Simplicity, Drama, and Domination: On Monarchy in Secondary-World Fiction

I am still chewing on the tasty gristle of last week’s Mind Meld on monarchism in fantasy fiction. I can’t get the subject out of my mind, to the point where I have started to assemble a bibliography for a longer analysis of monarchies in epic fantasy. I think that the respondents made some good points, but the post as a whole affirmed for me how tightly a certain idea of monarchy tends to throttle our fantasies. One aspect of the responses that confirmed this for me was the poverty of alternatives that people could recall from the literature, but another was the falling-back on certain ideas about the foundations of fantasy that indicated a very limited vision for writing and reading the fiction.

The interlocking elements of simplicity, drama, and domination seem to best characterize the basic use of monarchy in fantasy (mostly of the epic/heroic/high varieties), and while most of the respondents applied this directly to the use of monarchy, I think this more broadly reflective of much of the literature. It’s not just that monarchies are used because they contain these elements, it is that authors like to use these elements to structure and propel their stories. Monarchy as usually applied in these stories complements these qualities, and simultaneously appeals to many popular ideas of the romance and power of kingship. The invocation of fantasy as a genre based in fairy tales reflects this too, with discernible, often uncomplicated characters, melodramatic situations, and demarcated, rigidly hierarchized power relations.

It is easy to see the use of monarchy as a prosaic choice or, as Marie Brennan put it “let’s face it, a lot of fantasy kingship is lazy.” But laziness seems like too easy an explanation; someone who can write one or more novels is likely not a lazy person. While the idea of ease or “inertia” is alluring, I think that there is more to it than that. Using a certain type of monarchy (usually a condensed caricature of medieval European kingships of the absolutist variety) is not just simple and practical from a narrative angle, it prefigures a range of conflicts, potential moments of tension, and even a range of recognizable outcomes. But this is not a quality of “monarchy” itself, but of certain ideas of how monarchy works and how it is represented in fiction.

Monarchies allow an author a lot of control over the plot and the agendas that characters pursue. Readers know when they read a story with a monarchical political structure in it that there will be one person nominally in control of governance and that this character will be a source of the story’s drama. Whether that figure is protagonist, antagonist, or a force in the background, when we see a king or queen on the page we immediately close off a number of possible routes for the plot to take and presume a range of possible interactions with other characters. Monarchy is a context for a particular set of dramas, most of them sensational.

This is not automatically a bad thing, but the form most monarchies take constrains the narrative’s potential richness. Fantasy monarchies are archetypal, theatrical, and surprisingly compact.  While most kingships have an aspect of theatre – concerned as they are with ritual – the other two qualities are a narrow definition of how monarchy/kingship works. Some observers have pointed out that the fairy tale influences of fantasy encourage the embrace of a very basic model of kingship, right down to black/white moral positions with clear markers of allegiance  to one side. But modern fantasy draws on more than just fairy tales for inspiration; again, this is a choice, not a requirement. Fantastic literature is not yoked to the forms of the past.

The theatricality of kingship makes it a powerful source of drama. Obvious conflicts can be imbued in the actions of a few characters, yet those conflicts can resonate well beyond the personal when one is, say, a king and another an usurper. King, rebel, vizier, princess. . . there is a litany of roles that quickly establish conditions for interaction and friction between characters. These roles are often exaggerated, if not totalizing. They are often more like parts in a play than subject positions or social/cultural roles. Many characters are determined by these roles; some struggle to exceed them, but most are proficient actors who play to the audience’s expectations and fulfill an easily distinguishable role in the story. An author can set them in motion and the assumptions about their status give them a narrative energy that readers can quickly pick up on and integrate into the ongoing tale.

The basic dramas of monarchy are familiar to many readers, and are not merely comfortable, but diverting. The worlds these monarchies assume can be entered into without great disruption and the fantasy thus has a well-worn familiarity to it, even if the names and clothes and geography are new. Expectations can be fulfilled or disrupted to create satisfaction or surprise. The reduction of the monarchical model to roles with pre-figured capacities gives the writer some room to develop sensational or gritty situations that a reader can engage with immediacy. I wonder if this isn’t one of the appeals of monarchy: the quick engagement that does not require a lot of puzzling-out of relationships and that has built-in conflicts that a reader can spot quickly.

That engagement relies on a third element: domination. The usual fantasy monarchy not only has clearly-defined roles, but relatively straightforward power relations.  Most monarchs have absolute power whose source appears to be the fact of their station.  Most monarchs are hereditary or are usurpers who have connived their way into the position. Regardless, the basis of their power is that they are king; there if often little other substantiation of their power. Not many fantasy monarchs have to maintain their position through politicking or through the ritual enactment of their station. Their position is a fact as natural and unquestionable as sunlight.

Their domination arises primarily from others’ submission to their position. This may sound like a common-sense interpretation of monarchical power but in actuality most monarchs maintain their power through ritual, giving away power, or through their manipulation of the political and economic system beneath them (in fact, there are many different types of kingships with very different patterns of political, social, even ontological dynamics). The hierarchy is naturalized in the narrative and its questioning often comes from very modern ideas of challenging power or from popular ideas of how medieval European kingships were maintained. There is little sense of how the monarchy was constructed, legitimized, or even how it is realistically maintained. Domination is a social fact invested in a rigid structure without much explanation of how it is perpetuated.

Taken together, these three elements form the basis for many contemporary fantasy novels. And the combination can be effective, and affecting. At the same time, they can inure the reader to other fantasies, to new and exciting variations. Next week I will discuss what some of those variations might be, and also look at a few classic examples of monarchies and how they can both thrill us and let us down.

6 thoughts on “Simplicity, Drama, and Domination: On Monarchy in Secondary-World Fiction”

  1. I would love it, John, if you eventually share the Bibliography

    And this is just more evidence that you, and like minded folks, need to come to 4th Street Fantasy. I give the con full credit for sparking the Mind Meld!

    1. I can do that. I am sifting through a lot of references and once I get a better idea of the lay of the bibliographic land I’ll put something up.

      Yeah, I think 4th Street sounds like something I need to check out.

  2. That engagement relies on a third element: domination. The usual fantasy monarchy not only has clearly-defined roles, but relatively straightforward power relations.

    One thing we discussed at the Con, but not in the Mind Meld is that the politics and power dynamics of Monarchial courts are complex, interesting–and UNDERUSED in Fantasy.

  3. I do hope you share this and your continuing analyses of this topic – I’m finding it fascinating. I’m wondering if there’s a meta-analysis to conduct here by analyzing the monarchies on the basis of assorted characteristics: source of power, vertical power relations, power transition mechanism… What kinds of plot elements emerge from, for example, systems where kings – or baronial assemblies – choose the next king rather than relying on primogeniture or some other principle? What happens when the author creates multiple layers of governance, say, a king with dukes who have earls/barons? In other words, treating feudo-federalism as a plot element… Or monarch-centered as opposed to monarch-contextualized plots….

    I am reading a series right now with a rather unusual monarchy and social structure. It’s Sherwood Smith’s series that begins with _Inda_ (an author I discovered through his post on last week’s mind meld). Some lovely bits of class, race/ethnicity, and gender issues in it as well. The monarch is a phenomenally underdeveloped character, and I hope we see more of him in later books.

    1. Leanne:

      I think there is a fascinating potential for further analysis here, which I have started sketching out but which needs to be put aside until I finish the current book on reading and fantastika :-).

      Thanks for pointing out Smith’s series; I will add that to the list of books to read!

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