It is a common narrative archetype, one that can be found in all forms of story from ancient to modern. A male hero journeys to a foreign land; wins the love of a princess by performing certain valiant deeds; and through their marriage, becomes the land’s future king. Most modern audiences would look at this as nothing more than romantic fantasy. Has this ever literally occurred? Is there any real justification for the idea that a common man could become a king in such a simple manner?
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While modern experience may motivate us to say no, it seems these stories may be based in an actual historical context. Though admittedly it has taken me too long to get to it, I have recently begun reading The Golden Bough, James George Frazer’s 1890 pan-cultural analysis of the developmental connections between superstition, ritual, and religion in early (or “primitive,” as Frazer might put it) human societies. While some sections of Frazer’s work are indeed golden, and others are built on questionable presuppositions that have since been discredited, I find one early chapter extremely interesting in terms of its possible relationship to modern cinematic storytelling. In Chapter 9, “The Succession to the Kingdom” Frazer inverts the common notion regarding how the right to rulership progressed from one generation to the next in early societies. We are all acquainted with monarchical systems where the throne descends down the male bloodline. Upon the death of the king, the crown is given to the king’s eldest son; or if he has no living son, his eldest grandson, brother, or nephew. Indeed, this was the system used by most monarchical societies from the Middle Ages to the present day, not only across Europe but in many regions around the globe. However, using examples from ancient Latium (kingdoms in Italy predating the Roman Republic), Greece, Scandinavia, and Britain, Frazer claims that in far older societies the right to the throne descended down the female line. That is, the crown was not granted to the king’s son, but whomever should marry the king’s daughter. In other words, rulership was given to the king’s son-in-law—an outsider to the royal bloodline. If the king’s own sons wished to be rulers, they were forced to travel to foreign lands in search of their own princesses to marry, thus inheriting a kingdom different from the one in which they were born (thus begetting so many tales of wandering princes). Indeed, the king himself was not of royal parentage (at least not of the kingdom he ruled). He earned the throne only by marriage to the queen—whose parents were the former rulers.
Since kingship was granted through marriage rather than bloodline, this meant hypothetically any man might become king; whether he be a rich man or a slave, a citizen or a foreigner. Yet of course, the future of the kingdom depended upon finding the best possible candidate. For this reason, many of these societies would only grant the princess’s hand in marriage by way of a challenge or contest. Through this, the victor proved himself to be the strongest, most skilled, or most intelligent of the many suitors, and thus the most fit to rule. (Frazer gives several examples where a race was used to select the most worthy candidate, prompting the editor of Bough’s 1994 edition to hint this may be the root of the phrase “running for office.”)
Therefore, stories in which a lowly young man wins the hand of a princess through impressive deeds and thus the right to become king are not far-fetched works of fantasy. In fact, some of the oldest tales of this sort may be based on or inspired by actual events.
to us, this descent of rulership may seem counter-intuitive. Why was
the crown passed from father-to-stranger rather than more reliably
from father-to-son? Why was the female line so important and an
outsider considered most desirable to fulfill future kingly duties?
Frazer suggests this system came as an outcome of far more primordial
cultural-religious beliefs. Using a plethora of examples, Frazer lays
out three dominant themes found in primitive cultural ideologies. The
first is apotheosis: the idea that kings and queens are not only
representatives of the gods who control nature, but in fact become
imbued with these gods to make them earthly embodiments of deities
themselves. The second is the association of nature with the female,
since both are capable of bearing new life. The third is a perceived
magical connection between human procreation and the fertility of
nature. Throughout the ages, cultures worldwide engaged in rituals in
the spring or summer where sexual relations between a man and a
woman, or a real or symbolic marriage with a god or goddess, was
believed to replenish nature and ensure its continued bounty. By
combining these notions, we can conclude that the princess was
believed to be a vessel of the life-giving goddess of nature. To
ensure that this goddess would be able to continually replenish the
earth, she must be paired with the strongest, and therefore most
sexually potent mate. Through this union, the most virile seed was
continually planted in the womb of the nature goddess, guaranteeing
that the earth will remain fruitful. Whether societies followed the
system of female descent in explicit obedience to these beliefs or as
only the lingering vestige long-forgotten ideas, the justification
remained the same. The people believed the welfare of the kingdom
depended upon a successful union between the most virile of possible
kings and their future queen; regardless of who this potential king
may be or from where he might come.
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However, marriage to the king’s daughter was not the only way a man might legitimately claim the throne. One could also become king by marrying a widowed queen, killing the current king and taking the queen as his wife, or by convincing the queen to reject the king for himself thereby dethroning her husband. (For some literary examples, this path to the throne can be seen in stories like Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Once again, the authority to rule resided in the female bloodline, making whoever the queen chose as her husband the legitimate king. Contrary to modern notions, Frazer implies that early societies would not have objected to these usurpers of the throne. In fact, they would have found the transition acceptable and necessary. If a king became too old, weak, or incompetent to fend off his rivals, this meant he was no longer the strongest and most virile ruler. He had lost the capacity to fulfill his duties and could no longer replenish the earth through his union with the goddess of nature. This would appear all the more evident if the kingdom had recently suffered from drought, famine, or unrest. For even though the king was considered a god, early peoples would readily turn on and replace their god-king if his supposed power over nature seemed to grow indifferent to their needs.
