Maester Luwin and Magic
I am crawling my way through ‘A Clash of Kings’ and wanted to talk out loud about my disappointment with Maester Luwin’s dismissal of magic when Bran talks to him about Jojen and his greenseeing abilities. I equate maesters in the ASoIaF universe with scientists in ours. I am an engineer and I study rare events in internal combustion engines. They are important because just a handful of engine cycles with poor combustion can mean that an engine will not meet today’s stringent pollution regulations. However, Luwin ignores rare events when he says that magic does not work anymore in his world. Bran’s dream about his father was not just chance because he shared it with Rickon. But even if it was just chance, it is a dream that came true so it matters.
Even worse is Luwin’s dismissal of claims that magic does exist without proper consideration or investigation. Bran tells him that Meera says that Jojen’s dreams sometimes come true. Luwin takes this hearsay as fact and basically says that ‘sometimes’ is not good enough. For a maester with interest in the higher mysteries with a plausible subject close at hand, he is remarkably uncurious. I guess it’s this uncuriousity that really gets to me. It’s like he tried magic once upon a time and it didn’t work for him then so now he’s all sour-grapes and absolutely ignores anything that doesn’t fit into his paradigm. Like all of the many mages and warlocks that are said to exist on another continent. Luwin’s uncuriosity is really fear and I am just so disappointed that he couldn’t be a better scientist and look past himself and embrace the unknown.
This is a pretty interesting post. The fascinating thing about Luwin’s dismissal of magic is that he has a Valyrian steel link, which means he did study magic. (Very unusual for a maester to begin with.) But all his studies seem to have taught him is that magic doesn’t exist anymore and it’s not worth believing in.
Now, you’re only on A Clash of Kings, but if you don’t mind some minor spoilers, we learn later that:
- maesters who study magic are distrusted by other maesters*
- magic is tied to the existence of dragons
- maesters have actively tried to remove magic from the world
- maesters are the reasons why the dragons died (and they don’t like Targaryens much either)
- with the return of dragons, magic is coming back, and all the things that had become little more than parlor tricks are becoming real again — but for a long time, it’s true, magic did not work.
*(note: they may be distrusted because maesters who specialize in magic can get strange. You’ll meet a disgraced one later who’s rather more than strange.)
I don’t want to think of Luwin as being part of the Great Maester Anti-Magic Conspiracy (there’s probably another conspiracy too but it doesn’t have to do with magic) because he’s such a nice and sweet old man. But it’s likely that he suffered from said conspiracy, especially during his studies. You can imagine him as a young man at the Citadel, with bright ideas, and all kinds of hopes that once he learns the secret knowledge he’ll be able to do all the things of legend — only to find out that nothing works, it’s all just dusty old stories that maybe were never true to begin with. And not only that, but his fellow students mock him, his teachers look him over and sigh and say he’s wasting his potential studying useless things… Well, anyway, you can see where those “sour grapes” might come from.
(I have other thoughts regarding why maesters are such bad scientists, but it has to deal with speculations about the stagnancy of technology/medicine in Westeros to begin with — 12000 years of recorded history and they’re still leeching? still just use boiled wine for an antiseptic? — which maybe should be ignored with “it’s just fantasy, I should really just relax”, but I suppose we’ll see. Or we won’t.)
My opinions about Luwin are pretty much identical to nobodysuspectsthebutterfly’s - basically, you can imagine a young idealistic maester-in-training trying to learn magic, trying to get it to work, constantly failing, getting made fun of, and becoming bitter and discouraged. If nobody could get something to work, it would be easier to believe that magic is dead - and dismiss it entirely - than it would be to believe in it, particularly when it’s a child who’s insisting you believe.
I have to admit, I was frustrated in ACoK when Bran is running around insisting to everyone about drowning in Winterfell and no one will take him seriously because of the distance of the water - has no one ever heard of symbolism in Westeros? I mean, we do live in a world where the comet obviously has symbolism and if you go to the Dunk and Egg stories a Targaryen has prophetic dreams that use symbolism to convey their meaning (showing a dead dragon, instead of a specific dead Targ.) Presumably a Targaryen might have written those down and people might put some faith in prophecy - although again the maesters’ opposition could probably squash that, along with, “Well, someone might have had symbolic dreams back then, but that was then.”
Even so, you’d think someone would’ve thought twice about it - but again, this probably also involves playing with the literary trope of prophecy and tragedy, where Bran and Jojen are basically playing Cassandra to Luwin et al. I mean, I would have thought that if Luwin studied magic at some point, prophecy would have been covered and he might think - but again, I’m probably getting too frustrated at this, given the combination of Bran being a child, Luwin being old and bitter, and the literary necessity of no one thinking about “Hm…what else could water over the walls of Winterfell represent?”
Random thoughts on technology and medicine in Westeros and fantasy:
A lot of times, I assume that magic-based worlds don’t develop tech as quickly as a normal world because they had magic to solve problems. (Why develop gunpowder/cannon tech when wildfire was working so well? And if you had a dragon, well, that’s better than any artillery.) Presumably alchemists might have been good with some healing potions in the “good old days” of magic - it’s only when the magic dies that the maesters take over. Looking at it from that perspective, it would make sense that the maesters only have boiled wine, since when magic was stronger there might have been magic-based cures.
Granted, if that 12000 years of recorded history is right, that’s a reaalllly long time, but humans did have a very long stagnant period of existence historically before “civilization” (by which I mean the foundation of cities/development of writing/recorded history.) It becomes less plausible if you consider that Westeros has had non-oral methods of information transmission for 12000 years, but I guess you could try to combine it with the fact that all civilizations go through points where they lose knowledge or get stagnant; Western medicine stopped advancing for quite a while because the old knowledge was golden. (In a Westerosi example, Westeros seems to have lost Bran the Builder’s architectural knowledge long before magic disappeared.) It still requires a lot of hand-waving and suspension of disbelief (particularly for 12,000 years) but it’s a pretty common fantasy trope.
FWIW, leeching is still occasionally used in modern medicine, how-many-thousands-of-years-after-its-inception. It’s a pretty effective artificial vein if you need to draw blood through a site, and if you’re using it for bloodletting, they can actually result in less blood loss than other methods. (The “ick” factor is pretty big here, along with the fact that it’s easier to train blood techs than use leeches, and also that you can’t use leeched blood for tests, compared to siphoning it into a tube.)
Anyway, tagging nobodysuspectsthebutterfly because you have thoughts on tech stagnancy in Westeros and I’d be interested in hearing them. Interested in hearing what everyone else thinks, too.
I have little to contribute to the actual discussion, but: