Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin (1966)

This was Le Guin’s second published novel and her modus operandi was well established:

  1. Imagine a planet with a set of really unique or distinctive circumstances
  2. Work out in great detail the implications for the kind of intelligent life forms which would inhabit said planet
  3. Then, almost as an afterthought, devise a ‘plot’ or series of events, often fairly stereotyped or clichéd, whose real function is to help us explore – and allow Le Guin to explain – the ramifications and consequences of the strange world she has conceived

The premise

Thus – Planet of Exile is set on the planet Werel and the key facts about it are astronomical:

  1. Werel has a moon, and Werel and its moon orbit around each other, taking four hundred days to complete each ‘moonphase’.
  2. Together this orbiting couple circle their sun – known as Eltanin to the locals but Gamma Draconis to outsiders – in sixty moonphases – in other words, 24,000 days! (p.132)

Thus a ‘year’ – and one cycle through the traditional seasons – for the inhabitants of Werel, takes 65.75 earth years – in effect, one human lifetime.

So most inhabitants of Werel expect to experience just one spring, one summer, one autumn and one winter during their lives, and the seasonal changes we take for granted happening relatively quickly on earth (leaves turning brown and falling, it getting colder and starting to snow) last for years and years on Werel. With the result that it has flora and fauna, but they all behave in eerily different ways, ways which crop up as disconcerting details throughout the story. And the entire experience of life for the humans which inhabit Werel are utterly different from ours.

Background to the story

The farborn Over ten generations ago, colonists came from earth by spaceship to settle on Werel. To be precise, we are told on page 134 that it is the 391st day, of the 45th moonphase of the Tenth Local Year of the colony. I calculate this to be nine local years (216,000 days) + 44 complete moonphases (17,600 days) + 391 days = 233,991 days / 365 = 641 years since the colonists arrived on the planet (p.134).

They built a city they named Landin and a few others along the coast (one named Atlantika is mentioned a few times). Soon after the original settlement, however, the spaceships and some of the colonists were called away to deal with the threat of conflict with the Enemy – presumably the same extra-galactic Enemy referred to in Rocannon’s World – and since that date there has been no contact whatsoever with the mother planet.

Over this long epoch, the colonist population has been steadily declining in number due to miscarriages and infertility, and the colonists have slowly lost interest in much of the knowledge their books contain. They are very slowly reverting to barbarity. They can still read but no longer understand many of the references in the books they have carefully treasured since the Founding. As a small example, they have a good and effective doctor (Wattock) but in a scene late in the book it is made clear that, although he has read about bacteria and bacterial infections, he doesn’t actually believe in them (p.205).

The Arkatevarans The colonists live among a native population which is much more primitive, who they call ‘hilfs’ (which we learn stands for Highly Intelligent Lift Forms, p.148). The natives refer to themselves as Arkatevarans and live in what sound like mud huts, paint themselves with tribal markings, smoke a kind of marijuana, carry out primitive tribal dances and so on. Later on we learn that, much to some farborns’ contempt, the Arkatevarans have still failed to invent the wheel.

The story concerns a particular group of natives who live in a settlement they call Tevar, and so are referred to as the Tevarans. They are led by a wise, old, wilful, obstinate survivor named Wold. The Tevarans call the colonists the ‘farborn’, distrust and dislike them. They differ in a host of small ways, the oddest being that the farborn are unafraid to look directly at someone they’re talking to, while the Tevarans have a taboo about this, and always avert their gaze.

Another difference is that the colonists appear all to be black. Half a dozen passages refer explicitly to their black skin – not dark skin – black (pp.147, 156, 203, 205, 206).

Lead protagonists in later novels are also of African descent. Without some biographical reference or explicit statement, it’s difficult to know whether this represents an explicitly political move on Le Guin’s part – as a liberal academic, no doubt the was brought up to support the Civil Rights movement etc – or is part of the general science fiction strategy of ‘othering’ or making strange, comparable to the way all of her characters in all her books have made up and exotic-sounding names.

The story

What about the plot, I hear you ask. Well, the story opens as news comes to both Tevar and Landin that the Gaal are coming.

The Gaal? Yes, the Gaal are native tribes who live in the remote North but migrate south during the harsh Werel winter. Once a Werel year i.e. once in the average lifetime of our characters, the southerners have to confront this annual migration, which they call The Southing.

But whereas Wold is confident that the Tevarans have prepared and are ready for the Gaal incursion, the leader of the farborn colonists, Jakob Agat Alterra, thinks otherwise. He has heard from farborn messengers they sent out, that this year the Gaal have organised their various tribes into one massive horde and are not skirting the inhabited cities as they did in previous years, but are systematically besieging, defeating and occupying them.

