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Strong Empire, Shriveled Emperor

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The exalted leader of a powerful nation turns out to be incredibly frail or weak.

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
Mr.Phorcys on Oct 24th 2017 at 11:24:22 AM
Last Edited By:
Mr.Phorcys on Nov 29th 2017 at 12:41:08 PM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

In most works, the leader of The Empire is powerful in his own right, and looks the part, especially when Authority Equals Asskicking in his realm.

Not this guy.

He may be very old. Or crippled. Or ill. Or some combination of the three. A slight breeze looks like it could kill him. Either way, he does not cut an imposing figure in person. He may be incredibly evil, but doesn't do anything except be Orcus on His Throne because, well... he looks like he can barely get off it. Sure, he might have been The Conqueror in his younger days, but those days are long gone by. Bonus points if there appears to be some sort of cult worshiping him or the reader is repeatedly told In-Universe accounts of how amazing or impressive he is.

Is not necessarily a Puppet King, because he may still have effective control over The Empire, though there may be some overlap.


Examples

Fan Fiction

  • In I Am Skantarios, the Pope — by dint of his authority over Western Europe — is portrayed as a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire, culminating in a Duel to the Death between the titular Skantarios and the Pope. However, the Pope is eighty and has never used a sword or ridden a horse before in his life, so the duel is... anticlimactic.

Film

Literature

  • Malkariss from the Redwall book Mattimeo founded an immense subterranean civilization on slavery and speaks from an imposing statue — but is elderly, frail, and nearly blind, and depends on his servants to run his empire according to his orders.
  • The Emperor of the Agatean Empire in the Discworld book Interesting Times. He is bedridden, speaking is difficult for him, and there are already internal power struggles...yet he still orders executions left and right, and his empire has nearly a million men under arms.
  • Cleon II and The Mule from Foundation. The former is the last strong Emperor yet bedridden due an unknown and painful disease, the latter is a mutant with enough power to build a huge empire, a frail build, and enough health problems to die before he is fifty.
  • God in His Dark Materials is so old and frail that he is literally killed by a slight breeze.
  • In The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the Emperor at the head of the Imperial Republic of Falcrest is actually a lobotomized puppet, and the Parliament has no real power either. Instead, all real power is in the hands of a cabal of "advisers" operating behind the scenes.
  • Played With in Mistborn with The Lord Ruler. The nature of his powers make being Orcus on His Throne a necessity, especially because he needs to spend some periods of time as a shriveled old man in order to spend other times as a healthy, young man, despite being centuries old. However, when he takes an active role in the first book, he's a nearly invincible Physical God rather than the nominal ruler that would be expected from his absence from public life.

Live-Action TV

  • In The Man in the High Castle, Adolf Hitler has conquered half the world, The Holocaust has gone through, and the only other country is his wartime ally Japan... yet he is in his seventies at the start of the series, with failing health, and it is admitted that he will probably die soon.

Tabletop Games

  • The God-Emperor of Mankind from Warhammer 40,000 is the leader of the Imperium, which control the majority of the setting, but he has spent the past ten millennia on life support while his body has decayed to a skeleton, and though he has immense psychic power, most of it is used on maintaining humanity's FTL Travel.

Video Games

  • When EVE Online launched, the current God-Emperor of the Amarr Empire (the game's largest NPC Empire) was Heideran VII, who was well over 700 years old and confined to his life support throne.
  • Babylon 5: While Centauri Republic is an empire in decline, they still rank among the five most powerful races in known space. The emperor, however, is a very old man who is gravely ill. At least at first; when he makes a visit to Babylon 5, his health takes a sudden turn for the worst and he dies shortly thereafter. His replacement is a much younger man, but is really not right in the head.
  • In most of the games based on The Simpsons, specially the Konami's Beat 'em Up of The '90s and The Simpsons Game, the Big Bad is usually Montgomery Burns, who can be easily defeated —even by Maggie.

Do We Have This One?

Feedback: 16 replies

Oct 24th 2017 at 11:27:22 AM

If the surprise element is necessary to the trope, the God Emperor doesn't count, as he's well-known to be a corpse kept "alive" by technosorcery and his own will.

Oct 25th 2017 at 1:24:19 AM

  • Examples section
    • Added a line separating the Description and Examples section.
    • Added media section titles as per Media Categories.
    • Added asterisks at the beginning of examples to indent them.
    • Namespaced work names.
    • Italicized work names as per How To Write An Example - Emphasis For Work Names.
    • Blue Linked work names.
    • Alphabetized media sections.

Oct 25th 2017 at 2:22:41 AM

Normally, having an Example As A Thesis is considered bad form — it rarely does a good job of introducing a trope, since any individual is only going to show one specific way a trope can play out. It's usually better to use a description that encompasses the different ways the trope is employed and keep the examples to the, well, example section.

On that note, I also wonder if the surprise element is necessary for an example to count. Does it have to come as a shock that the emperor of a great power is physically powerless, or is enough for there to be a deliberate contrast and juxtaposition between the emperor and empire?

Oct 25th 2017 at 5:39:02 AM

Cleon II and The Mule from Foundation. The former is the last strong Emperor yet bedridden due an unknown and painful disease, the latter is a mutant with enough power to build a huge empire, a frail build, and enough health problems to die before he is fifty.

