• Member Since 7th Mar, 2013
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Midnight Rambler


I spend way too much time writing about writing, and way too little time actually writing.

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Aug
29th
2014

What did the nobility ever do to you? · 8:56pm Aug 29th, 2014

"This is a lovely town, Princess," [Fancy Pants said.] "I would put a summer home here if I wasn't so afraid that such would somehow cause the herd to mindlessly follow and completely ruin the poor place."

Celestia silently considered how much of the national budget's disaster relief fund had gone to Ponyville over the last two years, added an estimate for how much more would be required after an invasion of nobles and made a mental note to, for a very rare once, ask Luna for a check on her math because she was hoping that infinity symbol wasn't really supposed to be there.

Estee (from: A Total Eclipse of the Fun)

My recent post about The Descendant's work had been bouncing around my head, in some form or another, for several months. So now that I'm at it, I might as well get to that other blog post I've been meaning to write for a long, long time.

One theme I love to see in pony fiction is politics. In the real world, politics is a great spectator sport, once you get a feel for it; so of course the idea of politics in Equestria has all kinds of story potential.

I'm planning to milk that potential to its fullest in Arsenal of Harmony, so I've developed an elaborate headcanon about Equestria's political system. I love to discuss this headcanon with other writers, and see what they've come up with. It's fascinating to see the whole history of European kingship, from Charlemagne onwards, revisited in the structures different writers have built around Celestia and Luna: from the feudal system to absolutism (enlightened or not) to a modern constitutional monarchy diarchy, and anything and everything in between.

There's one unshakeable constant, though.

The nobles are jerks.

Of all the fics I've read that mention the nobility at all – and I haven't counted, but I think I'm talking about 15 to 20 stories – there isn't one that casts them in a positive light, and I don't recall any neutral portrayals, either.

Sometimes they're only mentioned in passing as a minor annoyance, sometimes they're blown up to ridiculous levels of jerkassery, but the bottom line is always the same. The nobles are arrogant, petty, and supremely useless. This unwavering consistency gets even weirder when you consider that it has zero basis in canon. In fact, as far as the show is concerned, there might not be any nobles in Equestria at all.

Yes, there's Blueblood, but last I checked "Prince" was a royal title, not a noble one. Of course, your headcanon could be that it means something different in Equestria, but in any case Blueblood isn't canon evidence for the existence of nobles.

Fancy Pants, Fleur de Lis, Jet Set, Upper Crust? Sure, they're rich, but that doesn't make them nobles. In fact, since they live in a big city, they're more likely not to be. Historically, urban elites were made up of commoners – merchants, master craftsmen and the like. The nobility's power base was in the countryside; after all, their prestige rested on their owning large chunks of farmland. A lot of medieval history is about cities gradually wresting more and more power from the nobles that ruled the lands around them.

(Many European languages have handy words for this kind of late-medieval/early-modern urban elite: Bürgertum in German, burgerij in Dutch, bourgeoisie in French. English had to borrow that last one; sadly, it has lost its original meaning – or any meaning at all, really – thanks to 160 years of Communist pamphlets.)

So, if we've never seen nobles in the show, fanfiction writers had to make them up. How, then, did we end up so... unanimous in portraying the nobles as stuck-up jerks? Are we secretly a changeling hivemind after all? I see three main reasons.

First, there's the classic Aristocrats Are Evil trope. The idea of hereditary power seems extremely unfair to us now, and if the system was unfair, anyone profiting from it must have been evil! So we like to imagine that your typical noble was a pompous bastard who just loved to squeeze every last penny out of the starving peasants. Here I have to defend the real-world nobility. Yes, there have been plenty of greedy dukes, arrogant counts and cruel barons throughout history, but there have also been many nobles who were skilled and compassionate rulers. See, for example, Philip the Good – or anyone else called "the Good", for that matter.

Second, the nobles serve as a source of conflict in stories that focus on the Princesses. Everyone knows that stories without conflict are boring. However, if your main characters are as nice, polite, and reasonable as Luna and especially Celestia are often written, it's hard to make any kind of serious conflict believable... unless the other side is completely unsympathetic. Enter a string of insufferable nobles, petitioning the Crown for a 37th meaningless title or a subsidy on their country house. The nobles gossip, scheme, obstruct, complain, and most of all annoy – and so help drive the story forward.

Third, writers model their nobles after characters like Blueblood and Jet Set – even though Blueblood isn't a noble and Jet Set probably isn't either, as I explained above. (Blueblood himself is a curious case, too. The MLP writers gave us a one-dimensional jerk... who then became the subject of several fics whose entire point was to rub in how much of a jerk he was. It's the kind of thing you'd expect more from the primary demographic than from supposedly grown-up fans, but even otherwise sophisticated writers couldn't seem to resist the urge.)

For what it's worth, in my own headcanon, the nobles' role in Equestria is roughly the same as in the real world, and by "the real world" I mean continental Europe. Hundreds of years ago, they used to wield real power, but their influence has gradually declined and now their titles are pure formalities, a fact they have long accepted. They certainly don't hang around Canterlot Castle to bother the Princesses anymore. Although ponies in general are vaguely aware that there are still nobles around, nopony – except for the nobles themselves and a handful of enthusiasts – really knows who they are, or particularly cares.

But that's my headcanon; other people have theirs, and I know there are a lot of amazingly creative writers out there. So just once, I'd like to read a story of the Canterlot court where characters with a noble title get a positive or ambivalent portrayal. At the very least, make them something more interesting than cardboard-cutout jerks who only serve to annoy the Princesses.

Love and tolerance,

Rambler

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Comments ( 13 )

I wonder if it's just that the nobility is that much farther removed from everyday life that the foibles of the common pony have no definition to them. Or, if they do, then they must cover it up for fear of having their roots exposed. Possibly.

I see them as rigid traditionalists, holding onto power because it's what they do. They control trade, relations with neighboring countries, and the management of the lands under their hooves.

This requires a certain amount of disconnectedness from the ponies they rule over. They cannot possibly feel every hurt that their citizenry feels. They would go mad trying to manage everything so that everypony was happy. Thus, when they snub a commoner it is not necessarily that they are doing so to be jerks. They are creating that insulation, maintaining it.

Of course, this is not the case for some, or many. If they stopped to think about it, mightn't they feel guilt? Possibly.

But that layer of insulation is required for the ponies in power to do what is necessary in hard times so that their ponies have good times to look forward to. So that they have good times to look forward to.

This is, perhaps, an optimistic view of the nobility. But without the common pony, the crops would not be tended, taxes would not fill coffers, and the soldiery would not exist. Where do they come from, after all, except from the common pony?

Subjugation notwithstanding, of course.

It's also the view I chose to go with for Mother of the Moon. It's never outright stated (not anymore at least,) but the motivations of the city-states was devoted to the well being of the city-states, not the whole of what is (in the present of the story) a unified, albeit tenuously, Equestria.

Nor is the attitude of the nobility towards the common pony ever really addressed. Or that of the common pony towards the nobility. Both sort of exist without express knowledge of what the other does. They know that the other group is important, but are at least somewhat ignorant of what the other does day to day.

So... rambling all over your blog, Rambler. Sorry. That's kinda the nutshell version of my headcanon of the nobility through the ages, with specifics different depending on the era.

Edit: also a bit disjointed. Sorry bout that. Your blog just kinda made me think about how I viewed the nobility through the historic lens of MotM.

I think the reason why nobles are mostly portrayed one-dimensional in this fandom is because it (for obvious reasons) consists mostly of Britons, whose nobility started to mingle with the middle classes far earlier than in the rest of Europe and Americans, who have no historical experience with aristocracy at all. Therefor it is not surprising that most follow the british idea of aristocracy, where someones nobility gave only access to the House of Lords (hence the complaining and annoying nobles that don't take part in the actual ruling of a nation), or was not a factor at all.

Now, if we look at the nobility in pre ww1 Europe it becomes a lot more interesting.
In Germany of Austria for example, the nobles were running the army pretty much exclusively, as well as a good part of the civil service.
In Tsarist Russia there simply was no real middle class, so the nobles were the driving force between the government.
The aristocracy was hardly useless in these and many more countries.

But not only that, where being ennobled in Britain was mostly a nicety, in continental Europe it was an unrivaled honor, that required you to change your entire social life, even if you could not afford it. A famous example is the story of a Prussian junker who was forced to travel by train in the second class because he would not have been able to pay his expensive clothes and dinners otherwise. He, however, needed those things as he would have been unable to advance in the army if the other officers where to notice that he didn't took his honor seriously.

As for the title of prince being reserved for royalty: This too is only true in Britain.
In the Holy Roman Empire, (and most of the rest of continental Europe) it didn't matter if you were a count, or a baron, or an unlanded noble, or the emperor himself, they all were princes of the empire.

