Monday, September 21, 2009

Monarchy in Fantasy Fiction

A few days ago I was looking for monarchist sites and discovered that about a year ago, there was much discussion in the sci-fi/fantasy blogosphere about monarchy in speculative fiction. It apparently started with a couple of pompous posts by critic Jonathan McCalmont, in which he takes cheap swipes at fantasy readers. Judging from these two posts, he subscribes to the fantasy(!) of an enlightened, peaceful high-tech future where war and authority don't exist:

So I think the question should really be, is it possible to write epic fantasy that isn't conservative? China Mieville's Iron Council can be seen as an attempt to ground fantasy in real politics but as Mieville himself seems to discover, even real politics lead to bloodshed and authoritartianism in fantasyland. I would argue that the very tropes of fantasy itself, with its reliance upon violence and moral simplicity, make it impossible to escape the whiff of authoritarianism.

"Even real politics lead to bloodshed and authoritartianism[sic] in fantasyland"? Well, now we know the difference between fantasyland and the real world: in fantasyland, politics leads to bloodshed and "authoritartianism". In the real world, it seems, that never happens.

Mr. McCalmont's screeds at least led to interesting discussion for bloggers with more interesting things to say. All of them are published authors in the genre.

In the wake of the USA presidential election, Deep Genre is thinking about politics, class, and fantasy and science fiction. by Kate Elliott

Is fantasy an inherently conservative genre? Does it look back to an “idealized past” or represent a fetishization of, say, feudalism and aristocracy? If you write about monarchy, are you authoritarian in your heart of hearts? Are all “traditional” fantasies, or “epic” fantasies, or “heroic” fantasies, about restoring the hierarchical status quo and/or wrapped around a monolithic and absolutist vision of good vs. evil? What is up with these modern day fantasy writers who write novels set in reactionary monarchies and don’t write a story about overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a democratic government like the one they are fortunate enough to live in? Is there something *wrong* with them? Or are they just pandering to the audience that reads this reactionary pap and dreams of that happy day when they were the lost prince seeking to reclaim his stolen throne?...

I tend to think that many of these elements, where they do appear, come about as a result of lazy world-building rather than political agency. Lazy world-building is an issue of craft, not politics.

On Fantasies and Kings by Lois Tilton

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....

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.

Miss Tilton seems to be the only one in this discussion to whom this occurred: that most of human history has been monarchical.

Caliban and his Mirror: Fantasy and Politics (or not) by James Enge

Why do so many fantasies involve young sons of widows who grow up to kill the monster, defeat the king, marry the princess and rule the kingdom happily ever after? Some point out that these stories are very old; this is true, but it's just begging the question. A story appeals to audiences because it speaks to them emotionally.

There’s Something About Monarchy by Marie Brennan

Fantasy gets a lot of guff for its kings and queens. I won’t even get into the critics who call everything “feudalism-lite” without the blindest clue what feudalism actually means; let’s just agree they’re generally talking about a hierarchical and hereditary aristocratic system with a single ruler on top....

Writing it all off as laziness is an equally lazy cop-out, though, because I do think monarchies (of many flavors) offer certain useful features that, say, democracies do not.

On the practical level, they offer scope to the individual. Look at modern democracy: if you tried to write a plot about political machinations in the U.S. Congress, how many characters do you think it would have to involve? I’ve just finished revising a novel involving the seventeenth-century English Parliament, so I speak from experience when I say it’s a beast to do. There are committees; there are bureaucratic procedures. Things get complicated. You would probably fare a little better with, say, the Roman Senate, or ancient Greek democracy, where there were fewer representatives, fewer people voting for them, and fewer political hoops for individuals to jump through. But if you want to catapult a character into power in a democratic system, step one is that you have to persuade or buy enough votes to get the guy in to begin with. And then your problems have only started.

Contrast that with a monarchy, where a pretty face and a bit of encouragement took George Villiers from a minor gentleman to the Duke of Buckingham in seven years flat. He ended up one of the most powerful men in England because a couple of guys wanted to replace the King’s favorite, and the King obligingly took the bait. Monarchies — at least of the sort we’re discussing — tend to be less bureaucratic, less bound by institutions and procedures; individual personalities, whether that of the king or his close advisers, have a great deal of scope in which to act, and you can build a reasonably plausible court plot by introducing two or three important people and a handful of minions....

The other feature monarchies offer is that, frankly, they’re more mythic. I don’t mean they’re cooler; I like living in a democracy, and think it has many awesome advantages. But let’s face it, we don’t have so many timeless legends about how Arthur convinced a plurality of nobles to vote him president, or how Winston Churchill will return from death when England needs him most.

Monarchy is not unknown in science fiction, by the way. David Weber and John Barnes are two examples of this.


Aaron Davies said...

It can't have hurt that Tolkien was a reactionary, and the vast majority of fantasy is Tolkien knock-offs to this day.

Regarding science fiction monarchies, Bujold's Vorkosigan books are probably a better example than Weber's Harrington series. While the Harrington stuff is fun, Manticore is a monarchy only because England was a monarchy in 1800--the whole thing is a replay of the Napoleonic wars in space. Barrayar reëvolved feudalism much more believably.

MadMonarchist said...

Well, I'm not much on the fantasy genre myself but I will confess that Michael Ende's "Neverending Story" was always a favorite of mine and monarchy was definitely a major part of the story. His "Kinderliche Kaiserin" was central to the story and the second half certainly could be seen to have warnings about trying to usurp royal status. I've been thinking about posting some thoughts on this myself. In Ende's case it probably helped that he spent so much time in Japan.

Kate Elliott said...

Thanks for the links.

I should note that most of us in that long discussion do know that most of human history has been under monarchical or similar systems. I guess most of it never state it directly as Lois wisely did. Anyway, it was a great discussion which I mean to get back to some day.