The Beautiful Spymaster: Lysono Maar, Orientalism, and Liminality

This essay is a collaboration between me and the brilliant Aemy Blackfire, make sure to check out her blog and her youtube channel! We also discussed this essay on her channel, going more in depth about orientalism, gender non-conformity, and gender in general in ASOIAF.

Lysono Maar is a minor character that was introduced in A Dance With Dragons, and is the Master of Whisperers for the Golden Company. Like Varys, he is constantly feminized by other characters and is met with suspicion and contempt. This is due to his office, his foreignness, and his good looks. There was a similar mistrust for foreign Masters of Whisperers in the case of Tyanna, one of King Maegor’s wives, who was from Pentos. Maar being feminized is in line with a common orientalist trope of men from the East being seen as less masculine than those in the West. Orientalist tropes were first systematically theorized in Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism. Said details how the East is homogenized, exoticized, erroticized, infantilized, and degraded in the Western psyche (Aemy Blackfyre has written an essay on orientalism in His Dark Materials and discussed it with Lo the Lynx, and Aemy has talked about orientalism in A Song of Ice and Fire & Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline). 

The city of Lys itself is an example of an orientalist trope. It is known for being austentacious and having pleasure houses the serve all sorts of taste and have sex workers of all exotic types. Their religion is also sexualized, in Fire & Blood we learn about Yndros of the Twilight, which is male by day and female by night, and acolytes allegedly change from male to female through the act of coitous. This is further orientalist as it not only hyper sexualizes Lyseni, but is also inspired by the Chinese Daoist theory of yin and yang, where yin is dark/shady (night, the moon) and female, and yang is light (day, the sun) and male (Aemy Blackfyre has a forthcoming early 2021 essay about yin-yang symbolism in asoiaf). The way worship of Yndros of the Twilight is described in Fire & Blood also makes it clear that this moving between gender positions is viewed with suspicion and contempt. This all situates the people of Lys and Essos as a whole in a liminal space when it comes to the gender binary, like Maar himself. Maar is also the Spymaster of the Golden Company and a non-Westerosi, which adds to the suspicion. He is one of many examples of the trope of the foreign spy like we see with other characters such as Varys, we will discuss this further later in the essay. Given that he appears in the fifth book and has many parallels with Varys, Maar could have been a product of the scrapped five year gap, and his plotlines were actually “five years later” Varys plotlines.

Lysono Maar, being Lyseni and having his name derive from the name of Lys can be connected with the orientalist feminized erotic image. Because of his “woman-like” appearance, he is underestimated and degraded. We see this orientalist trope in our world especially during the turn of the twentieth century, when Asian men were painted as weak and feminine, with China literally being described as the “sick man of Asia.” This was in contrast to Western men who were conceived of as strong, healthy, and capable. This then adds to the infantilization of the East, seeing it as a land in need of a strong Western hand to correct its “backwards” culture. We see that when characters such as Young Griff and Arainne Martell meet Lysono Maar they are automatically suspicious of him being a leader in a sellsword company, which evokes masculine connotations.

We first meet Maar in A Dance with Dragons in a Jon Connington POV chapter where Jon (“Griff”) describes him thus:

The spymaster was new to Griff, a Lyseni named Lysono Maar, with lilac eyes and white-gold hair and lips that would have been the envy of a whore. At first glance, Griff had almost taken him for a woman. His fingernails were painted purple, and his earlobes dripped with pearls and amethysts. (A Dance with Dragons, “The Lost Lord”)

Our first introduction to Maar automatically frames him within a feminine lens. He is described with painted fingernails, wearing jewelry, and beautiful lips, all features that are associated with feminine beauty. The reference to sex workers is also an example of the orientalist trope of sexualizing Easterners. His use of nail polish and jewelry can be tied to his home city of Lys which is known for its ostentatious luxury. In fact “lys” is heavily associated with women throughout the series. Besides the city of Lys and Lysono Maar, there is also Lysa Arryn, Alyssa’s tears, and the poison Tears of Lys (“poison is a weapon of women, cravens, and eunuchs” A Game of Thrones, Eddard V). Martin appears to be establishing a theme here, Lysono Maar being just one of many parts in this larger picture of “lys” being connected with feminine features. Another important part of our introduction to this character is his Targaryen-like features. This is pointed out directly in one of the released The Winds of Winter chapters:

Near dusk on the fourth day, not long after Chain and his wagons were taken their leave of them, Arianne’s company was met by a column of sellswords down from Griffin’s Roost, led by the most exotic creature that the princess had ever laid her eyes on, with painted fingernails and gemstones sparkling in his ears.

Lysono Maar spoke the Common Tongue very well. “I have the honor to be the eyes and ears of the Golden Company, princess.”

“You look…” She [Arianne] hesitated.

“…like a woman?” He [Lysono Maar] laughed. “That I am not.”

“…like a Targaryen,” Arianne insisted. His eyes were a pale lilac, his hair a waterfall of white and gold. All the same, something about him made her skin crawl. Was this what Viserys looked like? She found herself wondering. If so perhaps it is a good thing he is dead.

“I am flattered. The women of House Targaryen are said to be without peer in all the world.” (The Winds of Winter, Arianne II [forthcoming])

It is obvious that Maar has been seen as feminine before, and is not surprised when Arianne does the same. He is also exoticized and otherized, a classic feature of orientalism. Arianne is uncomfortable with Maar as a liminal character who does not fit in with the expectations for how a man should look. While many in the fandom note that Arianne is sex positive, we should acknowledge that she understands the world through the heterosexual binary. People like Maar who do not fit easily into this binary therefore become “exotic creatures” in her eyes.

A challenge of analyzing gender in ASOIAF is that it’s sometimes unclear what conceptualization of gender one should use in the analysis. Throughout human history and throughout different cultures, people have understood gender differently. The current Western view of sex and gender as two seperate binary categories only really goes back to 18th century (Mottier 2008). Before then sex was understood according to “the ‘one-sex’ body model, which conceptualized women’s bodies as similar but inferior versions of male bodies (with female genitals being thought of as internal, much smaller versions of male genitals)” (Mottier 2008, 33). Based on that one might think that it would be logical to use this conceptualization of sex/gender to analyze ASOIAF characters, but if one looks closely at the text it seems clear that this isn’t actually the way sex/gender is understood in the story. Instead, the way characters seem to understand sex/gender seems much more in line with the post 18th century understanding, which sees men and women as fundementally biologically different, a view that is then used to justify social inequality (Schiebinger 1986). We see this in the way that Maar is underestimated for appearing feminine, and therefore seen as unqualified for leading a sellsword company. Furthermore, George R.R. Martin lives in our current times, and as Shiloh Carroll puts it: “(…) A Song of Ice and Fire examines contemporary concerns or anxieties while placing them in a far-distant past, allowing the reader to consider them at a distance.” (Carroll 2018, 7). More specifically, Martin has even said that he believes that most people of the Middle Ages were not very different from people of today when it comes to love, sex, and sexuality (ibid, 83). In light of that, it seems fair to use a contemporary lens and contemporary theories to analyse sex/gender in ASOIAF. 

One interesting way that contemporary (trans)gender scholars have discussed the sort of gender non-conformity that for instance Lysano Maar embodies is by discussing what might be called the liminal space between normative gender categories. Queer theorist Judith Butler refers to this as the domain of the abject, a space inhabited by those who don’t fit into normative coherent gender (1993). Butler argues that normative gender is constructed in relation to this abject, i.e. that which is “normal” is specifically that which is not whatever “abnormal” thing the queer folk are up to. Trans scholar Susan Stryker has noted this affects trans people in the sense that trans people have to choose between either being seen as incoherently gendered in the eyes of society (ie. not making sense), or forcing themselves to fit into the very structure that disavowed them in the first place (1994). Essentially, either accept the rules of the game, or be completely excluded. Another trans scholar, Marquis Bey, discusses a similar concept when writing about how for instance a Black and/or trans person might navigate public space (2019). He does this specifically by discussing what he names a “dweller” in his college town:

 Rejecting the State- sanctioned norms of public space— a space that is governed by gender norms and rules about how bodies can and should appear— the dweller in the (under)Commons in my college town, as a veritable fugitive, perhaps even, I would argue, queer, seizes public space, a space, by virtue of its publicness, that is normatively marked. They are sinful. They seize the space, queer it, and lay claim to the right to appear— or not, strategically or desultorily dissembling and deploying their unintelligibility— thus challenging both racial and gendered assumptions of space. (…) By appearing in public space precisely as a troubling body that is assumed to be disallowed from the realm of the public, they laid claim to the public while simultaneously occupying their undercommons. The dweller in the (under)Commons refuses to comply with the Law— the Law of categorizable bodies, the Law of public propriety, the Law of proper gendered performances. The dweller in the (under)Commons holds, in their subjectivity, heat that conflagrates normative space. They embody volatility. Put boldly and simply, the dweller in the (under)Commons is a fuckin’ problem. A gendered outlaw, they exist para- lawlessly and question the logic of laws presumed to be infallible, fixed, axiomatic. (Bey 2019, 128-129)

