kaigou: Roy Mustang, pondering mid-read. (1 pondering)
[personal profile] kaigou
This evening I ended up reading a long essay (originally a speech) which is currently the center of a shitstorm in Britain, wherein a renowned female author appears to criticize the Duchess of... whatever Kate Middleton's the duchess of. Read the whole thing here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n04/hilary-mantel/royal-bodies

It's really a well-written and thought-provoking speech. A few parts jumped out at me:

...I saw Kate [Middleton] becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

[...]

I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.

[...]

As I prepared to go to the palace [to receive a medal], people would say: ‘Will it be the actual queen, the queen herself?’ Did they think contact with the anointed hand would change you? Was that what the guests at the palace feared: to be changed by powerful royal magic, without knowing how? The faculty of awe remains intact, for all that the royal story in recent years has taken a sordid turn.

[...]

In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself. This poses a challenge to historians and to those of us who work imaginatively with the past. Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.

I would've thought the hardest part of writing a story about a royal character would be, idk, probably his sexuality and his gender. That's actually rather easy (relatively) since it's not like I don't have a sexuality and gender myself with which to extrapolate. (I'm not claiming I'm doing it right, just that it's not like I'm writing about an alien or something.)

But reading Hilary Mantel's speech, it really leaps out at me that as someone who didn't grow up in a culture where there's royalty (even figurehead-mostly royalty like Britain), I just can't seem to get it. The way Mantel describes being at an exhibition attended/hosted by the queen, and everyone's reactions -- I don't have even the remotest similar experience. I've met my share of celebrities, in fact, and while sometimes a little intimidating because hello Peter Murphy, it wasn't that hard to at least be polite and say hello.

It's not like it's monolithic in the UK, of liking (or disliking) their royalty. Don't get me wrong on that count. But even then it does seem like Martel's put her finger on something, that on some level, royalty exist to a) be stared at, and b) have kids. That does kind of make Kate Middleton someone whose existence now really can be reduced to a baby-making machine. (And it's what made the Japanese princess so freaking miserable when she just couldn't successfully baby-make to the imperial satisfaction.)

Do you think that kind of perception (of "our" royalty, whomever that might be) can exist alongside royal family members having some purpose other than, y'know, baby-making and being stared at? Do you think it's different for royalty like, hrm, the Kings of Morocco and Thailand (where they seem to retain enough power to be more than simple figurehead)? Or even when a king's job was to actually manage and/or supervise a lot of the governing, or s/he had more say in the governing, or the days of actually having battlefield experience, was the king still seen as something remarkably Other and supra-human?

From a writing point of view, it's easy enough to mimic what I see in historical fiction and/or historical texts. You do this, you say this, you can't do this, you can't say this. That kind of basic etiquette is usually pretty clear. What I'd missed was what Martel puts her thumb square on: the fear (or anticipation) that one will be changed by powerful royal magic, without knowing how.

If a Japanese citizen were to meet the Emperor -- who has a quadruple-whammy what with that child-of-the-gods thing -- it seems to me that perhaps this meeting wouldn't just be, y'know, some meeting. Even if the emperor does act like just one more politician and/or manipulator, through the eyes of a citizen, it's a meeting touched by some other magic. Looking at it through Martel's words -- and boy is it obvious she deserved those Booker prizes, to make me grasp something I've always missed -- it's not simple etiquette that made people kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground. It was being in the presence of something mythical, in a way.

Which is kind of hard to write, knowing the audience is (may be) mostly US-based. We tend to find other country's royalty fun to watch, but it seems to be tempered with a smug knowledge that we did kind of leave that sort of thing behind, several centuries ago. It's like visiting a museum. There's respect because the thing is archaic and therefore of interest, but beyond being a quaint curiosity, it has little impact on our lives. Even what we call American Royalty (ie the Kennedys or the Rockefellers) have never gotten that automatic hat-tipping knee-bending reaction; at most, they're objects of faint interest who sell tabloids.

I think I can see that in my writing the Overlord (equivalent to the Shogun), the Emperor, the Emperor-apparent, and the Queen and her consorts. My personal attitude of the royal being just one more person under the fancy dress probably does fit a royal raised in the same environment. But it really doesn't fit the reactions Martel describes, that would be a regular person in the same room as one of those royals. Like when I have some no-name girl hold a spear and threaten the Emperor. She might do it, anyway, but it's the aftermath when she realizes what she's done -- wouldn't there be more of a shock, to think you'd risked heaven's wrath because you threatened a child of the gods? If even a benevolent interaction with the Queen makes modern folk wonder about some kind of magical supra-normal, how much more it must be, if the interaction is less than benevolent?

(For the sake of the story, I'm willing to bypass this if the friendship originated without knowledge of the royal status, which sets a tone of the friendship that might adjust but isn't entirely dislodged once status is known.)

Hmm. Thoughts?
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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