On Fantasies and Kings

November 9th, 2008

In addressing the charge that genre fantasy displays a reactionary political bias by setting so many of its works in genre-medieval kingdoms, Kate Elliott aptly points her finger at lazy worldmaking instead. To which I would add the pernicious influence of the publishers’ marketing departments, who find it easiest to sell what they have sold so often before.

The question still remains, however: What is it about monarchy that seems to be so attractive to fantasy authors? Or conversely, what is it about fantasy that seems to find monarchy so attractive?

Fantasy is the oldest kind of story, rooted directly in myth, the tales of gods and other wondrous beings who did wondrous deeds at the beginning of time. Moreover, fantasy continually revisits its roots, seeking to revive and capture that primal wonder.

It is for this reason that there is always a backwards-looking strain in fantasy fiction, usually not because of any reactionary political leanings of the authors, but because this branch of fantasy seeks the divine, the numinous, the wonder of those times when myth was alive.

There is a limit to how far back we can go. Our species has lived on Earth for about a hundred thousand years, but the historical record covers only the most recent five percent of that time, and that incompletely. We know from the finds of archaeology that our distant ancestors had religious beliefs, that they entertained hope of an afterlife, that they probably had invented gods and worshiped them. But we can only conjecture about the actual content of their myths, the stories the people told about their gods. This is the realm of the imagination, the realm of fantasy.

We do know that myths are mutable, that by the time they were written down in the form with which we are familiar, they had been greatly altered from earlier versions, in response to various changes among the circumstances of the people telling the stories, including political changes. We know that sometime around ten thousand years ago, the structures of human life in much of the world changed drastically and irrevocably with the development of agriculture, rapid increase in population, and the resulting growth of population centers: the phenomenon we call “civilization.” Cities. States. Kingdoms.

Throughout most of known human history, up until the last hundred years or so, the default form of the state has been the kingdom. Human history, as generations of schoolchildren have complained, is the coming and going of kings. If we look into the past for historical models for our stories, what we find are kingdoms and kings, with a few aberrant states here and there departing from the near-universal model, just to make things more interesting.

And where there are kings, they claim to be gods. This phenomenon, while not universal, has occurred worldwide, as kings attempt to enhance their prestige and elevate themselves above the common humanity that they rule. If kings are gods, their rule must be unquestionable. If kings are gods, it would be sacrilege to attempt to depose them. If kings are gods, the pomp with which they are surrounded is only natural. If one king is a god, he must certainly occupy a higher position than some other neighboring king who is not divine, and will probably conquer his kingdom.

The emperors of Japan were descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. Kings of the Mayans were descended from the Hero Twins, and they served as their living representatives on Earth. Gilgamesh, king of Uruk and son of the goddess Ninsun, may not have started as a god, but he ended up as one. The Akkadian kings declared themselves gods while they were alive and ruling.

If kings were not entirely divine, they often claimed divine blood, descent from some god, which proved their right to the kingship. The tale of Theseus is a model: a bastard son of the god Poseidon, his exploits on his journey to Athens reveal his divine origin and, paradoxically, reveal him as the rightful heir to the kingdom of Athens. This story, essentially unchanged, has been told and retold to legitimatize a host of princes.

After Christianity took over Europe, the tradition of god-descended kings became politically incorrect, but the aura of divinity still clung to the institution of kingship. It is likely that many tales of Norse and Celtic gods were reverse-engineered to change the old gods to legendary or historical human kings, naming them as founders of dynasties such as the Norse Ynglings, descended from the god Freyr; King Arthur of legend may have originally been such a god.

As late as the eighteenth century, kings were still believed to have special quasi-divine powers, such as the ability to cure disease. Samuel Johnson was taken as a child to be touched by Queen Anne to cure scrofula, also known as The King’s Evil, as it was considered particularly susceptible to the monarch’s touch.

But the divinity of kings has by now faded almost everywhere, and the few remaining kings themselves are more often regarded as useless and expensive parasites, rather than wielding the power of gods. But the old stories still retain their power to stir the imagination. I suspect that as long as fantasy continues to be published, we will still see tales of kings, the sons of gods. Not for any yearning to be the subjects of a monarchy, but for the wonder of the story, the tales of gods who walked among humanity, and of kings who were divine.

48 Responses to “On Fantasies and Kings”

  1. Constance Ashon 09 Nov 2008 at 2:10 pm

    There is a limit to how far back we can go. Our species has lived on Earth for about a hundred thousand years, but the historical record covers only the most recent five percent of that time, and that incompletely. We know from the finds of archaeology that our distant ancestors had religious beliefs, that they entertained hope of an afterlife, that they probably had invented gods and worshiped them.

    The Smithsonian Magazine currently has up on the website a story of what may well be the oldest temple yet, in Turkey, dating 6,000 year before Stonehenge.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/gobekli-tepe.html

    Reading this article, looking at the photos, and knowing, no matter extensive the escavation, how carefully all the parts and bits and pieces are studied, there is no way to know what the people who made this place thought.

    The most thrilling part is this temple was built BEFORE agriculture — which is when kings and priests are presumed then to become a part of human culture — thereby giving a platform to change the heretofore accepted theory that it was only after agriculture that such huge, cooperative, long-term ventures as building this sort of temple could take place.

    Love, C.

  2. Lois Tiltonon 09 Nov 2008 at 5:50 pm

    We can only conjecture what our distant ancestors were thinking when they created such monuments. Sometimes such conjectures are wrong – laughably wrong.

    But if I am right and the tendency to religion, to the creation of gods, is something that is hardwired into the human mind, then we can have a little more confidence in the guesses we make when we react to the sight of what they have left behind. The people who created ancient monuments were not aliens. They belonged to our species. They have the same god-shaped slot in their minds.

    And if we share the same need to create gods and stories about the gods, it is the same impetus that leads us to create stories about gods we do not know but can only imagine. It is the same need that leads us to write fantasy.

  3. Constance Ashon 09 Nov 2008 at 5:57 pm

    And if we share the same need to create gods and stories about the gods, it is the same impetus that leads us to create stories about gods we do not know but can only imagine. It is the same need that leads us to write fantasy.

    Well, some, many, of us, anyway.

    Love, C.

  4. James Engeon 09 Nov 2008 at 6:27 pm

    An interesting addition to this ongoing conversation. Fantasy and belief (whether religious or not) are bound to be related. Everything that someone believes is surrounded by a halo of possible or discarded beliefs or and imagination is one of the ways we navigate among them.

    Constance: thanks for the link. The chronology alone is pretty interesting. It would be cool if civil cooperation on this scale did indeed precede the spread of agriculture.

    Of course, the situation at (prehistoric) Gobekli Tepe would have been pretty rare: an abundance of natural resources, especially food, that could promote cooperation by reducing the need for competition. Maybe agriculture comes from someone looking at a situation like this and saying, “How can we set up something like this at home? I bet these plants would grow there…”

  5. Lois Tiltonon 09 Nov 2008 at 7:10 pm

    One thing that’s pretty certain – the shift to agriculture involved a substantial alteration in the local pantheons.

  6. Mark Tiedemannon 09 Nov 2008 at 10:29 pm


    The question still remains, however: What is it about monarchy that seems to be so attractive to fantasy authors? Or conversely, what is it about fantasy that seems to find monarchy so attractive?

    Because in Fantasy, there is the attempt to embody all concepts in the person of a given character. The Monarch represents xyz. You can talk about the way power works by talking about The King. But that means you also accept the idea that power is fundamentally attached to character, rather than an artifact of system building.

  7. Lois Tiltonon 09 Nov 2008 at 10:55 pm

    It is certainly about power, and power inherent in the person.

    This is why it is so very important that the king be the True King, because the power derives from the person, not the office. It is an inheritance from divine ancestry.

    This is often symbolized by some sort of weapon that only the True King can wield. Rama, for example, is always shown with a bow, and in proving himself, he broke not one, but two divine bows.

    There was more than a little of this in history, as the bloodline of the king was equated to the legitimacy of the state. Henry VIII’s wives were executed for treason, because adultery on the part of the queen was treason, as it threatened the pure line of inheritance. When the enemies of the Stuarts wanted to discredit the dynasty, they spread the rumor of the warming pan baby, suggesting that the heir could not be a True King.

  8. Marie Brennanon 10 Nov 2008 at 4:36 am

    Someone raised an interesting question on my LJ recently, asking why so many countries, when adopting a democratic model, chose to go with something like the British model instead of the American one. Obviously colonial history plays a huge part in that, but he speculated that it may turn out to be more stable for a society to separate the “high-mana” function of a monarch from the political function of the state leader. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s interesting to think about, regardless.

    There’s a novel I want to write someday, exploring the notion that a nation exists because the people within it say it does. That is, there’s some kind of common narrative they share, which operates to bind them together into something like a whole. Similarly, somebody’s in power because people agree they are. You can to some extent create that agreement with force — “obey me or die” — but ultimately, if nobody believes in the leader’s power, he really isn’t a leader anymore. So the specialness of the One True King is not just a device the author employs on the story; it’s also something in the story, a common narrative the characters subscribe to which helps create unity. The coronation usually comes at the end of such stories, so I’m able to imagine that once the shine wears off that story — once it loses its power to compel belief — the politics set in.

