“Your brother should have bided his time in Pentosi. There is no place for him in a Khalasar….the Dothraki look on these things differently than we do in the west.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
Programming Note: With Dany IV, Race for the Iron Throne is officially HALFWAY through A Game of Thrones! Only took eight months of writing regularly. So at this rate, I should be done with the first book in November, and then move on to A Clash of Kings.
It’s quite refreshing to get back to Daenerys, since we haven’t been to Essos for 13 chapters and it’s a nice break from the almost unrelenting focus on Eddard’s investigation. And as with previous Dany chapters, there’s a lot to work with here: the political economy of Vaes Dothrak, a further examination of how cultural ignorance and bigotry versus assimilation underpins the transforming relationship between Viserys and Daenerys, and the different worlds of war of Westeros and Essos.
Vaes Dothrak is a fascinating location sketched out in just a few words. To begin with, it’s a city without walls on a continent of walled-city states, reminiscent of the famous Spartan boast that their hoplites were the walls of Sparta; in this case, the vastness of the Dothraki Sea and the fierceness of their khalasars are their defenses. However, it’s also a cultural statement: the Dothraki who value physical openness as truth and proof of courage divide the world into those who live their lives under the open sky and the “milk men in their stone tents” who practice deceit and concealment out of cowardice. It’s impressive how GRRM is able to imbue every detail of the Dothraki world with not just material but cultural significance, showing how the Dothraki beliefs structure their world. All of this comes before we even get into the religious significance of Vaes Dothrak as the spiritual capitol of the Dothraki world, the place where the “dosh khaleen” dwell to serve as the link between the mundane world and the supernatural, where the “warring khalasars put aside their feuds and shared meat and mead together…in this place, all Dothraki were one blood, one khalasar, one herd.” Vaes Dothrak is a place of peace, and a place of prophecy, where the Dothraki will some day unite as one.
At the same time, the Dothraki are not “noble savages” distinguished from Westerosi decadence by superior moral virtue. Viserys’ sneering dismissal, that “all these savages know how to do is steal the things better men have built..and kill,” is based on his belief in racial and cultural superiority, but as Jorah points out, “[y]our brother had part of the truth…The Dothraki do not build…the buldings you see were made by slaves brought here from lands they’ve plundered, and they built each after the fashion of their peoples.” Vaes Dothrak is an imperial statement – the Dothraki are warriors who are a higher order of person than people who build and work the land and craft with their hands, who are fit only to be slaves; by forcing their slaves to carry the remnants of their destroyed homes, their destroyed gods, across thousands of miles of grasslands to be heaped as tribute before the Mother of Mountains, the Dothraki are proclaiming their right to rule the world.
Yet again, Vaes Dothrak has another purpose, as we can see from “the Eastern Market where the caravans from Yi Ti and Asshai and the Shadow lands came to trade.” For all that the Dothraki disdain city-dwellers and peaceful occupations, they are also a structural link in the economy of Essos. Only a nomadic warrior people of the Dothraki’s size could raid and conquer the thousands and thousands of slaves that serve as raw materials for the cities of Yunkai, Astapor, and Meereen, who “refine” the raw materials, training up the Unsullied and sorting out the skilled and the beautiful from the merely disposable, and then sold on to Volantis, Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh (although Braavos remains an anti-slave power, and has imposed its views on Pentos (and probably Lyrath as well). At the same time, the tributes the Dothraki recieve from the Free Cities of western Essos are easily transported across the Dothraki Sea to be exchanged for rare goods from far eastern lands, making Vaes Dothrak the land-bound equivalent of the great port cities of Volantis and Qarth.
Next, we return to the theme of cultural ignorance and bigotry. Viserys “stubborn ignorance” and his refusal to assimilate to this new place and its cultural is at the heart of this chapter: to begin with, it’s causing him to lose the respect of people he plans to lead into battle, who see him as the Sorefoot King and the Cart King, insults that he can’t even see. Next, we see the physical costs of his refusal to change: his “tunic was filthy. All the silk and heavy woolls that Viserys had worn out of Pentos were stained by hard travel and rotted by sweat,” and yet he refuses the Dothraki tunic, leggings, sandals and belt that are better suited to the climate and the culture he has to work in. Even worse, he has fundamentally misunderstood the exchange he’s made – the Dothraki are not a commercial culture where bargains are made and prices are defined in formal contracts; they are a gift culture, and Khal Drogo “will give Viserys a gift in return…in his own time. You do not demand a gift, not of a Khal.”
