Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part II: Subsistence on the Hoof

This is the second part of a four part (I, III, IV) look at the Dothraki, the fictional horse-borne nomads of the A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series. We’re looking at, in particular, the degree to which George R.R. Martin’s claim that the Dothraki are “an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures” holds up in the face of research. Our last part, “Barbarian Couture” looked at the influences that shaped the visual depiction of the Dothraki and found them badly wanting, more based in stereotypes and misconceptions than historical reality.

This week, we’re turning to the foundation of social structures: patterns of subsistence (which, to be clear, means in plain English: “how do they get food and basic resources?” That’s all subsistence is – how do you get enough resources to survive.) Originally this was going to fit into a larger argument about culture, but I decided to break it out because we are at long last looking at the logistics and subsistence strategies of nomadic peoples. Every time we have covered the logistics of agrarian armies and societies, there has been a request to do a deeper dive into the way that Steppe nomads in particular, and nomads more generally, are different. Well here it is!

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(Bibliography note before we dive in. I am not going to run through everything I’ve glanced at here, but for those looking to read more on this or retrace my steps more generally, a good starting place on the Steppe peoples is T. May, The Mongol Art of War (2007). There’s also more than a dash here of bits from K. Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (2008) as well as T. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. T.N Haining (1991). For the Native Americans of the Great Plains, I have relied principally on A.R. McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains, 1738-1889 (1990), F.R. Secoy, Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians (17th Century through Early 19th Century) (1958), and A.C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (2020))

As with the past essay, the key statement we are really assessing here is this one by George R.R. Martin:

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.

A statement which claims, quite directly, that the Dothraki are modeled primarily off of both Eurasian Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans (with a ‘dash’ of fantasy). Last time, we found that the appearance of the Dothraki fit almost entirely within the ‘dash’ of fantasy. So this time we will begin to ask the same question about Dothraki culture – to what degree may it be said to be based in any actual historical horse-nomad cultures?

A Feast For People

Now ‘culture’ is such a huge topic, it may well be asked why start with subsistence strategies. The answer is that in the pre-modern world, subsistence was one of, if not the, most dominant factor shaping culture. After all, most people before the industrial revolution spent most of their time just doing the basic activities (herding, farming, spinning, weaving, cooking, etc.) that made survival possible! Government structures, military organization, cultural values, marriage and fertility patterns, social structures all flow out of those things which most people were doing to survive, shaped by the needs of those subsistence strategies.

(A brief pedantic note: this sort of approach to history, beginning with big, slow changing patterns (what I often call here ‘structures’ – not a term I made up, by any means) like climate, geography, subsistence strategies, culture, etc. is generally associated with what is called the Annales school of history, which is a method of history. This framework is often more interested in La longue durée (lit: ‘the (really) long term’) which is just a fancy French way of saying ‘a focus on the long-term historical structures (like those listed above) instead of short-term events (like wars, rulers, that sort of thing).’ As always, this sort of historical theory is a toolbox, not a dogma; different approaches to answer different questions. But in this case, it is handy because of the way that the basic activities necessary for survival in a given climate form a sort of ‘bounding box’ for cultural possibility.)

What is particularly notable is with A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is that our viewpoint character for Dothraki culture is a young woman who spends her time with the Dothraki in the khalassar’s (the Dothraki word for a tribe or clan) moving encampment. Daenerys can only really view warfare second hand (at least in the books we get; the show is another matter), but she ought to be able to witnesses the subsistence system directly. Even if she wasn’t involved in it directly (because she’s a high status queen), the daily work of survival would be going on all around her and in practice much of it would likely be at her direction as she exercises authority over lower-status individuals in the camp.

Now normally we would start this by looking at how subsistence strategies are represented in the books and show, but I think in this case it is going to be more helpful to begin with the historical subsistence systems first, since they are complex and we’re going to have several of them. We’re actually going to start at the ending as well, with subsistence strategies of Native Americans on the Great Plains, for reasons that will be clearer once we’ve discussed it.

A Changing of Patterns

The domesticated horse is not native to the Americas. There is perhaps no more important fact when trying to understand how the horse-borne nomadic cultures of the Eurasian Steppe relate to those of the Great Plains. The first domesticated horses arrived in the Americans with European explorer/conquerors and the settler-colonists that followed them. Eventually enough of those horses escaped to create a self-reproducing wild (technically feral, since they were once domesticated) horse population, the mustangs, but they are not indigenous and mustangs were never really the primary source of new horses the way that wild horses on the Steppe were (before someone goes full nerd in the comments, yes I am aware that there were some early equines in the Americas at very early dates, but they were extinct before there was any chance for them to be domesticated).

Via Wikipedia, American mustangs. Mustangs are descendants mostly of Spanish horse breeds. Notably, they tend to be smaller than many other breeds of European horses, even in cases where their domesticated forebears were larger breeds of draft horses or destriers. This is because big stable-fed horses can’t survive on grass alone.

Horses arrived in the Great Plains form the south via the Spanish and moving through Native American peoples west of the Rocky Mountains by both trade and eventually raiding in the early 1700s. Notably firearms also began moving into the region in the same period, but from the opposite direction, coming from British and French traders to the North and West (the Spanish had regulations against trading firearms to Native Americans, making them unavailable as a source). Both were thus initially expensive trade goods which could only be obtained from outside and then percolated unevenly through the territory; unlike firearms, which remained wholly external in their supply, horses were bred on the plains, but raiding and trade were still essential sources of supply for most peoples on the plains. We’ll get to this more when we talk about warfare (where we’ll get into the four different military systems created by this diffusion), but being in a position where one’s neighbors had either the horse or the gun and your tribe did not was an extreme military disadvantage and it’s clear that the ‘falling out’ period whereby these two military innovations distributed over the area was very disruptive.

But unlike guns, which seem to have had massive military impacts but only minimal subsistence impacts (a bow being just as good for hunting bison as a musket, generally), the arrival of the horse had massive subsistence impacts because it made hunting wildly more effective. But the key thing to remember here is: the horse was introduced to the Great Plains no earlier than 1700, horse availability expanded only slowly over the area, but by 1877 (with the end of the Black Hills War), true Native American independence on the Great Plains was functionally over. Consequently, unlike the Steppe, where we have a fairly ‘set’ system that had already been refined for centuries, all we see of the Plains Native American horse-based subsistence system is rapid change. There was no finally reached stable end state, as far as I can tell.

Though there is considerable variation and also severe limits to the evidence, it seems that prior to the arrival of the horse, most Native peoples around the Great Plains practiced two major subsistence systems: nomadic hunter-gathering on foot (distinct from what will follow in that it places much more emphasis on the gathering part) on the one hand and a mixed subsistence system of small-scale farming mixed seasonally with plains hunting seems to have been the main options pre-horse, based on the degree to which the local area permitted farming in this way (for more on those, note Isenberg, op. cit., 31-40). Secoy (op. cit.) notes that while there is some evidence that the Plains Apache may have shifted through both systems, being hunter-gatherers prior to the arrival of horses, by the time the evidence lets us see clearly (which is shortly post-horse) they are subsisting by shifting annually between sedentary agricultural racheirias (from the Spring to about August) and hunting bison on the plains during the fall. Isenberg notes the Native Americans of the Missouri river combining corn agriculture with cooperative bison hunting in the off-season (in that case, in the summer). Meanwhile, the Comanches and Kiowas seem to have mostly subsisted on pedestrian bison hunting along with gathering fruit and nuts, with relatively little agriculture, prior to going fully nomadic once they acquired horses. Bison hunting on foot required a lot of cooperation (so a group) and it seems clear that it was not enough to support a group on its own and had to be supplemented somehow, at least before the arrival of the horse. Some mix of either bison+gathering or bison+horticulture was required.

Via Wikipedia, a herd of American bison (sometimes also called buffalo) in Montana. While it is common to call them buffalo, technically the American bison is distinct from the old world species of Bubalina more correctly called buffalo. Also: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Isenberg argues (op. cit.), that at this point the clear advantage was to what he terms the ‘villagers’ – that is the farmer-hunters who lived in villages, rather than the nomadic hunter-gathers. These horticulturists were more numerous and seem quite clearly to have had the better land and living conditions. Essentially the hunter-gatherers stuck on marginal land were mostly hunter-gatherers because they were stuck on marginal land, which created a reinforcing cycle of being stuck on marginal land (the group is weak due to small group size because the land is marginal and because the group is weak, it is only able to hold on to marginal lands). That system was stable without outside disruption. The horse changed everything.

A skilled Native American hunter on a horse, armed with a bow, could hunt bison wildly more effectively than on foot. They could be found more rapidly, followed at speed and shot in relative safety. It is striking that while pedestrian bison hunting was clearly a team effort, a hunter on a horse could potentially hunt effectively alone or in much smaller groups. In turn, that massively increased effectiveness in hunting allowed the Native Americans of the region, once they got enough horses, to go ‘full nomad’ and build a subsistence system focused entirely on hunting bison, supplemented by trading the hides and other products of the bison with the (increasingly sedentary and agrarian) peoples around the edges of the Plains. Many of the common visual markers of Plains Native Americans – the tipi, the travois, the short bow for use from horseback – had existed before among the hunter-gathering peoples, but now spread wore widely as tribes took to horse nomadism and hunting bison full time. At the same time, Isenberg (op. cit. 50-52) has some fascinating paragraphs on all sorts of little material culture changes in terms of clothing, home-wares, tools and so on that changed to accommodate this new lifestyle. The speed of the shift is quite frankly stunning.

Via Wikipedia, a Cheyenne family using a horse to full a travois, c. 1871-1907.

We’ll come back to this later, but I also want to note here that this also radically changed the military balance between the nomads and the sedentary peoples. The greater effectiveness of bison hunting meant that the horse nomads could maintain larger group sizes (than as hunter-gatherers, although eventually they also came to outnumber their sedentary neighbors, though smallpox – which struck the latter harder than the former – had something to do with that too), while possession of the horse itself was a huge military advantage. Thus by 1830 or so, the Ute and Comanche pushed the Apache off of much of their northern territory, while the Shoshone, some of the earliest adopters of the horse, expanded rapidly north and east over the Northern Plains, driving all before them (Secoy, op. cit., 30-31, 33). Other tribes were compelled to buy, raise or steal horses and adopt the same lifestyle to compete effectively. It was a big deal, we’ll talk about specifics later.

Horse supply in this system could be tricky. Unlike in Mongolia, where there were large numbers of wild horses available for capture, it seems that most Native Americans on the Plains were reliant on trade or horse-raiding (that is, stealing horses from their neighbors) to maintain good horse stocks initially. In the southern plains (particularly areas under the Comanches and Kiowas), the warm year-round temperature and relatively infrequent snowfall allowed those tribes to eventually raise large herds of their own horses for use hunting and as a trade good. While Mongolian horses know to dig in the snow to get the grass underneath, western horses generally do not do this, meaning that they have to be stall-fed in the winter. Consequently in the northern plains, horses remained a valuable trade good and a frequently object of warfare. In both cases, horses were too valuable to be casually eating all of the time and instead Isenberg notes that guarding horses carefully against theft and raiding was one of the key and most time-demanding tasks of life for those tribes which had them.

So to be clear, the Great Plains Native Americans are not living off of their horses, they are using their horses to live off of the bison. The subsistence system isn’t horse based, but bison-based.

At the same time, as Isenberg (op. cit. 70ff) makes clear that this pure-hunting nomadism still existed in a narrow edge of subsistence. From his description, it is hard not to conclude that the margin or survival was quite a bit narrower than the Eurasian Steppe subsistence system and it is also clear that group-size and population density were quite a bit lower. It’s also not clear that this system was fully sustainable in the long run; Pekka Hämäläinen argues in The Comanche Empire (2008) that Comanche bison hunting was potentially already unsustainable in the very long term by the 1830s. It worked well enough in wet years, but an extended drought (which the Plains are subjected to every so often) could cause catastrophic decline in bison numbers, as seems to have happened the 1840s and 1850s. A sequence of such events might have created a receding wave phenomenon among bison numbers – recovering after each dry spell, but a little less each time. Isenberg (op. cit., 83ff) also hints at this, pointing out that once one factors for things like natural predators, illness and so on, estimates of Native American bison hunting look to come dangerously close to tipping over sustainability, although Isenberg does not offer an opinion as to if they did tip over that line. Remember: complete reliance on bison hunting was new, not a centuries tested form of subsistence – if there was an equilibrium to be reached, it had not yet been reached.

In any event, the arrival of commercial bison hunting along with increasing markets for bison goods drove the entire system into a tailspin much faster than the Plains population would have alone. Bison numbers begin to collapse in the 1860s, wrecking the entire system about a century and a half after it had started. I find myself wondering if, given a longer time frame to experiment and adapt the new horses to the Great Plains if Native American society on the plains would have increasingly resembled the pastoral societies of the Eurasian Steppe, perhaps even domesticating and herding bison (as is now sometimes done!) or other animals. In any event, the westward expansion of the United States did not leave time for that system to emerge.

Consequently, the Native Americans of the plains make a bad match for the Dothraki in a lot of ways. They don’t maintain population density of the necessary scale. Isenberg (op. cit., 59) presents a chart of this, to assess the impact of the 1780s smallpox epidemics, noting that even before the epidemic, most of the Plains Native American groups numbered in the single-digit thousands, with just a couple over 10,000 individuals. The largest, the Sioux at 20,000, far less than what we see on the Eurasian Steppe and also less than the 40,000 warriors – and presumably c. 120-150,000 individuals that implies – that Khal Drogo alone supposedly has. They haven’t had access to the horse for nearly as long or have access to the vast supply of them or live in a part of the world where there are simply large herds of wild horses available. They haven’t had long-term direct trade access to major settled cities and their market goods (which expresses itself particularly in relatively low access to metal products). It is also clear that the Dothraki Sea lacks large herds of animals for the Dothraki to hunt as the Native Americans could hunt bison; there are the rare large predators like the hrakkar, but that is it. Mostly importantly, the Plains Native American subsistence system was still sharply in flux and may not have been sustainable in the long term, whereas the Dothraki have been living as they do, apparently for many centuries.

So to say the Dothraki share a subsistence system with Great Plains Native Americans is simply wrong. There are complex factors of trade, living-style which simply don’t exist here, the scale is all wrong, as is the ecology. Thus, when it comes to exemplars from a subsistence standpoint, we may safely put the Great Plains to the side.

Well, what about Steppe Nomads?

A Flock of Sheep

The horse is native to the Eurasian Steppe – that is where it evolved and was first domesticated, though the earliest domesticated wild horses were much smaller and weaker (but more robust and self-sufficient) than modern horses. The horse was first domesticated here, on the Eurasian Steppe, by the nomadic peoples there around 3,700 BCE. It seems likely that the nomads of the steppe were riding these horses more or less form the get-go (based on bridle and bit wear patterns on horse bones), but the domesticated horse first shows up in the settled Near East as chariotry (rather than cavalry) around 2000 BCE; true cavalry won’t become prominent in the agrarian world until after the Late Bronze Age Collapse (c. 1200 BCE).

Via Wikipedia, part of the Mongolian Steppe. Note that not all of the Steppe is flat (though much of it is); steppe is about rainfall. Some of it is warmer, some of it is colder (but see the note on temperature variation from last time), some is more mountainous, some is flatter. There’s also a range from relatively lush grass to relatively sparse grass.

I wanted to start by stressing these dates just to note that the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe had a long time to adapt themselves to a nomadic lifestyle structured around horses and pastoralism, which, as we’ve seen, was not the case for the peoples of the Americas, whose development of a sustainable system of horse nomadism was violently disrupted.

That said, the steppe horse (perhaps more correctly, the steppe pony) is not quite the same as modern domesticated horses. The sorts of horses that occupy stables in Europe or America are the product of centuries of selective breeding for larger and stronger horses. Because those horses were stable fed (that is, fed grains and hay, in addition to grass), they could be bred much larger what a horse fed entirely on grass could support (with the irony that many of those breeds of horses, if released into the wild in their native steppe, would be unable to subsist themselves), because processed grains have much higher nutrition and calorie density than grass. So while most modern horses range between c. 145-180cm tall, the horses of the steppe were substantially smaller, 122-142cm. Again, just to be clear, this is essential because the big chargers and work-horses of the agrarian world cannot sustain themselves purely on grass and the Steppe nomad needs a horse which can feed itself (while we’re on horse-size, mustangs, the feral horses of the Americas, generally occupy the low-end of the horse range as well, typically 142-152cm in height – even when it is clear that their domesticated ancestors were breeds of much larger work horses).

Mongolian archer on horseback (1895). Note how relatively small the horse is; the rider has to position forward, over the horse’s shoulders, rather than its back, to help it carry his weight.

