Walkers are not the inveterate enemy of humanity that many believe and we might have been led to believe. First and foremost, Martin’s storytelling does not admit of such a plot line. Second, there is enough evidence, including their representing an element of nature, to suggest they are more human and in balance than an antagonist. Take for example the Starks, Val and Osha, and the Winterfell godswood pool.
In case you missed it, the White Walkers can interbreed with humans. This makes them the same species. One of Nan’s stories admits as much – “the half-human monsters” that they sired with women. Then there are the Wildlings who “like the cold” – Val for one, and Osha for another, who takes it one step further by bathing in the always cold pool in the Winterfell godswood. Because Winterfell is literally where “winter fell” – Azor Ahai/the Last Hero slew the ice dragon with Lightbringer, the ice dragon has left behind its remains in the form of the godswood’s pool as in Martin’s short story, “The Ice Dragon”. When we combine this with Bran’s visions, we get a link between the White Walkers – the children of the ice dragon; the Starks – the Kings of Winter, buried in an always cold crypt despite the rest of Winterfell being warmed by the hot springs with ironwood doors and iron swords over their sarcophagi to keep their spirits contained (The White Walkers do not like iron.) unlike the previous kings of the North who were buried in mounds; and the godswood pool. The blue rose of Winterfell, whom Bael the Bard stole and impregnated, bathes in the pool to give her offspring special powers to avenge her. Benjen falls into the pool dueling with Lyanna with sticks. Osha bathes in the pool to no ill effects signifying her special nature.
Last, but not least, this is “A Song of Ice and Fire” and Jon is a snow born of the Starks, the former kings of winter with ice dragon blood, and the Targaryens, the family of fire and blood, masters of fire dragons. As Rhaegar said in Daenerys’ vision in the House of the Undying: “He already has a song – a song of ice and fire.”
Note: Almost all of the foregoing is derived from my readings of Reddit, Preston Jacobs, and other blogs. I take responsibility for the rest.