Imagine this scenario: you are in a medieval-esque kingdom in some nondescript fantasy world. Word reaches you that the king is a tyrant and does all the things that tyrannical rulers do: extract exorbitant taxes from the people (including the nobility! such horror), spends lavishly on himself (finest clothes, tastiest foods, most splendiferous palaces and castles), enacts the dreaded practice of prima nocta, and is overall just not a nice guy. Meanwhile, the kingdom has fallen to plague, plunder, perdiferousness, persnicketiness, and other such polemical phenomena. Everyone knows that this king is the younger brother of the previous guy and must have murdered his way to the top, since there clearly was no other way he could have inherited the throne. Meanwhile, you catch wind of some rumors that the previous king’s child somehow escaped being killed by the treacherous uncle and is living in hiding in some podunk village somewhere in the sticks of the kingdom.
Being the savvy, universe hopping fantasy aficionado that you are, what do you decide to do in order to deliver the ailing kingdom from this clearly evil king? Organize the populace to overthrow the tyrannical overlord and initiate a truly democratic society? Use your superior intellect to become a benevolent philosopher-king, doing your hero Plato proud?
Or, rather, do you set out on an epic quest to find this lost true heir to the throne, challenging the grip of their maniacal and ill-fit uncle king?
Most, including you, mysterious universe hopping reader, would probably choose the third option. Using your extensive backlog of knowledge of fantasy and historical fiction tropes, you know that the true heir of throne will undoubtedly become, if they are not already, a wise, just, and kind ruler and subsequently usher in a golden age heretofore unseen by the fantasy kingdom.
This is known as the “rightful heir” trope and it is relatively common within fantasy settings where the primary form of government is monarchical and the world, overall, resembles something akin to Medieval somewhere (oftentimes Europe). As a trope in and of itself, I don’t have a problem with it. Like anything else, when it is done well, it can lead to the development of excellent stories.
My issue with it, however, is its primary implications: that one’s goodness and ability is entirely innate and if you overstep those bounds you are doomed to failure. Some are born to rule, others are not, and you will know solely based on the circumstances of their birth, not through any merit or fault of their own.
The Idea of Royal Legitimacy
Monarchies, in some way, shape, and form, have existed since the beginning of the written record, extending from Ancient Mesopotamia to the modern day. For a large part of this history, many had believed that kings and queens received their legitimacy from some higher power. In China, this was known as the “Mandate of Heaven”, the idea that a just ruler will be given the right to rule by Heaven and that mandate will remain in that dynasty until the moment they become unjust, at which the mandate is revoked and the ruler is overthrown. In Medieval Europe, there were the notions of “sacred kingship” and the “divine right of kings”, the idea that kings were granted the right to rule by none other than God himself, the only person or being whose sovereignty the king is subject to, not the people, the aristocracy, or even the clergy. Only God could determine if a king was unjust; in a Medieval Christian worldview, the king’s unjustness would manifest itself through inexplicable misfortune for the ruler, his subjects, or both. Common examples of inexplicable misfortune include famine, drought, disease and plague, failure, and seemingly unstoppable non-Christian invaders.
A good historical example to illustrate this would be the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem prior to and during the Third Crusade, from 1185 to 1193. To say the kingdom was experiencing a bit of a crisis in 1185 would be an understatement. King, Baldwin IV, who had been suffering from leprosy for his entire reign and therefore was unable to have children, was close to death at the ripe old age of twenty-four. His eight-year-old nephew, also named Baldwin, was his heir and co-king. Sibylla, the older Baldwin’s sister and the younger’s mother, was married to a disloyal and slightly incompetent vassal, Guy de Lusignan. And finally, Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, was lurking beyond the borders, waiting for the right moment to strike the crusader state. By 1186, both Baldwins died and Sibylla was to be crowned queen on the grounds she had her marriage to Guy annulled. She could then choose any person she wanted to rule beside her as king. She complied, was crowned, and then chose Guy to be her husband. The barons attempted to revolt and place Isabella, Baldwin and Sibylla’s sister, and her husband, Humphrey IV of Toron, on the throne. Humphrey, however, backed out and swore allegiance to the new monarchs.
In 1187, Saladin attacked the kingdom of Jerusalem and soundly trounced the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin, capturing Guy and many other lords and knights. This left the Kingdom of Jerusalem ripe for the taking and, one by one, cities fell to Saladin, even Jerusalem. Only Tyre held out against all odds and that was due to the leadership of its new commander, Conrad of Montferrat (who was also the younger Baldwin’s uncle and closest male relative. This will be important).
Saladin eventually released Guy on the condition he swore an oath to never take up arms against him. Guy swore the oath and promptly decided to take up arms against Saladin (oaths with non-Christians were considered null-and-void). He attempted to enter the city of Tyre but was denied by Conrad: the new lord of Tyre refused to acknowledge Guy’s legitimacy as king, insisting that Guy had forfeited his right as king by his loss at the Battle of Hattin. Conrad told Guy that he, Conrad, as the younger Baldwin’s closest male relative and most rightful heir, would serve as regent until the succession matter could be resolved by the king of England, the king of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor, all of whom took the crusader vow and were preparing to journey to the Levant. Guy refused to accept this, gathering as many men as he could and attacking the city of Acre. This succession dispute would remain a major feature of the Third Crusade even after Conrad’s coronation and subsequent assassination by the Hashshashin.