This is another one of those trends that is tricky to analyze. Yes, there's plenty of cultural baggage and misinterpretation of canon that might be underlying causes. It's hard to say, though, because fanfiction (and FIMfic in particular) has lots of "headcanon by consensus" situations. Things like OctaviaxVinyl and Lyra having some sort of anthropological obsession don't make any real sense when analyzed. Yet the fandom clung to those ideas so tightly that they became ingrained and past questioning.

I tend to view Equestrian politics as another one of those things easily influence by zeitgeist. As you said, there's so many other variants across the theme (especially in regards to the structure and importance of politics), that such a particular detail being so universal doesn't have a lot of other explanations.

TL;DR: Follow The Leader

There's no real point in categorically separating "royalty" and "nobility". The royalty is the highest level of nobility. Royal families that lose their thrones can carry on with lesser titles, many (all?) real-world monarchs have long lists of noble titles as well, and if a throne becomes available somewhere the lesser noble families will try to seize it for themselves if they can. So Prince Blueblood surely is a noble, of the very highest noble family of them all, and that does give us a canon reason to be suspicious of Canterlot nobility.

While we can't say if every upper-class jerk that's been shown in Canterlot is a noble, it does seem like every elite Canterlot pony except Fancy Pants is an upper-class jerk.

I agree with this one. For my fics, there's no nobility. There's an upper-class in Canterlot, and they're pleasant for the most part.

2412285 No need to apologise, I love this kind of discussion! Like I said, I always like to hear other people's headcanons, especially on a subject like this. :twilightsmile:

One interesting point is that you seem to draw a pretty sharp dividing line between the nobility and the commoners. As far as I'm aware, in the real world it was more of a sliding scale. Sure, if you were the Count of Flanders or the Duke of Aquitaine, you may have had a big fancy castle, a well-stocked treasury, and an important finger in the European political pot. If you were the Baron of three hovels in the Black Forest... not so much.

On the other hand, it's been observed countless times that the less reason someone has to say they're in Class X in purely material terms, the harder they will try to act like they belong. This works both ways: from impoverished British upper class desperately trying to keep up appearances, to suburban white kids in the US anxious for "street cred". So maybe in your setting, the lower nobility actively keeps up the "insulation" because they're clinging to their status.

At any rate, Mother of the Moon looks very interesting; I've added it to my Read Later list.

2412362 That actually sounds like a really good explanation. Better than mine, perhaps.

As real-life stereotypes go, "politicians are all greedy sleazebags" is one of my pet peeves. Politicians do annoy me very often, but for other reasons – reasons which are inherent in the system most of the time.

First of all, politics is a constant battle for attention, in which your closest colleagues are your fiercest competitors. If you're not in the spotlights, you're nowhere. So the job attracts a lot of people who think they're God's gift to mankind and are all too eager to show it.

Second, you want to grab people's attention, but you also want to avoid pissing off any potential voters. Therefore politicians talk mostly in clichés and hyperbole. Nuance, skepticism and level-headedness are often nowhere to be found. This is also where the "politician's answer" comes from: reporters will often ask a politician questions which he can't give a straight answer to without making lots of voters angry or sparking a massive internal feud within his party. So instead, he gives a lenghty, vague reply which is at best tangentially related to the question.

(There's two sides to this tragedy: reporters have to keep asking these kinds of tricky questions, have to try and throw the politician off balance. If they approach him from a less hostile angle, he'll seize the opportunity to give them the pre-rehearsed spiel from the party's PR office – and nothing more.)

Third, politicians have a huge workload, and the issues they have to make decisions about are often extremely complex. In many countries they aren't given adequate support staff to deal with this. Lobbyists exploit this by creating tailor-made, PowerPoint-style summaries of which amendments to vote for and which arguments to bring up. Many politicians gratefully accept this kind of "aid" because they really don't have the time to figure it all out for themselves.

I'm afraid that in our time, any acceptable (read: democratic) way to run a country will always have problems like these. Anyway, this is why I called politics a great spectator sport – I wouldn't dream of going into it myself, but I have some respect for the brave souls who do. Someone needs to do it, after all.

Your Blueblood story looks interesting, too; I'll be sure to give it a read.

2412365 Good point. "Prince" has lots of meanings: it can mean the ruler of a principality, or a son from a royal family who isn't on the throne (yet), or just a ruler in general. Of course, Blueblood can be any of the three, but since he's introduced as "Celestia's nephew" I think it's a safe bet that the second meaning applies here.

