Why are kings the default government in many SF and fantasy novels?

Spy Princess by Sherwood Smith



Two words, power and privilege.

What’s not to like?

What’s not to hate?

Whatever those words power and privilege evoke to us, it’s usually not boredom.

It’s tough to get away from the fact that human beings tend to be hierarchical. You take any group, no matter how determined they are to interact with sensitivity and equality, and a leader somehow emerges. That’s in situations that have the luxury of safety. In emergencies or danger, people turn desperately to anyone who can show them the way out, whether it’s by fighting or fleeing. The successful commander who becomes village leader, chieftain, clan head, or king is as old as history.

Monarchs make government personal, and most readers want stories about people more than they want stories about the function of politico-economic theory, for pretty much the same reason people at work gossip about the boss’s likes, dislikes, and private life. The doings of people in power are interesting, especially when they can impact you, but even when they won’t. Look at all the celebrity chasers busily reporting on the often fatuous actions, opinions, marriages and breakups of our king-substitutes, actors.

Never going out of fashion are stories about kings and queens from the days when monarchs were colorful figures–sometimes in preference to stories about today’s reclusive royalty who, wearing business suits like everyone else, appear only for photo ops and ribbon-snipping. The old kings had more power, but they also had to generate their own PR by looking like kings: when they traveled past you, with outriders and banners snapping in the wind and horses caparisoned to a fare-thee-well, you knew a king was passing. It was great when they threw gold hither and yon, and not so great when their rangers went about commandeering your animals, your food, and sometimes your daughters, for the king’s pleasure.

I have heard people on science fiction panels scoff at SF and F about monarchs, but the truth is that for most of human history, until very recent times, monarchy of some kind or another constituted the outer form of government. And as we know even in more recent history, leaders who called themselves by other titles, whether President, Führer, Chairman, or Dear Leader, functioned pretty much in all other respects as monarchs. We know of politicians right now who would very much like to have the power of kings, and are torqueing the democratic system to grab it.

In the simpler, more plot-driven story, the monarch is often nothing more than a factor for action. This leader is all-powerful, without much narrative examination of the nature of that power, or its history, other than perhaps a vague handwave toward inheritance or even divine right (which can be disconcerting in a story that otherwise contains little reference to religious paradigm). Bad monarchs are mean to peasants, hurt the helpless, and their favorite sport seems to be going out a-conquering, or hanging around the throne room giving local princesses the hot-eye and threatening all heroes. We want to see them brought down. Good monarchs have time to be kind to all, spread peace and plenty, and defend their kingdoms against the invaders. We want to see them preserved as a force for order.

In more character-driven stories, monarchy itself is examined, its features and bugs. Character-driven SF and F novels examine the friction between various powerful interests within a state (whether it’s called a kingdom or a polity), becoming more complex if the story includes a threat from without. They illustrate the effects when the nature of the ruling hierarchy changes.

Stories about monarchs have been around as long as there have been monarchs. As far as fiction is concerned, it was Sir Walter Scott who first gave us novels about the doings of kings and legendary heroes from the perspective of ordinary people. The ancient fascination with those in power still grips the imagination, but equally interesting can be the attitudes of the governed. What makes someone willing to bend his knee to the monarch? To kill for him or her? What is the personal cost of that much power for the monarch?

For the individuals monarch rules–and how do they effect change when they are powerless?

Finally one comes full circle, to the hero’s tale, wherein the ordinary person gains a crown.

My latest book, The Spy Princess, written for anyone over twelve, is meant to be a fun, adventurous read from the kid’s eye view, but it’s also about the personal cost of power, and revolution, and the physical as well as emotional fallout at both ends of the social scale.



Why are kings the default government in many SF and fantasy novels? — 11 Comments

  1. I don’t think it’s only power and privilege.

    On one hand, it depends on your concept of monarchy. Aristotle distinguishes two forms of rule by the one, monarchy and tyranny: in a monarchy the one rules as a trust for the whole of society, whereas in a tyranny he rules for his own personal gain or bias. (And he makes exactly the same distinction between popular government, where the majority rules as a trust for the whole of society, and democracy, where they rule for their own gain or bias and trample on minorities.) And at least some kings in fantasy are monarchs rather than tyrants, and rule under the law—Tolkien, for example, makes a point of this with Aragorn—though there are also writers like Eddison whose kings know no such restraint.

