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

Abstract

George RR 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 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.

THEORY

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, 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 ones changing the grammatical function of an existing word without changing the root meaning eg 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 eg ‘speech’ + the suffix ‘-less’ = ‘speechless’, a new word.

1 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) [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 ie adding them to a stem derives a new word.  Examples of derivatives formed with 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 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. To summarise, 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.

Latin-derived

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

Greek-derived

  • 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 ie 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. Eg 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). Eg -proof, -wide, -worthy, -land, -man.

Complicated though the analysis of combining forms can become, the basic idea is that they are a more flexible type of affix, overwhelmingly Greek or Latin in origin, and that they create almost a parallel version of English, for use among the learned professions, medicine, law, academia et al. A political interpretation might be that they serve to exclude the uninitiated from specialist areas of knowledge and are designed to maintain privilege among a learned elite.

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 ‘affix’, ‘combining word’ and ‘compound word’, it’s time to explore the way they are deployed by George RR Martin.

GRRM’s PRACTICE

1 Prefix

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 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 (ie 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 more common forms such as astern, adrift).

2 Suffix

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 eg statecraft, warcraft, witchcraft.
  • -dom (from the Old English -dōm meaning “state, condition, power, dominion, authority, property, right, office, quality) eg 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) eg hurtful, sorrowful, bashful, beautiful, mournful.
  • hood (from the Old English -hād) a) the condition of being the thing the suffix is attached to eg childhood, parenthood, manhood b) a group sharing a condition or state eg knighthood, priesthood, brotherhood.
  • -less (from the Old English -lēas, from lēas meaning “devoid of”) lacking the quality of the stem eg 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” 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) add to adjectives to form the noun of the quality the adjective describes eg 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 suffx is attached eg kingship, leadership, horsemanship, lordship, fellowship.
  • -some (from the Old English -sum, “-some, same as”) characterized by some specific condition or quality eg 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 Combining words

Insofar as combining words 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 learned 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 FfC, about the educated maesters of Oldtown, there are Latinate words like penetrate, complement, complaint. 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 to accentuate the legalistic or learned 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 from these texts.

4 Word combinations 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 they show a tendency to use Anglo-Saxon or archaic source words to form compound words describing 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 possibly-made-up (waycastle, windburnt, evenfall). Crossing that line, the technique of word combination offers plentiful opportunities to invent new words for authors who have the context and the 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 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 completeness of the 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

These examples are chosen to show the overwhelming Saxon character of GRRM’s prose, consisting as it does of short, mostly one-syllable words of old English origin. The AngloSaxon affixes and combination words don’t dominate; but they are there on every page, playing their part. And there are no words sourced from Latin, Greek or French, no no neoclassical affixes, no foreign combining forms. The result feels 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&D52)

“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&D69)

“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, p91)

“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 230)

In this example, there are words of Latin or French origin (city, success, report, surprise) but they are 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.

CONCLUSION

Systematically, George RR 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.

Martin has responded to the criticism that there is excessive sex in the novels by replying that there is also excessive heraldry, excessive swordfighting, excessive scheming and so on:

“If I’m guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I’m also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry…” [3]

My intention has been to show that, in a similar way, Martin is also ‘guilty’ of deploying a gratuitous (and rich, evocative and pleasurable) Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

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References

[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 Dictionary.com

[3] George RR Martin interview in The Atlantic magazine

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

Checking of word derivation done with the Online Etymological Dictionary

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

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Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

A great fansite, Westeros.org, links through to scores of other GoT websites as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

HBO TV have dramatised the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on dvd in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George RR Martin.

A Dance With Dragons 1: Dreams and Dust by George RR Martin (2011)

The night was rank with the smell of man.

The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only man stripped the skins from the other beasts and wore their hides and hair. (page 1)

This, the fifth volume of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, starts with a wonderful prologue, a vivid description of a warg, a man who can enter the bodies and experience the keen sensations of animals, who is both lying shivering in a snow-covered shelter in the far North of Westeros, but also inhabiting the body of a wolf hunting with his pack, hunting fleeing, ailing humans. I’ve never read anything describing this situation and rarely read anything so vivid and powerful and cold and tangy. Chapters of writing this good are one of the reasons GRRM fans adore him.

‘Dreams and Dust’ – as GRRM explains in the preface – doesn’t exactly follow the ‘previous’ novel, ‘A Feast for Crows’. It runs in parallel with it. The series is now so complex and unwieldy, he has so many plotlines unravelling in all directions, that one volume simply can’t contain them all, so he needed two running in tandem.

So – ‘A Feast for Crows’ covered the ongoing adventures in the kingdom of Dorne (Lord Doran Martell), on the Ice Wall (Jon Snow and King Stannis Baratheon), among the Ironborn Vikings (Asha, Victarion and Euron Greyjoy), in the Riverlands (Jaime Lannister raises the siege of Riverrun), in the Vale of Arryn (Petyr Littlefinger strengthens his grip and cultivates the runaway Sansa Stark), with Samwell Tarly (accompanying the aged maester Aemon on the long sea route to the Citadel) and in King’s Landing (where Cersei Lannister’s paranoid incompetence brings disaster).

