The Wall is staggering.
Of course, this Wall isn’t the 700 feet of ice that keeps the wild at bay beyond Westeros’s northern border in Game of Thrones, and I didn’t have to traverse hundreds of war-savaged miles to reach it.
But it’s daunting nonetheless. I’m dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling shelves stretching the width of a large, climate-controlled room. This is George R.R. Martin’s life’s work.
The collection—more than 200 archival boxes, book editions in different languages, replicas of coins and weaponry, card games, letters, portraits, 25-year-old convention invitations—could take a person months, perhaps even years, to carefully sift through. I had just six hours.
I arrived on an expedition to do as much exploring as I could in a day, carrying a small hope that I might find some new morsel to gnaw until Martin’s next book, The Winds of Winter, emerges. Some readers would give their sword hand to spend a day poring over Martin’s manuscripts, and I felt the weight of my opportunity.
Martin keeps his treasure trove at Texas A&M’s Cushings Library and Archive, which lives in a historic building on the university’s College Station campus about 100 miles northwest of Houston. A current resident of New Mexico and native of New Jersey, Martin chose this rural Texas library as his personal archive for an all-too-simple reason: He was asked.
Though it isn’t well-known outside science-fiction circles, Texas A&M is something of a mecca for the genre. A student group started AggieCon—the first university-based science-fiction convention of its kind—at the school 46 years ago. Martin attended many times early in his career with fellow authors and friends, and in 1986, the organizers invited him to the convention as a guest of honor. Don Dyal, who was head of special collections, regarded Martin as a luminary. He asked Martin to consider archiving his documents in the university’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection.
Martin sent his first boxes of papers and memorabilia to the collection in 1992. The cache of Martin’s personal documents and early drafts has been something of an open secret as Martin’s status rose to celestial. Now, as millions of fans wait impatiently for the next installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series and season 5 of the hit HBO show, the secret is out.
• • •
When you arrive at Cushings, you’re asked to stow your laptop bag or backpack in a locker downstairs before venturing to the reading room on the second floor. With notebook, requisite government ID, camera, and a tangle of power cords piled on top of my laptop, I hit the elevator button.
Library specialist Jenny Reibenspies greeted me with a warm smile, and when I explained that I was there to see the Martin archive, she had some immediate recommendations for where to start.
“You’ll want to see the swords,” she said, scribbling suggested box numbers on a slip of paper.
I was dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling shelves stretching the width of a large, climate-controlled room.
She handed me a sheet to sign acknowledging the library rules. I’m allowed to take photos—no flash—and use my laptop. No food or drink are allowed in the reading room. And pencils only. Ink is verboten in a place where documents are being carefully preserved for future scholars and curious fans. As I got set up, a handful of students worked quietly at long library desks.
“Is it true that you call the stacks of boxes in the archive the Wall?” I asked Reibenspies.
“Yes,” she told me, pointing to a long section of library shelves to illustrate the enormity of the collection. “And we have another part that we call Eastwatch by the Sea.”
This I had to see. Fortunately, Jeremy Brett, current curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection, is equally enthusiastic about the treasure he hosts. He generously agreed to escort me downstairs to the restricted-access stacks.
Before venturing into Martin’s section, we took a quick detour to see a rare first-edition of The Hobbit—the library’s 5 millionth volume—recently procured and presented by Martin himself. Martin visited the library for a special event to celebrate the acquisition in February. A line of eager fans wrapped around the auditorium building to get in, Brett said. He pulled the 1937 edition of The Hobbit, one of only 1,500 printed, off a shelf and slipped it into my hands. It felt strange and incredibly humbling to be touching something so precious. I tenderly opened the cover to find J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth still immaculate.
I expected the archivists at Cushings to be more uptight about their collections, with “look, but don’t touch” rules that might apply to glass-encased antiquities. Instead, the library makes its treasures surprisingly accessible. There are sensible procedures to keep the books and documents in good condition, but for the most part, the friendly and enthusiastic staff encourages you to dive in, flip pages, and generally geek out. Brett says students and fans of Martin’s books and the HBO show frequently come in to get their pictures taken with replicas of Ned Stark’s sword Ice, Jon Snow’s Longclaw, and Robert Baratheon’s warhammer—all donations from Martin. The library staff seems to take a particular pride in seeing people use and enjoy the collection.
