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Game of Tropes: the Orientalist tradition in the Works of G.R.R. Martin

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Abstract

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and their television adaption, Game of Thrones) have become arguably the most well-known fantasy epic of the last decade. However, the works conform to many of the same Orientalist tropes that have dominated Western literature since the popularisation of the 'Arabian fantasy' in the 18th and 19th centuries. Derivative imaginings of the real world Middle East are commonly reflected in non-Earthly fantasy worlds and Martin's work incorporates this standard vision of the Eastern Other. Owing to its popularity, the A Song of Ice and Fire series represents a significant reinforcement of Orientalist stereotypes and proves that fantasy locations have significant power to cement these ideas in the popular imagination. Moreover, the negative portrayal of the East in these works supports Said's argument that the Orient is an invention of the West, and that our depiction of the Other is a means of framing our own cultural superiority.
International Journal of Arts & Sciences,
CD-ROM. ISSN: 1944-6934 :: 08(01):409–420 (2015)
GAME OF TROPES: THE ORIENTALIST TRADITION IN THE WORKS
OF G.R.R. MARTIN
Mat Hardy
Deakin University, Australia
George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and their television adaption, Game of Thrones)
have become arguably the most well known fantasy epic of the last decade. However, the world of A
Song of Ice and Fire conforms to many of the same Orientalist tropes that have dominated Western
literature since the popularisation of the 'Arabian fantasy' in the 18
th
and 19
th
centuries and its
subsequent perpetuation in film and television. Derivative imaginings of the real world Middle East are
commonly reflected in non-Earthly fantasy worlds and Martin's work incorporates this standard vision
of the Eastern Other. Owing to its popularity, the A Song of Ice and Fire series represents a significant
reinforcement of Orientalist stereotypes and proves that fantasy locations have significant power to
cement these ideas in the popular imagination. Moreover, the negative portyal of the East in these
works supports Said's argument that the Orient is an invention of the West, and that our depiction of the
Other is a means of framing our own cultural superiority.
Keywords: Orientalism, Middle east, Game of thrones, A song of ice and fire, GRR martin.
Introduction: The history of the Eastern Other
The depiction of the Orient in Western popular culture has tended to follow certain well-worn paths ever
since translations of the "Tales from the Thousand and One Nights" began to appear in Europe at the start
of the 18
th
century.
1
Bolstered by other channels, such as visual art, these settings and characters then
began to form the basis for popular interpretation of the Middle East (or 'Araby'). With continued growth
of the publishing industry throughout the 19
th
century, the retelling of such Middle-Eastern tales, and
others inspired by their imagery, meant that the genre become entrenched within Western literary
tradition (Lowry 2012). The standard components of such 'Arabian fantasies' include "...deserts, oases,
bazaars and slums, jewelled caravans and minaret topped edifices...The cast beggars, houris, eunuchs,
caliphs, viziers, adventurers, genies...magic carpets" (Clute and Grant 1997). This despite the European
versions of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights being of doubtful provenance and of little
cultural import in their supposed places of origin (Clute and Grant 1997). Like many of the Tales
themselves, these visions of the Orient were therefore nothing more than a Western creation; a means of
viewing a cultural and geographic “Other”.
In his work Orientalism, Edward Said (1978) analyses this process and argues that the West's view
of the Orient (including such fantasy as the Tales) was forged from a position of cultural strength and
assumed superiority. From this assumption grew much of the Western interpretation of the East, including
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1
This collection of stories has been published under a number of similar titles, such as The Arabian Nights: Tales
from a Thousand and One Nights, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night," and so on. There is no definitive
collection, version or title of these stories.
409
410 Game of Tropes: The Orientalist Tradition in the Works of G.R.R. Martin
a mistrust and disdain for its inhabitants, as well as a romanticised vision of strange and exotic lands. In
quoting the British Controller-General of Egypt, Earl Cromer, Said describes the "canon of Orientalist
wisdom":
Orientals or Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible, 'devoid of energy and initiative', much
given to 'fulsome flattery', intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals....Orientals are inveterate
liars, they are 'lethargic and suspicious,' and in everything oppose the clarity, directness and
nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race (Said 1978: 38-39).
In addition to these images of the Easterner as 'fallen', irrational, hysterical and treacherous, Said
noted the tradition of sexual fantasy that had developed in Western depictions of the East:
...harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls and boys....The Orient was a place
where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe...readers and writers could
have it if they wished without necessarily going to the Orient (Said 1978: 190).
Through literature, art, politics and colonial rule, the West therefore perpetuated a series of
stereotypes about the East. These in turn informed the next generation of artists, scholars, leaders and so
on until a cultural and ideological hegemony of the Orient was established: "...the Orient is an idea that
has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given it a reality and presence
in and for the West" (Said 1978: 5).
Through the 20
th
century film and then television followed this path of presenting a standard set of
Arabian fantasy tropes. Orientalist masterpieces such as The Sheikh (1921), The Thief of Baghdad (1924,
1940), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and countless other examples have imparted a vision of the Middle
East that incorporates themes such as desert settings, duplicitous inhabitants, sexual licentiousness and
predation, mysticism, casual cruelty, slavery, violence and corruption (Shaheen 2003). Whether films are
set in 'real' or fictive locations, these same stereotypes have remained largely unchanged for decades.
Children's film and television present the same unquestioned memes of geography, appearance and
behaviour. Disney's Aladdin (1992) is a noted example of this, but the Arabian fantasy is pervasive,
appearing in whole series such as I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70), The Arabian Knights (1969) and
Shazzan (1967-69) or in episodic form in cartoons ostensibly unrelated to the geographic Middle East,
such as Bugs Bunny (Hare-Abian Nights (1959)), Scooby Doo (Scooby-Doo! in Arabian Nights (1994)) or
Josey and the Pussycats (Swap Plot Flop (1970)).
The presence of such Orientalism in Western cinema has attracted a great deal of scholarly analysis
over the years. Shaheen's Reel Bad Arabs (2003) is perhaps the most widely regarded benchmark study of
these tropes and he finds that depictions of Arabs invariably draw upon a narrow set of demeaning
stereotypes. Whilst some stereotypes may have been modernised over the decades, such as the terrorist
replacing the nomadic warrior, the palette is essentially the same. Totman (2009) explored the link
between the way that Hollywood depicted certain Middle Eastern states and concurrent trends in US
foreign policy, with the finding that negative cinematic portrayals of these regions and their peoples
reflected a synchronous lowering of American public opinion toward those same locations. Semmerling
(2006), in line with Said's contention, concluded that the overwhelming presence of the "evil" and
mythical Arab in American film warranted an examination of why the West needed to construct such
stereotypes. As a source of threat or a place with which to contrast Western standards, the East is a
popular target.
It is important to stress that in many of these representations in film and literature, the Middle East is
not the main concern of the story. This geographic setting serves as nothing more than an exotic backdrop
for Western characters to progress through or else permit their interaction with the clichéd inhabitants and
tropes noted above. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, the story is fundamentally an Americans
versus Nazis thriller. The only significant Egyptian character is Sallah (played by a Welshman), who fits
many of the stereotypes of the bumbling and physically cowardly Arab. The locations in Cairo and at
Mat Hardy 411
archaeological digs are nothing more than plot points and window dressing for the American and
European characters, including the short scene where Indiana Jones guns down an Arab swordsman who
is obviously too dim to assess the threat and falls victim to superior Western tactics and technology.
The result of these generations of Orientalist interpretation is that the Westerner has little trouble
associating certain motifs with an imagined Middle East albeit a likely conflation of Arabic, Ottoman,
Persian and Moghul cultures and locations. It is not relevant how paranormal these Arabian fantasy ideas
are, they will still be pinned to actual geography. For example, whilst everyone knows that magic carpets
and genies do not exist, few would associate the idea of them with Central America or China. If one were
to picture a harem or sexual 'stable', the setting would invariably be Ottoman or Arab, not Indonesian or
Scandinavian. The common use of real locations (such as Cairo or Baghdad) as the setting of these
fantastic stories assists in reinforcing this connection. Even the fictional land of Agrabah in Disney's
Aladdin offers an unmistakably Middle Eastern backdrop to its tale, instantly familiar to an audience
steeped in such tropes. As Said argued, these stereotypes, and the attitudes stemming from them, begin to
form an intrinsic basis for our representation of the East, one built upon centuries of European
colonialism and the innate belief in the superiority of Western culture over Oriental backwardness (Said
1978).
But what about when a fantasy is explicitly not set in our own world? A story that occurs on another
planet or a completely invented geography? Can there be a clichéd and disparaging representation of the
Middle East in an imagined world where there has been no history of Western colonialism or centuries of
assumed cultural superiority?
Examining the genre of fantasy fiction shows that this is indeed overwhelmingly the case.
2
Moreover, even the most creative fantasy authors tend to reach for the same set of established Orientalist
tropes in their invented worlds, offering their audience familiar replicas of the Earthly clichés. Just as
Shaheen and others have described these tropes in films purportedly representing the 'real' Middle East
and its inhabitants, the fantasy genre uses analogous settings to communicate the same assumptions of
geography, ethnicity and behaviour. Deserts, oases, nomadic warriors, shifty merchants in teeming
bazaars, harems, cruel caliphs and swarthy slave traders: all of these are recurringly evident. In most cases
in these imagined worlds, these Orientalised lands are distant from 'civilisation' and inhabited by a
cultural Other that contrasts with the identity of the central protagonists. These Others are adept at theft
and prone to betrayal, immorality and sadism. It takes little imagination to place this trend in congruence
with Western thoughts regarding the (real world) Middle East.
The result is that Western audiences are receiving these same Orientalist stereotypes through
channels that are not always obvious. One could avoid watching films or reading novels set in Egypt or
Iran, yet still be exposed to all the same cultural discourse just from reading fantasy novels, which are
ostensibly free from real world settings. That is to say, even when one thinks they are looking beyond the
fences of the real world they are still using the same foundations to stand upon. No matter how un-earthly
a fantasy world is, the genre does not transcend our received cultural assumptions (Balfe 2004).
Literature on the Literature: Oriental geographies in the fantasy genre
The use of the geographic east in a fantasy universe to house amalgams of real world oriental cultures as
well as a foreboding 'Other' is commonplace. In the 1930s, Robert E. Howard's Conan stories employed
quite direct Orientalist tropes to depict the eastern realms of the "Hyborian Age", which was an imagined
pre-Atlantean period of our own planet. For the nobly savage Conan, who hails from the uncomplicated
north-west of the world, the eastern lands are sinks of duplicity, evil, snake worship and perverse
necromancy. A decade after the Conan stories first appeared, Tolkien's Middle Earth used a similar east-
west divide to distinguish the moral from the immoral. The ultimate source of evil, Sauron, has his
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2
The Fantasy genre can be defined as texts that are either set in (impossible) other worlds or else set in our own
world, yet incorporate elements of the impossible; for example, magic (Clute & Grant 1997:338).
