Who do you write for? Martin's lesson

Halt. Stop. Hold on a minute, that's what George RR Martin seems to be saying. There's been a small tempest of dismay over the recent announcement, by Martin's publishers, that the latest installment of his Ice and Fire saga won't appear in 2015.

Items in Forbes from Erik Kain and Paul Tassi have framed the situation and some shocking alternative scenarios. You can read them for yourself by going here.

Fans and TV viewers are upset because, with the publisher's announcement, it looks like the popular HBO "Game of Thrones" series will certainly soon outstrip Martin's unfinished multi-book story. What do you do with a popular, massively-profitable series that depends on a work in progress?

I've been thinking a lot about the time it takes to produce just a single book (see my previous post), and that makes me very sympathetic to Martin -- even though I worry like other fans that George isn't getting any younger and all those books are very big ones.

But the notion offered by some of the pundits, that HBO should just go forward with the story without waiting for Martin, is like going to hear a Journey concert without Steve Perry. Yeah, the songs sound pretty good, and the guy they found to replace him has a great voice, but it's still not the same guy.

Those complaining about the delays have an exaggerated sense of their relevance to Martin's work. Here's what I say to them: It's great that you love the stories and are eager to see more, but, I hate to break it to you, your voices don't matter.

I know that sounds very elitist, but I also know that many of you, my dear friends, understand what I'm getting at. Writing is a privileged form of creation, and when you turn your back on the world -- or someone like Martin turns a cold shoulder to the might of HBO and millions of fans -- it's to hear one's own voice, which was the point in the first place.

For my fellow working writers, I hope Martin's heroic example inspires.

George R.R. Martin: A great summer placeholder

park gates Many of my Wordpress friends are on hiatus until September -- they were nice enough to post something that tells everyone why their blogs are quiet.

I'm not nearly so courteous ... I've been on an accidental hiatus created by what affects everyone else: family, vacation, start of school ...

But something George R.R. Martin recently said, in an interview in The Independent, was too provocative to ignore. It forced me to carve out some time to share it with you, friends. It also made me choose the picture above, which shows us a slightly open gate in a lush green park.

Recently, Call of the Siren started a small dialogue on the issue of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. The occasion was prompted by a former colleague, Jim Rossi, who has decided to take the self-publishing route for a forthcoming book even though he received an offer from a legitimate publisher. If you missed it, Jim explains why in "Why self-publish? Your book's a startup company, that's why" here at the Call.

Coming soon, the Call will provide a brief index of recent articles about the pros and cons of self-publishing that have been percolating during the summer months.

Until then, here's what Maester Martin had to say about the cons of self-publishing in his interview:

The world is changing, I will admit. I am old enough and now very well established so the changes don't affect me so much. But with the rise of the internet and self-publishing, we are seeing people who are trying to reach the readers directly and bypass traditional publishing and bypass the editors. It is really too early to tell where that will lead but I am not necessarily sure it will lead to a good place. I do think the function of editors as gatekeepers is a valuable and worthy function – they do save us from reading a lot of crap!

I'm of two minds on this. I get his point; my other reaction is, "Easy for you to say, George!"


J.R.R. TOLKIEN  is certainly not the only person to ever translate  the word "middangeard" in Beowulf as "Middle-earth"  -- but his word choice, obviously, is more conspicuous (and interesting) to us than it is in other editions. beowulf coverThe recent publication of his version of the epic poem is hardly a mere tiber to his fans — that's "gift" in the Anglo Saxon — and it's far from being a curiosity piece, too.

In fact, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary: Together with Sellic Spell edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 425 pp., $28) is an exciting, complete work that stands fully on its own two legs. The publication of this book is truly an event.

And a revelation.

Thanks to the inclusion of Tolkien's fascinating notes on the etymology of key words and phrases, the book throws open a window on his lifelong relationship with the poem and what he thought of its tangled textual complexities.

That relationship, by the way, is not always reserved and restrained.

