The Free Folk and Colonialism

Content warning: racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, general violence, sexual violence

Spoiler warning: spoilers for all ASOIAF books and some spoilers for GoT.

Tormund, artwork by DREADlady, commissioned by Virginie. You can find the original post of the artwork here.

He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

A Game of Thrones, Bran I

Very early on in ASOIAF, we are told these horrible stories about the Free Folk and how monstrous they are. By referring to them as “wildlings” and telling these stories about their barbaric ways, a picture is painted of some sort of terrible uncivilised and threatening hoard of people. The careful reader, however, might be a bit sceptical of these “hearth tales” and wonder if there isn’t more to the story. Which there of course turns out to be. As the books go on, it becomes more and more clear that the treatment of the Free Folk is deeply unfair, and that the Night’s Watch are wasting precious resources on fighting them. As I will argue in this essay, the situation the Free Folk is facing is in many ways reminiscent of what people in our world have faced by colonialism. While the Free Folk weren’t the first people inhabiting their land (that would be the Children of the Forest and the Giants) their land has since been conquered by the Andals. Furthermore, the situation created by the artificial and restrictive border that is the Wall is something many people who have been subjugated by colonialism can relate to (even if they might not have experienced high ice walls specifically). For that and many other reasons, I want to discuss the Free Folk and colonialism. I will ground that discussion specifically in the history of Indigenous people and other marginalised ethnic groups in the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our world, given the Free Folk’s position in northern climates.

It is worth noting that many other people (such as Learned Hands, Girls Gone Canon, and NotACast) have noted how the relationship between the Free Folk and the Night’s Watch (and the Seven Kingdoms in general) bear similarities to relationships between colonial powers and the people they’re subjugating. I have definitely been inspired by their analysis when writing this essay. But I also wanted to add a perspective that I seldom hear discussed, and that is the specific northern flavour of this colonialism. As I will explain more below, I am from Sweden and have family from northern Sweden specifically. So, I can’t help but think of that specific context when considering the Free Folk. Especially once I realised that some of them (the people of the Frozen Shore) keep reindeer, similar to what several Indigenous people in the Arctic and sub-Arctic do and are well-known for doing (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021). I will therefore discuss the history of some of these groups. This is partly because I think it is relevant to the analysis, and partly because I think this history is not very well-known. Not in Scandinavia and even less so outside of Scandinavia. And it deserves to be more well-known. As part of my effort to highlight this history (and the current situation of these groups), I have decided to approach this essay a bit differently than my usual essays. For one, the theory and background section is longer than it usually is. This is because I wanted to allow this part to take up space so I could do it justice. But it is also because I have deliberately included a lot more quotes than I usually do because I want to highlight the voices of Indigenous people and other marginalised groups. I want to share their words and not just my interpretation/summery of them (I have however translated some quotes, those that were in Swedish and Norwegian). As such, this essay has become quite long. But I felt like it had to be in order to do the topic justice. I have also elected to include a lot of sources that aren’t traditional academic texts, in order to highlight that academic knowledge production isn’t the only valid form of knowledge. In fact – when it comes to Indigenous people and other marginalised groups, academia is often far from the most appropriate source of knowledge. But now that we have established that, let’s dig into some northern colonialism!

Some historical, geographical, and personal context

Before going further, I would like to talk a bit about my own position in writing this essay. I’m a white person, born and raised in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. As such, I can obviously not speak to the experiences of Indigenous people. But because of the complexity of history and racialisation, I can still speak somewhat to ethnic discrimination and the results of colonialism. Let me explain.

The northern part of what is today called Sweden first became inhabited by the Indigenous Sámi people more or less as soon as the last ice age was over, with the earliest confirmed archaeological find being from 7 800 BCE ( n.d.a). Their traditional land is called Sápmi, and stretches across several contemporary countries, having been colonised by different states throughout the years.

Map of Sápmi. Picture credit: Nordiska Museet 2007.

In this essay, I will use the word Sámi to refer to this group of people and Sápmi to refer to this land. There are slightly different versions of those words, used by different groups in different contexts. For instance, Sámi is sometimes spelt Saami, while Sábme, Sábmie, and Saepmie are other terms for Sápmi. Those terms are used by different Sámi groups. Besides that, there also exists derogatory terms that have been used both historically and today. One such is “l*pp” (or “l*ap” in English). I will generally avoid this term and will only write out the word when it is used in quotes by Sámi people themselves.

As mentioned previously, I am not Indigenous. But I’m not fully Swedish either. My family belongs to the ethnic group called Tornedalians, named after the Torne Valley and Torne River (which constitutes the current border between Sweden and Finland). Nowadays, the area (on both sides of the river) where we have traditionally lived is sometimes called Meänmaa – “our land” in our language (Meänkieli). When exactly Tornedalians came to live in this area is disputed. Some say they emigrated to what is now Sweden from the east around 1 000 CE (Wikipedia n.d. a). Others note theories that they arrived there around 2 000 years ago, or that maybe some version of Tornedalians have always lived in the area but later mixed with groups who have migrated into the area (Pohjanen 2022, 20). Regardless, we have lived there long before Sweden was consolidated into a nation. Some Tornedalians would later move further west and are therefore sometimes referred to by other names, such as Lantalaiset and Kvens.  Today, this is the area that’s considered to be part of Meänmaa:

Map of Meänmaa. Picture credit: Wikipedia n.d. b

On the whole, the migration of the Tornedalians, while it caused some disputes with the Sámi already living in the area, did not amount to the type of colonialisation I will talk about later. It can mainly be seen as the type of migration that has always happened in human history. People moving into an area where people already lived, which causes some conflict but also intermingling. Eventually, however, the area would be colonised by the Swedish state. This led to abuses of both Sámi and Tornedalians. I will begin with the impact on the Sámi.

The Swedish colonialization of Sápmi began during the 14th century but became even more forceful during the 17th century when the Swedish crown realised it could lay claim to the iron and silver resources in the land ( n.d. b). The crown was at that time constantly at war and in need of more resources. When silver was discovered in the Nasafjäll mountain, the crown realised that Northern Sweden, Norrland (“North Land”), could become what colonies in the Caribbean had been to other European nations. The famous chancellor of the realm Axel Oxenstierna apparently said, “I don’t need a colony – I have Norrland!” (ibid). As often is the case with colonialism, the colonization of Sápmi was highly tied up in the Christening of the Sámi, who traditionally practised their own religion. The website which is run by Sametinget, the governmental body of Swedish Sámi, puts it like this:

In order to force the Sámi to abandon their religion and instead attend church services and church education, the Church used different forms of punishment: fines, prison, or death penalties. The holy sites were defiled and drums [used in religious rituals] were burned.

For centuries the Sámi religion had been able to live side by side with Christianity. But from the 17th century onward, the attempts to Christen the Sámi went hand in hand with the Crown’s attempt to conquer the land in the north. When religion became a means of power, the Sámi were made to suffer many forms of abuse, just as has been the case with other Indigenous people throughout the world. n.d. c [my translation from Swedish]

As mentioned above, one motivation for colonialization was to claim natural resources such as silver and iron. In order for the crown to mine these minerals, they often made use of the Sámi, by forcing them into labour. During the industrialisation of Sweden over the coming centuries, even more parts of Sápmi became settled in order to open more mines, mainly iron mines. This continued colonialism was justified by arguing that the Sámi were a primitive people, and the land could be put to better use by a civilised state. Again, a familiar story when it comes to colonialism.

Another event of large historical importance would take place around this time, namely the splitting of Norway and Sweden in 1905. This impacted many Sámi who had previously travelled between land on both the Swedish and (now) Norwegian side of the border, for instance having their reindeer graze by the Norwegian coast in the summer and in the Swedish inland in the winter (Labba 2020). Not all Sámi are reindeer herders, but the reindeer is an important part of Sámi culture and reindeer herding has constituted the livelihood for many Sámi for centuries. Now, however, the Norwegian state started opposing the Sámi moving their reindeer (and themselves) across the border, considering “the nomad life” to be a burden on the country and a “lifestyle” that was incompatible with the interests and structures of “civilised society.” (ibid, 16) The solution to this? Well, in the words of Sámi author Elin Anna Labba:

In 1919 Sweden and Norway solve their common problem through a reindeer grazing convention, which limits how much reindeer can move across the border. Indirectly the states simultaneously decide how many people have to move from their homes by the Atlantic coast.

Starting in 1919 and continuing through the 1920s and part of the 1930s, the county boards in Sweden enact straight-up forced relocations of reindeer herders in order to live up to the agreement with their neighbour country. In the convention, it says that the relocations are to be done in agreement with wishes “from the lap population.” In reality, they have no say.

The government agencies call the solution dislocation. In Sámi another word is born. Bággojohtin. Forced displacement. Or sirdolaččat, like the elders that have been forcibly displaced, call themselves. The moved ones. The first to leave their homes in the belief that they will get to return.

Labba 2020, 16 [my translation from Swedish]

But not only are people forced to relocate from the Atlantic coast, but Sámi in Sweden are also forced to relocate. With so many Sámi moving in from the Norwegian side of the border, the Swedish state feels that there are too many Sámi in the area around Giron, Jielleváre, Jåhkåmåhkke, and Árjepluvve. The so-called “l*ppfogdarna” (“l*p bailiffs”) were the ones calling the shots on behalf of the state and pressured or straight-up forced people to move. And even when l*p bailiffs didn’t directly force Sámi to move, their reindeer weren’t used to being confined to such a small area with so many other reindeer. It wasn’t sustainable. People were forced to move further south. Moving to unfamiliar lands. These were lands where other Sámi have lived before, but it was new to these groups. People longed for their own homelands.

They cried. Eidde told me that. They said farewell to the cot places and the cot meadows. Bloody hell. I’ve thought that they should have gotten something for it. There are such sleek mountains there, and here they’re so ugly. I’ve heard that the mountain Bealčán in the north has such beautiful flowers. My aunt always cried over Bealčán. She who loved flowers. They took farewell to that too. There was like a kiosk with a window. They stood there on either side and cried.

It was lap is to be lap, you know. It was a rule by the bailiffs, like hell. They were so scared for those bailiffs. Isá wasn’t allowed to move from Guvtjávrre but he moved to Vássjá anyway. They snuck down, lawless.

They were supposed to live in dark black cots. Eidde said to “make a big cot for us” and isá built up on a hill, a cot with a window. There was so much light in that cot. And eidde ordered a stove so she could bake. Then they came, the lap bailiff and the land notary and whoever else it was, and you know, lap was to live black. They weren’t allowed to have windows. They were to tear them out. And she was to pay a fine for installing a stove, and for the windows. Whoever touches my stove I’ll report, said eidde. Whoever touches a single nail on the cot I’ll report. She wasn’t scared of anyone. But they were terrible, those lap bailiffs.

Just put that in the book, our history. It’s true.

Válkko Elle Susá, quoted in Labba 2020, 121 [my translation from Swedish, I’ve deliberately not translated Sámi words that aren’t translated in the Swedish copy]

What Válkko Elle Susá says here of the policy “l*p is to be l*p” (“l*pp skall vara l*pp”) was a broad policy the Swedish state enacted at this time, which had its roots in racist and eugenic thought. Sametinget writes this about the political thought at the start of the 20th century, and its consequences:

It began being claimed that the Sámi were born with certain “race characteristics” that made them inferior to the rest of the population. Therefore, they could not live as “civilized” people in real houses. If they did, they would become “lazy” and start neglecting their reindeer. That would result in all Sámi people having to become beggars because they did not have any skills besides reindeer husbandry. The Riksdag [the Swedish parliament] decided in 1928 that the Sámi who were not reindeer herders would not have any Sámi rights either. For example, they were given no special right to hunt and fish in the areas where their ancestors had lived. In this way, the state drew a sharp boundary between the Sámi living on reindeer husbandry and those who support themselves in other ways. The Sámi schooling was also affected by racism. A law about a special nomad school came in 1913 which stated that teachers would walk around the mountainous regions in the summer. There, the youngest schoolchildren would be taught in the family’s cot for a few weeks each year during the first three school years. The rest of the school time consisted of winter courses in regular schools for three months a year for three years. The teaching would only cover a few subjects and it had to be at such a low level that the children were not “civilized”. Children of nomadic Sámi were not allowed to attend public primary schools. n.d. d [my translation from Swedish]

This occurred during a time of generally increased nationalism and racism. In 1922, The State’s Race Biological institute (Statens rasbiologiska institut) was created in Uppsala in Sweden, by the “scientist” Herman Lundborg (Hagerman 2016, 961). He wished to research the Swedish race and the mixing of races in Sweden. This was done in several ways, both by looking at records of marriages and births (often supplied by church officials who had access to so-called “church books” that recorded this), and physical examinations of people. He, and other “scientists”, travelled around Sweden to examine the Sámi people and other groups that were considered inferior (such as Finns, Tornedalians, Roma, Jews, disabled people, etc). The physical examination of Sámi people often happened in collaboration with local churches or schools (Hagerman 2016, 984). Another part of the eugenics movement in Sweden that is worth mentioning here is the forced sterilisations that took place during this time. Again, the minorities mentioned above (as well as working-class women) were the main targets of these policies (Hübinette & Lundström 2014). This was an attempt to “better” the “stock” of the Swedish nation. In total, around 60 000 people were sterilised between 1935 and 1975 (Johannisson 1991). Sweden’s population in 1975 was approximately 8 million (SCB 1977, 9).

As Hübinette and Lundström point out, in Sweden at the time, ethnic minorities were either to be completely assimilated or completely segregated from the rest of society (Hübinette & Lundström 2020, 33). The former was the case with the Tornedalians (more on this later) and the latter with the Sámi. All as part of a process to make Sweden Swedish. A similar process took place in other states that colonised Sápmi, which Liisa-Rávná Finbog describes in the Norwegian context (2022b). During the 19th and 20th centuries, Norway was properly establishing itself as a nation and “as part of that work, much focus was given to establishing an own Norwegian identity. In other words, in the state of Norway, you were to be Norwegian.” (ibid) [my translation from Norwegian] This led to a forced Norwegianization of the Sámi, which for instance took place at the schools Sámi children were forced to attend (Minde 2005). As one person, Per Fokstad, who lived through this process put it as an adult:

“Now and then I think about this, there is such a large pain that I can’t sleep. I lay awake at night, I feel like I need to speak out. Tell someone about this, all of it that hurts, that’s been pushed down. There is something inside of me that screams: don’t smother me. Something that needs air, that wants to rise, that wants to live. But we got branded. We got pushed down and I can never forget it. Never forget what it was like. Everything was taken from us. We weren’t allowed to speak our mother tongue. No one listened to us.”

Dahl 1970, 10. Quoted in Minde 2005, 15. [my translation from Norweigan]

Policies like that, and the corresponding Swedish policies, might not exist anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the oppression has ceased. Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia are still colonising the Sápmi. Many of these nations have taken steps to recognise the Sámi as an indigenous people and national minority (in Sweden it’s one of five official national minorities, the other ones being Finns, Tornedalians, Jews, and Roma) but again, this doesn’t mean the oppression is over. The nations are still laying claim to land and resources, as has for instance been seen in Sweden in the fight against logging and mining (Johansson 2022) and recently in Norway against the green colonialism that is windmills on reindeer grazing lands (Ahtone 2023).

Members of the Sámi youth organisation Sáminuorra as well as the youth climate organisation Fridays for Future protesting proposed mining plans in Gállok, on the Swedish side of Sápmi. Sámi has protested this mine since around 2013. This photo is from 2022. Photo credit: Fridays for Future (retrieved from Johansson 2022).

But before moving on, I would like to return to Tornedalians. Similarly to Sámi in Norway, Tornedalians in Sweden were expected to assimilate into Swedish culture, and this too was intensified during the 19th and 20th centuries. One big shift was of course when the border was drawn between Finland and Sweden in 1809. The border was drawn along the Torne River, splitting Meänmaa and its people in two. As author Bengt Pohjanen says of the border:

”Us Meänkieli-speaking shore-dwelling Finns have always lived in Meänmaa and experienced both sides of the Torne River as part of one culture. After all, our friends and cousins lived on the other side of the river. The border has created three-eyed people. We needed two eyes to see, and a third so we could overlook.

“There isn’t a whiff of sin in smuggling,” said a Laestadian preacher who had been fined for smuggling knives. We have experienced the customs as offensive gates and unnecessary obstacles. There’s no wonder that the customs officers are called hurtat, dogs.

