Politics in fantasy. No, I’m not talking about a story having a political message – though that does happen, with varying degrees of subtlety – nor about politicians living in a fantasy world – perhaps the less said about that the better – but how politics works within the fantasy world.
It’s easy to dismiss politics as something belonging to the contemporary world, but every human society known throughout history has had its political aspect, and it even goes beyond homo sapiens. Challenges for leadership of a herd are primitive politics, while chimp society has episodes of intrigue and coups that could come straight out of a Shakespeare history play.
Classic fantasy generally has a political side, too. Take Lord of the Rings: it has global politics (who’s going to rule Middle Earth, and how), international politics (alliances made and broken), and internal politics (Denethor’s resistance to the return of the King, or Grima and Eomer competing for influence over Theoden).
Modern fantasy often takes this a great deal further. Both Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy deal very largely with political intrigue and conflict, and there are many other examples of this.
The area where fantasy politics tends to fall down is the lack of variety it presents of political systems. Almost every fantasy land has a king (or sometimes a queen) who rules absolutely. He’ll have “counsellors”, often without any defined rank or role, who give advice which the king then accepts or rejects, doing as he chooses. The only limitation on such a king’s power is his personal strength of will against conniving advisors.
Now, systems of that kind do appear in history – though usually rather more involved and formalised – but so do many others. Monarchies, even in pre-modern times, were usually organised to formally incorporate the influence of interest-groups within the kingdom, whether the nobility, the priesthood or the mercantile classes. A successful king was often one who could juggle these influences adroitly.
Royal succession, though, hasn’t always happened the same way. Most people assume that succession is always to the eldest child (or the eldest son, depending on the society’s attitude to female rulers) but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, a king would name his favourite son as the heir, or sometimes succession was decided on a last-man-standing basis among the heirs – as with the Merovingian Franks, whose government has been described as autocracy tempered by assassination.
On the other hand, kings were sometimes elected – not by the ordinary people, but by the royal council. This was traditionally the legal method of succession for the English crown, and officially it still is, although for many centuries now the “election” has merely rubber-stamped the lineal succession.
Other methods have been used. In Greek legend, which sometimes offers hints of bronze-age or early iron-age culture, Menelaus became King of Sparta purely by virtue of marrying Helen, daughter of the reigning king – or, perhaps more to the point, of the reigning queen.
History offers us a great many different forms of government. Many societies have been republics, back at least as far as the cities of Greece and the Roman Senate and People. Judging by the architecture, the cities of the bronze-age Indus Valley appear to have had neither palaces nor temples.
There are various forms of republic, including dictatorship, oligarchy (or plutocracy), stratocracy, theocracy and democracy, the first two being probably the most common historically. A dictator (or tyrant – the word originally didn’t have its current negative connotations) differs from a king only in terms of succession. A dictator will have seized power in some kind of coup, often with popular support in the first place, but once the position is passed on in any kind of succession, as Augustus passed the rule of the Roman Empire to his step-son Tiberius, it becomes indistinguishable from monarchy. I’m sure we can all think of a notorious present-day example.
Oligarchies come in various shapes and forms, but typically they’re systems which have institutions similar to a democracy, but only selected citizens are allowed to take part. This might be based on class, wealth, ethnicity or some other criterion – when it’s based on wealth, it could be described as a plutocracy (rule by the rich).
In practice, the line between a broad-based oligarchy and a democracy can be blurred. By modern standards, the Athenian democracy can be discounted as denying membership to many groups of its subjects, but the same standards would mean that the UK didn’t become a democracy till 1928, and the US till 1964. The Athenian system founded by Kleisthenes was based on the principle that all citizens should participate in government. After that, it becomes a debate over who counts as a citizen.
Stratocracy, or military rule, isn’t usually stable, but it’s often a factor in the transfer of power, as it frequently was in Rome, both in the last decades of the Republic and during the later imperial period. Theocracy, on the other hand (rule of priests) can be one of the most stable forms of government, if the religion that’s in charge commands a broad respect. In fantasy, theocracy probably suggests sinister, black-robed priests performing human sacrifice to summon demonic gods while grinding the people under their heels. That makes great sword & sorcery, but the reality can be much more mundane. Remember that modern Europe includes a theocratic state – the Vatican City.
If you’re trying to decide what form of government your fantasy realm should have, remember that power tends to follow three factors: economic power, military power and religious power. The changes in Europe from the mediaeval world to the early modern was influenced by all three. The rise of a mercantile middle class, combined with a labour shortage in the wake of the Black Death, undermined the power of the feudal aristocracy. The reliance of armies on first the longbow, then guns, meant that battles were being won by lower-class soldiers, rather than the traditional knights. And the general loss of trust in the Church – again partly as a result of the Black Death – transferred religious power to ordinary people, as was seen very clearly in the English Civil Wars.
Of course, power doesn’t always shift immediately or in entirely predictable ways, but sometimes it works very clearly. Comparing the Greek city-states, it can be seen that the older regimes, controlled by monarchies or aristocracies, tended to be those that relied on cavalry, since a cavalryman’s equipment was insanely expensive. In the states that relied on hoplites – the heavily armoured foot-soldiers that the Romans later transformed into their legions – the somewhat-less-expensive equipment allowed the middle classes to participate, and these tended to be wealth-based oligarchies. The Athenian democracy, however, relied for its strength on its navy. This was traditionally made up from the lower classes, who were expected to bring no equipment except themselves.
Another thing to remember is that all political systems, even run by the most autocratic of monarchs, need a great many people to run the day-to-day affairs of state: ministers, a royal council, scribes, tax-collectors and the like. Most of all, they require a civil service.
Civil services, like politics and economics, aren’t the preserve of modern civilisation. The bronze-age palaces of Crete and Greece appear to have been run by a considerable civil service, and it was these primarily who used the ancient writing found on baked clay tablets. Babylon had an extremely complex system, and it was largely thanks to this that the city survived, relatively unchanged, occupation by Assyrians, Persians and Macedonians: no-one could actually run the place without letting the existing civil service do it for them. And China, of course, had an incredibly sophisticated civil service dating back at least to the Han period.
If this all sounds dull for a fantasy story, it shouldn’t. Details of the political system and the running of the realm won’t necessarily be in the foreground of the tale, but hints that it’s there will not only make the whole thing seem more real, it also opens up the opportunity to have a huge amount of fun with background characters and incidents. Politicians and civil servants aren’t going to be that much different from the ones we know and... well, know.
I’ve tried to give some ideas of how political systems have usually tended to work in real history, but there are always oddities, like Sparta, which had two kings who were essentially war-leaders, a council of elders who actually ran the state, and an essentially standing army who were its powerhouse. Pretty much any political system you can think of could well be tried. You want a country that’s run each day only by the people born at the same phase of the moon, so the government changes on a daily basis? Go for it, and see how it works. The more inventive, the better; but remember history, and learn what kind of things any political system is likely to need to make it work.