The Saga of The Volsungs

‘The Saga of the Volsungs’ is one of the most famous sagas in the Icelandic tradition, briefly telling the stories of the founder and main members of the warlike Volsung dynasty (born, grow to be fine strong king, kill enemies, fall heroically in battle) until it arrives at the legendary Sigurd. Here the pace slows down to tell more thoroughly the story of Sigurd, the great ‘hero’ who slays the dragon Fafnir, takes his gold hoard, betrothes himself to the fallen Valkyrie Brynhild but is bamboozled by a magic love potion into forgetting his vow and marrying Gudrun and helping her brother Gunnar to deceitfully win Brynhild’s hand in marriage – until they both realise the deceit whereupon Gunnar persuades his brother to kill Sigurd in his bed and Brynhild kills herself.

The legend of Sigurd and Brynhild This legend was widespread across northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It finds a far more detailed and courtly telling in the medieval German Nibelungenlied, and is retold in numerous other sagas and poems. This is partly because, as the West transitioned from pagan to Christian, the dragons of legend morphed into avatars of Satan, and the dragonslayers of legend morphed into saints and Christian heroes. (The Introduction introduced me to the stave churches of Norway and to the fact that, of the thirty or so surviving medieval wooden porches to these churches, all but three features scenes from the Sigurd legend!) Partly because it is a love story (of sorts) and so was recyclable into the new cult of Courtly Love which swept Europe in the high Middle Ages. It is the later, more courtly version that Richard Wagner took and himself significantly rewrote in order to create his monster 4-opera cycle the Ring of the Nibelung.

Gudrun and Atli The death of Sigurd and Brynhild starts a further section of the saga focusing on Gudrun: she is reconciled to her murderous brothers before being married to King Atli (Attila the Hun). Atli invites the brothers (who now own Sigurd’s gold hoard) to his stronghold where he captures them and tries to extort the location of the gold from them; he cuts out one brother’s heart (Hogni) to show to Gunnar who, when he refuses to tell, is thrown into a snakepit where, despite being bound and tied, he plays the harp his sister Gudrun sends him, with his toes. (This episode, the bound hero in the snakepit playing the harp with his toes, is depicted far and wide in medieval Scandinavian art.) In revenge for her brothers Gudrun murders her two sons by King Atli, has them cooked and served to Atli who eats them. She tells him. They exchange hard words. That evening she conspires with Hogni’s son, Niflung, go to Atli’s room and kill him with one sword thrust (just as Sigurd was killed by one swordthrust in his bed). Atli lives long enough to curse her. Then Niflung and Gudrun burn down Atli’s stronghold, killing all his retainers.

Garbled The sagas are hard to read partly because their source history is so complex. Garbled legendary accounts of wars between Hunnish and other invading tribes from the era of the Great Migrations (400-600, as the Roman Empire collapsed) are permeated with pagan myths common across Northern Europe (Odin appears at key moments throughout the saga), all this formulated into poems and prose tellings in 700-900s – but only actually written down by the newly colonised settler society of Iceland (settled from 870) sometime after 1000AD.

Pagan German characters – retold by Scandinavians to include their mythology – written down by Christian Icelanders.

Attila Thus a major character in the second half of the Saga of the Volsungs is Attila the Hun (d.453), yet we know the saga wasn’t written down until he middle 1200s. That’s a lag of 800 years, a long time for the material to be subject to incalculable revisions and distortions, for it to pass into legend, into verse epic, into songs and stories and tales and back into prose again.

Anomalies So these sagas are anything but pure. Instead they are palimpsests in which you can see, or read, or feel, different layers superimposed over each other. Hard gritty brutal depictions of tribal warfare give way abruptly to sentiments of courtly love. Pages of tedious genealogy suddenly lead into an encounter with a dragon. Hardest of all to process, I found the way there is little or no psychology. Brutal events happen. The protagonists say a sentence, the minimum necessary to convey any involvement in them. Sometimes the sentences of characters in a scene barely match. Sometimes events don’t tally: I am still puzzled how Sigurd leaves Brynhild in her shield hall on a cliff surrounded by flames; but in a later scene, at Gunnar’s castle, follows his falcon which has flown up to a windowledge and glimpses a beautiful maiden who is – Brynhild; but then, later, he and Gunnar ride back to the shieldhall on a hill surrounded by flames through which only the Hero Without Fear can pass.

Seems to me that here and in numerous other places the scribe who wrote the version we have had before him a number of other versions; he tries to reconcile them where possible but where impossible he just sets down what he has. Reminds me of the famous opening of Genesis (in the Bible) where the scribe has two alternative versions of the Creation of the universe – and so writes them both down. the attitude to Truth or authenticity was very different. If it is written or very old, it is important and clearly trumps the more modern idea that there can be only one true account of an event. In a way these are modernist or postmodernist mindsets; multiple alternative versions of a story can all coexist and be valid.

Killing The narrative is very compressed. It has a superprimitive feel. The only counter, the only definition of an event is killing. The key events are all killings, but so many of the killings are bewilderingly casual. Or is it just that, not having the style or rhetoric to explore psychology (something which only came with the invention of the novel in the 1740s) narrative is conceived in a completely different way. As little more than a bald sequence of events with maybe snatches of dialogue attached if you’re lucky. The pleasure for its original audience isn’t in the depth of the text, but in the bluntness of the naming and telling on its surface:

Sinfjotli set off raiding again. He saw a lovely woman and strongly desired to have her. The brother of Borghild, the wife of king Sigmund, had also asked for her hand. They contested the issue in a battle and Sinfjotli slew this king. He now went raiding far and wide, fought many battles, and was always the victor… (50)

Sigmund said: “I will not kill your children, even if they have betrayed me.” But Sinfjotli did not falter. He drew his sword and killed both the children, casting them into the hall in front of King Siggeir. (46)

Sinfjotli drank [the poisoned mead] and at once fell to the ground. Sigmund rose and his sorrow was almost his death. He took the body in his arms and went into the woods, coming at last to a fjord. There he saw a man in a small boat. The man asked if he wanted to accept from him passage across the fjord. Sigmund said yes. The boat was so small that it would not bear them all, so the body was carried first and Sigmund walked along the fjord. The next moment the man and the boat disappeared before Sigmund’s eyes. After that Sigmund returned home, and now he drove the queen [who gave Sinfjotli the poison] out. A short time later she died. (51)

Blunt, clipped, brutal, the most terrible events referred to casually, other trivial events dwelt on at puzzling length, weird and inexplicable behaviour throughout (playing the harp with his toes in a hole full of snakes?); everything about the sagas is strange and alien to our modern, pampered, over-explained sensibilities. Which is what, I guess, makes them so bracing and so strangely addictive…

I read the Penguin version, translated by the US academic Jesse L. Byock. It has a good introduction, going into the actual history behind the saga in some detail, rather thin notes, but a very useful summary at the end of who is who and what they did, given that the text is often very confusing. It’s surprising the penguin edition doesn’t have family trees since these are invaluable in understanding who is who. There are plenty on the internet:

Family trees of the three families mentioned in the Saga of the Volsungs

Byock notes that there have been four previous translations into English, the first of which was by William Morris and Eirikur Magnusson (1870). What a pioneer Morris was, in so many ways! His translation is available online courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Kudos for Morris for being a pioneer, but his prose style is dire, almost unreadable. His introduction is interesting, though, a rugged defence of Norse culture at a time when the Classics dominated higher education and the culture of the ruling class.

Sigurd Fåvnesbane. 12th century woodcarving (Image: Jeblad/Wikimedia Commons)

Sigurd Fåvnesbane. 12th century woodcarving (Image: Jeblad/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

Mezolith (2010)

‘Mezolith’ is a stunningly beautiful and evocative graphic novel, according to its Amazon page one of The Times’s graphic novels of 2010, and you can see why. The archaic, primitive, mythical stories are by Ben Haggarty. The wonderful, inspirational graphic illustrations are by Adam Brockbank.

‘Mezolith’s 90 or so pages are divided into 6 chapters or stories, featuring a pre-teen boy, Poika, who lives with the 30 or so-strong  Kansa tribe in a temperate land some 10,000 years ago. These are Stone Age people. They hunt with spears and bows and arrows. They have initiation ceremonies in caves decorated with bison paintings and hand outlines. There are shamen and legends. There is a correct way to kill and skin game in order to respect the great god Uljas.

In a very small space the narrative cannily packs lots of incident, both in human time and in the dreamtime of the ancestors, their myths and legends. The love story of the doomed swan-woman is beautiful. Her burial is obviously carefully based on real archaeological finds, the folding up of the beloved’s body, the scattering of precious possessions…

Extracts from The DFC Library: Mezolith, published by David Fickling Books. Story by Ben Haggarty, artwork by Adam Brockbank.

Extracts from The DFC Library: Mezolith, published by David Fickling Books. Story by Ben Haggarty, artwork by Adam Brockbank.’

And Adam Brockbank’s images wondrously bring the narratives to life, selecting snapshots from each scene, just the most telling details, especially from the natural world. I’ve rarely seen a flying swan depicted so vividly. And a close-up of the terrified eye of the hunted bull as it wallows to its death in the swamp. Ravens flying overhead. A ghostly owl looking down onto the human story.

They were selling ‘Mezolith’ at the British Museum shop outside the Ice Age exhibition which i visited a few weeks ago but, by pure coincidence, my son picked up a copy at our local library, read it in a sitting and lent it to me. It puts into a vividly-imagined context lots of the artefacts in the exhibition. (There’s a striking picture of the hunters using spear launchers, just the kind which the exhibition featured.) It’s a wonderfully thought-provoking, deeply-felt and beautiful book.

Cover of the 'DFC Library: Mezolith', published by David Fickling Books. Story by Ben Haggarty, artwork by Adam Brockbank

Cover of the ‘DFC Library: Mezolith’, published by David Fickling Books. Story by Ben Haggarty, artwork by Adam Brockbank

Buy ‘Mezolith’ on Amazon

The Saga of Noggin the Nog

I am inspired by reading Norse mythology to dig up my dvd of Noggin the Nog, the children’s TV series from my earliest youth. I discover the first series was broadcast before I was born, in 1959. I must remember it from repeats later in the 60s.

The series was created by Oliver Postgate, the animator and cartoonist, and Peter Firmin, artist and puppet maker, one-time teacher at the Central School of Art. Their biographies are fascinating – blasts of sweetness from a vanished, simpler era – and Noggin himself breathes the same air of simplicity and innocence.

Oliver and Peter set up their ‘studio’ in a disused cowshed on Firmin’s farm in Blean near Canterbury, and started making stop-frame animations with the simplest equipment. In the dvd slipcase Oliver is quoted as saying the big technical breakthrough was realising they could use little dobs of Blu-Tack at each of the joints on the people and animals: glue would fix the joints; Blu-Tack allowed them to be moved tiny amounts, then photographed, and hence the wonderfully home-made stop-frame style of the shows.

The setting The stories follow the adventures of Noggin, king of a remote northern kingdom based on an innocent, non-violent version of the early medieval/Viking era. In the first series, when old King Knut dies, Noggin must find a queen to marry or else forfeit the crown to his uncle, Nogbad the Bad. Noggin voyages north to meet and marry Nooka of the Nooks (an Eskimo princess), and becomes the new king.

The shows lovingly invoke the look and style of the great Norse sagas, notably the way each episode starts with a repeated formula – “Listen to me and I will tell you the story of Noggin the Nog, as it was told in the days of old”, or “In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale …” Peter and Oliver had both been inspired by the look and feel of the famous Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum, which are themselves half way towards being cartoon characters.

The music In the earliest series, the music is restricted to a simple and haunting theme written by bassoonist Vernon Elliott and performed by him and his wife on – I think – bassoon and oboe. By the third series much more complex music which pastiches the oriental setting of the ‘Flying Machine’ story, is played by The Vernon Elliott Ensemble. By the time ‘The Pie’ is made ten years later it sounds like a small orchestra is being used.

The charm Telling the plot misses the point: the charm of the stories is a combination of:

  • the naive, low-tech animation
  • the beguiling wavery voice of Postgate himself who spoke the narration and voiced most of the characters
  • the strangeness of the stories: the Chitty Chitty Bang-like wonderfulness of the flying machine; the sweetness of the sad and lonely ice dragon; the perky optimism of the Omruds; the haunting sadness of the giants

Comic characters All the characters are essentially comic:

  • Thor Nogson – Noggin’s friend and Captain of the amusingly incompetent Royal Guard, Nogson is a confirmed coward, fearful of every event
  • Olaf the Lofty – An eccentric but enthusiastic inventor, he invents a wonderful flying machine, a steam train which runs out of control, and gunpowder (!)
  • Graculus – A miraculous talking green bird who arrives as Nooka’s messenger in the first episode and stays to offer sage advice and resolve many a tricky situation

Nogbad the Bad Almost all the stories are driven  by the evil scheming of Noggin’s uncle, Nogbad the Bad, who never gives up trying to claim Noggin’s throne for himself. Nogbad always loses in the end. When he is revealed as the baddy in each story the 5 year old in me wants to jump up and boo, but is also reassured by the predictability. It’s Nogbad again!!!

Broadcast history The series was broadcast on the BBC from 1959 through to 1965. 21 programmes were made in black and white and six in colour.  Each episode in the series  lasted ten minutes though the later ones were re-edited to make longer episodes. I think they used to go in the special children’s slow just before the 5.45 News.

Colour! And the last two series were in colour! It makes quite a difference. Like probably everyone I prefer the black and white versions as seeming to come from an era almost as distant as the Vikings… But this isn’t the only change. The music is played by more instruments and is more varied and rich. And the design has significantly changed, most notably in the eyes. The original Noggin characters have round clear circles for eyes with black dots for pupils. This makes them look wide-eyed and innocent. In the revised colour versions the characters’ eyes become black dots. It’s a much cleaner, more professional design but makes them a bit blanker. These are the versions most often used in merchandising.

