Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Put Out Fewer Flags - Charlie Butler


When I told a friend that my daughter had been making anti-royal flags for the day of the Middleton-Windsor bash, she reproved me: “Every little girl should fantasize about being a princess!”
I disagreed, of course. I’ve nothing against children fantasizing about being princesses, just as I’ve nothing against them playing at dinosaurs (though I’d jib at either being made compulsory); but the former isn’t really an argument for monarchy any more than the latter is one for turning Britain into Jurassic Park.
I thought no more about the exchange until a couple of days later, when I was catching up with another friend, who writes fantasy fiction for adults. She mentioned that, although she is herself a republican, she is often assumed by her readers to be a monarchist because she writes about medievalesque fantasy worlds featuring kings and queens: “Whereas I spend most of my time showing what’s wrong with monarchies!” The trouble is that if you write about a Bad King in a medievalesque fantasy, people won’t respond by demanding full emancipation under a proportional STV system – they’ll ask for a Good King instead. Every genre comes with its own conventions, built into the DNA of its fictional worlds. It’s hard to mount an internal critique without evoking Dennis, the anarchist peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!”
Where does the border between fantasy and reality lie in these cases? Oddly, many of the fantasy novels that most enthusiastically recount quests to restore True Heirs to their empty or usurped thrones are written by United States citizens who would reach for their muskets if it were suggested that the same thing should happen in their own country. Monarchist fictions have some kind of appeal for these writers and their readership – but what kind, if not a political one? We can blame the Disney Corporation for ensuring that millions spend their childhoods steeped in a flamingo-pink princess marinade, but that merely shifts the question, to one of why there is such a ready market for this feudal fantasy. (It’s a very selective feudalism, of course: not many children fantasize about being serfs.) One is tempted to summon Freud to account for its appeal, or perhaps Jung with his toolkit of archetypes, but as someone who appears to have missed out on the royalist gene, I’ll leave it others to explain.
If it were only a matter of fantasy, I don’t think this would bother me much. However, when it comes to royalty there is a strange porousness about the boundary between fantasy and reality. There’s my friend, for example, who believes that playing princess is incompatible with being a republican in real life. And the Americans, while they may claim they like royalty only in stories, still spent vast sums covering last week’s event. I think it’s safe to say that many, if not most, of the two billion people who watched the wedding worldwide did so not in order to express their approbation of monarchy as a system, but to indulge a vicarious fantasy about royalty and the associated pomp. (I’m not sure what “pomp” is, but it’s one of those things the royals seem to have bagged for their own use, like swans.)
Having talked to monarchists over the last few weeks, I get the impression that relatively few people really believe that choosing the head of state by means genetic accident is rationally defensible, but they value monarchy for its appeal to something beyond reason, something about identity, continuity and hierarchy that operates at a symbolic level – at the level of fantasy, in fact. And it’s true that we all get through our lives in part by using fantasy to add meaning and significance to drab reality. We all have our rituals, our treasured moments that seem to “mean” more than others, our special people and places. Seeing the ways in which these aspects of our lives intertwine with the quotidian is something I find fascinating as a writer and as a human being. I can well believe that the monarchical fantasy serves some such purpose for those who like it, even though it leaves me cold. (Specifically, this fantasy baffles me because it seems to contradict rather than enhance the positive values I associate with Britishness: for example, I don’t see how a sense of fairness is in any way enriched by a system based on the fetishization of unearned privilege – but, as I said above, I must leave that to others to explain.)
The interesting thing is that, in many ways, monarchy has survived in this country largely by pretending to be a fantasy, by trading on its symbolism and moving itself as far away as possible from the visible levers of power. It uses its glamour in the old-fashioned sense of the word, as a form of legerdemain. For, while the monarch has little direct power by comparison with some of her predecessors, she stands at the apex of a system that has been remarkably (if discreetly) effective in retaining both influence and wealth. In terms of land ownership, Britain remains effectively a feudal country, with two-thirds of the land owned by a mere 160,000 (mostly aristocratic) people – just 0.3% of the population. The honours system keeps politicians and civil servants quiescent, the jewel-encrusted carrot of hope being more effective than a knobbly blackthorn for this purpose. And whilst we fret about which voting system is best for the House of Commons, we seem remarkably unfussed that half our legislature has no democratic component whatsoever. A flash of ermine, a dazzle of diamonds, and we flip into fairy-tale mode. Robes and furred gowns hide all.
This traffic between fantasy and reality also runs in the other direction – at least for me. I don’t much care for books in which True Heirs get restored and it’s the taken-for-granted duty of ordinary people to die in order to achieve this consummation. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1915 Ruritanian novel The Lost Prince may be a little old-fashioned as a real-world adventure story, but its assumptions are in perennial vogue in fantasy.
Historically, however, it’s not a fantasy at all. Today is the 540th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, at which Edward IV finally defeated Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses, at the cost of some 3,000 lives. A decade earlier, at Towton, he had defeated him less decisively in the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, leaving some 28,000 dead. Like many of our famous battles from Crecy to Culloden, the Wars of the Roses were primarily a family dispute about who was the True Heir, and the disputants had no hesitation in seeing thousands who had nothing to lose or gain by the outcome hacked to pieces in their cause. It’s a longstanding tradition, but not one I feel like celebrating in fiction, or dressing up with the conventional lie that the True Heir is always a good person, and the Usurper always a pernicious tyrant.
Maybe, in fact, I have more in common with my princess-loving friend than I first thought. Neither of us believes there is an impermeable cordon sanitaire between the games you play, the stories you tell, and the beliefs you hold. The difference is, of course, that her beliefs are Wrong and mine are Right.
Maybe I should simply have said that at the start?

