Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part I: Barbarian Couture

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This is the first part of a three four part (I, II, III, IV) look at the Dothraki, the fictional horse-borne nomads of the Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire series and the degree to which George R.R. Martin’s claim that they are “an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures” holds up to scrutiny. This is something that I have been suggesting I would get to since (checks notes), May. Of Last Year. So it is about time we actually get to it.

The plan is for this series to run in three parts. Part I (this part) will discuss how the Dothraki look in the setting. Part II will look at broader questions of social organization and culture (I am nearly certain this is one of those cases where there will be a IIa and a IIb, but my hope for brevity springs eternal). Part III will look at military culture. In all three parts I am going to use both the books and the show – noting where they diverge – in part because the heaviest characterization the Dothraki got in the show was when Martin was still significantly involved with it (meaning that large parts of it likely still reflect his vision), but also because the show is how the vast majority of people experience this particular fiction. Both the original text and the show derived from it deserve to have their vision discussed.

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First, a content warning for this series: this is discussing A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones which features a lot of content which is not G-rated. More to the point, it is a discussion of what – I will argue – Martin presents as one of, if not the most brutal and sexually violent society in that setting. And that means those themes are going to come up here (less in this essay, but more in the other parts); we are going to remain serious and adult about those things of course, but they will be a part of this analysis nonetheless. If that is not for you, by all means feel free to check out for a few weeks.

Before we get into the main point, I want to note that I am going to reference my series on the Fremen Mirage a lot here, because there is a lot of Fremen stuff going on with how Dothraki society is depicted. As a result, it may be useful to go back and read those, but just to recap, we may define the Fremen Mirage this way:

The Fremen Mirage is a literary trope, unconnected to historical reality, which presents societies as a contrast between unsophisticated, but morally pure, hyper-masculine and militarily effective ‘strong men’ societies honed by ‘hard times’ (that is, the Fremen of the term) and a sophisticated but effeminate and decadent ‘weak men’ societies weakened by ‘good times,’ frequently with an implicit assertion of the superior worth of the former.

Next, a note on citation here from the books. My understanding is that different printings of the books have different pagination, which seems to be why the Wiki of Ice and Fire cites by chapter numbers (except that the chapters of the books, as printed, aren’t numbered in the print editions I’ve seen, making this classical-style citation extremely cumbersome and inexact). I am going to cite by the page numbers of my edition, which is the 2011 Bantam Books Trade Paperback Edition (the box set). Hopefully that will be enough.

Finally, a note on my expertise here. I am not a scholar of either the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe or the American Great Plains. The former group does intrude into my period and study, as steppe nomads, in the form of Scythians, Sarmatians and Huns did interact (sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently) with the broader Mediterranean world. Consequently, my knowledge of steppe peoples tend to be better that my knowledge of the Native American peoples of the Great Plains, but I have tried, within the limits of time and availability, to do my research. I actually think, in a strange sense, this is useful, because my own initial unfamiliarity with the topic has demonstrated to me just how basic the level of research and reading necessary to avoid the failures of this depiction are. You do not, in turns out, need to be an experienced scholar on the topic; just a few books and a couple of emails is enough to already radically improve on what we see and read in A Song of Ice and Fire, much less the absolute mess of what we see in A Game of Thrones.

Writing this has been tricky. I am well aware that both of these broad cultural groups (that is, Steppe peoples and Plains Native Americans) are often represented in popular culture only in the form of inaccurate and demeaning stereotypes. I do not want to be just another link in that chain of poor understanding. I have thus tried to root my argument here, wherever possible, in either the writings of specialist scholars (there will be more of that next week as we get into subsistence patterns, warfare, etc.) or primary evidence, particularly in terms of period photographs, when it comes to clothing and dress. With luck I have not erred overmuch.

Via Wikipedia, an Attic vase-painting of a Scythian archer (c. 500 BCE). The Scythians, like the Huns and Mongols, were a Eurasian Steppe people, many of them horse-borne nomads of the same sort. Far from being drab, their clothing was colorful and distinctive, including their particular hats, which show up not only in Greek but also in Persian artwork.

…But, Why?

But before we get into the issue proper, it is important to clear away the standard objections, both why subject A Song of Ice and Fire (and its spin-off properties) to critical analysis at all and also why, if we are going to do that, we are going to focus squarely in on the Dothraki. The answer to the first is something that we’ve rehearsed a number of times, but bears restating: for most of its readers (and the watchers of A Game of Thrones), A Song of Ice and Fire will be their primary exposure to the idea of the Middle Ages. This is particularly true because of the reputation that the series has for being ‘how it really was,’ a reputation that George R.R. Martin has consciously cultivated (as with his classic complaint of ‘what was Aragorn’s tax policy’ – there is a rich irony that, had Martin understood rulership in the Middle Ages better, he would have understood why Aragorn’s tax policy was less important). Martin has been quite open that he “draw[s] inspiration from history” and that fact has long been a selling point of the series over more obviously fantastical kinds of medieval-themed high fantasy as well as a response to some of the series’ more controversial moments.

Naturally, that cloak of verisimilitude has tended to intensify the degree to which elements of A Song of Ice and Fire is taken by its readers and viewers as representative of the Middle Ages more generally. And of course as I have noted in the (quite recent) past, fiction is often how the public conceptualizes the past and that concept of the past shapes the decisions we make in the present. In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire in particular, this vision of the past is particularly worth interrogating because it serves as the basis for a parable on power and violence.

But even if it didn’t, it would still be worth discussing these aspects of the universe of A Song of Ice and Fire, because that is what we are supposed to do with cultural products, with literature. I am sometimes baffled that the very fans who insist that their particular loves be treated seriously, as art are the same fans who react with frustration if one then sets out to interrogate those same genres the way one would interrogate serious art or literature. This is it, after all! This is what you (we, really) wanted! A (quite unimpressive, I’ll grant you) ivory tower academic is taking this genre seriously and subjecting it to serious criticism! Isn’t that what emerging genres often hope for, to be taken seriously as ‘high’ literature?

And of course we should take it seriously. And here I want to speak briefly to the purpose of these sorts of endeavors, because the goal here is not to force anyone to dislike A Song of Ice and Fire. We’re not here to ‘cancel’ ASOIF any more than we were going to ‘cancel’ AC:Valhalla two weeks ago (a game I continue to play, I might add). Instead, discussing cultural products like this is a form of inoculation against their potentially negative aspects, because once a reader knows that, for instance, the depiction of a given culture in a work of fiction has relatively little to do with any real world culture, they can compartmentalize that to the fiction itself; it loses its power to mislead and so may be enjoyed in safety, as it were. And there are good things in A Song of Ice and Fire and in the first six or so seasons of Game of Thrones; but we also need to be honest about the failings.

(Of course, more broadly, doing this as a practice exercise is a key part of building up that skill – what we may term ‘critical reading’ – more generally, rendering the alert reader more resistant to this sort of thing, both in its unintended form (as, I suspect, in this case) or in its more dangerous intended form. Put another way, developing critical reading skills is one important way to make one’s self a harder target for misinformation, including historical misinformation.)

A Dash of Pure Fantasy

Alright, so A Song of Ice and Fire is worth looking at closely. So why this part of the fiction? It comes down to something George R.R. Martin wrote:

The Dothraki were actually fashioned as an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy.

In many aspects of the world of Westeros, Martin has implied that he is presenting a more historically grounded setting. But this is the case where he most directly stated that, a point that is presented – without comment – on both wikis and thus seems to reflect the general consensus about this fictional culture. In short, Martin claims, and it appears generally accepted by his fans, that the Dothraki represent an amalgam of historical horse nomads, with only a ‘dash’ of pure fantasy. There is, on this point, no hiding behind the fantastic nature of the setting, or the conventions of the genre, instead the claim to historicity is made baldly, and that deserves investigation.

(Of course there is the cover that thereis a ‘dash’ of pure fantasy – that is why this is going to be a rather comprehensive look. If we just discussed this or that aspect, one might well claim “ah, but there is the dash of fantasy.” But at the same time, a ‘dash’ only goes so far; if I ask you to add a ‘dash’ of pepper to a recipe and the end product comes back 51% pepper by mass, we need not debate semantics to understand that something has gone really rather wrong.)

Now how are we to assess that? Because Martin has claimed that this fantasy culture is an amalgam of two different cultural groups, we cannot simply compare it to one or the other in isolation, because it might be reasonably argued that any aspect of the culture that didn’t fit our model simply came from the other group. So instead, we are going to move through the depiction of the Dothraki, comparing them at each stage to both Steppe Nomads and plains Native American cultures in order to try to detect the possible roots of the elements of Dothraki culture or their absence.

Because – and this is going to surprise literally no one who reads this blog – that claim to historicity is fundamentally empty. The Dothraki are not an amalgam of Steppe and Plains cultures, they are an amalgam of stereotypes about Steppe and Plains cultures. There it is, that is the thesis for the next three to four weeks of the blog! All of the angry hurt-fan-commenters can just go shout angrily into the void of comment moderation right now.

For the rest of us grown-ups, we can start with how the Dothraki dress.

Dressing Down the Dothraki

Martin describes Dothraki dress as follows:

The horselords might put on rich fabrics and sweet perfumes when they visited the Free Cities, but out under the open sky they kept the old ways. Men and women alike wore painted leather vests over bare chests and horsehair leggings cinched by bronze medallion belts” (AGoT, 83).

Now as details go, that’s not a lot, but it is the clearest description of Dothraki clothing that I can find (there’s an echo of it in AGoT, 329; the same patterns made for Viserys, but out of linen). But we’re given some context to interpret that description in the passage that surrounds it, the event has “barbaric splendor” (AGoT, 82; this is a statement, I should note, delivered by the narrator, not a thought of Daenerys’), the people a “seething sea of Dothraki” (AGoT 83) who “gorged themselves” and “drank themselves blind” and “spat jests” (AGoT, 84). We’ll return to this wedding scene next week in some detail, but it is hard to avoid that we are supposed to read the Dothraki leathers as ‘barbaric,’ rough and somewhat wild compared to the fine silks, linens and wools they are often described against.

And of course, that is exactly how the show has opted to read Dothraki clothing:

And I should note, not only the show, but also the tie-in products, like the trading card illustrations (which the book wiki uses to the exclusion of the show, I assume because they are thought to be more accurate to Martin’s vision):

Dothraki from the Fantasy Flight Games trading card game, as used on the Wiki of Ice and Fire.

And when they are exposed to the cold climates of Westeros (we’ll come back to this point in a moment) they supplement the leather-strap-gear with lots of rough fur pelts:

What I think unites these interpretations is in all cases we are to understand that this is an unsophisticated, barbaric form of dress for what are represented as relatively unsophisticated people: rough, unprocessed, inelegant and brutally functional. It is, in short, very Fremen. And I want to be clear that I think this is absolutely what is intended; we will, in a moment, treat Martin’s words much more charitably than they probably deserve. But we should be clear that the straight-line reading of Martin’s words is exactly the form of clothing we see in the show. Again, the contrast between the “rich fabrics” and Dothraki clothing in its “barbaric splendor” is explicit in the text (AGoT 82-3).

More Dothraki in their cold weather gear, which looks to just be random fur pelts strapped on.

So does either version of this outfit have any historical parallels?

First, let’s talk about materials. We can rule out a Steppe Nomad inspiration for any of this right off. The Eurasian Steppe is very large and covers a range of arid climates (that is to say, parts of it are colder, parts of it are warmer), but they all have spinning and weaving technology, by which the supple hairs of woolly animals, or plant fibers like linen, or cotton, or even natural protein fibers like silk can be fashioned into fabric which is more flexible, comfortable, breathable and temperature controlled than the raw leather we see in the show. To the surprise of no one, they used that:

Via Wikipedia, a photo taken in 1921 of Mongolian herdsman, tending their livestock. Note how their clothes are long to provide good temperature control and also that they are nice, because people like to look nice.

You will note that there is a distinct lack here of lots of leather, except in the sort of things that lots of cultures use leather for (boots, fittings, saddles, bags, tents). Instead, clothing is mostly made out of nice, comfortable, breathable textiles, because of course it is. That is not to say, to be clear, that leather or hides or fur were never used – fur especially was used; merely that they were generally used to supplement clothing primarily made out of textile. Also, please note all of the animals in the background there. We’ll come back to them next week.

Now Plains Native American clothing does make much greater use of animal skin as a clothing material, but there is an important distinction to be made here. The problem here is with the plasticity of the term ‘leather’ which can technically include a wide range of products, but in practice is understood to mean exactly what the Game of Thrones costume department and literally every piece of official artwork of the Dothraki understand it to mean, which is the product of tanning processes. I am not an expert, but as far as I can tell, Native American clothing was not made in the same way; animal products were used in a process I have seen described as ‘brain tanning’ (rather than using chemical tannins) and the final product was then smoked. The result – which is often called ‘buckskin’ regardless of the animal source for the hide – is very different from the leather we see in the show:

Via Wikipedia, the war dress of a Sioux Chief, 19th century. Note how carefully well crafted this (100+ year old!) garment is, with intricate beadwork and fringes.

This is, in terms of material, very clearly not what the ‘vests’ the Dothraki in the show are wearing. Buckskin would also be used to make trousers, as opposed to the “horsehair leggings” of Martin’s wording, which also strike me as deeply improbable. Haircloth – fabric made from horsehair (or camel hair) – is durable, but typically stiff, unsupple and terribly itchy; not something you want in direct contact with your skin (especially not between your rear end and a saddle), unless you just really like skin irritation. It is also a difficult material to get in any kind of significant quantity – and you would need a significant quantity if you intended to make most of your trousers out of it.

So the book materials are either 100% or 50% wrong on materials, depending on how far we let Martin stretch the word ‘leather,’ while the film depiction is just wrong on all the merits regardless. Well that’s for materials, what about patterns?

Via Wikipedia, examples of the deel in very fine fabrics.

Once again, we can quite easily rule out anything steppe inspired. Again, the Eurasian Steppe is big and has lots of variety, but relatively long robes are generally the norm in terms of dress; where long robes were not worn (see our Scythian above), the common pattern was heavy sleeved garments and trousers with very complete coverage. A common example of the type of long robe-like garments is the Mongolian deel, a long sleeved robe or tunic which provides a lot of protection against the elements. In the case of elites – and Daenerys is, initially, mostly around elites – these could be made of expensive silk or brocade – but poorer versions might be made of wool.

(Note if you want to go further back historically and look at the dress of western Eurasian steppe nomads in the Roman period, take a look at M. Gleba, C. Munkholt and M-L Nosch, Dressing the Past (2008), which has discussions and reconstructions of both Scythian and Sarmatian clothing and the sort of evidence that effort is based on. Much like Mongolian clothing shown above, both Scythian and Sarmatian clothing is ‘high coverage’ for the same reasons discussed below.)

Via Wikipedia, a 12th century stucco figuring of a Seljuk Turk, from the opposite end of the Steppe as the deel but not entirely dissimilar to it in form or function.

And there is good reason for these relatively high-coverage garments. Plains or Steppe peoples naturally tend to live on, well, plains and steppes – that is large expanses of semi-arid grasslands. The very nature of that terrain configuration produces fairly extreme seasonal temperature variations (that is, very hot summers and very cold winters) as well as extreme daily temperature variations (that is, hot days and cold nights) because such places are far from large bodies of water and also don’t have tree-cover, both of which serve to moderate rapid temperature changes. Consequently, as anyone who has lived in a plains state in the USA (or on the Eurasian Steppe, though that is fewer of my readers, but for my brave handful of hits from that part of the world, hello and welcome!) can tell you, you need clothes that can be layered and which can be both warm in the winter and cool in the summer. For us moderns, we mostly do this by owning multiple season-specific wardrobes, but clothing is expensive in pre-modern societies, so multi-purpose garments, or garments that be layered, to turn a warm-weather outfit into a cold-weather outfit are important!

There’s no reason to suppose the Dothraki Sea would be any different: it sits at about the same latitude as King’s Landing so there is little reason to assume it would be warm all-year-round. Parts of the Eurasian Steppe stretch decently far south, sharing a latitude with northern Italy and Spain; nevertheless they do not enjoy the same Mediterranean climate because they don’t have the same exposure to the weather patterns created by the sea. The southern end of the Great Plains stretches down all the way into Texas, but still gets properly cold in the winter with temperatures regularly dipping below freezing in the winter despite the latitude. For a people who are camping and working outside all of the time, warm clothing is going to be a must.

(Now, of course adherents to the Fremen Mirage will want to treat this as just civilized weakness and assume that more Fremen societies can just tolerate the cold – a trope that literally goes back at least as far as Julius Caesar – but it turns out that hypothermia and heat exhaustion do not care how many reps you can do or how uncomplaining and tough you are. I think I have heard some version of the “our squad’s tough guy ended up as a heat casualty on the first patrol in Iraq” story from nearly every Iraq war veteran I have spoken to, and hypothermia has killed ranger candidates in training before. Withstanding extreme temperatures is not a question of ‘toughness,’ it is a question of physics and biology.)

Clearly, the vest-over-bare-chest and trousers look was not based on the clothing of the Eurasian Steppe!

