The Four Elements of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”

As part of the ancient traditions of Greece, Egypt, Persia, India, and China’s way of understanding the world, some theorized that existence was composed of four, maybe five, basic elements. The tradition that had the greatest impact on the Middle Ages (the inspiration for the setting of “A Song of Ice and Fire”) was that of the Greeks with their four elements of air, water, earth, and fire. According to the medical theorist, Galen, popular during the Middle Ages, this translated into four humors: yellow, green, black, and red, which needed to be in balance for the person to be healthy. If unbalanced, the physician needed to administer the correct treatment to drain off one or more of the humors to restore the balance. These four elements and humors also translated into the four seasons: spring (brown), summer (yellow), autumn (red), and winter (black).


Not surprisingly, these four elements appear in a number of places in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. First, there is the Reeds’ oath before Brandon, pledging fealty by bronze and iron (the First Men and the Andals), water and earth, and ice and fire. Please note that the cold wind of winter causes ice and, thus, air is ice in Martin’s formulation. It also shows up in the song, “The Seasons of My Love”, with summer having sunlight (blonde) hair, autumn having sunset (red), and winter having moonglow hair (silver?) that Tysha sung for Tyrion.


As a result, we should expect to have various peoples and creatures associated with each of the four elements in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. If we look closely at The World Book, we do. The Children of the Forest call themselves the Singers of the Earth. They are the earth creatures. The Others or White Walkers with the ice dragons either real or figurative are the creatures of ice/wind/air. Then, there are the merlings and the sea serpents like Naga’s bones on the Iron Islands. They are the creatures of water. Last, and certainly not least, the regular dragons are fire. Given the associations of fire and heat with summer, and cool and wind with winter, there are only two seasons left. Thankfully, one of them is easy enough to identify. The Children with their weirwood trees that have red leaves and red sap are the red of autumn. That leaves the merlings and sea serpents as the rain of spring. After all, spring rains bring the bountiful harvests of summer.


The merlings and their sea serpents also provide a reason for the oily stone fortresses that appear throughout Westeros and Essos. They are not just homages to H. P. Lovecraft. They are the remains of the earth and fire and wind’s contention with the water element. The oily stone is a combination of earth (the stone), fire (obsidian, fire made rock), and wind/ice providing the mortar. While we can be weirded out by Patchface and annoyed by his “oh, oh, oh” routine, there is little doubt that he has been in contact with, bears the scars of, and was tended to by the merlings. The Iron Born can also trace their lineage to the merlings just as some of the First Men can trace their lineage to the Children, the Valyrians to the people of fire, and the Others are very much the children of the ice dragon and ice/wind/air.


The four elements theory also explains the unbalanced seasons on planetos/terros. The first notable unbalancing of the seasons appears to have been with the Long Night, according to The World Book a world-wide event. Coming a short time before the Long Night was the First Men’s war with the Children. In the course of that war, the First Men cut down the heartwood trees in order to prevent the Children from spying on them using the faces, but also to clear the land for their farms and habitations. We learn from Bran’s stay in Bloodraven’s cave, that these heartwood trees are not simply objects of worship, but repositories of the lives of the Children when they die. This had led some commentators to call the interconnected collectivity the weirwood net. Thus, the First Men’s destruction of the heartwood trees was not just an ecosystem problem, but a catastrophic destruction of the collective mind of the Children. Just like in many a George R. R. Martin tale from his 1000 Worlds series, this collectivity suffered tremendously, and never recovered. If we understand that this compromised one of the four elements (autumn, earth, red), the world is permanently unbalanced with the three remaining elements unstably interacting with one another. It is a commonplace observation that triads are unstable in any venue.


This schema has wide-ranging implications for the shape of our story to come as well. The restoration of balance to the world cannot come from fire destroying ice. That would simply lead to a tyranny of fire, an eternal summer that would dry out the planet destroying all life. We have already seen the ruinous effect of too long a summer in the Dunk & Egg story, “The Sworn Sword”. Only a replanting of the weirwoods, a reforestation, will restore the balance. It also means that Jon Snow is not just a combination of Stark ice and Targaryen fire. He has skin-changing abilities from his mother, who attained that ability through her ancestors mating with the Children of the Forest. It also explains why Brandon the Builder and Garth Greenhand from the Age of Heroes might have been extraordinarily long-lived. Like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, they inherited longer lives from the extraordinarily long-lived Children from whom they are partially descended. Jon Snow, thus, is a combination of earth, wind, and fire. While we should not expect him to break out into song, it is “A Song of Ice and Fire” after all.


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