    I’d love to see more epic fantasy where the characters themselves recognize this idea, and make conscious use of it.

  9. Maggie Brinkleyon 10 Nov 2008 at 7:38 am

    Thank you, Constance, for the link to the article on Gobleki Tepe.

    One thing that strikes me is that building such a complex place would need a huge amount of organisation. Who were the organisers, I wonder? Were they the start of what would become kings later? Were they considered touched by the Gods because of their talents?

    We can’t know, of course, but the ideas this gives one are so, so shiny!

    Alternatively, the organisers could have been the start of bureaucracy; but I don’t want to think that!

  10. Mark Tiedemannon 10 Nov 2008 at 8:33 am

    This is why it is so very important that the king be the True King, because the power derives from the person, not the office. It is an inheritance from divine ancestry.

    Exactly. This is key to differentiating the aesthetics of SF from Fantasy. Oversimplifying again, in SF competence stands in for divine authority, but since competence is not tied to inheritance, anyone can be the hero, whereas that person in Fantasy is thus by dint of destiny.

    It would be interesting to see a riff on this wherein the True King turns out to be a foul-up, but since he’s the only one who can rule…

  11. Lois Tiltonon 10 Nov 2008 at 11:28 am

    I do recall one fantasy series in which the True King was indeed a foul-up and a coward, deliberately inverting the premise. [naturally, the title escapes me]

    I don’t like to generalize too much about SF vs fantasy. What we’re discussing here is just one strain of fantasy, which is a very broad stream.

    And it’s quite possible in SF for inheritance to be the key, in cases of mutation, genetic manipulation, etc. One classic example: SLAN.

  12. Kate Elliotton 10 Nov 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Okay, Mark, since you’re making a lot of very interesting arguments, which I’m quite enjoying: How does the (what I consider pernicious) idea of Social Darwinism fit into this? the way some people talk about such, it strikes me as very close to the One True King notion in so far as it is about an inherent quality in the individual as opposed to, uh, hard work and persistence (discipline, whatever).

    I would argue that whether fantasy or sf, if the most important quality that leads to “triumph” is one inherent in the individual, then it is some variation (whether in f and sf and whether defined as competence or divine authority) of the one true king model. In either case, politics would be secondary.

    But I admit that I don’t see sf and fantasy as that different from each other, so that colors my outlook.

  13. Constance Ashon 10 Nov 2008 at 6:11 pm

    I’d love to see more epic fantasy where the characters themselves recognize this idea, and make conscious use of it.

    Dune did that very well. I still remember the shiver that went up my arms and neck when Jessica is having a introductory-teaching meeting with the Seitch’s wise-woman (I have forgotten the term for her used by Herbert), when she realizes that the Bene-Gesserit mother-missionaries had planted the myth of the special mother and her son who leads a people to glory. She shivered too.

    Love, C.

  14. Mark Tiedemannon 10 Nov 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Kate,

    You know, in all honesty I never looked at it from a Social Darwinist perspective before. Hmm. Lemme mull that one for a bit. Certainly there are many examples in SF of that, but I don’t recall recognizing it in any Fantasy. Good question!

  15. [...] of whether fantasy is inherently reactionary. The first was (by Kate Elliott, and the next by Lois Tilton; both have provoked interesting comment threads, and with luck there may be more posts to [...]

  16. Mark Tiedemannon 11 Nov 2008 at 10:09 am

    Kate,

    I ruminated on this all night. Given that my readings of Fantasy are not nearly as extensive as in SF, the pool of example is necessarily limited, so let me just pick on the Granddaddy, Tolkein.

    The whole question of Social Darwinism needs to be layered over what Tolkein created, so the question of which came first is problematic, but given that it would seem he sidestepped the whole issue by simply creating “castes” of humans in the guise of different species who all seem marvelously content with what they are. You don’t find Elves wishing to be Dwarves, Hobbits wishing to be Wizards, Orcs wishing to be Men. They accept their genetics and their “place” as if the question could not possibly arise.

    Obviously, this would take much of the complexity out of political argument. He would have had armchair familiarity with Marxist arguments just from talking about it with Lewis (whose Mars trilogy is very much concerned with such things), so the question of social castes as economics and politics would not be alien. I won’t suggest he ducked the question so much as wrote about something else, which was the nature of good and evil operating beneath man made systems.

    Along those lines, I have seldom come across examples of people in Fantasy novels rebelling against an oppressor intent on keeping them in their place as whatever they may be. Farmers are happy to be farmers, they just want to have more freedom to farm. I don’t see much in the way of groups of people chafing at caste boundaries based in traditions. The traditions come under threat and the people leap to defend them. The evil lords generally want to use these groups for something else than what they “naturally” do. (Perhaps this is what Fantasy shares, in diluted form, with horror—the fear of being made into something different than you are.)

