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Law in Fantasy Literature:

Lawprof Dave Hoffman has an interesting interview with fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss on the portrayal of law in the fantasy genre.

Rothfuss makes the interesting point that there is nothing antithetical between having a functioning legal system and a society that believes in and uses magic. After all, ancient and medieval legal systems functioned in a society where most people took the idea of magic seriously and believed in the existence of demons, witches, monsters, and so on. The real reasons why civil law doesn't play a big role in fantasy literature area combination of 1) the relative ignorance of most fantasy writers about law and legal systems, 2) the fact that legal disputes are usually not a good way to advance a fantasy plot (as Rothfuss implicitly points out), and 3) the strong demand of much of the fan base for "action"-oriented plots that feature lots of violence and sorcery. However, as Hoffman and Rothfuss discuss, that may be changing with the rise of more "realistic" fantasy literature in recent years; "realistic" not in the sense that the authors' imaginary worlds conform to the laws of science as we know them, but in the sense that the story is set in a more fully developed and internally consistent society. This has already led to a more realistic and sophisticated treatment of political systems by fantasy writers. The same development might also impact the portrayal of legal systems.

CDU (mail):
If you want to talk about law in fantasy literature, I think one of the best examples is Jonathan Strange &Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Of course, it's more of a "historical fantasy" set it a version of Napoleonic Britain with magicians and magic, so much of the legal system is borrowed from history rather than being made up out of whole cloth. However, there is a bit of invented, magic specific law in the book. Indeed, a minor plot point involves Norrell's desire to revive the Cinque Dragownes, a special court presided over by magicians for the purpose of trying magical malfeasance.
12.13.2007 12:41am
Chuck (mail):
One fun fantasy tale dealing with getting caught up in legal issues of Fairies is "The Rite of Serfdom" by Reinder Dijkhuis. It seems a married half-fae woman got caught up in a procedural snarl and now has to complete the challenge she avoided as a youth. Note: NSFW - Fairies don't wear much.
12.13.2007 12:58am
Jerry F:
I was long wondered why every fan of fantasy literature or Dungeons &Dragons type games happens to be an extreme leftist. The worlds depicted in these books tend to portray monarchies, feudal systems or all sorts of aristocratic societies in a very favorable light, and often value religion, personal responsibility, heroism, etc. I can understand why fans of science fiction are liberals but there seems to be something strange or at least inconsistent about fans of fantasy literature who do not vote Republican.
12.13.2007 1:07am
Jmaie (mail):
????? - I've read Lord of the Rings more times than I can count, and am usually a little right of center (certainly not a leftist). My brother likes fantasy more than I, and is about as much a leftist as is Lyndon LaRouche.
12.13.2007 1:23am
Ilya Somin:
I was long wondered why every fan of fantasy literature or Dungeons &Dragons type games happens to be an extreme leftist.

Not true. Though I haven't seen any systematic survey evidence, I know of lots of conservative and libertarian fans of the genre (and former D&D players). I myself am both a genre fan and one-time D&D player, yet no one would mistake me for an "extreme leftist" or even a moderate one.
12.13.2007 1:43am
cirby (mail):
Most active D&D players are younger, still in school, and are immersed in a game where they go out and take treasure from hard-working monsters and non-player characters without having to go through the tedious process of earning it.

Of course they're lefties.
12.13.2007 2:17am
UW2L:
Conservative framing clearly needs to make its mark in the D&D world so the right can own "Lawful Good" the way it owns "values voter" &c. in American political discourse.

May I mention "Magic, Inc." by the very not-leftist Robert A. Heinlein as an excellent example of law in fantasy literature. I bet his estate could make a tidy sum off an "All I Need to Know about the Law, I Learned from Reading Heinlein" book.
12.13.2007 2:29am
Lysenko (mail):
"every fan of fantasy literature or Dungeons &Dragons type games happens to be an extreme leftist"... "fans of science fiction are liberals"? I'm not sure which annoys me more, the patently absurd blanket statements like that or the conflation of monarchy and aristocracy with conservatism. Most governments run by an aristocratic class tend to be "conservative" (for a given value of the term), but by no means are all "conservative" political movements sympathetic towards the idea of a ruling aristocracy.

