All hail the once and future podcaster, hidden away among the common folk until their true audio greatness could one day be revealed! That’s right, we’re talking about monarchies in speculative fiction: why writers use them so often, how they can be a problem, and what writers can do better. We discuss alternate forms of government, and why your setting doesn’t have to be modern in order to have representation for the common folk. Plus, we reveal which of us has been hiding a secret bloodline, ordained to rule!
Download Episode 334 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening Song]
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is
Wes: Now you all thought that perhaps I was just a simple podcaster, but what you didn’t realize is that Oren and Chris had been working to restore me to my rightful place as the Once and Future Podcaster, divinely appointed Monarch of Media, and a shiny example of why having true Kings in speculative fiction is kind of silly, actually. It’s just not going to work.
Chris: Look, I found a prophecy and it was very, very vague, but I think maybe if I read between the lines it might be referring to you, Wes, and it definitely says that you’re going to save us.
Wes: My skills as an editor have definitely primed me for the monarchy. I am ready.
Oren: Wes, even though you were raised among humble peasant folk to give you a morally upright character, you are clearly just way handsomer than everyone else around you. You aren’t touched by any of the dirt from working the land and your teeth are always perfect. It’s pretty obvious that you are a superior stock.
Wes: This is even hard to joke about. My blood is so blue. I am the truest king.
Oren: I think that’s the hemophilia. So talking about kings, I guess.
Wes: Monarchies in speculative fiction and why they’re everywhere and why that is not always great.
Oren: It’s mostly a problem with fantasy, but sometimes science fiction does it too, looking at you Dune.
Chris: Yeah. Science fiction can take a surprising number of tropes from fantasy. There’s a lot of people who I want to do science fiction, but I want to do mysticism.
Wes: They’ll still do autocrats and dictators and it’s kind of the same thing. You don’t get the divinely appointedness of it all, but there’s similarities for sure.
Oren: There are a number of reasons for this. Some of it is just that’s what has been done before, like in some of the very popular works of early high fantasy in particular, not just Tolkien, but a lot of Tolkien. There’s also the historical aesthetics because fantasy isn’t history, but it’s to a certain extent supposed to look like what we imagine history was.
Chris: It’s a romanticized version of history.
Oren: It often can be and in that case, you’re looking at probably a hereditary rulership, and it’s not like you can’t have other things, that’s just the easy default. There are more practical reasons too, like having a family based form of rulership has a lot of dramatic potential when your political enemy is also your sibling. That’s cool. That has a lot of drama.
Wes: It’s also helpful if you are at the batty and you want to overthrow the government and you just really only need to knock off one person.
Chris: A challenge for a lot of stories is having a single person make a huge wide spread epic difference. And monarchies just provided an easy reason why one person can make a difference, by being the Monarch. And on top of that, a reason why somebody who starts as a peasant can then become their hidden bloodline. Whereas, if you have somebody who just works really hard and gets elected as an executive, by the time they get elected as the executive, they’re no longer the underdog.
Wes: We all know how much power the President of Republic City and Korra had.
Oren: And there’s also just certain aesthetics that work better with Monarchs. If you have a king or a queen or what have you, and you want a story about them leading the army? It’s like, yeah. Okay. That seems like a thing they would do. Whereas, if you have a president, a president leading an army would be a little weird. You could do it. You could make it happen, but you would need to spend extra effort to make that seem natural. You could just default to king, just it’s right there. It’s got a nice crown, probably a throne. What’s the harm?
Chris: Or, if I want the leader to be wearing a really, really fancy dress with some really nice jewelry. Well, if you put that into a democratic system, it starts to feel like maybe there’s some corruption.
Wes: Just immediately. Yep.
Oren: Certainly in the modern political climate, there is a distaste for political figures who are very ostentatious about their wealth, even though a lot of them are very wealthy. We kind of don’t want them to say, for example, make golden statues of themselves. Who could I be talking about? We may never know.
Wes: This is why we can’t have nice things anymore.
Oren: It’s one reason why we can’t have nice things anymore.
Chris: And of course, there’s wish fulfillment. I am of the chosen bloodline and I seemed like a normal farm boy, but it turns out I am the most specialist of them all.
