High fantasy literature is defined as a subgenre of fantasy literature wherein the stories told include, but are not limited to, alternate worlds with their own consistent sets of physical laws; characters who experience a coming-of-age or other form of inner development; a quest or several quests with the goal of triumphing over an evil force; the existence of magic or other supernatural powers; and, more often than not, the presence of different races or nations within these alternate worlds.
George R. R. Martin’s epic saga A Song of Ice and Fire has all of the above in spades. Ironically, his treatment of the racial aspect differs from that of many other authors. While most fill their worlds with pointy-eared elves, squat and crafty dwarves, hook-nosed goblins, brutish trolls and orcs, tall and noble humans, and all the other cliché fantasy races that get recycled and renamed between writers, Martin populates his world mostly with humans. His fictional humanity, however, is much like our own. A multitude of physical types exist in his invented continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos, each hailing from their own fatherlands; some races have a great deal in common with each other physically, while others are so unusual that they draw derision at worst and curious glances at best; some individuals and entire races are the product of hybridization; each race has its own unique culture, language, and religious beliefs.
George R. R. Martin is a self-proclaimed liberal, having voiced his support for Obama and the Democratic Party. Despite aligning himself with those who would have us all believe that race is merely a social construct, Martin pays an incredible amount of attention to detail when describing the different human races in his alternate world; certain sections of A Song of Ice and Fire almost read like passages from The Passing of the Great Race. Moreover, the world he has created is one where many characters are conscious of these racial differences, and where such consciousness is not portrayed as a bad thing.
Over the course of the series, through the dialogue between characters and within their private thoughts, one can piece together the grand history of Martin’s fictional world and the histories of many of the individual races dwelling within it. Some get more attention than others because most of the main characters are of those particular stocks, i.e. the First Men, Andals, Rhoynar, and Valyrians, who we will examine shortly. Also, most of the story unfolds on the continent of Westeros, where the above races made their home.
The purpose of this essay is to examine the abovementioned attention to detail in Martin’s series, with particular focus on the racial histories he constructed, the descriptions of his different human types, and the sense of racial awareness that many characters seems to share.
The Races of Westeros
Much like our own European continent (the history of which probably inspired George R. R. Martin), Westeros has seen several waves different human and nonhuman invaders. The first races to dwell in Westeros were mythical nonhuman beings that share no similarities with the later human arrivals: the short, dark, elf-like Children of the Forest and the Giants. During the Dawn Age, the autochthonous Children maintained a pantheistic civilization led by shamanistic figures called “greenseers.” They worshipped nameless gods within nature, and it is said they could literally communicate with the flora, fauna, and waters of the land. While they had no significant material civilization or cities, the Children carved faces into gigantic white trees called weir woods, entire groves of which served as holy places. Apart from this, they wore clothing made of leaves and their hunters were armed with weapons carved from obsidian. It is suggested during a conversation between a Child and a Northman that her race came into conflict with the bestial Giants at one point: “The giants are almost gone as well, they who were our bane and our brothers” (A Dance with Dragons, 453).
A little over 12,000 years before the events of the series, a race of men from the eastern continent of Essos crossed into the southern part of Westeros by traversing a land bridge. Before long they were at war with the indigenous races, and with “bronze swords and great leathern shields” were able to overpower Children and Giants alike (A Game of Thrones, 738). This war supposedly had cataclysmic effects: using the magic of the greenseers, the Children sank the land bridge to cease the flow of invaders, but to no avail. Those already on Westerosi soil conquered their way to its northernmost reaches, wiping out close to half of the Children. In time, however, the races made peace through an agreement known as The Pact, which granted the Children domain over all the forest areas of Westeros, and the First Men domain over everything else. This event is regarded as the end of the Dawn Age and beginning of the Age of Heroes. In time, the First Men even adopted the nameless Old Gods of the Children and kept weirwood trees in their own castles to pray to.
The invasion of the First Men is notably similar to the arrival in Europe of the Bronze Age pre-Indo-European peoples, sometimes referred to as “Old Europeans” to distinguish them from the later Indo-Europeans. Aside from their shared weapon technology, both left behind scant written records for historians to use in painting an accurate representation of their civilizations. While historians of ancient Europe have had to rely on the secondhand accounts of Romans and Greeks to understand the Etruscans and Minoans, the Westerosi get most of their information on the First Men from the records of the later Andal race.
To know the physical features of the First Men, one must look to the region of Westeros known as the North. As Maester Luwin tells his Northern pupil in A Game of Thrones, “Only here, where the King in the North threw back every army that tried to cross the Neck, did the rule of the First Men endure” (p. 739). Ned Stark, who rules as Warden of the North during the same novel, tells his son that “The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks” (p. 16). While it is true that most of the Northern noble houses are entirely of First Men stock, there has been a slight infusion of Andal blood through marriage alliances with southern houses. Ned Stark’s own children were sired with Catelyn Tully, a southern lady of the Riverlands, for example.
During the Age of Heroes, a 700-foot wall of ice aptly dubbed “The Wall” was erected in the far reaches of the North to protect the continent from a demonic race of necromancers called the Others. The First Men who happened to lie north of the Wall remained in a less advanced stage of civilization. However, they were also shielded by the slight intermixing that later occurred in other parts of the North after the Andals invaded Westeros. The narrator of A World of Ice and Fire directly states that “In the lands beyond the Wall live the diverse people—all descended from the First Men—that we of the more civilized south name wildlings” (p. 147). Their own king, Mance Rayder, echoes Ned Stark by saying “The wildling blood is the blood of the First Men, the same blood that flows in the veins of the Starks” (A Storm of Swords, 103). Therefore, it is to these people we must look to glimpse pure specimens of the First Men.
Like their White European inspiration, the wildlings are diverse in type but nonetheless a singular people. Mance Rayder is described by Ned Stark’s bastard son, Jon Snow, as having “shrewd brown eyes and long brown hair that had gone mostly to grey” (Swords, 98). Mance’s sister-in-law, Val, is a “pretty blonde” whose “eyes were blue, her long braid the color of dark honey, her cheeks flushed red from the cold” (Swords, 96; Dragons, 703). Snow’s wildling lover, Ygritte, is referred to as being “kissed by fire” due to her red hair. In A Dance With Dragons, Snow surveys a massive group of wildling boys as they are marched through the Wall to become hostages following Mance Rayder’s defeat: “Elsewise they came in every shape and size and color. He saw tall boys and short boys, brown-haired boys and black-haired boys, honey blonds and strawberry blonds and redheads kissed by fire” (p. 773).
Thousands of years after the building of the Wall by the First Men and the Children of the Forest, a new race made its appearance on the shores of Westeros: the Andals. The Andals came from a region of Essos known as Andalos, which they supposedly took from an indigenous race of hairy men who were “cousins to the hairy men of Ib” (Dragons, 79). They were technologically superior to the First Men, able to forge steel weapons and iron armor. Their religion was (and still is) known as the Faith of the Seven, which bears similarities to Indo-European paganism. In essence, it revolves around the worship of an ultimate deity who manifests himself in seven aspects: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Smith, the Crone, the Maiden, and the Stranger. Another unique component of their culture was the institution of knighthood, which became a pillar of Westerosi society.
With the “seven-pointed star of the new gods painted on their chests” (Thrones, 739), the Andals crossed the narrow sea between Westeros and Essos, landing in a region known as the Vale. After conquering the local rulers of the First Men, they spread across Westeros to subjugate the rest. The Children of the Forest were butchered to a point of near-genocide; the few survivors fled to lands north of the Wall, and the Children virtually disappeared from history. In time, every kingdom but the North was conquered by the Andals and a new age was ushered in. The aftermath of this conquest brought about new alliances and assimilations. The Andals married into families of the First Men, and most of Westeros adopted the Andal gods as their own; many noble houses, however, continue to revere the Old Gods.
