Privilege—as a concept, a racial or economic barrier, or an unfair advantage for some—has captured the current zeitgeist's most progressive thinkers, sparking debate on the ethics of what is fair and unfair advantage. I touched upon the idea of privilege in TheGuardians of Aandor series since the feudal nature of the alternate universe lends itself easily to the discussion, though I applied a light touch so as not to be preachy. Escapist fiction (unlike literature like A Handmaid's Tale) is easier to digest when complex concepts are subtly woven into the story and do not hamper the narrative flow.
Power is hereditary in our heroes' alternate reality. Hence, privilege in its original and purest sense versus the more murky social-science construct of white privilege, which is a divisive topic and ramps discourse up to the level of argument. The constructs of white privilege do exist in the story metaphorically, though, with nonhuman races—dwarvs, centaurs, gnolls, etc.—symbolically in the role of disenfranchised/marginalized people in our world. As Man encroaches on their lands, resentment is high among the disenfranchised, and we feel this in the interactions between nonhuman and human characters. Men have drawn their maps and swallowed whole other tribes within their lines. They were able to do this because they possess sorcery. In this regard, the situation is similar to the European colonial period, with magic taking the place of advance technologies and economics. (And didn't Arthur C. Clarke say that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.")
In book one, Awakenings, these refugees from a medieval universe end up in ours and get amnesia. Thirteen years later we're introduced to them as what became of them here absent the hierarchy that perpetuated their original station at home. I tried to present this as realistically as possible.
The knight, a noble lord from a respected land-owning family, becomes a police officer in the Bronx. Cops are somewhat knightly in that they follow a code to protect the populace—to "protect and serve." But as a beat cop, Callum is firmly entrenched in a middle-class existence, with a middle-class wife who grew up in New Jersey—a far cry from being captain of the guard and near the top of Aandor's power structure. In Aandor, Callum was champion of the jousts and betrothed to the most desired noble lady in the kingdom. So what happened? Why was he not able to replicate his wealth and status in our world? Callum still has mostly the same skill sets in our reality that he had in Aandor; he may not know his name or origin, but he can still fight well and has a good mind for tactics. Callum’s psychological character remains consistent; however, it never manifested a will to dominate. While his tactical acumen is good, he's not the greatest strategist, and even if he had that skill in his wheelhouse, the drive to rule is not there. Privilege of his birth afforded him a station in life he may never have accessed on his own had he been born to peasants or tradesmen.
In the second book, The Lost Prince (TLP), a bevy of new characters find vocations similar to the ones they had in Aandor, but the reward structures for their careers are vastly different. A lute player for the archduke becomes a guitarist for a top-40 band (poor in Aandor, rich here); a pagan cleric becomes a Southern Baptist minister (middle class there, poor here); a scholar becomes a university professor (poor there, middle class here), and a refugee dwarv becomes a billionaire industrialist who builds weapons and armor for the pentagon (poor there, really rich here). There's a point in the story where the power dynamic is in question. Callum, a lord, was in charge of the guardians when they came to our universe, but Malcolm has surpassed him in wealth and resources. What's more, he runs a $20 billion conglomerate and is used to being in charge. This causes tension. None of these characters came from a privileged class, yet three of them are better off in a free-market democracy, using essentially the same skills.
Everyone and everything in a feudal system serves the nobility. Lords sop up the wealth of a nation by lashing labor and creative persons to their concerns and benefit greatly. (And many argue the top 1% in the U.S. do the same.) Artists in the 1300s didn't have customers, they had patrons to house and feed them. As technologies and republics emerge, ruling classes eventually atrophy from this type of arrangement (watch Downton Abbey), but in the Guardians of Aandor books it's an instantaneous switch for the heroes with dynamic contrasts within the characters' lifetimes.
One of the villains of the series, Balzac Cruz, is actually trying to overthrow the monarchies of the empire in favor of forming several republics. The scholar, self-described as the smartest man in Aandor, was "allegedly" harmed by his lord patron when just starting his career—losing his wife and child in the affair. In any other story, his motivations would be that of the hero, but his execution and ruthlessness make it hard to sympathize with his cause. (The hero/prince in this story is modeled after Plato's philosopher king, whom Plato describes the ideal ruler. Balzac appeals to Daniel Hauer (the prince and MacGuffin of TLP) in book three, Blood of Ten Kings (BoTKs), and argues, what about who rules after the good king dies, or several generations down the road? With hereditary rule, there's no guarantee they will be moral, wise, or just.) Toward the end of BoTKs, Daniel is stuck with an earworm of Balzac's proselytizing, and realizes the kingdom needs to evolve. He grew up in the United States, away from the life that was his birthright and therefore uninfluenced by, and wary, of that privileged existence.
Everyone loves an underdog though, and I couldn't resist throwing in a character that represented the nurture versus nature argument. Daniel represents the other side of the argument (and not as popular) with regards to privilege—that maybe it's earned regardless of what situation you were born into. There are certainly plenty of children and descendants of wealthy people who never match their ancestors' level of success and even end up destitute, despite the advantages of their birth. Daniel was an infant when the guardians arrived in our reality. He's a true monarch, yet knows nothing about his role or the alternative universe he came from. In Awakenings, Daniel is lost in our foster care system, being raised by an abusive alcoholic dad and a pill-popping mother. Yet he acts nobly under pressure. He's fiercely loyal and protective of his friends. He's a romantic and dreams of a better life. Daniel aspires to greatness, and never at the expense of others. He's princely to the bone despite having grown up outside the hierarchy that propped up his family in Aandor. He's also magic neutral, meaning he can neither use it, or be affected by it, so no supernatural advantages for him. In this character, I allude that some people are born to greatness despite disadvantages—despite their privilege. This idea is represented in the real world through individuals such as President Obama, Opra Winfrey, Ursula Burns, and Kenneth Frazier.
I am at heart an optimist and a realist at the same time. In the discourse about privilege in America, I hear both extremes digging in and refusing to budge from their viewpoint. The reality is gray. Both are right, both are wrong. In my series I tried to address the social and economic standings of the characters as realistically as possible. Obviously, if Callum MacDonnell had been a black character, I would have had to write him differently. He would have faced a different set of circumstance in an already difficult life. That's just the truth of it.
The best stories are relate-able when they denote real world situations. Lord of The Rings was as much about the horrors of World War I and the industrialization of killing machines as it was about wizards and Hobbits. Who are the Hobbits if not the lower classes, the "simple folk" who pay the consequences for the wars of the privileged?
One of my favorite lines in Awakenings is when Seth Raincrest—a malcontent and general pain in the ass—discovers the whole invasion in Aandor was over a breeding program between competing noble houses: "This is why I'm homeless? Why Joe's dead? Our lives are turned inside out because of a handful of privileged brats with super-charged family trees playing pass-the-chromosomes. Who else bought the farm so these creeps can act like the Kennedys of Tolkien land?"
I hope this piece inspires non-fantasy readers to seek out speculative-fiction, even if not mine. Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have written some excellent stories that also serve as social commentary. No story is entirely make-believe. Thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing your views about this subject or the book series.
Edward Lazellari is the author of the Guardians of Aandor trilogy from TOR Books. The final book Blood of Ten Kings drops December 4th. He has written for Playboy and Marvel Comics and lives with his family in The Garden State.
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