Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part III: Horse Fiddles

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This is the third part of a four part (I, II, III, IV) look at the Dothraki from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones. 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. Last week, we looked at the subsistence systems of historical Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans and found that the Dothraki subsistence system was less than a pale imitation of them, having stripped out nearly every activity from the daily routine of survival which wasn’t brutal or violent.

This week, we’re going to keep looking at the elements of culture beyond simple subsistence (with the caveat, noted last time, that subsistence systems often dictate over elements of culture). Necessarily, this is going to make this post a bit more of an omnium gatherum catch-all, with a bunch of discrete topics. In each case, it is going to make more sense to introduce the Dothraki practice and then contrast it the practices of the Great Plains and the Eurasian Steppe.

I want to note up front, we’re going to be talking here about slavery, sex, sexual violence, and regular violence, both as they occur in ASoIaF/GoT and how they occurred in the real world. I try to keep this blog mostly G-rated, but history itself wasn’t always G-rated and ASoIaF certainly isn’t; reader discretion is advised. In the interest of keeping clear which section is which, I have dropped my hilarious ‘An X of Ys’ joke section-title format and instead tried to give very descriptive section titles so you can decide if there is one or two you just want to skip.

Also, I want to note before we start that this post is going to be a bit more book-heavy than show-heavy, just because it is generally easier to pin down things which are explicitly said in the book rather than things implied by the visual language of the show. That said, I think the show, if anything, magnifies the characterization the book presents on each of today’s topics, either dialing them up to 11 or (in the cases where the books have oddly excluded things) making that exclusion more intentional and explicit given the different nature of film (since in a book, if an object is not described in a scene, we may assume it is still there and just undescribed; in a visual medium, if it is not seen, it is not there).

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Finally, as a reminder that we are not merely unfairly picking on some fantasy author who just wanted to create fictional societies without any tether to, or comment on, real societies which existed in the past or exist today, 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).

A Collection of Cultures

(Ok, I had one more too-cute-by-half section title left)

The first thing to touch on here is not a cultural element but rather a fact about Dothraki culture, which is simply that: there is a ‘Dothraki culture.’ The Dothraki have a single language, a single holy city (Vaes Dothrak), a single system of social organization (Khals, etc), apparently a single set of dietary customs, a single religion with a well-understood prophecy of a future leader, and so on. In short, there is a single Dothraki culture which is shared by all of the various khalasars of the Dothraki Sea. Crucially this is not merely an observation made by characters outside of the Dothraki culture (that would be understandable – significant cultural divides are often invisible to outsiders who cannot mark the significance of ‘small’ differences), but is also a fact observed by the Dothraki themselves, explicit in things like the collective housing of all windowed khaleesi and even in the language the Dothraki use to talk about each other, especially in contrast to the Lhazareen and other non-Dothraki. This is a single culture without any real ethnic divisions and is regarded as such by its members, not just outsiders.

And that is nonsense.

Even if we only take the Eastern third of the Eurasian Steppe (the Eurasian steppe actually divides quite neatly in thirds, broken up by the Ural mountains (dividing the western and central steppe), and the Fergana Valley (dividing the central and eastern steppe)), we have not just the Mongols, but Tatars, Keraites, Naimans, Merkits, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Khitans, and (sort of) Jurchen. Those are meaningful differences! There are, for instance, two entire distinct language families on the Steppe (I should note that there is some dispute here about the lines between language families, but my impression is that the consensus now is that the Mongolic and Turkic languages are not directly related as they were once believed to be), each containing a number of often non-mutually intelligible languages within them (the Turkic language family has some 35 documented languages). These groups were often not only linguistically distinct, but culturally and religiously distinct.

The Great Plains were no less varied! Isenberg’s chart (op. cit., 59) – mentioned last week and based on US Government data – lists Assiniboine, Atsina, Comanche, Blackfeet, Koiwa (and Kiowa-Apache), Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho as the nomadic peoples of the Great Plains (it also lists 11 more sedentary Native peoples). And that understates the variety because – remember – this is a survey from the outside which is going to miss significant variety (like not breaking out the Lakota from the Dakota, etc.)!

This brings us to two crucial points. The first problem is that the lack of cultural and lingustic variety is itself an error on Martin’s part. This isn’t quite a unique problem for the Dothraki – as I’ve noted, particularly with The North, many of the regions of Westeros are a lot less varied than they ought to be given their size – but it is more pronounced here. The Dothraki Sea is about as large on the map as all six of the Southern parts of the Seven Kingdoms, but has nowhere near the cultural diversity despite lacking a unifying government or hegemonic religion (as a rule, large nation-states are the product of state-building, not a prerequisite. To put it bluntly, France is full of French people because the government in Paris saw fit to make it that way. There is no such homogenizing institution in the Dothraki Sea). Again, I don’t expect Martin to bring the story to a screeching halt to discuss this, but think about how much the feeling of a real culture could have been enhanced even a little by having Khal Drogo’s army involve multiple ethnicities of Dothraki nomads, or to have him refer to equivalents of the Merkits or Tartars (we may call these non-existent cultures the Nopethraki) occupying other parts of the Dothraki Sea and possibly trading at Vaes Dothrak. Something just as simple as meeting other nomads either at the wedding or in Vaes Dothrak who spoke a different language (or given the size of Khal Drogo’s khalasaar, have him brag – as many historical rulers were want to do – about all of the many different Nopethraki peoples who also followed him).

The second problem this creates is for this post. While we have one fictional culture to compare, we have to compare it with dozens of real historical peoples – an obviously impossible task in this format (or probably any format). For the sake of keeping this manageable, I am going to reduce my points of comparison specifically to the Mongols (c. 1150-1250) and Sioux (also known as the ‘Seven Council Fires’ though note that this is also a diverse grouping, including the Lakota, Western and Eastern Dakota). Fortunately for me, these two sets are peoples specifically cited by Martin as inspirations for the Dothraki. Where relevant, I will jump to other groups, but we’ll mostly focus on these two. We are going to move topically to see how much the Dothraki are rooted in anything we can identify from these real historical cultures that supposedly inspired them.

Music and Art

Try as I might, I could not find any clear reference to Dothraki artwork. Vests are described repeatedly as painted (AGoT, 83, 193), but apart from the exceptional one made for Viserys (AGoT, 329), how they are painted doesn’t seem to ever be mentioned. One might fairly call Dothraki hair braiding and belling an art (AGoT, 30), but while the number of braids matters, it doesn’t seem like the quality or artistry is ever commented on. The statues that line the way to Vaes Dothrak are all captured, the “ancient monuments from all the lands the Dothraki have sacked” (AGoT, 324) and Vaes Dothrak itself lacks its own building style, instead being a mix of styles of peoples the Dothraki have enslaved (AGoT, 326-7). Drogo’s palace has just “rough-hewn timbered walls” and Daenerys smiles to herself at the contrast between the expected grandeur and the actual building (AGoT, 327), apparently devoid of decoration. It’s possible that the bride-gift weapons (AGoT, 86) were decorated – the materials in question were clearly lavish – but we are not told. Later, Daario Naharis has a decorated arakh (in the shape of a naked woman, because of course, ASoS, 482), but he is very much not a Dothraki. However, the contrast between the long descriptions his clothing and weapons get (ASoS, 476, 482) and the minimal description of the Dothraki is striking; Martin can give detailed descriptions of finery when he wants.

In stark contrast, actual ‘horse cultures’ – to the surprise, I suspect of no one – have well developed artistic traditions. In addition to what we’ve already seen of the intricate and finely decorated clothing of the Sioux, we should add painted scenes on tipis, pictographic histories called ‘winter counts‘ showing the events of a year. Likewise, we’ve already discussed traditional Mongolian clothing, which can be beautifully decorated. The Mongols had an art tradition too, especially in sculpture, with a very distinctive style of scroll-patterns and animal motifs dating back into the bronze age! That the famous stone tortoises of Karakorum (Chinggis Khan’s capital and the clear inspiration for Vaes Dothrak) have been transformed into just the “plundered gods and stolen heroes” of other cultures (AGoT, 324), is quite disappointing.

Via Wikipedia, a Kiowa Winter Count, c. 1889-92, showing key events over the summers and winters.

I could find but one instance of Dothraki music – the chanting of the ‘crones’ of Vaes Dothrak (AGoT, 410-1), accompanied by a war horn and later drums. Martin does not relate the words of that chant to us or its content (likely because Daenerys does not know), instead choosing to describe the “withered dugs [that is, breasts]” of the old women “sway[ing] back and forth, shiny with oil and sweat” (AGoT, 410). I will admit, I found myself questioning this authorial choice in what in this particular moment ought to have been described. But Khal Drogo doesn’t sing. None of the male Dothraki seem to sing. They do not recite poetry, not engage in clever wordplay. There is, it seems, not one ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad among them.

By contrast, the Sioux have a complex music tradition (as, of course, do other Great Plains Native Americans), with multiple genres performed in different ways for different occasions – war songs, songs to tell stories, songs of religious import or ritual function and so on. Anthony McGinnis also notes how oratory was an important part of diplomatic rituals between native peoples and was quite developed, with meetings that “consisted of many elaborate orations, an art form at which the plains Indians excelled. These flowery, metaphorical speeches continued for hours…” (McGinnis, op. cit. 86, concerning an 1851 peace meeting between the Shoshonis and Cheyenne at Fort Laramie).

Likewise, the oldest surviving work of Mongol literature, The Secret History, preserves even older passages of poetry common on the Mongols. Sets of alliterative verses, üligers, also demonstrate an oral literature built around poetry from before we have written evidence (the Mongols, like many nomadic peoples, adopted or developed writing relatively late and it is always, as an evidentiary matter, difficult to peer back through the earliest of writing into the yet older oral tradition). The Mongolians also have a rich musical tradition, including refined instruments. The morin khuur (‘horse-fiddle’), is a two-string string instrument with the first string traditionally made of 130 hairs from a stallion’s tail and the second 105 hairs from a mare’s tail (the wiki link has a short sound sample of playing – it’s quite pretty. There’s also traditional folk morin khuur playing on youtube). There are wealth of forms of expressive culture on the Steppe.

[Edit: Since this post when live, my commenters have shared some truly wonderful pieces of Mongolian music, from those that seem more modern, to the more traditional. Check them out!]

Via Wikipedia, a Mongolian man from Inner Mongolia, China playing a morin khuur or ‘horse fiddle.’

Far from being brutish, unmusical and inarticulate, nomadic cultures tend to prize artistic and musical performance and expression. I brought up ‘Antarah before and while he is not from one of the cultures that Martin points to, he is a horse-borne nomadic warrior-poet. Where are the Dothraki victory songs? We have Drogo’s campfire described to us (AGoT, 191), but there are no songs, and only “women dance” while “men die” (from all of the murder, which we’ll get to in a moment). That doesn’t match the richness of cultural expression from actual nomadic cultures. Manly nomadic men played music, recited poetry, sung songs, danced dances, and gave orations. They were humans and engaged in human expressions of feeling! The Dothraki, as we’ll see, seem to lack many human qualities…

Via Wikipedia, an exhibit of Crow horse regalia, c. 1880s at the National Museum of the American Indian. The artistry and skill really is impressive.

Leadership and Inheritance

We may quickly describe the Dothraki social organization; while we only see inside one traditional Dothraki khalasar, we are repeatedly told it is typical and may take it as such (AGoT, 83-5, 195, 328). Each group of Dothraki is led by a male war-leader called a khal (whose wife is a khaleesi and whose heir is the khalakka) in a group called a khalasar. The khal‘s personal guard are ‘bloodriders’ and are sworn to the khal and are supposed to kill themselves after he dies (AGoT, 328). The khalasar also has subordinate commanders called kos and smaller bodyguard units called khas (and at this point, you will forgive me a joke that I began to wonder if the Dothraki rode to battle on their khorses, drank out their khups and fought with khords, kows, and kharrows; it will surprise no one that Martin is not a linguist). The khal is the autocrat of this organization, he has a single, readily identifiable male heir who is his direct descendant (the khalakka) and should that heir be underage or not exist, the khalasar will disband. Strikingly, beyond the khal‘s male heir, family ties play no role at all in the organization of the khalasar or in relations between them.

This is not how horse-borne nomads organized themselves, although it bears a passing resemblance to some elements of pre-Chinggis Mongol organization. We can start by quickly ruling out the Great Plains as an inspiration and move from there.

Via Wikipedia, a Sioux Thiyóšpaye at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, c. 1890.

I am not an expert in the organization of any Plains Native American society (so please forgive any errors – but do tell me, so I can make corrections – I am doing my best!), but from what I have been able to read, the key institution is not the ‘chief’ but rather the extended family network (what the Sioux call, I believe, the ‘thiyóšpaye’) which were then composed by smaller households (‘thiwáhe’). The elders of those households elected their leaders; while certain families seem to have been more prominent than others, leadership wasn’t directly heritable. Direct inheritance doesn’t seem to have been as pressing an issue; territorial claims were held by the nation or tribe (the ‘oyáte’) while moveable property was held by the household or extended family network (and personal items might be buried with the deceased).

I am being a bit schematic here to avoid outrunning my limited knowledge, but a system of kinship bonds with elected leaders coordinating the efforts of multiple ethnically or linguistically related kinship groups is a fairly common system for non-state social organization (obviously that label obscures a lot of cultural and regional variation!). This would have been a plausible enough way to organize the Dothraki, with lots of deliberative councils of household leaders and chiefs that are often shrewd political leaders, managing the interests of many households, but presumably that wasn’t badass enough. It would have involved lots of complicated political dialogue and quite a lot less random murder. In any event, it is clear the Dothraki are not organized along these lines; kinship matters functionally not at all in their organization and even when Daenerys is present, we see no deliberation, merely the authority of the khal, enforced by violence.

What about the Mongols and other Eurasian steppe nomads?

The Mongols and other steppe nomads were broadly organized into tribes (an ulus or ordu, the latter giving us the word ‘horde’ in reference to nomads) which were organized around a leader (for the Mongols, a khan or ‘chieftain’) and understood to be part of a given ethnic or linguistic grouping which might or might not be united politically at any given time. The position of khan was heritable, but with some significant quirks we’ll get to in a minute. In theory, these were kinship groups, but in practice the incorporation of defeated clans and sometimes shifting allegiances blurred those lines. Ratchnevsky (op. cit., 12-3) notes a divide within groups between the non-free captives (otogus bo’ol) and the free followers of a khan (nökhör or sometimes spelled nökhöd), but these categories were flexible and not ethnically based – individuals could and did move between them as the fortunes of war and politics shifted; Temujin himself – the soon-to-be Chinggis Khan – was at one point probably one of these bo’ol. The nökhör were freemen who could enter the service of a khan voluntarily and also potentially leave as well, living in the leader’s household. This is a rather more promising model or the Dothraki, but beyond this very basic description, things begin to go awry.

First off – and you will note how this flows out of the subsistence systems we discussed last week – inheritance does matter a great deal to the Mongols. Steppe nomads generally tended to share an inheritance system which – I have never seen it given a technical name – I tend to call Steppe Partible Inheritance (though it shares some forms with Gaelic tanistry and is sometimes termed by that name). In essence (barring any special bequests), each male member of the ruling clan or house has an equally valid claim on the property and position of the deceased. You can see how this would function where the main forms of property are herds of horses and sheep, which are easily evenly divisible to satisfy such claims. Divide a herd of 100 sheep between 5 sons and you get 5 herds of 20 sheep; wait a few years and you have five herds of 100 sheep again. And for most nomads, that would be all of the property to divide.

This partibility was one of the great weaknesses, however, of steppe empires, because it promoted fragmentation, with the conquests of the dynastic founder being split between their sons, brothers and so on, fragmenting down further at each succession (each inherited chunk is often called an appanage, after the Latin usage and often they were granted prior to the khan‘s death as administrative assignments). But overall leadership of the empire cannot be divided; in theory it went to the most capable male family member, though proving this might often mean politics, war or murder (but see below on the kurultai). Thus Attila’s three sons turned on each other and made themselves easy prey for what was left of the Roman Empire; Chinggis’ heirs did rather better, sticking together as regional rulers in a larger ‘family business’ run by the descendants of Chinggis until 1260 (Chinggis died in 1227), when they began to turn on each other. The Ottomans resolved this problem – seeing their empire as indivisible – through fratricide to avoid civil war. Note also here, how important knowing the exact parentage (or more correctly, patrilineal descent) of any potential descendant of the khan would be – we’ll come back to that.

On the surface, this might sound a bit like how Khal Drogo’s khalasar disintegrates on his death, but there are enough key wrinkles missing here that I think the match fails. The biggest difference is the importance of the larger kin group and biological inheritance. You will note above that the males of the entire royal family generally had claims on the titles and property of the deceased. And actual, patrilineal descent was important here – all of the successor states of the Mongols were ruled by rulers claiming direct descent from Chinggis Khan, down to the disestablishment of the Mughal Empire in 1857. If Khal Drogo has any extended family, they seem to be unimportant and we never meet them; they do not figure into to the collapse of his khalasar (AGoT, 633), whereas in a Mongol ulus, they’d be some of the most important people. Indeed, Drogo’s khalasar splits up with no regard at all to the ruling family, something that Jorah notes is normal – had there been a living heir, he would have been killed (AGoT, 591). This is obviously not true of the Mongols, because Temujin, the future Chinggis Khan himself (and his brothers), was exactly such young living heir of a powerful khan and was not killed, nor was any serious attempt apparently made to kill him (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 22) and Ratchnevsky notes that was unusual in this instance that Temujin’s mother was not supported by her brother-in-law (possibly because she refused to be remarried to him).

Moreover, succession to leadership was not automatic as it is portrayed in A Game of Thrones (either automatic in the way that Khal Ogo’s son Fogo could become Khal in the mere moments of battle between his death and his father’s, AGoT, 556 or automatic in how Drogo’s khalasar automatically disintegrates, AGoT, 591). Instead there was a crucial mediating institution, the kurultai (sometimes spelled quriltai), a council of chiefs and khans – present in both Mongol and Turkic cultural spheres – which met to decide who of the valid claimants ought to take overall leadership. Such kurultai could also meet without a succession event – Temujin was declared Chinggis Khan in the kurultai of 1206. There wasn’t typically a formal heir-designate as with the Dothraki, both because of the need for a deliberative kurultai but also because of the partible inheritance. It was rather exceptional when Chinggis designated Ögedei as his chief heir (as a way to avoid war between his other sons; Ögedei was the compromise candidate) in 1219.

Via Wikipedia, a 15th century manuscript illustration of the kurultai of 1206.

We might imagine the kurultai upon the death of the Mongol version of Drogo would have been a complex affair, with political negotiations between Drogo’s brothers and uncles (should he have any) who might well use the existence of an heir as an excuse to consolidate power within the family, along with Drogo’s key lieutenants also seeking power. Of course we do not see those events because Daenerys is asleep for them, but we do hear them described and it is clear that the key factors in a Mongol kurultai – descent, family ties, collective decision-making – do not matter here. As Jorah notes, “the Dothraki only follow the strong” (AGoT 633) and “Drogo’s strength was what they bowed to, and only that” (AGoT, 591). There is no council – instead Drogo’s key lieutenants (all unrelated to him) take their chunk of followers and run off in the night. There is no council, no effort to consolidate the whole, no division of livestock or territory (because, as we’ve discussed, the Dothraki subsistence system considers neither and consequently makes no sense).

Likewise, the structures of Mongol control, either before or after Chinggis (who makes massive changes to Mongol social organization) are not here. Drogo’s horde is not the decimal-system organized army of Chinggis, but it is also not the family-kin organized, deeply status-stratified society that Chinggis creates the decimal system to sweep away. The Mongols did have a tradition of swearing blood-brothership (the Mongolian word is anda), but it only replicated strong reciprocal sibling alliances. It certainly came with no requirement to die if your blood-brother died, something made quite obvious by the fact that Chinggis ends up killing his blood-brother Jamukha after the two ended up at war with each other. And these relationships were not a form of ‘royal guard’ but intimate and rare. Instead, Chinggis intentionally assembled a personal guard, the keshig, out of promising young leaders and the relatives of his subordinates, both as a military instrument but also a system of control. Members of the keshig did not simply die after the death of their leader, but were bound to take care of the surviving family of the deceased ruler.

So apart from the observation that Steppe nomads tended to have singular leaders (but, of course, monarchy is probably the most common form of human organization in the historical period) and that they tend to fragment, almost nothing about actual patterns of Steppe leadership is preserved here. Not the basic structures of the society (the ‘nobles,’ kinship groups and larger tribal and ethnic groups which so dominated Temujin’s early life, for instance, see Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 1-88), nor its systems of inheritance and succession. Instead, most of the actual color of how Mongol society – or Steppe rulership more broadly – worked has been replaced with ‘cult of the badass’ tropes about how the Dothraki “only follow the strong,” only value strength and have essentially no other cultural norms.

Via Wikipedia, one of the famous stone tortoises of Karakorum. Notice how it is decorated with patterns and finely carved.

Slavery and Trade

We covered the internal economies of horse-borne nomads last time, but what about the external economic interactions? We are repeatedly told that the Dothraki do not trade; they “did not truly comprehend this business of buying and selling” (AGoT, 325, 489-90; ADwD 662). Vaes Dothrak is a trading hub mostly out of tradition and not because the Dothraki use it, or even effectively tax it (AGoT, 490). That said, Dothraki khalasars which pass near the Slaver Cities instead give captives as a form of gift exchange; the scale here is significant, in the thousands (ADwD 661ff). We’re not generally told exactly what the Dothraki get in exchange (though the “rich fabrics and sweet perfumes” they put on in the Free Cities must be included, AGoT, 83), although the crones of Vaes Dothrak are given traditional gifts of ‘salt, silver and seed’ (AGoT, 490). But mostly, we are reminded, that the Dothraki are largely ignorant of trade and Dothraki men do not buy or sell.

It should not surprise anyone that actual nomadic peoples – whose way of life involves regular circuits over long distances (again, keeping in mind that nomads do not wander aimlessly as the Dothraki do, but move back and forth along regular routes in establishes territories) – tend to be canny traders, in stark contrast to the Dothraki who seem not to really understand the business, despite having been adjacent to it for centuries. Moreover, for both Steppe and Plains nomads, trade was not a merely luxury, but a necessary economic system, though trading and raiding often went together as different means to accomplish similar ends.

On the Great Plains, there were three different sets of goods being traded for, using two major ‘exports.’ The nomadic peoples of the Great Plains still needed some products of the more sedentary way of life they had abandoned; they also needed horses to hunt with (and also fight with) and before long firearms (along with gunpowder) as well in order to stay militarily competitive with their rivals. Firearms primarily came through the northern fur trade (Isenberg, op. cit., 40-53; Secoy op. cit. 43-44, 48-50) or through trading with other Native American peoples more directly integrated into the fur trade network. Horses were traded (or raided for) from the south, although later on – as noted last week – some southern tribes developed internal supply (Isenberg, op. cit. 45-6), while bison products were traded with sedentary tribes along the Missouri River for corn, beans, squash and other agriculture goods (Isenberg, op. cit. 46-7). No tribe could maintain an effective defense without trade since they needed both guns and horses, and as Isenberg notes, “For the nomads, trade with the villagers served to replace the ecological safety nets that they had abandoned by specializing as bison hunters [emphasis mine]” (Isenberg, op. cit. 47).

Note that while abductions and adoption, particularly of women and children, did play a role in Plains Native American warfare (McGinnis, op. cit. 42-3) – and we’ll come back to that in a moment – the trading of captives was never a major factor in trade or economic interaction; captives were incorporated, not traded away.

For the Eurasian Steppe, given that the famous silk road passed along the southern reaches of the Steppe, it should come as little surprise that steppe nomads generally understood trade and often knew to encourage it to their benefit. Like the Plains Native Americans, Steppe nomads were reliant on settled peoples for key components of their military system, specifically metal weapons and armor which nomads could not generally produce themselves. It is little accident that the Mongols, in their expansion over much of Eurasia, picked up and moved around local armor and weapon types (May, The Mongol Art of War, 52-4, n. 40, 42, 44, 46). Chinggis Khan and his successors went out of their way to encourage and safeguard trade, well aware of the benefits in terms of material access and revenue, even to the point of investing money in caravans or making business loans at low rates to encourage the development of trade routes (May, The Mongols, 68-71). The Mongols truly did comprehend ‘this business of buying and selling’ and were apt manipulators of it.

The peoples of the Eurasian Steppe were involved with slave trading as well. As noted above, Mongol society included the bo’ol, captives incorporated into the camp, who might end up living and working much like the other nomads but without the freedom to leave (although they might also be mistreated). Steppe warfare ‘threw off’ captives as well; this provided the supply, for instance, of the Turkish military slaves (who made up the largest contingent among enslaved soldiers, the mamluks) which were prominent in Muslims armies from the 9th century to the 16th. The Seljuk and Ottoman Turks both kept and traded slaves, both before and after taking up permanent residence as imperial powers off of the step, and the western splinters of the Mongol Empire, the Ilkhanate and the Golden Horde did so as well.

That said, the Steppe peoples doing this were not unique slavers swimming in a sea of free societies. In the period of the Mongol Empire, there was slavery in the Muslim world, slavery in India, and in Eastern Europe and in Central Europe, and in China. And of course the states of Western Europe would begin the process of importing the Mediterranean practice of slavery to the New World even before the last of the Mongol successor states (the Golden Horde, disestablished in 1502) faded. And this is the rub of the depiction of slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire. It is not so much a case of inaccuracy – many Steppe nomads were enslavers – but rather a case of unfortunate implications because of the way it is embedded in the larger world. Slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire is a unique institution of Essos only, being illegal in Westeros. The only major state of Essos were slavery is effectively banned is Braavos (which seems coded Northern Italian, which is strange because the Venetians and Genoese were big slave-traders). That leads to the deeply uncomfortable situation where all of the slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire is done both to and by all of the peoples coded (and sometimes, as with the Dothraki, explicitly described as) non-white, a visual characterization that the show adopts with distressing enthusiasm. Consequently, it is not that the Dothraki trading in slaves is wrong per se, so much as the lack of slavery in Westeros is.

But the larger problem here is that there is clearly no support here for the idea that nomads didn’t practice or comprehend buying or selling – historical nomads clearly did and could be fairly canny at trade, using it to survive and gain access to goods they couldn’t produce themselves.

Sex, Marriage and Rape

This is a difficult subject, but we cannot leave it out. The Dothraki are presented at sexually brutish, disposed to both rape and sexual slavery, when they aren’t cloaked in sexual exoticism. Illyrio tells us that “the Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds…they do not understand sin or shame as we do” (AGoT, 84-5) a statement we might take for his own view except that it is offered in the context of Dothraki men openly raping dancers at a wedding (we may argue about consent and social norms here, but “grabbed a dancer by the arm and pushed her down to the ground” doesn’t sound like consent to me, AGoT, 84). We are also told that Drogo “always took [Daenerys] from behind, Dothraki fashion [emphasis mine]” (AGoT, 191). Some khals supposedly share their wives with their bloodriders, (AGoT, 328 – and can we just note how stupid this idea is, given that this is a society where sons of khals inherit their rule patrilineally? Knowing exactly whose son the khalaka was would have been very important!); given that Drogo is apparently unconcerned that Daenerys cries during sex with him (AGoT, 191-2), one assumes this is not generally consensual either.

What makes this tricky is that there is a lot of sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire (actually more of it than in the show) and so a reader might argue that this is just how things are in this fictional universe. The Dothraki account for 12 of the 117 (!!) rape victims in A Song of Ice and Fire in that counting (which I’d argue is an under-count, as it omits what happens to the dancers at Daenerys’ wedding, AGoT, 84-5), about 10% of the total. This is despite the fact that the Dothraki appear (with their traditional culture) in just 11 of the 344 currently published chapters, just 3.1% of the books. Very roughly then, the Dothraki are three times as rapey as the average culture in A Song of Ice and Fire. So while on the one hand, all of the books are shot through both with Martin’s decision to build a fictional world with lots of rape and his deeply troubling tendency to, as one writer put it, “write from the point of view of the rapist,” on the other hand, the Dothraki seem to get more of this treatment than any other culture save perhaps the Ironborn. Consequently, compared to the other cultures of Westeros and Essos, the Dothraki are disproportionately associated with rape and sexual violence; it is hard not to notice how this plays into bad old cringe inducing Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans as a threat to white women on the frontier.

Of course the other defense that gets offered is that all of this rape is historically correct. And to be clear, that defense gets offered, because George R.R. Martin offers it. And as should surprise no one who has been keeping track of Martin’s dismal record of understanding actual historical societies, that defense is wrong. I am not going to rehearse the reasons it is wrong here, but merely note that we’ve discussed it on this blog, it has been discussed on other blogs, and by other scholars. The idea, advanced by Martin, that the truly stunning amount of rape – most of it not in the context of war – in A Song of Ice and Fire somehow reflects medieval social norms or a true vision of the past or particular cultures is to be rejected. Needless to say, it is not considered OK to just begin raping dancing women in either Great Plains Native American or Mongol cultures.

Violence and Murder

Finally, Martin’s Dothraki murder each other at an exceptionally high rate. I want to be clear here that what I am looking at are not acts of war, but rather killings in the settling of private disputes within the polity (that is, the khalasar). I have, for instance, excluded Drogo’s killing of two other khals in battle. We’ll deal with warfare in the final essay of this series. Instead, this is about the characterization that nearly all disputes within Dothraki society are settled by violence, that such violence is extremely common and consequently, the Dothraki treat life very cheaply indeed.

Again, keeping in mind that the entire Dothraki society as we see it is contained within just about 3% of the corpus of A Song of Ice and Fire, we are told: “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is deemed a dull affair” (AGoT, 85), that there at a dozen murders at Daenerys’ wedding, evidently primarily over sexual access to the dancers (AGoT, 85). At Khal Drogo’s nightly campfires he sat “watching women dance and men die” (AGoT, 191), reiterating the paired activities of a Dothraki wedding – women dancing and men killing each other over sexual access to those women. Jorah kills a Dothraki who insults him for wearing armor (AGoT, 556). Jhogo kills a Dothraki for not obeying Daenerys’ order not to rape the Lhazareen women, Aggo kills another moments later for the same reason (AGoT, 558). Then the burst of murderous violence as Drogo is ailing. Quaro is killed by Qotho (AGoT, 596) before Qotho is killed by Jorah (AGoT, 597), and then Rakharo kills Haggo and Aggo kills Cohollo (AGoT, 597). Later Mago and Jhaqo rape and murder Eroeh (AGoT, 634). And of course, Drogo has Viserys murdered quite brutally (AGoT, 418). That is a lot of murder. In just the year or so that we are with the Dothraki, nearly every named male character in the khalasar murders someone else in the khalasar.

Crucially, none of those murders are treated as even so much as a breach of decorum, much less a serious crime. Instead, again and again, we see that the way the Dothraki settle disputes is that they spit insults at each other and then the weapons come out and someone ends up dead.

That this is nonsense from a historical perspective should be fairly obvious to anyone who read the previous post on subsistence systems closely. Nomadic societies (either Plains or Steppe) had extremely low population densities, but also engaged in warfare where the raw number of warriors (nearly all free adult males) was the primary determinant of security. Consistently outnumbered, often dramatically so, by their sedentary neighbors, these societies were always pressed for good warriors or just population (male or female) in general. The big tribe was the safe tribe. Consequently, adoptive or assimilative warfare was important both on the Great Plains (McGinnis, op. cit. 42-3) and on the Eurasian Steppe (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 12-3). Good humans (especially ones who already knew how to survive as nomads) were a valuable resource not to be wasted! Moreover, raising a child to adulthood represented a substantial investment in resources in a subsistence system that always teetered on the edge of failure; throwing away that investment in a dispute would mean wasting all of those scarce resources. In short, nomadic societies could not afford the insanely high rates of internal violence and murder we see with the Dothraki.

That is not to say nomadic life was safe – there was (as we’ll get to next time) quite a lot of inter-nomadic warfare between different ethnic and tribal groupings. But within those groupings, it will surprise no one to learn that murder was frowned upon (and by ‘frowned upon’ I mean ‘punished harshly’). By way of example, Temujin (who would later become Chinggis Khan) might be expected, given his rise to power, to have been involved in at least his share of of murders if not more. But while he brought about the deaths of many people in war, Temujin seems to have only ever murdered once, when he killed his half-brother Bekhter over a theft. The result? Temujin and his other brother, Jochi-kasar were condemned as murderers by their mother and the episode may have led to Temujin’s captivity with the Tayichi’ut. In any event, the affair was sufficiently shameful for Chinggis that it was concealed in the official histories and only described – with some face-saving obfuscation – in the Secret History (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 23-7). Temujin’s later ally Toghrul had also killed a brother in a power-struggle and been exiled for it by his uncle and which remained a stain on his honor subsequently (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 32). Murder was hardly an approved of thing, because of course it wasn’t, because these are humans and humans don’t like murderers as a general matter!

But this characterization goes beyond just the legal matter of “can you just murder people in this society” to a question of how disputes are resolved. Among both Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans, there were systems for resolving disputes without violence. The Sioux had ‘shirt-wearers’ whose job was, among other things, to resolve disputes between family units. In Mongol society, restitution for a slight or crime could be made with a fine (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 45) or resolved through the intervention of the khan or other tribal leaders. And – as discussed – both Mongol and Great Plains native American society have lots of councils and kurultais and peace meetings and other ways of diffusing conflict by talking in deliberative gatherings. Again, that is not to say that there was no violence, only that these societies were very interested in controlling the violence and channeling it outwards against external enemies in war.

Via Wikipedia, musician Sambuugiin Pürevjav, playing the morin khuur.


[Note that parts of this conclusion originally appeared at the end of the previous post in this series. I have moved some of those parts here because they make more sense here and edited the previous post to reflect that.]

It seems that our ‘dash of pure fantasy’ has turned from a little bit of salt to flavor the meal into a barrel of salted fish with with all the fish removed. But we have talked about quite a lot, so a quick recap might be helpful. We have found that:

  • The Dothraki subsistence system does not meaningfully replicate any nomadic subsistence system in either Eurasia or the Great Plains.
  • The lack of Dothraki art and music stands in stark contrast to the rich artistic and musical culture of actual horse-borne nomads.
  • The Dothraki system of leadership and the inheritance of that leadership bears only superficial resemblance to Mongol systems and betrays a serious lack of understanding of those systems. It resembles Native American systems not at all.
  • The Dothraki incomprehension of trade also bears effecitvely no resemblance to actual Native American or Steppe nomads.
  • The Dothraki practice of slavery bears some resemblance to the practice of Eurasian Steppe nomads (but not generally Great Plains Native Americans), but the context is meaningfully wrong in presenting the Dothraki as the key supply-source and driver of the trade.
  • The Dothraki attitude towards rape is flatly a-historical.
  • The Dothraki’s system of resolving all disputes with murder, and the general prevalence of murder, bears no resemblance to historical nomadic cultures in either Eurasia or the Great Plains.

That is a 0.5 out of 7 (I am giving the half-point on slavery since Eurasian Steppe Nomads did engage in slavery and slave trading). So our ‘dash’ of pure fantasy has turned out to be – so far – 93% of the mixture. I want to say that again:

The notion that the Dothraki are an amalgam of any historical cultures is NINETY-THREE PERCENT rubbish (to be clear, this is a rhetorical statement, not a sincere expression of a statistical reality). I should dearly hope – indeed, I know (for I have graded the papers) – that my average undergraduate student could do better than this after just a few hours of reading about any of these cultures. Not even a full day. A single encyclopedia article could have equipped Martin better than this. The bar here is not high!

Via Wikipedia, Sioux Chief Black Tail Deer, with his family, at the 1904 World’s Fair. It is always important to remind ourselves that people in the past, however strange or familiar their culture or condition might seem, were people and share with us many of the same feelings, hopes, dreams and disappoints of people.

But those errors compound in the depiction in quite unfortunate – indeed, irresponsible -ways.

The first problem, the glare of which should by now be overpowering, is the very idea that it is possible to construct an ‘amalgam’ of Great Plains and Eurasian Steppe ‘horse cultures’ can really only exist at a superficial level where most of what one knows are stereotypes and nothing more. These are not hyper-similar societies – they are, in fact, very different, shaped by the different ecologies, subsistence systems and situations they find themselves in. They operate on different scales, at different population densities, with different seasonal movements and different outside cultural influences and consequently have very different cultures. They have different systems of social organization, different traditions of art and music, different rules of family ties and inheritance and so on. The only things they have in common is the two things Martin seems to have understood: they ride horses and are nomads (although he couldn’t get which horses right, or how a nomadic society functions).

But that leads into the larger problem, which comes out quite clearly in how Martin has carelessly separated the shepherds and the nomads into separate cultures living side-by-side (and hating and killing each other). As we’ve discussed, that’s wrong: the shepherds and the fearsome riders were the same people. But Martin has stripped away not just the shepherding from the Dothraki, but also the cheese-making and wool cleaning and so on – after having already, as we saw in the first essay in this series, also stripped away the artistry, creativity and artisinal skill. His Dothraki don’t do anything as whimpy as herding sheep – something they regard as unmanly because of course they do – they kill the sheep (with arrows, which just makes it a double waste for every shaft that breaks or tip that is lost) and leave them to rot, like (very stupid) badassess.

He has stripped the Dothraki of every part of a Steppe nomads life, except the barbaric violence. This week, we’ve seen how literally true that was. The historical art, the music, the councils, the complex social structures, layered social hierarchies, extended clan dynamics, complicated gender roles…all of it is stripped away and replaced by copious amounts of murder and rape. 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, 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.

And then he has the audacity to claim that this is an ‘amalgam’ of real people that both really existed in the past, but also really exist today. Had the Dothraki merely been ‘orcs’ or ‘trolls’ – fantasy beings wholly and clearly divorced from any real-world culture – these problems might not be so troubling. But Martin has gone out of his way to tell us that he has based this fantasy culture off of real people with only a ‘dash of pure fantasy.’ he has repeatedly defended these elements as being historically based, as reflecting something true about specific people. And that is where we move from the realm of ‘unfortunate’ implications to the realm of irresponsibility.

The last two hundred years have not been a great time to be nomads. The condition of many Native Americans in the United States remains parlous and frankly shameful. Many Mongolians inside China face similar efforts at forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing as the Uyghurs. And yet Martin – in a position of tremendous influence – has opted to propagate a vision of the cultures as primarily composed of men who rape and murder and do little else. And again, I must stress, he has not implied this thing through subtext or unintentional similarities or implications, he has stated this outright as a defense of his work that this is how it ‘really was’ – a belief now parroted by many of his fans. The honest mistake has become an irresponsible error, perhaps a moral one.

I should also note the defense I hear that Martin may get this or that technical question of armor or weapons or food or what have you wrong, that he is still a keen observer of human behavior and psychology. I hope this essay has put some rather large holes in that defense as well. How keen an observer of human psychology is someone who has apparently managed to incorrectly extrapolate nearly everything about the behavior and organization of this society? He has cleverly taken the measure of people, but hasn’t stopped to consider that even nomads aren’t fond of murder, or that they express themselves in art and song? Martin is a gifted writer and storyteller, but a good historian, psychologist, philosopher, sociologist, he is not. To present his often nihilistic vision of human nature – especially in how he presents the non-white peoples of Essos – as grounded in historical fact is, quite frankly, to lie.

And to say that the culture of the Dothraki is meaningfully based on either Eurasian Steppe nomads or Great Plains Native Americans is shamefully deceptive.

For our last entry in this series, we will look finally at Dothraki warfare. Both how they fight, but also why they fight. I am taking next week off for the holidays, but we’ll be back to conclude this series right on January 1 at the start of the new year.

462 thoughts on “Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part III: Horse Fiddles

      1. No, thank *you*. It’s not that I haven’t had issues with how Martin depicts the population of Essos before, but until your post I never really made the necessary connection that there are actually real living people who belong to the cultures he claims to have been inspired by and that they face discrimination as a result of the racist tropes that Martin plays straight. It’s honestly something I need to have a sit down and think about now, so thanks once again for forcing me to stop overlooking the real issue.

        1. I think that’s the major problem here: for whatever reason, Martin does have a nihilistic view of human nature, so he seems to conflate ‘reality’ with the worst aspects that do exist, but discount the better aspects as hypocrisy or foolish idealism that leads to the deaths of the idealists at the hands of the realists.

          And that he started publishing these books at the start of the 90s which meant that he had been doing the world-building and writing during the 80s, which means that we’re in the hey-day of grimdark. Hence the swaying dugs of the Dothraki crones etc. – nudity, gore, swearing, murder, rape: all the fun things that make it adult and not just comic books or fantasy fodder!

          I think that’s a scanty view of humanity and its history, as you point out, it strips away everything that humans have done as long as we’ve been human (decoration is about the earliest human activity) and leaves only some sort of 80s pop-culture Conan the Barbarian stereotype behind. Martin is working off outdated and outmoded culture images, maybe because he has such a chip on his shoulder about “academic historians” (and his huge inferiority complex with regard to Tolkien) and so he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.

          There’s nothing wrong with “I threw a mess of gossipy pop-culture, Hollywood History, stereotypes and some fashionable tits’n’ass plus gore into a big pot and created a fantasy world where you can have naked women riding dragons”, that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that, and those of us who like our characters to be wearing something that will protect their tender bits from dragon scales can simply not read the books and everyone will be happy.

          It’s when you start off with “My cultures are all based on real-world historical examples and only lightly garnished with some fantasy magic (which is dying anyway) so I can have dragons” that you get into trouble.

          1. I don’t think Martin was planning stuff out in the 80’s at all. What happened is after his 80’s novel Armageddon Rag flopped he went to work in TV and did writing work for Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast in order to pay the mortgage. Then he was greenlit to be the showrunner of his own TV show and a pilot was produced but it was never taken on for a whole season. Shortly after that returned to writing, wrote out a 100 page part of a dark for a novel set in his old sci-fi universe and put it aside when he got an idea for the kids finding direwolves scene in AGoT and then dove into writing that in (by Martin standards at least) pretty short order.

            As for the blood and gore count it’s a combination of a few factors:
            -Martin reads a lot of history but it’s all pop history/historical fiction and highlight reels of the most bloody and crazy stuff that happened rather than attempts to actually understand how past societies worked. Basically Accursed Kings, Shakespeare’s histories and I, Claudius are some of his main history sources.

            -As a kid he had a terrarium with a castle in it and a bunch of pet turtles that he was shit at taking care of so they kept on dying. So he made up a shit ton of stories about his medieval turtles living in the castle and murdering and betraying each other. Seriously!

            -A lot of his old (often very good) short stories had downer or at least melancholic endings. That’s fine. But in a big series of doorstoppers if you use that same kind of plotting instead of having a story end with a downer ending you have a downer ending kind of event and then the story continues and we hit downer after downer after downer to such an extent that it starts getting goofy.

            -He’s a pacifist and thinks that war is really bad. So he shows us in very great detail just how bad war is. Over and over and over and over.

          2. >for whatever reason, Martin does have a nihilistic view of human nature, so he seems to conflate ‘reality’ with the worst aspects that do exist, but discount the better aspects as hypocrisy or foolish idealism that leads to the deaths of the idealists at the hands of the realists.

            I think this is a huge misunderstanding of Martin’s viewpoint. He’s pessimistic about the world, believes most people to be capable of both good and evil – even great and horrible evil – for fundamentally understandable reasons, but absolutely does believe it’s better to choose good than evil. We’re all going to die, but it matters whether we live as Ned Stark or Tywin Lannister before that happens. Jamie’s heel-face turn is good for him – even if it ultimately leads to his death. Tyrion’s indifference to raping the slave is a shocking, condemnable sign of his moral degradation. Brienne’s “No chance, and no choice,” is arguably the crowning moment of badass not just for Brienne but for the series as a whole.

            None of this exempts him from a good deal of highly justified criticism, but I do think it’s important to understand.

          3. The man who wrote Fevre Dream and Armageddon Rag and wrote/produced the TV series Beauty and the Beast did not have a heartfelt commitment to a nihilistic view of human nature. I don’t know about the books, but I do believe the producers of GoT the series do have a contempt for humanity. Insofar as Martin actually believes any of this, my guess is that is basically 1)making a bunch of money giving the depraved audience what it wants, instead of the good stuff like Rag and 2)simultaneously in effect trolling the audience. In the series’ case, the first audience is the producers, and I would say Benioff and Wise got themselves exposed good and proper. I won’t even bother with the book series until it’s finished. If I’m right, one reason it won’t be finished is that Martin at some level despises it and working on it is strictly for money with no creative reward whatsoever.

            As to indignation about how Martin is being irresponsible and harmful, I for one never knew he claimed it to be historically grounded, though it was quite obvious the series was every bit as sincere in it cynicism as The Lord of the Flies or 1984. Indeed, I watched the first episode of GoT on its broadcast, and didn’t watch until years later when I was under the impression both the books and series were about to be finished. (Don’t ask how I got so confused.) If it weren’t for the slave liberation story line plus some interest in Arya and Bran for the religion angle (and to be honest a little relief in the squalor in the person of Jon Snow, even though the show ostentatiously despised him—what you might call James Holden syndrome, for any fans of The Expanse,) I probably couldn’t have made it through. No way I could have done it without bingeing. Pushing a kid out a window so they could have their hero make a joke was too much like Mal Reynolds in Firefly. So my viewing experience was rather different, with the magic showing up fairly within a few weeks, not years.

            The upshot is that I’m not sure moral indignation, except by people who think Martin secretly despises them for their low taste, is that the contempt for humanity is that the contempt for humanity the series ends with is blatant. Tyrion, one of the show’s favorites, gives a speech as worldly, cynical and nihilistic as Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, and is accepted. Bronn gives a lecture on the civilizing influence of commerce in women! The people who are going to accept Dothraki and Klingons and Kazon as actually somehow true to life are going to cling to anything that can be interpreted their way. And they will misinterpret the story in order to read it their way, like Team Walt versus Team Skyler (sp?) when Breaking Bad was airing.

            I know this is true, it’s how I was so wrapped up in the slave liberation arc, despite my fury at the KKK apologetics. There is so little in most literature and drama that actually relates to anything but a shockingly narrow stratum of life (not so much social as the purely individualist, psychological, as though real live people *truly do live in their heads* that anything, even fantasy or SF that break out is swallowed like water in a desert oasis. Really the disguise of fantasy and SF tends to make disguised versions of real life issues sneak in. The action/comedy series Stargate SG-1 probably had more commentary on the Middle East than ninety percent of dramas.

            If there really is anything to analyze as seriously misleading in Got the series from a historical viewpoint, I think it would be the ludicrous idea that a medieval commander who *refuses to surrender after being defeated* isn’t worthy of execution (yes, I’m looking at you Tarly,) or the equally insane idea that ringing bells is a valid mode of surrender, especially if the monarch is then expected to expose herself to arrows.

    1. Yeah, this series has been a pretty brutal takedown of Martin’s work. I like ASOIAF, but we can still do better.

      1. I wouldn’t really have a problem with much of it unless it was for his repeated statements that most of it is based on historical fact and “how it really was”. That taints the whole enterprise and raises the bar massively for the worldbuilding and how people and cultures are represented.

      1. IIRC, he’s identified the Dothraki as his biggest mistake. He’s right. They’re more one-dimensional than many goblin tribes, steeped in coding for real-world “savages” (air-quotes doing a lot of work there), and perhaps worst of all, a perfectly squandered opportunity for exploring a culture alien to the Westerosi cultures.

        1. Yeah, while the Wildlings are faaaaaaaaaar from perfect they’re vastly better done than the Dothraki. They have cultural diversity up the wazoo just for starters and are united by a guy whose most notable talent is he’s a really good singer.

          1. Basically every culture with more than the odd side character is better than the Dothraki. The only culture I can think of off the top of my head that’s anywhere near so one-dimensional is the Summer Islanders, and we only know about their culture because of scattered references from a few immigrants to Westeros. (And The World of Ice and Fire, which might alter my perception of how well they’re written if I owned it, but I don’t.)

  1. Typo Hunt:

    all windowed khaleesi -> all widowed khaleesi

    a barrel of salted fish with with all the fish removed. -> a barrel of salted fish with all the fish removed.

    and disappoints of people. -> and disappointments of people.

  2. Yeah, the Dothraki murder rate was always stupid to me.

    “tend to be canny traders”: James Scott or someone noted that (semi)-nomadic people take easily to modern trade but strongly resist settlement in towns or European-style farming.

    wacky idea: bloodriders sharing the khal’s wife might make sense with bloodriders being expected to die with the khal, it’s a more intimate “we live as one, we die as one” — they’re willing to die because they might have a chance at siring the next khal. It’s not great but there is a logic.


    model or the Dothraki

    was exactly such young living heir of a powerful khan

    Ratchnevsky notes that was unusual in this instance that Temujin’s mother

    1. Bret’s basic point on ‘sharing’ of a khaleesi stands though – you either have a culture which is not interested at all in exact paternal inheritance *or* you have a culture which punishes any other male who tries to have reproductive sex with an heir-bearing wife, but you will never get a culture which has both. That’s just common sense. There are plenty of exceptions alleged but in almost every case those have been alleged by enemies of the relevant culture.

      The murder rate thing is one that drives me nuts about lots of SciFi / fantasy (let alone video games!). I’ve got children so I know how much *work* they are to raise, quite apart from the emotional side. No stable culture can afford to waste the kind of manpower that gets thrown away in fiction. The most horrifically violent cultures lost around 40% of males to violence (including warfare) over the course of their lives, but if you assume that this is spread out over the 18-38 age range that is still only an average risk of violent death per year of 2% or less. And those kind of cultures must by definition be characterised by absolute hordes of little kids running around, which as noted is not compatible with a nomad lifestyle.

    2. If you have a khal who hasn’t yet sired any offspring (despite all the women he’s had) and given that brothers/uncles/male cousins don’t seem to be in the picture, then sharing your wife with your bloodriders who are oath-bound to die when you die (and so won’t be around to complicate matters as the power behind the throne to the heir) is a way of getting a child, particularly if the khal is still sleeping with her.

      You can’t say who the father out of the entire bunch is, so you can’t say for sure that it isn’t the khal and anyway everyone is now dead so the living heir is all that matters.

      1. Maybe, but then anybody who dislikes the new Khal can now undermine him by claiming that he’s not actually the old Khal’s son.

        (Incidentally, medieval England treated adultery with the King’s wife as high treason, precisely because it put the succession in doubt.)

        1. “(Incidentally, medieval England treated adultery with the King’s wife as high treason, precisely because it put the succession in doubt.)”

          As does Westeros, of course.

          1. Not *simply* for that reason.

            Treason was defined as an act of treachery (same French root) or disloyalty to one’s natural leige-lord, and applied also to, say, a servant who struck his master, or a wife who killed her husband (actually an important distinction since the penalty for a female convicted of treason was burning at the stake, not simple hanging). *High* treason was treason where the lord in question was the king. So, bang the Queen (or for that matter be the bangin’ queen, like Catherine Howard or (allegedly) Anne Boleyn), and it was off to the scaffold simply for cuckolding The Boss, before issues of succession even arose..

        2. As Brett notes, kinship doesn’t seem to matter much at all to the Dothraki. Sons inheriting the Khal title seems like the one big exception. If kinship doesn’t matter then maybe nobody really cares in the old Khal is the biological father. He acknowledged the son and that’s it. That would explain why they aren’t concerned about a bloodrider impregnating an Khaleesi . It could even be a means of increasing the chance of having an heir in the first place.

  3. Doesn’t Viserys make some sneering remark about how the Dothraki merely steal what better men make? Which of course, is true in the books, since all the creativity of their alleged sources has been omitted. May be the only time Viserys is right about something.

    Of course, that’s rich coming from a man who never seems to have done much of anything to learn how to be a king, neither diplomacy or martial skills.

    If there were Nopethraki in the story, that would at least some excuse for the violence between Drogo’s followers, and for him to intervene to stop feuds between them. Of course, his idea of intervening would probably be to kill everyone.

    I forget, do the cities of Essos ever pay the Dothraki to fight each other? Isn’t that a traditional way that empires cope with nomads?

    1. Stealing is, of course, very inefficient. It’s a good way to drive off the producers or traders and leave you with nothing.

      This is why the Silk Road generally operated on sky-high tolls. (Which is also why it had to be light luxuries.)

      1. Again, the *inconsistency* is annoying. If the raiding population are outnumbered by the targets by like 50:1 it becomes workable to focus on raiding/stealing as a big part of the economy and lifestyle. Border nomads and pirate settlements have clearly worked like this at times. But the Dothraki are far too numerous as presented for this to be viable.

        And basic psychology (as well as history) suggest that pride cannot live by theft alone. You would definitely want to have rich cultural markers which are ‘the real you’ and explain and justitfy your ability to loot all this stuff.

        1. To add a tangent to that last: I descend equally from two cultures (British and Dutch) that looted much larger populations from the 17th to the 20th century (India and the East Indies) and despite some cultural assimilation (see e.g. Brighton pavilion, the Koh-i-noor and the British Museum) most of the loot was used to manufacture more British and Dutch culture.

        2. The Dothraki monoculture and population size might work if we postulate that one particular tribe/ethnic group had been terrifically successful at conquest, killed off/assimilated the competing tribes, and imposed rigid cultural markers: everyone speaks the Dothraki language (anyone trying to speak their old language gets punished/killed, this happened in reality), everyone takes Dothraki names, adopts Dothraki customs, etc. The ‘new’ Dothraki get treated as cannon fodder for raids and hence the casual attitude towards bloodshed: half the time the guy you are challenging because he insulted your honour probably isn’t ‘original’ Dothraki blood and so what if you kill him off? Just means you can take his women and sire proper Dothraki sons on them! And if you ever run low on numbers just go out and conquer a couple more tribes to assimilate.

          It’s still dumb (eating your horses but not the sheep you’ve just slaughtered?), but might be workable.

          1. But that requires a level of state power that nomadic steppe peoples simply lack. It requires extensive institutions dedicated to nation-building,

            Not even the states of the early modern period had the institutional power to suppress minorities like that. It’s simply not workable. And even once the states started to gear up the cultural genocide engines sufficiently to cause real lasting damage to those ethnic minorities, they still failed to eliminate them.

            Policies like that may be why I speak Dutch rather than Tweants (a dialect of Low Saxon rather than Dutch), but they haven’t eliminated the cultural difference between Hollanders and the people of Twente; and Twente has long been culturally quite close to Holland, you’re talking about cultures with /far/ more distinction than two closely related Germanic ethnicities.

          2. I know that “everyone trying to speak their old language gets punished/killed” happened in real life, but did it happen among steppe nomads? Given that “the raw number of warriors … was the primary determinant of security”, could such a tribe afford to reduce its strength by killing or otherwise severely punishing people originally from other tribes for something as harmless as speaking their native language?

            Moreover, this sort of coercion is unnecessary to make your idea of Dothraki monoculture as a result of conquest and assimilation work. Historically, conquered peoples have assimilated to using their conquerors’ languages without being coerced, because they needed to know the languages to communicate with those in power. If we assume that the early Dothraki, like the real steppe nomads Bret describes, incorporated those they conquered into their tribe as slaves or low-status members of the khalasar, then this would have happened even faster, since such captives would have needed to know Dothraki to communicate with their owners or the people they worked with, not just with traders or imperial soldiers. If the ratio of captives to Dothraki was high enough, this could result in the Dothraki language changing under the influence of the captives’ languages, or even turning into a creole (the obvious historical analogues, from a period when many people from diverse cultures were enslaved and forced to live in a different culture, are African-American Vernacular English and the creole languages of the Caribbean islands respectively), but as far as I know this idea doesn’t contradict the books; one potential problem with it, in the latter case, is that there would need to be enough contact between the khalasars for there to remain a single Dothraki language rather than a different creole or divergent dialect developing in each khalasar.

      2. Well, that and because everything had to be carried by camels or pack-horses.

        Trading and raiding were not, throughout most of history, opposed but complementary. You traded where the other was too strong to raid, raided where they were weak. Often you raided to trade (as in taking slaves along the Russian rivers to sell in Constantinople or the Muslim lands), or traded to raid (as in silver from the above trade made you a bigger man in Scandinavia, able to attract more men to your raiding ventures).

        1. Martin makes the same mistake with the viking-inspired Iron Islanders (a pet peevee of mine since I’m swedish). The vikings were farmers and craftsmen who did a lot of trading as well as raiding. There was none of the stupid “we do not sow” and “it’s only honorable to pay the iron price” business. The reason the vikings could field armies and fleets massive enough to threaten the English and the French (as they were then) was because their lands were fertile and thre were a lot of trees to build boats from.

    2. yeah, one of the traditional ways to deal with the Steppe people (or any Tribe or Clan based cultures, really) was to use trade and gifts to encourage them to either fight each other or to encourage them to attack your own enemies. often to get infighting going, you wouldn’t need to even push very hard.. just give one ambitious tribe or clan a sufficient influx of either wealth or weaponry which they can use to unbalance the wider power struggles. the downside to such attempts though is the possibility that rather than weakening themselves with internecine conflict between groups, you would see the aided party gain power and allies until they became a threat to yourself. thus such strategies were best done by someone who really understood the cultures and existing power balance.

      1. It should be noted that this is what the United States did, and we also did some really aggressive assimilation and many tribes ended up joining us pretty peacefully.

        For example, most Army units in the West had Pawnee scouts because the Pawnee were relentless allies of the Americans. Which also meant that we ended up getting drawn into more wars with the Kiowa and Cheyenne than we would perhaps would have otherwise.

        1. The main source for me on The Plains Indians, Francis Haines, portrayed an extremely sharp cultural difference between the riverside living tribes and the nomads. Before the coming of the horse, the bulk of the population was groups of villages of one tribe strung along the major rivers like beads. The Pawnees were possibly the largest of these, which according to Haines included the Iowas, the Otoes, the Osages, the Quapaws, the Kansas, the Poncas, the Missouris and the Mandans. Although he says these tribes would do buffalo hunts twice a year, this is by no means the same hunting practice as nomads. Housing was different too, permanent lodges of earth with some timber/driftwood.

          The Pawnee likely regarded nomad raiders as hereditary enemies. (Their Morning Star ceremony is I think the only known example of human sacrifice in the plains culture area.)

  4. (though it shares some forms with Gaelic tanistry and is sometimes termed by that name

    I’ve heard it called “bloody tanistry.”

  5. I wanna say Viserys wasn’t murdered so much as executed for being a blasphemous dumbass who threatened the queen and heir. Wiki of Ice and Fire:

    “The day of the ritual ceremony for Daenerys’s unborn child, Rhaego, Jorah stops Viserys from stealing Daenerys’s dragon eggs, intending to sell to the traders of Vaes Dothrak for gold to buy himself a sellsword army. The feasting Dothraki are then greatly offended by a drunken Viserys wielding a sword in Drogo’s hall, as blades are banned in the sacred city of Vaes Dothrak and it is forbidden to shed a free man’s blood there. Khal Drogo does not let Viserys sit at the high bench but rather tells him to sit with the cripples and boys, and all the Dothraki laugh and mock Viserys. Viserys draws his sword, angering the Dothraki, and threatens Daenerys’s unborn child while again insisting that Drogo give him his crown.”

    This may be the most culturally justified death in the whole series.

    1. And while the crown of molten gold would have been horribly painful, it’s a way for Drogo to kill Viserys both ironically and while not violating the letter of the bloodshed prohibition himself.

      1. The “Death by molten gold” bit is a classic story about hubris, I’m not sure if it’s the earliest but I know there is a version where that is what happens to Crassus after Carrhae (which connects it at least tenously to a now-settled former-nomads polity…) and another where it is described as the fate of some spanish conquistadors. It seems like one of those classical stories that gets repeated because the irony of a gold-hungry person being literally killed by gold is too good to pass up, but I am unaware of it ever actually having been done.

        1. I’d be shocked if it had. Maybe in one of those cultures where gold wasn’t valued beyond its aesthetic value, e.g. various New World cultures, but even then it seems like it’d be too rare to waste on such a flashy execution.

          Of course, it’s a bit less that in fantasy worlds where gold coins are the standard form of currency at all levels of society. (ASoIaF isn’t quite at that level, I don’t think, but its coinage is vaguer than D&D’s or Harry Potter’s.)

          1. What waste? I would think the gold would be recoverable, one gross way or another.

            Yeah, D&D is nuts, especially in pre-3e editions when you had only 10 coins per pound rather than 50. I’ve estimated that D&D gold was less valuable than real world silver.

          2. In the first edition, it was explicitly explained that all the prices are inflated. Like those at the scene of a gold rush. Otherwise a hoard like Smaug’s is totally destablizing, but who wants to be rewarded with a whole penny for killing an ogre?

          3. In principle. In practice, molten gold isn’t going to stay in one easy-to-collect lump. (Not to mention that the labor of goldsmiths to melt the gold off the flesh/burn the flesh off the gold and re-shape the result is, itself, valuable.)

          4. IIRC the story of the Incas and Pizarro, they dissected him afterwards to get the gold back.

          5. Not saying he actually did it, but I imagine the King of Persia was wealthy enough to destroy some gold to make a point.

          6. Waste? The gold’s not going anywhere. Its essentially indestructible nature is one of its big selling points (pun not intended), after all.

          7. Indestructible, but not un-lose-able. (Not to mention that goldsmith’s labor is also valuable.)
            If you didn’t want a truncated version of the response I gave someone else, you shouldn’t have asked the exact same question.

          8. What does “not valued beyond its aesthetic value” even mean? Are poets or musicians, whose output has only aesthetic value, not providing a service? Given no New World society had a non-barter economy I am unclear what other value gold is supposed to have, beside aesthetic (and status symbol). Paperweights?

            Unless you’re referring to the “Inca”, but that’s even less meaningful. The Tawantinsuyu (“Inca Empire”) was the only society in human history without any internal trade at all. Everyone did their allotted job (on pain of death—”bad housekeeping” was another capital crime, among them), their products (which might be golden ornaments) were taken off to central storehouses, and the goods allotted to their rank were doled back out. Since they had no direct trade at all, we cannot possibly talk about what they valued compared to other things, except in terms of what standard of living goldsmiths or jewelers enjoyed. And it was probably a high one, since they created status symbols for the Inka caste (the elite; another capital crime was daring to look at them).

          9. What does “not valued beyond its aesthetic value” even mean?

            Better question: What does “valued beyond its aesthetic value” mean?
            In Europe, gold served a critical economic role as the standard of value. Sure, it’s pretty and it’s rare, but most of its value comes from the fact that it’s considered valuable. New World cultures didn’t put that value on gold, so they were freer with their use of it. Which is part of why Europeans assumed El Dorado must be a thing—if these savages were willing to waste so much gold on stuff, surely they must have even more somewhere? Because obviously they couldn’t just have put a different value on this substance.

        2. It could also be inspired by the possibly apocryphal story of Chinggis Khan having someone whose offenders against the mongol empire provoked a war killed with molten silver.

      2. And while the crown of molten gold would have been horribly painful, it’s a way for Drogo to kill Viserys both ironically and while not violating the letter of the bloodshed prohibition himself.

        Would it be that painful? Gold has a melting point of over 1000 degrees, so I’d imagine having a load of it poured over your head would kill you virtually instantaneously.

    2. Not to mention, that gold can’t be melted on a campfire. It takes a bellows-pumped furnace.

      Martin appears to be confusing it with lead, which can be. Confusing lead with gold is a pretty big mistake.

      1. Pure gold melts around 1000 C, some alloys go down into the 800s. I see claims of campfire temperatures up to 1000 ish. Maybe they mean bonfires.

        In the passage the medallions are said to be pure gold, though I’d ask how Danaerys would know. They’re molten in an iron stew pot in/over a firepit… I guess the biggest problem here is that you don’t want your stew to be at 1000 C!

        Huh, practical clothing: “A slave handed him a pair of thick horsehair mittens, and he pulled them on, never so much as looking at the man”

        “When the gold was half-melted and starting to run, Drogo reached into the flames, snatched out the pot.”

        +1 on having mittens, but wouldn’t you want to use sticks to get the pot out of the fire first, rather than sticking hair into the flames?

        Hmm. It’s not like Khal Drogo being able to get molten gold in the Dothraki capital is implausible, but yeah, it’s a case of the specific details making it worse. I’d be happy to skip bellows if the pot of gold was being stuck into the heart of the khalasar’s bonfire, say.

        I also wonder what they’re using for fuel. Grass? Horse dung?

    3. For that matter, the killing of the guys who disobeyed Daenerys’s order to not rape anyone wouldn’t be murder, either. That’s an execution for willful disobedience of a direct order. Extreme, perhaps, but not murder.

  6. Thank you for laying out so clearly and specifically how Martin has done real people dirty in his treatment of the Dothraki. I had a vauge idea of this like I said last time but I really didn’t appreciat the scale of it. I knew that he was simerly bad with european history so it shouldn’t have been a shock but it still is to see *just* how bad it is and unlike with european history his depiction of the Dothraki is punching down, a lot.

    I’ve been working on a fan version of the setting for an rpg campaign for a while. Maybe one way to make this less bad would be that you could make the Dothraki, Omberi and Lahzereen into three different culture groups (like the Turkish and Mongol groups) that are all nomads in the vague area that the main world has as the Dothraki sea? Obviously I’ll have to add/rebuild lots of other stuff too like the *entire culture other then the hair and bells* XD

    Thank you for these series though really its been really education on an area that I was weak on. I know a bit more about Mongol, Maygar and Hun warfare so it will be interesting to see how much of what I think I know is correct and pick up some further reading from your citations from the next section.

  7. I do think that with regards to discussions of sexual violence (where Martin has *obvious* problems) there is a tendency to try to make it about numbers when it really should be more about… depictions of how? Like, people like Martin tend to make the assumption that historical societies had different views on rape as opposed to different views on what rape is, if that makes sense? At least in early-modern european society, it’s less that the act of Rape isn’t proscribed and punished but rather that there are types of violence that we would consider to be rape that is, for various reasons, not considered rape. (at least by the men who write the rules)

    It’s less that there is a distinct category and more that the “rape culture” is stronger, and society in general only consider rape to be “really” rape if women essentially fought to death or unconsciousness. (which is far too common even today, but was actually enshrined in law at least in some particular examples) and how that interacts with social position, etc.

    But Martin (though to be fair, with Cersei and a few other examples he does point outother types of sexual violence) tends to focus precisely on the kind of beyond-the-pale, criminal brute-force rape that even medievals would consider to be rape (and thus deplorable)

    The point, kinda is that rape is *by definition* the kind of sexual violence that society considers to be unacceptable, beyond the pale, etc, while the “acceptable” forms of sexual coercion against “acceptable” victims gets filed (at leat again, by the men and very rarely women who get to sit in judgement) as something else.

    1. I only read 1.5 of the books. What stands out the most in memory is Drogo on the wedding night trying to be gentle with his new bride, insofar as you can when she’s 13 and scared and your only common word is ‘No’.

      But after that he seemed to think the obligations of decency were fulfilled, and he would just ‘take’ her. Nightly marital rape. *Which was not considered a crime* for much of Euro-American history. It started getting criminalized in the USA in the *1970s*.

      1. I’m surprised that this would only occur in Euro-American history. Did you just restrict to the part you know best (or that is particularly shocking), or was marital rape really a crime everywhere except in european cultures (and, by extension, the US)?

        One of the reasons why I would find this surprising is that recognizing marital rape as rape seems to make it impossible to build alliances through strategic marriages. I cannot imagine how you can build political alliances through marrying if one of the spouses can just refuse to consent to sex at some point after the marriage, without anybody being able to do something about it. I might be overestimating the importance of such strategic marriages in cultures outside Europe, though.

        1. Well, under strict Islamic law (think ISIS or Taliban), marital rape cannot even exist conceptually, because rape is seen as a crime where the sole victim is the woman’s male “guardian,” husband, father or eldest brother. For a married woman that would be the husband, who by definition cannot offend against himself.

          In fact, a woman who is raped (other than by her husband) is guilty of adultery, a capital crime.

          1. “Well, under strict Islamic law (think ISIS or Taliban)”

            That’s, with all due respects, a load of bullshit. There’s no such thing as strict Islamic Law, the Islamic law is a huge corpus of legal opinions stretching through 1400 years. There isn’t a single scholar who would validate as strict or lax by European point of view because Islamic Law isn’t concerned with modern western morale nor is it bound by its changing opinions. ISIS or Taliban do not follow Islamic Law because the laws that they work with does not qualify as Islamic Law, as it is neither derived from the Quran, the Sunnah, both kinds of Ijma’e nor the Qiyas.

            “marital rape cannot even exist conceptually”

            Technically true, Islamic Jurisprudence does not ascribe the same punishment for marital rape and extramarital rape. But false nonetheless because it recognizes rape as a sin, and a crime and a woman can file a complaint against her husband. Taken from the Dar al Iftae al Masriyya : “If the husband used violence to force his wife to sleep with him, he is legally a sinner and she has the right to go to court and file a complaint against him to get punished. The woman also has the right to refuse to engage in sexual relationship with her husband if he has a contagious disease or use violence which hurts her body during the sexual intercourse.” The big nuance is that the spouses have sexual obligations towards each other, and if one of the parties refuses to categorically to have sex with the other with no justifications, then the wronged party can bring his case before the court and ask for a divorce.

            “because rape is seen as a crime where the sole victim is the woman’s male “guardian,” husband, father or eldest brother.”

            Again, these are lies that got straight out of the skeptic tank. In the Islamic Jurisprudence, rape is defined as zina by coercion. In which the wronged party are both God and the woman. The problem here is the lack of definite punishment or hadd in the Scriptures. How to deal with a rapist depends on the manner in which the rapists forced himself on the victim. If he forced himself onto her without actually hurting her, it’s considered zina and the punishment is 80 whiplashes. If he threatened her with a weapon, beat her or abducted her, and there are two people willing to provide testimony, it is considered Haraba and the punishment is crucifixion (as torture, not necessarily a method of execution though you can use it to kill him), execution by whatever the judge sees fit, exile (generally if the wronged part forgives) or having your limbs cut. Add to this that he has to pay a compensation. And that in the end, the Rules of the Country may establish an even greater punishment.

            “In fact, a woman who is raped (other than by her husband) is guilty of adultery, a capital crime.”

            Imam Ibn ‘Abd al Barr (A maliki Jurist) says the following : “And no punishment on her [the victim], if it is indeed proven that it’s a rape and not adultery”. Imam Ibn Qudama (A hanbali Jurist, considered by europeans as the strictest school of all) goas even further : “And the opinion held by the majority of Jurists is that no punishment shall be laid upon the raped. And there is no difference between rape by verbal coercion, that is if he commanded her to do so, or by physical coercion, that is he forced himself unto her under the threat of murder or beating”

            As you can see, you’re brewing a fabric of lies worthy of the worst caricatures I’ve ever seen.

          2. Ha! “Deploy No True Scotsman!” Then pivot into a diversion.

            I was talking about, specifically, ISIS and the Taliban; and you attempt to attack by *denying they are Islamic*- which is about as transparent as trying to assert the Nazis weren’t German – and then go into the jurisprudence of al-Azhar (which is, of course, irrelevant).

            Byt since you do raise the four scho0ols, then you would also have to address the difference between what is officially written, and real-world practice on the ground in places like, say, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. As you observe, a rape victim “can prove” it was rape and thereby avoid the penalty for unchastity– but only if she can round up four witnesses. You see, in the real, brutal world where Sharia holds sway, not in the fountained courts of Cairo, the stonings proceed apace. Rather like what the 14th Amendment said about ‘equal protection’ on paper, and the reality of the Jim Crow south.

        2. One of the reasons why I would find this surprising is that recognizing marital rape as rape seems to make it impossible to build alliances through strategic marriages. I cannot imagine how you can build political alliances through marrying if one of the spouses can just refuse to consent to sex at some point after the marriage, without anybody being able to do something about it. I might be overestimating the importance of such strategic marriages in cultures outside Europe, though.

          I think it was partly that, and partly that your partner couldn’t (legitimately) have sex with anyone else, so it was felt unfair to deprive them. I believe that medieval Jewish and Islamic jurisprudence (not sure about the situation in Christendom) also took a dim view of husbands who refused to have sex with their wives, although I’m not sure what the penalties were or how often they were enforced.

          1. As a kid I asked about Exodus 21:10:

            If he take him another wife, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights, shall he not diminish.

            And the explanation I got was that back then, most a woman’s social status derived from the children she had, so it was unjust to deny her the opportunity to have more,

          2. @cptbutton: Not only social status but also mere “someone to take care of her when she’s old”.

        3. Actually in medieval Europe it was precisely the need to get women’s consent to alliance marriages that began to improve their lot in society generally: because there were also convents, and if you pushed your daughter too hard she might go and become a nun. Then you’d be picking a fight with the Church if you pushed any more. So women’s consent to alliance marriages mattered, and from there actually asking for women’s buy-in to other decisions became more and more natural. (Presumably the only reason the same did not happen in Byzantium is currying favor with the imperial court, top-down, was so much more important than lateral alliances, unlike in the decentralized Latin West.)

          People drastically underestimate the importance of convents—an entire field of endeavor where men are basically irrelevant—to the improvement of Western women’s status.

          1. Depending upon the convent’s endowment. Galileo apparently had worries about his daughters getting enough to eat (source, Dava Sobel via Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Daughter.)

      2. I’ve wondered from time to time if all Dany had to do was say no. She doesn’t even consider it assuming that her husband has a right to have sex with her regardless of her condition or feelings. If Drogo also assumes that she expects sex every night unless she explicitly says otherwise….

        1. On the one hand that seems completely implausible. On the other hand, maybe? Drogo seems oddly easy-going about “sure, let’s stop the whole rape thing because my wife says so”. Maybe he’s actually a decent man stuck at the top of a society that rewards indecent behavior?

          1. I wouldn’t have even entertained the notion of Drogo hadn’t shown consent mattered to him on their wedding night. Not exactly free consent but still.

      3. The idea is that within marriage, all sex is consensual (by marrying you are committing to having sex with the other person and that other person only, and that consent is irrevocable) and so it cannot be rape by definition (which is unlawful carnal knowledge and without consent). The theology of it was developed as “the marital debt” and husbands owed it to wives as much as the other way round – in theory at least – a woman could demand sex of her husband even if he wasn’t in the mood.

        The ideal was sex only for procreation and not out of lust, hence married couples would be chaste and continent, but of course reality and human nature meant that people were having sex because they were horny. And often even modern couples, one person is having sex because it’s less bother than having a quarrel over it, or to please their partner, or to get something in return. Is that rape if it’s with less than enthusiastic consent?

        The kind of people who force sex on an unwilling partner aren’t going to be much bothered by “is this marital rape or not?” and while I’m glad the law has been changed to take such an offence into account, I also think that there’s a tendency to over-extrapolate into the past so that “don’t really enjoy sex with my husband but willing to do my duty” gets conflated with “violent rape that involves resistance, injury and tears every night”.

        1. I do note we actually have instances of women suing their husbands for not fulfilling their marriage duties. Its rare, but it did happen.

          1. Also note that in Shakespeare and elsewhere, a woman using a bed trick to consummate the marriage — trading places with the woman her bridegroom was pursuing — is never treated as if doing anything wrong. He had consented by marrying her, and tricking him into doing his duty was not a flaw.

      4. While not disputing your point about about the sexual subordinate position of the wife in marriage, I will point out that society can consider many things wrong without making it a crime. In the 20th century the sentiment that the husband should shouldn’t force her wife when she had a headache was probably as common as the wife should just sit back and think of England when her husband came into her bedroom

    2. I would say that in early modern European societies (and others, though possibly it’s not universal), rape is defined as sex with a woman under the protection of another man without HIS consent, and therefore as an insult to that other man, be he husband, father, or brother. The woman’s consent is (sort of) a defense to the insult, so in sum rape is sex with a woman under male protection which isn’t clearly and affirmatively consented to by the woman. Therefore women not under male protection can’t be raped; on the other hand, sex with (say) a married woman by a man other than her husband is not fundamentally different from rape.

      1. Rape was defined much that way in most of early modern Europe’s predecessors as well. I can’t claim knowledge of patriarchal customs worldwide, but it seems like a natural consequence of treating girls as property of their fathers and women as property of their husbands (which was literally true in several ancient societies, with the Bronze-Age Israelites being the most infamous due to the enduring prominence of some of their books).

        I’d say that definition of “rape” is just a bit less universal than patriarchy—that is, not universal at all, but concentrated among the most prominent cultures in common history, albeit downplayed or ignored in said history since those are the cultures we like the most.

        1. If you have some books by Bronze Age Israelites, you better go find some archaeologists, because that era is extremely poorly covered. We don’t have a very good corpus of any Bronze Age Canaanite writings.

          The Bible was written in the Iron Age, if you would like to not embarrass yourself like this again.

          1. > The Bible was written in the Iron Age, if you would like to not embarrass yourself like this again.

            “The Bible” wasn’t written in any single Age by any historiography, as it was written by many authors over at least a thousand years, and your attempt to dunk is even more embarrassing.

            By the Jewish tradition, the Torah was written in the late Bronze Age, but most of the prophets and history were Iron Age.

          2. Huh. I thought the Torah was composed a good millennium before it was, and that the Iron Age started several centuries later. You learn something every day.

      2. Under Roman law, her consent was not a defense.

        The civil law punishes the crime of ravishment with death and confiscation of goods: under which it includes both the offense of forcible abduction, or taking away a woman from her friends, of which we last spoke; and also the present offense of forcibly dishonoring them; either of which, without the other, is in that law, sufficient to constitute a capital crime. Also the stealing away a woman from her parents or guardians, and debauching her, is equally penal by the emperor’s edict, whether she consent or is forced: “sive volentibus, sive nolentibus mulieribus, tale facinus fuerit perpetratum.” And this, in order to take away from women every opportunity of offending in this way; whom the Roman laws suppose never to go astray, without the seduction and arts of the other sex: and therefore, by restraining and making so highly penal the solicitations of the men, they meant to secure effectually the honor of the women. “Si enim ipsi raptores metu, vel atrocitate poenae, ab hujusmodi facinore fe temperaverint, mulli mulieri, sive volenti, sive nolenti, peccandi locus relinquetur; quia hoc ipsum velle mulierum, ab insidiis nequissimi hominis, qui meditatur rapinam, inducitur. Nisi etenim eam solicitaverit, nisi odiosis artibus circumvenerit, non faciet eam velle in tantum dedecus sese prodere.” But our English law does not entertain quite such sublime ideas of the honor of either sex, as to lay the blame of a mutual fault upon one of the transgressors only: and therefore makes it a necessary ingredient in the crime of rape, that it must be against the woman’s will.

        1. Incidentally, legal systems like this may have an escape proviso where when it comes to trial, the woman can marry her rapist and get him off the hook. Marriage being necessary because no one wants to be stuck supporting his bastard — subsistence again!

          1. This is usually presented today as forcing the victim to marry her rapist. But yes, overall it was about making the rapist pay up with a meal ticket, aka marriage. The phrase “shot gun marriage” isn’t so very old that it should be unfamiliar to all young people.It was also about making sure devalued goods, the woman, was still able to make a marriage at all. There are men able to defy social proscriptions about taking dishonored women—Chinggis Khan was one famous example—but social costs would be paid by most men for marrying a woman known not to be a virgin in many cultures. A widow or even a legal divorcee could be a problem. The biblical story of Onan, who cheated on his duty of levirate marriage by not impregnating his late brother’s sister-in-law was explicitly because Onan didn’t want to treat her child like his, which is to say, food, clothe, teach, maybe help get started in life.

            Just to complicate matters, shocking though it may be to modern sensibilities, there are suggestions that “rape” was alleged as a way of saving the woman’s face/honor after a consensual relationship was discovered, as if they couple attempted to elope. The very word “elope” had the property connotations the older meaning of rape did, as near as I can tell. The novelist Henry Fielding was accused of rape if I remember correctly when running off with a young woman at eighteen. Nothing happened in that case, possibly because at eighteen Henry Fielding was not a good match even for a young woman with insufficient self-control. (Given the difficulty of snatching someone from a household with multiple residents and then traveling across the countryside on horse or by coach (“bus”) or even on foot, it is highly unlikely I think Fielding actually forced the young woman.)

          2. I don’t understand Onan’s objection. Had he obeyed, the child would have been biologically his. And if he truly did think of the potential child as belonging to his brother, what’s so awful about raising your nephew?

          3. WRT to the objection of Onan: It wouldn’t be that the child is not his biologically, or that raising his nephew would necessarily be distasteful, but that the nephew would be the heir of his brother. It would split his property. The question is also central in the book of Ruth where the “closest kin” won’t do his levirate duty and he claims he can’t afford it. Boaz takes Ruth, becomes a kinsman redeemer, and raises up seed and an inheritance for Ruth’s former husband, and by proxy for Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law.

      3. I haven’t read or watched carefully enough to be sure, but as I recall this is also possibly an aspect of Rhaegar Targaryen’s abduction and rape of Lyanna Stark, the incident that started Robert’s Rebellion about 15 years before the books start. There are a lot of hints in the book, and it is explicit in the show that it was an elopement rather that an abduction. But did the Starks and Baratheons believe she was taken against her will, or did they know she went willingly and not care because under their laws she had no right to make that decision?

          1. That’s not quite how it goes down.

            Prince Rhaegar and Lianna disappear without telling anyone what they’re doing. Lianna’s family, and her fiance Lord Robert, assume the Rhaegar is kidnapping her for the purpose of rape. It’s possible they’re using a premodern definition of rape, but given Martin’s grasp of history I doubt it. Also, in theory, marriage in Westeros does require the consent of both newlyweds (though we only find this out when Tywin illegally forces Sansa to marry Tyrion).

            Lianna’s oldest brother goes to the royal castle and demands Rhaegar’s head. The King can’t have people demanding his son’s head, so he has Lianna’s oldest brother and father roasted alive without trial (which is illegal even for the King). Her other brother Eddard inherits the lordship.

            Lord Eddard is living with his foster brother Lord Robert (the same Robert) and their foster father Lord Jon. The King commands Jon to execute Eddard and Robert as well, and Jon tells him to go to hell. These three lords start the rebellion.

            If the King had acted less foolishly, the rebellion probably would not have happened, and Rhaegar might well have gotten away with the elopement. (I think marriage is also supposed to require the consent of the bride’s father, but a better King could have worked something out.)

          2. Or a better Hand. But clever Tywin was sulking in his tent… err… castle at the time.

      4. I remember in the Icelandic Sagas people being pissed at various couples eloping and treating it as similar to rape when it seems to be just a couple consensually running off to be together (or at least the story being unclear if it was an abduction or an elopement and not really caring about the difference).

      5. Not necessarily. Laws like the Athenian law of Hubris covered everyone for a potential public charge of rape irregardless if persons appropriate male relative (or technical stand in for metics or owner for slave) does not.

      6. This is a quote from Kristoffers Rural Law from the 1440s: XII.
        “Taker man quinno meth waaldh, warder gripen a ferske gerningh, witna swa XII men, tha scal heredzhöfdinge genast budkafla vpskæra oc tingh stempna, oc döma han wnder swerd, oc ey thet længer framskiuta. Taker oc nokor lösn for han, böte XL marc konungs eensak oc aater lösn, halfua taki quinnan oc halua konungen. Nu ær han ey baar oc atakin, witer quinna honom ath han hauer meth wald sin onda wilia fræmt, eller sigher ath han brötz meth henne oc gath ey wilia sin framkomith, synis tha clæde rifuen a honom eller henne, oc ther meth blanadher eller bloduite, eller höris roop oc aakallan, thet scal heredz nempd wita oc ranzaka; fella the han, haui brutet edzöret. §.1. Taker man quinno meth wald, dræper hon han j thy, oc witna swa XII men, tha ligge ogilder. §.2. Taker man kono meth waald oc rymer aff lande meth henne, oc warder han laghlica ther til wnnen, tha æghir han aldre friidh faa för æn quinnone laghgipte bonde bider for honom om hon gipt ær, eller neste frendher henna om hon ogipt ær.”

        Now, its middle swedish, and not easy to parse, but the basic idea is the high requirements: Witnesses, evidence of he woman having fought (bruises, wounds, etc.) There is some argument about whether or not these rape laws should be seen as primarily public-order statutes, infractions-of-honour statutes or property violation statutes (though most lean towards the second, IIRC)

        I do note that rape seems to have a fairly prominent position in terms of legal ideology in medieval scandinavia: I was part of “Edsöret”, the laws he king specifically swore to protect and that applied across the entire country. (along with protection of churches, things, and homes)

      7. I’m not sure that definition works. Chaucer was accused of rape by a femme sole acting for herself and he clearly took the charge very seriously. The lady was paid off, which may have been exactly what she wanted. This demonstrates that a femme sole could charge a man with rape and the case be accepted by the courts.

      8. Re: ey81

        “I would say that in early modern European societies (and others, though possibly it’s not universal), rape is defined as sex with a woman under the protection of another man without HIS consent, and therefore as an insult to that other man, be he husband, father, or brother… Therefore women not under male protection can’t be raped; on the other hand, sex with (say) a married woman by a man other than her husband is not fundamentally different from rape”

        That’s very… complex… topic, to describe in one short succinct comment. Let start with the fact, that neither me nor others know what you, personally, understand by the “early modern” here (given that the blogpost is talking about Middle Ages). Neither was Europe a homogeneous in any way, though there was a certain “regionalization” of the close enough cultures and societies (e.g. Southern France and Northern Italy).

        Here, just two examples of the Medieval French “lawfare”.

        – 1380 A.D. In Chartres, a certain Simon Chartier inflicted a terrible insult on the daughter of the honorable citizen Jacques de Marval. He has repeatedly – and publicly – called his daughter “a prostitute” (“putain”) and “a walking wench” (“ribaude”). The victim’s brothers pointed out that such insinuations not only harm the moral image of the family, but can also “very much prevent her from getting married” (estre moult reculee de marriage). So the two Marval brothers, Girard and Lambin, decided to “have a talk” with the offender. Chartier refused to take his words back, and, in a resulting scuffle, the Marvali brothers mortally wounded Simon. The case was taken to court, where the brothers were found guilty of a manslaughter, but their father solicited and petitioned for pardon – which was given to them in 1381.

        – June 1385 A.D. Perrot Tureleur, “fearing dishonor, insults and loss of virginity” (“… doubtant le deshonneur, vitupere et corrumpement de la virginité de son corps et estre deshonoree ou morte”), killed a certain Brunet, who attacked her and tried to rape her (“… Pour doubte de estre villennee de son corps et violee… et pour celle cause, ledit Brunet perseverant en son mal proposition et dampnable, convoitant soustraire la fleur de virginalité d’icelle Perrote… le batist et injuriast moult durement de grans buffes” ). She was acquitted.

        – 1400s A.D. According to the acts of the Parisian Parliament (Parlement de Paris), a certain prostitute tried to sue a group of the monks who raped her. The case was dismissed for two reasons. One – the Parliament had no power over the people of the cloth (rather weak casuistic). Two – because the victim was a “public woman” (femme publique) she can’t be “raped”, therefore, there is no corpus delicti. What the monks did, therefore, reasoned the judges, was an act of a group, ah, “onanism” and their prior should punish them accordingly.

        – November 1410 A.D. As per the letter of appeal to the Parisian Parliament, it was said about how a certain man tried to rape an old woman “70 or 80 years old” right on the street. Despite her age, fragile constitution and illness, she managed to “grab his penis” (l’attrappe par le genitoire) and inflict a fatal wound in the groin. Again, she was acquitted.

        – May 1411 A.D. A certain young man from Saint-Pierre-le-Moutier killed his cousin’s rapist “out of a feeling of deep love and respect for his family, [to restore] his own honor and the honor of his cousin (“… meu en ceste partie d ‘ amour et affinité de lignage pour l’onneur de lui et de sadicte cousine ”). Ultimately, he was acquitted as well.


        A) Women, if protecting their virtue, were allowed a great deal of self-defense and a legally protected status… provided they were “normal” (i.e. good and virtuous in the first place) women and not of low moral standing (even if by reputation).

        B) Honor killings (there is no other way to put it) by the relatives of the victim were quite a norm in that time and while not condoned legally by the authorities, all too often counted as ultimately mitigating circumstances, deserving of the sentence’s pardon.

        C) The need for “A” to require “B” oftentimes were hair-thin. Something equal to rape of the either a “honorable woman” or a “good virgin” (bonne pucelle) were “dirty words” and mere gossip, as well as touching woman’s face in public (let alone grabbing them by the breast).

        In short, women in the Middle Ages possessed both personal and familial honor, and, in order to protect the former for the sake of the later, had a very recognized agency.

        You also write that rape meant a sex “with a woman under the protection of another man without HIS consent” implying, that should said man consent for others having sex with, say, his wife this would be “okay”. Ah – nope. Another example:

        – October 1392 A.D. A letter of pardon was granted to Simon de Lamois of Cotenten, who for eight years endured the “cohabitation” of his own wife with the local priest Robert Guillebert and even agreed to brought up as his own a girl born from this relationship. Simon tried to file an appeal to the arbitration court, where he concluded an agreement with his rival, and “the said Guillebert promised and swore on the holy gospels, and also promised to take an oath before the crucifixion that he would never come to the plaintiff and this woman into the house again and would not insult her”(…et eust ledit Guillebert promis et juré en la presence desdiz arbitres aux saintes evangiles de Dieu et promis a faire serement sur le corps de Dieu sacré que jamais a ladicte femme ne retourneroit ne au dit suppliant ne la fourtreroit). And yet the “truce” did not last long: finding the lovers at the crime scene once more, Simon killed them both.

        He was acquitted of that crime… But that was not the end of the story. In France Ancient Greek punishment for the adulterous men in fact applied to the cuckolded husbands, permissive of their wives, well, “permissiveness”. I’m talking about the famous “azouade”, or a “donkey walk” (chevaucher un asne) when the “guilty” party had to ride the donkey backwards in a pose that had unambiguous sexual connotations and made a man “woman like” (due to donkey’s obvious phallic symbology).

        It is interesting that this type of punishment was a perfectly legal norm in the Middle Ages, and refusal to obey the court’s decision was punishable by a fine. The main witnesses and guarantors of the “execution” in this case were the neighbors of the couple, who forced the deceived husband to ride a donkey through the city streets. The closest neighbor led the animal by the bridle – however, he did not always agree to this (therefore, in Gascony, the fine for refusing to lead a donkey through the streets of the city was 10 livres). In the event of a categorical refusal of the disgraced husband to sit on the donkey, his neighbor could also play his role. Sometimes the conflict between the participants in the procedure led to bloodshed. In 1376, in Senlis, a couple sentenced to “riding a donkey” tried to escape from their neighbors, with whom they eventually fought. In 1393 in Calvados, in 1404 in Jura, and in 1417 in Santonga, there were murders of male neighbors, who were tasked to lead the donkey. Nevertheless, the custom of riding a husband of an adulteress’s on a donkey turned out to be very persistent: this punishment was still in use at the end of the XVI century, both in France (in 1593 the councilor of the Bordeaux parliament refused to lead a donkey with a neighbor sitting on it, for which he was forced to pay a fine) and in Germany, where (for example, in Darmstadt) a special person was even appointed to take care of for a donkey intended for such purposes.

        The fact that it was not an adulterous man who was riding on a donkey, but the husband of an unfaithful woman, is not too surprising. It is known that in ancient Greece, not only a man who seduced a married woman, but also her husband – in the event that he did not take any punitive measures against her – was deprived of his civil rights (see Just R. Women in Athenian Law and Life.). Adultery was not per se a crime against a given person (either a wife or a husband). It was a crime against a way of life and, therefore against the society itself.

        Source literature and historiography:

        – Gauvard C. Paroles de femmes: le témoignage de la grande criminalité en France pendant le règne de Charles VI // La femme au Moyen Age / Sous la dir. de M.Rouche. Maubeuge, 1990
        – Gauvard C. Les juges jugent-ils? Les peines prononcées par le Parlement de Paris, vers 1380-vers 1435 // Penser le pouvoir au Moyen Age (VIIIe-XVe siècles) / Textes réunis par D.Boutet et J.Verger. P., 2000.
        – Gauvard C. Honneur de femme et femme d’honneur en France à la fin du Moyen Age // Francia. Forschungen zur Westeuropäischen Geschichte. 2001.
        – Pastré J.-M. Droit matrimonial et loi naturelle dans les fabliaux allemands // Le droit et sa perception dans la littérature et les mentalités médiévales / Actes du Colloques du Centre d’études médiévales de l’Université de Picardie. Göppingen, 1993
        – Flandrin J.-L. Familles. Parenté, maison, sexualité dans l’ancienne société. P., 1976
        – Du Cange C. Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis. Graz, 1954.
        – Registre criminel du Châtelet de Paris du 6 septembre 1389 au 18 mai 1392 / Ed. par H.Duplès-Agier. P., 1861-1864.

        1. “– June 1385 A.D. Perrot Tureleur, “fearing dishonor, insults and loss of virginity” (“… doubtant le deshonneur, vitupere et corrumpement de la virginité de son corps et estre deshonoree ou morte”), killed a certain Brunet, who attacked her and tried to rape her (“… Pour doubte de estre villennee de son corps et violee… et pour celle cause, ledit Brunet perseverant en son mal proposition et dampnable, convoitant soustraire la fleur de virginalité d’icelle Perrote… le batist et injuriast moult durement de grans buffes” ). She was acquitted.”

          The swedish law I pointed out also explicitly states this: A woman who kills her rapist (or would be rapist) is not to be held responsible: “§.1. Taker man quinno meth wald, dræper hon han j thy, oc witna swa XII men, tha ligge ogilder.” (though the usual witness requirement of twelve sworn witnesses is an obvious impediment to this offence) but it seems clear that what mattered tended to be the relative social status of the victim and perpetrator. (since a socially connected victim, or perpetrator could probably find witnesses willing to swear for them, while a low status person could not)

        2. I don’t quite follow what Lyttenburgh is saying. Honor killings are entirely compatible with the idea that a woman’s sexuality is the property of her male guardians, so that rape is primarily an offense against them. (BTW, this idea is not exactly absent from contemporary culture.

          On a minor point, the “early modern” period is a rather widely-recognized historical concept, extending from (say) 1453 to 1789. This is the period when most of what we think of as traditional legal rules (which in common law countries did not recognize the concept of marital rape) were formed.

  8. I’m sure GRRM is laughing all the way to the bank.

    Let’s face it — this is popular fantasy fiction. We may want it all to have world-building like Tolkien, but we’ll settle for a facade of world building.

    1. Martin’s worldbuilding, and specifically how it’s more historical than most “popular fantasy,” is a major draw for books and show alike. Because Westeros, in the books at least, is a world with excellent worldbuilding (though an atrocious sense of scale). Things get dicier the further east we go, partly because less time is spent there but partly because the cultures in Essos are more exoticized, built out of stereotypes rather than the medieval history Martin is clearly more familiar with.

      1. Eh, I wouldn’t really agree on Westeros’ worldbuilding being excellent. Martin doesn’t seem to grasp a lot of the nuts and bolts of feudalism. But a lot of the individual details such as how much life is breathed into various families is solid.

        1. Yeah, worldbuilding really isnt Martins strong suite. He does some decent work in setting up webs of characters and the connections between them, but its very much character-focused and not world-bfocused if that makes sense.

          1. Oh yes, the character-focused stuff he generally nails. The way he builds up noble houses with a name, house words, house lands, a unique castle, a house physical/mental type and then has each member play off that type without being just a caricature and THEN build up massive and dense webs of relationships so that I can remember a bunch of details about literally HUNDREDS of characters is just amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in any kind of media. It’s just amazing.

            But on the other hand Martin just doesn’t understand how feudalism works in a lot of pretty basic ways and he gives us worldbuilding elements that don’t make any sense. For example we’re explicitly told that daughters inherit before uncles and yet we have just about every house have unbroken direct male line inheritance going back centuries and centuries with those daughters NEVER inheriting. It’s just goofy. Or to take another example all of the Riverlands houses have histories going back centuries so that the Freys are newcomers being only a few centuries old. But before 300 years ago the whole area was held by the Ironborn. So did the Ironborn not take over a SINGLE FREAKING CASTLE in the whole area when they took it and just built one single new castle? F&B just made things worse by filling in so many details that there are fewer gaps for me to add my own ideas to make things make more sense.

        2. Martin’s hard worldbuilding is iffy in the details, but his soft worldbuilding is stellar. A lot of people only really think ‘making a world realistic’ is worldbuilding, but it’s only one aspect. The writing world is full of accurate but tedious worlds! The way Martin’s worlds feel is what I think makes them so popular, and that’s due to (most of) the choices of where he departs from reality to make the world more bewitching.

          The issue comes when you try to blend hard and soft worldbuilding, and how you couch the softer aspects with the harder ones (to make sure people know which bits are fantasy, and which bits aren’t). It’s easier in some ways when you have something like a Studio Ghibli film and can let the story dictate the world 1:1. It gets murkier when you get into the realms of historical fantasy though.

          Not that this excuses utilising harmful tropes when constructing the soft parts of a world (that should be avoided regardless), but it does explain how people can have such different experiences of the same piece of worldbuilding: they’re often talking about different things. One relates to ‘how realistically does this world function’, and the other to ‘how well is this world constructed to tell the story’. Sometimes they align, often they don’t, and there’s always at least a little soft worldbuilding in any work of fiction (otherwise it would be non-fiction).

          1. I wouldn’t divide it up into hard and soft so much as character-based vs. everything else. Everything that’s strictly tied to individual well-realized people and families (such as house sigils/castles/words/etc.) is excellent. Everything else is either lazy broad strokes or standard Hollywood bullshit (with the exception of magic, which is well-done). But the character-based stuff is really really really really good. Enough that I’ll surely pull an all-nighter once TWoW comes out.

          2. Yeah his interpersonal relationships are just stellar, and is definitely his forte, which is where the soft worldbuilding comes in for me. By deliberately making the setting more gritty, backstabby and most of the ahistorical stuff he allows room for those interpersonal relationships to truly shine (either through creating unrealistic situations, or just through having more text and time to develop them rather than the background). I honestly believe that if the setting were more accurately medieval, the story would have been worse (because there’s only so much heads pace an author has if they ever want to finish their book, and they’re usually best served by dedicating it to what will make the story compelling).

            The issue comes when people claim that these story-driven aspects are realistic (or when, through attention placed elsewhere, they perpetuate nasty stereotypes like with the Dothraki).

          3. And of course another aspect of Martin’s discomfort with this boundary between soft and hard worldbuilding is his haziness about numbers and distances and such. The maps and histories we’re presented with by the characters in-universe might be “realistic” in the sense that they seem like the kinds of ways a medieval society might describe the history and geography of its own world, with inexact and fantastical descriptions that get more inexact and fantastical the further you get from your own time and place — but this is completely different from being “realistic” in the sense that the characters are actually describing the shapes of continents with the exactitude of modern GPS-equipped cartography, or population figures with the exactitude of a modern census bureau, or the histories of migration/settlement/conquest/etc patterns with the relative exactitude of modern carbon-dating-equipped archaeology.

            It seems to me that Martin started out intending for many of his in-universe descriptions to be on the fairly “soft” side (e.g. the maps of Essos possibly being just as inexact as a medieval European map of Africa or Asia) but the more aspects of his world he tried to write, the more he had to nail down the “harder” realities in order to parse exactly where and how his characters’ worldviews differed from those realities, and his discomfort with harder worldbuilding might’ve led him to retcon himself into taking his characters’ worldviews more literally than he originally intended.

          4. Definitely sounds plausible. Initially written as a more ‘unreliable narrator’ in-universe description of things, but with more and more accuracy added in. It’s a common issue in lots and lots of writing (how many people do you meet in games/books/films that can reel off every detail of their country’s origins/religions/political system at the drop of a hat, compared to real life?).

            I’m sympathetic as it’s a tough compromise when, in all honesty, the plot is king in a novel and everything else is just background to give the plot just enough realism that the majority of your readers can suspend their disbelief (too much and you risk never finishing the damn thing).

            It takes a degree of confidence to do the whole unreliable narrator thing properly. If you’ve spent ages and ages worldbuilding, and some of that worldbuilding is integral to the plot, you do feel the need to ram some of the bits in the audience’s face a little (either so they don’t miss a major plot point, or jsut because you’re really proud of your 50-hour-development-time coastline map). Especially if you have no idea if your book’s going to be successful and get all of the backing material and fanbase to fathom out the details.

            Still, vague is a good thing. Just hard to commit to sometimes!

          1. Tolkien. Well, not exactly feudalism in the high medieval sense, but definitely the kind of Germanic gift-bond culture that would become feudalism.

            Admittedly he was the foremost authority on the literature of Old English and Old Norse in the world, in his day.

          2. First off, my point was not “GRRM was not the best at feudalism,” but more “Your bar is too high”. Which it would be if your argument that the one author you say is better at worldbuilding than GRRM didn’t immediately backtrack on that point.

            Tolkien has a better grasp on feudalism specifically, I’ll grant you that, but there’s a lot of other stuff in his worldbuilding that I personally find distasteful, uninteresting, or otherwise bleh. The uninteresting stuff is obviously subjective (and some of it was probably more interesting before generations of fantasy writers copied the surface elements of Tolkien), but I feel confident saying that the way he handled his fantasy races is pretty thoroughly eurgh compared to GRRM’s cultures. The worst of Tolkien is worse than the Dothraki, and Tolkien’s middle-ground is worse than GRRM’s. (Google “Tolkien, Race, and Original Sin” for an article, since I’m not sure if I can link it directly.

            Tolkien’s another great worldbuilder, but not all-around superior to Martin. And even if he was, the fact that you have to point to the Shakespeare of fantasy worldbuilding to find someone who does better than Martin speaks in his favor.

          3. Yes, because criticizing one element of a book means you want it burned. Considering that the author has praised other elements of the book in other essays, I’d say you’ve done some shitty interpretation yourself, to the point that it doesn’t sound like you’re writing about the subject you claim to criticize.

            Which, I get it. Hearing that some elven bloodlines being inherently superior might make your favorite author problematic can sting if you’ve held his work up as an example of perfect worldbuilding. But if you’re going to pretend that Tolkien is a blameless author who never made a mistake…well, obviously nobody else’s worldbuilding will live up to that standard!

          4. “some elven bloodlines being inherently superior ”

            This is the sort of criticism that characterizes most of this literature: they don’t understand what they undertake to critique

          5. So, um, you gonna explain why that’s a bad take? Maybe cite the original source like the article you hate did? Or at least quote that article to explain the parts of it you didn’t like?

            I admit I haven’t personally managed to read much Tolkien beyond The Hobbit (everything else is really long, and I always get interrupted early in Fellowship), but my gut instinct is to trust the person who can point to the parts of the text that support their argument over the person who doesn’t bother to write more than a sentence or two about how bad they think the other person is.

          6. Well, I see another poster has already responded. For may part, I in the first instance note “I haven’t personally managed to read much Tolkien beyond The Hobbit (everything else is really long…” There’s the rub: you are not familiar with Tolkien, and so you can be easily misled by a piece which any Tolkienist- even most mere “fans” – could immediately see was completely, wildly off-base: either the author hasn’t the least clue, or, worse, he does have a clue and he’s being dishonest. Cherrypicking a few things out of context is not actual citation, not as any scholar or lawyer would recognize it.

            The key things to understand about the Elves in Tolkien are A) there was an actual, physical earthly paradise where the “gods” lived, and many of the Elves went to live there with them, where they spent tens of thousands of years absorbing ‘ambient divinity.’ These were the Calaquendi, and those who returned to Middle-earth (the exiled Noldor) were, yes, much enhanced physically and intellectually (but NOT morally). B) Elves are immortal*. The exiled Noldor who were ‘superior’ to the Elves of Middle-earth were not so through any “bloodline”, but because they, personally, had lived in the Uttermost West sucking up God Rays.

            The one “bloodline” that does make a difference applies to the “Children of Luthien”- but that is because Luthien is entirely unique as an ancestor: 1, she married a Man, making their offspring of both kinds; and 2, her mother was a literal angel, as in a divine being created before the beginning of Time. Ergo her descendants have actual divine ancestry (in this, not unlike the various heroes of Greek and Norse legend).

            The reproduced chart of the Sundering of the Elves traces the way the primeval population got divided up, some going to Aman and some staying in Middle-earth. Tolkien’s original impetus here was *linguistic*- to him, language always came first- and, being educated in the 19th century philological tradition it was second nature to posit that if multiple languages descend from a common ancestor (which is how he constructed his Elvish tongues), then an original unitary population must have split and subdivided. The whole of the Silmarillion can be seen as a working-out of how that happened.

            P.S. The most gifted of all the Elves, ever, was Feanor… and he was an absolute bastard.

          7. 1. “You don’t know Tolkien, you could be mislead easily.”
            Yeah. That’s why I’m not listening to people who just say “That guy’s wrong.”

            2a. “There was a literal earthly paradise where elves went to absorb divinity. That’s why the Aman elves are superior.”
            2b. “The bloodline of Luthien is only superior because there’s angel blood in it.”
            Giving an esoteric reason for some bloodlines of elves being superior doesn’t mean you didn’t write a bloodline of elves as superior.

            3. “The diagram mentioned traces linguistic divisions.”
            Groups can be linked by multiple things.

            4. “Feanor was the best elf, and also mean.”

            Not only that, but you fail to touch on most of the article. You don’t touch the treatment of elves versus humans, you don’t mention dwarves or orcs, you don’t even hint at the “original sin” thing that’s so important to her thesis that she put “original sin” in the title. You’re focusing on “Some elves are better than others,” and pretending that nothing else exists. Now there’s some cherry-picking for ya!

            None of your points actually contradict Barbara’s. You just bring them up and assert that they matter to the discussion at hand.
            If you’ll allow me to do a little amateur psychology, it looks like you have a very specific idea of what a “racist story” looks like, and since Tolkien’s world doesn’t fit that idea, you assume that it can’t be racist.
            The problem is that racism extends beyond pointy hoods, Nazi slogans, and 19th-century pseudoscience. Asserting that one race of people is innately and heritably superior, however you define that group and whatever reason you give for their superiority, supports the ideas that let racism thrive. That is what people mean when they call Tolkien’s world racist.
            …well, also that he described the orcs as akin to “the least-lovely Mongol types”. I’m not surprised you ignored the orcs, they’re death to the whole “Tolkien wasn’t even a little racist” thing.

          8. You really aren’t paying attention. “Bloodlines” have nothing to do with Elves. Some Elves, as individuals, are superior because they, personally, dwelt in Valinor.

            The line of Luthien is a bloodline *among Men*.
            Speaking of dishonest citation: the *actual* quote reads “least lovely (to Western eyes) Mongol-types.”

            And, no, no points for the obnlique ad hominem. I can’t help it if I don’t have the time to write a 5000-word fisking of an article which anyone with the least knowledge in the field would immediately dismiss as cretinous, simply to bring you up to sufficient speed to see it for yourself. Again, cherry-picking scholarship, and deliberate distortion of the source approaches scholarly fraud.

          9. While I’m thinking about it: Describing a statement as “not even wrong” can come off one of two ways. If you explain why that description applies, it can actually be kinda clever. If you don’t, it sounds like you want an excuse not to actually explain what’s wrong.

          10. I haven’t read that article, but one should point out that in The Silmarillion, which was intended to be the original Middle-earth mythos, having a ‘superior bloodline’ made one’s capability to do evil greater, same for good. Whenever a ‘superior’ race appeared in Middle-earth, they usually committed superior crimes and ruined everything for everyone, even themselves.

            Note that in Lord of the Rings, the Elves are largely portrayed as pure and good and superior because the arrogant, murderous, kinslaying, and yes, racist/speciesist* got killed off thousands of years ago.

            *Tolkien also portrayed racism/speciesism as bad even when genuine differences existed between the species/races. Entire bloodlines and even an entire kingdom of men (Numenor) were punished for racism/specisism even when genuine differences existed. Superior Elves/Men who exhibited racist behavior either repented (after a calamity befell them), died horribly, or were otherwise punished.

          11. I’m going to ask that you read the article, because my summary of the relevant points (that there are bloodlines that are generally wiser, stronger, etc) is going to sound like me just saying “No.”

          12. I’m sorry, but while I don’t want a fight, I don’t want to read an article which reads like an undeserved insult on Tolkien either. Again, I apologize, but I don’t want to be condescended to or personally attacked.

          13. I have pruned this thread back again to keep it relatively more clear and hopefully remove some of the rancor.

            I understand everyone is a bit stressed and it is easy to get angry or to take too harsh a tone on the internet – especially in pure text form where we cannot hear or see tone of voice and expression of face that might soften the delivery. Let’s all keep that in mind and remember that here we want to engage with intellectual charity and an assumption of good faith.

          14. So, I’m going to try to address some of your points and the article’s here with my own take. I’m generally of the impression that her interpretation of the relevant texts is rather shallow, which is not to say that one cannot make legitimate criticisms of Tolkien’s race politics.

            In my opinion, his fibs are mostly a result of carelessness and ignorance rather than malice. I do think that matters at least insofar as judging his personal character is concerned. Is Tolkien’s writing racist? Occasionally, yes. Was Tolkien himself racist? That’s a more complicated question, but the answer I lean towards is “Not particularly.”

            Onto the details:

            “Giving an esoteric reason for some bloodlines of elves being superior doesn’t mean you didn’t write a bloodline of elves as superior.”
            There are special bloodlines, but they’re dynastic rather than racial. This is, if anything, an indictment of Tolkien’s pro-monarchic attitudes rather than his depiction of race.

            “You don’t touch the treatment of elves versus humans, […]”
            In the text, humans are the lucky ones. They get to die and (implicitly) go to heaven. While some elves look down on and/or pity men on account of their short lives, others are envious of their mortality. With the average fantasy author, I might consider this plaintiveness of elves over longevity as being Cursed with Awesome, but in light of Tolkien’s earnest Catholicism I don’t doubt for a moment he considered heaven to more than outweigh the elves’ fey qualities.

            Death is explicitly referred to as “the Gift of Men,” as in, God’s gift to them. The contrast Tolkien draws between elves and humans goes back to medieval folklore about fairies, who are beautiful, crafty, and ever young but barred from salvation. Nor is death the only metaphysical gift humans get: they also have free will, while elves’ fates are predetermined.

            “[…]you don’t mention dwarves[…]”
            Tolkien himself drew the connection between dwarves and Jews, but as far as I know this was explicitly in the context of The Hobbit and dwarves’ long exile. The Silmarillion dwarves are Germanic in inspiration. They have a mostly antagonistic role because that’s how dwarves typically roll in Germanic myth.

            The later association with Jews does create unfortunate implications, which I think Tolkien was aware of. In The Lord of the Rings, the notion of dwarves’ greed is explicitly dismissed and condemned as an in-universe stereotype. This is clearest in the scene where Gimli requests a lock of hair as his boon from Galadriel, who then turns to the other elves and upbraids them for their racist stereotyping, and in the scene where Gimli waxes rhapsodic about the jeweled caverns of Aglarond and is quick to stress to Legolas that his fascination with them is aesthetic rather than material, and that in fact mining them out would ruin them.

            Even in The Hobbit, we don’t see dwarves showcase any particular inclination towards greed. Thorin’s fatal flaw is actually pride: he does not object to sharing his wealth with the men of Laketown but resents that they have the gall to demand it from him with an army at his door. When Dain (also a dwarf!) takes over, he happily hands out Smaug’s hoard to all the litigants.

            The Hobbit even attempts to clean up the bad impression of dwarves left by The Silmarillion. When Gandalf references the Nauglamir story to explain the historical animosity between elves and dwarves, Thorin protests that there’s another side to that tale, but we never get to hear it. I find this fascinating; Tolkien’s fiction has a sort of fictional backstory which casts The Silmarillion as an elvish text, and this episode from The Hobbit is one of several tantalizing notions of his being at times an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, he did not seem as interested in dwarves as in humans, elves, and hobbits, but he left us with at least three major dwarven characters—Gimli, Thorin, and Mim—all of which are very different from each other.

            “[…]or orcs[…]”
            And there’s the rub. One could argue that quintessentially evil demons are a feature of plenty of world mythology and folklore, but there’s no excusing orcs explicitly racialized depiction, even less so because Tolkien himself admitted to it. There’s a tiny bit of merit in that the infamous quotation qualifies the “least lovely” description as a cultural bias, which is more than racists usually care to do, but saying “my evil monster people look sort of like (to us) ugly Asians” is cringeworthy nevertheless.

            I will point out, however, that the article makes a big deal out of orcs having come from elves, which was a provisional origin story from unpublished material that Tolkien himself did not care for, even though his son chose to include it in The Silmarillion by virtue of being the most recent version.

            A passage I find quite distasteful but that I don’t see quoted often by those who call out Tolkien’s missteps in this area is the description of half-trolls from the far south in The Lord of the Rings, which can easily be read as a racist caricature of black people. I believe Christopher Tolkien tried to excuse this as being based on the look of the troll in the Old Norse Thiðrekssaga, but I don’t buy that because as-read the troll in question is supposed to be dark haired rather than dark skinned.

            “[,,,]you don’t even hint at the “original sin” thing that’s so important to her thesis that she put “original sin” in the title.”
            If anything, I would say that the “original sin” in Tolkien’s work is the Kinslaying at Alqualondë, when Fëanor’s gang killed their fellow elves in Aman (the land of the gods/angels) because they would not surrender their ships. The gods/angels exile the offending, supposedly “superior” elves and curse them to, essentially, die, grow weary of the world, and give way to humans.

            Her fixation with the devil-worshipping idea is a bit mystifying to me, though it may be based on a source I haven’t read or that I don’t remember. The hierarchy of human ethnicities is from the text but generally argued by the self-identified High Men. It is also implicitly question by the depiction of the other races of men. Rohirrim and other men of Rhovanion (which are meant to be Germanic) are Middle Men, and even in the more iffy case of the Men of Darkness, there are named Easterlings among the armies of the Free Peoples in The Silmarillion whom the text praises for their bravery and sacrifice. Moreover, we’ve got not just the hobbits but the druedain, both of which are human ethnicities presented in a positive light despite being condescended to or even persecuted by other groups in Middle-earth.

            Humans’ big in-universe fuckup was a mix of Atlantean hubris and Noah’s ark, but only the offending civilization of self-described High Men was destroyed and other, supposedly “lesser” humans did not suffer any repercussions. The Numenoreans and Noldor (the “superior” humans and elves, respectively) are superior only in the sense that they are powerful, and they both squander their literally god given privileges through evil deeds which cause their downfall. There is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s work that is best summarized by the biblical proverb, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. / Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.” Even in The Silmarillion, good elves like and hang out with humans, bad elves despise them.

          15. The one instance of explicit devil-worship I can think of occurs when Sauron, having fully corrupted the Numenoreans (the “superior” High Men, remember), institutes the worship of Morgoth, who is for all intents and purposes Satan. This (complete with human sacrifice) of course serves to show how far the Numenorean/Atlanteans have fallen into folly and evil.

          16. What doesn’t make sense to me about the “Original Sin” article is that its argument is clearly incomplete: the author argues that Tolkien’s use of something like Original Sin to develop differences between his fictional races results in a sort of moral hierarchy between those races, and then just asserts that this is bad without any sort of justification. Bret, in this and previous posts, has argued clearly that George R. R. Martin’s depiction of the Dothraki is aesthetically and intellectually bad because the culture it describes doesn’t make sense and doesn’t fit with its stated inspirations, and that it is morally bad inasmuch as, because Martin claims that his setting is realistic, it spreads harmful misconceptions about the real and still existing cultures it’s allegedly based on. However, Tolkien understood medieval European society well enough to create more plausible human societies in his books, and his racial differences are justified by the more magical, i.e. patently unrealistic, parts of his setting (Elves and Men were made different by Eru, elves from Valinor and Númenóreans were made better by the influence of the Valar, orcs were made evil by the influence of Morgoth). Meanwhile, when Tolkien derives aspects of his fictional cultures from real societies, they are not based on inaccurate stereotypes and are less derogatory and less obvious than Martin’s “amalgam of … cultures”, and thus they are unlikely to mislead readers about real cultures. (To take one of “Barbara”‘s examples, Tolkien’s dwarves are clearly not a mere “mash of Jewish stereotypes” — that even parts of their culture were inspired by that of the European Jews is not apparent to a casual reader of Lord of the Rings — and the fact that one of the main things so inspired is their secret and preserved “tongue of lore” with Semitic-like inflections based on triliteral consonant roots shows that that inspiration was based on a much better understanding than Martin’s stereotypes about steppe nomads.) Thus Bret’s aesthetic argument about nonsensical worldbuilding inspired by a misunderstanding of real societies doesn’t apply to Tolkien, and neither does his moral argument about spreading derogatory misconceptions about real cultures that may contribute to prejudice. “Barbara” seems to allude to something like the latter (e.g. “this suddenly becomes rather more racist”, “[t]here are even explicitly, unironically lesser humans in the text,” “the way it’s a matter of general superiority is very unsettling”, &c.), but the lack of any strong connection to real people invalidates such an argument in Tolkien’s case, and without any explicit argument for why the aspects of the setting that she’s criticizing are bad, she has persuaded me of nothing more than that she, personally, finds those aspects uncomfortable.

            If there is a reasonable argument that these parts of Tolkien’s worldbuilding are bad in some broader sense, which “Barbara” considered too obvious to state, I would appreciate it if someone would state it explicitly.

          17. She’s really very fuzzy on what she even means by “original sin.” While Tolkien certainly employs that device, it applies in two cases: all Men without exception, whose OS is heavily implied to be the Biblical Edenic original sin, but which happens offstage and Men refuse to talk about; and the sin of the followers of Feanor in committing the Kinslaying, which results in the Exiles being laid under the terrible Doom of the Noldor- yes, the “superior” Elves, not their less gifted cousins in Middle-earth- who are not being “punished” for anything.

          18. The problem with that is that elves also clearly labor under original sin. Thingol’s attempt to weasel Beren’s death without technically violating his oath is not the act of an unfallen being.

          19. Pointing to how Barbara calls the dwarves a mishmash of Jewish stereotypes as an example of her bad takes is a bit of a red flag for me, since she explicitly avoids putting any focus on that aspect of their characterization, mentioning it only because of how much it comes up from other commentators. That one complaint makes me think you skimmed the article for objectionable quotes rather than actually trying to understand what she was saying.

            Barbara’s argument is that Tolkien’s worldbuilding is “bad” in a different way than Dothraki being unrealistically violent…but it’s not so different in the end. Bret stresses the real-world impact of fictional cultures like the Dothraki, affecting how real-world people view similar real-world things (ie, horse nomads of the Asian steppe and/or Great Plains). Similarly, Barbara focuses on how Tolkien created a world where the racists are right—elves are de facto superior to humans, evil and prowess can be inherited, etc etc.
            While Barbara doesn’t explicitly state this (she assumes that her readers will understand that that sort of writing is yikes), this reflects real-world beliefs; to pick a clear example, the way that humans are punished for their ancestors worshipping Fantasy Satan is directly comparable (probably unintentionally) to certain beliefs around the Curse of Ham (Noah’s son, not the meat) used as justification for slavery and whatnot,. Just as the Dothraki can reinforce incorrect stereotypes about horse nomads, Tolkien’s races can reinforce incorrect beliefs about race.

            I find it baffling that I need to explain this to you. “The truths claimed in fantasy affect how people see the real world” is practically the defining thesis of this entire blog.

          20. @greatwyrmgold: “racial” differences between elves, men and dwarves is no more racist than “racial” differences between wolves, foxes and bears. Do you think it is racist to have those differences to. And it is really stupid to believe that the doctrine of original sin (covering all of humanity) is racist because elves don’t have original sin. Is it racist that angels don’t have original sin according to Christianity? Or would it be racist if there were intelligent life discovered on another planet, and Christian churches decided that they didn’t suffer under original sin?

          21. “elves are de facto superior to humans”

            except they aren’t – one of many bits that demonstrate she doesn’t understand Tolkien in the least

          22. Pointing to how Barbara calls the dwarves a mishmash of Jewish stereotypes as an example of her bad takes is a bit of a red flag for me, since she explicitly avoids putting any focus on that aspect of their characterization, mentioning it only because of how much it comes up from other commentators. That one complaint makes me think you skimmed the article for objectionable quotes rather than actually trying to understand what she was saying.

            She says “these things [that she talks about in more detail] actually get a ton more offensive when seen in context of the Jewish coding, so, you know, keep it in mind.” I don’t think that telling people to keep something in mind can fairly be described as “explicitly [avoiding] putting any focus” on it — quite the reverse, in fact.

            Also, although she says that she “[doesn’t] really feel qualified to speak to that specifically”, it’s clear from the way she brings it up that she thinks there’s a plausible case to be made for the dwarves being anti-Semitic stereotypes, which doesn’t speak well of her perception and judgement in general, because there really isn’t. TBH I think the only reason people ever connect the dwarves with Jews is because Tolkien made a comment once about how the dwarves’ position in non-dwarfish countries is analogous to that of the Jews in non-Jewish countries, because there’s nothing in the dwarves’ culture or physical appearance as described in the books that recalls Jewish stereotypes.

          23. It’s funny how individuals’ reactions to a fictional work vary sometimes. Personally I always thought of LOTR as a world where racism was false: even the most blue-eyed, blond-haired, pureblooded Aryan master-race kind of person would, on Tolkien’s taxonomy, be weaker, less wise, and less long-lived than a bog-standard elf. Racial supremacism tends to rest on the belief that “Our race is great”, not “Humans all suck”.

            to pick a clear example, the way that humans are punished for their ancestors worshipping Fantasy Satan is directly comparable (probably unintentionally) to certain beliefs around the Curse of Ham (Noah’s son, not the meat) used as justification for slavery and whatnot,.

            That’s not a clear example at all. For one thing, none of the elves use this as a justification for enslaving humans, which they’d have to for this to be analogous to the Curse of Ham. For another, it applies to all men, not just a subset. For a third thing, it’s obviously based off the Fall of Adam and Eve, not the Curse of Ham. And for a fourth, the UK just doesn’t have America’s history of race-relations, so the Curse of Ham likely just wouldn’t have been something Tolkien would have thought about or incorporated into his work, whether consciously or unconsciously.

          24. @greatwyrmgold “While Barbara doesn’t explicitly state this (she assumes that her readers will understand that that sort of writing is yikes), this reflects real-world beliefs; to pick a clear example, the way that humans are punished for their ancestors worshipping Fantasy Satan is directly comparable (probably unintentionally) to certain beliefs around the Curse of Ham (Noah’s son, not the meat) used as justification for slavery and whatnot,.”

            But this is a very bad example, because it actively contradicts the text. Mortality is not a punishment, even though she presents it as such, and devil worshipping is never the big deal she makes it out to be. For this argument to work, you have to willfully ignore or misrepresent what the books say, which is why I personally don’t find her writing persuasive. Again, one can make plenty of legitimate criticisms of Tolkien, but I think she mostly misses the mark.

  9. Has there ever been a real-world society which lacks either visual art or music? People are people in every time and place, and people tend to produce art.

    1. In the land of the blind, people still sculpt statues. The only reason I hesitate to call artistry an innate human trait is that it probably predates what we’d recognize as humanity.

      Of course, being such an innate human trait, it’s very easy to code a culture as more “feral” by removing it. Kind of like how an easy way to make AI characters seem less human is by reducing their expression of emotion and ability to recognize others’ expressions. YMMV on whether it’s worse to make a [minority]-coded culture animalistic or to associate neurodivergent traits with literal (often murderous) inhumanity, but I think we can agree that the easy way to make a culture seem X is usually harmful to someone.

  10. According to some sources, the last state to be ruled by a descendant of Chinggis Khan was the Emirate of Bukhara, a city-state which was a dependency of the Russian Empire and was dissolved in 1920, as its last ruler, Mohammed Alim Khan, fled from the Red Army.

    1. Given that Chinggis is thought to have millions of living descendants, there will probably be heads of state descended from him forever. Given sufficient time, there will eventually come a day when *every* living head of state is descended from him.

      1. Milions is an understatement. Genetic studies suggest that ten percent of all men in Asia excluding the subcontinent, are male line descendants of a single man who lived around 1200 AD.

          1. All the members of The Guess Who were born in the 20th century, so it can’t have been any of them. /s

          2. Funny 😁
            Is there a band called the Guess Who? I’ve heard of the Who but not the Guess Who!

      2. I probably should have worded that better. Mohammed Alim Khan was likely the last Central Asian monarch descended from Chinggis, barring some kind of resurgence in monarchism in the future of Central Asia. Depending on whether or not Mohammed Alim Khan claimed descent from Chinggis to bolster his legitimacy, the Emirate of Bukhara may have been the last Mongol successor state to claim descent from Chinggis.

  11. “We are repeatedly told that the Dothraki do not trade; they “did not truly comprehend this business of buying and selling”

    One thing that bugged me right off the bat- where do they get their weapons? They’re famed for their arakhs, they use them all the bloody time, in fact it practically defines Dothraki manhood- but apparently they don’t obtain them by trade, they don’t loot them since the design is peculiar to the Dothraki- and they sure as hell don’t make them; not only does GRRM fail to mention any Dothraki blacksmiths, but also absent are the small armies of miners and the large armies of woodcutters and charcoal-burners which Bret recently showed us are necessary for ironworking to exist at all!

    1. Now I am thinking that the real reason for the “pull down the cities and make it all grassland again” deal is an excuse to clearcut the forests for iron production.

  12. Thank you for this post, as always I learned many new things.

    I feel like the section “Sex, Marriage and Rape” is lacking compared to the others. It tells very little about the attitudes towards sexual violence real life steppe and plains cultures had. For example, some documentaries about Chinggis Khan make it sound like bride kidnapping was widely practiced by the Mongols. This seems like a much more plausible form of sexual violence within the context of the culture that have been described so far than what Martin came up with, so I am still wondering how much of a thing it really was and how it affected family life etc.

    (Of course this doesn’t seem to be unique to steppe peoples. When I learned more about the classical literature of different cultures in the last few years, I was surprised how many heroes in Greek mythology abduct women and have children with them. And also how often the protagonist group in Journey to the West comes across demons with kidnapped wives. I’m not sure how much these stories reflect reality, though.)

    1. I feel like the section “Sex, Marriage and Rape” is lacking compared to the others.

      From the article:

      I try to keep this blog mostly G-rated

      They obviously can’t discuss sexual violence IRL or in fiction while staying G-rated, but they can minimize the discussion of sexual violence to that directly applicable to the questions at hand. You don’t need to know exactly how common arakh weddings were among the Dothraki’s loose inspiration to realize the Dothraki are way too rapey.

    2. This is what I felt as well. I read through all the linked articles and did not found convincing arguments why this is ahistorical.

      “A Song of Ice and Fire has a rape problem” argues that due to religious differences between Westeros and Europe the concept of marital rape could have existed in Westeros, which says nothing about the historicity.

      In “The Middle Ages weren’t as sexist as Game Of Thrones would have you believe” the author claims that the Middle Ages were not as bad as the next few centuries and does not discuss sexual violence.

      From “Was rape common in the Middle Ages?”:

      “Sexual assault rarely occurs in the Icelandic Sagas,” he said. “When it does, it is usually in the context of feuds and warfare. Sexual assault was committed against enemy women as a part of warfare, to dishonour other men.”

    3. The Homeric heroes are raiders, ship rather than horse based, and women are loot. The records surviving on clay tablets show large numbers of women slaves attached to the palace household suggesting that Homer was following history. Achilles regards Briseis as his wife, which is why he’s so upset about Agamemnon taking her. Briseis is allowed to speak for herself and makes it clear that she wants to be Achilles’ wife in preference to slave mostly to regain the status she lost when her city and family were destroyed. I don’t recall her saying she loved him. In fact we get a good deal of the woman’s point of view from Homer; Helen feels guilty and homesickness and she’s come to hate Paris. Andromache dreads what will happen to her and her son if the city falls. Hecuba is afraid for her sons’ lives. And Calchas rescues his daughter from captivity. Fascinatingly her life goes back to normal. Everybody knows she was raped by Agamemnon but she remains as marriageable as before, fit even for a king’s son. After the fall of Troy Helen and Menelaus take up where they left off, her ten years with Paris vanishing down the memory hole, which outraged classical writers. Women it seems were not blamed for being raped or considered ruined. Very interesting indeed.

      1. What I found very interesting when I listened to the Iliad proper for the first time was that the interaction between Paris and Helen made what happened seem much more like straight forward kidnapping than them running away together because Aphrodite used her magic.

    4. I have read a significant amount on the subject of rape in various societies in the past, but it has been a while, so what follows will be a summary supplemented by some quick checking in on various articles/sources to refresh the particulars:

      Bride kidnapping comes in two forms: ritualized (e.g. Spartan brides shaving their heads and waiting in the dark for their husband to show up, and such things make up ~3% of all marriages in modern Kazakhstan and ~10% in modern Kyrgyzstan according to a crime survey) and genuine. The former are little more than a mix of elopement and proposal, and don’t really need that much explanation as a consequence.

      In the case of the genuine article, my broad understanding is that the people of the group that had the bride stolen from generally did not like it – already mentioned elsewhere in these comments is the fact that Temujin’s wife Borte was kidnapped by another clan in retaliation for Temujin’s mother Hoelun having been kidnapped by his father. Temujin then proceeded to be understandably upset and lead a counter raid which rescued her eight months later whereupon the two were tearfully reunited. AFAIK, the standard procedure among the Comanche, if you stole their wife, would go to you and demand compensation (violence could set off counter-violence and a vengeance cycle); if they refused, you could ask for help from your brothers, or if you had no brothers, a high status warrior to act as your champion, since ensuring the appropriate recompense was paid showed off the guy as a good, just man (valuable in a status-oriented society like the Comanche); contrarily, if you were the guy who had done the stealing, you were not getting people backing you up since the whole situation was your fault in the first place. N.A. Aristov recounts, of the Kyrgyz, a feud that began in 1863 because a man of the Sayak tribe kidnapped a young woman who was promised to a noble’s son of the Salt tribe; the Salt proceeded to constantly raid and pillage the Sayak as a consequence, even though the father of the bride offered financial recompense to them.

      One cross-cultural survey (Bride Theft and Raiding for Wives in Cross-Cultural Perspective by Barbara Ayres) notes that “Bride theft is in every instance defined by the community as a crime punishable in all cases by fine, physical injury or social disapproval and in some cases by imprisonment, severe economic sanctions, complete ostracism or death.” Overall, from what I have read, the tendency is to view this as a bad thing when you are on the receiving end of it, and do it without remorse when you are the one doing it.

      Regarding the women themselves’ feelings on the subject, I have little doubt it varies with the specifics – you have cases of bride kidnappings where it was functionally elopement, a way for lovers to get out of arranged marriages; you have cases where it was a man you knew and liked well enough, but weren’t really considering for marriage; and you had cases where you didn’t know the man at all, or knew him and hated him. Presumably, your feelings on the matter change based on how you already felt about him.

      As to prevalence, it depends very greatly on the society, and appears to be heavily influenced by culture. In pre-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, bride kidnappings appear to have been quite rare (they don’t appear in the Manas Epic at all), but now it is one of the places with the highest rate of bride kidnappings in the world, with one survey by Russ Kleinbach suggesting ~33% of women were the victims of nonconsensual bride kidnappings (and ~17% of consensual, though he appears to regret the way he defined consensual for the purposes of the survey – it was if you answered yes to “Did you love the man who kidnapped you?” with virtually all the women who were bride kidnapped answering no to “Did you want to be kidnapped?”). Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have material conditions not particularly different from Kyrgyzstan, do not have this particular problem.

      1. Thank you, that was very interesting and clears up many of my questions.

        With the Dothraki Martin doesn’t explore bride kidnapping in any depth (as far as I can tell it is implied the Dothraki do practice it), but it does come up a lot with the Wildlings. And interestingly enought from what you wrote this seems to be one of the few instances in which ASOIAF presents a sanitized version compared to real history. If I remember correctly the Wildlings practice genuine kidnapping, but everyone treats it like ritualized kidnapping afterwards. There are no feuds triggered by it, no compensation needs to be payed, and the kidnapped women immediately start to like their kidnapper.

      2. This sort of thing makes me wonder yet again how people can be so certain the fall of the Soviet Union was a Good Thing?

        1. Are you certain the fall of the Third Reich was a Good Thing? Well the Soviets murdered at least twice, probably more like three times as many people.

          1. 1. That simply isn’t true. The Nazis were responsible for a genocidal war of conquest against the Soviets, which killed some estimated 20 million people outside of combat, and was responsible for aggressive wars which killed 5 million of its own soldiers and 10 million Soviet soldiers, adding up to 35 million people. The Soviets killed, let’s be generous and go with the high end estimates: 12 million died in the Holodomor, another 1.2 million in the Great Purge, 5 million in the Russian famine of 1921, and 12 million in the RCW. Altogether, that adds up to 30 million people, taking the high end estimates and counting dead Bolshies and people who died in war related disease outbreaks and famines in the accounting. After the Great Purge there were no mass killings at the USSR’s hands, unless you want to count all the Nazis they killed on their way across Eastern Europe, which would be fucking retarded.

            2. Even if it were true, the Soviet Union also existed for six times as long as Nazi Germany.

            3. Unlike Nazi Germany, the Soviets saw a wild increase in life expectancy among its population – life expectancy from 1930 to 1940 in Germany increased by 3 years (it declined by 1945, but that is probably a little unfair), or roughly 1 year life expectancy/3 years time; whereas, from 1926 to 1958, life expectancy in the Soviet Union went up by 24 years, or 3 years life exp/4 years time.

            4. The best ending for the Soviet Union would have been successful democratization into a federal system, which won some 77% of the vote in the 1991 plebiscite, and the majority of the total registered voter population. (Obviously, this theoretical Union of Sovereign States would be missing the Baltics.) The historical one and shock doctrine caused around million excess deaths, pushed Russia towards authoritarianism, and was fucking terrible garbage.

          2. Ghetto Edit:
            >The Nazis were responsible for a genocidal war of conquest against the Soviets, which killed some estimated 20 million people outside of combat, and was responsible for aggressive wars which killed 5 million of its own soldiers and 10 million Soviet soldiers, adding up to 35 million people.

            Incorrect/confusing ordering here, the Nazis are estimated to have killed 20 million people out of combat in general, not just in the USSR (their total USSR death toll was ~26 million, so ~6 million of those civilian deaths weren’t Soviets).

            >counting dead Bolshies and people who died in war related disease outbreaks and famines in the accounting.

            To be clear, when I say “counting dead Bolshies”, I mean in the case of the RCW where we are laying all the war dead at Lenin’s feet, which would count dead Red soldiers and also all victims of White war crimes as somehow the Bolsheviks’ responsibility.

          3. …The only reason so many Soviets died is their leaders used them for human wave attacks and marched them at gunpoint through minefields and into German machinegun fire. So most of those dead were killed just as much by Stalin as by the Nazis.

            And Stalin murdered his 30 million in peacetime. Hitler only murdered 10 million in his death-camps. (Also, the Holodomor was every bit as genocidal as anything the Nazis did.)

          4. Setting aside the questions of politics and ideology, from a purely military history standpoint, the idea of Soviet tactics consisting primarily of “human wave attacks” as shown in heavily fictionalized depictions like “Enemy at the Gates” is generally regarded as dubious at best, especially since one of the predominant sources for this idea was the self-serving postwar apologia of former Wehrmacht commanders whose primary incentive was to excuse their own defeat in order to sell themselves to the NATO defense establishment as valuable and insightful assets. “Those commies only won because they were so eager to callously discard their people’s lives like the mustache-twirling comic book supervillains they are, whereas we the humble paragons of good ol’ human decency simply valued our people’s lives too much to keep up” is a highly suspect excuse when coming from US sources after conflicts like Vietnam or Korea, and it’s a similarly suspect excuse when coming from German sources after the Eastern Front.

          5. The main source for me on The Plains Indians, Francis Haines, portrayed an extremely sharp cultural difference between the riverside living tribes and the nomads. Before the coming of the horse, the bulk of the population was groups of villages of one tribe strung along the major rivers like beads. The Pawnees were possibly the largest of these, which according to Haines included the Iowas, the Otoes, the Osages, the Quapaws, the Kansas, the Poncas, the Missouris and the Mandans. Although he says these tribes would do buffalo hunts twice a year, this is by no means the same hunting practice as nomads. Housing was different too, permanent lodges of earth with some timber/driftwood.

            The Pawnee likely regarded nomad raiders as hereditary enemies. (Their Morning Star ceremony is I think the only known example of human sacrifice in the plains culture area.)

          6. “~33% of women were the victims of nonconsensual bride kidnappings (and ~17% of consensual, though he appears to regret the way he defined consensual for the purposes of the survey – ”

            The values that leads Tom in AZ to think the a third of Kyrgyz women being kidnapped is nothing compared to the evils of socialism are not values I have any sympathy with. As near as I can tell, all the countries that restored capitalism are worse, materially for the majority of people and culturally for all of them. The only possible exception in my view is Germany. But I think Pegida and AfD are not accidents but expressions of the political trends engendered by the restoration of capitalism in all of Germany.

            I disagree with the figures bandied about, which are aimed at making Hitler look good. The real figures are horrible enough, God knows. Approximately *650 000* by official figures dead in the Yezhovshchina. Dude, think about it! SIX HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND!!!! That’s horrible. The problem of course is that the western powers had preferred the Nazis, supporting them by benign neutrality in Spain and Ethiopia, and actively helping them (and Poland too, by the way) dismember Czechoslovakia rather than ally with the USSR. If a lot of the Western leaders had their way, the Phony War/Sitzkrieg in “defense” of Poland would have turned into a real war with the USSR, in an indirect alliance with the Nazis via Finland!

            Further if you must count and compare, compare the same figures. The millions of people killed in the anti-Communist crusade should be compared. The people who died in famines caused by the Western powers should be compared. But of course, the very phrase “Holdomor” is a fascist talking point, trying to turn a famine on par with that in Henan or Bengal into crematoria. Malignant nonsense.

            Blaming the Soviets for their own war dead is so nuts I can only conclude it’s because you are so certain you would have surrendered to the Nazis you can’t even comprehend why others wouldn’t.

          7. The millions of people killed in the anti-Communist crusade should be compared.

            Please be more specific.

          8. Mary asks me to be more specific about the millions killed in the antiCommunist crusade. Well, I suppose the first antiCommunist crusade could be the Western interventions in Russia in 1918. Then the creation of fascism in Italy in 1920 was about antiCommunist crusading too, as was Hitler’s selection as chancellor in 1933. The German invasion of the USSR was antiCommunist crusading. If you look at the actual number of soldiers and casualties and other material commitments, WWII was largely the German attack on the first socialist state and its defeat. In Europe and China, fighting the fascists ultimately largely a sideshow, by comparison.

            But if you insist on claiming, somehow, none of this, not even Nazi Germany doesn’t count, consider simply the US. The casualties in Korean and Vietnam wars alone number in the millions. These were wars of choice by the US and the choice was to “fight” Communism. I suppose if you wrote a book like William Blum’s Killing Hope you could start adding up the smaller figures, like the thousands killed by by such trifles as the massacres by the Pinochet coup, which was about fighting Communism.

            I just realized I didn’t give documentation for these wars killing millions of people. But I suspect the real issue here is a prior conviction these were not wars against anything, but blessed wars *for* freedom or the people or some such. If that’s the case, I think the burden of proof is on you.

          9. The casualties in Korean and Vietnam wars alone number in the millions.

            And in both cases, are properly laid to the feet of the Communists. There is no duty to accede to their aggression.

          10. Mary’s notion that the US had a choice to accede in Communist “aggression” confirms these were wars of choice. Mary may be pleased that millions died, but that doesn’t make it any less of a crusade. The assumption that the US has the right to invade other countries and kill, kill, kill because Korean Communists are about to take over their own country, or Vietnamese Communists are about to take over their own country, despite the fact that we are not threatened inadvertently concedes the issue. Mary is not alone in the view that the US is the master of the world and it is every right-minded* citizen’s duty to worry about how “we” (speak for yourself) must be able to project our forces and display the proper resolve (aka ruthlessness) but this is an enormity in logic and morals. The toll exacted in meeting this supposedly high-minded duty has been monstrous.

            Perhaps the horrifying thing, upon reflection, is that Stalin, who will never be forgiven by the Marys for leading the defeat of Germany, at least had real enemies, who like Mary were proud to slay by the millions. And, Stalin had the example of his own life to remind him that tiny, seemingly insignificant bands of men and women could indeed overthrow a mighty empire. Stalin and his supporters could indeed imagine that long-standing members of the Communist Party were traitors, just like millions today imagine Republicans helped steal the presidential election. There was no satanic power to fight. The Marys crusade was about saving empires.

            I have a depressing thought this sort of thing is what the classics, the humanities instead of social science and pedantry instead of historical perspective gives us.

            *Pun intended.

          11. My heavens, an actual tankie.

            Normally, I wouldn’t bother much to argue with someone apparently prepared to defend North Korea (“because Korean Communists are about to take over their own country” as if they weren’t receiving military aid or part of the imperial project of another power. And can anyone honestly say that giving the Kim family the power of live and death over *more* people would improve the human condition!?), but I am already here, so let’s attempt the impossible and try talking sense to a tankie.

            Stalin was, of course, a mass-murdering maniac. Moreover, while the Soviet Union claimed to be anti-imperialist and the guillible continue to believe that was true, the Soviet Union was itself an emprie and made no effort to divest itself of its imperial possessions. Quite to the contrary, ask the Uzbeks, Kazackhs, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Czechs what happened when they tried to self-determine their own governments. The Soviet Union absolutely extracted – often quite brutally – from that periphery. Perhaps the most striking example of this being the now-nearly-non-existent Aral Sea, a product of Soviet efforts to extract more agricultural products from a region singularly ill-suited to increase production (and also a great example of how bad Soviet project management generally was).

            If we must get into a silly numbers game, if we add together the civilian casualties of the US War in Vietnam (c. 1.4m by some estimates, though roughly half of that was the result of North Vietnamese action) and all of the civilian casualties from the Korean War (c.2-3m), the result is still less than the 3-10m estimate dead during the Holodomor in Ukraine alone.

            Add to that the costs of Stalin’s purges (no less than 750,000 according to archival research, see Applebaum, The Gulag Archepelago), the additional deaths in the Gulag system (Applebaum notes the internal archival figure – itself necessarily an under-count for reasons she discusses) was 2,749,163), the death in the USSR’s useless imperial war in Afghanistan (cited as high as 2m by some) and onward. And that’s without counting the Bolshevik decision to violently overthrow the Provisional Government (itself attempting to move towards elections) and then having – because the Bolsheviks lacked broad popular support for doing so (this was a coup, not a revolution) – to enforce their will on the people by force of arms (on this, note R. Pipes, The Russian Revolution) and in the process killing millions of their own people (including, of course, violently purging fellow communists).

            None of which even touches the horrors of the other communist splinter regimes.

            So please spare me any tankie-revisionism pretending that the USSR was just an innocent victim of western imperialist aggression. You may well argue that the United states did some terrible things in the cold war – I am likely to agree with you on many counts. But I do not allow Holocaust denial in these comments, I don’t see why I’d allow Holodomor denial (or any of the rest of the USSR’s quite well documented human-rights atrocities) either.

          12. It is hard to decide how to address so much nonsense, especially since the real argument is from ownership. As the embarrassing series on Sparta showed, you can’t understand the past if you don’t understand the present. (For a real critique of Spartan democracy, which was a democracy, which solves the unaddressed—otherwise insoluble—-mystery of why the Spartans fought the Persians in the first place, see Marx passim. on “barracks communism.”)

            First. the position that the USSR was the aggressor in a world dominated by the English, French, Dutch, Americans, openly called empires by most of them, betrays what should be an astonishing lack of historical perspective. Blaming the Soviet Union for taking reparations from Germany after World War II, for instance. Taking the position that the Soviets conquered central Europe instead of liberating it is an astounding betrayal of history as anything but antiquarian humanities and pedantry.

            Indeed, seriously using the term “Soviet empire” itself betrays an ideological commitment in preference to reasoned discourse. England is still in Ireland after centuries. Their slaughters in Kenya and Malaysia would be legendary save for sympathizers with imperialism drowning out thought with noise about monstrous Soviets. France fought wars in Algeria and Vietnam to preserve its empire. The Dutch didn’t leave Indonesia till the Japanese kicked them out. The Portuguese didn’t even leave Africa till the Seventies! Empire is not a mere foreign policy, it is a way of life for a ruling class. There was no Soviet empire in any heretofore known sense of the word. Again, the lack of historical perspective should be astounding.

            The US is still in Afghanistan coming up on two decades for reasons unknown to Devereaux but the revolutionary regimes that tried to educate women are despicable? Well, as I say, the only real argument here is, my property.

            The notion that the quasi-genocidal war against Korea is justified by Kim Il-sung setting up a dynasty is worse than “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” it’s putting the alleged “cause” (the Kim family’s copying of Korean emperors) *after* the effect (a supposedly justified war leveling, according to boasts, every building in the north.)

            Trying to attribute the victims of the Vietnam war by the verbal trickery of pretending North Vietnam was actually another country is the same as attributing the the dead in the US Civil War to A. Lincoln.

            It is still true that “Holodomor” is a fascist trope, no matter the owner insists on supporting the fascist government in Ukraine, which it is. If you want to pretend it isn’t, the same false reasoning proves Franco’s Spain wasn’t fascist either. Solidarity with the Social-National Party and its off-shoots!

            Lastly, my experience has been that everyone, without exception, who moans about “tankies” wants the US to run amok everywhere on the planet.

          13. First. the position that the USSR was the aggressor in a world dominated by the English, French, Dutch, Americans, openly called empires by most of them, betrays what should be an astonishing lack of historical perspective.

            Notice that what he cites has no relevance at all to the question of who is the aggressor.

        2. I know next to nothing about Central Asia marriage patterns and bride kidnappings, but if I read the comment carefully, it says that: “It was rare before (and not during) the USSR. Now it is more common”

          This could easily mean that the Soviet Union (and not merely its fall) messed up something in the society that causes this problem.

          1. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
            As an argument, it’s a fallacy. As a question, which is valid, it needs evidence for an answer.
            The most plausible arguments for kidnapping brides without consent is economic, as in the fall of the Soviet Union radically increased poverty, a point supported by the decline in population and life span after the blessings of capitalism were restored. Another is the political argument that restoration led to an incorporation of religion into a greater role in society (to counterbalance unions and other such commie vilenesses left staining the landscape,) made it possible to get away with. A psychological/cultural one is that the increased prestige of religion, as opposed to socialism, led more men to think this was just dandy.

            The implication that Communism made the men inferior is, well, it’s like Joss Whedon deciding the Reavers were the natural outcome of do-gooders trying to improve human nature in the Serenity movie sequel to the Firefly series. It’s hard to see how this could possibly work, but it makes a hell of a statement about what you think human nature is, namely, corrupt and immutable.

          2. Many societies have suffered economic difficulties without bride kidnapping becoming prevalent so that explanation doesn’t sound plausible particularly since Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors “Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have material conditions not particularly different from Kyrgyzstan, do not have this particular problem.”

            Similarly there is no reason why the restoration of religion that didn’t practice bride kidnapping previously to the restoration should make bride kidnapping more acceptable.

          3. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also former constituent republics of the USSR, so being a former SSR doesn’t seem to be the primary factor. Internally, it is justified by Kyrgyz people as “traditional” (even though it isn’t, but you have lots of things like that in any culture), not from Islam (since Islam explicitly opposes it) or material conditions. The question of how something like this emerges is quite interesting to me but as far as I can tell there doesn’t appear to be any clear explanation.

            If I had to take a guess, based on what I have read, it’s probably a mix of there being some material causes you can point to (easy way to get an extra hand, cheaper than bride price, etc) plus the ability to vaguely reference history (bride kidnapping did occur in pre-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, even if it was far rarer and often didn’t end well), its success thus far (bride kidnappings have a horrid investigation/arrest/prosecution rate) and general “catching” of some cultural aspect (I successfully do a bride kidnapping, so my neighbors start considering doing it, etc).

      1. I think the other way around would be cooler. The Who don’t need the publicity The Hu would bring, but AFAIK The Hu are basically the only central Asian music group with any prominence outside central Asia.

    1. I can also recommed Batzorig Vaanchig, Alash (Tuvan, rather than Mongolian. I particularly like Dyngyldai), and Altai Kai (again Turkic, but still steppe-nomadic).

      I’d also recommend Yat Kha as an excellent way of impressing in your mind that these cultures are both present now, and have lived and changed through the years just as much as any other. While you have folk bands like Altai Kai and Alash, and modern mongolian-metal like The HU, Yat Kha (especially Kha-Kem) brings a sort of soviet-meets-steppe sound that demonstrates a lot of these cultures lived through the USSR as much as anyone else in the Eastern Bloc.

  13. I have dropped my hilarious ‘An X of Ys’ joke section-title format…

    …which I didn’t notice until it was pointed out. I guess no individual section title seemed weird enough to stand out.

    The Dothraki Sea is about as large on the map as all six of the Southern parts of the Seven Kingdoms, but has nowhere near the cultural diversity despite lacking a unifying government or hegemonic religion

    Note for fellow book-enthusiasts-slash-pedants: A hegemonic religion is not merely a religion which everyone shares. The Dothraki all follow the Great Stallion, but that religion has no Pope-like figure which could unify its followers. The Dosh Khaleen don’t qualify as that or a unifying government; while they are revered and significant figures, they have little ability to influence an individual khal’s policy.

    …and Vaes Dothrak itself lacks its own building style, instead being a mix of styles of peoples the Dothraki have enslaved (AGoT, 326-7).

    I always thought that was a neat detail; these Dothraki overlords don’t create anything, they only destroy. But looking back, an exoticized population of “savages” are a bad choice for uncreative, exploitative overlords.
    (My thoughts on who would fill that role better are quite beyond the scope of this blog, being rooted in modernity and cyberpunk rather than history and fantasy. Not that cyberpunk and fantasy are mutually exclusive, but Shadowrun’s the only major example I can think of.)

    This would have been a plausible enough way to organize the Dothraki, with lots of deliberative councils of household leaders and chiefs that are often shrewd political leaders, managing the interests of many households, but presumably that wasn’t badass enough.

    I think the lack of a singular “monarch” in that governmental system is a bigger obstacle. Planetos has many societies with governing councils, from the triarchs of Volantis to the Qartheen Pureborn, but important characters in leadership positions are always “monarchs,” as are many unimportant leaders (from the Sealord of Braavos to the Magnar of Thenn to the Archon of Tyosh).
    While not all of Western history fits this model, it fits them better than it does most other regions, and the most visible parts (the later Classical period and Middle Ages) literally define it. Martin seems to be projecting his understanding of Medieval and Classical institutions into blank spots in other kinds of cultures, encouraged by how much more complicated and less comprehensible the political storylines would be if every leader-figure was merely embedded in a web of politics rivaling the King’s Landing plot(s) in complexity.

    What makes this tricky is that there is a lot of sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire (actually more of it than in the show)

    As a book-enthusiast-slash-pedant, I feel obligated to opine that the show is often more casual and thoughtless in its use of sexual violence. This is most obvious in that one time they accidentally wrote Jaime raping Cersei (no means no, even if she’s your GF), but more common in dropping emotional payoff for sexual violence (e.g. the focus on how badly Lollys’s rape fucked her up, and how little empathy anyone has for her).
    Which to be clear, is a case of “GRRM yikes, D&D double yikes”. I’m willing to defend some of Martin’s use of sexual violence, but he ain’t no saint.

    [snip for brevity] That is a lot of murder.

    And here we see GRRM’s characterization of the Dothraki as hyperviolent crash straight into scale problems rarely seen outside pulp sci-fi (another common feature of Planetos). It was obvious to me as I watched the first episodes of Game of Thrones (before I picked up any of the books, BTW) that the Dothraki were too violent to survive. They should have murdered themselves into irrelevance within half a generation at best.

    [Note that parts of this conclusion originally appeared at the end of the previous post in this series. I have moved some of those parts here because they make more sense here and edited the previous post to reflect that.]

    Then this was the worst article to read almost exactly one week late.

    P.S. I know I’m coming off as a demented book-enthusiast-slash-pedant, so I’d like to note that I restrained some of my impulses (e.g. tangents about how well the Dothraki fit into Martin’s thesis about violence as a basis for power) for being too irrelevant to the topic at hand. So it could have been a lot worse. I dunno if that’s a point in my favor or not, but it should be considered as a point.

    1. I always thought that was a neat detail; these Dothraki overlords don’t create anything, they only destroy. But looking back, an exoticized population of “savages” are a bad choice for uncreative, exploitative overlords.
      (My thoughts on who would fill that role better are quite beyond the scope of this blog, being rooted in modernity and cyberpunk rather than history and fantasy.

      That’s not going to be true of any group, unless you’re very snobby about what counts as ‘creation’. But for the purposes of fantastic hyperbole—well, the Valyrians, right?
      But in GRRM’s work they are, three hundred years dead, still known for their inimitable architecture.

      that one time they accidentally wrote Jaime raping Cersei (no means no, even if she’s your GF)
      The book scene also has Cersei saying no. (Oh, but she says yes later on—is that how this works?)

  14. Two criticisms, one of Prof. Devereux, one of Martin:

    First, Prof. Devereux rather overstates the extent of slavery in post-Roman Europe. The fact is, slavery faded away in Europe (aka, in that era, Christendom) after the fall of the Roman Empire (for a variety of reasons, of which one was certainly the disfavor with which the Church regarded the institution). The links he posts all relate to (i) Europeans participating in the trading of slaves from one non-European region to another or (ii) Europeans being captured and sold into slavery outside Christendom.

    Second, the unreality of the society(ies) which Martin portrays in regard to sexual violence. There have been (indeed still are) cultures in which rape was typically not punished, but those are also cultures in which women are very close kept. Put more concretely, a society in which a group of knights at an inn could rape the innkeeper’s daughter with impunity would also be a society in which innkeeper’s daughters did not serve at the inn. They would be secluded in a protected house some distance away, spinning and weaving (or whatever), while the guests were served by peasant boys.

    1. Toss out some examples of a culture even one that supposedly kept women close (or at least aristocratic women) where rape was not punished or rather potential punished for even slaves let alone free women of any status.

        1. OK fair. But I was looking for a historical examples. The weird shift in modern extreme Islam is frankly it seems to me a bit outlier largely driven by money from Gulf Arab states exporting their views to poor countries and elsewhere.

        2. I’d argue that such victim-blaming isn’t quite the same as the consequence-free rape we see in e.g. Dothraki society.

          But yeah, it doesn’t pair well with letting daughters do things where they might meet men willing to rape them.

        3. It’s amazing how I can misremember things wrong, I thought Muhammad required four witnesses to prove adultery. Don’t care enough to prove myself wrong by really researching, but google has this as a teaser for a link. “”And those who accuse chaste women then do not bring four witnesses, flog them, (giving) eighty stripes, and do not admit any evidence from them ever; and these it is that are the transgressors. Except those who repent after this and act aright, for surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” But it’s a link to wikipedia and it’s a controversial topic, so no doubt it’s wrong.

          1. Confession suffices — you don’t need witnesses to adultery if you admit you did it — but you need the witnesses to prove it was rape.

            One does note that admissions against interest are allowable in many more circumstances than statements that are in your interest.

          2. The mechanic here is that under Sharia a woman’s testimony is worth 1/4 that of a man.

          3. No, actually. A woman’s is worth half a man’s, but in cases of sexual immorality four men are needed.

      1. Well, films are fantasy, as we know, but there’s an Indian devotional movie where an unbeliever becomes a great adherent of Lord Shiva

        There’s a sub-plot about the female lead where she is excitedly waiting to get married but can’t figure out why nobody is turning up as a suitor. Turns out the dirty old (and young) men of her village, those of headman status, are discouraging any suitors because they want to enjoy her favours but not marry her. Eventually they plot to have her declared a prostitute (a devadasi through the loophole of “she stayed out alone all night, she was in the company of a man, she has lost all honour and is only fit to be a prostitute”. Her family seemingly can’t do anything against the decision of the village elders, and it’s only when the hero turns up to rescue her from being forcibly dedicated and declares he will marry her that she is saved.

        I enjoy the movie, particularly the over-the-top nature of much of it, but that part really stuck in my throat. And within the movie, nobody seems to think it’s exceptional (the hero goes around with a little band of merry men righting social wrongs, which include (a) forced marriage between a young girl and an old man and (b) a man trying to get rid of his wife because he’s tired of her). I’d recommend watching it for a different culture’s view on such matters (and remember the whole saga of Rama sending away Sita was started by a washerman’s wife who, because of bad weather, was forced to stay overnight away from home, when she got home her husband declared her an unchaste woman and abandoned her, she appealed to the example of Rama taking back Sita even though she had been captured by Ravanna, and the social disapproval that fell on Sita from this was enough to convince Rama to send his innocent wife away – for the sake of remaining within social limits and the king not being above the same law as his subject. Even though Sita had been kidnapped by Ravanna, was taken away against her will, maintained her chastity – by a series of situations set up to demonstrate to the listeners to this tale that there was no possible chance he had sex with her, because even if it was rape she – and more importantly her husband – would still be dishonoured).

  15. Like before I agree with 90% of this, but some quibbles about the other 10%:

    1. Unlike the various steppe people the Dothraki have a VERY recent ethnogensis and didn’t exist until after the Fall of Valyria and the Century of Blood. The Dothraki Sea WASN’T a steppe before that but rather a settled area. What Martin seems to be doing is a caricature of the idea that some Mongols wanted to wipe out the settled people of much of China and turn a lot of northern China into grazing land. Although there are plenty of problems with all of THAT, the idea that the Dothraki are less diverse than similar people in the real world does have some logic to it. Also people are less culturally diverse than makes sense EVERYWHERE in the world, there’s nothing specifically Dothraki about that.

    2. Also this: “That leads to the deeply uncomfortable situation where all of the slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire is done both to and by all of the peoples coded (and sometimes, as with the Dothraki, explicitly described as) non-white” is just outright false. All of the Free Cities except Baavos (which has as much Amsterdam and Hamburg in its DNA as Venice and Rhodes) and kinda-sorta Pentos which has de facto instead of de jure slavery are massive centers of slavery and the slave trade. Volantis specifically is the most Valyrian of the Free Cities AND the biggest practitioner of slavery with 90% of the population of Voltantis being slaves. As the Valyrians are as white as white gets, that means that the whitest people IN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD are the biggest slavers of anyone. Now with Voltanis you get some orientalist stereotypes as they seem to be sort of a republican Byzantium with all of the baggage that does along with THAT but there is nothing that sets the Dothraki apart from massive gobs of Essosi pasty pasty pale white people when it comes to enthusiasm for slavery.

    1. Also Braavos has a very specific “we’re descended from escaped slaves” backstory to it. The Seven Kingdoms is a better example of “we’re white and anti-slavery just because”.

      1. Eh, I’m willing to give Martin a pass on the Westerosi not having slavery. If you map out which bits of the world have pervasive chattel slavery and which bits are under the Valyrian cultural umbrella those two maps match almost perfectly (with a few exceptions like Qarth not being at all Valyrian but having slaves). The Ghis cities were Valyrian conquests, the various pirate slavers are culturally descended from the Valyrians (at least in large part), the Dothraki Sea is old Valyrian territory, the Free Cities are old Valyrian outposts, etc. etc. etc.

        Valyrians seem to be the main propagators of slaver culture and they’re the whitest people of anyone in the world as I noted before.

        Meanwhile the Andals were fleeing the Valyrians and so don’t have the same Valyrian influence (of which chattel slavery is a HUGE part). Off the top of my head with the exception of Qarth the non-white cultures that don’t have strong Valyrian influence don’t have slaves either, for example the Summer Islanders and the Naathi don’t have slaves either IIRC.

        Also Westeros What Martin Believes War of the Roses England Was Like and slavery was pretty marginal there so no real reason to have much slavery in Westeros especially since (especially in the past) Westeros got raided by slavers and they hated those bastards. Even Iron Islander I Can’t Believe It’s Not Slavery thralldom it’s not quite chattel slavery as thrall status doesn’t seem to be inherited.

        1. Anyone who has a particular culture having to be the origin of slavery, needs remedial education. One culture can abolish slavery, but nobody needs to be taught to practice it. “Hey, wait, if you don’t kill me I’ll do whatever you want” (or “I totally get to kill you, but I won’t if you do whatever I want”) is probably older than our specific branch of genus Homo; I would not be at all surprised if it were observed among non-ape primates.

          1. Azar Gat? Steven Pinker? This is insane. Quite aside from a ridiculous notion of what slavery is, non-ape primates are monkeys, lemurs and tarsiers and no, there is no such thing as a society with permanent private property in any of them.

          2. stevenjohnson, you need to watch more David Attenborough.
            Females are private property of a dominant male in many species, including some monkeys. Likewise many species, including monkeys, will make it very clear that “this is OUR territory”.
            There are even around 50 species of ants known as “slave making ants” because, well guess.
            And yes there are plenty of species that don’t do any of these things, too many of them to be considered “exceptions”.

          3. I would distinguish between territory and private property. Private property can be alienated and also continues to be private property in the absence of the owner: if the owner leaves their house another person can’t come along and appropriate it. On those grounds I would say that a distinguishing feature of property is that you can both sell it (or give it away) and lend it.
            Now, while I am sure there are all sorts of odd behaviours among animals I suspect that nothing corresponds to selling mates and while I wouldn’t be utterly surprised if some primatologist has probably spotted some species in which subordinate primates in a tribe have mates that they allow dominant primates to access in return for favour, I’m not sure that really counts as lending. Finally, I doubt that there are groups of primates among which if one member defects to the another group the first grop can come and say, we’ll have our original member back but we make no claims on anyone else.

            Slave-making ants are decidedly unlike the human institution.

      2. Also Braavos has a very specific “we’re descended from escaped slaves” backstory to it. The Seven Kingdoms is a better example of “we’re white and anti-slavery just because”.

        Being descended from escaped slaves doesn’t necessarily mean much — most of the slave revolts of ancient Rome were happy to enslave their captives, it was just that they didn’t want to be slaves themselves.

      3. I mean…medieval Western Europe was mostly anti-slavery, with it being automatic excommunication to own or traffic in slaves, with some loopholes mainly involving pagan war-captives. Serfs were more second-class citizens than slaves.

        1. Well, define “medieval Western Europe.” What you say was true of the High Middle Ages, but thralldom was totally a thing in Anglo-Saxon England and for decades after the Conquest; and the Vikings certainly count as both medieval and western European. In the Carolingian Empire as in most of post-Roman Europe the Roman institution was only modified insofar as it became illegal to own *Christian* slaves, and the vast Byzantine slave trade was based largely therefore on still-pagan Slavs (which is the origin of the word)..

          1. Not even true of the High Middle Ages – slavery was legal in the Italian states into the Renaissance. The replacement of the Latin for ‘slave’ (servus) with derivatives of Slav in pretty much all western European languages points to a thriving trade in slaves from the east until quite late (and ‘Slav’ meant anyone east of the Elbe/Adriatic). The Church did exert pressure against slavery, and is probably a powerful reason why slavery slowly diminished – but the popes drew much revenue from slave agriculture in Sicily.

      4. Functionally, in the series, is the Iron Bank, and they are 1) specifically bankrolling slave trade for profit 2)specifically bankrolling Cersei to fight slave liberation and 3)the series gives a ringing endorsement of Cersei via the Iron Bank representative precisely for her articulating the series’ view of slave liberation. Part of it is the obsessive love for Cersei (and Tyrion and Bronn, all of whom are villains in any rational view,) I suppose, but I don’t think it’s enough.

    2. Well yes but you have to admit 90% is pretty fantastically over the top. Although book wise I though it was 1:5. In any case given the poor treatment of slaves across Essos such a ratio would be rather untenable.

      1. 90% works for some of the plantation islands, I think? Though those were just about the most specialized slave societies in history.

      2. Brett’s “This. Isnt. Sparta” series discusses Helots being upwards of 85% of the population. 90% doesn’t seem so crazy especially where Martin tends to make everything else more extreme than you could get in reality.

      3. Oh you’re right, I misremembered that. Not quite as lopsided as colonial Haiti but lopsided enough that you’d have to have a large class of favored slaves who were treated better who you could co-opt (which we don’t see) or lots of brutality to keep the slaves in line through fear (which we do see). The problem is if you have THAT many slaves and that much brutality you’re going to have a negative population growth rate among the slave population quite requires constant importation of slaves to keep the population up. Where are all of these slave imports coming from? All across Essos we have cultures that are either taking slaves (the Dothraki and various pirates) or importing slaves (the Free Cities, Ghis, etc.) but very few areas that seem to be the sources of all those slaves (only the Lhazareen and the Naathi that I can recall off the top of my head). Where the hell are all of these slaves coming from?

        1. OK I kind of forgot the Islands. But you point is sound. Another thing is the slavery system in Essos as say the ones with 80% plus slaves and the brutality is presented as a long term norm.

          In the Islands and particularity the French British only really achieved that kind of number for about century and that was on the back of military support from home. From what I can find nearby Spanish islands never got past much more than 50% slave. Given Hatti obviously collapsed and the UK in Jamaica was invested in a rather contentious effort with British troops from outside of Jamaica to keep control… I would conclude you can have an isolated brutal island slave colony run by a tiny free population and a very large amount of new slaves arriving everyday – unlike the US south you do not have a sustainable and growing population sans importation on a large scale. Further only with outside support and even then not for a time immemorial kind history.

          1. IIRC from Philip Curtin, the Caribbean Islands got those ratios in part because so many free white immigrants died of something tropical shortly after arrival. There cannot have been many other societies where the slaves lived longer than the free.

          2. The Caribbean was so brutal that the black population on emancipation was roughly equal in number to all the slaves transported there over the preceding 300 years – no natural increase at all.

  16. Great post, but you’re far too generous to Martin, to be honest. The casual disregard for accuracy and verosimilitude (and the pretense that “it really was like that” to justify every horrible thing that happens) is endemic in his writing, and his portrayal of the Dothraki is not (as some commenters are saying) even close to the worst part of ASOIAF.

    So frustrating that among all the great fantasy works in recent decades, it was this shallow mess that became popular.

    1. GRRM’s books feel VERY rooted in that 90s grimdark phase that a lot of comics and other media was going through at the time. The central theme of ASOIAF and many of those comics is that the world sucks, people who seem good are actually terrible, and the few people who are genuinely good suffer tremendously because the world sucks. Which, while not entirely illogical, is quite frankly a mentally exhausting theme to write an entire book series around. The Warhammer 40’000 style grim to the point of absurdity is the main thrust of GRRM’s books, and historical accuracy is the flimsy justification GRRM uses to sell them.

      And as a side note, part of the reason why I like Brandon Sanderson’s books is that he doesn’t engage in that sort of exaggerated nihilism. It’s nice to read a series with genuinely good people as protagonists, who don’t suffer needlessly just because they’re good people (though Kaladin’s arc in The Way of Kings does tread close to that, even though it’s ultimately a subversion of that entire trope). Plus he manages to create unique cultures that don’t degenerate into lazy stereotyping of real world people, which GRRM, uh, doesn’t manage to do.

      1. While Martin does glory in Grimdark to the point of self-parody in places (for example Victarion’s human sacrifices in ADwD are more hilarious than horrifying) I think there’s more to his writing than standard 90’s Grimdark for the sake of Grimdark for two mains reasons:

        1. Martin’s pacifism has a strong influence on the series. He’s trying to tell us that peace is good, even peace with our enemies who have done bad shit because war is sooooooooooo very very very bad. Then he shoves our face in how very very very bad war is in order to drive home that point. It gets a bit overdone after a while but it’s not Grimdark for the sake of Grimdark.

        2. If you go back and real Martin short stories from the 70’s and 80’s you don’t get the same kind of 90’s Grimdark (for the most part, a lot more quiet melancholy less bloody horror) but you get a lot of the same themes. He bangs on about the conflict between romanticism and pragmatism in With Morning Comes Mistfall, the Way of Cross and Dragon and a dozen other stories to the point that the romanticism vs. pragmatism theme go really really really repetitive when I was on a Martin short story kick a while back. In those stories the pragmatists generally beat the romantics. Just little Twyin and all the rest beat Ned and all the rest. HOWEVER, the victories those pragmatists win tend to be pyrrhic and there’s a sense that in the long term the romantics will win out. We haven’t seen all of ASoIaF play out yet but already we’ve seen how much stronger Ned’s legacy (“the North Remembers”) is when we have people willing to march into certain death to free “the Ned’s little girl” while Tywin legacy calls to pieces almost immediately.

        1. Yes, but Martin shows how horrible war is in unrealistic (and usually sexually violent) ways. Medieval warriors may have done horrific things, but they did not set boatloads of prostitutes on fire and burn them alive, or force captured noblewomen to wait on tables nude and then rape them. The show actually did a better job in spots of showing the horror of war (e.g., Robert’s reminiscences or Bronn’s and Dickon’s conversation after the capture of Highgarden). And the show actually had less graphic sexual violence (and more of the pleasing modern fantasy of happy, empowered prostitutes, which raises another set of issues).

          1. Yes, but Martin is going out of his way to make a point about “war is really really really bad” more than Grimdark for Grimdark’s sake. Of course the extent to which he drives home that point often leads him in ahistorical directions but that’s another issue.

        2. I read Victarion as being intentionally written that way. He’s not a grim badass. He’s an idiot who shows how dumb the Iron Islands culture is.

          1. Maybe what’s happening is that Martin was trying to puncture the Cult of the Badass a bit by having his badasses continually get themselves killed over and over and over but then people still loved his badasses anyway. So he made a badass that’s such a self-parody that we couldn’t embrace his badassery. Of course Victarion has become one of my favorite characters anyway due to his hilarious idiocy.

        3. I’m always a little nonplussed when people characterise ASoIaF as grimdark – I’ve read some things I would call that, some I like and some I don’t, but ASoIaF isn’t one of them. I think about it as being suspended in a productive tension between romanticism and cynicism, not really committing to either side. It is, after all, a series that makes time amid the politics for a band of heroic outlaws still serving the command of the murdered king; I don’t know how anyone can miss the affection for the more romantic sort of historical and fantastical stories that is in there. There’s a bit from one of Jaime’s chapters that I think of as emblematic of this: even this character, known to the world as kingslayer and introduced to us as an attempted child-murderer, longs most desperately to be a heroic knight of the kingsguard like those of the previous generation (at least as they seemed to him as a boy).

          1. I don’t think you know what “grimdark” means, then. There is more unremitting sordidness per page in that series than in entire books in either Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40,000, and they quite literally invented grimdark (“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war…”).

      2. While there is certainly a point, I do think people tend to draw the wrong conclusions from ASOIAF in that regard (partially because it is still, and likely to always be, unfinished)

        Its pretty clear that while being honour-bound and sticking to societys rules wont save you, neither will being a pragmatic amoral bastard: Tywins legacy falls apart because of the people he hurt. Littlefinger is set up to fall, the Freys betrayal gets them some quite operatic revenge, etc.

        I would say the theme is more along the lines of “things are complicated and people are rarely in control of the world that surrounds them”.

        1. Exactly, people focus on Ned dying and ignoring how all of the heartless bastards who break all of society’s rules don’t end up any better.

          1. Part of that is just how long it is between books. AGoT came out in 1996, ACoK in 1999, ASoS in 2000, AFfC in 2005, and ADoD in 2011, and the evil psychos didn’t start to get what was coming to them until the fourth and fifth books. And even now, at the end of book five, the halfway functional human beings still seem to be getting the short end of the stick more often than not.

          2. People think Ned died for his honour, but just as much he died for Robert’s dishonour—if Robert had been a man that would not murder children for their mother’s crimes, then Eddard would not have been moved to warn Cersei.

      3. How are you defining “grimdark?” Because arguably the movement got co-opted by a subset of writers who buy in to the hypermasculine myth this blog debunks, and who seem obsessed with a very particular sort of brutality and violence aimed at women, minorities, foreigners, and anyone they’d label as “deviants.” I’d mostly blame that group for the nihilism associated with the subgenre, although I suppose that depends upon where you situate Michael Moorcock.

        I’d point to Glen Cook’s The Tower of Fear (1989) as offering a clearly grimdark setting that not only has a firmer sense of historical context and how to construct cultures, but also a narrative that ticks grimdark boxes without falling prey to nihilistic constructions. I’d even go so far as to connect the cultural construction and the ability to sympathize with all but the most brutal of the characters with the refutation of nihilism.

        It is not coincidental that the story, while depicting brutality of various sorts, clearly condemns it.

        1. I think an excellent definition and explanation is the Overly Sarcastic Productions (YouTube channel) video “Trope Talk: Grimdark”
          Twenty minutes of your time, IMHO a good explanation of how the genre came to be, definining characteristics, and comparisons with other stories – including Tolkien and ASOIAF. Even if you don’t agree, a way to think about it.

      4. You’re not wrong, but I’d argue that ASoIaF is more a refutation of those grimdark ideals than a replication of them.
        Perfect case study: Eddard and Robb Stark died in part because they refused to make the pragmatic choice (accepting Cersei’s deal and leaving Jeyne Westerling, respectively), but the honor which guided those and their other decisions means that what they built in the North outlives them. The North remembers, and the Northern lords resist the Lannister-backed Bolton occupation ferociously.
        Contrast the Lannisters in the south. Tywin also has a strong sense of honor, but a more pragmatic one, focused on appearance rather than heart. Both he and Joffery are killed as a direct result of their cruelties, with Tywin’s being particularly on-the-nose, and they already struggled to maintain their kingdom before those deaths.
        I could go on and point to other examples of characters whose successes, failures, and character arcs tie into this theme (Mance Rayder, Roose Bolton, Daenerys Targaryen, Jaime Lannister, etc), but the examples of Starks and Lannisters are so clear that I think that’ll do for an Internet comment.

        It’s hard to say what the conclusion of this element of ASoIaF’s story is, since we’re two books and Seven know how many years from A Dream of Spring, but heartless pragmatism/realpolitik is consistently portrayed as effective only in the short term. Empathy and compassion aren’t weaknesses, but strengths (clearest with Sansa, who is far more effective than anyone in King’s Landing—herself included—expected). The night is dark and full of terrors, but the terrors can be fought.

        I make no such defense of the show, where the Lannisters are lionized, the Northmen’s loyalties more mercurial, every sympathetic character is either made into a cold badass or a laughingstock, destroying time-honored institutions makes you the undisputed leader… The show does everything the books do wrong worse, and miss the point of everything the books do well.

  17. The Dothraki seem more based on Klingons than any real human culture. But Klingons had opera and epic sagas, songs and plays. Women were treated as equals on the battlefield (though not as political equals); hell, the Klingon origin story said that the female heart was STRONGER than the male heart.

    Klingons also mature far faster than humans do: Alexander (3/4 Klingon, 1/4 human) was of fighting age when he was only 9. So a murder rate like the Dothraki wouldn’t be too much of a concern for the Klingons, since they can replenish their numbers in literally half the time it takes for humans to do so.

    Klingons are already a stereotype of a “warrior culture”, fusing Vikings with samurai (going with TNG era, here). The Dothraki seem like a stereotype of that stereotype.

    (P.S. I love that the spell-checker accepts “Klingon” and “Dothraki”).

    1. I have to add that Star Trek Klingons are nothing like this, this is strictly a Next Generation/DS9 thing. Klingons are one big, big reason I can’t watch TNG or DS9. The Kazon in Voyager were explicitly written as deglamorized Klingon, while simultaneously honored as a different culture to be “respected,” a ludicrous combination in my opinion. I love some Voyager episodes but I can’t ever bring myself to re-watch any Kazon episodes.

  18. s/windows/widows/ s/diffus/defus/

    The milieu of the nomads who moved from Persia into India several thousands of years BC is unusually well documented via precise oral tradition ultimately committed to writing in the Vedas.

    These nomads considered themselves unfairly persecuted by their sedentary neighbors, justifying immense violence against them. I gather they invented Agni as they moved into forested northwest India to sanctify burning forest to produce rangeland.

      1. I suppose you could go about assessing the accuracy against the archaeoloical record, or written records from cultures who would have recorded similar things. You’d have to control for cross-pollination of accounts, and I don’t know if this has been done, but that’s how I’d approach it.

          1. Very good point indeed. They could be very accurate at recording information that wasn’t right in the first place!

        1. If the Welsh Genealogies are any indication, not precise at all- they’re a contradictory hash. Additionally the Eddas, which show clear evidence of oral traditions morphing at the point where they were, in effect, sectioned transversely. (Not to mention where they reference known Germanic history, where they are, again, a mess).

          1. Very true. I wonder how many oral traditions are deemed to be ‘accurate’. I know there’s the example of Inuit oral tradition recording the location of a shipwreck over the course of a couple of hundred years, but that’s something altogether different to geneologies (it can be periodically verified by going back to look at where the ship is, which stuff like geneology can’t with pre-modern tech).

          2. The limit appears to be about 150 years — that’s with trained professionals, but after the point at which someone could have actually talked with someone who saw the events, it breaks down. (Ronald Hutton discussed it in an essay.)

          3. Oral histories can go back much farther: Aboriginal tribes in various parts of the Australian coast have preserved stories and myths describing the sea level rise at the end of the last ice age, more than 7000 years ago, which have been found to generally be accurate. However, this case is probably exceptional, since Australian Aboriginal cultures have traditionally emphasized precise transmission of such stories, which were used to preserve information about the landscape to help people travel, find food and resources, &c.; moreover, the parts of the stories that describe people’s actions are partly mythological and generally unverifiable.

            My source for this is Patrick Nunn & Nicholas Reid (2016), “Aboriginal memories of inundation of the Australian coast dating from more than 7000 years ago”, Australian Geographer, found here.

      2. The oldest parts of the Rgveda, the oldest text in Hinduism, are grammatically incorrect and mispronounced, relative to what we think of as Sanskrit. Because it’s older than what we think of as Sanskrit, and the priests were so concerned to accurately record the hymns as they received them, that they did not shift their pronunciation.

        There’s also apparently a passage in Exodus where Moses sings or gives a speech (I forget which), and the grammar is bizarre by the standard of Biblical Hebrew…but would not be bizarre for Proto-Canaanite, which is the language Moses actually spoke. I.e., they have accurately preserved at least a purported utterance by Moses so fastidiously that it did not change with the language they wrote the account in.

        1. Why ever do you think there really was a Moses, much less one who spoke “proto-Canaanite?”
          Moses is an Egyptian name, as in Thut-MOSE, Ah-Mose, RaM*ses. And the baby in the basket in the river is Sargon of Akkad’s origin story, and he was, unsurprisingly, Akkadian, which was in what we called for a while Mesopotamia.

          1. The baby in the basket seems to have been a mideastern trope. The suggestion that Moses was actually an Egyptian convert is a fascinating one which as a Jew I have no problem with. God chooses his instruments as He wills.

        2. One of the most fascinating bits in the Exodus story is that Moses gets an etymology… That is not only wrong (the etymology given is hebrew, which makes no sense if the name was given by an egyptian princess) but there actually is an egyptian etmymology (“Moses” is likely a form of the egyptian name that means “Born of”, like Ramesses (“Born of Ra”) or Thutmosis (“Born of Thoth”)

  19. Regarding the Mughals: minor quibble but they were matrilineally descended from Chinggis Khan, via Emperor Babur’s mother (Babur being the founder of the dynasty).
    I’m also surprised that this post didn’t go into more detail about *why* there was a succession dispute among Chinggis Khan’s sons (his first wife’s abduction and later rescue having severely muddied the paternity of her eldest son Jochi, Chinggis Khan’s emphatic acknowledgement of him notwithstanding). Am I overinflating its impact on Mongol attitudes to sexual violence? (I’m assuming Ogedei’s rape of the Oirat women comes under externalised war-related violence. As for the assassinations and executions of the daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters of Chinggis Khan – it seems that either it was treated as murder and punished by other clan members, or the executions – however flimsy the trial – were justified on account of them not being patrilineal descendants of Chinggis and therefore not protected by his laws; which is also not how the Dothraki do things, as they apparently lack a judicial or arbitration system.)

  20. A few more comments:

    1. “a belief now parroted by many of his fans” Sort of. A lot of fans divide Martin’s world building into Essos bad/Westeros good. A lot of the worldbuilding in Essos (the Dothraki included) is so bad that it’s obvious to people who don’t know the first thing about history. But because enough of the surface stuff is right in Westeros people don’t seem to grasp the extent to which feudalism did not work that way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ANY pushback EVER in any ASOIAF fandom discussion when people complain about Dothraki worldbuilding but have gotten plenty of pushback when I complain about how Hollywood Martin’s understanding of feudalism is. I’d love a serious of articles digging into Westerosi pseudo-feudalism.

    2. Thinking over this article makes me realize that outsiders views of the Dothraki and how the Dothraki really are pretty much match perfectly. So you have a culture in which the stereotypes of their worst enemies are ACTUALLY COMPLETELY TRUE. That is, um, really bad. Reminds me of how in Wheel of Time the Aiel laugh at the stupid stereotypes the wetlanders have of them and how those stereotypes are not at all accurate.

    3. As noted in comment 2, reading this made me think of the Aiel from Wheel of Time. Yeah they have lots of issues and are a bright and shining example of the Fremen Myth but they do come off a whole lot better than the Dothraki. They’ve got all kinds of kinship networks and a lot of the structures that you note that the Dothraki are lacking. Even their honor bound nature (which is a big heaping of Noble Savage myth) serves a useful purpose in their society in mediating conflict and limiting bloodshed. There’s no way in hell Aiel would casually murder each other in order to claim rape victims from within their clan. Would like to see a treatment of the Aiel here eventually, especially once the WoT TV show drops as they have their own issues, just very different ones from the Dothraki.

    1. ‘ I’d love a serious of articles digging into Westerosi pseudo-feudalism’.

      This actually exists – Dr Devereaux has written a series called ‘How it wasn’t’ which covers the issues with GRRM’s portryal of medieval life and the feudal system.

      I completely agree on the Aiel vs the Dothraki comparison.

    2. There is so much article fodder to mine from WoT, especially since the early modern era setting is different from most other major fantasy series. It might be harder to compare to reality though because there is so much explicit magic that has clearly had effects on cultures and history in the story.

      1. One thing that I remember driving me nuts about the history of WoT was just how much completely empty land there was. Having human population decline enormously makes sense but when human population declines that much you start getting people using forms of subsistence that make use of a shit-ton of land and spread out instead of clustering in a few areas and leaving the rest empty. For example after apocalyptic die-offs among Native American populations you had some farmers shift over to hunting and make use of truly massive amounts of land per capita but they generally just didn’t abandon massive swathes of land. At least in Tolkien that sort of thing makes sense since there are orcs in a lot of places so a lot of the “empty” land is inhabited by them and a lot of people have to cluster for safety vs. orcs but in WoT that doesn’t hold water in land on the other end of the continent from the Blight.

        As for a lot of the rest I last read them in high school before giving up on book 9 so my memory is too foggy to analyze a lot of the details.

  21. By the look of Lawrence Rees’ book, ‘The Nazis: A Warning from History’, it seems to me that real world people can get up to some *very* nasty things.

    However, that doesn’t prevent them from having interests in their own versions of art, music, and other cultural stuff.

    1. Tolkien’s orcs seem like they’re destructive of beauty, but they have an art of their own:

      > ‘And here is the knife that cut them!’ said Gimli. He stooped and drew out of a tussock, into which some heavy foot had trampled it, a short jagged blade. The haft from which it had been snapped was beside it. ‘It was an orc-weapon,’ he said, holding it gingerly, and looking with disgust at the carved handle: it had been shaped like a hideous head with squinting eyes and leering mouth.

      The Father Christmas goblins had some form of cave art IIRC.

  22. While I’m sure this has more to do with our own societal views on the “cult of the badass” and what is acceptable for manly men, something that is at least shown in the show is that the Dothraki do seem to practice a form of tattooing/body modification.

    And warning, these are some broad generalizations, but for many cultures that practiced tattooing there was great significance behind the markings (never mind the ritual of the act and religious/spiritual connections). They could include marking major life events, kinship relations, status symbols, talismans or protective functions, and also cultural aesthetics and marks of beauty (and I believe we have first hand evidence from Scythian mummies of tattooing practiced by at least that group from the steppes, not to mention the rich history of tattooing practiced by many indigenous plains peoples including skin-stitch and hand poking)

    Granted all of this is left out in the show, as are the connections between the designs used in tattooing and the link between patterns used in textile production or other art forms, and all of the cultural knowledge that goes into tattoo ink preparations, the proper practice of the ritual, or the training and place in society of the practitioner.

    1. One other thought, in regards to the tattoo Khal Drogo is seen to sport in the show, is that the large solid design on his shoulder would’ve been hard to achieve pre-tattooing machine. Techniques which utilize a needle with multiple teeth could accomplish this, as is seen in the tattooing tools and techniques practiced by many Polynesian cultures or in Japanese irezumi (though I’m not sure if that was a style which developed in the early modern/Edo period)

      But many traditional/pre-tattoo gun designs are very much dominated by line work, patterns, and motifs that would also likely have been seen in other material culture such as ceramics, jewelry, textiles, sculpture, or metalworking for example.

    2. And warning, these are some broad generalizations, but for many cultures that practiced tattooing there was great significance behind the markings (never mind the ritual of the act and religious/spiritual connections).

      I would be genuinely surprised if there was any culture where any sort of art wasn’t significant, at least to the artist. (To modern art haters: That includes art you personally find inscrutable.)

  23. Edit: forgot to say, that a large reason why that line work dominated in traditional tattoo designs was a result of the tools and techniques used to produce them and what those methods could reliably produce, such as skin-stich or hand poking with a single or grouping of a few needles. After all, even historical people’s didn’t want a crummy tattoo!

  24. It’s impossible to miss that the Dothraki are painfully one note, that note being violence. Women dance and sing and men rape the performers, or kill each other over a woman. This could almost make sense if it was a marriage ritual. The marriageable women dance and sing expecting to be ‘claimed’ by a husband. Maybe even knowing who and approving. But as it is women are ravaged and traumatized and men murdered for no good reason at all just to show how badass the Dothraki are!
    Plains tribes, God knows, were no bastions of sexual egalitarianism, gang rape as a punishment was not unknown but it was considered an extremely mean and cruel punishment and men hid their participation in shame. As a general rule women got some respect and consideration. They were after all extremely valuable contributors to the survival of the family and tribe. We don’t see women contributing to Dothraki society. They seem to be just drudges and sex toys.
    As for the Mongols, Genghis Khan’s own mother was an abducted wife. How she felt about it we can never know but she was evidently a devoted mother and a woman of rare determination. In retaliation Genghis’ own first wife was kidnapped by his mother’s clan a generation later but he succeeded in rescuing her and she became his first empress, he obviously didn’t care what had happened to her during her captivity and accepted her son as his, though nobody else did. Mongol wives and mothers had economic power and sometimes considerable political influence playing no small part in the periodic succession struggles. Genghis Khan seems to have given his own womenfolk, not just his mother and chief wife but secondary wives as well, a remarkable degree of power.
    The Dothraki Dosh Khaleen have a great deal of power but there’s no hint of why a widowed Khaleesi suddenly becomes so important not only in her own khalassar but to all Dothraki. Or for that matter what the Dosh Khaleen does that is so important.

    1. The Dosh Khaleen are odd, as we are told they have a lot of power, but they don’t actually seem to have any control over the actions of the Khals when they are outside of Vaes Dothrak. It’s possible that they have power through religious or ceremonial factors, but it’s never explained what that is. And GRRM doesn’t seem to think people in the past actually practiced their own religions anyway.

      1. Now if the Dothraki had a recognizable family structure there would be obvious reasons to get a powerful dowager out of the way of the new Khal, and his Khaleesi, but since they don’t…..

  25. The “three deaths at every wedding” thing always stuck me as exceptionally implausible. It means that every Dothraki marriage that doesn’t produce at least five children isn’t at replacement level. It’s interesting that Martin’s Westerosi society seems to be pretty well thought out and then the Dothraki seem like he just turned his brain off. Even if he just relied on stereotypes for his research, some of the things he ascribes to them just flat out don’t make sense on a superficial level.

    1. Well, it is possible that only important people have actual weddings in the culture. Lesser people enter their unions with less ceremony.

        1. Yeah, but there’s plenty of hockey fans who watch for the violence, and complain that it’s not a real match if there’s not enough violence.

      1. Yeah, I mean, that’s not Martin speaking directly, that’s Jorah – himself not a Dothraki – talking to Daenerys (and therefore potentially being even weirder than usual in an attempt to impress). It definitely can’t be taken as a literal truth about Dothraki culture.

        1. Sorry, correction – I’d misremembered, that one comes from Illyrio, not Jorah. It’s still unreliable. How many Dothraki weddings has Illyrio been to?

    2. There are a lot of things that don’t work inthe Westerosi society as well. From feudalism that just doesn’t work as depicted to army logistics that are way off. It is just not as evident because it mostly follows our stereotypes of knights in armor and battle.

  26. Knowing something about Central Asian history, I found the presentation of the Dothraki deeply uncomfortable when I read the first couple books. I’d call them way more problematic than, say, orcs or Haradrim in Tolkien’s work. Thank you for articulating so well the reasons why.

  27. To trespass on what is (as far as I understand) next week’s topic (Dothraki & warfare), the Sack of Constantinople in the real world by the Fourth Crusade, seems to have been pretty violent and brutal from what mentions I have come across of it in literature and history books. ‘Medieval’ societies could do some very nasty things, at least during wars.

      1. It was certainly more fun since Mehmed II stopped the sacking after a single day whereas he promised three, gave his protection to the rescapees and liberated his own fifth of captives. There’s a reason historiography called one the Sack of Constantinople and the other the fall. The Crusaders wanted money and loot, the Ottomans wanted the city itself. Objectives play a huge role in how a city will be treated after its fall. But there are instances were the Ottomans were extremely brutal and cruel. The Capture of Cairo in 1517 resulted in a systematic massacre, that made as much as 50 000 victims (more than the whole population of Constantinople combined at the time of its final fall) in a city that housed near 300 000 people, not counting the Mamluks who were massacred or sold into slavery. Of course for European examples we’ve got the Sack of Otranto in 1480.

    1. Except the Sack of Constantinople was fairly widely condemned by the society that committed it, like the My Lai Massacre was by most Americans. And it was only about four times the death toll of My Lai, despite occurring in what was still a major (though declined) city, rather than a group of hamlets in the Vietnamese countryside. (It was also much smaller-scale than the Byzantine massacre of Constantinople’s Latin Christians a couple decades before.)

      As our host has said, medieval Europe was far from perfect in its conduct during war, but it was still the first society to actually worry about its conduct.

      1. Is it some sort of game, to make this nutty announcements, to shock people?

        For a widely accessible counter-example where people “*worry* about their conduct long before Christianity, see Thucydides on the Mytilenean debate.

  28. The Haradrim clearly have a rich culture of their own going by the description and the histories show they also have a history of legitimate beefs against Gondor.

    1. yeah, being formerly subjugated territories is going to really give a people a bit of a grudge. especially when said history was no doubt used heavily by the Lord of Mordor in propaganda to keep that fear and anger going.

      1. They are currently subjugated, I believe. The “Black Númenoreans” who rule Harad are not called that because they have Haradrim skin-color: they are called that because they are Men of Westernesse who worship Sauron.

        1. The Black Numenoreans rule Umbar not Harad, though I don’t doubt there’s plenty of Numenorean blood circulating in Near Harad.

          1. They are two different groups.

            The Black Numenoreans are descendants of the original Numenorean colonists who came under the sway of Sauron and (and mostly King’s men/Ar-Pharazon loyalists)

            They did have Umbar as a major stronghold (but also ruled in other areas), but it was conquered by Gondor, the current Corsairs of Umbar are the losers of the Kin Strife civil war, who fled to Umbar and became pirates. (though there is some mixing between the two groups)

  29. I would love to read an account of how the Fremen Mirage has been updated for modern zombie fiction. Zombies are clearly the new Master Race:

    They easily defeat enemies who possess overwhelming technological superiority.
    They perfectly coordinate with each other at all times.
    They don’t seem to need food or water.
    They are totally unaffected by even the harshest environments.
    They are natural masters of stealth tactics.

    In short, they’re the Fremen or Aiel turned up to 11; they have no civilization whatsoever and are therefore the ultimate warriors.

    1. The big difference here is that zombies are generally portrayed to be in concert with each other because every single one of them thinks exactly the same way, which means that they can more or less predict what any other zombie would be doing, rather than because they have superior coordination abilities. Additionally, zombies are not lionized. Rather, they are used to highlight something the artist considers poorly thought out.

      Actually, let’s pull that out and emphasize it: A Fremen Mirage is presented as something society is lacking. Zombies, on the other hand, are presented as something society would do if people aren’t smart enough to avoid it.

      1. I’d argue that most zombies aren’t so good at coordinating because they can predict what the others are going to do, but because they don’t need to think about it (and also that they aren’t very good at coordinating). All zombies rush/shamble towards the nearest humans they can see; if there are a lot of them against a small group of humans, this forms an effective human wave, but if they actually coordinated they could execute more complicated (and effective) tactics. (Think of the pack-hunting behaviors used by many carnivores as a starting point.)

        1. Yeah, that’s a better way of putting it. The idea I’d had in my head is that zombies only see one response to any given thing, so of course that’s what they’d do. And when a whole bunch of them do it at once, it’s going to look coordinated.

          The Perfectly Logical Beings of riddle fame could, with a bit of computation and false starts, be able to organize much better tactics, as you suggested.

    2. The notion of zombies as possessed of a vicarious agency strikes me as odd. To me, while witches have embodied fears of deceitful, malicious family, friends and neighbors, the zomies embody fears of the hordes of others. (I do not think zombies could embody fears of dehumanization, else cubicle zombies in corporate offices would have been in lots more movies. Are they in any?)

      1. (I do not think zombies could embody fears of dehumanization, else cubicle zombies in corporate offices would have been in lots more movies. Are they in any?)

        If you abstract away from corporate offices and rephrase the question in terms of dehumanization at the workplace in general, this is precisely what the zombie concept is originally about: a kind of allegorical concept from Afro-Haitian folklore about the horror of being a plantation field laborer, where an evil sorcerer drains you of your life-energy (the term itself is though to trace back to the Kongo word “nzambi” meaning something like “spirit” or “soul”) and puts your mindless captive body to work in the sugarcane fields. The concept enters Anglo-American pop culture as a kind of racist exotica during the 1915-1934 US military occupation of Haiti, with a fairly predictable trajectory from “look at these bizarre folkloric myths of the savage natives” to lurid fantasies about whites “going native” (the first zombie horror film, 1932’s “White Zombie,” is about a white woman being zombified by a half-caste Haitian sorcerer, loaded with the sort of abject anti-miscegenation horror you might expect from “Birth of a Nation” or a Pornhub search for “cuckold + bbc”) and eventually culminating in the modern Western “zombie apocalypse” genre, which in light of all this context seems fairly straightforward to interpret as a fantasy about whites struggling to put down a black slave rebellion.

        1. The original zombie concept did indeed have a racial horror subtext…but I still have to disagree that the “culmination” of the original zombie concept was the Romero zombie. Romero zombies are what Stephen King in his non-fiction book on horror called the ghoul, one of his Big Five. (The others were ghost, witches, vampires and werewolves.) The name zombie larded in because of the mechanism of resurrection of the dead, giving supernatural potency. The key terror, cannibalism, most certainly is about rebellion by the masses who want to eat “us” all.

          Zombies are not necessarily about *black* rebellion, though in the US context it often is. The idea that the evil masses are jealous of us and would eat us all isn’t just about African slaves, despite George FitzHugh’s book Cannibals All! In the Sparta series, Xenophon attributed the same desire to eat the real people, the Peers, to, well, pretty much everyone. (Devereaux treated this as a genuine objective fact rather than a projection by Xenophon!)

          1. Sorry, I should have added, the true continuation of the original zombie concept is in things like the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Robot stories, coherent ones at any rate, are also about dehumanization, as are stories about computer simulations. In the public sphere Cold War terror about brainwashing and Manchurian Candidate(s) are the zombie in new dress. In my opinion, of course.

        2. and eventually culminating in the modern Western “zombie apocalypse” genre, which in light of all this context seems fairly straightforward to interpret as a fantasy about whites struggling to put down a black slave rebellion.

          Modern zombie apocalypses tend to be coded more as pandemics than as rebellions: not only is the cause of zombification often explicitly identified as some sort of virus, there’s also the fact that the zombies’ victims generally turn into zombies and start spreading the virus themselves.

          Plus, of course, zombie films are popular in many countries of the world, including ones that have no history of large black slave populations who might rise up and kill you at any moment. Not every country is the United States of America, and the tendency to assume otherwise is one of the more annoyingly parochial tics of American liberalism.

          1. That, and the tendency to view all of history through the lens of the last 200 years or so.

            This tendency is especially egregious in matters of race, and the desire to ascribe racism to things like Beowulf (no, I’m not making that up), despite the fact that practically no 8th-century Anglo-Saxon had ever seen a nonwhite person, and they certainly didn’t haunt their nightmares. Race only really became a significant factor in cultural assumptions with the rise of European enslavement of black Africans, specifically distinguished as black not as “pagans,” in the early modern period. (Contrast, for example, Malory’s treatment of the Saracen knight Sir Palomedes)

    3. Not really?

      Fremen are people shaped (either by harsh environments or pure genetics) into being superior warriors, tied into a cycle of hardiness and decadence. Zombies have their status imposed on them by other zombies (unrelated to environment and the opposite of “keeping it pure”), they are inferior warriors (very few zombie movies require multiple human fighters to destroy a single zombie), and there is no associated “cycle”. Zombies are a plague, not a people or a way of life.

      The only connection points I can see are “lack of civilization” (which is also true of dragons, wildfires, and the big bad wolf) and for some zombie movies a critique of a society’s “decadence” (ie commercialism).

  30. Having just reread your series on Sparta, I was struck by the similarities between the historical Sparta and the fictional Dothraki, whose society seems wholly predicated on predatory violence and who produce nothing of value or beauty. I’m not suggesting this was any intention on GRRM’s part at all, but it seems to me the Dothraki might make a bit more sense as Spartiates reimagined as warrior nomads as any sort of approximation of historical nomad cultures.

    I have _not_ thought this through thoroughly, but it was the first thing off the top of my head reading this.

    1. Since the Dothraki are so absurd, this observation rather suggests that there’s something really off about the Sparta series. Devereaux as I recalled omitted the common observation the Spartans were really into singing and dancing, which to my mind is indeed art. He even brought up the old idea that the lack of monumental architecture bespoke a lack of culture, and his formal disavowal of the notion didn’t convince me. Why anyone would expect monumental architecture in a city that didn’t even have walls (one of the big, big reasons Sparta had such a fearsome military reputation was *they got away with it* for so long, though again Devereaux omitted to mention this.) The city Sparta was rather close to being four (later five) separate villages close enough together to call one. A little like Jacksonville FL being several counties (if I understood it correctly, I hope.)

      Music as an art form is a major cultural institution and overlooking it, is a major error, both in the Sparta series and in GoT. Overlooking the apparent absence of a native musical tradition in England after the Civil War is commonly overlooked too, so far as I can tell.

  31. The blood-riders killing themselves when the Khal dies reminds me of retainer sacrifice, which was a real thing in very ancient China, the earliest Egyptian dynasties, some Eurasian steppe cultures, the Vikings, I think the Inca but I’m not sure, etc.. At least one variation of it continued into relatively recent history: Suttee or wife-burning in India. But as far as I know retainer sacrifice was basically always done to non-combatants; wives or concubines or household servants, for reasons that are obvious if you apply even a little cynicism to the institution. It’s one thing to do retainer sacrifice of household servants or concubines, it’s a very different thing to do retainer sacrifice of an entire organized cohesive group of the most badass warriors in the tribe. What happens if a Khal dies and his blood-riders decide they don’t want to die? I guess the most obvious rationalization is that it’s an honor culture thing, but that implies a society where kinship is very important (honor cultures work by making it so if you break the rules your entire family is harmed), which … well, one of the central themes of the essay is that this isn’t what we see.

    The blood-rider wife-sharing thing would make much more sense if the Dothraki had a matrilineal family system so what matters is who the Khalakka’s mother is. Which, if you want to keep approximately the same plot, would imply the Khals are polygamous and Danaerys is a secondary wife whose children are not eligible to inherit leadership (Drogo would have to have a primary wife who is a member of his tribe’s royal family). Which actually if anything sounds more interesting to me for fiction purposes; the politics with a set-up like that could easily get complicated and have lots of hooks for drama! Also, it’s the sort of set-up that makes it harder to just fill in the blanks with stereotypes, so it’s the sort of premise that might encourage an author to actually think about the details of how a fictional society works. A matrilineal kinship system doesn’t inherently imply a society with lots of female power, but there’s probably some correlation.

    From the essay (I haven’t read the books or watched the show), in general Dothraki sexual practices feel to me like they were written by an author who read some of the historical and anthropological anecdotes and data that went into that “Sex At Dawn” book but drew very different conclusions from it. Reminds me of a joke I heard once that polygamy gets called “male privilege” when men do it and “wife-loaning” when women do it.

    “it will surprise no one that Martin is not a linguist”

    Drogo, Ogo, Fogo … I wonder if they have ever have trouble remembering which of these guys is which…

    “The “three deaths at every wedding” thing always stuck me as exceptionally implausible. It means that every Dothraki marriage that doesn’t produce at least five children isn’t at replacement level.”

    A more charitable interpretation is that it refers specifically to royal weddings, which makes it still kind of grimdark but at least demographically sustainable if you assume royal weddings are particularly violent events (presumably because huge gathering in which lots of guys who have grievances against each other are in close proximity + lots of people getting drunk and possibly high).

    1. But as far as I know retainer sacrifice was basically always done to non-combatants; wives or concubines or household servants

      Some tombs have people with weapons (who look like soldiers), and a lot have younger men who could plausibly have been soldiers. I haven’t personally seen any descriptions where soldiers are left out of these. Presumably, if the blood riders or anyone wlse resisted, there would be other soldiers or people who could and force the deaths, plus stuff like oaths.

      (And that reminds me of the oath post on this blog, which I haven’t read in awhile.)

      A more charitable interpretation is that it refers specifically to royal weddings

      That’s what I thought was implied when I read it. (Or at least high end weddings, of noble equivalents or such.) Lower level Dothraki have whatever their version of a normal wedding is, higher level people have a lavish, luxurious, big party with a big ceremony, lots of drama, politics, and some death wedding.

      Having not read the books or seen the show I cannot say whether this is accurate to them.

      1. GRRM certainly missed clearly indicating so:

        > Magister Illyrio had warned Dany about this too. “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is deemed a dull affair,” he had said. Her wedding must have been especially blessed; before the day was over, a dozen men had died.

          1. It’s entirely possible they don’t have them. “Hey mom, dad, we wanna get married”; “yeah, all right, let’s kill a lamb for dinner tonight to celebrate” is pretty much what a commoner “wedding” consists of in many premodern societies. In much of East Asia to this day you just drop a form off at your local government office.

    2. Chalk the Thracians up as another culture who practices retainer sacrifice (this time with a favoured wife).

    3. Plenty of matrilineal Native American and Subsaharan African cultures, such as the Comanche, also had massive institutionalized sexual slavery. Apaches and Navajos didn’t have that, but did have marriage-by-capture (which did involve some headaches for their inheritances), and men probably had sexual rights to female slaves (though the latter probably didn’t come up much, since they preferred male slaves, for work—Hopi and Mexican men, respectively, were who taught the Navajo to weave and herd sheep).

      Matrilineality and matrilocality mostly just mean a man kills his mom’s enemies instead of his dad’s, and his wife decides whether he should go raid and enslave outsiders, rather than him deciding for himself. That and the main male presence in a child’s life is llkely their mother’s brother rather than their father.

  32. Just a small detail. A tiny nitpick.


    “That said, the Steppe peoples doing this were not unique slavers swimming in a sea of free societies. In the period of the Mongol Empire, there was slavery in the Muslim world, slavery in India, and in Eastern Europe and in Central Europe, and in China.”

    Well, befitting for a blog having “pedantry” in its name, I think it’s only fair to be pedantic in return.

    – Slavery was, indeed, practiced by the Eastern Slavic tribes, but, as per quote, “In the period of the Mongol Empire” it was no longer in use.

    – Outgoing link to Wikipedia (of all places!) conflated the term kholop with the slave. In fact, they were different legal terms. It’s quite telling, that the article states bluntly “In Kievan Rus’ and Muscovy, legal systems usually referred to slaves as kholopy”, while the outgoing article to “kholop” reads: “A kholop was a type of feudal serf in Russia between the 10th and early 18th centuries. Their legal status was close to that of slaves”. Meaning – they were not one and the same. While the Eng-lang version of the article provudes no quotes from the primary sources (it is also way too short) in, say, Rus-lang version of the article about kholops we have a quote from the “Russkaya Pravda” legal code (XI c.): «А в холопе и робе виры нетуть; но оже будет без вины оубиен, то за холоп оурок платити, или за робу, а князю 12 гривен продаже». Meaning, that slave (old Eastern Slavic word “rob”) was a distinct legal category from the “kholop”.

    Just to illustrate the differences, the articles of the trade treaty of 1229 between Smolensk, Vitebsk and Polotsk princedoms on the one side with Riga and Gotland on the other, note, among other things, that should any kholop borrow money and then die without paying up the debt, it’s inherited along with the rest of his property by his inheritors. Slaves can’t legally own property – they are *themselves* property.

    – Which brings us back to the incomplete admission on the part of the originally linked Wikipedia’s article, starting with the second paragraph, that by far the largest practitioners of the slavery who, basically, reintroduced this institution back on the lands of Rus, were the Mongols. More so, in the article’s part dealing with the Italian states, it is written the following:

    “The city-states of Venice and Genoa controlled the Eastern Mediterranean from the 12th century and the Black Sea from the 13th century. They sold both Slavic and Baltic slaves, as well as Georgians, Turks, and other ethnic groups of the Black Sea and Caucasus. The sale of European slaves by Europeans slowly ended as the Slavic and Baltic ethnic groups Christianized by the Late Middle Ages. European slaves did not pass on an inherited status and was thus more akin to forced labor, or indentured servitude”

    And just three paragraph below it in the “Mongols” part of the article:

    “Slave commerce during the Late Middle Ages was mainly in the hands of Venetian and Genoese merchants and cartels, who were involved in the slave trade with the Golden Horde… Between 1414 and 1423, some 10,000 eastern European slaves were sold in Venice. Genoese merchants organized the slave trade from the Crimea to Mamluk Egypt.”

    Meaning that, arguably, it was all thanks to the Mongols, that the Italians engaged in the traditional form of the slave-trade.

      1. Chinese slavery is tricky, since chinese legality isn’t based on roman law it gets a very funky definitions about “What is a slave?” I have seen widely varying estimates depending on who you count and why. (To mention how complex it is: The Banner armies of the Qing had unfree retainers assigned to them that you might call slaves, they were in a subordinate position attached to their respective bannermen and owed them labour, OTOH, this relationship was in some sense mirrored in the relationship with the bannermen to the Emperor (IE: Both tended to refer to their master as “Father”, is either of these groups slaves? Both? Etc.)

        There is an argument that the roman definition of slave (IE: A person treated as res, property) doesen’t apply in China because China doesen’t have the same hard distinction between property. (or at least, they are different)

        So estimates can go between 1% to something like 10% (depending on time period, etc.) Though it should be noted that most estimates still puts 19th century China as the largest slave society of it’s time, and that the number of slaves in china (even with a relatively low %) outnumbers those in eg. the American South.

  33. > In principle. In practice, molten gold isn’t going to stay in one easy-to-collect lump. (Not to mention that the labor of goldsmiths to melt the gold off the flesh/burn the flesh off the gold and re-shape the result is, itself, valuable.)

    This feels like really reaching for the sake of criticizing Martin.

    * It’s heavy and rapidly cooling gold, it won’t go far, and it’s on easily burned organic substrate.
    * The labor of goldsmiths is cheap compared to the gold
    * I suspect some slave-goldsmith in that location is not fully employed anyway
    * Khal Drogo is basically a king, he could afford losing a bit of medallion, let alone labor
    * Real royalty has worn cloth-of-gold; I suspect that was rather more lossy over time.

    And in return he gets a lot. Bret has complained the Westerosi don’t take oaths or their religion seriously; Drogo does both.

    * He gets rid of a problem
    * He fulfills the letter of at least part of his promise (“I will give you a golden crown”)
    * He avoids breaking the taboo on blades and bloodshed in the holy city
    * He executes someone who is technically Valyrian royalty in a flashy rank-appropriate way
    * He creates an *awesome* story that will probably be repeated, along with his name, from Oldtown to Asshai.

    All in all, the payoff in god and glory is well worth the fuel and hassle of someone else recovering gold from a head and maybe the dirt.

    Hell, he might think losing the whole belt worth that.

    1. This probably anticipates Bret’s next post, but in re-reading I rediscover amusing dialogue:

      > “It is not right to make him wait.” Dany did not know why she was defending her brother, yet she was. “Viserys says he could sweep the Seven Kingdoms with ten thousand Dothraki screamers.”
      > Ser Jorah snorted. “Viserys could not sweep a stable with ten thousand brooms.”
      > Dany could not pretend to surprise at the disdain in his tone.

      Then the next post stuff:

      > “Now,” the knight said, “I am less certain. They are better riders than any knight, utterly fearless, and their bows outrange ours. In the Seven Kingdoms, most archers fight on foot, from behind a shieldwall or a barricade of sharpened stakes. The Dothraki fire from horseback, charging or retreating, it makes no matter, they are full as deadly… and there are so many of them, my lady. Your lord husband alone counts forty thousand mounted warriors in his khalasar.”

      > “Your brother Rhaegar brought as many men to the Trident,” Ser Jorah admitted, “but of that number, no more than a tenth were knights. The rest were archers, freeriders, and foot soldiers armed with spears and pikes. When Rhaegar fell, many threw down their weapons and fled the field. How long do you imagine such a rabble would stand against the charge of forty thousand screamers howling for blood? How well would boiled leather jerkins and mailed shirts protect them when the arrows fall like rain?”

      Back to this and last post:

      > In this place, the crones of the dosh khaleen had decreed, all Dothraki were one blood, one khalasar, one herd.


      > Jhiqui had taught her that a bloodrider was more than a guard; they were the khal’s brothers, his shadows, his fiercest friends. “Blood of my blood,” Drogo called them, and so it was; they shared a single life. The ancient traditions of the horselords demanded that when the khal died, his bloodriders died with him, to ride at his side in the night lands. If the khal died at the hands of some enemy, they lived only long enough to avenge him, and then followed him joyfully into the grave. In some khalasars, Jhiqui said, the bloodriders shared the khal’s wine, his tent, and even his wives, though never his horses. A man’s mount was his own.

      Looks like I was onto something: “shared a single life”. But there is diversity, only “some khalasars” have wife-sharing.

      For those curious about Dothraki trade or lack:

      > A hundred merchants and traders were unloading their goods and setting up in stalls when they arrived, yet even so the great market seemed hushed and deserted compared to the teeming bazaars that Dany remembered from Pentos and the other Free Cities. The caravans made their way to Vaes Dothrak from east and west not so much to sell to the Dothraki as to trade with each other, Ser Jorah had explained. The riders let them come and go unmolested, so long as they observed the peace of the sacred city, did not profane the Mother of Mountains or the Womb of the World, and honored the crones of the dosh khaleen with the traditional gifts of salt, silver, and seed. The Dothraki did not truly comprehend this business of buying and selling.

      > Dany liked the strangeness of the Eastern Market too, with all its queer sights and sounds and smells. She often spent her mornings there, nibbling tree eggs, locust pie, and green noodles, listening to the high ululating voices of the spellsingers, gaping at manticores in silver cages and immense grey elephants and the striped black-and-white horses of the Jogos Nhai. She enjoyed watching all the people too: dark solemn Asshai’i and tall pale Qartheen, the bright-eyed men of Yi Ti in monkey-tail hats, warrior maids from Bayasabhad, Shamyriana, and Kayakayanaya with iron rings in their nipples and rubies in their cheeks, even the dour and frightening Shadow Men, who covered their arms and legs and chests with tattoos and hid their faces behind masks. The Eastern Market was a place of wonder and magic for Dany.

      > As Irri and Jhiqui helped her from her litter, she sniffed, and recognized the sharp odors of garlic and pepper, scents that reminded Dany of days long gone in the alleys of Tyrosh and Myr and brought a fond smile to her face. Under that she smelled the heady sweet perfumes of Lys. She saw slaves carrying bolts of intricate Myrish lace and fine wools in a dozen rich colors. Caravan guards wandered among the aisles in copper helmets and knee-length tunics of quilted yellow cotton, empty scabbards swinging from their woven leather belts. Behind one stall an armorer displayed steel breastplates worked with gold and silver in ornate patterns, and helms hammered in the shapes of fanciful beasts. Next to him was a pretty young woman selling Lannisport goldwork, rings and brooches and tores and exquisitely wrought medallions suitable for belting. A huge eunuch guarded her stall, mute and hairless, dressed in sweat-stained velvets and scowling at anyone who came close. Across the aisle, a fat cloth trader from Yi Ti was haggling with a Pentoshi over the price of some green dye, the monkey tail on his hat swaying back and forth as he shook his head.

      I note that strictly speaking, “the Dothraki don’t comprehend buying and selling” is simply what Jorah, hardly a native himself, has told a young Dany. My first reaction to these passages would be “suuuuuure they don’t“. OTOH Martin flirts with unreliable narrators, but I don’t know if he commits.

      (I’d also forgotten that Dany is a canonical nickname, not just a fan one.)

      1. Wasn’t there a samurai story about the retainers of a lord who avenged him, then killed themselves? (Google search suggests to me: ‘forty-seven rōnin’)

        1. They killed themselves because by avenging him they had committed a crime (violating the peace), but done so out of loyalty to their master, creating some controversy about their punishment. Suicide was viewed as less shameful than execution, which is why they were permitted (made to) commit suicide.

      2. >Martin flirts with unreliable narrators, but I don’t know if he commits.

        I think he very much does, but leaves it for the reader to detect. The Barristan chapters are particularly illustrative on this point – see for example his insistence on addressing Hizdahr as “Your Grace” while it never occurs to him that in Meereenese culture “graces” are exclusively women and mostly ceremonial prostitutes. His complete blindness to pretty much anything that’s going on in the heads of people he seems to pretty much regard as fuzzy-wuzzies is very much the point, but you have to look for it to notice it – a casual reader might assume he’s basically getting things right.

        1. The Meereenese get developed enough from other narrative PoVs that a reader can detect the flaws in this one viewpoint and see through it. I am not convinced the same is true in other cases, including the Dothraki. That’s an authorial decision and as Bret has demonstrated, it has meaningful consequences.

          1. It certainly has consequences, it certainly doesn’t give him a free pass to invent stupidities, but it does mean that we should treat Dany’s chapters (and everyone else’s) as a valuable but biased source not the gospel truth.

        2. I suspect Sir Batista knows perfectly well that being Westerosi correct is mildly insulting in Meereen. He doesn’t like Hizdahr and suspects him of conspiring against Dany.