It is known — Game of Thrones, the Orient, and Conventional Wisdom

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?

[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.


For Dany, there is a sharp and meaningful difference between what is known, the background conventional wisdom shared by all members of her culture, and what she knows, the foreground beliefs that make her the person she is. All of the Westerosi characters get to make this distinction.  Bran, as a boy at Winterfell, hearing stories of White Walkers and Grumpkins in the night beyond the Wall, ponders whether or not to believe.  Tyrion weighs his precisely calibrated understanding of the phrase “A Lannister always pays his debts” against the version believed by the masses, and even a minor character like Tyrion’s jailer at the Eyrie has to give that particular piece of common knowledge some serious thought. “It is known” that the kingsguard are the greatest and noblest knights in all the realm; those who spend any amount of time around Ser Boros Blount soon come to know another thing. Contrariwise, “it is known” within the cynical high society of King’s Landing that knights are neither true nor noble nor good, but Sansa at her darkest moments still chooses to believe in the ideals of knighthood, contrary to her own experience and to the consensus opinion of the microculture that she’s fallen into.

A lot of postmodern-ish, vaguely Marxist, vaguely Freudian critiques of culture suggest that we are programmed to believe that certain truths are self evident which really are anything but. Capital’s strongest bulwark against the organized proletariat is the common-sense notion that nobody can take communism seriously anymore. “Conventional wisdom” is actually an internalized propaganda apparatus. The right wing has its own versions of this argument, of course. “You won’t see the lame-stream media treating Ron Paul like a serious candidate!” etc.

On some level, this is more or less true. I like to distinguish my considered and intelligent individual opinions from  the pablum blindly accepted by the masses… but in fact I share those “considered” opinions with a hundred thousand other “individual” NPR-listenening bourgeois liberals. We all accept our version of common sense just as blindly as anybody else does, and when we get together, there’s just as little genuine conversation going on. (“Karl Rove terrible evil beast, it is known,” someone says, nodding sagely. “It is known,” I echo back, sipping my latte.)

But this account of conventional wisdom only paints half of the picture. There’s also a rich body of knowledge that we all know without really accepting — the stuff that “is known,” but that we know is malarky.  This varies a lot from individual to individual, and often my “is known” is your “I know” and vise versa. Nevertheless, that basic two-layered experience of conventional wisdom is pretty much what it means to be an individual in society.

In Martin’s “non-Anglo” cultures, and in Orientalist literature more generally, the layers are collapsed.  The individuals don’t move within their society, rather, they are fully-formed instances of their society.  Even a pleasant and beloved character like Syrio Forel falls prey to this.  Syrio, before he became Arya’s personal trainer, was the First Sword of Braavos, bodyguard to the Sealord (effectively the Doge, because Braavos is effectively Venice).  This means he is among the best swordfighters in a nation where swordfighting is a way of life.  Now, what I don’t know about fencing could fill a book — could fill, in fact, all the extant books on fencing — but I’m just going to guess that you don’t become the best swordfighter in Braavos by fighting exactly like everyone else in Braavos.  You would have a style of your own, certain tricks, approaches, and training regimens that you believe quite firmly to be superior to swordfighting as “it is known” by every other Braavosi, because you identify yourself against them as much as you identify yourself through them.  And yet when Syrio takes Arya under his wing, what does he end up telling her? “Remember, child, this is not the iron dance of Westeros we are learning, the knight’s dance, hacking and hammering, no.  This is the bravo’s dance, the water dance, swift and sudden.”  You’d think he’d follow that up at some point by saying something like “Now, most Bravosi telegraph their thrusts by shifting their weight too early. This will get you killed. Lucky you, you get lessons from me!  Which means you can kill them instead, come the day.” But no, Forel’s swordfighting is the swordfighting of his culture, which exists purely as a constitutive other to the swordfighting of Arya’s culture.  And awesome as Forel is, we see how that contest eventually works out, don’t we?

This is where Martin’s depiction of cultural “otherness” becomes fascinating to me, because I think it actually tells us something profound about our own internal models of cultural difference.  We don’t think of our own culture as the be-all and end-all of our abilities and opinions. We see ourselves as free agents operating within a culture, and because we accord ourselves that freedom we tend to accord it to other people in our culture as well.  But when it comes to other cultures, we have much more of a tendency to see people simply as tokens or instances of the broader cultural category they come from, which means that their “is known” and “I know” are collapsed. Most of us try to guard against this kind of thinking, as it’s pretty much textbook racial stereotyping. But it’s not hard to slip, and I think this is illustrated by how easy it is not to be bothered by Martin’s world. Lots of people roll their eyes at this aspect of the books, but it all pretty much works as storytelling.

We carry around the barbarian horde in our heads, it is a part of us.  We try so hard to suppress it. We try not to drape it onto people we meet in the real world, or even onto real historical people like the Mongols under Ghenghis or the Huns under Attila. And then we start reading, and we meet the Dothraki, and it just fits them so well… even as we roll our eyes at the cliches, something clicks, something connects, deep down in the basement of the soul, where there are no windows and the rot of mildew creeps along the wall. We know it’s not the real world, maybe we even know it’s a bad world, but it’s a world that makes sense to us, and something about that works.  A non-essentialized version of Dothraki culture might have worked as well or better, but this one works all the same, and if it ever feels uncomfortable or gross, well, we can always blame that part on Martin.

But at the end of the day, should we blame Martin? Not hardly. He wrote some books that were imperfect, but pretty great.  This was one of the imperfections, but he’s working on it, and I have faith he’ll get better. Should we blame ourselves, then? Ehh… start blaming people for enjoying any sort of fiction, and you end up in a pretty dreary place. What we should do, though, is pay attention to this sort of thing whenever we notice it happening. The hope, at least, is that if we learn to recognize it in fiction, it won’t ever slip past our notice in real life political discourse, where it has infinitely greater power to harm.