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.

Oh, Oh, I Want to Know-oh, Where Do The Whores Go?

I don’t pretend to have my finger on the blood pressure cuff of the Internet, but I get the impression readers grew tired of Tyrion’s one-track mind by the end of ADWD.

Tyrion Lannister, everyone’s favorite dwarf, asks “where do whores go?” or some variation thereof fifteen times in ADWD. He asks it aloud and he speculates about it in his head. He asks it of wealthy merchants, seasoned travelers, common servants and a few actual whores. The man’s not good for much else.

Oompa, loompa, doompaty-do, I've got a whorish question for you ...

It gets a little tiring only because it’s not the Tyrion we’re used to. Tyrion Lannister was born to wealth but steeped in disrespect. He learned to use both his family’s gold and people’s tendency to underestimate him to his advantage. He has always been master of his circumstances, even if he wasn’t totally in control. And he’s always had an agenda.

So to see Tyrion wandering from port to port, repeating the same question like it’s an inside joke, can be a little disheartening.

GRRM clearly wants us to take note of this question (else why repeat it fifteen times?). So let’s consider what we know.

First, Tyrion asks this of almost everyone he meets. He first asks a mute cabin boy who’s cleaning him up before his visit to Pentos. He asks Illyrio Mopatis, the man behind the strings of several plots in the Free Cities. He asks the attendants in Mopatis’s estate. He asks the knight errant Duck, one of Young Griff’s coterie. He asks a whore in Selhorys. Tyrion doesn’t play his cards close to his chest, as he usually would. He spreads his inquiries far and wide. This in itself represents a departure from his usual mien.

Second, Tyrion asks a question that’s not all that mysterious. The blank stares he gets from most of the people he talks to should suggest as much. Asking where whores go is like asking “where are bricks?”. Whores are everywhere in Westeros and the Free Cities. There’s nowhere they’re not. It’s one of the few professions a free woman can enter that doesn’t require apprenticeship, wealth or marriage. It’s one of the few ways to profit off an army on the march. So Tyrion’s question either has no answer or infinite answers.

Third, Tyrion doesn’t really ask the question he’s after. He doesn’t want to know where whores go. He wants to know where Tysha went.

”Wherever whores go,” his father had said. His last words, and what words they were. The crossbow thrummed, Lord Tywin sat back down and Tyrion found himself waddling through the darkness …

But he doesn’t ask anyone about Tysha. He doesn’t describe her in much detail except to Penny, the jousting dwarf he gets bundled with after being kidnapped from Selhorys.

I'll stop asking! Just don't hit me.

Whence this ambiguity? Whence this hesitation from the normally canny dwarf? To find out what Tyrion has in mind, we may need to go even farther east than he does.

In Zen Buddhism, students may be guided to insight with the use of koans. A koan is a question which defies rational analysis. The cliched riddles of “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?” are popular examples. A koan is not meant to be unanswerable. Rather, it is the process of embracing the multifaceted nature of the universe that the koan contains that shows whether the student has achieved insight.


The point of the koan is to meditate on it. Arriving at the answer and then stopping does not enhance one’s Buddha nature. Rather, pursuing the answer is as much a part of growth as finding the answer.

Tyrion’s not asking “where do whores go?” because he wants to know the literal answer. He’s asking it because he has no other purpose in life. When last we left Tyrion, he was Hand of the King. Then he was accused of poisoning Joffrey, locked up and condemned to death. He was given the hope of reprieve at the hands (or spear) of Oberyn Martell, then had that hope dashed. Having come to terms with death, he was freed at the last moment by Varys, departing King’s Landing with a brief detour to fulfill the Oedipal dream and murder his father. If it’s possible for a man to make sense of his life, everything that made sense of Tyrion’s was smashed in a few short months.

Tyrion Lannister is a man without purpose. The schemes, ambitions and simple hopes that made up his life have all been scattered. Having realized the illusory nature of possessions, ambition, status and even relationships, he’s in the perfect mindset to accept the nature of Zen Buddhism. To attain that state, he meditates on an unanswerable question.

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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