Noggin: Early naive style

Photo of Noggin and Thor Noggson, early style. Artwork: Peter Firmin

Noggin and Thor Noggson, early style. Artwork: Peter Firmin

One of the Lewis chessmen showing the boggly eyes and proto-cartoon design.

Photo of a Lewis chessman showing the boggly eyes. Copyright the British Museum

Lewis chessman showing the boggly eyes. Copyright the British Museum

Noggin: Later, smoother style.

Illustration of Noggin and other characters from The Saga of Nogging the Nog. Artwork: Peter Firmin

Notice Noggin’s black eyes (though the other characters have the older style). Artwork: Peter Firmin

The TV shows

1 The Saga of Noggin the Nog (6 episodes) (b/w)

2 The Ice Dragon (6 episodes) (b/w)

3 The Flying Machine (3 episodes) (b/w)

4 The Omruds (3 episodes) (b/w)

5 The Firecake (3 episodes) (b/w)

6 Noggin and the Ice Dragon (4 episodes) (colour) (remake of 2nd saga)

7 Noggin and the Pie (2 episodes) (colour) (based on the book published in 1971)

Related links

The complete series was released on DVD in 2005, in a package that also included DVD versions of the short story books.  Buy The Sagas of Noggin the Nog on Amazon.

There was also a set of 12 illustrated children’s books which you can buy on the Dragons’ Friendly Society website.

The Dragons’ Friendly Society (this seems to be the official site for Noggin merchandise)

Noggin the Nog website (this seems to be a fansite)

Noggin and Thor Nogson atop the Ice Dragon. Artwork: Peter Firmin

Noggin and Thor Nogson atop the Ice Dragon. Artwork: Peter Firmin

Sexual violence in the fiction of George RR Martin

As the drums reached a crescendo, three of the girls leapt above the flames, spinning in the air. The male dancers caught them about the waists and slid them down onto their members. Dany watched as the women arched their backs and coiled their legs around their partners while the flutes wept and the men thrust in time to the music. (Dance with Dragons, p 237)

Wet and willing The central misogynist fantasy is that women are nothing but sexual objects, devoid of personality or autonomy, who are always wet and willing to be used by men at the drop of a hat. Over the course of his bestselling series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s books become more and more imbrued with this fantasy, fantasies of women permanently ready to fuck (and ‘fuck’ is the word used, with increasing frequency, throughout the books), eternally lubricated and waiting to be taken at a moment’s notice. It comes to dominate the atmosphere of the later books, becoming the default attitude of almost all the male characters, and made to be a recurrent part of women characters’ own consciousnesses:

She loved the strength in his arms, the sound of his laughter, the way he would always look into her eyes and say her name as he slid his cock inside her. (ATF 35)

Her captain slept beside her, yet she was alone. She wanted to shake him, wake him, make him hold her, fuck her, help her forget… (ATF 37)

‘Come back to bed and kiss me.’ No one had ever kissed her like Daario Naharis. ‘I am your queen, and I command you to fuck me.’ (ATF 40)

‘Get out,’ Lord Janos roared at her. She did. But as she slipped past Jaime, clutching one shoe and a pile of her clothes, she reached down and gave his cock a squeeze through his breeches. (ATF 116)

Her noble husband was soon fast asleep. Daenerys could only twist and turn beside him. She wanted to shake him, wake him, make him hold her, kiss her, fuck her again… (ATF 157)

‘Forgive me, High Holiness, but I would open my legs for every man in King’s Landing if that was what I had to do to keep my children safe.’ (ATF 216)

In Feast For Crows Victarion Greyjoy leader of the ironborn (thinly-veiled Vikings) leads a brutal attack on a longship, chopping up numerous opponents with his enormous axe. So far, so grisly. He lets his men tidy up after the carnage as he returns to his cabin, there to find a black slavewoman ready and waiting to pleasure him.

The wind was freshening, and his thirst was raging. After a battle he always wanted wine. He gave the deck to Nute and went below. In his cramped cabin aft, he found the dusky woman wet and ready; perhaps the battle had warmed her blood as well. He took her twice, in quick succession. When he was done there was blood smeared across her breasts and thighs and belly, but it was his blood, from the gash in his palm… As a reward for his leal service, the new-crowned king had given Victarion the dusky woman, taken off some slaver bound for Lys. ‘I want none of your leavings,’ he had told his brother scornfully, but when the Crow’s Eye said that the woman would be killed unless he took her, he had weakened. Her tongue had been torn out, but elsewise she was undamaged, and beautiful besides, with skin as brown as oiled teak. (FFC 484-8)

The way the slavewoman is permanently wet and ready is already far into male fantasyland. But the way her tongue is torn out to make her a mute, powerless, fantasy sex slave makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t like it. I don’t like acquiescing in this kind of abuse even in a work of fiction.

Misogynist verbal aggression Almost all the characters despise and abuse women. The later books create a claustrophobic atmosphere of vitriolic misogynist abuse. For me this is exemplified by the ubiquity of the c word. I’m sure it gets more frequent as the series progresses. In the first book I turned down pages where it occurred and there are only 2 or 3. In the last book I stopped bothering to turn them down because it occurred every 3 or 4 pages, hundreds of times.

‘A man would need to be a fool to rape a silent sister,’ Ser Creighton was saying. ‘Even to lay hands upon one… it’s said they are the stranger’s wives, and their female parts are cold and wet as ice.’ (FFC 73)

Brandon loved his sword. He loved to hone it. I want it sharp enough to shave the hair from a woman’s cunt’, he used to say… I am old now, a dried-up thing, too long a widow, but I still remember the look of my maiden’s blood on his cock the night he claimed me. I think Brandon liked the sight as well. (ATF p 14)

The kraken’s daughter turned out to be just a woman after all, the captains and the kings would say. See how she spreads her legs for this soft green land lord. (ATF p21)

Most of the guest paid them no more mind than they did the other slaves… but one Yunkishman declared drunkenly that Yezzan should make the two dwarfs fuck, and another demanded to know how Tyrion had lost his nose. I shoved it up your wife’s cunt and she bit it off, he almost replied… (ATF 109)

but no, I had to have a whore. Kinslaying was not enough, I needed to have cunt and wine to seal my ruin, and here I am on the wrong side of the world, wearing a slave bell with little golden bells to announce my coming. (ATF 260)

He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. She forgot Moat Cailin and Ramsay Bolton and his little piece of skin, forgot the kingsmoot, forgot her failure, forgot her exile and her enemies and her husband. Only his hands mattered, only his mouth, only his arms around her, is cock inside her. He fucked her till she screamed, and then again until she wept, before he finally spent his seed inside her womb. (D&D 390)

The word becomes disconnected from the context of sex, where it might just about be justifiable, to become a generally widespread disparaging term about women, the ultimate word of contempt, abuse and power.

‘Get her up, turncloak.’ Holly had her knife in her hand. ‘Get her up or I will. We have to go. Get the little cunt on her feet and shake some courage into her.’ (ATF 171)

She imagined how sweet it would be to slam an elbow into Septa Scolera’s face and send her careening down the spiral steps. If the gods were good, the wrinkled old cunt might crash into Septa Unella and take her down with her. (ATF 219)

You look awful, even for a man’s been dead a dozen years. Blue hair, is it? When Harry said you’d be turning up I almost shit myself. And Haldon, you icy cunt, good to see you too. Still have that stick up your arse? (D&D 361)

From time to time Martin deploys a shock turn of thought whereby characters embark on a civilised or humane dialogue or action, only to suddenly switch to deliberately crude, in-your-face sexual brutality. For me the affect was counterproductive. It made me dislike the character, but also dislike the author who feels the need to shock me with his capacity for crudity.

It reminded me of being down the pub with a certain kind of guy who tries to impress everyone by how blunt and crude he can be about ‘bitches’ and their ‘cunts’. After a while everyone wonders whether he’s still a virgin.

The fat man grew pensive. ‘Daenerys was half a child when she came to me, yet fairer even than my second wife, so lovely I was tempted to claim her for myself. Such a fearful, furtive thing, however, I knew I should get no joy from coupling with her. Instead I summoned a bedwarmer and fucked her vigorously until the madness passed.’ (D&D 82)

Sexual threat Elsewhere large sections of the novels are disfigured by permanent sexual threat. Too many of the proles, the common soldiery, but also the so-called lords, are just bursting with anti-woman abuse any time a female of any age comes near.

Brienne of Tarth in particular, as she wanders through the Riverlands in volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5, wherever she goes and whoever she meets, is subjected to verbal abuse, threat and often sexual attack. There are so many examples, each one horrible. One stands out, when Asha’s troop are ambushed in the woods and fight desperately. She kills several men and then:

Her last foe was a northman with an axe, a big man bald and bearded, clad in a byrnie of patched and rusted mail that could only mean he was a chief or champion. He was not pleased to find himself fighting a woman. ‘Cunt!’ he roared each time he struck at her, his spittle dampening her cheeks. ‘Cunt! Cunt!’ (D&D 407)

There are too many fantasies in the books about humiliating, brutalising, raping, killing, threatening and abusing women – and this is viciously epitomised the growing ubiquity of the c word as an everyday and acceptable term.

Martin’s position In an interview with the Atlantic magazine Martin has said the gratuitous sex is no more gratuitous than the gratuitous violence, the gratuitous heraldry, the gratuitous descriptions of feasts or jousting, let alone the vast and complex gratuitous genealogies. I.e. it’s part of the excess of the fantasy genre. How, he asks, can people enjoy reading about knights cleaving each other’s skulls open with axes or wolves tearing children’s throats out but object to fairly vanilla depictions of straight sex?

I think the answer is that when two huge knights start knocking six bells out of each other we (the male reader, anyway) feels empowered. I vicariously enjoy the violence, I identify with men pitching their strength and skills against each other. I’ve been in fights, played rugby and other contact sports, go to the gym, I identify with physical endeavour and competitive combat, I find the descriptions thrilling – I can identify with both sides because I’ve won fights and lost fights: in the story, I am the stronger man beating down the loser, I am the plucky loser dodging the blows, the fiction allows me to exercise my physical imagination. And, crucially, at any point, I can bail out of being the loser and identify with the winner (even if it’s the disgusting Clegor brothers or Ser Ilyn Payne) as when watching any kind of war movie or Western or adventure film I, the male viewer, always identify with the Hero Who Survives and barely notice all the movie extras who are blown up, plummet to their deaths, are shot down all around me as I stride through the flames.

Fights between men can go either way but the winner will always be a man. When it comes to the sex, however, the traffic is all one way; the sexual violence is always against women. Women are raped, threatened with rape, forced to have sex, raped then killed, raped and have their breasts cut off, are whores or treated like whores continually, throughout this world. It is imaginatively narrowing; it doesn’t liberate my mind, it traps my mind. And it doesn’t invigorate me as the physical violence between men does – it degrades me.

In a battle anything can happen and in the novels a lot of the violence is shocking because it is surprising. When Jaime gets his hand cut off, when Bran is pushed from the window, when Eddard is beheaded, when Renly is garroted by a ghost, when Tyrion kills Tywin – all of these are shocks, all of them are unexpected and occur in novel and (admittedly brutal, but) imaginative ways.

But when Tyrion returns to his rooms to have sex with Shae, when Victarion comes back from battle to have sex with his slave, when Daenerys is forced to take it behind from Khal Drogo, even when Cersei commands her handmaids to have lesbian sex with her, there is an abusive domination about these sexual encounters, and it is always the woman being abused, commanded, exploited, raped.

The imaginative argument against sexual violence If a knight gets his head staved in, I switch my imaginative allegiance to the victor and feel an (admittedly brutal) sense of triumph. Thousands of shoot-em-up computer games are based on this premise.

But if I attempt the same level of identification with Victarion taking a black slave whose tongue has been torn out but who is still unrealistically nubile and improbably wet – I feel, frankly, ashamed and dirtied.

I feel embarrassed to be reading the book. I don’t want to be in the mind of a woman-mutilating slave owner or a rapist. In the mind of Damphair the visionary prophet, of Jon Snow battling to save the Wall, of Tyrion scheming against his family, of Jaime trying to do the right thing, of Petyr Littlefinger scheming against the lords of the Vale, yes, it is imaginatively stretching and exhilarating to be in their shoes. But not in the shoes of a psychopathic rapist. It is sullying.

The stylistic argument against sexual violence The sex is more predictable and samey and monotonous than the violence. All the characters have sex in the same way – not the same positions, but with the same carefree absence of psychological consequences. Which is a very male, functional view of sex. The books contain is a large class of female characters whose only function is to be permanently wet and ready to be penetrated. This is not just biologically impossible (50 years of sex manuals, advice columns and feminist tracts have established that most women require lubrication to have penetrative sex and/or don’t climax from penetrative sex alone); but it is socially impossible.

The historical argument against sexual violence Whereas there have been societies as brutally violent as Westeros (central Europe during the Thirty Years War), there has never been a society where half the female population are either sexually willing whores or sexually available servants and bedmaids. The dirt and disease and religious doctrine and social stigma attached to any sort of sex outside marriage, and even to sex within marriage, have been overwhelming inhibitors of sexual activity for most of human history until, arguably, the last few generations, and then only in advanced industrial societies blessed with modern hygiene and sophisticated contraception. In this sense the ubiquitous violence in the Ice and Fire stories is acceptably realistic but the ubiquitous sex isn’t.

The moral argument against sexual violence Not many of us are likely to dress in full armour and engage in mortal combat. But the persistency with which women are referred to as cunts, only worthy of being raped or having their teats cut off, degrades me, the reader, and accustoms me to a degraded rhetoric or style of thinking about women. I grew to resent being made to think like this, even momentarily, as I increasingly was on page after page, as the series progressed.

