Plot Devices: High Fantasy and the Treaty of Westphalia

Quick show of hands, who knows what Westphalian sovereignty is? For those of you who don’t want to read through the entire Wikipedia article, it’s the principle that any nation state has the right to govern itself and its internal affairs without interference from other nation states, and that each state is equal under international law. (Though it all frequently plays out differently in practice.) Westphalian sovereignty originated with the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties that ended the Thirty Year’s War and the Eighty Year’s War in Europe, who had had so many wars by that point they just gave up on original names. Prior to the Peace of Westphalia, constant meddling in the affairs of other countries was completely normal. It should be noted, of course, that the interrelation of royalty throughout Europe was a big cause of this.

Real quick, I want you to look at a map of Middle Earth. Feel free to look up a higher resolution one if you want, but there aren’t any precisely defined borders on the map- there isn’t any sharply defined line between Gondor and Mordor, other than the obvious geographic features. This isn’t because J.R.R. Tolkien just decided to draw a geographic map of Middle Earth and call it a day- the omission of borders was deliberate. This is, admittedly, speculation on my part- I don’t know for sure that Tolkien was deliberately modeling the nations of Middle Earth after pre-Westphalian states, but it seems extremely likely. The man was an exceptionally knowledgeable student of European history- for him to have included the strictly defined Westphalian state seems extraordinarily unlikely.

And indeed, in a reading of The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, the only borders really mentioned are geographic ones, and nations don’t even pay lip service to noninterference in each others business- which, of course, tends to be rather secondary, since they aren’t novels about nation states, but of good versus evil.

However, once you get past Tolkien and into other, later fantasy novels, nations that are obviously built on the post Westphalian model begin to pop up more and more often. I don’t want to single out authors left and right, so I’m going to instead focus on the Forgotten Realms, a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. (1) While the Forgotten Realms don’t correspond directly to the concept of the Westphalian state, they nonetheless approximate it in many regards.

This isn’t a game killer for fantasy novels, of course- the idea of requiring historical accuracy from fantasy novels is a deeply problematic one. “He got all the details of interactions between pre-Westphalian nation states correct, what an excellent fantasy novel! Oh, and the dragons were great.” Even setting aside slightly more controversial issues having to do with historical accuracy (2), “historical accuracy” involves a number of huge assumptions, and you know what they say about assumptions: It’s a postulation that is taken as true without proof. First off, in a secondary world- that is, a world entirely separate from our own, created by the author- history will, by necessity, take a different route. Deviations in geology, biology, the laws of nature, etc, all produce vastly different context for the history of your world. “Historical accuracy” in fantasy often refers to technological development, which itself is still bizarre. Much of the accuracy in this sense isn’t actual accuracy, but what we’ve grown to expect from movies- 15th century armor and swords, yet somehow without firearms, which were in use in that time. It doesn’t make much sense in the internal context of the secondary world, either. The circumstances of resource availability, climate, cultural mores, the existence of magic and fantastical creates, and any number of other factors are going to vastly alter the technological development of said civilization. If you can heal an injury with a spell, why would you develop medical technology for dealing with it? If you can bring down walls with a spell, what do you need trebuchets for? (Those questions can be answered quite easily by limiting the availability of magic, among many other viable solutions, of course- nonetheless, every addition to a secondary world requires that one consider the consequences.)

It’s quite unrealistic to expect every author to have to check off a precise and specific list of tidbits to know about our history to write their novels, but I do think that a bit of awareness of the Westphalian state can greatly assist authors in producing more considered work. This applies to education in general- the more you know, the more you have to contribute to a novel. As a corollary to that, writers should read extensively outside their genre in order to have something new to contribute that the genre doesn’t already have.

It’s perfectly possible that Westphalian states might evolve in a secondary world. The sheer volume of them I encounter, however, seems a little high. Indeed, this might all be rather pedantic on my part (3), since whether a fantasy nation is a Westphalian state or not frequently makes little difference to the plot or characters. It’s also certainly an outgrowth of my obsession with worldbuilding. The Westphalian state, though is not the default mode of the nation state. People don’t go from hunter gatherer bands straight to nation states, and there certainly isn’t any sort of inevitable path that political and social development take. (4) If nations appear as Westphalian states in a fantasy world, the writer should be able to sit down and consider how the nation state ended up developing into that direction.

(1) Yes, I am aware that the author Ed Greenwood created the Forgotten Realms, and has written many books in it- however, it was created for Dungeons and Dragons, and worldbuilding for games, especially table-top role playing games, requires a certain level of implausibility for the sake of gameplay. A good example of this is the currency system and in-game economy- utterly nonsense in the real world, great for the game. When Ed Greenwood created the Forgotten Realms, he was doing a fantastic job at creating a campaign setting, and he and many others went on to write enjoyable novels based in the setting. Sharply defined nation states simply work better for a game for a wide range of reasons. (For example, if you’re being chased by one countries’ soldiers, and are racing for another nation’s borders- fun times. While pre-Westphalian states obviously could have sharply defined borders, an incursion over them to catch a criminal wouldn’t have been as big of a deal in most situations, and wouldn’t have involved any of the paperwork that it would today.) Ed Greenwood did an amazing job at doing what he set out to do- creating a campaign setting. It actually wouldn’t surprise me if he had considered all of this before, given how well crafted the Forgotten Realms are.

(2) Hurrah, internet drama! Totally a great use of everyone’s time!

(3) I usually consider it to be a pretty safe assumption that I’m being pedantic much of the time. Helps keep my ego getting more inflated than it already is, which is plenty.

(4) Communists are probably going to beat me up and take my lunch money for saying this. Again.