412 Game of Tropes: The Orientalist Tradition in the Works of G.R.R. Martin
domain in the East. More significantly though, and in comparison to the more noble Western humans,
large contingents of men collectively and unambiguously known as "Easterlings" form a significant part
of Sauron's host arrayed against the "Free Peoples". In Middle Earth, the further east one travels, the more
corrupt, evil and threatening the world becomes both in terms of human and physical geography.
Countless fantasy worlds have since followed this geographic stereotyping. Their central setting
involves a society similar to medieval Europe, and Anglo-Celtic Europe at that. This region may even be
metonymically denoted as to its occidental cultural geography (e.g. "The Westlands" of Robert Jordan's
Wheel of Time series or "The Western Realm" of Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar books). To the east and
south of this location lie other lands that are invariably infused with Orientalist tropes and tend to be the
source of some sort of threat, or at least identified as regions of immorality, cruelty and inhumanity.
Slavery, sexual servitude, assassination, espionage, black magic, nomadic warriors and barbaric
punishments tend to be part of these cultures. In contrast to the cold and snowy western lands full of
muscular warriors, the eastern territories are hot and arid, the home to physically smaller, sly and indolent
ethnicities.
The physical geography of these fantasy settings tends to fit a standard pattern with resemblance to
our own world. The eastern lands are cut off from the western settings by seas, vast deserts, steppes,
mountains or cataclysmic wastelands. Examining seminal fantasy works by Robert E. Howard, J.R.R.
Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan, David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist, DiTomasso (2006)
found that all six authors used steppes and/or deserts to denote the geographic east. With the exception of
Jordan, the authors bolstered this geography with deserts and scrublands to the south as well, in an
analogy of North Africa's location relative to Europe. A notable example of this African parallel is the
Midkemian world of Feist, who uses the south as the location of his Egyptian/Persian amalgam "The
Empire of Great Kesh" (Feist 1989).
3
Even within the Euro-western lands of these universes there can be gradations of prestige based on
the compass. The further west, and often the further north a character hails from (i.e. paralleling the
Anglo-Celtic zones of our own world), the more honourable, heroic, straightforward and down-to-earth
they tend to be depicted. Martin's Starks of Winterfell fit this trope, as does Howard's Conan the
Cimmerian and the conDoins of Crydee from Feist's works. Aragorn, the paragon of nobility in Tolkien's
works, was a "Dúnedain" ('Man of the West'), a group from kingly stock living a frontier existence in the
north-west of Middle Earth.
The governance and social development of these imagined geographies also tend to fit a pattern.
Again looking across his representative authors, DiTommasso found a congruence with the depiction of
the eastern (or south-eastern) lands as 'despotic'; the location of sprawling kingdoms or empires ruled by
whimsical sadists. "These eastern states represent the great bogeyman of Western civilization since the
Persians, a role that has been subsequently filled, depending on the perspective consulted, by the
Parthians, Huns, Arab Muslims, Mongols, Turks, Russians, or Chinese" (DiTommaso 2006: 114).
This similarity amongst leading authors in the fantasy genre indicates a latent re-telling of the
Arabian fantasy that is so pervasive in Western imagining of the Orient. The stereotypes cross the bridges
between the real and the imagined, presenting consumers of fantasy with an unchallenged monolith of
Orientalist assumption.
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3
Feist also includes an Indian and a Japanese analogical setting for his Riftwar books, though the former is
distanced from the main world of Midkemia by a vast ocean and the latter exists on another planet accessible only
by a magic rift.
Mat Hardy 413
A familiar song
The lands of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) series and its TV adaptation, Game of
Thrones (GoT), fit these same patterns.
4
In both the literary version and the TV series a range of
Orientalist clichés are presented, which despite the breadth and scale of Martin's story, offer few points of
difference in their depiction of the Eastern Other. In its physical and human geography, ASoIaF is the heir
to decades of the Arabian fantasy formula, from slave girls to pyramids.
Singling out ASoIaF for study may seem unjust given that the saga is no more culpable of
stereotypical Orientalism than any of its genre peers. However, given its sheer popularity and crossover
into a successful TV franchise, it is appropriate to use ASoIaF as a case study, if only because its latent
Orientalism is currently reaching far more people than that of other fantasy authors, such as Feist or
Jordan.
5
The popularity and endurance of the GoT TV series across five series (with more to come) is
demonstrated in its viewing figures. Host network HBO declared the fourth season of GoT as its most
watched programming ever, with an average 18.6 million people watching each episode in the United
States. Similarly high ratings were evident in other English-speaking territories where the broadcast was
readily and cheaply available. Add to this that the show is regularly described as the 'most pirated' in the
world, constantly breaking illegal download records (R. Williams 2014) and the sheer extent of the
viewership is stark. The success of the TV series has in turn reinforced the readership of the books, with
the works figuring in the Top 30 of Amazon's best seller list every year from 2011-2014. Significantly,
this indicates that ASoIaF has successfully crossed over to mainstream popular culture, becoming a
"gateway drug" to the fantasy genre for people not normally consumers of such work (J. Williams 2012).
The successful TV adaptation of the works also means that the inherent elements of Orientalism are
reinforced through visual channels, further highlighting the differences between West and East.
Costumes, mannerisms, skin complexions, landscapes and architecture are all used to convey the Oriental
theme. Filming locations in Morocco and Malta assist in this regard. Placing the eastern plot arcs in an
Arabian fantasy setting therefore takes less imagination on the part of the viewer.
6
Moreover, as with so many representations of the real world Orient in film and literature, the eastern
lands of ASoIaF serve as little more than a stage set for plot lines and characters from further west. The
continent of Essos is merely the mise-en-scène for progressing the story of Daenerys Targaryen and a
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4
Given that the books and the TV adaption are known by different names, for the purposes of this paper ASoIaF
will be used when referring to material found within the books only and GoT used in reference to material unique to
the television series. However, given the strong involvement of G.R.R. Martin in the production and writing of GoT,
the two different forms of the story can often be treated collectively and canonically.
