14 September 2011

Political Authority in Children’s Fantasy

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder just wrote about the prevalence of monarchs in children’s fantasy:
In every major book or series I can think of–Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson books, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Gregor the Overlander series–political authority either resides in monarchies or is controlled by some other self-selected group of elites, often with special powers.

A few of the books we’ve read [in the family] have raised tough questions about these authoritarian arrangements and the injustices they entail. Right now, for example, I’m reading the excellent Bartimaeus trilogy to my sixth grader and appreciating the story of popular resistance against a tyrannical aristocracy of greedy magicians. Most of the time, though, poor governance is implicitly blamed on flaws in the character of individual leaders. Villains bring us down, and heroes make things right. Institutions, it seems, are irrelevant.

As a scholar of democratization and a liberal by political philosophy, I really don’t like the message this pattern sends to my kids. Governance is a very hard and perpetual problem, and the parade of gods, kings, and magicians traipsing through kids’ fiction reinforces the authoritarian fantasy that benevolent dictators offer an elegant solution. I realize that fiction isn’t meant to mimic reality, and I understand how these struggles between powerful beings of good and evil make a terrific scaffolding for storytelling. Still, I can’t help but wonder how this steady diet of government by kings and wizards prepares kids to make sense of the politics they will encounter as they grow up.
That’s because those fantasies don’t replicate the larger democratic society in which most of their readers are living. They reflect the smaller, more dictatorial societies of family and school, with rules set by “self-selected group of elites, often with special powers,” called adults.

Furthermore, most children’s novels in any mode focus on individual characters and their choices in life. As a result, they present a world in which individual morality is crucial, pushing institutional structures into the background.

That pattern affects even stories which explicitly promote democratic values, such as the Harry Potter and Star Wars series. Both of those sagas show parliamentary governments in action. However, those institutions appear ineffectual, and dependent on an elite of innately powerful individuals.


Harold Underdown said...

Thanks for this, Jon. Worth chewing over. And I'm thinking hard about fantasies other than the ones mentioned, and haven't come up with any yet that break the pattern...

Glenn Ingersoll said...

They also build on a tradition of fantasy set in kingdoms, the founders of the modern fairy tale being nobles in the French court.

Marilynn Byerly said...

The authors are more likely using the political system as a macrocosm of the nuclear family which, at best, is a benign monarchy, at worst, a dictatorship.

An excellent series that involves politics and children helping bringing down a totalitarian government is Madeleine L'Engle's WRINKLES IN TIME. It also has a strong Christian context.