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blog Fantasy and Monarchy

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Black Dragon, Feb 21, 2021.

  1. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I guess I would have just preferred more of an exploration of alternatives to a monarchy in a setting with conditions akin to medieval western Europe or more analysis on how forms of government fit into settings on a thematic level with more examples from fiction.
    I’m just throwing-out ideas on what could have been included to make this blog post more useful or more broadly applicable.

    Also, I refuse to believe that “most people” stick to the standard “medieval Europe” setting for their stories. If there’s one thing being on this sub forum has taught me, it’s that amateur fantasy writers are borderline obsessed with originality and subverting genre cliches.
  2. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    Considering how the omnipresent monarchy is thoroughly misrepresented... though, some of these alternatives might actually be a lot easier to write than a well-done premodern monarchy.
  3. Pemry Janes

    Pemry Janes Sage

    This article seems to be flawed to me. Like stating that a society run by a monarchy is inherently more free, that's going to need some thorough evidence because I can think of several ways that the historical examples I know of were not very free. Equally, of course, you can find examples of democratic societies that had horrible repression of large populations. Like Athens.

    The way a society governed is just like everything else to do with a group of people, it's complicated. So I get real uncomfortable when someone makes a sweeping statement that doesn't seem to be supported by much evidence.
    Queshire likes this.
  4. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    Freedom is not just about repression. Large administrative apparatus of a state automatically means less freedom because state/government has its fingers in more things.

    Also, remember this part:
    I am discussing premodern monarchy here. This has automatic implications for the ability of the government to enforce its will.
  5. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Well, that touches on another thing. The arguments presented presumes a set of circumstances limited enough that it just doesn't apply to a good chunk of fantasy.

    Let's look at D&D. That continues the arbitrary restriction of a medieval European style setting. Sending is a 3rd level spell. Even if the average kingdom only has one Cleric capable of casting the spell that still means instantaneous, if limited, communication.

    Similarly, Brandon Sanderson, one of the guys so dominate in fantasy that his three laws of magic are quoted as often as Asimov's three laws, featured Spanreed in his Stormlight Archive books that provided instaneous communication.
  6. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    This is not a trait of a monarchy though, but simply of a pre-modern government. Rome didn't suddenly become less bureaucratic when they went from republic to empire. And technically speaking I live in a monarchy in the Netherlands, and we probably have more bureaucracy than the republic of the United States.

    The level of bureaucracy of a state is dictated by what a state does for its citizens. The same with the level of what you refer to as freedom. For instance, if you have a state pension system then you will need people to administer that and taxes to fund it. This might be considered a reduction in freedom if you stretch the definition of freedom a lot. But it has nothing to do with being a monarchy or not. A medieval government simply didn't do a lot for its citizens, so they didn't need a lot of bureaucracy. If you have no universal and compulsory education for the children of your nation, then you don't need a department of education in your government. The same can be said for all other government departments. Most of those duties only started in the modern era, so you will find the matching bureaucracy. It's a sign of a modern government, not of a democracy specifically.
  7. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    It does however still mean that the aversion which I have noticed many feel towards monarchy is unfounded where premodern monarchy is concerned, which is what I was writing about in the first place.

    But even modern absolute monarchies didn't have all that much bureocracy as far as I'm aware. For all the jokes about Austria-Hungary, from what I know about it, its bureocracy was still very small, very efficient and very effective compared to most modern-day states (and definitely when compared to modern-day Croatia). Byzantine Empire likewise was nothing like the bureocratized monster which wrapped its enemies in the red tape that popular imagination presents it as - in fact, if we were to be truthful, descriptor "Byzantine bureaucracy" should mean "small and efficient". It was Byzantine politics which were "byzantine", not Byzantine bureaucracy - and when it comes to politics, Western states were hardly any less so.

    Agreed. In fact, I am thinking of writing about implications of communications technology on political organization someday.
  8. CSEllis

    CSEllis Dreamer

    What a peculiar article. It reads more as a justification for monarchy rather than something that would provide useful things for a would-be author. The writer's clear political leanings further damage its credibility. Despite a section promising the "disadvantages" of monarchy, nothing much appears. The writer seems more interested in attacking democracy and the modern state than providing a reasonable assessment of the uses of writing a monarchy to any would-be author.

    The author has some worthwhile points. It is true that modern fantasy has a rather starry eyed image of democracy and the ease and inherent justice of such systems. Fantasy also needs to have more varied kinds of states and other polities. Their essential point, that monarchies are easier to work with thanks to everything being focused on one or two individuals is also worthwhile.

    The rest I take issue with.

    At a fundamental level, the author states that medieval monarchies were far more decentralised than modern states. So far, so good, but they don't discuss that in turn power was centralised into a small group of individuals (the monarch and nobles/other major figures) and the enormous implications, inefficiencies and potential injustices therein. And all the time attacking democracy for all its injustices (which, mind, are undeniable). Still, the failure to recognise the above distinction ignores that in many ways, whilst the modern state is centralised into a single body called, well, the state, the state's powers are not. They are compartmentalised and separated - effectively decentralised - and their functions are undertaken by a far greater and more diverse group of individuals than any medieval kingdom.

    To lay this out, the state has the executive, judiciary and legislature and - in a medieval context - religion (or religions in the modern day). Monarch and nobles compressed all three elements (executive, judiciary and legislature) into one individual and, depending on the period, may also be the head of the church or potentially the personification of the deity. Add to that being the army as well (and not just Commander-in-Chief but Chief-of-Staff in modern terms) and you have a lot of power in one individual. In modern democracies, all these positions are fulfilled by one, potentially more, individuals, with things like the legislature having dozens and dozens of sub departments (I'm talking about Treasury, Foreign Affairs, Attorney-General, etc) - each of which in turn will often have (for example in the British system) a permanent professional head of that sub-department.
    The sheer complexity of the (very abbreviated) description above I think serves to indicate just how many people are involved here.

    Did rulers, especially into the early-modern period begin to have similar divisions? Of course, but that's an "aberration" in the words of the author. Ultimately, the author wishes to have their cake and eat it too. Was the medieval system of government more decentralised? Of course. But power wasn't - and that distinction - and the implications of that centralisation therein - are neither recognised nor discussed.

    To more individual remarks.

    I note that serfs are described as apparently being freer than people are today. I sincerely hope the writer misunderstands the English term. A serf is one step above a slave - and though indeed your Roman slave might have much greater scope for work than our image of an African-American slave of the South - they remained slaves. The slaves put to work in Roman mines I'm sure were much freer than your modern citizen or indeed the individual of 100 years ago. The writer's description of Athenian citizens as being able to participate in a democracy thanks to them being largely at leisure is also misleading. They were no unified aristocracy and there were definite social strata. Whilst the rich certainly had more power than the poor, the voting blocs of the poor could still exert much influence. There have been suggestions in recent years that aristocratic power came under attack by blocs constituted by, among others, the oarsmen of Athenian triremes. Skilled workers? Definitely, but absolutely not a leisured class.

    Similarly, the author fails to give the nobles their due. Medieval monarchies were first amongst equals. The king relied upon the great lords of the realm and he went against them at his peril. They emphasise the significance of families and family names but ignore that the power of those families waxed and waned from figureheads to genuine decisionmakers. Witness Shogunate Japan, the baronial wars of the English and the War of the Roses. France's experience of the latter part of the Hundred Years War was marked by the rivalry between the Armagnacs and Orleanists. Such bitter infighting and civil wars did great damage to France and ensured it was divided when the English invaded. This is an extreme example of a very personal system that was wasteful and inefficient. The author time and again emphasises how damaging centralisation is, but fails to discuss how decentralisation has its own weaknesses.
    Take another example - the gridlock of the French Revolution was in part caused by the nobles whose interests meant that Louis XVI's ability to affect change were severely hamstrung. This in an "absolute" monarchy that the author calls an "aberration". Such a position indicates that the author is less interested in informing us and more in defending their fantasy about what monarchy is.

    It is fashionable these days to attack democracies as inefficient and incompetent. I leave readers here with the alternative. The best test case we have is that of Western democracies against Hitler's Fascist state and alongside Stalin's Soviet Union. In both cases, despite many cock-ups along the way, the Western democracies fought a far more efficient war than either Hitler's or Stalin's regimes. Despite the individual dictators being able to take an interest in specific affairs, time and again, their knowledge proved inferior to the experts.
    Were Stalin or Hitler's regimes monarchies? No. But they had the trappings of what the writer describes, including the centralising of power into one figure and the cults of personality around both.

    Is monarchy natural? Its occurrence time and again in agrarian societies would suggest so. But there's a reason that in the modern state monarchies have proven unable to compete with democracy or oligarchy.

    I encourage the author to continue writing articles, but hope they will approach history with a mind more focused upon challenging their beliefs than justifying them.
  9. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    Because power was not, in fact, centralized into a small group of individuals. Authority may have been, but formal authority is not power. In a premodern - which is not necessarily feudal! - monarchy, individual cities and even regions were mostly left to run themselves as they wished. This was in part because central state did not have administration necessary and so had to allow wide freedoms to local units.

    You complain about the inefficiencies and potential injustices, but both inefficiencies and injustices really start appearing at large scale precisely as states start modernizing, in 14th and 15th century. That is the time of the Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War, and so on... and none of these were as destructive as, say, Wars of Religion which happened after medieval times.