As for the matter of the political nature of SF/F and its fanbases: in science fiction we can leave out the too-obvious example of Heinlein's works like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and you still have settings like David Weber's Honorverse or the works of L. Neil Smith, Poul Anderson, some of James Hogan, and so on. These authors are successful because they have a dedicated fan base interested in their ideas, and they're interested because they're NOT all liberals.

As for fantasy, the pickings are slimmer but you still have works like Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth Series, which borrows liberally from Ayn Rand or even Pratchett's Discworld series in which the "narrator" has quite a lot to say on the nature of government, most of it trending toward the libertarian point of view.

I can't recommend all the authors and books I've mentioned above (some, frankly, are excreable) but I DO recommend you do some reading in these genres and meet more of their target audience before you comment on them again. You'll be surprised at what you'll find.
12.13.2007 2:47am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
With regard to Lysenko's point, one might mention that there have been from time to time progressive monarchs. One example would be the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912), who abolished the feudal system and the class system, established a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, and encouraged modernization and westernization. Another would be King Sejong the Great of Korea (1418-1450), best known for creating the hangul writing system for the express purpose of encouraging mass literacy, but also responsible for such reforms as eliminating the power of owners to kill their slaves.
12.13.2007 2:58am
Cornellian (mail):
I haven't noticed fantasy fans to be particularly leftward leaning compared to any other random group of people. If anything, the social ostracism of D&D players probably makes them trend libertarian.
12.13.2007 3:02am
luagha:
I will add that the hero of many of these stories is 'born special.' They are 'The One.' The guy. Destined from birth, suckled by a she-wolf, rocketed to earth from a dying planet and empowered by the yellow sun. Guaranteed elite. While they may begin as a schlub, the writing is on the wall that vast and awesome power is coming to them, without a whole lot of effort, and their decisions will rock the world.

To quote the above, of course they're leftists. It's a classic leftist belief that, "I'm better than everyone therefore I should be in the elite group who's in charge and makes all the decisions for the hoi polloi."
12.13.2007 5:08am
THJC (mail):
Check out the witchcraft trial in Orson Scott Card's Heartfire (5th in his Alvin Maker Series).
The judge is ready to strike down Massachusetts's witchcraft laws to prevent an injustice but Alvin, the defendant, gives an impassioned plea against judicial activism.
12.13.2007 5:42am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
I've thought about this before but not in this exact context. My thought was trying to discern why a lot of the young and tech-savvy were leftists and liberals. I think its just a matter of not being that informed about economics and liberty (as opposed to statism). Add in the factor that a lot of leftist rhetoric sounds good, fair, just, etc. and you're most of the way their. I think if you got a lot of these people the right kind of reading material they would quickly change their minds. They basically have only been exposed to what the schools and the media broadcast, and that's either leftist or rightist flavors of statism.

With the Sci-Fi crowd a lot of them are NASA-fetishists, so they often have an overly optimistic view of the state.
12.13.2007 6:19am
Hanah Volokh (mail) (www):
For a great analysis of the interaction between law and widespread belief in witchcraft in modern African nations, you should check out Nelson Tebbe's new article, Witchcraft and Statecraft: Liberal Democracy in Africa, which appears in the most recent issue of The Georgetown Law Journal.
12.13.2007 8:05am
josh bornstein (mail) (www):
I remember reading a book years ago called "Magic Kingdom for Sale...Sold". I think by Terry Brooks, but not certain about that. Plot: A [NY??] lawyer buys the right to rule a magical kingdom, and [no plot spoiler] used his legal background to effect changes. Not a huge amount of law [vis a vis magic, swordfights, talking animals, etc], but still, on-point with the OP
12.13.2007 8:38am
Curious:
UW2L: It sort of does already. Haven't played D&D in 8 years, but my recollection is that liberals don't play Lawful Good characters, they stick to Chaotic Good or sometimes even non-good characters. I was the only person I know who played Lawful Neutral characters in middle school (when I knew absolutely nothing about politics) and, coincidentally, now I am a strict constructionist in the mold of Bork.
12.13.2007 8:56am
John Foster (mail) (www):
What about the trial in "Alice in Wonderland?"
12.13.2007 9:24am
Jerry F:
American Psikhushka: To answer a related question, I think that part of the reason why smarter or more educated people are often more liberal is that smarter and more educated people are more likely to follow the news and consequently more likely to have their views biased in a liberal direction by the mainstream media.
12.13.2007 9:24am
Lugo:
In my D&D group, anyone who was not Chaotic Evil was regarded as an effeminate weakling. =)

