A Song of Ice and Fire Game of Thrones Novels

Daenerys as the White Savior

Last week, I came across this Tumblr post: Why Daenerys Should Not Be Glorified. In it, the author argues that Daenerys is a deeply problematic character in the series, because she acts as a White Savior in Essor, echoing themes of imperialism by storming into places like Astapor, inflicting her own moral beliefs on the people, and destroying the cities without any understanding of their culture.

It’s an interesting read, and it makes some valid points. But I think it goes too far in condemning Daenerys and her savior complex.

Dany’s story is neither an imperial narrative nor an anti-imperial narrative, but a story that (like many elements of A Song of Ice and Fire) falls uncomfortably in between.

(This post has vague book spoilers beyond what’s been shown in the TV series)

Daenerys does play the role of the “white savior” in several of the books. In A Game of Thrones, she does nothing to stop Khal Drogo and his Khalasar from raping and murdering the people in the towns and villages they pass in general, but sets herself apart from them by trying to save whatever individuals she can. But although it has “white savior” implications, Dany is just playing the role of a decent human being here. It is perhaps problematic that the Dothraki are presented as a savage culture that do these sorts of things, but then again, their actions are mirrored in Westeros again and again, with Clegane’s men, with the Brotherhood without Banners, and on and on. Dany is in a position of some power and influence (although nowhere near as much power and influence as she would like), and she attempts to use that power to save whoever she can.

And yet, she fails. As Mirri Maz Duur makes clear, she didn’t actually “save” anybody. She tried to help some people, out of goodness, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was part of the group that attacked her, and that saving someone’s life isn’t worth much when all the rest has been destroyed.

We see a similar problem in the third book. Daenerys liberates the slaves in Astapor and kills the masters in the process. As the tumblr post stated, this could be read as the white saviour coming in and saving these more barbaric cities from their wicked ways. After all, although many things are acceptable on Westeros, slavery is decidedly not, and there is something more than a little hypocritical about Daenerys accepting Jorah as an ally but killing these others involved in the slave trade without a thought.

But she’s also being a decent human being, and using her power (and her dragons) to save thousands of people. I don’t think it’s wrong for Daenerys to “impose her values of right and wrong” on a slave city where thousands of people are suffering and dying. At a certain point, right is right and wrong is wrong, and Daenerys cannot be faulted for tricking the slavers and destroying their trade and the city it is built around. If she turned her back, that would open her to a different kind of criticism, of being too cold-hearted and not caring about anyone she’s not connected with.

She can, however, be faulted for not thinking through the consequences of her actions. As a dramatic set piece at the end of an episode, Daenerys’ liberation of Astapor was fantastic. As a long term strategy, it’s all going to fall apart, as A Dance with Dragons shows. We cannot fault her for wanting to free the slaves. But she was naive to think that she could simply “liberate” them and that everything would be fine. If she’s presented as a kind of imperialist savior, then the ensuing story acts as a criticism of that attitude, even if it’s done with the best intentions. She swooped in with her dragons and “fixed” things… and in some ways, things became worse as a result. The change has to be internal, not made by force, in order to take hold.

I do think that the representation of non-Westerosi cultures and races is one of the most problematic elements of the series, especially as it ends up with the white Daenerys providing a kind of moral intervention in Essos (even though some of the things she intervenes with are also seen in Westeros, and her interventions usually fail). Yet Daenerys is also a lost girl looking for a home for herself, someone who tries to integrate into whatever culture she encounters in order, in some ways, to develop a sense of belonging. She has a strong sense of right and wrong, and has rather ruthless ambitions, but she isn’t storming into foreign cities to make them more like herself and the culture that she knows. She is still searching for her home and for her birthright, and although she makes many mistakes, and develops something of a superiority complex along the way, she doesn’t have an attitude of “freeing the savages,” and she doesn’t get a free pass for even her well-intentioned behavior. If her story is one of the “white savior,” it doesn’t paint it in a particularly positive light.

18 Comments

  1. Foxessa

    May 2, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    If her story is one of the “white savior,” it doesn’t paint it in a particularly positive light.

    Nope.

    Most of all, how is she feeding 8,000 slaves marching about this fairly empty country?