Bey here notes something important, certain types of bodies, certain types of gendered embodiment for instance, are not welcome in public space. If they’re allowed to exist at all, they’re expected to keep to the shadows. When appearing in public and taking up space they’re viewed with suspicion, because they won’t conform to the norm. In many ways, this is similar to the position eunuchs had in antiquity, which Lo has written about in their essay about Varys. The eunuch was often positioned as a liminal person in Ancient Greece specifically, neither fully man nor woman, neither Western or Eastern (in Greece the eunuchs were often associated with Persia). In early modern China, eunuchs were allowed to be assistants to the emperor’s concubines because they could not impregnate them, being allowed into the “inner quarters” of the females of the court. They often became advisors to the emperor, and sometimes even took over ruling the Chinese empire all together, like with Wei Zhongxian who ruled from 1620–1627. In Chinese culture eunuchs were seen as men who were stripped “of their manhood,” but were dangerous and encouraged suspicion, especially because being castrated was often a punishment for disobedience. Because the eunuch had this liminal and transgressive role he could move between different spaces more easily than other people, for instance as he became privy to the intrigue of the private female sphere and could pass on that information to the public male sphere. As Lo noted in their Varys essay, this is of course very similar to Varys’ role as the Master of Whispers. Lysono Maar isn’t an eunuch, but he does transgress gendered boundaries in a similar way to Varys, and he too moves between the public and private, between the light and the shadows as a Master of Whispers, serving as the spymaster for the Golden Company. It’s interesting to note that several of the Masters of Whispers we hear of in ASOIAF fit this mold to a certain degree, for instance Bloodraven who is looked upon with suspicion both for his magic and his disability, and Mysaria “The White Worm” who was seen as a sexual transgressor (among other things). One can note that Mysaria, similarly to Varys and Lysano Maar, was also from Lys, so they also all have that in common. There is also Tyanna of the Tower who was the Mistress of Whisperers to Maegor I Targaryen, who was of Pentos and wielded a massive amount of power compared to most women in Westerosi society.What we can see here is how these the Master of Whispers role seems to be filled by someone that’s looked down upon by society, someone who’s an outcast in some way. Being Master of Whispers is perhaps not seen as an honorable position, given that its power isn’t as traditionally masculine as say the power someone who is Master of Ships would have. This is perhaps a bit similar to how poison is seen as a weapon of women, eunuchs, and foreigners, unlike a more straightforward masculine weapon like a sword. But just like poison, a Master of Whispers has its uses in court politics and intrigues. So, the position is filled by the outcasts, who are already looked down upon. 

What we can see with all of these Master of Whispers characters then, including Maar, is that those who don’t conform to gendered and sexual norms are often looked upon with suspicion and are expected to keep to the shadows. This might, on the other hand, give them more of a familiarity with the shadows which is useful as a, for instance, Masters of Whispers. But we do also see that they are mistreated for their transgression, and obviously not treated as equals. This is in many ways similar to the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people in our world, since violence towards them are often justified by the perpurtrators by pointing towards their transgressor (e.g. Bettcher 2007). People and society expect that everyone’s gender and gender expression match the sex they were assigned at birth, and if they don’t somehow they are seen as suspicious and violence toward them is deemed legitimate. Now, we don’t see any direct physical violence toward Lysono Maar, but it’s clear that his gender expression is looked on with contempt.

Going forward with the series we can expect more suspicion and underestimation directed at Lysono Maar, but as with many underestimated characters in Martin’s series we must pay extra attention to characters such as these. Like with Bran Stark and Tyrion Lannister, the characters that are most underestimated have the most potential to influence the larger story line. Characters like these are looked down upon by society for not conforming to the norm in different ways, but they still manage to gain power. Like Lo has written before, both Tyrion and Bran are seen as unmanly because of their disabilities, in a way similar to how Maar is underestimated because of his gender expression. But we expect both Tyrion and Bran to have large impact on the end game of thrones. So perhaps similarly to those Masters of Whispers that came before him, Maar will end up having a similar rise to power. Maar might at first appear as a minor character of no importance (1) but he is certainly important to the Young Griff plot, and has the potential to influence the ASOIAF end game. When Young Griff falls, if Maar is still alive he might join Daenerys Targaryen or the resistance against her, either way he is calculating and not impulsive, meaning that he would be a powerful ally. Or perhaps, similar to those who came before him, he will also crash and fall in the end. 

  1. Aemy Blackfyre’s Twitter Poll (52 votes): 46.2%= only important to Young Griff plot, 36.5%=somehwat important [to overall plot], 15.4%=not important at all [to overall plot], 1.9%=very important [to overall plot]


Bey, Marquis. 2019. Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York & London: Routledge.

Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Mottier, Véronique. 2008. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schiebinger, Londa. 1986. ”Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy”, Representations, no.14 (Spring): 42–82.  

Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ, 1(3): 237-254.

6 reaktioner på ”The Beautiful Spymaster: Lysono Maar, Orientalism, and Liminality

  1. China literally being described as the “sick man of Asia.”

    The phrase ”sick man of Europe” is FAR more commonly used. I don’t recall coming across ”sick man of Asia” but I’m guessing someone just took the familiar phrase applied to Europe and replaced the continent, assuming the audience would get the reference.

    Gillad av 1 person

    1. Amy

      ”Sick man of Asia” was used throughout the 1800s and early 1900s when writing about China in the West, particularly about hygiene and public health. It certainly sounds like it was repurposed from ”sick man of Europe,” but ”sick man of Asia” became a phrase it its own right and all scholars of this era in China are familiar with it as a stand alone phrase.


      1. The term ”Sick man of [continent]” is usually not about literal health, just as a country is not a literal man. Instead it typically refers to a government which is enfeebled in a more political sense.


  2. Pingback: Lyanna Stark, The Knight of the Laughing Tree, and gender nonconformity – Lo the Lynx

  3. Pingback: Lords Too Fat to Sit a Horse: Body Normativity and Masculinity in ASOIAF – Lo the Lynx


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