The difference betweem A GAME OF THRONES and A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

While reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I was struck by a particular passage that really encapsulated the difference in Martin’s writing when comparing his earlier work to his later works. Not surprisingly, it’s a descriptive piece:

Deepwood’s mossy walls enclosed a wide, rounded hill with a flattened top, crowned by a cavernous longhall with a watchtower at one end, rising fifty feet above the hill. Beneath the hill was the bailey, with its stables, paddock, smithy, well, and sheepfold, defended by a deep ditch, a sloping earthen dike, and a palisade of logs. The outer defenses made an oval, following the contours of the land. There were two gates, each protected by a pair of square wooden towers, and wallwalks around the perimeter. On the south side of the castle, moss grew thick upon the palisade and crept halfway up the towers. To east and west were empty fields. Oats and barley had been growing there when [spoiler] took the castle, only to be crushed underfoot during her attack. A series of hard frosts had killed the crops they’d planted afterward, leaving only mud and ash and wilted, rotting stalks.

This is an exhaustingly detailed passage about Deepwood Motte, a strategically important castle, but one that has little to offer the series other than it’s place within the politics and military movement of Westeros’ various factions. And, frankly, it’s just not very interesting.

Now, compare that passage to this, the first description of the Eyrie, one of Martin’s most iconic and easily recognizable creations:

Catelyn raised her eyes, up and up and up. At first all she saw was stone and trees, the looming mass of the great mountain shrouded in night, as black as a starless sky. Then she noticed the glow of distant fires well above them; a tower keep, built upon the steep side of the mountain, its lights like orange eyes staring down from above. Above that was another, higher and more distant, and still higher a third, no more than a flickering spark in the sky. And finally, up where the falcons soared, a flash of white in the moonlight. Vertigo washed over her as she stared upward at the pale towers, so far above.

It’s a beautiful, evocative description of the amazing castle, but, more importantly, it asks the readers to fill in the gaps and engage the imagery. The opportunity for description is nearly endless, but Martin shows admirable restraint by relying on simile and poetic language, rather than a utilitarian description of the castle’s blueprint. To describe the Eyrie in detail similar to Deepwood Motte would have taken an excessive amount of space, but Martin was clever enough to avoid that. The description of Deepwood Motte could have been pared down significantly–to paint a haunting, desperate picture of a ruined, wooden castle–and the reader would have been no worse off for not knowing the shape of the outer defenses.

In my previous commentary on A Dance with Dragons, I lauded Martin for the growth of his prose and the enormous leap in quality it’s taken since the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire was published. On a line-by-line or paragraph-by-paragraph level, this is absolutely certain; but now I worry that such weighty prose might be partly to blame for the slowed pace in the fourth and fifth (and, really, the third) volumes of the series. Because, really, plot-wise, does A Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons really have so much more plot/character development over A Storm of Swords that it needed two volumes? No, not really. So what’s accounting for the extra weight? Well, go re-read those two passages quoted above and see if you can’t come up with an answer.

  • Doug M. July 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    It’s a beautiful, evocative description of the amazing castle, but, more importantly, it asks the readers to fill in the gaps and engage the imagery.

    Well put. And a perfect example of the stylistic difference between early ASoIaF and later ASoIaF. But change and the evolution of “style” is not inherently bad… as long as you realize (and more importantly accept) that you may be giving some fans a valid reason to “jump off the train.” Being spoon-fed details, or being encouraged to roll my eyes up in my head and imagine the details that are in between your words? Guess which one I’d choose?

  • Iain C July 27, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    The comparison is not really like-for-like, though. A more detailed description of the Eyrie is actually given in AGOT – indeed, much of the chapter that follows that passage is given over to a detailed description of Cat’s journey to the Eyrie, past each waycastle, each of which is described. Arguably, the difference is that the description of Deepwood Motte only appears more detailed because it is condensed into a single paragraph.

