One of the staples of fantasy literature are royalty. Royals are so prevalent in both Adult and YA fantasy that it’s harder to look for a book without them than a book with them. You would find the latter in the synopses of nearly every book you come across while the first would need a bit more effort. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there’s still a lot to be said about the concept and it can still be explored in various ways, especially by POC authors. Those are the takes on the concept that I find to be refreshing or enjoyable as they put a different twist on it.
In this post, I’ll be tackling the concept of royalty in fantasy specifically in the context of the Medieval European type fantasies we are used to seeing in bookshelves. I’m aware that POC haven’t explored the concept as much as white authors have and so it wouldn’t be fair to compare the two. Meanwhile, there is an over-saturation of Medieval European fantasies and a lack of deeper analysis on its governance, systems, and how flawed it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my royals in fiction as much as anybody but I just want a deeper analysis of the concept and systems that surround and enable it.
Nowadays, political machinations and intrigue are a core staple of fantasy. I’ll be the first to admit that those are my guilty pleasure in the books I read and I tend to be disappointed when it’s lacking. And yet, for all the machinations and intrigue present, I am still hard-pressed to find a fantasy book with a proper parliament or constitution or laws. Or some semblance of actual ruling aside from war. War is always prevalent- the monarch always gives military orders and we see how they’re conducting military campaigns but less is said about domestic and foreign policy (aside from marrying the royalty of neighboring kingdoms).
What this results to is a fixation on absolute monarchy. There are lords and ladies sure, and an aristocracy, but they mostly exist to either: 1) prop up the absolute monarch and give them their unconditional support or 2) plot against the monarch in order to get their throne. The question of what to do in case of a terrible monarch is then simplified into: find the rightful heir/someone who could replace him/her as king/queen. It’s simplistic and turns the issue of despotism into find someone else to wear the crown and sit on the throne.
We don’t actually end up questioning the systems that caused the predicament in the first place. We just accept what we’re given and move on. Even in a historical European context, this actually shouldn’t hold much weight. Historically speaking, monarchs and the aristocracy held the most power when the citizenry are downtrodden. In most fantasies, this happens. But when the citizenry are more empowered, when they are educated, they revolt, they protest. They do the kind of things that lead to the creation of parliaments and constitutions. And in the long run, an actual democracy.
In fantasy, many of our heroes happen to be the royal. “But that’s okay!”, the narrative tells us. They’re good and different from the bad royals. They’ll fix things and everything will be fine. Again, no analysis of the structures that got them there in the first place or of the flaws within that particular system of governance.
On a certain level, maybe we don’t actually expect our fantasy books to do that. We just want a good story where the heroes win and the righteous and good rule. But what happens after? In a monarchical system, their children will rule after and their children after that. There is no guarantee they’ll be good and righteous and the system will just repeat itself.
In many fantasy books, there are no checks and balances to speak of. The monarch’s will is absolute and whatever they say goes. This kind of absolute power is challenged in the form of going against the person in charge instead of the system. This distinction in framing is very important.
I wonder why the systems are almost never challenged? Is it because it makes for a happier ending when our heroes end up on the throne with near-absolute power as opposed to them ending up on the throne but with the added checks and balances of a parliament and a constitution?
The concept of royalty has always been romanticized in the minds of hearts of many. It’s part of their allure, their propaganda. It’s what kept the system going for so long and yes, the idea can be very romantic and seductive. However, recently, I noticed that fantasy has served to somewhat aid in the propaganda of the concept of royalty.
There is a certain sense of satisfaction we get when our heroes win and get their happily ever afters. However, it can sometimes feel that there’s a narrow understanding of what happily ever afters should be. Often, they could end with heroes on the throne and/or married with kids etc. Why aren’t heroes allowed to be mundane, normal after their adventures, content and happy with the people who love and accept them for who they are?
Should good deeds be rewarded with power regardless of how well a person could actually wield said power?
For me, the idea of power as a reward is a romantic notion we could do away with. Power is a burden imposed on those who could wield it, who could utilize it. It’s not something which should be given to some inexperienced teenager because they have a bloodright to it. The obsession on bloodlines and right based on blood and inheritance is ever-present in fiction. However, without deeper analysis on what it really means, the trope can get tiring, trite, a tad over-used.
Personally, I would love to see more fantasy monarchies tackle change, reform, and revolution. History doesn’t stay stagnant, nor does it move in a linear line. Change is a constant in history and it’s something I’d love to see reflected in the systems of fantasy worlds. If fantasy and science fiction do hold up mirrors to reality, I’d like to see it through the systems that permeate their own worlds.