Words are Wind: Repetition of Language in A Dance With Dragons

Words are Wind: Repetition of Language in A Dance With Dragons

An author doesn’t repeat a phrase thirteen times unless he wants you to notice it.

[Warning: the following post contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOR A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. Your enjoyment of the book will be diminished if you read this article before finishing the novel. Don’t do it. Final warning.]

When George R.R. Martin gets his hands on a phrase that he likes, he gets as much use out of it as he can. Repeated phrases or images – Ned’s promise to Lyanna, the vows of the Night’s Watch, the motto of the Starks – are one of his favorite tools. It can get amusing if you look for the seams in the furniture, or even frustrating. But there is a key to the way GRRM uses repeated language and dialogue, and A Dance with Dragons (hereafter ADWD) is no exception.

But It Takes So Long My Lord, My Leal Lord

ADWD is the first Song of Ice and Fire novel that I read on the Kindle. This has several excellent advantages over traditional hardback or paperback editions. First, I can publicly read a book that has the word “dragons” in the title without bringing embarrassment to the Perich name. No one on the subway will know! Second, I can bring the book just about everywhere without putting undue strain on my spine. This saves my back muscles so I can hunch over a keyboard for hours, writing overthought articles about the book I just read.

But most important, reading ADWD on the Kindle lets me do a quick search to find every instance of the word “leal.”

Homage is the duty every leal subject owes his king. Yet your father’s bannermen all turn their back on me, save the Karstarks. Is Arnolf Karstark the only man of honor in the north?


You have my word, all that I desire is to be leal servant of your dragon queen.


I keep no secrets from my kin, nor from my leal lords and knights, good friends all.


Do you want to go with them, return to your bleak isles the cold grey sea, be a prince again? Or would you sooner stay my leal serving man?


You would do best to walk a middle course. Let men earn your trust with leal service … but when they do, be generous and openhearted.


Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son’s wedding to …

Those are just the first six out of fourteen. GRRM turned over a new page on his Word-a-Day calendar and got stuck. Fourteen times in one novel and, to the best of my recollection, never in the previous four. I don’t have those books on my Kindle to verify this with a search. But I had to look up “leal” to see what it meant and I’d have looked it up sooner if I’d encountered it before.

Are ya LEAL, mon?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us leal means what we think it means in context: loyal, faithful. If it sounds like it’s just the word “loyal” with a Scottish brogue, that’s because it is: it’s a Scottish term, descended from old French and Latin, that’s filtered its way into English.

“Leal” means the same thing as “loyal” when delivered by a Scottish speaker. It probably got a lot of use between 1502 and 1707, after the wars between England and Scotland finally ended but before the treaty that established “Great Britain” was signed. But “leal” has passed into the English lexicon as well. And it’s typically used to mean something different from “loyal.”

It’s not just GRRM who does it. Take for instance Charles Dickens in his 1864 novel Our Mutual Friend:

He had not only settled it with himself in course of time, that he was errand-goer by appointment to the house at the corner (though he received such commissions not half a dozen times in a year, and then only as some servant’s deputy), but also that he was one of the house’s retainers and owed vassalage to it and was bound to leal and loyal interest in it.

“Leal and loyal interest.” While Dickens was certainly known for padding his word count, he’s drawing a clear distinction. To be “leal” is different than being “loyal.”

Creon, in Storr’s 1912 translation of Antigone, says this about loyal subjects:

Whome’er the State
Appoints must be obeyed in everything,
But small and great, just and unjust alike.
I warrant such a one in either case
Would shine, as King or subject; such a man
Would in the storm of battle stand his ground,
A comrade leal and true; but Anarchy–
What evils are not wrought by Anarchy!

Here, while a case can be again made for padding word count in the name of preserving iambic pentameter, the choice of words isn’t accidental. “Leal” and “true” signify two different behaviors.

For a final item, consider the traditional Scottish song “Land of the Leal.” It comes down to us solely as a poem by Lady Carolina Nairne, so any musical reproductions by a modern band are reinterpretations. But we know that it was a song because there are contemporary accounts of it being sung: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for one, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine for another.

Here’s Scottish folk ensemble Silly Wizard doing their rendition:

(if there’s a five-word phrase that gets more delightful with each successive word than “Scottish folk ensemble Silly Wizard,” I don’t know it)

The titular “land of the leal” is Heaven. The speaker is a woman on her deathbed, comforting her husband with the knowledge that she is off to Heaven, so dry your tears, you can come join me soon enough. In this case, reading “leal” as interchangeable with “loyal” doesn’t make sense. Is loyalty all it takes to get into Heaven? Loyalty to what? No, to vouchsafe your place in the clouds, you need to be not just loyal but leal.

