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The High King
So you want to show that your character is no mere monarch, but one so important that the other kings swear fealty to him. But you don't want to call him an emperor, since this word carries so much negative cultural baggage. The solution is making him a High King.

High King is a title found in historical Britain and several other places and widely used in fiction. A High King rules a feudal alliance or federation of states; usually he doesn't manifest direct power over all subjects of his vassal kings, which makes him different from a totalitarian emperor who is omnipresent in the daily affairs of his subject. That's why a High King is likely to be good, or even Big Good.

May be ruling alongside The High Queen, but he is not the Spear Counterpart (that's The Good King); that trope is about the character, and this is about the title.

Examples:

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    Literature 
  • Variant in the Belgariad: Garion assumes the title of Overlord of the West (sometimes called Overking), which gives him nominal power over the countries on the "good" side of the continent. This doesn't give him actual rule in those countries, but he can order them to mobilise their armies in the inevitable event that the Angaraks finally invade. Similarly, the various schemers on the "evil" side of the world deign to call themselves "Overking of Angarak", but none of them manage to truly achieve that power, except for Torak, who is called "King and God".
  • In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan names Peter High King of Narnia. As such, he has authority over other rulers of Narnia (such as his siblings, and King Caspian), but is still under the authority of Aslan.
  • Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain take place in Prydain, a Fantasy Counterpart to medieval Wales (see the below entry about King Arthur). Math son of Mathonwy was the High King of Prydain, but he was never shown doing much of anything - that was left up to his heir and warlord, Prince Gwydion. He appeared in the first book to thank the heroes for their efforts against the Horned King, was mentioned in each of the next three books, and appeared shortly before his death in the last book. Gwydion's own last act as High King, before departing for the Summer Country, is to declare Audience Surrogate Taran the new High King of Prydain.
  • Codex Alera: The First Lord of Alera is basically this, dispite his title. His subordinates are called High Lords, not kings, but are largely autonomous and rule over enough territory they might well have been called kings if it weren't for inherited Roman cultural baggage regarding kings.
  • Dwarves in Discworld consider lower to be better than higher, so they have a Low King who is acknowledged by most dwarves as the most important monarch.
  • In the Land of Oz, the rulers of the four countries (Munchkins, Gillikins, Winkies, and Quadlings) are under the ruler of Oz in general, who lives in the Emerald City. At least, this becomes the case after book one, where the Wicked Witches of the East & West were destroyed and replaced.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, the exiled High Elves in Middle-earth spread out into multiple kingdoms with separate kings, but they were all (at least in theory) subject to the High King. In practice, most subjects of the House of Fanor pretended that there wasn't one.
  • Belisarius Series:
    • Kungas is addressed as "Great King" by mountain tribesmen. They refuse to call him "king"(because their first obedience goes to their clan chief) but they are satisfied to call him "Great King" because their chiefs obey him.
    • Similarly, Eon's title means "King of Kings", as the King of the tribal leaders whose lands make up the Kingdom of Ethiopia.

    Mythology, Religion, and Legend 
  • Agamemnon in The Iliad is said to be the king over all the Achaians (Greeks), who are also divided into various smaller kingdoms.
  • The High King (Ard Ri) of Ireland. The office did exist in real life, but it was primarily a ceremonial title, and is not definitely documented before the 9th century CE. In the Irish legends, however, there is an unbroken succession of powerful High Kings starting in the 2nd millennium BCE with Slaine mac Dela of the Fir Bolg, and containing mythical and semi-mythical figures like Nuada and Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, Conaire Mor, Conn the Hundred-Fighter, Cormac mac Airt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, and Loegaire, up to historical kings like Brian Boruma mac Cennetig (a.k.a. Brian Boru). Traditional Irish chronicles regard Mael Sechnaill (died 1022) as the last undisputed High King, with the kings after him considered "High Kings with Opposition", and Rory O'Connor (Rudraige Ua Conchobair) being the last bearer of the title when it was made obsolete in 1171 by the Norman invasion of Ireland. The last king to style himself High King of Ireland was Edward the Bruce, who tried to break Ireland from English control, but was killed in 1318.
  • King Arthur was said to be High King over the petty kings of Britain. This is particularly apt because most sources agree that the Arthurian legends originated in Wales, which was composed of several smaller principality-type regions with their own rulers who were then ruled by the High King.
  • Prince Vladimir in the Russian Mythology and Tales is roughly equivalent to King Arthur in Welsh legends: as the Prince (Knyaz) of Kiev, he is superior to the princes of other Russian cities and lands, and so it is at his court that all the bogatyrs (mythical protectors of the Kievan Rus) gather before embarking on their heroic adventures.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms campaign setting: In the Moonshae Islands, the Folk are divided into a number of small kingdoms loosely controlled by a High King, who's more of a figurehead than a true ruler.
  • In Ironclaw the Don of House Rinaldi is High King of Calebria as the other three great houses were once independent kingdoms, but by the time of the game it is basically a meaningless title, and the throne is presently vacant following the gruesome murders of the last Don and his eldest son while the other great houses are making their own plans. One of the first published adventures was to find his missing second son.
  • In Warhammer Fantasy the leader of the Dwarf race is The High King, who acts as a spiritual leader to all Dwarfs, and holds the Great Book of Grudges which holds all the grudges in the Dwarfs history which they hope to avenge.
    • The Norse also have a title by the same name for the supreme ruler of their country. Being warriors of Chaos, their version is less directly benevolent than the Dwarfen version.
      • The Kurgan are another tribe of Chaos-worshipers who instead have the title of High Zar, which is basically the same thing.