There are some interesting trials in the works of Jack Vance, for example, in Araminta Station and The Face.
12.13.2007 9:46am
LizardBreath (mail):
Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories are police procedurals (from the 70s? Maybe 60s?) set in an alternate universe where magic works, and have a fair amount of the bits of criminal and inheritance law you'd expect to find in mysteries.

Pratchett's Discworld series in which the "narrator" has quite a lot to say on the nature of government, most of it trending toward the libertarian point of view.

Heh. As a liberal, I'd read Pratchett's books as expressing a fundamentally leftist point of view, to the extent they're real-world political at all. It's all in the interpretation, isn't it. Anyone who's a fan should know the bad news, though -- he's just been diagnosed with early-onset Altzheimers. Lousy, awful, terrible thing to happen.
12.13.2007 9:46am
Warmongering Lunatic:
I was long wondered why every fan of fantasy literature or Dungeons &Dragons type games happens to be an extreme leftist.
I don't just play Dungeons &Dragons, I'm a member of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts &Design, with published work for Dungeons &Dragons (okay, fantasy D20) and GURPS. And I'm pretty sure that I am not a leftist. I mean, I hardly know any leftists who voted Dole 1996, Bush 2000, Bush 2004.

Similarly, I personally know quite a few people in the hobby games community, both players and professionals. Quite a significant number of them are conservative, libertarian, or thoroughly apolitical. Granted, the liberals are a majority, but the same is true in, say, computer programming.
12.13.2007 11:26am
Lou Wainwright (mail):
I was also going to recommend the Lord Darcy books by Randall Garrett. This is an omnibus of all the books and stories



They are excellent Holmes-esque stories set in a world where magic works, and the Dr. Watson character is a Forensic Sorcerer, leading to many discussions of the use of magic for collecting evidence, how being under magical influence affects ones moral and legal culpability for crime, etc. They are great stories.
12.13.2007 12:06pm
Kevin Baker (mail) (www):
More alternate-history than fantasy, but Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove's Household Gods involves a young lawyer who is transported back into the life of an ancestor living about A.D. 170 on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. She ends up suing Emperor Marcus Aurelius for failure to protect her against a rape by Roman soldiers.

Very enjoyable book, and I highly recommend it.
12.13.2007 12:19pm
ReaderY:
Never met a real society that was either fully developed or internally consistent. Met a lot of readers who've fantasized about and looked for these features in books, though. Not sure how the label "realism" came about to describe this particular fantasy.
12.13.2007 12:25pm
Patrick Joy:
Harry turtledove also re-created our legal and regulatory EPA system in the Case of the Toxic Spell Dump in 1993
12.13.2007 12:43pm
hattio1:
luagha says;

To quote the above, of course they're leftists. It's a classic leftist belief that, "I'm better than everyone therefore I should be in the elite group who's in charge and makes all the decisions for the hoi polloi."

That's funny, I tend to think that's the way libertarians and conservatives think (i.e, I'm better than everyone else). It's almost like both of us are projecting our stereo-types on the political groups we disagree with. Funny that.
For what it's worth, most role playing gamers I've known have tended to conservative or libertarian, or at most liberaltarian viewpoints, but I was never a gamer, so my perpsective may be skewed.
I tend to think that sci-fi and fantasy have a lot of over-lapping fans, but if I had to guess, I would think the fantasy appeals more to liberals, and the sci-fi more to conservatives.
12.13.2007 12:46pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
For law and nation-building, Eric Flint's 1632 series is fun. It's about a town in modern West Virginia that gets zapped into the 30 years war.