    In examples of SF that sort of blends into Fantasy (or vice versa)—something I find generally dissatisfying—you do sort of see something like Social Darwinism begin to appear. For instance, Jack Vance’s The Last Castle. While ostensibly SF, I see no reason for this not to be read as Fantasy. (A lot of Vance’s work jumps from one to the other, usually only in the aesthetics of a given work.)

    It seems to me from my admittedly limited base that Social Darwinism does not figure significantly in Fantasy largely because it is understood as outside the purview of the themes, most especially in works based on essentialism. Fantasy endeavors to uncover the true nature of the characters, but as in the case of the One True King no one is questioning that such a thing exists and rightly so. Ergo, the whole shell game down to the beggar on the corner is as it should be.

    But that’s a topic I think ripe for a whole separate thread.

  17. mayakdaon 11 Nov 2008 at 10:53 am

    it may turn out to be more stable for a society to separate the “high-mana” function of a monarch from the political function of the state leader

    Seeing as how so many candidates run as and get elected for as a “high-mana” leader rather than a nuts-and-bolts leader, I’d tend to agree with that.

  18. Lois Tiltonon 11 Nov 2008 at 11:30 am

    One person who has addressed this essentialism issue is Salvatore. While I don’t have an overall high opinion of his stuff, he did imo an important thing by giving us a “dark elf” who attempts to reject the role his species has been cast to play.

  19. Anjaon 11 Nov 2008 at 12:15 pm

    > One person who has addressed this essentialism issue is Salvatore. While I don’t have an overall high opinion of his stuff, he did imo an important thing by giving us a “dark elf” who attempts to reject the role his species has been cast to play.

    Ah, but of course, now that we do have one dark elf who rejects the role he’s supposed to play, his character has become cliché: fun during gaming sessions (I LOVE playing a dark elf), but laughably unoriginal in a novel. Besides, Drizzt is still only the exception that proves the rule. One might argue that the message is even more insidious.

  20. Charleson 11 Nov 2008 at 12:24 pm

    And where there are kings, they claim to be gods. This phenomenon, while not universal, has occurred worldwide, as kings attempt to enhance their prestige and elevate themselves above the common humanity that they rule. If kings are gods, their rule must be unquestionable. If kings are gods, it would be sacrilege to attempt to depose them. If kings are gods, the pomp with which they are surrounded is only natural. If one king is a god, he must certainly occupy a higher position than some other neighboring king who is not divine, and will probably conquer his kingdom.

    The divine king (or queen) was used in quite the interesting way in England within their legal system.

    The King’s Two Bodies by Ernst H. Kantorowicz delves into the existence throughout the early monarchy of England (and other places) of the King’s Two Bodies: the Body Natural and the Body Politic, which includes the eventual divine attachment to it.

    The book is not an easy read (the footnotes can sometimes take up the most room on a page) but it is fascinating if one is interested in a study of Medieval Political Theology from the 11th through the 16th centuries.

  21. Mark Tiedemannon 11 Nov 2008 at 12:36 pm

    by simply creating “castes” of humans in the guise of different species who all seem marvelously content with what they are. You don’t find Elves wishing to be Dwarves, Hobbits wishing to be Wizards, Orcs wishing to be Men. They accept their genetics and their “place” as if the question could not possibly arise.

    It occurred to me just now that is right out of Plato—the noble lie—with the added benefit that it is both on the surface quite clear which are men of gold, men of silver, men of brass and that it “works.”

  22. Anjaon 11 Nov 2008 at 12:40 pm

    > You don’t find Elves wishing to be Dwarves, Hobbits wishing to be Wizards, Orcs wishing to be Men.

    Oh, but you do find big fat enormous worms attracted to half naked human females. So the question is: Did Jabba the Hutt secretly dream of being human? Is that why he turned to evil? Because he knew that no matter how hard he tried he could never be anything but a big fat ugly worm, sighing in his heart as he dreams of beauty?

    :o)

  23. Mark Tiedemannon 11 Nov 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Anja,

    Sometimes bad writing is just….bad writing.
    :)

  24. Kate Elliotton 11 Nov 2008 at 3:16 pm

    I was thinking of Social Darwinism more in the context of sf; that is, that while we (rightly) criticize fantasy if it seems to valorize the idea of aristocracy–a hereditary privileged ruling class–that there is a “hidden” element very like aristocracy in certain forms of Social Darwinism (the superior will rise to the top, and thereby they are meant to be the rulers) that seems to spring from the exact same mindset. That is, the desire to vaolrize “natural and inevitable” hierarchies.

