Returning the King: the Medieval King in Modern Fantasy

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Virginia Tech

In an interview with Hy Bender, Neil Gaiman states, "We have the right, and the obligation, to tell old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories." While fantasy stands apart from other types of fiction, it still provides a particular kind of commentary on the culture/time it is being created in, often by toying with older themes and conventions. Stories of the quest for kingship tend to fall by the wayside in favor of the "unlikely hero" tale. While the king's story is not always vastly different from that of the hero, there are some key points that need to be taken into consideration. Unlike many heroes, especially in the modern sense, kings (whether recognized at first or not) are born for the duty they must eventually fulfill. A hero may be unaware of the problem at first or later reluctant to engage it; more often than not in tales of kingship there is a deep awareness of the problem and the knowledge of their potential in solving it. There is always a sense of inherent purpose and destiny: they must undertake quests in order to legitimize themselves and their power — their right to rule. These stories bear a similar structure and shared themes that can be found in medieval sources as well as earlier myths.

Tales of kingship in modern fiction, specifically in the work of Neil Gaiman (The Sandman) and George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones), are similar to the medieval models, as kingship and the requirements of kingship were popular themes in medieval texts, including Beowulf and King Horn. The role of the king in epic tales varies from hero to villain, at times even occupying both roles depending on the story. In the tales explored herein and in much of the medieval source material that inspired the fantasy tradition, the king also takes on the role of healer. The interwoven plots of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series revolve around the struggle for the rightful rule over seven kingdoms, and while the protagonist in The Sandman is in many ways vastly different from Tolkien's Aragorn, the character still exists with a sense of purpose, responsibility, and duty; a regal bearing that does not necessarily occur in the majority of typical heroes. The influence of Tolkien's work both as a scholar and an author is apparent in Gaiman's use of mythology and Martin's style of world creation; both authors have admitted their creative debt to and continuing admiration of Tolkien's style of fantasy. It is impossible to discuss modern fantasy without acknowledging Tolkien as an influence to these two more recent authors. This paper will discuss The Lord of the Rings as a bridge between modern fantasy and medieval/mythological sources.

In each of these modern fantasy tales of kingship, healing and reunion become major themes, tied into the right/duty of a ruler. The patterns established by medieval tales are used by modern authors to create fantasy kings, giving their narratives legitimacy that may have been difficult to establish without these patterns and links back to the medieval tradition.

J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings, medievalism, kingship