A fantasy novel without an empire (benevolent or evil) is like a man without a skin: all those muscles have nothing to hold them together into a recognizable shape. Let’s face it, no human society exists without government. Anarchy only lasts so long; it is quite simply unsustainable. But in fantasy novels, traditionally, the empire is the government of choice, though the monarchy is a close second. I want to look at both of these systems, though, as they are relatively closely related, especially in the genre in question.
At the end of the day, there is very little difference between an empire, a monarchy, and a dictatorship in regards to the concentration of power. The last of those three is usually militaristic in nature, like the first, but often does not rely on hereditary rule. In short, all true monarchies are dictatorships, but not all dictatorships are monarchies. The primary difference between an empire and a monarchy is scope. Monarchies may form empires, which are conglomerates of territories of diverse peoples conquered and governed by a single government. Now, you can have an empire run by a democratic or republican government, such as the United States, but, more often, empires are created by dictators expanding their nations’ control to other people. The most recent example of this is the U.S.S.R., though a case could be made for China still being an empire itself, and thus the oldest empire in existence.
But the most famous empires of the earth’s past are those that I wish to concentrate on here, as it is from these that fantasy authors draw inspiration for their own mythical governments. The empires of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte are examples of empires created by one man through massive conquests in a short period of time. These sorts of empires, historically, do not last very long before collapsing. The Macedonian Empire fell apart with Alexander’s death. The Mongol Empire was carved up by Genghis Khan’s sons and grandsons. The French Empire didn’t even survive until Napoleon’s death before collapsing. Empires created by one man survive only so long as the personality who built them lives.
There is a very good reason for this. If you track the above-mentioned empires, you will find that they were continuously expanding. The kings and generals who built those empires were not suited to governance. They were conquerors. It takes a different sort of man to conquer territories than to govern them. Fantasy novels sometimes feature these conquering types, and in keeping with our modern sensibilities, they are often portrayed as villains. Such an image of the empire-builder, of course, is due to Western depictions of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, who were painted as threats to Rome and Catholic Europe. Alexander the Great, by contrast, is oft considered the greatest Western general ever. It is likely that he was among the greatest military minds in the earth’s history, but he was no-less terrifying to those he conquered than the Mongols were to the Europeans. What I’m really pointing out here is that the empire-builder’s reputation suffers from an ethnocentric world view, which, while understandable, tends to cloud our ideas of the matter.
Now, leaving that aside for the moment, we come to the second form of empire creation: slow progression. In this case, empire is built up slowly over generations, often through conquest, but often through other forms of acquisition as well (such as colonization or marriage). This type of empire building allows for the conquering nation to integrate culture after culture into the main society, and allows for more stable and long-lasting empires than the one-man-conqueror type mentioned above. Historic examples of this include Persia, Rome, Great Britain, and the United States. Such empires often have longer-lasting consequences in the conquered regions than those rising and falling rapidly, and for obvious reasons relating to cultural identity and stability.
The Renaissance was about returning to Roman precedents even after seven or eight hundred years of the Middle Ages.
It is this latter form of empire that appears most commonly in fantasy novels, quite often in the guise of a monarchy that has expanded its territories through conquest. George R.R. Martin’s fantasy realm of The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is a well-known example of this type of government, as is the Kingdom of the Isles of Raymond Feist’s books. In a similar sense to Rome, these are empires that were built up steadily over many generations until the idea of the empire had become so entrenched in the people’s minds that it was a terror to imagine the political structure collapsing.
When Rome threatened to fall, people throughout the empire imagined the end of the world because a whole way of life was dying. When the French Empire collapsed, conquered people cheered their liberation.
One final type of empire needs to be mentioned, and that is the religious empire. These empires can be formed in one of the two ways discussed above, but the two most prominent of such empires from the earth’s past (the Catholic Holy Roman Empire of Europe and the Muslim Empire) show the same tendency for survival as the slow-built empire type. The reason for this is the nature of the conquest, as religious empires derive their power from forced conversion, bringing conquered territories into the religious fold. In such an environment, it only takes one generation to breed out most ill will, and because the loyalty is to a faith or ideology, it is much harder to break down than loyalty to a man or a city.
Now, as a motif, empire often acts symbolically to show us facets of our own political systems in the modern world. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series brings forward the dangers of socialism and communism, and while there are many parallels between the empire in that series and the old U.S.S.R., there is much there to indicate that (like Orwell’s 1984) Goodkind is talking about more than just the Soviet Union. His empire is a warning against something similar taking root in America.
And this brings us to a thematic concern in regards to the motif of empire. Empires are almost always depicted as evil (or at least very corrupt and fallen) in our fantasy novels. We see concerns such as the concentration of too much power in a few hands; we see concerns relating to colonialism; we see concerns of cultural pride and arrogance. These concerns (and the applications of fantasy empires) need not be entirely political. There are many businesses, as well as social organizations, that operate like empires.
The point is that the motif of empire allows us to examine the nature of power in a unique way. Views of empire are often ethnocentric, but the fact of the matter is that somebody is always being subjugated in such a system. There is no such thing as equality in a true empire, for in a true empire, it is the race/nation/kingdom that built the empire that holds the power. It takes generations before the conquered peoples begin to think of themselves as citizens of the empire. These imperial concerns, however, are very modern, and they demonstrate a recent and shifting view of absolute power in the world (certainly in the West).