Thursday, March 8, 2018

Black Panther's Wakanda: a modern medievalist state

I see almost every Marvel movie in theaters within a week of its release out of habit, so it's no surprise that I caught Black Panther as well. But even all the hype about this particular release (which I was frankly a bit skeptical of, anyway) couldn't prepare me for the utter spectacle of the imagination that I had witnessed across the IMAX screen. There is, of course, so much to say about this movie as a story, as an expression of black culture, as and so on... but here, I'd prefer to write about an angle few others would be comfortable talking about. Today, in this relatively spoiler-free piece, I'll tell you what Black Panther teaches us about kingship.

The King is Dead--Long Live the King

Black Panther picks up where Captain America: Civil War left off. King T'Chaka is dead following a terrorist attack, and his son T'Challa automatically succeeds him as King of Wakanda, a fictional nation-state in sub-Saharan Africa which hides itself from the rest of the world for one reason. Wakanda is blessed by a mountain of vibranium, a near-indestructible metal with a host of other fantastical properties which make it the most prized resource in the Marvel universe. (Most notably, it's the stuff Captain America's shield is made of.) 

The armor of the King's Champion at Windsor Castle
Well... almost automatically! T'Challa is indeed his father's heir, but the Wakandans don't respect blood as the sole criterion for kingship. By tradition, on the day of the new king's coronation, the leaders of the other four tribes are asked if they wish to challenge the new king's right to rule. Most decline out of respect, but should a challenger appear, the new king is obliged to drink a serum that strips away his superhuman strength to allow him to fight in ritual combat as an ordinary man.
Those of you familiar with medieval English history might find this somewhat reminiscent of the tradition of the King's Champion. For centuries from the Norman Conquest onward, the festivities of each coronation ended with the King's Champion riding into Westminster Hall in full armor, throwing down his gauntlet and challenging anyone who would question the new king's right to a duel. Such a ritual was only natural in an age when a king's right to rule was de facto established by conquest or strength of arms, but as the Middle Ages gave way to the modern world, monarchies increasingly gave up on the idea of an interregnum (period of transition between the old king's death and the new king's coronation) in favor of automatic succession after the old king's death. The phrase "the king is dead, long live the king" is the summation of a doctrine which upholds the stability of birthright above all. The tradition of the King's Champion throwing down his gauntlet was last seen at the coronation banquet of King George IV in 1821. His successor, William IV, eliminated the coronation banquet in order to cut costs, and by the time of Victoria's coronation in 1838, the tradition was permanently discontinued.

Every king a warrior

By no means does ascending the throne mean T'Challa is now too important to continue fighting on the front lines. On the contrary, kingship consummates his identity as a warrior. By taking on the mantle of the Black Panther, T'Challa assumes the burden of a lifetime of personal combat. Wakandans are still very much medievalists in this regard: they will only respect and follow a king who shows martial strength and the bravery to lead his armies in battle. They're not scandalized by the idea of their monarch sneaking out at night in costume to play as superhero: they expect it!

The exercise of kingship throughout the Middle Ages was intensely personal. Without the bureaucracies and communications networks of later periods, the best way for a king to keep his kingdom was by constantly reminding his subjects of his existence. As such, medieval kings spent more time on the road than in their capital cities, making circuits around the country, holding court in different castles. This had the advantage of ensuring that ordinary people, who might never travel more than a few miles away from home their entire lives, might have had a chance to see the king in person. It also meant the king had a real knowledge of the lands in his domain.

But above all, the medieval king had to be a warrior. A crown prince still trained in arms and was dubbed a knight like his vassals. He didn't necessarily fight on the front lines, but he at least rode with the army on major campaigns to show his willingness to fight and die alongside his men. Richard III, sometimes reckoned the last medieval King of England, was fittingly also the last English king to die in battle, at Bosworth Field in 1485. King Henri II of France famously died from a wound suffered in a jousting accident in 1559. This was simply the cost of doing business. But a king who proved his prowess on the field could more than make up for his absence at home. King Edward I ("Longshanks" of Braveheart fame) was so renowned as a crusader that, when his father died, he was able to continue fighting in the Holy Land for a whole two years before coming back home to be crowned, with full assurance that England would wait patiently for him without any insurrections or rival princes making a bid for the throne.

Prince Harry, in keeping with a millennium of family military tradition, served two tours in Afghanistan.
Times have changed, but a certain remnant of this legacy lives today. Almost to a man, male members of the British Royal Family still make a point to serve as military officers for at least a few years. And many Americans, myself included, find it harder to take a presidential candidate seriously if he never served in the armed forces in any way.

Technology and tradition

One of the greatest follies of modern man is the notion that advancements in science and observation somehow discredit matters of the spirit--like atheists in 1957 who proudly proclaimed that Sputnik couldn't see God out in space. I always found it fascinating, though, that sci-fi authors so often create worlds where a mostly irreligious humanity, governed by the most utterly boring governments imaginable, travels through space alongside other sentient species who unabashedly worship gods and conquer in the name of empires.

The modern medievalist views technology as a tool of neutral moral value. They might give the ignorant more opportunity for idleness or destruction, it's true, but a modern medievalist doesn't eschew the printing press because it allowed more people to read and misinterpret the Bible, or refuse to use the Internet merely because his neighbor does nothing with it beyond sending his friends funny pictures of cats. 

An ideal "modern medievalist" state would see no contradiction between great material prosperity or scientific achievement enjoyed by a people who also adhere strongly to religious and cultural traditions. This is essentially what Wakanda represents: an Afro-futurist nation with medicine that can cure almost any physical condition and weaponry that can conquer the rest of the world... none of which blinds its people to the importance of maintaining its monarchy and calling on their ancestors for guidance.

Isolationism or imperialism?

This final heading isn't so much an assertion as an open question: is it more in keeping with a "medievalist" state to shun all foreign entanglements, embrace a hunger for expansion and colonization, or play at world's policeman?

The Wakanda which T'Challa inherits from his father has entered the 21st century posing as an obscure, third world country deep in the heart of Africa with nothing to offer the rest of the world. Indeed, without spoiling too much, much of the conflict in the film revolves around a growing sense of shame by Wakandans over having ignored the plight of their neighbors as they were carted off to slavery or divided by imperialist powers over the centuries... leaving them ripe for a change of regime.

My own observations of history suggest that a country which cuts itself off from all contact with the otuside world is certainly more likely to maintain its cultural and religious traditions--the textbook case being Japan, whose "middle ages" under the rule of the samurai lasted effectively until the Meiji era (the later 19th century). The price for cultural integrity was steep: the shogun deemed it necessary to crush Christian minorities with overwhelming brutality (as detailed in the movie Silence), and military technology stagnated until Commodore Perry's gunboats forced the country to open itself to trade.

Commodore Perry's ships arrive in Japan.
A somewhat more positive example might be Liechtenstein. A surviving relic of the Holy Roman Empire, Liechtenstein rests safely in the Alps with no need for a military, but it's not exactly an isolationist state. It entices foreign businesses to invest and set up shop there with low taxes to the point that it has more registered companies than citizens. Liechtenstein has a remarkably high rate of religious participation for a modern European state, and the Prince invites the entire population to his castle once a year to celebrate their national day with free beer.

I hope you enjoyed this excursion to the Marvel universe. Next time, I might write about a new video game set in medieval Bohmedia, circa 1403 which I've been playing, called Kingdom Come: Deliverance... which might also fittingly be called "Medieval Peasant Simulator". Until then!