Valdemar: Fantasy Fic with Big Govt Programs

I’ve been reading Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series for years, but some things about the series rub me the wrong way. Valdemar is a fantasy series set in a medievalish kingdom with magic horses called Companions. As a medievalish society it should be…. not progressive, socialist, or other modern things. And yet, it is.

In the novel Take A Thief, which tells the early history of the character Skif, it is told that the Crown has decreed that the school kids in the capital Haven get a free meal at government expense. It isn’t mentioned that the free meal is limited to the poor by any test of means. But it is mentioned that children who get through the mandated elementary education have to leave school and thus miss the free meal.

Another question is the education itself. In various Valdemar books it claims that Valdemar mandates elementary education for children though it seems that since the education is carried out by the various religions that perhaps Valdemar is requiring the religions to fund the schools rather than spending its own taxpayer funds on it.

The question arises: how does a medievalish fantasy world even come up with the idea of such big government programs? In the real world they didn’t come along until later. In part because medieval central governments were weak and the local lords had more power over the everyday life of their people.

The free meal program might have been a part of the normal charity programs of a medieval society, but only if it was confined to the poor. They hadn’t invented the concept of handouts for all classes of people yet. Even in our country the idea of a free summertime school lunch for all income levels (yes, that is a government program) is controversial.

And then there is the idea of education for all. In the medieval societies, most occupations didn’t require education or literacy. It seems a silly burden to impose on children who will grow up to be farmhands or carpenter’s assistants or street sweepers. Now, if Valdemar had a state religion, there might be a call for universal religious training, which might, like the first Sunday Schools, include reading and arithmetic training. But Valdemar decrees ‘No One True Way’ and that seems to mean that its religious picture is one of dozens of varieties of polytheistic paganism.

Now, the reason medieval societies didn’t have the full list of big government programs is that they cost the central government more money than it could raise by taxation. Medieval people, like people today, didn’t like high taxes. Why risk a tax revolt to fund social programs when the Crown had more immediate needs like funding an army for when wars happened? Or for when subordinate provinces rebelled and needed to be reconquered— perhaps because of a revolt against high taxes?

Of course the real reason fantasy worlds like Valdemar have anacronistic Big Government programs is that there are fantasy readers and writers who are Progressives/Socialists/Leftists who love these programs so much (because they never had to live on them) that they put them in to their fantasies whether they make sense or not. And that’s OK. But I’d like a fantasy world with less government and more freedom, personally.

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Big Government Tyranny in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar

Valdemar1Isn’t it sad that our favorite books don’t grow and change as we do? When I started reading Mercedes Lackey’s excellent Valdemar series, it was exactly what I was looking for. I was in the midst of a somewhat delayed teen rebellion and had rejected the Christian faith of my childhood and college years for Neopaganism, and I had also rejected the conservative, anti-Soviet political orientation I’d always thought was more sensible for a walk on the liberal side, more than once flirting with actual Marxism.

And so the books I had once loved— the works of C. S. Lewis most particularly— were now an ideological problem, and I sought replacement.

I’d heard through the Wiccan grapevine that authors Marion Zimmer Bradley and Katherine Kurtz were allegedly Wiccans and so tried both authors. Kurtz I didn’t care for, but I fell in love with Marion Zimmer Bradley and her Darkover series. And in one of MZB’s many anthologies I found a story by Mercedes Lackey and began to collect her books as well at the local used bookstores.

I loved the series especially some of her heroes— Talia, the girl plagued by an upbringing among an evil sect that seemed to combine Amish traits with a dark portrait of LDS polygamy, and Vanyel, the troubled, rejected noble youth who grows up to be a happy homosexual Herald (and then died tragically to save his kingdom).

But I’m all grown up now— at my age, I’d better be. My politics have slowly reverted to something more based in common sense than in the desire to rebel, and several years ago I had an experience which led to my joining the Catholic Church. And as I continued to re-read my favorite Valdemar books I began to see some cracks which made me somewhat disappointed in a once-favorite author. Rather than a pure happy-fantasy kingdom, Valdemar began to look more and more like a land plagued by a modern big-government philosophy— and one with a blatant hostility to certain religious groups as well.

1. The big-government thing shows most clearly in the high degree of centralization of political power in the Valdemaran crown. Now, in a medieval/Renaissance era kingdom a king had a lot of power— he could put his wife and his best friend to death for minor reasons as King Henry VIII did in the killings of Anne Boleyn and Thomas More. But the king’s power didn’t reach into the daily lives of his subjects except when he was willing and able to send his military forces to enforce.

In Valdemar, people act more as if they were in a modern state with hordes of policemen, judges and social workers ready to jump down on both feet on anyone who disobeys the slightest directive. Valdemar clearly doesn’t have these modern accessories to state power— no medievalish state could— they could barely afford to pay their non-standing armies much of the time, which was why standing armies came along much later.

2. The Heralds of Valdemar, who live on the grounds of the Palace in Haven when they are at home, ride circuit through the kingdom, and act as judges in local cases, overriding local authority. The reason given is that only Heralds can perform Truthspell, a kind of lie-detector spell which is certainly most useful.

But Heralds could be performing this spell from town to town and still allow local judges and other authorities to fulfill the role of judges.

The attitude of the Valdemaran crown seems similar to that of modern day big-government proponents who can’t seem to trust the ‘rubes’ in local governments to do the right thing, and want to constantly override their judgment to allow all the big decisions to be made in Washington by people who neither know nor care about local attitudes or conditions. Continue reading