TT: The Fantasy of Monarchy

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and join me as I take you with me back to Conduit in Utah this past weekend.  Then come and take part in Alan and my discussion as to why monarchies are so popular in Fantasy – and even sometimes in SF.

JANE: Last time you wondered aloud why monarchies are so popular in

Fantasy Monarch and Court

Fantasy and even Science Fiction.    You suggested this might be due to the influence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books.

ALAN: Yes, I did. Royalty and aristocracy have turned into a fantasy novel cliché. Almost without exception, modern fantasies are full of Kings and Queens, Lords and Ladies. A huge number of these books are written by Americans.  It strikes me as very odd that writers from a country that deliberately turned its back on that structure of government should return to it in their books over and over again.

Perhaps because they have never lived in a society organised in this way, they sometimes view it through rose coloured glasses. That breaks the spell of the story, at least as far as this British reader is concerned!

JANE: As a writer who has created the occasional monarchy, I have a few insights into why I, at least, made the choice.  Absolutely none of them had anything to do with Tolkien or with idealizing that particular form of government.

ALAN: Now you’ve piqued my interest. Tell me more!

JANE: When I set out to write the Firekeeper books, one of the themes I wanted to explore was feral child raised by animals.  However, I felt that both Kipling (with Mowgli) and Burroughs (with Tarzan) had already done the “alien first encounter story” quite well.  Therefore, I needed a reason why Firekeeper would not have stayed contentedly with the wolves.

I decided that someone would come looking – not so much for her, as for the people she had been with.  Why would they do that?  After reviewing a bunch of options, I decided that an inheritance question would be a good one.  Since I didn’t want Firekeeper herself to be the focus, I decided on a conflicted throne.

You see, unlike any other form of government, monarchies are fascinating in that, much of the time, who will rule is not chosen by fitness but by birth order.  This makes for a tight focus, much tighter than, say, an election would be.

With me so far?

ALAN: Yes – though it isn’t an invariable rule that the monarch is chosen by birth order. The succession can easily be manipulated in the interests of political expediency. If the Duke of Windsor had married Wallis Simpson before he ascended to the throne,  he would never have been allowed to become King in the first place. And when he did marry her, he was forced to abdicate. I agree that, for the purposes of fiction, you have to pretend that the tight focus you require will be adhered to. But in the real world power lies with the Kingmakers, just as much as  it lies with the King.

JANE: But wasn’t it the Duke’s  choice of a marriage partner that was being objected to – not his fitness as a potential monarch?

ALAN: Not really. There were a lot of people who regarded Wallis as a gift from God.  By the time he was forced to abdicate, there were serious doubts about Edward VIII’s fitness for the role of King. His politics were causing concern (he was a thorough-going fascist) and he didn’t have the intellect to understand and perform his kingly functions properly. Wallis gave the Kingmakers the excuse they needed to get rid of him.

And sometimes the Kingmakers change their minds. Look at poor Lady Jane Grey – Queen for only nine days. Having appointed, anointed, and crowned her, the Privy Council then reasserted the legitimacy of her cousin Mary’s claim to the throne and Lady Jane was executed. (Of course, the size of Mary’s army might have had something to do with that decision…)

JANE: Actually, I am familiar with both of those historical examples – and both of those situations caused a lot of trauma precisely because they violated what everyone had come to expect would be the rule…

Anyhow, another reason monarchies are appealing to a writer is because when a major decision needs to be made only one person needs to be convinced.  Last week, I suggested that Tolkien might have made the Riders of Rohan some form of democracy.  However, if he’d done that, Gandalf and the rest would have had to convince all the Riders Who Had the Vote to go to war.  Instead, we focus in on one old, sick, disheartened man.  The one leads to argument.  The other to drama.

ALAN: I fully understand this approach – drama is always better than argument. But it does cheat a little. The monarch is almost never the only person who needs convincing. And no matter what their personal feelings may be, they are still subject to pressure from other interests. King John did not sign Magna Carta voluntarily.

JANE: I’ll take this further…  I have written books in which some sort of democratic or communistic process dictates the action.  This is precisely what goes on in the Breaking the Wall books, because each of the heirs of the Thirteen Orphans has a say.  Some reviewers have criticized the books as too “talky” for this reason.

I think they would have liked a sort of monarchy with, say, the Tiger neatly in charge.

ALAN: Ah, there’s the difficult word – “neatly.” These things are seldom neat. Henry VIII is commonly viewed as one of the strongest of the English kings. He killed and divorced his wives with impunity; he destroyed the monasteries; he even founded a new national religion.

But his word alone was not enough to make these things happen. He needed people like Thomas Wolsey (a Cardinal who had the ear of the Pope) and Thomas Cromwell, a pre-eminent statesman. Without them he could never have achieved his aims.

JANE: I’d like to give a nod to a SF series by an American that I think uses the monarchy in a manner you’d find familiar and realistic.  David Weber, in his Honor Harrington novels, gives the Star Kingdom of Manticore a parliamentary democracy with a monarch.  Weber shows the difficulties Queen Elizabeth has with the Star Kingdom’s various political parties.  She’s far from a figurehead but, even so, she needs to deal with which party is in dominance and how that will affect her ability to have things go her way.

ALAN: I’ve not read Weber’s books. But your description makes the politics of his monarchy sound much more realistic than the overly simplistic picture that so many fantasies portray. All too often fantasy novel monarchies are painted in black and white. They need far more shades of grey to be convincing (and some other colours might help a bit as well).

JANE: I agree – and I think I also write – about shades of grey, even with monarchies.  The complexities of the political situation in Through Wolf’s Eyes are far beyond “oldest kid gets the throne.” That said, too many writers of Fantasy don’t bother with this.

ALAN: And now we’ve both arrived at the same place, albeit via different routes!

JANE:  Let’s leave the monarchy behind and look at other types of government Fantasy might use.  I know you must have some thoughts on that for next time.


5 Responses to “TT: The Fantasy of Monarchy”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Something in the SFF water right now? Charles Stross had some similar thoughts in his blog on April 12 (single point of failure) and he’s certainly talked about it earlier.

    Not that I disagree with the analysis above. I just find it interesting that similar discussions pop up in multiple places. Might I venture a guess that many SFF writers are searching around for something good that hasn’t been done already, to reignite the field?

    • janelindskold Says:

      Actually, Alan was the one who brought this up. This writer doesn’t worry about such things.

      However, Alan does read Stross’s blog, so many sideways infection?

      We’ll have to ask him…

      • Alan Robson Says:

        No — it’s not really influenced by Charlie Stross’s blog. Rather I think it’s more that he and I both have similar opinions. And that might have a lot to do with the fact that we were both born brought up in the same part of England. Indeed, we both lived in the same town for a few years, though our times there did not coincide.


  2. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    One other possible reason: American readers are less likely to want to get, in the fantasy stories they pay for, yet another helping of the partisan legislative faction-fighing and polarizing electioneering they get for ‘free’ in the daily news. They want something else, and not that many other options.

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