NOTE: I do not expect that every writer (or even the majority of writers) would have pro-democratic/liberal/socialist/moderately conservative worldview. I do not expect that every fantasy book would promote democratic values. But I can see that most fantasy literature is quite thoughtless, naive or conservative, when it comes to question of social classes, governing and so. What I only want are some books more progressive in these matters. Darkover series is denifinitely not, and in this part of essay I am going to explain why. Anyway, portrayal of feudalism, monarchy and social inequalities in fantasy (and science fantasy, when it comes to Darkover) books is a good theme for another essay.
Strong Leadership Illusion
Thinking that people can’t manage without Strong Leader and that they cannot govern themselves is typical for ultraconservatives, no matter – in medieval times, at 1800s, thirty years ago or nowadays. It indicates that common people are stupid and weak, and that they need aristocracy over them. It justifies feudalism and social inequalities, and inclines that people need the rules of heavy hand, a whip over them.
Do you think that Bradley would go so far? Well, not entirely. But in her books she tends to idealize and justify archetypical Strong Leaders who are by no means ruling in democratic way. Anyway, according to her, Darkovans do not need democracy. About it – later. Now let’s examine Strong Leaders figures on Darkover.
At first, let’s look on Esteban Lanart, the father of Callista and Ellemir, and – which is the most important – the Lord of Armida and Altons’ lands. He finds Damon Ridenow not masculine enough (as a laranzu instead of a warrior, and Damon is really unhappy about that) and he threatened his oldest son to death, even if indirectly. And he treats his another son – an illegitimate – as a servant. Despite all these faults, Bradley tends to describe Esteban as a bit bossy but loving Pater Familias. I can’t stop seeing him as Esteban Trueba, to be honest. You know, the name, a similar personality, and even a Vengeful Bastard trope would match.
Why I am writing about him? Because through Esteban we can see what Bradley wasn’t able to realize – that too much power in too few hands means trouble, and that Bossy Fathers can really harm their children.
When Esteban got ill after a serious fight, there is nobody to replace him – because he had not trained anybody nor he had had somebody to co-rule or to help. Eventually, Damon becomes the commander of royal Guards (this task belongs traditionally to Altons) and the lord of Armida. The whole situation reveals how hard is to find a new ruler or commander when the whole method comes to one-person-rules. But Bradley sees only that there should be somebody as good as Esteban there – not that the whole system tends to be messy and inpredictable.
And when it comes to Bossy Fathers… Allende will do it better some years later. Well, you do not need even to look at magical realism. Magic’s Pawn by Lackey is enough. Esteban humiliated Damon, threatened his oldest son to death, made a frustrated monster of his bastard child. But nooot, he is so poor ’cause he’d become paralyzed and lost yet another son, and he is sooo good for Ellemir and Callista.
Bard di Asturien from Two To Conquer is another example of Strong Leader in Darkover Series. We’ll got him later, when we come to question of Darkovan feudalism. Okay?
Now let’s examine the most important and profound example – Regis Elhalyn y Hastur (yeah, they really have this Spanish naming custom). He was the only heir to the role of the Regent of whole Darkover. He took part in medical expedition which then would save Darkover. He made chieri cooperate with people again. He could use laran without matrix stone. He wielded legendary Sword of Aldones and for a while, he became the Lord of Light himself. After that, he aged greatly and his hair turned white. He was a homosexual forced literally to inseminate women due to have a heir. He rescued his True Love, Danilo Syrtis, from an Evil Pedophile. He loved Danilo all his live, but he was soooo good towards his own wife, Linnea. Well, I smell Tragic Mary Sue.
What is more, in the books it is constantly repeated how all the good ones admire and love Regis and how embittered ones (like his sister Javanne) and Evil Ones (like Terranan Station Chief Belfontaine) hate or despise him. I haven’t read some crucial books about Regis, but even from The World Wreckers or Traitor’s Sun (he dies then after a stroke) we can make out many things.
What this character lacks is some kind of demythologization. It would make Regis a fictional character written in a better way. Talking that he’d aged a lot ’cause of laran powers, and that he was so helpless after a stroke is not enough. I do not demand another Simon Bolivar from The General in His Labyrinth (although I would read willingly some fantasy evocation of him and his times, knowing that South America is so rare in fantasy fiction. But please not in interpretation of Guy Gavriel Kay! With him, I can easily imagine tons of creepy sex and talking about Destiny all the time). Why I mention here The General in His Labyrinth? Because of two things. At first, Marquez demythologized Bolivar. He showed him sick, ill, frail, embittered and inconsequent. At second, he revealed all these persons behind Bolivar’s success – his friends, military commanders and poor, constantly being betrayed Manuela Saenz (why did you stay with him!?😱Okay, I shouldn’t ask ’cause he is my waifu too).
