Paksworld Politics

Posted: February 28th, 2014 under Background, Contents.
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Many forms of government have existed, and now exist, in our world…many forms of government can be depicted in fiction (including ones we haven’t yet seen in reality, like, um, a completely fair one.)   Epic fantasy is frequently criticized for having monarchies and aristocracies  (and the writers thereof accused of romanticism about the Middle Ages.)    So a reasonable question is “Why are the political systems in Paksworld what they are?”

And the answer is, “I studied history at Rice under F.S. Lear and K.F. Drew and C. Garside.  That explains everything.”   And I see a row of stubbornly frowning faces in front of me, with thought balloons over their heads saying “That explains NOTHING.”  And I’ll bet the stubborn faces would still have those thought balloons if I added, “OK, there was also prehistory and cultural anthropology…”

Fine.   Here’s the (partial–you never get ALL the details or I’d never have time to write fiction)  explanation.   Lear’s history classes focused on the political and legal history of Greece and Rome…with assigned reading that gradually made sense of what contributed to what bits of it.   Cultural anthropology and archaeology classes dealt with social structure in specific situations  (hunter/ gather societies, early agricultural societies, etc.)   Studying history and pre-history and anthropology side by side filled some of the gaps in each.   I could not ignore any of that when writing fiction; the world-building had to include a history that was more than events, the “clash of empires” kind of thing.  In the meantime, after college, I’d had plenty of time to read more–in anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and yes, more history–to add more to the mix of things I felt had to balance in any fictional world.

Every size of culture (from a 20-30 person band up to the Persian Empire) has a range of likely political solutions to “How do we make this group thing work?”  Roles and routines can be created from necessity and then become Tradition when the necessity no longer exists.  Small groups can take the time to listen to everyone’s opinion (they may not, but they can) whereas in large groups, the time it takes (with no way to filter the input) may not be practical even if the will is there.   (Where does everyone sit/stand?  Who  is going to watch the children while this is going on?   Who’s minding the goats?  Who’s harvesting the grain?  Who’s keeping watch so the enemy doesn’t surprise us?)  Even in small groups, there will be social pressure not to express a very divergent opinion, social sanctions against those who disturb too many people.

Some groups of each size are “looser” and some “tighter”–often, but not always, in response to environmental pressures (from climate, from weather, from disease, from contact–friendly or hostile–with other human groups.)   A charismatic person finds it easier to influence others–and thus can gain power beyond what his/her talents and strength would suggest, and change group dynamics from more,  to less, democratic.  As societies enlarge (if they do) the organization does not scale up smoothly…new structures emerge, often with substructures that reveal the earlier, small-scale organization.   Changes in the substrate–the environment, broadly conceived–stress existing structures and force change in them.  The obvious (one-leader, all powerful) may in fact be different in reality (small group of powerful and competing individuals partly concealed by the one obvious leader, who is their puppet.)

So to Paksworld.  I wanted a range of political situations that could reasonably exist in the same time period, in regular contact with one another, and having histories that made sense to me.   As it’s a fantasy world, some of that history can be unreal in our terms.   In our late medieval period,  on one continent with regular contact among them, there were absolute monarchies, smaller principalities (also strictly hierarchical and headed by one person),  theocracies,  city-states independent (mostly) of outside political control and governed by councils of wealthy citizens,  village clusters with a democratic bent, and more.   Various invasions had affected the political system and legal system of different areas differently, but they all had a common experience of devastating conflict.

So–with all this rattling around in my head–there was Paks quarreling with her father on the edge of civilization–a farmhouse beyond the nearest village, very close to or over the edge of anyone’s map of what belongs under one name.  Is it Fintha?  Is it Tsaia?   Nobody there knows or cares.   She goes from her traditional family,  past the little village–the first organization–small enough that every voice can be heard, if they’re willing (and they are, mostly.)   Down the slope to the larger town where she meets the recruiting team…and that town is part of a larger domain.  Rocky Ford is in Tsaia, on the map.   That means it’s part of a monarchy, strongly influenced by religion.   Why is Tsaia a monarchy?  Because of the magelords and their beliefs about magery–one of the things they took from the elves (the wrong elves)  who tutored them in magery was a belief that strong magery created a right to rule.  Why is it strongly influenced by religion?  Because Tsaia lost the Girdish war.

