Mirror Mirror – Brass Alchemism

(top illustration: Aegon and Quicksilver dying during the Battle Beneath the Gods Eye, by Michael Komarck, in tWoIaF)

The Brass Platter

The mirror we will discuss is a brass platter that Dany and Jorah pick up from a brass merchant stall on a quay in Qarth to spy on two men following them. It is important that a mirror is used for more than self-inspection, but to survey the environment instead.

As they made their way toward the next quay, Ser Jorah laid a hand against the small of her back. “Your Grace. You are being followed. No, do not turn.” He guided her gently toward a brass-seller’s booth. “This is a noble work, my queen,” he proclaimed loudly, lifting a large platter for her inspection. “See how it shines in the sun?”
The brass was polished to a high sheen. Dany could see her face in it . . . and when Ser Jorah angled it to the right, she could see behind her. “I see a fat brown man and an older man with a staff. Which is it?”
“Both of them,” Ser Jorah said. […] The ripples in the brass stretched the strangers queerly, making one man seem long and gaunt, the other immensely squat and broad. (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Later on, Jorah uses the platter as a type of shield, by banging it on Belwas’s head, when he erronously thinks Belwas and Selmy mean to attack Dany.

[…] Ser Jorah slammed the eunuch over the head with the brass platter […] Ser Jorah had shouldered his way to her side, holding the brass platter awkwardly under his arm. Belwas’s hard head had left it badly bent. (aCoK, Daenerys V)

The Way of Quicksilver to Valyrian Steel

We chose this mirror first, because it links to a particular mention of material that The Fattest Leech already connected to mirrors in 2018 – quicksilver.

The surface of the mirrors seemed to ripple and bulge, like a wave cresting on some quicksilver sea. (Skin Trade)

I make a fist, a familiar gesture, and in my hand a mirror takes shape from the iron of my will and the quicksilver of my desire. (The Glass Flower)

In the chapter that features the brass platter, Quicksilver is one of the ships that Jorah and Dany boarded to negotiate shipping costs.

The two brothers who captained the sister ships Quicksilver and Greyhound seemed sympathetic and invited them into the cabin for a glass of Arbor red. They were so courteous that Dany was hopeful for a time, but in the end the price they asked was far beyond her means, and might have been beyond Xaro’s. […] “They have been following us since we left Quicksilver.” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Quicksilver is another name for the chemical element mercury and has the symbol Hg, from the old name hydrargyrum. The latter translates to silver water: it is liquid at room temperature like water and shiny like silver. Several faulty supernatural beliefs held their sway about mercury in ancient times. In Asia and the Middle East it was regarded as having curative powers, even that of rendering someone immortal. The first emperor of China drank a jade-mercury given to him by Qin alchemists all with the aim to acquire eternal life, only to die of liver failure, mercury poisoning and brain death. The second Tulunid emperor of Egypt (Muslim) floated on an airbed in a mercury filled pool to fall asleep on its vapors. The Mayans and people of Teotihuacan also filled chambers beneath temples and ball courts with pools of mercury. Finally, alchemists regarded mercury the First Matter from which all other metals were formed. In Sanskrit the word for alchemy is Rasavatam, which means “the way of mercury”. Mercury was the Roman god of speed and mobility. It is also referenced in the naming of the mercurial temperament: quick, intelligent, unpredictably changeable in mood. That George implies this meaning of quick* is supported by the fact that the sister ship of Quicksilver is called Greyhound, which is a dog bred for its speed and (ab)used to race for people’s gambling entertainment (apart from being a mode of bus transport).

* In Dutch mercury is called ‘kwik’ which you pronounce exactly as the English word ‘quick’. And fast, flexible physique is referred to as ‘kwiek’ (an elongated pronunciation of the English ‘ui’ vowel).