Oren: I mean, the first time that I read a high fantasy novel, it was the Belgariad and I was just mind blown when it was like, but he’s a farm boy. He’s from a farm. And he’s the king. What! It’s completely sincere, just really destroyed my idea of what was happening in the story. Of course, that was the only time that ever happened because I then read other fantasy novels. And by then it was old hat, but the first time, all right, that first time when I was like 11, it was like, this is amazing. This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened.
Wes: I really enjoyed speaking of like those ones back then, the Chronicles of Prydain. And I’ve talked about on here plenty of times to The Book of Three. And what I really liked about that is Taran, the assistant pig-keeper is certainly the chosen one, but that doesn’t matter throughout four and a half of the five books. And the fourth book is specifically called Taran Wanderer, where he is like, “I sure would like to know who my parents were” and he just like takes off and doesn’t really learn anything other than like how normal people act, who aren’t like hanging out with Knights and wizards and things like that. What I like about it, even in the end, when it’s kind of revealed that he does have this connection to the throne is when they’re all kind of doing their mass Exodus of pride and to go to like the undying lands like how they do, Taran just given the choice to stay or go. That struck me with like a lot of other books that I read, because they basically tell him that he can stay because of reasons like you can be king, but you will die. As a kid that blew my mind that it presented like an existential problem. It’s not like you’ll be king and have your will. It’s like, you can stay and try to make a difference here, but you will die or you can come with us and live forever. And that blew my mind. So I thought that was a cool take on that.
Chris: From what I remember, his parentage is never revealed, right? The point they make at the end is that he was just on a battlefield where there was both commoners and Nobles fighting. It was impossible to tell by his wrappings how rich his parents had been, and it kind of keeps it mysterious, but it could have done the more profound thing that everyone wanted Star Wars to do. Where like, actually you discovered who your parents were, they were commoners, but that doesn’t matter.
Oren: I was going to say, I’m pretty sure Taran is Palpatine’s grandson.
Wes: Oren, you just ruined my entire childhood.
Oren: Speaking of benefits to a monarchy or any kind of inherited rule, another thing that storytellers like to use it for, and I have certainly used it for this, so my hands aren’t clean, is the person who is not ready for leadership, but is thrust in that position anyway. And that’s a lot harder to do in other forms of government. If you don’t have an inherited leadership position, it would be a lot trickier for say an unprepared youth to be elected president or become prime minister, or even to become the Pope, Queen of Nabu notwithstanding. Apparently you can elected Queen of Nobu at 14, who knows how that works, but it’s not impossible to set up a non-inherited leader who is not prepared, but it’s just way easier if it’s an inherited position cause then you just have to kill the parents, which let’s face it, most authors are going to do anyway. Then, suddenly your hero is now in a position of leadership they weren’t prepared for and it’s just so beautifully efficient.
Chris: That is the thing. Monarchy in stories is really efficient and very convenient for storytellers.
Oren: Incidentally, the reason it’s not a good form of government in real life for a reason, there’s a lot of reasons.
Chris: So is it harmful to glorify monarchy in our fantasy stories?
Wes: Yeah, a quick thing that always bothers me, the bloodline, the divinely appointed Monarch kind of thing who’s thrust into the moment and like rises to the challenge because, of course, is if you actually were just somebody who struggled and came from nothing and grew and changed and acquired presidency or elected office or kingdom. That’s more interesting than to me, but if this was always meant to be yours, I don’t like that it embodies a static quality. This person is just better. And I don’t need to tell you why. And that I find unacceptable. That’s not real. Nobody is just inherently better. We all grow and change. And I want people in our stories to also grow and change for good and bad reasons.
Oren: In real life, in America, at least I would say most people, even people with very authoritarian bents would not literally say that they want a king. I’m sure there are some who would, but at least from looking at what people say, it doesn’t seem to be that they literally want Kings. So the first thought might be like, “Well, whatever these are Kings, this is from a long time ago”, unless you live in a country that still has a king or queen or what have you, but there is a very prevalent belief that some people are just born better than others. Whether it’s because God chose them or if it’s just the unspoken conclusion of the meritocracy quote unquote argument where like, well, these people succeeded and got rich, so they must be better because they’re just better people. Regardless of that, there are beliefs that some people are just inherently superior. They are born that way. And that’s an immutable characteristic. And even though we aren’t so much about literal kings, in the year of our Lord, 2021, in the United States of America, the idea of inherent superiority is still very much alive and the inherently superior king, the chosen one king who can be the best king despite spending his entire life tramping in the woods eragon. That is a harmful idea, a bad idea, don’t do it or I will wag my finger.
