Influences: Dover Beach

This examination of the relationship between the timeless poem Dover Beach and A Song of Ice and Fire will show just how much influence it has had on Martin’s works.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
— Matthew Arnold, New Poems, 1867

This poem is directly referenced in a early novella from George R.R. Martin, A Song for Lya. While I have an essay about the influences of that novella forthcoming, I feel compelled to share the following observations about the profound influence this poem has likely exerted on all of Martin’s work.

I want to emphasize that this essay is not about theory or deep insights into particular characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Rather this essay attempts to show the ways that Dover Beach has influenced Martin’s writing, and also show that an appreciation for the poem can deepen one’s appreciation for Martin’s works.

Unlike my other essays about the influences on A Song of Ice and Fire, I’d like to begin this one by discussing the major themes and work my way backwards towards the superficial similarities.


Major Themes

First Stanza: The sad, cyclical song; back-dropped by the haunting illusion of serenity.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

There are a few things of interest in this first stanza. First and foremost, there are some stylistic choices that have been rather heavily-borrowed from Dover Beach and incorporated in A Song of Ice and Fire.

In particular, gleam, glimmer, and all etymologically related words have been recontextualized with a connotation associated with Melisandre’s magic.

Also notice the striking prose used to characterize the notion of the moon and the ‘moon-blanched land’. Martin frequently makes use of how the moon dramatically alters the landscape, often using terminology that comes quite close to the tone here. Something that generally emerges both in Dover Beach and in A Song of Ice and Fire is a general personification of the moon as a watcher of sorts: an observer that mutely sees all.

The ‘window’ refers to an indoor setting and suggests the speaker is asking for his or her partner to accompany them at the window. Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire and many of GRRM’s other works, windows (particularly in places with tower-like views) have been used as a strong motif: suggesting not that the person is seeing something grand out in the world, but rather that somehow the window allows them to see inward. There are quite literally too many examples to cite for this. Arriane’s imprisonment in the tower allows her tremendous time for introspection. So to with Bran in Winterfell (and again at Queenscrown) and Sansa at the Eryie. In many ways, a close observation of how they are perceiving the world provides not an account of their mundane observations, but rather insights into their character and its evolution. Sansa in A Feast for Crows provides a great example:

Alayne’s apartments in the Maiden’s Tower were larger and more lavish than the little bedchamber where she’d been kept when Lady Lysa was alive. She had a dressing room and a privy of her own now, and a balcony of carved white stone that looked off across the Vale. While Gretchel was tending to the fire, Alayne padded barefoot across the room and slipped outside. The stone was cold beneath her feet, and the wind was blowing fiercely, as it always did up here, but the view made her forget all that for half a heartbeat. Maiden’s was the easternmost of the Eyrie’s seven slender towers, so she had the Vale before her, its forests and rivers and fields all hazy in the morning light. The way the sun was hitting the mountains made them look like solid gold.

So lovely. The snow-clad summit of the Giant’s Lance loomed above her, an immensity of stone and ice that dwarfed the castle perched upon its shoulder. Icicles twenty feet long draped the lip of the precipice where Alyssa’s Tears fell in summer. A falcon soared above the frozen waterfall, blue wings spread wide against the morning sky. Would that I had wings as well.

She rested her hands on the carved stone balustrade and made herself peer over the edge. She could see Sky six hundred feet below, and the stone steps carved into the mountain, the winding way that led past Snow and Stone all the way down to the valley floor. She could see the towers and keeps of the Gates of the Moon, as small as a child’s toys. Around the walls the hosts of Lords Declarant were stirring, emerging from their tents like ants from an anthill. If only they were truly ants, she thought, we could step on them and crush them.
— ALAYNE I, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Notice that we see Sansa seems to feel liberation, as if she wants to fly. Further at the end we see that she wishes she (and Littlefinger) could step on the ‘ants’ below. Despite being an excerpt apparently about her observations, its a window into her deepest inner thoughts. In this case, we can see how Littlefinger’s influence on Sansa has been both liberating and corrupting for Sansa: who now seems to find small joy in thoughts of ‘crushing’ enemies.

In a way, the idea that a tower window could be a window into a person’s soul bares a similarity to that oft-quoted Nietzsche passage about the Abyss: when you can see the whole world, the whole world can see you.

Returning to Dover Beach, the last few lines deal with an eternal note of sadness, and the endless sound of the waves lapping at the shore and the pebbles moving around. The suggestion here is that there is a saddening, cyclical pattern to the ‘movement of the waves’ and the pebbles on the shore.