    Video Games 
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the High King of Skyrim is the liege of all Jarls. His throne is right now vacant and hotly contested.
    • The franchise as whole also has the Emperor of Tamriel, and as Skyrim is part of the Empire, the High King of Skyrim is suposed to answer to the Emperor, the Stormcloaks seek to cut this tie though.
  • Final Fantasy XII: The Dynast King Raithwall in the back story united the nations of Ivalice into the Galtean Alliance and it is the goal of the Big Bad to do the same thing.
  • The Lycian Alliance of Fire Emblem is a group of fiefdoms each ruled by a Marquess that all answer the the Marquess of Ostia only in times of war. In the ending of the Binding Blade the Ostian Marchioness Lillina (Alongside Roy if they marry) unites them and becomes the High Queen.
  • In World of Warcraft Varian Wrynn, King of Stormwind, has become this for the Alliance, though this was mostly done to have an Alliance counterpart to the Horde's Warchief.

    Western Animation 
  • In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) the planet Eternia is made up of several kingdoms but King Randor is the high king of the whole world.
  • The Earth King in Avatar: The Last Airbender is the head of the entirety of the Earth Kingdom despite smaller kingdoms like Omashu existing within it.
  • The tribal chief in Legend Of Korra is technically the head of state of both Water Tribes. While he does have firm executive power in the Northern Water Tribe, the Southern Water Tribe sees him as a figurehead with ceremonial and representative duties, and actual governmental power there is vested in a Council of Chieftains and Elders.

    Real Life 
  • Ireland had a ceremonial High King (Ard Ri) at least as early as the 9th century CE, and possibly before (see the Mythology folder). This tradition is probably an inspiration for some of the Literature examples (such as Middle-earth and Chronicles of Prydain).
    • They had a hierarchy of kings, or 'Rithe', with the R benn (king of peaks) or ri tuaithe (king of a single tribe) at the bottom, roughly analogous to chief, and the Ri buiden (king of bands) or ri tuath (king of many tribes) or ruiri (overking) to whom the other rithe were subordinate, and the r ruirech (king of overkings) a provincial or semi-provincial king above the overkings, and the Ard R (high king) above all of them.
  • The Mongols since at least the Yuan dynasty had the 'Khagan' as a title above a 'Khan', with the former generally taken to mean 'emperor' or 'Khan of Khans' and the latter translated as 'king'. Khagan is also sometimes translated as 'Great Khan'. The title is also used in Turkish.
  • India historically used 'Raja' for a lesser king and 'Maharaja' as a king above them.
  • The East Slavic, and later Russian equivalent is the title "veliki knyaz", usually translated to English as "grand prince" but otherwise identical to the other High Kings.note  It started as the title of the prince of Kiev, considered first among equals in medieval Ruthenia, and continued in specifically Russian principalities of Vladimir and, later, Moscow when Kiev lost prominence. Ivan III was the grand prince who did away with all the feudal patchwork and became a de facto emperor in everything but name, but the title persisted as tradition until his grandson, Ivan the Terrible, gave himself the de jure imperial title of Tsar.

The Good KingRoyalty and Nobility TropesThe High Queen

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