Chris: One thing that changed my mind on this issue with reading the Narnia books again, because CS Lewis is literally a monarchist, he trashes democracy and Voyage of the Dawn Treader and talks about how democratic bureaucrats are bad and basically is all in favor of the divine right of Kings. Maybe not in the US this is common, but there are places like in England where there are role monarchists who believe that this is a better form of government, but even if we were to not look at literal monarchists at this point in the US we still have a problem with people who are authoritarian. Even if there’s not, literally following monarchy, it’s not really that different. They still believe a single person is best and knows everything and can represent everyone on top of that. People just desperately needed to be reminded that democracy is important and it’s fragile and it needs to be protected. Playing fast and loose by praising monarchy is just a little dangerous.
Oren: It broke my heart. When I got to the Discworld book where Terry Pratchett does that. Pratchett, this wasn’t an issue before, because before what you had was a choice between the patriarch, who was just a guy who had seized power and was generally doing the right thing, but like sinisterly. That or the aristocracy or an inherited king. And that was fine. That wasn’t a problem, but then you decided that some places on the disc we’re going to have democracy and you decided to have your characters talk about how well in democracies the peasants vote themselves too many benefits. That’s not going to work. It made me so upset. I was like, Terry, I know you don’t actually believe that.
Wes: Speaking of Discworld. Like I really enjoyed when in the Watch Series, Carrot shows up like men at arms makes it very clear that he’s probably a divinely appointed king, but he doesn’t care. He has that great quote that like personal isn’t the same as important. And it’s like, he knows being a Watchman, like that’s important work. I love that take, that he has all these shining qualities and characteristics of a king and could just like be the king. But no, he knows that that’s not important. That’s not important to what he does.
Oren: That’s a good part of the Discworld story is that Carrot would actually make a great king. The story is very clear about that. He would rule well, but inherited monarchy is still a bad system because what happens when he dies. Are his sons going to be that good? Unfortunately, when you get to the antidemocratic part, it’s like, wait, so is this like a pro Cromwell story? Is it fine to be a dictator with absolute power who passes their power onto their next of kin as long as you don’t call yourself a king? Please, I am the Lord Protector.
Chris: So should we talk about what to do instead of glorifying monarchy then?
Oren: Burn your manuscript, don’t write fantasy again, done.
Chris: Oh, no. No
Oren: Simply having a king or a Monarch of some kind does not inherently glorify monarchy. Even having a good one, having a king who rules wisely is not inherently bad. It does not inherently send authoritarian or pro monarchist messages. But when you start doing things like showing how the king is just inherently wiser than the lower classes or getting more overt about it and maybe having like a literal magical charm that makes you a better king or like actual divine right. At that point, that’s when you start to get real monarchists. That was the thing in the Earth-Sea books and it confused me so much. There was a literal, magic charm that made you a better king, but only the proper bloodline could use it. Cause I was, when I first heard about it, I was like, “well, couldn’t anybody become then if they have the magic king booster”, but no, apparently it still has to be the right bloodline. It was like divine right, but by another name in the Earth-Sea books of all places. It was so weird.
Chris: There’s also just lots of ways to have some elements of monarchy where also acknowledging that this is not the best system and also incorporating bits of democracy. For instance, there are several stories where there is a Monarch, but the Monarch actively works on creating a democratic system to replace them. In Legend of Korra there’s even the Earth King who chooses to step aside and put a democratic council in his place.
Oren: This is the first time in like four seasons of Korra. Each time they had a bad guy who was supposed to have a point. It was the first time they actually did something to address that bad guy’s point.
Chris: The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, there was an emperor who also starts working on putting together a Democratic system.
Oren: Have you read farther into that series? I’ve heard that goes real bad.
Chris:I don’t remember exactly how it ends. Part of the issue is of course that we have like the God character. So that might confuse things a little bit because there’s a character that’s God. It felt like there was maybe a world that was not ready for democracy yet, which is a problem. You do need societal change to support democracy. It does become hard sometimes to go straight from monarchy to democracy, but medley, I don’t remember the details so maybe it goes terribly.