Moving to the American Plains, there is, of course, a lot of variation, especially since the Great Plains stretch north-south instead of East-West and thus have pretty wild temperature variations (but see above about cold winters). Instead of trying to make essentializing statements outside of my expertise which would no doubt be embarrassingly wrong, I am going to let some primary source material do the talking. Here is a collection of 19th century photographs of Sioux people, both Lakota and Dakota, showing forms of traditional clothing:

Top left: Portrait of Sitting Bull (1885), Hunkpapa Lakota chief.
Top Right: A group of Lakota Sioux leaders (1865-1880)
Bottom Left: Portrait of Dakota Sioux woman Stella Yellow Shirt and her Child (1899)
Bottom Center: Portrait of Chief Bone Necklace, Oglala Lakota Chief (1899)
Bottom Right: Portrait of Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux High Bear (1898)
All photos via Wikipedia.

And here is a collection of late 19th and very early 20th century photographs of Absaroka (or Crow) men, showing forms of traditional clothing:

Left: A Crow man on horseback (1908)
Right: Eight Crow under guard in Montana (1887)
Bottom Left: Delegation of Crow Chiefs (1880)
Bottom Right: Mounted Crow men trading equipment (1905)
All photos via Wikipedia.

And here is a collection of photographs, showing two Cheyenne people, along with a c. 1920 Cheyenne hide dress, brilliantly decorated (and a good example of how different proper buckskin is from what we think of when we think of ‘leather’):

Left: Cheyenne Woman (1930)
Center: Cheyenne Hide Dress (c. 1920) now in the Gilcrease Museum
Right: Photograph of  Cheyenne Chief Two Moons (pre-1917)
All photos via Wikipedia.

There is tremendous variety here, but I don’t think any of it could be aptly described simply as “Men and women alike wore painted leather vests over bare chests and horsehair leggings.” Now, if you looked hard enough could you find something that resembled Martin’s leather vests, bare chests and horsehair leggings somewhere in the clothing of Native Americans across two continents? Probably, but among the specific Native peoples that Martin cites as inspiration, it does not seem to be at all common. And if that description was wholly unconnected to anything in the real world, we might well stop there and conclude that, well this is just the ‘dash of pure fantasy’ that Martin was talking about (although as we’ll see, it is going to be quite a bit more than just a dash). But I don’t think we can stop there, because (removing the medallion belts) Martin’s description does adequately describe something that exists in the real world: Halloween costumes purporting to depict Native Americans:

Seriously, do not dress in red face for Halloween. Or at any other time.

The vest-and-pants style of Native American Halloween costume seems to be rather rare now, but it was, at least to my memory, much more common in the 1990s, when A Game of Thrones was written (initial publication date of 1996). You can see them, for instance, on many of the background extras in the famous Thanksgiving scene from Addams Family Values (1993) and that vest style was also a part of the outfit for the also-quite-unfortunately-branded YMCA Indian Guides/Indian Princesses program (rebranded as the ‘Adventure Guides’ in 2003 after decades of Native Americans complaining about it) which was also fairly popular in the 1990s.

Now, I am not saying that Martin planned to construct his Dothraki out of Native American stereotypes and bad Halloween costumes. In fact, I am fairly confident he intended nothing of the sort. But in the absence of doing some effective research (and it is going to become increasingly apparent that at least effective research was not done) there was quite possibly nothing else to inform the effort other than what was ‘in the air’ of the popular consciousness. Of course the danger of those often simplistic public stereotypes is that people often do not know that they have them, assuming instead that the vague impression they have is essentially accurate (or at least, close enough for a regular person). And that’s a real problem because it reinforces the popular stereotype, especially given Martin’s reputation for writing more ‘historically grounded’ fiction. And that is a problem because…

Barbaric Splendor

The clothing that the Dothraki are described and visually shown wearing is clearly intended to convey things about their society. Returning to our visual comparison above, it is easy to see that the actual clothing of both Eurasian and American ‘horse cultures’ was often bright, highly decorated and generally eye-catching, featuring complex patterns and shapes. It was both nice looking, but also spoke to the humanity of the people that made it and their very human desire to look nice and have nice looking things. By contrast, the clothing of the Dothraki is presented as simple, rugged and unadorned. That characterization is very much picked up by the show, where ‘painted leather’ in turn gets translated visually to this:

This is, to be clear, essentially a royal wedding, and a high status, important one at that. These fellows are presumably wearing their best, as visually made up as they’d ever be. Even if these particular Dothraki didn’t care for weddings, these are warrior-elites whose high status in their society depends on looking the part of an elite warrior; contrary to what movies show, that has almost always meant looking rich. And this is their chance to flaunt their most expensive bits of clothing for the largest possible audience as a way to demonstrate their importance and status in the broader society (and, by the by, an important platform for Khal Drogo to do the same, to demonstrate his own wealth and in doing so both his military success and his ability to provide gifts and status for his supporters). It would be very important for all of these men to display status – in the form of wealth – at exactly this time.

I want to stress this to make the point clear: people in the past liked to look nice! Much of the popular perception of pre-modern clothing assumes lots of dull, drab colors, undecorated or merely adorned with rough pelts, but this is almost entirely a Hollywood construction. The Romans didn’t exclusively dress in white (indeed, the toga candida, the white toga, was an unusually formal thing to wear, like a politician’s suit-with-flag-pin), medieval peasants didn’t wear drab brown (they dressed in bright primary colors mostly), and as I hope the historical pictures for this essay show, both steppe nomads and Plains Native Americans wore nice clothing with lots of patterns, color and decoration. These men next to Khal Drogo are his elite guard of ‘bloodriders,’ the companions of a ruler who wields tremendous power and wealth! And yet they have opted to wear mostly undecorated bland brown leather.

Just to underline this point, think about what a fine set of clothing communicates to an observer (for instance, one of Khal Drogo’s thousands of mounted warrior retainers who are present at this event). Imported goods, like metalwares (which nomads won’t generally be able to make themselves) or fine imported fabrics demonstrate not only trade contacts but also often that the leader has useful ties to foreign leaders (since such things were often gifts or tribute from foreign courts). Garments whose production, due to fine patterns, complex weaves, intricate beading or quillwork, would take many, many hours of production demonstrate that the leader has a lot of subordinate people in their household (in many cases, that would mean women), which both implies the ability to give these people as gifts (either in marriage or because of their non-free status) and also the access to resources (in this case herds of animals) needed to sustain so many people – in short, the sort of leader who can reward faithful warriors richly. And of course a leader who outfits his closest retainers – his bloodriders, in this case – with such wares (especially expensive foreign metal military equipment) demonstrates both access to military capital and also the ability to reward his trusted lieutenants. In short, the Khal whose person and immediate retainers are decked out in finery looks like backing the winning side, which is a very important thing to assess as one of his warriors. So even if not one of Drogo’s men cares about their personal appearance at all, it is still politically important for them to dress for success.

Which then demands the question, looking at the very fine clothing of historical horse cultures that supposedly provided the inspiration for these Dothraki fellows: Where is the exquisite bead work? The fine quillwork? Where are the carefully made fringes? Where is the silk brocade? Where are the detailed, complex patterns?

I do not think these costume decisions can be merely chalked up to budget and time concerns. These costumes, after all, are going to be reused again and again, and Game of Thrones manages to put its Westerosi characters in some notably lavish costumes! It isn’t as if some colorful paint was out of the budget! Instead, I think it is fairly clear that the intent here is to present a clear contrast between the rough, simple and brutal (we’ll come back to that next week) Dothraki and the more ‘civilized’ (if decadent) Westerosi. That isn’t an invention in of the show either, it’s fairly explicit in, for instance, the contrast between the description of Dothraki leather clothing (AGoT, 83; explicitly and directly contrasted with “rich fabrics and sweet perfumes”) with Viserys, “splendid in a new black wool tunic with a scarlet dragon” (AGoT, 84) and Dany in “her wedding silks” (AGoT, 84). Compare also and Dany’s gift to Viserys of “a tunic and leggings of crisp white linen, leather sandals that laced up to the knee, a bronze medallion belt, a leather vest painted with fire breathing dragons” (AGoT, 329); she has produced the Dothraki style, but made it out of what the narrative clearly considers richer and more finely described materials.

The description of their hair is also relevant: the Dothraki “greased their long braids with fat from the rendering pits” (AGoT, 83). For once, there isn’t nothing to this; some Native Americans did use bear’s grease on their hair because it gave a distinctive reflective shine. And to be fair, Martin does describe Khal Drogo’s hair as “oiled and gleaming” (AGoT, 89), though I find the conversion from ‘specific animal products mixed and selected for the use’ to “fat from the rendering pits” a bit rough in its tone, but it isn’t necessarily wrong on the merits. But if Martin’s description here passes muster, the show’s depiction certainly lacks the L’Oreal gleam that the book implies; it also strips away the last bit of decoration, the small bells that Dothraki riders are supposed to wear in their hair to taunt their enemies. Likewise, the braids of the Dothraki in the show are often very rough (where the hair is braided at all):

Patterned, woven cloth on the horse, but not on yourself. A curious choice and one that, I will note, is not mirrored by actual horse cultures.

A Game of Telephone

Now it is important to note that we are dealing with what are essentially two stages of adaptation: a historical exemplar has been adapted (or invented out of stereotypes, as the case may be) to make the text of the book, and then the text of the book has been adapted to produce the visual language of the movie (that the historical exemplar did not meaningfully intervene in this second adaptation is, by this point, obvious). At each stage of this adaptation, the visual signifiers of cultural complexity and sophistication were removed, replaced with standard Hollywood trope signifiers of ‘barbarians’ who wear lots of undecorated leather and fur and haven’t invented the comb.

What I have tried to show here is that this is not a case of “book good, show bad,” but rather a situation where the show has taken an already flawed description and pushed it to be even more flawed; the depiction is made more extreme, but extreme in the same ways. Only the velocity has changed, not the direction.

Via Wikipedia, a better example of what the Dothraki probably ought to look like, a late thirteenth century illustration of the Mongols in battle from the Jami al-tawarikh: nice metal helmets and long silk or wool robes (possibly reinforced with armor) in bright colors. For reasons that are going to become clearer as this series goes on, Eurasian Steppe Nomads are much better models than Native Americans of the Great Plains for the setting Martin has created, though he reconstructs neither society to any great degree of accuracy.

What I want to draw attention to is how each of these changes, both in the book’s text and in the show’s visual language, tends towards flattening the sophistication of the supposed historical exemplar. Soft, purpose-made high quality buckskin becomes just leather (explicitly contrasted with other, higher quality materials). The complex patterns of a war-shirt becomes a simple vest (which then becomes a collection of crude leather belly-straps that have more in common with bondage gear than with clothing). Intricate decorative beading, quill-work and fringing is reduced to the flat adjective ‘painted’ (the only description of what is painted that I can find is Viserys’ outfit, quoted above). In a text that often stops to impress upon the reader the rich impressiveness of clothing, (e.g. the Winterfell banquet procession, AGoT, 42; Viserys AGoT, 84; Renly and his armor ACoK, 259-61; the Qartheen, ACoK, 318, etc.), it is hard not to conclude that the absence of something like ‘painted in brilliant golds’ or ‘painted with the shapes of white running horses’ is intentional.

In short, each change pushes the depiction from a real human society, with all of the complexities that implies, where self-interested greed and brutality coexist with beauty, art, creativity and artisanal skill, towards a flat depiction of a society made up of ultra-Fremen who are too busy dominating, fighting, killing and raping for such frivolities as elite clothing. Now to be clear, I am not singling out the ‘barbarian couture’ here at the start because it is the worst part of the depiction (it isn’t), but because it is a visual signifier of what all of the rest of the depiction is going to do.

Next week, we are going to move beyond the merely visual and begin to look at Dothraki culture itself, starting with its subsistence strategies (that is to say, ‘how do they eat?’). So far Martin’s ‘dash’ of pure fantasy has proven to be most of the mixture; let’s see if there is more meat in…well, the meat that they eat.

264 thoughts on “Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part I: Barbarian Couture

  1. As a huge fan of ASOIAF – and I mean like, a *huge* fan – I also consider myself a proper critic of the books, and, well…this is probably a low point in the series. The Dothraki really fail to be as complex and interesting as other cultures (ones more inspired by European ones, I might note), and even the Dothraki supporting characters do not get the same care and complexity as other characters. It’s a real disappointment, one which unfortunately continues with the Essosi plot, although in my opinion Martin does improve in later books. Perhaps Martin’s planned return to the Dothraki in *the Winds of Winter* will show some of that improvement.

    (Just as an example: the Jogos Nhai who are described in some detail in *the World of Ice and Fire* seem to be *much* closer to actual steppe nomads, implying that at some point Martin did in fact do some damn research.)

    In any case, I’m glad you’re taking the time to properly lay out *why* the Dothraki are a failure of writing.

    A charitable read could note that, at the very least the Dothraki do wear silks and fine clothing, when meeting with the merchant-princes of the Free Cities. Obviously it’s meant to show them as playing along with their hosts, you know, wear fancy clothes at the fancy dinner, and it’s an element that quickly falls by the wayside, but it does suggest a certain amount of cultural fluency and adaptability that, if expanded on, could have made the Dothraki more closely resemble the steppe nomads they are based on.

    In any case, I know you have a preference for covering visual mediums because they are more culturally relevant, but I wonder if you might, in the future, want to cover ASOIAF in future essays. Perhaps a series on the battles of Westeros?

    1. “Just as an example: the Jogos Nhai who are described in some detail in *the World of Ice and Fire* seem to be *much* closer to actual steppe nomads, implying that at some point Martin did in fact do some damn research.”

      Not necessarily Martin doing research. That book has three authors.

  2. > As with his classic complaint of ‘what was Aragorn’s tax policy’ – there is a rich irony that, had Martin understood rulership in the Middle Ages better, he would have understood why Aragorn’s tax policy was less important.

    To be fair, tax policy was important in the Byzantine Empire/Eastern Roman Empire, which *is* an inspiration for Gondor (Beacon System and Themes). And the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England, another inspiration, did develop a relatively sophisticated tax system for a time. So it is a legitimate question to ask just *how* Aragorn did fund the Reunited Kingdom’s military and cultural renaissance.

    Not that this negates anything you said, though.

    1. It’s also a legitimate question whether the hobbits would have bothered to find out, or bothered to put it in their books about the preceding war if they did.

        1. Not clear if they owed taxes per say. They had to maintain the kings roads and bridges and they did send a levy to fight at Fornost. Their grant seems to have been of land abandoned after the plague. It not clear they were ever taxed or would have to look up and payments owed.

      1. particularly as the Shire was made an autonomous enclave by Aragorn, under its own government, where no non-hobbits can enter. whatever fiscal and organizational policies the reunited kingdom went with under the ruling House Telcontar, the Hobbits were almost entirely outside of it. so it would make sense that they didn’t bother writing about.

        1. And that was essentially just Aragorn maintaining long-standing ranger policy; which he had upheld during his time as Chieftain of the Dúnedain. Like, that’s why Aragorn was in the area and that’s why people of the area know him.

          The Shire was under the protection of the rangers, and none were allowed entry. It’s how the Shire managed its peaceful quiet existence despite the general chaos and instability of the region.

          This policy in turn was based on an earlier agreement between the hobbits and one of Aragorn’s ancestors, King Argeleb II. They promised only to acknowledge his lordship, maintain travel infrastructure and speed the royal messengers. They never paid taxes, and military service seems to have asked of them but once.

          Following the re-establishment of the Kingdom, the Thains of the Shire seem to have acknowledged Aragorn as their king so there was no need to re-negotiate old arrangements. At the very least Thain Peregrin I did.

          (This is a place where it is worth pointing out that even most of the Hobbits in LotR were aristocracy. Sure, social divisions weren’t as sharp as they were in the realms of men, but the Tooks are hereditary Thains of the Shire, with Pippin in line to inherit. The Brandybucks are a cadet branch of the Oldbucks, and Merry was next in line to inherit rulership over Buckland. The place of the Bagginses is less clear canonically, but they were rich long before Bilbo returned with a fortune; and they were known to have close ties to both the Brandybucks and Tooks, including intermarriage, so clearly upper crust. Only Samwise seems to have been from a common background, having clearly been born into a family that’s served the Bagginses for generations.)

          1. I know of no evidence that the Rangers denied all entry to the Shire to Big Folk. They guarded it from something, and one of the version of “Hunt For the Ring” has some of them trying (and failing) to stop the Black Riders. But they certainly weren’t turning away dwarves or elves or Saruman’s traders, and the Shire has its own Bounder force who were described as active (in fact, having been recently increased in numbers.)

            “It’s how the Shire managed its peaceful quiet existence despite the general chaos and instability of the region”

            The Rangers also couldn’t prevent all goblin/wolf invasions.

            The Shire’s peace comes in large part because there’s no one nearby to disturb them. Eriador isn’t chaotic, it’s almost totally depopulated. Humans are extinct apart from Bree and the Dunedain. The Rangers probably work to keep trolls and orc raids east of Bree, and maybe to keep the Barrow Wights in place (no direct evidence, but Aragorn talks about guarding Butterbur from nearby foes that would freeze his heart, and they’re the only candidates we know of.)

            But yeah, I used to think Pippin and Merry became Thain and Master because of their deeds, and then I looked at the family trees and realized they were already the ‘crown princes’. Which makes Frodo taking them toward Mordor without bringing the issue up rather odd to me. I suspect this is a case of Tolkien having ideas later and not revising the earlier text.

          2. “‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.” Since Bree is a day’s ride from the Shire, that puts those foes at most two days’ march away from the Shire. So much for nobody around.
            Tolkien just wanted to have a nice little English-village society which didn’t need protection-or, importantly taxes.

    2. Not really a legitimate question. Since it was not really one JRRT chose to write about. Maybe if he had finished his unfinished book in the 4th age set in Gondor which had a bit noir feel you expect bickering about taxes etc.

      But since his work in the Unfinished tales includes spare horse remounts for Rohan as a thing thay are a far more credible horse people than Martins where his steppe nominal nomads do not seem to have a string of 3-7 ponies with each warrior (worse in show) and also seem to prefer suicidal unarmored horse charges vs archery…

    3. I’m less interested in Aragorn’s specific tax policy and more in how taxes would be determined, and dissent dealt with. And if hobbits don’t want to write about Gondor, how about the Shire itself? It’s a small government, but does have the Messenger-service and the Watch. The former could be self-funded by postage, and the Shiriffs are few and might be hobbits of means, but there’s the sizable Bounder force. The text says that the Bounders had been recently increased — so who decided that (presumably the Mayor) and *how are they supported*? Twice the Bounders means twice the resources, where and who is that coming from?

      (Not to mention even more basic economic questions like who produces elven or dwarven food.)

      1. Not sure JRRT ever answered firmly for Dwarves but their is a few mentions I think of they trade for it.
        For Elves if you blow through all the unfinshed works now published JRRT did provided an explanation for the elves. One of the things the Nolder brought with them out of the west and shared with the elves they found in Middle earth was special grains directly breed by the Valar. One aspect of them was was containers woven out of their stalks provided perfect preservation of food stored in them. No spoiling, rot, pests etc. Even JRRT could see he needed magic to sustain the economy of hidden elvish realms. And perfect perpetual food storage is certainly magic and cuts out a huge amount of food loss so you need far less agriculture.

        1. I always figured they ate a Lot of ‘tree crops’. Chestnuts, other nuts, fruits, including berrys, fungus… Wild game.
          Something for textiles
          For all we know there is a lot of unseen agriculture..they have domestic horses, why not cattle, or tame deer,poultry..

          1. It’s a reasonable guess, and orchards do get mentioned, but it’s a guess.

            Tolkien is actually surprisingly thorough with human (including hobbit) population: for almost all of them I can point to text describing how they lived. Often it’s up front, on approach, like Gandalf saying how Beorn lived on bread and cream and honey (and his gardens and beehives are seen), or Pippin riding through the farmlands surrounding Minas Tirith. Sometimes it’s later, like Lake-Town farms and livestock on the shore only getting mentioned after Smaug visits.

            That sort of visible land use doesn’t happen for elves. Well, once: there’s an early version of Turin’s tale where he passes through farms and orchards around Nargothrond, there might even be mention of abandoned hoes. But mostly the only mention of food is hunting, and while there are often trees they’re usually not explicitly food trees. No one says anything about mallorn nuts or fruit.

            Gondolin has gardens but they’re in the city and in context seem more like flower gardens than produce ones. There’s a plain, but it’s described almost like a low-cut lawn, to expose enemies.

            (Then of course there’s the whole question of how anyone in Middle-earth lived before the Sun came up…)

          2. Interestingly, you can get a phenomenal amount of yield from tree crops, which seems to have been largely neglected in Western Europe. Acorns, for instance, produce a flour that is higher in calories per weight than even modern wheat flour (501kcal/100g vs 364 for wheat). They’re also produced prolifically by even individual trees, more than enough for a decent-sized 100+yr old tree to feed 2 people for a year (accounting for under half of all acorns harvested, the rest left).

            They’re not particularly labour intensive to process. I’ve done it myself and the process goes: crack shells, dry in front of fire, peel shells, soak for a week or two (either in running clean water like a stream, or in water warmed by fire that’s changed a couple of times a day), remove the inner skin which is now soft from soaking, grind into flour. It’s even rather tasty (I made 50/50 wheat flour/acorn flour pancakes and they’re delicious).

            They seem to have been treated as a famine food in Western Europe, but I can’t for the life of me thnk why. The flour’s not as high in gluten as wheat flour so you don’t get much rise out of it, so perhaps the cultural aversion to flatbreads might have done something.

            tl;dr Acorns could probably have sorted elves out nicely. Population of mirkwood estimated at 30,000, so 15,000 mature oak trees at <50% harvest could have sustained them without additional foodstuffs. It even ties in nicely with lembas bread being unusually filling as it would have 37% more calories per 100g than wheat bread (plus not rising so being denser).

          3. From my brief tourist experience, Corsican food culture seems to feature chestnuts quite heavily.

        2. I think elves are just magic from start to finish and don’t even run on what we’d recognise as physics. Far as I can tell, they draw their energy from another dimension or whatever via their souls, and eat food largely for pleasure rather than sustenance.

          1. Yes as I pointed out that was JRRT’s solution. Magic. But he is clear they do grow grain. Just magic multi purpose grain.


            Problem is of course the Elves not described as living off acorn bread. You seem a bit optimistic on that harvest ratio. Care to source it?

      2. There’s an account in “The Peoples of Middle-earth” called ‘Of Dwarves and Men’ part of which mentions the trade relations that grew up between Dwarves and Men (and later Hobbits):

        “For the Longbeards, though the proudest of the seven kindreds, were also the wisest and the most farseeing. Men held them in awe and were eager to learn from them; and the Longbeards were very willing to use Men for their own purposes. Thus there grew up in those regions the economy, later characteristic of the dealings of Dwarves and Men (including Hobbits): Men became the chief providers of food, as herdsmen, shepherds, and landtillers, which the Dwarves exchanged for work as builders, roadmakers, miners, and the makers of things of craft, from useful tools to weapons and arms and many other things of great cost and skill.”

        And Gandalf’s description of Thorin’s (and presumably other Dwarves’) attitude towards Hobbits:

        “(W)e actually passed through the Shire, though Thorin would not stop long enough for that to be useful. Indeed I think it was annoyance with his haughty disregard of the Hobbits that first put into my head the idea of entangling him with them. As far as he was concerned they were just food-growers who happened to work the fields on either side of the Dwarves’ ancestral road to the Mountains.”

  3. It’s interesting that the most “Fremen” culture in A Song of Ice and Fire is an amalgam of two groups of people that got that exact same sort of treatment historically. From the moment Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola all the way through to today, the many indigenous groups in the Americas have been described in “Fremen” terms and used as literary devices by countless colonial writers to justify said colonialism, with little regard for what the Indigenous peoples were actually like, in much the same way Romans and Greeks wrote about the Gaulish and Germanic tribes. The same sorts of writings go back even further for the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, with European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian writers doing similar things. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were Assyrian and Babylonian tablets that described those pesky Indo-European nomads in similar terms. And in the case of Russian colonial ventures in Siberia and Central Asia? You get the worst of both of those.

    I hope at some point in the near but undefined future we get some fantasy/speculative fiction property that depicts a horse culture with some degree of realism and with some respect to the real world ethnic groups that inspiration was taken from.

    1. Yep, in the last article there were some comments (one of them mine) defending the depiction of the Ironborn as being a lot more subtle and subverted than it superficially seems. I think there’s some really strong arguments to be made there.

      I’ve never seen anyone make an equivalent defense for the Dothraki, and I sure wouldn’t be inclined to make one. Not GRRM’s best work.

      1. Well you could go with a similar tack as with the Ironborn. The Dothraki do goofy things for a lot of the same reasons that the Ironborn do: they’re reactionaries hearkening back to the old glory days. We see the Dothraki scirmishing with each other, collecting tribute and doing slave raids. They’re not sacking cities anymore so most of what they do is try to look scary to get tribute and some slave raids, in which speed is the most important thing. They’re not really the impressive fighting force that they used to be during the Century of Blood and are more about managing trade across the Dothraki Sea than military campaigns these days. But yeah, that’s a bit of a reach.

        1. That’s a very good point. Jordan thinks that the Dothraki are still a major military force but how far can we rely on his testimony? They were stopped dead by the unsullied, disciplined heavy infantry. How would the bare chested horde to against armoured knights? Archers and pikemen?

          1. I cannot agree more. Light saber cavalry versus knights in full harness sounds like a bad deal (and there are a lot of knights in Westeros). As does saber cavalry versus professional pikemen (Lannisters). The archery they show is stunt shooting and with low weight bows whereas the Westerosi have crossbows and longbows. I am not sure I would want to be unarmored sword light horses without remounts in this context, especially as massed charges seem to be their main tactic.

          2. That actually gets brought up in the books, I think (It’s been a little while since I read them) when someone points out to Daenerys that none of the forces she has will be able to stand up to a charge of Westerosi heavy horse, even the Unsullied.
            IIRC, in the books the Unsullied are more Greek hoplites than Macedonian ones.

        2. The problem is that we know what that kind of post-glory-days-now-focused-on-trade steppe people look like, and we also know what “formerly formidable but now mostly just doing raids and intimidation” peoples look like and it’s not “minimal material culture” in either case.

    2. If you read the Fremen Series, the difference is that Europeans met the Native Americans after re-discovering nationalism/ white supremacy/ Glorious destiny, so aside from a few romantics who looked for Noble Savages, they weren’t given the “respectful enemy” treatment that Caesar or Tacitus gave non-Roman Barbarians (while still mis-representing them to make their points).

      The common writings from white Americans about Native Americans I know of are not Fremen, but … bad barbarians, un-human who need to be civilised.

      1. White supremacy was still very much in the future in 1492; Columbus and his crew would have been more likely to think in terms of “Christian vs. heathen” than “white vs. non-white”. And whilst proto-nationalism was stirring in some parts of Europe (such as England and France, where it had been given a boost by the Hundred Years’ War), nationalism in its developed form was still centuries in the future.

  4. The first thing I thought of once I saw the actual Mongolian clothing was Final Fantasy XIV’s version/adaptation/approximation of this, the Azim Steppe. Look up “ff14 nomad set” on Google Images for a good selection of the player-available outfits, and NPCs also have pink, yellow, and periwinkle blue versions (from what I remember). Obviously these aren’t perfect translations, notably the lack of patterned cloth in favor of leather accents and dangly things, and mostly dark colors, but that’s a hell of a lot closer to “Mongolian with a dash of fantasy/artistic license/development constraints” than what the Dothraki have.

    1. Though i do note that the Nomad’s aiming set seems to be a leftover suit from a Davy Crocket movie…

  5. And now I lament the missed opportunity of Daenerys expecting unwashed barbarians in leather, only to be shocked and confused by all the Dothraki in their silks and jewelry and random accessories looted from the people they’ve raided and conquered . . . whereupon she realizes that, of course, why else would they bother with the raiding and conquering except to get nice things?

    But if Martin had done that, we wouldn’t have gotten the “noble white princess meets the crude brown savages” effect that he was pretty clearly going for. Daenerys’ entire plotline has been deeply problematic from the start, long before she started being a white savior.

    1. Yeah, the lack of an riches in their society is a serious problem once it’s pointed out. It rather emphasises the fatal flaw in the Dothraki characterisation, being that they are raiding barbarians for the purpose of being barbarians raiders. They neither value nor seem to use the goods they seize which leads to a wide question as to why they even bother attacking people beyond some apparent cultural disdain for anyone who isn’t them.

      The Greyjoys have pretty much the same issue, being murderous pirates for no real reason other than some pretty flimsy world-building about an ‘iron price’ which I suppose at least puts them a notch about the Dothraki as they actually seem to want the things they’re stealing. I would have preferred some actual merchant marine Greyjoys but nope, their culture is entirely viking raiders with none of the actual society that created such things backing it up.

      1. Iron Islanders who [i]do[/i] trade have appeared in A World of Ice and Fire, where it’s said that when the Iron Islands (as an independent Kingdom) began to lose territory and power, they turned to trade in-between periods of reaving. Note that if that wasn’t in the Books themselves, then that was a deliberate choice to omit them…

        1. That seems like another example of using Hollywood stereotypes (Vikings for the Iron Islanders) instead of looking at the history.

          An independent kingdom would mostly trade; it’s the bunch of independent lords that gives you a lot of reaving. So that seems backwards.

          1. It’s more that, when their neighbors were weak they raided them, and when their neighbors were strong they conducted trade and built alliances. The Ironborn of the “present day” of the series (immediately preceding the series) actually do trade a bit – Asha has visited the Free Cities to trade and merchants come to the Iron Isles in return – but trade breaks down when Balon declares war on the mainland during the breakdown of the Seven Kingdoms’ political order.

      2. As another commenter pointed out, the Ironborn did trade a lot in the past and still do in the present – Asha describes going on voyages of trade to the Free Cities as well as merchants visiting the Iron Islands. Theon catches a ride to Pyke on a Westerosi merchant cog, for example.

        The history of the Ironborn as described in *the World of Ice and Fire* reveals further complexity, with periods of raiding when their enemies are weak broken up by periods of trade when their enemies are strong.

        By the time of the series, an ahistorical idea of a time when the Ironborn *only* participated in raiding has developed to justify a revanchist fantasy of Ironborn supremacy. The “Old Ways” and the “iron price” don’t make any sense because they’re not really supposed to, although this is rather obscured by the fact that none of our Ironborn POV characters really question the society they were born into, except Asha to some extent.

    2. If they had done that and kept the cultural savagery, it would have still worked.

      Like have two men stripping off their nice clothes to kill each other with a line about the winner gets to keep the other’s brocade.

  6. Honestly, the best description of Martin’s Dothraki I saw on Reddit and ran along the lines of: “It was like he read the encyclopedia entries for the Mongols, the Huns, the American Indians and then ignored every word of it.”

    I’m really hoping you get to the absolute ludicrous statement of “There is no Dothraki word for ‘thank you'” because that, among all the others, well and truly set me off. Like, a society built around transactional violence, intimidation, submission and tributary offering… and there is no way to express appreciation, mitigate the sting of handing things over by force, to offer a parting gesture of submission to save face? Seriously?

    Also, I’m hoping you dig into steppe logistics with this series as well.

    1. Not only that, but the elite relationships among the Dothraki are presumably built around gifts. Drogo might be the wealthiest member of his horde, but his ability to consume that wealth is limited- he can’t ride twenty horses at once, or swing fifty swords. What he’s likely to do is hand out that wealth to followers in exchange for service and loyalty. And when the king gives you a horse, he is definitely expecting you to say “thank you.”

    2. Is the “No word for thank you” a book thing, or a show thing? In the books there’s a plot point about Dothraki gift culture – Viserys thinks he’s bought Drogo’s army by marrying Daenerys to Drogo, but other characters keep telling him that Dothraki think in terms of gifts rather than transactional exchanges – Drogo will be grateful, and will likely use his command of an army to express his gratitude, but at a time and manner of his choosing.

  7. Just a note on citations: because of the many different editions and lack of chapter numbers, the standard convention in the fandom is the abbreviated title (eg. AGOT) followed by the character (eg. Daenerys) and how many chapters have featured them so far (eg. II). So, Dany’s wedding would be AGOT Daenerys II, although you can leave the book out if it’s clear which one you’re referring too. It’s still a bit unwieldy, but it does work well enough across all the editions.

    Re: GRRM and research, he’s been pretty honest over the years that he dislikes academic history and deliberately avoids it (; It’s really not surprising that he tends towards stereotypes, since pop-history is frequently not great.

    1. this makes he claims that he is writing “an accurate representation” into even more of a lie then. because with history, accuracy is derived from academic study. to reject academic study and the innumerable details and nuances it provides, while at the same time claiming that a pastiche of mildly racist stereotypes is “accurate”, not only makes one a hypocrite but also heavily damages the historical understanding of those exposed to the hypocrisy.
      and in this case it also illustrates that GRRM is also not nearly as good a writer as he claims to be, since even basic research into the actual nature of Steppe Tribes would have produced a much richer and more interesting fictional setting that would give one of his main protagonists a much more interesting narrative arc.

    2. It’s pretty clear once you do some digging that GRRM isn’t basing ASOIAF off of history so much as historical fiction, which similar to the phenomena Bret Devereaux describes in the article results in a distortion of a distortion…although its not just the ahistorical bits that get copied, but some of the tropes common to historical fiction as well.

      1. I’ve seen fan blogs discussing Martin’s admiration for Maurice druon and his accursed Kings series of historical novels about the medieval Kings of France, and how there are characters and plot points in asoiaf that are fantastical echoes of already fictionalised portrayals, such as here:

    3. I suspect even half-decent popular history, like Wikipedia, or something from the children’s section of the library (if not too old), would do better than what Bret is describing. Possibly *especially* children’s non-fiction, it’s more likely to have lots of pictures.

  8. Adding myself to the list of people applauding your choice of subject! The steppe nomads, especially the Mongols, often seem to me to be the closest thing to a ‘fantasy’ culture the world has yet produced, in the sense that they were a product of a different ecology and economy, and at least in the case of the Mongols, were able for a time to have a revolutionary effect on half the world. The stories of how the steppe world occasionally crashed into the sedentary world are so memorable that, for example, 1700 years later ‘Attila’ is still code for a cruel leader and ‘Hun’ was still an epithet. So this was a real thing, and it really was enthralling (literally, sadly) and it is sad that not enough effort is made in popular fantasy (and other fiction) to capture the complexity of what actually happened and how it worked. Great subject to work on.

  9. I feel that a lot of GRR martins cultures tend to be thinly veiled caricatures of the actual societies, ones based on the pop-culture conceptions of the author rather than historical precedent.

