[Spoilers. Mainly oblique ones, but still, read at your own risk.]
Back in my very first post about GoT, I said that I would get to the orientalism thing another day. Well, today’s a day, right? N.B. I’m still only a chapter or two into A Dance With Dragons, so it’s possible that most or all of the claims I make here are no longer true. (Some might call this lazy or irresponsible criticism, but I like to think of it as giving the gift of “well actually.” No need to thank me.)
Briefly, the treatment of ethnic otherness in Game of Thrones is groundbreaking, fascinating, and unsettling: groundbreaking because it is rare in fantasy of this particular stripe to find so many non-Anglos with speaking parts, fascinating because the way these characters are treated reveals something about the way we tend to think about race and culture, and unsettling because it turns out — surprise, surprise — that the way we think about race and culture is pretty damn terrible.
High Fantasy has basically two ways of dealing with race and ethnicity, of which one stems from J.R.R. Tolkien and the other from Robert E. Howard. The first version uses a whitewashed world where the only non-Anglo humans are the ill-defined and nefarious “southrons.” Tolkien, who made room in his fictional world for Tom Bombadil, couldn’t find a way to make room for melanin. (To his undying credit, though, when a Nazi-affiliated publisher approached him about licensing a German translation, Tolkien told them: 1. “No,” and 2. “F___ you and the racist ideology you rode in on.”) Robert E. Howard’s version is quite different. He loves, loves to talk about his characters’ racial backgrounds, and even wrote an ethnology of sorts called “The Peoples of the Hyborian Age.” The problem with this version is that the world never really functions like a world: there’s no reason for the cultures to be the way they are, and they don’t really interact with each other beyond the occasional sword fight. Howard’s cultures — including Conan’s own Cimmeria! — are basically ways for him to say “Ooh, this character is Stygian/Tzingaran/Pictish! How exotic!”
Credit where it’s due, Martin really makes an effort to improve on the standard model. His setup is much closer to Howard than to Tolkien, but he applies his vaunted gritty realism to the world-building as much as he can. Martin’s cultures have trade relationships, treaties, and diplomats; they produce immigrants, ex-pats, and exports. They change over time and rub off on each other much in the way that real cultures do. None of it is perfectly realized, but it’s a decided step up. If nothing else, Martin felt the need to try, and what’s more he has continued to try even after becoming a bonafide publishing sensation who could probably get away with filling the rest of the books with a monkey’s transcription of the farty noises he makes with his armpits.
Take a close look at any of these cultures, though, and you might not like what you find.
We might as well begin with the Dothraki. Like most people who have grumbled about the way Martin deals with ethnic difference, I started out thinking that the Dothraki were too savage and brutal. A nomadic warrior race with a serious thing for horses, the Dothraki present an overwhelming military threat to all they encounter — not because of the activities of a military genius like Subutai, or a technological breakthrough like the stirrup, but because ferocious badassery is built into their genetic makeup. Their whole society based on combat! When they celebrate weddings, professional soldiers square off in duels that sometimes end in actual bloodshed! Leadership belongs to whichever ruler is able to put all other contenders to the sword! They’re… huh, when you put it like that, they’re just like every other society known to exist on Martin’s planet, aren’t they?
The brutality of Dothraki culture is actually a red herring. The problem with their depiction is not that, in a world of aggressive phallocrats, they are the biggest and most violent dicks. It is interesting and revealing that, where a Westerosi soldier is a “knight,” and a Free Cities soldier a “bravo,” an individual Dothraki soldier is called a “screamer,” but the troubling thing about the Dothraki isn’t how different they are from the Westerosi. It’s how similar they all are to eachother.
Every difference all the same.
Consider the the rival powers in Westeros. The Starks are fatalistic, duty-bound, honorable but kind of unsophisticated. The Lannisters are appetite-driven plutocrats. The Baratheons were markedly varied, but the surviving one is driven and joyless, having perhaps inherited the Stark “hat” now that there’s not a Stark head left to wear it. The Martells are given to plotting and sexual license. We know less about the Tyrells, but they seem to value chivalry and court culture: consider Loras’ prowess, consider the splendor of Margaery’s entourage and weddings, consider how much more talented the Tyrell fool Butterbumps is than any of the other fools we’ve met.
Now, consider the rival powers among the Dothraki. Was it Khal Jommo’s khalasar that valued chivalry? Were Khal Ogo’s people the least trustworthy? Did Khal Drogo’s have a unique worldview shaped from their long tradition of cultural exchange with the Free Cities? Or are all the khalasars exactly freaking the same, because that’s how it works when you’re an oriental other in speculative fiction?
As noted above, this problem is not unique to Martin. It’s endemic to the way that “barbarian” forces are treated in literature, and indeed in non-fiction accounts. What’s interesting is that Martin seems to have recognized that this is a problem. The Dothraki are the first outsider culture to appear in the books. When Martin gets around to depicting other others, he makes sure to show difference within the cultures… sort of. So when we get to the city-states of Slaver’s Bay, the rulers of Astapor call themselves the Good Masters, and train military slaves, but the rulers of Yunkai call themselves the Wise Masters, and train sex slaves, and so on. Why, they’re as different as night and… slightly later that same night! There’s an in-world justification for this, in that all of the cities are offshoots of the old empire of Ghis. But it’s revealing that none of the cities are as different from each other as Storm’s End is from King’s Landing. And none of the characters from these places are as different from each other as Stannis Baratheon is from his brother Renly.
And that’s the more troubling thing. The lack of differentiation between cultural units is recapitulated at the level of individual psychology.
“Dragons are gone, Khaleesi,” Irri said.
“Dead,” agreed Jhiqui. “Long and long ago.”
Viserys had told her that the last Targaryen dragons had died no more than a century and a half ago, during the reign of Aegon, who was called the Dragonbane. That did not seem so long ago to Dany.
“Everywhere?” she said, disappointed. “Even in the east?”
Magic had died in the west when the Doom fell on Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer, and neither spell-forged steel nor stormsingers nor dragons could hold it back, but Dany had always heard that the east was different. It was said that manticores prowled the islands of the Jade Sea, that basilisks infested the jungles of Yi Ti, that spellsingers, warlocks, and aeromancers practiced their arts openly in Asshai, while shadowbinders and bloodmages worked terrible sorceries in the black of night. Why shouldn’t there be dragons too?
“No dragon,” Irri said. “Brave men kill them, for dragon terrible evil beasts. It is known.”
“It is known,” agreed Jhiqui.
For Irri and Jhiqui, it is known that dragons are dead, and they do not question that. Dany dares to question the conventional wisdom. Guess which character isn’t being played up for her ethnic otherness!
It’s not so much a matter of Dany being right and them being wrong, or even of her being more inquisitive and open to possibilities. That comes with the territory of being a protagonist. The crucial point here is that Dany “knows” that dragons are dead just as much as the others do. The deadness and goneness of dragons is just as much of a truism for her culture as it is for theirs. But for her, the fact that she knows the truism doesn’t have any bearing on what she eventually decides is the truth.