Whereas ‘Dreams and Dust’ covers the same period of time, but follows a different set of characters:

  • The ironical dwarf Tyrion Lannister, on the run from murdering his father Lord Tywin, is in Essos where the same magister Illyrion who sent Daenerys on her adventures, despatches him on a boat with a mystery crew down the vast river Rhoyne, introducing a whole new landscape, new peoples and languages and perils. The strange abandoned cities their boat passes silently in the fog are wonderfully evocative…
Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as the masterful Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Daenerys Targaryen, supposedly progressing west along the coast of Essos with her three dragons and aiming to reclaim the Iron Throne lost when her father was murdered by the Lannisters. But she has become embroiled and delayed. After liberating the slaves in two of the great cities around Slavers Bay – Astapor and Yunkai – only to see them descend into anarchy, the kindhearted Daenerys has not only liberated the slaves of Meereen but is determined to rule them and their city peacefully and justly. This turns out to be harder than she thought as an insurgency of resentful former rulers takes to murdering the men and women she’s freed, as gruesomely as possible. Meanwhile her dragons have now grown so large that they are killing sheep and cattle and Daenerys is having to compensate angry farmers and, eventually, is forced to chain them in a dungeon…
  • Once upon a time the idea that Daenerys was reborn in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre along with real live dragons was mysterious and strange; her travels across the desert and the growing dragons threatened she’d bring a revolution to Westeros. but by the end of Dreams and Dust this storyline has fizzled out, losing all its energy; Daenerys confronting yet another roomful of angry citizens is as fantastical as watching Boris Johnson on TV. I speedread her last few chapters just to see if anything happened. And nothing did…
Photo of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen arguing with her loyal servant Ser Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Crippled 11 year old Bran Stark, carried by the gentle giant retard Hodor, continues his quest north of the Ice Wall, along with the two crannogchildren, Meera and Jojeen. They are guided by an improbably friendly Other, Coldhands, further and further into the snow in quest of the owner of the third eye, a prophet, one of the last surviving children of the forest, the almost exterminated aboriginal inhabitants of Westeros. I found it increasingly hard to remember why these children persisted in driving deeper into the freezing north at risk of their lives, though the intensity of their suffering is certainly harrowing and vivid…
Photo of Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kristian Nairn as the giant simpleton Hodor, tasked with carrying the crippled boy Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The Merchant’s Man turns out to be Quentin, the son of Lord Martell of Dorne, who has been despatched to the Free Cities to meet Daenerys and recruit her dragons for the cause of Dorne. Which is ironic because we know the mystery crew of Tyrion’s ship down the Rhoyne turn out to be  escorting the supposedly dead Prince Aegon Targaryen on his mission to raise sellswords and form an alliance with Daenerys to reclaim his rightful throne in Westeros. Everyone is after Daenerys’s dragons, except Daenerys who is frightened to use them.
  • Meanwhile, a thousand miles north, gorgeous pouting Jon Snow takes to his duties as Lord Commander of the Night Watch, pitifully undermanned as they seek to guard and protect the 700 foot-high Ice Wall from the next wave of attackers who will either be wildlings – free humans – or the terrifying Others, blue-eyed black-skinned zombies. He has to cope with mutterings among the older Watchmen on the one hand and on the other manage King Stannis Baratheon and his prophetess Lady Melisandre, who came North with his army to destroy the first wildling invasion. This threatened invasion, led by the renegade Watchan Mance Rayder, created an atmosphere of brooding menace throughout the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books, giving a real sense that the invasion of these supernatural forces would sweep away the vicious scheming factions let loose by the War of Five Kings. However, their sudden and absolute defeat by Stannis’s army evaporated that threat and, in my opinion, has taken some of the pleasure out of the books… Martin tries to revive the sense of brooding threat over the Wall but, having seen how the first attack was swiftly crushed, it is gone, there is no threat, the tension has vanished…
Photo of Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night's Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as the bastard Jon Snow, raised to power as Lord of the Night’s Watch, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Davos Seaworth, long-suffering servant of King Stannis, is despatched by sea to win over the harsh lords of the eastern islands, namely Lord Wyman Manderly of White Harbour. There he suffers bitter failure, discovering Lord Manderly’s castle full of Freys, the vast extended family who own the Twin Towers castle in the Riverlands and who killed the self-proclaimed king of the North, Rob Stark, and massacred his army during the so-called Red Wedding. And so Manderley, afraid for the life of his son, held hostage by the Lannisters in King’s Landing. rejects Davos’s offer of alliance with King Stannis and it is difficult, again, to see where this storyline is heading…
  • Reek is the dungeon name of the raddled wreckage of Theon Greyjoy who we first met happily playing with the Stark children in Winterfell in volume one. In teenage competition with his clever sister Asha, he led a small troop to capture Winterfell, left almost empty by Robb Stark as he went campaigning in the North. But in his naivety, Theon was taken prisoner by the psychotic Ramsay Bolton who stormed into Winterfell, murdered everyone, burned the castle to the ground, dragged Theon back to his fortress of Dreadfort. Here Ramsay throws Theon into prison, flays him, tortures him, and reduces him to a shattered wreck of a stammering, shaking, filthy grey-haired dog. This is a particularly disturbing narrative thread, and goes a long way to justify accusations that, as Martin has run out of plot, he has resorted to ever more disgusting sadism. The scene where the terrified Reek is ordered to deflower the terrified young girl given to Ramsay in marriage, is particularly repellent; it describes the systematic humiliation of a naked 15 year old girl by a psychotic killer.
Photo of Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as the very ill-fated Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The chapters are named after: Tyrion (9 chapters), Jon 8, Daenerys 7, Davos 4, Reek 3, Bran 2, The Lost Lord 2, The Merchant’s Man, The Windblown, The Wayward Bride, Melisandre, The Prince of Winterfell, The Watcher.

