Winter has come. The seventh season of Game of Thrones is off and running and with only seven episodes, HBO doesn’t have time to hold our hands and explain things like where characters are, the history of new locations, or how the actions of one character affect the powder keg that is Westeros’ political climate. Luckily, between all of George R.R. Martin’s novels, and The World of Ice and Fire historical tome, there’s plenty of ways to fill in the blanks and we’re here to help. Obviously spoilers will abound, so proceed at your own peril.
In the premiere episode of season seven, “Dragonstone,” the audience spent a lot of time with Samwell Tarly as he literally slopped his way through the Citadel in Oldtown. Sam’s goal is to become the new maester of The Wall, a prestigious assignment that takes decades of learning. There’s a reason most maesters serving the noble houses are old. But Samwell doesn’t have time for this: he has to learn how to stop the White Walkers now before they destroy everything. But why does Oldtown house the Citadel and how did this town in the middle of Highgarden territory come to be the most educated place in all of Westeros?
Before I begin explaining why Oldtown is the most important city in all of Westeros, a word about the ancient history of Game of Thrones. Most of it is passed down through partial runic stones or oral histories, so these aren’t not exactly ironclad sources. Westerosi scholars talk a lot about the “Dawn Age” and the “Age of Heroes,” time periods thousands of years ago when most of the spectacular feats of their people were accomplished and the most notable landmarks created (such as The Wall and Storm’s End). The modern population overlays ideals such as knightly honor atop these stories — much like our own Arthurian legends — despite the fact things like chivalry and a code of honor would not have been the same. With that in mind, on to the legend of Oldtown!
Oldtown predates humans in Westeros by an unknown amount of time. Situated on Battle Isle*, the fortress that would eventually become the skyline-dominating Hightower began life as a squat building of fused oily black stone. The fortress has no seams, no visible signs of construction such as chisel marks, and no windows. Inside is nothing but a series of labyrinthian tunnels allegedly designed to confound intruders. The Battle Isle fortress was there when Oldtown was nothing but a port village, occupied by the Elder Races and a few hardy human traders coming from across the Narrow Sea. No one knows who built it or for what purpose. The oily black stone is seen in a few other ancient constructions in Westeros, including the Seastone Chair used by House Greyjoy and the ruin walls of Moat Cailin. It is possible the oily black stone is variation on dragonglass, but no one has touched a White Walker with it yet.
*No one in Westeros knows why it is called Battle Isle, nor what battle took place there or between whom.
But people hate uncertainty, so it is widely accepted that the base of Hightower was built by a group of Valyrians for reasons unknown. On its face, this is a sound conclusion as the Valyrians were known to use dragon fire to melt stone and then reform it into seamless walls for construction. However, this theory doesn’t gel once you look closely, since the construction is far too plain to be of Valyrian origin and the Lords of Valyria were never known for their intricate mazes. Therefore, it makes sense that whomever (or whatever) built the fortress upon which Oldtown would spring up around taught the Valyrians this construction technique, making the builders — perhaps the mysterious race known as the Mazemakers — older than history itself.
Sometime during the “Age of Heroes,” Bran the Builder was allegedly commissioned by King Uthor to build Hightower atop the fortress. He did so, creating a tower that extends hundreds of feet into the air. Combined with the height of the Battle Isle, Hightower is the highest structure in Westeros, taller even than The Wall. But while the Lords of Hightower still sit inside those castle walls, none know why their great city sprouted up.
As for the Citadel itself, its origins are also shrouded in mystery. The commonly accepted story is that Prince Peremore the Twisted could not leave his bedchamber so he sent all over for scholars and sorcerers to tell him about the outside world. When he died, Peremore’s brother Urrigan declared space in Oldtown set aside for “Peremore’s Pets” to collect knowledge in the late prince’s honor. However, both Peremore and Urrigan were the sons of King Uthor (the same that demanded Hightower be built) and Maris the Maid. Maris was the daughter of Garth Greenhand, who is a mythical figure in Westerosi history from the “Dawn Age” who may or may not have been a god. Therefore, any story about the founding of the Citadel should be taken with a grain of salt, as it is an institution that is literally thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of years old. The accumulated knowledge inside the Citadel is unlike anything else in the known world, with fanciful artifacts such as the glass candles housed within its depths.
However, don’t mistake the repository of knowledge in the Citadel for approval of all things magic. As said by Archmaester Marwyn in A Feast for Crows, “Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around? Gallant dragonslayers armed with swords? The world the Citadel is building has no place in it for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons. Ask yourself why Aemon Targaryen was allowed to waste his life upon the Wall, when by rights he should have been raised to archmaester. His blood was why.” The Citadel is actively seeking to end the Age of Magic, ushering in an Age of Science. This goal is reflected on Game of Thrones by the steampunk design of the Citadel. And they have influence over every House on the continent; no nobleman is worth paying attention to unless he is considered worthy of having a maester in his employ. Through this intricate network, Oldtown maintains a stranglehold grip on communications in Westeros. And knowledge is clearly power.
The other pillar of Oldtown’s power comes from the Faith of the Seven. When Aegon the Conquerer was crowned in the Starry Sept of Oldtown, the building had already stood for somewhere between two and six thousand years. When the ancient Hightower kings intermarried with the invading Andals, they took on the Seven as their new gods. To give you an idea of how murky this history is, it isn’t until the Andals arrived in Westeros that writing was even introduced to the populace.
So, for thousands of years Oldtown has been the seat of power for two of the most important institutions in Westeros: the maesters and the septons. Both science and religion call the port city home. Oldtown is also home to the oldest known piece of architecture on the continent, the fused black fortress that is the base of Hightower. All three of which are older than human history can accurately recall. If Gareth Greenhands was truly a god (or demigod or a member of the mysterious “forgotten” race), what did the Elder Races know about Oldtown that humanity doesn’t? What great battle was fought on Battle Isle that was so important that its name survived the annals of history? Who built the fused stone fortress and for what purpose? Why accumulate the world’s knowledge here? Whatever the answers, the Citadel and Oldtown clearly still have a role to play in the war to come.
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