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Is Maleficent an Anarchist Fable?

Tags Media and CulturePolitical Theory

09/25/2014Julian Adorney

The story of Sleeping Beauty always struck me as a libertarian fable. The central plot demonstrates the impotence of government: Aurora is cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel, and her royal father issues a decree that all spinning wheels should be burned. But all the king’s action does is put some poor weavers out of work. Aurora still pricks her finger and falls into an enchanted sleep. The failure of government to achieve its ends, and the unintended consequences that stem from its reckless actions, have parallels today in everything from Keynesian stimulus to gun control.

Maleficent, this year’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty, magnifies these themes. It paints a tale of cruel government and joyful anarchy, where government is responsible for the evils of the world.

Anarchy and Governance

Two kingdoms. One kingdom had a king. The other needed neither king nor queen but trusted in each other.” With these words, the narrator (Aurora) begins to develop a theme in Maleficent. The first kingdom is of humans; warmongers filled with “greed” and “envy” and ruled over by cruel kings. The second kingdom, a fairy realm with no rulers, is in every way superior. Fairies wing through the forest, laughing and playing with each other. There is minimal conflict and strife. Everyone is happy and — blessed with wings that let them go wherever they will — they are all free both politically and physically.

The fairy kingdom is wonderful, yet lacks rulers. Of course, one might argue that the fairies live their idyllic lives in spite of this, not because of it. But the film suggests otherwise. When the fairy Maleficent turns evil, her first act is to craft herself a throne and sit as queen over the fairy people. The moment she crowns herself, the realm turns dark. Joy and laughter virtually cease. Not until the day Maleficent takes off her crown — restoring anarchy — does the realm return to its idyllic state of joy and goodwill among all creatures.

For the fairies, a happy society means a society with no queen.

Humans in Contrast

The human government, by contrast, is a case study in how power corrupts. Stefan, Maleficent’s once-noble lover, sets his sights on governance as a child. But what is required for him to become king? It is not some noble act of selflessness. Rather, the cost of the kingship is for him to win Maleficent’s trust and then betray his one-time lover. In order to gain power he must cut her wings — stealing this classic symbol of her liberty. Government cannot coexist with freedom, as Stefan finds out: to gain the power, he must take the liberty of others.

For most of the story, we are reminded that a good man cannot be king. King Henry, Stefan’s predecessor, wages offensive war on the peaceful fairies. Stefan betrays the woman he loves in order to guarantee his rise to power. When Maleficent becomes queen, her first act is to curse Stefan’s innocent child Aurora. In the world of Maleficent, political rulers are the source of all evil in the world. Innocent citizens, whether fairy or human, rarely do wrong to themselves or to each other. Mostly, governments inflict harm.

Government Magnifies Wrongs; Anarchy Rights Them

But what about when people do harm each other? In Maleficent, there exists a clear contrast in how these societies react to violations of rights. As a child, Stefan steals from the fairies. His punishment? He’s not killed, not fined, not thrown in jail. He is simply required to give the stolen item back to Maleficent, who returns it to the fairies it was taken from.

The fairies in Maleficent respond to a harm like theft, not with another harm — killing the child thief, throwing him in prison — but by making the situation right. By contrast, governments in Maleficent simply magnify the wrongdoing.

Stefan clips Maleficent’s wings, which is unquestionably an act of aggression. But Maleficent responds by cursing Aurora, an innocent baby, thus answering Stefan’s wrong with one of her own. Significantly, she does not do this until after she becomes queen. Citizen Maleficent may have been content to seek justice upon Stefan. Queen Maleficent, on the other hand, chooses to perpetuate the cycle of aggression upon innocents.

A Statist Ending?

Maleficent ends with the fairies cheering as a crown is placed upon Aurora’s head, making her queen. On the surface, this seems to invalidate the theme that anarchy is good and rulers are evil. But let’s dig deeper.

What does Queen Aurora do for her people? Nothing. They were already happy and prosperous before she became queen, having just been returned to their idyllic state when Maleficent gave up her crown. Forever in the past, they did just fine without a ruler. And yet, they cheer her when she takes up her crown. In an instant, they turn from happily self-sufficient to worshipful. They cheer a ruler, but the rest of the film shows how useless to their happiness such a ruler is. The film’s treatment of their attitude change subtly — and perhaps unintentionally — mocks the big-government philosophers who claim that humanity cannot survive without rulers.

Seeds of Liberty

Libertarianism is hardly what people think of when they think “pop culture.” But popular movies and books, from The Hunger Games to Divergent, are creating a new trend: they’re making questioning the state popular. Maleficent builds on this new tradition, not only critiquing the state but going beyond it to actually show the benefits of living without rulers. Maybe that, and Maleficent’s blockbuster popularity, signals a shift in the political winds.

Image source: iStockphoto

Julian Adorney

Julian Adorney is a writer and marketing consultant with the Foundation for Economic Education (fee.org), and has previously written for National Review, The Federalist, and other outlets.