Pohjanen 2022, 20. [[my translation from Swedish, “hurtat” and the Swedish translation Pohjanen gives, “byracka” is difficult to translate. It’s maybe closer to hound or perhaps mongrel, used to describe a mean/feral/wild dog. It is definitely used derogatory here.]

The border also had huge consequences on language. Tornedalians have traditionally spoken a version of Finnish, which is today referred to as Meänkieli (“our language”), not Swedish. As mentioned, when the border between Finland and Sweden was drawn, no one bothered about ethnic or language borders. Loads of Tornedalians ended up on the Swedish side of the border, and they were increasingly pressured to assimilate into Swedish culture and speak Swedish (Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen n.d. a). I have several relatives who have put in so-called “work cottages” during the 1920s, vocational schools for poor children. The children lived at these cottages where they got basic schooling and were taught different trades while having to work to earn their upkeep (UR 2018, 12:36). They were also taught to be productive Christian Swedish citizens. This is one example of how the oppression of Tornedalians has been (and is) wrapped up in class oppression as well. Many Tornedalians have lived in rural areas, often working in the mines and forests. Author Bengt Pohjanen also points out how language plays into the intersecting oppressions, both from one’s own community and those outside of it:

“…the oppression from our own, the fancy folk, finiit ihmiset, “the masters on the devil’s level”, police, teachers, customs’ officials who had denied their languages, their culture for our own good. (…) Our own middle class has been, and seems to remain, the Meänkieli-speaking cultural bearers’ ever-present problem. (…) Hullunfinit ihmiset, crazy fancy people, were ummikot (monolingual Swedes). Niitä hääty passata ja varoa. (You had to wait on them, watch for them, it wasn’t even proper to speak to them).”

Pohjanen 2022, 16. [my translation from Swedish]

Swedish was the language of fancy folk, of civilised folk. Of course, this also permeated the education the poor children in rural areas were to get in working cottages. They were forbidden from speaking Meänkieli, were only to speak Swedish, and those who disobeyed were often beaten. All to turn them into Godfearing, proper productive citizens. As my own grandfather put it:

“First and foremost, I have to say that there was an iron discipline. If we turned into anything – we turned into either ruffians or weaklings.”

UR 2018, 13:09-13:19. From the documentary ”Man grät och längtade hem” from 1977, a cli of which is shown in the UR documentary. Quote translated from Swedish to English by me.

Many internalised this discipline to the degree that they tried to get their children to only speak Swedish too, an experience that Tornedalian Roland Jatko has written about (Jatko 2011). As he puts it, this can be considered a form of colonialism and cultural imperialism. What’s more, this colonialism has been so successful that many Tornedalians now feel unsure of what their cultural identity really entails. As Jatko writes:

What does it matter where we come from, when we arrived, and what we’ve called ourselves through history? No people on the taiga can say that we’ve always been here because we all arrived after the ice melted. Where did those who made the rock carvings at Aarevaara come from, those who named the places, and those who renamed them? (…) My homelands have been Sámi hunting grounds and fishing waters once. When we came and took their fishing waters, hunting grounds, and reindeer aren’t written down in any history book, and neither where we came from and why we took their land. The only thing I know is that we did it because we could. (…) Do we have to rely on unreliable DNA tests to try to prove who we are? What are we to do with that evidence? Argue that we are an Indigenous people because we lived in the river valleys before Sweden even existed? The Kvens tried that, but after swallowing the Swedish culture in full the state said we weren’t culturally distinct enough to be an Indigenous people. (…) The only thing I can say is that we’re still here, even though everyone is trying to kill our culture with their silence.

Jatko 2019. [my translation from Swedish]

As researchers Hübinette and Lundström puts it, what the Swedish state did against both the Sámi and Tornedalians amounted to “forced assimilation aiming at outright cultural and linguistic extermination” (2014, 429). And as mentioned above, similar to the Sámi, Tornedalians were also subject to eugenic examinations. However, there are some relevant differences between Tornedalians and Sámi. One such is that some Tornedalians have participated in the oppression of Sámi both historically and today (Moreno 2020; Jatko 2021). Trying to assert their own rights and fighting for their interests have often resulted in opposing Sámi. That’s not to say all Tornedalians have acted that way, and with the long history between the ethnic groups, there are also plenty of people who are both Sámi and Tornedalian (Karvonen 2022). But another difference between Sámi and Tornedalians is that while a few generations back, Tornedalians weren’t considered white and Swedish, we generally are today. This is something Hübinette and Lundström discuss as a way racial boundaries are constantly renegotiated. We’ve been successfully assimilated.

So, growing up, I never really experienced direct discrimination because of my ethnicity. Because it had in large parts been erased. My dad never taught me Meänkieli, probably partly because he was forced to stop speaking it at school as a child. Work cottages weren’t around anymore when he went to school, but Swedish was still to be spoken in schools (UR 2018, 13:48). Even by children like him who didn’t speak a word of it when they started school. However, in later years, my dad has started to relearn his mother’s tongue and I’m trying to learn it for the first time. This is also happening at a time when the historical discrimination against Tornedalians is gaining more attention. In 2020, the Swedish government appointed a truth and reconciliation commission that “shall investigate violations and abuse that Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset were subjected to as a result of the assimilation policies of the 19th and 20th centuries.” (Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen n.d. b) This is all to say, I’m white and I’m not Indigenous. But I do have a personal and familial experience that relates to being part of a minority ethnic group in a northern climate that has been affected by colonialism.

Some more historical, geographical and theoretical context

Having said that, I thought it would be helpful to discuss colonialism some more. What it is, how it has worked historically and today, and specifically in some northern contexts.  First of all, what do I mean by colonialism? On a basic level, it is of course when one state lays claim to an area that it has not previously claimed, often exploiting its land and people along the way. But it’s also more than that. As Sámi scholar Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog puts it:

However much we are accustomed to thinking of colonization as a process that aims to dispossess land from Indigenous peoples, colonialism is much more layered. In addition to the stealing of land and material things (and sometimes even people), the process of colonization is also about imposing the colonizers’ worldviews and values upon the colonized, erasing Indigenous knowledges and ways of live. This is epistemicide, a colonial killing of Indigenous ways of being, of knowing, and of doing- our ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies.

Finbog 2022a.

That this has been the case in regards to Sápmi and the Sámi has probably been clear already in this essay. But they are of course not the only people of the north in our world that has suffered through these kind of processes. As a text by the Saami Council and German Arctic Office points out, there are a lot of different Indigenous people that live in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas:

The distinct cultures and territories of Arctic Indigenous Peoples extend over 30 million square kilometres in seven countries and three continents. In Fennoscandia, Arctic Indigenous Peoples include the Saami in northern territories of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Northwest Russia, an area also named Sápmi. The land of Inuit, Inuit Nunaat, stretches over Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Some examples of Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the North American region are Aleuts, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Dene, Gwich‘in and Athabaskans. Just like the Saami and Inuit, Gwich‘in and Athabaskans are cross border people. In the vast territories of the Russian Federation, a few examples of Arctic Indigenous Peoples are Nenets, Khanty, Mansi, Even, Evenk, Yukaghir and Chukchi, residing all the way from the Kola Peninsula, through Siberia and to the Far East.

Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021, 2.

I, unfortunately, do not have the space to discuss all these cultures here, but I want to note their existence. People live across the Artic and sub-Arctic regions. These are not empty lands. People with varying cultures live here and have done for millennia. While the land could be considered scarce in resources in some ways, people have lived there and have had a very strong relationship with the land. For many cultures, this includes their connection to other beings residing on the land, with reindeer for instance holding a special status in several cultures. In total, there are about 24 reindeer herding peoples in the world, and the majority reside in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021, 4).  Today, reindeer herding is threatened in many places, both by colonialism and climate change. This is for instance the case in many parts of Sápmi. With the traditional grazing lands of reindeer being destroyed, so are the culture and livelihood of many people are too. Similarly, other Indigenous people are experiencing changes to the environment where they traditionally hunt and fish. But there is more than “just” food, culture, and livelihood at stake here. As Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog explains (when discussing protests by Sámi activists in Oslo) Indigenous people often have a different conceptualisation and relationship to land than people in the West.

Sámi, like most Indigenous philosophies, teaches us that the world is made up of relations – a nexus of connections, between and to people, land, waters, beings, spirits, and entities. Born to and of the land, and grounded in these connections, said relationality seeds a system of kinship where we are made into kin as much as we make kin. The worlds we live in (and besides) are as such performed into being through our interactions with everything that lives in and on the lands and waters we belong to. It is as such a world of relations between and through everything in existence.

We are all equal within this worlds-of-relations, and we all have subjective will. As such, when you claim ownership of something- whether land or people- you are in truth subjugating their will. We have no word for subjugation in our languages. In fact, our (Indigenous) understanding of the term comes from our experience of being subjugated and dehumanized by colonial nations. (…) The use of landback in Oslo by the Sámi activists, is not a demand to return ownership of lands. It is a demand to respect Sámi sovereignty and ways of life. It is a demand to respect the sovereignty of the land, refusing the notion that she can be owned. It is a demand to respect the necessary connection between all living things, and to never enforce your will onto others, subjugating theirs.”

Finbog 2023.

But since Western countries don’t see land this way, they have often been able to claim that Indigenous lands are unpopulated, a “Terra Nullius, or “nobody’s land” (Finbog 2021). Therefore, the land can be claimed, settled, and both people and land subjugated. As mentioned previously, the results of this are still evident with the ongoing colonisation of Sápmi.

Sámi youth and other activists protesting in solidarity outside of Norwegian government buildings in February 2023. They are protesting windfarms on Sámi land that the Norwegian Supreme Court has deemed illegal, but which have not been removed after over 500 days. Photo: OLE BERG-RUSTEN / NTB / AFP via Getty Images (retrieved from Ahtone 2023).

Another important aspect of colonialism is the “othering” of the colonised people. Dr Finbog discusses “othering” in relation to Sámi in Norway:

According to the Sámi folklorist Stein Roar Mathisen puts it, this process can be seen in the relationship between the Norwegian people and Sámi. Concretely, he argues that the Sámi culture has represented something fundamentally strange, which up until our time has served a function as a contrast to the Norwegian culture. Therefore, the Sámi has been categorised as The Other. The use of The Other as a contrasting function is not new. For instance, in her ground-breaking book “The Other Sex” from 1949, Simone de Beauvoir has shown how the woman is defined by – and works as a contrast to – the man, who is “the subject […]. The Absolute.” Edward Said on the other hand contributed with the book “Orientalism” from 1978 where he describes how the West for centuries has created a picture of the Orient that has led to it becoming Europe’s defining contrast. In their different ways, Beauvoir and Said have therefore shown how usage of The Other as a category can be used to create metanarratives, that don’t just convey knowledge about, but also exercises power over the people that are put into the category.”

Finbog 2022b. [my translation from Norweigan]

As Finbog points out, by categorising a group of people as The Other, power is exercised over them. For one, they are made into something “fundamentally strange”, which affects how people interact with them. But this categorisation also impacts their orientation in the world, impacting the paths that become available to them and which obstacles they’ll meet (Ahmed 2006, 112). In our world today, someone who has been designated as Other might encounter a myriad of “stopping devices” when navigating the world, from being “randomly selected” at the airport to struggling to get promoted at work (Ahmed 2006, 140).

When Indigenous people are made into Other, part of what colonizers see as other and strange has often been their conceptualisation of sex, gender, and sexuality. As Dr Finbog puts it:

In imperial Europe, sexuality and gender was (and still is) understood from a patriarchal hierarchy where men where superior to women; and white superior to BIPOC. These (false) differences were consequently encoded into Western Law, obligation, and behavior. When the colonial structures of the West were imposed on Indigenous communities, thus came the enforcement of heteropatriarchy, a socio-political system in which cisgender males and heterosexuals have authority over cisgender females and other sexual orientations and gender identities. But historically, sexual diversity has actually been the norm rather than the exception among Indigenous peoples. (…) Like many Indigenous communities, Sámi society historically practiced a form of equality between individuals characterized on a complementarity of domains, roles, and tasks. There is also evidence to suggest that the notion of gender was fluid, allowing for a movement between gender roles. (…) There is also evidence to suggest that Sámi sexuality was heavily targeted – especially the sexuality of women and non-binary individuals. Sources from the 17th century, for instance, shows colonial officials disapproving of Sámi sexuality – deeming it immoral and unseemly.

Finbog 2022a.

Here we see how anything that doesn’t conform to Western gender and sexuality norms is demonised, be it cis women being sexually active or queer/trans people existing. Those breaking binary gender norms have in particular been seen as some combination of sinful, uncivilised and exotic (Towle & Morgan 2006). To that point, I wanted to share an excerpt from a talk between Timimie Gassko Märak and Ivvár Ovllá Nilla Pinja, who are both non-binary Sámi.

Nilla Pinja: In the Sámi religion we have so many, so much like really feminine icons and gods like: Juoksáhkká, Máttaráhkká, Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and they are like really strong and… And I think that the world we have has been really different back in days.


Gassko Märak: They [Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and Juoksáhkká] are called like the three sisters. Yeah. The three sisters, and when you talk about it in English and Swedish you talk about them as like goddesses, and they have different roles like in Sápmi. And you and I were talking earlier today about, about like the Sámi non-binary experience. And one of the reasons it took so long for me to realise like my transness or my non-binaryness is because Sápmi has a totally different femininity. Like I was raised with another way of what femme is. And then you said, it’s like with Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká, Juoksáhkká, it’s like…They have like… they are more human than godlike. They have powers but like everyone in Sápmi, they have their role, like they do what they’re supposed to do. And they can be like cheeky, they can, they can have bad days.

Nilla Pinja: Yes, they are big personalities. And not like some holy figures. Maybe not always so caring and soft and kind. They can also be really dangerous, and they do really what they want.

Gassko Märak: Yes! And that is also very different from like Western religion, where it’s like something that is very holy and you can just like, if you say this and if you sacrifice this then everything will be good because this person is always good if you are. But like the Sámi gods, they don’t give a shit. No but you’re doing it, but I’m having a day today so… you’re pregnant, is it going to be a boy, is it going to be a girl, or is it going to be something different? I don’t know, depends on my mood! So, I suppose you and I were that mood, maybe.

Nilla Pinja: Yeah, and it’s also like, really… when you think, all the other Indigenous cultures and… and for example, the third gender, they have been like… in some other Indigenous cultures they have always been there. They have. And so like, it really makes me think, the Western influence, and what the colonialism has done in all this.

Gassko Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021.

That is all to say, Sámi understanding of gender has been quite different from Western understandings, and Sámi religion also incorporates this view of gender. Furthermore, as Nilla Pinja mentions here, many Indigenous cultures have had conceptualisations of gender that go beyond the Western binary views. On Turtle Island (the lands colonised by the USA and Canada), the term Two-Spirit is often used by various native nations as an umbrella term to describe gender and sexual identities beyond the binary (Neptune 2018). What exactly Two-Spirit means can vary between native nations (and individuals) but the term is often used as an umbrella term specifically to create common ground and help educate about traditional teachings. In many Indigenous societies, Two-Spirit people have traditionally held a proper and accepted place. This was based on spiritual teachings that all life is sacred. Geo Neptune, who is Passamaquoddy and Two-Spirit, notes the following about the meaning and history of Two-Spirit identity:

To illustrate the diversity of what Two-Spirit contain, consider the following:

In Lakota, the word winkte means “to be as a woman” and refer to Two-Soul Lakota people who transgress boundaries of gender from what may be considered male to female.

In Diné, nádleehi means “those who transform” and refers to one of four genders: masculine-feminine, masculine-masculine, feminine-masculine, and feminine-feminine. Each gender has its own word in the Diné language.

And those are just two nation specific examples, there are so many more! Each nation’s understanding of gender and sexual diversity is different and grounded in specific spiritual beliefs. Although all nations don’t have a concept of Two-Spirit people, across those indigenous nations that do, Two-Spirit people were historically held in high regard and often considered sacred or divine, holding important positions like matchmakers, medicine people, or warriors on the front lines of battle. Many Two-Spirit people perform roles traditionally assigned to both men and women.

Neptune 2018.

Many more examples could be given (and I go into some more in my essay about trans history), but the point I wanted to make is that many Indigenous people have broader understandings of gender and sexuality than Western cultures have. While some Indigenous people (for instance Two-Spirit people) also use terms like trans, non-binary, queer or gay to describe themselves, not all do and Westerners should be careful when escribing these labels to them (for more discussion, see for instance Roen 2006; Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Westerners already have a history of telling Indigenous people how to identify in regard to gender and sexuality, we should not do it again.