Oren: So the idea of this place, isn’t ready for democracy. That’s a really fraught topic because technically speaking, yes, that can happen, but it just tends to be used in a way to make democracy seem like a bad idea.
Wes: Or to put down everybody. They wouldn’t understand it.
Oren: I feel like it gets deployed as like a cover. Well, I’m not anti-democratic. See, they’re just not ready to rule themselves. So then it’s like, well, there are other things you could do to prepare them for democracy. Like, are you building an education system so that they’ll be educated and can vote for their best interests? Are you doing that? Because if not, then that’s a really hollow thing to say.
Chris: I don’t remember all the details in the Mistborn books. I remember that we had one of the protagonists working really hard to try to implement democracy, but it was an incredibly new idea and was meeting lots of resistance. That’s what I remember.
Oren: People sometimes assume that democracy in your fantasy setting has to be like the same way that democracy works in the modern era, where you have big national elections with politicians that everyone around the country knows and at least has some idea what their platform is. But democracy can happen at the local level. Your average farmer in the medieval era isn’t ready to vote for who’s going to be president, but they can organize for their village. They can have self-determination in a sphere in which they are knowledgeable. It doesn’t have to be like an all or nothing thing. Right.
Chris: Just don’t do the Game of Thrones solution. The end of Game of Thrones, it’s clear that the show runners were left with, like, we have to be unpredictable. And we want to acknowledge that maybe we should have a democracy instead of like, maybe this just shows why monarchy is bad, all of the bloodshed in the show, but it also would feel unrealistic if all of the Nobles and this democracy has never been mentioned before. We’re just like, “yay democracy” that would just come out of nowhere. How about if all of the nobles, who are, of course, the most privileged people in this setting elect a king. That’s just not a good idea.
Oren: Yeah. It’s like, congratulations guys who invented the Holy Roman Empire. The one thing maybe worse than an inherited monarchy is a monarchy elected by a council of aristocrats.
Chris: Now they’re beholden only to the wealthiest people and no one else.
Oren: Because like historically there is at least some opportunity for Monarchs to work against the aristocratic class. Maybe they have some interest that the rest of the aristocratic class doesn’t share. And so the Monarch then gives things to the common folk to get their loyalty. That has happened and that’s the thing you could have happened. But when the Monarch is chosen and controlled by the aristocrats, that’s worse. Congratulations, you made it worse somehow. Game of Thrones specifically has one of the characters be like, maybe everybody could vote and they all laugh that down, like, “oh, what a silly person”? And it’s like realistically, he just wouldn’t have said,
Wes: I think other ways you could approach this, have your Monarch not be great at everything and rely on other people who are more competent to do things. That is valuable, you could pick your King Arthur legend, but his retinue, like a lot of them, were better than him at other things. And he wasn’t even the most pure, Galahad was. There’s things there, like, sure. He’s the once and future king, whatever that means, but he wasn’t the best swordsman and he wasn’t the purest of heart, he didn’t get to go on a wild romp like Gwane did with the green knight. I saw the trailer for that. It’s coming out this summer. It looks so weird.
Oren: I’m hyped for that movie. I’m so excited. It feels weird to be hyped for a movie again, but I am.
Wes: I like it when there’s a Monarch, but there’s a lot of very capable people around the Monarch and the Monarch actually relies on them and respects their opinions. I think that’s valuable. It’s not decentralizing the government, but at least it’s decentralizing all the power being contained in one person.
Chris: You could also similarly do a constitutional monarchy where the Monarch is more like a single executive and they might also be a figurehead that is culturally important and supposed to be wearing fancy clothes. Then you get that aesthetics of the monarchy. But if they’re not just a figurehead, they at least rule alongside some kind of representative body, somebody that represents the people better.
Wes: And then you could have your political conflict of like people wanting to restore the monarchy and get rid of those other people in there. It’s like, “no things were better when this person actually had absolute power”.
