How the Dothraki (Don’t) Work in Game of Thrones
A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) has a reputation for being brutal and dark, and you won’t find me disagreeing with that. Without going into a lot of details, there’s quite a bit of fucked up shit there.
But I’ve also seen people call the series realistic, and hearing that does NOT tickle my pickle, so to speak. Now, we all know that the series has ice demons and dragons, but that’s not what we’re talking about when we say “realism.”
It would be a shallow criticism if I just point out, using my big-boy brain, that dragons don’t exist in reality.
In my opinion, the world of ASOIAF is not very realistic, but it’s very immersive, nonetheless. The series is filled to the brim with details to make the world seem like a place that all these characters live in, so it’s easy to get sucked into.
On top of that, Westeros has so many memorable characters from different backgrounds that it feels very alive.
But at the end of the day, George is writing a story about characters and the human heart in conflict with itself. The worldbuilding in it exists to serve the characters and their development, not the other way around. And in my opinion, it suits the story just fine most of the time.
Most of the time…
As you might have guessed from the title, there’s one instance of worldbuilding in ASOIAF that I honestly can’t stand – the Dothraki and their culture.
Part 1: Mongolian Heart
The Dothraki need no introduction to anyone even vaguely familiar with the series. They’re scary horse people, who ride horses and do scary things.
And when you say “scary horse people,” the first thing that pops into people’s minds is probably a shirtless Jason Momoa.
he do be lookin good
But the second thing is probably Genghis Khan, everyone’s favourite brutal conqueror and a source of inspiration when GRRM created the Dothraki.
On top of the Mongols, George has also taken from lots of other cultures from all around the world:
“The Dothraki were actually fashioned as an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy.”
Far be it from lowly old me to disagree with the author himself, but I have to make a stand here. To me, it feels like the Dothraki were created based on the pop culture portrayal of these cultures instead of the actual people themselves.
And to make my point, I’ll take a look at a few key points of the Dothraki culture and waffle a bit.
Part 2: Dothraki Scuffles
A huge part of the Dothraki culture is focused on fighting and warfare, but I have a few concerns
The first, and one of their defining characteristics, is their disdain for armour. The Dothraki not only don’t wear armour, and look down on anyone who does.
In reality, Mongols, Turks, or Huns had no qualms about wearing armor on the battlefield. Even when they lacked the ability to manufacture armour, which wasn’t uncommon in steppe cultures, they’d go out of their way to trade for it.
The “Native American” comprises a large and varied number of cultures, and appropriately enough, they’d also prepare armour from a variety of different materials using different techniques. You’d be hard-pressed to find human cultures where warriors would avoid armour out of pride, let alone any that were as successful as the Dothraki are in ASOIAF.
While most people think of Native Americans as unarmoured or lightly armoured, that portrayal comes from a period when guns were commonly used in warfare. According to my sources (Modern Weaponry mod for Dark Souls 3), even full plate armour isn’t a good defense against being shot by a gun.
Speaking of being shot, the next point is arrows; or lack thereof. A common thread between nomadic steppe cultures is their extensive use of horseback archery in battle.
And they didn’t just zerg rush the enemy while blindly firing arrows either. Mounted archers could sweep in, attack the enemy from range, and sweep out. It’s the ol’ reliable, and while this seems simple, it takes a lot of skill, discipline, and most importantly, coordination between units.
While it’s not hard to find Mongols being portrayed as a horde of indisciplined screaming barbarians, they were far more coordinated in reality.
Their whole approach to warfare would fall apart if soldiers couldn’t work together as a unit. There’s a reason why they were so successful, after all.
The good news is that the Dothraki do use arrows, to the point that Jorah thinks they easily outrange Westerosi archers. Not as much as Mongols or Turks but its there.
The bad news is everything else about Dothraki warfare. There’s a famous anecdote about the Dothraki within the world of ASOIAF. It’s about the time the Dothraki attacked Qohor, only to be defeated by 3,000 Unsullied warriors:
Eighteen times the horselords charged. And eighteen times, the Unsullied locked their shields, lowed their spears, and held the line against twenty thousand Dothraki screamers.
If they truly were an amalgam of various nomadic steppe cultures, as GRRM said, there has to be some resemblance between them and our reality. Instead, they mindlessly charge at the enemy without any regard for their own safety, despite being light cavalry.
Part 3: Horses by Patt Smith is a Good Album
The Dothraki sure do like their horses, as did the cultures they’re supposed to be based on.
The difference is that the Dothraki only seem to like horses. Rearing any other animal is, in their eyes, for losers.
When the Dothraki invaded a Lhazarene village, they killed all the sheep there and left the corpses to rot. Now, I can forgive them for not taking the sheep with them, taking care of pets can get pretty hard, but not even taking anything from the corpses is just hilariously wasteful.
But the Dothraki say nay to lamb chops and prefer eating horses instead.
While this might seem stupidly obvious, a horse is a valuable commodity – especially to a Dothraki. But as useful as they are, Horses don’t really make for a consistent source of food. They’re slow to breed and take a long time to grow into adults.
In comparison, sheep take much less time to breed and grow and are easy enough to handle when compared to large herbivores like buffalos. Plus, they produce a lot of handy resources for nomads. they can all be cured, preserved, and transported without too much hassle.
And all they require for food is grass, which, as Victarian Greyjoy learned, is pretty common in the Dothraki sea.
There’s a reason sheep are so common in steppe cultures.
Part 4: The Characters
There’s another nomadic group of people in Westeros who are deemed to be uncivilized by the sneering masses from their fancy cities with their fancy plates and forks. And fortunately for them, they have no problem wearing clothes.
We’re talking about our favourite band of rascals, the Wildlings.
Here’s a quick experiment: take a moment to try and remember 6 different Wildlings from the series.
Now, the usual suspects would be Tormund, Ygritte, and Mance Rayder, but there are other characters like Val, Osha, Rattleshirt, Craster and his funky bunch, Varamyr the walking zoo, and so on.
This Varamyr guy sure is something
And look at what a (kinda) diverse collection of characters we have here. Sure they’re generally trending towards being murderous assholes, but they’ve all got distinct personalities.
You probably saw it coming, but here it goes: try to remember 5 Dothraki characters.
Now, try to remember their personalities.
If you are like me (someone who doesn’t really have a good memory), you probably couldn’t remember 6 names off the top of your head.
And another thing you might have noticed is that most of them don’t really have distinct personalities at all.
Did you know that Jhogo, Aggo, and Rakharo have been with Danaerys with four books? Call me a sloppy reader because I didn’t even realize they were still alive, let alone what they were like.
An excuse I see people give is that the Dothraki are shown from the POV of Dany, so they appear shallow. Maybe there’s a Dothraki version of Rodrik Harlaw out there, but we’ll never know because Dany isn’t interested in finding out.
Like I said at the start, George is writing a story about characters, and the reason why the Dothraki are the way they are is because Dany’s story needed them to be.
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