[An addendum to the Mind Meld: Monarchies in Fantasy from Gail Z Martin]
Very often, in secondary world fantasy novels, the default political setup is to have a Monarch of some sort, often one that acts in a seemingly autocratic manner. Many times, this Monarch rules by some sort of divine right or providence.
I think that fantasy inhabits monarchies for three reasons. First, democracy as a form of governance is very new. Monarchy, oligarchy, or a tribal elder format have been around for a very long time. Since a strong element in most epic fantasy is a setting “other than our own” and often in another time, a quasi-historical setting is likely going to default to one of the older forms of governance, especially if the author is basing the world, even loosely, on a previous Earth culture.
Secondly, epic fantasy requires an epic struggle. There’s more at stake when the struggle is against a very powerful enemy–whether that is a king, a powerful church hierarchy, or a dominant warlord. Not only do these historical forms of governance have strong executive power, but they also exert strong physical and cultural power.
Thirdly, many people are very attracted by Medieval/Renaissance history and enjoy that background of for their stories. And it’s a great setting for political intrigue, power struggles, betrayals of all kinds, as well as honor, grand passions, and feats of bravery. Let’s face it–swords are sexy. And in our world of push-button warfare, there’s something more interesting and authentic in a battle where you can actually see the eyes of your enemy.
So, plenty of advantages. Disadvantages? Americans especially aren’t always up on their history (although I find that fandom is often an exception), and so a story that is written with accuracy to the time period can bump into widely held, but still untrue, reader perceptions (such as variations in the roles and freedom of women, which varies widely by culture and time period). It can also be very difficult for readers who have grown up with democratic government or parliamentary monarchies to really empathize with the concepts of fealty and vows of loyalty. I think it’s also difficult for some readers (at least those who have not experienced or studied life in a dictatorship) to grasp the complete power a monarch or oligarch can hold over life and death and how that affects behavior. (I once heard someone argue that genocidal kings were not believable because “no one would support them.” Presumably, they would be voted out at the next election.) It’s also very difficult for many modern readers to identify with the complex web of obligations to deity, king, family and community that made up the medieval world, as contrasted with today’s emphasis on individualism and autonomy.
I write epic stories in a medieval setting because that’s something I enjoy reading (and judging from the huge overlap between fantasy readers and those who attend Renaissance festivals, I’m not the only one). As the popularity of urban fantasy has certainly shown, there is plenty of room for other types of settings, and there’s no one “right” setting for fantasy. So there are lots of opportunities to write, read, explore and enjoy!