Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nobility in Fantasy, and Why We Love It

This has turned into a series of articles, but this should be the final one. As I mentioned in my last post, I find the concept of nobility to be romantic in fiction, and offensive in reality. I have met several other people who feel the same way.

How do we reconcile the difference? Too: Why do we enjoy the romanticized concept so much?

For the second question, I liken it a bit to how piracy has gained such a romantic interpretation. Fictional pirates are fun-loving, swashbuckling, hard-drinking rascals. Real-world pirates, both of today and in history, are a different story. The truth has been forgotten and the concept idealized. Now when the average person thinks "pirate" they think of freedom from authority, lack of responsibility, wealth, etc.

Similarly, nobility in fiction has had many of its real-world sins washed away. People don't think of the lie at the base of the concept - they think of wealth and opulence, fancy clothing, courtly behavior, and extravagant mansions. However, I think the real change has not been in idealizing away the bad parts of nobility - it has been in falling for the fiction that underpinned the concept all along.

To quote myself from the aforementioned-post (Oh, the arrogance!):
In fiction, nobility is often something rare, powerful, and real: a trait that elevates one person above another, no matter their other qualities.We see its undefinable effects all the time: an aura, a charisma, a strange power over others.
Of course, at one point in history (and, in some places, even now) this wasn't an aspect of nobility in fiction - it was the accepted truth. At least, accepted by enough for them to remain in power. Naturally, things were very different then. There were all sorts of cultural and physical pressures that attributed to the acceptance of some people as "simply better" than others. Ignorance, difficulty of communication... I'm sure the issue has been studied. My point is, what we accept as romantic about fictional nobility today was believed to be factual by the real people in history.

What we've done is simply moved the fantasy to its rightful place. Once safely ensconced in novels, it can even be reinforced, proven, and verified by other parts of the fictional world. In some books, the question isn't up for debate: the nobility really is better, and they deserve/need to be in power for the good of all.

Furthermore, we as a culture like the concept of nobility because it reinforces the notion of some part of the human creature as ephemeral and divine. Even more important to fiction, though, the concept allows us to think that the spark of nobility might lie inside any of us if, somewhere back when, one of these exalted people preceded us in the family tree. What person doesn't secretly wish to be rich, famous, and popular? Wouldn't it be nice if we could reach that dream without actually having to do anything?

Wouldn't it be nice if we were just meant to have it all?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Noblesse Existe?

Continuing on my riff from the past couple of posts, today I'm going to talk about the concept of nobility.

I have always been infatuated with it in its romanticized form (reality is something altogether different, and I'll get to that in a moment). In fiction, nobility is often something rare, powerful, and real: a trait that elevates one person above another, no matter their other qualities.We see its undefinable effects all the time: an aura, a charisma, a strange power over others. It always runs in the blood, passed down from ancestors who were either born with it or acquired it through great deeds.

From a modern perspective, I find the idea absurd - even grotesque. It was and remains a naked mechanism to preserve power in the hands of those who already have it. In the real world, of course, "nobility" (as it pertains to a bloodline) is just a word, completely devoid of real meaning. People "of noble blood" aren't smarter, braver, or better looking. Due to centuries of inbreeding, it is often just the opposite.

On the other hand, "Nobility"-with-a-capital-N is very real. I do not know the etymology of the word - I do not know if it originally applied to the falsely exalted social class or the justly exalted state of being. I do know that unlike a social class, true Nobility is not inherited, and does not exist independent of a person's actions. Indeed, true Nobility can only derive from a person's actions, and can be both gained and lost.

It was perhaps a sign of my maturing outlook when I noticed something odd about my revered idol, Tolkien. He seemingly considered nobility as something that could be passed through bloodline, rather than something only earned through action. The extended mythos of Middle Earth is rife with the concept that great deeds are most often performed by those who are somehow descended from noble blood. With some important exceptions, such as the hobbits (which comforts me: I know that Tolkien didn't really have such an outmoded mindset), most great deeds are done by those descended of kingly or otherwise noble lines. Even Bard the Bowman, who kills Smaug in The Hobbit, is descended from the Kings of Dale.

Furthermore, there is evidence that even misdeeds cannot make one "lose" that nobility. We see this in Gandalf's tale of the slow fall of Gondor (and Numenor before it, but I'll try and stick to the better-known parts for my non-Tolkienite readers). Gandalf states that the Kings of Gondor began to neglect the rule of their kingdom: 
The old wisdom that was borne out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high, cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of Kings failed, the White Tree withered, and the rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men.
 (Quote pulled from the movie, but there was something almost identical in the book)

"Lesser men."