    I.e. wildlings, Ironborn, the church of the seven and the essos city states.

    Even how he conceives of knights and medieval peasentry are a reaction to the pop-culture of the time with a more cynical perspective. I’m not trying to justify the shallowness of the dothraki, but it’s very clear that this is present with all of his ‘made up’ cultures and even history.

    1. i think you are correct. ASOIAF is very much a world of popular media tropes with little connection to the reality those tropes claim to depict. even in the books. (the show just cranks it up to 11)
      and if GRRM would admit that he is just using popular media tropes with little connection to reality, it wouldn’t be a problem. but instead he has routinely claimed that his writing is based on real history and “accurately” depicts the societies and structures of history. which makes its utter lack of anything resembling historical accuracy a real problem.

      1. At it’s core, I think this is because the “realism” rhetoric conflates Darker And Edgier with “more realistic”. Sometimes that’s true… and sometimes that just makes it gratuitously gritty, grimy, and gory.

        1. It reminds me of what Francis Fukuyama called “the unrealism of ‘realism,'” In the real world nations are moved by frequently motivated by sentiment and ideals, their politics are influenced by domestic constituencies, etc. So their geopolitics frequently deviates from what “realism” (as the term is used in international relations) would prescribe.

  10. Sorry for offtopic, feel free to delete in moderation – but I wanted to ask for advice and check whatever my understanding and research attempts ended with something sane.

    How cities and towns and villages formed? Is following a believable progression?

    (1) Hamlet with with some houses and fields scattered in forest

    (2) Gradual growth into larger into a larger village settlement

    (3) Further growth into a town

    (4) and later into a city

    I know that not all villages has grown into town and even less into cities, I know that it is not standard for settlement to keep growing for centuries. But let’s assume that it is an especially lucky case (location in place that heavily encourages trade routes, long-term religious importance, capital etc).

    I ask as I want to make a game/simulation that will be at least some-of related to reality.

    1. This will depend a _lot_ on the culture in question. An organically developing city might follow this pattern, but you also have ample cases of someone in power deciding “we’re going to have a city here!”, and getting one.

      1. Good point! In this case it will be inspired primarily by Europe (or to be more specific, Poland).

        “sounds plausible” is going to be good enough for me, if projects survives long enough I may add more variants.

        Though focus is intentionally on more organically developing settlements – top down plans were done to death by more capable people, and if I am going to do something as a single inexperienced developer I prefer to do something original, at least there will be no competition there (though it is an open question whatever anyone except me will be interested in it 🙂 )

    2. Most important, if it is going to become a city, it has to be a port: either a seaport or on a major river. This is less because “trade center” is an an engine of growth, then due to the irreducible fact that city-dwellers *have to eat*, but do not produce food themselves- and as Bret has been at pains to remind us, in the pre-industrial world the only effective way to import large quantities of foodstuffs was by water.

      1. Yes, ideally the system would offer a specific reason for ‘levelling up’. Villages can form for many reasons – a nice patch of fertile land, a defensively sound position, good water supplies. Towns and small cities need to have good communication, almost certainly including water-based transport, and a number of nearby villages for which they are the market/governance centre. Large cities are typically the output of the rise of large political units with a centralised leadership.

        1. Good points, thanks for reminding me about food transport!

          Fortunately river/seaside connection is already implemented, I will just need to switch it to be mandatory (maybe with option in settings “I want to cripple development of this settlement until technology progresses significantly”).

          I already planned to use following as reason for encouraging/justifying growth

          – capital or major administrative center
          – religious/cultural/ideological/symbolic importance (Jerusalem, Mecca or some more local but important location such as Częstochowa)
          – location of important resources
          – location on trade link

          With option to disable (default mode would be “unrealistically lucky location” and with “realistic” available that would be likely pretty boring, after all typical settlement will never grow into a city).


          I guess that in some extreme cases “good water supply” may be a sufficient justification, for example in a generally dry area?

          Disclaimer: I intend this project as pretext to learn about 3D rendering and history, with some chance for usable and entertaining simulation and even lower chance for a playable computer game.

      2. I agree pre-rail you going to need a good river or a good port. A good location and one that is defensible helps to get you started. But you cannot exceed local transport constraints without water transport at hand. I suppose you can get an out sized garrison town if a large polity is willing decide it must have X place occupied and is willing to keep at a net loss.

        1. While that is often true, there are exceptions: Jerusalem, most famously doesen’t have much in the way of river transport.

      3. Madrid is a major city that is not on a major river, although it’s an exception that illustrates the rule. It’s only a city because Philip II decided to make it his capital, and the lack of transport and of a major water supply placed severe constraints upon the city until 19th century engineering solved the problem. I believe some historians have argued that the constraints on the economic productivity of the Spanish capital were a contributory factor in Spain’s decline from a major European power.

      1. Thank you! I was reading Lonely Cities series and I really enjoyed it – but I probably should reread it given that I forgot about importance of water-transport. And I completely missed this GoT article. My main worry right now, is not about how large city worked, but about growth from empty area into village/town. Is it at least semi realistic to:

        – depict initial settlement as huts in forest, with some area cleared for fields
        – have this settlement organically growing with more dwellings and fields appearing and more forests getting cleared away
        – gradually have bigger buildings appearing
        – with walls/fortification/fort/tower/small castle appearing at some point

        I know that some (rare cases? nearly all?) villages were created from scratch in organized fashion[1] – and most of them probably remained static for a long time.

        So I am not sure is such depiction of gradually growing settlement is at least sort-of-related to how growth into a town worked.

        [1]chartered? I looked for and failed to find an English term for “lokacja” – giving specific – sometimes existing, sometimes a brand new – settlement a local law and taxes/privilege. Often copying rules from a specific town – “Magdeburg rights” were popular template in Poland.

    3. First you have to ask why did the village form in the first place. In almost all cases this is about Geography.

      In the US: Boston, New York City, LA – all the big cities near the ocean formed there because of the natural harbor. Inland St Paul formed because it was about as far upstream as you could float a boat (the Army has since improved this), and there was a natural place to unload boats. Thus the cities formed because anyone with something to get elsewhere had to get to the nearest city. Well you didn’t have to, but shipping by anything other than water was expensive. Places without a good harbor would load a smaller boat down the shoreline to the good harbor and then everything goes to the bigger boat.

      Cities like Minneapolis formed because there was a waterfall. Waterfalls mean two things: a source of water power to tap into when there is industry (but not until then – so this factor to city growth depends on technology level of your game!); and also all boats upriver had to do something to get around the falls, normally unload and go around on land, which means that shippers need to hire extra help in the area, and also since they are unloading anyway they may as well trade.

      Note in both cases above what this is really about is trade and jobs, not directly water as the other responses said. So if your game models trade well you can just use that as a factor of growth while ignoring the water factors at all: players can force any city to grow if they work at it, but the penalties for not choosing the above types of places will mean they have to work harder vs competitors that try to grow a more natural locations. (this also implies mountain passes should get a bonus if you don’t model trade)

      Now to villages:

      A “small farm” village grows anyplace where farmers find it inconvenient to walk from their house to the fields (see You live in the village (important if army attacks are real and the village has walls) and walk to the fields, so if it is too far to your fields you start another village with others who also have to walk to around your farm.

      Large farms probably mean livestock (until you have tractors to farm it – a man can only work so much ground in a day) and more movement anyway. So they tend not to live on the village at all, but camp where the livestock are at the moment. They still need a village for trade, but it can be farther apart. (I’m interested in what the rest of this series says about this – I don’t know much about the reasons for villages in this type of area.).

      Note that the American west is an interesting exception. Land was sold (or given away) in large plots which meant you had to live on the farm not in the village to get to your fields. (in the case of free land it was only free if you could prove you could work the whole thing – many farmers lost their land when an accident meant they couldn’t work all the land even though they could grow enough to survive). In this case you need a village close enough that you could get there and back on market days, which like small farm villages above had to be scattered around in otherwise useless places. I tend to think if cars hadn’t happened the farms houses would have turned into villages by the great-grandchildren turning into the small farm model previous. But instead farms are getting larger and most farm villages are dying or dead because farmers can go a lot farther in a day (but school children still go to town daily so supporting schools is life for a village)

      There is one other village: the mining town. These grow fast while minerals are easily available, but die when the mine closes. I know the least about these, so it might be worth looking more into these towns.

      Then there are cities that grow because of other powers. There are several ghost towns in the US where the founder never got them to work out, so be careful about this factor. However if the king/god decides to live someplace, then lots of other people need to live near him (so long as he is in power, war…). If the king’s kids continue to live there, then the city will grow, but when/if the king/god loses interest and moves elsewhere the city won’t have that factor. (there is precedent for both kings and gods moving their city)

      Last, but probably most important: inertia. If the city/village can feed the people: most people like to live near where they grew up and so they stay Thus a successful city will breed success. Kids don’t move away but instead start business unrelated to the original reason for the city, and those who are unable to live in their old city/farm move in looking for a better life. Most large cities today could completely lose the original reason they starting in the first place without making any difference to growth. All of the previous paragraphs are just are really just reasons that an area is successful at keeping the kids and attracting more people.

      1. It may also be possible for developments in technology to make a site less desirable. A brief history of my home town of Stirling (learned when I was a child, may well be wrong) is that it was important because it was the furthest place downriver (for ocean going trade) that the Forth could be bridged with the technology at the time, but was overshadowed by Edinburgh when deep – draft ships that couldn’t get so far upriver became common.

    4. Villages, towns, and cities tend to have very different origins and purposes. A village is a gathering of farmers. Survival is easier if you have neighbours close by. A town is a place that supports nearby farming communities, providing tools and goods that villagers need but cannot make themselves.

      Cities can play the role of a town, but their primary reason for existence is to be a centre of worship, of government, of long distance trade, of being a geographic concentration of wealth and power. Cities naturally grow up around ports, around the residences of kings, around holy places. Places that do not have *something* about them that acts as a magnet for the accretion of money and power, rarely grow into cities.

      The industrial revolution changed the dynamics a bit, because someone builds a factory in a small town and suddenly the place becomes a city… but very often the money/power magnet is missing, and the city becomes an empty shell if the factories ever close – because despite being the size of a city, underneath it was still basically just a town supporting many factory workers instead of a few farmers.

      Recommended reading: Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities.

    5. Following on from the mention of Stirling and Edinburgh: the other common nucleus for a city is a fort, particularly where there is a defensible site that controls a river or river crossing or a pass between hills or mountains. This will often coincide with places that are convenient for trade routes, but if the two criteria don’t quite overlap the defensible site may win out. (Edinburgh for instance is centred an hour’s walk from the port.)

      1. Seeing as we’re on an article about Asoiaf, how plausible is a case like King ‘s Landing, where a promising location for a city with a good harbour and defensible hills goes undeveloped for a long time (I believe the explanation for why there wasn’t a city there when the targareans arrived is that the land was constantly fought over, and nobody held it long enough for a city to grow)

        1. I do think there is a point that cities can often be the result of policy as much as anything else, at least when it comes to the exact location.

          Eg. my town/city was founded where it was basically because the government decided that when the older city had to move (land rise is one hell of a drug) it should be here and not in (couple of other potential locations) there are reasons for having a city in this area and there are reasons for having a city in this particular spot but there are also other potential spots nearby, and that *this one* was chosen is largely down to a top-down decision. (and once the city was built “here” it basically sucked the oxygen out of the other potential sites)

          1. There’s a good study of how the Roman road network in Northern Italy reoriented the cities of the region, shrinking some and enlarging others. It’s an older article and I do not have the citation to hand right now, but if you search for it, you may find it.

          2. True. There has been a city in the Delhi area for 2000 years – it just gets shifted 10-15 kilometres this way or that every few centuries. Likewise there has been a city in the general Babylon area for 4000 years – Babylon, Seleucia, Ctesiphon, Baghdad. Each new one sucked the life from the others.

        2. Perhaps more likely is a situation where the site of the city is inhabited, but only on a small scale- small towns and distributed farms. In theory the place is a great place to put a defensible city if you build a gigantic wall around several square miles of hilltop. But you’d need to have a powerful conquering empire just to have the *funds* to build such a thing, and without the historical accident of a Rome-like scenario where the local big town becomes the center of a giant empire, it’d never happen naturally.

      2. Another source of a town, if not a city, might be a mine or particular mineral deposit. (there are plenty of decentralized mining and smelting, but also plenty of towns that basically operate around a mine and perhaps the side industries)

        1. But note that it has to be cost effective to get the mined materials somewhere.

          Particularly iron ore that you have to get to the charcoal for smelting, this can be a serious constraints.

  11. “which the book wiki uses to the exclusion of the show, I assume because they are thought to be more accurate to Martin’s vision” Or simply because of intellectual property issues?

    1. I think it’s more likely that the illustrations are purpose-made to do what the wiki is using them to do: depict a specific character/location/concept/etc with a single still image. And also that copying said image is a lot less work than hunting through an entire series for screenshots.

    2. Seems likely, when you click on image you have detailed file page with “This work is copyrighted, but the copyright holder has granted permission for this image to be used in A Wiki of Ice and Fire. This permission does not extend to third parties.”

      Also, cards were released in 2002 while show started later – maybe cards were first? Though I found no evidence for that (but I found the evidence for copyright-based rules)

  12. I think you are missing another good reason to do these series, aside from the good reasons you already have. They serve as an excellent introduction to the study of history, using popular fiction to lure in those who might not otherwise bother reading an essay on the dress habits of steppe and plains cultures (for instance).
    Once you’ve lured people here with the Game of Thrones theme, you can slip them some history before they go and perhaps fan the flames of curiousity. I’ve certainly found your essays fascinating and I’ve learnt a lot from them and I suspect I’m not the only one thats learnt a lot about things they don’t study professionally.
    I came to your site originally for world building purposes (thanks for the essays about cities!) but rapidly read everything else. I’m sure you’ve got people interested in military logistics, the practicality of armour design and the way steel is forged, when they initially only came here to see you write about 300. If people only take away that the past was a far more complex and interesting place than our popular media shows us, then you’ve done a good.
    Do keep up the good work.

    1. Shhh, shhhh. Don’t tell them we’re actually doing history here. You’ll drive off all of my readers!

      But yes, that is in fact the point of the blog – to use popular culture as a gateway to discussing some real history.

    2. I got into learning about history as a hobby entirely through fantasy games and fiction, and then branched off into a few other areas of non-fiction to support my history reading. I’m a firm believer that if you start somebody off with something they’re already interested in and teach the skill set as a kind of “rigorous fun,” then people will naturally develop from there on their own as they learn and their interests expand.

  13. Another excellent piece, and I’m pleased that you’ve adopted the book + screen comparison structure that you used for the LOTR series; this allows for some really interesting discussions of how history evolves and distorts in the process of multiple cultural translations.
    No doubt your blogging schedule is quite booked up already, but while we’re on the topic of Martin, one thing that I’d be keen to read in a future post is your analysis of his recent work ‘Fire and Blood’. This book is presented not as a novel, but as an in-universe piece of historical research ostensibly written by an Oldtown maester. There are only a handful of mainstream examples of this ‘fictional historiography’ subgenre out there, and looking at it would provide an insight into how Martin views the nuts-and-bolts of historical scholarship when the narrative conventions of epic fantasy are stripped away. The book’s subject is the 300 years of Targaeryen rule preceding A Game of Thrones, and I suspect he might perform somewhat better as a historiographer of the Seven Kingdoms than as a writer of pseudo-Asian adventure stories. I think his depictions of Western European noble society are sometimes better than you give him credit for (some of the Dunk & Egg stories – such as The Sworn Sword, which is all about minor Westerosi landowners bickering over a millstream – do a better job of conveying the importance of local networks of kinship and obligation than most other ‘medieval’ fantasy I’ve read), but as other commenters have pointed out, when he leaves this comfort zone he tends to go badly astray. Would be interested to get your take, anyhow.

    1. The problem with praising Martin for a closer-to-life depiction of medieval Western Europe, as many do, is that’s essentially giving him a participation award, since the likes of D&D or indeed Middle-earth are not trying to be medieval to begin with. I find Martin’s depiction to be quite bad from a historicity standpoint—everything about religion is utterly wrong, for instance, and that alone disqualifies ASoIaF from anything more than a loose resemblance to the historical Middle Ages—but the mere attempt at historicity may look impressive to some.

        1. I’m not here to nominate Martin for any awards, participation or otherwise, and of course he gets a great deal wrong even on his Western European ‘home turf’; in particular, he’s comically hopeless at anything involving numbers, as you rightly point out. Nonetheless, while I enjoyed your earlier series on Westeros, I do think a slight weakness was that it treated the TV series and the books as a kind of undifferentiated mass, and used the worst excesses of the former (e.g. the fact that they turned all the violence and amoral scheming up to 11, put everyone in neat colour-coded uniforms, etc) as a means to dismiss the latter. That’s part of the reason why I found the LOTR posts more effective; there you were very good at teasing out the process of adaptation from history to Tolkien to Jackson, and not only pointing out inaccuracies at different steps along the way, but also attempting a nuanced and sympathetic understanding of why exactly those errors were there. In my opinion, this made the series much more useful than a laundry list of mistakes would have been, and it really changed my understanding of Tolkien; previously I’d thought that whereas he was a master of early medieval mythology and literature, he was less good at historical detail, whereas I now see that the two go together hand in hand. On the other hand, I do sometimes get the sense that with Westeros, your starting point was ‘the GoT bandwagon needs to be taken down a peg or two’ and that this impairs your balance at times.
          Nonetheless, the new series has made a great start, and I look forward to reading an analysis of ‘Fire and Blood’ or the Dunk & Egg stories in which you comprehensively prove me wrong by showing that Martin is useless even when he’s at his best!

