By: Nick Sprenger, Doctoral Candidate, Rutgers University
In 1996, author George R.R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series. This book series, not HBO’s global television phenomenon, is the subject of this article. People praise ASOIAF because the series feels real, authentic, and relatable. This is because, I suggest, Martin used history not just as a force of creation or inspiration, but for grounding his universe in the realities of the human experience. Martin said so himself in an interview with January Magazine in 2001: “What I try to do is give it a little more of the feel of historical fiction than some of those other books had before it which have, I suppose, a more fantasy or fantastic feel.” Given this statement—and because history is integral to his worldbuilding—I argue that Martin reproduces some basic Orientalist tropes in ASOIAF.
Pioneered by the scholar Edward Said, Orientalism is the idea that Western societies historically inverted ideas about the West (Western Europe and North America) and projected those ideas onto “the Orient” (especially the Middle East and North Africa, but also including South and East Asia). In other words, if Westerners believed that their culture and civilization was modern, scientific, moral, and free, they projected the opposite beliefs onto “the Orient,” which was thought of as backward, superstitious, exotic, and despotic. Thus, an Orientalist framework is a way of seeing the world that elevates Western experiences and worldviews as superior, while dehumanizing and demeaning “the Orient” according to supposedly irreconcilable differences such as religion, culture, and civilization. Orientalism is not just a fancy idea, though; scholars like Said argue that Orientalism historically justified imperalism, colonial violence, genocide, and more. This video explains Orientalism a bit further.
How is this concept of Orientalism useful for better understanding the ASOIAF universe? The relationship between Westeros and Essos mirrors the historical relationship between the West and “the Orient.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, Martin privileges Westeros and its civilization, while Orientalizing Essos as a land of bizarre customs, mystical religions, “barbaric” peoples, and antiquated traditions. This dynamic appears in two main ways. First, Martin consistently depicts Westeros as a place of rationality and order, while Essos is a land that is full of superstition and chaos. Second, Martin effectively normalizes Westerosi culture and perspectives because all of Martin’s main characters are from Westeros. The result is that readers understand Essos only through the values, customs, and attitudes of Westerosi characters. This biased viewpoint, where foreign cultures are examined only through the lens of one’s own culture, is called ethnocentrism and it is a key aspect of Orientalism. In these two ways, then, ages-old Orientalist tropes are baked into the ASOIAF universe, guiding and informing the conflicts between characters and cultures that drive Martin’s stories.
Throughout ASOIAF, Martin depicts Westerosi characters as rational. In the first novel, A Game of Thrones, readers encounter Brandon (Bran) Stark, who adores the farfetched fairy tales told by his caretaker, Old Nan. However, after being paralyzed from the waist down, Bran struggles through the reality of his changed situation: “He had liked Old Nan and her stories once. Before. But it was different now.” Though only seven years old, Bran’s traumatic experience matured him, pushing him toward adulthood. Bran soon completed his transformation. Lying awake in bed one evening, Bran contemplated the more fantastical elements of the world: “So long as there was magic, anything could happen. Ghosts could walk, trees could talk, and broken boys could grow up to be knights. ‘But there isn’t,’ he said aloud in the darkness of his bed. ‘There’s no magic, and the stories are just stories.’” Through the abandonment of his childish belief in fairytales and in magic, Martin emphasizes that Bran reached maturity. Legends were for children, and Bran was no longer a child. Similarly, Arya Stark remembered the ghost stories told to her by Old Nan, though her dismissive attitude toward the tales—Arya “didn’t really believe that” and anyone that did was “silly”—likewise marked her as a rational character. Through the viewpoints and belief systems of his characters, Martin defined Westeros as a place of logic, derisive of fables, where outdated fears of the unknown no longer held sway.
In contrast to Westeros, Martin depicts Essos as a land of mythology and fantasy. Readers first meet Daenerys Targaryen as a thirteen year old political refugee in Essos. Her ancestors had conquered the Westerosi continent and ruled as monarchs for three hundred years before Robert Baratheon led a rebellion that deposed Daenerys’ parents and killed her eldest brother, Rhaegar. Daenerys and her other brother, Viserys, were then forced into exile, taking refuge in Essos. For Daenerys, Essos was an exotic land full of possibilities and occurrences unfathomable in Westeros. For example, Daenerys “had heard that the first dragons had come from the east…Perhaps some were still living there, in realms of strange and wild.” When told that dragons were extinct, she had a “disappointed” reaction: “Everywhere? Even in the east?” Seemingly, Daenerys believed that, though “magic died in the west…she had always heard that the east was different.” Daenerys furthered: “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.” Daenerys’ worldview indicated that, though magic was no longer possible in Westeros, the East was somehow different, intrinsically magical and mythical compared to Westeros.
As these passages show, a clear discrepancy exists between the belief systems of the two continents. Against the rational societies of Westeros, Essos is a land of magic and mysticism, monsters and fables. Though the extraordinary does occur in Westeros, it happens beyond the Wall, a colossal fortification that separates the North in Westeros from the wilds beyond, where giants roam and the dead rise. Thus, the only magical realm in the Westerosi continent is demarcated by a barrier of unfathomably monumental proportions. Therefore, in Westeros—despite all its political espionage and excessive violence—the fantastical constitutes an exception to the rule, a deviation from the norm. In Essos, the bizarre is an expectation.
