The Past Is Dark And Full Of Errors: An Examination Of Maester Historiography And Citadel Culture

The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights.[1] Samwell Tarly

In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the characters and their world exist within the shadow of the past. The history of Westeros informs the identities and actions of the characters. Unreliable narration of the past is a key theme within Martin’s epic. It is no wonder, then, that he portrays the complexities of writing history. Westerosi historians face the same problems real life historians face. They constantly struggle with subjectivity and constructing historical accounts in the absence of completely reliable sources. I would like to examine how academic history is produced within Westeros, seeing as it is a facet of historical knowledge within Martin’s world.

Element 001

The maesters of the Citadel are Westeros’ equivalent of our academics. However, these scholars are surrounded in mystery. Many fans speculate about their true aims, and what part they will play in the story. As one fan theorist puts it, “Dark and mysterious things are brewing [at the Citadel], things whose import will have consequences….”[2] Many speculate that the maesters had an active hand in overthrowing the Targaryens, because of the dynasty’s association with dragons, and magic.[3] However, aside from speculation, what can be said with the information we have? Having the authoritative word on history, how is it that maesters construct their accounts? Ultimately, maester historians must be understood as an elitist group of scholars who are quite capable of critically analyzing an array of sources, but are limited due to their biased elitism.

Maesters study many disciplines at the university-like Citadel.[4] There, students (called acolytes) master disciplines, graduating to become maesters. They wear chains, representing their mastered knowledge, around their necks. These chains represent their duty to their order, as they may never remove it, not even when sleeping.[5] The symbolism of the chain also points to maesters’ role in Westerosi society. Jon Snow explains, “a maester’s collar is made of chain to remind him that he is sworn to serve [the realm]”[6] They do so by applying their knowledge to solve the everyday issues of lords and ladies. Once graduated, they are appointed to a holding, where they are sworn until death to aid whoever resides in it. However, for our purposes, histories mainly are not written within lords’ holdings. Rather, this takes place within the Citadel itself. The Citadel is situated within Oldtown, one of the key cities of the Reach.[7] The senior and most learned maesters, called archmaesters, make up the Conclave, the ruling body of the Citadel.[8] The maesters here are at the frontiers of learning, constantly creating knowledge in their own bubble. This is where most histories are written.

Unfortunately for maester historians, Martin’s world is medieval, and he creates a slow, unreliable pace for the travel of information. Current events take time to be confirmed. Concerning the hatching of Daenerys’ dragon eggs, an acolyte at the Citadel argues that since “’Every man off every ship that’s sailed within a hundred leagues of Qarth is speaking of these dragons,” that “The Mad King’s daughter is alive, and she’s hatched herself three dragons.’”[9] It takes many accounts to confirm an event that happened earlier in the series. Rumours too often are treated as fact, but enough people reporting an event gives the event credibility. For historical sources, there is an additional problem: decay. Many sources are lost due to rot, vermin, and being kept in poor conditions.[10] This being said, maester historians have access to an uncountable number of sources at the Citadel, writing historical accounts in spite of the difficulties relating to information in Westeros.Element 002

Being at the nexus of knowledge, maesters at the Citadel can access many sources. According to Jon Snow, “There are so many books at the Citadel that no man can hope to read them all.”[11] A Citadel historian would have many primary and secondary sources at his disposal. This display of sources is present in the companion book A World Of Ice And Fire: The Untold History Of Westeros And The Game Of Thrones. A fictional synthesis of in-universe primary and secondary sources, it is the work of a maester named Yandel, who writes for the benefit of King Tommen (and other “lettered” men) to “learn of things both good and wicked” within Westeros’ history.[12] Yandel uses an impressive array of sources. Not only does he include secondary sources (such as Gyldayn’s notable account of The Dance of The Dragons), but also uses archaeological records, oral history, the natural sciences, and annals.[13] For example, when discussing the origins of Oldtown, Yandel has few records, and so looks to accounts of maesters who lived with the children of the forest, runic records, and oral history within songs.[14] Combining many types of sources points to how sophisticated maester historians are. They are aware of source limitations, and thus use the advantages of certain sources to complement others. Maesters recognize the value of different sources, benefitting the accuracy of their historical accounts.

