Water-Gardening House Martell Into ASOIAF: How GRRM Integrated Westeros’ Most Mysterious Great House Into the Main Narrative



Artwork by Sarah Morris, Fantasy Flight Games

Arianne Martell’s second Winds of Winter chapter closes with her orienting House Martell north towards Aegon and the Iron Throne. Concurrently, Quentyn Martell lays dying in the east, having gone to receive the full dragon experience and getting it. House Martell had joined the main plot of A Song of Ice and Fire.

But originally, if George RR Martin thought of House Martell at all, it was as an appendix entry, a house that helped set the parameters of the backstory. House Martell was always floating off-screen, always in the margins of the narrative. So, how did Dorne rise to such prominence in the narrative?

Today, we’re going to chart the course how House Martell unexpectedly became one of the most prominent houses in the narrative and how GRRM took backstory seeds from A Game of Thrones and the introduction of a secondary character from A Storm of Swords and bloomed these seeds into the narrative garden (in the desert) by A Feast for Crows and a jungle come The Winds of Winter.

GRRM the Gardenin’ Man

George RR Martin is a gardener, not an architect. He will tell you this. Over and over again. It’s kind-of how A Song of Ice and Fire began with GRRM coming onto the notion of a boy watching an execution amidst summer snows while he was working on another novel. But what does George mean when he talks about gardening style as a writer? Here’s George explaining it:

At the Booksmith signing, George went into how he sees a general division between writers. Some are “architects.” They create languages, write character biographies and map out plot points all before ever writing a word of their series. Then there are the gardeners, of whom George is one. They plant a seed, water it and let it grow. The thing is, they usually have to water it or it dies. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 11/18/2005

The most famous example of GRRM’s gardening style is how the Red Wedding came to be. If we look at George RR Martin’s original pitch letter he submitted to his agent in 1993, he planned for Robb Stark to die in battle, and Catelyn to flee north of the Wall to only die at the hands of the Others. Instead, as GRRM wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, he came onto new notions and ended up gardening the story towards the Red Wedding.

But the Red Wedding is just the most well-known example of GRRM’s gardening style. George’s gardening extends throughout A Song of Ice and Fire and often directs Martin in unexpected directions. And this is the case with how the Martells came to play prominent roles in the narrative when they were never intended to.

GRRM’s Original Concept of Dorne and the Martells

In A Game of Thrones, Dorne and the Martells do come up, but most of their prominence comes in shading the backstory of Westeros and Robert’s Rebellion. But even here, we can see the seeds for what would come later in the story.

In Jon’s first chapter, we learn the backstory of Daeron I Targaryen leading an invasion of Dorne to bring it into the Seven Kingdoms. This gets greatly expanded upon in future volumes, but in the first book, it’s intended to give Jon an archetype to aspire to — not so important for purposes of this essay.

More importantly for our purposes, Elia Martell was married to Prince Rhaegar, but Rhaegar passed over his wife at the Tourney of Harrenhal to give the laurel of victory to Lyanna Stark. We also learn that Elia Martell and her children were brutally murdered by Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch during the Sack of King’s Landing. Varys will later tell Ned in the black cells that:

“In Dorne, the Martells still brood on the murder of Princess Elia and her babes.” (AGOT, Eddard XV)

Right there, we see the seed for House Martell’s entry in the overall narrative. The Martells are a bit upset over the gruesome murders that occurred back in Robert’s Rebellion. Beyond this mention by Varys, the Martells appear in the AGOT Appendix, but that’s the extent of their presence in the first book.

Now, it’s possible that GRRM always intended House Martell to rise up the way that it did, but I haven’t found any evidence that George had detailed plans for House Martell — at least before writing ACOK. The Martells were extraordinarily tertiary to the plot thrust of the first book, with their backstory working to highlight that the type of people haunting the Riverlands at the outset of the War of the Five Kings had a long, ignoble history of butchery and horror.

