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08:21 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Great Ideas--;Aristocracy

Finally, at long last, a new Great Ideas post!


thorin_oakenshield_1024x768_by_darkjackal32


Thorin Oakenshield, noble prince of Dwarves


Today’s post is on Idea #3: Aristocracy



First, a bit of history. The Great Ideas list was gathered by Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago. He is the person who compiled the Great Books list that is used by St. John’s College and by Britannica for their Great Books Collection. He defined a Great Book as a book that had had a seminal influence on society and on the writers and philosophers who came after.



Adler analyzed these books to see what made them great. He discovered that Great Books contain Great Ideas. He made a list of these ideas.



The third idea is Aristocracy, which means: rule by the best. This is the concept that the best of men rule over the rest of mankind, and that they hold their superior position by right of their superior natures.


We would all like to be ruled by the best of men. Far better than being ruled by dweebs! But how do we find these men? The word Aristocracy is most often associated with the belief that people are born better or worse and that the sons of the best of men will be better than the sons of lesser men.



Much could be said on the topic, but today we are examining the subject as writers.  In the real world, I doubt anyone will argue with me if I say it’s pretty clear that virtue is not conveyed by birth. But in our fictional world, we authors have control over whether or not this is the case.



If we wish our princesses to be the best of women, they will be. If we wish all aristocrats to be slovenly pigs, they will be.



A writers stance can be pro or con. Or even, both at the same time. Let’s look at both approaches separately.





The Case Against Aristocracy.





Why would an author want to make aristocrats look like bozos?





To emphasize the importance of equality before the law.





We are not born better or worse than one another. We are of equal worth.





One way of emphasizing this is by demonstrating in fiction how those who seem to be better do to improved circumstance are not better in character or quality.





The people of a class society often believe that their ‘betters’ actually are their betters—something that is hard for Americans to believe or understand. But, by showing the vices and foibles of the rich and powerful, we are reminded that these folks have to chew their food one bite at a time and walk with one step in front of the other, just like rest of us.





So if we make our hereditary rules fat and slovenly, perverse in their tastes, unnaturally cruel, absurdly callus, or otherwise horrible, we reinforce the concept that a fine birth does not assure fine qualities.





A famous example is King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. They differ from version to version, but they are nearly always vile in some new and inventive fashion. Robin Hood, living in the forest, stealing from the fat cats and giving the wealth to the poor symbolizes freedom and the rights of man, while his oppressors are the worst and most corrupt of men.





People often forget that Robin Hood was actually Robin of Locksley, Earl of Huntingdon–aristocrat himself, and not a common thief at all.





Which brings us to our second option.







The Case For Aristocracy.





Why is it that, before the tale is told,  Robin Hood turns out to be a Lord, the spunky waif is revealed to be the lost princess, and the dark mysterious stranger turns out to be the heir to the throne of Gondor?





If we are, in truth, equal, why show aristocracy as good? Why glorify a faulty concept?





The answer lies in the very nature of storytelling.





Sometimes, we want a reminder of what is good and bright and best in mankind. (Mankind— there’s a word you don’t see everyday. “Unless you’re us.*”) We want to remind our readers what a man can truly be. Of nobility, courage, virtue, and the other qualities that we all strive for, but few actually achieve.



What easier way to do this than to portray nobility at its finest: a princely prince, a knightly knight.





Why a knight and not a pig boy?





Or, perhaps more appropriately, why does our favorite assistant pig keeper grow up to be a king?





Because books only have so many pages.





Really? You say?



Really.





In a story, we writers must put across our ideas simply and quickly. We must find a way to communicate our purpose to our reader, and we must find a way to allow our main character to have dominion over the plot. A king has much more ability to affect the outcome of events than a foot soldier. A lord has more opportunity to decide whether to live nobly or go astray than a poor farmer.





To show the best of men, we put them into the situation that most tests their meddle. The easiest way to do this is to make him a king and her a princess.







Noble Is As Noble Does





In both the Lord of the Rings movies and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the thing that made the otherwise really beautiful and well-done movies nearly unwatchable for me was the poor handling of the characters who were, in the books, the most noble and dignified.





In particular: Aragorn and the High King, King Peter.





As a child, my favorite character in Tolkien was Aragorn, and my favorite character in Narnia was Caspian, followed by Peter. So, I was particularly devastated when they were show as whiny, uncertain, and overly emotional.





(As a brief aside, this was apparently a theme with me. My favorite character in the Hobbit was Thorin Oakenshield. My favorite character in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Durathror the Prince of the Huldrafolk. My favorite character in the Moomintroll books was Snufkin. I always thought of him as the MoominStrider.)





So, is it impossible to show noble characters well on film?





Not at all. In fact, it is done very well over and over again today. By the Japanese in Anime.





One also sees it occasionally in British films. The Japanese and the English, both peoples with a long history of a noble class, seem to grok nobility in a way that the Americans and New Zealanders just do not.







The Test of the Best





The other reason to write about aristocracy is to remind those living today that the world has not always been as it is now.





The below passage is a quote from my latest novel, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. However, this particular passage was actually written by my friend, Bill Burns. Nastasia Romanov, Princess of Magical Australia is the speaker. She is talking to Salome Iscariot, the richest girl in America. Miss Iscariot has just bragged that she is much richer than the pauper princess.





“Undoubtedly true, Miss Iscariot. I never dream about mere money, and beyond the borders of my own kingdom I am a pauper, as no foreign nation recognizes the currency of Magical Australia. That fact is, however, irrelevant. Money cannot buy blue blood, nor does a lack of wealth diminish it.” The princess spoke graciously, unfazed by the other girl’s show of temper. “Royalty comes with duties and obligations not required of those of common birth. Though we enjoy many advantages, our lives are not our own, but belong first to our country and our subjects. No matter how much wealth your family gathers, it cannot make you royalty, nor even nobility.”





I recently read this to another adult, who exclaimed in surprise, “What kind of duty is could she be talking about?”





He had never considered that those born into positions of authority might have obligations beyond those that weigh upon the rest of us.





However, Princess Nastasia goes on to say:





“However, there is no shame in being common, no insult in the term, nor does being born to high station make me better than anyone else. Only our actions, how we measure up to the duties we were born to, determine our worth. If you allow yourself to be groomed to take over your parents’ financial empire, you will, perhaps, assume duties similar to those required of a royal princess and might one day rise to be the greatest and most worthy of commoners.”







In Closing





We write about those held up to be the best, both to show their virtues, to remind ourselves of what men can be ,and to show their foibles, to remind ourselves, as Princess Nastasia aptly put it, that it is our actions that determine our worth.





It is the playing out of this conflict, between nobility of position and nobility of soul, that make aristocracy a Great Idea.







What are some of your favorite high born villains in books or movies?



What are some of your favorite noble noblemen?





Which movies do you think get it right?







*An extra five points to those who recognize the “Unless you’re us” quote.


Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:February 22nd, 2013 04:18 pm (UTC)
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What are some of your favorite high born villains in books or movies?
Dracula, as portrayed by Gary Oldman. He is horrid in many ways, yet one can not look away and feels sympathy for his fang-gnashing over his lost love, who does remember him somehow.


What are some of your favorite noble noblemen?
Captain Lord Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar from Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor
The Chieftain in the Wind in the Lion as played by Sean Connery. Barbaric in many ways yet noble and the heroine comes to see this.


Which movies do you think get it right?
You may laugh at this one, but Charleton Heston in The War Lord was better than most. I know, the "first night" rite of which they speak is controversial from a historical perspective, but he had the sense of duty down, even when he struggled with it.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 22nd, 2013 07:25 pm (UTC)
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The Wind in the Lion is a great one! I am not familiar with most of the others.

I once saw Frank Longelo (Skeletor from the He-Man movie) play Dracula live...but I haven't seen Gary Oldman's version.
[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:February 22nd, 2013 07:40 pm (UTC)
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He (Gary Oldman) is not all that attractive on a normal scale, but he has magnetism. Here's a clip of some of the interactions between him and the heroine. Wasn't crazy about the actress they chose for Mina, but... at least she's the right age, etc.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQeluPqycKI

In an interview, Oldman said he saw it rather as a Beauty and the Beast tale.
[User Picture]
From:jordan179
Date:February 22nd, 2013 04:34 pm (UTC)
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Because books only have so many pages.