Now I’m reaching the end of the series with a sense of relief at escaping its oppressive, sexist atmosphere.

In summary Whereas the brutal violence of the books is both plausible and (to some extent) imaginatively invigorating, the sexual violence of the books is both implausible and degrading.

Related links

2000 A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow by George R. R. Martin
2000 A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold by George R. R. Martin
2005 A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
2011 A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George R.R. Martin
2011 A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin’s prose style: Affixes, compound and combination words
Sexual violence in the fiction of George R.R. Martin

The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Grettir is one of the last of the great Icelandic sagas, set down at the end of the fourteenth century by an unknown author, some 350 years after the events it describes. The sagas are divided into categories and Grettir belongs to the ‘Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), heroic prose narratives written between the 12th and 14th centuries about deeds of the great settler families of Iceland from the period 930 to 1030, the period actually known as the söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history.

Grettir is not mythical; it references to no Norse gods. Instead it is firmly rooted in historical events and mentions many historical figures: the historical jarl (earl) Eirik sails off to join his brother-in-law Knut, who was king of England from 1016 to 1035; three real bishops are mentioned (Fridrik, Isleif, Thorlak) who, along with references to churches and mass and priests, demonstrate the diffusion of  Christianity throughout Icelandic society only a few years after its arrival in 1000 CE; late in the book Grettir journeys to petition Olaf, king of Norway 1015 to 1028, and so on. Instead of myths, the narrative is overwhelmingly made up of small-scale fights and feuds, ambushes and long-harboured grudges. Which makes the two key moments in the narrative – Glam’s curse half way through, and the sorceress’s spell at the end of the saga – powerfully compelling irruptions of the supernatural into the otherwise wholly naturalistic.

Editions I read the Everyman edition which consists of the 1913 translation by G.A. Hight garnished with a 1965 introduction and notes by Peter Foote. The Hight translation is available online. Hight wrote: “My aim has been to translate in the colloquial language of my own day, eschewing all affectation of poetic diction or medievalism,” and he succeeds very well. Hight’s prose is brisk and clipped:

The following summer jarl Eirik the son of Hakon was preparing to leave his country and sail to the West to join his brother-in-law King Knut the Great in England, leaving the government of Norway in the hands of Hakon his son, who, being an infant, was placed under the government and regency of Eirik’s brother, jarl Sveinn. Before leaving Eirik summoned all his Landmen and the larger bondis to meet him. Eirik the jarl was an able ruler, and they had much discussion regarding the laws and their administration. It was considered a scandal in the land that pirates and berserks should be able to come into the country and challenge respectable people to the holmgang for their money or their women, no weregild being paid whichever fell. Many had lost their money and been put to shame in this way; some indeed had lost their lives. For this reason jarl Eirik abolished all holmgang in Norway and declared all robbers and berserks who disturbed the peace outlaws. Thorfinn the son of Kar of Haramarsey, being a man of wise counsel and a close friend of the jarl, was present at the meeting.

Or take this specimen of dialogue when Thorhall, son of Grim, hires big Glam to be his shepherd:

‘What work can you do best?’ he asked.

Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.

“Will you mind my sheep?” Thorhall asked. “Skapti has given you over to me.”

“My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please,” he said. “I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased.”

“That will not hurt me,” said Thorhall. “I shall be glad if you will come to me.”

“I can do so,” he said. “Are there any special difficulties?”

“The place seems to be haunted.”

‘”I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull.’

Prior to Hight, this saga had been translated by the enthusiastic medievalist William Morris, aided by Eirikr Magnusson, back in 1869. Morris’s translation of Grettir’s Saga is available on Project Gutenberg and also on The Icelandic Saga Database. Morris’s Victorian patiche of medieval style is as dated as  his chintz wallpaper, but it has an interesting introduction and a handy chronology dating all the events: 997 Grettir born, 1012 slaying of Thorir Paunch, 1015 burning of the sons of Thorir, 1016 Grettir meets king Olaf but fails to bear iron, 1031 Grettir dies.

Contrast Hight’s crispness with Morris’s style:

But before Earl Eric went away from the land, he called together lords and rich bonders, and many things they spoke on laws and the rule of the land, for Earl Eric was a man good at rule. Now men thought it an exceeding ill fashion in the land that runagates or bearserks called to holm high-born men for their fee or womankind, in such wise, that whosoever should fall before the other should lie unatoned; hereof many got both shame and loss of goods, and some lost their lives withal; and therefore Earl Eric did away with all holm-gangs and outlawed all bearserks who fared with raids and riots.

It’s quite hard to read the Hight for any length; it would be impossible to read the Morris. There are also a Penguin translation and an OUP edition.

Medieval manuscript picture of Grettir the Strong

14th century illustration of Grettir the Strong (by Haukurth, from Wikimedia Commons)

Plot summary The plot is more a long sequence of events, though there is skill in the way the story detours to follow one thread then returns a few chapters later to pick up the main plotline of Grettir’s life. Only towards the end do you see the way various threads have been prepared right at the start to bring the narrative to a climax. Only when it’s completely over does the figure of Grettir emerge much bigger and more moving than at any one place in the text.

The saga is divided into 93 short chapters. Some are only a few paragraphs long.

  • Grettir is a disappointment to his rich successful father, Asmund Longhair, but his mother Asdis dotes on him, giving him her grandfather Jokull’s sword,  when he leaves home.
  • Grettir is a difficult antisocial child, prone to irritate people with smart oneliners and biting lampoons: “The likely may happen – also the unlikely.” “Work not done needs no reward.”
  • Grettir has red hair and freckles.
  • On a voyage with Haflidi he alienates the whole crew by doing no work, until the boat is in peril of sinking when he suddenly bales out with the strength of ten men.
  • At Vindheim Grettir breaks into a howe (from the Old Norse haugr meaning hill, knoll or mound) and fights the demon howe-dweller to win the treasure buried here with the dead king Kar.
  • Grettir is a guest at Thorfinn who is away at the Yule Feast when a boat of vikings lands and threatens to rape and carry off Thorfinn’s wife and daughters. Grettir fights them off, killing no fewer than ten including the leaders Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Bad.
  • Grettir kills in single combat the troll who has been ravaging Thorfinn’s land.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn who had been teasing him.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn’s brother, Hjarrandi after the latter ambushes him.
  • Grettis kills Hjarrandi’s brother, Gunnar, after being ambushed by him and five assistants. What surprises about this is not the anarchy of these death; the opposite, it’s the way Grettis is hauled before jarl Eirik and Gunnar’s relatives argue on one side and Grettir’s supporters on another and the jarl speak openly of his anger at these deaths and is only just persuaded to let Grettir go free.
  • A whale washed up on the beach prompts a fight between Thorgils Makson and the twins Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Coalbrow-Skald. Thorgeir kills Thorgils. Again what’s interesting is this leads to a lengthy case at the annual Thing or court where both sides make cogent arguments; Thorgils’ relatives win and Thorgeir is banished and Thormod ordered to pay blood money to Thorgils’ family.
  • Grettir wins a horse fight at Langafit. Apparently the Icelanders made pairs of stallions fight each other by goading them with sticks.
  • Thorhall, the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, needs a shepherd and hires an enormous man called Glam, warning him his homestead is haunted. Glam is big and surly and refuses to fast on Christmas Eve. He stuffs his face and goes out to mind the sheep in a big storm. Later the men find his corpse and signs of a big struggle. He has been killed by the spook. Although they bury Glam he rises from the grave to haunt the neighbourhood, riding on people’s rooftops, scaring and sometimes killing men.
  • Grettir comes to the neighbourhood of Vatnsdal and ends up confronting Glam’s ghost and killing him. But not before the spook curses him, predicting that he will never be stronger than he is now, and will be followed by bad luck. Glam’s Curse:

“Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death.” (chapter 35)

Compare with the William Morris translation:

“Hitherto hast thou earned fame by thy deeds, but henceforth will wrongs and man-slayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad; therefore this weird I lay on thee, ever in those days to see these eyes with thine eyes, and thou wilt find it hard to be alone and that shall drag thee unto death.”

  • And thereafter Grettir is afraid of being in the dark, because it is then that Glam’s eyes appear to him and terrify him.
  • Grettir, like many others, seeks employment under the new king of Norway, Olaf, and sets sail. But on the boat Thorborn Slowcoach insults his now-dead father, Asmund, and Grettir slices his head off at a stroke.
  • The trading boat Grettir is on moors off the coast of Norway in a blizzard. The traders see fire across a river and Grettir swims there to ask for some but the men in the house attack him when he lumbers in looking like a troll, so he fights back, seizes some burning brands and flees back to his ship. The next day they discover the house burned down killing everyone in it. They were the sons of Thorir an important man. Grettir is shunned.
  • In Trondheim, Norway, Grettir seeks an audience with king Olaf. He says burning Thorir’s sons was an accident. The king him the ordeal of holding iron. This was the practice of holding iron bars which have been heated in a furnace a) you have to be inured to pain to hold them b) afterwards, if the wounds heal you are innocent, if not you are guilty. A crowd gathers in the church for the liturgy which precedes the ordeal but an adolescent taunts Grettir so much he strikes him and the king calls the ceremony off. Grettir’s impatience is harming him.
  • Grettir is staying with Einar, a wealthy man in Norway. Robbers led by the berserk Snaekoll, ride down out of the forest and threaten to carry away his daughter, Gyrid. After a laconic exchange Grettir rams the berserk’s shield into his mouth breaking his jaw, pulls him off his horse and decapitates him with his axe.
  • Meanwhile in Iceland Grettir’s father dies a natural death, leaving his holdings to his son Atli. But Atli is murdered by Thorbjorn Oxmain. Meanwhile Thorir learns about his sons who were burned to death by Grettir and takes a large force to the Thing or court, where he gets Grettir proclaimed an outlaw. Grettir’s ship form Norway arrives in Iceland and he learns these three facts in one blow.
  • He steals Sveinn’s horse, saddlehead and rides it a long way in the rain stopping to speak verses to the people he meets. When Sveinn tracks hi down, instead of fighting, they end up swapping verses and becoming good friends.
  • Grettir surprises Thorbjorn Oxmain and his son in the fields as they are gathering in the hay. He shatters Arnor’s skull with a side blow of his sword, then embeds his axe in Thorbjorn’s head. He knows he is outlaw so bids farewell to his mother, still grieving for the loss of her son, Atli, and rides west.
  • Grettir winters with Thorgills at Reykjaholar; two other guests, Thorgeir and Thormod, attack him. They are in mid-fight when Thorgils appears and tells them to stop. Which they do, like naughty schoolboys.
  • A long account of the All-Thing or court where Skapti the Lawman and Snorri the Godi adjudicate the case of Atli’s murder and Thorbjorn’s murder. The remission of Grettir’s status as outlaw is mooted but firmly rejected by Thorir of Gard whose sons were burned in the house. Thus Grettir’s status as outlaw is confirmed, though with misgivings.
  • Grettir roams the westlands taking what he wants from farmers and shepherds. Eventually a posse of 30 men surround and ambush him and tie him up and have a lengthy debate about what do with him, which was turned into a separate humorous poem. At which point the lady of Isafjord rides up and has him released on his good behaviour.
  • Grettir is a plague on the land, stealing from all passersby. He builds himself a hit by the sea and tries to earn a living fishing. Grettir’s enemies, the men of Hrutafjord, hire a mercenary, Grim, to kill him. But Grettir kills Grim.
  • Thorir of Gard commissions Thorir Redbeard, another outlaw, to kill Grettir. For two years he lives and works with him on Arnarvatn Heath. One day, as a storm blows up over the lake and Grettir is repairing the boat, Thorir grabs his sword to kill Grettir who leaps back into the lakewater, swims behind Thorir, dashes him to the ground and cuts his head off.
  • Thorir of Gard attacks Grettir in a narrow pass with 80 men and yet Grettir fights them off. After Thorir withdraws grettir discovers his back had been covered by a strongman named Hallmund. For a while Grettir lives in Hallmund’s cave along with is daughter.
  • Then Grettir confers with Bjorn and goes t olive in a cave overlooking Fagraskogafjall. Bjorn and Grettir are both superstrong and have contests such as swimming the river Hitara from lake to the sea, and creating vast stepping stones.
  • A big man much given to ornaments, decorations and boasting, Gisli, arrives with three helpers to kill Grettir at his mountain fastness. Grettir fights off the assistants then chases Gisli all down to the mountain to the river as the coward strips off all his clothes one by one. At the river Grettir beats Gisli with a tree branch then lets him go free, returning up the hill and collecting all Gisli’s abandoned gear.
  • Grettir is attacked at a narrow spit between forks in a river by two coordinated bands but fights them off with two helpers.
  • Grettir migrates to a secret valley below a glacier which he believes to be protected by a blending, a giant named Thorir, and his daughter, so he called the valley Thorisdal.
  • Another grim takes over Grettir’s abandoned hut by the sea and catches fishes. On two successive nights Hallmund steals the fish laid out to dry. On the third night Grim catches him in the act and chops his neck with his axe. Hallmund flees back t ohis cave and recites the lay of his lifestory to his daughter, dying just at the end. Grim arrives and he and his daughter mourn together and become friends.
  • Grettir outwits another expedition Thorir sends to kill him, outflanking them and stopping to recite verse to Thorir’s daughter.
  • At Eyjardalsa in Bardardal dwells Thorsteinn the White and his wife Steinvor. One Yule she travels to church for mass and when she comes back her husband has vanished. The next year she travels to church leaving her servant behind. Once again he is gone when she returns. Grettir hears of the disappearances and arrives under the alias of Gest. First he carries Steinvor and her daughter across a flooded river so they can go to church. When he returns he builds a barricade in their house and sure enough in the middle of the night a troll appears and there is a massive fight. Some say Grettir hewed off her arm and she ran for the rocks, some say they were fighting when day arose and she turned to a woman-shaped stone which can still be seen. He rests form his fight then the priest tells Grettir of a cave behind a waterfall. Grettir dives into the water, climbs up into the cave and fights an ugly giant. When he has killed him he explores the cave and finds the bones of two dead men, obviously the missing men from Bardardal. He carries them to the church (v Christian) and writes the story of the giant-battle in runes on a staff (v pagan).
  • On advice Grettir journeys to the isle of Drangey. He goes with his younger brother, Illugi, just 15. Their mother Asdis is tearful at the parting.
  • Grettir squats on the isle of Drangey, living with Illugi and a servant, off seabird eggs and the sheep there. In fact the island belongs to some 20 freemen, chief among them Thorbjorn Angle, but they can’t dislodge him, Grettir lives there 2 years. Once when the fire goes out he swims a nautical mile to the mainland, secures fire and a boat back.
  • Thorbjorn persuades a young man called Haering to climb up the cliff while he and his men distract Grettir form the boat. Haering climbs up and is sneaking up on the brothers when Illugi turns and spots him and gives chase. They chase all over the island until Haering jumps over the cliff and breaks every bone in his body. At the spot known ever since as Haering’s Leap.
  • At that summer’s All-Thing Grettir’s supporters claim his 20 years outlawry is expired. His enemies say he should be outlawed all over again for the wicked things he has done. the Lawgiver decides he has not completed the full 20, but that twenty is the maximum any man can have. Grettir will be freed the following summer.
  • Desperate to get his island back Thorbjorn Angle takes a boat out to it with his foster mother Thurid, an old woman and a witch and heathen from the old times before Christianity came. She listens to Thorbjorn shouting up at Grettir on top the cliff, and Grettir refusing to discuss leaving and then shouts out a curse at Grettir, that his doom is sealed and his days will grow worse. Grettir throws a huge stone out into the boat which breaks the old woman’s hip. But she is confident her curse will work.
  • the sorceress performs a strange rite on a log on the beach and sends it off, against the current, to Grettir’s island. Here it bumps against the cliff and Grettir rejects it twice. But on the third day the servant Glaum brings it up and to the hut. Unaware Grettir goes to chop it up with his axe which slips and badly injures him in the thigh. The wound festers.
  • Then Thorbjorn assembles a gang of men and goes back in the boat. The useless thrall Glaum has left the ladder down and Thorbjorn’s men easily climb to the top, overpower Glaum, and launch a massive attack on Grettir’s house. His brother Illugi defends him bravely but he is pinned down by all the shields while the others kill Grettir. Although he is said to be already dead from the festering wound. they cannot free his sword form his grip until they cut his hand off. And then Thorbjorn ruins the sword by cutting off Grettir’s head which he packs in salt.
  • Thorbjorn rides with the head to Bjarg to confront Grettir’s mother Asdil who conducts herself with dignity.
  • At the next All-Thing it is decided that all feuds around Grettir are ended; but instead of getting the price on the head of the outlaw Thorbjorn finds himself exiled for using sorcery in this increasingly Christian culture. His relations go recover Grettir and Illugi’s bodies and bury them in Bjarg church.