But starting in A Clash of Kings, the Martells and Dorne in general became more important. In ACOK, House Martell comes into somewhat greater prominence as Tyrion fears that the Martells will join up with either Renly or Stannis to fight against the Lannisters during the War of the Five Kings. To offset this, Tyrion dispatches Princess Myrcella to Sunspear to be fostered with Prince Doran Martell. Dornish armies do assemble and move up to the Boneway and the Prince’s Pass, but Doran Martell stays out of the war.

To understand why the Martells started cropping up more in ACOK after their absence in AGOT, we turn first to an old So Spake Martin entry from just after when ACOK was published:

The Dornishmen will come on stage in A STORM OF SWORDS and will have an even larger role in A DANCE WITH DRAGONS. As to why they have stayed aloof, well, both history and geography have set them apart from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. – So Spake Martin, 12/18/1998

As to why George was saying this before he published ASOS, we need to get into the weeds. During the timeframe that George RR Martin was writing A Clash of Kings, he reportedly wrote all Tyrion’s A Storm of Swords chapters. That likely means that the chapters featuring the arrival of the Red Viper, Oberyn’s conspiracy to set the Lannisters apart and the duel between Oberyn and the Mountain were written years before the publication of A Clash of Kings.

My speculation is that GRRM took the seed of Dorne’s anger at Elia Martell’s murder referenced by Varys in AGOT and used that as the basis by which he introduced Oberyn Martell. Let’s turn our attention to him now.

The Prince Arrives

Prince Oberyn Martell is an iconic character in ASOIAF who shows up mid-way through A Storm of Swords and dies before the end of the book. His deeds in the story need no introduction or explanation as they are widely known in the fandom. Lesser-known is the narrative purpose for Oberyn and how his impact provided the vehicle by which GRRM would explore the Martells in depth starting in A Feast for Crows.

As we talked about in the prior section, George used the seed of House Martell’s anger over Elia Martell’s death to dramatically bring Oberyn Martell on-stage in ASOS. As Oberyn relates to Tyrion in their very first encounter:

” I did not come for some mummer’s show of an inquiry. I came for justice for Elia and her children, and I will have it. Starting with this lummox Gregor Clegane . . . but not, I think, ending there. Before he dies, the Enormity That Rides will tell me whence came his orders, please assure your lord father of that.” (ASOS, Tyrion V)

How Oberyn achieved his proximate vengeance on Gregor Clegane is well-known. However, that was not all that Oberyn was planning as he told Tyrion when he asked to be his champion after Joffrey’s murder:

“A trip to Dorne might be very pleasant, now that I reflect on it.”

“Plan on a lengthy visit.” Prince Oberyn sipped his wine. “You and Doran have many matters of mutual interest to discuss. Music, trade, history, wine, the dwarf’s penny . . . the laws of inheritance and succession. No doubt an uncle’s counsel would be of benefit to Queen Myrcella in the trying times ahead.” (ASOS, Tyrion X)

Now. If you are thinking that Oberyn’s plan to crown Myrcella sounds suspiciously like Arianne Martell’s queenmaker plot in A Feast for Crows, then you’re on the right track! But what about Arianne? She appears first in the AGOT appendix. And Tywin Lannister references her by name in Tyrion’s first ASOS chapter:

“Ser Arys Oakheart writes that [Myrcella] has taken a great liking to Princess Arianne, and that Prince Trystane is enchanted with her.” (ASOS, Tyrion I)

I’d argue that this quote about Myrcella and Arianne’s friendship along with Oberyn Martell’s conspiratorial mutterings to crown Myrcella were the seeds that GRRM used in developing the queenmaker plot in A Feast for Crows, but it’s a much more complicated story than a smooth transition from foreshadowing in ASOS to plot execution in AFFC.

The Five-Year Gap

After George RR Martin finished A Storm of Swords, he planned a five year gap of time between events from the end of A Storm of Swords and the start of A Dance with Dragons. He wrote several hundred manuscript pages of material with the gap in mind, but about a year into writing ADWD, he scrapped the Five-Year Gap. A lot of this meta-history is well-known. What is less well-known is why he abandoned it, and a lot of it has to do with Dorne.

