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January 14, 2012 9:49 PM   Subscribe

Why is the political system in fantasy novels always a monarchy?

Fantasy novels, as far as I can tell, always have monarchies as their form of government. Why?

Or, if I'm wrong, can anybody suggest fantasy novels with other forms of government, democracies, communism...anything would be good?
posted by Confess, Fletch to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It's probably because fantasy as a genre is inherently politically conservative.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:52 PM on January 14, 2012 [10 favorites]

Fantasy novels often are based on a sort of idealized medieval British society, following after Tolkien, and so they have an idealized monarchy as their government.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:56 PM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

R.A. Salvatore's Icewind Dale Trilogy depicts a group of ten towns that are governed by a democratic council.
posted by XMLicious at 9:56 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless politics are a big part of the novel, the monarchy makes the background stable for the story to develop. Dictatorship has bad press but monarchies are viewed more like benevolent dictatorships with little change.
posted by saucysault at 9:59 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would go in fact one step further than Phoebe, and point out that much even modern fantasy - including Tolkien - can trace its roots back to European myth, legend and fairy tales, which naturally reflect the power relations of their times, which were generally monarchies.

Specifically, much fantasy has grown from the French Romantic tradition cf. Chetrien de Troyes. In addition to a monarchy being a natural state of affairs for these Romance writers, from a functionalist perspective they needed something - if not super - supra human. Who better to be a cosign of purity, virtue dastardlyness etc than a knight? Given the stranglehold of Christianity across Europe by that stage, writing about other gods was a definite no-no, so in the same way that many Greek or Roman gods often represent different virtues or aspects personified, knights and kings etc was arguably a "safe" way of doing it in the dark ages.

From a more sociological perspective, I can't remember who but there's a contemporary writer on record arguing that modern fantasy is set in the dark ages because the complex, horrible banality of modern existence is so terrible to comprehend that readers seek out clear power relationships that they can understand and identify with (bad king=evil, good king=good!) for escapism. More simplistically you could argue that if people want escapism, much better to identify with a king than Jagurth the Goat-Herder Who is Secretly Not A Prince Just a Goat-Herder.
posted by smoke at 10:12 PM on January 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series describes a fair few different political structures among the various territories. There are monarchies, yes, but also oligarchies, autocracies, and so on. A couple of territories are democratic, but they're not really delved into in depth unfortunately.

Ankh-Morpork's political system is probably the most well represented over the series and there are several references to a monarchical past that grew into something different.
posted by lwb at 10:13 PM on January 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

China Mieville's New Crobuzon (in Perdido Street Station and other books) is a city-state and a republic, though a very corrupt one.
posted by zompist at 10:21 PM on January 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Ankh-Morpork's political system is probably the most well represented over the series

Ankh-Morpork is a democracy of sorts--one man, one vote.

As others have pointed out, monarchies are romantic. You have noble men and beautiful princesses, castles, intrigue, etc., etc. It's a rich but simple backdrop for the story. Plus you get a nice dose of people where ruling is in their blood, probably much like magic is in the blood of other characters.
posted by maxwelton at 10:30 PM on January 14, 2012

By no means are fantasy novels all based on monarchies. That just happens to be the easiest default choice. Democracies and bureaucratic governments mean it can be difficult to find out just who is in charge of a given situation. Beyond that, they have less power to act decisively, particularly in situations where great power and responsibility are placed on the shoulders of a small number of unelected protagonists. A king or queen can made a declaration with complete authority. Any disruption of that declaration is easy to determine the morality of based on the character involved. A democratic official can make a declaration and the protagonist could just say "I'll use parliamentary procedure to defeat your unpopular ideas!" The latter does not make for exciting heroics unless you are fond of political intrigue. Even then, it will either be quite dry or contrived. Furthermore, a monarchy permits a hierarchy of nobles. Is King Goodguy too peaceful? His dukes and barons can band together to overthrow him. Is King Jerkface taxing everyone to death? The Marquis of Righteous Justice can start a heroic rebellion. It's easier to keep track of all major actors in this case. Influence and standing are implied in their titles. Beyond that, they make viable protagonists. Baron Hero probably learned horse riding, archery, and fencing as part of his youthful education. Senator Dullington sounds like someone who has people to clean his house and dress him in the mornings.

Yet another reason for you is that fantasy is an alternate past compared to science fiction as an alternate future. When heroes carried swords and shields into a fight, democracy was a Greek and Roman idea. Including that would typically tint the entire setting with a Greek or Roman viewpoint, and shades of Rome are just as easy to portray with Caesar and Nero than an impersonal Senate.

Anarchy means the people must be united which results in a strong leader, thus a dictatorship or a monarchy. A dictatorship is just a necessarily evil monarchy that must be overthrown. Democracies and republics are cumbersome. After all of those, that leaves communism. That not only puts the story in a spot where politics must be addressed, it gives the entire story a political slant depending on the treatment of communism. That's pretty hefty baggage right there.