The mercurial reference seems to sum up Dany’s temperament, especially in aCoK. There she had little patience, wanted to be gifted a fleet and army to retake the Iron Throne ASAP. There is nothing realistic about a young woman expecting such costly things from a city who have no ties or affinity with her, all to conquer a realm half a world away, just because her father was once a king there. And if she had rushed to Westeros as she intended initially, it would have likely cost her own life, for she had no accumen for court intrigue, no military experience and dragons only the size of dogs. In this way, George is “reflecting” Dany’s growth in an alchemistic way. Her growth follows the “way of mercury”.

George uses the same name Quicksilver in the background stories of the series one more time. The dragon of Aegon The Conquerer’s eldest son Aenys I was called Quicksilver. When Aenys died, his son Aegon the Uncrowned got to be the dragonrider of Quicksilver. Both died in the Battle Beneath the Gods Eye against his usurping uncle Maegor the Cruel on Balerion.

In 43 AC, his nephew, Prince Aegon, attempted to win back the throne that by law should have been his, in what came to be known as the great Battle Beneath the Gods Eye. Aegon died in that battle, leaving behind his wife and sister Rhaena, and their two twin daughters; his dragon, Quicksilver, was lost as well. (tWoIaF, The Targaryen Kings: Maegor I)

The Gods Eye is likened several times in smith and metal terms: as a sheet of beaten or hammered copper.

The sun was low in the west by the time they saw the lake, its waters glimmering red and gold, bright as a sheet of beaten copper. (The Mystery Knight)

The setting sun made the tranquil surface of the water shimmer like a sheet of beaten copper. It was the biggest lake she had ever seen, with no hint of a far shore. (aCoK, Arya IV)

Gods Eye was a sheet of sun-hammered blue that filled half the world. (aCoK, Arya V)

So, via Quicksilver’s death “beneath” the “copper sheet”, George links mercury to metal work.

For alchemists, the higher metals were not just the more “pure” (gold), but also those that required higher temperatures to melt and thus were more difficult for smiths to forge. The first alloy smiths could forge was bronze (copper with tin). In aGoT, Bronze is heavily featured amongst the Dothraki as medaillon belts, Drogo’s bronze mask of a face, the bronze horse statues at Vaes Dothrak.

Men and women alike wore painted leather vests over bare chests and horsehair leggings cinched by bronze medallion belts, and the warriors greased their long braids with fat from the rendering pits. […] Most of all, she was afraid of what would happen tonight under the stars, when her brother gave her up to the hulking giant who sat drinking beside her with a face as still and cruel as a bronze mask. (aGoT, Daenerys II)

The Horse Gate of Vaes Dothrak was made of two gigantic bronze stallions, rearing, their hooves meeting a hundred feet above the roadway to form a pointed arch. Dany could not have said why the city needed a gate when it had no walls … and no buildings that she could see. Yet there it stood, immense and beautiful, the great horses framing the distant purple mountain beyond. The bronze stallions threw long shadows across the waving grasses as Khal Drogo led the khalasar under their hooves and down the godsway, his bloodriders beside him. Dany followed on her silver, escorted by Ser Jorah Mormont and her brother Viserys, mounted once more.

Dany laid out the clothing she’d had made to her brother’s measure: a tunic and leggings of crisp white linen, leather sandals that laced up to the knee, a bronze medallion belt, a leather vest painted with fire-breathing dragons. The Dothraki would respect him more if he looked less a beggar, she hoped, and perhaps he would forgive her for shaming him that day in the grass. […] She reached out with her other hand and grabbed the first thing she touched, the belt she’d hoped to give him, a heavy chain of ornate bronze medallions. She swung it with all her strength. (aGoT, Daenerys IV)

Khal Drogo stood over her as she ate, his face as hard as a bronze shield. (aGoT, Daenerys V)

“This day I will go to the grass and hunt, woman wife,” he announced as he shrugged into a painted vest and buckled on a wide belt with heavy medallions of silver, gold, and bronze. (aGoT, Daenerys VI)

Mirri Maz Duur chanted words in a tongue that Dany did not know, and a knife appeared in her hand. Dany never saw where it came from. It looked old; hammered red bronze, leaf-shaped, its blade covered with ancient glyphs. (aGoT, Daenerys VIII)