But before we get into that, I need to stipulate that a lot of the information we know about the Five-Year Gap and Dorne is confusing, and some of it is contradictory. I will try to point out the contradictory and confusing information as best I can, but if you come away from this with a giant question mark hovering, specter-like, over your head, you’re forgiven. I forgive you.

We start back in the year 2000, a few months after ASOS was published. At a convention appearance, Dorne came up:

Another driplet missing from my reports: I asked if we were going to Dorne in DoD, and GRRM said “Yes. Briefly.” I guess that means we’re gonna see at least a few more Dornishmen. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 11/8/2000

A brief appearance by Dorne does not imply the patchwork of POV chapters set in Dorne that we find in A Feast for Crows. But it still means that Dorne would appear. So, what did George mean back in 2000? This is where it gets confusing. We know that GRRM did not intend to have Arianne Martell, Areo Hotah or Arys Oakheart as POV characters. And how do we know this? By what he was saying a year later at Worldcon 2001:

There will be 2 new PoVs – Cersei and another PoV that was not revealed. – GRRM Worldcon 2001 Report

In 2001, fans speculated that the mystery second POV was Brienne of Tarth, and I am inclined to agree with this assessment. Still, Brienne and Cersei were unlikely to take readers to Dorne. So, how did GRRM intend to briefly visit Dorne?

Perhaps the answer can be found in a 2002 Amazon synopsis for A Feast for Crows which contained this line:

Daenerys trains her growing dragons and learns from Barristan the secrets of her father, her brother Rhaegar, and other matters that will culminate at Starfall.

This was a confirmed early synopsis of AFFC. So, perhaps George was referring to Dany coming to Starfall. The castle is in Dorne after all. Admittedly, this is a shaky proposition – especially given that this synopsis was published on Amazon after GRRM abandoned the Five-Year Gap, but it is the only possibility that fits the parameters of Dorne appearing briefly in the narrative without the inclusion of POVs set in Dorne.

But even if there were no Dornish POVs planned, GRRM was planning for a Dornish presence in a five-year gap version of the story.

The Sand Snakes.

Sand Snakes and the Five-Year Gap

Prior to abandoning the Five-Year Gap, George RR Martin alluded to the Sand Snakes arriving in the narrative:

Oberyn the Red Viper should NOT have died. In him you had one of the coolest and most interesting off all your characters.

GRRM: Wait till you meet his daughters. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 2/1/2001

Notice the date: February 1, 2001. This was months before GRRM abandoned the Five-Year Gap. So, GRRM was planning for the Sand Snakes to enter the narrative after a five-year time period. But in what role?

Here, unfortunately, we know next to nothing about the role of the Sand Snakes after a five-year gap beyond that GRRM planned the Sand Snakes to be in the story. But here, we start to see why the Five-Year Gap unraveled for George. He had clear notions of the Sand Snakes at least rivaling Oberyn Martell in coolness, but what would they be doing for five years after events from ASOS? Moreover, they had no reaction to their father’s death?

George RR Martin brought up these very issues in a convention appearance in 2002:

During Q&A, GRRM revealed what seemed to be the major reason for the five-year gap. He said that he realized something. He had to deal with the reaction to Oberyn’s death in Dorne. He thought of different ways that he could handle things. He could have just summarized what happened, without talking about it very much, but he did not want to do this. He could have decided that for some reason there was no reaction, or a delayed reaction, but the reasons he could come up for to do that did not make sense. So, he finally realized that the story needed to be told. – GRRM, So Spake Martin, 8/23/2002

This is where George’s gardening comes into focus. GRRM had a writing problem in that he could not summarize Dorne’s reaction to the Red Viper’s death, and he couldn’t pretend that they’d have no reaction for give years. So, this, along with other issues in the narrative (such as Jon Snow’s tenure as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) led him to pull the entire plug for the Five-Year Gap.