And of course the different geographical reference frames are a big factor. So are different temporal reference frames. When I think of "nobles" I think of the feudal era, when they had actual political power, and more or less clearly defined territories. The typical portrayal of nobles in pony fanfiction – the kind I was talking about in this blog post – seems to be based more on Louis XIV-style absolutism, where the nobles are all gathered at court, most of them without anything useful to do.

My headcanon is that they theoretically have large amounts of power- Celestia just lured them all to Canterlot with fancy parties like the Grand Galloping Gala and pageantry, Louis XIV-style.

2422765 Wait, but in all the fics the reason that they pester the Princesses so much is that they're all hanging around Canterlot with nothing better to do. Are you saying Celestia created her own tormentors? :rainbowderp:

There's a bigger question underlying this.

Forget about the infamous "It's Princess Celestia rather than Queen Celestia because Queens are Evil and Princesses are Good". _Why does Equestria have a monarch when it has no religion_ ?

Monarchy is a religious institution. It justifies the power of the ruler because the ruler is either a living deity or is a special intermediary of a deity. In many systems, the monarch owns the country! Writing was developed to help the priests to administer tithe collection and track inventory! And the show bends over backwards to _never_ claim _anything_ we see is a deity. Nor are any deities worshiped.

(Sure, we all know that's because that Hasbro sees absolutely no benefit in antagonizing fundamentalist monotheists (of any type; there's an Arabic dub of FiM). But the discussion here is "what is the most rational backstory to assume given canon". After all, Prince is pretty high up in the ranking system. It implies a host of lesser orders and ranks. So if you're going to take the tack "we only _see_ one pony with a title" into the argument, we have to stay within the explicit, literal contents of canon.)

Heck, there's not even any treatment of death. We literally have no idea what ponies think about death. And while they have a few yearly celebrations, there's no religious or philosophical dimension behind any of them (Two of them are historical commemorations; one is thanksgiving for Celestia running the sun well(a gesture of thanksgiving with no discussion of cosmology at all); and one's just an arbitrary "let's make this a special day for X" occasion). We have no idea what the Master Narrative that ponies place themselves in is. Going the boundaries on analysis assumed by the OP, we have to assume there isn't one. (Which sociologically speaking, is like no society on earth.)

Are the ponies literally a huge extended family and they're all truly Celestia and Luna's children? (and this might explain why Luna got so bitter; it wasn't vanity, it was that her entire sphere of parental influence was _ignored_.) That in some key ways, they're like dogs, bred to never reach full maturity and having a variety of quirks given this?

The nobility thing is just the tip of the iceberg of "wtf".

Myself, I think anti-aristocratic sentiment is justified because there's a key difference between aristocrats and CEO's or politicians. Their position is 100% disconnected from any of their qualifications for their role. Its true CEO's and politicians tend to be drawn from wealthy families, so their position is _largely_ inherited. But there's a difference between "mostly" and "entirely".

Because ambition and greed are so prevalent, systems with nobility constantly struggle to push forward less (or un-) qualified claimants to a position (chancellor, military commander, or even ruler) because the _first_ determining criteria is birthright. And the system of inheritance and claims is complicated enough there's generally not a radical distinction between the claim strength of a person holding a given office and many people who might want to hold that office instead. Nobles are born taught they are literally and fully entitled to anything their hereditary privilege conveys.

Remember, in most noble systems, engaging in trade or work was seen as a profound insult to the honour of the nobility. It might be tolerated but it was a huge black mark against a noble to be entangled in that. A major reason Britain emerged on top in the modern era was they had weaker black marks this way.

Even in systems where the nobility had practical responsibilities, there was a very narrow view of what being a "good" executor of those responsibilities required. Because the nobles didn't hold those positions because they were talented.

It's not that the meritocratic pretensions of democracy or capitalism are particularly solid in practice. In practice, politicians and CEO's _want_ to secure eternal privilege, just like the nobility. But the fact they don't literally legally have that privilege is a distinction that makes a serious difference to the competence levels of the key decision makers in society. "In the land of the blind...."

2422813 Better she of eternal patience and the power to deny their scheming and begging than others. Never say Celestia won't take one for the team :pinkiesmile:

I agree entirely with what you'd said here. I personally just see them as the easiest and most acceptable of targets. Like you mentioned, they're used primarily as a source of conflict for the sake of conflict. You can vilify them as much as you want and little to NO ONE will give you guff for it.