Martin continues to write blistering scenes, to vividly depict fights, feasts, treacheries and betrayals, moments of fear and panic or quiet, soulful moments, in a crisp clear style:

Jon stepped out into the night. The sky was full of stars, and the wind was gusting along the wall. Even the moon looked cold; there were goosebumps all across its face. Then the first gust caught him, slicing through his layers of wool and leather to set his teeth to chattering. He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin. (page 442)

He can write the mysterious, incantatory chapter where Bran finally meets the lost prophet and begins his spiritual journey:

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. The pale sun rose and set and rose again. Red leaves whispered in the wind. Dark clouds filled the skies and turned to storms. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, and dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes shuffled shuffled round a cleft in the hillside but could not enter. Under the hill, the broken boy sat upon a weirwood throne, listening to whispers in the dark as ravens walked up and down  his arms. (page 521)

Hundreds of pages show his writing at its immersive, imaginative and compelling best. But I enjoyed this least of the six books I’ve read. My son said the last two are the worst. The woman I’ve been swapping notes with at work about the series just wants to hurry up and finish. For me the mystery, the suspense and the threat which made the earlier books so thrilling has evaporated to be replaced by an increasing and depressing reliance on foulmouthed brutality:

“”I would sell my mother for a bit of breeze,” said Gerris, as they rolled through the dockside throngs. “It’s as moist as the Maiden’s cunt, and still shy of noon. I hate this city.” (page 101)

“We’re the Windblown and we fuck the goddess Slaughter up the arse.” (page 107)

“Does your dwarf ride as well as he pisses?” (page 131)

“Can Salladhor Saan eat the king’s word? Can he quench his thirst with parchment and waxy seals? Can he tumble promises into a feather bed and fuck them till they squeal?” (page 144)

The dwarf watched Lemore slip into the water. The sight always made him hard. There was something wonderfully wicked about the thought of peeling the septa out of those chaste white robes and spreading her legs. (page 210)

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. (page 237)

The wine was strong and sour and required no translation. “I suppose I shall have to settle for your cunt.”… “Cut off my head and take it to King’s Landing,” Tyrion urged her… She did not understand that either, so he shoved her legs apart, crawled between them, and took her once more. That much she could comprehend, at least. (page 338)

“Before you came Meereen was dying. Our rulers were old men with withered cocks  and crones whose puckered cunts were dry as dust.” (page 347)

“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?” (page 361)

Too heavy even to stand unassisted, he could not hold his water, so he always smelled of piss… But he was said to be the richest man in Yunkai, and he had a passion for grotesques: his slaves included a boy with the legs and hooves of a goat, a bearded woman, a two-headed monster from Mantarys, and a hermaphrodite who warmed his bed at night. “Cock and cunny both,” Dick Straw told them. “The Whale used to own a giant too, liked to watch him fuck his slave girls…” (page 336)

He pushed her back onto Glover’s bed, kissed her hard, and tore off her tunic to let her breasts spill out. When she tried to knee him in the groin, he twisted away and forced her legs apart with his knees. “I’ll have you now.”… She was sopping wet when he entered her. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn you damn you damn you.” He sucked her nipples till she cried out half in pain and half in pleasure. Her cunt became the world. (page 390)

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!” (page 406)

Behind them some sailor was bellowing loudly. “”They call this ale? Fuck. A monkey could piss better ale.” “And you would drink it,” another voice replied. (page 428)

“I said we could not abandon her in Volantis. That does not mean I want to fuck her.” (page 509)

The dwarf lingered in the galley after supper, celebrating his survival by sharing a few tots of black tar rum with the ship’s cook, a great greasy loutish Volantene who spoke only one word of the Common Tongue (fuck)… (page 515)

“Lady Arya. Get on the bed. Yes, against the pillows, that’s a good wife. Now spread your legs. Let us see your cunt.” The girl obeyed wordless. Theon took a step back against the door. Lord Ramsay say beside his bride, slid his finger along her inner thigh, then jammed two fingers up inside her. The girl let out a gasp of pain. “You’re dry as an old bone.” Ramsay pulled his hand free and slapped her face. (page 582)

These books have a vast wealth of compelling writing and gripping storylines, a whole convincingly imagined alternative worldful. But I, too, feel like I’ve been slapped in the face, and just a few too many times.