But now that George was abandoning the Five-Year Gap, what was the story he planned to garden into existence?

The Queenmaker

It would be a mistake to say that GRRM had no concept of the queenmaker plot prior to scrapping the Five-Year Gap. But the fashion that GRRM originally planned to deliver the story is radically different from how it came on-page. Here’s George talking about it in 2003:

On the 5-year gap this has probably already been discussed before, but here goes. George said that he was writing ADwD and was writing the flashbacks (he confirmed that they would have been flashbacks) and then he realized that he couldn’t just skip things like Myrcella being crowned and the resulting Dornish problems, for example.GRRM, So Spake Martin, 8/23/2003

This is where it gets a little confusing. George was saying in 2002 that he abandoned the gap in large part, because he wanted to show the reaction in Dorne to the Red Viper’s death. Then in 2003, he claimed that he could not skip Myrcella’s crowning. What gives?

What I think is that both meta angles both feed into and parallel each other. The reaction to Oberyn’s death was too important to leave off-page. Concurrently, Arianne’s plot to crown Myrcella was another important event that couldn’t be told in retrospect. GRRM had this subplot in mind given that Oberyn talked with Tyrion about Myrcella’s crowning back in A Storm of Swords, but instead of it occurring in flashback after a time gap, GRRM decided to integrate the Queenmaker storyline into the narrative alongside of seeing the Dornish/Sand Snake reaction to Oberyn Martell’s death.

But in doing that, GRRM had to expand his cast of POVs beyond his existing cast of characters and the two new POVs (Cersei and Brienne) he initially envisioned adding when he abandoned the Five-Year Gap. So, he initially decided to write a mega-prologue to incorporate the Dornish (and Ironborn) plot-lines. And by spring 2002, GRRM had finalized 200-250 manuscript pages for this Mega-Prologue.

So, that was the initial solution that GRRM gardened into existence: fitting all the Dornish POV chapters into a massive prologue before turning back to his original cast of POVs. The problem for this solution was that it broke George’s pattern of one-chapter prologues. The larger problem was that in writing these Dornish POVs, the story grew in the telling.

The Arms of Dorne: Integrating Dorne Into the Main Plot of ASOIAF

The genesis of ASOIAF was GRRM inspired by a notion that drove him to write Bran’s first chapter in A Game of Thrones. In his pitch letter to his agent, he talked in general about how he writes his novels:

As you know, I don’t outline my novels. I find that if I know exactly where a book is going, I lose all interest in writing it. I do, however, have some strong notions as to the overall structure of the story I’m telling, and the eventual fate of many of the principle characters in the drama.

So, without an outline and driven by strong notions, GRRM gardens his way into a novel. With the Dornish chapters in ASOIAF, GRRM gardened his way from House Martell filling in the backstory to Oberyn Martell to the Sand Snakes and the Queenmaker backstory to chapters set in Dorne as the Prologue of A Feast for Crows.

But this elevation of Dorne into prominence wasn’t complete. As George RR Martin continued to work on A Feast for Crows, he decided to abandon the mega-prologue. As he was reported to say in 2003:

This chapter was originally part of the prologue, of which was 250 pages. Now the material will be spread throughout the book. POVs are listed and George says “Meereen with Dany” and it sounded to me like she was going to stay there throughout the book. – GRRM, Con Report, 9/1/2003

This wasn’t simply GRRM simply restructuring the book (though it was that in part). Instead, I believe that this was GRRM graduating these prologue POV characters into full-blown POV characters — at least Arianne Martell and Areo Hotah. It’s impossible to know for certain why GRRM made this decision, but I have a theory:

Because GRRM decided to integrate Dorne more fully into the Young Griff plot-line.

Now, this is another spot where it gets confusing. It’s clear from at least A Clash of Kings that George RR Martin was planning to bring a mummer’s dragon/Young Griff plot into the story (even if he didn’t have all the particulars worked out). It’s also possible that GRRM planned for Dorne to join with the mummer’s dragon.

