MIND MELD: Monarchies in Fantasy
UPDATED to include a response from Delia Sherman
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
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.
When people create worlds, we only really have our own world for reference, or from which to glean conscious and subconscious influences. Kingdoms, empires, monarchs – that’s all human history has pretty much known. Even today, we’re under the illusion we have democracy, but it’s much more wishy-washy than true ancient Athenian democracy, where power was genuinely more equally distributed, and more citizens played a role in the functioning of society. Today our monarchs and empires now are largely trade-based hegemonies, imperial campaigns given the spin of delivering peace through drone bombings. We are now subject to political and financial kings and queens (well, strictly speaking, in the UK we’re still subjects to the queen, but hey).
So in one sense, that’s life. That’s all we’ve ever known.
Emphasizing this point, many fantasy writers tend to look towards history, consciously or otherwise, for inspiration. Given that, aside from moments in the ancient world, there are very few examples where there are not kingdoms and empires, it’s inevitable.
There’s a wonderful season of Shakespeare on the BBC at the moment, which is hammering the point that I think still lingers today, and that’s a fascination with those who hold ultimate power. The pressures. The mental state. The sheer audacity to rule. Holding a position of god on earth. It is the biggest stage in a nation. So what does that do to an individual? What does that do to their mind? Can they ever be truly human? Such questions continue to inspire fantasy writers today. We’re very much interested in that big stage and what it means when ordinary people connect with it in some way.
I can think of many reasons why autocratic royalty is the default setting. One, because fairy tales invariably feature kings and queens, and fantasy is deeply influenced by the fairy tales we were exposed to in our youth. Two, because power concentrated into a single individual possesses a romantic allure that a governing council lacks. Three, because the king and queen reigning over the land constitute a powerful echo of the family structure of childhood, which contributes to the mythic effect of fantasy.
Thus, when we move away from royalty towards a more democratic rule, we move away from the distant past and closer to modern times, emotionally speaking. We move away from a simple statement of achieved power to an ambivalent statement of our complicated relationship to the world. Not to say that fantasy stories without kings are impossible, but that they tend to have a different flavor. They begin to feel closer to science-fiction, which may not be the effect the author was after.
A simple social pyramid with clearly identified rulers at the top is also economical in terms of story-telling; it allows painting the world in starker contrasts. From the start, readers will know that the Queen is the most important character in the story, and if she is a good queen, then they will know who to root for. A more realistic power structure means having to work much harder to figure out what’s going on; as well, good and evil will dissolve into conflicting viewpoints none of which may be clearly wrong. Once again, what this gains in maturity and realism it loses in raw emotional power.
As to the justification for autocratic rule, it is in some ways a fascinating topic. I sometimes wonder if our tendency, as a species, to be ruled by tyrants, is biologically inevitable. Perhaps autocratic power arises so often simply because brutality works—but it always invokes other reasons for its perpetuation. The divine right of kings strikes me as both an obvious ploy and a particularly repellent one. We associate it with medieval times, yet it is still in force today, as witnessed by the official stories of Kim Jong-Il’s miraculous birth. And after all, isn’t it wonderfully reassuring to think that the person making all the decisions for you is the one who ought to be there by right? I know that the world isn’t really like that; but then, I also know magic doesn’t work.
When I wrote Chrysanthe, I chose to create a fantasy world that would have fairly clear good and evil aspects, to take advantage of that facet of the genre. I didn’t want to take a naive view of things, but I did want a setting that was morally starker than mundane reality. Thus the sovereigns of Chrysanthe belong on the throne through the force of the Law that governs all things, and punishes those who bring harm to the blood royal. But it was important to me that Christine realize that the Law that ushers in her reign is a double-edged sword: if she proves to be an unfit ruler, she in turn will lose the throne of the land. Unlike real life, where the divine right of kingship invariably serves to maintain incompetents and fools in power.
I’m not sure I have a conclusion. I know that my next novel, still a fantasy, will not feature kings and queens, that its mentions of autocratic rulers will be as figures of menace and folly. Maybe I’m coming out of my obsession with princesses at long last; but I can’t promise anything. It is awfully hard to get rid of those pesky archetypes; I’m afraid I’ll be writing about crowns again, all too soon. I promise I’ll try my best to make them asymmetrical, tarnished, and ill-fitting.