      1. I can (and have on the ASoIaF subreddit) complained a lot about Martin’s depiction of medieval Western Europe but I think he deserves some credit for being a breath of fresh air in the 90’s. For example religion in Martin’s stories is badly done in any number of ways but compared to what came out before him? I remember reading a whole lot of fantasy series in which religion didn’t even EXIST except in the form of vague deism or evil cults. Similarly Martin gets a lot of stuff about the nuts and bolts of Medieval feudalism BADLY wrong but a lot of the stuff I was reading at the time when AGoT was new had rural areas that looked like some bits of 19th century rural America dominated by freeholding farmers and local mayors and then the cities are full of nobles and there are kings which made my brain hurt.

        Being a teenager reading through a stack of Tolkein pastiches and then coming from that to Martin made Martin look really good. Of course looking at it as an adult all these years later I can see all of the flaws in Martin’s work but at least Martin bases things on lazy pop history instead of the completely ahistorical (and often utterly nonsensical) grab bag of Tolkein pastiche genre conventions that were popular at the time, which made him a good step up.

        I’m a bit out of the loop in modern fantasy and I’m not sure where I’d go to for popular fantasy novels that do a lot better than Martin’s lazy pop history. Bujold’s Chalion books were fairly inoffensive on that front. I’m not sure what else I can think of off the top of my head at the moment…

        1. On “medieval” fantasy there’s Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, where the Church has a very important role. Often as an antagonist to the Deryni, but the protagonists themselves are highly religious, it’s more about misuse of the Church than “religion bad”. I haven’t kept up with Kurtz, but the first six books or so made a big impact as a kid.

          Bujold’s Chalion books are drawing inspiration from medieval Europe, starting with Isabella’s Spain, but it’s not a simple pastiche or copy; the religion of the books is different, well-thought out, and critical to the world. Iselle is Iselle, not Isabella.

          Then there’s her Sharing Knife series, which in some ways feels like 19th century America because she was deliberately drawing on the Ohio River Valley; in a way it’s American fantasy instead of European fantasy. How novel!

        2. For living authors, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin King and the fantasy novels by Miles Cameron are both informed by studying other cultures through the historical sciences (anth / soc / hist)

        3. There’s lots of fun medievalism in GRRM, and indeed it’s more sophisticated than a lot of 70s fantasy (which is in itself weirdly bad, because the great source, Tolkien, is pretty good on feudal systems in particular). My main two issues with the ASOIAF portrayal of ‘medieval Europe’ are the two that Bret really nailed in his discussion a while back, being 1) the Church and 2) the fact that in a feudal system based on personal trust, being an blatantly untrustworthy scumbag is actually a relatively rare and risky approach.

          Bret generously locates the source of both these errors in GRRM’s getting mixed up with 18th century society. But as our host has noted in the past, these kind of basic mistakes/deviations from historical reality by historians/writers often reflect major issues in the society of those ‘historians’, in this case American society. Loud but profoundly insincere religiosity, and devious, unprincipled, utterly insincere political leadership certainly sound like issues that are a better fit for USA anno 2020, than western Europe anno 1300.

          1. I don’t think people in Martin are *especially* untrustworthy, it’s clearly taking place in a period of flux, and that offers opportunities, but it’s not as if the “pragmatic” people have faired any better than the trustworthy. (and well, it’s not over yet) a lot of them could be slotted into the Kalmar union period and not look out of place is what I’m saying.

  14. “this is a statement, I should note, delivered by the narrator, not a thought of Daenerys”

    I don’t think it much affects your overall point, but this strikes me as a significant misunderstanding. ASOIAF is written entirely in third person limited. There is no reliable, dispassionate, omniscient narrator. If it’s in a Dany chapter, we are getting it through the filter of Dany’s perceptions and attitudes, whether any particular sentence is marked as such or not.

    Now, Dany’s not blind or a fool, so what is described is at least an approximation of what is there, but she could very well be missing sophistication that is in a different style to what she’s used to. It’s certainly no surprise that she goes into more detail about her gift to her brother than the clothes of the scary barbarians she’s being sold off to.

    Again, I don’t think this is enough to rescue Martin’s characterization of the Dothraki. Your overall point stands. But I do think it’s important to recognize the ubiquitous narrative unreliability of ASOIAF when analysing it.

    1. I came here to post this. You can’t neatly divide the narrator and Danny, EVERYTHING that’s being told is Danny’s point of view. We can see this in the “narrator” getting things wrong in many many instances because the narrator is very much third person limited and is NOT omniscient. A clear example of this is Brown Ben Plumm, a mercenary (sometimes) in Danny’s service. He’s described very differently in Danny’s and Tyrion’s chapters, as having a more kindly grandfatherly face in Danny’s chapters and a cynical false smile that doesn’t touch his eyes when Tyrion meets him. You wouldn’t get this kind of divide (which crops up over and over and over in the books) if it was the same omniscient narrator telling both Danny’s and Tyrion’s stories, instead of us getting a particular and very much biased and limited point of view in both instances.

  15. Are you intending to say anything about the “harkonnen” cultures Danaerys encounters in Slaver’s Bay?

    1. Now that’s a good way to call them, indeed. If idealized barbarians are the Fremen, then decadent and cacklingly cruel aristocrats are the Harkonnen. To keep up the metaphor, the Corinnos would be decadent aristocrats who are potentially quite cruel, but not cacklingly so. Qarth and Volantis?

      The Starks, needless to say, are the Atreides.

      1. In the fremen mirage series, our host used the role of Princess irulan to illustrate the origin of the fremen mirage in non – fremen societies. Would that make most societies corrino? If we really wanted to push the metaphor, the unsullied would be Sardaukar, elite soldiers trained via an unusually cruel regime by decadent aristocrats.

        1. For the record, I’m fine with most societies being the Corrino. (What was their spelling anyway?) Most of them are going to be casually cruel, but of extant societies in ASoIaF only the Ghiscari seem to be singled out for excess in cruelty. (Them, and perhaps the Dothraki, but their case is already covered.)

          As for the Unsullied-Sardaukar connection, there is a bit of a discrepancy in that a) they beat the Dothraki, b) there doesn’t seem to be a possibility of the Unsullied somehow merging with others and transforming into Fish Speakers. But I might be mistaken on b), the least reason for which is that I don’t remember my “God-Emperor of Dune” all that well.

          And now… Maesters as Bene Gesserit?

          1. Maesters are useful and high-status but don’t seem to have much real power. I’d say they’re more like Mentats.

          2. I haven’t read that far to learn about the fish – speakers – I had been thinking the imperial House had been using salusa secundus to “fremenise” people they could then use as soldiers, and that was sort of analogous to unsullied training. (is been a while v since I read dune). Lady Dustin complains of the power that masters ‘ control of the raven communication network gives to the citadel – maybe there could be analogous to dune’ 0s interstellar travel and the navigator’s guild?

          3. There is a brief bit in one of the last books that suggests the maesters have been quietly conspiring to get rid of dragons and magic in general.

  16. The Romans didn’t exclusively dress in white (indeed, the toga candida, the white toga, was an unusually formal thing to wear, like a politician’s suit-with-flag-pin)

    Minor nitpick: The toga virilis (toga for normal male citizens) was also white, just not the chalk-white of the toga candida. Although any sort of toga was a formal garment, so it doesn’t really change your point.

  17. Hairshirts were regularly worn as a form of penitence. No warrior is going to put himself in that sort of discomfort while riding.

    1. Maybe they line the haircloth leggings with a softer fabric? Felt maybe. Real steppe nomads were big on felt.

      1. assuming he meant cloth made of horsehair and not something else. one of the very old media tropes of steppe nomad “barbarians” in fiction was basically buckskin leggings with the hair still on and showing on the outside. basically furry trousers.which is something that slots disturbingly well into GRRM’s description of the dothraki outfit.

        1. The original ‘hair shirt’ was made from goat hair. Not recommended against the skin. On the other hand, I have a camel-hair wrap from Rajasthan which is light, warm and fine to wear.

  18. Hell yeah steppe cultures! I’ve been fascinated by them for a little while now so to see this excellent blog touch on them in some more detail is very welcome. Looking forward to the rest of the articles.

    Your articles on the Fremen Mirage and the critique of AC:Valhalla have been fantastically helpful when constructing my own fantasy world (which is reasonably far into fantasy, but does use a number of real-world cultures for inspiration). For instance, its helped me clarify that the dominance of the ruling elite in my central culture is more down to historical sociocultural issues than any inherant superiority. The reason they dominate in the central area isn’t that they’re physically more imposing (though they are), but that they happened to come on the scene just after a major power vacuum in the native culture, similar to the Anglo-Saxon occupation of post-Roman Britain). Their physically more robust statures are as much a hindrance as a help, with increased calorie requirements and less endurance.

    I’m hoping this series can provide a similar service to my steppe cultures 🙂

  19. Here’s a thought. I wonder how well the myth of the Fremen Mirage mirrors the (now thought to be fantastically violent) spread of Indo-European cultures from the steppe (seeing as the Fremen Mirage seems so strongly bound up into Western conceptualisations of steppe cultures).

    That would seem like a point in history when a more rugged, more patriarchal society genuinely did sweep through an over a more sedentary, comparatively peaceful (for the day), and less patriarchal complex of societies. While the causes for their success are not likely due to any form of inherant physical or moral superiority (more likely being due to technological advantage and population size), I wonder if it could be the genesis for the concept of fremenity (with steppe cultures often presented as the most fremen of fremen).

    The concept of the Fremen Mirage seems to be quite well rooted in most European thought from the point at which we start seeing it written down. I wonder whether similar pervasive tropes exist in northern India and transoxiana, but not in areas that haven’t experienced the initial Indo-European migrations (so southern India, anywhere in Australasia, sub-saharan Africa, or cultures in the Americas that haven’t stemmed from indo-europeans).

    1. It’s not “more rugged” so much as “has more horses”. Or possibly “has more people”, if patriarchy turning women into baby factories means faster replenishment of numbers.

      IIRC the final post in the Fremen series talks about Mongols and other steppe horse nomads.

      “I wonder if it could be the genesis for the concept of fremenity (with steppe cultures often presented as the most fremen of fremen).”

      Also IIRC, the first post or two talked about the real point of these concepts being criticism of one’s own society.

      1. True, but those thoughts may have been distorted over years of thought. What in actuality was not a division between ‘rugged’ and ‘non-rugged’ came to be viewed as one (as is often the case with fremen mirages).

        I understand that the main point of the fremen mirage is to critique one’s own society, saying that it has become too soft and thus ineffective at war, but I was wondering where the genesis of that concept might have occurred. Considering that it seems to be ubiquitous in the Western European cultural consciousness, I was wondering if it extended as far as Roman influence (meaning it may have been a cultural concept disseminated by the Romans) or whether it was wider than that (and struck on the indo-europeans as a hypothesis for another disseminating group).

        I’d be fascinated to see a comparative study of the concept of masculinity between different ancient groups. If there’s enough evidence available, comparison between indo-european cultures and some of the great early civilisations of the middle east (Egypt, Assyria etc.), or of South East Asia/China would be fascinating. Test the ubiquity of the fremen mirage in the human consciousness, to see if it is a distinctly Western fallicy or one that spreads further.

        1. I don’t think our esteemed host ever claimed it was a universal or ubiquitous human failing, just that it was a pernicious logical fallacy shot through Western discourse from the Romantic period on. In fact in that series of articles he provides a counter-example theory, that of Ibn Khaldun and *asabiyah*.

    2. All settled cultures had a Fremen mirage: Gilgames and Enkidu in ancient Mesopotamia, the bedouins for Ibn Khaldoun, steppe warrior for Sima Qian. It is always about setting a mirror and finding a remedy for own problems while looking at others. The common trope is that civilized society is too fractious and too much effort is put in external displays.

      1. Fascinating to hear it’s present in other non-Indo-European influenced culture as well. I wonder whether cultures who themselves are viewed as fremen (nomadic warriors etc.) also hold those views about cultures deemed to be even more ‘fremen’ than they are.

  20. Part of the drabness of the clothing is likely that this is what _all_ (male, and non-luxury female) outfits look like in all fantasy and historical drama on TV these days. It’s all browns, black and tans, and maximum amount of leather. Even the color grading of the video needs to be washed out.

    I assume that this is one of the few ways the designers found of not looking cheesy. I find it likely that historically bright and garish would tend to seem “off” in the tv production.

    1. Men in bright colors is very much frowned upon if you want the men to look tough.

      John wick doesn’t kill in powder blue.

      1. Men in bright colours *in the present day* is very much frowned upon if you want the men to look tough.

        If John Wick lived in the middle ages, he absolutely would have killed you in powder blue. Probably with some gold twiddly bits along the bottom to make it look nicer and more expensive.

        But your point does stand. The cultural concept of ‘tough guy’ seems to have been equated with mute, dark colours and often not very much clothing (provided that the tough guy is brown, or viking). I think the main issue is that even within the cultural context of GoT, the Dothraki are unnecessarily poorly represented. They seem to have little issue with making John look fabulous in a very impressive fur coat while simultanously being a tough guy (in fact, the tougher he gets, the more fabulous his cloak).

        1. Jon’s fabulous cloak seems like a bit of irony since, at least in the books, Mance Rayder says that having a cloak patched with red silk confiscated from him was the final insult that caused him to side with the free folk against the watch.

          1. Could have been worse. Who was it had a cloak trimmed with his enemies’ beards?

          2. Who was it had a cloak trimmed with his enemies’ beards?

            King Rience, I believe, one of young King Arthur’s enemies.

      2. I’ve just started reading the Big Sleep, the protagonist of which I believe to be the archetypal hardboiled private eye. The second sentence of the book begins “I was wearing my powder-blue suit…”, which reminded me of this comment.

        1. I wanna say the POV guy of _The Debt To Pleasure_ self-described a colorful outfit. But he was, uh, Not Normal.

          Then there’s Willy Wonka, or some of the middle Doctors, but they’re striking because they’re abnormal.

    2. Well, there was also the aspect that a lot of dyes were not color-fast. But that’s not enough to produce the effect.

      1. actually there are a ton of Mordants and fixatives people in pre-modern times could use to make their dyes colorfast. in fact Alum (potassium aluminium sulfate), which is still the main type used today, could be obtained from evaporite deposits (created by hot springs and other mineral rich water sources), and we have sources showing its use as far back as ancient egypt. These deposits also usually included a fair bit of salt which also worked as a dye fixative to further improve the color fastness. you could also use iron, copper, and tin as mordants, to less effect (and with more danger to the person doing the dyeing.)

        ready access to proper materials to produce dyed cloth is what made some cities and regions sources of high quality textiles. and often drives growth. the roman city of Hierapolis in turkey for example, seems to have developed because of its proximity to the Pamukkale thermal springs and the extensive evaporite deposits around them, which is what made the city a major source of dyed textiles for the roman empire. (that the thermal springs also made it a center for medicine and tourism probably didn’t hurt either)

        1. If dyeing were that easy, the coal-tar dye industry would not have exploded the way it did as soon as they were discovered, given the flaws of the coal-tar dyes.

          1. coal-tar dyes weren’t particularly more color-fast.. the advantage they had was *brilliance*. coal tar dyes could produce deep colors while still being bright, something that natural dyes usually couldn’t do, especially the easily obtained ones. (and the few exceptions being stuff like royal purple.. which used an extremely hard to make dye made from difficult to obtain shells. which is why it was super rare, expensive, and generally only affordable by royalty or their social equivalents)
            with natural dyes if you want a deeper color, you usually have to accept the color being darker, and if you want a brighter result, you have to use a less deep amount of color.

            coal-tar dyes also allowed the creation of colors which natural dyes did not do well, like black, most purples, etc.natural dyes could get something close (extremely dark blue for example, and indigo or a purple made via being twice dyed with red and blue) but the end result was less rich and less brilliant in color.

          2. Coal tar dyes were so lacking in color fastness that people would wear them before washing them because of the impact of one wash on the color. One wear is not enough to make people give up colorfastness for a single use of bright, deep color

    3. It’s simple video fashion. No, there’s nothing off about bright colors on tv, and you can find plenty of old movies with bright clothes, & colors in general. Afaik the fashion started in video games, where drab colors made lighting & shading easier, then spread to other video medias. With the amount of CGI that gets used, perhaps lighting is a reason for films too these days.

      1. “I know I am in the minority, but I just love Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) and its love of silly hats. I’ve seen more than one review or retrospective declare them ridiculous, which just tells me none of those people has looked into court dress in any era (or seen the crazy hats some elite troops have worn, e.g. Janissaries).”


        Maybe bright coloured clothing has a similar “reality is unrealistic” problem?

      2. Also, don’t forget that sometimes the bright”-er” colors a costume designer might have chosen have been drastically muted and toned down by use of filters or whatever to make the past “look like” the past. I won’t forget how simultaneously delighted and distressed I was to see some of the LOTR costumes displayed under “white” light. Wow! There were colors there I didn’t even know existed! As an amateur costume designer myself, all I could think of was how I would have felt if all my carefully chosen, coordinated or contrasted colors had been submerged under that dirty water of sepia color grading.