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Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and was released on dvd in March. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes copyright George RR Martin.

A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin (2005)

Prologue On page 1 some magicians’ apprentices are discussing how they’ll save up the money to pay to deflower Rosie, the newest whore in the tavern they’re drinking in:

He could hear Emma’s laughter coming through a shuttered window overhead, mingled with the deeper voice of the man she was entertaining. She was the oldest of the serving wenches at the Quill and Tankard, forty if she was a day, but still pretty in a fleshy sort of way. Rosey was her daughter, fifteen and freshly flowered. Emma had decreed that Rosey’s maidenhead would cost a golden dragon.

On page 8 there’s the first use of the f word, in a typically crude exchange:

‘Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will f*** anything with a hole between its legs.’

On page 17 Pate, the apprentice to whom these insults were addressed, having stolen the key to the maegicians’ Citadel and handed it over to a mysterious alchemist in exchange for the gold with which he hopes to pay to deflower young Rosey, instead falls to the cobbles, betrayed and poisoned and dying.

Yes. We are back in the steamy, sexually charged, treacherous, densely packed and wonderfully imagined fantasy world of George RR Martin and his vast sequence of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Photo of Gethin Anthony as the ill-fated Lord Renly Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Gethin Anthony as the ill-fated Lord Renly Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Cornucopianism, or The problem of overflowing In this, the fourth book of the series, Martin has to deal with the problem he’s created for himself in the first three, namely that he has created so many characters pursuing so many plotlines that they won’t all fit into one book. I christen this problem ‘cornucopianism’. In their fecund sprawl the plotlines overflow themselves. In fact, several storylines have already ended, in that they had a beginning, a development and a decisive climax – but they continue anyway – such as the Threatened invasion by the wildlings, Brienne’s quest to return Jaime to King’s Landing, Robb Stark’s kingship, the Coming of Daenerys and her dragons.

Undaunted, Martin solves the problem of cornucopianism by splitting a manuscript which had become unmanageably vast into two more normal-size books. This one, ‘A Feast For Crows’, focuses on one set of characters – all the other characters are followed up in the next volume, ‘A Dance with Dragons’. But – important point – the second book doesn’t follow the first one; events in both take place in parallel. Which allows for some nifty timeshifts as characters in the second book refer hopefully to things which we know from the earlier book have or haven’t fallen out to plan.

I very much liked the result. In ‘A Feast for Crows’ the focus of the series shifts significantly from the previous books to follow events in three of the seven kingdoms of Westeros which had been previously ignored or overlooked – the southern kingdom of Dorne, the western sea-kingdom of Pyk – the Iron Kingdom – and the eastern kingdom of Arryn, dominated by its castle in the air, the Eyrie (illustrated below by Ted Nasmith).

'The Eyrie' as depicted by Ted Nasmith. © Ted Nasmith

‘The Eyrie’ as depicted by Ted Nasmith. © Ted Nasmith

colour-coded map of Westeros might come in useful for understanding the location of the seven kingdoms of Westeros and, of course, there’s one available on the internet.

In this fourth novel, along with new locations, a new suite of characters is introduced. Two of the most striking are the Damphair or prophet (a religious leader of the Iron Men’s harsh seaworshipping religion) and The Captain of The Guards (who serves Lord Doran Martell, ruler of Dorne). These are powerful and ‘deep’ characters; which means they invoke deep associations – to the power and mystery of the Sea for one, to sheer mute strength with the other. But in addition there are other, new, “narrative characters”, ones who give their names to the chapters which see events from their point of view: the Kraken’s Daughter, The Soiled Knight, The Iron Captain, The Drowned Man, The Queenmaker. In the earlier novels the chapters were named after specific characters; in these later ones they’re as often named after generic types, a new wrinkle which gives them Tarot-card-like mythic associations.

The Iron Islands The Ironborn are Vikings who live in storm-lashed islands and love nothing more than to sail their longboats on raids along the vulnerable coastline of Westeros. Their king, Balon Greyjoy, has died in a freak accident and the novel follows their assembly at a great kingsmoot where the pretenders to the throne stake their claim. Will the Ironborn vote for Balon’s brother Victarion or his daughter Asha, or for the returned exiled eldest brother, Euron. The latter, it turns out, who offers a grand plan to raid right round the coast and sail for distant Essos to capture the fabled princess Daenerys and her dragons.