5
In the 21
st
century it could be argued that film has been eclipsed as a medium for transmitting cultural stereotypes.
The amount of time that consumers devote to films is dwarfed by the time they spend viewing television, playing
video games or being online. Whilst indeed some of this TV and online time may involve watching films, the
duration of a TV series or video game means much greater passive exposure to its content than occurs from viewing
a film. For example, the single player mode in a video game such as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag can involve
60-80 hours of gameplay at a minimum. The tendency to spin video games off from film franchises (and vice versa)
can also mean that fans will spend much more time absorbing the messages/images of the movie via the game than
through the original film. Meanwhile, serialised TV franchises such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad contain
dozens of hours of content. Finally, with films, games and TV shows there is often an incalculable volume of online
content generated by fans or commercial third parties, further immersing consumers in the product and its messages.
6
The visual similarities between scenes in GoT and European Orientalist painting are striking. The scenes of
Daenerys being bathed by her servant Missandei are strikingly similar to Jean-Leon Gerome's painting The Bath and
other harem fantasy paintings. The Unsullied in GoT appear very similar to the subject of The Palace Guard by
Ludwig Deutsch. Exchange the dragons for felines and the reception court of Daenerys and her dragons is
reminiscent of Rudolph Ernst's Salomé and the Tigers or other artists' depictions of the Queen of Sheba.
414 Game of Tropes: The Orientalist Tradition in the Works of G.R.R. Martin
slew of other Western characters whose storylines intersect with hers. Indeed, much of Daenerys' heroism
stems from her attempting to erase the cruelty and despotism of the eastern cultures. As a young, blonde,
pale skinned woman with (somewhat inexplicable) progressive liberal values, she contrasts dramatically
and heroically with the darker and older eastern males she conflicts with.
For these reasons of scale, popularity and orthodoxy, it is appropriate to scrutinise the ASoIaF books
and the GoT series as a vehicle for fantasy Orientalism. Elements of landscape, culture and behaviour will
be explored below to demonstrate the contention that even within these fantasy tales the same
perspectives on the Eastern Other noted by Said, Shaheen and others are perpetuated. When we admit
ASoIaF through the gates of our imagination, the Trojan Horse of Orientalism rumbles in too.
Landscape
From the start, the continental geography of AsoIaF establishes a division between the Occident and
Orient. The two main land masses in the saga are Westeros and Essos, the names leaving little doubt in
the reader's mind as to their real-world parallels. The northern latitudes of Westeros align geographically
and culturally with the Anglo-Celtic or Scandinavian regions of Earth. Travelling south from these
frontier lands, the central belt of the landmass seems more akin to continental Europe, with some
attendant rise in treacherous behaviour and fiscal greed. In the south of Westeros, isolated by the
proverbial mountains and the continent's only desert, lie the lands of Dorne. The location and depiction of
Dorne accords with DiTomasso's (2006) observations of physical and cultural geography in fantasy. This
region is a classic Orientalist trope, which Martin describes as having been influenced by Moorish Spain
and Palestine (Martin 2000a). It's inhabitants are generally darker of skin than the other Westerosi (Martin
2000b: 520), as well as having a reputation for hot-bloodedness, treachery and promiscuity (including
differing sexual orientations, something more scandalous in the north). They are garbed in all the
Orientalist clichés of Moorish costume "silk and satin robes with jeweled belts and flowing sleeves. Their
armor was heavily enameled and inlaid with burnished copper, shining silver and soft red gold" (Martin
2000b: 520). Their royal family lives in palaces inspired by Granadan architecture, replete with fountains,
marbled pools and citrus groves (Martin 2005: 42-51).
Whilst Dorne is an example of Orientalist stereotyping in fantasy, it is the continent of Essos that
offers the true platform for this practice in ASoIaF. Again in accordance with DiTomasso's findings, the
major depiction of Oriental amalgam cultures occur in the geographic east, across a sea and in a Eurasian
sized landscape of steppe and desert. The people of Essos are diverse, but tick off the range of Arabian
fantasy stereotypes, from nomadic Mongol warriors, through Ottoman slavers to cunning Levantine
merchants. It takes little effort to place these representations within the canon of Orientalist tropes. In
GoT these stock characters and their backgrounds are reinforced by their visual appearance, with little
difference from the portrayals noted by Shaheen and others in films of decades past. Even the names of
the Easterners become steadily more bizarre with distance, shifting from the European analogues of
Westeros (Robert, Jon, Catelyn) to more alien concoctions replete with Z's, Q's, X's and harsh gutturals.
Starting at the western edge of Essos, where the two continents are closest, lie a series of "Free
Cities", analogous to those Mediterranean trading and banking cultures such as Venice, Genoa or the
Greeks. Like their European inspirations, the Free Cities of ASoIaF bridge the gap between the Orient and
Occident, both in terms of trade and transport, but also culturally, representing an apparent halfway point
in morality and foreignness. Whilst these Free Cities have some differences, the common motivation for
their inhabitants seems to be financial gain. Dealing in exotic commodities and human traffic, the cities
are also home to shady brokers such as Illyrio Mopatis, who shelters the exiled Targaryens and supports
their claim to the Iron Throne in the expectation that he will be repaid with high office once they achieve
it (Martin 2011: 74). The fickle mercenary pirate Salladhor Saan is another Free Cities character, loyal
only to coin and practising trade, piracy, smuggling and warfare as interchangeable business plans.
