Cersei Lannister, Regal Commissions, and the Alchemists in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire
In both A Song of Fire and Ice series and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s alchemists are depicted as maesters in an ancient guild, in which the alchemical adepts are known as “wisdoms”, and their apprentices help them in their art. The alchemists are known for their skill in making “wildfire”, which is an uncontrollable and highly flammable substance aided by dragon’s fire that King Aerys Targaryen II used to burn down much of King’s Landing. Cersei Lannister, acting as queen regent, commissions the alchemists to produce wildfire in the novels and television series, which reflects alchemical commissions from English kings in the fifteenth century. Yet Martin’s presentation of Cersei commissioning the alchemists is subversive; rather than kings commissioning the alchemists as English history has shown, it is a strong, powerful queen regent at the helm. This chapter argues that in the character of Cersei Lannister, Martin successfully presents a queen figure who has the power to exploit and direct the secrets of alchemy. Moreover, Cersei’s commissioning of the alchemists draws from fifteenth-century English commissions to produce the alchemical elixir vitae, particularly under Henry V and Henry VI. While the alchemists in the English courts pursued alchemy for medicinal and financial purposes, particularly to heal the king and generate revenue for his kingdom, Cersei’s use of alchemy and its parallels in English history reveal the misuse of technology and regal interest in the occult for private vendettas. This chapter reassesses the connection between alchemical commissions, intention, and royalty in Martin’s series and fifteenth-century England. While Martin blends his depiction of the Westeros alchemists with Byzantine alchemy and late medieval Western alchemy, he also draws from fifteenth-century alchemical commissions from kings. Moreover, the chapter examines Martin’s subversive role of the queen regent’s agency in commissioning alchemists in the actions of Cersei Lannister. It is Cersei who “makes the call” rather than the king. Martin’s portrayal balances the masculine and feminine qualities of the queen regent, while suggesting potential danger at the instability and volatility of both wildfire and Cersei herself.
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