George R.R. Martin, The American Homer
The Influence of the Oral Tradition
Before this study, I’d never reread AGOT, and was curious if it held up. In the interval between AGOT and ADWD I graduated middle school, high school, and college, so I had no real memories of the first book. But the sequels, released every few years and read on my end with a ratcheting skepticism of the prose, put me on guard for formulaic descriptions. If you wonder why critics can be so darn critical, think of it this way: it’s draining to love books and not love the book you’re reading. Tracking errors makes a disheartening activity into a game: you stalk through the text, following a trail of breadcrumbs that are in fact bullets, ammo for an essay like this one. And that’s what I did, merrily underlining lame sentences.Which you can check out here, if you like.
Then I came across these two lines, and reconsidered Martin’s style:
The rising sun sent fingers of light through the pale white mists of dawn.
Pale crimson fingers fanned out to the east as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon.
Each is an allusion to Homer, who writes in the Odyssey:
When the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, they hurried down to the ship and brought their cauldrons with them.
Homer, whether he was one man or many, is well known for the use of epithets, stock phrases that attend a character or concept. Dawn is always rosy-fingered; Athena is grey-eyed; Odysseus is wise. More famous than that rosy-fingered dawn is the wine-dark sea.
There’s an old NYT article about it that relates a hypothesis from one Dr. Cattley.
Dr. Cattley, though he shared authorship of the blue-wine idea, believes that as a phrase the wine-dark sea was less a description than a useful poetic device. This is the traditional interpretation by classical scholars. Throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey phrases and descriptions are repeated, the wine-dark sea being only one of the most familiar and poetic of these.
This is presumably the legacy of the generation of minstrels who first told the tales that Homer later transcribed and embellished. The minstrels fell back on such stock phrases to give their audience time to absorb what had just been sung and to give themselves a moment to think about what they were going to sing next.
I now think of Martin as one of those minstrels, a Marillion or a Symon Silver Tongue. If there’s any doubt about this point, let’s not forget the series’ name: A Song of Ice and Fire. And this song is stuffed with other songs, and myths, and old wives’ tales; all vehicles of an oral tradition that Martin embraces completelyAn interesting question: what’s his interest in the oral tradition? Is this another legacy of Tolkien’s, the philologist who stuffed his text with verse? An homage to the progenitors of the fantasy genre, sagas like Beowulf, the Odyssey, Le Morte D’Arthur?, warts and all.
The pros: ASOIAF has an almost hypnotic readability, even in distracting conditions. This winter, stuck in a noisy train station, teeth chattering, I enjoyed the Walder/Catelyn negotiations. Storytelling is evergreen, and will always reach more people than literary work. It appeals to every kind of reader, even the occasional.
The con: The sentences aren’t beautiful.
There was a Reddit thread about favorite passages, and all of the top answers referred to passages of dialogue: Septon Meribald’s speech, some Jaime exchanges, the Tower of Joy. In a series so focused on character and written by an author with an ear for it, it’s no surprise that dialogue would shine brightest. But the prose that constitutes the other 60% of the text is forgettable.
Except in cases of emotional shock, you never have to read an AGOT sentence twice. Which makes sense. In oral storytelling, narrative is a tissue that has to be taken in at once, without hesitation or interruption. A listener can’t jump back as easily as a reader, and can’t pause to consider a strange word or turn of phrase before continuing. To that end, Martin keeps us turning pages with a steady flow of low-density sentences. It’s shotgun writing: like buckshot, no single sentence is that effective, but a full cartridge of it gets the point across. And just like a shotgun blast, there’s some scattering. But that’s fine, since what really counts is the gist. When you’re listening to someone talking, your focus on their meaning prevents you from hearing much verbatim.
If oral storytelling is about the gist, textual storytelling is about the printed word. Writers who embrace their medium start to diverge very quickly from oral storytellers. In text, the reader makes their own pace. Now the possibilities of a sentence explode. It’s the difference between seeing a forest as you walk along a gravel trail, and seeing it as you pass on the highway. This affords more complexity – in syntax or thought – but also invites scrutiny. Readers are reading the words as much as they are reading the story. Therefore “textualists” pay great attention to freshness of expression. With repetition, even a phrase as beautiful and enigmatic as the wine-dark sea loses its punch, becomes a postcard.
Textualists reign supreme in academia. They’re behind most of the writing advice you got in high school. To them, a quality sentence shares its virtues with a car in a wind tunnel – lots of emphasis on streamlines, elegance, spareness. These writers machine their sentences, plane and calibrate them. They’re rarely built at once, and they are almost never left untouched once built. They suffer tinkering (and the writer suffers the tinkering).
This is not Martin’s way. When he describes his writing process, he stresses rhythm. Sometimes he is feeling it, and sometimes he is not.
I get up every day and work in the morning. I have my coffee and get to work. On good days I look up and it’s dark outside and the whole day has gone by and I don’t know where it’s gone. But there’s bad days, too. Where I struggle and sweat and a half hour creeps by and I’ve written three words. And half a day creeps by and I’ve written a sentence and a half and then I quit for the day and play computer games. You know, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
The flow is important, it’s gotta come out right for him. Which could be why stock phrases are so prevalent in his work. For a reader, stock phrases may not be stirring, beautiful, interesting, or even informative. But for a writer, they come easily off the pen. Very important for maintaining momentum. It’s like a bird trying to take flight. Style doesn’t matter so much as lift, and stock phrases are thermals.
The counterpoint to that would be someone like Anthony Trollope, who cranked out novels and thought of himself as a craftsman no different than a shoemaker:
Let [writers’] work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving.
In that light, good and bad days are precious nonsense. Did you forget how to resole this shoe? (I like the blue-collar approach to writing, but I can’t follow Trollope this far.)
All that said, let’s turn to the text and see how just one of these phrases plays.
- “The greatsword Ice was across his lap, and he was cleaning the blade in those waters black as night.”
- “There was only her and the dragon. Its scales were black as night, wet and slick with blood.”
- “The seed is strong, Jon Arryn had cried on his deathbed, and so it was. All those bastards, all with hair as black as night.”
- “Mirri Maz Duur sat back on her heels and studied Daenerys through eyes as black as night.”
“Black as night” triggers vision only because it takes longer to read. It’s almost a shorthand for description, Martin reminding us to picture the color black instead of evoking it for us. And that’s simply because “black as night” is familiar to us, and we are cognitively lazy with the familiar.
My question is: if it’s important enough to prompt us to picture the color black, wouldn’t you give us something new to see? If not, why not just use black unadorned? It makes more sense to me if it’s functioning as a literary ummm, as with those minstrels that Dr. Cattley talked about.
For context, I went through my corpus and checked out what some other authors compared black to. Besides night, there was a lot of soot, pitch, cave, coffin, etc. Martin was the runaway consumer of the construction, while some authors (Joseph Heller, Virginia Woolf, Richard Yates) didn’t bother with it. The three most arresting:
Rabbit is distracted by the man’s suit; it only feigns black. It is really blue, a sober but elegant, lightweight, midnight blue. While his little vest or bib or whatever is black as a stove.
These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat.
Though he was seventy, his hair was as thick and black as a twenty-year-old Mexican’s.
But the real Martinian stock phrases are those faces still as masks, and the faces dark with anger, the chins dripping with hot juices, and all those men corded or thick with muscle, the ones muscled like a bovid (ox, bull) or a maiden’s fantasy. And what about those maidens, whose hair shines like spun gold, and those non-maidens, whose whereabouts are unknown.
When you’re into the story, this stuff hardly registers. When you’re not, it can grate.