Journal 001 | Too Many Kings, Not Enough Cobblers
In my attempt at becoming a legit writer these past few years, two of the genres I've been most interested in studying are epic and heroic fantasy, which are typically filled with tales of gods and goddesses, the divinely destined, great kings and queens and princes and princesses and the like. I'm also fascinated (and possibly even perplexed) by the obsessive focus on royalty, and all of it's associated traits, in these stories and what they say about the way in which humanity contextualizes identity and or defines what it means to be a success and or valued.
- Growing up, my great aunt Bernice would constantly tell me that I'm a king, or that I'm descendent from them, in order to instill a sense of self worth and confidence in me.
- Most of the stories I read as a small child started of with, "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful / mighty *insert nobility*..."
- A common term of endearment for one's child is "my little prince" or "princess."
- The idea of making it in life is often marked by the desire to "live like a king."
- Christian doctrine refers to Jesus Christ as the "King of Kings" and "The Lord of Lords."
- A lot of my friends, in seeking a mate say they are looking for their "king" or their "queen."
- My favorite (and THE greatest) movie of all time is The Lion KING...the supreme illustriousness of which is NOT up for debate!
I mean, it makes sense. In our culture, these words signify power, importance, status, prosperity, purity, blah, blah, etc, etc. And at some point in our lives, we all want to feel like we're special in some small way. We want to feel like the most important person in the room, or to know that our existence means something -- that we have a purpose and a destiny, or that we are secretly otherworldly, godlike or divine...or whatever.
For me, the older I get, the less my great aunt's words resonate or even mean anything. Technically, just about everyone alive today is descended from a king, somewhere -- I mean, these people fucked A LOT and often left behind a assload of illegitimate children. Genghis Khan allegedly bedded so many women that 0.5% of the world's population can trace their lineage to him.
Most importantly, I don't particularly find pleasure in rose tinted feudalist power fantasies. I am no god. I am no king and it means nothing to me to be descended from one. Even better, I am a human being -- big brained fragile flesh and bone remnant of star stuff! Even better, I'm an artist...a designer to be specific -- a visual storyteller! That is my identity. That is my craft. My craft is useful to people; it pays the bills. I source my sense of purpose and confidence from this. You could say it's my religion. It gives me supreme confidence and covers me in a peace-of-mind I've never known anywhere else (hence the little guy with the umbrella...fyi).
Even though we almost all assuredly distrust the 1% -- even though we dream of and romanticize the idea of supreme revolution and the downfall of "the establishment," the vocabulary we tend to use to instill pride and "specialness" within ourselves and our kin is often a marked reflection of "the establishment." Some of us don't really want to tear down this establishment, we want to BE the establishment -- to know what it feels like to be that powerful -- to be seen as slightly better than or above another person or group of people.
In college, I attended and or organized dozens of talks related to black American societal issues, where, like clockwork, someone would proudly shout the perplexingly vague and abstract phrase, "we are all kings and queens." It's difficult to unpack the origins and psychological nuances of such a declaration in black American history, or how little sense it makes anymore for that matter. Nevertheless, a lot of black people draw Basquiat's crude crown above their heads. Everyone wants to build an empire. Disturbingly, everyone wants to be a classist monarch...like, everyone...at the same time...in the same space.
The latest interpretation of this mindset comes in the form of the word "Negus," which is a royal title in the Ethiopian Semitic languages and used in a recent Kendrick Lamar record to subvert the use of the word "nigga" and encourage black men to call themselves kings instead. As much as I want to appreciate the sentiment, it's an unproductive and outdated metaphor that, outside of the context of monarchy, makes absolutely no fucking sense if you think about it for more than three seconds, but I digress. It's almost weird to try and imagine people at these kinds of talks saying anything along the lines of, "Let's all be experts in our chosen fields of study!" or "I'm a strong black marine biologist!" or "I want to be a motherfuckin' botanist!"
You know...useful stuff.
If you have small children, do you tell them they're princes or princesses, kings and queens? Have you ever asked yourself why you call them that? How often do you ask them what THEY wish to be? or what they want to do with there lives when they grow up? How do they respond? If they say something crazy like, "Spaghetti Space Witch," it's cool...so did I at that age! Let their minds wonder; encourage their shenanigans!
Sooooooo...what does all that have to do with writing...
Stories are how us homo-sapiens relate to and connect with the world around us, how we most effectively communicate messages: warnings, history, morals, etc. The ardent focus of these stories on individuals who rule from an immaculately constructed throne of precious jewels as opposed to those who built said thrown or those who day in and day out work their hands to the bone to give something substantial back to society, says something about the way we view ourselves and or what we wish to be.
However, as a storyteller, I'm more interested in the lives of the proletariat than I am with those of the aristocracy. There are thousands of stories about gods and goddesses and kings and queens and princes and princesses -- the politicians of their day -- or often times humble knights or simple folk who are destined to become these things. But what about the sculptors? the painters? the bakers? the stonemasons? the architects? the shepherds? the poets? the fisherman? the mathematicians? the astrologers? the authors? Why do their lives and stories often take a back seat to those of their perceived betters? Why so often do epic tales produce protagonists who are told "hey; you're special...just because." Why not, at the very least, explore the ramifications of such a claim in depth? Why end with such an extreme absolute -- the character becoming some sort of ambiguously divine leader, who's successors will most certainly...not be insane power hungry fuck ups?
