A Sketch of the System: The Making of the Strangler

We consider the making of the poison commonly called the Strangler to be a microcosm of a key feature of the world system, the manufacturing power of the Free Cities and the impact they have on societies to their East, South, and West. Revealed in the list of raw materials and an analysis of the final product are the mercantilist policies by which Free Cities siphon off resources and foreign exchange. An examination of the buyers in turn demonstrates the parity in social power that exists between various Essosi merchant aristocracies while also highlighting the disparity of power that exists between said merchant aristocracies and the less sophisticated nobility of Westeros. Westeros consequently is shown to benefit the least from the world system and suffers a great deal owing to its inferior position.

A description of the Strangler, its material components, manufacturing process, and use comes to us curtsey of Maester Cressen of Dragonstone:

 It was made from a certain plant that grew only on the islands of the Jade Sea, half a world away. The leaves had to be aged, and soaked in a wash of limes and sugar water and certain rare spices from the Summer Isles. Afterward they could be discarded, but the potion must be thickened with ash and allowed to crystallize. The process was slow and difficult, the necessaries costly and hard to acquire. The alchemists of Lys knew the way of it, though, and the Faceless Men of Braavos… and the maesters of his order as well, though it was not something talked about beyond the walls of the Citadel. All the world knew that a maester forged his silver link when he learned the art of healing-but the world preferred to forget that men who knew how to heal also knew how to kill. Cressen no longer recalled the name the Asshaii gave the leaf, or the Lysene poisoners the crystal. In the Citadel, it was simply called the strangler. Dissolved in wine, it would make the muscles of a man’s throat clench tighter than any fist, shutting off his windpipe. They said a victim’s face turned as purple as the little crystal seed from which his death was grown, but so too did a man choking on a morsel of food. (CoK Prologue)


Maester Cresson’s description tells us plenty concerning the poisons potential manufacturers. Foremost are the alchemists of Lys, who are also infamous for the manufacture of another deadly poison, the Tears of Lys. Cresson’s reflection that he “owned no hollow rings, such as the poisoners of Lys were said to favor” indicates that the Lysene alchemists supply a home market of professional and amateur assassins (CoK Prologue). Presumably they supply customers in Westeros and the other Free Cities as well. The Faceless Men in Braavos can make the Strangler as well, but they’re in the business of using poisons, not selling them. Maesters learn the process as part of the general medical study necessary to forge a silver link, but the Citadel is eager for this particular area of expertise to get as little outside attention as possible lest it injure their reputation, so as a rule they certainly do not deal in poisons. Debarred maesters like Qyburn or dropouts like Oberyn Martell and Haldon Halfmaester might be less scrupulous and could potentially make the poison provided they had the resources or patronage. The same might be true of failed alchemic students. The resources required would not be trivial however, gold for rare materials, a well equipped laboratory, and the time to see the process through. It seems questionable to take such a risk with untested amateurs when a guaranteed product is already on the market. It can therefore be safely assumed that the Strangler’s commercial availability is almost entirely due to the Lysene alchemists. An investigation into the list of ingredients further leads us to believe that said poison was originally invented by the Lysene alchemists.

The raw materials required to make strangler crystals are special leaves from the Jade Sea, extremely rare spices from the Summer Islands, water of lime, and sugar water. The Strangler leaves could be grown on Leng, Marahai, the Manticore Isles, Great Moraq, the Isle of Elephants, the Cinnamon Isles, or uncharted islands further south. These leaves are purchased by Western traders making the Jade Sea circle, possibly from the growers themselves, possibly from the bazaars of Qarth, Yin, or Asshai. Very little detail is provided about the Summer spices, but as they are rare and expensive despite the Summer Island’s proximity to Lys. They presumably come from plants that are hard to grow or find and which are located deep in the interiors of said islands. To make sugar water palm sugar is imported from the Jade Sea or is somehow created out of Westerosi honey. It is unknown whether the alchemists get the lime water from limestone or seashells, but this ingredient is likely acquired locally. Lime water is used in the softening of water, which involves the removal from water of calcium, magnesium and other ions. These ions are what cause ‘hard’ water to interfere with soaps and foul up plumbing or kettles, reducing water flow and thermal conductivity. In the alchemical laboratory they likely react with certain chemicals in such a way as to reduce the potency and efficacy of the Strangler, hence why the Lyseni alchemists remove them. Once refined the crystals must be mixed with wine for the poison to actually come into existence. Regardless of whether wine means wine or alcohol in general, water would not do, nor sprinkling the crystals in food. Presumably Cressen could munch on the crystals without being strangled.

