The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen: How the Transition from Male to Female Ruler is approached in Fantasy Fiction
Most royal lines in fiction and in history have had a presumption in favour of a male heir, and even in the modern world there's still something of a lingering feel in hereditary systems that a woman is called to sit upon the throne only when there is no male heir available.
The deeply conservative process of handing power from one king to another remains slow to change. One way or another, there's still a lot more male rulers sitting on thrones than female ones, and many fantasy novels feature the same dynamic, with many kings but few queens.
If you think about it, it needn't be that way. Thankfully, various inventive and forward-looking works in fantasy fiction are leading the way in showing modern life how the transfer of power from a king to a queen might be something normal, typical and usual. In short, business as usual!
And let's not forget that women make a pretty good job of it when they do get the chance to sit upon the throne. Elizabeth II and Victoria remain England's longest serving monarchs, and Europe has had any number of queens since Medieval times.
And in the Global South, queens have historically ruled in countless countries in Asia, the Americas, Africa, Oceania and the Middle East.
So how does fantasy fiction help us look forward to a more egalitarian future, and what does it tell about what to expect when women wear the crown?
Some fantasy universes portray matriarchies that are closely connected with nature, in homage to the pre-Celtic systems where power passed down the female line and the belief systems were closely allied to the natural world and nature spirits.
While at first glance this might appear empowering to women by showing them as competent leaders, it runs the risk of excluding them from emerging power structures.
This is critically important to the portrayal of female leadership in fantasy because so many fictional universes in our genre are based upon Medieval or Anglo Saxon civilisations.
In David Eddings' 'Belgariad' Series novel Queen of Sorcery (1982), the hero Garion and his companions visit Princess Ce'Nedra's relative Xantha, Queen of the Dryads, in her forest home.
The book doesn't lack for examples of empowered female leadership, but amid the fatal jostling of position to succeed the Emperor of Tolnedra, Ce'Nedra's father, no one considers the princess a potential candidate for the throne even though she is an only child.
Instead, later books in the series will present Ce'Nedra's move closer to power via her betrothal and marriage to Garion. Whether knowingly or otherwise, the series draws upon a Medieval culture where a woman married to secure influence rather acquiring it than by ruling in her own right.
In the past, fantasy fiction has reflected the tradition that female leadership is fully accepted in communities that are closely aligned to nature but becomes subsumed to the male exercise of power in urban societies.
As systems developed, a rural feudal leadership pattern emerged first and went on to become part of a more centralised structure with a king at the apex as countries became nation states rather than looser alliances of individual kingdoms.
Power was also more distanced from nature after the Christian church emerged as the established religion of most European nations, supplanting the paganism that had gone before.
It is essential that fantasy fiction respond to this cultural shift away from the natural world (long associated with the female) towards a hierarchy based around church and state (seen as more masculine structures) in ways that do not exclude women from wielding power.
To stay relevant, the genre must be able to retain the best of empowered female leadership we associate with more nature-based power structures and portray it flourishing within more hierarchical systems, too.
One way for this to happen is presented in The Exiled Queen (2010) by Cinda Williams Chima. Matriarchy is portrayed within what is otherwise a medieval-style universe featuring the existence of urban power centres.
It isn't an accident that this coming-of-age novel, from a series that enjoys considerable success with a younger female readership, puts the exercise of power by women without recourse to men centre stage.
This is in stark contrast to older fantasy novels such as George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin (1872). MacDonald portrayed a princess taking the throne in the absence of a male heir, something that would have been intensely familiar to its readers when it was published midway through Queen Victoria's reign. Like most Victorian children's fiction, it did a great deal to support the status quo, however.
It's virtually a century and a half since MacDonald's groundbreaking work in the development of fantasy fiction, and a great deal has changed in the genre since then, but there's still a long way to go.
The portrayal of a dispossessed king in exile, or even an heir who is unaware of their right to claim the crown, is one of the most popular features in fantasy fiction.
However, the central figure in this theme is still generally a man, and it is comparatively unusual to see the concept applied to a woman in fantasy fiction.
In David Gemmell's novella Ironhand's Daughter (1995) this masculine tradition is subverted. Sigarni is a princess, but she's kept in strict ignorance of her rank for her own safety. When she is visited by the ghost of her kingly father, Ironhand guides her with technical training in leadership and the arts of war, readying her to reclaim her birthright centuries after it was snatched away.
Ironhand's Daughter is quite innovative in that it presents the return of an exiled female leader in a positive light, without any suggestion that the double struggle with gender and exile will prove fatal to her claim for power.
Modern fantasy novels are overtly challenging the assumption of the male right to rule. Sometimes this is achieved by the creation of a fictional all-women power structure, but it is more usual to portray a gender-neutral system where a woman exercises power because she is better at building alliances and inspiring followers than the alternative claimants to the throne, who just happen to be male.
In real life, hereditary systems may face some reluctance even now in turning to a queen as first rather than last choice in the succession.
However, fantasy fiction has no such reservations and queens feature in an increasing number of fantasy novels.
When the women are given the chance, either in matriarchal power structures or by replacing a king as his heir apparent, they do an excellent job.
This is essential both to fantasy's continuing relevance to a modern readership, and to its ability to reflect a better world to which we can aspire.
I'll be back on Monday. The comments section is open, so please do share your thoughts.
This article previously appeared in Ind'Tale Magazine.
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