Of course I like to see kings and queens in stories. I grew up reading about King Arthur and his knights, the Pevensie children in Narnia, and Bartholomew of Didd. As a child I knew that a monarch could be very good or very bad, and have overwhelming influence over the lives of subjects—it fit with my childhood understanding of authority. Justice played an important role. A bad king or queen must be shamed (as in Bartholomew and the Oobleck), or defeated (Narnia), while a good monarch must undergo trials and maintain strength of character (Arthur, Aragorn). Looking back now with more experience, that looks like propaganda—or nostalgia for a world that never existed. Normally one aspiring to autocracy sets out to kill the other contenders (as does Jorg in the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence), and justice is decided by the winner.
And there always remains the question: what next? So the most capable guy (or girl) has gained the throne. What about twenty years later, when that person’s heir is a maniac, or simply incompetent? I explored that question in The Emperor’s Knife. Young when their father died, and scarred by the aftermath of his death, neither Beyon nor Sarmin is ready to rule.
Much of history shows autocracy to be unpopular, typically leading to the formation of parliaments or other bodies designed to share power with the throne. Perhaps such a body would have preserved Cerana from Emperor Beyon’s greatest flaws.
In fact democracy plays a strong role in history—so why don’t more fantasy novels feature legislators (one thing I liked about the recent Star Wars movies)? Perhaps that seems a bit boring, or too close to how we live now—not second world-y enough. Maybe it’s just too complicated to write about a few dozen ministers instead of one king or queen.
But then power in itself is a theme, and it’s compelling to study those who grasp it, especially when done by the likes of George R. R. Martin or Gene Wolfe.
It brings us back to the question of why readers enjoy fantasy. Some like to read about historical combat or complicated magic systems. Some like the challenges faced by characters in the genre—betrayal, grief, trauma, self-doubt. Few people say they are interested in fantasy governments, and when faced with an issue in which the reader has no interest, simplicity is best.
But why did I explore autocracy? To remind myself that we got it right—that democracy works best? History has already provided that answer. Maybe I, too, suffer from a strange nostalgia for a non-existent past. Living under the control of a powerful monarch, with limited choices, sounds a lot like childhood. There’s a certain comfort to having decisions made for you—but it’s the sort of comfort one must put aside. The coming-of-age nature of many fantasy stories might lend itself to worlds with absolute rulers—where to bypass or overcome the ruler/parent is to come into one’s own—to grow up. There’s a satisfying mythological feel to that.
So why is fantasy full of kings and queens? All of the above answers are possible given the author and the story in question. Still, it’s always interesting to read a fantasy book with a different setup. For example, Miserere by Teresa Frohock shows us a world (or Woerld) ruled by religious councils, while Courtney Schafer writes about a city under the control of mages in The Whitefire Crossing. Personally I think it would be interesting to use elements from the governments of 15th-century Florence or Venice (likely, someone already has). So fantasy authors are not stuck with kings and queens—it’s just a habit, and not an awful one.
Okay, look: if you make a dartboard consisting of all the periods and places in human existence that people have lived in settled agricultural communities, and then throw a dart at that board, the odds are extremely high that you will hit a monarchy.
(If you put all of human existence on that board, 95% of your darts will hit roving bands of about 25-30 foragers without much government at all.)
I’m taking “monarchy” in its most basic sense, of course: a governmental system in which political authority is embodied in a single person. That encompasses hereditary monarchies and elective ones, absolute monarchies and constitutional ones, and a great variety of titles, only some of which are really equivalent to the English “king” or “queen.” In fantasy, of course, most of what we see is generally European in flavor, and — most stereotypically — either a “good medieval” monarch, beloved by their people and dedicated to the well-being of the realm, or else a “bad tyrant” monarch who rules by autocratic fiat. (Neither of those types tends to be very realistic, from a historical perspective; but whatever. That’s a separate rant.)
The fact is that most secondary-world fantasy takes its worldbuilding cues from the past, and the past had more monarchies than anything else. That alone goes a long way toward explaining why we see so many kings and queens in our genre. But I’m not going to hide behind the shield of “it’s realistic!” — there are so very many holes in that shield — because of course there’s more to it than that.
