Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part IV: Screamers and Howlers

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This is the fourth 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, if Martin’s claim that the Dothraki are “an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures” can be sustained in the face of even basic knowledge about historical Steppe and Great Plains nomadic peoples.

Last week, we concluded that the vast majority of Dothraki culture, social organization, economic practices and family structure are effectively completely untethered from the historical realities of effectively any of the literally dozens of historical Great Plains Native Americans or Steppe nomads. This week, we’re going to close out our look by discussing Dothraki warfare. We’ll start with the visual – weapons and armor – and then move to the conceptual – strategy, operations and tactics.

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Finally, as a reminder both of what we are investigating, 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.

It is not the existence of a fantasy culture which draws our attention, but the explicit declaration that this fantasy culture is not merely inspired, but ‘fashioned as an amalgam’ of real cultures, which both existed in the past and still exist today, with only ‘a dash of pure fantasy.’ That line is important, to be clear, because it presents the fictional Dothraki as a statement on historical Native American and Eurasian nomads and – when combined with Martin’s statements that he relies on history to inform his work – that this statement is based in some sort of historical reality.

Which it isn’t. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Where There’s a Whip…

The Dothraki are described as having three main weapons: bows (AGoT, 86, 555, 558, 597, 669), whips (AGoT, 86, 194, 493, 555, 596, 669) and a curved sword called an arakh (AGoT 85, 86, 327, 493, 555, 556, 559, 560, 596, 597, 669, 674); of these, the arakh is clearly the most prominent (I am sure I have missed a reference to a weapon here or there, but I hope the citations here give some sense of the relative weight each is given – the arakh is the most frequently mentioned by some distance). When a Dothraki warrior enters Vaes Dothrak, each, “unbelted his arakh and handed it to a waiting slave, and any other weapons he carried as well” – after the arakh, the other weapons are seemingly afterthoughts (AGoT, 327). The prominence of the arakh in the narrative is underscored by the fact that it is the only one of these weapons whose name we learn in Dothraki, or which is described in terms of its shape or special function (AGoT, 85), while the bows and whips remain just bows and whips (ironic, as it was Steppe bows, not Steppe swords, which were unusual).

We might dismiss this as simply an accident of Daenerys’ perspective – that, being Westerosi, she focuses on the weapon most meaningful to the Westerosi – but that’s clearly not true. After all, the offering of an arakh is how Daenerys’ loyal followers demonstrate their fealty to her, in a ceremony that is clearly Dothraki, not Westerosi (AGoT, 674). It is also, I should note, the only weapon we see non-Dothraki using that is clearly identified as being foreign and typical of the Dothraki. It remains special through the eyes of multiple point-of-view characters, including military men.

(And, as an aside, now that we are this far in, it seems obvious but worth saying that the fact that Martin has no Dothraki viewpoint characters in his narrative is hardly a saving grace; it merely intensifies the ‘view of a savage culture from outside’ effect. As we’ll see, this makes perfect sense given what seem to be the actual inspirations for his depiction.)

The prominence of a curved iron (or steel) sword lets us rule out a Great Plains Native American inspiration for this kit right out; the sword was never a significant part of Plains Native American armament (the lack of tool-metal production in the Americas prior to European contact means that there was no indigenous sword-making tradition, although the maquahuitl represents a clever sort of ‘sharpened club’ design). Even after contact, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the expense of trading for a sword wouldn’t have been justified by its utility over a steel axe which might also double as a tool (on axes, see W. Lee, “The Military Revolution of Native North America: Firearms, Forts and Politics” in Empires and Indigenes (2011), 62-3). So we must turn to the Eurasian Steppe.

And immediately we run into problems, not that any of these weapons are wrong per se, but that their proportion and prominence is all mixed up and that there are other, far more important weapons missing.

For a Steppe nomad, by far, above and away, the most important weapon was the bow. The Armenians literally called the Mongols “the nation of archers” (May, Mongol Art of War, 43). Nomads spent the most time learning the bow (May, op. cit. 42-49) and it was the one indispensable weapon. Indeed, so indispensable that nomads were generally required to have several; the Liao Shi records that Khitan nomad warriors were required to possess four bows and 400 arrows, while John de Plano Carpini reports that the Mongols all needed to have 2-3 bows and three larger quivers (May, op. cit. 49-50). The Steppe bow itself would also have looked unusual in both shape and construction to a Westerosi observer either strung or unstrung – they were composite bows, made with a wood core, a backing of horn and a rigid end-piece (called a siyah in Arabic) and were generally drawn with the use of a thumb-ring to reduce strain on the thumb (May, op. cit., 50-1). This unique construction allowed these bows to reach draw weights and launch energies equivalent to the far larger yew longbows of England and Wales and still be compact enough to use from horseback.

Via Wikipedia, a 13th century Mongol horse archer. Lightly armored, he carries a bow (and a fancy hat) but no sword.

(I should note that the bow was also the paramount weapon for the Native American horse-borne nomads of the Great Plains, at least until it came into competition with firearms, though my understanding is that Native American bows were not as powerful as Steppe bows).

Via Wikipedia, a modern Mongolian woman taking part in an archery contest. You can see here the unique shape and multi-part construction of the Steppe bow (notice how the material on the tips, the belly and the spine of the bow are all different) which allows it so much power in such a small frame.
Also, notice the very nice and colorful traditional Mongolian clothing – not leather and rough furs!

But even after the bow, the sword is not first. Or even close to first. Or, indeed, even on the list! The Khitan regulations I mentioned included four bows, two spears (one ‘long’ and one ‘short’), a club, an axe and a halberd, but no sword. John de Plano Carpini describes the full kit as two or three bows with quivers, an axe, ropes, and swords only for the wealthy (May. op. cit., 50). Speaking more broadly, May notes that spears (used as lances from horseback) seem universal in accounts of the Mongols, but “accounts are contradictory regarding whether these [swords] were universally used” (May, op. cit., 52). While May supposes that the ughurgh-a, the Mongolian lasso, might have been used in combat – and it may well have – we have no definitive evidence of it. If it was ever a weapon, it doesn’t seem to have been an important one.

In short, while the Dothraki’s weapons are an arakh-sword, a whip, and a bow in that order, the Mongol’s chief weapons were his bow, followed by his backup bow, followed by his other backup bow, followed by his spear, and then his axe and only then followed by a sword, should he have one, which he might well not. The reason for preferring an axe or a spear for the humble nomad should not be too surprising – iron in quantity could be hard to get on the Steppe. Spears and axes are not only weapons, but also useful hunting and survival tools; swords are generally weapons only. Nomads generally cannot do their own metal working, so swords would have to be imported. Moreover, even in a melee, the first recourse would be to a spear, whose reach on horseback was a huge advantage, making a sword an expensive imported foreign luxury backup weapon with no additional utility. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Steppe nomads, once successful and moving into agrarian areas, liked to acquire swords – swords are effective weapons! – but the sword was about the furthest thing from the core of Mongol culture the way the arakh is practically the symbol of Dothraki culture.

Via Wikipedia, a relatively late Mongol soldier (c. 1755) nevertheless shows nearly the full kit, including mail body defense, a long spear for use on horseback, arrows (the bow in its bow-case would have been on the other side) and, this being the 1700s, a musket.

The other issue, of course, is the arakh itself. Martin describes the weapons as “long razor-sharp blades, half sword and half scythe” (AGoT, 85) and goes back to that scythe analogy (e.g. ASoS, 245). It seems generally asserted that what Martin means by this is something close to a scimitar (I have to confess, I haven’t found anywhere that Martin says this, but I’ll take the reader consensus). A scimitar of some sort (the term refers not to a specific form of sword, but a whole family of curved sabres, almost all originating in Asia) is the correct sword. Mongol swords were, John de Palno Carpini tells us, “pointed at the end but sharp only on one side and somewhat curved” (May. op. cit., 50), something like a Turkish kilij or a Persian shamshir (both forms of scimitar), though given his description, perhaps not as strongly curved as some of the examples of those types.

I have to admit, ‘scythe-sword’ (ASoS, 245) is a really strange way to describe most of the weapons in the scimitar ‘family’ (which includes a number of different curved sabres from Asia), though. A scythe-blade faces the wrong direction, but it is also sharp on the wrong side – scythes are sharp on the inside of the curve, whereas scimitars are sharp on the outside of the curve. There are swords with sharp edges on the inside of the curve (I tend to class these as ‘forward curving’ swords due to the direction of the curve when the sword is held), such as the Greek kopis, the Spanish falcata and the Nepalese kukri; of these, only the kopis seems to have been a cavalryman’s weapon (Xen. On Horsemanship 12.11). These forward curving weapons, being shorter and stockier, are clearly not what was intended by the arakh, which is consistently described as long (e.g. AGoT, 85, ADwD, 884).

Via Wikipedia, an Uzbek warrior, armed with a bow (in a bow case, important accoutrements of any mounted archer and one we almost never see in film) along with a shamshir. Notice that, while it is curved, it is not exceptionally long; scimitars generally aren’t – another thing Martin has wrong about them.

Instead, the scythe metaphor fits the overall framing of the arakh, a weapon “better to cull the infantry ranks without breaking stride,” a “murderous blade against half-naked foes,” (ADwD, 884), a “wickedly sharp scythe-sword” (ASoS, 245), ineffective against armored opponents. Not an elegant, fine weapon, but a cruel ‘murderous’ one, made for ‘culling’ unarmored infantry and peasants, as one reaps wheat or hay. I don’t want to push this point too far – in all of these many pages, the arakh simply doesn’t get enough characterization to make the case watertight – but the characterization it does get all seems to push in this same direction: a murderous weapon for a murderous people…which of course fits with effectively all of the other characterization the Dothraki have been given. On the balance, I think Martin is a skilled enough writer to understand the implications of the scythe-sword description and to have intended them (and then subsequently reinforced them).

Nevertheless, credit where credit is due, while the place of the arakh is entirely out of all sensible proportion with how it would be considered by actual nomads, it is the correct sort of sword for a steppe nomad (if we assume it is, in fact, a scimitar of sorts). That said, prioritizing the arakh belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how Steppe (or Plains Native American, for that matter) warfare and culture worked. Placing the arakhat the front is thus indicative of deeper problems.

Of course we couldn’t leave off without discussing the absolutely bizarre visual adaptation of the weapon for Game of Thrones, where the scimitar-like arakh is transformed into what is essentially an oversized iron khopesh:

Presumably what happened here was that someone read ‘scythe-sword’ who had never seen a scythe, but had seen a sickle, and decided that a sickle-sword was the way to go, but also wasn’t aware that sickles are sharp on the inside of the curve and not on the outside of the curve, and so went with a forward-curving ‘sickle-sword’ design (which is sharp on the outside of the curve). And then, for good measure, inexplicably chose a short weapon made for the bronze age and just scaled it up to absolutely massive size. Moreover, the show’s version of the arakh inexplicably has a long, two-handed hilt, supremely impractical from horseback.

There are so many problems here. First, the khopesh is more of an axe-sword than a sickle-sword. Moreover its form is directly connected to the material properties of bronze. Because bronze doesn’t resist bending as well as iron, bronze swords need to be short and the khopesh was generally below – often well below – 60cm in total length (markedly smaller than, for instance, a gladius; do note that the gladius and the khopesh were never on the same battlefields, they are separated by almost 1,000 years). While the Ethiopian shotel is a tempting comparison point for an iron ‘sickle-sword,’ unlike the arakh (or a khopesh), the shotel is actually a sickle-sword, sharpened on the inside of its curve and used for hooking attacks; the arakh of the show is clearly not wielded like a shotel – instead attacks are mostly made with the outside of the curve (though both might be sharp?).

Via Wikipedia, an 18th century (BC!!) Khopesh blade, now in the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, Munich.

By any measure, the result is a terrible weapon. Weapon designs cannot simple be ‘scaled up’ like this without ruining the things that made them successful; a jumbo-sized khopesh is almost guaranteed to be too heavy. Unlike most scimitars – note John de Plano Carpini on the sharp points of Mongol swords above – it cannot give point, which (contra Xenophon) is a real disadvantage on horseback. It looks to be a two-handed weapon for use on horseback where one-handed weapons are most appropriate. As a two-handed weapon, it has inferior reach for what must be its considerable weight, and the forward curving shape offers it essentially no cutting advantage, unlike the kukri, kopis or falcata, which lean into their cuts.

I haven’t any idea why they opted to adapt the weapon this way, except to note that it fits in with the general pattern of the show taking Martin’s already cringe-worthy exoticism in treating the Dothraki and dialing it up to 11.

Armored Arrogance

The Dothraki attitude towards armor is made fairly clear. “The Dothraki 1 had mocked him [Jorah] for a coward when he donned his armor” (AGoT, 556), something echoed later by the arakh-wielding but Merenese (that is, not Dothraki) Khrazz (ADwD, 885). The show extends this out to a discussion between Rakharo and Jorah (S1E3, 48:10ff) , that “Dothraki don’t wear steel dresses” (though here, because they make them “slow” rather than because it is cowardice). In short, the Dothraki have a general contempt for armor and for those who wear it.

The unarmored ‘barbarian’ who attacks heedless of his peril, all fury and offense, no reason or defense (this is a part of the ancient form of the Fremen Mirage), is a literary trope that goes back at least to the Greeks and Romans (::deep breath:: Plut. Marcellus 8; Dionysius 14.9.2; Diodorus 14.9-10; 5.30.3; Liv. 7.10.7-10; App. Gal. 6; Plb. 2.30.1 and 3.114.4 but cf. Liv. 22.46.6; Caes. B.G. 4.1; in artwork note J.R. Marszal, “Ubiquitous Barbarians: Representations of the Gauls at Pergamon and Elsewhere” in From Pergamon to Sperlonga, eds. N.T. de Greummond and B.S. Ridgeway (2000)). In some cases the lack of armor (or clothing) seems to have been accurate and in some it was not (by the by, the Gauls with their supposed barbarian contempt of armor invented mail, probably the single most successful pre-modern armor technology); the idea that these ‘barbarians’ were madly reckless was never accurate – the Gauls used effectively the same full-size body-shield the Romans did which shows a real concern for personal protection! That same language – the irrational, ‘swarming’ natives, heedless of danger or death – reappears in later European military writing, particularly in the early modern and after (which is to say, during European imperial expansion) as a racist marker of non-European inferiority (on this, note P. Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (2009), esp. 68ff where he notes the same tropes were applied to Native Americans, which – see below at Stagecoach for the almost certain line of connection where this trope gets to A Song of Ice and Fire).

(And yes, by the by, more than a few of the subjects of this bad old trope seem to have, at one point or another, adopted it in the way the Dothraki do in A Song of Ice and Fire – attributing weakness and cowardice to the ‘westerners’ and their supposed casualty aversion. Both sides of the stereotype are nonsense and states that have made strategic decisions based on those tropes have almost invariable faced disaster. That said, for reasons that will be obvious below, actual nomads do not adopt this position because they haven’t the population to sustain it.)

In short, this is a very old literary trope repurposed as a still-old hoary racist stereotype. It is also hot nonsense, both generally and as applied to our horse-borne nomads.

The popular image of the Great Plains Native America is unarmored, of course, but that image fundamentally formed in the late 19th century, when – after centuries of the development of gunpowder weapons – everyone was unarmored. A longer view shows that Plains Native Americans were perfectly capable of both developing or adopting defensive measures which worked. And to get a full sense of that, we need to outline the major phases of the changing warfare on the Great Plains.

F.R. Secoy (op. cit.) essentially breaks warfare into four phases, which happen at different times in different places, based on if they have horses, guns, both or neither. Because horses entered the Great Plains from the South (via the Spanish) but firearms entered the region from the North (via the British and the French, the Spanish having prohibited gun-sales to Native Americans) and spread out from there, for a brief time many of these systems were active on the Plains at once, as both guns and horses diffused through the region.

In the pre-horse, pre-gun phase (described by McGinnis as well, op. cit., 8-9), battles consisted of long-range missile exchanges between warriors who stood behind large shields which protected their whole bodies. Native American warriors in this system also wore armor, heavy leather coats, laminated in multiple layers using thick hide with glue that was sometimes mixed with sand or gravel (one more example of how ‘leather armor’ is almost always hardened leather armor, not modern clothing-leather). Some of this armor may have been effectively quilted leather as well. Clearly, there was plenty of concern about survivability here.

Both guns and horses were apt to disrupt this system. Horses allowed attackers to rapidly close the distance between the two opposing lines of shield-protected foot-missile-warriors, causing the shield-lines to drop away (though smaller shields, used on horseback to ward off arrows and blows were still used) and for both sides to seek instead the mobility of mounted fighting. That was not the end for armor though, because contact with a supply of horses meant contact with the Spanish, and the Apache at least swiftly adopted some of the Spanish methods of making leather ‘buff coats’ into their own armor tradition and copied the shape and pattern of the buff coat itself (while often still making the material using their own tradition). As Secoy notes (op. cit., 18-20), our sources are quite clear that these forms of armor (both original and Spanish-influenced Native armors) were quite effective at resisting the archery fire that dominated both the pre-horse, pre-gun system and the post-horse, pre-gun system.

Meanwhile on the Northern Plains, while the horse had not yet arrived, firearms had, and these had different effects. Firearms spelled the end of the armor once they became common enough, since there was no protection which could resist bullets; some shield use survived, since arrows remained fairly common as well. But this didn’t lead to suicidal warfare. Instead – as had happened on the East Coast as well, Native Americans adapted their warfare to the increased lethality of firearms (on this, note Lee, op. cit. above) by mostly avoiding pitched battles as they became too lethal (which, by the by, the relatively low lethality of pitched battles pre-gunpowder is often taken to mean that Native North American warfare in general was low-lethality; this is wrong. As with most forms of non-state warfare, most of the killing happened in surprise raids and ambushes, which could be extremely lethal and were still quite common).

Once the horse and the firearm were both in wide use in an area, warfare shifted again. War parties became smaller, faster moving and more reliant on surprise (essentially an extension of the raiding-focus of the pre-horse, post-gun system to the high mobility horses supplied). Infantry battle dropped away entirely because it was too lethal and resulted in casualties that low-population density nomads could not sustain (the contrast with the much higher population-density agrarian United States, which was self-immolating in massively costly massed-infantry engagements during the American Civil War, 1861-1865, at exactly this time is striking). These are fairly big, noticeable changes in warfare patterns!

In short, the tactics used in all four of these systems were conditions by casualty aversion, which makes a lot of sense in the context of a low-population density society which simply cannot afford massive losses.

Meanwhile the Mongols were quite fond of armor, though it is clear that they required access to the products of agrarian economies to get it. That same Khitan regulation I noted above required soldiers to possess nine pieces of iron armor, along with barding (that is, armor) for their horses. John de Plano Carpini describes the use of thins trips of leather and hide, bouind by cord to create a scale of lamellar horse barding. As May notes (op. cit., 53) the Mongols tended to prefer lamellar armors (that is, armors of overlapping rectangular plates attached to each other rather than to a backing) of either hardened leather or iron because these were more effective at stopping arrows than mail. The Mongols also seem to have really liked pointed conical helmets (the Turks did too) and seem to have contributed to their spread. There is actually a fair amount of evidence that the later European brigandine was a Western European adaptation of steppe lamellar armors, mediated through Eastern Europe. In short, Mongol armor (which again, is generally not being produced by them on the steppe but produced for them by the agrarian societies, which in some cases involved violently moving those craftsmen to where the Mongols needed them) was so good that it was quickly adopted in Europe when it arrived.

Minature depicting an Turkish Sipahi, sometime before 1657, wearing what looks to me to probably be lamellar armor (though it may also be textile).

Indeed, looking broadly at not only the Mongols, but also Turkic steppe nomads (Mamluks, the Seljuks, the Ottomans, etc), incorporating the heavier armor made possible by agrarian societies and their metal production industries seems to have been a fairly high priority for nomads moving into settled zones more generally. And I should note that while the Mongols preferred lamellar to mail (as did other Steppe nomads), they absolutely would and did use mail if mail was what was available; the Turks and the Timurids both made extensive use of mail as well as lamellar, scale and so on. While armor might be rare on the Steppe due to its expense and the relative inability to produce good armor locally, it was valuable and valued and nomads who ‘made good’ worked to acquire it.

In short, if the Dothraki followed the model of either the Great Plains Native Americans or Steppe nomads, far from holding armor in contempt, we’d expect a wealthy leader like Drogo to have made serious efforts to either acquire effective foreign armor both to protect himself and his immediate retainers. Remember that providing armor for your followers would not merely improve their combat effectiveness, but provide an opportunity to reward loyalty and more tightly bind those followers to you.

But of course that wouldn’t be badass and violent enough, so instead Martin deploys the bad old trope of the irrational, mindless barbarian careless to his own peril, going into battle unarmored.

Dothraki Ends

I know we have dealt with this distinction before in a number of other places, but I want to make sure we are all on the same page here, briefly. Tactics concern the how of warfare at the small scale; how a battle is fought. Operations concern how armies are moved and thus where a battle is fought. Strategy concerns the ends for which a war is waged in the first place and thus why battles are fought.

Each of these levels is a category of analysis, but of course not every general starts at first principles when going into a conflict. Instead, wars are often waged according to traditional systems of norms and expectations. That said, when you dig in to those systems of norms and expectations, the basic correlation of strategic ends to the means of operations and tactics generally emerge (if not the least because polities which fail to coordinate these things tend not to be permitted to play the game for very long).

Since strategy dictates operational concerns, which in turn dictate tactical concerns, we’ll move in that order and so begin with the question what does Dothraki warfare aim to achieve and are those the same ends as nomadic warfare on the Great Plains and the Eurasian Steppe?

Assessing the strategy of Dothraki warfare is tricky, because while we spend a good chunk of the story near a Dothraki leader, strategic aims are usually not discussed with our viewpoint characters. Still we see enough of how Dothraki khalasars function to get a sense of the general aims of Dothraki warfare.

First, it seems that the Dothraki Sea is essentially a war of all against all. As Daenerys notes once she is weakened, “the first khalasar they met would swallow up her ragged band, slaying the warriors and slaving the rest” (ACoK, 142). And indeed, we see this when Drogo’s and Ogo’s khalasars raided the same town; Drogo does exactly that, killing the adult men and enslaving the rest of Ogo’s defeated khalasar (AGoT, 556), while Pono’s khalasar scatters others before it as it moves as they rush to get out of the way (ADwD, 113). No khals appear to be allied with each other, there are no tribal confederations of smaller units; merely a collection of khalasars, each led by a khal, all at war with all of the others all of the time except when in Vaes Dothrak. Of course as already mentioned, the agrarian peoples on the edges of the Dothraki Sea are also subjected to this treatment, unless they are either key trade partners or buy the Dothraki off.

The main aim of this functionally total conflict is the capture of slaves. As we’ve discussed previously, the Dothraki don’t herd livestock, and horse-raiding isn’t ever prominent in the text either. Indeed, when attacking the Lhazareen, the Dothraki kill all of the livestock and leave their bodies to rot in the fields (AGoT, 555), instead, they take slaves. Of the Dothraki captives, we are told they are only “the women and children of Ogo’s khalasar;” the captive Lhazareen include “only a few men among them, cripples and cowards and grandfathers” (AGoT, 555-6); so the slaves in question are mostly women, children and the elderly (a strange choice since these are, historically speaking, the least valuable classes of people to enslave; most enslaved workers were forced to do agricultural or industrial labor for which adult males were typically considered the most suitable by far).

Apart but strangely, apart from a few domestics, the Dothraki have apparently no use for these enslaved people internally. Captive women evidently are not able to become wives or bear legitimate sons (AGoT, 559) and without any kind of domestic production (because of the non-existent subsistence model discussed last time) it is hard to imagine what work large numbers of enslaved persons would be forced to do. Instead, we are repeatedly told these masses of slaves are not incorporated into the khalasar, but traded away to the cities of Slaver’s Bay in exchange for ‘gifts’ (ADwD, 662) or left in Vaes Dothrak.

Crucially, in the description of the movements of khalasar, it is clear they do not fight over territory. Drogo’s khalasar cuts all of the way from Pentos over effectively the entire length Dothraki Sea to Vaes Dothrak. He then plans to head to the Jade Sea, which would mean covering the entire height of the Dothraki Sea (since Vaes Dothrak is at its northern extent) and going even further East, but instead cuts south to the territory of the Lhazareen. The movements of the other khalasars (ADwD, 113, 662) are like this as well. The Dothraki essentially cruise the empty Dothraki Sea like actual ships on the actual sea, without any concern for territory. At no point does any group of Dothraki get angry with any other group of Dothraki for territorial trespass.

A quick map showing the movements of Drogo’s (and later Daenerys’) khalasar, along with a line showing his initial planned movement to the Jade Sea. Essentially Drogo is able to cover the entire Dothraki Sea without any territorial boundaries at all.

Grass Wars

This bears little resemblance to the strategic concerns of historical nomads. As a direct consequence of failing to understand the subsistence systems that nomads relied on, Martin has also rendered their patterns of warfare functionally unintelligible.

The chief thing that nomads, both Great Plains Native Americans and Eurasian Steppe Nomads used violence to secure control of is the one thing the Dothraki never do: territory. To agrarian elites (who write most of our sources) and modern viewers, the vast expanses of grassland that nomads live on often look ’empty’ and ‘unused,’ (and thus not requiring of protection), but that’s not correct at all. Those ’empty’ grasslands are very much in use; the nomads know this and are abundantly willing to defend those expanses of grass with lethal force to keep out interlopers. Remember: the knife’s edge of subsistence for nomads is very thin indeed, so it takes only a small disruption of the subsistence system to push the community into privation.

For the Eurasian Steppe nomad, the grass that isn’t near their encampment is in the process of regrowth for the season or year when it will be near their encampment and need to support their herds. Allowing some rival nomadic group to move their sheep and their horses over your grassland – eating the essential grass along the way – means that grass won’t be there for your sheep and your horses when you need it; and when the sheep starve, so will you. So if you are stronger than the foreign interloper, you will gather up all of your warriors and confront them directly. If you are weaker, you will gather your warriors and raid the interloper, trying to catch members of their group when they’re alone, to steal horses and sheep (we’ll come back to that); you are trying to inflict a cost for being on your territory so that they will go away and not come back.

Via Wikipedia, an illustration of Rashid-ad-Din’s Gami’ at-tawarih, ewarly 14th century, showing Mongols (note their heavy lamellar armor and distinctive composite bows (esp. upper left) pursuing fleeing enemies.

The calculus for nomadic hunters like the Great Plains Native Americans is actually fairly similar. Land supports bison, bison support tribal groupings, so tribal groups defend access to land with violent reprisals against groups that stray into their territory or hunt ‘their’ bison. And of course the reserve is true – these groups aren’t merely looking to hold on to their own territory, but to expand their subsistence base by taking new territory. Remember: the large tribe is the safe tribe; becoming the large tribe means having a larger subsistence base. And on either the plains or the steppe, the subsistence base is fundamentally measured in grass and the animals – be they herded sheep or wild bison – that grass supports. Both Secoy and McGinnis (op. cit.) are full of wars of these sorts on the Great Plains, where one group, gaining a momentary advantage, violently pushes others to gain greater territory (and thus food) for itself. For instance, Secoy (op. cit., 6-32) discusses how access to horses allowed the Plains Apache to rapidly violently expand over the southern Plains in the late 17th century, before being swept off of them by the fully nomadic Ute and Comanche in the first third of the 18th. As McGinnis notes (op. cit., 16ff), on the Northern Plains, prior to 1800 it initially was the Shoshone who were dominant and expanding, but around 1800 began to be pushed out by the Blackfoot, who in turn would, decades later, be pushed by the expanding Sioux.

This kind of warfare is different from the way that settled, agrarian armies take territory. Generally, the armies of agrarian states seek to seize (farm-) land with its population of farmers mostly intact and exert control both over the land and the people subsequently in order to extract the agricultural surplus. But generally (obviously there are notable exceptions) nomads both lack the administrative structures to exert that kind of control and are also very able to effectively resist that sort of control themselves (it is hard for even nomads to tax nomads), making ’empire building’ along agrarian lines difficult or undesirable (unless you are the Mongols). So instead, polities are trying to inflict losses (typically more through raiding and ambush than battle). Since rivals will tend to avoid areas that become unsafe due to frequent raiding, the successful tribe can essentially push back an opposing tribe with frequent raids. In extreme circumstances, a group may feel threatened enough to get up and move entirely – which of course creates conflict wherever they go, since their plan is to disposes the next group along the way of their territory.

Within that security context, larger scale groupings – alliances, confederations, and super-tribal ‘nations’ – are common. On the Eurasian Steppe, such alliances tended to be personal, although there was a broad expectation that a given ethnic grouping would work together against other ethnic groupings (an expectation that Chinggis actually worked very hard, once he became the Great Khan of a multi-ethnic ‘Mongol’ army, to break up through the decimal organization system; this reorganization is part of what made the Mongol Empire so much more successful than previous Steppe confederations). Likewise, even a cursory look at the Native Americans of the Great Plains produces both a set of standard enmities (the Sioux and the Crow, for instance) but also webs of peace agreements, treaties, alliances, confederations and so on. The presence of British, French, Spanish and American forces (both traders and military forces) fit naturally into that system; the Plains Apache allied with the Spanish against the Comanche, the Crow with the United States against the Sioux and so on. Such allies might not only help out in a conflict, but also deter war and raiding because their strength and friendship made lethal retaliation likely (don’t attack someone allied to Chinggis Khan and expect to survive the experience…).

Exactly none of that complexity appears with the Dothraki, who have no alliances, no peace agreements, no confederations and no territory to attack or defend. Instead, the Dothraki simply sail around the grass sea, fighting whenever they should chance to meet. Which brings us to:

Raiding

The other strategic aim nomads might fight over is for the acquisition of some kind of movable good, which is to say raiding for stuff. Because all of the warriors (which is generally to say all of the free adult males) of these societies are mounted and because they have a subsistence system which allows rapid, relatively along distance movements (often concealed; remember that Mongols need not light any camp fires), nomads make fearsome raiders, able to strike, grab the things they are looking for and quickly retreat before a counterattack can be mobilized. That goes just as well for raiding each other as it does for raiding the farmers at the edges of the grasslands.

But what are the things here that they are aiming to get? It depends on the targets; nomadic raids into the settled zone generally aim to capture the goods that agrarian societies produce which nomadic societies do not: stocks of cereal crops, metal goods and luxury goods. But most nomadic raiding was directed against other nomads, seeking to acquire either people or animals.

On the Great Plains, the animals in question were invariably horses; the act of stealing, or ‘cutting out’ a horse gives McGinnis part of the title of his book (Counting Coup and Cutting Horses) and raids for horses dominate both McGinnis and Secoy’s discussion of Plains Native American warfare. Horses were, after all, a scarce commodity which only percolated into the Great Plains from the South (and which could only be raised in quantity in its southern reaches), but which all tribes required both to hunt and fight effectively. Stealing enemy horses thus both strengthened your tribe while weakening your enemies, both in military and subsistence terms. The Mongols also engaged in quite a lot of raiding for horses, but also – in a pastoral subsistence system – a lot of simple cattle rustling as well (e.g. Ratchnevsky, op. cit., 28-31).

Raiding for people is more complex, but undeniably part of this system of warfare. But crucially this raiding was generally not for slave-trading (though there are exceptions which I discussed last time), but instead incorporative raiding. What I mean by that is that the intent in gaining captives in the raid was to incorporate those captives, either as full or subordinate members, into the nomadic community doing the raiding. Remember: the big tribe is the safe tribe, so incorporating new members is a good way to improve security in the long run.

On the Eurasian Steppe, incorporated captives became the ötögus bo’ol ‘bonded serfs’ that we mentioned previously (Ratchnevsky, op. cit., 12-4). Unlike warfare on the Great Plains, it seems possible for the bo’ol to include adult men, either captured or sold (by destitute parents) as children or else taken as prisoners when their tribe or clan was essentially dissolved by being conquered in war. Indeed, in his own conquests, Chinggis only decreed the annihilation of one tribe, the Mongol’s traditional enemies, the Tatars – there he ordered the death of any Tatar male taller than the linchpin of an oxcart (May, Mongols, 12). In other cases, it is clear that the incorporation of defeated nomad warriors into the successful tribe was fairly normal, though raids to capture women and children (also for incorporation) were just as common. Bride abduction in particular was very common on the Steppe, as Ratchnevsky notes (op. cit., 34-5).

The incorporation of males was far less common in Great Plains Native American warfare, but the capture of women and children to enhance tribal strength in the long term was a core objective in raiding. McGinnis (op. cit., 42-3) notes how the Crow, after suffering a massive defeat in the early 1820s which resulted in the deaths of many warriors and the capture of perhaps several hundred women and children, steadily built their tribe back up over the following decades with an intentional strategy of capturing women and children from their enemies. As McGinnis (op. cit., 24) notes, women captured in this way might be married into the capturing tribe, adopted into it, or sometimes kept as an enslaved laborer (under quite bad conditions). Adult males, by contrast, were almost always killed; unlike on the Steppe, the incorporation of formerly hostile warriors doesn’t seem to have been considered possible (though one wonders if this would have become cultural practice given enough time; both McGinnis and Secoy note how the increasing lethality of warfare post-gun/horse led to slow population decline overall, which may, had the system run without outside interference long enough, led to the emergence of norms more closely resembling the Eurasian Steppe. We should keep in mind that the Eurasian horse-system had many centuries to sort itself out, whereas the North American horse-system was essentially strangled in its crib).

Of course, taken together with the previous discussion of territorial warfare, we can see that all of these raids have a double purpose: they both aim to acquire resources (horses, sheep, humans) and at the same time inflict damage on an opponent with the long-term goal of forcing that enemy to move further away, opening their pastures or hunting grounds for exploitation by the victorious tribe. Thus in the long-term, each successful raid is intended to build a sense of threat which eventually results in territorial gains (though in cases of real power asymmetry, the long term could come very rapidly; people aren’t stupid and if you are being raided by a clearly superior opponent, you are likely to move on before you lose everything of value).

Squaring the ugly reality of nomadic raiding with Martin’s depiction is tricky. On the one hand, a raid in which exceptional victory results in enemy women and children taken captive and fit adult males slain fits within either the Great Plains Native American or Steppe nomad military tradition. On the other hand, the immediate declaration by Drogo’s men that female captives taken this way are not marriageable (AGoT, 559; the idea is treated as laughable) and the killing of all of the very valuable livestock (which, even if the Dothraki are not herdsmen, these animals could be eaten, or quite easily driven to a place where they could be sold or traded for other resources, like metalwork) suggests that Martin has not understood why those raids happened. Instead, it seems like his imagination is only able to view these raids from the perspective of the settled people on the receiving end.

Instead, Martin’s understanding of Native American warfare seems not conditioned by any actual Native Americans, but rather by Hollywood depictions of Native Americans during the Hollywood ‘Golden Age’ which were in turn conditioned by sensational accounts of Western settlers who themselves didn’t understand how Native American warfare worked on the Great Plains. As we will see, the Game of Thrones showrunners took that unfortunate subtext when making the show itself, and turned it into actual text.

The Preposterous Tactics of the Dothraki

We do not see the Dothraki engage in large-scale warfare in the books; we see the aftermath of such fighting (AGoT, 555ff) or it occurs ‘off-screen’ (ASoS, 487), but we do not see it. The closest we get is Jorah’s description of them, that they are “utterly fearless…[they] fire from horseback, charging or retreating, it makes no matter, they are full as deadly…and there are so many of them” AGoT, 325-6). Evidently they also scream on the attack, since their warriors are repeatedly called ‘screamers.’

As a description, it is hard for this to be very much wrong because it is so very vague, but the attentive reader will note that Jorah’s assertion that there are ‘so many’ must be wrong for either Eurasian Steppe Nomads or Great Plains Native Americans, both of whom were routinely outnumbered by settled enemies, often dramatically so. Let’s put a pin in that, though, because of course while Martin gives only vague description of Dothraki warfare, the show, Game of Thrones, shows it to us on screen quite vividly.

As expert horsemen who literally spend their whole lives riding, naturally the Dothraki are completely incapable of keeping any kind of formation.
In contrast the Mongols could coordinate long-distance column movements converted into envelopments well enough to use it as a hunting system, for a hunt style they called the Nerge (which probably informed Mongol envelopment tactics as well).

We see a bit of Dothraki warfare in S6E9 when Daenerys’ Dothraki charge down the Sons of the Harpy at Mereen, but the really sustained look at how they fight has to wait for S7E4 and the Loot Train Battle and S8E3 and the Battle of Winterfell, both of which, happily, we have already discussed! In all three cases, the Dothraki do exactly the same thing. They charge, in a pell-mell rush, while giving high-pitched war-calls. While some of the Dothraki may fire arrows on the approach (they have them stand up to do this, which is not how actual Mongols or Native Americans fired from horseback; it looks cool and is stupid, like most of Game of Thrones season 7 and 8), they otherwise charge directly into contact and begin fighting from horseback with their arakhs as the primary weapon.

This is not how horse-borne nomads fought.

As we’ve discussed repeatedly before, the key weapon for Steppe nomads was the bow, shot from horseback at high speed (on this, note May, “The Training of an Inner Asian Nomad Army” JMH 70 (2006) and Mongol Art of War (2007)). Thus the crucial maneuver was the caracole, where the rider approaches the target at high speed, firing arrows as he goes, before making an abrupt turn (it is actually the turn that is technically called a caracole, but the whole tactic goes by this name) and retreating, before trying again. Pulling this tactic off en masse required a great deal of both individual skill at horsemanship and archery, but also quite a lot of group cohesion and coordination, since a collision of horses at speed is very likely to be fatal for everyone – humans and horses – involved.

Diagram of a caracole maneuver, following May (2007). The horse archers fire on the approach, but their lethality rises dramatically as they close in with the apex of the charge, before turning around. The ‘Parthian shot’ technique allows them to also fire on second half of the caracole. Multiple ranks perform the attack together, allowing for a continued barrage.

This tactic can then be repeated – charge and retreat, charge and retreat – until the psychological toll on the defender becomes too great and they either break and retreat or else charge out to try to catch ‘retreating’ nomads. In either case, it was at that moment when the Steppe nomads could press home and destroy the disorganized enemy. These tactics were brutally effective, but they were also a necessary casualty control measure. Shock combat – that is massed melee combat in close quarters – is simply far too lethal for low-population nomadic societies to sustain in the long-term on the regular (a hoplite battle might result normally in c. 10% casualties for instance (but note this discussion of that figure) – think of what that would mean in a society where 100% of adult males participate in each battle – you’d run out of men pretty quickly!).

And fascinatingly, we can actually see that calculus play out in North America, where the arrival of firearms, which suddenly make pitched ‘missile exchange’ battles (especially on foot) as lethal as shock combat (it seems notable that the introduction of musketry into Old World warfare did not come with a significant increase or decrease in battlefield lethality, at least until the rifled musket – on that, see B. Gibbs, The Destroying Angel (2019), but also noteE.J. Hess, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (2008)), the pitched battle vanishes. It was simply too lethal to be a viable option in the long term for societies with low population density and very high military participation rates.

Instead, the raid came to dominate warfare on the Great Plains, with mass-casualty events generally being restricted to situations where a raiding party caught an enemy group unawares (McGinnis, op. cit., 45-6, 57-9). To be clear, that’s not to say the Great Plains Native Americans were peaceful, after all the goal of all of this raiding was to cause one of those rare mass-casualty surprise attacks and – as McGinnis notes again and again, warfare was part of the Plains Native American way of life, as the social status of males was directly and powerfully tied to success in war.

In short, the need to keep lethality relatively low is one of the most important factors which shaped nomadic horse-borne warfare, both on the Steppe and on the Great Plains. And here is where I think that even Martin’s description – which could, if read with friendly eyes, be taken as a description of the Steppe caracole described above – falls short: the Dothraki are dangerous because they are so many. But actual nomadic warfare was fundamentally conditioned by the shortage of men created by the low population density of the Steppe or the Great Plains. This weakness could be somewhat made up for by making every male into a warrior, but only if casualty rates remained low. A war of attrition with settled peoples would wear the nomads out quickly, which is why such attritional warfare was avoided (unless you are the Mongols, who use the sedentary armies of conquered states, notably using the armies of Northern China to conquer Southern China; that said, Drogo is clearly not Chinggis Khan or any such sort of Khal-of-Khals).

Stagecoach (1939)

So where does this model of warfare come from? Well, when it comes to the show, we needn’t actually look far, because the creators tell us. The director of the episode, Matt Shakman, noted in an interview that his primary reference for the Dothraki charge was John Ford’s Apache attack in his 1939 film Stagecoach (you can see the scene he means here). And in the S7 special feature, “Anatomy of a Scene: The Loot Train Attack,” David Benioff notes that the charge “definitely got a bit of that western feel” while VFX producer Steve Kullback says, of the battle, it’s “sort of like Cowboys and Indians.”

In Stagecoach (1939), the Apache aren’t a real humanized culture, but an elemental force of destruction. Their charge at the titular stagecoach is essentially mad and heedless of all losses (in the same featurette, Camilla Naprous, Game of Throne‘s horse master, describes the Dothraki as “they’re just these absolute mad men on horses,” in case you thought that connection was only subtext). The position of ‘Indians’ as particularly ‘rapey’ is also explicit in Stagecoach, where the one of the white male defenders of the coach saves his last bullet to spare the one woman, Mrs. Mallory, from being captured and raped by the approaching cavalry (the concern about white women being raped by non-white men being a paramount fixation of early American film; see also The Birth of a Nation (1915); or, you know, don’t.) And the tactics (or lack thereof) of the Dothraki, charging madly forward with no order or concern for safety, also map neatly on to Stagecoach‘s Apache attack (and not on to actual Apache attacks).

I don’t think this lazy use of old Western tropes is limited to merely the show, however. Having written this far, I find myself convinced that there is a longer article or perhaps a video-essay waiting to be written by a different sort of scholar than myself – that is, a film historian – on how Martin’s depiction of the Dothraki and their world is fundamentally rooted in the racist tropes of the Hollywood Western and its portrayal of Native Americans in a frontier environment where, as Sergio Leone put it, “life has no value.” Quite a lot of parallels with Martin’s Dothraki emerge after even a brief overview of the representation of Native Americans in film. The emphasis on taking captives (especially white women) to no apparent purpose besides sexual violence, the distinctive ‘screaming’ of Dothraki warfare (which, yes, Native Americans used a range of intimidating war cries, but so did basically everyone else in the pre-modern world, so why are the Dothraki the only ones who do it in Westeros?), it’s lack of tactics or order, and – as we’ve discussed already – the grossly simplified form of dress all seem to have their roots in racist Hollywood depictions of Native Americans. The Dothraki Sea is, essentially a ‘Cavalry and Indian Story‘ with the cavalry removed.

That is not a pure creation of Benioff and Weiss. The show simply takes that subtext and makes it text.

Conclusions

That makes it a good time, here at the end, to take stock. As I’ve noted in each of these posts, the fundamental claim we are evaluating here is this one, made baldly 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.

We may, I think, now safely dismiss this statement as false. What we have found is that the Dothraki do not meaningfully mirror either Steppe or Plains cultures. They do not mirror them in dress, nor in systems of subsistence, nor in diet, nor in housing, nor in music, nor in art, nor in social structures, nor in leadership structures, nor in family structures, nor in demographics, nor in economics, nor in trade practices, nor in laws, nor in marriage customs, nor in attitudes towards violence, nor in weapons, nor in armor, nor in strategic way of war, nor in battle tactics.

We might say he has added ‘dashes’ of pure fantasy until the ‘dash’ is the entire soup, but the truth is clearly the reverse: Martin has sprinkled a little bit of water on a barrel of salt and called it just a dash of salt. There is no historical root source here, but instead pure fantasy which – because racist stereotypes sometimes connect, in thin and useless ways, to actual history – occasionally, in broken-clock fashion, manages to resemble the real thing.

It seems as though the best we might say of what Martin has right is that these are people who are nomads that ride horses and occasionally shoot bows. The rest – which as you can see from the list above there, is the overwhelming majority – has functionally no connection to the actual historical people. And stunningly, somehow, the show – despite its absolutely massive budget, despite the legions of scrutiny and oversight such a massive venture brings – somehow is even worse, while being just as explicit in tying its bald collection of 1930s racist stereotypes to real people who really exist today.

Camilla Naprous describing the Dothraki in a Game of Thrones special feature for the Battle of the Loot Train.

Instead, the primary inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s Dothraki seems to come from deeply flawed Hollywood depictions of noamdic peoples, rather than any real knowledge about the peoples themselves. The Dothraki are not an amalgam of the Sioux or the Mongols, but rather an amalgam of Stagecoach (1939) and The Conqueror (1956). When it comes to the major attributes of the Dothraki – their singular focus on violent, especially sexual violence, their lack of art or expression, their position as a culture we primarily see ‘from the outside’ as almost uniformly brutal (and in need of literally the whitest of all women to tame and reform it) – what we see is not reflected in the historical people at all but is absolutely of a piece with this Hollywood legacy.

But Martin has done more damage than simply watching The Mongols (1961) would today. He has taken those old, inaccurate, racially tinged stereotypes and repackaged them, with an extra dash of contemporary cynicism to lend them the feeling of ‘reality’ and then used his reputation as a writer of more historically grounded fantasy (a reputation, I think we may say at this point, which ought to be discarded; Martin is an engaging writer but a poor historian) to give those old stereotypes the air of ‘real history’ and how things ‘really were.’ And so, just as Westeros became the vision of the Middle Ages that inhabits the mind of so many people (including quite a few of my students), the Dothraki become the mental model for the Generic Nomad: brutal, sexually violent, uncreative, unartistic, uncivilized.

And as I noted at the beginning of this series, Martin’s fans have understood that framing perfectly well. The argument given by both the creators themselves, often parroted by fans and even repeated by journalists is that A Song of Ice and Fire‘s historical basis is both a strike in favor of the book because they present a ‘more real’ vision of the past but also a flawless defense against any qualms anyone might have over the way that the fiction presents violence (especially its voyeuristic take on sexual violence) or its cultures. No doubt part of you are tired of seeing that same ‘amalgam’ quote over and over again at the beginning of every single one of these essays, but I did that for a reason, because it was essential to note that this assertion is not merely part of the subtext of how Martin presents his work (although it is that too), but part of the actual text of his promotion of his work.

And it is a lie. And I want to be clear here, it is not a misunderstanding. It is not a regrettable implication. It is not an unfortunate spot blind-spot of ignorance. It is a lie, made repeatedly, now by many people in both the promotion of the books and the show who ought to have known better. And it is a lie that has been believed by millions of fans.

One thing that I hope is clear from this treatment is just how trivial the amount of research I’ve done here was. Certainly, it helped that I was familiar with Steppe nomads already and that I knew who to ask to be pointed in the direction of information. Nevertheless, everything I’ve cited here is available in English and it is all relatively affordable (I actually own all of the books cited here; thanks to my Patrons for making that possible, especially since getting materials from the library is slower in the days of COVID-19; nevertheless, the point here is that they are not obscure tomes). Much of it – Ratchnevsky on Chinggis Khan, Secoy and McGinnis on Great Plains warfare – were already available well before the 1996 publication of A Game of Thrones. 1996 was not some wasteland of ignorance that might have made it impossible for Martin to get good information! For an easy sense of what a dedicated amateur with film connections might have learned in 1996, you could simply watch Ken Burn’s The West, which came out the same year. I am not asking Martin to become a historian (though I am asking him to stop representing himself as something like one), I am asking him to read a historian.

Instead of doing that basic amount of research, or simply saying that the peoples of Essos were made up cultures unconnected with the real thing, Martin and the vast promotional apparatus at HBO opted to lie about some real cultures and then to put hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting that lie.

And I want to be clear, these are real people! I know, depending on where you live, ‘Mongols’ and ‘Sioux’ and ‘Cheyenne’ may feel as distant and fanciful as ‘Rohirrim’ or ‘Hobbits’ or else they may feel like ‘long-lost’ peoples. But these were real people, whose real descendants are alive today. And almost all of them face discrimination and abuse, sometimes informally, sometimes through state action, often as a result of these very lingering racist stereotypes.

Via Wikipedia, a ger district in Ulaanbaatar in modern Mongolia.

In that context, declaring that the Dothraki really do reflect the real world (I cannot stress that enough) cultures of the Plains Native Americans or Eurasian Steppe Nomads is not merely a lie, but it is an irresponsible lie that can do real harm to real people in the real world. And that irresponsible lie has been accepted by Martin’s fans; he has done a grave disservice to his own fans by lying to them in this way. And of course the worst of it is that the lie – backed by the vast apparatus that is HBO prestige television – will have more reach and more enduring influence than this or any number of historical ‘debunking’ essays. It will befuddle the valiant efforts of teachers in their classrooms (and yes, I frequently encounter students hindered by bad pop-pseudo-history they believe to be true; it is often devilishly hard to get students to leave those preconceptions behind), it will plague efforts to educate the public about these cultures of their histories. And it will probably, in the long run, hurt the real descendants of nomads.

But this is exactly why I think it is important for historians to engage with the culture and to engage with depictions like this. Because these lies have consequences and someone ought to at least try to tell the truth. With luck, even with my only rudimentary knowledge, I have done some of that here, by presenting a bit more of the richness and variety of historical (and in some cases, present-day) horse-borne nomadic life, in both North America and Eurasia.

Because there is and was a lot more to nomads than just ‘that Dothraki horde.’

313 thoughts on “Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part IV: Screamers and Howlers

  1. After reading this I looked up “dothraki mongols” on google and it was pretty shocking how many people on various sites like reddit were convinced that the mongols and the dothraki are basically the same. I’m glad there’s some pushback on this, although sadly most people who have bought this narrative will probably never see it.

  2. This has been a fantastic series, thanks for writing it!

    There is actually a fair amount of evidence that the later European brigandine was a Western European adaptation of steppe lamellar armors, mediated through Eastern Europe. In short, Mongol armor (which again, is generally not being produced by them on the steppe but produced for them by the agrarian societies, which in some cases involved violently moving those craftsmen to where the Mongols needed them) was so good that it was quickly adopted in Europe when it arrived.

    I don’t necessarily disagree that brigandines etc evolved out of Central Asian lamellar styles – I don’t have the Russian to look at the really good studies, but certainly the Khazars in the 9th century had begun riveting lamellar armour together, and one of the armours from Visby was lamella armour reworked as a coat of plates – but I don’t know that the Mongols were particularly involved in the spread of it to the West. William the Breton, probably writing between 1220 and 1225, records what is conventionally taken as the earliest reference to a coat of plates when he refers to Prince Richard of England wearing iron plates underneath his mail in a joust, and he also mentions it as one of the three reinforcements over mail worn by the French knights at Bouvines (the other two being hardened leather and textile armour). Possibly infantry were using it at about the same time in limited numbers, since DS Richard’s recent translation of Baha al-Din has replaced the “thick felt vests” of the infantry with iron armour. Unfortunately, without knowing Arabic it’s hard to track down what the original term was and thus figure out what the best translation would be.

    Additionally, there’s a form of armour called a “clavain”, which David Nicolle has argued originally meant an Islamic style of scale or lamellar armour, based on how it is used in some late 12th century epic poems, and which may well relate to the origins of the coat-of-plates. Nicolle, obviously, sees the transmission coming from the Middle East via the Crusades, but he does note that Islamic armour was itself built on Central Asian (and possibly even Tibetan) styles of armour. In the sense that the hooped construction of early coats-of-plate resembles the hooped construction of some recent finds of Islamic leather armour, he does have a point, and later brigandines post-date the Mongols enough that I’m not sure more than an indirect influence can be found.

    Still, it’s a very interesting process of development, whether it went from Central Asia to the Islamic world to Western Europe, or from Central Asia to Eastern Europe to Western Europe, and it reinforces just how much of a role armour worn by horse nomads played in the development of equipment by the sedentary peoples they interacted with, so your point still stands.

    (If you haven’t read it, David Nicolle’s edited collection “Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour” is an excellent read, and it includes much on Byzantine and Western European armour, with some interesting forays into Central and Eastern Asia)

    1. I’m not sold on the idea that a coat of plates evolved out of lamellar, metallic reinforcement of mail using sheets of metal was most likely in response to the greater penetrative power of couched lance’s, crossbows and longbows. It’s entirely possible that elements of construction of Islamic armour spread into Europe but the coat of plates looks like a spontaneous development.

      Now brigandine is an interesting case since it emerged in Hungary following the first Mongol invasion of Hungary (the only successful one), however the wiki just claims it’s an Asian armour without any citations which seems like a little stretch.
      It’s more likely to be an evolution of the coat of plates taking design elements from say lamellar to give more flexibility, elsewise wouldn’t the Hungarians just adopt lamellar?

      However i haven’t actually read any literature on this subject so take my speculation with a grain of salt.

      1. I’m not sold on the idea that a coat of plates evolved out of lamellar, metallic reinforcement of mail using sheets of metal was most likely in response to the greater penetrative power of couched lance’s, crossbows and longbows.

        I think this is fairly unlikely. We know medieval bows were plenty powerful in the Early Middle Ages – a replica of the Wassenaar bow came out to 106lbs and the Hedeby bow must have been much heavier than Harm Paulsen’s replica, based on the dimensions – yet that doesn’t seem to have triggered any race for metal armour. Mail isn’t particularly good at keeping out arrows from powerful bows (before anyone cites Williams, remember he had a jack under the mail, not the thin padding the knights actually wore, and that this is a much better test showing that good mail can be holed with ~30-35j of energy: http://www.cotasdemalla.es/test2.htm), so you’d think that if archery offered such a threat the COP would have been developed long before the late 12th century. Similarly, couched lance tactics likely dominated cavalry tactics by 1130, but it would be over a hundred years before COPs became noticeable on the battlefield, some early jousting armour aside.

        Whatever changed, changed fairly rapidly and I don’t think there’s much evidence to support the idea that, after hundreds of years of longbows and crossbows (the earliest crossbow triggers currently known date to the 10th century), suddenly someone thought it would be a good idea to adopt metal armour instead of just keep on using shields as armour and, not only that, but they ignored all possible outside influence to make their own independent style of armour. Most likely, it was a combination of economic, social, technological (in the sense of producing the larger blooms) and cultural (including seeing foreign equivalents) that gave rise to COPs rather than purely military factors that had been around for a considerable length of time.

        1. well it’s difficult to tell with coat’s of plates because they where usually hidden beneath heraldry, it’s possible that by 1188 (when Richard the lionheart was recorded with one using them) that they had been filtering through society for a few years.

          An example would be kite shields with boss’s on the Bayeux tapestry, which looks like a vestigual element of older viking shields taking a generation or two to phase out.

  3. Stealing one’s wife from the neighbouring tribe is a tradition found abundantly in Australian Aboriginal myth. If I remember correctly, it’s how we got the turtle – one enterprising you lad stole a girl from the neighbouring tribe, and fixed two shields on his back and front when their men showed up to dispute the matter. Finding things too hot for him, he slipped into the water, and that is how we have the turtle today. (That particular story must’ve come from a coastal tribe – Australia iirc doesn’t have turtles inland.)

    Re: Arakhs – having seen the TV series’ presentation of them, I would be too scared to make use of one in an actual battle. I’d fear that it’d twist in my hands when I tried to strike a blow. There’s a good reason why the curve of a scimitar is where it is – it won’t twist in your hands when it hits an obstruction. The instant an arakh hits an obstruction it’d twist, leaving your hand feeling raw and your wrist feeling sore, and you would be defenseless until you could get it straight again. An arakh is a Monty Python Life of Brian Suicide Weapon.

    And you’re absolutely right about the utility of a weapon for something other than killing fellow humans being paramount – you look at the way stone age peoples adapt to “modern” tools and weapons. Rifles are wonderful for hunting. Steel axes are the bee’s knees. Machetes/bush knives make clearing gardens so much quicker and easier. If the Dothraki were real people, the quickest way for the Westerosi to conquer them would be to make them dependent on Westerosi trade for such vital tools, enter into treaties with the most pliable, then settle them with long-term debts and never let up on the repayment requirements.

    1. > If the Dothraki were real people, the quickest way for the Westerosi to conquer them would be to make them dependent on Westerosi trade for such vital tools, enter into treaties with the most pliable, then settle them with long-term debts and never let up on the repayment requirements.

      Please, this is Westeros, not Ankh-Morpork. I bet hardly anybody sells sausages at a battle in Westeros.

    2. The only questions are how do you collect on that debt? a nomad can simply flee there debits.

      And what do the Dothraki have to trade? Logically it’s live stock an there products mixed with slaves an plunder.

      Only moveing those goods is the kind of thing there should be friction over, a cattle drive might have to pay fees or bargain to cross a territory.

      1. Hence the need for dependency. It’s all very well to tell the grocer you aren’t paying his bill, but if there isn’t another grocery or other food source, you are out of luck for eating.

    3. Minor correction – inland Australia does have turtles, including the Queensland turtle that breathes through its bum (Rheodytes leukops). I have helped turtles cross the road in central NSW.

      On the abduction of women, the film Ten Canoes is a great watch (shot in northern Australia, using local aboriginal actors, a tale of jealously, misunderstanding and the warrior ethos)

      1. Correction accepted. I’d just never seen or heard of them, whereas I’ve read plenty about sea turtles. Thanks

  4. > Of course we couldn’t leave off without discussing the absolutely bizarre visual adaptation of the weapon for Game of Thrones, where the scimitar-like arakh is transformed into what is essentially an oversized iron khopesh

    I think the showrunners (or perhaps just the people preparing the props), considering how the dothraki were depicted as barbarians, decided that giving scimitars, which are definitely coded Arab or at least oriental, might have been non politically correct, whereas kopesh are from a definitely dead culture, so no will come to complain. Though one could wonder why that treatment of steppe and plains cultures was acceptable, whereas giving the barbarians of the setting scimitars wasn’t.

    1. A Dacian Falx might have been a better choice, although from my limited knowledge I don’t think it was used on horseback.

    2. Not every curved sword looks oriental. Western culture has them too. (I’ve seen a curved sword in the hand of a U.S. Marine, though I don’t think they actually use them in battle any more.)

      I think, if the show really wanted to, they could have made a reasonable-looking curved sword that doesn’t bring to mind a specific real culture.

      1. The US Marine sword is called Mameluke sword, and it is based on the tradition that some American marine officers wore souveniers from the Barbary Wars. As that war is part of the origin myth of the US Marine Corps, the Oriental style sword is now official part of uniform. It was adopted as such only decades later, as a conscious effort to create traditions. In mid-19th century, the Marines used normal swords that were the same as in the US Army.

        1. In mid-19th century, the Marines used normal swords that were the same as in the US Army.

          Which were, of course, also curved. The only thing about the Marine “Mameluke sword” that’s specifically characteristic of Mameluke/Ottoman swords — as opposed to sabers in general — is the hilt.

          (I believe there are actually two official US Marine swords: the “Mameluke” sword for officers (curved blade, “Mameluke” hilt), and the 1859 non-commissioned officer’s sword (curved blade, European-style basket hilt).

          I think the relevant issue is whether curved swords in a quasi/pseudo-medieval setting read as “Arab” or “oriental”. Since most TV and film (and fantasy-novel covers, and fantasy role-playing games, and …) depictions have European or quasi-European medieval characters wielding straight swords, it’s a definite possibility.

    3. I think to those with little to no knowledge of weaponry, straight swords look Western and any curve away from that looks non-Western, and the more curved the more emphatically non-Western. I suspect most people don’t know whether a khopesh is or isn’t a variant scimitar let alone which culture or cultures historically used them.

  5. Thanks for this (once more) outstanding series of posts.

    “Native Americans used a range of intimidating war cries, but so did basically everyone else in the pre-modern world”
    OK now you got me wanting a post about war-cries. Also stuff like “did medieval soldiers rellay bumped their weapons on their shields to intimidate ?”

    1. This’d be a cool post. I’ve done the pommel-on-shield (well, basket-hilt-on-buckler, really) thing while sparring. It’s weird how much making a ringing noise can settle the mind.

  6. I discovered your blog quite recently, and read everything quickly. This is a very interesting breakdown; while many people know or feel that lots of pop culture’s depiction of history is silly and/or flatly wrong, it is good to see someone putting everything together, citing sources and explaining *why* it is wrong.
    So, thanks for writing these. =)

  7. ‘…And of course the worst of it is that the lie – backed by the vast apparatus that is HBO prestige television – will have more reach and more enduring influence than this or any number of historical ‘debunking’ essays… ‘

    See also the Netflix series ‘The Crown’, which claims to be about recent UK history.
    Which is a discussion topic, I suppose, for an entirely different day, and possibly for a completely different blog writer.

    1. I think I’ve seen my parents watching that, isn’t that about queen E no. 2 electric boogaloo?

      1. No it isn’t. As with claims that the Dothraki are a mishmash of Steppes and Great Plains nomads, Netflix claims that it is about QE2, though.

    2. I find the later seasons of that show to be utterly appalling. These people ARE STILL ALIVE. Even the earlier shows are kinda cringey to me, but at least they cover events that happened before I was born, and are therefore history.
      I *remember* the events covered, if as a youth in America.

      1. The worst part is that the producers are claiming the series is historically accurate, but when the government here in Britain asked them to add a disclaimer stating that it was fiction, they responded saying that everyone knows it’s fiction. Despite marketing it as being true.

        1. That is a literal legal fiction, along the lines of news articles in britain talking about people “assisting the police with their enquiries” after being pulled into the police station against their will. (Extremely simplified)
          It’s basically cargo-cult boilerplate lifted from some lawsuits.

          TBF, I find most soap operas a little cringey.

  8. I think the Arak wasn’t so much to Exoticize the Dothraki as to show how ‘Badass’ and ‘kool’ his Uber-nomads where. In fact the design sounds like it was a forwards curving blade and that he though what made a farm tool good at hewing crops makes a sword good at chopping into people. This is pretty dumb but shows more a complete lack of understanding on cavalry warfare similar to Rohan in ‘Total Wargery’ than malicious intent.

    It probably also shows his disdain to the common foot soldiers, the unwashed peasants who might as well be naked to to the Dothraki combine harvester.

  9. Another fascinating read.

    Regardless of the utterances of GRRM, his publishers or publicists etc., ASOFAI isn’t history, it isn’t a documentary, it is entertainment. As such, some of the criticisms here are the equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel.

    For me, the real question is the conflict between history and narrative, which you have amply demonstrated. I don’t have any answer other than drama is not meant to be a documentary, which is a weak response to a problem because I have no solution.

    I am reminded of a quote by H. G. Wells, advertising is legalized lying. However, I’m also mindful that when authors say they lie for a living that this is factually true, as lying is the act of deceiving, whereas fiction is suspending disbelief to share a story.

    Which makes me ponder whether teaching needs to stress the functional difference between fact and fiction, and increase students skills in ascertaining what is fiction versus fact? Arguably, that is what higher learning establishments do, but arguably this has not trickled down into the societies we live in.

    Just my musings.

    1. But the point is that Martin repeatedly has claimed that his work is much more historical compared to traditional fantasy like Tolkien. It wouldn’t have been as much a problem if he hadn’t repeatedly made the claim.

      By the way, it would be very interesting if Bret made a post analysing have Tolkien’s middle-earth holds up to history. Not just the battles, which is already done, but economy, social structures, history, culture etc.

      1. Outside the campaign posts:
        – the “Gondor infantry kit review” talks about how Gondor evidently puts high social status on infantrymen, as reflected in their equipment (both expensive and highly protective);
        – the “lonely city” posts have “fair and fertile townlands on the long slopes and terraces falling to the deep levels of the Anduin” and how it’s missing from the movie (same with the country around Edoras).

        Aside: in the case of Gondor, it would have made the movie better *as a story* if they showed the high-intensity agriculture, since in that case, the dark cloud of Mordor protruding over Gondor would not be wholly supernatural, but the smoke from the burning farms of the Pelennor. It would retain its symbolic value (as a temporary protrusion of the military power of Mordor into the lands of Men) and add to it a visual signifier of the destruction of the livelihood of the people living there. (The books have a scene about the evacuation of the Pelennor.) (The movies do something similar in the Saruman/Helm’s Gate campaign, at the cost of making Saruman’s strategy not just flawed but completely nonsensical.)

        Generally, the fictional cultures based closely on historical analogs that were deeply studied by Tolkien (e.g. the Rohirrim based on Western European history) are probably the most solid, whereas the more plainly invented ones raise questions about subsistence. What do the Dwarves eat? Have they perhaps found a way to turn mined coal into some staple food? (Probably involving a lot of fermentation. Dwarven Marmite, anyone?) Similarly, what are the elves doing in those forests? I suppose “forest gardening” is elegant, aesthetically fitting, permissive of high population density, and it doesn’t take too much handwaving about climates (rainfall patterns, etc.) to explain why it exists close to cereal agriculture, but without either displacing the other. Notably, however, it lacks the all-hands-at-work period that is the harvest in cereal agriculture, with far-reaching implications for social structures (particularly “marriage customs” i.e. family structure).

        1. Good point about the smoleclouds over Gondor. Also very good about infantry in Gondor. I wonder if there is any source of economic organization in Gondor in general. Craftsman guilds? Trade and traders? Agriculture feudal or smallholders? And administration and legal system. I don’t remember if it possible to draw any conclusions from some small nuggets in the text. A good historian might extrapolate from what is written.

          Regarding dwarves; according to a text in the History of Middle Earth vol 12 aka the Peoples of Middle Earth, it was usual for dwarves to live in a kind of symbiosis with men, like they did in Erebor (dwarves) and Dale (men), with dwarves producing tools and men producing food with neither community ruling over the other. This because agricultural work was loathsome to dwarves (so obviously they had to do it when they were without choice). Dwarves also seem to be the only outside groups trading in the Shire (since the hobbits doesn’t seem totally surprised at the appearance of dwarves.

          1. Very interesting. You’d expect populations of dwarves to be quite small in that case, as they’re basically filling (some of) the artisan class of various different human populations.

            There’s also an interesting issue for the dwarves long-term in a similar way to the West-East trade of gold for silk. They’re basically trading a non-renewable resource for a renewable one (and a pretty vital renewable one at that!). This is somewhat mollified by them also trading expertise and time, but over centuries you’d expect a situation similar to that preceding the Crusades: gold-strapped dwarven kingdoms struggling to purchase food from now-very-rich human neighbours.

            Of course, it’s always possible that what we see is a temporary phenomenon. I find there’s a lot of criticism of fantasy cultures for not having sustainable economies when a large proportion of real-world civilisations haven’t been either (even when you discount ones that weren’t sustainable due to disaster).

            The question of ‘but that isnt sustainable’ could well be answered with a ‘yes, in time it’ll all collapse, but for now it’s working well enough’.

          2. Ashkenazim may have had some autonomy in the Eastern European kingdoms in which they lived, but they were not independent equals living side by side in an economic symbiosis with gentiles. If anything, the dwarves seems to have been the stronger part. Unlike Ashkenazim, the dwarves were fully independent, and military strong, so it also seems to have been a military alliance, unlike anything in Eastern Europe. Also, Ashkenazim were not miners, dwarves were not bankers or tax collectors, and dwarves were not in any way forbidden from owning farmland (who would forbid them?).

          3. The notion that dwarves are in any way modelled on Jews is asinine. Tolkien merely compared the plight of the Moria and Erebor Dwarves to the Diaspora and used semitic languages as the basis for his bits of Dwarves language to make it as different from his other imaginary languages as possible.

          4. There are populated places that can’t sustain a population, but which provide enough raw materials to support a population of manufacturers, who then trade for food:
            https://orionexpeditionpng.blogspot.com/2009/04/bilbil.html
            “Prior to 1904, the Bilbil people lived on an island offshore from Madang, trading clay pots along the coast from Kar Kar Island to western Morobe. The island was too small to produce enough food for the inhabitants, and the trade therefore was an essential element of their life.”
            […]
            “Over the centuries the Bilbils have been great seaman, and they sailed their large two-masted canoes for hundreds of kilometers along the coast. They would call into many villages and trade their pots for food, wooden bowls, pigs and other trading goods.”
            I find the trade in Dwarvish manufactured goods for Human-grown foodstuffs entirely believable – though there would’ve been Dwarvish farms before the arrival of humans.

          5. Yes, Tolkien don’t say that they never farmed, but that they found it distasteful.

        2. As mentioned in the comments of another post, Dwarves trade their metal and building skills to men and hobbits for foodstuffs. The Hobbit also mentions trade between the Mirkwood Elves and men. Of course that’s in the Third Age. What Elves and Dwarves did back in the literal Dark Age before the sun and moon is anybody’s guess. Magical hydroponics perhaps? I wonder, could Petty Dwarves be runaway members of a despised agricultural caste? Sylvan Elves could hunt and gather but how is the population of Menegroth sustained? By Melian’s magic?

        3. What do the dwarves eat? Well, roast meat, for example. 😀 (OK, that’s the movie, but I’m sure they liked it anyway.)

          The dwarves traded. Glóin mentions that the Beornings keep the passes free, though their taxes are high, which implies trade routes. The dwarves could offer all sorts of metal works from weapons to ornaments as well as gems. And don’t forget the highly sought after mithril. No problem to get meat and beer that way, if they didn’t brew the latter themselves, which is possible.

        4. Yes, the human cultures are clearly based on historical analogues – broadly 8th century Carolingian-on-broad-grasslands for the Rohirrim, and a kind of mixed 10th C Byzantine empire/ high medieval culture for Gondor. Tolkien knew an *awful lot* about 8th century Western European societies, so I would expect that if called upon he could have drilled down to great detail on anything Rohirrim-related (and as Bret noted, everything about how the Rohirrim interact and fight in the books is very coherent). Gondor has a couple more fantastical elements, like the existence of longer lived part-Numenoreans, but is still fairly coherent. Motivations, interactions, military structure etc tend to add up

        5. Similarly, what are the elves doing in those forests?

          Well there are multiple reasons for this. First, it must be noted that not all elves live in forests. The firsts to do so were the Nandor, or Laiquendi, who were enamored with trees, forests etc… And who were much more “rustic” than other elves. Although they are more “civilized” than the Avari, who for all intent of purposes never left the paleolithic. Since the Nandor do not hunt (in the first age they press Finrod, a Noldorin King, to tell the Men of Beor to leave their forests because they hunted) I suppose they live as gatherers. Elves are magical beings, and growing grain or fruits is well within their possibility, moreover the “Goddess” of Living things taught them how to do the Lembas, that bread which can fill a man’s stomach by just “one small bite”. So the answer for why is cultural norms and the answer for how is magic. Of course, since Elves *do not* wage war against each-other (except for the sons of Fëanor who only attacked those in possession of their father’s heirloom), they were never threatened by anything.

          Sindar (another ethnic group of elves) also lived in woods, Doriath, but that’s because the large forest provided protection due to Melian’s (an angel married to the King of Doriath) against Morgoth (The God of Evil). While we do not know why Melian or her husband chose Doriath, it must be noted that Melian is the sister of the afore-mentionned “Goddess” of Living Things, so it may that her power were the strongest there. Again, here it’s for more practical reason (defense against Satan) and the logistics are assured by the production of Lembas. Note that the Capital (and only city) of Doriath, Menegroth, is a cave.

          Finally, after the King of Doriath dies, the Kingdom is sacked by dwarves and then attacked by the Sons of Fëanor because its new ruler refuses to hand down their heirloom. The fleeing population with gather in to areas which were both majority Nandor. First we have Lorien (which would become Galadriel’s realm) ruled by Amdir. In this kingdom, the Nandor “sindarized” themselves but the population kept living in a heavily forested area because it was reminiscent of Doriath. Now Amdir disappears and Galadriel and her husband become Lords of the Realm, but they keep it because Galadriel’s wishes to turn it into a new Doriath, for prestige reasons, she has always been politically ambitious.
          Meanwhile other Sindar, led by Oropher would install themselves in what would become Mirkwood and they would “nandorize” themselves, thus they will not disrupt the established order in any manner and instead accomodate with the locals (although once again, Oropher would seek to mimic Doriath with his “Hall of the Elven-King” a copy of Menegroth)

          But not all Sindar lived in Doriath, many lived outside of it, and in the surrounding areas. Notably, there are two havens led by Cirdan the Shipwright, who’s a vassal of Doriath but lives at the shores (the Sindar, and their kin the Teleri were both enamored with the Sea). Others live pretty much in all of Beleriand, and for the entirety of the first Age they were ruled by the Noldor (a group of Elves who were exiled and fled the Land of “Gods” to take revenge upon Morgoth, they would rule the Sindar through their physical, spiritual and technological superiority).

          The Noldor were more like Dwarves, they were smithcrafts and builders. The man who created the Three-Elven Rings was a Noldor, Celebrimbor. In Aman, the Land of Gods, Noldor lived in a city called Tirion ruled by Finwë. He had three sons, Fëanor, Fingolfin and Finarfin. After Finwë’s death, Fëanor flees Aman, after slaughtering the Teleri to steal their ships, and Fingolfin crosses a huge desert of Ice to go after him, while Finarfin back up and returns to Tirion where he rule as King.
          Now Fëanor quickly dies because he’s a dumbass, and his eldest son Maedhros is ambushed by Morgoth and imprisoned in Angband, leaving his remaining 6 (or 5) brothers to rule with Maglor at their lead. They do not interact with Sindar except when Celegorm, the third son relieves Cirdan from a siege laid by Orc.
          Finally, as the Sun rises for the first time, Fingolfin, with his sons and his nephews (Finarfin’s children) arrive to Beleriand. They defeat the Orcs, Maedhros is saved, he relinquishes the Crown and Fingolfin becomes High-King of the Noldor then he lays siege on Angband (Morgoth’s fortress).

          Noldor didn’t live in forests, they preferred cities or even caves. Of the Kings and Princs of the Noldor, none did live in a forest except Galadriel (who did not rule Noldor, but mainly Sindar and Nandor). Her brother Finrod ruled in the underground city of Nargothrond a vast realm with his brothers Aegnor and Angrod being vassals in the frontlines against Angband. Their cousins, be it Turgon or Fingon both ruled cities. Turgon first established Vinyamar at the coasts and then built Gondolin, a city hidden in a mountain. Fingon ruled with his father Fingolfin from their capital Barad Eithel the country of Hithlum, which was rainy, cold, but fertile enough and encircled with mountains. Finally, Maedhros settled East of Doriath, in the most dangerous area, far from his cousins and uncle with his brothers as vassals, in the March of Maedhros. He himself lived on Himring, a fortress-city sat on a high hill. His brother Caranthir had his own Castle called Amon Ereb, Celegorm and Curufin fortified the Pass of Aglon. They lived in cities in a variety of environments.

        6. In a Letter Tolkien acknowledged economics as one of his weak points. He did okay with humans and hobbits: for almost every population there’s some indication of what the food supply was, and little about the society to make you raise your eyebrows. Though there’s no evidence that Bilbo and Frodo are *landed* gentry as many fans assume by analogy with England; Bilbo’s parents simply have “money” and when Frodo moves out there’s no mention of estates. The Gaffer complains about Lobelia as a neighbor, not as a new landlord.

          As mentioned, there are two indications (Hobbit; “Of Dwarves and the Edain”) of dwarves trading heavily with human populations, but as mentioned that doesn’t cover all the bases. Fundamentally dwarves feel like “they’re all miners and craftsmen”. We never actually ‘see’ a healthy dwarvish realm up close.

          And then if dwarves feel middle-class, elves tend to feel aristocratic, and we *do* see their realms, with no mention of farms or even obvious orchards. (Well, one old version of Turin’s story does have the approach to Nargothrond seeing such things, but that’s it.) The most common mention of food production is ‘hunting’, with ‘orchards’ a distant second.

          There’s holy supergrain that goes into lembas, but lembas itself is very special — maybe a Eurcharist analog — and it’s not clear if they’d use more of that grain for regular food.

          Orchards/forest farming could work, especially with some low key magic (to make trees produce crops on your schedule, and to keep squirrels away) but the few (one?) description of elven food is not dominated by nuts and dried fruits…

          I’ve snarked that we know more about elven sex life than about elven food.

          Unlike GRRM, Tolkien doesn’t describe meals very often. Two that he does are similar: Beorn and Bombadil, solitary vegetarians. Tom’s table is

          ‘I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered.’

          Beorn didn’t have the herbs and berries but was otherwise similar: bread, dairy, honey. Beorn, being human, did have gardens, animals, and beehives described. Bombadil’s supply is rather less apparent. (He also has a lot of fresh bedding for someone buried in the Old Forest! Do elves or Rangers stop over a lot???)

          1. OTOH as far as realism goes, Tolkien’s societies usually feel idealistically apolitical. Classless, or the classes knowing their places (which includes the rich not being too greedy and trying to force people off their farms to make even bigger farms.) There are conflicts — Silmarils, Kin-strife — but not a lot of “I’m a power-hungry asshole” *or* obvious mechanisms to render such assholes non-problems. I don’t think one has to be too cynical to think that something’s missing. It’s like an “end of history” but in the past. Or Star Trek’s Federation with furry footed farmers.

            GRRM does feel much more realistic on that front, at least in Westeros. You’ve got nobles and commoners, some of the nobles mean well and some are utter assholes. The commoners aren’t thrilled about being commoners, up to the point of rebellions. Maybe it’s too cynical at times but overall it’s people doing people things and having people conflicts.

            And you do get some of that in Tolkien — the Master of Lake-town, the Sackville-Bagginses, maybe Wormtongue if you ignore the whole “working for a falling angel” thing, the Dunlendings actually have a legitimate complaint about being kicked around by the Rohirrim, Numenor’s colonialist phase — but the societies we see the most of, such as it is (which to be fair, isn’t that much — LotR is about as long as one Song of Ice and Fire book and set mostly away from society; Silmarillion is even shorter and covering a lot of territory) do feel idyllic.

          2. “Though there’s no evidence that Bilbo and Frodo are *landed* gentry as many fans assume by analogy with England”

            What else could they be? What other form of wealth would the Shire have?

            Elves are weird because they’re coded as aristocrats but don’t have any commoners doing their work.

            Bombadil’s a demigod. For all we know he conjured everything he needed to show the hobbits hospitality.

          1. There’s a lot of fun to be had with reversing this quote. The clean-shaven, tunic-wearing Romans adopted the pants (/braccae/) from the Gauls, who are usually depicted with big mustaches and/or beards. You can have a Gallic character remark about how the lack of facial hair appears feminine to him (while the tunic appears feminine to the modern reader) — and perhaps promptly get his hindquarters kicked by the Romans.

        7. Gondor has a strong economy and a major demographics problem. It makes sense that they would armor up their infantrymen – manpower shortages would very likely be a much bigger problem than production of arms and armor.

          This could also be expected to lead to a “fortress mentality”, where they trust in defensive fortifications.

      2. One major problem with dealing with JRRT’s legendarium like that is that you have a set of unreliable narrators in Tolkien’s works. You are not reading “What happened” (for a given value of happened, this is after all fiction), you are reading what fictional characters wrote about “what happened” often far removed from the actual events and going through multiple fictional hands before eventually being “translated” by Tolkien himself and given to the reader. In some ways it would be better to compare Tolkien’s works to medieval history books rather than actual medieval history.

        By the way, if you get a chance, I would seriously recommend the short story snipped from Unfinished Tales “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields”. You can get it for free here. http://www.ae-lib.org.ua/texts-c/tolkien__unfinished_tales__en.htm#3-1

        Not so much for the story itself, although it’s nice, but for the insight into Tolkien’s methodology. The core narrative in the short story is how Isildur and some followers march back north after the war of the Last Alliance and how Isildur gets ambushed and his force wiped out and the Ring lost. But at the end of it, you have a section on “The sources of the legend of Isildur’s death”, and how after the war of the Ring, Aragorn takes a look around the inside of Orthanc and discovers some if Isildur’s stuff in Saruman’s old treasury. He takes this, combined with previous stories and historical knowledge about Isildur’s end, and they composed something that is explicitly labeled a story due to surmise. That’s how Tolkien’s writing process tended to work, and it’s honestly missed by a lot of readers, in my opinion.

        Best wishes.

      3. You’re right. He has, No argument from me there. But, it doesn’t mean he says is true.

        We can all believe we know what we’re talking about, doesn’t mean we do. GRRM has said explicitly that he doesn’t want to get heavily into discussing the research. That alone should tell you all you need to know.

      4. it’d be tricky tho, there are big things that totally change the material situation and which make sense in the context of LOTR (small city-states inhabited by immortals and defended by magic, huge tracts of formerly populated but now depopulated lands, etc) that have no historical analogs

        1. I think as well from the point of view of historiography Tolkien fell a bit under the prevailing “Dark Age” view of the Early Middle Ages, where it was the established view that after the fall of the Western Empire the population dropped to much lower levels than it did; that it was more of an Eriador (with orcs playing the part of Huns and Vikings). Of course, now the view has swung too much the other way, with some trying to maintain that the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was no biggie.

    2. I take your point but I think that the idea of entertainment and accuracy being mutually exclusive is somewhat incorrect though.

      I believe that Bret has suggested in several of the other articles that adding more accuracy would also make the story-telling more interesting by making the culture Dani interacts with more interesting. To put it another way, if an author is not going to invent an internally consistent and unique culture wholesale, then they can meaningfully copy one (and not just its superficial aspects) and gain access to interesting ideas for the story telling.

      I also think that adopting an existing culture more faithfully would also improve world-building (and therefore increase entertainment), because as Bret points out, the economy and subsistence of the Dothraki doesn’t really make sense. That’s not a huge issue to some readers but I am one of those pedantic readers that wants my fantasy world to be internally consistent. Again, if an author can’t invent an internally unique culture that makes sense wholesale, copying one can at least make the fantasy world coherent. Maybe it depends on how willing one is to suspend disbelief? I am happy to suspend disbelief for the premise, but once a fantasy world is built, I personally want it to operate on consistent rules.

      1. You’re not wrong, but I didn’t mean to imply that they were mutually exclusive.

        Rather that stories are fiction. I agree with all the criticism that Brett brings to GRRms narrative. I just doubt that GRRM cares.

        1. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t care – he would probably brush this off as being the kind of boring details he’s not interested in. The issue is that a lot of fans of ASOIAF and GOT the series accept that it is historically accurate, and I think Bret is writing more in the hope that some of them will eventually read these articles and realise how wrong that assumption is.

      2. In addition to other problems, Dothraki being non-human is narratively boring. They are just a (very stupid) plot device pretending to be people.

        In fact, Dany’s story (as far as I read, so book three) is mostly stumbling through “exotic” plot device peoples. This tendency was then exaggerated in the television series, in which Dothraki and Unsullied turn into respawning and teleporting video game armies.

        1. It’s been a while since I involved with ASOIAF fandom, but one of the common criticisms of Dany’s storyline a few years ago was that she kept being given paper thin civilisations and incredibly evil villians with no depth to deal with as a way to make her look more heroic. Anyone can look like a good person when compared to the Ghiscari after all.

      3. And I would note as a matter of comparison, when Mance Rayder appears (at least in the show, I believe it was also the case in the books) he mentions that there are some ninety clans that speak seven languages within his warhost (which reminds me of the longstanding gripe I have that the North has no distinct regional accent or language, despite the every other detail about the North indicating they should). Mance and his efforts are massively impactful on Jon Snow and his approach to the war and the Freefolk, and it works so much better than the Dothraki. Jon Snow learns and expands his concept of leading and rulership as a result of seeing firsthand how difficult leading and rulership can be from his time with Mance, and sees how genuine of an existential threat the Night King represents from how cohesive Mance’s forces are.
        Dany, by comparison, seems to only take from the Dothraki that wanton violence is bad. That’s it. There’s not an effort to demonstrate through the Dothraki a nuanced view of a culture that is violent, but still productive and functional, and emphasize Dany’s relative strong moral convictions about norms of violence as a contrast. There’s not an effort for Dany to learn from the Dothraki how to lead or rule, or to learn the importance of norms, or anything at all to give depth to this story. There’s almost nothing that Dany learns or takes from the Dothraki beyond merely having their forces to lead. It’s just boring and doesn’t develop her or the setting.

    3. The problem is, as others have said, is that Martin represents (or represented: he may have changed his mind by now, and the stories were a long time in the making, so quotes from thirty years back are probably not accurate anymore) that he was tackling the problem that Tolkien and Tolkien-derived fantasy shied away from (sex and violence, in effect) and that he was writing more ‘realistic’ or realism-based fantasy. Fantasy informed by Real History (though as demonstrated, turns out to be more Hollywood History), and cultures/societies based on real cultures/societies. So he cut the rod for his own back. His ambition led him to claim more than he could deliver. In his 2014 interview with “Rolling Stone”, if he’s going to ask “So what was Aragorn’s tax policy?” then he can’t object if people assume he is going to work out the taxation legislation and import tonnages and acreage under wheat cultivation and so on for his own invented societies, even if that’s not actually the point he’s trying to make. Martin is an author so he should be more careful with his word choices:

      “A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
      Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

      In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”

      1. As an aside, I have always thought that entire statement by Martin about kingship fundamentally misunderstands how kingship works. Tolkien understood it better.

        Maybe sometime we’ll talk about the three roles of kingship and how kingship functions in a traditional society….

        1. Yes. If you read folk tales about how Mathias Corvinus reigned in Hungary, you get a much better understanding how a renaissance monarch would be seen as “wise and good” by his people.

          I don’t mean to imply that these tales would tell very much about the historical king: some of those tales are retellings of millenia-old motifs. Instead, the stories tell how people thought a good king would rule. They give a good insight into how common people saw “goodness” and “wisdom”. You can see that actually, the king’s “goodness” was very much about keeping the extortion by lower ranking nobles, soldiers and bailiffs at reasonable levels, and “wisdom” meant doing that in a socially acceptable manner.

          The same goes for even for into modernity: Alexander I, the Emperor of all Russias, made a tour of Finland in 1819. In Northern Finland, an old folkswoman asked for an audience, which was easy: the czar traveled light, with a retinue of six noblemen and about a dozen cossacks. (Incredible, but true. The area was so poor and empty of people that this was a logistical necessity.) The interpreter told to the czar that the woman was a widow of a soldier, and had recently received a small pension. She had walked about 100 km to see the emperor and thank him. Alexander was moved and told that the old woman could receive a another show of imperial benevolence. The woman was horrified: how could she, whose livelihood was now secure, ever ask for anything but God’s blessing on the emperor! Alexander broke into tears, telling that not a single nobleman of his court would have left the wish unused. The woman was given 5 rubles, anyhow. (A sizeable but not overwhelming sum.) The story is probably true (having been recorded by the czar’s aide-de-camp in his personal diary), but more importantly, it shows also an actual idea how an ideal interaction between a monarch and his people should go. Both the emperor and the woman knew their roles in this story. It might have happened in a Finnish village 201 years ago, but it might quite as well have happened to Croesus of Lydia.

        2. I would like to read it.

          I’m pretty well read about the Middle Ages, esp. the time from the 10th to 14th century. Yet I call my Fantasy novel series in-progress _inspired_ by the European Middle Ages, not ‘Middle Ages with a dash of Fantasy’ or something. And with all the books and essays I have read I still keep finding new details, not the least in this blog. My siege tactics certainly improved. 😀

          I got a people inspired by the Golden Horde, a recent addition to the plot. I wrote some scenes during the National Writing Month in November just to get the material down to be edited later, and afterwards checked with the essays here how badly I messed up. It turns out that I didn’t mess up; though I haven’t yet researched that aspect in detail, my brain must have stored enough information about steppe nomads I picked up from books – not old Hollywood movies – to get them mostly right. 😉

        3. Wouldn’t that be truer in context of late Middle Ages? Like, Aragorn as an Anglo-Saxon monarch wouldn’t qualife, but as a Fourteenth C. king, perhaps he would have a tax policy and all that legal stuff.

        4. You already did.
          https://acoup.blog/2019/06/04/new-acquisitions-how-it-wasnt-game-of-thrones-and-the-middle-ages-part-ii/
          “Kingship has three core roles in almost all human cultures where the institution appears: kings are 1) chief judge, 2) chief general, and 3) chief priest. That third role appears more or less prominently in almost all societies.”

          More importantly, in this series of posts you’ve repeatedly emphasized the lack of administrative apparatus to implement the ruler’s will, and various consequences thereof (e.g. that King’s Landing can’t grow that large). So far this conceptually fell into two parallel idealized progressions for me.

          * In what form is surplus extracted from the periphery?
          1: Military forces. On a very local level (theme, fyrd, or even individual manors) the surplus is used to raise/maintain military forces which can march off to campaign even if the overland transportation infrastructure is basically nonexistent (assuming that they can forage in the operational theatre).
          2: Agricultural products. Cereals are shipped to a large central city under a state-managed system (Annona) and military forces raised there.
          3: Money (as an “accounting fiction”). Surplus cereals are shipped to cities in a market system; the state taxes somebody at some point; the state raises armed forces by steering economic activity toward military production indirectly, by “spending” the tax revenues.

          * How is administrative power subdivided (implemented) at high levels?
          A: Geographically, to individuals with long (and indefinite) terms, e.g. vassalage. There is little concept of professionalism; the duties coming with delegated power are seen as part of the personal relationship with the liege, rather than as part of the abstract title separate from the personal relationship. (People don’t get fired by a sympathetic boss saying “I’m sorry, I like you, but you are not competent enough”, people get fired for being seen as ungrateful i.e. not reciprocating favors properly. The mental bookkeeping includes everything from “says good jokes” through “teaches me falconry” to actual job performance.)
          B: Geographically, to individuals with short and sharply defined terms, with later promotions up the cursus honorum conditional on doing their job well. I don’t know of an actual example, but imagine if provinces were governed by quaestors (not as aides of the governor, but as immediate reports of the Senate). They could still, by an individual decision, rebel or defect to another empire and take their province with them, but there is much less incentive to do so, since they lose legitimacy at the end of their term.
          C: Topically, not geographically. Logothete of X, minister of X, secretary of X. Interdependency makes rebellion impossible.

          I don’t recall anything quotable, but my understanding is that matters of “administrative policy” in the sense of Martin’s questions were basically cultural institutions rather than anything that individuals could change.
          – Tax policy? It was a local custom, it varied slightly from manor to manor.
          – Did he maintain a standing army? Mostly not, the beacons were used to call up forces that went home after each campaign. (But even when demobilized, they practiced for, say, one day per week. E.g. a manor’s select levy is pretty small, but for weapons training it’s plentiful.)
          – What did he do in times of flood and famine? There was very little he could do (for the purposes of this question, religious rituals don’t count).
          – And what about all these orcs? If we interpret the orcs in the mountains as approximately the same thing as vertical transhumant pastoralist humans, or especially as agriculturalist humans living in extremely difficult terrain, then the mutual raiding/devastation/retaliation/bloodshed (see description of Native American warfare in the post) could go on more or less forever, and the king would be powerless to stop it by forcing any outcome (whether genocide or demilitarization). Only a modern state can build the network of roads and garrisons required to project enough force to bring peace one way or the other. Si vis pacem…

      2. That quote about Aragorn has driven me up the wall since the first time I heard it. It’s so fundamentally WRONG. I don’t even pretend to have Professor Devereaux’s insight as to the roles of historical kingship. Just dealing with the phenomenon of Tolkien’s writing, we can see kings who were good men morally and who did not lead their realms to prosperity. Theoden is probably the single biggest example, and as major a character as anyone in the trilogy outside the core fellowship. There’s plenty more if you want to trawl through the appendices or get out into things like the Silmarillion or the other legendarium writings.

        I cannot understand how someone can be a self-proclaimed Tolkien fan and miss the point so unbelievably badly.

        Best wishes,

    4. “ASOFAI isn’t history, it isn’t a documentary, it is entertainment. As such, some of the criticisms here are the equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel.”

      The issue is that alot of people who know history and enjoy speculative fiction (like Brett) are making the argument that ASOFAI is bad fiction. This isn’t the same that the writing is bad, but rather that the choices the author made to tell the story are actively harmful. Especially when it comes to treatment of other non-European cultures, of women, and even of historical European cultures.

      When called out about the level of rape and other violence, the ignorant and racist depictions of some people in ASOFAI, and the use of outdated and harmful tropes, the first defense from alot of fans tends to be “but that’s how things we’re back then and we’re just being more historically accurate”. This is why Brett is choosing to write these articles even if it seems like shooting fish in a barrel.

      When you get to the heart of the story in ASOFAI, it’s mainly about the misuse of power, especially of military power. I feel like GRRM is trying to write a story that demolishes the myth of some purer time when war was somehow better, and his biggest target is the myth that Monarchy was only bad when you had bad rulers.

      But he also seems to revel in the violence, seems completely tone deaf when it comes to other cultures, and hasn’t done enough research with his “fantasy Europe” to support the point that he’s trying to make. On tope of that, his “fantasy nomad people” has so next to no research behind it, and he basically ends up just recycling alot of racist and bad tropes that are very harmful.

      If this was Robert Howard, writing “Conan the Cimmerian” stories back in the 1930s, I would give GRRM pretty much a complete pass. But in this case, we’re in a situation where the author has done just enough research in ASOFAI to be dangerous, so it has the feel of authenticity while being wrong in enough places to do actual harm.

      1. Nik_the_heratik: The issue is that alot of people who know history and enjoy speculative fiction (like Brett) are making the argument that ASOFAI is bad fiction. This isn’t the same that the writing is bad, but rather that the choices the author made to tell the story are actively harmful. Especially when it comes to treatment of other non-European cultures, of women, and even of historical European cultures.

        Okay, I think we are talking at cross purposes here. I have no quibble with yours or Brett’s position.

        But, the proposition ‘bad fiction’ equals ‘actively harmful’ is an argument I would disagree with, because it is rooted in beliefs that people hold, which is not supported by the evidence from research into the psychology of beliefs.

        The best that can be shown on the effects of fiction on beliefs is a correlation, which is weakly suggestive of cause and effect. Belief in this case means believing that fiction shapes beliefs put the cart before the horse. Fiction reflects the beliefs of the person and the society they were brought up in.

        So, one can show that fiction reflects values, but showing that fiction shapes values is another matter.

        1. I have a hard time imagining a study where people, say, read a fictional story which is explicitly set in 1950, and feature the character mentioning President Kennedy, and when they ask the reader who was the President in 1950 after the reading is done, the reader is not more likely to say “Kennedy” than before (even though Kennedy was not the President in 1950). If you do have citations of that sort that disagree, I would be absolutely fascinated to read them.

          1. I don’t, and I think again we have talked across each other.

            People learning false facts from fiction assumes that people learn true facts from fiction. Whereas the facts or fictions one learns are more to do with ones motivation to learn, and in particular ones willingness to set aside beliefs in the light of new evidence.

            A discussion that has already been aired on this blog in a previous post, with citations from myself.

            The irony was that some readers would not believe the facts and held to their belief that facts change peoples opinions. My position would be that mankind is not a rationale creature, but instead seeks to rationalize what happens from generalizable heuristics from evolutionary pressures.

          2. People have no particular attachment to the position “male Mongols did (or did not) sing” or “European monarchs did (or did not) believe in their religion,” though. This isn’t like George Washington being a slave-owner where it has a lot of emotional weight. These are divorced from most people’s preexisting knowledge and not overtly valued beliefs in themselves.

          3. Communard Scum ‘People have no particular attachment to the position “male Mongols did (or did not) sing” or “European monarchs did (or did not) believe in their religion,” though. This isn’t like George Washington being a slave-owner where it has a lot of emotional weight. These are divorced from most people’s preexisting knowledge and not overtly valued beliefs in themselves.’ And you’ve kind of emphasized my point about the complexity of change. When facts are divorced from emotions it makes it a lot easier change ones beliefs and opinions.But our emotions are driven by visceral senses from our bodies, which you can read about here: Consciousness isn’t just the brain: The body shapes your sense of self. The physical processes of our body shapes our minds. Human beings are not rationale creatures, but beings with emotions that can rationalize events that happen to them. 

    5. It’d be really easy to describe the paintings on their vests and the khalasar rounding up the Lhazarene’s herds to add to their own and Daenerys discovering Dothraki cheese
      and none of this would fix the actual problems but
      there’d be *something?*

  10. I haven’t finished reading your excellent article yet, but a thought occurred when I saw the quote about half-sword, half-scythe’ weapons.

    Would something like a falx or rhomphaia fit the bill? From what I understand, they were either developed from or served a double use as reaping tools (although correct me if I’m wrong). They’re certainly sharp on the ‘right’ side of the blade, and could conceivably be described as a scythe-like sword.

    I’m not certain about their practicality on horseback though. Not noticeably different from other sword types I suspect, and by giving them to cavalry you give up one of the key advantages of a forward-curved blade (striking past the top of a shield in infantry combat, as the tip could still make contact with an adversary even if the shield catches the main body of the blade).

    1. The Falx was however a two handed infantry weapon. Also it seems to have a been as I understand it a specialist one used in a larger shield and spear formation (contra say Total War where everyone in a unit uses it). Can’t see it being the primary weapon of an un armored horseman.

      1. Oh yeah, it absolutely shouldn’t be a primary weapon for a light horseman. They might be slightly better than the oversized khopesh though…

        I didn’t know about it being a specialist tool within a more general formation, but it makes a lot more sense in that context. General spear and shield formation would protect the more vulnerable falxmen. I can see why RTW did it in terms of a game engine, but I suppose that’s another aspect where the constraints of media paint an unrealistic picture of history.

        1. TV show wise I have to admit using a Khopesh model always struck me as beyond weird.

          I had not thought of it but the all sword sword cavalry of the Dothraki (very much show) really is sort of read/misread of the Hollywood version of the US post Civil War cavalry. Armour and lance were long gone but while the saber was still carried it was the repeating carbine and revolver that were the primary weapons of the US cavalry (and thus some reckless saber charge not likely to be plan A). That’s a lot of bullets to fired at distance before going into hand to hand combat – rather equivalent to your bow and a lot arrows.

          I’m pretty sure that in 1870 that had they faced say French cuirassiers the last thing any US cavalry unit would do was a reckless saber charge vs firing at range either mounted or as dragoons and than scattering and reforming and reloading.

          1. Yeah you can see how cavalry armed with repeating firearms could be very effective if used in the right way (before the advent of machine guns). Throw a hail of small arms fire at someone, presenting them with a dilemma: stay loose and leave yourself susceptible to a charge, or form up and make yourself a better target for the small arms fire. You wouldn’t want to be using it against infantry who were prepared and ready, but sprung on people who were already engaged I can see the effectiveness.

            But yes, you’re absolutely right. I doubt they’d do the same thing with cuirassers!

          2. The British Army made a fetish of “musketry” in the Victorian days. The Synder and Martini were single-shot rifles (not repeaters), but the British Army trained for and demanded a high rate of fire from its soldiers. The “mad minute” exercise with the Lee Enfield is an outgrowth of this habit.
            Likewise the rifles were fitted with sights with a nominal maximum range of 1000 yards (or longer, Wikipedia says the Martini was sighted to 1,800 yards – a little over a mile). Not because they expected individual accuracy at that distance, but because as a unit they would engage area targets in missions that are, today, assigned to machineguns.

    2. I’m 90% sure that both falx and romphaia had long handles and were designed as two handed weapons – polearms, more or less. Two handed swords and pole-arms seem unusable on horseback, especially when you could instead be holding a lance which give you better reach and penetration using far less scarce metal. (separately pole-arms tend to be the answer to the question ‘how can I dismount cavalry and/or carve open heavily armoured adversaries’ so would make limited sense if your enemies are lightly armoured infantry).

      1. From what I understand is it varies. Most of the time there is a longer handle, although typically shorter than the blade itself. They’re sort of an odd middle-ground between a zweihander and a polearm. Probably not all that different to the blade-to-handle length of the movie arakhs actually. This would have the same problem with making them difficult to wield from horseback, but if they were adapted slightly they should work fine (shorter handle, slightly shorter blade…athough cavalry swords tend to be quite long anyway).

        That doesn’t fix any of the other problems mind (bows, spears and axes being both more effective and useful), but it would make it a better interpretation of ‘scythe-sword’ than the giant khopeshes used in the series.

        Oh, and interestingly Jason Kingsley has done a bit of exploration of two-handed weapons use from horseback and has come to the conclusion that it’s definitely possible to fight with something like a pollaxe from horseback, although there are some definite issues with it. Things like difficulty using the reigns to direct the horse while moving in for a strike, and some slight awkwardness with some strikes (although note that he is using quite a large-hafted mock-pollaxe, and the reigns issue could be fixed in the same way the mongols fixed it: by not using reigns to direct the horse).

        The video’s here if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5kiJrSC7SU

        It’s certainly not more effective than a couched spear or lance (especially once you start adding in material cost), but it’s definitely not unusable.

        1. Great video! tbh it made me think that an axe or mace is the way forward for a nomad – the initial attack of the re-enactor, using an axe while using the momentum of the charge at speed certainly *sounded* like it hit much harder and more accurately than the polearm stuff, and an axe/mace is much cheaper, than a sword or polearm. The polearm stuff was only handy when he got stuck. And a nomad who’s got stuck on his little pony against a bunch of sedentary infantry should be making every effort to run away rather than engage in polearm play! – I think only a late medieval heavy cavalryman in plate would even think about hanging around for that kind of engagement.
          Also he seemed to be saying that using something like a Game of Thrones type arakh, holding it with two hands near the light end of the weapon is more or less a non-starter for any kind of accuracy or control. You have to lever around a grip on the middle of the weapon

          1. Yeah it’s always interesting seeing people try this stuff out in the real world. It definitely sounded like the one-handed axe hit really rather hard (although the proper pollaxe at speed at the end sounded very nasty as well).

            I remember reading somewhere that one of the issues using axes from horseback is if they get stuck in someone as you’re riding past it’s very easy to lose the weapon or get dragged from your saddle. Maces would probably be better for that. Although saying that, maces fall into the same ‘useful for killing people and not much else’ category that swords do. Perhaps that’s why they made it onto the Khitan’s kit-list.

            I suppose there’s probably a bit of an overkill situation going on with the pollaxe too. If a single handed axe or mace can hit hard enough to pulp someone through metal plate when swung from a moving horse, there’s not really much point in bringing a pollaxe.

            Yeah I’ve sort of discounted how well weapons work if you’re a stationary cavalryman. Seems like unless you outnumber the enemy or they’re shocked and disoriented you’re probably dead if you can’t get away. Too easy to poke the horse and deal with the cavalryman when he’s fallen off if he hasn’t broken anything on the way down.

            I did wonder about the edge-alignment thing for forward-curved swords. With a sword that curves backwards, swinging it will help align the edge as the centre of gravity sits behind the blade itself, pulling it straighter. It’d be less of an issue with a smaller forward-curved weapon as there’s less mass to orient, but the bigger they get the harder it would be to keep edge alignment in less than ideal situations as it would want to swing the weapon round backwards.

            I suppose they could have oval handles like splitting axes which give you a little more leverage keeping the pointy side facing forwards…

    3. This stuck out to me as well, and while I think the falx is a candidate, I’m guessing the much less well known (for a number of reasons, but mainly because it is African, specifically Ethiopian and Eritrean, which while pretty popular in ancient historical tales, are far less common in the modern psudo-history/fantasy zeitgeist) Shotel. Which Bret mentions. I honestly think this is what Martin was thinking when he came up with the arakh. It’s much more plausible than the Show’s depiction, but has a similar shape, and was noted for being especially effective against horsemen (the Dothraki’s most common enemy), and is sharp on both sides (Bret expresses some unsureness about this but I’ve never seen or heard of an example that wasn’t, so perhaps that’s either one of us showing our ignorance).

      It’s also seeing a bit of a revival in the HAMA (Historical African Martial Arts) community, and is a pretty unique and effective weapon (though, y’know, it’s no spear). I do wish the show version had looked more similar to that than the khopesh.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shotel#/media/File:Shotel,_BM.jpg

      Incidentally I also found this which isn’t Dothraki looking but is pretty interesting.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythe_sword
      History is so full of these strange items that just make you go “Huh”.

      1. Huh, that Shotel does fit the bill much better, doesn’t it? Long, curved, slim, usable on horseback. And contra Prof Devereaux, I think it could easily be described as a wicked looking ‘scythe’ sword.

  11. Thank you for this series – I’ve been interested in the people’s and cultures of the Eurasian steppe since I was a kid, and even as a teenager reading ASOIAF I remember being puzzled by how little the Dothraki matched even what I knew of steppe nomads. (Where are their bows, for goodness sake?)

  12. Regarding your comparison to 1930s film stereotypes, I think it’s *very* relevant to point out that Martin, besides being a novelist, is a screenwriter, and has significant connections to film in general. It’s not just that he was influenced by those films in a vague, cultural sense like anyone from the the US might be. As much as he is disdainful of film and series adaptations (see his “I wrote ASOIAF to be unfilmable” type comments), his background is far more connected to film culture than many other fantasy authors.

    He’s not unfamiliar with those stereotypes and coincidentally managed to reproduce them…his work is shaped by this stuff.

    1. My impression of GRRM’s comments on the subject are not of contempt for the form. If I recall the context of that quote correctly, he was relating the frustration of budget and screen-time limits.

  13. “utterly fearless…[they] fire from horseback, charging or retreating, it makes no matter, they are full as deadly…and there are so many of them”

    Charitably, the “so many of them” can be read as an outsider character looking at the number of horses and thereby overestimating the number of warriors severalfold. Indeed, as far as I know this used to happen historically (and was exploited intentionally by horse nomads aware of the propensity of agricultural armies to assume a closer-to-1:1 correspondence between horses and cavalrymen) and the quote is a reference to this.

    1. > agricultural armies to assume a closer-to-1:1 correspondence between horses and cavalrymen

      Even if cavalrymen from agricultural armies didn’t had as many horses as mongols, the warhorses weren’t used while traveling, so an agricultural army might have 2:1 correspondence between horses and cavalrymen, or even 3:1 when adding pack horses.

      Also the character you’re quoting is not exactly an outsider, since he’s been riding with the Dothraki for some time after Daenerys’ wedding and he was able to talk about the combat skills of the Dothraki, so it’.

      1. Yes, in the Gondor series (4th post) he mentioned that 3:1 would be reasonable for knightly cavalry (warhorse, riding horse, packhorse). I’m extrapolating here, but I’d imagine that non-noble agricultural heavy(?) cavalry was also a thing, and it worked with a 2:1 or possibly even 1:1 ratio. (If the operational speed of the army is determined by the large majority of the soldiers having to walk, and if there is a baggage train of carts/wagons to carry some of the cavalrymen’s equipment, it’s easy.) That’s why I wrote “closer-to-1:1”, rather than “1:1” without qualification. Compared to the 5+:1 of the horse-string, that still produces a ~twofold overestimate, which was the point.
        (On an abstract level, the agricultural army’s context is that horses are expensive while people are “cheap” in the comparative sense (since horses and people directly compete to eat cereals) while for the horse nomads, horses are cheap and people are expensive, comparatively, since horses eat grass directly, while people eat grass indirectly, via an inefficient conversion step of sheep eating the grass and turning it into meat or milk. The subsistence footprint of one horse may well be smaller than that of a human in their case.)

        That the quoted character isn’t an outsider is a fatal objection to my argument, however.

    2. I think Bret mentioned and commented on in an earlier essay in this Dothraki series though that it seems to be ‘one horse per Dothraki’.

    3. Or it could be the perspective of infantry in the field (more distributed for foraging purposes) being defeated in detail by the superior mobility and logistics of the Dolthraki despite larger total numbers, ala Napoleon in the Italian campaign

      But this is, of course, a fanwank; if Martin was thinking that far into it he wouldn’t have made so many simpler mistakes.

    4. Although I can’t recall any book reference to a sting of horses. Very much not so in the show. They seem in GRRM’s mind to frankly have fewer horses than even a European knight.

  14. The Dothraki economy seems to be primarily based on the slave trade to foreigners. Were there historical societies primarily oriented around a foreign slave trade?

    West African states like the Oyo and Dahomey seem like the most likely candidates, although that might be due to a European perspective. How were their societies organized?

    1. Reading some relevant Wikipedia articles now. Interestingly, the guns & no horses vs horses & no guns dynamic seemed to exist here too.

    2. Either nothing, or something like the sugar plantation islands in the West Indies.
      Generally, far and away the primary orientation of all premodern societies is their subsistence pattern. It is more or less inconcievable for a society to import a large share of their food and pay for it by exporting slaves.
      If the “society” is so exposed to diseases (e.g. malaria) that it needs to be regularly “topped up” with imported slaves, but produces something valuable enough to economically speaking justify the expense, that can happen. An ancient example is the lowland of IIRC Sardinia, exporting agricultural products to Rome. A better-known example are the West Indies islands, importing both food and slaves and exporting sugar. (Land capable of growing sugarcane was scarce enough that it was more profitable to transport crops from elsewhere rather than growing it locally. Shipping is cheap, overland transport is expensive.)

    3. There was quite a bit of slave trade on the western end of the Eurasian steppes, generally the warfare in the Ponto-caspain steppes would lead to slaves be traded at the black sea ports and then exported into the mediterranean slave markets.

    4. I can’t give specific sources for that, but I’ve been taught that selling and otherwise dealing in slaves (mostly other Slavs) was an important source of revenue for early Slavic states, until the expansion of Christianity put an end to this.

    5. The Crimean Khanate had an economy largely based on slave raiding the Christian lands nearby and then selling the slaves on into the Ottoman Empire.

    6. Several. In Europe, Avars raided west (Francia, Germany, north Italy) and sold east (Byzantium). Crimean Tatars raided north (Poland, Ukraine, Russia) and sold south (Ottomans). Vikings sold captives from all over in Dublin and York – often to traders from Spain. In SE Asia, the sea-borne Sulu raided the coasts and on-sold into the Javanese and Chinese markets.

      In all cases they were structured around a warrior caste and serf captives (although the Tatars, Vikings and Sulu were open to recruitment from below).

  15. Basically the Dothraki are hopelessly thin and one dimensional. Very bad literature as well as horrible history. Dany is supposed to have fallen in love with this culture and adopted it’s ways. Only there’s zero culture and the ways are all male coded and violent. The only powerful women are the crone like widowed Khaleesi, with no explanation of why or of what their power actually consists. With no visible family structure women have no path to power and influence. They’re just there to dance and be raped.
    Screaming disorganized hordes of mad men is a barbarian trope going back to Roman times and their characterization of the Gauls. Berserkers certainly are part of the Celtic and Germanic literary tradition but so are cunning strategists and tacticians.
    There are so many, Jorah says. Well after a few battles with those tactics there’d be a heck of a lot fewer! Viserys’ ten thousand Dothraki screamers would be ground down to nothing operating in Westeros without support against any competent general.
    The Unsullied are a far greater threat. Shock battle is their metier and they are the epitome of the relentlessly drilled military machine.

    1. Oddly king Robbet know’s that:
      A) His combined army’s would crush them if the battle could ever be forced.
      But any supply lines could be at massive risk.
      B) The Castles an walled towns would all be quite safe from the Dothraki but every thing else would be plundered
      C) The real threat is turn coats an internally based up risings that any invasion might bring.
      D) The Dothraki are only a threat in that defeated the splintered bands would ravage the lands for years.

  16. This has been an amazing series. Thank you very much for writing it, and it’s a little personal. To me, the moment I mentally checked out of ASOIF was because of the Dothraki, and a teeny part of me is sad you didn’t use the line that caused me to realize the books were kind of trash.

    It’s been a long while, so I don’t have an exact citation to the text, but when Daenerys is making her initial attempts to recruit the Unsullied, someone in her retinue (I forget who, exactly, my apologies, it’s been a while) talks about a long ago battle between the Unsullied and the Dothraki. The Unsullied apparently marched out of a city, formed up their phalanx in the middle of the plain, and waited. The Dothraki could have outflanked them easily, but because of “Dothraki honor” went charging in headlong and got pulverized. And I remember thinking how STUPID that was. I don’t pretend to have a tenth of your knowledge about history, but even I realized that no steppe culture would ever develop a notion of martial honor that encourages a lightly armored rider to go charging headlong into a heavy infantry formation giving up all of his advantages and playing into those of the enemy. They would have a system of martial honor, but it would emphasize actions that make for successful steppe warfare centered on the use of lightly armored cavalry. As far as I can tell though, Martin was so steeped in his stereotype of clumsy, awkward knights out of chivalric romances and Hollywood movies that he couldn’t conceive of any other forms of martial honor; if you were an honorable warrior you fought like Sir Lancelot, charging headlong into the enemy without thought of consequence, and nothing else.

    Anyway, I very much enjoyed reading this series and hope for more amazing articles in the future.
    Best wishes.

    1. “It was four hundred years ago or more, when the Dothraki first rode out of the east, sacking and burning every town and city in their path. The khal who led them was named Temmo. His khalasar was not so big as Drogo’s, but it was big enough. Fifty thousand, at the least. Half of them braided warriors with bells ringing in their hair.

      “But when dawn broke and Temmo and his bloodriders led their khalasar out of camp, they found three thousand Unsullied drawn up before the gates with the Black Goat standard flying over their heads. So small a force could easily have been flanked, but you know Dothraki. These were men on foot, and men on foot are fit only to be ridden down.

      “The Dothraki charged. The Unsullied locked their shields, lowered their spears, and stood firm. Against twenty thousand screamers with bells in their hair, they stood firm.

      “Eighteen times the Dothraki charged, and broke themselves on those shields and spears like waves on a rocky shore. Thrice Temmo sent his archers wheeling past and arrows fell like rain upon the Three Thousand, but the Unsullied merely lifted their shields above their heads until the squall had passed. In the end only six hundred of them remained… but more than twelve thousand Dothraki lay dead upon that field, including Khal Temmo, his bloodriders, his kos, and all his sons. On the morning of the fourth day, the new khal led the survivors past the city gates in a stately procession. One by one, each man cut off his braid and threw it down before the feet of the Three Thousand.”

      In defense of this passage, this seems to be the first clash of Dothraki and Unsullied, and also when the Dothraki were a new culture, or at least exploring a new mode of expansion into the power vacuum after the Doom of Valyria. So the dumb tactics could have been inexperience. OTOH Jonah suggests nothing’s changed, “you know Dothraki”.

        1. On the other hand, as Bret has noted, the effectiveness of caracole tactics depends in good measure on inducing the enemy to break formation: either to quail from the arrows or to pursue what appears to be a retreating enemy. The Unsullied will never break formation, and if they are well enough armored that the arrows make little impression, something else will be required.

          1. Franks and Chinese both countered the caracole tactically. Front line: armoured crossbowmen; behind: heavy cavalry. Screen of light cavalry. Nomads get shot down at their closest approach. Wait for them to get frustrated, then launch a short sharp charge, then retreat behind the infantry. Do this a few times and they get very discouraged.

          2. This is where nomadic operational mobility comes in to buttress tactical mobility. The classic nomad move would be to withdraw, start devastating the hinterland of the city, You get extra loot, and with a bit of luck a large detachment of Unsullied can be drawn out, surrounded, and you can see if they feel quite so brave a bit further from their city. If yes, rinse and repeat.

          3. The Unsullied are defending Qarth, which, as I recall, is portrayed as a city surrounded by desert, which lives entirely by trading (and possibly by urban dairies and orchards). So there is no hinterland to devastate; the wealth of the city is entirely within its walls.

        2. Yeah, Temmo would likely still have lost, but with more of his army intact. He could have retreated – it’s not so easy to pursue riders on foot, and heavy cavalry may break formation and open up for return attacks of the archers.

          In case of the Franks (and the Ottonian armies of Henry the Fowler and Otto the Great) the aim was to drive the nomadic raiders off for good. The fact that the retreat of the Lechfeld battle ended badly for the Magyars was due to the high floods of the Lech river where many died in the crossing, were killed or captured. Otto was keen on keeping his heavy cavalry together and would not have allowed wild goose chases.

          1. The nomads were far more often the losers than the winners. Occupy key transit points and deny trade, bribe their nomad neighbours, build forts and walls to deny access to winter pastures or trans-humance routes. Or, if you have the logistics, scout out some point they have to defend (their royal burial ground, sacred mountain…) and attack it. Or hit them in spring, when the herds are weak, do as much damage as possible and retreat. Repeat and they come begging for a treaty. Every major nomad conquest is preceded by a century or two of nomad subjugation.

          2. Can be hard to supply those place which complicates the matter.

            Also, they can keep on raiding which sure feels like losing to the settled people

    2. I get the impression that Martin doesn’t get chivalry. There’s a recurring theme in the books about how knights are nothing like the idealized version in fairy tales and more like medieval war machines, which I feel would have been blindingly obvious and very much the point to a medieval audience.

      Then you get the notion of “honor” as intrinsically at odds with practicality, when we’ve got sources of knights being praised for their use of underhanded tactics to achieve victory. You mention Lancelot, but there’s good reason to think that the original story where he appears, Chretien de Troyes “Le chevalier de la charrette,” is a parody and he is meant to come across as ridiculous.

      Honestly, Martin not getting premodern societies is part for the course and something that has already been discussed abundantly in this blog. It does not necessarily detract from his storytelling abilities (there are other criticisms one could launch in that direction) but it does frustrate his and his fans’ appeals to historical accuracy to justify his creative choices.

      1. The irony is the fairy tales have a notable dearth of knights. Princes, yes. Peasant’s third sons, yes. Millers’ sons and discharged soldiers and gardeners’ sons, yes. Knights, on the other hand. . . .

  17. Very good article again.

    I had hoped you’d mention the Native American tradition of “Counting coup” (it’s in the title of one your reference books!) on how to be “badass warrior” but not senselessly kill people as murdering madman.

    As for shields, made from thick part of buffalo hide, they were so important that besides real shields for fighting there are also spiritual shields to protect against spiritual influence.

  18. > (I should note that the bow was also the paramount weapon for the Native American horse-borne nomads of the Great Plains, at least until it came into competition with firearms, though my understanding is that Native American bows were not as powerful as Steppe bows).

    It doesn’t surprise me that launch energy of the American bows was far below that of Mongol bows. You only need a draw weight of like 30-40 pounds to kill a human. The 200-pound bows were designed to kill humans *through their armour*. No metal armour means no need for extraordinarily heavy draw weights, because substantially lighter bows can defeat any textile/leather/wooden defenses that they’d have used.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBxdTkddHaE is an excellent demonstration of how Agincourt-era archery worked, put together by a really impressive group of experts. The creator of that video has more recently been doing a series testing longbow-energy arrows (fired from a crossbow, because he can’t draw 200lb bows) against various kinds of armour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6IlEUm_Eo4&list=PLIUWkznLJcsHEqN0d2iei8iHo7Dcr99Gv

    1. Ah Tod’s Workshop! Fantastic channel. Recently watched his video on arrows vs sandbags which is fascinating.

    2. The Manchus complained about how degenerate they were growing in China: many of them could not string a proper bow.

    3. A war bow (100 lbs+) is far too heavy for hunting. In war you launch arrows quickly; in hunting you hold at full draw. Mongols carried a war bow and a hunting bow.

      In nomad warfare you are looking for range more than penetration – the arrows are light. The target is the horse.

  19. Very good article. Thanks for going research on various bit of popular culture.

    A bit surprised how some “tropes” could last that long. Other than “tyrants above elephamts” and “naked barbarians” how many aspect of our popular culture come from Roman and long ago culture.

    I think there are worrying trends of “realistic” increasingly meaning cynicism, cruelty, and selfishness. Heroes being nice, have ideal, and believe in improving society increasing depicted as “Cartoonist” or “Childish”.

  20. I do have to object to one of your points. I remember 1996 and it was a damn wasteland of information. The typical person has access to orders of magnitude more reliable information today. GRRM should still have tried to spend more time in a library, but I don’t know what resources he had access to – prior to wikipedia, eCommerce and global shipping, living in an information desert was a common reality. It’s not an excuse to claim historicity where there is none, but my expectations for authenticity coming from an amateur writing in the 90’s are rock-bottom.

    1. There was still the Encyclopedia Britannica, some of my favorite reading back in pre-internet days.

    2. Romanticised though it is, Marco Polo was available in the 1990’s in English translation and cheaply at that, at least in the UK. I can’t speak for other countries, mind you.

    3. Ratchnevsky’s biography of Chinggis Khan was translated in 1991, by 1996 it was on its seventh printing – it had been a huge ‘hit.’
      F.R. Secoy’s book on Great Plains Native American Warfare was published in 1953. NINETEEN FIFTY-THREE. It had actually had a new, mass reprinting in 1992 by First Bison Books.
      A.R. McGinnis’ Counting Coup and Cutting Horses was published in 1990.

      These were all available, they were all available in paperback (!!) in 1996. Indeed, well before 1996.

    4. Encyclopedias. Popular history. Children’s books — often good for having more pictures.

      And if you don’t have any resources about X, maybe you shouldn’t claim your society is based on X?

    5. I’ve written my MA thesis about the Old Norse adaptations of the chansons de geste at that time. There were a lot of books and essays avaliable about Mediaeval culture, literature, warfare and whatsoever – I could get not only German but English (and Swedish, Danish and French) ones in Germany back then, either from the university library or via distant loan. I also bought a bunch of books, including non-German ones. I had internet access (remember Eudora and Netscape? 😀 ), but that was not much of a ressource at the time, except for some interesting email exchanges with a few of the progressive specialists who already used it.

      It would not have been impossible for Martin to get hold of some academic standard books about his prefered period. He spent enough time in larger towns with decent libraries and books stores, after all.

        1. He likes Maurice Druon’s Les Rois maudits series. I read that one long ago and vaguely remember that it was very homophobic (the portrayal of Edward II of England) and rather cliché at times.

  21. I wish more people read Andrzej Sapkowski’s books. They show the middle ages way better than this. For example, book’s story of Pavetta’s marriage shows how the queen relationship with her vassals could look like and why it was important for her to be true to her (or her late husband’s) word.

    Unfortunately, the Netflix series mostly replaces it with the same stuff Bret debunked in his earlier posts. But I strongly recommend the books: they are masterful writing and at the same time very realistic historically. Especially the final parts are amazing from military history point of view.

    1. Just replying to let you know that your wish is granted – your comment inspired me to go ahead and check out the Witcher books. I’ve heard good things about the series before, but your comment about how it does a much better job depicting a medieval society was the clincher for me.

  22. Not that I expect you to do it, but I’d love to see you take a crack at another author who claims to do his research: David Drake.
    (Except that I believe him when he says it, because he details his sources, and compares the mythological ones to the historical ones)

    1. I’ll second this. But, like, apparently the dude was a classics major, so he really ought to have some knowledge here.

      1. The author of your namesake was a US State Dept official, and therefore knew what of he spoke as well.

  23. Wow, a very interesting series of posts. I have to admit that I’m generally very ignorant about Mongol history, but this series really got me interested, does anyone have any recommendations for books on the topic of general Mongol history or specifically around the period of the Mongol empire?

    1. Yes:
      As historical fiction, which is far, far closer to reality than GRRM:

      Colin iggulden’s series:

      Wolf of the plains
      Lords of the bow
      Bones of the hills

      Basically a fictionalised history of the Mongol empire, which is far closer to the history in this blog.

      (At least in my opinion. )

    2. David Morgan is the best historian of the Mongols I know of. His The Mongols was published 1987 (he drew on Persian as well as Chinese and Mongol sources).

  24. Where did you pick up the habit of using double-colons as an indicator of action-in-text, as in `::deep breath::`?

    1. I associate it with an old Piers Anthony Cluster novel series, where the different languages of aliens were denoted with all sort of other punctuation marks instead of quotes.

  25. (My original comment seems to have been eaten, so apologies if this becomes spam)

    Great analysis as always. The adage that truth is stranger than fiction is especially true here, where the truth is also more fantastical than fantasy. More fantasy authors would benefit from adding a dash of historical truth into their fantasy.

    That said, I’m very troubled by how you seem to downplay the amount of violence, particularly sexual violence, that nomadic peoples inflicted on their neighbors. The “incorporation” of captured women into the tribe is nothing short of rape both by our modern understanding of sexual consent and the literal meaning of the Latin *raptio*. This rape was quite extensive, as you know: Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome is present in 8% of men in the former Mongol Empire, or 0.5% of the entire world’s population. Especially given our understanding of the psychology of captivity, Stockholm syndrome in particular, it is absurd to imply that this is anything but rape.

    Was their rape more pragmatic and less fetishistic than Martin depicts his Dothraki engaging in? Almost certainly. But that doesn’t justify sweeping it under the rug either: every description you apply to the Spartan Krypteia or the Norse Vikings applies equally if not more-so to the actions of nomadic raiders.

    1. Yes, I agree. I enjoyed this piece, but the tone of moral outrage seems misplaced. The Dothraki are a crude caricature, but slavery and sexual violence by nomadic peoples were real. And really by almost all premodern peoples, as Brett well knows.

      If I were a descendant of any of these peoples, I would probably actually prefer that people think of my ancestors as “absolute madmen on horses” or Hollywood-style “badasses” than cowardly nerds who were good at a specific set of set of bow and horse-riding technologies, but faded from the picture when those techs stopped being relevant.

      1. Yeah? If you’re American, imagine that this is the fictionalized version of the USA, produced by its enemies, centuries down the line when it doesn’t exist any longer: (If not, imagine something similar for your own culture.)

        On the mass scale, there are no “good wars” remembered: no WW2, no Civil War, no founding fathers, it’s all wars based on lies and imperial ambitions like Iraq and the Philippines; there is no political philosophy but might makes right: no Constitution, no Common Sense; there is no art of any value: no Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane or Star Wars or Mark Twain or Hollywood, no rock or rap or country. On the minute scale, no marriage, no religion, no grocery stores, no nice clothes. The apparent moral world of sexuality is wildly divergent from our own: kids are getting raped all the time and nobody comments, people just fuck people within a couple hours of meeting them, so hedonistic and empty is our sexual life.

        Further, this hypothetical America is also wildly off, some mix of the Decadent Empire ala the Persians in 300 and the Evil Empire ala Star Wars with only the vaguest aesthetics of the real America (and often not even that – rather than suits or t-shirts, we’d be wearing something completely different, maybe a sleeveless changshan in black and white), and maybe, if you’re real lucky, they’d remember all our supercarriers were a thing, but they would think they roamed the seas looting and pillaging rather than sitting in bases and being put out on fleet maneuvers. If anything, that part isn’t so bad, really. Cars not acting like cars because future people don’t drive cars any more so they use analogy to something else has a note of humor to it; so does similar situations with guns and computers and space travel. Not so much when you create an imagined version of the USA that exists only to loot and pillage other countries without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

        I have a real hard time seeing the “nuanced version that includes the things of actual value of my culture but maybe mentions that we didn’t win every battle and war we ever entered” being worse than “we were badasses but literally nothing else“*.

        *: And also not actually badasses, since the Dothraki just kind of are miserably militarily retarded. Our hypothetical future portrayal America would just bombing run everything to hell while hiding far away from the battle field and cackling maniacally.

        1. Honestly, you don’t need the far future for any of what you’ve described. A typical Hollywood movie or TV show hits at least half of the points on your list, and foreign TV featuring Americans like the few K-dramas I’ve watched hit almost 100% of those notes.

          Hell, there are a few things on there which accurately describe the reality of American life as I’ve experienced it like the bit about fictional Americans having casual sex within hours of meeting.

          1. I did intend to select things that were at least reminiscent of things that do exist in our own society, but where the portrayal removes all context and proportion. For example, while real horse nomad cultures often engaged in bride kidnapping to one extent or another, we have plenty of evidence of retaliation and/or arbitration for the offense in societies where it occurred. On the other hand, Dothraki as a whole are seemingly completely indifferent to the concept of sexual assault. Even in a completely male dominated society, the girls still have fathers and husbands!

            Similarly, casual sex does exist, but it is very clearly not the normal mode of sex (that would be serial or lifelong monogamy, with some socially taboo infidelity, as has predominated for most people in most societies throughout history). If someone made one film where paleo-Americans of some (real, fictitious, or gestalt) subculture were portrayed as being highly sexually promiscuous, or where particular characters were portrayed that way, that would be quite different from if movies about paleo-America portrayed our entire culture like that was SOP.

    2. I also agree with this. The Comanche (to give one example) were known to deliberately target women for sexual violence, so mentioning that as a racist trope is a bit odd. They might have had other reasons than just ‘being rapists’ but that doesn’t make it any less evil.

    3. I think there is a difference between “this historical culture carried off woman to incorporate them into their tribe without consent, and required them to bear children, which is rape” and “this historical culture’s sole focus was the taking of slaves for (a) sale or (b) recreational sexual violence”. The second one is clearly a more loaded description. It is also a pretty stark difference from how Westerosi culture is displayed in the book – where sexual violence is condemned as out of the ordinary (despite how often it happens on the page) whereas for the Dothraki it is potrayed as routine. Same with murder – see the earlier post about deaths at Dothraki weddings. These posts aren’t apologies for atrocities committed by real life historical cultures, they are pointing out that reducing those cultures to a collection of their worst stereotypes, even if some of those stereotypes intersect with historical reality, can have real harm for people living today.

      1. I guess the point where I’m left scratching my head is that Brett clearly states that the abduction and subsequent rape of women belonging to enemy nomadic or settled peoples was both a means and a goal of nomadic warfare both on the Steppe and the Great Plains. But in contrast to the way he has treated this topic in the past, when it came to media white-washing the Spartans or the Norse invasions, he’s seems reluctant to come right out and say it. He seems like a critical guy who doesn’t usually resort to euphemism, which is why it really stood out to me here.

        Maybe it’s a fear of playing into the ‘racist tropes’ he cites in movies like Stagecoach, and if that’s his reason I could understand it even if I see it as needlessly paternalistic. His usual attitude of presenting the past “warts and all” is something that’s easier to respect and a big part of why I love reading his analysis. This seems like an odd departure from that which requires some kind of explanation.

  26. Great read as always! I have read some scholarly work about the Immigration of Polish Jews to the US in the 19th and 20th century, and I’ve read something that makes the Dothraki’s depiction as a stereotype of Hollywood natives very ironic.

    Polish-Jews who immigrated to the US and later went on to work in the movie industry melded native stereotypes with their own stories, tales and stereotypes of Cossacks and Tatars (using the eastern European meaning here) – Barbaric mounted archers/gunners attacking caravans, villages, raping and stealing and being cruel.

    Since the Jews were often (and we certainly still think of ourselves almost exclusively in that way) victims of both Cossacks and Tatars, their stories obviously vilify them, and some of it joined the US’ own brand of racism into the glorious stereotype – which went full circle in the form of the dothraki.

    That said, I do find it hilarious that you could essentially take a western film and plot and with some changes and costume set make the same plot work in several different eastern setting – note for example Jule Verne’s Michael Strogoff.

  27. This was a worthy article series, so please let me immediately lodge a quibble

    “so the slaves in question are mostly women, children and the elderly (a strange choice since these are, historically speaking, the least valuable classes of people to enslave; most enslaved workers were forced to do agricultural or industrial labor for which adult males were typically considered the most suitable by far).”

    This seems worth a quibble with respect especially to women and also somewhat to children. While the young adult age band was often the highest priced and children and, especially, elderly were often less valued, whether enslaved young adult men or women were more expensive could vary dramatically by time and place, with higher demand and prices for males being familiar to us from e.g. the antebellum South or high classical antiquity, with their heavy economic orientation around slave agriculture, while in societies where slaves played a less dominant role in primary economic production and slavery was instead largely oriented around domestic servitude, demand and prices for enslaved women could be higher, sometimes considerably higher, than for men.

    In historical slave-raids and slave-taking sacks, I would say it was [i]quite common[/i] that adult men and elderly of both sexes were the portion of the population preferentially targeted for ostentatious violence (for their higher danger and lower value, respectively), with the synergistic benefit, from the enslaver’s perspective, of dominating by terrorization the women and children who were preferentially targeted for enslavement. Accounts of the aftermath of major raids and sacks also often suggest that the elderly of the victim population might often have been sorted out and abandoned to wander through the ruins of their communities, but it is far less common to hear this about nonelderly women or about children old enough to be mobile.

    You could make a case that a preference for enslaving women and children may have been the most common demographic bias of slave raiding where there was not a strong demand skew towards males (as in the Atlantic slave trade) to counteract it.

    1. Do we know how the Dothraki treat the children of slaves? Are they slaves in turn, or are they just raised as regular Dothraki clan members? The latter would seem a good idea, because it means the boys become warriors, and more warriors is good, especially given all those wedding duels. The girls, well presumably the lot of a free Dothraki woman is better than that of a slave, if still not great.

    2. Accounts of Arab, Tatar and Avar slave raids tells of the elderly and the infants being killed or left in the ruins. Adolescent and mature-age men and women were the prime targets.

  28. More and more I wonder why so many people believe it when GRRM or others claim that ASOIAF is more historically accurate than other fantasy stories and in particular Tolkien.

    I think I believed that too after watching Game of Thrones first two seasons. For me it was probably because of the way it depicted politics. The series a) spent a lot of time on politics and b) the political plot progressed with clear cause and effect. (The reason why I dropped the show after watching Season 5 is that b) stopped to be true.) I guess even if not historically accurate this gave it a sense of real-ness that could be mistaken for accuracy if one doesn’t know much about feudalism.

    Other reasons I can think of why someone might believe ASOIAF to be more historically accurate are:

    1) Sex and violence are described more vividly than before. (I don’t think Tolkien’s stories, for example, are less violent, but the violence is described much more briefly and matter-of-fact-ly, so a reader unfamiliar with violence will probably not think about it in detail. Even though Tolkien’s descriptions are probably closer to how a Medieval source would describe violence.)

    2) Magic and fantasy creatures are kept at the margins of the story at first. There is probably just as much magic and fantasy creatures in ASOIAF as in other fantasy stories, but they are not treated as an ordinary part of the world.

    3) Perhaps a more cynic worldview feels more realistic to people today than an idealistic one.

    If I had to make a guess, I think the overall reason why people believe Martin to be more historically accurate is this: GRRM wrote stories that felt historically accurate to him. JRRT also wrote stories that felt historically accurate to him. But GRRM’s perception of history is closer to how non-experts in the early 21st century perceive history than Tolkien’s perception of history.

    1. A few other points:

      1. Sturgeon’s Law. We can argue all day about whether Tolkien’s detailed worldbuilding added up into something exceptional or not, but 90% of fantasy doesn’t get out of the cesspools.
      2. Characterization. While not strictly part of worldbuilding, Martin’s character writing makes the world as a whole come alive.
      3. Politics and consequences. Martin’s approximation of feudalism is less historically grounded than Tolkien’s, but politics feature more prominently in his plots. LotR and ASoIaF are both (in part) about mustering the forces of humanity (and in LotR, other races) against a looming threat, but LotR makes this feel like an epic quest, while ASoIaF makes it feel like a political quagmire.
      4. Detail. Martin’s hardly alone in this, but he’s very good at making his world feel alive. From background characters with their own personalities and arcs to the descriptions of bustling cities varying in sensible manners, Martin’s done a good job of building a world that feels thoughtful and consistent.
      5. Amorality of cultures. Not immorality, mind you; with the arguable exception of the Dothraki (and quibbling over whether the Others should count), there are no explicitly “good” or “evil” cultures on Planetos. Martin even goes out of his way to show that, while the economy of Slaver’s Bay is (obviously) a massive complex of human rights violations, its people are no crueler than those of any other land. Contrast with Tolkien, who absolutely does. Hobbits are good, orcs are evil, and while other races are less black-and-white, it’s still effortless to group the races (and even some groups within them) morally. (P.S. Please don’t get me started on the Easterlings.)

      Granted, none of these except the last are directly tied to worldbuilding, but they contribute to a world that feels more real, which makes the world feel more grounded, which feels like being historically-grounded.

    2. a more cynic worldview feels more realistic to people today

      Yes, there are other good points…his characters may come alive and he may provide the kind of political and economic detail that Tolkien, for example, did not. But overall? I think the point I quoted above is the *real* reason. We equate cynicism with a mature intellect and think that whatsoever is true, whatsoever is honest, whatsoever is pure, lovely…of good report, virtue, or praise are all baby-ish and should be left in the nursery.

      1. Not only a mature intellect, but an *educated* one, too, given how much academic effort nowadays goes into unmasking sinister hidden power dynamics in seemingly innocuous statements or belief systems.

  29. “What else could they be? What other form of wealth would the Shire have?”

    Banking? I dunno. Like I said, it’s weird. But Tolkien repeatedly uses ‘money’ and never refers to tenants or estates. Frodo moving to Crickhollow is presented exactly like someone selling his big house and moving to a smaller and cheaper one, not like someone with lots of tenants but also debts. The Shire feels like an expy of 18th-19th century rural England, and those gentry *did* have the option of government bonds. Many of Jane Austen’s characters are literally living off of money, not land.

    1. I’m not sure if that’s really correct.

      I’m pretty sure that The Shire *is* supposed to be based on English domestic life on the eve of industrialization.

      I get the idea that many of Jane Austen’s characters are avoiding debt and have reasonably alienable tenancy contracting.

      1. Not sure what you mean by tenancy contracting.

        I’m pretty sure there’s explicit reference to “four percents” and such, which would be government bonds. And I’ve read books about Austen’s society, like _What Jane Austen Ate_. There was a Stock Exchange, but in various public funds, as limited liability hadn’t spread.

        Some of her characters definitely were landed gentry, like Darcy and Knightley.

        1. I think Darcy is supposed to be proper nobility (or at least his cousins are) while the others are gentry of various stripes.

          1. Wiki tells me his mother’s brother is a sitting earl. But his obscene wealth comes from his father, who seems to just be a ‘gentleman’. In English terms Darcy is gentry, not nobility. The titled nobility is a very small class, and Darcy’s not even in the penumbra like Lady Catherine (‘Lady’ because daughter of an earl) or knights.

            Anyway, my point was more that he and Knightley are definitely *landed*, with tenants and estates to manage, rather than living on government funds or ‘consols’ (annuities).

    2. At least before Saruman went full blown idiot-villain in ‘Lord of the Rings’ wasn’t there some suggestion that he was buying stuff like pipe-weed from The Shire?
      Maybe The Shire usually has a large agricultural surplus they sell/trade to other people.

      1. Saruman had a stash of pipe-weed from the Shire, but the Hobbits are surprised to see it. I think it’s just for his own use, and not a large enough amount to be a meaningful part of the Shire’s economy.

      2. It’s outright stated. Merry exclaims over the “Longbottom Leaf”, and the more Aragorn thinks about it the more baffled he is, because overland trade across 500-1000 miles of desolate wasteland is pretty ridiculous. Nonetheless it seems that Saruman was laying in supplies beyond pipe-weed; in “The Scouring of the Shire” people talk about shortages from mass purchases.

        ‘Of course he started with a lot of property in the Southfarthing which he had from his dad; and it seems he’d been selling a lot o’ the best leaf, and sending it away quietly for a year or two. But at the end o’ last year he began sending away loads of stuff, not only leaf. Things began to get short, and winter coming on, too. Folk got angry, but he had his answer. A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great waggons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came.’

        “The end o’ last year” would be around the time the Fellowship set out from Rivendell; they leave Dec 25, 1418 Shire Reckoning; the Scouring is November 1419 SR.

  30. Pedantic (but positive!) comment:

    I note that you describe Khrazz as “Meereenese”. He is a pit fighter, which means he was originally a slave, and as noted by Dany the slaves of Meereen are very ethnically mixed, in fact a full third are…ethnically Dothraki! However Khrazz is described as having “red and black” hair, which is a signifier of ethnic Ghiscari, who are the ethnic group that the Masters of Meereen are drawn from. Nice detail work!

  31. That same language – the irrational, ‘swarming’ natives, heedless of danger or death – reappears in later European military writing, particularly in the early modern and after (which is to say, during European imperial expansion) as a racist marker of non-European inferiority … In short, this is a very old literary trope repurposed as a still-old hoary racist stereotype. It is also hot nonsense, both generally and as applied to our horse-borne nomads.

    See also William Westmoreland’s notorious remark about why Vietnamese resistance was so stubbornly resilient despite the massive casualties inflicted on them by the US: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner; life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.”

    For that matter, I seem to recall a comment chain few weeks back where I brought up the obvious racial/colonial history and subtext of the zombie apocalypse genre, and was met with a fair bit of incredulity at the proposition that a pop culture product like, say, The Walking Dead is basically a reskinned old-school Western with zombies cast in the role of the indigenous. Of course, the fear of a massive horde of “irrational, ‘swarming’ [enemies] heedless of danger or death” is central to the drama of pretty much any zombie apocalypse movie or TV show, but I’m sure this along with every other obvious connection I mentioned in the earlier thread is all just a huge coincidence, right?

    1. Shambling zombies don’t sound much like steppe cavalry. It just seems too remote of a connection.

      1. Well that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? As Bret demonstrates quite well, the depiction of Dothraki battle tactics has essentially nothing to do with the battle tactics of actual historical steppe cavalry, or the battle tactics of Great Plains indigenous peoples; what it has much more to do with are broad-brush racist stereotypes about nonwhites (mounted or unmounted, gunpowder or pre-gunpowder, African or Asian or indigenous American) as mindless hordes whose primary if not only battle tactics is to attack in crude, animalistic, head-on human waves without the slightest thought of protecting themselves or minimizing casualties, the sort of imagery that might easily call to mind the descriptor “zombie-like.”

        Ironically, based on the show’s depiction of the Battle of Winterfell, one could fairly say that the Dothraki mounted battle tactics (despite being nominally overseen by a Westerosi command heirarchy) are even more archetypally “zombie-like” than the battle tactics of the actual literal “shambling reanimated corpse” style zombies the Dothraki are attacking!

        1. One aspect of ethnocentric (I would rather use that word than racist) perspectives is conflation of all foreign into a single stereotype. However, what may be false about one may be true of another. So as Bret notes, plains or steppe peoples do not attack heedlessly in overwhelming numbers (because they have low population densities. On the other hand, the Japanese in World War II often did engage in death charges with heavy casualties. It takes a good deal of training and indoctrination to make men do that, but it probably helps if you come from a country with a high population density (though, sadly for the Japanese, a rather smaller total population and industrial capacity than their enemy). Likewise, the Chinese in Korea really did attack the Americans with very large numbers of poorly trained and armed men, because that was what Mao had. They took heavy casualties, obviously.

          1. Sure, and by the same token one could also say that Western militaries used “human wave attacks” in the trenches of World War I, and one could seize on this as a basis for waxing all kinds of eloquent about the innate sickness and depravity of Western culture, its deeply ingrained disregard for the value of human life, its inherent drive to instill in its people a mindless slavish obedience to irrational despotic authority, and so on and so on. But of course we don’t have an entire pop-cultural cinematic tradition dedicated to depicting Westerners that way, so we don’t necessarily think of it that way; just imagine a remake of “Gettysburg” with the Pickett’s Charge sequence reworked in the style of the Apache charge in “Stagecoach,” or even better, vice versa.

            Hell, now I’m picturing a zombie apocalypse scene with the horde shot like the Confederates in the Pickett’s Charge sequence… those gorgeous sweeping aerial shots of the attacking force advancing bravely to its death… that stirring Randy Edelman score swelling in the background… brief close-up cuts to the sympathetic faces of individual attackers marching forward, their expressions terrified yet determined…

          2. Again, the Japanese “death charges with heavy casualties” is largely shaped by the pop culture of their enemies. In WW2 the Japanese armies most certainly did not achieve their very impressive successes in the early years by mindless death charges. When they started to lose, a banzai charge was the last resort of Japanese soldiers who knew they were doomed but determined to go down fighting.

            From the German point of view, the US Marine Corp battle of Belleau Wood in 1918 probably looked like a death charge with heavy casualties. The USMC don’t see it that way.

          3. I didn’t say that death charges were the source of Japanese victories. Obviously they were not. (Recall Gen. Patton’s line about dying for your country.) But death charges in defeat are not characteristic of the American military. As “Shattered Sword” (which Prof. Devereux recommended) notes, the Japanese military culture tended to prefer attack even when defeat was certain to retreating as an American commander would.

          4. And many Westerners have written about the madness of the Western front. If people from other cultures want to chime in, they are welcome to do so, but it will be no novelty.

          5. And many Westerners have written about the madness of the Western front. If people from other cultures want to chime in, they are welcome to do so, but it will be no novelty.

            What would be relatively novel would be using a fragmentary, impressionistic interpretation of WWI trench warfare as the basis for a wildly popular mainstream cultural genre where senselessly butchering each other in mass suicidal human-wave charges with machine guns and high-powered artillery shells is the main if not only noteworthy attribute of European and Euro-American culture, which would be pretty equivalent to what the tropes of the classic Western genre commonly do to North American indigenous cultures. A good reason why creators and consumers of media that borrow these sorts of tropes, even in an indirect or allegorical way, should make an effort to be conscious of the ideological pitfalls!

          6. Quote from one US army sergeant in Korea: “Just how many hordes are there in a god-damned Chinese platoon?”

          7. Some good examples of selective memory here (not yours, necessarily- US culture’s), leading to a bad trope.
            In the early year or two of the Pacific War the Japanese infantry were not known for frontal attacks. Their speciality was using their greater tactical mobility and fieldcraft to hook round, outflank and drive back larger forces of Western infantry. The death charges were mostly, as noted elsewhere, a form of suicide later in the war, especially on small islands where retreat was impossible.
            Similarly, the initial wave of Chinese soldiers which attacked and crushed the US army in northern Korea were *not* an inexperienced rabble. (Their opponents sometimes were). Many had been fighting the Japanese and Nationalists for 10-15 years, and were probably the toughest, canniest infantry on the planet, hampered only by their restricted logistics and equipment. Again their speciality was using their fitness and fieldcraft to hook round and terrify US and South Korean troops into fleeing. Attacks were delivered at night with lots of noise and deception and make them seem much more numerous than they were. Again, later in the Korean War the Chinese were often using lower quality troops and dumber tactics, losing thousands in the process.
            But it sure is notable that Americans only remember those later events and not the earlier years when better, braver, less well equipped men soundly thrashed them, using clever tactics. Wouldn’t want to spoil the Orientalist myth I guess….

          8. “one could also say that Western militaries used “human wave attacks” in the trenches of World War I, and one could seize on this as a basis for waxing all kinds of eloquent about the innate sickness and depravity of Western culture, its deeply ingrained disregard for the value of human life, its inherent drive to instill in its people a mindless slavish obedience to irrational despotic authority, and so on and so on.”

            WLGR, no one used “human wave attacks” on the Western Front. The idea was generally to use suppressive fire to keep the enemies head down while the attackers advanced. In a formal attack that would mean a creeping barrage fired by the artillery, the trailing edge of which advanced at walking pace, with the attackers following closely enough to be killed by their own shellfire.

            Alternatively, and in more chaotic circumstances, they would try to infiltrate.

            I might suggest that the reason for human wave attacks being popular in fiction is that it leads to a handful of protagonists being attacked by by forces that clearly want to kill them, are heedless of death and beyond being threatened away; and vastly outnumber the protagonists. They therefore create a sense of credible, immediate mortal danger to the protagonists.

          9. no one used “human wave attacks” on the Western Front.

            Right, this is part of the point I’m making: when you look more closely at the settings that give rise to stereotypes about “human wave attacks,” what you often find is a far more complex set of battle tactics that’ve been tendentiously misinterpreted in order to overemphasize either the mindless mass-suicidal nature of the soldiers in question (usually when it’s a racist argument about the culture writ large) and/or the commanders’ senseless disregard for the lives of their own troops (usually when it’s a geopolitical argument about the irredeemable brutality of a specific enemy regime). This applies to Western European trench warfare in WWI, certainly, but it also applies to indigenous North American warfare on the Great Plains, Chinese troops in Korea, Japanese or Soviet troops in WWII, and so on.

            I might suggest that the reason for human wave attacks being popular in fiction is that it leads to a handful of protagonists being attacked by by forces that clearly want to kill them, are heedless of death and beyond being threatened away; and vastly outnumber the protagonists.

            That’s perfectly fair, and it’s easy to see why authors and screenwriters looking to amp the drama level up to 11 would reach for these kind of tropes, because if nothing else they’re definitely an easy recipe (one might say “lazy recipe” if one was being more critical) for vivid and dramatic battle stories! At the same time though, it’s also perfectly fair to point out when and how these tropes resonate with old-fashioned racist/colonialist ideology, and to suggest that the ongoing cultural staying power of such ideology could be a major reason why those tropes are as widely accepted as they are, above and beyond the pure drama factor.

          10. “better, braver, less well equipped men soundly thrashed them” I have never encountered a serious military historian who thought that battle results could be explained by one group’s being “braver” than the other. The cross-cultural evidence suggests that bravery is very evenly distributed among human populations.

          11. Also, we should remember that Martin’s portrayal of medieval Europe isn’t very flattering (or accurate). Westerosi religion is a sham which no one believes, the only music they have is bawdy tavern songs, of painting, sculpture, tapestry, or drama we hear nothing, their cities are cesspools consisting entirely of brothels and soup shops, their smiths make nothing but weapons, and their political structure consists entirely of local warlords surmounted uneasily by uber-warlords. (The last is certainly not how medieval governance in northern Europe worked at all levels.) Now, in all honesty, this may be most Western people’s image of their own past, but it’s no more accurate than the popular image of the Mongols or the plains Indians.

          12. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Martin’s fantasy depiction of medieval and/or early modern Western Europe is “no more accurate” than his fantasy depiction of nonwhite plains/steppe nomads — the text may not spend much time on the finer and less violent sides of Westerosi culture, but we’re certainly made aware that such things exist and that most of Westerosi society in the background is sick of the feuding aristocratic viewpoint-characters and their bullshit, whereas Martin pretty explicitly depicts Dothraki culture as containing essentially nothing that doesn’t revolve around senseless reflexive violence and rape.

          13. That’s an interesting interpretation of what happened during the early days of the Chinese intervention in Korea. Even the Chinese government admits that they lost three men for every one they took out.

          14. Ey61, I’m only an amateur historian, so let me rephrase from ‘braver’: the Chinese infantry in November 1950 tended to have higher unit cohesion than their UN opponents, as a result of their long service together and higher degree of genuine ideological commitment to their cause.

            60guilders, the Chinese certainly took higher losses than the UN in 1950, but that was largely a function of a) staggering frostbite casualties owing to their poor logistics and willingness nonetheless to march up mountains in winter to outflank the roadbound American Army and b) and inevitable consequence of being continuously on the offensive against an enemy possessing enormously superior firepower. The point is not that they *miraculously* defeated the Americans; it is that they did so using determination as well as tactical and operational skill, not blunt zombie-like ‘human wave’ attacks. Later campaigns where less experienced troops were used saw far more disproportionate losses, as I understand it. (I’ve only read a couple of books on the Korean War, by Hastings and…Halberstam, I believe.

        2. weren’t you the guy who argued the zombie genre was just an outgrowth from white fear of black rebellion? I feel that ‘Black’ rebellion and ‘Indigenous’ raiding are two distinctly different things. At least the modern context (since dawn of the dead), is much closer to a pandemic.
          It ‘infects’ people, turns them into carriers, monsters in familiar skin. Like with the beer virus your former friends and family are now potential threats who could infect you in turn.

          I get the impression that using light cave to mow down infantry in a head on assualt comes more from the misconception of horses as battering rams, the belief that only men from harsh areas with warrior cultures are worth a damn in battle (The portrayal of the ‘civilised’ nations as being weak and ineffectual and armour as just ‘slowing you down’).

          1. Well like I said in the other thread, the immediate source of the modern American zombie genre was the US military invasion/occupation of Haiti from the 1910s through 1930s, so I guess you could argue that the setting offers a combination of both, the fear of black slave revolt and the fear of a wild untamed frontier land filled with savage natives. And like I also mentioned, the roots of the “zombie infection” trope are hardly so innocent either, with the very first American zombie film “White Zombie” centering around an extremely typical anti-miscegenation “captivity narrative” where an innocent white woman is kidnapped and brainwashed (in this case zombified) by the black Haitian natives, along the lines of John Wayne’s niece in “The Searchers” or Carol’s daughter Sophia in season 2 of TWD.

          2. General Buford was crucial in determining the victory at Gettysburg, and his big contribution was in the first stages, where he had his cavalry pose as infantry as psyops to convince the Confederates that the Union army held the hill position.

          3. @WLGR

            White Zombie isn’t “an extremely typical anti-miscegenation ‘captivity narrative’ where an innocent white woman is kidnapped and brainwashed (in this case zombified) by the black Haitian natives”. It’s about a white woman who is zombified by a white sorcerer (played Bela Lugosi), at the request of another white man (a local plantation owner, though he has an American accent) who wants to marry her against her will. (The sorcerer later zombifies the plantation owner when he has second thoughts about the whole thing.)

            If there’s a theme related to slavery, then it’s fear of being enslaved, not “fear of a black slave revolt”. If there’s a racist subtext to the zombie theme in the movie, it’s the idea that there’s something especially awful about zombification being used on an innocent white woman. (I.e., maybe some black people in Haiti get enslaved as zombies, which is maybe a bit sad — but it happens to a white woman? Quel horreur!)

            The idea that zombie movies have anything to do with “fear of slave revolts” is rather hard to take seriously, given the actual history and nature of zombie movies.

          4. I guess I should be clearer that the point about slave revolts is specifically relevant to the zombie apocalypse genre, as in, narratives premised on zombies violently rising up and bringing about the end of civilization as we know it, resulting in a plot where militia-like bands of largely white, largely middle-class survivors are forced to take up arms and exterminate the zombies without mercy in order to preserve or restore what’s left of their social order. (Cf. the roving sheriff’s posse at the end of Night of the Living Dead that mistakes the black protagonist for a zombie, casually guns him down, and tosses his body in with those of the zombies.) Aside from the obvious resonances with a “Camp of the Saints” style fascistic race-war narrative, it also overlaps in a lot of ways with the potential racial subtext of the “post-apocalyptic Western” setting, with zombies in that case slotted neatly into the narrative niche of bad-old-fashioned Hollywood Injuns.

            That said, AFAIK zombie narratives prior to NotLD were never really framed around the “zombie apocalypse” angle, and the reason I brought up White Zombie was more to underscore that the connection between zombies and racism hasn’t just been clumsily grafted on after the fact, but indeed, the figure of the zombie in US pop culture has been chock full of racial subtext (if not outright text) right from the beginning.

          5. @Peter Erwin

            Quelle horreur, not quel horreur

            (in French, adjective change in agreement to the noun they’re qualifying, here, as horreur is feminine, the adjective quel would have to be switched to its feminine form quelle)

          6. @WLGR

            Regarding “Camp of the Saints” itself, I think it’s more framed as a culture war rather than a race war (as is the line separating the groups are more along culture than race).

          7. OK then, if you don’t think the fascistic depiction of savage unwashed migrant hordes in “Camp of the Saints” fully works as a zombie allegory, then how about another widely-known fascist race-war novel, “The Turner Diaries,” where the hordes of urban black rioters turn out to be literal cannibals killing and eating whites for sport? Does that fit the bill enough to make the point about potentially fascistic racial subtext in zombie apocalypse narratives, or is it even a bit too much on the nose?

          8. Another point is that the distinction between race and culture isn’t necessarily as absolute as fully genetically-based notions of racial purity would have you believe, even in fascist politics itself; the Nazis’ planned postwar ethnic cleansing of eastern Europe for instance involved a good deal of cultural assimilation alongside the outright mass murder, with partial or even full membership in the Master Race potentially open to collaborators from culturally “Germanized” segments of the native Slavic population.

            By the same token, one could read the zombie-infection trope as embodying a fear of cultural assimilation as part and parcel of a broader racist paranoia: if the zombie “race” is allowed to integrate freely with the human “race,” humans will inevitably be assimilated into zombie “culture,” and the human “race” will die out.

          9. @WLGR

            > Does that fit the bill enough to make the point about potentially fascistic racial subtext in zombie apocalypse?

            I don’t think I said anything about your idea that the idea that the zombie apocalypse genre has fascist racial subtext. And I don’t understand how your two chosen examples (Camp of the Saints & Turner Diaries) can work as example of that idea, since neither are about zombie apocalypse, even if they reuse some of the tropes of the zombie apocalypse.

            > Another point is that the distinction between race and culture isn’t necessarily as absolute as fully genetically-based notions of racial purity would have you believe

            I don’t get what you tried to say there. Race and culture aren’t equivalent, even if there’s some correlation between particular races and particular cultures.

        3. Stories about defenders cutting down endless wave of attackers date back to the Greeks holding off the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae . Yes old westerns don’t show effective Indian tactics of striking from ambush when they would win, but they didn’t show them attacking in head on human wave tactics like zombies either. They get shown riding around in circles around the defenders getting shot down, which is even more stupid than a human wave attack because they outnumber the defenders enough that they would have swamped the defenders in short order if they just rode in through the gaps in the covered wagons.

        4. JohnT: You may be right. The First Marines completed their basic training on shipboard while heading to Korea, so obviously they did not have long service together by the time they got to Chosin Reservoir. But I think we agree, that’s not the same as “braver.”

        5. This is a poor comparison because at least with the Dothraki Martin voiced an explicit and intended connection with various real life cultures, and even without that context its very clear that they are some generic kind of ‘Nomadic savages’ and from there the audience can fill in the blanks.

          I think you have to be intently looking for it and interpreting things in the most bad faith way possible to call zombie fiction intrinsically racist. Not least because the most explicit subtext of the most important movies in the genre, especially those by Romero, do not lend themselves to racist readings, and instead can be seen as a commentary on the cultural bankruptcy of consumerism (Dawn of the Dead in particular) or as an outright anti-racist tract itself (particularly Night of the Living Dead, the most important zombie movie ever). Meanwhile most modern zombie works don’t really do anything to suggest that its meant to be racially coded, the zombies in something like the Walking Dead are a broad cross section of America which means there are more white people than any others in the average shambling crowd, the main thematic element that connects them is a sense of how regular people react to societal collapse where what were once your friends and family can become a mindless monstrosity trying to turn you into a similarly mindless monstrosity.

          Also, and its a bit crude to just say it outright, but the Wights and White Walkers are literally white skinned with blue eyes, you really have to be stretching it far beyond breaking point to see this as coded against non-white people at that point.

  32. This unique construction allowed these bows to reach draw weights and launch energies equivalent to the far larger yew longbows of England and Wales

    I believe it is physically impossible for these things to simultaneously be true? That is because, while the Mongol bow was a “composite” bow from a materials perspective, being compounded of wood, tendon, horn, and glue, from a mechanical perspective, it was a “compound” bow; note how sharply the bow is recurved in your images. The reason for the choice of materials was primarily in order to achieve this compound mechanism.

    The implication of this is that for a Mongol bow, the increment of force dF required to achieve an increment of draw dX declined as X increased, whereas a long bow acted approximately as a spring, with tension increasing linearly with distance. So if we were to graph draw force versus draw distance for a longbow, it would be approximately a straight line. The energy stored by the bow would be the area under this line, a triangle. But for a Mongol bow, the line would be convex, with the “bulge” above the longbow representing extra energy stored at any given tension. If equalized for draw weight, the Mongol bow would store more energy. If equalized for draw weight, it would require a lower draw weight.

    My recollection is that in practice, Mongol bows were closer to longbows in energy than in draw weight; which is to say, they required lower draw weights. That is what you would expect for a weapon that had to be deployed while managing a horse at high speed.

    1. Yes, but no, but maybe.

      I’ve drawn both, and while a Mongolian style compound bow can feel faster than a traditional longbow, draw weight is the energy stored, and that defines the weapons range/power.

      Modern mechanical ‘compound’ bows are entirely different ‘creatures’ to traditional wood and horn composite bow of the Mongols.

    2. Ultimately a bow can only launch arrows with the energy – mass and velocity, or less formally weight and speed – the archer puts into it, so the maximum possible weight and velocity of arrow at release is the same for a given archer with a longbow or a composite bow. (Or modern compound.) The upper limit is determined by the materials, since at some point the bow will stop storing energy and instead break; AND by limits of human anatomy, since we can only exert and hold so much force with our arms.

      If the bow material is too stiff, it only bends a little way then breaks. If the material is too flexible, you don’t store enough energy unless you bend it a very long way, further than the length of human arms.

      (You can see both of these with medieval steel crossbows and modern rubber slingshots. A steel crossbow is very stiff, so has a very short draw and humans need to pull back with a mechanical crank. A slingshot is very flexible, but when drawn back by a single human, there isn’t enough energy to launch a large heavy projectile very far.)

      The amount of energy stored per mm or inch of draw length for almost all materials starts low and then increases: if you pull a bow back to half the normal draw, you get a lot less than half the energy.

      The thicker the bow is, the more volume it has, and the more energy it stores – but thicker materials are also stiffer and harder to bend. So if you have a short bow made of yew, you could in theory put more energy in by making it twice as thick, but then it would be twice as hard to draw and would most likely break if you drew to the same length. If you shorten your draw, you get less energy overall than before.

      But if you make the bow longer with (more or less) the same thickness, you can draw with the same strength but further back. More energy, so heavier and/or faster arrows. Hence the longbow.

      The other way to to use materials that store more energy than wood, hence composite bows. The combination of horn, wood, and sinew in composite bows stores more energy while also being more flexible than wood, and the levers on the ends (sipers) improve storage even more by evening out the curvature.

      Flexibility matters because most composite bows are “predrawn” by recurving in the opposite direction when unstrung. Effectively just stringing the bow is the first 150mm / 6″ or so of draw length, so you get that energy without having to draw. Mathematically, both longbows and recurved composite bows increase the energy stored linearly with distance, but the composite bow starts from a higher point on the Y axis.

      You could make straight composite bows the same length as a longbow, but very few of your soldiers would be able to draw them. Much better, especially if you ride a horse, to make the bow smaller but just as effective. Hence the recurved composite bow used by horse archers.

      And finally modern compound bows use new materials to improve the energy storage, and the pulley and cable arrangement to make them easier to draw and hold at higher weights.

      Hope this long discussion of bow technology hasn’t bored too many of you, but I am a little tired of the political/racism threads.

  33. The more of your Martin articles I read the more worried I am about the world he is building for Elden Ring.

  34. Dwarves didn’t make cram:

    “‘I thought it was only a kind of cram, such as the Dale-men make for journeys in the wild,’ said the Dwarf.”

    Next line:

    “‘So it is,’ they answered. ‘But we call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant than cram, by all accounts.’ ”

    I find myself surprised that the isolationist elves of Lorien have heard any rumors about Dale’s cram. Did Aragorn or Gandalf complain memorably on an earlier visit?

  35. Anyone looking for a jumping off point for depictions of Native Americans in film would probably benefit from watching the documentary “Reel Injun”.
    The history of indigenous American alliances and rivalries, and migration, conquest and refugee crises is extremely complicated. Many groups formed (and dissolved) coalitions in response to westward expansion and refugee crises, sometimes based on old trade and kinship relationships but other times just out of necessity, not even sharing a language family. The Iron Confederacy is a fascinating case where peoples who participated in the fur trade in a woodland area transitioned into horse nomads on the plains.
    In my opinion, the best way to understand the frontier and what the face of expansion looked like (in the 19th century at least) you need to ask- what is the cavalry doing (what stage of genocide are they on), and what’s going on with the railroad? (The railroad companies funded clear-outs of land, were the primary transport for resources to the frontier *and* the means of western expansion becoming profitable. Having all that land to farm doesn’t mean anything if the food spoils before you get it to urban centers, which is mostly where it was going; pure subsistence wasn’t really the standard for white settlers, regardless of the self-sufficient homesteader myth.) Granted the explosion of guns and horses onto the plains was at an earlier stage, but the cavalry and the railroad are by far the tangible causes that we never saw indigenous American horse cultures reach equilibrium.
    Simply put, a “Cowboys and Indians” frontier where you have the Indians but no cavalry and no technological explosions a) is ahistorical to the extreme, though of course who cares about the history you’re adding a “dash of fantasy” to, not this guy, b) is irresponsible since it presents the raids without the broader context of the societies in flux with the introduction of horses and guns + westward expansion, painting with a reductive savages brush and c) has racist implications about Taking Away Our White Women.

  36. Bret, sorry I’m so late with this list, and I apologize for repetitions of points made by others, because I don’t yet have time to read through the comments that have already reached 130 at this moment!

    But, here is my list of typos, for your use if so desired.

    are effectively completely . . . realities of effectively any (delete one or the other?)
    designs cannot simple be ‘scaled up’ -> simply
    thins trips of leather and hide, bouind -> thin strips…bound
    efforts to either acquire -> (use of either ought to lead to an or)
    careless to his own peril -> careless
    of
    Caption to picture of Rashid (etc.): ewarly 14th century -> early
    plan is to disposes-> dispossess
    rapid, relatively along distance -> long distance
    light any camp fires -> campfires (close up)
    both strengthened your tribe while weakening -> and weakened (or delete both)
    they both aim to acquire -> aim both
    long-term on the regular -> (the regular what?)
    it’s lack of tactics -> its
    focus on violent, -> violence
    unfortunate spot blind-spot -> unfortunate blind-spot

    1. A few more:

      Placing the arakhat the front → Placing the arakh at the front
      of both developing or adopting → of both developing and adopting
      (which, even if the Dothraki are not herdsmen, these animals could be eaten → either «(which, even if the Dothraki are not herdsmen, could be eaten» or «(even if the Dothraki are not herdsmen, these animals could be eaten»

  37. By coincidence, Academia.edu just presented me with a (long, and illustrated) English-language abstract of a PhD dissertation from Hungary, which deals briefly with various popular views of the Magyars and their weapons versus the real thing. Examples and analyses of the latter make up the great bulk of the piece. Including how much influence from the steppe bow can be detected, and the importation of swords (due to the whole area lacking significant metal resources).

    See “Weapons in the tenth-century Carpathian Basin. Studies in weapon technology and methodology – rigid bow applications and southern import swords in the archaeological material,” by Adam Biro
    https://www.academia.edu/10871606/Weapons_in_the_tenth_century_Carpathian_Basin_Studies_in_weapon_technology_and_methodology_rigid_bow_applications_and_southern_import_swords_in_the_archaeological_material

  38. Apparently in colonial America, having women captured and adopted into Native American tribes was seen as regrettable, but the REAL horror was that they could be brought into Canada and become CATHOLIC.

    1. Owing to missionary efforts, they could even suffer both!

      Though there was variation. One New England family even corresponded with the daughter of the family who took vows as an Ursuline nun.

    2. Well, either rape or converting a child away from their parents’ religion would be considered a human rights violation today. In fact, there have been bitter complaints about the Mormons, because they baptize the dead, and people object strenuously to having their dead ancestors converted into Mormons. So let’s not mock the Puritans too much.

    3. People in the past believed their own religions.

      Which is worse? Your child getting raped, or your child being thrown into eternal hellfire?

  39. To add to the point about casualty avoidance:

    As the show depicts, prior to modern medicine, any deep cut is life threatening through infection, and it doesn’t matter how badass you are. Refusing to wear armour just means that a minor blow can kill you.. and in ultra violent dothraki society you’ll be taking a lot of minor blows.

  40. really great. one note though.

    you said “The position of ‘Indians’ as particularly ‘rapey’ is also explicit in Stagecoach, where the one of the white male defenders of the coach saves his last bullet to spare the one woman, Mrs. Mallory, from being captured and raped by the approaching cavalry”

    but higher up than that you explicitly said they while raiding, plains indians would kill the males and add the women and children to the tribe to grow the tribe.a lot of rape happened then if that’s the case

  41. I’m left with the strange feeling that Mercedes Lackey did a better job with her nomadic culture. She over romanticizes them by a country mile and a half but she at least gives them a tradition of art, music and of connections into tribal confederations and such.

    She also gives them holy warriors able to summon ghosts as teachers and allies but it is fantasy after all.

    1. If you really want to see realism in fantasy I recommend the Dungeon Samurai trilogy by Kit Sun Cheah. The world is a pure fantasy world, but real people are in it.

      As witness that in the title dungeon, monsters are the leading cause of death, but the traps are only third. Second place? Heat stroke. They have to keep drinking water, they are reminded.

  42. The thing with using Stagecoach as an inspiration to me fails on the sabres, they seem to be such an integral point of the dothraki “image” and its not really something you see native americans in film use?

    I wonder if the image might not be, rather than steppe people per se, some kind of garbled image of european hussars or russian cossacks of the 18th/19th centuries? That fits the light sabre cavalry image, and it does hve the moustasches.

  43. I feel the need to mention this.

    While your point about the colorful nature of traditional clothing is well taken… that picture isn’t really representative.

    Western chemistry hit on synthetic dyes in the 19th century…. this meant that now, anyone, any where, could have amazingly colorful fabric where before you would have had murder 12,000 snails to dye a coat purple.

    What this means is that, yes, traditional clothing was as colorful as they could make it, but no, 14th century Mongols did not have iridescent golden jackets…. they lacked the dye technology.

    1. For that we need also to note that while some dyes were indeed exceedingly rare (like purple) the likes of England and France were perfectly willing to murder thousands of bugs repeatedly to give nicely red coats and pants to tens of thousand of soldiers. So while individual Mongols may not have had iridescent golden jackets, vividly coloured ones were not out of the question even if they had to murder insect swarms for them.

      1. The British (and, I’d imagine, any other army with red uniforms) actually used plant-based dyes for their red coats. Which were both cheaper than insect-based dyes, and more liable to fade — after a little while on campaign, the redcoats would be more like reddishbrowncoats.

  44. Terrifically interesting post, as usual.

    I’m curious about the caracole maneuver. Just looking at the diagram, it seems it would have required a careful formation and a great deal of discipline for the riders to be able to shoot at the enemy without shooting their fellow riders. Does each arc represent one line of riders, approaching the enemy and retreating on non-perpendicular lines?

    Maybe this is a standard requirement of combat by mounted archers.

    1. It must’ve been a standard practice by the Iranian-language-group empires and communities – the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Alans, the Medes, the Persians, the Sassanians and the Parthians right up to the time of the incorporation of the last independent Persian Empire into the Caliphate – because it is remembered in the expression “Parthian shot”, often misquoted as “parting shot”.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthian_shot

      It was probably taught as part of a game – I imagine a group of boys with fletchings differently coloured, having to shoot a target while looking backwards and riding forwards, and the one who hit the target or got nearest, got the prize.

  45. I can’t speak to the iconography of specific zombie movies, but many people are thrilled by scary things, and violent fantasies, unmoored from racist or cultural concerns. Once you’ve been introduced to the idea of a zombie plague it takes on a fascinating life of its own. Not everything has to be about bigoted subtext.

    1. Some people, however, are very invested in the idea that everything people actually enjoy has some kind of horrible history associated with it that means it must be gotten rid of.

      1. Sure, I’ll cop to being invested in the idea that pop culture products often contain misleading if not downright harmful ideological messages about real-world history and society, and that those messages can be worth drawing out in detail in order to understand where and how they go wrong. One would think that on a blog dedicated to long, deliberately pedantic essays on pretty much exactly that theme, people would be a bit less surprised to find similar views expressed in the comments too!

        1. Let me guess you think orcs are a metaphor for black people as well? In the words of Sigmund Freud sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

          I know we’re meant to be pedantic but you seem to just want to try and force a conclusion of zombies coming from a fear of black slave, I could say the same thing of romcoms originally existing to retard woman’s empowerment and get them back in the kitchen.

          1. The racial significance of zombies isn’t a forced conclusion, it’s a pretty obvious conclusion, and you don’t even necessarily have to go deeper than a cursory Wikipedia-level reading of the history of zombies in American pop culture for it to be pretty damn obvious. But as always, people seem motivated to want to assume that the ideological content of pop culture is light and innocuous by default (I mean, yes, depictions of fantasy orcs often have blatant racial overtones? yes, romcoms and soap operas and such are often chock full of misogyny? are either of those going out on a particularly far-out limb to say?) even in the comments section of a blog where the socially/historically misleading ideological content of pop culture is supposed to be a central topic. Oh well, c’est la vie.

          2. Orcs are basically never coded racially. Where they are coded to reflect some particular culture/ethnic group, they’re almost always coded as Germanic instead: wolves, axes, raiding and pillaging, etc. If they were coded as black, they’d have things like bones through their nose, spears, lions, selling their own as slaves to humans, etc.

            The only thing they have in common with black racial stereotypes is low intelligence and high strength – something that the ancients also thought of more northward Europeans. To quote Aristotle’s Politics: “The nations inhabiting the cold places and those of Europe are full of spirit but somewhat deficient in intelligence and skill, so that they continue comparatively free, but lacking in political organization and capacity to rule their neighbors.” Sound like any particular D&D race?

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