So at the core of the story is going to be: Can the Tevarans and the farborn bury their differences and work together in order to prepare for the onslaught of the approaching barbarians?

As garnish to the tale, there is a burgeoning romance between Rolery, a young Tevaran woman, and Jakob Agat Alterra, leader of the farborn. They first meet when she has whimsically ventured out onto the huge mudflats by the coast, marvelling at the extraordinary causeway build on arches in the Former Times, which runs out to the black island which hosts some kind of bizarre architectural or artistic structure.

Ace paperback edition of Planet of Exile, showing one of the Tevarans admiring the long, strange causeway across the dry sand out to the weird island

As she approaches the cliffs of the island she suddenly hears someone shouting in her head to run towards the cliffs. Confused, she does so and she is scooped up into Alterra’s strong arms just as the 30-foot tidal surge comes rushing in over the mudflats. He has saved her life. The cynical reader suspects this will lead to kissing and maybe worse and, ten or so page later, it does just that. After going their ways back to their respective peoples, they bump into each other again in the forest as night is falling and go to one of the remote hunting hides where… they consummate their love.

Alliance – love – ambush

Next day Agat is back at the Tevaran ‘city’ where he agrees with canny old Wold that the two peoples should form an alliance. They agree a plan: next day a Tevaran war party led by the biggest and strongest of Wold’s sons, Umaksuman, will head north and rendezvous with as many men as the farborn can spare – about 300 young and fit enough to fight – and form a common front to be ready to confront the supposed Gaal horde.

But the plan goes belly up within hours because that evening, against his better judgement, as Agat is making his way through the dense forest to meet Rolery for another night of passion in their secret hideaway, he is ambushed by a posse of Tevarans. These young braves are led by one of Wold’s many grandsons, Ukwet, who is furious that Agat is consorting with a woman from their Kin group without their permission. They beat him to the ground and are heartily kicking him in the ribs and – we learn later – Ukwet had a knife and was ready to castrate Agat, when Umaksuman bursts in on the scene and stops them.

Le Guin describes the incident from Agat’s point of view, giving his subjective feelings, as the blows rain down on him, wanting to curl up deep into the warm mud and hide. Hours later he recovers consciousness, sort of, and it is a beguiling thread in the plot that Agat is capable of mind-speech i.e. telepathy. We are shown a number of his colleagues back in Landin suddenly overcome with unease, because he is ‘sending’ even though too damaged to make the effort to put his messages into words. But Rolery demonstrates the deep bond they have, by receiving the telepathic message, and going out into the forest, discovering him badly beaten and – she initially thinks he’s dead – before she rigs up a travois and drags him back to Landin.

Here, safe in bed and tended by the womenfolk, the badly battered Agat is told that the alliance broke down before it got started. The Tevarans refuse to rendezvous; all his own people, the farborn, would prefer to attack the Tevarans rather than fight the common foe.

The attack on Tevar

Back in Tevar we are shown the scene where headstrong Ukwet calls a tribal assembly and stands up for the tribe’s honour re. Rolery, and accuses Umaksuman of being a coward for stopping them gelding Agat. The confrontation quickly spirals out of control into a duel, while old Wold realises his time is over, he is no longer leader, and shuffles back to the big wooden communal hut where he huddles into the fire among the old women and babbling children.

I found the character of Wold very persuasive and a lot more appealing than the two heterosexual leads, Agat and Rolery who have the same kind of heterosexual love affair that I’ve read in thousands of novels or watched in millions of movies. By contrast, going inside the mind of an ancient, battered and increasingly senile leader of a primitive tribe was a genuinely novel experience, and Le Guin does it very very well, because she makes him wry and funny as well as old and wise.

When the women being him the decapitated body of Ukwet he isn’t surprised. Umaksuman – who killed him in the duel we didn’t see – is send into exile. Wold realises the city is doomed.

Next day the Gaal horde comes into sight and, sure enough, it is nothing like Wold’s experience of one long Werel Year (i.e. 65 earth years) ago. It is a vast mass of humanity, 30, 40, 50,000 men women and children swarming over the north hills and pouring into the valley. Soon enough the warriors come and there’s a vivid and exciting description of the tribal settlement being besieged then broken into, with fighting through the narrow alleys between thatched huts, mostly – again – seen from the eyes of ancient Wold, who manages to spear one of the attacking Gaal, but then retreats to his leader’s hut, ready to die.

