Sacred Kingship in Fantasy (and the Wolf of Wall Street)

As a fantasy writer, I have a chip on my shoulder about monarchies.

There are good reasons for this!  It’s pretty weird for fantasy lit to embrace a form of government that, when it survives at all in the modern day, tends to fall somewhere between a charming affectation and a confusing throwback.  So many books about rightful kings and the return of a grand  sovereign who will Fix Everything.  So many destined heroes and heroines.  Blood royal by the gallon.  And to make matters worse, some fantasy novels consume hundreds of pages taking nuanced and risky political positions like “serfdom is bad” or “maybe some people who are not aristocrats would be good at governing,” which seems to me the political equivalent of singing the Welsh longbow’s praises to the 1st Infantry Division.

Now, the genre’s been veering away from this rock.  The Lies of Locke Lamorra and The Name of the Wind, both wildly successful in the field, have hardly any kings at all.  China Mieville’s fantasies engage with 19th-century through postmodern modes of oppression and government.  The Shattered Pillars is in some ways a restoration-of-the-King fantasy, but one of the central noble characters has explicitly rejected any path to the throne or to aristocratic power generally, and the other spends a lot more of the first book wanting to save his commoner girlfriend than he does thinking about Ascending to the Throne.  Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo isn’t concerned with medieval kingship.  Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death isn’t either, though it’s a postapocalyptic fantasy and doesn’t belong in the same category as the others I’ve listed here.  I have my necromancer-lawyers in a fantasy analogue of late-millennial capitalism.  But still, the issue of kings arises.

I’ve wrestled with this question on and off for years, and this year I ended up on a panel called Why Root for Monarchies?, moderated by Vanessa Layne.  I went in raring for revolution—and then Ms. Layne mentioned that she approached the topic from her background in Jungian analysis.

At which point a lightbulb clicked on in my brain.

Because stories are dreams, in a way.  And we are everyone in our dreams—father, mother, kitten, needle-toothed-monstrosity.  (At least, this is an interpretive framework I’ve found useful.)  When we’re writing about kings, we’re writing about ourselves as kings of ourselves.

Because we are all kings, aren’t we?  Or queens.  Reigning monarchs, whatever our gender.

By which I mean: we stand in the center of our own minds—of our awareness that fills the universe we know (by definition).  The decisions we make every day shape that universe.  When the monarch of our mind is diseased, warped, evil, then the land—the mental land, the soulscape—twists and decays.  When the monarch of our mind is just, upright, generous, and kind, the land calms, and flourishes.  Possibilities grow.  New life enters the world.  Nothing can live in the land of the evil king because the evil king allows nothing to live there—nothing surprising, nothing beautiful, nothing that can flourish or transform or challenge.  The good king welcomes, and so allows growth, transformation, and the full richness of the world.

So a certain kind of spiritual kingship story can be profoundly democratic.  Most of our talk about the Campbellian monomyth and mystic kingship misses this critical point: if the monomyth is an initiation ritual, it’s a ritual which all members of society must undergo.  It’s not something special, a secret marker for kings or tribal leaders; all adults of the tribe walk this path.  To reach adulthood is to be Luke Skywalker, or Arthur, or Aerin-sol.

And when I say all members of society I do mean all.  Monomyth discussion can get weird and gender-essentialist for historically contingent reasons—but I don’t see anything gendered about the need to achieve generative agency in our own minds and lives.

This same kind of logic shows up in Vajrayana Buddhism, too—tantric meditation refigures the adept as an enlightened divine being in the center of a mandala-palace.  Every single adept.  Initiations are large ceremonies: thousands of people are all being told at once, “Envision yourself as a divine being at the center of the universe.”

So, am I giving monarch-apologist fiction a free pass?  No.  The spiritual self-rule I’m talking about (which by the way also plays nice with Christian theology; if you think what I’m describing sounds awfully prideful I humbly submit to you Augustine’s discussion about standing upright in The City of God, not to mention Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor scene from Bros. K) is the absolute reality; secular kingship is the shadow that reality casts on the cave wall.  To play in this territory, stories need to guide the reader away from the shadow, to the reality.  To make Arthur a secular Christ, storytellers gave him a mystic birth, a wizard advisor, draconic signifiers, a magical sword, tragedy and destiny and the Holy Grail and Green Men and all the like precisely because these things were weird.  These are symbols that Arthur exists in the realm of the sublime, of the archetype—White’s “Island of Gramarye” where you and I shall fare.

The funny thing is, because of their success, these same symbols have become so common as to be seen to define a world in which they make sense.  Rather than pointing us away from the cave wall, they posit another cave wall with a slightly different topology and physics.  When the reaction to the phrase “this is a magic sword” is not a feeling of wonder and awe—of being invited into the sublime by an object’s presence— but instead the question “is it more, or less, magic than that guy’s magic sword?” then I think it’s safe to say we’re back from the clouds and rooted once more in the mundane world, no matter how many wizards are whizzing about.