    Even cursory examination of the economies and maps of this world shows it silly. For example what are all those people and beings living on — and there are, we are constantly told, armies and armies of them — beyond the wall, in a world of all ice and snow? And the Wall and Nighwatch itself? Look at say Hadrian’s Wall — which was a magnet for all kinds of trade on both sides, the centuries having wives and families — and even starting businesses.

    Yet fans insist Got is so historically accurate!

    1. Rhiannon

      May 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Haha, I’m not sure how a fantasy series can be “historically accurate,” with its dragons and decade-long summers. I guess people mean “gritty.”

      I thought Dany had trouble with food supplies in the 5th book. I might be wrong though, I don’t remember it too clearly. Sometimes issues like food supply come up… like with King’s Landing, and the shortage of food at the Night’s Watch with winter on its way, but it’s definitely a problem that appears when needed and is hand-waved otherwise. (Then again, long explanations of how farming and the economy works wouldn’t make for the most interesting book).

      1. Alex

        May 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm

        Dany dealing with the population issues of the slaves she rescued is given a huge amount of attention of the fifth book, esp. in regards to the water sickness spreading through the Yunkai army.

    2. Anne

      May 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm

      Speaking of historical inaccuracy, it has always bothered me how the whole of Westeros apparently speaks the same language, whether they live in the distant north or in the south of the south, but also whether they are noblemen or peasants (during the XII century for instance, English noblemen would most often speak French or write in Latin, not English. My understanding is that they would consider serves and peasant as an entirely different kind of men). It draws a clear line between the white people of Westeros and the people of colour living in Essos, who speak other languages, and I think that on a subconscious level, it makes it more easy to oppose them.

      1. Alex

        May 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm

        If we’re considering Westeros ‘historically accurate’, as in based on European history, it would be taking place sometime in in the 13th – 16th centuries, by which time English is (a) the dominant language of the nobility and common people and (b) is becoming fairly standardized. Of course, Westeros is also host to zombie ‘Others’ and centuries of dragons, so it seems unlikely GRRM cared too much to develop the linguistic history of the country.

        1. Alex

          May 4, 2013 at 12:17 pm

          **14th – 15th century, following the death of the Black Prince

          1. Anne

            May 4, 2013 at 4:07 pm

            Yes indeed! But there is still a wide variety of languages spoken in other kigndoms in this period, as in France. And Westeros in my understanding is a whole continent, no? I don’t mind that it’s historically inaccurate, but if you’re going to take the Middle Ages as your inspiration, then at least you should make sure it makes sense on the whole. And I think this linguistic unity doesn’t at all, which goes against the principles of the suspension of disbelief.

    3. Gabriel

      June 27, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      How can you be historically accurate in fantasy? Nobody says it is historically accurate.

  2. Anne

    May 2, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Well, for once, I actually disagree with your review. I think that as far as the show goes, Daenerys’ actions are glorified. I mean, the destruction of Astapor was cinematically well done, but she basically wipes out an entire cast because of one person, because of one slave owner. The show doesn’t show anyone else that owns slave, or has the right to own slaves (which isn’t the same thing. So does the term “master” apply to them all, or just the former), but she alone judges them all guilty. Regardless of the fact that some of these people may have married into a family of slave owners without owning slaves themselves for instance, or that these slave owners were born in a culture in which slavery and torture are wildly regarded as acceptable and normal, making it realistically hard to overcome these prejudices (which doesn’t mean they’re not enslaving and torturing people, but that it takes time to change mentalities on a wide scale, and that in this perspective, subtle progress may have already been made), or that some may still endorse slavery, while treating their slaves kindly (which is still paternalistic bullshit, and still slavery, but it’s not like the slave owner Daenerys meets). For all we know, some inhabitants may have already tried to actively transform the system to end slavery, but then again, they would have to do it step by step if they don’t want the city to collapse entirely economically speaking, because its economy seems to relie nearly solely on slave labor. We do not even know what Daenerys or the unsullied mean by ‘children’! When does childhood end for them? Ten? Twelve? Fifteen year old?
    My point is: she doesn’t even begin to try to understand the roots of such a system, and more importantly she doesn’t care about the individuals, she assumes they’re all the same. And that is especially problematic as it concerns people of colour. That reminds me of white imperialism and colonialism. It is something the narrative reinforces through the unsullied- they’re all robbed of their individuality and turned into machines (something I have ranted about in my latest commentary on your blog, on the previous GoT post), a psychological aberration. And on a more metatextual level, it does have positive connotations (even if they were not necessarily intended), because it magically provides her with a sort of super army.
    What she did was still a mass murder. Dany at the beginning of the series was still a rather moral character (though a problematic one in many ways -on the whole, I personally think Martin is creepily paternalistic when he writes her), but now? I wouldn’t say so.

    1. Rhiannon

      May 2, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      I certainly don’t think Dany is an entirely moral character, especially as the series goes on. One of my favorite moments with her was when she realized that her dragons were monsters, and wonders what that makes her, because although she has good intentions, she can be ruthless and is often blind to the moral nuances of what’s going on… which is why I think it’s important for the narrative that she sticks around and sees how everything falls apart.

      The unsullied are a major problem, though. How can she “free” people who’ve had any concept of freedom or individuality taken from them?

      I must reread this scene again to see how it all happens. I got the impression that there were many slavers doing horrific things in the city (such as the ones leaving slaves to die on that street in the TV show), and that Dany was telling them to target the master and slaver owners who were involved in the slave trade, in training the Unsullied and in torturing other slaves. But you’re right that it misses any shades of grey in what’s going on, and anyone who may have been struggling against it in more subtle ways. The “moral” thing to do in that kind of situation is a complicated mess, and Dany’s blunt “I have dragons!’ approach is not the answer, as the rest of the plot shows. But I don’t think the narrative is condoning her behavior (at least, in the books. The show hasn’t got far enough to explore it fully yet). It condones the principle of what she’s doing, but emphasizes the fact that her “solution” wasn’t a solution at all.

      1. Anne

        May 3, 2013 at 5:12 pm

        But I don’t see why the unsullied should have been denied their individuality in the first place, you know? When a white character like Theon is tortured, we see the devastating effects on his mind, how it affects his identity even, but he is still Theon, albeit a deeply changed one. But the unsullied are all the same, they are all presented as a sort of robots. See them all following Dany’s order like one man in the latest episode? Why would Martin or the writers of the show depict them in such a interchangeable way, which is utterly unrealistic psychologicall speaking. I don’t believe you can take individuality from a person, yet Martin does that. I find it a cheap trick to provide Dany with an army, but I cannot believe that ALL OF THEM would (or even could -are we supposed to think they all have the same interpretation of what she says) follow her orders exactly (something she does not consider, which as the general of an army is incredibly stupid. By now she should be inform one of the most basic rules of combat, which is that you should be able to hold back your men after a combat before they snap and let their urges take over). I have a problem with the fact that she is able to reflect on the consequences of the actions of dragons (and that’s also mere common sense that, well, fire burns and cannot easily be controled), but not of men.
        But if the author does not show them as people, even seem to think of them as people, then again it should not surprise me that neither does Daenerys. I still find her blood-thirsty and dangerously self-centered, though I do think you have a point. I also think that in depicting the unsullied as “standardized” super-soldiers (visually speaking, their scenes in the last episode were impressive, and there was a sort of epic atmosphere going on, which bothers me because it was entirely unquestioned) romanticizes their torture.
        You’re right that’s it’s a moral mess, but Daenerys does not even begin to consider the situation as such, which is so very scary to me.
        That’s what I meant when I wrote that I think it was reinforced by the narrative itself, even if it’s only up to a point. That’s still too much to me.

  3. Foxessa

    May 3, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    But the unsullied are all the same, they are all presented as a sort of robots.

    Because they are from the mysterious east where they are all alike with no minds of their own? And speak stupid languages that nobody understands?

    More seriously what also bothers me about the unsullied is that a fighting force that is supposedly that non-individual and willness should be really easy to cut to pieces. Just take out the person giving them orders and they wouldn’t know what to do. You need a well regulated, well-drilled army yes, in which all the members know the signals and know who to obey in order of descending chain of command. But that’s just it — you need a lot of people who can think for themselves, who can make very fast decisions in place.

    Fantasy indeed. It doesn’t do armies or battles very well, when these matters are written from the perspective of fantasy boys’ fantasies, as opposed to how wars and battles and soldiers actually work. Julius Caesar is still one of the best sources for these matters, which he thought about as deeply as Wellington and Napoleon, and had as much personal practical battle ground experience as a commanders as both Wellington and Napoleon.