  21. The standard plains indian outfit consisted of shirt, loincloth and leggings, originally in buckskin later in trade cloth. Granted workaday clothes would be plainer than best and the shirt might be left off in hot weather, by women as well as men, but a warrior or chief dressed up for best was a glorious sight. The outfits revealed by Kurgan burials are even more splendid, the Khazakh Golden Warrior’s crimson tunic was heavily embellished with gold. The Ukok princess had a silk blouse and a three foot headdress decorated with gilded ornaments. At the very least the Dothraki should have been jingling with jewelry. Logically they should have adapted their native dress by using the rich fabrics their raiding had gotten them, something like the outfit Dany has made for Viserys.

  22. I think you would find it insightful to contrast with those who do dress drab every day, even if not nomads.

    The Amish are probably the best known example, but if you look close they are careful within the confines of their religion to be well dressed. They nearly universally look sharp despite the lack of color. The women are allowed more color, and they use that to their advantage despite the restrictions on how they can dress. There is also cheating where they can get away with it: teens often take the carriage to town, chance into normal clothes for the night of party and then change back to the allowed clothing before going home.

    I could accept the “I wear uncomfortable clothing because I’m tough” – but the tough person who does this will have an image to uphold. Thus he will find a way to call attention to the obviously disabled person (and thus obviously not tough anyway – stereotypes are important) in the company who is clearly the richest dressed person there because the tough guy can afford to pay for it – it is important that this person out do the other parities in riches in some way to show off wealth. Here again when there is no need to appear tough I’d expect something else.

    One thing you won’t find: the poor. Even in the slums people dress nice. It might be clearly worn out clothing they found in a dumpster, but they still put forth effort to make it look nice. Unless they have need to work so many hours to get food that they fall into “bed” at the end of the day exhausted. As soon as people have close to enough to eat they start to think about appearances.

    1. I think the addendum ‘within the confines of their culture’ is a very important thing when you’re thinking about style. I was thinking this when I was speaking to both a runner and a hiker: two subcultures not normally viewed as particularly ‘stylish’ by mainstream society.

      However, within each of those in-groups there are some accepted cultural norms when it comes to style. For hikers, trousers with lots of pockets, sturdy boots (often in black or brown), and a backpack with lots of straps lets other people know that you do hiking stuff and consider yourself reasonably good at it. Coats and trousers are generally drab-coloured and unpatterned, but those are the things that are viewed as stylish within that sub-culture. They’re deliberately fashioned to be ‘unstylish’ by conventional means to mark themselves out as different to the mainstream, and are largely followed by people within that sub-culture.

      So, it would seem that even people who deliberately subvert the cultural norms for style in their culture still like to look nice to people who are in their culture.

      I wonder if we can find anyone who genuinely doesn’t like to look nice (and not in a ‘making a statement by not looking nice so they can appeal to other members of a counterculture, which is just another form of ‘looking nice’ but appealing to a different group of people).

      1. woth noting though that the elements you are calling “culturally stylish” are more pragmatic than aesthetic.. clothing and backpacks with lots of pockets and straps allow the hiker to pack extra items on their trips, and place frequently needed items at easier access. this is very important in an activity where you are going to be away from contact for prolonged time and have to carry everything you will possibly need with you. easy access also means that you are forced to stop less often when you need something, since you don;t have to unpack your backpack or bag to get to small items.

        and part of the reason that coats and trousers are drab colored and unpatterned is because the durable fabrics tend to be drab colored and unpatterned.

        but if you dig deeper into the sub-culture you notice patterns. owning specific (usually more expansive) brands of clothing or pack is viewed as more stylish than wearing cheaper or generic brands. even when the outfits are basically the same in appearance and material. owning specific accessories also has this element as well, with the nature, brand, and value of the items showing status within the sub-culture.

        1. And if something has space for stylish/freeform expression then it will be often used. For example head scarves.

          And if colors are matching between colored parts (backpack/shoelaces on boots/hiking poles/head lamp) are present then it is likely NOT an accident.

        2. You’re absolutely right on the use of brands rather than outward appearance to denote style, and the practical basis of a number of the style trends.

          I’d argue that although the propensity for pockets and drab colours have their root in practical matters, a ot of their current implementations are clearly style-driven. I’ve seen enough highly durable patterned clothing to suspect that if fashion dictated that hiking gear should be patterned then it very easily could be. I’ve also noted what seems to be an excess of pockets in quite a lot of hiking gear (or, rather, an excess of pockets for what the vast majority of hikers need or use). The concept that ‘I could need them if I go on a really extensive hiking trip…that they never actually plan on going on’ renders it as much a stylistic choice as a practical one. Stuff with pockets and straps ‘looks proper’, even if you’re never going to use them.

          It’s like other style trends that have their root in functionality. Like the popularity of riveted denim jeans evolving from practical work-wear, or those excessively-broad and highy decorated knives they carried around in renaissance Italy and Spain which evolved from genuinely carrying around knives for protection into a fashion item.

          Ultimately we agree though 🙂 regardless of what is or isn’t considered fashion, people still like to look ‘nice’ as per their cultural classification of ‘nice’ (be it outward appearance, or brand).

      2. Probably hard to find “I hate looking nice”, but much easier to find “I don’t care much, compared to cost and comfort.” The nerd uniform is T-shirt and jeans, or T-shirt and shorts in hot weather, and while you can play style or fashion games with that, for a lot of us it’s just that those clothes are cheap, comfortable, and low maintenance. And familiar: even if I wanted to “dress spiffy”, it’s an alien world. (And the one time I let a friend be a makeover consultant, I ended up with a bunch of overly thin and tight shirts with weird heavy metal patterns on them.)

        I am aware that “socks with sandals” is considered a faux pas by many, but I don’t care. Sandals let my feet breathe, while socks keep the sandals from chafing my feet. I’ve moved from strap sandals to Crocs, because however Crocs look, they’re actually really really comfortable.

        Now, I do have some aesthetic preferences: certain colors of Croc or T-shirt, or wearing tie-dye T-shirts (which I make myself, preferring some patterns and color combinations over others.) *Not* wearing orange, or corporate logos. So yeah, within my sphere I’ll care about looking nice, but the choice of clothing sphere is primarily determined by factors other than looks, which would be less true for some other people.

        1. > I am aware that “socks with sandals” is considered a faux pas by many, but I don’t care. Sandals let my feet breathe, while socks keep the sandals from chafing my feet.

          +1, I do the same (though with some additional reasons, socks also protect feet from dust/sand).

          But, still, I am not going to use dirty socks or ones with holes in them.

          [and I am going to wear such type of clothing when I go to shop/for a walk, not when I am visiting someone]

    2. An historical example of dressing “drab” but still dress as nice as possible was the dress of the “burghers” of the cities and towns in The Netherlands, specifically in Holland and Zeeland during the early 17th century. They were subject to the anti-ostentatious laws, which meant that they could only dress in black. So there was an explosion of black lace manufacture and the sort of cloth that was dyed black also became more expensive. It started with normal wool and linen, but richer people then wanted velvet and silk for instance. So yes, everybody wore black, but it was fairly easy to see who was (or wanted to appear) more wealthy. There are quite a lot of “Schutterstukken” (large paintings\groupportraits) in which you can see this in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

  23. Horsehair cloth is extremely uncomfortable, but I assumed that by “leggings” he meant something like chaps? They’re generally cowhide, and you wear normal trousers underneath… sounds fairly plausible for a horseriding culture that spends a lot of time riding through extremely tall grass.
    tomrichards’ point above is a good one – the descriptions of the wedding are very definitely from the point of view of an outsider, and one who is horrified by the whole experience. Hence “fat from the rendering pits”. But the show doesn’t have this excuse. (And it’s not as though previous descriptions of horse nomads have been as bad. Omar Sharif managed to get hold of some decent embroidery and interior decor when he played Genghis Khan.)

    1. even cringe worthy depictions have managed to do better than this. it is ironic that the terrible racist 1956 “The Conqueror” with John Wayne in yellowface as Ghengis Khan managed to do a better job of depicting Steppe nomads, which says something about how bad the Dothraki are in that regard.

  24. I haven’t read ASOIAF or watched GOT (shhh! I must be the only person on the planet!) but I still enjoy your discussions, Bret!

    Here are a few typos or other mechanical corrections for today’s post:
    not, in turns out -> it turns out
    seriously, as art are the -> as art,[comma] are
    that thereis a ‘dash’ -> there [space]is
    strike me as deeply improbably. -> improbable
    an invention in of the show -> [delete in]
    Compare also and Dany’s-> [delete also]

  25. Wow! Very interesting post.
    Bonus Information for me: I did learn a great Deal about American stereotypes of native americans.
    My own stereotypes mostly Come from the books of german author Karl May (which was in no way an accurate description). There the People (mainly the apaches) were usually descibed as looking very nice and the reader was told how comfortable and well made everythIng was. So I never Made the connection between dotraki and native american.

    1. I’m also currently wondering about the difference between the Karl May-inspired stereotypes in Germany and the american stereotypes. I’m not entirely sure how the appearance is described in the books, but at least in the movie adaptations from the 1960s (which I watched to death as a child, and which are to my knowledge still popular and regularly shown on TV) the chiefs and higher-ups always had more elaborate clothing than the Helloween-costume you showed (google for “Winnetou”). However, the rank and file always looked much more like the stereotype you describe here, including people being bare-chested and clothing being brown and boring with a few fringes.

      Curiously, I do recall the kind of Helloween costume you showed being sold in Germany. I wonder whether that’s just a cultural US import, or whether I’m misremembering something.

      1. Now the main theme of the “Winnetou”-Movies is playing in my head. I also watched them as a kid. 🙂
        I have to look at old Carneval-pictures, because I don’t really remember how elaborate those costumes were.

  26. Hello from the west of the Eurasian steppe, a small town not too dissimilar to the Town from Pathologic!

  27. Note that in the series Dany, the Khaleesi, their queen, wears what looks like rags, a halter top with unravelled edges and ragged pieces of hide hanging over her trousers. What the heck? I mean these people can’t even sew a hem??? See the images of the Cheyenne woman and a hide dress above. That’s what a well dressed plains woman wore. Comanche women had accessories, a neckpiece and a buffalo skin robe, that were decorated with coup marks, etc. To show what fierce and successful warriors their husbands were. There’s nothing but her white hair to distinguish Dany, wife of the great Khal, from any other woman. That’s just ridiculous.

  28. > Withstanding extreme temperatures is not a question of ‘toughness,’ it is a question of physics and biology.

    As an interesting aside, there are some real-life human subpopulations with actual biological differences that help with extreme temperatures and other issues. This TED-Ed video gives some examples:

    Naturally, evolving biological differences like that takes quite a while, and the problem needs to be severe enough that the biological adaptation detectably improves your odds of surviving to have children (otherwise it wouldn’t be selected). If you *could* compensate for the cold just by adding another layer of clothing, then it would be very surprising to evolve the ability to endure *without* the clothing.

    > Only the velocity has changed, not the direction.

    In the spirit of unmitigated pedantry: Physicists conceptualize “velocity” as encompassing both speed AND direction, so this sentence is somewhat jarring. It’s kind of like saying “only the size of the skyscraper has changed, not its height”–a change in height would also be a change in size, so the contrast doesn’t make sense (though the sentence may still be formally true).

    1. As hinted by the prior comment, “speed” is the formal physics term for the magnitude of velocity. This is one of those cases where the less-fancy word is more precise.

    2. On withstanding extreme temperatures, this is also as fantasy setting which we’re dealing with. The Dothraki might have some kind of minor ‘magical’ endurance of the extremes of day/night and seasonal variations.

      Although not bothering to dress up to show off wealth and power and status (even if that’s done via jewellery/accessories rather than clothes) for a wedding is not excused by any kind of inherent temperature endurance…

      I’m not familiar with Mr. Martin’s work, except via essays like this, but I’m commenting on what I’ve seen mentioned and discussed here. And there are fantasy roleplaying games I’ve come across where ‘immune to climate extremes of temperature’ is a thing.

      1. The show had many scenes of a half-dressed Dany, palest of pale white girls, marching across a sun-bleached desert without getting a sunburn. I joked this must be her Valyrian magical heritage at work. That might not actually be a joke…

          1. I’m not sure that makes sense. Sunburn isn’t caused by heat; it’s caused by ultraviolet radiation. I’m not sure there’s a single violation-of-physics that would make you immune to both heat AND radiation damage (without also making you immune to lots of other stuff).

            I mean, maybe once we’ve allowed that “immune to fire” can be a thing in the first place, then the world is operating on magical logic rather than physics, and it “makes sense” that it protects you from everything that people ANALOGIZE to fire, including radiation “burns” and friction “burns” and freezer “burns” and even the “burn” you feel on your face from an intense blush, regardless of underlying physical mechanism.

      2. That’s actually quite a cool idea for a fantasy culture. Showing off how they don’t need cumbersome clothes to survive an extreme environment could be a mark of status and good breeding for the local elites, favoring minimalist outfits. I don’t think GRRM is deploying such an idea intentionally but it would be an interesting cultural quirk elsewhere.

        1. I’ve tried to use this to justify some of the ‘shirtless barbarians’ I’ve got in a fantasy work I’ve got, but in the opposite direction. This bunch are robust, cold-adapted humans who live on a world experiencing an ice age. In summer (the campaigning season) they frequently fight with minimal clothing to show off that they’re physically superior to other cultures. I’ve tried to keep a shade of realism by having them cover up in all other season though (and in clothes that are appropriately ornamented, rather than ragged furs).

  29. This is a bit off-topic, but I recently got back into the Wheel of Time series (what with the upcoming Amazon Prime series) and noticed that the Aiel are pretty much this trope as well, though from what I can tell it’s handled with a modicum of grace. Do you think you’d ever be interested in covering them?

    1. The aiel are definitely Fremen. Like, almost explicitly exactly fremen. Down to some details in their backstory, IIRC. It’s more of a direct lift (homage if you want to be generous) than just about any other example.

    2. The Aiel are the most ludicrous Fremen in all of fiction. Their armies are faster than everyone else because they don’t have horses to make them slow and lazy!

      That said in Jordan’s defence, he’s subverting the pseudohistory of mainstream fantasy from the other direction to Martin. Instead of trying to make his harsh but noble barbarians more like the steppe nomads that inspired the trope he tries to make them less like that and invent an entirely different pseudo-celtic pseudo-zulu culture that fits the trope. He does the same with his fake-european medieval nations – they all match the usual fantasy tropes but the cultural signifiers that usually go along with them are scrambled. Even the decadent, hidebound empire who put lacquer on everything are more american than asian.

      This approach was less exciting than Martins at the time, especially since it looked like the more blatant Warhammer-y style of pseudohistorical fantasy was on it’s way out, but I think it’s held up much better.

  30. It looks like at least some of the photos of plains peoples you’ve used are by Edward Curtis, so you may find this project interesting:

    Tl;dr there’s a body of critique of Curtis’s methods and work, much of it by indigenous people. Curtis often posed his portraits in a way that fit more with his own stereotypes of native peoples than with their lived reality, and had a romantic “vanishing Indian” vision of his own when taking these photos.

    1. Not sure when the photos in the post were taken, but I suspect it was long enough ago that the exposure time was many seconds with a lot of setup (good light outdoors on a sunny day etc.) first.

      The subjects would likely have gotten dressed up in their best first, if they had any idea of what the whole process was about – just as you are unlikely to pose for a Christmas portrait in the clothes you use to clean out the garage.

      The urge to “plainness” in speech, clothing, manner, etc. starts as a reaction to other’s “richness”. The earliest example I can think of is Cromwell – the New Model Army dressed deliberately plainly partly to differentiate themselves from the Cavaliers. No doubt there are earlier examples. Later examples would be the reaction against wigs, and later hats, or the fashion for jeans in the sixties as a reaction against the gray suits.

      In the next generation (or even earlier) it transforms into its own style – and gets decorated etc. So today you have $300 jeans, suburbanites who would never haul anything anywhere buying large pickup trucks to project an image, or hiking clothing worn by people who want to look like a hiker but wouldn’t do anything more outdoorsy than walking in the closest park.

      1. I remember around 1998 looking around a meeting at work — software startup in SF — and noting all the hiking boots being worn to the office. The SUVs of feet!

        Though in my case I had hiking boots because of geology field trips, and I don’t have many shoes at one time. I may not have owned anything other than 3 pairs of boots.

      2. That issue of deliberate plainness to contrast with richness comes up in Dany’s arc, although not with the Dothraki. There’s a place where elaborate sculpted hairstyles are popular among the mobility and the equivalent of knights. Following a regime change, a political faction arises advocating a complete swiping away of the old power structures and harsh measures to bring into line those of the old nobility who resist. To signal their allegiance, members of that faction shave their heads and become known as Shavepates. I hadn’t thought of roundheads as a possible influence until I saw your comment.

    2. That critique is probably valid (it certainly sounds like something us white men would have done), but unless he also gave them costumes to wear it doesn’t impact this blog’s use of the evidence.

  31. Will read the book series after it’s finished, unless Martin or I die first.

    As to the series Dothraki? It looked to me the Dothraki warriors only had *one* horse to ride. And the Dothraki sea seemed more like a desert than grasslands suitable for raising big horses, or even watering them on a regular basis. The Dothraki never seemed in the least believable.