In the magelord era, therefore, Tsaia (and Fintha) were governed top down from kings through the hierarchy of nobility; magery’s limitations being such that a group of slightly lesser magelords could influence (even overcome) the strongest.   So those monarchies were not as absolute as some, but more absolute than a constitutional one.   In Paks’s day, the king of Tsaia governs with a council of nobles, under the watchful eye of the Fellowship of Gird.  Neither the royal power–nor the law in Tsaia (the Code of Gird in Tsaia)– is as absolute as either is elsewhere.   Gird is the patron, Girdish is the state religion, but several others are tolerated.

The pre-magelord Old Humans were “primitive” to the magelords and functioned in their small groups with simple democracy tempered by respect for age and ancestor worship.  (This being a fantasy, they really did hear from their ancestors.)   This simple democracy survived even after the magelord invasion, at the level of serf society…within the vills that a magelord claimed, the few decisions they were allowed to make were made by listening to all.  Thus when resistance was organized–when magelord powers were failing–the “cells” of the resistance were initially all pure simple democracy.  This changed with the pressure on them, and with the natural human tendency to prefer some over others.   But Gird’s rebellion was based on the idea that all the participants were equally valuable (if not equally skilled) and every voice should be heard.   (His was often loudest.)

As  Gird’s organization grew–and especially because it had to be secret at first–it needed other levels, and the barton/grange system developed to meet the need.  With the war won,  with the shift from fighting to survive to administering a former kingdom under new laws,  Fintha developed as a theocracy with a hierarchical bureaucracy and a lingering outcrop of pure democracy: the Marshalate.   All Marshals could, in theory, attend, and all Marshals could cast one vote.   Between meetings of the Marshalate, the Marshal-General made the decisions, but if those decisions ran against the Marshalate’s decisions, there would be a march on Fin Panir.   Does this make Fintha a theocratic republic?   I don’t think so…Marshals are not elected by the members of granges, but commissioned by the Marshal-General.   That detail is a legacy that goes back beyond Gird, to the gnomes who taught him military science and helped him with the Code of  Gird…they have a rule of law, in their way, and consider that the most important thing.  Law is Law.

In Lyonya, simple democracy among the Old Humans prevailed until the elves came.   Elves had their own hierarchy of individual power, with the elvenhome ruler imposing his or her vision on the others, who worked within that vision.  Luckily for elves, their rulers were immortal, so they didn’t have to scramble between successive rulers, each with a different vision.  Magelords who came to Lyonya and literally fell under the spell of the elves created a human monarchy within the elven monarchy (thus, to the elves, acted like proper elven younglings, keeping everything in order and sharing in a vision of beauty.  They were clearly junior to the elves, but they were amenable to the overall vision.  The influence of the Old Humans, via intermarriage, made a limited concept of equality and sharing power acceptable.)

Aarenis displays both magelord and merchant-ruled societies, with the magelords standing in for European nobility and the merchants as, well, merchants.   Nearly all the magery of magelords disappeared centuries ago, but the older political structures survive in the places the last effective magelords ruled; Pliuni (until its destruction by Siniava),  Andressat, Cilwan, Fall.  In all these , the structures still show the influence of  personal loyalty, fealty, as a guiding principle, and remnants of the old magelord nobility are still in place.