As she adapts more to her husband’s culture, Dany starts to bronze. Notice how initially, Dany thinks of Drogo’s face as a bronze mask, but later as a bronze shield. She starts to appreciate the hard quality of the bronze as a material. Silver is beautiful, but less useful to be used in war as armor, shield or sword.But when MMD begins her magic to physically save Drogo from sepsis, the bronze is featured with unknown words and writing that Dany does not yet know. She maesters it intuitively when she burns Drogo, Rhaego and MMD to birth her dragons.

The bronze mastering “arc” continues in aCoK. In Vaes Tolorro, where Dany and her khalasar shelter from the Red Waste, children follow a trail of bronze coins. At Qarth she passes under a bronze arch. Both times the bronze is linked to snakes in the same sentence or image. Snakes can be a metaphor for dragons, but in this case it would mean an unfinished dragon, still growing. It is not until the House of the Undying that Dany is ready to move on to the next stage, for to linger in the bronze formation stage of the dragon can only mean the death of dragons.

Children wandered the twisty alleys and found old bronze coins and bits of purple glass and stone flagons with handles carved like snakes.(aCoK, Daenerys I)

All the colors that had been missing from Vaes Tolorro had found their way to Qarth; buildings crowded about her fantastical as a fever dream in shades of rose, violet, and umber. She passed under a bronze arch fashioned in the likeness of two snakes mating, their scales delicate flakes of jade, obsidian, and lapis lazuli. (aCoK, Daenerys II)

Finally a great pair of bronze doors appeared to her left, grander than the rest. They swung open as she neared, and she had to stop and look. Beyond loomed a cavernous stone hall, the largest she had ever seen. The skulls of dead dragons looked down from its walls. Upon a towering barbed throne sat an old man in rich robes, an old man with dark eyes and long silver-grey hair. “Let him be king over charred bones and cooked meat,” he said to a man below him. “Let him be the king of ashes.” Drogon shrieked, his claws digging through silk and skin, but the king on his throne never heard, and Dany moved on.  (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

And by the end of aCoK, she is ready to be master (or maester) of bronze, and acquires herself a bronze capped army, the Unsullied, early on in aSoS.

After bronze comes brass (copper with zinc) in temperature. It is only introduced in the last chapter of aCoK, right after George dropped the quicksilver mention. And yes, it heralds a new growth and a new arc for Dany – that of conquering slaver’s bay, culminating in her reign over Meereen where her city guards, the Brazen beasts, wear brass masks.

Skahaz mo Kandaq had given her the new watch she had asked for, made up in equal numbers of freedmen and shavepate Meereenese. They walked the streets both day and night, in dark hoods and brazen masks. (aDwD, Daenerys II)

The Shavepate was accompanied by two of his Brazen Beasts. One wore a hawk mask, the other the likeness of a jackal. Only their eyes could be seen behind the brass. (aDwD, Daenerys V)

It is also in this arc that Daario appears: he wears brass medallions.

Ser Jorah Mormont returned an hour later, accompanied by three captains of the Stormcrows. They wore black feathers on their polished helms, and claimed to be all equal in honor and authority. Dany studied them as Irri and Jhiqui poured the wine. Prendahl na Ghezn was a thickset Ghiscari with a broad face and dark hair going grey; Sallor the Bald had a twisting scar across his pale Qartheen cheek; and Daario Naharis was flamboyant even for a Tyroshi. His beard was cut into three prongs and dyed blue, the same color as his eyes and the curly hair that fell to his collar. His pointed mustachios were painted gold. His clothes were all shades of yellow; a foam of Myrish lace the color of butter spilled from his collar and cuffs, his doublet was sewn with brass medallions in the shape of dandelions, and ornamental goldwork crawled up his high leather boots to his thighs. Gloves of soft yellow suede were tucked into a belt of gilded rings, and his fingernails were enameled blue. (aSoS, Daenerys IV)

If before Dany bronzed, she becomes brazen, as in bold as brass, in aSoS. And thus it becomes clear that the brass-phase is an intermediary one, a step towards the gold.