A caution should also be made regarding the term “third gender” which has often been used both in academia and outside it to describe gender identities and expression outside the gender binary that has traditionally existed in non-Western contexts (Towle & Morgan 2006). While not all use of that term is problematic, Towle and Morgan raises several reasons to why it’s often used in a problematic way, especially by Western academics:

The “third gender” is a uniquely Western concept produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability.

It is thus an apt rhetorical and analytic device for the current historical moment, because it can accommodate contradictory social impulses; it signals both tolerance for cultural diversity and adherence to Western categories. Rather than accept uncritically the need for a “third” gender category, though, we should ask how “our” narratives about “them” (cultural others) reflect our own society’s contradictory agendas concerning sexuality, gender, and power. In spite of the obvious imaginative and political potential created by the awareness of gender diversity across cultures, several flaws emerge in the utilization of “third gender” concepts. In the remainder of this essay we enumerate and illustrate these flaws, which we organize as follows:

  1. The primordial location. “Third gender” societies are accorded a primordial, foundational location in our thinking, as though they underlay or predated Western gender formulations.
  2. Reductionism and exclusionism. The “third gender” concept lumps all nonnormative gender variations into one category, limiting our understandings of the range and diversity of gender ideologies and practices.
  3. Typological errors. By identifying “third gender” types, the concept ignores the diversity of experience within categories and glosses over the often contentious processes through which social formations, relations, and hierarchies are created, lived, negotiated, and changed.
  4. Inconsistent use of the culture concept. Does culture facilitate or delimit social change?
  5. The West versus the rest. “Third gender” concepts may isolate the West, for analytic purposes, from other societies, thereby reinforcing our ethnocentric assumptions; inhibiting us from forging alliances across national or cultural borders; and inducing us to focus on diversity between cultures while ignoring diversity, or the complexities of social change, within them.
Towle & Morgan 2006, 671.

As I hope has been made clear here, in general, while many Indigenous people have shared struggles and there are similarities in their understandings of gender, this should not be generalised. Especially by white people. What can be said, however, is that many share experiences of oppression from colonialists who have had a very binary, cisnormative, heteronormative, and sexist understanding of gender and sexuality.

Free Folk cultures and southern prejudice

When we first hear about the Free Folk in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, it’s in the context of the Night’s Watch looking for them and assessing them as a threat. Given that the chapter is told from the point of view of a Night’s Watchman, the Free Folk are immediately positioned as the enemy. In the next chapter, Bran I, we hear more tales about the Free Folk as Bran remembers Old Nan telling stories about them. In these stories, the Free Folk are described as cruel and scary, allying with literal monsters and drinking blood. Of course, the Free Folk is also referred to as Wildlings here, giving the general impression of them being a wild uncivilised folk and a threat. This is expanded upon when we learn more about Mance, and how he might be trying to invade the North. With that, the Free Folk are positioned as a wild hoard that will threat civilised society. But as I mentioned in the introduction, this first view of the Free Folk slowly gets more nuanced. In ACOK, Jon meets Craster who is undeniably a monster, but he also meets Craster’s daughters and later Ygritte. The reader eventually learns that other Free Folk also think Craster is horrible. Generally speaking, Free Folk aren’t monsters, and what Craster is doing has more in common with someone like Walder Frey than Free Folk in general (as for instance, NotACast has pointed out).

As for the threat from the Free Folk, throughout ACOK the Night’s Watch worry about the fact that the Free Folk has abandoned their villages to gather with Mance. But what might at first look seem like a mustering of an army later turns out to be the gathering of a whole people (or rather several peoples) to escape an apocalyptic threat. They’re fleeing the cold, the lethal change to their land. I sometimes hear people describe the land above the Wall as uninhabitable, a sort of cold barren wasteland, but clearly people have managed to live there for thousands of years. They have tried to move south before, but this mass migration is new. Now that their lands are changing, they truly cannot stay. I think a parallel can be noted here to how Indigenous people in our world are impacted by climate change. Of course, the Others aren’t just a metaphor for climate change. But there are parts of them that work that way. They do change the climate and pose a deadly threat. And as such it’s darkly fitting that the Free Folk are the ones to be affected first and (so far) in the harshest way. As I mentioned previously, many Indigenous people in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are being affected by climate change as it’s wrecking their traditional lands and therefore also their way of life (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021). One such example is how the warmer winters (in addition to the cutting down of forests) are making it more difficult for reindeer to find food, which has huge impacts on for instance the Sámi. It’s difficult not to think about that when reading passages like this, from when Jon oversees the Free Folk going through the Wall:

After the riders came the men of the Frozen Shore. Jon watched a dozen of their big bone chariots roll past him one by one, clattering like Rattleshirt. Half still rolled as before; other had replaced their wheels with runners. They slid across the snowdrifts smoothly, where the wheeled chariots were foundering and sinking.

The dogs that drew the chariots were fearsome beasts, as big as direwolves. Their women were clad in sealskins, some with infants at their breasts. Older children shuffled along behind their mothers and looked up at Jon with eyes as dark and hard as the stones they clutched. Some of the men wore antlers on their hats, and some wore walrus tusks. The two sorts did not love each other, he soon gathered. A few thin reindeer brought up the rear, with the great dogs snapping at the heels of straggles.

A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII.

What will happen to that reindeer now that they have to live in a completely new territory below the Wall? What will happen with the people of the Frozen Shore, how will this impact their culture and way of life? It seems like reindeer are an important part of their culture, given that it’s mentioned that they both keep reindeer and that some of them have reindeer antlers on their hats. That indicates that reindeer holds some sort of cultural significance for them. There is not enough textual evidence to say much more than that – but I do want to note the potential parallel to reindeer herding Indigenous people in our world and how changing climates impact them and their reindeer. Such change can impact entire cultures, especially if reindeer hold strong cultural significance. When reindeer herding is more than just one’s livelihood, when it’s part of one’s culture and one’s relationship to the earth and land, being forced to relocate like this can have huge consequences.

A man from the Frozen Shore and his reindeer. Art by Noah aka @samanthatarly, commissioned by me.

Something else that I wanted to touch on here is how many different Free Folk cultures there are. In the eyes of most of Westeros, the Free Folk are just a hoard of wild folk, but as we learn when Jon grows closer to them, there’s much more to them than that. They’re not just uncivilised brutes, they have a culture. Or rather, several different cultures. They create things just like in the land south of the Wall: clothing, jewellery, music, etc. They have traditions and customs, and these all vary between different tribes.

There were cookfires all along the river, amongst wayns and carts and sleds. Many of the wildlings had thrown up tents, of hide and skin and felted wool. Others sheltered behind rocks in crude lean-tos, or slept beneath their wagons. At one fire Jon saw a man hardening the points of long wooden spears and tossing them in a pile. Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow. A dozen women sat nearby in a circle, fletching arrows. (…) There was no doubting which tent was the king’s. It was thrice the size of the next largest he’d seen, and he could hear music drifting from within. Like many of the lesser tents it was made of sewn hides with the fur still on, but Mance Rayder’s hides were the shaggy white pelts of snow bears. The peaked roof was crowned with a huge set of antlers from one of the giant elks that had once roamed freely throughout the Seven Kingdoms, in the times of the First Men

A Storm of Swords, Jon I.

Along with the Tormunds and the Longspears rode other sorts of wildlings, though; men like Rattleshirt and the Weeper who would as soon slit you as spit on you. There was Harma Dogshead, a squat keg of a woman with cheeks like slabs of white meat, who hated dogs and killed one every fortnight to make a fresh head for her banner; earless Styr, Magnar of Thenn, whose own people thought him more god than lord; Varamyr Sixskins, a small mouse of a man whose steed was a savage white snow bear that stood thirteen feet tall on its hind legs.


And there were folks fiercer even than Varamyr, from the northernmost reaches of the haunted forest, the hidden valleys of the Frostfangs, and even queerer places: the men of the Frozen Shore who rode in chariots made of walrus bones pulled along by packs of savage dogs, the terrible ice-river clans who were said to feast on human flesh, the cave dwellers with their faces dyed blue and purple and green. With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather. He had not seen any snarks or grumpkins, but for all he knew Tormund would be having some to supper.

Half the wildling host had lived all their lives without so much as a glimpse of the Wall, Jon judged, and most of those spoke no word of the Common Tongue. It did not matter. Mance Rayder spoke the Old Tongue, even sang in it, fingering his lute and filling the night with strange wild music.

A Storm of Swords, Jon II

“As they passed, each warrior stripped off his treasures and tossed them into one of the carts that the stewards had placed before the gate. Amber pendants, golden torques, jewelled daggers, silver brooches set with gemstones, bracelets, rings, niello cups and golden goblets, warhorns and drinking horns, a green jade comb, a necklace of freshwater pearls… all yielded up and noted down by Bowen Marsh. One man surrendered a shirt of silver scales that had surely been made for some great lord. Another produced a broken sword with three sapphires in the hilt.

And there were queerer things: a toy mammoth made of actual mammoth hair, an ivory phallus, a helm made from a unicorn’s head, complete with horn.”

A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII

As we can see, there’s a lot more to the Free Folk than the people below the Wall might think. Sure, some of the treasures mentioned above have probably been acquired south of the Wall, but definitely not all of them. A lot is Free Folk made. Besides the quotes above, there are also several more mentions in the books about adorned clothing, armour (bronze and otherwise), masks, etc. The more you look for it, the clearer it becomes that just because the land beyond the Wall is cold and in some ways has fewer resources than below the Wall, that doesn’t mean that the Free Folk can’t create things (this is something I have tried to make clear with the artwork used in this essay). They can make things that aren’t just shabby fur haphazardly sewn together.

The Free Folk in Game of Thrones, picture retrieved from Watchers on the Wall.

The Free Folk cultures are rich and complex, even if it’s not in ways the people south of the Wall would appreciate. A large reason why the people south of the Wall don’t appreciate their culture is plain old prejudice and xenophobia. But a contributing factor is probably also the lack of written records about the Free Folk, apart from ones from the perspective of maesters or lords. Free Folk history is oral history, and just as in our world, such history is generally not seen as reliable or proper. Something else to note is the mention of how a lot of Free Folk only speak the old tongue, not the common tongue. The first men spoke this language too, but those south of the Wall has forgotten it after getting more assimilated with Andal culture. This reminded me of what Pohjanen (2022) writes about how the “fancy” Tornedalians would abandon their language to speak the language of the richer majority population, and at the same time take up positions where they helped police and control other Tornedalians. This is but one example from real life about how the usage of language plays a part in ethnic and class-based oppression.

Before moving on, I wanted to comment on one more thing about Free Folk culture, namely their relationship to the land. In general, it seems like those who are believers of the Old Gods have a close relationship to nature, more so than for instance those who believe in the Faith of the Seven. But what sets the Free Folk especially apart is their philosophy regarding land rights. When Ygritte and Jon discuss the land of the Gift, and how it’s been abandoned, their different view on land comes up.

“Maybe they were tired of fighting. Tired of barring their doors every night and wondering if Rattleshirt or someone like him would break them down to carry off their wives. Tired of having their harvests stolen, and any valuables taken.” But if the Wall should fall, all the north will lie within the reach of raiders.

“You know nothing, Jon Snow. Daughters are taken, not wives. You’re the ones who steal. You took the whole world, and built the Wall t’ keep the free folk out.”

“Did we?” Sometimes Jon forgot how wild she was. “How did that happen?”

“The gods made the earth for all men t’ share. Only when the kings come with their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was all theirs. My trees, they said, you can’t eat them apples. My stream, you can’t fish here. My wood, you’re not t’ hunt. My earth, my water, my castle, my daughter, keep your hands away or I’ll chop them off, but maybe if you kneel t’ me I’ll let you have a sniff. You call us thieves, but at least a thief has t’ be brave and cleaver and quick. A kneeler only has t’ kneel.”

A Storm of Swords, Jon V

In this passage, it becomes clear how people south of the Wall and north of the Wall have very different understandings of land and land ownership. In Ygritte’s view, land isn’t something you own, it is something for everyone to share. Ygritte also relates this to the Free Folk ideology of not kneeling. In a sense, this is similar to what Dr Finbog writes about the Sámi not believing in subjugating either land, non-human beings, or human beings (2022a). As she notes, the forced erasure of this way of thinking and understanding amounts to epistimicide. Perhaps we’ll see a similar process with the Free Folk as they are forced to migrate to the south and assimilate into another culture. Now, Jon and many other characters might object to the notion of freedom and non-subjugation given the Free Folk tradition of stealing daughters. And that brings us to our next topic, Free Folk understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality.

Sex, sexuality, and gender

One reoccurring thing that people south of the Wall bring up as a danger with the Free Folk is their tradition of stealing women. This is something Jon and Ygritte discuss, and she offers these counterpoints to his criticism of the practice:

”And what if they do? I’d sooner be stolen by a strong man than be given t’ some weakling by my father.”

”You say that, but how can you know? What if you were stolen by someone you hated?”

”He’d have t’ be quick and cunning and brave t’ steal me. So his sons would be strong and smart as well. Why would I hate such a man as that?”

”Maybe he never washes, so he smells as rank as a bear.”

”Then I’d push him in a stream or throw a bucket o’ water on him. Anyhow, men shouldn’t smell sweet like flowers.”

”What’s wrong with flowers?”

”Nothing, for a bee. For bed I want one o’ these.” Ygritte made to grab the front of his breeches.

Jon caught her wrist. ”What if the man who stole you drank too much?” he insisted. ”What if he was brutal or cruel?” He tightened his grip to make a point. ”What if he was stronger than you, and liked to beat you bloody?”

”I’d cut his throat while he slept. You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Ygritte twisted like an eel and wrenched away from him.

”A man can own a woman or a man can own a knife,” Ygritte told him, ”but no man can own both. Every little girl learns that from her mother.” She raised her chin defiantly and gave her thick red hair a shake. ”And men can’t own the land no more’n they can own the sea or the sky. You kneelers think you do, but Mance is going t’ show you different.”

A Storm of Swords, Jon V

Now, I’m not saying this tradition is unproblematic. But it’s not necessarily worse than being married off by your father, which is very common in the Seven Kingdoms. What’s more, as Ygritte points out, it is much more culturally acceptable for Free Folk women to take action if they’re displeased with their man. Be it throwing a bucket of water at him or killing him. A Free Folk woman isn’t owned by her husband. Nonetheless, this tradition makes the Free Folk seem wild and uncivilised to the people south of the Wall. To them, it’s unacceptable for a man to take a woman to wife without the consent of the woman’s previous owner, her father. As Learned Hands have pointed out – in medieval times, the crime of rape was mainly seen as a problem since it damaged the property of a man (be it his daughter or wife). A woman’s father or husband is the one to decide over her sexuality and reproduction. Clearly, the Free Folk don’t view it like that.

That the Free Folk don’t think of sexuality and reproduction in the same way as the people south of the Wall becomes clear in Jon’s story. In Jon’s second chapter in ASOS, Jon and Tormund discuss sexuality with Tormund joking that he’s heard that the Night’s Watch cuts off watchmen’s members so they will stay chaste. Tormund argues that this is the only reason he can see for Jon not sleeping with Ygritte.

Jon could feel himself turning red again. “She spoke for me when Rattleshirt would have me killed. I would not dishonor her.”

“You are a free man now and Ygritte is a free woman. What dishonor if you lay together?”

“I might get her with child.”

“Aye, I’d hope so. A strong son or a lively laughing girl kissed by fire, and where’s the harm in that?”

Words failed him for a moment. “The boy… the child would be a bastard.”

“You’re bastard-born yourself. And if Ygritte does not want a child, she will go to some woods witch and drink a cup o’ moon tea. You do not come into it, once the seed is planted.”

“I will not father a bastard.”

Tormund shook his shaggy head. “What fools you kneelers be. Why did you steal the girl if you don’t want her?”

“Steal? I never…”

“You did,” said Tormund. “You slew the two she was with and carried her off, what do you call it?”

“Yes, but… Tormund, I swear, I never touched her.”

”Are you certain they never cut your member off?” Tormund gave a shrug, as if to say he would never understand such madness. ”Well, you are a free man now, but if you will not have the girl, best find yourself a she-bear. If a man does not use his member it grows smaller and smaller, until one day he wants to piss and cannot find it.”

Jon had no answer for that. Small wonder that the Seven Kingdoms thought the free folk scarcely human. They have no laws, no honor, not even simple decency. They steal endlessly from each other, breed like beasts, prefer rape to marriage, and fill the world with baseborn children. Yet he was growing fond of Tormund Giantsbane, great bag of wind and lies though he was. Longspear as well. And Ygritte . . . no, I will not think about Ygritte.

