Kings and peasants in fantasy
This seems to be quite a popular subject of the moment, and I attended panels at both Loncon3 and at the British Fantasy Convention a month later, tackling the same subject – namely, why do so many people write about royalty, and not about ordinary folk.
Of course, there are (great) novels out there with characters ranging from peasants and beggars, through farmers and healers, but it is also true that a far higher proportion of fantasy novels feature royalty, (whether they know they are or not at the outset).
Again I found the slant of discussion depended greatly on the make up of the panel, with the Loncon panel coming out heavily on the side of ‘isn’t it about time we all stopped writing about kings?’. Of course this had something to do with the title of the discussion: ‘Meet the New King, Same as the Old King – Why is fantasy so often about making the world better by getting the rightful king on the throne, rather than doing away with the monarchy entirely? Where are all the revolutions?’
As the writer of a series all about kings, princes, princesses and royal bastards, I was a bit taken aback by the prevailing attitude of ‘royalty has had its day, why don’t we write about the ordinary people?’ They seemed to be strongly implying that my favourite type of fantasy is outmoded, outdated and should be scrapped in favour of more socialist-oriented works.
Now I’m happy to read about any great character, regardless of class or status, but I have no interest in reading ‘socially acceptable’ books just for the sake of political correctness.
So it came as a breath of fresh air when the panel at BFC, entitled ‘A Working Class Hero is something to read?’, approached this with a much more (to my mind) open discussion. The remit was to discuss: ‘fantasy often focuses on characters at the extreme ends of society, but is frequently written by middle-class authors, who bring their middle class assumptions to their princes and peasants’.
It began with a poll of both panellists and audience to determine perceptions of which class everyone considered themselves to belong to. The split was fairly even between working class and middle class, and it was apparent that most considered that there was a fair degree of mobility possible these days between classes. This led to the question, then, that perhaps so many people write about royalty as a form of rags to riches wish fulfilment.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Let’s not forget all those little girls out there who want to be princesses – I’ll bet they haven’t had any thoughts about class enter their heads yet; they just want the pretty frocks and tiaras – and possibly the pony too…
However, out of this came my favourite quote from this discussion, paraphrased from George Orwell:
‘The lower class are disenfranchised and so don’t even think about change. The middle class want change for everybody, while the upper class don’t what change at all, because they have everything they want already.’
Just about sums it up, doesn’t it?
In summary, from those panellists who read High Fantasy (and most of those who consider themselves ‘working class’ simply said they would just not read that sort of novel, so trying to write characters to please them would be futile, as they wouldn’t consider reading the book in the first place), the general feeling was that High Fantasy is more often about high stakes, and killing kings has far greater consequences than killing peasants/foot soldiers/farmers (unless, of course, they happen to be secret royalty).
A hilarious alternative example of high stakes was – can you imagine Sam fighting Shelob, if the spider had been of normal size??? Go on, picture it…
And a final point, which left me very satisfied and happy to continue writing about kings, queens, princes and princesses:
GAME OF THRONES would hardly be the same without the kings, now would it?
How about you? Are you happy reading about royalty, or do you prefer to immerse yourself in characters whose lives are perhaps more easy to identify with?