Dorne. It conjures up a host of images, doesn’t it? Rolling desert dunes baking under an angry red sun; sweeping grassy plains undulating beneath burgeoning thunderclouds; craggy foothills, soaring mountaintops; water gardens and golden domes and labyrinthine city streets teeming with a cacophony of colorful and colorfully-dressed peoples.
Sunspear! The Threefold Gate! Palaces, bazaars, and pillow houses! Oh my!
Readers of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were first introduced to Dorne by way of mention. We were told of Elia Martell, the wife of Rhaegar Targaryen, raped and killed so viciously by Ser Gregor Clegane with the blood and brains of her murdered infant son still on his hands. A joyful introduction if there ever was one!
Soon we got to know Oberyn Martell, rogue younger brother of Prince Doran Martell. Oberyn “The Red Viper” is a character many readers immediately gravitate to; most of us can’t wait to see who is cast in that milestone role. And Oberyn is, to most, the door that opened to Dorne, and from there we get Arianne, and Hotah, and the Sand Snakes, and Darkstar who is the NIGHT—!!!
I want this. I want a kickass Red Viper and I want freaking Dorne! I don’t care if Dornish girls taste funny, I want to try one!
And yes, I have my reasons why I see Dorne as important. Some people don’t—some have even suggested the show might cut corners by removing its onscreen presence altogether—but I disagree. Vehemently.
But I’m just one guy. I only have one opinion. And really, who the hell cares what I think? Fortunately for me, I am not alone. And rather than have me just go spout off about it, I decided instead to make this a bit more of a community-spirited endeavor.
So I gathered unto me a panel! My goal was to make a collage of thoughts—a colorful one, pun intended.
I had initially hoped to have as many men as women on the panel, however all of the men I asked politely declined… so I ended up with a panel full of women. Eight of them!
Not a problem! If you’ve ever been to a George R.R. Martin book signing, you already know the female fans outnumber the males. (Dude could have himself a harem if he wanted one, honestly.) So I made the giraffe—all the ladies are depicted accurately in that picture there above—and I fired four questions at them. Two of those questions appear here before you now; two will appear in a later post, aptly titled “The Importance of Dorne – Part 2.”
Our cast is as follows: Celia (Korean American); Sade (Nigerian American); Ours is the Fury (white American); Christi (Latina); Rachel (white New Yorker); Jonelle (Jamaican); Marissa (Taiwanese American); Cheryl (Vietnamese American); and me, FaBio, your Average American White Guy. (With Jewish tendencies. I credit my grandmother.)
Below are the first two questions I asked. What I want you to do, gentle readers, is to ask yourself the same questions and to respond in a like manner; I want this to be an open thread discussion. Do you agree with any of the opinions and points made? Let us know! Do you disagree? Let us know that too!
I want to open a dialogue and to keep it open. You will not be mocked. (At least by me.)
NOTE: Aside from a few slightly-spoilery pictures, I have tried to mitigate certain DIRECT spoilers from leaking into the narrative (though obviously the cat’s out of the bag as far as Dornish characters and some of their more interesting personality traits go). I ask that if any of you wish to discuss some of the more spoilery plot-smashers that Dorne brings about—PLEASE use spoiler text!
Question 1. As a reader of A Song of Ice and Fire, do you even like Dorne? Where, amongst all the other lands, do you place it in your pile of favorites? Top three? Top ten? Tell me what sticks with you when you think of Dorne, good or bad?
Fury: I love Dorne. I mean I freakin’ love it. Easily top 3. Dorne is freedom and danger and deserts and most of all, the Martells.Sade: Dorne has worked its way up to the number one spot on my favorites list. Dorne’s presence challenges most things we as readers have been asked to accept as the Westerosi status quo. Most women in Westeros can only inherit marriage; Dornish women are granted the same inheritance rights as men. They are allowed to hold positions of power as well as share the same sexual freedoms. This might be a reflection of the fact that Dorne is the only kingdom founded by a woman, but I find it progressive all the same. In addition, Dorne’s geographical location made them difficult to conquer and assimilate into Westerosi culture. Even the Targaryens, who came in on dragons, had to find common ground with Dorne in order to bring the kingdom into the fold of the Iron Throne. As a result, unlike the rest of Westeros, the Dornish have been able to maintain their cultural identity and I find that fascinating.