Dialogue in the books suggests that the Andals were physically similar to their First Men predecessors. They are described by Maester Luwin as “a race of tall, fair-haired warriors who came with steel and fire” (Thrones, 739). What truly set them apart was their culture, as described above. In many ways the Andal invasion of Westeros closely resembles the period of ancient European history when waves of Hellenes, Celts, Germanics, and other fair peoples migrated into Europe, conquering the preexisting civilizations while bringing their Indo-European pantheons and customs. It can also be compared to the much later Volkerwanderung, when a massive influx of Germanic tribes swept across Europe from the Black Sea area and toppled what was left of the Western Roman Empire. As Europe got back on its feet, the fusion of Germanic and Roman cultures and institutions catalyzed the development of feudalism and chivalry.
Within a few hundred years, Westeros was reforged into seven kingdoms: that of the North, the Riverlands, the Westerlands, the Stormlands, the Reach, the Vale, and Dorne. While the North remained mostly unmixed, the rest were borne out of the union between the First Men and Andals.
Many years after the Andals consolidated most of Westeros, yet another race entered Westeros. The Rhoynar, as they were called, originated in Essos around the Rhoyne River. There, they maintained a sea-faring civilization centered on city-state organization and rule by princes and princesses. According to the character Magister Illyrio, the Rhoynar were the first to smelt iron, a skill they in turn taught to the Andals. On the cultural plane, they worshipped the river itself, which they named Mother Rhoyne; they practiced equal primogeniture; and evidence throughout the books suggests they were sexually licentious.
They arrived in Westeros not as conquerors, but refugees fleeing the ever-expanding Valyrian Empire in Essos. Led by their Queen, Nymeria, they settled in Dorne and helped an Andal ruler defeat rival Dornish lords. Before long the Dornish, who themselves were of mixed Andal-First Men blood, fused both their culture and genes with the Rhoynar. While the Rhoynar replaced their river goddess with the Seven of the Andals, they still maintained much of their original culture. In Dorne today, rulers still style themselves princes or princesses, women can inherit a throne if they are older than male contenders, and sexual license is embraced rather than discouraged. For example, one particular Dornish character, Prince Oberyn Martell, has a multitude of bastard daughters that he proudly keeps by his side. Jaime Lannister says of him that “The man’s infamous, and not just for poisoning his sword. He has more bastards than (King) Robert, and beds with boys as well” (Swords, 855).
To know the phenotype of the ancient Rhoynar, one must look at the Dornish. Through the point of view of character Tyrion Lannister, George R. R. Martin gives us an analysis of the various Dornish types as they exist during the events of the series. While observing the incoming retinue of the prince of Dorne near the capital city of Westeros, Tyrion reflects on a passage he once read describing Dornish peoples:
There were three sorts of Dornishmen. . . . There were the salty Dornishmen who lived along the coasts, the sandy Dornishmen of the deserts and long river valleys, and the stony Dornishmen who made their fastnesses in the passes and heights of the Red Mountains. The salty Dornishmen had the most Rhoynish blood, the stony Dornishmen the least. . . . The salty Dornishmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burned brown by the hot Dornish sun. . . . The stony Dornishmen were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and the First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning. (Swords, 520)
If anthropologists Carleton Coon or Hans F. K. Gunther, or even Richard McCulloch existed as characters in the fictional world of A Song of Ice and Fire, the above could easily be a passage they would write!
The flight of the Rhoynar into southern Westeros bares resemblance to the Islamic invasion of southern Europe during the 7th century. The Arabs and Rhoynar may be quite different culturally, but the physical description of the Rhoynar suggests it was inspired by that of the Arabs. Though the Islamic Caliphate did not remain in southern Europe, the genes of its adherents did through intermixing. As a result, the abovementioned passage on Dornish types could easily be a description of the diversity of types within Portugal, Italy, or Spain.