Yet aside from fantasy films which literally present the young-man-becomes-king narrative, what might this have to do with modern cinematic storytelling? Well, simple observation shows that this familiar structure; man meets princess, man wins the love of princess through valiant deeds, man gains the power of a king; holds a parallel in the common and at times obligatory use of the romantic subplot in masculine-protagonist Hollywood films. Every moviegoer is accustomed to male hero films which contain a secondary romantic narrative—one often tangential or even unrelated to the main plotline— following a standard structure: First, in his attempts to resolve the problems found in the primary narrative, the protagonist encounters a potential female love interest. But due to his flaws, this love interest often initially shuns, behaves indifferently towards, or fails to connect with the protagonist. Yet as the protagonist grows as an individual and proves himself through praiseworthy achievements; either through actions intended to resolve the main story conflict or those aimed directly at his potential lover; he eventually attains a genuine romantic connection with the female lead. With this bond consummated, something magical occurs. The protagonist gains a strength, authority, or confidence he did not previously possess. Using this, the protagonist overcomes the story’s problems and brings comfort and order to his world, allowing all virtuous parties to live happily ever after.
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In my book Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I (as well as the article found here), I introduced the concept of “The Humility Arc;” a common structure found in the fairy tales of Western Europe which seems to have been adopted with near-universality by Hollywood films. I propose that the romantic subplots found in masculine-protagonist Hollywood films represent a similar holdover from an even older collection of stories. The ancient archetype of kingship gained through a union with a royal female remains alive and well in our modern narratives despite the fact that we have long forgotten its origins and the mystical beliefs once attached to it. In the masculine-centered feature film, the protagonist begins as an illegitimate hero in a corrupted “kingdom.” By eventually winning the love and support of a “princess,” the hero gains the strength and legitimacy he needs to become the land’s new “king.” Through this holy union, the hero is apotheosized into a higher being, one with a power to take the actions necessary to do away with corruption, replenish the earth, and escort the kingdom into a new, more bounteous age.
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Like the evidence cited by James George Frazer, winning the hand of a “princess” is not the only way a male protagonist may gain the power of a “king.” He may also succeed by stealing the love of a queen from the existing king. In many films with romantic subplots, the female love interest is originally the girlfriend, fiancee, or some other romantic partner of the protagonist’s chief rival. This rival is often presented as the “alpha male,” making him the current king of the story world. Yet this is usually a corrupted or unworthy king; exhibiting traits such as greed, arrogance, or cowardice which have a negative effect upon those around him. With opposition from the rival, the hero can only succeed by overthrowing this king. And, like in Frazer’s early societies, the first step to do so is by stealing the king’s source of power—his queen. So, the protagonist makes romantic overtures to the female lead in an attempt to convince her he is far superior to the rival. If successful, a reversal of power occurs. The protagonist is elevated to the position of the alpha male while the rival quickly becomes isolated and impotent, leading to his eventual defeat.
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Yet as critics may point out, these so-called “heroes” may from a different perspective be considered to be playing the heel. The protagonist is disrupting an existing romantic relationship by encouraging the female lead to be disloyal to her partner. In fact, we may even say the rival is actually the story’s victim. Still, audiences applaud the female lead’s switching of loyalties for the same reason that the societies illustrated by James George Frazer supported the deposition of existing kings. The land’s health and happiness depends upon the fruitful relationship between the queen and king. If the current king becomes weak or corrupt, it is only proper for the queen to abandon him in favor of far better suitor. Therefore, once the protagonist proves his superiority, it is only proper for the female lead to reject the rival for the protagonist, as this will supposedly bring greater joy and comfort to the land.
This structure can also be found in reverse in stories where male protagonists meet failure in the end. Often, the protagonist gains the love and support of the female lead very early, or possesses such a union before the story begins. Yet rather than grow for the better, these protagonists change for the worse. By becoming a less and less worthy “king,” the protagonist strains his life-sustaining bond with his “queen,” often motivating the female lead to abandon him completely. Detached from the queen, the protagonist loses his heroic legitimacy and slowly degrades into a weak or powerless individual; eventually costing him his throne and banishing him from the kingdom.
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I have very little experience in the realm of gender studies, so I lack the grounds to formulate any definite claims on what this frequently repeated narrative structure may say about or do to influence our modern culture or society. However, two areas for debate seem to stand out most clearly. Firstly, an initial analysis may lead critics to conclude the masculine-protagonist romantic subplot presents evidence of institutionalized male chauvinism in Hollywood storytelling. The protagonist’s effort’s to “claim” the female lead may seem to objectify the female character. In terms of narrative structure, she functions not so much like an independent person, but some sort of “macguffin of power,” like King Arthur’s Excalibur or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark which ambitious males must first seize to reach their personal goals.
Yet this accusation may be countered with a realization that, though she or the audience may not recognize it, the female lead is the only character with any real power in these stories. The male protagonist, despite being the primary focus of the film and leading the narrative through his actions, is actually a disempowered individual. Time and again, he meets little success until he can gain the aid and support of the female lead. Like the kings in Frazer’s female-bloodline societies, the protagonist’s personal power over his world is but an illusion. It is the queen who secretly holds the real authority, as she can give or take away the throne as she pleases. Because of this hidden power, the male protagonists of Hollywood films must routinely subdue their wills to the female lead, changing their behavior and doing away with their flaws to finally gain her full acceptance—and by extension, the strength or legitimacy needed to achieve the ultimate goal. In other words, through the female lead’s power to accept or reject the male protagonist, the Hollywood romantic subplot forces the male to improve as an individual, making him more heroic and thus more worthy for the title of king. Therefore we may say the female lead secretly controls the male protagonist’s transformation of character, and thus the story’s resolution since this personal transformation will decide the hero’s ultimate success or failure.
Yet even if this is all true, the overall social benefit or detriment of this continually repeated narrative structure is open to question. Just because something is common, this does not necessarily mean it is helpful or correct. Thus, this area of storytelling demands further investigation.