Fantasy and Politics

It’s election time here in the United States, a presidential election year, too, and even non-political blogsters are succumbing to the temptation to say something about the ritualized and mostly non-lethal civil war that possesses the nation every four years. Can I be the only one to resist? (No — my friend Christi Killien at Farmlet remains above the fray so far, so I wouldn’t be the only one. Apparently she will be.)

I shall dive in, but in a disciplined way, and remain focused as best as possible on the twin themes of fantasy storytelling and spirituality that define this blog. No mention of current political contests even if Mr. Romney’s campaign does seem to be composing a fantasy.

Ahem.

What is politics? And how does it relate to fantasy or to spirituality? Let’s deal with politics and fantasy in this post. I’ll have another post later to cover spirituality and politics.

Politics is the making and implementing of collective decisions and the resolution of conflicts within a society by means short of the shedding of blood. Every society has politics even when it doesn’t have formal government. Politics is: All these people are living together in one place and interacting. There are things they have to do collectively all together and somehow they have to come to a decision about what things to do and how to organize it. Also, they don’t always get along, and somehow we have to resolve any conflicts that arise before they beat each other up or worse. The only human (or quasi-human) beings that don’t need politics are those that either live all alone as hermits or have a perfect telepathic interaction so that they form a single mind.

Fantasy writing must ask many questions of politics, although not as much as science fiction, for which the central theme is almost always political. The central theme of fantasy is almost always religious or spiritual, but politics remains an important part of world-building just the same. The politics of a fantasy world should work well with the circumstances of life for the characters who live in it. Circumstances relevant to determining the type of politics present in a world include:

  1. Civilized or not? That is, do the people of your world live in cities and practice agriculture or are they primitive hunter-gatherers? In the latter case, no formal government will exist, but there will still be politics practiced informally.
  2. How widespread is literacy? This depends in turn on whether the world has developed printing. A world without printing is unlikely to have widespread literacy unless it has some workable substitute. (The Roman Republic, for instance, had armies of slaves to copy books out. One could also posit a magical substitute for printing in a fantasy world.) A world in which most people are illiterate is also a world in which the participants in political decisions constitute a literate elite; such a world is incompatible with democracy and demands some type of oligarchy, monarchy, or dictatorship. Widespread literacy makes for widespread desire to participate in political decisions.
  3. How fast do people move? Also: How fast does information travel? If the highest speed for both personal travel and messages is that of a horse or a sailing ship, you will necessarily have a looser-knit, less centralized politics than if movement is comparable to a modern society or faster. If magical communication is possible at great speed, is this a privilege of a sorcerous elite, or is it widely available to most people? If it’s an elite privilege, who controls the elite? No one (the elite is autonomous)? The king or formal government? The Dark Lord? The Gods? An ancient prophecy that dictates all magic use?

That last brings up a fairly important point. In a fantasy world, the elites and commons may not be the same as in our own reality, just as they have varied over time in our own history. Today, we are ruled largely by a commercial elite defined by business or financial success and wealth. In the pre-industrial past, the elite consisted mostly of great warriors and war leaders or their descendants. In both eras, an educated elite of professionals coexisted with the main one: priests and religious leaders, government bureaucrats, scholars and philosophers. In some societies, e.g. Medieval Europe and ancient India, the professional class (clergy, Brahmins) were ostensibly of higher status than the military elite (nobles, Kshatrya), but then we must remember that they were the ones writing all this and may have credited themselves with more influence than they really possessed.

Politics in a fantasy world must of course take into account the fantasy elements as well as the mundane ones. If magic is strong and openly practiced, an elite of magicians may completely eclipse the warriors or exist alongside it, or may openly or secretly change the course of events in a modern, high-tech society as well. The existence in the world of gods, devils, and super-beings or of quasi-human races will also have political implications. The rule of thumb in all cases is that the political system in any world — including a fantasy world — must flow naturally from the circumstances in which the people find themselves. Otherwise you end up with anachronism. You can’t have an absolute monarchy in a modern, high-tech world, for example, because literacy and access to information are too widely spread for that and people won’t tolerate it. You might have a world in which the ultimate ruler is a god — but even then, it would not be identical to the absolute monarchies of our history.

Politics arises in my work in progress, Goddess-Born, in the form of a revolution. Part of this flows from mundane reality. The Kingdom of Grandlock has progressed in technology to the point where its monarchy and hereditary aristocracy have become unsustainable anachronisms. Noble privilege is driving farmers off their land, putting people out of work, and creating widespread hardship. The country is ripe for an overthrow of the government and in the normal course of things would struggle its way towards a democratic republic of some sort — but the emerging power of the magicians and the machinations of the Old Gods are both in play, and will inevitably divert that normal course of events.

In all cases, the politics of a society should flow logically from its material, magical, and other circumstances. It should seem natural and proper for the society. That’s part of the art of world building.

Image credit: alexmit / 123RF Stock Photo

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2 Comments

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

2 responses to “Fantasy and Politics

  1. A most interesting blog, Brian, especially since you mention my blog Farmlet.:) And it’s true, I haven’t addressed the national presidential election except in the episode “Raccoon Road” when we’re having a conversation with Minuteman on the road, whose truck has a Nobama sticker. We don’t vote the same way as Minuteman most of the time…

    To some, Farmlet IS a fantasy world, which is why they read it every week. It’s goats and chickens and crops and that is not their reality. But even in our Farmlet microcosm of a world (a mile-long rural dirt road with 25 households) which is somewhat civilized and literate, we practice politics informally every day. The elites in the Farmlet fantasy are yours truly and my husband the Bearded One. We don’t commute to outside jobs and we fill the potholes on the road. We are present and we know everyone on the road. This gives us power.

    And you’re right, when people are literate and pay attention, power plays by special interests are quashed, even though the groups might cause a lot of trouble before they fade away…as Farmlet readers know because I’ve alluded to the historical Paving War that occurred on our road 6 years ago.

    The existence of all the wild and domesticated animals on our road has political implications, too, like when a cougar was spotted, we put up a Cougar In The Area sign, and a neighbor who is trying to sell their house objected. The cougar wasn’t trying for a coup, he was just passing through, but his presence caused a conflict on several levels…which is politics…and was resolved quickly with a few Facebook messages and promises to take the sign down after the weekend.

    Like you, Brian, I remain focused on a theme — the theme of our farm life — but politics is alive and well. Thanks for the mention.:)

  2. An excellent time to post something relating to literary politics (and, as you’ve seen, I’ve fallen prey to the temptation to post about politics as well…but not in as structured and intelligent a way as you have!). I’ve noticed many of my teenage peers trying so hard to write fantasy short stories, novellas, what have you, and almost all of them fail – mostly because they don’t consider, among other things, how they’re going to structure their political system. As you say, it is indeed part of the art of world-building – and one of my favorite aspects, honestly 🙂

    Once again, I enjoyed stopping by!

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