This article is by Toni Šušnjar.
Monarchy is the most usual governing system found in fantasy. While this is often presented as problematic by democrats, it is actually a) very logical, b) practical and c) much less problematic than presented. In other words, monarchy makes much more sense in a fantasy setting than any other form of government.
Introduction: Why Monarchy Appeared
Practically, monarchy makes sense because the fantasy discussed here is typical medieval fantasy. While medieval forms of goverment were highly diverse, large polities were almost invariably ruled by a some form of individual government, that is, a monarchy. Reason for this were several:
- social stratification
- slow communication
- limited administration
Social stratification and the expense of ensuring education meant that most people were unable to effectively participate in political discourse even when there were no physical barriers to such. In ancient Athens and other democracies of antiquity such participation by citizens was possible because almost all actual work was done by slaves, making free citizens into a sort of aristocracy which could afford to be leisurely enough to actually be politically active. In a medieval society, most people were free, thus requiring actual aristocracy to make decisions. At larger scales, this aristocratic setup naturally translated into monarchy.
Slow communications meant that the state was highly decentralized. Politics were thus highly localized, with most decisions made at the local level. Central government was merely something one paid taxes to in exchange for military protection. Consequently, the form, nature and who holds the central government did not really matter. Local government, as real source of authority, was diverse indeed: medieval governance saw examples of democracies, democratic republics, aristocratic republics, oligarchies, monarchies, dictatorships and other at local level, without it having any influence on national / state level. This decentralization served to promote monarchy at the same time as it promoted liberty: central government, having limited duties, was itself limited in scope. And due to limited nature of such government, going to the expense and difficulties of ensuring a pluralistic government was illogical. While there were examples of democratic (Athens) and republican (Rome) empires, those invariably arose from city-states which previously had such government, and then maintained it through inertia even after the empire was established. And in the case of Rome, at least, establishment of a large empire eventually destroyed the Roman Republic, ushering in a new era of monarchy in form of Principate. Monarchical government was also more efficient and effective in a crisis. Roman Republic had an institution of a dictator for precisely such circumstances, and on Sicily, it was threat of Carthagenian attacks which led to widespread adoption of tyranny (meaning one-man government).
Advantages and Disadvantages
Unlike the intrusive, authoritharian and self-perpetuating administrative monster of a modern state, administration of most monarchies was rather limited (this is especially true for feudal ones, but even absolute monarchies had limited administration compared to modern-day monstrosities). This in turn meant that having a single person oversee said limited apparatus was merely good economy of resources. Dubrovnik was an aristocratic republic even while it was still a part of monarchical Hungarian-Croatian kingdom, as were many other cities and towns. Poljica were ruled by an elected duke, and had only few serfs (there were 40 noble families, 120 serf families and 800 families of free peasants). In other words, while kingdom was, well, kingdom, actual system “on the ground” – that is, what people actually experienced – could be extremely varied. In this sense, the absolutist monarchy that was eventually overthrown by the French revolution was an aberration of Medieval government, and product of same process of political centralization which also produced modern-day democracy as well as various totalitarian regimes.
Result of this was that traditional monarchies were flexible and long-lasting. Central government was not intrusive, and allowed local governments to adjust to local conditions. At the same time, it did provide enough reserve of power to more-or-less guarantee safety of any single local unit of governance. Monarch himself provided easy focal point for feelings of loyalty, as well as anger if things went wrong. If a monarch became a tyrant, he could be overthrown much more easily than a republican government which slid into tyranny. It was only in late Middle Ages that many places adapted primogeniture laws and thus hard dynasties; before then, monarch could be relatively easily replaced – and could be easily replaced even into Early Modern period in many places (Hungary never developed heritable monarchy). Modern republics have usually two dominant parties, which have no fundamental difference between them but provide ready-made entertainment and false hope for the masses, thus preventing any repairs to the system of governance. Democratic government also obstructs political processes, making them opaque and difficult to understand. All of this makes them unsuitable for the needs of the narrative, except for people who like to read about mafia. There are two parties – both the same, a bunch of minor parties – all the same, composed of politicians – all the same, and literally nobody to root for because everyone is rotten to the core. At the same time, process cannot really be simplified (streamlined) in the way processes of monarchic governance can, making it unwieldy for narrative purposes. In a monarchy however, it is easy to have a good guy, a bad guy, and then pretend that all problems are solved simply by removing the bad guy. Thus, it is no surprise that villains in stories are generally either monarchs or represent some perversion of monarchy (as Sauron, Palpatine etc. do): it makes story easier to make, easier to follow, and villain easier to hate. Story is easier to focus, and avoids diluting; it is personal rather than abstract.
Monarchy as such is an extremely diverse political system: feudal, absolute, centralist, elective, dual, federal, etc… monarchy can include literally every type of government and political organization known to man. Roman Emperor was essentially a military dictator: throne could be gained and lost through support of the army. Habsburg Monarchy was a traditional hereditary monarchy which started out as an elective monarchy, while Byzantine Empire was a combination of military elective and hereditary monarchy. Holy Roman Empire was an elective federal monarchy, but the “elective” part gradually transitioned into “hereditary” part as Habsburgs ensured successive elections. Kingdom of Hungary on the contrary never developed a dynastic principle and always remained an elective monarchy. Meanwhile, modern-day democracy is generally ruled by political dynasties as well as financial dynasties behind the scenes.
Psychology and Sociology of Monarchy
Thematically, there are literally and psychological reasons behind the monarchy. Monarchy essentially duplicates family, with monarch acting as pater familias (this is seen with modern-day populist politics). Basically, king is not just a ruler, but father, the personalization of the nation and patriarch of the country; a pater familias on grand scale. This, then, leads to idea so often seen, that “good king” will also be a good ruler and will bring about the good times for the kingdom (see: Aragorn and Return of the King in, well, RotK). Even when said system failed, it was not necessarily due to monarch himself: Louis XVI was basically swept up in anger aimed at the nobility and his wife (an Austrian).
Ruling family is a symbol of the nation, and something people can unify around. The monarch is essentially a patriarch of the family, but on the scale of the whole country. He is the father, the personification of the nation and its foundation. This effect is much stronger in fantasy. Longest-ruling dynasty in real life is Yamato dynasty of Japan, which lasted from at least 509 AD (earliest verifiable Emperor) but might be as old as 660 BC; it thus lasted anywhere between 1 511 and 2 680 years. Pandyan dynasty in India ruled from 6th century BC to 1345 AD, or over 1 800 years. Chola Dynasty in India lasted from 3rd century BC to 1279 AD, or 1 500 years, before being brought down by Pandyans. In Europe, longest lasting in Bagrationi Dynasty of Georgia, which lasted from 780 to 1810, or 1 030 years, all in the main branch. In Western Europe, France’s Capetians ruled from 987 to 1328 in the main branch, but several junior branches still survive, with king Felipe VI Bourbon reigning in Spain. This gives them timeframe of 1 033 years, of which 341 year for the main branch. Habsburgs lasted from 1273 to 1780, or 507 years, in the main branch; but in cognatic line they reigned until 1918, or 645 years. This however is nothing compared to fantasy dynasties. Dynasty of Numenorean kings lasted for 3 287 years. Kings of Arnor reigned for 2 000 years, but House of Isildur lasted for well over 3 000 years, while House of Anarion was only around 2 000 years old when it was extinguished. This makes them significantly longer lasting than any real life dynasty, though not to the extent often thought, and longetivity of Numenoreans means that these dynasties only really saw about as many generations of rulers as particularly long-lasting European dynasties. Assuming 25 years between generations, Yamato dynasty will have seen 60 generations of rulers, and Bagrationi will have seen 41 generation. For comparison, Kings of Numenor only saw 25 rulers, and there were likewise 25 Kings of Arnor. While this is actually realistic, same cannot be said for dynasties of Westeros: House Stark has lasted for 8 000 years, which will have meant 320 generations: over five times as many as those of the Yamato dynasty.
As discussed above, monarchy allowed much more personal freedom than average democracy. Politics as such were also much more personal. Whereas democracy is highly impersonal, dependant on bureocracy, procedure and under-the-table bribing, monarchy allowed people to be much more honest and also to express their personality. From storytelling perspective, this allows much more freedom, as people are not constrained so much by an impersonal and arguably inhumane system of government. Highly structured and hierarchical yet rather clear government also has good potential for conflict which can be relatively easily understood by the reader.
Feudal monarchy in particular was based on the interpersonal relations, but even in a more bureocratic monarchies such as the Byzantine Empire or early modern absolutist monarchies said relations were important. And because same people often keep position for the long time, this allows the readers to become familiar with, and invested in, characters – in a way which modern bureocratic state would make impossible. Nobody wants to read All The Bribes of a Dishonest John, whereas emotional investment between characters also facilitates emotional investmen into characters by the reader.
Even for normal people, monarchy often allowed much more opportunity. State was much less intrusive, and unless one happened to be a serf or a slave – which was a function of economy, not of a political system as such – there was significant freedom of living and action. This was reinforced by the already-discussed decentralized nature of most monarchies.
Conclusions: Why Write Monarchy
In the end: monarchy works. It is a highly practical choice of government that is easy to understand and easy to implement on a basic level, even if most authors get specifics wrong. It was a dominant form of government for majority of human history, and for a good reason. Nowadays, however, there is a tendency to “deconstruct” monarchy, presenting monarchs and nobles alike as shallow, self-centered, selfish, out of touch, and overall evil. But that is true for people in any political system, and for any political system, and none or very few historical monarchies actually ever came close to matching the evilness of new generation of fantasy monarchies. Newer generation of fantasy, which is much more cynical, is no more realistic than the older fantasy: where old fantasy idolized monarchy, new fantasy idolizes democracy while disparaging monarchy. In reality, each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and both can turn bad.
What should matter in fantasy literature is that system makes sense: neither monarchy nor democracy appeared in a vacuum. System of governance is a logical consequence of social structure and political culture of a society; economic system too has major impact. A society that is not socially democratic will not produce political democracy either, and if it is introduced artificially, it will necessarily fail. In classical (medieval) fantasy this means that democracy is most likely to appear in independent city-states, and progressively less likely in larger political entities. Already at the level of a moderate state (e.g. medieval Kingdom of Croatia) formal democracy is highly unlikely – and if present, it needs a very good reason behind it.
In short: do not be afraid of writing a functioning monarchy. Don’t be afraid of writing a non-monarchical state (oligarchy, plutocracy, democracy, republic), or a monarchy containing states or cities with various different forms of government. But do try to understand how the system you are writing functions, lest you end up writing a feudal monarchy as an absolute monarchy or a totalitarian dictatorship.
- What types of monarchy you know of?
- Which do you think fit needs of fantasy writing the best?
- What type of monarchy is closest to you and which do you find easiest to write about?
About the Author
Toni Šušnjar is an amateur historian and fantasy enthusiast with particular interest in Ancient and Medieval history as well as Medieval and High Fantasy. He also writes Military Fantasy blog. You can follow him on the Military Fantasy Facebook page.