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. I know you call your a collection of unmitigated pedantery, but I like to point out, that yes, most people would call buckskin cloths “leather”. At first I thought maybe this is a cultural thing, as I’m quite sure that all kinds of treated animal skin are called Leder (leather) in German, but than I looked up buckskin on Wikipedia (article is called buckskin (leather)). For most people calling something “skin” or “hide” would give them an even more unsophisticated impression.
    This obviously does not take away from the rest of your arguments.

    1. Penguins are birds, but if you say ‘bird’ most people don’t think of penguins.

      Buckskin is a type of leather, but if you say “leather jacket” people don’t envision buckskin by default.

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

    Pretty minor point, but I was under the impression that there is no neutral narrator in ASOIAF. Everything that’s narrated is from the perspective of that chapter’s POV character afaik?

  3. More seriously, I think that this kind of misunderstanding about customs and traditions is not limited to writer or TV show producers. One of the most common and widespread misconception about an ancient culture is the idea that lack of color in ancient Greece and Rome must be seen as research of elegance and perfection. Winkelmann’s misconception influenced so deeply western culture that even nowadays we associate elegance with black and white and consider color ad childish. The truth is that Greek statues and buildings were colorful in a way we would find emebarassing.

  4. Around the second mention of leather vests worn without shirts and rough trousers I realized which modern cultures dress this way and this raises the question of whether Martin’s reference to the Mongols meant the biker gang rather than the Golden Horde.
    As an aside modern Mongolia has vest wearing Harley riders, who feature in the music video for Wolf Totem by The Hu.

  5. Looking at the illustration of Daenerys at the head of the essay, one should note that a) she’s severely lacking in pigmentation b) she’s supposed to be riding in her moderately sexy costume, with a lot of exposed skin and c) she’s not sunburned. I’ll leave aside d) for a moment, because nobody in fantasy literature seems to notice the various ectoparasites, like biting flies, that tend to be where ever there are large numbers of large mammals. (one of the things I want to do is find out about the parasites of dragons. Of course dragons have parasites!).

    1. She’s one of the fire-resistant Valyrians, I assume not burning or getting skin cancer is a magical racial trait. I note that Valyria was one of the most southern realms we hear much of, yet full of pasty not-elves — worse, at higher altitude, too! But they *are* “the magical humans” if anyone is.

      1. I can sort of believe that of Daenerys, but the Dothraki don’t seem to be much more pigmented than, say, Mediterranean peoples, who would still be subject to sunburn.

        Dothraki clothing doesn’t work on many levels. While ceremonial clothing can be impractical in many ways (look at celebrity clothing on the red carpet), everyday and combat clothing has to be functional. Desert and steppe peoples tend to cover a lot more skin than is seen on the Dothraki.

  6. People who are interested in this should try A Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori. Set in 19th century Central Asia and dealing much better with many of the issues raised in this sequence.

    The clothing in particular. Any of the covers show how much better it handles the clothes.

  7. Finally getting around to reading this series, and much too late to the conversation itself, but I would like to point out that the opening paragraph lacks both reference to part IV, and links to any of them. A minor issue, but correcting it might be a nontrivially nice improvement for future readers.

  8. You use the word “velocity” exactly wrong; you mean “speed”. Velocity is speed and direction, changing direction changes velocity.

    1. velocity
      the speed of something in a given direction.
      “the velocities of the emitted particles”
      (in general use) speed.
      “the tank shot backwards at an incredible velocity”

      I think they’re using it in the common sense, not the physics sense.

  9. Thank you so much for writing about this topic! The portrayal of the Dothraki in both the show and the books always bothered me, but I’ve never seen it questioned thus far, even by the work’s more “discerning” and analytical readers.

  10. The whole fremen mirage things feels kind “yeah but that’s the joke” Conan in GOT builds extremely fragile political institutions with values that are very macho on a surface level but weirdly superficial when it comes to understanding germ theory. I agree the Dothraki get done dirty and probably don’t deserve to be in any kind of cultural prominence but narratively they’re there to poke fun at the medieval fantasy europeans romanticizing and demonizing them in turn. We get told wild stories about how they have giant castles made of silver and get horrified reactions to the brutal bloodshed that is approximately 1/100 as barbaric as what they westerosi get up to when they’re bored. The people who comment on their wild leathers we find out via implication have no concept of modern hygiene themselves. Cersei the legendry beauty has never thought about shaving her legs before she’s forced to.

    1. Leg hair is neither unhygenic nor ugly. Thats a very modern beauty standard and misconception, introduced by razor companies in th 20th century.

  11. The only quible I really have is the point about layered garments for seasonal variance, something GoT’s world very much lacks to the same degree. At the outset of ASOIAF, summer temperatures have persisted for close to 20 years. Much like someone who has moved from New York to Florida, eventually you’re probably going to throw out your big coat. The point about day/night extremes stands though, so it’s still odd, just not quite to the extent that it would be if the dothraki didn’t get several years notice that they had to start knitting winter jumpers.

  12. I agree almost without reservation about every point you make here (and indeed, on many of your posts) – and I must say, very enjoyable and informative blog.

    Not a quibble, but a question: while depictions of Dothraki are indeed stereotypically Fremen and fairly racist, is it possible that ASoIAF/GoT are just as lazily trying to paint Dothraki -values- in broad strokes? Their ideas of “finery” and “looking nice” are not “ours” or at least not those of Westeros and the Free Cities; conveying power via trade relationships and access to the wares of craftsmen and resources do not conform to their values as a nomadic, ultra-violent society. They instead value the abilities to ride, fight, conquer, rape etc. at any time – never mind that their “leathers” aren’t particularly practical for those purposes, either. You might not want to “look nice” (or wealthy, or even politically powerful) at your wedding, instead desiring to look like someone who is undefeated in single combat, unencumbered by unnecessary objects and thus able to deftly lead a khalasar, etc.

    Again, this is lazy, clumsy and dangerous depiction, as you say, and as big a problem is GRRM stating that the Dothraki “are [!] an amalgam of [cultures he didn’t even bother to Google, apparently.]” 51% pepper, indeed.

  13. (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).

    Heads up – the link here is now dead. The person in question has apparently reuploaded at this URL instead:

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