Postscript The saga doesn’t end with Grettir’s death and burial. Blood feuds weren’t optional in Icelandic society, even after Christianity was established, and how they played out, how the relatives of those killed bore their responsibility for revenge, were as much a source of interest in this kind of prefeudal society as the finest details of their genealogy. And so Grettir’s half-brother pursues his murderer all the way across Europe to take his revenge. What is extremely odd is the way this brutal saga then turns into a medieval Romance of love and adultery – and then again turns into a Christian tract preaching ideal repentance and holiness, all in the last 30 or so pages!

  •  Thorbjorn sells his goods and takes ship to Constantinople where he becomes a warrior in the emperor’s guard. But he is tracked there by Grettir’s quiet half-brother Thorsteinn Dromund who also joins the Varangian Guard and takes the first opportunity to kill Thorbjorn and is thrown into prison.
  • At this point, surreally, the saga turns into a medieval romance as the lady Spes walks past the dungeon and hears Thorbjorn singing. She pays for him to be released and they become adulterous lovers behind the back of her ineffectual husband Sigurd. They conspire to get Sigurd to falsely accuse her so that he can be disgraced and forced to divorce her and they get married and have sons and move back to Norway.
  • From here, in old age, they decide to atone for their youthful sins and travel to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, and then to live out their days in separate holy retreats. And thus they die reconciled to God.


Sturla the Lawman has declared that no outlaw was ever so distinguished as Grettir the Strong. For this he assigns three reasons. First, that he was the cleverest, inasmuch as he was the longest time an outlaw of any man without ever being captured, so long as he was sound in health. Secondly, that he was the strongest man in the land of his age, and better able than any other to deal with spectres and goblins. Thirdly, that his death was avenged in Constantinople, a thing which had never happened to any other Icelander.
Further, he says that Thorsteinn Dromund was a man who had great luck in the latter part of his life.
Here endeth the story of Grettir the son of Asmund.

I was moved to learn that there is a memorial to Grettir the Strong near his legendary homestead of Bjarg in Iceland:

Photo of the memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland

Memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland (Image: Bromr under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

Understatement The saga has some examples of the famous Norse understatement:

  • Grettir counted the men. There were twelve in all, and their aspect did not look peaceful.
  • ‘I shall come again, and it is not certain that we shall then part any better friends than we are now.’
  • Thorbjorn sidled round to the front of the door and thrust his spear with both hands into Atli’s middle, so that it pierced him through. Atli said when he received the thrust: ‘They use broad spear-blades nowadays.’
  • ‘Have you not heard that I have not proved a mound of wealth to most of those who have had to do with me?’ said Grettir.
  • He said: “Here is a man coming towards us with his axe in the air; he has a rather hostile appearance.”

But, to be honest, not as many as you’d expect.

Naming legends There are references to the contemporary present of the author, and a number of naming stories of the kind you commonly find in oral literature. (They litter the early books of the Bible.)

  • “The spear which Grettir had lost was never found until within the memory of men now living. It was found in the later days of Sturla the Lawman, the son of Thord, in the very marsh where Thorbjorn fell, now called Spearmarsh. This is the proof that he was killed there and not in Midfitjar, as has been elsewhere asserted.”
  • Grettir went up to the Arnarvatn Heath and built himself a hut there of which the remains are still to be seen. (chapter 55)
  • Grettir and Bjorn swam in one course the whole length of the Hitara from the lake at its head down to the sea. They brought the stepping-stones into the river which neither floods nor freezing nor icedrifts have since moved from their places. (Ch 58)
  • “Grettir fell back a little and reached a stone which is still standing by the side of the way and is called Grettishaf, where he stood at bay.” (Ch 59)
  • The place where they fought is now called Grettisoddi. (ch 60)
  • They laid Grettir’s head in salt and put it for the winter in the out-house called Grettisbur in Vidvik. (ch 82)
  • Angle let him take the head and bury it in a sand-hill, which is now called Grettisthuf. (ch 84)

Lovely words

  • a bondi is a class of warrior freeman
  • holmgang (meaning “walk on an island or small place”) is a Viking duel.
  • a jarl is a leader or chieftain, next in line to the king. Origin of our word “earl”.
  • luck, from the Dutch apparently, and cognate with modern German Glück.
  • thing is a meeting to administer and decide cases; the All-Thing was the annual meeting of Iceland, held every Summer
  • weregild – a value placed on every human being and piece of property under Salic Law. If property was stolen or someone was injured or killed the guilty person would have to pay weregild as restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property. Weregild is composed of were, meaning “man” (as in werewolf), and geld, meaning “payment or fee”, as in Danegeld; Geld is modern German for ‘money’.
  • berserker (from the Icelandic for “bear-skin”) is a fighter capable of working himself up into a homicidal frenzy. In their delirium they sometimes bite their own shields and I was delighted to learn that the Lewis chessmen include just such knights in the act of biting their shields!

“The berserk thought they were trying to get off by talking. He began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield up to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman.” (chapter 40)

Other sagas

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind @ the British Museum

To the British Museum for their wonderful exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind. The curators have assembled a few hundred, mostly small, some very small, artefacts from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. 15 of them are selected for extended commentary on the audioguide. The exhibition is small and beautifully formed, like most of its contents – the audioguide takes only 45 minutes – which is just as well because you have to peer and strain to see a lot of the detail on the tiniest objects and there’s a lot to read for every one of the exhibits. By the end I was full.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, about 20,000 years old. Musee d'archeologie nationale. Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, about 20,000 years old. Musee d’archeologie nationale. Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

Two ideas The curators have had two ideas:

Idea 1 The ubiquity of design and artifice, the care and craft which went into these tiny objects, prove that cro-Magnon man had brains every bit as modern as ours. They show “practised artists experimenting with perspectives, scale, volumes, light and movement, as well as seeking knowledge through imagination, abstraction and illusion.” The promotional video features animations of brain synapses crackling. A neuroscientist is interviewed once on the guide. Hmm. All this is asserted but not really proved. It would have been good to read a really thorough, peer-reviewed, evidence-based paper on the subject, rather than the boosterish claims of Neil MacGregor and audioguide presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Idea 2 To reinforce this proposition, the curators intersperse the Ice Age “art” with works by Matisse, Henry Moore, Brassai and other classic Modern artists. The idea is to reinforce the notional continuity between the Ice Age mind and our own. Look! We see things the same. Instead, this tactic reminded me of the bankruptcy of modern art which was forced to abandon its millenia-old realist heritage at the turn of the 20th century and embrace ‘primitive’ and ‘ancient’ art from whichever sources it could pillage. That people living 40,000 years ago are people is evident; that they put an immense amount of time and care into creating these objects is apparent; that they had minds like our own and appreciated art, volume, space, light, pattern and design is empty words; how can we ever know? The overwhelming likelihood is that everything we mean by “art” today – the creation of precious artefacts by a privileged caste designed to be preserved forever in public or private collections, periodically sold at auction for record-breaking sums, and catalogued and written about by a highly-educated coterie – would be incomprehensible to Ice Age people. It’s barely comprehensible to most of us living now.

Two periods Roughly speaking, the exhibition divides into early and late Ice Age art. Not very much has survived from 30,000+ years ago which makes these treasures which have seem all the more valuable, strange and moving. The exhibition features the oldest ceramic, what the curators claim is the oldest portrait sculpture (of a woman’s head), the oldest sculpture of an animal (the lion man), the oldest puppet or doll. It is mind-blowing to contemplate them and really ponder their ancient ancientness. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty thousand years old!

The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. c.26,000 years old. Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute

The oldest known portrait of a woman sculpted from mammoth ivory found at Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, Czech Republic. c.26,000 years old. Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute

Prevalent among the oldest pieces are bulbous women with enormous buttocks and boobs, fertility images which we’ve all seen before, like this Female figure sculpted from steatite, some 20,000 years old! I’ve always read that these are fertility objects, presumably carved by men to worship or invoke the fathomless fertility, the mystery of the Female. Well, after a long detour, feminism has arrived at the Museum because both curators and a woman artist asked to comment suggested that the foreshortening of the figures and the emphasis on boobs and hips may be because they were made by women, for women in celebration of their femininity, and have the shape they do because that’s what a woman sees when she looks down at her own body. I’m surprised the audioguide didn’t burst into a few rousing choruses of Sisters are doing it for themselves 🙂

This may be true. It may not. What this comic outburst of feminism suggests to me is that we haven’t a clue what these images are for. We don’t know who made them or why or what they are meant to represent or how they were meant to be used. It seems as presumptuous of the curators to assert they were made by women as it is to assert that Ice Age humans had the same brains as ourselves, or a lot of the other assertions contained herein. Even our best claims are palpably guesses, and always have been. Thirty years ago they were carved by men in awe of female fertility. Now they were carved by women for themselves. Thirty years hence another theory will hold sway. And so on forever.

Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world; On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.

Modelled figure of a mature woman from Dolni Vestonice, the oldest ceramic figure in the world; On loan from Moravske Zemske Museum. Brno.

Having read all the labels and listened to all the commentary and absorbed all the details and descriptions – I’m happy for the works themselves to return to the mysterious depths of the human spirit, to the impenetrable prehistoric gloom where they came from…

Their message is their unfathomable Mystery, their complete unknowability. The thoughts they prompt in us – even the most scholarly and specialist among us – are no more than speculation. Educated guesses.

Part two The cold grew more intense until a moment known as the Late Glacial Maximum 13,000-10,000 years ago, after which the ice began to withdraw and Europe slowly warmed. From this point onwards the guide speaks a little incongruously of a ‘renaissance’, meaning that many more objects are found as, presumably, human settlements and human numbers rise, and these of much greater craftsmanship than before.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France, c. 13,000-14,000 years old; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France, c. 13,000-14,000 years old; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Standout artefacts were the deer antlers carved with one or two centimetre wide holes drilled in them. We think they are spear throwing devices. We think that rope from skins was looped through the holes then onto the back end of spears to help propel the spear further and faster than mere throwing – like those plastic ball-throwers dog-owners use. A video shows the curators being shown how to throw them. And maybe this theory is true. Lots of these objects have been found and almost all are decorated with geometric designs or pictures of the wild animals which were hunted.

Probably the most beautiful object was the sculpture of two reindeer swimming carved out of a mammoth tusk. The details of the heads, of the shining eyes, the cross-hatching to indicate fur, even the way the rear one’s head was laying flat on the rump of the one ahead, as reindeer can be observed behaving to this day, was marvellous.

