Monday, 4 November 2013

The Beatles

Kate has most of the Beatles' albums on her iPod, which means you can see all of the songs in one big list. It is a reminder of just what an extraordinary career they had - not just that they maintained the level of quality and never really dipped, but that they did so while constantly innovating, constantly taking huge risks, and, most impressively, constantly just working.

I realize that, for some, expressing a love of the Beatles is a rather bland, anodyne non-statement that hugs the mainstream so closely ('everybody likes the Beatles!') as to attest no real discernment. But this is fatuous and self-regarding - who is so pettily narcissistic to imagine that their own taste constitutes an interesting statement in itself? The music produced by the Beatles is far more interesting than the fact of my liking them and someone else not. 

And my reasons for liking them could well be bizarre and outlandish, and far from 'mainstream' appreciation, whatever that is - I'll not have my reasons imputed for me. Especially not by some sneering bloody hipster.

The quality or value of the Beatles' output can nevertheless be contested; but even then, there is no arguing that their musical development (admittedly at a time when everyone and everything else was changing rapidly too) was just extraordinary. Consider:

March 1963      Love Me Do 
July 1964           Hard Day’s Night 
August 1965     You’ve got to Hide your Love Away 
Dec. 1965           Norwegian Wood; Drive My Car 
August 1966     Eleanor Rigby; Tomorrow Never Knows; She Said She Said 
June 1967          A Day in the Life; Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds 
Nov. 1968          Dear Prudence; Happiness is a Warm Gun; Everybody’s got Something to Hide (Except for me and my Monkey) 
Sept. 1969         Come Together; Medley; Something

So they managed to go from Love Me Do (yeah, yeah, yeah - oooooh) to the dark and utterly unique Come Together in just over six years. In just three years they went from Can't Buy me Love and And I Love Her to A Day in the Life. A further two and a bit years later and they were at the lush, extraordinarily new sound of Abbey Rd, thereby kickstarting the seventies before Father Time had got round to it.

Contrast Oasis, a band once (laughably) compared to the Beatles by Britain's execrable rock journalists: Definitely Maybe in August 1997 and then burnt out a mere three years later with the leaden monstrosity that was Be Here Now.

The question now is how many of the 'landmark' songs I chose above were John songs and how many Paul's.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Granada! Part Dos!

Just a brief addendum.

The cathedrals and churches of Granada were, as you’d expect, a definite highlight, especially those in the mixed Spanish-Moorish style. Not all of them were open to visitors. Of those that were, the interiors were often very splendid as in this quire:

(My photographic skills are less than splendid – see here and here).

Sometimes they were slightly gaudy and over-gilded, as this from Guadix cathedral:

And sometimes they were downright terrifying, as this from the church in the Barrio de las Cuevas just outside Guadix (picture taken from the web):

I am not sufficiently informed to know whether or not this is a particular flavour of Spanish Catholicism, though my hunch is that to some extent it is. Either way it’s trivial to run down someone’s faith simply because I find its symbols aesthetically unappealing, so I won’t.

Nevertheless, I am interested to know why I find this style unappealing. There are lots of descriptions I could throw at it – macabre, kitsch, un-self reflective and so immune to irony – but these feel unexamined and therefore unfair.

Maybe what makes me uncomfortable is an extremity of belief which holds that it is impossible to overstate or hyperbolize what is absolutely and infinitely true. And, similarly, which holds that these images need no moderation or circumspection – Mary is absolutely full of grace, Christ absolutely having a shitty day up there on the cross – because there is no other alternative truth that could undermine or ironize it. You can only have irony where a plurality of truths is possible; to insist on its impossibility is to claim that there is just one, crushingly victorious truth. Which is probably why we respond antagonistically by emphasizing their kitsch value – we insist on reinstating the ironical potential we think has been peremptorily ruled out.

But even then, I’m not sure this is getting me any closer to why I was put off at the gut level – this is all a number of rationalizations down the line. And my immediate feeling wasn’t one of oppression. Maybe the problem is in over-exemplification – in her grace and lovingness and innocence Mary is, or poses as, the final and undiluted instantiation of those things. Again, this can be immoderate and oppressive: a claim that this is the highest, most perfect manifestation and therefore cannot be hyperbolized. But the real kicker is that it has a sense of the uncanny – they are human figures but with an inhuman idealness and unreality, and this human but somehow-not-quite aspect (see this) is what disturbs and alienates.

On an incidental note, and I am not sure in what way, if any, this is related, some of the Moorish décor of the Nasrid palace in the Alhambra has a similar impossibility-of-excess style. All over the walls are repeated passages from the Koran and Islamic catechism, like this:

As the guide pointed out, if you are an Arabic speaker the effect is of entering a room with the same words written all over its walls. If I wasn’t so afraid of the repercussions I’d compare it to that bit in The Simpsons taking off The Shining, where Homer scrawls ‘no beer and no TV make Homer go crazy all over the walls’.

I found the effect beautiful, though as a non-Arabic speaker I suppose it was mainly decorative for me. The same principle seemed to hold: that an uncontestable truth cannot be overstated. It reminds me of the only passage of the Koran I know, in fact not from the Koran (I just found out) but from one of the Hadiths, recounting Muhammed’s vision of the Sixth Heaven. This is quoted from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (notoriously flaky, apparently) but from having a snoop on Google it seems the Hadith definitely says something very much like this:

I saw there an angel, the most gigantic of all created beings. It had 70,000 heads, each had 70,000 faces, each face had 70,000 mouths, each mouth had 70,000 tongues, and each tongue spoke 70,000 languages; all were employed in singing God’s praises.

Not sure what I’m doing with this. I suppose what immediately crossed my mind was some sort of cross-cultural historical link between Spanish Catholicism and Moorish Islam. But there’s no basis for that, and this is all getting a bit thin. I’ll just call it an interesting parallel and leave it at that.


I recently spent a week in Granada in Spain with my very dear girlfriend Kate. These are my ragged, slightly sangria-splashed impressions.

Granada is beautiful; the weather generally gorgeous; the food was delicious; most of all, the locals we talked to were almost all very friendly and welcoming. In fact, they were lovely, and for this reason I am never going to Italy again.

(The only exception was the chap with the guitar in the Mirador San Nicolás who, like many of his countrymen, sadly mistook shouting for singing. He’s probably still there, belting away, ruining his larynx and the digestion of the nearby diners).


  • The Alhambra, especially the Nasrid palace
  • Habas con jamón (soaked ham and beans – I think I’m only just starting to sweat out the ham fat)
  • Hamam (Arabic baths and massage)
  • Carmen de los Martires – beautiful and seemingly neglected gardens in north-east heights of the city.
  • Realejo, Albaicin, and Sacromonte (esp. the views they give of the Alhambra)

Kate was very keen to visit Sacromonte and Guadix to see the caves there and their modern-day dwellers. Unusually so, actually. I wondered briefly if she was looking to reunite me with my fellow cave-folk, as if escorting a lost ewok back to its tree-house.

Next are slightly more specific impressions, some of which will be very boring indeed. So if you stop reading now, let your take-home be: go to Granada and give them lots of your money, and time, and wild affection.


1. Free tapas with each drink


2. Potemkin high street?

I went there, predictably, with Spain's economic woes in mind, but was taken aback by how affluent Granada seemed, particularly its retail sector. It has a population roughly the same sized population as Oxford, I think, and yet has vastly more high-end clothes shops and boutiques. The Spanish seem to dress quite sharply so it’s conceivable that they are dressing to kill while living on a cup of rice a day, with the odd helping of habas con jamón as a treat (Jesus, those beans). But no doubt about it – there was a lot of swank, and where there is swank there is usually wedge. So if Spain is almost broke, what gives?