A Storm of Swords, Jon II

There’s so much going on in this one quote. Firstly, it becomes very clear that the Free Folk have a very different view on bastardy than the people south of the Wall. They don’t see it as a problem if someone has a child out of wedlock, whereas in the Seven Kingdoms that would be dishonourable. Specifically, it would dishonour the woman who is no longer a “pure” maiden. As I’ve discussed previously in an essay about virginity norms in ASOIAF, the focus the Seven Kingdoms put on women’s virginity is part of patriarchal control. Controlling women’s sexuality is part of the greater control of women. That the Free Folk don’t have this preoccupation with women’s sexuality speaks to their general greater gender equality. However, it also becomes part of what makes them seem “scarcely human” as Jon puts it. This reflects the experiences of for instance Indigenous people in our world, where the sexuality of their women specifically has often been seen as problematic by Westerners (Finbog 2022a). This has contributed to these groups being “Othered” – seen as other/strange/wild, as compared to the upstanding “civilised” people of the West. The same thing can be seen with the relationship between Free Folk and the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk are the dark mirror that the people of the Seven Kingdoms use to see themselves as proper and good.

Something else to note in the above quote is that Tormund mentions that Ygritte could go to a woods witch to get moon tea if she doesn’t want a child. Learned Hands have previously discussed exactly what moon tea is (is it a contraceptive? Plan B? Abortion?) and how accessible it is to people in Westeros. It is a bit unclear based on the books, but it is definitely some sort of medicinal treatment to either completely avoid pregnancy or terminate a pregnancy. What is clear is that it provides greater reproductive freedom for those who have access to it which also leads to greater gender equality, similar to the role of both contraceptives and abortion in our world (United Nations Population Fund 2023, 100). I would, however, be remiss if I do not point out how the same medical procedures have been and are being used to control the reproduction of marginalised groups. The United Nations Population Fund referenced above does a great job of discussing this. Nevertheless, in general, greater access to contraceptives and abortion leads to greater reproductive freedom and gender equality. That Free Folk has more control over their reproduction is in line with the general greater gender equality we see in the Free Folk, where women are not restricted by the same gender norms as they are south of the Wall. There are plenty of examples of spearwives, i.e. warrior women, throughout the story and we see several women in leader positions as well. That can be seen with for instance leaders like Harma Dog’s Head, Mother Mole, Val, and Morna White Mask. However, there aren’t really any examples in the text of Free Folk men taking up more “feminine” roles. My tentative conclusion based on this is that Free Folk typically don’t have as strict of a divide between what roles men and women can hold compared to the lands south of the Wall, but that they still value “traditional” above “traditional” femininity (regardless of gender). At least if we consider what we (Westerners) might typically/traditionally see as masculine or feminine. The Free Folk seem to consider gender and gender norms differently than the rest of Westeros, so it might not make much sense to talk about traditional masculinity/femininity at all. Essentially, in the eyes of someone from the Seven Kingdoms, Free Folk women might act masculine, but in the eyes of the Free Folk, they’re behaving the way a woman might be expected to act. This is an example of how gender norms are in the end socially constructed, and different cultures can understand them differently.

But speaking of Free Folk whose gender might seem strange to people south of the Wall, I have to take a moment to discuss Morna White Mask. When we are introduced to her in ADWD, she’s described like this:

The warrior witch Morna removed her weirwood mask just long enough to kiss his gloved hand and swear to be his man or his woman, whichever he preferred.

A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII

In this small passage, we learn several things about Morna. She’s described as a warrior witch, which indicates both a fighting ability and some sort of magical and/or medicinal ability. She also wears a weirwood mask, which hints at some sort of (magical) connection with the Old Gods. And, of course, she hints at some sort of gender fluidity when saying she could be Jon’s man or woman. This magically connected character being associated with genderfluidity is interesting and also dovetails with other magical genderfluidity in the books. For instance, some argue that the dragons in the story can change their sex, which I have discussed in my essay about dragons and sex. We also get a brief mention in Cersei’s story about an alchemist who can transform women into men for a night, something Rohanne and I discussed in our Cersei essay. And of course, Arya whose story is so tied up in gender and gender nonconformity, ends up with a death cult that teaches her to change her face (I’ve discussed that in my essay about Arya, Alleras, and Brave Danny Flint). In that light, a warrior witch having a fluid gender makes total sense. But I also can’t help but wonder if GRRM was inspired by various indigenous cultures where for instance Two-Spirit people traditionally have held positions such as warriors or medicine people (Neptune 2018). It’s also worth noting how Morna seems to hold a position of respect among the Free Folk, as can for instance be seen when she’s chosen as one of the people to command a Night’s Watch castle after Jon lets the Free Folk through the Wall. This is a huge contrast to how gender-nonconforming people below the Wall are treated. As I have discussed elsewhere, for instance in relation to Brienne and Brave Danny Flint, gender nonconforming people are rarely respected in Westeros, and are in fact much more likely to be subjected to violence because of their gender nonconformity. So, Morna being seen as a respected leader is quite the contrast, and again something that tracks with how a lot of Indigenous cultures have treated gender-diverse people. But again, this understanding of gender diversity is something that the Seven Kingdoms would see as proof of the Free Folk’s wildness and use to legitimise their control of them.

Morna Whitemask, art by DREADLady, commissioned by me.

Colonial control

Having discussed the way the Free Folk are “Othered” by the Seven Kingdoms, I would like to discuss the colonial control of the Free Folk that this “Othering” helps legitimise. Because the relationship the Seven Kingdoms (and the Night’s Watch) have with the Free Folk isn’t just what a country might normally have with a neighbouring country, with them defending their borders for example. In other places in the world of ice and fire, we see those kinds of relationships between countries, for instance with the Free Cities. They might sometimes war against each other, but they also trade with each other, and people can migrate between the cities. After the latest war between Braavos and Pentos, Braavos might have forced Pentos to certain concessions (such as having no slavery and a limited amount of war ships), but it’s still not as extreme as the control the Night’s Watch enforce. In the context of Westeros, we might look at the land before the Targaryens conquered the realm – we know the different kingdoms warred amongst each other, but there is no evidence that someone from the Riverlands couldn’t jump on a ship to White Harbour to sell some grain. But when it comes to the Free Folk, this isn’t allowed. The Free Folk can’t travel to the south of the Wall to trade goods, and there seem to be limitations on who can trade with the Free Folk too. As Davos recalls:

The first time he had seen the Wall he had been younger than Devan, serving aboard the Cobblecat under Roro Uhoris, a Tyroshi known up and down the narrow sea as the Blind Bastard, though he was neither blind nor baseborn. Roro had sailed past Skagos into the Shivering Sea, visiting a hundred little coves that had never seen a trading ship before. He brought steel; swords, axes, helms, good chainmail hauberks, to trade for furs, ivory, amber, and obsidian. When the Cobblecat turned back south her holds were stuffed, but in the Bay of Seals three black galleys came out to herd her into Eastwatch. They lost their cargo and the Bastard lost his head, for the crime of trading weapons to the wildlings.

A Dance with Dragons, Davos I

Here we have Night’s Watch stopping a Tyroshi captain (so not even Westerosi) from trading with the Free Folk. Now, he was specifically trading weapons, but it is unclear if it is allowed to trade other goods either. We know that some Free Folk are allowed to trade with the Watch, for instance, Craster but also Varamyr’s mentor Haggon. Varamyr remembers a visit to Eastwatch when Varamyr himself was 10 years old:

Haggon traded a dozen strings of amber and a sled piled high with pelts for six skins of wine, a block of salt, and a copper kettle. Eastwatch was a better place to trade than Castle Black; that was where the ships came, laden with goods from the fabled lands beyond the sea. The crows knew Haggon as a hunter and a friend to the Night’s Watch, and welcomed the news he brought of life beyond their Wall. Some knew him for a skinchanger too, but no one spoke of that.

A Dance with Dragons, Prologue

Can you only trade with the Night’s Watch and land south of the Wall if you are “a friend to the Watch” and willing to provide information on your fellow Free Folk? If you’re a “good wildling” who doesn’t challenge the Night’s Watch right to control the land and border, then you can get some benefits. I’m sure that’s a familiar story for many people who have lived under colonialisation…  

The situation with the enforced border also reminds me of what Pohjanen (2022) writes about how Tornedalians have experienced the Finnish/Swedish border, with a preacher arguing that there’s not a “whiff of sin in smuggling.”(ibid, 20) If you don’t believe in the legitimacy of a colonial border, you won’t believe there is anything wrong in defying the rules set up by the officers that guard it either. Now, having said all that, I want to make one thing clear: just because I think the Free Folk should be allowed to move across the border and trade with people south of the Wall doesn’t mean I think the land above the Wall is some sort of desolate wasteland where no one could want to live. It’s clear in the story that Free Folk have lived north of the Wall for millennia, including very far north of the Wall. I also mentioned above how the Free Folk have a different relationship and understanding of land than people south of the Wall, and perhaps also a closer connection to the land. I compared this to how many Indigenous people have a different understanding of what relationships to land mean and entail compared to people of the West. I therefore also want to mention that Indigenous people in our world who live in Northern lands hardly see these lands as uninhabitable and desolate, even if people from the south might. Earlier in this essay, I quoted Válkko Elle Susá (who is quoted in Elin Anna Labba’s book) who talked about Sámi people missing the mountain Bealčán (Pälstan in Swedish) after they had been forcibly relocated to the south. To put that in perspective, this is where that mountain is located:

Google Maps map of northern Europe, indicating the position of Bealčán/Pälstan.

That’s pretty far north. In a land that a lot of people from the south would assume to not be somewhere you’d want to live. Yet people live there and have a deep connection to the land. Assuming that no one would want to live there contributes to the perception that the land is either useless or not worth preserving for people. This idea has done a lot of damage in our own world, with colonial states like Sweden and Norway both historically and currently legitimising their exploitation of Sápmi in this way. The value that the land has to the people living there is dismissed, and focus is only put on how the land can bring value to the colonial state, be it through wind power or mines. The situation isn’t quite the same in ASOIAF, but I still think it is dangerous to dismiss the land beyond the Wall as uninhabitable. For one, it diminishes the suffering of the Free Folk who, due to the onslaught of the Others, have had to give up their homes. But it also reinforces the discourse that is present in our world that northern lands such as these are desolate, which as mentioned above is dangerous. In my opinion, the problem in ASOIAF isn’t that you can’t live off the land above the Wall. The problem is that the Free Folk are prohibited from trading with other cultures and communities. Their enforced isolation is what is problematic. In this way, the Night’s Watch operates as colonial officers, enforcing the subjugation of the Free Folk, similar to for instance customs officers by the Swedish/Finnish border.

Another aspect of colonial control that I want to discuss is what Stannis does when he arrives at the Wall. After defeating the Free Folk in battle, Stannis allows them to pass through the Wall, but only with certain conditions. They have to swear themselves to him as their king and they have to give up their religion. They have to burn symbols of their religion. So, while Stannis might give the Free Folk a chance to not die against the Others, he also forces them to give up their culture and religion. And he makes it very clear that he expects them to pay him (and the realm) back with their labour, fighting for him. As Eliana of Girls Gone Canon has pointed out (when discussing Jon III in ADWD), what Stannis does here with the forced religious conversion amounts to ethnic cleansing and is very similar to what many colonial states have subjected colonised subjects to. Stannis might in theory give the Free Folk a choice, they can choose to not submit and instead try their luck against the Others, but that’s not a real choice. If they want to live, they have to submit and agree to give up their culture and religion. According to the UN, ethnic cleansing is defined as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” (United Nations: Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect n.d.) Stannis isn’t removing people from an area per se, but he’s trying to render an area culturally and religiously homogeneous by using force and intimidation.Much like different colonial powers have tried to do. Yet, as Eliana and Chloe point out in a later episode, the Free Folk persist and continue to keep their own gods. Similarly, many colonised people in our world have managed to resist the extermination of their own culture and religion to a certain degree. But much has still been lost. In the context of northern colonialism in our world, Stannis’ attempt at this reminds me of how the Swedish crown burned Sámi religious symbols and sites ( c). All the while they forced Sámi to work in the mines that the crown set up to exploit their land. While the Sámi have been resilient and tried to hold on to their culture throughout all of this, there have still been significant losses. In the context of ASOIAF, we can see that another approach is absolutely possible since Jon later allows Free Folk through the Wall without forcing them to convert. That is not to say that Jon’s approach is unproblematic, but he doesn’t engage in the same type of ethnic cleansing. While Jon hasn’t fully shed the ideas he’s grown up with, his time with the Free Folk has helped him see them and their culture as something more than uncivilised wildness. Much of the Night’s Watch, and arguably Stannis, still see the Free Folk as something that needs to be controlled. Some might acknowledge that their labour can be utilised, but still think they must be ruled by their betters.


Throughout the ASOIAF books, it’s clear that in the mind of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk are understood as uncivilised wildlings – a dark mirror to their own civilisation. The Free Folk are a threat to defend against. This becomes evident in many ways, especially in how the Seven Kingdoms view Free Folk sexuality and gender. In comparison to the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk have greater gender equality and sexual freedom, and maybe also greater acceptance of gender fluidity. This makes the people of the Seven Kingdom see them as uncivilised and wild, very similar to prejudice against for instance Indigenous people of our world. However, this is not the only reason the Free Folk are seen as wild. Another is their view on land and their belief that land cannot be owned by people. Both their views regarding gender and land pose existential threats to the status quo of the Seven Kingdoms, which is another reason why it becomes essential to dismiss the Free Folk as wild and uncivilised.

But all of this can also be used to legitimise the colonial control of the Free Folk. In this way, the Free Folk have much in common with many colonised people in our world, including those in Arctic and sub-Arctic climates. That they are being seen as uncivilised is seen as a reason why it’s acceptable to rule over them and take control over their lands, it’s not like those lands can hold any value, right? In ASOIAF, we have not yet seen the same exploitation of land as can be seen in for instance Sápmi, but we are beginning to see the exploitation of Free Folk labour. What’s more, I would argue that it’s a mistake to dismiss the importance that the land above the Wall might hold to Free Folk culture. In doing that, we risk making the same mistakes as someone like Tywin Lannister when he dismisses the Free Folk army thusly:

Pycelle cleared his throat, which involved a deal of coughing and hawking. ”The letter is from the same Bowen Marsh who sent the last. The castellan. He writes that Lord Mormont has sent word of wildlings moving south in vast numbers.”

”The lands beyond the Wall cannot support vast numbers,” said Lord Tywin firmly. ”This warning is not new.”

A Storm of Swords, Tyrion IV

And truly, who wants to make the same mistake as Tywin Lannister? Clearly, the land beyond the Wall can support vast numbers, and clearly, the people there have managed to not only survive there but uphold many different vibrant cultures. Cultures that survive even the bitterest circumstances and attempts at cultural and religious extermination from southern kings.

I hope this essay has been able to give some insight into the power dynamics between the Free Folk and the people of the Seven Kingdoms and also taught you something about colonialism in our world. When discussing these topics in a fictional context, it is always important to remember that these aren’t just theoretical issues, they are issues that have very real consequences in real life. I hope that I have managed that.

Special thanks to Noah and DREADLady for the art used in this essay!

Before listing all the references below, I want to note that the book by Elin Anna Labba about the forced displacement of Sámi that I have quoted will be available in English by December 2023. Keep an eye on Labba’s Instagram account for more information!


Ahtone, Tristan. 2023. “Indigenous youth occupy Norwegian energy office to protest illegal wind farm.” Grist, February 27, 2023.

Boellstorff, Tom, Mauro Babral, Micha Cárdenas, Trystan Cotton, Eric A. Stanley & Aren Z. Aizura. 2014. “Decolonizing Transgender: A Roundtable Discussion.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 1(3): 419-439.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2021. ”Why it matters – Terra Nullius: The Idea of Western ‘Law’ in Strategies of Colonialism.” Instagram photo, September 19, 2021.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2022a. ”Why it matters – Colonialism, Gender and Sexuality: What You Should Know About It.” Instagram photo, March 28, 2022.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2022b. ”Samer som de andre.” Liisa-Rávná Finbog, October 5, 2022.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2023. ”A Quick Guide – Landback: A few things you should know about it.” Instagram photo, March 1, 2023.

Gassko Märak, Timimie & M-Á. Ivvár Ovllá Nilla Pinja. 2021. “❤🧡💛💚💙💜 #native2native #queer2queer talk with @pinjapiezki ❤🧡💛💚💙💜🖤” Instagram video, April 2, 2021.