20 comments:

Elen C said...

Very interesting post - thanks, Charlie!

Stroppy Author said...

Lots of food for thought here! I'm no royalist - but the disastrous showing of the corrupt fairly elected MPS over the last years doesn't do much to promote the cause of democracy over an accidental elite. The appeal of royals will not diminish while they are the only ones who are not fiddling their expenses and lying.

Your point about Americans really liking all the princess-lit is a very pertinent one. Princess Diaries is such an American phenomenon. I guess because it's the American Dream come true without any hard work, same reason people buy lottery tickets.

catdownunder said...

Given the behaviour of some of our MPs it would be a relief to have an unelected upper house. Then we could blame their genes (or something like that) instead of idiocy of those who voted them in.
Not sure what you do with our lower house. (System in Australia is made worse by compulsory attendance at ballot box and, if you want your vote to count, compulsory preferential voting.)

Penny Dolan said...

Good post about an illogical subjects. Is it that many of us would rather cheer a fantasy than Berlusconi? (Or others nearer home?)

Elaine AM Smith said...

Every country needs a focal point to refer to as their centre and the essence whether it be an object of something or image or someone. The beauty of the Royal Family is that the condition remains the same but the image changes for each generation. We have a self-renewing cultural icon to unify us in hope or in condemnation. The Royal Family is a multi-layered, non-intrusive, money-spinning marvel.
The countryside - like football clubs - would be owned in even greater tracts by a different kind of rich.
At least crown lands aren't being sold off by our current government.

Emma Barnes said...

Oh help, just did a big comment and blogger failed to post it!

In a nutshell though, I think just because you love reading about something, or watching it, doesn't mean you actually want to return to it. I love reading "Shogun" about feudal Japan, but I definitely DON'T want to live there, and equally I am fascinated by Ancient Greece, but that doesn't mean I want to live there (especially as a woman) or don't recognise that it relied on the horrible institution of slavery.

I also love reading Tolkien, as do many, many people - he founded the fantasy genre almost. So it is not surprising that many writers use elements from his world - true-born kings and all. But it's fantasy. And the Royal Wedding is a kind of fantasy too for most - we don't know the individuals, but it is colourful and picturesque and a bit more fun than listening to a debate on AV. Maybe more a part of modern celebrity culture than any kind of harking back to the past.

hilary said...

I feel it is only fair to point out that the long standing tradition of hacking to pieces those who do not agree with our point of view seems to be endemic to our species. No pomp-and-swan-baggers (that should be a new title) in America, for instance, but it seems a very strong belief in the right to hack.

adele said...

I just regard the whole lot of them (The Royal Family) as one glorious soap opera whose plots (better ones than I can think of, for sure) unroll over the years. When I was nine, I watched the Coronation and cut pictures out of the Illustrated London News and stuck them in a scrapbook.Won't be doing that for the Diamond Jubilee but I do like to think of that last 60 years and all that's happened to that bunch of people on a narrative level, so to speak! Enjoyed every minute of the Royal Wedding coverage. The Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice and their hats could have a whole chapter devoted to them!
But I have never in my life played at being a Princess and as far as I know, neither did either of my daughters.My granddaughter on the other hand.. Different strokes, etc.

