Writing Fantasy: The Glorification of Aristocracy

Last time, I talked about two of the things in the fantasy genre that I wanted to change while working on my novel. Today, we’ll look at the first one: the Glorification of Aristocracy.

In The Lord of the Rings, we needed the rightful king to resume the throne after centuries of Gondor’s misrule by the Stewards, whose line famously flamed out (ha!). In Game of Thrones, even though the excesses and brutality of the ruling class are thoroughly on display (Joffrey, the Lannisters, most of the Targaryens), chances are pretty good your favorite characters in the series all came from the noble class. Good and evil are well represented in the upper classes; the working class, not so much. Off the top of my head, the only Point of View character who is working class is Davos Seaworth.

You can argue that the lives of peasant farmers aren’t terribly interesting, since most of them live and die on the same plot of land and don’t really get to go on crazy adventures most of the time. That’s fair, and for fantasy series that go low-magic (like Game of Thrones), that makes sense. But not all fantasy settings try to recreate the Middle Ages in all their dung-strewn glory. The High Fantasy genre certainly does not; you have magical broomsticks sweeping the streets and everyone is literate, except for D&D 3rd Edition barbarian characters and even they can suddenly read if they multiclass.

In these instances, you have enough science and technology in the form of magic, which is often understood in a scientific fashion rather than a supernatural or faith-based source. You likely have characters who have walked on different worlds due to teleportation. And you have timelines with civilization that dwarf our own, yet no where in any of these scenarios do you see someone point out that maybe hereditary monarchy or feudalism should be replaced. And I think the reason why that happens is because of how we view social classes.

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans don’t really get the idea of class. We think we do, in that we understand that if you’re upper class, you’re wealthy. But that’s not quite accurate:

Class is what you are born and raised in; getting a windfall of money during adulthood doesn’t make a person who grew up working class into an aristocrat, it makes them working class with a pile of money. Trust me, this one is a subject I actually know something about. –Rich Burlew, creator of the Order of the Stick

Although the modern fantasy genre’s common ancestor is English by way of Tolkien, our more recent influences like Gygax and Martin are decidedly American. Which is why I think we’ve arrived at this weird fascination the genre has with aristocracy. Aristocracy is great if you’re an aristocrat and we all have this American Dream-esque notion that if we were to wind back the clock, we’d be aristocrats, too. Seriously, raise your hand if you go to the Renaissance Faire and imagine your past life as a peasant. The most humble “if I lived back then, I’d be…” musing I’ve ever encountered are the people who think they would be priests, and even that is still winning the social lottery compared to most people. We all imagine we’d be lords and ladies, but just by running the numbers, that isn’t the case. Unless you’re upper class right now, odds are pretty good your ancestors were commoners, just like the rest of us.

And so we arrive at the class problem in the fantasy genre. Either your most interesting people are nobleborn, because the aristocrats have all the education, wealth, and power to actually do something other than farm, or your commoner is a chosen one or bearer of some secret legacy, like Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars. The Chosen One and the Secret Legacy are related to this issue, but separate enough that I’ll discuss them in a later post.

Since the modern fantasy genre is the pop culture version of older mythology, you could say it’s fair that everyone important is a noble, since most myths are about the same groups of people: kings, king-like people, or chosen by/descended from gods, which is also incidentally how kings presented themselves much of the time. People tend to tell stories that are interesting, and kings and kingly people tend to be the most interesting, therefore those are the stories.

But here’s the question that really got me thinking: why aren’t there more settings that twist this around? Our brethren in the science fiction genre seem to delight in twisting the conventions of the genre, so that the sparkling clean and technology advanced society is the protagonist in one story (Star Trek) and the villains in others (FarScape, Firefly). One setting’s tech utopia is the next’s hellish nightmare concealed behind a shiny facade. The good Federation (Star Trek, again) has the same aesthetic as the evil Institute (Fallout 4).

