Finally, at long last, a new Great Ideas post!
Thorin Oakenshield, noble prince of Dwarves
Today’s post is on Idea #3: Aristocracy
First, a bit of history. The Great Ideas list was gathered by Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago. He is the person who compiled the Great Books list that is used by St. John’s College and by Britannica for their Great Books Collection. He defined a Great Book as a book that had had a seminal influence on society and on the writers and philosophers who came after.
Adler analyzed these books to see what made them great. He discovered that Great Books contain Great Ideas. He made a list of these ideas.
The third idea is Aristocracy, which means: rule by the best. This is the concept that the best of men rule over the rest of mankind, and that they hold their superior position by right of their superior natures.
We would all like to be ruled by the best of men. Far better than being ruled by dweebs! But how do we find these men? The word Aristocracy is most often associated with the belief that people are born better or worse and that the sons of the best of men will be better than the sons of lesser men.
Much could be said on the topic, but today we are examining the subject as writers. In the real world, I doubt anyone will argue with me if I say it’s pretty clear that virtue is not conveyed by birth. But in our fictional world, we authors have control over whether or not this is the case.
If we wish our princesses to be the best of women, they will be. If we wish all aristocrats to be slovenly pigs, they will be.
A writers stance can be pro or con. Or even, both at the same time. Let’s look at both approaches separately.
The Case Against Aristocracy.
Why would an author want to make aristocrats look like bozos?
To emphasize the importance of equality before the law.
We are not born better or worse than one another. We are of equal worth.
One way of emphasizing this is by demonstrating in fiction how those who seem to be better do to improved circumstance are not better in character or quality.
The people of a class society often believe that their ‘betters’ actually are their betters—something that is hard for Americans to believe or understand. But, by showing the vices and foibles of the rich and powerful, we are reminded that these folks have to chew their food one bite at a time and walk with one step in front of the other, just like rest of us.
So if we make our hereditary rules fat and slovenly, perverse in their tastes, unnaturally cruel, absurdly callus, or otherwise horrible, we reinforce the concept that a fine birth does not assure fine qualities.
A famous example is King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. They differ from version to version, but they are nearly always vile in some new and inventive fashion. Robin Hood, living in the forest, stealing from the fat cats and giving the wealth to the poor symbolizes freedom and the rights of man, while his oppressors are the worst and most corrupt of men.
People often forget that Robin Hood was actually Robin of Locksley, Earl of Huntingdon–aristocrat himself, and not a common thief at all.
Which brings us to our second option.
The Case For Aristocracy.
Why is it that, before the tale is told, Robin Hood turns out to be a Lord, the spunky waif is revealed to be the lost princess, and the dark mysterious stranger turns out to be the heir to the throne of Gondor?
If we are, in truth, equal, why show aristocracy as good? Why glorify a faulty concept?
The answer lies in the very nature of storytelling.
Sometimes, we want a reminder of what is good and bright and best in mankind. (Mankind— there’s a word you don’t see everyday. “Unless you’re us.*”) We want to remind our readers what a man can truly be. Of nobility, courage, virtue, and the other qualities that we all strive for, but few actually achieve.
What easier way to do this than to portray nobility at its finest: a princely prince, a knightly knight.
Why a knight and not a pig boy?
Or, perhaps more appropriately, why does our favorite assistant pig keeper grow up to be a king?
Because books only have so many pages.
Really? You say?
In a story, we writers must put across our ideas simply and quickly. We must find a way to communicate our purpose to our reader, and we must find a way to allow our main character to have dominion over the plot. A king has much more ability to affect the outcome of events than a foot soldier. A lord has more opportunity to decide whether to live nobly or go astray than a poor farmer.
To show the best of men, we put them into the situation that most tests their meddle. The easiest way to do this is to make him a king and her a princess.
Noble Is As Noble Does
In both the Lord of the Rings movies and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the thing that made the otherwise really beautiful and well-done movies nearly unwatchable for me was the poor handling of the characters who were, in the books, the most noble and dignified.
In particular: Aragorn and the High King, King Peter.
As a child, my favorite character in Tolkien was Aragorn, and my favorite character in Narnia was Caspian, followed by Peter. So, I was particularly devastated when they were show as whiny, uncertain, and overly emotional.
(As a brief aside, this was apparently a theme with me. My favorite character in the Hobbit was Thorin Oakenshield. My favorite character in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Durathror the Prince of the Huldrafolk. My favorite character in the Moomintroll books was Snufkin. I always thought of him as the MoominStrider.)
So, is it impossible to show noble characters well on film?
Not at all. In fact, it is done very well over and over again today. By the Japanese in Anime.
One also sees it occasionally in British films. The Japanese and the English, both peoples with a long history of a noble class, seem to grok nobility in a way that the Americans and New Zealanders just do not.
The Test of the Best
The other reason to write about aristocracy is to remind those living today that the world has not always been as it is now.
The below passage is a quote from my latest novel, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. However, this particular passage was actually written by my friend, Bill Burns. Nastasia Romanov, Princess of Magical Australia is the speaker. She is talking to Salome Iscariot, the richest girl in America. Miss Iscariot has just bragged that she is much richer than the pauper princess.
“Undoubtedly true, Miss Iscariot. I never dream about mere money, and beyond the borders of my own kingdom I am a pauper, as no foreign nation recognizes the currency of Magical Australia. That fact is, however, irrelevant. Money cannot buy blue blood, nor does a lack of wealth diminish it.” The princess spoke graciously, unfazed by the other girl’s show of temper. “Royalty comes with duties and obligations not required of those of common birth. Though we enjoy many advantages, our lives are not our own, but belong first to our country and our subjects. No matter how much wealth your family gathers, it cannot make you royalty, nor even nobility.”
I recently read this to another adult, who exclaimed in surprise, “What kind of duty is could she be talking about?”
He had never considered that those born into positions of authority might have obligations beyond those that weigh upon the rest of us.
However, Princess Nastasia goes on to say:
“However, there is no shame in being common, no insult in the term, nor does being born to high station make me better than anyone else. Only our actions, how we measure up to the duties we were born to, determine our worth. If you allow yourself to be groomed to take over your parents’ financial empire, you will, perhaps, assume duties similar to those required of a royal princess and might one day rise to be the greatest and most worthy of commoners.”
We write about those held up to be the best, both to show their virtues, to remind ourselves of what men can be ,and to show their foibles, to remind ourselves, as Princess Nastasia aptly put it, that it is our actions that determine our worth.
It is the playing out of this conflict, between nobility of position and nobility of soul, that make aristocracy a Great Idea.
What are some of your favorite high born villains in books or movies?
What are some of your favorite noble noblemen?
Which movies do you think get it right?
*An extra five points to those who recognize the “Unless you’re us” quote.