Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Revolution and the Levee-En-Masse--In Westeros

On my alternate-history site, the board member whose handle is Faeelin asked why there isn't enough left-wing fantasy.  He said a common trope is a lone hero with an aristocratic bloodline (even if he's raised by peasants or something that makes him more down-to-earth) who defeats evil and establishes a more benign  but still-feudal order.  He quoted the British author Charles Stross:

My problem with high fantasy is this: I come from a nation that has a real, no-shit monarchy and aristocracy. Consequently you get to learn about this stuff in high school, and see its stilted echoes on the TV news every week. Monarchism, the default political stance of high fantasy, sucks. We have a term for its latter-day incarnation: we call it "hereditary dictatorship", and point to North Korea for an example. From the point of view of most of the population, your typical fantasyland is not a utopia. Anything but! And to make matters worse, the traditional format of a high fantasy novel is that some source of disruption threatens to destabilize the land; it is up to the hero (usually it is a 'he') to set things right and restore the order of benign tyranny to the world. Fantasy, in short, is frequently consolatory, and I don't get on with it.

Faeelin asked why there's not a lot of high fantasy depicting peasant pikemen butchering mounted knights and the like.  There are the novels 1632 and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court that feature a strong denuniciation of feudalism, but those are time-travel and more science-fiction than fantasy.

We got into a big discussion covering various topics, including how exactly one could organize a more democratic order in a feudal society like Westeros, the realm of A Song of Ice and Fire, and the possibility of a successful peasant revolt there.  The board member whose handle is Thande (whom I actually met in person when I studied abroad in Great Britain) said the peasants wouldn't have sufficient armor and weaponry and even if they outnumbered the nobles' armies ten to one, they'd still get massacred.

In response, I cited the Battle of Mello, which I first read about in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.  Here's the the Wikipedia article on the battle, although I would really recommend people read the book anyway.

At the battle, the peasants formed a real battle line with archers behind the infantry and reserve cavalry instead of simply being a big mob that would break and run before the nobles' cavalry and get exterminated.  The nobles refused to attack the peasants at first and instead captured the rebel leader via treachery.  They attacked the demoralized, leaderless peasants then and massacred them.  Had the peasant chief not fallen for the nobles' lies, the peasants would have had a real chance at winning.

So I theorized a successful Westerosi peasant revolt would either utilize guerrilla tactics or would have assistance from sympathetic nobles, as the peasants at Mello likely did.  I then devised a scenario that would take place later in the storyline, perhaps after the main events of the series are included.  Here goes...

Basically Rickon Stark, who was taken away by the wilding woman Osha for his own safety, ends up inheriting the North since Robb is dead, Jon has joined the Night's Watch (and is a bastard besides), Bran is crippled, and the other Stark kids are girls.  The Starks are less high-and-mighty over the peasantry, since nobody seems to care that Arya Stark rough-houses with commoners' sons, and if Rickon spends a lot of time among the wildings, he might develop a much greater connection with the lower classes and outsiders of Westeros.

When Rickon becomes Lord of the North (or King in the North, although the Northern cause is in really bad shape at this point), he is more willing to lend a sympathetic ear to lower-class elements who want more rights or representation in governance.  Bonus points if these elements played a significant role in fending off attacks by the Others or the Ironborn and feel they've earned it.

Rickon Stark agrees to these reforms and the other nobles attempt to intervene, seeing this as a threat to the entire social order.  Rickon responds by calling up a full-blown levee-en-masse in the style of the French Revolution, not just a feudal levy of knights, men-at-arms, and whatever peasants they can dragoon.  The northern population, thanks to generally tougher conditions and having to fend off Others, the Ironborn, etc. during the events of the prior novels, makes better soldier material anyway and Rickon Stark would have professional soldiers to train them.  The North is also naturally defensible thanks to the Neck and Moat Cailin, so it would be easier to hold off any invasion from the south.

