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

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.

12 Comments on “It is known — Game of Thrones, the Orient, and Conventional Wisdom”

  1. Build A Better Fan #

    Two things:
    Khal Drogo repeatedly violates the expectations of subordinates as he and his wife become more like each other, and some go along with it more than others. Not a totally unified culture, though independent action seems to require being able to defeat challengers in single combat.

    And we don’t actually know how Syrio’s battle works out–we never see him die, though he does beat the snot out of much better-armed knights. And he was describing a style of swordplay specifically to contrast with the way Arya was trained to think, not excluding the possibility that he could eventually teach her some tricks and variations that elevated one above the typical Braavosi.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      The point about Khal Drogo is a good one, although if the only way that the ethnic Others can break away from the it-is-known-ness of their culture is for Dany to stage a personal intervention… that might not be the ideal approach.

      The point about Syrio strikes me as somewhat less good. You’re absolutely right, he could have eventually told Arya that his fighting style is uniquely his own. I don’t think that holds up super-well as a defense of the scene that Martin actually did write. (We do eventually learn that he got his job as First Sword by being more observant than his peers, so again the culture isn’t completely monolithic. But that scene has issues of its own… it’s all Mr. Miyagi stuff, presented as secret wisdom from the Orient.)

      Look, I don’t really have a problem with Syrio. I love Syrio, in fact. How could you not? But he does form part of this broader pattern, which I think is revealing and damning, not so much of George R.R. Martin as of the way our society as a whole tends to think of cultural outsiders.

      As to whether Syrio survived the fight… Martin’s pulled that kind of thing before, and I wouldn’t be totally flabbergasted if he pulled it again. But I doubt it very much. The current implied ending (i.e. with a Syrio kebab, or more likely a extra-chunky Syrio forcemeat) resonates so splendidly with the Gregor vs. Oberyn duel, where once again arcane and “exotic” skill loses out to pragmatic brutality. The point Martin is trying to make here doesn’t have to do with exoticism, actually. He’s trying to make a point about brutality itself. Pragmatic brutality ALWAYS wins in Martin’s duels, even when the fighters are both thoroughly unexotic (Bronn vs. Vardis Egen) or both knights (Brienne’s tournament win against Loras Tyrell). But exoticism becomes an intensifying term in the argument. Bronn beating Vardis is like a random hoodlum beating a champion boxer in a bar fight by being willing to fight dirty. Gregor and Meryn’s wins are like a random hoodlum beating up a kung-fu grandmaster, which — our culture being what it is — seems like a bigger deal, because we think kung-fu is magic. “It didn’t matter that this guy was a trained fighter. It didn’t even matter that he was trained in Asian fighting! Once the hoodlum grabbed ahold of his genitals, it was all over.” The version that happens to Syrio is a lot less crude, but not actually all that different.


  2. Jake McGraw #

    What if, it’s impossible for any Western writer to depict a true depth in foreign culture? This is how I feel every time I watch a translated foreign film, that some how the the depth of dialog gets lost in translation and if I had to relay the story I would be unable to do it properly.

    Imagine that Game of Thrones, much like LOTR, is written by an in-world character, wouldn’t the depictions of foreign cultures always be lacking as the author orients himself?


    • S #

      Game of thrones *is* written by in-world characters, and all of them are part of the Western culture. There are only two characters who basically adopt “Oriental” cultures, those being Dany and Arya. Dany as a conquerer is not exactly in a position to be sensitive to the nuance of the cultures she is grinding under her heel (the Dothraki were her best chance, but once Drogo died and she took over they started taking their cues from her anyway). Now, Arya arguably is seeing a different side of Braavosi culture, as I don’t think the House of Black and White is exactly mainstream, but she is also not in a position to appreciate it since she only sees it as a means to an end, that being the realization of her vengeance.


  3. Steph #

    On the topic of Syrio and Arya, you can’t really say he wasn’t going to show her the tricks that made him different… but before she learns the tricks she has to learn the basics. Its a minor point, but I thought I would just put it out there.

    Secondly, I think that the “racism” that your seeing is just a product of the character’s POV and the fact that its a written book. Of course, Martin could tell you about what makes each khalasar different from the other’s… but that would take a whole other book! And to Danny, who’s only ever known Drogo’s Khalasar, she can only make broad assumptions.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Now now, I never said I saw “racism.” It’s splitting hairs, I know, but I think that what I’m describing is more complicated than that. If you need to put something in scare quotes, “orientalism” might be more appropriate.

