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?


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.

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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