Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Kings & Queens in Fantasy

It appears I wrote this months ago, and neglected to post it.


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—this 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 good monarchs 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.


  1. Hi Maz.

    You would have loved the discussion we had at 4th Street Fantasy this year, where we tackled this sort of thing. It boils down to agency: A king or queen makes the politics much easier to handle. Even if there is a Court, its not a messy democracy with 50 characters needing to be introduced or used...

  2. I also wonder if the trend towards a greater variety of governments hasn't been stalled owing to our growing cynicism about our own. Democracy is undeniably better than autocracy, but our modern governments aren't exactly free of corruption. Now more than ever, the real power lies with rich moneylenders who fill the rulers' coffers so they can wage egotistical war - in that respect, are presidents all that much better than the kings of old?

    1. That's a theme that runs in Daniel Abraham's latest works...

  3. I would argue that they are - especially if they're in their second term and can't run again anyway :)

  4. @Paul I can't wait to read the rest of Abraham's stuff. I have only read the first book.

    1. Me too - I loved "A Shadow in Summer". So many good books, so little time :(