    Now, mind you, we primates are to a greater or lesser degree accustomed to living in hierarchical social systems (although that’s not meant to be this point of this reply).

    I’m just saying that some of the things fantasy is criticized for are also present in sf; it’s just because the exterior concepts are changes that the identity symbols (going back to the point about fantasy as identity symbols) are not always recognized for what they are. but then, I tend to lump f and sf into the same larger category of speculative fiction or literature of the fantastic.

  25. Lois Tiltonon 11 Nov 2008 at 3:23 pm

    It’s unfortunately too common in fantasy novels that any original idea is seized upon by imitators and reduced swiftly to a cliche.

    I think that Tolkien did believe in his essentialist caste system; it grated on my liberal sensibilities every time Sam pulled his forelock and said, “Mr Frodo.” If Sam is the true hero of the Ring trilogy, it is precisely because he is the character who knows and accepts his destined place, who is free of all ambition to change it. He is also the character who is most worshipful to the “High”, from his own position below.

    Bad Tolkien imitators, otoh, are merely using the template, not out of any political convictions but, as Kate Elliott says, from lazy worldmaking.

  26. Lois Tiltonon 11 Nov 2008 at 3:25 pm

    On taking “the body divine” to the extreme logical conclusion, see:

    http://www.helixsf.com/archives/Jul08/fiction/Q1_kaftan_breakthevessel.htm

  27. Kate Elliotton 11 Nov 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Sometimes bad writing is just….bad writing.

    Ain’t that the truth!

    which brings me back to one of my original points, which is sometimes the social systems promulgated in some fantasy novels have nothing to do with the reactionary leanings (or not) of the author; they’re just working off imitations of imitations without much understanding of the complexity of society in any system.

  28. Kate Elliotton 11 Nov 2008 at 3:32 pm

    Charles, thanks for the reference.

  29. Kate Elliotton 11 Nov 2008 at 3:34 pm

    mayakda,

    I’ve read some interesting commentary in recent years on how USA presidential elections are run.

  30. Marie Brennanon 11 Nov 2008 at 3:37 pm

    I have seldom come across examples of people in Fantasy novels rebelling against an oppressor intent on keeping them in their place as whatever they may be.

    There is a metric crap-ton of fantasy that does exactly this — with gender. (Which is political, too, just not of a sort that your average Marxist critic would necessarily care about.)

    As for Salvatore, I asked him about that when I was working on a conference paper, and he very much subscribes to an essentialist view of the dark elves. He intended Drizzt to be a true exception to an otherwise reliable rule,and is decidedly against all the other good-drow ideas (e.g. Eilistraee) that have been embroidered onto his original concept. On the other hand, a recent series of his involved the orcs trying to set up their own kingdom in the mountains — and succeeding. They’re still the bad guys, but the trilogy did not end with a return to status quo, the orcs being sent scurrying back to their holes. They’re there to stay, and now the good guys are going to have to figure out how to deal with them politically, as well as militarily.

  31. Kate Elliotton 11 Nov 2008 at 4:02 pm

    oops – I mean to say, to complete the thought, how presidential elections are run on image more than substance, reflecting what you said.

  32. Brendan Podgeron 11 Nov 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Lois, don’t forget that at the end of LOTR Sam goes on to become Mayor of Hobbitton and (from memory) even more respected than Pippin and Merry, who were both hereditary lords.

  33. Lois Tiltonon 11 Nov 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Brendan, indeed, but it was an honor proper to Sam’s place.

    To use the military analogy – Sam as a commoner is naturally an enlisted man. He serves Frodo, of the gentry, who is naturally an officer. Sam achieves high rank for an enlisted man – he is the equivalent of the sergeant-major. Even a general has respect for a soldier who has reached the rank of sergeant-major, but Sam still would address any snot-nosed subaltern as “Sir.”

    This was Tolkien’s world.

  34. Chris Jon 12 Nov 2008 at 1:06 am

    Interesting discussion.

    The question still remains, however: What is it about monarchy that seems to be so attractive to fantasy authors? Or conversely, what is it about fantasy that seems to find monarchy so attractive?

    To some degree fantasy still lingers under the shadow of the Romantics, and Romanticism, is… well… romantic. I suspect that one reason readers can enjoy a story involving kings and queens with godlike power is that we no longer live in a society ruled by kings and queens with godlike power.

    Why are fantasy authors attracted to monarchical systems of rule? Well, a bunch of people said it before, I add it again, laziness. Laziness of thought. Laziness of creativity.

    I have seldom come across examples of people in Fantasy novels rebelling against an oppressor intent on keeping them in their place as whatever they may be.

    For a good classic riff on this, check out Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Peake. The key theme of both books is rebellion against an inane and over-codified social hierarchy.