Since GRRM’s the only person using “leal” in a sentence these days, we turn to him for context. In each use of the word in ADWD, “leal” describes a proper subject’s relation to his lord. Arnolf Karstark is a leal subject to Stannis Baratheon (or he at least claims to be). Tyrion professes that he’ll be leal if he can get to the court of Daenerys Targaryen. Young Griff, a/k/a the baby-swapped Prince Aegon, must scope out which of his men are leal and which aren’t. And so forth.

Perhaps I shouldna been sae LEAL.

It’s also worth noting that “leal” is not limited in geography, the same way the term is in the real world. No one outside of Great Britain or the English-speaking peoples would use the word “leal” today. But subjects from as far north as the Boltons’ keep and as far south as Dorne (Quentyn Martell) profess themselves to be leal subjects. A casual reader can write all of Westeros off as “fantasy England with zombies and dragons,” but Dorne, the Stormlands, the Riverlands and the North are vastly different nations. While the lords of the North may be the closest analog to Scots that Westeros has, all lords of the Seven Kingdoms seek for leal subjects.

While we may tease GRRM for his archaic vocabulary, no writer worth his salt uses a word like that fourteen times in one book by accident. It’s a deliberate choice. So why is he using it? And why now?

ADWD takes place during a brief respite in the wars racking Westeros. The armies of the North have largely been scattered. The Greyjoy raiders are holding more territory than they’re taking. Stannis Baratheon has parked at the Wall, waiting for his opportunity. And across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen has halted her march of conquest and is trying her hand at ruling. The pitched wars of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords are over.

None of the major players think that the fighting is over, though. Everyone is gathering their forces and recovering. New offensives are about to be launched. By the time the book ends, many are already under way: Stannis is marching on Winterfell, Aegon has landed on Westeros, Meereen is under siege.

When war is underway, you inspire your bannermen to fight. But between wars, when you’re catching your breath, you look to see who’s still on your side. You sound out your vassals, punishing some and rewarding others. You want a sound army behind you when you ride out to fight again. You want an army full of leal men and true.

Men can be loyal to each other, but they can only be leal to a master.

35 Comments on “Words are Wind: Repetition of Language in A Dance With Dragons”

  1. Wenyip #

    Nice analysis, although I would be wary about assigning too much significance to words like ‘leal’. I think GRRM has a penchant for pseudo-archaic language, and when he finds a term he likes he’ll just throw it in everywhere. Take ‘much and more’ (and the corresponding ‘little and less’). I’ve never come across either expression in any text ever, but ADWD is filled with them both. Similarly, ‘in half a heartbeat’ seemed to explode in use a couple of books ago.

    On the other hand, he does do leitmotifs extremely well. My especial favourites were the two for Reek: ‘Reek, Reek it rhymes with…’ and ‘You’ve got to remember your name’.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Agreed, Wenyip, but I don’t think that takes away from the analysis. Yes, GRRM likes archaicism. But where he chooses to use archaicism and where he sticks with contemporary language is worth noting. He uses leal instead of loyal, but he never busts out yclept or hight. Why is that? Three thousand word OTI post. ;)


        • Liza #

          When asked why he used “spavined”, a similarly archaic and out of place word, 17 times in one novel, Michael Chabon replied that it had just caught in his head and he had felt compelled to use it in the same way that he felt compelled to write, like a mild form of OCD. To create such gigantic epics, George R. R. Martin must have some level of compulsion to write. Maybe leal just caught in his head.


        • Katie #

          He used it a bit in Feast, but more so in the chapters that probably got split from ADWD.


  2. Meghan #

    You mean “Ned’s promise to Lyanna” in the first paragraph and not “Robert’s”, right? /picky bitch font


  3. litg #

    Interesting article. Love the bit about words being wind, but still deadly. I feel as though Martin relied on the repetition motif more this time than he has with previous volumes. I wonder why that is, or if I’m just mistaken.

    Now for my fanboy hat:

    I agree with you that Jon is dead (for now). But part of that may be that I kind of WANT it to be the case. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jon and don’t want him to die, but I’m going to be kind of mad if we have to wait six years (being realistic here) to find out it was just a big tease. I’m more angry that we don’t have confirmation one way or the other than I am that it happened.

    Still, one comment of yours stumped me. You said three ways he could come back. I count as a Wight, via Melisandre and Rh’llor, and…

    What’s the third way?


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      As a skinchanger. It’s heavily implied that Jon Snow is a “warg,” able to project his consciousness into his direwolf. It’s also established in the prologue that, when a warg dies, his consciousness can transfer to one of his favored animals.


    • Adrian #

      I’d say a third path for resurrection would be as a warg, most likely into Ghost.

      Of course, another possibility is that he simply doesn’t die, he loses a lot of blood and comes close, but is ultimately nursed back to health.