However, we cut to Agat, patched up with bandages, and still a few aching wounds and bruises, but nonetheless up in the hills overlooking the vast tide of humanity and the siege and invasion of Tevar, with a small band of farborn fighters. Agat is surprised when out of the foliage emerges huge strong Umaksuman, looking the worse for having to live and forage in the hills. Quickly they establish a warrior-rapport and Umaksuman lustily agrees to join Agat’s men. They’re planning to swoop down into Tevar, take the Gaan by surprise and sweep through the settlement rescuing what women and children they can.

And this they do in another thrillingly described battle-cum-raid scene, in which they rescue women and children and old Wold finds himself picked up and carried out the burning village.

Later, safely in Landin, Agat and the others of the Council discuss next steps and they decide to dispatch all the Tevarans, along with Wold and their own women and children, along the mysterious Causeway to the looming Stack island. The drawbridge can be withdrawn, there’s a spring/fresh water, and provisions to sit out a siege.

Winter is coming

Now the whole reason the Gaal are heading south is because winter is coming. That phrase ring a bell? It is, of course, a central theme George R.R. Martin’s epic series of novels, Game of Thrones, set in a world which also experiences the seasons as extremely long, where ‘winter’ can last several years or even an entire generation, and where the coming of winter threatens the invasion of the north by the White Wanderers. I imagine tens of thousands of fantasy fans have pointed out the similarity between Game and this book. And Le Guin clearly has an affinity for winter, for snow and ice and cold – the award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet its discoverers nickname Winter, and the core of the narrative is a gruelling description of an eighty-day trek over snowy mountains up onto storm-swept glaciers.

Anyway, the point is that, as the Gaal arrive and the siege of Landin commences, so falls the first snow of winter which quickly turns into snowstorms and blizzards.

Siege of Landin

Sure enough, Gaan warriors invest Landin and the siege begins amid the first heavy falls of snow. Like everything else in the book, I found the description of the five-day siege gripping and plausible. On successive days the attackers try various weak points, manage to scale an undefended part of all and open a gate triggering a fierce fight to repel them, forcing the defenders to retreat to the central square whose four entrances can themselves be closed and barred.

As the fighters defend, the women and boys drag provisions or heavy stones or planks to the fronts to create barricades or to arm the catapults used in the early stages of the battle. Beaten back into the square, Rolery joins the nurses in the converted Records Room of the Old Hall, tending the never-ending stream of wounded who are brought back from the front, working alongside irritable but effective Doctor Wattock.

Throughout very heavy snowstorms blanket the city, blinding attackers and defenders alike giving rise to thrilling scenes where figures loom out of the snowfog, nobody is sure whether friends or foe. Rolery finds her senses sharpened and the inner mindspeech which Agat used on her alert to cries or messages from him, separated as they are for long stretches. The desperate situation also prompts various characters, from the doctor to the senior women on the city council (wise old Alla Pasfalto; Seiko Esmit, the last member of one of the founding families who is in barely concealed love with Agat) to discourse about various issues, from their long abandonment and exile from their home planet, to the possibility of their ever living in peace with the primitive natives.

We hear more about the Cultural Embargo under which all the space-travelling peoples of the League of All Worlds operate, namely not to prejudice the development of the peoples they land among by showing them advanced technology. Hence they had to hide their guns and whatnot, only allowed to retain dart guns which, in line with native culture, they are allowed to tip with poison (and which saves Agat’s life right at the end of the story).

(This Cultural Embargo is, of course, identical to the so-called Prime Directive of the Starfleet referred to throughout Star Trek, the original TV series of which launched in the same year this novel was published, 1966. Someone copied someone or it was just a piece of sci-fi commonplace.) Anyway, this explains why the colonists never flexed their full technical muscle, hid a lot of their devices and have now themselves forgotten how to use most of them.

Saved by the snowghouls

At the moment of direst extremity, our heroes are saved by a deus ex machina, namely the arrival of the snowghouls. Yes, snowghouls, white humanoid monsters with long waving necks which scare the Bejasus out of everyone, especially the besieging Gaals. The majority of the host had already left, leaving a small besieging force behind to either capture or lob in flaming brands to destroy Landin – but even those now head for the hills and our heroes and heroines go up onto the battlements, glimpse a few of the ghouls in action, and realise they are saved.

In the last few pages, there is time for a last few adventures: Agat unwisely leaves the barricaded part of the city to wander through the wrecked areas the Gaal have abandoned under the light of Werel’s dimly twinkling winter stars… and is attacked by a lone snowghoul, having just enough time to fire off his dartgun, before being thrown to the ground. The thing is just about to bite through his neck when the venom from Agat’s dart takes effect and the snowghoul falls off, shivering and dying beside him.

