George RR Martin and the Art of the List

On 10 May 2016 George RR Martin published an excerpt in the form of a chapter from The Winds of Winter, the sixth novel in his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and one which fans have been eagerly anticipating now for almost five years. A Dance with Dragons – itself the product of a five-and-a-half-year wait, though as with The Winds of Winter Martin offered numerous teasers and excerpts long before the emergence of the completed text – arrived back in July 2011.

Much of what we have seen so far of The Winds of Winter has been repurposed from A Dance with Dragons, which covered less story than Martin intended and excluded altogether several character point-of-views. Previously Martin has released Winds of Winter material from the perspectives of Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Barristan Selmy, Theon Greyjoy, Victarion Greyjoy, and Arianne Martell.

The excerpt published on Tuesday was a second Winds of Winter chapter from the point of view of Arianne, who does not appear in the Game of Thrones television adaptation. As Martin’s series has grown – what was once planned as a trilogy is now expected to take seven books to complete, with A Dance with Dragons the first novel in the series to surpass 1,000 printed pages – a common criticism has focused on the author’s lengthy descriptions of food, feasts, fashion, and foliage. In this respect, one passage in particular from the latest excerpt has been seized upon as an example of Martin poking fun at his audience, or making light of his own reputation for descriptive excess. The passage reads:

‘Dusk found them on the fringes of the rainwood, a wet green world where brooks and rivers ran through dark forests and the ground was made of mud and rotting leaves. Huge willows grew along the watercourses, larger than any that Arianne had ever seen, their great trunks as gnarled and twisted as an old man’s face and festooned with beards of silvery moss. Trees pressed close on every side, shutting out the sun; hemlock and red cedars, white oaks, soldier pines that stood as tall and straight as towers, colossal sentinels, big-leaf maples, redwoods, wormtrees, even here and there a wild weirwood. Underneath their tangled branches ferns and flowers grew in profusion; sword ferns, lady ferns, bellflowers and piper’s lace, evening stars and poison kisses, liverwort, lungwort, hornwort. Mushrooms sprouted down amongst the tree roots, and from their trunks as well, pale spotted hands that caught the rain. Other trees were furred with moss, green or grey or red-tailed, and once a vivid purple. Lichens covered every rock and stone. Toadstools festered besides rotting logs. The very air seemed green.’

As a Reddit thread on the new chapter well demonstrates, some close readers of A Song of Ice and Fire have suggested the possible significance of the surreptitious presence of weirwood this far south, but the stronger reaction has been one of exasperation, summed up by the comment ‘motherfucker’s still just listing plants’. Yet looking beyond Martin’s fantasy counterparts such as J. R. R. Tolkien, lists can boast a distinguished place in the history of world literature. A feature of the works of several major authors, they are noted for their subversive quality, straddling a peculiar line between the literary urges of description and world building and the conventionally non-literary urge to catalogue or record.

James Joyce used lists in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In Ulysses they feature most notably in the ornate interpolations of the ‘Cyclops’ episode, and in a different form in ‘Ithaca’, which in letters to friends Joyce described as a ‘mathematical catechism’ and a ‘mathematico-astronomico-physico-mechanico-geometrico-chemico sublimation’. Take for instance the following passage from ‘Cyclops’, one of the episode’s first interpolations, which fittingly lists fish, trees, and ‘all kinds of lovely objects’:

‘In Inisfail the fair there lies a land, the land of holy Michan. There rises a watchtower beheld of men afar. There sleep the mighty dead as in life they slept, warriors and princes of high renown. A pleasant land it is in sooth of murmuring waters, fishful streams where sport the gurnard, the plaice, the roach, the halibut, the gibbed haddock, the grilse, the dab, the brill, the flounder, the pollock, the mixed coarse fish generally and other denizens of the aqueous kingdom too numerous to be enumerated. In the mild breezes of the west and of the east the lofty trees wave in different directions their firstclass foliage, the wafty sycamore, the Lebanonian cedar, the exalted planetree, the eugenic eucalyptus and other ornaments of the arboreal world with which that region is thoroughly well supplied. Lovely maidens sit in close proximity to the roots of the lovely trees singing the most lovely songs while they play with all kinds of lovely objects as for example golden ingots, silvery fishes, crans of herrings, drafts of eels, codlings, creels of fingerlings, purple seagems and playful insects. And heroes voyage from afar to woo them, from Eblana to Slievemargy, the peerless princes of unfettered Munster and of Connacht the just and of smooth sleek Leinster and of Cruahan’s land and of Armagh the splendid and of the noble district of Boyle, princes, the sons of kings.’