But now that George had all of these Dornish POV chapters written, it gave the spark of inspiration to integrate Dorne directly into the main narrative. This didn’t precisely change the thrust of the Dornish chapters in A Feast for Crows. They would have almost certainly ended with Doran Martell revealing that Quentyn had gone to Meereen for vengeance, justice. Fire and Blood. But my best guess is that GRRM initially intended that to be the end of the Dornish POV chapters in the narrative.

But then GRRM decided to show Young Griff’s invasion of Westeros, and if he was showing that, he had to show the Dornish reaction to the invasion. This is what he implied in a 2010 notablog entry:

What’s happened is, I’ve decided to move two completed chapters, from Arianne’s POV, out of the present volume and into THE WINDS OF WINTER. This is something I’ve gone back and forth on. Arianne wasn’t originally supposed to have any viewpoint chapters in DANCE at all, but there’s this… hmmm, how vague do I want be? VERY vague, I think… there’s this event that would of necessity provoke a Dornish reaction. The event was originally going to occur near the end of the book, but in one of my forty-seven restructures I moved it to the late middle instead. And the timeline then required that the Dornish reaction happen in this book and not the next one, so I wrote the two Arianne chapters and was going to write a third… and a chapter from another POV that would be a necessary complement to them, and… – GRRM, notablog, 6/27/2010

The event is Young Griff’s invasion of the stormlands. Intriguingly, a few months before, GRRM implied that he was writing one of those Arianne chapters:

Instead I’m floating off the Isle of Cedars, or racing across the sands of Dorne. Warm places, both of them, with nary a flake to be seen. But I’d better not change horses. If I keep on keeping on, I should finish one of those chapters this week. Maybe both. – GRRM, notablog, 2/3/2010

A week later, GRRM implied that he was writing Arianne’s second chapter. And a third Arianne chapter was yet to be written. And this was in 2010! What’s happened in the years since 2010 with Dorne is anyone’s guess until The Winds of Winter is published. But GRRM has made two allusions to major events happening in Dorne come The Winds of Winter:

You want to know what the Sand Snakes, Prince Doran, Areo Hotah, Ellaria Sand, Darkstar, and the rest will be up to in WINDS OF WINTER? Quite a lot, actually. – GRRM, notablog, 5/10/2016

And in the comment section of the same notablog post, GRRM stated that Areo Hotah would continue as a POV character in The Winds of Winter.

Dorne will continue to occupy a larger sphere of influence in the narrative, and it all came from a few throwaway lines from A Game of Thrones. 

Post-Script: What About Quentyn?

You may be wondering about Quentyn Martell, and you’d be right to be wondering when and how he came into the narrative. I have it in mind to write an essay about him in the context of how GRRM gardened his way into and out of the Meereenese Knot, but to give a little taste: I don’t think GRRM intended Quentyn to become a POV from the get-go until he decided to bring him on-stage while writing A Dance with Dragons in 2006. Here’s GRRM:

Oh, and I suppose you want to know how the DANCE is coming? Work continues. I finished the revisions on the Jon Snow chapters that I was talking about last month, and moved on to Tyrion for a while, but just now I am working on a new viewpoint character, and a chapter set in steamy harbor of Old Volantis.GRRM, notablog, 5/13/2006

This new POV character is not Jon Connington as GRRM didn’t elevate him into a POV character until late 2007, but we’ll get to that too in essay form. Eventually.


The process for creating Dorne and elevating it into the narrative was an incredibly difficult process for George RR Martin. And while this is not to stop anyone from theorizing about Dorne, its conspiracies and its future, I have a difficult time imagining that GRRM layered multiple conspiracies into the narrative when he struggled to create the plot and character architecture to bring Dorne into being in the first place. That’s just musing on my part, but it feels congruent with the available meta evidence we see in the creation of the setting and POVs.

