Golden age or comfort zone?


In my mailbox this morning was a reading suggestion. I obediently followed the link to Amazon to read the blurb, and if I liked the sound of it, the first few pages of the story. I managed the blurb—yet another princely youngest son, hounded from the family castle, finds refuge with happy, peaceful poor folk living a secretive existence in a forest, becomes their saviour (the blurb doesn’t mention why they need a saviour), and they help him regain his rightful inheritance.

Specifically what made me bristle was the pseudo-Medieval society that bears no relation to any real Medieval society that ever was. Medieval is more than just period costumes. But more generally, what is this obsession with royalty and a specific historical period with such alterations and embellishments that it may as well be science fiction? Why are writers still producing this kind of apology for absolute monarchy and privilege, and keeping alive the assumption that ordinary folk need to be led by some kid whose only claim to the job is that he was born of the ruling caste? Not only are the royals the only ones capable of leadership, it’s their divine right.

Admittedly, the other cliché of the humble woodcutter (they are often woodcutters, possibly because it sounds like a suitably Medieval and manly occupation) who defies the wicked king and becomes king in his place, is even more absurd.

What I find disturbing more than irritating, is that both scenarios, the divine right of privilege and the king who rose from the ranks of the commons by dint of hard work and impeccable moral hygiene, seem to me to comfort the myths we have constructed around our privileged lifestyles. We accept as right that the rich shall grow richer and the poor shall be content in their lowly place, and as incontestable that the leaders of society have reached the pinnacle of power through merit.

Call me a left-wing idealist if you like, but I hate this escapist world-building, which after all is supposed to make us dream, of a historical golden age which is no more than the enshrinement of the most conservative of our ideas about society. And no, the answer isn’t to have the same scenarios but with women in the key privileged roles, a sort of Medieval Evita. Isn’t it surely to create a world where the dreams of the generous and the humane come true rather than those of the power-hungry and privileged?


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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

19 thoughts on “Golden age or comfort zone?”

    1. It drives me mad, to be honest. To the extent that as soon as I read, ‘When Prince/Princess/King/Queen X…’ I don’t read any further. I know I’m going to hate so much in the premise.

  1. Speaking of woodcutters, I just saw on a FB post that one of the convicts shipped off to Australia was convicted of “illegal wood chopping.” The forests were owned by the aristocracy right? So probably hard to make a living as a woodcutter. That being said, it does come up in the old fairy tales (Andersen, Grimm), so there seems to be something there, at least in the cultural mind.

    1. Well convicts weren’t sent to Australia until the C19th, and fairy tales were written in the C18th and C19th. The pseudo-Medieval is a sort of ersatz 13th/14th century the age of castle-building and feudalism.
      Yes, under the feudal system, everything, land and people, was owned by one or other in the chain of vassalage, from simple knights up through barons to the dukes, princes and king. Anyone living in a forest would be trespassing, anyone hunting or cutting down trees would be punished and there weren’t freemen landowners. There isn’t much in the pseudo-Medieval that has an echo in real history.

  2. AS you say, this idea is so dated and out of kilter with modern thinking and research. Royalty feature so much in European fairy tales, that I suppose it lies in the backs of our minds. It is lazy story telling though, because it’s basically rehashing old stories. Think the legend of King Arthur (poor squire who’s really a hidden royal ‘chosen one’) and the tales where royalty have special powers that mere commoners don’t have, such as the Princess and the Pea, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White where it’s only a royal who can break the curse/feel the hidden vegetable!
    I guess it goes back to the divine right of kings, as you say, the thought that they’re channels for a deity and so have an element of the supernatural about them. Why else would people believe monarchs could cure the ‘King’s Evil’, scrofula? I’m guessing much of the European myths that emphasise this right may date to post-Black Death/Peasants Revolt when peasants were beginning to question feudalism and the old order – what better way to suppress disruptive masses in an age when the Church ruled every aspect of daily life, than convincing them you’re going against the will of your creator if you defy the crown?
    Sorry for the long comment, but you’ve raised such an interesting issue. 🙂

    1. Thanks for chipping in 🙂 You’d think it was dated, but given the popularity of this way of thinking, there must be a hankering for the good old days when everyone knew their place. After all, religion is still a power to be reckoned with despite, well, everything about it. It worries me though that we don’t seem to be able to let go of the stereotype ‘good/bad’ ‘right/wrong’ and the side of right always seems to involve royalty and inherited privilege.

  3. It’s certainly the American dream as sung by many a pop bard (Elvis, Bruce, etc)–“poor man wants be rich, rich man wants to be king, and the king’s not satisfied until he gets everything”. We don’t even have royalty (OK don’t tell that to Trump). It’s the celebrity culture with crowns. I think that’s why we keep failing to design a society that really embraces equality and substance instead of just talking about it and wasting our money on glitter. (K)

    1. Which is possibly why American writers of this kind of stuff find it hard to be critical of the world they’ve imagined. It’s good to be rich, good to be powerful. If you criticise the glamour you’re being a kill-joy. They maybe don’t have the cultural suspicion of inherited wealth and privilege that we in Europe have.

      1. That’s exactly right. They’ve always “earned” it, worked their way to the top (by themselves, of course…no exploited workers or slaves, no inheritance, no strings pulled…). Just like our President.

  4. Absolutely, I agree, that’s why I love my Vampires, witches and werewolves, no class, no cast now bosses, some are referred to as originals or elders but that’s only because they are older. There is no rank or privileged ,💜💜💜💜

      1. Oh! Yes indeed , Prince Harry and his wife Meghan especially!! In fact the entire Royal Family plus hangers on excluding the Queen , poor dear she is just brain washed! 💜💜

      2. They all behave like a bunch of in-bred wallies as far as I can see. I have never understood why they British taxpayers are still thrilled to bits to pay a fortune for those idle wasters to live in the lap of luxury.

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