Okay, admittedly that seems like an odd question. But if you’ve ever stopped to think about the attitudes to royalty presented in fantasy stories, particularly epic high fantasies, it’s not so absurd. There is a very obvious bias toward royalty, and the idea that a person born into a role is the most rightful and qualified person to perform that role.
The Rightful King/Queen
In fantasy novels, when lands are plagued by injustice, cruelty, and disease, it’s usually not the fault of the monarchical society. The problem is generally that the wrong king is on the throne. This is the usurper: the evil one that has wrestled power and abused it. The hero, usually the rightful blood heir, needs to be restored to the throne. Once that happens, all will be well.
As the prime example, take The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Not till Aragorn, the rightful king, returns to power and takes over from the useless steward that has been standing in his place, do things start going right. The legend of King Arthur, and the many stories that have spread from it, maintain this similar respect for a rightful king. For a less fantasy-ish example, think of evil uncle Scar in The Lion King, and of Simba reclaiming the throne.
It’s All in the Blood
Even if the hero is not royalty, they are more often than not someone born to fulfil a role of great power. At first, they may appear an insignificant orphan or peasant, but they usually turn out to be a secret heir. At the very least, they’re from a special bloodline, or are fated and prophesied to lead from the moment of their birth.
It’s rare you see someone truly ordinary strive, through their own drive and talent, to hold a position of power, without them having some sort of birthright to it.
Fairy Tales and the Medieval
Undoubtedly this convention, as with many other conventions in fantasy, is influenced by fairy tales and the medieval world. It’s part of the romanticised idea of princes and princesses, brave kings, and secret heirs. The notion of carrying on a profession within a family is also endemic to fantasy.
Just as we are ready to believe wholeheartedly in happy endings, we are eager to believe in kings and queens that bring peace and prosperity to their lands.
The appeal of it is also clear: there’s something about a character discovering an ancient lineage, or an ousted heir reclaiming their birthright, that just feels narratively right. It’s got a sense of history, tradition and destiny to it.
There are plenty more reasons for the prevalence of monarchies in fantasy. For a detailed exploration, this post on SF Signal has various fantasy authors weighing in with their thoughts on the subject.
Naturally, there are exceptions. There are fantasy novels where characters earn the right to rule rather than being born or fated to it. There are others that don’t involve royalty at all. And there are some that turn this idea of birthright and entitlement on its head, exposing the flaws of monarchical systems.
A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) is probably the most well known example of this. The kings and queens of this series – even rightful ones – are the least ideal people to possess power. The old king Aerys Targaryen (the one slain by Jaime Lannister), father of “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys Targaryen, was a completely mad, incompetent, and murderous king. Joffrey is wilfully cruel as king, and the two brothers vying for his place, Stannis and Renly Baratheon, aren’t all that much better. The people who would actually make decent rulers have no right to the throne, and end up dead.
Obviously fantasy is not real life. In real life, I don’t believe kings and queens should still be sitting on thrones and ruling countries in place of elected leaders.
Yet when reading fantasy I adopt this almost unquestioning attitude: that the person born to do something, or born to rule, is somehow more entitled and qualified for the role than anyone else.
It seems that a part of the fantasy realm, and my suspension of disbelief when I enter it, is the acceptance of monarchies and the value of rightful kings and queens.
What Does it Matter?
It’s all make-believe anyway, so what does it matter?
Well, in some ways it doesn’t matter. I read a lot of fantasy, and I’m not going to start campaigning to bring back kings and queens.
But in other small ways, I think it does matter. If you constantly reinforce an idea, it can become engrained.
When I see some politicians pandering to ill-informed popular opinion, or making terrible policy decisions, a small part of me thinks: perhaps it would be simpler to have a royal. Maybe we all don’t know what’s good for us. Maybe we need some benevolent, rightful king or queen to sweep in and save us.
Of course, then I have to remind myself of what an equally terrible idea that is. I have to remind myself of all the horrible kings and queens of history, and that at least if a politician makes bad decisions, we can vote to oust them… without, generally, being beheaded.
Also, as an Australian, the Queen of England is still technically my head of state. If we ever have another referendum (the last one failed), I’ll likely vote in favour of becoming a republic. Even so, I can’t pretend a small part of me wouldn’t be sad to sever our connection with the royals. There’s the whole tradition and history side to it… but also they are just so very entertaining.
So Does Loving Epic Fantasy Make You a Monarchist?
Well… probably not. It’s likely I’d be just as seduced by royalty, and the notion of tradition and bloodline and history, regardless of the books I read.
Still, I don’t think it would hurt if fantasy novels occasionally reminded us that it’s not all about the family you’re born into.
I’m not calling for a complete overhaul of course. Fantasy has kings and queens, that’s a staple of the genre, and if fantasy novels were suddenly royalty-free that would be a shame. However, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more epic fantasies that challenge the notion of birthright. I’d enjoy some more where the hero triumphs and gains position purely due to talent, without any suggestion of a noble ancestry to validate it.
Most particularly, when an irrational part of my brain starts warming to the notion of monarchies, I’d like more inbred Joffrey Baratheons and insane Aerys Targaryens to come to mind… to remind me, perhaps, that we could do worse than our politicians.
2 thoughts on “Does Loving Epic Fantasy Make You a Monarchist?”
I enjoyed this, and strangely enough I was just thinking about Game of Thrones this morning, and how part of Martin’s goal seems to be skewering the idea of “one, true king” that is so prevalent in fantasy. Okay, but it’s Martin, so he not only skewers but disembowels, beheads, and burns the remains.
Anyhow… The tradition of secret heirs, a la King Arthur, goes way back in Northern European legends. The Mabinogion includes a hidden heir whose mother swears never to teach him her sorcery, and Mom has to be tricked into doing so. I think there’s a secret heir in Norse myth as well. Mostly, it seems to me, this is just because the secret heir is FUN, something everyone enjoys and expects to see. Indeed, just about anybody being in disguise is fun. Look how often Shakespeare did it. Or Gilbert & Sullivan.
As to modern fantasy itself, many of our “founding fathers” happen to be British, like Tolkein, so I think this may be a cultural thing. To people in the US, a monarchy does have a certain romance, but it’s odd to us at the same time. How the British feel about Queen Elizabeth is something we, over here, will probably never truly understand.
So true, it wouldn’t be Martin without some beheading and disemboweling! He definitely has it in for ‘one true kings’. I do wonder sometimes though if he is criticising monarchs and the power hungry, or just human beings in general… so many of the characters are awful people, and even the good ones seem to turn bad!
That’s interesting that the idea of secret heirs goes back that far. I agree, the concept is just so much fun. I hadn’t thought about that idea of disguise and reveal but there really is an appeal to that, even in fairy tales… the frog turning into the prince, Cinderella fitting the shoe, the ugly duckling transforming into a swan. Secret heirs seem to fit that disguise/reveal tradition perfectly.
And yes, I think many British people have an attachment to the royals that even Australians wouldn’t understand! Guess it’s tied to a history and tradition that colonies and former colonies are increasingly removed from.