The worlds of fantasy fiction are full of important objects, and they deserve a little more scrutiny.
From the maps printed at the front of epic fantasy novels and used by characters to famous swords and the eponymous Rings of J.R.R. Tolkein’s work, the objects of fantasy worlds are as much drivers of the story as any of the characters.
The power of objects is true even in the Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones), works that have been lauded for a focus on the strength and detail of the human characters and their social arrangements. Think of Lightbringer, a sword thought to be made of living fire. Its influence is such that the rightful bearer is a human capable of defeating a god. Or of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon eggs (background pic), which forebode the return of not only dragons themselves but seemingly many other kinds of magic to the world.
The philosopher Roland Barthes, in The World as Object, writes that humans see objects as subjugated to our worldview and our needs and uses for them:
each object is accompanied by its adjectives, substance is buried under its myriad qualities, man never confronts the object, which remains dutifully subjugated to him by precisely what it is assigned to provide.
There is another strand of research that views objects as inherently active in their own right. My PhD supervisor Ted Mitew says objects with the ability to leave traces that are understandable by other objects and humans should be considered sociable, a description that:
attempts to capture the… identity-shift occurring when heretofore obscure and mute objects ranging from toasters to thermostats acquire the agencies to spill semantically distinct traces onto the material world, and detour their human interlocutors into an object-mediated entanglement
This is an interpretation that, quite aside from the technology-enabled things described in Ted’s research, could readily be applied to the objects of Westeros and the lands beyond.
Objects in fantasy worlds often have some sort of magical power. The Rings of Tolkien’s epics directly influence wearer’s behaviour. Aside from the One Ring designated for the Dark Lord Sauron himself, there were:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die
Each of these were designed to bind their wearers to Sauron’s will through his particular brand of dark magic. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, names themselves serve as objects and are also subject to a kind of powerful magic by which people can be controlled. For more traditional fantasy magic systems (such as in Harry Potter), the power is often wielded by people trained in its art and directed through staffs or wands or similar objects.
Despite a preponderance of magic in fantasy worlds, objects need not be inherently magical to have effect over the story and characters, to leave traces and to have agency. George R.R. Martin’s world of ASOIAF/GOT has many influential objects that are either non-magical or doubtfully magical.
At this point in the series, it is hard to rule any in or out categorically, but it is possible that Lightbringer, at least, is one of these. To argue that point, I will turn to a quote from ASOIAF by our favourite spider, Varys:
Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.
The Red Priestess Melisandre, and probably Stannis Baratheon, think there is power in Lightbringer, so there is, and the object exerts its influence throughout Stannis’ narrative so far.
In our world, the philosopher Jacques Lacan foreshadowed Varys’ sentiment, though not as pithily:
What constitutes pretense is that, in the end, you don’t know whether it’s pretense or not.
If you were rushing into battle with some thought about the power of a flaming sword (and therefore the person wielding it), might not that give you some greater chance of dying by that very sword?
Another object (or group of objects) that seem to have some significant power in the story so far are dragonglass or obsidian. Samwell Tarly slays an Other with a dagger made of dragonglass, proving its power and earning himself the nickname ‘Slayer’. Here we have a classic case of an object whose power comes about when wielded by a human character. Or does it? Was it just dumb luck that Jon Snow stumbled upon the cache of dragonglass weapons that Sam later used to kill the Other? How, exactly, does a fighter of Sam’s lack of skill and slow feet defeat a being that earlier had killed three rangers of the Night’s Watch? There may be more to dragonglass than its bearer’s skill.
This focus on objects has a history of study, and even a fancy name. Academics call it ‘object-oriented ontology’. What that means, really simply, is to think about the world as a world of objects, and to consider what those objects might bring to the world and how they might influence it. In this video, Ian Bogost says it is:
to see the world of things as things in a world, rather than our world with things in it
I think this approach can be applied to the world of fantasy to help show some of the dynamics at play in these stories, and to help us think of our own world as one in which not only humans have influence and value.
Aside from Lightbringer, there are many powerful swords in Westeros and, indeed, in Westerosi history. Jon Snow’s Longclaw, Ned Stark’s Ice, Arya Stark’s Needle and the Dayne’s Dawn all have reputations that precede them, and power that does not only reside in their wearers. We need not forget the twin swords forged from Ice, Brienne of Tarth’s Oathkeeper and King Joffrey’s Widow’s Wail, a polar opposite pair who both reflect the character of those who own them.
The Wall itself, that monument of ice, stone and magic, is an object that looms large (aha!) in GRRM’s story. The wall weeps and is said to defend itself by breaking off sheets of ice to kill climbers. Then there’s the Horn of Joramun, another supremely powerful object which can bring down The Wall. Other horns are supposedly able to control dragons, but also burn the lungs of any blower.
Somehow, we’ve gotten this far into a discussion of the objects of Westeros without even mentioning one of the most prominent and powerful, the one that itself decides who is fit to rule over these rabbled kingdoms — the Iron Throne. Of the Throne, Viserys Targaryen says:
The breath of the greatest dragon forged the Iron Throne…the swords of the vanquished, a thousand of them, melted together like so many candles…
But that’s not the only thing about it. A huge, twisted and ugly conglomeration, the Iron Throne is more than a little uncomfortable for those sit on it. The Mad King Aerys especially frequently cut himself on swords protruding from the ironwork, leading those around him to doubt his worthiness as king.
The Iron Throne is an active, overbearing, hulking presence not only in the throne room at King’s Landing but right across the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. (It certainly isn’t the quite tame thing shown in HBO’s Game of Thrones, but might be a bit more like this version by Mark Simonetti, endorsed by GRRM himself):
Though the objects of Westeros and, indeed, the objects of fantasy more generally, are repositories of human dreams and fears, they seem to hold their own sway and power over the stories they inhabit. Though made (mostly) by human hands, they shake off this restriction to serve their own purposes, to leave their own traces and influence their own order. By orienting ourselves to thinking about these objects, we can find out at least a little more about all kinds of worlds, including our own.