lea_hazel: The Little Mermaid (Genre: Fantasy)
[personal profile] lea_hazel posting in [community profile] fantasy
Royalty and nobility are one of the most common conceits of epic fantasy. Almost every fantasy novel takes place in a world comprised of a series of kingdoms, or similarly structured alternatives. Epic plotlines usually follow the royalty or at least high nobility of one or more of these kingdoms. This applies doubly when the protagonist is a commoner; gaining access to the higher echelons of society is part of their reward.

When I tried to think about fantasy novels (excluding contemporary, and even those have their vampire kings and fairy queens) that defy this convention, I thought first of A Wizard of Earthsea. I may be misremembering, since I read it in translation years ago, but I don't recall Ged or any of the other major characters being noble. A few other books came to mind, where characters sometimes deal with nobility but don't wind up discovered as the long-lost heirs to something, or receiving a noble title, or anything.

I can't think of many fantasies that don't take place in a royal hierarchy, though. For some people, the crowns and swords and other medieval trappings are a major part of fantasy's charm, but it's still a pretty diverse genre. Do people think non-monarchic systems are too much of a divergence for fantasy, or does it just not occur to them that there are other options? Like the title says: If dragons -- then monarchy?

Date: 2010-04-08 10:37 pm (UTC)
scifisentai: faiz, takumi and yuji coming to terms (reika-san)
From: [personal profile] scifisentai
I think perhaps it's such a common concept that it doesn't usually occur to writers. Even in fantasy books/series that don't involve characters from the nobility for their main characters, said nobility still exists, it still forms the world around them and society has developed and such.

Um, unless this isn't exactly what you're asking, in which case I apologise for misreading. It's late, my brain's not working so well. >.>

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Date: 2010-04-08 11:09 pm (UTC)
manifesta: (Default)
From: [personal profile] manifesta
Michael A. Stackpole's DragonCrown WarCycle series has some royal characters in it, but if I recall correctly the main ones are lower-class. I don't think they gain access to nobility, either.

I feel like royalty is such a prevalent trope in fantasy because it's so easily associated with power, which seems to be what fantasy stems from. If it's difficult to think of fantasies that don't involve royalty, it's even more difficult for me to think of one that doesn't involve a power struggle of some sort.

Date: 2010-04-09 12:10 am (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
I was actually thinking about this recently! I can think of a fair number of fantasy novels that aren't about nobles, even ones where nobles don't play a major role. But I can't really think of any non-urban fantasy set in a democracy, republic, or even solidly in a nomadic culture* or other smaller political organization than a kingdom or city-state. Especially not medievaloid

I think it's partly that so much fantasy is medievaloid, and most people are most familiar with Western Europe, and not with other political organizations of the past.

*This is actually one of my biggest issues with Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days--it's strongly inspired by the Mongol Empire, but its political structure and social hierarchy are very European, and in some ways antithetical to medieval Mongol social values. I feel like she really missed a chance to do something less monarchical than your average fantasy novel.

God, I am longing for political intrigue fantasy in a senate or church now (although a church is often as much a hierarchy as a monarchy)!

Date: 2010-04-09 01:06 am (UTC)
lassarina: I'm not coming out until the stupid people have gone away.  ....I can wait all day. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lassarina
Just to be difficult (and because I like devil's advocacy) I should also point out that, purely from a logical standpoint--going on adventures takes money. Little things like food, inns, means of travel, warm enough clothes. Peasants usually lack these things. (Middle-class kids might get away with it, but that assumes your structure is sufficiently advanced to have created a middle class.) Also, noble kids usually get a LOT more choice in what they're going to do with their lives than peasant kids do--your average sixteen-year-old non-noble boy has been working the family farm/tailor shop/etc. since he was four.

The kind of upward mobility we have in our lives now (well...the illusion of upward mobility masking the filthy underbelly of classist privilege, which is a discussion for another time) is simply not possible in a subsistence society, which is functionally what most fantasy-noble-echelon stories are about. Since the society isn't industrialized, food production (and every other damn thing) takes forever and lots of hands. Manufacturing isn't an option. The machines we have now can weave a mile of fabric or more in a day; in medieval Europe or the Renaissance, you'd be lucky to get a couple of yards. Food preparation was entirely more involved. Shoes took weeks, not hours, to make. Etc. etc.