Despite the fact that the stewards of Gondor ruled well and wisely for a long time, they are "lesser men" because they don't have that noble (lower-case n) blood. And despite the fact that the Kings of Gondor fell into folly, they were still "greater men" because of an accident of birth. Actions don't matter, only blood.

How offensive.

It could be said that Tolkien actually meant all this as indicative of the fact that blood-inherited nobility is drivel, because his nobles so often do fall into folly (and some of his greatest heroes who happen to be descended from greatness also struggled through great adversity, such as Aragon, and could have "learned" his greatness through that). I certainly think that he saw beyond an inherent belief in the greatness of noble lines. However, I also think - perhaps because of his own life, being both British and from mid-upper class - that at least part of him bought into it. I see it too often in his writing - doers of great deeds traced back to other doers of great deeds.

This post has already gotten long, so I'll close with one last point and continue the matter some other time: This lineage deal isn't entirely empty, but it isn't primarily because of blood. Some things are inherited, but it is my belief that nurture is the more important half of nature vs. nurture. Greatness of many kinds can be taught, and learned, and it is obvious that the children of Noble people would absorb some of it by the example of their parents. However, the children still need to earn Nobility for themselves (and historically speaking, being brought up as spoiled, entitled little shitbags ruins the lessons).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Lineage and more on the Weight of History

I've been splitting my time lately between writing and another of my great loves - game design. Having recently discovered the wonders of pygame (a code library for Python that, amongst other things, supplies graphics rendering and input handling) I dusted off some old design files to see which project might benefit from these new tools. I chose a game that I'm currently calling Patrician, where you assume control of a noble family in a classical-era city state. Think of it as trying to capture the feel of the Roman Republic circa 300 BC.

Reading - and subsequently expanding - the design docs for the game, I realized that my love of that "Weight of History" feeling extends in great part to games, as well. I love strategy games that take place over a huge amount of time, like Civilization or some of the Total War games. I love being able to remember the humble beginnings of my empire and the struggles I had to go through to make it survive and thrive.

My designs for Patrician reminded me of Rome: Total War (which has a sequel coming out soon). In that game - in fact in many of the Total War games - your empire has a leader, who is complete with a family tree. Many of the people in that family tree are also characters you control, generals on the battlefield or mayors in your cities. They had various traits and abilities which were affected by what you did with them.

This family lineage could grow quite large in the end. I vaguely recall a couple of games that I played, start-to-finish, which had four or five generations with a few dozen "characters." You could trace the descent of your current emperor from your first one, whether or not he was a blood relative or married in or even if he was adopted into the royal line (a la Octavian, aka Augustus Ceasar).

These are powerful catalysts for story. History, after all, is story. I intend to integrate the same sort of mechanic into my games where appropriate. Certainly in Patrician, where it will fit perfectly - and  of course, the same sort of thing has its place in stories as well. Inheritance, lineage, descending from powerful legacies, and of course nobility itself are all interesting subjects with a vast amount of romanticism surrounding them. Interesting enough, in fact, that I think I'll need to make them their own post...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Weight of History

If there is one thing that Tolkien is still the unmatched master of (as far as fantasy writings go) it is capturing the weight of history in his works.

Of course, by the time he actually wrote The Lord of the Rings, he had already formulated much of the history of Middle Earth. Doriath, the Dagor Bragollach, and the Fall Of Gondolin were already in his head, and when he referenced them his readers could feel the completeness of them. I remember reading the dialogue between Sam and Frodo somewhere in Mordor, where one of them mentions Morgoth and Beren, saying something like "that was a greater deed in darker times."

Wow. Here I was with the most incredible tale I'd ever read, and the characters within are telling me that Middle Earth has seen worse. Somehow, it did not detract from the present situation. It did not really make it seem lighter in comparison. Instead, the world became just that much more real to me, knowing how much history I had yet to learn.

This has, and likely always will be, one of the feelings I most wish to capture in my own writing. I don't know that there is really any short cut but to simply have that history for my worlds. Not that this is a problem. Practically every writer I've ever spoken to makes up more to their creations than ever makes it out onto a page.

With all this in mind, I sometimes find it amusing that my currents planned novels are largely separate from each other. Except for the Wandering Tale, few of the projects I have planned are interconnected. Clanless is set in a new continuum, as will be the book directly after that. It isn't that I don't want to expand those worlds - I always do. I have a couple "BIG EPIC TALES" that I want to write someday. Their length could easily rival Jordan or Martin (though, being independant, I intend to have them done faster).

One especially has been living in my head for over a decade already, and I have pages of notes, scenes, drawings, etc for it. The history is expanding, growing, both back and forward from the main story. While I tell other stories and sharpen my skills, it ripens, until the day I'm ready to bring it fully to life. Just as Tolkien did.