Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Heirs and Graces
Plots involving the restoration of a True Heir and the concomitant dislodging of a usurper are staples of high fantasy and historical romance. It's usually a given in such stories that the usurper is evil, and that the heir is a good egg. But of course there's no reason why either of these should be the case. True, the usurper is by definition guilty of usurpation, but in other respects they might be a capable, fair-minded ruler and have many private virtues, and may even have had plausible reasons for usurping in the first place - for example if the previous ruler was a tyrant. As for the heir, it's likely enough that a life spent brooding on what has been taken away from them will have warped their moral sense to an extent. Resentment and desire for revenge are likely to be the hallmarks of any realistically rendered usurpee. But you wouldn't guess that from the literature. And even in history, the vindictiveness of returning kings (e.g. Charles II) tends to get relatively overlooked, perhaps because historians too are seduced by the romance of it all.

Shakespeare has quite a few usurper/usurpee pairings: Macbeth and Malcolm, Frederick and Duke Senior, Claudius and Hamlet, Antonio and Prospero, Richard III and Edward V, Bolingbroke and Richard II. Richard II comes closest to challenging the stereotypes, with Richard and Bolingbroke both having their fair share of faults and virtues, and a relationship best summed up as "It's complicated". Hamlet, as I've frequently maintained, gives us Shakespeare's greatest villain in its title character, which is an interesting variation, and Malcolm at least conducts a thought experiment with Macduff in which he asks whether he would still be worth supporting if his character were worse than Macbeth's - the conclusion being that he would not. But that contingency remains in the realm of the hypothetical.

But it's not to Shakespeare that we should be looking for a serious interrogation of this topos. It's to the republican writers of fantasy and romance, surely? And particularly to those writers who like inverting fantasy cliches for fun. But here's where my lack of reading (and possibly memory) shows up. Where are the stories in which an evil True Heir attempts to take back the throne from a good usurper? I don't think Diana Wynne Jones ever attempted this kind of inversion, exactly - did Terry Pratchett? Did anyone? And if not, why not?

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Thank you! I've not read either of those, but will seek them out.

That seems a very reasonable argument.

I took a look for Glorifying Terrorism and found that it's become hideously expensive. Is there any hope of another edition? Does Rackstraw Press still exist?

Edited at 2015-05-17 03:46 pm (UTC)

fjm would be the person to ask, but since it was published in response to a specific measure by the last Labour government, my guess would be no. Perhaps a new edition may be provoked by the present lot's recent statements, however?

All apologias for the historical Richard III, with their concomitant denunciations of Henry VII, fall into this category.

True enough. And the same applies to Cromwell fans' feelings about the Restoration.

Well, Pratchett has the good true heir, Carrot, who recognizes that the city is better off under the pragmatic..."usurper," Vetinari. But he also has the true heir who doesn't want to be king (Tomjon), and the sort-of-heir/usurper who turns out to be quite good at it (Verence) in Wyrd Sisters. Not exactly the thing, but I'll keep thinking.

Tolkien's Unfinished Tales has an heir who refuses the throne, something more common in real life than fiction. (It goes to the next heir in line.) Later on, the same story has one of the classic Bad Usurpers, who brings the entire kingdom crashing down, quite literally.

I can't think of one that does precisely that, but Pushkin. and thus Mussorgsky's BORIS GODUNOV, has a guilty but essentially virtuous and repentant usurper and an true heir who actually isn't but has been conned into thinking he is, and is the tool of bad people.

And de Musset's LORENZACCIO becomes totally corrupted by the effort of living at the usurper's court.


Thank you.

It occurs to me that a lot of the more hagiographic stories about George Washington essentially treat him as a Destined Heir, under the theory that all kings are usurpers. I don't remember Cromwell getting that treatment, but I don't know that period as well, and there might well be some ultra-Roundhead book out there in which he does.

Cromwell might at any rate be seen as a good usurper, with the returning True Heir bringing back all the corruption of the ancien regime, up to and including rotten boroughs...

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Ah, that's such a wonderfully ambiguous poem...

George R R Martin springs immediately to mind. The current ruling family usurped the last one in an armed rebellion because they were batshit crazy. Then one of the kingdoms secedes because the new lot are also fairly horrible. I mean, it's Song of Ice and Fire, there's rebellion and crazy rulers and pretenders all over the place, but it definitely deals with that. And with the ambivalence the populace has to the idea. (Jaime is still 'Kingslayer' and criticised for breaking his oath to a king that wanted to burn people alive and whom everyone agrees they are better without. It's complicated.) I have many issues with ASOIAF but that's a thing it does very well.

