The ‘Divine’ Presence of Kings

First of all, if you’ve got some time on your hands, listen to this interview with David Brin (and thanks to my friend, David, who drew my attention to it). There is more stuff to talk about in that interview that I could possibly stuff into a single blog post (or, at least, not if I wanted anybody to ever read it all), but I want to explore and correlate a couple things he talks about there which I find both fascinating and very true.

Speaking broadly, Brin differentiates between our ‘romantic’ selves and our ‘rational’ selves. The first is the thing that makes you cry at the end of Old Yeller and the second is the thing that makes you understand that the end of Old Yeller makes perfect sense and was the right thing to do. Brin associates our romantic selves with a lot of what has happened in human history, much of it bad, ranging from the Dark Ages to our love affair with Star Wars. The rational part of us he attributes to the proliferation and success of modern democracy, the creation of our current civilization, and the scientific Enlightenment.

Interestingly enough, I bet you find Dark Age barbarians and Star Wars much more fun than democratic reforms and scientific studies and that, right there, is exactly what Brin is getting at: our default state, the state we prefer, is the romantic one. It makes for better stories, higher adventure, and the glorious conservative myth of a golden age long past. There are a lot of different places I can dig in here, but let’s start with this one: This theory of the ‘romantic self’ is the underpinning of a vast majority of fantasy literature and religious and cultural mythology.

It might take another 1200 pages of Nothing Much Happening, but we all know Dany's got a chair waiting for her.

It might take another 1200 pages of Nothing Much Happening, but we all know Dany’s got a chair waiting for her.

Take kings or the idea of monarchy, for example. Every fantasy has ’em, pretty much, and if they don’t, they often have wizards, demigods, noble houses, emperors, or ruling demi-human species as a fill-in. These kings are also often heroic figures or, if they aren’t, they are waiting to be deposed so the ‘true’ king can be installed. Aragorn needs to take command of the Armies of Men to defeat Sauron; Daenerys is rightfully the heir to the Iron Throne; Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn and would everyone please stop getting in his way and listen to him for once! History, likewise, is awash in kings, both heroic and villainous, and, indeed, the majority of history has been under the thumb of some kind of absolute ruler.

Our enchantment with them, however, supposes that there is such a thing as a ‘good king’ or that monarchy itself is a wise or workable system. This is our Romantic selves talking, not our rational ones. As Brin points out, it took the weakening of top-down authoritarian systems to bring about the technological and social advances that have created our current civilization. A top-down system discourages competition, while a more egalitarian system encourages the kind of competition and innovation needed to improve and advance, since the genesis of those things comes from dissent from popular opinion, something that doesn’t happen under the rule of a Robert Baretheon or even an Aragorn.

Fantasy, though, is primarily under the influence of this romantic notion that there is some single golden-child who is the right person to tell everyone what to do. Everyone from Star Wars’ Jedi Knights to the Mistborn of Sanderson to Harry Potter perpetuate the idea of ‘specialness as societal cure,’ even when mitigated by apparently liberal ideals that the heroes happen to support (because, after all, no good king would forbid free speech, obviously). Such stories and their appeal is, on some level, powered by a direct connection to that basic human romantic notion that there is a person out there who can tell you what to do and be right all the time, absolving you from your own troublesome duties of thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, and taking ownership of your failures and successes. If you don’t think that’s a thing, you need only read a history book – everyone has been doing that since forever.

Fantasy, then, is ultimately a conservative genre in its most literal sense – the conservation of old modes of order and old modes of doing things (based often off the fuzzy logic of metaphysical powers and spiritual manifestations) for the purpose of retaining what our romantic brains tells us is more fun and interesting. There is no law that says it must be so, however; I like to flatter myself that my own work in the fantasy genre breaks this mold, if only a little bit. After listening to David Brin, I may just up that from ‘a little bit’ to ‘a lot’. Magic in Alandar is already egalitarian (you needn’t be born with power to use it – anybody with discipline and a good teacher can do it) and Tyvian Reldamar is already an iconoclast, but I can go further. I should go further.

Fantasy should join the best work of its speculative cousin, Science Fiction, and show us where we ought to go rather than making us miss where we’ve been.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on February 22, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. As an historian of medieval history (and some-time gamer), I just want to say: spot on.

  2. As a historian of multiple periods of human history in the West and beyond, I’m afraid I have to disagree pretty strongly.

    –As Brin points out, it took the weakening of top-down authoritarian systems to bring about the technological and social advances that have created our current civilization —

    I’m afraid that this simply isn’t true. Just to pick one example, the printing press (internet aside, still a pretty major part of our modern society) was invented in a “state” that was ruled by self-declared princes, at a time when semi-democratic republics did exist. Much of the research that went towards sending a man to the moon was developed in a fascist autocracy. And on, and on and on.

    Democracy and competition have much to recommend them, but they are a long way from being a prerequisite of human advancement in science and technology.

    • Good points. It is worth noting, however, that the two advancements you name happened in environments where inter-state competition was fierce. Much of Europe’s success in technology can be attributed to it geography, which made it an awkward place to conquer and yet restricted social and ethnic groups in such a way that encouraged attempts at conquest.

      You can see how technological progress stalls in a lot of other places (the Middle East, China, etc.) once the hegemony of a particular ruling body is secured. Since Europe rarely if ever had that ‘advantage’, they were forced to continue to compete–to disagree, if you will. Not democratic, but then democracy is simply a structure used to organize that kind of competition in a way that creates the ‘positive sum games’ Brin discusses.

      Furthermore, barring some advances that were born out of non-democratic societies with a need to advance, one can hardly contest the claim that more advances have been made in the past 100 years (when such democracies have been at their peak) than at any previous period.

  3. Again I don’t agree. Having studied the history of the Middle East AND China in some detail (I couldn’t ever pick a single period to study so I went for all of them), a lot of their progress (in the case of China in particular) was born out of long periods of stability and hegemony. Heck, almost ALL of China’s progress came out of hegemony, as for over a millennium and a half they were the more or less uncontested ruler of all of South-East Asia.

    I think I probably would contest that actually. I can’t identify a single century as having more advances, but I can think of a couple that make good accounts of themselves. You seem to be thinking that things like going to the moon or the development of computing are “better” or “more significant” advances than the creation of the printing press, the compass or the accurate clock. In the context of this discussion, they aren’t. They come from a greater knowledge base, but all developments are underpinned by the knowledge base they start from.

    • Hmmm…fair assessments. I admit my own studies of Chinese and Middle Eastern history are fairly general.

      Have you listend to the Brin interview? I’d be interested to hear your opinion of what he has to say.

  4. I haven’t, and won’t today thanks to a truly, mind-bogglingly shitty day. But I will do when I get a moment.

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