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 RR 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. 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 deliberately crude with 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 of humilating, 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. Ie 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: 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 exhilirating 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. A very male functional view of sex. There 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 all 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 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, as I increasingly was as the series  am on page after page, and so 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.

%d bloggers like this: