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.’

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

  1. One thing I find interesting about Martin is that despite obviously not being very well-versed in history in terms of actual facts he does seem to have something of an intuitive grasp of such things as the limiting perspectives of sources , biased perspectives and such. Blood and Fire (while obviously simplistic compared to the real thing) does a fairly passable job of having feeling like someone trying to synthesize a narrative out of disparate sources.

    1. For all the details Martin gets wrong, he has a good sense of the “feel” of history. (Or at least the feel of a certain perspective on history.) That adds a dash more authenticity to his works than you see in most fantasy stories, which generally “feel” more like the prior generation’s fantasy stories than anything grounded in reality.

  2. I like your blog and this series, and thanks for giving us an overview of how real steppe nomads lived, as well as native North American cultures during their brief period of having both horses and land. This comment will get negative, but if you read it, please try to keep in mind that I very much appreciate your writing these for us. It’s great to see a comparison of the fictional Dothraki with actual steppe nomads.

    But I’ve got a few quibbles, some smaller ones but also some larger ones.

    At a high level, you seem to go into this with a strongly negative attitude, unwarranted by the reasons you explain. It’s as if there’s something about the Dothraki or the show or the books or GRRM that gets under your skin, but you don’t directly express what it is. This may be related to a tendency in these posts of allowing your critique to stop at the first point that supports your thesis, as opposed to the more in-depth examination that you’ve demonstrated elsewhere. The basic pattern seems to be that GRRM creates detail X about the Dothraki, which he extrapolates to consequences Y and Z, but then you simply criticize the Dothraki for being different from the Mongols in ways X, Y, and Z, and then bring up the “dash of fantasy” quote for the umpteenth time. I’d much rather have seen you critique how realistic change X is, and whther Y and Z are realistic consequences, given the rest of the cultre.. As an example, the Dothraki view sheep as animals for inferior people, therefore they don’t herd sheep, therefore they don’t have sheep-based clothing, sheep-based food, sheep-based shelter, and don’t raid to capture sheep, and don’t eat the sheep they slaughter. Thank you for showing us that the Mongols did herd sheep, and what significant part of their culture this was, and that no known real-world cultures lived on horses alone. But, what would be the consequences of going without sheep? Horses breed more slowly than sheep, so how many horses would be necessary to support a khalasar? How much grazing land would these horses require? That sort of stuff.

    Another fundamental criticism I have is that you’re ignoring the context of that “based on” quote. It’s not part of the books, or a commentary, or anything official. It’s not from a website listing his inspirations, it’s not even from a blog, it’s from a LiveJournal explicitly called “Not A Blog” that GRRM used for things too insignificant to go anywhere else. It wasn’t even a post there. It was part of GRRM’s response to a comment by someone else. Looking at the timestamps, 15 minutes elapsed from the original comment to GRRM’s reply, so it would be irresponsible to consider the comment anything more than an off-the-cuff response, just as no one should hold your blog posts to the standard of a research paper, or hold your comments to the standard of your blog posts. When read in context, GRRM is clearly saying that the Dothraki are more like Mongols and Huns than like Arabs and Turks, not that the Dothraki are exactly like Mongols or Huns with a tiny difference. And he’s right, the Dothraki are clearly the most Mongol-like of all the cultures in ASoIaF. And he contrasts the Dothraki to the Qartheen, which he said have no real-world basis, thus setting the standard to “no real-world parallel”. Overall, the quote isn’t a “lie about some real cultures”. “Inaccuracy” would be a much better word than “lie” You sound like Plutarch writing about Herodotus.

    https://grrm.livejournal.com/263800.html?thread=15364984

    As for the ways in which the Dothraki resemble various nomadic Native American cultures, I’d suggest looking at how those nomadic cultures affected the settled cultures near them. The pattern of sometimes raiding and sometimes trading, combined with the movmement of different groups of nomads near the settlement, means that the settled people are never sure of what to expect, and view the nomads with a mixture of fear, respect, and contempt. The long-term direction of expansion may be different (the nomadic Native Americans were retreating but the Dothraki were advancing), but that doesn’t matter much from a day-to-day perspective.

    Unlike most cases of the Fremen Mirage, it’s the Dothraki themselves that bought into the Fremen mirage, and not just their citified neighbors (literally “civilized”, but that’s a loaded term in a conversation like this). Furthermore, I’d suggest that the Dorthraki are much more like how you describe Sparta: they’re a closed rigid society in decline, sustained by human misery, maintained by a single-minded dedication to their ideal of warfare, leaving them almost totally devoid of conventional art and culture, and leading to sub-optimal use of the land they occupy. Since they will not adapt their way of warfare to counter new threats, they are ripe for a non-boneheaded neighbor to sweep in and crush. And once their protective veil of warrior mystique is punctured, it will only be a matter of time.

    it might help to have a short history of the Dothraki as we see them. The short version is that around 100 BC, Valyria collapsed, the Century of Blood started, and the Dothraki began spreading out from Vaes Dothrak, destroying every civilization around them. Some time between 100 BC and 0 BC, Khal Temmo led his khalasar to Qohor; the timing is ambiguous, but presumably this happened after all the cities east of Qohor had been destroyed, and near the end of the Dothraki expansion, because Qohor was the furthest from Vaes Dothrak that we know the Dothraki reached. The notable part of the battle was that 20k Dothraki braided warriors fought against 3k Unsullied and lost. The Dothraki were overconfident and arrogant and suffered 60% casualties, while the Unsullied suffered 80% casualties, but the Dothraki lost all their leaders – Khal Temmo, all his bloodriders, all his sons, and all his captains. This apparently left the Dothraki incapable of winning an 8000 vs. 600 battle. After that, history is ambiguous about when the Dothraki stopped expanding, but they never advanced further west than Qohor, although they might still have continued to fill out to the north and south. Somewhere around 1 AC, the Dothraki stopped expanding (the “Century of Blood” ended). After that, they mostly fought amongst themselves; neighboring cities and states settled on a 2-pronged strategy of buying Unsullied guards and paying Danegeld. From then to 300 AC (the present), the Dothraki borders were stable and there’s no mention of the Dothraki ever again challenging any army that uses Unsullied.

    However, I’d also note that our main account of “the Three Thousand of Qohor” is by Jorah, who’s operating at a temporal (about 350 years) and cultural distance roughly equivalent to an Ottoman in Henry V’s court describing to another visiting Ottoman the story of William the Conqueror, in under 10 minutes. The broad strokes may be correct, but the details have almost certainly been mythologized to reinforce the narratives preferred by intervening generations. I’d be surprised if such a story included any non-superficial account of Edward the Confessor’s relationships with William and Godwin. I don’t know what the equivalent background would be for the 3000 of Qohor, which is kind of my point.

    My personal takeaway is that the Dothraki reacted to their first real setback by failing to adapt; I’d call it “stagnating” if I didn’t suspect that their culture has actually been doubling down on its “warrior mystique” in the centuries of peace. We’re told that Dothraki used to be able to trample entire civilizations under their hooves, but the modern Dothraki have a deeply dysfunctional culture, that encourages feuds and in-fighting, while they passively wait for a prophesized Messianic figure to lead them back to true glory.

    Complaining about all the Dothraki words that start with “khal” is puerile. One could easily point to “duke”, “duchess”, “duchy”, and “ducal guards”, and then make a crack about how when they take a sh-t they probably call it a “dookie”. Real-world languages can just as bad as Dothraki.

    You note that, with the exception of a khal and khaleesi, Dothraki don’t seem to care much about sexual exclusivity or paternity, unlike real-world steppe nomad cultures. But then you criticize the Dothraki for not accumulating high-quality possessions to pass on to… who, exactly? And we know that the funeral rite for a khal is a big fire that burns his horse and his “treasures”, so there wouldn’t be much to leave anyway. (Metal medallions and metal bells are tokens of victory, but I suppose the blade of a good arakh might be passed on to someone else.) This aspect of the Dothraki is reminiscent of the classic free-market critique that people in collectivist societies don’t invest for the future, but that people are motivated to save and build and create when they know they can pass on the fruits of their labors to their children. But in this case, instead of being subordinate to a political regime or ideal, individual Dothraki are subordinate to a suffocating culture that deprives them of any individual worth except as a warrior.

    Regarding the linguistic homogeneity, the Dothraki only spread out over the last 400 years, which is not generally enough time for a language to splinter into mutually incomprehensible languages. Distances are deceptive for a highly mobile, nomadic culture where all groups pay regular visits to a central location. To the extent that dialects may have formed, khals and other important Dothraki need to be able to communicate with the dosh khaleen, no matter what funny dialect they use when their khalasar is off on its own. The dialect of Vaes Dothrak will act as the “prestige dialect”, and will exert a centralizing influence on Dothraki speech, as long as the special significance of Vaes Dothrak lasts. (If a large khalasar were to break free of the cultural influence of Vaes Dothrak, they might develop their own language in time, but I don’t recall any hints of that happening.)

    Regarding the lack of ethnic diversity, you point out yourself that the Dothraki exterminate and relocate (by slavery) other peoples, and that they don’t treat children of non-Dothraki as Dothraki. This may not be how real-world cultures maintain strength and long-term stability, but if a culture did act this way, it would certainly lead to a lack of ethnic diversity. And again, the Dothraki were in a much smaller area 400 years ago, and their current configuration may not be stable. We know very little about genetic mixing between different khalasars, but surely 400 years is too short a time for any significant differences to surface.

    Speaking of stability, several times you’ve mentioned a regret that the “North American horse-system was essentially strangled in its crib”. But that was always an inherently transitionary system, as the existing North American cultures continuously adapted to the continuously-changing invasion from Europe that started in 1492. Horses didn’t magically appear in Mexico, all by themselves; they’re part of a continuum that includes smallpox, Christian missionaries, homesteading, railroads, reservations, and the legality of gambling. This reminded me umpleasantly of that quote from “Dances with Wolves”: “The great horse culture of the plains was gone and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.”

    Regarding sword shapes, in general there are three types of cutting action with a sword: stabbing, chopping, and slicing. Straight swords are better at stabbing and worse at slicing; curved swords are better at slicing and worse at stabbing. When fighting from horseback, slicing is more useful and stabbing is less useful; against someone in metal armor, stabbing is more useful (in the gaps) and slicing is less useful. (When fighting from horseback against someone in metal armor, my understanding is that other weapons are generally more useful than swords.) Given that the Dothraki obsess over horses and despise wearing metal armor, while the Westerosi practically have a fetish for wearing metal armor, it makes sense that the Dothraki use curved swords and the Westerosi use straight swords. However, the Dornish, who don’t wear metal armor as much as other Westerosi, do use curved scimitars, at least in the TV show (I don’t recall whether they were mentioned in the books). Why weren’t arakhs described as being similar to scimitars? I’d guess either that Dornish scimitars were an invention of the TV show, or that Dornish scimitars were a part of the world that GRRM developed after the first book had been written, or that arakhs simply had a different design than Dornish scimitars. If it’s a different design, it might be something similar to a yanmaodao (goose-quill dao) – straight for most of its length, and then a curved segment on the end, which often also has an edge on the back side. That might be something that a Westerosi would describe as a combination of sword and scythe. However, I don’t know if yanmaodao were ever used from horseback in the real world; my general understanding is that dao were primarily a weapon for peasant infantry. (Although of course the primary weapon of Chinese peasant infantry was the spear.)

    As for the mass rush tactics used by the Dothraki in the TV show, I attribute that to the stupidity that infests virtually every TV and film depiction of war and fighting. From fistfights where people pause to pose, to swordfights where people aim at thin air and do hard blocks with the edge, to formations that break into chaotic melees (I think you’ve mentioned this one before), to people throwing swords and clubbing with guns, to many-on-one battles where the many take turns engaging the one, it’s a morass that I’ve completely given up on. I don’t see any reason to criticize the Dothraki in particular. Like the all the rest, it’s designed to look impressive to people with little knowledge. I don’t see any reason to hold the show or the books to a higher standard of accuracy when it comes to depicting the Dothraki, when they’ve repeatedly shown themselves to be nothing more or less than average when it comes to depicting all other forms of combat.

    Although, going back to your Sparta series, one of your points is: “Sparta seeks to solve almost all of its issues by applying a hoplite phalanx to the problem, regardless of if the problem can be solved by a hoplite phalanx”. The Dothraki version seems entirely obvious to me. And it would explain a lot of the Dothraki stupidity in the show and in the books.

    And that’s enough for a simple reply to a blog post, I think.

    1. But the Dothraki are bad literature too. They are one dimensional and lack internal logic. They raid but don’t take booty. They have no internal organization or visible subsistence strategy other than blackmail cities but they don’t seem to buy anything with the money. Vaes Dothraki is a perpetual trade fair where the hosts buy nothing. Women exist solely to dance and be raped.

      1. This criticism points to an issue which Prof. Devereux sometimes elides. There are aspects of the GoT world which are historically inaccurate (compared to actual medieval Europe, the actual Mongols, etc.). And there are aspects which are so illogical that they could not exist in any human society. If the Dothraki wear plain leather, that might be unlike the Mongols, but hardly impossible. But if the Dothraki have no flocks or herds, they have no food, which is impossible for any human society. (Well, maybe not for the Others, but that’s different.)

    2. Holy mackerel! I just stumbled across the existence of a “real” sickle-sword: the ancient Greek “harpe”. I say “actual” because my superficial googling indicates that it may have been mostly a ceremonial tool shaped like a weapon, as opposed to something that any non-trivial number of people ever used as a weapon.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harpe

      Also, it recently occurred to me that until recently, the most widely-spread depiction of Khan-era Mongols might actually have been from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. … I think they got the “living in large tents” part correct, anyway.

    3. I think you’re missing the point, that even if there are in world reasons for this, the Dothraki are advertised as being ‘based on real life cultures’, but instead seem to be more based on stereotypes of them.

    4. Domino, this became a pretty interesting comment. I’ll be honest, the first couple paragraphs led me to expect a long parade of anti-“Woke” clichés — “It’s as if there’s something about the Dothraki or the show or the books or GRRM that gets under your skin, but you don’t directly express what it is” prepared me for the worst. Like, Brett repeatedly, directly expresses what bothers him about the Dothraki: it’s bad world-building based on bad history based on stereotypes that have had and continue to have bad effects in the world.

      But then you go some REALLY interesting places! Your suggested comparison of the Dothraki to the Spartans as cultures in decline seems particularly compelling because you’re plainly not just offering it as a “hoist on your own petard” riposte: you’ve clearly thought it through. Same with your suggestion, based on your immersion in ASOIAF lore, that what the Dothraki may really share with the Plains Indians is an arc in history that hasn’t come to a stable equilibrium. I’m really glad I read your comment AND the blog items both.

      Now at the end of the day, I think what you’ve done is perform a respectable act of salvage. This is good headcanon; in bygone days and other fandoms, we’d expect Stan Lee to award you a No-Prize (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvel_No-Prize). Meaning, I’m not convinced GRRM has thought the Dothraki condition through as deeply as you have done GUIDED BY Bret’s own “canon.”

      However, I could be wrong. For instance, while the books have not to this point said it outright, it’s clear from, well, everything, that Westeros is a backwater compared to Essos — a bunch of feuding bumpkins whose own culture and polity is clearly NOT UP TO THE TASK of surviving the stress of the oncoming winter PLUS white walkers. Like the inhabitants of Castle Elsinore, they are just making their external enemies’ conquest easier by tearing their own house down. I don’t think GRRM will ever finish the series, but the way it should end is, as a friend of mine pretty high up in the SF publishing world put it, “with snow falling on the corpses of all the main characters.”

      The folks across the narrow sea clearly believe Westerosi are best enjoyed, and profited from, at some remove.

      So MAYBE Martin is setting up the Dothraki as a failed culture too. After all, he never tells us Dani is bad at her job, but he certainly shows us. (Ruling, I mean; she’s a pretty good warlord.) My guess is he’s not. And I think that there would still be a problem that our perspective being exclusively non-Dothraki, their failings are exoticized in a way those of the series “white folks” are not, (Dani, Cersei & Jon all suck at different aspects of leadership, for instance, but we see that from inside their own heads.)

      But again, I gained a lot from pondering your comment, so thanks very much for posting it.

      1. Interesting take.
        In defense of the Kingdoms, I’ll note:

        * slavery ban
        * They’ve survived much worse winters than Essos for thousands of years
        * The Others/White Walkers haven’t attacked in thousands of years; hard to expect any human institution to be ready for a threat over that length of time.
        * May or may not be bad luck that the Others (seem) to be mobilizing right as the Seven Kingdoms are having a civil war and social breakdown. Scrying exists in this universe, so it could be they’re seizing an opportunity of growing magic + growing vulnerability.

        (I say seem because I’m not sure how much they’ve actually done in the books.)

        1. Hi, mindstalko. Interesting thoughts. I’ll certainly give you the slavery point. I’m not so much arguing for the moral superiority of Essos cultures as their superiority in sociopolitical function and cultural achievement. A lot of this is what we see, but also what we don’t see. Also, I’m very much guided by the books here. For instance, Westerosi come East for loans, troops and supplies. Essoi mostly go to Westeros to try to get their loans paid back. Essos cities have monumental art works at a level Westeros ones seem not to. Westerosi Maesters don’t seem to be in demand in Essos. And cultural influence seems to run one way: e.g. worship of the Lord of Light is catching on in Westeros.

          Leaving aside the Walkers, the very first thing we learn in the story is that Winter IS COMING and everyone expects it to be a bad one. The unbroken atrocity of the War of Five Kings is a moral disaster all on its own. But it also represents enormous deadweight loss economically. The financial and logistics demands, and the lost productive capacity from scorched-earth tactics, massacres, mobilization and the general breakdown of order surely nullify the last growing season or two that should have gone into the granaries.

        2. Oh, I forgot one last thing! Regardless whether the Essoi are correct to look down on their neighbors across the water, they clearly do feel that way.

          Also, not sure if you’ve read Wolf Hall or seen the miniseries — just the latter for me — but when considering GRRM’s world I find myself thinking of Cromwell’s monologue about how “the world is really run by bankers in Amsterdam.”

  3. Well, that seemed like a pretty brutal and thorough takedown and quite interesting to boot.

    OTOH, if all someone knows about Mongols is that they were horse archers, and they know horse archers from video games where they are annoying kiting guys even if the actual tactics aren’t authentic, then the Dothraki are still going to seem artificially stupid when their only tactic is ‘charge them’. The burden of knowledge required to say “these guys on screen don’t seem right” is really low.

    But considering the tendency for armies to suffer ruinous losses which then reappear through some unknown means like they have video game respawns, maybe the Dothraki non-culture makes perfect sense. 🙂 As long as they die violent deaths, they respawn. So they never need to worry about depletion from losses in combat and murders. Actual subsistence is optional – just start a pointless fight and die to ‘resupply.’ Their numbers seem endless because they are. Just cruise around the steppe ‘sea’ fighting stuff to get some kills before you die. They’re the only ones really going all in on the edgy rape and violence because they’re the ones who figured out that’s what the story is about so why even try to build stuff and have a full society? 🙂

  4. Great, great series. Thank you so much for taking the time to debunk the myth of Martin’s “historicalness;” more critical, factual information is always welcome!

  5. There is one other point. GRRM’s and others’ portrayals of the Mongols may be inaccurate, they may even be racist, but it is unlikely that they are hurtful to current day Mongolians. Most people are more than happy to be told that their ancestors won military victories through superior courage and fighting skill (“badassery,” if you will), without the need for all that effete strategery. The schoolboy version of Agincourt does not explain that the English system of combined arms, featuring coordinated archers and dismounted knights, developed in the years of Scottish border warfare, was operationally superior to the generally uncoordinated French use of mounted and dismounted knights. It’s the gallant English yeoman that sets English hearts aflame, not the superior operational method.

    1. Because it’s a racist stereotype? Even ignoring Native Americans, Mongolians due suffer from stuff like this https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-30129358
      Many people think that Dothraki are 1:1 or at least 1:0,9 representations of the Mongols, like whenever someone mentions them in r/Fantasy. I suspect this is the reason Jack Weatherford is so popular in Mongolia. He really pushes back against exactly this.

      1. Jack Weatherford pushes back so hard against it he wraps around and ends becoming an apologist for the atrocities of the Mongolian campaigns despite the undeniably vast amounts of destruction they wrought because apparently facilitating Eurasian trade routes and being relatively religiously tolerant and meritocratic is more important than anything else. It shouldn’t be very surprising that he is popular in Mongolia considering the national mythos being primarily concerned with Chinggis and his Imperialism. In that regard it kind of just highlights ey81’s point that there is a lot of regard among Mongolians themselves for a self image of badasses who conquered the world 800 years ago, and I’d suspect because of that a lot of them are happier about GoT encouraging an image of them being uncompromising ass-kickers than they are upset about the various ways it distorts history.

        For my money I never really got my Steppe nomad stereotypes from GOT, even in pop history terms the Dothraki so obviously have such little connection to real nomadic cultures if you have even a passing interest it feels like a non-starter, I’d say my image of them was probably more informed by videogames like Age of Empires 2 where at least they are portrayed as cavalry archers.

        1. It’s been a long while since I read the Genghis khaan and the making of the modern world but while that is a problem with Jackweatherford’s book the whole point is not to make the Mongols warriors but rather point out all the civilian stuff they did or contributed to. Be it playing cards, Beijing opera, a intercontinental postal service, spread of gunpowder, etc be it directly or facilitating conditions like Pax Mongolica that butterfly effect it. Which is the the entire point of the book not warefar nor making them looks badass that;s just a bit of sweetener to help the rest of it go through without boring it is afterall tittled “the making the modern world”.

          The book also argues our current pop culture stereotypes are far more fluid than we believe with him pointing out I Canterburry tales, Marco Polo, Italians naming themselves after some etc and argues it was far more that they became a historical whipping boy. He also lambasts the racist and problematic history of things like the term mongoloid. (THough I think blames Dr. Down etc too much). Such things are of course very much disliked by the Mongolians who spearheaded efforts to remove the terms from offiicial use when they joined the UN and WHO. There’s tons and tons a Mongolian might like about the book which is not warfare related. Which I think the OP is reffering to. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hulagu_Khan#Communications_with_Europe

          Also even if that one singular small aspect of the book is the reason and only reason they would like it how does not wanting to be associated with medeival warcrimes turn into they want to be depicted as warlike let alone barbaric? Even if your interpretation is not only the only legitimate interpretation but the only possible one, I feel you strawman the arguement. It is not that they get depicted as warriors it’s that the Dothraki and tropes they are based on depict them as rapists, pillagers, brutes and savagess one and all who aren’t able to build or learn.

          1. Eh idk if they wanna glamorize their Hitler, they should be able to put up with “mongoloid” jokes;

            only the stupidest ppl mean those seriously lol, most can’t even tell between mongols and other asians – and asians are generally considered smart and skilled even by neonazis, so idk lol

  6. “The only thing they have in common with black racial stereotypes is low intelligence and high strength”

    I note that Tolkien’s orcs aren’t obviously dumber than anyone else. The Hobbit goblins are positively (if maliciously) clever and inventive. LotR orcs not so much, but they’re not coded dumb either. Quarrelsome, yes. But they’re articulate and rational, if hypocritical.

    1. I’m not sure that they’re really hypocritical, are they? As far as I recall, they don’t really express any beliefs other than a love of fighting and a fear of their leaders, and all their actions are perfectly consistent with that.

      For that matter, I don’t think they’re considered to be particularly strong, are they? In TTT the ones who kidnap Merry and Pippin can keep running all day and night, so they’ve clearly got good endurance (albeit Legolas seems to think that they’re receiving magical aid from Saruman), but I don’t recall anything that would suggest that an average orc could be confident of physically overpowering an average man. On the contrary, I always thought of them as being relatively small and scrawny (albeit that might just be because they’re portrayed that way in the movies).

      1. hypocritical: they accuse elves of/fear elves for doing things they do themselves. Accusing them of eating other orcs is a fighting offense, but they’re happy to eat human, and later one threatens another with the pot.

        > The big fellow with the sharp sword doesn’t seem to have thought him worth much anyhow – just left him lying: regular Elvish trick.

        > D’you remember old Ufthak? We lost him for days. Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring. How we laughed! She’d forgotten him, maybe, but we didn’t touch him – no good interfering with Her.

        HoME or Letters has a passage about orcs not surrendering to elves because Morgoth had instilled great fear of being captured by elves in them, fear of torture and such.

        Grishnakh runs off with a hobbit tucked under each arm, that’s probably like 80 pounds on top of any gear he’s got on. Granted he’s an uruk of Mordor, one of the varieties. I’m not saying they’re superstrong, but they’re not weak.

      2. Yes, they’re hypocritical. They criticize Frodo’s unseen companion for leaving him — “regular elvish trick” — but when they found a comrade of their own Shelob’s captive, they laughed at him and left him prisoner.

      3. In defense of the orcs, they didn’t have Elvish blades. Sam tried to cut through Shelob’s web with a blade forged by Men of Weterrneese which could deal black riders a bitter blow but “three times three times Sam struck with all his might, and at last one single cord of all the countless cords snapped and twisted.”

        For that matter the captive could have been hanging 15 feet in the air out of easy reach.

        So from the orc’s point of view they ran a real risk of trying to rescue Ufthak whereas the mighty elf warrior had already defeated Shelob and had a blade that could have easily cut Frodo loose.

        1. “Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring. How we laughed! She’d forgotten him, maybe, but we didn’t touch him – no good interfering with Her.”

          1. Never thought I’d be “defending” the Orcs, but — their callousness aside — it is obvious from their comments that they’ve known for years,in fact, no doubt centuries, that there’s nothing they can do once she has taken one of their number. The narrator (or “author” if you prefer) of LOTR even says the following:

            Orcs, they were useful slaves, but [Sauron] had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them.

            So by now, the Orcs would have known that in order to save their own hides, they’d better not interfere because their Master had made it known (I’m sure) what he expected . . . which was that their compatriots be left as food for his cat.

          2. I feel the important part of the anecdote is not that they think it impossible or unwise to rescue their comrade, but that they think it funny to leave him to be eaten alive by a giant spider. That is not something most people would think funny.

          3. The orcs could also be laughing because he presented a ridiculous sight, much like some hikers might laugh at a companion who slide off the path into a mud puddle, before pulling the companion out.

            Except there was a lot of risk trying to rescue a captive from Shelob even if it were possible.

            Orcs will avenge the death of some orcs. When the orcs were arguing about Merry and Pippin one of the orcs said “Not our orders. We have come all the way from the Mines to kill, and avenge our folk. I wish to kill, and then go back north.”

            If they will travel many leagues to avenge a fallen captain they probably will try to rescue a companion if the risk is reasonable.

          4. The orcs could also be laughing because he presented a ridiculous sight, much like some hikers might laugh at a companion who slide off the path into a mud puddle, before pulling the companion out.

            To be fair, I don’t think many hikers would laugh if falling into a puddle meant being eaten by a giant spider, no matter how ridiculous their companion looked.

    2. Yeah, Tolkien’s orcs (as opposed to other, later incarnations of orcs) are *clever*. They are good with mechanical and industrial stuff. They are, arguably *high tech*.

      Tolkien hates this, because in his mind that kind of thing is associated with evil and degradation. But it’s quite a different thing than stereotypes of black people (certainly in Tolkien’s time)

      1. In the sixties (when I read Tolkien), his anti-mechanical, anti-industrial sentiments found favor among many of his readers, i.e., hippies. But since then, most LoTR fans have been tech-friendly geeks, so that aspect of his ethos is slighted.

        1. I credit things like the Clean Air Act. Being anti-industrial is a lot more compelling when you can’t avoid living in an industrial wasteland.

          The end of the Cold War helps too, with less sense of “industry and science means the literal end of the world”.

      2. It is not obvious that Tolkiens orcs are more high tech than his elves, dwarves or Numenoreans. The main difference is that the bad guys tend more to delight in destruction, technological or otherwise. As an analogy, there is no stereotype of Nazi Germany being technologically backward, but there is certainly a stereotype about the uses to which they put their technology.

        1. There is due to the simple fact that orcs (and orc-affiliated people, like Saruman) are shown using the trappings of high technology and industrial society.

          1. And the Elves forged the Palantir; and the Three Rings, and swords with an in built IFF and early warning system. Their technology is *literally* indistinguishable from magic, at least to a Hobbit.

            “High-tech” does not mean “a lot of smoke and fire”. Generally, it just means the audience does not know how it works.

          2. @ad: For me, one-off wonders don’t count as “technology.” Anybody can forge iron with the proper ores and temperatures. The requirements for good steel can be discovered by experiment. Being a master smith doesn’t mean you’re doing something totally different and impossible with your furnace, it just means you’re doing a better job of it and get closer to the ideal forging process.

            But nobody can forge additional Rings of Power. None of the other elf-smiths took Celebrimbor’s amazing invention and started mass-producing Nenyas (or even one additional Nenya – all the Rings have their own unique powers). Nobody built new Palantirs to replace the ones that were lost. Even Sauron himself decided to stop at nine ringwraiths, instead of making enough to corrupt every human king on the continent. What, did he run out of gold to work with? Did he decide that more than nine would be unsporting?

            The defining feature of technology is that it’s something that works for everyone who knows how to do it – “Science doesn’t ask for your beliefs, it just asks for your eyes.” If it’s a legendary technique that only one person can perform, and only once, then it’s magic, whether it uses a hammer or a wand.

          3. There’s little that’s particularly high-tech about the orcs. They use shields and spears and bows and swords like anyone else. The orc-soldiers do have a fair bit of iron, enough to use in their boots. That seems consistent with the desolations of Mordor and Isengard. At Helm’s Deep they use some sort of “blasting fire” which might be chemical explosives or might be something magical.

            I don’t see anything clearly ‘industrial’ other than mass production of charcoal and iron and tools, with the resulting deforestation and production. No electricity, no steam engines, no obvious dyes. Mordor and Isengard could be Roman Elba.

  7. > But nobody can forge additional Rings of Power. None of the other elf-smiths took Celebrimbor’s amazing invention and started mass-producing

    The Jewel-smiths made 19 Rings of Power. 7+9 with Sauron around, 3 by Celebrimbor on his own. That’s a lot.

    They didn’t make more because that was a bad idea after Sauron revealed the exploit of the One Ring. The Three were made independently of him yet were vulnerable. It’s not explicitly stated that a Ring made *after* the One would be vulnerable, but it’s reasonable… Also, shortly after Sauron made the One, he killed or scattered the Jewel-smiths. Technological knowledge can get lost if it’s mostly in living brains who get killed or flee to Valinor.

    As for Sauron himself? He put most of his power into the One Ring, possibly there’s nothing left over for making Rings of Power. Besides, the plan was a bust anyway. The original idea was to enslave the elves. Men and dwarves were Plan B, but the dwarves proved immune. Humans weren’t, but they turned into fear-wraiths rather than truly immortal sorcerer kings. Useful, but possibly not worth the effort of making more Rings.

    Then in the Third Age he was without the One, so lacked the means for enslaving a new Ringbearer. He recovered 3 of the Seven but apparently didn’t use them.

    The palantiri were made in Valinor, possibly by super-genius Feanor himself. Humans never knew how to make them. We don’t know what was going on in Valinor.

    The Dunedain did make at least four sword bound with spells for the bane of the Witch-king. They also re-used whatever was used to make Orthanc and the walls of Minas Tirith. The elves of Gondolin made at least three orc-warning blades, one of them a mere dagger. But again, Middle-earth is a world of decline, even of replicable knowledge, largely due to experts getting killed.

    1. Don’t forget:
      Saruman at least *claimed* to have made a Ring of Power himself, that is, he named himself Ring-maker.

  8. The steppe sword was somewhat unusual/noteworthy, actually, since the entire saber-scimitar-katana family of weapons can be traced to it. It’s a sidearm compared to the bow, but then, swords are always a sidearm for cavalry, with the lance, bow, or (later) pistol or carbine as the real backbone of the cavalry force’s usefulness. (But swords are apparently so cool that everyone except the Steppe nomads decides to pay more attention to it. If you think knights were bad about the “cult of the sword”, you should see samurai, who by the Edo Period had managed to convince themselves their main role had been to conduct mounted sword-duels. Rather than the mounted archery that contributed something like 75% of Warring States casualties.)

    1. 300 years of peace does that to a guy, also it’s rather independent of mongol style blades predating the mongols as an empire.

  9. Incidentally, it’s spelled “macuahuitl” (the traditional orthography of Nahuatl is based on Spanish, which usually uses “qu” only for “k before i or e”, not for the “kw” sound).

  10. “The Dothraki are not an amalgam of the Sioux or the Mongols, but rather an amalgam of Stagecoach (1939) and The Conqueror (1956).”

    This is a great pull quote.

  11. Hey, great series! That goes for not just this one by the way, though I always love to see stuff on steppe nomads who are very often either missing or severely misrepresented in many fantasy worlds one encounters,
    even though I believe that the emergence of pastroal nomadism is probably comparable in importance to agricultural or at least urbanization, and also interestingly wouldn’t have arisen on its own without the first of those most likely.

    I would like to comment a little bit on this statement, because as I understand it, it’s not entirely correct

    “Nomads generally cannot do their own metal working, so swords would have to be imported.”

    The Turks (not talking Ottomans here) or at least several of the Turkic peoples were actually well known for their skill at metalworking, and in fact in several of their myths and origin stories place their people or a representative founding hero often as blacksmiths. Helmets were highly prized and various Turkic people were supposedly well known for their skill at making high-quality helmets that were often richly decorated, maces were also highly valued both as weapons that were effective against armor (which again the Turks were enthusiastic about, both in terms of acquiring and producing), and as symbols of office and power, for instance in the later Ottoman empire. Maceheads often seem to have been made of bronze where iron was less available.
    I’m not sure if Turks originated the design but I’m pretty sure that Turkic peoples introduced the curved scimitars taht would characterize cavalry armament the Central Asia and the Near East, beginning in the 10th and 11th century it seems like, as the weapon spread from and with them. Supposedly that’s part of the reason why metal vambraces became quite common (again the Turks are known for their skill as armorers).

    With the above in mind, you are still obviously correct in describing the composite bow as the primary weapon of war. Though there was more variety here than is often realized, with several steppe nomads introducing shock cavalry or cataphract-like cavalry to the mix. Horses such as the Fergana horses bred in Central Asia may have been used by such heavier cavalrymen. These horses were heavily sought by the Chinese for mounting cavalry as they were far superior to the local breeds as warhorses, and were known by them as “the heavenly/divine horses that sweat blood”.

    Of course one thing to consider with steppe nomads and peoples associated with that lifestyle is that not everyone practiced a lifestyle based entirely on pastoral nomadism, but as part of of a steppe tirbal confederation (not necessarily ethnically homogenous) you’d have tribes that fell on various sides and often in between pastoral nomad and agriculturalist, with a common middleground being semi-nomadic agriculturalists who depended a great deal on herding.
    A somewhat common theme seems to be that ruling (or royal) tribes or clans were “pure steppe nomads”, such as you see in descriptions of the ancient Scythians who are explicitly mentioend as being made up of tribes and peoples who practiced agriculture and even had cities, with the “Royal Scythias” who were fully nomadic at the center of political and societal power.
    Incidentally it’s probably worth noting that the Scythians also were famous as metalworkers, though for working with gold and creating jewelry and decorations in contrast for the Turks being associated with ironworking.

  12. Having just glanced at this, and having read some of your writing on Tolkien, one thing I don’t quite get is why Martin’s racism makes you so angry when Tolkien’s racism doesn’t seem to bother you. (Or maybe it just didn’t come up?) I mean Tolkien’s work doesn’t just other people as savages, though it does do that to the Haradrim, it’s also *intensely* racialist: the blood of the Numenoreans becomes mixed with lesser men and they are weakened etc. As for the orcs, I know they are not literally meant to be human, and so it’s a bit different, but Tolkien seems to think it is good that Aragorn carried out wars of genocidal extermination them (something Martin himself has complained about.) Is it just that Martin doesn’t get the “man of his time excuse”? Have you written in this sort of highly condemnatory moral tone about Tolkien elsewhere? Do you think Martin is just identifiably worse?

    1. So, a few notes:
      First, Martin is just wrong about the orc genocide, see: https://youtu.be/9hRs8-1N9j4 for a discussion of what Tolkien said about it and what we may assume.
      Second, Tolkien does not generally in his letters draw strong comparisons between his fictional peoples and actual historical cultures. There is of course Tolkien’s one letter which compares the appearance of orcs to “degraded and repulsive version of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” That is, to be clear, not a good statement, yet it is actually far more nuanced than what Martin says about his Dothraki – the orcs are not equivalent to the Mongols, but rather ‘degraded’ forms and moreover Tolkien admits the possibility that the ‘least lovely’ descriptor is only applicable from a single, subjective point of view. That doesn’t make the letter a good statement, but it is striking that Tolkien’s worst moment (in 1958) is still a fair sight more careful and nuanced than what Martin was saying in the 2000s – that the Dothraki were, with only a ‘dash’ of pure fantasy, an otherwise largely accurate amalgam of actual historical cultures.

      Third, there is just a substantial difference in the characterization of actual humans. I found no moment like Samwise contemplating the men of the south (“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace” (TT, 317). Martin is so consistently more glib than this and we have no moments contemplating if the Dothraki might really rather have kept to their sheep (that they don’t have); indeed they tell us directly they would rather not and hold in contempt the men who do.

      Consequently, Tolkien’s depictions are both generally more humanized and nuances AND more clearly distanced from real human cultures. That Tolkien was doing better in the 1950s is all the more an indictment of Martin’s inability to do well with books being written even now.

    2. “the blood of the Numenoreans becomes mixed with lesser men and they are weakened etc.”

      Bret rebutted your other points so I’ll take this one: it’s not true. It’s reasonable to think so if you only read the main text, since Faramir seems to say as much. But in Appendix A we learn of the Kin-strife, instigated by Gondorians who feared racial mixing by the king, and they were *wrong*: the king’s son lived as long as his father. There was a general lessening of life-span: “it was due above all to Middle-earth itself, and to the slow withdrawing of the gifts of the Númenóreans after the downfall of the Land of the Star”

      After all the Dunedain weren’t living long in the first place for any blood reason. The people who were thrilled to reach 90 in Beleriand started living into their 200s on Numenor, not because they had suddenly become part-elf (they hadn’t, apart from the royal line) but because of divine blessing. The blessing was hereditary, but withdrawable for reasons like “y’all are behaving like imperialist assholes” or “it is My Plan to suck magic out of the world”.

      The Numenorean King Aldarion married a “lesser” Numenorean but this had no effect on the royal lifespan. Later kings clinging to life into senility, and overseeing a growing empire, did: Ar-Pharazon was old at 190 despite the royal house’s “pure blood”, while Elendil, from a royal cadet line that stayed Faithful, went down in battle at age 322. This is religion, not race.

  13. Arabic name of turk is Atrak , atruki very close to dotraki 😀 reaso why many people assume Turk is = as turkey, while Turk is collective word of all Turkic people. and Turkics did conquered build more dynasties in 3 continents. some of turkic dynaties are. Huns,avars, cumans, hungaria-magyar (arpad was turkic who ruled magyars), bulgar turkics who ruled slavics, kypcaks, Memluks, munghal. seljuks, baburs, delhi sultanate, timurid, khazar, pechengs, ottomans. etc.

    even your mostly stated Mongol army majority was turkic. for example chengiz name derived from turkic ocean, temurjin derived from turkic (ironsmither). bortegin(dynasty name wolfprince) his mother was probably turkic shatoo. his sons married with turkic . let alone Mongol script comes from Uyghur turkic script. many of his advisors were uyghur origin. his best commander subetai comes from tuvan turkic. you see mongol and turkics lived so close each another. they were mostly unseparable till 15th century after that mongols became more influenced by Manchu and Chinese.

    that been said wolf and war tactics.

    Oghuz khan mythology

    “I have become your Khan;
    Let’s all take swords and shields; (old turkic dance state)
    Kut (divine power) will be our sign;(tengrism Tengri blessed people with ruling power of KUT)
    Gray wolf will be our uran (battle cry); (graywolf sembol of turkics also during invasion Turkic used the howling tactics)
    Our iron lances will be a forest; (every turk has to use lances, gokturks, memluks, khazars, avars, cumans, kypcaks, bulgar cumans, ottomans. baburs, munghal , timurid. etc) had lances
    Khulan will walk on the hunting ground;
    More seas and more rivers;
    Sun is our flag and sky is our tent.”

    this passage gives a clear idea how Turkic used the main tactic as howling. even during ottoman a special troop called Akijin and Deli troops used howling also animal head for scaring enemies. it was so effective that many western churches prays had some fear of the Turkish howlings. also spahis had Allah allah words too. their main tactics is suprice also giving first blow to the enemy with light armory. they hate wearing armors because of their motto (what it comes it’s happens). it’s also figures many western books as a Monster. they influece hussar so much in many ways.

    wolf is sembol of turkics which has 3 forms . when Tengri want to give sign he always send graywolf or white wolf . desperate times Wolf helped turkics (see Ashina shewolf). wolf is lifestyle that Turkics adapted. which is why every turkic history had alfa wolf and beta. and all turkics did fight each another for the greatest power Khan.

    for example Gokturks clan names Ashina (shewolf) . gokturks name as Blue Turks comes from Blue wolf symbol. blue means east in Turkic tradition also tengri color. so blue – wolf is blessed wolf = Graywolf. for example turkey other names land of wolfs. or gray wolfs clan. because turkic people live on steppe but formed as wolf pack there has to be alfa and many betas. which is why you see in every turkic history fighting among each another. on the other hand Chinese sources always associate wolf with Xiongnu even some of their early names long snouted dogs gives clear idea that this group of people are wolf decendent for more info (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/49539) this vase show how blue wolf associate xiongnu and gokturks get name of blue wolf 😉 because they were decedent from it. Chinese sources tell that gokturks had blue flag but also helmet of wolf statue on it .. as for mongols they were absorbed during Xiongnu period see more inf (donghu).

    war tactics. Turkics and mongols were mainly arrow clans . for example Oghuz turks oghuz name literally means (arrow clans) which is why composite arrow was favored by turkics and mongols and believe or not they can shoot a 20 30 arrow in minute. seljuks mazgirit 1071 war stated that Seljuks troops had arrows in everywhere that they continuously shoot arrow in hour. distance average turk-mongol arrow is 400 meter. ottoman practice arrow begins of 500 meter. and record is 846 meter. xiongnu were ancestor of mongol and turkics and famous one is moatun who invented the 10000 system of army touman which is still used in Turkish Turkics and mongols. moatun also invented Whistle arrow. but he was warloard with effective tactic . on of the tactics you show coming to enemy and fleeing maneuver was was mainly used. for example when he was against the chinese king come and fleed that Chinese army followed him and they were later lost the war but moutun relased Chinese king , is famous passage to fit in to this description. and this tactics was used almost all Turkics including ottomans.

    that been said i think dotraki is mix Turkic and mongols. exempt the fornication part. because even in old times fornication was forbidden and has high punishment of death

    1. Hi, demir. I bow to your knowledge of Turkic history when it comes to Turkic warlords fighting for dominance, and about Turkic reverence for wolves. But as a matter of ethology, wolves don’t fight for dominance, and don’t run in packs comprising “alphas and betas.” In the wild, wolf “packs” are mostly family groups: Mom, Dad and their children. When one of the children get the urge to start breeding, the head off to start their own family/pack. Wolf-pack (family) hunting is highly cooperative, and “fighting for dominance” is very risky in terms of energy and risk. Peer competitors within and even across species strongly prefer to posture and deescalate once one side decides its odds are poor. Even inferior species can pull off successful displays of belligerence sometimes — the larger, more dangerous predator not only doesn’t want to risk losing, it doesn’t want to risk injury.

      The idea that Wolf behavior centered around “packs” of alpha and beta males ruthlessly establishing and maintaining dominance hierarchies came from an intitial study of captive wolves. It was literally prison-yard sociality. See this video by David L. Mech, who introduced the alpha/beta dichotomy of Wolf status, and now wishes he could get his old textbooks out of circulation: https://youtu.be/tNtFgdwTsbU.

      Ironically, there is a species that lives in small communities, with a pronounced alpha/beta hierarchy maintained by violence and threats: chimpanzees. Alas, chimps don’t make for compelling iconography.

  14. Does anyone have suggestions for good historical fiction with Mongol characters?
    Or fantasy fiction that has Mongol-like characters that are done well?

  15. You talk about historical swords the arakh might be based on; the “Forged in Fire” TV series had contestants create a shotel (with modern materials though) and there is a short history and the test, on how a hooking sword was used against armed enemies, not civilians

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9lSGp-Xwwo

    I remembered this essay from you when I saw this episode and thought you might find it interesting to see.

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