The ‘Potemkin villages’, if the term is unfamiliar, were ‘any of the sham villages said to have been built by Potemkin to give a false impression of prosperity in the Crimea’ (OED). It crossed my mind darkly that these businesses might be shop fronts and nothing more – fine facades supported only by maxed-out plastic and over-extended lines of credit. I hope that isn’t the case – and not being economically literate what do I know? – but there was definitely an ominous air, as if this beautiful and smiling city is secretly dying and not able to face that awful fact.

It’s like the last days of Pompeii, had the Romans been into Zara and handbags rather than orgies and slave-thrashing.

Also, the siesta seems crazy to me, though I didn’t experience it from the locals’ perspective (I just stared at shuttered shops and swore at myself for going shopping at the wrong time, again). How committed can you be to the task at hand (that is, your job, which pays for food and shelter, and other luxuries) if you are happy to abandon it for two hours every day, like a bored cat? It jarred with all the other signs that Granada was part of a modern, moving economy. Frau Merkel, I feel your Schmerz. But this is no more than my ignorant foreigner's perspective.

3. Architecture

Many of the churches have large stone panels on them, as below. Does anyone know what they are for? Structural? Decorative – i.e. they once had murals painted on them? To reflect heat better?

4. Spanish < Latin (a real turn to the boring here)

One way I entertained myself in Spain was by working out the regular patterns of sound change between Latin and Spanish. You might think that only the most appalling tedium could bring me to seek my entertainment in such dismal corners of pedantry – but you would be dead wrong, sir. In fact, it often helped me work out the meaning of Spanish words without a dictionary – for instance I was able to work out that signs saying caja denote cash machines because caja corresponds with Latin capsa, French caisse, whence English ‘cash’. I was also helped by the large numbers of Spaniards drawing wodges of banknotes and rubbing their hands.

But seriously, this is quite a useful way for a Latinist (esp. one with a cack-handed grasp of historical linguistics) to guess the meanings of words in Romance languages. It is much easier with Spanish and Italian than it is with French.


Latin word-initial f-  >  Spanish h- (i.e. 0):

furnus  > horno ‘oven’; faba  >  haba ‘bean’; fames  >  hambre ‘hunger’; facere  >  hacer ‘do’

Medial geminate Latin or Romance -ss-  >  Spanish -j-, /x/: 

With It. basso cf.  baja ‘low, beneath’; Fr. pousser  cf. empujar ‘push’; caja as above

/l/ is frequently destabilized (as common throughout IE langs), esp. in any position other than start of syllable onset. So, Lat. -li-  >  Sp. -j-, /x/: 

mulier  >  mujer ‘woman, wife’; al(l)ium  >  ajo ‘garlic’

?? Lat. obstruent + /l/  in syllable onset (or is ‘when word-initial’ better?)  >  Sp. ll-, /ʎ/ 

clamare  >  llamar ‘call’; pluvium  >  lluvio ‘rain’ (cf. Lat. labial consonant + l in syllable onset > It. bi-, pi-, fi-, nebula  >  nebbia, planus  >  piano, flos  >  fiore etc.); with Fr. plage  cf.  llegar ‘arrive’ (for the semantic shift cf. ‘arrive’ > ad + ripa – to arrive is to ‘beach’?)

Lat. -o-  >  Sp. -ue- 

monstrare  >  muestrar ‘show’; ovum  >  huevo ‘egg’; focus  >  fuego ‘fire’

Lat. -ens- (also -ons-, -ans-)  >  Sp. -es- 

sensus  >  sesos ‘sense, brains’; pensus  >  peso ‘that which is weighed out’; monstrare  >  muestrar ‘show’; mansio  >  meson ‘inn, place to stay’ 

Difference between ser and estar also very interesting but I very much doubt I could do it justice. Although alienating to English speakers to think such an all-encompassing idea as ‘being’ can be rendered into separate, discrete ideas, really it just lexicalizes a semantic difference already present in the different senses of ‘be’. I guess one way to approach it is to say that one uses estar when the predicate (is this right?) can be plausibly paraphrased as a prepositional phrase denoting the adjunct mode or state in which the subject finds itself; ser when the predicate is a constitutive attribute of the subject. estar for ‘Eric Blair is warm’ (= in a state of warmth) but not for ‘Eric Blair is George Orwell’ (*= in a state of being George Orwell) or ‘George Orwell is an author’ (*= in an authorial state, in the state of being an author). For the latter two, one would use ser(1)

5. Very Moorish

And now we rejoin the human race.

Granada is most worth visiting for its Moorish remnants and the mixed Moorish-European mudéjar style. The Moorish theme of the city, presumably vital to its tourist pulling-power, has also been boosted by recent immigration from North Africa, such that one could easily believe that the souk-style shopping streets and tea shops (teterías) represent a continuity with Al-Andalus of old. Actually that’s probably the entire point, now I come to think of it. Problematic, though, given that there was no such continuity - Moorish Spain, I think I am right in saying, was thoroughly Christianized in the Reconquista.

A very minor quibble I have with Granada (and there has to be a quibble) is that it seems to prevaricate over the significance of this historical legacy. Aside from the beauty of the historical monuments, which are reason enough to visit, there’s little coherent sense (on the tourist trail at least) of their moral and historical significance. It would be odd to visit WWI battlefields just for the Belgian countryside, as this would perversely ignore the more pressing human and commemorative value they ask us to acknowledge.

Granada, as the last Moorish city in Spain to fall to the Christian reconquest, obviously has a story to tell that is more than the sum total of its old stones, but (on the tourist trail at least) it is unclear whether we are to celebrate its past diversity in ethnicity and religion, and accept the monuments as its proudly surviving legacy, or to lament amid the few remains all that was destroyed in the Reconquista. In other words, what is the human interest, once we've had enough of the architecture - is it tragedy or triumph that so little / so much of Al-Andalus remains?

To take an illustrative example of the celebrate-remains vs. mourn-loss distinction – admittedly a rather extreme and emotive one – it would be perverse to embrace the Krakow Ghetto wall (apparently one of the few remains from the Ghetto’s liquidation by the Nazis) as a lingering presence fortuitously linking us to, and continuing, the Jews’ long history in Poland. Rather, the wall is significant because it implies everything else around it that is now absent and lost to us.

I am not equating the Reconquista to the Holocaust. I do not know enough about the former’s history to say if it even qualifies as ethnic cleansing. Nor am I even sure that Granada is under a moral obligation to confess to the past it obliterated – this has happened in every place and we can’t live our lives as one big apology. But given how prominently the victorious Catholic Monarchs are celebrated in Granada, and given that the Muslim presence in Spain – and therefore also the extinguishing of that presence – were more or less unique events in mainland Western Europe (2), the message seems a little unclear, a little mixed. The illusion of continuity created by the modern North-African stylings is certainly dubious.

But then maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

6. See point no. 1.

  1. Much of this is probably unsound – I guess I could always look it up, but then I don’t want nobody to give me nothing – open up the door, I’ll get it myself.
  2. Is this true?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

An experiment

I am trying to work something out, and a small experiment would help me. I’m not sure how useful use it could be, as a straw poll on a backwater blog probably wouldn’t count as admissible evidence for the thing I’m trying to write. But it’ll be interesting, to me at least.

I would be hugely grateful if you could take just a couple of minutes to do it and post your answers as a comment - it would be very helpful to me.

Below is a list of excerpts containing quoted speech. I am interested in whether you think the bit in inverted commas is reporting something that already has been uttered in some way (spoken or written), or is uttering something for the first time. e.g.

In 1963 President Kennedy famously said “ich bin ein Berliner.”
(A. Historian, 2000)

If you think “ich bin ein Berliner” was already said by Kennedy in 1963 and then repeated by A. Historian in 2000, you should answer ‘yes’ or ‘repeat’. Disregard the fact that I am also repeating the words on this blog – that does not count as a repetition: did the writer (or speaker) mean it as a repetition or not? Another example:

“You are now entering Free Derry.”
(Mural in Londonderry / Derry, 1969)

Do you think the words in inverted commas were said as a repetition or stated for the first time in 1969, there in Derry? If said for the first time, then say ‘no’ or ‘first time’.

