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It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited for power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.
A Reluctant Ruler is someone who is entrusted with permanent power over others despite desperately trying to avoid it at all costs. It is believed that between a brilliant person who strives for glory and a brilliant person who shuns it, the latter is least likely to abuse the power they are given, automatically making them a passable, if not great, ruler.
This trope lives at the idealistic side of the Scale, but not as extreme as you may think.
Cincinnatus is a Sub-Trope about a character who is given temporary power because it is believed he will give it back after accomplishing his task. Also related to The Chains of Commanding. Compare Mandatory Unretirement. Contrast Unfit for Greatness.
Anime & Manga
- One Piece: King Dalton of Drum Island used to be the right-hand of the deposed tyrant, King Wapol, after his wiser father died. He's only the ruler of Drum because the citizens keep voting for him to stay as king, despite hoping that they will one day learn to depend on themselves.
- Gan Fall also counts. After being reinstated as "God" of Skypiea, he laments that he won't be able to enjoy planting his pumpkins anymore.
- Yang Wen-Li of Legend of Galactic Heroes would rather be a historian, but he is really, really good at the whole "admiral" thing. The Alliance government does not understand this, and grows increasingly distrustful of him out of fear he will make a power grab. This eventually results in his death.
- Maximus from Gladiator, although he, of course, doesn't get to rule.
- In the Lord of the Rings movies, Aragorn refuses to pursue the throne until he absolutely has to to save Middle-Earth. In the original books, taking the throne was on his to do list... but not very high up.
- King George VI in The King's Speech (see Real Life, below).
- Nick Seafort in the Seafort Saga, who desperately tries to get out of being promoted to Captain, desperately tries to get out of executing people, desperately tries to get himself killed despite his crew's attempts to save him, and commands anyway because he believes it's his duty to the UN and to his unmerciful God. Basically subjects his crew to the wrath he thinks he deserves.
- Danny Saunders in The Chosen who does not want to be a Rebbe.
- Random from Chronicles of Amber is probably the only one of Oberon's children who never seriously contended for the throne of Amber, and it was him who was given it by the Unicorn in the end of the first cycle. As the second cycle shows, the trust was well-placed.
- Lord Vetinari of Sir Terry's Discworld does not rule the city because he wants to but rather because he feels it is his patriotic duty.
- Considering A) the sort of people who preceded him and B) The Chessmaster could be renamed "The Vetinari" with little to no change of meaning, he might have something there.
- Carrot is probably the heir to the throne of Anhk-Morpork but refuses to claim the position of king. He would be a great king but feels that it would be for the wrong reasons (he wants people to do the right thing because it is right and not because a king ordered it). He'd probably accept the position if there was no other way to save the city, but it hasn't been necessary as yet.
- Nobby is actually offered the position of king of Anhk-Morpork but runs away from the offer not because he would not want the job but because he is afraid of what Commander Vimes would do to him. He would make a horrible king.
- Come to think of it, Sam Vimes wasn't exactly wild about becoming Duke of Ankh, but that's more to do with his dislike of hereditary privilege; wielding quite considerable authority in his role as Commander of the City Watch is a different matter.
- The Man In The Shack in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy subverts this to a deliberately extreme extent, in that he's not so much reluctant as unaware that he even is a ruler, and apparently is unwilling to accept that there's anything to rule in any case. In fact, the people who gave him that power decided that anyone who actually wanted to be in charge couldn't be trusted with the job, so the guy who makes all the decisions needs to be someone who doesn't even know the rest of the universe exists.
- Emperor Gregor from the Vorkosigan Saga attempts to bunk off from being emperor during one of the early books. He's mostly scared by the history of insanity in his family though.
- From Prince Caspian:
"Welcome, Prince," said Aslan. "Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?"
- A non-ruling example: Tom Bombadil from Lord of the Rings. The Council of Rivendell considers giving the One Ring to Tom since he has no care for such things and would not use it for evil. In the end they decide that because he would be so careless with such a powerful device he may lose it and it could end up in the wrong hands.
- Both Emperor Rene and King Alexander in the Arcia Chronicles hate their jobs but are placed among the best sovereigns Arcia ever had. Subverted with Anhel the Light, though, who actively pursued the throne, started a rebellion, and is remembered as a great ruler. Then, subverted again, in that the historical perception of the just rulers is twisted by the Church, whereas Anhel actually did enough evil in his life to be reborn as the mightiest among the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
- In Reflections of Eterna cycle by the same author, the only guy who is reasonably suitable to take the Taligian throne in the face of the impending cataclysms, Roque Alva, has so far managed to ingeniously evade this obligation for six books in a a row. Yeah, it seems like a recurring motif of the author.