      As to whether it’s just a function of the characters’ POV… why yes, I suppose it is! But Martin choses the POV characters, and what they choose to think about. In the way of non Westerosi POV characters we’ve gotten… Areo Hotah, I guess, whose whole characterization is based on being a fly on the wall with an axe, so that we don’t know what’s going on in Doran Martell’s head? And Melisandre has a chapter in the latest book that I haven’t gotten to yet. That’s progress, but it’s still not a lot. Of course, Martin has a lot of plot to get through, and a lot of more important characters to develop. You wouldn’t want him to throw in a chapter by some total rando just to make Dothraki culture more well-rounded. But there already are important non-Westerosi characters. Plenty of them. Daario, Drogo, Shae, Varys (god, Varys!)… any of these could have been used to tell important parts of the main story, and it would be fascinating to see what it’s like inside their heads. Why don’t they get POV chapters?

      There’s a good and obvious reason, of course. All of these characters have to remain unknown, because “mysteriousness” and “alienness” is a big part of how these characters function in the plot. Much as I would relish a Varys POV chapter, it’s not going to happen, and that’s probably a good thing in terms of narrative tension. Shae needs to be a mystery to us so that she can be a mystery to Tyrion. And so on.

      So you could argue that the undifferentiated “non-western” cultures are just a side effect of the mysterious and exotic “non-western” characters. I wouldn’t call it much of a defense, though. (I really do think the pattern I’ve identified runs even deeper than that, though. That vocal tic “it is known” does keep coming back — and the Free Cities characters even have their own version, “all know this.”)

      Look, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t complicated or valid reasons for it, or that it’s something Martin’s doing intentionally because he’s some kind of crazy ethnocentric jerk. I’m just saying the pattern exists, and we should pay attention to it.


  4. Qwil man #

    I wish I had more time to comment on this article, but I just wanted to say I found it really interesting and I’m looking forward to going over it again. I’m in the middle of trying to hammer out some sci-fi and this will go a long way toward cracking a couple of character development nuts I’ve been stuck on.


  5. intrigued reader #

    Unusually thoughtful — and academically accurate! — post on modern fantasy fiction.

    I have taught and researched this sort of thing for 20 years now, so I can state with a forgiveable confidence that, even among professionals, this combination of clarity, accuracy, thoughtfulness, and modesty is rare.


  6. CrazyLikeAFox OTI Staff #

    >>”The individuals don’t move within their society, rather, they are fully-formed instances of their society.”

    I don’t think that this relationship/perspective on the “Other” is unique to cross-cultural interactions. At almost any sub-division of human interaction, “us” is a fully-formed, autonomous, unique and textured being. “Them” is a stereotypical robot, acting according to some deep-seated and unchanging nature.

    What it really comes down to is the Fundamental Attribution Error:

    As an individual, our OWN behavior is the product of any number of situational factors and personal autonomy. Everyone ELSE, on the other hand, are just mindless sheep moving with the herd. This is scalable – our own family is more individuated than our neighbors. Our neighborhood is more individuated than the next block over. Our city is more individuated than the rest of the state, etc., etc.

    This doesn’t negate the point about the way we view “others,” but it shows how important frame of reference is to a decision about identity. If a bunch of aliens came down to invade the world of Song and Ice and Fire, the difference between the races would all of a sudden be a lot less important (and we’d probably get a lot more differentiation between the “Oriental” others.)


  7. ielle #

    In the case of Syrio and fencing, ALL fencers learn the basics. There are variations on these and of course minor tweaks, but that doesn’t come until MUCH MUCH later in one’s development. I mean the guy has her running after cats and standing on one foot. He’s starting her at the VERY beginning of any sort of training. She’s still playing with wooden sticks when the guards come to get her, so i don’t think you can blame the guy for not going out of his way to explain how he parry’s and thrusts in a manner that is less than conventional. Also, he might fight the same as everyone else (same moves and such) but just faster. In fencing accuracy and speed often win out. You also need to be able to recognize what your opponent is about to do and counter it, WHILE prepping for your assault. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but man do you have to be quick of body AND mind.


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