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The Politics of An Accent: Game of Thrones, Savages, and the Orient

Last time, I talked about how your accent will guarantee if you’re a good guy or a bad guy in Star Wars. This week it’s a little closer to my heart: Game of Thrones.

I love GOT. I really love it. I’ve spent entire days talking about it and nothing but it. My best friends love it, and my girlfriend is crazy about it. So don’t get me wrong when I say that George R.R. Martin looks like the kind of guy who stares a little too hard at American Apparel adverts; the sort of chap who defends watching Olympic beach volleyball as he sits, wide-eyed, breathing heavily. I mean, he’s a genius, but a genius I wouldn’t let near my children.

He seems like more of a spontaneous, creative type than a researching type, which is why he invents and describes all of the rich food that the characters feast upon in the books, despite admitting that he himself cannot cook. As such, when it comes to the regions of the world in his series of books, it was obvious that he would follow suit.

Second sean bean image of the series, hooray!
Second Sean Bean image of the series, hooray!

The Politics of an Accent: Game of Thrones, Savages, and The Orient

As far as I can tell, Westeros is not unlike the United Kingdom, and the way the TV show is cast backs up my assumptions. The north is poor and bleak, and everyone speaks coarsely as they eat lamb shanks, while the south is a decadent hole full of incestuous, entitled children. There’s a giant wall on the border (akin to the Emperor Hadrian’s) that keeps out barbarians (Scottish people, apparently), and there’s an incredibly nationalistic and independent southern county with a strong culture that no one else cares about (sorry Dawn/Cornwall).

Credit must be given to the show for its locations, as the producers could have lazily settled for the standard “medieval fantasy” setting and filmed everything in a forest in Cumbria. Instead, they’ve gone the extra mile and shot everywhere from Ireland to Croatia to achieve this new, vast vision of the UK.

Barring a few differences in climate (no way would palm trees ever be growing in London/King’s Landing), it’s almost a mirror image, accents and all. As a Brit, it’s quite exciting to see the vague silhouette of my own country laying spectre-like across the geography of an incredibly popular show; not to mention that it means HBO have also given some of the best British talent around a chance to flex their acting muscles. So none of that is the problem, the real issue lies across the Narrow Sea.

Naaa naaa nuh nuh nuh naaaaaaa nuh nuh naaaaaaaa [dun dun dun dun dun dun]

In the terms of the TV show, Westeros and its various factions are incredibly well documented. Anybody paying the slightest bit of attention will probably know all of the major houses, their locations, and key figures and battles. Last season we managed to finally catch up with the Riverlands, House Tully, and the Twins under Walder Frey. Even minor characters get rich histories and compelling motivations for the dreadful, awful things that they do to each other.

Boo! Hiss!
Boo! Hiss!

Across the Narrow Sea, however we know almost nothing. In Essos, there was a sort of house where the Targaryens were washing themselves and crying in the very first episode, but the opening season consisted mostly of a lot of temporary Dothraki camps and burnt-down villages. We have never really had a sense of geography in Essos (I even had to look up the name), and in fact it’s quite disorientating.

While it’s made very clear that it takes Ned Stark a month to travel the length of Westeros (and journeys similar to this), Dany’s journey on Essos is sort of vague; it meanders from one desert-based set piece to another so she can inquire as to where her dragons are.

Little back story exists for the Dothraki as well, they’re just sort of merciless barbarians, who live to fight. They represent an uncivilized people who sleep with horses, so when Dany reaches their capital city, it’s hard as a viewer to appreciate them living in some kind of social structure. Do they have a day off from fighting? It’s akin to the propaganda of the late sixteenth century that Europeans churned out against the neighboring Muslim Ottoman Empire, painting them as vicious, ungodly savages. While they make interesting and compelling viewing, as characters they are one-dimensional.

A tasteful 16th century european depiction of a turkish man, and khal drogo
A tasteful 16th century European depiction of a Turkish man butchering babies, and Khal Drogo

It’s possibly an artistic choice; Dany is working out her new and confusing landscape as much as the viewers are, but I don’t buy that explanation completely. We’re supposedly omnipresent in Westeros, we know and see everything; we catch the Lannisters in every moment of their disgusting intrigue, we creep up with the White Walkers as they descend upon hapless Knight’s Watch, we are privy to Arya’s secret about the Faceless man.

Yet the overlooked sister continent is reduced to a mystical, shapeless “other land” which serves to hold all of the ethnic, non-white people of the GOT world.

Every city Dany encounters has some magical quality (the garden of bones, in fact the whole of Qarth itself), with mystics and magicians who play at parlour tricks, speak in riddles, and live in decadence. Not since 300 have foreigners been portrayed more as over-indulgent hooded figures driven by carnal desires. The city-states of Essos are a playground compared to the grim reality of somewhere like muddy Winterfell, made possible by a romanticization of the concept of the “other” (an “other” that, lest we forget, has been invented and then romanticized in its obscurity by the makers of the show).

Pictured: european perceptions of africans. Not pictured: irony
Pictured: European perceptions of Africans. Not pictured: Irony

The whole thing scans like a travel memoir from a British colonial officer two hundred years ago, one working his way through Asia and sending back mysterious reports of spices and gurus and the “Orient”. Not racist, just kind of ignorant (an impressive feat for fiction). And let’s not even talk (mostly because almost every other blog has covered it) about the closing scene of the last season, where Dany is held aloft by thousands of disheveled foreigners and declared their saviour. It makes me uncomfortable.

As I’ll stress again, I love the show (so no hate mail, please), but it would just be nice to see something of Essos that wasn’t a strange magician or a savage barbarian, to see a real person. Right now I feel like a visitor in Essos, an outsider with culture shock, seeing only the surface and stereotypes. I mean, I know more about that Wildling from The Office who can talk to eagles than I’ll ever know about Khal Drogo (a major character), and that can’t be right, surely?