Monarchies are personal. Let’s assume you’re writing about a government along the lines of Elizabethan England, since that’s a period I know well: there’s a Parliament, but they only convene occasionally, and the rest of the time you’re dealing with a hereditary monarch and her aristocratic advisers. In a society like that, three or four major players are enough for you to get up to all kinds of political hijinks — because those three or four have a great deal of power, and the freedom to use it without much oversight.
Contrast this with the rise of Parliamentary power the following century. Yes, you had leaders in the House of Commons . . . but they couldn’t just romp around doing things on a whim. They had to be elected: that involves campaigning and getting the support of other people. Their power came from the factions that gathered around them: yet more people. They formed bloodycommittees: nothing was a single person’s decision. I’ve written political plots in both the Elizabethan and Commonwealth periods of England, and I’m here to tell you that the former is a good deal more user-friendly, from the standpoint of narrative.
On top of that, monarchies are mythologized in a way that democracies aren’t. Partly because they’re personal, but more because of the ideological ground they grow out of. This varies wildly around the world, of course — from sacrificial kings bound to the health of the land, all the way out to kings chosen by (or descended from) gods — but monarchs have rarely been secular. Even if the practical basis of their power is that they’ve got more soldiers than anybody else, the official narrative is almost always numinous. Modern democracy, on the other hand, is frequently designed to be secular (though that sometimes breaks down in practice). It’s a product of the Enlightenment and political theories that say the source of political authority is the people, not some supernatural force. Which lends itself more to fantastical uses?
But that’s no excuse for laziness — and let’s face it, a lot of fantasy kingship is lazy. For every author who’s decided to write about a monarchy because they’ve considered the practical and thematic ramifications of that choice, there are five who default to it because that’s what they’re used to reading. And we forget, all too often, that there are options other than “monarchy” or “democracy,” and sources of political authority other than God or the masses. We get a decent number of military warlords, but what about a “crowned republic” run by a council of plutocratic elites? Or a theocratic oligarchy where authority is passed down via papal-style elections? We’re writing fantasy; we can make up forms of government that have never existed in reality. Maybe the realm is governed by a magical artifact whose will is interpreted for the people by an endogamous caste of mediums. (That one sounds really interesting, now that I type it out.)
The trick is, governments aren’t interchangeable parts. If you want to write about a society based on Renaissance Europe, you can’t port in that magic artifact and caste of mediums without making radical changes around it. If your inspiration is coming from Sengoku Japan, that theocratic oligarchy isn’t going to work. You have to think it through. But that, of course, applies to anything you do. I’m not so much tired of fantasy monarchies as imaginary ones: governments that make no practical sense and show no authorial understanding of how that stuff worked in reality. There’s plenty of opportunity, both within monarchy and without, to tell different stories than the ones we’re used to. I’d like to see more people explore that.
I think Monarchy is the default setup through sheer inertia. It’s comfortable and familiar, leading to tropes that are easily digested. It’s the same reason that chess metaphors are so common – everyone can relate. Personally, I was pissed when Dave Sim trashed his perfectly good cards metaphor, based on a game he invented, in favor of chess. I thought he had a better thing going, but threw it away.
For some exceptions, try:
- The Gentleman Bastard series, which appears to all at the city-state level, all living in fear of the Mage Mafia.
- Rosemary Kirsten’s Steerswoman series; again with the city-states, again living in fear of the magic-wielding class.
- Celestial Matters – the Delian League, with co-rulers of science and war, mirrored throughout the society
Two words, power and privilege.
What’s not to like?
What’s not to hate?
Whatever those words evoke to us, it’s usually not boredom. Human beings are hierarchical. You take any group, no matter how determined they are to interact with sensitivity and equality, and a leader somehow emerges. That’s in situations that have the luxury of safety. In emergencies or danger, people turn desperately to anyone who can show them the way out, whether it’s by fighting or fleeing. The successful commander who becomes monarch is as old as history.
Monarchs make government personal, and most readers want stories about people more than they want stories about the function of politico-economic theory, for pretty much the same reason people at work gossip about the boss’s likes, dislikes, and private life. The doings of people in power are interesting, especially when they can impact you, but even when they won’t. Look at all the celebrity chasers busily reporting on the often fatuous actions, opinions, marriages and breakups of our king-substitutes, actors.
We moderns seem to prefer stories about kings and queens from the days when monarchs were colorful figures in preference to today’s reclusive royalty who, wearing business suits like everyone else, appear only for photo ops and ribbon-snipping. The old kings had more power, but they also had to generate their own PR by looking like kings: when they traveled past you, with outriders and banner snapping and horses caparisoned to a fare-thee-well, you knew a king was passing.
I have heard people on science fiction panels scoff at SF and F about monarchs, but the truth is that for most of human history, until very recent times, monarchy of some kind or another constituted the outer form of government. And as we know even in recent history, leaders who called themselves by other titles, whether president, Führer, chairman, or Dear Leader, functioned pretty much in all other respects as monarchs. We know of politicians right now who would very much like to have the power of kings, and are torquing the democratic system to get it.
In the simpler, more plot-driven story, the monarch is often nothing more than a factor for action. This leader is all-powerful, without much examination of the nature of that power, or its history, other than perhaps a vague hand wave toward inheritance or even divine right (which can be disconcerting in a story that otherwise contains little reference to religious paradigm). Bad monarchs are mean to peasants, hurt the helpless, and their favorite sport seems to be going out a-conquering. We want to see them brought down. Good monarchs have time to be kind to all, spread peace and plenty, and defend their kingdoms against the invaders. We want to see them preserved as a force for order.
In more character-driven stories, monarchy itself is examined, its features and bugs. Character-driven SF and F novels examine the friction between various powerful interests within a kingdom, whether or not the story includes a threat from without. They illustrate the effects when the nature of monarchy changes.
Stories about monarchs have been around as long as there have been monarchs. As far as fiction is concerned, it was Sir Walter Scott who first gave us novels about the doings of kings and legendary heroes from the perspective of ordinary people. The ancient fascination with those in power still grips the imagination, but equally interesting can be the attitudes of the governed. What makes someone willing to bend his knee to the monarch? To kill for him or her? What is the personal cost of that much power?
Finally one comes full circle, to the hero’s tale, wherein the ordinary person gains a crown.
I don’t know why the default is a divine right monarchy. I do think some writers have done some very interesting things with worlds where the rulers do receive power or authority directly from the gods, like in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, or the Chalion books by Lois McMaster Bujold, and in Judith Tarr’s The Hall of the Mountain King.
I haven’t used a divine right monarchy in any of my books, and mostly tend to like to write ruling systems that are in transition. In The Element of Fire, the royal court’s power is balanced by a council of ministers on one hand and by powerful nobles on the other, and the whole system is dependent on a charter, not divine right. As the books progress through time, the council of ministers gains power, the nobles lose it unless they hold government offices, and the monarchy is now constitutional.
In the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, the Syrnai is a matriarchy, with the loose collection of city-states making decisions by councils of citizens, with men unable to own property.
Charisat, in City of Bones, is probably the ruling system where the disadvantages of being poor are the most obvious. The city is an oligarchy ruled by an elector selected by the Patrician class. Money is the only thing that prevents you from being forced down the tiers of the city until you’re pushed out into the desert waste to die. (Just like real life, actually.)
Duvalpore in Wheel of the Infinite is probably the fantasy world I’ve written with the highest standard of living for the poor. The power of the nobles of the Celestial Empire is balanced out by a religious order that among other things offers free healthcare to everyone.
Probably the closest I’ve come to writing a divine right monarchy is in The Cloud Roads and the other Books of the Raksura series, where the ruling system of the Raksuran courts is based on biology. Your position in society is heavily dependent on your physical characteristics. Queens are the undisputed rulers of the courts and are also physically stronger, and have the power to keep other Raksura from shapeshifting, which can trap them in their more vulnerable form. It’s not a system most of us would like to live in, but it’s an interesting one to explore in fiction.
I think there are several reasons for monarchies to be the default political setup for many secondary worlds. The obvious answer would be that many fantasy novels are set in Western European medieval-based societies and historically those were ruled by monarchs. But in addition to the historical aspect, there’s also the practical difficulties of having a democratic society in a low-tech setting. For everyone to be able to vote you not only need some form of instant long-distance communication to coordinate elections, you also need to be able to show everyone who they can vote for and if you have a very large state it’s not very feasible for candidates to travel all over in a limited amount of time. You’d either need technology or such a high magic society that there are enough practitioners to station widely around the country to enable these communications. But having such a high magic society brings along problems of its own, both in world building terms and in story-telling terms. If there’s so much magic, most problems will be able to be solved with the wave of a hand, unless the author creates a very intricate magic system to prevent the disturbance of suspension of disbelief, which would lead to the book being more about the magic/world building than an actual plot. So just have a king, problem solved.
