Orientalism in Game of Thrones

By Matt Weese on Jun 21, 2012 to Game of Thrones

When one pictures the lands across the Narrow Sea, one pictures the primitive and mighty Khalasars roaming the Dothraki Sea, the grand and elaborate home of Illyrio Mopatis, and the perfumed finery that is Qarth. The lands away from Westeros are filled with mysterious folk that dress well and indulge in their fancies. The opening of the gates of Qarth during the former half of the second season conveys the decadent and beautiful world East of Westeros, displaying a metaphor for Western understandings of what has been known as the ‘East’, or the ‘Orient’.

Western understandings of Eastern countries is discussed at length by Edward Said in his work Orientalism, in which Said outlines the book’s namesake. Orientalism is the term that is used in discussing the depictions of the East, through fiction, historical accounts, art, and other such mediums. The HBO series Game of Thrones offers something George RR Martin’s books cannot: namely, on screen visuals of orientalism in action, revealing an area of historical influence often overlooked in Martin’s works.

As is clear in Martin’s books, and of course in the HBO series, the world we have come to know is one heavily influenced by history. Although hinged on fantasy, historical influences are clear when considering historical conflicts, such as the War of the Roses. Other historical events have clearly been involved in shaping the world across the waters from Westeros, such as colonialism. In colonising the world, European giants, such as the British Empire and the Spanish, sought a means to conquer the peoples inhabiting such countries as India, China, and those of the Middle East. The most effective weapon that was used was the act of distancing themselves from the colonised natives. Over sexualising, feminising and primitivising the natives was a means of making them the colonisers’ lessers, establishing a control over the locals. The best way to depict these invented connotations was through popular media, such as art and books. A famous example of orientalising the East can be found in tellings of the tale of Aladdin, which is mysterious and magical – not quite ‘real life’. Magic and mystery are often understood to be dark and dangerous (consider the Salem witch trials), as they are not easily understood. Distancing oneself from the East is easy when confronted with such other-worldly connotations.

Now consider Game of Thrones. Characters foreign to Westeros are often mysterious, mischievous and magical. Consider the sneaky Xaro Xhoan Daxos, the mysterious Jaqen H’gar, the manipulative Melissandre, and the magical and maleficent Pyat Pree. All of these characters convey, almost satirically, how the West has, and some times does, view the East. The use of costumes and decorative themes in Qarth alone convey the skewed views of the East in a fashion befitting a series that takes the face off of popular history revealing the sex, gore, nepotism and politics beneath.

The savage Dothraki race is another example of this. What Dany discovers when at her wedding to Drogo in season 1 is that weddings with the Dothraki are not what she would deem conventional. Instead there is an excessive indulgence in violence, death and mounting. What is interesting is that Dany has a conventional notion of what such social affairs should be like. The Dothraki affairs are the ones that appear strange and savage and it is only when understanding her new ‘savage’ friends does Dany realise that what is conventional to her is strange and savage to them. What is portrayed in the show is that cultures are only savage and strange at face value, and the characters, when lead to understand them, see them for what they really are. This is a theme that occurs throughout A Song of Ice and Fire and will appear again in colder climates come season 3.

What is brilliant about orientalism in Game of Thrones is its use in a way never seen before on television. Instead of a show accidentally falling into the trap of writing stereotypes and false impressions of distant cultures, Game of Thrones produces what seems to be an awareness of the connotations often associated with foreign worlds, incorporating stereotypes such as savagery to display a culture that is misunderstood from a Westerosi point of view. This use of skewed Western views of the East allows for the flourishing and development of themes in Game of Thrones that are transferable throughout the realms of men, developing cultures as well as characters.

This satiric use of orientalism is used elsewhere, prominently in ascribing certain traits associated with the East to villains. Those very  traits that were used to make natives appear different and lesser than the Westerners are used in the show to depict the bad guys. Mentioned already is the historical distrust of magic – a trait that can be assigned to the warlock Pyat Pree. Instead of blindly following on the path to resurrecting stereotypes, Game of Thrones makes clever use of how people understand key aspects of fantasy, such as magic and cultural diversity, by interweaving them with real world historical approaches to foreign peoples.

This theme of tearing off the face of a culture recurs throughout the world of Game of Thrones, showing the audience that not all is what it seems. Take the ordered and established monarchy that is actually ripe with corruption, debt and betrayal. Sansa’s idea of the gallant knight is an idea tarnished when she sees the handsome knight killed by the monstrous Mountain, and by Joffrey’s troubled and terrifying Hound who is a far cry from her image of what a king’s protector would be like. The lands to the East are also a foundation for this theme of misunderstanding cultures and people, with a satirical use of orientalism weaved into the show’s approach at tackling conquest, authority and mysticism. Again, we see Game of Thrones offering more to the audience than one would expect from an imagined world of dwarves, direwolves, dragons.

Daniel Lafferty studied philosophy and religious studies, pondering his way through life whilst watching too much television. He grew up and currently resides in bonnie Scotland.  Follow him on Twitter!

  • Jefd

    Thanks for placing a post Daniel. My ancient bloodline runs deep east of here in a land called Scotland! A beautiful country I have not visted first hand. Who knows what kind of strange men and customs lie there? Ha. HA.

    Thanks again.










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