Why not just a really good swordsmith or a master potter? Not as interesting perhaps at first, but, o' the fun of being creative!!
I'm fascinated by the world before agricultural monopolies and organized religion, before feudalism and monarchs, where tribes of people named themselves based on the natural resources around them and the useful skills they mastered. I'm more interested in griots and shamans and hunters and gatherers, than I am of pharaohs and sultans and lords and ladies -- the arbitrary goings on of the upper caste nobility, deemed special and above everyone else, because they were born into the right family or because of the wealth said family accumulated, as opposed to actually possessing any useful skills...other than manipulation.
For many, one's sense of identity, comes from the command of one's trade -- the knowledge that their particular set of skills, honed over a period of time, have value within their nation/tribe and or to nature. For some cultures, this is the source of the surname -- John Mason (John the mason); Alana Archer (Alana the archer) it was essentially their title -- something they took immense pride and honor in, and in turn, these people would pass that skill and identity down to their sons and daughters, or to an apprentice.
Stories of gods and nobility are epic and riveting romantic dramas, and full of individuals destined to bring peace to a ravaged land -- selfless brave individuals fighting valiantly for a just and noble cause -- wise beyond their years and beloved by all. However in reality, more so often than not, kings and queens were selfish, savage, narcissistic, petty, greedy, inbred megalomaniacs. Gout use to be known as a rich man's disease...a king's affliction.
Regular folk do epic shit too! Regular folk do awesome shit even! It's debated whether or not, Shakespeare -- one of the most important playwrights in human history -- was of noble birth, because "SURELY a lowly commoner couldn't have written anything as tragic and beautiful as Macbeth!"
I enjoy stories that play with the these tropes -- deconstruct them and build the narrative back up into something a little more honest. Recently I read an article on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (thanks Eric!), a section of which discussed the ways in which Martin plays with are idealistic notions of nobility.
“In the context of romantic high fantasy, the show’s sado-masochistic narrative engine had a moderately subversive purpose. The Starks were nobility who were actually noble, and they embodied the daydream that powers High Fantasy: the romantic belief that Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses are Good People, that being good and being high not only go together, but do so naturally.
The first book is built around the lead-up to Ned Stark’s death; the next two books lead up to the Red Wedding, which kills or scatters all the good guys. It’s tragedy because the end is predetermined: as long as the Starks are who they are—honorable, noble, and just—they are doomed to lose at the game of thrones.
To play the game of thrones, you have to play to win; you have to kill your darlings. If you don’t, you’ll die. The Starks don’t; they die.”
- George R. R. Martin
As I mentioned earlier, the high born aristocracy of various ancient kingdoms -- from Mali, to Egypt to Rome, to Japan -- were all essentially high born politicians completely disconnected from the lives of lower class society and shaped history in their image in spite of the ramifications those choices had on their subjects. So when I'm reading less nuanced tales of noble lords and ladies, it's hard not to roll my eyes at the relative absurdity of their moral purity, and remind myself that history is almost always written by the victors. To be fair, what idiot, wanting to inspire a millennia of strength and loyalty, would have the archives speak ill of their deeds -- underlining their weaknesses and faults? Kings and queens can be aggressively strategic and sensible liars, at best, I'll give them that.
but I digress...(am I using that right?)
I'm more interested in social realism -- the stories of simple blacksmiths, or the stories of storytellers themselves -- which use to be an important-ass-job in antiquity. Griots, for example, were West African historians, storytellers, musicians and or poets. They were the keepers of oral tradition and history and often seen as a societal leaders and respected for their craft and their wisdom. They don't get enough admiration in modern culture, in my opinion.
Stories of great kings overshadow the hundreds of beautifully simple, sometimes dark, pagan (which means: of the country, associated with individuals who don't adhere to Christian, Muslim or Jewish doctrine) folk tales of mythical creatures interacting with the common folk in colorful ways. Some people will go on and on about king or pharaoh whoever-whats-his-face, sitting on his throne, pointing his crooked inbred finger as the lower classes break their backs to build crap for him. They often completely neglect or ignore the intimate and much more relatable (human) pros of vulnerability and nature and love and loss and life and death, to be found in the tales told by people doing all of the damn work...if they are aware of them at all! These are the vestiges of a rich oral culture that flourished before the advent of Empires.
For example, aziza are fairies based in Dahomey mythology (present day Benin...which is in West Africa). Living in the forest, they provide good magic for hunters. They gave useful and practical knowledge to people, including knowledge of the use of fire. The Aziza are described as little hairy people and are said to live in anthills and silk-cotton trees.
Another example of good ass folk shit are Selkies. These are Irish/Scottish creatures who are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. Stories about them are generally romantic tragedies. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their life, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she must shed seven tears into the sea. If a man steals a female selkie's skin she is in his power and is forced to become his wife. Female selkies are said to make great wives, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she finds her skin she will immediately return to her true home, and sometimes to her selkie husband, in the sea. Sometimes, a selkie maiden is taken as a wife by a human man and she has several children by him.
In these stories, it is one of her children who discovers her sealskin (often unwitting of its significance) and she soon returns to the sea. The selkie woman usually avoids seeing her human husband again but is sometimes shown visiting her children and playing with them in the waves.
If you're interested, watch Song of The Sea...good stuff.