Guy, a deeply unpopular king with much of the aristocracy in Jerusalem, was regarded as illegitimate from the start and his illegitimacy was only confirmed by his failure to defeat Saladin at Hattin, something that Baldwin IV had managed to do at Montgisard in 1177 at the age of sixteen. If Guy was a legitimate ruler in the eyes of God, then he would not have lost at Hattin. Conrad, on the other hand, was not only related to last king of Jerusalem, the younger Baldwin, but also successfully prevented the complete conquest of the kingdom of Jerusalem, elevating his legitimacy because his success was seen as being favored by God.
Now, this is a simplified version of events and the whole reality of the situation was marked with greater shades of gray than ever possibly imagined with family ties and webs that would put George RR Martin to shame, but it provides us with a good view of Medieval attitudes toward legitimacy: if you are the rightful king, you will be met with success.
This attitude toward legitimacy, that it starts with blood and will be manifest in the person through their deeds, has persisted into our modern discourse.
Royal Legitimacy and Storytelling
In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is the true king of Gondor; he is destined to take the throne and protect Gondor from the forces of Sauron and darkness. How do we know that he is the legitimate heir? Through his heritage, of course. He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descendant of Elendil and the Numenorean kings of Gondor and Arnor. He hadn’t done much to deserve kingship, serving as a ranger in the northwest region of Eriador, far from the borders of the shrunken kingdom of Gondor. Meanwhile, the stewards of Gondor have worked tirelessly for generations protecting the kingdom from Sauron. Boromir, captain of Minas Tirith and son of the steward Denethor, believed that the stewards should be kings of Gondor since they had been the de facto rulers for hundreds of years. However, each of their inner characters are laid before all by the One Ring: Aragorn resists temptation and lives to become king; Boromir is seduced and is doomed to never see Gondor again. Their only difference was a matter of blood: Aragorn was the descendant of kings, Boromir was not. Thus, it could be interpreted that Aragorn, through virtue of circumstances of his birth, was then superior to Boromir, a non-royal with desires of royalty. Only in death did Boromir realize the folly of his beliefs.
(As an aside, Tolkein does subvert the idea that the strongest around are destined to be the heroes. Aragorn, while an important character, is not the main protagonist of the story. That distinction belongs to Frodo, a simple hobbit of no particular importance and few desires beyond a simple life f comfort in the Shire. In any other story, Aragorn would be the main protagonist and Frodo would be nowhere near the quest).
King Arthur earned his title as king of the Britons because, as the only son of Uther Pendragon, he was able to pull the sword from the stone, thus bestowing him the title of king. With the help of his advisor and wizard Merlin, he manages to rule relatively justly and ably. The golden age that he ushers in is only ended when his illegitimate son/nephew attempts to usurp the throne, killing Arthur and throwing the kingdom into chaos.
Daenerys Targaryen believes that she deserves the Iron Throne for the simple reason that she is the sole living heir to the last Targaryen king, Aerys II, and some vague notion that the people want her even though she has proven time and again she is unfit to rule. Meanwhile, other contenders like Robert Baratheon and Stannis and such are proven to be unfit as kings because of their gross incompetence or their less-than-savory means of obtaining the throne while others, like Ned Stark or Tyrian Lannister, cannot become king because they don’t have the right blood. Really, the universe of the story is conspiring to make Jon Snow, perhaps the most just and moral and competent character left (as far as I know) king because he is, quite simply, a secret Targaryen and therefore must be fit to be king.
In many Fire Emblem games, the heroes are either nobility from the offset or, in time, are shown to have been secretly the scion of some noble house and are therefore capable of wielding the weapon to destroy evil. And they so happen to be the best possible person to be a ruler. Most notably are the protagonists of the Archanaea/Valentia series of games: in them, the main character is the descendant of kings and heroes and are the only ones capable of wielding Falchion, the legendary sword that is said to be able to kill even the most powerful of dragons; in anyone’s hand other than theirs’ the sword is useless. Temperamentally, there are also the kindest, bravest, and most just people out there, be it Marth, Alm, Chrom, or any o the others.
I could keep going, talking about the endless examples that exist within video games, TV shows, movies, books, and any and all works of fiction in between, but that would take a long time.
The problem all of these scenarios present is the causality of legitimacy: are the rightful heirs good and just rulers because of their legitimacy or are they supposedly legitimate and good simultaneously, without any relationship between the two? In each of these cases, I believe it’s pushing toward the former. Returning to LotR, Boromir is no less capable of a leader than Aragorn, as he had proven through his victories over Sauron’s forces, but, for some reason, he is lacking something: an inherent humility and goodness that would allow him to resist the temptation of power and rule justly, rather than tyrannically, as king. And the perfect candidate just so happens to be the one from the correct bloodline.