Chastened, he makes his way warily back to the heavily defended central square and to his beloved Rolery. The last act takes place the next morning, when the survivors of the siege march in triumph along the huge causeway out to the island with the strange building on it, and the Taveran defenders let down the drawbridge. At first Agan is full of joy until he realises that the women emerging from the Stack’s fastnesses are daubed in ashes and tear-stained. Their leader Wold died in the night. A new era has begun.

In one of the many intense conversations which took place in the Record Room during the siege, doctor Wattock had explained to Rolery that slight differences in their DNA explained why the farborn rarely get ill from Werel infections, heal quickly, but by the same token, have difficulty digesting Werel meat or crops without artificial enzyme additives.

He goes on to speculate that maybe, maybe this is why the conception rate has been so low among the farborn, and why there are so many abortions. Maybe… maybe it has been natural selection weeding out those who are really allergic to the subtle differences of the planet… maybe the survivors are steadily more acculturated to living on Werel… maybe they’ll be able to interbreed with the natives…

And with this thought planted in our minds, we watch Agat return from Wold’s Viking-style funeral pyre, back to the arms of his Tevaran wife. Maybe they will be the first to successfully interbreed. Maybe a new race will arise from the blend of Tevarans and Terran colonists, born into the generation-long wastes of winter.

Five thousand nights of Winter, five thousand days of it: the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives. (p.212)


Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1966. In 1996 it was republished along with Rocannon’s World and City of Illusions in an omnibus volume titled Worlds of Exile and Illusion. All page references are to the 2015 paperback edition of the combined Worlds volume.

Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – planetary romance or sci fantasy set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who attacked his spaceship
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – the story concerns an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – who has been sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the real focus is on exploring the condition of hermaphroditism which is the state of the planet’s inhabitants, as Genly goes on the run with a disgraced lord, Estraven, and during a long, gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north, the develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Some notes on George RR Martin’s prose style

George RR Martin’s prose style in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series of novels is unstable. By this I mean it veers from purely functional modern thriller prose to prose larded with fake medievalisms, from a lexicon of short, Anglo-Saxon words to one suddenly stuffed with neoclassical and latinate vocabulary. On the same page there can be ‘ofts’ and ‘elsewises’ from the 15th century and then things being ‘divvied up’ or people asking ‘What’s that all about?’ as if in modern New York.

For fun I’ve tried to identify various aspects of his style:

1. Crisp The default setting of Martin’s style is lucid 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 (see below). 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)

2. Poetry. When his characters are not swearing or chopping off each others’ heads, GRRM’s limpid style can have a powerfully simple beauty. I particularly associate this with the character of Arya Stark once she’s set sail from Westeros for the island city of Braavos.

Faint and far away the light burned, low on the horizon, shining through the sea mists.
“It looks like a star,” said Arya.
“The star of home,” said Denyo.
His father was shouting orders. Sailors scrambled up and down the three tall masts and moved along the rigging, reefing the heavy purple sails. Below, oarsmen heaved and strained over two great banks of oars. The decks tilted, creaking, as the galleas Titan’s Daughter heeled to starboard and began to come about.” (FFC98)

His prose can be wonderfully evocative. I’ll long remember the word paintings of the Water Palace of Lord Martell of Dorne:

When the sun set the air grew cool and the children went inside in search of supper, still the prince remained beneath his orange trees, looking out over the still pools and the sea beyond. A serving man brought him a bowl of purple olives, with flatbread, cheese and chickpea paste. He ate a bit of it, and drank a cup of the sweet, heavy strongwine that he loved. When it was empty, he filled it once again. Sometimes in the deep black hours of the morning sleep found him in his chair. Only then did the captain roll him down the moonlit gallery, past a row of fluted pillars and through a graceful archway, to a great bed with crisp, cool linen sheets in a chamber by the sea. (FFC40)

(I can’t decide whether the repetitions in this passage – of ‘cool’ and ‘still’ – are signs of haste, or careful repetitions designed to evoke the lazy, torpid atmosphere of Lord Martell’s sea retreat.)