Mat Hardy 415
East of the Free Cities lies the bulk of the continent, mostly covered in steppe but with arid lands to
the south. Again concordant with DiTomasso's findings is the presence here of despotic leadership and
the sprawling lands of nomad hordes.
7
It is these eastern realms that we find many of the standard
representations of Arabian fantasy and the depiction of a threatening and foreign Other. The cities that
Daenerys Targaryen spends much of her time passing through and dealing with are painted in menacing
tones. Practices such as slavery and cruelty are emphasised heavily, as well as the duplicitous and
mercenary nature of the oligarchic rulers. Moreover, these cities are depicted as being in a terminal
decline, long fallen from the past glories of their historic wealth and power; a potential echo of Europe's
assumed cultural superiority over the ancient world. Located in what would be the 'Middle East' of Essos,
the nature of these cultures warrant further elucidation since they are where the bulk of the Targaryen
plotline occurs.
Slavery
The three metropolises of Slaver's Bay - Astapor, Meereen and Yunkai - serve as showcases of Orientalist
barbarism in the universe of ASoIaF. It is through these desert cities that so many of the standard
Orientalist tropes are presented to the audience, even down to pyramids and ziggurats. In addition, the
efforts of the culturally Western Daenarys to expunge the cruelty and despotism of these cities position
her as a heroic figure in the story.
The slaving practices emanating from these cities are depicted graphically within the books and TV
series. Whilst there is obviously no flattering way to portray human slavery, the excesses described by
Martin create a very Orientalist flavour, squarely in line with the sort of horrors imagined by Europeans
when they read salacious reports of the Ottoman Empire or contemplated the works of Orientalist painters
such as Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the slave cities of ASoIaF conniving and greedy magnates mete out cruel
and unusual punishments to their human chattels whilst living lives of amoral opulence. Decrepit and
obese merchant princes are carried on giant palanquins borne by dozens of straining slaves (a depiction
similar to that of King Xerxes in the film 300 (2007)) whilst others float on pleasure barges in the cool of
the evening. In the standard Western harem fantasy, young women (and men) serve as sexual playthings,
trained by specialists to provide maximum pleasure for their owners. The dehumanised 'Unsullied' are
taken as boys and raised in a barracks (much like the Ottoman Janissaries), before being castrated, trained
to absolute loyalty and then 'graduate' by murdering babies torn from their slave mothers (Martin 2000b:
318). Gladiatorial combat is the preferred spectator sport, but besides fighting, such spectacles also
feature whimsically cruel spectacles such as animals eating children: "A bear and three small boys. One
boy will be rolled in honey, one in blood and one in rotting fish, and she (Daenerys) may wager on which
the bear will eat first" (Martin 2000b: 321).
Tellingly, the atrocities, economies and the scale of the slavery in these three cities are implausible.
Sitting on the edge of desert lands and seemingly a great distance from any other population centres, it is
puzzling how these city states seem to acquire, provide for and trade slaves that implicitly number in the
tens or hundreds of thousands at any time. This apparently lucrative business is doubly puzzling given
that much of the rest of the world (including all of Westeros) does not practice slavery, or in the case of
many of the Free Cities, the involvement seems to be limited to trading slaves rather than as a significant
end consumer of them.
8
It is only in the free city of Volantis where any significant detail is given about
 
7
The romanticised nature and martial prowess of the Martin's nomadic Dothraki replicate the Western fascination
with the Mongols; a mystique that Porter (2009) refers to as "Military Orientalism".
8
In Westeros, the only notable practice of slavery is in the Iron Islands, where captured thralls are used as labourers
in fields and mines and captured females as concubines (Martin 2005: 620, Martin et al. 2015: 177). They may not
be bought or sold, however, and their offspring are born free. So averse to slavery is Westeros, that Ser Jorah
416 Game of Tropes: The Orientalist Tradition in the Works of G.R.R. Martin
use of slaves. In that city, mention is made that there are five slaves for every free citizen (Martin 2011:
73), a demographically perilous scenario and in stark comparison to a real world metropolis such as
ancient Rome, where slaves are estimated at about a third of the total population. Moreover there seems to
be no economic output mentioned for these slaves: some serve as soldiers, sex workers, servants,
translators or labourers, but there is as yet no revealed equivalent of the plantation economies that were
the underpinning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade or Roman agrarianism. Finally, the rate at which slaves
seem to be executed or maimed by their owners is puzzling, given that they are a commercial commodity,
and in some cases bred over generations for optimum characteristics. For a continental economy to be
built on their exchange, they must be of value, so why destroy them?
This economic paradox is of course irrelevant to the role these slave cities serve in the story as showcases
of Orientalist barbarism. The human bondage, sexual servitude, castration and cruelty are all reinforcing
of the enduring Western identification of such practices with the Orient. The missionary role of Daenerys
in defeating these cities, and their subsequent inability to transcend their entrenched culture, aligns well
with Said's argument about implicit Western assumptions of superiority over the East. For Daenerys,
dealing with the slave cities and their mulish inhabitants is a fantasy genre version of the "White Man's
Burden".
