Come O’er the Sea, Strider

In a lot of ways, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is about rhetoric and grammar at school and university, even more than it’s about being political and religious satire. These were the parts I liked. One of the deepest things they did was having a speaker for the Judean Liberation Front ask the rhetorical question “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, and have the crowd answer him. At length.

In the relentlessly literal part of my brain, I have to say that I often find myself answering rhetorical questions. I find that a lot of science fiction fans also do this. Writers from the other side of the mental tracks don’t seem to realize that it’s a bad idea to raise rhetorical questions with fandom, unless you want an answer and are sure it won’t negate yours. Answers tend to derail the rhetoric, and at any rate, cause us to forget the rest of the essay in order to grapple with the incongruent rhetorical question.

So when N.K. Jemisin (whose first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is a pretty good read if you like actual fantastic worlds and supernaturalness in your supernatural romance) writes an essay on why it’s rather interesting to write fantasy that doesn’t get stuck on standard tropes, I found myself more concerned with the rhetorical question.

Here it is:

“All those stories about restoring a deposed king to a usurped throne, for example — well, what makes the deposed king any better than the usurper? Why must power be kept in the hands of the people who originally had it (and weren’t competent enough to hold it) as opposed to someone new, with better organizing skills and possibly fresh ideas? The message in these fantasies seems to be support the status quo! Don’t question it! Change is bad! What does it mean that we readers find such comfort in these fantasies that we’ve made quite a few of them bestsellers?”

Heh. I think we all sympathize with ranting about the stuff we dislike. But the answers to these rhetorical questions turn the reader perpendicular to Jemisin’s point. “Why can’t I get some different tropes here?” is the better question to ask, because it’s an open question with a variety of interesting answers. All these rhetorical questions do have answers, and Jemisin probably knows a lot of them. Just because she doesn’t like those answers doesn’t mean that others have to share that dislike. (In fact, she could probably be persuaded to like them, if the trappings and the lead-up were right. But never mind. That’s a distraction, too.)

The reason so many fantasies are written about the return of the deposed king is that A) Tolkien did it, B) Arthurian legend’s based on it (at beginning and end), C) Christianity and Judaism both expect a Messiah any time now as part of their core beliefs, D) Homer and Greek myths have deposed kings return a lot, and E) fairly recent history and politics of the post-Reformation British Isles turned on the return of deposed kings several times. So we have perhaps the most influential example of a genre; the Matter of Britain; the foundations of Western civ; and actual stuff that happened in real life in English, Scottish, and Irish history, and thus affected the history of American and Australian settlement, and indeed of all sorts of folks everywhere. If the true king were on the throne, for certain values of ‘true king’, everything really would be different.

So these are the sorts of answers that are distracting readers from Jemisin’s essay:

“Because my ancestors would never have met or come to America if the true king had/hadn’t made it to the throne.” “Because it’s one of the implied truisms of Irish and Scottish rebel music.” “Because King Charles II really did wander the land looking ugly but charming everyone, and he was the first king in hundreds of years not to disappoint English Catholics.” “Because my name starts with Mac or O and thus I am the descendant of kings, and who knows where I’d be if my clan were still in power.” (I think the answer to this one for the romance fans is not so much ‘queen of all I survey’ as ‘surrounded by cute Irish/Scottish guys and lovely scenery’. And of course they know they’re probably common clanspeople, and that their relatives also left because the land was hard. That’s not the point.) “Because Europe has spent more than a thousand years with Camelot as an important symbol of good governance and romance, which is supposed to return when most needed.” “Because ‘He will return to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end’.” Etc., etc.

But heck, this sort of thing is important to the human imagination even beyond the traditional bounds of Christendom and the Jewish world. Heck, lots of things went into the transformation of Shogunate Japan into modern Japan. But its legend, even at the time, was as much about “If the divine emperor had his rights, everything would be different!” as “Crud, we’ve got to find a better way of defending Japan from all these foreigners!” So you can’t get away from it, and it’s unreasonable to chide people for it. It’s as if you were yelling at them, “How dare you walk across gravel as if it’s an uneven surface composed of thousands of discrete rocks!”

Jemisin can choose to write about something different, and that’s fine. (Although actually, that’s exactly what The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is about, and that’s part of why it’s selling well. There’s a lot of witty twists, but it’s definitely a return of deposed people to power. So you still wrote what the market wanted, but in a way it didn’t know it wanted until you did it. Heh. But I agree that writers having fun are more likely to provide me with fun.)

But all you pundits out there — just don’t tell us you don’t know why it is, unless you really don’t. And don’t ever raise a question rhetorically unless you know both the answer, and that it serves your point.

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