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Tip of a mammoth tusk carved as two reindeer depicted one behind the other; 13,000 years old approximately; Montastruc, France; Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum

Smashed One theme which was mentioned again and again in the labelling but wasn’t addressed as an issue in the commentary is that a large number of these “amazing works of art” had been carefully and deliberately damaged, smashed to pieces and buried. Could it be that many or most of them weren’t anything like what we mean by “work of art”, but were tools used in rituals, ceremonial artefacts, and that, when they had been “used”, when the hunting or fertility performance or ceremony was over – they had to be smashed to pieces and buried. Used and thrown away. This theory is speculation, like all the others, but it does take account of the fact that lots and lots of the artefacts had not only been deliberately and painstaking created, but then deliberately and painstakingly destroyed; lots have had to be reassembled from fragments.

In which case, if many or most of these artefacts were implements, tools and vessels for rituals – then they are not art at all, not in our modern sense of eternally enduring creations of the imagination which must be preserved and categorised and shown in special places called museums and galleries. They may, they do, display signs of great care and skill at depicting animals with wonderful insight, humans in strange symbolic form, or geometric patterning. And we may choose to call this “artistic endeavour” and attempts to “situate the human within the natural world” and “shamanistic tokens mediating between the human mind and the animal mind”. Curators and cataloguers can call them whatever they like, triggering greater or smaller resonance in the minds of us, the spectators.

But the point is, we just don’t know and we never will know. This exhibition confronts us, chasteningly, invigoratingly, with the bottomless depths of our ignorance.

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind continues until 26 May.

Jonathan Jones’s review in the Guardian

Richard Dorment’s review in The Telegraph

TJ Clark’s review in the London Review of Books

A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George RR Martin (2011)

The seventh and most recent (2011) book in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, this is in fact, as previously explained, part two of the fifth book, Dance With Dragons, itself too large to publish in one volume. The two Dance with Dragons books combined would have totalled 1,117 pages of text, plus the 60 pages of genealogies at the end of each book; hence their division into two more manageable volumes.

But if you are reading the series, this is the final, most recently available book. Finish it and you join the legions of GRRM fans waiting impatiently for the next instalment, The Winds of Winter, expected publication date – 2015!

Photo of Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Harry Lloyd as Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

This is a photo of Viserys Targaryen, exiled as a child from the kingdom of Westeros where his royal father has been brutally overthrown and killed. Viserys is brought up abroad, dreaming of completion and fulfilment, hoping to return and claim his rightful throne and bring his sad story to a triumphant conclusion. Instead he spends his childhood in an alien city and his adult years wandering across an endless steppe, thrown among brutal strangers, abused and humiliated, before being suddenly and sadistically killed by having molten gold poured over his head.

It is tempting to joke that reading all seven Song of Ice and Fire novels has been a somewhat similar experience. It’s taken me three long months to read them, three months during which my initial enthusiasm, my delusions that the multiple plotlines might reach some kind of fulfilment or closure, has peaked, plateau-ed and then, in this last book especially, rapidly declined.

Three things in particular have eroded my initial enjoyment – the misogyny, the climate of failure and the sense of disappointment. I’ve written about the misogyny of the novels in another post.

The Reader’s Disappointment

The first book, Game of Thrones, is given the underlying tension and page-turning excitement of a thriller as we watch Lord Eddard Stark close in on the Great Secret at the heart of the Lannister succession. In the last pages he is abruptly executed and his secret is casually revealed in the second book by which time no one cares as the kingdom is descending into civil war.

The next few books have brooding over them two great, exciting threats – the attack on the Great Ice Wall which we know is being planned by an unseen army of wildlings and things of the night – and the threat that Daenerys Targaryen will sweep back to Westeros to claim her throne astride the three mighty dragons she has brought to life.

Yet both these overarching narrative arcs fizzle out with no real resolution: King Stannis’s army decimates the wildling horde pretty easily; and Daenerys locks her dragons in a dungeon and gets bogged down in endless pointless politicking in the godforsaken slave city of Meereen.

Other great set-piece conflicts are set up, such as Robb Stark’s military triumphs in the North and Renly Baratheon’s elegant march across the South. These also are rapidly deflated as Robb is unceremoniously assassinated at Walder Frey’s castle and Renly is also assassinated by an evil spirit. The biggest battle in the whole series, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, also has a great sense of anticlimax as the attacker Stannis loses all his forces and the evil Lannisters emerge victorious.

“All signs are foreshadowing the terrible disaster that is to come,” it says on the Wikipedia entry for A Clash of Kings. But it never comes. One reads the ensuing four books in hope that something, anything, decisive will happen. Instead Robb is crushed, Stannis is crushed, Renly is crushed, Daenerys runs into the sand – the characters and plotlines may ramify out like weeds, but the edge-of-your-seat tenterhooks of the earlier novels slowly evaporate.

And this is directly connected to…

The characters’ failures

  • Lord Eddard Stark thinks he’s acting nobly and for the best. He fails and dies.
  • Eddard and Robert Baratheon think they can secure a peaceful transition of power but both fail; instead the continent collapses into brutal civil war.
  • Lady Caitlin Tully thinks she’s acting for the best when she releases Jaime to be exchanged for her daughter, Arya and Sansa. But Jaime is captured and mutilated and she never lives to see her daughters.
  • Robb Stark thinks he’s acting from duty when he marries Jeyne Westerling who he’s been sleeping with. it is a catastrophic error, as he had promised his hand to a daughter of the powerful Lord Frey and Frey takes his revenge by killing Robb, his mother and most of his army.
  • Sansa Stark thinks her young boy king fiance will give her a life of chivalry and beauty. It is a terrible failure of judgement; he strips and humiliates her.
  • Cersei Lannister’s every action is designed to protect her children but her beloved son dies in front of her eyes, while her daughter Myrcella is hideously maimed. She then plots to get her boy son’s fiance, Margaery Tyrell, accused of made-up crimes of fornication and debauchery – only to be herself imprisoned and tried for the same crimes – in her case, with justification.
  • Lord Tywin Lannister is motivated solely by the good of his House but he dies at the hand of his disgraced son, and it looks like the the entire house will be eclipsed by House Tyrell.
  • Jon Snow sends Maester Aemon to the Citadel for his own safety but far from being safe, Aemon dies on the way from the rigours of the long sea journey. Jon makes elaborate plans to incoporate the wildlings into the Night’s Watch, against mounting opposition from his own men who eventually turn on him and murder him.
  • Stannis Baratheon judges himself the rightful king of Westeros but all his plans are crushed at the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Although his defeat of the wildlings beyond the wall is a success, his journey to attack Winterfell is another catastrophic disaster in which most his army perish in the deepest blizzard seen for decades.
  • Brienne of Tarth dedicates her life to defending King Renly who is promptly murdered before her eyes. She is charged with bringing Jaime to King’s Landing and fails to prevent him being mutilated on the way. She is charged with finding Sansa and Arya and fails, getting herself hanged in the process.
  • Daenerys Stormborn is such a vital and heroic figure at the end of book one, having endured a forced marriage, and then the death of her beloved husband and unborn son, before being reborn along with three dragons ushering in a new age in Westeros. Sadly, she spends the next six books wandering deep into the desert continent of Essos, shedding dead followers along the way, before embarking on a pointless quest to liberate the slaves of the great slaver cities. Her stated aim is to return to Westeros and claim the throne due to her (and her dead brother Viserys), as children of the deposed king Aerys. Instead her threads in two or three books are entirely devoted to evermore tedious politics of faraway cities full of ungrateful citizens who she’s liberated form their shackles. All the promise and excitement of her thread died years ago.
  • Theon Greyjoy is an epic failure: determined to prove his worth to his father and touch sister, he takes the almost empty castle of Winterfell, only to be himself overrun by the terrifying Ramsay Snow, who locks him in a dungeon, starves him and tortures him, destroying his mind and body.
  • Mance Rayder, the Night Watchman turned wildling, assembles and leads a vast army of the ‘freeborn’ against the Great Ice Wall which defends Westeros. But after several books of threat and suspense, just as he’s attacking the Wall, King Stannis and his army emerge from the mist and decimates Mance’s forces, shattering all his ambitions and leading to his enchained imprisonment. In a later twist he’s freed to lead a raid on Winterfell, wrongly believing the young girl betrothed to Ramsay Snow to be Arya Stark. It isn’t her, all his spearwife helpers are killed, and he himself captured and tortured.
  • Ser Jorah Mormont, in exile in Essos, dedicates his life to defending Daenerys but when she realises that he’s been informing King’s Landing of her doings all along, she dismisses him from her service and he becomes a wrecked man.
  • Failure runs in the family as his father, Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, leading an ill-fated expedition north of the Wall to spy out the wildling forces and rescue Ben Stark, fails in both endeavours and ends up being murdered by his own men in Caster’s House.
  • Young prince Quentyn Martell, son of the gouty old Lord Martell of Dorne, is despatched to Essos to make a match with Daenerys the dragon mother, only to arrive far too late, Daenerys being up to her neck in complex court machinations in Meereen; and then, in making a stupid attempt to free the dragons from the dungeon where they’ve been chained, is himself burned to death.
  • Arianne Martell seduces Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard to get his help in smuggling little princess Myrcella away from Sunspear. She intends to declare the little princess queen and raise an army around her. Instead her plot is foiled, the loyal Ser Oakheart is chopped to pieces before her eyes, and little Myrcella has half her face hacked off.
  • Victarion Greyjoy, a man already haunted by the failure of having his charismatic brother cheat on him with his wife (whereupon he beats his wife to death by hand), sets himself to be the next king of the ironborn when their father, Balon, dies. He is ignominiously defeated. When he sails for Eassos, also attempting to contact Daenerys and her dragons, almost half of his iron Fleet is destroyed.
  • Davos Seaworth, the “Onion Knight”, having had his fingertips chopped off by his stern lord Stannis, then watches his master’s plans come to destruction at the Battle of Blackwater Bay, where no fewer than four of his sons are killed. He is later despatched by Stannis to White Harbour to secure the loyalty of local lords, in which he completely fails and is imprisoned.
  • The dwarf, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, sets out to preserve his family and keep his lover, Shae, safe –  but ends up killing his own father and strangling the beautiful Shae. He flees abroad seeking safety and ends up being sold into slavery.
  • Lysa Tully is hopelessly in love with cunning Petyr Baelish and thinks her dreams are finally coming true when he arrives back at the Eyrie, despatched from King’s Landing to secure her allegiance. Until he calmly pushes her out of a window 600 feet up a mountain. So much for childhood sweethearts.
  • Kevan Lannister believes he is acting for the best when he allows his niece, Cersei, to be led naked through the streets of King’s Landing to atone for her sins. He is just carefully planning  his next move when he is assassinated.
  • Even the supercunning eunuch, Lord Varys, though still alive, hadn’t anticipated when he helped to free Tyrion Lannister from the King’s Landing dungeons, that the Imp would defect from the escape plan to track down his own father and kill him with a crossbow – thus ensuring the end of Varys’s career as a statesman and player.

After this exhausting marathon, almost the only major living character who hasn’t failed is the (very) cunning Lord Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) who has successfully based himself in the Vale of Arryn, cooly murdered his over-trusting wife, and is playing divide and rule among the local lords.

My son and I have been reading the series together, discussing its many aspects – and we’ve agreed our favourite characters were Tyrion, Jon Snow and Littlefinger.

Only with the death of Jon and enslavement of Tyrion did it begin to dawn on me that we liked this trio precisely because they were successful. With the others increasingly revealed as failures (and dying is a pretty tell-tale mark of failure) it dawned on me that maybe this is the reason we, as readers, like Baelish – even though he’s shown himself to be an amoral killer – because he has the charisma of success.

Tyrion also had it for most of the series – in the early books he was a benchmark of irony and sanity and savvy – but his successive failures and humiliations have rubbed it off him.

This is interesting because it suggests a novel needs at least some characters we readers can identify with – not in the naive sense that they are like us, but in the Freudian or fairy tale sense that they live out our fantasies – they overcome obstacles and succeed.

Watching a succession of unlikable characters fail, more or less miserably, while countless bystanders get hacked to pieces, in an atmosphere drenched in woman-hating swearwords and crude abuse, has taken its toll on my senses – and I am oh-so-relieved to have finished this vast, amazing, appalling odyssey and escaped back to the real world.

The TV series


The books have been made into an ongoing HBO TV dramatisation. Series 1 and series 2 are now available on DVD. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

Related links

Lichtenstein: A Restrospective @ Tate Modern

To the major Lichtenstein Restrospective at Tate Modern, the biggest expo of his work in 20 years, bringing together 125 works etc. I didn’t like it much. The comic book stuff is so familiar from a thousand posters that it barely registers – then the exhibition goes on to reveal a surprising number of other aspects of his work, often gathered into ‘series’ of paintings on a given subject – I was particularly struck by the sculpture. But none of it floated my boat and here’s why.


Born in 1923, Lichtenstein was a teenager during the Second World War and a young artist struggling to find a voice in the 1950s US art world dominated by the stars of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Room 12 has a handful of small paintings from this era showing his early, undistinguished daubs. He was clearly going nowhere.

Then, right at the start of the 1960s, Lichtenstein invented Pop Art with a large oil painting of a cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – Look Mickey! It looks rough to us today but was a radical step in Art History, incorporating factory-made, mass culture, junk culture images into the ‘High Art’ context of oil painting.

Within a year Lichtenstein realised that the Ben-day dots technique used to create pictures in comic books could themselves be recreated in his paintings – as a new technique, as an experiment in image creation on a large scale, as an ironic comment on ‘low culture’, as an hommage to Pointillism, as all sorts of things – a breakthrough which quickly led to the creation of the huge, iconic paintings of images lifted from comic books for which he immediately became famous. For example, 1963’s ‘Whaam!’.

