Absolute Authority and Morality in Fantasy. Part 1

I just read a very interesting and cleverly pointed essay about Authority, Fantasy, Heroism, and Death by BC Woods, via Joe Abercrombie’s blog. Sir Woods brings up several great insights into the differences between Nihilism and Atheism, where morality comes from, its justification, and perspective reality in fantasy by different writers in the field. A large part of what Woods has written is a further examination and comparison of character/world morality similar to my article on Villains earlier this month, but Woods did a better job than I. It does contain a few spoilers so be aware if you Clicky McClickstein on the link.

He raises some interesting thoughts that I feel require further mulling.  When writing, here are a few interesting considerations to better evolve a character and the world they live in:

  • What is right?
  • On what authority is it justified?
  • Is it the same across the board?

My point with the last bullet is that people with the same absolute morality not only have different interpretations, but change throughout time (this might seem counter-intuitive but bare with me, I’m heading somewhere). My great-grandparents thought that the way Elvis shook his hips was the devil, and it doesn’t get more immoral than the devil, and even then that morality was limited to culture, region, religion, etc. Now, hip shaking is just a barely noted form of dance (provided pants are on, that is a different argument.)

In absence or defiance of a supreme creator/god authority, human beings are left to their own moral justifications, and here it becomes very interesting.  Without an absolute authority, morality begins to spiral towards a series of conflicted interests.

“This leaves us only with human authority. It becomes troubling because, as it turns out, the monarchists in these worlds, whose power comes from fear and threat of arms, are not wise and benevolent people. There is a lesson here, but it is not one of trust but of skepticism. These works (I would say indirectly) promote a worldview in which it is necessary to challenge and question those in power. As offensive an idea as that has apparently become, it seems to remind me of something.

What though?

Oh yes, I remember. Actual monarchy.”

I am vaguely reminded of Aladdin in the Palace dungeon when he is approached by Jafar. He simply asks, “Have you heard of the golden rule? He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

That statement is both practical and metaphorical. Take out gold and insert army, or whatever else you like, and essentially he who holds all the cards decides the game. Morality, boiled to it’s nuts and bolts, is about who has the power. For proof just look at religious ideologies and their deities, if they weren’t all powerful and capable of granting you heaven of hell or whatever, would they be listened to?

Why slay the dragon?

The dragon is eating people.

Why is that bad?

One day it might be my mam.

Why would that be bad?

I love her/makes awesome cookies.

The dragon isn’t necessarily evil by definition, it just likes human scooby snacks. It might be evil or it might be good, but it has to eat just like you do. So what is the difference between it eating villagers and you eating a cute little bunny rabbit? Now some people might throw the bullshit flag on that. It isn’t right to eat cute little critters and the dragon is just an animal and doesn’t know any better. Yet how flexible morality becomes when placed in a dire situation. I wonder what would happen to the rabbit if your family was starving and just how moral you would/wouldn’t feel? Even in the face of authority morals, I wonder how long before human morals are instituted?

Now a deity flat-out says/faxes/writes/prophecies/scriptures that all dragons are an affront unto the world and are deemed evil/bad/immoral. So the righteous and zealots proceed to make some awesome dragon hide boots until the dragons are distant myths. Of course if the dragons were moral, they would have committed suicide outright for having been born immoral, which would make them moral and then not made the suicide necessary.

For surely, if there is some type of God to whom men owe an obligation to follow a moral example, then it is the obligation of that God to be moral. Yet if you ask people to choose between all the Gods that exist, we see that there is no clear answer on which God is the most moral from a species perspective.”

Well I would say that is mostly true. If God holds all the power, why would he be obligated to humans?

The question is why. Why worry about all of this? Well, in character and world building this is a very crucial part, intentional or not. If you want your characters to be believable, the reader must understand them. Their moral compass doesn’t necessarily have to be pointed a specific direction, but knowing which way and why makes the difference.

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3 thoughts on “Absolute Authority and Morality in Fantasy. Part 1

  1. Alaric Rays says:

    That was indeed an interesting article, and you did a fine job pulling pieces out from it and examining them. I wish I could give you more than that, but as of right now I simply must ptfo, or at least catch the new Game of Thrones episode. Oh decisions.

  2. Frank Bishop says:

    Well shit, its The Game of Thrones. Can’t fault anybody for watching it.

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