Oct 25th 2017 at 6:40:24 AM

Live Action TV

Oct 25th 2017 at 8:07:10 AM

Star Wars gives us Emperor Palpatine, though he subverts the trope by being able to shoot lightning from his hands when Luke decides to openly defy him to his face.

Oct 25th 2017 at 9:10:18 AM

  • When Eve Online launched, the current God Emperor of the Amarr Empire (the game's largest NPC Empire) was Heideran VII, who was well over 700 years old and confined to his life support throne.

Oct 25th 2017 at 4:44:48 PM

  • The Emperor never directly appeared in Star Wars: A New Hope, but the novelization stated that the Emperor was largely a figurehead, controlled by his corrupt advisors and yes-men. This was retconned away by the sequels, though: The Empire Strikes Back showed that even the fearsome Darth Vader took the Emperor seriously, and Return Of The Jedi revealed the Emperor was a deadly Force user in his own right.

Oct 26th 2017 at 8:56:37 AM

  • I Am Skantarios: The Byzantine Empire eventually finds itself at war with the Papacy, with Skantarios and The Pope fighting a Duel To The Death. The confrontation between the ruler of most of Eastern Europe and the spiritual head of all Christendom is regrettably undercut by the fact that the former is an Old Soldier who's led a lifetime of frontline combat since he was of age, while the latter is past eighty, holding a sword and riding a horse for the first time in his life.

Oct 27th 2017 at 11:58:01 AM

I don't think an element of surprise is necessary, but it seems to have that in several examples. Genghis Khan in the prequel to I Am Skantarios would probably fall under Authority Equals Asskicking or similar. For the Star Trek example, I don't think drug addiction would fall into the same category as the other examples — in his speech, Gill certainly looks like his job would have him. And Ekos, in the setting, does not appear to be too powerful. I'd classify him as just a Puppet King.

Oct 27th 2017 at 5:00:33 PM

  • In The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the Emperor at the head of the Imperial Republic of Falcrest is actually a lobotomized puppet, and the Parliament has no real power either. Instead, all real power is in the hands of a cabal of "advisers" operating behind the scenes.

  • Played With in Mistborn with The Lord Ruler. The nature of his powers make being Orcus On This Throne a necessity, especially because he needs to spend some periods of time as a shrived, old man in order to spend other times as a healthy, young man, despite being centuries old. However, when he takes an active role in the first book, he's a nearly invincible Physical God rather than the nominal ruler that would be expected from his absence from public life.

Not as sure about this example, since it's a mental health rather than a physical health issue, but:

  • In Ancillary Justice, The Emperor Anaander Mianaai started out as The Conqueror, establishing the Imperial Radch at least a millennia prior to the start of the story, originally (but not necessarily exclusively) through sending armored cloned bodies throughout the galaxy. Through the use of clones and a Body Backup Drive, Mianaai has remained alive and young to the present, and in the interim, the Radch became a massive and continually expansive empire. However, unknown to most of her subjects, after Mianaai's particularly brutal and thorough response to one planet's rebellion, her mind/personality split due to guilt, with one side justifying the action and becoming an arc-reactionary and the other desiring reformist policies. As a result, since that time, there was a secret civil war between Mianaai's many cloned bodies, maintained in part by both versions of Mianaai murdering anyone who figures it out. Needless to say, the Empire's stability falters the moment everyone learns that their ruler is Ax Crazy and has a split personality.

  • There's a twofold example in The Builders, where the Puppet King isn't a twist, but the condition of them is. Prior to the story, there was a war between two bands of mercenaries supporting two rival brothers known only as The Elder and The Younger. The brothers legitimately hated each other but were largely figureheads used by each side. The protagonists of the story supported the Elder and initially won the conflict, but were then betrayed and the Younger was installed by his supporters. Over the course of the story, the protagonists carry out a Train Job to free The Elder from a train car on which he has been held for years, but then find out he's been dead for years. At the end of the story, after the Captain, the leader of the protagonists has otherwise taken revenge on his enemies, he confronts The Younger in his room and finds him to be a morbidly obese Addled Addict living in his own filth.

Oct 29th 2017 at 9:50:53 AM

Heralds Of Valdemar: The Mage Storms trilogy gives us Emperor Charliss, ruler of the Eastern Empire. Nearly 200 years old at the start of the trilogy, Charliss is still a powerful Adept but has to devote a chunk of his power to maintaining his anti-aging spells. And then the titular Mage Storms start messing those spells up, and his objective becomes "don't let the court know how badly the Storms are affecting me".

Oct 29th 2017 at 5:10:55 PM

  • Babylon Five: While Centauri Republic is an empire in decline, they still rank among the five most powerful races in known space. The emperor, however, is a very old man who is gravely ill. At least at first; when he makes a visit to Babylon 5, his health takes a sudden turn for the worst and he dies shortly thereafter. His replacement is a much younger man, but is really not right in the head.

Nov 15th 2017 at 9:54:05 AM

Real Life: Leonid Brezhnev, the Premier of the USSR. His long rule and ever-increased decrepitude and senility became the subject of popular jokes. However, his term is usually considered the zenith of the Soviet Union.

Nov 15th 2017 at 9:56:27 AM

Brezhnev's two successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were equally geriatric and died very soon after taking office, so the time period between 1982 and 1985 is known tongue-in-cheek as "Hearse Racing".

Nov 17th 2017 at 6:14:22 PM

Vide Games:

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