NobLes Oblige: State Formation in Fantasy Settings Pt.1 – Musings
Good day, dear reader. After gnashing my teeth a bit at the recent Virginia legislation (which I will not rehash, as my fellow Leaguers have done the heavy work), I have decided to focus on something a bit more light-hearted to start this week. I’d like to tackle the subject of state formation in fantasy settings. I hope to flesh this out over several parts over the next several weeks, and this post will serve as a general sketch pad from which I’ll develop more nuanced analysis. Shall we take a gander through my mental doodle pad?
TYPICALLY ATYPICAL? States in Fantasy
As the picture above illustrates, the prototypical fantasy state is the absolutist feudal monarchy. The level of absolutism and monarchical control will change (from the strength of Elessar’s reunited kingdoms, to the civil war plagued Westerloos) but the tradition is firmly rooted in the concept of a king, some lords (usually with unnamed titles) and then retainers beneath them. For the most part they are largely mono-cultural states with one dominant ethnic group and language.
When we see multicultural empires, they are almost always the symbol of a declining or decadent society, hollow within and crumbling without. This is of course understandable to an extent. Fantasy literature still works from a context of western history, specifically western Europe from around the 11th to 15th centuries. England, France and the monarchies of Spain work as excellent models, with the occasional dabbling into the teutonic forests if we need religious persecution. The Arabic empires might figure on the periphery or a villainous other, with the occasional conceit thrown in for some eastern civilization named rather offensively in a volume like the Forgotten Realms’ Oriental Adventures.
I concede that here I’ve gone off into the weeds. This series isn’t going to be about the pathologies in the genre, or the narrow historicity. The general point of going down this road is to examine what passes for a “state”.
For the purposes of this discussion then, we will create the “typical” fantasy state. It’s a monarchy, with smaller steadholders linked to the crown in a feudal structure. It is generally rigid in class lines, with land ownership being the main decider of wealth. The territory is contiguous, and it has one major ethnic identity. How does such a state happen?
Plumbing the Origins
In fantasy worlds of the Tolkienesque high fantasy mold, humanity is generally a newcomer. Humans are a “younger” race, created after the initial races screwed up in some fashion. Their origin stories are relatively straight forward, and they came about with their intelligence and perhaps with some basic knowledge of languages, agriculture and smithing intact.
Thus we have distinct human tribal groupings created rather whimsically by whatever force rules this world. Thus is removed one of the great historical debates on what leads to the creation of societies and states. The knowledge that humanity possesses is one that a greater force has provided for it. This may be many thousands of years in the past, but for the most part, there is a continuity to the forms of government and the identities of the created groups.
In some variations of this “divine structure” narrative, we also have the added bonus of there being distinct lineages of humans that are better suited to rule. Whether this is because they live longer (such as the Numenorians) or can use some sort of magical ability that others do not possess, is immaterial. The fact of the matter is, in almost all sorts of fantasy, people are not created equal. A loosely defined divine order exists. Whether or not humanity wants to conform to this structure is often part of the plotline, but in general the state structure becomes a mirror of this divine order.
States and Their Purpose
As a mirror for the divine ordering of the universe, the states in fantastic settings are often an embodiment of order. They are there primarily to serve as a tool for enforcing some sort of structure into the constant of power vacuums: anarchy. In short we have fundamental, weberian states and as a general rule, the primary purpose of a state is to have the power to gather lots of swords and stab lots of bad guys.
We occasionally hear about the administration or governance of these same states, but this is a secondary function. The end goal of the state itself is to serve as an appendage to the monarch’s ability to wield violence. Thus, the structures of state are generally fixated on martial matters. Courtiers exist, but they are there to make the administration of the giant military machine work.
And so we come to the following conclusion: The primary purpose of a state in fantastic settings is to centralize (however loosely we define the term) the use of violence.
L’Etat c’est Magie? Magic Making States
The one wild card of course, is the position of magic. How magic is used and how abundant it is, can make or break the scale of states in fantasy. We can contrast two very epic, but very different fantasy settings for this purpose. The world in the Malazan Book of the Fallen is a high magic world, and as a result we have a sprawling multinational empire trying to gobble up its neighbors. Comparatively the scale in something like A Song of Fire and Ice is smaller. Because magic has been dormant for so long, it simply doesn’t influence how the state operates. As a consequence, we have a very classic feudal-England feel in the Westeroos, complete with twincest;
So Where to Next?
Of course this is all very much a generic “what to think about” regarding how a fantasy world ought to come into state formation. The next post, will deal with the question of state formation using an empirical world building process.
See how Nob came up with this map here:
In addition to how this one was developed: