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Friday, April 20, 2012

A to Z: Royalty

Kings and Queens, Dukes and Duchesses, Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies, Czars and Czarinas, and to an extent, Presidents and First Ladies. If there's one thing about humans, it's that we sure do love our Royalty.

Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922), "A little prince likely in time to bless a royal throne"

The concept of royalty is almost impossible to escape, even in our democratic, pseudo-egalitarian society. Royalty commands an enormous level of fascination for us all, to the point where we are endlessly fascinated by real-life royalty in countries that have it; we have royalty figures in our public life and entertainment worlds; and royalty is an extremely common theme or facet in just about all of our storytelling. Why is this?

Well, I'm sure that rivers of ink could, and probably have, been used in the explorations of the anthropology of our continual fascination with the concept of royalty and in the specifics of its practice. I'd assume part of it is some fascination with authority figures -- for the same reason that lots of stories set on ships, either sea or space, focus on the Captains -- and our hopes that those who are high above in terms of societal importance are living lives that are filled with their own problems and difficulties. I also suspect that's why writers gravitate to those types of characters, too: because you can really work in some conflict when normal human concerns have consequences that affect nations, or star systems, or even worse. (And I'm no different -- I've just finished the draft of a novel about space princesses!)

But we also like glamour and pomp and ritual and that sort of thing as well, which following royalty provides in abundance. I think that's a big part of why there was such a large American audience for last year's wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton; I think that ritual of that sort is pretty appealing on a very basic level. Even in this American democracy, we have pomp and ritual surrounding the Presidency. There's a march that's played for the entry of the President, and there's ritual involved in installing a President every four years, including a sacred oath.

Will we ever be without royalty, or some form of royal impulse? I suspect that our tendency toward royalty is something that makes us very human. I can't see a humanity that has totally divorced itself from fascination with those who drive our society, and if we do attain that, I'm not sure we won't still be human but rather something else.

In fantasy, a common meme is that of a 'rightful King'. The realm was once in a Golden Age, but something happened to the King or Queen at that point -- a tragedy, perhaps, or maybe some kind of error of personal morality -- and the Golden Age ends. The Kingdom suffers because the King has not returned to take his throne, or because the King has not atoned for his sins, and so on. In The Lord of the Rings, Gondor has remained Kingless since Isildur fell, and as a result, the realm has become weaker and weaker, until Aragorn can, as rightful King, set things right. In The Lion King, all is well in the Pridelands until Scar kills his brother the King and usurps his throne; only Simba's return can again put things right. And when King Arthur commits the act (under sorcerous duress, but he does it all the same) of bedding his half-sister and then killing the children to prevent the fruit of that union from coming back to haunt him, the realm suffers to such a degree that Arthur decides that only the Holy Grail can put things aright, so he sends the Knights of the Round Table to find it.

Thus it often is that the land itself is seen as tied to its Royalty. This conceit is a very, very old trope in storytelling, and it shows the ongoing potency of the very concept of Royalty.

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