Celia: I think Dorne is even more vivid to a reader’s imagination than Essos. I really like the region and its flavor. It is definitely top five.
Rachel: Firstly – I’m a sucker for a good vengeance story. Secondly – Dorne is a much friendlier place for women in Westeros. Their attitudes about sex, inheritance, and the role of women in society is more aligned with my personal beliefs, and I’m not ashamed to say that I am easily attracted to the pieces of fiction that I agree with. We can put Dorne in my top 3. I’d probably put the Greyjoys and the Wildlings ahead of them (also a sucker for lost causes). The cast of characters in Dorne is pretty spectacular. The snarky ‘tudes alone, guys! Arianne is the best!
Cheryl: I went from being somewhat “ehh” about Dorne to being very intrigued by it. Mainly because I found the Red Viper so fascinating, also, it’s the only land where women are truly valued!
Marissa: Dorne really stands out to me because of its ability to maintain, for the most part, a distinct Westerosi subculture despite overwhelming pressure from the crown, the Faith, and the majority Andal subculture. Out of all of the seven kingdoms, Dorne alone withstood Targaryen conquest and was the kingdom most on equal footing with the Targaryens, intermarrying with the royal family. Dorne also happens to be the most progressive kingdom, supporting cultural practices such as absolute primogeniture and polyamory. Dorne is ethnically and culturally different from Andal-dominated Westerosi culture.
Christi: Dorne is my second favorite place mostly because Spanish was my first language and I prefer to see the Martells as noble Spanish Moors. All of the other minorities in the series exist as either foils or companions to the primary POVs, but Dorne introduced to us ethnic POVs, and it really won my heart. So I can’t wait to see Dorne!
Jonelle: Dorne is perhaps at the top of my list of favourite places in ASoIaF. Socially, their society is a more progressive and less restrictive than the rest of Westeros; they have equal primogeniture, bastards are allowed some upward social mobility, they have healthier views on sexuality etc. Their unique location and geography means that they have a history of being difficult to conquer and they’ve also resisted subjugation by procuring alliances through marriage.
Marissa: I find it fascinating that historically, Dorne has always been the entry staging ground for any invasion of Westeros from the First Men to the Andals to the Rhoynar (the only exception being the Targaryens who flew in on dragons and landed in King’s Landing.) That’s just fan trivia, though—Dorne is meaningful to me because as a cultural entity, it challenges a lot of automatic fantasy tropes about a “monolithic fantasy culture.” Even though absolute primogeniture did not exist in our world until the 1960s, it can exist in Dorne in a fantasy world with medieval-level technology! Also, the fact that the otherwise incestuous Targs repeatedly married into the Dornish royal family defuses any racially awkward (and clichéd) assumptions about the very white Targs prioritizing “racial” purity—instead, the Targ fascination with intermarriage can be understood as family/bloodline purity.
Sade: At the time I began reading the book series, I was also researching kingdoms in Africa whose historical impact in Europe have been largely ignored. Reading about the Dornish I was able to draw connections to Ethiopia (one of the few countries in the world to resist colonization by the British), the Moors of Spain (whose religious and cultural independence made them a nation to fear), and the Tuaregs (desert nomads that mostly occupy regions in North Africa). It’s clear to me that the Dornish are meant to be people of color in a genre where it’s so rare to see a character that isn’t white in a position of power—if you see them at all!
Rachel: Dorne has a culture that is distinct from the Western European-like peoples that populate the rest of the continent and that can be a welcome relief after my thirtieth hour reading about bearded dudes with greasy hair reminiscing about jousting. If GRRM claims to subvert the traditional fantasy genre then he is definitely making a statement with Dorne; the history of Westeros that the reader is presented with up until their introduction is not the only legitimate history of Westeros. A Song of Ice and Fire is as much about points of view and the non-reliability of memory as it is about the traditional fantasy trope of the empowered youth finding their rightful place in the world. Plus, people forget that the Martells represent the only remnants of the Targaryens in Westeros and that makes them absolute contenders and the fantasy reader in me that obsesses over bloodlines (blame Tolkien) really likes their claim.
