Pick up a fantasy book at random and odds are, there will be royalty in the story. A sneering prince looking down on the commoners, a king or queen struggling with the burden of their responsibilities, a princess doing her best to play the role expected of her whilst plotting in the shadows the ways of earning true power. What is the obsession with royalty in fantasy? Why do writers feel the urge to use these characters in their stories?
The birth of fantasy is a topic debated frequently by its readers. Whilst there are arguments for different starting points for the much-loved genre, it is clear that it has strong links to the fairytales that many of us grew up with; fairytales that stem from medieval times with dark castles, kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Fantasy’s obsession with royalty goes hand in hand with its love of the Middle Ages. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe fell into a decline known as the Dark Ages. It was a time of chaos: war and bloodshed, plague and depression. It was grim as hell. The perfect period for writers to mine for ideas in the hope of creating conflict and drama. Throughout it all, monarchies rose and fell. Beheadings, hangings, treaties, alliances… the Dark Ages had it all. Whilst the Islamic world was going through a Golden Age, Western Europe’s Dark Ages inspired some of the greatest writers in western literature, and the lives of the kings and queens of this period were full of intrigue and scandal.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is famously influenced by the War of the Roses – civil wars fought in England between the houses of Lancaster and York. He had read history books about the important events but wanted his story to focus on the juicy parts: the war, betrayal, assassinations, and murder. His fascination with the history of the kings and queens of that period even led to him compiling his own history book of the Targaryens aptly titled Fire and Blood which is soon to be a series on HBO.
One of Martin’s inspirations, JRR Tolkien, looked to the mythos of Britain and was inspired by elements of King Arthur and his infamous legend (though he found it all too connected to Christianity for his liking and ended up developing his own story with its own cultures, languages, and mythos – he was quite successful with it too…) and William Shakespeare lived through the transition of Elizabeth I’s death and her enemy’s son, James I, taking the throne. Shakespeare was able to see the workings of the royal family and felt the pressure of leading an organization called the King’s Men, working to produce incredible plays that needed to be performed nightly. His work during this time is interesting in that through plays like King Lear, he looks at the effect of a divided Britain. His work becomes a warning without being hollow propaganda. A clever move, as King James was king of both Scotland and England at the time. Whether writing about the monarchy, or for the monarchy, it is clear to see that some of the greatest writers have been inspired by those in power.
That’s the key component: power. The stories we read often involve characters with power, and characters without power. This divide can be what drives the story – the goal can be for a character without power to obtain it. Stories with royalty allow for that epic scope. They lead whole nations, call for armies to head into battle, and require men and women to die for their country. Adding royalty often creates plots that lead to world-changing events.
Peter McLean’s War for the Rose Throne gives a thrilling example of what happens to a person when they gain power. Starting with Priest of Bones, the character Thomas Piety returns from war to rebuild his criminal empire. There are different levels of power that Piety either achieves or witnesses throughout the story and it is the power of McLean’s writing from Piety’s perspective that gives the reader an insight into his incredible worldbuilding. When the story moves to the capital, Piety witnesses power on another level. People in the capital feign reverence to the Queen knowing that it is important to at least be seen to be fawning over the monarch. Those who do not are often taken away and never seen again or used as an example to ensure the masses obey.
This social construct of subjects having to be seen obeying a monarch draws parallels to Shakespeare’s time and the anxiety people felt when they were uncertain about the balance of power. The powerful using fear to ensure obedience isn’t something confined to the annals of history. It can still be seen today and great writers use such injustices to add depth to their stories and enrich the experience for the readers. Piety is a brilliant character for a reader to follow in this regard. He has lived as a common man. His father’s actions towards him and his brother show the abuse of power within a family. The abuse of power and lack of empathy for their fellow man is shown on a grander scale through the actions of the leaders in Piety’s world. Of course, Piety himself questions his actions when he realizes that he has brought about so much death in his homeland.
Fantasy has its heroic royals. Shining beacons that show us the way things should be done by those with enough power to influence the masses. Lord of the Ring’s Aragorn is a reluctant leader who cares for those around him and would willingly die for them. Princess Leia in Star Wars is a badass leader, unwilling to just wait for others to rescue her and Queen Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones is all kinds of awesome. However, some of the best royals in fantasy, and in grimdark especially, are those leaders who struggle in their role. In King Henry IV Part Two, Shakespeare writes, “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.” It is easy to be envious of kings and queens. Power. Wealth. Powerful alliances. The world seems easy. But fantasy sometimes scratches the surface and shows us what is beneath.
The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie introduces Jezal dan Luther, an arrogant, handsome, smarmy noble who doesn’t realise the privilege he has when he mocks those beneath him. When he is suddenly thrust into the office of king, he feels it is his right to rule. Little does he know that his new role is suffocating with everyone watching his every move, no chance to choose who to speak to, where to go, who to love. Jezal comes to realise that life as a king means sacrifice and that the higher you climb, the more people you serve. By the time readers come to see Jezal years later in the Age of Madness trilogy, he is no longer the charismatic and smart-talking young man we were introduced to. There is a weariness to him, as though the crown is a literal burden weighing him down until he is almost unrecognizable. The burden of power has robbed him of his vibrancy and it is something that Abercrombie delves into even further with his son, Orso. Abercrombie also plays with an idea touched on by McLean, that true power can be wielded from the shadows through fear and manipulation. The scheming Bayaz understands that royals can be killed either by assassins or through revolution. Figureheads are sometimes just the puppets being played by a greater master.
Great stories take characters on a journey. They change. They evolve. Characters rise and fall and it is easy to see that when reading about royalty. Whether it is characters overcoming obstacles to rise to the position of king or queen, or royalty falling and learning to live away from the trappings of their former position, it is always interesting to follow them on that journey and see how the characters behave when their lives change so much. It is the study of power and the lack of it. Human history is one of conflict and the struggle for power. Fantasy shines a light on such dynamics. It gives an insight into the corruptive nature of power and the strength needed to shield oneself from it. Tolkien displayed this to perfection in Lord of the Rings and it will be a focus on Amazon Prime’s upcoming The Rings of Power. As a famous character once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is that incredible responsibility that makes regal characters in fantasy so captivating and powerful to readers and writers.