Photo of Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The kingdom of Dorne This kingdom is evoked in a marvellous piece of scene-setting, painting the ailing lord of Dorne, Doran Martell, at his country water palace, watching children frolic in fountains, on the beach and in the sea. It is an eerie, strange and moving image. It reminds me of the landscapes of Entropy in JG Ballard’s collection, ‘Terminal Beach’. Lord Martell is himself in constant pain due to untreatable gout and arthritis, and is accompanied everywhere by the enormous, silent, totally obedient Captain of the Guard,  Areo Hotah, and his 7 foot double-edged axe.

But a reluctant and ailing Martell is forced back from his pleasure palace to Dorne’s capital, Sunspear, to put down his brother’s illegitimate daughters, nicknamed the Sand Vipers. They want to invoke Dornish law to declare the 10 year-old Myrcella Lannister (sent to Dorne as a tactical ward by the powerful Lannister family) the true inheritor of the Iron Throne, and set her against her brother, the boy-king Tommen. But Lord Martell realises this will bring down the wrath of the Lannisters on a weak kingdom which couldn’t possibly stand up to them. But, unknown to him, his own daughter, Arianne, is seducing the member of the Kingsguard supposed to protect Myrcella, in a cunning conspiracy to start the very war Martell is striving to avoid…

The kingdom of Arryn After suave, scheming Petyr Littlefinger has brutally disposed of the woman he married, Lysa Tully, sister of Lady Catelyn Tully/Stark, he is free to rule Arryn as he wishes, with the 13 year-old Sansa Stark whom he rescued from King’s Landing in the ambiguous situation of being his pretended natural daughter. This thread of narrative revels in Littlefinger’s smooth cunning and Martin enjoys getting Littlefinger to explain to Sansa exactly how and why he’s manipulating the lords and ladies he meets. It’s like Holmes and Watson. For the bannermen (loyal lords) of Arryn smell a rat and want to take stewardship of Lady Lysa’s son, the sickly heir to the throne, young Robert. Petyr’s great.

Photo of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, nicknamed 'The Hound', in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, nicknamed ‘The Hound’, in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Cersei If the first half of the book offers several refreshing changes of scene, the last part is dominated by the machinations of the wicked Queen Regent Cersei in the overfamiliar setting of the capital, King’s Landing. Convinced all her advisors are weaklings or out to get her, the increasingly paranoid egomaniac makes a series of rash decisions, unravelling the alliances crafted by her father, Lord Tywin, alienating allies, appointing highly dubious councillors and making terrible strategic mistakes like allowing the growing numbers of religious fanatics – the so-called ‘sparrows’ – to rearm and establish their own independent powerbase, a decision which she is soon to rue…

Sex This novel is noticably more pornographic than the previous ones. I marked all the pages which included the f or c word and there are about 50. For the first time in the series, entire chapters are about sex, for example the lavish description of Arianne Martell’s seduction of Ser Arys Oakheart of the Kingsguard, who she exploits to help her smuggle princess Myrcella out of Sunspear. The final part of the book is dominated by the wicked Queen Regent Cersei and includes, among her general decadence, how she takes her handmaidens to bed and has lesbian sex with them, in a typically exploitative joyless kind of way. Elsewhere soldiers and lords casually but continually refer to sex in the crudest terms. The ugly but heroic female knight Brienne of Tarth is subjected to sexual threats on almost every page of her sections.

Somehow I feel the hothouse eroticism of the sex passages and the football terrace sexual abuse let the book down. The superbrutality and the testosterone cynicism are all well and good; I’ve paid my money, I’ve signed up for a machiavellian swords-and-shields fantasy and this GRRM delivers in wonderful spades. But the sex scenes risk the criticism of all sex scenes, that they’re heavyhanded and embarrassing; and the barracking is too much like being stuck in a pub with a coachload of football hooligans. It isn’t inspiring and terrifying like the violence. It’s lowering, it lowers the tone. In this book more than any of the others I think Martin lets himself down with too much swearing and the barely-veiled hostility to women which underlies it.

‘I think I’m going to fuck you up the nose, wench,’ Shagwell announced. ‘Won’t that be amusing?’

‘He has a very small cock,’ Timeon explained. ‘Drop that pretty sword and we’ll go gentle on you, woman. We need gold to pay these smugglers, that’s all.’

‘And if I give you gold, you’ll let us go?’

‘We will.’ Timeon smiled. ‘Once you’ve fucked the lot of us. We’ll pay you like a proper whore. A silver for each fuck. Or else we’ll take the gold and rape you anyway, and do you like the Mountain did Lord Vargo…’ (page 331)

Having said which, almost all the people I know who’ve read the series are women. I ask them, Doesn’t the sexism, the raping and killing of women, the continual verbal abuse and threat against women characters, doesn’t that put you off? Yes, they reply, but the story is just so exciting.

So, compelling narrative trumps repellent subject matter, apparently.

But… This issue aside, there is still lots – lots and lots – of inspiring and breathtaking writing here. The opening scenes of  the Ironborn thread, depicting the Damphair or prophet of the Drowned God performing the ritual by which he drowns and then revives initiates in the freezing northern sea, is inspired, brilliant, visionary.