      • litg #

        Thanks, John. I should have seen that one right away.

        Adrian, I agree with you in principle. The question then becomes: nursed by whom? If the Watch, or even just a significant portion of those present at Castle Black, have turned against him, it’s unlikely they’ll help. It could mean a Watch civil war of sorts. And recall, Jon sent most of his friends and the men he trusted away to man other castles.

        Then there are the Queen’s Men. They aren’t his biggest fans either. Selyse seemed as though she’d just as soon see him removed from the office in favor of someone more tractable. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that she seems pretty obedient to Stannis and his wish to have the wildlings move south, I’d almost suspect her of conspiring with Marsh. If Stannis were present it might be different… Melisandre is one who certainly seems to be in his corner, but I see her reviving him more than healing him, possibly even in secret.

        That leaves the wildlings, his most obvious friends at this point. It’s only because of him (at least, in their eyes) that they are allowed to shelter behind the wall. In fact, given the numbers imbalance, it was pretty ballsy (or suicidal) for Bowen Marsh and his conspirators to attempt this. It can’t possibly do anything to stabilize the situation they find themselves in, presuming their assassination attempt was indeed successful.

        Certainly though, as the author, there are enough factors in play that Martin can arrange for just about any situation he likes and spin it to believability. This is just how I read the situation.


        • Adrian #

          Wun Wun. :)


      • Meghan O'Keefe (@megsokay) #

        I feel like GRRM naming an animal “Ghost” and offering a chance for Jon to warg into him after he dies aren’t coincidences.


        • litg #

          Cool! I’d never considered that, Meghan. Sort of gives you chills.


    • Genevieve #

      I feel this way, exactly. It’s kind of ridiculous that GRRM waits until the last few chapters of a book that kept us waiting for so damned long, to do what he does best (killing off beloved characters.) Like you, I have no desire for Jon to actually be dead – he’s one of my absolute favorites. I was hoping for Tyrion, honestly (I know, I’m in the minority there…) I just think that it would be bullshit if he weren’t actually dead. If not, who died? Quentyn. That’s it. Kevan, too, yes – but that was in an epilogue. I know it’s got to be hard, this far along, to keep killing off characters that GRRM has grown to love as much as we, the audience, have… but to back away from it is kinda weaksauce.


      • litg #

        Exactly. I just hate this new tendency toward the protracted “ooh, is he/she dead?” and then years later it turns out it was just a scare tactic. I guess technically he’s only done it with Brienne, but no one really believed she was dead, so it seemed a cheap ploy. Dude, I’m going to keep reading the books, I promise! You don’t need to fake me out! Glad to know I’m not alone in this thinking.


    • Katryn #

      If Jon is dead, I am done with this series. He was one of the only remaining characters that I really liked. Even though I’m sick to death of the whole bringing people back from the dead thing, this is one case where it damn well better happen!


  4. xyz #

    Excellent post! I’m not so sure about the written word being respected more than the spoken, though. Sure, Jon Arryn’s research started the war, but one of the people that research demonstrated to be illegitimate is still king. Robert’s written deathbed will naming Ned as regent didn’t do Ned much good. In ADWD, Theon takes a written treaty with him to Moat Cailin; it is scorned by the (illiterate) men there and ends up stuffed, unopened, in the mouth of one of their staked-out corpses after Ramsay kills them in (presumably) direct violation of its terms. Asha Greyjoy rags on her uncle, who is trying to give her valid historically-based advice, for nattering on about old books. The marriage contract between Dorne and House-Targaryen-in-exile turns out not to be worth the paper it’s written on. Etc. Written words are not wind, but maybe they’re just leaves (of paper)?

    But no doubt I’m remembering selectively, and there are just as many counterexamples…


  5. Saffe #

    I’m suprised you don’t mention how the wilding woman Osha comments that the old gods answers are the rustiling of the leaves and the sound of the forest IE “the wind”. Therefore in this sense the wind is the will of the gods.


  6. Ed Gates #

    Another piece of evidence to support the conclusion that wind is indeed something to be reckoned with: the next book in the series is going to be called “The Winds of Winter.”


  7. Andrew Neilson #

    Nice article. But it begs the comment:

    You know nothing, John Perich.


  8. Julia Mathias #

    Great post! I had never thought about the use of the word leal in DwD because my native language is portuguese, and leal is actually the portuguese translation of loyal, so the word never seemed weird to me.

    The repetition of “where the whores go?” however was bit more unsettling, but more because of the character that was constantly saying it. I didn’t interpret the repetition as “Zen attitude” or something like that, but more like a coping mechanism of some sort. I figured that killing his own father left Tyrion traumatized, and that made him obsess about his fathers last words.


