There’s Something About Monarchy

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 hear about more of it. Who has done a good job with non-monarchical governments in fantasy? How have the politics of those societies played out in the story? I’m always looking for good examples to copy. :-)

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  1. 1. S. M. Payne

    I don’t know of any good examples, but I know that it’s something I’ve always been very aware of in my own fiction, stretching the cultures beyond what is typical. Most epic fantasy (my leanings) is built around medieval Europe. Well, I’ve never been much interested in medieval Europe, and the cultures I create, I go in from the ground up.

    I try to take a handful of individuals (blank slate, no colonists please) and make them react to their environment and having to create some sort of life for themselves within it and then watch to see what government and such emerges.

    I find the main reason “monarchies” of various kinds (very, very different kinds) arise so often is that in a small group, a small leadership is required. It’s as the group gets larger that the government gets larger. But I’ve found myself looking for ways to vary some of my own tendencies: sort-of monarchies, straight-up monarchies, and councils (oh, the dreaded!).

    Even in our own world though, there is only a handful of common government types, with many of them being a variation on monarchy. I heard a story from a Special Forces soldier who explained that in his time in Africa, he didn’t just go to the king of a country to ask about helping the people. He had to go to the king of each village!

    There really is something about monarchy.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    It’s definitely true that government gets more complex as society does. More people and more specialization requires a larger apparatus to keep it all in order; anybody who tried to rule the modern United States as an Enlightenment-era absolute monarch would go batty in a day and a half. And I suspect no military dictator could keep it in line for long, either; at the very least you’d have sub-commanders flexing their own power in various regions or states, because they’re too far away, and control too many of their own soldiers, for the dictator to really keep them in line.

    It isn’t just technology either, though technology facilitates a large yet strongly centralized state (through fast travel and communication). The Roman empire had one guy at the top, sure — but below him was a complex system of political and military subdivisions to keep the empire running. At any given time, the emperor might be little more than a figurehead, a puppet of the powers supposedly below him.

  3. 3. chrisweuve

    “…how Winston Churchill will return from death when England needs him most.”

    You mean that legend is not real?!?

    Seriously, though, I think it has to do with Walter Bagehot’s comment that “royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting things. A republic is a government in which that attention is divided among many who are all doing uninteresting things.”

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    It’s reductionist, but there’s a certain truth in the Bagehot quote.

  5. 5. Adam Heine

    I think you’ve got it right, Marie. Another reason I think fiction swings towards monarchies is because it’s easier to produce a hero/villain out of them. Democracy has a single leader, yes, but that leader is hemmed in by so many checks and balances that they have very little power of their own to act. And a hero or villain needs to have power to act in order to be interesting.

    It brings to mind Star Wars. In the original trilogy, we have an Empire ruled by a single Emperor, who was a really awesome and powerful villain. But in the prequels, half of the plot is dealing with the machinations of the Republic. The Emperor is still there, being a villain and trying to become Emperor, but his methods are so obtuse and complex, necessarily so, as to be relatively uninteresting.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Well, the prequels had so many problems, it’s hard to tease one out from the rest. <g>

    The hero/villain aspect grows out of the individuality, I think. You can tell an interesting story within a more bureaucratic system, and even one that has an individual doing heroic (or villainous) things, but it can fall into the 24 trap — you end up with this outrageous character who somehow gets away with running roughshod over all the usual procedures.

  7. 7. Peter Lewerin

    I think it’s mostly that modern fantasy is dominated by USAian writers, and that USA for most intents and purposes is an elective monarchy. You write what you know.

  8. 8. hagelrat

    I would rather see an old formula crafted really well to create a great story than something which lost quality in order to demonstrate originality. Not that being different necessarily means less good, but I have never got tired of reading epic fantasy with a monarchy and seeing the different ways skilled authors use that basic set up.

  9. 9. NewGuyDave

    Until I took up novel writing, I had never considered the advantages or disadvantages of the types of government in a story. I suppose my decision to have a monarchy was based on what I’ve read.