The masters of gold are the Lannisters, and Tyrion Lannister joining Dany’s faction heralds the start of the gold phase, while Young Griff – whom many of us expect to end up in opposing war with Dany – has the Golden Company for his loyal army. It is doubtful the alchemist growth ends with gold. On Planetos the most precious metal is not gold, but Valyrian steel. George has Donal Noye, the smith at the Night’s Watch, compare the Baratheon brothers to certain metal qualities as well.

The armorer considered that a moment. “Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he’s copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day.” (aCoK, Jon I)

But if Robert was the true steel, then there ought to be at least one character who is true Valyrian Steel. While in Dany’s arc we have this alchemistic ma(e)stering of metals reminiscint to maesters “forging” their chainlinks, in Jon’s we have a heavy allusion to him being “forged” and “reforged” as a sword over time. Jon does not need to “master” each metal like Dany. Jon has a clear allusion of being the Valyrian Steel being reforged as he lives behind the forge in the armory at Castle Black. He is a “sword in the darkness” since he made his vows to be a brother of the Night’s Watch. And he earned a Valyrian Steel sword towards the end of aGoT.

Meanwhile Young Griff is already gifted the gold rank, but may very well end up as dragonlord-bonecoal to forge a new Valyrian Steel sword, and thus we dare to propose that Aegon will literally end up as a physical Valyrian Steel sword. (Also see further discussion on this idea on “the secret to Valyrian Steel” on Westeros.org)

Shield and Spyglass

Okay, we’ve discussed at length about metal – quicksilver and brass – in Dany’s overall arc. With that out of the way, we will now focus on the mirror function specifically. From the moment Dany notices Belwas and Selmy in the brass platter used as a rearview mirror, the question that dominates the discussion between Jorah and her is whether they mean her harm or not.

For Jorah, [Dany] lowered her voice and spoke in the Common Tongue. “They may not mean me ill. Men have looked at women since time began, perhaps it is no more than that.” […] she studied the reflections. The old man had the look of Westeros about him, and the brown-skinned one must weigh twenty stone. The Usurper offered a lordship to the man who kills me, and these two are far from home. Or could they be creatures of the warlocks, meant to take me unawares? […] Only fools would stare so openly if they meant me harm. All the same, it might be prudent to head back toward Jhogo and Aggo. “The old man does not wear a sword,” she said to Jorah in the Common Tongue as she drew him away.
Ser Jorah said, “A hardwood staff can crack a skull as well as any mace.” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Before long, Dany will learn both are allies. Selmy saves her life from the manticore that was handed to her by one of the Sorrowful Men hired by the warlocks, in revenge of her destroying the Undying.

A Qartheen stepped into her path. “Mother of Dragons, for you.” He knelt and thrust a jewel box into her face. […] Dany caught a glimpse of a malign black face, almost human, and an arched tail dripping venom . . . and then the box flew from her hand in pieces, turning end over end. Sudden pain twisted her fingers. […] Ser Jorah slammed past her, and Dany stumbled to one knee. She heard the hiss again. The old man drove the butt of his staff into the ground, […]
“Your Grace, a thousand pardons.” The old man knelt. “It’s dead. Did I break your hand?” (aCoK, Daenerys V)

Though Selmy is not truthful about his identity at this point, he is a true ally. The same is true for the gruff Belwas. Jorah throws shade at both men in aSoS, planting seeds of doubts, but both men prove their loyalty time and time again. Much later, Strong Belwas ends up unwittingly saving Dany from the poisoned locusts by eating them all himself. Nor does Selmy try to make less of his initial disguise. Even when everybody else believes Dany to be dead after she flew off on Drogon, Selmy keeps believing and is reluctant to go against Dany’s prior wishes. When he does so, it is under the belief that Hizdahr attempted to poison Dany. While I see Selmy ending up dead because he trusts men like Shakaz, I think the chances are nill that either Selmy or Belwas will defect from Dany’s side to another. Meanwhile, the same scene featuring the mirror exposes Dany’s mortal enemies to be the warlocks of the Undying.