Disregard translation issues - the original language doesn't matter.

This should be really quick to do – especially if you answer as immediately and intuitively as you can, which would be ideal. It’s all about the words in inverted commas – have they already been said, yes (repeat) or no (first time)?

p.s. - if possible, please try to avoid looking at the answers people have already given! Thanks.

1. Antony Beevor, Berlin, 2002
“History always emphasizes terminal events,” Albert Speer observed to his interrogators just after the end of the war.

2. Oliver Cromwell addressing the Rump Parliament, 1653
“Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” 

3. Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho, 1991
“That’s bone,” I point out, “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”

4. Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell & the English Revolution, 1970
“We found the common soldiers much unsettled,” the Commissioners reported to the Commons on 17 May 1647, with some understatement.

5. George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, 2011
“The Mother of Dragons must don the tokar or be forever hated,” warned the Green Grace, Galazza Galare.

6. Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, 1997
Groucho [Marx] loved embarrassing people and when he found that Alice didn’t take drugs, he immediately said to the waiter, “Dope! Do you have any dope for my friend? He needs dope.”

7. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1877
“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

8. Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves & the American Revolution, 2005
“No sight upon earth,” wrote the reporter for the Morning Chronicle, “could be more pleasingly affecting to the feeling mind than the joy which shone at that instant in these poor men’s sable countenances.”

9. John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1974
“You were ill,” Guillam insisted.

10. Suetonius Lives of the Caesars, 121 AD
Some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he [Caesar] said in Greek, “You too, my child?”

11. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937
“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it.

12. US Declaration of Independence, 1776
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

13. Peter Lamarque, The Philosophy of Literature, 2009
Few readers would suppose that the … famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice had the unequivocal endorsement of Jane Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

14. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

15. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865
“In luck again, Gaffer?” said a man with a squinting leer.

16. Bryn Harris, Wild and Whirling Words, 2013
"Thank you so much for doing this experiment!"

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Gun control

There was a story recently about a gun instructor in Ohio accidentally shooting a student during a class for people applying for concealed weapon permits - it's here.

So I thought I'd grind on for a bit about the gun control issue in the US.

It's hardly surprising that this sort of thing happens - they're terribly dangerous things. As is, say, plutonium, or plastic explosive - which is why most Americans are presumably happy for access to those things to be limited. If the argument is that guns are a necessary tool for preserving a right so fundamental (viz. personal safety) that the state has no business regulating it, I fail to see why gun ownership advocates don't complain about obligatory driving tests - in many parts of America economic freedom is impossible without a car, so why allow the state to regulate and limit access to it?

The answer, presumably, is because they acknowledge that dangerous things and activities need to be treated cautiously for society's collective safety. So why not the same with guns? The silence over driving tests suggests that gun owners hypocritically accept a broad principle that they then claim to reject when guns are at issue.

Actually I'm being disingenuous - I'm well aware the pro-gunner would argue that as citizens' gun-ownership is in itself a regulation on the relationship between citizen and state, the state's vested interest in the matter bars it from acting as a fair broker. 

Fair enough, I suppose. 

But this overlooks the tokenism and plain dishonesty in claiming small arms as an important check on state power - tokenistic because gun owners' tolerance of limitations on other weapons systems (predator drones, high explosives, attack helicopters, etc.) suggests that they accept the principle of non-parity of power between citizens and state, and merely cling on to small arms as tokens of a cherished principle. As firearms kill hundreds every year, insisting that this continue merely to sustain a symbolic value is plainly immoral.

The problem seems to be a bigoted (in sense ‘illogically stubborn’) attachment to the exceptional status of firearms and to the quasi-scriptural legislation that underpins it. Guns guarantee freedom – and the Constitution itself says they do. If we leave it at that (and some seem to) we don’t have to face up to the other possibilities – that guns and gun culture inhibit freedom, that veneration of constitutional freedoms weakens the more important concept of freedom as a broad set of behaviours, and that – just maybe – guns make the American citizenry more not less vulnerable to state repression.

First off: gun culture inhibits freedom, by imposing fear and by reinforcing a need for control.

Keeping a gun must reinforce in the mind of the owner the supposed dangers that led him or her to get it in the first place. It is a reminder of the dangers it protects against, and as such is an engine of self-suggested fear and paranoia. The outside world is dangerous – good job you've got a gun. 

But living in fear is not freedom. 

Gun ownership also enforces the libertarian obsession with the individual's need for control – the idea that liberty entails not merely freedom from undue state interference and outside control, but a devolving of control to all individuals. The state’s power to control is balanced by an apportioning out to citizens their own individual spheres of control and power.

This is pretty uncontroversial, I suppose – it’s what underlies the boast that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. And with gun ownership for all, everyone gets to play Deputy Dawg in their own home. But if we say that liberty is not freedom from control by the powerful, but freedom to control for all, then we end up saying that liberty is a form of control, which seems contradictory. Or at least control (as in domination of circumstances, power, an anxious need to master) is inimical to some of the qualities entailed by liberty (non-determinateness, openness, spontaneity). 

Moreover a notion of freedom based on absolute individual control must tend towards solipsism - the achievement of my personal fiefdom will always be threatened by the fact that everyone else is equally able to create their own fiefdom in potentially unpredictable, destabilizing ways. Therefore while my being free is valid and a good thing, the freedom of others is threatening and bad, creating a false and toxic distinction between me and everyone else. Whence ultimately, perhaps, the lunacy of saying (as some do) that the state has no right to take guns or tax money from me, but every right to execute him as a criminal - 'me' and 'him' become different moral entities.

If guns give individuals the power to protect and control their personal space (their homes, their cars) they also conversely make the space beyond the individual’s control all the more alien, uncontrolled, unpredictable, and terrifying. Hence we can end up with the absurdity of freedom as something worth defending but not worth enjoying. It is, apparently, worth living a life of fear of what cannot be controlled (e.g. the government turning against the people, crime, social decay) because to do so is to be vigilant of the individual’s control of his or her space, and therefore her freedom. But anybody would surely say that a life of fear and anxious need to control is a less than free existence!

Control will always cause fear of what you do not control, and to live in fear is to be unfree. 

If some day the US Federal government does turn against the people, the gun lobby will have the satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’. But is there not a possibility too that once tyranny reigns they will regret having frittered away their precious days of freedom in worry and paranoia?

The only way for the gun-nut's position - 'I protect my freedom by sacrificing it to fear of its loss' - to be non-contradictory is for him or her to use a massively under-defined, impoverished notion of freedom: i.e. the fundamentalist notion that freedom is simply as it is narrowly defined in the Constitution - behaving and living one's life in an unfree way are therefore irrelevant. But isn't it much better to define freedom as a broad culture of behaviours – political, social, cultural, economic etc., including such things as living without fear, living as one chooses to, the absence of circumscription - and also the acceptance of the free, uncontrollable state of other people. But this requires ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender’. And the gun-nut daren't.

The freedom that gun-ownership protects is a freedom so impoverished, bastardized, and radically misconceived that it is barely worth protecting.

Finally, to play the conspiracy theorists at their own game – is it not conceivable that the government is happy to allow US citizens to own guns because the culture of gun ownership not only poses no threat to the government but strengthens it by weakening the collective populace? The backwoodsman’s fantasy is of mounting a last-ditch defence of his house or log-cabin or what-have-you when the feds come for him. But no government was ever brought down by people staying at home. As in Egypt and Tunisia, and Romania in 1989, governments are challenged by defying their control of public space – what chance of this with a populace fixated on defending the parameters of personal space, divided by self-suggested fears, and preferring to live in air-conditioned isolation, guns by their sides to keep the outside world from encroaching?

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Winter still has not come - pt. I

I talk below about George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, including the fourth and fifth novels. Where possible spoilers will be in white text (highlight to reveal) or otherwise signposted.