    That had the unexpected effect of making Daenerys becoming the supreme leader by killing all the other leaders just a trifle more believable. I think it was because a bunch of people who didn’t know to have a string of horses, or even hang around the water sources where there was a lot of grass were too stupid to have a competent form of government change either.

  32. Ah, the Dothraki—Martin’s greatest mistake (which, IIRC, he acknowledged as such, if too late to fix it), one which D&D ramped up to 11*. Should be fun.

    *If this was a different kind of fantasy lit blog, you could probably fill a couple more posts with just discussions of how badly the Dothraki were treated plot-wise in the post-books (and technically-still-in-the-books-but-badly-derailed) seasons.

    I am sometimes baffled that the very fans who insist that their particular loves be treated seriously, as art are the same fans who react with frustration if one then sets out to interrogate those same genres the way one would interrogate serious art or literature.

    Speaking as someone who consumes, creates, and comments on such analysis, and who also consumes and creates* a fair amount of narrative media, thank you. To paraphrase Dan Olsen, people seem to pay lip service to accepting this kind of analysis and deride any actual analysis as “overthinking it”.
    It seems like they want their favorite stories to be given the treatment classic literature gets—being treated as high-class literature, praised, respected, but never really criticized. (Hot take: Shakespeare is overrated, Romeo and Juliet especially.) Unfortunately, you don’t get that kind of criticism resistance in a single year or even a single generation.

    *…well, outlines mostly. But I publish some of it…mostly the fanfiction…look, I’m arguably technically an author!

    …it turns out that hypothermia and heat exhaustion do not care how many reps you can do or how uncomplaining and tough you are.

    But everyone knows that extreme environments deal periodic nonlethal damage, so having more hit dice would make you more resistant to temperature extremes! You still want endure elements, but if you’re short on magic the tougher characters can last longer without. (You’ll still hemorrhage CLW wands until you get back to civilization, though.)
    (…wait, 5e probably uses exhaustion levels, since nonlethal damage isn’t a thing any more.)

    Seriously, do not dress in red face for Halloween. Or at any other time.

    Yeah, sunscreen is important.
    …wait, you meant the intentional kind of red-face.

    1. D&D? … Oh, you mean Dave Benihoff and D. B. Weiss. I was wondering how I’d missed the Dungeons & Dragons tie in.

  33. Suggestion: give the chapter title, and/or a nearby phrase, for people with different editions, so they have a better chance of finding the reference?

  34. Thank you for this. Beyond being plain offensive, the depiction Dothraki is also very boring in its simplicity. It’s like the bare minimum popculture stereotype of steppe nomads, which would be fine as what non-Dothraki think of them, except it’s played completely straight in a very dull fashion.

  35. I think that the main thrust of your argument is right but there are a few things you’ve gotten wrong. Since me nodding along in agreement with all of the correct stuff doesn’t serve much purpose, I’m going to run down the few instances where I disagree with you:

    1. “I am sometimes baffled that the very fans who insist that their particular loves be treated seriously, as art are the same fans who react with frustration if one then sets out to interrogate those same genres the way one would interrogate serious art or literature.”

    I think you’ve misread ASoIaF fandom a bit, one thing I like about it is that it’s pretty good at sorting out what are fair and unfair criticisms of GRRM. For example this article got posted here: and everyone seems to like it. Nobody is saying that you’re being unfair to Martin. A lot of Essosi cultures being caricatures is a common complaint from even the most hardcore fans of the series and “aaaargh, why are light cavalry armed with swords doing frontal charges against infantry!” is a VERY common complaint in fandom.
    That said, I think most of ASoIaF fandom doesn’t realize how badly Martin misunderstands some of the nuts and bolts of feudalism but I don’t think they’d get grumpy if you pointed them out.

    2. “I should note, delivered by the narrator, not a thought of Daenerys’” 

    As has been pointed out upthread Martin’s POVs are all third person limited, which means that they share the biases and misperceptions of the POV character. You can see this very clearly when the same character meets two different POVs and the “narrator” describes them quite differently in each chapter, in ways that line up with each character’s biases.

    So in all of Danny’s chapters dealing with the Dothraki you’re dealing with Danny’s biases AND Martin’s and it can be a bit hard to tease out which are which. Martin does get a lot of things wrong, but the dismissive tone of the narrator is Danny’s perspective not some omniscient neutral narrator’s.

     3. “But we should be clear that the straight-line reading of Martin’s words is exactly the form of clothing we see in the show.”

    I don’t think that this is right. In the bit that you quote Martin describes that the leather is “painted” and in the show it’s not. And again and again and AGAIN in the books Martin describes things in bright colors and then the show gives us dull browns. The Dothraki in the books also seem like a lazy pop-history version of Native Americans expanded up to the scope of the Mongols rather than Mongols themselves so Martin is probably thinking of the designs of painted teepees adapted into clothes. And yeah, that has a whole host of its own issues but it isn’t what the show gives us.

    But you are right that Martin should have given us some description of the details of how they’re painted rather than just saying “painted.” But I don’t see any problem with thinking that they’re wearing Native American-style buckskin rather than Mongol-style woven cloth or fucking biker leather since a lot of the Dothraki seem to have come from Martin watching a lot of Westerns as a kid. As you point out Martin is giving us kind of shitty Halloween costume Native American clothes, which is bad for any number of reasons, but even shitty old Westerns got the difference between buckskin and biker leather right so I don’t think that the show’s leather is at all how Martin imagines the Dothraki.

    For the horse hair leggings, I assume they’d be their equivalent of chaps which you’d wear something more comfortable under.

    4. “so there is little reason to assume it would be warm all-year-round”

    There is actually a very good reason to assume that it would be warm all-year-round. It’s going to be summer all year. If you have seasons that stretch on for literal years then it makes sense to wear light clothes in the summer since you’ve got a loooooooong time to prep for winter. Of course Martin doesn’t seem to have thought through the implications of long seasons very well but that’s a separate issue.

    5. For the wedding, Martin specifically says that the Dothraki were wearing “rich fabrics” at the time. Now it is bullshit that they don’t wear snazzy clothes at Vaes Dothrak etc. but going by the book they should be wearing them when they’re at Pentos for the wedding.

    6. I think the difference in Dothraki hair in the book and the show are important. The shiny carefully braided hair full of jingling silver bells is exactly the sort of ostentation that you’re saying that the Dothraki should have. Now, as you point out, that should be one element of a big package of ostentation but Martin does get that bit right and the show took it out COMPLETELY. That means that the show really isn’t giving us a “straight-line reading” of what we see in the books, especially as the braids are very culturally important in the books.

    Addendum: some people are bringing up Martin’s quote about Aragorn’s tax policy. I think they’re misunderstanding it. Martin is NOT criticising Tolkein for not getting into the weeds of stuff like tax policy but rather just saying that good people don’t necessarily make good rulers and you can have moral people who are incompetant and vice versa.

    1. Winter can come at any time. You do not, in fact, know that you have a long time to prepare for winter.

      1. I don’t think that’s really the case. We have a definite autumn period in the more recent books. You don’t just go from high summer to BAM snow everywhere.

          1. Yeah but “get warm clothes.” Isn’t too much preparing compared to other things.

          2. ASOIAF autumn lasts quite a long time. (the entire series has taken place during one autumn)

      2. They don’t know precisely how long a season will last, but they have a general idea. The maesters of Oldtown use ‘science’ to keep track of seasonal progress; it’s likely that there are less precise and/or objective folk ways that also alert people to the general progress of the seasons, since people have survived for millenia, at least, on this wacky planet, and the maesters don’t seem to have any significant reach beyond the Seven Kingdoms.

        And, of course, magic was more commonplace before the Doom of Valyria.

        Mind, when you reflexively hoard when the times are good you don’t need as much warning.

    2. Good points, but I think the issue is less around the ‘fandom’. People who like something enough to engage with and discuss its flaws aren’t overly the problem.

      The unique thing for GoT (and LoTR too, come to think of it) is a level of mass-market appeal hitherto unprecedented for a serious work of medieval fantasy. There are peope watching GoT who wouldn’t touch any other historical fantasy with a bargepole. With this newfound reach there comes a responsibility to educate (or at least challenge stereotypes) about what the past was actually like (especially if GoT is making a point of being relatively realistic).

      The fandom certainly sounds like its got its head screwed on straight, but these aren’t so much the people we’re worried about skewing the beliefs of.

      1. Well there’s an obvious split between book and show fandom, especially in its different gradations between hardcore and casual but the way Bret talks about it (“I am sometimes baffled that the very fans who insist that their particular loves be treated seriously, as art”) he seems to be talking about the more hardcore bits of fandom.

        Now ASoIaF fandom isn’t perfect and can veer towards the pedantic and tinfoily at times but it’s pretty good as far as fandoms go and, especially these days, it’s very willing to criticize the flaws in Martin’s writing (especially the sloppy worldbuilding), although of course you’ll get push-back if you criticize things that aren’t flaws such as “characters die randomly out of the blue for no reason!”

        As far as GoT, what’s left of fandom is ready to burn the showrunners at the stake. For example the Freefolk seems to be one of the most active showfan sub on reddit and criticizing the showrunners is pretty much ALL they do.

        But yeah, plenty of casual fans who just digest various things uncritically but they don’t seem to be the ones “who insist that their particular loves be treated seriously, as art”

    3. I think my favorite example for what the Dothraki probably should’ve looked like (on a display of wealth vs. ethnic identity level) from an inspiration culture for the Dothraki is the portraits of Yuan Dynasty nobles. Fur clothing became an identity marker for Mongols who didn’t want to seem too assimilated as well as non-Mongol people who wanted to express their affiliation with the new ruling power. Or just because it looked cool.
      The portraits of Kublai Khan’s consort Chabi and Shunzong’s consort Targi ( are probably the most striking. Both are wearing deel and a boqta (a hat which was the inspiration for the hennin, the tall conical cap we associate worn by later medieval European women). Everything is richly dyed, embroidered and beaded, and they are wearing many layers. Every one of Chabi’s layers is decorated, which means she has the money to spend on expensive printed/brocade silk even for something that’s people will only get a peek of. The fact that they have pearls is itself noteworthy, since that means they had access to saltwater pearls that originate far from the Steppes. Likewise, the feathers on her boqta (more clearly pictured in this picture of the wife of Emperor Yingzong ( are peacock feathers, and I believe that the Indian subcontinent is as far east as peacocks naturally live.
      In nothing but clothing language, we know that these women are wealthy enough to hide expensive fabric under more expensive fabric, have many workers to labor on their wardrobe, and have access to expansive trade networks. And that they are still Mongol. These are not Han clothes- the deel looks roughly like Han ruqun from the shoulders up (though short over-sleeves were popular among Han women) but the boqta is specific to Mongol women (one this tall and richly decorated is a marker of a queen consort). Finding a way to convey ethnic identity (including one that self-identifies as practical and salt-of-the-earth, which I have no idea if the Mongols did themselves) and wealth and power through clothing is hard, but it’s the kind of challenge that makes a dedicated costume designer wake up in the morning.

      1. There are freshwater pearls. In fact, they were a REALLY BIG deal for the Qing, such that overharvesting and the subsequent lack were something the government concerned itself with.

        (See A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule by Jonathan Schlesinger. Also relevant as a discussion of what civilized people who tell themselves they are still barbarians wear.)

        1. I didn’t know that about the Qing and freshwater pearls! (I only knew that they weren’t common in Europe except via Scotland). Nonetheless, I’d argue that my point still stands, since water is pretty scarce in the Steppes and (semi or fully) nomadic herders and traders probably aren’t going to do much harvesting themselves, so it’s still a marker of wealth and proof of conquest and/or access to trade routes. I’ll definitely check that book out though.

  36. This was a very enlightning read. I was completely blown away by how anti-Native American the depiction was. I had already known that Martin had failed to represent Eurasian step cultures well but I had no idea how bad the Dothraki where fro a first nations perspective (or that he was basing them of First Nations at all).

    I suppose it shouldn’t shock me given how poorly he treats pre-modern european and asian cultures and religions. I already thought his critisims of Tolkien and claims of accuracy where poor but this really takes the cake.

  37. “Martin doesn’t seem to have thought through the implications of long seasons very well”.

    You are correct in that. However I think that if he had, the resulting cultures would have been unrecognizably strange. I don’t think you get anything that looks northern European when you can pull two to three harvests per year because it never gets cold. On the other hand, if you get Mediterranean summer levels of rainfall, i.e. low, then you end up with deserts everywhere.

    I think he put it in as the Ragnarok “overhanging sense of doom” that goes with all the other catastrophes happening. Barbarian invasions from everywhere, new religions, civil war, and oh yeah, it’s getting colder. Fits with “darker and edgier” too – “it’s getting colder” means there is no happy ending.

    1. That is one thing I have never gotten clear about. Is it really that the average daily temperature stays at say, 25 C, for thousands of days, and then switches to -5 C for a few thousand days?

      I’d gotten the vague impression that there was a normal seasonal variation over a year, with a longer and larger irregular variation imposed over it. So you have Summer summers and Summer winters, but then changed to Winter summers and Winter winters.

      1. I’ve seen the fan theory of two seasonal cycles before. I’ve only seen two supports for it in the books:

        There’s occasional mention of “summer snows” in the North. Some people have taken this to mean that there’s normal winter within the long Summer.

        Their “year” seems to be as long as an Earth year. But what do they think a “year” is, if it doesn’t match their seasons?

        Fire and Blood gives us a look at a civil war that happened during an unusually long and harsh Winter (but apparently not as long and harsh as the one in the upcoming novel).

        The North prepares for the Winter by ridding themselves of extra mouths. First they send their old men south to die in the war (which the old men are on board with). Then, after the last harvest is in, second sons and other excess men march south for the same reason, and are disappointed to find that they’re too late and their side has already won. Most of them settle in the South and marry war widows or go overseas to become sellswords. These settlers are the reason nearly every castle has a Godswood regardless of the local faith.

        White Harbor is in the North, but is wealthier and not culturally Northern. They don’t suffer famine until the last year of the Winter.

        The Iron Islands also suffer famine in the last year, but only because the Lannisters stole/burned their food in retaliation for raids.

  38. Just a quick question, for a society like the Dothraki, what percentage of the population would be warriors? I assume that every free adult male is liable to fight but how much is that in relation to the total population? Taking Drogo’s khalasar of 40 thousand, how many of them would have been warriors?

    1. Most nomad males between 15 and 50 can fight, so around 30 per cent of the population. But some are slaves, captured in war, some are shamans, and some have to keep the herds moving, the yurts in repair and so on. I have seen estimates of 10-20 per cent for Mongols.

      1. …which is relatively high for a pre-industrial revolution force and is likely one of the contributory factors to their military success.

        1. Interestingly, Britain mobilised in one form or another around 20% of the English male population in the Napoleonic Wars (army, navy, several forms of militia). Many were part-time, and only part available for service abroad, but it was a higher fraction than ever before or since.

          1. Interesting! And that’s a post-industrialised major power of the time. I remember reading that France in the buildup to WW2 enlisted 1 man in 8 (12.5% of the male population) which was a colossal undertaking, again for an industrialised nation (and one of the reasons the French army as a whole underperformed). If the mongols could routinely and effectively mobilise anywhere near 20% of their male population for warfare then no wonder they were so terrifying to anyone who encountered them.

      2. However, adult men should be unusually low, as the (apparently) frequent rape and murder among the Dothraki would create a lot of widows, orphans and bastards.

  39. I think you are perhaps underestimating how much time the costumers would have had to spend on trim to even give a serious nod towards replicating the sorts of buckskin garments you use as examples in the photos or the needlework on asian steppe garments. The Dothraki dress screams “fast and cheap” as well as “not even vaguely something people wore in real life”. I studied costuming for theater in college and have personally worked on hundreds of costumes for college and professional theater, and the sort of hand sewing trimming that would be required for beading or even any decent imitation might easily double or more the time per garment. Those outfits we are discussing still took at a minimum 20 hours of work to produce for each actor. At least 4 people worked on each outfit, there were probably two fittings during production etc. Very little could be bought pre-made, everything was made from flat goods.

    I’m not arguing at all with your points about what it should have looked like, just wanting to suggest they probably could not have done substantially better with the time and money they had. You note yourself that the wealth that should have been displayed by the high ranking men would have been the result of many hours of handwork by their household. Modern costumers might not have had to make the beads and thread and whatnot, but they would still be applying that trim by hand.

    1. I’m sure that’s part of it, but if GRRM had made clear these were decorated horse warriors who are carrying their wealth on their person (or that of their wives) then surely they could still have done a lot more? Brighter colours, patterned hems with some gold thread, lots of fake gold jewelry? All that Lannister armor surely cost more than that. And in the Lord of the Rings films people like the Rohirrim are often beautifully cloaked, helmeted and armed, even ignoring their body armor.

      1. I agree with your points, they could have done more with jewelry and color. A few sashes and headbands or hair ribbons could have been used, along with jewelry. The things that could be done without too much labor. Costumes of all kinds are labor intensive by nature.

        I suspect at the base of this is artistic choice about color palette as well as money. The person that actually made these choices was not the costume designer. The director is making the final pick. The director should be expected to know bupkiss about clothing history or costume manufacture. Doesn’t matter, they get to decide whatever they want, so most of this is their fault.