Roy Lichtenstein, Whaam! 1963 (Tate. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)

Whaam! (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein. Tate. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

One of the most interesting things in the exhibition was a copy of the original comic strip which Whaam! is adapted from. It reveals the surprising extent to which Lichtenstein changed and clarified the image. He added the tail wing section, deleted a green hill from the bottom left, deleted the pilot’s speech bubble, and deleted two other jets either side of the one blowing up. The colours are reduced to black and white, grey, blue, red and his trademark bright yellow. The image is made simpler, crisper, cleaner. Well, after close examination, I think i began to prefer the image in the comic: it was dirtier, exciting and dynamic, part of a gripping action sequence, everything the sterilised Lichtenstein image had ceased to be. The Lichtenstein image is camp, knowing, ironic, cool, detached… and boring.

They missed a trick by not selling replicas of the original 1960s action comics in the Tate shop. Boys like me and my son would have snapped them up.

(Soon after publishing this post, I received a comment from David Barsalou linking to the flickrstream – deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein – which he’s created comparing some 140 Lichtenstein artworks with the comic strip source images, along with fascinating biographies of the comicbook artists who created the original art.)


I bought and listened to the headphone commentary which gives two minutes or so on each of 24 works selected from the total 125 here. The biographical facts were interesting, and interesting to have the art world of the times and the outline of his career explained. But a lot of the commentary piled layers of academic interpretation onto very simple images.

Take the magnifying glass, created from or decorated with his trademark Ben-day dots – but within the circle of the glass the dots are magnified. All-too-predictably the commentary makes this an ironic comment on the art of painting, an observation about the act of seeing, an insight into the emptiness at the heart of consumer culture, a self-reflexive commentary on the artist’s career put under the microscope by probing modern critics, a probing enquiry into the nature of ‘originality’ and quite a few other things as well.

In the commentary all of the paintings are overdetermined like this, larded with layer on layer of learned analysis. Slowly all the kitsch comic fun of the paintings was drained out of them, replaced by the joyless discourse of humourless curators and academics.

Take another example, Nudes With Beachball. Painted in 1994, this is one of a series of comicbook female nudes Lichtenstein did in the 1990s, towards the end of his life (he died in 1997). It uses the trademark Ben-day dot technique and simple outlines and primary colours (dominated by his trademark honey yellow) but all these later nudes are, in my opinion, somehow crude; even as outlines, as cartoons, they’re not very good. You rarely see these ones on postcards – they lack the gee-whizz gusto of the earlier work, and they lack the caption texts which make the early ones so knowingly funny. But this didn’t stop the commentary burying them in learned allusions: to the centuries-old tradition of nudes; to Picasso’s women-on-beach paintings; to RL’s earlier works; turns out these images are ‘problematising the nature of recreation time in late capitalist society’ etc. The commentary even added a modish allusion to the whiff of lesbianism in these images of naked women playing, so that they turn out to be subverting heteronormative conventions of gender identity.

Well, if you work in an academic environment saturated in gender studies, queer studies, women’s studies and so on, then probably any picture with some women in it will turn out to be repressing its latent lesbianism. Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy, interviewed for the exhibition, suggested that he just liked women and the shape of women. I agree. We men are sometimes rather simple that way. As Freud nearly said, sometimes eye candy is just eye candy. Even when it’s an ironic and knowing comment on ‘Society’s imprisoning of the Female Body within the Patriarchal Male Gaze’, it can also just be cartoon-perfect naked women cavorting on a beach.

Something similar happens in the big room dismayingly titled Art about Art. It turns out that Lichtenstein painted lots of pictures riffing on earlier art – Picasso was a particular favourite so all periods of the Big Man’s career are put through the Ben-day dot process, along with reworkings of Monet (Rouen Cathedral), a horrible late repainting of Laocoon etc.

This sort of allusion continues in the Artists Studio series where various big paintings of empty rooms feature well-known paintings hanging on the walls, including Matisse’s La Danse. This is the kind of intertextuality critics and curators love and gives them the opportunity to write about the artist ‘engaging’ with the Tradition, ‘recontextualising’ the gestures of his predecessors, taking ‘a highly intellectual approach towards the role of the artist and what painting means in a post-industrial world’ and so on and on. Not untrue. But doesn’t conceal the fact they’re still rather boring paintings of empty rooms which – you suspect -were created with an eye on the high-minded verbiage critics and curators would be able to spin out of them.

A selection of Lichtenstein’s Artist’s Studio paintings on Google images

Room by room

This, the largest Lichtenstein retrospective for 20 years or so, is organised across 13 rooms:

Room 1 Brushstrokes

The early days. Lichtenstein is crushed by Abstract Expressionism’s obsession with the paint stroke – or splatter – as embodiment of tortured, masculine creativity. He attempts the same style but is too ordered, too sane and too colourful to carry it off. Still, the close attention to the power and form of The Brushstroke is to last his entire career.

Room 2 Early Pop

Features Look Mickey! along with other early Pop images taken from posters, adverts or product pictures, for example, a painting of a big sponge swiping across a surface – Sponge II (1962) – presumably from an ad about a cleaning product. In a lot of these images you see the woman’s hand holding what is often a household implement. This allows the commentary to point out that women did most of the housework in the early 1960s and that, these images are ironic comments on the fact that women did most of the housework in the 1960s.

Room 3 Black and White

Images taken from commercial posters or brochures, isolated (or ‘islanded’ in curatorspeak) on white backgrounds: for example, Tire (1962), a Magnifying glass (1962), an Engagement ring (1961) Alka Seltzer (1966). My son liked the tyre, a bit. I should have liked some or all of these, I like black and white, I like clearly framed photos and clean images. But I found these paintings empty and lifeless. The commentary tells me they ‘lay bare the reductive nature of commercial images’. But we know images of products in adverts are simplified and reductive. Maybe they’re a mirror; maybe they reflect your mood or personality; maybe you can just find them fun and cool and easy on the eye, like my son did.

Apparently the magnifying glass ‘reveals another strategy of pop art: subverting the scale of objects’. I think what upsets me about the commentary and curatorspeak of this exhibition is it treats us like children, as if it’s never occurred to any of us that we live in a consumer society, as if we’d never noticed that adverts are a bit simplified and a bit unrealistic, as if it took an Artist to reveal these things to us, as if my world is going to be turned upside down when I see that the dots inside the magnifying glass are bigger than the dots outside it; as if it’s the first time I’ve come across a 20th century painter playing with the conventions of painting, instead of the thousandth time I’ve come across a Dead White Painter having his go at pimping up an exhausted medium.

Room 4 War and Romance

These are the big paintings of comic book images we all know and love. Half from True Romance type comics, with hilariously straight action men and earnest blondes; half from shoot-’em-up war comics like Whaam!, showing heroic soldiers and airmen.

Selection of Lichtenstein romance images on Google images

Once again I felt the commentary was aimed at wide-eyed 13 or 14 year olds. It patiently explains that these paintings ‘explore melodramatic stories and cliched gender roles as disseminated through American mass media, including film.’ Golly. Who do they imagine does not know that film is part of mass media? And they talk with such a patronising tone about the 50s and 60s as if gender stereotypes like rugged action heroes or dopey blondes are a thing of the remote past and never occur in modern Hollywood movies.

Is it worth commenting on the romance cartoons? That they’re cheesy and kitsch? That they’ve been made into, and given birth to, an entire style of knowing, ironic postcards and posters which are light and funny – as long as you don’t stop to analyse them to death. The idea was genius, wasn’t it? Lichtenstein created a whole new wing of the modern popular mind.

Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964 (Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012)

Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… (1964) by Roy Lichtenstein. Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

Room 5 Landscapes/Seascapes

There were a couple of unusual works in this small room: one, Seascape, used two shades of flexed blue plastic (Rowlux) behind a screen to create the illusion of sea and sky, completely unlike anything else in the exhibition. There was no explanation why this one ‘sport’ exists. It was my son’s favourite work. Otherwise ,natural scenes get the Ben-day treatment, such as Sunrise (1965).

Room 6 Modern

A commission to do a poster for New York’s Lincoln Centre led Lichtenstein to become interested in the geometrical shapes of Art Deco and resulted in so-so paintings incorporating Deco motifs – but also some striking geometric sculptures in bronze. Striking – but made you want to go back and revisit the wondrous Art Deco originals.

Room 7 Art about Art

One of the two largest rooms in the exhibition, dedicated to Lichtenstein’s reworkings of, that’s to say engagement with images by classic painters – ‘whether through appropriation, stylisation or parody’. Included here are his reworkings of pieces by his hero Picasso or Matisse or Mondrian or Monet’s facades of Rouen cathedral. They are clear, bright and pointless. The Rouen cathedral trptych (1969) is actively horrible. There’s his version of Femme d’Algers (1963) ‘engaging with’ Picasso’s Women of Algiers, which – it turns out – itself was engaging with Eugene Delacroix’s Women of Algeria from 1830. Has the energy level gone up or down in each successive version?

Room 8 Artist’s Studio

Four or five massive paintings of empty rooms from 1973-4. In terms of neatness of outline and clarity of design these are attractive though the same air of pointlessness hangs over them as over so much else. The commentary says the way he incorporates his own earlier paintings hanging on the walls of these rooms, for example in Artist’s Studio – Look Mickey (1973), is as if the older paintings are having the dialogue that should be taking place among the human figures who are absent from the rooms. Paintings have replaced people. Well, quite.

Maybe the absence of any lifelike human figures from any of these 125 works is because he can’t do lifelike human figures. Or because he can’t render people unless they’re in kitsch comic-book style.

Room 9 Mirrors and Entablatures

Lichstenstein became interested in the pediments and entablatures of neoclassical buildings in New York. He painted scores of entablatures. The commentary points out that he based the paintings on photographs he took of New York buildings.

Some of Lichtenstein’s entablatures on Google images

Hard to get very excited about. Because I saw Steve Reich performing earlier in the week it occurred to me these are a visual form of the musical minimalism which was the coming thing in the early 1970s, of the sometimes numbing repetition of the same motif countless times, there being no hidden meaning or emotion, the motif itself and its iteration being the sole point.

By the early 70s Lichtenstein had painted nearly fifty versions or, as the commentary has it, coded renderings of mirrors featuring different arrangements of Ben-day dots to convey shadow. In these paintings he is turning on its head the centuries old tradition of artists holding up a mirror to nature since these mirrors reflect nothing except their own painterly surface.

Some of Lichtenstein’s mirror paintings

Again, these seem like an idea designed to make post-structuralist art critics who’ve read their Jacques Lacan and know about his idea of the Mirror Stage of development go into ecstasies. But regarded purely as images hanging on a wall. Meh, as my son puts it, walking on.

Room 10 Perfect and Imperfect

Lichtenstein drew straight lines and made them ricochet off the inside edge of the canvas to create jagged fragments, then coloured in the spaces. These are the ‘perfect paintings’ of the title. If the line went beyond the rectangle of the frame a bit, he added an extra jag to the canvas and these are the ‘imperfect paintings’. The results are pretty dull but, according to the commentary, they ‘explore the vocabulary of abstraction with geometric fields of colour that challenge the edges of the traditional canvas’.

To quote the man himself: ‘It seemed to be the most meaningless way to make an abstraction.’ That feeling comes over very clearly.

Some of Lichtenstein’s Perfect and Imperfect paintings

Room 11 Late Nudes

This is the third really big room – along with big rooms for the classic comicbooks and for the art-with-art dialogues. Late in life Roy returned to comic book subject matter but this time stripped the women in the comic books naked. The same comic book style. The same Ben-day dots. The same clearly-rendered three-dimensional spaces. The same cartoon-perfect women as in the 1960s paintings. But this time naked, showing their perfect cartoon breasts. Maybe the commentary found signs of latent lesbianism in these because it was desperate to find signs of anything other than the obvious – these are huge paintings of naked cartoon women. Apparently, these kinky nudes ‘broached one of the most ancient genres of art, the nude, returning to the female subject in a new and provocative way’.

Some of Lichtenstein’s late nudes

The commentary explains, with hushed respect, that apparently Lichtenstein proceeded by choosing images of women from his vast collection of comic books and then imagined them without their clothes on. Hard not to laugh when reading this. Yes, he’s the only man who’s ever ever undressed women in his imagination. Is this what makes him so unique and so provocative? Apparently, for ‘the result is a disturbing violation of conventions. The noble nude has been rendered as erotic pulp.’

The noble nude? What, the same one featured in the Sunday Sport, page 3 of our bestselling newspaper, posters in tube stations and on the sides of buses, thousands of rap videos, gratuitously included in action films and gritty TV dramas, sprawled all over supermarket checkout magazines, plastered on the covers of tabloids and fashion rags and Nuts and FHM, pitilessly depicted in the paintings of Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud and in Tracy Emin sketches and Sarah Lucas installations, the same noble nude who stars in billions of web pages of soft, hard and beyond-belief porn?

Yes, that noble nude; yes, I was disturbed beyond words to find images of that noble nude featuring in squeaky-clean, wall-size cartoon paintings. I may never recover from the shock.

The only works which piqued my interest were a few sculptures. These are rendered in 2D i.e. they’re 3D artifacts but imagined as flat, with key spaces left empty so they are see-through: one was of a cartoon woman’s head, coloured blue on one side, red on the other. As empty of affect as everything else in the exhibition, this was still a striking object. Maybe my favourite piece was Galatea (1990), a cartoon version of abstraction: the yellow flick at the top is cartoon blonde hair, the two red roundels in the middle are cartoon breasts with cartoon black nipples and the biggest circle is the belly complete with black belly button.