I’m a big fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I prefer to follow the story through the TV show (because it’s better than the novels), but recently caved and read all of the books in the series so far - too much time on my hands I guess. The bad news is that the fourth instalment is a stinkeroo of truly epic proportions. The good news is that it gives me an opportunity to hold forth pompously about the fantasy genre. The aim is a carefully argued slag-fest, though there might be some backsliding on the ‘carefully argued’ bit.

For anyone not familiar with the story - it is set in a fictional world, roughly modelled on medieval and early-modern Europe, in which powerful families compete for supremacy. As well as historical sources, it has clear debts to Tolkien (as most works in the fantasy genre do) but markedly improves on his model - Westeros, Martin’s fictional world, knows realpolitik, religion, and ideology (all those orcs and bad guys that follow Sauron – why do they follow him? What beliefs motivate them?). Most remarkably, seasons last for years, with winters long, unpredictable, and awful. At the fringes of this world and of the narrative are strange and disturbing stirrings of long-forgotten supernatural elements.

The marginal role of the supernatural is a virtue - it makes the books feel a little less Dungeons and Dragons, which is a virtue if you’re a snob like me - and this reticence is central to the series’ narrative ambitions, as I understand them. The first novel opens with an encounter with the ‘Others’, very unpleasant inhuman ice-dwellers who can reanimate the dead –  the coming of winter is therefore ominous. This first glimpse of Westeros gives the reader a fuller insight into this world than its inhabitants enjoy, almost all of whom, we learn, believe the Others to be either long-gone from the world or possibly merely mythical. 

This is promising, quite sophisticated stuff.

1.      In minimizing the presence of the fantastical, Martin shifts emphasis from the existence of these monsters to characters’ belief in their existence. What is proposed as interesting about this world is not the implausible fact of the existence of monsters, but the fact that it contains different kinds of belief, an array of epistemological perspectives on what sort of world this is that we are reading about. This is sophisticated stuff – any controversial fictional truth must trigger reactions not just in the reader but also in the characters within the fiction. So this world is in some ways as complex as our own; although the novels are an exploration of a world resembling our own mythical past (it features dragons, e.g.) they do not, as much fantasy does, offer a wholesale abandonment or wishing away of our complex present for the lost simplicities of the mythical past (which is a problem with Tolkien). We stand in relation to Westeros’s ancient myths in much the same way as we stand in relation to our own – which fits M.’s ambition to create a historically verisimilar, rather than a purely mythical, world: this is not crude escapism, as scepticism still accompanies us. Martin therefore sets himself up for a more ambitious development, conceivable only in a fictional world – what happens to his characters’ belief and scepticism when the myths are proven true?

2.      In foregrounding characters’ beliefs and knowledge about what exists in this world, it presupposes, or at least provisionally removes from the frame, or de-controversializes the question of their existence. We are not presented with a bald assertion that snow zombies (also called ‘White Walkers’) exist in this world, but with the second-order fictional reality of what is believed about them – ‘leaving aside whether or not you think White Walkers exist, what do you think of Tyrion’s opinion that they don’t?’ In other words, it bounces us into accepting an implausible fiction by a kind of misdirection. I’m a bit wary of labelling this ‘misdirection’ as there is no real trick –Martin is not really lying to us by claiming that snow-zombies exist in his notional world, or trying to make us presuppose as true a false proposition. He doesn’t need to persuade us of anything, as his fictional world is whatever he asserts of it. What he does need to do, however, is create a sense of the integrity of his world and the fittingness of what inhabits it – if he puts speaking humans in it (as of course he does) then we have no problem in believing that they belong there (it is non-controversial that notional worlds contain people like us, and does not need to be asserted as true in a given fictional world). Necromantic snow zombies, however, are created by authorial diktat and their presence in this world is caused by pure assertion rather than their belonging there. If not handled well, the Others would feel like an artificial construct intruded upon M.’s world as a sort of hypothetical fiction – ‘if I proposed a zombie-containing-world, what would you think?’

So M. avoids making a bald proposition that would make plain that his fictional world is a paper-thin assertoric construct that expands permissively with each arbitrary assertion he makes. The existence of his monsters is embedded in the beliefs of the characters that populate his world, thus preserving an illusion of its integrity. This sense of Westeros’s integrity contributes to the immersive, engrossing depth of his storytelling – rather than focus on our own relation of belief from without (do I believe in a world containing snow-zombies?) it focuses on the internal belief relations within Westeros. I will return later to the matters of narrator’s say-so and immersiveness (at great and painful length).

3.      The stage is set, then, for the introduction of the supernatural as a strange and unsettling development – as indeed would be the case were we to discover tomorrow that dragons or ghosts or honourable politicians actually exist. This is where we see that the realist elements of Martin’s style are key to his (hear me hesitate as I type) literary ambitions. In an example of what classicists call aemulatio, M. makes a tendentious response to his fellow fantasy authors in which he tests how their creations would fare transplanted into and re-run in a more realistic world.  It is a counterfactual ‘what if’ that tests and exposes the under-explored inferential possibilities or under-imagined hypotheses of the fictional worlds of others. My exemplar for this sort of tendentious re-examining is Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in which he asks what it would be like if a superhero (of the Superman rather than Batman type) existed in a world similar to our own. Terrifying, uncanny, destabilizing, downright dangerous, is the answer.

[I’m not especially well-versed in the fantasy genre, so much of what follows might be junk – but I’ll have a pop nevertheless] Martin seems to go in for this sort of competitive re-imagining. Jaime Lannister is the best example – a Prince Charming in golden armour, handsome, knightly (sort of), famed in song and story. Except, as M. points out, Prince Charming were he to exist, would almost certainly be a violent nihilist. Of course he would – he would be a man who spends his days merrily hacking people into lumps of bloody meat, all the while caring only, but intensely, about his looks and his hair. It must follow that a man like this would see little meaning in life (or do I just associate Jaime with Prince Charming because he looks so much like the prince from Shrek 2?). There are other signs of an emulous (i.e. imitative but competitive) relationship with Tolkien – markedly Tolkienesque terms like ‘wight’, ‘warg’ are borrowed, though it’s noticeable he steers clear of elves and dwarfs. In fact his making Tyrion a dwarf (in sense of ‘little person’ rather than ‘member of bearded race adept at mining’) is perhaps another corrective. The narrative structure of parallel journeys across the fictional world, with occasional crossing of paths, partings, splits, etc. is clearly based on the Tolkien model, though I’m not sure M. does much to improve on it. Sensibly he by and large renounces Tolkien’s creation of whole languages and instead focuses (successfully) on creating idiom – epithets (‘the Mountain who rides’, ‘the Beggar King’, ‘knealers’ for civilized folk living under kings), mottoes and catechisms (‘Winter is Coming’, ‘a Lannister always pays his debts’, ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’), proverbs and truisms (less successful – ‘words are wind’, ‘dark wings, dark words’), and phrases fixed by usage (‘take the black’, ‘pay the iron price’). His greatest success in creating a universal portrait of a fictional people – language, culture, belief – is by far the Mongolian-style ‘horse lords’ of the Dothraki (it is known).

4.      But I digress. The series begins, to borrow a term from the narratologists, with a prolepsis. The political and quasi-historical realism of the story is imminently to be turned on its head with the irruption of the supernatural – snow-creatures and dragons (ice and fire) are waiting. To use one of M.’s most effective and pregnant mottoes, ‘Winter is Coming’ and with it an ancient horror.


Except, at this rate, winter is going to be a long time coming. Martin is a chronically slow, inveterately waylaid storyteller. I wonder sometimes if his fondness for the pregnantness of foreshadowing and the weightiness of foreboding words exceeds his narrative skill to plot his way to their fruition. ‘Winter is coming’ (the motto of the Starks, a family from the wintery north) is ominous, but he needs to make good on it and [spoiler] doesn’t until the end of A Dance with Dragons, which is far too late in the day if he plans to wrap things up in seven books. [end spoiler] He enjoys creating prophecies, and riddling allusions to what is to come (‘the dragon has three heads’, Cersei and the ‘valonqar’, Arya and the dwarf-woman seer / Melisandre in the TV series) but there is a feeling that it might be slightly gratuitous – that this isn’t obeying the structure of a narrative, perhaps, but attachment to foreshadowing as a mere stylistic adornment, with no pay-off in sight.

