A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about politics in fantasy stories, emphasising how writers can make their worlds more convincing by learning from the politics of history. Though I stand by this, it’s occurred to me that some aspects of fantasy politics are very unlike anything that can be found in history books, and the attitudes of characters and nations to these situations need to be adapted accordingly.
A very obvious example occurs in my own novel, At An Uncertain Hour, in which a war has been going on for a thousand years (1023, to be precise). While this isn’t entirely impossible, it far outstrips anything in real-world history. In European history, for instance, perhaps the longest conflict that could plausibly – though only just – be regarded as a single war would be the Crusades, which lasted overall from 1095 to 1272, although it could be argued that its effects are still being felt today.
The Crusades, of course, weren’t a continuous war. There were lulls of decades, sometimes, although a certain amount of skirmishing would have continued. In the same way, the Hundred Years’ War – actually 116 years, from 1337 to 1453 – was actually a series of conflicts over the same ongoing issue: whether the House of Valois or the House of Anjou had the right to the French crown. The popular perception of this being a war being England and France, incidentally, is misleading in terms of mediaeval thought. It just happened that the House of Anjou also possessed the English crown.
In fact, the thousand-year war I created follows a similar pattern, alternating between periods of intense campaigning and long stretches of watchful peace. However, keeping this up for a millennium is a rather different proposition than a century or two.
What makes the difference, and ensures that the same situation is unlikely ever to arise in our world, is that the two sides are led by the same individuals throughout the whole period. Tolkien has a similar situation in The Silmarillion, where the war between Morgoth and the Elves of Beleriand lasts over five hundred years. The difference here, though, is that not only the leaders, but their subjects too, are immortal – at least, until the arrival of the Edain in Beleriand.
What effect would an immortal leader have on the psychology of their people? In the case of my war, one side is an alliance led – but not ruled – by the Traveller for the whole time. He provides both inspiration and focus to the peoples in the alliance, but many of them, and even more after the war, rationalise this with the assumption that he’s actually a succession of leaders who take the same title.
The other side is an empire, ruled for the best part of three thousand years by the Demon Queen of the South, regarded by many of her subjects as being, for good or ill, a goddess. At one point, the Traveller reflects on how differently he views these time-spans, compared with everyone else he encounters, and comments ruefully:
It was the single most powerful weapon that the Demon Queen had against us, that she was not only a fact of life but a fact of history.
This is, perhaps, not so very unlike some aspects of real-world history, where institutions, if not people, can achieve the same kind of status. It must have seemed impossible, in the fifth century AD, that the Roman Empire could be gone. Indeed, much of the history of western Europe since that time has been a series of attempts to recreate the great European Empire in various guises, including the Holy Roman Empire, the Third Reich and the European Union among many others.
In the same way, to the mediaeval world the Church was the one stable, unchanging reality in an uncertain world. In fact, it was anything but unchanging, but that was how it seemed, and it’s sometimes underestimated what a shock it was to the collective psyche when the Black Death showed the Church to be as helpless as everyone against against such a terrible “Act of God”. Although it took a while, the eventual outcome of that shock was the Reformation.
Still, the knowledge that the same specific person who was your distant ancestors’ ruler or enemy is also yours, and may still be in the same position in the time of your remote descendants – that isn’t the same as an institution. Government will be very different if it’s undertaken by someone who expects still to be in power centuries into the future. So too will the policies of that person’s opponents.
And suppose these people, with their kingdoms, republics, democracies and oligarchies, have to take into account dealing with not only an immortal, but a god? In the real world, whether or not this or that deity actually exists or not, we assume their will is going to be subject to interpretation – something the politicians of every world are good at. Suppose, though, you know for a fact that your god might come stomping down to the senate-house and say, “No, this is what I want, and if you don’t obey, I may just unmake the world.” How might that affect the politicians who have to deal with the situation?
There are no easy answers, of course – it’s up to every writer to solve these questions as she or he sees fit – but knowing what the questions are is important. None of this alters the fact that real-world history can offer valuable templates for the political reality of a fantasy world. It just means that a few other things may have to be taken into account. It is fantasy, after all.