Which is a long winded way of saying, I suspect most political/epic fantasy is about Charming Nobility not only because it's traditional, but because as soon as you start analyzing the social forces of any preindustrial society, you realize that the nobility is the only group that consistently has the time to give a rat's tail about what's going on beyond their noses.

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the Roman model in secondary-world fantasy

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Re: the Roman model in secondary-world fantasy

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Date: 2010-04-09 01:55 am (UTC)
archersangel: (education)
From: [personal profile] archersangel
i think the harry potter series would be classified as fantasy & had no royals at all

Date: 2010-04-09 02:19 am (UTC)
foxfirefey: A wee rat holds a paw to its mouth. Oh, the shock! (thoughtful)
From: [personal profile] foxfirefey
Yeah, but Harry Potter falls into that contemporary class mentioned, I think.

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Date: 2010-04-09 03:23 am (UTC)
genusshrike: Icon of a magpie perched against a backdrop of the stars. (Default)
From: [personal profile] genusshrike
I don't think I ever really noticed this before, and now I'm having a hard time coming up with exceptions! & most of those I can come up with are kids' books... Jackie French's fantasy, or Sherryl Jordan's, which tend to be set more in nomadic societies... though you may still be focusing on chiefly families. Some of Tamora Pierce's Emelan books, though not all of them. Juliet Marillier's YA novels deal with merchants... these are all definitely secondary world fantasy, I don't know if you would call that equivalent to epic fantasy? Terminology = hard.

More Ursula Le Guin: the Gifts series. As far as I recall, the social structures aren't the same as monarchies, though it's been a while since I read them. And now that I think about it, those were published as YA here.

I couldn't say if there's actually a difference between kids & adult fiction, or if it's just that I've read so many more children's books that it's just easier for me to come up with examples.

I can think of a few that deal with empires instead of monarchies. But that may be ignoring the spirit of the question there :)

Date: 2010-04-09 05:52 am (UTC)
nightmareink: tree branches with white flowers on them (Default)
From: [personal profile] nightmareink
I'm not sure if this counts as contemporary fantasy fiction or something else, but the His Dark Materials trilogy never really mention royalty in any form in any of the worlds that it takes place in except for when they talk about the Kingdom of Heaven. Yeah, one of the characters is from our world, but there's several examples of other worlds that aren't like ours like the world in the third book that Dr. Mary Malone spends most of her time in where it's primarily a tribal culture. And then there's Lyra's world which is...I'm not sure if it counts, but it seems like the world is more ruled by the Church than any King.

I do write my own fiction, which I hope to have published someday and in one of my worlds, they actually overthrow and kill the royal family in one of the books and in a later book that takes place over 200 years later, the country has been functioning with a bureaucracy of the nobility with a figurehead at top, but people are starting to want democracy. Oh and this bureaucratic form of government had been functioning since the overthrow of the royal family and before their world's equivalent of an industrial revolution.

So there's probably still hope for what you're looking for. If I can come up with an idea that fits it, then others probably can too.

Date: 2010-04-09 10:59 am (UTC)
hatman: HatMan, my alter ego and face on the 'net (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatman
I think it's that technology and civilization are linked in our minds. The more technology you take away, the further back in "history" you go. So if you're not doing a contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy or what have you, you end up with a medieval society. Which means nobility. If you take away more technology than that, you end up with barbarians and clan chiefs. Never mind that the Greeks had a democratic government, we have it stuck in our collective subconscious that if you haven't developed guns or factories, your society won't have managed to do away with primitive forms of government like monarchy.

If guys are running around in metal or leather armor, naturally that goes with monarchy. It's just what we expect. You're right that it would be nice to see fictional books which challenge that assumption. But it's a road so well-traveled that it's as easy for the author to fall into the groove (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor) as it is for the reader.

I'm trying to think through counter-examples.

The Sword of Shanarra does have nobility, but the world used to be run by the druid council, which, among other things, acted as a sort of UN.