One very strong implication of the poem is that people and events are like pebbles, ever tumbled up and down the beach by waves of immense unfathomable power. This seems to further suggest a sense of fate and destiny beyond our control that crashes people around. On an individual level, the waves are destructive and constantly erode at human foundations. When viewed ‘from the window’ however, what emerges is a pattern: not one that suggests pain and suffering, but that there is a certain rhythm to events and that what once was at its nadir may one day return to its summit.

The idea that A Song of Ice and Fire also embraces this cyclical nature is best evidenced by a passage from Rodrik Harlaw:

“Archmaester Rigney once wrote that history is a wheel, for the nature of man is fundamentally unchanging. What has happened before will perforce happen again, he said.”
— THE KRAKEN’S DAUGHTER, A FEAST FOR CROWS

Note: Sure it’s also a reference to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

The idea of an ‘eternal note of sadness’ is pervasive in the books: we see that almost no characters enjoy long periods of joy or elation.

But looked from an almost literal perspective, the ‘note of sadness’ is also characterized by the children of the forest, Rhaegar and his music, and a lot of the minstrel songs throughout A Song of Ice and Fire.

“Old Nan says the children knew the songs of the trees, that they could fly like birds and swim like fish and talk to the animals,” Bran said. “She says that they made music so beautiful that it made you cry like a little baby just to hear it.”
— BRAN VII, A GAME OF THRONES

The children of the forest, Old Nan would have called the singers, but those who sing the song of earth was their own name for themselves, in the True Tongue that no human man could speak.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

And they did sing. They sang in True Tongue, so Bran could not understand the words, but their voices were as pure as winter air. “Where are the rest of you?” Bran asked Leaf, once.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

“Yes. And yet Summerhall was the place the prince loved best. He would go there from time to time, with only his harp for company. Even the knights of the Kingsguard did not attend him there. He liked to sleep in the ruined hall, beneath the moon and stars, and whenever he came back he would bring a song. When you heard him play his high harp with the silver strings and sing of twilights and tears and the death of kings, you could not but feel that he was singing of himself and those he loved.”
— DAENERYS IV, A STORM OF SWORDS

And the songs he chose . . . He sang of the Dance of the Dragons, of fair Jonquil and her fool, of Jenny of Oldstones and the Prince of Dragonflies. He sang of betrayals, and murders most foul, of hanged men and bloody vengeance. He sang of grief and sadness.
— SANSA, A FEAST FOR CROWS

We can see that those who sing, particularly those who are associated with prophecy, magic, mystery and suffering are shown to have a tremendous capacity for singing music that touches others with and seems to show that tales from the past have relevance in the present.

*   *   *

Second Stanza: The ‘Hereditary Doom’ of Greatness

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The mention of Sophocles and the ‘ebb and flow’ is a reference to the tide from his famous tragedy Antigone. In the play, the chorus at one point sings the following:

Blest, they are the truly blest who all their lives
have never tasted devastation. For others, once
the gods have rocked a house to its foundations
the ruin will never cease, cresting on and on
from one generation on throughout the race—
like a great mounting tide
driven on by savage northern gales,
surging over the dead black depths
roiling up from the bottom dark heaves of sand
and the headlands, taking the storm’s onslaught full-force,
roar, and the low moaning
echoes on and on
and now
as in ancient times I see the sorrows of the house,
the living heirs of the old ancestral kings,
piling on the sorrows of the dead
and one generation cannot free the next—
some god will bring them crashing down,
the race finds no release.
And now the light, the hope
springing up from the late last root
in the house of Oedipus, that hope’s cut down in turn
by the long, bloody knife swung by the gods of death
by a senseless word
by fury at the heart.

Zeus,
yours is the power, Zeus, what man on earth
can override it, who can hold it back?
Power that neither Sleep, the all-ensnaring 680
no, nor the tireless months of heaven
can ever overmaster—young through all time,
mighty lord of power, you hold fast
the dazzling crystal mansions of Olympus.
And throughout the future, late and soon 685
as through the past, your law prevails:
no towering form of greatness
enters into the lives of mortals
free and clear of ruin.
Antigone, Fagles trans.

There is a huge parallel here to A Song of Ice and Fire, in that the greatness we attribute to men are often fraught with ruin and misery.