“By looking at an original manuscript, you’re looking at an item that hasn’t yet been altered by agents, editors, beta-readers, publishers, and even the author after he or she has decided to make changes. What you see is a product before it transforms,” Brett said. “Scholars study original manuscripts for those reasons, but fans and other casual researchers enjoy looking at and holding the original of a work that they love and which means something to them.”
While most casual visitors want to see Martin’s most famous works, his many other projects over the long decades of his career are also represented in the stacks. There are videotapes of the 1987 Beauty and the Beast TV series for which Martin served as a writer and producer, dozens of manuscripts for short stories, and financial records, which are currently closed to the public at Martin’s request.
“Psychologically,” Brett said, “I think it feels like you’re close to the author, or to the source of creation, when you’re interacting with a manuscript like that and holding something your favorite author has touched.”
• • •
Back in January, another fan who visited the archive sent shockwaves through the Internet when she discovered one word, written in the margins of a manuscript, that debunked a major fan theory.
Jessica Sahm, a registered nurse with a “deep personal love of libraries and museums,” said she found out about the archive from a Reddit thread and volunteered to visit. Fellow fans were speculating about missing chapters pulled before publication of Martin’s most recent novel, A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series. Could those chapters still be in the original draft at the library?
Some fans would give their sword hand to be here.
“Like everyone else, I was dying to know what was hidden in those ‘missing chapters,’” Sahm said in an email to the Kernel. “[George R.R. Martin] had alluded to specific cut chapters on his blog before, and I was hoping that they would still be included with the manuscript at the library.” She said her main motivation was a “sense of obligation to the ASOIAF fan community to delve into this more. … The least I can do is postpone my Netflix binge and work on something productive, right?”
Sahm didn’t find the missing chapters she was looking for. (Brett later confirmed Martin never sent them to the archive.) But she found something else. Fans had long speculated that the mysterious character Coldhands could actually be Benjen Stark, Ned Stark’s brother, a man of the Night’s Watch who went missing without a trace in the first book of the series. Sahm discovered a note about Coldhands scribbled by Anne Groell, Martin’s editor: “Is this Benjen? I think it’s Benjen…”
Above it, Martin wrote in red pen, “NO,” and circled it.
Photo via Jessica Sahm/Imgur
Martin’s publishers hit the ceiling as the discovery splashed across the Internet. At their urging, Martin closed the A Dance With Dragons manuscript to the public until The Winds of Winter is released, lest more spoilers leak.
“The aftermath of this whole thing really has been totally surreal,” Sahm said. “A year ago I hadn’t even read A Song of Ice and Fire. Now George R.R. Martin knows who I am. That is nuts.”
Sahm’s discovery eliminated one potential source of clues for me. But it was proof positive that there are important tidbits to be found in these piles of pages.
• • •
In the interest of time, I let Brett and the other library staff guide me to the most promising boxes. Within 77 and 78, I found a partial original manuscript for Game of Thrones. Box 89 contains file folders of proof pages Martin typed with his famously archaic WordStar word-processing system; they’re covered in copyediting marks to correct grammar, punctuation, and small typos. Box 105 houses an original draft of A Feast for Crows.
And then I got distracted. Right there in front of me was a longsword almost as tall as I am. I wrapped my hands around the hilt.
While the replica swords Martin has gifted to the collection are meant to be mounted on an enthusiast’s wall, they’re real enough to make you feel like you’re really wielding legendary and battle-tested weapons. Brett enlisted the help of two other library staff members to extricate a small arsenal from cardboard sleeves and protective foam boxes. There are two versions of Ice. The first is the largest weapon in the archive, a plain steel blade with a handsome wooden hilt. The edge isn’t sharp, but a small plastic sheath blunts a point that could prick skin or slice the library’s carpet. And it’s heavy—a true two-handed greatsword.
The second version of Ice is smaller but far more ornate, with the words of the North, “Winter Is Coming,” emblazoned on the crossguard. Direwolves snarl from a decorative band on the hilt. There are dark waves on the blade to signify rare, spell-forged Valyrian steel. (Were it true Valyrian steel, I may have inadvertently lopped off an arm or sliced apart a library chair.)
These paired well with a replica Stark shield molded with the head of a direwolf.
Next came Jon Snow’s Longclaw. The so-called bastard sword is smaller than Ned Stark’s Ice, with a red-eyed white wolf’s head on the hilt, true to descriptions of the blade.
Finally we got to Robert Baratheon’s enormous warhammer. Beautifully engraved with an ornate stag honoring House Baratheon, the startlingly heavy hammer is a killing machine even in replica form. It’s outfitted with spikes at the top and rear of the hammer’s head. Another spike juts out the bottom of the handle. Of course, these are secondary to the human-sized meat tenderizer, the weapon’s primary threat.
The library staff graciously indulged my enthusiasm, though they confessed it was the third time in as many days that they’d unpacked the weapons for a visitor. Reibenspies, the library specialist, has started keeping records of how many students and members of the public come to Cushings to see the archive. Such data could be useful when—as all archives do—the collection eventually needs more space. Brett says the library receives a box a month from Martin, on average. And while Martin is the most prolific contributor to the archive, he’s far from the only one who submits his documents there.
Right there in front of me was a longsword almost as tall as I am.
Coasting on adrenaline from my close encounter with medieval weaponry, I finally settled in to spend my remaining time paging through as many of the manuscripts as possible. Some—like book two, A Clash of Kings—are working copies with notes in the margins from Martin’s editor. But I didn’t find much: questions about the timeline of the Night’s Watch, marked-out typos, commas made into periods, and Martin’s prolific use of ellipses mercifully curtailed by swapping in em dashes and commas. There’s even a teasing note from the editor on the cover: “Did GOT [A Game of Thrones, book 1] have this many ellipses?”
Other first drafts, like A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords (book 3), have only the rare editing mark, if any notation at all. To find small gems in these editions would take a close line-by-line comparison to a final, printed edition. Still, I flipped to some of the most obsessed-over chapters, hoping for some insight. The infamous Red Wedding scene, as presented through the eyes of Catelyn Stark, is close to identical to the final version we find in our well-worn paperbacks (though both differ from the scenes we saw on TV). A handful of stricken phrases reveal no secrets.
I looked for the epilogue on Lady Stoneheart, but her chapter was nowhere to be seen in the pile of loose pages by my laptop. I had more questions: Who is Jon Snow, really? What happened to Benjen? Is there something we don’t know about the slain Targaryen heirs? What is Bran going to do now that he found the Children of the Forest?
Things have been dire in the Seven Kingdoms up until now, but Martin’s ominously titled sixth book casts a heavy shadow on the future of some of our most beloved and hated characters. Who among them will survive to see the spring? If Martin’s toying tweets are to be believed, it’s not going to be pretty.
These questions clawed at my mind. Like Sahm, I felt like I had an obligation here—to my friends, coworkers, fellow readers, Reddit, and the entirety of the restless Game of Thrones fandom—all those people who didn’t get this precious chance. I needed something to show for it: a revelation, some deleted remark about Jon, another prying editor’s margin note answered with a strike of Martin’s red pen. I’d thought I’d savor my time with these pages, but in the end I gulped them down.
An announcement rang out over the loudspeaker. I had 15 minutes to pack up.
I knew when I entered the library that even if there were answers or promising clues amid these many volumes, I likely wouldn’t find them. I was searching for a needle in a haystack. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment and uncertainty as I drove back to Austin through the cattle-dotted Texas countryside. Martin’s world rarely yields satisfying endings, and my journey into it was no different.
Like everyone else, I’ll have to wait uncomfortably for what The Winds of Winter might bring.
Additional reporting by Michelle Jaworski
Photos by Sarah Weber
Illustration by J. Longo