Hagerman, Maja. 2016. ”Svenska kyrkan och rasbiologin.” In De historiska relationerna mellan Svenska Kyrkan och samerna: en vetenskaplig antologi eds. Lindmark, Daniel & Olle Sundström. Skellefteå: Artos och Norma bokförlag [accessible online here: ]

Hübinette, Tobias & Lundström, Catrin. 2014. ”Three phases of hegemonic whiteness: understanding racial temporalities in Sweden”. Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 20(6): 423-37

Hübinette, Tobias & Catrin Lundström. 2020. Vit Melankoli: En analys av en nation i kris. Göteborg: Makadam förlag.

Johannisson, Karin. 1991. ”Folkhälsa: Det svenska projektet från 1900 till 2:a världskriget.” In Lychnos: Årsbok för idéhistoria och vetenskapshistoria, eds. Karin Johannisson,139-189.Uppsala: Lärdomshistoriska samfundet.

Johansson, Madeleine. 2022. ”Växande protester mot gruvplaner i Gállok.” Tidningen Syre, February 2022.

Jatko, Roland. 2011. ”Inte svensk”., December 2, 2011.

Jatko, Roland. 2019. ”Explicit mindrevärdighetskänsla”., November 23, 2019.

Jatko, Roland. 2021. ”Vems sanning?” Mars 16, 2021.

Karvonen, Levi. 2022. ” Något jag har tänkt mycket kring på senaste tiden har varit skammen kring att vara från Tornedalen.” Instagram post. July 15, 2022.

Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen nd.a. ”Historical dates.” Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen. Retrieved May 21, 2023.

Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen nd.b. ”Truth and Reconciliation Comission for Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset.” Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen. Retrieved May 21, 2023.

Labba, Elin Anna. 2020. Herrarna satte oss hit: Om tvångsförflyttningarna i Sverige. Stockholm: Norstedts.

Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Clash of Kings. 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.

Minde, Henry. 2005. ”Fornorskinga av samene – hvorfor, hvordan og hvilke følger?” Gáldu čála – tidsskrift for urfolks rettigheter, 3/2005.

Moreno, Federico. 2020. ”Våld och splittring efter samedomen: ”Laglöst””. Expressen, March 2, 2020.

Neptune, Geo. ”What Does “Two-Spirit” Mean?  | InQueery | them.” Youtube/them, December 11, 2018.

Nordiska Museet. 2007. Karta Över Sápmi. Retrieved 2023-05-21.

Pohjanen, Bengt. 2022. Meänkieli – Grammatik, lärobok, historik, texter. Överkalix: Barents Publisher.

Roen, Katrina. 2006. ”Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalization.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, 656-665. New York: Routledge.  

Saami Council & German Arctic Office. 2021. Arctic Indigenous People. Available online here: n.d.a “Den äldsta boplatsen.” Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023. n.d. b. “Kolonaliseringen av Sápmi.” Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023. n.d. c.I Guds tjänst.”  Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023. n.d. d “Samepolitik i rasismens tidevarv.” Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023.

SCB, 1977. Folk- och bostadsräkningen 1975: Del 3:3 Folkmängd i hela riket och länen mm samt utländska medborgare och utrikes födda i hela riket. Stockholm: SCB/LiberFörlag. (aviable online here

Towle, Evan B. & Lynn M. Morgan. 2006. ”Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, 666-684. New York: Routledge. 

United Nations Population Fund. 2023. UNFPA State of Population 2023: 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities- The Case for Rights and Choices.

United Nations: Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. n.d. “Ethnic Cleansing.” Retrieved 2023-05-21.

UR. 2018. ”Johannes tornedalska historia.”

Wikipedia. N.d.a ”Tornedalingar.” Wikipedia. Retrieved 2023-03-04.

Wikipedia. N.d.b. “Meänmaa.” Wikipedia. Retrieved 2023-05-21.

“As mutable as flame”- understandings of dragons’ sex and the implications for conceptualisations of sex/gender generally in ASOIAF

Vhagar by Sanrixian.

In ASOIAF, there is much of the lore behind the dragons that is unknown, lost to the mists of time. One such mystery is how the dragons’ sex and reproduction function. In Fire and Blood, when discussing prince Jacaerys’ visit to Winterfell during the Dance of the Dragons, Archmaester Gyldayn tells us that:

Mushroom also claims that Vermax left a clutch of dragon’s eggs at Winterfell, which is equally absurd. Whilst it is true that determining the sex of a living dragon is a nigh on impossible task, no other sources mention Vermax producing so much as a single egg, so it must be assumed that he is male. Septon Barth’s speculation that the dragons change sex at need, being “as mutable as flame” is too ludicrous to consider.

Fire and Blood, The Dying of the Dragons: A Son for a Son.

But is it that too ludicrous to consider? As I will explore in this essay, in our world there are plenty of animals that change sex throughout their life (Roughgarden 2013, 150). Why couldn’t dragons be the same? Furthermore, could mayhaps the way the maesters (and others) conceptualise dragon sex be influenced by the way they understand sex/gender generally…? What does the way Westeros understand dragons’ sex tell us about their ideas surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality generally?

This essay will explore all of those questions. But before I get more into dragon sex, I need to talk a bit about sex and gender in our world…

Theoretical background

In this essay, when talking about “sex”, I generally refer to the classifications of individuals as male/female based on their bodily morphology. However, as I will point out in the essay, such classifications are far from simple and definitely not strictly binary. As the evolutionary biologist and gender researcher, Dr Malin Ah-King points out:

When we hear the word sex, most of us probably think of the classification of humans into the biological categories of female and male. This categorisation can seem easy at first since genitals, chromosomes and hormones differ between the sexes. These differences are often seen as given. But every year children are born that can’t easily be categorised as female or male (about 1 per cent of all births). Since the clitoris and penis develop from the same organ, the possible variation creates a continuum of appearance. (…) Other biological differences also aren’t a given. The average muscle mass differs between men and women, but there is a large variation within the groups and some women have larger muscle mass than some men.

(Ah-King 2012, 13) My translation from Swedish.

So, the simplistic view of sex that we often have is, well, too simplistic. But that’s sex, what about gender? As a society, we tend to assign gender based on sex, assuming that someone with a vagina is a woman, etc. Based on this assignment, we attribute a bunch of traits to the person that we expect them to have (women should be feminine, sexually attracted to men, etc). A person might, or might not, follow these gender norms. Furthermore, they might not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. As education and gender researcher Dr Dana Stachowiak puts it, we all have a “felt sense of gender”:

This felt sense [of gender] manifests through our lived experiences in relation to the social construction of gender and the attributes that are socially linked to what mediates masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and so forth. How we identify or disidentify with socially constructed ideals is attached to the multiplicity of our identity. (…) Felt sense of gender essentially translates to a critical embodiment of self, driven by both the corporeal body and the psyche, and the impact of social, cultural, and institutional theories of hegemony on both the body and the psyche.

(Stachowiak 2017, 535)

So, our felt sense of gender can very well incorporate how we experience our body (which is why a trans person might experience gender dysphoria due to their body). But our body doesn’t determine our gender. All of this is to say, sex and gender are somewhat connected but they’re not the same thing. That’s why, in this essay, when I discuss the body and reproductive functions of animals/beings/dragons, I tend to use the term “sex”. But I might use “gender” when discussing gender norms or gender identity.

But to get some more into the understanding of sex in our world… Throughout human history and different cultures, people have understood sex (and gender) differently. The current Western view of sex being made up of two separate 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 female 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). After the 18th century, men and women started being seen as fundamentally biologically different, a view which has since been used to justify social inequality (since men were seen as better, stronger etc) (Schiebinger 1986). But both before the 18th century and afterwards, the male has often been seen as the norm. This can for instance be seen in research, where the male has for a long time been the standard, with for instance medicine only being tested on male bodies (Ah-King 2012, 24). In later years, this has slowly begun to change. But even still, binary and male-centred understandings of sex dominate. That this is ridiculous becomes even more clear when you consider other species than humans.

Dr Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist, has done a lot of work about how nature isn’t as binary and simplistic as people tend to think (Roughgarden 2013). She points out that while biologists tend to define male as making small gametes (sperm) and female as making larger gametes (eggs), this binary doesn’t apply to other bodily morphology. In many species, female and male individuals don’t look outwardly different. Roughgarden notes:

The binary in gamete size doesn’t extend outward. The biggest error of biology today is uncritically assuming that gamete size binary implies a corresponding binary in body type, behaviour, and life history. No binary governs the whole individuals who make gametes, who bring them to one another for fertilization, and who interact with one another to survive in a native social context.

(Roughgarden 2013, 150)

As Roughgarden writes, the things we assume about how sex functions, based on humans, are often not true if we look at other species (or humans either). For instance, in several species, it’s not the female who gives birth but the male. The female deposits the eggs with the male who incubates them until birth. Another example that’s often brought up as a way to determine sex in humans is sex chromosomes, with it generally being said that a male has XY chromosomes and female XX chromosomes. But this is not true for all humans (Planned Parenthood, n.d.), and even less so for other species. Roughgarden points out that in several types of birds, the reverse is true (females having XY chromosomes and males XX chromosomes) (Roughgarden 2013, 151). What’s more, in alligators, crocodiles, as well as some turtles and lizards, sex is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are raised. Consequently, the female can control the ratio of male/female offspring by where she lays her eggs.

Gator on trans flag by Gators Daily.

Furthermore, as Roughgarden points out, there are several species where an individual can “change sex” throughout their life. As she notes:

Changing sex once might seem a big deal, but some fish do it several times during their life span. An individual might change from an unsexed juvenile to a female, then to a male, and then back to a female. Or it may change from a juvenile to a male, then to a female, then back to a male. In certain species, sexual identity can be changed as easily as a new coat.

(Roughgarden 2013, 153)

These fish can lay eggs during part of their lives and during other parts of their lives they produce sperm. Yet other species of fishes are both male and female at the same time:

Hamlets, which are small coral reef basses, don’t have to worry about choosing their sex: they are both sexes at the same time. However, they cross-fertilize and must mate with a partner to reproduce. These simultaneous hermaphrodites change between male and female roles several times as they mate. One individual releases a few eggs and the other fertilizes them with sperm. Then the other releases some eggs, which the first fertilizes with sperm, and so on, back and forth.

(Roughgarden 2013, 153)

All this is to say, what we tend to assume about how sex functions simply aren’t true. It’s much more complex than just a stable male/female binary that governs all aspects of an individual’s body, appearance, and behaviour.

So why do humans keep arguing that biology and nature are so binary? One explanation is that what is seen as “natural” is often used to legitimise behaviour and norms (Ah-King 2012, 53). If male animals are naturally more aggressive, then of course male humans will be too, and that’s just an unchangeable natural fact. In that way, societal structures and norms are reproduced and upheld. It also works the other way around, with how humans tend to export our understanding of sex/gender onto animals. This can, for instance, be seen in the research of bonobos (a species of ape who similarly to chimpanzees are close relatives to humans). As Ah-King notes:

Bonobos’ social system is very different from that of chimpanzees, bonobos are more peaceful, the females create coalitions and both females and males have sex with both sexes. In nature, most aggressive interactions are because of food resources, and males then tend to yield to females.

Ideas of male supremacy have led some researchers to describe the females’ dominance over the males as the females being “testy”, “difficult” and “daring” (Parish & de Waal 2000). Males on the other hand are “tolerant” towards females and “allow” females to have the upper hand, which has been explained by “strategical male passivity” and “chivalry” (see Parish & de Waal 2000).

(Ah-King 2012, 26) My translation from Swedish.

This all becomes a feedback loop: if animals behave like that then it’s natural for humans to behave like that, and because we assume it’s natural for humans to behave like that, that’s also how we interpret animals’ behaviour. And if we come across phenomena that can’t be explained by our norms, such as same-sex animal relationships or animals with fluid sex? Then that’s just the exception that proves the rule. As Ah-King puts it, in a lot of biological research, all phenomena that fall outside of a monogamous, heterosexual, gender-conforming norm are seen as “alternative.” Something that deviates from the norm, which then serves to uphold the norm (Ah-King 2012, 40).

Sex and reproduction in dragons in ASOIAF

Dragon hatchling by Sanrixian.

Going back to the dragons, what do we know about dragons’ sex in ASOIAF? As mentioned previously, Gyldayne notes that it’s “nigh on impossible” to determine the sex of a living dragon. Then he goes on to say that Vermax must be assumed to be male because he hasn’t laid any eggs (besides the disputed Winterfell eggs). It, therefore, seems that dragons’ sex is usually determined by if they lay eggs or not. Should we, therefore, assume that all dragons that are referred to by she/her pronouns have laid eggs? That seems to be what’s implied. That would then mean that Meraxes, Vhagar, Dreamfyre, Moondancer, Morning, Quicksilver, Shrykos, Syrax, Tessarion, and “the last dragon” all laid eggs. This is despite only Dreamfyre and Syrax being specifically mentioned laying eggs. And that some of these dragons, like Moondancer, Tessarion, Shrykos, and “the last dragon” died quite young (but to be fair, we don’t know when dragons reach sexual maturity).

I will say that it’s interesting that the only dragons we know for sure laid eggs are Dreamfyre and Syrax. Dreamfyre was ridden by Rhaena Targaryen (the Queen in the West) and Helaena Targaryen, and Syrax by Rhaenyra Targaryen. We know that all these women were mothers, and they all had a somewhat fraught relationship with motherhood, and to a degree womanhood. Rhaena had two daughters but lost one of them (Aerea) to a case of teen rebellion made much worse by access to a dragon. Furthermore, Rhaena was queer and seemed to in large part resent the expectations put on her as a woman and wife (which I’ve discussed here). Yet, she seemed to love her daughters even as she struggled to be a mother to them. We don’t know quite as much about Helaena’s feelings on motherhood and her role as a wife, but she did tragically lose several of her children. This is something she shares with Rhaenyra of course, who as many people have discussed (for instance the Learned Hands on several occasions) have a fraught relationship with motherhood and womanhood. She seems to love her children, but often resents the expectations put on her by gender norms and motherhood norms. Furthermore, as I have discussed elsewhere, it is quite possible to read Rhaenyra (at least in House of the Dragon) as gender nonconforming or trans. In light of all of that, it is interesting that these people’s dragons are the only ones that we know for sure have laid eggs. Perhaps the emphasis of that by the history writers in Westeros is meant to highlight (and cement) their status as mothers and female?

Another point to note is that both Syrax and Dreamfyre, as well as several other dragons, are not only referred to by gendered pronouns but they are also called “she-dragons.” This again emphasises their status as female dragons. A similar example is of course Meleys the Red Queen, whose name indicates that she is indeed female (although that name sounds more regal and classy than “she-dragon” to me).

Meleys The Red Queen by Sanrixian.

It is interesting to note that while we have several instances of female dragons being called “she-dragons”, there doesn’t exist any example of “he-dragons.” This indicates that the male is seen as the norm. The female, not being the norm, is what needs to be pointed out. A dragon is assumed male until proven otherwise. As mentioned above, the “proving” of femaleness seems to mainly be done by egg laying. If a dragon lays eggs, it’s assumed to be female. But that raises more questions. Do the people in the story watch the dragons laying the eggs? If not, how are they sure which eggs came out of which dragon? It is assumed that if a dragon hangs around the eggs, that’s the dragon the eggs came out of? What if a male dragon incubates the eggs, like certain fish? We don’t know enough about dragon biology to know exactly how their reproduction work, and it seems like the maesters of Westeros don’t either. They simply apply what they (think they) know about human biology to the dragons. A dragon laying eggs must be female, caring for the eggs must be the one that the eggs came from if it’s being “motherly” like that.

As a contrast to what seems to be the conventional understanding of dragons’ sex and reproduction, we have Septon Barth. Barth argued that dragons’ sex was as mutable as flame and could change at need. This is also something Maester Aemon seems to agree with, saying the following when discussing the “Prince that was promised” prophesy:

“No one ever looked for a girl,” he said. ”It was a prince that was promised, not a princess. (…) What fools we were, who thought ourselves so wise! The error crept in from the translation. Dragons are neither male nor female, Barth saw the truth of that, but now one and now the other, as changeable as flame. The language misled us all for a thousand years.

