Martin is willing to be anachronistic with his dialogue. I don’t mean etymologically anachronistic – I talk about that here – but rather culturally anachronistic. Every once in a while a character will say something that reminds you of the modern era. Two stick out to me, one for each of the Lannister brothers.
After Tyrion recruits some barbaric hillfolk by promising them the Vale of Arryn, he has to introduce them to his intimidating father. He says:
“They followed me home, Father,” Tyrion explained. “May I keep them? They don’t eat much.”
Which is a quote of that moment – maybe it happened in Leave it to Beaver, or Family Circus, or Peanuts, I don’t know, but it’s someplace in the mythology of midcentury suburbia – in which a boy asks Papa if he can keep this muddy stray dog he found.
I’m more confident about the origin of this line from Jaime:
“No, coz, the wench is right. We have promises to keep, and long leagues before us. We ought ride on.”
Which is from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep,
Both of these are dramatically apropos, but your eyes drift from the face of the puppet to our twinkly-eyed ventriloquist, George. In a book with maps and appendices, I’d expect Martin to more vigorously defend suspension of disbelief, and not sell out the show for the sake of a gag.
Which isn’t to say I mind it. I like to see Martin having fun, and chuckled when I learned about the inspiration for the giant Wun Wun:
Wun Wun kills Patrek to fulfill a bet that George R. R. Martin made with his friend, Patrick St. Denis. George is a fan of the New York Giants football team, while Patrick supports the Dallas Cowboys. Wun Wun is named after Phil Simms, a quarterback for the New York Giants who wore #11.
Yet these lines of dialogue aren’t as encrypted as Wun Wun, so they’re a little more distracting. But what’s really interesting here is that both lines are used to make the speaker seem amusing. One of the practical nightmares of any representational medium is that you are responsible for all the utterances of that medium. Sometimes that’s the whole point – the Jacobean dramatists loved the play within the play. But if you’re doing a painting called “The Masterwork,” and it depicts museum-goers gaping at a painting on the gallery wall, you have to come up with that masterwork. If you write a story about a singer-songwriter, you have to write lyrics. And what if you’re writing about a hacker god? Do you just shotgun jargon and hope the reader’s eyes glaze over before they figure out you don’t know what any of it means? That’s what they try on TV procedurals. But what if the character’s supposed to be funny? Now you have to actually be funny.
For Martin, that means being archly referential. And here’s where it gets dicey – for these to read as jokes to us, Martin must make reference to something from our cultural moment, which excludes them from reading as culturally appropriate to Westeros. The Game of Thrones show approaches this problem in a similar way with Salladhor Saan. So he tells the old joke about the ship captain with his red shirt and brown pants. (Perhaps sensing that the joke is not really funny, the screenwriter compensates with frontal nudity.) What I particularly like about the choice is that this groaner is so old it’s practically medieval. And really, it very well could have been invented back then: all you need for the joke is a ship, pirates, and shit, which have been around awhile.