————————————————————————————————————————————

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

Westeros.org links through to scores of other GoT websites, as well as hosting hundreds of FAQs about the series.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and has just been released on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

All quotes from A Feast For Crows copyright George RR Martin.

A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold by George RR Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. When delivered to his US publishers the book weighed in at over 1,000 pages so the decision was taken to publish it in the UK in two parts or volumes. So this is the third book, part two, titled, ‘Blood and Gold’. Ie the fourth physical book in the series.

Why are these books so compelling?

Epic Martin has brought into existence an absolutely vast new world, fully imagined in every detail, from the sound of the horses to the names of the continents, from the theology and practice of not one but several religions to the decorations on each knight’s shield. It is an awesome achievement, and a joy and delight for readers with a taste for this sort of thing to be drawn into this wonderfully complete and encyclopedic realm of the imagination. Returning after a break reading some books about music, I was immediately back there, in Westeros, in the world of fear and violence, conspiracies and sorcery, and on tenterhooks awaiting the next shocking surprise.

Number of characters A big feature of the books is the hundreds of characters. Each part of Westeros is dominated by a handful of big name families – the Baratheons, Greyjoys, Starks, Lannisters, Freys come immediately to mind – each of these Houses has scores of subsidiary branches which intertwine as dynastic marriages are arranged – and between all the Big Families are minor noble houses, the so-called bannermen who owe allegiance to a Major House, and these in turn have countless intertwined genealogies. The result is that in his five books to date Martin has named over 1,000 characters, as well as innumerable unnamed smallfolk who generally meet a grisly end. Charles Dickens created just short of a thousand named characters in his 14 novels. Martin has bested him in just five.

Cult Martin’s world is so big it’s spawned a host of secondary contributors – wikis and fanclubs, conventions and merchandise, the hit HBO TV series, cookery books and board games, and a number of fantasy illustrators who’ve given visual life to Martin’s stunning imaginings. Artist and musician Ted Nasmith has made some wonderful pictures of key locations in the Ice and Fire saga, like the one below, of the great Ice Wall which separates the kingdom of Westeros from the frozen North, home to wildlings, cannibals, wargs and the terrifying ‘Others’.

'Castle Black and the Wall' by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

‘Castle Black and the Wall’ by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

See more images of A Song of Ice and Fire on Ted Nasmith’s website.

Thriller Though filed under Fantasy, these books deploy the techniques of a thriller: each chapter doesn’t so much move the narrative on as deliver a punch. New and shocking things are continually occurring leaving you on continual tenterhooks as to the next outrageous event. These shocks are part of the larger worldview of stunning brutality, where characters are routinely raped, murdered, tortured, eviscerated or cynically betrayed – and all they themselves think about is scheming, sex or murder.

Multiple POVs Each chapter follows a specific character: the complicated action of ‘Blood and Gold’ is seen from about ten different viewpoints. This allows Martin to move the reader at great speed, very effectively, to completely disparate parts of the fantasy world of Westeros, to allow the reader to witness key developments taking place in the five or so major strands of plot. Like cuts in a TV series, the technique makes for speed of events, and for suspense. You are whisked away from one character just as something vital occurs – and it might be 50 or 100 pages before you return to their part of the plotline.

In this book, the chapter characters are:

  • Jaime Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Bran Stark, Samwell Tarly.
Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style The default setting of the style is clear and spare and functional:

“When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow.”     (p.301)

There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting: the most persistent and slightly irritating one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. He is like to be angry. He has near finished the task. Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing. But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.

“Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well.”                                                                                                                                   (p.195)

Coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a creative and enjoyable aspect of his style:

  • New words sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (makers of wildfire, a kind of napalm), holdfast.
  • New combinations sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  weirwood (ancient holy woods), ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot, skinchanger, godswood.

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms, just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. And 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 completeness of the fantasy world.

Another is the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly, but by sheer repetition comes to seem the natural term.

Names The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. Thus Jon Snow’s fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jamie Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel. Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras.

In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, and yet bracingly alien and explosive.

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The Worldview is shockingly brutal. These books have more in common with Hannibal Lecter than JRR Tolkien. Key characters who we’ve grown to like or at least sympathise with over the previous 2,000 pages of text are brutally snuffed out in a few lines: the young hero stabbed through the heart, the mother whose throat is cut and body thrown naked into the river, the young girl who learns to stab bandits in the belly, the friendly whore who is whipped through the streets, the hero whose sword hand is unceremoniously chopped off, the gallant knight whose face is punched in by a giant, the noble father who is abruptly beheaded, the bard whose tongue is cut out. And these are the leading characters. The secondary characters are killed in scores of ways and by the thousand, burned to death or drowned in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, crushed by mammoths, stabbed by wildlings, shot through the throat with arrows, cut down, hacked to pieces, on almost every page.