In contrast, many Guild League realms (Valdaire, Foss Council, Vonja, Sorellin, etc.)  either lost their magelord rulers earlier, or were founded after the end of magelord domination in Aarenis.  The memory of magelords lingered, making the guilds  unwilling to allow a monarchy, and instead these city-states are run by relatively few–a council of wealthy merchants who elect a senior.  (Think Venice and its Doges)  They are technically republics (but the word is not known there) in being elective representative governments (with limited suffrage.)   Each guild elects its representative to the Council, the masters of that guild in that city-state voting.    Their guiding principle is profit.

In Cilwan, where both traditions are crammed together, this has meant increased vulnerability to political unrest.   The same problem has caused unrest in the north, from time to time (and in the current books)–the more serious Girdish see law–the Code of Gird–as the most important guiding principle;  those adherents to the feudal organization in Tsaia see fealty, personal loyalty, as most important.   These big issues demand book-sized stories.

So…a variety of political organizations (and some not yet shown) because that’s what fit my understanding.

The so-far-unpublished Paksworld stories are set in various locations, allowing me to show more of areas that were just “there” or only lightly touched, in the books.   The two sold so far are set in different times and places in Aarenis: one is in Fall within the time period of Crown of Renewal;  the other at the margin of land claimed by Vonja decades in the past.





  • Comment by Naomi — February 28, 2014 @ 12:52 am


    Thank you, Elizabeth, I really enjoyed reading that.

  • Comment by Oz Ozzie — February 28, 2014 @ 1:12 am


    Of all the political arrangements in Paksworld, Girdish is the scariest. I have trouble thinking of it as a religion, actually. It’s more like a political cult. I think it’s quite like Juche, actually (though not in some political respects). And in this world, it would be quickly go off the rails and turn into something like North Korea. That it doesn’t…. I suppose that’s because the paladins keep the organisation honest, and that’s actually why they come. But there’s no hint of any history of this, except right at the end of the last novel (and that is just a hint – Paks returning at the critical moment)

  • Comment by Linda — February 28, 2014 @ 6:44 am


    “Heady Stuff” … meaning you have given me a lot to think about.

    I do love Paksworld … because as gritty as it can be, I don’t get the sinking feeling I get in the pit of my stomach that I do every time I listen to the news, scan the Guardian, etc. and then have to decide if/how I react or fit the information into my world view.

    The “bad elves” influencing the mageborn … was it a contaminating addition, or was it intrinsic – bound to happen considering their beliefs? Their belief in the Sun Lord … did that initially include a moral code?

    See what I mean? The thinking is already stirring. Thanks!

  • Comment by Julia Coldren-Walker — February 28, 2014 @ 7:28 am


    Do not forget to include psychology as well in the understanding (besides history, anthropology, etc). I work for Dr. Michele Gelfand her at the University of Maryland and one of her areas of study is cross cultural psychology and the idea of tight and loose cultures. She headed a long list of authors in a Science article in 2011 called the Differences between tight and loose cultures: A 33 nation study. (Anyone want a copy can e-mail me The whole idea of tight and loose cultures was apparently invented in 1968 by anthropologist Pertti Pelto in a study of 21 traditional societies. It is understanding and developing these society norms which makes some authors worth reading and some so 2 dimensional they can’t hold interest beyond page 2.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 28, 2014 @ 9:21 am


    Oz Ozzie: In our-world history, dominant religions often become political powers, with divisions in that religion that become particularly repressive. We are, after all, a social species; social species have hierarchies, and as any movement (overtly religious, overtly nonreligious, one-goal oriented at the start) grows, the more likely it is to develop a controlling attitude. (On the biological end, winning anything from a game to an argument results in a burst of hormones that make the winner feel bigger, stronger, happier; the loser is treated to a dip in those same hormones. Setting up, for the winner, a dangerous–to the rest of us–positive feedback loop. Winning fights feels good…so I should go win another fight.)

