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. “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.”

    This can be overstated. The First Age elves were never all that racist; the dominant reaction of the Noldor to humans was fascination. In a way there’s more elf racism in LotR, against dwarves, though when you dig around that’s more “some Sindar have a grudge for Doriath”. The Kinslayings were one badly chosen oath playing out; the only other particularly murderous elf was Eol.

    The Hobbit elves are flawed but ultimately called “Good People” by the narrator, and not in a fairy euphemistic way. The Elvenking backs it up too: he diverts his treasure quest to help Lake-town, and is the one leader at the Lonely Mountain who is reluctant to fight over gold.

    In HoME Tolkien even makes some excuse for Maeglin.

    Apart from a few really bad days, Tolkien elves really are better on average than humans or dwarves, bottoming out at “guy you wouldn’t invite to parties”, rather than “slave raider” or “enthusiastic ally of Sauron”. But this is a soul different rather than a blood difference.

    1. “This can be overstated. The First Age elves were never all that racist;”

      Well, there is the entire hunting the petty dwarfs for sport becuase they didnt recognize them as sentient beings, thing.

      1. That bit is weird. It’s mentioned just once. It’s a gross thing to stick in, even if we grant the Sindar mistook them for some sort of ape… and if we assume elves are ‘good’ enough not to hunt animals for sport, that would mean they were skinning or eating the petty-dwarves. And then for all that, the survivors hate the Noldor more:

        “Before the Dwarves of Nogrod and Belegost came west over the mountains the Elves of Beleriand knew not what these others were, and they hunted them, and slew them; but afterwards they let them alone, and they were called Noegyth Nibin, the Petty-Dwarves, in the Sindarin tongue. They loved none but themselves, and if they feared and hated the Orcs, they hated the Eldar no less, and the Exiles most of all; for the Noldor, they said, had stolen their lands and their homes.”

        If you hate Finrod more for moving into a Nargothrond you’re not even using, than the Sindar for hunting you, something’s odd about this story.

        I suppose dwarves don’t live that long by elven standards, so the Noldor might be a fresh grievance while being hunted was 1000 or more years in the past. But it’s still high on “Tolkien, what were you even thinking?”

        1. I seem to remember the earlier version of Túrin having more stuff about them (though slightly different IIRC?) But yeah, it’s a weird bit.

        2. I think it may be a case where Tolkien’s adaptation of elements from Wagner forced him into confusing characterization. If I recall correctly, one of the Petty-Dwarves bears the same name as one of the Nibelung Darves (Mime). Obviously the Ring is removed to a different part of the legendarium of Middle Earth; and the dragon of course is not from this part either. In the jostle the dwarves remain (in part), and the grudge remains; but the stitching up afterwards is difficult, perhaps.

      2. But that’s rather the point- they didn’t recognize them as sentient, they thought they were animals.

        1. Sorry I know this is two years later but I can’t help it—are you saying that not elves not recognizing dwarves as sentient means the elves were *not* racist? That’s extremely racist!

          1. They stopped their behavior when they realized the dwarves were sentient. I guess you don’t treat mosquitoes, rats or iPhones as human persons. Does that make you racist? Only if you continue after discovering their sentient personhood (if we assume that they have such).

          2. In our world, racism includes regarding other humans as less than human; the fact that this belief may be sincere doesn’t make it not racist. (Side note: whatever one might call my attitude toward a mosquito, it isn’t “racism”; the word “racism” describes attitudes and beliefs that humans have about each other.)

            Of course the peoples of Middle Earth are not all humans, so this concept doesn’t perfectly map, and I suppose at some point you could say that the differences between these peoples are so great that it doesn’t make sense to import the concept of racism into that world to describe what’s happening. To the extent we’re going to try to apply the concept of racism here, though, I think dwarves are sufficiently similar to other sentient humanoid creatures that any elf who believes that dwarves are animals suitable for hunting could fairly be called “racist.”

            That said, I’m not actually really invested in applying it here. I know my initial comment was explicitly about elves and dwarves so I could have worded it better, but I was more reacting to what I saw as the implication, as it would apply in *our* world, that if I truly believe another person is not fully human, you can’t say I’m racist.

          3. If we discovered that chimps or dolphins really were sapient, with languages that we’d never noticed as such before, would that mean we had been racist? Maybe, by some definition, but would it be useful, predictive, to call us all ‘racist’?

            As I said, the Petty-dwarf thing is weird, but I think something like that was the intent: the Sindar had no experience with other sapient species, and possibly no experience with other languages, and the Petty-dwarves were physically different, ‘unsociable’, mortal, and speaking a very different language. So it’s somewhat plausible they got mistaken for something like clever apes.

  2. “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”

    Or an awareness of the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland, the Soviet invasion of Finland… Other people dividing up the world does not make you less of an aggressor when you join in.

    “Taking the position that the Soviets conquered central Europe instead of liberating it is an astounding betrayal of history”

    This is an astounding betrayal of the people put behind the Iron Curtain, forced to have Communist governments on pain of literal tanks rolling in. Sure, maybe the Soviets liberated eastern Europe from the Nazis, but then they conquered it.

    “using the term “Soviet empire” itself”

    Shows an awareness of facts. The USSR was an internal (Baltics, central Asia) and external (eastern Europe, Afghanistan) empire.

    “England is still in Ireland after centuries.”

    The population in that part wants them there.

    “Their slaughters in Kenya and Malaysia would be legendary”

    Ah, both a tankie and classic ‘whataboutism’, another Cold War term. Bringing up the sins of others to deflect from criticism of the USSR.

    1. “Taking the position that the Soviets conquered central Europe instead of liberating it is an astounding betrayal of history”

      The Polish Home Army could not be reached for comment.

  3. “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.”

    I don’t think it was even most recent, going by HoME; it was most consistent with everything else. Deriving them from humans messes up the timeline; the original idea of Melko making them from “heat and slime” runs against the newer idea that only Eru can create intelligent life (what about dragons? sssh), etc. Though even in the Silmarillion, it’s something like “the Wise think”, not solid fact.

    “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”

    Other way around:

    > Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray; Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.

    ” the “original sin” in Tolkien’s work is the Kinslaying at Alqualondë”

    That would be the sin for the Noldor. Some HoME writings say the Valar sinned in inviting elves to Valinor, rather than fighting Melkor earlier, and instructing elves in Middle-earth.

    “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.”

    Probably the Debate of Finrod and Andreth, the Noldorin prince Finrod and the human woman Andreth having a long discussion about love, philososphy, and theology, and the Tale of Adanel. The early humans are said to have been seduced from listening to Eru and instead obeying Melkor and “the Darkness”.

    “Humans’ big in-universe fuckup was a mix of Atlantean hubris and Noah’s ark,”

    That’s the historically recorded fuckup. There’s an undetailed fuckup at the beginning of human history, analogous to Eden. The Silmarillion mentions the Edain fleeing a darkness in their past that they refuse to talk about.

    1. “black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.”

      They have red tongues? Doesn’t everyone?

      1. There’s a lot of variations on tongue color, but usually a healthy tongue is pinkish. An unhealthy tongue may be whitish, yellowish, striated in various ways, etc.

        If you’re talking “red like a cherry Icee,” you’re talking either carbon monoxide poisoning, or eating/drinking something red.

        1. Ah yes, the Icee, the chief cultural beverage of the Haradrim, much loved for its coldness in a region of fierce heat. Of course, the conflicts between the red-tongued cherry and blue-tongued raspberry factions is greatly exaggerated by outsiders.

  4. “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.”

    I think that’s free will at work, not some sort of elven original sin. I know of nothing in Tolkien’s writing indicating he thought of elves as collectively fallen.

  5. Would you be doing any more deep dive battle analysis of the Game of Thrones battles? There are still the Battles of the Blackwater, the Wall, and the Bastards. Or any other battles from whatever setting? Those articles are my favorite.

  6. “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”

    This is a clear example of your viewing the world through racism-colored glasses. That humans are punished for their ancestors turning to Melkor is even more directly comparable, is in fact a direct analogue of, the Christian concept of original sin, all humans being punished for the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Eden. It has nothing to do with race in the usual sense.

    Now, you might find the concept of original sin ‘yikes’ in other ways, and as an atheist I would probablyagree with you. But it’s not the Curse of Ham, which does *not* have any analogue in the legendarium.

  7. “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.”

    Given that pretty much all of the transported slaves would have died over 300 years, I think that rather does indicate natural increase. If you transport 3 million [made up number] people over 300 years, for an average of 10,000 people a year, and you end up with 3 million people, there’s been natural increase. If there hasn’t been natural increase, then the population should be equal or less to the transport over the preceding 50 or fewer years, e.g. 500,000 in this hypothetical.

    1. It means they were only having enough children to replace the dead. A healthy population will have more than enough children to replace the dead, until they fill up the environment.

      1. They must, then, have been a lot less brutally treated than those black slaves shipped north to the Arab and Turkish world. At least, when I have visited there, the only person of black African descent I saw was from Liverpool.

        1. I suspect that descendants of black slaves in the Middle East intermarried with native Middle Easterners until no individual had enough black blood to be noticable. Their excuse for slavery was always religion rather than race, so they didn’t invent racism like we did. (Not that they don’t have their own problems.)

        2. A male slave who professes Islam must be freed. This creates a powerful incentive to castrate them even with the high death toll, and thus inhibits increase.

          1. My favourite ruler of Egypt was described by contemporaries as “a one-eyed black eunuch of great ugliness and surpassing charm”. He made it on talent. There were numbers of black agricultural slaves in southern Spain, Sicily and southern Iraq in mid-late medieval times. They blended into the local populations over the centuries – much as the Indian (Lascar) population of British ports in the 18th century got folded in.

    2. No, that’s being too generous to the Caribbean slaveowners- compare the growth in the African population in the US through 1865, even though importation stopped in 1808.

      The Spanish and to a lesser but still significant degree the British sugar planters in the islands took a “work ’em till they drop, there’s lots more where that came from” attitude.

      1. That can somewhat be overstated: The main difference seems to have been sugar production, not actually the particular government or location (US areas with sugar production ahd similar levels of deaths) and the islands did eventually reach equilibrium.

        The low population growth was also at least partially an issue of gender-disparity: The imported slaves were overhwelmingly men, and that skews population growth a lot.

        1. There’s also disease, malaria and yellow fever. The adult Africans were survivors, but their kids still had to go through the gauntlet, which may have been worse on Caribbean sugar plantations than on Southern cotton ones, for both climate and microecology reasons. I don’t recall the details from _1493_ well though.

        2. Except that sugar production in India – it’s original home – did not involve working people to death. When sugar production started in Australia the planters wanted to bring in indentured labour from the Pacific islands. This was blocked on both labour union and racist grounds. Sugar harvesting was in consequence well-paid, and it sparked a number of technological innovations. Much like Roman mining – slaves were cheap, so used freely and worked to death; when miners were free it was no less productive, much more innovative, but probably less profitable in the sense of monetary surplus.

          1. _1493_ said that medieval sugar farming in the Mediterranean was well-paid as well. Though _Sugar_says a mix of free and slave labor. Switch to pure slave labor in the Atlantic islands and of course the Americas.

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

    Well, on an individual and measurable basis, they *are*, by most metrics: immortal, immune to disease, vaguely specific mental and magic powers. You have to have faith in an afterlife, or be looking at population dynamics, to not see elves as superior, and even humans within Tolkien’s world tended to see elves as superior, for the obvious reasons; it was the elves themselves who envied the Gift of Men. The Numenoreans — via blessing, not genetics — shared in some of those gifts, but not immortality, and still envied the Eldar.

    One use of spec fic, if you have the stomach for it, is to explore premises like “well, what if some race/species clearly is smarter or otherwise superior to another?” Tolkien does give us a world where ‘speciesism’ is true, but it’s also a world where that doesn’t excuse being an asshole! Elves never enslave or genocide or even particularly exploit humans. Thingol having contempt for Beren is *Thingol being a jerk*, and he gets better later. (Then he insults some dwarves and immediately dies, though that was probably a doomed position no matter what he said.) Later Numenoreans do enslave humans in Middle-earth and that’s presented as a *bad thing*: just because you live to 200 and can psychically summon your horse doesn’t give you the right to boss less fortunate humans around. Sauron being an immortal super-intelligent spirit who helped create the universe does not give him the right to boss people around “for their own good”.

    It’s not a world where race separatism is good either, even if it looks like de facto reality in most places. Bree’s mixture of humans and hobbits is called a most excellent arrangement by the narrator, the Valar summoning the elves to Valinor is called (by Eru himself) a failing, it seems elves were meant to teach and ‘remember for’ humans. Middle-earth has very little of the D&D town with multiple species hanging out (fourth age Minas Tirith, maybe? with Gimli and Legolas having colonies not far away), but ironically maybe it should have, but for the various mistakes and Marrings.

    1. And one ongoing theme of The Lord of the Rings is various races – actual, biologically distinct races – setting aside their differences and prejudice in order to work together for Sauron’s defeat.

      As for the others, there’s little question at all where the author/narrator comes down when it comes to intra-species racism, conquest and imperialism. When the Numenoreans and their exiled descendants do it, it’s unequivocally condemned, and portrayed as a symptom of their decay; where Elves express such sentiments, it’s by characters already well-established as assholes (Curufin, for example)

    2. Elves are beautiful, skilled, musical and magical but they are also doomed to fade, to lose their physicality, the power to reproduce and to effect the physical world. They fear this as Men fear death. Those in Aman will not fade but they are doomed to spend all the ages of the world in tutelage to the Valar. And nobody knows what the heck is going to happen to Valar and Elves, whose lives are tied to the world when the world inevitably ends. Oh and worst of all their free will is limited by The Music which is fate to all things. All but Men. That’s why we die, because we live in Arda but are not of it. Because we are not of Arda we are free of the bonds of the Music and not only have power to make our own fates but to change and mold the fate of Arda. No wonder Melkor hates our guts, and Elves and Valar envy us. Of course we don’t appreciate our gifts and would like to be like the Elves,because people are like that.

      1. To be fair, this is getting into the weeds. If you just read the Hobbit and LotR, elves just seem better on an individual basis, though doomed to ‘fade’ or leave for mysterious reasons. Chapter 1 of the Quenta Silmarillion has what you say about free will and the Gift, but it never comes up again, and it’s pretty obscure as it is: should we have more sympathy for Feanor or Eol because the Music made them be assholes?

        > Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else;

        Right, so what’s that mean in practice? Are elves just puppets to the Music, rather than moral agents making choices? I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t mean to go that far.

        1. It’s complicated. 😁 As I see it Elves do have free will and moral choice, Feanor and Maeglin didn’t have to be assholes. But their choices are limited by the overall design set by the music. For example the Valar seriously messed with the design by evacuating the Elves to Aman possibly making a rebellion of some kind inevitable because Elves belonged in Middle Earth. The difference is Men can use their free will to change the design, not just the role they play in it.

          1. I think you must be right, but can you give an example of a man actually changing the design?

          2. What did he change in the design? It was Luthien who pleaded with the Valar to allow him to come back to her, leading the Valar to relent and send him back to Middle-earth to live out his days.

    3. Speaking of Legolas and Gimli, I was re-reading Fellowship recently, and it struck me that their relationship could easily be seen as an anti-racist parable: they start off distrusting each other due to inherited prejudices, but eventually learn to see past that and become firm friends.

      Also, when the heroes are trying to get into Moria, Gandalf says something about how it’s a shame different folks are so suspicious of one another nowadays, and things were much better back when elves and dwarves regularly had dealings with one another and visited each others’ realms. Since Gandalf is presented as such a wise, good character, I think it’s pretty clear we’re meant to accept his view on this.

  9. Getting back to the Dothraki; when I create a culture I tend to approach it first through its women. What is their work? What rights and/or privileges to they have? What limitations do they face? Partly because I am a woman, partly because of my anthropology background. Despite the fact Martin’s pov character is a woman we learn nothing about Dothraki women’s lives except they dance and get raped. Oh and old, widowed Khaleesi have some kind of obscure power.

  10. I’m no expert on sexual violence, but I have read many a history book. We in the West see Afghani (and similar cultures) culture where the woman cannot leave her home without a familial male escort as oppressive. And, it is. But, those practices came around because of the widespread rape of women in almost every culture.

    And, I don’t necessarily mean foreigners raped after conquering or occupation (the women of Cremona by fellow Roman citizens in a civil war or the residents of Berlin and occupied Germany or the women conquered by our Mongol friends here). I mean, geneticists tell us the most “prolific” man in history was Chinggis himself.

    But, even in settled agriculture societies, up until very recently, rape was extremely common. In Europe, it was almost impossible to convict an aristocrat of rape of a commoner.

    Here’s a story from academic literature regarding the revolution of age of consent laws in America in the late 19th century

    ” A teenaged girl “who, by common consensus of opinion in the community was deemed mentally deficient,” was invited by a young man, well known to the girl and her family, to attend a party. Instead, the young man drove the girl to an abandoned farmhouse where a half dozen other men waited, two of them married. Seven men had
    sex with the girl. When she was taken home “in a pitiable condition,”‘ she reported to her family what had happened and gave the names of her assailants. On trial for forcible rape, the defendants and other men of their acquaintance testified that the girl was of “previously unchaste character and had consented to the sex at the farmhouse. All were acquitted.”

    And, that’s not even counting the raping of American slaves, which was endemic.

    But, let’s update it even from there and look at Indian cities on the subcontinent RIGHT NOW, where women must generally travel with others lest they be gang-raped.

    Or, this story about immigrant worker who were raped by their employer for a long period of time

    My point isn’t necessarily to defend Martin. His dancing girls getting raped thing is silly and pubescent erotica. But, let’s not pretend that pre-1920’s (?) America was THAT different from Martin is describing.

    1. It depends on what you call common. For Example Margery Kempe, a fifteenth century English mystic and pilgrim, was often very afraid of being raped and the fear was clearly not an irrational one judging by the way her hosts tried to comfort and reassure her. But the fact remains that Margery traveled all the way to Jerusalem and over most of England and some of Northern Germany, often in extremely heterogenous company, and the only violence offered her was verbal and in reaction to her rather showy piety which was a bit too much even in the Middle Ages.

    2. I wonder what the overlap is between people saying “Westeros has unrealistic levels of rape” and “1/6 of female students are raped in college”. Granted I haven’t actually noticed that latter claim in some years.

        1. IIRC, that number comes from a questionnaire, completion of which was optional (so people with something to complain about would be disproportionately likely to complete it), and which included basically all unwanted sexual contact—I think even including comments?—as “sexual assault”, which was then further conflated with rape.

        2. When I read it, it seemed like someone you don’t think is cute trying to dance with you would count. Like an unwanted hand on a hip or around a waist.

          1. Some may be surprised to learn that this is a question that’s been approached from the other side.


            If you give a bunch of college-age men a survey with a question like “have you ever had or attempted penetrative intercourse with a woman who didn’t want to through force or the threat of force, or had such intercourse with a woman when she was incapacitated by drugs or alcohol…” Well, what percentage of respondents would you expect to say “yes?”

            Turns out the answer is “X percent,” where X is between 4% and 16% depending on details of the survey.

            Now, some notable fraction of men who could truthfully say “yes” to that question probably aren’t going to confess to having committed rape, even in an anonymous survey. So the X percent figure is probably under-reported at least a little.

            And of those who do say “yes” in the survey, another notable fraction of these men will admit to having done it more than once. Several times, even. Combine this with the previous observation, and the percentage of women who are raped in college at least once is probably higher than X percent. Perhaps dramatically so.

            Now, the most optimistic take on this might lead to a conclusion like “only 5% of women are raped in college,” but a more pessimistic take could easily push the number up to 20% or 25% or even 30%.

            The point is that while the surveys saying “one sixth or one fourth of women are raped in college” by asking the women themselves are at least broadly consistent with a separate attempt to answer the same question by asking the men. And using a fairly strict definition of ‘rape.’

            We shouldn’t be hearing those 20%-ish numbers and mentally dividing them by ten because they include every regrettable one-night stand and every handsy dance partner, in other words.

      1. Didn’t that study count consentual sex a woman regretted later or one where both people had been drinking as sex?
        However there are a ton of those statistics ranging from 1/3 to 1/4 to 1/6 which are hardly cited.

  11. “For comparison, the French army at Agincourt (1415) was no larger than perhaps 35,000 men (some historians have argued it was significantly smaller), yet its defeat was enough to cripple France (suggesting the army represented the lion’s share of the field forces available to the king of France at the time). The English field force was smaller – only around 9,000. Agincourt was no small skirmish – these were royal armies that represented the best their kings could do (Henry V, king of England was with his army, in fact). Nor were these typical sizes restricted to England and France. The Battle of Nicopolis (1396) was between the Ottomans on one side and a grand alliance of Christian powers on the other, and probably involved no more than 40,000 men on both sides (meaning two armies of c. 20k), despite the fact that the battle was between the well-organized Ottomans on one side and more than a dozen European powers on the other.”

    Someone noted that this was the ‘state’ of European military numbers, and yet I am to believe that Mongols were vastly outnumbered MILITARILY. In population numbers, yes. Logistically, yes.

    In numbers of soldiers, it seems quite the opposite because every Mongol is a soldier. That does not hold true to Agrarian Societies at all.

    To paraphrase Leonidas: “You brought bakers and stonemasons. I brought soldiers.”

    1. weren’t wars in the east during this period just larger due to higher urbanisation and state level of control. It’s very possible chenges was able to call up 180,000 – 160,000 men not just natively but also from mercenaries and tributaries.

    2. Agincourt was crippling less demographically and rather because the losses represented a significant chunk of the aristocracy and leaders.

    3. Based on the modern-day countries Wikipedia pages Mongolia (18th largest) is 3 times larger than the European parts of France rounding up. That however is only the modern country the Mongol EMpire by the early reign of Chinggis would have Buryatia, other large swaths of Siberia, Inner Mongolia not to mention non-Mongol land like Tuva, the Altai republic etc.
      The 100k to my knowledge is literally the Mongols scraping the barrel for every able man they spare. Even if medieval France is twice as large as Modern-day France that’s still an army 2-3 times as large from an area that utterly dwarfs it many more times over.

      The area I have described from just the named regions (+Krai) is 8 times the size of Continental france and larger than India from me adding up the areas on their wiki pages. I probably missed a lot.

      Even still China outnumbered them excluding local cases according to wikipedia the Ming frequently invaded Mongolia with armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands under the expansionist Yongle EMperor. Esen Taishi utterly destroyed half a million in the Tumu crisis with 5-20k cavalry. The battle of Yehuling the entire Mongol army of 100k was pitted against 1.4 million though these were stretched thin across the entire Jin northern frontier only having 450k at the battle to block the Mongols main route of attack with the Mongols killing 3 times their total number in enemies

    4. I should’ve added it but my point is that before this area was unified the previous states be it the small in comparison Khamag Mongol, Kereites, etc individually would to my limited knowledge be hard-pressed to compete with medieval France for troop count. It’s just once they came together all the total ended up to a lot despite them being small by themselves and I’m sure they could’ve been more than equal if you gave France equal land area.

  12. In the previous essay I commented that these Dothraki are so bereft of any useful nomadic skills that they must have been recent refugees from a destroyed urban civilization.

    But now I do not know. Refugees should still have artistic practices and habits of trade from their urban days. These people just…don’t have anything, at all.

    The closest literary equivalent is the Frazetta Man, the orc-like primitive human who seems to have no society, no women, no children, and no desire but violence. They are always contrasted to the civilized good nature of the adventure hero. In a similar fashion, the Dothraki seem to have no narrative purpose but to stand in contrast to the civilized lands of Westeros. They live out every single sort of propaganda that has ever been thrown at real-world nomads. They could not possibly live as described.

    It is almost as if the entire account of the Dothraki is deliberate libel from a Westerosi chronicler, and the author is repeating it verbatim. Were the account contained entirely within missives that other characters read, I would be certain it was all lies. But it is not. Danny Targaryen sees it herself.

    So it may be that the entire story of “A song of Ice and Fire” is semi-legendary pseudohistory meant to shore up the legitimacy of the current ruling order. That, at least, has many real-world examples, such as The Historia Regnum Brittaniae, the Historia Brittonum, The Aeneid, and the historical books of The Bible. Considering how utterly atrocious the lords of Westeros act towards each other, and how the survival of their society amidst such chaos is barely more plausible than the survival of nomads who hate sheep, the entire story sounds like someone deliberately exaggerating the failures of previous rulers to make the current regime look good.

    From the account of Martin’s approach to history, I do not think he has much understanding of how ancient histories tended to be self-serving royal propaganda, so I do not expect him to pull this kind of twist for the last book. But neither do I trust his depiction of Westeros.

    It all feels like malicious caricature.

    1. Given Blood and Fire does a fairly decent job of having different “pseudo chroniclers” with their own biases and such I do think Martin has a decent idea of how narrative bias shapes discourse. (he is fairly fond of unreliable narrators and limited POVs after all)

      Now, ASOIAF isnt set up as a pseudo-collection of in-universe documents the way Blood and Fire is, so there is a difference there.

    2. Combining this comment with “Elective Monarchy And The Future Of Westeros”, I know have it as my headcanon that ASOIAF was commissioned by Queen Arya III to support her stripping away of lord’s power.

  13. @Hihel: What are you ranting about? When did Bret show any desire whatsoever for tanks to attack American citizens? And why do you claim that mongols exchanged “the freedom of the stallion” for sheep. I thought it had been made clear that they always had sheep.

  14. Wonderful essay, I really learned a lot reading this. I will just add that this statement:

    “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 […] non-white [people].”

    is not 100% accurate, as the people of Qarth are explicitly white and practice slavery. But of course culturally the Qartheen are very distinct from the ‘European’ Westerosi, as Qarth rather seems to be based on (stereotypes of) oriental or ‘exotic’ cities like Baghdad or Cairo. I also think the Ironborn practice of thralldom can be described as a form of slavery.

  15. Thanks for the thorough and detailed work, as always.

    I’m curious if the lack of art can be made sense of if we look at the Dothraki as a society similar to Sparta, as you described it in that series. Your point that Sparta produced little to no great art because it was run by people traumatized by violence from a young age made a lot of sense, so I’m wondering if it can be applied here. Not that it lets GRRM off the hook, but I could see him accidentally having depicted a society that was closer to Sparta than steppe and plains societies.

    1. I should be clear: Sparta seems to have produced no great art mostly because of its economic structures, rather than the agoge. Most people in Sparta, after all, didn’t go through the agoge.

  16. I’ve been rereading Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars novels and the Always Chaotic Green Martians get more depth and dimension than the Dothraki. We learn about their subsistence strategy, the limits put on inter personal violence, quite a lot about their material culture, and even the social practices which contribute to their violent way of life and lack of positive emotions.

  17. “bad old cringe inducing Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans as a threat to white women on the frontier.”

    Brad, Native Americans absolutely _were_ a threat to white women on the frontier. You can argue that white women shouldn’t have been there in the first place (and I’d be inclined to agree) but rape and/or enslavement of the women (including young girls) present in raided settlements was fairly common practice on the frontier. Child murder, rape and torture were practiced by all participants, to their great discredit.

    The settlement of North America was a bloody, dismal affair with atrocities on all sides, and one can rightly deplore that, but it does grave injustice to the female survivors (and dead victims) of that struggle to erase the reality of their suffering.

    For example, the eye-witness account of what happened to the Schwandt household during the Minnesota Uprising of 1862 (taken from

    “As they approached the place they saw every indication that the house had been robbed. Schwandt’s son-in-law (John Walz) was lying in the door – steps with three bullets in his body. His wife (Schwandt’s daughter), who had been with child, was found dead, her womb cut open and the unborn child nailed to a tree. Her brother (August), a thirteen year-old lad, whom the Indians thought they had killed, saw how the child was taken alive from the womb of his sister, and nailed to the tree, where it lived for a little while. This terrible deed was done in the forenoon of August the 18th. The mother was found in the field, beheaded. Beside her lay the body of their hired man, Frass. Towards the evening the boy regained a little strength and fled into the next settlement, a distance of three miles.”

    Mary Schwandt, 14 years old at the time, managed to escape but was later captured. She then describes what happened next:

    “After while a number (of the tribe) came, and after annoying me with their loathsome intentions for a long time, one of them laid his hands forcibly upon me, when I screamed, and one of the fiends struck me on my mouth with his hand, causing the blood to flow very freely. They then took me out by force, to an unoccupied teepee, near the house, and perpetrated the most horrible and nameless outrages against my person. These outrages were repeated, at different times during my captivity.”

    Similar stories can be found repeated throughout the literature and often contain corroborating details that lend credence to their claims.

    I’m not sure what you hope to accomplish by minimizing or dismissing these accounts, but I don’t think a more accurate understanding of history is thereby gained.

  18. As much as I love this blog, I think this post misses the mark in several respects.

    Several times, going back to last week, I think you mistake what was for what could be. Last week, you convincingly pointed out the difficulties in a “horse only” economy, without ever making the case that it’s impossible.

    In this post, you claim that a pan-steppe culture is “nonsense”. Although the steppes never had one culture or language, there are examples of empires IRL on a similar scale. Obviously the Romans spanned several thousand miles, and the Arabs as well. That’s not to say that a Moroccan is the same as an Iraqi, but they share a language (if they are careful) and other salient cultural points. So just because the Mongol horde was never as unified as the Dothraki are doesn’t mean it’s impossible or “nonsense”

    I think the slavery issue is one where you are right out. The idea that ASOIF is racist because the Dothraki enslave people and there is no slavery in Westeros…. frankly it’s an ignorant idea. With the exception of Braavos, all of the “free cities” participate in slavery. Pentos definately does, they are a prime consumer of Dotraki slaves. Pentos codes as white. “The Pentoshi descend from Andals(Saxons), Valyrians(Ayrans), slaves, and ancient peoples.”. Lys codes as super white, and are well known for having very very white enslaved prostitutes. The Valyrians are ancient superwhite people. They enslaved people from dragon back, and then had them dig so deep into the volcanos of their home that they destroyed everything. Volantis is the most direct descendent of Valyria, and “It is said there are five slaves to every free man in the city.” Slavery is endemic to Essos, the white and brown parts alike.

    I think that you were so annoyed by the lack of culture and art in the Dothraki that you overreached in this one.

    1. Also, from the article you quote approvingly “Noblewomen raped over the course of the story include Queen Cersei Lannister (by Robert), Lady Elia Martell, (et. al). All of the rapes are known and none of the rapists are punished for their crimes. (Bad things may happen to the rapists, but it’s not a punishment for these specific crimes.)

      Uh, Cersei conspires to have Robert disembowled, Other then the fact that husband rape was not recognized as rape back then. I mean “Yea, female autonomy”, but if Cersei could actually contravene a politically arraigned and Seven sanctioned marriage because “no means no”…. first off she doesn’t get to be queen and she really really wants to be queen. Second off, “Yea women!”. Now how many men are going to die when the West -> Crown-Storm-North-River-Vale alliance falls apart?

      Also Gregor is rather gruesomely punished for violating Elia. He is poisoned and turned into a zombie – directly (if belatedly) because he violated Elia.

      1. The article in question addresses the matter of Cersei.

        Specifically, the key point is that women who get revenge on the men who raped them (there are two obvious examples in the series, Cersei and Mirri Maz Duur) are painted by the narrative as villains. Cersei is presented as a contemptible character. While her long history of spousal rape at Robert’s hands is arguably presented as being sympathetic, the reader is not expected to come away thinking that Cersei was justified in wanting her husband dead, and our impression of her is overwhelmingly negative. And in the very post I reply to, you yourself say that Cersei was not justified in seeking revenge on her rapist, given the consequences, so that point stands.

        This is in contrast to the multiple major characters in the books who can reasonably be said to have committed rape but are not generally regarded as villains (well, subject to the limits of the series’ black-and-gray morality). Examples of such characters include Drogo, Tyrion Lannister, and Victarion Greyjoy.

        I think it’s fair to point out the contrast that there are several male characters who have sex with women who either object or have had their power to object taken away, and who are viewed as neutral if not positive characters… But the only two women in the series who actively take steps to avenge the rapes they have experienced are presented as evil, and their actions cause national-level disasters that, from the viewpoint of the main characters, are generally seen as a bad thing.

        As to the subject of marital rape not existing in people’s minds in-setting… Well, perhaps so. But surely Martin himself is aware of the concept of marital rape. And he’s responsible for writing the story. He’s the one who chose to have multiple female characters stuck in situations where their husbands are going to have sex with them whether they like it or not, where they do not enjoy this sex, and where this is presented as being an objectively necessary evil, or where in one case the woman herself if presented as being evil because she seeks revenge over it!

  19. Very interesting stuff, as usual!

    One thing that stands out to me, though, is the section on blood brothers. While I’m not sure how much research Martin actually did on the concept, it might be more comparable to the Huns than the Mongols for the Eurasian plains. At the least, the system of relying on picked men like that sounds similar to that described by Patrick Wyman in his Hun episode of “The Fall of Rome” podcast – which might make for an interesting comparison!


    Reality: dude they had something like democracy go away

  21. Something that feels particularly gross about the whole “shoot the sheep and leave them to rot” thing:

    Martin claimed that the Plains Indians were one of his inspirations. The one case I can think of where anyone did that kind of pointless slaughter as a matter of doctrine is the US during the Indian Wars. In other words, Martin took a tactic that was used exclusively against one of his alleged inspirations, and made their analogue its exclusive users.