- In the John DeChancie science fiction comedy book, Living with Aliens, it is revealed that all of galactic civilization runs on this premise. The Federation figured out that people who want power should never have it. Their solution is to find the people who want to be rulers the least and force them, against their wills, to rule over the galaxies. This leads to them running away constantly and spending all their time getting high and abducting people from earth to molest and probe them for fun.
- In Julian May's Galactic Milieu series, the job of Dirigent (ruler of a planet) is traditionally given to someone who doesn't want it.
- In Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief series, Eugenides, the Thief of Eddis, marries the queen of Attolia because he's in love with her, but he doesn't want to be king.
"He didn't marry you to become king. He became king because he wanted to marry you."
- The Icarus Agenda by Robert Ludlum has a conspiracy of Well Intentioned Extremists who want to give America a good President, implying one who didn't seek the power for its own sake, but recognise that one such would be unlikely to volunteer for high political office or to beat the more power-hungry and politically wily candidates if he did; their solution is to find a suitable candidate and manipulate his career without his knowledge.
- Invoked in one book (sorry, can't remember author or title) when someone explains, more or less, "We want someone who has to be dragged into office kicking and screaming, but who will then do the best job he can in hopes of being let off early for good behavior."
- Sounds a bit like The Republic, where Plato writes that the philosophers who have no interest in ruling should be forced to become kings for the benefit of the people.
- The Roman Emperor Claudius, at least the way he's portrayed in I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
- King Cinhil Haldane in The Legends of Camber trilogy. He had been a cloistered priest for many years when he was found and removed from his monastery. He was persuaded to give up his vocation and accept a wife and a crown, but he didn't like it, and he came to blame Camber for his misery.
- Raamo in the Green-Sky Trilogy is actually terrified by the prospect of becoming one of the ruling Ol-Zhaan, to the point of trying to telepathically scream at the people looking at him with awe that he's just an ordinary Kindar. It's his reluctance that tips off Neric and sets the bigger plot in motion. later, we learn that D'ol Falla had intended this as a Batman Gambit. The only one who could set things right was someone who wouldn't be caught up in the trappings of power.
- King Zachary Hillander of the Green Rider series. He was the younger son and expected to govern Hillander Provice while his elder brother Amillton ruled, but King Amigast finally saw Amillton for what he was.
- Jenna Heap in Septimus Heap is reluctant to become a Queen at first, but she grows more accepting over the books.
- A downplayed example in The Traitor's Hand. Cain remarks that the local planetary regent, being the chief bureaucrat rather than the usual aristocratic appointee, is considerably more sensible than the average governor. He suggests that "the absolute last person who should end up with power is the one who wants it".
- In The Tamuli, the Isle of Tega builds its entire government on this. Nobody asks to be nominated for public office; as soon as you're nominated, you're placed under guard, and if elected your possessions are sold and the proceeds put into the treasury. At the end of your five-year term, if the economy prospered, you get your money back with proportionate interest. If it floundered, you could lose everything. Many officials have worked themselves to death for the good of the republic.
Live Action TV
- Martok in Star Trek:Deep Space 9 episode Tacking Into the Wind
- Babylon 5: ex-Narn Ambassador G'kar is both stunned and hesitant when told he has become a religious icon to the Narn, and outright refused leadership of the government after overthrowing the Centauri. He eventually accepted spiritual, if not political, leadership, but only because the public wouldn't take no for an answer.
- Claudius in I, Claudius becomes this after he's proclaimed Emperor by the Praetorian Guard following his nephew Caligula's assassination. He really wants to make Rome a true republic again, but the Guard literally forces him into the imperial role and Claudius realizes he has to accept or risk having himself and his family slaughtered. Much later, however, he decides to marry his corrupt niece Agrippina and let her unhinged son Nero succeed as emperor, to force the Romans to get sick of monarchy. He only succeeds in insuring that his only son and only loyal adviser die.
- Final Fantasy VI: Neither Edgar nor Sabin particularly wanted to rule Figaro, so they settled it with a coin toss, where the winning twin got to do whatever he wanted. It's eventually revealed that Edgar used a double-headed coin so that Sabin could get the freedom he wanted.
- A non-government example: Squall from Final Fantasy VIII hates leading but is forced to lead an entire army when they're attacked, and does a nice job while at it. Rousing Speech and everything.
