Princes and princesses, kings and queens

Lots of stories for little kids have kings and queens, not many seem to have presidents, prime ministers, mayors, etc. I don’t fully understand this. I mean, I see that these stories are traditional, or imitate traditional forms, and so it makes sense that you’d have a king or queen rather than a president. But there are lots of other traditional forms of government. You can see some examples in children’s literature, but they’re clearly exceptions. (For example, the wolves in The Jungle Book have a tribal council, and the animals in Winnie the Pooh don’t have any government at all.) I guess what I’m asking is: How did the standard storybook world become codified, the world with a kingdom, a king and a queen living in a castle riding horses etc? Even in the late Middle Ages in Europe when, I suppose, such places really existed, there were lots of other, different, sorts of places nearby. How and when did the storybook kingdom became canonical? Maybe Jenny can answer this question–it seems to fall within her bailiwick.

P.S. More discussion in the comments to Mark Thoma’s blog here. My favorite comment is the first one: “If Mr Gelman doesn’t like kings and queens in childrens’ stories maybe he should write some stories himself.” You’d think that a commenter to an economics blog would’ve heard about the division of labor! I tell stories to kids, but I write for adults.

More to the point, there are lots and lots of stories without kings and queens, from “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” on down. What struck me, though, was how kingdoms are canonical. For example, Sesame Street is filled with original stories–not folktales or anything like that–and by default they are often set in kingdoms.

10 thoughts on “Princes and princesses, kings and queens

  1. I must get some proper work done this morning, so will NOT write a long answer! Some associative thoughts: literary fairy tale a product of later eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature, when kings and queens are already seeming under threat, so there is an inherent hint of Disneyan/Ruritanian nostagia in those princesses in their castles; stories in all cultures naturally cluster around characters distinguished by birth (with strength, talents, etc.) but also by high position in a hierarchical system of government (think of Greek myths re: heroes, gods); if you go to African folklore, say, you will find more of these other structure of government? NB: you do not need a PhD in literature to observe that little girls in particular want to hear stories about princesses in long flowing & preferably pink dresses & tiaras, it is one of the mysteries of life!

  2. I wonder how much of it has to do with simplicity. At a surface level, monarchy replicates the family hierarchical structure (king, queen, prince, princess), so it's easy for children to understand. Parliaments, presidents, and tribal councils require invoke all kinds of additional complexity. For the same reason, my son's books seem to be filled with people who do understandable jobs — firefighters, postal carriers, construction workers, and sanitation workers. They don't have stats professors, judges, or investment bankers. Indeed, every time I walk by the courthouse, I find it almost impossible to explain to my three-year-old what people do in there.

  3. Bad SF & Fantasy is full of Ruling Councils that look a lot like faculty meetings. Even the better stuff. "The Council of Elrond" chapter in The Lord of the Rings is like an endless faculty senate event, only with swords.

  4. But there weren't lots of other different sorts of places in Europe. In the 18th Century, there's one republic in Europe, Venice. After the Napoleonic Wars, there aren't any. Even the oddities, like the Prince-Bishops, are swept away. 19th Century Europe consists of monarchies. When new countries are formed, they're formed as monarchies: Belgium, Greece. Even Italy. The unification of Italy was the act of radicals and revolutionaries, who then set it up as a monarchy under Victor Emmanuel. In retrospect these were bad decisions; the Italian and Belgian monarchies were disastrous. But at the time they appeared natural. So it's not surprising that "timeless" stories of the time would assume monarchy.

    You're being misled by being American.

  5. Jenny: Don't you realize that, as a blogger, you have the responsibility to answer all queries fully and promptly?

    Ed: I was thinking about that too. But what about the social structure of the playground? That's salient too, no? Regarding your other point, yeah, I guess I should start writing "Papi's a statistician." It should sell at least as well as Bayesian Data Analysis, dontcha think?

    Kieran: The Lord of the Rings is an interesting example in that it contains many different social structures. The hobbits have a few different local governments, the elves have their council, some of the human societies have kings, etc.

    Jim: I agree with you that many monarchies small and large were set up in 19th century Europe. But lots of Europe was under the control of local government as well. I'm not at all an expert here, but my impression is that national government didn't always have much influence on ordinary life: in rural areas, local landlords had a lot of power, and in cities there were gangs and all sorts of centers of power.

  6. Kings and Queens are simpler structures. They have power because they have the title — pretty much like Father and Mother do.

    It's easy to see Kings and Queens as parental figures. You don't elect Dad. [old Calvin and Hobbes cartoons notwithstanding]

    Similarly, Christian religious expression is still stuck in King and Queen mode (King of Heaven, Lord, Thy Kingdom Come, etc.) This is more understandable because one would expect there to be a lot of intertia in religious expressions.

  7. I'd say your question is based on a false premise, but I really can't tell what your question even is. Are you wondering why fairy tales have old-fashioned authoritative figures at all, or just why they all seem to bear the title of king, rather than baron or margrave or podestà?

    If the latter, the answer is that they don't. It only seems that way because you're limiting yourself to stories coming out of the English tradition. England really was a monarchy for a long time, as was its nearest cultural influence, France.

    Step outside this tradition and you'll find plenty of other titles, and you really don't have to step very far. Grimm's tales are filled with burgomasters. The Pied Piper story features a mayor. The famous clothesless one is an emperor. I would also suggest that in many stories which feature a prince, there's no reason to believe that the prince is the heir to a king — a peculiarly English tradition — rather than simply the ruler of a principality. And so on for stories from Slavic, Persian, etc, traditions.

    In the stories you read which derive from a foreign source, the titles are translated according to the English tradition. A man who may have been a rajah or a sultan or simply a lord becomes a king. The same applies to the biblical symbolism someone else mentioned.

  8. Ubs,

    I agree that many stories don't have kings and queens. But, in watching Sesame Street, I was struck by the way in which kingdoms seemed to be the default choice of locale in storybookland. These were for their made-up stories. Once upon a time there was a king and a queen, etc. Not, Once upon a time there was a mayor, or a tribe, or whatever. These were not old stories; they were new stories meant to have an old-fashioned flavor (I think).

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