Bactericide Properties

It seems all we can conclude about quicksilver, brass and a platter used as a rearview mirror to spy on people has been covered. However, much of the scene preceding the assassination attempt lingers a great deal on the haggling of the brass merchant. It certainly serves comical entertainment for the reader, but it has a symbolical clue too.

“A most excellent brass, great lady,” the merchant exclaimed. “Bright as the sun! And for the Mother of Dragons, only thirty honors.”
The platter was worth no more than three. “Where are my guards?” Dany declared. “This man is trying to rob me!” […]
The brass-seller ignored their whispers. “Thirty? Did I say thirty? Such a fool I am. The price is twenty honors.”
“All the brass in this booth is not worth twenty honors,” Dany told him […]
“Ten, Khaleesi, because you are so lovely. Use it for a looking glass. Only brass this fine could capture such beauty.”
“It might serve to carry nightsoil. If you threw it away, I might pick it up, so long as I did not need to stoop. But pay for it?” Dany shoved the platter back into his hands. “Worms have crawled up your nose and eaten your wits.”
“Eight honors,” he cried. “My wives will beat me and call me fool, but I am a helpless child in your hands. Come, eight, that is less than it is worth.”
What do I need with dull brass when Xaro Xhoan Daxos feeds me off plates of gold?” […]
“Four! I know you want it!” He danced in front of them, scampering backward as he thrust the platter at their faces. […] “Two honors! Two! Two!” The merchant was panting heavily from the effort of running backward.
Pay him before he kills himself,” Dany told Ser Jorah, wondering what she was going to do with a huge brass platter. (aCoK, Daenerys V)

As a shield on the wrong head, the platter seemed to serve little at all once bought. And yet, the brass platter changes ownership right before the Sorrowful Man hands Dany the jewelry box with the manticore inside. Maybe there is more to this platter? Well, the interesting aspect about brass in particular is that it has bactericide properties. It kills bacteria within minutes to hours after contant (over 99% kill rate, including antibiotic resistant bacteria). If it is therefore used as coating on a surface, it prevents biofouling. The latter is a problem especially in the marine business: bacteria settle on a surface, followed by algae, barnacles, plants, worms, … Now that sounds an interesting tidbit and ironic in light of Dany haggling over the platter’s use to carry nightsoil, but it becomes a viable choice by George when we see how the brass merchant got embroiled in the manticore events.

[…] and then the box flew from her hand in pieces, turning end over end. Sudden pain twisted her fingers. As she cried out and clutched her hand, the brass merchant let out a shriek, a woman screamed, and suddenly the Qartheen were shouting and pushing each other aside. […] The brass merchant was still rolling on the ground. She went to him and helped him to his feet. “Were you stung?
No, good lady,” he said, shaking, “or else I would be dead. But it touched me, aieeee, when it fell from the box it landed on my arm.” He had soiled himself, she saw, and no wonder.(aCoK, Daenerys V)

Selmy knocked the jewelry box with the manticore out of Dany’s hands, not yet killing it. Only after the manticore lands on the brass merchant’s arm, Selmy manages to kill it by crushing it with his staff. It is quite peculiar that George has an insect killed after it touches a person who handles brass all day but does not sting it, and after Dany became the official owner of the platter. And obviously the merchant “fouled” himself in his fear for the manticore.

And so in light of that it becomes suspicious that much later, George has Dany’s Meereenese city guards wear brass masks in the shape of animals, almost as if the city guard is biofouling itself, lowering the brass’s ability to kill bacteria and insects. But we will leave our examination of the brass platter here. The Brazen Beasts will be discussed as we examine the camouflaging aspects of armor.

2 thoughts on “Mirror Mirror – Brass Alchemism”

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