Now just because this subsistence system is built around the horse doesn’t mean it is entirely made up by horses. Even once domesticated, horses aren’t very efficient animals to raise for food. They take too long to gestate (almost a year) and too long to come to maturity (technically a horse can breed at 18 months, but savvy breeders generally avoid breeding horses under three years – and the Mongols were savvy horse breeders). The next most important animal, by far is the sheep. Sheep are one of the oldest domesticated animals (c. 10,000 BC!) and sheep-herding was practiced on the steppe even before the domestication of the horse. Steppe nomads will herd other animals – goats, yaks, cattle – but the core of the subsistence system is focused on these two animals: horses and sheep. Sheep provide all sorts of useful advantages. Like horses, they survive entirely off of the only resource the steppe has in abundance: grass. Sheep gestate for just five months and reach sexual maturity in just six months, which means a small herd of sheep can turn into a large herd of sheep fairly fast (important if you are intending to eat some of them!). Sheep produce meat, wool and (in the case of females) milk, the latter of which can be preserved by being made into cheese or yogurt (but not qumis, as it will curdle, unlike mare’s milk). They also provide lots of dung, which is useful as a heating fuel in the treeless steppe. Essentially, sheep provide a complete survival package for the herder and conveniently, made be herded on foot with low manpower demands.

A chart of the various uses for sheep products I was able to find in my reading. It is almost certainly not exhaustive. I have left qulut (discussed below) off of the list because I cannot find anything solid on if sheep-milk can be used that way. Note that sheep milk cannot generally be made into qumis/airag, but can be fermented into kephir, though it’s not clear to me if that was widespread on the Steppe.

Now it is worth noting right now that Steppe Nomads have, in essence, two conjoined subsistence systems: there is one system for when they are with their herds and another for purely military movements. Not only the sheep, but also the carts (which are used to move the yurt – the Mongols would call it a ger – the portable structure they live in) can’t move nearly as fast as a Steppe warrior on horseback can. So for swift operational movements – raids, campaigns and so on – the warriors would range out from their camps (and I mean range – often we’re talking about hundreds of miles) to strike a target, leaving the non-warriors (which is to say, women, children and the elderly) back at the camp handling the sheep. For strategic movements, as I understand it, the camps and sheep herds might function as a sort of mobile logistics base that the warriors could operate from. We’ll talk about that in just a moment.

So what is the nomadic diet like? Surely it’s all raw horse-meat straight off of the bone, right? Obviously, no. The biggest part of the diet is dairy products. Mare’s and sheep’s milk could be drunk as milk; mare’s milk (but not sheep’s milk) could also be fermented into what the Mongolians call airag but is more commonly known as qumis after its Turkish name (note that while I am mostly using the Mongols as my source model for this, Turkic Steppe nomads are functioning in pretty much all of the same ways, often merely with different words for what are substantially the same things). But it could also be made into cheese and yogurt [update: Wayne Lee (@MilHist_Lee) notes that mare’s milk cannot be made into yogurt, so the yogurt here would be made from sheep’s milk – further stressing the importance of sheep!] which kept better, or even dried into a powdered form called qurut which could then be remixed with water and boiled to be drunk when it was needed (this being a dried form of yogurt, it would presumably be made from sheep’s milk, as mare’s milk wasn’t used for yogurt). The availability of fresh dairy products was seasonal in much of the steppe; winter snows would make the grass scarce and reduce the food intake of the animals, which in turn reduced their milk production. Thus the value of creating preserved, longer-lasting products.

Of course they did also eat meat, particularly in winter when the dairy products became scarce. Mutton (sheep meat) is by far largest contributor here, but if a horse or oxen or any other animal died or was too old or weak for use, it would be butchered (my understanding is that these days, there is a lot more cattle on Mongolia, but the sources strongly indicate that mutton was the standard Mongolian meat of the pre-modern period). Fresh meat was generally made into soup called shulen (often with millet that might be obtained by trade or raiding with sedentary peoples or even grown on some parts of the steppe) not eaten raw off of the bone. One of our sources, William of Rubruck, observed how a single sheep might feed 50-100 men in the form of mutton soup. Excess meat was dried or made into sausages. On the move, meat could be placed between the rider’s saddle and the horse’s back – the frequent compression of riding, combined with the salinity of the horse’s sweat would produce a dried, salted jerky that would keep for a very long time.

(This ‘saddle jerky’ seems to gross out my students every time we discuss the Steppe logistics system, which amuses me greatly.)

Now, to be clear, Steppe peoples absolutely would eat horse meat, make certain things out of horsehair, and tan horse hides. But horses were also valuable, militarily useful and slow to breed. For reasons we’ll get into a moment, each adult male, if he wanted to be of any use, needed several (at least five). Steppe nomads who found themselves without horses (and other herds, but the horses are crucial for defending the non-horse herds) was likely to get pushed into the marginal forest land to the north of the steppe. While the way of life for the ‘forest people’ had its benefits, it is hard not to notice that forest dwellers who, through military success, gained horses and herds struck out as steppe nomads, while steppe nomads who lost their horses became forest dwellers by last resort (Ratchnevsky, op. cit., 5-7). Evidently, being stuck as one of the ‘forest people’ was less than ideal. In short, horses were valuable, they were the necessary gateway into steppe live and also a scarce resource not to be squandered. All of which is to say, while the Mongols and other Steppe peoples ate horse, they weren’t raising horses for the slaughter, but mostly eating horses that were too old, or were superfluous stallions, or had become injured or lame. It is fairly clear that there were never quite enough good horses to go around.

Via Wikipedia, a photo taken in 1921 of Mongolian herdsman, tending their livestock, with sheep on the foreground and horses and camels in the background.

The other major source of meat, especially when on campaign, but also when in camp, would be hunting. One might expect the mighty Mongols to only hunt the more fearsome game, but the most common animals to hunt were smaller ones like the marmot, although the Mongols would hunt essentially anything on the steppe, including deer, antelope, even bears and tigers. Mongol hunting practices are quite developed (especially the large group hunt known as the nerge, which we’ll talk about when we get to warfare). Hunting, especially hunting small game with a bow from horseback, was a skill a good steppe nomad learned very young; one source describes Mongol boys learning to ride on the backs of sheep and practicing their archery by shooting small game (May, op. cit. 42), which is both adorable and terrifying. Needless to say, a warrior who can drop on arrow at distance onto a marmot while riding at speed on a horse is going to be a quite lethal archer in battle.

A String of Horses

War parties, as noted, often moved without bringing the entire camp, the non-combatants or the sheep with them. This was actually crucial operational concern on the steppe, since the absence of a war party might render an encampment – stocked full of the most valuable resources (livestock, to be clear) – effectively unguarded and ripe for raiding, but at the same time, attempting to chase down a moving encampment with an equally slow moving encampment was obviously a non-starter. Better to race over the steppe, concealed (as we’ll see) and quick moving to spring a trap on another group of nomads. But how did a war party make those high speed long-distance movements over the steppe? Horse-string logistics (a term, I should note, that I did not coin, but which is too apt not to use).

Each steppe warrior rode to battle with not one horse, but several: typically five to eight. For reasons that will rapidly become obvious, they preferred mares for this purpose. The Steppe warrior could ride the lead horse and keep the rest of them following along by connecting them via a string (thus ‘horse-string logistics’), such that each steppe warrior was his own little equine procession. These horses are, you will recall, fairly small and while they are hardy, they are not necessarily prodigiously strong, so the warrior is going to shift between them as he rides, sparing his best mount for the actual fight. Of course we are not looking at just one warrior on the move – that would be very dangerous – but a group on the move, so we have to imagine a large group (perhaps dozens or hundreds or even thousands) of warriors moving, with something like 5-8 times that many horses.

[Edit: It is worth noting that a horse-string war party might well also bring some number of sheep with them as an additional food supply, herding them along as the army rode. So even here, sheep maintain their importance as a core part of the subsistence system.]

Now of course the warriors are going to bring rations with them from the camp, including milk (both liquid in leather containers and dried to qurut-paste) as well as dried meat (like the saddle jerky discussed above). But the great advantage of moving on mares is that they when they are lactating, mares are already a system for turning the grass of the steppe into emergency rations. As Timothy May (op. cit.) notes, a mare produces around 225-2.5 quarts of milk in excess of the needs of her foal per day during her normal five-month lactation period, equal to about 1,500kcal/day, half of the daily requirement for a human. So long as at least two of the horses in the horse-string were lactating, a steppe warrior need not fear shortfall. This was more difficult in the winter when less grass was available and thus mare’s milk became scarce, which could impose some seasonality on a campaign, but a disciplined band of steppe warriors could move massive distances (the Mongols could make 60 miles a day on the move unencumbered, which is a lot) like this in just a few months.

In adverse conditions (or where time permitted because meat is tasty), steppe warriors on the move could also supplement their diet by hunting, preserving the meat as saddle-jerky (discussed above). In regions where water became scarce, we are frequently told that the Mongols could keep going by opening a vein on their horse and drinking the blood for both nourishment and hydration; May (op. cit.) notes that a horse can donate around 14 pints of blood without serious health risk, which is both hydrating, but also around 2,184kcal, about two-third of the daily requirement. This will have negative impacts on the horses long term if one keeps doing it, so it was an emergency measure.

The major advantage of this kind of horse-string logistics was that a steppe warrior party could move long distances unencumbered by being essentially self-sufficient. It has a second major advantage that I want to note because we’ll come back to it, they light no fires. For most armies, camp fires are essential because food preparation – particularly grains – essentially requires it. But a steppe warrior can move vast distances – hundreds of miles – without lighting a fire. That’s crucial for raiding (and becomes a key advantage even when steppe warriors transition to taking and holding territory in moments of strength, e.g. the Mongols) because sight-lines on the steppe are long and campfires are visible a long way off. Fireless logistics allow steppe warriors to seemingly appear from the steppe with no warning and then vanish just as quickly.

That said, these racing columns of steppe warriors, while they could move very fast and be effectively independent in the short term, don’t seem generally to have been logistically independent of the camp and its herds of sheep in the long term. Not only, of course, would there be need for things like hides and textiles produced in the camp, but also the winter snows would drastically reduce the mares milk the horses produced, making it more difficult to survive purely on horse-string logistics. Instead, the camp formed the logistical base (and store of resources, since a lot of this military activity is about raiding to get captives, sheep and horses which would be kept in the camp) for the long range cavalry raids to strike out from. To the settled peoples on the receiving end of a Mongol raid, it might seem like the Mongols subsisted solely on their horses, but the Mongols themselves knew better (as would anyone who stayed with them for any real length of time).

A Subsistence of Steppes

All of that discussion done, we come to the question, what would an outsider observe when viewing the Steppe subsistence system? After all, what we are really assessing here is a portrait of a Steppe society as viewed by an outsider (conveniently, a lot of the evidence that forms the backbone of our discussion so far is exactly this; check out May, op. cit. for more on that). And I certainly don’t expect Martin (or the showrunners) to bring their story to a screeching halt in order to discuss horse lactation schedules and making dairy products. So if we were in, say a Mongol camp (keeping mind that a Turkic or Hunnic or Scythian nomad camp wouldn’t be very different), what might we see?

Via Wikipedia, a Kazakh yurt. The material for the covering is wool felt (sheep products!)

The primary camp structure is the ger (the Mongolian term) or a yurt (the Old Turkic word) – a portable round tent, typically fairly large, covered with a mix of felt and hides. The ger is one of those structures which, having presumably been incrementally improved over centuries, is just really impressive for its simplicity and elegance. The ger can open at the top to allow a fire to be kept inside (and smoke to escape) in cold climates and additional layers or felt, hide or fur can be easily wrapped over the basic frame to provide insulation to hold in that heat. In hot weather, the coverings can be changed out for thinner felts and even be lifted to provide air circulation. Meanwhile, the pole construction is stable and sturdy. Most importantly, a good ger in the hands of experienced nomads is stunningly portable – often just a couple of hours to either break down or set up, and the entire assembly – the poles, felt panels, hide covers, all of it – can be stored on a single cart. A large encampment would have many of these, probably around one for every ten or fifteen people or so, very roughly. Of course, since the gers move on the carts, they cannot go with the war party, but have to stay with the moving encampment, so a figure like Daenerys would always be in the same place as the carts with the gers.

Via Wikipedia, constructing a Mongolian ger. Note the multiple layers of covers (which might be felt or hide, depending on the weather), along with the (barely visible) wood frame of the structure. In the back, you can see a full constructed ger

Anyone staying there for even a brief span of time is likely to observe the encampment’s many animals, both the horses but also the sheep, along with other animals (cattle, yaks, etc). Wealth in nomadic society is fundamentally measured in animals (especially sheep and horses) so the guest of a powerful, wealthy khan is likely to see a lot of animals. Moreover, they are going to see people spend a lot of time tending these animals. Ewes and mares will be milked, some animals (particularly sheep) may be slaughtered for meat. The sheep would be sheared for wool. Textile production was a task for the women of the encampment; producing fabric from raw wool is labor intensive and would be a fairly constant activity in order to provide the thick wool felt that is used to make everything from clothing to the walls of the yurts themselves. Likewise, dairy processing – turning the milk into cheese, yogurt or qumis – is going to be a constant background activity; qumis, like churning butter, has to be agitated while it ferments, often hundreds of times (although the movement of horses might be used to provide the agitation on the move).

And of course the animals themselves have to be sustained, taken out to graze near the camp, moved between pastures to avoid stripping the grass. Needless to say, animal husbandry can be a lot of work! The camp’s movements itself would not have been random. This is a common error with nomads, assuming they just ‘wander.’ Instead, tribal groupings of various sizes had territory they controlled and shifted, typically in a regular seasonable order, between camp sites to allow the grass in each area to grow back. Trespass on such territory was met with violence, since the trespassers’ animals were literally eating the very basis of the subsistence of the controlling group (we’ll get to it later, but it is odd that the Dothraki Sea seems to lack such territories and also seems to lack ethnic divisions of any kind).

Via Wikipedia, another Kazakh yurt (1860), with animals nearby, sheep being tended in the foreground, another grazing in the background, along with a horse and a camel. More animals graze in the far distance.

In short, the subsistence system would be in evidence almost everywhere since so much of the activity that goes on in the camp was oriented around the pastoral system.

A Show of Brown

Which, at last brings us back to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. We can start with the show, because visual storytelling is easier to assess. We are able to see Khal Drogo’s khalasaar on the move:

What beautiful shot composition. “So we’ll set the brown horses against the brown grass and the brown leather.” And of course it is one of the tiny handful of non-white cultures that gets slammed by the wall of brown things.

Now to be clear, this is not a war-party, Daenerys is here and we see women and even people (potentially slaves, given the Dothraki attitudes about ‘walkers’) on foot carrying supplies. But where are the herds of sheep? Or even the herds of spare horses? We see one rider for each horse. This isn’t a budget issue, they clearly have a lot of horses, they’ve simply put too many people in the shot; they need to fire about 4/5ths of their extras. And where are the loaded carts carrying the gers? Because, in the show at least, they do have some kind of shelter:

Now, credit where credit is due: those are clearly a kind of shelter, albeit rather small. Not quite a yurt or a tipi, but perhaps a wigwam. That said, for open steppe like this, this isn’t exactly a great design. First off, they appear somewhat poorly made for what are presumably portable, reusable structures (one assumes they are not butchering and tanning all that hide every night). As you will notice above, a Mongolian ger is typically a fairly carefully made thing (people like nice things!) and Native American tipis and wigwams are no different! The choice to shape them as wigwams is not great either: wigwams were generally temporary and non-portable structures, as I understand it; the tipi was designed for repeated use, variable climates and portability and would be a much better choice for this (but I think a ger would be the more correct choice for how the Dothraki are set up, especially since they have carts). In this case, the huge, show-stopping problem is the clear lack of any smokehole at the top of the structure, making it impossible to light a fire inside without smoking yourself to death. Still, within the limits of a show, at least they have dwellings of some sort. They’re not good dwellings, certainly not the sort of dwellings I’d suspect of centuries of development, but they exist.

Also, can I just add – why is brown this culture’s theme color? It is really frustrating. People in the past liked to look nice!

We also see at least some subsistence activity in the camp, but it is entirely the processing of what look like hunted animals, although in one scene it looks like Drogo does, in fact, own a whole two goats that have been brought along and should feed his immediate household for an afternoon or so. Credit where credit is due, there is one extra in this scene who looks to be rolling something that may be her pressing cheese. More confusing to me is why the men are singularly uninvolved in preparing the meat from animals – the deer and rabbits – that are clearly hunted. That’s a skill they would have, since they must regularly hunt well away from the main encampment! I guess manly men don’t field dress hunted animals?

[Update: I have subsequently learned that in fact men generally did not field-dress their own hunted kills in the Steppe and possibly also the Great Plains. So mea culpa, this one bit in the show is actually reasonable. Another point, surprisingly, for the Game of Thrones set crew over the books, which don’t include this element.]

In short, no subsistence system we have discussed is displayed in the show: there are no big-game bison being processed here which could actually feed this large assemblage of people (that one deer and three rabbits sure won’t do it) and there is no flock of sheep that can do the job either. Now I am usually pretty inclined to give the set team a pass on these sorts of things, but the dialogue makes clear that the absence of those systems is quite intentional. Jorah flatly tells Daenerys, when she asks for literally any food that isn’t horse, “The Dothraki have two things in abundance, grass and horses; people can’t live on grass” (S1E2). Given that he is handing her a bit of horsemeat, we may assume he is both serious and at this point also more or less accurate about the diet (which is, at this point, his diet too!). So the show is quite clear, in its text, that the primary thing the Dothraki are supposed to be eating is horse, only mildly supplemented by other game. But as we have noted, neither the Steppe or Great Plains subsistence system is built around eating horses – instead they are both built around using horses to get another animal to mostly eat, either herding domesticated sheep or hunting wild bison.

