There’s Something About Monarchy

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

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.

What is it about monarchy? Why is it so common in fantasy?

There have been several good posts about this on Deep Genre lately, with many great comments therein. Lois Tilton points out, for example, that “For most of human political history, the kingdom has been the default mode of governance, once a society reached a certain size.” If you threw a dartboard at the portions of human existence involving sedentary agricultural populations (which is where most fantasies take place), she’s right; you’d probably hit a monarchy. (If you put all of human existence on your dartboard, 9 throws out of 10 would hit a roving band of about 25 hunter-gatherer-fisher-scavengers without much of a government at all.)

Of course, that’s taking “monarchy” in the simplest sense: rule by one person. Sarah Beach rightly adds that “‘monarchy’ is not some sort of monolithic institution;” sovereign rulers come in all kinds of different flavors, depending on the culture. The philosophical justification of their authority, the political mechanisms by which it is exercised — those things and more can vary quite sharply. I’d love to see more fantasy explore that variety. (Then again, I’d love to see fantasy explore more variety in general.)

But okay. Let’s grant a basically European monarchy, with a hereditary nobility to back the king up. (Or cut him down, if the nobles are ambitious.) Leaving aside the complex interrelationship of that governmental model with all the other cultural institutions that characterize pre-modern Europe . . . why is it that so many fantasies feature something in that vein?

They don’t have to. I love my genre dearly, but I’m willing to grant that laziness and inertia are undeniable factors here; since many fantasies are set in monarchies, many fantasy writers will think of stories taking place in such settings, because that’s the model in front of them. God knows it took years for me to question it myself, and to expand my mental net to include other forms of governance. 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.

This only matters if you want to write about politics. If you’re telling an entirely different kind of story, then the national government can be whatever; urban fantasy does this all the time. But secondary-world fantasies, and especially epic fantasies, often take place on a large enough canvas that you need to touch the government eventually. It isn’t surprising that many authors choose a less bureaucratic model.

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. It’s the flip side of the individual power mentioned before: all across the world, cultures have myths that invest that single figure with numinous force, whether it’s the sword in the stone or the promised return or the land suffering because the king is wounded. And fantasy is often about the numinous.

Before I close this out, I should acknowledge the rhetorical trick I’ve been playing here, which some of you have probably noticed: I’ve been talking as if the only options are monarchy or democracy. They kind of represent ends of a spectrum; one puts sovereign authority in a single individual, while the other puts it in the people en masse. But monarchs delegate their authority to subordinates, and democracies usually have a leader at the top, and moreover there are other options. Really, any given government features a selection of attributes, some combinations of which work better than others. Monarchies — especially of the general European type discussed here — operate on a set of attributes that works very well for storytelling. It isn’t just laziness that pushes us toward them.

There is, however, variety in the world, and I’d be delighted to see more of it.