Dreamsongs Book One by George R.R. Martin

“The American Tolkien” trumpets Time magazine on the cover of Dreamsongs Book One. It’s just too tempting to compare George RR with John RR, the two masters of fantasy. The only problem is that the comparison isn’t really true.

Throughout his career, Tolkien worked as an Oxford don, giving truly terrible lectures while scribbling his stories in private at home. He rewrote the same stories obsessively for his own interest, leaving reams of text for his son Christopher to piece together in the posthumous Silmarillion and other works.

Dreamsongs 1

George RR, by contrast, was a pro from the very beginning. Almost as soon as he left college, he took a job writing up match reports of baseball games that he had never seen just to give him time for his own fiction in the afternoons. Whereas Tolkien was a gentleman amateur, Martin needed to make his writing sell from the start.

Tolkien worked in one genre, high fantasy, pursuing his obsession with Anglo-Saxon myth and a lost history that he believed he could rediscover. Martin writes in a huge number of genres from fantasy to horror to science fiction.

Dreamsongs is a collection of George R.R. Martin’s short stories, many of which were written for the magazine market in the 1970s. The surprising thing, to those of us who discovered him through Game of Thrones,  is that in his early career Martin was basically a science-fiction author rather than a fantasy one. This is represented in the four parts of the shield on the covers of this two-volume collection, which fit together in quite a cool way.

Dreamsongs 1 & 2

Whereas Tolkien’s prose is instantly recognisable (and just as easily lampooned), Martin worked in so many genres that it’s difficult to say whether he has an identifiable style. The stories in Dreamsongs vary so much that it feels like an anthology of the work of several different authors.

There are glorious alien worlds, explored with the enthusiasm of Hemingway, like in With Morning Comes Mistfall:

Only a few feet below balcony level the mists rolled, sending ghostly breakers to crash against the stones of Sanders’ castle. A thick white blanket extended from horizon to horizon, cloaking everything. We could see the summit of the Red Ghost, off to the north; a barbed dagger of scarlet rock jabbing into the sky.

His heroes are also often trapped, frequently by their powers or their faith, like in And Seven Times Never Kill Man:

And he was sore angry. “With plowshares, then, shall you face the Sons of Hranga! With plowshares shall you slay the Horde of Fyndii?” ‘ And he left them, and heard no more their weeping, for the Heart of Bakkalon is a Heart of Fire.

‘But then one among the seed of Earth dried his tears, … And the bloodlust rose in him and he beat his plowshare back into a sword

Desperate for new material to sell to the magazines, Martin had to keep coming up with new ideas. In this collection, the well never seems to run dry. Every time, there are real human characters caught up in the crises that he manufactures.

In The Stone City, a stranded earthman lives a cat-and-mouse existence amongst ruins at the end of the galaxy. Each morning, he must beg the fox-like rulers to let him leave on a human ship, but he speaks to a different alien each time, and no ships come. Its an eerie mix of Kafka and Lovecraft at his most spaced out.

As well as being a collection of short stories, Dreamsongs also includes passages of autobiography. Martin spent his childhood in the housing projects around New York, and his parents never even owned a car. He grew up on the outskirts of everything and in the middle of nothing:

Bayonne [Martin’s birthplace] … is entirely surrounded by water with … the narrow deepwater channel … the Kill van Kull to the south. Big ocean-going freighters travel along the Kill by night and day on their way to and from Elizabeth and Port Newark.

When I was four years old, my family moved into the new projects on First Street, facing the dark, polluted waters of the Kill. Across the channel the lights of Staten Island glimmered by night, far off and magical. Aside from a trip to the Staten Island Zoo every three or four years, we never crossed the Kill.

What better start in life could one have who wishes to escape into the world of the imagination?


12 responses to “Dreamsongs Book One by George R.R. Martin

  1. This book sounds interesting. I’ve never read George RR, but I’m a fan of JRR. What about his writing would say is easily lampooned? And where can I find out more about these truly terrible lectures?

    • Apparently, everyone says that Tolkien’s lectures were appalling and he often read out long passages in Anglo-Saxon. This New York Times article gives a taste of it: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/12/05/the-dragons-egg
      Tolkien is easily lampooned because of his High Fantasy style with weird place names and pompous pronouncements on the part of eah and every characters. British comedians particularly like to have a go at him from time to time. I wouldn’t though – I love his books! I’ve been to his favourite pub too in Oxford, The Eagle and Child.
      This collection of GRRM’s short stories was terrific and I’ve got volume 2 waiting for me too!

      • That’s interesting about Tolkien. I’d never heard that before but it makes perfect sense to think that his mind wasn’t focused on his teaching. How it could it have been? Well, I’m sorry for the students who got shorted on their education, but I’m thankful for what he left behind.

        Now this business of comedians ribbing him is surprising to me too. I’ve talked to lots of people who’ve read him (all Americans, mind you) and the only complaint they seem to register is that there’s too much description of walking from place to place. I never thought that myself though. And I always chalked it up to what I perceived to the Very British thing that British Gentlemen do (or maybe used to), which was taking lots of very long walks.

        Anyhoo, sorry to go on and on, but JRR is one of my all-time favs, so it’s all kind of fascinating to me. Have a good day!

      • We do like a walk! I always thought that that whole journey into Mordor was partly a memory of his time in the trenches in WW1 where so many of his friends died – the dead marshes and so on. Have you read ‘The Road to Middle-Earth’ by Tom Shippey? He was a lecturer who took o Tolkien’s courses after he retired and the two men knew each other. It’s by far the best book out there on Tolkien and his work.

  2. I’m still not convinced about his books yet, thanks to the TV series ruining it for me, I say ruin but you know what I mean. I think I will attempt his SoFaI again as I have never really been one for short stories.

    It’s an interesting contrast between Tolkien and Martin, it is perhaps not surprisingly that his lectures were as they were, if I had Middle Earth in my head I’d just be killing time until I could get home.

  3. Alastair, I’m a big fan of both authors, and it’s interesting to hear the backstory and comparisons on both writers. I’ve read all the JRR books as well as the GOT series, and have to say that for pure ability to piece colossal numbers of words together into entertaining stories, GRR gets the nod from me. I’m not sure how he does it. ~James

    • I know what you mean. Tolkien needed decades to write LoTR and yet GRRM seems to be able to keep producing mammoth volumes in The Song of Ice and Fire sequence. Just planning one of those books with all those characters would make my head spin (maybe that’s why he kills them off so regularly!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.