Davos and the class struggles of Westeros

Even dressed in silk and velvet, an ape remains an ape,” Ser Axell said. ”A wiser prince would have known that you cannot send an ape to do a man’s work.

(A Dance with Dragons, Davos II)

Davos Seaworth is possibly one of the most beloved characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, an honest man who is often hindered in his efforts to do good by other people’s prejudiced views on him. Even as Davos gets awarded a knighthood, then a lordship, and the position as Hand of the King, people such as Axell Florent still see him as an ape dressed in silk and velvet. It is clear that Davos’ low birth impacts how other see him, even as he has one of the highest positions in the realm. So, in this essay I will analyse Davos’ class position in through the ASOIAF books, and through that discuss the structural mechanism which hinders class mobility in Westeros.

As anyone who have any form of familiarity with politics or social science will know, there are many different ways of theorising class differences. In this essay, I’ll mainly rely on one specific one, however, namely the theoretical framework put forth by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s writing on class and culture has been influential in many academic fields, including (but not limited to) sociology, anthropology, ethnology, culture studies, and gender studies. One of his main contributions to class theory is the way he described how someone’s position in society is not just due to economic capital, but also social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital (1987). One’s position in what he calls social space is furthermore dependent on not only the volume of one’s capital, but also the composition of said capital, and one’s trajectory. This essentially means that it matters much capital do you have, how much of each type of capital in comparison to each other you have, and where you started in the social space and where you have moved. I’ll get back to the trajectory aspect, but first I want to describe the different capitals a bit further.

Economic capital refers to, as one might guess, the amount of money one has. Social capital on the other hand refers to what social connections one has, which networks one has access to etc.  But cultural capital is perhaps the most interesting one, and one that becomes very relevant for this analysis. Cultural capital refers to for instance education, knowledge of culture (books, movies, music, etc.), and general taste (in clothes, décor, etc). As Bourdieu argues, different type of cultural capital is valid in different social spaces. In one of his texts, he illustrates this with a diagram, mapping out how people in different professions tend to have different tastes in for instance food and entertainment, and how this tends to correlate to how people vote:

(Bourdieu 1994a, 338)

The ASOIAF equivalent of this would probably be how the smallfolk might hang out in the Inn of the Kneeling Man, drinking ale while listening to bawdy songs sung by Tom of Sevenstreams, while the nobles sit in their high halls, drinking fancy Arbor Gold, and listening to music played on the high harp. What is important to realise here is that while what culture one has access to depends on one’s economic capital (a smallfolk person just can’t afford Arbor Gold), but what “tastes” and cultural capital one possesses also impacts one’s status. In our world we can think of how nouveau-riche people often are perceived as less fancy than those born with money. Bourdieu would explain this by noting that they do not possessing the right cultural capital, they haven’t been brought up with the right “tastes” for their economic class. They don’t have the right clothes, the right décor in their house, they don’t have quite the right manners and ways of speaking. This also relates to another central concept in Bourdieu’s works, namely “habitus.” Bourdieu describes habitus as having a sense of one’s place, and how to act, a sense that is often subconscious.

The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices- more history- in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. (…) The habitus- embodied history, internalized as second nature and so forgotten as history- is the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product. (1994b, 348-349)

Another way of saying that would be that our habitus is how we have internalised our class status and the norms that goes with it. We are seldom aware of our habitus, as long as we move in spaces we are used to, because then our habitus match our surroundings. But when we move in differently classed spaces, then we become aware of how we don’t fit in, how we just don’t know the right social codes.

Before I move back to ASOIAF, I just want to touch on two more concepts from Bourdieu’s writings. The first one is symbolic capital, which I mentioned briefly previously. Symbolic capital refers to the form the other capitals take when they are deemed legitimate. An example of this would be how a university degree (especially from a “fancy” university) makes one’s cultural capital (in this sense education) legitimate, and thus it functions as symbolic capital. As Bourdieu notes, for capital to matter, for it to wield any power, people need to believe that it does.

The power of words and commands, the power of words to give orders and bring order, lies in belief in the legitimacy of the words and of the person who utters them. (Bourdieu 1979, 83)

Readers of ASOIAF might very well recognise this sort of concept from Varys’ famous speech about how “power resides where men believe it resides” (A Clash of Kings, Tyrion II). Where people believe power resides are often dependant on what Bourdieu calls “doxa”, which can be described as that which is taken for granted in a specific social field (Bourdieu 2013). Doxa are sort of core beliefs and values that people view as fundamentally true, and that are seldom if ever questioned. So, for instance, a doxa in Westeros might be that a king should rule the realm and that he as king has (more or less) unlimited power.

