Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rire-Wolves: A Game of Bones

Munson struggles in the tarpit of reading matter

I generally do not buy multi-volume books now, due to the often interminable wait between instalments after which time I’ve forgotten half the characters and lost the momentum of their plots. On occasion, I will buy the books and put them away until the saga is complete and I can feast on them in one go. I’m not talking about open-ended series with shared characters or settings as these tend to be stand-alone, don’t have cliff-hanger endings or arc towards the resolution of a conflict set up in the first volume. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast can be appreciated one volume at a time, but Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is really one fat book, released in three instalments.

I’ve still been burnt one way or another. I finally obtained the long awaited third volume of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon and found that a very compelling first volume led to a so-so second, and a third that lost itself in world-building so much that I hyper-skimmed my way through. At least that was better than the Herbert/Anderson Legends of Dune prequel trilogy which I discarded about one chapter into the first volume. On the other hand I got close to the end of Peter J. Hamilton’s Reality Dysfunction wondering how he could possibly wrap up the story. It wasn’t till the last page that I found that further volumes were to follow – an important detail which neither author nor publisher mentioned anywhere on the cover or in the book’s front matter. It was another four years and perhaps thousands of pages more before it was wrapped up quickly with a terribly weak ending.

Munson as lap dogAt present I have two incomplete series growing on my shelves: Stephen R. Donaldson’s third Thomas Covenant series (3 books since 2004, the last due in 2013), and Clive Barker’s lavishly-illustrated Abarat (3 books since 2002, 2 more planned). I’ve got my eye on Charlie Stross’ now complete Merchants Princes series, but those will probably be saved for some future day when I have a Kindle or comparable e-reader. I think my days of buying quickly consumed paperbacks is drawing to a close.

This brings me (finally!) to the subject of my post: Munson – isn’t he cute!? OK the other subject: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series which began with the publication of A Game of Thrones in 1996. I heard many extremely positive reports about these books over the years, but kept my distance, knowing it would take some years to complete. What was once to be a trilogy is now to be seven books.

The game-changer that led to me reading that first book was the airing of the HBO series Game of Thrones (no indefinite article). That televisual adaptation in itself wasn’t enough – it was the knowledge that the author cheerfully kills off major characters as the story demands. I knew there was no way that spoilers would not surface once a TV audience and clueless reviewers got their hands on it. That’s one of the costs of a global media and the internet, the conversation about a developing story become global conversations, globally immediate. There is no point in following a TV show on Facebook if you’re not watching it in near real-time – all you’re going to get for your devotion is a relentless shower of plot revelations. Or perhaps one of your overseas friends drops a clanger as a status update “I’m so shocked/disappointed/relieved that X happened/died etc”.

You can stay off-line to avoid this and still you find when you walk into a newsagent or left your eyes drift over the magazines at the supermarket checkout and see a headline that removes any suspense from a book, TV show or movie. This is clearly a November 14 obsession for me, as I wrote about the Spanish predilection for giving away plots in translated movie titles in 2006:

“ the local name of Rosemary’s Baby is Seed of the Devil, an immediate plot giveaway. I wonder if The Sixth Sense is called Bruce Willis is Dead Too! ? “

So now with the Game of Thrones series complete and some big surprises towards the end – all lovingly dropped into conversation or reading matter by friends, acquaintances, reviewers etc as I predicted – I’m very glad that I started reading the book at the same time. The world that Martin has built has a huge cast of characters and in particular, a great many Point of View characters; being able to attach faces to them via the HBO adaptation has helped to keep them separate in my head. With that world being dragged into the spotlight I found that I had to catch up with the published volumes as further spoilers were getting circulated. So now I’ve just put down the 959pp fifth volume A Dance with Dragons, at least knowing that I’m safe from unwelcome surprises for another three years or so while we await The Winds of Winter. How much I’ll remember of the 50pp dramatis personae listing is another matter.