Why is The Winds of Winter taking so long to write? Why did A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons take so long to come out? I have answers for you, but you’re not going to like them. Or maybe you will.

Thanks for reading!

I have no idea if you enjoy these types of essays, but I have considered writing essays about how GRRM gardened several narratives into being in the AFFC/ADWD storylines to the tune of:

  • Euron Greyjoy and the Ironborn
  • Tyrion, Jon Connington and Young Griff
  • The Meereenese Knot (with Quentyn!)
  • Other topics as they come to mind

Let me know!

I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, PoorQuentyn and I have an ASOIAF Re-Read Podcast called NotACast where we analyze every chapter in ASOIAF one chapter a week. Come listen to us on Apple Podcasts, Patreon, PodbaySoundcloudGoogle Play, Spotify, everywhere you get your podcasts!

Additionally, are you a literary agent looking to represent the book of a generation!? Well, do I ever have an opportunity of a lifetime for you! I am looking for literary representation for my book THE CAUTIONER’S TALE (complete at 80,000 words): the story of a young man’s return from war and what happens after: when this young man is thrust into a modern masculine culture that glorifies meaningless sex, shallow relationships and cheap booze and drugs. Leave a comment here or come DM me on twitter if interested!


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5 responses to “Water-Gardening House Martell Into ASOIAF: How GRRM Integrated Westeros’ Most Mysterious Great House Into the Main Narrative

  1. dincer

    good artwork, but oranges (or its relatives) wouldn’t live with that much water flowing. It needs water but the soil should be well draining and not constantly wet. I’m headcanoning very good water isolation in those trenches.

  2. LDW

    Great write-up. I like learning about some of GRRM’s methodology.

  3. Yay! A new BryndenBfish essay! Thank you!

    And YES! We like these kinds of meta essays! Trying to piece together GRRM’s gardening from his interviews, blogposts, SSM’s etc. In a way, this is doing a type of literary analysis _as it happens_. :-O

    Huge thank you for digging out the relevant interviews/blogposts/SSM’s to shed light on the Dornish question – and other issues/writing process/plotlines as well. The ideas around the abandoned five-year gap are especially interesting.

    I remember seeing some SSM a few years ago, in which GRRM addressed the five-year gap and its abandonement, sort of regretted making so many of the main characters (mainly the Stark kids..?) so young, and said something like, if a 12-year-old has to rule the world, so be it.

    I can’t remember the exact wording but the “12-yr-old” stuck in my mind, and in the light of what the HBO show did, and the showrunners apparently got that end point from GRRM…

    The problem with the show is that the showrunners had expunged most of the magic and mythology (high fantasy elements) from the show, so the ending didn’t make much sense. GRRM will (hopefully) explain, motivate it a lot better.

    As to the architect/gardener types of writing… What about a landscape architect? A garden designer? Someone who lays out the basic plans, lets the plan evolve if certain seeds and plants do well. Abandons ones that don’t do so well. Also, prunes the plants doing well so that they’ll do even better, and keeps weeding. – It seems to me that GRRM knows very little about actual gardening, ha ha ha!

    I write as a hobby, and the best part is always the ideas, the inspiration, the great fragments I scribble. The slog of making it into a whole, coherent and consistent, with proper structure… I’ll leave that to professional writers.

    But I can understand GRRM’s old comment about losing interest when he knows the end of the story. You’ve had your inspiration, now it’s all slog. The creative mind, if undisciplined, tends to fire off in all kinds of new directions, never finishing previous visions.

    GRRM started to write about Bran Stark but now he’s more interested in Targaryean history.

    Great to have such a meta essay from you, BryndenBFish, hoping to get others in the same vein

  4. Also, it’s very annoying, but WordPress insist I use the moniker lumilumi here. I’m talvikorppi in most other ASoIaF/GoT-related websites. I tried to be talvikorppi here but WordPress wouldn’t let me. 😦

  5. Pingback: Sowing the Greyjoys Into the Narrative: How GRRM Patchworked the Ironborn into ASOIAF | Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire

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