That said, I cannot really fault the show, because this is one of the rare cases where the show has managed to do somewhat better than the books, mostly, it seems, by dint of the set crew being forced to put something in the background and ‘generic Hollywood camp’ (‘let’s see, someone’s got some stew going, people vaguely doing something nondescript in the stream, what else? Or right, let’s just put a random animal up on a rack over here…’) at least fills in some standard subsistence tasks and putting those two goats and the one deer in the background could at least be taken to imply that there are a lot more of these somewhere, even though the dialogue of the show rules them out as major food sources.

An Error of Books

No, the problem here isn’t with the show, it is with the show’s source material. So let’s go through it, starting with the least important things. Where the show had sensibly added yurts and merely forgot to have any way to move them, Martin has the Dothraki live in “palaces of woven grass” (AGoT, 83) which I assume the show did not replicate because the moment someone described doing that everyone realized what a bad idea it was and moved on to something more sensible like a yurt covered in leather. Grass and reeds, of course, can be woven. However, as anyone who has done so will tell you, the idea of trying to weave what is essentially a grass basket the size of a tent in a single day is not an enviable – or remotely possible – task. Trying to move such a giant grass basket without it coming apart or developing tears and gaps is hardly better. And at the end, a woven-grass structure wouldn’t even really be particularly good at controlling temperature, which is its entire purpose! It is rather ironic, given that unlike the show’s Dothraki, Martin’s Dothraki do seem to use at least some carts, because Viserys is forced to ride in one (AGoT, 323) and so could bring yurts with them. The just don’t.

More to the point, it is very clear that Martin imagines the Dothraki subsistence system to consist almost entirely of horses. The Dothraki ride horses, they eat horses, they drink fermented mare’s milk. The Dothraki – as in the show – are presented as eating almost entirely horsemeat. They eat horsemeat at the wedding (AGoT, 84), and Daenerys’ attendants are surprised that she asks for any kind of meat other than horse (AGoT, 129), although Daenerys herself seems to have access to a more agrarian diet (AGoT, 198) and other characters observe that the Dothraki prefer horsemeat to anything else (AGoT, 272). There is no mention of herds of anything except people and horses moving with the khalasaar. There is also no sense that the Dothraki are hunting big game like one would in the Great Plains; Drogo kills a hrakkar – a sort of lion, apparently – as a display of bravery (AGoT, 495) but there is nothing that would suggest the kind of bison-based subsistence system (at the very least, if that was the system, Daenerys would be well aware of it, because the camp would be awash in bison-products). I found no references to larger game and the Wiki only offers, “packs of wild dogs, herds of free-ranging horses, and rare hrakkar” which is, needless to say, not enough to make up for the absence of large herds of bison, especially for trying to feed Drogo’s camp of perhaps a hundred thousand people (or more!).

They clearly do not herd sheep. This becomes painfully obvious with the raid on the Lhazareen village. The Dothraki – Khal Ogo’s men – in raiding a sedentary pastoralist settlement, kill all of the sheep and leave them to rot. Dany sees them “thousands of them, black with flies, arrow shafts bristling from each carcass” and only knows that this isn’t Drogo’s work because he would have killed the shepherds first (AGoT, 555). And we are told that the people there “the Dothraki called them haesh rakhi, the Lamb Men….Khal Drogo said they belong south of the river bend. The grass of the Dothraki sea was not meant for sheep” (AGoT, 556). We are told that the Dothraki have “vast herds” but this can only mean herds of horses, given that they apparently take offense at any other animal being grazed on the Dothraki and look down ad shepherds in general (AGoT, 83). To be clear, for a nomadic people moving over vast grassland to spurn the opportunity to capture vast herds of sheep would be extraordinarily stupid. At the very least, thousands of sheep are valuable trade goods that can literally walk themselves to the point of sale (we’ll get to this idea that the Dothraki also don’t understand commerce a little later, but it is also intense rubbish; horse nomads in both the New World and the Old understood trade networks quite well and utilized them adroitly). But more broadly, as I hope we’ve laid out, sheep are extremely valuable for subsistence in Steppe terrain.

But Martin does not even do horse-string logistics right. While Daenerys eats cheese (AGoT, 198), we never hear of the Dothraki doing so. The Dothraki do have an equivalent to qumis, but no qulut, no yogurt. Even the frankly badass bit about drinking the horse’s blood as a source of nourishment does not appear.

The horses themselves are also wrong. First, Daenerys and Drogo each have one horse they use, seemingly to the exclusion of all others. If you have been reading this long, you know that is nonsense: they ought to both (and Jorah too, if he intends to keep up) be shifting between multiple horses to avoid riding any of them into the ground. Moreover, Martin has imported a European custom about horses – that men ride stallions and women ride mares – into a context where it makes no sense. Drogo’s horse is clearly noted as a red stallion (AGoT, 88) while Daenerys’ horse is a silver filly (AGoT, 87). But of course the logistics of Steppe raiding revolves around mares; in trying to give Drogo the ultimate manly-man horse, he has actually given him the equivalent of a broken down beater – a horse only able to fulfill a slim parts of its role.

Finally, the group size here is wildly off. For comparison, Timothy May estimates that, in 1206, when Temujin he took the name Chinggis Khan and thus became the Great Khan, ruling the entire eastern half of the Eurasian Steppe, that the Mongol army “probably numbered less than a hundred thousand men” (May, The Mongols, (2019), 43), though by that point his army included not merely Mongols, but other ethnically distinct groups of steppe nomads, Merkits, Naimans, Keraites, Uyghurs and the Tatars (the last of which Chinggis had essentially exterminated – next time, we’ll get to the nonsense of the Dothraki being a single ethnic group). That is, to be clear, compared to the armies of sedentary empires of similar size (which is to say, huge) a fairly small number! We’re going to come back to this next week, but the strength of Steppe nomads was never in numbers. Pastoralism is a low density subsistence strategy, so the steppe nomads were almost always outnumbered by their sedentary opponents (Chinggis himself overcomes this problem by folding sedentary armies into his own, giving him agrarian numbers, backed by the fearsome fighting skills of his steppe nomads).

Via Wikipedia, Chinggis Khan’s empire in 1207; it is about 1,500 miles across.

Khal Drogo’s khalasaar, which moves as a single unit, supposedly has 40,000 riders (AGoT, 325-6); Drogo is perhaps the strongest Khal, but still only one of many. With 40,000 riders, we have to imagine an entire khalasaar of at least 120,000 Dothraki (plus all the slaves they seem to have – put a pin in that for later; also that number is a low-ball because violent mortality is clearly very high among the Dothraki, which would increase the proportion of women and children) and probably something like 300,000 horses. At least. Of course no grassland could support those numbers without herds of sheep or other cattle. As noted above, Isenberg’s figures suggest much lower density in the absence of herding – just under 70,000 nomadic Native Americans on the Great Plains in 1780 (and less than 40,000 in 1877), including women and children! But more to the point, no assemblage of animals and people that large could stay together for any length of time without depleting the grass stocks.

Even if we ignore that problem and even if we assume that the Dothraki have Mongol-style pastoral logistics to enable higher population density on the Dothraki Sea, my sense is that the numbers still don’t work. Even before Drogo dies, we meet quite a few other independent Khals with their on khalasaarsMoro, Jommo, Ogo, Zekko and Motho at least and it is implied that there are more. Drogo’s numbers suggests he should be roughly at the stage Chinggis Khan was in 1201 or so – with Chinggis controlling roughly half of the Mongolian Steppe, and his old friend and rival Jamukha the other half. But Khal Drogo has evidently at least a half-dozen rivals, probably more. It is hard to say with any certainty, but the numbers generally seem too high. Having that entire group concentrated, moving together for at least nine months (long enough for Daenerys to become pregnant and give birth) would be simply impossible inside of a grazing-based subsistence system, sheep or no sheep.

In short, no part of this subsistence system works, either from a North American or a Eurasian perspective.

A Tome of Changing Land Use Patterns

[Note: Parts of this conclusion were moved to Part III of this series, because they made more sense there. Alas for the perils of serialized publication! So if you see someone in the comments still talking about something I said that isn’t here, check to see if it isn’t in the conclusion there.]

This isn’t actually much of a surprise. Martin has been pretty clear that he doesn’t like the kind of history we’re doing here. As he states:

I am not looking for academic tomes about changing patterns of land use, but anecdotal history rich in details of battles, betrayals, love affairs, murders, and similar juicy stuff.

That’s an odd position for an author who critiques other authors for being insufficiently clear about their characters’ tax policy (what does he think they are taxing, other than agricultural land use?). Now, I won’t begrudge anyone their pleasure reading, whatever it may be. But what I hope the proceeding analysis has already made clear is that it simply isn’t possible to say any fictional culture is ‘an amalgam’ of a historical culture if you haven’t even bothered to understand how that culture functions. And it should also be very clear at this point that George R. R. Martin does not have a firm grasp on how any of these cultures function.

Once again, Martin has instead constructed this culture out of stereotypes of nomadic peoples. Indeed, Timothy May, in writing, notes himself the stereotype that the Mongols were always eating big haunches of meat (The Mongol Art of War, 60-1) or that the Mongols were numerous beyond counting (The Mongols, 43) and points out that these are both longstanding stereotypes but also straight nonsense. And that straight nonsense, along with at least having heard of qumis, appears to be the sum total of Martin’s understanding of steppe logistics.

Hardly a promising start to our look at Dothraki culture. So far our ‘dash of fantasy’ has turned into a barrel of salt. Next week, we keep digging in the salt to see if we can find any real culture there at all.

429 thoughts on “Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part II: Subsistence on the Hoof

  1. Hey hey, we haven’t had a Tolkien intrusion into the discussion yet, so let me open the breach. How does all this apply to Rohan? Letter 297: “Rohan. I cannot understand why the name of a country (stated to be Elvish) should be associated with anything Germanic; still less with the only remotely similar O.N. rann ‘house’, which is incidentally not at all appropriate to a still partly mobile and nomadic people of horse-breeders!”

    So he thought of them as somewhat nomadic, even if that wasn’t clear in LotR. Though we do have “the Horse-lords had formerly kept many herds and studs in the Eastemnet, this easterly region of their realm, and there the herdsmen had wandered much, living in camp and tent, even in winter-time. But now all the land was empty, and there was a silence that did not seem to be the quiet of peace.”

    “Their horses were of great stature”

    “‘There are three empty saddles, but I see no hobbits,’ said Legolas.” — no remounts.

    Some spare horses in RotK: “There on the wide flats beside the noisy river were marshalled in many companies well nigh five and fifty hundreds of Riders fully armed, and many hundreds of other men with spare horses lightly burdened.”

    The Rohirrim seem to love their horses too much to eat them, and Tolkien was English, and the English abhor horsemeat. No mention of any kind of milk or other dairy products… really, no mention of Rohan food at all. No mention of sheep or cattle, just “herds”. (Though Appendix A does mention a loss of cattle and horses in Helm’s time.) There is mention of homesteads, and “But great store of food, and many beasts and their fodder”

    So I think we’re supposed to believe in Rohirrim farmers to the south and west, and great herds of horses living on the grass to the north and east, with these grass-fed horses being big enough to carry tall warriors in long mail without a need for spare horses.

    I am not sure it actually coheres.

    The Wainriders and other invaders from the east are probably more like steppe nomads; Tolkien doesn’t given enough detail to get it wrong. In Unfinished Tales he does say they trained their women in fighting:

    “The revolt planned and assisted by Marhwini had indeed broken out; desperate outlaws coming out of the Forest had roused the slaves, and together had succeeded in burning many of the dwellings of the Wainriders, and their storehouses, and their fortified camps of wagons. But most of them had perished in the attempt; for they were ill-armed, and the enemy had not left their homes undefended: their youths and old men were aided by the younger women, who in that people were also trained in arms and fought fiercely in defence of their homes and their children. Thus in the end Marhwini was obliged to retire again to his land beside the Anduin”

    Eowyn seems to have been trained as well, but there’s no mention of women Rohirrim fighting even in an existential defensive war.

    1. Eomer was in charge of a small band going out to deal with a small band of enemy. Resupply was less urgent. Note they also had no baggage

  2. Without refreshing to see whether I have duplicated someone else’s typo corrections posted after I started reading, here is my list, with the duplicates I *did* see, removed:

    able to witnesses the subsistence -> able to witnesses
    hunting seems to -> [could you go back and look at the construction of the sentence this comes from? It is rather confusing at first to follow from a second example into its predicate part of the sentence/?]
    big deal, we’ll -> (comma ought to be semicolon)
    makes clear that this -> makes clear[comma] this (delete that)
    as long or have access -> had
    or live in a part -> lived (Bret, if these corrections are not right, then please address your changing tenses more clearly/?)
    Mostly importantly, -> Most
    look down ad shepherds -> look down at
    (and less than 40,000 -> fewer than
    I hope the proceeding analysis -> preceding

  3. A short range mission wouldn’t need much baggage but there might have been remounts, they wouldn’t be wearing saddles and Legolas specifically says saddles not riderless horses.
    I find the Wainriders furiously interesting and deeply regret not having more info about them. I imagine them to be something like the Sarmatians.

  4. Typo squid assmeble!

    “form the south” -> “from the south”
    “now spread wore widely” -> “now spread more widely”
    “to full a travois” -> “to pull a travois”
    “and a frequently object” -> “and a frequent object”
    “the margin or survival” -> “the margin of survival”
    “form the get-go” -> “from the get-go”
    “Steppe nomads […] without horses […] was” -> “were”
    “steppe live” -> “steppe life”
    “sheep on the foreground ” -> “sheep in the foreground”
    “drop on arrow” -> “drop an arrow”
    “was actually crucial operational” -> “was actually a crucial operational”
    “and quick moving to spring” -> “and moving quickly to spring” ? “and quick moving, to spring” – probably the latter
    ” fulfill a slim parts” -> “fulfill slim parts” or “fulfill a slim part”

    Weird sentences, etc:
    “For reasons we’ll get into a moment, each adult male, if he wanted to be of any use, needed several (at least five). ” – presumably each adult _human_ male needed several _horses_ but that took a few scans to parse

    Bit of a maths question:
    “a mare produces around 225-2.5 quarts of milk in excess of the needs of her foal per day” – Were the war parties bringing the foals along, too? Seems like you wouldn’t need more than a single mare in your train to stay fed, though presumably at least two would be safer in case something happened to one.

    And then one odd followup:

    “But more to the point, no assemblage of animals and people that large could stay together for any length of time without depleting the grass stocks.” This does seem to be one bit where Martin applies a deliberate dash of fantasy, possibly without realizing it. The grass of the region is evidently uncommonly tall. He probably meant it as a way to make the setting more imposing, and also to explain opportunities for stealth (nevermind the fires at camp), but the stock of grass seems more substantial here than in real-world steppes.

    That doesn’t solve the issue of the horses themselves being depleted, of course.

  5. One thing I recall from reading about the Mongols is that the aristocracy kept larger horses, which needed grain through the winter. These were the core of armoured lancers who followed up on the disorder created by the horse-archers. Marco Polo remarks on the thousands of camel-loads of grain sent north each year from China to Kubilai’s camp on the steppes. This, along with access to textiles and metalwork, gave the ‘inner steppe’ tribes an advantage over the outer tribes – offset by greater vulnerability to agriculture-based power.

    Another note – water as much as grass was a key resource on the steppe. In high summer the herds need huge amounts and ready access.

    1. I think the steppe is better watered than the great plains, in addition to the big rivers like the Volga there are lots of little tributaries. Or so it seems from the account of an eighteenth century russian settler on the steppe.

      1. Depends on area – Morris’ account of Genghis campaign’s against north China mention that crossing the eastern Gobi meant waiting until autumn rains filled the clay pans.

        Also, there’s water and there’s access to it. A tumen – 10,000 men and 40,000 horses can literally drink a small stream dry. The major rivers often have steep banks and approached through side-ravines (‘balkas’). A large group would have to split up and use several access points (it would take over a day for even a close-packed and orderly 40,000 horse string to pass a point in single file).

        The British Indian army field notes used by Engels (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army) estimate available forage at various times of the year and how many men and animals the water supplies can support, given access and flow rates.

      2. Very much depends on where you draw the lines (“Is the Gobi desert part of the steppes?”) or where you are.

        1. My informant is Sergey Asakov, a Russian writer who was part of the eighteenth century Russian colonization of the steppe. His grandfather’s homestead was in Bakhshir territory. The settlers chose land near rivers and it’s implied there are plenty to chose from, though many aren’t navigable.

          1. It’s less about water than access. A few herdsmen can take groups of animals to a watering point over the course of the day, and move the herd slowly from one point to another. A military group needs to get the watering done in a limited time-frame and then move on. So a stream whose flow rate would support a few thousand animals over a day may not provide for the same number watering all at once, and a major river might have access points that only allow a limited number at a time. In practice, 10,000 people plus animals and associated support (a standard division, a steppe warrior tumen) seems the maximum practical size this kind of movement allows.

  6. Scythian used geldings and the previous Sintashta-Andronovo culture has a 3-1 ratio of male to female horses in it’s sites. Implying they used mostly male horses. Mongol practices seem to be superior considering how totally they came to dominate the Iranic people’s, but it isn’t in anyway strange a steppe culture would prefer male horses for war.

    1. I don’t think the Scythians were quite as geared to specifically light cavalry war, and male horses have an advantage in the (heavy cavalry) press, since female horses are hesitant to get confrontational with stallions (not sure about geldings). Something similar happens, I believe, with war-elephants—cows do not go toe-to-toe with bulls—which is why they usually use bulls, with the cows used, if at all, for hauling and earth-moving.

  7. Great post as always!

    This time, though, I wonder if there isn’t another way to look at it. Specifically, I interpret GRRM’s key quote differently:

    > 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.

    One way to interpret it is that the author adds a dash of fantasy “on top”. If so, we’d expect to see a realistic depiction of steppe/plains nomads – something that closely corresponds to their real-world counterparts – but that also has some new element in addition. For example, maybe they have seers that can foretell the future, or maybe their ruler eats from a magical patch of grass that makes him immortal (or at least not age). But otherwise they should look 99% like reality, and so all the differences you rightfully point out would indicate the author didn’t do what the quote claims to.

    But another way to interpret it is that the dash of fantasy is done “first”, and the result grows from there, potentially diverging heavily from the real world counterparts. A small initial difference can lead to large consequences. For example, an author could ask what steppe nomads could look like if their horses could talk. That single change might lead to very large things. The author could still be achieving the goal in the quote even if the end result has huge differences from real-world steppe nomads.

    Back to GRRM, maybe the idea here was “what would steppe nomads look like if they had all the horses they could want?” Specifically, one mechanism to achieve that might be to say that in this fantasy world the grass has far more calories than in our world, or maybe that the horses are far more fecund for another reason. That “dash of fantasy” could lead to very big differences. For example, they wouldn’t need sheep. One could imagine that such a culture might focus on horses in an extreme way, even seeing sheep and sheep-owners as inferior. Also, if it’s the grass that is so fruitful, perhaps they kill anyone else that tries to benefit from it, as they would be dangerous competition, leading to “The grass of the Dothraki sea was not meant for sheep.” These nomads would look very different from real-world ones because of their complete focus on horses, including a subsistence model that is 100% horse – but it would still be faithful to the goal in GRRM’s quote.

    I don’t know if GRRM had this in mind, of course. But I would guess he at least had the idea of, “what if steppe nomads *really* focused entirely on horses, in an extreme way,” and let the idea go from there, no matter how much it diverged from our reality.

    Regardless, I think this post is really important because even without that GRRM quote many people will assume the Dothraki closely represent real-world groups, if only because of obvious similarities like Khal/Khan.

    1. Assuming the Dothraki are the result of that thought experiment, GRRM still apparently hasn’t done the added work of making the thought experiment plausible; if he’d done the extra worldbuilding, he could have slipped in all the supporting details, whether it’s super-nutrient-rich grass, modified horse biology, or what have you. I’ll grant that thought experiments in fantasy or SF don’t always have to be fleshed out, but that tends to work best in short stories (and possibly short novels) where there isn’t a lot of space to go into the world’s mechanics in depth. I hadn’t paid much attention before when I read the novels; in hindsight I’m a little disappointed after reading other F&SF authors who’ve put a lot of care into their worldbuilding. It’s true that making those small changes in your base assumptions changes a lot when you carry them out to their logical conclusions — what’s missing in the books is all the texture and variety that comes of thinking about how those changes impact the characters and their environment. I think the Dothraki would have turned out rather differently if GRRM had done that extra work and re-molded their society and culture accordingly.

      I’d also argue that “seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy” isn’t the same as “growing an entirely different culture out of a dash of fantasy” — if what GRRM had meant was the latter, he could have just said so.

      1. I don’t have a citation but the grass of the Dothraki Sea isn’t your regular grass, it’s taller than a man; seemingly much more abundant than your regular Earth steppe grass.

        1. There are places in the United States where the prairie grass will naturally grow taller than a man on horseback. The grass is within the range found among real grasses.

  8. The way this sentence is written, it implies Timothy May became the Great Khan in 1206 — adding to an already impressive career:

    “For comparison, Timothy May estimates that, in 1206, when he took the name Chinggis Khan and thus became the Great Khan, ruling the entire eastern half of the Eurasian Steppe, that the Mongol army “probably numbered less than a hundred thousand men” (May, The Mongols, (2019), 43), though by that point his army included not merely Mongols, but other ethnically distinct groups of steppe nomads, Merkits, Naimans, Keraites, Uyghurs and the Tatars….”

    1. While this is an improvement, it now has a superfluous word.

      when Temujin he took the name Chinggis Khan and thus became the Great Khan, ruling the entire eastern half of the Eurasian Steppe

    2. While this is an improvement, it now has a superfluous word.

      when Temujin he took the name Chinggis Khan and thus became the Great Khan, ruling the entire eastern half of the Eurasian Steppe

  9. My informant is Sergey Asakov, a Russian writer who was part of the eighteenth century Russian colonization of the steppe. His grandfather’s homestead was in Bakhshir territory. The settlers chose land near rivers and it’s implied there are plenty to chose from, though many aren’t navigable.

  10. I recall that back in the 70-80s in one of his collections, GRRM talked in an essay or a forward or something about how he was fascinated with stories about reality’s search and destroy campaign against romance. (Note that this is from decades ago so I may not be recalling it right.) He wrote a bunch of stories on this theme.

    The two I recall are:

    “With The Morning Comes Mistfall” about a tourist resort planet where the attraction is “wraiths” who may or may not exist (think Bigfoot). The owner is very unhappy about a debunking scientist who has come to settle the question. He wants the mystery to continue.

    “Patrick Henry, Jupiter, and the Little Red Brick Spaceship” about a billionaire who is trying to build a spaceship, but wants it to be a *proper* spaceship, long and silver with fins like in the 1950s scifi movies. He ultimately fails because of competing more practical projects and government interference.

    1. There’s a whole slew of other stories in that same vein. It got really repetitive when I was doing a read-through of his short stories in order. Another famous one is The Way of Cross and Dragon in which claims that Judas rode a dragon get debunked to much sadness.

      Often in the end of the story the pragmatists win out over the romantics but it’s a hollow victory.

      1. It doesn’t surprise me. This bit from his official website is my favorite piece of writing by GRRM:

        “The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

        Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

        We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

        They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”

        Sadly not very much reflected in his own fantasy writing.

        1. I suppose that GRRM could quite easily hold the opinion that he prefers the softer side of worldbuilding when it comes to fantasy, but knowing that it’s (overly) gritty realism that sells.

          Interestingly I’m of a similar opinion to GRRM, in that the drive towards realism is meaning that we’re losing a lot of the wonder that comes with more soft worldbuilding approaches. Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli fame is a shining example of making this sort of worldbuilding world.

          The isues come in trying to blend the two approaches, and which expectation you set up in your readers. I think GRRM’s issue is that he’s set up the reader to expect realism (with a dash of fantasy) and delivered fantasy with a dash of realism (albeit a fair bit larger dash than was typical at the time). If we were expecting the latter then it’s much less of an issue.

          1. “knowing that it’s (overly) gritty realism that sells.”

            Except it’s just grit, not realism. Turning The Emerald City into The Dung City is still fantasy, just nasty fantasy.

          2. Very true, although I do feel it’s worth comparing to mainstream fare before the mega-grittyness came in, which was much, much lighter and more idealistic. I wonder which veers closer to the truth (probably neither).

        2. I think it is VERY MUCH reflected in his writing. He’s written a lot of tragedy but it is bright colorful exaggerated tragedy. For example:
          -Westeros is England but BIGGER.
          -All of the castes are ludicrously huge and elaborate compared to real ones.
          -Lots of physical features are exaggerated like the height of several characters.
          -The domains of lords are HUGE.
          -The Wall is a fantastically inflated Hadrian’s Wall.
          -The lineages of the houses go back to the mists of time and are much more storied than real ones (which causes him a lot of problems with the history as there are all of the civil wars in which the losers keep their lands).
          -Dothraki hordes are HUGE and exaggerated in various goofy ways like this series is telling us.
          -Clothing is bright and extravagant and there are dyed blue beards and all the rest.
          -The food, dear god the food.

          Just because a lot of the dream is a nightmare doesn’t mean that Westeros doesn’t run on dream logic or that just about everything in the setting isn’t heightened and exaggerated.

          1. I am aware of those things, but I don’t think they mean much. Take Gormenghast, which Martin mentions in the quote. It’s a story about intrigue and backstabbing that takes place in a gargantuan castle, but despite surface similarities it reads nothing like Martin’s. The mood’s completely different: Gormenghast is altogether weirder and more alienating than anything in ASoIaF, despite being very much a nightmare.

            The distinction goes back to both creative and stylistic choices. I’d argue ASoIaF owes more to historical fiction than fantasy, in terms of genre conventions, but that doesn’t quite explain it either. The past is a foreign country, and good historical fiction is often bizarre and fantastical in its own way. Martin’s obsession with realism (in ASoIaF, at least) speaks to a desire to make the setting as recognizable to the audience as possible, which stifles any outlandish impulses his work may have inherited from either fantasy or historical fiction.

            Romance isn’t just about making things bigger; there are tonal and thematic aspects that are essential to that stylistic approach. Martin’s aforementioned attitude manifests sporadically in ASoIaF, particularly in Sansa’s arc, but only in a peripheral manner.

          2. Gwydden: the comment software won’t let me reply to your comment so I’ll answer you here.

            Well, yes, historical fiction (The Accursed Kings specifically) is a huge influence on ASoIaF but everything gets turned up to 11.

            As far as the tone you’re right in that it tries to ground things. It reminds me of an old short story of his (the name of which escapes me at the moment) which describes the day to day work of a space shipping company and it ends up being just like a trucking company down to the grubby little details which pisses off the main character since there’s no romance to it.

            So there are all kinds of fantasical things (spaceships!) but the way they’re describes they seem more historical (trucking!) until you actually sit down and think about it and see how bizarre and fantastical so many things actually are (the insane architecture of so many of the castles to take just one example) and how so much of his pseudo-history actually makes no sense (like the Dothraki).

            Also I think Martin’s tone is consciously shifting throughout the series from a more historical fiction tone to more Lovecraftian horror and he’s doing that consciously with so many seeds of the horror being planted early on, but he just didn’t notice them before of the more grubby tone.

          3. “It reminds me of an old short story of his (the name of which escapes me at the moment) which describes the day to day work of a space shipping company”

            “Night Shift”, Amazing Science Fiction, Jan 1973. Collected in “Songs of Stars and Shadows”, 1977.

            I found my copy of the latter, if anyone wants the text of the “search and destroy” quote I mentioned above.

          4. He wanted to have Stonehenge AND the mounted knights. 😀 It goes back to the time when Martin worked for Hollywood and kept getting his stuff cut due to budget concerns. Once the problem was a fight of mounted knights at Stonehenge, and he was told that the artificial stones would start to sway and maybe capzise if he had horses running about near them. So he got the stones, but only knights on foot.

            When he started writing ASOIAF, he said he wanted to write something free of the constraints of movie making, something unfilmable. Too bad he later trusted those two rich frat boys with his creation. Better directors might have done the books at least some justice, Game of Thrones does not.

            And yes, the world in the books is over the top like a lot of Fantasy. The difference to say, Erikson’s Malazan World, is that Martin uses the real ‘Middle Ages’ as inspiration and blows them up with no concern about realistic proportions. Malazan is definitely more _Fantasy_ (and some of the distances are weird as well).

        3. Wow, that sounds like a bad writer, to think of romance and realism at opposites.

          If he can only write romance or fantasy by way of idiot plot which unravels when realism arrives, then he’s a bad writer; and also limited human experience.

          In the Tiffany Aching novels, which are aimed at teens (so not much sex or gore), Tiffany wants to be a witch because of her Gran saying that somebody has to speak for those who have no voice; but she is able to be a witch because she has first sight and second thoughts: first sight is seeing how things are, not what people think they are; and second thoughts mean that when a scared village mob burns the house of a lone woman for being a witch who lured away children, baked them in her oven and ate them, Tiffany measures the oven and finds that of course a rural bread oven has an opening far too small for 8-10 year old kids to fit. (They were kidnapped by elves from another dimension).

          You can write stories where honor before reason wins, or where reason wins over honour – and both will have traitors, or people following love and peace; but good stories will work without idiot balls, but rather make the reader understand the system of that society (which doesn’t mean agreeing with it totally, but accepting that people in other times/ cultures had different priorities and beliefs).

          1. The biggest problem with “Cross and Dragon” is that there’s no way any 1st century Jew would have been pictured as riding a 13th century winged dragon. “Riding a dragon” would have been riding a giant snake, a drakon. Kenneth Grahame’s “Reluctant Dragon” is a joke about a famous classical Roman poem about “reluctantes dracones,” giant snakes fighting against each other. If Judas were riding around on a giant winged lizard, it would have been described as anything but a dragon.

  11. > if one is actually a Good Guy, there’s never such thing as an enemy that one should feel comfortable to “slaughter without qualm,” period

    Zombies? Killer robots?

    “No, I meant sapient enemies.”

    Buffy-style vampires? Saberhagen Berserkers? Mind flayers?

    I don’t think it’s hard to imagine enemies that ‘need killing’, and I don’t think it’s a moral flaw to do so. Fiction is fiction, “what if” games are games.

    Orcs are emotionally uncomfortable because they get close to real world racism: hominid, reproducing naturally with women and children somewhere, aesthetic markers like darker skin or squinty eyes (for presumed half-orcs, anyway.) Though Tolkien’s orcs probably looked less human than many modern depictions. Hardly anyone is bothered by the Goa’uld, parasites born with genetic memory and thus the same disposition as their ancestors.

    1. “squinty eyes (for presumed half-orcs, anyway.)”

      Now there’s a real case of “two peoples separated by a common language.” In British English, a “squint” means a strabismus, the condition of being cross-eyed, and more figuratively squint-eyed can mean “looking sidelong, shifty-eyed.” The US meaning of “eyes squeezed partly closed” and its extension to people with epicanthic folds was unknown to him and, remarkably, even to his son decades later:

      “Just as you had never noted until recently the use of the word squint to mean anything but “to narrow the eyes,” so I has never until your letter heard of that meaning. . I believe that squint in ‘English English’ always carries the idea of obliqueness… ‘to look out the corner of one’s eye.’ It can thus very readily come to connote character, and naturally leads to the meaning very fully developed in French, where a main meaning of louche (‘squinting’) is ‘ambiguous, dubious, suspicious, shady, fishy.'” (Christoper Tolkien to Nancy Martsch, 1990)

    2. Funny you should mention zombies and robots as your absurd outlier cases: zombie narratives have been loaded to the brim with racial symbolism about slave revolts and such from the moment they entered American pop culture via Afro-Haitian folklore during the early 20th century US military occupation of Haiti (the first zombie movie from 1932 was called “White Zombie” ffs) and meanwhile, robots were first written as an explicit allegory for oppressed manual laborers rising up in revolution against their idle overlords (the term “robot” is derived from the Slavic root word for work/worker).

      The point is, we enjoy the fantasies they do because on some level they satisfy our desires, and apparently the type of society we live in creates a powerful collective desire for scenarios where we can draw lazy broad-brush stereotypes about entire groups of humanlike/humanoid beings and have those stereotypes be 100% correct, not to mention scenarios where we can violently massacre such beings by the thousands without having to feel a shred of guilt about it because they’re “not really people.” (As I indicated earlier, this same function is often fulfilled in real-world wartime scenarios through dehumanizing racist indoctrination, like the “Mere Gook Rule” during Vietnam.) If we want to be mature and intelligent about this, we should at least try to recognize what these desires are and identify what real-world conditions they come from, instead of lazily writing it off as “just fiction” or “just a fantasy” or whatever.

      1. All that comes to mind at this juncture is the old Tom Lehrer song :

        “When correctly viewed,
        Everything is lewd.
        I could tell you things about Peter Pan,
        And the Wizard of Oz –There’s a dirty old man!”

        1. Well sure, is that generalization really so hard to wrap your head around? When correctly viewed, every fantasy story where you have entire categories of walking/talking/thinking “humanoid” beings who aren’t really human and can thus be oppressed or killed without any guilt, has something to do with people’s real-world desire to avoid feeling guilty about oppressing or killing certain types of other people, usually along the lines of what we call race. It can be a critical or satirical commentary on that desire instead of an uncritical celebration (much of Romero’s zombie output seems to be geared in that direction, for example) but it still has something to do with that desire either way.

          1. No, that’s total bullshit. Enjoying a story about fighting orcs or kobolds or mind flayers does not that mean you have a real-world desire to oppress and kill other people. Period.

            “When correctly viewed, every act of armchair psychoanalysis has something to do with people’s real-world desire to feel superior to other people.” /s

          2. “people’s real-world desire to avoid feeling guilty about oppressing or killing certain types of other people, usually along the lines of what we call race. ”

            Not to assume a premise or anything….

          3. “Well sure, is that generalization really so hard to wrap your head around?”

            It is trivially easy to wrap your head around. Here’s another easy generalization: if someone says that everything looks green, the problem is probably his eyes, not everything, and so with someone who sees racism in everything.

          4. The notion that I’m just seeing racism and oppression where it doesn’t exist or whatever would be a lot more credible if the similarities we’re talking about weren’t so obvious. This isn’t some obscure abstract conceptual metaphor where the concave surface represents femininity or whatever, these are vivid narrative stories where different types of walking, talking, thinking, humanlike beings with superficial cosmetic-level differences in anatomy (often Freudian-slippingly referred to as “races”) are organized into humanlike societies and armies, express simplistic broad-brush stereotypes about each other’s innate racial characteristics exactly the way humans do to each other in the real world, and kill each other with swords and arrows and guns and so on exactly the way humans do to each other in the real world.

            I really don’t see how it’s supposed to be some kind of bizarre stretch that any of this stuff has anything to do with real-world racism, especially since what prompted this entire tangential side-thread about orcs and such in the first place was a comment that GRRM’s Dothraki come across as if he originally intended to write them as orcs and only changed them to a nonwhite human ethnic group at the last minute.

          5. Agreed. These worrying trends are less about conscious decision-making in individual people and more about subconscious trends in how cultures tend to think. No-one’s sitting there thinking ‘haha, orcs are like the brown people I really don’t like, it’s nice to see Aragorn kill them’, but they are sitting there absorbing a world where broad (and often dehumanising) stereotypes are shown to be completely accurate and justified, which in turn is reflecting and reinforcing patterns of thinking about our own world that are not only prevalent in our society but are at the root of so many issues in it. It’s very much worth bringing into the realm of conscious thought so it can be challenged.

          6. Well I’d be surprised if the number of people thinking thoughts like “haha, orcs are like the brown people I really don’t like, it’s nice to see Aragorn kill them” was literally zero, there are definitely people out there whose explicit ideological position is “yes I am a racist and proud of it,” and acting as if such people don’t exist at all seems like a bit of an overcorrection. But sure in general, to repeat something from an earlier comment thread on this blog, the main point of cultural critiques like this isn’t to single out individual people and shriek “raaaaaacist!!!” at them like Donald Sutherland’s point-and-shriek at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” it’s to point out broad collective patterns of unconscious belief and ideology that most people might not even realize they’re following, and might disavow if they did realize it.

            An interesting exercise I saw someone do once: open side-by-side browser windows with this scene (the collapse of Faramir’s defense of Osgiliath in the RotK movie) playing in one window and this scene (the collapse of the British line at Isandlwana in the 1979 movie “Zulu Dawn”) in the other, and see how easy it is to sync them so the storytelling beats line up with one another. Almost like the second scene is what the first scene looks like if you’re wearing the sunglasses from “They Live.”

          7. “broad collective patterns of unconscious belief and ideology that most people might not even realize they’re following”

            Uh-huh.

          8. Well it’s just an exercise in people wanting to have their cake and eat it to. Daydreams about slaughtering faceless enemies with no moral consequences are fun, otherwise there wouldn’t be hundreds and hundreds of games about that. But we realize that slaughtering people does have more consequences so we try to find workarounds.

            Sometimes the faceless enemies are echoes of the sort of other we don’t really see as human sometimes the faceless enemies are that way because we realize that you can’t have humans be faceless enemies but just want to have some blood-drenched fun.

          9. I think you are reaching a bit. IMO, the main draw isn’t racism, it’s the glorification of war. As a culture, we often love war stories. The problem is that if you have a war story against most human groups, you sort of have to deal with the fact that they were humans too. “Yeah, we killed the bad guys” loses a lot of its savor when the “bad guys” were normal, decent people with families whose only crime is that they happened to live in a different country. So yeah, you either need to find a human group where the members are effectively condemned to death by default by the fact that they are in that group, or you need to find a non-human group that you can reasonably label as inherently evil.

            Back when racism was more broadly acceptable, there were all sorts of groups that you could pick with very little backlash. However, we’ve made some progress there, and so something like “cowboys vs indians” or whatever doesn’t go over as well with large segments of the population these days. Nazis are still relatively acceptable targets, but there really aren’t that many others. On the other hand, orcs aren’t real and can’t be hurt by racism, so they can still make fairly acceptable targets. Of course, the fact that they are playing the role that many real life cultures used to inhabit still brings racism into the conversation, but I don’t think that the main draw for most people is subconscious racism.

            Now, if you want to argue about whether we should glorify war at all, then that’s a separate question. It is definitely problematic in its own way, but I don’t think that racism plays into it.

          10. Back when racism was more broadly acceptable, there were all sorts of groups that you could pick with very little backlash. However, we’ve made some progress there, and so something like “cowboys vs indians” or whatever doesn’t go over as well with large segments of the population these days. Nazis are still relatively acceptable targets, but there really aren’t that many others. On the other hand, orcs aren’t real and can’t be hurt by racism, so they can still make fairly acceptable targets. Of course, the fact that they are playing the role that many real life cultures used to inhabit still brings racism into the conversation, but I don’t think that the main draw for most people is subconscious racism.

            I think that’s true, and it also explains why fantasy has become more popular as racism has become less acceptable, whereas if fantasy really nudged people towards viewing the world in a racist way, we should expect to find the opposite correlation.

      2. It’s not I think that Tolkien abandons the anti-semitic stereotypes in his later depictions of dwarves. He reverses the values on the anti-semitic stereotypes to make them sympathetic, and then draws on the striking similarities in tone and value between some of the Tanakh material, especially the Davidic stories, and the Norse sagas to give them a Norse flavouring. The result is something that could equally well be Semitic or Norse, and highlights just how arbitrary the difference between Semitic and Norse depictions is.
        Looking at Tolkien with an eye on coloration: Aragorn’s coloration is described using exactly the same words as Grima Wormtongue. Orcs (or some orcs) are notoriously swarthy, but so are Gondoreans. There is a bit of a distasteful theme about the mixing of the Numenorean blood; less so, if you keep in mind that the whole point of the book is that Hobbits are as unnoble as it gets, as are the Woses, who are the only group in the whole of the book who offer assistance in the battle against Sauron unprompted. It’s problematic that evil is southern and southern is dark-skinned, but where morals and latitude diverge in the book colouring follows latitude.
        One problem in reading Tolkien is that a lot of us, including Peter Jackson, imagine him through the filter of D&D and other US pulp fantasy in the tradition of Robert Howard, who really did buy much more into the whole white-Fremen imagery. (Howard’s Beyond the Black River is explicit about the Fremen bit.)

        1. The “blood mixing” message is undermined by the Appendices, where the blood purists who start the Kin-Strife are in the wrong, and makes it clear long life wasn’t genetic:

          “This mingling did not at first hasten the waning of the Dúnedain, as had been feared; but the waning still proceeded, little by little, as it had before. For no doubt it was due above all to Middle-earth itself, and to the slow withdrawing of the gifts of the Númenóreans after the downfall of the Land of the Star.”

          If you read “The Druedain” (Woses) in _Unfinished Tales_, one could almost accuse Tolkien of overcorrecting into ‘noble savage’ territory.

        2. “Robert Howard, who really did buy much more into the whole white-Fremen imagery. (Howard’s Beyond the Black River is explicit about the Fremen bit.)”

          Conan is a white Fremen, but since you’re singling out this particular story I think you’re talking about the PIcts?

          The Picts’ whiteness is questionable. The narrator tells us, “The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke of them as such.” This one statement is the only indication, in any of the stories, that the Picts are white, and they’re frequently described as nonwhite (including by the narrator in this same story: “No white man knew what shapes haunted the great forests beyond Black River.”). My guess is that Howard was trying to square presenting Picts as fantasy Native Americans with the historical Picts being British.

          1. I’m singling out that particular story because that’s the one I’ve read. (That and, Red Nails.) The Picts are coded racially Other: in so far as they’re white I’d agree Howard is trying to have it both ways. Conan is definitely whiter and more Fremen than they are.

    1. And sometimes it isn’t, especially when there are perfectly good textual and historical reasons to assume it isn’t.

        1. It’s getting pretty tiresome to write out umpteen comments talking about the reasons why it’s conceivable for things that look and walk and quack like ducks to maybe possibly have something to do with ducks, only for the response to be “la la la I can’t hear you.”

          1. What I read from your comments is that you’re declaring that quilts, arrows, and quill pens are all ABSOLUTELY WITHOUT QUESTION ducks because feathers, and that this is conclusive evidence of systematic duck hatred throughout Western popular culture, and quite possibly all of recorded history.

            If people are repeatedly misunderstanding or ignoring you, it maybe possibly has something to do with you, not them.

          2. Obviously the point is made clearly enough for some people here to get it perfectly easily, OTOH there always seems to be a contingent of people who stubbornly refuse to accept the most basic rudimentary social criticism even when it gets spoonfed to them in the intellectual equivalent of an infant puree with plastic utensils, so I’m not exactly surprised to see that reaction here too.

  12. “I really don’t see how it’s supposed to be some kind of bizarre stretch that any of this stuff has anything to do with real-world racism”

    I don’t think anyone would deny that it can easily be racism adjacent, or that the choices one makes in describing an Evil Horde might draw consciously or not on cultural racist tropes. It’s your sweeping absolutism that we object to. Sometimes a monster is just a monster.

    1. OK sure that’s fair, sometimes a monster is just a monster… maybe when it’s not a creature whose body is about the same shape and size as a human being, with roughly the same anatomical/facial layout as a human being, using spoken language and tools and weapons and so on in much the same way as human beings do. Zombies and robots and such would potentially be edge cases here given how thoroughly non-humanlike they can be on a cognitive level, except in both of those specific instances, the historical background as metaphors for oppressed human racial/economic underclasses is pretty clear-cut. Not to mention cases like the bugs in Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which despite being thoroughly nonhumanlike apart from their basic intelligence, can still be read as stand-ins for human racial groups by virtue of their role in an obvious social satire about the fascistic nature of the human society fighting them.

      And that’s not even getting into the more absurd “come on, man” cases, like some of the species in World of Warcraft where the direct use of real-world racial imagery is blatant enough to make JK Rowling’s goblins seem like a masterpiece of subtlety by comparison.

      1. There’s an interesting book called “The Iron Dream” by Norman Spinrad. When you open it up, the flyleaf tells you it’s actually a fantasy novel called “Lord of the Swastika” by Adolf Hitler. It’s presented as a book from an alternate universe where Adolf Hitler became a fantasy illustrator then fantasy author. It shows very clearly how close fantasy cliches are to fascist tropes, with its blond and blue-eyed heroes destroying armies of racial inferiors. The whole plot mirrors Hitler’s real world career.

      2. I think Tolkien’s orcs are the direct descendants of Grendel and Norse trolls and giants. Those are I think not racially coded. Tolkien we know saw them as symbols (not allegories) of entropy and death as such. I think the only time Tolkien ever hits the note of taking pleasure in the triumph of our heroes over their enemies rather than taking pleasure in their survival is the death of the Lord of the Nazgul.
        Tolkien obviously did feel that something was being left out when killing is guilt-free: when Sam watches Faramir’s men attack the Southrons Sam feels thoroughly uncomfortable about the death of the enemy and I think we’re meant to feel it too.

        1. Interesting ancestry idea. I’d note that in the Hobbit they were “goblins”, and he used goblins in the Father Christmas letters, which go back to 1920 though I don’t know when he introduced goblins. The Silmarillion material had orcs/goblins, I’m not enough of a Tolkien-scholar to know the textual changes there; I do know that early on Melkor had made them out of heat and slime, before Tolkien decided that only Eru could create life. In the Tolkien Letters he makes reference to the goblins of George MacDonald, though “Personally I prefer Orcs (since these creatures are not ‘goblins’, not even the goblins of George MacDonald, which they do to some extent resemble).” I’d say the Christmas and Hobbit goblins are somewhat closer to MacDonald, a supernatural evil race.

          So the final LotR orc has DNA in fairy-goblins, and literal devilspawn made from mud, and Tolkien’s experience of soldiers (British as well as German, probably), perhaps among other things. He also wrote about the orcs as being victims of Morgoth and Sauron, fearing and deceived by them. They’re also pretty different from later D&D orcs and goblinoids: the Hobbit goblins are outright inventive and clever, and the LotR orcs don’t seem *dumb*, just crude and quarrelsome. They talk of training.

        2. Right, hence the point that Tolkien’s apparent discomfort with his own premise of innate racially-contingent collective evil points to his underlying sense of moral intuition, as do the moments of genuine empathy for “bad guys” that crop up throughout his work.

          In fact I think the idea about guilt-free slaughter is a bit more subtle than everybody just wanting to go on blood-soaked rampages for shits and giggles; the idea is more so that if you’re a good person on any level, even an act of killing that you’ve determined to be necessary and justified will still cause you intense moral discomfort, so the fantasy is that you’ll be able to do the necessary job of killing without having to worry about your own conscience getting in the way or leaving you with crippling lifelong trauma, sort of like someone with severe arthritis might revel in the idea of a new medication that lets them move their body without awful joint pain. Which, again, seems like a sort of broad cultural-ideological equivalent to more intense forms of military indoctrination that try to use racialized dehumanization to desensitize soldiers to the moral discomfort of taking part in mass slaughter, even if it generally doesn’t succeed in fully destroying veterans’ sense of conscience or guilt over the long term.

          1. The fantasy I think is that you can literally hold off death by taking arms against the sea of troubles. It’s not that killing orcs with a clear conscience is in origin a fantasy of killing Nazis with a clear conscience: it’s that killing orcs is a fantasy that opposing the destruction of the natural world by industrialisation or the forgetting of Anglo-saxon culture is a task with a clear enemy. The danger is that conceptualising the issue that way can develop into the fantasy that you’re worried about, that you can oppose the destruction of the natural world by identifying those responsible and killing them conscience free. Tolkien doesn’t take that step: military victories in Tolkien are never a solution but at best a way of making more time to find a solution.
            (Or to put it another way, while the fantasy of killing that is guilt-free because necessary is something one can find in the text, there are other elements in the text that are there to stop that fantasy from shaping the text. It’s an unwanted side-effect that the text is trying to minimise.)

          2. That’s completely fair, and of course another obvious sign of this is Tolkien’s choice to make the central focus his heroic narrative not the valiant high-fantasy kings and knights and wizards whose primary task in the story is to slay faceless evil orcs by the thousands, but an idealized hyper-romantic caricature of sleepy rural Old English farmers who abhor violence and are so different from the more archetypal high-fantasy figures that they end up as an entirely new separate species to define how different they are.

            The point is more that once you abstract away from Tolkien specifically and into the broader universe of high-fantasy cliches that his work helped solidify in the popular imagination, you end up with a constant parade of fictional narratives that bring this human/elvish/dwarvish/orcish/etc conflict into the foreground (i.e. universes in which racist ideology is straightforwardly correct and racist attitudes are therefore necessary and justified) without scurrying down Tolkien’s hobbit-sized escape hatch, and in turn the obvious question is why that particular set of racially-charged premises seems to have such a firm grip on the contents of so many people’s fantasies.

          3. The point is more that once you abstract away from Tolkien specifically and into the broader universe of high-fantasy cliches that his work helped solidify in the popular imagination, you end up with a constant parade of fictional narratives that bring this human/elvish/dwarvish/orcish/etc conflict into the foreground (i.e. universes in which racist ideology is straightforwardly correct and racist attitudes are therefore necessary and justified) without scurrying down Tolkien’s hobbit-sized escape hatch, and in turn the obvious question is why that particular set of racially-charged premises seems to have such a firm grip on the contents of so many people’s fantasies.

            Fighting and warfare are dangerous, and therefore exciting. A world in which you have literally evil enemies whom you can fight against without feeling conflicted enables you to have all the fun of fighting, and none of the guilt. That doesn’t mean that readers are racists who think brown people are sub-human orcs, any more than Total War players are fascists who think that their country should amorally conquer its way across the world.

          4. Fighting and warfare are dangerous, and therefore exciting. A world in which you have literally evil enemies whom you can fight against without feeling conflicted enables you to have all the fun of fighting, and none of the guilt. That doesn’t mean that readers are racists who think brown people are sub-human orcs, any more than Total War players are fascists who think that their country should amorally conquer its way across the world.

            It’s less about an individual person’s conscious racist tendencies and more about reinforcing patterns of behaviour and thinking that fuel racist behaviours on both a conscious and unconscious level. Hence the level of discomfort when it comes to media portraying whole ‘races’ of people as innately evil/negative/primitive/cowardly/sneaky etc. This reinforces thoughts and patterns about the validity of stereotypes because if they’re implemented without care or nuance (as seems to have been the case with the Dothraki), they evidence these stereotypes as being fundamentally true. They feed into the fantasy that you can use stereotypes to judge innate qualities in broad groups of people, which is at the root of both conscious and unconscious racism (as well as a lot of other nasty -isms).

            You can have your exciting fighting and warfare, but personally I believe it’s disappointing to approach these emotive subjects without at least trying to impart some avenue towards critical thinking when lessons learnt in media are so demonstrably applicable to real life. The Greeks nailed this in the epics around the Trojan Wars, with a clear glorification of violence as reflected from their militarised culture, but also a keen understanding of the horrors and tragedy of war for both sides, with both sides being fully humanised.