    The quickest, easiest way to increase group cohesion is to convince the group it has outside enemies…and that disagreement within the group risks group survival. Many “movements” that start out anti-repressive move (sometimes with astonishing quickness) toward demanding that group members conform to an set of beliefs and behaviors that becomes stricter. I think of it as social gravity, pulling in members but (as they’re accepted) forcing them toward an concept of perfection and punishing individual divergence from that ideal.

    The Fellowship of Gird has followed a fairly common path for such a movement–initially, in Gird’s day, it was not a religion but a political movement. But because the previously dominant religion, that of the magelords, was destroyed in the war, and the Old Human beliefs had been frayed almost to disappearance in the centuries of magelord conquest, there was a void, where a new religion of some time would grow. With Gird’s death, that become the Fellowship of Gird itself, with the Code of Gird taking on the aura of divine revelation, and the Marshals functioning as clergy. In a fantasy setting, this is made easier by the reality, in that world, of occasional direct messages from both the gods (as Gird received them, for instance) and the saints, as well as signs and miracles. If I wanted to start a flamewar, I could name a number of contemporary groups–political and religious–whose history has exactly the same sequence. They all consider themselves the One Right Way to do whatever they’re doing, and they all use similar control methods to keep their members in line, the intensity varying with the amount of power they have. In countries with considerable diversity, you can see the arc in more than one of the subgroups. What has kept the Fellowship more or less on a benign path for most of its history is not just paladins, but the direct intervention of their founder from time to time. In longstanding major religions in our world, you can see the “wobble” of different kinds of “renewal” within the whole–some leading to loosening a tightening spiral, and some the opposite.

    Linda: I’m still untangling that bit of history, the interaction of the elves-gone-wrong with the magelords. I think the “gift” of mage powers came from elves, but whether it all came from the iynisin, or was corrupted by them later, I’m not sure. Certainly the humans involved did not recognize when their delight in magery turned on them (and everyone else.)

    Julia Coldren-Walker: You’re absolutely right that psychology is an indispensable part of the mix (and yes, I have shelves of that in the personal library, as well as the history, prehistory, anthropology, etc.) I remember reading that Science article with fascination–we’re subscribers to Science and Nature and used to subscribe to four biomed journals as well; now it’s down to NEMJ. I second your recommendation of it, for those who haven’t read it, and I’m delighted to have your comment. Welcome!

  • Comment by Julia Coldren-Walker — February 28, 2014 @ 10:47 am


    Working for the University means I have access to all the journals and I read Nature and Science each week. If you want any of Dr. Gelfand’s articles let me know.
    P.S. We met in DC on the Mall. I was the one in the wheelchair.

  • Comment by Gareth — February 28, 2014 @ 11:04 am


    Rather than copy and paste something by another author which might not be legal (copyright) I’ll reference a site that contains the poem. If you haven’t read it I just could resist referencing ‘Majority Rule’ by Piet Hein.

    I’ve no idea how it applies to that site but its an easy reference.

  • Comment by Gareth — February 28, 2014 @ 11:04 am


  • Comment by Lisa — February 28, 2014 @ 12:32 pm


    While I do find the quote amusing, the site from which it comes is an amazing collection of…..things.

  • Comment by Tuppenny — February 28, 2014 @ 5:14 pm


    I love Piet Hein’s verse. I have contemplated incorporating some of them (the more sardonic ones) in samplers.
    Though I find the Gardeners prayer particularly moving.

  • Comment by elizabeth — February 28, 2014 @ 10:53 pm


    Julia: SO sorry I didn’t remember your name and you immediately. DUH. (Moderate face-blindness does make that difficult, but I try…) Thanks for the hint. I no longer read all of every article, alas. There was a time…now I skim, pick the ones that intrigue me or I think I’ll need. The house is so stuffed now that we have to throw journals out (I know. Sacrilege) and all my 2011s are gone (except the ones unearthed from corners where I was reading at the time.) So if there’s an electronic or paper copy of the one you mentioned, I would very much enjoy having it. I don’t rip and save nearly as much as I should because, again…the piles of paper and my very lacking organizational skills. I can organize within a book, but outside…no. (And right after typing that, I turned the chair the other way to ease my neck and spotted the two books I was hunting for this afternoon. I think it’s bedtime.)

  • Comment by Richard — March 1, 2014 @ 3:44 am


    Linda, have you read Surrender None where the “Sun Lord” priest Arranha gives Gird his (heretical, in that time and place) opinions about the morality underlying the Rule of Aare?

    How did the magelords get their magery in the first place? I’d rather not take that topic any further (here) for fear of spoilers about the current outbreak, and about the Regalia.

    Taking the one “all-powerful” despot as starting point, what is interesting and relevant here is the variety of ways people have come up with of choosing the successor. Also, whether the “all” in “all-powerful” means that the despot IS the high priest, or makes an exception for the high priest.

    So in Aare, in Aarenis when the refugee magelords still had their magery, and in their northern kingdoms before Gird, did the crown pass to the king’s oldest son (so far as we’ve been shown, daughters did not get much of a look in), or to the one who could “persuade” the others to defer? (in which case, why not a daughter?)

  • Comment by Julia Coldren-Walker — March 1, 2014 @ 6:32 am


    Yes I have e-copies of the article. I have converted almost all my journals to e-copy and then save them on the computer. I am still working on an index system but think I may get Endnotes. Just send me the e-mail address you want me to send it to and I will send it on Monday unless we get the 8 inches of snow they are talking about

  • Comment by GinnyW — March 1, 2014 @ 10:16 am


    Fascinating topic to think about. Even if your teacher’s names do not automatically inform my understanding of Paksworld, I am sure that all of us who have taught appreciate hearing that your teachers stimulated your thinking.

    I majored in social geography, and one of the things that I find credible in Paksworld is the diversity of political organizations with geography. Neighbors influence each other, but so do individual histories of very local places – like the Girdish “winning” in Tsaia. It is very plausible that the “bad magelord Verrakai” were farthest from Fintha. In Tsaia, the local political inertia mixed with the Girdish agenda so that the nobility survived, but (mostly) adapted to the Girdish code. That adaptation is under stress at the end of Limits, with the conflict in Fintha preventing the Marshal-General from delivering a ruling and King Mikeli badly needing to determine a course of action.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — March 1, 2014 @ 11:51 am


    Paksworld politics–a welcome relief from this-world politics! Thank you!
    When the foreign representatives at Kieri’s wedding were listed, one was from Dzordanya and was titled something like “Eldest Mother of the Longhouse”. When I read that I caught a whiff of the Iroquois Federation and of the mammoth hunters in Siberia. I hope a story bubbles up from Dzordanya sometime.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 2, 2014 @ 8:24 am


    Nadine: The longhouses of Dzordanya were inspired partly by the Iriquois Federation and partly by the other societies that have had such communal living spaces, some of them shown and discussed in National Geographic over the years. So your sense of fictional smell was right on target. I may have mentioned here before (if not, somewhere else) that the dangerous “tree sprites” or mikki-kekki of the Dzordanyan forest do not attack, for whatever reason, white-haired old women and other humans (especially children) immediately around them. They attack white-haired men less than dark-haired men, but if they come close enough to smell that the white-haired person is male, they’ll attack him.

    This has resulted in a society that venerates older women as protectors. And premature gray hair…is a desired trait. (My mother got her first gray hairs at 18, she said. And she had beautiful silvery hair, with strands of black in it.) If you don’t keep your women (especially the old ones) alive and healthy long enough to turn white-haired and still be able to go outside and guard, your little group is in constant danger, inside or out (mikki-kekki will invade a structure if there’s not a white-haired woman in or near it.) The more old women in a longhouse, the better.