That’s one reason I could think of. Another is that having a monarchy can create easy conflict in a novel, especially in the more politically-slanted ones. What if your country had a wonderful king, a benevolent father figure who has led his people in prosperity for years, but his heir is a dissolute and cruel man, who is completely unfit to rule? How do you keep him from the throne? Or you live in a country being invaded by the tyrannical despot ruling your neighbouring country? Your good king turns into a tyrant overnight? What happened, was he possessed by demons, enchanted by evil councillors? There’s endless possibilities.
Lastly, though perhaps this is more valid for readers than writers, I suspect it’s also a longing for a romanticised past, for the days of yesteryear when times were simpler, the knightly virtues were upheld, and kings ruled the world. Of course everyone imagines themselves a knight, princess, king or queen in these scenarios, not one of the numerous peasants or serfs that kept the fine lords and ladies in food, clothes and luxury. Even if the protagonist is born to the lower classes, they hardly ever remain there, the farm-boy-prophecy isn’t a cliché for no reason.
As for exceptions, I couldn’t think of many. Going through my bookcases the books I found not featuring a monarchy, such as The Lies of Locke Lamora, do feature an autocratic, if elected, leader or feature an oligarchy, such as the Bingtown Traders’ Council in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, though said Council owes fealty to the Satrap of Jamaillia, which is a monarchy. One series that does feature a somewhat different governing body is Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism. Its supreme leader is the Prism, who is born to the position due to his magical abilities, but he is supported by the White and the Colors, who could be considered houses of the federalist central government of the Seven Satrapies, which are semi-independent states. But that is the only one I could find in my cases. Of course, this is all limited to the works I’ve read and I’m probably completely unaware of tons of exceptions.
As I’ve thought of this question, I’ve begun to realize that the notion of monarchy is not so simple a term to unpack as I first thought. In its simplest concept, it means a king or queen ruling over a country. But for me, that doesn’t really capture the essence at all. For me, I would say a monarchy really encompasses far more.
- A single ruler
- Rules for his/her lifetime
- Over a country, duchy (and yeah, I know that means dukedom, but have patience with me), principality (prince—see the duchy above), region, continent, etc.
- Supreme ruler (except when s/he’s not)
Okay, let’s talk about these for a bit and I’ll try to say why I arrived at them. First, a single ruler. That means only one voice has the final say over everything. I think there are exceptions, as when a brother or a sister or a king and queen rule together, but they usually are perceived as a single voice/entity. It’s not like there is anyone else with equal authority. Even children don’t have that authority. I think that tyrants fall into this category. Along with lifetime presidents or dictators. The basic common denominator is that the people don’t have a say in who rules them or when that ruler will stop or who will be next, or whether or not there are any repercussions for doing a bad job, or even a downright evil job of it. Take a look at Tigana for two different views of a supreme ruler.
Second, Rules for a lifetime. That seems pretty typical of monarchies. Unless there’s murder, a coup, an invasion, or something along those lines, a single person in charge will remain so for a lifetime, unless s/he abdicates, but that would be the monarch’s choice. And it isn’t something that really happens, unless there are rules or situations that force that monarch’s hand. Potentially that might be his people are going to revolt if he doesn’t. Or that she’s ill or insane and can no longer manage her duties. Look at George III. The Prince Regent took over for him, although by that time there was a parliament and a Prime Minister—rather unusual, and very modern, for most monarchies.
Third, over a country/duchy/principality and so on. Here’s why I argue for that. In Italy, Dukes had the power of kings. They had supreme power in their duchies and had final supreme power. In other words, they were the monarchs, no matter what word you use for them. Same with principalities. Look at India. It was divided into various territories ruled by various clans and emperors (at various times). Each of the rulers in their particular territories was absolute.
That brings me to the fourth requirement: Absolute power/Supreme ruler. That means the power of life or death over anybody and anyone in his or her demesne. In other words, her word is absolute law. His whim could mean the difference between survival and death for his subjects. And even in something like the Roman Republic, look at Ceasar or Nero. Essentially they were all powerful monarchs.