(A Feast for Crows, Samwell IV)

What Aemon says here of Barth’s theories, that dragons are neither male nor female, but that their sex is fluid, matches a lot of species in our world. For instance, various species of fishes that can change their sex multiple times throughout their lives or be both male and female at the same time. So why can’t magical fantasy creatures be the same? It’s also interesting how Aemon notes that similar to how the dragons aren’t male/female, the Valyrian language doesn’t distinguish between prince/princess. In his comment, he seems to indicate some sort of correlation between those two things. It does seem like, generally speaking, Valyrian as a language is less gendered than the Common Tongue (ie English), if perhaps not completely genderless. Maybe, that linguistic difference is a reflection of a culture that was slightly less strict in its gender binary and hierarchy. That of course doesn’t mean that it was an equal culture in any way, it was a slave society after all. But we do see with some of the early Targaryen rulers, especially Aegon, Rhaenys, and Visenya, power was shared more equally between king and queen. Perhaps if you’re a society with huge fire-breathing beasts that have fluid sex, and that people regardless of gender can ride and draw power from, gender binaries/hierarchies seem less important. While other hierarchies (such as what class someone needs to be to ride a dragon) become more important.

Yet, if that was the case, such understandings of the complexity of sex/gender seem to have mostly vanished. In modern-day ASOIAF, the general understanding seems to be that both sex and gender are binary and stable. Furthermore, it is assumed that the male is the norm and superior to the female. These views of the gender binary and male superiority harm people of a variety of marginalised genders, as I’ve outlined in a variety of essays previously. For instance, the assumption that sex/gender is binary harms gender-nonconforming people, and contributes to the violence against characters like Brienne and Brave Danny Flint. But gender norms and norms around reproduction of course also harm women, as I’ve noted when writing about virginity norms in Westeros.


To summarise, then, it seems like the way maesters and people in general in the world of ASOIAF understand sex/gender is similar to our world in that it is understood to be stable and binary. This is hardly a surprise. But it’s sad that this clearly limits them in the way they can understand the true magic and wonderfulness of the dragons. They don’t, as Dr Roughgarden might put it, see the full rainbow of nature. Unfortunately, this likely also limits how they perceive diversity in humans. Just as it does in our world. Hopefully, someday the people of Westeros as well as the people of our world will be able to fully appreciate evolution’s rainbow.

Special thanks to Sanrixian for allowing me to use her art in this essay and for helping me with the dragon research. Much love to you, friend.

Further reading

Ah-King, Malin. 2012. Genusperspektiv på biologi. Stockholm:Swedish National Agency for Higher Education.

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

Roughgarden, Joan. 2013. “Sex and Diversity, Sex Versus Gender, and Sexed Bodies- Excerpts from Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People.” In Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 147-155. New York: Routledge.

Planned Parenthood. n.d. “What’s intersex?” Retrieved January 16, 2023.

Schiebinger, Londa. 1986. ”Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy.” Representations, 14 (Spring): 42–82.

The queer potential of a blank slate- Stories of transition at The Wall, The Citadel, and The House of Black and White

Content warnings: transphobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, sexual violence, murder, death generally

In the world of ASOIAF, there are several orders that offer their members a chance to start their lives over, to leave behind family names and past deeds. Perhaps the most prominent of these is The Night’s Watch, where, as The Old Bear puts it:

Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew. (AGOT, Jon VI)


But there are other places where one can get a clean slate, such as the Citadel when becoming a maester. And, of course, one can quite literally shed one’s old identity at The House of Black and White. One might therefore ask if characters in the story could use these opportunities of shedding their identities to also make gender-related transitions. I have previously written about how the character Alleras might not just be presenting as male at the Citadel to gain entry, but also because they feel like this more closely reflect their gender identity. In this essay, I want to explore that further, as well as the potential other institutions like the Night’s Watch and the House of Black and White have for transitions. I will do this specifically through characters who have a somewhat liminal gender position: Alleras, Brave Danny Flint, and Arya Stark. Essentially, this essay asks: how can certain institutions offer a way to transition for gender nonconforming people in the world of ASOIAF, and which limitations exist for such transitions?

Alleras the Sphinx

Artwork of Alleras the Sphinx. They are standing before a door which is guarded by two sphinx statues, one masculine one and one feminine one. 
Alleras has brown skin and dark curly hair. They're holding a book and has a bow slung over their back.
Their appearance straddles the line of androgynous and masculine.
Alleras the Sphinx. Artwork by Sanrixian, commissioned by me.

In the prologue of A Feast for Crows, the reader is introduced to the mysterious Alleras (“The Sphinx”), a novice at the Citadel in Oldtown. Alleras is described as a slight and comely youth, doted on by the serving girls at the inn The Quill and Tankard. The prologue tells us that he “was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widow’s peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls.” This description, among other things, has led readers to think that Alleras the child of Oberyn Martell, named Sarella Sand at birth (see more of the evidence laid out here). As mentioned above, I have previously argued that Alleras might not just be presenting as male for convenience, but also for more queer/trans reasons. One reason I think it’s important to recognise this possibility is that, as I have written about previously, trans people are often written out of history. As scholars Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt note:

Marginalised identities are often written out of the historical record by those with the privilege of formulating “historical truth”. The Middle Ages is frequently viewed as a time “where men were men, women were women, everyone was the same race and practised the same faith, and no one was corrupted by technology, sexuality or democracy”. This is not how any medievalist worth their salt would put it.

Disingenuous interrogation of the presence of trans people in history is rarely about the factual specifics of the past alone. If talking about trans lives is “anachronistic”, then “trans-ness [is] not an inextricable part of humanity or human diversity”. The transphobe’s dream is an imaginary medieval past in which everyone knows their (gendered) place. Similar themes emerge in the usage of the Middle Ages by the alt-right and beyond: those who fantasize a past in which everyone who mattered was straight, cisgender, white, and Christian. White supremacists and fascists weaponize the Middle Ages to justify their hatred.

(Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19)

So, there is value in recognising the possibility of trans people even in Medievalesque stories. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples from our world of people who we might today read as trans (even if that language wasn’t used then). One such example, that I think is interesting to compare to Alleras, is Saint Marinos. Saint Marinos was born around the year 300 in what is today Syria, and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was assigned female at birth, yet he lived for a long time as a monk and passed as a man during this time. After Marinos’ mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.

While Saint Marinos is quite different from Alleras, there are some parallels. Alleras isn’t a monk, but the Citadel is somewhat similar to a monastery in some ways. In medieval times, monks were scholars in a sense, being learned in healing and recording history for instance. And similar to the maesters, they were supposed to be celibate and leave their families behind. Another similarity between Marinos’ story and Alleras’ story is that they both followed in the footsteps of their fathers in a sense, Marinos’ father who joined this monk order and Alleras’ father Oberyn who had studied at the Citadel for a while. Based on the gender they were assigned at birth, they would not have been welcome at these institutions, and wouldn’t be able to follow their fathers, but they did anyway. Some might see that as them only wanting access to spaces denied to them due to their gender, and while that certainly might be the case, I think it’s important to consider the possibility of that not being the only reason. When I’ve written about historical trans people previously, I’ve quoted trans writer Leslie Feinberg and I wanted to do so again. In hir book Transgender warriors, Feinberg talks about historical trans people and how many, especially those assigned female at birth, are often assumed to just pass as another gender for practical reasons. Zie relates this to hir own experiences, writing:

”No wonder you’ve passed as a man! This is such an anti-woman society,” a lesbian friend told me. To her, females passing as males are simply trying to escape women’s oppression – period. She believes that once true equality is achieved in society, humankind will be genderless. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict human behavior in a distant future. But I know what she’s thinking – if we can build a more just society, people like me will cease to exist. She assumes that I am simply a product of oppression. Gee, thanks so much.

(Feinberg 1996, 83)

I think this perspective is important to keep in mind when discussing both historical people like Saint Marinos and fictional characters like Alleras. Someone passing as a man might do it for more reason than pure practicality, and to reduce gender nonconformity to just a result of oppression is insulting.

Another aspect I wanted to discuss is how coming to the Citadel might be a way for someone to not only transition but also get away from heteronormative expectations put upon them. To do that, I would like to start by discussing another Medieval Saint, namely Saint Esmarde, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was assigned female at birth but left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. The story of Esmarde describes how they did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020). But, returning to Esmarade, their father would later come to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asked that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else could “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen and venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.

Again, we have someone seeking refuge at a monastery and articulating a new gendered identity while doing so. But it’s worth noting that Esmarade in this story was specifically fleeing heteronormative pressure, not wanting to marry the man their father had chosen for them. In ASOIAF, joining an institution like The Citadel provides a similar escape. I also want to make a note here of how Wright argues that Esmarade’s use of “eunuch” to describe themselves can be seen as an attempt to articulate a genderqueer identity. As I mentioned previously, it is often assumed that trans people didn’t exist historically, but in actuality, historical people just didn’t have the same language available to them as we do today.

As I mentioned, there are of course differences between Alleras’ story and those of Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade, but I think it is interesting that Alleras in some way parallel these stories of historical people who were assigned female at birth but who joined monk orders. There exist even more such stories than the ones I described here, indicating that this was a possible path for some gender-nonconforming people in The Middle Ages. One could create a new identity by joining such a celibate order and pass as a man. Maybe that indicates that such a path would be possible in ASOIAF too.

But another point I think is important to note here is that both Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade were seen as female after their deaths when their bodies were examined. Even though they hadn’t lived as women for years, they were seen as such because of their bodies. That shows that even while someone might transition and live for years as the gender that they consider themselves to be, people might still think their assigned gender is their “true gender.” And there are risks associated with such discoveries, as will become clear with the character I want to discuss next.

Brave Danny Flint

Artwork of Brave Danny Flint. The artwork is in black and white. It shows Danny sitting on a bed, binding their chest. They're wearing black pants and a black cloak is hanging over a chair.
Their appearance straddles the line of androgynous and masculine.
Brave Danny Flint. Artwork by DREADLady Forlorn, commissioned by me.

We don’t get many mentions of Brave Danny Flint in the ASOIAF books, but what we get is grim. In ASOS, Bran IV we hear that the Nightfort is “where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered” and in ADWD The Prince of Winterfell Wyman Manderly requests “Or sing to us of brave young Danny Flint and make us weep.” We get another mention in ADWD when Jon and Tormund discuss which Nights’ Watch castle different Free Folk should be assigned to. When discussing some of the Free Folk women, Jon says this:

“Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?”

”Not as I recall. Who was he?”

”A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn’t.” In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort. ”I’ll send the girls to Long Barrow.” The only men there were Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd, both of whom he trusted. That was not something he could say of all his brothers.

The wildling understood. ”Nasty birds, you crows.” He spat.


So, what we know of Danny Flint is that they were someone who was assigned female at birth but presented themselves as a man and joined the Nights’ Watch. This is similar to Alleras and the medieval saints discussed above who also joined all-male orders that are celibate. But with Danny we see the risks of these types of actions.  Many of the medieval saints mentioned above were interpreted as female after death, but with Danny we have a person where their supposed true sex directly leads to their death.

Before discussing Danny’s violent end further, I would like to briefly look at some historical parallels for them. There are many historical examples of people who were assigned female at birth dressing in masculine clothing to join military orders or armies, from the English civil war (Stoyle 2018) to the American civil war (Hendrix 2017). Fellow ASOIAF analyst Aemy Blackfyre has also compared Danny Flint to the legend of Hua Mulan. There are also quite a few examples of people assigned female at birth who left for the American West in the 19th century and went on to pass as men, some living as cowboys (Boag 2005). Here we have people leaving their families behind to hold traditionally male positions, often in all-male spaces. While it is of course possible that they did that because they wanted to escape female oppression, it should be noted that many of these people lived as men for years. And if they did that for purely practical reasons, to gain freedom, that was a risky strategy. I previously quoted Leslie Feinberg who discussed that historical people assigned female at birth might not just choose to pass just to escape oppression. Feinberg goes on to talk about how just how difficult it can be to pass as a man:

But could she pass as male on board ship, sleeping with and sharing common facilities with her fellow sailors for decades and not be discovered? Of course, hundreds of thousands of women have dreamed of escaping the economic and social inequities of their lives, but how many could live as a man for a decade or a lifetime? While a woman could throw on men’s clothing and pass as a man for safety on dark roadways, could she pass as a man at an inn where men slept together in the same beds? Could she maintain her identity in daylight? Pass the scrutiny of co-workers? Would she really feel safer and more free?

(Feinberg 1996, 85)

Feinberg’s point here is partly that it’s difficult to pass as a man, and partly that it’s dangerous to try it. It requires dedication. With Brave Danny Flint we see just how dangerous it can be to be discovered.

In my view, it is clear that what happens to Danny Flint isn’t just your run-of-the-mill sexual violence that we often see in ASOIAF. They were targeted specifically because of their gender nonconformity. As my friend Sam of the Rainbow Guard put it on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, it seems likely that GRRM was inspired by the highly publicised fate of Brandon Teena. For those not aware of Brandon Teena, he was a trans man who was raped and later murdered in Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993 (Halberstam 2006, 22). Or rather, Brandon was one of three murder victims (the other being his friend Lisa Lambert and her friend Philip DeVine, a disabled African American man). After the fact, the main focus has been on Brandon, but it is worth noting that one of the murderers had ties to white supremacist groups, so it seems likely that this influenced the murder of the other victims. I will, however, mainly focus on Brandon for the purposes of this essay. Brandon’s life and death were also the inspiration for the movie Boys don’t cry (1999). Given that these events happened during the nineties, it is therefore quite possible that GRRM would be aware of this when he was coming up with the fate of Danny Flint.

Brandon Teena was not originally from Falls City but moved there because he had friends there. It seems like his version of masculinity was quite different from the mainly white working-class town he moved to, and not just because he was assigned female at birth. While living in Falls City, Brandon had dated several women, who in a documentary after his death described him as a dream guy, a man who knew what women wanted (Halberstam 2005, 28). Halberstam notes that:

We might conclude that Brandon lived up to and even played into the romantic ideals that his girlfriends cultivated about masculinity. Brandon’s self-presentation must be read, I believe, as a damaging critique of the white working-class masculinities around him; at the same time, however, his performance of courtly masculinity is a shrewd deployment of the middle-class and so-called respectable masculinities that represent an American romantic ideal of manhood.

(Halberstam 2005, 28)

So, in a way, Brandon was “better” at being a man than the other men in his surroundings. At least according to the women in Falls City. But being assigned female at birth, he was still seen as a fraud. This, in the end, contributed to his rape and murder. So, what I think is important to consider with Brandon Teena, and how his fate relates to characters like Danny Flint, is the motives behind the attack. It’s not just “ordinary” sexual violence, it’s sexual violence (and murder) because of gender nonconformity. As Halberstam writes regarding Brandon Teena:

(…) for the men, the body must be the final arbiter of manhood, because, in a sense, this is the only competition within which they can beat the version of masculinity that Brandon champions. When Brandon literally did not measure up to the physical test of manhood, his two male “friends” took him out to a remote spot, where they then raped and sodomized him. The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied.

(Halberstam 2005, 66)

Essentially, Brandon was punished for his gender nonconformity and masculine identity by sexual violence and then lethal violence. His embodiment forcibly straightened out, any trans and queer tendencies crushed by male sexual violence. As Halberstam puts it “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality.” (ibid)

It also bears mentioning that in the aftermath of Brandon’s death, his suffering and story were claimed by some different groups. Some understood his fate as that of a masculine and/or queer woman and read the attack as misogyny and homophobia. Today, most people would probably agree that Brandon was trans and that this attack was fuelled by transphobia. But that shows how in death, someone’s identity is easily misunderstood and misconstrued for future histories. We see a similar tendency in the stories of medieval saints I shared earlier, they too were understood as female in death. And in ASOIAF we hear of the story of Brave Danny Flint, “A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black” (AWDW, Jon XII). My point here is that we shouldn’t assume that Danny was a girl. It is very possible that they identified as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And regardless, it is clear to me that the violence done toward them is fuelled by transphobia.

The story of Danny Flint shows how perilous it can be to be trans/gender nonconforming. So, while I have been discussing how places like The Citadel and The Night’s Watch can offer a blank slate for those who want to escape their previous lives, doing so isn’t without risk. Such transitions can result in pain or even death. And speaking of death…

Arya of House Stark

Artwork of Arya Stark in acolyte robes. Behind her are two faces, one feminine one looking like her mum, and one masculine one looking like her dad. She's holding a third face, looking like her sister's face.
Arya at the House of Black and White. Artwork by Sasha, commissioned by me.