In Regis’ case, we have none of these two things. His sickness or too-early-ageing is rather romanticized than naturalistic. His consort is shown mostly as a Loving Anchor, not as a political partner, and the same often applies to Danilo. His friends… Actually, Lew Alton is a good example of demythologization, but he is King’s Buddy, not the King himself. And – as I mentioned before – what we need here is a deconstruction of a ruler. What is more, when it comes to these friends, we are repeated how much they want Regis back not only as a person but as The Best Regent too. It applies to his successor Mikhail and his wife Marguerida, to her father Lew, and to her son Domenic (some kind of local John Snow, I would say). It is normal that we are longing for our friends and relatives. It is normal that we may feel insecure on a new and very important post. But all that talking that Regis was the best and that actually nobody could equal him just makes me sicks. Again, the problem of too much power into too few hands. And of something more petrifying. The good ones in Bradley books believe that Darkover would collapse without one-person-rules. Bradley likes Regis so much that she naively believes that feudalism and some kind of absolute monarchy (restrained only by aristocrats from Comyn Council) are good for people. Do not dare to dream about democracy or collective rules. Regent is a Regent and without him there would be only Evil! Terran agents and Evil! revolutionists. And this drives us to another question – portrayal of feudalism in the series.
Feudalism sucks? Not!
This question actually touches the core of our history and of all these democratic changes which have been taking place for the last two hundred years and so. Beware, ’cause I am going to make Evil! pro-democratic propaganda here!
You see, it seems to me that democracy is just better than any kind of dictatorship and any kind of absolute monarchy. If in all these past times there was so much of extreme poverty and inequalities, it was not only due to low medicine level or lack of advanced science. Some people were considered better because of their race, wealthy, sex or nobility. Some other people were treated as Undermenschen. Yes, I am using this fascist term on purpose. Because, believe me, all these concepts of social hierarchy, the better ones and the worse ones, have much in common with fascism. Much in common with slavery and with feudalism. Peasants, burghers, black people, Native Americans, women, religious minorities, Jews, LGBT people and many more – they were all treated as the worse ones because of different kinds of prejudices. And what is more, they were persecuted, enslaved, exterminated, they had not any political rights. Also, many of these groups didn’t use to receive any kind of education, because they were found unworthy of it. It was all thanks to blessed concept of hierarchy and social order.
And, besides, feudalism was nor fair nor worked well. Peasants were suppose to pay a rent or do a serfdom due to use the grounds. Knights and nobles didn’t use to work. They just owed grounds or they were going on a war with a king. And don’t miss all these feuds and so. During all these conflicts, peasants were not protected. Their villages were destroyed by foreign armies, they were killed and women raped. Often it was better to hide among forests than to hide in a castle. And please remember that in all these hierarchical societies, peasants women and serving maids were endangered by rape and sexual harassment. Well, all these things apply to Darkover.
And guess what? Many characters in Darkover series are also damned feudalists. And the whole point of these books seems to be the freedom of the planet from the Terrans, but not the freedom of commonfolk from the Comyn.
Most population of Darkover is illiterate and does not benefit from work of laran Towers – the laran-wielders are mostly preoccupied with mining and sending news from Tower to Tower. And please do not tell me that peasants or craftsmen do not need to know how to read and write. Education is always useful and gives people an opportunity to break the chain of social hierarchy and classism. But, of course, the great Comyn lords have exactly no interest in giving the commonfolk a chance. Oh, yeah, Marguerida Alton has founded two schools in the capital city of Thendara, and she has some friends among craftsmen. And she is considered the most progressive and the most compassionate. Because of these two schools in the biggest Darkovan city. Marguerida is no damned great philantropist, and – on a broader scale – there is nothing crucial in her doing. It is not question of politics but question of simply human decency – to help the less privileged ones.
