It’s Okay That Westeros Is Poorly Designed
Answers to Some Comments
UPDATE: By popular demand from my fellow uber-nerds, I’ve written up a casual primer on Medieval population geography. I’ll revise it as productive comments and responses are offered.
Hello Internet! It seems you found my small, pedantic corner of the web, because the SEO on Game of Thrones punditry is dope.
I’ve gotten lots of feedback on my critique of Westeros. I’ll respond to as much of it as I can here. I do read all comments (yes, including the ones you folks are leaving on MetaFilter: thanks for a lively discussion, folks!), and I reply to as many of the Medium responses as I am able. But here I’ll make a consolidated response to a few common criticisms of my work.
It’s Fantasy. Realism Doesn’t Matter.
Agreed! As I said in the original post, I’m 100% A-Okay with straight fantasy not masquerading as anything else. But that’s not GoT/ASOIAF. Fans routinely tout it as a “gritty realist” alternative to the clean “High Fantasy” of, say, Tolkien or Lewis. That is the justifying explanation for the rape and the gratuitous violence: it’s realism! We’re not sadists, we’re realists!
Okay then. So what cultural conditions caused the real rape and violence of the Middle Ages? It’s not like rape and violence just randomly happened to occur during one period or another. They had reasons, origins in a cultural millieu. Lacking that millieu, the violence is incoherent. One critic, defending GoT, said that the realism was like a “lever” that you switch on for some things, off for others.
Yes, exactly: you switch it on when you want excuses for wanton derangement, off when you want to institute the kinds of physical and socioeconomic limitations that hedge against individual derangement in real life. That’s my point is exactly.
The reason Tolkien’s fantasy is “clean” is not that he wanted us to think Middle Earth didn’t have costs and difficulties and bad things: it’s that he was writing for readers with a different sense of appropriateness and propriety, and he was making a conscious attempt to write fantasy. The man fought in the First World War for cryin’ out loud; the idea that he was writing an apology for Just War is ridiculous. Rather, maybe just maybe he wrote the way he did (which critics called the “clodding hoof of pedantry”) because he decided that it was of little benefit to readers to dwell on one nasty aspect (anthropogenic suffering) while gliding over others (famine, plague, etc).
Big Cities Make Sense If Westeros Is China
Many readers accurately pointed out that we can solve some problems I note by assuming Westeros is like China. But that gets crazy. If Westeros has China-levels of density, then it would have hundreds of millions of people. So no, “Adopt Chinese demographic models” is no solution. It’s also problematic because Westeros lacks basic physical preconditions to be like China: we don’t see the super-dense agriculture, the cereal grain culture is not nearly as robust, we don’t see the kind of monumental civil engineering and agro-engineering necessary to maintain China’s pre-modern population. So, no, Westeros is not China.
Any example from Chinese history must account for the fact that Westeros lacks the vast, super-professionalized bureaucracy (the Maesters are not the Confucian elite, though granted they do have some similarities), lacks the vast, intensive agriculture enabling density, andlacks the fairly narrow geographic constraints of China. There are other confounding factors too, but these seem important.
Plus, GRRM has made clear our model isn’t Medieval China. It’s Medieval Europe.
You Forgot X Long-Lived Dynasty!
Maybe, but probably not. I got lots of people telling me I forgot the Valois or the Plantagenets. No, I decided they were irrelevant. They ruled much smaller territories. I clearly said that the dynastic length of the Targaryens is quite reasonable if Westeros is much smaller than usually thought. So sure, you can have a good explanation for Targaryen dynastic longevity, if you’re willing to hack down the size of Westeros.
Now, there’s a clever explanation that no reader offered, but I want to entertain. Maybe the Targaryens last so long precisely because Westeros is not very diverse. That’s an interesting view. Essentially, it decides to accept that Westeros is weirdly non-diverse, tossing that baby out, to keep the “good explanation for Targaryen longevity” bathwater. But again, that low level of diversity is itself probably a bigger problem than dynastic longevity.
Actually, Europe Wasn’t Very Diverse
A few commenters suggested Medieval Europe wasn’t very diverse because, not joking here, it’s all white people.
These commenters clearly missed the point, and clearly have a tenuous grasp of what constitutes “diversity.” Yes, Europe was very diverse. Yes, you can have great ethnic diversity without hugely different skin colors.
Low Diversity Is Just an Elite Bias
Now this explanation for low diversity is actually pretty interesting. The argument runs that the books are showing us elite diversity: so Latin-speakers and Greek-speakers, regardless of the Roman Empire’s numerous Jews, Syriacs, Egyptians, Gauls, Celts, etc. This is a cool idea. Except I don’t think we ever get any references to the idea that the commoners have some other ethnic identity, certainly not a different linguistic identity.
Also, I think it’s worth noting when the last major demographic transformation of Westeros occurred: the arrival of the Andals. The Valyrians start colonizing the islands off the coast well before the Doom, and are never a demographically significant group. And the Andals and the Rhoynar arrive most likely thousands of years before the Doom.
In other words, we have thousands of years of ethnic stasis. That’s… implausible. And for all that Westeros is based on Great Britain, that’s awfully un-British.
Dragons Change Everything!