Even aside from sources residing within the Citadel, there are plenty of sources across Westeros. Maesters’ annals are a common historical source. For example, Yandel mentions Annals of the Rivers, composed at an ancient septry.[15] Samwell reads the Annals of the Black Centaur, which exhaustively details the life of a past lord commander.[16] Indeed, sources of knowledge are constantly crafted throughout Westeros, considering that maesters reside in holdings all across the continent. Their accounts give much insight into those residing in holdings. We also see a huge cache of sources within the Night’s Watch. In A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow commands Samwell to dig through the archives to find anything concerning the Others. Samwell is overwhelmed by how vast the archives are: “There are hundreds I have not looked at yet.’”[17] Yandel relies on these accounts himself. He uses a letter of Maester Aemon sent to the Citadel, which tells of credible sources within Castle Black’s archives that Rangers regularly fought with giants and traded with the children of the forest.[18] Even though sources decay, or are lost, maester historians still manage to find sources not just in the Citadel, but also across Westeros.

In the television adaptation, Samwell Tarly is encouraged by Stannis Baratheon to continue his research in the vast archives of Castle Black.

The issues with source availability occur the further east one looks. A considerable amount of information is given by Yandel concerning the Free Cities, but the amount fades gradually until Asshai, where very little is known.[19] The only reliable account comes from Archmaester Marwyn.[20] This being said, Westerosi sources are still comparatively many. Wielding such a wide range of sources, maester historians are more than capable of constructing nuanced historical accounts in a medieval world where reliable information can be hard to come by. This points to a sophisticated level of historical analysis. Westerosi historians pursue a wide array of sources in order to understand the complexities of their past. Indeed, as can be seen in these charts (chart pre-conquest & chart post-conquest), many maesters contribute their voice to all of Westeros’ history. Certainly less is known before Aegon’s Conquest. However, that does not stop maesters from speculating, poring over all of the evidence they have, in order to grasp at the truth. The level to which maester historians respond to each other also points to their sophistication. Maesters produce a significant number of accounts for bodies of scholarship to form. Debate over the proper analysis of sources is common. However, to what degree is their analysis of these sources sound?

The Others: Supernatural Beings?

Or Errant First Men?

Unfortunately, because we don’t have access to many secondary sources from Westeros, we have to rely on what Martin has published. Gyldayn’s and Yandel’s accounts will have to do. What can be said with certainty is that maester historians have a firm methodology of critical analysis when it comes to sources. They discard anything fantastical that cannot be verified by correlating sources or logic. When discussing the Dawn Age, which has very few sources, Yandel doubts the existence of the Others during the Long Night. He states that they are mentioned in sources “harder to credit.”[21] Rather, he posits that they were a tribe of the First Men pushed south by the harsh winter.[22] Yandel sticks with what is known, being comfortable to admit his ignorance. The Others have not been seen for thousands of years, lending credence to the belief that they simply never existed. A more pragmatic explanation, that an enemy tribe became conflated with supernatural beings, is found when confronted with source difficulties. This critical eye signifies the degree of sophistication the Citadel exhibits with historical accounts. First and foremost, Westerosi historians focus on sources, and their credibility in conveying the actuality of events. It does not matter that we, as readers, have proof that the Others exist. Considering what maesters know, their analysis is sound.

This skepticism is why maester historians tend to dismiss oral sources. Gyldayn, in his history of the Dance of Dragons, critically examines songs depicting the war. He asserts that describing it as a “dance….originated with some singer,” as it is a “flowery name” for such a brutal war[23] The drama associated with calling it a “dance” masks the true brutality, shifting the narrative.[24] Knowledge from popular sources, such as songs about the war, constructed by and for the masses, does not hold up to scrutiny for the maesters. By keeping a firm eye on the merits of primary sources, maester historians construct narratives that attempt to convey the truth of a historical event. Maester historians employ their wide range of sources effectively by using critical analysis. This is due to Citadel culture, which prizes knowledge.

Maester value knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Maester Luwin explains to Bran that some call his order “the knights of the mind, and “There is no limit to what you might learn…at the Citadel in Oldtown they can teach you a thousand things….”[25] Accordingly, maesters prize skepticism as the ideal way to form knowledge. Verifiable knowledge is the only kind for them. For example, Yandel dismisses the argument of Maester Theron, writing on the origins of a mysterious stone, because “his thesis has no factual basis and may safely be dismissed.”[26] Furthermore, their training in skeptical methodology changes the way they view the world. For example, Maester Cressen dismisses thoughts of superstition when a red comet crosses the sky:

Such folly….He was a maester, trained and chained in the great Citadel of Oldtown. What had he come to, when superstition filled his head…?”

[27] These maesters, taught within the culture at the Citadel, embody skepticism not only in their work, but also in their individual lives. Skepticism of unverifiable knowledge is central to the identity of the maesters. Hard facts are their source of knowledge.

This methodology so well entrenched within Citadel culture is due to how long the Citadel has existed. Although having obscured origins, the consensus among maesters is that the Citadel has existed since the Age of Heroes.[28] Having so long to form a methodology, it is no wonder that they have developed an ethos that works so well for their creation of knowledge. Being the place of learning in Westeros, the Citadel has a deeply entrenched culture of skepticism of anything outside their knowledge.

However, there are some maesters who fall outside of Citadel culture by pursuing the higher mysteries. Archmaester Marwyn, the Citadel’s expert in magic, is an outlier. This is due to magic not being overtly present in Westeros. According to Maester Luwin, “Perhaps magic was once a mighty force in the world, but no longer. What little remains is no more than the wisp of smoke that lingers in the air after a great fire has burned out, and even that is fading….”[29] With no observable phenomena, magic does not pass the scrutiny of the skeptical maesters, even though it is nominally considered a discipline. Maesters place such importance on factual information that they deride others who pursue the mysteries of magic. Accordingly, Marwyn is ostracized. When asked by an acolyte named Pate his thoughts on Marwyn, another Archmaester named Ryam stated, “Leave spells and prayers to priests and septons and bend your wits to learning truths a man can trust in.”[30] Indeed, as Marwyn himself puts it,

“The world the Citadel is building has no place it in for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons….”

[31] Marwyn’s transgression of Citadel culture reveals an elitism that is inherit within Citadel culture.

Sphinxes stand at the entrance to Oldtown. Another symbol of the Citadel’s elitist identity as keepers of knowledge. Sphinxes in mythology were ferocious should a traveller incorrectly answer their riddle.

Being apart of the centre of knowledge in Westeros, maesters see themselves as the keepers of knowledge for the realm. They have the training, and a honed methodology that allows them to gain reliable knowledge, which is applicable in service to the realm. They have carved for themselves an essential niche within Westerosi society. Accordingly, the Citadel wants to preserve itself as an elite institution. The Citadel, although under the protection of Lord Hightower within the Reach, exerts agency at times. They are funded by the Hightowers, but lords also pay for their services, so they do have some control over finances.[32] They also handle issues internally. When Tyrion Lannister briefly dismisses Grand Maester Pycelle, the Citadel’s Conclave convened to elect a replacement “behind closed doors” (although Tywin Lannister intervenes to keep out a maester loyal to the Tyrells).[33] Although political interests from outside the Citadel ultimately decide the result, the fact that the Citadel convened in the first place points to their elite identity. What is important here is that they have the illusion of choice. With magic back in the world, their current foundations as the only centre for learning might crumble, which is why they cling to their identity of elitism. This is not wholly a bad thing for their historiography. Their skepticism towards unreliable knowledge allows them to write history based on verifiable knowledge. However, this elite identity does not allow for the introspection needed for assessing their biases, thus limiting the scope of their analysis.

The Citadel’s elitism, although good for assessing sources, does not allow for different historical narratives from the other kingdoms. Their regional affiliation compounds their pre-existing elitism. They are firmly rooted in a bias for the southern kingdoms (with the exception of Dorne), in particular their home, the Reach. As can be expected, Yandel writes glowingly of it:

“Once and always a great realm, the Reach is many things to its inhabitants: the most populous, fertile, and powerful domain in the Seven Kingdoms, its wealth second only to the gold-rich west…the breadbasket of Westeros; a nexus of trade…Truly, the Reach is a land for superlatives.”

[34] Aside from this regional loyalty, Yandel is loyal to the crown. He is writing to Tommen, giving counsel from a historical perspective. More glaringly, he legitimizes the Lannister-Baratheon reign through his account of Robert’s rebellion. He casts King Aerys II as an unforgiveable tyrant who “brutally [slayed]” Lord Rickard Stark and Brandon Stark that was eventually overthrown by the “open-handed and merciful…Robert Baratheon.”[35] Seeing as this is recent history, Yandel is careful to not incite controversy: “Many alive today fought in these battles, and so can speak with greater knowledge of them than I…far be it for me to offend those who yet live by presenting an imperfect summary of events…”[36] He also is careful to not indict Tywin Lannister for the murder of Elia Martell and her children. In his list of potential suspects, Tywin’s command to the Mountain is not mentioned.[36] Yandel, as a southerner from the Citadel, is careful to remain loyal to the crown, and portrays the Reach favourably.

