The Dornishman’s wife was as fair as the sun,
and her kisses were warmer than spring.
But the Dornishman’s blade was made of black steel,
and its kiss was a terrible thing.
We don’t know the name of the Dornishman’s wife but we do know that those kisses must have been very warm indeed, for even as her lover lies dying at the hands of her husband, he’s still boasting that he’s ‘tasted the Dornishman’s wife’.
The tale is familiar to anyone who spends time in the Seven Kingdoms, either as resident or reader, and forms part of a rich culture of songs and stories that George R. R. Martin created to augment his fictional world. You can infer a great deal of Westerosi culture from them. Consider: Fifty-Four Tuns, Oh Lay My Sweet Lass Down in the Grass and Meggett Was a Merry Maid, a Merry Maid Was She. They’re entirely consistent with the earthy, ribald culture that underpins life in King’s Landing and beyond, the titles alone carry such bawdiness that you can hear the filthy laughter even without listening to a single verse.
They reflect the real life ballads that proliferated in Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Like those from A Song of Ice and Fire, these songs were used to inform, educate and, above all, entertain. It’s easy to picture a drunken Robert Baratheon leading a raucous chorus of The Maid’s Complaint for Want of a Dil Doul or The Gelding of the Devil or to imagine them ringing out from a filthy Flea Bottom tavern.
Nevertheless, the songs had a higher purpose than providing entertainment to drunkards in those days before pub jukeboxes offered three songs for a quid. They preserved and communicated essential cultural and historical information and transmitted it from town to town and from generation to generation. Nottamun Town, on which Bob Dylan based his song Masters of War, is believed to have been written about the turmoil of the English Civil War, while much of our present knowledge of Robin Hood comes from a collection of fabricated, embellished and contradictory songs that recounted tales of his derring-do for anyone who’d listen. Songs such as these serve as an information currency. In a largely illiterate culture, they are the primary means of communicating history, culture and tradition across the centuries.
Martin’s creation of such songs point to his skill as a writer, but it is his placing of the songs within his invented culture and history that testify to his genius as a builder of worlds. His characters react to the songs with the same degree of familiarity as we do My Way or the legends of King Arthur. Some enjoy them, others despise them, but they all know them, and crucially, they all understand their meaning.
The Dornishman’s Wife may be a ribald song involving a cuckold and an amorous suitor, but it also contains the line ‘all men must die’, or to use the High Valyrian, Valar Morghulis. Even in the context of a bawdy song, the characters honour the cultural traditions that surround them, while the songs themselves reinforce these beliefs.
Consider also The Rat Cook, a song of the Night’s Watch. Legend has it that a cook killed a prince and served him to his own father in a pie so delicious that he actually asked for seconds. It may have been an excellent way of disposing of the evidence, but it broke the ancient code of hospitality and angered the gods. The crafty cook was turned into a giant rat and condemned to eat his own offspring. The continuance of the song serves as a reminder of the importance of honouring such codes, particularly in the harsh environs of the Wall, and proves a more memorable lesson than even the most thrilling lecture from Maester Aemon.
The songs also have their own cultural history. Jolly ballad The Bear and the Maiden Fair is reputed to have been sung almost a century before the reign of teen tyrant Joffrey. By the time he sits his evil backside on the Iron Throne, the song has passed into almost tedious overuse, though the throne’s former occupant, Robert, was said to have loved it. It is so familiar that characters refer to it without explanation and its content seems to seep into their lives. What are Ser Jorah Mormont and Daenerys Targaryen, if not the bear and the maiden fair writ large?
The very best songs have multiple meanings, dependent on the context in which they are sung. The most dramatic example is The Rains of Castamere, a relatively recent song that has already passed into common use and which recalls an illustrative episode from Lannister history. Some Lannister bannermen, the Reynes and the Tarbecks, grew bold during the rule of Tytos Lannister and began a small rebellion. They underestimated the ruthlessness of Tytos’ son, Tywin who responded by extinguishing them and their Houses. They are no more Reynes of Castamere, but The Rains of Castamere remains.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
with no one there to hear.
Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall,
and not a soul to hear
It’s become something of an anthem for House Lannister, sung by their allies as a sign of fealty and in declaration that they won’t repeat the error. For their fighters, whether knight or sellsword, it works as a comforting reminder that they have Lannister might on their side. It is likely for this reason that Bronn is heard singing it before the Battle of Blackwater in the second season of Game of Thrones, when victory felt far from certain.
Still, it is as a lesson that the song is most powerful. Merely hearing it is enough to remind other wannabe rebels to sit down and shut up while they still have their heads and the family have been known to use it to remind any usurper that, should they cross them, they won’t even have the taste of the Dornishman’s wife as a final comfort, for while it’s fairly common knowledge that a Lannister always pays his debts, everybody knows from where falls the rains of Castamere.
Game of Thrones season 3 returns to HBO this Sunday the 31st of March, and to Sky Atlantic this Monday the 1st of April.
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