These four things are absolutely necessary to me. And encompasses far more than traditional notions of a king or queen. My definition says that Kim Jong-Il and Moamar Gadhafi were in fact monarchs, all semantics aside. But that brings up a curious exception. Or is it?
Someone asked me about the Pope. He is, after all, elected. On the other hand, he has supreme authority in the church (which, though not necessarily a physical domain, is certainly quite real), and he rules for a lifetime. It is also not an open election, but one of a select few, which certainly does not mean its democratic. Does he have the power of life and death? Some would say yes, at least on the spiritual plane. Specifically, someone can be excommunicated. Someone can be not forgiven. On the other hand, the Pope can’t make decrees that don’t agree with the Bible. He does not have real supreme power in that sense. Except he is anointed by God, so he has supreme power on earth, so long as he acts in God’s name and on his behalf.
So is the Pope a monarch? I would say a strong argument could be made for yes. But that brings up the issue of whether or not the definition of monarchy also must include heredity. Does it have to be passed to the next in line?
Certainly many monarchies are. But that would exclude the tyrants and dictators, and I can’t help but believing they belong in this category. Some of those, like Kim Jong-il, create a hereditary line of power. Some don’t. But a monarchy depends on the people accepting a single ruler, no democratic process of choice, and that this ruler will have absolute authority. Now “accept” is a word that I’m using fast and loose here. Accept doesn’t have to mean people like it. But it does mean they put up with it. Are they obeying because if they don’t their families will be slaughtered? Very possibly. But that doesn’t matter in a monarchy. Only performing your role as subject is necessary and important.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why second world fantasies use monarchies rather than republics or democracies or something entirely different. I’ve come to two major conclusions. First, I think that democracies and republics are perceived, whether consciously or no, as too modern a concept for second world fantasy. That they don’t “fit.” That may be a product of our own world history. That we aren’t thinking outside the box enough. Also, we don’t have a lot of models to go off of.
Second, I think that monarchies are amazingly rich for developing plot. With a monarchy (and remember I’m using this very broadly), you can have millenia-old hatreds, intrigues, and mysteries. You have this history building on history and secrets that get forgotten and rediscovered. I think that’s a major reason I like monarchies. There are rich possibilities for story and I’m not done mining those possibilities and so keep looking into them.
I will say this. In my Crosspointe books, I did want to play against the notion of the traditional monarchy. I’m also a huge fan of Dickens’ Bleak House (if you haven’t read it, go now). So I ended up with a monarchy that was being sued in Chancery. The suit had been going on for decades, which meant every single member of the royal family had to work or starve or find a sugar daddy/mommy. So I have a working royal family. On top of that, the king/queen is elected from all eligible heirs. The position is lifetime, and the throne is hereditary, in that it must pass to the royal family, but any single eligible member of the family can be elected. And eligibility just requires that you be of acknowledged royal blood.
As I’ve thought about other novels that have other forms of governance, I’ve been drawing a blank. I just don’t know. Now I’ll admit, that may have more to do with the fact that most of my books are in storage as I try to sell my house and I am having trouble remembering. But every time I think of one, I shake my head and say, no, that one ends up being a monarchy.
I’m really curious about what other people found and what you readers think.
Well, according to Loki, we default to monarchy, to a single autocratic ruler, because some part of us believes this is our natural state. It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that we crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes our life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. We were made to be ruled. In the end, we will always kneel.
What can I say? Tom Hiddleston is pretty darn persuasive.
Anyway, I suspect a lot of authors default to monarchy for the same reasons they default to graceful elven super-archers and bearded, ale-guzzling dwarfs. It’s familiar, it’s safe, and it’s what a lot of us have grown up reading. Monarchies allow writers to play with certain archetypes that most readers will know: the beautiful and/or rebellious princess, the spurned and jealous brother to the king, the young prince desperate to prove himself, and so on. Heck, I just got back from seeing Brave this afternoon, which uses a Scottish kingdom as a familiar backdrop in which to tell a wonderful story about the relationship between a mother and daughter.
If you think of the fantasy genre as an ongoing conversation, I’d argue that some authors write monarchies in order to participate in that conversation, and to challenge the oft-repeated historically and culturally vague kingdoms and governments of Once Upon a Time. To name a few examples, Marie Brennan did it in her Onyx Court series with meticulous research into British history, for example. Saladin Ahmed wrote about a kingdom not in a “pseudo-European” context, but in an Arabic-inspired setting. (Not the best terms, as neither Europe nor Arabic countries are in any way a single homogenous group.) Merrie Haskell’s fairy tale retelling is set in a monarchy, as many fairy tales were, but one grounded specifically in a fictional Romanian kingdom. They join the conversation, acknowledge the topic being discussed, and start to steer that topic in new directions.