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series starts out with a system of nobility ruled by a god-king, but there's a revolution which results in a representative democracy. His stand-alone novel, Elantris, had nobility, but the overarching government was by Elantrians - humans mysteriously and magically selected from all classes to be transformed into wise and powerful beings.

The later Darkover novels also have the nobility gradually replaced by something like representative democracy, though with the nobility remaining. (Sort of like the UK. Sort of.)

I'm sure there are other examples. Civilizations ruled by a council, generally made up of powerful mages. Which is more or less a meritocracy. Can't think of the specific series, though.

Date: 2010-04-09 04:44 pm (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Given how many medieval/Renaissance societies were ruled by religious or religious-secular governments, I think it would be really interesting to see more religious governments in fantasy. It's still kind of in the monarchical mold, but with a twist. (I'm thinking specifically right now of periods of Russian history with a tsar and a patriarch co-ruling, but there are plenty of other examples.)

Darkover's kind of in a weird place because by the later novels, there are also more SF elements, although I always felt those were sort of pasted-on.

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Date: 2010-04-09 05:26 pm (UTC)
aphenine: Teresa and Claire (Default)
From: [personal profile] aphenine
This is really quite interesting because you made me think about this and, yes, there does seem to be a lot of it.

I think it's worth remembering that fantasy stories don't always reflect reality (not in a "duh, it's fantasy" way, but in a "the unreality should be real (or at least structured)" way, which several people have mentioned already) but can reflect what people want to be true (or an exploration of truth). A large problem in all societies at all times is that the people who have power end up being really selfish people who rise to the top over other peoples' dead bodies. I get the impression from history that being so ruthless is generally an advantage in ascending hierarchies up until everyone becomes like that, when the whole system collapses, normally in a very bad way for everyone involved.

I think we like to idealise autocratic systems because they are so rare and because, historically, good rulers have benefited the nations they ruled tremendously. We like to believe those who have power are fair and just and wise because we live in times when that's not true. It's also a useful antidote against the usual political propaganda that rises in any society where ruthless and selfish people consistently succeed: that these qualities are good and useful and that having them is a perquisite for entry into the political class. Taking the Credit Crunch as an example, before it happened, regardless of political leaning, it became accepted that rich people should influence policy most, simply because it was happening so often. Now it is not simply taken as true. Yet, if you take good epic fantasy stories, it should have been obvious that rapacious people (of any kind, but in this case bankers) would destroy the world because they always destroy the world (or try to, with the "good" guys trying to stop them).

It's also notable how many fantasy books, when exploring this issue make it overt. Normally, rulers have to fight off armies of Orcs or stop the Awesome Gem/Stone of Total Power from falling into the hands of the Dread Evil Overlord who will use it to End Everything/Enslave Everyone. Ok, so bankers might have the same destructive power as an army of Orcs left unchecked, but it's hard to feel that way about them, especially when you are trying to get the best rate of return on your money.

A second point that occurs to me is that Senate system or anything resembling what we have had over the last few decades is harder to make into fantasy. It's reassuring (but also depressing) when I read about the Romans or Greeks and realise that they had, by and large, many of the same concerns we do now, just in different forms and based on their level of technology or society. In that sense, it's harder for the story to feel fantasy is it uses that kind of setting.

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Date: 2010-04-10 01:03 pm (UTC)
cupiscent: cocktails by the pool (Default)
From: [personal profile] cupiscent
Monarchy, not necessarily - structured society, yes definitely. But "higher echelons" doesn't have to be confined to a monarchic system, or rather that system doesn't have to be important to the structure of the story. In Trudi Canavan's Magician series, for instance, magicians are mostly drawn from the nobility, and our heroine's joining the group from the slums is a major story point, but the story's about the magicians, not the nobility, and while there is an emperor or king, I don't think he ever appears on screen.

Structure is necessary for society, and the advance of the hero to a position of importance - even if it's just in the regard of other important people for his or her skills, knowledge, abilities or history - is an important part of any story, arguably. Most "high" fantasy is set in a historic-based world of some description, and while the details of structure change, there honestly weren't that many purely democratic states in history. Rome? There was still the senatorial class ("the higher echelons") even when there wasn't an emperor.

Or maybe the problem is evil: fantasy needs a villain, and effective evil is autocratic. (Or is it? Discuss in the form of a trilogy! *G*)

Date: 2010-04-11 12:35 pm (UTC)
alias_sqbr: (happy dragon)
From: [personal profile] alias_sqbr
(here via metafandom)

This is a really good question. A while ago I decided to write a story about two fantasy cultures meeting. The first I made generic-ish pseudo-medieval-English monarchy by default. I wanted to the other to be as different to that as I could manage and it was really hard getting my brain out of the same old fantasy society ruts. I eventually decided to base it mostly on ancient Athens, and the more I read of their history the more I wished other people based stories on it, because their democracy was this fascinating mix of the familiar and the bizarre. (I wish this even more now that my story has died of writers block :))

As I recall the Mirage Makers series by Glenda Larke mixes magic with a thinly veiled Roman Empire vs Middle Eastern tribes, I didn't get that far into it so can't say for certain that neither group had anything resembling a monarchy. Hmm. I feel like I should be able to think of examples, it's disturbing that I can't!

Date: 2010-04-12 02:55 am (UTC)
mmanurere: Doctor Manhattan (Default)
From: [personal profile] mmanurere
(here via Metafandom)

My first thought was Samuel R. Delany's Return to Nevèrÿon series. More "sword-and-sorcery" than high fantasy (currency, cloth, and writing are all still new technology, cities are rare, etc., though there's also quite a bit of deliberate anachronism in a sort of Earth-esque indeterminate location with a mix of Old World and New World influences), but the attitude towards royalty isn't the usual. The main characters (of both the series as a whole and the individual stories) tend to be commoners; even Gorgik, the main character of the series, mostly stops being the main character of the individual stories once he gains access to the aristocracy and political power. The monarchy is still present, but there's a pretty strong sense (especially in Neveryóna) that the royalty is prevented by their position from understanding the significance of some of the major events and cultural shifts of the series.

That said, it's not quite the usual approach to "epic fantasy" -- the focus on semiotics tends to make things a bit too messy in implication for a single overall big story.

Date: 2010-04-12 03:08 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] calla
*g* One of the things that often bothers me are the badly researched (I would even go with not researched) political systems. A kingdom usually has more than just a king/queen. The lack of a council, opposing nobles and court-intrigues is something I often miss. Fiona Patton did a pretty good job on that, but then she rather heavily used British history.

For epics it's usually often easier to use a monarchy and follow a royal line as the political power is inheritable, whereas in a democracy the leader changes after a few years and then comes a new leader and or a new political party and so on. In such systems it would be much harder to have the red line (the family) that allows readers to follow the epic. Too much change isn't good for epics ;-)

Political dynasties like the Kennedys or Ghandis are pretty rare and only work in specific democratic systems.

I have read some fantasy that had a religious hegemony as a system, so some kind of religious leader instead of a king/queen or even emperor. But you're right, most fantasy books use non-democratic systems and most use absolutist monarchies.

Democratic systems could work, one simply needs to take a look at the ancient Grecian city-states or the Republic of Rome as an inspiration. Even totalitarian systems would make an interesting basis for a fantasy novel.

I can actually think off a lot more novels where the main protagonist isn't related to royalty or becomes nobility at the end of the book than of fantasy-books that don't have a monarchy as their political system.

SO, to get back to your question. I think partly it's a cliche that works and that most are comfortable with and use without really thinking about it, and partly it's the writers laziness.

I once got into a massive discussion with a fellow writer because I told her her political system didn't make sense and didn't work, considering what she wanted her heroes to be able to do and that maybe she should do some research into a certain type of organisation, political motivation, etc. She told me that she didn't care, part of the reason why she was writing fantasy was so that she wouldn't have to do research and could just make things up.

So I guess part of the question could also be: Does fantasy need research or not?