But how can we use all of this to analyse Davos’ experience? When the books start, Davos is a knight in the service of Stannis Baratheon, with his own lands and keep on Cape Wrath. His knighthood in combination with his lands provides him some cultural and economic capital, and his relationship with Stannis gives him some social capital. Having Stannis as a patron of sorts also legitimises his cultural and economic capital, turning it into symbolic capital. Yet, it is clear from his first chapter that the other nobles don’t fully respect him:

Davos would have given much to know what he was thinking, but one such as Velaryon would never confide in him. The Lord of the Tides was of the blood of ancient Valyria, and his House had thrice provided brides for Targaryen princes; Davos Seaworth stank of fish and onions. It was the same with the other lordlings. He could trust none of them, nor would they ever include him in their private councils. They scorned his sons as well. My grandsons will joust with theirs, though, and one day their blood may wed with mine. In time my little black ship will fly as high as Velaryon’s seahorse or Celtigar’s red crabs.

(A Clash of Kings, Davos I)

From this passage it is clear that Davos lacks a certain social capital, he’s not included in the nobles’ discussions. But it also seems like an issue for Davos is what Bourdieu might call his trajectory, with Davos getting his start with “fish and onions” as he puts it. Since he is lowborn and has risen high, he doesn’t have the same status as knights who were born into nobility. That this is an issue becomes clearer and clearer throughout Davos’ chapters:

Seaworth had a lordly ring to it, but down deep he was still Davos of Flea Bottom, coming home to his city on its three high hills. He knew as much of ships and sails and shores as any man in the Seven Kingdoms, and had fought his share of desperate fights sword to sword on a wet deck. But to this sort of battle he came a maiden, nervous and afraid. Smugglers do not sound warhorns and raise banners. When they smell danger, they raise sail and run before the wind. Had he been admiral, he might have done it all differently. (…) When he had suggested as much to Ser Imry, the Lord High Captain had thanked him courteously, but his eyes were not as polite. Who is this lowborn craven? those eyes asked. Is he the one who bought his knighthood with an onion?”

(A Clash of Kings, Davos III)

Here, Ser Imry clearly does not respect Davos because of Davos’ background, and sees Davos’ position as a knight less legitimate because he “bought it.” This ignores how all knights have to earn their knighthood in some way, be it at a tourney or for valour in battle. But Davos’ way of earning his knighthood wasn’t as fancy and proper, leading people to question it. I would argue that this is an obstacle to this cultural capital being fully transformed into symbolic capital. While Davos getting the knighthood directly from Stannis, a lord, does legitimise it somewhat, it is clear that his way of getting that position isn’t seen as fully legitimate in the eyes of others. That makes Davos’ position very dependant on Stannis, since Stannis’ support is the main factor that makes others (somewhat) recognise Davos’ capital and position. As Davos puts it: “Should Stannis fall, they will pull me down in an instance.”  (A Clash of Kings Davos I).

Another interesting point brought up in the quote from Davos III is that while Davos is very knowledgeable about seafaring, other nobles don’t listen to him. Davos har learnt how to sail, read maps of the sea, how to fight, and a number of other skills that the nobles also need when sailing and fighting at sea. But while the nobles other were taught by maesters and masters of arms, Davos was taught by the other people he served with on ships. So, while Davos has an education of sorts, it’s not as formal and “fancy” as that of the other nobles. That makes this cultural capital (education) less valuable in this social field (the realm of the nobility), even while it might be worth a lot in other fields/circumstances. Davos’ lack of correct cultural capital comes up again when Stannis makes him Hand of the King:

“Your Grace, you cannot . . . I am no fit man to be a King’s Hand.”

”There is no man fitter.” Stannis sheathed Lightbringer, gave Davos his hand, and pulled him to his feet.

”I am lowborn,” Davos reminded him. ”An upjumped smuggler. Your lords will never obey me.”

”Then we will make new lords.”

”But . . . I cannot read . . . nor write . . .”

”Maester Pylos can read for you. As to writing, my last Hand wrote the head off his shoulders. All I ask of you are the things you’ve always given me. Honesty. Loyalty. Service.”

(A Storm of Swords, Davos IV)

As Davos points out here, him not knowing how to read or write is an obstacle to him moving up higher in social space of Westeros. I would argue, however, that the issue isn’t necessarily that this could limit him in performing his job, because as Stannis points out, he can get assistance in reading and writing. I rather think the issue is that this shows his lack of (correct) cultural capital, and thus becomes yet another point against him in the eyes of other nobles. Another reason for them to not accept him is, as Davos puts it, that he’s lowborn and an upjumped smuggler. As mentioned previously, this shows how it’s not what volume or composition of capital you have that matters, but also which trajectory you have taken through the social space through your life. Clearly the other nobles can’t forget where Davos started out and see him as lesser because of it. Ser Axell Florent perhaps expresses this the clearest:

Ser Axell Florent had entertained the table with the tale of a Targaryen princeling who kept an ape as a pet. This prince liked to dress the creature in his dead son’s clothes and pretend he was a child, Ser Axell claimed, and from time to time he would propose marriages for him. The lords so honored always declined politely, but of course they did decline. ”Even dressed in silk and velvet, an ape remains an ape,” Ser Axell said. ”A wiser prince would have known that you cannot send an ape to do a man’s work.” The queen’s men laughed, and several grinned at Davos. I am no ape, he’d thought. I am as much a lord as you, and a better man.