Steven Brust's Dragaeran novels -- The Vlad Taltos books, and the Khaavren romances -- have several issues that revolve around the legal system he has created. But be warned: he is not a conservative (a self-avowed Trotskyite)
12.13.2007 1:05pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Dr. Who rarely involves witches, but it would seem to be some sort of fantasy. Dr. Who is tried for "guilty of conduct unworthy of a time lord" and also "transgressing the first law". (Charges start at 1:19). You will hear that the Doctor has been charged and tried before. He is also offerred the services of a court defender.
12.13.2007 1:25pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
John Foster (mail)
What about the trial in "Alice in Wonderland?"


Not to mention "The Barrister's Dream" in "The Hunting of the Snark."
12.13.2007 1:27pm
pete (mail) (www):
"I was long wondered why every fan of fantasy literature or Dungeons &Dragons type games happens to be an extreme leftist."

Almost all of the D&D players I know are consevatives and most of them are either active duty military or veterans. Too top it off most of these conservative D&D players are also computer programmers.
12.13.2007 1:41pm
Chris Newman (mail) (www):
I'm having kind of deja vu here. Didn't Bainbridge or someone have a post on this very topic some time back? Anyway, one fantasy series I enjoyed a lot back in the day that involved a fair amount of medieval (largely canonical) legalism was Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels. Her world is kind of a fantasy Wales where there is a Catholic church but no pope (if that's not a contradiction in terms...). I'm not saying legal issues are prevalent, but she clearly knows enough about history to weave an awareness of them in as part of the fabric. Indeed, the young protagonist of her first book first demonstrates his mettle by using his superior understanding of the legal rules governing succession to the throne to assume authority prior to his actual coronation.

BTW, count me in among the non-lefty D&D crowd.
12.13.2007 1:51pm
Mkschoen (mail):
Harry Potter has a number of trials, court room scenes and discussions concerning the creation, application and enforcement of laws.

If TV counts, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has had at least one major plot about the law: a slayer kills an innocent (well not that innocent, he worked for the Mayor) mortal in her pursuit of vampires. Is she guilty of murder/manslaughter? Does she have to answer to mortal courts, or is she above the law?
12.13.2007 2:28pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
I point out: Supernatural Law, a comics series. Disclaimer: it's well thought-of but I don't think I've ever read any of it.
12.13.2007 4:43pm
Frater Plotter:
The politics of Discworld aren't left-wing; Ankh-Morpork is a Taoist tyranny. Vetinari is the exemplar of the Taoist ideal governor: so mindful, so totally aware of what is going on that on the rare occasions when he does act, he can act minimally. Mostly he practices wu-wei, doing by not-doing; works by putting the right person in the right job rather than by throwing power around; and avoids interfering with natural change.
12.13.2007 6:07pm
RSwan (mail):
It is not exactly fantasy, but Battlestar Galactica had several episodes last season involving legal issues. One of the main characters was on trial for treason and they had to develop a whole legal system to take care of the case. One whole episode was pretty much devoted to the actual trial.
12.13.2007 7:46pm
sailortech (mail):
Two more sci fi authors. John Ringo and Tom Kratman. Definately not liberals. And Kratman's recent 2 books, A Desert Called Peace and Carnifex are heavy on legal issues surrounding the laws of war.
12.13.2007 8:15pm
lucia (mail) (www):
At least one episode of Charmed has a trial.
12.13.2007 11:34pm
Gramarye:
There is something resembling a functioning legal system in Jim Butcher's modern fantasy/mystery series, The Dresden Files--though you'd have to characterize it as either poorly functioning or simply draconian. It's basically a one-party internally-elected government. Still, one of the fundamental premises of the series is that the title character is on probation (on pain of death) for a rather unpleasant incident when he was young.

I think many fantasy worlds will naturally be set up with "older" forms of government--monarchies, oligarchies, etc. That means that you'll be hard pressed to find concepts that parallel or channel our own modern legal system or public institutions. If you want to count things like treaties as law, however--which, in fairness, they are--you'll find them in all manner of fantasy literature. "The Accords of _________" is practically cliche in the genre at this point.
12.16.2007 6:11pm