Tangled (2010) and the Premodern State’s Monopoly on Force

Debates over private arms ownership may seem like a quintessentially modern issue, but states have struggled with the problem for millennia. The basic question is, how do you make sure the right people have weapons? As a government, you want to arm only those who have a stake in the existing system. For most states, that means centralizing the military, arming the loyal and powerful, and keeping weapons out of the hands of undesirables.

It’s not hard to see why. If you’ve got a populace with a Skyrim level of weapons just lying around, it’s not exactly a recipe for stability. To dive into the politics of premodern ownership, let’s take a look at the most chilling case studies: the 2010 documentary Tangled. 

The most obvious thing about Tangled’s Kingdom of Corona (yes, that’s the official name) is that the authorities have done a terrible job maintaining the state monopoly on the use of force. The kingdom has a powerful faction of lawless rogues who seem far more heavily armed than the soldiers. Such a militarized population is an easy recipe for chaos and civil war, as we shall see over the course of the film. 

A textbook case of failed centralization

Historically, premodern states were very conscious of the threat posed by a heavily armed population. The Roman Empire centralized arms production into huge state-run proto-factories. Later, many medieval rulers forbade serfs from owning weapons. Feudal Japan had a tradition of “sword hunts” at the end of major wars. Soldiers would spread out through the countryside seizing all hidden weapons. The move was meant to both disarm potential rebels and to reduce banditry. 

Control of the arms supply was especially important because of the small technological and organizational gap between the military and the public. Medieval states didn’t have access to expensive, sophisticated tools like tanks, large standing armies, or state surveillance. Nothing exemplifies the political vulnerability of the rulers of Corona better than the humble frying pan. Our heroes demonstrate over and over again that even an untrained person can use a pan to cook the bacon of Corona’s best-equipped soldiers. 

According to the Lanchester Laws of Warfare (discussed here), Flynn Rider with a frying pan is more than 16x stronger than these heavily armed Coronian soldiers

The ominous ending of the movie illustrates the tragic effects of government mismanagement. When Rapunzel reunites with her long lost “family,” the film’s biased narrator encourages us to believe that the King and Queen believed Rapunzel’s story. But let’s be real. The parents would certainly have questioned the miraculous reappearance of their heir. They would have been right to do so. What are the odds?

So how, then, did Rapunzel manage to restore her claim to the throne? The answer is that she is no more than a figurehead for the underclass of heavily-armed brigands. She would not have been the first person of dubious parentage to become the tool of a political faction. More than a hundred individuals claimed to be the dead son of Louis XVI in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In 15th century England, the young peasant Lambert Simnel claimed to be the lost heir Edward Plantagenet. Simnel ended up as the figurehead of a popular rebellion against King Henry VII.

Imagine yourself a bandit in Corona. The state has outlawed you, but isn’t strong enough to hunt you down and prosecute you for your crimes. You and your bandit friends might not be strong enough to overthrow the state, but what you can do is take over from inside. The band of outlaws at the Snugly Duckling must surely have noticed Rampunzel’s resemblance to the lost princess, and would have known the value of installing a friendly heir. Of course, the outlaws claim to have sentimental reasons for helping Rapunzel, but these are people who lie for a living.

After the lost princess’ “return,” one can only imagine that the king and queen went through some hasty calculations. How much military force was behind this new claimant? Could the crown win a potential civil war? Probably not, given that the soldiers seem vulnerable even to frying pans. The only sensible decision, then was to embrace Rapunzel as the rightful heir, thus averting a rebellion. 

A tearful reunion or a cynical game of power politics? You be the judge.

The great orator Cicero had a simple way to determine the likely perpetrator of a crime: “cui bono?” who benefits? By the end of the movie, the brigands have benefited handsomely from their coup d’etat. We can see that they have amnesty for their many crimes, and (there can be no doubt) enormous power in the new political order. If the new queen should challenge the newly elevated faction, she might lose the support of the very people who brought her to the throne. You never know when a different lost heir might just happen to show up with a small army at their back. Rapunzel’s only option, in short, is to concede more and more power to the Snugly Duckling faction.

Given the historical precedent, the future for Corona looks bleak indeed. A succession of puppet rulers, rampant banditry, cyclical civil wars and a long economic decline seem the likeliest outcome. Ah well, maybe Arendelle has a streamlined immigration policy. 

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