While the races of Westeros were coalescing into seven unique kingdoms, the continent of Essos saw the rise of another race, the Valyrians. Well before the Andals invaded Westeros, the Valyrians were an agrarian people who settled in a volcanic region of Essos called the Fourteen Flames. It was there that they discovered dragons and developed magical means to tame them. On the backs of these winged behemoths, wielding magically-forged steel weapons, the Valyrians carved out a sprawling empire on the continent. What they established was called the “Valyrian Freehold,” a republican system of government run by aristocratic families that bears close resemblance to the Roman Republic; in place of equestrians, the Freehold had dragonriders.
In terms of phenotype, the Valyrians can best be described as an exaggeration of what many have considered “Aryans” to be. They have “hair of palest silver or gold and eyes in shades of purple not found amongst any other peoples of the world,” which are “often held up as proof that the Valyrians are not entirely of the same blood as other men” (World, 13). Characters of the series never fail to take note of these celestial features when watching or interacting with other characters of Valyrian descent. At one point in A Dance With Dragons, the character Arya Stark observes a group of sailors in a tavern: “One was old and one was young and one had lost an ear, but all three had the white-blond hair and smooth fair skin of Lys, where the blood of the old Freehold still ran strong” (Dragons, 603). While in a whorehouse, Tyrion Lannister takes note of a girl who is “slim and pretty, with long silvery hair. Lyseni, at a guess” (Dragons, 291).
In virtually every situation where the reader encounters characters of Valyrian blood, be they from Valyria itself or one of its colonies, (i.e. Lys), the author is sure to point out their stunning features. Another point worth noting is that of the three Valyrian noble families the reader encounters in the series, two have words that resemble “Aryan” in their names: House Targaryen and House Velaryon. Even the word “Valyrian” bears a striking similarity to the word “Aryan.”
In any case, the Valyrian Freehold was ultimately destroyed in a cataclysmic event known as “The Doom.” The majority of its people and ruling families were annihilated, but the race endured through a few surviving families and a handful of powerful colonies, Lys being one of them. One such family, the aforementioned Targaryens, went on to conquer all of Westeros with the help of three surviving dragons. The seven kingdoms thus became one, ruled over by an Aryan-like dynasty that would last several hundred years.
George R. R. Martin’s racially diverse world is not limited to Westeros. Beyond the Narrow Sea, in the continent of Essos and on the islands surrounding it, dwells a multitude of different races that Martin takes care to describe, some of which are noticeably similar to races of our own world. A striking example is the people of the Summer Isles, “where men were black, women were wanton, and even the gods were strange” (A Feast for Crows, 740). This race, usually described by characters as being “black as ink,” “black as polished jet,” or “ebony-skinned” each time they are encountered, is obviously inspired by African people. They worship fertility goddesses and regard promiscuous sexuality as a way of doing them honor. The Summer Islander, Chataya, informs Tyrion Lannister in A Clash of Kings that “My people hold that there is no shame to be found in the pillow house. In the Summer Isles, those who are skilled at giving pleasure are greatly esteemed” (238). Summer Islanders also make it a point to wear outfits bedecked with brightly colored feathers—not at all dissimilar to African-Americans’ tendency to wear flamboyant clothing and accessories to show off their “swag.” Perhaps unlike the Africans of today, however, is the fact that Summer Islanders are some of the world’s finest bowmen and bow crafters.
In the expansive grasslands of central Essos ride the Mongolian-inspired Dothraki horselords. They are described as having copper skin, black hair, and almond-shaped eyes, and spend most of their individual lives following a warlord on horseback. After the fall of Valyria, they rampaged across central Essos and wiped out several other races and civilizations, leaving only ruins to remember them by.
