Posted by: kshayes513 | November 6, 2012

Farcical Aquatic Ceremonies and Other Forms of Government

King Arthur: I am your king.
Peasant Woman: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Peasant Woman: Well, how’d you become king, then?
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.
Dennis the Peasant: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
~ Monty Python and the Holy Grail
From this end of a hideously long American Presidential election, the best thing about King Arthur’s farcical aquatic ceremony is that it didn’t inflict months of advertising, sound bites and mostly moronic news coverage on his subjects. Our current system of government and choosing our leaders works well in some ways (certainly better than those of, say, North Korea), and not at all in others (the framers of the Constitution could not have dreamed of a media infrastructure that brings the election into every home, all day for months!)

So today seems like a good day to think about inventing imaginary governments.  Many books do feature governments of one sort or another, because good plots can easily be made of using power, resisting power, and fighting over power.  Fantasy tends to go for kings and lords; while science fiction often goes for massive totalitarian bureaucracies, when it’s not going for fallen civilizations fragmented into armed free towns and warlord territories.

Yes, those are cliches, and they’re cliches because so many people have used them as a basis for imaginary systems of government, without ever looking further. The government, or the throne, is simply there, as actor on the world and its people, and the people act in response. It’s not often that a writer asks where the government came from, why this set of people has this form of government, and whether the government actually does what it is supposed to be doing.

If you’re building a government for your world, here’s a great place to start: what makes a government legitimate? If you’re going to have conflicts about governing power, you must start with a clear understanding of where authority comes from and why people accept it.  And these ideas of  legitimacy must grow out of your world’s culture, or they won’t fit.
Human cultures have looked to everything from right of conquest, to approval from the religious leaders to majority vote of the people, to right of blood descent, and many more sources of legitimacy. Monty Python‘s King Arthur thinks that receiving a holy sword makes him the legitimate king, but Dennis the Peasant thinks government can only come from consent of the governed. Now that’s a basis for a fundamental conflict about supreme power.

Here’s an even better one: we Americans are supposed to believe in the power of the majority vote as the source of legitimacy. But the language of the campaigns shows that we believe in many other sources of legitimacy, and too many of them are mutually contradictory. Does a rich man’s wealth show that he deserves the supreme office, or does it disconnect him so much from the majority of people that he should be disqualified? Is America essentially a Christian country that needs a Christian President, or is it a secular country that needs to stop Christian extremists from forcing their dogmas on the rest of us? Is it a white country that needs a white leader to save it from the tide of brown immigrants  overwhelming the true America? Or is it a country of culturally diverse middle class and working class families that needs to be saved from the greed of the wealthy 1%?

How important are your world’s governing authorities in your story? And what are you doing to make those authorities as believably complex, messy and contradictory as governments in the real world?


  1. I’ve done control by a military/medical complex with a democratically elected front man, a trade confederation and a whoever knows how to do something is the leader on that aspect of village life.

  2. I’ve done a village/tribal structure inspired by village government in one of the hill cultures of Southeast Asia (I forget which one); monarchical ruling authority from the outcome of a game of skill (admittedly it’s a magical game, so the magic bestows the authority); and now I’m doing a government/corporate consortium on a planetary colony. Or rather, I’m watching the colonists try to undo it!

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