Yandel’s bias becomes even clearer when discussing other kingdoms. He disregards northern and Dornish sources. When talking about the Night’s King, he states “In the Citadel, the archmaesters largely dismiss these tales—though some allow that there may have been a Lord Commander who attempted to carve out a kingdom for himself in the earliest days of the Watch.”[38] Certainly, after centuries of legends as the only source, the maesters validly assume the Night’s King, a supernatural being, did not exist. However, these sources of a long oral tradition only exist in a maester’s mind to be refuted. Yandel distrusts oral sources, in particular those belonging to “unlettered” peoples. When talking about the most ancient Kings-Beyond-the-Wall, he discusses a wildling song. He outright dismisses their validity, because “considering that the wildlings have no letters, their traditions must be looked at with a jaundiced eye.”[39] There is a lack of sophistication for understanding a source as being rooted in a culture or society. Maesters only see sources through one lens, and do not examine them to gain a nuanced understanding of a foreign culture and society.

Throughout the series, it is clear that the different regions have a rich oral tradition of songwriting. Aside from even just songs about historical events, by totally disregarding any oral source, maesters close their eyes to surrounding cultures. Here is The Dornishman’s Wife, a bawdy song that reveals Westerosi gender norms.

In his chapter on the history of Dorne, there is a section titled “Queer Customs Of The South.”[40] Rather than accepting Dornish culture, Yandel makes his culture the norm and defines others against it. The Citadel is not as keen in analyzing the complexities of a culture that they do not belong to. Additionally, there is one way to understand a source in the Citadel’s eyes: whether or not it leads to a factual understanding of the past. Here the elitism of the Citadel, the privileging of factual information above all else, compounds the Citadel’s bias as a southern institution. Despite bringing in acolytes from all across the Seven Kingdoms, there is a dominant culture that informs Citadel historiography. And, despite training acolytes across the class spectrum, Citadel historiography mainly focuses on the political history of the elites. There is no room for dynamic viewpoints, or questioning the norm. Although Citadel historiography is good at what it does at validating verifiable knowledge, it is only able to stagnate by being so wrapped in its elitist identity. As it stands, the Citadel will not be writing anything like our social or cultural histories. There is a not a range of methodologies at the Citadel.

In the final analysis, maester historians are good at using a skeptical methodology that has been honed over many years. Despite living in a medieval world, they are still capable of wielding an impressive amount of sources, analyzing them to arrive at verifiable knowledge of the past. This aspect comes from a culture at the Citadel, which is inherently elitist. Instead of seeing an unreliable source as having a multitude of readings, maesters disregard anything that cannot lead to the most possible accurate picture of elite political history. It seems that it has been this way for a long time. Perhaps this stagnation of culture within the Citadel is representative of Westerosi cultures at large. What becomes apparent to the reader of the series is that Westerosi cultures have been their ways for a long time. In a world where winters can last years, where is there room for cultural and social change? How can these societies not cling to their traditional ways when change can be halted by unpredictable seasons? Ironically, despite being a nexus of not only Westerosi cultures, but the rest of the known world’s cultures, the maesters can be insular through disregarding anything outside of their own biases. The only thing keeping back their historiographical methodology of skepticism of sources is their own elitism. It is a recursive loop: with assurance in their skeptical methodology, the maesters will continue to privilege political narratives of the southern elite over any other voice.

These problems within maester historiography reveal Martin’s attention to detail. Paralleling actual historiography, he gives his fictional historians a methodology and a bias that frames their historical narratives. Interestingly, maesters write history similar to both medieval and modern scholars. On the one hand, they have annals, focus on elite politics, and dedicate their volumes to their monarch in an effort to provide a moral lesson. On the other, they are skeptical, focus on sources, and engage in debates with each other. Like any other good work of fiction, Martin writes characters and institutions that we are able to see reflections of ourselves in. This is what makes A Song Of Ice And Fire such a compelling tale.