The list could go on: squat and hairy Ibbenese who speak with rough voices; the milk-pale and effeminate people of the port city of Qarth; the amber-eyed, flat-faced, dusky race of pacifists from Naath; the “brindle-skinned” apelike sub-humans who dwell in the unmapped continent of Sothoryos, and others too numerous to mention.
In a world as pluralistic as George R. R. Martin’s world of Ice and Fire, miscegenation is to be expected. As such, the author did not forget to give us instances of characters discussing their own mixed blood or that of others.
The powerful port city of Braavos, which serves as a crucial hub of trade and transit between Westeros and Essos, is a cosmopolitan miscellany of bloodlines. A Braavosi priest lays out the genesis of his people in a conversation with Arya Stark, who recently fled to his city to escape the Lannisters: “Braavos is the bastard child who ran away from home. We are a mongrel folk, the sons of slaves and whores and thieves. Our forebears came from half a hundred lands to this place of refuge, to escape the dragonlords who had enslaved them” (Crows, 722).
When the reavers of the Iron Islands gather to hold an election known as the kingsmoot, Captain Victarion Greyjoy looks with horror upon the mixed-race bastards of his brother Euron: “On her decks a motley crew of mutes and mongrels spoke no word as the Iron Victory drew nigh. Men black as tar stared out at him, and others squat and hairy as the apes of Sothoros. Monsters, Victarion thought” (Crows, 365). Victarion’s other brother, Aeron, also appraises his nephews with derision as “mongrels” (Crows, 393).
While conversing with the captain of a ship that he intends to take on a diplomatic journey, Davos Seaworth regards him as “a mongrel from the Narrow Sea, fathered on a Sisterton whore by an Ibbenese whaler” (Dragons, 195).
As the ancient Freehold of Valyria rose to hegemony in Essos, it destroyed a much older civilization known as the Ghiscari Empire. In the wake of its collapse, the diverse peoples of Ghis slowly merged into yet another hybrid people, regarded by one Westerosi as “mongrels.” The average Ghiscari is characterized as amber-skinned with “brisly, red-black hair” (Swords, 314). Even their language is bastardized, being a combination of High Valyrian and the original tongue of Ghis. Like many real-world peoples who descend from ancient empire-builders that destroyed themselves by mixing with their subjects, the modern Ghiscari delusively think they are direct heirs to the old civilization, and therefore superior to other nations. There is a comical exchange in A Storm of Swords when the beautiful Valyrian, Daenerys Targaryen, seeks to purchase a slave army from a Ghiscari slave-master in the city of Astapor. With bigoted disdain, he tells his translator: “Tell her to look at the soldiers. Even the dim purple eyes of a sunset savage (Westerosi) can see how magnificent my creatures are, surely” (p. 312). “Savage” and “whore of Westeros” are terms he uses more than once. The snobbery reaches its peak when he says “Old Ghis ruled an empire when the Valyrians were still fucking sheep” (p. 321).
Daenerys’s sworn sword, Jorah Mormont, has his own view of the modern Ghiscari: “Astapor’s brave defenders are so much chaff, it’s true. Old names and fat purses who dress up as Ghiscari scourges to pretend they still rule a vast empire” (Swords, 329).
Noble vs. Common Features
The characters of A Song of Ice and Fire never fail to take note of their differences with members of other races. The same can be said of how they view differences between the nobility and the “smallfolk.” In numerous occasions throughout the series, characters make comments that suggest a general knowledge among the people of Westeros that the rulers are almost a race apart from the ruled. Gregory Hood touched upon this theme in an article he wrote about the Game of Thrones television series a few years ago: “There is the usual (and historically accurate, in the Indo-European context) connection between Aryan appearance and the ‘right’ of lordship” (Hood, “Game of Thrones, Season One ”).
Whilst sailing across the Narrow Sea the former son of a noble house, Samwell Tarly, captures this idea while studying a fellow man of the Night’s Watch (black brother): “Fair-haired and hazel-eyed, the handsome young singer out of Eastwatch looked more like some dark prince than a black brother” (Crows, 307). The Night’s Watch is notoriously staffed with criminals from among the common folk.