    1. It was a standard part of medieval warfare. The whole point of a chevauchee was to devastate your enemy’s country, starving his people and destroying his revenues (rent was usually paid in crops and livestock; peasants didn’t have cash). Sure, you drove off as many animals as you could eat yourself in the short term, just like you carted off all the grain you could carry, but the rest was destroyed.
      Nor was this a particularly European thing: the Chinese, Mongols, Persians, Mughals, Huns… pretty much normal for pre industrial warfare. “Civilians” weren’t protected- they were targets.

  22. honestly I think part of the problem with Martin’s writing being claimed to be realistic is that the bits that ring true for people aren’t the historical parts. It is, and weirdly, this is likely his biggest similarity WITH Tolkien, his depictions of the horror of war. Tolkien likely does it better, given he knows what he’s talking about, with both an academics grasp of historical warfare and a soldiers grasp of one of the worst conflicts in history, but Martin stands out amongst fantasy writers for making fighting a horrible dirty, messy affair where brute strength is often more important than valour, and things can go badly because your enemy is simply better, which is how a lot of people imagine combat (this might not be accurate, but it fits more modern readers experiences of conflict, given the vast majority of us have, thankfully, never actually experienced war up close).

    But as noted, this doesn’t contrast with Tolkien, but with a lot of Tolkien inspired fantasy, where, often via D&D, people took some of the elements of Tolkiens fantasy (i.e. the largely pre-balckpowder medieval setting, orcs, dragons, wizards etc.) and then married them to stories in the manner of a combination of actual myth/legend (which tends towards unquestioned heroics) and their experiences of childhood pretend or tabletop roleplaying (I’m not saying this makes such stories bad, because the feeling of playing RPGs is great, I’m just saying it’s got little to do with warfare). Compared to these, Martin’s combat sequences feel closer to reality simply because fighting is a serious, dangerous thing, which almost everyone understands to be true.

    The issue is combining something that is at least attempting to be a realistic look at the horrors of war, with an often tragic narrative (which, executed correctly, seem to feel more true, in the ‘romeo & juliet feels like romance’ frame) and then a jumble of poorly defined and often badly used historical stereotypes convinces people that this last part is also realistic. Which it isn’t. It probably didn’t even set out to be, by and large, but given he got his break when people thought GoT was ‘realistic’, he is probably trying not to admit for marketing reasons. This probably wasn’t helped by the series, which was ‘pioneeringly realistic’, in that it was a fantasy TV show where the CG wasn’t complete pants. Which is always a problem with film as a medium- it can be unrealistic because armies literally teleport, but if the mat paintings used for backgrounds don’t sway in the breeze, it will still look more realistic than a much better researched piece, because the human brain needs to learn how fast armies march, but doesn’t need any informing that mountains aren’t supposed to wobble when you operate a boom-mic nearby.

    1. Yes, but you are forgetting our host’s original premise–and apparently part of what inspired his reviews–that Martin himself had claimed that his presentation is “an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures.” From the original critique of this claim arose all the subsequent criticisms.

      1. which, if his writing was generally perceived as swords and sorcery high fantasy, probably wouldn’t be such a terrible claim, because it’d be an explicitly unrealistic take on them. Probably still a bit racist because coding, but not actively misleading people about a historical culture, because i don’t expect Drow to ever show up in the history books, and so it’s pretty reasonable that no-one else in a Drizzt book will be an actual thing that ever existed either.

        It’s that Martin gets a reputation for realism, which he’s practically forced to lean into to a certain extent, mostly because you don’t sell books by calling them frivolous nonsense, even when they probably are, and that’s probably o.k.

      2. By which I should clarify- in a more explicitly unrealistic setting, saying that you’ve taken inspiration from a certain culture may indicate you took inspiration from their artwork, or language, and probably a few of the more famous mythological concepts or stories. Percy and the Lightning Thief can say it’s inspired by an amalgam of ancient greek culture, or Avatar: The Last Airbender by an amalgam inuit cultures, and you’re not expecting a particularly accurate transposing of the whole culture into either work, because the setting wouldn’t support it.

        1. The irony of your statement is that all of the aforementioned works still did a WAY better job at adopting from their preferred cultures than Martin did with the Dothraki and his alleged inspiration of ACTUAL (not stereotyped) nomadic steppe cultures.

  23. Re: the Dothraki’s unusual level of cultural homogeneity, could that be partially explained by their habit of disbanding their khalassars once the khaal dies? If their socio-political units don’t last for more than a few years before they split up and their members join other groups, that might hinder the development of the sort of sub-Dothraki identification that could eventually result in ethnogenesis.

  24. Very good article. I wonder what you think of the cultural likeliness of a nomadic people having a city they have to semi-regularly return to. Is there any precedent in IRL nomadic peoples? I know next to nothing about this, but it seems like it could be a big deal. You mentioned a Mongol city, do you have any information on it?

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