The Good King
Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies with kings, emperors, and aristocracies? The reasons include the appeal of colorfulness; stability; personal loyalty; and individual agency. But we can only concede such power if the king is characterized by virtues such as humility and selflessness.
I began to wonder some years back about the curious preference for monarchy in futuristic settings. In the world at large, monarchies have been retreating in favor of republics and democracies, at least in theory, since 1776. Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies—and fantasy writers, all societies—with kings, emperors, and aristocracies?
We can pass lightly over the old-time, pulp-type stories where royal rule is merely part of the local color: Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) with its Osnomian royal families. Here, like flashing swords and exotic costumes, monarchy is simply part of a deliberately anachronistic setting. Similarly in high fantasy, where aristocracy comes naturally in the typical pseudo-medieval milieu.
But we see royal or aristocratic governments in more modern stories too. Asimov’s Foundation stories are centered around a Galactic Empire. (Since that series was based on Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Empire was inevitable.) Similarly in Star Wars, which draws heavily on Asimov. Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history has a First and a Second “Empire of Man.” David Weber’s heroine Honor Harrington serves the “Star Kingdom of Manticore” (later “Star Empire”), modeled closely on England around 1810. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga contains a number of polities with different forms of government, but many of the stories focus on Barrayar, which has an Emperor. Anne McCaffrey’s popular Pern series has no monarch, but has two parallel aristocracies (the feudal Holders and the meritocratic dragonriders). It got to the point where I began to feel a decided preference for avoiding monarchical or imperial governments in SF storytelling.
The Lure of Kingship
There’s something that attracts us in royalty—or we wouldn’t see so much of it. As a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, I was as moved as anyone by the return of the true King. I asked myself why. If I don’t even approve of kingship in theory, why am I cheering for Aragorn?
The reasons we’re drawn to monarchy seem to include—
- Kings are colorful.(So are princesses.)
- Personal loyalty
- Individual agency
The first point is obvious, but the others are worth examining.
It’s been pointed out that even in a constitutional government, a monarch provides a symbolic continuity that may help to hold a nation together. British prime ministers may come and go, but Queen Elizabeth is always there. (Literally, at least within my lifetime.) This gives some plausibility to the idea of a future society's returning to monarchy.
Something like this stabilizing function is behind commoner Kevin Renner’s half-embarrassed harangue to Captain Rod Blaine, future Marquis of Crucis, in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye: “maybe back home we’re not so thick on Imperialism as you are in the Capital, but part of that’s because we trust you aristocrats to run the show. We do our part, and we expect you characters with all the privileges to do yours!” (ch. 40)
Unfortunately, relying on the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats doesn’t always work out well. It depends on who they are. For every Imperial Britain, there’s a North Korea. When the hereditary succession breaks down, you get a War of the Roses or Game of Thrones.
Too much depends on getting the right monarch. By the law of averages, it doesn’t take long before you get a bad ruler, whether by inheritance or by “right of conquest”—and you’re up the well-known creek.
Personal loyalty appeals to us more strongly than loyalty to an institution. One can pledge allegiance to a state—but even the American Pledge of Allegiance starts with a symbol: the flag, and then “the Republic for which it stands.” Loyalty to an individual moves us more easily.
This kind of loyalty doesn’t have to be to a monarch. Niven & Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty explores how loyalty among, and to, a trusted group of managers can form a stronger bond than the mere institutional connections of a typical modern bureaucracy. One can be faithful to family (the root of the hereditary element in kingship), to friends, or even an institution or a people. But it’s easiest with an individual. This loyalty is the basis for the stability factor above.
The vast machinery of modern government sometimes seems to operate entirely in the abstract, without real people involved. “Washington said today . . .”
In fact it’s always people who are acting. But it’s easier to visualize this when you have a single person to focus on. “When Grant advanced toward Richmond . . .” In the extreme case, we have the ruler who claims to embody the state in his own person: “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France).
