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.