It’s a problem because it instills in us the idea that in order to be worthy to rule one must have the correct lineage. That lineage, somehow, grants the person all that they need to lead as a good and just ruler.
Examples of Using the Trope Well
Like I stated at the beginning, the idea of the rightful heir is not an inherently bad one as long as it is done right and is used to explore what it means to rule and how to obtain the “right” to become a ruler.
A widely known example of this trope used well is the Phase 1 Marvel movie Thor. The titular protagonist is the eldest son of Odin, the king of Asgard, and the realm’s greatest champion, defending Asgard from the threat of Frost Giants from Jotunheim time and again. He, as well as his brother Loki, their friends the Warriors Three and Sif, and the whole of Asgard, believe that he is to inherit the throne of Asgard from Odin when the time comes. And, by all definitions of medieval succession laws, Thor is rightfully the heir. However, at this time Thor is an arrogant, brash, and impulsive man with a penchant of smashing his problems away with his mighty hammer Mjolnir. He is the living embodiment of “might makes right” and few around him dissuade him from that tendency. He gets himself into trouble when, against Odin’s explicit orders, he, Loki, the Warriors Three, and Sif invade Jotunheim in retribution for the Frost Giants’ attempt to retrieve their ultimate weapon. Odin punishes Thor by stripping him of his powers and banishing him to Earth, enchanting his hammer to only be wielded by those who prove themselves to be worthy. The rest of the film is spent following Thor as he learns what it truly means to be king, proving himself worthy of Mjolnir. Meanwhile, Loki, while given the throne legitimately while Odin is incapacitated, is trying to prove himself worthy of his father by destroying Jotunheim, clearly the wrong thing to do. Here, we have a case where one’s legitimacy does not directly translate to ability to rule. One must learn the proper temperament before one can lead anything, legitimate claim or no.
My personal favorite example is an anime series called Yona of the Dawn. The story takes place in the fantasy kingdom of Kouka, ruled by the pacifist king named Il. Yona, the king’s sixteen year old daughter, is the sole heir to the throne. She is a naive, sheltered, and slightly selfish teenager who is helplessly in love with her cousin Soo-Won. Her father disapporved of the match, believing she should place her affections elsewhere. She can’t, however, and decides to tell her father. As she enters his room, she witnesses Soo-Won murdering her father, taking the throne for himself. He, along with many others, regarded Il’s pacifist ways as weak and believed that it was only a matter of time before Kouka’s enemies invaded. Because Yona had seen Soo-Won kill her father, he tells her that she must be executed as well. Yona is saved by her bodyguard and childhood friend, Hak, who spirits her away to find an oracle to help them figure out what they should do next. The oracle tells her that she is descendant and reincarnation of the mythical founder of Kouka, the red dragon king, and that she should seek out the aid of the reincarnations of the four dragon warriors and find a way to save Kouka.
During her journey, we see her go from a spoiled and dependent princess to a kind and capable leader, earning the respect and admiration of not only the dragon warriors but many others along the way; she learned the importance and rationale behind her father’s pacifism but also his shortcomings as king. She also gains the strength to make the difficult decisions in order to protect those she loves. She grows into being the queen that Kouka needs. However, Soo-Won isn’t portrayed as devious, tyrannical, and or incompetent. Instead, we see him travel throughout the kingdom, doing his best to strengthen the kingdom, promote commerce, and in general make the people happy. For all intents and purposes, Soo-Won is a good king and does much to bring the kingdom out of its languid state. In other words, Soo-Won’s illegitimate (and objectively wrong) means of becoming king does not preclude him from being a good and just ruler; if anything, it was his desire to provide Kouka a good king that spurred him to do what he felt like he had to do.
The show is only one season in and still has a lot of loose threads to tie off. I hope the story, instead of obviously restoring Yona back to the throne over Soo-Won, has Yona discover that her purpose is protecting Kouka not as queen but something more, inspiring the people to take matters into their own hands while also doing her best to protect the kingdom from threats so that the kingdom doesn’t have to take up arms. Soo-Won stays as king, continuing to do his best to serve as its ruler. I think Yona forging her own path is a much stronger message and a much better way to tie off the theme the show is going for, namely finding one’s own inner strength and purpose in life.
The trope of the “Rightful heir” is a tricky one, given that it has a lot of historical precedent that has continued on into our modern storytelling. When used poorly or not explored thoroughly, it can imply the inherent moral superiority of one who either a) has royal blood or b) is technically legitimate by law. When done well, it can be an effective means of exploring the meaning of being a leader as well as discovering purpose outside the boundaries that others have set for you. It’s time for a literally Medieval idea to grow into the modern era, to be used as a lens to understand our own world and understandings, beyond what our ancestors may have believed.
Thank you for reading. This was unexpectedly long and possibly rambling; however, I hope I was able to shed new light on an old trope and help spur new ideas on how to use it.
Until next time…