    Anyway, this show is just talking heads in costume against exotic colorful locations — well if you’re not in the North anyway. Very little happens other than sex and nudity, which are the cheapest things to shoot and the most distraction from viewers noticing that there ain’t much goin’ on here Mr. Jones — as opposed to Dylan’s admonition that “there’s something goin’ on here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.”

    1. Kraas

      May 14, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      The Unsullied do not work that way. Read the books. If they give Grey Worm some of the lines he has in the books, you’d know that. The Unsullied are not robots. They are renowned as some of the best soldiers in the world precisely because they are the most well-regulated, well-drilled soldiers in the world. They certainly can think for themselves and do. The main thing that sets them apart from the rest of the armies in the story is that their discipline is absolute, they are eunuchs, and they have been trained to ignore pain (and it IS acknowledged that they still do feel pain; they are human). And their training is never cast in a positive light.

      “Very little happens other than sex and nudity.” You obviously haven’t paying much attention if you have been watching at all.

  4. hoover2001

    May 3, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Daenerys is a pure blooded Valyrian whose ancestors came from Essos. The Targaryens are an entirely different race than the races of Westoros (with the silver hair and purple eyes) So, if Daenerys herself, is from a race of Essos, does that change any of the debate? And aren’t both the slaves and slave owners made up of different races? (including from Westoros) I know the show has cast white actors, but the racial components of the books are different than our world.

    1. Anne

      May 4, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Yeah, but she’s still very white. And I don’t feel that she thinks of herself as someone from Essos: she very much wants to come back to Westeros. She also holds Westerosi values, and the difference (whether cultural, moral, social, etc…) between her and the peoples from Essos is always. I didn’t find while reading the book that her origin as a Valyrian in opposition to Westerosi was underlined, but I might be wrong.
      You may have a point for the slave owners of Astapor in the book, that I don’t remember. In the show however, we only see one slave owner, and he seems to be from the same race than the slaves, no?
      It has personally always bothered me that the Targaryen should have silver hair and purple eyes, because it’s very cliché, and it has Aryan connotations (even if unintended), since the family is associated with a form of purity and with pure magic, you see?

  5. Foxessa

    May 4, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    The Targaryean always seemed to be a sort of homage to Michael Moorcock’s (got’s author has a high admiration for Moorcock) Elric of Melniboné series’ protagonist. Except violent eyes instead of crimson ones — and that sort to be sort of making fun of romance heroines.

    Description of Elric:

    It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone.

    Recall how long ago the author began this series — before 9/11 even! — he hadn’t yet heard of, or at least taken in any way seriously the concerns of social justice. They hadn’t actually entered the sf/f consciousness of most writers, editors or publishers. Shoot, when Got was published in 1996 almost all the history sf/f writers insisted the U.S. Civil War wasn’t about slavery — and I got totally told I was a stupid girl for publishing some stories around this matter (despite being an historian, because, you know, men always know everything and girls can’t know such things as history).

  6. voodooqueen126

    May 14, 2013 at 5:42 am

    It does have similarity’s to the Arab slave trade (and mass castration of) Sudanese-and other East Africans, and Charles George Gordon’s Siege of Khartoum. I know this because I Dingka guy once told me that he was named Gordon, after Charles George Gordon, and that many men where named after Charles George Gordon, and many women named after Queen Victoria.

  7. ArchmageXin

    May 15, 2013 at 4:19 am

    Ladies and gents. Dany is what? 13 in the book, 16 in the series? She is 16. People need to realize she is not a long term strategist, race savior or feminist heroine. She see what she think is right or wrong, and receive proper reward/consequences (freed loyal slaves/death of her son etc).

    She is really another SANSA. However, while SANSA dream the traditional little girl who marry a prince charming, Dany goes around thinking she is some noble Targyenian Queen that will make the world all better, that women will be with their husbands, men will lay down their arms, children will be fed.

    The only difference is the world slap both Sansa and Dany in the face on how reality is different than fantasy (I.E people they trust betray them), and one is being played around as a pawn, while the other is running lose with weapons of mass destruction.

What do you think?