Or this interpolation depicting a wedding, which goes into detail concerning the bridal party’s items of dress, and incorporates a guest list whose surnames are all drawn from the forest:

‘The fashionable international world attended EN MASSE this afternoon at the wedding of the chevalier Jean Wyse de Neaulan, grand high chief ranger of the Irish National Foresters, with Miss Fir Conifer of Pine Valley. Lady Sylvester Elmshade, Mrs Barbara Lovebirch, Mrs Poll Ash, Mrs Holly Hazeleyes, Miss Daphne Bays, Miss Dorothy Canebrake, Mrs Clyde Twelvetrees, Mrs Rowan Greene, Mrs Helen Vinegadding, Miss Virginia Creeper, Miss Gladys Beech, Miss Olive Garth, Miss Blanche Maple, Mrs Maud Mahogany, Miss Myra Myrtle, Miss Priscilla Elderflower, Miss Bee Honeysuckle, Miss Grace Poplar, Miss O Mimosa San, Miss Rachel Cedarfrond, the Misses Lilian and Viola Lilac, Miss Timidity Aspenall, Mrs Kitty Dewey-Mosse, Miss May Hawthorne, Mrs Gloriana Palme, Mrs Liana Forrest, Mrs Arabella Blackwood and Mrs Norma Holyoake of Oakholme Regis graced the ceremony by their presence. The bride who was given away by her father, the M’Conifer of the Glands, looked exquisitely charming in a creation carried out in green mercerised silk, moulded on an underslip of gloaming grey, sashed with a yoke of broad emerald and finished with a triple flounce of darkerhued fringe, the scheme being relieved by bretelles and hip insertions of acorn bronze. The maids of honour, Miss Larch Conifer and Miss Spruce Conifer, sisters of the bride, wore very becoming costumes in the same tone, a dainty motif of plume rose being worked into the pleats in a pinstripe and repeated capriciously in the jadegreen toques in the form of heron feathers of paletinted coral. Senhor Enrique Flor presided at the organ with his wellknown ability and, in addition to the prescribed numbers of the nuptial mass, played a new and striking arrangement of Woodman, spare that tree at the conclusion of the service. On leaving the church of Saint Fiacre in Horto after the papal blessing the happy pair were subjected to a playful crossfire of hazelnuts, beechmast, bayleaves, catkins of willow, ivytod, hollyberries, mistletoe sprigs and quicken shoots. Mr and Mrs Wyse Conifer Neaulan will spend a quiet honeymoon in the Black Forest.’

The action in ‘Cyclops’ is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub, on Little Britain Street in central Dublin. A nameless narrator, who takes his seat in the pub early in the episode, relays the comings and goings as the conversation turns increasingly political, the anti-semitism of a citizen and a misunderstanding regarding the day’s Gold Cup forcing Leopold Bloom to make a hasty getaway.

Intruding upon the pub narrative at irregular intervals, the interpolations in ‘Cyclops’ vary in style while resolutely refusing to advance the plot of the episode. Rather they take the action in the pub – a snippet of conversation, a gesture or context – as a sort of jumping-off point, at first glance appearing little more than an excuse for a deluge of hyperbolic language. They have often been regarded as parodies, their lofty indifference undercutting the political invective being uttered by the citizen, their fanciful imagery and elevated tone making light of the claims being made at the turn of the twentieth century by the Irish Literary Revivalists.

The interpolation on ‘the wedding of the chevalier Jean Wyse de Neaulan’, for example, is spurred by John Wyse Nolan telling his fellow pub dwellers of a report he has read warning that Ireland will soon find itself as ‘treeless as Portugal’. The pub narrative would make perfect sense without the interpolations, but it would be wrong to think that the relationship between the two strands of text in ‘Cyclops’ extends in only one direction. The pub narrative and the interpolations form a strange tapestry, weaving through and feeding back into one another, the longest list in the episode – an interpolation introduced by ‘the sound of the sacring bell’ and including eighty-one saints in total – prefiguring the final interpolation in which Bloom becomes the prophet Elijah, a passage of self-deprecating significance for Bloom’s characterisation.