    Nobody knows why this is so. Mikki-kekki do not communicate with humans in a useful way. They vocalize among themselves, but no one has ever figured out if it’s “just animal noises” or if it’s a language. Certainly they have a social order; they travel in troops, and it’s true that the leader of a troop is usually gray-headed. But aside from that…Dzordanyans are afraid of them, except that every woman knows if she lives long enough, she won’t have to be.

    Dzordanya also produces (nourishes) a steady supply of Kuakkgani. The forest there is very old, and apparently there are trees quite willing to partner with suitable humans. Mikki-kekki do not attack a Kuakgan…they’ve learned that if they do, the Kuakgan transforms (temporarily) into a tree form so the poison in their darts is useless. However, they have no respect for paladins, and paladins have been killed by mikki-kekki.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 2, 2014 @ 7:11 pm


    GinnyW: Social geography sounds like a fascinating major. My first history prof at Rice, Dr. Drew, insisted we learn the geography because of its influence on history. I remember in our freshman class her saying “You can’t understand the history if you don’t know the geography.” We had map homework and had map questions (blank map–put X, Y, Z on it) on tests. Under the geography is the geology, so I’m glad I had some courses in geology as my Group C elective. (I have joked that I studied history “from the rocks up” because of the geology, prehistory, and history courses. Drew, I think, found my peculiar combination of courses…peculiar, but interesting. And then I didn’t go on with the history, except in fiction…and not in historical fiction, which she’d once suggested to me–she introduced me to Cecelia Holland’s excellent books.) She was an incredible lecturer, one of the best I’ve ever had in a college class.

    Overall, I have had the full range of teacher quality, from the extremely bad to the extremely good, all scattered through every level, from elementary school to college. By grad school I could avoid the bad ones, but several of them did me, and others, considerable harm. A good teacher makes a wonderful difference to many students in a lifetime of teaching…and so does a bad teacher, in the opposite direction. Some bad teachers seem to work very hard at being harmful, which I don’t understand (I would understand simple laziness–it’s not easy to be a good teacher.) The good ones cannot be paid their worth–there’s not enough money in the world. The bad ones…I wish could be located and retrained to work with something that doesn’t have a soul to be crushed. Hurray for the good ones!

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — March 3, 2014 @ 11:25 am


    “I may have mentioned here before (if not, somewhere else) that the dangerous “tree sprites” or mikki-kekki of the Dzordanyan forest do not attack, for whatever reason, white-haired old women and other humans (especially children) immediately around them.”

    “However, they have no respect for paladins, and paladins have been killed by mikki-kekki.”

    And Paksenarrion is going prematurely grey. Hmmm. A further adventure for Paks? Please?

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 3, 2014 @ 2:21 pm


    Wickersham’s Conscience: (stares in amazement) Some of you are becoming far too good at whatever it is you’re doing. Not exactly in the bulls-eye, but…what delightfully brilliant people you are, as a group. And individually.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — March 3, 2014 @ 8:52 pm


    Shucks! Here I was hoping to hear more about that female space mercenary who finds the sword in the wagon that you were talking about in a previous posting about the writing craft. I guess I’ll just have to settle for more Paks. Oh, wait, maybe it’s a space ship that comes and gets Paks and a sword and a mikki-kekki or three! Wouldn’t that be a fun adventure! 🙂

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 3, 2014 @ 11:51 pm


    When my brain goes, perhaps it will retain just enough clarity to meld Paks and Ky Vatta and write it like a cross between Fritz Leiber and Terry Pratchett. It would take that. Right now, I’m not able.


  • Comment by pjm — March 4, 2014 @ 3:40 am


    Fritz Leiber and Terry Pratchett – yes. Melding Paksenarrion, Ky Vatta and Esmay Suiza into one character a la Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion – no!
    That said though, if the Plot Daemon goes that way I may have to change my mind.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — March 5, 2014 @ 4:44 pm


    Thank you for extending our knowledge of Dzordanya. Interesting beings, those mikki-kekki.

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