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?