            If our fantasies had no real-world counterpart then by all means let them run rampant, but as this one has such widespread issues stemming from the same root line of thinking, we owe it to society to stop for a moment and think critically about why we’re enjoying that particular fantasy and whether we want to continue doing so in the same way. As writers, we owe it to society to allow that kind of critical thinking by giving space for it to occur within our narratives, and prompts for people to think about it.

            It has the added bonus that it tends to make better, more nuanced stories as well!

          5. As I’ve been saying, my feeling is that most of the modern high fantasy cliches in which the job of the heroes is to mow down orcs derive from Robert E Howard and other pulp writers reskinned with imagery from Tolkien.

          6. Tolkien’s discomfort with the concept of orcs was I believe rooted in theology. He was uncomfortable with the concept of irredeemable souls.
            As a matter of fact I agree with you, heroes should not feel good about killing their evil opponents. They should feel sorrow for the lost soul and pity for the stunted and damaged spirit.

      3. The real-world racial imagery in World of Warcraft is pretty much entirely positive or just silly, though? Like yeah trolls are various kinds of Caribbean…but they’re also protagonists. Also there is some clear genuine research into actual Jamaican patois in how the one branch of their accents works, like the witch-doctor in Warcraft III using “be” for the subjunctive (“what you be craving?”), whereas in the indicative it’s omitted (“what you mean what kinda accent, this? this a troll accent, man”). (You could maybe question the use of a real religious figure like Baron Samedi as part of the troll religion, but honestly he’s pretty close to the real figure of Haitian vodun.) The tauren are a mishmash of Hollywood Native American, but again, protagonists.

        1. Well technically speaking I guess all the World of Warcraft “races” are protagonists in the sense that the players can choose to fight on their side, and sure, they’ve done a passable job since the early Warcraft RTS series of fleshing out the moral arc of the universe beyond a simple binary of “humans/alliance good, orcs/horde bad.” (And yeah, the troll religion seems like a pretty transparent reskinning of Haitian vodou stereotypes in general, which forms a pretty weird cultural mishmash with the “reggae man” Jamaican accents and the cod-Mesoamerican visual symbolism.)

          But like I said, the problem as I see it with these sorts of tropes is only partially about “races” being portrayed as directly unsympathetic, or even about real-world racial stereotypes being lazily repurposed in fictional settings — the deeper problem is inherent to the basic worldbuilding conceit of “interracial” relations in a world where “racial” identities are hardwired biological constants between unambiguously separate “humanoid” species, as opposed to ephemeral intraspecies social constructions often created and maintained through tangible political processes of ethnogenesis and such. If there’s an implied syllogism at work here, it’d go something like “racial traits and differences in X fictional universe are extreme, innate, and universal; interracial and multicultural relations in X fictional universe seem to function more or less similarly to those in the real world; therefore it makes sense to think of racial traits and differences in the real world as if they were extreme, innate, and universal too.”

  13. Great article, mostly unrelated but I love you continuing to call out Martin’s tax policy quote which has always struck me as being very “mistake the forest for the trees”-ey. It reminds me of the way that liberals (as in the philosophy, not the political party) often fixate so much on the perceived efficacy of policies and leaders they sometimes omit “what is being built” from their analysis.

    The fact that Aragorn is a loyal, humble, kindhearted guy who makes friends with hobbits already puts him leagues ahead of a more experienced political leader who is putting that experience exclusively towards holding on to their own personal power. Not to mention being loyal, humble and kind are genuine assets and political skills when talking about the interpersonal nature of feudal politics.

    Also at the risk of putting my foot in my mouth, I don’t think feudal economies are nearly as complicated (from the perspective of a head of state) as modern economies. Outside of him wildly breaking character and overtaxing people to the point of poverty while throwing that tax away on feasts I can’t imagine how he could ever screw it up. It’s not really his job to tweak every element of an economy that (from my understanding) mostly runs itself and the crown just takes a cut.

    1. Yes, I agree with what you’re saying. Aragorn seems like he’d be a solid king for a lot of the same reasons that he’s a good person. HOWEVER, people seem to constantly misinterpret that quote by Martin. It’s pretty obvious to me that what Martin means is “good people don’t necessarily make good kings” not “what the hell Tolkien, I want to hear more about tax policy!”

      Now, as you point out, what Martin’s saying is wrong but so many people (including Bret) seem to be arguing against a straw man instead of what Martin is actually saying.

      As far as what Martin is actually saying, he seem to think of Tywin Lannister as a horrible person who nonetheless was politically effective and who gave the realm 20 years of peace and plenty as Hand. However, Tywin’s evil sowed so many seeds of later conflicts and created all kinds of problems (such as Tywin not seeming to have made ANY political alliances that were worth anything by the start of the War of the Five Kings) so I don’t see how that holds water.

      1. The only thing you can get from history that remotely resembles what Martin might have meant, is “decent but incompetent (like Tsar Nicholas II or King Louis XVI) is not a recipe for success”. Which, so far from an interesting theme to explore, is trivial.

        At the very least, give us someone like Vlad the Impaler: not a good person by any means, but fighting to protect his people from someone even worse.

        1. There’s a reason why Vlad is a folk hero in Romania. His victims were, in addition to the invading Turks, rapacious nobles and German carpetbaggers NOT the common folk but those they saw as their enemies.

  14. Brett,

    Thanks for the article, really fascinating stuff and much appreciated.

    I do want to provide a little more information about horses, as something of a practitioner. It seems that you believe horses in the premodern period were far larger than they actually were. For instance you state that mustangs were descended from “much larger horses.” However, they actually descended from horses similar to barbs and modern day Iberian horses which range from 130-155 cm, very similar in size to modern day mustangs. And that is in the modern incarnation of those breeds, after horses like Lusitanos and Andalusians have been bred to increase size (as most modern breeds have since the mid 19th century, accelerating in the mid 20th c.). Even the medieval destrier was unlikely to have been over 16 hands (about 163 cm) and most were likely considerably smaller. The assumption seems to be that 16th and 17th century war and agrarian horses were similar to modern day drafts or warm bloods, but truly heavy horse appear to have been an 18th century-forward phenomena, and even then they were only used in specialty application such as plow work, road work, canal work and the like. Most agricultural work, including pulling implements continued to be done by much smaller horse. Keeping 2,000 lb animals for work that can be done by an 800 lb Fell Pony or Haflinger (though it is somewhat anachronistic to refer to breeds like this) was madness.

    You also state that work horses cannot feed themselves on grass. It is true that a draft animal working hard days in the field requires concentrates. But almost any horse can support itself on quality grass, and most horses (even modern 16 hand riding horses) do very well on poor quality grass forage, if they aren’t overworked. You are more likely to have problems with obesity and laminitis due to high quality grass than you are to having a horse starve due to forage quality. The ability of horses to forage through snow seems to be somewhat hereditary/instinctual, but I have had all sorts of horses in 3 feet of snow pawing away to get a the good stuff beneath. I agree that it is certainly true that smaller horses are more efficient and often hardier.

    1. Liked this comment! Good to hear hands on expertise about something, it’s often so useful. I don’t know the first thing about horses but I know how to make beer and you often get people with PhDs (and even people with PhDs who spent YEARS researching the role of beer in culture and economics) making really basic errors because they’ve never sat down and brewed a batch of beer. You get similar things in that what is called the same thing in the sources (a specific beer or a variety of malt) really changes around on the ground.

  15. “when it gets spoonfed to them in the intellectual equivalent of an infant puree with plastic utensils”

    Are you trying to see if Bret will ban someone for excessive condescension? Because it’s a pretty solid attempt.

    1. I mean this is something Bret himself has noted too, at least in the context of video games, where the second you try to bring even the most rudimentary social critique to bear on people’s precious escapist pop-culture fantasies, a certain subset of fans will react with complete knee-jerk hostility as if it’s completely unfounded and you’re just some busybody SJW tilting at racist windmills, regardless of what the actual content of the critique may be or how much evidence there may be to support it.

      And in this case I’m basically just following an argument that’s already been echoed by (among others) one of the most celebrated SFF authors of our time, China Miéville: “the point about Tolkien and his heirs is that whether or not they are racist, whether or not their characters are racist, theirs are worlds in which racism is true, in that people really are defined by their race.” So maybe if you think that argument is completely out to lunch, take it up with whoever decided to give Miéville a Hugo.

      1. “the point about Tolkien and his heirs is that whether or not they are racist, whether or not their characters are racist, theirs are worlds in which racism is true, in that people really are defined by their race.”

        Alternative argument: by creating worlds in which members of different humanoid species have more commonalities than differences, they create worlds in which members of the human species have more commonalities than differences, and therefore worlds in which racism is wrong.

        Alternative alternative argument: people are quite capable, even subconsciously, of distinguishing between “Fictional race of goblins” and “Real people”, and hence aren’t going to treat real people in a racist manner just because they once read a novel where goblins are all evil.

        Also, I don’t think the use of the term “races” to describe fantasy species is as big a Freudian slip as you seem to think: people talk about “the human race” all the time.

        And in this case I’m basically just following an argument that’s already been echoed by (among others) one of the most celebrated SFF authors of our time, China Miéville:

        If we’re appealing to authority now, I think that Tolkien outranks Mieville in the “celebrated SFF authors” department.

        So maybe if you think that argument is completely out to lunch, take it up with whoever decided to give Miéville a Hugo.

        Erm, seriously?

        Firstly, I’m assuming that Mieville’s Hugo wasn’t given for his critiques of LOTR, so the fact that he was given one isn’t really relevant when evaluating his critique.

        Secondly, the Hugos had a big schism a few years ago over claims that they were biased in a left-wing direction, so it’s not like the Hugo Awards Committee is some widely-respected, neutral arbiter in these matters.

        1. I’m not saying Miéville is some unimpeachable authority in SFF, or that these kinds of critiques are some kind of dominant consensus in SFF circles, all I’m saying is that these kinds of critiques have been around for a long time (the Spinrad novel mentioned by TheophileEscargot is from nearly half a century ago) and in fairly high places, so it takes some combination of laziness or downright willful ignorance to act as if any of this stuff is an unheard-of alien imposition on an otherwise comfortably settled and unproblematic set of genre conventions.

          And yes, I’m sure people are capable on some level of believing “it’s OK and morally uncomplicated to fantasize about slaughtering endless hordes of orcs/zombies/etc, who may have extremely humanlike features and behaviors compared to any actual nonhuman thing that exists in the real world, but aren’t really people” while simultaneously understanding that “killing actual real-world human beings is always deeply morally fraught, and conditioning people to think or behave otherwise would be an act of profound evil.” Hence why it seems like a pretty troubling sign when people in settings like this comment thread act shocked and defensive at the suggestion that those two things might have anything to do with each other, and react to someone pointing out the basic similarities as if someone just shot their puppy!

          1. I do not have enough background knowledge to mediate this ongoing dispute – uh, discussion – but I do want to say that from what I’ve observed, no one was trying to say that the idea itself was invalid but that the sense of outrage and aggressive defensiveness was unnecessary and itself tweaked the discussion in the direction it has unfortunately, proceeded.

          2. I’m not saying Miéville is some unimpeachable authority in SFF, or that these kinds of critiques are some kind of dominant consensus in SFF circles, all I’m saying is that these kinds of critiques have been around for a long time (the Spinrad novel mentioned by TheophileEscargot is from nearly half a century ago) and in fairly high places, so it takes some combination of laziness or downright willful ignorance to act as if any of this stuff is an unheard-of alien imposition on an otherwise comfortably settled and unproblematic set of genre conventions.

            I don’t think anybody’s saying that your argument is unheard-of, just that it’s not very plausible when applied to Tolkien.

            And yes, I’m sure people are capable on some level of believing “it’s OK and morally uncomplicated to fantasize about slaughtering endless hordes of orcs/zombies/etc, who may have extremely humanlike features and behaviors compared to any actual nonhuman thing that exists in the real world, but aren’t really people” while simultaneously understanding that “killing actual real-world human beings is always deeply morally fraught, and conditioning people to think or behave otherwise would be an act of profound evil.” Hence why it seems like a pretty troubling sign when people in settings like this comment thread act shocked and defensive at the suggestion that those two things might have anything to do with each other, and react to someone pointing out the basic similarities as if someone just shot their puppy!

            It’s not really surprising, or troubling for that matter, that people should react badly when you insinuate that they’re a bunch of racists who choose their reading material as an outlet for subconscious fantasies about slaughtering black people.

          3. It’s not really surprising, or troubling for that matter, that people should react badly when you insinuate that they’re a bunch of racists who choose their reading material as an outlet for subconscious fantasies about slaughtering black people.

            It is, however, quite surprising that people can be so vehemently against overt, conscious racism and yet be so defensive when people shine a light on ways that racist ways of thinking may have snuck past their conscious filters by dint of it’s subtlety and pervasiveness.

            Yes people in general are capable of distinguishing between the structure of a fictional world and the structure of the real one, but how many people? Will all of them? Will even a majority percentage have the education or critical thinking skills to step back and think ‘this is inaccurate to how the real world works’, or will there be a significant chunk of the readership who will internalise these concepts as part of their wider worldview (consciously or unconsciously)? Will even educated people be able to resist the internalisation of these concepts? I’m not sure the psychological research is conclusive on this yet.

            At the very least, we owe it to society to shine a light on the possibility that this process could well be occurring by injecting nuance into our writing to prompt people to question the validity of these underlying assumptions. At the very base level, a work claiming to be more historically accurate than the norm shouldn’t have constructed the Dothraki as they have been.

          4. I wish I could say it was surprising that people who throw around accusations of something being secretly racist, offering nothing but circular evidence, were so defensive of their poor arguments and vehement that they have proven their case.

          5. Sorry, I should have stated the point about the psychological research more clearly. The current body of evidence points more towards trends portrayed in media being subconsciously adopted into people’s schemas, rather than pointing to people’s ability to resist this without conscious knowledge of what those trends might be. It is not an answer that we are 100% confident on, but it is something that we have strong suspicions is the case.

            I think part of the issue is that pointing out these trends seems to be seen as a form of ‘accusation’, and hence elicits a personal defense response. Understandably and admirably, people pride themselves on their lack of racism, and like anything that people pride themselves on there is a natural response to defend that pride when they feel it is challenged.

            However, this is not an accusation. No-one, at all here, is saying that because anyone enjoys tolkeinistic fantasy works they should be branded a racist and outcast from society (although, regrettably, I’m sure there are people out there who will). However, it is worthy of critically assessing the fabric of our culture to identify areas where racist structures are reinforced, and attempt to shine a light on them so people are empowered to critically assess whether they want to encorporate those structures into their ways of thinking or not, rather than being at the whim of their subconscious absorpsion of information.

            If you have done that and come to the conclusion that this is not how you view tolkeinistic fantasies then fantastic. You’ve looked at it critically, and ensured that you are prepared to divorce any unfortunate implications of the fantasy’s structure from the way you see the real world. How confident are you that the majority of people will take that same process? I’m fantastically pessimistic of our collective ability to do this without education on it, which from my reading of the psychological research seems to be mostly justified (although the debate is still very much open).

          6. Very much cosign this point about the basic distinction between pointing fingers at individual consumers of SFF tropes (the term “consumers” is deliberate) as opposed to talking about broad collective cultural and ideological trends, which is exactly what I was intending to convey with the admittedly somewhat vague term “social critique.” Especially when it comes to racism, there tends to be a lot of confusion about the extent to which antiracist arguments are intended to end up as a matter of personal blameworthiness for being “a racist,” and the basic ideological ground that often needs to be cleared before more productive socially-minded conversations can be had gets pretty damn repetitive and frustrating.

          7. So the problem is simply the wrong ontological plane? “Oh, not attacking you old boy, but please stand aside while I attack your beliefs and values. Nothing personal.”

          8. I’m inclined to think that if one is really so passionate about one’s preferred pop culture consumption diet that it rises to the level of “beliefs and values” deep enough that one would be offended at seeing them criticized, then that might seem to indicate its own set of problems w/r/t consumerism as an ideology, might it not?

            Like I said earlier, Bret himself recently made note of a similar two-step in some of the ideological tics of gamer culture: we want to have our cake of video games being respected as a high art form, but also eat our cake of video games not being subjected to a more serious or scholarly critique the way a high art form would be.

          9. Kafkatrap.

            That people get angry that you insult them is no evidence that your insults are accurate.

          10. To talk about “broad collective cultural and ideological trends” requires even more evidence than to talk about individual consumers.

          11. An implicit syllogism that comes up a lot in these kinds of contexts is “racists are bad people; I’m not a bad person; therefore I can’t be a racist” but it’d probably be more precise to say “racism is a bad thing; people who do bad things are bad people; I’m not a bad person; therefore nothing I do can be racist.”

          12. Agreed, and I think it stems from a conceptualisation that racism is comprised of people who are racists, rather than people who display racist behaviours. The former conceptualisation implies blame and/or a trait that people have, rather than the more accurate conceptualisation that racist behaviours are the product of racist structures within our cultures that perpetuate them, and will continue perpetuating them unless we consciously deny them the ability to. It’s a ‘us vs racist structures’ thing, rather than a ‘us non-racists vs those people who are racists’, which just fuels division in our society rather than diminishes it.

