Monday, March 8, 2021

Dothraki Hordes vs. Actual Hordes, or, Human Societies as Multi-Species Communities

Mongolian archer on a steppes pony, 1895

One of my favorite bloggers, Unmitigated Pedantry, has put up a multi-post series on the way the Dothraki are portrayed in Game of Thrones. He has many complaints, but I want to focus on one: how few animals appear in either the books or the TV series.

Khal Drogo's horde on the move appears like this. One horse per person, and no other animals.

Whereas an actual Mongolian community looked more like this. There would be five to eight horses per adult, plus hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of sheep.

George R.R. Martin actually says that the Dothraki incorporate ideas from both Eurasian steppes peoples and Indians of the Great Plains. But that doesn't help much, since Lakota, Comanche, etc. also had many more horses than people.

Even when going on a raid, Mongol warriors typically took along 5 horses each. This was partly because their horses were small –see the picture at the top – and tired out quickly when carrying a man. They were small because they had to subsist entirely on grass; the larger horses bred in settled regions have to be fed grain. The humans also depended on their horses in other ways. While on a raid Mongols liked to take along at least two lactating mares; two mares produced enough milk that a warrior could live off it for two weeks with no other food.

Thinking about this, it dawned on me that what I always thought of as a human community, whether Mongol or Comanche, was actually a multi-species community in which humans were very much outnumbered by other animals. And this has been true in many different cultures.

The traditional communities I know the most about were medieval villages in northern Europe and plantations in 17th-century Virginia. In both, humans were by far the minority among the large mammals. One Virginia inventory I happen to have on my desk, from 1752, lists nine horses, four colts, 30 sheep, 14 swine, eight cows, five calves, and 13 "small cattle." If I am reading this right, the farm had four human inhabitants, who were thus outnumbered 20 to 1. That's without getting into dogs and cats, which were ubiquitous but for obscure reasons were never listed on estate inventories.

We shouldn't single out Game of Thrones for not getting this right; after all there are lots of recreated medieval village that look like this. Nice thatched roofs, but something important is missing.

As in this still from an "educational" video. These folks would have gone hungry trying to subsist off two chickens.

And it wasn't just peasants. I recently read a scholarly article about Norse kingship that said the objects most associated with royalty in our sources are animals, especially hawks, horses, and herds of cattle. I mean, anybody could have a crown knocked together, but if you had a mews full of goshawks and a pasture full of champion milkers, you were the boss.

One of the ways my life differs from those of my ancestors was that they lived very intimately with livestock – lots of livestock. Their lives were deeply intertwined with their animals; how well they lived depended on how well their animals thrived. So they cared a great deal about their animals and would go to much effort and expense to treat their illnesses and so on. Of course, they also ate their animals. It's a relationship I find difficult to understand, and which of course continues for farm folk in our own time. Think about how we encourage 4-H kids to throw their hearts into raising a lamb or pig that is sold for slaughter after judging.

But that has been the human way for many people across much of history. We lived with animals in intense, mutually dependent relationships, knowing them better than we knew all but a few people, but also eating their flesh and wearing their skins.

When we recreate the past without animals, and the feelings people had toward them, we miss a great deal of human life.


David said...

I've often thought about the same thing. I once visited a family friend who, at the time, was living on a working farm, and I was struck by the huge number of animals everywhere, many wandering around quite apart from pens etc., and including large numbers of dogs and cats (I wonder if the difficulty of telling between "owned" dogs and cats and semi-wild semi-attached ones contributed to their not being listed in inventories? I would guess that hunting and herding dogs would be listed, however; is that not the case?

I'm struck that knowledge of how to manage and live with animals is something most of us in industrial/post-industrial society have lost, for better or worse, and that that loss makes us very different from most of our ancestors. Cats and similar low-intensity pets are now the majority (I'm a cat person myself, but I must admit I don't really understand their often mysterious behavior, as in your cat's interest in the window--although I wonder if it was just trying to communicate that it wanted out).

One interesting aspect is the often bewildering number of words that our ancestors had for different types of animals, animals in different states, etc. How many of us can tell the difference between a rouncey, a hackney, a pony, a foal, a filly, a cob, and whatever else? I certainly can't without Wikipedia. Others have commented on the loss of these kinds of words, and you've referenced it here. I couldn't tell a starling from any other kind of bird, or a tell a daffodil from a dahlia, or a hemlock from a holm-oak. I can look them up easily, but I don't *know* them. I don't know that I feel this as a big lack for me, but it is definitely so, and an important social change, I think.

Of course, our ancestors' propensity for living with animals is also the source of many of our infectious diseases.

David said...

On vocabulary, it occurs to me to say that, although many moderns' lack of animal and nature vocabulary shows a perhaps regrettable separation from the living world around us, and *may* indicate a certain aesthetic impoverishment, I don't think it reflects linguistic impoverishment per se. Many of us are steeped in other elaborate vocabularies. Mechanics, engineers, scientists, medical folks, tradespeople, and do--it-yourselfers all have huge technical vocabularies that I find utterly mystifying. I've got a huge technical vocabulary too, mostly useless for practical things, related to nerdy academic interests and entertainment. Millions of people have enormous sports vocabularies, internet culture vocabularies, fashion vocabularies, etc.

Humans create elaborate, specialized vocabularies for things we care about. But in contemporary America, for many of us, that no longer has much to do with animals or plants. Interesting that "cow goes moo" is still such a basic, important part of raising small children, though. Not sure if that's a mere holdover, or something more significant.

John said...