A major problem is that Martin’s chosen method of narration inevitably holds up the progress of the story. Each chapter is told from the third-person perspective of a character, usually one of the major ones, so that although the action is spread over a large world, it unfolds locally according to how the variously located witness characters experience it and reflect on it. Curiously, M. simply names chapters after the character from whose perspective it is narrated – so any one novel might have three or four chapters with the same name (though he seems to be gradually moving away from this a little in the most recent novel). It reminds me of what a friend (Patrick are you reading?) told me of sticking titles on to essays, chapters, theses, etc. – reluctance to name something is a sign you don’t love it. I can understand this – a discomfort or ambivalence with what you have made, such that you don’t want to make it a thing in its own right, with its own name, ready to stand up on its own two legs out there in the wider world. Given how painfully slowly M. writes, it seems possible that behind the chapter titles lies a tortured difficulty in being happy with what he has written.

But I digress – how was it ever thought a good idea to tell such a large, sprawling story (‘epic’, if you’re feeling generous) through limited character perspective, and not only that but through the perspectives of only a few chosen characters? Is anyone editing this stuff? The more characters he introduces the more characters there are that have to be given chapters [spoilers](the tedious Dorne chapters in A Feast for Crows). [end spoiler] Moreover he has to stick to relatively consistent chapter length, so as not to favour or neglect individual characters and thread (different readers favour different storylines); and each chapter needs to feel like a significant development of the character’s arc, and has to give the reader time to settle themselves into the new viewpoint – so M. can’t flit, and just ‘check in’ with a character quickly, or skim across the different perspectives or easily contrast events in different parts of the narrative (unlike, say, the Gormenghast novels). So things are happening all across Westeros that at any one point we mostly cannot know about. He has put his characters in charge of the narrative, not a narrator, and he and his readers pay dearly for this abdication. As a result he gives us an ever-expanding world with a proportionally ever-diminishing perspective from which the reader views it, and as he introduces more and more threads (and boy does he), the action as it narrated is diluted, an ever smaller drop in a growing ocean. It is interesting that the credits to the TV series feature an impressive panoramic sweep of a map of Westeros that expands as the story develops – reading the novels we feel ever more distanced from this bird’s-eye view of the world created because any perception of its totality recedes ever further from us. We are restricted at all times to a small patch of narrative turf in a giant world, and the more that world expands the more we feel at any given point that we are missing out – it is like a cruel peep show.

Why hasn’t an editor pointed out that this strictly episodic, inflexible narrative style is completely unsuited to such an ambitious enterprise in fictional world-building?

But what is really extraordinary is that effective, or suitable narration, is sacrificed for so very little! Characters’ internal dialogue all too often just re-emphasizes their central conceit or obsession or some basic shaping attribute (‘I wish I had both hands’ says Jaime; ‘I’ve decided not to be Arya any more’ says Arya; ‘I wish I wasn’t craven’ says Samwell; ‘I am Cersei and I am a lion’): it does very little to portray the life of the mind in the characters, to deepen them and make them psychologically interesting. Worse, all too often the characters’ internal voice isn’t really a separate voice at all, just a counterpoint to the narrator’s voice – it continues on from or very basically complements the main narrative voice (summarizes pithily or ironically e.g.), in a way that feels more like Martin’s voice than the characters. Below I follow M. in italicizing the ‘internal voice’:
             was as amiable as he was clever, but too lowborn to threaten any of the great lords, with no swords of his own. The perfect Hand. 
Baelor the Blessed once had visions too. Especially when he was fasting. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” 
How is the character able to interject into a train of thought begun by the author (esp. evident in the final example)? He or she shouldn’t know what the narrator is saying. (Incidentally I probably don’t need to obscure characters’ names here, as the Riverlands scenes are so lifeless I’m not sure what I’d actually be spoiling). But I am being harsh here, especially as when Martin likes a character he portrays him very well (and it’s always a him – problematic again), Tyrion being the best example. That said, the most immediate and obvious criticism one can level against A Feast for Crows is that [spoiler] he abandons all of his most likeable and indeed strongest characters for the entirety of the novel, to the extent he has to apologize for this in a postscript. [end spoiler]

I wonder if M.’s obvious attachment to Tyrion, which I imagine most readers share, brings us a little closer to what lies behind his struggle to get going and deliver the plot that is promised – that he is too attached emotionally to the world he has created to turn it upside down, as must happen come winter.

But this is part of a larger argument I want to make, and I will return to it. There are other interesting reasons (well I find them interesting) why Martin might holds off from plunging into supernatural free-for-all this is promised.

First, his hedging with the supernatural only makes its full introduction all the more difficult. Having set himself up as positing a more realistic fantasy world, in which the claims of fantasy can be better, more sceptically interrogated, how does he then discard his scepticism and pull back the curtain, without seeming to revert to the kind of fictional world he is trying to resist or improve on, in which narratorial diktat runs riot?

Once M. really gets to depicting a world that contains fantastical necromantic snow-zombies he will find his narrative in an anything-goes fantasy world, in which what is possible is just whatever the story asserts to be possible as it goes along – and this is quite other (or Other) to the more nuanced style he has cultivated so far, in which his world allows the reader new insight into real-world, shared realities rather than into merely fabricated, ad hoc fictions. So, for instance, he gives us the chance to know better the typical figures, the types, of fantasy fiction (which exist as literary and literary-critical realities) by instantiating them in more sophisticated, complex form – I said before that Jaime Lannister is interesting because he shows the new Prince Charming-attributes that are inferable within this world (sadism, nihilism, etc.). The same can be said of the real-world historical elements that are incorporated: we get to know (in a hypothetical, what-if sort of a way) what it might be like to experience a Wars of the Roses-type situation, experience of the real thing being now impossible.

But how can we get to know the Others better when, being fictional, any description of them constitutes part or all of what can be known of them? They are created as things, things we can know about and quasi-experience, by the very act of describing them. Yes, Martin can make us know them, but as this knowledge is tautologous, it is rather cheap – the information he conveys as narrator isn’t about anything, except itself, and so isn’t really worth knowing. Because White Walkers do not exist as things in the world, unlike the Prince Charming archetype, it is otiose to attempt to make further inferences of them, to interrogate them – it is an arbitrary investigation. There is nothing wrong with this, at all – it is central to how fiction works. But for Martin it marks a big shift in the sort of world and the sort of knowable reality that he takes as his theme – and he hesitates in making this shift because, I think, he hasn’t figured out how to do so without radically altering his project and writing, essentially, a different kind of fiction, one epistemologically thinner and weaker.

After all, it is of greater interest to write a story (as Alan Moore did) proposing that Moriarty once employed Allan Quatermain and Dr Jekyll, than to propose that Carl Sparrowhawk once had his portrait painted by Helmut Schnarbel (Sparrowhawk was a famous surgeon and Schnarbel a celebrated artist, in the fictional world I created just now of which the previous statement was true). Fantasy is less sophisticated than literary fiction because the latter deals with people, things, and ideas and in doing so all of the propositions that are made of them. It is a contribution to a discourse. Tolkien invented languages in which no one had thought, and wrote about a world pristine and untouched by ideas. This is why Tolkien's work is juvenilia.