But over here in the fantasy world, we’re still working for kings, or aspiring to be kings, or killing kings . . . and then replacing them with other kings. We desperately hope that the Game of Thrones will resolve in a good king or queen taking the throne and replacing the bad ones that have existed so far. The show has flirted with the idea that Daenerys wants to destroy the system (“I’m going to break the wheel”) but thus far, she hasn’t indicated that she’s going to usher in a representative democracy

So when I started to work on the setting for Dinomancer, this was very much on my mind. And while my during my first draft, it seemed like an easy thing to address (just have my protagonist espouse some democratic leanings!), I realized I had more to say.

The world of Dinomancer is fundamentally about power. Humans like us find ourselves in a scenario with medieval levels of technology (swords, armor, longbows, etc) having to content with dinosaurs roaming the countryside at every turn. No guns, no cars, no planes. We’re completely outclassed.

Fortunately, humans do have a weapon they can use to fight back, which is called the Geas (prounced “gesh” instead of “gee-ahs” if you’re like me and learned this word from a fantasy book). The Geas lets a person take control of a dinosaur and direct it psychically. It’s a huge advantage.

And because it’s such an advantage, it’s something that’s hoarded by a small number of people. In fact, it’s so useful that if you have the power of the Geas, you are automatically part of the noble class. The noble families will fight to adopt you into their ranks and make you one of them. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

How does someone get the ability to wield the Geas? We’ll talk about that later. The main thing is, if you have it, you’re noble. Your social class is noble. But how does that square with the earlier quote, about how class is what you’re born into? The truth is, it doesn’t. Your class is always your class, regardless of whether you earn a pile of money or develop a super power.

If the nobles are honest (with themselves and with the general people of this world), they would be forced to admit that this entire social structure exists to benefit them. Rather than using the Geas to keep people safe, nobles use it to capture and train dinosaurs to use as weapons. Commoners huddle together beneath the umbrella of safety their nobles offer, but it’s all to further the grip of power. This should sound familiar, because it’s basically how most of human history has progressed.

But just like with actual history, few people ever want to come out and say this. Instead, you get these remarkable contortions that people go through to justify themselves, such as the divine right of kings or similar ideas that the ruling class is the best and the most worthy, instead of just being the most privileged and powerful. The nobles in this world do something similar; if you’re adopted as a noble, it applies retroactively to your entire life. You were always a noble if you become a noble, because they’re trying to preserve this idea that it’s something you were born into, that you can’t change, in a world where you can.

With this in mind, it’s important to note that the protagonist of the story doesn’t think about any of this. He’s noble himself and just thinks that this is the way that makes sense. Other characters don’t, and realizing his own privilege is part of his own development as a character, which, not coincidentally, is a story that I feel qualified to write about as a straight, white male in the current age.

The difference, then, is the direction of the text itself, the “truth of the setting.” In Return of the King, the reestablishment of the monarchy is unambiguously a good thing. In most fantasy settings, it’s the existence of the evil wizard or the demon lord that’s the bad thing to be overcome. But for me, as I’m writing, this is the world state I’m keeping in mind: this social system sucks for most of the people that live in it. We should not glorify this idea of noble houses and titled lords. This is the problem. We should do better.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not writing a philosophical book here. It’s still a fantasy novel with dinosaurs and people getting killed by dinosaurs. I’m not creating high literature here. But even the pulpiest of fantasy stories have something to say, even if it’s just “man, it would be so cool to be a knight” and that’s what I’m keeping in mind with my work. Will it pay off? Will those ideas be communicated? Hard to say. We’ll see what happens when I finish it.

Next, I’ll talk about the Bloodline Legacy issue, also known as the Midichlorian Problem that turned Jedi into the bad guys . . . from a certain point of view.

4 thoughts on “Writing Fantasy: The Glorification of Aristocracy

  1. Thank you for mentioning the (mis)pronunciation of Geas. Like you, I learned from reading the word, and got it wrong exactly as you describe. I should look further, but the online OED offers a pronunciation closer to “gas” than “gesh.” Perhaps it is a Scottish/Irish difference?