I grant that dragons could grant the Targaryens some bonus-years of longevity. But then again, when you really think about it, this argument is a bit odd. First of all, dragons can be beaten when there aren’t gazillions of them: the Dornishmen did it, as did the Ghiscari, as did the Rhoynish. What enable Valyrian expansion was not “dragons” per se but “SO MANY DRAGONS.” That, plus apparently little infighting and holy cow mind-bogglingly big armies. We get figures of like 250,000 man armies just on one side of a battle.
This is why I didn’t assess the data for Essos. Because it’s so far beyond anything I have a way of fitting into a historic model that I just didn’t bother.
But besides the apparent beatability of low-to-moderate numbers of dragons, there’s another issue. When the Mongols collapsed, it wasn’t because none of them could remember how to ride a horse anymore. It’s because their cultural unity was broken by competing factions of the conquered peoples. Numerically small elites tend to be captured by local ethnic majorities. The Arab Caliphate ultimately breaks along the same lines as previous states in the area, for example. The Mongol Khanates likewise essentially duplicate predecessor polities. This is because elites need client constituencies to maintain power, and these constituencies often have durable interests and identities. The fact that the Targaryens don’t quickly find that, hey, these Reachmen like me well enough and I could get out from under Cousin Aegon’s thumb if I ruled it on my own, is very odd. This unusual unity seems to have been on display in the Valyrian Freehold as well.
Winter Changes Everything!
Okay this one is a fair point. Winter does change everything. Having 20 summers followed by 6 winters makes lots of stuff weird. Certainly it would make the time series of population incredibly erratic.
But it should have other effects too. We should see some incredibly intense preoccupation with food stockpiling, and extensive technological advancement in food preservation. We don’t. We should also see a vast international trade in cereals. We don’t. For historic cities like Rome and Constantinople, grain supplies were the foreign-policy concern #1. Not for King’s Landing.
Here’s the truth: Medieval societies probably could not survive 6 winters in a row. Even modern societies would be hard-pressed to survive that. It’s not clear that any large-scale civilized life with organized polities could withstand a decade without a growing season.
Yet Westeros does it a lot. We don’t know how. We don’t see any of the things we would expect to see in such a society. Cities and castles should have incredibly vast storage facilities, on a scale unthought-of in Medieval Europe. But that’s not what happens. Cross-Sea trade connections should be spectacularly robust. They don’t seem to be. I mean to ship the cereals needed to feed the winter-hit areas for decades on end would require almost a post-modern level of globalized trade flows.
All of that is why I didn’t include consideration of Winter. It does change everything: but not in ways that yield the observed results.
You’re The Worst Kind of Nerd
I’ll just share my favorite response to the post verbatim:
This is the most tiresome form of nerdery. This is the sort that has arguably been forgotten or defined away from the term when we talk about nerds now: not fans or players of games, not mere enthusiasts, not people familiar with some specific canon, not people with advanced education, but humorless, self-righteous, axe-grinding, dismissive, exhaustively loud-mouthed attention-hogging auto-didacts with absolutely no sense of perspective or self-awareness, to whom Being Right overrides any and all other social/aesthetic concerns.
Sorry I’m not the cool kind of nerd, but am the old-fashioned “I have lots of fun geeking out over arcane information” kind.
Though, could someone clarify: is “auto-didact” typically used as an insult? And in this context, what does it even mean? I’m… I’m not self-taught in demographics. I studied it in school.
I do regret that many people read my post and heard two things I did not intend: (1) You’re dumb if you like Game of Thrones or, (2) Breaches of realism render Game of Thrones unenjoyable. Neither of these are what I intended. I write very casually and off-the-cuff (as the frequent typos should make clear), so I’m afraid what I meant as a kind of excited enthusiasm for the depth of nerdery I was embarking upon came across as holier-than-thou fan-shaming. I am sorry for that. I don’t regard enthusiastic Game of Thrones fans as dumb for liking it: it has an engaging plot and characters. That’s why I read it and watched it. I have not kept up with it regularly these days (for personal reasons decided I didn’t need that much explicit sex & violence in my life), but when I, I loved the scope of the world envision, its remarkable details, its compelling characters, and its byzantine plot and intrigues. Rooting for one team or another to “win” is delightfully fun. You can enjoy Game of Thrones regardless of George RR Martin’s demographic innumeracy; plus, being a professional demographer is not a requirement for a fantasy author.
Just don’t try and say it’s a realist or even pseudo-realist setting. It’s fantasy for those who want a sexier, more violent, less Sword & Sorcery setting. And there’s a market for that, and nothing necessarily wrong with it. I’ve enjoyed it myself.
But for many of us, the way we enjoy imaginative fiction is by exploring it in great detail. For example, here’s a piece I wrote on Star Wars and immigrant integration. This is a legitimate way to interact with literature.
Finally, a huge shout out to the wonderful commenters who complained about the improbably delta-side locations of GoT cities (you’re correct), the ridiculous size of the Iron Islands navy (correct), or the many other minutiae. You are my tribe.
Oh and to the commenter who suggested I had some kind of financial motivation in all this because I mentioned I have another project in the works… well I’ll let regular readers giggle at the idea that I do any of this for financial gain.
PS- So Why Do You Do This?
I care about the state of demographics and migration commentary in the United States. If I have to write a silly, speculative, provocative Game of Thrones article every once in a while to get people to think critically about population geography, I’m happy to do so.
Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.
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I’m a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliott School with an MA in International Trade and Investment Policy, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, Africa, and faith. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.
My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.