Finally and most significantly, Viserys’ ignorance causes a fatal break with his sister who has so committed to assimilation that she sees the Dothraki as her people. Despite all of the abuse she’s taken from him, Dany tries one last time to share the lessons she’s learned so that her brother might succeed at the head of a Dothraki army (even though Jorah Mormont is always on hand to remind her that “Viserys could not sweep a stable with ten thousand brooms” and to subtly suggest that someone else, “someone stronger” could take the Seven Kingdoms). When Viserys refuses her, insults her and the culture she’s adopted, Dany finds the strength to strike back, and strike back as only a khaleesi can, threatening to “summon my khos to drag you out. And pray Khal Drogo does not hear of this or he will cut open your belly and feed you your own entrails.”
A third theme introduced in this chapter is the different worlds of war. Here, Jorah Mormont is our cultural interpreter, someone who’s seen past his initial culture shock to recognize that the Dothraki are “better riders than any knight, utterly fearless, and their bows outrange ours…charging or retreating, it makes no matter.” While the armor and momentum of the knight offers a certain balancing factor if the Westerosi knight can get into melee range and avoid being drawn out and surrounded, the major problem is actually the lack of disciplined infantry who lack the discipline needed to withstand the psychological shock of “forty thousand screamers howling for blood” and the armor needed to protect themselves from Dothraki archers.” As we’ll see, the Dothraki are not invincible against disciplined infantry like the Unsullied, which is probably why the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy includes the use of the combined-arms Golden Company, with its Essos-trained infantry combined with Westerosi knights and war elephant, as a backstop against the Dothraki deciding to stay in Westeros.
A side note: it’s interesting to see the contrast between the bloodriders whose loyalty is so strong that they will unquestioningly follow their khal “into the grave,” and the tarnished honor of the Kingsguard, filled with political appointees, Kingslayers, and would-be assassins. On the other hand, we’ll see later that the vaunted honor of the bloodriders isn’t exactly as strong as it would seem.
So, given this question about Westerosi vs. Dothraki, we have to ask, how would medieval knights fare against the equivalent of Dothraki? On the one hand, at the Battle of Châlons, a mixed force of Roman, Visigoth, and Frankish soldiers, mostly cavalry, fought Attila’s Hunnic army to a standstill, using their heavier armor and superior discipline to break Attila’s cavalry charges with their own counter-charges.
On the other hand, when the Mongols came into contact with European knights in 1231, they achieved total victory at Legnica, where Subutai, Genghis Khan’s chief general, used the classic Mongol tactics of feigned retreat and feigned attack to completely disrupt the formations of German, Czech, and Polish knights, force them to charge, cut them off from behind, and slaughter them, thereby winning a crushing victory. Henry II of Silesia, Boleslav of Moravia, and virtually the entire army of 40,000 men died on the field. Likewise at Mohi, the forces of Hungary, the Teutonic Knights, and the Knights Templar, were surprised, driven back into their camp, and then attacked from their rear flank as they sallied forth, and finally hacked down in flight as the Mongols allowed a deliberate escape route to more easily slay fleeing enemies. Tens of thousands fell, leaving Hungary basically defenseless as King Bela IV and the nobility of Hungary fled. In the ensuing invasion, 15-25% of the population of Hungary died, exposed on the broad plains, but the castles of the nobility held.
In the end, it was the castle, not the knight that prevented total Mongol victory. Bela IV embarked on a policy of fortification, encouraging his nobles to build castles and cities to build walls to keep out the Mongols. When the Mongols were forced to besiege his castles, they began to take enormous casualties as they could no longer use their traditional tactics, which relied on open spaces. That, plus the death of Ogedei Khan, ended the Mongol invasions of Europe.
So in the end, Jorah’s right.
As for Vaes Dothrak, it resembles nothing so much as Genghis Khan’s capitol of Karakorum. Initially it was a mobile yurt city, walls were eventually built, but with four gates facing the four cardinal directions from which the capitol recieved tribute and visitors from their vast empire. Like Vaes Dothrak, Karakorum contained a section for visiting merchants from Arabia and China, many different temples of every conceivable religion (Christian, muslim, pagan, etc.), and massive statues that came to symbolize the city.
Nothing really stands out as a potential hypothetical in this chapter. However, there should be some in next chapter.
Book vs. Show:
The Dothraki don’t fare that well in the HBO version – while the great stallion statues are quite impressive, I didn’t really feel a connection between Drogo’s great hall and the merchant districts that Dany visits that you need to express the strange mix of cosmoplitanism and imperialism that makes Vaes Dothrak so interesting.
On the other hand, Dany’s line that “the next time you raise your hand to me will be the last time you have hands” is a much more impressive line than “pray Khal Drogo does not hear of this.” At this part in the books, Dany’s made her transition from being a Westerosi expat to being a convert to Dothraki culture, but she still thinks of her child as the “true dragon,” rather than herself. In the show, Dany’s defiance of Viserys is tied more to her changing self-image, and the link between seeing herself as a badass who’ll take matters into her own hands works better.
A rare moment where HBO is more feminist than the source material?