The history of Westeros is written, in-universe, by the maesters of the Citadel. Like all historians, they’re not infallible. In particular, the maesters are focused on rational thought, evidence and reason, even in the face of evidence of magic in the world (such as dragons.)
Some of Westeros’ historians though are more open to the possibility of the arcane and inexplicable. In particular, the works of Septon Barth are referenced by others, especially in TWOIAF, usually so that the ‘author’ Maester Yandal can then scorn the theory. Which has led to the popular idiom amongst fans: “Septon Barth was always right.”
It’s GRRM’s way of telling us the truth, while showing us that the people of Westeros don’t believe it.
So what has Septon Barth actually said?
Direct references to Septon Barth in the text
If you want an analysis of these references in depth, hop on over to the History of Westeros which has a podcast on the political and metaphysical legacy of Barth’s works.
What does Septon Barth actually say?
“Death comes out of the dragon’s mouth, but death does not go in that way” – i.e attempting to stab a dragon through the mouth will end up with the stabber being crispy.
Dragons are sequential hermaphrodites, meaning that they can change sex to enable breeding.
The Children of the Forest can speak with ravens. This skill was taught to the First Men, and the use of ravens as messengers by the maesters of the Citadel is a degraded version of this historical use of ravens as message carriers. (No wonder Barth spent his life in conflict with the Citadel!)
The inconsistent and arbitrary seasons are due to magic rather than ecological drive.
Barth looked at the history of the Valyrians extensively, proposing a few options: dragons came from the volcanos of Valyria, in Qarth they believe the second moon cracked open after being scalded by the sun, Asshai’i say that an ancient, nameless people tamed dragons in the Shadow and brought them to Valyria. We have no details as to which of these theories Barth favoured though.
The Doom of Valyria was caused by the Valyrians losing control of the spells and magic used to tame the Fourteen Flames – their ceaseless search of wealth and slaves was driven as much by a need to fuel these spells as it was to expand power and prestige.
The Valyrians believed that the gold of Casterly Rock would destroy them, which is why the Valyrians never investigated Westeros beyond Oldtown.
What else did Barth do?
That’s not much, but Barth was a much bigger historical figure. He was one of the Hand’s of Jaehaerys the Conciliator, and was instrumental as a negotiator for his friend and king in settling the Targaryen’s dispute with the Faith. It was Barth’s leadership as much as Jaehaerys’ that helped heal the realm after the chaos of Maegor the Cruel’s reign and war with the Faith.
Now one of the interesting things is that this great learned man was not of the Citadel: Septon Barth was not a maester. He was a septon who worked in the library of the Red Keep, where he came to know Jaehaerys before he was promoted to Hand. Presumably this means that Barth had some training in Oldtown, but not at the Citadel – at the Sept of the Starry Skies instead. “He was the son of a common blacksmith, given to the Faith when he was young.”
This origin story is something that makes me gravitate towards both Jaehaerys and Barth – Barth was obviously incredibly, notably intelligent, but Jaehaerys was also willing to wander around the Red Keep and chat to his staff. Can you imagine some other rulers on the Iron Throne doing this? Can you imagine Joffrey the Bastard striking up a friendship with a librarian? It wouldn’t happen. Perhaps it was Jaehaerys’ troubled childhood, fleeing the Red Keep with his mother and sister/to-be-wife during the bloody reign of Maegor the Cruel, that made him more willing to touch base with the common people in his household, but it also just speaks to the fact that Jaehaerys was a Nice Guy. Which, in a family full of nutty inbred cruel rulers, is kind of nice.
It is worth considering how much of the reforms attributed to Jaehaerys should be properly attributed to Barth. Certainly it seems from TWOIAF that the peace deal with the Faith was far more Barth’s work than Jaehaerys’. I wonder if we can extend this to the legal reforms to Barth’s doing as well. One thing that is canon is that Barth had some pretty good ideas about hygiene and sanitation, that seem obvious to us reading the books – plumbing and fresh water, removing waste and getting rid of potential infection. So as History of Westeros put it, he’s “a man of faith and of science.” Barth was also the architect of the Kingsroad, which allowed the realm to become more interconnected – to be one Westeros, rather than Seven Kingdoms.
Other reasons that Barth is very interesting
The narrative reason for Baelor the Blessed’s purging of Septon Barth’s works helps fuel the mystery about the metaphysical within ASOIAF. I mean, how much more straightforward and boring would ASOIAF be if Samwell Tarly could just go and pick up a copy of Septon Barth’s Unnatural Histories and say “oh hey Jon, this is how we tame dragons, and how to get rid of the Others.” By ensuring that in-universe no one has access to Septon Barth’s work, GRRM preserves the weird and mysterious in the world of Westeros across the books.
Septon Barth is an interesting window to look at privilege in Westeros again – while he has the privilege of an education, through his training with the Faith, he was a common man, and his common-roots were never forgotten by the nobles who were offended at his elevation to the role of Hand, and his friendship with the king. Much like Davos Seaworth faces in the current narrative, Barth faced the sneers and slurs of the nobles who thought that no common man was as worth as their noble blood. Despite this, Barth (and Davos) showed that he had a high level of skill in policy, planning, negotiation and law.