What is it that’s so fascinating about kings? I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s Richard II, thanks to angevin2, who has promised to divulge the mysteries of Shakespearean gender subversion now that I’ve finished it. This promises to be immensely fascinating, but let us first have a post about what really struck me while reading Richard II.
It’s very much about kingship. Well, no, duh. I’ve not read much Shakespeare, but enough to know that’s not unusual. My personal favourite Shakespeare is Macbeth, which is very much about kingship: the right to kingship; what makes a king; the gulf between the man and the king; the role of destiny in creating a king. Richard II takes the same themes around again: instead of giving us a man who would become king (but cannot truly be king), this time we get one who is king and another who becomes king at the former’s expense. Is a king only a king? Is he a man and a king at once? Can he continue to be a man if he is not king?
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
– off you go and read the whole speech, starting at line 1554.
What struck me about Richard’s identity crisis – aside from the fact that it’s beautiful – is that it’s incredibly familiar. This whole question of what is a king is a constant thread through all the fantasy literature I grew up on. 20th and 21st century authors don’t approach kingship in quite the same way as Shakespeare did: regardless of whether or not you’re fond of Queen Lizzy II, it’s not really Done to regard her as God’s hand on earth, or the fate of Britain or the Commonwealth as intrinsically wound up in her person and function. Large numbers of pseudo-medieval fantasy authors are living in countries with no monarchy at all.
And yet, almost every fantasy series you pick up has a king in it: often the hero, who is not king, will become king. What makes a king, what kind of man must a king be, who can be king, how shall the king rule, is the king still king in exile? Aragorn, Denethor and Boromir: is it birth which sets Aragorn apart? Personality? Circumstances? Wisdom? His impressive manly stubble?
Tolkien would have answered Richard II’s question with a yes: kingship, in Aragorn, is an innate quality which he carried underneath the character of Strider: a strength he possessed in spite of his own self-doubt. Exactly what it is composed of, I’m not entirely sure: honour, duty, generosity, justice, the ability to command, manly stubble. And self-doubt: in contrast to Boromir’s self-assuredness, Aragorn’s self-doubt somehow became part of what made him the fit king. (Lewis spells the same thing out, and has Aslan tell Caspian that his self-doubt is what makes him fit to be king.)
There are others: I grew up on Tamora Pierce, and Crown Prince Jonathan who got all rebellious and sulky about being defined by his social function; a slew of modern Arthurian renditions which I could talk about for hours, but won’t just now; Ann Marston’s magic kings bound by bad faux-celtic magic to the land itself; Lewis – once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen; Robin Hobb’s flawed but earnest Farseer dynasty… Modern fantasy comes back to the question as often as Shakespeare: what is a king?
And yet kings are far less important in the English-speaking world today than they were for Shakespeare. What is it that makes the question of kingship so perennially interesting?