In Ulysses in Progress, Michael Groden discusses the exorbitant lists of ‘Cyclops’ as part of Joyce’s late revisions to Ulysses. Identifying Joyce’s ‘goal of encyclopedism’, he adds:

‘This often involved expanding pre-exisiting facts or motifs to extremes of Cyclopean ‘gigantism’. For instance, Joyce often lengthened fairly short lists completely beyond their original proportions, as in the list of saints in the ‘Cyclops’ parody who respond to Martin Cunningham’s request to ‘bless all here’ in Barney Kiernan’s […] In these elaborate lists (which have been seen as part of the Homeric parallel), Joyce worked towards encyclopedism by taking a specific incident and cataloguing its observers or participants. In most cases his techniques of revision caused him to extend the lists to such comical lengths that they eventually assumed a logic of their own.’

For Mark Osteen in The Economy of Ulysses, Joyce’s lists are an example of ‘splendid waste’ and ‘exuberant linguistic energy’, his expenditure ‘also productive labor that subverts the economy of balance and the discourses of authoritarianism’. And for Leopold Ettlinger, in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s lists are illustrations of the heroic language of the Viconian cycle, falling somewhere between wordless cries and articulate narration. Finally, a punning essay by Jaye Berman Montresor calls Leopold Bloom the ‘chewy, jewy center of Joyce’s unconfection-al narrative’, adding that ‘the alimentary lists have particular relevance to him and his problematic Jewish identity’.

Often cited as a precursor to Joyce, the bawdy sixteenth-century French novelist François Rabeleis also made extensive use of lists in his pentalogy Gargantua and Pantagruel. Probably the best known of these is the long list of games played by Gargantua upon finishing his dinner. In the English translation of Thomas Urquhart, this list of games reads in full:

‘There he played.
At flush. At love.
At primero. At the chess.
At the beast. At Reynard the fox.
At the rifle. At the squares.
At trump. At the cows.
At the prick and spare not. At the lottery.
At the hundred. At the chance or mumchance.
At the peeny. At three dice or maniest bleaks.
At the unfortunate woman. At the tables.
At the fib. At nivinivinack.
At the pass ten. At the lurch.
At one-and-thirty. At doublets or queen’s game.
At post and pair, or even and At the faily.
sequence. At the French trictrac.
At three hundred. At the long tables or ferkeering.
At the unlucky man. At feldown.
At the last couple in hell. At tod’s body.
At the hock. At needs must.
At the surly. At the dames or draughts.
At the lansquenet. At bob and mow.
At the cuckoo. At primus secundus.
At puff, or let him speak that At mark-knife.
hath it. At the keys.
At take nothing and throw out. At span-counter.
At the marriage. At even or odd.
At the frolic or jackdaw. At cross or pile.
At the opinion. At ball and huckle-bones.
At who doth the one, doth the At ivory balls.
other. At the billiards.
At the sequences. At bob and hit.
At the ivory bundles. At the owl.
At the tarots. At the charming of the hare.
At losing load him. At pull yet a little.
At he’s gulled and esto. At trudgepig.
At the torture. At the magatapies.
At the handruff. At the horn.
At the click. At the flowered or Shrovetide ox.
At honours. At the madge-owlet.
At pinch without laughing. At tilt at weeky.
At prickle me tickle me. At ninepins.
At the unshoeing of the ass. At the cock quintin.
At the cocksess. At tip and hurl.
At hari hohi. At the flat bowls.
At I set me down. At the veer and turn.
At earl beardy. At rogue and ruffian.
At the old mode. At bumbatch touch.
At draw the spit. At the mysterious trough.
At put out. At the short bowls.
At gossip lend me your sack. At the dapple-grey.
At the ramcod ball. At cock and crank it.
At thrust out the harlot. At break-pot.
At Marseilles figs. At my desire.
At nicknamry. At twirly whirlytrill.
At stick and hole. At the rush bundles.
At boke or him, or flaying the fox. At the short staff.
At the branching it. At the whirling gig.
At trill madam, or grapple my lady. At hide and seek, or are you all
At the cat selling. hid?
At blow the coal. At the picket.
At the re-wedding. At the blank.
At the quick and dead judge. At the pilferers.
At unoven the iron. At the caveson.
At the false clown. At prison bars.
At the flints, or at the nine stones.At have at the nuts.
At to the crutch hulch back. At cherry-pit.
At the Sanct is found. At rub and rice.
At hinch, pinch and laugh not. At whiptop.
At the leek. At the casting top.
At bumdockdousse. At the hobgoblins.
At the loose gig. At the O wonderful.
At the hoop. At the soily smutchy.
At the sow. At fast and loose.
At belly to belly. At scutchbreech.
At the dales or straths. At the broom-besom.
At the twigs. At St. Cosme, I come to adore
At the quoits. thee.
At I’m for that. At the lusty brown boy.
At I take you napping. At greedy glutton.
At fair and softly passeth Lent. At the morris dance.
At the forked oak. At feeby.
At truss. At the whole frisk and gambol.
At the wolf’s tail. At battabum, or riding of the
At bum to buss, or nose in breech. wild mare.
At Geordie, give me my lance. At Hind the ploughman.
At swaggy, waggy or shoggyshou. At the good mawkin.
At stook and rook, shear and At the dead beast.
threave. At climb the ladder, Billy.
At the birch. At the dying hog.
At the muss. At the salt doup.
At the dilly dilly darling. At the pretty pigeon.
At ox moudy. At barley break.
At purpose in purpose. At the bavine.
At nine less. At the bush leap.
At blind-man-buff. At crossing.
At the fallen bridges. At bo-peep.
At bridled nick. At the hardit arsepursy.
At the white at butts. At the harrower’s nest.
At thwack swinge him. At forward hey.
At apple, pear, plum. At the fig.
At mumgi. At gunshot crack.
At the toad. At mustard peel.
At cricket. At the gome.
At the pounding stick. At the relapse.
At jack and the box. At jog breech, or prick him for-
At the queens. ward.
At the trades. At knockpate.
At heads and points. At the Cornish c(h)ough.
At the vine-tree hug. At the crane-dance.
At black be thy fall. At slash and cut.
At ho the distaff. At bobbing, or flirt on the
At Joan Thomson. nose.
At the bolting cloth. At the larks.
At the oat’s seed. At fillipping.’

In Rabelais and His WorldMikhail Bakhtin notes that the standard French edition of the Gargantua text listed 217 names of games, which were routinely added to by German, English, and Dutch translators:

‘This famous enumeration had a considerable resonance. Rabelais’ first German translator, Fischart, completed the long list with 872 German card games and dance tunes. The English seventeenth-century translator, Thomas Urquhart, also increased the lists of recreations by adding English games. The Dutch version of Gargantua (1682) added some national material, namely 63 purely Dutch games. This proves that Rabelais’ list stimulated the interest of other countries in their own amusements. The Dutch version initiated research in the field of children’s games, resulting in the greatest work ever undertaken in world folk studies: “Children’s Games and Amusements in the Netherlands.”‘

Elsewhere Bakhtin discusses the ‘famous enumeration of defensive engineering works and armaments’ found in the prologue to Rabelais’ Third Book. He states:

‘This is the largest listing of its kind in world literature. For instance, there are thirteen terms for swords and eight for lances. This enumeration of war engines and weapons has an oral character. It is a loud street ordinance. We have many of these ordinances in the literature of the late Middle Ages, especially in the mysteries. They contain, in particular, long listings of weapons. Thus, in the parade of the “Old Testament Mystery Play” (fifteenth century), Nebuchadnezzar’s officers name forty different types of arms. In another fifteenth-century mystery, “The Martydom of St. Quentin,” the Roman commander, too, names forty different weapons.

These declamations had a popular form. They represented a display of armed forces that had to impress the people. Heralds made similar announcements about types of weapons, regiments, and banners at the time of call to arms and mobilization for campaigns. These calls and enumerations were loud and solemn in tone.’

Between mentions of the numerous other lists which litter Gargantua and Pantagruel – an ‘anatomic list of wounded members and organs, broken bones, and joints’ which ‘is typical of Rabelais’ anatomization and dismemberment of the human body’, a list pertaining to a ‘carnivalesque war of sausages’, a list of lovers that ‘exceeds all probability’, and lists of plants, swabs, and unusual demises – Bakhtin concludes ‘there are, of course, essential differences in these terms and they serve an artistic purpose […] here we shall merely point out their specific traits: their monumental character and their parade and marketplace form.’

Towards the goal of encyclopedism, an outpouring of linguistic exuberance or austerity-busting splendid waste, reflecting issues of self-identity, heraldic, foreboding, or echoing the utterances of the marketplace, more than a means of stalling for time, there are an abundance of uses for lists, and all carry with them an aesthetic dimension. Well written lists conjure unique cadences, and whether used as verbal springboards, repositories of meaning, or resting places, allowing authors to dwell within the worlds they have created, we as readers should stay alert and allow ourselves to reap the rewards of due patience.