    Now that I’m trying to flesh things out in my first novel, I can see the wisdom in what you’ve written. I’ve already considered different types of governing power to my world, and hope to add tribal leaders, god-kings, and democratic councils to future stories as the characters travel and become more worldly.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Dave — glad it helped!

  11. 11. Eliza Wyatt

    George R. R. Martin, in his ‘Songs of Ice and Fire’ series. Read them.

    It’s mostly about a monarchy (actually, its about noble houses wresting for control of said monarchy), but he touches on other lands, councils, nomadic horse-lords, religious figureheads (I believe there is a culture that raises up a ceremonial prince regularly, then butchers him when the crops fail or a disaster strikes), and free cities that aren’t free at all.

    If you do a monarchy right, it’s anything but simple.

  12. 12. Marie Brennan

    Eliza — that’s one of several things I love Martin for.

  13. 13. Carlea Holl-Jensen

    It occurs to me that, in addition to a modicum of laziness, fantasy (especially, perhaps, US fantasy) is also deeply nostalgic for that monarchic past. The monarchy is our (American) history; it is, as you say, a mythologized part of our past. In a way, fantasy idealizes the past even more than historical fiction, because fantasy writers imbue the past with a magical atmosphere. The past is a place where incredible things have happened, and the magic of that time is often thought to be extinct in our modern era. I think there is a certain distaste for modern life. How often do you see a protagonist in so-called “literary fiction” whip out a cell phone or Google something? We tend to assume our current era is lacking in a certain charm and, indeed, magic–when, in fact, that fantastic quality is something we’ve spun around the past ourselves, and is no more lacking today than it was a thousand years ago.

    I’ll stop rambling now. These are some very well-observed comments, and it was a pleasure reading them!

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    It occurs to me that, in addition to a modicum of laziness, fantasy (especially, perhaps, US fantasy) is also deeply nostalgic for that monarchic past.

    I disagree quite strongly. Not that nostalgic fantasy doesn’t exist; of course it does. But I object to the (frequently reflexive) pairing of fantasy with nostalgia, because that word implies we’re all sitting around going, gee, weren’t things better and more magical back in the good ol’ medieval (or whatever) days? For one thing, it conveniently sweeps the entirety of urban fantasy under the rug, as if we don’t have a big sub-genre that’s all about the magical in the modern world.

    I’ve ranted about the nostalgia thing before. I might add to my previous thoughts this other angle, which is that the vast majority of human existence has been “non-technological” (read: pre-industrial); I don’t see anything wrong with that being the majority of fantasy settings, either. Choosing to write about pre-industrial cultures doesn’t mean we have a sentimentalized longing for them — or for their governments.

  15. 15. Peter Tupper

    I wonder if this is a particularly American phenomenon. I’m Canadian, and I watched the emphasis on the individual qualities of McCain and Obama in the last election with bemusement. Canada hasn’t had this kind of charismatic, heroic, kingly head of government since Pierre Trudeau. We only rarely invest our leaders with that kind of psychological weight.

    Fiction, particularly the genre kind, is usually about individuals making choices that matter in the world. The point of non-monarchies (whether liberal democracies or collectivist states) is that the system evens out the excesses of the individual.

    If you’ve ever been involved in a democratic organization, even a party planning committee, you know what a grind it can be. Endless debates and compromise and power plays are enough to make anybody yearn for the supposed swift efficiency of autocracy. You want to be a hero instead of a bureaucrat, Jack Bauer instead of a paper-pushing, report-filing, meeting-taking drone.

    Is there even room for heroism in a truly democratic society? Yes, but it takes different forms than the warrior-king archetype. I think of the guy on the ferry in “The Dark Knight”, who has a democratic mandate to push the button and kill hundreds of people in order to save himself and the other people on his boat. Yet, out of his own conscience, he refuses.

    I also think of Joss Whedon’s “Serenity”, in which the hero is an admitted thief and pirate whose great accomplishment is to expose a covered-up mass murder.

    That’s also why Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels are so refreshing. No scientist-warrior-king-saviors, just imperfect people stumbling around through lots of meetings and hard work.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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