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The Fantasy of Kingship

“The fundamental idea underlying kingship is the separation of one human being from others. Being set apart is the very crux of the institution. The ways in which this is achieved may appear ridiculous, and sometimes perversely deviant, because they depart so radically from convention. But this is the point: if kings could not be distinguished very easily from ordinary people, then how would we know that they were kings?”

– Declan Quigley, The Character of Kingship

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be the blade that was broken, the crown-less again shall be king.”

– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Last week I discussed the use of monarchies in fantasy fiction in rather broad terms. Looking from the author’s vantage point I considered how simplicity, drama, and domination were qualities of monarchism that could be usefully, sometimes powerfully, applied to an epic/heroic/high fantasy tale to provide a concentrated, basic structure for parts of the narrative. Monarchy can set a tone for the story, plant suggestions for story arcs and directions for the reader, and establish political and cultural parameters that have echoes of familiarity, if not stereotype, for the reader to follow. But the monarchies employed in many fantasy novels are cut from similar cloth, and the continued reproduction of them in the literature limits the potential of kingship as a trope or device and even inhibits the potential of secondary-world fantasy to develop new ideas and insights.

At the end of last week’s column I wrote “Next week I will discuss what some of those variations [of monarchy and kingship] might be, and also look at a few classic examples of monarchies and how they can both thrill us and let us down.” As is sometimes the case, this turned out to be a bigger task than I first thought, so my consideration of these subjects will be more speculative and general, coalescing some observations and hypotheses. But I want to note at the start that my objective is not to show that fantastic monarchies aren’t “real” enough; quite honestly most of them are a far cry from how actual monarchies worked. My goal is to discuss what they do on the page and in the narrative, and contrast this with some insights into the practice and functions of kingship from historical and anthropological analysis that may better illuminate their power and flaws and point to some new directions for portraying and using kingship in fantastic literature.

Let’s begin with the two quotations at the top of this column. The first one is from Declan Quigley, an anthropologist who has studied kingship. I find this quotation to be an excellent starting point because it highlights several aspects of kingship that rarely seem to arise in fantasy literature. The first thing is: kings are weird, strange, out-of-place. A monarch is someone who has been removed from whatever passes for “normal” human life in a socio-cultural group. Kings in fantasy literature are often powerful, archetypal, and set atop the social and political order far above all others. But this is not what a king is; these are some of the effects and capacities of that office. First and foremost, a monarch is someone who is removed from daily life and set apart from it, not just atop the order but outside it.

They are removed through the assumption of the status and role of monarch, and this transformation is a ritual one. It is often one that is seen as divine or sacred, and just how that works has been a matter of debate for a long time. James Frazer theorized that it was through sacrifice that kings maintained their status, but given his tendency to fudge ethnographic facts, later scholars have found many variations on this theory. In his 1982 Frazer Lecture Edmund Leach said that:

“Kings are not gods yet they partake of divinity. Kings are mortal, but the office of the kingship is immortal; a king’s actual potency is circumscribed but, in theory, the power of the kingship is absolute. This latter power derives from God. But the divinity of kings, unlike the divinity of gods, is fragile and subject to pollution. It must be ritually renewed every time a new human individual assumes the office of king, and perhaps more frequently than that. The kingship must repeatedly be cleansed.” (p. 282)

This is a rather Eurocentric interpretation, but studies of kingship around the world and across history do demonstrate that some form of sacrality or divinity is part of what sets monarchs apart and enfolds them in their role. There is also in some cases sacrifice (sometimes literally of the monarch), and in many situations coercion and violence also figure into the assumption and maintenance of a monarch’s power. But the status of king or queen is not solely based on power or violence, or even sacrifice; it emerges from and is ratified by a ritual that symbolically  purifies the individual and allows them to assume the mantle of monarch. Without that imprimatur of purification they are either warlords or tyrants, false monarchs and pretenders.

This leads us to the quotation from Tolkien. The monarch-to-be in question, the crown-less Aragorn, is considered by some the rightful heir to the throne, destined by his lineage and by prophecy to regain his kingship. Once Sauron has been defeated in The Return of the King Aragorn becomes King Elessar (so named, interestingly, by Galadriel).  The actual ceremony seems anticlimactic; as a single trumpet blows, Aragorn makes a brief declaration of his arrival, and Gandalf places the crown on his head while Faramir, Steward of Gondor, proclaims him king. It is an odd ritual, more of a reward for Aragorn than a transformation, a fulfillment and integration rather than the setting apart that characterizes kingship. Becoming king for Aragorn is a homecoming, a reclamation of what is rightfully his. This fits some of the themes of Tolkien’s saga quite well, but is a strange way to make a king.