It does seem like I've read another one somewhere, but can't think of what it is off the top of my head.

Jaime is still 'Kingslayer' and criticised for breaking his oath to a king that wanted to burn people alive and whom everyone agrees they are better without.

Monarchy is full of such double binds, alas!

It's true.

There is also a True Heir, though at one point when she's raising her army to take back her ancestral homeland she says the common people have been waiting for her, and her advisor explains that the 'common people' really don't give a crap about the historical dynasty, they want low taxes and a decent harvest.

Well, I say 'a' true heir. There may be half a dozen of them. Who knows.

Where are the stories in which an evil True Heir attempts to take back the throne from a good usurper?

Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius (2001–) has actually been running a variation of this theme. The protagonist Agatha is the last known direct descendant of the Heterodynes, a powerful family of mad scientists who ruled (and transformed, and experimented on) much of Europa over the centuries; with the exception of Agatha's father and brother, the heroic "Heterodyne Boys," they were all pretty much supervillains. Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is the frequently questioned tyrant of present-day Europa—a political situation he forcibly welded together out of the horrific chaos of the last civil war—and views Agatha from the start as a threat to that fragile peace, meaning he's been various flavors of antagonist no matter what's going on in the rest of the plot; he is also a sympathetic character who hates administration, misses doing research, loves his son, and is genuinely entertained by all the popular representations of himself as either a brutal despot or an ineffectual buffoon. And in fact, albeit partly due to factors beyond her control, Agatha's reclamation of her heritage has plunged Europa back into war and threatens to destabilize the rest of the globe when she gets there. The comic has been in a slump for the last couple of years as far as I'm concerned, which makes me very sad, but I retain a deep fondness for the main characters and their world and the Agatha-Baron dynamic was a huge part of what hooked me early.

[edit] Derp: Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy. Chief Minister Cabbarus is a bona fide evil usurper whose overthrow is a victory, but the happy ending of the last book is the abolition of the monarchy, because the lost heir Mickle recognizes that she's not a better alternative and neither is the system she represents. That's still an outlier in fantasy as far as I'm concerned.

Edited at 2015-05-17 06:57 pm (UTC)

Thanks - it sounds fun! Does Agatha have any particular reason for reclaiming such a dubious heritage? Does she feel it's her destiny, or family duty? Is perhaps the only way for her to stay alive?

Thanks - it sounds fun!

It is! I fully recommend you read it; I just feel I have to warn that I feel like we're in a filler arc right now and we've been here for some time.

Is perhaps the only way for her to stay alive?

The latter, primarily—as the lost heir of the Heterodynes, she is of interest to every power player in Europa (and most of the wannabes, too). If she wants not to be a pawn (or a corpse), her only alternative is to take power.

The Westmark trilogy was not what I was trying to remember earlier, but you are so right.

"I would have given them a republic...."

Now in another genre, there's _Brat Farrar_, _The Ivy Tree_, _The Prisoner of Zenda_, and several others who flashed through my mind while I was hitting Reply, where the (sometimes only apparent) usurper or fake is good, and is applauded and re-accepted when revealed. Or worthwhile and/or gets reformed, as in _The Music Man_ or _Going Postal_.

Back to serious fantasy, in _Saint Camber_ the official hereditary king is a front for the real person/s in charge. Very cruel to the king; with all that illusion power, Camber should have done the impersonation himself and left the real king in his monastery.

Edited at 2015-05-17 05:25 pm (UTC)

Thanks! Those examples provide one half of the equation, at least - and your Saint Camber example reminds me that DWJ's posthumous The Islands of Chaldea has a somewhat similar behind-the-scenes ruler.

I know I've read it, and more than once, but my memory is in images, not words, alas. If I get a chance I'll try to cruise my shelves.

I do think Kushner and Sherman's Fall of the Kings is the best example I know of what you're looking for, but Fall is like Hamlet. It doesn't say outright, this character is a villain and his plan is villainous. It leaves the judgment calls as exercises to the reader.

Pratchett's Cosmo Lavish I suppose, if you consider Vetinari a 'good' usurper..........

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