Guest Essay at Tower of the Hand! A Laboratory of Politics, Part I

Over on Tower of the Hand, I’ve just published the first essay in my new six-part series on the diverse political world that is Essos. In this essay, I discuss the many forms of government found on the eastern continent and what this diversity can tell us.


Check it out!


13 thoughts on “Guest Essay at Tower of the Hand! A Laboratory of Politics, Part I

  1. TakatoGuil says:

    The Kingdom of the Ifequevron isn’t really a kingdom at all – it’s a Dothraki name given to the forest. The Children of the Forest, or their cousins, used to live there and left weirwood trees and a single city.

    Also, Leng and Yi Ti are more theocracy than monarchy: Leng ruled by God Empresses, Yi Ti by God Emperors. Meanwhile, the far-off region of Nghai is a fallen kingdom; Nefer the only city that’s left of it (the Nghai’i are the same ethnicity as the Jogos Nhai, inteestingly).

    • Do you have a cite for this?

      Also, the title “God Emperor” doesn’t necessarily indicate a theocracy – plenty of monarchies have declared divine status, but they’re still monarchies.

      • TakatoGuil says:

        World of Ice and Fire app. I’d link you to the main imgur repository, but it has content that you have to pay for, so instead I will simply link you to the pictures of relevance (all of which are part of the base, free content).

        Yi Ti:

        Vaes Leisi and N’ghai don’t have screenshots online but since the content is free, quoting it should make no matter.

        Vaes Leisi: “The ruined settlement of the ‘woods walkers,’ the vanished people who once walked the great forest that the Dothraki came to call the Kingdom of the Ifequevron. Called the ‘City of Ghosts’ by the Dothraki, it is filled with grottoes and carved trees but is much overgrown.”

        N’Ghai: “According to many histories, N’Ghai is a kingdom ruled by distant and more settled kin of the nomads, lying east of the plains where the nomadic Joghos Nhai wander endlessly. Corlys Velaryon was the first Westerosi recorded to have reached its shores.”

        Yi Ti shows I misremembered an important fact: the nation is a patchwork of princedoms. This makes it somewhat similar to Sarnor, really, as there were multiple Sarnori kings (again from the app;

        Also, what do you make out of the former “Patrimony of Hyrkoon”, which according to the app ruled over the Great Sand Sea before its desertification, along with Kayakayanaya, Bayasabhad, Samyriana, and Yinishar (Vaes Jini)? I don’t recall any historical patirimonies, but based on the meaning of the word it sounds closer to a monarchy than a democracy.

  2. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, please allow me to say that this is an excellent beginning to a series of articles that promises to be AT LEAST as good as your previous ones on The Kings of the Sunset Kingdoms and their Right Hand Men.

    If I might set down a couple of thoughts that occurred to me:-

    – It seems highly likely that the general reluctance to embrace Kings found across Essos may derive from lingering Valyrian influences (it apparently being the case that The Freehold stuck with a more-or-less Aristocratic Republic for most of it’s existence), which would make this the ‘Norm’ from which the Free Cities in particular would develop their own increasingly-divergent traditions.

    As a note: this by no means invalidates your theory concerning the Dothraki being at least part of the reason Monarchs seem so much less prevalent in the Sunrise Lands than in the Sunset kingdoms.

    – Given it’s proximity to Volantis I would be surprised if Lys were not heavily influenced by it’s neighbour, but I swear that I caught a reference in ‘A Dance with Dragons’ to a Prince of Lys whom Braavos sent to retake his home from the Volantenes (with help from one hundred of their own galleys) during the Century of Blood (indeed I would guess that he succeeded and in doing so triggered the endgame of that conflict, since now enemies might converge on the Black Walls by sea from the South, by river from the North and overland from the West coast).

    I cannot remember which chapter this was exactly, but I believe it to be the one in which Tyrion Lannister arrives in Volantis and the history of the Elephants and Tigers is described either by or to him shortly thereafter.

  3. Jeff Meehan says:

    Marvelous work as always Mr. Steven. I was wondering though, am I crazy to think that Bravos was designed after or based on Renaissance Venice? I remember someone saying that this is GRRM’s subtle way of saying that the old dark ages fantasy has been done to death and it’s time to move on.

  4. Abbey Battle says:

    Ahem, I meant “Albeit not necessarily in the same boxes” because even egalitarian societies have their limits! (also even WORSE snobs, since they have to compare notes to work out who gets to look down their nose at the other, rather than consult their genealogy).