People often miss that when they try to take a "diversity" approach to characterization. For instance, if one writes a 3000-word short story with only three major characters and none of them are Hispanic, that in itself is not a meaningful critique of the story, even if there are plenty of Hispanics in the story verse. There is no way that a short story with three characters can include anything like an average representation of all the people in your story verse. Same thing for a story with two aristocrats, one who is admirable and one despicable.

Now, if one writes a story with a dozen aristocrats, and almost all are admirable or almost all despicable -- that might tell us something about a point the author was making about aristocracy.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 22nd, 2013 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Exactly!
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:February 23rd, 2013 01:09 am (UTC)
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I've heard leftists to the point of Marxism complain that writers have main characters to their books and don't write about collective groups of people -- and dismiss out of hand the problem I raised of aesthetic difficulty that writers could do it if they wanted.
[User Picture]
From:jordan179
Date:February 23rd, 2013 07:07 am (UTC)
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The only example I know of any writer successfully doing anything like that was Olaf Stapledon, and in each case he used a self-insertion of himself as first-person narrator and viewpoint character. He did this in Last and First Men, Last Man in London and Star-Maker: essentially, whole civilizations and species were treated as characters. Stapledon was a Fabian Socialist, but that's not why I think he chose to do this: it was because he was treating of themes so large in space and time that he had no choice but montage. Other of his books, such as Sirius and Odd John, were written with more conventional characterization.
[User Picture]
From:cmzero
Date:February 22nd, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
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An extra five points to those who recognize the “Unless you’re us” quote.

"Demons. That's something you don't see every day. Unless you're us." - pretty sure it was Xander Harris, and was definitely one of the Scoobies

Which segues into an interesting question: is the Slayer an example of aristocracy? Selected not elected, inherits power from the prior Slayer without necessarily doing anything to earn it. And there's a lot of "heavy is the head that wears the crown/wields the stake." We also see in detail at least three Slayers (and in the last season, a mess of Slayers-to-be), and their different approaches to the role -- Kendra, for whom Slayerhood is everything, Faith, who abandons the job when she stops enjoying it, and Buffy, who splits the difference by respecting the responsibility but trying to live a little on the side.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 22nd, 2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
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I do think you could make an argument for 'Chosen Ones' being a kind of Aristocracy. The Chosen One has the same exaggerated ability to affect the world around him that a leader has.
[User Picture]
From:jordan179
Date:February 23rd, 2013 07:08 am (UTC)
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(*agrees*) Consider who is the main character of the New Testament.
[User Picture]
From:houseboatonstyx
Date:February 22nd, 2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
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Lord Peter Wimsey, and the Granthams of Downton Abbey (at least during the war episodes). The Granthams may benefit by the pace of the film, but it's very good to see them reflexively, instantly, doing the right thing -- as though having been raised from infancy to have only those 'instincts' (and the resources, emotional and practical, to support them).
.

Downton shows the other side too: insularity, preoccupation with frippery.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 22nd, 2013 07:26 pm (UTC)
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I have not seen any Downton Abbey. I gather I'm missing something.

I do like Lord Peter Wimsey.
[User Picture]
From:houseboatonstyx
Date:February 22nd, 2013 08:11 pm (UTC)
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Ohh, yes! We just got Netflix, so we can finally see Downton. Worth starting at the first, or very near; the very first few episodes are snippy and repellant, but around the middle of the first season it gets into stride, and the war episodes (season two) show everyone at their best.

We've got to 1918. We'd been avoiding spoilers, but finally I caved.

Me: I went ahead and read the synopses. I could tell you one thing, if it wouldn't spoil the suspense for you.

B___: Go ahead.

Me: England wins the war.

B___: You've been planning that! For HOURS!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 22nd, 2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
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LOL

That is hilarious!!
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:February 23rd, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
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One element of the suffering soul being revealed to be of royal or noble blood is that a goose girl who's raised to be the princess is just plain lucky, while a princess who's forced to become a goose girl and then raised has suffering an injustice, which is then put to rights. A symbolic shorthand for "this is not merely bad but evil."
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 23rd, 2013 02:12 am (UTC)
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Very good point! I had not thought of that.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:February 23rd, 2013 07:23 pm (UTC)
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Another thing aristocrats can have is clout. If what a writer is primarily interested in is people's choices, nobles, or royals, are delightful, because they can be depicted with fewer outside constraints on their behavior, and so their acts, for good or evil, take on new meaning.