    When the Libertarian Futurist Society gave our Hall of Fame award to The Lord of the Rings a few years ago, we had people snarking about why we were honoring a novel that had kings. But, leaving aside the Shire, which was a model of popular government with a substratum of aristocracy, philosophically we would rather have a king who rules under the law than a majority that does whatever it pleases; it’s “under the law” that’s crucial to constitutional government.

    But on the other hand, if one man rules, or one woman, they have agency, and the appeal of fiction is largely that it offers characters with agency and shows what they do with it. And I don’t think of agency as a privilege that ought to be stripped from those who have it to make everyone equally passive; I think of it as a right that everyone ought to have.

    (Come to think of it, Northrop Frye’s spectrum of literary modes, from mythic to ironic, is largely a question of how much agency the protagonists have.)

    • Good thoughts. It’s definitely about agency, but people are also drawn to follow, and read stories about, those they feel have power, have charisma, will keep them safe, will let them in on the Good Life . . . it’s complicated, as everything about human life is.

      There are far more than two types of kingship. It you think about the Congress of Vienna, which was the first time in European history a bunch of kings got together to hash out the borders of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s depredations, you can point to wildly different types of kingship. And each had evolved in ways distinct from the other.

  2. Sherwood has pondered our history and fruitfully transfers her insights into power–its pleasures and costs–into her world building and characterization. I never feel her rulers act in a vacuum.

  3. From the POV of the people of the Middle Ages (and frequently, in many places, before) the point of hereditary rulership is stability and the reining in of the locals of power and privilege, rather than the free-for-all armed struggle that follows a monarch’s death. This was the same for the members of the power and privilege caste. In their case, however, it was the perception that one faction or another, and particularly a faction that wasn’t any of the established factions, was receiving power and privileges that were their own right, they united to remove such a figure, see: Edward II, Richard III for the best known of the English monarchs who didn’t get their natural life terms. In spite of that, continuity was so important that John, while humiliated, was not removed.

    In the history of what we come to know as France, reading along, one can almost hear, even through the to-us-strangely removed language — and in translation yet! — the collective sighs of relief when it was declared that the heir would be the first born (son, generally, and later by decree, the salic law) of the reigning monarch was the legitimate successor to the throne. Which is another reason the church was energetic at making marriage the rule particularly for those in power — marriage bestowed legitimacy. Because even very strong, powerful, successful, intelligent and ‘good’ monarchs, like Charlemagne, with multiple sons from different women, left his kingdom weaker when he died, having divided his empire among the sons.

    So, kings — our minds, even now, rubber band to that paradigm — within which there are infinite varieties of monarchy and monarchs. It was the most successful European model for centuries, far, far longer in history and imagination than anything else, other than Rome’s, Persia’s, etc. imperiums.

    • Indeed. The anxiety about heirs was all about stability. And there were ways to get around heirs who turned out to lack the components of kingship, example many of the later Spanish Hapsburgs, after too much marriage of cousins.

  4. Currently I’m watching on Amazon Prime “Charles II, Passion and Power,” a British series that examines not just the character of the king but the on going struggle to define British Government. The people want a Parliament–a duly elected government, but they also want a monarch for stability and balance.

    There are religious questions and there are divine right of kings followers as well as those who want only Parliament. It is Charles’ strength and compassion that seeks the balance.

    Perhaps not the best history of a complicated period but it definitely asks the right questions.

  5. There are some great thinkers who wrote about those questions at the time. And at the same time, memoirs about that period, like the Grammont “Bio”. make it clear that people were aware of reinventing kingship after the Interregnum–while having fun cavorting after those long years of enforced joylessness.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your insights! And I second the recommendation of Sherwood’s Sartorias series for the portrayal of complex kingdoms and kings, good and bad.