          13. Yes, we must ferret out and destroy anything that looks like it might be a Thurn and Taxis posthorn.

          14. Yes, we must ferret out and destroy anything that looks like it might be a Thurn and Taxis posthorn.

            Apologies, the reference has passed me by!

          15. the more accurate conceptualisation that racist behaviours are the product of racist structures within our cultures that perpetuate them,

            In what way is this more accurate? How can it be shown to be more accurate?

          16. In what way is this more accurate? How can it be shown to be more accurate?

            Should I rephrase that to ‘the more palatable way to construct this concept to be received by someone who I suspect is feeling accused of something they don’t want to be accused of is…’

            The concept that actions that result in racism can be made by people who do not intend to be racist is not exactly something that is widely disputed in academic circles. The concept that there are structures within our society that perpetuate actions that result in discrimination is likewise not a fringe theory.

            Yes you can argue that there are innate aspects of our psychology that delineate between in-groups and out-groups, but what those in-groups and out-groups are (and the breadth they encompass) is culturally determined and perpetuated.

            Unless you have an alternative postulation?

          17. Should I rephrase that to ‘the more palatable way

            Why would you rephrase it? Were you wrong to originally state it was “more accurate”?

            Given your two alternatives clearly state different things, why on earth would you pick one for its palatability rather than its accuracy?

            Unless you have an alternative postulation?

            That argumentum ab auctoritate is a logical fallacy. “Academic circles” should be in particular ashamed of putting forth notions without evidence to back them up — especially given that the replication crisis has shown their many flaws.

          18. Why would you rephrase it? Were you wrong to originally state it was “more accurate”?

            Nope, I just thought it might help you. I picked the former for its accuracy, and the latter for its palatability (as I am still under the impression that you are offended by accusations of racism, and are disputing the concepts I am discussing out due to that initial offence). They served different purposes.

            Are you saying it is an inaccurate conceptualisation to view racist as a structural issue perpetuated by society? If so, why?

          19. Ugh. Right, OK.

            Trepagnier’s (2017) book on silent racism posits a case for the reframing of a binary ‘racist/non-racist’ classification with a spectral ‘more/less racist’ one, arguing that the outward actions of racism exists as a set of learned behaviours (often subconsciously) and as such can shift over time to new and less overt forms as societal pressure makes it less and less acceptable to display those overt behaviours. This argument is made along the way to describing how this binary choice perpetuates institutional racism, and is supported by a veritable raft of academic papers exploring the forms and functions of both institutional racism, and the modern conceptualisation of racism.

            A far from exhaustive list would include: Walter et al (2016), Bergerson (2010), Ikuenobe (2010), Huber et al (2006)…all the way back to Massey et al (1975).

            In all honesty, I’m not about to write an essay here on what is quite frankly some foundational concepts in modern race theory, but hopefully those will point you in the direction of some more material for your own study.

          20. “…shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand”

          21. Reasons, not people who agree with you. If you want to assign homework, you need to convince me to sign up for the course.

          22. This is becoming farcical. I’ve posited the concept, provided both theoretical reasoning (in terms of the concept’s utility for engaging with people who get offended by being accused of being a ‘racist’, and it’s use in explaining the persistence of institutional racism past the point where racism is socially decried), practical and basic psychological research (that behaviours are learnt through exposure to stimuli, can be changed by exposure to different stimuli, and can be absorbed without conscious effort), and then provided a list of authors (the majority in peer reviewed journals) who provide further support for these concepts being valid within their works in case it is me you have an issue with.

            To which, no doubt, you’ll reply ‘no you haven’t’ and we’ll go round again. While I understand that this sort of back and forth is the fundamental process of peer review, enough others have been through this process academically to make this process here not worth it. Go read some of the literature please.

            Good day.

          23. theoretical reasoning (in terms of the concept’s utility for engaging with people who get offended by being accused of being a ‘racist’, and it’s use in explaining the persistence of institutional racism past the point where racism is socially decried),

            That’s not theoretical reasoning. That is simply and overtly propaganda value: it is useful in browbeating people into agreeing with you.

            That you confuse the two shows very clearly the value of your claims, whether you think you can take me in with that confusion, or actually are confused yourself. Those who claim to see fern seed had better be able to see an elephant at ten paces

            Go read some of the literature please.

            Why would anyone sane read the literature of those who claim to see fern seed and can’t see an elephant at ten paces?

          24. That is your opinion and you are entitled to it. You may freely return to viewing the world in terms of binary racist/non-racist if you so wish, or whatever the hell this discussion started off as anyway.

          25. Declaring the difference between theoretical reasoning and propaganda to be mere opinion only underscores your issues.

          26. People who accuse other people of being racist on insufficient evidence are bad people.

          27. Turns out much of that research was weak to begin with, even before the replication crisis proved there were many more problems with it.

          28. Turns out much of that research was weak to begin with, even before the replication crisis proved there were many more problems with it.

            That wasn’t my understanding of the current status of the research. Can you provide a source so I can investigate?

          29. It is, however, quite surprising that people can be so vehemently against overt, conscious racism and yet be so defensive when people shine a light on ways that racist ways of thinking may have snuck past their conscious filters by dint of it’s subtlety and pervasiveness.

            Racism is widely treated as a modern, secular equivalent of the unforgiveable sin, and in many Western countries being a racist is likely to get you fired from your job and ostracised from polite society. Really, the most surprising thing about this whole conversation is that anybody might be at all surprised that people react badly to being called racists.

      2. I have never heard of China Mievile, and looking him up have never heard of anything he has written. Name dropping somebody only matters if the person you’re talking to has reason to think that the person in question is authoritative in some way. So he one an award, so what? Winning an Oscar or an Emmy or whatever does not really mean much other than that your creative work impressed whatever committee hands out that award.

        1. Mieville is definitely worth reading, though he isn’t to everyone’s taste. (He isn’t particularly to mine.) Think: what if Lovecraft meets Moorcock, only not so tasteful and restrained.
          Recommend: Perdido Street Station, The City and the City.

          1. Though a lot of people like _The Scar_ more than _Perdido_. Technically the Scar is the second book but they’re pretty independent.

  16. Citing the unrepentant Trotskyite China Mieville isn’t helping the credibility of your argument.

    Where you say “knee jerk hostility” to “the most rudimentary social critique,” normal people would say “not possessed of a Secret Racism Decoder Ring.”

    1. Ah right, silly me, I forgot that China Miéville is a doubleplusungood wrongthinker… is this the point in the house style of Internet debate where I’m supposed to react by chanting “argumentum ad hominem!” like a magical incantation?

      In all seriousness, the argument about the relationship between SFF “races” and real-world racism is a pretty basic point that really shouldn’t be this hard to understand unless you’re actively trying not to.

      1. The idea that people can honestly disagree with you even when they fully understand what you say is a very basic point.

        1. Amen,Mary!
          We seem to be overlooking the evident fact that orcs, goblins, trolls etc. Are based not on real world races but mythological beings dreamed up by our ancestors’ fears of what might be lurking in the dark beyond their fires or the depths of the forests beyond their fields. Admittedly the folkloric monsters tend to be more nuanced than the D&D version, not so much evil as having drastically different standards than humans making them risky to deal with .

          1. Sigh. The issue isn’t that they directly correspond to real-world races (at least, not in this instance. There are many where they do, like initial iterations of DnD orcs which coded them as stereotyped Native Americans). This issue is that the mechanisms by which these worlds are constructed subconsciously reinforce schemas about how the real world works, unless they are critically assessed and rejected by the reader. These underlying schemas are foundational to many instances of racism both overt and subtle, that run through the structure of our cultures. The main one at play is the concept that ‘cultures that are human-but-different can be accurately grouped according to stereotypes inherent in the fabric of their being’.

            It’s only through looking at these underlying structures in our thoughts and culture that we can shine a light on where they persist and reinforce ideas that we as a culture don’t want to persist or be reinforced.

            Personally, I believe it’s possible to enjoy a fantasy that you know is amoral or incorrect and not have that be subconsciously absorbed into the way you construct your idea of the world. However, I don’t think you can do that without first educating yourself to look out for these structures so you can identify them and make a conscious effort not to let them influence you. However, I’m not confident that this approach is pervasive enough for writers to be able to blithely write fantasies touching on these issues without prompting the reader to take a step back and think about these things critically.

            Are based not on real world races but mythological beings dreamed up by our ancestors’ fears

            As an interesting point, a significant proportion of these mythological monsters from beyond the campfire likely have their origins in…other people.

            Centaurs, with all their innate wild debauchery (apart from Chiron, who’s set apart as a unique juxtaposition) are likely mythologised reflections of the proto-Greek’s first interactions with horse-riding steppe cultures. The selkies and finnfolk of North Sea folklore likely have their origins in wife-stealing practices between the people of the Scottish isles and the skin-canoe-piloting Sami.

            Not all mythological inventions have their origins this way, but enough do that I don’t believe we can rely on mythological origins as an escape from the ‘human other’ concept.

          2. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that readers need to be “enlightened” – much less hectored – about their previously unsuspected unconscious bigotry against Scythians or Sami. As Tolkien remarked about the “soup of story”- we who eat of it don’t need to examine the bones to try to find out what into it. It is entirely possible to watch The Walking Dead on its own terms without getting exercised over Voudon, US military intervention in the Caribbean, or for that matter the many other ingredients of the zombie tradition conveniently omitted above, since fear of vengeful corpses has haunted both folklore and real-world belief from Ireland to Scandinavia to central Europe to China.

            One can still regard Kriemhild as an evil bitch without meditating on the rights and wrongs of the historical Huns’ destruction of the Rhenish Burgundians!

          3. Sure, yes, a person can watch The Walking Dead without explicitly thinking of zombies as an allegory for swarthy savage nonwhite hordes or zombie infection as an allegory for miscegenation or any of that… but if someone points out the relatively unsubtle ideological parallels that still exist roughly a millimeter beneath the surface (say, for instance, between the “search for Sophia” plotline from TWD season 2 and the common Western trope of “Injuns stealing our women and children” abduction/rescue narratives like The Searchers) and a person’s first reaction is defensive hostility against the idea that any of their pop cultural consumption might possibly have racist connotations, what does that say about how willing or unwilling that same person might be to think about issues like racism in a context with slightly higher stakes than pop culture?

          4. the relatively unsubtle ideological parallels

            Except that there are a thousand and one such possible parallels. You insist on drawing the one you do and in order to attack. That you get angry that people defend themselves from attack is not their problem.

          5. When I and others repeatedly go out of our way to try to emphasize that a social critique of culture and ideology for being “racist” as an adjective isn’t the same thing as a personal attack on any individual person for being “racist” as a noun, and you come back with a response like this, I’m genuinely at a loss as to how else it might be possible to help you understand the point.

          6. a social critique of culture and ideology for being “racist” as an adjective isn’t the same thing as a personal attack on any individual person for being “racist” as a noun,

            Yes, those are different things. For instance, this is not a social critique of culture and ideology, but a personal attack on all the individuals to whom you imputed the alleged “real-world desire”:

            “When correctly viewed, every fantasy story where you have entire categories of walking/talking/thinking “humanoid” beings who aren’t really human and can thus be oppressed or killed without any guilt, has something to do with people’s real-world desire to avoid feeling guilty about oppressing or killing certain types of other people, usually along the lines of what we call race”

            And you wrote it. Furthermore, this is a personal attack on all those who don’t agree with you:

            “people who stubbornly refuse to accept the most basic rudimentary social criticism even when it gets spoonfed to them in the intellectual equivalent of an infant puree with plastic utensils”

            I’m genuinely at a loss as to how else it might be possible to help you understand the point.

            The point that you are trying to have it both ways? That’s been clear for a LONG time.

            That you keep on insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with you just doesn’t understand you only casts further doubt on your insight in harder to perceive matter.

          7. ” and the common Western trope of “Injuns stealing our women and children” abduction/rescue narratives”

            …not that that ever, ever happened in real life…….

          8. I apologise if you feel hectored by this discussion. I’m sure that wasn’t the intention, but I can see how it can feel that way. However, I do firmly believe that people need to be enlightened on these subconscious tropes (as, I note, does Dr Devereaux). People’s behaviour is shaped and moulded in a large part by the experiences they have, regardless of whether they are consciously trying to be moulded by them or not (or if they are from the real world or a fictional one). The relationship of what lessons are learnt from what stimuli is not currently known in enough detail to be confident in saying whether people will or won’t pick up behaviours we don’t want to replicate from a given set of stimuli provided to them, so I am firmly of the belief that we should err on the side of caution.

            Now, I am not saying that people must denounce these stories as tainted and corrupted and stop enjoying them forthwith. Personally, I agree with you in that I believe we are able to enjoy something and know that it is wrong at the same time, but I do not believe it is the best policy to do so without first identifying what could be wrong about it so people can make informed decisions.

            If that makes people feel hectored, then I apologise, but I still believe it is necessary in order to reach any well-meaning people who might go on to unintentionally perpetuate these harmful tropes (in real life, or in their own works of fiction).

          9. “It’s only through looking at these underlying structures in our thoughts and culture that we can shine a light on where they persist and reinforce ideas that we as a culture don’t want to persist or be reinforced.”

            First you have to establish that you are actually looking at the underlying structures and not figments of your own imgaination.

          10. First you have to establish that you are actually looking at the underlying structures and not figments of your own imgaination.

            I think Dr Devereaux is doing a stirling job of demonstrating these underlying structures in the thoughts and media of our society, and both positing where they originate from (where relevant) and demonstrating where they are having an effect on people in the real world.

          11. Only for his own claims, which differ from yours.

            Interesting how our readings can differ.

          12. “Not all mythological inventions have their origins this way”

            Also, all the origins you mention are folklorists’ speculation about origins. As such, they are not evidence toward the question.

          13. Apologies, I shouldn’t have left the ‘sigh’ at the beginning of my reply. That was disrespectful but I can’t go back and edit it! A relic of an earlier, more emotive response that I tried to adapt into something more objective!

          14. Obviously I deeply agree with your first point, while of course it’s trivially easy to find all sorts of examples of specific nonhuman fantasy “races” being clearly inspired by specific real-world “races” and cultures (as I mentioned earlier, the Warcraft universe is a pretty blatant case in point… just check out the cinematic trailer for “Mists of Pandaria” ffs) the deeper underlying problem is that these are worlds premised on racist ways of thinking about racial difference in general. And like I said earlier, to the extent that this is even an individual problem at all, it’s not necessarily as simple as “I’m a racist I like doing racist things hurr durr,” it could just as easily be a matter of “I live in a society with a lot of problems around racism, which causes me deep moral discomfort, so it’s comforting for me to imagine spending time in an escapist fantasy universe where that moral discomfort didn’t have to be such a burden.” Which can exacerbate problems with racism on a more collective level even if people’s initial desire to escape to these fantasy worlds originally has to do with their discomfort with racism… it’s complicated!

            Aside from that, the point about mythological centaurs as a vestigial cultural memory of early Greek contact with steppe nomads is obviously relevant to the OP topic in general, but in particular, Bret’s point about indigenous North American cultural evolution and the shifting balance of power between horse-based and non-horse-based indigenous subsistence patterns makes me think of a plot point from Warcraft III, where much of the early “orc” campaign revolves around settling a new continent with southwestern-American “Hollywood Western” geographical features and befriending an indigenous people called the Tauren, a kind of gentle-giant bovine-looking humanoid species with some of the laziest and most hackneyed “Hollywood Injun” cultural tics you’ll ever see, by helping them defend their settlements and caravans from centaur raids.

          15. The relationship of what lessons are learnt from what stimuli is not currently known in enough detail to be confident in saying whether people will or won’t pick up behaviours we don’t want to replicate from a given set of stimuli provided to them, so I am firmly of the belief that we should err on the side of caution.

            Encouraging people to look for hidden racism in seemingly-innocuous things has its own set of costs, though, most notably that inter-racial relations increasingly become marked by suspicion and assumptions of bad faith. There’s a reason why the last ten years or so have seen both a noticeable worsening of race relations and ever-increasing efforts to root out subconscious and systemic racism.

      2. “Unrepentant Trotskyite” means that he is a tenfold neo-Nazi, since Marxism is ten times that murderous. (Trotsky was involved, IIRC, in far more early Bolshevik massacres than Lenin was, even if Stalin did eventually far outpace the others.) It is interesting you would like people to ignore the death-tolls attributable to your favored brand of totalitarianism, in a way you would be scandalized if they ignored the death-tolls of other breeds of book-burning mass-murderers, but in a civilized society Miéville would be in the same “disgusting fringe freak” category as John Norman.

        And the only miscegenation allegory in any part of speculative fiction is the “hybrid spawn” in cosmic horror…the subgenre with which Tolkien-haters like Miéville and Moorcock are most in sympathy. No agrarian Tory like Tolkien, not even an Objectivist crank like Terry Goodkind, ever evinced a tenth the eugenicist or anti-“miscegenation” hysteria (also murderous ableism) on display in the tradition that runs from Lovecraft through Moorcock to Miéville. Indeed, in Tolkien, the whole reason Númenoreans have an advantage over other races of mortal man, is that they are mixed with elven ancestry, and even Maia ancestry through Luthien’s mother.