Arya Stark is a character who defies gender expectations in so, so many ways. I have previously written an essay about how she troubles gender norms, and how her story can resonate with many trans and gender nonconforming people. I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily think she’s trans, but I know people who read her as such, and I do think her story is still relevant to consider in relation to trans topics. For instance, her passing as a boy while out on the road exposes her to a lot of the same risks as trans people experience. But here I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of her story, her connection to death and the House of Black and White.

Even before Arya ends up at the House of Black and White, she is connected with death in many ways. She has her revenge/kill list, she hangs out with the resurrected Beric, and later with Sandor and his horse Stranger. Arya’s connection to death is interesting to consider since the Stranger of the Faith of the Seven is quite… queer. The Stranger is someone you don’t really worship in the Faith, but he constitutes a sort of necessary shadow to life. He’s described as both male/female and half-human/animal, for instance:

They were all afire now, Maid and Mother, Warrior and Smith, the Crone with her pearl eyes and the Father with his gilded beard; even the Stranger, carved to look more animal than human.

(ACOK, Davos I)

And the seventh face… the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable. Here the face was a black oval, a shadow with stars for eyes. It made Catelyn uneasy. She would get scant comfort there.

(ACOK, Catelyn IV)

So, the Stranger is genderless (or genderfull?) and there is also something not quite human about him. Given all that and that he’s also the god of death, it makes sense that he’s not the most worshipped god. But even if people don’t tend to pray to the Stranger, some do.

Tyrion lingered after his cousin had slipped away. At the Warrior’s altar, he used one candle to light another. Watch over my brother, you bloody bastard, he’s one of yours. He lit a second candle to the Stranger, to himself.

(ACOK, Tyrion X)

Tyrion who often sees himself as an outsider and is seen as monstrous, not quite human, clearly relates to the Stranger. As I’ve discussed previously, trans people are also often seen as monstrous and not quite human. To me, the reason the Stranger relates both to someone as Tyrion and Arya, outsiders in their own ways, is that he represents the abject. As feminist scholar Julia Kristeva might put it, the abject is that which is uncomfortably close to us (the subject) but which is impossible to assimilate into ourselves (Kristeva 1984). The abject represents that which we reject for being unbearable and unthinkable, but which still resides inside ourselves. For the subject to come into being, it needs to reject the abject which we see in ourselves but also that which we see in others. For us to make sense as people, not just to ourselves but also to others, we must reject that which is abject, monstrous, weird, queer. That is why trans people are often pushed into the zone of the abject by cisnormative society (Stryker 1994).

So, Arya is associated with this genderless and abject god. And then she joins the House of Black and White, where someone can quite literally shed their identity and transform their body. As my friend Elena pointed out on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, the House of Black and White really have some interesting potential for people who might want to change their body. Of course, the downside is that you have to join a death cult and completely abandon your previous life and identity. But to some people, that might be preferable to living in accordance with the expectations of your assigned gender, that you don’t identify with. It is interesting that this death cult offers an opportunity to completely change your body. You can literally change your face, and assumedly this also means you can change how your gender is perceived by others. Someone assigned female at birth could get a masculine face, and pass as a man with this new identity. That we get this possibility in specifically a death cult is noteworthy. As mentioned previously, in Westeros at least, the death god is somehow associated with the queer and monstrous. He’s the abject. That we get the association between that and the Faceless men who can change their appearance makes sense in a way. In abjection, you can find more possibilities than in normative conceptions of personhood. If you embrace the abject, you can do and become more. Trans scholar Susan Stryker makes a similar point when discussing the way trans people are often seen as monstrous and abject. She gives the reader this message:

Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.

(Stryker 1994, 241) [my bolding of text]

If you are to embrace a form, an existence, outside of the normative, you must risk abjection. You must question that which is taken for granted. That way you can discover the seams and sutures in yourself and unravel those to give yourself a new form. Arya, and others who seek the House of Black and White, have accepted abjection when giving themselves over to the Many-Faced God. Giving themselves over to death. For Arya, when she comes to the House of Black and White, she has lost almost everything. She has already had to give up parts of her identity so many times and she’s had to take note of her seams and sutures when creating the different personalities that she’s embodied (Arry, Nan, Salty, etc). When she arrives at the House, she willingly eats the Kindly Man’s worm. In doing so, she embraces this symbol of death. The abject. She moves toward abjection, like the others at the House of Black and White. And in this abjection, a new subject can be created. In death, a new life can be created. Death must pay for life, as they say.

It should be noted that this way of creating a new subjectivity and new bodily form is hardly as healthy as what Stryker proposes. The harm that it does to Arya’s psyche and body seems more similar to what transphobes fear gender-affirming healthcare means. And one does wonder about the ethics of using these faces- did the previous face owners consent to their faces being used like this? I can’t help but think of some early transphobic feminists’ criticism of trans people, where transsexuality was referred to as “necrophilic invasion” and trans women were accused of exploiting women by “appropriating” female bodies (see my essay about trans history for more on this). Given all of that, I want to acknowledge that it is not completely unproblematic to compare the Faceless men and the House of Black and White to the transition trans folk might go through today. But it’s also worth noting that it seems like in the world of Planetos, this might be one of the few ways people can see of completely escaping their circumstances. Which says a lot. At the House of Black and White, the erasure of one’s previous identity is more complete (and effective) than in the other orders I’ve discussed. The past won’t come back to haunt you as it did for Brave Danny Flint. You can completely remake yourself.

There are also some other key differences between the House of Black and White and the other institutions I’ve discussed. For one, even though the people there are referred to as the Faceless Men, there are women at the House too. In fact, in contrast to the black brothers of the Wall, the House of Black and White seems to embrace a slightly more dualistic approach, being open to more people. This is evident even in their symbolism, with the black and white door to the House and the black and white robes that acolytes wear as compared to the black clothing of the Night’s Watch. But on the other hand, the House has a very strict (black and white) approach to who can become a full-on member of the order. One has to completely surrender one’s previous identity, to a much more extreme extent than what the Citadel or the Night’s Watch require. But as mentioned above, that also means you can truly leave your old life behind.


So, in conclusion, it seems like characters in ASOIAF could use these institutions of the Citadel, the Night’s Watch, and the House of Black and White to get a clean slate- pursuing a life and identity that feels more right to them. In this cisnormative world, it might very well be easier to start over than to transition in your old community. Of course, some of these orders require more extreme commitment to starting over, but for some that might be preferable to the life they were living previously.

These stories of transition also echo the history of our world, for instance with people who were assigned female at birth joining monk orders or the military. But as our own history tells us, even if you manage to transition there are risks of violence if your past or body is revealed. Because people tend to think those aspects of you speak to your “true” being and “true” sex. This can lead to tragedies like that of Brandon Teena in our real world or Brave Danny Flint in ASOIAF. Such fates make me worry for Alleras in the upcoming ASOIAF books… But even if that isn’t the case, if you don’t die a violent death, your identity might very well not be recognised after your death. The histories might erase your transness/queerness. This is why it’s important that we uplift trans histories and trans stories in medieval-esque fiction. Stories are powerful and they help us fight for a better world. A world where someone can transition without having to join a literal magical death cult.

Special thanks to Sam and Elena for helping inspire this essay, and extra thanks to Sam for helping me access some theoretical writing while I was on the road. Thank you also to Merry for discussing Arya with me and helping me sort out my thoughts. Thank you to Virginie for beta-reading. And of course, thank you Sanrixian, DREADLady Forlorn, and Sasha for the artwork!


Aemy Blackfyre. 2022. ”Hua Mulan Symbolism in A Song of Ice and Fire: Brave Danny Flint, Sarella/Alleras, and Lyanna Stark (Historical Parallels II).” Aemy Blackfyre’s Blog, May 15, 2022.

A Wiki of Ice and Fire. n.d. Alleras/Theories. Accessed November 13, 2022.

Boag, Peter. 2005. “Go West Young Man, Go East Young Woman: Searching for the Trans in Western Gender History.” Western Historical Quarterly, 36(4): 477-497.

Bychowski, M.W. 2018. “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” The Public Medievalist, November 1, 2018.

Bychowski, M.W. 2021. «The Authentic Lives of Transgender Saints: Immago Dei and imiatio Christi in the Life of St Marinos the Monk.” In Trans and Genderqueer subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 245-265. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Elena K, Rohanne Lily, Sam Doran & Lo the Lynx. 2022. ”Gays of Thrones: IAFC 2022 Panel.” Ice and Fire Con [Youtube-channel].

Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Halberstam, J. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place. New York: New York University Press.

Holm, Sølve M. 2017. Fleshing out the self: Reimagining intersexed and trans embodied lives through (auto)biographical accounts of the past. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.

Kristeva, Julia. 1984. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Spencer-Hall, Alicia & Blake Gutt. 2021. “Introduction.» In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 11-40. Amsterdram: Amsterdram University Press.

STOYLE, Mark. (2018), ‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War. History, 103: 5-26.

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

Hendrix, Steve 2017. «A history lesson for Trump: Transgender soldiers served in the Civil War.” The Washington Post, August 25, 2017.

Wright, Vanessa. 2021. “Illuminating Queer Gender Identity in the Manuscripts of Vie de sainte Eufrosine.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 155-176. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Guest episode- The Silent Sisters (House of the Dragon episode 9)

This week, I had the opportunity to once again guest on The Silent Sisters Podcast and talk about House of the Dragon! This time we covered episode 9 and all the complex things going on in regard to gender, sexuality, disability, class, and power generally. The amazing Akash also guested on this episode, and I had an amazing time talking with them about all of this!

If you missed it, I’ve guested on The Silent Sisters Podcast two other times during this House of the Dragon season: episode 2 and episode 5. Thanks again to The Silent Sisters for having me, it’s been a blast!

Guest episode- The Silent Sisters Podcast (House of the Dragon episode 2)

Last week, I had the opportunity to guest on The Silent Sisters Podcast to talk about the latest episode (episode 2) of House of the Dragon! I had a great time talking about all things gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, and more.

Keep an eye out on The Silent Sisters’ podcast feed, you might see more of me before this season of House of the Dragon is over…

Lords Too Fat to Sit a Horse: Body Normativity and Masculinity in ASOIAF

Content warnings: fatphobia, cissexism, racism

The king was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon saw only a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks. He walked like a man half in his cups.

(AGOT, Jon I)

From very early on in ASOIAF, we get told that a Real Man is a fierce and strong warrior, not a fat man in silks. With Robert Baratheon, we are presented with a king in decline, weakened by a lavish lifestyle. In the eyes of many, he has gone from a strong and charismatic warrior to a weak-willed fat king. As readers, we should most likely question this assessment since Robert’s main character flaw is hardly his weight but rather characteristics like his unrelenting hatred towards the Targaryens, his treatment of his wife, and his disinterest in ruling. Characteristics that he had before he gained weight. Yet, in the story, his failure as a person, a leader, and a man is so very often seen as connected to his weight. As Jon thinks, Robert isn’t a giant among princes anymore, “only a fat man.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the world of ASOIAF is not only a world with quite strict gender norms, it is also a world where such norms clearly intersect with other societal norms (just as in our world). I have previously highlighted this in relation to for instance the intersection of gender, sexuality, and disability as well as gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. Here I wanted to focus on a similar question, body normativity and masculinity. I’m borrowing the term “body normativity” from researcher Denise Malmberg to describe the way society classifies certain bodies as normative and others as deviant. As Malmberg notes, there is seldom a strict boundary between the two, with the normative body generally being defined by what it is not. For instance, it is not too fat, skinny, tall, or short. Or, heaven forfend, disabled in any way. Malmberg also points out that body normativity often interacts with other norms, such as gender norms and sexuality norms. That’s what I want to focus on here. Specifically, I wanted to discuss how fatness interacts with norms of masculinity in relation to the characters Samwell Tarly, Wyman Manderly, and Illyrio Mopatis.

Samwell- Ser Piggy

Art by Noah/@samanthatarly

When we are first introduced to Sam, we are almost immediately made aware of his body size and how this, in the eyes of his surroundings, makes him lesser.

A striding huntsman had been worked in scarlet thread upon the breast of the fat boy’s fur-trimmed surcoat. Jon did not recognize the sigil. Ser Alliser Thorne looked over his new charge and said, ”It would seem they have run short of poachers and thieves down south. Now they send us pigs to man the Wall. Is fur and velvet your notion of armor, my Lord of Ham?”

(AGOT, Jon IV)

As the chapter(s) go on, it is clear that Allister sees Sam as pathetic and weak in large part because of his body size, and because of his inability (and unwillingness) to fight. He soon gives him the nickname “Ser Piggy”, a clear reference to his body size and probably his lack of courage. It’s also clearly a form of dehumanisation. Sam himself confesses to Jon and Jon’s friends that he’s afraid of fighting and calls himself a coward for it. This connection between his body size and his (supposed) lack of bravery comes up several times, from several characters. For instance, Chett makes this comment when Jon tries to convince maester Aemon that Sam should be allowed to swear his vows as a Night’s Watchman.

Chett could stand no more. ”I’ve seen this fat boy in the common hall,” he said. ”He is a pig, and a hopeless craven as well, if what you say is true.”

(AGOT, Jon V)

Of course, Sam isn’t actually a coward, as many fans have pointed out (I recommend Girls Gone Canon’s coverage of Sam for many examples of this). When we get Sam’s point of view, we can see that he also makes this connection between his body size and cowardness. But he also makes more explicit connections between this and his masculinity, or lack thereof. In his first chapter he first thinks:

The snow will cover me like a thick white blanket. It will be warm under the snow, and if they speak of me they’ll have to say I died a man of the Night’s Watch. I did. I did. I did my duty. No one can say I forswore myself. I’m fat and I’m weak and I’m craven, but I did my duty.

(ASOS, Sam I)

Here there is an implication that his fatness, weakness, and cowardness somehow take away from his status as a man, but that he did his duty makes it possible for him to still be deemed a man. He can still die as a man of the Night’s Watch. Later in the same chapter, however, he thinks this:

Sam was sorry; sorry he hadn’t been braver, or stronger, or good with swords, that he hadn’t been a better son to his father and a better brother to Dickon and the girls. He was sorry to die too, but better men had died on the Fist, good men and true, not squeaking fat boys like him.

(ASOS, Sam I)

Here Sam first points out his different failures, that he’s not (in his mind) brave, strong, or martial enough and that he has failed to live up to the image of a proper son and brother. Then he goes on to compare himself to the “good men and true” who have died, implying that he, as a “squeaking fat boy” has less value than them. Clearly, in Sam’s mind, the fact that he isn’t physically strong and brave (in the sort of traditional sense) means that he isn’t a real man, and therefore he’s lesser. He has a similar thought in A Feast for Crows after he sleeps with Gilly for the first time:

The best thing he could do would be to slip away and jump into the sea. If I’m drowned, no one need ever know that I shamed myself and broke my vows, and Gilly can find herself a better man, one who is not some big fat coward.

(AFFC, Sam IV)

That Sam continually associates his fatness and (supposed) cowardness with failing at being a “real man” is hardly surprising, since masculinity is so often associated with strength and being in control (Whitehead 2002, 189). This is something I’ve previously discussed in relation to how disability and masculinity are presented in ASOIAF. While the dynamic is similar when it comes to fatness and masculinity, the intersection between body normativity and gender works slightly differently there. In general, fatness is often associated with laziness, unintelligence, lack of self-discipline, and general incompetence (Trautner, Kwan & Savage 2013). For fat men specifically, this often means that they are seen as feminine since masculinity is so defined by strength and control. In fact, studies have specifically shown that people perceive fat men as less intelligent, competent, successful, healthy, hardworking, and masculine than slim men (Trautner, Kwan & Savage 2013). Of course, constantly being seen as such also impacts one’s self-image as we can see with Sam. Since he feels that he is less of a man because of his body (and the attributes he associates with it), he sees himself as lesser.