Short version- Tropes work. Any subversion is naturally going to draw attention. If the author doesn't want to involve politics, then it's going to be a kingdom. I say kingdom instead of monarchy because if a queen is in charge, that's probably going to be at least a minor plot point somewhere in there. As KokuRyu said, fantasy tends to be conservative.

Here's one trope for you to look for. If the story includes both an empire and a kingdom, the empire is evil and the kingdom is probably good. If the kingdom is not good, it is simply corrupt and can be fixed, but the empire is rotten to the core. It's not a hard and fast rule, but you'll notice how common it is. Tropes that work reinforce themselves because we understand what to expect and they don't distract us from the central plot conflicts.
posted by Saydur at 10:37 PM on January 14, 2012 [11 favorites]

I guess I'll add Jared Diamond's theory about population density determining government type and all that to the discussion (from Guns, Germs and Steel (not a Diamondist)) Since most fantasy novels take place in a semi-agrarian/demi-pastoral society, a monarchy would only follow.

The more modern fantasy novels, the Dresden Files and Holly Blacks and Charles de Lints and so on, typically take place in what more or less resembles Our Modern Day.
posted by fiercekitten at 10:39 PM on January 14, 2012

I think it has to do with two things.

First, narrative concerns. Characters like a king, a prince, a princess, and perhaps a crooked advisor are fun to write about. Having those characters represent a whole country can give them a certain kind of weight. Imagine if a hero had to save a republic and speak in front of a Seanate; it could be an interesting way to write a story, but you'd have to invest all kinds of subtlety and attention to it. Having a more simple system allows for a more streamlined narrative. I wouldn't say that fantasy is conservative, rather that most fantasy has no political agenda, and a monarchy can feel kind of apolitcal.

Secondly, I'd argue that it has to do with the metaphysical nature of basic fantasy story structures. A kingdom in a fantasy story isn't really a "country." It's a metaphor. For the self, for one's community, for the universe. Restoring the rightful king, or having the hero become the king himself, has to do with self-actualization, of making peace within yourself. Having a king in a kingdom is more symbolically satisfying than other governmental structures; I think there's a connection to a monotheistic worldview where God is the king.

Tangentially, someone should write an existential fantasy novel set in an anarchistic country and play with that metaphor.
posted by Rinku at 11:14 PM on January 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Same reason regency romances are popular: readers like opulence, mansions, noble titles, and fancy balls. A lot of books that have royal courts read like regency romances with a different coat of paint.
posted by Nomyte at 11:36 PM on January 14, 2012

The heroes of the Mistborn series (definitely fantasy) are actually running a revolution against an emperor, you might find it interesting.
posted by jacalata at 12:22 AM on January 15, 2012

Even in Tolkien, not all of the governments are monarchies. The Shire is sort of an anarcho-commune with an elected mayor, but with most families governing themselves. Lake-town was a democracy.
posted by chrisulonic at 12:58 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Writing in settings with monarchies means you don't actually have to know very much at all about how governments work. It's worth nothing that at least two of the above examples - Pratchett and Mieville - both like to examine governance and democracy as themes.

If you want your main focus to be away from legislative sessions, you can just pop a king in as the judicial equivalent of A Wizard Did It. You don't ever have to go into too much detail for why the history of your setting has gone in a certain way. Kings just did it. Why did we have a war? Our king hates your king for some reason. It just makes it all much simpler.
posted by Jilder at 2:58 AM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books go into some detail about the city-state's governance: it was founded as a sort of dynastic pseudo-monarchy, later moved to what seems to have been a limited democracy where a mayor was appointed by consensus of the rich and powerful, exists in a state of functional (and prosperous) anarchy with no official police force or government beyond a pair of rival companies as of Shriek, and finally becomes a deeply weird kind of repressive dictatorship (with policing, such as it is, performed by collaborators) in Finch.
posted by emmtee at 3:23 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's elevating. It makes you special in a world that tells you you're not. This is a decent summary of ye wherefores. I'm a pwincess too! I am!
posted by Wolof at 4:20 AM on January 15, 2012

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner is set in an early modern city-state ruled by a council. Following up on Jilder's point, political maneuvering is important to the plot. A couple of Paula Volsky's fantasies are also set in early modern or even 19th century settings (Illusion and The Grand Ellipse for sure; I'd have to look at the rest).

I would also look at steampunk--which is nominally set in a monarchy because a lot of it is British, but it's a monarchy with some democratic elements--because some of it is more fantasy than SF. For example, Gail Carriger is really writing romance/mystery novels IMO, but her setting is a Victorian London with werewolves and vampires.
posted by immlass at 7:19 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's probably worth mentioning that KokuRyu's link to Michael Moorcock's savage/fascinating/essential 1978 essay "Epic Pooh" isn't quite the argument-settler he seems to present it as in 2012. It's an essential read - (I mean really, how can you not at least enjoy this: "Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down; they haven't got the approval yet to put a new one in.") - but parts are seriously dated and it spawned lots of argument.