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The Asshaii have a name for the leaf while Lyseni have a name for the crystal. Rare Summer Island spices are also essential to its creation. These two clues tell us that the Strangler is not made in the East and that its manufacture is therefore limited to the maesters, the Faceless Men, and the Lysene alchemists, making it one of the most exclusive poisons in the world. The Asshaii likely use the leaves for medicinal or occult purposes. Note Lys’s key geographic position in respect to the Jade Sea trade routes, the Summer Islands, and Oldtown. We speculate that the Strangler was discovered by the Lysene alchemists while experimenting with imported Asshaii formulas, substituting the closer rare Summer spices for less assessable rare Jade Sea spices and getting something new (Lyseni slavery undoubtedly plays a role in its development of new poisons, after all you need someone to test them on before you market them). Knowledge of how to make the poison spread from Lys to Oldtown by the small Lysene alchemical community that developed there from centuries of trade. The Faceless Men could have acquired the poison by infiltrating either the alchemists or the Citadel, or they might have bought the recipe off an amoral half-maester or dropout acolyte.

The Strangler is one of the most ideal exports imaginable. The crystals are no bigger than seeds or small jewels, easy to conceal and transport profitably over vast distances by land or sea. Carried in little glass vials, disguised as personal jewelry, concealed in less valuable products, or hidden in pouches, its importation would also not be subject to customs fees. A single agent would suffice to acquire or deliver the crystals, though more than one person would probably be sent in order to reduce the odds of misfortune interrupting the sale or delivery (say one agent carrying the poison came down with a bad illness or happened to be among the casualties of a pirate attack – in each case redundancy would prevent a loss).

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Lys’s primary market would be the poison rich world of the Free Cities, whose merchant princes and trading aristocracy have a reputation for poisoning each other:

Pycelle’s sleepy eyes flicked open. The aged maester shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “A disturbing thought. We are not the Free Cities, where such things are common. Grand Maester Aethelmure wrote that all men carry murder in their hearts, yet even so, the poisoner is beneath contempt.” (GoT Ned V)

Four books later, Magister Illyrio amuses himself by playing to this reputation during his dinner with Tyrion. In the course of tricking Tyrion into believing their mushrooms are poisoned, Illyrio relays or invents the following story:

“Magister Ordello was poisoned by a mushroom not half a year ago. The pain is not so much, I am told. Some cramping in the gut, a sudden ache behind the eyes, and it is done. Better a mushroom than a sword through your neck, is it not so? Why die with the taste of blood in your mouth when it could be butter and garlic?” (DWD Tyrion I)

Regardless of whether or not this assassination actually happened, Magister Illyrio is undoubtedly expressing the attitude common to his class. To him fast acting poison is a polite and civilized weapon, superior to more direct forms of violence (he’s “told” the pain isn’t much, well that’s that isn’t it). It is also just a part of everyday politics in Pentos. We note that the Strangler is not quite as swift or peaceful as Illyrio’s unnamed poison or the substance Jaqen H’ghar/the Alchemist uses to painlessly kill Pate, but when the Strangler is used its target is still dead in moments. This speed likely makes the Strangler better appreciated than, say, the slightly more versatile Tears of Lys, which “eat at a man’s bowels and belly, and kills as a sickness of those parts” and can potentially be recognized and treated before it’s too late (FfC Cat of the Canals). The Free Cities are close to Lys, so high demand would combine with low transport/communication costs for a tidy profit. Surplus Strangler would be exported back to the lesser markets of the Jade Sea, the Summer Islands, and Westeros to further increase profits and pay for the expensive raw materials.

Qarth would be a major consumer. While residing in the Queen of Cities Daenerys learns that “The [ruling] Pureborn were notorious for offering poisoned wine to those they thought dangerous” (CoK Dany III). Note that it is poisoned wine in particular that they are known for. Not poisoned food, nor poisoned sweets, nor poisoned delicacies, but poisoned wine. The Qartheen are big on decorum, so a poison that allows a Pureborn to pretend that his guest choked on his food would probably be highly prized. The Strangler’s rarity and expense would only make it all the more desirable as its unverifiable yet completely obvious use would become a grand display of wealth and taste. From Qarth the poison could be distributed across the Jade Sea.

We can easily imagine the journey of the strangler crystals to other Eastern markets. From Volantis or Pentos they might journey to Qothor and then cross the Dothraki Sea to arrive in Vaes Dothrak’s Western Market. There they could be sold to would be assassins from Asshai Yi Ti, Bayasabhad, Shamyriana, Kayakayanaya, and Jogos Nhai. Instead of going all the way to Qarth the poison might stop off at Slavers Bay and be used by the elites of the cities there.