"[W]as the poet a dolt?" Tolkien asks himself at one point. "There are then only two possible alternatives. (i) The poet made a bad blunder …. (ii) The text has suffered alteration since it left his hands."

Tolkien worked on his "Beowulf" in the mid-1920s before embarking on a world-building saga of his own. For more background I'd point you to either Joan Acocella in The New Yorker or Michael Alexander in The Guardian who recently wrote about the circumstances surrounding the poem's translation.


CALL OF THE SIREN is interested in one of these circumstances: That this translation was supposed to remain Tolkien's private work.

To some critics, Tolkien's decision not to publish this translation is a sign of either his embarrassment or uncertainty.

Maybe, they suggest, the poem was just a side diversion from his mature scholarly efforts -- an indulgence, even a bad habit (the highest literary equivalent of junk food).

But that couldn't be farther from the truth. What Tolkien's Beowulf translation illustrates isn't a literary hobby of some kind —it's directly, vitally in line with his own massive creative enterprise.

And that alignment  goes far beyond the translation of a single word, middangeard. There are many other resonances between the poem and Tolkien's own work that this intriguing, valuable new book sheds light on.

As the poem opens, Beowulf and his men -- "Geatish knights," Tolkien calls them -- learn of the troubles of the Danish lord Hrothgar with a monster, Grendel, who sneaks into his mighty hall, Heoret, and kills his men while they sleep. This villainy enrages Beowulf, who sets sail with his men to petition Hrothgar for the right to defend him against the monster.


beowulf sailing


Resonance #1: Heoret, the grandiose hall, sits at the very center of the Danes' daily life -- like  Meduseld, the golden hall of Theodan, king of Rohan in LOTR. In both cases, in fact — Beowulf and Tolkien's epic — warriors must leave their weapons outside before entering and approaching the king. A minor similarity, but an interesting one.

Resonance #2: A small band of warriors is dispatched on a difficult mission—to kill Grendel, to accompany Frodo and dispose of the One Ring. In Michael Alexander's Beowulf translation, that small band of Geatish warriors is called a "fellowship" --Tolkien calls them "a proud company … dauntless company." Ah well.

I guess calling them a "fellowship" would have been just too good to be true.


ELSEWHERE, THERE ARE PLENTY of intriguing connections to excite Tolkien's admirers.

There's a dragon with a golden hoard who guards it against thieves;  there's Grendel, who seems like some kind of frightful super-orc. In fact, the word  "orc" is contained within several Anglo-Saxon words referring to monstrous creatures that Tolkien ponders in his etymological notes. These include geweorc (giants) and aergeweorc (trolls) and orcneas (which Tolkien renders as hellish, haunting shapes).

And along with shared words and scenarios, there's something else that Tolkien's epic shares with his Beowulf translation: the exalted rhetoric of another age.

Consider this, from The Silmarillion, on creation's earliest days:

 ...the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colors were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet.

And now this,  from Tolkien's Beowulf, in which the monster Grendel is introduced:

Even thus did the men of that company live in mirth and happiness, until one began to work deeds of wrong, a fiend of hell. Grendel was that grim creature called, the ill-famed haunter of the marches of the land, who kept the moors, the fastness of the fens, and , unhappy one, inhabited long while the troll-kind's home; for the Maker had proscribed him with the race of Cain.

That archaic tone and very lofty (and frequently awkward) syntax tighten the similarities between them. One story doesn't derive from the other: instead, they seem to have grown on the same tree. Beowulf's Geatland and Tolkien's Middle-earth might co-exist in the same universe, at the same time.

Heck, Frodo and Sam could have easily run into Beowulf and his knights on the road to Mordor.



beowulf opening


TOLKIEN LIVED AND DIED during the 20th century, but his imagination and poetic vision belonged to a much more distant age (long before the invention of electricity or antibiotics!). When I close my eyes, I can imagine him as comfortably at home in a chieftain's great hall as living in Bournemouth after his retirement.