I've even done threads on the matter that properly go into my view on the matter:
https://www.fimfiction.net/group/50/the-writers-group/thread/136774/discussion-acceptable-targets-in-stories
https://www.fimfiction.net/group/50/the-writers-group/thread/92928/discussion-are-the-nobilityaristocratsupper-class-overly-villified-in-fanfiction

Though funny you should mention,

How, then, did we end up so... unanimous in portraying the nobles as stuck-up jerks? Are we secretly a changeling hivemind after all? I see three main reasons.

Because really, regarding changelings, so many of us are set solidly on them being portrayed as a hive and a hivemind, yet like with the nobles, there's nothing in canon that directly says they are this. Hell, even the comics, in my view, swayed more into portaying the changelings as having a more pony/human-like society than that of eusocial insects.

2647063

Forget about the infamous "It's Princess Celestia rather than Queen Celestia because Queens are Evil and Princesses are Good". Why does Equestria have a monarch when it has no religion?

Monarchy is a religious institution. It justifies the power of the ruler because the ruler is either a living deity or is a special intermediary of a deity.

Excellent point. The medieval feudal system was seen as God-given and unquestionable, and any self-respecting monarch still rules 'by the Grace of God.'

We have no idea what the Master Narrative that ponies place themselves in is. Going by the boundaries on analysis assumed by the OP, we have to assume there isn't one.

What boundaries do you mean? I don't think I implied anywhere that pony culture cannot have a religious narrative, but I'm very curious to know about these 'boundaries on analysis' you speak of.

At any rate, the question of Equestrian religion, and how it ties into the ponies' view of their Princesses, is a very interesting one with lots of story potential.

Because ambition and greed are so prevalent, systems with nobility constantly struggle to push forward less (or un-) qualified claimants to a position (chancellor, military commander, or even ruler) because the first determining criterion is birthright.

A valid observation, but I'd contest it on one point: 'systems with nobility.' I think systems ruled by non-noble elites can fall prey to exactly the same kind of development.

Right now, I'm reading a book about the French Revolution, and it's clear that by the late 18th century the nobility of the Ancien Régime had long outlived its usefulness. The requirement of blue blood for many of the higher positions in the military and the civil service, and the practice of selling those positions to the highest bidder, more or less guaranteed incompetent leadership.

Now consider my own country, the Netherlands. Far earlier than in the rest of Europe, our bourgeoisie (urban merchants and bankers; basically early-modern equivalents of the 'CEOs and politicians' you mention) overtook our nobility as the main ruling class. Yet in the 18th century, this bourgeois elite had very similar problems to their blue-blooded counterparts in France.

In any given Dutch city, wealth and power were firmly consolidated in the grasp of a few families, who did everything they could to keep it that way. They created fictional job titles for themselves, with decidedly non-fictional pay. They got their underage children appointed to high-paying positions, then hired some random clerk to do the actual work for a fraction of the salary – and cashed in the difference. And like the French nobles, they outright bought some jobs. (A particular hit at such "job auctions" was the office of tax collector. It was highly sought after because as long as a tax collector brought in the agreed amount of money, he was allowed to collect a hefty sum for himself on top of that – a practice which eventually led to riots.)

Gone was the spirit of innovation that had carried our country to great heights in the 17th century; gone was the healthy influx of new blood (Jews, Huguenots, Flemish Calvinists, etc.) that had sustained that spirit. The focus was squarely on preservation of the status quo.

So, the way I see it, the real difference isn't between elites of nobles and elites of commoners. The difference is between elites that are completely closed to newcomers, and elites that let in some new blood every now and then. The former will usually die a slow and messy death – and drag their country down with them – because the leaders they produce tend to be incompetent, corrupt, focused on personal power struggles, and very bad at adapting to changing situations. The latter can, in theory, keep a country running smoothly for a very long time. Unfortunately, the latter has a tendency to get complacent and morph into the former, as the Dutch example shows.

2649654 See, I knew I can't have been the only one to notice this! Very well-written, to-the-point posts, both of them.

And yeah, the 'changeling hivemind' thing was an unfortunate turn of phrase. :rainbowwild: I don't view changelings as a hivemind, myself; I take my headcanon mostly from Phoenix_Dragon, creator of the excellent Fragments / Without a Hive / A New Way continuity.

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