It’s easy to write in the history of one’s fantasy world, or at the conclusion to a happy story, that the land prospered under the rule of a wise king and/or queen. But after the many-times-removed Heir of Elendil has been plucked out of the wilds of Eriador, where he has presumably been studying macroeconomic policy, international relations and urban planning at the knee of Elrond, what does he actually do? And let’s not get started on appointing a bunch of schoolchildren who stumbled into the kingdom through a magical wardrobe.
Many a fantasy writer has described at great length the politics by which various factions struggle to amass power for themselves and their cronies (Game of Thrones, say) but few have detailed the policies by which their kingdoms might prosper. One might presume these policies to be similar to those of the mediaeval and classical societies that inspire most fantasy worlds, but even the most successful of these societies endured widespread poverty, slavery, warfare, and disease.
So, what’s a ruler to do if he or she wants to preside over a land of plenty? Even modern governments, with the benefit of hundreds of years of experience and theoretical development compared to their mediaeval counterparts, differ markedly on matters like how healthcare ought to be paid for, how education ought to be provided, at what level the citizens should be taxed, and so on. And even if the King of Gondor has determined the design of the education and healthcare systems, established a mutually beneficial trade agreement with Rohan, and made peace with Mordor, he still needs to answer some tough questions that don’t easily trouble his modern counterparts.
Consider magic. Most fantasy worlds portray magic as an innate ability of its possessor. Should the kingdom require more magic-users to serve its economy, it can’t increase the supply of them by sending bright young things to Hogwarts. If magical ability is passed down by blood, might the kingdom be tempted to embark on a Bene Gesserit-style breeding programme? Or perhaps a blood transfusion programme in worlds where vampires and werewolves are as powerful and cool as they are in Anne Rice novels?
And what of equality of opportunity where some citizens are born with a ‘gift’ that makes them vastly more powerful than ordinary citizens? Is the ‘gift’ just magic-users’ good luck, or should the kingdom impose a ‘magical resources tax’ to extract some of that luck for public purposes?
Many a fantasy world has dealt with this dilemma by banning magic outright, perhaps out of superstitious fear (as in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series) or fear grounded in past misuses of power (as when Luke decides to destroy the Jedi texts in The Last Jedi). Yet, from a modern perspective, it’s hard to imagine a child being shunned because he or she showed a special talent for computer programming or carpentry, say, or even for writing speculative fiction. In fact, we usually celebrate such people.
A magical resources tax, on the other hand, might make particular sense if the performance of magic involves drawing on some public resource, such as the Jedis’ Force. In this case the tax simply represents paying for access to a public resource. The tax might also be justified on grounds of fairness if magic-users gain their powers through no effort of their own (as when inheriting them). Either way, however, it’s not immediately obvious how such a tax might be collected. Do magic-users turn over a certain amount of money for every spell they cast? Are they compelled to produce a certain amount of magic for public purposes?
If the kingdom is willing to impose a magical resources tax, might it also consider compelling those born with the gift of healing to serve in a public healthcare system? If not, might those with friends in the right places receive magical healing while the public system hands out bunches of herbs? And if healing is performed by channelling the power of gods, as in Dungeons & Dragons, is it the kingdom or the god(s) who get to decide healthcare policy anyway? Getting one’s healthcare bill through a hostile Senate might be a piece of cake compared to defying the gods!
On the downside, one can imagine magic enabling all manner of crimes not available to modern-day criminals, ranging from the kind of practical jokery and theft enabled by Bilbo’s ring of invisibility through to the mass arson available to his enemy, Smaug. Might the kingdom need to consider ring-control legislation or a tax on whatever foodstuff it is that causes fire on the breath?
Then again, magic might enable just as many ways of preventing or at least detecting crime—who needs grainy closed-circuit television footage when you can just ask the mirror on the wall?
Speaking of magical rings and treasure hoards, is an adventurer who happens to find a Ring of Power lying around in a cave entitled to take possession of it, or is he or she obliged to return it to its original owner (or heirs, if its original owner is not an immortal spirit or wizard)? Or should the state assume ownership of unique artefacts of national significance?
If the kingdom’s ruler or anybody else is in possession of a unique artefact or power, how should he or she deploy its powers? Being able to draw on the Deep Magic or Holy Grail might be handy for a kingdom or its heroes, but advocates of small government might be unimpressed by such exercises of state power. Yet the Deep Magic can’t be privatised and selling off the Holy Grail would presumably only transfer the exercise of power to someone else. And might reliance on the Deep Magic result in other sectors of the economy lying undeveloped, in the manner of ‘Dutch Disease’ said to inflict modern economies when intense demand for a single resource makes developing other resources uneconomical?
Another kind of resource-induced devastation is the one in which rivals fight wars over who gets to control some source of magical power. One might wonder if the world would be better off without the damned thing, so as to end the fighting and get on with normal economic and scientific development. The Council of Elrond does just this when it decides that Middle-Earth would be better off without the One Ring.
Even more mundane resources might pose challenges for the world’s economy or fairness. Smaug, for example, seems to subscribe to a brand of mercantilism, holding that the economic goal of the Lonely Mountain is to accumulate as much gold (or whatever stands for money) as possible. But this gold represents an enormous amount of wealth being taken out of the Middle-Earth economy, apparently for no better purpose than giving Smaug something to sit on: the modern equivalent might be to accumulate billions of dollars so as to place a fine-looking bank statement under a pillow. Nor do any tax inspectors or customs officials seem to be bothered when Bilbo brings home enough treasure for him to live in comfort for the rest of his life, while the roads along which he went there and back again are presumably paid for by the hobbits who remained labouring in the Shire.