On on level as trite as the hundreds of cartoon, but I liked the curve, the shapes it made, and the way it’s not solid, the curves filled with straight, coloured hatchings, the transparency. It still has the lumpy, literal, thick-black-outline heaviness I now associate with Lichtenstein, but it was the nearest to something genuinely graceful and creative that I saw in the whole exhibition.

The gallery attendant is presumably included in this press photo of Galatea to give a sense of scale, but don’t you think that she’s more interesting, aesthetically, than the sculpture? That there’s so much more going on with the attendant, with her shape, her stance, her clothes, the swirl of her hair, her lips, and expression? So much more life?

Room 12 From Alpha to Omega

A small room mingling some of Lichtenstein’s early pre-pop paintings with much later works; the idea is to show the continuity, the centrality of The Brushstroke; particularly in the late works which include ‘Brushstroke’ in the titles and feature crude brushstrokes splurged over his trademark clean, precise cartoon subjects; subverting or disfiguring them, certainly clashing two different painterly ‘worlds’. I like the idea, like playing chords from two unrelated keys at the same moment. I just wish the actual paintings were more interesting.

Some of Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes series

Room 13 Chinese Landscapes

The commentary tries to persuade us that these works from the 1990s which apply the Lichtenstein Look to Chinese art – portrait shape, tall mountains in mist – are late masterpieces ‘reaching new heights of sophistication’. If only. The jokey campness of RL’s style really does not mix with the serene dignity of the Chinese originals. The guide breathlessly informs us that the Great White Painter used ‘as many as 15 different size of dots’ in these paintings! Fancy! All those dots and not a speck of soul.

Some of Lichtenstein’s Chinese landscapes

Romantic versus Classic

Early on the commentary makes a distinction between the Romantic nature of Abstract Expressionism – the feverish outpourings of the tortured souls Pollock and Rothko reflecting the post-War Existentialist philosophy of Angst and Abandonment – and the light, airy, clean and detached Classicism of Pop, clinically selecting imagery from the commercial world around us and subjecting it to processes of repetition and simplification. Think of Warhol’s silks of Marilyn, soup cans etc.

This really helps to place Lichtenstein: All of his art is about knowingness and detachment. It is all ironic. At various points curators refer to his ‘wit’. Quite. Wit is to Classicism as Comedy is to Romanticism. If the Romantic is about emotions and its comic form is belly laughs, uncontrolled mirth, laughing through tears, then Classicism is about the controlling intellect and its comic form – Wit – is learnèd and dry and allusive and clever.

This dichotomy helped me put into words why I didn’t like most of the images on display here. I found them cold, detached, ironic and empty. My son said he spent an hour and a half walking round, looking carefully and listening to the commentary, and emerged as unmoved as he went in. He didn’t like them. He didn’t dislike them. He didn’t care about them, and he forgot them as soon as he’d left the gallery.

I learned a lot more about Lichtenstein and Pop Art than I knew before I went to the exhibition and for that I’m grateful to Tate and the curators for assembling such a comprehensive show. But part of what I learned is that I don’t like Lichtenstein and, sadly, that the overkill of academic commentary which drenches the show has ensured that I’ll never again be able to enjoy those light and witty postcards with the casual innocence they require.

Related links

All quotes are from the exhibition guide which is given out as a booklet to visitors or can be read online. Exhibition guide quotations copyright Tate Modern 2013.

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

George RR Martin’s prose style – Affixes, compound and combination words


George R.R. Martin’s phenomenally successful series of sword-and-dragons fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, is distinguished not only by its pseudo-medieval setting, subject matter, characterisation and plot lines, but by a systematic exclusion from his vocabulary of almost all words derived from Latin, Greek, French or other languages, or foreign loan words, or the ‘neo-classical’ coinages which entered the English language from the 17th century onwards.

Instead, his style shows a high frequency of words of Anglo-Saxon origin, a tendency which is particularly conspicuous in his use of compound and combination words.

First, I shall define the types of compound word available in English; then examine how Martin uses them, highlighting his reliance almost exclusively on forms with Anglo-Saxon roots; then conclude that the lexical choices he makes are as important as the subject matter of the stories in creating the novels’ brutal, archaic worldview.


English, being a flexible, almost uninflected language, has instead of inflexion a large number of ways of combining words or particles to change meanings. Chief among these is the affix, using phonemes added to the root or stem of a word to change its meaning. Added before a word affixes are prefixes, added after a word they are suffixes (these are the commonest two types of affix in English though Wikipedia has a beguiling table of ten types of positional categories of affix).

Affixes can be derivational or inflectional. Inflectional affixes changing the grammatical function of an existing word without changing the root meaning e.g. adding an -s at the end of a verb makes it third person singular, or to a noun makes it a plural. Derivational means the combination creates a completely new word e.g. ‘speech’ + the suffix ‘-less’ = ‘speechless’, a new word.

1. The prefix

A prefix is an affix which is placed before the root of a word. In the study of languages a prefix is also called a preformative because it alters the form of the words to which it is affixed. Being such a wonderfully mongrel language, English takes prefixes from many other languages, just a few examples (This list of prefixes and the list of suffixes below are from an excellent article by Dr Lim Chin Lam in The Star of Malaysia newspaper) [1]:

  • English: be-, in-, out-, over-, under-, un-
  • Latin: ab-, ad-, inter-, intra-, post-, pre-, re-, sub-, super-
  • Greek: a-, ana-, dia-, endo-, exo-, epi-, hyper-, hypo-
  • German: über-*

In English, all prefixes are derivational i.e. adding them to a stem creates a new word. Examples of derivatives formed with some of the prefixes listed above are: incoming, underachieve, interrelate, relay, subhuman, dialogue, epilogue, überbabe.

Wikipedia has an impressive list of some 1,060 English prefixes. (It also has an entry for a completely separate category, a table of Number prefixes, listing over 80 examples.) (It is significant for my argument that Wikipedia divides the prefixes into two categories, native and neoclassical, following the work of the Hans Marchand.)

2. The suffix

Suffixes are affixes positioned at the ending of words or stems. Like prefixes, suffixes can be derivative (added to the stem to make a new word) but unlike prefixes, suffixes can also be inflectional (adding -s to make a plural or -ed to make a past tense). English incorporates suffixes from multiple sources, for example:

  • English: -ful, -let, -some
  • Latin: -able, -ate, -ion, -ous, -ure
  • Greek: -ic, -ist, -osis
  • French: -enne, –eur, -euse, -ise, -trix

Examples of derivatives formed with the suffixes listed above would include: helpful, handsome, endurable, resonate, institution, carnivorous, plastic, metamorphosis, executrix.

Wikipedia has a list of some 609 English suffixes.

3. Combining words [2]

Then there are certain words or stems of words which, like prefixes and suffixes, can be used in combination with other words or word-stems but have this big difference from affixes – they can also be used in combination with other affixes or among themselves. These are called combining forms. A combining form may join with:

  1. an independent word (mini- + skirt)
  2. an affix (cephal- + -ic)
  3. or another combining form (photo- + -graphy)

Combining forms are thus distinct from affixes, which can be added to either a free word or a combining form but not solely to another affix. Combining forms are overwhelmingly of Latin or Greek origin and were imported into the language from the 16th century onwards as scholars revived ancient learning and revelled in the power of neo-classical morphemes to create huge numbers of (often technical) new terms. Using Marchand’s term we can categorise all the Latin and Greek formations as neoclassical.


  • word beginnings: bi-, demi-, mini-, multi-, oleo-, omni-, petro-, quadri-, radio-, semi-
  • word endings: -colour, -form, -mony, -ped, -vorous


  • word beginnings: amphi-, arch-, astro-, dys-, eu-, hemi-, hetero-, homo-, litho-, macro-, micro- oligo-, poly-
  • word endings: –arch, -cracy, -crat, -graph, –logue, –logy, -meter, -nomy, –path, -phagous, -phile, -phobe

Examples of combining forms doing what affixes can’t do i.e. combining with another combining form, would be: bi+ped, astro+nomy, micro+scopy, mono+logue, oli+garch. The result feels and sounds very technical, scientific, academic.

There are three types of combining forms:

  1. Forms borrowed from Greek or Latin which are derivatives of independent nouns, adjectives, or verbs in those languages. These combining forms often replace the corresponding English word when used in the formation of learned/scientific/jargon coinages (eg cardio- to replace ‘heart’, -phile to replace ‘lover’) and generally appear only in combination with other combining forms of Greek or Latin origin (we say bibliophile not bookphile, to maintain the consistency of the learned style, the technical register of the word).
  2. A form extracted from an existing Greek or Latin free word and used as a bound form, typically maintaining the meaning of the free word or some facet of it. E.g. heli-, mini-, para-, -aholic, -gate, -orama.
  3. The compounding form of a free-standing English word. Such a combining form usually has only a single, restricted sense of the free word (and may differ from the word phonetically). E.g. -proof, -wide, -worthy, -land, -man.

Complicated though the analysis of combining forms can become, the basic idea is that they are a) a more flexible type of affix b) overwhelmingly Greek or Latin in origin, and c) that they create almost a parallel version of English, for use among the learned professions, medicine, law, academia et al.

A sociological interpretation might be that they serve to exclude the uninitiated from specialist areas of knowledge and are designed to maintain privilege among a learnèd élite.

4. Compound words

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine freestanding words to make new ones, and English is very rich in these compound words. Compound words, in order for the results to be manageable, tend to combine two short, often monosyllabic, words. Typical English compound words would be:

  • afternoon, birthmark, blackberry, heartbeat, rainbow, shopkeeper, seaweed, sunshine.

Having defined the terms ‘prefix’, ‘suffix’, ‘combining form’ and ‘compound word’, it’s time to explore the way they are deployed by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Fire and Ice series of novels.


1. George R.R. Martin’s use of prefixes

Consider the common Latin or Greek prefixes listed by Dr Lam [note 2]:

  • Latin: ab-, ad-, inter-, intra-, post-, pre-, re-, sub-, super-
  • Greek: a-, ana-, dia-, endo-, exo-, epi-, hyper-, hypo-

Almost none of these are found in Martin’s work. There are hardly if any words starting ab, sub, super, post… Their absence speaks volumes.

There are obviously exceptions. ‘Re’ is common in words like return or reply, recite, restore. In Feast For Crows I came across the word ‘intermittent’ which stood out like a sore thumb. Enemies have to ‘submit’. In chapters about the High Septon and his religious court, official-sounding words like ‘fornication’ and ‘adultery’ are freely used. But in hundreds of other pages there are only a handful of examples of neo-classical prefixes.

Instead, Martin uses almost exclusively English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) prefixes. Common examples are ‘un-‘ and ‘be-‘  forms.

  • bedraggled, bedeck, betray, behead, behest, beneath
  • uncertain, uneasy, unlucky, unmoved, unruly, unship, untaken

And sometimes Martin goes to the other extreme from using neoclassical prefixes, delving beyond common speech into archaic native forms: for example, he conspicuously deploys the archaic prefix ‘a-‘ to denote position: atop, abed, ahorse (the form survives in a handful of English useages such as astern, adrift).

2. George R.R. Martin’s use of suffixes

Of the six hundred or so available English suffixes, Martin overwhelmingly uses forms which convey a deep sense of their Anglo-Saxon provenance. To readers with a feel for the language these usages convey a richness and historical depth to the individual words and the surrounding contexts. Notably common in his lexicon are:

  • -craft (from Old English –cræft ‘art or skill in’) type of skill e.g. statecraft, warcraft, witchcraft.
  • -dom (from the Old English -dōm meaning ‘state, condition, power, dominion, authority, property, right, office, quality’) e.g. kingdom.
  • -en (from the Old English -en meaning ‘made of, consisting of, having the qualities of’) applied to nouns to form adjectives: oak > oaken, ash > ashen, earth > earthen, wood > wooden, frozen, broken.
  • -ful (from the Old English, to form adjectives from nouns, adjectives implying a thorough and certain possession of the quality of that noun) e.g. hurtful, sorrowful, bashful, beautiful, mournful.
  • hood (from the Old English -hād) a) the condition of being the thing the suffix is attached to e.g. childhood, parenthood, manhood b) a group sharing a condition or state e.g. knighthood, priesthood, brotherhood.
  • -less (from the Old English -lēas, from lēas meaning ‘devoid of’) lacking the quality of the stem e.g. breathless, loveless, helpless.
  • -ling (from Old English -ling meaning either a) ‘a younger, smaller or inferior version of what is denoted by the original noun’, or b) the derived sense indicating possession of or connection with a quality) eg duckling, wildling (cf Tolkien’s use of ‘halfling’ to describe the hobbits).
  • -ly (from the Old English -līċ – ‘like’) converts a noun into an adjective (sick > sickly).
  • -ly (from the Old English -līċe) converts an adjective into an adverb (quick > quickly).
  • -ness (from the Old English -nis, -nes, ‘-ness’) a) this is added to adjectives to form the noun of the quality the original adjective describes e.g. calmness, richness, kindness, darkness, coldness, fairness, wickedness, thickness.
  • -ship (from the Old English -sciepe, ‘state’) a property or state of being the thing to which the suffix is attached e.g. kingship, leadership, horsemanship, lordship, fellowship.
  • -some (from the Old English -sum, ‘-some, same as’) characterized by some specific condition or quality e.g. quarrelsome, handsome, fearsome, toothsome.
  • -ward(s) (from the Old English -weard, -weardes) a) forming adverbs denoting course or direction – northwards, backwards b) forming adjectives, as in ‘a backward look’.
  • -lit moonlit, sunlit
  • -light dawnlight, sunlight, moonlight, candlelight, lamplight.