Intrigue Allegedly Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses with its complicated intriguing and politicking, backstabbing and machiavellianism. Maybe. But the characters in the Song demonstrate depths of cynical manipulation which owe more to the 21st century than the 15th. Also, I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a drawback or a strength, but they are all cynical and manipulative in the same kind of way. The trouble with real life is people are strange and hard to read. Whether you’re chatting up a guest at a party or hiring a new chief executive it’s the hardest thing in the world to read other people, who are continually surprising with their unpredictable combinations of acuteness and obtuseness. Lord Tywin, Cersei, Danaerys, Robb Stark, Catelin, Theon Greyjoy, Lord Mormont, Varys, Petyr Littlefinger, Bronn the sellsword – they all think the same – they are all playing the same game, the Game of Thrones.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Killing off Most of the key players in the Wars of the Roses which, apparently, was one of Martin’s inspirations, lived reasonably long lives. I think the events of the Song have covered a year, during which half of the key players – and a lot of the ones I really liked – have been killed off. I begin to wonder whether Martin will run out of characters before the series ends. On the other hand, these surprise executions very effectively add to the tension. After he’s bumped off a few real favourites, you realise no-one is safe. It makes the books all the more gripping.

Sex The brutality includes the attitude to sex. Both men and women share an essentially male view of sex – functional and brutal and phallocentric. Men routinely get hard and immediately enter their women with no foreplay. Martin makes all the characters use the f word with abandon and on a few occasions the c word. And these are the royal families ie the most highly bred people in this world. Morality starts cruel and brutal at the top of this society and gets worse as you descend. Every woman is permanently at risk of rape. Any man can be murdered at any point, by his lord and master, his brother, his father, his son. No-one is safe.

Pagan In a way these books are a massive advert for Christianity. Though three or four religions are described in Westeros (the religion of the first men, the religion of the children of the forests, the religion of the Seven gods, and the new religion of Light), none of them at all restrain their adherents from astronomical cruelty and barbarism. At the end of his hugely enjoyable and politically savvy History of Christianity (1976), the (Roman Catholic) historian, Paul Johnson, makes the case that human history of the past 2,000 years has been pretty bloodthirsty and appalling – but without the restraining influence of Christianity it would have been a whole lot worse. Whatever you think of that as a defence of Christianity, George RR Martin’s Westeros could be said to be an unflinching depiction of what Europe would have looked like without any restraining religious or cultural influences at all. It is in many (OK, most) ways a vision of Hell.

Check out George RR Martin’s blog.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and is now out on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow by George RR Martin (2000)

17 January 2012

A Storm of Swords is book three of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. This one book is divided into two volumes, presumably because volume one’s 569 pages plus volume two’s 554 pages would have made a pretty unmanageable 1,123 page book. Plus the maps. Plus the 53 pages listing the characters.

Part one of ‘A Storm of Swords’ is titled ‘Steel and Snow’. As with the two previous books in the series the novel follows quite a few complex plotlines, embracing hundreds of characters scattered over two continents of his fantasy world, Westeros and Essos:

  • Beyond the ice wall Jon Snow has abandoned his comrades of the Night Watch, pretending to join the wildlings or Free Men who live in violent anarchy in the frozen North. Their leader, Mance Rayder, has assembled a ramshackle army of anarchists and psychopaths to break through the great Ice Wall and invade Westeros but around them are gathering the Others, undead zombies who rise from their tombs, garbed in black ashes with bright blue eyes, who can’t be killed by normal weapons.
  • In the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, the ironical dwarf Tyrion recovers consciousness after helping cruel 13 year old King Joffrey Lannister’s forces to victory in the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay in which the army and navy of the pretender Stannis Baratheon are destroyed in a great conflagration of dragonfire.
Photo of Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Meanwhile Robb Stark, erstwhile King of the North, makes a terrible tactical mistake by not carrying out his promise to marry the daughter of Lord Frey, ruler of the key crossing of the Trident river, the Two Twins. Instead he marries for love an unknown 18 year old beauty, Jeyne Westerling, thus alienating his key ally in the North.
  • Thirteen year old Sansa Stark is still held hostage by Cersei Lannister in King’s Landing and betrothed to the vicious 14-year old king Joffrey although, during the course of the book her fate is changed, as a new dynastic arrangement is made for King Joffrey and Sansa finds herself reassigned to marry the dwarf Tyrion.
Photo of Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The tone of the whole book lifts with the arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister, father to Cersei and Tyrion and Jamei. Cold and relentless, he is a surprisingly reassuring figure because he isn’t cruel or sadistic; every strategy is carefully planned and Tywin moves in a permanent web of plans, schemes, plots, alliances and manouevres. His cunning at least has a purpose unlike the unspeakable nastiness of the vile Joffrey and the demented Cersei.
  • Arya Stark continues her odyssey as an anonymous serving girl in the vast ruins of Harrenhal – until she manages to escape (killing a guard in the process) and heads North back to her home castle, Winterfell.
  • And Daenerys Targaryan, widow of Khal Drogo, and owner of three baby dragons who symbolise the rising of new magic in a world fast heading towards Winter and catastrophe, buys – or liberates – an army of the ‘Unsullied’ – eunuchs trained to obey unquestioningly and never feel pain – with which to return and conquer what she regards as her rightful kingdom, the Westeros which all the other characters in the book are fighting and scheming for.
Photo of Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of  ‘A Clash of Kings’, the second novel in the series, which aired in the States and on Sky Atlantic last year. The dvd of GoT series 2 is available now.

