Language, words, power, and Game of Thrones

I’ve been thinking a lot ever since I first cracked the books in the series A Song of Ice and Fire and watched the HBO show Game of Thrones about the language in the world GRRM has created.  Aside from the fact that most all of the actors speak British English (bravo, Peter Dinklage), there are a lot of interesting accents (bravo, Pedro Pascal), dialects, languages, and such to contend with on screen.

Off screen, in the written word, there’s a lot going on as well.  There’s a great essay here taking apart what’s happening, what GRRM has done and hasn’t done, and things like the necessity of having professional linguists create Dothraki and Valyrian, etc.  Click through, it is absolutely worth a read.

I’ll tell you what stood out to me immediately when first reading book one and watching the series.  Changing one little letter from “Sir” to “Ser”, and the major change from “rapist” to “raper” or “rapists” to “rapers” were stunning to me.

Both of these changes have significant meaning when you take them apart.  The change from Sir to Ser when one is addressing a knight is pretty important when one considers not only the history of knights in England/Scotland, but of the vows that the knights are supposed to take in Westeros.

GRRM has admitted that he borrows heavily from the history of England and Scotland in shaping the land that is Westeros and I suspect that, with the benefit of the hindsight of history and what we know about many famous knights and nobles, GRRM’s true feelings about being a knight are often what we hear from The Hound.  The Hound goes out of his way, whenever he’s called “Ser” to remind whoever is near that he’s absolutely not, under any circumstances, a knight.

Spare me your empty little compliments, girl . . . and your ser’s. I am no knight. I spit on them and their vows. My brother is a knight.  – Sandor, to Sansa Stark
I like dogs better than knights.  – Sandor, to Sansa Stark
What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing. I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich men dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too- they’re all meat, and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers.  – Sandor, to Sansa Stark
There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.  – Sandor, to Sansa Stark

I would hazard that the third quote, above, probably comes closest to GRRM’s true feelings about the concept of knighthood.  Both the books and the TV series consistently highlight the role of the social misfit, the outsider, and the downtrodden.  The idea of the Medieval hero who is inviolate, infallible, and heroic no matter what goes against the grain of the world GRRM has created and, I suspect, GRRM himself.

Interestingly, after reading Ser several thousand times over in the 5 books, you begin to look at titles of knights, historical and othewise, differently.  At least, I do.

Next, we move on to the rapers.

The first time I saw the word “raper” written out it pulled me right out of the story.  Usually, that bothers me.  This time, it didn’t.  I stopped and I thought about it.  The quote below wasn’t the first mention of the word in the book, but it’s a quote where it’s used to explain outcasts and how they’re often lumped in with the actual criminals.

The Night’s Watch is a midden heap for all the misfits of the realm.  I’ve seen you looking at Yoren and his boys.  Those are your new brothers, Jon Snow, how do you like them?  Sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves, and bastards like you all wind up on the wall, watching for grumkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about.  – Tyrion, to Jon Snow

It’s also noted in A Game of Thrones that when Yoren and his group first meet up with Tyrion, Jon, and Benjen on their way to The Wall that Yoren has some rapers in tow.  Rapers usually choose the gelding knife, apparently, but this lot had chosen life on The Wall.

I do believe that there’s a very specific reason that GRRM changed rapist to raper.  Raper is an active term.  It’s not someone who has committed rape in the past, it’s someone who has done it before and who will do it again.  That’s huge, especially for anyone reading this who’s been sexually assaulted.  A raper is someone who is an active threat and who, for the most part in the world of Westeros, has been dealt with.  A rapist is someone who did something in the past and probably got away with it.

Our Western non-Westeros world has a horrible track record of dealing with rapists, the aftermath of the crime, treatment for the survivors, and making sure the perpetrators go to and stay in jail.  While it’s easy to say that in Westeros they all end up at The Wall or gelded, something brought vividly to life in this snippet from A Dance With Dragons:

Twenty men accompany Red Ronnet Connington to White Harbor via Maidenpool, most of them the Mountain’s former men. Lord Tarly mentions how Gregor’s men arrived in Maidenpool while he was in charge of the town. They were not there a day when one was accused of murder and another of rape, Randyll executed the murderer and gelded the raper.

That isn’t always true.  Westeros isn’t perfect.  Rape still happens (see: Jamie & Cersei) and people aren’t always punished.  But, contrary to some of the criticism that was lobbed at GRRM when ASoIAF first really went mainstream, I think that not only is GRRM a feminist ally, he’s actively interested in pointing out that rape is a terrible crime and he’s doing that partly by making it an active word.  The person who’s commited the rape isn’t passive.  They didn’t do it in the past and just walk away from it.  They are they rape, they are the tool, they are destructive, and they are dangerous and have two options, gelding or removal from society.

I am sure there will be those who will disagree with me and that’s fine.  But, I’ll tell you this. if there was ever an interview question I could ask GRRM, it would be this, “What was you reasoning behind changing the spellings of the words ‘Ser’ and ‘raper’?

~Kelly

All quotes and book snippets from http://awoiaf.westeros.org/ except for the Tyrion quote which Geoff and I copied out ourselves.

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