“Until tonight. Something was different tonight.”
On the second page of this brick of a fantasy novel, George R.R. Martin starts the setting for the lands of Westeros in A Game of Thrones. The book opens on someone who reader soon learns is a person of little consequence. Nonetheless he starts the initiation into this world. At the end of the prologue, the reader learns of Stark family of the North in the first chapter and a vast cast of other characters in the pages beyond.
The author has stated in several interviews and on his blog that he is not a linguist like J.R.R. Tolkien (“Klaatu…”). Martin’s modifications to the English language, or the “Common Tongue” as it is called in the novel, are very subtle. He has seemingly invented very few words and he has breathed new life into words that have fallen out of regular linguistic use.
Proper nouns are peppered through the first few pages in the first chapter of Bran Stark’s third person point of view. He tells the reader of his father’s duty to execute a deserter of the Night’s Watch, the man in the prologue. A great sword is given to Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, and Ned performs his duty in the name of King Robert, relaying the long royal title full of proper nouns. The sword, called Ice is “spell-forged and dark as smoke…nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel” (AGOT 14). In a few words Martin has created a new word and backed it up with power and arcane feeling.
Through dialogue and point of view, and this new word “Valyrian,” the readers have entered a world that is not their own. Martin doesn’t overwhelm the reader with words of many apostrophes and hyphens. In fact, he does not even use italics to denote that “Valryian” is a foreign word. It’s not to Bran, his father, brothers, or anyone else in the chapter, and now, the reader.
Across the Narrow Sea in Essos, Martin begins Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen’s part of the story. Dany’s family once ruled the continent Westeros. After her brother Viserys tells her she is to be wedded to Khal Drogo, she recounts the war in her memory. She also gives the reader the names of places like Braavos, Myr, Volantis, and Lys. Places discernibly far from her homeland shared by Bran Stark in a previous chapter. Until this point most of what Dany reveals is familiar to her, as Valyrian was familiar to Bran. When she hears her brother and their benefactor, Illyrio, talking about Khal Drogo words like “khalasar” are singled out for their unfamiliarity in italics (34). Both the reader and Dany denote that “khal” is the ruler of a “khalasar,” which is the tribal structure of the horse riding Dothraki people.
While Viserys, and Illyrio, await Khal Drogo’s arrival for Dany, they also speak of Ser Jorah Mormont (36.) The word “ser” is unknown, out of context, to the reader and Martin, via Dany, clarifies this: “The last name caught Daenerys. ‘A knight?’” The author has transformed the well-known, but seldom presently used, title of knights from “sir” to “ser.” This adds a sense that the Common Tongue of the novel, is perhaps, as distinct from the English language as Dothraki is.
In many fantasy novels, an invented world isn’t complete without an invented religion, or even several religions. The Dothraki customs, which Daenerys marries into, involve worshiping a horse god. There is also mention of a red god in Essos. In Westeros, the Starks and others in the North follow the Old Gods. The Old Gods eventually gave way to the Faith of the Seven.“The ringing went on and on, and after a while they heard other bells answering from the Great Sept of Baelor. The sound rumbled across the city like thunder, warning of the storm to come.” (544)
The Faith has clerics called setpons and setpas, and churches are called septs. Here Martin has taken the Latin word for seven and given it to his Westerosi religion. In the way that the Trinity is synonymous with the Christian God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the Seven are the personifications of the Gods of the Faith.
In the epic hundreds of pages of A Game of Thrones the Common Tongue presented to readers in American English, some of the words are left without translation. The reader comes to know that “khal” is equivalent to a “chief.” Martin could have called it the “Great Temple of Baelor,” but the occasional use of invented and altered words enriches his volumes. A writer need not be a linguist of J.R.R. Tolkein’s caliber to breathe new life into words and craft amazing worlds for their readers.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam, 1996. Print.
Martin, George R.R. “Klaatu Barada Nicto…” Not a Blog. LiveJournal, 12 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Sept. 2014. <http://grrm.livejournal.com/148593.html>.
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