Incidentally, this doesn’t just affect M.’s portrayal of the supernatural. The novels’ appendices contain long, painfully long, family trees of the various families of Westeros. Now maybe these family trees underpin the whole thing – maybe he devised them first as the quasi-factual bedrock of the world that he then described, as a sort of maquette (just like Graham Greene wrote the novella The Third Man purely to provide a disposable model for the screenplay of the same name). Maybe too some readers find them indispensable to their understanding and enjoyment of the plot. Fine. I wasn’t one of them. I found them almost improvisational, as if the story was being made up there, on the spot, right before my eyes, with no illusion whatsoever of its pre-existence. It felt utterly flimsy and erasable, as if I could say ‘John begat James who begat Joseph who begat Jeremy’ and hey presto! I just told a story. It reminds me of that trope in TV and film in which a story is narrated while it is simultaneously being sketched, with the animation being added to and erased as the narrative proceeds. There’s probably a name for this but I’m too tired to go searching TV Tropes.

So Martin can’t get on with his plot because its inevitable destination might diminish his novels’ thematic sophistication. I wonder if he is also held back by other fictive problems – the return of the supernatural threatens ominously to turn his world upside down, but on the other hand any extension of a fictional premise is (for the reader) banal, because the only previous assumptions or beliefs undone were themselves similarly unreal. Nothing is overturned or undone or lost in redefining the reality of a world that was only ever notional – it is the same expansion, the same licence as that which created that world in the first place. If, shock! horror! it is found that snow-zombies and dragons do exist in the fictional world of Westeros, then we simply accept it as the perfectly admissible redefinition of a flexible premise, because we agreed to begin with that Westeros was a made-up world. So, in fact, it is difficult to create irruptive elements, anomalous presences in fantasy worlds because their borders are already so accommodating. Compare, for instance, the very underwhelming revelation in The Matrix Reloaded that the hero Neo can now fly – so what, we think, he’s a computer-generated fantasy in a world ruled by robots. Consider my mind unblown.

So perhaps M.’s plotting blunders in not having everyone in Westeros go batshit crazy after the battle on the Fist of the First Men (‘what do you mean they exist? Are you kidding me? This is terrifying news.’), and in having certain bits of news travel unaccountably more slowly across his world than others (why don’t more people know about the dragons and White Walkers yet?), are explicable – a fear of bathos. What should be big news in his fictional world might seem to the reader just another otiose expansion of the fictional premise. 

Winter still has not come - pt. II

I talk below about George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, including the fourth and fifth novels. Where possible spoilers will be in white text (highlight to reveal) or otherwise signposted.


So far I have said that the basic narrative structure is fatally inertial, and that M. desires is caught up in a struggle to avoid the epistemological and ontological crudeness of fantastical storytelling. Another reason that Martin is unable to get on with it is, I argue, the emotional identification he makes with his world that makes him too reluctant to distort it, radically turn it upside down, and essentially alienate himself from it, which is what he must do (because winter is coming). He finds some comfort in the all-encompassing immersiveness of his world, just as his readers do. In fact, he is an addictive writer, overly attached to the comfortable resounding of the familiar, to the known and inalienable world he has created.

Now of course, not everyone agrees with this. In fact, some would say Martin is a remarkable novelist for the opposite – his happiness to kill off his characters. So John Lanchester in his review of the novels in the London Review of Books:
These [Robb Stark, Eddard, Renly etc.] are not peripheral figures but richly imagined, textured, three-dimensional portraits of central characters: the kind many writers couldn’t bear to kill off. Nobody needs to give Martin any advice about how he needs to slaughter his darlings.
I won’t quibble with this, except to say that Lanchester surely goes overboard in praising the sophistication of the characterization – Robb and Catelyn Stark are among the weakest characters. But it must be telling that, on his own account, Martin had terrible difficulty writing the well-known ‘Red Wedding’ scene in which he kills off several major characters and delayed it as long as he possibly could. Telling too is [spoiler] his utterly flat, insipid, gratuitous, crowd-pleasing, sentimental resurrection of Cat Stark. If you’re going to have the balls to write something like the Red Wedding at least follow through on it. [end spoiler]

In fact I think what is really telling about M.’s style is its circuitousness, how it always loops back on itself to the familiar. His writing is shot through with repetition and stylistic crutches. Garrons ‘whicker’, arms make ‘clangor’, candles ‘gutter’, the faithful protest that they are ‘leal’ (Old Scots for ‘loyal’ apparently), those who prefer would ‘as lief’ (an unforgivable, flaccid archaism), ‘red’ stands for sanguinary many times over, ‘is like to’ stands in for ‘is likely to’, ‘sit’ likes to be used transitively for ‘sit (upon a horse, throne, etc.)’. Martin becomes too keen on how these resound, on their comforting evocativeness and easy archaism, their transportive, reliable, olde worlde ring. Any phrase that catches his eye is a phrase well worth massively over-using – ‘meat and mead’ (is this how waiters at Medieval Times speak?), ‘little and less’, ‘much and more’, ‘dark wings, dark words’, ‘as much use as nipples on a breastplate’, ‘words are wind’ (nowhere near as aphoristic, or weighty, or true as Martin seems to think). He is a compulsive, clinging writer, and perhaps an undisciplined one.

I noted above Martin’s tendency to use characters’ internal perspective to return cyclically to central conceits and attributes, rather than to push out and really explore character psychology (‘I may be the Onion Knight but I have my loyalty, and in that my dignity’, you get the picture). I am minded to diagnose this as another symptom of Martin’s love of narrative comfort, his hominess. Symptomatic too is his tendency to progress the narrative and generate surprise by looping back to revisit old stories to reveal some new truth about them ([spoilers] who killed John Aryn, who tried to kill Bran Stark in book 1, the truth about the killing of the Targaryen kids; conversely, the introduction of the Oldtown scenes at the beginning of AFFC is a disastrous attempt to branch out). [end spoiler]

It is hardly novel to say that fantasy fiction is all about comfort and addictiveness. Michael Moorcock, in an article on the fantasy genre titled ‘Epic Pooh’ (sic – he is comparing Tolkien, tendentiously, to the writings of A. A. Milne), argued that the main feature of fantasy was the providing of a childish feeling of comfort (the article was recommended to me by particle physicist Jack Liddle – admittedly I’ve yet to read it, as I’m too frightened he might have already said everything I want to say: some immaturities die hard). Moreover I’m sure many of us begin from the prejudicial view that fantasy fiction offers escapist comfort, and that very often it provides an addictive form of release from real-world anxieties or alienation. I admit to having certain notions of the usual readers of fantasy fiction (male, withdrawn, socially ill-at-ease) – I don’t think these are entirely right, or even relevant, but, regardless of who enjoys it or how or why, it definitely seems true to me that fantasy worlds offer the comfort of an immersive, cocooning world. And it can be addictive – this is Lanchester’s review again:
The fans’ concern is that Martin just isn’t getting on with it. Martin is very active at going to conferences and on book tours and has other creative projects on the go, as well as an active website selling T-shirts, figurines and tat, and he blogs too, and many of his readers want him to stop doing all that and just get his head down to finish the books. That’s harsh, very harsh … and yet the fan part of me wants him to get on with it too. So this is the final anxiety about the world of Westeros.
One thing I don’t like about reading fantasy is the feeling it prompts in me of indecent haste, the desire to just get on with it, and work my way through to some sort of gratification. I tend to read fantasy in the same way as I eat a big bag of crisps: compulsively, as if dispatching a hunger, but with increasingly little gratification. In Martin’s favour, I’d argue that he’s as addicted as I am – so he’s not at a cynical remove pushing on his reader something he knows to be addictive and unhealthy. In fact he’s in the same boat – a victim too. On the other hand, however, it’s probably fair to say that, intellectually, his novels are well compared to a bag of crisps – i.e. not very nourishing.

Immersion vs. alienation

What I’m most interested in is Lanchester’s ‘anxiety’ – I think there are deeper-seated reasons why I feel an angsty compulsion to work my way through a fantasy novel. In fact, if I’m honest, I have a thesis made earlier that I intend to demonstrate below: namely that the reader of a fantasy novel is caught in a frustrating bind between, on the one hand, a drive to immerse him or herself in the fantasy world, and make it utterly familiar, and on the other the impossibility of really knowing a world so under-described, so lacking in content, so flimsily constructed from mere authorial assertion. Our drive to assimilate ourselves with the fantasy world and embrace it is prompted by, but also always thwarted by, its ever-tempting, ever-frustrating alienness.