  9. Charlie X #

    Good article and despite being a fan, this has been one habit Martin keeps doing. It’s odd, but not always bad for the internal monologues of people, such as the constant, “Where do all the whores go?” playing on Tyrion’s mind, the “She’s been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and probably Moon Boy for all I know” from Jaime in Feast, and so on.

    A bunch of these have ended up becoming memes in my social group now that they’re all reading the books. There’s been a ton of, “It is known” and “Reek, rhymes with…”

    So maybe there’s an intentional earwormishness to some of these phrases. It keeps playing on the mind of the reader like it does the cast.


    • Genevieve #

      I think the “Reek” bits and the “It is known” are more acceptable, because they’re more narrowly attributed (the first to one person only, the second solely to the Dothraki.)


  10. Genevieve #

    Love the analysis of words as wind. Brilliant.

    The one term that kept getting under my skin while reading ADWD was “jape.” I would LOVE to know an occurrence count on that one! I wonder if there is an actual, subtle, denotative difference between “jape” and “joke…” because, if not, my irritation with it is tenfold.

    On the subject of Jon’s death, in addition to what I wrote upthread a bit, I’d like to argue that he *must* be dead, because of the law of threes. Martin is a skilled enough storyteller that he wouldn’t just ignore such a commonly accepted precept in his series. In ADWD, we have three possible death fake-outs, where we’re within the consciousness of the character, and he appears to all intents and purposes to have died. First, Tyrion fell in the water with the crazy stone-disease ridden guys. He really really seems dead, but a few chapters later, we get his perspective again.

    Then, we have Quentyn Martell. GRRM ups the stakes, here. When he “comes back to life,” he ends up dying before the end of the chapter.

    Anyway, the third time it happens, it’s Jon. There’s no “proof” that he’d died, so they had to arrest him. Crazy.


    • Genevieve #

      Wow, I have no idea what that last sentence means. Bedtime, for me at least.


    • Genevieve #

      Seriously, no posting after bedtime for me.

      Let me sum up:

      1st apparent (major character) death in ADWD – Tyrion. Result – Not dead, but keeps pricking himself to be sure. Clever, since he *is* somewhat of a prick.

      2nd apparent death in ADWD – Quentyn. Result – Not dead, but then dies within the next chapter where we see him. So, a fake-out, but still ultimately dead.

      3rd apparent death in ADWD – Jon. Result – kinda has to be all the way with this one… *especially* because GRRM plays the “rule of three” trump card by giving us a fourth iteration in which he flips the script: Kevan’s glaringly obvious, no way out death in the epilogue (or whatever that was).

      Yes, that is what I meant to say, above, when I started talking all crazy.


  11. Eric Falconer #

    Surely you Jape!

    Not Jest… not Joke… but Jape…

    Jape grates on my nerves to no end…
    I kept waiting for the article to talk about it… but it did not so I will…

    Just a few statistics (the power of search):

    Total occurrences so far..
    Jape – 109
    Jest – 96
    Joke – 18

    By book:
    Book 1; Jape-10 Jest-12 Joke-8
    Book 2; Jape-11 Jest-28 Joke-6
    Book 3; Jape-18 Jest-30 Joke-4
    Book 4; Jape-26 Jest-12 Joke-0
    Book 5; Jape-44 Jest-6 Joke-0

    Some quick observations:
    Clearly book 1 was the least funny of all the books with it’s lack of Japes/Jests/Jokes. Jokes are on the decrease while Japes are clearly on the rise. Jest is a bit of a funny one as it rises and falls.. but keep in mind it also the search also included instances of Jester, which isn’t quite the same as ‘jest’. For sure jape did not include any instances of ‘Japer’.

    Take it for what it’s worth


  12. rob #

    “leal” did actually appear in the earlier books:

    Book 3, once from Melisandre and later from Tyrion
    Book 4, once from the author, twice from Cersei and once from Grand Maester Pycelle


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Nice work! Martin must have got up to fourth gear by the time ADWD came around.


  13. scorpiknox #

    I loved reading this article, though I think you are giving GRRM far too much credit. I think maybe all of the repetition is an indicator/side-effect of the writer’s block he clearly suffered from while writing this book.

    Let’s be honest, GRRM’s prose was never anything but above average at best. It was his story that people really cared about. Now that both have clearly taken a hit in this last installment, we can only hope for an inspired 6th book.

    Can you do a write up explaining the gratuitous food lists/descriptions next?


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      The food list that springs to mind is Tyrion and Illyrio’s feast while they’re being carted about the Free Cities. I think that’s equal parts (1) to parallel the gasping poverty that Tyrion’s about to enter once he gets separated from the Griff family and (2) padding the page count.


      • michael #

        Could he seriously think it needed padding?


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