Standing in contrast to “princely” Nordish attributes are brown hair, brown eyes, and middling to short stature. While watching her daughter-in-law, the golden-haired and green-eyed Cersei Lannister thinks that “She is pretty enough . . . (but) even peasant girls are pretty at a certain age, when they are still fresh and unspoiled, and most of them have the same brown hair and brown eyes as she does” (Crows, 254). The smuggler-turned-nobleman, Davos Seaworth, remarks on his own commonness in A Dance with Dragons: “. . . few men looked as common as Davos. He was of middling height, his shrewd peasant’s face weathered by wind and sun, his grizzled beard and brown hair well salted with grey. . . . Davos hardly looked a lord, much less a King’s Hand” (195). After being informed by Lord Wyman Manderly that his men executed a man in Davos’s place to appease those who wanted Davos’s head, Davos asks who the man was. “Does it matter?” Manderly replies. “You have a common face, Lord Davos.” (p. 388).
Even among the Children of the Forest the idea prevails that certain physical traits mark one off as a leader. According to the Last Greenseer, Children born with red or moss colored eyes have the “gift” that enables them to become greenseers. (Dragons, 452). This statement also reveals that some intermixing between First Men and Children may have occurred in ancient times, as the Northern boy Jojen Reed has moss colored eyes and certain “greensight” abilities. The unique breed of Northmen that he belongs to, known as the crannogmen, is also known for its short stature and living much closer to nature than other Northmen.
The A Song of Ice and Fire series tells a story about blood-soaked dynastic struggles and political intrigues within a fantasy medieval world, told through the point of view of dozens of unique characters. The concept of race is nowhere near being one of its central themes, yet it still receives enough attention in the books to merit the examination provided in this essay. While George R. R. Martin is one of the furthest things from a racialist or Traditionalist (another point made by Gregory Hood’s article), the amount of time he spends characterizing different human types through the eyes of his characters truly sets him apart from other fantasy writers. Even J. R. R. Tolkien, the godfather of high fantasy, gave scant attention to the physical descriptions of the fantasy races in his Middle-Earth saga, even though interracial struggle was a major part of the plot. The only features the reader truly gleans about the elves (Tolkien used lower case), for example, is that they are the “fairest,” and have both dark and light hair colors; the Easterlings—an evil race of men who served the Dark Lord—were swarthy and had almond-shaped eyes.
It is indeed peculiar that a man who is vocal in his support of those who seek to completely disenfranchise European-Americans could draw so much inspiration from Europeans and their history. The majority of his main characters is White and belongs to fantasy races that are clearly based on European stocks, whereas characters derived from nonwhite races mostly fill supporting or background roles. Fair complexions are associated with physical beauty and nobility (even though some blond characters are reprehensible people). The events of the story reflect events from European history, such as the War of the Roses (the family names Lannister and Stark are probably taken from the English Lancaster and York). Even the continent of Westeros, when viewed on a map, looks like a fusion between England, Ireland, and Scotland, and Essos resembles Eurasia. Martin’s brilliantly crafted world is yet another testament to just how awe-inspiring and creativity-stimulating European civilization can be, even for those who believe in multiculturalist establishments.
Most importantly, Martin’s world is a world where race exists and everybody acknowledges it unapologetically. How he pulled off the mental gymnastics necessary for a liberal to envision such a world, we may never know.
George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 1996).
George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (New York: Bantam Books, 1998).
George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords (New York: Bantam Books, 2000).
George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows (New York: Bantam Books, 2005).
George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (New York: Bantam Books, 2011).
George R. R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia, Jr., and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire (New York: Bantam Books, 2014).
Gregory Hood, “A Game of Thrones, Season One,” April 2, 2012, https://www.counter-currents.com/2012/04/a-game-of-thrones-season-one .