  17. “Tolkien doesn’t take that step: military victories in Tolkien are never a solution but at best a way of making more time to find a solution.”

    I dunno, military solution worked pretty well on Saruman — twice!

    The problem using a military solution on Sauron at the end of the Third Age was that he had a much bigger military. This in contrast to the Second Age, when Numenoreans kicked his ass three times even while he had the One Ring. Of course,as a respawning demon, that wasn’t a final solution, but that’s rather different from real non-military problems like consumer-generated pollution.

    1. I think the upshot of the Helm’s Deep series is that military solutions work on Saruman because Saruman is the kind of guy who thinks of military action as a lasting solution to a defined problem: because he thinks that way he is an incompetent military leader.
      The other point is that Sauron being a respawning demon is not incidental to his narrative function.

  18. “He has stripped the Dothraki of every part of a Steppe nomads life, except the barbaric violence. And in so doing, he has taken one of only a handful of non-white cultures that we really meet and get a real taste of (rather than merely passing through) and reduces it from a complex culture which grows and nurtures and conserves (but also kills and destroys – we’re not going to don any rosy glasses about the violence of nomads here – that discussion is coming) into a pure vehicle of violent destruction, offering nothing of redeeming value.”

    I will note here that your complaint actually somewhat misses the mark. Yes, Martin has stripped the Dothraki of every part of a Steppe nomads life, except the barbaring violence. BUT, he has also done the EXACT SAME thing to his white cultures. The Ironborn are badass Vikings, who are portrayed just as badly as the Dothraki. And mainland Westeros, while it does get the *aesthetics* right, is just as unfunctional and superficial as the Dothraki and the Ironborn are – it is merely more difficult to notice because, unlike the other two, he *did* get the shallow, superficial part of it right.

    It is not racism. It is uninformedness and stupidity, and ingrained assumption that modern society is somehow inherently superior. Which is bullshit.

    1. Yes but at least with the Ironborn we have some diversity of viewpoints and takes on the culture from the Reader to Euron. Also with the Ironborn it seems like some of the goofier non-functional bits are the beliefs of reactionaries rather than conservatives. Reactionaries often have bizarre views that don’t make sense while conservatives generally support systems that at least produce societies that don’t immediately keep over if you try to implement them.

      But I think you’re right that the difference isn’t racism. The difference is that Martin is very good at psychology and very bad at all of the rest of the social sciences. He does a good job of making interesting characters and tying them together into dense webs of relationships. Where that web gets dense enough their society kinda sorta makes sense since those webs tie everything together. When the characters are thin on the ground we have to rely on Martin’s knowledge of history and hooo boy we get some problems then. I think if Martin wrote a whole novel about the Dothraki they’d be a lot better since even if a lot of crap didn’t make sense if he had a cast of scores of them that were fleshed out all interacting with each other you’d gets things tying together better.

      1. Even if Martin wrote a whole novel about the Dothraki, they would not be much better. He wrote several novels about Westeros, which are European culture (and thus much more closer to Martin’s own cultural experience), have much more exposure and many more viewpoint characters, yet he gets medieval society of Westeros almost just as wrong as the Dothraki – the only thing he gets right are the aesthetics. And feasts. Everything else is either self-contradictory, or simply flat-out wrong. As you note, Martin is excellent at psychology, but does not really understand other social sciences.

    2. Bret’s aim is not to criticise George R R Martin, but to criticise the impressions that readers are likely to carry away from The Game of Thrones (the television series) and A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s not trying to make moral judgements on Martin the person.

      1. I am aware. It is just that I thought that this bit:
        “And in so doing, he has taken one of only a handful of non-white cultures that we really meet and get a real taste of (rather than merely passing through) and reduces it from a complex culture which grows and nurtures and conserves”

        Implies that Dothraki are somehow uniquely mishandled, when in fact Martin’s white cultures have it just as bad – even if it is less obvious to a layperson, since with white cultures he at least gets the *aesthetics* right. But nothing else.

  19. > likely mythologised reflections of the proto-Greek’s first interactions with horse-riding steppe cultures. The selkies and finnfolk of North Sea folklore likely have their origins in wife-stealing practices between the people of the Scottish isles and the skin-canoe-piloting Sami.

    When you say ‘likely’, is there any evidence for these claims, or does it just feel right to you?

    Are centaurs a common trope among peoples on the edge of the steppe?

    Do we have reason to think centaurs need more explanation than the chimera, the pegasus, or dog-headed people in Greek myths?

    What reason is there to think that Sami are a more likely cause of selkie beliefs than simple exposure to seals and a worldwide tendency to believe in magical shapechanging animals, like the foxes of China and Japan?

    Do the Sami, currently known for reindeer herding and some coastal fishing, have a history of crossing the ocean to raid the Scottish isles, or did you make this up?

    1. I’m not fantastically well read in the subject unfortunately. Certainly not enough to quote sources and scholarly debate on comparative mythology. From my cursory reading of the origins of the centaur myth, origins in first-meetings with stepp cultures is the most common theory that is proposed (with support coming from accounts of mesoamericans with mounted conquistadors).

      This was more of an interesting corollary to the debate at large which might be an interesting avenue of research for you. Feel free to peruse it as you wish, or not.

      1. “support coming from accounts of mesoamericans with mounted conquistadors”

        How so? They were freaked out but they didn’t invent a horse/human hybrid.

        1. What I’d read suggested their initial response to seeing mounted people was believing that they were a single, hybrid creature. As far as I know it’s the only written report of a first contact between a non-mounted people and a mounted people. I’m unaware of any records from northern native American peoples, who would be another key example.

          But honestly it’s been a very long time since I’ve read anything solid on comparative mythology. If I can find time I’ll put together something stronger. Feel free to disregard as you wish until then.

    2. When you say ‘likely’, is there any evidence for these claims, or does it just feel right to you?

      I note that appeal to authority is very weak here because folklorists are, alas, prone to claiming origins on insufficient to non-existent evidence. For instance, the common practice in the 19th century of claiming that just about every story was a solar myth. (Sleeping Beauty. The Frog King. Hansel and Gretel.)

      1. There was also a trend towards rationalizing myth as a historical memory. For example varies are based on interacting with European aboriginies who lived underground.
        It is to say the least highly questionable that Sami ever engaged in boat borne raiding.

          1. Usually I can figure out what someone meant, but I gave up on this one. I forget about the possibility of speech recognition software being involved.

    3. Strictly speaking, “shapechanging animals” is not even what those beliefs entail. They actually entail an animistic belief, known as “prehuman flux” to those who study the cultures of the US Southwest, that everything, not only animals but possibly even inanimate objects, may appear as human beings for purposes of their own. (Study Hopi or Navajo mythology/folklore and Japan’s anthropomorphic anime characters will seem a lot less weird. A teenage girl who is actually an assault rifle is not very different from a Hopi temple full of men who are really rattlesnakes, or a band of young hooligans who are actually “the fact tools wear out“.)

      But you’re correct that the idea “this mythic thing is based on this other real-world group” is mostly BS. (The one exception I can think of, is the Germanic belief that witches are mainly female—not shared by most other cultures, indeed in many the default witch is male—is almost certainly due to the female shamans of many of their steppe-nomad neighbors.)

  20. As for Tolkien orcs, I note that most of the ones we see, outside of the Hobbit, are soldiers. They’re not random hostile tribes, they’re organized militaries under explicit mental influence by fallen angels.

  21. Now ‘culture’ is such a huge topic, it may well be asked why start with subsistence strategies. The answer is that in the pre-modern world, subsistence was one of, if not the, most dominant factor shaping culture.

    And the early modern world. And I’d argue that the increasing industrialization of farming (driving rural people into industrial centers, enabling greater industrial production, allowing farms to become more industrialized more efficiently) remains a major force shaping the modern one, albeit supplemented by many new forces.

    It is also clear that the Dothraki Sea lacks large herds of animals for the Dothraki to hunt as the Native Americans could hunt bison; there are the rare large predators like the hrakkar, but that is it.

    I thought that the Dothraki sea had zebras*, but I was thinking of the zorses who live on the far side of the Sea.
    I guess the hrakkar eat the feral horses? That’s still stunningly un-biodiverse; even real-world steppes and deserts on continents where early humans hunted megafauna to extinction usually have multiple times of apex-ey predators and big herbivores.
    *Until I checked the wiki, which I did before noticing that the relevan tquite was cited here

    (we’ll get to it later, but it is odd that the Dothraki Sea seems to lack such territories and also seems to lack ethnic divisions of any kind)

    I was about to bring up the Lhazareen, who I’d always thought occupied the Dothraki Sea alongside them, but apparently Lhazar is a separate territory. (As an aside, wouldn’t it be neat if the Lhazareen and Dothraki were symbiotic/complementary cultures, Lhazareen tending the sheep and Dothraki the horses, both performing tasks clearly necessary for the khalasar’s survival? Hm, I can think of some interesting stories you could write there…)

    The lack of ethnic division is a little less odd when Westeros (probably 1.5-2 times the size of the Dothraki Sea?) can be safely grouped into Free Folk, Northerners, Southrons, and Dornish. Of course, we see some distinctions within each group whereas the Dothraki only have their khalasars (which seem to be short-lived and purely political divisions), so the Dothraki are definitely worse there.

    Because, in the show at least, they do have some kind of shelter:

    The books also mention tents, at least for the prominent Dothraki. Their most prominent appearance is definitely the time Drogo’s is used for a blood magic ritual.

    First, Daenerys and Drogo each have one horse they use, seemingly to the exclusion of all others.

    Though Drogo is mentioned to own others, which he doesn’t use. Which I suppose is inevitable when you’re using horses as fast pigs.

    1. I don’t think Tyrion’s hill tribes from the Vale fit any of those categories, though they might be akin to the northern Free Folk. Westeros also has the ironborn. And yeah, Northerners have the crannogmen subdivision, plus weird people on some north eastern island, and the Free Folk are quite diverse…

      1. It’s debatable whether the Ironborn count as living in Westeros, but you’re right that I forgot about the Vale’s hill tribes, which are much more distinct from other people living in the Vale than (say) the crannogmen/Skagosi/northern mountain clans are from other Northmen.

  22. I find your quote of “With 40,000 riders, we have to imagine an entire khalasaar of at least 120,000 Dothraki (plus all the slaves they seem to have – put a pin in that for later; also that number is a low-ball because violent mortality is clearly very high among the Dothraki, which would increase the proportion of women and children) and probably something like 300,000 horses. At least. Of course no grassland could support those numbers without herds of sheep or other cattle.”

    Using John Masson Smith’s 10 lbs of hay per day per horse, and assuming the Dothraki sea provides 445 lbs/acre (semi-arid Central asia) means that the (300,000 horses * 10 lbs)/ (445lbs/acre) = 6741 acres (10.5 square miles). Therefore the Khal Drogo’s Khalsar can remain within 30 miles radius (the operational daily distance of horses) for three days before having to move.
    A quick google search shows the estimated number of horses in modern-day Mongolia to around 3,000,000. An entire order of magnitude greater.

  23. Disclaimer: I have neither read any ASoIaF nor watched the TV series and my knowledge of all our American history is scanty.

    That said, I keep expecting someone else to bring up what seemed to me an “obvious” source for the idea of the Dothraki horse culture being at enmity with the sheepherders. What about some of the sheep wars between cattle ranchers and sheep farmers in the American West (primarily)?

  24. > The concept that actions that result in racism can be made by people who do not intend to be racist is not exactly something that is widely disputed in academic circles. The concept that there are structures within our society that perpetuate actions that result in discrimination is likewise not a fringe theory.

    There’s a huge difference between accepting that such things exist in the abstract, and asserting that anyone who likes killing orcs in their D&D game is acting out subconscious racism. “X exists” is not a license to go around saying “Y is X” without proof.

  25. It might be conceivable that the Dothraki Sea (which I assume is a metaphorical sea? I have not read the books) is more like the American Great Plains in the Pleistocene, when the grasses were of different kinds that are far more nutrient-rich, thus allowing Equus giganteus, a wild horse the same size as the largest stable-fed draft horses, or bigger, to live on grazing. Maybe Drogo can keep so many (ordinary) horses due to the grazing being similar.

    Of course Martin knows nothing of such a thing, but it is not entirely impossible in real-world terms, just in the real world as it happens to have existed in historic times.

  26. Complete tangent, but your writeup of the Mongol Way Of Conflict is (unsurprisingly) very close to the tactics and strategies used by the eponymous mercenaries of David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers.

    They have relatively slow-moving “base camps” and then their mounted warriors range out to really ridiculous distances and at amazing speeds to surprise their enemies, living off what their mounts can carry during their raids.

  27. It seems to me that almost every single concern raised here can be addressed by fantasy horses. They’re just a bit better than normal horses. They reproduce as fast as sheep. They’re more efficient so they can grow faster. And they’re stronger and have better endurance. This solves the mare/stallion, single horse per rider, lack of other animals, and population density issues. You’re left with clothing – which we can stretch to mean buckskin with horsehair tassels on the pants – and shelters. There’s really no excuse for the shelters, but a tiny bit of fantasy solves everything else.

    1. A bit?

      Horse people point out that they are not heirs to all misfortunes that real horses are prone to. You never have a horse break its leg in a hole, for instance.

      Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tough Guide To Fantasyland (which I suspect would be popular among all the readers of this blog) hypothesizes that they are, in fact, a form of plant.

  28. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else in the comments mention this, but it might be worth mentioning that the conventional view (as given here) on the pre-Columbian use of horses in the Americas has been coming under some challenge in recent years: an academic called Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin has made this the focus of her work, and suggests based on a mixture of historical documentation (her view is that Spanish reports of large horse herds appear far too early and quickly for them to be simply the result of Spanish introduction) and analyses of folklore that actually there may in fact have been a signfiicantly more consistent and long-term horse culture through the Americas.

    This is just as far from my area as from Brett’s, so I am in no place to comment on any kind of debate around Collin’s work, but I think it may be worth noting that the viewpoint expressed above regarding horse introductions is as of the present time not an unchallenged one in the literature and there may be a good deal work yet to be done thereupon.

    1. Dr. Collin’s arguments were brought up to me on social media and I did look into them. Speaking from my experience interacting with Greek and Roman oral tradition from periods before their written history, I don’t think folklore analysis can be extended in the way that Dr. Collin wants to; the tendency to anachronistically retroject recent or present social norms into the deep past is intense and a near constant feature of Greek and Roman sources who base their accounts on folklore. Meanwhile, my understanding is that the biology connecting the American Mustang to Spanish horse breeds is not really disputed in the zoological/biological space.

      Evidence may emerge that would confirm Collin’s thesis, but it strikes me as unlikely. Animal domestication is typically fairly visible archaeologically, because those animal bones tend to be middened at regular sites in ways that are archaeologically visible. If Plains Native Americans were riding or domesticating horses pre-contact, that shouldn’t be hard to find (note just how early we have evidence of animal domestication – horses, sheep, etc for similar nomads in Eurasia!). Moreover, the spread of the horse into the Plains was itself a historically visible process, fairly well documented and nailed down chronologically.

      All I can say is that, were I armed with similar evidence as Dr. Collin about the Greek or Roman adoption of some archaeologically visible thing, that evidence would not pass muster in the face of the much stronger evidence for the received view that modern domesticated horses were introduced post-contact. Absent new evidence, I don’t think Dr. Collin’s argument holds up.

      1. Or, more succinctly (and harshly): folklore analysis as a tool of history belongs in the same basket as astrology, alchemy and phrenology.

  29. Sneaking some more science in here:
    Cooking is important! It’s difficult for humans to get adequate nutrition from nothing but raw meat (or raw food, in general) is not nutritionally viable (see https://www.webmd.com/diet/a-z/raw-foods-diet, https://www.webmd.com/diet/a-z/raw-foods-diet, and https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10436305) Note that one of the things that happens when women have inadequate nutrition — and the raw-meat only diet will not provide adequate nutrition — is amenorrhea. Other side effects include many different types of intestinal parasites. The Dothraki would be literally full of worms (https://ceh.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/diseases-horse-human-transmission).

    While some groups, most notably the Inuit, eat a very meat-centric diet, they also eat a wide variety of meats. Despite this, they probably do not fit the biological definition of hypercarnivore.

  30. regarding nomadic pastorialism. how much of the systems described here for the native americans and the Steppe peoples would apply to nomadic groups in a non-grasslands environment, such as say the Beduin of the Arabian peninsula and the ancient Levant.
    obviously the population density would be even smaller, since the environment is even more marginal than the steppe or great plains, yet these desert nomad cultures seem to have accrued many of the same pop-culture stereotypes and cultural misrepresentations as the Steppe Tribes and native Americans have, albeit in less popularized fashion.

  31. Offering horsemeat to a stranger would probably be doing the stranger a great honor – if horse meat is rarer than sheep’s meat, that shows you’re giving them a rare food source. Of course, something like dried fish acquired by trade would be *even* more precious.

  32. Weirdly enough, almost immediately after I opened this page, my AI-generated YouTube playlist started playing Miike Snow’s “Genghis Khan.”

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