Betrayal
Betrayal is a constant theme of the books, and a great deal of treachery happens in both Westeros and
Essos. However, in this Western setting the duplicity and atrocities are often depicted as somehow more
clever, more pragmatic or even more merciful than what goes on in the east. The Machiavellian Tywin
Lannister justifies his plot (a word he "mislikes") of murdering unarmed rivals at a wedding feast by
comparing it to the wasteful slaughter of warfare: "Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand
men in battle than a dozen at dinner. The price was cheap by any measure" (Martin 2000b: 720). The
spymaster Varys orchestrates any number of perfidies and assassinations, but excuses this as a necessity
for a greater good "I serve the realm, and the realm needs peace"(Martin 1996: 636). The murder of the
last Targaryen king by his sworn bodyguard Jaime Lannister is done to save the capital city's innocents
from the mad monarch's intended Götterdämmerung (Martin 2000b: 507). In other cases, where treachery
does occur, the perpetrators are often depicted as outcasts (such as the Freys), war criminals (The Brave
Companions) or as unstable lunatics (King Joffrey). In these Western cases of perfidy there is thus some
form of effort to justify the act, paint it as outside the norm, or provide for a strenuous objection from the
more noble characters (as in the case of Eddard Stark defying King Robert over plans to assassinate
Daenerys).
In contrast, the depiction of treachery in Essos is as something more culturally standard. The leaders
of the slaving city of Yunkai are described as "steeped in corruption", for example (Martin et al. 2014:
14). The mercantilism or militarism of the cultures within the saga implies an 'at any costs' mentality in
dealing with opponents. Betrayal and cheating are to be expected or even lauded. Good deeds and
altruism are generally absent, and when they do occur are either presented as being performed only for
some advantage on the part of the actor (Magister Illyrio) or else as part of a grander deception (such as
Xaro Xhoan Daxos, whose backstabbing is even more pronounced in the TV series).
In Essos disloyalty is also standard practice in warfare. For centuries there has been a dependence on
"sellsword" mercenary companies to fight campaigns on behalf of the various competing city states
whose noble citizenry have little taste for throwing their lives away on battlefields (Martin 2000c; Martin
et al. 2014). The fickle treachery of these companies is consistently described in the novels. A tendency to
desert, to switch sides for better pay or even to fall out amongst themselves is noted, making warfare a
small-scale and haphazard enterprise in Essos. The exception proves the rule: the Golden Company is
    
Mormont, counsellor to Daenerys Targaryen, is only in Essos because he has been exiled for selling convicted
criminals to slavers.
Mat Hardy 417
famously loyal to its contractors, impeccably disciplined and notoriously expensive for these reasons
(Martin 2005: 281). This singularity is perhaps made possible because the company largely consists of
and is led by exiled Westerners or their descendants.
9
Additionally, the Unsullied slave soldiers are the
premier product of Astapor, commanding a high price specifically because of their unbreakable fidelity.
In Essos, martial loyalty is thus shown to be a rare and costly commodity and one beyond the norm.
The manner in which Daenerys comes into possession of an Unsullied army is another contrast between
the manner in which Westerners and Easterners are depicted in ASoIaF. Entering into a bargain she
knows she will not need to keep, she turns the tables on the Good Masters of Astapor in what is
essentially a murderous swindle. However, this deception is performed in the context of being for a
greater and more noble good: the messianic liberation of the slaves and the righteous punishment of their
masters. It is significant that immediately after utilising the robotic loyalty of the Unsullied to win the
day, Daenerys offers them freedom, an offer which few accept, with most instead choosing to stay and
serve her voluntarily. Daenerys is thus cleansed of the stain of utilising forcefully bonded soldiers,
contrasting her morality with that of the Easterners.
Religious threat
The concept of West and East experiencing a "polemical confrontation" (Said 1978: 58) through religious
difference, or else the use of faith to denote an 'Other' are standard tenets of Orientalist cultural discourse.
In ASoIaF the presence of a proselytising religion creeping in from the East adds to the threatening sense
of an Oriental Other. The dualistic and messianic faith of R'hollr, the Lord of Light, is spreading
westwards from Essos, seeking converts at the juncture of the two continents. The religion is depicted as
having an in to lerance to other faiths and involves human sacrifice, dark magic (necromancy and the
summoning of supernatural creatures) and a certain amount of fanaticism on the part of its followers.
Moreover it seems to have a degenerative effect upon its practitioners, subverting them to sinister
mechanisms of power (in the case of King Stannis) or corrupt and draining forms of death magic (in the
case of Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarion).
It would be too great a leap to identify the worship of R'hollr with any current Earthly religion,
though it's tenets of light versus darkness do accord with the Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism that
stemmed from the Persian Empire and its off-shoots. It is to be remarked upon that the warfare between
the Sassanian practitioners of these faiths and the Byzantines is an early example of conflict between a
'western' Christian society with an eastern one of a different creed. In the centuries since that time,
religious fervour and the drive to do battle with an 'Other' have played a significant role in Western
relations with the Middle East.
In contrast, the dominant religion of the Seven Kingdoms, the Faith of the Seven, has little emphasis
for much of the series. The Faith and its pantheon feature mainly as a backdrop to state functions or as
something to cling to in times of trouble, particularly for female characters. It is only in A Dance with
Dragons (Martin 2011) that a growing fanatical interpretation of the Faith of the Seven becomes
important. Contrary to the depiction of R'hollr 's followers however, there is as yet no indication that the
reinvigorated Faith of the Seven has any link with corrupt and supernatural forces. If the new zealots of
the Seven have faults, it is in their asceticism and 'letter of the law' approach to justice (Martin 2011:
603). However even this latter is motivated by a righteous desire to shield the weak from the strong.
Whilst it is noted that the Faith of the Seven was itself originally an invasive religion from the east,
largely supplanting the "Old Gods" of Westeros, it tends to be portrayed with less dread than R'hollor's
worship.
Nevertheless, the contrast between East and West in ASoIaF is infused with an implicit cultural clash
between a native and an invasive faith. The ambitions of King Stannis to sit the throne of the Seven
 
9
Indeed the Golden Company do break a contract in the course of the series, but this is so they can fulfil an older,
more compelling dream of their exiled founder.