        There are things that smell like formal art school training anyway. For an example, the silly textures you can see were done with the fur and leather tops. Some of them look like they made strips of fur and then hand wove the strips into larger panels – they are not sewn together at the edges – that isn’t cloth it is a net. That sort of thing reeks of design school nonsense. People pieced little furs into panels for sure, but they don’t chop up the skins first, and most often used color contrasts, and they mostly made them into cloth, because they wanted to be warm. The designer could not use color or metal because of the choices the director made. So they are left with only texture and the base lines of the garments to work with. So they created texture to make things interesting. Animals come in a greater variety of color. If the Dothraki were using as much as possible of the animals they hunt (they should be), you would see more color.

        Also lots of those things look uncomfortable to wear and many are ill fitting because they are stiff. Sure, high ranking people wear uncomfortable things to display status and wealth, but ordinary warriors, not so much. Those costumes looked better drawn on paper than they did in reality, and the choices are made at the paper stage. This is something you see in costuming often. Many times, the people making the choices do not know how to make the items and thus cannot really imagine what the final result will look like. Things are done that look better on paper than they do in reality.

        The Dothraki are a nightmare for a costume designer. A massive wad of unnamed characters that will be viewed both at a distance and close up, many without all that much screen time. A bunch of money has to be spent on things that only are seen for a little while. The Lannister armor gets more screen time and so got more money. Any comparison to LOTR is unfair, the movies had massively larger budgets.

        1. Martin is actually pretty good at describing people as being colourful, the TV-show did a lot to dampen that. (Daario is at one point described as being dressed in bright yellow and his beard dyed blue, for instance, while in the show he is basically just another guy in leather and brown hair)

  40. In the late 18th century there was the so-called “Great Masculine Renunciation” when men stopped wearing bright colours and ornate patterns. One of the problems with TV and movies is that any culture that is supposed to be macho or masculine has to be depicted without much colour or ornament:

    One thing that bugs me about A Song of Ice and Fire is that is seems to throw together cultures from very different periods of history. The Unsullied seem to be much like Roman infantry from 200AD at the latest. The Ironborn seem to be basically Vikings from around 800AD. The Seven Kingdoms seem to have castles, plate armour, cavalry with couched lances and multi-decked sailing ships from around 1500AD. It’s hard to see how all these coexist.

    1. Thanks for the link, very interesting.

      As to throwing together different cultures in ASOIF, that’s what real history does. Earlly 15th century Europe still had Roman infantry in what was left of what we call the Byzantine empire. A few decades later the Spanish would, briefly, experiment with sword and buckler troops said at the time to be inspired by Roman legionaries. Iceland, the Orkneys, various other bits of northern Britain and Scandanavia were still basically Viking in military equipment and fighting style. Extend to the Middle East and you now have slave soldiers like the Unsullied, although mamluks and ghulams were usually cavalry rather than infantry. And nomads horse archers of varying backgrounds.

      (It’s fair to say that even though say a 15th C Orkney Islander might have *looked* like a Viking, they didn’t live in the same kind of society or have the same beliefs. But the books and even more TV show emphasise military gear and visual appearance.)

      1. I don’t think that is an accurate description of the situation, at least of the larger militaries, in the late Middle Ages.

        Ethnically Scandinavian armies did not look or fight, even in the 14th century, like 9th century Vikings. They were wearing coats of plates and brigandines (armors unknown in Europe in the 9th century), longer, thinner sword-types (moving from your Wheeler typology to your Oakeshott typology), and so on. A Swedish army of 1350 looked more like an imperial (HRE) army of 1350 than either did a Norse/Swedish/Danish army of 850.

        The same is true for the Byzantines. Sure, we can call them Romans, but they didn’t fight like third century Romans, or even sixth century Late-Romans/Early-Byzantines. Heck, the 11th century Komnenian army was not the same as the 15th century Palaiologan army. Organizational systems, key equipment, styles of armor and weapons, tactical systems all change over that period.

        Certainly, history sees radically different military systems coming into contact with each other – the conquest of the Americas being the example with probably the largest gap in military systems and technologies. But in these examples, it is a mistake to assume that these societies remained frozen in amber as the centuries marched on – they didn’t.

        1. Re-reading, that’s not very clear on my part.

          The Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, inheriting and maintaining the traditions. Yes their infantry changed equipment over time (but so did classical period legionaries) but were always thinking of themselves as a different culture to the “Franks” and others. And that probably was a real difference in what we now call doctrine, recruitment, and logistics. A Western European military professional suddenly put in charge of Byzantine units would have been very confused.

          (I’m an ancients/medieval wargamer so my sources are “Armies of the Middle Ages 1 & 2” by Ian Heath. Yes these are perhaps not up to date with modern scholarship.)

          As for Scandanavia, I’m an Oxford comma writer so that was “bits of (Norther Britain and Scandanavia)” not “(bits of Northern Britain) and Scandanavia”. I’m aware that the Norse kingdoms went feudal, especially in the much more densely populated south. But all around the northern and western fringes of Northern Europe there are guys in mail shirts swinging axes, very different to knights or archers. Often the axes are two handed, making them look even more like TV vikings.

          (Speaking of which, the TV show Vikings might be suitable for future articles. I did a rewatch before season 6 and the Vikings of S6 are much, much, worse at warfare than their predecessors. Early seasons depicted shield walls and battle lines, with Ragnar and Lagertha keeping an eye on the formation and shouting orders. Now armies rush around like Black Friday shoppers, apparently so the principal characters can show how bad-ass they are by taking on three opponents at once from different directions.)

          1. Yes, but the Scandinavians of the high Middle Ages did not live by seaborne raiding, because a land of castles manned by armored and mounted knights offers poor prospects for that activity. Despite their occasional bravado, even highly militarized societies don’t aim for 50% casualties on each expedition. Seaborne raiding only works as way of making a living in areas where civil order has broken down.

            Now I suppose you might say that the raids by Theon and Asha/Yara on the North do end in failure, but in a real world the Ironborn would have experienced hundreds of years of such failure under the Targereyns, and ceased that lifestyle.

          2. The Ironborn did in fact stop raiding Westeros during Targaryen rule. They raided other lands, but less frequently because of the distance.

            Now that I think of it, they’ve probably always taken advantage of the mainland’s wars to raid kingdoms who are focused on other foes, and the unification of the Seven Kingdoms made that harder.

      2. In Asoiaf, the doctrine behind the unsullied is an attempt to recreate “the lockstep legions of old ghis”, the famously effective troops of a faded empire, so the Spanish sword and buckler formations you mention would seem a good point of comparison.

    2. Thanks for that article. I am not so convinced about her proposed explanations for the change in male fashions. If frills and bright colours were driven out of male fashion by a wave of democracy and egalitarianism, I would expect that to have also happened to female fashions. After all, men are not usually considered to be less competitive and status-conscious than women. More so, if anything. If, on the other hand, they were driven out of male fashion by an increase in the status of working men, they should have been driven out of female fashion from the 1950s on, by the rise in the status of working women. Does not seem to have happened.

      As this is a blog on military history, I will suggest that male fashions were instead changed by a change in military fashions. As I understand things, the late 18th century saw the rise of light infantry units and skirmishers, with less frilly and duller coloured uniforms. And they were something of an elite, so might be expected to set a fashion. As time went on, a larger and larger fraction of armies were trained and equipped like this, until you get to the world wars, when everyone was the colour of mud and dressed to crawl on their belly carrying a machine gun.

      By which time, of course, nothing could seem less military or forbidding than a man dressed like a peacock.

      1. I’m not exactly sure which historical trends of fashion you’re talking about, since there are about 50 I could name within the time period between the late middle ages (the Renaissance and the eventual rise of democratic modernity) and the 1950s. I would agree that men did eventually stop considering elegance and fastidiousness manly, though you’d be loath to find an era in European history when, regardless of how somberly women were dressed compared to men, they did not code vanity as a feminine vice.
        I would disagree that the 1950s were the rise of the working woman. The 1830’s, 1910’s and 1940’s all saw huge influxes of women into public workspaces with the Industrial Revolution, WWI and WWII (the Great Depression actually laid of a disproportionate number of women, who are then notably absent from many relief plans), though a good 1 in 4 women (or more, depending) were monetarily employed in domestic service for basically all of the Modern Era. Most women have worked unpaid as well, for household and childrearing tasks which must be done and would cost a great deal if hired to someone else. The waves I’m describing mostly apply to middle class white women- working class and women of color have always worked for pay (or compulsory work for no pay, as in the case of slavery, which is a whole other topic but worth mentioning).
        But the 1950’s of all decades are a notable shift towards a specifically feminine fashion for women, a pushback to the androgynous styles of the 1920’s and 40’s that matched the extremely conservative post-war social movement.
        Also the 18th century was an extraordinarily ornate era for men and women, and it should be noted that powdered hair was a _toned down_ military style compared to, say, grenadiers who were occasionally ordered to wear mustaches, or the gaudy as heck hussars. I’d argue that the idea of toned-down uniforms didn’t really take hold until the Victorian era in the United States and far beyond for many European powers (remember that the British colonial forces taking over half the world were wearing bright-red coats.) And lest you think that men toned it down during the Victorian era, I refer you to the giant cravats, plaid on everything and stays (corset) to get that perfect inverted dorito shape.
        I would argue overall that men’s fashions post-18th century evolved less out of military fashions and more out of the suit and pantalons of the previous eras. I see a more direct line between 1740’s-1790’s-1810’s-1840’s-1910’s menswear than I do between Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian uniforms to general menswear of these same eras.
        Credit where it’s due, though, the 18th century is around the time when we start having uniforms produced en masse for an entire army (in large part due to textiles jump-starting the industrial revolution ca. 1790 and the technological/social lead-up thereto.)

      2. “As this is a blog on military history, I will suggest that male fashions were instead changed by a change in military fashions. As I understand things, the late 18th century saw the rise of light infantry units and skirmishers, with less frilly and duller coloured uniforms. And they were something of an elite, so might be expected to set a fashion.”

        I would heavily constest this. The Napoleonic Wars are the height of gaudy military fashion, and light infantry are only in part an exception. Sure, a green-jacketed rifleman in British service might be a little less brightly-coloured, but his fellows in the musket-armed regiments of the Light Division are dressed in the very same red coats as the line infantry. The French Legere wore brightly-coloured epaulettes to signal their elite status.

        Of course, the practical uniform on campaign was often significantly drabber – dyes washed out by sun and rain, coats patched with local cloth, greatcoats worn rather than parade dress. But insofar as military fashion influenced civilian style, it seems to mostly be the uniforms of light cavalry, especially hussars, which are pretty much the flashiest of the flashy.

        Plus, what we actually see in fashion history (at least in Britain) is that there are actually two separate strains of fashion, and that the emphasis on restraint and good tailoring rather than bright colour is well in place before the Napoleonic Wars really get into their swing.

    3. I hadn’t heard of that term for that fashion phenomenon, though I can certainly witness it in visual sources. Even so, I’d say men never lost their flair for fashion (or gaudiness, depending). The Regency and Victorian eras were big on Orientalism (as much as the 17-18th c.) so men still wore bright prints sometimes, like in a turban (looking at you, Lord Byron), and the invention of aniline dyes (which allow for bright, long lasting colors) made Victorian men particularly brightly dressed. Not to mention the Victorian plaid craze inspired by Sir Walter Scott, Queen Victoria’s trip to the Highlands in 1853, and an overall movement to romanticize Gaelic cultures (in part to keep them alive in the face of English colonization). I could go on- corsets on Georgian, Regency and Victorian men; the mutton chop; massive cravats; top hats- but even when men were at their gaudiest, there was an idea that vanity was a feminine thing. One that men were either not disposed to or men who were disposed to it were loathsome for being feminine. This predated and endured past the Great Masculine Renunciation. Henry “shoulderpads and codpiece” the VIII’s gonna go after Christina of Denmark for being vain somehow.

  41. This might be a stupid question, but would one of the bigger actual contrasts of Eurasian steppe nomads with classical Mediterranean or medieval European agricultural societies actually have been being more likely to wear trousers? (But of course if so that doesn’t work to portray them as Other, because that would make them *more* like the modern West)

    1. True true, but then we’d have to demand that GoT and contemporary fantasy costuming give up the nonsense that is leather pants on European and European-coded men. Which is silly for like 10 reasons, not as silly as horsehair breeches, but chafey and made of expensive, hard-to-tailor material for no reason. Give me my hose and braies, for heaven’s sake! At least Robin Hood tights are a little closer to reality since they accept the fact that men showed off their legs quite a lot towards the later Middle Ages (even their butts, depending on the style!).
      Weirdly enough as far as we can tell, Germanic tribes in Antiquity did wear breeches, but they abandoned the style during the Middle Ages. I’d say that’s because it was during a warm period, but they hung onto the hose all through the Little Ice Age (the historical inspiration for Winter, btw) that more or less stretched through the Renaissance, so it might be related to the manly value of shapely masculine legs that lasted through the 18th century.

  42. While I generally agree: “but it is hard to avoid that we are supposed to read the Dothraki leathers as ‘barbaric,’ rough and somewhat wild compared to the fine silks, linens and wools they are often described against.”

    In this case they refer to the same thing: It’s mentioned that the *dothraki* dress in fine silks and perfumes when visiting others.

    That’s obviously not how historical steppe nomads dressed, but it is at least *something*. It points out that they will dress in silks and fabrics when it is felt approporiate.

  43. (I wanted to respond to your comment on Twitter about mentioning some piece of evidence just to dismiss it, but since I’m not on Twitter myself, this was the best place I could think of to do it.)
    I think part of the point of this may be to let nonspecialists (e.g. students, or researchers studying some different subject) know how reliable certain evidence on the subject is. To use your example, you and your reviewer may know that Lucian’s mention of Gauls’ armor isn’t useful evidence, but a student looking for information but not able to judge its utility well, or someone who’s studied Lucian for some other reason and so thinks of him in this context, may not. A note like this may be helpful in this context, to let nonspecialists know that you aren’t using this relevant-seeming evidence because it isn’t useful in this context rather than because you just didn’t think to use it in this context.
    (Similarly, in a class on Roman history that I took recently, my textbook included a reference to people selling themselves into slavery in the Roman Empire, but its description was vague and the only references it included, Digest and Codex Iustinianus 7.18.1, similarly lack much detail. Wanting to find out more, I thought of Petronius’ Satyricon 57, where he has a freedman say, “ ‘Quare ergo servivisti?’ Quia ipse me dedi in servitutem et malui civis Romanus esse quam tributarius.” (‘Then why were you a slave?’ Because I sold myself into slavery, and I preferred to be a Roman citizen rather than paying tribute.) However, since the Satyricon is a satire, I still don’t know whether this is useful evidence for the practice or just comical exaggeration.)

  44. When I read this, the book Comanche Empire came to mind, as a very good take on how horse nomads organize their empires in a very different way to the ones we’re more familiar with.

      1. In a good way? “Comance Empire” and “Empires of the Silk Road” are in my bucket of “is this good popular history like 1491 or sensationalized like [insert culprit] or really bad like 1421?”

    1. Surely the Comanche were too loosely organized to qualify as an empire? They were however extremely successful horse nomads with unusually large herds of horses compared to other plains tribes. However their material culture was much simpler than the steppe nomads but certainly nowhere near as stark and plain as the tv Dothraki.

  45. “So much for nobody around.”

    Nobody human. As I said, I would guess Aragorn was referring to barrow-wights in that passage. Tolkien is explicit that Bree-land is the only human settlement within 300 miles of the Shire, “a small inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about.” Aragorn and the hobbits spend 2 weeks off-road trying to get to Rivendell, and don’t worry about or see anything other than Black Riders and some stoned trolls.

    The lands around the Shire are not a region of chaos and instability, they are *deserted*, apart from occasional lurking monsters, or raiding monsters from the east. Or unspecified queer folk, but the Shire isn’t defenseless against those:

    > ‘All the same,’ said Sam, ‘you can’t deny that others besides our Halfast have seen queer folk crossing the Shire – crossing it, mind you: there are more that are turned back at the borders. The Bounders have never been so busy before.

    “Tolkien just wanted to have a nice little English-village society which didn’t need protection-or, importantly taxes.”

    But he gave it protection, both internal and external. And ducks the question of how the Bounders are supported, if not by taxes.

    1. But he gave it protection, both internal and external. And ducks the question of how the Bounders are supported, if not by taxes.

      Are we actually sure that the hobbits don’t pay taxes? Granted TLOTR never mentions them, but then the vast majority of books set in modern times don’t mention taxes either, and yet modern states obviously rely on taxation to fund themselves.

    2. Many works of fiction much more directly related to law enforcement do not go into the necessary tax structures.

    3. My immediate assumption would be that the Bounders were simply a part-timy duty that rotated around. (but that might come from my scandinavian POV where taxes were generally created as a substitute for various forms of obligations, eg. to participate in local defence)

  46. FWVLIW, my thoughts on “The complex patterns of a war-shirt becomes a simple vest (which then becomes a collection of crude leather belly-straps that have more in common with bondage gear than with clothing).” can be boiled down to, it’s a Roman Republic/Empire soldier’s iron armour, but made out of cow leather of the rougher, cruder sort. And with minimal shoulder protection, whereas the said Roman Republic/Empire armour was broad enough to shield the vulnerable parts of the shoulder from downstrokes that would’ve otherwise broken the shoulders and upper chest bones.

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