Charlie Butler said...

Thanks for the comments so far!

Two thoughts as we go. Stroppy, it's true that many MPs were caught with their hands in the till, but the comforting thing about democracy is that a good few were then punished at the ballot box. The royals, on the other hand - well, let's just say I don't particularly associate them with reasonable expenses claims... And then there's the Duchess of York, who is still Duchess of York despite her attempt to nab herself a cool £500,000 last year by selling access to Prince Andrew. I don't suppose the royals are any worse than politicians in this regard, but they're not noticeably better either.

Hilary, you're right that human beings appear to be hackers by nature. I lean to pacifism myself, but even I would admit that some causes are more worth fighting over than others, though, and a rather anorakish genealogical dispute about whether the Earl of March is more closely related to Edward III than Henry Bolingbroke isn't high on my list of reasons to leave thousands weltering in their own gore.

hilary said...

True, true Charlie, but I should not like to be held accountable for my ancestors myself. Some of them were definite hackers.

I think that was rather enterprising of the Duchess of York. Probably would have done the same myself. It's a small step obviously, from struggling children's author to ebaying the wedding ring, and who knows which of us will be forced to take it next?

Charlie Butler said...

Ebaying one's ex-husband, though? (Actually, I can see how some people might find that attractive...)

Lest I be misunderstood, I'm not visiting the sins of those hackers of yore on the current crop, only explaining why I don't find the "Let's raise an army to restore the True King to the throne" plot a very appealing one.

As for those pesky Pevensies being presented with their thrones simply for having opposable thumbs, don't get me started...

sartorias said...

I think the same urge is behind the crowds of mourners outside Bin Ladin's compound in Pakistan, though he didn't do diddly for anyone but himself: the rich and powerful have a lure that is hardwired. We humans like our hierarchies. And one of the ways monarchy made itself acceptable was through display.

So, yeah, those of us who write about such things are examining the effects (and the costs) of power, while having fun with all the trappings.

sartorias said...

PS I have to admit I didn't watch any of the royal wedding as the Windsors seem to have carefully bred charisma out of the line, but now I wish I had, just for the parade of the Ugly Hats.

Ika said...

monarchy has survived in this country largely by pretending to be a fantasy

Ooh, yes, that is very true. On the porousness between fantasy and reality, have you seen this?

Leslie Wilson said...

Hats, yes! Why did the Guardian applaud Princess Eugenie for wearing a toilet seat?
I was in the aircraft lounge at Heathrow during the wedding, and saw the new Duchess waving her hand at the crowd ('Nothing for you, nothing for you' my father used to say.) Charlie, this is a fantastic post, and you are doubtless not at all surprised that I agree with you 100%. As for royals not getting involved in fiddles, what about the Duke of York? Never mind the Duchess. Mind you, it seems traditional for Yorks, as a previous D of Y was eagerly flogging army promotions via his mistress, Mary Ann Clarke. Anyway, the whole royal thing is a fiddle. The myth about the Queen's 'private fortune' for one thing. Where did it come from in the first place? It all should belong to us, really. And yet people are so keen to Lick the Boots. Why? Is it hard-wired into us? Even I sometimes dream of having tea with the Queen..But then, I also dream of appearing in public in my nightie, and many other things that I would not wish to see happen in daily life.

Charlie Butler said...

Ika - no, I hadn't seen that. Thanks, I think...

Charlie Butler said...

Leslie, I too have dreamt - not of the Queen, but of Prince Charles, who I suppose will have to do. A frightening percentage of Brits has done so, I understand.

I'd heard rumours of the Hat, but your toilet-seat reference made me google, and then giggle. Am I alone in getting a bit of a carpet beater vibe, too? I know little of millinery.

Veronica Milvus said...

I loved your marinade metaphor!

Maybe the resaon people are attached to the idea of Kings is that they have the magickal power to save us all. If only.

Terri Windling said...

Thank you for this terrific post, Charles. I'm an American living in the UK and a staunch Republican (in the British, not American, sense of the word); we fought an entire Revolution over there to throw off the yoke of royalty, after all. And, alas, I agree with you: Disney has a lot to answer for....

Charlie Butler said...

Thanks for dropping by, Terri - I hadn't realised you were an ABBA reader! And thanks to all for the fascinating comments - especially perhaps to sartorias, whom I know as one of the most interesting and thinky of US creators of fantasy kingdoms.