    You don’t find Elves wishing to be Dwarves, Hobbits wishing to be Wizards, Orcs wishing to be Men.

    Hm. Maybe an over-simplification. The Numinoreans did attempt to invade the Undying Lands. Elves did sort of split and chase off after different desires – the woods, the seas, the hills. A funny thing, is that in Tolkiens world power and magic are certainly innate and inborn – but there is also a certain Lamarkianism to it all. Wood elves apparently became woodsy by living in the woods. The trees in Fangorn forest become more magical because of the Ents.

    Overall though, Tolkien did create a world that was full of ancestral powers, obedience to elder things and hierarchies woven into the fabric of the world. This isn’t surprising given his interest in folklore, mythology in addition to the Christian mythology that permeated his life.

    He might well have chosen to impose a system of nested divine rights on his world because to him it felt vaguely, indefinably mythic.

    More than a few subsequent authors have no doubt done the same because it felt vaguely, indefinable Tolkien.

    As for Social Darwinism, Terry Goodkind is a fan of Ayn Rand (last I heard) whose Objectivism shares a lot of fundamental assumptions with S/D. Presumably his work must play around (consciously or unconsciously) with the idea of S/D in a fantasy setting in some way or another.

  35. Anjaon 12 Nov 2008 at 6:35 am

    > Why are fantasy authors attracted to monarchical systems of rule? Well, a bunch of people said it before, I add it again, laziness. Laziness of thought. Laziness of creativity.

    I don’t think any of the previous comments said that choosing a monarchy as political background in epic fantasy is per se lazy wordbuilding; only a badly done one, where there’s either a good king or an evil king and if the king is evil he will have to be removed and if he’s good, chances are the heroes must help him retake his throne from a bad king. But there’s loads of shades in between that would be fun to explore.

    There is a good “technical” reason why a monarchy makes a good fantasy setting that have nothing to do with laziness:

    To keep the exposition from overwhelming your story. Kingdoms are “smaller” than democracies.

    1. Democracies are confusing. You have either a president, or two political leaders/figureheads, like in many European countries. You have an awful lot of ministers, and 500+ delegates. You have laws so complicated it takes years at Uni to study them.

    Monarchy cuts down on the exposition and the amount of characters you need. A court intrigue can be a wonderful convoluted affair, but try an intrigue in a modern democracy — it would take up the entire novel, I dare say.

    Urban fantasy, where the setting is Chicago or Louisiana or London, only has to introduce the supernatural element into a setting the reader is already familiar with, but epic fantasy must create the entire world for the reader, with laws, customs, countries, climates, politics, history, etc. Say, you have eight countries in your “known” world, and 4000 years of known history. You can, without turning your reader off, introduce perhaps three important laws, three most important customs, three important historical events (for each country, wuaaa), etc.

    Say your cast (without rulers) is already into the hundreds. It’s easier to add kings, instead of 500+ delegates. You have the king in the country your hero is from (doing OK, but not great), a king in the countries they are at war with (getting too old for the job), the memory of a great old king who lived 700 years ago and still shapes people’s thinking of how a real king should be; a bad king who lived 150 years ago (and is still remembered as a tyrant); another great one 1000 years ago, and two other bad ones even longer ago than that, and a great queen 4000 years ago.

    (OK, so it’s backward looking, eh? But some people think history is important, to understand where we are all coming from, to try and avoid (if possible) past mistakes… but that’s a different topic.)

    Kings and queens are remembered for centuries after. Presidents… well, only if people are forced to take government classes at school where the names are drilled into your head. (I could name the first and the latest three for my country, and one other name but I wouldn’t know when exactly he was president and what he did.)

    Anyway. All of this (and let’s not forget the plot) takes a trilogy of 1000+ pages to introduce. Change it to democracy, with president and representatives voted into office every four years… exposition would grow exponentially.

    2. A fantasy novel set mainly in one city can easily afford a city council/democracy. But more likely, it’ll be a thief guild who rules, won’t it? Why is that? Guess democracy just isn’t “exotic” enough for the people who live in it. Fantasy readers do expect to enter a world with a different feel to it, a “fantastic” world.

    3. Modern politics are so complex, you could never tell in one book what happened in a year, in one country. Everyday modern politics are frustrating and slow, bogged down by a million petty issues. It’s easier if your setting is a monarchy (which appears simpler) to concentrate on one (or three) important political development(s).

    (Easier not just for the writer, but also for the reader.)

    Not sure I would call any of this laziness of thought or creativity.

    P.S. A fantasy novel (epic or sword&sorcery) set in a monarchy with a hero who has blatantly democratic ideas, and thus starts fighting the system, is usually too silly to read. I tried one only recently, and couldn’t get more than a few chapters into it. I kept wondering: where are his ideas coming from? — out of nowhere!

