Monday, 7 November 2016

Who gets your vote – Sauron or Cersei? (The intriguing matter of politics in fantasy)

Everyone's either talking about politics, or trying to avoid talking about politics. It's a tricky subject. One that can bring on a rash. I know. I'm still itching from a recent dinner party (yes, sometimes I attend these sophisticated soirees – very adult of me) in which a political discussion got rather heated. That well-regarded rule 'never talk about religion or politics' is there for a good reason it turns out.

But there is one place where politics is safe and infinitely intriguing to contemplate – in the world of fantasy fiction.

Politics in fantasy – so intriguing!
One of the reasons many of us enjoy fantasy is because of the pure escapism, but it offers more than just a flight from reality. Fantasy allows us to hold a different lens through which to view some of the challenges we face here on Earth in our day-to-day life with the other 'mundanes' (as Terry Brooks would say). And politics is one of those challenges.

Political systems, political intrigue, quests for power and rule, are essential threads in the rich tapestry of fantasy fiction. Let's have a look at some of the main political threads or tropes that commonly arise in fantasy – rash free.

The battle for the throne

The king is dead, long live the king! It's a popular political provocation in both 'real' history and fantasy. The king dies, and what follows is a long war to place a successor on the throne. So, let me think – a fantasy story with the battle for the throne at its very core? Now what would that be? Ah, yes. Of course! The book I reviewed last week. T.L. Greylock's The Blood-Tainted Winter, begins with the death of the king, and what follows is bloody unrest in the quest to crown the next sucker king. Or there's that other little know fantasy, A Game of Thrones. Viserys, Daenerys, Stannis, Renly, Rob, Joffrey, Tommen, Roose, Cersei, Balon, Ramsay, Margaery. Jon... how many will perish before a successor wins the seat of power in King's Landing?

Such a thread displays humanity's raw thirst for power in all its ugly reality. The levels to which some sink to gain power is appalling in the extreme, but, while it's (sadly) hardly fantasy, it is in fantasy stories that we can fully appreciate this hunger for power for what it is, and doesn't it intrigue us!

Cersei's hunger for power know no bounds. Go on, watch it again ;)

The evil dark lord who must be destroyed

Okay, this one sails so close to 'real life' it's depressing. We could stretch right back to Nero, or look as recently as Mugabe. Fact is, planet 'real life' has had its share of scaremongering, genocidal, corrupt leaders. But, let's focus on this guy:

That first episode of this season's The Walking Dead was one of the most gut-wrenching television experiences I've ever had. If Negan's not obliterated by the season's end, well, I'll be writing a letter of complaint – yeah, the big guns.

Needless to say, from Darth Vader to Sauron, we love to see the big bad guy get it in the end.

The secret underground network of thieves and spies

"I'll be wearing a red carnation. (Wink, wink.)" While Kings, Queens and the royal court jostle for power within the confines of diplomacy, etiquette and tradition, frequently the underground realms make or break them. The fantasy world that most epitomises this for me, is one of my favourite new series. The Bone Mask trilogy by Ashley Capes, capitalises on this notion of the underground, and how a network of spies pull the strings of power from below. The ruling palace is a veritable warren of dark, secret tunnels that only the mysterious Mascare know about. They walk about masked, wearing red robes and accessing an ancient magic. Coupled with an underground crime network ruled by the duplicitous 'Water Rat', the series is full of clandestine layers, ridden with twists and turns, and makes for an exciting read.

Capes' series begins with City of Masks

Magic user as political advisor

From Gandalf the Grey to Melisandre the red woman, a cherished trope in fantasy is the all-knowing sorcerer as king's advisor. It is not a case of vicarious rule, or this well-worn thread wouldn't wash. No, there are limits to the sorcerer's influence, and sometimes mistakes are made which cause havoc for the leader (just think about poor old Stannis). But the mystique imbued in the advice from the magic user is a real draw card for fantasy fiction fans.

"I've seen it in the flames."

Lowly commoner, or strange outsider, are actually next in line to the throne! Seriously!

What immediately springs to mind with this one is farm boy Garion in David Eddings' The Belgariad. A simple orphaned farm boy winds up being the big kahuna – King of Riva and Overlord of the West (sorry for the spoiler). Then we have Strider, of course (The Lord of the Rings), who skulks around as a ranger in the woods but is veritable royalty and is crowned King of Gondor and Arnor. This trope is perhaps more cliché than any of the others discussed so far, and more in danger of ridicule these days. But I think there's still room to explore it further in fantasy. Let's face it, the whole rags to riches idea remains an interesting concept.

Strider. Pssst, he's royalty!

The exploration of class structure

Politics is all about power, and class structures serve the powerful. Fantasy is renowned for its presentation and exploration of the concept of what it means to be a peasant or a princess in a society structured through class. Though, how credible such exploration may or may not be is debatable. I tend to agree with George RR who laments:
"...that’s another of my pet peeves about fantasies. The bad authors adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages; where you had the royalty and then you had the nobility and you had the merchant class and then you have the peasants and so forth. But they don’t’ seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl. He would have put her in the stocks and then had garbage thrown at her...
...the class structures in places like this had teeth. They had consequences. And people were brought up from their childhood to know their place and to know that duties of their class and the privileges of their class. It was always a source of friction when someone got outside of that thing."
Couldn't have put it better myself, George!

As a final note, if you haven't seen this video yet, have yourself a chuckle. Perhaps voting would be easier if we were to imagine our political candidates in King's Landing or Middle Earth and ponder who we'd vote for in that scenario.

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