Or maybe I’m over-thinking it, and we’ve just come to an agreement within the genre that crowns are cool.
The predominance of king’s in epic fantasy obviously stems from the genre’s fairy tale origins. It happens to be an element of fantasy that I strongly dislike. I’m an American. I live in a country founded on rejecting kings and royalty. So how come every third Disney movie is about a princess? The whole notion that some men and women are born with a genetic right to rule others is appalling.
Yet, I’ve now written two epic fantasy series, and both unfold in pseudo-medieval lands ruled by kings. This was the system of government in my Bitterwood trilogy because kings happen to make excellent bad guys. If a king imposes unjust laws upon men, my common-man heroes can be admired for taking up arms and fighting him. If my heroes lived in a representative democracy and went about stabbing people they disagreed with, they’d be psychopaths. Wicked kings are excellent punching bags. But, throughout the trilogy, I do have an ongoing debate about what form of government will follow the age of kings. The smartest man in the book, Burke the Machinist, loathes monarchy as a form of government, but he’s even more afraid of anarchy. He doesn’t trust the violent warriors he’s allied with to organize a fair form of government when the old kings fall. His musings form not just a critique of monarchies, but of every other form of government, including no government at all.
With my second series, the Dragon Apocalypse, I felt I’d had my fill of political ruminations. The world has kings only because I didn’t want to spend more than a single word describing the governmental structures of my setting. All the action in the series unfolds on the fringes of the known world, in tropical jungles and frozen wastes and in abstract realms of death that border the living world, like the Sea of Wine. The stories focus on the adventures of thieves and witches and mercenaries who all have good reason to remain far removed from civilization. With a few notable exceptions, none of my heroes give a hoot about the opinions of kings. There are no epic battles between earthy armies. It’s mainly men and women with unrealistic body proportions facing off in battle with devils and dragons. The character motivations are immediate and personal; not one of my heroes is engaged in a political scheme to rule the world. I’m hoping that readers will come to my sword and sorcery novels for, you know, the swords and the sorcery, rather than an astute and thoroughly researched handling of medieval politics.
I do admit that one of the protagonists in Greatshadow, the first book in the series, is a princess, though she’s run away from that life and has spent all her adulthood making a living as a sword-for-hire. In one scene she beats a man to death with his own severed arm. I’m expecting a phone call from Disney any day now.
My immediate response to this week’s question was that this was easy to answer – secondary world fantasy is quite often reminiscent of Tolkien’s books and based on European settings with knights and chivalry, kings and queens, and courts. I’ve read a lot of secondary world fantasy novels not based on this sort of setting or standard fantasy setup so I figured I’d be able to think of all sorts of exceptions and that’s all I’d have to say on the subject.
Then I actually thought about the political structure in these books I had read that didn’t have much in common with Tolkien and realized most of these books still have some sort of monarch. So much for that idea!
After thinking about it some more, I came to the conclusion that monarchs may be so common because it is a form of government that everyone is familiar with. It’s simple and it doesn’t require an explanation since everyone understands how it works. Also, there’s no need to get bogged down in the details and minutiae of political debates. Personally, I don’t want to read the equivalent of watching C-SPAN (my idealistic teenage self once thought watching the US government in action on TV would be fascinating only to discover boredom beyond belief after 2 minutes of C-SPAN ).
I did a search on Google to try to refresh my memory on some fantasy books that did not have monarchies that I may have read and came across this interview with Jane Lindskold discussing her own reasons for writing about a monarchy.
It’s a very insightful discussion on the subject. Lindskold says it makes it easier to move a story along if one character decides what to do, eliminating the need for everyone to argue about what to do. She uses the example of her Breaking the Wall books, which do have a group of thirteen who each have a role in the decision making process with no one figure with absolute authority. These books have often been criticized for being too “talky” because of this structure.
I think the advantage of these political structures is exactly that – it makes it easier to tell a story without needing to show the arguments and the decision-making process. Many stories, particularly the character-based ones I enjoy most, are about the power of an individual to make some sort of change in the world. Monarchies are built on the same power structure and provide the most opportunities for an individual to wield power, whether it be the monarchs themselves, the political players who are an assassination away from the throne, or the rebel who can change a government by replacing one figurehead. The disadvantage is that a lot of fantasy readers may be tired of seeing the same type of government over and over again.
I’m actually having a really difficult time thinking of secondary world fantasy books I’ve read that do not have some kind of monarchy (or at the very least ones where I can state that with confidence since I can think of a few in which the government wasn’t a focus in the story and I don’t remember whether or not there was a monarch). While I can think of fantasy books like The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells or the Twelve Kingdoms books by Fuyumi Ono that have done something different with the idea of kings and queens, the only books I have read recently that do have democratic systems are The Folding Knife and Sharps by K. J. Parker.
The big advantage that I see to that kind of divine right monarchy from a strictly *technical* perspective is that it lets the writer put the personal, psychological level of the story even with the larger sociopolitical level very easily. When the government is a single person, you can narrow the focus of a story enough to make the larger events — often wars — explicable. If there’s a parliament with a hundred people in it, then there are a hundred perspectives that you’d have to make clear and complicated group dynamics and the whole thing gets very fuzzy very quickly. If it’s Claudius, Hamlet, Gertrude, and the ghost, it’s small enough to manage.
That’s probably a petty answer, though.
More to the point, we are still a very Christian culture, and that’s a very Christian view of the universe. The Great Chain of Being structure where power goes from king/God down to the subject in the political world as it does from father to wife and children within a family is a central cultural narrative for us. When we’re trained into that model, whatever our intellectual opinion about it is, the familiarity gives stories that also use that a lot of narrative power. The roots of modern fantasy pretty much all run to the devoutly Roman Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien, and through him to explicitly Christian fantasists like George MacDonald. That piety, with its full load of medieval theology, is in the bones of the genre.
When someone does write a second world fantasy that draws from a non-Christian tradition, and I’m thinking of Ursula Le Guin here, it’s often such a profoundly different experience that it almost feels like it’s part of a different literary project, and often kind of a subversive one.
Kingdoms are part of the Fantasy World Default-Set, along with stew, Evil Overlords, minions, and unwelcome marriages. If you want to write secondary world fantasy, up until very recently most of your models have been either English/Celtic, aspiring to English/Celtic, or Western European fairy-tale based, and Medieval/Renaissance in flavor if not in historical detail. This is also the background of many fantasy-based games, back to the grandfather of them all, Dungeons and Dragons. We’re beginning to broaden our cultural horizons, with the advent of writers like Saladin Ahmed, Cindy Pon, and N. K. Jemisin, whose worlds are rooted in different myths and social structures. But as long as any writer, from any background, is invoking mostly pre-industrial Western past, he or she is going to be writing about absolute hereditary rulers because that’s mostly who was running things then.
Besides, royalty is sexy. They’re the original celebrities. People may love a given monarch or hate her, but everybody sure knows who she is. They also have opinions about who she marries, what she wears, whether she likes to hunt or dance or give parties or build bridges or fight wars with their tax dollars. Sometimes they band together behind someone they like better to overthrow the current incumbent and put their own candidate on the throne–all of which makes excellent book-fodder as well as being a lot more colorful and exotic than a Presidential election. Really now, how far do you think George R.R. Martin would have gotten with a sprawling epic called Game of Legislatures? There have certainly been some fantasies that confine themselves to the ruled rather than the ruling classes, but not many. In the 19th century, William Morris, the great Socialist artist and designer of books, wallpaper, and embroidery patterns, wrote a clutch of fantastical romances whose heroes were solidly lower and middle-class–merchants and farmers’ sons, if I’m remembering right, who moved up through their adventures, but never went near a court. More recently, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint novels take place in a country run by a Council of Lords with an elected leader. There may be–there probably are–more, but those are the ones I know of my own knowledge. I think there’s ample room for more.
Tagged with: Daniel Abraham • daniel reuben abraham • Delia Sherman • Diana Pharaoh Francis • james maxey • Jim C. Hines • Kristen Bell • Marie Brennan • Mark Charan Newton • Martha Wells • Mazarkis Williams • Mieneke van der Salm • Sherwood Smith • yves meynard
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