  5. Amestria says:

    Hey, I liked your article and thought I’d contribute some of my own thoughts 🙂

    You’ve described Qarth as a “racial oligarchy” and I’m not so sure that terminology captures the complexity of its government. The formal governing body is an aristocratic assembly of 1,000 men descended from past Kings and Queens. There is no mention of elections or appointments. The fact that each member possesses his own ancestral throne suggests that Qarth is governed by the leading men of about 1,000 Qartheen noble families (which are probably pretty large given they’ve been able to maintain these lineages for some time). What the exact qualifications one has to meet in terms of descent and blood to be considered a member of the Pureborn remains unknown, but the implications are that they are very restrictive and strictly maintained given that Xaro can’t buy this status. That they’re also called ‘The Enthroned” and their seat of government is ‘The Hall of a Thousand Thrones’ suggests that each member considers himself a king or the body as a whole claims the authority and power of a king. All might be equal or certain members of the body might wield executive powers. Egon Emeros is known as ‘The Exquisite,’ which could be a purely social title, like Blind Sybassion the Eater of Eyes (perhaps this peculiar diet was maintained in hopes of regaining his sight?), but just as easily could be the title of a Qartheen office.

    The Pureborn do not own merchant ships so they don’t seem to engage in commerce. Their wealth comes from using the Civic Fleet to tax traders using the Jade Gates and from bribes paid for their favor by petitioners (in this they resemble the Dotraki they so despise). The Pureborn have a grasping, miserly nature, are very dangerous to those they consider threatening, and are very exacting when it comes to what they consider civilized behavior. The Qartheen habits of blatantly excessive flattery, insincere politeness, crocodile tears, and ostentatious dress probably originated with this aristocracy and in time were adopted by the wider citizenry, creating a cult of beauty and defacto hierarchy of etiquette (ones ability in imitating the Pureborn signifying one’s wealth and social class).

    Whatever formal powers the assembly of the Enthroned possesses as an institution though seems rather limited by the existence of an informal oligarchy of extremely wealthy Qartheen merchants. As for these merchants, they are really just commercial middle men who have, like the Pureborn, exploited their key position along the East-West trade system for all its worth, living off trade as one would live off an estate. Naturally there is less economic complexity then in the Free Cities. were you have banks, manufacture, and even (sex) tourism. Qarth may be at the center of the world and everything from the world might eventually pass through Qarth’s markets, but very little of the world is made in Qarth.

    First are the Thirteen, who are the thirteen richest men in Qarth and, given Qarth’s wealth, possibly the thirteen richest non-royals in the world. They are led by self described “merchant prince” Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who seems descended from a long line of successful traders (his family vault has a map of old Valyria from before the Doom). His influence is sufficient to protest Danny from formal expulsion after she burned down the House of Undying (and also powerful enough so that he might possess a dragon against the sentiments and jealousies of the rest of the city). He is also powerful enough to exercise some control over Qartheen foreign policy and serve as a spokesperson for the city as a whole. As an envoy he attempts to convince Danny to allow the reestablishment of slavery, provides her with a way out of her situation, and when she refuses delivers a declaration of war.

    Then you have the Tourmaline Brotherhood and the Ancient Guild of Spicers, who are slightly less elite and whose members might number into the hundreds and who possess less influence then the Thirteen in general and Xaro in particular. Lastly there are the Warlocks, who don’t have much wealth but can presumably exercise significant influence whenever their magic powers are working, and the Sorrowful Men, a recognized guild of assassins who kill ones enemies with the required level of politeness.

    Normal politics is likely a complicated dance of influence through the accumulation of wealth, the cultivation and display of social graces, formal and informal bribery, and assassination. The greatest beneficiary of this game seems to be the Pureborn as individuals, who take in taxes, receive lavish bribes, aren’t expected to part with their own wealth (that popular saying about it being easier to milk a stone cow then get gold from them), retain formal power, and stand at the pinnacle of high society. The merchant princes however get to exercise real power through bribing/courting of the Pureborn and presumably receive individual privileges and benefits at the expense of the public and foreigners, as that’s what you usually have in such situations (Xaro’s power likely comes from the fact many Pureborn require his wealth in their own social competitions). This doesn’t sound like something the wider citizenry plays much role in. The People only have a notable presence in the daily commerce of the great bazaars and city docks.

    Slavery is a very important part of this elite system. The East-West trade in slaves brings the Qartheen elite a considerable portion of their wealth (taxes/bribes for the Pureborn, commercial profit for the merchants), but, more importantly, the ideal Qartheen social life as represented by Xaro and the Pureborn can only be cultivated, perfected, and maintained in a household of highly specialized Ghiscari slaves. A more egalitarian society is impossible and any attempt to bring it about will be both absurd and destructive to the idealized life. When Dany tells Xaro that perhaps his slave dancers might prefer to do something else then perform synchronized erotic dances, he replies:

    “Perhaps your elephants would sooner be nightingales. Instead of sweet song, Meereen’s nights would be filled with thunderous trumpetings, and your trees would shatter beneath the weight of great grey birds.” (DoD, Dany 207).

    The Undying are symbolic of the Qartheen elite as a whole. They live off the life force and vitality of others and project forth images of civilization and beauty. In this respect it seems the epitome of a purely aristocratic world.

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