The Poetics of George R.R. Martin: Further Thoughts on A Feast for Crows (by Bethany)


Pages read: 414 out of 978

I put this book aside a couple of months ago and have been reading other things, but this week I picked it up again and – big surprise! – it was just as violent and humorless as ever. This installment concerns itself with a few central issues: cleaning up (physically, emotionally, interpersonally) after the shitshow of violence that erupted at the end of A Storm of Swords, crowning and marrying off the preadolescent King Tommen, and torturing the reader by withholding Tyrion from this installment, thereby depriving us of the only real light of creativity, humor, and goodness in the series. This novel also asks way too much of the reader when it comes to caring about the antics of the Viking-like Greyjoy family. I’ll elaborate.

This is the first novel in the series that asks us to put up with Cersei Lannister as a point-of-view character, and her chapters are almost unendurable. From the outside, Cersei has always seemed scheming and dishonest but also kind of pathetic, since as the daughter, wife, and mother of powerful men she has very little real power of her own. This is true enough, but after reading just a few pages of the novel from her perspective and learning just how evil and petulant her thoughts are, I lost all sympathy for her. When Jaime Lannister was first used as a point-of-view character in A Storm of Swords, hearing his thoughts helped me to like him more; not so with Cersei. Similarly, the one-trick-pony that is Brienne of Tarth has long stopped being interesting, and Sansa (now called Alayne and living as Petyr Baelish’s “bastard daughter”) and Arya are interesting when they appear, but the novel hasn’t focused on them much. Sam Tarly is in a potentially-interesting situation, in that Jon (the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) has sent him to “the Citadel” (you know, just like PAT CONROY!) to become a “maester,” and he faces an imminent reunion with his father (who has promised to kill him if he ever sees him again; also like PAT CONROY!) and is also dealing with the complexities of his feelings for Gilly (one of Craster’s “wives”; see my review of A Storm of Swords) and the fact that Jon Snow switched Gilly’s baby with the baby of Mance Rayder, who is “the king beyond the wall,” because Stannis Baratheon’s creepy priestess woman has a tendency to steal the babies of kings and use their blood in her potions. But like Sansa and Arya, Sam doesn’t get to take center stage often enough for this situation to play itself out.

This novel also features some chapters from the point of view of other families and “houses” that have not been well developed in the earlier novels. First there’s the Greyjoys, whose name fits them perfectly. The Greyjoys remind me of the Kings of Stormhold in Stardust (actually, never mind – everyone in this series reminds me of the Kings of Stormhold in Stardust). Balon has recently died, and his brothers and children are butting heads to decide who will rule next, and as of the last chapter I read, the “Ironmen” have thrown their support behind Asha, Balon’s daughter who is also a naval commander and warrior. Balon has three creepy brothers who also want in on the action: the warlike Victarion and Eulon and Aeron, the priest of the CPR religion. Unfortunately we have seen little more of the CPR religion ever since it was introduced early in the novel.

The Martells are also making an appearance in this novel, though not as prominently as the Greyjoys. The Martells are from Dorne, which is in the southern part of Westeros, and they have weird habits like thinking it is OK for women to inherit thrones and royal titles from their fathers. The Martells currently have possession of Myrcella Baratheon, who is supposed to marry some Dornish prince once she “flowers,” but the Dornish folks are scheming to use Myrcella’s bloodline to capture control of the Iron Throne. In other words, the Game of Thrones goes on.

Other than the summary above, I only have one item of substance to relate about this novel, and it’s something I’ve noticed ever since the beginning of the series but have hesitated to mention it because it is really a very nerdy observation, and “Maker of the Single Nerdiest Remark Ever Made About Game of Thrones” is not a title that I covet. But here goes. I’ve mentioned before that the language in this series never changes register. Whether Martin is writing about children snuggling with direwolf puppies of dwarves crossbowing their fathers in the chest while pooping (the fathers are pooping, not the dwarves – and yes, FINE – there is only one dwarf that does this. And he has only one father), the language of the novel remains static. I’ve taken to calling it “normal sinus”: ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-Bum,” onward and forever, over and out. Since in literal terms normal sinus is the primary sign of life – and since this novel so often concerns characters trying desperately to hold onto their lives against terrible odds, there is a strange appropriateness to this rhythm. At the same time, this rhythm is what makes these novels such long slogs. Diana Gabaldon’s novels are as long as Martin’s or longer and at times are painfully overwritten, but even when she is devoting way too much time to a boring minor character, Gabaldon’s language never falls into such a predictable rhythm.

George R.R. Martin’s language, on the other hand, is highly iambic. The English language is highly iambic too, of course, although English prose doesn’t usually fall into a strict iambic meter nearly as often as Martin’s does. I wrote and studied a LOT of blank verse in my college and grad school years, and I am attuned to iambic pentameter lines and often notice them in writing and in speech. However, I am not used to finding several of them back to back in a single paragraph the way I do in Martin’s work. Here’s an example:

The going was much slower in the woods. Brienne plodded her mare through the green gloom, weaving in and out amongst the trees. It would be very easy to get lost here, she realized. Every way she looked appeared the same. The very air seemed gray and green and still. Pine boughs scratched against her arms and scraped noisily against her newly painted shield” (409).

In this passage of 64 words, Martin’s language falls into four separate perfectly iambic sentences or phrases. In addition, the last sentence could easily be part of a blank verse poem, presuming one is comfortable with a little enjambment and a truncated iamb in the first position of the first line (“Pine”) and a dactylic substitution in the first position of the second line (“noisily against”).

Think it’s a coincidence? Here’s another one:

The sound grew louder as she neared the cliffs. It was the sea, she realized suddenly. The waves had eaten holes in the cliffs below and were rumbling through caves and tunnels beneath the earthThe castle was built of old, unmortared stones, no two the same. Moss grew thick in clefts between the rocks” (412).

There are a few metrical variations here – truncated iamb in the second and sixth lines, anapest in the fourth positon in the third, trochaic substitution in the first position of the fourth (What?? I told you this was going to be nerdy.), but for the most part this is a paragraph of prose in which only six words do not fit nearly into a pattern close enough to iambic pentameter to be noteworthy.

I’ve often heard it said that iambic pentameter is the most “natural” rhythm because it mimics the heartbeat, and while the suggestion that poetics are connected to us in a physical way is fascinating, this idea has always seemed a little Anglocentric to me because all people have heartbeats but not all languages fall naturally into an iambic rhythm. For me in this novel, though, the meter of Martin’s language does mimic the heartbeat and does have a sort of symbolic connection to the plot and characters of the series. Does Martin write his sentences this way on purpose? Who knows? I do wish he would scale back on the iambic-pentameter sentences and clauses when his characters are not actually slogging along through literal or figurative mud. I wish he were more willing to play with different sentence lengths and structures, including intentional fragments, which are extremely effective in describing fast, impulsive action. When Arya is thwarted yet again in her attempt to find her family, when Sansa/Alayne lies awake in bed terrified of what Petyr Baelish will do next, and when Brienne has to deal again with strange men who like to make jokes about raping her – then the heartbeat can come back.

This entry was posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, George R.R. Martin, Reviews by Bethany and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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