This is something I have already touched on above: I said that the bigger, the more impressive and epic M.’s world-building becomes the more we are unable to embrace the world he builds because we see only one bit of it at a time. The grandeur of his vision (and I agree that his vision has grandeur) is never quite experienced directly – it is an always deferred pleasure. (There may be a post-structural point concerning this, but I would rather let others make it). I blamed this on M.’s using the wrong sort of narration, and still do, but it’s also true to say that ultimately here we ride up against the limits of what narrative can make us experience and know – i.e. because any narrative is delivered in a linear, temporal succession it cannot show us the wonder of, in Milton’s words, ‘all this world at once’. This is the sort of limitation I look at below.

First, I want to look at ‘immersiveness’ – the meta-fictional illusion that the characters and events of the narrative have place not in an artificial literary text but in a self-contained world with its own rich depth of accidentals and bits-and-bobs hanging off (history, lore, religion, geography, language, etc.). Even when we move our attention back from the foregrounded action, unlike in realist fiction, we still find ourselves framed by a fictive background, a larger pseudo-history of which the present story is only a fragment. We are therefore, or feel we are, at a further remove from reality, involved within concentric layers of fiction – and further, we are at home in this fictional world in pretty much the same way as we are at home in our real world, as the fictional world imitates the all-encompassing fullness of real life.

This is, I think, part of the ‘feel-good’ effect of fantasy, its emotional appeal to readers. It offers, in sum, the impossibility of alienation. Fantasy fiction constantly works to immerse the reader in a world which should be strange but is not – what is special about this world is not its monsters or wondrous things, but the reader’s ability to adopt its criteria of normality such that what is usually wondrous is, in this world, commonplace. We wonder at our non-wonder, if that isn’t too convoluted. When we wake up from a dream what surprises us is our previous sensation that the absurd events of the dream were as normal as reality. I do not, or do not just, gawp at the fact that Des Lynam was teaching me GCSE maths, or whatever was in my dream, but at the fact that I was so ensconced within my dream that it was normal – it was a normal, fixed feature of that dream world and I belonged to that world equally. Part of what impresses us when we read fantasy fiction is our cognitive gymnastics – we marvel at our own capacity for familiarization, our ability to swap realities and inhabit new ones. For those readers who struggle to make themselves feel at home in the real world (a significant proportion of any fantasy audience?) this is a vicarious pleasure, an escape from difficulty – look how easily we can make ourselves at home in an infinite number of notional worlds!

Of course, the fact that Martin is so very ‘at home’ in this fictional world is, as I have said, one reason why the plot moves so sluggishly. And Martin is dead wrong in assuming that maximizing the immersive depth of his world is an aesthetic end in itself – not only does he all too often (especially in A Feast for Crows) expand the history and mythology of Westeros while the narrative flatlines or goes round in circles, he also fails to realize its detrimental, self-trivializing effect: a world in which everything is familiar and in-place conversely has little worth discovering or knowing or solving.

What do I mean by this? I mean that in creating a world full of incidental detail, he inevitably creates a fictional work that is too often occupied with incidental, pedestrian, trivial detail. There are some things (e.g. characters) that require particular types of creative statement – that this world contains a person called Jon Snow with a particular set of attributes is a marked and important feature, it is a foregrounded topic that is put forward for special interpretative attention. That the world he moves in also has certain historical facts that are true of it (there was a famous battle at the Trident, before the Andals there were the First Men, that so-and-so was the son of so-and-so, etc.) is proposed to the reader with a tone of presuppositional familiarity – for us to be immersed in this world we need to take such accidentals for granted, to accept them as the new normality in this world into which we have been transported. As a result it becomes all too easy to agree with the nonchalant tone of the historical excerpts (and they do go on) and to switch off. Why fill a novel with deliberate unremarkableness? It’s just a new form of the normal, and the novelty of this wears off very quickly – besides, isn’t normality generally a bit boring? In reducing or minimizing the over-themed, artificially loaded meaningfulness of literary experience, Martin succeeds in bringing us closer to real experience but only by imitating its blandness.

            This is a problem I often have with much fantasy and science-fiction. Because of an assumption of the integrity of the make-believe world, a faith that the events and people and things mentioned can all be rationalized away as having a place within the backdrop of the wider fictional world, interesting things like anomaly and cruces vanish. When sci-fi author Alfred Bester writes, in The Demolished Man, ‘Reich stormed out of his apartment and descended to the street where a Monarch Jumper picked him up and carried him in one graceful hop to the giant tower…’ we don’t have to bother ourselves with the unexplored entailments of the description (what actually happened? how did it work? how was the vehicle powered?) because of a faith in the completeness of the author’s underlying vision. Critical behaviour is pre-empted because explanation lies elsewhere: we can be sure of an all-encompassing intellectual superstructure, the framework of the make-believe world, which will negate and resolve all unfamiliarity and anomaly – like I say, we are offered the impossibility of alienation.

[I realize that my argument above must entail some notion of an institutional practice of reading fantasy fiction – a reader could, if he or she wanted, interrogate Bester’s ‘Monarch Jumper’ as keenly as they would Keats’s ‘still unravished bride of quietness’. I haven’t proved that fantasy fiction does something to make its reader behave in a certain way. It is, however, central to why I think much fantasy and sci-fi does not qualify as literature. I abandon this question for now.]

 While it is impossible to be alienated from a fantasy world, it is fair to ask what, conversely, we are acquainting ourselves with – especially given that, as with the Bester quotation, the statements that create fictional worlds often consist of inaccessible or non-existent content. On this see Philip K. Dick’s amusing short story ‘Waterspider’, in which scientists from the future, mistaking science-fiction novels of the past for real scientific manuals, travel back in time to question a sci-fi writer about how his inventions work. Obviously there is no underlying science – it’s all made up.

So I’ll rap up this gratuitously long post by looking at two further things: first, problems with characterization; second the problem of ‘mere facticity’.

Characterization and ‘mere facticity’

Problems with characterization. Martin is often praised, or at least noted, for creating a world that is very densely populated with characters. The novels’ dramatis personae runs into the hundreds, possibly thousands. The aim is presumably to create an effect of engulfing complexity – the reader must involve himself in and move within a vast network of characters. It deepens the sense of involution. Now there is no doubt that Martin creates some very memorable characters: Davos, Tyrion, Jaime, Varys, the Hound. But the vast galaxy of people he aspires to create is beyond his powers of deft, single-brushstroke characterization. The families around the Riverlands are particularly forgettable. Too many of them give the reader too little to identify with – they are unreified, fleshless names only. So a risk in this expansion of his fictional universe is that what should be a deepening and enriching is in fact no such thing – he is merely populating Westeros with evermore cardboard cutouts. This is a particular problem for an author who creates so much of his story world from scratch: for many characters he also has to expend time and effort describing the descriptions, giving attributes to the attributes, because the qualities he attributes to his characters (where they are from, their history, their family) are often attributes he has to create himself as constituents of his world. If a major part of Robert Baratheon’s character lies in his past glory on the battlefield, then Martin will duly have to invent the battles; if aspects of Varys’ character are typical of the Free Cities, then he has to invent the Free Cities and those attributes of theirs that Varys exemplifies, etc. (No wonder the novels are so damn long! And perhaps this is why you find those crap fantasy novels written by two people? Just a thought). The problem is, of course, that Martin can’t do this all the time, therefore many of his minor characters are highly two-dimensional.

Contrast John le Carré, who in his Smiley novels is much more successful in creating a large but still varied and fleshed-out fictional population (I’ve often wondered if this partly alluded to by the title of the third novel in the series, Smiley’s People). Towards the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy we have this:

[Ricki] made a car rendezvous with the Hong Kong resident not far from his hotel, the Golden Gate on Kowloon.
Here Guillam leaned over to Smiley and murmured:
“Tufty Thesinger, buffoon. Ex-major, King’s African Rifles. Percy Alleline’s appointment.”

This is all we know of Tufty so far, but by virtue of various associations it is quite a lot: he served in the colonies, military type from the 1940s and 1950, is now a ‘Honkers’ ex-pat, is senior (possibly blimpish), has picked up a nickname typical of either public school or the army. We know, therefore, exactly what type of buffoon he is. Le Carré is able to paint this thumbnail portrait so deftly and so quickly because – and this is rather obvious – he doesn’t have to invent the associative resources and types he uses in building up character portraits because they already exist in the world. In many instances, Martin does not have this option; moreover, how much better do we feel we know a hastily invented character if the attributes by which they can be identified are similarly hasty and thinly assertoric?

            The result, therefore, is ever-increasing immersion in a fictional population that we cannot get to know as readers, because there is so little to its people. In many cases (though certainly not all) Martin cannot help us get to know them better because the extent of his inventiveness is necessarily curtailed by limits of time and space (though you’d sometimes wonder if he knows that). It is not feasible to create an entire population – because ultimately it forces you to invent the actual stuff of knowledge (this is the jist of my final argument below). The result is more alienating than immersive. Why didn’t Martin’s editors point out to him that fantasy fiction is especially inimical to his large-scale world-peopling ambitions?

So one of the problems faced by the creators of fantasy worlds is a mereological one – they cannot simply invent things and people but must also in many cases invent the attributes and components that constitute the things and people (and conversely the higher-level components that they themselves constitute) and that thereby make them knowable and identifiable. Let us take a hypothetical author who, as far as possible, wanted to create a make-believe world entirely from scratch, using none of the resources of the real world. If she asserted that this world contained beings about which she wanted to tell us, she would then have to invent the kinds of actions these beings carry out, the type of characteristics they have, the social-type units they form a part of, their anatomies, and ultimately through a process of recursion, the components of the anatomies, and the components of those components, and so on until the atomic level. This is clearly unfeasible, beyond reasonable limits of time and effort; actual fantasy writers don’t have to do this, because they borrow (and are generically licensed to borrow) basic foundational premises from the real world – this is why, as said, Martin doesn’t need to say that Westeros is populated by humanoids who are linguistic entities, but does need to say that it is populated by dragons, giants, and zombies. (Incidentally, remember what was noted before: M.’s treatment of the supernatural is one example of his success in creating a layered, rich fictional world. Monsters are portrayed alongside the inevitable different states of belief that would form part and parcel of the fact of the existence of monsters).

In those instances where the author does go beyond the resources of the real world, he is free to curtail the endless mereological recursion by simple diktat of relevance – the people of this world are made of organs, which are made of cells, and the cells are made of some other foundational matter which I rule to be irrelevant to my story-telling purpose. The problem is that the curtailed components are not really knowable, they are abstract placeholder facts about a notional something. Let’s say Martin had grown a little lazy and decided to portray Robert Baratheon as a warrior king who had made his name fighting in ‘certain battles in the past’ – this clearly has less informative content than the Robert who fought in the Rebellion defeating Rhaegar at the Trident, with a blow of his warhammer etc. But what about those instances where the fantasy author is forced into giving a curtailed vision, consisting of facts about, because the construction of an entire constituted fictional world is implausible? Take the example of made-up swearing. In Bester’s Demolished Man again, characters use swear words unique to the futuristic world imagined by Bester: “‘Frab that,’ Reich snapped” (I can’t quite remember how it is made clear in the story that ‘frab’ is offensive to others – i.e. = ‘fuck’, similarly ‘slok’ = ‘shit’ – but it becomes apparent one way or another). Now in one way we might be impressed at how deep, rich, and well-furnished Bester’s imaginary world is, but the depth is illusory and inert – all Bester is really saying is ‘it is a fact that Reich swore’.

Let’s compare it with a line randomly chosen from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: ‘“Shut the fuck up!” Begbie sneers.’ It is both a constative (‘it was a fact that in this story Begbie said ‘shut the fuck up”’) but also an act of swearing and, to some, of offending. ‘“Frab that,” Reich snapped” is a constative of a fact (that Reich swore) but ‘frab’ does not exemplify this fact – it just means ‘he swore (in a way that was offensive in this world)’. But the fact of offensiveness isn’t itself offensive – no one could object to the sentence ‘Begbie swore’. Now we could imagine to ourselves, we could make believe, that ‘frab’ is offensive, but not in such a way that we could know or experience a feeling of offendedness – it would just be a rather flat, abstract acknowledgement of the fact of an act of offensiveness having been committed in this world. It would be mere facticity. And even if, by some feat of imagination, we thought ourselves into a world which we inhabited so deeply that ‘frab’ was ‘fuck’ is to real-world English speakers, we’d have to ask what the pay-off would be for such a massive expense of cognitive effort. It would be ersatz swearing, when the real thing can be experienced without such strenuous efforts.

This is where mereology comes in. For a word to be an act of offending or swearing (and not just an inert ‘fact of swearing’) requires as a further component a society that makes it so, by its belief that that word is offensive. And this is beyond the world-building capacity of a novelist (isn’t it?). Sometimes, of course, writers depict something in their stories by creating it gestalt, rather than simply asserting the fact of its existence: in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, for instance, we get to know the novels written by the protagonist Garp because Irving writes whole chapters of them and incorporates them in the novel. Or in the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the episode of Seinfeld that the characters are working on is, eventually, featured in the final episode as an excerpt from a fully scripted, acted, and produced episode of Seinfeld. But there are limits on what a fiction-maker can make so, and magic up. In the Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’, for example, (it’s the one with Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls and what-not) Doyle is keen to impress upon the reader that Holmes and Moriarty are locked in a desperate intellectual struggle between masterminds, both trying to manipulate circumstances through ingenious contrivance so as to trap their enemy and doom him. The problem is, Doyle is unable to say what these machinations consist of, to say how exactly the two are playing this grand game of chess across the whole continent of Europe, presumably because not being a genius like Holmes or Moriarty he is unable to depict the workings of genius.

Now I’m being a bit harsh to Bester, as his novel is unusual in trying to exemplify what certain features of typical sci-fi worlds would be like (most ambitiously trying to replicate the experience of telepathic exchange). I’m also moving away from Martin, who doesn’t quite invent his own swearing, aside from particular oaths (‘Others take him!’, ‘what in the seven hells’, etc.). I’d say the same goes for them, though they are not as strong a case as Bester’s ‘frab’. What is relevant to Martin, however, is that far too much of his novels (and especially A Feast for Crows) is occupied with weak facticity – the long family histories and the extensive lore of Westeros, for instance, both consist essentially of statements that could be paraphrased ‘in the fictional world of Westeros it was a fact that…’ and contain no further epistemological value or content than that mere facticity. It is all too often gratuitous, with no additional allegorical or thematic or truth-telling purpose. Even worse, too much of it has too little substance for the reader to identify with it in any significant way.


I could probably say anything at this point, given how small the probability that anyone is still reading (if you are – thank you, and congratulations?). What I hope to have proved, or at least argued plausibly, is that fantasy produces in its reader a feeling something like Freud’s description of religious experience in Civilization and its Discontents:

“We cannot fall out of this world.” It is a feeling, then, of being indissolubly bound up with and belonging to the whole of the world outside oneself.

That first bit, ‘we cannot fall out of this world,’ is a quote from an obscure German text I’ve not heard of. I suppose really what I should be looking at, and what has underlay much of what I have said, is the psychology of fantasy fiction: the repetition compulsion, and desire for the amniotic immersion. The second half of my argument is similarly psychologically charged: that the need for immersion is perhaps prompted, certainly sustained, by a sense of hunger, anxiety, and dissatisfaction caused by the inevitable meagreness of a world created by authorial diktat. We are always left wanting more, spurred on to see a world made impossibly whole.