3. Types of scene Martin can manage an impressive variety of scene:

Big setpieces such as:

  • the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay of which we get a panoramic overview as well as the point of view of the heroic dwarf Tyrion Lannister
  • the grisly Red Wedding where Robb Stark and his allies are massacred, seen both from Lady Catelyn’s viewpoint inside the castle and from Arya’s as she rides up to it from outside
  • the sudden mayhem when the Kings Landing mob riot and attack Joffrey’s procession, seizing horses, dragging riders off into the baying crowd and Martin vividly conveys fear and panic and confusion
  • the battle of the Wall as Jon Snow and the Night Watch defend against the wildlings’ attack, and then the sudden arrival of King Stannis and his cavalry
  • the Others’ attack on the Night Watchmen on the Fist of the First Men

Small, dramatic scenes such as:

  • the countless duels, for example between Bronn and the knight of the Vale for Tyrion’s life; between the Oberyn Martell and the Mountain that Rides; between Jaime Lannister and Brienne in the Riverlands
  • sudden violence, as when the wights ambush Bran, Hodor and Meera and Jojen Reed at the mouth of the cave of the prophet; or the three mercenaries ambush Brienne at the castle on the Fingers; or Jon Snow is assassinated; or the Hound cracks Arya on the head with his axe
  • the extraordinary scene where the demon birthed by Melisandre enters King Renly’s tent to murder him
  • the wonderful opening of Feast for Crows where the Damphair drowns and revives a convert to the Drowned God

4 Dramatic dialogue Confrontations between opposing characters are done though terse, charged dialogue. As a reader on numerous occasions you experience a real dramatic shock when you realise, along with one character, the implications of another one’s words, and are horrified or shocked. When Cersei orders Sansa’s direwolf to be killed; when princess Margaery realises Cersei is trapping her in the dungeon at Baelon’s Septon; when Eddard Stark realises he has lost control of King’s Landing.

Tyrion is a master of stylish banter, witty asides, the telling bon mot, throughout the books.

Littlefinger is arch and aphoristic, especially once he takes Sansa Stark into his ‘care’.

5 Distorting English Martin employs the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases into something rich and strange. 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. Similarly, girls who have had their first period have ‘flowered’, they have tobacco in Westeros but use it to chew and call it ‘sourleaf’; they have a sedative drink called ‘dreamwine’, and so on. By repetition over the multiple scenes, and scores of chapters, Martin’s slightly distorted English, and slightly amended concepts, become your home setting.

6 New 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 highly creative and enjoyable aspect of his style, and there are hundreds:

  • 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 (reader of the future in fire), holdfast, warg (human who can inhabit an animal), damphair, and many others.

7 New word combinations English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms:

  • sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), bannermen (minor families loyal to a great lord), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot (meeting to decide a king), skinchanger (who can change into an animal), godswood (holy wood where the magic weir trees grow), weirwood (the holy trees), greenseer (wise man of the Children of the Forest), greensight (second sight of the greenseers), sweetling (term of endearment), beastling, shadowcat , crannogman,

As with the distortions of standard English and the new coinages, these new word combinations build up a linguistic base for 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 his fantasy world.

Read a comprehensive account of Martin’s use of affixes, compound and combination words

New names It’s one thing to point out that the Song is full of hundreds and hundreds of characters, each realised with great vividness and precision. (Someone has counted over 1,000 named characters in the saga so far.) But of course almost all of them require 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. We feel we are nearly in a familiar world – but not quite.

Martin’s names can be grouped into three categories:

a) Similar names Jon Snow is a straight down the line English name (extremely rare in Martin). His fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jaime 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.

b) Alien names Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras, Brienne, Barristan, Viserys, Daenerys, Balon, Renley, Stannis, Euron, Asha, Walder,

c) Exotic names Let alone the exotic names of characters from the free Cities of the eastern continent, Essos: Hizdahr zo Loraq, Khal Jhaqo, Skahaz mo Kandaq, Daario Naharis,

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, yet bracingly alien and explosive.

9. Cod medievalism

Martin all-too-frequently remembers he’s writing a medieval epic and abandons his natural crisp, clear style to slip into pastiche medievalism. I suppose we should be grateful he avoids the standard medievalisms – thee and thou, ye, prithee and so on. But there is a number of would-be medievalisms which become annoying mannerisms:

  • The most persistent one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. “He is like to be angry”; “He has near finished the task.”
  • ‘Oft’ instead of the sensible ‘often’
  • ‘Elsewise’
  • ‘Among’ and ‘while’ become the archaic ‘amongst’ and ‘whilst’
  • He invents some cod medieval phrases such as ‘much and more’.

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.


In my post on Affixes and compound words I try to show that if Martin’s style answers to / is responsive to  the medieval world of the narrative, it is not because of the occasional pseudo-medievalisms (‘oft’ and ‘elsewise’) which are in fact blemishes on his otherwise swift clear style;  it is because he consistently chooses words of Anglo-Saxon origin and generally avoids Latinate and neoclassical vocabulary, thus giving his prose a cumulative feeling of woodiness, antiquity, pithiness.

The thoughts above are intended to shed further light on the distinctive strengths and achievements of his uneven but often wonderfully powerful and evocative style.

Related links

All quotes copyright George RR Martin 2013.

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

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