- Peony in Tales of the Abyss. He's the illegitimate son of the previous emperor, and when all his half brothers get killed he's called to the capital. But, because he is going to be the Emperor, he can't marry the woman he loves. All his subjects adore him.
- Subverted with Martin Septim in The Elder Scrolls Four Oblivion: had he actually become The Emperor, he would very likely be even better than his father, since he never wanted to become one in the first place. Additionally, his experience as a dark priest and later, a poor monk would certainly make him care for his subjects a lot. Alas...
- Alastair of Dragon Age: Origins can become this. He can become considerably less reluctant about it if you select certain dialogue choices however. In a subversion, however, he proves to be a much better king after said dialogue choices than otherwise.
- Sebastian Vael in Dragon Age II is another take. He envied the fact that his older brother would inherit the throne and spent most of his early life as The Hedonist. His parents put him in the Chantry to stop him embarrassing them, but he found it gave him a purpose. Then political rivals murder the rest of his family, and he spends the game trying to choose between retaking his lands or serving the Maker. You can push him one way or the other.
"When I wanted to rule, I would have been terrible at it. Now that I might be decent, I don't know if it's the right thing to do."
- Fate/stay night: Saber hates having been made king, having never wanted it but doing it anyway for the good of her people. She did the best anyone could, but her dislike of being king at all (and the ensuing lack of drive) meant she was never well-loved by her followers or her people and the Dirty Business she was forced to do as a king eventually led to her kingdom tearing itself apart. She wants the Grail so she can wish for a better king to take her place in history. In Fate/Zero, Rider delivers what is effectively a "The Reason You Suck" Speech to her about it, claiming that her lack of desire for kingship meant she was never truly a king, just a "young girl playing at being a king".
- According to the Saints Row instruction manual, Julius claimed to be this when he started leading the 3rd Street Saints, though the Stillwater Police believe he's a natural gang leader.
- The Protagonist in the sequel, Saints Row 2 however, is a subverted example, being happy with leading the Saints in Julius' place instead of just 'keeping his/her mouth shut and letting himself/herself being told what to do.' He/she even outright states this when he confronts Julius, who was revealed to have rigged the boat to explode in the first game.
- Baron Klaus Wulfenbach in Girl Genius is arguably this, though a more extreme example. He conquered Europe to establish peace, but really hates his job.
"I swear, it's like running a kindergarten."
- In the Grand Finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko wants Iroh to take his rightful place on the throne and is very hesitant to face his destiny as the next Fire Lord, but accepts his responsibility and is crowned at the very end. This is in contrast to his father, who usurped the throne and eventually crowned himself king of the world.
- Yao, the first king/emperor of China, supposedly passed his throne to Shun because he was the most competent and he didn't want the job. Shun similarly passed it to Yu, but Yu couldn't find anybody who qualified who wasn't too old, and so when he died, the throne went to his son and the position became hereditary. Future emperors would try to justify their own rule by having the previous regime (if said ruler wasn't related by blood) "voluntarily" abdicate.
- In another Chinese example, Liu Bei of The Three Kingdom's fame, did not like the idea of titling himself as King of Shu Han as he was loyal to the (now defunct) Han Dynasty, whom he aimed to restore. His advisors, particularly the famed Zhuge Liang, advised him by taking the title of King of Shu Han, he is able to oppose the other two kingdoms better in his attempt to restore the Han dynasty
- Furthermore, Zhuge Liang reminded him that he is a Liu, the family that built the Han Dynasty to begin with, which means he had a more legitimate claim to call his Kingdom of Shu as Shu Han
- Prince Albert, Duke of York, would have liked nothing more than to live quietly with his nice family, and, since he was the second son, this was a reasonable expectation. However, his brother Edward VIII turned out to be a complete screwup, and Albert (as George VI) shouldered the duties of the King-Emperor (the stress of which is often thought to have considerably hastened his death).
- George Washington, the first President of the United States of America, did not want the position in the first place, and outright refused to be made king of the new country when the idea was presented.
- He also refused to serve more than two terms, starting a tradition for the office. It was made law by the 22nd amendment, ratified after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four terms.
- Ramireo II of Aragon was the fourth son of King Sancho Ramirez, and consigned to the church. Unfortunaely, his elder brothers died young and without heirs. He was dragged out of the church under protest, married a widow who had an established record of healthy births, stayed around just long enough to sire a daughter, then bethrothed the daughter to a trusted ally, annulled his marriage, and marched back to the church.
- the books have never provided unequivocable proof, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong, and enough people think he is that whether it's actually true is neither here nor there.