And nthing Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar for more thoughtful and interesting fantasy world politics - The Scar is mostly set on a floating pirate city of ships bound together. Great stuff, and while I haven't gotten to it yet, reviews of Iron Council look very promising:

From Publishers Weekly

In this stunning new novel set mainly in the decadent and magical city of New Crobuzon, British author MiƩville (The Scar) charts the course of a proletarian revolution like no other. The capitalists of New Crobuzon are pushing hard. More and more people are being arrested on petty charges and "Remade" into monstrous slaves, some half animal, others half machine. Uniformed militia are patrolling the streets and watching the city from their dirigibles. They turn a blind eye when racists stage pogroms in neighborhoods inhabited by non-humans. An overseas war is going badly, and horrific, seemingly meaningless terrorist acts occur with increasing frequency. Radical groups are springing up across the city. The spark that will ignite the revolution, however, is the Perpetual Train. Workers building the first transcontinental railroad, badly mistreated by their overseers, have literally stolen a train, laying track into the wild back-country west of the great city, tearing up track behind them, fighting off the militia sent to arrest them, even daring to enter the catotopic zone, that transdimensional continental scar where anything is possible. Full of warped and memorable characters, this violent and intensely political novel smoothly combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, even the western. MiƩville represents much of what is new and good in contemporary dark fantasy, and his work is must reading for devotees of that genre.

posted by mediareport at 7:45 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife tells me that the Dragon Riders of Pern series has an Oligarchy.
In Jay Lake's City Imperishable series the City is ruled by an Oligarchy as well, with a little bit of Democracy thrown in for the mayor.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:49 AM on January 15, 2012

The Pathfinder RPG campaign setting has all manner of governments in a fantasy setting, including some specifically modeled after the early United States and the French Revolutionary period.
posted by edguardo at 8:31 AM on January 15, 2012

Fantasy fiction is a fantasia on large pre-modern institutions, and none of those was democratic in the contemporary Western sense of universal franchise and civil rights, or the state's pre-emption of rights over private property.

You are hardly having to reckon back to medieval times for this either -- an Anglo-American democrat of 200 years ago could be shocked and appalled that a landless woman would be allowed to vote in 2012 -- but would also be shocked and appalled that the state could see fit to tax her income at 20%.

Given that, using monarchy as a default is not unreasonable, simply because it requires less explaining if politics aren't really the point of your narrative. Even when politics is an important point of your narrative, monarchies afford you a useful point of departure. Frankly, I think I'd be much happier as a professor of medieval history in a few years when all my incoming students will have a Game of Thrones view of monarchy, as a pivot in the struggle of propertied people for dominance over one another. As imperfect as that would be, it will be a lot truer to life than some view that there was a time when when idlers like Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles got to say where the NHS would be a build a hospital or who should command the British Army deployment in Afghanistan.
posted by MattD at 8:32 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

NB: I am not a professor of medieval history, that might have come across wrong...
posted by MattD at 8:32 AM on January 15, 2012

Using a monarchy as a setting is just lazyness. L Sprague de Camp's excellent Unbeheaded King series is set in and around city states each one of which has a unique and interesting system of government. It takes a lot more work for an author to choose a power structure and work out its consequences for the characters than to simply plug in "Monarchy".
posted by monotreme at 12:04 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is the fantasy genre inherently conservative? I'm not so sure. Remember that it all began in the nineteenth century with William Morris's utopian socialism. Admittedly, Morris's prose romances are mostly set in an imaginary medieval landscape of small kingdoms and city-states, but even here there's often a twist; in The Well at the World's End, for example, we're told that King Peter of Upmeads was 'never a rich man, for he had no freedom to tax and tail his folk', which implies that this is a limited monarchy with a system of customary rights. News from Nowhere is set in an agrarian communist society. And as chrisulonic points out above, there are echoes of this in Tolkien (heavily influenced by Morris), whose ideal society is basically distributist.

As for more modern examples: how about The Left Hand of Darkness? Karhide is a monarchy, but the king is insane, and effective power seems to rest with his ministers, while Orgoreyn is run by the Commensals, apparently with some element of representative democracy, though heavily compromised by factional politics and the power of the secret police.
posted by verstegan at 4:18 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Because the King is closely connected to the archetype of the Father. Rich storytelling territory. (also Queen = Mother, of course)

In a democracy, the ruler is symbolically equal to the rest of the people and essentialy replaceable. Anyone can be President. Good for politics, bad for drama.

Interestingly, when the president starts to become a Father it's usually taken as a sign of slipping into a dictatorship.
posted by Tom-B at 9:44 AM on January 16, 2012

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