What happens when an outsider takes the throne? Sometimes, the story of the new kid, who enters a foreign environment and overcomes it through special skills, friendships, and knowledge (Neverwhere, The Harper Hall trilogy), becomes not the just a narrative about an outsider, but a story about power, privilege, and governance. The outsider monarch speaks to the insecurities everyone has when thrust out of their depth and into the spotlight, as well as to the idea that an outsider – someone excluded from the world of power and privilege – could make a difference, if they only had a chance. Stories that feature an outsider monarch are hopeful and affirming, but are they anything other than a fantasy?
The Road to Power
Not every narrative that features an outsider’s rise to power is concerned with the challenges that await after the coronation: similar to the way most romances are more focused on finding love than making a marriage work, novels like Ready Player One and The Return of the King are primarily concerned with the challenges that must be overcome before taking power. Novels of this type are thematic riffs on the hero’s journey, and focus on the overcoming of challenges, rather than on the hero’s outsider status: while Parzival in Ready Player One starts out as a nobody, his status is quickly inverted as his challenges begin, and Aragorn’s life as a wanderer ends when he takes the throne.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, though it takes place in a court setting, is also focused on the period before the outsider’s rise to authority. Narratives that feature an outsider monarch are less about attaining power than they are about holding it, and struggling to govern in a hostile environment: they are new kid narratives on steroids, differentiated not just by higher stakes, but by a protagonist whose uniqueness is based not on an ability to demonstrate special skills and make friends, but on the values that he or she brings to the throne.
The Troubled Court
In the standard outsider narrative (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dragonsong), the initial task when the new environment is entered is to make friends. This is true in stories of the outsider monarch, as well, but in novels with a court setting, like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Goblin Emperor, rules are more formalized, and the help that the protagonist requires is more likely to take the form of an adviser, or a guide: in fact, the complexities of courtly intrigue – as multiple, sometimes duplicitous voices vie for the monarch’s favor – may preclude friendships, entirely.
When Maia – a discarded, half-goblin heir – assumes the throne in The Goblin Emperor, his status protects him from direct aggression, unlike Harry Potter or Menolly (Dragonsong), and though many of his challenges parallel those found in other outsider narratives, as an outsider monarch his journey is a race against time, to maintain power long enough for his reign to be accepted, and for his fresh perspective on class and privilege to take hold.
That a pauper could become a prince is a very American idea (starting with the original Twain story, and movies like King Ralph and Dave), and our history is full of rags to riches narratives, where someone from a lower class finds him or herself in a position of prominence. In The One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Goblin Emperor, part of what Yeine Darr and Maia have to offer is a view of privilege totally different from those around them. Yeine is sickened at the treatment heretics receive at the hands of the ruling class, while Maia routinely shocks everyone around him with his insistence on treating those society thinks of as beneath him with respect.
A person from a lower class elevated to a position of authority is an excellent tool for criticizing the class system, but putting it in context requires a critique of the trope, itself: if we are to take seriously the insight of the outsider monarch, we must also question whether such a monarch could rise to power, or make a difference if he or she did.
Desperation and Hope
Maia, in The Goblin Emperor, makes waves through his egalitarianism, as seen through his empathy with the plight of women, gays, and the lower classes, but though I greatly enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, I struggled with the idea that Maia would have encountered anything other than disdain from the rigid system he found himself in, and accomplished anything more than gridlock. I sensed, running under the narrative, an undercurrent composed of equal parts hope and resignation: hope that a person of a lower class who rose to power could bring change, resignation that the only way that such a thing could occur would be through an accident of fate or an act of violence.
Lately, there’s been a good deal of talk about the wealth gap, and economic mobility. Articles about the plutocrats and the 1% abound, and it’s hard not to perceive a grim subtext to the outsider monarch: a critique of modern governance that responds to a broken but seemingly unassailable system with an unlikely scenario where power flows from the mighty to the oppressed. It’s a nice fantasy, but it makes me hungry to read about revolution.
What is your favorite kind of outsider narrative? Do you believe that an outsider monarch could bring about change?