(A Dance with Dragons, Davos II)

It is clear that Ser Axell thinks that even if Davos gains some cultural capital (such as clothing, titles, etc), he still remains an ape because of his birth. This is a clear example of how one’s trajectory through the social space matters. I would also argue that this indicates that Davos’ habitus might be more aligned with the circumstances of his birth (and life before knighthood), that is to say, he doesn’t fully act like a nobleman “should.” Interestingly enough, Stannis repeatedly expresses how he appreciates this, that Davos is honest and doesn’t try to kiss up to him like other nobles do. But nonetheless, that and other parts of Davos’ (subconscious or not) behaviour sets Davos apart from other nobles. Davos hasn’t internalised the same norms as his “fellows”, he doesn’t implicitly believe the same doxa about how the world should work.

Now, while Davos’ background, cultural capital, and habitus often hinders him in his dealings with nobles, it does benefit him in other situations. One such example is when he arrives in White Harbour and notes that no one pays attention to him because he looks “common.” This can be attributed to several factors, partly his looks (his general appearance and clothing) and his behaviour. That is to say, it is partly because of his cultural capital, but probably even more because of his habitus. He knows how to act among commoners, he has internalised the norms of that social field to the degree that it comes naturally. This is an interesting contrast to when Arya first hides in Flea Bottom at the end of A Game of Thrones, and clearly has the wrong habitus:

She had tried talking to the children she saw in the street, hoping to make a friend who would give her a place to sleep, but she must have talked wrong or something. The little ones only looked at her with quick, wary eyes and ran away if she came too close. Their big brothers and sisters asked questions Arya couldn’t answer, called her names, and tried to steal from her.

(A Game of Thrones, Arya V)

Clearly these kids can tell that Arya isn’t from this space, her behaviour and way of speaking makes her stick out. This isn’t the case with Davos in White Harbour, he has the right habitus for that space.

Before wrapping up this essay, I want to discuss one aspect of Davos’ story that I haven’t touched on previously, and that is his relationship with Salladhor Saan and what their similarities and differences can tell us about Westerosi society. Salladhor is clearly a very rich man, who through this economic capital wields a certain amount of influence. But he’s absolutely not respected by the nobles of Westeros. Partly, I would argue that this is because he has gotten his wealth through pirating, i.e., not legitimate means in the eyes of the nobility. He lacks the cultural and symbolic capital required to gain the respect of the nobles. In that sense he has some similarities with Davos, they both have some economic capital but lack other capital. However, I think it is quite clear that another reason Salladhor isn’t respected is xenophobia. This is something that Bourdieu doesn’t touch on in his own writing, but other scholars inspired by Bourdieu’s writing have considered how intersecting social structures impact one’s position in the social space (eg. Bettie 2000; Skeggs 2005). These writers have noted that race, ethnicity, gender, etc often impact how someone’s cultural capital is perceived, for instance. As Skeggs notes, clothes that might be seen as “cool” on a middle-class white person often doesn’t have the same positive connotations when worn by a poor person of colour. Somewhat similarly, Salladhor might own fancy clothes, jewellery, ships, and whatnot, but this cultural capital isn’t interpreted in the same way as if it was owned by a Westerosi noble. Salladhor’s position as a pirate from Lys changes the sociocultural meaning of that capital. I do not have the space here to fully analyse Salladhor to the degree he deserves, but I thought it important to note how ethnicity can impact one’s class position.

In conclusion then, it is clear that the way Westerosi society is structured makes class mobility very difficult. Even if someone gains some economic capital and perhaps even some cultural and social capital (as Davos has), they will be limited by their trajectory and habitus. The legitimacy of their position will be questioned. If they also belong to a minority or marginalised group, such as not being Westerosi born, they will encounter even more obstacles. It is clear that just as in our world, you can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It is much more difficult than that.

Special thanks to Shiloh for helping me out with research for this essay, everyone should go check out her twitter, her blog, and her book about medievalism in ASOIAF.


Bettie, Julie. 2000. ”Women without class: chicas, cholas, trash and the absence/presence of class identity”. Signs 26(1): 1-35.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. “Symbolic Power.” Critique of Anthropology 4(77): 77-85.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups.” Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32: 1-17.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994a/2012. “Social Space and Symbolic Space.” In Contemporary Sociology Theory, eds. Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, 335-344. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994b/2012. “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” In Contemporary Sociology Theory, eds. Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, 345-358. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2013. “Symbolic capital and social classes.” Journal of Classical Sociology 13(2): 292-302.

Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Game of Thrones. London: Harper Voyager.

Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Clash of Kings. London: Harper Voyager.

Martin, George RR. 2011c. A Storm of Swords. London: Harper Voyager.

Martin, George RR. 2012. A Dance with Dragons. London: Harper Voyager.

Skeggs, Beverley. 2005. ”The Re-Branding of Class: Propertising Culture”. In Rethinking Class: Culture, Identities & Lifestyle, eds. FionaDevine, Mike Savage, John Scott, and Rosemary Crompton, 46-68. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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