In a fascinating 2008 essay, Jo Walton quotes Bujold on political themes in SF: “In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.” A science fiction character is frequently involved in effecting a revolution, facing down a potential dictator, or establishing a new order—exercising autonomous power. Walton links this notion of political agency to the fact that SF illustrates change: “SF is the literature of changing the world.” The world-changers can be outsiders, or they can be the rulers themselves—as in a number of the examples above.
It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to characters who act outside the normal rules. We (especially Americans, perhaps) are fond of the idea that good people can act in ways that are untrammeled by the usual conventions. I’ve already mentioned Robin Hood. And the whole concept of the superhero—the uniquely powerful vigilante who can be relied on to act for the good—is powered by this attraction.
But this idealization of individual initiative is also dangerous. It can only work if the independent agent is seriously and reliably good: virtuous, in the classical sense of virtue as a well-directed “habit” or fixed character trait. Even then, we may be reluctant to give any hero unlimited power. Too much is at stake if it goes wrong.
The Rule of Law
Our admiration for the powerful ruler is always in tension with our dedication to the rule of law: "a government of laws, not of men," in the well-known phrase attributed to John Adams. We can see this as far back as Aristotle: “law should rule rather than any single one of the citizens. And following this same line of reasoning . . . even if it is better that certain persons rule, these persons should be appointed as guardians of the laws and as their servants.” (Politics book III, ch. 16, 1287a)
No human being can be trusted with absolute authority. This is the kernel of truth in the aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But we can’t get along without entrusting some power to someone. When we do, it had better be someone who’s as trustworthy as possible.
The Ideal of the Good King
Thus the true king must be a virtuous person—a person of real excellence. This is the ideal of an Aragorn or a King Arthur, whose return we’re moved to applaud (even against our better judgment). (It should be obvious that the same principles apply to the good queen—or emperor, empress, princess, prince: the leader we follow. But I’ll continue using “king” for simplicity’s sake.)
What virtues do we look for in a good monarch—aside from the obvious ones of justice, wisdom, courage, self-control?
If the ruler or rulers are going to be “servants of the laws,” they require humility. A king who serves the law can’t claim to be its master. Arrogance and hubris are fatal flaws in a ruler. For example, we should always beware of the leader who claims he can do everything himself and is unable to work with others.
The good king is also selfless—seeking the common good of the people, not his own. Self-aggrandizement is another fatal flaw.
In effect, what we’re looking for is a ruler who doesn’t want to rule: a king who believes in the sovereignty and the excellence of common people.
It’s significant that Aragorn, our model of the good king, is introduced in LotR as “Strider,” a scruffy stranger smoking in a corner of a common inn. Even when he’s crowned in victory, he remembers to exalt the humble. The movie has him tell the four hobbits, “You kneel to no one.” Tolkien’s text is more ceremonious: “And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand . . . he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned . . . and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying: ‘Praise them with great praise!’” (Book VI, ch. 4, p. 232)
We see the same essential humility and selflessness in other admirable leaders, kings or not: Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the revolutionary princess in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy; Niven & Pournelle’s Rod Blaine; Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels; “Dev” Logan, head of Omnitopia Inc. in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn—the unpretentious opposite of the “imperial CEO.” America was fortunate enough to have such an example in the pivotal position of first President, George Washington.
At the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous person to trust is an unprincipled and unscrupulous autocrat—someone convinced of his personal superiority and infallibility. Giving power to an individual who has no interest in serving the common good, but only in self-aggrandizement, puts a nation in subjection to a Putin, a Mussolini, a Kim Jong-un.
The antithesis of the good king is the tyrant, who, however innocently he may start out, figures in our stories mainly as the oppressor to be overthrown. It’s much better, if possible, to intercept such a potentially ruinous ruler before the tyranny comes into effect: Senator Palpatine before he becomes Emperor, Nehemiah Scudder before he wins his first election. Allowing the tyrant to gain power may make for good stories, but it generates very bad politics.
If we must have strong leaders, then in real life as well as in stories, character is key—and hubris is deadly.
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