Unfortunately, this has been reinforced for him by many people in his life. This is something Noah (@samanthatarly on Twitter) explores beautifully in their essay about Sam’s relation to gender. Similarly to characters like Tyrion or Brienne, Sam has grown up in a world where his deviation from gender norms is relentlessly mocked. Similarly to Brienne, he’s often dehumanised and compared to an animal. Similarly, to Brienne, he feels like a freak because of it. They’re even both compared to pigs specifically, with Red Ronnet comparing Brienne to a sow in Jaime’s third AFFC chapter. I’ve talked elsewhere about how this dehumanisation of Brienne is an example of how gender non-conforming people are often seen as the abject. Those of us who don’t conform to gender norms are often viewed that way, as less human. Instead of being accepted as a subject, a proper person, we are reduced to the abject, that which is unbearable, unthinkable and needs to be rejected (Butler 1993). Basically, to be recognised as a coherent subject in our world you need to conform to certain norms. For instance, you need to have your body line up with your gender and gender expression in the way society expects. If it doesn’t, you don’t make sense to people. People don’t recognise you as a subject, a proper person. Arguably, trans and gender-nonconforming people are seen as unnatural and monstrous a lot of the time, not human (Stryker 1994). Similarly to Brienne, Sam is despised and seen as freakish because of his deviation from gender norms but also because of his body size. His existence in relation to both of these norms is what makes him be seen as so freakish. He’s seen as unmanly because of his size, and the association of weakness that comes with it, but also because he doesn’t want to live up to the ideals of manhood. The manhood that has constantly hurt him throughout his life, through people like his father and Allister Thorne. As he thinks himself, he always preferred spending time with the women in his life, singing, and wearing soft fabrics. He has never felt comfortable with the tough masculinity expected of him. Yet he still feels like a failure because of his inability to live up to these expectations. He feels incompetent and weak even if he’s of course the opposite of that, he’s just not as competent in typically masculine pursuits as the men in his life would like him to be. But as many fans have pointed out, Samwell Tarly is incredibly brave, and his skills and intelligence will be critical to the endgame of the story.

Wyman- Lord-Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse

Art by cabepfir

The idea that fat men lack self-discipline and are incompetent becomes extremely clear when it comes to Wyman Manderly. The first time we meet him is when he visits Winterfell for the Harvest Feast, to which he apparently arrived by barge and litter because he is “too fat to sit a horse” (ACOK, Bran II). While at Winterfell, Ser Rodrik instructs Mors Umber to work together with Manderly to build the North a fleet. Umber responds like this:

“Manderly?” Mors Umber snorted. ”That great waddling sack of suet? His own people mock him as Lord Lamprey, I’ve heard. The man can scarce walk. If you stuck a sword in his belly, ten thousand eels would wriggle out.”

”He is fat,” Ser Rodrik admitted, ”but he is not stupid. You will work with him, or the king will know the reason why.” 

(ACOK, Bran II)

Clearly, Umber associates Manderly’s fatness with some sort of incompetence and does not want to work with him because of it. Later, in ADWD, when we hear of Manderly again his weight is once again associated with his ability to act, but here it is connected to cowardice as well. This comes up several times in connection to Stannis’ need for Manderly for his campaign, for instance in these two exchanges between Jon and Stannis:

”For that, you need White Harbor. The city cannot compare to Oldtown or King’s Landing, but it is still a thriving port. Lord Manderly is the richest of my lord father’s bannermen.”

”Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse.” The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more.

(ADWD, Jon I)

”You could bring the north to me. Your father’s bannermen would rally to the son of Eddard Stark. Even Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse. White Harbor would give me a ready source of supply and a secure base to which I could retreat at need. It is not too late to amend your folly, Snow. Take a knee and swear that bastard sword to me, and rise as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.”

(ADWD, Jon IV)

The implication in these two exchanges is that Stannis looks down on Wyman for not supporting him (on-brand for Stannis), and he seems to somehow associate this weakness of character with Manderly’s weight. It seems like he/the text makes some sort of connection between being fat and being weak/cowardly/not doing one’s duty. A similar sentiment is expressed by Lord Godric Borell in Davos’ first ADWD chapter when Davos expresses surprise at the Frey’s presence in White Harbor:

”Freys?” That was the last thing that Davos would have expected. ”The Freys killed Lord Wyman’s son, we heard.”

”Aye,” Lord Godric said, ”and the fat man was so wroth that he took a vow to live on bread and wine till he had his vengeance. But before the day was out, he was stuffing clams and cakes into his mouth again. There’s ships that go between the Sisters and White Harbor all the time. We sell them crabs and fish and goat cheese, they sell us wood and wool and hides. From all I hear, his lordship’s fatter than ever. So much for vows. Words are wind, and the wind from Manderly’s mouth means no more than the wind escaping out his bottom.” (ADWD, Davos I)

(ADWD, Davos I)

Again, there seems to be an association between fatness and weakness of character (and perhaps lack of self-discipline). Later, at Ramsey and fake-Arya’s wedding, Barbery Dustin makes a similar comment about Manderly’s drunkenness and what it means:

”Drowning his fears. He is craven to the bone, that one.”

Was he? Theon was not certain. His sons had been fat as well, but they had not shamed themselves in battle. ”Ironborn will feast before a battle too. A last taste of life, should death await. If Stannis comes …”

”He will. He must.” Lady Dustin chuckled. ”And when he does, the fat man will piss himself. His son died at the Red Wedding, yet he’s shared his bread and salt with Freys, welcomed them beneath his roof, promised one his granddaughter. He even serves them pie. The Manderlys ran from the south once, hounded from their lands and keeps by enemies. Blood runs true. The fat man would like to kill us all, I do not doubt, but he does not have the belly for it, for all his girth. Under that sweaty flesh beats a heart as craven and cringing as … well … yours.” (ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)

(ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)

Here again, it’s assumed that Wyman is cowardly and lacks the ability/willingness/strength to act and this is associated with his fatness. This is consistent with how fat men are often perceived by their surroundings (Trautner, Kwan & Savage 2013). Now, compared to many people in our world, Manderly still possesses a lot of power and privilege because of his economic, cultural, and social capital. He’s still a great lord. That’s why he can treat Davos the way he does, for instance, putting on his mummer’s farce. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Davos is in a much more precarious position because of how much Davos’ power and capital are tied up with Stannis. So, while Manderly is mocked by many in his surroundings, he still retains much of his power.

What’s interesting with Wyman, however, is that he seems very aware of how other people see him and uses it to his advantage. As he says himself to Davos:

”I am fat, and many think that makes me weak and foolish.”

(ADWD, Davos IV)

In that very chapter, he notes that he has managed to sneak away from a feast because everyone is convinced that he needs long visits to the privy. As many fans have speculated before (see for instance Radio Westeros’ episode on the Grand North Conspiracy), it seems likely that he makes use of how he’s perceived to enact a variety of anti-Bolton and anti-Frey plots.

The way Wyman makes use of how people perceive him to make himself seem less threatening reminds me of Varys in some ways. As I’ve argued previously when discussing Varys’ masculinity, he too seems to play up certain parts of how he’s perceived to seem weaker and less threatening. As I argued there, parts of what make him appear weaker to his surroundings are that he is perceived as more feminine, not just because of his status as a eunuch but also because he is Essosi. This brings me to the next person I wanted to discuss…

Illyrio- The Cheese Monger

Art by Fantasy Flight Games

One of the first descriptions we get of Illyrio comes from Dany:

[Illyrio] moved with surprising delicacy for such a massive man. Beneath loose garments of flame-colored silk, rolls of fat jiggled as he walked. Gemstones glittered on every finger, and his man had oiled his forked yellow beard until it shone like real gold.

(AGOT, Daenerys I)

In this description, Illyrio’s body shape is a clear focus but so are his luxurious clothing and accessories. Illyrio continues to be associated with wealth throughout the story, and when we meet him again in Tyrion’s story, Tyrion often focuses on this.

Illyrio was reclining on a padded couch, gobbling hot peppers and pearl onions from a wooden bowl. His brow was dotted with beads of sweat, his pig’s eyes shining above his fat cheeks. Jewels danced when he moved his hands; onyx and opal, tiger’s eye and tourmaline, ruby, amethyst, sapphire, emerald, jet and jade, a black diamond, and a green pearl. I could live for years on his rings, Tyrion mused, though I’d need a cleaver to claim them.

(ADWD, Tyrion I)

Here, Illyrio is the very picture of a gluttonous rich man. His fatness and love for food seem to be associated with some sort of general gluttony and greed, as it often is with fat men (Harker 2016). He is, after all, often referred to as the “Cheese Monger” which hints at both his love of food and profit. As Tyrion himself thinks:

”Yes, my fat friend,” Tyrion replied. He thinks to use me for his profit. It was all profit with the merchant princes of the Free Cities. ”Spice soldiers and cheese lords,” his lord father called them, with contempt. 

(ADWD, Tyrion I)

Clearly, by the standards of Westerosi lords, to just focus on profit like this is something worth contempt. Of course, by this point, the reader hardly trusts the scheming Illyrio either. This connection between fatness, gluttony, opulence, and moral corruption that we see with Illyrio is rather reminiscent of Orientalist depictions of Eastern men in our world.

As I have discussed elsewhere, for instance in relation to Varys and Lysono Maar, many Essosi men in ASOIAF are surrounded by Orientalist tropes. Such Orientalist tropes were first systematically theorised by Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1979)There Said describes how the East is homogenised, eroticised, exoticized, infantilised, and degraded in the Western psyche. As part of this, Eastern men were generally feminised, not seen as real men. This is all to uphold the West as civilised and morally superior. As Shiloh Carroll has pointed out, such tropes are all too common in Medievalist fantasy (including ASOIAF).

Medievalist fantasy is a blend of the modern and the medieval, containing many colonial and postcolonial issues to be parsed. Despite the possibilities offered by the fantastic to explore unfamiliar realms inhabited by creatures that do not exist and humans with magical abilities, writers are still constricted by their own experiences as well as the necessity of communicating their ideas to an audience. Thus, ideas and cultures from the familiar world creep in, and for Western writers, this can include an almost subliminal imperialism.”

(Carroll 2018, 107)

As she goes on to describe, this can unfortunately often be seen in how GRRM describes various Essosi characters, who often contain traces of Orientalist tropes (ibid, 119). I would argue that Illyrio is a very clear example of this. He is constantly associated with exotic luxury and excess, a common Orientalist trope (Bach 1997). Such a person is not a proper (Western) man, who should be self-disciplined and certainly not clothe himself in silks and jewels. So, with Illyrio we see an interesting interaction between body normativity and Orientalism. Both as a fat man and an Eastern man, he’s associated with excess and femininity, and both contribute to him seeming morally corrupt.

Another significant way body normativity and Orientalism intersect with Illyrio is when it comes to his sexuality. The reader early on associates him with sexual practices that we might see as immoral or even barbaric, specifically his role in brokering the marriage between Dany and Drogo. Later, we learn that Viserys through Illyrio gifted Dany an enslaved handmaiden to teach her the art of pleasing a man. When Tyrion meets Illyrio in ADWD, he’s also offered an enslaved woman to have sex with. Illyrio is continually associated with sexual practices that the reader would disapprove of, perhaps especially when he uses enslaved people for sexual purposes. The use of enslaved people, in general, is very Eastern coded in the world of ASOIAF, as slavery is not legal in Westeros. A connection is therefore made between Illyrio’s sexual preference, his ethnicity, and his wealth (since he can afford to buy all these enslaved people). But that’s not the only way his sexual preferences are presented as immoral. He also describes thinking about the young Daenerys like this:

”Daenerys was half a child when she came to me, yet fairer even than my second wife, so lovely I was tempted to claim her for myself. Such a fearful, furtive thing, however, I knew I should get no joy from coupling with her. Instead I summoned a bedwarmer and fucked her vigorously until the madness passed.”

(ADWD, Tyrion II)

The reader knows that Dany was very young at this point, so for him to think this way comes off as quite disgusting to us. The specific words he uses are also noteworthy. He talks about wanting to “claim” her, once again alluding to his greed and wish to own things. The reader is encouraged to think of Illyrio as perverse at other times as well:

The fat man stroked one of the prongs of his oiled yellow beard, a gesture Tyrion found remarkably obscene. 

(ADWD, Tyrion I)

So, Illyrio is again and again associated with some sort of inappropriate sexuality, and this is often associated with his wealth, greed, and through that his general excess and gluttony. This is perfectly in line with Orientalist tropes, which often see the Orient as “the space of illicit sexuality, unbridled excess, and generalized perversion.” (Puar 2007, 75). This becomes another way to feminise the men of the Orient and portray them as lesser men. Furthermore, as I alluded to, one can also see norms surrounding body normativity influence how Illyrio’s sexuality is described. In our society, fat men’s sexuality is generally perceived as monstrous and dangerous (Harker 2016). As Harker notes, there often exists a tendency to associate the fat body with uncontained desire, both for gluttony (food, drink) and sex. This is seen as dangerous, a dangerous hunger with which the fat man risks consuming his partner. Again, Illyrio is doubly deviant because of his body shape and his ethnicity.


Throughout this essay, I have discussed the way fat men in ASOIAF are seen as mess masculine because of their body shape. They are often associated with various other negative traits as well because of this, such as weakness, cowardice, incompetence, and general deviance. These are all traits that brand them as Not Real Men. As Marie C Harker puts it:

At its core, fat embodiment, and in particular fat male embodiment, threatens the coherence of gender, challenging the stable maintenance of boundaries between male:female and the vast network of relational binaries which depend upon this mutual exclusion.

(Harker 2016, 989)

But it’s also clear that other societal structures and norms impact any specific individual’s circumstances. With Sam, we can see that his general gender nonconformity impacts the degree to which he is ridiculed, and dehumanised, and his internalisation of it. On the other hand, while we see many similar preconceptions with Wyman because of his body shape as we do with Sam, he is somewhat protected by his status and capital. Illyrio might also be somewhat protected by wealth, but with him, his wealth and splendour also become a signifier of his cultural Otherness. His excessiveness and what is perceived as gluttony becomes intertwined with Orientalist tropes of the exotic and morally corrupt Eastern man.

As usual, then, it becomes clear that in order to fully understand any character, we must consider several societal structures and norms at once. No one person can be defined by only one characteristic or identity.

A special thanks to Eliana and Virginie for very helpful commentary and feedback on this essay.


Bach, Evelyn. 1997. “Sheik fantasies: Orientalism and feminine desire in the desert romance.” Hecate 23(1).

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

Girls Gone Canon. 2021. “ASOIAF Episode 148 — AFFC Brienne VI featuring Lo the Lynx.” December 17, 2021.

Girls Gone Canon. 2022.

Harker, C Marie. “Fat male sexuality: The monster in the maze.” Sexualities 19(8): 980-996.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Lost manhood: analysing the eunuch’s masculinity in A Song of Ice and Fire.” August 27, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Disability, gender, and sexuality in ASOIAF.” August 27, 2020.

Lo the Lynx & Aemy Blackfyre. 2020. “The Beautiful Spymaster: Lysono Maar, Orientalism, and Liminality.” December 20, 2020.

Malmberg, Denise. 2012. “’To Be Cocky Is to Challenge the Norms’: The Impact of Bodynormativity on Bodily and Sexual Attraction in Relation to Being a Cripple.” lambda Nordica, 17:1-2, 194-216.

Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke University Press.

Trautner, Nell Mary, Kwan, Samatha & Savage, Scott V. 2013. “Masculinity, Competence, and Health: The Influence of Weight and Race on Social Perceptions of Men.” Men and Masculinities 16(4): 432-451.

Radio Westeros. 2015. “Episode 19- The North Remembers.” October 28, 2015.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

SamanthaTarly. 2021. “If It Is Chains You Want: Samwell Tarly, Gender, and War.” September 7, 2021.

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

Guest episode- Girls Gone Canon

This week, I had the absolute honour of joining one of my favourite podcasts to talk about one of my favourite characters, Brienne of Tarth. We talked about gender, religion, knighthood, the cost of war, and so much more while both laughing and crying.

Anyone who has spent any time following me here or on social media knows I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Brienne, especially in regards to their gender since I’m a non-binary trans person myself. So to have the opportunity to talk about all of this in depth was brilliant. Thank you so much Chloe and Eliana for the opportunity!

Guest podcast appearances- Davos’ Fingers & TroyeTalk

This past week, I have had the honour of making a guest appearance on not one but TWO podcasts.

One is on the esteemed ASOIAF podcast Davos’ Fingers, where I joined Matt and Scad to discuss the prologue to A Feast for Crows. We ended up having a great discussion about the mysterious and magical events of that prologue, but also all the fascinating power dynamics on display. And boy is there a lot to cover, from the gender and sexuality norms apparent in the situation between Rosey and Pate, to Alleras’ position in relation to structures surrounding gender and race. I had a great time, so if you have three hours (!) to spare, I encourage you to take a listen!

I also had the opportunity to join my friend Jonas on his excellent podcast TroyeTalk, where he discusses the music of Troye Sivan. We talked about the song ”WILD”, but also a lot about heteronormativity, queer longing, and our own wild (and drunk) adventures. And somehow also eugenics. It was a blast to sit down and chat about all of this, and I think that comes across on the episode too.

Hoping I’ll have more opportunities to collaborate with friends soon!

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.