The source of Aragorn’s kingship is legend and prophecy, is story, not ritual. He achieves his predestined goal, becomes what it was told he would become. This is truly fantastical, and certainly fulfills the three aspects of monarchy that I discussed last week.  The ceremony is simple, the office is simple, and the complications that were in Aragorn’s way were essentially destined to not thwart him. The drama is the fulfillment of the prophecy, of the fight against what seemed incredible odds but were swept away by a combination of moral failings on the part of the adversaries and a combination of a deus ex machina and the fulfillment of other prophecies. Aragorn was the rightful king, and the story was designed to bring him to that role. This is the drama that kingship brings to the tale.

The primary kingship in The Lord of The Rings is one whose domination is not created out of purification of a mortal for an immortal position, but that is controvertible because it is pre-ordained, and the forces of the world conspire to return it to prominence to reorder the world. While there is resistance to the reordering, it cannot withstand the adumbration of the downfall of those who would oppose the righting of the order of the world.  And because of this, the rule will ostensibly be just. Aragorn is of the deep roots and the renewal of the blade, the ancient and the reborn fused into a new ruler to bring righteous guidance to the world. Stories old and new forge a new monarch who will restore and blaze a new trail all at once.

This is a poetic monarchy, terribly romantic and irrefutable. And this poetry, and the saga that it emerges from, create a powerful story. Realism has no place here, but neither does purification or ritual. Living the story is all the ritual Aragorn gets, and purification is unnecessary because fate impels towards what his rightfully his. Kingship is in the end idyllic but also curiously hollow. Aragorn plays his part and receives his prize, but the story has contrived to put him there. Few kings (if any) have ever had things work out so well, and this is where the story falls flat. The king is distinguished not by separation, but by integration, by finishing the story properly. He is king because we have been told since the start that he is and would be the king, and something human and sacred gets lost in that process. It is this sort of fantasy of kingship that in the end limits what stories monarchy can tell, and what we can learn from stories of kingship.

8 Comments on The Fantasy of Kingship

  1. He is king because we have been told since the start that he is and would be the king, and something human and sacred gets lost in that process.

    Yes. What about Kingship which is won by other means, or not so telegraphed? The struggle toward that divine kingship. The striver who seeks to be worthy of divine anointment but she is far from certain, or the world around her for that matter, thinks that she could be Queen…

  2. Interesting article on kingship. While not fantasy per se, another good series on what it means for a mortal man to be a king is the Tudors. As you say, kings are weird and out of place, but at the end of the day they are still people… the Tudors illustrate some of what can happen when a person has to live in and apart from society at the same time. No magic there, but that kind of historical drama can also be a inspiration for fantasy writing.

    • Thanks, Kyle. I have seen the entire Tudors series and I agree; it creates all of those elements I talked about earlier, and while sensationalized it does show some of the human side of being this strange creature. Given its liberties I always thought of it as historical fantasy of a sort :-). I think the portrayals on monarchs on film and TV need to be taken into account too because those popular representations inform some of the ideas in the literature too.

      • They most certainly do. And as per our discussion on Twitter, yes, the show focuses well on the King and his court, letting the Court be the lens through which we see a fractious and complicated court.

  3. Hi John,

    I am really enjoying this most recent “meme” (if a series of blog posts by one person can be a meme). In this one, I wonder if the Tolkien example embeds kingship as narrative because the story is not about demonstrating kingship per se – after all we never actually encounter Aragorn as king. Rather the story is the narrative origin myth or legitimating ideology for kingship itself (the once and future, endlessly reborn king) that would need rituals later if the institution were to continue. What happens once Aragon is king and starts collecting taxes and corvee, two of the primary activities of kingship? How does kingship in action affect the writing of fantasy – would writing about a king in action tend to be less romantic/epic/mythic?


    • I think that’s a texture variation between fantasy that is more mythological in nature/construction and fantasy that is written with a more modern perspective/framework. Regarding Tolkien and Aragorn becoming king, that reminds me of Frodo’s line to Sam, “Just to get there… just to get there…” Maybe there are common themes being answered there… it’s the journey, not the destination.

      However… modern kingships, we see examples in George R.R. Martin, but even before that Robert Jordan’s series. The Wheel of Time seemed pretty adept at bringing in the normal “mundane life goes on” concerns alongside the apocalyptic “we’re all gonna die” concerns. He spent some time on the politics, and even the princess becoming Queen and having to worry about taxes and governing even as she interacts with the Dragon Reborn.

      I’m sure there are other examples… there’s a lot of content in the genre. These are just the two that immediately came to mind. But, my take on your question is that you can still have romance and epic stories even when interwoven with the “king in action” realities. It is, in my opinion, more sophisticated but less classically mythological.

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