Describing Westeros a land of rationality against the enchanted lands of Essos was not the sole way Martin Orientalized Essos. Martin’s chapters are organized according to his characters’ point of view, so that readers get one chapter from the perspective of Brandon Stark and another from Daenerys Targeryen’s viewpoint and so on. The effect of this narrative structure is that readers only experience the world through the characters given a point of view—all of whom are Westerosi. Because there is no neutral narrator or direct Essosi perspective in ASOIAF, Martin effectively normalizes Westerosi outlooks and beliefs, making the cultures and inhabitants of Essos seem exotic or strange. This ethnocentrism appears most forcefully in his depictions of the Dothraki, who are a nomadic warrior people with a horse-based culture. Introduced as violent and bellicose, the Dothraki are led by the warlord Khal Drogo, the betrothed of Daenerys. The first discussion of the Dothraki occurs when Viserys, older brother of Daenerys and arbitrator of her marriage to Khal Drogo, remarked, “Are you sure that the Khal likes his women this young?” Viserys then muses that “The savages have queer tastes. Boys, horses, sheep…” Viserys later disparages Dothraki culture as “savage,” sneering that all the Dothraki “know how to do is steal the things better men have built…the savages [even] lack the wit to understand the speech of civilized men.” This divide between civilization and savagery is a hallmark or Orientalist language and indicates the perceived inferiority of the Dothraki when compared to other peoples, particularly those in Westeros.
At the wedding ceremony between Daenerys and Drogo, Daenerys experienced elements of Dothraki culture that shocked her Westerosi sensibilities. Daenerys wed Khal Drogo with “fear and barbaric splendor.” The Dothraki “drank themselves blind on fermented mare’s milk,” which constituted an “endless day of drinking and feasting and fighting.” For the first time, Daenerys noticed the “harsh and alien” nature of the Dothraki language, yet another boundary that separated the nomadic people from her. “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is deemed a dull affair,” was the counsel given to Daenerys by Magister Illyrio Mopatis, a local noble familiar with Dothraki ways. The most shocking moment came when a young warrior grabbed a female dancer from the crowd, pushed her down, and mounted her in the fashion of horses. Soon, others joined. Two men who grabbed the same woman drew weapons and fought a duel to the death. The victor merely grabbed another woman and joined in the revelry. Daenerys, shocked, frightened, and enraptured at the same time, remembered another caution she received: “The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or privacy as [Westerosi] do.”
In the wedding ceremony, the Dothraki are entirely the objects of a Westerosi gaze. As perceived through the eyes of Daenerys, they are animalistic, thralls to their baser natures, chaotically violent, and utterly lacking in shame or modesty. Daenerys characterizes their ways as “alien and monstrous, as if there were beasts in human skins and not true men at all.” Interestingly, Martin gives the Dothraki no voice for expression. The lack of a major Dothraki point of view character left Daenerys as the sole lens of interpretation. In doing so, Martin establishes a universal set of cultural values to which the Dothraki do not adhere. The Dothraki therefore represent the moral antithesis of Westeros—a barbaric Other. This separation ultimately renders the Dothraki static, perpetually trapped outside of the structure of normalcy in ASOIAF.
People love ASOIAF because it feels real to readers. The universe—one that has influenced millions of readers—is grounded in human choices, in human faults, and in human biases. ASOIAF is, at its core, a deep analysis of the very real problems of power, domination, and inequity. Martin is able to create such a world because, as he admitted himself, ASOIAF is based in human history. I have suggested that Martin’s reliance on human history to inform his creative process has given us a roadmap with which to understand his universe: Westeros roughly corresponds to the West (especially Western Europe), while Essos stands in for “the Orient.” These two fictional continents, based on real-world civilizations, are linked by what I have termed an Orientalist relationship. Therefore, Essos is to Westeros what the historical Orient was to Western Europe two centuries ago—a realm of superstition and barbarism, a foreign and exoticized world. This is a problem because, by telling Orientalist history, Martin ends up reproducing the narratives of backwardness, savagery, and inferiority that historically have justified atrocities like conquest, subjugation, and imperialism. These narratives remain powerful today and continue to rationalize violence on both large and small scales.
How we tell stories matters. Martin has done so in a way that not just repurposes human history, but effectively repackages its unevennesses, its dehumanizations, its exclusivities, and its violences. Martin’s story is, in other words, another example of privileging the West at the expense of the rest.
Nick Sprenger is a historian of empire and imperialism with a specialization in the history of the British Empire. In 2018, he began his PhD in Modern European History at Rutgers University, which he plans to complete in 2025. When not reading academic history, Nick is an avid consumer of fiction, especially fantasy and mythology. He also enjoys hiking, visiting art museums, seeking out local breweries, and spending time with his dachshund, Patrick. A fan of the ASOIAF series since the 2010, Nick hopes that Winds of Winter will come out soon.