3. George R.R. Martin’s use of combining forms

Insofar as combining forms are generally Greek and Latin in origin they are rare in GRRM. Maester Colemon says ‘intercession’ on page 691 of A Feast for Crows but then, he is a maester, a learnèd man, and so it is in character. ‘Intermittent’ is a standout usage earlier in the novel.

‘Fornication’ is used in the chapter where princess Margaery is accused by the religious order of the septons: again it is deployed to convey technocratic and legalistic mindset of medieval religious inquisitors. In the final chapter of Feast for Crows, which is about the educated maesters of Oldtown, there are a number of Latinate words like ‘penetrate’, ‘complement’, ‘complaint’.

But against the overwhelming backdrop of Saxon vocabulary which characterises the novels, the rare use of technocratic neoclassical combining words is very conspicuous, and emphasises Martin’s craft in deploying them carefully to distinguish scenes where he wants to accentuate the legalistic or learnèd character of the speaker or context of the setting.

Their presence in selected settings highlights the absence of the thousands of neoclassical combining words which are in common usage in modern English, but carefully omitted from these texts.

4.  George R.R. Martin’s use of compound words

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. The following compound words are found in the fourth Ice and Fire novel, A Feast For Crows. Given the subject matter of the novel, it is no surprise that they show an overwhelming tendency to use Anglo-Saxon or archaic source words to form compound words which describe mostly medieval, warlike or feudal concepts:

  • aftertaste, applecake, barefoot, bathhouse, battleground, bearksin, bedchamber, bedwarmer, beeswax, birthright, bloodshed, breastplate, chainmail, cobblestone, collarbone, cookpot, cupbearer, deadfall, dockside, doorstep, doorway, downfall, drawbridge, driftwood, evenfall, facedown, featherbed, figurehead, fingertip, fingernail, firepit, fishpond, fishwife, flagship, foodstuff, footsore, footstep, freedman, freedwoman, gatehouse, gemstone,  grandson, greybeard, greyhound, guardsman, halfpenny, hallway, handmaiden, hardness, headlong, helpmate, henceforth, highborn, hilltop, hindquarters, hoarfrost, honeycomb, household, huntsman, kettledrum, lakeshore, lambswool, lifetime, limestone, longship, longsword, lowborn, lovesick, lukewarm, maidenhead, midday, moonstone, nakedness, oarsman, oathbreaker, offshoot, outlaw, overnight,  oxcart, piebald, pinecone, raindrop, roughspun,  saddlebag, sealskin, selfsame, sheepskin, sinkhole, snowdrift, stableboy, strawberry, stronghold, sunset, sweetbread, swordbelt, threadbare, turnpike, twoscore, underfoot, warhammer, waterline, waycastle, whalebone, wheelhouse, whetstone, whirlpool, whitecap, whitewash, wildfire, windburnt.

Some of the examples above are more obscure than others: there is a spectrum from the everyday (barefoot, rainbow, chestnut) to the rarely used (highborn, firepit, cookpot) to the probaby-made-up (waycastle, windburnt, evenfall). But you get my point: there are lots of them.

The technique of word combination offers plentiful opportunities to invent new words for authors who have are dealing with a context and have a prose style which can accommodate them; and Martin uses this facility to coin scores of wonderful and evocative neologisms:

  • archmaester, bannermen (minor families loyal to a great lord), beastling, cookfire, crannogman, doeskin, dragonglass, dreamwine, firewine, foeman, godswood (holy wood where the magic weir trees grow), godsworn, greenseer (wise man of the Children of the Forest), greensick (seasick), greensight (second sight of the greenseers), hardbread, innkeep, ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), lichyard, kingsmoot (meeting to decide a king), mansmell, pricklefish, ravencraft, riverlands, sailcloth, sellsword (mercenary), sellsail, shadowcat, shavepate, skinchanger (who can change into an animal), smallclothes,  smallfolk (ordinary people) sourleaf, sterncastle, stoneborn, stormland, strongwine, stumbletongue, sweetling (term of endearment), sweetmilk, undertunic, wallwalk, waterskin, waterhelm, weirwood (the holy trees), westermen, woodharp,

Some are variations on ideas which nearly but don’t quite exist in our world (firewine), but many go beyond our world to describe new ideas and new things which he has invented for the novels, from the relatively mundane (riverlands, westermen, smallclothes) to the evocative (ironborn, sellsword, ravencraft), to the genuinely visionary and inspired (weirwood, greensight, skinchanger).

Martin’s use of compound words is just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. The more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the richness and completeness of his fantasy world.

Westeros not only has its own geography and history, its own peoples and religions, it also has its own form of English which deploys multiple techniques to create an integrated sense of its otherness and unity.

Some examples

I’ve chosen the examples above to show the overwhelming Saxon character of GRRM’s prose, consisting as they do, of short, mostly one-syllable words of old English origin. The Anglo-Saxon affixes and combination words don’t dominate to the exclusion of more regular forms, but they are there on every page, playing their part.

And they feel that much more ubiquitous because there are so few words sourced from Latin, Greek or French, few if any neoclassical affixes, no foreign combining forms. The result is to make his prose feel archaic.

The white wolf raced through a black wood, beneath a pale cliff as tall as the sky. The moon ran with him, slipping through a tangle of bare branches overhead, across the starry sky. (D&D, p.52)

Just ahead, the elk wove between the snowdrifts with his head down, his huge rack of antlers crusted with ice. The ranger sat astride his broad back, grim and silent. Coldhands was the name that the fat boy Sam had given him, for though the ranger’s face was pale, his hands were black and hard as iron, and cold as iron too. The rest of him was wrapped in layers of wool and boiled leather and ringmail, his features shadowed by his hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf about the lower half of his face. (D&D, p.69)

The drumming seemed to be coming from the wolfswood beyond the Hunter’s Gate. They are just outside the walls. Theon made his way along the wallwalk, one more man amongst a score doing the same. (After The Feast, p.91)

Other tidings were of greater interest. Robett Glover was in the city and had been trying to raise men, with little success. Lord Manderly had turned a deaf ear to his pleas. White Harbour was weary of war, he was reported to have said. That was bad. The Ryswells and the Dustins had surprised the ironmen on the Fever River and put their longships to the torch. That was worse. (D&D, p.230)

In these examples, there are words of Latin or French origin (city, success, report, surprise) but they are far outnumbered by Old English words – deliberately archaic words (tidings, weary, plea), short stocky Saxon words (raise, deaf, ear, war, bad), Martin’s distinctive Saxon compound words (ironmen, longships) and archaic/poetic phraseology (‘put x to the torch’).

Neoclassical words are there – but outnumbered in feel, rhythm and pattern by the dominant native forms.


Systematically, George R.R. Martin selects from the enormous available range of English prefix- and suffix-words, combining words and compound words, only ones of pronounced, strong and rich Anglo-Saxon origin.

Latinate words or affixes, present to some extent in most English prose, are mostly excluded or only deployed for effect in the context of legal or religious or courtly matters. In the 770 pages of Feast of Crows I noticed only one really Latinate word, ‘intermediate’.

By contrast Anglo-Saxon words, adjectives, adverbs and compound words dominate the prose, perfectly matching or creating a perfect vehicle for, a story so dominated by its medieval, archaic subject matter.

Told to write a piece of fiction set in medieval times, most of us would follow the style established by Sir Walter Scott and popularised by Hollywood and get our knights and squires to dot their speech with cod-medievalisms like ‘prithee’ and ‘Zounds’ and ‘my liege’, and sometimes Martin does drop into this hokey phraseology.

But my intention has been to show that the strong sense the reader gets from Martin’s novels of a fully-imagined, alternative, medieval fantasy world derives not from a handful of obvious stock phrases, but from Martin’s deep and systematic deployment of a carefully filtered and defined, rich, evocative and highly pleasurable, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.


[1] This list of prefixes and the list of suffixes below are from an excellent article by Dr Lim Chin Lam in The Star of Malaysia.

[2] The section on combining forms fuses thoughts from Dr Lam with the article on the subject in

[3] George RR Martin interview in The Atlantic magazine

Throughout there is heavy reliance on the relevant articles on Wikipedia.

Checking of word derivation was done with the Online Etymological Dictionary

The application of these definitions to the work of George R.R. Martin is entirely my own.

Related reviews

2000 A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow by George R. R. Martin
2000 A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold by George R. R. Martin
2005 A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
2011 A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George R.R. Martin
2011 A Dance With Dragons 2: After The Feast by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin’s prose style: Affixes, compound and combination words
Sexual violence in the fiction of George R.R. Martin

Steve Reich: Radio Rewrite @ the Royal Festival Hall

Setting the scene The Royal Festival Hall is sold out. My son and I have remaindered seats in the Choir ie along the side of the stage which is close enough to the performers to read the sheet music. Amid the rustling and coughing and scraping of programmes two old guys dressed in black trousers and shirts walk onstage and over to a music stand. Everyone applauds. The guys focus for a moment, nod at each other, then start clapping in unison quite a complicated rhythm. After 30 seconds the one wearing the baseball cap nods to the other and one of them starts clapping a different pattern. In fact the initial simplicity begins to change into a shifting complex of overlapping rhythms, phasing in and out of unison. On an instrumental level, this is primitive music. All you need is hands. Yet it is ultra-sophisticated. You need to be trained to a high level to learn the patterns and then implement their slow mutations while someone else is clapping something completely different right next to you.

The piece is Clapping Music (1972), an early classic from New York composer Steve Reich, founding father and grand old man of musical minimalism and Steve is here, tonight, wearing his trademark baseball cap, and performing it in person.

Steve (the Reich is pronounced with a soft -sh sound at the end, as I discovered at a day of Reish events last year – and everyone calls him Steve) will turn 77 this year but he’s still very active, both composing and performing. He’s a frequent visitor to England, with concerts of his work every year at the Barbican or South Bank.

Photo of Steve Reich against the New York skyline

Steve Reich (photo credit: Jeffrey Herman)

The concert But this concert wasn’t looking back to those early days when his pieces were created for minimal instruments because that’s all he could afford; instead it had a much more modern, rocky feel, dominated by the electric guitar, bass and drums used in all the other 4 pieces. At this concert the London Sinfonietta, well-known for its performance and commissioning of contemporary classical music, performed two pieces from the past few years as well as the World Premiere of ‘Radio Rewrite’, a co-commission by the London Sinfonietta along with New York’s Alarm Will Sound. Eyebrows were raised when people learned that ‘Radio Rewrite’ is based on two songs by the rock band Radiohead, see the Q&A, below.

The concert was taped by BBC Radio 3 and was available for 7 days, but now only the Radio rewrite section seems to be available. I link to it below and to YouTube versions of the other tracks.

Part One

Clapping Music (1972)
Electric Counterpoint (1987)
2×5 (2008)

Part Two

Radio Rewrite (2012) (after an interview with Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor)
Double Sextet (2007)

A review If you listen to a piece like 2×5 (written six years ago for New York bass ensemble, Bang On A Can) you can hear why Reich is so popular with a wide “crossover” audience. With its drums, bass and guitar, it is in effect a piece of experimental rock music. It reminds me of the early 70s King Crimson I’ve been listening to recently in its unrelentingness, its singlemindedness. The interest isn’t in melody or harmony – what most people want from their classical or pop music. It’s in the phasing or overlapping changing of rhythmic fragments – it’s in the piling on of instrumentation to create layers of sound – it’s in shifting rhythms and textures.

(Speaking of textures and prog rock, the rumbly bass sound of a bass playing picky, non-swining ostinati, set against lattices of filigree guitar notes, reminded me a lot of the rumbly bass in some passages of Tubular Bells.)

I confess I find some Reich works hard to listen to. I’ve got the Nonesuch box set and the obsessively tight repetition of tones and rhythms of some of the pieces – or of too many pieces listened together – can give you a headache. But I found all the pieces tonight very listenable and none too long.

I think I agree with my son that ‘Electric Counterpoint’ stood out because of the clarity of the textures. Pat Metheny recorded 10 guitars and 2 basses performing complicated tessalations of sound onto a backing tape, and then an electric guitarist – tonight Swedish guitarist Mats Bergstrom – performs an 11th part live, against the tape. A tracery of fine and precise notes are set against insistent and complex dotted rhythms which themselves grow louder and softer according to a much larger, slower pulse – like fine lace floating on an advancing and receding wave.

‘Radio Rewrite’, like so many of Reich’s pieces is divided into sections named simply slow or fast, in this case fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, the fast sections based on the song Jigsaw, the slows ones on Everything. It has the lightness of his later, rockier work, a sense of the instruments dancing daintily – but countering that is the distinctively edgy timbre created by combining violin and clarinet, almost screechy at time – then again given a strange luminosity of sound by the twinned vibraphones glowing around them. I don’t think I know anything by Reich as slow and thoughtful as the slow movements of this new piece. We loved it!

Q&A Nice surprise after the gig was a 10 minute Q&A with the great man. When asked why he was working with songs written by a rock band,

  • Steve explained why the specific chord structures of the two songs in question (Everything In its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place) piqued his interest and set his juices flowing (he also admitted there was not much of the songs left once he’d finished with them. I listened very closely and I didn’t recognise a single aural reference to either); but then…
  • Steve went on to give a potted history of Western music from medieval times to the present day, pointing out that all the great composers enjoyed a two-way relationship with the popular and folk music of their times right up until the 1950s and the dominance of the International Serialist music effectively banned melody, harmony and anything the ear could latch onto – and that this one, exceptionally ivory-tower period just happened to be when he was studying music 😦 This got a big laugh, all the more so for being true. The way he sees it, he and Philip Glass and a few others were consciously overthrowing the International Style and restoring a much more open relationship with the music they heard all around them in New York – jazz and rock and film music. Creating composed music from the pop music of the day? – he’s only returning to the practice of almost all classical composers.

Steve Reich’s website

Alex Petridis interviews Steve Reich in the Guardian

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