THE KING IS DEAD;
LONG LIVE THE KING
Once upon a time, there was an aged king who had three sons. Only one could be his successor, so he sent each on a quest to prove their worth by finding the most valuable item they could.
This narrative structure is common among in fairy tales and pre-modern lore. The search for the king’s next in line is given central, ageless importance because beyond being merely a patriarchal figure head, the health and prosperity of the king are fully and symbolically intertwined with the health of the nation.
This is exemplified in the Arthurian tale of the Fisher King. Various versions of this character from the Grail Legend appear, with the theme explored in more recent times in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Terry Gilliam’s film, ‘The Fisher King’, pointing to the legend’s ongoing relevance. King Pelles has received a wound (generally this wound is assumed to be in his groin – an injury that has made him impotent). As he lies in his ruinous castle, the land around becomes a barren wasteland with a forest of dead trees. The Holy Grail is required to cure the wound, and various brave knights endure multiple ordeals in their quest to find it. Once the Grail has been found, the King is restored to health, and the land recovers.
There are strong parallels here to the Greek myth of Oedipus. After Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, the land is subject to a plague of infertility that affects the crops, livestock and the people, penance for his transgression. When the Queen’s brother takes over the throne, the land finally recovers.
James George Frazer’s anthropological study in magic and religion, The Golden Bough, posits that the ancient religious cultures perceived the king as the embodiment of God, continually sacrificed and revived in a powerful connection with the natural world’s self-renewal processes. Archaeological remains point to the importance of the birth – death – rebirth cyclical events of the summer and winter solstices. Although the solstices are astronomical events, the careful positioning of ritual objects and stones (such as Stonehenge) allude to the magical beliefs that early societies developed to ensure the sun king would return to allow crops to continue to grow. In other words, Long live the King - but not too long, because sacrifice is an inherent duty. Frazer’s work is now recognised as having troubling, racist views in its study of ‘savages’ - but the influence of his key ideas can be seen in the theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and the literary work of T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves, to name but a few.
Fairy tales often focus on this process of renewal. Kings have a sacred duty to produce a viable male heir. The prince in Cinderella seeks the best, the most perfect specimen (or, the one with the best feet) in order that the nation will have the healthiest future king. Evil Queens and false brides who switch out healthy royal babies for goats or changelings are frightening because they disrupt the perceived natural order.
Far from being an ancient superstition, this core belief that the sanctity of the king is connected to the health of the nation is replicated in modern society. Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has become a self-styled king - referring to (certain) Americans as “his people”. The evangelical Christian movement believe his power to be God’s will, with such divine right status enabling him to talk and act with impunity unthinkable of previous Presidents. Trump, though not a King and holding claims to being the "not a politician- politician”, is cloaked in monarchic iconography (thrones, self-pardoning, etc). Meanwhile, he espouses rhetoric suggestive of his ability to somehow fix the very land itself - to use his power, King-like and deified, to reach into American soil and restore the economy. Not only does he appeal to many for his conviction that he represents both freedom and overwhelming control; he appeals because his own mythical character is rooted in the comfort of tropes handed down through the history of storytelling. In the nepotistic promotion of his children to positions of governmental importance, he has elevated them, too, to the status of princes and princesses in readiness for future king-ship.
Meanwhile, approximately a third of the United Kingdom (over 24 million people) watched Prince William, the expected future king, marry Kate Middleton. More still watched Prince Charles marry Lady Diana (which was widely billed as a ‘fairy tale wedding’). In Britain, the Royal family are treated as essentially sacred beings, not expected to integrate with the general public. Princes have to show their worth as warriors (by spending time in one of the armed forces) and they are accorded fame and fortune whether deserved or not. The birth of the first born is announced with much pomp and celebration. We are re-assured that all is right in the country because the royal succession is complete. This despite the monarchy not ruling so much as doing PR work.
Thinking back to the quest given to the king’s three sons; these stories appeal because they implicate virtue and merit as the paths to a throne not pre-determined. Today, a more deterministic approach often carries favour. In the belief reinforced by the mass media (the modern way of sharing folk tales) that whoever is in charge has the ability to create either wasteland or prosperity, we assure ourselves that someone with higher power is in control, that everything’ll work out just fine. In the case of both self-aggrandising politicians and the actual monarchy, rulers should tread carefully. When the land fails - is wounded - and the ruler does not step aside; sooner or later, you can be sure there’ll be a revolution.
- Jo Austen