Dire Wolf drawing by LarsonWithout giving anything away of (A) Game of Thrones, I do want to write a little about one of the two animals that features in the series, the one that isn’t a dragon: the direwolf. The seed for the books was George R.R. Martin’s conception of a scene where a dead direwolf is found with a litter of living pups, and each pup is taken by one the younger characters to raise. In the books, these direwolves may grow as large as ponies and have longer legs than regular wolves.

In the HBO version, they are played at different life stages by Siberian Huskies (the pups as first seen), Northern Inuits and Czech wolfdogs which are not only much smaller but rather different in proportion to their “characters”. The latter two breeds are quite recent attempts to “build” domestic dog breeds that more closely resemble wolves.

Shasta the dire wolf pup

Different again are the real life dire wolves (canus dirus) that lived during the time of mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and other giant mammals. These gigantic creatures have been found in abundant fossil form in the La Brea tar pits – you can even read a children’s story about a dire wolf pup who nearly comes to a dire end in such a pit here:

The  dire wolves were like a stockier shorter-legged version of the grey wolf from whom all domesticated dogs are descended, so not as big or leggy as Martin’s fictional conception. Length and weight-wise they would be about the same as Munson, although malamutes are more likely to get stuck in a pile of sofa cushions than a tar pit.

Given malamutes’ line in standup-and-rollover comedy, I think they should be known as rire wolves after the French word for laughter. NB rire doesn’t rhyme with dire, it’s closer to rear. The French dire “to say, to tell” comes from the Latin dico, dicere (from whence English teach) is also appropriate for the very talkative malamute.

While I was getting stuck in the tar-pit of background research, I found a little information on dog laughter. It sounds like an interrupted panting. According to various papers authored by the late Patricia Simonet, the dog-laughs are used to initiate play along with other physical gestures, and stressed dogs hearing these vocalizations may be calmed. There was an interesting bit in the paper I read:

Humans can initiate play with dogs by using whispers (Rooney, Bradshaw & Robinson, 2001). …When used in combination with other more overt play signals, such as a play-bow, the success of a human-canine invitation to  play  was  augmented  significantly.  Perhaps,  the whisper is a close approximation to the dog-laugh. When humans  whisper  they  produce  a  pronounced  forced breathy exhalation through the mouth.

I’ve noticed with both Bondi and Munson that they paid a lot of attention when I’m whispering to them, usually in a playful context. I’m not convinced that it’s because they think I’m dog-laughing, more that I’m close to them when I whisper, with a directed gaze and they take advantage of that attention to initiate play.

[PA3007573.jpg]When I visited a French wolf park last year, I took note of some explanatory posters about wolf communication and their “hey I’m a friend” whimper. I wonder if there is anything shared between that and Simonet’s dog-laugh in terms of rhythm or frequencies, and how much can be cross-communicated between wolf and dog. Interesting stuff.

There is one other series I have enjoyed recently, and that’s Steph Swainston’s Fourlands (or Castle) novels, beginning with the deservedly lauded The Year of Our War. The most recent title Above the Snowline has some “huge, white avalanche dogs … used for hunting…but their senses so finely tuned they can give advance warning of an avalanche”. I was a bit chuffed after I sent some fan mail to Steph a few years back and shared some pics of Bondi and newly-arrived Munson, she wrote back a bit later to let me know of the dogs in her upcoming volume.


  1. Anita5:14 pm

    I've been to the La Brea Tar Pits. It's such a boring tourist attraction that I considered throwing myself in with the mammoths to be found inexplicably in 100 years to baffle scientists.

  2. The only thing I knew about them before was that because La Brea means "tar", they're really called the "Tar Tar Pits", much like "pizza bread" and other bilingual redundancies.

  3. This post has been gathered up via Twitter into the "Game of Thrones daily" as one of the feature stories.

    If you've seen the HBO series then you may be amused by this version of the stirring theme music with WORDS.

  4. Kimberly Parker2:07 am

    Although I've read the whole Martin series, I really have nothing more intelligent to say than, "Munson is SO cute!" Probably because keeping track of all the characters in those books has clogged my brain!