Oren: Sure. You can have a Monarch in your story and they can even be pretty good at ruling. It’s probably okay as long as they’re not A). somehow just like supernaturally better than everybody. Blessed by whatever to be great at stuff. Or if they’re not like actively running around, putting down peasant rebellion, or in the case of some sci-fi stories, having to be like, “well, I could defeat the enemy, but the bleeding hearts and the legislature won’t let me” Depends on how big your story is, right? Like if you have a big political drama portraying the entire feudal elite as like great shining paragons of virtue, Everyone knows that that’s unrealistic, but it’s also just, you have just started to glorify feudalism. If you have like one feudal character. Sure. They could be a good guy, whatever that’s one person, but if it’s everyone like, okay, now you’re just being dishonest about how feudalism works. And that was a problem that I had with the Magician Apprentice. Nowhere in Magician Apprentice does it say that the Kings are just better people, but like for most of the story, all the aristocrats who meet are all just like really great. When we finally meet a bad aristocrat, he’s like a bad aristocrat because he’s supporting the wrong candidate to be king because that guy doesn’t have the right bloodline. This feels like feudal propaganda to me
Chris: I would still go back to what Wes said about having a Monarch that is relying on other people. Part of the problem is not just the idea that one person is inherently better than others because of their bloodline, but the idea that one person can rule for everyone. The importance of a democracy is that everybody is voting and everybody’s making therefore affecting the outcome of making decisions. When we disenfranchise people for whatever reason, any group laws start to become biased against that group because they are not involved in the decision-making process. And that’s why even groups that you wouldn’t think of as like, well, maybe these people shouldn’t be able to vote that really affects the law in negative ways. And there is no one person who has the life experience to think about all of the issues that are involved in running a country from all of the perspectives that are needed. I would be wary of, even if it’s just one person who’s not supposed to be better than other people, showing a single Monarch, fairly ruling for everybody, at least without spending a disproportionate amount of time, trying to listen to other people and absorb different perspectives or again, leaning on other people because one person can’t have that much expertise.
Oren: Yeah. If you have a single authority figure who just does whatever they feel like, and it always turns out well, and they don’t need anyone’s advice. Even if you never say that they’re magic, they’re going to feel magic because that’s not how anything works.
Wes: Hearing the concerns of the populace and addressing them. I think that is valuable. I’m not a big fan of ‘Approach the King Day’, it’s like the person walks into the great hall and expresses their grievance and then the king just makes immediate judgment. Right? And that it’s like solved. And I don’t think that’s a great thing to do, you guys.
Oren: And that really bothers me in Merlin that happens sometimes. And like someone will just come to Luther and be like, Luther, this thing is happening. And then Luther will immediately be like, “well, all right, then off with the head”, even when Luther makes the correct judgment.
Chris: Almost never.
Oren: Yeah. Which is almost never because Luther is terrible. It’s like, how did you know that Luther all you had was like one second of description from this one guy, are you not going to like send anyone to double-check, the idea that like, you’re gonna get the king to properly solve your problem in a five minute audience seems pretty unlikely.
Chris: And also how big is this kingdom? I’m pretty sure the ruler has policies that they need to worry about and can’t actually hold audience for every person.
Wes: And that’s where you can build up, like what Chris suggested. It might be small, more localized, like peasant town councils. And then they have a representative.
Chris: At that point you need basically a court system, because a lot of them are just like, “Hey, my neighbor sold my sheep”. That sounds like something you need to bring to like a judge or something.
Oren: Yeah, that sounds like a problem for the local advocate, the king is too high on the ranking system to deal with that problem. Peasant rebellions are great. You just have the king be the bad guy or at the very least be a non-helpful figure. If your story is set in a monarchy, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about the king. You could either be actively fighting the king or the king could just be kind of a distant figure, like a lot of fantasy stories are like this. You’re in some dense fantasy urban area, and you’re doing a heist or whatever. And really all you need to know about the king is that he’s pretty authoritarian and you don’t want to get caught by his guards because they’re rude. Just because your story has a king in it, does not mean that it has to be about the king. That’s an important thing to remember. Well, then I think on that, we’re going to go ahead and end this podcast and depose Wes as the Podcast Lord.
Wes: I go back to my rightful place as a humble editor.
Oren: Get outta here, but come back next week. We’re going to need you. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: As your eyes open a haunting melody fades to silence. Strange symbols circle the floor, and someone lying next to you is dead. Can you put the pieces together before you meet your doom? Find out by playing our standalone RPG, The Voyage, for sale on mythcreants.com.[Closing Song]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?