My 2 euro-cent :-)

Date: 2010-04-12 04:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] muscatlove.livejournal.com
(Jumping in from metafandom at Livejournal!) Actually, I think Terry Prachett's Discworld series handles this extremely well. There are dragons (mostly small and known for exploding at random), and a small smattering of nobles who mainly appear in very secondary roles, but the main city of Ankh-Morpork is ruled by a dictator who, while he has connections to the noble class, was trained as an assassin and remained mostly unknown by the powerful until he mysteriously rose through the ranks and took over.

The city itself is a fascinating amalgam of industrializing Britain and various fantasy elements, and as the author uses the series to mirror and explore various modern issues, the society grows more complex as political institutions and guilds grow, institutions begin to arise, and people act like people, for better or worse. I think the series developed as a response to the fantasy genre, so it makes sense. (I highly recommend the series if you haven't read it already!)

Date: 2010-04-12 10:28 am (UTC)
ext_15284: a wreath of lightning against a dark, stormy sky (Default)
From: [identity profile] stormwreath.livejournal.com
Well, there's always Lord of the Rings...

No wait! :-) For all that kingship is talked about so much, and the Return of the King is so important that it's the title of the last volume - the main protagonists of the story all come from a republic. The Shire is ruled by an elected Mayor, although just like Britain it also has a constitutional monarch (the Thane) who no longer has any real power. The hobbits go out, mingle with royalty, and then go home to their peaceful, orderly republican lives. Sam Gamgee even ends up as an elected politician himself in the appendices.

Date: 2010-04-12 12:46 pm (UTC)
allangtegek: a pattern of dirt particles in a puddle of water (Default)
From: [personal profile] allangtegek
Do people think non-monarchic systems are too much of a divergence for fantasy, or does it just not occur to them that there are other options?
As both a stauch republican (and socialist) and avid fantasy fan, I really, really, really don't and I wish more people would agree with me.

I think part of it is that it's so ingrained in the genre it can take a while to realize it's not really necessary to include them. That's true for me as well, actually, even though I'm going out of my way to include countries with diverse political systems, a lot of the non-monarchies are still ex-monarchies.

(You are my favorite person for now and I'll be joining this comm post-haste!)

Date: 2010-04-12 02:02 pm (UTC)
executrix: (art crawl)
From: [personal profile] executrix
I think that the needs of effective fiction (especially escape reading) are very different from the needs of an effective RL political system. So, if the choices for solving a political problem are:
a) Sword fight
b) Committee meeting

I would endorse b) in RL but a) probably makes better reading.

(via metafandom)

Date: 2010-04-12 02:36 pm (UTC)
mullenkamp: Osana Mullenkamp, Lady of the Dark (Default)
From: [personal profile] mullenkamp
I was born in and live in the United States, in a Western democracy, and have dealt with that system my entire life (being a political activist in my spare time doesn't help). Fantasy, for me, is about escapism. I have absolutely no desire to read or write about my fucked up sort of system, or any fucked up system it was based on, in a novel about a fictional place--I prefer dealing with entirely different kinds of fucked up systems of government. Also, IMO, the more the average privileged white fantasy author starts getting outside the mold of what their own society came from, the more they potentially start getting into hinky issues of cultural appropriation that I'm just not comfortable with. I'll take a thousand pseudo-Euro kings and queens over some trifling assed noble savagey Wisdom of the Elders BS. As a brown reader and writer, I get a lot less angry when the former is done badly than the latter.

That's not to say I don't love politics in my speculative fiction at all--I do, very much so, it's my favorite kind, I mean my favorite SF novel of all time is Dune. But palace intrigue in monarchist systems, Constitutional or otherwise, is infinitely more interesting for me to explore both as a reader and a writer simply because of the fact that it's so much more different than my everyday experience (though there is a joke somewhere in here about that :P). I tend to write about magocracies, religious-flavored or otherwise, because I think bad ass queens with magic powers are cool. Intrigue between and within powerful families is really interesting to me, also (the standard Drow house system, for instance). But ultimately, I care less about the form of government in place and more about if it's done well. I would prefer a well-written US/Western-style democracy in a fantasy novel to yet another badly written feudal monarchy where it's obvious the author has no conception of how such a government would actually work (which, sadly, seems to be most mainstream fantasy authors).