Interestingly, the poem does not attempt to argue the true cause of these familial curses. Instead it posits two contrasting positions:

  • Such hereditary doom is perpetuated by the vices and failures our forbears, the ‘sins of the father’ being passed on to future generations.
  • Or instead, that those events that ruin individuals are the actions of gods.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, we too are often left wondering which of these was the cause of a man or woman’s ruination:

  • Tytos Lannister clearly affected Tywin and in part compelled the domineering parenting which proved to be his downfall. Subsequently we see the precipice on which House Lannister now stands.
  • Balon Greyjoy’s rebellions led to the death of his children and the corruption of his House.
  • Hoster Tully’s political machinations ultimately result in his daughter’s madness and his son’s foundering leadership.
  • Doran’s quest for vengeance leads directly to his son’s death and the long-time estrangement of his daughter.
  • Arnolf Karstark’s desire for the seat of Karhold ultimately sentences all of his children to death.
  • The Stark family concept of honor ultimately dooms both Robb and Eddard.

Time and again, we see how the complexes of families seem to be visited upon the children.

But the alternate suggestion that such ruin is the will of the gods seems ever-present as well. The passage from Antigone suggests that curse from the gods has been placed on Creon and his family, due to their ancestor Oedipus’s patricide. The most notable example of this is Cersei’s prophecy of the valonqar that will supposedly kill her children. Another is the observation that Melisandre predicted the deaths of three kings, suggesting a certain amount of predetermination and/or lack of free will. This in turn leads to questions about who puts such inevitable events into motion but the gods?

*   *   *

Third Stanza: The Twilight of Faith

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

This stanza communicates a tremendous sense of loss as the realm of ‘faith’ recedes from the world. The world was once full of belief and enticing possibilities. Now as those dwindle and fade, we are left with naked, ugly truths that negate faith and belief and beauty.

This is immensely consistent with the observation that Martin is obsessively concerned with the relationship between human happiness and faith. We see that Lya in A Song for Lya finds comfort against bleak reality in joining a hive-mind that promises all-encompassing love and protection. We see that the Jaenshi and the Steel Angels from And Seven Times Never Kill Man! are satiated and comforted by faith; it is the non-religious traders, the ‘godless’ Jaenshi and the doubting Angels who are left feeling the bleakness of the world. In With Morning Comes Mistfall we see Martin argue that without mystery or faith, we are left only with bleak worlds where everything is drab commodity. And again in The Way of Cross and Dragon we see that there are Liars who invent religions to provide a happiness that hard truth makes impossible.

These concepts are prevalent throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, most notably in the conflicting ideologies of the maesters of the Citadel and folk knowledge found throughout Westeros and beyond.

We see it in the widespread adoption of R’hllor and the Seven, particularly in places where faith is most needed: the war-savaged Riverlands and the slave city of Volantis.

We also see it in the observation that the most skeptical of characters are often the most fraught with troubled thoughts and feelings of despair. Notice that often the more devout of characters are the ones who believe in compassion, redemption, the value of least of us.

Sansa (prior to her exposure to Littlefinger), Septon Meribald, The Elder Brother on the Quiet Isle, Thoros of Myr, Lancel Lannister (after the Blackwater) are examples. These characters experience doubt, trial, failure and suffering not unlike the rest of the people who inhabit A Song of Ice and Fire: what sets them apart is that despite these challenges, they remain steadfast in their faith that they have a purpose to which they find self-worth in executing.

Compare this to Tyrion throughout A Dance with Dragons: he endless musing about where whores go practically declares his faithless meandering from the rooftops. On could argue that his wandering throughout the book was reflective of his lost inner state and that it was a necessary journey in order to rediscover his own sense of purpose –of faith– before he could be of use in the larger narrative.

And yet we have zealots like the High Sparrow and Melisandre, who manifest the melancholy growth dogmatism of faith, where the belief and mystery which once compelled human compassion has been replaced with slavish devotion to ritual, persecution of humanity, and revolutionary xenophobia.

In short, both Dover Beach and A Song of Ice and Fire concern themselves with the growing absence of faith and appreciation for beauty in the world.

*   *   *

Fourth Stanza: To Live Live, Resist Death, Defy Entropy

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Whereas the first three stanzas are bleak and dreary, this seems to suddenly reverse course and suggest that a person should be ‘faithful’ to those they love.

It contrasts with the previous ruminations about the world of dwindling faith, and strongly suggests that even if the world is truly a bleak, faithless place; then perhaps in loving people can create and nurture faith in such love. In turn it indicates that such love should be sought out, for it is surely the only shield against the hard ugliness of the world.