It probably shows us what problems we have here. Except laran psi powers, Darkover is medieval-like, feudal world. Ordinary people have exactly no representation in the governing Council. Ok, it is even not medieval. In medieval times – in Scandinavia, in english House of Commons, in city-states republics – commonfolk usually had some kind of representatives, even if not numerous. On Darkover, there is nothing like that. The whole power – originally based on having psi powers – goes to the Regent and to the aristocratic Comyn Council. But even in the times of The Forbidden Circle (decades before Regis Hastur is born) most of the aristocracy is laranless. It reminds me of Early Modern Period, when the nobles ceased to be knights, but feudal privileges continued to exist.
What is more, we are repeated that Darkovans are not ready to have democracy. After Terrans departure (described in Traitor’s Sun) the Keepers join the Council (The Alton Gift) but not anybody of the commonfolk. During one of the Council session, Gabriel, Marguerida’s brother-in-law, admits that Darkover needs changes. But he states also that democracy is a corrupted form of governing. Gabriel? I want to kick your ass. On the other hand, there is no wonder that a guy from privileged class – afraid of losing his privileges – is talking like that. Democracy won’t be established on Darkover not because of harsh climate or preindustrial conditions. It won’t be established because the Comyn does not need it. The same applies to common education and other social changes.
Darkover series is nor pro-democratic nor pro-commonfolk. In the Two To Conquer (centuries before the main series), among numerous conflicted Darkovan kingdoms, we have a small state of Marenji. There is no king there and the people choose a ruler themselves. Team Marenji! And guess what? Bard di Asturien conquers it, and it is inclined that it only makes the Marenji people good. Arrrgh… Not to mention that Bard’s father is overambitious, and that Bard is a brute and a rapist bastard himself (but then his raped wife shows him by laran how Evil he had been, and he is converted to the Bright Side). So, remember: independent commonfolk is unnecessary commonfolk.
Bradley goes much further in Traitor’s Sun. In this book there is a group of revolutionists who want to establish a democratic government without Comyn. And guess what? They are lead, of course, by Evil! Terran agents. They are described in an overblown way, and they are Evil! ’cause they hate the Comyn.
To my mind, there is no wonder for such hate. Darkovan commonfolk scarcely benefits from the Towers’ work, Darkovan commonfolk must pay for the aristocracy and lives quite poorly. But not, of course revolutionists must be portrayed as the Evil Ones, as the collaborators and traitors. Bradley? You are closer to Mr. Edmund Burke than to any kind of liberalism or socialism. It is quite funny, because in questions of women, ecology or LGBT people these books are quite progressive (I’ll explain later why quite and not very) but when it comes to social classes and governing, ultraconservatives undercurrents approach. Here we have that typical ultraconservative thinking that commonfolk should nor govern itself nor fight for its rights.
Ordinary people are also not closely portrayed in these books. Terranan protagonists marry aristocrat women or turn out to be connected to the Comyn themselves (Larry from Star of Danger and Jeff from The Bloody Sun). Among native Darkovans, ordinary people have their POV’s in prologues and so, or they have no voice at all. Most stories are told from the Comyn perspective. Love of Domenic Alton-Hastur and Illona, a Keeper from the commonfolk (but even she must be a bastard child of the Comyn) does not change anything. The same applies to the relationship of Gareth Elhalyn (Regis’ grandson) and Rahelle, daughter of a tradesman. These love stories are mainly plot devices made up to show that Darkover is Changing.
It is also worth of notice how the aristocracy is portrayed in the series. It is often shown how poor the noblemen are, because they have So Big Responsibilities, and they cannot Marry For Love. Such a way is quite typical for Making Aristocracy More Human in the literature. You know, show that they are dreaming about True Love and normal life, and so. But what Bradley does not see is the privileged position of her characters. What she does not see is the poverty and humilation of ordinary Darkovan people. She seems to think that Darkovan traditions are good traditions, and she can’t realise that tradition could be toxic itself. Yes, a feminist writer does not see that when it comes to some particular questions.
And one more thing. Usually, aristocrats were not the only social group which couldn’t marry or choose a profession freely. Arranged marriages were common in every social class. Peasants had to look after the grounds, burghers – after developing and sustaining a family business. A wealthy marriage was a good way to achieve such a goal. Parents decided for children, and the same applied usually to the job. Boys were supposed to follow their fathers’ profession, girls – to marry profitably. Since Darkovan society is feudal and patriarchal, too, I suppose there is no big difference. Poor Comyns are not the only ones who cannot Follow Their Hearts or have A Dream Job.