As far as dealing with nobility vs. commoners, a certain amount of realism is good and desirable, but ultimately I'm just not interested in reading about a noble's daily life running the manor or a shopkeeper or a tax collector doing their thing. It's boring. Yes, there's a place for that in fantasy, but that's just not what I'm in it for. Even with a commoner hero, the most common sorts of fantasy conflicts--searches for magical macguffins, wars over territory or resources, Sealed Evils in a Can waking up, etc--sort of demand that The Powers That Be, nobility or otherwise, get involved at some point by their very nature, because no matter what system of government is in place, TPTB simply aren't going to let an average person get mixed up in that kind of thing with no consequences. Someone with the kind of power and ingenuity to find/get/control the magic bauble, or slay the dragon, or raise an army to fight the monsters? That's someone that's a threat to the people in power, even if they're ostensibly on the hero's side. TPTB have to get involved at some level for stories like that to remain believable to me, and too often they don't (or in some blatantly silly way). And that's just bad writing, IMO.

My favorite protagonists are the ones for whom the usual social expectations don't necessarily apply, regardless of their societal status. To use a video game example, the Mages and Grey Wardens of Dragon Age: Origins (which, incidentally, had probably the most realistic depiction of a pseudo-medieval European political system I've seen in any fantasy media in a long time). Mostly because there tends to be great fodder for conflict in that, with the traditionalist types. Quite honestly, the point where most stories end--the hero rising into the ranks of the nobility, or becoming king/queen or what have you--is where I think some of the most interesting stories actually begin, but that rarely tends to get explored outside of fanfiction.

Date: 2010-04-12 07:08 pm (UTC)
ratcreature: RatCreature as dragon (dragon)
From: [personal profile] ratcreature
I think the two go together so often because so often in the classic type of fantasy there is a quest of a type with a destiny or a "natural order" that has been unbalanced or is challenged by some evil, and feudal societies are a reflection of that worldview that such an order exists in all things. That there is a natural place for everybody and that people are not equal, but some are special or at least put into a special position via their birth in that order. The ones questioning the natural order are the villains in that kind of setup who want to change and break the world, and decide on its shape themselves.

Date: 2010-04-13 10:01 am (UTC)
robling_t: (knowledge)
From: [personal profile] robling_t
To some extent I suspect it's just a rut: the genre started coming together at a period in our own history when RL monarchies were going out of vogue, and that older sort of a world-view got picked up and romanticized by the Old Guys who missed it. And because that was What Worked, it's rarely been re-examined with any particular eye towards alternatives that might be more appropriate in the radically transformed world of popular democracies a hundred-odd years on. (My own Trunk Novel decided, quite spontaneously, to evolve itself a political system that wiki says comes closest to anarcho-syndicalism, but then this may be why it never clawed its way out of the trunk...)


Date: 2010-04-18 05:24 am (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
_Lion's Heart_ and _Lion's Soul_ concern a demarchy.

_Delan the Mislaid_ has the Aerie culture that ... probably doesn't have anything organized enough to call a government.

_Dragon Champion_ is about dragon culture rather than human culture, so isn't monarchic.

Torn World, a shared world, has a Southern Empire that is run by council. All red tape, no real nobility. It also has the Northerners, a tribal culture. Drop by to read or to contribute:

Date: 2010-04-19 07:21 pm (UTC)
tigerlily: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tigerlily
Royalty and money are considered glamorous. Glamour is considered attractive. So even with the common cultural meme of "rich glamorous people are corrupt, and money is corrupt", people still look up to rich people/aristocratic people in some way or another, or at least they wish they had their money. I think it's a common fantasy to visualize yourself as rich royalty, so maybe writers unconsciously decide to reward their protagonists, who are after all bits of themselves, with all the glamour and privilege society in general looks up at. Many of the well-known fantasies and fairy tales in Western culture are in fact about the noble and/or rich minority, and even when they have commoners and corrupt royalty, there's still some idealized princess or prince that redeems the concept of royalty, saying "it's okay to have all these shiny people above you, as long as they're really nice about it".

Date: 2011-03-18 03:04 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Stop hack the program!!!

Date: 2011-04-18 09:37 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hack again?!
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