In fact, it's easy to imagine him as royal entertainer to that chieftain and his warriors -- and Sellic Spell ("strange tale") gives us a good idea what kind of story he would have told. That story is a folk-tale about Beowulf that Tolkien imagined as a frame of reference for the epic. He gives us a back story for the hero, including his childhood and the origins of his name. Not the kind of thing that the poem spends any time on.

Along with this, the edition includes a marvelous Tolkien poem, The Lay of Beowulf, that he recited to his son when Christopher was a child:

The demon's head in the hall did hang and grinned from the wall while minstrels sang, till flames leapt forth and red swords rang, and hushed were the harps of Heorot.

It's clear from the poem and other commentary in the book that the idea of Grendel haunted him. Maybe it even planted  the seed deep in his mind for Gollum. After all, both creatures do seem like kin -- very close kin, in fact: similarly debased and corrupt, half-human and half-monstrous.




Which is why the publication of this translation is such an important event. Owning a copy of this book won't simply add to your Tolkien library: It will complete it. To put it another way, this book is absolutely .... precious. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

And, if you've stayed with me for this longer-than-usual post, my friends, I appreciate it. I truly do. Reading this version gave me a scholarly itch, and I decided to use this post to give it a good scratching.



If winter came to George R.R. Martin, what next?

George R.R. Martin in 2010. Credit: Julle So, what kind of obligation does a writer have to his fans?

I couldn’t help thinking of George R.R. Martin after watching a trailer of Baz Luhrmann’s production of “The Great Gatsby.”

That might seem like an unexpected leap, but it’s not a big one. Thinking about “Gatsby” made me think about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, the unfinished “The Last Tycoon,” and then, “The Last Tycoon” made me think about Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” saga.

When he died in 1940, Fitzgerald left behind notes and outlines for “Tycoon.” He didn’t complete the manuscript, but he left a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do and how he planned to get there. Edmund Wilson put together Fitzgerald’s outlines and notes in an edition, and you’ll find richer insights on how to write a novel there than you will in any book or class titled “How to Write a Novel.”

That brings me to Martin. There are two more books to go in his saga, and he’s working on the sixth, “The Winds of Winter.” Plenty of his fans worry that we’re heading for a Robert Jordan situation — Jordan died before he could finish his epic “Wheels of Time,” and Brandon Sanderson finished it for him.

If something like that were to happen to St. George — God forbid! -- would any outlines or notes exist like Fitzgerald’s? (For anyone who can’t believe that I’d speak of the sublime Fitzgerald and Martin in the same breath, oh, get over yourself.)

I keep thinking that Martin should do the same thing, if he hasn’t already. Even if he changes his mind on some of the details of what’s supposed to happen to Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys  Targaryen, the poor, afflicted Starks et al., he knows where his story is supposed to end. He’s always said so to interviewers.

So, here's what I'd suggest to George:

One afternoon, why don’t you sit down at your desk with a plate of honey-dipped walnuts baked in a cookfire, pour yourself a flagon of brown bitter ale, and sketch out the basic plot points of  books 6 and 7 like Fitzgerald? Then, next time you’re running errands around downtown Santa Fe, stop by the bank and leave them in your safety deposit box in case of emergency.

Then, another writer — like Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham, or even David Benioff (producer of the HBO series and a novelist himself) -- could give us the conclusion that Martin wanted, not one imagined by somebody else, even if the words aren't entirely his.

That gets me back to my question at the top. Does Martin owe his fans anything?  Probably not. Even with everyone breathing down his neck — including HBO — he should be writing the story for himself.

On the other hand, writing is one of those situations in which a special relationship develops between a writer and reader. There’s a special bond there, a contract. Any of you who have traveled to Westeros and have aligned yourself with Starks, Lannisters, the Night’s Watch, etc. know what it means to be fiercely loyal. When it comes to his fans, George probably does too.

My friends, I welcome your thoughts!