Back in 1985 I first sat down to read colonial probate inventories, and the first line I attempted seemed, insofar as I could read the writing, to say "12 barrow shoats." I had no idea what either word meant. (barrow=neutered, shoat=adolescent pig). One thing that amuses me is that English had no word for a generic singular Bos taurus, Sus scrofa, or Equus equus, because you would never speak about a single animal without specifying its age and sex. Words like "cow", "horse," and "pig" in the generic sense are Victorian inventions.

I have never seen a dog in a probate inventory. I do not know why they weren't listed. I mean, Virginia gentlemen were very proud of their hunting hounds, but the estate takers always ignored them. This is just one of many rules they followed that we don't understand, which makes interpreting inventories difficult and raises real problems with comparing them across regions or time periods, because for all we know the rules might have changed.

I also wonder about the moral implications of all this. Modern vegans think they are morally on the right side for not eating animals. But on the other hand they know nothing about livestock and have no relationship with them. Traditional farmers knew their animals intimately and devoted a large part of their lives to caring for them, before killing and eating them. I find the big picture moral implications of this interesting. Plus, while being eaten is bad for individual cows, becoming a human food source was great for the species. Let's face it, if we stop eating cows they are going to all but disappear from the world.

G. Verloren said...

"George R.R. Martin actually says that the Dothraki incorporate ideas from both Eurasian steppes peoples and Indians of the Great Plains. But that doesn't help much, since Lakota, Comanche, etc. also had many more horses than people."

Martin wrote the books and licensed them for the television series, but he didn't decide how to depict the story on film. Indeed, my understanding is that there are substantial to massive differences in the TV adaptation. I haven't read the books, but I wonder if perhaps he described his characters differently - or even not at all. He easily could have glossed over such details.

Susi said...

My friend who raises her own animals for meat takes care of them quite well. Head/back scratches, good food, i.e. pigs get cooked mash with boiled eggs, etc
She insures they have a good life, then enjoys their meat, after a humane killing. Her beef tastes fantastic, better that Kobe. Her pork is succulent and tender. Her eggs are truly free range and dark orange.
She works hard, dawn to dark, on her tiny 1.5 acres plot and grows almost all her food.
Someday her body will give out. Then she will reluctantly eat other people’s food.

John said...

@Susi- Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking about. Somebody like your friend has a real relationship with animals. I know a woman who sells eggs saying the flavor comes from love. On the other hand, killing and eating animals is, well, killing and eating.

My ambivalence about vegetarianism comes from a sense that it is about withdrawing from the messy business of animal life.

And I wonder if the decline in sex and babies we are having in our time is at some deep level part of the same process of stepping away from a life that is dirty and bloody and mingled with death in pursuit of a pure existence. Like the Hindu Sannyasin or "renouncers" who first give up meat and alcohol, then any sort of spice in their food, then sex, then finally friendship and all other human ties.

John said...

@G - Yes, the TV show changes a lot about Martin's books, but he is also not interested in animals, other than the Starks' direwolves, and his economics is awful. It is impossible to imagine one of Martin's dothraki pausing on a raid to milk his mare.

David said...


FWIW, it strikes me to wonder just how compatible heroic fantasy and the everyday (let alone a realistic picture of economics) can be. Tolkien's hobbits are humble farmers, but the whole point of the story is getting out of that world (and, in LOTR, you can't even really go back again, or at least there are limits on that). His economics are scanty at best. The Rohirrim don't march with multiple animals either, I don't think, and I don't remember any of them stopping to milk their mares. Where do orcs get their food? How is Gondor a great city? Indeed, how many people would want heroic fantasy that spent time on these things?

My impression of pre-modern heroic literature is that it often includes more about animals and humble things than modern fantasy does. But these are often asides, similes, occasional images, etc. Homer uses similes and images drawn from agricultural life, but I don't think he spends much time on the logistics of keeping a huge army around a besieged city for ten years. Obviously one could say, well, that's because heroic literature is upper-class propaganda--but I wonder if it's as simple as that. In Icelandic sagas, you will find humble scenes, families bickering over meadows, and so forth; but they're not really stories about economics.

David said...

Discworld has plenty on economics and everyday things. But Discworld is comedic fantasy, not heroic. I suppose you could say its tradition goes back to authors like Cervantes, not Homer. Many of the Pratchett novels end with a moment of what you might call true humble heroism--but I suppose I would say that, since Pratchett is by far my favorite fantasy novelist.

David said...

Thinking about it, I would put Vance up there with Pratchett; but Vance is also, in a very different way, a sort of comedic writer.

Shadow said...

"But these are often asides, similes, occasional images, etc."

Perhaps a pre-modern aside about animals was all a storyteller needed? Such images back then probably suggested more and different information than they do today.

Shadow said...

"Man's most agonizing spiritual dilemma is his necessity for food with its unavoidable attachments to suffering."

-- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
-- From a source I cannot vouch for

John said...

@Shadow - that Teilhard de Chardin quote is perfect, exactly what I was getting at. He sometimes longed to be a pure spirit.

John said...

@David - Well, yes, part of the point of fantasy is to get away from the mundane, and Tolkien is as you say as bad at economics as Martin. I like my fantasy to be anchored in medieval reality, but economics is not the only way to do that; with Martin it is the politics of Westeros that anchors us.

On the other hand it is possible to nod in the direction of agriculture without sacrificing the wonder. Like all of Homer's similes about grain and the like. And Tolkien's characters do have relationships with their horses and ponies at least. My book is set in England rather than Middle Earth, so I tried to nod in the direction of reality a bit more, with things like the men of steel by their forge and the harvesters. At a more symbolic level, part of the distinction between the earthbound Thomas and the night-flying Eleanor is that he loves and relates well to animals, but she does not.