The list of applications of these thoughts to A Song of Ice and Fire is inexhaustible; Jon and Ygritte, Daenerys and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei, Rhaegar and Lyanna, Tywin and Joanna, Tyrion and Tysha, Duncan Targaryen and Jenny of Oldstones, Robb and Jeyne, Renly and Loras. These are all pairings wherein characters find a love that allowed them to be happy beyond their otherwise perilous circumstances.

And lastly, Dover Beach ends on a powerful note. It declares that the reason people need love is because they are perpetually surrounded by a darkening world in which forces align themselves in conflicts rooted in misunderstanding, fear and blindness.

Again this strongly relates to A Song of Ice and Fire. We see that love is what allows the characters to endure; whether that is familial, platonic or romantic, the faith characters place in love is what nourishes the soul when the rest of the world seems poised to collapse or destroy them.

Not only that but it’s almost literal in how it describes the armies of Westeros clashing in personal feuds, ignorant to the truth threats approaching under the cover of darkness.

These ideals about pursuing love in a bleak landscape is most readily manifested in the following passage from The Way of Cross and Dragon:

“We Liars, like all other religions, have several truths we take on faith. Faith is always required. There are some things that cannot be proved. We believe that life is worth living. That is an article of faith. The purpose of life is to live, to resist death, perhaps to defy entropy.”

“Go on,” I said, growing even more interested despite myself.

“We also believe that happiness is a good, something to be sought after.”
The Way of Cross and Dragon

What emerges is a general theme that his characters pursue their personalized ideas love and beauty in an effort to ‘defy entropy’: those forces of darkness such as family, allegiances, cultural taboos, and strife that perpetually seek to rend asunder the tremulous bonds people so painstakingly build.

*   *   *

Inasmuch as A Song of Ice and Fire is a detailed military and political fiction it is also an exploration of the human psyche and how people manage to find love, faith and even compassion in a world with so much evidence that those concepts are purely fabrications of the mortal mind.

I find shared aspects between Dover Beach and A Song of Ice and Fire to be tremendously similar, so much so that I believe that observations here strongly demonstrate that.


Surface Similarities

Of course, sometimes establishing a relationship between two fictions on the basis of theme is not enough.

Here are a few of the more conspicuous ‘superficial’ similarities:

Storm’s End
This castle is almost a literal reincarnation of Dover Castle. Both are among the oldest castles in their respective realms. Both have underground secret tunnels. Both have been vitally important; no king has ever taken Westeros without first having Storm’s End.

*   *   *

The Cliffs of Storm’s End
The castle was built atop the high white cliffs at Storm’s End, a strong allusion to the White Cliffs of Dover.

*   *   *

Durran the Storm King and Elenei
According to myth Durran won the love of Elenei, against the wills of the gods. The gods then killed his family and guests on their wedding night, and destroyed six of his castles before the seventh finally withstood even the gods. Although this is clearly an apocryphal tale, it strongly relates to the established ideas of committing to one another despite the events of fate.

*   *   *

On a Darkling Plain = House Darklyn
House Darklyn seems like an obvious reference to the word ‘darkling’. Although the word itself isn’t that uncommon in English, the other striking similarities with Dover Beach suggest that Darklyn might be an allusion to the poem.


 In Closing

I think the following passage from With Morning Comes Mistfall best encapsulates the applicability of Dover Beach to Martin’s writings:

“Knowledge is what man is all about. People like you have tried to hold back progress since the beginning of time. But they failed, and you failed. Man needs to know.”

“Maybe,” Sanders said. “But is that the only thing man needs? I don’t think so. I think he also needs mystery, and poetry, and romance. I think he needs a few unanswered questions, to make him brood and wonder.”

Dubowski stood up abruptly, and frowned. “This conversation is as pointless as your philosophy, Sanders. There’s no room in my universe for unanswered questions.”

“Then you live in a very drab universe, Doctor.”

“And you, Sanders, live in the stink of your own ignorance.”
WITH MORNING COMES MISTFALL

When you combine this key extract from Mistfall with my previous excerpt from The Way of Cross and Dragon and A Song for Lya (the basis for this entire essay), you see that Martin is a writer preoccupied with the conflict of truth and knowledge against mystery and belief, a clash between stale science and poetic humanism.

In essence, A Song of Ice and Fire could be seen as a complex tale, told from the vantages of many of those pebbles that endlessly tumble up and down the shores of Dover Beach.

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