    With that out of the way, I remain fascinated by what you are discussing here. My personal view is that the world is more about economics as the engine of power, where money sooner or later buys privilege–and the ability to maintain that privilege. It is true that “nouveau riche” was a slur in my childhood home, but I think that still requires the (relatively) short perspective of just a handful of generations if, for no other reason than when bluebloods run themselves out of money, they marry below their class as long as enough money comes with the match.

    I have also been interested in discussions of how high class nobility has fought to maintain its “distinctiveness” through periods of societal change. As you say, upper class humans go through all KINDS of contortions to prove they deserve their high ranks and to keep the hoi polloi in their place. Given our common background in libraries, you are probably aware of how “good literature” remains a classist signaling device, and potboilers are distinctly lowbrow. This was raised to high relief, I think, in the Victorian era (cheaper printing?) and we still experience its ripple effect today. But it began when printing itself began, and OMG!!MerchantsAndArtisans could become literate! Well, WE bluebloods know what’s GOOD to read and you mudbloods don’t know what’s proper reading unless we tell you.

    I would love a face-to-face discussion on the musings about “when you go to a RenFaire, do you imagine yourself a noble or a peasant?” My ancestry does include high class folks (an earl, for one) and my family names are on castles in Suffolk and Catalonia. But my father also raised his kids to remember “it isn’t who your ancestors were but who you and your children become.” He nailed that advice home saying it wasn’t the Earl of Whoever’s Duchess we were descended from, but from the Dutch downstairs parlor maid. Reprising the RenFaire question, I suspect my relatively privileged upbringing has drawn me to find “the underdogs” of society easier to identify with than the snotty upper class folks I did sometimes see under our roof. And after all, Winter’s background is decidedly peasant-born and, in his stories, he had to learn to speak “properly” i.e. in an upperclass accent. Of course, he also has the whole Might Makes Right thing going for him now, but that’s a different discussion, isn’t it!)

    I look forward to more of your discussion of the Dinomancer saga! Thank you for writing!

    1. I think you’re right; I believe “gesh” is the Irish version, which might be why I’m partial to it (lot of Irish ancestry on my mom’s side).

      It would be very cool to visit a castle with one’s family name on it, I think!

      “Good literature” signaling absolutely remains in the forefront of my thinking as I’m working on my pulpy fantasy novel that I hope will one day have an Allosaurus on the cover. I do remember one writing professor who managed to present the “literature vs. genre” argument in a way that resonated; his approach was that while there is great writing out there in genre, too much genre tries to ride on the “there’s a spaceship, so you’ll read this” aspect, so the prose doesn’t have to work as hard. I’ve always tried to keep that in mind, even as I remain happily in the non-fancy people camp.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts! I’m hard at work on the next one, although the presence of a five month old in my life means it’s taken far more time to work through than it did pre-baby. Back in the day I’d sit down, bang out some words, slap them out, and then go whistle. Those were easy, carefree days. Despite that, I’ve set a personal goal for having my draft of the actual book done this year, too! So, you know, if you know anyone who’d be interested in being a beta reader, I will be taking applications at some point.

  2. I haven’t seen the castle in England, but I did get to visit the grounds of the one in Catalonia. (It is still privately owned, but not… to my knowledge… by any relatives). American mutt that I am, I was awestruck as much as if I were walking on holy ground. I stole a pebble from one of the pathways and kept it as reverently as if I were a vampire keeping the soil of my homeland handy for my coffin… and I painted the rather Gothic front gate into one of my next assignments!

    That’s an interesting take on the literature/genre distinction. A writer-friend of mine applied to get her master’s in the writing program from UA, decades ago, and submitted her novel manuscript that had just been accepted by a New York publisher as part of the application process. (It would be her first published novel, although not the first she’d written.) She was turned down because the work was, according to the rejection, “too popular.” She continues to make a living in the field to this day. Go figure.

    I definitely know someone interested in being a beta reader for you. Perhaps we can discuss it when I am up in your stomping grounds in June…? Time to meet that wee lad o’ yours. 🙂

  3. This is such an important point to make and interesting for us fantasy writers. Got me thinking about my WIP for sure. Thanks 🙂

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