Series 3, based on the this book, will start broadcasting on Sky Atlantic on 1 April this year.

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin (1998)

31 December 2012

A Clash of Kings (1998) is the second volume in the epic 7-volume fantasy series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. It follows seamlessly on from the end of the first volume, A Game of Thrones, with numerous plotlines continuing to unfold:

  • from the 700 foot-high Ice Wall which defends the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings and strange powers lurking in the frozen north, Jon Snow, aged 15, bastard son of the great Lord Eddard Stark, accompanies a reconnaissance mission of the Night’s Watch into the frozen waste.
Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • the terrifying and cunning Lord Tywin Lannister despatches his dwarf son, Tyrion Lannister, to the capital, King’s Landing, to take power from the incompetent, spoilt boy, Joffrey, aged 13, who is reigning as king and alienating everyone except his evil mother, Cersei Lannister, she who conspired in the death of her hated husband Robert Baratheon to enable her son to succeed to the throne.
  • Tywin himself hunkers his army in the haunted ruins of ancient Harrenhal, built by Harren the Black to be impregnable but then melted by dragonfire back in the legendary days.
  • It is to this gloomy ruin that little Arya Stark, aged 10, tough tomboy daughter of the executed Lord Eddard Stark, arrives through a series of accidents, fights and massacres, a witness to and survivor of the brutality and sadism all around her.
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • meanwhile Robb Stark, 15, heir to his father’s house, is declared King of the North and leads his armies to victory against Lannister forces at Whispering Wood and Oxcross
  • and also meanwhile, the brothers of the late king Robert Baratheon – young courtly Renly, and hard old Stannis – both declare themselves King in the South and raise armies from different sets of bannermen and subjects to fight each other, Stannis leading his army to besiege his brother in the ancient citadel of Storm’s End on the east coast of Westeros…
  • while an eerie sub-plot unfolds concerning Stannis’s conversion to the new religion, the way of the Lord of Light, which is replacing the old religion of the Seven gods. The old way was administered by septons in their temples, called septs. In a haunting chapter Lady Catelyn, distraught widow of the executed Eddard Stark of Winterfell, prays in a smallfolks’ septon en route back from trying to broker a peace between the brothers Baratheon – and the outlines of the crudely drawn seven gods dance and mock before her eyes…
Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • …but just as war between the brothers seems inevitable, King Renly is struck down in mid-sentence in the safety of his own tent by a shadow which seemed to slide into the tent and raise its sword and cut wide his throat with no physical presence. Is this new black magic controlled by the Red Lady, the priestess Melisandre, devotee of the Lord of Light, who has found favour at grim King Stannis’s court?
  • And while Lord Eddard Stark’s heir, Robb continues his successful drive in the west against Lannister forces, sneaky Theon Greyjoy, who spent 10 years as a ward in Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, and desperate to impress his harsh father Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands,  returns to capture Winterfell with a small handful of fighters. But the lad finds keeping a castle can be harder than winning it…
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • And meanwhile, a thousand miles away on a different continent (Essos), Queen Daenerys (aged 14), sole survivor of the overthrown House Targaryen follows her lonely destiny. She was betrothed to the savage Dothraki Khal Drogo by her brother, Viserys, as part of a deal whereby Viserys hoped to use the savage’s soldiers to reclaim his throne, both Viserys and Daenerys being children of the mad king Aerys Targaryen of Westeros whose overthrow and murder by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark is the mainspring of all the plots. But Viserys went mad with impatience and was killed by Khal Drogo, who himself was turned into a lifeless zombie by a captured witch – leaving Daenerys to fend for herself.
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • In a bizarre twist at the end of the first book Daenerys walked into the funeral pyre of her husband with three fossilised dragon eggs she had been given as curious wedding gifts, and not only survived the flames but the eggs cracked to hatch three baby dragons thus, apparently, starting a new Age of Dragons when magic will once again work in the world – but to what end…?
  • This book sees Daenerys venturing across the arid deserts of Essos accompanied by her loyal knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, a small band of Khal Drogo’s surviving followers and her three baby dragons, seeking help in the slave cities of the south to return to Westeros and reclaim her rightful throne, unaware of the complex machinations and battles going on back in Westeros for that very throne..

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of ‘A Clash of Kings’ which aired in the States – and in the UK on Sky Atlantic – last year, and is now out on DVD.

Series 3, based on the third novel, ‘A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow’, starts airing on Sky Atlantic, also in March 2013.

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