Works Cited 

[*] George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, Mass Market Edition (New York: Bantam Books, 2013), 109.

[2] If It’s Chains You Want, Come With Me… ~ Tower of the Hand,” accessed May 21, 2015, http://towerofthehand.com/blog/2010/08/24_if_its_chains_you_want_/index.html. The author gives a convincing case for the maesters playing a part in Westeros transitioning from a world of magic to one of science.

[3] The Maesters and the Citadel Conspiracy- Game of Thrones,” Fantheory.net, accessed June 15, 2015, http://fantheory.net/the-maesters-and-the-citadel-conspiracy-game-of-thrones/ ; “(Spoilers All) The Citadel Is up to Something and Nobody Cares • /r/asoiaf,” Reddit, accessed June 15, 2015, http://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/302b7s/spoilers_all_the_citadel_is_up_to_something_and/.

[4] George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones, Mass Market Edition (New York: Bantam Books, 2002). 580.

[5] Maesters,” A Wiki of Ice and Fire – A Song of Ice and Fire & Game of Thrones, accessed May 21, 2015, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Maesters.

[6] Martin, A Game of Thrones, 450.

[7] “Interactive Game of Thrones Map with Spoilers Control,” accessed June 12, 2015, http://quartermaester.info/#@Oldtown.

[8] “Maesters,” A Wiki of Ice and Fire – A Song of Ice and Fire & Game of Thrones, accessed May 21, 2015, http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Maesters.

[9] George R. R. Martin, A Feast For Crows. Mass Market Edition (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 11.

[10] Martin, A Feast For Crows, 108-9. These problems for historical sources aside, interestingly Westerosi historians, while using Westerosi sources do not have language barriers. Samwell is capable of readying ancient sources without trouble. I’d imagine this would be due to the ubiquity of the Common Tongue within Planetos. Interestingly enough, it appears that it has not changed much from ancient times. The alternative would be the ubiquity of translated sources, meaning exhaustive efforts from the Citadel. For a discussion of language within A Song Of Ice And Fire, see mill2530, “Language of Ice and Fire: The Languages of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire,” Tower of the Hawk, accessed June 13, 2015, https://hawkstower.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/languageoficeandfire/.

[11] Martin, A Dance With Dragons, 111.

[12] George R. R. Martin, Elio M. García, and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam, 2014), ix.

[13] For Gyldayn’s account of The Dance of The Dragons, see George R. R. Martin, “The Princess And The Queen, Or, The Blacks And The Greens,” in Dangerous Women, ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (New York: Tor Books, 2013), 271-402 and George R. R. Martin, “The Rogue Prince, or, a King’s Brother,” in Rogues ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (New York: Bantam Spectra, 2014). Yandel employs, to name a few examples, this wide range of sources alongside documentary evidence: Martin, Garcia, Antonssson, A World, 5, 7, 10, 140.

[14] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 213.

[15] Martin. Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 152.

[16] Martin, Feast for Crows, 102.

[17] Martin, A Dance With Dragons, 109-110.

[18] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 5.

[19] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 253

[20] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 308.

[21] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 11.

[22] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 12.

[23] Martin, Princess and the Queen, 321.

[24] It should be noted that historical sources also can act as a form of propaganda in Martin’s books, shifting the narrative focus of a historical event for a specific purpose. Maester history exhibits this, but songs specifically also can act as propaganda. The most notable example being The Rains Of Castamere, Tywin Lannister’s warning to those who would oppose him. It seems that the medium of song is the best form of historical memory in Planetos. A further examination of historical memory through song in the series is warranted.

[25] Martin, A Game of Thrones, 580.

[26] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 214.

[27] George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings, Mass Market Edition (New York: Bantam Books, 2008). 2.

[28] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 216.

[29] Martin, A Clash of Kings, 441.

[30] Martin, A Feast For Crows, 12.

[31] Martin, A Feast For Crows, 975.

[32] “The Citadel: So Spake Martin – ConJose (San Jose, CA; August 29-September 2),” accessed May 21, 2015, http://www.westeros.org/Citadel/SSM/Entry/ConJose_San_Jose_CA_August_29_September_22.

[33] Martin, A Clash of Kings, 162.

[34] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 207.

[35] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 127, 129.

[36] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 128.

[36] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 129.

[37] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 145.

[38] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 7.

[39] Martin, Garcia, Antonsson, A World, 241.

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