Don't have to be -- constraints can be plentiful -- but it's more of an option.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 23rd, 2013 07:32 pm (UTC)
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Very true!
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:February 23rd, 2013 10:06 pm (UTC)
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I have rambled farther on the topic.
[User Picture]
From:princesselwen
Date:February 23rd, 2013 07:55 pm (UTC)
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You summed up the reason I write about so many royals.
It also means that the choices they make can affect more people. An average man's quarrel with his brother affects only their community. A prince's quarrel with his brother can affect the whole country. That makes for more drama.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 23rd, 2013 08:12 pm (UTC)
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Exactly!

The princess or king can just make a lot more important calls than footsoldier number 4862. ;-)
[User Picture]
From:princesselwen
Date:February 24th, 2013 01:33 am (UTC)

Favorite Aristocrats

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"Just because you can doesn't mean you should" That sums up the main conflict of aristocracy right there.
As long as you can convince someone that you're not just writing royalty because of the pretty clothes. :P
Some of my favorite aristocratic heroes:
Books:
Aragorn
Galadriel
Thorin
Bard
Theoden
Eomer
Eowyn
Lloyd Alexander did quite a few good ones, as well:
Gwydion (Prydain)
Mickle/Augusta (Westmark trilogy)
Nur-Jehan (The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha)
Tamar (The Iron Ring)
Princess Isabel (The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian)
C.S. Lewis' Narnian rulers (The good ones, as well as King Lune).
Orual from Till We Have Faces.
King Arlbeth of Damar (Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown)
Tor (same as above)
King Corlath of Damar (Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword)
The Badger Lords of Redwall
Prince Charmont (Ella Enchanted)
Princess Adelina (The Two Princesses of Bamarre)
King Arthur (from T.H. White's The Once and Future King)-
King Midir/Phaedrus from Rosemary Sutcliff's The Mark of the Horse Lord-
His wife, Murna
Sabriel and Touchstone from the Abhorsen trilogy.


Movies:
Kuzco (The Emperor's New Groove)
Padme Amidala
Princess Leia
Rapunzel (From Tangled).
The Emperor from Mulan.

Aristocratic Villains:
Books:
Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter. As well as most of the House of Black.
Pryderi from the Prydain books
The Adderhead from the Inkheart Trilogy
Feanor and his sons from the Silmarillion. Not villainous in the beginning . . . but certainly so later. The same thing for Denethor.
Count Rugen and Prince Humperdink from The Princess Bride
A few Redwall villains that claimed some title
Liadhan from Rosemary's Sutcliff's The Mark of the Horse Lord
Duke Conrad and Baron Montmollin--The Westmark trilogy.

Movies:
The Emperor from Star Wars
Loki from Thor and The Avengers.

I'm starting to see a pattern here . . .


Edited at 2013-02-24 01:38 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 24th, 2013 05:20 am (UTC)

Re: Favorite Aristocrats

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Excellent list!
From:mythusmage
Date:February 23rd, 2013 10:29 pm (UTC)
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Aristocracy is not the problem, the problem is the selection of available aristocrats.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 24th, 2013 05:07 am (UTC)
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LOL

Or...perhaps the problem is lack of a reliable criteria for selecting the best.
[User Picture]
From:carbonelle
Date:February 23rd, 2013 11:15 pm (UTC)

Some are born cats, and some achieve catness--

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My favorite aristocrat in fiction is, bar none, Sara Crew, in A Little Princess.

Prince Tirian was my favorite Narnian, but I might have been biased by his choice in best friends :-)
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:February 24th, 2013 05:15 am (UTC)

Re: Some are born cats, and some achieve catness--

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I remember enjoying A Little Princess very much, but I fear it has melded in my head with the various movie versions. I still remember being really affected at a very young age by, of all things, the Shirley Temple version.

I really like the name Tirian.
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