    You can certainly argue that no detailed description of Deepwood Motte was necessary at all, and you can certainly argue that the prose in ADWD is more descriptive than it needs to be in places, but I think this particular comparison doesn’t really serve that argument all that well.

  • aidan July 27, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    The point being that I took the very first official description of two of Martin’s castles (one important, one not so important) and examined how they were detailed to the reader, how Martin chose to make his first impression of each castle. The description you’re talking about is accompanied by Cat’s journey through the castle (and substantial dialogue that furthers the intrigue of Robert’s bastards), a neat narrative device that allows Martin to go into specifics without infodumping a blueprint on the reader like he does with Deepwood Motte. Cat’s journey through the Eyrie is necessary to understand the fortress and why it’s supposedly impregnable. Deepwood Motte’s just a description of a crummy wooden castle.

    I’d be happy to be shown a more apt paragraph to compare against the one I pulled out of A Dance with Dragons.

  • aidan July 27, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Here’re a collection of the more densely descriptive passages from the rest of that chapter:

    Perhaps she did doze for a moment, for suddenly a massive ironbound gate was looming before them. “Stone,” Mya announced cheerily, dismounting. Iron spikes were set along the tops of formidable stone walls, and two fat round towers overtopped the keep. The gate swung open at Mya’s shout. Inside, the portly knight who commanded the waycastle greeted Mya by name and offered them skewers of charred meat and onions still hot from the spit. Catelyn had not realized how hungry she was. She ate standing in the yard, as stablehands moved their saddles to fresh mules. The hot juices ran down her chin and dripped onto her cloak, but she was too famished to care.

    Snow was smaller than Stone, a single fortified tower and a timber keep and stable hidden behind a low wall of unmortared rock. Yet it nestled against the Giant’s Lance in such a way as to command the entire stone stair above the lower waycastle. An enemy intent on the Eyrie would have to fight his way from Stone step by step, while rocks and arrows rained down from Snow above. The commander, an anxious young knight with a pockmarked face, offered bread and cheese and the chance to warm themselves before his fire, but Mya declined. “We ought to keep going, my lady,” she said. “If it please you.” Catelyn nodded.

    The waycastle called Sky was no more than a high, crescent-shaped wall of unmortared stone raised against the side of the mountain, but even the topless towers of Valyria could not have looked more beautiful to Catelyn Stark. Here at last the snow crown began; Sky’s weathered stones were rimed with frost, and long spears of ice hung from the slopes above.

    The men escorted her from the winch room up a spiral stair. The Eyrie was a small castle by the standards of the great houses; seven slender white towers bunched as tightly as arrows in a quiver on a shoulder of the great mountain. It had no need of stables nor smithys nor kennels, but Ned said its granary was as large as Winterfell’s, and its towers could house five hundred men. Yet it seemed strangely deserted to Catelyn as she passed through it, its pale stone halls echoing and empty.

    I think you’ll agree that none of them compare to the description of Deepwood Motte.

  • Iain C July 27, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Well, if I was choosing, I’d suggest Moat Cailin. Both are relatively minor, and in both cases the actual defences of the castles are relevant (unlike, say, the castle of the Darrys).

    “Just beyond, through the mists, she glimpsed the walls and towers of Moat Cailin… or what remained of them. Immense blocks of black basalt, each as large as a crofter’s cottage, lay scattered and tumbled like a child’s wooden blocks, half-sunk in the soft boggy soil. Nothing else remained of a curtain wall that had once stood as high as Winterfell’s. The wooden keep was gone entirely, rotted away a thousand years past, with not so much as a timber to mark where it had stood. All that was left of the great stronghold of the First Men were three towers… three where there had once been twenty, if the taletellers could be believed.

    The Gatehouse Tower looked sound enough, and even boasted a few feet of standing wall to either side of it. The Drunkard’s Tower, off in the bog where the south and west walls had once met, leaned like a man about to spew a bellyful of wine into the gutter. And the tall, slender Children’s Tower, where legend said the Children of the Forest had once called upon their nameless gods to send the hammer of the waters, had lost half its crown. It looked as if some great beast had taken a bite out of the crenellations along the tower top, and spit the rubble across the bog. All three towers were green with moss. A tree was growing out between the stones of the Gatehouse Tower, its gnarled limbs festooned with ropy white blankets of ghostskin.”

    Now I would agree that is a better bit of prose, as it happens, but it’s certainly comparable in a lot of ways to the section above from ADWD.

  • Kathleen July 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    nice point. I think that is really true.

  • Theman July 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    I love his description of Deepwood Motte. fuck you

  • Doug M. July 28, 2011 at 6:36 am

    That’s more like it! All this rational discussion was getting weird.
    *rolls eyes*

  • Elio M. García, Jr. July 28, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I have to say Iain’s example seems fairly reasonably comparable. The prose is more evocative with Moat Cailin, I think, because it’s evoking the dim, mythic past whereas Deepwood is a very unromanticized, unmythological place. As to the level of detail seeming incongruous, I think it has to do with quickly setting out its strategic position to then set up the reason for Deepwood’s abandonment and the details of the approach of the enemy.

    If the Eyrie had been about to be engaged by any enemy, I’d hazard a guess that we’d get a lot more detail about its features, too. In that, it’s a bit of a tip-off, I suppose.

    An interesting idea occured to me, though, following the Moat Cailin quote — how is Moat Cailin described in ADwD? Here goes:

    The air was wet and heavy, and shallow pools of water dotted the ground. Reek picked his way between them carefully, following the remnants of the log- and- plank road that Robb Stark’s vanguard had laid down across the soft ground to speed the passage of his host. Where once a mighty curtain wall had stood, only scattered stones remained, blocks of black basalt so large it must once have taken a hundred men to hoist them into place. Some had sunk so deep into the bog that only a corner showed; others lay strewn about like some god’s abandoned toys, cracked and crumbling, spotted with lichen. Last night’s rain had left the huge stones wet and glistening, and the morning sunlight made them look as if they were coated in some fine black oil.

    Beyond stood the towers.

    The Drunkard’s Tower leaned as if it were about to collapse, just as it had for half a thousand years. The Children’s Tower thrust into the sky as straight as a spear, but its shattered top was open to the wind and rain. The Gatehouse Tower, squat and wide, was the largest of the three, slimy with moss, a gnarled tree growing sideways from the stones of its north side, fragments of broken wall still standing to the east and west. The Karstarks took the Drunkard’s Tower and the Umbers the Children’s Tower, he recalled. Robb claimed the Gatehouse Tower for his own.


    As such things go, there’s no real difference prose-wise, to my eye, except the fact that Catelyn fills us in in the historical background, whereas Reek doesn’t (which may tell us a bit more about Reek, or may just be GRRM deciding that that’s not necessary).

    It’d be interesting to pull some other direct comparisons. Hrm…

  • Kevin July 28, 2011 at 10:16 am

    How about a comparison of the first time we see DRAGONS in AGOT versus the ridiculous breakdown of Turtles in the river in ADWD? Dragons are arguably the most critical non-human component of these books, and the first time we see them is a brief and dramatic reveal. No 12-page description of each dragon, its colors, and all the other types of dragons they could have been.

  • Muady July 28, 2011 at 10:29 am

    That’s as fair a comparison as any. The Deepwood Motte is undeniably more weighty and dry reading, even though it is only 40-50 more words. I would add, though, that there are differences of vantage and voice to be considered. Theres an argument to be made about what each POV can see, and how they take in the world around them.

  • brandonS. July 28, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Theman: was that really called for? it was his opinion right, so why don’t you respect that like everybody else.

  • Kyle F. August 11, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    I try to think of it through the lens that the character would see it. Cat would probably see things very poetically, but (Spoilers! Look away while you can)

    Asha has a very military background, so she would probably look at a castle and see it in terms of defensive merit. I can’t say that other instances of this might have slipped by me, but I don’t think these two comparisons are really fair.

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