    If you think that this system is fundamentally less free (within the constraints of what was economically possible) than modern administrative state, then you are merely repeating the very misconceptions I attempted to dispel. As for why I am attacking democracy, again: I am trying to explain that it is not as good as people today think it is, because that belief is the source of many of misconceptions about premodern monarchies. "They were not democratic, so they must have been tyrannical".

    Except they did not. You are, again, talking about a modern, absolute monarchy - and even there you would be wrong. In fact, judicial structure of a medieval monarchy was not dissimilar to modern state. You had courts of law, and these courts were divided according to the geographical area they covered and the authority they had. You had royal court, manorial court, county court... and all of them were pretty much run by professionals. Monarch and nobles could make judicial decisions, yes, but they were pretty much the last option if the courts of law could not solve cases.

    Actually, you have it reversed. Such divisions were more common in a medieval period, with the result that courts generally had more autonomy. In early-modern period, however, with centralization of political authority you also had centralization of power - you can't have one without another! - and thus also greater politicization of courts.

    Athenian democracy was based in large part on slave work. There were more slaves, proportionally speaking, than in the US South before the Civil War - and South is described as a slavery society.
    It is true that Athenian citizens did have jobs of their own and were not exactly at leisure - but these jobs were ones which still allowed political participation. Most of the jobs that were truly difficult or dangerous were handled by slaves or metics, and of course you also had women working. So yes, Athenian democracy was enabled by the majority which had no voting rights.

    And I notice you are confusing serfs with slaves in the bolded part...

    And again all the examples you give are from modern period... plus, barons and other big nobility are one of things with which modern readers will be familiar with. I don't need to write much about them.
  10. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    Monarchies are omnipresent in fantasy most likely due to the simplicity of it. Of course, real life monarchies are quite complex, but in fantasy, you can get away with saying, "This is King Steve III of the Generic Kingdom. His son is Prince Steve IV. He will become king upon his father's death or abdication." Pretty straightforward.

    It's prevalent enough that readers will mostly likely be familiar with how the country's government works without the author needing to explain it.

    Politics, by nature is controversial and divisive, and absolute monarchies are seen as a thing of a past (barring a few holdouts around the world) and thus has few modern advocates, and you are less likely to offend readers than if you wrote about a fantasy society set in a democratic republic with two parties that tackles contemporary political issues.
    Rosemary Tea and Aldarion like this.
  11. Tolkien

    Tolkien Acolyte


    Great post. I happen to be a monarchist. The feudal period is my preferred system of governance.
  12. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

    You seem to be misinterpreting it.
    Aldarion likes this.
  13. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    The only misinterpretation was me underestimating things, but even then considering the how no modern day politics is one of the flat rules in the chat it remains curious how the article passed editing to grace the front page of this site. I choose to believe that the site staff are kind enough that they want to promote the member's words regardless of what they are.
  14. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

    Because references to modern-day politics are necessary to understand why monarchy is so popular as a narrative tool, and to understand why abundance of monarchies in a fantasy became something controversial at all. Both of these questions are ultimately rooted in modern politics and dominant political ideologies: people who complain about monarchies in fantasy typically do so because monarchy is seen as "authoritharian" and "tyrannical", which are misconceptions born from a) misunderstanding of the nature of premodern monarchy, itself a consequence of early-modern absolute monarchies, and b) political ideals born from modern-day representative democracy. Something like Roman Empire or Holy Roman Empire was the furthest thing from a tyranny you can imagine (as long as you did not rebel). But because it is a monarchy, it is often seen as tyrannical - as are fantasy states which imitate their political structures. That is a fact, and it is something where you cannot simply avoid any comparisons to modern-day politics, because reasons for the misconception are rooted in modern-day ideals which can be basically summed up as "monarchy bad, democracy good". This is despite the fact that modern-day democracy would seem positively authoritharian compared to either Roman Empire or Holy Roman Empire. But because monarchies are seen as authoritharian, and modern-day society is a sole reference point for most authors, we get the idea of extremely centralized and tyrannical monarchies in fantasy which have no business existing in the socioeconomic and technological circumstances of the society being depicted. I have seen people complain about Tolkien promoting authoritharianism (just one good if a bit extreme example), despite the fact that Aragorn is very much an anti-authoritharian figure and Gondor's monarchy is the very opposite of tyranny. And in a more general vein, you have people saying that "most fantasy governments tend to be authoritharian" (when in fact most are monarchical, but that does not make them necessarily authoritharian), Such complaints indicate the fundamental misunderstanding of fantasy and monarchy both, a misunderstanding that is borne out of modern society.

    Basically, it is all about providing a context to somebody who does not have enough historical knowledge - and if they did have enough knowledge, they wouldn't need to read the article in the first place.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2021
    Insolent Lad likes this.

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