Lois Tilton 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.