I don’t mean that rules-based high fantasy cannot evoke the sublime; it just has to evoke the sublime in such a way as to signify that something outlandish is taking place even by the standards of an outlandish world.  The Lord of the Rings does this well.  So does Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry.  So do Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea books—Earthsea’s magic is systematized, but by pressing around its edges LeGuin turns us again and again to the sublime.

And, of course, it’s possible to deal with these questions without any literal monarchs whatsoever!  Which brings me to The Wolf of Wall Street.

Wolf presents two opposed versions of adult manhood: Jordan Belfort, introduced riding a white Porche getting a blow job from his supermodel wife, and Patrick Denham, the FBI agent investigating Belfort for fraud.  Belfort’s character is presented as a secular monarch of US culture.  He has the castle, the millions, the everything.  Denham wears a decent suit, and rides the subway to work.  His scenes are tinged a slight gray, with washed-out colors.

Wolf of Wall Street, I think, is a brilliant depiction of the Wasteland of the Evil King.  In Belfort’s world, no one is old.  In Belfort’s world, no one is wise.  In Belfort’s world, there are no black people except for his female housekeeper.  In Belfort’s world, women exist entirely for sex and money laundering—and (this is my favorite bit) he’s not even any good at the sex!  Sexuality defines his physical life and the few times we see him get busy, he’s horrible at it.  Like, fourteen-year-old-boy-in-back-of-Dad’s-Camero, “um-shit-where-does-this-bit-go” horrible.  And at the apex of Belfort’s anti-initiation, the moment of grail-finding in a spiritual kingship narrative?  He finds his Grail, the ur-Quaalude, consumes it and transforms into an infant, unable to speak or walk or even crawl, in one of the best sequences of physical comedy I’ve ever seen in a movie.  For all the lushness of his surroundings, he inhabits a blasted land.  (Come to think, he’s just as bad at drugs as he is at sex!)

The few scenes which we don’t see through Belfort’s eyes we see (with one brief exception) through Denham’s—and these are the only scenes where the movie shows us women who aren’t airbrushed supermodels.  Near the end, we join Denham on the subway; a silent, unsensational minute or two of film in which he reads the paper, sets it down, and sits alongside the usual inhabitants of a New York subway car, old and young, of a range of body types and skin colors and styles of dress and affect.  No one talks, but they are there, being themselves.  No one needs to serve anyone.  The scene transcends in just how uncanny it feels, how different: how much it shows Belfort’s fantasyland for the husk it is.  Denham is the sacred king.  Belfort is doomed to himself.  And the film’s last shot indicts us for how hungry we are for secular kingship, and how little we understand the sacred variety.

In sum: the Monarchies panel reminded me of a symbolic role kingship plays in stories that I’d forgotten.  The role is complicated, though, and it’s not about kingship so much as initiation, ascendancy, and adulthood—about becoming.  Shiny hats might help get the point across, but shiny hat and throne are only trappings of a deeper reality.  The reality deserves our striving.  The trappings don’t deserve much at all, really.


(All that said—I had an awesome time at Arisia.  Great panels, great questions, great thought.  Still recovering, but that’s to be expected.  Thanks to the whole con team, and especially to Shira Lipkin, who organized the Literary track!)


7 Responses to “Sacred Kingship in Fantasy (and the Wolf of Wall Street)”

  1. Michael Alexander

    This is a really cogent look at things I have been obsessed with for any number of years, so I think I have to bring my major qualm about the “spiritual kingship” angle to the table. In the actual societies in which these myths arose, the monomyth-initiation thing does not run only one way, and initiatory systems like Vajrayana Buddhism or full-flower monastic medieval Christianity embody a mindset that sees the deeper reality as a perfectly good justification for celebrating its reflections-as-earthly-hierarchy. That’s where the actual ruling class of Tibet drew its justification, that’s where the Holy Roman Empire got its juice, and it’s not clear to me that there’s anything but praise for that approach in stuff like Pseudodionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy or the endless kaleidoscopic feudal Buddha cosmos of the Avatamsaka Sutra. (plenty of other examples out there, to be sure)

    Further, cultures that WEREN’T feudal in nature didn’t actually produce this kind of kingly-restoration myth in quite the same way: Greeks didn’t write restoration-of-the-kingly-order stories in the Athenian democracy when they were talking about the whole deeper-orders-of-being thing (Platonic Sparta-envy is an exception, but his faction really did want a dictatorship, and attendees of the Academy were almost uniformly the aristocratic class), but they sure did all over their pop culture with the New Comedies in the Hellenistic Age when they were subjects of empire.