Jonelle: The most interesting part is that it bucks the idea of a purely white European fantasy world. There are plenty of clues in the text that indicate the ethnic diversity in Dorne and the fact that their ruling family are people of colour, such as their spicy food (the spice trade initially developed through South Asia, the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and East Asia), their origins in Essos/the east, and the way they’re exoticised in the text and thought of in terms of their physical and culture differences; and there’s also some prejudice against them. There are additional quirky clues, such as when Nymeria of the Rhoynar crossed the narrow sea to the shores of Dorne, she married a ruling Martell named Mors Martell. Whether George intended this or not the name Mors is a reference to the Moors, who were African Arabs that ruled parts of Spain for 700 years.
Christi: If the question is “what stands out most to you” with Dorne, for me honestly it’s “potential”. It seems like it would be so much FUN to do the water gardens and Sunspear and all that exotic spicy COLOR…. like it’s a place where a Latina (or any ethnic person) can say “I think I belong here!” —and it’s in a FANTASY world! It blows my mind. It feels like they could open up SO MANY doors in our imaginations. It’s this huge canvas just waiting for paint, you know?
Marissa: What I think is interesting, too is that a lot of fans stump for a “Mediterranean” Dorne; but since in the show Kings Landing is already a Mediterranean stand-in, it’s clear that in order to make Dorne both a distinct and consistent cultural entity within Westeros, casting and design should very firmly shift away from northern or western European cultural trappings seen in the northern parts of the continent. In a lot of fantasy works, the world building stops at Northern or Western European influences…this isn’t and shouldn’t be the case for ASOIAF.
Rachel: Everyone is pointing out that Dorne is culturally distinct. That the Dornish have different laws, different food, different skin colors, and that the way that GRRM uses the Dornish in the genre is just as important as the way he uses them in the ASoIaF narrative. Entertainment Weekly released a pic of Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham in the Ender’s Game adaptation. I had figured they would just gloss over the Maori part of Rackham’s character but no, they gave an Indian guy Maori facial tattoos. Because that’s OK. I am even more invested in this conversation now. This kind of thing just can not be allowed to continue without public outcry. The casting process is officially lazy. It must be changed. We have higher expectations.
Fury: If the filming of movies and shows like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Spartacus on location in New Zealand have proven anything, it’s that there’s a huge amount of talented actors of Maori descent who would be suitable for Mazer Rackham, and the same applies for Game of Thrones. There is no lack of non-white talent in the UK and Ireland either. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trolling for casting tips and looking over agency webpages, and there are plenty of actors to choose from. The show has no excuse.
Marissa: The diversity of Dorne itself actually allows for some casting latitude because there is no one-on-one correlation to a real-life ethnicity in the same way as there is in Ender’s Game. Nina Gold and the other casting directors actually have a great opportunity to cast from a multiplicity of ethnic groups for the Dornish roles (eg. instead of putting out a casting call for a Tunisian actor or Indian actor specifically, they can put out a casting call for a wider range (North African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, etc.)
Question 2. The Red Viper is the first Dornish character we’re introduced to, and is easily considered a fan favorite. Who do you imagine in that role when you picture him? Not necessarily a specific actor, but is there a type of person you would hope to see? Also, in the books he is noted as being bisexual. Is this an important trait?
Celia: I see someone lean and mean, wisdom etched on his face, both coldness and passion in his eyes.
Christi: Haha is it too late to get Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem?? JK. I could also see a buffed up Alexander Siddig or David Negahban if they wanted a more Middle Eastern look. When I first read the books I imagined Oded Fehr but then I thought hmm he has played this sort of role all his life.
Fury: When I read A Storm of Swords, I envision someone darker in coloring, and lean and angular in appearance. Dangerous looking, but not bulky or obviously imposing.
NOTE: FaB likes the thought of Naveen Andrews in the role, but he may be busy working on a television film.
Rachel: I’ve always imagined Oberyn as a handsome man just entering the decline of his prime. I also definitely imagine a person who is not white. I don’t tend to picture absolute identities when I read, but if pressed I would probably describe an Arab guy. But he could also be East Indian or African. Or anybody not white because at this point in the show, I would settle for a simple “not white”.
Jonelle: I consider Elia Martell to be the first Dornish character we’re actually introduced to, but I think people tend to skip over her description in the narrative. She’s talked about in the same exoticised way Dornish are typically described in Westeros. Elia’s description was actually one of the first bits of information that gave me clues that the Martells were people of colour. She’s described as “darker” in the text and Rhaenys, her daughter, is remembered as looking more Martell in her colouring than her brother Aegon. There’s no actor in particular that I imagine as Oberyn Martell. I hope that the casting will give actors of colour a chance to accurately represent the Martells as they’re the only prominent ruling house with people of colour.
Marissa: The Red Viper is both an emblem of the House and the readers’ and Tyrion’s gateway into understanding the Martell family of Westeros. Oberyn and his paramour, Ellaria Sand, should bring a new dynamic to court. Their Dornish ways challenge the mainstream-Westerosi social order; Dornish bastards like Ellaria can become royal consorts, and noblewomen like Cersei bristle at her presence. There develops a clash of cultures at King’s Landing that is far more threatening and adventurous than when the Tyrells came to court. Oberyn is kind of a provocateur—he’s incredibly worldly, sexy, deadly. Also, he was the brother-in-law of Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen.
Sade: House Martell is said to take after the Salty Dornish (most Rhoynish blood, olive skin, black hair, dark eyes) but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a variation in looks. Tyrion describes Oberyn:
“…his face was lined and saturnine, with thin arched brows above large eyes as black and shiny as pools of coal oil…A salty Dornishmen for certain.” – ASOS, Tyrion Chapter 38
Tyrion noting with certainty that Oberyn is a salty Dornishman means (as far as Tyrion has been lead to understand of racial diversity in Dorne) there is no doubt that Oberyn is Dornish and by Westerosi standards different. Considering the negative racial undertone that is provided when the Dornish are spoken about (see Lazy Leo’s charming description of Alleras’ heritage in AFFC among other examples) it is clear that, at the very least, the ruling family of Dorne does not reflect the Westerosi standard of “normal”. I would like for Nina Gold to consider this when casting and find an actor of color—maybe of North African or Middle Eastern descent—to play the part.
Marissa: I am confident that Nina Gold can find a British actor of color–perhaps someone of Middle Eastern, North African, or South Asian descent– for the role because there is a lot of unique talent out there. To me, casting an actor of color to the Red Viper serves a number of different purposes. First, it will clearly convey a story—the story of the Rhoynar settlement, the story of Dorne and its unique relationship with the Iron Throne, the story of a strong independent culture distinct from Andal culture. This casting will also extend opportunities to actors of color to play an old family from Westeros rather than the recent immigrants primarily portrayed by actors of color on the show (Talisa, Salhador, Xaro, etc. are all immigrants.) Lastly, it will prevent Game of Thrones from sending a problematic and hurtful message—that the best actor to play a character of color is a white actor even though there are plenty of equally talented actors of color.
Cheryl: I imagined him as a darker skinned individual, maybe Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern. I don’t think the bisexuality is an important trait; I didn’t even remember he was.
Celia: Whether he’s bisexual does not matter to me, maybe adds even more layer to the man because he is a BAD ASS.
Jonelle: Oberyn and his paramour Ellaria Sand are two of the few queer/bisexual characters in the series. I think it’s important to represent marginalised sexualities that actually exist in ASOIAF, especially through two people who are very loving and respectful of each other since there are few healthy relationships depicted in the series.
Christi: I don’t mind him being bisexual but I would still hope they would cast Elaria Sand. In fact I would omit Taena Merryweather and give Elaria Sand her parts. How much Myrish swamp are we going to get if Thoros of Myr is a white man anyways? The more that they can do to show off Dornish culture in this upcoming season the better, IMHO.
Fury: I think his bisexuality matters and I’d like to see it acknowledged even if it’s in a subtle way, such as him checking out a man in passing. We had one character’s non-straightness eliminated (Xaro) and I’d hate to see Oberyn turned 100% straight.
Sade: I would die for them to address it with substance because I think his sexual freedom is also a reflection of Dornish culture but given the show’s depiction of non-hetero couplings I’d rather they not touch it at all. Or at least allow him to speak openly of his trysts (much to the chagrin of Cersei, I’m sure) with men the same way he speaks of sharing partners with Ellaria. There is this open pride and dismissive attitude of Westerosi standards that Oberyn gleefully displays in the books and I would love to see it play out on screen.
Rachel: I also think it important that Oberyn be portrayed as virile, masculine, desirable, competent and bisexual. I put all those words together in one sentence because I think it is time that we stop defining non-hetero men as un-masculine. It’s just insulting to all parties for a variety of reasons that I would love to discuss in the comments. I’m not being a book purist when I make that point, btw. I think when creating fiction, whether adapting or creating something original, we have a responsibility to ourselves not to totally bullshit our audience. If, as a writer, you choose to portray a continent populated by people of only one ethnicity or sexual orientation then you better have a good reason to do so. If you are attempting to portray a continent the size of South America (says GRRM), featuring a variety of established religions and ethnicities, well then it’s total bullshit when you homogenize the populace. It just is.
Celia: I actually don’t think the writers should be concentrating on his bisexuality. It should just be a matter-of-fact kind of a thing. He should be this BAD ASS guy that even straight men would be crushing on… and then suddenly in one scene he’s shown in bed with Ellaria and another man. I don’t need the show to focus or embellish on his bisexuality, I barely rememebered it myself (it’s also been awhile since I read the books). The thing that stuck with me about the Red Viper was that he was an exotic BAD ASS who I was rooting for. And he had layers and complexity. I think his bisexuality should be one of those layers just casually peeled for the audience, not something that is featured. Maybe Loras can even represent a foil for Oberyn in that way. Loras’ homosexuality is a plot device that GoT uses, and unfortunately with Margaery’s strength and maturity, some of those Tyrell strengths, in my opinion, were taken away from Loras. But they can totally turn the stereotype up on its head with the Red Viper. And they SHOULD.
Marissa: With Oberyn, I think people tend to focus on his bisexuality (pansexuality? Oberynsexuality?) but I also think it’s interesting to note that Oberyn is also “poly.” He and Ellaria Sand have an open, yet monogamous, collaborative, polyamorous relationship. At the same time, both characters shun the institution of marriage (depicted as so oppressive and as a power transaction this season) by choosing not to partake in it. It amazes me how one supporting character, present for just half a book, can have so many intersectional identities. (“How would I describe the Red Viper…I hear his hair is insured for 1000 golden dragons.”) He can’t be boiled down to “the bi guy” or “the poly guy” or “the brown guy” or “the witty guy” or “the poisoner guy” or “the enigmatic guy.” Television writers are trained to write in tropes; to write this character accurately will require the writers to really challenge those tropes to make a character that is not designed for audiences to immediately understand. George R.R. Martin makes that look so effortless, but it is actually really hard. So I don’t think Oberyn would identify as ‘bisexual’ any more than the ancient Greeks would have. He just isn’t the type of person to let gender norms stop him from doing what he wants (a very Dornish attitude).
And that’s what I want to see: a very Dornish attitude. The most succinct way I can put it is to say Dorne opens, for fans of color and alternate lifestyles, the doors to a fantasy realm that’s not often seen:
One that can be theirs.
So David, Dan, Vanessa, and Bryan. Guymon, Frank, and Vince. Gemma and Michele. Nina and Robert.
Create this. Do it for the people. And make it burn.
Please give us Dorne and an awesome Red Viper!
My thanks to Marissa, to Fury, Sade, Rachel, Celia, Cheryl, Jonelle, and Christi, for participating in this. Part two in a few weeks!