Rickon Stark becoming the Westerosi version of Simon de Montfort, who rebelled against the king in the name of barons' rights, agreed with lower-class people who used the same arguments against the nobles, and established an elected parliament for both the nobles and commoners, would be kind of cool.  Heck, if we really want to risk Mary Sue-dom for Rickon, perhaps he not only defeats the nobles' attempt to restore feudalism in the North, but becomes a Napoleon figure and invades the south to impose his more enlightened regime beyond the Neck.

(It might be more realistic if Littlefinger, who doesn't have the class pretensions of the other nobles, rose to his position largely on merit, and thinned out the ranks of the Great Houses something fierce with all his shenanigans, took advantage of the destruction of the nobles' armies in the north to pull some kind of coup in King's Landing.  He could then come to some kind of arrangement with Rickon, perhaps via his apprentice/creepy-Catelyn-substitute Sansa Stark.)

Feel free to use this as a fan-fiction idea.


  1. Very interesting stuff. The Battle of Mello you mentioned is particularly cool to learn about; and you've got to think of what-ifs for it.

    I've only started reading A Song if Ice and Fire, but from the vast amounts of spoilers I've read, that seems logical enough for that world.

    And the idea of a fantasy peasant rebellion being lead and fought by actual peasants, and leading to a true republic is a fun idea to explore, thanks for mentioning it.

  2. Glad you liked it. Thanks for the comment.

  3. There's a reason most preindustrial societies are governed by landed aristocracies; the other big alternative is bureaucratic empire, or a combination of the two.

    It's the default state, the most likely alternative.

    The low level of productivity means anything beyond a "tribal democracy" of guys meeting at the Thingstone and beating their spears on their shields, anything involving a higher level of organization capable of greater scale, is going to be sharply hierarchical.

    So even if a peasant revolt were to succeed, it would simply result in the slow reconstitution of the feudal/noble order.

  4. Also, our fantasy genre has its ultimate origins in the literature of the pre-modern period.

    That means it has its roots in a culture with no conception of progress -- one where change is usually for the worse, and history is a declension from a Golden Age.

    In other words, one that doesn't have the Whig Narrative.

    It's also a society where "blood" is taken for granted as being overwhelmingly important.

    Our social conceptions and concerns are simply grossly anachronistic in that context; you might as well show the people listening to iPods, or go the Kevin Costner's Robin Hood whole hog and have what purports to be a medieval nobleman coming up with what amounts to the Declaration of Independence.

    Democracy simply wasn't part of their mental equipment.

    What they were concerned with was dynastic legitimacy and "good lordship".

    What's the point in reading fantasy, if you insist that the characters have the worldview and ethical reflexes of early-21st-century Westerners?

  5. A fair point, especially the earlier you get in the medieval period. That being said, there was some kind of "peasant republic" in Denmark that defeated noble attempts to conquer them.

    My Rickon Stark scenario is more like Simon De Montfort, who *did* call a fairly democratic parliament in the 13th Century.'s_Parliament

    It' s not an American or French Revolution. I don't think Westeros's "Third Estate" really thinks of itself as such and does have the "good lord" attitude--apparently there's a scene in one of the books where the peasants wish Aerys II was still king because the land overall was peaceful even if he *did* do evil and crazy things to the nobles he could reach.

    (I will concede the Littlefinger scenario does seem a bit anachronistic, but Littlefinger was a poor noble who made heaps of cash in the business world, so he's more like a bourgeosie. However, especially at this point in the series, he's also amassed a fair amount of traditional noble power, so he might not rock the boat.)

  6. That's a bit suppository no? New Wngland handled townhouse democracy (still heierarchal but much different than a feudal society) in a preindustrial era. And it's not clear that, say, Westeros This is a world where all Americans, who have familiarity with how a pre-industrial society can run a democracy, start prostrating themselves before kings and other crazy despots.

    (Presumably the culture that emerges writes despondently of the jaded decadent folks who thought that people could choose their leaders).