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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sword and Sorcery fantasy: Not a bastion of democracy

I have previously posted on what is sometimes called Sword and Sorcery fantasy. That is, fantasy works set in pre-gunpowder societies, where bows and arrows and swords are the most common weapons, and where some sort of magic is used by some of the characters.

I am copying my list of favorite sword and sorcery fantasy works from the previous post:
"The Lord of the Rings"works by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander
The Narnia books by C. S. Lewis
Works by Juliet Marillier
The Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Chalion novels, and the Sharing Knife tetralogy, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Most of the works of Patricia McKillip

These books, I believe, are all important, and have influenced other authors of fantasy works.

I'm sure that the observation is not being made for the first time, but I'll say it. The worlds used in these books do not have lands with democratic governments. There are rulers, almost always hereditary rulers, in these books.

In Tolkien's trilogy, Aragorn re-establishes a long line of hereditary kings of Gondor. Rohan also has hereditary rulers. In addition to the kings, or equivalents, in these human domains, there are also hereditary rulers among the elves and the dwarves. True, the hobbits seem to have a sort of society of equal opportunity, probably even electing some officials. But the appendices of the trilogy, and the other books, published after them, but about earlier times, have little to say about hobbits, but lots to say about elves and men.

Paksenarrion's deed is to place a king, a king with royal blood, on the throne.

In the Prydain books, an assistant pig-keeper becomes king. But the assistant pig-keeper has royal ancestry.

There is a line of hereditary rulers in the Narnia books.

There are clan chiefs in Marillier's works, and they seem to be hereditary.

There are kings in the Earthsea books. Arren, who has royal blood, takes the main throne, in Havnor, at the end of The Farthest Shore.

The Chalion books have hereditary kingships. The Sharing Knife works do not. There are leaders among the Lakewalkers, but they seem to get their positions on merit. The Farmers don't have kings.

McKillip's books have kings, or hereditary leaders with other titles.

Why kings? Why so little evidence of democracy? One answer is that Sword and Sorcery books are closely related to the human past, and most human societies of the past had hereditary rulers. Another is that fantasy of this type has had some influential English authors, and, of course, England, even today, has hereditary rulers. Is that a valid reason? I'm not sure. Moon, Alexander, Le Guin, Bujold and McKillip have mostly lived in the U. S. (Mariller is from New Zealand and Australia, and Lewis and Tolkien were English.)

I don't have a really good explanation, but it is interesting to muse about the relationship between Sword and Sorcery fantasy and the lack of democracy.

Thanks for reading.

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