The kingdom might instead try to discourage useless accumulation of gold through a wealth tax, applied to the total wealth possessed by an individual rather than income or transaction, in the hope that ‘use or it lose it’ might encourage Smaug and his kind to use their wealth more productively. In the absence of a very brave team of tax collectors, however, a more devious ruler might try to undermine the economic value of gold by using a different metal or a fiat currency as the basis of the economy. Gold might even be made completely valueless if the kingdom’s alchemists can produce so much of it that no one can stand to have any more.
Adventurers bringing home treasures of questionable providence could of course be made subject to ordinary income tax but might be also subjected to a windfall tax applied to unexpected or unfair gains that result from unusual market conditions. If our adventurer simply stumbled upon a magic sword in a cave or acquired it through the machinations of otherworldly beings beyond his or her comprehension, he or she can hardly complain that having to pay tax on it would discourage effort.
Many fantasy worlds contend with cultural clashes between humans, elves, and other sorts of humanoids together with dragons and the occasional talking animal. It can be hard enough for modern governments to reconcile differences between humans who speak different languages or subscribe to different religions but are nonetheless all members of the same species with the same fundamental biological needs. Imagine the plight of a kingdom whose citizens might differ as much from humans as Neanderthals or chimpanzees, who don’t just speak a different language or worship different gods, but have different biological needs for food and climate, and who may perceive the world in a whole different way or have radically different capacities for thought and communication. And what does the kingdom do with orcs and dragons, traditionally portrayed as having an innate desire to kill and to hoard gold, respectively?
Probably the most common solution employed in fantasy worlds—as it is some extent in the modern world—is to keep them separated: elves in Rivendell, hobbits in the Shire, orcs in Mordor, and so on. Even multi-racial multi-cultural polises like Ankh-Morpork might resort to dwarvish quarters, trollish quarters, and so on, catering to each species’ particular habits. Perhaps this is fine as far as goes but even kilometres of water separating England and France, say, didn’t stop them from fighting a string of wars from William the Conqueror to Napoleon.
A few authors have tried to re-habilitate orcs, dragons and even the undead in various ways. Maybe orcs would be a friendlier bunch if they didn’t grow up under the tutelage of Morgoth and Sauron; to this end Tom Holt’s recent novel An Orc on the Wild Side (2019) features the enlightened King Mordak, who recognises that sending his subjects to die in endless wars is not the path to orcish prosperity. The Dragonlance novels have dragons on the same spectrum of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as the other species, and Robin Hobb has them foreign and aloof but not actually malicious. Discworld has its ‘black ribbon’ campaign by which vampires can get along with everyone else by swearing off blood.
If the ruler cannot simply write species with more tractable natures into existence, however, he or she might choose to treat them as an invasive species or pest. Some may voice moral objections to the killing off of intelligent creatures, often in a not-particularly-humane manner, but characters like Beowulf presumably reason that if either Grendel or the Danes are going to be killed, it might as well be Grendel (and mother). And anyone worried about the resulting species loss might consider that the only smallpox left in the modern world is in two laboratories allied to the World Health Organisation.
Otherwise, perhaps dragons and orcs could be left to themselves in nature reserves surrounded by suitable warning signs of the sort seen around areas inhabited by bears, tigers and crocodiles. Mordor National Park, anyone?
Finally, if they’d ever heard of modern liberal democracies like Australia, the citizens of fantasy worlds might wonder if they really want to be ruled by an unaccountable despot at all, rightful heir or not. As cynical as one might be about modern politicians, the electoral system provides at least some level of accountability more systematic than hoping that Conan might find time in his schedule to overthrow the evil wizard.
Many fantasy despots do take advantage of advisors, though said advisors turn out often enough to have agendas of their own that have nothing to do with improving the lot of the citizens. A few fantasy realms are ruled by councils such as the one that rules over the Land in Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. But it’s still not clear how these rulers’ clubs are held to account by their citizens and less kind authors might refer to them as oligarchs.
Implementing constitutional monarchy and universal suffrage might be a step too far for the typical fantasy world. But a people-minded ruler might at least consider methods of monitoring public feeling more sophisticated than one of those scenes where the ruler adjudicates disputes between subjects or goes about the town dressed as a peasant—if for no other reason than that such methods seem hopelessly impractical for a kingdom containing more than a few hundred citizens.
Perhaps a less vain queen could ask the mirror on the wall who has the highest GDP per capita of them all?, or a king anxious to see that everyone shares in the kingdom’s prosperity could ask his wizards to compute its Gini coefficient and social mobility statistics. A seer with knowledge of the future might even be able to envision the outcome of altering tax rates or building new infrastructure, not to mention give accurate estimates of the time and cost to complete projects.
Then again, maybe no one wants to read about how Prince So-and-So made wise investments in the magic sword industry, or how Queen Such-and-Such kept the flying carpets running on time. Don’t we read fantasy in order to have, well, a fantasy?
This article was first published in Aurealis #129 www.aurealis.com.au