    (Now, in the Vorkosigan Saga, it’s done brilliantly, of course. BUT the two cultures clash, it’s not the good democrat saving the poor wretches living in a monarchy. The hero has a democratic mother and a monarchist father and for most of the series, he is just trying to put his own restless energy to some good use.)

  36. Anjaon 12 Nov 2008 at 6:42 am

    P.S. “Bad” and “great” are epithets historians (or contemporaries) add to the royal names, for a variety of reasons, true or imagined.

  37. Marie Brennanon 12 Nov 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Anya — the way I usually think of it is, monarchy offers more scope for individual personalities to influence things, and generally people are more interested in character than the impersonal forces of bureaucracy. I’ve been eyeball-deep in English history for a couple of years now, thanks to the novels I’m writing, and I can say from experience that writing political plots got exponentially harder between the Elizabethan period (when I could introduce the Queen and a couple of her most important councillors) and the Civil War (when Parliament started flexing its power). And that’s early democracy, not something on the scale of the modern state. Once you start getting into committees and the like, bureaucracy takes over, unless you write about a Jack Bauer-type character who somehow (magically!) manages to bypass all that crap.

    Of course, that’s only if politics is a focus in your story. You can write a perfectly good urban fantasy without once bringing up the President of the United States. But fantasy often has a large scope, where the fate of the nation will be affected by what the characters do, and that’s easier to manage when the government is more personal, less bureaucratic.

  38. Deb Son 12 Nov 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Does “escapism” have to be a dirty word?
    At its most basic level, we’re drawn to fantasy because it transports us from the mundane and ordinary world to a place where anything can happen. As kids we dreamed of stepping through the Wardrobe to a world of kings and queens, or fantasized about bonding with telepathic dragons. Nothing’s really changed; we still want to slip away and immerse ourselves in that Other Place where our riding leathers still fit. In giving us feudal systems and divine rulers, then, fantasy is simply delivering on its first promise: You’re not in Kansas anymore.

  39. Mark Tiedemannon 12 Nov 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Deb,

    That’s interesting, because as a child—as young as four—I dreamt of escape as well, but it was always on a spaceship to a “real” world. My dreams were always SF based because they had to be in some way possible. Fantasy held very little appeal to me even then (possibly because I still would have been undersized and undermuscled in a society where brains did not seem to count in about the same way they didn’t count in the schoolyard). Now that I’m an “adult” I find the idea of telepathically bonding with anything (much less a dragon) rather an alarming idea.

    On a personal note, what I find amusing is that I can watch a fantasy film with nary a hiccup, but I can’t get through the first fifty pages of most fantasy novels. At least, not those with a feudal, quasi-medieval aesthetic.

  40. Maryon 12 Nov 2008 at 9:41 pm

    Democratic ideas, if plausibly done for their era, can work. There have been a lot. Enough, at least for James Madison to derive a conclusion from

    Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security and the rights of property, and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths

    Someone who seriously disapproved of democracy would probably be somewhat stronger.

    If your hero is urging democracy, give your villains some serious arguments against it.

  41. Anjaon 13 Nov 2008 at 6:34 am

    > Does “escapism” have to be a dirty word?

    What I want out of a novel is some optimism (being a pessimist myself.) If the main character is in a dreadful place surrounded by dreadful people and the only thing he is fighting for is mere survival, I wonder: why bother. Just open your wrists and get it over with.

    I liked Harry Potter 1-5 well enough, but stopped halfway through the sixth part. One reason because it was boring (nothing happening at all) but more grievously, I didn’t feel comfortable at Hogwarts anymore. Everyone was just bitching at each other, even Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Not a nice word to each other, no sticking together to stand up against the (unfortunately absent) threat. Hogwarts was no longer a place I wanted to be.

    Call me an escapist, but I don’t enjoy depressing novels. I thought “Use of Weapons” by Iain Banks was brilliant, but it’s also brutal, without the slightest glimpse of hope. Bank’s entire “Culture” is cold, merciless, meaningless (i.e. the lives of the people living in it seem totally meaningless.) One such novel per year is really more than enough for me. I need something to lift my mood after that.

  42. Anjaon 13 Nov 2008 at 7:25 am

    Oh, and this goes for both fantasy and scifi. There is some scifi with characters I can relate to, visiting places I enjoy visiting alongside them, and a lot of fantasy that’s much too depressing for my taste, or too gross.

    If a fantasy novel starts off by showing a man having his private parts gnawed off by rats (as punishment — wouldn’t it have sufficed to have him whipped to death?) then into the bin goes the book.

    Cheap effects like that turn me off. There are better ways to evoke fear in a fantasy (or scifi) world; I like subtle, sly: mind games, intrigues, dagger in the back, poison in the drink, breaking an opponent with no more than a look and a word.

    As a young teen I came across a book on medieval torture methods in my dad’s library (the part hidden behind the sofa.) I really don’t need that kind of detail in my everyday reading — which, after all, is for pleasure — under the pretense of “more realism.”

  43. Mark Tiedemannon 13 Nov 2008 at 10:54 am

    Bank’s entire “Culture” is cold, merciless, meaningless (i.e. the lives of the people living in it seem totally meaningless.)

    Really? I have exactly the opposite reaction. Here is a place wherein people can find their own meaning without having it handed to them by either tradition or destiny. I’d like to live there.

  44. Deb Son 13 Nov 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Mark

    Whether it’s SF or F, if the world is well-crafted, I can (and want to) suspend rational belief, sit back and enjoy the ride. But I do need a disconnect with the real world to reach that mindset.

    I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy or “magic in our world stories” mostly because they don’t trigger that disconnect. If I’m on another world, plane, or planet, my little mind will happily accept that the rules are different, but if I’m sitting in Starbucks and a (insert faery creature, or sexy bloodsucking being of choice) walks in, well…let’s just say I’ve really got to be in the mood.

  45. Anjaon 13 Nov 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Which only goes to show that it’s all about taste.

    OK, so let’s imagine you are an ordinary person in the Culture, not one of the protagonists going through all that bad stuff … BUT really, I just can’t believe it would work. Machines do all the work, people only dabble in things (like studying to be an architect even though the machines are a lot better than a human architect can ever be) because oh, they felt like doing this for a while. Not because they want to achieve anything, not because they need the money, not because they want to make the world more beautiful, not because they seek admiration or recognition.

    Sorry? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe people would get their bums out of their cozy chairs and their eyes away from the screen (where they’re playing some future equivalent of WoW) for long enough to do anything constructive, if there isn’t some reason — ambition, survival, the wish to improve society, etc. — to make them.

    Trying to imagine how schools would work… how would you get the students to learn anything if they don’t need it and can have every comfort in life without ever doing any hard work? (And studying is hard work.)

    A 7th grader (who could get an A if she only put in some small amount of effort) told me recently: I don’t need Math. When I grow up, I’ll work in my father’s company, where I can play computer games all day. — Ah, but he’s not going to pay you for that. — Sure he will.

    Now that’s escapism ;o)

  46. Anjaon 13 Nov 2008 at 1:43 pm

    BTW, I would argue that the invention of a technology so superb that it will save us from all our troubles is only a variation on the OTK motif!

    ;o)

    Just like many people in RL are hoping that someone (let’s call him the One True Scientist) will invent this wonderful technology that will prevent the polar ice caps from melting, and until this saviour arrives, we can just go on like we always have, because after all, we are only the simple folk, who can’t change the world anyway.

    > I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy or “magic in our world stories” mostly because they don’t trigger that disconnect.

    For me, it’s the insufferable feisty tone and irrational attitude of the (female) protagonist that I can’t, well, suffer.

    But I love The Dresden Files (very likeable character, telling his story in a wonderful wry tone). And Tanya Huff, “Summon the Keeper” is rather good too (lot of bizarre characters and bizarre events). And the Vampire Files (mixing vampire with Chicago prohibition era + mystery noire + a Sherlock Holmes like detective.)

  47. Deb Son 13 Nov 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Anja

    For some reason I can accept the mix of real world and fantasy on screen better than in print. I never read the Dresden Files, but I kind of liked the short-lived TV series, and must confess I was a big Buffy fan. Maybe I want or expect different things from the two mediums. Expect and want more from a novel because it’s more of an investment time-wise than a half-hour TV show?

  48. Foz Meadowson 09 Feb 2009 at 11:33 pm

    From the political side, it could just be the lure of that ephemeral creature, the Good King. The difference between a Good King and a Good Elected Representative is the capacity for real social change: while a moanrch can mandate with few limitations, a politician cannot. For this reason, despite the vast number of average or extremely awful kings, we tend to be obsessed with the notion of one who gets it right – its the kind of dream societal upheval/restoration scenario in which someone like Obama doesn’t have to answer to government bureaucrats, but can simply get things done, which contrasts most strongly with our current world, and is therefore alluring. That, and fantasy tends to have a strong moral dimension: whereas politicians are creatures of compromise, kings can uphold – and, indeed, are upheld by – a set moral system. This also opens up the potential for great villains, as there’s a much more creative scope for abuse of power without governmental checks and balances. And the historical element is there, too.

    That’s just a broad comparison, though. There are obviously many more subtle variations to be worked within, which can produce some very intriguing (and narratively succulent) tales.

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