‘Burn them all’: the history of wildfire on Game of Thrones – and what it tells us about Cersei and Daenerys

Alice Vincent
Aerys's dream come true: Green fire in King's Landing
Aerys's dream come true: Green fire in King's Landing

Warning: contains spoilers for Game of Thrones seasons one to eight

What with all the understandable fuss over Daenerys’s controversial descent into madness, the deployment of another ambitious queen’s preferred weapon got rather lost in the mire of King’s Landing in The Bells. But the presence of wildfire, Game of Thrones’ green and lethal answer to chemical warfare, in season eight’s fifth episode picks up on callbacks from all throughout the show. 

Wildfire has an ancient history but is most strongly associated with Aerys “Mad King” Targaryen, Daenerys’s father. The green fire was what earned him that moniker (he had started on the throne as a kind and generous ruler), after he placed thousands of barrels of the flammable chemical under various different parts of King’s Landing, determined that the city was better reduced to ashes than given to the rebels who eventually took his throne. His last words? “Burn them all”. And that’s when Jaime “Kingslayer” Lannister got involved, saving the citizens of King’s Landing from a fate that would take place a couple of decades later.

In season two, viewers learned – alongside Tyrion Lannister – that some 7,800 jars of wildfire “enough to lay King’s Landing low” were being stored in the guild’s vault alone.These didn’t remain in place, however: Tyrion deployed them into a lone ship that was then detonated, destroying vast quantities of Stannis Baratheon’s troops and saving King’s Landing.

Since then, wildfire has remained a key part of the Lannisters’ defence and ruin. In season six, Cersei used the leftovers from Aerys’s plot to destroy the Great Sept, killing the High Sparrow, considerable numbers of his followers and most of House Tyrell – inadvertently inspiring the suicide of her son, Tommen, who was married to Margery Tyrell.

Wildfire itself is a grisly alchemical brew. Luminous green, it is highly volatile and burns with such intensity that the only way it can be put out is with piles of sand – water only aggravates it. Pyromancers refer to it chillingly as “the substance”.  Wildfire only becomes more potent, more destructive, with age.

It has long had Targaryen associations: Aerion Targaryen, Daenerys’s great-uncle (also mad) drunk the stuff thinking it would turn him into a dragon. Instead, it killed him instantly.

Although those mushroom clouds of green fire were a surprising addition to the general destruction of King’s Landing, it was more the manner in which they appeared that took viewers by surprise.

Many fans had speculated that Cersei would resort to deploying the remainder of Aerys’s supplies as a defence mechanism as Daenerys attacked – a poetic one, as well, for a dragon queen to be battled with the weapon that spelled her father’s death. It was even hinted at in the trailer for The Bells, with eagle-eyed viewers spotting barrels lurking suspiciously on top of towers in the Red Keep.

Dragons plus wildfire: a tragic Targaryen takeover - Credit:  Courtesy of HBO
Dragons plus wildfire: a tragic Targaryen takeover Credit: Courtesy of HBO

Instead, that green fire showed the extent of Daenerys’s destruction: that her maniacal dragon work, burning through the streets of King’s Landing and taking thousands of innocent lives with her, was so extreme that she managed to trigger the long-buried vaults planted there by her father.

Its presence pointed out a neat division between the two fierce queens battling over the Iron Throne. Cersei, the cruel and ruthless ruler who had long threatened to destroy her people for the survival of her House, wasn't able to resort to Targaryen weaponry. But Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains, the Mother of Dragons, the woman who argued that she was not like her murderously pyromaniac father, had turned so very into him that she was fulfilling his dying wish: to burn them all.