The politics of the Summer Islands are largely a mystery, but Prince Jalabhar Xho’s coerced exile and attempt to engineer a Westerosi invasion of his homeland in the hopes of regaining his former seat indicate that they are far from harmonious. And even if the overthrow of Jalabhar Xho was an exceptional event in Summer Island politics (we don’t see many other exiled Summer Islanders), the contrast between Maester Pycelle and Magister Illyrio’s remarks indicate how a comfortable, easy going society can be more receptive to the use of poisons then an uneasy, martial one. We can thus safely assume the existence of the usual intrigues which would create a demand for products like the Strangler. The trade in rare spices between the Summer Islanders and the Lyseni alchemists might also have established a special commercial relationship through which the Strangler could be exported (the people who deliver the spices being the same ones who deliver the poison).

In Andal and First Man Westeros poisoning is considered something of a taboo, regarded as immoral and, even worse, unmanly, the domain of “women, cravens, and eunuchs” (GoT Ned V). This is part and parcel for a regime built around the personal honor and military violence of the male lords and warrior class. And yet poisons are resorted to none the less. In the most famous incidence, ome Strangler crystals were sold to the Westerosi Master of Coin Lord Petyr Baelish, who had them turned into a “magic hairnet” that was then gifted to Lady Sansa Stark of Winterfell. A crystal from this hairnet was later used by Lady Olenna Redwyne and Lady Margaery Tyrell to assassinate the usurper Joffrey, one of the seminal political events of the War of Five Kings. The snowballing effects of this assassination are known but bears repeating: the fall of the councilor Tyrion Lannister, the assassination of Lord Hand Tywin Lannister by Tyrion, the disastrous second regency of Queen Cersei Lannister, and the beginnings of the ongoing Tyrell-Lannister feud. So, one sip of poisoned wine began an unraveling at the heart of the until then victorious Lannister regime.

These examples illustrate two things. First, the Free Cities in general, and Lys in particular, profit from the Strangler trade at the expense the East, South, and West. While the Jade Islands, Summer Islands, and Westeros export their excess raw materials – the leaves, rare spices, sugar or honey – the Free Cities export the excess manufacture made from said raw materials – the surplus poison. The value of this poison easily eclipses the value of the original raw materials, so in purchasing it the Jade Sea, Summer Islands, and Westeros are all participating in an exchange that ultimately transfers disposable wealth to Lys. The Jade Sea, Summer Islands, and Westeros would all be a little poorer for this.

Second, we see an interesting disparity of impact between Essos and Westeros. In the Free Cities and the East poisons like the Strangler are a normal part of inter-elite competition and, as the example of the Pureborn demonstrates, even help to bolster the position of the governing families. Within the Essosi merchant polities the use of the Strangler is not destabilizing. Magisters and merchant princes might occasionally perish over dinner, but the business of trade and government easily goes on without them. Yet in Westeros even a single dose of the Strangler has the potential to be exceptionally disruptive; the crystal that kills Joffrey facilitates state collapse. Either Lord Baelish is an unparalleled genius, surpassing in ability and sociopathic ruthlessness all the magisters, masters and merchant princes of Essos, or Westeros is simply much more vulnerable to disruption. We believe the second alternative to be correct (Lord Baelish just isn’t that impressive outside finance, sorry). Westerosi society and institutions are simply less advanced, a tremendous amount resting upon the health and well being of a few high born persons. The result of this is that what is a normal part of Essosi society is capable of wreaking utter havoc in the Seven Kingdoms, the costs of which fall heaviest on the peasantry.

We call the making of the Strangler a microcosm because it vividly exemplifies a crucial component of the world system, one we hope to describe in much greater detail over the course of this blog. The features of the Strangler trade are not particular to the Strangler trade, but are rather general features of the world system, one that can also be seen in Myr’s lace and carpet production. It is a system wherein raw resources and products from the East, South, and West are brought to the Free Cities and there transformed into new high value manufacture which is then exported back. So while Eastern cities might have more combined wealth and Eastern, Western and Southern societies a greater abundance of natural resources, it is the Free Cities that have achieved an unparalleled level of commercial sophistication and technological advancement. This disparity has in turn resulted in a transfer of wealth from the East, South, and West to the Free Cities. Despite this, the Free Cities and the leading polities of the Summer and Jade Seas are close enough in their social organization so that their elites can interact with relative equality. Such is not the case with Westeros, where everything exists on a lower level. There Essosi actors, methods, and events frequently contribute to war and instability. The result is that the Western lords are the least substantial winners of the system and their peasants among the biggest losers.

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