The first time I remember noticing that a fictional thing was working really, REALLY hard to convince me that their fictional monarchy was good was while I was reading the rulebook and setting guide for the Blue Rose RPG, learning about the world of Aldea. And that made me look back at a lot of other times I’ve seen fictional works – particularly fantasy – bend over backwards to tell me about how THEIR monarchs are good actually.
To give some background, Aldea is probably the most egregious example – when the old monarch dies, the Golden Hart, a magic deer-god, manifests by magic and “The sovereign of the nation is likewise not determined by birth or conquest but selected by the Golden Hart, the embodiment of the collective will—and wisdom—of the people.” Yeah, that’s a direct quote from the book. It’s uhhhh it’s basically the divine right of kings but with a thin veneer of magical direct democracy over it. It’s worth noting at this point that Aldea is an absolutely idyllic setting, and the monarchs selected by the Golden Hart are never anything less than just and kind and fair and incredibly capable rulers. The nobility are also not born; they’re basically glorified civil servants and becoming a noble requires significant study and a literal morality test given by a magic scepter.
I’ll note that none of this is a bad thing. It’s a lot better than the alternative you see in most fantasy settings, with “firstborn son” as the heir by default. But I have to wonder – why have a monarch or nobility in the first place? It seems like you could just… not have them. And I know for Aldea, the answer would be that the works they take their inspiration from (the works of Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce, primarily) have monarchies, so therefore they will have monarchies. But also… they could not.
Most high fantasy includes monarchies, of both the good and evil varieties. One of the most archetypal fantasy plots would be to depose the evil king and install the good king in his place. At the end of Game of Thrones this week, Samwell Tarly suggests that hey, maybe instead of having approximately twelve rich people pick out the king, they could try democracy maybe? This gets laughed off and we go with “twelve rich people pick the king”, because oligarchy is just SO much better than hereditary monarchy, right? Obviously. Ugh.
As with many things in contemporary fantasy, I think it goes back to Ancient Rome (if you’ve ever wondered why there’s always the decrepit ruins and failing technology of a bygone lost empire… it’s because of Rome). In this particular case, I think it goes back to the myth of Cincinnatus.
Myth may not be the right word; we know there was a person named Cincinnatus who served as the dictator (the word had… different connotations then) of Rome when the Republic was under crisis. The legend of Cincinnatus, the very model of civic virtue, is that he assumed power when things were at their darkest and then voluntarily surrendered that power as soon as the crisis had passed, returning to his humble life as a farmer. The idea being that to step back from that kind of power – again, entirely voluntarily – requires a certain greatness of spirit and a kind of civic-minded humility.
It is, as I’ve implied, probably kind of fabricated or exaggerated a lot. But the myth has taken hold, and it’s particularly taken hold in America, where we have our very own mythologized Cincinnatus figure – George Washington. To step down from the Presidency, to serve only two terms and no more, when he almost certainly could have served for life if he chose… again, a certain greatness of spirit. And it’s nice and wholesome and certainly convenient to imagine our founder as a kind of Cincinnatus.
This is also the root of the idea that the best ruler is the one who doesn’t want it. They certainly beat us over the head with that idea again and again in this last season of Game of Thrones, somehow ending up with Bran? Because he doesn’t want… anything, anymore, apparently. And you know, they quote it humorously in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job,” etc. It’s funny because we all hate politicians, but is it actually… true? I’m gonna have to go with no on that one.
But it’s kind of an infectious idea, right? More than 60 seconds of thinking about the Cincinnatus myth and the unwilling ruler almost immediately reveals it to be basically bullshit, but it’s a nice thing to think about. The idea that our rulers might in fact be worthy, especially our founders. The concept is insidious – the ruler who absolutely would step down the minute they felt it no longer necessary to serve… so clearly the fact that they’re still in power means that they’re still necessary.
Fantasy, much more than any genre except, well, history, is rooted in the past. Fantasy is about mythologizing our own histories, where sci-fi is about finding our future. Fantasy leans so much on the monarchy – specifically the idea of the just king, the honorable king, the unwilling king – because it feeds into our own ideas about our pasts. Not necessarily the truth of our pasts, but the mythologized version of them. And our ideas of our pasts become our visions of ourselves. If we could all but see ourselves as the Cincinnatus, perhaps things would be different. But perhaps, no one ever really was a Cincinnatus, and it’s an idea we’ve given ourselves about the past to justify where we are now.