    It doesn’t mean I don’t love the form and think it genuinely offers a playground in which to look at the problem of mastering one’s own life, but I continually feel weird about how much feudalism and empire are baked into many of my favorite dreamworlds, even when reimagined with the explicit task of cutting them out.

    • max

      Really good points, Michael.

      Just off the top of my head: we’re dealing with a much heavier historical burden of monarchy and dictatorship than the Greek democrats were when it comes to the symbolic language we’ve developed for talking about spiritual issues. But of course you’re right that historically there’s a lot of overlap and interplay between “folks trying to express spiritual truth.” “folks trying to ingratiate themselves with whoever’s in power,” and “folks with power using metaphorical language and religious symbolism to justify that power.” (Many individuals doing / being all three at once at different times.) That said, initiation societies appear earlier than monopolar regal hierarchy; maybe MRH is just really good at appropriating justifications for itself? (As one would expect of something so apparently unstable!)

      (Though there are also counter-examples, where spiritual traditions appropriate the trappings of MRH to say what they want—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is “The King of Kings” and “The Lord of Hosts” because Darius was, not vice versa.)

      In the last century we’ve dismantled most monarchies’ hold on political power; maybe there’s a spiritual revolution needed? What would a non-monarchist language of self-integration look like? I’m thinking here of Hyperion’s notion of evolving relationships with God….

      Or Captaincy.

      …Holy shit. Is Star Trek the modern initiation language? Star Trek has a ton of features we want in a modern initiation symbology: a step into the unknown (“where no one has gone before!”), the vessel envisioned as an individual who is loved and cared for, the crew cooperating in service of common goals despite (and even because of!) their differences, a commander whose authority is constantly re-earned, and a mission statement that revolves around peace, exploration, discovery, and defense rather than conquest, empire, and exploitation.

      …Huh, I might need to write a whole other blog post to unpack that. Thanks!

  2. Vlad

    Nice post – monarchy came up in a discussion with my mom, who said “I really dislike Dune, it feels like monarchy wish fulfillment!” I always thought that was a strange, but interesting, perspective. Maybe there’s something to that?

    I also like your idea about the different kinds of kings. The spiritual king / spiritual journey metaphor is not one I’ve thought of before, but it makes total sense. I gotta read some Jung one of these days…

    • max

      Yeah—one weakness in this post is that it comes across too much as “stories about monarchy, YEAH!” In fact I’ve been railing against fictional monarchies for years—so much so that this other way of thinking about them, as psychological phenomena rather than as systems of government, came as a big shock. I’m wondering now whether one could find or build a non-monarchist fiction of soul-integration using Journey to the West, Star Trek, and the charismatic-but-fundamentally-peace-loving-hero brand of Shonen Anime (thinking Vash, Spike, Kenshin, and even Jacuzzi from Baccano! here) as models. Or what other approaches to this problem already exist.

      • Michael Alexander

        Here’s one bundle of thought:

        Government and cosmos and map-of-the-psyche seem like very interlinked things in many cultures, because they’re all pictures of “everything.” If “everything” is an orderly picture where everything fits and exactly one thing is on top, I think we’re going to have a problem using it effectively in this very messy global capitalist world we’re in.

        Also, Journey to the West _does_ mess with the monarchical model of character formation, but that’s by including eighty billion different interlocking power and meaning systems all fighting it out all at once. There is totally the Kingdom of Heaven with the Jade Emperor ruling over the zodiac etc etc and the parody-underworld bureaucracy AND the entire Taoist pantheon AND the cosmic Buddhist pantheon, and even though Kuan Yin and Buddha are pretty fierce and come out on top, there is nobody who is in charge all the time, and the scripture pilgrim at the top of the human value system is HELPLESS.

        (This is also what I like about BSG, because nobody in charge has a complete claim to the power they are exercising because society blew up, and they all have some really good ideas and some really terrible ideas, and especially at first the decisionmaking process is a constant interplay and conflict of different kinds of self-assurance and trust and custom and training and sheer faking-it-so-nobody-falls-apart).

        Conversely, there are plenty of countercultural, feminist and New Age examples of people trying to come up with non-monarchical mythoi for literary and spiritual purposes. But just like with Le Guin’s depiction of Anarres, I tend to find them more believable when you show that power is still around in different forms, even if it’s not acknowledged as coercion. Otherwise you end up like the Romans saying “we don’t have a king. totally not a king. We’re a republic for sure. we just have this word for commander-in-chief, Imperator. No biggie.”

        So yeah, my operating assumption is that the safest way to mess around with the monarchical monomyth, is the old balance-of-powers way: add MORE sources of authority to the mix, not less. Which makes good stories, because conflict!

    • max

      Also yes you should read some Jung. He’s not perfect, but he’s cool.

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