418 Game of Tropes: The Orientalist Tradition in the Works of G.R.R. Martin
Kingdoms are underpinned by his conversion to R'hollr and the sinister practices of his spiritual adviser
Melisandre. The messianic beliefs of the latter, along with the attendant burning of 'false' gods and their
followers, offers an implied vision of 'holy war'. Again it is to be stated that labelling the worship of
R'hollr with a direct parallel in the real world is not warranted. However, the use of conflicting faiths in
ASoIaF follows established patterns of painting religious thereat as stemming from the east.
Medieval or Baroque? The internal Orientalism of Martin's world
The view of the East that is displayed within the universe of ASoIaF is consistent with the growth of
historical Orientalist thought in Europe. That is, the depictions of the East and its inhabitants reflect
similar ideas to those expressed by Europeans of centuries past as they dealt with their neighbours to the
east. The musings in the council chamber in King's Landing about political movements in the Free Cities
and the threats posed to power and trade could plausibly mirror historic discussions held in the
strongholds of Europe regarding the Ottomans. The significant anachronism however is that such
consideration of the East in our own world would have been peaking much later than the medieval milieu
posed by ASoIaF.
Breen (2014) however argues that the world of ASoIaF is not a medieval fantasy setting at all,
instead describing it as an early modern or post-Colombian period analogous to the 16
th
and 17
th
centuries. His reasoning is that although the battlefield technologies of ASoIaF are medieval, the
globalised scale of informational, cultural and economic development and exchange is far ahead of the
Middle Ages:
A world where merchants trade exotic drugs and spices between continents, where
professional standing armies can number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, where
scholars study the stars via telescopes, and proto-corporations like the Iron Bank of
Braavos and the Spicers of Qarth control global trade. It’s also a world of slavery on a
gigantic scale, and huge wars that disrupt daily life to an unprecedented degree. (Breen
2014)
Aiding this globalisation is a prevalence of transportation superior to medieval Europe. Like the Age
of Discovery, travel in ASoIaF seems to be nothing like the impediment it was in the medieval world.
Characters undertake land and open sea journeys of thousands of miles on a regular basis. In the opening
novel the royal court travel to Winterfell, a distance of around 1,500 miles each way, so that King Robert
can ask his old friend Ned Stark a favour. In the TV series, even a tavern prostitute from Winterfell sets
off on that same journey to seek her fortune in the capital. Such a network of travel and trade in ASoIaF
increases the contact and familiarity between East and West to a point that reflects Breen's more 'early
modern' dating.
In addition to these logistical achievements, there is also the basis of an 'enlightenment' sharing of
scholarship and scientific advancement in Westeros. The Citadel in Old town serves as an academy of
research and training and its "maesters" are embedded throughout the realm, advising the nobility on
matters of lore, medicine, science, economics and metallurgy. They also offer a primitive postal service
via their ravens. The maesters demonstrate an advanced understanding of anatomy, surgery, chemistry
and pharmacology, placing their development even further along the historical parallels with our world,
perhaps even into the 18
th
and 19
th
centuries (Yglesias 2012). Significantly, the Order of Maesters appears
to be a secular meritocracy (albeit male-only), distancing the pursuit of knowledge in Westeros from the
religious or aristocratic spheres. This contrasts with the medieval European period, where scholarly
pursuit was within the purview of the church, and even then tended to focus on matters of religious
doctrine and history.
Mat Hardy 419
Comparing this state of development in ASoIaF with real world history shows parallels between the
societies depicted in the novels and those modern European cultures that were the crucible of real-world
Orientalist thought. After the failure of the crusading movement in the Holy Land, wWestern Europe's
relationship with the Orient remained distant until around the 16
th
century. At this point, consciousness of
the Orient began to accelerate, either through military and diplomatic contact with the Ottoman Empire or
via the expanding trade and colonial networks of the European maritime nations. From this point on the
Middle East was more tangible for the West; a real domain ascribed with a developing suite of images
and characteristics - though not necessarily valid ones.
The world of ASoIaF seems at a similar stage in its cross-cultural consciousness. The events, peoples
and nations of Essos are known to certain cognoscenti close to the Iron Throne, but this knowledge is
acquired distantly through spies and hearsay. Individuals from the Free Cities are present in Westeros and
trade links are well developed, so the eastern lands are substantial for those Westerosi proximate to
certain cities and trade routes. However most citizens will never have personal experience of these
foreigners, nor travel to their lands. In response, they rely on assumptions, stereotypes and the received
wisdom of ancient fiction to fill in their narrative. In this respect the characters of Martin's work are much
like ourselves.
Conclusion
As a one of the most popular fantasy series of recent years, ASoIaF (and GoT) represents a significant
reinforcement of the same Orientalist stereotypes that have informed Western vision of the Middle East
for centuries. Moreover, by utilising these same set of tropes the works demonstrate that fantasy locations
have the power to cement these ideas in the popular imagination.
Within Martin's novels and their television adaptations, the Eastern cultures are generally presented
in a negative manner, with aspects of slavery, treachery and cruelty being consistently emphasised. Whilst
the western lands are also shown to be violent and home to perfidious individuals, these representations
are often mitigated or counter-balanced. At the very least, the West is shown to be more 'grey' than the
uniformly barbaric East. Despite Martin's laudable success in breaking many established patterns of story-
telling (Walton 2014), in physical and human geography, the series has much in common with previous
popular fantasy sagas; themselves based upon customary imaginings of the real world Orient.
The excesses of the East in ASoIaF and its use primarily as a backdrop for Western characters to be
painted upon accords with previous scholarship on fictional portrayals of the real world Middle East.
Additionally, by contrasting the liberal Western behaviour of Daenrys Targaryen against this setting, we
are offered a strong example of Said's contention that our depiction of an Oriental Other is a means of
framing our own cultural superiority: even in a world that does not exist. Just as a central concern of
ASoIaF is family and bloodline, it is worth noting that the novels themselves are the scions of a long
ancestry of Orientalist invention, within and without the boundaries of the fantasy genre.
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... Como señala Hardy (2015) en su estudio sobre el sesgo orientalista de la representación de Essos, los territorios orientales del mundo de Juego de Tronos aparecen caracterizados por tópicos que incluyen crueldad, inmoralidad, esclavitud, violencia y atraso, tropos orientalistas que refuerzan su planteamiento como un "otro cultural" que contrasta con la identidad occidental de los personajes centrales (destaca en este sentido la representación de Danaerys como "salvadora blanca"). Otro tanto sucede en Dorne, cuyos habitantes, tal y como la mirada romántica europea imaginó a los españoles en el s.XIX, se caracterizan por la tendencia a la pasión, la irracionalidad y la promiscuidad, además de representarse visualmente con todos los clichés orientalistas del traje árabe (vestidos de seda y raso, dorados y piedras preciosas, abundantes brocados, mangas fluidas, babuchas…). ...
... Si, como decíamos, las características generales del dorniense se configuran sobre tópicos asociados al mito romántico de España, no resulta extraño que a la hora de representar la sexualidad se recurra al mismo entorno de lugares comunes. De hecho uno de los elementos más persistente de la mirada orientalista es la tradicional fantasía sexual que se ha venido desarrollando en las representaciones occidentales de Oriente, descrito como un lugar de habitantes propensos al libertinaje donde buscar experiencias sexuales imposibles de obtener en Europa (Hardy, 2015) Así los dornienses se muestran más proclives a aceptar la diversidad sexual que el resto de Poniente (como revela la abierta bisexualidad de Oberyn) y son retratados como ardientes y pasionales. En este sentido consideramos que para la representación de la sexualidad amazónica de Tyene se recurre como subtexto a un tópico íntimamente ligado al ya referido mito Romántico de España: el de Carmen la cigarrera, personaje en el que se ha querido ver la encarnación de la pasión, inseparablemente vinculada a la muerte y que "pertenece, como una personificación de lo típico español, a la herencia cultural común a toda Europa" (Bosse, 1995: 31). ...
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The "evil" Arab has become a stock character in American popular films, playing the villain opposite American 'good guys' who fight for 'the American way.' It's not surprising that this stereotype has entered American popular culture, given the real-world conflicts between the United States and Middle Eastern countries, particularly since the oil embargo of the 1970s and continuing through the Iranian hostage crisis, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the ongoing struggle against al-Qaeda. But when one compares the 'evil' Arab of popular culture to real Arab people, the stereotype falls apart. In this thought-provoking book, Tim Jon Semmerling further dismantles the "evil" Arab stereotype by showing how American cultural fears, which stem from challenges to our national ideologies and myths, have driven us to create the 'evil' Arab Other. Semmerling bases his argument on close readings of six films (The Exorcist, Rollover, Black Sunday, Three Kings, Rules of Engagement, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), as well as CNN's 9/11 documentary America Remembers. Looking at their narrative structures and visual tropes, he analyzes how the films portray Arabs as threatening to subvert American 'truths' and mythic tales-and how the insecurity this engenders causes Americans to project evil character and intentions on Arab peoples, landscapes, and cultures. Semmerling also demonstrates how the "evil" Arab narrative has even crept into the documentary coverage of 9/11. Overall, Semmerling's probing analysis of America's Orientalist fears exposes how the "evil" Arab of American popular film is actually an illusion that reveals more about Americans than Arabs.
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Despite its immense popularity, the Fantasy genre has been largely ignored by academic geography. In this paper I give an overview of the genre, its politics and its geographies. I examine the ways in which several popular Fantasy texts negotiate and draw upon ‘Orientalist’ tropes. Fantasylands are often described as landscapes enabling characters and readers to flee the drudgery of the ‘real’ world and escape into inconceivable places populated by magic and wonder, realms liberated from the ‘actualities’ of everyday life. However, it is my contention, based on a reading of several popular Fantasy texts, that Fantasy cannot be viewed as a privileged genre where ‘you’re limited only by your own imagination'. Fantasy is not about inventing Other‐worlds: it is not a transcendental and surpassing genre. Rather, Fantasy texts, like all texts, are socially embedded. I argue that the construction of the ‘Western’ characters as the ‘good guys’ in Genre Fantasy texts can become problematic when these characters encounter ‘Other’ peoples. The conflation of ‘Western heroes’ and ‘Good’ can appear to confirm feelings of moral and cultural superiority when these ‘heroes’ encounter ‘Others’ in Fantasy narratives, ‘Otherness’ becoming interpreted as ‘alien’, ‘weird’ and ‘fundamentally different’ when looked at through Genre Fantasy's moral lens. Looked at in this way, rather than describing purely imaginary spaces, I would argue that these texts continue a Western historical tradition of problematically mapping difference on to the ‘Other’, a mapping that serves to position the ‘Fantastic West’ as morally and culturally superior to the ‘Fantastic Orient’.
Why 'Game of Thrones' Isn't Medieval-and Why That Matters
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DiTommaso, L. (2006), 'The Persistence of the Familiar: The Hyborian World and the Geographies of Fantastic Literature', in B. Szumskyj (ed.), Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard (New York: Hippocampus), 107-19.
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Feist, R.E. (1989), Prince of the Blood (August 1989 edn.; New York: Doubleday).
Visions of the Arabian NIghts', Times Literary Supplement
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